LAST WEEK I went away for a few days, to a place with no television, taking neither computer nor smartphone. I got up when it was light and I went to bed not that long after it was dark, although I was not without luxuries. Far from it. I was waited on hand, foot and finger, drank the finest of wines and ate the most delicious of food. But the pleasures were of a different order: either simply sensual (a long, silent night’s sleep in soft linen) or dramatically natural (sunrise over a crisp South African morning, a pride of lions lying sated around a buffalo carcass). It was all, perhaps, a bit more satisfying than reading a really good put-down on Twitter.
However. I don’t actually live in KwaZulu-Natal, and neither, unfortunately, am I very often invited to report on wildlife conservation projects, so it’s no good wondering whether I might be better suited to a life in the bush than a life in Shepherd’s Bush (a joke for the Londoners, with apologies).
And, of course life looks a bit different when you return home: that’s the whole point of going away, right? You want to be made to think about what home’s like, and what you like about it, or indeed whether you like it at all. But the point is (a narcissist writes) that nothing really happens to it when you’re gone, as Philip Larkin pointed out (“Home is so sad. It stays as it was left”). And the one thing it shouldn’t do is to start thinking about itself, and what it’s like, and what it likes about itself, or indeed whether it likes itself at all.
Jesus! Did I really deserve to come home and find the country looking at itself in the mirror? Still?
(Incidentally, I note that I have returned to this subject of Englishness/Britishness, and the texture of English/British life, so frequently of late that it is as though it preoccupies me to an almost unnatural degree. It does not. Would I describe myself as a nationalist? Not really. More to the point, it wouldn’t often occur to me to ask myself the question. Or even someone who thinks about their nation and their nationhood more than the people around them? I don’t think so. It seems simply that we are immersed in it this summer, that we are daily led towards a gently bubbling bath of national identity and asked – not forced, exactly – to sit in it and contemplate the temperature of the water and the roundness and burstability of the bubbles. It’s not unpleasant and not something to which one can violently object. It’s just a bit weird.)
I say, by way of disclaimer, that a combination of time away, plus difference of environment, plus random order of things first glimpsed on return might have skewed my perception. Maybe Britain is a healthily outward-looking country, with few hang-ups about its past, or its present, or its populace or its popularity. But just in case…
The plane ride home takes ten hours or so and, because I have already seen A Single Man on the journey out, and because on the way back I watch first a quite charming American independent film, I allow myself to indulge in Love, Actually for possibly the 20th or 30th time. Essentially, I like it because there are three specific junctures (where Laura Linney’s mentally ill brother tries to hit her; where Emma Thompson confronts her philandering husband and he blusters, “I’ve been a fool” and she replies, “Yes, but you’ve made a fool out of me; you’ve made the life I lead seem foolish”; and, of course, the rendition of “All I Want for Christmas Is You” at the end) where one can reliably expect to cry. (The soft-hearted may add a fourth by shedding a tear for the fat Portuguese sister who doesn’t get to marry Colin Firth, but really, she is supposed to be a comic turn.) Opportunities for lachrymosity are particularly useful on a plane, when all I want to do is weep to dispel the anxiety that I AM GOING TO DIE. WITH THESE PEOPLE.
Love, Actually is, as we know, part of Richard Curtis’s brilliantly profitable rebranding for export purposes of Britain and, more particularly, London, which is generally the backdrop for his films (Four Weddings, Notting Hill). One day I will meet the person who lives in one of those delightful mews houses or apartments in the eaves tucked just around the corner from both a vibrant local street market and Selfridges, and who is swathed from head to toe in Prada, but who also seems to be able to achieve all this on the income of a struggling photographer/writer/musician/bookshop owner.
But we forgive Richard this little finessing of reality, because we all need a dollop of honey to sweeten the medicine. Martin Amis, whose latest novel, Lionel Asbo (subtitle: State of England), I turned to once Love, Actually had finished, offers a touch more medicine than honey – although it can also make you laugh. I did, as the night lengthened and the 187ml plastic bottles of Merlot piled up. I laughed at Lionel himself (a violent criminal who feeds his violent dogs on chilli sauce and beer the night before he lets them loose on some poor associate he’s taken against); at his absurdly broken language, painstakingly and phonetically spelled out by the author; at his ludicrously huge lottery win, about which he hears while serving a prison sentence; at his poor, peaceable nephew, who after a lapse of passion must live in fear of his uncle discovering that he has been sleeping with his grandmother (his uncle’s mother).
It all made me laugh at 30,000 feet, especially as I was flying back to the city in which Lionel Asbo did his worst, although not, thankfully, to Diston Town, the seethingly awful fictional borough in which he lived. (By the way, “Asbo” stands for “Anti-Social Behaviour Order,” a restriction that could be served on naughty people by the British courts between 1998 and 2010, when they were abolished. In the novel, Lionel legally changes his name from Pepperdine to Asbo in order to express his lawlessness and contempt for authority.)
My plane landed in the morning, and in the afternoon, hopped up on adrenaline, I interviewed Martin Amis, very briefly, for a podcast. The coverage of his book, it seemed, had been blanket – unsurprisingly so, because every time he publishes a book, and especially a novel, broadsheets and magazines and television and radio programmes devote vast amounts of space discussing why it is that he commands so much attention – and some of it had focussed on the idea that, although Lionel Asbo lives in Diston Town, Martin Amis lives in Manhattan, and has done for the last year or so. Is the book, then, a furious parting shot, a screw-you-suckers-I’m-going-for-a-stroll-in-Central-Park?
Apparently not, because most of it was written not only before Amis removed himself to New York, but before he had even resolved, in order to be nearer his American wife’s family, to do so. What had been his purpose in writing the book, I asked? The purpose, he replied, was not something that could be summarised in a sentence. The purpose, he insisted, was explained by the book itself.
It was a good answer, I thought, and even more so the following evening, when I watched England’s football team play Sweden’s in the European Championships. Lionel Asbo, Amis tells us in the opening pages of the novel, bears a certain resemblance to the football player Wayne Rooney (amusingly, this has been recast, in some reviews and reports, to suggest that he is a Wayne Rooney “lookalike”, which is not the same thing at all). Rooney, who plays for Manchester United and England, was not playing against Sweden; sent off in the tournament’s qualifying rounds, he found himself suspended for the first two matches of the championships proper, and will only be eligible to appear from the third game (against hosts Ukraine, on 19 June) onwards.
Whether a young man is said to bear a resemblance to Wayne Rooney or to be his lookalike, the salient facts are the same; the assertion denotes that the man will probably be shaven-headed (although Rooney himself is not, following hair-transplant surgery), physically imposing in a particularly stocky, bullish sort of way and possessed of a certain kind of belligerence and determination. Watching the rest of his team-mates on Friday night, he didn’t seem especially belligerent, as one commentator remarked when England scored and Rooney, looking delighted, made some kind of celebratory gesture. But the commentator was ecstatic. “You can see what this means to him!” he yelled. Indeed: Rooney is, of course, an England fan; but should his team be ejected from the competition in the early rounds, he won’t get to play very much football at all.
I don’t think that’s quite what the commentator meant; I think he was trying to ascribe a far more amorphously positive “We’re all in this together” emotion to Rooney (WAITT is a much satirised Conservative party slogan). One of my other favourite bits of Larkin is from Vers de Societe: “the big wish/Is to have people nice to you, which means/Doing it back somehow./Virtue is social.” “We’re all in this together” is what we really need to think Rooney is thinking because Lionel Asbo, we know, is not.
By Friday night, I’d slightly had enough of thinking about England, which was just the moment that my companion decided to bellow, from the other end of the sofa: “I forgot! While you were away! The. Maddest. Thing. Ever!” Whereupon he fiddled with an electronic device and then presented me with a most curious image: a funny little model of fields and maypoles and sheep and cricket pitches, surrounded by a lot of cheerful-looking people, in the middle of whom stood a middle-aged man, with boffiny unkempt hair and wire-rimmed spectacles, grinning wildly. This man is the film director Danny Boyle, and the model is his vision of what will happen at the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games, at which he is charged with producing a spectacle to wow the world.
We are reassured that Boyle’s vision is not simply one of rural idyll and a bygone pastoral age; that it will draw on Britain’s industrial past and its post-industrial future; that one of the impresario’s inspirations, alongside William Blake, is The Tempest. Caliban, that play’s monstrous malcontent, gives the ceremony its title, “Isles of Wonder”. So we should probably not worry unduly that the cricket pitches and the village green will deliver a version too close to John Major’s nostalgic evocation of a Britain of warm beer and dog lovers.
Still, thank God Sir Paul McCartney will be there. Of course, that was never really in doubt, since it is actually now the law that no significant public event must take place without the age-defying mop-top giving a rousing rendition of “Let It Be.” National tradition, innit?