From the Balliol College Annual Record 2021
The Prisoner of Rubato Towers: Crazed Memories of Lockdown Life in the Plague Year Richard K. Heller (1966), Xerus Publishing, 2020 Seamus Perry (Professor of English Literature, Massey Fellow, and Tutor in English)
Persons of my parents’ generation would sometimes say of a contemporary, ‘Well, he had a good War’, a phrase which clearly conveyed a sharp nicety of judgement though I admit one which was quite lost on me. Did you have a good pandemic? I have lost count of the number of times I have heard sentences beginning, ‘Well, one good thing to come out of the pandemic is . . .’ – and then something unspeakable such as ‘it has really focused minds on our decision-making processes’ or ‘attendance at general purposes committee has been significantly improved’ or ‘it has demonstrated that you don’t really need tutors at all to deliver the course in a fresh modern way’.
A rather more enjoyable thing to have come out of the pandemic is The Prisoner of Rubato Towers, Richard Heller’s chronicle of his enforced solitude – although ‘solitude’ is not quite the right word as the book is full of characters with whom Heller energetically bickers and banters, quite undeterred by the fact that they are purely figments of his imagination. During the protracted period that university administrators insisted on calling ‘these challenging times’, many people must have felt that their relationship with normality had become a bit skewed, and Richard Heller picks up on this pervasive sense of pandemic irreality and takes the thing up several notches.
The company he invents for himself to keep is very provoking. His main interlocutors include a carping pedant called Prodnose, a character first introduced to the world by J.B. Morton writing as ‘Beachcomber’ in the Daily Express. ‘I felt like a drowning camel from whom the last straw had been removed,’ Heller laments at a low point. ‘But surely a drowning camel would welcome the removal of a straw?’ Prodnose interjects, ‘Or had he woven the straw into some form of primitive lifejacket? Please explain.’
No less irritating is a resident mouse called Mortimer who, having originally turned up selling the Big Issue, is now aspiring to become an author himself and has taken to wearing a silk dressing gown and using a cigarette holder. While Heller’s own literary fortunes stall, the mouse lands a lucrative contract from Little Brown (because he is little and brown) for a book of uplifting aphorisms entitled Keep Squeaking Through: this is doubly galling as the sayings in the book are mostly transcriptions of things Heller mutters in his sleep, life-affirming maxims such as ‘When your life has jumped on the wrong bus, have you thought of changing your destination?’ or ‘To you it may be a thistle, but to Eeyore it’s lunch.’ They are joined after a time by a lettered cockroach who bears a strong resemblance to ‘archy’ from the old archy and mehitabel series of Don Marquis, except that archy has now taken to the haiku as a form, with decidedly mixed results as this effort in memoriam of Dame Vera Lynn might suggest: ‘what a great trouper/she did not scream or complain/to see a cockroach’. A goldfish, expert in bridge, muscles in later on to add to the cacophony.
Heller spends much of his incarceration failing to make any headway on his autobiography, My Goodness, How I Roared! (regularly abbreviated to MGHIR), a title indebted to the great Pooter. An initial obstacle to progress is entirely self-created: Heller decides the book must begin with the letter ‘X’ which after a few false starts inspires him to the ambitious opening, ‘Xylophones in the distance played a spectral rhumba.’ (‘The day gone, and you have barely finished one sentence,’ remarks Prodnose.)
But there are many other distractions, not least politics. Heller doesn’t succumb to Covid but he does contract another, milder virus which he names after Peter Mandelson, one of his principal bêtes noires, whose candidacy for the head of the World Trade Organisation is the recurrent subject of much intense ire. His loathing for Mandelson is only rivalled by his contempt for Trump (or rather ‘T. Ronald Dump’) and his positively visceral disdain for Boris Johnson: I can report that no slack has been cut for a fellow Balliol man. ‘Gnat-brained dullard who needed water wings in the gene pool . . . feckless fustian fleabrained foul fiend Flibbertegibbet . . . the Pericles of piffle’: you get the idea.
By contrast, the solicitude of his advice to Keir Starmer is without bound. Starmer, as readers of the Record will be interested to learn, turns out to be one of the funniest men in England, ‘Cheeky Keir, the Bad Boy of the Halls’; but Heller impresses upon him the need to present a sober, counter-Johnsonian face to the British public, and Starmer reluctantly agrees to follow the plan. The cockroach offers some uplifting campaign material: ‘keep calmer / vote for starmer’. But Heller is not one to think within the box and another candidate for high office suggests herself: ‘Alexa would be a very popular Prime Minister,’ he remarks at one point. ‘Alexa, save the NHS.’
Besides politics, some details of the world without do squeeze through, though sometimes they are so crazy that you wonder if they actually did happen, like the theologically adventurous headline with which The Sun is said here to have greeted the Prime Minister’s recovery from Covid at Eastertime in 2020 – ‘Now it really is a Good Friday!’ Life in Rubato Towers drifts in and out of reality in a way that reminds you of the diary that Auberon Waugh used to write for Private Eye in which figures from public life mingled on uncertain terms with episodes of soaring fantasy. ‘I saw Elvis not long ago outside my local supermarket,’ Heller says, a familiar claim no doubt, but raised to a new power by the follow-up: ‘He was riding Shergar.’ A helpful footnote explains: ‘A famous racehorse, kidnapped in 1983 and never seen again.’ (Incidentally, the footnotes, notionally included to help foreign readers through so impenetrably English a mode, are very diverting, ranging from the significance of Brian Rix to the nature of Boots lending library.)
The Queen’s birthday comes and goes, but this time, alas, without Heller’s customary attendance at her party where he would normally have played ‘her usual favourites from the Doors on the piano’. At other audiences with Her Majesty, we learn later, they would customarily run through ‘all her favourite songs by Britney Spears and her sister Asparagus’. The shadowy figure of Asparagus Spears exists entirely because for Richard Heller, as for Shakespeare (according to Dr Johnson anyway), ‘a quibble was to him the fatal Cleopatra for which he lost the world and was content to lose it’. He is the fastest pun in the West. He recalls advising a marine biologist to select the cutest of the manatees in her care and to name it Hugh – because ‘if anyone harmed him it would be a crime against Hugh Manatee’. He tells Joe Biden (who phones up unannounced at one point) that he should call his campaign biography ‘My Time’ because then the cover would read ‘Biden My Time’. (Biden hangs up.) Dame Vera Lynn is remembered as the author of an austerity-era recipe book entitled ‘Whale Meat Again’; and among Heller’s own projected titles is an ambitious study of performing dolphins of the past to be called ‘Great Ex-Cetaceans’. He is irrepressible: ‘Nobody knows the truffles I’ve seen’; ‘Fondu at last, as Mr Stanley said to Mr Livingstone. MGHIR!’
Unperturbed by the noise of fornicating urban foxes (who go on to commission a descendant of Charlie Chaplin to produce a porn video based on their antics) and blithely undistracted by the neighbours banging on the wall as he thumps his untuned piano (‘Tuna, tuna everywhere, but can I get one for the piano?’), Heller offers us a seriously dotty self-portrait in stoic resilience. He has some good bits of advice which we could all take to heart, such as: ‘Self-isolation is the time to go back to all those Great Novels you meant to read and discover why you never read them in the first place.’ But he does not brag about his insights any more than he does about his lifetime achievements, not the least of which, as we learn, was successfully effecting the revival of spats for afternoon wear. I wonder who was responsible for that.
Two young slackers, Jeremy and Timothy, shortened in Slackermode to J and T, have created a business exploiting the special talents for loafing of people like themselves. Two young women, Helen and Laura, have applied to the business to add essential skills in accountancy and marketing. Laura has come up with a good business name.
SLAKRZZZ Incorporated. J and T are taken with it – and with Helen and Laura. They excuse themselves for a second. They decide to offer them continued discussion over dinner. They have instant meals ready to test. Not good enough. They could send out for takeaway. Not good enough. They invite them to a smart local restaurant. Helen and Laura accept. J and T phone for an Uber. Helen and Laura say it is a nice evening. Why don’t they walk? J and T look at them and then at each other. Suddenly abandoning their lifelong philosophy, they agree that it would be nice to walk.
Over a romantic walk and dinner, the two couples start to connect and bond. J and T are baffled why two such talented people as Helen and Laura would want to work for a slacker business. Helen says it’s financially sound, a great service offering, strong cash flow, no borrowing. Laura says it’s unique in the labour market. Both say it’s an ethical business. It gives jobs to people who do them well and would be unhappy in “normal” jobs, education or training. It frees those “normal” opportunities for people who really want them. They both like the way the business is run, and the people who run it. Stunned, J and T hire them.
They give the business – and J and T – a makeover. It moves out of J’s home into a proper office in a tall building. (The two mothers still keep it spotless with the vacuum cleaners.) A few “demonstration slackers” are kept on at the new headquarters for presentations to clients, but most of the old crowd are relocated to a “slacker warehouse” on the outskirts.
Helen incorporates the business as Slakrzzz Inc, with shares for each retained slacker. The four are directors. She institutes a proper reporting system. They hold detailed board meetings to discuss the results. J and T are denied any romance until they have been through all the agenda and analysed all that “numbers stuff.”
J and T discover the merits of this approach when Helen solves a mystery: why the fish minding division’s profits are way down. The business is being scammed by cheats putting through vast fake invoices for fish food. Each fish client is apparently getting through a hundred pounds of the stuff each day.
J and T are re-styled in a smartly casual wardrobe from the Ultimate Slob’s fashion house. Laura procures them a huge round of media opportunities and speaking events.
The two slackers-turned-directors are exhausted. They are working far harder than they ever would in a conventional job. The women suggest a vacation. J and T grumble that their vacations have always been hard work. They have been put under constant pressure to leave their hotel to look at stuff, or eat stuff, or buy stuff. Of course this generates a new idea for the business – slacker vacations, with no obligations of that kind. Any sightseeing can be done by moving car or even helicopter, fine local cuisine and artefacts are sent in. A special service will fake selfies for slackers in front of major attractions, and will give them notes about them which they can use to describe their experience for anyone back home.
Of course this new business takes off but generates more work.
The worst feature of the new office is sharing the elevators with the employees of an obnoxious mega-business, the Driven Corporation. They hold continuous conversations with each other or over mobile phones, filled with management jargon and plans for acquisitions, restructuring and financial engineering. The foundation of Driven’s business is supplying contingent temporary labour in short-term dead-end jobs at minimum wage. Exactly the sort of jobs that slackers are desperate to escape.
Through casual contact in the elevator and J’s and T’s new media profile Driven become aware of Slakrzzz Inc. They soon realize its strengths in finance and branding. They try to take it over. This begins with a charm offensive, although J and T are instantly repelled by Driven’s jargon, especially the suggestion that the two businesses are perfectly placed to “leverage their synergies going forward.”
The charm offensive fails and Driven make a huge offer for Slakrzzz stock. More and more stockholders are tempted but the four principals stand firm. They take repeated phone calls from Driven, who raise their offer. J and T (as at the beginning) wish they would get off their back. A new offer comes in and Helen suggests it will be impossible to resist.
The phone rings again. J and T give orders to ignore it. The same when it rings again and again. Of course it is Driven, angrily raising their offer. Finally they threaten to walk away.
The next message confirms this. The four have beaten a hostile takeover by a giant corporation by the basic slacker technique of not answering the phone.
Slackrzzz is saved. And Driven have lost so much focus with their obsession with acquiring it that they themselves succumb to a hostile takeover. Their top people are fired and their office space in the building is vacated.
Slackrzzz take over some of that space, for use by the four directors. They restructure the business with themselves as a Strategy Board. They hire efficient people to handle the numbers and the other boring stuff, while they give out directives from couches in the new executive suites.
A double wedding. A guard of honour for both couples with raised vacuum cleaners. When switched on, they play the Wedding March. Then a double honeymoon in the enchanting Equatorial islands of Sāo Tomé e Príncipe in the Atlantic Ocean. It is Slacker Heaven – beauty everywhere without having to look for it and a way of life based on “léve-léve” (approximate translation “no worries, do it tomorrow”).
Outline of a movie whose “high concept” was struck by the pandemic lockdown
Two young slackers are constantly nagged by their families for not being in any kind of work, education or training. To escape this, they set up a business specializing in the jobs for which slackers are ideal (such as testing beds and couches) and employ themselves in it. The business takes off and they start recruiting other slackers. With the help of two more energetic girlfriends they incorporate it, make it a brand and acquire a special niche in the labour market. It grows and grows – and our two heroes find themselves working flat out, much harder than they would if they had given in to the nagging and gone into conventional jobs or education. But finally with the help of the girlfriends they recruit good executives to do all the boring “numbers and all that other stuff,” leaving them free as joint chairmen of the board to run the corporation from the top floor, horizontal on the same couches where they began.
We meet J and T (they are too slack to use their full first names of Jeremy and Timothy or even the short forms Jerry and Timmy) on the couch in their respective homes. They work the remote controls of their home entertainment systems for some time, but nothing entertains them. Their respective phones ring. They look at the number calling, fail to recognize it, and ignore it. Eventually one calls the other, who recognizes the number and picks up. They have a long aimless phone conversation with each other. They both speculate on the ancient days in their parents’ time when phones had no number recognition systems. “Geez,” says one, “you had to pick up for anybody!”
Their conversation is interrupted when each receives a blast of nagging from their respective mothers. When are they going to get up and do something with their lives? J promises to think about it tomorrow. T begs his mother to get off his back, allowing her to shoot back “I will when you get off yours.”
Their mothers force J and T upright and mobile by running their vacuum cleaners. They are forced to escape outdoors, into a local park. They discover that their usual bench has been removed. Angrily they trudge to one twenty yards away. They compare notes about the vacuum cleaners – totally unnecessary because their houses are spotless – and agree that their mothers use an especially noisy model with added guilt. Idly, they discuss the concept of noiseless vacuum cleaners. Maybe they could test them for the makers. If they could continue napping on the couch with the vacuum cleaner at full Mom power it must be a good one.
This is their Eureka moment. They realize that as slackers they are ideal for certain kinds of jobs. Maybe they could sell themselves in this way, and end the nagging and the guilt trips.
They test the market for their services, beginning with the obvious choices of testing beds and couches. They quickly branch out into other relaxation products, such as spas and home entertainment systems, and into remote controls and voice-activated command systems.
Conversely, they offer themselves to test energy drinks. If the product induces them off the couch, it must be effective.
Before long, they have more work than they can handle and start recruiting their slacker friends. They set up a slacker co-operative at J’s home. They have a simple standard interview for applicants, in which all lie down: “what are you trying to avoid – a job, college, a course? Which sports do you not play? Have you ever been indicted for a felony?” They reject drinkers and stoners. They want only dedicated slackers, who can meet their standards of inactivity without artificial help.
They think of new things to test. Leisurewear. Instant meals. Pizza and other food delivery services. Easy-to-assemble products.
They offer slackers to test films and TV shows (how quickly will they fall asleep or switch to something else with the remote?) They form a slacker “focus group” for political parties and other campaigning organizations fighting apathy. As with energy drinks, if a slogan or campaign turns slackers into activists, it must be good.
Two of their friends give them other counter-intuitive ideas.
They offer the Ultimate Slob as a model for Smart-Casual clothing. If it can make him look good without effort it must be a great design.
They offer the Total Zonk, their most inert friend, to test motion detectors. If they can detect movement in him, they must be ultra-sensitive.
They realize that there is a big market for personal slacker services in their local community. Namely:
House sitting and watering plants (but not active gardening)
Minding pets (all models of cats, birds, fish, reptiles or insects, upper limit on size of dogs which require walking)
Child minding (if potty trained). Slackers prove to be ideal babysitters for over-active small children and those who demand constant attention. They refuse to fetch drinks of water, look for lost toys or deal with monsters under the bed – encouraging children themselves to take responsibility for these.
Above all, slackers develop a major service offering in waiting for deliveries and service persons for people who want to go out to work or social life. So long as there is a couch on the premises, the slacker does not fret if the promised delivery or service person is late.
Against their inclinations, J and T have to behave more and more like executives as their business grows. Finance and administration are irksome. Above all, they have to impose discipline on their fellow-slackers. Whatever else they do, they must turn up on time for clients. They threaten instant dismissal for being late. The threat usually works – would anyone else offer a slacker the chance to lie on someone’s couch all day and get paid? But sometimes J and T have to use the ultimate sanction: “Mom, we need you!” The mothers drive the slacker out of their comfortable headquarters with the extra-noisy vacuum cleaners.
There are some hiccups in their business.
The Ultimate Slob turns into a fashionista and a diva perfectionist. He brings out his own label.
A house sitter is so repelled by the décor of the client that he changes it successfully and moves into the interior design business.
One of the pet minders is heartbroken by the death of one of his charges and quits the business to study veterinary medicine.
Worst of all, a child minder is so depressed by the mindless cartoons that he makes his charge watch that he takes him outdoors to run around.
Despite these hiccups, the business is expanding rapidly and they need more and more slackers to sustain it. J worries that they cannot seem to find any female slackers. T tells him there are none. Women work. “Whose notes did you borrow at school? A nerd’s or a girl’s.”
At which point, of course, they get a visit from two attractive young women. They stand up, and force a few other waiting slackers to do the same. J and T wait around, for once embarrassed by the slacker ambience. J finally invites the visitors to join him and T “in our conference suite” (the family dining room.) They start the standard applicants interview (much more formally than usual, on dining chairs) but the young women cut them off. They are not there for slacker jobs. “You guys have a great business, but you need us.”
Helen is an accountancy major. She can handle all that numbers stuff. They need to incorporate, generate reliable records, and use them to understand the business.
Laura is a marketing major. She will make them a brand. For starters, what is the business called now? “Rent-a-slacker.” She is scornful. It’s clunky. Drop Rent-a. Everyone knows they’re not lending out slackers for free. And how are they spelling “slacker”? S-L-A-C-K-E-R. “Puh-lease! Is that how a slacker would spell it out? Seven letters – he’d be asleep long before he finished. Let’s drop the C and the E – they’re doing nothing. Now we have SLAKR. Problem – it’s in use already. And there’s two of you. SLAKRS? That’s in use too. Make that second S a Z? SLAKRZ. Also in use. So let’s add three Zs to the end. SLAKRZZZ. Not only makes you plural but tells everyone of your awesome powers of taking a nap.”
SLAKRZZZ Incorporated. J and T are taken with the name – and with Helen and Laura.
Extract from letter to Nigel Adams MP, Foreign Office Minister of State with responsibility for Afghanistan and British “soft power”. And cricket-lover.
I am writing to urge you to take an interest in the future of Afghan cricket and cricketers if and when the Taliban reassume control of the country.
One might be optimistic about men’s cricket there, which the Taliban authorized in the past. Afghanistan’s astonishing rise in the international rankings over the past twenty years and the consequent popularity of men’s cricket all over the country might induce a new Taliban régime to leave the sport alone.
But that will not be true of women’s cricket, which has already been stifled by the Taliban. The women and girls who have managed to play cricket in the country will face real danger.
Moreover, there are strong grounds to fear for the future of male cricketers too. The Taliban may turn on everyone in the country who is seen as a collaborator with the central government and the Western world. In case you have not seen it, I draw your attention to the feature “Taliban Watch” by “Dr Grim” in the current edition of Private Eye, which carries that message in stark terms. Male cricketers could well be seen as agents of Western influence and values and be persecuted on that basis. Those who have played internationally or overseas at any level may fall under special suspicion. If allowed to play on, they may face very restrictive conditions and be compelled to adopt and expound the ideology and values of the Taliban. That will be especially true for boys and students if they are allowed to go on playing cricket at all.
As you will know, the Taliban is not a unified movement but a network with many strands. Local cricketers could easily fall under the control of an extremist faction and subjected to vicious discipline and punishments. There may well be protracted local power struggles and civil wars. The collapse of central government and such public services as exist in Afghanistan may make local life unbearable, and not only for cricketers. The Taliban has also provided a haven for racketeers, traffickers and criminals of all kinds. Cricketers who are better-off than the general population may become targets for extortion. This could happen to Afghanistan’s top international cricketers, through their families.
I write with no first-hand knowledge of Afghan cricket or the Taliban, only from what I have read and a few personal contacts with Afghans and others who know about both. However, I am certain that you could find quick confirmation of all of these points.
I therefore ask you first to keep a close eye on conditions for Afghan cricket and cricketers and to make these a factor in framing future British policy on Afghanistan.
If things go as badly as I think they might, I hope you will urge on Priti Patel (like yourself a cricket-lover) that our country should become a haven for Afghan cricketers of all ages and genders – and that pending determination of their claims to remain they should be allowed to play or coach cricket here for money or accept payment as umpires and scorers or any other cricket-related function. They could do a great deal for cricket at many levels in our country. They could especially help to promote cricket in hard-to-reach communities, not just the existing Afghan community. They might help also to introduce cricket to other countries, as an extension of British soft power. Again, you will know how much Afghans have contributed to German cricket in recent years.
Finally, a Taliban régime will undoubtedly assert its control over the Afghanistan Cricket Board. Of course this will not be a direct problem for the government: the International Cricket Council will have to respond to it and the England and Wales Cricket Board might also have to take a stand. But it throws light on an issue which has recurred in international sport for nearly a hundred years: what should happen when a country subjects its own sportspeople collectively, or significant populations of them, to discrimination and oppression? Should other countries allow them to continue in international sport and export their systems and values within it? In my view, international sports administrators have had a very poor record of dealing with these questions, and they are in any case too important to be left to them alone.
An animation project turned here into an illustrated story for people of 7+
Meet the Light Fantastics.
This is Lady in Red. This is Green Go-to Guy. They live in two little spaces in a traffic light in the Big City, on a busy corner of Main Street and Crosstown Avenue.
Lady in Red tells people to stop and wait before they cross Main Street.
Green Go-to Guy tells them when to cross Main Street.
They have to wake up early in the morning when they hear the first lorries rumbling down Main Street and be ready for work. Their first walker is always Dust Cart Man. Lady in Red makes him wait. Green Go-to Guy tells him when to cross and sweep the other side of Main Street.
Then come the early workers.
Then come the regular workers.
Then come the schoolchildren. Lady in Red makes them all stop. Green Go-to Guy tells them to cross.
Then it’s the late workers. Some of them want to cross in a hurry, but Lady in Red makes them wait like anyone else, before Green Go-to Guy lets them go.
Then it’s the shoppers. Then the people taking early lunch. Then the people taking regular lunch. Then the people taking late lunch. Lady in Red and Green Go-to Guy tell them all what to do.
Then it’s the schoolchildren and the workers crossing the other way.
Then it’s the people going out for dinner, or to see a play or a movie or a concert.
Then it’s the clubbers. Lady in Red stops them all, Green Go-to Guy lets them cross.
But when the last clubber crosses Main Street to go home, the Big City belongs to the Light Fantastics. They watch the last clubber let himself into his house. They look at each other and slide down the traffic light into Main Street. They stretch… and stretch… and stretch a bit more. And when they are tall enough, they dance… and dance… and dance…
They dance down Main Street. Past all the places where the people work or shop or go to school. But nobody can see them. Through the Big Square with the Victory Arch and the statue of Marshal Law. Past the Town Hall with the statue of Mayor Culpa. Into the park with the bandstand – where they can tap dance. They finish the routine with a big kiss. Then they take a drink at the fountain. And since nobody’s looking they bathe their feet.
Then they walk together, hand in hand, under the stars. They leave the park and walk back to Main Street. This time they reach the part with lots of advertising boards.
Lady in Red stops Green Go-to Guy. She looks at one of the big boards and says “We’ve never seen this one,” and he says “Do you want to try it?” It has a picture of a flashy fast car. An Alfa Pseud. And the two of them jump right into the car – because they own everything in the Big City at night, including the advertising boards and everything inside them.
The picture in the board has the Alfa Pseud all on its own on a long desert highway. Green Go-to Guy opens the door for Lady in Red and lets her drive first. All the way to the end of the highway in the picture. Then they change places and Green Go-to Guy drives it all the way back. Who do you think drives faster? Wrong. It’s Lady in Red. After stopping people all day, at night time she likes to put on a little speed.
Green Go-to Guy parks the car in the same spot in the picture. They get out and jump out of the board back onto Main Street.
“What did you think?” asks Green Go-to Guy. Lady in Red shakes her head and says “It went pocketa-pocketa-pocketa-qweep in sixth gear.”
They walk a bit longer along Main Street and stop in front of another advertising board. This one’s for a big blockbuster movie with the world’s biggest stars – Luke Upward and Stella Cast. But since they own everything in the Big City they jump right into the movie set and Green Go-to Guy says “Luke, my man, do you want to take five?” and Lady in Red says “Stella, honey, would you like to powder your nose?” And the stars leave, so that Green Go-to Guy and Lady in Red can play the big scene themselves. They look at the scripts the stars leave behind.
“You don’t love me any more.”
“But I do.”
“Your lips are moving but your eyes are lying.”
They give it all they can and then they look at each other and say the same thing. “This stinks.” They call back Luke and Stella and jump out of the board back into Main Street.
They walk a bit further and stop at another advertising board. This one has a tropical beach with nobody on it. They stare and stare at it. They have never seen anything so beautiful in the Big City. Finally Lady in Red says “We deserve a vacation.”
Green Go-To Guy says “We haven’t got much time. You know what happens if we’re missing…”
Lady in Red says “Just a quick swim?” And she takes his hand.
So they jump onto the beach. They kick up a little sand. They look at the clear blue water and run towards it, still hand in hand. But before they can jump in, the whole beach starts to shake. Not just the sand. Not just the sea. But the sky and the sun. It can only mean one thing. They run back along the beach and look out of the board. It’s the first lorry rumbling along Main Street. The Big City will not belong to them much longer. They will not be allowed in the advertising boards – or anywhere else. If they don’t get back to their traffic light in time they could be locked up as deserters.
So they jump back onto Main Street. No more dancing, they just run, and run, and run. Hand in hand. When one gets tired, the other pulls. Run, Lady in Red! Run, Green Go-to Guy! Back into the park… past the fountain… past the bandstand… Past Marshal Law and Mayor Culpa. Past the workplaces and the shops and the schools. They see more and more lorries. Faster, Lady in Red! Faster, Green Go-to Guy! The dawn is breaking over the Big City. At last they reach their section of Main Street.
They can hear the Dust Cart. One final sprint… They reach their traffic light just in time. They help each other up, and shrink again to fit into their little spaces. They are ready for Dust Cart Man. Lady in Red stops him in the usual way. Green Go-to Guy lets him cross in the usual way. He notices nothing different about them and heads down Main Street to sweep the other side.
Lady in Red and Green Go-to Guy watch him disappear. They look round the street. No lorries. No people. They slip out of their little spaces and have one final kiss.
Published in Good Housekeeping ca 1984
I live in Bonar Law Mansions: the street is called Nash Terrace and that’s a false trade description if ever there was. Nash Terrace runs off Coldview Lane and so do I if I’m coming home late at night.
Like so much British housing of its kind, Bonar Law Mansions was started in a boom and finished hurriedly in a bust. There are six nominal flats. I’ve got the one on the ground floor. There’s one front door and then there’s me on the right, then you can go up the stairs to Miss Gliddon, who is 86 and has lived there since the beginning because she Knew Her Rights. Opposite Miss Gliddon are the McCarneys, who are arty and crafty. They do rush matting, although that too is a false trade description since mine took eight months to arrive. They have a new breed of dog, a Yorkshire Yapper, whose name I have given to the Soviet Embassy in case the Red Army moves in. Then there’s Miss Hornman. She works for the Ministry of Agriculture, making sure that my breakfast sausage contains its subparticle of meat. The Webbs, appropriately, are both swimming instructors. They shout a great deal.
A new man moved into the top flat recently. I did not see him when he arrived but I did notice a new badly-parked Alfa Pseud outside and a new badly-parked briefcase on the hall table: this was an opulent number which had used enough skin to make the pig an endangered species. It was embossed with gold initials which coincided with mine.
As for me, I’ve lived in Bonar Law for six years. I’m looking backwards to being 35 next birthday. I’m single. By choice. Of every woman I ever met.
I work as a poet. Really. My latest work has been read by millions and translated into over twenty languages. It goes: “Your birthday comes but once a year A fact that’s sad but true Here’s wishing you a birthday As wonderful as you.” I work for the Pica Card Company. Inside Page Department. I share versification duty with my friend Gorman. I do happy events such as birthdays and he does sad ones such as weddings. I’m doing the job only as a fill-in until my screenplay is taken up.
One day last year I got home from work. As always, the first thing I did was to reach in the communal letter box for the late mail.
You see, I am obsessive about the mail. I always have been and all the others in Bonar Law know it. The mail is what my life is about. I make my living from it: my poetry is pushed through millions of letterboxes every day. It’s me saying happy birthday, congratulations, good luck – and perhaps changing someone’s life as a result. One day I am due for payback. Something in the mail is going to change my life.
I sorted all of Bonar Law’s mail and laid it on the hall table. Nothing unusual that day. Miss Gliddon’s copy of Health And Efficiency, a publication called British Raffia for the McCarneys. The Webbs had a special offer from a rubber duck company. Miss Hornman was invited to sample The Best Of Sid Vicious. There was nothing for the new man – and nothing for me.
I spent the evening quietly at home. I worked flat out for five hours and came up with “A special birthday robin Perches on your plate To help you blow your candles out Now that you are Eight.”
I could not sleep that night. I was obsessed by a premonition about the next day’s mail because I was certain that my new life would come to me very soon. At last I heard the postman. Before he could ring twice I rushed out and grabbed the mail from him. Items for Gliddon, McCarneys, Webbs, Hornman. Nothing for the new man but three letters for me, each First Class and marked Urgent.
I opened each with exceptional care. I knew that this lot contained my new life. I also knew that if I read them too quickly it would disappear and they would turn into bills and special offers. So I did not hurry. I memorized the back of a packet of breakfast cereal. Only then did I allow myself to open the envelopes.
The first letter was from Messrs Tort and Feasor, solicitors. It read: “Dear Mr Heller, Our inquiries have established that you are the sole legal heir to Miss Hopper who died intestate five years ago. The exact size of the estate cannot be ascertained. However, it would be in order to inform you that Miss Hopper herself inherited four million dollars in 1938 and that she was a lady of frugal habits who believed in the reinvestment of accrued interest.”
The second was from Special Projects, Paraversal Pictures. It read: “Dear Mr Heller, I beg you to excuse our delay in replying to your letter and submission.” (I paused here briefly, having no recollection of writing to them.) “Your screenplay has excited us all enormously. Story, characters, dialogue, all superb. I have to go to the West Coast next week – do say you’ll join me, all expenses paid.”
I paused again, trying to recall the day I finished my screenplay. The orgy of illicit photocopying, the racking of Yellow Pages for film company addresses, the midnight ride in Wardour Street… So the letterbox where I stuffed the spare copy had been Paraversal’s.
The third letter was handwritten. It read: “Dear Richard, You don’t know me and you can’t have noticed me but I stood behind you borrowing books in the public library and bribed the attendant into giving me your name and address. Now you’re showing this to your girlfriend – or wife – and you’re both having a good laugh but I don’t care. I’m crazy about you, the sexiest most magnetic man I’ve ever seen and I’ve got to meet you. Please please come to the library next Wednesday at 7pm. This is what I look like…”
At this point I extracted a snapshot, head and shoulders. She had not known that the picture was being taken. Her head was thrown back to laugh. Medium length blonde hair, high forehead, strong cheekbones, wide mouth with perfect teeth, slim shoulders. None of the features was out of this world but together they were haunting. She had signed the letter “Laura Cassiday.”
Then I read on and a terrible chill passed through me. There was a PS. “I hope you enjoy Watership Down as much as I did.”
I detested Watership Down. I did not borrow it from the library. I would never borrow Watership Down from the library or anything that looked like it. The only books I borrow from the library are about cricket.
I re-read the other two letters. I thought back to a briefcase with gold initials coincident with mine.
I rang the bell of the top flat of Bonar Law. It was opened by a very good-looking man a few years younger than me.
“Hello, Richard,” I said. “I live downstairs. I’m Richard Heller too. There are not many Hellers. I wonder if we’re related. You have relations called Hopper, don’t you?”
“My grandmother’s maiden name,” he stammered.
“I can’t think of any relatives of mine called Hopper. You write in your spare time – a screenplay?”
“And you’re enjoying Watership Down?”
“Can’t put it down.”
“Do forgive me, but I opened some of your mail.”
The other Richard Heller now lives in Malibu with his wife, Laura. I still live in Bonar Law. I still watch for the mail. I know there’s a new life coming to me, and this time there will be no mistake. Please address it to me under my full name of His Serene Highness Prince Harley Davidson The Fourth (by deed poll.)
Mortimer Mouse comes from a distinguished family of literary rodents which includes Terence Ratagain and Mousehole Proust. He lives in South-East London with Richard Heller, the distinguished man of letters, and kafkaa, the poetic cockroach, cousin of the famous archy.
Mortimer Mouse has gained a global public for his uplifting homilies and has supplied them to distinguished clients under his business name of Don O’Vanewera. His personal favourites were collected in his book Keep Squeaking Through. But from now on he is writing only for [the Daily Planet.]
Richard Heller writes: In a long literary career, nothing has given me more pride than being the landlord of Mortimer Mouse. We were both at a low ebb when I first saw him in my front room three years ago. He was actually selling The Big Issue. It made me realize how shabby my flat had become that not even a mouse would choose to live there. But inspired by Mortimer’s daily thoughts, we both rose from our respective ebbs and started to go with the flow. We have transformed our home: once bleak and lonely, it is now filled with London’s most fashionable rodents at Mortimer’s regular salons.
The elegant simplicity of Mortimer’s work leads many to assume that it is effortless. But I have been privileged to see the Master – or rather, the Mouseter – at work day after day, night after night. The frenzied creativity followed by the hours of toilsome cutting and polishing of each gem often leave him limper than a politician’s excuses.
Shirley Temple was rightly fêted by Franklin Roosevelt at the White House for her role in lifting the American economy during the Great Depression. If Britain bounces back from Covid, Boris Johnson will give a similar invitation to Mortimer Mouse for restoring optimism to the business cycle.
Motivational Maxims by Mortimer Mouse
Life is just the bread in your sandwich of dreams.
Lies are like lilies. The sweeter they smell, the faster they wither. But the truth is a cactus.
When the milk of life goes sour, be patient. Before you know, it will be cheese.
Your life is a long flowing river. Don’t let it be dammed, or be damned.
When life becomes a joke, try to beat it to the punchline.
A thing worth doing is worth failing at.
To you it’s a bog but to a bug it’s an infinity pool.
Might is not always right, but might have been is always wrong.
When you can’t see the wood for the trees, would you rather be in a desert?
Without rain there would be no rainbows.
Without the blues there would be no bluebirds.
Happy places need no visas. Your mind can just walk right in.
Your past is nothing more than the first rushes of an unfinished movie. Edit it and insist on director’s cut.
Somewhere in this world, a nightingale is singing to an elephant in a moonlit stream and a child is reunited with a lost puppy.
Why expect the worst and get bad news twice over?
There is no lockdown tougher than a mind’s.
Have you taken your vitamins today?
Vitamin A-ce it!
Vitamin B1 with the universe.
Vitamin B2 others as you wish them to you.
Vitamin B12 noon not 12 midnight.
Berri’s carriage approaches. Scenes from Louvel’s past flash before him. The image of his wife and child give way to that of Napoleon with him at Borodino. Louvel rushes forward with his saddler’s awl…
Back in the prison cell Louvel completes the last page of his autobiography with a matter-of-fact sentence: “In the evening I mortally wounded the Duc de Berri. I thus ended the Bourbon dynasty and was therefore able to be of service to His Majesty the Emperor.”
In his quarters, the governor of the prison is discussing Louvel with the priest assigned to him. The priest tells him he is certain that Louvel acted alone, not as part of a conspiracy. He shows no remorse nor willingness to make confession and asks only for writing materials. He is proud of killing the Duc de Berri and has no fear of his impending execution. The priest repeats Louvel’s motive for his crime.
The governor continues his questions. “Does the prisoner Louvel still maintain the illusion that he served in the infantry under Bonaparte?”
“You have shown him the papers showing that he was repeatedly rejected for military service for weak eyesight? You have shown him his receipts from his trade as a saddle-maker?”
“Indeed, but he talks only of his military career. Inquiries have been made of all the details he has given me and in his papers. They are completely accurate, even to the names of sergeants and corporals, except that he himself was present at none of the engagements.”
“Does he still refuse to see his wife and son?”
“He insists that they are dead, victims of privation.”
“He has seen the petitions from his wife against his desertion?”
“He still insists that she and his son are dead.”
In the prison cell Louvel stands at attention before his image of Napoleon. He murmurs over and over “I did serve you.”
He is still murmuring this as the guillotine descends.
Some months later, in autumn, the bells are ringing. The widowed Duchesse de Berri, already pregnant again when Louvel killed her husband, has given birth to a boy.
Paris 1820. Five years after Waterloo. Napoleon is dying on St Helena. The Bourbon dynasty is restored to the French throne, reactionaries determined to obliterate Napoleon’s memory. Officially he is referred to as Bonaparte, sometimes as the Monster.
A prison cell. A male prisoner in solitary confinement, under heavy guard, obviously guilty of a serious crime. He is thin and fevered and has recent bruises and scars on his face. He wears the shabby remains of a military uniform. He paces his cell constantly. He has a military bearing and his pacing has the stamp of the drill square.
Two guards discuss the prisoner. They reveal that he is indifferent to his approaching execution. He shows no sign of remorse or wish to confess and insists that he committed his crime for Napoleon. The guard instantly corrects himself: “for Bonaparte, the Monster.” The prisoner’s only constant demand is for paper and ink.
Alone, the prisoner is writing in his cell. He already has a big stack of papers. The top sheet reads “For my son, Napoleon Louvel. In memory.” The manuscript continues “Although my son will never read these words, for his sake I have decided to set down some account of my life. This was worthless and insignificant in every respect until at the last I was able to execute an action for His Majesty the Emperor.”
The prisoner Louvel’s story is told in retrospect, through his written autobiography. It begins with him as a teenage boy in the provinces. He is an apprentice saddle-maker. He detests this occupation and longs for a better life. One day his drudgery is interrupted by bugles, drums and fifes. It is a detachment of the French Revolutionary Army of Italy, commanded by the young General Buonaparte (still with his Corsican-Italian spelling.) The boy Louvel is entranced. He runs after the detachment, keeping pace with it for many miles. Eventually he enlists in the infantry.
Louvel’s military career takes him through every major campaign of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic army. His own record is unspectacular: it takes him until 1812 before he is at last commissioned as a lieutenant, during the retreat from Moscow. But the diary reveals his intense commitment to the army and to Napoleon in particular. The army gives him comradeship, purpose, total fulfilment. He carries with him everywhere an icon of Napoleon leading the Army of Italy, on a cheap mass-produced image of Epinal. He has managed to smuggle the image into his prison cell and gazes at it in the thin moonlight which penetrates his window.
Louvel’s army career is narrated in a curious style. He gives a very accurate and detailed account of each campaign, with the units, commanders and manœuvres involved. There is a minute account of Napoleon’s movements and appearance in each battle. However, Louvel’s own movements are somewhat sketchy: he makes himself an anonymous member of his unit. However, his comrades are described most carefully. A few episodes in battle are told in detail, but even in these Louvel almost seems to suggest that he was an observer not a participant: Pierre Bezukhov at Borodino, Fabrizio at Waterloo… However, one constant theme is his pride at being part of the Napoleonic army. His characteristic phrase is “I had the honour on that day to be serving in the 10th regiment… I was fortunate enough to be close to the Hussars…”
From time to time Louvel goes back to his home village. He records its prosperity, thanks to Napoleon. The saddle-maker in particular has an enormous order book. He offers Louvel a job in his former trade, but Louvel scornfully refuses. There can be no peace for him until Napoleon’s enemies are destroyed.
Louvel meets a vivacious cantinière. She takes a liking to this dark, intense soldier. They settle in Louvel’s home village. His army pay and the small property which comes to him through the Napoleonic Code enable them to live cheerfully, if modestly. Their son is born within a week of Napoleon’s, the King of Rome. Of course Louvel’s son is named Napoleon in honour of the architect of his life and happiness.
1812. Louvel has hardly got to know his son when he is recalled to the Grande Armée. At the battle of Borodino occurs the greatest event of his life. His company is paraded for inspection by a dumpy colonel of hussars, at least so it appears from his uniform. However, an electric current runs through the company: it is Napoleon. Amazingly, the Emperor reaches out and tweaks Louvel’s ear. Louvel describes the incident in minute detail, but is tormented by doubt: was it the right ear or the left? He paces his cell, trying to remember his position relative to Napoleon…
Louvel survives the retreat from Moscow, although his fingers suffer permanently from frostbite. He is stoic in the face of incredible hardship. His faith in Napoleon never wavers. As the remains of the army re-cross the Niemen he is made a lieutenant.
1814. Napoleon’s first abdication. Louvel learns the news while serving with his regiment. His world falls apart. A fellow officer looks forward to peace. Louvel strikes him.
The new Bourbon régime halves the pay of the army. Louvel’s family is destitute. They spend a bitter winter and spring. Then Napoleon returns from Elba. Louvel serves at Waterloo, only to taste the bitterness of final defeat and Napoleon’s exile to St Helena.
The second Bourbon restoration is even worse for Louvel than the first. While he is still with his regiment, trudging slowly back from Waterloo an outbreak of reactionary White terror breaks out in his home village. His family are driven from their home. He returns to a looted empty house. From friends he learns that his wife and son have made for a nearby town. Desperately, he marches there at the double and inquires after a woman and a little boy. No news of them, and the same at the next town. Finally, he discovers them – dead. The official cause he ignores. He blames the Bourbon terror for their deaths by starvation.
Louvel walks to Paris in search of justice and work. There he catches a glimpse of the Royal family. He is filled with loathing for the replacements for Napoleon and the destroyers of his life and family. He resolves at once to annihilate the Bourbon dynasty. The task is easier than it might appear, for the dynasty is unlikely to reproduce itself. We see its members through Louvel’s eyes. The King, a grotesquely obese widower. His brother and heir, the Comte d’Artois, another elderly widower. His two sons are the Duc d’Angouleme, highly religious, long-married to his embittered cousin, childless and rumoured impotent, and his younger brother, the Duc de Berri.
Louvel’s hatred focuses on this Bourbon. About the same age as himself, the Duc de Berri swaggers and affects a military bearing, and tries to fraternize with soldiers and veterans. Louvel despises him all the more, since Berri has never been a soldier and returned to France only with the armies of its enemies. Although unmarried, Berri is the only Bourbon likely to father an heir and continue the dynasty.
Louvel finds employment in Paris in his old trade of saddlery. He lives in poverty. He spends any spare time and money in cafés and taverns frequented by veterans of the Grande Armée, reliving old battles and campaigns. From time to time he hears rumours of a Bonapartist conspiracy but nothing is ever done. He decides that he himself must accomplish some individual act for Napoleon. His thoughts turn to wiping out the Royal family, source and symbol of France’s misfortune and his own. He studies bombs and infernal machines and poisons but despairs at his chance of using them.
One day he goes to a familiar tavern. A noisy celebration is in progress. A rich man in an elaborate uniform is standing round after round of drinks to soldiers and veterans. It is the Duc de Berri. Louvel refuses to accept a drink from him. An acquaintance remarks that Berri is about to be married and continues casually “I suppose that will mean an heir to the throne, after all none of the others can.” At this, Louvel stands up, tense and shaking. He stares at Berri for a long time before striding out of the tavern.
Over the next few days Louvel devours every newspaper story about Berri and his marriage and tries to follow Berri’s public appearances. He has a great stroke of fortune: he obtains a job, still as a saddle-maker, in the Royal Household. Of course he sees almost nothing of the Royal family but he picks up gossip and learns more about Berri’s habits and personality.
One morning Louvel is working alone at his job. He is interrupted by a man staggering into the stables dead drunk. It is the Duc de Berri after an all-night party. They are alone. Louvel has his saddler’s awl in his hand, sharp and deadly. He raises his hand
Peter Mandelson planned Labour’s masterly election campaign of 2010. Here is an excerpt from a long email to party supporters explaining its central message. (My comments as recipient at the time).
‘In all this we should remember the power of a clear, consistent, disciplined message from being on your side, whose side? standing up for hardworking families and the public’s deep fear of cuts in vital public services. Of course they hate the idea of waste and inefficiency. This is not a clear message at all but deeply confused. Are “you” and “hardworking families” and “the public” three different sets of people? And who are “they?” And we should not shy away from explaining what we are doing to make savings.’
In same email, he praised Gordon Brown’s granite-like resilience, although the one thing granite cannot do is to bounce back into shape. He said that the Tories had underlined Labour’s central plank, a difficult subterranean task. He also claimed in the same sentence that the economy was on the road to recovery but that the Tories would pull the rug from under it.