Stream of Unconsciousness

Last month I decided to do something I’d never done before and didn’t think I ever would. I don’t know whether the decision to do it was the result of becoming more broad-minded, or simply because I’ve given up caring.

I read a Stephen King novel.

I picked ‘The Stand’ because it was a post-apocalyptic story rather than a supernatural one. At least, that’s what I thought. Sadly, after reading several hundred pages, the Devil appeared and it all got a bit silly. But King can write and I can now see why a friend at university decided to make him the subject of his dissertation, even if I probably won’t try another of his books.

harold_lauder_the_stand

I decided to try ‘The Stand’ because I wanted a big doorstep of a novel that would provide some escapism from the stresses of daily life, particularly the recent death of a friend. Sometimes I worry that I’m turning into my father, whose tastes became increasingly lowbrow with age.

On one occasion, when I was 15 or 16, I was enjoying watching an interview with Jonathan Miller when my dad suddenly muttered something under his breath and changed channels, to a programme featuring dancing girls. I was furious.

“But I was watching that! It was…educational” I said, trying to imply that my exam results might be vaguely compromised unless we switched back to Miller.

My dad sighed. “It was flippin’ talk talk talk. I don’t want to be educated, I want to be entertained.” I felt a visceral horror at his shameless philistinism.

I can’t remember what I said in reply, but I have a feeling it reached new heights of pubescent prigishness and pomposity. After making an eloquent defence of western civilisation, I stomped out of the room and played Beethoven, loudly.

Over three decades on, I’m now the man who often can’t face watching an hour-long BBC4 documentary, but will happily make time for ‘The Walking Dead’. I don’t want to be educated. I want to be entertained.

wd

Of course, that’s not strictly true. I still read challenging books and enjoy listening to BBC podcasts of programmes like Start the Week, but there are other areas where I feel I don’t want to know any more, because what I already know is depressing enough. Indeed, there are some things that I wish that I could unlearn.

My friend’s funeral took place a couple of weeks ago, in a wood in Surrey (designated for burials rather than just some random woodland – you can’t bury bodies anywhere as that might spark a murder investigation). We were asked to wear stripes rather than formal clothes and I donned a Breton fisherman’s shirt for the first time since 1992.

I was dreading the funeral, but also looking forward to the opportunity to share our grief with others. Sadly, less than 20 minutes into the journey, my car came out in sympathy and also died. We never made it to Surrey.

My car was in good condition and should have had several years ahead of it, but by some stroke of bad luck, a seal broke and the oil started to leak into the fuel. This caused the engine to start burning the oil as well as the diesel, so that even when I took my foot off the accelerator pedal, the car kept getting faster and faster. At one point, I felt as if I was Keanu Reeves in Speed.

Luckily, as we edged towards 100mph, I saw a layby up ahead, and was able to flip the gear into neutral and coast to safety. My wife was thankfully oblivious to how much danger we were in. The AA man was clearly bemused to find two middle-aged people dressed like pirates, but he was the epitome of quiet professionalism.

The car was towed back to Lewes and later I received the good news, “Yes, we can replace the engine” followed by the bad news, “But it will cost twice the market value of the car”.

In the end, I sold a perfectly good car (engine excepted) for scrap. I received £300.

I did contemplate replacing my car with something completely impractical but great fun (I saw a lovely 2001 Jag on sale at an affordable price). Then I remembered that a friend had bought a Saab convertible (with 130,000 miles on the clock) to cheer herself up. She enjoyed ten blissful weeks of driving around Brighton before the car blew up.

I think that was also sold for scrap.

By now, you will have realised that there is no theme to this post. It is just a stream of consciousness, typed in haste before one of my sons issues a request for either food or company. That is my entire life at the moment, but come September, when they will both hopefully walk to school and college, I will be free to start doing things again and clear away the cobwebs.

In theory.

I met a very interesting woman in the pub the other day who asked me what I liked about my jobs. I told her and without pausing for thought, she replied “You should be a life coach”.

I was baffled. “Surely there’s an element of ‘Physician heal thyself’ isn’t there?” I said.

“It doesn’t matter. I can tell you’d be good at it.”

There are three possibilities. One is that she’s wrong. Two is that she tells everyone that they should be a life coach. Three is that she has a point. But I’d always dismissed it as one of those silly, made-up jobs, in which the bullshitter preys on the gullible.

Perhaps that was her point. I hope not.

36 comments

  1. Annabel (gaskella)

    If you did feel like trying another Stephen King, make it The Gunslinger – the first (and slimmest) volume in his Dark Tower fantasy/horror/western/dystopian/sf mash-up. I was totally hooked and read the lot (eventually). Shame about missing the funeral and the car dying too.

    Like

    • Steerforth

      I can do dystopian and some SF, but the fantasy, horror and western genres might be a step too far for me. But thanks for the recommendation. I’ll have a look at the first chapter.

      Like

  2. Pete

    1) I, ahem, stand by Stephen King. He writes well, although he doesn’t always know when to stop. If you relent, try his short stories, or better, his novellas (The Bachman Books, Four Seasons). I did try The Stand, twice, and couldn’t get very far, alas.

    2) I aim lower: I just don’t want to be bored.

    3) Sorry to hear about your car, and glad to hear it didn’t lead to more funerals. If it’s any consolation, it’s a good story (see: 2), and I’d like to think that any friend, late or otherwise, would get a chuckle.

    4) Funnily enough, it recently occurred to me that “Assistant Life Coach” would be an amusing comic premise. That’s about as far as I got, though. (But let me know if you’re hiring.)

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    • Steerforth

      I read The Stand in ebook format, which spared me the daunting sight of a large, paper brick. However, I did wonder why I was still on 1% after two days of reading. I agree that he’s a good writer – some passages even reminded me of Anne Tyler – but as you say, he doesn’t know where to stop and the sum isn’t equal to its parts.

      I’ll let you know about the assistant life coach vacancy. I also thought of a new angle – a death coach, helping people come to terms with their own mortality, or that of their loved ones.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. George

    I am surprised to hear that some junkyard somewhere didn’t have an engine that could be dropped in. I am sorry to hear that you are out of pocket, and that you missed the funeral. It strikes me that a number of older professions could be considered as comprehending “life coach”: cleric, psychologist, psychiatrist. But I suppose the one supposes that the flock are sinners and the others that the patients are at least neurotic. Perhaps I should include bartender.

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    • Steerforth

      My garage did mention the possibility of a secondhand engine, but the expense was still too high for the value of the car. Fortunately, my mother asked me to squirrell away some money from her account, just before she died. It was just enough to buy a new (well, secondhand) car, otherwise I don’t know what I would have done.

      Re: life coaches, I also wondered how they differed from the older professions. I suppose that unlike psychologists, they aren’t inhibited by years of training, or a code of ethics that discourages telling the patient to get their act together. As for bartenders, I’m reminded of the pilot episode of Star Trek, when the doctor opens up his case and surprises Captain Pike by pulling out a bottle of whisky, saying “There are things a man will tend his bartender that he won’t tell his doctor”.

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  4. Dale

    Just remember the Whitman rationale: “I am large, I contain multitudes.”
    There’s room enough in one large brain for high and low brows to peacefully coexist. Fortunately, you are blessed with such a brain. Goethe in one corner, The Simpsons in the other; there’s plenty of scope.

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    • Steerforth

      That’s very kind of you and I’m relieved that our meeting didn’t convince you otherwise. As for The Simpsons, I’d argue that it’s both low and high brow, with plenty of sophisticated jokes and references that must go over the heads of many of its viewers. There was one particularly memorable episode that mocked the art installations of Christo. My son had no idea what they were satirising, but still laughed.

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      • Dale

        You’re right about the Simpsons, of course. They were a last minute substitution for the Karcrashians… but my keyboard whispered to me that that was a step too far.
        Low brow comedy of your own choice, then.. Carry Ons? Benidorm? Allo Allo?

        Like

  5. Kenneth E. Valdejo

    As far as the lowbrow thing, it only gets worse as you get older (70). I had an almost exact occurance when I was a bright young teenage intellectual. Sometimes you do just wish to be entertained without engaging all of the “leetle” gray cells. It also seems that a lot of “culture” seems to be browbeating or shaming. Whatever became of Jacob Bronowski and those like like him?
    Sorry about the car, but, as an old man told me when I was a young man, “if it has wheels or tits, you are going to have trouble with it.”
    Sorry about your friend. Be thankful that you got to know her and was able to count her as a friend. I’m sure that she was thankful for you.

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    • Steerforth

      Kenneth – I love the quote about wheels or tits. I’ll have to remember that.

      Re: education versus entertainment, I suppose that when I was 17, I needed to find out how the world worked and what those things were that the grown-ups seemed to be whispering to each other about, so I avidly consumed every highbrow book, film and documentary going. But there comes a point when you feel that you have a reasonable grasp of how it all fits together and that some of this knowledge – the holocaust, child abuse, slavery etc – is too painful to contemplate on a regular basis. So instead of watching a documentary on the Lodz Ghetto, I’ll switch to The Lavender Hill Mob.

      My teenage self would be very angry with me.

      Like

  6. Allen

    So, you read post-apocalyptic novels featuring the devil as an escape from reality. Is reality really that bad? In fact, “The Stand” was inspired by a much better (and shorter) novel: “Earth Abides” by George R. Stewart.

    Perhaps it is a sign we are getting old when we aren’t entertained by education, by learning something new.

    “I’d always dismissed [life-coach] as one of those silly, made-up jobs, in which the bullshitter preys on the gullible.”
    That’s why you’d probably be very good at it, if it’s the sort of job people can be good at. It’s also why you probably won’t do it. The thing about good bullshitters is that they are also gullible. They begin by bullshitting themselves and then work their way to everyone else.

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    • Steerforth

      Reality isn’t that bad, but it is draining. The experience of trying to get a 17-year-old boy with Asperger’s through his exams is not one I would willingly repeat and by the evening, all I want to do is escape into an alternate reality. The Stand’s offputting length was actually part of the attraction – a month’s holiday rather than a weekend away. If I’d known that Old Nick himself was in it, I wouldn’t have bothered.

      I read Earth Abides a couple of years ago and really enjoyed it. It didn’t resort to cheap tricks or implausible supernatural elements. It just showed what it was to be human when the veneer of civilisation was suddenly stripped away. A very thoughtful book.

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      • Allen

        “Reality is a very nice place, but I wouldn’t want to live there.” someone said. The problem dealing with people with Asperger’s is the sudden realisation that their perception of reality is completely different to ours and might well make more sense if we let it.
        The first four chapters of “After London” by Richard Jefferies are his imagination of how civilisation vanishes from England. An extra-ordinary piece of writing.
        After that he gets on with the plot and it’s nothing like as interesting.

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  7. Joan Kyler

    I know how you feel. I’ve been involved with and active in different causes much of my life. But now, at just shy of 65, I feel it’s time for others to step up. Stop talking and DO something. I want to be entertained, too. I’m tired.
    If you set up as a ‘death coach’, let me know. With my increasing years and the barrage of commercials on U. S. TV for diseases I didn’t know existed and drugs that cause more side effects than the disease they’re supposed to treat and the commercial that starts ‘When you have cancer’, not ‘If you get cancer’, here I am, just waiting for the inevitable. Sorry, but I think I’m as depressed as you are.

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    • Steerforth

      Sorry you’re feeling as gloomy as I am. One of the hardest things about getting older is losing some of one’s contemporaries to cancer and other assorted delights. Aside from the heartbreak of seeing someone suffer, it’s also very unnerving and you can’t help wondering when your turn will come. I have to keep telling myself that most people don’t get it and out of those that do, the survival rates are increasingly positive. My wife’s aunt was diagnosed with liver cancer 13 years ago (almost to the day) and given a few months to live. She had an op and is still with us, in relatively good health. I keep reminding myself of that every time I read yet another news story about how doing x,y or z gives you cancer.

      Of course, the pharmaceutical industry loves cancer and other conditions that may require long term medication, like heart disease, stomach ulcers and diabetes. It hates illnesses that are curable after a short course of drugs, which is why antibiotic research has been underfunded.

      And now I’m adding to the gloom. Sorry. Instead, think of my wife’s grandfather who, when he was 30 years older than you, read War and Peace for the first time. For him, it was a case of “Grow old with me, the best is yet to be!” (I think that’s Tennyson).

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    • Steerforth

      I’ll have to give it a try. I didn’t see it at the time, but have always liked James Bolam since the days of ‘When the Boat Comes In’ (now there’s a programme I must watch again).

      Like

    • Steerforth

      Thank you for your kind words. I enjoyed your Dabbler piece, which brought back memories of a mispent youth watching Crossroads with my parents. There is something refreshing about programmes that are made for the moment rather than posterity and occasionally, they are so well done that they deserve to endure. A recent viewing of Crossroads revealed just how awful it was, but I am really enjoying The Brothers, which has recently been reissued on DVD. I like the way that almost every scene begins with someone filling a glass from a decanter, regardless of the time of day.

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  8. Maria

    I´m a literary translator and most of the novels I work with are about the Spanish civil war or Mexican drug cartels. So last summer, during a particularly stressful period, I tried to read a feel-good novel (of the chick lit variety). Unfortunately it just made me feel terrible.
    What works best for me when I´m depressed is reading about someone who´s MUCH worse off than me,
    like poor Ivan in “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” . I´m sure that´s not why Solzhenitsyn wrote it,
    though …

    Maria
    (in Stockholm, where we could do with a bit of escapism right now)

    Like

    • Steerforth

      I also find ‘feel-good’ books and films strangely depressing and haven’t had much luck with comic fiction either – Wodehouse leaves me cold (although I love the black humour of Evelyn Waugh).

      I made the great mistake of reading ‘One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich’ after finishing Primo Levi’s ‘If This is a Man’. A grim as the camp in Siberia was, it couldn’t compete with Auschwitz and the book didn’t affect me as much as I should have done.

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      • Maria

        I agree, very few novels can compete with Primo Levi´s. Definitely one of the best books I´ve ever read.

        Like

  9. Toffeeapple

    I really should not respond to this post because I think that SK is not a good writer, in that he doesn’t understand grammar or punctuation. I part-read one of his books and became so frustrated that I tore it up and put it in the recycling bin before I got to the end of it. I have never done that before, or since.

    I hope that your children will manage to get to and from school without you so that you might start to do what you feel that you want, again.

    I am sorry that you didn’t get to your friend’s funeral. On the other hand, one of my friends died recently but I did not go to the Crematorium, just attended the wake. The point being, the last time we had been together was at the burning of an even younger friend and I said to him that I would like to say goodbye now and I would not go to his burning but would raise a glass at his wake. He was rather pleased with that. I am to be buried in a green burial ground without a casket, and a tree firmly planted over me, so that no-one will mistake where I am. I am hoping that I might have a Linden tree because they are so fragrant.

    (If this reply is upsetting or otherwise offensive, please delete it.)

    Like

  10. Steerforth

    Toffeeapple – I would never be offended or upset by someone who has taken the time to read my post and ventured an opinion of their own. The last thing I want is an echo chamber and I really value other people’s perspectives. You might be relieved to know that I have now waved goodbye to Mr King and am back with Dickens (Our Mutual Friend), although his grammar and punctuation is a little eccentric at times.

    Re: funerals – I think you were quite right to avoid the cremation. Most of the ones I’ve been to have be depressingly perfunctory affairs, moderated by someone who didn’t know the deceased, while those that were more personal left me feeling battered. Seeing friends and loved ones in a box is never good. Far better to celebrate their life and raise a glass to the good times.

    Like

  11. Jan Stewer

    The process of attending the funerals of contemporaries is starting to resonate with me as well. The slow increase in the tempo is noticeable.

    As a coping strategy, I am trying to recognise each day as a gift whilst I still have health and important others I can appreciate and give to. I accept that this can sound cheesy and may be easier for me than others. But I don’t want to waste the opportunities that each day brings.

    Venturing onto more controversial territory, I am finding that having a Christian faith provides me with a sustaining hope and purpose. It was distressing watching the lack of purpose in my late father, who did not profess such a faith, particularly after the death of my mother, So far, it is bearing for me the weight of the sort of realities discussed above.

    Thank you, Steerforth, for a blog that is always thought provoking.

    Like

    • Steerforth

      Oddly enough, I was discussing this with my cousin only yesterday. My father had a rock solid Christian faith and death held no terrors for him. I envied him his certainties and wished that I could share them.

      Sadly, faith is an elusive thing. I lost mine in my early 20s and no amount of wishing can make it return. I think it was Calvin who believed that Hell was not a place of fire and brimstone, but simply an estrangement from God. I think there’s a lot in that.

      Without faith, I feel more depressed by the tragic things that take place. Only a month after losing a good friend to secondary breast cancer, I’ve learned that my cousin has it too. I wish that I could feel that there’s some point to it all, or some compensation in an afterlife. Instead, I just feel fearful, wondering what’s coming next. I think you’re absolutely right that the only thing we can do is regard each day as a gift and try to make the most of it.

      Like

  12. Gary Buckland (@GaryJBuckland)

    I read a lot of King in the 80s of course. He is a tremendous writer who, as commented above, doesn’t always know when to stop.
    I would recommend Misery. Not too fat and no supernatural shenanigans.
    But I’ve always felt it’s in his short stories and novellas where he really shines. Pick up Different Seasons – four novellas, three of which became excellent films.
    I often get the urge to read more King and haven’t read The Stand yet. Hmmmmm…

    Like

  13. Martin

    Re the BBC Four documentaries: the enjoyable ones are becoming few and far between. Our TV diet has veered towards unhealthy over consumption of Sky Atlantic Box-sets. As for life-coaching, there’s a guy in the village who does just that, along with a little guidance on how to be a motivational speaker. It appears that month long holidays in Antigua and endless spending power results. You could find yourself the King of Lewes!

    Like

  14. zmkc

    Another wonderful cheering post, although possibly that is the wrong thing to say, given the experiences described therein.

    By the way, I think you’d make a really superb blogger.

    Sadly, the pay is not that good, I gather

    Liked by 1 person

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