Eton mess, that is, the man who stole his own story (chapter 1)

At the very moment when I apprehend my being as horror of the precipice, I am conscious of that horror as not determinant in relation to my possible conduct.

Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness

I’m a weirdo, although I’d rather call myself a nonconformist. I once read somewhere that a true weirdo doesn’t follow trends or subcultures and just does what he feels, being able to get along with most people. In fact, someone like that shouldn’t be labelled as such as he doesn’t actually conform to a stereotype. Anyway, that’s not the point. You see, many years ago, I realised that I was invisible between invisibles, but unfortunately, our invisibility is a state of mind, not a body. Most people pretend to be interested in others and often not even that. They are just bored egocentrics who try to keep the attention of the rest of the world on themselves or hunting for pleasure, or both. Just like that day when I met my old professor, whom I haven’t seen since I left university. We’d had a walk and at first he expressed his regret for my unexpected leaving, and after that he started to talk about existentialism, but soon it occurred to me that all he was thinking about was jumping into my bed. Can you imagine? Sartre as a ticket to my balloon knot. And then I realised that I was actually listening to the sound of accordions over the street and thinking about musical notation. Imagine, if you have a script with a particular piece of music, for example, Pachelbel’s Canon in D, there is no chance of two identical performances, with one exception – the music is played by a machine. A man can’t do that and every performance is slightly different. We call it interpretation, but, in fact, it is associated with our limitations, that actually make us unique. It’s like the connection between imagination and the ability to forget. Machines never forget anything. I think that the core of humanity, our spirit, is in our deficiencies and sins. The first one differs us from machines, the second one from other animals. And when I was following this stream of consciousness, it brought me to the Japanese garden – poor fish listening to a group of accordionists performing Stockhausen’s Klavierstücke – which reminded me of Linklater’s Waking Life, you know, this over-intellectualised humbug, which I love anyway, and then I woke up and asked myself – what is self-awareness? And I realised that my favourite tale is reality… the reality of thought. Pathetic! You’d be surprised at how negligible it is all I’ve done in front of this little agitation of the brain which we call thought. Let me say that nothing really stands for. In the next twenty years or so, I will be just another genteel, old-fashioned gentleman, dressed in a pin-striped suit and a chesterfield coat, leaning on a mahogany cane with a stylized silver handle, who walks quietly through the narrow alleys between rows of gravestones, most of which remember the Georgian era, from time to time smoothing his greying hair blown by strong gusts of wind and wondering how he left home for a morning stroll without his favourite trilby. Damn!

Actually, I should probably start again, from the very beginning. I came here in a second wave of migration from Eastern Europe. It was a time when hardly anyone frightened Brits, or English, to be precise, of the scourge of Romanians and Bulgarians, and my countrymen who came here shortly after the accession of Poland to the EU gave us a good reputation, to the extent that, seeking work, Lithuanians, Estonians, Czechs, and others began to pretend to be Poles. For some reason, I chose Scotland, although for some time I thought it would be better to choose Ireland. Not that I have anything against guys in skirts. It just always seemed to me that the Poles would be spiritually closer to the Irish since we share three common diseases: the hereditary transmission of historical disorders, the Catholic Church and alcohol dependence. Once, I even told one Irishman that Poles were Irish in a bad mood. Then the economy crashed and I was glad that I wasn’t there. I know that’s very opportunistic. Besides, the Scots turned out to be cool people as well. Especially with their hopeless struggle for independence and the ability to laugh at themselves (the humorous version of Scotland the Brave by the Corries sang during the Scottish National Party annual conference – priceless).

All this time, I was looking for contact with another human being, a native, both avid and reserved for him, with an ambivalent attitude towards his disregard of the rest of the world. However, this suddenly engendered desire for the other did not improve my mood. Could I indeed expect anything more than the consternation at the sound of linguistic curiosities, committed by me every time I was trying to formulate a thought more complicated than the question about the amount of weekly emoluments? This overwhelming inadequacy of expression, tormenting like reflux, mercilessly deformed, vaguely outlined, three-quarter view of the collective hero, which I seemed to myself to be in my decomposed identity. Furthermore, initially invisible, progressive disintegration deprived me of contact with consecutive elements of the incomprehensible structure, baptised once with the prosaic name Pole. And into this particular decay he was entering, he – the stranger, the native.

And so he visited me once, with all the staffage of a pupil of Oxbridge, and watching as I tore coloured paper in which a gift for me was wrapped, he casually corrected the double Windsor knotted impeccably with the proficient hands of a former RAF pilot. It was a book, British Culture: An Introduction by David P. Christopher. Nightmarish cover with a picture of a factory with a North African minaret-like tower. At my questioning look, he explained that this small gift should help me a little bit to understand what Britishness is, to characterize what I apparently bleated to him during my last visit to his house. Having mumbled a not very coherent thanks, I began a cursory look at the contents of the book, thus giving myself time to reign over the confusion which made me his unexpected appearance on the thresholds of the panopticon, where in those days I was forced to stay.

To face him, his rootedness, this whole being of the autochthon, which is so incongruent, despite the etymological similarity, with my bywać (an untranslatable Polish word for being but in a casual manner). After all, seemingly at least, we were alike – two villagers from the global hamlet, network nomads, devoted consumers of pop culture, etc., etc., etc. However, what differentiated us from one another in a fundamental way was his sense of connectedness, a source of effortless self-love. I, the eternal wanderer, despite or even against my qualities, didn’t feel able to face him, talk to him as equal to equal. Not that I let myself be pushed around, and he, as a matter of fact, wouldn’t let himself offend me with the word or the gesture. And, I think, he was even a little curious about me, though his interest was somewhat inattentive, in the inverted commas of an indulgent smile. So what was the problem? What was my problem? Was that incurable complex of Polishness entirely to blame?

Poland, this strange country on the eastern frontiers of Europe, has been the self-proclaimed bulwark of the civilized West, the last bastion of Christianity, for centuries, with its own breast defending access into the continent for the hordes of various sorts, whether it’s for the Tartars, Turks, or Russia, which, after all, is more in the spirit of Asia than Europe, bleeding regularly from two neighbouring powers – Germany and the said Russia – and still heavily intoxicated after half a century of the communist order, which ended not so long ago. Raised in its homogeneous culture, almost my entire life I had no doubt who I was. With deep emotion, I recited the words of the Catechism of the Polish child, that I’m a little Pole and for the acquired with blood and scars homeland I ought to give my life, because I’m its graceful child and I love it dearly. No matter that half of this Fatherland, once grandiloquently called the Regained Territories, de facto was a bit of Germany, thrown at us by Stalin, with the approval of Messrs. Churchill and Roosevelt, to wipe away our tears after losing the Eastern Borderlands. Anyway, we Poles, over the centuries, have already gotten used to the dramatic changes in borders, including their loss. And we can probably only give thanks to Divine Providence that Stalin didn’t make our Republic into another Soviet republic. Our brothers Lithuanians were, in this matter, a lot less fortunate.

The memory of that event made it clear to me that now, although subjected to different pressures, so different from anything that caused me there, in the country, I’m not able to prevent the deterioration of the style with which I struggle when seeking expression of somewhat exalted individuality, and despite some imprecision, resulting from my own powerlessness rather than the essence of the matter, it begins to reach out to me what needs to face the man beyond the pale of convention. Seclusion. And yet, the irresistible desire to be someone amongst, even at the cost of remaining anybody, and just to see if it’s enough to make up for the context of belonging as such, even if in practice this would mean the necessity to tear the Homeland out from oneself, is not far behind the will to preserve critical subsistence. In all of this, there is also some hidden inconsistency – to threaten the community can be insofar as it considers its own triviality therein. Exactly! Therein or in the face of it?

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