A tribute to M John Harrison’s short story, “Settling the World” (collected in “The Ice Monkey, and other stories” | Victor Gollancz: 1975).
Estrades requested the meeting, speaking of matters of utmost importance, in his usual, hyperbolic style. Curious, I made my way to the mutually agreed location in Cafe Italia, Frith Street, opposite Ronnie Scott’s, the famous jazz club. He was upstairs, accompanied as always by Eisenburg. After the usual jocular preliminaries, Estrades got straight to the point.
“What is to be done, Oxlade, with this mad American? This pretend-Wagner, this vassal or hopeful vessel of Nietzschean anxieties?” Estrades raised his hands in a show of questioning invocation.
“Why need anything be ‘done’, at all, Estrades? Why not leave the spider of ‘New World’ insanity to its own cocoon of desperate weavings?” Oxlade answered, mimicking Estrades penchant for metaphoric expression.
“Oxlade, Oxlade,” he repeated, shaking his head in disagreement, and sighing. “Your caution exceeds itself! A reserve without effective expenditure!” Estrades continued shaking his head. “To speak of the Wagner puppet, this play-Nietzsche occupying himself with old toys, is to speak of the entire puppet show, Oxlade! Surely, Oxlade, you cannot be so naive as to imagine that his ridiculous self-communion is not serving a larger purpose?”
“I thought you’d retired from such intrigues, Estrades? Are you sure you aren’t simply a victim of your own, professional imagination, nostalgically spinning in its New Conditions of indolence?” Oxlade countered.
Estrades impatiently waved the words away. “Doubt as much as you like, Oxlade! Mistrust was always your forte.” He spoke directly, pre-emptively ploughing through any further objections. “Unwitting pawn, though this New World, Wagnerian Nietzsche, might be; nevertheless, this feckless foot soldier serves a greater esprit.
You think this theatre of contemporary confusions, this vehicle of multiple forms of unease, is merely driven by literary ambitions of bad taste, and hopes of registering itself in some dark beverage, annal of record achievements?” Estrades gave an imploring look. “Yes, yes, there is no need to disagree on this. It is not what the puppet thinks that is of interest. Look beyond its banal journalese, Oxlade, what function does the puppet serve?”
Estrades continued, “What purpose does any confusion serve, Oxlade? What did it serve, when either you or I were the instigators and professional architects of it? It served our mission objectives! ” Estrades said, answering his own question. “The question, is, what mission objective is being served by this puppet show of bad ideas?”
“Not everything proceeds according to your so-called, ‘mission objectives’, Estrades. That’s your professionalism talking again. People just live and do what they do, exciting themselves with exotic roles as harmless entertainment,” Oxlade offered.
“Again, Oxlade, you misunderstand. Such exotic pursuits are neither harmless nor entertaining. In the New Conditions that you are so fond of, Oxlade, the inexecrable utopia you defend so ardently, do you not observe the dissolution of the contours of our profession?”
There, Estrades had a point, even from his North African retirement and the pleasures of Byzantine military history, he assiduously observed the increasing encroachment of domestic and civil concerns in the previously sequestered realms of international espionage. Greater reliance on the private sector by traditionally aloof institutions of secrecy, rooted in an earlier era of simpler demarcations, had resulted in the collapse of the civilian and the classified, one into the other, to the point where neither could be easily distinguished. The New Conditions of communication served further to promote this suspect integration. Perhaps Estrades could discern these factors more clearly from his standpoint of self-incurred, North African isolation?
“I don’t deny that there have been changes, Estrades–”
“Understatement is no defence, Oxlade!” Estrades interrupted. “In our New Conditions, it merely becomes Antipodean exaggeration. Half of our work at Alexandria involves playing in online computer games and virtual worlds! Your department knows of this, anyway. How can it not, when it does the same? Eisenburg seems to have a talent for these things, he’s built up quite a reputation in that world.”
Eisenburg drew his cupped hands together, waggled his thumbs, and grinned, moving his shoulders up and down with a theatrics of enthusiasm.
“He has my old position, now, as Head of Section Intelligence, but I occasionally visit–”
“He visits at least two times a week,” Eisenburg interjected.
“Yes, and when I do, he’s either playing these online games, or hosting public relations events; school trips; even regular meetings of his fan club!”
Eisenburg’s face beamed.
“It’s gone too far, Oxlade! ‘He’, is mocking us!” Estrades gestured towards the vast entomological memory of God’s Road, the three of them shared.
“Here he goes again!” said Eisenburg, raising his eyes heavenward.
“You know, Oxlade, why God’s Motorway can no longer be found?”
Estrades was referring to the seeming disappearance of the Road of God. God’s Motorway, vanished some twenty years ago, as mysteriously as its arrival.
“It hasn’t disappeared, Oxlade, it has grown so large we can no longer perceive its horizon,” he gestured at the iPhone on a neighbouring table. “We are living in it, Oxlade, and there is no other choice, certainly not any that could truly be called one’s own.”
“If its horizon is no longer perceivable, why should the oppressive character you attribute to it be any clearer?” asked Oxlade. “Perhaps you are living in the belly of an imaginary beast, Estrades? Perhaps it is just your nature to,” Oxlade hesitated, “to chafe?”