Howard Jacobson: In my opinion

Howard Jacobson tackles life's little – and not so little – diversions in his weekly Independent column. These three extracts from a new collection reveal a brilliant mind at work

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The Independent Online

Friendly banking

I am being attacked by my own phone. Correction: I'm being attacked by my bank, but they're doing it through my phone. They ring me up and then ask me to identify myself.

"I'm who you rang," I tell them.

"Yes, but how do we know that?"

"Because you rang me."

"But what if it's not you? What if you're your son? Or your father?"

"It's a chance you take," I tell them. "How do I know, for example, that you're who you say you are?"

They want to know my date of birth and my mother's maiden name. At my age I am likely to have forgotten both. And anyway, since they ring me every day to ask me, there's a better chance that they'll know than I will.

"Dostoyevsky," I say. "I think my mother's maiden name was Dostoyevsky. What's yours?"

The bank won't tell me its mother's maiden name. I have to trust the bank. Given that they've been taking my money for 40 years, know my phone number, know my voice, know my credit details, know how pissed off I always am when they ring, you'd think that by now they'd trust me. The trouble is they don't know it is me. It might be my father or my son who's pissed off. I might be impersonating myself. I might even be my own burglar.

Actually, that's not right. It isn't me they say they don't know, they say it's my address. Yes, they write to me and ring me here, but that apparently isn't enough. They need further proof.

"Why do you need further proof?" I ask them. "Further proof against what?"

"Terrorism." Government regulations, post-Osama bin Laden, say that banks must ascertain for absolutely certain that people live where they say they live, otherwise they could be terrorists laundering money. If Osama bin Laden is himself having trouble managing his funds at present, that's the reason – they aren't sure where he resides. And when they ring him to ask his mother's maiden name, he puts the phone down. Which, I suppose they'd argue, is proof the system's working.

Recently I suggested to the bank that if they wanted to be sure I lived where I said I live, they should send someone round to check. Let him even interest me, if he wished, in the bank's latest offers and inducements. New cards, new borrowing arrangements, carpets, whatever. Good idea. John, he was called. Hi, John, welcome to my home. But it appeared that finding me here still wasn't conclusive proof. What if I was my son, sleeping over? What if I had just let myself in through a window? I showed him my photograph. "Me," I said. He wasn't convinced. If it was me, how come I was smiling?

What it turned out he needed was documentation. Paper, not flesh. A bank statement, say, dated in the past three months. "Hang on," I said, "are you telling me that if I show you a statement from your bank, addressed to me here, where you don't believe I live, and to which address you therefore have no business sending statements, all will be well? You will believe your own mail, even though you ring me every day because you're not convinced it's me you're sending it to?"

"Yes," he said. "That should be fine."

Natural-born killers

What an orgy of righteousness we've enjoyed this week, accusing the Americans of glorying in gore, observing with a sneer that the only freedom they value is the freedom to pull a trigger. How many more? How many since the last time? Every paper had a journalist on hand to tell us. In the past 10 years, 57 college kids plus eight of their teachers have been mown down in episodes similar to this. When, oh when, will America relinquish its love affair with the gun?

So what, I ask in return, about our love affair with the motor car? When, oh when, will we relinquish that? And if you wonder what the one has to do with the other, let the figures talk for themselves. Even as we were counting the American dead, articles were appearing in the same papers, often on the same pages, counting our own. Not victims of the gun, but victims of the car. In the past six months alone, 840 people killed or maimed by drivers under 20.

You can't, I accept, measure tragedy in numbers. The 32 dead of Virginia Tech do not become less dead because we lose as many to boy racers every week. Nor do I embrace the gun lobby argument that if a madman wants to kill he will find something else to kill with if he can't easily obtain a gun. A gun might not in itself make someone mad, but its allure will always empower and intensify the madness. So no, I do not raise the question of the killer car to distract attention from the question of the killer gun.

But we might seize this opportunity to turn a little of our moral outrage on ourselves. Cars kill. Since we know that cars kill as surely as do guns, why do we not do more to keep them out of the hands of those most likely to kill with them? You are too young at 17 to drive. I drove at 17, and though I pootled along like a tortoise, hated engine noise, and never found a car a glamorous or potency-inducing object, I was still a menace, crashing three times in my first three months on the road. Mind elsewhere, that was the problem. Sex. Literature. Gina Lollobrigida.

The Association of British Insurers – not normally a body we turn to for ethical guidance – recommends putting up the minimum driving age to 18. Too modest a proposal. If the minimum age is to be determined by a brain unbefuddled by lyric poetry, eyesight unclouded by sperm, and an adequate imagination of disaster – that's to say a recognition that not only yours but every car coming towards you is being driven by a killer – then 50 should be the minimum age. But as society is probably not yet ready for that, we could settle, with enormous benefit to ourselves, at 21.

Age is not the only issue. No car should have a speed capability, or an aesthetic denoting a speed capability, over what is legally permitted, and what is legally permitted is already too high. Beyond 60 miles an hour we know not what we do. It's not just our bones that shake: the vibration of travelling beyond 60 miles an hour can cause our synaptic cleft – the space between the terminal button of the presynaptic neuron and the membrane of the postsynaptic neuron – to widen, confusing the flow of signals between one neurotransmitter and another. With young men this neural malfunction can occur even in anticipation of speed – witness any crowd of them gathered gibbering around a Ferrari parked in Sloane Street.

What they will argue, of course, is that it's the beauty of the car, not its intrinsic violence, that renders them incoherent with admiration. I don't doubt it. Gun lovers, with equal justification, argue likewise. There is a terrible beauty in a weapon of destruction. Men are creatures built to kill, and whatever will facilitate that killing or add to the splendour of the ritual of causing death must necessarily excite their senses. Sport, the gun lobbyists call it. Drivers and rallyists, ditto. Legislate against the gun or against the car, they cry, and you take away our fun. Tough. Find some other way of whiling away your time. Take up curling. Embroider. Knit. And if those won't give you the odour of deadly risk and slaughter you cannot do without, try dressing in ladies' underwear with an orange in your mouth and hanging yourself from a hotel doorknob.

For starters, then, no one under 21 to be allowed behind a wheel, and whoever breaks that law, or drives recklessly at any age, to be banned from driving for life. Not a fortnight, life. For our lives are their playthings. And should we catch them driving after that, we cut off the foot that presses the accelerator.

If you find this too draconian, fine, that's your human right – but you cannot now occupy the moral high ground when it comes to Americans and their guns.

Man Booker

I am in the garden of a house in far, far north London. So far north London that it might as well be Manchester. It has been a day of immense sadness. We are just back from a burial. My wife's uncle Gerry died three days ago. He was 92 and so there has not been that sense of tearing tragedy that makes the burial of a young person unbearable. But he was greatly loved. And precisely because he has been in people's lives for so long, it is already hard to imagine life without him.

On the way to the grave the black-hatted official leading the mourners stopped intermittently and held us up. This is a Jewish custom. It denotes our unwillingness to part with a person we have cared for. We would rather stop for eternity, but of course we don't have eternity on our hands.

Back in the house, people are drinking tea and eating bagels filled with smoked salmon. Call that stereotyping, but what am I to do? They truly are drinking tea and eating bagels filled with smoked salmon. Jews don't throw down alcohol on such occasions. And they like food that tastes soft. In another column we might put our minds to why.

In the garden, which is big enough for me to stroll through on my own, I decide that it is all right if I turn my mobile on. I am waiting for an important message regarding an article I'm writing. No one thinks this is unfeeling. The living must return to life. There are an unaccountable number of texts and emails waiting for me. This is when I discover that my novel The Finkler Question has been longlisted for the Man Booker Prize.

I don't want this news to intrude upon the family, but I know my wife would want to know so I go back inside and whisper into her ear. She is excited, and moved, as I am, that we should learn of such a thing on such a day. The Finkler Question is partly the story of a man not much younger than Gerry who is trying to hold himself together after the death of his wife. He has loved her for 60 years. The assumption is sometimes made that the old are people of diminished feelings, husks of confused recollections and barely remembered desires. Well, Gerry was no such thing. He was a man entire. Libor, the broken-hearted widower in my novel, is the same. He burns still with a love for his dead wife which is as intense as any youth's. No, he burns with a love that is more intense. The terrible thing we have to face about old age is that there is no release from longing in it, that we go on with our passions blazingly intact. Terrible and wonderful.

We have been so involved in the last few weeks of Gerry's life, in hospital visits and finally in the paperwork of decease, that we haven't thought about literary prizes. This is the first time in 11 novels I haven't waited to see if I am on a Man Booker list. I make that confession with some embarrassment. I have always argued against prizes. My ambition to be a writer dates from infancy. "As yet a child, nor yet a fool to fame, / I lisped in numbers, for the numbers came." I wanted to make sentences, not win prizes. The sentences were prize enough in themselves. Let others be fools to fame, I cared only about the quality of the work.

But, as Alexander Pope knew, the opinion of the world matters, and the quickest way to gain its notice as a writer is to win a prize, and of all prizes to win for a writer of fiction in English, the Man Booker is the biggest and the best. So my protestations of scorn for it were inevitably mixed with covetousness. In a perfect world, where the words you write are immediately found and lauded by those you write them for – the whole of humanity, no less – a prize would not be necessary. But since humanity is deaf, or just too busy to give a damn, and since there seems to be a disconnect between those who want to read a good novel and those who write them – as though the world of reading is one big lonely-hearts club waiting for a matchmaker – there must be prizes to bring us together. In which case, yes, thank you, I would like to win one.

© Howard Jacobson 2011. Taken from 'Whatever It Is, I Don't Like It: The Best of Howard Jacobson', published by Bloomsbury at £18.99. To order a copy for the special price of £15.99 (free P&P), call Independent Books Direct on 08430 600 030, or visit