William Donaldson's Week: Dressed to chill in basic black

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The Independent Online
WORD up. I've had a colour change. Not altogether my idea - more a consequence of a most interesting conversation with Milly Jenkins, who interviewed me on Monday for Square One, Manchester University's most sparkling and influential literary magazine.

It was a consequence too, I suppose, of my odd behaviour last week (in order to make Alison, my beloved, look foolish, I put on old folks' pyjamas, you may remember, and curled up like a dead hedgehog in the hall) and the shocked reaction to it among my more perceptive colleagues.

'It was a cry for help,' said Jeffrey Bernard.

'I was on the M1 to loneliness,' I said.

'John Ford wanted to be a tugboat captain,' he said, 'but God made him a poet. Name six great captains in the field who . . .'

'Don't start,' I said. 'I've been to hell and back, but now I've discovered who I really am.'

And who I really am, I now see, isn't the four-square naval man with standing orders and steady tread, who for 30 years has uncomplainingly shipped it green and let others take advantage of him.

All my life I've been a one- man offensive line (if I may switch the analogy to American football), unselfishly blocking for snake-hipped fancy dans, nursing my bruises while a bunch of big pirouetting daisies took the credit in the end zone.

OK, so I hadn't intended to mention Mark Chapman and Justin Judd, but the bruises go deeper, obviously, than I'd supposed. During the shoot of Root Into Europe, I stood still for their jokes, didn't object when they called me a stick-in-the-mud because I preferred to stay in my room after the day's work - perusing movement orders and rewriting tomorrow's script - rather than get pie-eyed with them. I kept my dignity and brought Root Into Europe in on time and under budget, but there has been no let-up in the jokes since we returned to London.

When it was reported in the papers that George Cole had spent his money from the series on a new conservatory, Chapman and Judd - who, since the show's expected triumph, have been stretched out on the beaches of the Caribbean, smoking cigars the size of dildos and throwing share certificates at tanned, ambitious women - sniggered behind their hands and asked me what I'd done with my end of the wedge.

Since investment in bricks and mortar seemed foolhardy in the present economic climate, I'd put mine into a gilt-edged savings account at the Alliance & Leicester, I said - whereupon Chapman and Judd rocked with laughter and told me to loosen up.

'We're only here once,' they said. 'This isn't a rehearsal for something else.'

Nor is it, I suddenly realised, but this was not a message I cared to pass on to Milly Jenkins when I met her for tea on Monday. Nothing embarrasses a young person more than skittishness in middle age, so I presented myself as a grave-faced senior.

'I'm cracking up,' I said.

'How so?' she said.

'I've been living a lie,' I said. 'I want to carry my own personal drumsticks and beat abstractedly on table-tops.'

'What's stopping you?' she said.

'After a certain age, you have to be black,' I said. 'If you're black you can wear a hat, relax and turn the wrist, stay alive longer without embarrassing yourself and others. I may look and behave like Geoffrey Howe, but inside I'm as black as your hat.'

'You could have a colour change,' she said. 'No sillier than those merchant seamen who have a sex change, having discovered that their souls have been feminine since birth.'

'I don't want to be a walking category mistake,' I said. 'Didn't Ryle hit that sort of thing on the head?'

'As it happens,' she said, 'Cartesian dualism - the idea that mind is a ghostly exertion behind the hardware - is making something of a comeback, thanks to work in the philosophy of artificial intelligence by Daniel Dennett and others. When a computer does mathematics you need mathematical concepts to describe what's happening; neither electronics nor mechanics is adequate. So there's a dualism in a machine, though not of a metaphysical thought. It will be allowable for you to say that your mind is black. We'll have to dress you up, of course.'

'Of course.'

'You'll need a pair of Air Jordans. You pump them up and float several feet off the ground like a hovercraft. And several hundredweight of gold jewellery - not real gold, of course, since you'll not want to offend your exploited brothers in South Africa.

'We should style your head to form an unambiguous political injunction, but since you haven't any hair we'll have to etch 'Pig Off' into your scalp with a chisel.'

'I won't look silly?'

'Absolutely not.'

That's all right, then. Next week I'm meeting my friend Craig Brown for tea at Harvey Nichols. I'll float in on my Air Jordans, lead with the political message on my head. He'll not be expecting that.