Regular readers of this column mark well what occasional skimmers of the New European invariably miss (just one more reason to buy weekly): the “multicultural” in its title refers not to the obvious sub-categories of “culture”, as commonly and contemporaneously understood – national, regional, ethnic, regional, religious, periodic (the culture of the Middle Ages et al). Nor yet does it address the subcultural distinctions of sex and sexual orientation that so trouble the young, between gay and straight, gender-fluid and non-binary etc.
Furthermore, while MM is taken by the way culture – in the sense of creative works of all sorts – becomes commodified, this is not a column about what’s on Netflix, or what Opera North is putting on. Such things are really only listicles of prejudice and presupposition, anyway.
No, MM takes as his subject the interstices between all these phenomena – the grout of culture, not its tiling; for it’s in these odd things and novel practices that we sense the great fluvial motion of human culture through the ages, carrying society after civilisation inexorably… downstream. So, on that understanding, here are my cultural highlights for the 2023 rentrée.
First off, an agreeable trip to the massive Sainsbury’s in Nine Elms. We’re saddened that the tumorous branch of Habitat that had grown in a far corner of this vast mart has been excised, but were delighted to see that the Starbucks underneath it is still open for business, and selling an excellent new beverage: coffee infused with extra virgin olive oil.
We had the latter, which was also “steamed with oak drink”, whatever that means. It tastes as you’d expect – and leaves a satisfying oleaginous coating on the palate and the roof of your mouth. I’d like to give you some guff about how the current obsession with caffeinated drinks full of farm-gate products represents a collective attempt to reverse the consequences of industrialisation in the realm of the gustatory – and I just have.
More interesting, still, is the extra-virginity of the olive oil in this, a culture which, for the most part, has long since ceased to place an exaggerated value on such things. Or has it – are we not perhaps drinking all this pap, which has the sickly-sweet warmth and consistency of breast milk, because we secretly wish to return to what we imagine to’ve been a more innocent realm?
If so, we’re sadly deluded – as a further excursion we took this week to the MRI department of Guy’s Hospital confirmed. MM may be of an age where they scan his brain for possible infarcts, but being – as his moniker would suggest – legion, he’s also of an age to’ve had inadvisable tattoos done when he was a lot younger, although fortunately not on his bonce – because as the radiographer vouchsafed, certain tattooists use zinc-based inks, which mean that once their former clients are placed in the powerful magnetic fields of the imaging scanner, their own images begin to, um, heat up.
If these benighted individuals are unconscious at the time… Well, the words “it smells like bacon frying” didn’t actually pass their lips – but they were hovering in plain view.
As was a copy of The Letters of John Keats in the so-called Keats Room of the Spaniards Inn, the celebrated coaching inn that still forms one half of the pinch-point on the surprisingly rural road between Highgate and Hampstead in north London. Once the celebrated haunt of highwaymen such as Dick Turpin, and certainly known to Keats at the time he lived in the area (a mere 17 months, 1818-19), you’re now more likely to see a group of dental hygienists from Pinner on a night out.
Which is not to be a snob – why the hell shouldn’t they drink and nosh in this beautiful hostelry, dating back to the 16th century? So what if they don’t give a shit about a beaker full of the warm south beyond knocking back the prosecco, while for them to be half in love for easeful death would be to go on a white-water rafting experience, they still don’t deserve to have the piss taken.
How so? The cover of the copy of Keats’ Letters, which forms the centrepiece to the little faux-literary shrine in the eponymous room, is a mere photocopy of the jacket, while the book it encloses is a bound volume of Readers’ Digest condensed novels.
To paraphrase the perennial philosophy of the teddy bear I bought for my then 13-year-old daughter at the Build-a-Bear shop in Bluewater shopping centre in 2003, and in the belly of which we implanted a small recording of my own monitory voice: “Buck up, Spaniards Inn! Buck up!”