Saturday 15 June 2013

Fever Diary – February 16th 20--

I have my Rocinante at last. Donated by Miss Statton’s brother, who apparently gave up cycling when he entered the Inns of Court.  A far cry from the touring bicycles of my youth, but a worthy steed, I think. The gearing is more complex than I am used to, but I was absurdly pleased when I saw it and couldn’t fathom why, until I realised that it represented a degree of freedom – a ticket to explore the changed city now that I seem to have regained my health.   
A further degree of liberty has also been afforded by the arrival of bi-weekly payments from the state. They seemed like a fortune until I discovered the cost of living, but this is to be expected. Tobacco and tea are my chief indulgences and oh, how I have missed them.
The process of applying for such assistance was possible only by accepting and acknowledging my identity as Lewis Allways. I objected to this, but as I retain none of my own identity documents, I could see no other option. In the end, rather in the manner of my acceptance of a position as a propagandist at the BBC, (making the message marginally less disgusting than it might otherwise have been) I came to an all too convenient accommodation with myself. Rather more persuasive than my own ethical pirouetting, Pedro pointed out that our rent and minimal living expenses would be guaranteed on the basis of my alleged ‘mental incapacity’. Armed with a written diagnosis from Miss Statton that was treated like a Papal edict by the local authorities, we were soon on Easy Street as far as I was concerned, albeit with an uneasy conscience and the perception that the decision was likely to come back and haunt us before long.
I find that cash is regarded as the currency of the poor and very much looked down upon even by the smallest corner shop. It used to be a sign of conspicuous wealth (or spivvery) to go around with a bankroll of crisp notes. Now you are regarded with suspicion and derision if you do not pay with your MC. The MC is a handheld device activated by a thumbprint (I am not entirely certain of this) that effectively supervises your entire life. The most common versions are thin rectangles of hard material, the more luxurious, transparent squares of indestructible ‘paper’ that can be folded or rolled. As well as communication, entertainment, projection and diary functions, it also serves as a means to pay bills. Transport is accessed by simply passing it across a barrier and shop purchases are made in the same manner. Simply proffering a note or coin across the counter is enough to provoke an exasperated sigh followed by a head to toe appraisal of your exact value in Eurodollar, creditworthiness and social status.
The crumbling converted Edwardian maisonette, in which Pedro and I are currently living, encourages an early exit after waking, if only to eat and get a little heat into the bones. Every Monday, a plastic container of milk and a wrapped loaf of bread are left by the landlord in the hall and apparently fulfil his legal obligation to provide daily bed and breakfast accommodation. These offerings constitute breakfast provision for the week and may be regarded, I think, as an inedible loophole in the contract he has with the local authority.
The bread is a an unnatural white colour that reminds me of the chalk and flour loaves meanly got up by famine hit villages in Spain during the worst of the blockades. There are few cooking facilities beyond an electric kettle and a luxuriously appointed pop-up toaster, a necessity when all of the existing fireplaces in the Edwardian house conversion appear to have been boarded up. Pedro has shown his ingenuity by use of the small metal frames that are built into the top of the device and enable him to heat broth in the opened can. It’s a perilous exercise which I am certain will eventually lead to a spillage that, if we survive, will see us imbibing a form of electric soup. He has since constructed a small grill with salvaged bricks in the tiny walled yard in front of the house facing the towpath.
The room itself is, of course, very small with a single bed covered by a puffy stuffed material that replaces the normal blanket and upper sheet.  There is a telescreen as there is everywhere, although it is quite small and battered looking.  The programming is commanded by the ubiquitous jukebox method of selection, which affords me a seemingly endless choice of viewing. Pedro is contemptuous and complains that it is a very restricted menu and that they only have one in the room because access to mobnet is considered to be some sort of civil rights issue. Evidently people are still allowed to starve, to be unemployed, to be homeless and to roam the streets baying at the moon, but they cannot be deprived of the right to a virtual world that bears no relation to their own. 
Remembering my whale watching in the waiting area of UCH, I have successfully programmed the device to show me only wildlife documentaries and a single BBC News Channel. Here I can flip between the naked savagery of animal interaction and the natural history programmes.
The draughty window, stuffed around the edges with paper, looks out over the Lea Navigation Canal. The view in the mornings when the mist is rising from the Walthamstow Marshes is eerie but beautiful. It also means that the room is almost permanently damp. A heating panel against one wall affords a cosy but intermittent comfort after eight in the morning until around noon. Even so, I can honestly say that it ranks highly over my Canonbury Square flat in winter.
The Hasidic Jews congregate by the waters of the canal to feed ducks, ride bikes and to pray. I understand they even have a separate Stamford Hill ambulance service. There is something disorienting in the sight of people dressed as 18th century Polish aristocrats to a man wrenched out of my own century into an already chaotic future. Nonetheless, I find a curious comfort that they too are out of their time and have struck up many conversations as I loiter on the towpath, forced to smoke outside by a draconian and frankly mystifying prohibition on any inhalation of tobacco in areas that possess a roof.  It is in this way that I discover they have far more capacity to assimilate than I. Many have more devices in their pockets and in their homes than the average scientist. Nonetheless, they eschew them all on the Sabbath as they have always done and I was amused by the ingenuity displayed by one trader who employed a gentle Hindu tobacconist to press the required buttons on a Saturday when international trade dictated that some business courtesy had to be performed for his foreign clientele. The compromises of faith are evidently encroaching in the face of a society that never seems to be at rest.
I rejected the bizarre head protector offered to me by Miss Statton and opted for a balaclava from the charity shop in Stamford Hill. The formidable German lady who sold it to me remarked that they were seldom found these days and Miss Statton, seeing me arrive for one of our sessions still wearing it, remarked that I was likely to be mistaken for a burglar or paramilitary terrorist. This pleased me very much and I tried to ride my bicycle with the air of a seasoned fighter that should not be trifled with. Using some cable ties liberated from the lethal wiring in my room, I secured a stout stick beneath the crossbar and felt myself well prepared for any challenge encountered on my long canal towpath rides.
On one occasion, I rode past a group of black, white and oriental teenagers near the small railway tunnel that leads to High Hill Ferry and the pub at the foot of Springfield Park. They appeared to be rehearsing a complex rhythmic rhyme that combined percussive vocal impressions with a stream of unconsciousness narrative from a young girl with startling facial tattoos. Several of them accompanied themselves on MC’s that emitted string and brass simulations of remarkable quality.
I passed them slowly without meeting their eyes and entered the tunnel, only to find a group of Orthodox youths, their beards wispy and patchy beneath their long curled side-locks, doing exactly the same thing. I stopped and asked what was going on and a ginger-haired young Ashkenazi told me brusquely that they were about to ‘have a battle’. I reflected on the eternal verity of racial and ethnic conflict and contemplated which side I would choose to defend, until the ‘battle’ itself began.
I found the cable ties around my only defence extremely reluctant to release their charge. I am not sure I fully understood their construction. Given the police sirens and regular news bulletins of shootings and knifings amongst the youth of East London, I expected therefore to be ill equipped for the melee and tore off a branch of an innocent cherry tree that overhung the dull waters. By the time I returned, prepared for whatever injustice was to be meted out, I found myself in the urban equivalent of a chamber concert. The tunnel resounded to the sounds of both sides taking it in turns to improvise and expand upon a sophisticated melody with a reflection on the differences and similarities between them. True, their approach and demeanour were aggressive and a degree of insult was exchanged, but it never seemed set to develop into the physical.
I was both charmed and ashamed that I had misinterpreted the situation and when they perceived me standing in bicycle clips with a raised branch in one hand, I thought I had succeeded in raising the metaphorical to the literal. Fortunately I presented such a comical sight, that they dissolved into gales of laughter and the collapse of stout party was the only sensible response.

This is my life now, the betrayal of the senses. 

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