Friday, October 8, 2010

Excerpt: Tom McCarthy's C

The static’s like the sound of thinking. Not of any single person thinking, nor even a group thinking, collectively. It’s bigger than that, wider—and more direct. It’s like the sound of thought itself, its hum and rush. Each night, when Serge drops in on it, it recoils with a wail, then rolls back in crackling waves that carry him away, all rudderless, until his finger, nudging at the dial, can get some traction on it all, some sort of leeway. The first stretches are angry, plaintive, sad—and always mute. It’s not until, hunched over the potentiometer among fraying cords and soldered wires, his controlled breathing an extension of the frequency of air he’s riding on, he gets the first quiet clicks that words start forming: first he jots down the signals as straight graphite lines, long ones and short ones, then, below these, he begins to transcribe curling letters, dim and grainy in the arc light of his desktop . . .

He’s got two masts set up. There’s a twenty-two-foot pine one topped with fifteen more feet of bamboo, all bolted to an oak-stump base halfburied in the Mosaic Garden. Tent pegs circle the stump round; steel guy wires, double-insulated, climb from these to tether the mast down. On the chimney of the main house, a pole three feet long reaches the same height as the bamboo. Between the masts are strung four eighteen-gage manganese copper wires threaded through oak-lath crosses. In Serge’s bedroom, there’s a boxed tuning coil containing twenty feet of silkcovered platinoid, shellacked and scraped. Two dials are mounted on the box’s lid: a large, clock-handed one dead in the centre and, to its right, a smaller disc made from ash-wood recessed at the back and dotted at the front by twenty little screws with turned-down heads set in a circle to form switch-studs. The detector’s brass with an adjusting knob of ebonite; the condenser’s Murdock; the crystal, Chilean gelina quartz, a Mighty Atom mail-ordered from Gamage of Holborn. For the telephone, he tried a normal household one but found it wasn’t any use unless he replaced the diaphragms, and moved on to a watch-receiverpattern headset wound to a resistance of eight and a half thousand ohms. The transmitter itself is made of standard brass, a four-inch tapper arm keeping Serge’s finger a safe distance from the spark gap. The spark gap flashes blue each time he taps; it makes a spitting noise, so loud he’s had to build a silence box around the desk to isolate his little RX station from the sleeping household—or, as it becomes more obvious to him with every session, to maintain the little household’s fantasy of isolation from the vast sea of transmission roaring all around it.

Tonight, as on most nights, he starts out local, sweeping from two hundred and fifty to four hundred metres. It’s the usual traffic: CQ signals from experimental wireless stations in Masedown and Eliry, tapping out their call signs and then slipping into Q-code once another bug’s responded. They exchange signal quality reports, compare equipment, enquire about variations in the weather and degrees of atmospheric interference. The sequence QTC, which Serge, like any other 
Wireless World subscriber, knows means “Have you anything to transmit?”, is usually met with a short, negative burst before both questioner and responder move on to fish for other signals. Serge used to answer all CQs, noting each station’s details in his call-book; lately, though, he’s become more selective in the signals he’ll acknowledge, preferring to let the small-fry click away as background chatter, only picking up the pencil to transcribe the dots and dashes when their basic QRNs and QRAs unfold into longer sequences. This is happening right now: an RXer in Lydium who calls himself “Wireworm” is tapping out his thoughts about the Postmaster General’s plans to charge one guinea per station for all amateurs.

“. . . tht bedsteads n gas pipes cn b used as rcving aerials is well-kn0n I mslf hv dn this,” Wireworm’s boasting, “als0 I cn trn pian0 wire in2 tuning coil fashion dtctrs from wshing s0da n a needle mst I obtain lcnses 4 ths wll we gt inspctrs chcking r pots n pans 2 C tht they cnfrm 2 rgulatns I sgst cmpaign cvl ds0bdns agnst such impsitions . . .” 

Transcribing his clicks, Serge senses that Wireworm’s not so young: no operator under twenty would bother to tap out the whole word “fashion.” The spacing’s a little awkward also: too studied, too self-conscious. Besides, most bugs can improvise equipment: he once made Bodner’s spade conduct a signal and the house’s pipes vibrate and resonate, sending Frieda running in panic from her bath . . . 

Serge moves up to five hundred metres. Here are stronger, more decisive signals: coastal stations’ call signs, flung from towering masts. Poldhu’s transmitting its weather report; a few nudges away, Malin, Cleethorpes, Nordeich send out theirs. Liverpool’s exchanging messages with tugboats in the Mersey: Serge transcribes a rota of towing duties for tomorrow. Further out, the lightship 
Tongue’s reporting a derelict’s position: the coordinates click their way in to the Seaforth station, then flash out again, to be acknowledged by Marconi operators of commercial liners, one after the other. The ships’ names reel off in litany: Falaba, British Sun, Scania, Morea, Carmania, each name appendaged by its church: Cunard Line, Allen, Aberdeen Direct, Canadian Pacific Railway, Holland-America. The clicks peter out, and Serge glances at the clock: it’s half a minute before one. A few seconds later, Paris’s call-sign comes on: FL for Eiffel. Serge taps his finger on the desktop to the rhythm of the huge tower’s stand-by clicks, then holds it still and erect for the silent lull that always comes just before the time-code. All the operators have gone silent: boats, coastal stations, bugs—all waiting, like him, for the quarter- second dots to set the air, the world, time itself back in motion as they
chime the hour.

They sound, and then the headphones really come to life. The press digest goes out from Niton, Poldhu, Malin, Cadiz:
Diario del AtlánticoJournal de l’AtlantiqueAtlantic Daily News . . . “Madero and Suárez Shot in Mexico While Trying to Escape” . . . “Trade Pact Between” . . . “Entretien de” . . . “Shocking Domestic Tragedy in Bow” . . . “Il Fundatore”. . . “Husband Unable to Prevent” . . . The stories blur together: Serge sees a man clutching a kitchen knife chasing a politician across parched earth, past cacti and armadillos, while ambassadors wave papers around fugitive and pursuer, negotiating terms. “Grain Up Five, Lloyds Down Two” . . . “Australia All Out for Four Hundred and Twenty-one, England Sixty-two for Three in Reply” . . . Malin’s got ten private messages for Lusitania, seven for Campania, two for Olympic: request instructions how to proceed with . . . the honour of your company on the occasion of . . . weighing seven and a half pounds, a girl . . . The operators stay on after the Marconigrams have gone through, chatting to one another: Carrigan’s moved to President Lincoln, Borstable to Malwa; the Company Football Team drew two–all against theEvening Standard Eleven; old Allsop, wireless instructor at Marconi House, is getting married on the twenty-second . . .His tapper-finger firing up her spark gap . . . Short, then long . . . Olympic and Campania are playing a game of chess: K4 to Q7 . . . K4 to K5 . . . They always start K4 . . . Serge transcribes for a while, then lays his pencil down and lets the sequences run through the space between his ears, sounding his skull: there’s a fluency to them, a rhythm that’s spontaneous, as though the clicks were somehow speaking on their own and didn’t need the detectors, keys or finger-twitching men who cling to them like afterthoughts . . .

He climbs to six hundred, and picks up ice reports sent out from whalers: floeberg/growler 51n 10' 45.63" lat 36w 12' 39.37 long . . . field ice 59n 42' 43.54" lat 14w 45' 56.25" long . . . Compagnie de Télégraphie sans Fil reports occasional light snow off Friesland.
Paris comes on again; again the cycle pauses and restarts. Then Bergen, Crookhaven, Tarifa, Malaga, Gibraltar. Serge pictures gardenias tucked behind girls’ ears, red dresses and the blood of bulls. He hears news forwarded, via Port Said and Rome, from Abyssinia, and sees an African girl strumming on some kind of mandolin, jet-black breasts glowing darkly through light silk. Suez is issuing warnings of Somali raiders further down the coast. More names process by: Isle of Perim, Zanzibar, Isle of Socotra, Persian Gulf. Parades of tents line themselves up for him: inside them, dancers serving sherbet; outside, camels saddled with rich carpets, deserts opening up beneath red skies. The air is rich tonight: still and cold, high pressure, the best time of year. He lets a fart slip from his buttocks, and waits for its vapour to reach his nostrils: it, too, carries signals, odour-messages from distant, unseen bowels. When it arrives, he slips the headphones off, opens the silence cabin’s door to let some air in and hears a goods train passing half a mile away. The pulsing of its carriage-joins above the steel rails carries to him cleanly. He looks down at his desk: the half-worn pencil, the light’s edge across the paper sheet, the tuning box, the tapper. These things—here, solid, tangible— are somehow made more present by the tinny sound still spilling from the headphones lying beside them. The sound’s present too, material: Serge sees its ripples snaking through the sky, pleats in its fabric, joins pulsing as they make their way down corridors of air and moisture, rock and metal, oak, pine and bamboo . . .

Above six hundred and fifty, the clicks dissipate into a thin, pervasive noise, like dust. Discharges break across this: distant lightning, Aurora Borealis, meteorites. Their crashes and eruptions sound like handfuls of buckshot thrown into a tin bucket, or a bucketful of grain-rich gravy dashed against a wash-boiler. Wireless ghosts come and go, moving in arpeggios that loop, repeat, mutate, then disappear. Serge spends the last half hour or so of each night up here among these pitches, nestling in their contours as his head nods towards the desktop and lights flash across the inside of his eyelids, pushing them outwards from the centre of his brain, so far out that the distance to their screen seems infinite: they seem to contain all distances, envelop space itself, curving around it like a patina, a mould . . .

Once, he picked up a CQD: a distress signal. It came from the Atlantic, two hundred or so miles off Greenland. The
Pachitea, merchant vessel of the Peruvian Steamship Company, had hit an object—maybe whale, maybe iceberg—and was breaking up. The nearest vessel was another South American, Acania, but it was fifty miles away. Galway had picked the call up; so had Le Havre, Malin, Poldhu and just about every ship between Southampton and New York. Fifteen minutes after Serge had locked onto the signal half the radio bugs in Europe had tuned into it as well. The Admiralty put a message out instructing amateurs to stop blocking the air. Serge ignored the order, but lost the signal beneath general interference: the atmospherics were atrocious that night. He listened to the whine and crackle, though, right through till morning—and heard, or thought he heard, among its breaks and flecks, the sound of people treading cold, black water, their hands beating small disturbances into waves that had come to bury them.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Excerpt: Stephen Fry's Moab is my Washpot


"Look, Marguerite ... England!"
Closing lines of 
The Scarlet Pimpernel, 1934


For some reason I recall it as just me and Bunce. No one else in the compartment at all. Just me, eight years and a month old, and this inexpressibly small dab of misery who told me in one hot, husky breath that his name was Samuelanthonyfarlowebunce.
    I remember why we were alone now. My mother had dropped us off early at Paddington Station. My second term. The train to Stroud had a whole carriage reserved for us. Usually by the time my mother, brother and I had arrived on the platform there would have been a great bobbing of boaters dipping careless farewells into a sea of entirely unacceptable maternal hats.
    Amongst the first to arrive this time, my brother had found a compartment where an older boy already sat amongst his opened tuck-box, ready to show off his pencil cases and conker skewers while I had moved respectfully forward to leave them to it. I was still only a term old after all. Besides, I wasn't entirely sure what a conker skewer might be.
    The next compartment contained what appeared to be a tiny trembling woodland creature.
    My brother and I had leaned from our respective windows to send the mother cheerfully on her way. We tended to be cruelly kind at these moments, taking as careless and casual a leave of her as possible and making a great show of how little it mattered that we were leaving home for such great stretches of time. Some part of us must have known inside that it was harder for her than it was for us. She would be returning to a baby and a husband who worked so hard that she hardly saw him and to all the nightmares of uncertainty, doubt and guilt which plague a parent, while we would be amongst our own. I think it was a tacitly agreed strategy to arrive early so that all this could be got over with without too many others milling around. The loudness and hattedness of Other Parents were not conducive to the particular Fry tokens of love: tiny exertions of pressure on the hands and tight little nods of the head that stood for affection and deep, unspoken understanding. A slightly forced smile and bitten underlip aside, Mummy always left the platform outwardly resolute, which was all that mattered.
    All that taken care of, I slid down in my seat and examined the damp shivering thing opposite. He had chosen a window seat with its back to the engine as if perhaps he wanted to be facing homewards and not towards the ghastly unknown destination.
    "You must be a new boy," I said.
    A brave nod and a great spreading of scarlet in downy, hamstery cheeks.
    "My name's Fry," I added. "That's my bro talking next door."
    A sudden starburst of panic in the fluffy little chick's brown eyes, as if terrified that I was going to invite my bro in. He probably had no idea what a bro was.
    The previous term I hadn't known either.
    "Roger, Roger!" I had cried, running up to my brother in morning break. "Have you had a letter from—"
    "You call me bro here. Bro. Understood?"
    I explained everything to the broken little creature in front of me. "A bro is a brother, that's all. He's Fry, R. M. And I'm Fry, S. J. See?"
    The hamster-chick-squirrel-downy-woodland thing nodded to show that it saw. It swallowed a couple of times as if trying to find the right amount of air to allow it to speak without sobbing.
    "I was a new boy last term," I said, a huge and perfectly inexplicable surge of satisfaction filling me all the way from gartered woollen socks to blue-banded boater. "It really isn't so bad, you know. Though I expect you feel a bit scared and a bit homesick."
    It didn't quite dare look at me but nodded again and gazed miserably down at shiny black Cambridge shoes which seemed to me to be as small as a baby's booties.
    "Everybody cries. You mustn't feel bad about it."
    It was at this point that it announced itself to be Samuelanthonyfarlowebunce, and to its friends Sam, but never Sammy.
    "I shall have to call you Bunce," I told him. "And you will call me Fry. You'll call me Fry S. J. if my bro is about, so there won't be any mix up. Not Fry Minor or Fry the Younger, I don't like that. Here, I've got a spare hankie. Why don't you blow your nose? There'll be others along in a minute."
    "Others?" He looked up from emptying himself into my hankie like a baby deer hearing a twig snap by a water pool and cast his eyes about him in panic.
    "Just other train boys. There are usually about twenty of us. You see that piece of paper stuck to the window? `Reserved for Stouts Hill School' it says. We've got this whole carriage to ourselves. Four compartments."
    "What happens when we get ... when we get there?"
    "What do you mean?"
    "When we get to the station."
    "Oh, there'll be a bus to meet us. Don't worry, I'll make sure you aren't lost. How old are you?"
    "I'm seven and a half."
    He looked much younger. Nappy age, he looked.
    "Don't worry," I said again. "I'll look after you. Everything will be fine."
    I'll look after you.
    The pleasure of saying those words, the warm wet sea of pleasure. Quite extraordinary. A little pet all to myself.
    "We'll be friends," I said. "It won't be nearly as bad as you expect. You'll see."
    Kindly paternal thoughts hummed in my mind as I tried to imagine every worry that might be churning him up. All I had to do was remember my own dreads of the term before.
    "Everyone's very nice really. Matron unpacks for you, but you've got to take your games clothes down to the bag room yourself, so you'll have to know your school number so as you can find the right peg. My number's one-o-four, which is the highest number in the school's history, but twelve boys left last term and there are only eight or nine new boys, so there probably won't ever be a one-o-five. I'm an Otter, someone'll probably tell you what House you're in. You should watch out for Hampton, he gives Chinese burns and dead legs. If Mr. Kemp is on duty he gives bacon slicers. It's soccer this term, my bro says. I hate soccer but it's conkers as well which is supposed to be really good fun. My bro says everyone goes crazy at conker time. Conkers bonkers, my bro says."
    Bunce closed up the snotty mess in the middle of my hankie and tried to smile.
    "In two weeks' time," I said, remembering something my mother had told me, "you'll be bouncing about like a terrier and you won't even be able to remember being a bit nervous on the train."
    I looked out of the window and saw some boaters and female hats approaching.
    "Though in your case," I added, "you'll be buncing about ..."
    A real smile and the sound of a small giggle.
    "Here we go," I said. "I can hear some boys coming. Tell you what, here's my Ranger. Why don't you be reading it when they come in, so you'll look nice and busy."
    He took it gratefully.
    "You're so kind," he said. "I've never met anyone as kind as you."
    "Nonsense," I replied, glowing like a hot coal.
    I heard the grand sounds of approaching seniors.
    "Okay then, Mum," someone said.
    "Don't say `okay,' darling. And you will write this time, won't you?"
    "Okay, Mum."
    My bro and I never called our parents Mum and Dad. It was always Mummy and Daddy until years later when Mother and Father were officially sanctioned. Towards adulthood we allowed ourselves to use, with self-conscious mock-Pooterism, Ma and Pa.
    Last term, I had put my hand up in an art lesson and said, "Mummy, can I have another piece of charcoal?" The form had howled with laughter.
    There again, during the first weeks of summer holidays I often called my mother "Sir" or "Matron."
    Bunce buried himself in the Trigan Empire, but I knew that he was listening to the sounds too and I could tell that the confidence and loudness of the other boys' voices terrified him. He clutched the sides of the comic so hard that little rips appeared on the outer pages.
    On the way to Paddington after lunch I had felt more dread, infinitely more terror and despair at the prospect of school than I had the term before. During the long summer holiday Roger had told me to expect this. Homesickness was much worse the second and third terms than it was the first. Bunce had come as a godsend therefore, something to take my mind off my own fears.
    The door to our carriage slid open with a loud bang.
    "Oh God, it's Fry's Turkish Delight. And what the hell are you doing by the window?"
    "Hello, Mason," I said.
    "Come on, shove over."
    Bunce started to rise like a courteous old commuter offering his seat to a heavily-packaged woman. "Would you like ...?" he began huskily.
    "No, I want Fry's seat, if he hasn't stunk it out yet."
    Well there it was. I felt my face flush scarlet as I got up mumbling something inaudible, and removed myself to the corner seat farthest from the window.
    For five minutes I had enjoyed the sensation of someone looking up to and admiring me. Bunce had respected me. Believed in me. Trusted me. Now the little puppy would see that the rest of the school treated me as if I was no one. Just another tiresome squit. I sat in my new seat, trying to look unconcerned and stared down at my bare knees and the grazes and indentations of gravel still there from a bicycle fall. Only yesterday afternoon I had been riding along the lanes listening to skylarks high in the huge Norfolk skies and watching partridges tread stubble in the fields. Three weeks ago I had had my eighth birthday party and been taken to see The Great Raceat the Gaumont in Norwich.
    Mason settled himself into his conquered seat and looked across at Bunce with great curiosity and an air of faint repugnance, as if Bunce might be of a breed he had never run into before and hoped never to encounter again.
    "You," said Mason, kicking across at him. "Have you got a name then?"
    The reply came as something of a shock.
    "I have got a name," said Bunce, rising, "but it's none of your bloody business."
    Mason looked stupefied. There was nothing in the least bad about him. In taking my seat and remarking on my smell he had meant no particular insult, he was merely exercising the natural privilege of seniority. Seniority is pay-back time. He had been treated like a worm when he was small, now it was his turn to treat those under him like worms. He was ten, for heaven's sake. He was allowed to wear long trousers. At prep school, ten is to eight what forty is to twenty in adult life.
    "I'm going over there," said Bunce, pointing to the seat next to mine. "It smells better over there." He threw himself down beside me with a determined bounce on the springs and then ruined everything by bursting into tears.
    Mason was denied the chance of any response to this astonishing eruption by the entrance into the compartment of Kaloutsis and his parents. It was not at all done for Family to board the train, but Kaloutsis was Greek and his parents serenely above the finer points of English protocol.
    "Ah, and here's a little one," cried Mrs. Kaloutsis, swooping down on Bunce. "And no one looking after you?"
    "Thank you," Bunce snivelled, "but Fry S. J. is looking after me very well indeed. Very well. Very well indeed. I had a smut in my eye and he lent me his handkerchief."
    Train boys were generally the sons of military or colonial parents, and had flown in to London Airport to be picked up by uncles, aunts or godparents who would take them on to Paddington. Most other boys at Stouts Hill were driven to school by their parents.
    The reserved compartments filled up over the next quarter-hour with deeply tanned boys returning from hot weeks in places like Northern Rhodesia, Nigeria, India, Aden, the West Indies and Ceylon. One boy, Robert Dale, whom I liked, sat opposite me and Bunce and told us about India. Dale's father edited an English-language newspaper in Bombay and Dale always shouted "Aiee!" when he was in pain. It had amazed me greatly when I first heard him stubbing his toe against the foot of the bed in the dormitory, since I had never imagined that expressions of pain could vary. I had thought "Ouch!" and "Ow!" were the same all over the world. I had suffered a hot and bothered exchange in my first French lesson, for example, when I was told that the French for "Oh!" was "Ah!"
    "Then how do they say `Oh,' sir?"
    "They say ``Ah.'"
    "Well then, how do they say `Ah'?"
    "Don't be stupid, Fry."
    I had sulked for the rest of the lesson.
    Dale took off his shoes and socks and leaned back. He had the most splendidly fine feet, with a perfect, even spread of toes. At the beginning of every autumn term boys like him who spent their school holidays in Africa, Asia or the West Indies would show off by running across gravel barefoot without any pain. By the end of the term, with winter set in, their feet would have lost their natural tough layers of callused skin and they would be just the same as the rest of us.
    A guard looked in and performed a brief headcount. He gazed into the middle distance and told us that the last boy who had rested his foot on a seat had been arrested by the police at Didcot and put in prison, where he still languished on a diet of bread and water.
    "Sounds better than school food," said Dale.
    The guard grunted at our giggles and left. Boaters were thrown on to luggage-racks, feet put up on seats and talk turned to soccer, what had been done in the hols, who was going to be made prefect and the whole Edwardian schoolboy novel nonsense. Mason seemed to have forgotten all about Bunce's strange outburst and was delighting the boy opposite with underarm farts.
    After one of those squealing, juddering, stomach-dropping false starts with which trains so tactlessly articulate human emotion, we pulled ourselves out of the great shed of Paddington and steamed west.

The Gloucestershire town of Stroud, sanctified by the memory and to the memory of Laurie Lee, produces—or used to produce—almost all the baize that Britain and her dominions ever thought to use. Baize for the doors into servants' quarters, baize for billiards, snooker and pool, baize for card tables, baize for casinos, auction-rooms and baize to drape over the cages of songbirds to fool them into thinking it night. Some miles to the south of Stroud stands the Bury, a great green hill over whose shoulders one might believe the weavers of the Slad Valley once threw a huge bolt of their baize as a giant billboard to show off their product to the world. The small village of Uley snuggles itself into the thicker nap at the base of this fuzzy-felt hill and sleeps there contentedly, unaware of triple-thick shakes, pay-per-view Fight Nights, Lottery Winsday and driver's side air bags. The village of Uley still believes in Gestetnered parish magazines, dividend tea, sherbet dips, Heinz Salad Cream and half-timbered Morris vans. The village of Uley grows lobelias and alyssum on the front fringes of lawn that bank up to warm ham-stone cottages out of which rumble the deep tones of Long Wave wireless. The village pub of Uley radiates a warm vapour in which are mingled the vanilla richness of pipe tobacco and the malty hum of Usher's Ales. The village church of Uley has its fragrance too, a compound of Esso Blue, Mansion furniture wax and hymn books in a state of permanently suspended decay.
    High on a mound half a mile away stands Stouts Hill School, a dashing castle of knapped flint, all turrets and arrow-slits and skirted by a dragon-fly flicking, carp-snapping, mallow-flaming lake. The lane from Stouts Hill to the village winds steeply down to the Dursley Road. There is horse shit there, dropped in caramac-coloured lumps by warm-sided bay mares ridden by gymkhana-jolly girls who blush fiercely when they meet your eye.
    There is horse shit there all right.
    In the village of Uley nought-percent-financed Daewoos lurk behind remotely controlled carport doors, satellite dishes glitter from the roofs, copal-varnished slices of barked Do-It-All elmwood proclaim Mulberry Lodge, South Fork and El Adobe. A blackboard outside the village pub vibrates in three-coloured chalk with the promise of Happy Hour, pool, premium guest beers and big screen satellite TV. The smell of stale lager and Doritos leaks up the main street to the church, where laserprinted [A.sub.4] pages flap announcements from the chancel wall promising car boot sales and outreach fellowship retreats in Wales. Lard-arsed fatties in Russell Athletic sweatshirts swap Sensual Love Guide CD-ROMs with their neighbours as their Nike-ticked kids line up burger cartons on the barbecue patio and zap them with turbo-boosted water guns. The girls smear blusher on their cheeks and poke their tongues out fiercely when they meet your eye. Stouts Hill the school has closed now, to be replaced by Stouts Hill the time-share holiday home.
    Well, maybe it's not so bad. Somewhere between warm gloop and cold water is the tepid truth about the village of Uley, which gets on with life as charmingly as it can. There was a time when the very Mansion furniture wax, dividend tea and gymkhana girls of sentimental memory were themselves modern and noisomely resented intrusions; books will one day be written that recall CD-ROMs and Russell Athletic sweatshirts in a nostalgic melancholy haze as fervent and foolish as any.
    We will cut, just for a moment, to London. These days I have a flat in St. James's, that elegant parcel of metropolitan clubland bordered by Piccadilly, Pall Mall, St. James's Street and Lower Regent Street. It suits, I suppose, my self-image—or rather that image of me others have that I often weak-mindedly allow to become my self-image—to live in St. James's. St. James's has long been the natural habitat of the upper-class English bachelor. Here he may browse for shirts and ties in Jermyn Street, for hats and shoes in Lock's and Lobb's, for foodstuffs in Fortnum's, for literature in Hatchards and the London Library, and for company in Brooks's, White's, Boodle's, Buck's or (if tragically pushed) in the improbably named East India, Devonshire, Sports and Public School's Club, where the best school curry in all London can be found, served with sultanas and slices of banana, washed down with lukewarm London tap water poured into stout little Duralex glasses. I have lived in St. James's for the last five years, not a proper English upper-class bachelor at all, but tired of Islington, the proper home for people like me, and never at ease west of Hyde Park Corner or south of the Strand.
    From my window I can see the clock face of Christopher Wren's handsome church of St. James. Behind it—the other side of Piccadilly—Sackville Street leads up to Savile Row and the great Nash curve of Regent Street. In the year 1961 my parents visited Sackville Street, examining each doorway in turn until they came upon a brass plaque on which was written:


In the year 1977 I too visited Sackville Street, looking for the brass plaque that still said:


I don't suppose that any writer will ever be able to come up with a partnership that quite matches the ludicrous perfection of the names Gabbitas and Thring.
    What is a scholastic agency?
    Oh, tish now, and come, come, come ... you know perfectly well.
    A scholastic agency is a kind of public-and prep-school dating agency. It acts as a private sector pimp, procuring staff for shorthanded schools, placement for jobless teachers and schools for parents at a loss to know where their little ones might thrive. That second service was of interest to me in 1977, and the third to my mother and father in 1961.
    They wanted to find a prep school for my brother, Roger, and for me. I was four years old then and Roger well on his way to six. Today of course, what with the establishment of social equality, the smashing of the class system and the achievements of a Nation More at Ease with Itself, by the time your offspring have reached four and five it is far too late to be looking for schools: demand for private education is so high that children must be put down for admission not at birth but in utero, ideally before their first cells have divided.
    There may be some reading this who are hazy (and proudly so) about the precise meanings of "prep school" and "public school."
    A prep school is an establishment designed, as the name implies, untypically for a British institution, to prepare a child. In this instance the preparation is for public school. Public school, as the name decidedly does not imply, very typically for a British institution, is wholly private. Public schools undertake to guide, mould and instruct pupils aged between thirteen and eighteen. Prep schools accept their intake from somewhere in the region of eight, nine or ten years old, and prepare them for the Common Entrance Examination, a test recognised by all the public schools. Different public schools are satisfied by different CE results. Thus Winchester, which has an interest in only the cleverest boys, would expect CE marks way above seventy per cent, while Malvern and Worksop and Monckton Combe, by way of example, might be content with percentages in the nether fifties or upper forties. There is, it follows, no absolute pass mark in the Common Entrance. Public schools can decide whom they take according to their need to have a fully pupilled and profitable school roll, according to their own sense of academic reputation, according to a candidate's athletic, musical or artistic qualities, or according to his status as offspring of an old boy or a Great, Rich and Desirable Parent.

At the time of my infancy, the early 1960s, nearly all prep and public schools were single-sex boarding schools. Today, girls are involved to a much greater degree, sometimes only in the sixth form, sometimes all the way through. Parents are more reluctant to pack their children off early and may choose to have them attend as day pupils or weekly boarders. Headmasters are younger than they were and more likely to be married. Parents expect more say in the running of a school, to attend more PTA meetings and to complain more vocally about living conditions, discipline and the curriculum. Heating, diet, facilities, syllabus and discipline seem far less Spartan now than they were twenty years ago. But these changes aside, the system, so far as I have been able to ascertain, is much as it was.