This was commissioned as a Diary Piece for the Daily Telegraph Magazine. Unlike pieces bearing the same name in, say, the London Review of Books, these were required to be ‘light’.
First published in the Daily Telegraph Magazine 1997
People are so self-centred these days. So narcissistic. Look at this conversation I had:
– Hi. How are you?
– I didn’t get it.
– I didn’t get it.
– Oh dear.
The problem here is that the other person thinks I know what he’s talking about. Last time I met him he probably told me that he was going to try and get something. From his unadorned and blunt response to my friendly greeting one can deduce that he didn’t get it. But what on earth is it that he didn’t get? And why does he think I remember? Does he think I go around retaining the minutiae of the last few days of his life? I can barely remember my own, let alone his. Ask me what I did last night, for example. I have to pause to think about it. It doesn’t come easily. It’s not like I’m a computer, where you just save it. I mean, I certainly save it but I can rarely access it. I ask him how he is and he immediately puts me on the spot. Do I do that to him? No. Here’s how I am when he asks me how I am:
– Hello, David! How very pleasant to see you! How are you?
– I mustn’t grumble.
I always say that. I say it in a matter of fact way, trying to suggest that in some unspecified way I have been warned not to grumble. By a doctor, or a policeman, say. People usually find this rather amusing. Other things I say are: I can’t complain. Or, Oh, surviving. The latter I say in a resigned, melancholic way – the way some self-centred depressives do. People usually like all of these so I’ve got in the habit of using them as a matter of course.
Now the point about these little ripostes is that I’m very user-friendly. I don’t give you a problem within seconds of your meeting me. I don’t assume that you’ve memorised the circumstances of my life as they were when we last met. Unlike the first man who clearly thinks that I’m going around thinking “I wonder if Keith has got that thing he was hoping to get.”
It’s happening more and more. I’d go so far as to say that, based on empirical evidence, most people are doing this. Look at this conversation I had:
– Hello. How are you keeping?
– Oh, well.
– Well? Good.
– No. You know.
– Still pretty sad.
What are you supposed to do next? Okay: you know they’re still sad. This could be because they didn’t get something or because – let’s be pessimistic – somebody that they liked died. So they could be grieving. Did they tell me this, though? I can’t remember. So many people are dying and, frankly, it’s hard to keep up. One shouldn’t, of course, rule out the possibility that they’re suffering from what is known, in specialist circles, as endogenous depression. This means, for all intents and purposes, that they’re always sad and they don’t know why.
The excellent ‘Critical Dictionary of Psychoanalysis’ [Charles Rycroft; Penguin 1972] is a little more precise, in that the depression is ‘presumed to be the result of (unspecified) constitutional disturbance’. Something terrible could have happened to them when they were two and they’ve repressed it and have been sad ever since.
When you think about it, it’s unlikely that if it were endogenous, they’d tell you about it. In fact, it’s quite likely they wouldn’t even know they were sad. As far as they’re concerned, life is always this bad so why grumble?
We shouldn’t rule out that it is endogenous but that someone they liked died anyway. Obviously this will happen. Can you imagine a world where people who are always depressed don’t get bereaved, by some kind of arrangement? They’d be queuing up for it! Everyone would take the sad option. Because then your mother wouldn’t die. But that’s silly.
So maybe their mother died and that’s why they’re still sad. Usually when your mother (or other dear relative) dies your friends give you three weeks. During that time the conversations go like this:
– I expect you’re still sad.
– Well, yes.
– I’m sorry.
After three weeks you’re supposed to snap out of it.
What can you do about this appalling self-absorption? In the short term, faced with yet another enigma presented by some solipsistic miserabilist, you just have to busk. You have to manufacture a series of vague conversational responses that allow the self-obsessed malcontent to get it off their chest without you risking the exposure of your ignorance of their details. This is really hard work! Is it any wonder people go on about football?
So you won’t catch me pulling this tedious stunt. Once I’ve made my little opening joke, you can ask me what you want and you’ll get an answer that comes with all the facts you need to really enjoy my company and my views on things. You can ask me about my childhood, for example, and you’ll know where you are, for God’s sake. It was actually quite disturbing, my childhood, but I’m pretty self-aware about it and I know I can tell you about it in a way that you’ll find genuinely compelling.