“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.
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.
How to describe it? How to articulate the effect provoked in me by these artfully aligned and textured surfaces? The task is worthy of Henry James or Wallace Stevens – some master of the intersection between social velleities and individual desires; but alas, there’s only me, and as usual I’m off my tit-shaped head on caffeine, and so barely equal to the task.
I once asked Martin Amis how an interview had gone with a particular journalist and he thought for a moment before shrug-sneering, “Well, y’know, he was a Tim.” When I was a kid we used to stop on the school run to pick up the son of the then MP for King’s Lynn, Christopher Brocklebank-Fowler (not so much a wet as utterly saturated, he was the only Tory to defect to the SDP in 1981). Brocklebank-Fowler junior was called Tim, and my sadistic brother and I would tease him: “Timmy-Timmy-Timmy,” while he futilely protested that he was a Timothy.
At Paddington Station, where one occasionally finds a stray bear with a label around its neck reading: “Please introduce me to a life of prostitution and drug addiction,” the train departures board operates at a laggardly pace. By which I mean to say that the platform number for the train to West Drayton will mostly only be displayed five minutes before departure. As the platform is usually number 13 or 14, this necessitates a brisk walk of 500 yards in order to make the train. Even I, a sprightly pentagenarian, find it something of a push – but anyone less able, let alone disabled, would be scuppered.
I was in Basel so I thought I’d check out some raclette, a melted-cheese experience that defines Switzerland as surely as the hollowed-out Alps full of Nazi gelt and aggressively policed recycling schemes (in Zurich, you are fined for using the wrong bag). Yes, yes – I know, it was fondue that was once promoted as the Swiss national dish but that was before the 1970s, when the runny gloop flowed into the interstices of the British class system. Raclette sounded a bit more real to me: I liked the idea of shepherds slapping the cheese round down on a griddle by the fire, then scraping off successive wedges of golden deliquescence.