Wednesday, June 30, 2004

We Shall Not See His Like Again. “In the beginning Rome was ruled by kings,” Tacitus wrote, echoing the opening of the book Christians call The Gospel According to John, which in turn anticipates the following sentence: “In the beginning London was ruled by my friend Simon.”

Simon was not originally from London. He was from a place in Kent called Seven Oak, a name which has become ironic ever since the seventh oak fell. Is “ironic” the right term there? No, probably not. Maybe I just mean “wrong.” In any case, I only spent one day in Seven Oak, sitting in a little grassy alley way the English mistake for a proper yard. Which they cannot even get right, and insist on calling a garden. Gardens have fruits and vegetables or flowers and are one part of a yard, not the whole thing.

We spent the day in Seven Oak drinking Stella and listening to a Elizabeth Hurley narrate a pornographic book by a vicious woman named Julie Burchill. I don’t know if Burchill is the hottest writer ever or if Elizabeth Hurley is the hottest reader ever. And I don’t care. Together they produced more hotness than any other thing that has ever produced hotness. Only more so. And for this I have to thank Toby Young, who gave away the tape of Hurley-Burchill for free with his magazine Modern Age.

This is how the story ends, however, and I wanted to write about the beginning of things, or at least how things looked at the start of my time in London. And in the very beginning they looked like cobblestones.

I had been drinking too much at a party in London. Everyone at the party was American, and we were dressed like cowboys in an effort to outrage the natives. I was having one of those nights where you feel like you cannot get drunk no matter how much you drink, at least until you have drank enough that you no longer felt that way and feel drunk instead. After that you sometimes end up being the drunkest person in the room. Or, in my case, the drunkest person face down on a cobblestone street in a part of London I didn’t recognize.

The safest thing to do, I decided, was to remain prone. I’m sorry. “Decided” is the wrong word. There was no way I could stand, so I was pretty sure I was just going to lie down instead.

“Oi! Is that Manhattan Transfer?” I heard a voice cry out. There were three sets of Carhart boots marching up the alleyway. They gathered around me. “We wondered where you had got to.”

It was Simon and two others. I didn’t remember meeting Simon, and I told him this. He laughed, and when he picked me up and brought me around the corner to a nightclub near the Thames, there were a lot of other people who I didn’t remember meeting. As it turns out, they were very good friends of mine. I had accomplished some great feat of heroism earlier that night involving a young woman, fish and a winch outside the window of a pub, and this woman turned out to be the sister of the biggest drug dealer in South London and now everyone of my unknown friends had free access to nightclubs and drugs.

Simon was a cricketer and lager enthusiast. He rode a motorbike and introduced me to a Russian assassin who I believe had something to do with the death of Robert Maxwell. I once saved the life of the assassin, but that story doesn’t take place during this story, so perhaps I shouldn’t have brought it up in the first place. Also, let’s pretend I didn’t write anything about Maxwell. The point is that Simon knew everything there was that was worth knowing about in London and everyone who wasn’t worth knowing but those are the sort of people who you really want to know anyway.

Simon’s girlfriend was named Clare and she was the most beautiful living creature I ever attempted to grope. She was slight and pale and not really English at all but Dutch, and if she had been a windmill I would have titled at her despite the mixed cultural metaphor. One summer night we were in a pub near Victoria Park waiting for Simon. Clare was wearing a pleated white tennis skirt and had her legs propped up on the bench where I was sitting. We were talking about music or books or the rise of the cult of the Enlightenment but all I could think about was the faint mist of sweat that hovered over the tiny blonde hairs on her thighs. Simon didn’t mind that I flung myself at Clare because Simon didn’t mind anything. That’s what blokes did to birds, and especially if the bird was Clare and the bloke was me.

Simon made everyone around him feel like they were an Abstract Expressionist or a post-modern novelist, which is a very nice thing to feel if you cannot paint or write. The best thing about being an Abstract Expressionist is that women are mad for Abstract Expressionists, even ones who don’t really paint. When I mentioned this to Simon he told me that I shouldn’t be surprised—people everywhere and always were falling in love with people for things that were almost but not quite true about them.

There are lots of people who try to live and love according to rules but my friend knew that the science of human life, and therefore the art of seduction and the talent for decadent but decent drunkenness, was not precise like mathematics but a series of approximations and probabilities. This wisdom made him the ruler of London in those early days.

Later, things would change and we would leave London for eastern Europe and we would return to London and live lives that were improbably rich with riches improbable. But that is the middle and the end of the story, and this is about the beginning.