Andy Martin: Seduced by Cern, but not convinced
The French philosopher Jean Baudrillard once said: “There are really only two interesting moments in history: the Big Bang and the Apocalypse.” Throwing the ignition switch of the new Cern accelerator has managed to combine the two, with talk both of working out how the universe began and/or bringing it to a premature close. If it was a movie, you could call it Apocalypse and Genesis Now. In fact, in many ways, it already is a movie, a Hollywood-style blockbuster with very expensive special effects, or at least a trailer for great scientific discoveries to come. Hype is normal in science. We want the truth, the whole truth, andnothing but the truth. What we get is always something less than that. Naturally the “super collider” has to be sold. The question is: has it been mis-sold? The Cern machine is essentially an extremely large cocktail shaker in which very small chunks of matter are being swished around. It is being touted as an underground cathedral in which God will finally be revealed. Cern is the new focal point for the technological sublime. What is it about the Big Bang that makes it irresistible? I am as seduced by it as anyone – and have been combing time and space for a book called Beware Invisible Cows: My Search For the Source of the Universe. Hamlet fantasised about being able to put infinite space in a nutshell. Jorge Luis Borges dreamed of the “Aleph”, a microcosm that would contain the entirety of the cosmos. Cosmology gradually pieced together the story of the “Primeval Atom” out of which everything sprang. We are sucked in by the theory of the origin because it promises to whisk us out of the sorry mess we have made of everything and take us back, at the speed of light (or nearly), to Paradise and the cradle of Creation. There is a gaping contradiction at the heart of the collider story. If we really knew all the stuff we are supposed to know about the Big Bang, then we wouldn’t need all this massive apparatus in the first place. Even Stephen Hawking seems to have abandoned his talk of the “singularity”, infinite density wrapped up in zero space, which was supposed to provide an opening trumpet blast and a full stop in the history of time. Everything is flux after all (and before it). The paradoxes of the singularity have given rise to the theory of the Big Bounce, according to which there never is a zero state. Every new universe is born out of the shreds and patches of an old one. A more promising empirical alternative is the quest for gravitational waves. Terrestrial telescopes and Hubble allow us to see some 13 billion years back in time. But an interferometer in space might, in theory at least, enable us to go all the way and witness our own origins, rather than recreate them in an underground chamber. If the “many-worlds” thesis, first formulated by Hugh Everett in 1957, is true, then we don’t really need a lot of expensive hardware. In this version of quantum theory, new universes are forever branching off from the old one. Every door you walk through is a potential gateway. It is going to make a lot of difference what you do in the next five minutes. God is not confined to Geneva. Genesis begins here.
Andy Martin’s ‘Beware Invisible Cows: My Search for the Source of the Universe’ will be published next year by Simon & Schuster
Beware Invisible Cows, By Andy Martin : Review
SIMON & SCHUSTER £12.99 (305PP) £11.69 (FREE P&P) FROM THE INDEPENDENT BOOKSHOP: 0870 079 8897
10 July 2009
Perhaps as a surfer you are more in touch than most with the scale of nature. Waves the size of houses can crush you to a pulp or send you gliding into that zonal nirvana of oneness with the higher powers which is the object of all that paddling around watching and waiting. Ex-surfer, now Cambridge academic and historian, Andy Martin, must have spent a lot of his downtime before the wave “take off” meditating on the bigger questions. Where did we all come from? What is the origin of the universe, the primordial truth? His “search for the source of the universe”
is a book “about nothing, and everything”. It’s a tall order. Not that Martin is a sun-bleached hippie philosopher, but his book is a head-trip as well as a hugely entertaining travel adventure along the eccentric orbits of cosmological research. He is looking for the beginning, the signpost pointing to where it all started. “If only I could lay hold of it, I was sure everything else would be made plain and nothing else would matter. It came down to seeing God.” The stars look very different 14,000 feet above sea level, on top of Hawaii’s Mauna Kea. Martin drives up the volcano’s track listening to Bowie’s “Space Oddity”. It’s where the two huge Keck observatories keep watch on the void. In the telescope world, “big is beautiful, bigger is better and biggest is best”.
This is a very odd world. People say things like “we’ve got a black-hole leak” or “we zigged when we should have zagged”. Astronomers are obsessive types. Any microscopic flaw in observation equipment is likely to be magnified by freakish proportions. They display a purity of purpose like monks or saints and an insatiable desire for more magnitude, range, power, more everything. The enemy of the telescope is the sun and all proper work must be done at night. It’s ironic, then, that distance is measured in light years. The two Keck telescopes can look back 13 billion light years, which is scraping the bottom of the barrel of the visible universe. Somewhere around 380,000 years after the creation of the universe there is nothing to see, nothing left to detect. Humanity will never really know “what the hell is going on”, and speculation takes over: “good old educated guesswork”. Martin’s initial journey to the centre of the universe falls down several of these intellectual black holes. He’s rescued by the phenomena of gravitational waves, the pulse of the Big Bang, considered by Albert Einstein to be too small to detect, but something that has particularly excited Stephen Hawking. And they make a fantastic record cover. Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures cover is the pulse of the dying neutron star CP1919, discovered by Jocelyn Bell in 1967 in Cambridge, zapping out a signal every few seconds like a distant lighthouse transmitting its silent melancholy message. Without realising it, we are all cosmologists dreaming of where and how it all began. There are two ways of looking at the world: as unifiers yearning for that lost primeval atom, or as fragmentationists embracing the joys of splitting, of divergence. John Lennon in “Imagine” imagined the world as one, and Paul McCartney’s “Yesterday” looked back nostalgically to a lost unity. But then the Beatles split up and ironically the Rolling Stones, champions of anarchy and social chaos, are still together in relative old age, give or take the odd drug-induced fatality. Cosmology is like that; it constantly avoids our gaze. Martin’s attempt to “see the light, and the whole history of light” is a fantastic intellectual voyage, a real eye-opener. He’s as clear-sighted with his philosophical arguments as he is very funny in his self-effacement. He may aim high but he is endearingly humble: ‘”I don’t know”, I said. “I had forgotten what the question was, but it seemed like the right answer anyway”‘.
Andy Martin: Obituaries: Viscount Deerhurst
Ted Deerhurst was a serious surfer. But being born the son of the Earl of Coventry and thereby acquirin the nickname of “Lord Ted” in surfing circles, he had his work cut out convincing the cognoscenti that h was anything other than a playboy. Sleeping in a beaten-up old car, being broke for long periods and having an American mother probably helped. His high point was reaching the semi-finals of the Smirnoff at big Sunset Beach in 1978. But even though he never hit the top 100 in the professional rankings, he was, in many ways, the most persistent and committed performer on the world circuit. He had to be: Deerhurst always surfed his heart out in every contest he competed in and he was nearly always trounced. He was a hero of never- say-die optimism. He was the only surfer who read history between heats (his idol was Winston Churchill). Every now and then he would be cast down after another crushing defeat, but he would invariably bounce back. When he was seven, his horse threw him and stomped on him and his mother just put him straight back in the saddle: “I guess I’ve been getting back on that horse ever since,” he said. One December in Hawaii, at the end of his worst-ever tour, he discovered he had slid down the ladder from 189 to 235 in the world. It was the same year that Martin Potter, another Brit, took the world championship. Anyone else would have thrown in the towel – not Deerhurst though. While admitting he didn’t have a realistic shot at the title, he still came up with the ingenious aim of winning the Most Improved Surfer of the Year award: he figured he would only have to jump up to around a hundred or so from his current lowly position to achieve the fastest rise in the history of pro surfing. Another time he switched to snow boarding with the famous last words, “At least you can’t drown in the mountains”. He spent the next six months in hospital. Although he once surfed, as an amateur, for England, Deerhurst was a footloose citizen of the surf who lived at different times in Australia, California, and finally on the North Shore of Hawaii, where the mightiest waves in the world come to die every winter and generally take a few suffers with them. He masqueraded as a university student, but whenever the surf was up school was out. He became an adept of big-wave conditions and once described surfing a 20-foot wave at Waimea Bay as being like “jumping off a three-storey house – and then having the house chase you down the street”. His ultimate dream was of finding sponsors in Britain to fund the equipment for tow-in surfing in 30-foot plus waves. Even though he was approaching 40, he still competed. He speculated that the lack of a long-term girlfriend to accompany him on his travels might have been holding him back. He tried to rectify matters by falling in love with an exotic dancer in a night-club in Honolulu, but the extremely jealous gangster who was her boyfriend stood in the way of his plans. Ted Deerhurst was an altruist among surfers. He set up the Excalibur Foundation (named after the boards he shaped with their distinctive sword logo) to enable handicapped and underprivileged kids to go surfing. Towards the end of his life, he was proud to have become a fully integrated member of the Hawaiian community and was in the forefront of the battle to prevent over- development of the North Shore. The hard-to-impress locals treated him with respect and called him “brother”. Many of them gathered to paddle out at Sunset Beach – the scene of his greatest triumph – in eight to ten feet surf and sprinkle his ashes upon the waves. “He wasn’t on the fringe of surfing,” said Michael Willis, fellow surfer and shaper, “he was right at the heart”. The motto of Excalibur was “sharing the spirit of surfing”. Ted Deerhurst was the energetic embodiment of that ideal.
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Andy Martin: Man About World
I had had only one glass of orange juice to drink. So it wasn’t an alcoholic hallucination. I was returning from a concert. It had finished with a rousing rendition of Eric Coates’s “Dambusters March”, which might just have made me more likely to survey the skies. And, admittedly, there was a full moon that night (a Friday night, to be precise). But rather than induce a moment of insanity it only made what I saw all the more clearly visible.
As I cycled up Newton Road (in Cambridge), my first thought was: what idiot has just put up a mobile telephone mast several hundred feet high and stuck a bunch of fairy lights on top? Whatever happened to planning permission? For a couple of hundred yards, I had a clear view of a trio of radiant white lights in the sky, garnered with a few blinking blue and red lights underneath them. What I couldn’t work out was what they were doing there. I was pedalling while they remained perfectly still. They weren’t going anywhere. They were as stationary as an Indian fakir on top of his pole. Obviously, they were nothing to do with an aeroplane.
As I approached the end of Newton Road (where I live), I got off my bike and I was looking – slack-jawed – almost straight up. Had the guiding star turned up early? In fact, it was more of a starship, the bright lights just hanging there in the sky, I would estimate at a height of around four or five hundred feet. There was no noise, not a whisper. As I looked more closely, I could see the dark outline of a craft that was nothing like a plane. There was no central tube and a couple of wings poking out at the sides; it was more rounded or at least bulkier. But it was big, definitely Jumbo-sized. And it wasn’t going up and it wasn’t coming down. It was going neither right nor left. I am only describing what I saw.
And then the thought occurred to me: I haven’t seen anything as uncanny as this since France beat Brazil in the 1998 World Cup Final. And strangely enough there was a faint resemblance between the thing floating in the ether somewhere over my head and the Stade de France. But this was a football stadium several hundred feet up, elegantly poised in mid-air.
A couple of minutes passed by in which nothing – except for this great miraculous nothing in the sky – happened. Then, smoothly, gently, quietly, the UFO – for it was certainly unidentified and it was a flying object – tired of immobility and pulled away from its parking spot, picking up speed as it went over my head and over the house in the rough direction of Girton. There was a faint rumble – a kind of deep purring noise – as it went by. The way it moved had a silky, dancing quality, like a Brazilian winger. I raced round into the back garden, but it had already vanished. I felt like shouting “Come back!” In fact, I think I did shout “Come back!” (But, for the record, I did not say, “Beam me up”.)
I should add, by way of confirmation, that my wife and 14-year-old son (who had been playing in the concert) were with me at the time. I said to them, “Was that a UFO?”
“Yes,” said my son. “Is there any chocolate going?”
“Yes,” said my wife. “It’s past your bedtime now.”
They wisely got on with their lives. But for at least 24 hours I was mentally paralysed by the conviction that there is, indeed, extra-terrestrial life, and some of it had been visiting the city of Cambridge. There was nothing the least bit terrestrial about that flying vehicle. I hadn’t been abducted and taken off to a better place or subjected to overly intrusive physiological experimentation. But, without doubt, this was a full-on encounter, if not quite of the third kind. It may not have been a saucer, but it was definitely flying or, what was far stranger and even more emphatically alien, not flying but just sitting comfortably in the heavens like an old man in an armchair with pipe and slippers.
My previous experience of alien life forms is fairly limited. My twin brother once invented a flying saucer telephone (enabling you to communicate instantaneously across many light years), a brilliant contraption involving a laser, mirrors, and the back wheel of a Lambretta motor scooter. He dialled a few different numbers but nobody returned his call. Then, some years ago, I happened to attend the annual conference of the British UFO Society, taking place at the University of Sheffield. The star turn was a secret documentary film of a post-mortem being carried out on a couple of dead creatures from outer space after their vehicle had crash-landed at Roswell in New Mexico in 1947. Alas, even hardened ufologists had to agree that the deceased bore a strange resemblance to inflatable rubber dolls – you could almost see the air coming out as the scalpel sank in. Post-conference, however, at the pub across the street, the more people had to drink the more extra-terrestrial contacts they turned out to have had, until by the end of the night I was about the only man in the bar who had not personally had sex with an alien. Despite this, I remained sceptical.
But that Friday night celestial revelation changed everything. I was finally a believer. Saturday night found me in a café telling an old friend about my ET experience. A blonde woman at a neighbouring table leaned over and apologised for butting into our conversation but she couldn’t help overhearing (I may have been banging on a bit). She told us that there is an experimental aircraft facility at Bassingbourn, only a few miles away as the UFO flies, probably run by the Americans. She had heard that they were experimenting precisely with noise- reduction and they tended to fly at night, to keep things hush-hush. But even she, she had to admit, was uncertain about the ability of an extremely large object to anchor itself in the sky for long periods.
My cast-iron certainty was shaken. The blonde woman was probably right and the UFO was terrestrial rather than extra-terrestrial in origin. But I don’t know for sure. So I leave it to you: aliens or a bunch of American airmen looking down and laughing their heads off at me looking up at them in awe?
Andy Martin: Road from Damascus
Issam Kourbaj was mistaken for the Jackal by Russian guards and when he surfaced in Cambridge Andy Martin thought he was Cat Stevens. It turns out he is a remarkable artist, with pictures in the British Museum.
FIRST THERE was the black period. Then there was the blue period. Then there was the chewing gum. Now he has a paint-splattered ex-snooker hall in Cambridge and his pictures are in the British Museum.
But the turning point in Issam Kourbaj’s artistic development probaly took place in the Soviet Cultural Centre in Damascus in the summer of 1984. Issam was 20. He was acting caretaker. Now the Soviet Cultural Centre is a shambles, but then it was a huge creative maelstrom of ballet, cinema, foreign languages, art. By night it was the in-place in downtown Damascus. But during the day it was closed. That’s when issam was nominally in charge. It wasn’t exactly the most glamorous job in the world.
One day in July there was a ring at the door. it was a middle-aged man who spoke good Arabic with a pronounced Russian accent. he knew the Cultural Centre was closed but could he come in anyway? Issam thought he looked harmless enough so he let him in.The guy strolled around and checked out the pictures on the wall. “Do you know who did these?” he said.”Well, I did,” said Issam, who had talked the Cultural centre into sticking up a few of his pictures. He forgot all about the incident until three months later, when he got a phone call from that anonymous art-loving apparatchik who turned out to be one of the most powerful men in Damascus. “Would you like a scholarship to go to Moscow for a few years to study anything you like?” he asked.
It was a miracle, the equivalent for a poor, struggling Syrian artist of a call from Spielberg. It was the right time for a messiah, since the army had decided the young Kourbaj was ripe, in fact overdue, for two years’ military service. He had already spent a night in jail to give him the flavour of what lay in store. He had a choice between a Kalashnikov and a paintbrush. He went to Moscow.
It was his first time out of the country. He had been brought up in poverty in Soweda, which means “black” (and also some part of the heart). His black period, his first memories, belong to that town hewn out of volcanic rock, where a couple of thousand years before Romans used to go for their summer holidays and to drink the local wine. “The Mountains of the Grape”, they were called: both were black. the whole town was black, not just dark but black. Now it is white. Issam went back there this year. “It’s been spoiled,” he said.”People have come back from abroad with lots of money and put down cement everywhere, with marble on top. It is the mask of marble.” Now Soweda is black only in his memory.
The blue dates back to the wars of 1967 and ’73. He remembers having blue all over his hands. It was a blue powder named “Nile”. You mixed it with water and painted the windows with it. The idea was that enemy bombers would not notice this black town with blue windows perched on a white desert and would pass on. How it is that Issam Kourbaj was not bombed into oblivion is a mystery to me. But those colours were formative. That and the ceiling.
Although the walls of the house were of black stone, the roof was made out of bamboo covered with sand. Rainwater would pass through the sand to be absorbed by the bamboo poles and produce shifting patches of dampness. In those days there was no electricty in Soweda and they used kerosene lamps on the floor. The light of the lamp thrown against the ceiling would pick out and dramatise the damp patches and Issam the boy would tell stories about them: “This one looks like a cloud”, “That one looks like an octopus”, and so on. The next day the lamp would have been moved and there were more stories to tell. He probably drove everyone crazy with those stories after a while. Now he finds those patches and patterns coming back in his pictures. “I am seeing things I did not think I would remember,” he says.
The first time I came across Issam Kourbaj (in the early 1990s) I didn’t know he had all this wealth of impoverished experiences behind him. He put me in mind somewhat of the young Cat Stevens. I thought he was a hip dude who spent a lot of time on the beach and had the tan and the stubble to back it up. He had this sequence of pictures too, Wave 1, Wave 2, and Wave 3. There was probably some blue in there somewhere (maybe some black too, and a bundle of other colours), but there was no visible resemblance to a wave. No, you couldn’t see the wave, but you could sense it. It was like looking at a wave from the inside. Generally speaking, gazing at pictures on walls is not my idea of a good time. But this wasn’t a picture any more, it was more like surfing: you were deep in the tube, taking the pulse of the planet, hearing the Palaeolithic roar, and feeling the spit and the rush as you thrust out through the curtain. Or possibly not. Maybe it was more the aftermath of the worst wipeout imaginable. And these were your guts all over the canvas. Anyway, it was intense the way a 20ft-plus wave at Waimea Bay is intense.
I already had a feeling that this was the man. And then I would run into him from time to time at Clowns cafe on King Street, Cambridge, where he would always drink espresso and ran an annual art competition for kids. I saw him in action one day at the Round Church (where he teaches a multi-national class for the Cambridge School of Art and Design) and he was telling one of his students to paint with her brush the wrong way round, without bristles: “She already knows how to use the other end,” he smiled serenely. But it wasn’t until I saw the chairs hanging from the ceiling in Waterstones that I finally had to take my hat right off to genius.
I knew they could only be Issam’s chairs. It wasn’t just that in his characteristically inverted way, he had them sprouting out of the ceiling. Even if they had been on the floor no one in their right mind would have wanted to sit on them. He had smashed them up and nailed up the fragments to the roof, together with the odd snooker cue and bargepole, injecting these broken bones with a cocktail of Viagra and voluptuosness. Maybe there was some nostalgia for the patterns in the bamboo of Soweda. But Issam’s idea is that these ex-chairs are some kind of representation of the ancient Babylonian epic of Gilgamesh. He has this theory that “chairs carry the imprint of human beings”.
There is a principle of economy at work here. Nothing is wasted. One of his latest grand-scale works, The Harbour- The Border, incorporates the shreds and patches of an old suede jacket of his (which was second-hand in the first place). If you look closely you can still see the button-holes. The Gilgamesh theme goes back to his Russian period (deeply anti-academic, subverting his natural draughtmanship, juxtaposing nipples and snow in It Was Hot in Cold St Petersburg, 1990). Four days after arriving in Moscow he was just settling into this almost familiar land of Dostoevsky and Gogol when he was suddenly ordered off to Baku. “Go to Baku,” they said. He had no idea where Baku was at this point, except that he had a sick suspicion it was somewhere around the Baku of beyond. He was put on a train with two Peruvian women (he’d never heard of Peru either) and the train steamed off into the unknown. Three days, a crash course in Spanish, and a lot of weak Russian tea later, he alighted in the capital of Azerbaijan, then a Soviet province. It was, he thought, “like landing in outer space. Not landing -floating. I knew nothing, I recognised nothing, not a smell, not a colour. Everything was shocking. I was even shocked by the tea.
I was especially shocked by the tea.” In Syria he is invisible. “I don’t have any mirror to see myself.” But suddenly he is the most conspicuous man in Baku. Everyone looked at him. It took him most of the year he spent there to figure out quite why. Azerbaijanis, having lost their Arabic and had Russian imposed on them, were looking for their roots. Issam was perceived as a living, walking root. He wasn’t Syrian, he was Assyrian, he looked exactly like one of the classic Mesopotamian kings, Nebuchadnezzar maybe (he had a long beard at the time and a chiselled profile). “I was like a piece of the museum. I looked to them as if I had just come to life and walked out. I was their history, their lost culture. They used to bring me old Arabic books of theirs – which they could no longer understand – to translate.” It is sometimes said the Rolling Stones were responsible for the downfall of the Soviet Empire. I say Issam Kourbaj had a hand in it too. He was a Gorbachev among artists.
One way and another Issam has spent a fair chunk of his life on trains. He used to commute from St Petersburg to London by train. It was never going to be a fast train anyway, but it was made a lot slower by virtue of having Issam on board. At every frontier he would be ritually hauled off for interrogation, with every border guard secretly praying he had personally arrested the Jackal, and then – reluctantly – having to let the usual suspect go again. “I felt bad about holding everyone up,” Issam said. Issam used to turn these long journeys to good effect. On one he taught himself to construct the minute roll-your-own cigarettes which are his trademark (he was too broke to buy a packet). On another, from Florence to Milan, he produced a bunch of sketches – of whatever was framed in the train window at the time – which have since been acquired by the British Museum and placed in the Department of Prints and Drawings along with Rachel Whiteread and Anthony Gormley. He likes to do things very fast, in a minute or less than a minute, freezing haiku-sized packets of shimmering sense-data.
I fear that Issam Kourbaj is in danger of becoming respectable – he is being bought by colleges, for God’s sake. He was taught by Moudarres who was a friend and co-exhibitor of Picasso. He has his pictures hanging in the Museum of Modern Art in Mexico City. I just hope success doesn’t ruin him. I loved his stuff when he was just hanging out on the beach.
In fact he still hangs out on the beach. His latest batch of pictures came out of a spell in St. Ives. But all his old Dionysian swirls and splashes and blobs have given way to these muscular quasi-rectangular forms – houses seen from above, windows, or just plain old quasirectangular forms? – with an uncanny depth and density, as if they were geological or architectural phenomena (Mountain, Village). There are no more empty spaces and paradoxically, with every layer – every stratum – of paint he slaps on, he seems to be digging something up, scrubbing something clean. This is not art: this is archaeology. His most recent works look as if they have always been there, ancient and buried, you just couldn’t see them, and all he has done is reveal them to the gaze.
I accidentally trod on one of his sketches that he had scattered over his studio floor and imprinted a massive Timberland boot across it. “Don’t worry,” he said, eyeing my signature appreciatively, “it’ll add to the texture.” This is a man who does more than pay lip-service to the conventional wisdom that the viewer should collaborate in the making of the picture. He had me feeling that I and my big boots had some kind of hidden artistic flair after all.
He has even been to the beach in Cuba. He had to get out of Havana, which was too tragic and wasted, so on his last day he went to the beach, which is an hour out of town, beyond the derelict oil pumps. But that was even more tragic, it turned out. If you are Cuban you can’t even get on the beach. To be allowed on the beach you have to have bucks, and plenty of them. Which led him to his fundamental insight that the world is divided into two groups of people: there are those who are allowed on the beach, and there are those who are not allowed on the beach. Hence the persistent political echoes in his work.
Add to all that the religious dimension. There isn’t one. Or there is and there isn’t. Issam is neither Christian nor Muslim, but Druze, brought up in a religion whose defining belief is that believers are not allowed to believe anything until the age of 40. Then they get to read this book called Wisdom, and they can make their own minds up. “I’m still too young for wisdom,” he told me one day in Clowns. He’s 35. There is a disarming modesty to Kourbaj’s art. Almost a shyness. His ultimate ambition is for people not to notice his work. It’s designed to blend into the the landscape whence it came, to return to its origins and vanish, as if those Israeli bandits were still at 12 o’clock. He no longer signs his work: his signature is the absence of a signature. When we were leaving his studio he closed the door and then realized there were still a few things – his rugged Postcards from Cuba with their desperate, fugitive scraps of Miami-bound furniture – sitting out in the driveway, accessible to all. “They cannot be stolen,” he said. “They are like this wall, like those chimneys over there. No one will see them.”
I almost forgot about the chewing gum. He had to go out to work aged 20, selling chewing gum and sweets from an old cinema usherette’s tray slung round his neck. Then a barber asked him if he could paint a couple of words – “Barber Shop” or something in Arabic – on the window. Calligraphy is a big deal in Syria, painting the complex script on shops, buses, billboards. He said he could. And so he was paid for his first work of art. With a haircut.
A Breed Apart at the Mountain-Top
IN THE beginning there was no snow and there were no skis. Next, there was snow, but there were no skis. Then, in the fullness of time, there was snow and there were skis. General rejoicing and merry-making. But suddenly, out of a clear blue sky, there were ski but there was no snow. Now, a new age is dawning: the Return of Snow. The bare peaks of the Alps, as shocking and unexpected as Santa Claus stripped of his whiskers, are once again as thickly covered as a Christmas pudding smothered with whipped cream. So conditions were perfect at the appropriately named “OK” piste on the Rocher de Bellevarde here for the Critérium International de la Première Neige – the opening men’s downhill event of the 1990-91 skiing World Cup. Yesterday morning, after a descent of nearly a kilometer from summit to base, covering a distance of 3.5kms, Leonard Stock of Austria became the first winner of the season, in 1min 57.43sec, followed by Franz Heinzer of Switzerland and Peter Wirnsberger of Austria. The difference between first and third was .26 of a second. The entire field of more than 70 skiers fell within a band only eight seconds wide, but though sometimes separated by minute differentials, skiers may be worlds apart.
On the strength of the occasional skiing holiday, most of us probably think of the World Cup series as a gloriously extended vacation, an escapist fantasy. The truth is that it has more the flavour of a long drawn-out military campaign. Val d’Isère marks the largely self-deluding stage of the phoney war, before hostilities commence in earnest. It is an opportunity for sabre-rattling, parades of force, and rhetoric, for old campaigners to display their scars and medals, and for young bloods to look heedlessly forward to their inevitable triumphs to come. Among the hungry young men impatient to step into their ski boots, positive thinking was rampant. The training runs got under way in a mood of brimming optimism and camaraderie, barely tinged with the reality principle. One short exchange I had with a youthful Japanese, Tsuyoshi Tomii – our conversation necessarily punctuated by linguistic holes – encapusulated many more long-winded conversations.
“Yesterday?” – “Bad … Leg.”
“Today?” – “Good.”
“Tomorrow?” – “Very good.”
The British downhill team of Graham and Martin Bell and Ronald Duncan, after last year’s nadir, were also counting on an upturn – inspired by their new coach Hans Anewanter. I asked him what his formula for improved results might be. His disarming answer was: “Improved results: this gives confidence.” But confidence was not in short supply among the Brits. Duncan, who had a thirteenth last year, asserted: “I know I can win a World Cup race.” Martin Bell was the proud possessor of a jar containing a defective ligament held to be chiefly responsible – while still in his
knee – for recent sub-optimal results.
The OK course (so called after local champs Oreiller and Killy) offered a relatively benign terrain for preliminary manoeuvres. In the last few years it has acquired a reputation for being boring and has disdainfully been dubbed the “autobahn”. A new course, la Face, was devised on the opposite face of Bellevarde, which was stepper, tighter and meaner (but environmentally friendly: one particular bend was supposed to have been cut specifically to preserve a certain species of wildflower). Where OK was rated ‘difficile’, la Face was ‘tres difficile’. There had been talk of using
the more demanding course for the Premiere Neige, but the organisers chickened out for want of snow cannon and fear (as it turned out unjustified) of insufficient amounts of the natural stuff. By way of compensation, the old course has been beefed up: more jumps, a deeper compression, and a stiffer start. Not so much an autobahn as a typical British motorway with half the lanes blocked off.
Most countries came to Val d’Isere not in single spies but in battalions. The Austrians boasted a full complement of 61: there were only 12 skiers, but they were backed up by serried ranks of managers, coaches, physios and “servicemen”, whose job it was to nurse the hardware. Some way behind them come Switzerland with 43 men, and France and Italy with 35 and 34 respectively. The British contingent was a modest six.
Right at the opposite end of the scale were the virtually solo operators who are the unsung heroes of the World Cup. Organisation and training – and the finance that underpins them are the keys to success. It’s not so hard to win when you’ve got 60 other blokes tending to your skis or cheering you on. It’s a different and more epic story when you’re on your own. In the Austrian camp, the sacrosanct nightly team meetings looked like tribal pow-wows, threatening to spill out of the Saint Helena hotel. Ireland and Australia, on the other hand, could all have met at the same time, quite comfortably, in the same telephone box.
Ireland were down on the list as having two representatives. One of them turned out to be in Val d’Isere to promote a brand of alcoholic jelly. The other was Denis O’Brien. I don’t know what success the jelly salesman had; Denis O’Brien, following an injury in training, failed to start. He is a 34-year old of indomitable spirit and good humour, the son of a former captain of the Irish rugby XV. Every country which has its own skiing federation and is affiliated to the FIS, the international skiing federation, is allowed to enter two racers. O’Brien assured me that there was an Irish Ski Federation. But who was in it? “I am,” he said. He coolly evaluated his own recent record as ‘not bad – last year I actually beat somebody. He reminded me that ‘the competition at the bottom of the field is just as intense as at the top.’
A solitary Senegalese once competed at Val d’Isere, snow-ploughing all the way down. O’Brien, in contrast, is a serious skier of considerable tenacity whose talent is stifled by lack of support. The Austraians have a choice of any one of a handful of different kinds of top-notch skis. Until last year, O’Brian was reliant on a pari donated to him by a retired skier. Now Blizzard Ski and a few other sponsors have rallied round, but he is sunk by the absence of coaching and a vital video to pinpoint technical weaknesses. ‘I don’t know what I’m doing wrong,” he said. ‘Or if I know the problem, I don’t know the solution.” He still managed to spot the silver lining though. “To the top guys, this course is a piece of cak, but to me it’s still a challenge. So it’s more fun to me than to them.”
Another lone wolf was Steve Lee, aged 28, who constituted the entire Australian team. In 1985 he won a World Cup race in Japan. Ironically, that was his worst year for sponsorship. ‘It’s the Tall Poppy Syndrome,” he said. ‘If you grow too tall in Australia, they cut you down.” Like most of the competitors, Lee looked on Val d’Isere as a gentle preparation for the blitzkrieg ahead. More exceptionally, he relished the prospect of the legendary Hahnenkamm at Kitzbuhel, which is to skiers what the north face of the Eiger is to climbers and the North Shore of Hawaii is to surfers: lethal and irresistible. “You’re not a real champion until you’ve won at Kitzbuhel,” Lee said.
The Downhill is still the Blue Riband of skiing disciplines: it commands you to go right from the top to the bottom in the fastest time, consquering the whole mountain – not just chunks of it – and mastering all the skills – not just some of them. The downhiller winners are still acknowledged as the giants of the circuit.
The Hahnenkamm is the supreme descent, the ultimate test of courage an d judgment. Make a bad error and this descent can kill you as surely as coming up too fast from the bottom of the ocean. An unbound force of nature, it drvies its challengers through tiny corridors, over black ice,
along goat tracks perched on the edge of the abyss. Touch this mountain and you die, warned Jehovah: he might have been speaking of Kitzbuhel. It is this taboo – the sense that Sinaie and Olumpus are the abode of the gods and out of bounds to mortals – with its sanction of death that has perpetually lured risk-takers and rule-breakers to the mountain. The pull and destructive power of Kitzbuhel is inexorable.
It was there that Brian Stimmle, a Canadian who was making his comeback in the Premiere Neige yesterday, came to grief in 1989. Some refer to him as “the wishbone man”, graphically alluding to the fate he suffered when he hurtled into the perimeter netting at around 120km per hour and trapped one leg. Equal and opposite forces strove to rip him in two, as if he had been bound to the bowed trunks of a pair of trees and then the Hahnenkamm put a knife to the ropes holding them down. Now, less than two years later, he was back skiing. Some people, after that kind of near-death experience, would look for some safer career, like shark-wrestling. “I guess I’m not ‘some people’,” Stimmle said.
So what kind of people are competitive skiers? They are a breed apart. Downhillers are to recreational skiers what powerboats are to pedallos. They wear the opposite of camouflage. Their gaudy polychromatic outfits on a white background make them as inconspicuous as tarantulas on a slice of Angel Cake. As if in recognition of this, the most fashionable motif is the spider’s web. As they flash by they look like aerodynamic rainbows. At rest, they are neon-lit human advertising hoardings – for cars, computers, and confectionery.
The figure-hugging garments are an exercise in covert pornography. They completely envelop their contents, but amplify the concealed form endowing even the most sinewy – men and women alike – with exaggeratedly voluptuous curves and bulges. If they went naked, painted, and hung about with extensions, they could not symbolise Forbidden pagan pursuits more dramatically. This is the dimension of skiing usually known euphemistically as “glamour”.
Ironically, they enjoy precious few pleasures. There is no après ski for these men, who are all in bed by nine and up at the crack of dawn. Even Denis O’Brien, when I offered him a drink, asked for mint tea. The Frenchman behind the bar eyed him with incredulity and incomprehension.
Some of the larger camps are a mixture of monastery and military barracks.
It was the Italians who reminded me that in Dante’s Divine Comedy the mountain is Purgatory, the place of suffering. But sinners can also work their way upwards to paradise. Even skiers, heading down the mountain, defiantly turning their backs on the Shangri-La we have always liked to imagine at the summit, experience a kind of fleeting salvation in their plummeting descent. Risk and reward are proportionate. Every downbiller is hooked on that privileged moment of grace under pressure – when gravity is sucking you down like a solid body Galileo has just dropped off the leaning tower of Pisa, and the mountainside is thrusting massively up at you, and you slot into the perfect line, without thinking, effortlessly. Downhillers are the most down-to-earth of men. The exact opposite of mystics up a pole. But occasionally they embody for us an illusion of transcendence.
Of course there are rumbles and grumbles. Although a few at the very top make a fortune in endorsement, many struggle to break even. It is Niki Lauda who has booked the entire top floor of Le Grand Paradis hotel, overlooking la Face for the Olympic finals which will be held here in ’92. Old-timers complain, the way old-timers will, that things ain’t what they used to be, that the new generation lacks glamour. Americans threaten to secede from the governing body, the way Americans will. But there is a pervasive sense that there is a need for change in the organisation of the World Cup: fewer events and greater co-ordination between men’s and women’s races.
In the tent on top of the mountain where competitiors queue up waiting for their starting gate to go up, with the adrenalin pumping, there was a window giving an oblique view down on the course ahead. Skiers squinted through it, like fortune tellers gazing into the crystal ball, trying to figure out their immediate future. I looked out and I had a vision of myself competing in the next downhill. The British team wouldn’t have me, but that wasn’t the problem. All I had to do was apply for some obscure citizenship, form my own one-man Ski Federation and present my credentials. I abandoned the idea in the end though. It wasn’t that I was scared of the Hahnenkamm. I knew I could never face all those early nights and mint tea.
I think I was the first surfing correspondent to The Times. The Independent on Sunday let me write a weekly surfing column for a while. This is the first one of the series. Links to one or two related articles can be found on the links page.
Surf spot: Jesus wants you for a gnarly big-wave rider
A 10-foot day at Sunset: western swell, clean and glassy, And only a dozen guys out. A well-formed set comes through, maybe slightly bigger than the norm. A few people look at it, but only one man paddles for the lead wave, confidently, with an air of calm authority. Muscular, with long hair and bushy beard, Ken Bradshaw could pass for Charlton Heston playing Moses and looks as if he could part the waters, not just ride them.
Just then another man races out of the pack – younger, smaller, lighter, Asian, more a Bruce Lee in shorts – goes streaking past Bradshaw on his inside and steals the wave right from under his nose. Bradshaw pulls back in amazement. Who is this guy dropping in on me? When the younger man paddles back out and sits up on his board, scanning the horizon for his next ride, Bradshaw goes over to him, grabs his board and flips it over. Beyond rage, coolly, methodically, he rips off each of the three fins. “Somebody needed to teach you a lesson,” he mutters.
Mark Foo looks at Bradshaw open-mouthed. It is the winter of 1980. Thus begins the duel between Bradshaw and Foo, the Old Guard and the Young Gun, that will be dangerously played out over more than a decade on the legendary North Shore of Hawaii.
Bradshaw was born in Texas in 1953. His father – ex-Special Forces, disciplinarian, local mayor – had Ken’s brilliant football career all mapped out. But in 1968, at the height of the summer of love and the revolt against the Vietnam war, Bradshaw and his board vamoosed. On the bus going south along the West Coast he stared out at all the perfect waves like a youthful kleptomaniac looking through the window at Harrods. But he soon outgrew California.
It wasn’t until the late Fifties that Greg Noll and others broke the taboo at the great U-shaped bay of Waimea, on the North Shore of Oahu. The North Shore is to big waves what New York is to tall buildings. But for the next three decades Waimea Bay remained, beyond dispute, the Empire State and Coliseum of big-wave surfing, the ultimate arena.
When Bradshaw arrived there in the early Seventies, Eddie Aikau, native Hawaiian, Waimea lifeguard and guardian, smiled on Bradshaw and called him “Brother Brad”. When Aikau disappeared at sea on a doomed rescue mission in 1978, Bradshaw was poised to take his place. He took Waimea by force. He bullied 20ft-plus monsters into submission. He was undisputed numero uno and a monster of machismo. He would bite chunks out of the boards of surfers who got in his way. A photograph showed him eating nails.
Foo was born in Singapore in 1958, the son of a Chinese mother and American father. Mark was aged 10 when his family spent a year in Hawaii and he fell in love with the waves. He threw terrible tantrums when they had to move back to the mainland. Based in Maryland, the kid talked his parents into driving him the three hours to the nearest East Coast beach every weekend.
He won a place at the University of Hawaii, where he dedicated himself full-time to the study of surfing. He tried his hand at the smaller waves of the new-born pro circuit, but he only really felt comfortable in big waves. The bigger they were, the cooler and more laser-like he became. “Every day I wake up I pray it’s 20 feet,” he said to me.
Foo was a karate kid among heavyweight pugilists. He didn’t set out to do battle with 30ft waves, he danced with them: he finessed them. Foo scorned the older generation who ran surfing as a closed shop. And he had media presence: his own surfing column, a radio show, television broadcasts, appearances in feature films. He was the first on the North Shore to acquire a mobile phone, then a second, cracking real-estate deals and transmitting surf reports without ever leaving the beach. Bradshaw, who worked his way up as a bouncer and board-shaper, condemned his “lack of respect”. Two- phones Foo was just a performer, a careerist, a glory-hunter. “No photos, no Foo.”
January 18 1985: in the afternoon, the Bay jacks up from 15 to 25 feet and keeps on getting bigger. A perfect opportunity to settle old scores. Bradshaw is out, all alone. He gets caught inside by a 30-footer, loses his board, and he has to swim for it. He stays close to the rocks at the east end and makes a dash for shore, but the rip steers him towards Coffin Corner at the west end. He swims out to the lineup and around and tries again and fails again. Now he is on his third circuit of the bay, already an epic of sheer endurance and grit. Nearing exhaustion, he hugs the rocks once more and puts his head down and makes a last desperate lunge for shore. Which is when Foo, Alec Cooke and James Jones paddle out.
Cooke and Jones have to be rescued by helicopter. The bay has become unrideable. But Foo waves the chopper away. A wave twice the size of the other sets closes out across the whole bay. Foo dives under it. When he comes up, there is another huge set bearing down on him. He doesn’t have the breath to sit this one out underwater, so he turns round and paddles as if his life depended on it. The wave comes up under him and he takes off, but as he leaps to his feet the wave turns concave, like the sting of a scorpion, and hollows out. Foo goes over the ledge anyway. Suddenly he is flying like an angel.
“The Unridden Realm”: that was Foo’s attention-grabbing headline. After surviving the heaviest laundering of his career, he wrote up his 35ft wave as a “date with destiny”. “To die surfing a monster wave,” Foo said to me, in a premonition of his own death, “that would be the ultimate way to go.” Bradshaw was caustic. “Foo didn’t actually ride the damn thing,” he snorted. It was just falling with style. Plus hype.
The 1986 Quiksilver In Memory Of Eddie Aikau contest, held only in 20ft- plus conditions at Waimea, was the scene of their next shoot-out. Aikau was a former lifeguard and big-wave icon, who had died at sea on a rescue in 1978. In the end victory – and a cheque for $50,000 – was formally awarded to Clyde Aikau, brother of Eddie. But the next edition of Surfer splashed Foo over the front cover with the caption, “How to win at Waimea”.
Meanwhile, Bradshaw had set his sights on higher things. When he paddled out at the bay he would keep on going, towards outer reef breaks like Outside Alligators and Outside Log Cabins, with even bigger waves on offer. Foo followed. But he wanted to use a boat to get out there or a helicopter, whereas Bradshaw, a purist, insisted on paddling. The two men still differed in style, but the early Nineties saw a kind of rapprochement.
In 1994, just before Christmas, they fly to San Francisco. Bradshaw has been surfing newly discovered Mavericks in northern California, cold and grey, and has persuaded Foo to come along too on the strength of a rumoured giant swell. On the flight, the old rivals agree to join forces and buy a jet ski and become a “tow-in” team, aiming at waves far beyond the size attainable by paddling.
Foo takes off on a wave between 15 and 18 feet. The mesmerising footage of his last moments at Mavericks shows him falling, being dragged up inside the wave, looped over, and then flung down and stomped on. Bradshaw spots the fragments of Foo’s board in the photographers’ boat. Two hours later Foo is found dangling upside down in the water, still leashed to a remnant of his broken board. Mavericks hits the big time.
When I heard the news, I couldn’t believe it. I thought he was immortal, I said, on the phone to Hawaii. “He is immortal,” Michael Willis, Foo’s shaper, replied. “Foo blows Elvis and James Dean clean away.” Now Foo is preserved in a state of youthful celluloid perfection, forever 36. His death was like a tombstone that marked the end of the classical phase of big-wave surfing. Waimea continues to serve up big days, but now it is seen as too crowded, almost too small.
On 28 January 1998 at Outside Log Cabins, Ken Bradshaw towed into a wave estimated at over 70 feet that many reckon to be the biggest ever ridden. After 30 winters on the North Shore, he is still living close to Sunset, still waiting for an all-erasing swell. Something like an apocalypse.
Andy Martin’s new column, `Surf spot’, starts in Sports active next week
In Love With Our Inner Terminator
There was a line in Terminator Salvation something like, ‘hunt down and eradicate the entire human race’. While watching extremely large and vicious cyborgs going about stomping on human skulls, I realized that the irony is that we are the ones who invented these great killing machines in the first place. And I don’t mean that we created ‘Skynet’, which attained consciousness, and then set about exterminating humanity. The fact is that we keep on imagining new and ingenious ways to remove ourselves from the face of the planet like we were hoovering an old carpet. It is as if we can’t bear to wait for global warming to toast us slowly, we have to have apocalypse now.
1984 was notable for (1) Orwell’s Ministry of Truth, (2) the first Terminator film, and (3) Ronald Reagan’s landslide re-election. Reagan was convinced that Armageddon was ‘near’. No wonder that the Terminator, Arnold Schwarzanegger, despite massacring anyone who even slightly got in his way, became a folk hero, and seemed like a kind of solution. In the sequel, Arnie was rebranded as an android god who has to be sacrificed at the end of the film. An Old Testament avenger become New Testament saviour.
From Jules Verne and H. G. Wells through to Arthur C. Clarke’s (and Kubrick’s) 2001: A Space Odyssey, the greatest works of sci-fi have been a meditation on our origins or our fate, drawing not just on science but a vast philosophical and theological tradition. Plato sketched out the theory that our souls occupy some idyllic supersensory realm before birth and only finally recover the True, the Beautiful, and the Good after death. He thought that all true philosophers – like Socrates – must be ready and willing and perhaps even a little impatient to die. Most religions, in a similar way, have made the end out to be so attractive – somewhere between Dante’s eternal hosannas and the Hugh Hefner mansion with pool and starlets – that we have been in a great hurry to anticipate ‘judgement day’.
All great physics, from Newton through to Einstein, has had more than a hint of metaphysics about it. It is not surprising that it was a Belgian priest, Georges Lemaître, who came up with the concept of the ‘primeval atom’ that evolved into Big Bang theory. Cosmologists have taken over the role of the old ‘natural philosophers’, with visions of everything and aspirations to the ‘mind of God’. The Hadron Collider promises to reproduce the Genesis moment, which is clearly a mirror-image of finality.
Why are we so bewitched by narratives of the beginning and the end? A black hole ‘has no hair’, the physicists like to say. That is to say, a black hole can be readily and exhaustively defined in a way that human beings, for example, cannot. Reality as we know it is generally ambiguous and chaotic and much harder to describe mathematically than the origin of the universe, for example.
There are only two significant moments in history, the philosopher Jean Baudrillard once said: the Big Bang and the Apocalypse. The beginning and the end are simple, beautiful, and annihilating. The bit in the middle – the part we have immediate experience of – is, let’s face it, a bit of a mess: screwed-up, conflictual, doomed. We need to learn to embrace the middle, and not dream incessantly of fast-forwarding or rewinding, in search of heaven or hell.
Andy Martin is the author of Beware Invisible Cows: my search for the soul of the universe (Simon and Schuster)
Museum of bare-faced cheek
I WAS looking for the Museum of Erotic Art. “I’m looking for the Museum of Erotic Art,” I said to the woman in the red blouse.“You’ve found it,” she said. “It’s here.”
I had just walked out of the Cafe Casablanca on the Boulevard Clichy in the Pigalle district of Paris when this woman took my hand and asked me where I was going. She seemed very keen to be helpful. The recent advertising campaign by the Mayor; exhorting Parisians to be friendlier to visitors, was clearly having an impact.
“Are you sure this is the museum?” I said.
I eyed the sign over the door doubtfully. It read: “Le Nooky”.
“I want the Musée de I’Erotisme. Apparently there is a special football exhibition.”
“Yes, yes,” she reassured me, pulling me through the door, “you’re in the right place,
the football show is about to come on.”
I was carried inside on a solid wave of advancing Scotsmen, wearing kilts and hats with
feathers in and singing a Rod Stewart song.
“My name is Sylvie,” she said. “What’s yours?”
“It’s rather dark for a museum, isn’t it?” I said. Aside from a dimly lit stage, I couldn’t see a
“The museum is at the back,” she said. “Here, sit down. I’ll get you a drink.” She brought the drink and asked for 30 francs. I gave her a 50 note and she gave me 10 francs change.
“I don’t see any football exhibition here.”
The Scotsmen let out a cheer. A young woman in football short and jersey was coming on
stage, accompanied by throbbing music. She was carrying a football under one arm.
“I’m here to do some research.”
“Would you like to buy me a drink?”
“I’ve really got to find this museum,” I said. “I’d really better go.”
“Don’t worry, I will show you the museum. It’s through there.” She pointed vaguely.
The woman on stage had now removed her jersey and was dancing with the ball in a way I’m sure the FA rule book declares illegal. The men in kilts were humming a tune that I associate with porridge oats and caber-tossing.
“Have a good heart and buy me a drink,” Sylvie put her hand on my knee. Perhaps she had taken the Mayor’s message a little too literally.
Up on the stage, the dancer was rolling about on top of the ball. All she was wearing was a referee’s whistle.
Sylvie asked: “What do you think of the cabaret?”
Well, it definitely wasn’t football, but I had by now come to a pretty firm conclusion that it was not erotic, either. As Roland Barthes wrote in Mythologies:
“Striptease desexualizes the woman at the very moment that it undresses her.”
“I’ve got to go,” I said.
A man in a suit arrived, bearing a drink on a tray. Even in the darkness he had a swarthy look about him.
I had a hunch that he was not so wholeheartedly committed to the Mayor’s latest thinking as Sylvie.
“Goodbye,” I said.
“The bill, monsieur.”
“For the drink.”
“I’ve paid for my drink.”
“I didn’t buy her a drink”
He whispered with Sylvie.
“She says you did.”
“OK, OK, how much is it?”
The man switched on a torch and pointed at the bill.
“Fruit juice. 700 francs (£70).”
“Is that a joke?”
“Non, it is not a joke, it is the minimum.”
I had a good laugh at it anyway. “I was looking for the Museum of Erotic Art.”
I went to go. The man in the suit started pushing me. It is in this kind of situation where my French generally lets me down. It let me down then. So, for want of any better ideas, I started pushing him back.
“Take your hands off me,” he said, in a tone of immense indignation.
“You come in here, order a drink, and then refuse to pay. I am calling an agent de police.”
“Fine,” I said. “Let’s call an agent de police.”
As it turned out, nobody called an agent de police. For it was at this precise moment that the small battalion of the Tartan army that had piled into the Nooky chose to pile out again.
I was swept up and expelled into the light once more.
“Thanks,” I said to no-one in particular.
Sylvie was outside.
She thought I was speaking to her. “Come later;” she said. “I’ll show you the museum.”
As I continued up the Boulevard de Clichy, still looking for the Musée de l’Erotisme, the Scots were comparing notes.
“She was something, didn’t ya think?”
“Aye, she was – but, ya know, this place is terrible. It’s nothing but peep-shows.”
I had been thinking about asking them if they wanted to come along to the football exhibition at the Museum of Erotic Art. But I decided to let it go.
The Independent kindly sent me to cover the 1998 World Cup in France. I wrote a daily column about everything other than the football.
Andy Martin: Terrible revelation to a sympathetic stranger
A CONVERSATION on a Paris metro train from Odeon to Chatelet.
It started with a sympathetic smile. I must have been looking more than usually screwed-up as I collapsed on the seat opposite her.
“It is tragic,” she said. “That is the word: tragic.” She was young, younger than me at any rate.
She could have been talking about life in general, of course, and maybe, in a way, she was. But she was also nodding at the banner headline on the front page of my copy of Equipe –
“On S’en Souviendra” (We will remember).
“I was there,” I said. “I just got back to Paris.”
“Ah!” she gasped, as if to pay credit to the intensity of my experience. “But it was heroic.”
“Moreover, it was the most beautiful that one has seen,” she said, at last enabling us to get off adjectives ending in ‘ic’.
“Well, perhaps until the end of the first half anyway.”
“I was breathless. Your young attacker, such speed, such finesse. ‘With him, you cannot lose’, I said to myself.”
“However, we did lose.” I could not get over this brute, irreducible fact.
“It was so unjust. That pure chance in the end should have decided. I couldn’t bear to look.”
“Neither could I.” I was stunned that the French – not usually so compassionate – could identify so strongly with our suffering. Something to do with St Etienne, perhaps, an emblem of colossal highs and catastrophic lows.
“This is fate.”
“Fate? Yes, I suppose – and yet we missed some beautiful possibilities.” I would like to stress that I do not usually go about speaking of “beautiful possibilities”, but they seem possible, beautifully possible, in French in a way they do not in English.
“Ah yes! The red head! But at the time…”
“True, but even then, one said to oneself, ‘that could be an extravagant mistake’.”
“Yes, if it had gone in, it would have been the end for the others, it is true.”
I nodded brokenly, dumbly, my mind wandering back to that moment that no amount of rewinding the clock would ever bring back again, that moment in which the whole of life seems to stretch out abundantly before you, and you casually squander a sitter in the confident expectation that will be other moments like this in life, that life with be loaded with them, little knowing at the time…
“I blame the referee,” she said consolingly.
“Really?” I said.
“He blew too much. OK, yes, your keeper, he was silly but your Spice Boy, for example.”
“He didn’t deserve the red card! Technically, perhaps, but even so… “
“I didn’t even see it. But right under the ref’s nose! I have to think that maybe the selector was right after all in what he said, he was not mature enough.”
“Young, yes, but handsome, your Spice Boy. But then – what is worse? To disallow… Really there is no justice.”
“I was already up and celebrating.”
“And I. I couldn’t believe it when the others were nearly scoring.”
“That was the worst moment, for me. The real coup de grâce. One does not recover from this kind of blow.”
“Surely one can find other things … “
“I had a terrible revelation,” I said, opening up to this unknown French woman, or known but only for the space of two or three Metro stops. “It was in the middle of the second half and it was all too unbearable and I said to myself, ‘Think of something else. You must think of something else.””
“Yes?” she said. ‘And what did you think of?”
“Nothing,” I said. “I realised that…” I wrestled with the grammar for a moment, “there was nothing left that one could think of. Beyond the game itself, that is. There was no way out.”
“It may be that I will be thinking this myself on Friday.”
“Ah, yes, your match, of course, I hope not. Good luck to France,” I said, springing up, nearly missing my stop, and whipping open the door handle.
“And good luck to England – even in departing.” The train slid off into the tunnel. I looked up in the hope of seeing that sympathetic smile again, but it was too late. She was gone.
Where the wind blows and the wet suits
After five years in a Siberian labour camp, Solzhenitsyn wrote: “When you’ve been cold for so long it’s hard 10 imagine what it’s like to be warm.” Conversely, in last summer’s long, hot days in England, it became hard to imagine what it was like to be cool. I had three wishes. I wanted to go somewhere where it was (a) cold, (b) wet and (c) windy. My fairy godmother sent me for a long weekend in Donegal.
“We are now beginning our descent to Sligo,” announced the stewardess.
“Er, Dublin, actually,” confessed the pilot.
There was cloud and rain in Sligo, and we were to be bussed from Dublin. The news about the weather was reassuring, but I could not help wondering how the airline coped during the winter. “In winter”, the stewardess explained, “we bus you from Luton and put you on the boat.”
The coach trundled half-way to the terminal, idled for five minutes, then turned around and we were deposited back on the plane. Apparently the weather in Sligo had cleared enough for landing.
Fortunately, it had not cleared that much. Doughnut-shaped clouds were hooped over the hills. “We made it,” I said to the stewardess. “Thanks be to God,” she said, crossing herself.
Sligo is the only airport I know where the plane (this one was called The Spirit of Galway) pulls up five yards short of the bar. Cows grazed around the terminal. The grass was green. I took off my sunglasses for the first time in months and changed out of shorts and into long trousers. Had there been a shop selling Aran jumpers, I wouJd have bought one.
We checked in at the best bed and breakfast in Ireland, and probably the world: the Ardeelan Manor in Rossnowlagh. This place is run by an angelic Malaysian woman with the evocative name of Fun. Pascal once said that all unhappiness stems from our inability to remain at rest in a room. The Ardeelan has solved this metaphysical problem by providing the kind of room you do not mind remaining at rest in, thereby virtually guaranteeing a mood of tranquil wellbeing. It also helps if you have the right person to remain at rest with.
The Ardeelan is a lovingly restored early-19th century house hewn out of stone that rises like a cairn out of hills that slope down to the sea. After a cornucopian breakfast (fresh tropical fruits and free range eggs decorated with blue borage flowers – save room for the buttermilk bread) which can last until noon and excludes all thoughts of lunch and, almost, of dinner, you are quite content to observe the passage of the outside world from within the castle-like walls. (Further lavish sustenance can, however, be obtained at Harvey’s Point on the far side of Donegal town, at the bottom of the Blue Stack Mountains, on the peaceful shores of Lough Eske.)
Some eager Americans had recently stayed overnight at Ardeelan. They boasted of being in Ireland only three days, and yet had travel1ed the entire west coast, from south to north. The next morning they planned to set out early to explore the nearby cliffs of Slieve League, reputed to be the tallest in Europe. When Fun told them breakfast was not served until nine, they said that they had to be gone by eight and suggested helping themselves to cereal. “Yes, that would be all right”, Fun said, “but there won’t be any milk out until nine.”
Rossnowlagh is the surfing centre of Ireland. There is a clubhouse and surfers’ bar in the Sand House Hotel, which is run by Connor Britton, Fun’s husband. The one thing it did not have while I was there was waves. Hobbling 18-inchers, further crippled by a howling wind, could not even tempt me into my wetsuit, but plenty of young would-be surfers paddled enthusiastically amid the whitewater.
Willy Britton, a nomad who has surfed all over the world, said; “You should have been here last week. It was four-to-six and glassy.” Britton is one of the famous brothers who were the first surfers in Ireland. He reminisced about a perfect wave in Peru, which gave rides half a mile long. “Up in the north it’s too hot during the day – you have to surf at dawn or sunset,” he said. One day I will go to Peru, but right now I was not in any hurry; it was good to sit in front of the fire and dream of distant lands where the sun shone.
On a brief sortie to the beach, I ran into a couple of Californians who were intent on tracking down the ringfort ruins that were marked on the map near the clubhouse. That afternoon they were planning to go to the races at Ballintra. I thought of going along too, but as time trickled by, and I succumbed to the comforts of the Sand House Hotel and the rhythm of the hypnotic sea, the urge died. Later I ran into the Californians again. They had not found the ruins and they had not gone to the races. “!t’s funny”, they said, “but somehow it didn’t seem so important.” Their son had gone surfing and claimed to have caught a rogue five-footer. “He was stoked.”
I was stoked, too. I had had my three wishes granted in abundance. I was glad I had brought my wetsuit along – I needed it just to walk along the beach. Some of the time there was so much water flowing past my window I felt like Captain Nemo at the observation glass of the Nautilus in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.
After the Sahara of southeast England, Rossnowlagh was an oasis. In our greenhoused future, I foresee a market for the kind of travel company whose brochure features people swathed in woollies, shivering beneath umbrellas.
The Real Life Lover of Lies
Mario Vargas Llosa, whose new novel is out this week, talks to Andy Martin about lessons of fiction in politics
HITLER, Stalin, Jeffrey Archer: many politicians have turned their hands to writing. Far fewer writers have attained political power: Napoleon (a promising literary career relinquished for emperorhood), Ernesto Cardenal, Vaclav Havel. But only one novelist has stood for the presidency of Peru and come second: Mario Vargas Llosa. His latest novel, In Praise of the Stepmother, is an exercise in “eroticism and verbal incontinence”, with reminiscences of the Marquis de Sade’s Philosophy in the Boudoir and Laclos’ Les Liaisons dangereuses: a stepmother is seduced away from the elaborate carnal charades of her narcissistic husband by his cherubic satyr of a son, a male Lolita. It is Vargas Llosa’s most purely formalist work, with the oppressive quality of a laboratory, full of human testtubes and beakers.
One of the book’s innovations is the integration of a series of paintings –reproduced in the context of freewheeling adventures in art criticism – which articulate the sexual fantasies of the characters. In the Knightsbridge apartment where Vargas Uosa lives with his second wife Patricia and several children, hangs one of those pictures: Fernando de Szyszlo’s Road to Mendieta 10, a cryptic, twisted canvas, which Vargas Llosa deciphers as a gynaecological portrait of the voluptuous stepmother.
I knew two things. about Vargas Llosa: that his work is autobiographical in inspiration, and that he has a penchant for older women (his courtship of and eventual first marriage to his “aunt” – actually aunt-in-law – are hilariously recounted in Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, recently made into a film, On the Air.) Opposite the de Szyszlo canvas in Vargas Llosa’s flat I noticed a portrait of another older woman: a framed photograph of Mrs Thatcher shaking hands with the author.
Vargas Llosa revealed that he had attended a dinner party, given by Hugh Thomas, with Mrs T. Other guests included Isaiah Berlin, Tom Stoppard, V S Naipaul and Stephen Spender. “Will this be a how do you say – indiscretion?” he asked. I sincerely hoped so.
“It was all very British. Polite conversation. No blood was spilt. But I had the impression the highbrows were setting her an exam. And she was able to match them in a very impressive way. She even quoted the Spanish philosopher, Ortega y Gasset. I think she passed with an alpha-plus – but I am an admirer, so I’m biased.”
He admits to having been seduced by Thatcherism – the latest in a long line of passionate intellectual love affairs – and to carrying that flame back to Peru for the 1990 election. Thatcher is now all things to all men, a perfect semiotic figure. For Vargas Llosa Thatcherism seemed the solution to terrorists running amok, a trigger-happy army, drug barons and cholera. “I am a Thatcherite in economics – in other ways, a liberal. I think I am a Whig.”
Isaiah Berlin is another of Vargas Llosa’s idols, his benign pluralism providing an intellectual counterpart to the novelist’s fiction. Vargas Llosa has recently written an introduction to a Spanish edition of Berlin’s essay, The Fox and the Hedgehog. “I am an archetypal fox. I don’t have one big idea; I have many ideas. As Berlin says, there are ‘irreconcilable ideals. You cannot resolve all contradictions. Prosperity or egalitarianism – you have to choose. I favour freedom – you never achieve real equality anyway: you simply sacrifice prosperity for an illusion.”
Vargas Llosa is a complex, multi-layered individual. He has been globe-trotting journalist, translator, critic (author of
a study of Flaubert, The Perpetual Orgy) and visiting professor at Cambridge. I was expecting the dual identities of
writer and politician; now I was confronted by a conservative and a liberal in one. It was like interviewing Jekyll and
Hyde. One of his early novels, The Green House, portrays two quite separate sets of characters, saints and sinners;
by the end, it becomes clear that the two groups are identical, that the nun and the whore are one and the same.
This interweaving of disparate strands of discourse has become his literary hallmark. “I wanted ambiguity, diversity,
mystery,” he says. “To write the total novel.” But perhaps his many-sided narratives have an autobiographical origin.
Born in 1936, he was packed off at the age of 12 to military school, under suspicion of “poetic, and therefore homosexual” tendencies. “Until then, I was an innocent. I had had a secluded middle-class upbringing in Lima, cut off from other classes. Suddenly I was surrounded by peasants, Indians, blacks, poor people. It was a microcosm of
Peru. I discovered that Peru was a brutal, violent place, but above all how diverse and complicated it was.” That
period is recorded in his first novel, The Time of the Hero, but all Vargas Llosa’s writing dramatises that traumatic
encounter with the Other.
When he was offered the job of prime minister, he turned it down. Eventually the chronic condition of Peru persuaded
him to run for the presidency. Why did people want him? Because the role of storyteller still carries considerable
prestige in Latin America (Fuentes, Paz, Neruda have all served as ambassadors for their countries). As an imaginative
writer he should have had a headstart in Peruvian politics. The narrator in The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta observes
that “information in this country has ceased to be objective and has become pure fantasy – in newspapers, radio, television, and ordinary conversation. ‘To report’ among us now means either to interpret reality according to our desires or fears, or to say simply what is convenient … since it is impossible to know what’s really happening, we Peruvians, we invent, dream, and take refuge in iIlusion. Because of these strange circumstances, Peruvian life, a life
in which so few actually read, has become literary.”
Despite this advantage, Vargas Uosa adopted a perverse, almost naive electoral strategy. “I love illusions and lies. I
have consecrated most of my life to them. But I don’t think politics should be the realm of lies. My obligation was to
tell the truth. It seemed for a while as if a majority in Peru wanted this. But in the end they were tempted – and
seduced – by unreality.” After a popular surge in the early part of the campaign, Vargas Llosa was eclipsed in a second ballot by Alberto Fujimoro, a virtually unknown outsider. “All he had was a slogan and a tractor: no programme, no team, no credentials. It is funny – I, the writer, was defeated by the greater fiction. We have chosen fiction in politics for so long, it is a tradition in Latin America.”
Vargas Llosa’s fiction is full of flawed utopias, brittle edifices that crack up under pressure. In Captain Pantoja and the Special Service, the army entrusts the eponymous hero with the delicate mission of satisfying the carnal desires of the soldiers in the jungle. He dutifully devises a mobile sex emporium that turns into an empire and finally collapses under its own success. The clean, well-run brothel – and, elsewhere, mystical brotherhoods, revolutionary organisations – provide seductive, evanescent images of harmonious collectivity.
What drew Vargas Llosa into politics seemed to be the desire to trade fiction for reality. Art was one thing, politics ought to be another. “When I write I am a fanatic. I write with passion, obsession. As a writer you have the right to be dogmatic, obsessive. I would like politics to be purely rational – an intelligent ideal. Unfortunately, it isn’t. The desire for perfection can be satisfied in art. From it are born extraordinary achievements. But we have to canalise it into fields in which it can produce good results.” Religion, for example? “Yes, so long as it remains on the spiritual plane. But whenever you try to incarnate heaven on earth you end up with – hell. You can’t create a society of saints – not without monstrous repressions.”
While his writing has a core of realism, I thought his vision of politics as the domain of truth still contained a streak of the Utopian. But he blamed the Latin American propensity for Utopian thinking on the Conquistadors and the Inquisition. “That is one tradition we have kept alive and well,” he laughed, then told me that during his election campaign, in the month between the first and the second ballots, more than a hundred of his party workers were assassinated by the Maoist guerrillas of the Sendero Luminoso (“Shining Path”). “They want to make a tabula rasa. Now you understand why I am against Utopianism. I have seen it in action.”
So what was left for imaginative writers to do? Vargas Llosa invoked Georges Bataille: “The function of literature is to express the part maudite of man.” But he made it clear it was more a matter of exorcism than mere expression. And the ill-fated election campaign? “It was probably a mistake,” he said, “but an education. I was lucky I wasn’t elected.” Would he run again? “No, no, no, definitely, absolutely not… on the other hand, I will always intervene as a writer.”