It was about eighteen months ago, and they were both staying in the hostel at the same time, both getting drunk and both given to melancholy, whether confronted or denied. But watching them as I went about my minimal duties as the hostel night porter, I was struck much more by their dissimilarities. Some of these were superficially obvious: one was English, the other Persian, the former in his early to mid-twenties, the latter was thirty-nine. For the Englishman, who signed in the register as Paul Wright, this was his second and final night in the hostel; for Nadir it was a night near the end of a fortnight's stay.
That first evening of Paul's visit I had noticed they were drinking together at the back of the hostel in the TV room; for I had wondered why Nadir hadn't come through to the reception area as he usually did, and wandered round the back to see the pair of them with their six packs (Nadir drinking Red Stripe, Paul Wright, Stella).
The first thing I noticed was that where, as usual, Nadir was sotto voce, Paul was exuberantly despairing. Not quite shouting, but speaking loudly and waving his can around to the point that splashes of beer had hit the wall and the floor. But it wasn't simply this that rankled; something else in this loud Englishman was irritating me and, as was my wont, and as the nature of the job allowed, I knew I would give it much thought.
Not so many months before, a guest had said to me that I must have one of the worst jobs in the world. I asked him what he did and he replied that he was an unemployed mechanic. I said to him that for six months I was also a mechanic, and if it wasn't the worst job in the world, it was the worst job I'd ever done. The unemployed mechanic looked at me askance, perhaps because he couldn't believe I would prefer night portering; perhaps because he thought I was lying about a prior occupation.
I tried to explain that evening what drew me to night work, and away from, amongst many another short term job that I'd had, becoming a mechanic. It was, I explained, the nature of the relationship between the work and me. The problem with being a mechanic, say, was that the job was external to me, and I would do a car service, change a wheel, fix a tyre or replace the spark plugs and, as many a tradesman will tell you, lose myself in the job, no matter if I wasn't especially good at it. Night portering, I offered, was instead a process of quiet self-illumination. I seemed to find myself and others in the work. As I said this, the mechanic said nothing, and yet I sensed in his face something which maybe he couldn't have formulated because the nature of his work hadn't given him the skill, and yet it was a formulation not so completely out his reach and, perhaps, again because of the nature of the job, almost within mine.
Maybe, though, it wasn't until Nadir stayed at the hostel, and Paul Wright stayed over at the same time, that I could more precisely place this embryonic notion. Paul, that first night, turned out to be a very competent pianist, though the piano in the common room needed tuning, and while the grand claims he made - that he had played the Royal Albert Hall - seemed exaggerated, he managed to evoke some classical pieces with moderate skill. It also offered him the opportunity to ask Nadir if he were creative. Nadir said he used to write poetry in Iran, but exile eventually killed the urge, deadened the desire to write and publish. It perhaps even managed to kill the desire to self-express. He said this sitting on one of the steel-rimmed, canvas covered chairs by the bay window next to the piano whilst taking a swig from his can. As he was speaking, Paul played some Mozart, all the while turning to capture our attention, and surely to garner our approval.
Paul went to bed at about three, while Nadir slept in the chair until six, before going off up to his dormitory. He would often fall asleep in the common room, or the TV lounge, saying he preferred his own company, however uncomfortable the surroundings, over sharing with a dozen others. Of course I wondered why he didn't book into a bed and breakfast, or at least single bed accommodation, but by this stage I knew Nadir had his own type of sense. It was less logical than emotionally revealing. I suppose he needed the option of company, and yet also the space to snore however loudly after his drinking. His decision thus made a double sense within its apparent lack of logic. Yet was it partly this apparent lack of reasoning that drove him so perennially to drink? And so while Paul was upstairs sleeping, possibly snoring, and presumably was all of a piece, Nadir would fall asleep in the chair perhaps trying to make sense of decisions that were never in the singular.
The next night I wanted to know what it was then that seemed to me to make Paul so singular, so essentially himself, however much he gave the impression of falling apart. What, for example, made him so ostentatious in his drinking, so confident in playing the piano, and so sure that when he went to bed he wouldn't disturb the other guests, or wouldn't care of he did? Obliviousness immediately came to mind, but that seemed too accidental a response to the situation, to his existential status, and would it not also have covered Nadir's situation as well? No doubt both were in retreat from something, but that didn't mean the retreat had to manifest itself in the same way. While I sensed no performative element in Nadir; I saw nothing but performance in Paul. And yet as Paul decided to stay on for another couple of nights, I noticed a friendship developing that meant Nadir no longer came through to the reception area to talk to me, but remained in the lounge or the common room drinking lager with Paul. What had happened to Paul's next concert I wondered, the one he was supposed to be performing the evening he had originally intended to leave? Recalling the date he had given me for his earlier Albert Hall show, I looked up our computer network system and discovered he had been nowhere near London on the night he'd said. He had been in one of our hostels further north, at Loch Lomond.
Knowing this didn't surprise me, but it irritated me; and less because he had lied to me than that he also lied to Nadir. Though why I felt this urge to protect Nadir from this mythomaniacal Englishman would have been more difficult to explain than why Paul had lied both to Nadir and me. Later, during that third evening of Paul's stay, I went around to the TV lounge and immediately turned the full-blast jukebox down, and asked Paul to get off the pool table, where he was drunkenly dancing. Nadir looked at me vaguely and asked me why I didn't just relax. I asked if he meant relax or get drunk - was there a difference? Paul sniggered as he lowered himself down from the pool table. As he did so, I very nearly asked him what he was still doing here. Didn't he have a concert to perform?
But at that same moment, perhaps I half-realised that the joke would have been on me. Nadir I surmised didn't care how many fibs Paul told; it was as if all he asked was that they be told well. Why else was Nadir drunkenly, half-jokingly clapping his hands in rhythm to Paul's dancing as I came through to the TV lounge if he didn't have a certain admiration for Paul's impromptu performance? I, with my probing questions, probably seemed dull next to Paul's exuberant dishonesty and, perhaps even worse, I was being seen by Nadir as using him for my own analytic ends.
As I returned to the reception area, leaving Paul and Nadir to their lager, I dwelt on my first night of conversation with Nadir on the second night of his stay. It seemed at the time an even-handed conversation. He told me a little about himself and his reasons for being in Britain, and his reasons for staying for a couple of weeks in the hostel; I also told him details about my own life, and why I happened to be working as a night porter. But of course in this joint openness there were at least two things I should have noted: that he was twelve years my senior; and that he was exiled from his own country. Yes I might have been as honest as he was, but the weight of my truth was without consequence; the weight of his without ready solution. Was the depthless dishonesty of Paul not closer in some way to his own truth?
For what I offered must have seemed negligible: that I'd done various odd jobs, belatedly went to and then dropped out of university, returned to a small college to do a film course, graduated without distinction, and without making contacts, and thus found myself night portering. A job, I said, that might actually be my metier. And what did he offer? That he escaped from Iran in 1979; that he moved to France for a few years, and came to Britain at the beginning of the nineties and trained in IT - a field in which was still working. He said he was staying in the hostel because he was between flats - his new one was available in a fortnight's time.
This conversation took place on a Saturday evening, and as he drunk maybe eight or nine cans of beer I assumed it was just a weekend binge. However, each night thereafter he would drink close to the same amount, even though he would be at work for nine the next morning. Any disclosure offered, and I assumed he was telling me the truth, seemed secondary to the exposure his drinking suggested. Yet the disclosure itself was still far more than I could match.
During that third evening of Paul Wright's stay, I received a phone call just before one in the morning from someone claiming to be Paul's mother. Was her son still staying in our hostel, she asked. I said that yes he was, and asked if she would like to speak to him. No, she said. She just wanted to know that he was safe. I assured her he was. She mentioned that while she could keep a classroom of boys under control, her own son was often beyond her. When her husband was back from the Middle East, she said, he would sort him out. After this curious and brief late night call I went through to the TV room and, seeing Paul once again dancing on the pool table, with Nadir again laughing at his antics, I guess I realized it wasn't so important that they had nothing to say to each other. They had drink to do the talking.
Nadir, in fact, left the hostel before Paul did. His fortnight was up and the new accommodation - sharing with three others in a large New Town flat - was ready. The night after he had left I arrived on duty and a found a postcard waiting for me. All it said was find yourself in travel and not to lose yourself in exile at home. At the bottom of it was Nadir's signature. Later, Paul came through to the reception area, and asked if Nadir had left him a message. I said that he hadn't; and Paul asked if I knew where he'd gone. I said he had moved into a flat with some other people. I asked, perhaps obnoxiously, what Paul thought they had in common. He shrugged his shoulders and said: we shared a laugh.
A year or so after Nadir's stay in the hostel, I took his advice, or rather took advantage of a situation. A night porter in one of our affiliated hostels in Paris, part of the International Youth Hostels Association, wanted to do an exchange with a Scottish porter. And off I went for six months, working three or four evenings a week, and spending the rest of the time walking, sitting in cafes, and meeting up with some of the people whom I met in the hostel. I also met up with others I had met in the Scottish hostel and who insisted I should get in contact if I happened to be in Paris
On one of my solitary walks around the city I hesitantly ventured into a little Persian bookshop near the Arab Institute and asked, in a mixture of English and French, if they had anything by Nadir Panahi. He replied in English that unfortunately they didn't, but said he knew of the poet and perhaps I could try the address of a bookshop he gave me. The shop was not far away and near the Sorbonne. There I found three slim volumes of Nadir's poetry, published by a small French/Arabic publisher in the mid-eighties. On the sleeve of one of the books was Nadir's picture. At first I thought how different he looked, and how much he must have changed over the last fifteen years. But then it occurred to me I had never seen Nadir sober; maybe he still looked more or less the same if un-inebriated for long enough. I bought the three volumes, though they were in Arabic. Perhaps one day I'd find someone to translate them for me.
Maybe it was in looking at these three volumes, at the work of an established poet who had decided to make money from IT in Britain, that I noticed there was a double bind of condescension between Nadir and myself that was absent in his drinking sessions with Paul. I recall one of the things he said to me was that he respected my intelligence, but this may have had within it a hint of malice or quiet despair. For had Nadir not put his intelligence and sensitivity between covers and then rejected these very feelings? If he had subtly condescended towards me and my belief in expressing one's self, hadn't I no less condescendingly thought he was hiding from their expression through drink?
I'm sure Nadir could have explained more cogently to the mechanic than I could have why he believed I had one of the worst jobs in the world, for Nadir knew more radically than most what he wanted to find in a job and not in himself. Nadir's postcard, I suppose, didn't negate what I was doing, it was maybe just asking me to explore my feelings, and consequently those of others, more ambitiously. Were these feelings of his ones he didn't necessarily want to reject, but didn't dare, during that period of time, get in touch with? Perhaps my own life remains too fortunate, too lacking in shattering consequence, for me to answer that question. But perhaps even to try might not be the height of arrogance, but a move towards human consideration. Perhaps.
© Tony McKibbin