The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

Friday 28th October

I have just finished reading it and felt the need to write all of this down at once, while the bright ferrous is still smouldering, and before a degree of rust starts to set in, so to speak. I read the book, not because it won the Booker prize last week, but completely co-incidentally; it was on my list anyway.  I had bought the book before I even knew he was up for the Booker, I bought it because it was by Julian Barnes and I had so loved some of his earlier books; ‘Flaubert’s Parrot’, ‘A History of the World in Ten and a Half Chapters’, and of course ‘Arthur and George’ for which masterpiece he should have won the Booker and every other prize going, hands down, and not for this lightweight novelette.

Oh, where to begin – well then, the very shortness of the book for a start, whose meagre 160 pages seems a thin reward for paying over twenty pounds for my hardback edition; this may satisfy the dilatory casual reader but I must say I actually like a bit of a read. I need a good few pages to get into the characters and the voice of the book, and actually quite some way before the ending I began to lose interest, whether this was because I could feel the ever-thinning band of pages between my fingers or just that I didn’t care about the characters enough I am not sure.  This is a pity, as it started off so well, I quite liked the idea of just two chapters, separated by forty odd years, and I particularly liked the way he dealt with memories and our uncertainty as to what is remembered , or what one remembers remembering, a subject I touched on in my own book “Catherines Story”.  I also felt the co-incidence of the central enigmatic character ‘Adrian’ being the same as my own ‘Adrian’ was a good omen.

But as the book progressed I found I liked none of the characters, especially Tony, the narrator, who wallowed in a self-denigrating whingeing slew of self-pity.  Elegantly written, and with an ending that you only guessed almost at the ending, this should have been a triumph, but I am afraid he got the Booker for the wrong book.

I usually end up buying the Booker winners at some point in any case, it is after all the best recommendation there is; sometimes I have been delightfully surprised, (Vernon God Little, by DBC Pierre) or rediscovered a favourite but recently neglected author, (The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood) or puzzled and almost didn’t finish them, (Keri Hume’s The Bone People) or discovered a writer I would enjoy for years to come, (Hotel du Lac by Anita Brookner) but rarely have I been so disappointed as with this one.  So for ‘The sense of an Ending’ only four out of ten I am afraid, Julian.  The phrase ‘should have done better’ springs to mind, and of course he has done, several times already.


Les bicyclettes de Londres

Thursday 27th October

Ah, I remember eet well, as Maurice Chevalier might have said.  Les bicyclettes de Belsize was a lovely little film about ironically enough, bicycles in Belsize Park; I cannot really remember the film at all, except that it was very very French, I have used it only as an introduction to my subject for today, the cyclists of London.

If only they were as romantic as the film portrayed them, idly drifting by in the sunny traffic free roads of North-West London.  No, the reality is somewhat different; what was once a leisurely pastime has now become a thriving bustling new industry with whole superstores dedicated to the cyclist’s needs; where once tucking your trousers in your socks and donning a cloth cap sufficed as adequate clothing for the amateur cyclist, now they are lycra-clad from head to toe in figure hugging day-glo specialised clothing, with ultra slim carbon fibre highly expensive bikes to match.  And cycling now is serious business; no longer a bike for life that your father may well have ridden before you, with its Sturmey Archer 3 speed gear lever and uncomfortable bone hard saddle, today’s bicycles are super-fast and become old-fashioned and need changing almost as often as laptops do.  All very well, you may say, and I am not at all opposed to progress, I just cannot bear the behaviour of this new breed of cycle enthusiasts.

They seem to think that the normal rules just do not apply to them; red lights simply being an opportunity to make up some ground on the faster moving traffic ahead, and woe-betide you, if as a humble pedestrian, you happen to get in the way of a cyclist.  I have been sworn at, swerved past and actually clattered into, by these self absorbed maniacs, who seem to think that not only the roads but even the pavements are there for their own exclusive use.  Anyone who foolishly thinks that a pedestrian crossing was created for enabling them to cross the road, and that traffic should and of course will stop to allow you to do so is very much mistaken; if a cyclist happens to be coming up fast on the blind side, you had better hang onto your heart and hope for the best as the last thing they will consider is stopping for you, let alone slowing down to give you time to cross.

I had a bike as a young teenager, a pink Raleigh, with a big white pannier on the front and a wide comfy white sprung saddle, on which I would meander up to the high street shops, or leisurely spin my way through the many nearby parks, but in my wildest dreams riding a cycle on today’s busy roads would never feature.  So I am more than happy to leave this pastime to the young and energetic, I just wish they would leave me some space on the pavement at least, let alone the roads.

The Winter Flu-Jab

Wednesday 26th October

For years I never once considered having the winter flu-jab. I was young and pretty fit, and took ‘colds’ in my stride.  Occasionally I would be laid quite low though, with a dry hacking cough that would take weeks to shake off, but again I just put up with it; it was a cold, maybe flu – who knows, I never consulted a doctor.  I had been brought up to accept a winter cold as normal, and had rarely been granted a day off school; ‘soldier on’ was our motto, and soldier on I continued to march – as I say, I just put up with it, snuffling and suffering along the way.

Then when I got into my new circle of friends, ladies of some leisure for the most part, they talked to me of the winter flu-jab and they were amazed I had never considered it.  I suppose it had just never been on my radar, and what with having to make an appointment in advance with ones’ doctor it always seemed too much trouble.  But now I allowed myself to become persuaded to have the flu-jab after all.  And instantly regretted it!  My arm ached for days – it really felt like a lead weight pressing down on it, and I felt so under the weather, not exactly a cold, but those feelings of dread and foreboding that so often foretell the onset of a cold.  The jab is after all a mild form of flu, given to you in order to train your antibodies to fight the real thing when it comes along, but it is the learning to fight this little blighter that makes you feel so down.

Anyway I persevered with it, and every year I got my flu-jab, secretly doubting its’ efficiency – because I still got colds, a runny nose and sore throat, those two companions that always seem to herald in winter, admittedly never descending to their previous awfulness, but depressing all the same; I had had the flu jab, and I still got a cold, it didn’t seem fair somehow.

When Edward was no longer with me I stopped having the flu-jab; I just couldn’t be bothered to make the appointment, and even though we had the mass panic headlines of bird and swine and I don’t know what flu, I have been fine – no, really – the usual winter cold I always got, flu-jab or no flu-jab.

And now I seem to see the flu-jab advertised everywhere, and walk-in too, no appointment necessary these days, just hand over a tenner and it’s yours. And I am aware that I am torn between having it again or not, after all it will only cost me ten pounds and a sore arm, but by not having it will I really lay myself open to getting the ‘flu’, which despite many many colds, I am sure I have never actually had. So what to do, flu-jab, or no flu-jab? No, I think I will hold out – at least until next autumn.

Seven Deadly Sins – Pride

Tuesday 25th October

And the second Deadly Sin which Anna and her sister Anna encounter is Pride; for some reason Bertolt Brecht, who wrote the lyrics, set this in Memphis.  Famous now, of course, as the home of Elvis Presley and Graceland, but when this was written, in the thirties – well, who knows why Pride was chosen as its’ particular sin.

So why is Pride such a deadly sin? Surely a little bit of self-praise is harmless enough – and we all take pride in our appearance, making the most of ourselves, is that really so harmful?  What about pride in our country, except when this descends into football hooliganism, is it so awful to cheer on our runners or cyclists in the Olympics, or the hapless Andy Murray, following in the runner-up footsteps of our very own Tim Henman at Wimbledon. But at least we in Britain do not descend to the ludicrous flag-saluting that ensues in American schools, so maybe we can also excuse a modicum of pride in ones’ country, so what does that leave?

I think that the reason that Pride is considered a deadly sin is where pride overtakes one to the point that one looks down on all those who do not inhabit one’s own social class or milieu, and this is not restricted solely to those at the top of the social ladder either.  Working class pride is just as offensive; I first encountered this with Adrian, back in Hackney, where he would forgive the worst excesses of the lower working classes simply because they were ‘real people’, as he termed them.  I might have been inclined to forgive their lack of manners and filth as ignorance or lack of education and enlightenment, but Adrian saw them as somehow more honest and true than his own family or especially mine.  And this was a corrosive pride that burned like acid into our relationship; I could hardly help the background I came from, and I have always striven to understand people who have not had such a fortunate upbringing as I, though we had precious little money, so it was never about that.  And of course as I rose in the world after marrying Edward, I saw the other side of the coin, and came across the pride of the wealthy, and those who assume they had some god-given right to lord it over the rest of us; just as despicable and ignorant too I can assure you.

And where does it come from, this stupid pride; especially as it would seem that we are inevitably hurtling towards some sort of egalitarian middle-classness, where it really doesn’t matter where you started out, or who your parents were, or what your upbringing was.  So, pride, though a relatively old-fashioned concept should be confined to the rubbish bin of history, no longer a deadly sin, but an irritating, self-defeating and pointless pursuit.

Something for nothing

Monday 24th October

We seem to be living in a something for nothing society, which is I suppose slightly preferable to living in a nothing for something one. “Nothing for something?”  do i hear you enquire.  And actually that does happen quite often, not only when you are actually robbed or when something you have ordered fails to be delivered, or if you have paid for concert tickets, often months in advance, and then nearer the time realise that it clashes with another event which you cannot postpone, and there is no refund available. (but at least this is ones’ own fault)  More often you get nothing for something when things are not exactly as you expected them to be, and you are left with that awful feeling of disappointment; a Hotel which though advertised as four star would be awarded only two by anyone with a discerning mind; or a jacket which looked fine in the changing room mirror, but now you have it home sits awkwardly on your shoulders and hangs like a sack, so that you cannot possibly get any use out of it.

But what I mean by the something for nothing society is that it is being driven by the internet and a whole generation of young people who believe in its’ promise of free everything.  They seek out file-sharing sites where they obtain not only computer programmes, but music and films too, without paying a penny in royalties or anything, and they feel outraged at the concept that they should ever pay at all.  Quite illegal of course, but so many are now doing it that it is increasingly difficult to stop.  Added to this is the propensity for newspapers to ‘give away’ free CDs or DVDs in order to boost their flagging circulation, which is also encouraging this viewpoint.  You only have to observe the burgeoning pound shops where people are happy for any old substandard goods so long as it is almost given away.  So, more and more there is an attitude of “Why pay, when I can get it for nothing”.

But I do pay, and I do not mind paying a fair price to listen to my favourite artist or to hear new music, or to see an exhibition by new artists, or for clothes that are well made.  I appreciate the hours of dedication and sheer hard work involved in creating the piece of music I am listening to, or the paintings I am lucky enough to be looking at.  And if nobody is willing to pay for their hard work, do you really think that they will continue to do it just for the fun of the thing.  And it is the same with anything well made, unless the maker is rewarded, they will cease to bother making things.  Even Karl Marx acknowledged that; his gripe was not with the artisan worker, but with the Capitalist system for stealing the fruit of his labours, which is exactly what the pirate download sites are doing, not in the name of Capitalism but in the name of ‘Something for nothing’.

But seriously, this attitude of something for nothing is detrimental not only to the creative arts but also to the listener or the viewer; if they have paid for nothing then nothing has any value, and if they have no values then there is no appreciation or discernment and eventually there will be no choice and no amount of ‘something for nothing’ will then improve the paucity of their lives.

Credit Card fraud or something else?

Sunday 23rd October

I had an incredibly annoying and actually quite upsetting experience the other day, and, in my mind, completely unnecessary too.  I was in Waitrose, where I often shop these days, I had actually just popped in for some of those small tubs of Sheba for Puddy-Tat but ended up buying a few other items, as one invariably does.  Getting to the till, the amount was a surprising twenty pounds or so, and I knew I didn’t have that much in my purse, so without thinking I presented my credit card.  I don’t really use it that much; putting some more pre-pay on my Oyster card, or for any large-ish purchases and that is about it, I also have an arrangement to pay it always by Direct Debit, so they have never earned a penny interest from me.  I do get reward points, but they simply convert this into a small sum which is credited automatically so it is hardly an inducement either.  I was miles away and waiting rather impatiently for the transaction to clear and the message ‘please remove your card’ to appear when suddenly it said Transaction Cancelled.  I knew I hadn’t made a mistake with my Pin number, and asked the assistant to try again, but she said she couldn’t once a transaction had not been accepted, there must be something wrong with my card.  I was almost starting to panic, when embarrassment overtook any alarm I might have felt, I could almost feel the looks of slight derision from the small queue behind me.  Worse still I had no other way of paying; for some reason I had left my bank Debit card at home.  I checked my purse, about ten pounds only.  I quickly worked out that I could pay for the cat food and nothing else, so I asked the girl to take off the other items, which I hadn’t really wanted anyway, and left the shop with some sort of dignity intact.  Ten minutes later, yes, all of ten minutes, my mobile rung and a woman from a call-centre somewhere in the Indian sub-continent asked me if I had just tried to purchase items at Waitrose.  I hadn’t quite caught that she had said she was from card provider at the beginning of her garbled introduction, so I furiously demanded to know how she had obtained my number.  She repeated, and this time I understood, that she was from my card company; it was starting to make some sense now, but I was still angry and demanded to know why my card had been rejected.  Unbelievably she said it was a random security check, in case my card had been stolen or lost or cloned.  I told her in no uncertain language how embarrassed this whole palaver had made me feel, and how dare they just refuse a transaction I was making and just whose money was it anyway.  Actually it was still technically their money until I settled the account of course, but this only struck me later.  Then she tried to explain that this was a security procedure, entirely random so she assured me, designed to protect my card from abuse. I was beginning to allow myself to be placated, when she dropped the coup-de-gras, had I ever considered taking out insurance against my card being lost or stolen, and that they had very competitive rates etc:.  Fury again erupted, and after receiving an assurance that my card was still okay to use, I cut her off.  So, was this really a case of a random security check, or just a sophisticated way of trying to sell me insurance?

Celebrity Magazines

Saturday 22nd October

A you know, I quite despair of Celebrity Culture, the way it has of pervading and infiltrating its’ tentacles into every aspect of your life, from Strictly Come Dancing to items on the News, from late night chat shows to their very own Celebrity magazines.  Of course I never buy them, never even consider it, in fact I rarely, if ever, buy a magazine at all, let alone inhabit what used to be called newsagents, but are rapidly metamorphosing into convenience stores or Tesco Metros;  that old staple of Newsagent, Tobacconist and Confectioner disappearing fast.  I do subscribe to Paris Match, which I do not enjoy so much as I used to I am afraid, I just cannot quite let it go that’s all, and Elle (French version); I do like to keep up my with my French, but have little opportunity nowadays to speak it. Those, along with the Telegraph and the Mail, (though I am seriously consider stopping the latter which is sinking downmarket faster than the Titanic) and the Saturday and Sunday Times at weekends are sufficient for my needs.  I did try the ‘i’ when it first came out but realised that the précis they presented me with merely whetted rather than satisfied my appetite for news.

I find however that when I am on the tube I cannot stop myself from picking up a discarded tabloid, especially if it is the Mirror or the Sun, and I recognise Grandma in myself, as I tut-tut and shake my head in disbelief, as I am reassured rather than horrified, at just how awful they actually are.  The only good news of late is that they are suffering from a massive fall in circulation, even steeper than that of the broadsheets.

And in the Dentists I find it hard to resist glancing at Heat or Closer or whatever they are called; I say glancing at, because they are so full of photo’s and adverts that there is precious little there to actually read. Besides it is all an advert really, if not for products then for some imaginary lifestyle we are supposed to envy, and what I find particularly sickening is when these so called celebrities, most of whom I really cannot place, ‘invite’ the cameras into their pristine soul-less homes.  I mean, how vulgar, you might as well ask them to look at your lavatory!!!

Is this supposed to represent some sort of democracy, or is it like that silly little rhyme we used to recite at school – “Pigs will spill pigswill ‘coz pigs will swill pigswill.”   Not very nice I suppose, but then I have never pretended to be, which is more than can be said for these so-called celebrities.

Can you just do me a favour

FrIday 21st October

I first heard that phrase, oh probably in Cyprus, but it may have been Putney, though it would certainly have fallen from Grandma’s lips, it was one of her favourites. “Could you just do me a favour and pop upstairs for my cardigan” “Can you just do me a favour on the way home from school, and see if they have any of that Merino wool in the wool shop” “Can you just do me a favour and pass me the paper, it’s in the kitchen I believe”

And off I would trot, never complaining, never even recognising it as a chore, always happy to please. No, as a child I was eager to please, especially Grandma, whose moods were quite unpredictable, and who could take offence at the slightest remark, unintended or not, so to upset Grandma by refusing a favour was unthinkable.

Then when I started work in that little engineering firm, as the youngest it was almost my duty to run favours for all and sundry, making the tea, finding or sharpening a pencil, adding up their numbers, posting letters on the way home.  And again I didn’t really mind, I preferred to be busy anyway, and they were only favours after all.  Then at the fateful hotel where I met Adrian; after a while I became a sort of de facto assistant to Eddie, my boss, and again it would be “Catherine, can you just do me a favour and get the Sales ledger files for last year, they are in the cupboard behind me.”  Yes, you heard right, behind him, far closer to his hand than mine, but obviously it was beneath him to turn around and pull down the file, even though it was further for me to walk and I would have to reach on tip-toes and he was more than six feet tall.  “Oh Catherine, could you just do me a favour, and look again at these figures, they don’t make sense to me, they are just too high compared to last month.”  “Catherine, could you do me a favour and talk to Rosemary, she has been late three mornings this week.”  And so it would go on, I don’t even think he begun to realise how often he asked me to do him a little favour, and I can honestly say that in the almost ten years I worked there I never asked him for a favour once.  And I bet he never noticed that either.  So at that point I was dying to say but never did, “No, I cannot just do you a favour – you never do any for me.  Do it yourself.”

Then I married and eager to please as ever I was always happy to do Edward favours, but these became more and more, and I became resentful and couldn’t understand why in this as so many other relationships of mine, it was me doing all the favours.  Then he was diagnosed, and I begun to wonder if his apparent idleness was actually due to his illness and his constant feelings of exhaustion, so I happily resumed doing favours for him.  So now I would say “Yes, of course I can. It’s just a little favour after all”

The lost art of handwriting a letter

Thursday 20th October

One of the few things I learnt at school was the art of good handwriting, an art that is rapidly disappearing if not actually gone already. And sadly now there is hardly any means of using it. Who bothers to handwrite anything, except maybe a grocery list, or the scores at Bridge; even when somebody gives you their phone number, the easiest way to store it is in your very own mobile phone.  I have even seen people using the camera on their phone to take a snapshot of a restaurant menu, or the name of a builder on the side of a van, something I would never have thought of, but undeniably clever too.

I cannot actually remember the last handwritten letter I received; I don’t count note-lets thanking me for a birthday present or inviting me to a summer barbeque, these usually try to get the message across using the fewest possible words, as if the act of actually picking up a pen and writing were just too much for them.  It is all the fault of modern technology, which of course, even I have embraced.  But there is the world of difference between an e-mail, a text, or even a typed as opposed to a handwritten letter.

In an e-mail, one almost always answers within a couple of minutes of receiving one, so your answer is almost, but not quite spontaneous, there is always a minute or two for re-reading and reflection, correction and spell-check before clicking send. And then you gasp, as you realise your foolishness, and quickly open sent items to check your possible faux-pas, and breathe such a sigh of relief as you realise they probably won’t even notice. Texting is even more thoughtless; spontaneity overtaking common sense every time in the rapidity of your little tapping fingers; grammar, punctuation, spelling and syntax all sacrificed in the name of speed.

A typed letter, especially nowadays as it is invariably composed in Word, can be thought about, amended, corrected and rewritten several times. This means that it is often exactly what you intend the recipient to read, which is, I can assure you, not at all the same thing as that which you intended or wanted to say.

But the hand-written letter must be thought about in a different way altogether.  Because, as there is no way of correcting it, rearranging words, consulting the thesaurus or just crossing out you have to be careful, thinking out a sentence at a time, but having a pretty good idea of your paragraphs and the eventual length of the letter at the same time. You must write slowly and carefully, but not so slowly as to give the impression that you are trying to write too neatly, you must be legible and fluent and readable and yet appear to have just picked up the pen and written.  And most of all you have to be sincere, or be sure your faltering hand will betray you. With all the others sincerity, despite the moniker Yours Sincerely, is often the last thing you are.

October days – October nights

Wednesday 19th October 

Haven’t we just had a wonderful October?  After that amazing burst of hot hot weather at the end of September, which spilled over into early October, the sun has hardly stopped shining at all.  This morning I accidentally woke up really early, I mean really early, before five o’clock for some reason, and despite the ungodly hour, and maybe because it is still pitch black when I usually wake at six, I got up and sleepily showered and was ready for my breakfast before I fully realised I was over an hour early.  On a complete whim I set out at a quarter to seven, and took a bus down to Westminster and decided to walk along the Embankment.  It was amazing, the sun was just lifting above the South Bank complex and blazing through the London Eye, and the air was so clear that the sun seemed to fill the entire southern sky.  It was a dazzling brightness I cannot remember in England before, and it was reflecting off the Thames itself, so that you really had to shield your eyes to look in that direction at all.  And the sun was a fiery yellow disc of pure light that was far too bright to do anything other than squint at, and even that low on the horizon you could still feel the warmth radiating out across the almost unimaginable ninety three million miles of vast emptiness towards me.  I felt as if I were the only person the sun was sending out a message of hope to, the few walkers at that hour were head bowed, oblivious of my pleasure and scurrying on their way to work.  I went right up to the balustrade and just stood there with my eyes closed and arms open wide, saying good morning and hello to the sunshine.  Back through St. James’s, along Birdcage Walk, across Hyde Park corner and right into Hyde Park and I ended up in Kensington Gardens itself, spirits lifted and ready for the world.  Apart from a couple of roads to cross and Hyde Park Corner subways to negotiate I had walked on grass for several miles in this largely concrete city.


So splendid October days, but so cold evenings, with little or no cloud cover, and by six thirty it is getting darker by the minute, and all you want to do is to draw the drapes, switch on all the table lamps and put the heating up a touch, curl up with a good book, and puddy-tat on your lap, and wait for the little casserole you have prepared for yourself to finish in the oven. And it is amazingly silent, I cannot even hear the background hum and swish of car-tyres on the road, just nothingness, acres of blank nothingness; for a moment I am tempted to switch on Radio 3, or the television, but no, instead I swim in and relish this silence, here where it should never be, in the heart of London.  Eventually one or two noises begin to infiltrate, a door slamming in another building or that muted sound of a car radio, probably on full blast inside the car, but so muffled by steel and air and glass and curtains that though I can recognise it as music there is no way you can tell the tune or even what genre it might be.  Now is the time I should be writing the next wretched book, which was started a few months ago in the glow of having Catherines Story accepted for publishing, but which has begun to die a death by my negligence. I know I should really go over and breathe some life into it again, but for now I remain seated, enjoying this October night to the full.