I SET off from Radnorshire to the place known to everyone from far away as “That London”, to run a writing workshop for The Adventure Travel Film Festival, in Mill Hill. I was pleased to be asked, even though I know little of travel, less of adventure, and nothing of film.
I was teaching with my friend Lois Pryce, who does things like going from Cairo to Cape Town on her motorbike, and is about the most adventurous person I’ve ever met. One of the tricks that we advise is that writers don’t wear earphones, so that they can listen to the conversations around them on public transport. My favourite overheard snatch of dialogue on a train is still the girl telling a pal that her dog had just had kittens.
On this particular journey, though, I overheard one conversation that came close. It was the first day proper of the football season, and the carriage was packed. Two lads in Villa shirts were talking about God. One said to his mate, “Of course there’s a God. There has to be. Otherwise, life has no point, and it would be just like an endless series of meaningless pre-season friendlies.”
Is that it?
MY MAIN worry on public transport these days is that I am becoming a grumpy old geezer (cue my daughters: “Becoming?”). The slightest thing sets me off, and I know it is unattractive. I pray to be released from anger, righteous or otherwise. But tattoos are not helping. On the final (underground) leg of my journey to the festival, I sat staring at a tattoo on a young man’s forearm. It read (upside down from me) “You only live once — so live!”
I was not certain how to start thinking about this. Leaving aside the idea that the tattoo might be fundamentally untrue, I found myself wondering why anybody would go through a deal of expense and pain to have something so trite tattooed on his arm. Did he find this pearl somewhere in the meme-osphere, and think, “That’s brilliant, but I might forget it; so I’ll have it tattooed on my arm”? Or did this insight come to him in a flash, causing him to wish to share his brilliant apothegm via the medium of tattoo?
Or is that all there is? #yolo? All those books I’ve read — were they all a waste of time, and all I ever needed to do to achieve wisdom was to read some randomer’s tattoo on the Northern Line (High Barnet Branch)? The train pulled into Finchley Central, where I changed for Mill Hill East while he was still heading north; so I was saved from starting to heckle the young tattooee, which seldom goes well.
A FEW days later, my wife came up to That London on business of her own, and we met for a few hours of tourist fun before our train home.
She had never visited Westminster Abbey; so we did the most grump-inducing, Victor Meldrew-ish thing possible, and queued for an hour and a half in one of this summer’s rare downpours to pay forty quid to file round with loads of Americans looking at memorials to Stanley Baldwin and Henry Campbell-Bannerman, while trying to remember what it was that Admiral Rodney did, and wondering why a bunch of caryatids were so upset about the passing of Charles James Fox.
Soaking wet and freezing cold, I followed the crowd past tomb after tomb, until I could take no more, and sat — a paragon of misery — on a narrow bench in Poets’ Corner, while my wife struggled on to find the café. I looked down, to find my feet on the slab dedicated to Philip Larkin. I even look like him. Where else should I finally allow my petulance to have its head?
What will survive of us is ill-temper, unless I get a warming cup of tea and a restorative slice of cake in the Abbey refectory, after which I might be willing to consider the love thing.
A serious house
MY WIFE returned from finding the café, and told me how much afternoon tea was going to cost. You’d think, in a place so full of the illustrious dead, they would have enough arms and legs to be going on with.
I showed her Larkin’s memorial, and pointed out that she looks a bit like Monica Jones. If I could choose a Larkin quote for what church-going has done for me, it would be that I have surprised a hunger in myself to be more serious. I hoped that the young man with the tattoo might be visited with a chance to access something of that in his turn, and to be persuaded that life could not be reduced to a tattooed meme. Or, indeed, a newspaper column.
We dodged the café and the gift-shop. When we stepped outside, it had stopped raining. We walked up Victoria Street towards Westminster Cathedral, and stopped for tea in Greggs. I told my wife the story of the lads in Villa shirts on my first train, and their idea that life couldn’t just be a series of friendlies. My wife laughed, and agreed that it was a good analogy. The clouds parted from the face of the sun.
Grace abounds. My prayer, that I find a way through anger, seemed answered — at least for a while.
Ian Marchant is an author and broadcaster, and the founder of Radio Free Radnorshire.