13 February 2017
I wake early and shower in the dark. It’s relaxing, a rare period of silence as everyone else sleeps. At 6.15am, even in February, there is enough light coming in the bathroom window to see the outline of the tub as I climb in. The large sash window is to my right, the shower head behind me. I put my hand on the single-glazed pane. The glass is soul-shatteringly cold; the water on my back as hot as I can bear. Steam rises around me.
The train is crowded, and I’m standing cheek-by-jowl in the aisle with fellow commuters. Then, quite close by, I hear Afrikaans being spoken. This happens so seldom it takes me a few moments to recognise it. I realise I’m having trouble understanding some of the words; even so, just the sound of it is thick with memory and nostalgia. Suddenly I realise what they’re talking about. Hierdie mense … die swartes … They’re talking about a couple of black passengers nearby, and how their behaviour is ‘typical’ of something. I’ve missed the details, but what does it matter? I can feel the blood rising in my cheeks, I’m burning with shame and anger. It’s common knee-jerk racism, banal racism. They don’t whisper, they speak loudly, confident there will be nobody within earshot to understand them. I want to expose them, to tell them I understand every word and shout out a translation of their conversation for the whole carriage to hear. But I do nothing. They alight at the next station and disappear into the crowd. I’ve missed my chance. And there you have it: Apartheid-era white South Africa in a nutshell. What did Hannah Arendt say? We are the ‘non-wicked everybody’ who, through our unthinking, plodding acceptance and inaction, are ‘capable of infinite evil’.
I work for a small magazine, one of those curious blends of humour, news and waffling opinions pieces that seems so much of a bygone era that you’re shocked when you still see it, every so often, on the newsagent’s shelf, shoved in between Private Eye and New Statesman. How we’re still hanging in there is as much a mystery to us as to anyone. In fact how I came to be working here is equally mysterious, as is my job title, which is pending revision and has been for several years. Just over twenty years ago I was newly arrived in London and working as a freelance graphic designer through a specialist temp agency. These were the early Blair years and the economy, and the country, were buoyant. Freelance work was plentiful, everyone was hiring, and I hopped around from studio to studio. I arrived at the magazine for a one-week booking to do basic page layout work. The week was extended to two months, then a couple more. Then a kind of rolling arrangement which continued for several years before I eventually bullied the publisher into taking me on full-time.
Within a few weeks, I was laying out the publication pretty much single-handedly. It wasn’t difficult work. The design was stamped out of a mould, very text-heavy. The bulk of the pages could be thrown together in a couple of days. A couple more days to drop in the few satirical cartoons, the small, boxed-off photographs and the occasional advert. Enough time left over, in fact, that I became restless. The publisher (I’ll call him Peter) discovered I had a journalism degree, and soon I was proofreading, editing and even writing a few snippets of copy. It would have been impossible to foresee when I started, but now it’s all too obvious how my time at the magazine has coincided perfectly with the collapse and near ruin of traditional publishing and journalism, the upheaval brought by the internet and digital publishing. It was exactly the wrong time to get into the industry. Yet here we still are, and much of our unlikely survival is thanks to me — I learned to build a website, develop a magazine app, leverage social media. Digital disruption has at once nearly destroyed us and simultaneously given us the slender means to our survival. It’s a tenuous survival, though, that no-one at the magazine understands, least of all Peter the publisher, and we all just muddle along from month to month doing what we can, trusting that if we’re not quite bankrupt yet, we’re hopefully doing the right thing. Everything’s up for grabs, nothing is a given.
The magazine offices are a couple of rooms above a pub in Bermondsey. Once we were in the West End, just a few blocks from the Private Eye offices in Soho, but West End rents are beyond us now. Still, trendy Bermondsey is nothing to sneeze at. Our front door is shared with the pub and the foot of the stairs is next to the kitchen, the bottom steps always slick with grease. The offices are clearly a converted flat, and Peter’s office was once the front room. I stick my head in and wave good morning, hoping to get away cleanly and flop at my desk for the rest of the morning, but Peter, face covered in flakes of croissant pastry, hooks an arm at me. Got something for you, he says through a full mouth. Jill is off sick, so you’ll have to do her Procol Harum piece. I point out that I didn’t actually go to the gig. He hands me a few sheets of paper. Her notes, he says. It’s a mini review, couple of hundred words. What you can’t get out of there, just make up. Piece of piss. Peter has visibly aged in the two decades I’ve known him. He must be, what, sixty-five? His skin is weathered and ruddy, presumably with the booze. His hair is greying and, despite being closely cropped, noticeably wavy. His sideburns look like oil paint worked into a canvas with a comb. He looks at me amiably enough, but clearly is wondering, as he wipes crumbs on his chinos, why the hell I’m still standing there.
I could talk about their long and steady recording career, but I know little about that, and it’s almost beside the point. Like most people, what I do know of Procol Harum is Whiter Shade of Pale. The few hundred people surrounding me in London’s Royal Festival Hall might be the only people in Britain who are more knowledgeable, the hard-core fans, devotees of both the back catalogue and the mediocre recent releases. All the same, there is a muted atmosphere in the hall. Polite clapping follows each song. The truth is, even this audience could dispense with the new stuff, indeed with much of the old, they’re just hanging on for that moment they know is coming. And after nearly two hours of patient foot-tapping, finally it arrives. The hall goes black, and, for a very long time, there is almost unbearable silence. Then the Hammond organ sounds, just the first mournful note, and the crowd erupts with such a howl, it’s as if they’ve suddenly changed their minds, as if, now that the terrible beauty of the moment is here, they’ve realised they can’t bear it. The lights come up blazing white across the auditorium and I see acres of men and women in their sixties and seventies, arms aloft, bellowing. Tears stream down their faces and they don’t care who sees it. They have been waiting hours, or perhaps most of their lives, for the promise of this impossible moment. Can it be done? Can one song prop up a lifetime of memories, or erase a lifetime’s regrets?