Taxi Driver in Athens (2012)


I have a rule about not talking to taxi drivers who pick me from the airport. They are the first person you meet on a trip, when you are at your most anxious for information. You begin to ask questions because you are stuck on their back seat for an hour and try as you will there is nothing to infer from the billboards, the lanes of tarmac, the construction junk at the side of the road that are the more or less the same wherever you go in the world.

The problem is that they are taxi drivers. And like the globalised sameness of the airport road, taxi drivers have the same life everywhere: they spend their days and nights waiting for fares and in that time they do whatever the local version is of listening to talk radio and finding information that corroborates their windscreened view of the world. They talk to other cabbies and stew in their discoveries and the slights they have suffered in their lives. They drive and wait and stew some more. Often they drive and stew simultaneously. So by the time you ask them a question about the country you have just landed in, you normally get an answer that has been boiled three times over and distilled into a description of reality that you never hear again.

George Nicholas – the anglicised name my taxi driver at Eleftherios Venizelos Airport in Athens gave himself – didn’t give a shit about any of that. He drove a Mercedes. He was dressed in a blazer and loafers, like he’d just stepped off a yacht, and was doing me a favour by giving me a lift into town. Once he had made a show of working out where my hotel was (he never fully knew) George Nicholas ignored all of my careful reticence and demanded to know who I was and what I was doing in his country. We weren’t even out of the airport yet. It was about nine o’clock on a Sunday night and the roads were empty. This enabled George Nicholas to turn around and look me straight in the eye when asking questions. I said I was a writer. “A rider? What do you ride? You ride horses?”

A writer. “A reader?” George Nicholas began to list things that I might read for a living. “You read books? A reader!” He had not heard of this. He seemed impressed. He drove faster as if to spur his thinking. We accelerated past the five illuminated rings installed for the Athens Olympics of 2004 which is now regarded by many Greeks as the very high point – both blissful and delusioned – of their country’s modern history. “What are you reading about?” I am writing about Greece. George Nicholas finally understood. He took his hands off the wheel and turned round to shake my hand. The car moved to the left. “Well what do you want to know? You should talk to me. Taxi drivers are always in the middle, always at the core.”

There was no stopping him. I didn’t want to listen and I soaked up every word. There was no crisis in Greece. I shouldn’t believe what I had seen on the TV. I would see it with my own eyes while I was here: the cafés were full, people were out, having a good time. People have money. Greece is a rich country. Okay, so things aren’t as good as they used to be. Yes, there had been some protests. Did I know how many immigrants there were in Athens? A million. Refugees. Yes, a million. Did I know about Dublin II? (The EU’s regulation on the free movement of people, and something you hear a lot about in Greece). This was the real cause of the crisis. They were the ones burning down buildings. But even that it is not a real crisis. Because it’s all been constructed by the politicians. “It is technical theatre!” said George Nicholas, delighted with this phrase. “Technical theatre!”

He nodded and drove and talked. The logic of his explanations was like his driving: fast and full of swerves. George Nicholas said the problem of the Greek people was not that they had become terribly, irredeemably indebted as a nation but that they had become too rich! They had just been getting to the point of throwing off centuries of dependency: to the Ottoman Turks, to the Americans, to the families of politicians who have ruled them for generations. “If you are earning €5,000 a month for many years and you only need €2,000 to live on then you are a dangerous man,” said George Nicholas. “Independent.” He nodded. “You can say to your boss, ‘Fuck You!’” George Nicholas yelled this in the taxi. He took his hands off the wheel and slapped one into the other elbow and yelled it again. “Fuck you!” This is what had been about to happen: Greeks got so dangerously close to prosperity and individual fulfilment that the international order – represented by the IMF, the EU and, of course, their puppets in the Greek government – had done the only thing open to them: which was to impoverish the population.

I asked George Nicholas why this was necessary. We were descending off the main road now, in among the lit streetfronts and sporadic columns of downtown Athens. He acknowledged that this was an important question. “I tell you something,” he said, solemnly. “You write it.” Then he turned to face me, and George Nicholas fixed me with a particular look that I had not encountered before I went to Greece but which became familiar because it recurred in so many conversations that I had over the following days. The look, if it needed to say anything, said this: Wake up. Forget whatever pleasant assumptions you might have been operating under about the way the world and society works because the sooner you realise that the only organising principles in this life are deceit and power and screwing the next guy the easier it’s going to be for you to get along here. I received this look from many Greek faces, and in many forms. It occurred on George Nicholas’s face as one primarily of concern. He was helping me out. “You know who controls humanity?” He asked. He waited for a reply. “You are not a boy. You are a man now. Who is controlling the planet? Tell me now, who is controlling this planet? Who?”

“I don’t think anybody is.”

George Nicholas ignored this answer. “Who is controlling? The bankers controlling? The rich people control? For money, who?”

“I don’t think anybody is in control.”

“No,” he shook his head. “Somebody controls. Somebody is behind of them.”

This went on for a few minutes: George Nicholas suggesting, hinting strongly, that I give up my innocence and think of groups of people who might be playing with all of us like the hopeless marionettes that we are. (“I think you believe that everything, all of the crisis, is because some people like to make more money?” He probed). George Nicholas did this until he couldn’t stand it any more. “I won’t tell you too much. But for the last ten thousand years the same people control the planet. The same people,” he said. “Of course not the same people because people do not live ten thousand years. But these people ten, or twenty people…” And then George Nicholas gave me the essential information about the Masonic conspiracy that has been in charge of humankind for all this time, migrating from empire to empire, surfing the waves of wealth and continual destruction, dividing humanity needlessly for their own unimaginable gains, leaving their enigmatic symbols along the way. The financial crisis, the humbling of Greece, it was so plainly part of the Masons’ eternal campaign of domination that it barely needed to be spelled out. “London is the Mecca,” said George Nicholas with something like reproach. Was I sure I didn’t know about any of this stuff? “The Illuminati? White brothers and black brothers. You know these guys? You know these guys?”

“I don’t know them,” I said. “It sounds a bit like the Da Vinci code.”

George Nicholas nodded. I wasn’t a completely hopeless case. “Something like this,” he mused. “Da Vinci. Something like this.” We were in the neighbourhood of my hotel now, on the eastern side of Syngrou Avenue, the main drag that runs through the heart of Athens, not far from the Acropolis. George Nicholas was gunning his Mercedes up and down increasingly narrow and steep roads, asking directions from men sat on chairs outside empty bars and shops. He did this while expounding on the Masons, Nato (if the Greek people rose up, the war would be over within a month) and one-ness of humans and animals (George Nicholas was a vegetarian). Finally we got within sight of the sign of my hotel. It was up another tight street and I decided to get out and walk the last few hundred yards. George Nicholas and I said goodbye. He short-changed me by ten euros. I did not want to have a conversation about it.

I had half an hour to think about my ban on talking to taxi drivers. I had arranged to meet Joanna Kakissis, an American journalist based in Athens, for dinner, and she was coming to my hotel. I unpacked and went out on to the small balcony outside my room. There was a freshness, a fragrance of trees in spring that I was not expecting in a large city. Half a mile away, floating above the city, the Parthenon stood like bones floodlit upon a table. I did my best to put George Nicholas out of my mind. Surely he had been a one-off. But it was difficult to forget what he had said. The out-thereness, the complexity of his thinking – how far away it was from my own understanding of the economic crisis in Greece and how I had expected Greeks to talk and think about it – had caught me off balance. I went down to the lobby to wait for Joanna.

A television was on in the corner. It was showing a documentary, in Greek, about “Tourkokratia” (Turkish rule), the Ottoman occupation of the country from 1458 to 1821. Modern reconstructions showed Greek peasants running through olive groves, pursued by eastern soldiers. The only other person in the lobby was the receptionist. A Greek man in his forties, he had thin black hair in a bold, pompadour wave and strong glasses. After a few minutes, he asked me where I was from. “Is there really a city named Wolves?” Was his first question about England. He had been watching a football match involving Wolverhampton Wanderers. I drew him a crude map of the amazing clusters of football teams in the Midlands and Lancashire. There was a slight pause and then, in the mysterious way that it does in Greece, the conversation began to slide, like a stream towards a hidden sea, down into the crisis. Before I knew it, the receptionist was giving me the same look that George Nicholas had given me in the taxi just before he started talking about the Masons.

This time, though, the look was of simple surprise. I didn’t know about the oil under the Aegean Sea? As much as Saudi Arabia. I didn’t know about the diamonds in the mountains? The gold? I didn’t know this? Was I sure? Well, the Germans knew about it. And so did the Americans. They have known about Greek’s mineral wealth for years, for decades, and they have been waiting for just this moment – just a hint of vulnerability – to put the country on its knees and come and help themselves. Of course this was how it works. You can’t have a war in Europe. Especially not after Iraq. This is how you conquer a country in the 21st century: you pump it full of cheap loans, wait for it to default and then get all its assets on the cheap. “We will be like Nigeria,” said the receptionist. All you need is a certain amount of international organisation – Angela Merkel has a castle outside Berlin where she makes her plans. (I didn’t know this either?) – and few collaborators on the inside. And in Greece, the Germans and the Americans could not have hoped in their dreams for a better stooge than “Pappy”. The receptionist spat the nickname of George Papandreou, the country’s last Prime Minister.

To my mind, until this point, Papandreou had occurred as a slender, rather hapless man who had admitted to the world a few weeks after his election in October 2009 that Greece’s finances were roughly twice as appalling as anyone had previously realised. For the next two years, Papandreou had traipsed from crunch summit to crunch summit, wearing a thin moustache and begging for international assistance while managing to convince very few people that he would able to able to sufficiently reform the Greek economy to be able to pay them back in the end. Eventually, in November 2011, he had been forced from office after a bungled attempt to put the country’s second bailout from the European Union – and the host of accompanying tax increases and budget cuts – to a national referendum.

The receptionist could not believe I had been taken in by all this detail. “We have big heroes,” he explained, “everybody knows this about Greece. But we also have big enemies, big villains. And this is Pappy.” The man was, simply, a traitor. Then the receptionist repeated the phrase that hangs around Papandreou in Greece like a shadow that he will never throw off: “We have money.” Papandreou, who used to lead Pasok, the country’s socialist party, said this during his election campaign in 2009 and he will never be forgiven for it.

“Why did he say there was money when there was no money?” The receptionist asked. He was becoming furious just thinking about it. Maybe Papandreou didn’t find out how little money there was until he became Prime Minister, I said. “Of course he knew.” When was I going to grow up? “His blood is American blood,” said the receptionist, referring to Papandreou’s transatlantic upbringing and doing an alarming impression of slashing his own wrist. (Papandreou grew up in exile in the US while his father, Andreas, helped lead the movement that brought down the Greek military dictatorship in 1974). I told the receptionist that there was a chance I would be meeting Papandreou later in the week. I asked if there was anything he wanted to me to say on his behalf. “If I could, I would kill him,” said the receptionist quietly. “I am not the only one.”

The man’s only hope, it turned out, was this fury. “The CIA, the FBI, they have files on every country,” he said. “Germany, France, UK…” as he mentioned each nation, the receptionist mimed the thickness of each file between his fingers. “Greece is like this.” He used both hands to signify the biggest file of all. “I told you,” he said. “We are crazy. It is very difficult to plan for us. They don’t know what we are going to do.” He went outside for a cigarette. I was eager for Joanna to show up, but there was no sign of her. So I followed the receptionist out into the street. He smoked and considered the quiet, small smells of the night. Today had been Greece’s national day. For the first time that he could remember, even during the military rule that lasted from 1967 to 1974, the ministers in the procession had been separated from the people by thick ranks of riot police. “A revolution is coming,” said the receptionist. Every now and again the Greeks rise up, he said: two hundred years ago, they rose against the Turks, in the Second World War they rose against the Nazis. “This is what is happening now,” he said. “The middle class is being destroyed. Right now he still has some money in the bank, under the bed, but when this is run out, he will be on the street. He will destroy everything he sees.”

Finally Joanna called. She had been delayed because she had to file a last minute story on Greece’s subdued national day festivities. Now she was on her way. I went inside and watched the documentary on the television. Every now and again, English-speaking academics would be interviewed, and the programme became suddenly comprehensible. “Travellers who came to Greece,” said one of the professors, “were struck by the corruption of the local Ottoman officials.” The receptionist went back to his desk. I decided not to continue our talk. Clearly my taxi driver rule didn’t hold in Greece: they were not so unrepresentative here. I was going to have to prepare myself for a week of wild interpretations, for descriptions of politics and economics that I had not heard before.

It was not long before midnight by the time Joanna arrived. She was small, tough reporter for NPR. We searched for somewhere to eat. When we found a hotel that would serve us, I told her about my two conversations in Greece so far – about the Masons, the CIA, the oil under the Aegean and Merkel’s castle outside Berlin – and Joanna gave me the “wake up” look for the third time that evening. This time, it was a look of consolation. She had been reporting on the Greek crisis for more than two years, and it hadn’t got any easier. The intensity of the blame and the distrust in people’s minds made for a continual labyrinth of explanations for what was happening in Greece that often left her in despair. Last week, she said, when a taxi driver had started out on the Masonic treatise for the hundredth time this year, she had asked him, please, to stop. When he did not, she gave up and started to cry.

Things I write about #2: quests (endless)

Frankin's Lighting Rods

I’ve been drawn, since I first started writing I think, to the idea of the endless quest, the uncompletable project. I’m not sure why. And I often don’t realise it’s happening. It’s only later, when the story is lying around in pieces around my desk and I’m beginning to assemble it that I recognise the shape of the narrative that has been there all along. It’s very easy to conclude that there is something sad in an endless quest. Sisyphus had a shitty deal. But when I spend time with people, or communities, who seem to have an infinite project in front of them, I rarely encounter a sense of futility, or despair. In fact, it’s often the opposite. One of the first endless quest stories I wrote was for The New York Times about a man called Walter Grutchfield, who has spent his retirement walking, and re-walking, midtown Manhattan, mapping and cataloguing all the fading signs — “the ghost signs” — of a century of closed businesses, high on the weather bleached bricks. Walter didn’t think that he was doing anything futile. The impossibility of what he was trying to do, the fact that he would never be done, was not a source of anxiety, or melancholia. It was, of course, a comfort, a purpose, scaffolding for a life.

My favourite endless endeavour is Clive Craik’s. In 1990, Craik began trying to protect the sea bird populations of western Scotland from the predations of escaped American mink, which were imported to the UK in the 1920s to set up fur farms. Every year since then, Craik has patrolled 1,500 breeding sites, trapping mink, counting eggs, a vigilante in the wilderness. In 2008, when I wrote the story, he was contemplating how long he could continue the fight:

Nineteen years (four cars, three boats, half a million miles at the wheel) later, age has become the deciding factor for Craik. Soon, it will stop him. Although sturdy and fit – he runs every day during the winter – Craik can only single-handedly launch his boat and lug the 36kg (80lb) outboard motor across wet beaches for a few more summers. Two years ago, he believes he escaped death by a 50-50 chance when he was thrown across his boat (rather than out of it) when he let go of the tiller.

But age compels him too. On my second morning in Argyll we visited Craik’s office, a curiosity case of mink skulls, gnawed eggs and books on coastal navigation. He sat at his desk and said that his quest to save the breeding colonies had become ultimately personal and aesthetic; and that it felt more, rather than less, urgent as time passed. “That is the driving force: beauty,” he said. “The loss of beauty that is so sad.”

But you can’t be naive about the power of the consuming project, the dominating obsession. Earlier this year, Harper’s published the biggest piece of reporting I’ve done, which was the story of Jude Le Grice, a tree worker and opera singer who was prosecuted for stalking and locked up in psychiatric wards for the best part of a decade. In Jude’s case, the quest was only ever chivalric. It was only ever impossible. And it became the vortex into which the rest of his life, and his family, fell.

Maybe it’s obvious why I like writing about impossible projects. They have an inherent tension: the weight of passion against the weight of reason. And we are naturally interested by obsession, I think — by the idea of someone being captivated. Because ultimately we all wish to be captivated by something, or someone. (But not captured). I also wonder, though, whether there is a relationship between the endless quest and the project of writing and reporting about the world, with its impossibility, its futility, the assurance that we will never get to the end. Here are four articles about impossible projects:

So many signs, so little time,” The New York Times, 4/7/2004
Walter Grutchfield and the ephemera of signage.

The birdman of Barcaldine,” FT, 19/7/2008
Saving Scotland’s seabirds from the marauding mink

Let there be lightning,” FT, 21/8/2010
The quest to understand lightning

A God more powerful than I,” Harper’s, 1/2/2014
Understanding a stalker’s love

Things I write about #1: sport (and life)

Goal on wall

When people ask me what I write about, I am not very good at answering. I tend to say that I write long articles, and hope that is sufficient. Sometimes it is. If it isn’t, I normally mumble something further about a mixed bag. The truth is there is no single subject, or obvious specialisation, which will presumably damn me in the end, but after writing these articles for a while, I can see themes emerging in the rearview mirror, as it were, questions or zones of human life that keep drawing me back. I’m going to put up a few posts in the coming months that group some of my articles according to these themes, and the first of these is sport.

I read sports articles every day, and steered clear of the subject for a long while as a result. Some of the things I like most about most sports reporting – the formulae, the submerged cliché, the gossip – are things that I do not like at all about writing. It is escape, before it is anything else. So when I have written about sport, there has tended to be something else going on at the same time, sport as a metaphor, or a catalyst, or an instrument of power or social change. In the stories below sport has been an intended agent of development (in east London, for the Olympics); an expression of an oligarch’s power in his homeland (for Suleiman Kerimov in Dagestan, via Anzhi Makhachkala); a token of splintering identities (in Glasgow, during the downfall of Rangers Football Club); a vehicle for national pride in a country that doesn’t want to be a country (Belgium’s World Cup team in 2014); and a social manifestation of dastardly excitement, bravery and Britain’s love-kill relationship with animals (in the Grand National).

So, the stories:

The Olympic Shadow,” Prospect, 14/12/11
Will the Olympic Games help or alienate east Londoners?

Uncle Suleyman’s Army“, British GQ, 6/3/13
Can a billionaire’s football team transform Dagestan?

Terminal Blues,” Prospect, 18/7/2012 ($)
The implosion of Rangers Football Club

Death and Tradition at the Grand National“, Grantland, 17/4/13
It’s Britain’s favourite steeplechase, but the horses keep dying.

The Rise of the Red Devils,” Grantland, 15/5/14
The meaning of Belgium’s extraordinary World Cup team

In 2014….

God More PowerfulIt’s been a busy time, and it’s about to get busier. So I wanted to post an update on some things I’ve written, and some things to look out for.

I spent time last summer with Romanian gypsies who were coming to London, living uncomfortably between prejudice and rural poverty at home and a big rich city that doesn’t want them. “Home Invasion” was published in the January issue of British GQ. I wrote a comment article, unusually for me, a month later, in Prospect, about our out-sized fears of the Roma. The book on the subject, in case you’re wondering, is Isabel Fonseca’s “Bury Me Standing”. Outstanding, more like. Beautifully reported. Completely prescient.

In February, Harper’s published “A God More Powerful Than I” (subscription required), probably the story that I have worked hardest on in ten years of reporting and writing. It’s the story of Jude Le Grice, a tree worker and opera singer, prosecuted for stalking a woman, and locked up in psychiatric wards for the best part of a decade. It’s provoked a mainly positive response, despite the very divisive and troubling subject. Stalking and harassment is a new crime – a massive phenomenon in developed societies right around the world – that we haven’t got right yet.

More recently – a jolly profile of Col Needham, the founder of IMDb, for the FT. A nerd in his domain. And another travel junket, this time to the fresh and geologically beguiling mountains of Oman.

With the World Cup tapping on our shoulders, I went to Belgium to investigate the origins of the most exciting European team heading to the tournament, and the strange social reverberations of having a wonderful vehicle for national pride in a country that…. doesn’t want to be country. Feel The Belgitude. In Grantland – a great website for British readers, who might not know it.

With luck, this summer there is more coming in British GQ, Harper’s and the FT. And a baby. And a refurbished house and and////

They knew nothing of death in those days

Icebergs at Ilulissat

I went to Greenland on one of my travel junkets for the FT. I was, as the paper says, mesmerised. Partly (a lot) by the massive icebergs, but also (a lot) because I got very caught up reading Inuit folk stories by the light of the midnight sun. Knud Rasmussen, half-Dane, half-Greenlander, collected the stories on his epic Arctic travels in the opening decades of the twentieth century, and I found a 1921 English translation of the stories online. Below is a doozy, about the origins of light, life and death in the high North. Got to love the Inuit rendering of the Garden of Eden: “Then there is something about a man and a woman, but what of them?


OUR forefathers have told us much of the coming of earth, and of men, and it was a long, long while ago. Those who lived long before our day, they did not know how to store their words in little black marks, as you do; they could only tell stories. And they told of many things, and therefore we are not without knowledge of these things, which we have heard told many and many a time, since we were little children. Old women do not to waste their words idly, and we believe what they say. Old age does not lie.

A long, long time ago, when the earth was to be made, it fell down from the sky. Earth, hills and stones, all fell down from the sky, and thus the earth was made.

And then, when the earth was made, came men.

It is said that they came forth out of the earth. Little children came out of the earth. They came forth from among the willow bushes, all covered with willow leaves. And there they lay among the little bushes: lay and kicked, for they could not even crawl. And they got their food from the earth.

Then there is something about a man and a woman, but what of them? It is not clearly known. When did they find each other, and when had they grown up? I do not know. But the woman sewed, and made children’s clothes, and wandered forth. And she found little children, and dressed them in the clothes, and brought them home.

And in this way men grew to be many.

And being now so many, they desired to have dogs. So a man went out with a dog leash in his hand, and began to stamp on the ground, crying “Hok—hok—hok!” Then the dogs came hurrying out from the hummocks, and shook themselves violently, for their coats were full of sand. Thus men found dogs.

But then children began to be born, and men grew to be very many on the earth. They knew nothing of death in those days, a long, long time ago, and grew to be very old. At last they could not walk, but went blind, and could not lie down.

Neither did they know the sun, but lived in the dark. No day ever dawned. Only inside their houses was there ever light, and they burned water in their lamps, for in those days water would burn.

But these men who did not know how to die, they grew to be too many, and crowded the earth. And then there came a mighty flood from the sea. Many were drowned, and men grew fewer. We can still see marks of that great flood, on the high hill-tops, where mussel shells may often be found.

And now that men had begun to be fewer, two old women began to speak thus:

“Better to be without day, if thus we may be without death,” said the one.

“No; let us have both light and death,” said the other.

And when the old woman had spoken these words, it was as she had wished. Light came, and death.

It is said, that when the first man died, others covered up the body with stones. But the body came back again, not knowing rightly bow to die. It stuck out its head from the bench, and tried to get up. But an old woman thrust it back, and said:

“We have much to carry, and our sledges are small.”

For they were about to set out on a hunting journey. And so the dead one was forced to go back to the mound of stones.

And now, after men had got light on their earth, they were able to go on journeys, and to hunt, and no longer needed to eat of the earth. And with death came also the sun, moon and stars.

For when men die, they go up into the sky and become brightly shining things there.

My story is here.

Escape into Aintree

AintreeI’ve been working on an article about the Grand National for Grantland, which involved spending a few days up at Aintree earlier this month. I stayed at a cheap hotel by the docks and was woken up each night by senseless shouting in the corridors, the bleary hysterical voices of people who been drinking and gambling and gambling and drinking until they had come to a stop, at 4am, faced with a closed door and some intractable problem. Anyway. When I arrived at Aintree each day around lunchtime, it was my pleasure, my escape, to get out into the middle of the track, which is an ignored netherland of coaches, roads, a golf course, and traffic lights with buttons raised for the convenience of people on horseback. I got chapped in the wind and the sun and saw some wonderful things:

“I walked out in the middle of the course. One of the unchanging things about Aintree is its preposterous size. The populated part of the course is still clustered around a single corner of Lynn’s triangle, and the northeasterly wind quickly scattered the drone of the Tannoy. Out in this strange, inland territory there were ponds, bits of gorse and scrub that have been here since Sefton’s day, and men wearing bibs that said “Horse Catcher.” I was out there at 3:40 p.m. for the Fox Hunters’ Chase, one of two races run over a single circuit of the National fences days before the big race on Saturday. The Fox Hunters’ is for amateur and younger riders (one of Lord Daresbury’s sons was competing), and I went and stood by The Chair, the largest jump on the course. It looked like it had been built to hold back a river. It was the first time I had ever seen a Grand National fence jumped at close quarters, and as the 24 horses approached — the 96 hooves, the 12 tons of muscle and bone — I felt a shuddering sense of time and ground shortening. Then they cleared it. Actually, they smote it.”

Here is the article.

AHAP#5: Hearing live music (which you know and love)


I don’t listen to enough live music, but who does? (People who have to listen to live music for their jobs probably hear far too much and hate it. And I don’t think I would want to hear from those who have it Goldilocks-style, just right, booking their tickets months in advance, congratulations). And of the tiny amount of live music that I do go and see / hear, it’s even rarer that it is the real core material, the songs closest to the heart. I can think of only one or two experiences of that kind, and they have been almost as unsettling as straightforwardly enjoyable. I couldn’t really believe what was happening when Dylan began to bark out “Desolation Row” in his gondolier’s hat and minimal moustache. “At midnight all the agents / And the superhuman crew / Come out and round up everyone / That knows more than they do.” You? Genius? Here? In Brixton? It didn’t quite compute.

So I just don’t think I had many cultural or emotional references when we booked to go and see the Goldberg Variations (above) at King’s Place last month. Incidentally, what is even the right verb here? Do you listen to live music, see it, hear it, or just go to it? I know that you hear evensong, and I can see how classical music might fall into that usage, but I am not sure that you hear Bach. You certainly don’t see it / him or “go”. Who is travelling towards who? (On balance, I think you probably listen to Bach. You try to hear. You hope to hear). Anyway, we really didn’t think very much about the whole deal. We looked at the listings for Bach Unwrapped. Got excited. Clicked on the Goldberg Variations dates. Love Goldberg Variations. Listen to Goldberg Variations a lot. In the car. In the flat. Got nephew a book for Christmas purely because the title was a pun on the Goldberg Variations. Also got nephew the Goldberg Variations (Glenn Gould 1955). Nephew two months old. Never too young for Goldberg Variations. Anyway, we got tickets in the front row, went about our business, occasionally said things like, “Can’t believe we going to Bach this week” and turned up a few minutes before it began.

If you haven’t been to King’s Place, it’s a bit like being inserted into the chamber of some large, as-yet-uninvented wooden instrument. We sat down, everyone was older than us, and then Miki Skuta, the pianist, appeared through a doorway onto the stage. In pictures, Mikuláš Škuta (Slovakian) looks like the knowledgeable virtuoso that he is. His website says it: “All-out gifted artist”. But that night he looked heavy, concerned, lugubrious; like a border guard about to begin a shift. I could hear his shoes on the polished stage. I was struck, panicked almost, by the intimacy: not just because of our proximity to Skuta, the sense of missing nothing, but because of the sudden preciousness of what he was about to pick up, and plunge into, and pull apart, and fill us with.

It’s still hard to figure out, almost three weeks later, why those first few notes, those utterly familiar clamber-up, clamber-down phrases, managed to be so shocking. P and I both looked away. Something hurt. It was as if Skuta was operating on a relative. We needed to be there. It needed to be fine. But there was an agony too. I think it has to do with sharing. Until that moment, I had only ever heard the Goldberg Variations on my own (mostly on my own) or with P. Like most of the Bach that I know, I find it intensely interior music. It gets in me immediately. The notes are like thoughts and there is such a pleasing simultaneous complexity and pattern that I find myself hooked up to something that feels like a larger and stronger mind: carried away and brought closer to myself at the same time. Going to Bach. Coming to Bach. Whatever it is, it turned out to be very surprising that Skuta was daring to play these notes, to interpose himself in the middle of this very private event. And not just Skuta, but the whole room – all these people with their cloth shopping bags and closed eyes. It is very childish but I had not realised that these were not my variations.

They were, of course, if they were anybody’s in that wood-wound room, Skuta’s variations. As he played (hands crossing over themselves, fingers spiderous) it began to occur to me – but only in the smallest way – what kind of a relationship that Skuta must have formed with the music. I don’t know how many notes there are in the Goldberg Variations, there must be thousands, but there was not a question of him being able to remember them. They had, over the years, in the unheated halls, on Slovakian public transport, in his sleep, become his thoughts as well. And while I did not agree with every single one of Skuta’s expressions – sometimes his playing was just a shade too technical, a micro-inch too precise for how I imagine the music (which, after all, is just the Glenn Gould version) – I had to confront the idea of an entirely different level of association, of inhabitance, of knowledge. I was listening to the Goldberg Variations, but I was also witnessing Skuta and his life with them.

And existing, somehow, in all of this was Bach. That was almost the most surprising element of the night – and also the most ethereal, so I didn’t quite grasp it: where did he fit into all of this? If the first thought that humbled me, amid the pleasure, was that there were, in fact, other people in London equally excited and equally moved by the idea of listening to the Goldberg Variations on a Thursday night in January and I would have to share Bach with them. And the second thought was that a Slovakian maestro called Miki Skuta had been playing the piano for more than 40 years before being able to offer a fully-wrought interpretation of this work. Then the third was about the mind that came up with these variations in the first place.

This is still far too large for me to get my head around. It would be like explaining the Milky Way, or Japan. But one very obvious, and new, thing did occur to me, watching Skuta, hearing Bach, was quite what an exhibition this music was. Until I saw those fingers, those hands, those shoes, I think my experience, my pleasure in the Goldberg Variations, had been in their construction – in the filigree, the pattern-making – but now I realised there was also the drama of their execution. This music was physical as much as it was intellectual and emotional, and there just aren’t that many people that can play it. This was something to make you gasp. Whatever else he was thinking in 1741, Johannes Sebastian, with his “Keyboard exercise, consisting of an ARIA with diverse variations for harpsichord with two manuals”, was out to blow some tiny minds.

AHAP (An Honest Appraisal of Pleasure) is a series that examines activities in our lives that are billed as pleasurable, and attempts to give an honest and thorough assessment of whether they actually are.