i began to speak English again in Frankfurt Airport. The plane arrived in Manchester in the late afternoon and i was, despite everything, home. i feel the difference, my difference, here: subtly but wholly altered. Passing through death must work transformations.
A couple of days in Huddersfield, living with my mother, her small cottage crammed full of junk (e.g. 80s women’s magazines, teddy bears); she complains stridently about her “tiny house”; when I suggest she throw things out she says primly “I was raised not to throw things away, Elberry!”. She is timorous, paralysed by indecision when driving. There is little to say. She tends to drift off when anyone speaks to her, automatically perusing newspapers and cooing to herself over adverts, unaware that her attempted interlocuter has stopped talking. Communication is strictly one way; no point even trying to speak. She burbles continually.
i visit my father who is 79 but more lucid than in my youth, having come late to equilibrium. i almost correct his English when he groans: “egh well I am taking these pills 10 year, egh” but since i’m not being paid i refrain and merely nod. Strange clarity at the close of his life, after a life of headlong rage and empty power, a tyrant and monster, a doctor. i hold no grudges, for after all i must have chosen to be born into such a family.
A trip to Leeds to see Bonehead. We chat for a couple of hours, scheming. Disjunction here: the last time we met to talk, face to face, was 4 years ago, when we were young, just 30. Though i am 34 i feel younger and crueller than that callow self. Thus Vergil describes Charon as old, sed cruda deo uiridisque senectus – but the old age of gods is strong, unexhausted yet.
Manchester, Huddersfield, Leeds, all the same – the menace, the gangs of youths segregated by ethnicity, dressed like gangsters, slouching like hyenas, snarling, talking in guttural gangster-speak or Urdu.
i buy trousers that fit (30″ waist, 30″ inside leg), overhear a funny conversation between two wannabee gangsters:
Gangsta 1: I tell ya if I come out looking like a batty boy I gonna beat you.
Gangsta 2 [amused]: Looking like a what?
Gangsta 1: Like a batty boy innit?
Gangsta 2: And you’re gonna do what?
Gangsta 1: Beat you. Look, it don’t feel right.
Gangsta 2 [laughing]: You mong, you got it on back to front, what’s wrong with you? You batty boy!
i pick up things i left with Pam, my landlady in Manchester. Her dog, who i walked almost every evening, doesn’t remember me. i reflect on the fickleness of hounds. i ask Pam if she’s still working in the local art college. She exclaims that she retired and is much the happier for it. In the last three years the flood of directives, quotas, official memoranda, threats, prohibitions, protocols, admonitions, all the various spewings of bullshit, had prepared her to leave without regrets. By the end the college had become about figures and quotas and no longer had any relevance to the students. She had a dozen managers where once there was one. A familiar tale.
i journey to Durham. i secure my old room in my old college; my first act is to rearrange the furniture, as it was 10 years ago. Durham startles, after 12 months in the concrete abominations of Kiel and Ultima Thule. The stone, the old architecture, an everywhere beauty, substance. Wittgenstein wrote that architecture exists to glorify something, hence there can be no good architecture where there is nothing to glorify.
Something is freed by beauty. So long in modern cities, in Germany, i silence my desire for beauty; here it is allowed. i long to write, to have the time, the freedom, to write more than inconsequential blog posts and emails.
But the streets at night are as bad as anywhere in England. i buy a ludicrously expensive Domino’s pizza and walk home with it on a Saturday night. Guys point and shout “fucking Domino’s, I fucking want that, fucking Domino’s, give it fucking here!”. i ignore them; the desire for violence coiling within. A pretty girl walks by and they shout sexual threats at her. An ordinary evening in Durham, as in Manchester, Leeds, Huddersfield, anywhere in England. When i relate such anecdotes to Germans they think i must be making it up.
In the daytime Durham is safe enough. Contrast with the open spaces of Oxford and Cambridge: Durham is so small, and so much of it is routine chavvery (chain pubs, “It’s a Pound!”, betting shops, Tesco’s). The tiny heart of Durham in the midst of the modern world, the colleges and castle and cathedral set just above the expected ugliness. There is something Tardis-like about it; just off the main road a tiny alley leads up to Vennel’s Cafe, a space that unfolds in room after room, a world apart. So with my college – from the outside, it’s just a row of 18th Century buildings, but once inside it reveals unexpected intricacies and coverts and openings.
The sense that Durham has survived the modern world, by concealing itself. A kind of magic trick; but where a stage magician’s illusion passes the ordinary off as magic, here the magical is presented as ordinary. And so the modern world lets it alone, almost.
i meet old tutors. They tell me “the university has really gone downhill since you were here”. It was bad enough in 2000. A friend tells me she tried to get her daughter into a local college. In the past, her son had been admitted despite applying late; the admissions tutor had made an exception, so the student registered as a “guest”. My friend rang up and explained how the old admissions tutor had let her son in, asked if something like this could be done with her daughter. The girl on the other end said, stupefied: “He wasn’t supposed to do that. I’ll have to report this to my line manager.”
Another tutor says, sighing grandly, “ah yes, the corporate university.” Everyone i meet is wearily sickened by the university, the rot of management jargon, the attempt to run a university like a bank, with directives and quotas etc. etc.
i meet another friend, who was sacked by the university in 1992, on a strange and exceedingly flimsy pretext, principally i guess because he was Theodore Dalrymple-like in his opposition to the bureaucratic rot. His youngest daughter, who i’ve known since she was about 6, is going to go to university next year. i haven’t seen her in about five years but remember her as a feisty young dame who, for example, once snapped at me “shut up, you!” when i was holding forth, as is my wont.
“What does she want to study?” i ask.
“English Lit and Philosophy.”
i am amused. “Marvellous. Let me know what she thinks of Wittgenstein.”
There seems no hope for education in this country. 800 years of tradition destroyed in one generation.
i leave on Sunday morning, to Cambridge. And we shall see what happens there.