I ran into the crime writer Philip Kerr at Gatwick – he and his family were happily on their way to Corfu, while I was gloomily en route to Berlin to do some work with my German translator. Kerr was ebullient and ridiculously fit-looking – full head of dark and luxuriant hair, tanned and solid. I was wraithlike and skulking about in the duty-free shop, wondering if I could slit my wrists with a Swarovski crystal gewgaw. When I told him my destination, a faint shadow seemed to cross his handsome features and I thought: fair enough. After all, Kerr has been writing his Bernie Gunther thrillers, which are set in Berlin, for decades – and he probably thinks of the city as belonging to him in a perverse way. That’s what writers are like.
“Free Nelson Mandela with every large public building,” my wife wryly observed one evening as we trudged up the stairs to the Royal Festival Hall, passing a particularly dreadful outsize bronze head of the world’s most famous former prisoner. For some readers it might seem a little de trop to be taking a tilt at the almost wholly bogus iconisation of the former leader of the African National Congress, even as he lies dying in a Johannesburg hospital (and indeed, by the time you read this, he may well be dead), but I say: you’re not the sort of readers I want, so if what follows looks likely to offend you just get back to balding, or reading Clare Balding’s memoir, or whatever else it is that you do to ease the stricture of your conformity.
It’s a strong claim: “The best fish and chips in the world”; as is another bon – but ungrammatical – mot, attributed to the Master Fryer himself: “There is no chip ever cut by man which cannot be cooked to perfection in three minutes.” Taken together, these propositions suggest a sort of fried-food cosmology – or possibly a gnosis, because, if you want to acquaint yourself with Harry Ramsden’s second law of chipodynamics you’ll have to pitch up at one of his 30-odd restaurants, which are scattered throughout the British isles much as . . . well, much as the crushed, dead chips were scattered on the tiled floor of the food court when I swung by the other day to test empirically the validity of his first law.
You’ll be aware by now that of all the frenzied crowds that trouble my uneasy sleep, sporting ones bother me the most. I mean to say, to be crushed to death by a mob that is rampaging because tyranny flies at its backs has a certain justness, but to be stomped on by people driven berserk by a ball game would be a pitiful end. Sporting events by their nature embody the worst excesses of late capitalism: the spectators are mere passive consumers of the commodified prowess of the athletes and the seasonal character of the spectacles mimics the cyclic time that this new peasantry is trapped in, while the masters of money and power forge ahead. No wonder sports fans are so often pissed off: they’re the victims of a massive con.
Standing in the sub-post-office-cum-convenience-store on the Wandsworth Road, I stared down into the Stygian depths of one of its freezer cabinets. Down there might be, for all I knew, the cryogenically preserved remains of Walt Disney – it looked capacious enough. What there were on the upper layers of the ice cap were ready meals of bamboozling cheapness: a “steaklet meal”, comprising meat, chips, beans and onion gravy for £1.69; a Birds Eye chicken burger for 32p (£1.28 for a pack of four). What to choose?
You can fool all of the people for some of the time, then some more of the time, and then – even with the benefit of hindsight – they’ll have been fooled for so long that it will constitute, de facto, all of the time. This, at any rate, seems to be what’s happened with 3D movies, which any objective person will tell you are shit: the image of, for example, a skull on the screen bearing a closer relationship to the anamorphic one in Holbein’s The Ambassadors than anything death-like rendered convincingly lifelike.
“Yesterday’s anti-colonialists are trying to humanise the generalised colonialism of power. They become its watchdogs in the cleverest way: by barking at all the after-effects of present inhumanity.” So wrote the situationist Raoul Vaneigem in The Revolution of Everyday Life, his manifesto for an insurrection of the felt, the experienced and the real against the collective, the mediated and the fake. Vaneigem’s book was published in 1967 but it reads as fresh as ever: it is a bracing indictment of a society that inculcates alienation not through the whip across people’s backs (or at least not those anywhere too nearby) but by marketing the whip for £19.99, together with a range of pastel-coloured accessories.
In the 1970s, when the world was just as evil and scuzzy as it is today but my gastrointestinal tract had a certain innocence – and even freshness – there was a pizza joint in Hampstead with the predictable name (at least to the ears of our current era) of Pizzaland. I remember nothing much about Pizzaland’s food but the decor has lodged in my memory – “lodge” being wholly apposite, because it consisted of banquettes topped off with little pitched roofs like lychgates, a lot of wooden fretwork, and a series of murals depicting skiing scenes that looked as if they’d been painted using an Old English sheepdog dipped in Artex.
“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.