By ALAN BRIEN
For reasons which it would be too tiresome to rehearse, I found myself the object of the irra- tional and unpredictable hatred of a mentally unstable acquaintance. In his mind, my wife and I are the cause of all the misfortunes and deprivations he suffers. And a few nights ago I clambered out of a deep cushioned, coffined sleep to hear his voice on the telephone chanting a litany of resentment and threatening to break into the house to commit suicide. To those of us who lead mildly neurotic lives, disturbed only by occasional clouds of free-floating anxiety about income tax, overdrafts and cancer of the lungs, the grating implacable accent of real derangement is paralysing.
My first cowardly thought was to regress into unconsciousness, to dissolve into warm nothing- ness and hope that the problem would disappear with daylight. But, in an instant, the solid old Victorian house seemed constructed out of worn cardboard. The windows gaped wide like holes in a bathing costume. At one puff from the big bad wolf, I could picture the whole edifice col- lapsing and burying me in my pyjamas. Mike Hammer, Philip Marlowe, James Bond, Bulldog Drummond—I found myself dramatising the situation in terms of thriller cliches. I was excited and terrified both at the same time. I kept repeat- jng under my breath—'Yes, it can happen here.'
• And so a few hours ago that seem like years, I found myself in a thick sweater and sheep-skin gloves sitting awake all night in a chair with part of the metal tube of a vacuum cleaner grasped like a sceptre in my right hand. The house rumbled and grumbled and creaked and coughed like a mastodon with insomnia. A dozen times I patrolled the stairways and landings, testing the window catches and door bolts. I drew back the curtains on the fog-smeared street and listened for a stealthy footstep or a scratch on the lock. At dawn, I fell asleep and awoke with the milk- man, crying wildly, 'Where's the magic circle? We've lost the magic circle.' Already, I had be- come a citizen of another world—a Hitchcockian land where every privet hedge hid an enemy and every cupboard concealed a corpse.
For the first time I began to realise how much our general belief in civic peace and domestic safety is based on the false assumption that our neighbours will obey the rules, fear the law and avoid violence. My local police station was sympathetic but powerless to act until an actual crime had been committed. Somewhere at the other end of the 999 line were the tough and efficient crew of a cruising car who would come to my help—after the event. But in a darkened front room, lit only by the faint glow of the street lamp outside, this seemed a tenuous link with normality.
As I have said, the story is not yet finished. Even when, and if, my opponent is removed from the pavements of comforting, reassuring old London to receive treatment for his disorder, can I ever feel that life will return to its carefree pattern? Must I be like an old maid looking under the bed for burglars or a miser stuffing his sovereigns down the thinks in the floorboard? The worst effect of all is to bring to the surface that callous, fear-bred, counter-hatred for law- breakers which I have always condemned in Tory ladies and reactionary retired colonels. I begin to wonder whether flogging should have been abolished, whether prison is too good for the criminal. In Dallas, would I carry a pistol?
This is the classic liberal dilemma. (I would thank those of my readers who have always known that the do-gooders, the murderer-lovers, ELIZABETH DAVID IS ILL
the musketeers of the Lilac Establishment, would start to doubt their sentimental ideals when faced with the harsh facts of life, not to write in and tell me so. I said it first.) The Labour-voting painters, carpenters and decorators, who provide a day-time bodyguard for my family at the moment, are at one with the League of Empire Loyalists on this point. 'Knock him on the head. and throw him downstairs,' they advise. 'Give him .t taste of his own medicine. It's not his brains but his backside that needs treatment.' I do not agree with them but I cannot help feeling with them.
Temperamentally and ideologically, my reac-• tions are tooled and conditioned to respond to•, argument and logic. I behave as though the truth will be universally accepted whenever it can 'be demonstrated. But faced with a personality whose thought is the slave of emotion, who sees life through a distorted prism, I feel defenceless. Yet I• still know that the only way to live with the violence which boils under the surface of our' society is to refuse to accept its assumptions. If I have to defend myself in the end with force, I shall do so muttering, 'There but for the grace of , Freud goes Alan Brien.'
Next week, the incident-may seem merely the seed of a good after-dinner anecdote. Already it is being translated into journalism. Perhaps I am . sensationalising an episode which many others have experienced but not thought worthy of recording. While the grey sunshine turns the day- time air into smoky, blue chiffon, I can feel rather embarrassed about raising the subject at all. To- night, I may be sitting again on sentry duty, filled with that aggressive self-importance which wells up in all who work while others sleep, thinking how often life imitates cheap fiction.
As a professional die-stamper in the generali- sation business, I find that I have a very low tolerance for other journalists' broad conclu- sions. Particularly I resent the fashionable assumption that we are breeding a generation of conformists. After the age of puberty, perhaps, our offspring tend to ape the images they see on the telly and ask for a black fringe and a guitar at Christmas. But, before their teens, youngsters today have a distrust of mass con-, ventions so healthy that it is almost sickening.
I have been carrying on some tentative re- search in the eight-year-old waveband around my new house, which I identify either as South Highgate or Upper Kentish Town, depending on the topographical prejudices of my listener. There is little danger here of swallowing pre- fabricated opinions. The most popular group in one of our local schools, after a prolonged ex- posure to the Christmas Story, is an in-organisa- tion called the We-Love-Herod Club. At some recent private theatricals, mostly taken up with prolonged and bitter recriminations among the performers, I observed a mock advertisement on the bottom of the programme which read: 'All The Best Angels Smoke.'
The smart under-tens in this area are not con- tent just to think dangerous thoughts, they also act them out. Seeking for an excuse for under- mining the position of a sternly disciplinarian mistress, they hit upon the all-too-adult device of questioning her scholastic qualifications. Syllable by syllable, they spelled out the letters after her name in the school magazine only to discover that she had no university degree. Cun- ningly off-hand questions were then posed to their parents, who displayed the usual unguarded Oxbridge intolerance for the outsider. A depu- tation of tiny revolutionaries then waited upon the head of the school to suggest the removal of this efficient, but temporarily disliked, lady.