Finished reading Timothy Garton-Ash’s The File, which I had taken up as a break from the enduring mass of Pynchon. Seven hundred plus pages I am still not able to complete in one unbroken sitting. But actually, I always used to read like this, non-fiction accompanying fiction, criticism to break up the trudge through poetry anthologies. The non-imaginative text is a fine anecdote, a way to cleanse the palette. And how was The File, with its commentaries on post-Stasi East-Germany, with its take on one man’s retrieving of his files, back in the day when he was a non-too brave investigative journalist, pootling around with a certain diplomatic immunity, with the safety of his privileged homestead and associations? I have loaded the question. Class and privilege aside, which are admitted and offer a unique vantage point in these circumstances, the book offered a interesting address on the state of regret, the motions towards a collective forgetting and the warnings of a surveillance society.
However, how old does the book feel now? This is not the fault of Garton-Ash, certainly not. But when he asks questions of how dangerous are MI6 in England, when he talks of the IRA (he writes in 1997, when things could only get better), when he wonders about fear of everyday citizens in England compared to the GDR, when he wonders how interested our government are in us, he cannot have possibly know how dated his words now sound.
I do not need to spell out what I am trying to say. Google informatics, post 9-11 terrorism laws, the rise of the security camera, British-born citizens striking out against their own country, the rise of the right in response to ill-managed immigration, African food crises and yet more obscured, untold genocides – the world is genuinely a startling different place from when the book was first published in 1997. Every now and again I want to be reminded that I am living through something, that there might be something I am able to engage in; this book reminds me that I have lived through a decade as a young adult and though leisure and pre-occupation have stolen the sharp edge from the events of the past ten years (I began university a week after 9-11, a whole world opened to me personally in more than one way), I find it now more than plausible to look back at these times as eventful.
Despite the book’s over-wrought, under-developed regard towards certain things (higher-echelon old boy networks, the loss of fathers, a peculiar set of references to Aids) there is common ground between he and I; we share this drive towards freedom of information. The book was also published before freedom of information as a concept became truly, legally commonplace in the UK, having already been more than possible in the US for some time. (Actually, it seems, most newspaper exposés, the centrepage draws, tend to feature a request for information from some government ministry. Freedom of Information is the new bastion of investigative journalism).
But he and I do share this obsession with the play of information, the control of knowledge by leading, elected (or not) bodies. But the entire landscape has changed with the internet. Business models have changed, secular boundaries erode daily, the global news media functions entirely differently, and the focus upon the archiving, retrieval and passing of information takes on real, real significance. This does not to be expressed by me, here, in such an infantile way. There are thoughts infinitely complex and readable on the matter, just hyperlinks away. Even I have written better on this elsewhere.
Away to the end of September, I go now to write more emails and begin a second stage of writing on the novel. The sun outside is still spectacular, although not that warm. I want to write about the seasons. Temperature is one aspect that creates the sensation that accompanies the recognition of a new season. What is interesting for me is not the new sensation, but the fact that it catches me unaware every year, and every year I forget it is a peculiarity of light, the whole sense of time, year and place is entirely dominated by the height of the sun’s arc. Perhaps that is why I sleep so late at the moment.