A friend posts an ad for the John Lewis Soft Touch Washable Mattress Topper on a social medium. She doesn’t usually post adverts. “This actually will change your life,” she writes, “in the sense that you will not get out of bed and your muscles will atrophy and you will be penniless.”
I am tempted, I must say. Lately I have simply not been getting out of bed. The trick is to wake up at, say, eight in the morning, and then utilise that early-morning grogginess to go back to sleep. That way you wake up again around noon feeling deranged from the extra-weird dreams you’ve been having. The one where I stole my ex-girlfriend Debbie Milton from Prince Charles, whom she had unwisely married, and escaped with her in a white Rolls-Royce while an enraged Greg Chappell chased after us was quite something. (All details true, promise.)
But Saturday comes and I have to get out of bed because I am off to Birmingham. Why Birmingham? Because I’m being paid to. I am also chairing a talk between Diego Marani, whose most excellent novel New Finnish Grammar I am proud of having introduced to a wider audience than it might have received, and Frank Witzel, a German author of whom I know nothing, but the title of whose prize-winning (untranslated) novel, The Invention of the Red Army Faction By a Manic Depressive Teenager in the Summer of 1969, is suggestive of greatness to follow.
My train is at quarter to ten in the morning. That is horribly early, and it’s from Euston. Euston has to be the most horrible station in London. Crammed with fast-food outlets and shops selling tat, it is a wholly commercialised space, beneath which the trains hulk in confinement on their platforms like trapped beasts. They are also mostly Virgin trains, and bitter experience has taught me that these are unreliable and that one should never, under any circumstances, use their toilets. It’s best to Go before or, at a pinch, to soil oneself. After all, using one more or less amounts to the same thing.
I don’t have much experience of Birmingham, bitter or otherwise. I once gave a talk at Birmingham City University and was distracted by the Ballardian architecture of the place and by an audience member’s beauty, so much so, in the latter case, that I could not speak for a couple of minutes. But my attention is drawn to the fact that the Star Trek convention is taking place at the National Exhibition Centre in the city at the same time, and I think that as my event ends at around three I’ll skip over to the convention and, for a mere £15, have myself photographed on the set of the original Enterprise, sitting in the Captain’s chair.
I would have done anything for Captain James T Kirk when I was a child, and to this day you can catch me, from time to time, punching light switches with the fleshy part of my fist, the way he answers the internal comm-system in the TV series.
But it turns out, I learn from a friend who has had the same idea but actually committed himself to it, that there is a huge entry fee and the queues for the Captain’s chair are “apocalyptic”. So I decide not to go, and ask the hotel staff instead where the nearest decent old man pub is. They steer me in the direction of the Shakespeare round the corner.
This splendid pub huddles amid another Ballardian cityscape of car parks and stunted skyscrapers. The barman is nice, but does not know how to pronounce “Laphroaig”. “I wouldn’t even try,” he says. I teach him. It occurs to me that the whisky in the bottle is probably older than most of the buildings around it.
Why do we do this to cities? The view from my hotel is of a vast building site, behind which the few survivors of Birmingham’s Victorian heritage cluster like exhibits in a freak show: “See the Amazing Buildings Built More Than Twenty Years Ago!!” Still, at least Birmingham Library is, as modern buildings go, rather cool: and then I realise this is because the outside is modelled on the Sam Browne belt worn by Lieutenant Worf in Star Trek: the Next Generation.
I sigh at my nerdiness and take my place on stage. The chair, I decide, is suitably captainesque, and in front of us lies the flag, blue with yellow stars, of another federation, different from the one Gene Roddenberry dreamt of. I remember being excited, as a child, about the future, thinking of the progress we would make as it happened. The desire to go home, and dream, returns.
This article appears in the 19 Oct 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood