Where I came from, who I am

DO YOU KNOW what I always say? I always say the world is divided into two classes of people: those who divide the world into two classes of people, and those who don't. I don't know why I always say it. It's not original and it's not even true. The world is divided into two classes of people, but what they are is: those who can answer the telephone and open their mail without feeling sick with fear, and those who cannot. Guess which class I am in?

Correct. I am scared of all of it: the mail and the telephone, and the telephone answering machine, and the BT Call Minder which answers the telephone even when I'm talking on it, or when someone else is leaving a message; there's the mobile phone and the mobile phone's answering service, and the mobile phone's text message facility; and there's e-mail and ... Is this healthy? No. But if you had my life you would be scared, too. There is, for example, a woman after me at the moment about a trifling sum of money, currently three days overdue. She is the nastiest, nastiest woman you have ever come across, with a voice like the BT Call Minder woman, clogged with spite and snobbery and mothballs. Everything about her shrieks of misanthropy and dysparunia. Glenn Hoddle (what the hell do you have to do to come back as a footballer?) would tell us that she had done something awful in a previous life, but the real villain was surely her husband. He must have been, I don't know, Hitler, or Vlad Tepes the Impaler, or the man who invented advertising. And there she is, lurking behind my telephone, invading my house for the price of a second-class stamp. What can I do that would similarly destroy her peace of mind? Nothing; unless it were to make her laugh. It would kill her. Which would be fine, but what the hell would she come back as next?

It's not only the nasty ones, though. It's the sheer volume. I tried an experiment last week: answered all the calls, read all the post, fetched all the e-mails. I did nothing else all day. Personal Productivity Technology had rendered me perfectly unproductive. And by the time I went to bed that night, I was exhausted. But sometimes there are delights. Yesterday a man wrote to me by e-mail. "I felt I had to write to you today," he said, "when I saw your picture in the paper next to your article. I was struck by the likeness to your grandfather. He was my GP in Nottingham when I was growing up in the Fifties. He was the most inspiring and kind man that you could ever meet, and when I was five years old I decided that I wanted to be a doctor like him. I never wavered from that ambition, and I qualified at Guy's in 1971. I have been a consultant surgeon in Sussex for the past 15 years, and I feel I owe it all to your grandfather."

It was one of the most charming letters I've ever received, and I don't quite know why because it's really nothing to do with me at all. I suppose it's something to do with yiches, the old Jewish thing of family pride. I've never been much good on family pride - always wished my father had been a Lord, or I'd been born to mad bohemians, or grander, or stranger - yet I always envied it in others. The self-invented life is a tricky one, but lonely, too: always a gap at the centre, where the antecedents don't fit. America is going to pieces fast, but they still cling on to yiches. All Americans will tell you at first meeting where they come from and who their parents were, even if it's (a) Buttfuck, South Dakota and (b) brothel-keepers. They are fascinated by their ancestry and never, ever lie, and that, in the end, may save them. The surgeon's letter made me proud; and I was proud of my father, too, when I rang him up to tell him and he instantly cast his mind back half a century and said, "Yes, yes, I remember him; actually it was me who delivered him, charged them 25 guineas; they lived in Mapperley Plains; his father was from Ireland, used to have a drinking buddy, another Irish chap called Dr Pearce, until his wife put her foot down. The boy came in to see me when he was 12. Torsion of the right testicle. I was rather proud of the diagnosis; sent him to the City Hospital and they straightened it out..."

And there he is, a surgeon now. My father helped him into the world, my grandfather inspired him: those two men, my bloodline: it seems far more glamorous than any earl or film star, and I am swollen with pride. Family values: not the minatory blithering of vote- catching politicians, but where you came from, and who you are.

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