07 August, 2006

Cheeky Monarchy

Tonight I spent my last evening in the Great Wen, before I resume my sojourn in the Arizona heat; so many thoughts in my head. I had a pint with the Archbishop's nephew, and then M and I took a brisk stroll up from Westminster Cathedral and over and along the Thames, past County Hall and back over the river, in silence, and then he started talking again as we passed Whitehall Court. He feels that with increasingly specialised interests, he has less time for 'senseless chatter', the run of pleasant conversation with a friend. His interests are becoming hermetically private. It's a sad direction for us, old friends that we are, as silence has come to dominate our time together.

I was stopped on Victoria Street by H, an acquaintance from university; last time we spoke I think I told him he was the dullest person I'd ever known. I might be wrong about that. H shook my hand with an American handshake, he was all smiles, said he'd become a lawyer 'for his sins', and enquired whether my number had changed. This person has never called me, nor I him, and we've never really had a conversation together; he dares to ask me 'if my number has changed', and intimates that he might 'give me a bell'. I wanted to knock his fucking block off! I couldn't have done, of course—H was a lifeguard once, and I suspect he could still take me with his little finger. Blandly suave as he is, H is a bit of an ape, his intellectual fists trailing in the dirt as he goes on lumbering suavely through life, clutching that first-class degree in English literature.


Will Self wrote a book about chimpanzees taking over London. I have no intention of reading it. But the figure of the ape, close cousin, hovers over us, an articulate but ambivalent shadow and metaphor.

2001: A Space Odyssey envisioned mankind as primitive, warlike apes made powerful (but hardly less primitive) by alien forces—the symbol chosen for those forces being a simple basalt monolith, appearing at specific moments during man's evolution. Kubrick originally imagined a block of clear perspex, and he had it made too, by the Polish sculptor Arthur Fleischmann, in 1968. At two tons, it was the largest single block of acrylic glass in the world. Kubrick rejected it in favour of the now-famous basalt, but Fleischmann hung on to it anyway; 9 years later, for the Silver Jubilee, and barely a week after the Sex Pistols had released 'God Save the Queen', he unveiled his new piece at St. Katharine's Docks, Tower Bridge. By royal commission, Fleischmann had carved on the perspex an image of the crown, ie. St. Edward's, haloed in light. It would be known as the Silver Jubilee Crystal Crown. The piece is still around today, in place at the eastern end of the West Dock, and here's a picture of it:

Clearly, this is not an image of the crown. It is an ape. Look at it! He has a round, furry head, imposing eyes, and lips ajar in malediction. It is Moonwatcher, watching us. Dale Devereux-Barker, an artist of sorts who made some revolting enamels for the docks ten years ago, wrote that he hoped his work might reflect the marina's diversity and 'positively contribute to its continuing evolution'. Here man has evolved fully from the ape at the docks' heart—in the 1930s the docks, built by Thomas Telford in 1825, were still 'the world's greatest concentration of portable wealth'.

Yes the ape, and man's evolution from him, haunts us. Here he is king and god, like Hanuman, with rays emanating from his divine head. And so for a joke I founded the Order of the Cheeky Monarchy, and made my wife president for life, in exchange for a photograph of her making obeisance beneath him. I cited Joyce, in a letter to Frank Budgen: 'The Holy Roman Catholic Apostolic Church was built upon a pun. It ought to be good enough for me.'


Also the London ape is melancholy and heavy, with a spirit of dejected play. Wells and Huxley noted this expression, so much like the best among us, in The Science of Life (1931):
The construction of apes is so like our own that their actions constantly remind us of familiar human doings. We see an ape mother fondling her baby, and it seems to us that she must be experiencing the feelings appropriate to a human mother. . . Or the melancholy philosopher in the corner—if he is thinking, why does he never talk? If he is so human, why does he suddenly break off into some unrepressed obscenity? Is the mind behind the actions really so like our own?
Of course it is. We can understand this, of course. Even as a child I could empathise with this propensity to gloom, this philosophical ape, which is why at the age of about ten I fashioned this simian character in the art-room after school:

Crude, but moving to me, even now. I say goodbye tomorrow morning to the ape king and the ape philosopher, at least for a few months, as I struggle towards becoming a philosopher king. I will always be an ape in this regard, not an H, but with a penchant for mischief—for so long I thought I was born in the year of the ape, but sadly not—and an atrabilious humour, one content with 'senseless chatter' now and then, even delighting to hear on the riverside by the docks the quiet roar of the chatter of the chattering classes, who might better be called after the Italian, chiacchiericcisti.


Richard said...

I feel reluctant to admit it given your apparent disapprobation, but I have read Great Apes and rather liked it (I have only ever liked one other Will Self Dorian, and hated the rest. He seems at his best when rewriting other novels). The apes don't take over London; it deals with a man who wakes up one morning to find that he has become a chimp and so has the rest of London. The novel then deals with the cause of his deranged imaginings that he was once a human; half Swift, half Boulle.

Conrad H. Roth said...

Ah, right, yes. No, not disapprobation. I just tend to follow Emerson's advice not to read anything less than 100 years old. But maybe I should pull it off the shelves....

Richard said...

Generally speaking, I tend to shun most modern writing, but I thought it was fairly worthwhile. It is very much a rewrite of the last section of Gulliver's Travels.