From the balcony where I take my daily exercise there is a view of the commercial centre of London that is so susceptible to changes of the light you feel you are in a different city every day. When the dying sun is reflected in its glass towers, the city looks like Las Vegas burning. Under a dark sky it could be Pittsburgh. The other day was so louring that I saw Moscow. ‘I’m looking at the Kremlin,’ I shouted in to my wife. She’s been worrying about me. She thinks it’s time I relaxed the promise I made myself not to go out until the virus has gone and the world is more to my liking. ‘You’ll have a long wait,’ she says. She knows I’m being ironical. It’s other people wanting the world to be to their liking that’s not to mine. But right now it doesn’t matter. The sun is setting and I’m in Rio de Janeiro.
I’m watching television more uncritically than usual but still can’t stomach the format of Live at the Apollo. It features some clever comedians, but its artificiality, cutting to the audience to show canned hilarity — or worse, canned celebrity hilarity; or worse still, genuine hilarity — is a turn-off. It’s not the comedians’ fault that producers choose to show people helpless with laughter at a not very amusing joke, but the practice alienates you from their material. If that shower thinks they’re funny then they can’t be. We laugh too easily today. Laughter used to be like virtue. It wasn’t something we were willing to give away on a first date. Now we’re anybody’s. And yet, simultaneous with this great homogenising of laughter, comes the latest wave of offence-taking, washing away the transgressive constituent from comedy which as often as not is the best part of it. In the end, maybe the two phenomena are closely related. We laugh together to show we are united, that no offence can possibly be given, or taken, if the mirth that shakes you is the mirth that shakes me. Which makes the world half as funny as it was. And soon not funny at all.
I’m in two minds about alliteration. Shakespeare loved it, and if it’s good enough for Macbeth to be ‘cabined, cribbed, confined’ it should be good enough for us. But you can overdo it. J.P. Donleavy’s The Beastly Beatitudes of Balthazar B was one B too many for me, so I never made it past the title. Sometimes, though, life throws alliteration at you. Boris’s band of bland boy Brexiteers bluff and bluster their way through every briefing without any descriptive help from me. With nothing else to do now with my afternoons, I’ve been keeping count of the number of times they use the phrases ‘I get that’, ‘Incredibly (insert your own adjective)’, ‘World class’, ‘As I said’, and ‘Going forward’. Hyperbole can be as grave a sin as alliteration, so let’s just say the count’s gone through the roof. Brexit’s going to be fun — speaking of going forward — watching those who couldn’t source a pair of rubber gloves trying to find a country to trade with.
Lockdown has reawakened my dormant passion for inventing culinary treats. My first — created when my parents were ill with flu and I had two hungry younger siblings to feed — was thick slices of white bread plastered to their very crusts with butter, over which I skimmed a layer of salad cream straight from the fridge. Pain blanc au glacé, I called it. Attempts to improve on the recipe over the years, substituting artisanal olive bread and fat-free mayonnaise, have all failed. Now, more than half a century later, I’ve come up with crumbled Marks & Spencer gluten-free ginger biscuits, vanilla ice cream, coffee ice cream and sliced ginger in syrup, served in a deep ramekin with an added ingredient that I’m keeping secret to prevent Ben and Jerry ripping it off. Redheads Have More Fun, I’m calling it, and if the Puritans don’t like it they don’t have to eat it.
I heed my wife’s advice and go out. In the park, hungry squirrels with pleading eyes; on street corners, men with no expression in their eyes whatsoever drinking beer from one-litre plastic milk jugs. But the light is changing fast and I want to be on my balcony to watch the city transform itself into somewhere else. I get back in time to see St Paul’s illuminated into a stately pleasure dome. Xanadu. Kubla Khan’s fantasy of rare device hung with gardens bright. Half swooning with the beauty of it, I declaim Coleridge’s euphoric poem to the seagulls. One of them swoops low and answers back: ‘Temper your admiration, you shmuck. Have you forgotten Kubla Khan was a colonialist?’
Howard Jacobson’s new novel, Live a Little, is out now.