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.
Most weekday mornings I get up and make pancakes for the two of my children who still live at home. I can cook a passable Irish stew or lasagne – I’ve been known to attempt a ribollita or caldo verde (the peasant soup is a particular love of mine, of which more later) – but most parties agree that I excel at pancakes. I’m not talking about the big thin pancakes the English sprinkle sugar on and douse with lemon juice – these, the floppy wafers of the Anglican Communion, are quite alien to me. No, the pancakes I make are American ones: about five inches in diameter, nicely browned, and almost fluffy in consistency. These are served with maple syrup or strawberry jam, and accompanied by grilled bacon.
It was difficult to contain one’s emotions: after 42 years’ service, the Clerk of the House of Commons, Sir Robert Rogers, has retired. A fluffy-wigged and bearded presence who sat below the Speaker dispensing advice on procedural matters, and who heretofore made little or no impression on the wider world, Sir Robert was given a lengthy round of applause by MPs following the reading of his resignation letter. I say it was difficult to contain one’s emotions – but I wasn’t even particularly near the chamber; I was lying in bed in my house about two miles away, listening to this effusion on Radio 4’s Today in Parliament. True, during particularly rambunctious Commons sessions (when, for example, Sally Bercow has forgotten to wipe the banana cream from her husband’s mouth), I can quite clearly hear the baying of our representatives: it rises even above the demented wail of police sirens, and the chunter of jets on the Heathrow flight path. It used to be that MPs were required to live within the sound of the division bell; nowadays a reasonable test of proximity would be whether they’re capable of hearing their colleagues’ barracking when abed.
Read Will Self’s latest On location column for the New Statesman here.
Let us recast the riddle of the Sphinx: who snaps, crackles and pops in the morning; snaps, crackles and pops in the afternoon; and snaps, crackles and pops in the evening? Answer: me – and probably you, too, for if there’s one food that unites infancy and extreme old age, the toothless and those defanged by time-the-devourer, then it’s breakfast cereals. Indeed, to allocate these comestibles a given slot within the daily-go-round is just as spurious as confining them to any point in the human life cycle; cereals are . . . Well, there’s no other way of putting it: serial. Other foods may come and go but the great granular underlay of cereal remains. We are just as likely – arguably more so – to find ourselves standing at the kitchen counter in the middle of the night crunching down Golden Crunch as we are to be up with the lark and the iconic Kellogg’s rooster.