Last week I wrote about how I'd failed to come to terms with modern technology and the internet. I do, at least, have a broadband connection for my computer, but the problem is I'm so busy running around town going to parties and awards ceremonies and stuff that I rarely have time to look at it. So what I do is, I videotape the broadband on my old VCR and then, when I have a minute, I play the tape back. Or something like that.
This means that I'm a bit behind. I've only just seen the celebrity edition of Who Wants To Be a Millionaire? from a few weeks ago. I don't know whether it was a repeat or not, but anyway, Alastair Campbell and his partner Fiona Millar were one of the couples. They lost all their money when they answered "France" to the question: "Which country launched the space station Skylab in 1973?" I was stunned that two such influential people, and the idiot friend that they phoned, should be so ignorant of recent history that they didn't know that only two countries - the US and the Soviet Union - have ever had the ability to launch a manned space lab.
The philosopher George Santayana is known now only for stating: "Those who forget the lessons of history are condemned to repeat them." But what about those who never knew the lessons of history in the first place? They seem to run the country.
One of the things I did last week was perform at a party to celebrate 15 years of the Big Issue magazine. A couple of weeks ago I spent some time with a Big Issue vendor, and then wrote a short story about the experience. Will Self and Nick Hornby did the same. The plan was to read this story aloud at something called The B Club, an event that is held every week at the Great Eastern Hotel next to Liverpool Street station in London.
Back in my day, if you wanted to dance you went to a club and danced; if you wanted to listen to a book-reading you went to a bookshop and heard somebody read; and if you wanted a fight you went to a football match. But now when I talk to the kids - at my publishers, for example - about what they've been doing, they always seem to have been at some jumbly-up event where there's been kick-boxing followed by a poetry slam in a swimming pool, or a strip show followed by a cookery demonstration in a bus station waiting-room. So it was at The B Club - a book-reading, then bingo, followed by dancing to a rock'n'roll DJ. It was very confusing: I mean, did I wear my dancing shoes or my book-reading shoes?
Nick Hornby and Will Self had both spent a great deal of time with their vendors and had, as a consequence, written serious and moving testaments to what it was like being homeless, and how The Big Issue is a beacon of hope to those who have lost nearly everything. In contrast, though I tried really hard to do the same thing, my story ended up being about what it was like for the vendor to meet me. It was called "My Morning With a Man Who Used To Be On the Telly, by Simon, Vendor Number 66", and recounted how he was bothered for half an hour by a fat man whose face he vaguely remembered from the 1980s, who turned up on a bicycle, hadn't brought pen or paper with him, was clearly suffering from a terrible hangover, and who - when Simon told him how easy it was for absolutely anybody, no matter how stable their life seemed, to suddenly find themselves on the street - kept making phone calls to his agent to try to get himself a regular part in Holby City.
Talking to homeless people you realise, over and over again, what a large part drink has usually played in the downfall of many of them. So it seemed significant and sad that, on the day of the Big Issue anniversary, the Government had insistently refused to implement the recommendations of a working party that had called for much greater restrictions on the advertising and sale of alcohol.
I remember listening once to a remarkably frank interview with the managing director of a company that made extra-strong lager. "Who are your customers?" the interviewer asked him, to which he replied: "Well, students, manual workers in the C and D socio-economic groups, and alcoholics." At least some brewers used to print a photo of a pretty girl on the side of the can so the drunks would have somebody to shout at.
At the end of the evening, Simon gave me his vendor's badge as a souvenir. I proudly wore it for the rest of the night and then took it home. A few days later I had a friend from the United States staying with me. He kept insisting on paying for everything when we went out and asking me solicitously how work was going: it was only when I remembered that I'd left the badge lying around that I realised he thought I was selling The Big Issue. I didn't tell him any different.
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