The time, according to you, will be:
If you close your eyes you can almost instantly imagine it. It’s the distant laughter of children, the rhythmic breaking of the waves and the soft hiss of the sea as it retreats across the sand; it’s the gentle rustle of the wind flicking the pages of your novel, it’s that energy sapping, cocooning, pervasive heat that allows you to let go of everything and simply float in its embrace. It’s knowing that when you open your eyes all you will see is an endless blue sky; until the first bullet rips through your carotid artery. The beach has become an icon for the protestant work ethic, it’s our secular temple, our sanctuary. It’s where the hypnotist asks you to go to deeply relax. A place of innocence, of childhood, of safety, a time when a family might lighten up enough to connect and enjoy each other’s company, its memories that will last a lifetime. It’s where we put down our armour for a few days and allow the world to pass on by. But is the Sousse Massacre the beginning of the end for the beach holiday? Has the age of the Kevlar bikini arrived? Is it all sun, sand and submachine guns? Is it slap on the Factor 15, slurp your ’99 and get slaughtered with an AK-47?
Sousse has been a particularly painful twist of the knife in the soft underbelly of the ‘Western’ psyche. Like the attack on the Methodist Church in Charleston just a few days before, it gains piquancy from striking us at our most exposed; even if it wasn’t wholly unexpected. The murder of African Americans has seen an exponential growth in the US recently and Tunisia is as vulnerable as any other Arab Spring nation to the rise of jihad. Less than two years ago, a suicide bomber blew himself up in a botched attack on a Sousse beach while security forces foiled another planned attack nearby.
Of course one way of staying safe is not to holiday in a war zone, but then since the terror, and consequent infamy, of ‘lone wolf ’ attacks has become de rigueur, where in the world isn’t one?
A map published by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) put almost every European country in possession of a beach, except Belgium and Holland, on somewhere between a ‘high’ to ‘underlying’ threat status. Conveniently for the English Tourist Board they forgot to note that the UK, is also on ‘high’. Even landlocked Switzerland had a threat level, albeit ‘low’, and who would want to attack them? Bitter chocolate addicts and Cuckoophobes? Maybe the shifty ‘associates’ of the notorious FIFA ‘Family’?
Nowadays our holiday choices have become as much about risk assessment as wanderlust.
Go to South America or the Far East and there’s a chance of becoming an unwitting drugs mule. South Africa is renowned for its violence, even when legless. West Africa is scarred by Ebola while East and North are on the fault line of the struggle for a caliphate. The East Coast of the US comprises a number of policemen with over sensitive triggers as well as some very hungry sharks and the West Coast is just waiting for a seismic shift, literally, before disappearing into the sea. Practically the only beaches where you might be safe enough to come armed with less than a semi-automatic, are in Australia. Just don’t get mistaken for an asylum seeker. It turns out that they send them off to a remote jungle ‘processing’ prison island where chances of survival are minimal.
Now where did they get that idea from? I know it all seems like the world is becoming a more dangerous place, but it’s worth bearing in mind that fear is the gift we receive for getting older. Maybe if I was still young enough to think a Jägerbomb was ‘sick’ rather than sickening, I could be looking at all this and thinking it all feels pretty exciting; after all, holidays are either a decadent one percenter indulgence or a brief downtime refresh for the working drone feeding the machines of the capitalist establishment; and those people who are fighting for their ideologies are, well, heroic.
As ISIL’s endless videos of atrocities plug straight into the Daily Mail’s drip feed of terror their need for recognition and attention, and ultimately recruitment, seems manifest. Our shrinking buzzfed world is a growing canvas for those who desperately want to make their voices heard, be taken seriously and get their point across. I know Bill Gates is a great philanthropist but sometimes I wonder if there’s a little guilt that drives him. I mean, if Microsoft Word taught the world anything, it’s that if you want to get a point across, you’ve got to use bullets.
As the population grows the point making and shouting will only get louder but does it spell the end of the beach holiday?
As Mossad realised when a whole party of their agents signed up for the Dubai Mahmoud Al-Mabhouh assassination; even the deadliest people in the world still want a little pampering at the seaside.
First appeared in Kensington, Chelsea and Westminster Today (August 2015)
Arriving late at the restaurant at the top of Peter Jones, I come armed with a superfluity of excuses: Lamborghinis blocking the road at South Kensington, parking around Sloane Square’s a nightmare and slow escalators I’m just too fat to run up.
‘You poor poppet,’ my companion commiserates, ‘so many first world problems.’
She’s right. I’m plagued by privileged problems; things that really get my Gaultier. What do I do? One pillow is too low, but two is just too high! I’m munching Pringles and I can’t hear the TV at the same time! How does one cope with the tedium of being on the loo when you’ve forgotten your iPhone? And then, if I remember it, I have to endure agonising ‘pins and needles’ after sitting through forty eight levels of Candy Crush. First world suffering is relentless.
I have an embarrassment of these ‘white whines’. And the internet permeates with them. Twitter seems made-to-measure for the middle-class moan. What else can you do with 160 characters and a pressing need to self-publicise your celebrititis?
But then what happens when you realise you’ve just bitched about something more vapid than an episode of ‘Bargain Hunt’? How do you show that you’re not as shallow as a ‘health and safety’ approved paddling pool? Or, indeed, as empty? The answer, increasingly, is this rather insidious form of self-deprecation.
‘Crying ‘cos I ate 2900 calories. Should have been less than 2500.’ Within the bubble of its own context, in a country with a crippling obesity problem, it has its own poignancy. But stick on a ‘first world problem!’ hashtag (older generation please substitute ‘ironic punchline’) and the inferred comparison to third world hunger makes you look like you were exaggerating the angst for effect. No, no, you have perspective. You’re well rounded. You’ve got a sense of humour.
It’s the go-to ‘save face’ option for millions of whiners who find themselves momentarily so angry about getting more than an inch of foam on their macchiato they shared it on a social network; only to realise that they just sounded, well let’s face it, a bit of a tosser.
It’s insidious because it fakes sincerity whilst remaining inherently superior. You may have a conscience but your membership of the First World is so secure sometimes you forget yourself! You’re aware you’ve lucked out in the lottery of life – you’re born in the western world; your life’s actually amazing.
But is it?
In 1966 The Economist reported 7% of the UK population owned 84% of the country’s wealth. Now that looks positively egalitarian. With a global ratio closer to 1:99 there’s no ‘comfortably-off ‘ class anymore. There are the super-rich getting richer, and the rest of us. Almost all of us are becoming poorer, it’s just those with better jobs or investments or properties have been able to delay the inevitable a little longer. The hard thing to admit is that the capitalist model ultimately necessitated this widening disparity. Capital accumulates whilst labour competes at an ever lowering price. The system works!
For the first time in a century though, the middle classes are officially becoming worse off. As a Whitehall official in the Daily Telegraph recently said, “Social mobility is no longer just an issue for children from poor families. There’s a real risk that children from families with above-average incomes will in future have lower living standards than their parents.”
If you have to earn a living you will keep getting squeezed. Where once the comfortable middle classes might have been able to buy a starter flat for their children, now we’ll be lucky to afford the insurance on our kids’ first car. If they’re leaving university to start off in almost anything but a professional job – a vocation that requires a professor, an academic qualification – the first rung of the property ladder will be way beyond the reach of your flailing arms for years to come.
Our membership of any elite moneyed class has become, at best, tenuous. You may think you’re sitting pretty on top of the tower when you can moan about your Playstation 3 connectivity problems or not realising your silent Prius is actually still running, but the edifice is crumbling away beneath you. Just because you earn enough to own an iPhone and drink lattes, chances are you’re still a wage slave, you’re on a short term contract with no security where the tiniest wobble will see you out and someone younger, prettier, more ambitious in, and if you’re lucky enough to secure a mortgage you’re being sold into almost permanent, over-priced, debentured, debt just to house yourself in a country up to its ears in deficit trying to claw its way out by taxing you at every turn until you bleed, and forget having a pension or anything accrued for your children. You think you’ve got first world problems?
Honestly. If time is relative it’s one of the nagging ones in the family that you try to ignore but they never seem to get off your case and constantly remind you that I haven’t done what I said I was going to do and just let me live my own bloody life, Mum… please. Oh.
Now it’s Autumn and the crisp air returns, the berries are fat, the apples ready, there’s a crunchiness to every step; if you’re romantic it’s the “Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness”. But for most of us there is something else in the Autumnal air – nothing mellow, you can almost feel its buzz and charge: it’s this sense of pressing urgency.
It’s the season of deadlines and to-do lists. Today really is the tomorrow you were worrying about yesterday. Everything suddenly seems to need to be done “before Christmas!” Like the world just might end then, and it would be devastating if the planet were to explode without the attic sorted out and the tax receipts done.
Even as he wrote his Ode to Autumn in 1819, Keats dreaded the season realising that he had run out of time to deliver his long poem Hyperion – that and not exactly having the constitution for the cold weather to come. “I love deadlines,” said Douglas Adams, “I love the whooshing sound they make as they go by.”
Why is everybody in a rush right now? It’s like a hole is torn in the space time continuum as the first leaf hits the pavement. All of a sudden time accelerates and there is an unremitting sense of anxiety, hustle and haste in the air. Projects need completing, days are ‘drawing in’, people who haven’t returned dinner party invitations suddenly feel prompted to have you round. Everything has an imperative.
Maybe time just seems short compared to the laconic eternity of the summer holidays; winter never seems to leave as fast as it arrives. Einstein theorised that time was relative to gravity, and certainly the gravity of a situation alters our perception of it. I mean, how long a minute is entirely depends on which side of the toilet door you are. A clock is not just a small device used to wake up people who have no children, it’s a gauge of our emotional state that can whizz round, or drag interminably, depending on how we’re feeling.
Writing in the journal Animal Behaviour, researchers from Trinity College Dublin, Edinburgh and St Andrews Universities claim that: how fast time is perceived is down to a creature’s size. Dogs, for instance, process information at twice the rate of humans, which is why they’re not very interested in television. You’d think with Downton ‘s latest rehashed plots resembling their dinner they might show a woof of interest, but a dog’s visual system has a refresh rate much higher than that offered by TV, or film, screens so all they see is a flicker of lights. The smaller the creature, say the scientists, the more they perceive in a unit of time.
However, the empirical data I’ve gathered from selflessly subjecting myself to the process of aging (the things I do for my readers), goes further. Time is actually perceived with the heart. You judge the world and the speed of life against your internal beating clock. As the heart slows, the world appears to become faster. That’s the tragedy of ageing: what once seemed like a year is, later, barely a week. For older people who, like elephants, have slow hearts, the world is whizzing past, death hurtling towards them. Yet to the young, they are lumbering and slow moving and always have a train of cars trying to overtake them when they go for a drive on a Sunday.
Conversely, when your heart is beating faster, the world seems to slow down. A fly’s heart beats a hundred times a second and so it sees the fly-swat coming towards it in interminable slow motion. It has time to rub its legs, bend them, start flapping its wings, do a faultless vertical take-off and buzz off to some other morsel, to scrape and vomit on, before the swat comes near. All in less than a human heartbeat and imperceptibly fast to the eye.
So when the excited heart starts beating faster as it does during disasters, times of shock or the kind of sex which involves kitchen furniture, everything seems to grind in to slow motion. It seems to take forever to react to anything. Which means some of the best and worst things that happen in life, happen slowly.
But Autumn, however much you love it, always goes too quickly, and every year it will seem just a little bit shorter. I’d love to say, ‘Carpe diem, tempus fugit.’ But honestly I haven’t the time to learn Latin.
You don’t get many opportunities to give someone something that’ll define them for the rest of their lives; short of bottling them. When you name a child it seems as if you hold their entire future in your hands. ‘Shall we call her Marigold… and hope she does?’ ‘Do you think Isaac will have a future in management consultancy?’ And there are no rules to guide you.
Willenkate have settled, fawningly, on great-granny’s daddy’s name. Okay, it was never going to be Keith or Kevin, Jermaine, Marius or Gaylord. But I’d hoped they’d have the courage to go for a romantic royal like Arthur or Lear. Perhaps, a sense of humour would prevail with a future King Dom, Kong or Kee. Or how about that regal expletive: ‘king Hell? But no. It’s George.
He still gets to choose a different ‘regal’ name when crowned; so my hopes for King Dong I are not entirely dashed. But ‘George’ came quickly by royal standards, ‘William’ took a week, and ‘Charles’ remained nameless for a month. This was definitely a name-in-waiting rather than a ‘let’s see what he’s like before we settle on a…’ name.
Still, you’d better think hard if you’re coming up with a name that might change history or describe an era. Would an ‘Andrew’ see off the putative Scottish dissolution? What about ‘Jock’? Will George VII wipe out Victoria, Edward, Elizabeth, Charles and William in the long view of history? Will future historians simply lump together the 18th to 21st centuries as ‘Georgian’? After all, it’s not like we’ve broken new cultural ground since the romantic period.
Even if most of us aren’t defining an epoch when we name our children, it’s just as treacherous, a minefield of politics and politeness. It’s often the first battle a couple have, unaware that everything from then on will be a repeat of this original conflict played out with the same blow and parry, smile and snide, and ever relentless compromise. In this ‘Baby X’ Factor, you are the judges and the try-outs are sung before your foetus has even developed earlobes. It’ll hear the taut music of your voices running through the baby name books as if you really haven’t already got a name in mind and you’re perfectly open to suggestions, honest.
In turns, you throw out the names of previous lovers, significant stalkers, the unpleasant, insane and ridiculous. You’re bursting to promote your favourite but you know you can’t mention it too early; right now you have to make it look like you’re taking their idea of ‘Crispin-Aloysius’ seriously. By the third trimester, the competition has begun in earnest as, just like Prince George, August relations loom – Who needs be honoured? Who paid tribute to? Who looks good for some school fees? – before consigning the most likely to the ‘middle name’ roster because, unlike the Mountbatten-Windsors, there’s just too much shit involved in prioritising one partner’s family over the other.
Before long it’s the semi-finals and the fighting gets dirty. You’re down to a short list of names that both of you will just about tolerate and now you’re going to pull them apart in case they lead to teasing: ‘kids are cruel,’ after all. Something else which little Prince George won’t have to worry about, already possessing the perfect answer to, ‘Oh yeah? You and whose army?’
Now is the time to vote off your partner’s ludicrous pet names. ‘But Richard will be Dick!,’ ‘Oh poor Titania!’ Those already suffering bully-baiting last names pay special attention. Ed Balls, think twice before you call your daughter ‘Rosie’, Mr. Dover don’t call your boy ‘Ben’ and please, Mrs. McKracken, don’t even contemplate ‘Phil’.
Should you go for a traditional name that might give a child security; or an eclectic one for individuality? Worst case is the unusual name that everybody else is going for – too many Nigellas really do spoil the broth.
Then, around the birth, a couple of contenders make the grand finale. Almost invariably, they are competing suggestions from the two judges. So now it’s a battle of wills. Who really wears the trousers? The countdown for the legal ‘registration of birth’ time-limit ticks away. If you blink, you capitulate, your mooted name disappears as if it was never there. The votes are counted and verified and before the first nappy has time to be rash, your baby’s sporting a name that suddenly seems inseparable from your own.
Or, if you’re as foolish as me, a name which the grandparents find so objectionable, they use, ‘your child’ or ‘darling’ for the next fifteen years. But, like my daughters, Roxana and Jezebel – historically both queens and whores – you can be sure your child will take the name, fit into it as if no other were possible, and do things with it you never dreamed of.
Marius Brill’s hilarious novel How to forget is available in all good book shops.
‘Roxana’s on Facebook and she’s supposed to be doing her homework,’ her little sister says, tellingly.
‘It’s not nice,’ I echo a mantra from my childhood, ’to tell.’
‘I know.’ She raises her eyes in exasperation, ‘You’ve got to, “show not tell”. Come on.’
She starts to drag me to witness her errant sister but my mind is elsewhere, wondering why I had been so actively encouraged not to expose the wrongdoings of others when I was her age.
I seem to remember, at the time, it was the ‘law of the playground’. A legal system which, as it turned out, was scandalously unconstitutional. It was ‘Fight Club’ without the club elements of camaraderie, coke, cars and glamorous girls; so, basically: ‘Fight’. But the rules were just as specific: no grassing, snitching, or ratting people out, and all property, or any sense of dignity you may have come to school with, belongs to the kid who thumps the hardest.
I suspect the reasoning behind keeping schtuum ran: if you don’t tell on bullies they might, in time, be grateful, respect you and even become your friend. And with friends like those…
As the snitch though, you shouldered the burden of proof, you were the centre of attention. Keeping your head down – lest it should be kicked down, and in, for you – was just smart politics.
Why then are so many standing up and speaking out now? Every day somebody finds a new whistle to blow. In the past few months we’ve found out how the NSA have been reading our emails, GCHQ are mining the world’s submarine terrabytes of data, the NHS have been contractually legislating the ‘law of the playground’, the Metropolitan Police were up to dirty tricks with Stephen Lawrence’s family and the testimony of countless victims breaking thirty years of silence to bare the lives that Jim broke or reveal what Stuart Hall knocked out.
Brave? Stupid? Naive? Vengeful? Bitter? As Alexey Pushkov, head of Russia’s international affairs committee, said: “[They] didn’t give up secret information for money.” So what drives this urge to whistleblow? Could it have any connection with the fact that so many have waived their ‘right to privacy’ to tell their stories?
The highest pitched whistlers, Wikileaker Bradley Manning and NSA supergrass Edward Snowden seem almost identikits for each other. Quiet, bespectacled, slightly nerdy, they appear made-to-measure icons of the disenfranchised, the used, abused and confused, the marginalised; they are the mice that roar. I have no love for the surveillance state, for Big Brother, but still I wonder if the shriek of all these whistles could also be a scream for recognition in a world where celebrity and fame has become the focus of our lives, dreams and aspirations?
The sad thing is, despite the risks these whistleblowers have taken to reveal the truth, few of their stories have come as a surprise. I always assumed that simply typing a search term like, “Al-Qaeda how to join,” would automatically ring a bell somewhere in Whitehall where a chap would look up from his tea, take a note of my IP address, and send a heavily armed police squad, or MI6 recruitment officers, to my door.
The accusations that our emails are insecure, our internet activity monitored, spies are spying, the NHS tries to protect itself, the police are racist, Jimmy Saville was a pervert; they don’t feel like news, more a slightly satisfying confirmation of all the things we rather always suspected anyway.
‘Privacy’ in this Facebooked world has lost its meaning; we’ve already signed away our data to search for cats doing adorable things. The NSA would probably have got a better grip of their data if they had simply bought our digital footprints from Google, like all those parasites who keep ringing to insist I, ‘may have been missold PPI’.
Indeed, in the blizzard of information released by Snowden I found myself less outraged, more patriotic. There’s the American NSA, with its awesome defence budget, and all they can score is the records of a measly trillion phone calls. We Brits, on the other hand, only went down to the bottom of the sea, hacked into transatlantic fibre-optic cables, and downloaded the whole damn internet. Our GCHQ spies may struggle to figure their way out of suitcases but my goodness when they decide to spy, they spy.
By the time I’m led to Roxana’s room it’s no surprise that she’s studiously immersed in a maths problem. Her snitch-sister looks dismayed and stalks off. I return to my laptop to open up my secret remote desktop viewer. I watch the inane teasing that passes as conversation on Facebook for a few minutes. It’s all I can bear. Of course I don’t love Big Brother. I am Big Brother.
Marius Brill’s hilarious novel How To Forget (£6.99) is available in all good bookshops.
Suddenly you can find a parking space in the Royal Borough, the Chelsea Tractors have gone. You can actually see from one side of the Kings Road to the other without meeting your reflection in the tinted glass of a traffic becalmed Range Rover. Is it some new green initiative? Have the Borough’s toff-roaders suddenly woken up to global warming?
Nah, it’s ski season. This is when the faw-by-faws migrate. It’s their annual alpine beano; off to test their under-used differentials on something more taxing than the school run. It’s the time of year Kensington and Chelsea becomes a snow go area.
Honestly, squatters of London, with the well-heeled in their ski boots, now’s the time to find your luxury Chelsea pad; the owners are all off piste on gluhwein and schnapps.
But just what is the allure of the slopes? Why on earth does falling down mountains have such a grip on the Chelscene?
I used to think it was the exclusivity. A ski holiday has a price tag reserved for the moguls; assuring the élite company of others equally well-endowed. Several decades of Ski Sunday, however catchy the theme tune, failed to make skiing any more accessible; Verbier never became the Torremolinos of the Alps.
But it’s kind of a perverse masochistic activity for the rich isn’t it? Who wants to freeze their fingertips off, gripping on to a squeaky button-lift dragging you slowly through cheek-biting blizzards? Why side-scrape down walls of ice, shredding your knee cartilage like an Aintree non-finisher making its way into a bolognaise? What reason is there to dangle from a chair lift in cryogenic temperatures praying for it not to break down as you sway above a precipice? Why, indeed, put yourself through all that when you can plainly afford not to? When you’re in the skiing-twice-a-year tax bracket, you can pay other people to go through your pain and terror for you.
Maybe it’s the thrill of some discomfort for a change or perhaps, numbed to the omnipresence of the poor back home, it provides a chance to reconnect with your senses; see if they’re still functioning. Maybe it’s just the boozy dancey après-ski that really attracts.
But listen to the language of the chalet: it’s the ‘white stuff’, ‘taking a nose dive into the powder’, making ‘tracks’: there’s clearly some element of a legal high (Val d’Isere. Elevation: 2700m).
Isn’t the real pull the same one that underlies drugs? Yes there’s the adventure, the rush, but under that, there’s that glamour of risk; where a false move could kill you. When you live in the borough with the greatest longevity in Britain you’re deprived of opportunities to face death. You’re too well off and educated to be daily looking down the barrel of an artery hardening Big Mac, or experience that vertiginous drop into spiralling debt, or suffer the cuts and all the other little deaths faced by most mortals. And if you never face death, how do you know you’re alive?
Skiing for me was all about running away from death rather than facing it. My father, a child refugee from Nazi Austria, was determined to bring me up as unjewy as possible; an Übermensch capable of escaping a country surrounded by mountains if the situation should ever occur again.
So every year, from the age of five, he would drive me to a snowbound Austrian valley. We’d stick seal skins to the bottom of our skis and start climbing a mountain. It was frostbite, exhaustion and terror clambering up for eight hours and then all of ten minutes skiing down again.
But now I’m prepared. UKIP is on the rise, my skis are waxed, my skins packed. I just wonder why, since he adopted an island to live on, he never taught me to water-ski. I have a suspicion it looked too much like fun.
In the meantime, one thing remains true: there really are parking spots near Peter Jones.
Binge Your Own
Tuesday, 4th September 2012
So there are Olympic Medals to celebrate and it’s summertime and, hey, you’ve got to let yourself go when you’re on holiday. It’s never too difficult to find an excuse to down the odd pint… or twenty.
But here’s a money-saving tip: if you’re going out for the evening with a young lady in any British provincial city, don’t bother to buy her dinner, you’ll only see it again, hitting your shoes with such force that you’ll be picking carrot out of the seams for weeks. I speak from experience. Because, between the ingesting and the expulsion, imbibing to excess is almost obligatory.
Blotto, stinking, caned, sloshed, smashed, sozzled, pissed; we’ve almost as many words for getting drunk as we do for rain. And we don’t like to merely get a little squiffy or merry or take the edge off; we have to down it, chuggalugga, set ‘em up. According to Andrew McNeill, of the Institute of Alcohol Studies, “among 18 to 24-year-olds, only one in four women and one in six men say they never binge drink… in fact among 20-something women, 60% of the alcohol consumed is in bouts of heavy drinking – more than six units a day.”
But why do we drink so much when all our Police Reality TV shows demonstrate endless scenes of northern lasses with their heads between their knees and urine soaked war memorials? Why do we handle our alcohol with all the subtlety of a ‘Glasgow kiss’?
Happily, answers abound. Just ask anybody on a bender. They’re not hard to find. They’ll not only tell you the answer, but buy them another pint and they’ll fight you for it. Every drinker has a binge theory, or excuse, if you prefer, and they’ll tell you endlessly, if you dare to ask.
Why binge? What have ya got? Dead end jobs, a mortgage-chasing culture, economic meltdown, double dip recession, work strictures, study strictures, dole strictures, relationship troubles, seasonal affective disorders (SAD), social pressures, coping strategies… but, sober and honest, who wouldn’t admit that it helps us deal with that most British disease: inhibition.
We’re just not American enough. American TV and movies surround us. It seems Americans open their mouths and great one-liners or emotionally honest truisms just stream out. Americans speak without fear of saying the wrong thing or being judged foolish. They apparently don’t stumble in terror at the thought of opening their hearts or talking about their emotions. We aspire to be like that and that’s what we think we become when we’re drunk: American. Not bad going for a nation founded by Puritan teetotalers who couldn’t handle their drink and sailed off to set up a new world not cursed by the carousing of godless drunken mayhem.
Maybe, afflicted with inhibition, we don’t drink to forget then, but to remember. To remember the thugs we naturally are, the warrior peoples who built an empire long before we tied it in red tape and polite behaviour to quell our natural urge to violence within and prove ourselves the moral superiors to the natives we vanquished. As anybody who’s been to a football match knows, when we lose our inhibitions, we fight.
The Royal Navy is perhaps the only military service in the world in which a daily tot of rum is still obligatory for ratings. Trafalgar was won as much on bloody-minded alcoholic bravado as the cunning tactics of a hardy, one-eyed Admiral. Drink for the British doesn’t anaesthetise, it vitalizes: it is our aqua vita!
Could the late Victorian and early Edwardian Teetotal movements have been the first nails in the coffin of empire? Drinking might make us less civilized but maybe it makes us more human. The binge is extreme drinking and extremes are what we inhibit when we’re sober. So one drink would seem, inevitably, to lead to the next and so on – more literally than figuratively – ad nauseum. As long as we’re drinking to lessen our inhibitions, we’ll be picking the diced carrot out of our seams.
Marius Brill’s hilarious novel ‘How To Forget’ is in all good bookshops now.
“Why?” she sneered at the quivering bouquet in my hands, “would I want a bunch of slaughtered lifeforms, brutally severed, doomed to wilt and drop dead within a few days? And why are you obligating me to bathe and feed them and try to keep them alive as I watch them painfully expire leaving a reeking mess behind? Is that really symbolic of our relationship?”
I paraphrase; it was a long time ago. But I remember her shoving the flowers straight back in my face. As I plucked petals from my teeth, I wondered where I’d gone wrong. Was it the pollen? The time of the month? My halitosis? I didn’t wonder if it was because she was shagging a bloke called Darren. I had two more weeks of crippling emotional anxiety to suffer before I worked that out. But she was right: flowers are a terrible metaphor for love. How did they become so powerful?
Nowadays I mistrust flowers; the annual Chelsea Flower Show brings a feeling of unease. Maybe I should blame the florist who had winked, assuring me that flowers guaranteed a bit of the “old birds and bees” when I was too horny to realise that he meant it literally.
But then, isn’t there something disturbing about an organism which uses other species to procreate? If we even attempt that, were straight on the register with a stiff warning from the RSPCA. What I find even more sinister is that it’s not just birds and bees in flowers thrall, humanity itself seems harnessed to their will. Flowers have inveigled themselves into all our rituals, rites and celebrations. They even pretend to be willing conspirators in our delusion that we have some control over nature in our gardens. They flatter and blossom and, quite frankly, probably laugh at us as we do their bidding: spreading their seeds far further than their natural means, pumping water from distant reservoirs through unbanned hosepipes just to anoint them on dry days and evolving new strains for those flowers too lazy to do it themselves.
Are we really the master in this relationship? Aliens might conclude that humans are slaves to flowers; even some of our monarchy are holding talks with them.
And oh yes, they talk; just not to the likes of you and me. Last year, peer-reviewed research at Ben-Gurion University revealed that a stressed pea plant communicated its anxiety to other pea plants. It sent biochemical messages through its roots about the onset of a drought, prompting others to react as though they, too, were water starved.
It’s a war we’re losing. In their usual passive-aggressive way, flowers are winning the battle for our hearts and minds. The very scent of the person you love is not their own; that’s distilled petals you’ve taken to your heart, and how many human minds are lost in the grip of the poppy’s opium derivatives? Unlike utilitarian crops like wheat providing staples for our survival, flowers are relatively superfluous, an indulgence and yet, including the drugs trade, more money is spent on flowers than any other agricultural crop.
So flowers may lose a few root soldiers in the battle? Their short lifecycle means they can afford to lose a billion and still keep winning the war. My defaced bouquet was just one of their daily sacrifices; a few rose martyrs to keeping a roothold in our human economic systems and ensuring fields will be devoted to their species.
We think we’re so smart, but then why have we been doing all the hard work for a bunch of stamen and petals? We’re bulb burying slaves and, as long as flowers appeal to our delusions of control, we are at their mercy. Gardeners of the world unite; you have nothing to lose but your chrysanthemums.
Marius Brill’s hilarious novel How To Forget Black Swan £7.99 is out in paperback now.
We get off the tube. The Miserable Nutter is screaming, as usual, at passengers leaving the station. I grip J’s little hand and prepare to run the gauntlet. Maybe he won’t notice us.
“You,” he shouts. “Yeah you, the fat ***t with the f*****g kid.” That’ll be us then. Eyes front. Walk briskly. “I’m not f*****g invisible.” Two F-words and a C! J’s eyes are popping out at him as I drag her away.
“Why’s he unhappy?”
“How do you know he’s unhappy?”
“When Mummy shouts you say it’s ‘cos she’s unhappy.”
“Well he’s just not quite right in the head.”
Wisely, she doesn’t point out that that’s what Mummy says about me when I shout. She’s more philosophical. “Why can’t everybody be happy?”
I resist the urge to add more F-words to her collection, asking her if I look like the effing Dalai Lama. I’m not sure how simply impregnating her mother elevated me to a font of all wisdom and knowledge. But it has. Nor, why I attempt to live up to the part and actually try to answer her absurd questions. But I do. “Well that’s a nice idea darling,” I say, “In fact it would be ideal. But the world isn’t ideal, there’s always going to be some unhappiness somewhere.”
The closest I ever get to an ideal is a cheaper rate on my Apple phone. As soon as you’re old enough to pay tax, idealism is one of those things you realise you can’t afford anymore. Nice ideas like world peace, universal happiness or every day a good-hair-day, gradually seem less achievable. Age and reality, the struggle to just get on and achieve some respite from the drudgery, has a terrible way of throttling ideals.
So why, after 103 years, do we still have an Ideal Home Show? You’d have thought a certain cynicism might have set in by now. It seems an anachronistic throw-back to the ideals of the spreading leafy suburban Acacia avenues; women with polished set hairdos and thick lippy in shiny pencil skirts preparing Sunday roasts lathered in Bovril.
Ideals are like lost soap in the bath, they move on as soon as you grasp them. Now with austerity keeping the housing market as buoyant as the Costa Concordia, most people’s chance of moving on can only be described as, ‘fat’. Perhaps this isn’t the time for reaching for ideals but appreciating what we’ve got.
Next year, Earls Court, the less than ideal home of the show, will be demolished to make way for 8000 homes. All ideal – until they are inhabited.
Then they’ll be no better than mine or any other house in the borough – ideal if you lived a century ago, had full below-stairs staff and could afford heat loss on the scale of Chernobyl. Yes, there’s no lift, we’re too far from the garden, the windows rattle, floors creak, wifi signal drops a foot from the router and the water stops with the first flake of snow. But, it’s somewhere J, and the rest of us, can feel secure from the nutters. It gives shelter, good neighbours and a place to shout, or laugh. No house is ideal, but then it’s a home and I suppose that’s an ideal all of its own.
Marius Brill’s How To Forget (Doubleday £12.99) is in all good bookshops now.
- Th SunAffairs of State15 July, 2021 - 1:08 pm
Politicians have realised that that silent “moral majority” which they once feared, is just a fantasy.