Embarrassing others to unburden my own embarrassment could be the point of application I needed at my job. I warmed to the idea of applying my strongest feeling, only the other way round. I put it into practice. When I saw some project or other was getting nowhere I would will an embarrassing scene. At first I was simply rude (‘I don’t want to hear your garbage. Now listen to me’). I found it worked to clear the air. Particularly if I embarrassed myself enough to apologise next day and was especially nice to everybody, eating humble pie. The road to
I needed enemies to tell me what was going wrong. Rank rudeness was not enough. It could be interpreted as temperamental incontinence, and had unwilled consequences. Allowing the incompetents the high moral ground sometimes made them sympathetic towards me. I hardened my act by making it even more outrageous. I said what was on my mind in front of colleagues, and this not only compounded their embarrassment, but set off a chain reaction.
My enemies, surprisingly, didn’t gang up but turned on one another or, more commonly, distanced themselves from the target person, who I did not feel any rancor towards. I considered them as the best friends of what had to be done. But the engagement and the marriage of my embarrassment with others was a fiery one, made in hell. How far I could go without being divorced or murdered was uncertain, and from time to time I issued a Japanese apology, one so generalised and belated it was meaningless. This made everybody feel worse, except myself.
I was testing people, I suppose, like Jack Black, the Aids activist and ex-African big game hunter, or wild life tourist guide. He was a broth of a boy with five brothers over six foot five back on the family farm in
He was the longest HIV carrier I knew, despite having contracted TB, usually a sign that end was coming. So powerful was Jack Black that when he headed a protest march it was said the police horses hesitated. I wondered how he caught it. In
Jack Black wore his Irishness on his sleeve and nobody seemed to mind. It was no longer ironically scoffed at (‘Being an Irishman is like being a homosexual. It gives the speaker a permanent subject of conversation’, Anthony Powell). Things were changing, I thought. But not for me. I did not change my accent, but spoke very distinctly (like my mother on the phone). It became a secret weapon. By being unashamedly racy of the Old Sod, I was tempting English colleagues into an indiscretion - for instance, an Irish joke - not to respond to it myself, but to see if someone else would take them to task. I had nothing to lose except a stupid colleague, and might well gain sympathy by default.
It happened rarely. Once Stuart Smith Stephens tittered something about the Queen’s English at my pronunciation of Reginald Maudling, the Home Secretary for Northern Ireland, who clearly thought all Paddies were irrational creatures given to make life difficult for him personally. So I made the ‘gin’ in his name rhyme with vagina followed by ‘old maudlin’. I pretended I did not hear SSS, and my very English reaction was appreciated by others present. Silence seduces in more ways than one. The unpleasantness passed.
Irishness gave me a left-handed form of power. Freedom to slip in and out of the mainstream at will. My mother had told me that the Englishman knows his place and the place of others. My place was everywhere and nowhere. Neither a timeserver nor the enemy within, and certainly not ‘one of us’. This ambiguity made my peers in the Establishment uneasy enough to leave me, more or less, alone. Thankful for this, I played musical chairs with my various places at the round table, inside and out of the status quo. Not meek but, when it suited me, faute de mieux compliant (‘what the hell’).
‘Augustus is a bit of a card’, they said. ‘And an enthusiast’, a phrase that pulled me up. Its intimations of hyperactive sebaceous glands was not a compliment. Hemingway’s ‘sweating off the fat of civilisation’ was a phrase the anarchist in me approved. I didn’t mind making a stink, but accepted that a place had been found for me as a passionate fool, and a privileged one, being marginal and out of the direct firing line. And so we could all relax.
‘I’ve learned how not to rock the boat without getting into it’, I told my friend Tony at one of our Sunday evenings, but he had dropped off to sleep. But enthusiast rankled. Voltaire’s ‘Enthusiasm is not always the companion of total ignorance. It is more than often the result of erroneous information’ made me thoughtful. But he believed that there was a nerve between the mouth and the heart in humans, turtledoves and pigeons, which is why they are the only animals that kiss.