Confessions of an English Benylin drinker

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The Independent Culture
This should be the best time of year, now that the clocks have gone back: clear hard air and the lights coming on too early, so that everything is slightly dislocated, dusk not just a natural phenomenon but a thing, an artefact, palpable and surprising, like being treated to an eclipse every day.

But it isn't. Probably my last winter on earth, and I can't enjoy it. Bedbound, wracking coughs, fever, hallucinations, Michael Howard stark naked with a feather up his arse, dancing the flamenco on the mantelpiece. This is the real thing, the beginning of the end, pleurisy, multiple-drug- resistant pulmonary tuberculosis, oat-cell carcinoma, borrowed time; it came on suddenly in Broadcasting House, and my first thought was Legionnaire's Disease, but here I am, still alive a week later, obviously something much more drawn out, more horrible, more, shall we say, operatic? No appetite for food; a pale hand plucking feebly at the bedclothes; great shuddering convulsions; my haggard, drawn face glistening faintly in the smoke-filled gloom of my chamber; without my faithful briar pipe, I do not think I could go on.

But I do. I am still here, nurturing myself on codeine and Benylin (though Benylin is not what it was; the buggers have even had the effrontery to introduce a "non-drowsy" version. Non-drowsy? What the hell do they think we buy it for?) and staring out of the window at the offices across the way.

They are a microcosm of Britain, these offices. On the one side there are photographers, graphic design outfits and thrusting multimedia firms, and everyone looks terribly crisp and positive and mid-Atlantic, and when the lights come on around teatime I watch them having their little meetings and fiddling around with their computers and being go-ahead and liberal and happy, and wish I were one of them, instead of lying here facing death; facing it bravely, but facing it none the less.

On the other side are three great Civil Service monoliths; doomed; next spring (word has it) they will be demolished, the staff sacked or scattered to the provinces. Nobody goes in; nobody comes out; yet their lights, too, come on around teatime, though not in a fierce jolly flood, but in a dingy sepia trickle, like a cistern filling up. I have been worrying about these offices and the invisible people who work there. Do they exist? Or is there some automatic system, putting the lights on and off, drawing the curtains, making typing noises and tea-trolley sounds echo along the empty corridors? And if so, why? Is it the three crisp-uniformed security guards who can be seen occasionally, glaring from the lobby, trying to keep themselves from going mad? Is it government policy, to make us think the country is still, in some way, being governed, while in fact we are all in the hands of a supercomputer in the basement of a multinational catering firm somewhere on the outskirts of Bracknell? What is going on?

Lying here like Moriarty, like a spider at the centre of my web, in my Star Wars duvet, my red Pendleton shirt and my African batik pillbox hat, I have been searching for the answer before I die, so that I can summon my friends and family and impart to them some special insight. The thing to do, I find, is have another swig of Benylin - I find the blue label version goes down better in the afternoon - and just sort of glaze over and nod out, but then the bad dreams come: not the frightfully baroque and fruity dreams that Coleridge used to lie his head off about, but the real bad dreams, bad in the sense that they are just dull and pointless. This afternoon's little linctus orgy delivered an endless dream-narrative in which I went down to Safeway and met a chap in a duffel-coat who warned me against the oranges. Not ripe. I woke from this execrably tedious fantasy with an inchoate sense of terrible loss and a vague yearning for a slippery, morally unstable woman whom I could wrap from head to toe in Clingfilm, but there was nothing doing. Not a sausage. I tried putting Urchie the Lovable Hedgehog in a handy Safeway carrier-bag, but it wasn't the same, so I went over to the window to have a last look at the world and was immediately seized by a coughing-fit so wild and prolonged, like a fleet of rusty steam-engines exploding in a tunnel, that I could only admire myself for surviving it.

And then something odd happened. Across the road, in the Civil Service monolith, a window was flung open and a head, wreathed in blowing net curtain, poked out: a thin, pasty head, balding, with horn-rimmed spectacles and an expression of terrible bewilderment. Its mouth was open but no words came out; I was frozen in mid-paroxysm; we gazed at each other in blank alarm, then gave simultaneous little shrieks and withdrew.

It was an important moment, I think for both of us. I imagine him as the Last Civil Servant, holed up on the upper floors, hoping to escape notice so that nothing would ever happen, the principle on which his whole life had been based: head down, nose clean and keep on passing the buck. And there was I, his diametric and geographical opposite, a ne'er-do-well, dissolute seeker after cheap sensation, disintegrating noisily opposite his window. Choose your philosophy and stick to it, for it will do you no good at all. He was going down the drain, and I was going down the drain too, and there was nothing either of us could do about it. It made me wonder, and I bet it made him wonder too, and then I thought: there's wisdom. That's what I was looking for. The clocks going back, the information revolution, Clinton going to get in again, greasy-haired Post Office spokesmen, television advertisements lying about the Internet, the government wanting to ban everything, Taliban incursionists, the new Church of England logo, McCain Microwave Chips, life, death, three-in-a-bed sex romps: it makes you wonder. It bloody does. Wisdom? It hardly seems worth the wait. !

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