This article is taken from the October 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.
In thrall to the stone-age superstition that we will drop down dead if we hear certain forbidden phonemes, society (“borne back ceaselessly into the past”) has now reached the next anthropological taboo, to wit, images: people skulk in terror past statues, for fear these lumps of stone will spring to life and sodomise them or ship them off to a rubber plantation.
Perhaps our statues are already full of miniature invaders, cunningly reversing their meaning?
To shatter their power, I recommend a French approach. The statue of Henri IV on the Pont Neuf was created from the melted-down remains of General Louis Desaix, hero of Marengo, hurriedly removed at the Restoration. When the reconfigured Henri appeared in 1818, a rebellious foundry-worker had secreted a talismanic effigy of Napoleon inside him: those in the know, therefore, see not Le vert galant but good old Boney; the Bourbon mojo is subverted, the baleful magic defused. This is surely the best way for us to show our contempt for all those venal enough to have lived in times that were Wrong Then And Wrong Now.
It prompts worrying thoughts, though. Perhaps our statues are already full of miniature invaders, cunningly reversing their meaning? Maggi Hambling’s strange effigy to Mary Wollstonecraft on Newington Green, for example — that might easily have a little incel or Trumpian hidden inside. In fact, there could be hordes of teeny chauvinists lurking in the statue’s copious pubic hair, like imperialist explorers in the African bush. Surely someone should check? You’d just need some steps and a magnifying glass.
Hearts of stone
Opera has, naturally, pondered this vexed statue-reanimation issue. Best known is the Stone Guest in Don Giovanni, roused to life by the purity of Giovanni’s scorn. It doesn’t work out so great for G, sure, but he shows how to go down fighting if you find yourself in a similar position after being horrid to Rhodes or Kitchener or one of those ruffians.
The other big one is Kurt Weill’s One Touch of Venus, where Brooklyn barber Rodney inspires such passion in a statue of Venus that she pings into life and falls for him like a ton of marble. I’ve been trying Rodney’s technique with Botero’s Broadgate Venus, so far with limited success. Perhaps I should lower my sights? That Edith Cavell’s got a glint in her eye all right.
• • •
To the Russian Embassy for my regular debrief with “Igor”, my handler these many summers.
Instructions from “Big Man” are clear: carry on the good work undermining the Royal Opera House. The Russians rather sweetly assume that Britain uses such institutions to project state power through artistic muscle and kudos, and they never listen when I assure them that the government (and population) hate and fear the arts: to them, this is regular English hypocrisy, pretending to be Philistines but, in reality, cunningly employing the arts to sabotage our rivals, in some dastardly, shadowy way.
What can you do? My duty is also my pleasure, so I defer. I do suggest they’d be better off nobbling sporting heroes. Hilarity ensues: Igor points out that our football, rugby, cricket, tennis, rowing, etc, outfits seem uniquely capable of comedic self-destruction without any Russian meddling at all. He stops, suddenly worried. “My God, do you think the Chinese got to them first?”
Vovik’s open cheka book
People often ask how I maintain my magnificent lifestyle on the pitiful earnings of a freelance hack, and it’s true that it would be tricky without these Russian links. They go back to my days as a foreign student in Leningrad in the early ’80s, when the jollier sort of low-level KGB goon, hungover and trailing clouds of stale Kolos beer and pickled garlic, would join you at breakfast in the student canteen, slosh vodka in your coffee, and offer all manner of good things in exchange for nugatory services.
In the corner, a watchful character, with a slick of thin hair, sticky morgue pallor, and the regular Soviet outfit of East German plastic jacket and trackies, would often be sitting, unsmiling — the head of foreigner-surveillance in the city. When you got to know him, Vovik wasn’t nearly as grim as he seemed, full of the good old Chekist humour that stemmed from the great days before they so foolishly deep-sixed their Jewish staff.
The reason he never smiled was because his teeth were so traumatically appalling even by Soviet standards that strong men would leap backwards in horror if they caught a glimpse. Of course, he’s had them fixed now, along with the hair and everything else, but he still never opens his mouth wider than a crack, and we share a tight-lipped laugh about the old days whenever I drop by to see him in the Kremlin.
• • •
Up here on Notting Hill we are bored of hearing about those cocaine-fuelled “middle-class dinner-parties” so beloved of Her Majesty’s Press. At least I guess the taxonomy is correct: coke is the apposite aid for “middle-London”, loosening up their fat inarticulate tongues, facilitating the saloon-bar “bantz” and incorrect information loudly traded.
Our routs have always been gussied up by stimulants of other social strata. “Lower-middle-class” evenings might be enhanced by monkey dust, which certainly improves the quality of traffic conversations, creates the illusion of emotional engagement, and puts you in the mood for the inevitable swinging. The downside is a tendency to anxiety about how loud the music is and what the neighbours might think.
For “manual-worker” evenings, naturally we hit the ket. It doesn’t help the conversation, but it turns out that basic grunting is fine. Usually we end up watching football on telly, though this often leads to non-crime hate incidents. For fun, if any middle-class people or Tory politicians are present, we tell them it’s coke, and watch in amusement as they overdose, twitching and writhing on the floor.
For us, it can be only the king of drugs, heroin, which has the advantage that everyone else is terrified of it, so all the more for us. Meanwhile, nothing the kids take has any effect at all: they remain unutterably boring and self-obsessed whatever we feed them.
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