Bus and canal

When I take a bus ride, I journey to the past. Subconsciously, this is my intended destination, for I could have taken the car instead, and “saved time”. I have no reason to save time any more. Now is my invitation to spend it freely; to use if I wish to sift my past, like a prospector panning for gold in a flowing stream, that stream of which Heraclitus says you cannot step in twice and still expect it to be the same one. That’s a reason to keep coming back, paddling and gazing, scooping its sand for the glittering grains; or like Robinson Crusoe, to revisit the wreck and see what else can be redeemed from the general loss.

I’ve been reading Martin Amis’ memoir, Experience. The comparison of his childhood versus mine intensifies that sense of loss. Experience: he was rich in it, where my frustrated young self had to make do with yearning. If your father is a famous novelist, you get used to meeting top living authors without stirring from your own home. But there’s so much more: all added together his book fills me with a poignant, refreshing, agonising envy. All out of time, he takes me back into class, shows diagrams on the blackboard of my own potential; or recites an epic of gilded youth in some exotic tongue, from which I am to produce my own idiomatic translation; which will be my life. Well, I can only start now, no point to torture myself with what might have been. I could produce a translation of something, but I can’t relive my past, not literally—only literarily? Oh yes, I have learned to “be here now”! But where I am still flows from personal history. Yes, I have sloughed off earlier skins like a snake. But snakelike, I retain the same shape and coloration at each moulting. For all the civilising that civilisation has done on me, for all that instinct has been sublimated, the unconscious still keeps a perfect copy of the original, ensuring it underlies my every thought and action.

I was going to talk about a bus-ride. It provided an opportunity to scribble in my notebook, at any rate when it stopped for passengers or traffic lights. These buses judder and jolt with no inhibition, setting their fittings all a-chatter in a syncopated rhythm like loose dentures. Never mind, they serve as a Whole Body Vibration Therapy for the poor and dispossessed, especially those of us with free bus passes. Going through my mind was an orchestral hit from 1963, Vince Guaraldi’s “Cast your Fate to the Wind”, for I’d heard it on the radio before setting out. It was the summer before my free-gliding fate got fatefully snagged on a tree. I shall spare us both the details, dear reader.

I must have taken Pessoa’s Book of Disquiet on the bus with me, for I copied a fragment into my notebook: “Only the eyes we use for dreaming truly see.” Then I wrote, “Sitting on a bus puts me in an ideal state of passivity. I sit here trustingly like a child on an outing with its parents—no, something more than that— an outing with another child’s parents!” (Other parents were more to be trusted than mine, and I would have more readily surrendered to them.) Even at home, lying in bed, relaxed as it’s possible to be at the borders of wake and sleep, there’s a part of me that’s ready to twitch like the ear of a half-sleeping dog; for then I’m still in control, still subject to the dictatorship of will or dissatisfaction. I continued to scribble: “On this bus, I’ve chosen my destination. I have only to sit here tranquilly till it takes me there. I wonder how King Charles I felt that morning, the one when he was taken to his execution. He’d already cast his fate to the wind, with whose aid it got irretrievably snagged. Now he could just sit in that carriage, passive as a child in his mother’s arms, nothing at all left to do, only compose a short speech for the few listeners within earshot, before the axe fell.”

I got off the bus in Uxbridge, heading for the Grand Union Canal. It just seemed like a good idea on a day like this, to take that kind of a stroll. I discovered that to reach the towpath (where carthorses once used to pull the heavy-loaded barges between London and Birmingham) I had to sidle down an alley beside the Xerox building, where I’d worked on a contract in 1974. This was where the unconscious delivered me, on this sunny day! This was the very spot on the map, the spot marked “X” for Xerox, where my life took a major turn, in the summer of that year. There’s a score of ways I could explain that turn, but again for your sake and mine I’ll pass over the details. Suffice to say that point X marks the spot where an acute spiritual malady (let’s label it a) calcified into a chronic physical one (let’s call it b). Let’s assume that Nature knew what it was doing. Without asking permission, it bundled me roughly into a straitjacket of its own devising, to prevent me damaging myself further. I am grateful that it worked, but Nature takes time, as any tree bears witness (like this one outside my window, its leaves currently backlit by the morning sun). It’s especially so if you’re the kind of person who obstinately keeps on going when you know you’re lost. Then it levies a heavy tax on your available lifespan. In my case,

a + b = 40 years

As I wandered down the towpath I encountered a barge, faked-up into the swagger of a pirate ship, complete with skull-and-crossbones flag. Barges are moored sometimes permanently along the canal sides. Once used for freight they’re now adapted as holiday homes, or even permanent residences: expressions of their owners’ dreams, or even their owner’s children’s dreams.

“Only the eyes we use for dreaming truly see.” Like Pessoa I’m addicted to the dreaming of vicarious experience, provoked by my own past, or the Experience of my current alter ego, Martin Amis.

I wanted to finish with more from Pessoa, but won’t risk it again, not after my last post. My veneration for that author and his translator stands solid, but I admit Amis has the snazzier way of describing the unconscious mind. This time, I’ll let him do the job of paraphrasing the storms and wrecks of my adult life (the ones I have carefully failed to describe above).

It was a bad plan, but it had worked. My respect for the unconscious mind continues to grow. My unconscious mind might not have thought of the plan either, but it worked round that, and made its preparations. Really, the conscious mind can afford to give itself a rest. The big jobs are done by the unconscious. The unconscious does it all.


11 thoughts on “Bus and canal

  1. It doesn’t matter that the immediate reference of Amis’ observation, in the quote above, was the catastrophe of his teeth, and his efforts to get them fixed. It’s one of two leitmotifs that runs through his book, both metaphoric of death.

    If one is to live life to the limit, everything every day speaks of that limit. The limit of course is death.


  2. Oh good heavens. I rarely listen to my unconscious mind. It's always babbling the craziest stuff. I keep that critter firmly shuttered up in a little cage and only let it peek out now and then after it promises to behave itself. Were i to let it have it's reign I would be considered the worlds weirdest criminal or the worlds greatest performance artist or possibly just a dangerous raving lunatic. My conscious mind isn't really all that much more well behaved but it does have a firm grip on it's boundaries.


  3. Vincent, In a strange way this speaks to me today indirectly in a few ways. I had a few strong dreams last night that I jotted down in my journal. I also prefer taking long routes instead of quick routes because they allow my mind to wander.

    Like a wild garden—and I love wild gardens—even when I snip the brush around my unconscious, like today, old insecurities and oddities come up and pinch me. I then ask myself: What now! Didn’t I already learn that? Didn’t I already incorporate that into my being? I thought I worked that out. Anyway, that’s the mood of my day today and your blog seems like it fits with my mood.


  4. Very spooky, Bryan. I haven’t yet read Time’s Arrow, perhaps never will. Time’s arrow flies too fast! Was it good bus-time reading?


  5. Glad it struck a chord, Rebb. Yes, we think we have learned something, but something that we may not acknowledge as “me” has its own ideas. In fact I rather tend to reject the ego as a worthy representative of my being, unless it acknowledges the id as its leader, or at any rate its greater wisdom.


  6. Rev, I recognize this demonization of the unconscious. Wouldn't it be worth letting it out of its cage for the sake of becoming the world's greatest performance artist? No, I suppose that is not practical. It would mean a major career change. But think about it. The id could perform at the most prestigious venues. The ego could be its manager.

    I don't buy this stuff about it making you a dangerous raving lunatic. I rather take the view that any form of mental illness is an expression of, and coping strategy for, unhappiness.

    Insanity is not to be confused with exuberantly being yourself.


  7. I do miss living in a city with a good public transportation system. It always gave me time to think and reflect while watching out the windows. And I always carried a notebook. It seemed like things would just flow out of my mind while I rode and relaxed.


  8. Thanks for the inf, Bryan. I shall try to avoid being disoriented by reading it only on the return leg of a trip, facing towards the rear of the bus, so though it is going forward in time and space, I will experience the illusion of going backwards towards the point where I started.

    That should work, don't you think?


  9. Yes, Rev, the US would be a purgatory for me, without the networks of public footpaths and buses, free to those over 60 across the whole of England.

    Here it is not uncommon for a person to have no driving licence: to have never learned. I imagine it's less common in the States?


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