Howard Jacobson: Austerity doesn't hurt when the sun is out

If you have to tell people the party’s over, you don’t want to be doing it in the dead of winter
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The Independent Online

Those whom the gods would destroy, they first endear to the British public. Only remember our honeymoon with oil-slick Tony, and then how pleased we were when "Top-kill" Gordon promised to stem the gushing. This time it will be all right, we say, forgetting that it is never all right, while up on Olympus the gods laugh and roll their dice.

Thus, for the moment, the Only-Too-Likely-Lads are enjoying the extraordinarily good fortune of ambient feelgood. Our cricketers win the Twenty20 World Cup. Our footballers beat Mexico at Wembley. None of our film directors wins the Palme d'Or at Cannes, but everyone says Mike Leigh should have. The only Labour politician still talking to the media is Ed Balls, and you can't ask for better luck than that if you're a Liberal-Conservative coalition. Then last week, to cap it all, summer arrived.

They must be thinking politics is a stroll in the park. Tough measures! What tough measures? The more austerity they promised, the deeper the cuts and the chillier their forecasts, the warmer the days got. Out came the scissors and out came the sun. If you have to tell people the party's over, you don't want to be doing it in the dead of winter. But a heat wave – who could have expected as cushy a beginning as that?

It's something you start asking yourself at my age – whether you would rather be buried on a cold day or a hot one. Against the horror of the frozen earth you have to weigh the melancholy of summer, promising what it can't fulfil, while reminding you of all you'll miss. I'm still deciding. In the meantime, deceptive or not, the heat is wonderful after a winter that wouldn't end. You see the relief on every face. And when the sun blazes, who cares if that's it for lobster and Krug for the next 20 years? You can't take deprivation seriously when you're slapping on sun cream. Mañana we will worry. Mañana.

Or was it fear for the future that made the country look so over-and-above beautiful when the sun came out? I speak for London, but I can imagine the rest. London seems to roar when it gets hot. You can actually hear the streets sizzle. Trust me, if you don't already know: on a hot day there is nowhere on the planet it is better to be. Once upon a time I would have said Sydney, New York, Rome – in that order. But London, now that we aren't just galleries and museums, now that we have learnt how to eat outside and how to prepare food that's worth eating (that's to say, Asian), and if we can ignore the amount of the city that's being dug up by Murphy's (just don't drive) – London beats the lot.

There are 260 fibreglass elephants all over London at the moment. They are sometimes described as an installation but that demeans them. Installations are hateful things, except when Louise Bourgeois makes them, ironic rubbish dumps of an ideology inculcated in our art colleges where they're still pushing the Duchampian line that objects out of place are aesthetically challenging, no matter that they're so familiarly out of place that they look perfectly in place. Walk past a pile of coat hangers on a plinth in Trafalgar Square and you don't turn your head. The real shock of a coat hanger now comes when you find one in your wardrobe. I'm told that some middle-class children have taken to calling their bedrooms installations.

The 260 fibreglass elephants, anyway, are a charitable project to raise money for the Asian elephant whose numbers are in serious decline. They resemble the cow parade of a few years ago but are more beguiling for the reason that you'd rather look at an elephant than a cow. Elephants, we believe, have an inner life. We can see its operation in their eyes. Maybe cows do, too, but they are less complex. A cow is to an elephant what Simon Cowell is to Wittgenstein, or Cheryl Cole to Shirley Williams.

The elephants vary in posture. Some are elegant and aloof, some introverted, some too Disneyfied. Dumbo we don't need. They are similarly various in decoration, to which a number of famous designers have lent their skills. The best paint the elephants in the spirit of their habitation and culture; the worst simply use their bodies as canvasses to make a jumble of whatever they fancy. Either way, they inspire immense delight. People smile when they see them, walk around them, take photographs, tick them off on a map and move on to find the next. I haven't done the round of all 260 myself, but I like coming across ones I haven't seen before. They are a source of blameless pleasure.

But then, the other night, behind Oxford Circus, I saw one being harried by a bunch of boys. They were not vandalising it, though there's no saying what they might have done had I, in all my glowering fearfulness, not suddenly appeared on the scene. But they were pushing at it and prodding it, not in an investigative spirit, but aggressively, as though its simple existence as a foreign object was a trouble and a goad to them. They couldn't let it be. They couldn't leave it in peace. It felt like racism in its early stages of evolution: doing violence – if only, as yet, in their hearts – to something they couldn't assign a place to.

It reminded me of the concluding lines of D H Lawrence's poem "Snake" in which he describes throwing a stick at a snake in fear, and immediately feeling he has "something to expiate: / A pettiness". A feeling of pettiness I recognise, because I too was a boy once and might well have wanted to assert some pre-priapic mastery over a painted fibreglass elephant. Boys are problematic creatures. They poke things. They stand on things. They would kill things if they could, and soon, if they make it to be men, they will. The day after the prodding of the elephant, I saw a boy riding another one. He was Asian himself and looked good on it. He meant it no harm. But it was conquest he was after. He still needed to tame the beast.

I'm waiting for Michael Gove to finish turning every school into an academy and start instituting measures to deal with the problem which is boy. But he'd better get a move on. It won't be long before the boys in his party are prodding the coalition. And it ain't as sturdy as an elephant.

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