No one knows anything about him, what he does or who he really is. He is absent from public life, and maybe even private life. Introverted, timid perhaps, and possibly depressed. But no one knows because he never comes out. ‘Perhaps he reads?’ I heard someone say. But apparently not. Sunbathes? Dances? Dreams? What does he dream about? No one seems to know. I’d like to meet him properly. I’ve seen him up close – he is quite attractive – but I’ve never got really close to see well. But perhaps we always want to know what we don’t know, we always want to touch what we can’t touch. That which is prohibited always offers some intrigue, some excitement. So he has us under control, even if that is not what he wishes. His absence keeps us guessing. His presence in our lives keeps us in a state of perpetual fascination. His absence keeps us in perpetual fear. How has he done this? Was it intentional? Or an error in life, a trip one day, a mistake, a slip up, a wrong turn? Does he regret that day? We don’t know. No one knows. Is he trapped in his mistakes? Is he fascinated by us? Fearful of us? No one knows. So our imaginations run wild, imagining imaginings, imagining truths and imagining lies. We gloat. We wonder. We admire. We fear. And in the end, perhaps, we give up. No one knows anything. Someone must. His lovers. They must know something. They must know what he likes to eat for breakfast, which drink he prefers in the evening, the music he relaxes to, how to make him laugh. They must have seen his tears, and his silences. But we have seen nothing. And still we are fascinated. Why do we even care? He holds us in his palm and could crush us with his fingers. Is that why we care? Or do we simply admire him. Perhaps he is nothing more than a wonderful fantasy, a Wizard of Oz, a myth that we’ve all fallen for.
Perhaps, the truth is, he doesn’t really exist.
Originally posted from Luanda 22 March 2007
This is the list of artists whose work is being exhibited at the Venice Biennale’s first ever African pavilion which, in the words of the VB, was ‘selected by an expert committee… to represent the African continent… ‘
1 Ghada Amer, Egypt
2 Oladélé Bamgboyé, Nigeria
3 Miquel Barcelo, Spain
4 Jean Michel Basquiat, USA (here and here)
5 Mario Benjamin, Haiti
6 Bili Bidjocka, Cameroon
7 Zoulikha Bouabdellah, Algeria
8 Loulou Cherinet, Ethiopia
9 Marlène Dumas, South Africa
10 Mounir Fatmi, Marocco
11 Kendell Geers, South Africa
12 Ihosvanny, Angola
13 Alfredo Jaar, Chile
14 Paulo Kapela, Angola
15 Amal Kenawy, Egypt
16 Kiluanji Kia Henda, Angola
17 Paul D. Miller Aka DJ Spooky, USA
18 Santu Mofokeng, South Africa
19 Nastio Mosquito, Angola
20 Ndilo Mutima, Angola
21 Ingrid Mwangi, Kenya
22 Chris Ofili, UK/Nigeria
23 Olu Oguibe, Nigeria
24 Tracey Rose, South Africa
25 Ruth Sacks, South Africa
26 Yinka Shonibare, MBE, UK/ Nigeria
27 Minnette Vári, South Africa
28 Viteix, Angola
29 Andy Warhol, USA
30 Yonamine, Angola
Any thoughts? Anyone?
You won’t want to read the two latest books to come out about Lady Di, but I would encourage you to read Jenny Diski’s review in the LRB this week of Tina Brown’s The Diana Chronicles and Sarah Bradford’s Diana. Diski’s observations on Di’s death and the public’s continued appetite for it (and her) are hilarious and acute, and left me in a state of mild bliss for most of yesterday afternoon. But what I enjoyed most were her scathing attacks on Bradford and Brown whose books are, ‘based on books already written (by journalists, her friends, his friends, butlers, nannies, ex-employers, protection officers, a speech trainer, lovers, paparazzi) and the odd interview with people who have already been interviewed for the books already written. They even quote one another.’
Diski has great fun with Brown’s seven pages of acknowledgements which show she knows anyone who’s anyone, and even more with Brown’s book jacket: ‘… doubtless with great relief because photo booths are so often out of order, she thanks, too, ‘the gifted photographer Annie Liebowitz’, who ‘with her usual generosity insisted on taking the portrait the publisher required for my book jacket’.
And look out for Diski’s lovely line on God.
It was a particularly painful bus journey I was on – the bus driver refused to let any of us off the 38 on Graham Road despite the fact traffic had not moved for 10 minutes – so I also had time to read Adewale Maja-Pearce’s review of Wole Soyinka’s third volume of memoirs, You Must Set Forth At Dawn: A Memoir. AMP is not quite so cruel as Diski, but nevertheless exposes with, I thought, great sensitivity, Soyinka’s hypocrisy and giant ego. Just a couple of weeks ago, I heard from a couple who had gone to hear Soyinka speak at the London Literary Festival, how appalled they were by the amount of time he spent talking about his own heroic acts in life and his own attempt, as AMP puts it, ‘to embark on his one-man liberation mission’ in Nigeria. According to AMP, this memoir is packed with ‘breathless accounts of [Soyinka's] relentless one-upmanship’ which see the literary giant skate over the brave and artistic accomplishments of one of his greatest friends, the late Femi Johnson. This review is a good read and left me feeling ashamed that I know so little about Soyinka’s ‘extra-literary escapades’. It also left me feeling deeply ashamed – still, ten years on – for having once been foolish in my criticisms of AMP himself. As it was, I shot myself in the foot and was found out. An accident that only damaged me, not him. If you’re out there somewhere, AMP, I apologise. I was young and dumb.
P.S. I met Alex Callinicos yesterday. Liked him a lot. My fear of being bellowed at again, for trying to find out the truth about certain socialists movements in the seventies and the response of the British Left, was unfounded. He was only too willing to ponder mistakes and weaknesses. What a relief, but more to the point, what an example he sets. I wish it hadn’t taken me quite so long to pluck up the courage to get hold of him. It was back at SOAS in the early 1990s that fellow student (now academic at SOAS), John Game, advised me to read Callinicos and go seek him out for discussions on Southern Africa. And I read, but never dared try to meet him. And then it was a couple of years ago, when my neighbour, Mike Simons, a member of the SWP, advised I track him down. ‘He’s open, very friendly, very approachable, and very intelligent,’ was more or less what Mike said as he handed me a copy of Tapper Zukie’s MPLA, and how right he was.
P.P.S. Blimey! The Sharp Side (see links below) is either a clairvoyant, or perhaps, should consider that Prince Charles reads and responds to his blog. You jogged him into action, Ellis, face it!
Now I see what you are all going on about. ‘Carnival’ and ‘underwear’ were the keywords. I feel deeply flattered. I shouldn’t, of course. Far better is ‘swelling of the corpse’ which I happen to know was how one enquiring Googler was happily sent to Almost not there.
Thinking about Disprin: whoever sweetened the painkiller should be put in pain. It’s revolting. Bring back the gritty, chalky tablets and banish the pale pink fizzy sweet that only creates more emotional pain than the physical it attempts to destroy.
He’s everywhere. He has opinions on everything (says She). He’s a tart of a commentator, a slut of a reviewer, the whore of cultural criticism – he’s even started his children off on the art of using the name to churn out whatever the unimaginative editors of the liberal broadsheets and Radio 4 wish to see and hear. He’s very clever. Terribly clever. We all know that. He’s even quite dishy: I saw him once blowing smoke over his child’s head outside a caff in Farringdon’s meejah market, known otherwise as Exmouth. Sometimes I wonder if he really writes all those books – he spends so much time popping up here and there expounding this, booing that, whipping up them. Maybe he pays someone else to do it. Today on Today he was injecting some highly desirable negativity into the Harry hysteria. ‘Even my nine-year-old tossed it aside,’ he said (or something very similar), adding, ‘because it was boring.’ Self himself has not read the books. I myself have not either. Nor have I read any Self books. So I can’t slag the man off. But I know, without a shadow of a doubt, that he’s a media tart. He is the celebrity of celebrities. How ironic, today on Today, that he should be so concerned about the mass market of Harry, when he himself is slowly but steadily becoming a product for the masses. Today’s presenter (Auntie’s economics editor who, when presenting Today, makes it sound like news for kids – or kidults, as Self suitably says) even had to remind himself to call Will by both names. ‘What do you think, Will?’ PAUSE ‘err, Self. Will Self.’ There all mates ya see. We all know who Will is, just like we all know who Harry is. Less the Self and the Potter makes no difference. What? Less the Self and the Potter makes no difference. That said, were I Lex or one of the others, I would swiftly change my name as soon as I could. Lex Selfless, perhaps?
P.S. A few weeks ago, when I first read Self & Son piece and nearly vomited all over my clean white duvet, I was going to write a blog condemning the endless stream of famous fathers and their golden sons, who are slowly being groomed to become father. Think Snows, think Blairs, and now think Selfs. Where are the famous mothers and daughters? was what I wanted to ask (or scream). But frankly, it was pure jealousy. I’m not a boy. My father, though successful, is not famous. And unfortunately, I’ve never wanted to become a fertility expert. And thinking further, I suspect it is a curse to be the son of Self. You are damned if you do and if you don’t. Forever compared to Dad. I can’t think of much worse, especially if he carries on on his cultural sideshow of mass media pleasing.
Some small satisfaction watching the great British public of Gloucestershire queueing for their two packs of water from the supermarket, an image we so often slap on to another continent. And see how quickly the GBP start to take more than the allocated amount (two packs per household, according to the BBC). Cameras caught several families dashing off with four or five or six, or as many as they can carry. Police were brought in to keep things under control, and insist that no one’s been stealing. We’re British, of course! We don’t steal! Watching some of the images, I wondered how soon it would take for the society that claims it has such wonderful values to defend, to collapse into chaos, theft, looting and fighting.
Our expertise at ignoring climate change – so busy as we are stamping out smoking – will no doubt see weather patterns continue to alarm us. But we’ll still keep flying all over the place and buying huge 4X4s – because we can. And now the government’s thinking of building homes on flood plains too. Never mind.
Meanwhile, on another channel, cameras filmed Zimbabweans queueing for margarine, with policeman with batons on hand just in case anyone gets too greedy. No pretence there then. The BBC reporter, Peter Biles, speaking from Johannesburg, concluded that Zimbabwe is a country that has no hope left. Officially hopeless.
Like many women across the UK who heard the news this morning, that gender equality in this sinking land still has a long way to go, I was shouting and laughing at my radio.
‘Yes, yes! I told you, I told you! We’ve known that for years. Thank you.’
My lonely bellowing was gradually replaced by astonished anger when the newsreader told us that the Equal Opportunities Commission’s research shows that it will be another 45 years before women receive pensions equal to those of their male peers. And I was practically speechless to learn that ‘it will take up to 200 years to achieve an equal number of men and women in the Westminster Parliament’ (currently less than 20% of MPs are female). And if you are a woman from an ethnic minority, it will be your grand-daughters’ grand-daughters’ grand-daughters’ grand-daughters’ grand-daughters who might stand a chance. And we’re supposed to be grateful that increasing numbers of awfully nice men are prepared to share the housework and childcare with their bossy female partners.
The other day, I was reading William Dalrymple’s guide to writing a decent travel book. I blush to admit this to the whole world, but there we are. It’s true, I was. For some time I’ve been flabbergasted by the number of highly successful travel writers who are not only male but also former students of Oxbridge, often very wealthy members of the aristocracy and in several cases, ex-Etonians. (My lovely neighbour says I should get over this, as do many many others: just finish your own book Lara and stop moaning. They have a point.) Anyway, I trudged through Dalrymple’s handy digest until I arrived at his list of great travel books:
As you will see, they are all written by men. Apart from one. Venice by Jan Morris. Delighted to find one lone female, and determined to read her book, this morning, I Googled Jan Morris to find out a little bit more about her. And, oh, what disappointment. Oh, Jan, dear Jan, I admire you for your courage, but dear Jan, you too, were once a man.
I went to get my nails done – my feet – at a smart and sterile ‘international’ hotel which has wireless internet in the bar, but thankfully not in the ladies’ beauty room (do we have to work everywhere?). Beauty parlours link women the world over. Stylists stop, a hunk of hair in one hand, curlers and hair-dryer in the other, to discuss how many portions of chicken they want the receptionist to buy, or their lover’s latest errors. I feel guilty about paying to get my nails done, but it is the most enjoyable luxury I know. And I love listening to and participating in universal subjects with complete strangers. We are linked forever by our men and our stomachs. G – who did my feet today – was an absolute expert. She hacked off all that dead skin, plucked at layers of ancient nail, snipped at overgrown cuticles and then filed and toned not just the nails but my entire foot. And then, she painted them red. I had suggested gold.
‘Isn’t gold all the rage now?’
‘It is popular, yes, but you’d be better off with a deeper colour to hide your fungi toenail here,’ she said, pointing to my left big toe. So now they are a plum-red.
G used to be a teacher. But she didn’t get paid for two years, so now she does nails.
The woman next to me was having an all-over transformation: feet, hands and hair. She was left sitting under a lamp – the sort that cacoon old women’s heads in local salons in southern France – reading a magazine.
Then all of a sudden, she was on fire. Smoke rushing out of the lamp, reminding me of a 6th form play I did at school in which our chemistry teacher, Dr Hustler, provided dry ice and fans to create fog.
But G didn’t bat an eye. Digging her thumbnail into my large fungal nail to which she was adding the finishing touches, she muttered something about evaporation under her breath.
Later I went for dinner with an academic and a priest. A local joint. Two parrots – one caged, one chained to a bar – flapped and squawked. A rather nice young dog kept turning in circles, then lying down, then getting up and turning in more circles before lying down in exactly the same position on the same spot. The academic ordered something sensational which he described unconvincingly as ‘cabbage’. Chunks of ginger, prawn head, banana pau, okra and cabbage. Utterly delicious. And then the rains came. Heavy heavy rains. We moved tables to the centre of the room but the winds pushed up a gear and the rains followed us to the centre of the room. A pool of water spread across the room, blue buckets were placed strategically under particularly heavy leaks. Then a small explosion and a controlled shriek. Smoke and sparks in the kitchen. All the lights went out. The parrot on the bar was particularly irritated: garbled messages and bubbled groans streamed from his corner. Neither the academic nor the priest even blinked. We carried on talking about the history of this country – me, swinging like a pendulum, on their every word, desperate to remember the detail. It struck me that maybe I should hire a parrot to help me. Forget bird brains, parrots are said to have excellent memories.
Our main dish was a sort of soup of fish, more banana and mandioc. It was equally excellent and you would never have known that it was cooked without electricity for about 45 minutes.
We drove home through lakes.
Originally published from Luanda, 18th March 2007.
‘All of us, in our daily lives, are required to make compromises with institutional reality…’
Meanwhile, cruising the Chuck Palahniuk site, I found this story which, for anyone who has read Guts, is deeply unsettling. Reporter Heather Brown’s face is even more unsettling. Her seductive, sexless smile.