Howard Jacobson: It doesn't matter if there's a recession or not, because Armageddon is on its way
It’s business as before. Only this time with a hint of maniacal defiance
Saturday, 26 September 2009
More than a whiff of Armageddon in the air these last few days, what with Sydney Harbour turning blood red and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad repeating his Holocaust-was-a-lie libel at the United Nations, a denial carrying in its coat-tails the threat that it won't be a lie the next time. As Simon Schama wrote in a wrathful article in the Financial Times, "Far from being some sort of antic sideshow to his regime's ambition to acquire nuclear weapons, the obsession with annihilating Israel, it ought generally to be acknowledged, is the prime reason for it."
Meanwhile, in this paper, Johann Hari was contemplating an apocalypse of another sort as our species succumbs to what he calls "planetary fever" – the South Pacific drowning, the Amazon rainforest burning down, the Arctic belching its warming gasses into the atmosphere. "If we despair and wait glumly for the meltdown," he warned, "we will make it so."
One way or another, though, Sydney looked rather beautiful shrouded in the desert dust – but then apocalypse haunts our imaginations precisely because it is beautiful – the prospects for humanity are not good. The thing Simon Schama says we ought to acknowledge I have a terrible fear we would rather not. It sits easier with our ideologies to call it scaremongering: Israel and its friends merely softening us up for more Zionist predation. And Johann Hari's scenario the same. Though in the latter case it's not ideology or glumness we have to worry about so much as derring-do insouciance. It's not in our natures to despair. Eat, drink and be merry is more our style.
Have you tried to buy a Louis Vuitton handbag from Selfridge's lately? I ask the question, not to lighten the tone, but because the summer-long buying frenzy at the Louis Vuitton concession at Selfridge's, still going strong the last time I checked, proves our refusal to take catastrophe seriously. Reader, you would think from the queues, sometimes extending into Oxford Street, that a Louis Vuitton handbag is not only a reason for living but expresses the quintessence of life itself.
The concession itself is cordoned off. Two bouncers at one end, a sort of maître d' at the other with a clipboard in her hand, showing you to a counter when one comes free and otherwise keeping you calm while you wait. In early summer the buyers were mainly from Saudi Arabia and Dubai. Now they are Chinese, with a few mistresses of Moscovite oligarchs thrown in.
So why the urgency? Even by the prevailing standards of handbag hideousness, Louis Vuittons are unlovely to look at. They appear to be made of brown linoleum on which the letters L and V are stamped, which might be an inducement if your name happens to be Larissa Vine, or Lexi Viagra – or Louis Vuitton, come to that – but otherwise what use a person has for someone else's initials escapes me. What is more, the distinctive ugliness of Louis Vuitton bags makes them ludicrously easy to copy, which is why you come across African itinerants peddling them for flompence in every holiday resort in Europe. You know the scene. One minute the street is empty, the next upwards of a dozen Africans are rolling out bed sheets on which they display identical fake Louis Vuitton handbags until the Louis Vuitton police arrive, whereupon they have to roll up their bed sheets and disappear down an alley. The ludicrous re-enactment of this ritual, day after day, wherever there's the faintest prospect of a tourist – a thousand, thousand copies of an object you wouldn't think anyone would want were it genuine being rolled out of a bed sheet and then rolled back into it again – is suggestive of some deeper futility. Just don't ask me what. Maybe it's simply futility itself. The futility of our species.
"Recession! What recession?" – as the taxi driver dropping you off at the Ritz never fails to ask. The country is now full of recession bores, complaining that there isn't one, which ought not to be, when you think about it, a matter of complaint at all; but our irritation masks a discomfort we aren't certain how to express. For this is a recession that has divided more than ever those who have from those who don't. Leave aside the odd sacrificial banker who's had the decency to throw himself from a top-storey window, and the few more we've symbolically locked away, and this recession has barely scratched the rich. It is a recession of the poor. The poor lose their already miserably paid jobs while the rich queue patiently for their Louis Vuitton handbags which, let us not forget, are very far from being the most expensive handbags on the market.
Tell me this isn't Armageddon Now! Narrow your eyes and tell me that what you see on the streets doesn't resemble what you always imagined the last days of the Roman Empire would have been like – women costumed as though for an orgy that has lost its savour, hoisted on to shoes that make them walk like hobbled horses, parodies of themselves weighed down with gigantic party handbags costing more than an English teacher earns in a month and bearing someone else's initials; while the men, worried for their jobs but still spending, spending, peer after them uncertain whether what they feel is desire or derision.
The party was supposed to be over. After the orgy the wake. No more glugging back the Krug. No more blackened cod on Caspian sevruga or Wagyu beef in pear soaked in dai gingo sake. If this recession was going to have an upside, we thought, it was that we wouldn't have to book a table at our favourite restaurant two years before we wanted it. But it's business as before. Only this time with a hint of maniacal defiance. It is irrational not to be a little superstitious. You have to be demented to put yourself on a waiting list for a Hermès Birkin handbag costing £15,000 – think of all the Louis Vuittons you could buy for that! – and not know that you are asking the gods to strike you down.
There can be only one explanation: we are half in love with Armageddon. Bring it on. And so, transfixed by Holocaust-denied turning into Holocaust-fulfilled, we give the murder-speaking Ahmadinejad the time of day. We warm the planet, needing the profits from our factories to keep our daughters hobbling on their stilettos and never mind that their daughters won't have a street to hobble down. So beautiful, Sydney Harbour seen through the fiery red desert dust, like a city burning. So richly to be desired, the end of everything we love.