It’s the minor characters that haunt me, in fiction as well as in real life. On history charges, carrying the important and the celebrated, the camera of our attention pans with it, and for the rest, who remembers or cares?
In Evelyn Waugh’s “Vile Bodies”, one of the Bright Young Things, Lady Agatha, is made to drive a racing car, drunk and without a clue how to do it. The race ends, she has disappeared but her pals continue on their jolly; she is found later by someone else, incoherent, and taken to a nursing-home. Eventually the in-crowd come to see her, bringing (of course) plenty to drink. What fun! That night, her mind begins to whirl again and her temperature soars. Later in the story, we hear as a by-the-way of her funeral.
Again, in the same writer’s “Decline and Fall”, at the school’s sports day the useless teacher Prendergast gets drunk and starts a foot race with a military pistol, shooting young Lord Tangent in the heel. The boy asks “Am I going to die?” through a mouthful of cake given to pacify him; only much later do we find out, in passing, that infection set in and he did.
Some ten years ago, I was working with young NEETS and we had a weekly computer training session in a suite at Edgbaston cricket ground, guided by a man from a local college. One week, he told us he had just been given notice of his redundancy. As the group left, I looked back at his face, trying to find something to say, but the group was going and I had to turn to them; the moment passed. Next week, he was very late, in fact, didn’t come at all. Turned out he’d been found lifeless at his home, apparently having failed to take his diabetes medication. If only I’d found a way to ask him for a drink without sounding patronising. My colleagues tried to reassure me, but I knew what his face had said and that there had been a moment. I failed.
1964: a 29-year-old Ken Kesey gets a gang together on an old school bus and goes on a drug-fuelled road trip. On the way, they pick up a 27-year-old with a young daughter, whom she leaves with a friend so she can join the raucous adventure. She has a complete mental breakdown, is naked on the bus for days and eventually abandoned by the Merry Pranksters, who phone her boyfriend to fly in from San Francisco and pick her up. I often wondered what happened to this minor character – after all, some people are Lead Roles and others, well… - but thanks to the Internet, now I know. A site dedicated to Cathryn Casamo is here: (1)
She was lovely, she was charming, she had this great laugh… another pick-up for the daring boys of the Sixties. So long Marianne, goodbye Ruby Tuesday and so on. She did live, into her fifties and a deliberately nothing burial at sea off Marin County; a footnote. Some may say, she made her own choices. But Kesey himself felt he should answer for his irresponsibility, in a book published not long before his death called “The Further Inquiry.” (2)
Leaders have to stand in the rye and catch their followers, like Holden Caulfield.
“Whoever destroys a soul, it is considered as if he destroyed an entire world. And whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world,” says the Talmud. (3)
Next time. Please.