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Citta Violenta.

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Toward a radical middle

a time for fear
Friday, February 27, 2004  
Clearing Matters Up Before I Go Away

The bottom line is this: all I really want to do is scan and relay chaos and calamity and point and go "look! look what's happening there! And there! And here!" My only real conclusion, ever, is "but that's insane!" That's why I don't read papers: I don't want to analyse somebody else's analysis of an event witnessed second- or third-hand, via the mystification of CNN and Sky or Reuters chits sprinkled like bloody confetti. What I mean, of course, is that I don't want to read our papers, unless they've actually bothered to dispatch someone to this or that warzone, and even then I don't. I like the BBC World Service/Worldwide because I get the impression that it's propped up by chinless wonders running around deserts and getting an unconscious kick out of the agony they inflict on their home-shackled little wives. Bravo, chaps! Also, on the radio, it sounds like transmissions from the third rung of hell, or cities emptied by smallpox and plutonium. Al-jazeera employs tough, thick-blooded old boys who aren't afraid of anything, and always on the roof of some hotel dodging missiles (in their mind, those missiles are knickers). Boom! Thud! There's a lot of scrappy, specific sites to help hunt down, embellish or invent stories (so find your own). I sugest Asia Times Online to start; it enjoys a special place in my heart because it covers all my favorite places (i.e. anywhere I haven't been and wouldn't go without a weapon and a hip-flask full of cognac).

I think I've realised, though, that there are some basic things that people enjoy and desire and deserve (within reason) to experience, consume or own. Something decent to drink would be a ready requirement. Access to French wine and brandy, Russian vodka, or a bottle of Scotch malt whiskey, for example, is an inalienable and global human right. An important corollary to this, of course, is somewhere decent to drink it. There are some basic requirements here, too. 1. Atmosphere, and the right noise level to allow intelligent conversation to fully bloom and reach a desired pitch of sarcasm, scorn and contempt. 2. Atmosphere refers to decor, vintage, and people involved. Everyone should be able to go to a bar and meet a femme fatal, a war hero, a cyncical and drunk professor, or, at the very least, a stock-broker with a sense of humour. There should be the potential for human variety and interaction. 3. Access to a bar with a late license and somewhere not so busy that oxygen is an issue, but not so empty that the sound of you putting your glass back on the table echoes. However, it should be noted that, in this respect, central London is as desolate as Baghdad. (The essence of good foreign affairs journalism, I gleam from afar, is finding the best bar in the worst city, and sending a message back to your employees that says "you're paying for this, right?")

Other important things. Food and good shoes. A wide choice of restaurants with menus you can't even read. Somewhere attractive to go and argue and spit quail and venison at each other, or romance someone irresistible. Plus, exquisite or simply well-cooked food, made with ingredients that aren't delivered in industrial vats or pumped with toxins or subject to some sinister biotech fix-up. Restaurants that let you smoke. Smoking! While we're on the subject, this also comes under my personal rubric of basic human rights (right next to "the vote" in case you're interested) and is, nevertheless, severely infringed upon only by the most advanced democracies. Taxing pleasure is one thing, but when it comes to the outright suppression of minor appetites by some nebulous external force - the soft power of moral censure enshrined in law, for fuck's sake! - that provokes one's capacity for resistance, to put it politely. (And when allied to false statistics, i.e. the "facts" of passive smoking, the imposture is compounded.) It's degrading to have to deal with this erosion of autonomy.

Meanwhile, can a society be evaluated by its diet? Of course! Damn straight! If I was forced to live on potato scones and vodka, say, or spam and rye, then I'd know something, at core, was wrong. As it is, I even reserve the option of eating in a Polish restaurant should I get the mad urge (and have done before now). The central thesis put forward is water-tight in so many ways, applying, as it does, to the unfettered assimilations and twists of Japanese cuisine as to the shrink-wrapped fast-death of Sainsbury's packaged meals that say so much about post-Thatcher Britain, mm hmm. Meanwhile, my own kitchen, I wager, is a little Garden of Eden, a mini-Avalon of dinner time in Bow, a triumph of invention over underwhelming circumstances. It's like Madhur Jaffrey crossed with Elizabeth David crossed with Oliver Craner. The British diet is very bad, but very good if you know how to exploit its obscure delights, just like Britain itself.

To emphasise the point, I defiantly retain my options. Venturing into Victoria Park, for instance, with a crossbow, on the hunt for tasty tufted ducks to kill, sling over my shoulder, and take home to cook. I don't recommend mallards, in case you're tempted. Which is a shame because it sometimes seems as if, in British parks, this was the only duck ever. Rat's-tail soup turned out to be a bad idea, but apparently it's possible to import shark fins in tins (well, that's what I heard). And don't ever ever try to eat a seagull because I suspect they have an unlimited capacity for revenge. Same with badgers: they're lethal. They'd drag you to the ground and gnaw your face off without even thinking about it. Don't go near them.

As for good shoes, that's not simply a right, it's a duty. The problem with Western democracy is that finding a good pair of shoes involves a kind of quest, and a mortgage. It's the sort of detail that Thomas Paine did not forseee. All shoes should be good! All commodities should be good quality, because that's their only justification (dialectical materialism, by the way). This is not a question of taste: it's a question of craft and personal dignity. It's not that I'm opposed to sandals, flip-flops and espadrilles (except when worn off the beach); it's just that I am opposed to, say, leather loafers that start to lose their colour after a month. Leather's not supposed to lose it's colour. Hair is, but not leather.

I have a modern outlook; I suppose you could say I'm against the forces of reaction (strict Marxist critique, obviously). I don't necessarily concur with Norman Mailer's utter distaste for plastic, for example. Ambivalence is sacrosanct, nevertheless there's something elemental about plastic. It's the only man-made substance that has the longevity of rock, and maybe exceeds that. Its capacity for immortality demands a certain basic respect. Another example: litter infuriates me, but I'm also impressed by its persistence. In an empty world light years into the future there will still be Top Shop bags and empty cans of Vanilla Coke scraping the ruined pavements of Oxford Street. It will be the final triumph of trash. Another thing: helium balloons that escape the hands of upset children. For some reason, millennia from now, I imagine empty skies full of drifting balloons. Then I feel humbled, as if God had just pushed me off a chair.

Air travel is the great joy of now. If you ever see me on a plane you won't, because my face will be stuck to a window. I'll be dribbling with joy. "Clouds! The sea! A flock of geese!" Really, it's pathetic. But I'm not ashamed. Should a plane I was on be hijacked, I wouldn't notice until the very last moment. On a plane, I have no concept of death. A surge of immortality colonises my soul. I'm like Leonardo da Vinci on a night flight. It's my only genuine moment of vision. Flying to New York last March, I watched the sun set, and felt truly omnipotent. "I'm Icarus, but you won't melt my wings!"

I like driving too, whenever I get the chance. Cars, generally, help me vent anger, which is good, while I have a clean license. As a London pedestrian or bus-rider they serve as a channel for vague flurries of scorn. My general attitude is "Legs before wheels! That's what History says!" As a driver, meanwhile, I roar without thought or mercy towards a pixellated Out Run sunset seared onto my third eye. A car is a means to an end. In other words, getting back to the beach. Therefore, it's the only true valet of freedom. If that seems depressing, then consider this: I can get the best of both worlds.

"Liberty", said John Stuart Mill, "something something something" (I haven't read him yet). I'm pretty sure he wasn't talking about cars, planes, shoes, food or alcohol, but he should have been, so I agree with him. When I think about these things, and the photos I rescued from my Olympus Trip 35 after a year, and Vorticists completely out of place in Islington, and not having to read Tolstoy or North Korean school textbooks, I get a surge of what the French foppishly call joie de vivre. Where does it come from - the pine forests or palm-lined roads, or the back of my fuzzy/fiddly head, or the pit of my ritually abused stomach (bit of a cheer here for the Alpa brand of non-vintage, unfairly maligned as it is, except in our house, where we happen to be connoisseurs)? I can't, I can't answer that. But it feels as good as gorgeous guilt, like fancying your girlfriend's best friend. We have some people who have helped us quantify and articulate this, like Omar Khayyam, Louise Brooks, and Ben Jonson. The only way I can describe it is by saying that it's like sitting down to an argument with a full bottle of red and a fresh pack of cigs and getting stuck in for the evening and then falling into bed with Claire Luce before leaving in the morning for the Amalfi. Or, it's like this: once when I left for the Arctic, I came back with a beautiful block of ice in a tin for a lovely Soho stripper, and she smiled when I gave it to her. And I'd expected a kick in the chops, or a sneer of derision. Look, what kind of definition do you want exactly? I know you know what I mean, anyway. Don't make me drag this blather out any longer.

This spiel is dedicated to the woman in my life, Monica Bellucci.

11:34 PM

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