“At an event organised by the Writers’ Centre in Norwich the other week, one of the volunteers – a woman perhaps a few years older than me – observed that when she was young writers were semi-mythical creatures, farouche, barely ever seen in the flesh, and their only spoor faded black-and-white photographs on the backs of their books. In some ways this was an exaggeration – there have always been writers (and by this I mean specifically fiction ones) – who’ve had a public profile. In the States this was, perhaps, carried off with a little more swagger, but we Brits always had our fair crop of novelists – and even poets – who were also public intellectuals. However, given the relative paucity of media forums – a mere brace of television channels, a triad of radio ones – these were inevitably only either the most personally egregious, or the most politically or socially plangent.
“Caesar! We who are about to die salute you!” So, it is said, the gladiators of old addressed the Roman emperors before they went about the entertaining business of mutual butchering. It was drizzling and outside the grey-dun hulk of the Colosseum there was a small gaggle of modern Romans dressed up not as gladiators but as tacky-looking legionaries. I wanted to accost them and say: “You can do better than this: hanging around in this Gibbonian drag, hustling the odd euro by having your picture taken with marauding phalanxes of orthodontically challenged Benelux schoolkids.” Then I wanted to climb up on a shattered column, strike a pose and orate: “Give me your poor and huddled masses of legionary impersonators! Come with me to London, where there are plenty of creative opportunities for enterprising folk prepared to spray-paint themselves silver and stand on a cardboard box all day!”
I once had lunch with the late Malcolm McLaren. It was during his short-lived run for the London mayoralty and I confess I can remember none of the following: a) where we ate; b) what we ate; I’d like to be able to say that both these amnesias were because of the strange and unearthly fascination exerted on me by the discourse of this famed bowdleriser of the Situationist International’s détournement, but sad to relate I cannot recall; c) a single word that he said. This must’ve been in the early years of the last decade – at any rate, not that long ago. By contrast, I can recall, note-and-letter-perfect, “Buffalo Gals”, the proto-hiphop ditty McLaren released in 1982, including his serially offending yelps of “Two buffalo gals go around the outside/’Round the outside, ’round the outside …” Such is the queer pretzel-shaped path that time’s arrow describes.
At the time of Diana Spencer’s funeral in 1997, I remember writing this: “When the corpse of a 36-year-old woman is dragged around town on a cart you have to acknowledge something strange is going on . . .” My concern was to consider the death-drag as an example of how London acted as a stage set upon which collective fantasies of intimacy with power were being played out. Sixteen years on, the sentence requires only minor adaptation to establish the necessary degree of anthropological estrangement from the funeral of Margaret Thatcher.
Listen to Will Self talking about pessimism in this New Statesman podcast.
“WG Sebald, who died in a car crash in 2001, was an inspired essayist, quite as much as he was a novelist; indeed, I often think of his most achieved fictions – Austerlitz, and The Emigrants – as writing that tests the limits of both forms, blending them together at their margins with a kind of vaporous diffusion of their creator’s lucidity, so entirely are the invented and the real fused together. This essay on the last years of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s life exhibits all of Sebald’s strengths as a writer – and all of his strange, gnomic, secretive foibles. Ostensibly a straightforward account of Rousseau’s exiled wanderings, it begins with his first glimpse, in 1965, of the Ile Saint Pierre in Switzerland, where Rousseau spent the first period of his stateless exile, and where he claimed – in his Reveries of a Solitary Walker – that he was happier than he had been anywhere else.
Will Self’s Guardian review of Cities Are Good for You by Leo Hollis.
I’ve always found George Gordon (Lord Byron) to be the most proximate of those literary and historical figures whose towering eminence and temporal removal should, by rights, place them at a distance. Nowhere does he seem closer to us than in his letters; take this example, penned on 30 August 1811 to his half-sister and half-lover, Augusta Leigh:
As the medieval astronomical clock in Prague’s Old Town Square strikes the hour, a crowd of tourists duck and crane to capture its face in the viewfinders of their digital cameras and on the screens of their mobile phones. The crowd is so large that those in front go down on their knees in order to afford those behind them a clearer shot.