SINCE MY LATE teens, I’ve had a penchant for Russian literature. It started with Dostoevsky. It may have been because we were both clerks; Fyodor Dostoevsky’s ‘underground man’, that is – he’d been a clerk, too, a petty clerk in the Russian civil service. That could have been our initial bonding, the basis of our strange friendship. We hit it off immediately, despite our epochal differences, despite our age gap (he was forty), our different tongues. Like him I was rude and enjoyed being rude. It was all I could do, of course, for not taking bribes, for not wanting in. I was serving my time, paying my penance, as a wages clerk at the dock board in Liverpool, England; it was the 1970s. An OPEC oil embargo had sent advanced economies into giddy nosedives, and the Sex Pistols had released a debut single, ‘Anarchy in the UK’. They were heady times, full of crises and chaos, of psychological alienation and industrial annihilation, of punk rock and disco.
During Britain’s ‘Winter of Discontent’ in 1978–79, strikes and piled-up rubbish seemed the social order of the day. I was adrift, often between jobs – between tiresome, pointless office jobs that, in Liverpool, most people thought I was lucky to have. I was a self-avowed underground man; Dostoevsky populated my imagination. Before long, I could recite whole passages of his 1864 Notes From Underground by heart. In around a hundred pages, our anti-hero – our ‘paradoxalist’, as Dostoevsky calls him – utters an unnerving yet strangely uplifting refrain. This paradoxalist was woven from a weird cloth. He teems with opposite elements. He calls himself an insect and a mouse and seems stark raving mad. Or maybe he’s completely normal? Maybe it’s the world that’s stark raving mad, driving normal people over the edge, into action.
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