Last night, I had a long video call with my best friend in New Zealand, someone I met through work in 2007, and whom I spent some time in the Antarctic with in 2008 (Nev in Dead Men, to be precise). It’s such a long time since we spoke, partly because of the huge time difference and partly because we’re both so busy with work and life, and there always seem to be new mountains to climb. We’ve always spoken by phone, and we both laughed at the fact we’d not thought before of video-calling instead. I don’t know if that makes us both dinosaurs or just distracted middle-aged men. I think we ended up putting each other’s lives into perspective, somehow, and when he said to me (and I can’t do an impression of a Kiwi accent, never mind write it down phonetically) “Small kids small problems, big kids big problems,” it made me realise two things – we get very insular when we’re absorbed by our direct personal issues with family, and that there are others in the same position as us (which we forget in our insularity). He almost suggested we have a virtual beer together next time, but then we realised that one of us would be drinking at 9 in the morning, which wouldn’t be such a good idea. We’re going to try to make these conversations more regular. Our dads’ shed, albeit virtual.
Bregman continues to occupy my reading hours. The interesting thing right now for me is that his exposition of human nature is at the stage where it’s actually depressing, because he has already established, for me, that there is so much kindness and goodness in humans but that it’s being oppressed out of us all by the systems we have, over the course of millennia, allowed to build up around us, that the structures of society are what is actually producing the psychopaths who oppress us, that we have imprisoned ourselves in those structures, and have forgotten that life was all about learning through disorganised play, and about having joy in between bouts of hunting and gathering and being nomads and being a part of the historic food chain. I still have 200 pages to go before I see his final conclusions, but it struck me that I as a parent have been complicit in creating structures that have probably negatively impacted my children’s lives. Inevitably, this is overthinking, but what is philosophy (and the poet’s reflections on the human condition) but overthinking? In fact, art is probably the greatest result of overthinking, and, in the same breath, the most obvious outcome of learning through play (with paint, words, sounds, objects, everything), and the greatest source of joy. There are no objective measures of quality. There are no measures. Let’s all make some art today!
AGGIE’S ART OF HAPPINESS – CHAPTER 32
‘Did your family tell you that?’ Zav says, his body swaying through a curve of the track with the train.
‘I don’t have any family,’ Aggie says hurriedly, avoids his eyes, and stares out of the window.
He folds his arms, leans back his head, and closes his eyes.
Careless, she thinks. Sometimes she wishes she could be careless, sleep carelessly, be less aware of every single element of living, of every single defence she needs to stop herself being the prey, less aware of each tiny thought. She wishes she was able to stop thinking not just about the next move but about the move twenty moves ahead. Another separation, another morning with the green-eyed and white-haired mentor, opposite her at the table, the simple chess set between them, sounds muffled by the baize on the figures’ bases, by the paintings on the wooden walls, the deep rugs on the worn wooden floor, the curtains drawn back from the tall windows. You must always be ahead of your opponent. The old sinewy arms, the yellowing fingers, moving pieces around the board. You’re taking too long to think. Act swiftly and calmly. Overthought will kill you. The occasional slap of the opposing king’s cross on Aggie’s fingers when she has moved badly or slowly. Books on chess theory. It’s combat theory in other words. More slaps until blood is drawn. Withdrawing into bed with books and pieces, moving them around against herself until her hands become a blur. The first victory against the mentor days later. No more slaps, no more losses, no more scabby fingers.
Norwich is the final station stop. The voices never stop sounding disembodied. Aggie watches as Zav opens his eyes, unfolds himself from the seat. She shakes her head. He is very slow. Perhaps the answer would be to … She discards the thought.
‘Come on,’ she says. ‘This will be the first test.’
‘What?’ He rubs his eyes.
‘To see if anyone’s waiting for us.’
‘I knew you meant that,’ he says. ‘Just a bit tired.’
‘There’s coffee at the house.’
The concourse has no unexpected surprises for them, no welcoming committee of guns and uniforms. They’re back at the house ten minutes later.
‘Part of me thought someone might have tried to knock the door down while I was gone,’ Aggie says as she’s unlocking the door. ‘Like those four we left in the cathedral.’
‘They’re gone by now,’ Zav says. ‘Back in London, I should think.’
‘I wouldn’t bet on it.’ She pushes the door open with her shoulder, one hand in her pocket. All quiet. She kicks off her boots. ‘You know where the kitchen is,’ she says. ‘Go make us some coffee. A double espresso will be fine for me. I need to check my room.’ She races ahead of him, up the two flights of stairs, unlocks the door to her room, walks across to the bookshelf, pulls the Prévert out of her satchel and puts it back in its place. She looks across the river to make sure the cathedral is still there. She’s always afraid of it disappearing, of suddenly being made to realise she’s not real, just part of an imagined game. It’s still there. She pinches herself until she draws blood. I am real.