Luke Upward Makes A Gogol Search
The world of Luke Upward was sadly beset by jealous rivals. He himself had Walter Downer, his great friend Ricky Rubato had to endure Johnny Atempo, and even Beppo The Wonder Dog suffered from the backbiting of Mini-Mariachi Maxie, the Chihuahua With the Wah-Wah. Saddest of all was Upward’s patron, the amiable Marquis de Tarpaulin, who tried to create a “big tent” for writers in his regular soireés. The Marquis had his own jealous rival, the wearisome Adastra Perardua, who had inherited the fabulous Whytebaite fortune in dubious circumstances.
Perardua tried ceaselessly to entice Upward away from the Marquis to her own literary weekends at Pilchards, her country house near Fishbourne. Finally Upward succumbed, enticed by her promise of a private view of her collection of French Neo-Classical paintings. The collection, in truth, was disappointing, but Upward politely wrote “Look back in Ingres” in the vulgar vellum visitors book. The other guests were of scant interest: Upward described them later as “all those Nobel Prizewinners nobody’s ever read.” To his dismay, Upward discovered that all the guests were expected to name their favourite work of literature and give a spontaneous lecture on it. Pleading a recurrence of his quintuple quinsy, Upward took to his bedroom and escaped down the drainpipe, using the skills perfected in repeated flights from bookmakers.
Back in the more congenial company with the Marquis, Upward answered Perardua’s question. He quoted several majestic passages from his beloved John Donne, but his final choice lit on Gogol’s Dead Souls. This was his selection for his sadly never-achieved appearance on Desert Island Discs, along with seven gramophone records by the Italian zither group, the Eight Cetras and one of Ricky Rubato as accompanist on Beppo The Wonder Dog Sings The Best Of George Gershwin (see earlier). Upward briefly reminded the company of the plot. A nineteenth-century Russian confidence man named Chichikov travels around the provinces buying up dead serfs who are still recorded as living on the local tax register. They are glad to be rid of a liability: he acquires, on paper, the appearance of a colossal landowner. Upward clearly felt some affinity for this character, but his main purpose was to quote what he considered to be the most perfect sentence in world literature: “Chichikov kissed her hand, which gave him the opportunity to notice that it had been washed in cucumber brine.”
As a devotee of Gogol’s Dead Souls Luke Upward was delighted to discover that its plot was regularly re-enacted in modern life. He amassed a file of press cuttings about people who had collected the pensions of dead relatives and about the many elections around the world which were swayed by dead voters. One of his most cherished souvenirs was a framed copy of the result of the Missouri Senate election in 2000, when the Republican candidate, John Ashcroft, was defeated by his deceased Democratic rival, the late Governor Mel Carnahan. (In the absence of a suitable dead alternative, George W Bush unfortunately made Ashcroft his Attorney General).
In his Gogolian research, Upward was entranced to discover the story of the primary school head teacher plagued by a new inspection regime which required copious data about pupils’ achievements. Annoyed by the time and energy this regime removed from the tasks of real teaching (and stung by an adverse inspection) she took to inventing pupils and their records. She began cautiously, slipping one or two into the classes judged to be failing. When these went undetected, she became bolder and placed whole cohorts of imaginary children in each year of the school. Knowing what the inspectors wanted, she ensured that these children entered the school from deprived backgrounds and often exhibited “challenging behaviours”. By the time they left her establishment, they were all little Einsteins who would know how to eat asparagus at a Lord Mayor’s banquet. These otherwise perfect children did suffer from a number of persistent illnesses, which explained their absence when the inspectors actually paid a visit, but they gallantly overcame their conditions to achieve fine recorded results at their school.
It took many years before this headmistress was detected. By then her school was receiving excellent reports, in which inspectors cited its success in turning round the lives of troubled pupils. During that time she created enough imaginary children, and their families, to fill several novels. Her records went beyond the bare details of academic performance, and included interviews with imaginary parents and even notes on imaginary pets. Upward made strong efforts to meet this lady, and although these were frustrated her story gave him the idea for one of his most ambitious business ventures.
When he heard the story of the headmistress who invented pupils to help her school pass inspections, Luke Upward realized that there might be thousands of other victims of mechanistic official targets with a similar need. Hospitals with waiting time and treatment targets… police officers with arrest targets… “outreach” workers with absurd numbers of people to “reach out” to… Upward decided to use his imaginative powers as the headmistress had done, and invent people who would help them satisfy the required target. For a basic fee, the harassed hospital administrator could purchase the bare details of invented patients who had been seen and treated in time, the pressured policeman could buy a suitable collection of plausible arrestable miscreants, the overloaded outreacher could obtain contact with the required number of “marginalized” outreachees… In a deluxe service Upward offered extra colour to his imaginary caseloads, such as letters of thanks from grateful patients, reports of desperate struggles in arresting the offender, or hopeless derelicts and social outcasts converted by the outreacher into engaged, admired members of the community.
Upward was very excited by this business idea. He resolved to launch a company to put it into effect, but this would require major outside investment. Most of Upward’s friends had become leery of his business ventures, but he decided to canvass the Marquis de Tarpaulin, his new and amiable patron. He came through with enough moolah to set up the company, which Upward named Gogol after his favourite author. Characteristically, Upward spent most of his energy designing the new company’s stationery, with its name Gogol printed in an exquisite new typeface designed by the legendary Hermann Zapf. This was named Upward, and to compound the honour, the brilliant typographer designed all the characters with ascenders.
In Zapf’s more familiar Palatino, Upward added after “Gogol” his witty but accurate slogan “A Company For People Who Need People.” The Marquis balked at paying Barbra Streisand’s fee for performing this at the company’s launch party, but in her place it was very well covered by Beppo The Wonder Dog.
The Marquis was technologically more astute than Upward, and knew that Gogol could not work on paper alone, for all Upward’s powers of invention. The company would need to exploit the nascent power of the internet. He remembered two American graduate students, whom he employed at his soirées as supplementary canapé waiters, and invited them to devise a system that would enable Upward to store (and modify) millions of his characters online and more important, allow customers to search amongst them and their supporting narratives to meet their needs. One of these, the Russian-born Sergey Brin, was delighted to work for a great writer who admired one of his native country’s great writers, but the other, Larry Page, continually mispronounced the company name. All three worked in a creative frenzy, Upward on the content of Gogol’s offering, Page and Brin on its (to him) incomprehensible operating system. Upward proved right in his assessment of the potential market, and the new company had a bulging order book for imaginary people long before it began trading.
Then disaster struck. Peter Mandelson (and some other person) published a book entitled The Blair Revolution. It was of no interest except to students of sycophancy, and Upward actually urged Tony Blair to have his face and name removed from the cover. Upward was horrified to discover that Mandelson, and the other person, had used the technique of inventing people to hymn the praises of the coming Blair government. This poisoned Upward against his own imaginary people. He killed them all off simultaneously. When the surprised Marquis asked for the cause of this calamity, he replied caustically: “they all died of joy at Blair’s victory.”
Upward abandoned Gogol and was happy to hand the company over to the two students as a vehicle for their new search system. Larry Page never could express its name correctly. It continued to trade under his babyish version. Without Upward’s contribution, I doubt that it prospered, but I understand that it lingers on.