Howard Jacobson

The moment I realised the study of literature was over

I’ve run away. I’m not saying where I’ve run to because then they’d be able to find me. I’m not saying who ‘they’ are either. So far no one has noticed I’m missing. I shuffle along with my head down, my old-geezer Woody Allen bucket hat sheltering my face, my hands shoved deep into the pockets of my shorts. Damn! The mention of ‘shorts’ gives away that I’m somewhere hot. You have to be careful writing a clandestine piece. Fearing I’ve been spotted, I veer off the path, clamber over rocks and find myself on a black volcanic beach. It’s like walking on a fire that everyone hopes has gone out. That’s another clue. Which volcano? Anyone would think I want to be found. In fact I won’t mind if the person who finds me doesn’t have a clue what’s going on in the world. So a beach is the perfect place to be. From the promenade to the sea, beaches are news-free. Without any other care, women stand under the public showers dancing the black lava out of their bikini bottoms. This could be the last sight I will see before it all ends.

Years ago, when I was a university lecturer, I used to compete with my colleagues in imagining the silliest thing anyone would say about literature once social scientists took it over. The person who guessed that Jane Austen would be hauled over the coals for ignoring the slave trade was unanimously declared the winner. Then Edward Said, the man who made grievance an academic discipline and came up with the word ‘orientalism’ to describe the wrong sort of interest I would be taking in indigenous people on the beach were I taking any sort of interest in anyone, hauled Jane Austen over the coals for ignoring the slave trade.

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