Thursday, 6 August 2009

Unbearable Snobbery

I was sitting in the grounds of Southwark Cathedral yesterday, reading a book about quantum physics. No, really I was. It was this book:


Now this post isn't actually about the book, but I feel I should mention it, as it is very excellent, and I heartily recommend it to anyone who is not an idiot. Which brings me to what this post is about: idiots. For as I sat on my park bench, with my lofty reading material, imagining that I was wearing a tweed jacket and some steel-rimmed spectacles, half-hoping that an elderly academic would come and sit beside me, perhaps with his sandwiches wrapped in brown paper, and spark up a conversation about the nature of reality, I became aware of another presence. Another soul, another sharer of my universe. I glanced up from my book.

It was, I discovered with some dismay, a pissed man. Now nothing necessarily wrong with that. It was after midday, so that's allowed. He did seem very pissed though, and I conjectured that the post-meridial nature of his inebriation was purely co-incidental. He was shouting things, too, in a strange, guttural howl, an aural melee from which occasional, comprehensible words and phrases emerged. At first I thought these ramblings were directed at the world in general, but then I noticed the headphone wires trailing from beneath his grubby baseball cap, and realised that he was on the phone. There was somebody on the other end of this. This wasn't just the drunken outpourings of a mentaller. This was a conversation.

Try as I might to return my attention to the finer points of the photoelectric effect (and the necessity of introducing quanta to explain the rate of electron dispersal), there was no getting away from the bestial hollerings of my fellow park-goer. So I had a listen. And it turned out, despite the volume of the exchange, the conversation was surprisingly banal. It was someone's birthday next week. He was meeting Tony later. Do you know where my mum is? Yeah, I'm in the park. No. What? Oh. Right.

There were quite a lot of 'fuck's in there too, which I have edited out in deference to my more sensitive readers (there might have been the odd 'cunt' as well), but on the whole it was just general chit-chat. And this, somehow, made it worse. It made the creature stumbling around in front of me even more pitiful. At least, I thought, at least have the decency, if you're going to get all pissed up and go to the park, to entertain the crowds with a paranoid, delusional, drunken monologue. Rail at the heavens, claw imaginary demons out of your hair, give stentorious voice to those half-formed, ineffable thoughts that hover so tantalisingly on the fringes of your subconscious. Intellectually vacuous it may be, but at least it's visceral. Nobody cares if you're meeting Tony later. We don't even know who Tony is.

Now I don't expect everybody in the world to be a model of erudition and wit. For heaven's sake, even I hadn't twigged that the photoelectric effect intrinsically necessitates the quantum division of electromagnetic energy until I read that book. So you can't accuse me of getting on some elitist high horse. We are all of us, to some degree, fools. But mostly fools that contain some basic elements of humanity. Something that makes us 'worthwhile'. And if you think I'm bending over backwards to include the manic tooth-gnashings of an alcoholic tramp in this, you couldn't be more wrong. I'm not even bending over forwards. I am remaining erect. Because however deluded or downright insane someone might be, a glimmer of awareness is all it takes. A glimpse of the appreciation of the privilege it is to be human. Then, to some small extent, you have justified your existence.

So the sad conclusion must be that my brief companion in the grounds of Southwark Cathedral is worse than foolish. Worse than alcoholic, deranged, morally corrupt, idiotic, tedious, violent, socially inept. Worse than all those things. He is worthless. And, without wanting to jump to conclusions, I expect Tony is too.


  1. I haven't read to the end of this post but is it one of those stories where the twist is "And that man was me"?

  2. I have just eaten some falafel in the grounds of Southwark Cathedral. Your new friend was - fortunately - noticeable by his absence.

  3. I haven't eaten so much as a KFC near Southwark Cathedral, but despise alcoholics who haven't the decency to pass out by 9.37am.

  4. Recently I was sitting with a book, at a pier, and a woman approached to ask if I was reading the Bible (I wasn't). Despite this early warning sign I put down my book and chatted amiably enough with her for a minute or two, but the conversation suddenly became a fire-and-brimstone monologue (from her) about the imminent return of Jesus Christ. Apparently he will arrive in 2012 to stop abortion, divorce, and sex not intended for procreation. We will be alerted to his return by thunder, lightning, and atomic warfare. In the meantime, the woman is on her way to Spain to become a Palmarian nun.

    I wouldn't call the man in your story - or anyone - worthless. Some people are too damaged or confused by the world to get around to developing themselves in certain ways. Some feel they don't deserve their lives to improve. I wouldn't castigate them for it, though I understand the disappointment of not being witness to what might have been a rant worthy of King Lear. Maybe you'll be luckier next time.

  5. Lisa: Strangely enough, Southwark Cathedral has recently installed a KFC outlet in its chapel. Some might call this sacrilege, but given the amount of tourists who flock there, also good business sense. There's no Threshers though. There's a niche waiting to be filled...