Yesterday I went to the basement of Carphone Warehouse in London's Oxford Street, a first-aid centre for mobile telephones. The older gentleman in front of me looked familiar. I asked if he was a writer. “Yes,” he said. It was, as I had suspected, the novelist and essayist John Berger. I was chuffed. Even great writers line up to get their phones fixed. He asked what was wrong with mine. It has a torch that works, I said, but doesn't ring. (Like a car that has spell-check but no wheels.)
I told him I met Salman Rushdie a few months back. He was in a pub with his partner Padma Lakshmi. I patted him on the shoulder and said, “I'm Iranian and on behalf of my country I apologise”. Rushdie laughed but gave me a look of unease as if I might shout “Blasphemous swine!” and stab him. That was my cue to leave but I asked if he would endorse the book I have written. He said he might and that I should send it to his publisher. I haven't yet. Written it, that is.
“Why don't you ditch Salman for me,” I wanted to tell Padma, who is beautiful and my age. “I'm not quite as distinguished yet but I am rather hip.” Imagine prising Rushdie's wife off him. In what would be a poetic role-reversal, he would issue a fatwa on an Iranian.
John — we were on first name terms now — asked if I did any writing. I told him, sir, if you write, I scribble with a blunt pencil. I didn't actually but I wish I had. Bugger. His wife appeared. I forget her name, maybe Bernadette. I asked how things were in Switzerland — John was being served now. “We live in France,” she said. “Not Switzerland.” She told me that a Berger season is running in London and that's why they were here. She quizzed me about why my family had left Iran, after which they left the shop. I refrained from insisting on coffee lest I frighten them. They both seemed surprised someone had recognised John in Carphone Warehouse.
At the repair desk the image of a mobile phone with hands and feet, its head bandaged, white coat on another — the doctor treating it — decorated a glass panel behind which was the fix-it lab, with a green hospital cross on the door. I was glad to have told John that I think the cell phone industry should be nationalised, with people's phones, dull as East German Trabants, issued free-of-charge to single mothers among others. No cute ring tones and no cameras, I said — like mine. His wife smiled. Although I admitted, “If I did have a camera I could take a picture now with Mr Berger”. Consumerism has its merits, after all.
I checked my phone in at the counter, oddly humanised in cartoon form, with arms and legs, in a mass communication culture that dehumanises the poor, especially if they sit on oil, so that they can be colonised and their limbs blown off. Fortunately the couple escaped this lecture. That's what you do when you meet big writers, you want to impress them with your ideas. Berger was one of few whose writing influenced me as a student, partly because his seminal book “Ways of Seeing” had bold type and pictures, perfect for when you're stoned.
The cell-phone doctor, wearing puppy stubble, name badge, shirt and tie, examined my Nokia so thoroughly it belied a suspicion that I have no friends who might call.
(“Can't fix your social life here mate, there's a bar next-door.”)
“That man you just served”, I told him, “he's a great writer.” He looked at me, nodded and pressed a button.
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