The obscure charm of expensive wrist instruments

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THE TELEVISION chappie sat there in my armchair as though he owned the place (well, they do, television chappies; they do own the place) and said: "Look, we'll be filming in Leicester and the thing is, you're a sort of horrible grey colour and you'll look really awful on-screen. Grey, grey, grey. Like something that's been under a damp rotting log. In fact, you look really awful in real life."

"This isn't real life," I said. "This is a cheap cauliflower imitation. I don't have to listen to this sort of sheep-dip. Hand me my testosterone skin-patch; I'm going out."

"You certainly are," said the television chappie. "For a sun-bed. Now."

I had had sun-beds before. You lie in a sort of giant Breville sandwich- maker for half an hour, frying in someone else's sweat, then, eight hours after being released, you go the colour of cheap tinned salmon, and a week after that, it's cryosurgery time. ("Best nip it in the bud before it spreads, old chap.'')

But these sun-beds were different. Up a little alley, next to McDonald's, across the way from the Comic Relief offices. You stand up in a metal box, stark naked and clinging on to two little handholds in the ceiling like a giggling submissive at a Club Doma whipping party. The temperature soars. The sweat drips. A faint porky aroma pervades your cell. It is not dissimilar to the Northern Line at rush hour, except that you're on your own. You lose all sense of time; you worry that evil terrorists, working to a strange, obtuse agenda, may have shot the girl at the switch. You think you may have been in there too long; much too long. You suddenly remember your privy parts: wholly unused to the ultra-violet ray, they may even now be shrivelling up. Outside, New Oxford Street is going about its business, heedless of your screams, because you are not screaming; you are British, and the British do not scream; they die stoically. Other nations die in agony; the British are Found Dead.

Just as you are giving up hope and focusing your mind on the Ineffable Sublime, thunk, the ultra-violet lamps go out. You emerge into the half-light of the changing cubicle. Gingerly, you examine your organs of generation, which appear intact. Is it imagination, or has the face taken on a weatherbeaten, manly glow? A faint hint of Sean Connery, perhaps, or of one of those taciturn types who has spent too long on the poop-deck gazing at the limitless horizon to be ever truly at home on land?

No, it is imagination; but I didn't care. I saw myself having a new life as a tanned, clear-eyed Man of Action. Women in hotel restaurants would send me their room numbers on paper napkins. Men would look at me with respect. My jaw would become chiselled, six inches would be added to my inside leg in the night, and I would wake up to realise that, all along, I had known the secrets of astral navigation.

These were the broodings of a modern urban man: free from gods and tithings, we now seek wisdom and salvation in outward and visible signs. We buy what we wish to become. That's what we do; that is what we're for. It's like alcoholism, like addiction, like the lure of the needle and the two- gram bag: we know it's stupid, we know it's doomed, but we do it all the same because this time, it may just work. When I bought my computer I hoped that I would become like it: efficient, organised, silent and clean. I signed up for the Internet foolishly certain that I would miraculously possess all the knowledge that lies thereon. If I feel myself etiolated, senescent, becoming urbanised, I sail down to Covent Garden and buy myself some all-American Workwear - the check shirt, the Red Wing boots, the pre-distressed jeans - so that I turn into a Man, with a Life, someone who travels light, knows no regrets, and sleeps under the desert stars. Should I sicken of the desert stars, it's down to James & James for hand- made tweeds, and, lo!, I am Richard Hannay, two stone lighter and handcuffed to a blonde.

I'm up to the neck in this stuff, not to mention the debt. A wardrobe of character costumes. Boxloads of props. Status symbols, symbolising someone else's status, not mine.

But it gets worse than that. The most complex of complicated watches are those sold as "pilot's wrist instruments" - and one thing I can tell you is that you never see a pilot wearing one. They're too expensive. They're too flashy. And you can't read all those little dials and bezels in the air. Such a watch says "I am not actually a pilot, but I want people to think I am." I spit on them. But I have now been seized by an ungovernable desire for a double-bluff wristwatch of astounding understatement. Nobody would think "Oh, look, a huge wristwatch, he must be a pilot, I will send him my room number on a paper napkin." But underneath, on the watch-back, it says "Der Fliegeruhr von IWC Mk XII", and I suspect that that is why I want it so terribly, terribly badly: nobody would recognise it as a special pilot's watch, but I know that that's what it is.

Perhaps you think you can work this out, but there's one other thing you should know. I am, actually, an actual pilot in actual actual life. I can do that flying stuff. Hell, I spent last summer flying solo around the Australian deserts. Intrepid. So... why do I feel that I need to spend pounds 2,300 (including VAT) on something that anyone with pounds 2,300 (including VAT) can just go and buy, simply because it says "This Is A Pilot's Watch" on the back?

Buying what we wish to become is one thing. Buying what we already are, because reality has somehow become too frail and evanescent: that is serious.

When I got back to the flat, I stood there for a bit, looking manly, rugged, deeply weatherbeaten. "Well?" I said. "You've gone pink," said the television chappie. "You look like you've had a sun-bed." To hell with him and all his kind: the purveyors of fantasy who will not themselves be fooled. Wait till I get my watch; then we'll see. !