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.
In Edgar Allan Poe’s story “The Man of the Crowd”, the unnamed narrator chances upon a strange old man in a London tavern. Following him through the streets after closing time and then throughout the night, the narrator realises, with mounting horror, that his quarry is compelled to seek out his fellow men – the waifs and strays of the urban night – simply so he may continue to be part of the generality rather than a singular individual. The poor fellow cannot otherwise exist: he is the man of the crowd.
As this is a special technology issue of the New Statesman, I thought I’d use the opportunity to write about the new generation of hi-tech wristbands that is coming on-stream. These stylish, lightweight devices enable you to keep track of a range of bodily functions – heart rate, blood pressure, temperature, and so on – while continually monitoring your physical activity so as to present you with optimal targets, updates on these and pings of various kinds when you’re lagging. Linked up to smartphone technologies, these wristbands will allow you to listen to music and know when you have an incoming email or text message – or indeed any other web-initiated alert – even as you complete the Three Peaks Challenge, or man-haul to the South Pole for Frostbitten Nose Day.
If, as Nietzsche assures us, wit is the epitaph of an emotion, what then is the crisp if not the apotheosis of hunger? The crisp promises so much – yet delivers nothing at all. Vladimir Putin disdains the alcohol that transmogrifies his countrymen and women into slobbering, soulful wretches but I’d wager he forgoes crisps as well. When I consider the amount of time I’ve wasted eating crisps – let alone the money I’ve spent on these fried and friable folderols – it occurs to me that, sans crunch, I might easily have gained control of the Russian Federation and turned it into my own personal fiefdom.
I was hungover and jittery in St Louis, and there was a blizzard raging across the Midwest. As I looked at the departures board in the airport it riffled into DELAYED, DELAYED, DELAYED . . . the only exception being the New York flight: my own. Cursing this glitch that was sending me to my doom, I tramped down the companionway, reflecting ruefully on how my last moments on earth were to be spent noting, yet again, the bizarre habit air transport infrastructure designers have of fitting odd vertical surfaces with carpet.
It’s a blustery grey day on top of the short-stay car park at Heathrow Central. Down below us the new Terminal 2 building is taking shape in a series of steely whale ribs and arabesques. It doesn’t look like it will turn out to be anything much, but then nothing in the built environment nowadays looks like anything much; or, rather, it all looks like too much – too much airy embellishment, too many wave-form roofs, too many great expanses of curved glass parametrically wrapped around hideous atria. At least Heathrow has this solid virtue: it’s an almost historic airport that has been subjected to over half a century of chopping, changing and concrete-pouring, so that its ugly hugger-mugger of buildings replicates the very disorder of the unplanned metropolis it was never properly designed to serve.