Antony is going to Flevoland, where he’s erecting an enormous anthropoid statue, derived, as usual, from a cast of his own body. This one is going to be 25-metres high and welded together from the same steel girders used to build electricity pylons. We’re walking along the South Downs Way as he describes this to me: it’s a flat, grey day, and the grey-green humpbacked hills are like so many awesome cetaceans, migrating along the Sussex Weald.
Norman Foster comes to me: “I’m sorry,” he moans pitifully, shaking the cuffs of his shirt as if he was Marley’s ghost and they were silken chains. “Sorry…?” I gag on mucous sleep. “What the hell for?”
“Stansted,” the architect wails. “I never should’ve designed it that way. True, it looked good on the back of the envelope — and elegant once my team had put it on the Cad system, but I now realise that it’s a monstrous wedge of a building, a static plane crash of a structure, forever ramming a humungous divot out of the living, beating heart of old England! Aaaargh! Euurgh! Oh woe is little me!”
“I went to a barber’s shop in Greek Street, Soho, about a month ago and realised that it was only the third time I have been to one in my entire life. In the mean old brilliantined days, small boys were forced to sit on a plank placed across the arms of the barber’s chair, and this, I contend, made them scowl, because they were the objects of ridicule. Consequently, I refused to go to a barber and preferred to cut off my own hair when necessary.
Glencoe. It’s late August but already there’s a hint of autumn in the air, along with the droplets of smirr and the midges dancing between them. Further south the heather is still in full flower, but up here in the central Highlands, the stark triangles of the mountains are at first tawny, then swathed in grey mist, then tawny again. I unload the car and pitch the tent, while the small boys head off to explore the riverbank. I want them to fetch firewood, but they return empty-handed: over the summer the campsite has been picked clean, bucolic louts have even hacked at the living alders and birches.
It’s the time of year when we forego the pleasures of the beach in order to visit Dr Thurm Angstrom, in his claustrophobic office at Reading University’s Department of Comparative Environmental Science. Regular readers of this column will be familiar with Dr Angstrom, whose laughable excursus, Sweaty Hearth: Transliterating Domestic Space in the Age of Climate Change, was one of the great publishing failures of last year. An initial print run of 100,000 copies, printed on non-biodegradable polyurethane sheeting, were instantly remaindered then dumped off the coast of Cornwall by the psychotically depressed publisher.
“Today I made the ascent of the highest mountain in this region, which is not improperly called Ventosum. My only motive was the wish to see what so great an elevation had to offer. I have had the expedition in mind for many years …” So begins Petrarch’s justly celebrated account of his ascent of Mont Ventoux, a peak at the west end of the Luberon massif in Provence.
Let me offer you my latest peregrinations, which consisted of a 15,000-mile sweep through the Americas, north and south, that produced a series of giant carbon footprints, while giving me hardly any opportunity to stretch my legs. I blame the kids: two small boys are a sufficient drogue to brake any possibility of sustained walking, unless it’s on a treadmill facing a marathon screening of all the Harry Potter movies.
Walk 1. Sao Paulo Airport. Distance: 260m. Time: 2.5 hours.
Consider Doggerland, the landmass that before the end of the last Ice Age connected the British Isles with The Netherlands, Denmark and Germany. My brother wised me up on Doggerland, sitting in the humid garden of his house in upstate New York: “When we think of Britain and the continent being connected, we obviously imagine an isthmus or land bridge,” he averred, “whereas the reality was an enormous plain. Archaeologists have discovered human artefacts and evidence of habitations from the Mesolithic in this area. Think of it! A tundra where the North Sea is now, teeming with game — lion, mammoth, hippo — criss-crossed by the hunting trails of sophisticated huntsmen.”
In Moulin Rouge, John Huston’s 1952 biopic of the French painter and absinthe-bucket Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, José Ferrer played the lead — entirely on his knees. The action begins in a Parisian bar, Toulouse-Lautrec sits supping his deathly green mouthwash — the barman polishes the glasses. Then the painter clambers down off his stool. Suddenly we’re in his point of view, looking up at the great zinc-topped escarpment of the counter the barman leans over, peers down at us, and speaks the first line of the movie: “So long, Toulouse!”
I write this to the jaunty strains of the West Jesmond Rhythm Kings’ platter Jubilee Stomp, courtesy of their trumpeter and vocalist, Mike Durham, who also happens to have been the highest bidder for my services in this year’s Independent Charity Auction. Or rather, his wife Patti snaffled me up as a present for Mike, who, as well as being a jazz musician and a sesquipedalian, manages to be a deep topographer of considerable intensity.