'Everyone is entitled to a speaking role'

In the third instalment of his 'live' novella, Will Self delves deeper into Soho streetlife, ending up in the theology section of Foyles bookshop The story so far... Mid-afternoon in present-day Soho. After lunch with a blonde mistress at Zilli's in Dean Street, a middle-aged City businessman is knocked down by a cycle rickshaw pedalled by Chris, an opportunistic speed junkie and Reform Club member. Among the crowd who witnessthe accident is a young out-of-towner with an irritating tuftof hair on his lower lip. Now read on...
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

There are no extras in life, no one who merely has a walk-on part. Everyone is entitled to a speaking role, everyone needs to be heard. Every aspect of our urban lives militates against this fact - we can hardly stop every passer-by and say: "Tell me your secret thoughts, your innermost feelings, your hidden desires" - but an accident allows a unique braiding-together of the city's stringy narratives.

There are no extras in life, no one who merely has a walk-on part. Everyone is entitled to a speaking role, everyone needs to be heard. Every aspect of our urban lives militates against this fact - we can hardly stop every passer-by and say: "Tell me your secret thoughts, your innermost feelings, your hidden desires" - but an accident allows a unique braiding-together of the city's stringy narratives.

So, cycle rickshaw hits drunk man and spins him into the gutter. Camera crew is coincidentally on hand, making a small item about luncheon food for London Live; and there am I, too, with my little lipfulof hair, and my mind bursting, or so I like to think, with original insights.

I come to London to enjoy its women and its street life. And as it goes, I'm walking through the latter on my way to see one of the former, but this Dean Street dumping is exactly what I need to get under the skin of London. I'm drinking a can of ginger beer, and I set it down on the steps next to where this young guy is sitting, and squat down on top of it. Which gives him the opportunity to take up the speaking role he's been quietly understudying all morning - or even his entire life.

"Are you trying to shit ginger beer?"

"I'm sorry?"

"You heard me: are you trying to shit ginger beer?"

He's too well dressed for this gig, he doesn't look like a beggar at all. He's even clean-shaven, with neat 'burns. What's the world coming to when a society is so rich even its beggars don't look poor?

"What're you? Aren't you gonna ask me for some money?" Money would be a cheap price to pay to avoid this youthful Ancient Mariner, landlocked in Soho.

"I'm not begging from you."

"Not begging? What're you doing sitting in Dean Street, on an old bit of cardboard, with a dog on a piece of string curled up by your side?"

"I'm researching a thesis, I'm a PhD student."

"Well, well - virtually a beggar, then. Begging from the bank."

"I don't have to take any shit from you - you couldn't even shave under your lip this morning - that's why I refuse to ask you for money. I don't beg from your sort."

The lipee. It always offends them. But people have goatees, so why the hell shouldn't I have a lipee? You can see young men in this part of London at almost any hour of the day or night with the most random imaginable clumps of hair, apparently arbitrarily implanted, on their faces. Gillette - the best thing a millennial man can lose sight of.

I'm in town with important objectives, certain things that I must do, certain people I must see. I haven't time to hang around in Dean Street talking to a sit-down comedian, so I get up off of my can and stroll on.

On the steps that lead to Soho Square, two girls sit grooming each other with careful hands. From the shoved-up cardigan sleeve of one leaks the tissue repository of tears or mucus previously shed. Some emotions she did earlier. Put your head on my shoulder - you need someone who's older...

I push on into the square and find a bench to sit on. I was meant to meet someone, but they aren't here yet. I've got to consult my palmtop, make a call, and find out what exactly the afternoon holds in store.

Uh-oh, here he comes, the student squatter. I thought I'd got shot of him, but no, he feels he has some more to impart. "I see you're a busy chappie," he jogs up blurting. "Lots of stuff to get done." Obviously the best thing to do is to ignore him, fiddle with the palmtop, and concentrate on some of the other munching magistrates sitting on the surrounding benches.

"I bet you've got a lot of girls' phone numbers on that palmtop."

"What's it to you?"

"It's nothing to me - it's just that a slicker like you, with that ridiculous tussock of beard, I bet you fancy yourself as a ladies' man."

"Look, I've nothing to say to you... why don't you just sod off?"

"It's a free country, mate. I can do as I please."

"It isn't a free country."

"It is."

"Isn't."

"Is!"

I shouldn't have needled him. He's a junkie for this kind of dialogue. And he was getting warm. I am looking for a phone number on this palmtop, the phone number of a special girl who should've been waiting here in Soho Square to meet me. So, I swap organiser for mobile and dial hers: "Hi, honey, I'm in the square, where are you?"

"I just stopped to get us a snack - what do you want in your ciabatta?"

"I don't want a fucking ciabatta - I want you."

"Mm... I'm starving. Listen, I'll get there as soon as I can, try to be patient."

I never mind spending my time hanging round in this city's enclosed open spaces. In truth, this is the experience I come to London for. But reposeful voyeurism is denied me this afternoon, for the guy writing the PhD on begging - he's still intent on pestering me: "What's she like?"

"What's who like?"

"Honey."

"She isn't called 'Honey', you eavesdropper."

"No need to be snappy - anyway I'm not an eavesdropper, you're speaking on a mobile. People who make mobile phone calls in public places deserve to be eavesdropped on. What's she look like?"

I try to summon up a plausible vision of a plausible girlfriend for someone like me. "She's medium height, gets her hair cropped at that place, No 1, over on Berwick Street."

"A clipper job."

"That's the joint. What furze is left to her is... frankly gingerish."

"A ginge, eh?... Must've had tragic parents."

"She favours leopardskin patterned tops and affects outsized white-rimmed sunglasses, which she keeps pushed up on top of her ginger furze. Over her clavicle orbits a radiant silver sun... "

I'm going to go on, but at that precise moment a posse of cops comes from the direction of Oxford Street and begins to usher everyone out of the square: "Come along!" they bellow, as if inviting us to a police social. "Move along, you lot! We have to clear this area!"

Why is it that, walking through the tiny police cordon, I find myself thinking of my childhood? I grew up in Paris, in the Seventies, a child of les événements. My parents were the kind of Maoists who copulated behind the barricades (I cannot conceive that the Chairman himself would've approved). My mother supported both me and my father by toiling in a nursery school. Recently she told me that as the schooldays turned into school years, she'd developed a phobia about crocodiles and could no longer read the Madeline books with composure. She always wore an Alice band, scraping her whitened blond hair back over her careworn brow.

My father preferred to spend his days absorbed in Cahiers du Cinéma, or old Gallimard books with bilious paper covers. Like so many Frenchmen of his age and experience, he could never quite shake off the conviction that he was an intellectual. He affected a close-cropped beard and brush of hair, long after he'd gone grey. Despite the fact that when he did go to work (he was employed as a plumber), he managed to labour under the drip-drip of a delusion that the phone might ring at any moment and it would be Malraux, or Cocteau, or some other eau besides the one he was compelled to work with.

The most remarkable thing about my indolent father was that he kept a mistress. By this I mean to say, he not only had regular sexual relations with this young woman, he also paid her a stipend. Astonishing. To not only live off of my mother for so long - but also siphon off the proceeds of his infrequent pipe-works. Last year, after he died, she came to see me at the family apartment. She knew, of course, that my mother would be at school. She was nearly as young as I, with thin, shoulder-length hair, reddish-auburn, parted by deep-welled ears. Ears pooled with shadow.

"I loved him, y'know," she mewled, toying with the necklace of stones that encircled her pale-yet-solid neck. "We had been together for a long time." This summoned up a still more radical picture of my father (she can't have been more that 22), as a child-abuser.

On Tottenham Court Road I stop by Burger King and call her again: "Where are you?"

"I'm in Soho Square - where the hell are you?"

"There was an incident of some sort - the police told us all to leave."

"Well, there's no sign of any trouble here now. Are you coming back?"

"I'd rather hoped I could persuade you to meet me in the theology section of Foyles. I've got to buy a book."

"Oh, I see. It's like that, is it?"

"Yeah, it's like that." Andwe both giggle, indulgingeach other.

Our affair began in the theology section of a bookstore in San Francisco three years ago, and has continued in the theology sections of bookstores throughout Europe and the USA ever since. We have no other connection with each other's lives besides this and the occasional sandwich (or, in London, ciabatta) eaten on a park bench.

Theology sections of bookstores give off an unbearably erotic charge of stacked sanctity, something we both find exciting. They also tend to be the quietest - and often the remotest - part of any bookstore. Foyles' theology section is the best. Because of the antiquated procedures they follow there - the cashier separate from the bookseller - and the musty, Victorian ambience of the place, it's a prime location for a little love in the afternoon.

So, back down Charing Cross Road and into Foyles. Up to the second floor, and I wander into the theology section looking - I hope plausibly - for the Complete Works of Martin Buber. But today I'm out of luck, because out from behind the information point starts the bookseller, a preppy-looking character in a green button-down shirt, blue jeans, suede lace-ups, and - absurdly - Mickey Mouse socks.

"Can I help you?"

"Erm... no... I'm just browsing."

"If there's anything at all I could assist you with, I'm only too happy to oblige."

Does he grasp that I'm here with erotic intent? That in a few minutes I will rendezvous in the stacks with a five-foot-six blonde with shoulder-length hair; and that I've every intention of getting energetic with her against a shelf-fulof exegesis?

I know hardly anything about her life, but she has vouchsafed me details of her own amours. Today, for example, she told me she had arranged to meet a married man she's been having an affaire with at Zilli's on Dean Street. She was looking forward to dumping him - and then coming on to me. The idea of his anticipated desolation, set against our tricky tryst, was nothing but aphrodisiacal. What a girl!

Abridged by John Walsh

Will Self is at fig-1, 2/3 Fareham St, London W1, 020-7734 9269, today, 4-8pm and tomorrow, 12-4pm

Comments