Phil Gyford

Writing

Sunday 20 March 2005

PreviousIndexNext Guardian Review, 19 March 2005

Continuing the Ian McEwan theme, here he is in the Guardian with a bit about travelling to the arctic on a boat full of artists. I love this rather long excerpt, which I must remember when I get annoyed with people who don’t sit in their assigned seats at the cinema; a simple wrong that ends up with a theatre full of grumpy people:

Because we are gloriously imperfect, expelled from Eden, longing to return, you find that on the second day, when you venture out into the boot room, in your socks, in a hurry because your companions are waiting outside by the belching skidoos, ready for yet another face-peeling punishment ride (oh God, seven more kilometres — when will it end?) across the cement-like floor of the fjord, that someone has taken your splash suit, or your helmet, boots, goggles, or all four.

This person has his own stuff, but he has ruthlessly, or mistakenly, taken yours. In a moment’s extravagance of self-pity, you might think how all history’s injustice is here — this is how some people end up with three goats and nine hens while others have none — the filching of a neighbour’s land, water, chattels or cattle, and in reaction, war, revolutions, mayhem.

So, what are you going to do? Your impatient companions are stamping their feet on the ice. You might reflect that it is not evil that undoes the world, but small errors prompting tiny weaknesses - let’s not call them dishonesty — gathering in rivulets, then cascades of consequences. In the golden age of yesterday, the boot room had finite resources, equally shared — those were the initial conditions, the paradise before the Fall we visitors are bound to re-enact. It could go something like this: the owner of size 43 boots left them last night in a forgotten corner. This morning he seizes another pair of 43s and puts them on. Half an hour later, their true owner comes out into the gloom of the boot room, cannot see his own boots, cannot see the 43s obscurely stowed, and empowered by a sense of victimhood, does exactly what you are doing now: reaching for the nearest 44s.

“Of Man’s first disobedience,” Milton blindly wrote, “and the fruit of that forbidden tree …” — now you yourself are about to try that “mortal taste” that “brought death into the world and all our woe, with loss of Eden …” Ten minutes later, the owner of those size 44 boots appears. He’s a good man, a decent man, but he must now take what is not his own. With the eighth Commandment broken, the social contract is ruptured too. No one is behaving particularly badly, and certainly everybody is being, in the immediate circumstances, entirely rational, but by the third day, the boot room is a wasteland of broken dreams. Who could be wearing five splash suits when they weigh 20 pounds each? Who needs more than one helmet? And where are the grown-ups to advise us that our boot room needs a system? Hobbes would say we need a Common Power of which we might stand in awe. As things are, this is Chaos, just as Haydn conceived it, and tomorrow morning it will make us miserable. Meanwhile, as Arctic night gathers tightly around Tempelfjord, inside the toasty warmth of our Ark, elevated by the Vin de Pays, we discuss our plans to save a planet many times larger than our boot room.