Authors: Tim Parks
Yes, for six months, I reflect, sitting slightly right of centre on the big back seat of this powerful modern coach setting out across Europe, for six months you have been telling yourself that you are out of the woods, safe, even happy. Not to the point of clapping your hands and stamping your feet, perhaps, but happy enough, happy enough. Until a man for whom you have no particular respect approaches you in your loathsome place of work, an occasional drinking companion, affectedly shabby, determinedly Indian, though brought up entirely Welsh, with a clipboard and a pen in his hand and a nervous over-excited coercive manner manifested above all by his constant throat-clearing and catarrh-swallowing, his constant fingering of sideburns and baldness, and this man explains to you an
for saving the very job you have been trying for years to find the courage to leave, a job that is the source perhaps, when looked at from one angle, of all your woes, and what do you do? What do you do? In the space of a very few seconds you forget the resolve, for such it had seemed, of the last six months and you offer, promptly, immediately, without mediation, your - and these were the very words you used -
personal contribution to the group effort
. And then because you have never, but never, shown the slightest interest in the past in saving this miserable but of course well-paid, fatally well-paid job which has kept us all hanging on here in a limbo without future or return, trapped us in a stagnant backwater where the leaves of falling years turn slowly on themselves as they drift and rot, and because you are sure that this man-with the handsome sideburns and balding nervousness never for one moment imagined you would
lend your support
, and in fact only really asked you because you both happened to be in the same room at the same time and he with his clipboard in his hand, you start to make all kinds of affable apologies of the variety, If others are doing so much, the least I could do, etc, and even explaining to him that you won't really be wasting the time because you can take books to read. I have plenty of work I can take, you said in a ludicrous pretence of having
pressing outside interests
, and Vikram Griffiths said: Oh, no need to worry about entertainment, boyo - because Vikram, who has no official role in the foreign teachers” union, yet appears to be the only person who is capable of getting anything done, has this way of calling all males of whatever age âboyo', as indeed he has of calling all females of whatever age âgirlie', which is part and parcel of declaring his Welshness, his incongruous Welshness, which of course draws attention to his Indianness, his un-Welshness, and also his matey, alcohol-fed nervousness and above all his
, his belonging to thatÂ
, as the French like to say, or used to, that army of special and enlightened people, who are now so much an accepted and uninspiring part of our shadow establishment -No need to worry about entertainment, boyo, Vikram Griffiths says, clearing his throat and rubbing his hands together, because almost all the students coming along will be
, of course. At which point this man, no doubt delighted to have found such an unlikely supporter for his
, gives you the kind of wink which is also a leer, the kind of facial contortion, 1 mean, that a stand-up comedian might wish to cultivate so that not a single member of a huge theatre audience could misunderstand his insinuation. Because part of Vikram Griffiths' manner, I reject, is to assume, ostentatiously, provocatively, a renegade complicity even with people whom he suspects may be on the other side. In fact, he said, his face still untwisting from its leer, the boys are already calling it The Shag Wagon, and he laughed a throaty, smoke-and-whisky laugh, and sucking in catarrh repeated,
The Shag Wagon
, still laughing, and then was giving me some statistics on what he expected to be the breakdown between the students, mostly girls and numerous, and the foreign teachers, ourselves, mostly men and few, and true to the totally inconsistent and 1 think 1 ought to recognize shameful way I was behaving, I am behaving, I laughed too. The Shag Wagon! I shouted with a quite unforgiveable mirth. The flicking
, who thought of calling it that? It's brilliant! And Vikram said, Georg thought of it. You know what Georg's like.
Which I did. I do.
And he picked up his list, which already had
name and Georg's name signed on it, and, smelling of dog, dog hairs on his shabby jacket, though he can hardly bring the creature into the University, he went across the room to talk to another of my colleagues, while what I was immediately trying to remember was whether their names,
and Georg's, had been one above the other or one below the other on that list I had just signed and whether they had been written in the same colour and hence perhaps the same pen. And I couldn't remember. As even now, sitting on the back seat of this modern coach setting out towards the putative heart of Europe and forcing my mind's eye to open once again on the moment when I saw that list on his clipboard, the moment I so precipitously and it has to be said pathetically added my name to it, even now I cannot recall whether their names were together, or far apart, and not remembering, but trying so hard to remember, I am obliged for it must be the millionth time to acknowledge how humiliating it is to be throwing all my mental energy at a matter which is of absolutely no importance, and not even pleasurable in the way that so many other matters of absolutely no importance but to which one regularly gives one's mind, as for example billiards, or TV documentaries, or even, though more rarely, one's work, can be, if nothing else, at least pleasurable. Why does a man feel he has to take his dog with him everywhere? I ask myself. Why does a man have to
put himself so much in evidence!
An ugly dog at that. And how could it possibly matter whether
and Georg signed the Strasbourg list with the same pen and hence were perhaps together at the moment of signing? How could such a trivial coincidence signify anything at all?
But now I am interrupted by an Italian voice that asks: What are you reading?
For it has to be said that I am very far from being alone on the back seat of this coach. Indeed, if one could be alone, or even hope to be alone, hope that other people would leave one alone, in a modern coach then I would not hate them quite so much, since perhaps what I hate most about coaches is that they imply groups, and one's forced or presumed participation in a group for a given period of time, in the way that, for example, buses or trains or even aeroplanes do not imply such scenarios, since in those cases everybody buys their tickets separately and separately minds their own separate business. Yes, coaches, I understand now, make me think of groups and the tendency groups have to operate at the level of the lowest, and perhaps not even common, denominator, and what I'm thinking of I suppose is parties of people singing together all in the same state of mind, a church outing perhaps, or old people embarking on package tours to pass the time, or adolescents on the way to support a football team, and, in general, I'm thinking of all the contemporary pieties of getting people together and moving them off in one direction or another to have fun together, or to edify themselves, or to show solidarity to some underprivileged minority and everybody, as I said, being of the same mind and of one intent, every individual possessed by the spirit of the group, which is the very spirit apparently ofÂ
, and indeed of that
, come to think of it, to which this group is now hurtling off to appeal. Whereas if I recall correctly, and it was from a book
once made me read or rather re-read, for she was always making me read books in the hope that 1 might recover my vocation, might truly become that person, that man (this was important), I had once shown promise of becoming â if I recall correctly, then the first mention of Europe as a geographical entity (was it Theocritus?) referred only to the Peloponnese, and only in order toÂ
the Peloponnese from Asia, only to demonstrate that the small peninsula had
been swallowed up into the amorphous mass of an ever-invasive Asia. Or so I recall, rightly, or perhaps wrongly, from a book she made me read, re-read, in her insistent and one must suppose laudable attempt to have me recover my vocation, to have me become, perhaps this was the nub, somebody she could respect. It was a claim to distinction, Europe, as I recall.
In any event, I am far from alone, here on the back seat, which is to say that on my right, trapped between myself and the window, I have a rather plain young woman with somehow swollen lips who has been chattering intermittently with the two girls in the seat in front of us and, ignoring myself, with the girl, over made-up, to my left, who is dead in the centre of the coach's, one has to confess, comfortable big back seat, while to her left sits the handsome Georg, a German of Polish extraction, who is exchanging occasional pleasantries with the girl to his left, trapped between himself and the window, and again with the boy and girl in the seat in front of them, one of whom, the girl, is standing up with one knee on her seat and one very long and attractive leg out in the corridor, holding forth absolutely non-stop, in Italian, as is to be expected of a young Italian, on a variety of entirely predictable topics, as for example, the quality of different makes of jeans, including the pair she has on (allowing Georg to examine her leg and plump crotch attentively); the impossibility of finding a place in one of the smaller university class- rooms when somebody âimportant' (not myself) is lecturing; the credibility of astrology and numerology; the âstupendous' sound system in a new discotheque recently opened in the small satellite town of Busto Arsizio; and the extraordinary behaviour, in love and out, of her cousin Paola, who studies law at the Cattolica and who, on being left by her boy-friend of long standing, got a friend to phone him in the middle of the night as though from a hospital to say that a girl with red hair (i.e. herself) had been found in a coma after a horrendous car crash, the only piece of identification found on her being a photo of a young man with a phone-number on the back, the boy-friend's - all this to
make him feel sorry for her and guilty about leaping her
and to have him rush off to hospital imagining he would find her dying, whereas in fact what he, the ex-boy-friend, did was to call her parents, who, and particularly the mother, went almost out of their minds with grief before Paola came in through the front door in an advanced state of drunkenness.
How adolescent that is, I reflect, watching the girl's animated face. And how attractive. You have always had a fatal attraction to adolescent behaviour, I tell myself. Most of your own behaviour, I tell myself, is irretrievably adolescent. And in the meantime this stream, indeed this torrent of juvenile and absolutely indiscriminating, but at least unpretentious chatter has, for the half an hour or so that we have been forcing our way through Milan's cluttered thoroughfares, together of course with an occasional burst of communal song when a new voice takes over on the airwaves crooning without fail of love whether happy or unhappy - this chatter and the singing, sometimes choral, of insipid songs, has so far been offering an excellent cover for what I'm perfectly aware will be perceived as my misanthropic behaviour, sitting silent and slightly off-centre in the back seat of this coach, the only place left unoccupied on my late (studiedly late) arrival, my face buried in a book, an attitude which unfortunately legitimizes the innocent question of the girl in the seat in front.
What are you reading?
This girl must be kneeling on her seat, because her arms are resting quite naturally on the top of the backrest above my face and her rather strong chin is just above her linked hands, head cocked to one side in an expression of friendly enquiry and what the Italians call
, meaning openness, willingness to listen and to help, amenability. And though she is perfectly aware, it seems to me, of this body language, this simple friendliness she is communicating, there could be no question of her having deliberately and carefully adopted it, which is exactly the opposite of so many adults, I reflect, who are often amazingly unaware of what they have indeed been meticulously scheming, as when
, I am bound to remember now, told you that though she loved you dearly she felt she needed a little breathing space on her own before making the kind of decisions that would upset the
that she and her young daughter had been enjoying since her painful separation from her husband. And her face as she said this had a wonderful warm poignancy about it, yearning would be an appropriate word, an expression I still remember very clearly, as if gazing at a loved one through prison bars, or in fading twilight, with all the intimacy of a love that cannot be, but an expression that time would all too soon reveal as entirely false and hypocritical, knowing what she knew then, as so many of the expressions, I reflect, that you yourself have adopted with your one-time wife and indeed with all those people who at some time and for whatever reason have become important to you and whom at some point in your life you could not have done without, have been entirely false and hypocritical.
I am not reading, I tell the girl in front of me.
But you have a book.
I insist to the perhaps twenty- or twenty-one-year-old girl that though this is self-evident, the fact is that I am not reading the book which, admittedly, I am holding open in my hands.
Already, during the course of this brief exchange, I am aware of smiling wryly and generally sending out the kind of friendly, apparently avuncular social messages which I know are expected of me. It's as if I had indeed been reading the book, but had now chosen to say that I was not reading it in order to tease and prolong the conversation, rather than just giving the girl the title of the thing and having done. Indeed it would not greatly surprise me if before very long I weren't telling this pleasant youngÂ
some small sad half-truths about myself merely in order to appear, as they say, interesting.