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28 July 2021

Howard Jacobson’s Diary: Soho never sleeps – so I escape to see the rides at Brighton Pier

My wife and I take the train to the coast, where we admire those brave enough to be spun upside down at the speed of light.

By Howard Jacobson

The cheering started in Soho about the time the Euros kicked off and isn’t over yet. I hear it the moment I wake, a low murmuration, like monks at prayer, more a lament for cheering than cheering itself. Occasionally a faint voice can be heard beseeching, “Get in!” but you can tell the other monks know it won’t. Later on, as it gets a few drinks down, it becomes its old boorish self, mixed now with the yelps of a hundred hen nights and the “Wooos!” of a generation Americanised into cheering anything that moves. Are these the young celebrating having made it through the pandemic? Too soon, in my view, like the goal against Italy. I consider going out to warn them, but I know they won’t be wearing masks and I’ll feel conspicuous wearing three.

I never thought I’d miss Matt Hancock.

A cyclist I’ve been doing battle with since the last century has changed to an e-scooter and almost gets me at Oxford Circus. This is a favourite spot for those who love to run red lights, as they can run six at once before any one of them turns green. “I suppose this is you exercising your personal responsibility,” I shout at him. He gives me the finger without turning round. A passing pedestrian shouts, “Woo!”

Where is Hancock, do you think? I’m less surprised to be missing Theresa May, who was born in Eastbourne, a town with a 1930s neo-Grecian bandstand where you can sing carols at Christmas and dance to “Achy Breaky Heart” on Boxing Day. I’ve done both several times. I imagine Theresa May has too. It’s not impossible we danced together before the invention of the e-scooter. Maybe even before the invention of the bicycle. But it’s because she’s a clergyman’s daughter that I miss her. She will have been brought up to know the limits, both ethically and practically, of individual responsibility. Next time there’s an election I’m voting only for clergymen’s daughters.

Elephants on parade

To Green Park for the farewell gathering of the Asian elephants that have been turning up in parks and public spaces across the capital to raise money for the charity CoExistence. They are sculpted out of Lantana camara with a sweet and elegant simplicity that gladdens the eye. Rich people will buy them but poor people have made them. It will go well with us in the final analysis that at least some of our species loved elephants. My wife and I learned to feed a rescued Indian elephant in a sanctuary in Jaipur just before lockdown. We agreed if that turned out to be the last thing we ever did together, we would count our lives a success.

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Endangered species

I’m watching the Ernest Hemingway documentary on television, glad that writing never had to be an expression of heroic masculinity for me. But I wish I’d learned to shed words and master the monolithic sentence. Already I’ve taken too much time to say that. Had Hemingway been in Green Park he’d have shot half the herd before anyone had the chance to tell him they weren’t real. But then he wasn’t real himself. What goes around comes around: the Great White Hunter, too, is now an endangered species. So that’s Ernest as well as Theresa and Matt I’m missing. He was barefaced, though. Matt, I mean. Literally bare faced. Ask him a question and every feature ran inside to hide. Which at least told us that someone was at home – too abashed to answer the door, but at home. As opposed to the Prime Minister, who vacated himself a long time ago.

Against nightclubs

The pandemic has made us intolerant. Some people are up to here with epidemiologists. I’ve had it with nightclub owners. Would the world really be a poorer place without nightclubs? Don’t mistake me for a puritan. Haven’t I said I danced to “Achy Breaky Heart” with Theresa? But we didn’t feel we had to wave our hands in the air and then throw up in the street. Yes, I know ecstatic merging has a long psychic history. The ancient Greeks had maenadism. The Italians had tarantism. The Soviets had communism. But let’s call regimented delirium by its proper name. Not fun, not freedom, just a frenzied yearning to be back in the primeval soup together. Epidemiologists are said to be working on a jab for it.

[See also: How is the government in such a tangle over nightclubs and vaccine passports?]

Pier pressure

To escape the heat and humidity of London, and because my wife is a lover of piers, we take the train to Brighton. We once made a television series together about comedy, and shot Roy “Chubby” Brown performing on Blackpool’s South Pier. It was our contention that a pier was the perfect place for a frowned-on comedian to tell offensive jokes. Anthropologists call a pier transitional space; aestheticians call it liminal – neither sea nor land, neither wholly what’s allowed nor wholly what isn’t. The idea that any space should be set aside for a knowingly “sexist”, “racist” comedian didn’t go down well 25 years ago, and would go down even less well today. But society can’t be forever confined by the proprieties: a pier is the road out. “Like a nightclub,” my wife remarks. We disagree about dancing. And fun fairs. No blue comedian works Brighton Pier today, but you can helter skelter, or ride the Wild River, or consent to being clamped into a wheel of iron and spun upside down at the speed of light. We admire the bravery of a little girl in a red dress who goes from ride to ride, laughing and punching the air. Eat your heart out, Ernest Hemingway. I offer to hold my wife’s bag so she can have a go. She shakes her head. She’s happy just to look. My position exactly.

Howard Jacobson’s latest novel, “Live a Little”, is published by Vintage. His memoir “Mother’s Boy” will be published in 2022

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This article appears in the 28 Jul 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Summer special