Ex-urbanite Will Self moved to Orkney and was forced to slow down in this squib from Idler Issue Four
I‘ve always liked the title of W.H. Hudson’s great autobiographical work Idle Days in Patagonia. And, of course, I’ve read the book itself a number of times. However, the content has rather slid through the gaps in my recollection, much as water – stained by vegetables – flows through the holes in a colander. Nowadays I confine myself to reading the title alone.
I thought of this the other night sitting in my local pub, the Taversoe Hotel. There used to be a joke when I was at school, the substance of which was that instead of actually telling a joke you simply told a number, which referred to a list of jokes, whereupon everyone fell about cackling in a knowing fashion.
Well, at the Taversoe we have taken this one step further. Tired of one another’s incessant prattle during the long winter evenings, we have put social intercourse on a more efficient basis.
There is now a list of possible conversations tacked next to the list of fine malt whiskeys the pub serves (my favourite is an Islay malt, with a fine, peaty nose and clean, salty finish, called “Old Apathetic”). If you want to talk to anyone, you simply select one of the conversations listed, turn to the person you wish to have it with, and utter the relevant number.
These range from:
1. “Getting to know you”. A brief exchange of essentially inane pleasantries is followed by more circumstantial questioning. Employment, sexual orientation, marital status, political opinions, spiritual yearnings; are all touched upon but not belaboured. Certain stresses within the dialogue and lengthy pauses give rise on both sides to an intimation of a potentially closer relationship, but without the conversation becoming in any way oppressive. Rounds: three. A short and either two pints or two glasses of wine. All the way to:
37. “Gurdieff Special”. A brief exchange of essentially inane pleasantries is followed by a whirlwind descent into deep, mutual, spiritual questioning. After identifying a shared yearning that seems to transcend both space and time, the conversationalists employ such techniques as the Rorschach ink-blot test, free association, meditational yoga and co-counselling to free themselves from the hidebound constraints of a socio-culturally constructed “identity”.
Toward dawn the conversationalists quit the pub and, much in the manner of the final sequence of Bergman’s Seventh Seal, join hands, and forming a chain, dance across the heather. Rounds: 15. May comprise any combination of drinks as long as they add up to the unrecommended 22 units per person.
This, I’m sure you’ll agree, is a brilliant solution to the problem of pub conversation. I’m always trying esoteric conversations like 14 and 32 on the locals, but invariably they stick to 11 (new bore hole sunk) and 25 (man coming over from the mainland to scan the ewes). One of the problems with being an idler living on a small, isolated island is what I term the “Groundhog Day Effect”. This occurs because there simply isn’t enough happening to go around. Undoubtedly there are people on the island who are leading incident-packed lives, but fortunately I’m not one of them. Nor is my friend Eric who works in the local salmon fishery.
About two months ago Eric bought a second-hand Ford Granada 2.3 litre. A day or so after this life event I met him in the Taversoe. “What’s happening then, Eric?” I asked. “Not a lot,” he replied coyly, “except I bought a new car the day before yesterday.” After the shock waves of this conversational bombshell had died down a little, we went out to examine Eric’s new motor. I was enthusiastic – perhaps too enthusiastic. In some parts of Britain it is still considered bad form to fellate a car aerial – even if it is second hand.
Someone once said that those who do not understand their history are doomed to repeat it. Well, I can’t understand what I’m doing wrong, but now I’ve had the 2.3 Granada conversation with Eric half a dozen times. It’s even acquired its own number, “2.3”; and I’ve heard other people in the pub having it as well.
Of course, another function of the slow pace of events is that people here have long and accurate memories. Events that happened many years ago are recalled by almost everyone with startling clarity. This island, like most of the Orkneys, is rich is prehistoric remains. The largest extant chamber tomb in Britain, Midhowe, is about ten miles from my house. It’s a formidable structure, some 50 meters long and 13 wide. It was built by neolithic people in about 3,500 BC. When it was excavated in the 1930s, the bones of 22 adults were found, symmetrically arranged in the stalls the tomb is divided into.
According to the archeologists, Midhowe was in use for as long as a thousand years. I find this incredible. To think of a small, tribal society, in which the average life expectancy was 19, using the same tomb for that many generations. To my mind it implied that these people must have been considerably different to ourselves, perhaps having some kind of bizarre group mind, or collective unconscious. But when I taxed Simon, the local builder, with this theory, he merely gave me a sanguine look and replied: “Nine”.
Living by myself, in an isolated house with few means of contact with the outside world apart from a fax machine, a telex, a networked computer (linked via modem and satellite to all major ethernets) and a videophone, I am often thrown back on my own inner mental resources for days at a time.
Initially I found this incredibly lonely and dispiriting. I seized upon any excuse I could find to make conversation with people I ran into. I would go down to the local shop and say things to the girl who works there like: “It says 40% polyunsaturated fats, 28% rancid ghee, and 2% reconstituted rennet. But I can’t believe it’s not butter.”
I even tried more risqué conversational sallies, such as: “Why do you think they’ve discontinued Camp Coffee?” But eventually I decided I would have to learn to cope with isolation. I began working on developing an appreciation of that mental state the Buddhists call “satori”, or “doing fuck all”.
To begin with I could only do fuck all for a few moments at a time. I would concentrate too hard on the doing of fuck all. As everyone familiar with this technique is no doubt aware, such an attitude can be a major blow to progress. One Ch’an master wrote: “It is not in the doing of fuck all that the fuck alledness of fuck all exists.”
I took this to heart and began to make real progress. I soon became able to enter a state of satori without any conscious effort. Now I can be doing something – making a cup of tea, or tidying a room – when I cease to be conscious of my actions at all.
When I snap out of these reveries I’m unable to tell how much time has elapsed. It can be minutes, or hours. The only way I can discover it is by trying to assess exactly how little I’ve done. On a good day this can be refreshingly little, just a paper clip moved to one side, or a cigarette paper lightly crumpled; but on bad days I may find that during my fugue I’ve scanned the odd ewe, or even submitted a planning application.
Will Self will be speaking at the Idler Festival in July. Read more here.