Essays in Idleness


A memoir

Twenty years have now passed since a Saint of the universal Church died and was translated to Heaven, from Calcutta. I remember it vividly, because I was soon there, as correspondent for a Canadian newspaper chain. I’d come away suddenly from a week of Princess Diana-mourning, through which I’d made myself increasingly unpopular by failing to “emote” in my op-ed columns. I was appalled by the show of mass-maudlin, in England and everywhere, and said as much; then sneered at the deluge of hate mail.

Calcutta (spelt “Kolkata” today, but not by me) was from my first immersion in its heat and squalour, nearly half a century ago, perhaps my favourite city. It would be hard to explain why. In a sentence, it seemed the purgatorial convergence of all human realities in space and time. The city’s crumbling palaces completed the effect; many juxtaposed with beggars’ hovels. (Now all is being crushed under glass and steel.) Too, I have a fierce if unaccountable love for the race (in the old ethnic sense) of Bengalis. Too, as I’d been fortunate to know from the start, it was the City of Teresa.

Two correspondents were sent from Canada to cover Mother Teresa’s funeral. The other, whom I need not name, had not been to Calcutta before. He took one good look around him, discovered that his hotel booking was worthless, and went right back to the airport, leaving all our readers to me alone. My own booking, in one of the city’s few hundred “first class” rooms, had also been cancelled. Hillary Clinton’s entourage, and the crews of the USA television networks, had appropriated them all, and even those guests already in situ were turned out to accommodate them. I was man-handled by the security detail of the ABC network — the usual pack of liberal and progressive goons.

But why waste time even trying to negotiate? An Indian concierge looked on me sadly — said there was nothing he could do against “these animals.”

Happily the town was familiar to me, and with my luggage I proceeded on foot up Chowringhee until I had found the old Raj hostelry called the Great Eastern, its air swished by rusting oil-sputter fans from high cracked-plaster ceilings. Now a government hotel, it was also booked out — for the Republic of India’s governing elite — but I knew I’d have a chance there. Theatrically declaiming my plight at the counter, the governor of the State of Kerala stepped forward to say he would share a room with his deputy, surrendering his own quarters to “our foreign guest.” This is the sort of thing that only happens in that country; why I have loved India so intensely.

I was exhausted from twenty-four sleepless hours of air travel, through multiple time zones and flight connexions, hungry and sweating like a white man, but also purpose-driven. Tossing my satchel on a marble floor, I hiked immediately to Mother House — on foot, because vehicular traffic was at rush-hour standstill. I joined the media mob outside the locked gate, nearly forfeiting my head to the swinging boom of a television camera. A diminutive Filipina nun was just inside the iron bars, explaining to the animals that no interviews would be given, and no journalists admitted. “This is a Christian convent,” she insisted, patiently. “There is no news here, please to go away.”

Then she caught sight of me, perhaps the least equipped of the mob.

“You look pale, you need a glass of water,” she said, then magically slipt me through. I found myself in a small crowded kitchen with a chapati and glass of tea. I was at the epicentre of some cosmic event, near a lady I soon identified as Sister Nirmala (Mother Teresa’s successor) among my new companions. I got to hear everything. One nun was on a telephone to Delhi — pointlessly demanding that all this State Funeral business be called off, in a colourful mixture of Bengali, Hindi, her native Tamil, and English.

Later, back in the lobby of the Great Eastern, I was now (alone among journalists) at command HQ for those official arrangements. Four miles of Calcutta boulevard were being swathed with thick bamboo fencing, for the parade route; and every single pothole filled. The ancient gun-carriage that had wheeled the corpses of Gandhi and Nehru was en route via the Indian Air Force. It was an incredible scene of army signals, into clunky field radios, spiralling around a turbaned officer with a classic handlebar moustache. His word was law. A vision of cool efficiency “under fire,” it was already the third miracle I had witnessed on the day.

My quiet Anglican prayers (as they then were) carried me along. A fourth miracle was my success in bribing a fax operator to transmit my extensive hand-written copy back to a newsroom in Ottawa, in precedence over Indian state papers. (My cutting-edge laptop had fritzed, of course.)

In the next couple of days, almost entirely without sleep or food, I scrambled, wrote, scrambled. Back home, the editors of the Ottawa Citizen transcribed what was perhaps the last hand-written copy a Canadian newsroom would ever receive — one of my pieces more than twenty pages (ending mid-sentence because the last page had jammed).

When I finally was able to pass out for three hours (awakened by a bearer for a trunk call from Canada) I needed minutes to shake myself awake. All I could remember from the previous evening was a moment of pause atop page seven, when I’d turned to pray, with great urgency: “Lord, you write this, for I cannot.” The rest might as well have been an experiment in “automatic writing.” I had no memory of doing it, and only much later, reading the tearsheets, did I discover (to my relief) that it was weirdly coherent.

That was the biggest miracle. In my life as a hack journalist I had no other experience like that. It was perhaps the closest I would ever come to being in God’s active service; to knowing He had a job for me, to witness what I was meant to see, and write it all down.

Among the soft-bodied eight-limbed molluscs

Lovely piece on the octopus linked through Maggie’s Farm this morning (here), after one gets through the mandatory Japanese eroticism. They are wonderful slimy things, if you have ever wrestled with one. I haven’t, myself, but the (magnificently Catholic) poet Roy Campbell used to do bouts for the tourists, back home in South Africa. It was a good panhandling gig; earned him enough to get out of the country.

All the octopodes are smart, as too the cuttlefish and squid, though to my certain knowledge, some are smarter than others.

They are very smart, but are they “conscious”? This is a silly question the cognitive types ask, to which the answer may be given by any marine biologist. Of course they are conscious! They observe, they learn, they remember, they adapt; they psych out an adversary; and they don’t waste time on the Internet. True, their brains are distributed through eight arms, which are able to act independently of each other (while humans get flustered with just two). But it is a fine choreography, and the arms will move splendidly to a single end. Never underestimate the dexterity of an octopus.

I should like to solve Peter Godfrey-Smith’s “consciousness” problem for him, mentioned in that link. It is true that the consciousness of an octopus is different from the consciousness of a human, or the consciousness of a fruitfly. This is because God created them severally. The consciousness of one human is different from the consciousness of another, too, because each was endowed with a unique immortal soul. And God didn’t make the octopodes interchangeable, either.

Verily, I am able to report, that even the fruitflies after the nectarines on my counter vary in their caution. Some are easier to kill than others.

From other sources, I must vindicate the reputation of octopodes as talkers. The Darwinoids assume the ability to change colours through intricate patterns in a sudden spectacular way (so that an octopus may disappear without moving) was some evolutionary development for camouflage. But it is also their method of communication. Though solitary by disposition, a travelling octopus can hold one conversation with his swim-mate to the right, another unrelated with his swim-mate on the left — flashing his chromatophores distinctly to each, by way of rhetorical emphasis. (Our politicians have a more primitive form of this ability.)

They, and the cephalopods generally, can hunt in packs when they want to, and by signalling back and forth, become masters of predation against quickly scattering fish. They can open coconuts, and jars — even jam bottles from Bulgaria. They can turn taps on and off; squirt unwelcome guests with water or with ink. They have deadly accuracy, and from a considerable distance, can get you in the eye like a cowboy marksman. For the studious octopus knows exactly which human you are, and has already decided if he doesn’t like you.

Put one in an aquarium, where all his Houdini tricks are foiled, and he gets bored. This is a universal sign of native intelligence; why intellectuals can be such trouble. He (the octopus intellectual) starts looking about for mischief. He protests stale food by jamming it down the drains, as the reviewer reports; he pulls plugs from curiosity, including those on machines; he likes to short out light bulbs. He hops out of one tank then slithers to another, where the fish is fresher, or there’s a cuter octopus babe. The octopodes can design and build themselves little forts, then disassemble and reassemble at another location, using tools where required. Such anecdotes have filled many books already.

Five hundred million years, say the deep-time palaeontologists. That’s the least amount of time since our last plausible common ancestor: some tiny indifferent worm, this side or that of the Cambrian boundary, when the myriad body plans for all future life on Earth suddenly, simultaneously sprang. The deeper we dredge into the geological and biological history of this planet, the odder it appears, and the less we can believe the Darwinian just-so stories.