January 6th

I know where I stand with my students. They want to speak better English, sometimes for a specific reason, sometimes a vague one, and for forty minutes in a week I help them do that. Oh, if only things were so simple with my boss.
After today, I’m more convinced than ever that my workplace has features of a Kafkaesque nightmare befitting its owner’s name. Mr K, as he encourages us to call him, is in his early forties, bald with long dangling earlobes, and an air of the monastery. Both in English and Japanese, he is very softly spoken, and awkwardly, his English is surprisingly weak for someone who runs a language school. Like many people, he can express certain ideas, but as soon as he moves outside his comfort zone, he grinds to a halt. I can, of course, sympathise, and instinctively know how to prod him in the direction he wants to go with a handy phrase. And sometimes this is fine, but when he’s in boss-mode, I’m not so sure. Shouldn’t it be him who gives the directions, not me as the employee who suggests what directions he wants to give?
But this still feels better than when I don’t know what the directions could possibly be, and an awkward silence descends as his brow furrows deeper and deeper, his skin seems to darken, and I have the sense that I’m expected to know, just know what he wants.
I had known from the first week of the job that I would be tested on my knowledge of the various textbooks stuffed into three shelves behind the reception desk, where Mr K, and sometimes the school secretary, who speaks much better English, sit with their laptops. The idea, logically enough, was that I needed to know the textbook contents in order to recommend which particular book would be best for a particular student to follow. And so I had spent many of my free teaching periods over the past two months engaged in the dull task of checking and making notes on each book. Now I had suggested I was ready for the test, and Mr K had, by means of one of his brief notes stuffed into my plastic folder of student files for that day, informed me it would take place at 6pm. At that time I had a free period, and after waiting for the students in reception to be taken to their cells by the other teachers, I presented myself.
‘I’m ready for the test, whenever you are.’
Mr K and the secretary, I’ll call her M, swivelled round on their swivel chairs.
‘Uh… where …would you like to go?’ Mr K murmured.
I said I didn’t mind. At which, through an uncertain process of gestures, it was suggested the test would be conducted here, in the cramped space between the reception desk and the bookshelves, with me standing up. ‘Err…can I have a seat?’ I said, but no one seemed to hear. I waited. And still no one spoke.
‘So..erm… what is the test?’
Mr K frowned. I had been given a paper, which had a list of all the textbooks, a list of the criteria on which they should be assessed, and, on the other side, an example of a justification for recommending a certain book to a certain imagined student, Mr S. Mr K pointed to this paper now, as if it contained my instructions. Perhaps they were written in invisible ink.
‘Do you want me to just start talking?’ I said.
He pointed to the list of about thirty books. ‘Please talk about these books.’
And so I began. As it seemed absurd to discuss each book in turn (I would be there for ever), I picked what I considered a good cross-section and tried to summarise them, hypothesising student types whom they would suit. Maybe I should have given these imagined students names consisting of a single engimaic initial, for five minutes later I was conscious that I was still talking, and Mr K was not smiling encouragingly. In fact he was looking not at me, but straight ahead, and his brow was beginning to furrow.
‘Am I not doing this right?’ I said.
He made some distressed facial expressions, rose to his feet, and moved over to the shelves. There he began agitatedly fingering the spines, pulling some volumes halfway out as if he was trying to remember how to open a secret passage. ‘For example,’ he said, and named a couple of books, ‘what are the differences?… good points?…bad points?’
As far as I knew, comparing different books was exactly what I had been doing. At this stage, I think I knew I was doomed. I was doing a test in which there were no questions, only an elusive right way to answer, which I was somehow supposed to guess. Suddenly I had an inkling of what it would be like to have to defend yourself in a trial where no one has told you what crime you are supposed to have committed. At a certain point in the next forty minutes my prosecutor switched into rapid Japanese. I tried to follow him, chasing his words in search of a definite instruction, although I wasn’t even sure if they were meant for me or for M. I was sure that she, poker-faced on her swivel chair, realised how absurd this all was. But she could say nothing.
Eventually, and mercifully, my next student arrived and forced an adjournment. The trial of Mr K v Joseph K (me) has been set to resume next week.

January 5th

The assistant behind the desk in the second hand book chain, Book Off, a slightly dishevelled guy in his twenties, relieved me of my phone with infinite gentleness. ‘Katazuketakunaru Heya?’, he said, after scrolling down my What’sapp messages for me. Was that the title of the book I was looking for?
‘Sou desu.’ Yes it was. And how can you make pronouncing it sound so easy? To me it’s a monstrosity, a giant python of a word that should be locked in a cage for children to goggle at. They would especially enjoy feeding times, where the keeper tosses in a freshly defrosted rat to be devoured.
Attaining a tidy bedroom. That is, more or less, what this serpent is innocuously called. So let’s observe it more closely, from a safe distance through the bars of its cell.
Translating its Japanese parts directly into English, it would be more like: ‘Tidied becomes bedroom’. This hints at the vastly different way in which words are linked together in Japanese, and explains why using Google translate from Japanese into English invariably produces gibberish. My objection though, to katazuketakunaru is more to the way various components have been stapled together, Frankenstein-style, into something you’re expected to utter as a seamless whole. Also that the bits (as happens everywhere in Japanese) are all consonant vowel syllables. This happens in English – if we were to say, for example ‘an apparatus in an attic’ there would be a similar fiddliness in getting it out. But it’s the norm in Japanese, with the result that your tongue has to be going up and down like a piston engine while your lips hardly move at all. There are no opportunities for those lingering, labial consonants you get in the obviously sexy languages, Italian and French, and even in the apparently unsexy English. My first foreign languages were French and then Italian, which is probably why I find these habits hard to drop, and Yuuka sometimes laughs at my Japanese pronunciation, calling it ‘sexy Japanese’.
The book, by the way was for her; even though I told her that with all the guides in the world on the subject, there would be no possibility of attaining a tidy bedroom with Hannah around. In the end the shop assistant led me to the shelves and looked for it himself, in vain.
‘Sumimasen, arigatou gozaimasu.’
So in the end we were both sorry and thankful, but at least we had both tried our best. Now I had to go back to work and help my Japanese students deal with the numerous snakes that English has lying in wait for them.

January 4th

‘Juichi gatsu ni Scotorando kara hikkoshi o shimashita.’
It came out sounding quite nice I thought, all the prepositions right, no awkward mid-sentence fumbling in a dark cupboard in search of the next word while my listener wondered if they had time to go off and make a cup of green tea. I had, let’s be fair, rehearsed it in my head beforehand, perhaps even mouthing the words silently as the sliding doors opened and I walked into the entrance of the Aoba International Lounge. The day after returning from Niigata, with Yuuka and Hannah staying on an extra two days, I had searched for Japanese language classes and found this place, which appeared to offer them at a lower cost than the private language schools. So here I was to enquire, and though the staff would surely speak English, I was determined to make my little introduction in Japanese.
‘Nihongo no class o sagashite imasu,’ I continued, at which the woman behind the desk smiled, said ‘hai’ and called to another lady who was just then walking by.
This woman, middle aged and full figured, wearing trousers and a denim shirt, had a relaxed smile and eyes that twinkled behind her glasses. I repeated my now well-honed opening gambit, that I had moved from Scotland in November.
‘Scotland,’ the smile grew wider. ‘Where in Scotland?’
‘Edinburgh.’
‘Ah! I used to live in Edinburgh!’
Now things were getting easier – and not only because we were speaking English. Here was someone who knew, quite literally, where I was coming from. Soon she said something that I often hear, ‘You don’t have a Scottish accent’, at which I chuckled ruefully. When foreigners who have been to Scotland say this, what they mean is they can understand me without difficulty. And yet for some reason, I feel as if I might be disappointing them, and usually take it as a request for what the yearned for incomprehensibility might sound like. So Ogawasan, as her name turned out to be, was treated to ‘Ah dinnae ken’, which she didn’t know, but now does, means: ‘I don’t know’.
After speculating on whether regional differences in Japan are equivalent to those in the UK (frighteningly, Ogawa thought they are), we returned to my original request. She showed me the class days and times and, in Japanese again, smoothly rolling out the words like new Toyotas off the production line, I said that since I worked on the other days I could only manage the Saturday morning class. In that case, the first one would be on January 9th.
‘Kiite ii desu ka?’ Was it ok if I came?
‘Mochiron.’ Of course.
‘Arigatou gozaimasu.’
And I walked out into the January sunshine, glowing with success and optimism.

A Year Lost in Translation

This year I’ve decided to keep a diary about my struggles to overcome the communication barriers that constantly rise up around me in Japan.
When I get round to it, I’ll post the entries here.

January 1st 2016
Happy New Year: Akemashite omedetou. I said that this morning, with acceptable pronunciation, though a second too late, like a robot running on low batteries. I had spent the night at an onsen, a hot spring resort in the snow clad mountains of Niigata prefecture. The onsen is one of the great Japanese New Year’s experiences, and Yuuka’s family had chosen a good one, booking two suites of rooms, one larger on the ground floor, where her parents, grandfather, and our daughter Hannah had slept; and one smaller, directly above it, in which Yuuka and I had been relieved for the first time in a while of the threat of nocturnal crying.
We rose at what for me was a sluggish hour, despite not even having made it to midnight. Part of the reason for this, in Scottish terms, heinous crime, was the toll on our stamina taken by a truly enormous meal which we had begun at six o’ clock, washed down with plenty of beer and sake. In my case, an added plea was that I had been raised on a Hogmanay TV diet in which the promise of Only an Excuse, the annual pastiche of Scottish football (which frankly does a good enough job of pastiching itself) can keep me up with the hope that it might just, this year, recapture its former glories. Sadly, I hadn’t found the same allure in Japanese TV’s big night jamboree – a song contest called Kohaku in which the traditional Enka style figures highly, along with numerous pop acts familiar in Japan but not to me.
So, having failed to witness the climactic vote, we were well rested and barely hung over, and Yuuka soon descended to join the rest of her family while I sat in my yukata in front of the majestic view and attempted to capture some aspects of the onsen experience in prose. Looking back, most of what I wrote was tosh, a bizarre mix of attempted poetic similes and estate agent-like estimates of tatami mat coverage in square metres. But at least writing it gave me a little time out, as, hovering on the edge of the family bosom, I was feeling a bit overwhelmed by a sense of linguistic isolation.
We had arrived in Niigata on the 30th, with me full of enthusiasm to use what I confidently thought of as my new improved Japanese. Two days later, my keenness had been blunted by the effort of straining to follow conversations, interjecting with varying success on the rare occasions when a) I thought of something to say b) I knew how to say it and c) the moment had not already passed. I was even beginning to feel jealous of my almost two year old daughter, as her every utterance was praised to the hilt. It wasn’t fair. How did she reckon I’d get on if I went round obsessively pointing out the presence of clocks? People would think I was mad.
‘Asa gohan wa ready desu’, Yuuka had come to retrieve me for breakfast. As I followed her down the wooden stairs, walking with duck feet to prevent my slippers slipping off, I remembered my objections to onsen breakfasts. I have no problem sitting cross-legged at a low table for a two hour evening meal composed of seventeen different dishes, manoeuvring them in front of me as if they were pieces in a puzzle. But repeating this again at 8.30 in the morning is a step too far. My longing for a mug of coffee and toast was strong as I walked in and saw the kimono-clad lady kneeling to assemble several hundred dishes on the long table. On a visual level I was aware, I think, of Yuuka’s family, Hannah on her grandmother’s lap, seated at the small table by the windows, chatting to each other. I should of course have stepped forward, greeted them with a hearty Akemashite Omedetou. And yet I hovered spectrally on the other side of the room, frozen in guilty resentment of the opulent meal to come. Eventually Yuuka’s mother noticed me.
‘Ah… Tonysan!’
And I was snapped out of my little trance, remembered my social duties as a human being, stepped forward, and hit the play button.
‘Akemashite Omedetou!’
It was alright. The cassette wheels were whirring again.

The BOSS

The school I teach at is on the third storey of a squared off, off-white-tiled building six stories high, located on one corner of a busy crossroads. The balconies all around each floor make you think of a chest of drawers with the drawers hanging open on all fours sides, as if a giant with a low interest in aesthetics had plonked it down in a hurry. The design seems to be standard for almost all commercial premises in Japanese cities. The Slapdash Giant style, although you could also call it Utilitarian, and it might well have something to do with the need to make everything earthquake proof.

Anyway, there are a trillion buildings like this, but on the ground floor of this one is a DVD and game rental chain. It has an extended glass fronted area loaded with ads for games, films, and series, all shoved out as close to the passers-by as possible. To the right is a covered portico area with bike and motorbike parking racks. There are two rows of waist high coin-operated purveyors of miniature plastic toys, and against the wall behind them two drinks vending machines and a small passport photo booth.

A word about these drinks machines. They are everywhere in Japan. Between the school and the nearest subway station, a three minute walk away, I pass four others. They all do soft drinks, but the heaviest advertising is for the different brands of canned coffee they can offer you for anything between 110 and 140 yen (about 60 to 90 pence). Being a coffee addict, and unable at first to use my beloved mocha, I was dependent on these. I sampled all the brands, most in their hot and cold varieties, and I feel in a position to tell you that the one furthest from real coffee, and closest to a mainline injection of pure caffeine, is the most heavily advertised of all, and the one that reigns supreme in the machines next to the staircase to my work. I’m talking about BOSS coffee.

Despite it being the paint stripper of coffeeholic hits, I’m in thrall to this brand. I can’t help but respect it, and wonder at the minds that sent it multiplying exponentially across the country, with a ubiquity second only to Hello Kitty. But what is that image? Who is the BOSS? Okay. Let me talk you through this. I want you to visualise the head of a large business. Or even his head and shoulders. Yes, I said his. If you had any notions of a female in the role, discard them. Our boss is a male. But he’s not a modern male. There is nothing of the sleek, pampered twenty-first century CEO. Ours is a figure from the past. He’s in profile, has short hair and a moustache. His eyes are narrowed, his jaw is set. His mouth is clamped around a pipe. The whole cast of his features indicates the hardness of his path to the top. The opponents he’s had to trample on. The way he’s had to filter from his soul all traces of compassion. This, then, is the Boss we see before us in a two tone print – blue features on white face. The reduction make him all the more iconic, a brute companion to Warhol’s Marilyn. Not just the Boss. The BOSS.

Now, for all I know, Japanese commentators have produced miles of column inches analysing The BOSS’s cultural significance. I may not be adding anything, but I still want to have my tuppenceworth. Point one: it had never occurred to me that coffee could be advertised as a macho drink. I find this in itself quite weird. Can you imagine the BOSS in the company of all these women who curl themselves up on the sofa with a cat and a steaming mug of Nescafe? Exactly. Point two: imagine you’re a typical Japanese office worker, out on your break. Who are you escaping from during these few precious minutes in your twelve hour working day? Your boss of course. And so where do you turn for refreshment?
HEY, YOU! YOU LAZY MISERABLE GOOD-FOR NOTHING SLUG, SNEAKING OUT OF THE OFFICE WHEN YOU COULD BE IN THERE DOING MORE WORK FOR THE COMPANY. COME OVER HERE AND DRINK ME NOW, OR I’LL HAVE YOU SENT TO THE BOTTOM OF TOKYO BAY IN A PAIR OF CONCRETE OVERSHOES. I’VE DONE IT BEFORE, YOU KNOW, AND I WON’T HESITATE TO DO IT AGAIN. YOU THINK I’D BE AFRAID OF THE POLICE. WELL LISTEN HARD SONNY: I OWN THE GODDAM POLICE! NOW GET IT DOWN YOU, AND BEAT IT BACK IN THERE BEFORE I…
On the evidence of the BOSS, let it not be said the Japanese don’t enjoy a bit of irony.

Next to the drinks machines and the passport photo booth is the steep, narrow staircase that hugs the side of the building and takes me up to the school’s entrance at the back of the third floor. The school secretary fell on it the week before I started, damaging her ankle ligaments. I still don’t know if she was going up or down at the time – which boss she was running away from.

A visionary in search of form

The following interview with a leading contemporary architect was submitted for publication in the in-flight magazines for carriers based in The Netherlands, China and The United Arab Emirates. Although it was rejected by all three I feel its contents give such insights into the mind of one of the new breed of globally interconnected supercitizens that it would be a tragedy if they were not made available in some form. ‘Form’, ironically enough, provides the subject at the heart of discussion…
* * *
Dries Van Hoogens Huyghens has a different concept of time from most of us. But then he also has different concepts of space, and cheese.
The latest wunderkind of Dutch architecture, responsible for such global icons as Dubai’s Edam Towers, and the so-called ‘Goudadrome’ – the as yet unbuilt rhythmic gymnastics venue for the Tokyo Olympics, has just ushered me to the edge of the terrace of his Shanghai apartment. Dressed with characteristic elegance in a synthetic yak’s wool suit (“designed by a friend”), he touches me lightly on the back, and for a second, I fear he may be about to pitch me over the edge to my death in the traffic below. But he merely smiles in an enigmatic way that I will soon come to realise is characteristic of his character.
“Time has always represented a fluid concept for me,” he says. “In fact I despise it in anything other than its liquid form, and even then I will not tolerate it in brown bottles.”
As an opening question I had asked him how long he would be able to make our interview. The answer, I later realise, is typical of his hatred for clear cut beginnings and endings. As fluid as his own concept of time, or the contents of a carton of Um Bongo, he continues, extracting from his pocket an object which he places between us on the edge of the balcony. Close inspection reveals it to be a lump of Emmental, heavily coated in dust and dirt.
“I carry this with me always,” he tells me. There is a silence – broken only by a monorail train whizzing five metres from our heads and two jumbo jets passing just above us hidden by thick smog.
“Why?” I ask, forced to admit that I lack enough insight to see into his visionary mindset.
He answers patiently: “When I look at this cheese I see form. It is a question of the holes. The holes represent absence, and it is only in absence that we see form truly manifest itself.”
“Like a lift shaft?” I suggest.
“No,” he says.
Seamlessly, we move onto the subject of beginnings. How did Dries Van Hoogens Huyghens become one of the global superstars of the new era in architecture, albeit one who remains completely unknown to anyone outside the profession?
Alongside other luminaries such as Sylvia Henning-Kuipers and Nils Broomhuizens he developed his talents at Rotterdam’s legendary Joongkidsarkitectskool in the early noughties under the guidance of one of the gurus of the Dutch ‘REform’ movement, Gert Hoor. Van Hoogens Huyghens explains that when he first heard Hoor outlining his concept of ‘formless form’ it was “a seminal moment”.
“It gave a concrete structure to some ideas that had been floating in my head – until then in the shape of a tightly intermeshed crystal latticework.”
I put it to him that as a child he may have witnessed the destruction of a quantity of market garden trellises, possibly by high winds, prompting if not agreement then at least the revelation that childhood is a painful memory for the man known as ‘the Mozart of Concrete’. It was, he informs me, a period characterised by his parents’ obsessive quest to turn him into the first World Darts Champion too young to be legally married to a woman named Sharon. Forced to practice after school every day for five hours, these were trying times for a sensitive nine year old with a tendency to hit the surrounding wall more often than the board.
“I think that was when I first developed an aversion to any form of segmentation,” he muses. “Even as a child I was always in search of blank space, always thinking outside the realm of numbers. You could say I was drawn inexorably to the poetry of absence.”
It is this poetry of absence which has led Van Hoogens Huyghens’ work to be described in more conservative architectural quarters as ‘fundamentally dangerous’. Of course much of the fuel for this debate comes from the infamous Abu Dhabi ‘Baby Bel’ collapse of 2013, which to this day limits his potential for the international flying possibilities he so adores.
Does he have any regrets about the design of an oval-shaped luxury apartment complex suspended directly above a motorway by a remote-controlled retractable wax strip? The question leads to the only point in our interview at which his treatment of me is anything less than cordial, as he reiterates his view that “to any sane client it should have been obvious the design was a joke.”
Unfortunately, the litigants in the resulting lawsuits did not see it that way, nor it seems, will they accept Van Hoogens Huyghens’ contention that: “Anyone who knows my work knows I would never base a real design on a cheese as vulgar and gimmicky as Babybel.”

The manuscript

The Guido manuscript had caused a great furore when it was discovered a few years earlier, and proved to be one of those rare instances of medieval literary scholarship capturing the public imagination. Naturally this attention was most exaggerated in Italy, where the discovery was made, and where Dante Alighieri has long been revered as the father, not only of Italian literature, but of the language itself. However, the fame of the Divine Comedy, coupled with the sensational nature of the Guido’s contents (in summary, it was one of the earliest known commentaries on Inferno, carbon dated to the 1320s, only a few years after the completion of the original work) meant the story was picked up by CNN, the BBC, Al Jazeera, and several other top of the food chain broadcasters. From these it filtered down into the more parasitical news agendas of countless other outlets around the world, and this in turn spawned a profusion of weekend supplement features, hastily cobbled together by academics who saw, or were forced to see, an opportunity to snare a wider audience for their upcoming books – however tenuously connected.
Grogan’s own publisher had insisted that he write one of these, even pitching it for him to the arts editor of a national newspaper whom she happened to know. Thus he discovered how, in a small media pond, the first ‘expert’ to poke his head above the surface is briefly celebrated like an ornamental carp. His first, and to date only, radio appearance followed, and he began to provoke envy among certain academic colleagues. They need not have worried, for like some sudden rash of algal bloom that clogs a body of water, the story just as quickly vanished with the shifting current. All that remained of it were swathes of articles, sucked down into the unfathomable undertows of the internet.
And there Grogan thought they would remain, until that blue-skied June afternoon, when Louis Dowd telephoned him in his office, on the thirteenth floor of the nineteen sixties monolith we guardians of arts and humanities called home. At first Grogan struggled to apportion any sense to Dowd’s words. The sibilant voice of the art and book collector was telling him he had a mutual acquaintance, Guido, staying with him in London.
“Don’t tell me you’ve forgotten. You banged on enough about Guido when he first came out,” Dowd chastised him. Just as Grogan deciphered what he must have meant, he discounted its implication as too staggering to believe. He said something to that effect, at which Dowd gave one of his laughs, like the hiss of air evacuating a slashed tyre.
“Let’s say that I have a piece of Guido,” he went on. “And before we get to the how, I’d like you to come, if you wish, to have a look. To pay homage…”
Of course, Grogan said he would.
The origins of a career studying Dante are hard to pin down. At what point, and why, does an individual turn, not just away from the infinite compendium of postmodern, popular culture, but as far away from it as is possible to turn? In Grogan’s case, and perhaps that of others who began their scholarly journeys in the nineteen eighties or nineties, it was a reaction against the times. All promise of an alternate social vision had evaporated. Pop culture flaunted hedonism as its last hurrah. Literature had become a realm of fabular play. In this climate, for those with a predisposition, a first encounter with a fourteenth century vision of divine justice was like methane spirits dousing a fire. Suddenly, there were flames, not just one more puff of smoke in an already clouded sky. Most astonishing of all, this fire did not require what would seem to be the essential oxygen to ignite it. You did not, it seemed, have to believe in God to feel the very mixture of pity and contempt for the souls of the damned that Dante intended.
In later years this prompted Grogan to ask: ‘If not God, what drew us?’ To his mind there were two answers. The first, disturbing enough, is that we liked the idea of punishment. We were comforted, even as we felt powerless as individuals, by the notion that one day our rulers and enemies would suffer the same hideous castigations as Dante had inflicted on the denizens of Hell. Secondly, and equally disconcerting, we were drawn to the Comedy because, although it takes linguistic skill, patient detective work, and occasional hypothetical leaps, ultimately we could comprehend it. It is a single work, by a single hand, with an order and logic of its own. This is important, when understanding the machinery of technology and commerce that drives the world we inhabit is a project on which we have long since given up hope.
He arrived at Kings Cross the morning after speaking to Louis on the telephone. The tedious need to provide a sick note to explain why he was abandoning his lectures at short notice had been circumvented by happy coincidence. The second annual conference of the European Dante Society was due to take place in Dijon, France over the following three days. Set up two years previously, the EDS had arisen after a bitter falling out with the New York based institution under whose auspices world-wide Dante scholarship had been led since the end of the nineteenth century. Grogan himself had originally been involved with the EDS as part of the editorial board for its triennial journal. However, after a year of witnessing the bitter power struggle which had quickly developed at its heart, he resigned in disgust. The university, or rather one of those obscure, high-salaried individuals paid to represent its best interests, let it be known to him that they were less than pleased by his decision. ‘There is a certain leverage to be gained, in perception if nothing else, by an institution having a member of its staff on the board of a prestigious journal.’ Or some such bullshit: in any case, the news that he had decided to drag himself to the annual meeting after all, ‘to give it a second chance’, was greeted with enthusiasm by the same simulacrum of a human being who had earlier reprimanded him. Not that he had lied, since he always intended to travel on to Dijon by train before flying back from Paris.
A curious thing happened as he wheeled his case across the Kings Cross concourse. He was vaguely looking up at a giant screen across which the tracer fire of breaking news flashed, when suddenly he felt sure that among the mass of bodies shuffling towards the escalators a face was staring at him. It was the most fleeting of impressions, and when he scanned the forest of figures none stood out. Of those directed his way, almost all were gazing up at a departure board behind and above his head. They seemed to be ordinary people, each with their own desires, fears and miseries, each intent on their own private journeys. As the escalator sucked him down into the bowels of the tube (the parallels with entry to Inferno too obvious here to mention) he laid aside the sense of being watched. Perhaps subconsciously he was adopting the mindset of a city rumoured never to be far from another terrorist attack. Holding onto a metal rail, pressed into a stranger’s back as the train howled through the void, he considered the possibility that the studious looking Asian in the seat opposite was a zealot convinced that obliterating a carriageful of strangers would bring him some form of eternal reward. His paranoia suitably aligned with racial profiling, he emerged again blinking into the sunlight at Embankment.
As the crowds thinned out, Dowd materialised, shimmering against the light. He was looking not at Grogan but out over the Thames, arms braced against the guardrail like a cruise ship passenger. Grogan trundled over and joined him, adopting the same position and following his gaze upriver, into the sun, beyond the Jubilee Bridges to the vast revolving Eye.
“The Wheel of Fortune.” Dowd remarked. He still had not acknowledged Grogan with the merest turn of his head. Dowd looked like an aged Picasso: bald, lean and leathery in white and navy striped polo neck, bell-bottomed navy slacks and sandals. Grogan thought for someone who liked to dress according to his mood, it hardly matched the melancholy of the remark, but presumed he was feeding the scholar in him to expound.
“The great question of the middle ages,” he obliged. “Did man control his own fate, or was he hostage to whatever turn the wheel took?”
“It doesn’t apply anymore then, you think?” Dowd suddenly swivelled his head and fixed Grogan with his icy blue stare. Not for the first time Grogan felt compelled to consider his learned views more carefully for Dowd than he ever did for his fellow academics.
“I tend to side with Machiavelli,” he said finally… “Fortune favours those whose temperament matches the times they live in.”
Dowd gave his best impression of a fast puncture.
“So that’s you fucked then,” He grinned wolfishly.
“You’ve done pretty well up to now…”
“For an Irish poof from Hackney you mean?”
“For anyone I’d say.”
“Fuck off Grogan. If I didn’t know better I’d think you were chatting me up. Now come on. We’re going for a walk.”
The conversation exhibited Dowd’s pathological need for control. Any impediments to his plans were reacted to as personal affronts, solving them a Nietzchean test of his will to power. The unwelcome presence of Grogan’s wheeled suitcase proved a case in point. A quick call to his personal chauffeur, and five minutes later a black Bentley pulled up alongside them. A young man with the appearance of a swimwear model leapt out and, heedless of the honking traffic snarled behind him, greeted Grogan with a firm handshake. ‘Marcello’ – as Dowd introduced him – then lifted his case and placed it carefully in the boot of the car before tipping his cap at them and purring away. All this just so the pair could begin their crossing of the Jubilee Bridges unencumbered, fingers locked behind their backs in the classic gallery stroller gait.
Dowd had told Grogan that he saw in him the pure spirit of scholarship. He was surrounded by people who regarded him, whether well or badly, in light of his possessions: his wealth, his connections, and the not small degree of fame he possessed. He wasn’t averse to such treatment – it fed his ego, but, equally he needed someone to whom none of this meant anything. The fact that Grogan had become that someone was a matter of pure fortune. They had both been present at a flat party in Grogan’s city hosted by an opera director, a cerebral man whose gatherings were wholly unused to the sort of behaviour exhibited by Dowd that night. With the fireworks of the festival’s conclusion booming in the sky outside, Dowd cavorted on the table, warbling out Edith Piaf songs one after the other. This carried on until a gin, and a step, too far, followed by a collapse which ended up destroying that most clichéd of destructible items, a valuable vase. As Dowd recuperated on the sofa, Grogan learned that he was in mourning, his partner of thirty years having died in a yachting accident a month previously.

He pretended not to have known this when, a week later, he received a telephone call from Louis Dowd to his office. The collector appeared to want to explain his actions, and as he listened Grogan wondered if every single person who had been there that night was receiving the same expiatory call. He was surprised that Dowd had managed to remember speaking to him at all, never mind track him down. They had only conversed for ten minutes before Dowd’s drinking began to radically alter his behaviour. Dowd, on learning that Grogan was an academic specialising in Dante, had asked him if he thought Inferno would have been written had the poet not seen Giotto’s last judgement fresco in the Scrovegni chapel. Grogan had risen to the provocation and they had argued, good-naturedly, about the primacy of the visual arts over the written word.
Dowd made no reference to this in his follow-up telephone call, but apologised for what he described as his egocentric behaviour born out of despair. Grogan was embarrassed and, perhaps sensing as much, Dowd ended the conversation. A further week on, a parcel was delivered by special courier to Grogan’s office. Inside it, wrapped in several layers of crepe paper, was a first edition of Gustave Dore’s engravings of Purgatorio and Paradiso, with a note saying ‘regards, Louis’. Thus was their connection established, with an act of giving and a corresponding sense of obligation. This was soon exploited, as Grogan effectively became Dowd’s unpaid go-between to the Edinburgh art collecting establishment. For Louis Dowd, as you may by now have realised, was an attention seeking, devious, manipulative devil who would not let moral scruples get in the way of his own megalomaniac ambitions for a second.