David Beresford Another Country The first confidence trickster I came across was, I think, one of my brothers. I must have been six or seven years old and was harbouring certain suspicions about Santa Claus. I cannot remember what prompted the doubts; maybe it was a certain falsity of the “ho! ho! ho!” offered up by Santa at the local department store, maybe it was the beard which just didn’t sit right.
Wherever the clue lay, I clearly remember the sudden silence among my family, over-seeing the annual ceremony of tying the “stocking” to the bottom of the bed, when I announced defiantly: “I don’t believe there is a Father Christmas!” The younger of my two elder brothers reacted first. He announced he would build a booby trap for Santa which, if he was the genuine article, he would no doubt evade. But if he was an impostor it would surely wake me up, enabling me to grab him and summon help.
Not having followed the logic of my stance through to the point of questioning who it was that filled my stocking on Christmas eve if not Santa and having the utmost faith in the genius of my big brothers to build anything, including a fake-Santa alarm I agreed. Whereupon we constructed an elaborate booby trap involving, as I recall it, a bucket of water and some string. I determined to stay awake all the night just to make sure sensing, I suppose, that this was my last chance to catch Santa in the act. But, as ever, I woke on Christmas morning, all doubts set aside by the sight of a stocking packed with the goodies as ordered.
In childhood my appetite for Christmas goodies was voracious, guided and tempered only by my mother’s appeals to good sense and charity (“Poor Santa, he’s got so many children to cater for every year!”). In adulthood one adopts an air of happy off-handedness towards the whole event: “Oh, you know Dad, he just wants …”; in my own father’s case it was a copy of the Giles cartoon annual, in my own it is a bar of marzipan chocolate. But behind the mask of parenthood there is, I must admit, one gift for which I am waiting. One which, paradoxically, seems ever more remote the more we seem to develop our capacity to develop it.
Exactly what shape it will take I am not sure, but I can sense the substance of it in various cravings I feel from time to time and which I seem to have glimpses of in others.
I feel it, for instance, when I wade through the papers on the Internet trying to figure out which articles I want to look at in which section of which newspaper among tens of thousands immediately available. And that is without beginning to consider new books, magazines, or for that matter websites. How nice it would be if someone or something could sort it for me and just … well, send it on!
The craving is to be discovered in my even greater irritation with the television, film and theatre listings, not to mention those for art exhibitions and concerts. Couldn’t someone just advise me what I want to see, instead of my having to wade through the mountains of newspaper supplements, magazines, adverts and competitions and all that merely to earn the right try and decrypt programmes compiled by authorities who like the high priests of an esoteric religion hope to cloak the vacuous with obscurantism.
Could someone, or something, not make personalised sense of this Babel of information, so I can at least be informed as to the information with which I wish to inform myself?
And then there is the information which I long to access, by way of guidance to problem-solving. I’m a great believer in division of labour, but it would help if someone or something in the know could advise me where expertise and reliability are to be discovered in “other” divisions. Examples abound. Garage mechanics are a group I have previously (hopefully) savaged. The manufacturers and those who claim to maintain Macintosh computers is a subject I am not capable of writing about at present, without being reduced to incoherence.
So take, for instance, a fairly simple device, our intercom for visitors. It breaks down so often I have taken to advising friends to come equipped with cellphone so as to alert us to their arrival. On one occasion grunting and pounding noises and cries of wrath were heard outside the front door. On investigation it turned out to be a particularly valued friend whose repeated frustrations with the instrument had finally pushed him over the edge, leading him to decide seemingly for our sake to beat the device to death. He explained in broken tones that such was the relentless hostility it displayed on his arrivals he had taken it for a malevolent alien playing possum.
I was fully sympathetic with this manifestation of intercom rage. It is a level of paranoia to which I am reduced by the seemingly endless stream of electricians when as is inevitably the case they inspect the intercom and then cheerily say: “Needs rewiring, I’m afraid.” Having had it rewired twice my reason briefly totters and I find myself again speculating whether this is only a manifestation of greed, or whether they are not secret agents sent to test my capacity to withstand psychological torture preparatory to signing me up for some super-secret agency in discharge of its constitutional obligations towards the so-called disabled as set out in the Employment Equity Act.
So, yes, I would like something or someone to recommend a more reliable electrician, not to mention intercom system, and monitor the repairs done. Just as I would like to be advised on a garage, warned away from such as Mac compu-ters, tipped off when a Jacques Tati retrospective is showing, guided on how to deal with that R3/4-million bill the municipality charged us for one month’s water, and, for that matter, advise me on the Christmas presents to buy my children and grandchild, remind me when to take my drugs … In other words I want a HAL, the computer- companion made famous by Arthur C Clarke’s 2001, to stand between me and the rat race out there in the real world in which there is no room for Santa Claus. But, when I think about it, what I really want for Christmas is the return to innocence which my big brothers tried so hard to save for me for one more year.