Since Christmas I’ve been sending off these columns with the anxious thought that perhaps I’m overdoing the dying bit and the truth is that I have a long way to go. Suppose I’m still here on Lammas Day, for example? I worry that some people might feel short changed. Moreover I worry that some might be already tiring of a columnist banging on interminably about his terminal cancer. A month or two of cancer shtick before falling decently silent – ideal. Six months? Well, OK. But a year?
For this reason I am pleased to report the passing of another milestone on my private Menin road. The bone and lung pain have lately increased to the point where I need to lie still. No more nipping up and down four flights of steep stairs to the lavatory, for a start, if I can help it. So I am equipped with a beautifully shaped and molded plastic potty. It stands on the windowsill. I’m admiring it now. Thanks to global capitalism, choosing a night pot is like deciding on a make of saloon car. Mine has an ergonomically designed handle and a lid that shuts with a satisfying click. While draining my bladder into the funnel, accompanied by what sounds very like a military drum roll at an execution, I stand at the bedroom window looking philosophically down on the village rooftops.
Our little expat colony has recently been expanded by two: my first editor and his partner are here for the maximum three-month tourist stay. Dave Goodhart gave me my first feature in Prospect magazine’s opening number in 1995 and thereafter a column at the back called Modern Manners. He was furious, I remember, when I told him on the phone I was also writing a column for The Spectator, but now says I am forgiven.
However he reserves the right to criticize my columns with a former editor’s jaundiced eye. His usual accusation is that my Spectator columns are mostly “recycled” — presumably from fifty-odd I wrote for him at Prospect. But with Low Life’s recent excursion into the realms of literary criticism, his cup of cynical delight runneth over. It was the first thing he said as he walked in through the front door — how tickled pink he was by the new psychological and intellectual depths revealed by the international literary fiction I’ve been reading, or am pretending to be reading. “First Thomas Mann and now poor old Malcolm Lowry,” he laughed. “I’ve had to dust off an old copy of Lowry to remind myself.”
I know I am no homme serieux. I remember about fifteen years ago I ventured a personal opinion of some sort in this column and the following week there was a letter from Frederick Forsyth singling it out and holding it up to ridicule. His objection was not to what I’d said, but to my absurd presumption in opining at all. It was years before I knowingly ventured another.
But as I indignantly pointed out to my former editor, one’s subject matter is severely limited when all you do is lie around on your deathbed all day long, counting out pretty little parti-colored morphine capsules into the palm of your hand. I’d like to see him try it, I said testily.
In his book The Road to Somewhere: The Populist Revolt and the Future of Politics (2017) David Goodhart identified the rival cultural constituencies in the Brexit debate as “Somewheres” and “Anywheres,” a phrase which quickly gained currency among UK political commentators. “And I,” I should have told him, “Am the platonic fucking form of a Somewhere. Or, yes, all right, I am an English Somewhere living in the South of France.”
But basically I am a Somewhere; a Somewhere so rooted to the spot that I am pissing in a pot. And therefore I should be excused for writing from time to time about a particular book I am reading, seeing as reading books is all I do. Starting to read books anyhow, until they drop from my fingers as my head lolls and I fall asleep. And it is sadly all too typical, I ought to have added, for you suave, well-traveled Anywheres to make jokes at the expense of us immovable, blockhead Somewheres. Jokes — you know — along the lines of “Oh yeah, I read a book once. It was a green one.”
In spite of my pantomime indignation, I do however recognize that only the very best of fellows will be honest enough to tell the writer of a weekly dying-of-cancer column that it is a pretentious load of crap, whether in jest or not. The pair of Anywheres are staying until Easter. To be honest, I hope this Somewhere is too.
This article was originally published in The Spectator’s UK magazine. Subscribe to the World edition here.