De gustibus non est disputandum, so I don’t want any wise-ass backchat from you lot when I tell you that the meal I had at the Sonic drive-in on the Murfreesboro Pike on the outskirts of Nashville was probably the best one I’ve ever eaten. I don’t, by this, mean that the food was the best I have ever eaten – far from it – nor that the ambience was particularly good (I was sitting in the driver’s seat of my rented Chevy SUV), but the sky overhead was beautiful, the company highly amusing and most importantly: I was on holiday … sort of.
Arriving at the Stazione di Santa Maria Novella I feel like a bit of a Rodin’s Messenger of the Gods: after all, I’m in Florence merely to make money, while all around me people are purely intent on having a good time. I walk towards the centre of town; the throng of tourists swirling about the flanks of the basilica church parts for a moment, and beside one of those hat stalls that have sprung up the world over (selling panamas, trilbies and caps of many colours, none of which you ever notice anyone wearing), I see a man with no feet lying on the pavement and begging, the ends of his stumps apparently smeared with mercurochrome, or something else that stains them an obscene reddish-orange.
Arriving at London City Airport a month ago, I was the first off the plane – and there’s always some satisfaction to be gained from that. For a start, you avoid the awkward game of Twister that ensues as cramped people lever themselves from their seats, un-gum underwear from clefts and pits, scrape carry-on bags they’re unable to carry from the overhead lockers and then hover leadenly in the aisle. If you’re at the very front you get to hear the gangway being cranked into position, then witness the strange moment as the cabin door is opened and the steward greets the ground crew with a bog-ordinary salutation that wipes away any remaining wonderment you may have felt contemplating the marvel of international jet travel.
Standing on a patch of induced greenery, I stared first at the vast and glassy curvilinear buttocks of Dublin Airport’s newish Terminal Two, then at the shiny cars being shat out from between them along the approach road. I turned and saw the entire sweep of Dublin Bay open out before me: I could see the Wicklow Mountains to the south; the city centre with its hugger-mugger of recent building; the Brobdingnagian bodkin spearing up from O’Connell Street and the triangular roofs of the assemblage of office blocks that Dubliners – with typically irritating self-deprecation – have named “Canary Dwarf”. To the north was the massy brow of Howth Head and before it the long promenade of Dollymount Strand. Out in the bay, the Bull breakwater lanced through the waves. All was in order, all was legible: I had achieved my objective … or had I? I stubbed out my cigarette, turned on my heel and headed for the terminal. In Ulysses, Stephen Dedalus remarks, “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake”; and here was I, lapsing yet again into the troubling reverie of international air travel.
A fine smir of testosterone wavered about the bobbing heads of the jogging boys – or at least, that’s as I remember it. Oh! Where are the changing rooms of yesteryear? Where are the gracile bodies, the downy pelts, the helium squeaks of larynxes tossed hither and thither by the hormonal flux? We come to consciousness of our sexuality among the naked forms of our peers – and no doubt once this painful awareness has finally ebbed away we’ll find ourselves once more: bare, forked things, laid out in a row on the mortuary slab. I found the crowd in the boys’ changing room a torment: it didn’t help that, like so many pubescents, I yearned to excel at sports but was at best adequate. Nor was it helpful that I was a late developer – boys like Bullock and Gordon had a full pubis of hair while my assemblage still resembled an unfurling bracken frond; as for Nattawallah, at the age of 13 he had a handlebar moustache, the ends of which he could actually twirl.
It was one of those incomparable early June days you get in the far north: bright sunlight drenched the heathery Orcadian hillsides and the choppy blue waters of the Wide Firth. Driving at speed along the road from Kirkwall to Finstown, I kept taking sidelong glances at the island of Gairsay to the north. Twenty years ago when I lived in Orkney I was friendly with a local builder, Simon, who told me that a single family occupied the old farmhouse on Gairsay: a paterfamilias, a matriarch, and their hardy brood of six or seven offspring. Simon said that the Gairsay islander was so tough that when one of his children fell ill he’d rowed them across five miles of the firth to the doctor’s surgery in Finstown – and this in midwinter. But Orkney is for most of the time a bleak place, where men are men, while skate – on account of the supposed resemblance between theirs and human female genitals – are terrified.
Waiting for the District Line Tube out to Becontree, I gazed at the poster curving up the sooty wall. “Wake up to the Wild”, a slogan daubed on a stylised piece of driftwood read, and beneath it, hovering over an illustration of a rocky, sandy beach, was this come-hither: “With one of the largest tidal ranges in the world, Guernsey’s coastline offers a new experience each visit.”
I’m in Orkney again: it’s a micro-society up here off the north coast of Scotland, where the preoccupations are farming, fishing and the sort of intense human interactions that often occur when folk are compelled to rub along together a little too vigorously. True, there is the annual “Ba”, or town football game, wherein a benighted bit of leather is fought the length of Kirkwall’s main street by snorting, roiling gangs of islanders, but overall these sparsely populated islands are not where you would expect to find evidence of the odd delusions that grip humanity en masse.
To Simpson’s-in-the-Strand for dinner with my old pal Martin Rowson, the cartoonist. It’s said of cartoonists that they always grow to resemble their caricatures (or perhaps it’s vice versa) but Martin bucks the trend. As the years go by, his politicians’ faces become either more oleaginous and orange or more brownish and creased; he, meanwhile, has the sea-green complexion of the truly incorruptible. Martin likes a restaurant – for a while now he’s been campaigning to save the Gay Hussar in Soho, which is in danger of going out of business.
Books do indeed furnish a room – but tobacco smoke gives it volume, substance and an aroma. The decline in smoking has important consequences for our perception of space and place. When I was a young man I’d meet my father at his club, the Reform in Pall Mall, and we’d sit on the balcony smoking cigars and blowing long, pungent plumes into the cloistral atmosphere of the main hall. The calibration of lung capacity with exhalation length was, I think, akin to the automatic calculation we make in order to focus on objects; by means of it I related my own internal airspace to these much larger external volumes. If you like, smoking in a space is a physical version of the Cartesian cogito: I fill this with smoke, therefore I am in it. Another way of considering the matter is to observe that, by puffing away in a room, we remake it in the image of Rachel Whiteread’s sculptures: the smoke flows into all the fiddly little interstices and creates an evanescent – but for all that, real – cast of what is forever not.