Will Self – The Book of Dave,2006

The Book of Dave

October 2000

     Achilles was getting off his plinth; first one big foot then the other tore
from its base with a tortured screech. He cut at the rags of mist with his
short sword and brandished his shield at the Hilton Hotel. A couple of
early-bird tourists who had been posing for a snap in front of the statue ~
male pecking with camera, female with wings neatly folded — were struck
to the ground by one of Achilles’s bulldozing greaves, as he clunked by
them heading for Apsley House. He did not waver — he had no quarrel
with them. He took no issue either with the cars he kicked as he strode
across the roadway and on to the traffic island. Seven metres of bronze
against two-millimetre thicknesses of steel — there was no contest; in the
statue’s wake smashed vehicles lay on their sides, their engines racing and
groaning.
     Lit by the rising sun, fingernails of opalescent cloud scratched contrails
on the sky. Achilles stood beneath Constitution Arch and beat shield with
sword. With a bang, then a spatter of stony fragments, the four horses
atop the arch came alive, tossing their leaden heads. The boy holding the
traces struggled to control them. Peace, erect in her chariot, her robe
coming off her shoulder in rigid folds, flicked the reins and the whole,
mighty quadriga rose, banked sharply and came munching down. Peace
threw her laurel wreath like a frisbee, and Achilles caught it on his sword.
     The other statues on the traffic island were animating: the Iron Duke
spurred down his horse, Copenhagen; the bronze figures that attended
him — Guard, Dragoon, Fusilier and Highlander — wrenched themselves
free from the polished granite and fell in behind their commander-in-chief.
     On the Royal Regiment of Artillery memorial the dead gunner rose up
from under his petrifed greatcoat and joined his comrades. Together they
unlimbered their stone field gun. David, tall, svelte and naked, shimmied
from the Machine Gun Corps memorial — sword in one hand, Bren gun
in the other. These terrible figures stood apart, turning to face down
Piccadilly, Knightsbridge, Grosvenor Place and Park Lane, undecided
what to do now movement had been bestowed upon them. The few
pedestrians who were abroad at this early hour scattered like rabbits,
tearing between the trees of Green Park, discarding briefcases and
umbrellas as they ran, while those drivers not violently impinged on
remained oblivious, their heads clamped in their own metal tumult. The
company of statues formed up, with Achilles in the van and Peace to the
rear. They marched of down Constitution Hill, feet striking sparks as
they clanked over the kerbs.
      All across London, as the statues came to life, they were at first bemused
— then only with reluctance purposeful. Clive of India jumped from his
plinth and took the stairs down to Horse Guards skipping. Lincoln at first
sat down, surprised, then, struggling up from his chair in Parliament
Square, crossed over to the menhir bulk of Churchill, took his arm and
assisted him to walk. Earl Haig led his mount alongside Montgomery, who
was preposterous in his dimpled elephantine trousers. In Knightsbridge,
Shackleton and Livingstone stepped out from their niches in the Royal
Geographical Society. Golden Albert squeezed between the gilded stan-
chions of his memorial, and those blowzy ladies Europe, Africa, Asia and
America formed a stony crocodile in his train. In Waterloo Place, Scott
strolled up and down the pavement, striking a few attitudes, modelling
his Burberry outfit.
      In Chelsea, Thomas More stood up abruptly, his golden nose flashing;
while across the river the droopy-eared Buddhas were stirring in their
pagoda. Up in Highgate Cemetery the colossal head of Marx wobbled,
then rolled downhill over the mounds of freshly dug graves. They were all
heading for Trafalgar Square, where five-metre-high Nelson was gingerly
shinnying down his own column, while Edith Cavell tripped past St Martin-in-the-Fields, her marble skirts rattling against the pedestrian barriers.
Not only human figures were on the move but animals as well: packs
of stone dogs and herds of bronze cattle. Guy the Gorilla knuckle-walked
out of London Zoo and around the Outer Circle; the dolphins slithered
from the lamp-posts along the Thames and flopped into town. Mythical
creatures joined the throng closing in on Trafalgar Square: riddling
sphinxes, fying griffins and even the ill-conceived Victorian dinosaurs
came humping overland from Crystal Palace. The whole mad overwrought
bestiary arrived ramping and romping. The Landseer lions rose up to meet
them, stretched and soundlessly roared.
     Multiples of monarchs: doughty Williams, German Georges, dumpy
Victorias. Presses of prime ministers, scrums of generals and colonial
administrators, flying vees of viceroys, gaggles of writers and artists,
cohorts of Christs – from façades and niches, plinths and pediments,
Crucifixes and crosses, the statues of London tore themselves free, until the
whole centre of the city was a heaving hubbub of tramping bronze,
clanking cast-iron, grating granite and marble. These graven images, these
tin-pot gods! They had no more uniformity of purpose than they did of
style, substance or scale — giant warmongers and diminutive deities, they
were distorted embodiments of their creators’ confused and ever-changing
priorities. They didn’t mean to cause any damage or distress — but they
just did. They left pediments bare and cornices crumpling, domes imploded,
porticos and bridges slumped, colonnades collapsed. They didn’t mean to
hurt the soft little people, but they were so big and hard that skins were
split and skulls were crushed wherever they went.
     Standing on the steps of Nelson’s Column, Achilles beat sword on
shield, trying to gain the statues’ attention. It was pointless — these hunks
could make no common cause, they knew nothing, felt nothing — only the
rage of eternal sleepers robbed of their repose. Greek gods and goddesses
stood about in profile; Saint Thomas à Becket writhed in his death agony;
Baden-Powell scouted out the terrain. Slowly — lazily even — the statues
began to fight one another. Marble clanged on iron, granite on bronze, as
the maddened effigies battled with the incomprehensibility of their own
sentience. What were they? Nothing. So sightlessly stared through for so
very long that they had no more significance than a dustbin or a postbox
— less perhaps.
     Then there was a diversion — some dumb cabbie had managed to wrestle
his vehicle free from the jam on the Charing Cross Road, and now he was
trying to turn around in the roadway beneath the National Gallery. He
backed and filled, knocking fauns, cherubs and caryatids over like ninepins.
Achilles leaped down from his vantage and strode over. He leaned down,
and his disproportionately tiny cock rasped along the cab’s roof shattering
the ‘For Hire’ sign . . .

 

Will Self, born 1961.        The Book of Dave, 2006

“Lest this seem too recherché, too recondite, too elitist, I would go further, and argue that as the aesthete was to the late nineteenth-century writer, so the ordinary man’s perception of the visual arts is to the twentieth. Joyce, as ever, stands at the crossroads of futurity. In Ulysses (1922), Leopold Bloom may be obsessed with the marble statues of the Greek goddesses in the Irish National Gallery for motives as much prurient as aesthetic, but the fact remains that he is obsessed by them. A pudendum is as good a way into a thing as any other.  In my own new novel, The Book of Dave (2006), I take this democratisation of the aesthetic a few steps further. My protagonist, a London cabbie called Dave Rudman, is a collector of statues: the entire city is his private gallery, its monumental works are his bibelots.”

Art for fiction’s sake: The Art of Writing, by Will Self. 1 September 2006. Tate etc. issue 8. Autumn 2006. http://www.tate.org.uk/context-comment/articles/art-fictions-sake

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Author: jeh

Jeremy Hunt is Director of the AAJ Press (Art & Architecture Journal / Press) – a writer and consultant on art and public space

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