John Walsh: Tales of the City

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The Independent Online

Stick a toe into the huge, still pond of history, and you'll be amazed how fast it churns up into a tsunami. All Tony Blair needed to do was come up with some bland, bien-pensant remarks to introduce next year's commemoration of William Wilberforce's anti-slavery legislation. It is, we should remember, the anniversary not of a tragedy or an abomination, but of a beacon of enlightenment: Hooray, it was a British politician, the then-MP for Hull, who in 1807 started the process that led to the abolition of the slave trade worldwide. We should be proud. We might, perhaps, mention that, incidentally, slavery wasn't a terribly good idea, but does anyone in 2006 need to be told? It's like celebrating the end of capital punishment but mentioning, en passant, that legalised killing is, when all's said and done, a bit of a bummer. It should have been simple. But the PM just had to go that extra centimetre: "The bicentenary offers us a chance... also to express our deep sorrow [that] it ever happened, that it ever could have happened..." "Uh-oh," as Chandler used to say in Friends. "Can open. Worms all over the place."

By "our sorrow", the PM obviously meant the nation, not the Government (or, indeed the royal "we") and was hoping to involve the whole population in a bout of collective hand-wringing, if one can actually wring hands as a group activity. It was, therefore, inspired of the Black History Foundation to demand that Mr Blair should give them, and us, a "practical demonstration" of his sorrow. If he refuses, he runs the risk of seeming insincere, as if his "Sorry" is no more heartfelt than the "Sorry!" uttered by the people struggling to inch past you in the cinema. If he accepts, what form can his abjection take?

He could stand on a special dais in Parliament Square and, at a signal from John Prescott (Hull's most recent incumbent), could weep noisily. He could beat his breast in a theatrical fashion while shouting, "I feel grief, sadness, affliction and pain of mind. I am full of sorrow, sad, dejected, regretful, expressing, pity, sympathy etc" and anything else he can come up with from Roget's Thesaurus and the Chambers Dictionary. What he cannot do is actually apologise for the British slave-traders of the past - not because it would involve the Government in millions of quid in compensation claims, but simply because it isn't blooming well Mr Blair's fault.

The PM's enthusiasm for expressing sorrow for things over which he had no control is, I believe, called transference. He reminds me of a terrific poem by Glyn Maxwell, "Deep Sorriness Atonement Song", whose narrator has done something dreadful, and invokes every regrettable occurrence in history to show the scope of his regret:

"The man who sold Manhattan for a halfway decent bangle,
"He had talks with Adolf Hitler and could see it from his angle.
"And he could have signed The Quarrymen but didn't think they'd make it,
"So he bought a cake on Pudding Lane and said, 'Oh well, I'll bake it,'
"But his chances they were slim/ And his brothers they were Grimm/ And he's sorry, very sorry,/ But I'm sorrier than him."

The PM has already apologised for Britain's shocking indifference to the Irish famine of the 1840s. In the intervening months between now and his retirement, there's still time for him to express our collective, or his particular, regret about the Hearth Tax, the Reformation, the death of the 40 Catholic martyrs, the execution of v, the Charge of the Light Brigade, the execution of Charles I, the failure of Robert Scott to get to the Antarctic before what's-his-name, the Plague, the Suez Canal and (if he's feeling really responsible) the Fall of Man. Poor Mr Blair must be looking forward to having the Hand of History lean less emphatically on his manly shoulder...

***

The Literary Review's Bad Sex Award is being judged as we speak, and the winner will be announced tomorrow night at the In and Out Club in St James's Square - a popular evening for the London media-tartocracy, and an award that's gradually changed its image.

Being awarded the prize for the year's most inept or toe-curling description of sexual jiggery-pokery used to cover its recipient in guilt and shame, a mortification that could be assuaged only by the whisky bottle and the service revolver. Now it's become a badge of coolness, to be displayed with a swagger. You had to see Giles Coren, last year's winner, graciously accepting the congratulations of fellow-novelists ("Thank you... too kind... I really don't deserve this...") to wonder when exactly " bad" became "good", and I don't mean in a Michael Jackson sense.

The prize was established to discourage authors from dealing in what army drill sergeants used to call Naming of Parts, but its new-found trendiness means that more sex scenes are being written than ever, and by big-name writers. On this year's shortlist there are energetic bursts of fornication by Irvine Welsh, Will Self, Mark Haddon (of Boy-Dog-Nighttime fame), David Mitchell (the globally renowned author of Cloud Atlas), Tim Willocks, the pugilistic author of Green River Rising and former squeeze of Madonna - and the great Thomas Pynchon. The last-named is shortlisted for a passage from his just-published Against the Day, in which a young bravo called Reef becomes envious of his lady friend's lapdog, Mouffette ("I wuv my ickle woofwoof, ess I doo!") and the services it performs for her; and, perhaps foolhardily, wonders if he might try for a slice of the action himself. What are the chances that Pynchon, the most famous recluse in America, will be so impressed by the award's reputation that he'll turn up to accept it and make a long speech of weeping gratitude?

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