Cyril Power, The Tube Train (1934)
A man wakes up punctually at his usual early time. A newspaper is delivered to his home, as he has arranged for every weekday morning. He completes the same washing routine, exercises reluctantly, eats the same moderate and healthy breakfast, and after dressing in his usual combination of sensible shirt and trousers, works through the maths puzzles on the paper’s middle-pages. He does not marvel but merely observes that the proper basis of the world is order, best exemplified in the logic of mathematics, the most perfect form of order to which everything else in the world ought to be transformed into. On his way to work (following the same judiciously engineered route as previous days: shortest distance x stimulating panoramas = good jaunt), he drops his paper into a bin, but on this day the wind takes it and sweeps it down the road. Another man, sleepless and deprived of breakfast in another fit of self-imposed abstinence, curses the litter-bug. He picks up the paper and reads it on a bench, covered in graffiti and dirt, some foul smell nearby on this most bleak of all mornings. Only stories of global strife and suffering: a mob in one country have attacked another on religious grounds. Irreversible climate increases have damaged the wheat harvest and look likely to send food prices and shortages up. At home, a poll finds most national citizens are against immigration and welfare for those from other countries. He curses the world, its spite and lack of generosity, and despairs of that hope he once had for humanity towards progress. Rubbing his eyes, he clambers up and shambles off, towards the familiar warmth of his unwashed bedsheets. Another sees the newspaper roll down the street again, but cannot properly believe the truth of his senses, and so assumes the newspaper is another mirage to which there is no worth in paying heed to. Fortunately another quickly behind him picks it up and throws it in the bin. He marvels at the composition of the paper, the production process involved from a tree, cut down at a specific point in time, which is then changed in form into something one has at hand, with symbols, language, millennia of humans struggling and succeeding concept by concept, symbol by symbol, to advance collectively towards mutual understanding and collective social advancement through technology. He explains this to his friend, who wonders about who produces the newspaper, the labour conditions of the timber-yard, printers and press office, and the persons to whom the profit of that paper is yielded to. He is furious when he realises, after careful accountancy and analysis, that the surplus of each grafter has been ruthlessly expropriated by distant figures involved in diddling the digits. But the first man cannot get his mind beyond the sheer immensity of this productive process, until he gets confused, so confused, and decides to stick with what he knows, which is whether the symbols can be said to be true or not, whether one can know anything of the smallest one at all. He falls behind his friend, falls behind his words and his times, until he decides it best to speak not of what this thing is (which was once, alas, a newspaper), but only of what it is not, which is not not a thing. He sighs. Two women pass and one asks the other why men alone are given the time, and salaries, to talk about these questions. The other says it’s all without meaning. They’re almost knocked over by a man hurrying up the street in the clothes of another country, who sees not the paper nor the people but only the immanent, intense song of his panicky twitchy nerves, which he names after an old mythic being, singing through his nervous system like la la la la la.