Sunday, 9 May 2010
Catching up: Prurience and a Psalm
Returning from Peter's funeral on Friday, on the second leg of my journey from Cambridge, I am first in the rear carriage, having arrived there by the earlier - and very packed - train from London. I find the hindmost seat with a table because it's nicer, or just lazier, to get off the rear coach at W almost opposite the exit. There is not too much crowding on this train generally, not even on a Friday. Just before we are due to start an elegantly suited, balding, and bespectacled young man dashes in and asks me if this is the 7.25. I tell him it is. He heaves a sigh of relief and sits down opposite me. He is definitely more elegant than most people on this train, more London business class than I tend to see on it. He smiles briefly and shyly, opens his briefcase and takes out a carton container for the magazine FHM, featuring the 100 Sexiest Women in the World 2010 (should I link? should I not link? I expect you are capable of finding it for yourselves). On the spine of the container it says: Warning! Hot! He takes from the container the promised hot book and falls to deep study of it.
I am curious, not so much about who precisely are deemed by FHM to be the 100 Sexiest Women in the World (one sexy woman at a time is the most I can cope with at my age), but about him. He is serious, scholarly, quite unabashed. He is distinctly respectable and well-heeled. There is a woman across the aisle who seems to be absorbed in a puzzler magazine of some sort. She does not look up. The train starts. The carton warning of hot contents lies on the table, upside down. There are no conspicuously brazen images on it. It is what it is: an advertisement for a package of bikini-or-otherwise-clad babes. Nevertheless, in my years of train travel, I don't think I have met quite this situation before.
He is not in the least embarrassed when the conductor comes round. The conductor pays no particular attention to the prospect of the 100 Sexiest Women in the World. He makes no comment, his eyes do not linger, not for an instant, on either the carton or the magazine. He goes about his normal business. Once he has gone the young, respectable, balding, besuited man returns to his magazine and is so far absorbed that when the train draws to a halt at one of the stations, its name announced by the conductor, it takes him a moment to realise he should be getting off, and just manages to scramble through the door before the train starts off again.
He has taken his magazine but has left the Warning! Hot! carton on the table. So now it is mine. And not mine.
So many thoughts hang on this incident, only the first of which is: There is a time and place for everything (and one means everything), that it would probably take me hundreds of words to explore the merest skin of them. But skin is a good stepping-off point, so, for now, I'm stepping off, possibly to revisit this strange social station. Mortality, flesh, skin, desire, taboo, the sexiness of being sexy...
2. Psalm 39, sung by the choir at Peter's funeral
I said, I will take heed to my ways, that I sin not with my tongue: I will keep my mouth with a bridle, while the wicked is before me.
I was dumb with silence, I held my peace, even from good; and my sorrow was stirred.
My heart was hot within me, while I was musing the fire burned: then spake I with my tongue,
LORD, make me to know mine end, and the measure of my days, what it is; that I may know how frail I am.
Behold, thou hast made my days as an handbreadth; and mine age is as nothing before thee: verily every man at his best state is altogether vanity. Selah.
Surely every man walketh in a vain shew: surely they are disquieted in vain: he heapeth up riches, and knoweth not who shall gather them.
And now, Lord, what wait I for? my hope is in thee.
Deliver me from all my transgressions: make me not the reproach of the foolish.
I was dumb, I opened not my mouth; because thou didst it.
Remove thy stroke away from me: I am consumed by the blow of thine hand.
When thou with rebukes dost correct man for iniquity, thou makest his beauty to consume away like a moth: surely every man is vanity. Selah.
Hear my prayer, O LORD, and give ear unto my cry; hold not thy peace at my tears: for I am a stranger with thee, and a sojourner, as all my fathers were.
O spare me, that I may recover strength, before I go hence, and be no more.
'I was dumb, I opened not my mouth'... The last words - last in every sense - for Peter. I presume he chose them. It was the point at which I felt myself choking up. Then the feeling went, the event rounded itself off, and we stayed to chat: the remaining glitterati and non-nomenklatura of the poetry world.