Click here to read part 6.
Where were we?
Birmingham School of Business School
Laughing-stock of European
Olympic bidding again and again
Birmingham was the civic equivalent of an aging TV star signing autographs for 5 quid a pop at a poorly attended fan convention. Its glory days, to be frank, were not that glorious, and very much behind it. The pretensions of the civic leaders, often bolstered by romantic tales of the city’s proud working class history, and the hopes of local business leaders, who dreamt of silicon valleys beyond their reach and imagination, couldn’t assail the imperial power of the great capital, London, nor come close to emulating the success of the shining entrepreneurial cathedrals across the Atlantic. Birmingham is doomed to forever strive for greatness but equally doomed to never achieve it.
Much the same could be said of Birmingham’s institutions of higher education.
It would be too cynical, and quite wrong, to be entirely sarcastic about any effort to educate, enlighten and uplift. I was luckily ensconced in a PhD program, entirely paid for by the University, trying earnestly to apply the scientific method to human emotions. Not, of course, by engaging or understanding my own — for that would have required a level of emotional intelligence far beyond my powers. No, I aimed to understand our intimate feelings of subjectivity by writing code, that is building computational theories, and then writing papers and attending conferences etc. Exciting developments indeed.
And so it came to pass that an academic conference on “Understanding Emotions” materialized in the red-brick campus of Birmingham University, probably sometime around 1997, a campus originally built in the 1900s with funding from Andrew Carnegie (the Scottish-American robber-baron) and “Sir” John Holcroft (infamous for funding private militias to violently attack striking workers). Such luminaries decorated the campus with the clock tower, “Old Joe”, a knock-off of the Torre del Mangia in Siena. According to local legend Old Joe is the tallest free-standing clock tower in the world. This is almost certainly false, a typical overcompensatory boast by civic leaders highly conscious of Birmingham’s second, and perhaps third rate, status.
Given my PhD topic I naturally attended the conference. Not in a professional manner, however, but with the attitude of a teenager who had successfully gatecrashed a wedding and then been offered free booze. So, under the auspices of the great clock tower, in a roomy tabled space somewhere on campus, I happened to sit down for lunch and found myself opposite the relatively famous English novelist, David Lodge.
This was unusual, and mildly exciting. Novelists don’t normally attend conferences on Artificial Intelligence. Such grubby engineering is typically below them. They would rather consort with the muses than ill-smelling men with strong opinions on the best operating system. And so, given the serendipity of actually sitting next to him, and my overwhelming social anxiety to remove silences and fill them with conversation, I decided to speak. Plus I was a bit drunk already.
“Hi, I really enjoyed your novel The History Man, thought it was great.”
Lodge, looking surprised and mildly perturbed, replied, “Ah, ha ha, I didn’t write that one. That was Malcolm Bradbury.”
Someone less drunk would have been mortified. But my alcohol armour buttressed me against embarassment, even as the others on the table, conscious of a fuck up, stopped their conservations and started listening in.
Lodge continued, in a humble and affable way: “Actually, I’ve lost count of the number of times that people confuse us for each other.”
Oh yes, I remember now, thought I: the History Man was written by that other semi- famous novelist. Not David Lodge. I needed to recover. I had fumbled the ball, but it was still within reach before it hit the ground. My “Drunken Style” of inebriated conversation had many resources to draw upon. Quickly, I replied, “Oh sorry. Erm, yes, easy to confuse the two of you. I remember now … you run the well-known creative writing course at East Anglia University. Loads of other famous others have emerged from that. Didn’t Ian McEwan take your course?”
Lodge paused. His eyes narrowed, steeled, and I could see micro-emotions flit across the muscles in his face. He replied: “No, that was Malcolm Bradbury too”.
Damn, another miss. Although that was just unlucky, thought I. The alcohol, coupled with my postgraduate attitude that I couldn’t really be held responsible for anything, fortified me. I knew I was in a hole. Lodge, even I could see, was beginning to wonder if I was deliberately trying to annoy him. I was dimly conscious of embarrassment and panic submerged in a strong wash of alcohol and overridden by my earnest desire to make a connection with a fellow human being. As quickly as I could manage (i.e. while gulping more wine) I scoured my memory for something – anything – for which I could recognise this famous novelist, and communicate the respect that I assumed (purely heuristically) he deserved. So I reached for my final save.
I slurred, “Oh yes, I remember now! I really enjoyed your Small World! I didn’t read the book, of course, but I watched the ITV television adaption and thought it was really good.”
I didn’t think it was good at all. I’d bailed out on the first episode. It was a story about academics trying to have sex with each other. But I had at least watched some of it.
Lodge, relaxing slightly, said: “Ah yes, that was one of mine. Many people tell me they enjoyed the TV adaptation. I had a slight hand in it, of course, and it came out rather well.”
Successful save! Now, I only had to extend this conversational topic for a few rounds and the memories of my previous fumbles would be forgotten. A normal stress-free conversation was within my grasp. I even sensed, out of the corner of my eye, the rest of the table lean back, ready to resume their own conversations.
But what did I remember about Small World? I could hardly remember anything about it. I remember being bored and confused. And I remembered the sex. I seemed to recall there was a decent amount of it. Much more than is usual for TV dramas today. Even the tabloids had raged about its immorality at the time.
So I replied, “Yes, I was a teenager at the time, ha ha. So I do remember noticing there was quite a lot of sex in it!”
Lodge, smiling: “Well, the TV adaptation was quite bawdy but I don’t think it was pornographic.”
And quick as a synaptic flash I said: “Oh no, it wasn’t as good as that.”
Lodge’s smile vanished. And he didn’t talk to me again during the entire luncheon.
I retreated to arguing with a fellow student about whether a rock had cognitive states, all my hopes of literary communion gone.
I had managed to insult where I had intended to show respect. Such are the complex vagaries and pitfalls of human conversation. Lodge, of course, is quite blameless and the real victim here. No famous novelist should have to sit down to a relaxing lunch, perhaps secretly looking forward to being the centre of social attention, and then suffer some oik confuse him with a different author, not once but twice, and finally be told, almost as a punchline, that their work had less value than pornography. But, and on the other hand, no famous novelist should actually care about this little incident, and dwell on it, perhaps file it away in their mind, to even brood on it, for it to eat away at them, until the insult reached gigantic and fantastic proportions such that the memory of my pasty youthful face became forever associated with the deepest, thickest, blackest salty bile of resentment and hatred. At least one would Think ….
I had dislodged lodge. And little did I know that I had indeed made a deep human connection with him, but not of the kind I had intended …
Click here to read part 8.