Better that way, I think. Better, certainly, than being frightfully courageous and wan, which just makes everyone else feel inadequate and cross. A friend of mine fell sick a while ago. I think he'd been terminally ill even more often than me. We had a sort of informal Doomed Men's Club; every now and then we'd meet over a glass of Chateau Musar and I'd tell him about my knee cancer and he'd try and trump it with a fatal ear fungus which he'd come down with that morning. And then he actually got a genuine, full-blown, common-as-muck nasty. "Ironic, in a way," he said, "but they say I mightn't pull through." "Oh, yeah," I said, "ha ha ha, very funny. Here, have a feel of my spleen."
And then he croaked. The appalling sadness was somehow mitigated, at least for me by (a) irritation that he had actually died and so beaten me in the Manly Stoicism stakes, and (b) embarrassment that he'd suckered me into saying "Oh yeah, ha ha ha," etc. So while I miss and mourn him, at the same time a sneering post-modernist part of me thinks that it serves him right for making me feel embarrassed and cross, and if that sound confused and schizoid, fair enough; in this wonderful world we have created for ourselves, it's schizophrenia or depression: take your pick.
Come on. You know I'm right. You know it makes sense. Would I lie to you? Have I ever? So maybe I don't mean actual, clinical schizophrenia; maybe it's not the sort of depression they give you Prozac for; but there's something in the wind and it smells like low-grade lunacy to me.
Yesterday I stood on a balcony in Camden Town at dusk, looking out over London. Crystalline air, the aeroplanes drifting off the stacks at Lambourn and Bovingdon, swimming lazily along their casual vectors as they let down into Heathrow. The lights were on in the offices; train-lights crept in and out of Euston and St Pancras; car-lights crawled along the streets. You could fall in love all over again, and so I did, with this extraordinary city, with our extraordinary species that built it and maintains it and lives and works in it. I love these unexpected moments of astounded infantilism, where you see something you've been seeing every day for 20 years, but all of a sudden you find yourself staring in amazement and all you can say is "Oooh! Oooh!"
It's hard to be amazed, these days. We've become too knowing, too lizardy, too damned cynical, and, at the same time, utterly adrift. A few hours before my touching balcony scene, I had been lunching with a woman: intelligent, smart, witty, successful in her media job, she nevertheless knew nothing. Nothing, that is, that enabled her to make any internal sense of the world at all. She was a materialist; but a materialist by default, having no other mechanism for dealing with her existence. The Catholic faith in which she'd been raised would no longer do, but there was nothing in its place. No laws of thermodynamics, no grasp of deep time or the measure of space; a misleading idea of what Darwin said; no clue about Newton or Einstein or Heisenberg or Copernicus or Tycho Brahe or Mendel; no idea what they were doing at CERN, or what the Big Bang was, or what quarks were, or hadrons or leptons or neutrinos or positrons.
And so, of course, she was less able to construct a coherent picture of the world, and put herself in it, than the most scrofulous mediaeval peasant, who knew that God put him there and that was that. He may have been wrong; but he knew. This modern woman was completely adrift, faintly wondering why she felt dissatisfied, anxious and insecure, and seeking to fill the gap with transcendental meditation, Tarot cards, pyramids, astrology, the supernatural and the rest of the pedlar's pack of frippery false philosophies of no nutritional value whatsoever.
So there was London, this extraordinary marvellous artefact that no other species has even been able to contemplate; but we've done it, little us, insignificant packets of slightly modified bacterial DNA, eroded into our fantastical shape by the relentless tides of time; and look what we've done! Look how it all works! Look how we live together in such harmony, such benevolence and congruity of interests! We must do, or such a city simply couldn't exist! Oooh! Oooh!
Schizophrenia? Yes; not the clinical sort, all voices and evil, but an existential sort of mind-splitting. Look out over the City and it's a marvel; look into it, and it makes no sense at all. Depression? Yes, too; again, not the clinical sort, but a dullness, a mildly stupefying pointlessness which you acquire by simply not looking at anything, near or far.
But it need not be like this. I have a plan to which I may return next week if I remember and if I live. If Oxford University does not want Wafic Said's pounds 20m, I shall have it. I will use it to set up a University for people of maturer years who have suddenly begun to realise, like my friend at lunch, that they really don't know what's going on. They will come to my University, and we will explain it all to them. Should I die, I entrust this to you as my valetudinarian wish. I know you'll all get together and carry it out, because you'll all be feeling so guilty for sneering at my cancer. !Reuse content