Queen Elizabeth's Day


She starts drinking every day before noon. None of her children has a real job. Mired in a culture of entitlement, always needing a handout, she drains the coffers of the state. Her photo looked down at me from the wall of the train: England's top beneficiary, Queen Elizabeth II.

I was on my way to a party thrown by London publishers, Faber. In a huge, hidden garden behind Southampton Row, owned by another monster of entitlement, the Duke of Bedford, the crowd mingled and murmured. There was a striped marquee, there were Chrissie Hynde and Jarvis Cocker, there was Alan Hollinghurst making his solemn way through the green dusk under the trees. The actress Miranda Richardson, looking vague and fey, absent-mindedly stroked the flank of a statue of a leaping fawn. I talked to a man about Munch. I had been to the Munch exhibition that day; so, it turned out, had he. He was doing Scandinavians, because he was writing a novel about the performance of an Ibsen play. I said, "About fifteen years ago, I went to an Ibsen play at the National Theatre, in which Paul Scofield and Vanessa Redgrave were the stars. When they got to one particular scene I was so seized with mirth I nearly had to leave. No one else was laughing; it was a tragic scene, but I found it hilarious." My new friend said, "I was there. The play was John Gabriel Borkman. And I laughed too." With no prompting, he described the exact scene, involving a park bench, snow, a lot of anguished dialogue. "What a connection," I said. "Should we get married?" "At once!" he said. And I thought, This is why I love travel. It's at the furthest point from boredom: what Martin Amis (and Kierkegaard – another Scandinavian) called "the thing called World."

I had lunch with the editor at Jonathan Cape UK who will publish my upcoming novel, Soon. He described the book as "a really intense look at a certain group of powerful people in a small country." We discussed writing fiction about politics. I suggested you have to be willing to be misunderstood by people whose reaction is political rather than literary, who want a didactic primer: good guys and bad guys. A didactic book is not literary. A literary book can't coyly avoid facts; it has to examine everything. What you shouldn't do with politics and fiction is to try to hedge, to try not to offend anyone. 
We drank cider and talked about the weird publishing phenomenon, Fifty Shades of Grey. It's got bondage in it apparently, and agonisingly bad writing, and soft porn. It's what women want: purple prose and a domineering stud, wielding handcuffs. I laughed my head off. There's just no accounting for it, the craziness of World. I got back on a train. The Royal Beneficiary stared down at me, all glazed and pickled with gin and dubonnet. She's like a tuatara: immobile, fixed; her heart only beats once a minute. She'll live for 150 years.
I left London, went further into World. In Rome a waiter gave a beggar woman a bag of food. A crazed, stinking man in a wheelchair screamed at police, who picked up the money he'd dropped and threw it to him, waving him away like a dog, wrinkling their noses at the stench. A man told me, "Italy is in a bad shape. We've got to keep going or we'll be underwater." In Naples a man said, "I was in a nightclub until 4 a.m. It is my second house!" A woman chimed in, "No. It is his first house!" In Bosnia I watched a group emerge from a stretch Humvee: muscle men, burly father, cold-eyed mother, teenage girl with glittering eyes, murderous six-year-old son. They cruised into a cafe where the staff had lined up to bow and scrape. They were another type of powerful people; there was an atmosphere of threat, violence, crime. In a dingy, sun-baked Bosnian town, the bus driver loaded on passengers until the aisles were crammed, there was no air, people clutched and fell as we roared around corners, a baby thinly screamed. In the hot, grey mountains in Croatia I dreamed and killed time, turning over rocks looking for snakes. "Quixote on his deathbed tells Panza, Forget those wanderings, I was mad. And Sancho weeps, But I loved you then! Just one more journey!" The sky was so clear, so inordinately blue... I dreamed of disappearing, into World.
First published in Metro Magazine NZ