Tuesday, 25 December 2007


One of you advised me to knock off the studying for the holidays and start acting like a real student for a change. Well, I haven't got drunk, fallen asleep on the tube and woken up in Morden (via Edgware). I haven't sulked about having to spend time with my family. I didn't buy all my gifts at an all-night petrol station.

But I did go to the course Christmas party, for which I managed to be an hour late — my house locked me out. (Read meaning into that, if you will.) It was in a bar called Jerusalem — again, search out the significance. (When we were canvassed for possible venues, I suggested — as it's just down the road — Spearmint Rhino. But my idea didn't find favour, even when I added that I reckon they give psychoanalysts trade discount.)

And I did put together a Christmas collection (following the usual rules, the same as for a bridal gown: the old, the new, the borrowed, the blue) . . .

1 Christmas (Baby Please Come Home) Darlene Love (1963)
2 Just Like Christmas Low (2000) 3 Winter Wonderland Johnny Mercer, the Pied Pipers & The Paul Weston Orchestra (1946) 4 Sleigh Ride Lloyd Glenn (1954) 5 Merry Christmas Baby Charles Brown (1947) 6 Christmas Man Blues Bertha ‘Chippie’ Hill (1928?) 7 Silver Bells Doris Day (1950) 8 Santa Baby Eartha Kitt (1953) 9 Santa Claus Got Stuck In My Chimney Ella Fitzgerald (1960) 10 Trim Your Tree Jimmy Butler (1954) 11 Papa Ain’t No Santa Claus (Mama Ain’t No Christmas Tree) Butterbeans & Susie (1930) 12 Christ Was Born On Christmas Morn Frankie ‘Half-Pint’ Jaxon (1929?)
13 The Twelve Days Of Christmas
Bob & Ron Copper (1955)
14 Lonesome Christmas Pt 1 Lowell Fulson (1950) 15 Blue Christmas Elvis Presley (1968) 16 Let It Be Me/The Christmas Song Laura Nyro (1990) 17 Silent Night Huey 'Piano' Smith & The Clowns (1962) 18 The Twelve Days of Christmas Field Music, Kathryn Williams, The Futureheads, The Golden Virgins & The Joseph and Mary Chain (2006) 19 Santa Claus Is Coming to Town Bill Evans (1963) 20 Winter Wonderland Aretha Franklin (1964) 21 God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen Aimee Mann (2006) 22 Christmas Wrapping The Waitresses (1981) 23 Christmas Boogie Sugar Chile Robinson (1950) 24 Who Took The Merry Out Of Christmas? The Staple Singers (1970) 25 My Boyfriend’s Coming Home For Christmas Toni Wine (1963) 26 There Won’t Be Any Snow (Christmas In The Jungle) Derrick Roberts (1965)
27 Seasonal Greetings
Krusty The Clown (1999)

It lasts about seventy minutes and fits on a CD. Soon, I'll also be adding some notes about the tracks.

Bonus track

Merry Christmas Doctor Elaine May & Mike Nichols

Friday, 21 December 2007

So what is theoretical psychoanalytic studies anyway? (Part one)

I love cartoons, always have, ever since childhood. I loved — and love — the simplicity and conciseness of them. I took — and take — a childish delight in the way each cartoonist draws the same world over and over and over again.

My father was a magazine designer — when I was young anyway. So there were always foreign magazines around the house — Esquire, Paris Match, the New Yorker etc. It was the late 1950s/early 1960s: a golden age for magazines — beyond the British Isles anyway. I learned how good-looking and clever a magazine could be (Esquire). I learned about our royal family’s intimate life (Paris Match). And I learned to love cartoons (the New Yorker).

Cartoons gave me my first proper art lessons. They taught me about things like surrealism and visual composition. About good gags, too. A fabulous example comes to mind, not from my childhood, it’s true, but it is surreal and it does have a genuinely great gag — albeit one that my childish self would have struggled to make sense of. It’s a bedroom scene. A chicken is sitting up in bed, next to a giant egg. They have obviously just had sex, with unequal outcomes. Egg is looking grumpy. Chicken is smoking a cigarette. Egg is saying: ‘Well, that answers that old question, doesn’t it.’

Cartoons made fun of things I already knew about: childhood, family conflict. But they also introduced me to things I wouldn’t see with my own eyes and brain for many, many years: cigared bankers talking money in gentlemen’s clubs; drunks and their drinks; the delicate dances of courtship, marriage, sex, parenthood, divorce.

And they introduced me to the world of psychoanalysis. Long, long before I had the faintest idea of what psychoanalysis was — let alone how to spell it — cartoons made me comfortably familiar with a surprising lot of things about it. They gave me a good idea of its hows, whats, wheres and whos, if not its whys.

I learned that there were men — it was always men, never women — who sat on chairs in rooms. Next to them was a couch with a someone else on it. Generally, this someone else was lying down and facing away from the man on the chair and his gaze. (Except sometimes it wasn’t a someone else but a something else on the couch. I’ve seen chickens on it. Eggs, too. Maybe the ones above.)

The man in the chair was — almost invariably — bearded, bespectacled and tweedy. There was a certificate on the wall. There were oriental rugs on the floor, on the couch, sometimes even on the table. The bearded man made notes on a pad.

(This was, I later learned, a not inaccurate image of what analysts call the analytic setting. Apart from the certificate, that is — that must be an American thing. Oh, and the beards, if only because it’s no longer such a male profession — if it ever was.)

There were, basically, two kinds of gags in these psychoanalytic cartoons. One, the patient said something dumb. For example, there’s a bear on the couch. He’s sighing and confiding: ‘I keep having anxiety attacks about a little blonde-haired girl breaking into my house and eating my porridge.’

Two, the analyst said something gnomic. My favourite example of this isn’t set in the analytic room itself but in the wider world outside. Well, at a psychoanalytic conference anyway. And it features not just one psychoanalyst but three. Analyst A and analyst B are walking down a corridor. Analyst C passes them and says ‘Hello’. Analyst B turns to analyst A and says: ‘What do you think he meant by that?’

And it was the second kind, I reckon, that really gave me a first picture of what psychoanalysis is about. Those of us who have spent time in the music business know, in our bones, that Spinal Tap is not a comedy at all: it’s a social realist documentary. So it is with that three-analyst gag. It divides the world into two groups: those who think it’s an excellent joke and those who think it’s an excellent question.

To my mind, it’s also not a bad exposition of the whole analytic endeavour: an attempt to find meaning in the seemingly meaningless, to doubt what appears to be the absolutely bleedin’ obvious, to find riddles where certainty previously ruled.

So, if that’s psychoanalysis, what about theoretical psychoanalytic studies then? What’s that when it’s tucked up on the couch? Excellent question. Let me think about it.

Coming soon . . .

So what is theoretical psychoanalytic studies anyway? (Part two)


A seasonal thing

Monday, 12 November 2007

On sexuality and handguns

South of the river on Friday, to the Brixton Academy, with my younger son, for the Sex Pistols. It wasn’t the first time I’d seen them, not even the tenth. As some of you will know, I have some previous in this matter.

They took the stage to Vera Lynn’s There’ll Always Be An England — two of them live in California. Johnny sang, feelingly, of having no feelings. They did No Fun — all around me, shaven-headed men greeted it joyously and had fantastic fun singing along. We all shouted that we wanted anarchy in the UK and probably meant something of the kind — though perhaps not till the mortgage is paid off.

They did an entertainingly energetic I’m A Lazy Sod. They sang Bodies, with its horror-struck retreat from the physical: it’s about abortion. We danced. When Bodies finished, John Rotten challenged us with deliberated ambiguity, saying something like: ‘If there’d been abortion back when I was born, I wouldn’t be here. What do you think to that? Eh?’

The last time I was at the Academy was for the Gotan Project — slightly abstract, slinky Parisian reimaginings of a Buenos Aires of the senses. The audience was all over the place, distracted, involved with themselves and each other rather than the show, falling down drunk, picking arguments, bumping into each other, blocking each other’s views — my view. It felt like being in the middle of a giant pinball table.

The Pistols’ audience was engaged, not uncritical but still open, happy to be in the moment, collectively. They, we, were able to play with the idea of being pretty vacant.

As I left, I thought of Fawlty Towers, episode eight, in which Dr Abbott, a psychiatrist, having observed Basil for an evening, says: ‘There’s enough material here for an entire conference.’

Wednesday, 7 November 2007

Louise Bourgeois’ unfeasibly large testicles. Her father’s too

After an entire few weeks of study and reading, I thought it was time to take some of it out into the world, see what I’d learned.

The other evening I went to Seduced at the Barbican, a show about sex. It was a members-only evening. True, but I only mention that fact for the joke, of course — and because no-one there made the joke. It wasn’t that kind of evening. We weren’t that kind of people.

It was busy, really busy, almost as busy as it had been a couple of years ago, for a show about the 1960s Brazilian art movement, Tropicalia. Lots and lots of well-behaved, thoughtful men and women — in fairly equal numbers — examining lots and lots of images of other people having sex. They — we — examined the images calmly and with apparent dispassion, denying the actual pornographic urge that gave meaning to most of them in the first place. In a sense, it was less honest than a lap-dancing club, though the floor was cleaner. I couldn’t help thinking we were like Victorian gentlemen claiming they’d bought an Alma-Tadema to further their knowledge of classical plumbing technology.

It wasn’t, as the Guardian had said, the most intelligent show of the year. But it was interesting. The usual British Museum and National Gallery crew were rounded up: Greek pottery, Roman frescos, Japanese prints, Fragonard paintings — though no Alma-Tademas. A grand, historical parade of *****s and *****s and ****ing and ****ing.

(I use asterisks, by the way, not out of any prudishness but because those kind of words still retain the power to shock network server firewalls — as I know to my cost. I’m writing a book about swearing and if I don’t astericise or euphemise, emails to major companies regularly get bounced back to me or sent to Reading gaol or wherever it is electronic sexual transgressions get punished and incarcerated.)

The sheer repetition of all that historical material had the comforting, familiar feel of any collection. There’s a certain eroticism, isn’t there, about any collection — paintings, stamps, antiquities — if only for the collector. Looking at the same thing again and again and again: it’s like children reading the same book over and over. To become bored is to grow up. Repetition is the neurosis, its enactment, its embodiment: that’s what Freud wrote, I think.

There was a Nan Goldin slide show, of ordinary couples having sex while Bjork sang. It was tender and honestly mundane — quite unlike nearly all other sexual images, deliberately so, obviously. It caused a family dispute. My wife thought that including pictures of the ****ing couples’ young children was exploitative: a child can’t give informed consent. I said: there’s no intention to exploit, it’s what was there, it wasn’t set up or created by the photographer. Not my finest logic, I know. Hmm, she said, they still make me uncomfortable. I agreed.

There were Robert Mapplethorpe’s portraits and self-portraits of extreme homosexual sado-masochism. When I first saw them, at the ICA in the early 1980s, they were shocking. Then AIDS made them tragic. Now, well, they’re historical documents, almost as quaint as Belloq’s photographs of pre-first world war New Orleans prostitutes. A little more uncomfortable, though. How can you get a whole fist up there? asked my wife. Relaxation techniques? I suggested.

There was the artist filming themselves in slow motion. There always is. This time the artist was having sex, naturally. You could only see her face. I found myself thinking: good haircut. It was, at least partly, a female riposte to Andy Warhol’s Blow Job, which was showing on a wall opposite. An art world equivalent to, say, the call-and-response coupling of Hank Ballard’s Work With Me, Annie and Etta James’ answer record Roll With Me, Henry. The artist’s name was all lower case: kr buxey. I can’t be the only one who saw a joke there, too: ee cummings.

And then there were the Louis Bourgeoises, Couples. Two giant, lumpy couples coupling, made of cloth and overstuffed like a child’s soft toys, imprisoned in vitrines. Like all Bourgeois’ work, they are erotic and overripe in their grossness and plasticity. Dreams, not reportage.

Both couples are missionary-positioning. One of the women’s arms, clasped tight around the Mr Blobby-like male, is metal and leather — part prosthesis, part fetish. Between one man-toy’s legs are an oversized pair of testicles. Bourgeois’ father’s testicles, quite clearly. At 96, her relationship with her long dead father has lost none of its perversity and fixedness. Her heart — maybe more of her — still belongs to dada. And to her abiding fury at both his affair with her governess and her mother’s disinclination to admit its existence.

Then you notice that the heads are missing. All four figures are decapitated. This is Bourgeois’ long-simmered act of revenge, the most wonderful, vicious imagining of the primal scene, as Freudians call it. Adults having sex. Not as the child might actually have glimpsed it, accidentally or not, through a keyhole or from the cot, but, as I’ve learned, in its dreams and imaginings. Here is adult sex in the way a small child’s inner world might conceive it — two big, big stuffed toys, face to face. Then, to take it an emotional step further — the small child’s dreams again — you cut the heads off. Daddy’s, mummy’s, the governess’s.

I’m not over-interpreting this stuff, by the way. Bourgeois is quite clear and open about the work’s intentions: parents, sex, the primal scene, revenge. The figures’ cuddliness is not ironic but in itself a further act of violence: that which we can’t physically destroy we attack with jokes. Good old Freudian, bad little Bourgeois.

There’s a common point, regularly made by Freud and other Freudians about Oedipus’s complexity. It’s this: if that sexually and violently resonant mother-father-child dramatic triangle didn’t find an echo in us all, Oedipus Rex wouldn’t still be playing in (subsidised) theatres two and a half millennia later. These ****ing Bourgeois Couples made me think the same about the notion of the primal scene. If they didn’t have some general resonance or touch something embedded in us all, then they wouldn’t chill the way they do.

Later, I read — yes, I did do some half-term, sorry, reading week, reading — something by DW Winnicott. He’s the English psychoanalyst who — among other things, admittedly — was primarily responsible for the erection of a statue of Freud. Now, it sits outside the Tavistock but, originally it stood down the road outside Swiss Cottage swimming baths — to which the erection party repaired for celebratory tea and biscuits. Yes, I know it sounds like I’m making it up or confusing it with a Joe Orton play. But it really did happen like that. And, with one of his life’s major ambitions fulfilled, Winnicott died within months.

This is what he wrote in The Theory Of The Parent-Infant Relationship: ‘Death has no meaning until the arrival of hate and of the concept of the whole human person. When a whole human person can be hated, death has meaning, and close on this follows that which can be called maiming: the whole hated and loved person is kept alive by being castrated or otherwise maimed instead of killed.’

Sex and violence: I suspect they’re here to stay.

Sound & vision

‘Mon coeur est a papa

Wednesday, 31 October 2007

On reading and being
unable to read

It’s reading week. I always thought that was one of academia’s little jokes, an ironic gloss on what the rest of us call half-term. Either that or self-deluding pomposity. I certainly never used it for reading. Nor did the lecturers. They were either writing papers or chasing first year students. (Mostly, they caught them.)

Now I’m not so sure.

Last Friday afternoon, I found myself outside on the pavement, with the smokers. It was a damp Torrington Place afternoon. It was cold. I didn’t really know why I was there. I wasn’t even smoking. (I do occasionally.) I think maybe I’d intended to get a coffee, but I’m not sure. It was the 15-minute break between that day’s second and third sessions, between Fundamentals of Psychoanalytic Theory: Freud Reading Seminar 6 (2.15–3.45pm) and Ferenczi 1 (4.00–5.30pm).

As the Freud seminar finished, I’d put on my coat, left my notes where they were, taken the lift to the ground floor and turnstiled myself out of the building with my student ID card. It was a purposeful journey, clearly. I knew it was the right thing to have done — or, at least, the thing I wanted to do. But it took me some time to work out what I was up to.

We — four or so of us on the course, males mostly — stood and talked, briefly, about the seminar that had just finished. It was on Freud’s theory of dreams. A couple of us said we just couldn’t agree with Freud’s idea that all dreams are wish fulfilments. There was something tentative about the way we said it. Later, I decided that could well have been because we were wondering if such open questioning of Freud so early in the course was a little presumptuous. A premature attack on the father of psychoanalysis even. (If I didn’t entertain such musings, I really wouldn’t be paying attention, would I.)
Then we talked about what we nearly always talk about when we talk about the course — the reading. It’s not just that there’s a lot of it, though there certainly is a lot of it. You can see for yourself, if you want — and get an idea of what some of it’s about, too.

I just counted it up. The preliminary reading totalled thousands — literally — of pages, including an 800-page Freud biography. (Don’t tell anyone, but I haven’t finished it yet.) There were a dozen or so other books, including one by one of the lecturers. I put that one to the top of my list. It was out of print. There were also details of the first term’s Freud reading and a gentle suggestion that we might like to start on it in advance. This listed 18 papers. The Interpretation Of Dreams alone is 627 pages, give or take a preface or ten.

Not that I was complaining. Or could complain. It was a challenge I’d gone looking for, not one that had come looking for me. It was just . . . well, a lot of reading. And it kept on coming. Since the course started, in late September, I have read two more whole books, chapters from another nine books and at least sixteen papers. I haven’t actually read every word of all of them, of course, but I’ve done my best.

Which is a lot better than the best I managed the first time at university. Having established in the first term that I could do very little reading and still get good grades, I took this as an opportunity to do no reading at all for the next two years.

Not that I didn’t do any reading. I did. Lots. A friend tells me I once told him that I did nothing at university except lie in bed, listening to Chuck Berry and reading Marx. This isn’t quite true. I also studied, for example, the complete works of Little Richard, the Rolling Stones, Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, Lou Reed, Noam Chomsky, Elizabeth David, Diane Arbus and Louis Althusser. I investigated the basement clubs, dancehalls and drink outlets of north London, by night mostly. I perfected my mental map of the tube network. And I conducted drug trials in which p=1 and there was no placebo control group. All in all, scarcely a waste of educational opportunities, surely.

But course reading. No, that I didn’t concern myself with — not until the last two months anyway when I crammed my way to a 2:2, much to the fury of some of my more diligent classmates. I really was a terrible student. I can’t remember going to a single lecture in the last year. I tell people that they tried to expel me twice but failed as I never once looked in my pigeon hole in the whole three years. I’ve told that story so many times that I’m no longer sure if it’s true or a joke I made up. (I know for sure the pigeon hole bit is true so maybe the rest is, too.)

Second time round, though, I’m not that snotty, contrary slack-a-bed. I’m turning up for lectures. I’m doing the reading. Now there’s a word: reading. It depends on what you mean by reading. I have looked at all the reading we’ve been given, honest. But have I actually read it all? No. Not for want of trying. I’ve worn out half a dozen highlighter pens. I’ve become a friend of the pre-dawn darkness, to be found on the sofa come breakfast time, still millimetering my way through Joseph Sandler’s Dimensions of Psychoanalysis or some such.

But I haven’t read it all. I’ve managed a lot of it, but not all of it. I don’t think any of us has, actually. I did what my daughter told me to do. (As a 2007 graduate, her advice has a relevance and quickness that my three-decade-old memories don’t.) Do what everyone else does, she said, read the introduction, the ending and skim the rest. Then she flew off to south America somewhere.

So I tried skimming but it didn’t work. There were too many unfamiliar notions and words — some of which were used in a specific, technical way that was new to me, some of which had been oddly translated from the original German and some of which, though seemingly in English almost certainly weren’t. Quickly and painfully, I discovered that you really can’t skim something you don’t know a good deal about. You can only effectively skim something you’re already familiar with. If you can’t, at a glance, separate the significant from the irrelevant, you’re left floundering. And floundering with words was something unfamiliar to me.

Like most writers, I’m one of life’s natural readers. Words were the way I found myself and my place in the world, from as soon as I could talk. I taught myself to read before I was four, from the letters on the Frigidaire in our Somerford Grove kitchen. I was a cornflake packet and sauce bottle reader.

As a journalist, I came to pride myself on being a quick study, capable of absorbing — and understanding — loads of material very rapidly. Then regurgitating it, fairly accurately. But this was something else. Not all of it, by any means, but enough of it to worry me. Regularly, I found myself in that uncomfortable place where you find yourself at the bottom of a page with only the scantiest notion of how you got there from the top. So you read it again. And sometimes it sticks. Or you turn the book upside down and try it that way. Sometimes that works, too. Sometimes, you go for a walk instead.

Sometimes, though, I even found myself thinking longingly of the blissful, easy hours I spent earlier this year making my way through a manual for MySQL — it’s a database software thing. And, eventually — on the way back from my afternoon jaunt with the pavement smokers — it was that memory which led me to the light. The first time I tried to read the MySQL manual, I decided that, appearances to the contrary, it had to have been written in Albanian. That was the only possible explanation of why I could make so little sense of it. But then, after a few months working with the software — or, to be precise, working with someone who was actually working with it — I made my way back to the manual. It still wasn’t exactly like reading the Frigidaire name plate but it made sense and I could follow it, in my fashion, if not my expert colleague’s.

So now I knew why I found myself on the pavement. I was there because I really, really needed a break from all those words I was struggling with and the way they filled that fifth floor seminar room till the air itself was looking to relocate somewhere less crowded. Some cold air and some secondhand smoke later, I was ready for Ferenczi 1. I hadn’t finished the reading, it’s true, but I’d read the intros, the outros and skimmed the rest. Good enough. That was the pass mark Winnicott set for mothers. Which is good enough for me.

And I’d learned what to do about the reading. Keep reading. Read and read again. Wait for the words to cohere. They will.

Now it’s reading week. So I’m reading, right? No. I’m writing. Maybe tomorrow. It is half-term after all.

In memoriam

Tony Soprano 1999–2007

The beast in me
Is caged by frail and fragile bars
Restless by day
And by night he rants and rages at the stars.

Vince Everett: It ain’t tactics, honey, it’s just the beast in me.

Wednesday, 24 October 2007

Encountering the others

I didn’t go to the freshers fair — and not only because it was called the Freshers’ Fayre!!, exclamation marks and all. I didn’t go to the freshers’ ball, though I think I might have walked past it, quite by chance late one night in Gordon St — there were flashing lights and loud music coming from a first floor room and a flirt of flushed-face young smokers on the pavement.

I didn’t join the chess club or filmsoc or Greenpeace. I assumed I automatically became a member of the student union, but I didn’t bother to check. I wasn’t tempted by an evening of Bar Footsie, nor by its explication — a stock exchange drinking game. I didn’t even refuse to open an account at Barclays (thank you for that joke, William).

I’m married. I’m old. I have three children, a dog and a pension plan. I can stay at home. I’m not out there, don’t need to be, don’t want to be.

My non-course, extra-academic involvement would, I thought, begin and end with registration. Which itself made for an amusing afternoon, fun almost. If, that is, you’re up to taking fun and amusement from a process that me put me in mind of how a socialist state might be if it were run by Quakers, or perhaps the Women’s Institute. Very bureaucratic, very polite, almost efficient, with a faint air of talcum powder and Timotei shampoo.

There were lots of very helpful young people — students, presumably, working on minimising their overdraft (or splurging on Bar Footsie). There were apologies for not having quite the right form — that’s dealt with by the desk over there, I’m afraid, smile, smile. There was a rainbow of coloured zones — red and yellow and orange and green and purple and taupe and cerise. (I may have hallucinated those last two.) And there were queues. Long queues, very polite queues, slow queues. Still, they gave me time to listen to a muffin-topped north Liverpool teenager sharing her mental map of cheap alcohol sources in the NW1 and N1 postcodes.

There was money to pay, forms to fill, names to be logged, a photograph to be taken. It took a long time, a very long time. Almost as long, I found myself thinking, as changing a traveller’s cheque in an Italian bank. And then I realised: I couldn’t crack that gag to anyone here. I’d have to explain it. They’d ask: what’s a traveller’s cheque? And: why not just use a cash point? It was an old man’s joke, unshareable without footnotes and explanation. I found myself thinking about my friends who have girlfriends young enough to be my daughter.

But that, I thought, would be it for non-course stuff. Oh, there was a Facebook group. (Have a look if you want/can. It’s UCL MSc Theoretical Psychoanalytic Studies.) But only half the course signed on to it and even they’ve mostly kept quiet.

Then came the email. In the subject field, there was just one word and two punctuation marks — pub?!, it asked. It was an invite to the whole course for a drink or more ‘after class’. I put those two words in quote marks not to sneer but because, again, I found myself thinking of friends in October-May relationships. And of how, when I first went to college, I kept addressing the lecturers as ‘sir’. They’d smile, amusedly, not at all patronisingly. I, good Catholic atheist that I am, would pray for the floor to open up. It never did. God the atheist is far too much of a Curb Your Enthusiasm fan ever to pull that one.

The inviting email put me in a quandary. Not to go would be rude. But going out for drinks with a group of people who are nearly all a good hunk of a century younger than me could be, well, like going out with my children’s friends. Before, in this situation, I’ve turned for advice to my etiquette advisor, my daughter. (She’s good, I recommend her. When I told her I’d not quite finished the pre-course reading — a dozen books or so — she had just one word for me. Swot! she said. So, I said, would it be best if I kept quiet about the reading? Excellent idea, she said.) But she’d gone away, for a month or two, to Latin America somewhere, to help out with a local wildlife issue. (Truly, I don’t know how the third world got by before the arrival of first world young people armed with nothing but good degrees and caring parents.)

So I went for the drink, ‘after class’ on Saturday. (All the seminars are either then or on Friday afternoon so that students can also hold down serious jobs or travel in from beyond the M25.) I was one of the last out of the seminar room so I tail-gunned the crocodile of fellow students — the whole group as far as I could see. Along the street, across the road, through the doors, up the stairs, down some stairs, up some more stairs, through some double swingdoors. I looked around. It felt familiar. We were in the student union bar. The last time I was here, I was barely legal.

We sat at a long refectory table, fifteen or so of us. I thought about the difference between this group and my first university cohort all those years ago. That lot was determinedly homogenous, though not exceptionally so by the standards of the day. It was just the way universities were: white, home counties or shires. The fact that I’d grown up in a council house and a pub gave me a touch of the exotic.

But here was Brazil, Poland, Slovenia, Taiwan, Vienna and Wapping — as well as a sprinkle of home counties and shires. Some of us might not even be heterosexual. Such a mix and range might perhaps be as predictable now as homogeneity was back then. But still, a surprise, if a pleasant one.

Well, I was asked, what do you think of the course? I thought about mentioning the cultural mix thing, but I didn’t. Instead, I said: being in a room with so many sharp minds is just in itself so, well, exhilarating. I could have added — but didn’t, worried about the old man’s joke thing and on grounds of potential Humbert Humbertness — that it put me in mind of the slogan for Beserkley records: the most fun you can have with your clothes on.

I also thought of a piece of very smart advice, given freely, if aggressively, by James ‘Double Helix’ Watson. ‘Never be the smartest person in the room because if you're the smartest person nobody can help you,’ he said. So, that’s one smart thing I’ve got right then.

This week’s listening
Psycho by Jack Kittel
‘Mama, why don’t you get up?’

Tuesday, 16 October 2007

On lateness and being late

Despite my very best intentions, I still nearly managed to be on time for my first day back at university after a gap of । . . Well, it’s nearly 33 years since I walked out of my final finals exam, promising myself and everyone else in the student union bar: never again.

It was a promise I kept। In all those years, I’ve only sat two exams. Or, rather, sat and resat the same exam — my driving test failed first time, passed second. And that was 27 years ago: the very last driving test of the very last day of 1980, in the yellow, drizzly, late-afternoon, mid-winter gloom of Hendon. Since then, nothing. I even avoided eye tests till a couple of years ago, having convinced myself that it wasn’t that I needed reading glasses, just that the world was getting darker.

I’d been taking exams since I was eight, twice a year at least। I was good at them, too, mostly. It was just this: enough was enough. A room with rows of desks. The smell of blue-black ink and English teachers’ leather-elbowed jackets. High summer sun shafting seductively through stained-glass windows. The breath-constricting sense of anticipation as you opened the paper. Being reminded: not to talk, to answer all the questions, to re-read your answers, to ask permission to go to the toilet. The 15-minute warning. The 5-minute warning. The one-minute warning. The end: stop writing, put down your pen, now.

Enough। I’d had enough of it all, even the good bits — high marks, obviously, but also the wonderful sense of flow when you’re writing easily and clearly about something you know about and doing it against a ticking clock. Enough, though, was enough. (I found a substitute for the flow and writing against the clock thing. I became a journalist. An improvement on the original: same thing, more or less, only you got paid for it.)

Yet, here, now — half a lifetime and three children later — I’m back at university, having applied for, interviewed for, been accepted for, paid for and enrolled on a masters course at University College, London — an MSc in Theoretical Psychoanalytic Studies. My first degree was in psychology and, essentially, I’m picking up pretty much where I left off, all those years ago, in the bar.
I always intended to be late for my first day back at university। I’ve always been late on my first day for anything. It’s a deliberate policy. It’s important to be late on your first day. I learned that long ago, from Terry Wogan, I think. Arrive early on your first day and it’ll be expected of you ever after. Arrive late and they’ll always be appreciative of your punctuality, never take it for granted. At least that’s the theory. I’ve never analysed the data.

I worked hard at being late। I chatted to a fellow dog-walker in the park. I bumped into a very old acquaintance and made sure we progressed well beyond the ritual exchange of pleasantries. I had a proper breakfast, even though I knew time was getting tight. I strolled to the tube station, only to discover I had plenty of time. Then, to my blissful surprise, there were no trains running on the Charing Cross branch. I’d have to take a Bank train to Euston and walk from there. I did. I got to the right building just on time. I resigned myself to promptness.

As I’d been told to, I checked in at the desk। Someone rushed through next to me, a flurry of black and determination. The man at the desk told me to take the first lift to the fifth floor, then walk across the building, past the second lift. It didn’t sound right but I did as I was told. It wasn’t right. The fifth floor entrance was security-locked against me. As was the sixth, the seventh, the fourth etc etc, all the way down to the first, where someone offered to help me out, take me to the right place. ‘I’ve always wondered where the psychoanalysis unit was,’ he said. The spirit of enquiry.

I was fifteen minutes late. The flurry of black and determination was there already, attentive and inquisitive five seats to my left. Later, we talked. ‘Being late is a big thing in psychoanalysis, isn’t it,’ I was told. I should have replied: are we talking 15 minutes or 33 years? But, of course, but didn’t.

Monday, 8 October 2007

Back to uni at 55 (Well, almost)

My name is Peter Silverton. I’m a writer. I’ve been an editor. It’s what I’ve always done. Well, for a year right after university, I worked as a banqueting barman — lucrative, educative, basically illegal. That aside, my working life has been measured out in words, pages and by-lines. Now, at the age of 55 (well, almost) I’m re-entering the world of academia, taking a masters degree — and writing about it, here, week by week by essay by term by dissertation.

I live in north London. I have three children. I’m married to their mother and have been since not long after our second child was born. We have a dog. Sometimes I call him by my younger son’s name. I have an allotment, high cholesterol and too many CDs.

In September 2007, I started an MSc in Theoretical Psychoanalytic Studies, at University College, London — two years, part-time. More than three decades after I graduated, in psychology, in 1974, from Goldsmiths’, I’m back at university. I’ll be just round the corner from the elegant neo-Stalinist tower in which I crammed for my finals — and the ugly 1970s block from which my two oldest children have just graduated.

What will it be like to be the oldest person in class? How will it be studying with people younger than my children? And being taught by people younger than me? (I mentioned these worries at my interview and was told, basically, not to. But having been to a school where not calling a master ‘sir’ got you a Saturday morning detention, it’s hard not to.) Will I be able to keep up with the reading? (A cousin took an MBA a few years ago. She cheerfully advised starting my day at five.) How will I cope with a whole new range of vital etiquettes and protocols — essay-writing, departmental and inter-departmental status structures, citation checking, how the photocopier works, where my pigeon-hole is, which photo I should use on Facebook. Above all, will I be up to it? For now, I guess I can only tell myself what I so often tell other people under similar circumstances: if you’re not scared, you’re clearly not paying attention.

Why Theoretical Psychoanalytic Studies? What are Theoretical Psychoanalytic Studies anyway? And why ‘theoretical’? A short answer to the second question is easy: Freud and all that. So is the answer to the third: it’s an academic course, not a clinical training for analysts and therapists. Question number one, of course, is the toughie. Any answers are provisional, naturally, but I can have a go.
a) I hold to the view that if we fully understood why we were doing something, we quite likely wouldn’t need to do it.
b) It’s a resumption of my original studies. I set out intending to be a psychologist — until I looked at the length of the training and how little you got paid at the end of it. I went to university to study the human mind and found I was studying rats’ brains. Now I’ve got the chance to make that good.
c) I’m in a position to do it. I’ve got the time etc.
d) My wife has almost finished her MA (in Infant Mental Health — it’s a family thing). A little competition enlivens any marriage.
e) And finally, because time’s winged chariot is hurtling round the corner at me, wheels off the ground, horses snorting, driver’s whip cracking. I can, of course, continue to believe that, until proven otherwise, mortality is something that happens to other people. But I go to enough contemporaries’ funerals to know that, at the very least, I should cover my bets.