The spirit is willing
Diary of a single father
Saturday 22 June 1996
"What do you make of that?" I ask Seth over breakfast. My 15-year old analyst dips his spoon in the yoghurt. "You miss Mummy," he announces. "But for some reason you also feel guilty." "That goes without saying," I reply. Why guilty? Because I am a writer. Had I surrendered to the succubus you would have read all about it. Not that intimate descriptions were less of a dilemma in happier days. If the act were familiar, my wife would accuse me of sacrilege; if it weren't, she would wonder if I were researching elsewhere. "I feel I know you very well," a reviewer once said to her. "Especially your organs." Fran's look cut me deeper than a Sabatier knife. "Yes," he said. "That Caesarean in your husband's new novel certainly read like an eyewitness account." Internal organs, not private parts! "I invented the whole thing," I replied, mightily relieved. "Seth made his entrance through normal channels."
"Is there nothing you wouldn't write about?" my son asks. Alas, I have no concept of the sacred. If it weren't for bad taste, I wouldn't have no taste at all. "Nothing," I reply, "except perhaps the Holocaust." "What about other people?" he asks. "Should they also maintain a dignified silence?" A good question. Recently Elie Wiesel told an interviewer that, as he recollected the unspeakable events he had witnessed as a child, the manuscript became soaked with tears. This seems an entirely appropriate response, though perhaps the image would be more complete if the salt water cleansed the page of words altogether. Committing such memories to paper would thus become a Sisyphean task; a fitting punishment for writers who draw sustenance from the misfortunes of others. But how otherwise are memories to be preserved, historical knowledge transmitted?
"How about through the medium of synchronised swimming?" asks Seth. I try to fathom the sequitur in this response. The pool as a vale of tears? Unlikely "Are you taking the piscine?" I enquire. "Of course not," says Seth, somewhat offended. "As it happens, the French Olympic team were preparing a routine inspired by the Holocaust."
"You're kidding," I say. So he shows me the evidence. It's there in the paper, in black and white. It seems that the all-women squad of precisely co-ordinated swimmers, presumably in fetching, Frenchified costumes, were planning to goose-step into the water and then mime the selection, and worse. And afterwards, no doubt, wash the chlorine from their perfect bodies in the showers. I could only echo the words of a Jewish protester. "There are subjects you just cannot deal with in a swimming pool." Obviously the sirens begged to differ. "No one complained last year," they argued, "when the Japanese team staged a re-enactment of the Kobe earthquake." Nevertheless, they were ordered by higher powers to abandon the routine. "What do you think, Dad," asks Seth. "Do you think they should have been censored?" "Who knows?" I reply, "though I'm inclined to believe that suffering should not be turned into a cliche. On the other hand - or flipper - I can see no justification in limiting freedom of expression to sensitive types like me. Poetic licence shouldn't need an intelligence test."
At which point - it being 8am - the letter box hiccups. "I'll get the post," says Seth. He returns with a Manila envelope, postmarked in the usual manner, but also stamped with the motto, "Working for English National Salvation". It is another communique from the Dowager Lady Birdwood, recently hailed by a West Coast militia as "the greatest living Englishwoman". The mailing, as usual, contains an issue of her newsletter, essentially a digest of every defamatory article about non-indigenous life forms culled from the local and national press. In addition there is a leaflet which denies the Holocaust, the aim being to provoke an angry response, and thereby gain free publicity.
For a long time I assumed I received these reminders because I am listed in the Jewish Year Book as a writer and journalist. Recent events, however, suggest another possibility. I was watching the news with my father when the Dowager was featured, making one of her frequent court appearances for contravening the Race Relations Act. "Good God," cried my father, "that's no Lady, that's my cousin Fima Smolensky." Long thought to have been incinerated in a factory fire in New York, she had, it seemed, shed her former identity and built a new life in Acton
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