Take my advice, completely ignore this advice
John Walsh ON MONDAY
Prolific writer and commentator John Walsh contributes columns to the paper as well as writing features, interviews and restaurant reviews. He has been editor of The Independent Magazine, literary editor of the Sunday Times and features editor of the London Evening Standard.
Monday 17 May 1999
Parental advice was always fraught with Catholic ambiguities. "Keep your elbows off the table," my mother would say, "and always masticate your food" - but she always employed the latter verb in a tone of distaste, as if it might be slightly disgusting. So I just went on bolting my supper and took the consequences. It just wasn't my thing, mastication.
On my bedroom wall was a pokerwork bromide. "Lord," it said, "give me the courage to change the things I can, the fortitude to accept the things I can't, and the wisdom to know the difference." Emboldened by these wise words, I tried to change the time of my piano lessons so as not to coincide with Doctor Who on Saturday teatimes, and was told not to be so silly. I tried to change my name to Peregrine McLennon (it was the Sixties) and learnt that this too was sadly unavailable. I tried to change my hairstyle to a floppy, blues-singer fringe a la Eric Burdon of the Animals, and was frog-marched to the barbers on Lavender Hill for a short-back-and- sides. Climbing into bed that night, I looked up at the fatuous diktat on the wall, with its Augustanly balanced precepts in their gilt frame. Changing things, I told it severely, isn't about courage and fortitude. It's about getting past your mum.
Then came Desiderata, that irritating litany of quiescent advice ("Go placidly amid the noise and haste ... ") which was a fixture on every suburban wall in the Seventies. I never bought its vague, oriental meanderings. "Be patient; strive to be happy" it ended up - although you knew, by then, that if you went around being patient and passive and contemplative for long enough, you'd watch the whole world of achievement racing past your sorry ass.
As I grew older, people offered you career advice, health advice, relationship counselling. When I first went to America, they queued up to offer man- to-man strictures: "Never play poker with anyone called Doc," they said. "Never eat at any restaurant called Mom's ..." Then music started dishing out gratuitous counsel. First Impressions was a soul song that went round and round our heads in 1980. "This might sound like some kinda square advice," the singer told us, "But it pays to be kinda nice ..." Uh-huh, we said. Tell us more, O wise one. "I'm not saying for you to be no fool," it went on, "I'm just sayin' you gotta play it cool." Well, we'll certainly do our best, we said. Was there more? "Carry yourself like a man," the voice enjoined the limp-wristed among us, "and always try to unnerstand." Oh bollocks, we said, and whisked it off the turntable.
Now there's Baz Lurhmann's deeply annoying record on the airwaves. Mr Lurhmann is the film director who recast Romeo and Juliet as a hip tale of gunslinging groovers in LA, and rechristened it Romeo + Juliet as if Shakespeare's most tender tragedy was a mathematical compound. He's now discovered a graduation lecture by some platitudinous greybeard on the Internet, added a funky backing, and released it as a single - a musical version of Lord Chesterfield's letters to his nephew, the ones Dr Johnson vilified as teaching the morals of a whore and the manners of a dancing master.
You must have heard it. Everybody's Free (To Wear Sunscreen) keeps turning up on my car radio. Read by an actor with a voice like a golfing jersey, it's a litany of advice to the young, some of it direct ("Floss"), some cautiously neutral ("Maybe you'll marry and have children; maybe you won't"), and some nonsensical ("Do not read beauty magazines; they will only make you feel ugly"). It's destined to be a big hit, for the simple reason that nobody under 35 has ever heard this old-fashioned, take-my-tip-young- feller stuff seriously uttered before. What used to be commonplace in paternalistic societies - the wisdom of age presuming to direct the faltering steps of youth - has become a quaint freak show.
And the quality of the advice is, frankly, no better than the rest of the stuff that's been pitched at me over the years. "Every day," the voice on the record says, "do one thing that scares you." Right then. Let's see. Bungee jumping? Driving down Baker Street with your eyes shut? Walking into a bar in central Brixton and shouting, "Boy! Gimme a shoeshine!"? I don't think so. To anyone about to cough up pounds 2.99 for this smug and worthless tirade, I'd say: don't do it. just take my advice.
HERE'S A riddle for you. What is it that's more powerful than God, that's more evil than Satan, that the poor know all about but the rich have little experience of, and that, should you be so foolish as to eat it or drink it, will make you die? Good question, eh? An epic question. A vast philosophical surmise. It started as a conundrum in a child's comic, has been asked by umpteen smart-aleck children of their baffled parents, and now turns up at fashionable London dinner parties, as a parlour game over the coffee and petits fours. All manner of existentialist conceits have been offered by way of reply, but the answer is childishly simple and it's at the end of this column.
The current issue of OK! magazine features the spiky-haired Victoria Adams sitting on a violently patterned armchair, looking more than ever like a woodland goblin, and surrounded by yards of tulle and white satin from which she, and the Manhattan couturier Vera Wang, will shortly fashion a wedding dress. The dress is an interesting subject, but not a crucial one. Far more interesting, for cultural analysts, is what the former Posh Spice and her fiance David Beckham might consider ideal wedding presents.
For months, the features departments of the national press have been keen to get their hands on the Posh Spice Wedding List, not necessarily for the kindest reasons. What volumes would it speak of the consumerist British zeitgeist at the end of the century? What brutal abominations of taste would it harbour, what secret aspirations of gentility might it disclose? Coming out so close to the aristocratic shopping-list of ten-grand teapots and ruinously extravagant willow-patterned egg-cups that Edward P and Sophie R-J hope to elicit from their friends, would the Adams-Beckham list of nuptial requirements represent a more democratic, street-level, World of Leather/ Ikea/ Argos Catalogue array of must-have home furnishings for bedroom lounge and kitchen-dinette? Would it not tell us, more than any lifestyle magazine article could tell us, about the way the majority of the population wish to live now?
I don't know. I just know that when, in Sainsbury's on Saturday, I saw on the cover of OK! the words "Victoria's Secrets: My Wedding List", I shelled out pounds 1.45 without hesitation, heedless of the sneers of my Dulwich neighbours. Inside there was no list. "I'm not having a wedding list," said the eldritch songstress. "We're quite hard to buy for, so we've just said Marks & Spencer vouchers or Selfridges vouchers." Damn, damn and a side order of blast. You can hear a hundred Style Section hacks grinding their teeth in frustration.
I SPENT last weekend in Verona, wandering among the Roman ruins and the fervid romantic graffiti in Juliet's courtyard. One thing that struck me was the presence of enormous rubbish bins on the perimeter of the grand piazzas, ready to scoop up the debris of a million tourists.
It was hard to miss them, not because they were shocking municipal eyesores, but because they were all gaily painted. It's a smart idea of the city fathers: get a school to sponsor a bin, have the most talented children in Form 4B decide on a design and go to work on the boring off-white plastic. The result is a display of kinetic artistry that lifts the heart. My favourite, among all the naive pastoral scenes and joke faces, was a rubbish bin painted to resemble a vast plate of tagliatelli with meatballs, its spicy orange and brown highlights of funghi, basil and sun-dried tomatoes steaming away in the sunshine, an Olympian fork poised above it, ready to plunge into the seething tendrils ... Never before has a refuse bin made me feel hungry while walking past it. When Ken Livingstone eventually becomes mayor of London, I hope he copies this charming initiative without delay.
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