After less than five hours of sleep, words desert me. Or appear to. That futility feeling. Not because I think no-one reads, but because there are days when I feel there’s nothing to say. We feel like this when we think there’s nothing we can do to change the world, despite any optimism we may feel. But that in itself is a futile emotion, because we can change things. I always tell the children that life is worth living even if we change just one person’s life for the better. We may not even know we’ve done it. And if we really believed we couldn’t change the world, we wouldn’t protest against what we see as injustices. We wouldn’t smile. We wouldn’t love.
Sometimes I wish we’d had mobile phones in the Eighties. Or at least digital cameras. There are some memories, some images, that aren’t quite clear enough for me to describe in detail. They have blurred at the edges, and sometimes I think they are invented memories. I have flashbacks to CND marches, human chains that linked nuclear weapons establishments, hands that stuck flowers into policemen’s gun holsters, to demonstrations in the dark where water cannon and tear gas exploded into brief flashes of light and fear, and horses whinnied, and hands hovered closely over those gun holsters, and we almost ran. There are brief fuzzy memories of smiles and happy days, and flea markets in the same place the tear gas had drifted over, of lazy days and strolling from stand to stand and square to square, of sitting outside cafés doing the NME crossword a week late because it took that long to get from England to Germany, of accidentally bumping into old friends at airports (and I’m not remembering Love, Actually, I’m remembering real life), of driving to the local cinema back in England to buy M some popcorn because in those early days of love you couldn’t buy microwave popcorn or popping corn to put into some hot oil at home. I do have digital pictures of the last big demo I went on, when well over a million people crowded into central London to show their support for the EU, and the politicians and Establishment ignored us. They didn’t need tear gas, because they knew lies would do the job just as well. Just as they still do now.
Memory and futility. Proust knew a few things about that. On the phone to O last night, he (half)jokingly said that all great philosophers ended up alone, not listened to, and insane. ‘And all the great poets,’ I said. How we laughed, he, by the sounds of it, standing outside his house smoking, and me sitting on the sofa bed in my office, cleared for once. And I told him all about Friedrich Hölderlin, that greatest of German poets, who spent the last 36 years of his life in a tower in Tübingen because he was insane (or people in control of his life thought he was). They called the tower after him, in the end, the Hölderlinturm. That’s another fuzzy memory (and perhaps there is an old-fashioned photo of it lurking somewhere), of me going to the tower, into the room he’d spent all that time in, scribbling into the visitors’ book, and wishing for insanity and isolation. It’s a good thing some wishes don’t come true, especially misguided ones. At uni, I hadn’t understood his greatest poem, Hälfte des Lebens, and had translated it for a friend of mine (who was studying English) so he could help me decipher it. Now (and even at the age of 20 when I went to the tower) the meaning is quite clear (and no translations ever do it justice); how age has the power to isolate us, and how we move from the perceived immortality and litheness of youth into the stiff desertion of old age and mortality. The strength of it is that the bleakness the second half of the very short poem paints pushes me, whenever I remember it, into making the most of the life I have. Where futility doesn’t exist.
AGGIE’S ART OF HAPPINESS – CHAPTER 34
‘I suppose that makes sense.’ Zav comes back to the table, touches each page, each photograph, with unexpected gentleness. His hand rests on the one of Cassandra in the Kremlin, leaning in to Putin, his eyes firmly on her hands, not any other part of her, not looking at the camera. He picks it up. ‘Hang on. Who took these photographs? Valentine? Or someone else?’
‘I assumed it was Valentine.’
‘But if she’s been there, if she’s been in all of these places, and if she’s a honeytrap…’
‘Then he’s not on anybody’s side. It’s him against everyone else. Stirring things up.’ Aggie drinks her coffee without noticing how hot it still is.
‘Why do men do anything? Money? Power? Just because they can?’
‘We’re not all bad.’
‘You’re not convincing me.’
‘I need another coffee as well.’
‘The machine’s right here.’
He walks straight past her, hands her the photo.
‘But that’s only one possible story.’
‘The other one being?’
‘Valentine knew nothing of this until he saw the pictures,’ she says. ‘Which would mean someone else took the pictures, someone else controls her…’
‘Unless she controls herself.’ He pushes a button on the machine. ‘You’re the one telling me what a strong woman she is.’
‘And someone just happens to be with her and takes pictures?’
‘Doesn’t have to be the same photographer every time.’
‘Then who does she work for?’
‘The English?’ He picks up his cup.
Aggie lets the films of all those past weekends scroll past here eyes without closing them. The guests who left early, the rustling plastic, her complicity by not saying anything. Imagination? Brain-washing? Worse? She can’t imagine it would be. She’s too alert, too careful. Don’t interfere. The scratchy voice of her tutor. Just watch, observe, remember. ‘We need more information.’
‘I know.’ He points at the mess on the table. ‘That’s just the tip of the iceberg.’
‘Whose interests would it be in for Russia to invade Ukraine? Is that what this is about?’
‘I don’t know. Someone who wants to destroy the entire planet?’
‘Then why Putin’s message?’ she says. ‘Valentine must be in with him. And she’s trying to stop all this. And now they’re worried because she knows something, has something, no-one else knows about.’ She almost tells him about those weekends, but somehow she can’t, like something physical is stopping her from saying the words. ‘ Why would she go along with Valentine for such a long time when she’s not on the same side as him?’
‘Know your enemy?’
Aggie remembers those words, heard them the last time her tutor beat her at chess, with a simple move she should have anticipated, she should have seen coming, a move she’d seen those gaunt arms make hundreds of times before, but had never really paid attention to. Youth sees no patterns, assumes the worst and the best, and never expects either. Know your enemy better than your friends. Be kind to you enemy. Compassionate. And always, always, be ready. She’d looked into those green eyes and hated them. That’s why she’d never lost again, because in that moment she’d understood her enemy, realised that whoever, whatever, had saved her, had tried to destroy her at the same time. A toy soldier, that’s all she was to the monster at the table opposite her. So she smiled at the beast, disconnected herself from the anger, left her own words, unsaid and unthought, in the last secret and private place of her brain no-one could reach. I am Aggie. I make life, not take it. I am Aggie, and I am happy.