Wednesday, 24 December 2008

Merry Christmas to one and all

This is what I'll mostly be listening to this holiday. More details in the next posting. Plus: an evening of seasonal terror in the City of London.

1. All Alone On Christmas
Darlene Love (1993)

2. I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus The Ronettes (1963)
3. Here Comes Santa Claus Bing Crosby (1945)
4. Poor Old Rudolph The Bellrays (1996)
5. Frosty The Snowman Leon Redbone (1987)
6. Santa Claus Is Coming To Town Johnny Mercer and The Pied Pipers (1946)
7. Velvet Santa Divide and Kreate (2007)
8. Sock It To Me Santa Bob Seeger & The Last Heard (1966)
9. Christmas Morning Blues Titus Turner (1952)
10. Merry Christmas Little Esther & Johnny Otis (1950)
11. Faraway Christmas Blues Little Esther & Mel Walker with Johnny Otis (1950)
12. Santa Claus, Santa Claus Louis Jordan (1969)
13. You Don't Have To Be A Santa Claus Mills Brothers (1955)
14. Merry Christmas Baby Elvis Presley (1971)
15. River Madeleine Peyroux (2006)
16. Blue Christmas Low (2000)
17. In The Hot Sun Of A Christmas Day Caetano Veloso (1971)
18. Raat Christmas Ki Thi Asha Bhosle (1987)
19. Spotlight On Christmas Rufus Wainwright (2004)
20. So Much Wine The Handsome Family (2001)
21. Merry Christmas From The Family Robert Earl Keen (1994)
22. (I Was) Drunk (On Christmas) Winechuggers (1998)
23. Xmastime For The Jews Darlene Love (2005)
24. Fuck Christmas Eric Idle (2006)

Saturday, 15 November 2008

Back again

I never gave it any thought. Stupidly, I guess. I should have known that it would be quite a different thing going back again. I’d been a second year before, at school and university, too. Somehow, though, I didn’t think about it this time round. Like I said, stupid.

It is different. Quite a lot different. Part-time students — who, like me, are doing the course over two years — are in a tiny minority. Nearly everyone manages it in one — even, in some case, with a full(ish)-time job. I’ve no idea how they do it. None at all.

I remember last year looking at the second year students and wondering what was going on in their heads. What did they think of us new bobs? Were they a little amused by the gaucheness of our questions? Were they just waiting to get it all over with? Were they bored or did they find the second year even more interesting than the first? Was it all much easier for them?

Another thing I didn’t think about was just how much each year’s intake can vary. As ever in life, I knew what I knew, no more. So I guessed that was the way things actually were and would always be. Wrongly.

I should have known this year’s intake would be different. One, I’d been told they were — by one of last year’s students with whom my work brings me into fairly regular contact. As a one-year-only student, she hadn’t actually seen this year’s newbies with her own eyes but she had it on the best of (gossipy) authority that they were, on average, far younger than our year. More her age, in fact, than mine.

Two, I’d heard tell of a previous year’s intake, a few years back, that was infamous in their difference. They threw rubbers at each other in class. Or rather, they threw erasers — they were mostly young Americans. They teased one of their number who happened to have ginger hair. It was, or so I’m told, like being in an American high school sitcom that wasn’t funny.

So what are this year’s intake like? Well, I’ve hardly seen them, truth be told. The way I divided up my work over the two years, I’ve ended up with only six seminars all this term — the first half of Mrs Klein and Bion.

So any observations are necessarily partial as well as inevitably partial. They are younger. There are also more of them than there were last year. There are a lot more English Literature graduates and a few more psychiatrists.

I do find some of their questions a bit gauche — though, thank God, I have the sense to recall some of my own questions from last year, with pain and retrospective embarrassment. They ask more of them, too, than we did. They seem, well, keener somehow. As one of last year’s full-timers said to me: ‘We were a very laidback lot.’ Though rarely late for seminars. Unlike this year’s lot — who have already been told off a couple of times for it.

That aside, they are a lot more organised. They’re sorting out study groups, seminar presentations and dissertation-sharing sessions. They are all-round far more communicative with each other. Last year’s lot generally couldn’t even get it together to look at the course Facebook site. Like, I said, laidback.

This communicativeness, though, was how I came to upset some of them — not deliberately but not quite inadvertently either. They were sending emails to each other several times a day — about organisational issues, kind of. The problem was they were copying them to the whole group, including me. I got fed up with the emails — a good number of which said nothing more than ‘me, too’. So I said something. I don’t think they liked that. But I don’t get any more emails.

And they’ve set up a mooli. Sorry, that’s a radish. I meant a Moodle*. That’s a sharing web thing for academia — in this case, restricted and password protected. I just had a look at it. There was an invite to a crochet circle breakfast — run by a mathematically inclined artist-in-residence. It was yesterday. I missed it.

* Martin’s Object-Oriented Dynamic Learning Environment

Monday, 10 November 2008

Double body

In my last posting, I put a link in where it said 'my wife'. I thought you might like to be reassured (or disappointed) that it wasn't actually my wife in the picture. They just share a name. The clue was the initials on that woman's badge. For more details, look here.

Friday, 17 October 2008

The me-me meme

Often, though not always, I get my wife to read my postings before I upload them. Our offices are next to each other in the house. I email them to her. She emails back. Such is the modern work-home balance. Such is modern marriage.

My email wasn’t working properly when she sent her response to my last posting. So we had a face-to-face conversation, before breakfast. Such, too, is the modern work-home balance.

She: You know I always really like your blog.* But . . .** I wondered if that posting doesn’t come across a bit self-concerned.

Me: I know what you mean.*** But I’m torn. Some people tell me they like my blog best when it’s personal. Others that they’re more interested in it when it reaches out into the world.

She: That posting, though. Isn’t it a bit too much like those columns in the paper where someone writes about their own life, self-obsessively. It’s all so me-me-me.

Me: But those are the columns you read. I don’t. But you do.

She: Mmmmm.

And so to breakfast.

* A note for anyone ever having a conversation with any writer about their writing. Begin any and every conversation with something like this. Even if it’s a complete lie. Particularly if it’s a complete lie. If you don’t first tell them they’re wonderful, they won’t hear anything you say after that. Particularly if you’re about to tell them it’s rubbish.

If it is rubbish, tell them it needs a little work. Then start on your list of suggested changes. No matter how extensive the list, the writer will still be basking in the glow of that initial praise. Think of it as tickling a dog’s tummy. It works. Every time. I’ve written and I’ve edited. As an editor, I learned all about writers’ vanities. Mine included, of course.

** There’s always a ‘but’ after a sentence which begins ‘You know I always really . . .’

*** Defence is the last resort of offence.

Thursday, 16 October 2008

Back to school

Summer’s over. Time to return to school. I’ve re-enrolled. I’ve paid my £2000 plus change. I’ve got the schedule. I’ve got a new UCL password. I’ve logged back on to PEP. And I’ve got my exam results.

Ah, the exams. I just looked back at the only posting I made about the exams and see that it was long on atmosphere and emotion but short on facts. Things like the number of exams and where they were done etc. I reckon I’d like to know if I were you. So . . .

I’m doing an MSc in Theoretical Psychoanalytic Studies at UCL. I’m doing it over two years. Most people do it in one. We all have to do the same work, I just get longer to do it in. We have to write two essays (5,500 words), one dissertation (11,000 words) and sit exams — twelve papers over three days, 45 minutes per question.

That’s the entire sum of the written work. Everything else is reading and seminars. I’ve written (and whinged) about the volume of the reading before. I’ll just mention that one of my fellow students decided to weigh the reading before she flew home to Marin County. She’d thought of taking it with her, I guess, for reference. So she checked it in case she got stuck with a hefty overweight surcharge. She would have been. It weighed two stone.

That’s not all the reading. There are no books counted there. Nothing read online or in the library. Just the photocopies of each week’s reading. Two stone. Thirteen kilos. A toddler load.

The exams count for a lot, though — 45 per cent of the marks. I guess it’s a way to stop people cheating. If you don’t get it, you can’t spiel away in the moment. So it’s hard not to take the exams seriously. Obviously, my grades will make no difference at all to my life outside the course. In fact, they’ll count for nothing anywhere outside my own head. Which is the point. I’d be lying — to myself — if I didn’t admit it was important for me to do well. (I’m not after a surprise denouement so I’ll tell you now, I have done well.)

It was very odd, sitting in a room for three hours, scribbling away by hand. I hadn’t written that much by hand that fast for maybe thirty years. I was drained at the end of the three days. I needed a break.

So I took a break. I haven’t done any course reading at all over the summer. The only psychoanalytic stuff I’ve done is some reading for my book about what psychoanalysts have to say about dirty words and I went to a psychoanalytic debate last Friday. It was a real world heavyweight title thing, a drag-down knock-out, bloody affair with a clear points victory to the challenger. It could really turn the game upside the head. I’ll explain more in a future posting.

The people doing the course in one year started a couple of weeks back. Because I did so many units last year — partly by miscalculation — I’ve got very few seminars this year. Just six or seven between now and Christmas.

The first is this Friday, on Melanie Klein — for which I haven’t done the reading. It’s sitting there in a pile on the floor of my office, glaring at me. But I’m ignoring it. It’ll have to wait its turn while I finish my book. That’s what happens, I guess, when you get good grades: confidence. I’ve got more important things to do right now. Melanie Klein can wait.

Thursday, 2 October 2008

Jokes and their relation to my unconscious, part three

So what about that woman from northern Hertfordshire and her relationship to Mendelian genetic theory? Again, it’s not really a joke, more a witticism — if one that some people really won’t find at all funny. It’s a limerick — related to me and a roomful of fellow students in New Cross and the early 1970s.

There was a young woman from Tring
Who had an affair with a darkie.
The result of their fling
Was not one but four offspring:
One black, one white and two khaki.

And that’s how genetic inheritance works — in the case of skin colour and other things, though perhaps not everything, my memory fails at this point. Fifty per cent of children will be a mix of their parents stuff and fifty per cent will be a copy of one or other of their parents.

I’d been taught it already at school, as part of O level biology — something to do with clematis plants, I think, or maybe it was aphids, something English country gardenish, anyway, the way things were in education in those days. But it didn’t really stick till one of my university lecturers told us that limerick. Couldn’t really forget it after that, could I? Can’t imagine it being used on a 2008 university psychology course, though, can you?

Monday, 29 September 2008

Sigmund Freud at the funfair

Looking back over recent (and not so recent) postings, I realise I’ve failed to keep some promises. There have been three things I said I was going to write about but didn’t:

* the advantages and disadvantages of making a life-long enemy of Andre Green

* the image Jacques Lacan kept in a cupboard — and only ever showed to a favoured few

* the limerick about the young lady from northern Hertfordshire whose amatory activities offer an accurate exposition of Mendel’s theories on genetic inheritance.

I will get to them, too, starting next week. But first, I’d like to share with you a couple of things that came out of my work on my book about swearing. The first is a story about Freud. The second is a link to a music download. There is a connection between the two.

Freud first. I’ll set the scene. A few weeks more than 99 years ago, Sigmund Freud made his only trip to America. He’d been invited to make a speech at Clark University in Massachusetts. He took some pals with him — Carl Jung from Zurich, Karl Abraham from Berlin and Sandor Ferenczi from Budapest. All three were psychoanalytic ‘sons’ of his — heir apparents with whom he would then fall out and banish. As Oedipus killed his father so Freud killed his sons, leaving his entire kingdom to his virgin daughter.

The four of them spent a few days in New York doing the tourist thing. They walked in Central Park, remarking on the potty-mouthed graffiti on a ‘beautiful marble flight of steps’ — Ferenczi’s words in his paper on obscenity. They took in Chinatown and Coney Island, too. I can’t help but wonder if they had chop suey or sweet and sour pork.

I also can’t help wondering what happened when they headed out to Coney Island. I guess they took a 5th Avenue BMT express out over Brooklyn Bridge but what did they get up to once they arrived at the oceanside resort? Did they head over to West 10th St and check out Luna Park, in the company of its usual 90,000 daily visitors? Did they take its Trip To The Moon, a dream of space travel in a dark theatre? Maybe they went to Dreamland instead, watching a chariot race round its lagoon or its Fighting Flames show — real women and real children being rescued from real fires in pretend houses by make-believe fireman. I can see Freud might have had thoughts about that.

Maybe they took a walk on the beach and saw some Coney Island whitefish — local slang for used condoms left over from the previous night’s sandy adventures. Perhaps they reflected on the name of the place. Coney is an old word, descended from the Latin cunniculus and a close relative of the Spanish conejo . It meant rabbit, a word which originally referred only to the young of the species but which, from the 16th century onwards, edged coney out of the language. Why? Because of the way coney was then pronounced. Which was? You can figure that out by the fact that it originally rhymed with another word for the same animal, bunny. In fact, bunny is probably a rhyming euphemism for coney, consciously created on account of the pronunciation problem — like, say, rollocks .

A similar thing happened in French — connil was replaced by lapin. In Spanish, a Playboy Bunny is a conejita, both a young female rabbit and deliberately close to coño. All those years, I’d thought how strangely innocent Hugh Hefner had been in calling his hostesses Bunny girls. All those years, how wrong I was. Why and how did the pronunciation of coney change? Money and honey didn’t change their sound — something taken rhyming advantage of by both Edward Lear (The Owl And The Pussycat, 1867) and Jesse Stone (Clyde McPhatter and The Drifters’ Money Honey, 1953).

It was the bible that made coney to rhyme with pony. There were lots of coneys in it: rabbits are middle Eastern thing. There were no rabbits in Britain till the Normans brought them over, which is why there is no Old English word for them. The Bible and coney problem was a reading-out-loud problem. Preachers just didn’t like to get up of a Sunday morning and inform their congregation about the habits and lifestyle choices of things whose name sounded just like the name of another thing. Or, to put it the OED way, ‘the desire to avoid certain vulgar associations with the word in the cunny form, may have contributed to the preference for a different pronunciation in reading the Scriptures.’

So what exactly did Freud and his fellow rubberneckers get up to that day in Coney Island. Myself, I like to think they hiked over to Steeplechase Park on West 17th, took a whirl on the mechanical horse race round the Pavilion of Fun, examined themselves in the full-size distorting mirrors and had a disbelieving, Mittel European gawp at what happened as jets of air — they were all over the park — squirted out through gratings and blew women’s dresses up around their hips. Not so much a day of fun by the ocean, then, as the field work for an entire psychoanalytic conference.

And so to the music link. It’s a song by Jackie Wilson and Lavern Baker.

Wednesday, 17 September 2008

Obscenity, old Etonians and a little astrophysics

As some of you will know, I’m writing a book on swearing. How we swear and, more interestingly, why. One thing I got to looking at was firsts. The first time in print, the first time on TV, the first time on record.

Here is a link to a download of what I reckon is a recorded first of what Allen Walker Read, the first great man of dirty words, called ‘the most disreputable of all English words — the colloquial verb and noun, universally known by speakers of English, designating the sex act.’ Read wrote his entire 1934 paper, An Obscenity Symbol, without using the actual word once and I’m keeping faith with the great man.

As you might guess, it’s a compilation of pre-war blues. The actual track you want is number three, Lucille Bogan’s Shave ’Em Dry. Play it an office with a strict language-code: get sacked. Those of you interested in old, old music might like to know that this site offers as many versions of Stagolee/Stackoleee as even I might care to hear. Plus there’s 121 versions of St James Infirmary Blues.

If Lucille Bogan was first, here’s a link to something new, though almost as blue. The video is censored but the missing words are still clear — and the contrast between performer and lyrical content is irresistibly charming.

While I’m about it, here are some other links to cheer your heart on this day of grey skies and crashing stocks.

1. Some extras for The Wire. Scroll down the page and find the prequels for Prop Joe, Omar and McNulty.

An admission. I still find it impossible to believe that McNulty, the archetypal Baltimore Irish cop, is played by an Old Etonian Englishman who lives at Crouch End and who I’ve seen, with my own eyes, playing an upper class Edwardian at the National Theatre. I know he’s an actor and that’s what actors do — pretend to be other people in return for money. But I can’t imagine, say, Robert De Niro managing the same character switcheroo.

2. A little something for Harry Smith fans, from the Journal of the Institute for Astrophysics and the Hillbilly Blues.

3. And, finally, something for Bob Dylanistas. I helped out on Ace’s Theme Time Radio Hour compilation and got left with something of what hepcats of a certain age might call a Dylan jones.

Saturday, 13 September 2008

Jokes and their relation to my unconscious, part two

The second gag I remember from my psychology degree all those decades ago is the one about the hypothalamus. Regular readers will know that the first gag was about short-term memory capacity — one of three jokes or witticisms on the course that stuck with me because they helped me remember something significant.

For the one about the hypothalamus, I need to set the scene a little. In my memory it was in a lecture by the head of course, a professor of gathering years whose tutorials were enlivened with small glasses of sherry. Or so I’m told. He wasn’t my tutor. Not that I went to my own tutor’s tutorials either. But I did occasionally bump into him in the student bar and maybe have a chat about my work. Maybe.

The hypothalamus? A small thing, about the size of an almond, that sits pretty much in the middle of your head.

The gag was about its function. What does the hypothalamus do? the professor asked rhetorically. He answered his own question: ‘It controls the four Fs.’ Which are? ‘Fear, flight, fight and . . . sexual behaviour.’

I could barely believe I’d heard it. An ageing, crustyish professor had just alluded to fucking, in a lecture. Some of the younger, less worldly girls looked genuinely shocked. Remember this is a third of a century ago. A different world, even in New Cross.

It’s not the whole story of the hypothalamus. It has other tasks, too. But the gag stuck those four in my memory, didn’t it. Infuckingdelibly.

Tuesday, 2 September 2008

Austen powers

So I haven’t posted for a while. So it’s been the summer, alright. So I was on a break from the course. Plus I got a bit raspberryed and could hardly walk for nearly a month.

The competition? The winning answer is in the comments on the Competition posting. It was Jane Austen. That’s right. I’ve never read a Jane Austen book. Scoop got it right. If he or she emails me with address details, I’ll get the prize together.

There’s also a comment by Maudie lamenting my non-reading of Jane Austen. I must say, though, I’m not yet persuaded by his/her argument that I should read Austen for her accurate portrayal of ‘the total tedium and frustration of women's lives’. That sounds more like a strong argument in favour of my non-reading of her.

The competition is really, I suppose, a variant on the after-dinner game called I’ve Never — a version of True Or False. You make a statement that starts ‘I’ve never . . .’ Read a Jane Austen book, in my case. Then the others have to guess if you’re lying or telling the truth.

I’ve played it. It’s very, very easy for it to turn socially awkward, though. Too often, people just don’t get it. They can’t figure out the level to pitch at. They say things like ‘I’ve never been to the moon’. Or ‘I’ve never eaten zebra’. Or ‘I’ve never been to Northampton’. Things that are impossible for anyone, things that are probably true for most people, things that you really couldn’t care whether they were true or false.

It works best with people you know well but not too well. My best line is ‘I’ve never been to Los Angeles’. Which is true. But, given my music writer history, no-one ever believes me. I’m not sure if I believe myself.

Monday, 21 July 2008


It’s been pointed out to me, by Jane, that I never actually told you the name of the canonical English author whose works I have not read in their entirety.

My reasons were entirely dishonourable. I’m not sure I want to forego the many opportunities life gives me to comment on this author’s work — wittily, engagingly, originally, I hope,

Still, Jane was persistent and so I have decided to reveal the-name-of-the-author. Again, my reasons are entirely dishonourable.

I have no intrinsic problem with dissembling — what adult does or can? I don’t, I think, even particularly mind being thought of as a cad or even perhaps a liar — as long as people understand that my lying is straightforwardly self-serving, not the inconstancies of the merely forgetful or the destructive, wearisome inventions and projections of the unselfknowing fantasist. I just don’t like feeling the feeling that I get from feeling that some of you might feel that I’m a cad or liar.

So, I will tell you the-name-of-the-author I haven’t read. Or rather, things never being that simple, you will tell me who I haven’t read.

It’s a competition, with a prize. Post your answers as comments to this blog. I promise to play fair.

I think there are enough clues in the original posting so here they are again:

* I’ve seen the films and TV shows etc. So I know all the plots, themes, characters etc.

* I’ve read other books (and seen other movies and TV shows) from the same era.

* I know the history of the period — some of it anyway. I know what time dinner was served then, in which order courses were served and where the chairs were placed. I’ve read EP Thompson’s The Making Of The English Working Class. I’ve seen Sharpe on TV.

The prize? Jane suggested the author’s collected works. Fair enough. It’s a deal. (She did suggest, too, though, that the author was Ian McEwan. It’s not. Though I’m not sure I’ve read any of his books either, not even the one he ripped off from a Dirk Bogarde movie — see how easy it is to comment accurately and relevantly on the profoundly unread.)

Thursday, 10 July 2008

Tunnel vision

I’ve been in a tunnel. I did my exams, the first exams for about a third of a century. Three exams, nine papers in all, 45 minutes for each, hand-written.

All but one of my guesses about what would come up were right, even the one I wished I’d been wrong about. I predicted the Lacan and other Frenchman paper would offer a Hobson’s choice between a question on the one seminar I missed (‘The unconscious is structured like a language’ — discuss) and one I wished I had (Andre Green’s dead mother — what do you reckon?).

I went to an Andre Green lecture last autumn, at the Institute of Psychoanalysis, in Shirland Road, just down the road from what was, a lifetime or two ago, the Charlie Pigdog club, where I first saw Joe Strummer strum and drang, as a 101er.

I’ve no idea how long Green’s lecture lasted. A month? I phased in and out so it could have been longer. I’m told it was in English but my ears and brain indicated otherwise. I practised what analysts refer to as free-floating attention. I heard him say something about Melanie Klein. She died in 1960. That didn’t stop him being angry about her and all her works. I also think him I heard him say something about Lacan — dead these past 27 years. Lacan took a couple of sharp Green jabs to the brain-box, too.

It was the kind of evening that would confirm all the most negative views of psychoanalysis and psychoanalytic thought. It was tedious, tendentious, schismatic, pompous, drowning in its own jargon and delivered in a stage-foreigner accent. At best, I guess it was a kind of Camp Lejeune moment for prospective analysts. If you can survive an evening with Andre Green, after that anything life may throw at you will seem like a walk in the park.

So I couldn’t answer the Andre Green question — even though I knew the answer, in outline anyway. I just couldn’t forgive him for that decade in Shirland Road. He’s an old man, I know. I’ve read a really interesting dialogue between him and Gregorio Kohon, a north London Argentinian analyst. In it, Green is clear, insightful, bright, original, engaging. I’ve also read his own writing. It’s not. True, it’s not as hilariously terrible as Lacan’s but then what is?

Which left me having to answer a question on something I understood — I think — but had only ever read about. I can only hope that what I wrote wasn’t too stupid.

PS Green’s dead mother thing? His own mother did die when he was young but it’s not about that. It’s about deadened mothers placing that deadening in a child — who then grows up to seek out and recreate that deadening in other relationships. A kind of succulent presence of absence.

Still, that’s about all I can remember about it. And if that’s all I wrote, I certainly would have failed.

PPS Before posting this blog, I emailed it to my wife (in the next room). Here’s what she replied: ‘It made me laugh. But, do you want to make an enemy?’

Good question. What would it be like to have Andre Green as an enemy? I’ll tackle it in my next posting.


This Lacan hotlink takes you to a photograph of Lacan with — deep breath — Pablo Picasso, Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus (he's the one petting the dog). Which one's Lacan? I'll tell you next time.

This Lacan hotlink takes you to a painting. Why? I'll tell you that next time, too.

Friday, 13 June 2008

Jokes and their relation to my unconscious, part one

My psychology degree course lasted three years. In all that time, there were just three ‘jokes’ in the lectures and reading. (As the terrriblest of students, I possibly missed a few more ‘jokes’ but I doubt it.)

I can still recall all three more than three decades later. So what were they and why do I remember them? Because they taught me something or helped me understand something significant. I call them jokes but they’re not really jokes, more witticisms. But, isolated in the oceans of aridity that make up a psychology degree, they seemed as funny as Groucho Marx or Chris Rock.

So here is the first of those three ‘jokes’ and its significance — ie why I still remember it. And why you probably will, too, now.

e one (in which we understand phone numbers)

The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two. That’s the witty title of a 1956 paper by George A Miller. Not only is it one of the very, very few wittily titled psychology papers I’ve ever seen, it’s also one of the few academic papers which has had a major effect on everyone’s daily life.

Seven is Miller’s magical number because, as he showed, it’s the limit of the number of
things we can keep in our short-term memory — plus or minus two things, that is. Short-term memory is the really brief one — two seconds. That’s how long we can easily retain a list of random letters or words or digits. The subtitle of his paper is : Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information.

It’s the fact of an effective seven-thing working memory limit which took Miller’s paper to the world — and stuck it in my memory. Someone at the Bell Telephone company read it and realised that nearly everyone could stick a seven-digit phone number into their short-term memory — from which it could later be shunted into more permanent storage.

That seven-digit limit was copied round the world. Wilson Pickett sang that he could be reached on 634-5789. Scotland Yard became 944-1212. Link that seven-digit number to an area code — which we store as one chunk of information — and you still only get an eight-bit chunk, ie the magical number plus one.

It stayed that way, very happily for everyone, until telephone companies started to forget Miller’s paper. First came Paris, as far as I was concerned anyway. Sometime in the late 1980s or early 1990s, Paris numbers went to eight digits. I’d always been able to recall scores of numbers — I can still remember the number of a friend who lived in Basing Street more than thirty years ago. But even I struggled to stick these eight-digit numbers in my memory. I found it really hard to remember my friend Paul’s number.

Then London followed where Paris pioneered. Only this time, people cheated. What were meant to be eight-digit numbers, people t
urned back into seven-digit numbers, by moving the first digit of the number on to the area code. So 020 7916 4185 (an old number of mine) would become 0207 916 4185. Logically wrong, of course, but completely in accord with Mr Miller’s magical numbering system.

Nowadays, of course, we rarely bother to remember numbers. They’re either there in our speed dial or we look them up electronically faster than we can recall them. But Mr Miller’s magical number follows us there, too. Do you think it mere chance that there are seven items (Finder, File, Window, View, Go, Help) in the Apple menu? Why do you think it’s so hard to find your way across the Microsoft Word menu, which has twelve items?

Joke two (in which we learn a way to remember the basic rules of Mendelian genetics)

Saturday, 7 June 2008

Primrose Hill: drugs and polymorphous perversity

I live just down the road from where Freud first lived when he fled to London. He landed at Dover on the morning of June 6, 1938, took the train to Victoria Station, then a taxi to 39 Elsworthy Road, via the tourist sights of London which he requested to see — Buckingham Palace, Houses of Parliament etc.

Six years later, to the day, British and Allied troops landed on the beaches of Omaha, Gold, Sword etc. (I don’t think the identicality of date was deliberate, or significant even.)

On the ferry, Freud slept and dreamed that he would land not at Dover but at Pevensey — ie where William the Bastard disembarked and, after a battle up the road, recreated himself as William The Conqueror. Freud claimed that all dreams were, at heart, fantasy wish-fulfilments. This dream is the best example I’ve found so far.

It’s a nice, big house, 39 Elsworthy Road. Red-brick, quoined, with a stone portico and the slightly anthropomorphised front elevation that’s usual on most houses of its age, shape and kind — ie it looks like a face, deliberately, welcomingly so. Please step in through my mouth, madam.

It’s quite grand actually by modern standards. I should imagine there’s more than one servant’s room. It was probably quite new when Freud moved in. A home for a society doctor or a well-connected barrister perhaps. It would now cost you, oh, £4.5 million, say — more if it had been renovated to today’s local standards. Cyril Burt, the great proponent of IQ tests, lived a dozen or so doors away — though I’m not sure if he was there in Freud’s time.

Freud’s office was on the ground floor at the rear, giving on to a garden which leads, through a private gate, on to the football fields part of Primrose Hill. When he was looking out of the window, there would have been a café on the lee of the hill. But that’s long gone, swept aside during the war, I should imagine, when the whole of the hill was turned into an anti-aircraft gun battery. You can still see where the concrete emplacements were — their boundaries and shape are often marked out by carpets of daisies.

I’ve no idea who lives there now. There’s no blue plaque on it as Freud and his family moved on within months, up the hill towards Hampstead, to 20 Maresfield Gardens. (My wife’s great aunt, who drove a sports car into her eighties, lived over the road at number 45 Maresfield. She told me she saw Anna Freud quite regularly but never quite got round to talking to her.)

Every time I pass the Elsworthy Road house, I think about one of two things.

1. Freud being paid a visit there by Salvador Dali. It went very badly. Dali saw himself as an equal. Freud’s taste in art stopped several centuries before impressionism, let alone Dada and surrealism. Still, two men of the unconscious sitting there miscommunicating: surely one of history’s great meetings.

2. It’s just over the road and down a bit from where Liam Gallagher lived. I find myself thinking about Freud and the Primrose Hill set of recent years. What would he and they have found to say to each other?

Despite having written Three Essays on Sexuality (by general agreement, one of the least sexy books ever), Freud would not have wanted to have anything to do with their wife-swapping and nanny-jumping. It’s true he came up with the concept of polymorphous perversity but he thought that was a thing of childhood and to be put away with childish things rather than used as a way to ensure regular appearances in Grazia or OK! (Though he did allow the press in and was photographed by his desk, I don’t think he sold the exclusive rights.)

Anyway, I think I’m right in saying that he hadn’t had sex for more than forty years — since his last daughter, Anna was born, in 1895. Anna herself, she hadn’t had sex at all. Freud worried about this in his letters. He knew it was wrong. He knew it was because of her intense relationship with him. He analysed her himself, something that would now have him drummed out of the trade. Yet he — and she — couldn’t — or wouldn’t — change. Therapeutic resistance. The two Viennese lightbulbs that didn’t want to change.

As far as anyone knows, Anna never had sex at all — she had a lifelong relationship with an American woman Dorothy Burlingham but it’s said to have been platonic. It’s odd, isn’t it, that something that is popularly (if not correctly) seen as being all about sex should have been created by someone who stopped having sex the year he created it. And carried forward by someone who never had sex at all, who went to her grave a virgin.

So what about that other Primrose Hill set hobby, drug-taking? How would Freud have kept his end up in that matter? Well, by 1938, he tried to avoid taking drugs, even though he was in serious pain from the oral cancer which would kill him the following year.

But in his younger years . . . I don’t share my cousin’s view that he was a coke-head whose addictive personality caused him to come up with a coke-warped set of theories. But I do agree he had his moments.

Here’s what he wrote, on June 2, 1884, to the woman who would become his wife two years later: ‘Woe to you, my Princess, when I come. I will kiss you quite red and feed you till you are plump. And if you are forward you shall see who is the stronger, a gentle little girl who doesn't eat enough or a big wild man who has cocaine in his body. In my last severe depression I took coca again and a small dose lifted me to the heights in a wonderful fashion. I am just now busy collecting the literature for a song of praise to this magical substance.’

Now, if Freud had pitched up in Primrose Hill with that kind of attitude . . .

Tuesday, 3 June 2008

The Bourgeois and the Wilde

I was wrong. My family, my friends, my fellow students, the course administrator: they were all right and I was all wrong. I worried about my essay, at great length and in obsessive depth (see my blog of April 24, The student on the couch). I worried that it wouldn’t be academic enough. I worried that it had too many jokes in it — there were two, possibly three, in the first paragraph. I just worried.

But my worries, it seems, were all in vain. I came back from a few days away, in Cornwall, to an email with the words ‘Essay feedback’ in the subject field. And the feedback was that my essay was fine. I passed. I’m pleased. And everyone I’ve been worrying at is relieved.

If you want to know what the essay title was, look here. It’s the second question of the second section, the one that starts ‘In the light of what you have learned . . .’

I wrote about Oscar Wilde’s The Importance Of Being Earnest and Louis Bourgeois’ Passage Dangereux in terms of the Oedipus complex. I’ll send you the whole thing if you want. Just email me.

Monday, 2 June 2008


Ten days ago, at exactly 1pm, in a carpeted room just off Tottenham Court Rd, I sat down, a cup of coffee in one hand, a Pilot G-1 Grip in the other, and did something that, nearly thirty-five years ago, I promised myself I’d never do again.

I did an exam. Well, a mock exam. Well, part of a mock exam: one question rather than the full four, 45 minutes rather than three hours.

Still, it was an exam and therefore something I’d promised myself I’d never put myself through again. Exams, from the age of nine to twenty-one, term after term, year after year: enough! Yet there I was, in a room with eight or so others. Some of them looked more worried than me. Some didn’t.

So? So . . .

1. Just like everybody told me, my years of professional writing experience meant that I was used to putting thoughts into words quickly — and that my spelling and grammar are close to spot-on first time through. (Why I found it hard to believe them is, I guess, less a matter of scientific reasoning than for psychoanalytic investigation.)

2. Forty-five minutes is not very much time, even if you know a bit about the subject. It’s like writing an extended caption. A few hundred words and you’re there. There’s little room for shape, certainly none for anything but the briefest digression — or gag. It’s intro, substance, outro, re-read, pen down. No time for breath or second thoughts.

3. Last-minute revision still works for me. I did no real preparation, mostly because I was busy on other things. But, if I’m honest, it was also a deliberate thing. I worried that it would be truly, horribly, dispiriting if I did a reasonable amount of revision and then found myself stumbling for words and thoughts in the exam room.

So I did a little revision, a very little. I started at noon for a 1pm exam — 20 minutes at my desk, 15 minutes on the tube. I remembered from before that if you do that little revision, there is no point trying to cover everything or even very much. You have to place your bets carefully but boldly. There is no point in betting on red or black. You’ll know extremely little about everything — which you probably already knew anyway. You have to put the lot on one number. So I bet the farm on one number. I went over one thing only. (The changes in Freud’s drive theory 1915-1923, if you’re interested.)

It came up, too. (I may have bet boldly but it was hardly a stupid bet. It’s come up in every past exam paper I looked at.) I made a fair fist of answering it. I didn’t make too many stupid mistakes, I think — though I did realise later that I inadvertently killed off one of Freud’s sons, in the mud and gore of the Great War.

I’m promised feedback on it from the course tutor. We’ll see.

RIP Bo Diddley 1928-2008

I spent a little time in Chicago with Mr Diddley — as the New York Times always referred to him, with style-book formality, unfortunately, rather than genuine deference to his otherworldly grandeur.

Or rather, I spent a little time looking at Mr Diddley. He quite ignored me. His concern was his guitar and his Rock And Rye — a sticky mix of fruit syrup and whisky. I was just leaving a Clash tour to fly home. He was just joining it. It was at the Aragon ballroom. A wild, old place, all dolled up with all manner of inter-war art nouveau. The dressing room looked out on the El. The promoter, figuring punks liked dirt, supplied a couple of really worn-down, ageing, fishnetted prostitutes. I got fined for drinking a beer in a moving vehicle — I wasn't driving, just drinking.

I'm told by those who stayed with the tour that Bo never failed to give up his tour bus seat to his guitar and that every night he slept sitting up with his Rock And Rye in his arms.

Bye, Bo.

Friday, 16 May 2008

Parapraxes and compromise-formations

From A Child’s Dictionary Of Psychoanalysis

What you call a Freudian slip*, Freudians call a parapraxis*. That is, anything we do or say which points to something that we didn’t think or realise we intended. Greeting someone, for example, by saying ‘So sad to see you.’

That’s called a compromise-formation. The compromise is the unconscious’s way of smuggling unacceptable thoughts into consciousness. The secret, terrible thought is buried in an otherwise innocuous communication. It’s like it’s slipping through passport control on false papers or hidden away in a bunch of nuns.

So? So look at my blog of April 24: The student on the couch. Look at my age. See my age is wrong. I made myself two years younger than I actually am. Oh, dear, I can only assume that’s what my unconscious wishes — not just unacceptably to me but to the laws of physics, too.

* I’ve often thought Freudian Slips would be a wonderful name for a lingerie shop. Particularly in Primrose Hill, the man himself having lived there for a while.

** Horrible word, parapraxis, isn’t it. It was cobbled together, from one part classical Greek and one part classical Latin, by Freud’s English editor, James Strachey, for the 1916 edition of Introd. Lect. Psycho-anal. It translates as something like ‘analogous action’. No wonder people prefer Freudian slip. As usual, Freud’s original German is far clearer and simpler: Fehlleistungen, literally ‘faulty function’ and meaning ‘misperformance’.

Friday, 9 May 2008

Further contributions to the understanding of stage fright: what do psychoanalysts have to say?

When I wrote something about stage fright (Feb 20), I didn’t look to see if psychoanalysts had had anything to say about it. Now I’ve finished my essay, I had the time to look.

Why do psychoanalysts reckon performers sometimes get themselves fritted into non-performance? I found two papers which outlined all the various theories.

Both were by Glen Gabbard, a New York psychiatrist, psychoanalyst and academic. One was written in 1979, the other in 1983. Both begin with quotes from songs: the first from the Beatles’ With A Little Help From My Friends, the second from The Chorus Line’s The Music And The Mirror.

Like a good academic (and author of The Psychology Of The Sopranos), Gabbard read everything there was to read on the subject and summarised it for us lazier people. He found various ideas and theories about stage fright:

* It’s linked to anal erotism.

* It’s like blushing — gratification and punishment are combined in one symptom.

* It’s linked to guilt about early voyeurism — of the parents having sex, if only in the future performer’s fantasy world.

* It’s frozen self-regard — ‘narcissistic intoxication’ with oneself. (I really don’t get this one: narcissistic intoxication is scarcely unusual in performers: in fact, it’s more or less standard: the Madonna Complex maybe.)

* It’s castration anxiety — which the performer’s previous performances have failed to cover up.

* It sets in when the performer worries that the audience can see right through to his infantile sense of omnipotence.

* Performing is a secret attempt to recreate the perfect, idealised world of complete union with the mother — in the womb, perhaps — and the stage-frighted performer is worrying the audience will realise this is what he’s up to.

* A racial memory of being the outcast, ‘the stoned man’ is evoked — a Jungian one this. (By the by, in my — fairly extensive — experience, most performers are stoned men, after breakfast anyway.)

* It’s a flasher thing. ‘The performer is torn between the desire to expose his genitals to prove he is a fully-equipped sexual creature and the fear that the onlookers will find his equipment laughable.’

* The performer is a child. The audience is the adult. The child knows he is being childish and is terrified the adult will realise it.

* It’s linked to envy. ‘Performers tend to be an envious lot.’

* It’s linked to guilt. If I have something, it means it has to have been stolen from someone else. So I feel guilty. So . . .

* It’s narcissism.

Well, maybe. There are various variations on a basic theme there. There’s certainly something deep and uncontrollable going on with stage fright. I’m certain that it has meaning and that it’s a current reading of something historical — as that thing-of-the-past is re-read and reconstructed by the performer.

One idea I thought was a good way of expressing something that’s fairly obvious to anyone who’s spent time with musicians or actors. According to this view, performers are ‘mirror-hungry personalities’ — driven to look for approval and ‘sustenance for their famished selves’. They try again and again and fail again and again in ‘their desperate efforts to shore up a damaged self-esteem’. Even temporary success on stage only raises the prospect of future failure. So they fright themselves into inaction — which, at least, elides the possibility of failure.

Two last things. One, a witty line from Gabbard. ‘The childhood wish to romp about in the buff and display one’s genitals for all to see is revived in the act of performing.’ Again: think Madonna etc etc.

Two, a clever line from Gabbard, which resituates stage fright into the kingdom of the positive. ‘Perhaps it is fortunate that few performers ever completely master stage fright, for an intangible sense of communion between the performer and his audience might well be lost as a by-product of the mastery.’ Simple really: no possibility of failing also means no possibility of succeeding.

Wednesday, 7 May 2008

On re-reading

I maybe shouldn’t admit to this but I will anyway.

The other day, I was doing some reading for my course, a chapter from a book. As I read, it seemed familiar — no, not quite familiar, more like somewhere between the understood and the known. Now and again, I’d find myself thinking: I’ve read this before. And I’d think of climbing off the sofa where I was reading and walking up the stairs to my office to check on my reading log*. Then the next sentence would seem novel and fresh and I couldn’t be bothered to make the journey.

I must have been three-quarters the way through it — and this wasn’t a short, easily read chapter — when I eventually realised that I had read it before. I wish I could tell you exactly what made me realise it but I was so embarrassed at myself that I went into a state of what I can now think of as psychic blushing.

Maybe it wasn’t a sudden realisation, maybe it was a gradual evolution. But, whichever it was, there was a state change. One moment I was a person doing something for the first time. The next I was a person doing something they’d already done before. Or rather, one moment I was a person doing something they’d already done before and the next I was a person knowing they’d done something before. It wasn’t comfortable.

I decided: incipient Alzheimer’s. Of course. I thought: you stupid fool, you are too old to go back to university.

I went to my office and checked. Yes, I had read it before, about six months ago. There it was in the file, highlighted and annotated. I noticed one little thing — though I didn’t grasp its significance till later. I’d marked quite different things first time round.

Some time later, when I’d stopped blushing and trying to hide from myself, I thought again about my forgetting. I found myself thinking about those different marks. Had I really understood it that badly on first reading? I went back, looked again at those marks and highlightings. I realised that they were different for a reason. I’d read it for a different unit on the course so I was reading it through a different pair of — metaphorical — glasses.

More than that, I was a different person. The I that had read it first time was not the I who had read it the other day. Things had changed. I’d read more. I’d learned more. I grasped more, more quickly — on this subject at least.

I thought of two Frenchmen. Rimbaud: j’est un autre (I is another). And Pierre Bayard, psychoanalyst and author of How To Talk About Books You Haven’t Read (see Further contributions to an understanding of On reading and not reading, February 29, 2008). Here, I decided, was a fine example of what Bayard suggests is the utility of not-reading. Or rather, regressing to a state of having-not-read. By forgetting, I had made it possible for me to slip the conceptual bonds of my previous understanding of the text. My suppression of my original reading had facilitated the creation of a new text. I was now not just its reader but its writer, too.

I had freed myself from myself to be myself: the core conceptual aim of psychoanalysis some would say.

So maybe I wasn’t so senile after all. Or maybe wishful thinking is an early indicator of senility.

* Actually, all my reading is logged on a custom database I built — which is why I know exactly how many papers etc I’ve read and how many I’ve finished (see Studying by numbers, April 29, 2008). But I’m much too embarrassed about that to tell you. I am proud, though, of its colour scheme.

Monday, 28 April 2008

Studying by numbers

Time, I thought, for a (slightly obsessional) report on how far I’ve got so far. At the end of the autumn term, I did a reckoning of what I’d managed, in numbers. I posted it on January 11. Here’s an update, till the end of the spring term. The total since the start is in brackets.

28 (65) Seminars attended
2 (2) Seminars missed
2 (4/5) Seminars late for
4 (4) Films watched (part of the course, early Sunday mornings)
2 (2) Dissertation presentations attended
1 (1) Essays written
36 (113) Books, papers, etc read*
28 (79) Books, papers, etc finished
13 (13) Extra books and papers read (or skimmed) for essay
2 (4) Parties invited to
1 (2) Parties attended
10 (16) Alcoholic drinks consumed with fellow students
2 (1) Non-alcoholic drinks consumed with fellow students
3 (22) Mochas and cappuccinos bought (to drink in seminars)
4 (0) Espressos bought (to drink in seminars — I’d had enough mochas and cappuccinos for a lifetime)
1 (1) Tuna baguettes bought from Eat
1 (1) Chicken baguettes bought from Eat
6 (6) Ham and cheese baguettes bought from Eat**
c10 (c30) Pre-dawn starts (less than the first term only because it’s been getting lighter earlier)

* I think there is an under-reporting error here. It certainly felt like I read an awful lot more than that this term.

** I tried the other varieties but settled on the ham-and-cheese, Wittgenstein-style. Arriving at a country house for the first time, his hostess asked what he would like for dinner, Wittgenstein replied: ‘I don’t mind what I have to eat as long as it’s the same as yesterday. Always.’

Thursday, 24 April 2008

The student on the couch

I’ve just finished my essay, the first piece of writing I’ve had to do for the course, the first piece of academic writing I’ve done since, well, since Gary Glitter was a chart-topper and Margaret Thatcher was the education minister.

I won’t tell you what I wrote about. You don’t have the time, frankly. I read the question aloud to one friend and, by the time I’d finished reading it, we’d buried him and on our way back to the house for a cup of tea, a sausage roll and just-a-small-one-to-take -the-chill-off.

Instead, I’ll just tell you how hard I found it. Moan, more like it. Unlike my family and everyone else I’ve told about it, you can’t walk away while I’m talking . . . though you can click away, I suppose. Oh, well, goodbye.

So now none of you are left, I’ll have a little chat with myself about it. I’ll put one of me on the couch and the other of me on a chair, stroking my chin. There’s a regular section in the International Journal of Psychoanalysis called the Analyst At Work. I’ll think of this as the Theoretical Psychoanalytic Student On The Couch and use the IJP format, in which the one on the couch is P (for patient) and the one on the chair is A (for analyst).

First the analyst sets the scene . . .

Peter is a 53-year-old-writer who has been coming to see me for 53 years now. For this paper, I’ve chosen one recent session. As usual, he is dressed in jeans and a t-shirt. He could do with a haircut. Currently, his presenting problem is — he says — writing his first essay. This is not the first time he has brought this kind of issue to our daily sessions. I perhaps should make the point here that not all my interpretations and comments are strictly orthodox.

P: I had no idea how difficult it would be writing an essay. I shouldn’t have done the course. I should’ve stayed in bed.

A: You’re a professional writer. I’m sure it will be fine.

P: That’s what everyone tells me. I don’t believe them.

A: They’re probably right.

P: You, too?

A: Tell me, what exactly is the problem? Or rather, what do you think it is?

P: I know I can write. See, that last sentence made sense — this one, too. I know I did the reading. I know I got it in on time.

A: Was that a problem?

P: Only the normal problem. Three printers went wrong on me the day I had to hand it in. All attempts to email it failed.

A: So why are you so worried? The worst they can do is fail you. What’s the real problem?

P: That I’ve somehow got it all wrong. I know it was clear and made sense, had an argument and some references — though I’m not sure if I got the citations quite right. They weren’t obsessive about citations in my day.

A: Mine neither. Anything else?

P: They’re really tough and fussy. One word over the limit and you get a five per cent penalty. The full-time students have already done an essay. One told me hers came back with marks all over it about things like bracket placement in the references.

A: Sounds like a sub’s job to me.

P: Abso-psycho-lutely. I’m hiring one next time.

A: So, again, what’s the problem?

P: So I’m not sure it’s what they want. I worry it’s not ‘academic’ enough. know there’s an ‘academic’ way of writing things. Someone I know started an MA in military history and got into endless rows with his lecturers whenever they raised that post-modernist stuff they do at universities these days. He gave up in the end and dropped out. I’m not daft. I’m quite happy to bend their way. I’m just not sure how to.

A: Are you telling me the truth here?

P: Possibly not. I suppose I could have bent further their way.

A: So why didn’t you?

P: I guess I was worried about what you’d say.

Wednesday, 23 April 2008

On not-writing

It’s been some time. I’ve been busy. See picture above. See the (tidied-up) pile of stuff for writing an essay. See you tomorrow.

Wednesday, 12 March 2008

Even further considerations on Reading and not reading

When writing about How To Talk About Books You Haven’t Read by Pierre Bayard (see below), I intended to tell you about the major English writer whose works I have managed to not-read, with great success, over several decades. Not that this not-reading has in any way restrained me from commenting on the writer and all their works — of which it might be fair to say I have not-read in their entirety.

Actually, that’s not quite true. I have read the opening sentence of one novel. Then again, it depends what you mean by read. I know for certain I’ve heard it spoken and I do, I think, remember seeing it over someone’s shoulder. Perhaps I also checked it in a dictionary of quotations when I wanted to play with it in my own writing.

I did, however, possess a copy of one of the other novels for a while. I’ve no idea why. I may have bought it — unlikely. I may have stolen it — if so it must have been in error. I certainly never intended to read it. I didn’t even think much of the painting on the cover. If I’m entirely honest — well, as honest as I can try to be, given the circumstances — I may actually have skimmed the introduction. May have.

Nonetheless, I am completely confident that I have a pretty accurate, balanced and nuanced view of both the author and their books’ status, relevance, strengths, weaknesses and historical significance — perhaps better than some who’ve actually read them all cover-to-cover. How, I hear you think, can I possibly say that? For three reasons.

One, I’ve seen the films and TV shows etc. So I know all the plots, themes, characters etc.

Two, I’ve read other books (and seen other movies and TV shows) from the same era. I know the history — some of it anyway. I know what time dinner was served then, in which order courses were served and where the chairs were placed. I’ve read EP Thompson’s The Making Of The English Working Class. I’ve seen Sharpe on TV — even if my most striking memories of it are that Sean Bean’s uniform was green, that his sidekick had an Irish accent and that one show featured Elizabeth Hurley’s breasts.

Three, perhaps most importantly, I’ve heard lots of interesting, different people make interesting, different comments on all interesting, different elements and views of the author and all their works. Some of them may even have read some or more of the books themselves — not that I have any way of knowing whether this is so. By listening to these other apparently well-informed people, though, I stopped myself being blinded by my own knowledge — a much harder thing to do if you’ve actually read the books.

I have incorporated all this author’s books into what Bayard calls my virtual library. I just haven’t actually had them stamped out. Accordingly, I see no reason why I, as a non-reader of those books, shouldn’t be as free to comment on them as those who have merely read them.

Perhaps freer, says Bayard. He sees books’ true worth as repositories for projections of bits of ourselves, our histories, our thoughts, our feelings — and what we learn from considering those projections. ‘It is ourselves we should be listening to, not the “actual” book — even if it sometimes provides us momentum — and it is the writing of self that we must pursue without swerving.’

And again: ‘In the end, we need not fear lying about the text, but only lying about ourselves.’

PS As I said at the start, I intended to tell you honestly about my non-reading of this major English writer. I was going to tell you their name. Then, quite casually, in the course of telling my wife about Bayard’s book (long before I’d finished it, of course), I happened to mention the extent of my non-reading of this particular author. She was shocked, into silence. The extent of her shock indicated to me that I should follow her lead and retreat into silence. So, I’m afraid, I can’t tell you who it is I’ve not-read with such attentive inattentiveness over such a long period.

I was, I must say, though, stunned by her silence. Obviously, she thought: this man is a liar, what other lies has he told me over the years? But there must have been more to it than simply that, surely.

I couldn’t work it out. I can’t work it out. I’ll have to think about it. Let me get back to you.