Columns: And another thing...

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The Independent Culture
I know what you want. You want a coherent narrative: beginning, middle and end. You want it to start with a particular observation ("I saw this old geezer coughing his blubber up in the gutter"1), move through general animadversions on life ("We must all cough a peck of blubber before we die") and ending with a meretricious synthesis of grief and circumstance, so that you can head off to the boozer, the telly or the adulterous couch feeling that you have given some thought to the eternal verities, and thereby earned your fun.

No more. The days of coherent narrative are past. Blubberlungs can stay forever hunched over the kerbstone, locked in perpetual haemoptysis2. I will choke back my pathetic ventilations on The Meaning Of It All. And you will somehow have to make it through the rest of your life without my clever syntheses, and if that spoils your pleasures, tough luck. The pub is full of people you hate, the telly has been taken over by venal swines who think you have the wit of a rhizome, and your illicit lover is being had by half the county whenever your back is turned because you simply do not satisfy her3.

You will thank me in the end, because my new apercu is much more to the point, and so clearly signals an end to outmoded linear narrative forms that I think I will have to buy a black polo-neck jersey4 and grow a goatee. And it is this: life is lived in the footnotes5.

I used to hate footnotes - retentive, mean-spirited, lacking in commitment - until last week, when two things happened. First, I had dinner with a distinguished academic who explained to me that her forthcoming book will contain a number of startling disclosures6. Secondly, I fell upon a copy of Juvenal's Mayor - The Professor who Lived on 2d a Day, by John Henderson.

This is my new Book of the Decade, an enchanting monograph on a distinguished 19th-century Cambridge classicist and vegetarian7 who was indubitably the king of the insanely pedantic footnote, in the course of which Dr Henderson unequivocally seizes the title of Footnote King8 for himself, not least by the achievement of reproducing a facsimile of one of Professor Mayor's own footnotes, and in the process actually footnoting the citation itself.

God is clearly telling me something which should be obvious to even the meanest of intelligences9: that the nearest written analogue to our own lives would be one paragraph10 of intensely dull and predictable narrative, accompanied by several thousand pages of obscure, painful, delirious, ecstatic, irrelevant, criminal, cliff- hanging, immoral, fragmented, disaggregated and just plain weird footnotes. This is a very important discovery and I suggest you investigate it for yourselves11.

1. In the interests of honesty, having turned over a new leaf, I must tell you that there is no old man, and never has been. I just make them up to suit my purposes.

2. As can silly stylistic stunts like using a salmagundi of demotic and obscure medical words like "haemoptysis". Or, indeed, "salmagundi".

3. Or him. Or it. Or whatever. Frankly, I don't care. It's not my place to judge the morality of your actions. It's yours. But do you? Of course not. You just blunder along, hoping for the best, just like all the rest of us.

4. It is ironic that the age when the neck begins to go - time, gravity, bad living - is also the age when one starts to look ridiculous in a black polo-neck jersey.

5. Try it for yourself. Look back on your life, such as it is. What do you remember? A stew of trivia. Grandpapa's car-seats. Great-Aunt Betty's moustache. The catch on the boot of your first tricycle. The smell of church. Parker Royal Blue Washable Quink. The yellow zip-up jumper your mother knitted, with the pirate flag on the back. A girl you fell in love with when you were on holiday when you were 10, and spent your life hoping to meet again. The Biro you lost in Wolverhampton. Some prawns. Twisting your ankle getting out of the car. The squeak of your infant's pushchair. Walker's Cheese'n'Onion crisps. That Sharon from EastEnders. Am I right? Of course I am.

6. "And only the people who read the footnotes will ever discover that I made them up," she added.

7. Didn't look good on it. None of them do. Sort of bloated and pasty.

8. (And Parenthesis King as well, come to think of it. (You'll see what I mean when you read it.) )

9. Ridiculous expression. The meanest of intelligences can barely choose its own underpants in the morning, and would certainly be entirely incapable of grasping the point of all this.

10. At most. There are many lives whose top-level narrative could only consist, in all honesty, of the sentence: "Hello, I... oops. [THUD]"

11. Now I expect you're complaining that this column doesn't end properly. Have you learnt nothing? Of course it doesn't end pr