‘Where the fuck is the government?’ posters on Waterloo Bridge said. A road sign at the northern end flashed: ‘Global warming at work.’
La Disparition, a lipogrammatic classic, turns 50 today. You probably know who it’s by; if not, you can look it up to find out why I’m unwilling to say who did it. From its first publication on 29 March 1969, this book built a cult following. It’s primarily famous for what’s missing from it, a basic but important thing that forms a part of words you can’t usually do without. Staying strictly within this tight constraint, it says what it wants to say about its protagonist, Anton Voyl, and his vanishing act – a conundrum for his companions – in a grippingly ludic, rigidly formulaic way.
The fantasy of a universal language is at least as old as the story of the Tower of Babel.
Anthony Burgess went to Leningrad in 1961. Reading his stories about the trip, it's hard to tell how good his Russian was. Sometimes he portrays himself as fluent: ‘In my best Russian I said to various Dostoevsky characters: “Where, comrade, is the nearest aptyeka?” They were all evidently healthy people, well-fed on Soviet food, for they did not know.’ At other times he admits that his ‘tiny bit of Russian had burst at the seams’. He gets names wrong, referring to a friend as ‘Sasha Ivanovich Kornilov’ (an unlikely combination) and later calling him ‘Alexei’. His wife's name, Llewela, is a challenge to transliterate into Cyrillic, unlike their surname, which he spells 'Uilson' (his full name was John Anthony Burgess Wilson). The title page of one of his Russian textbooks, kept in the archive of the International Anthony Burgess Foundation (IABF), is inscribed in an outdated orthography, not quite consistently: Иван Вiльсон.
'Will we be safe here?' asked a German man sitting next to me in the front row. We were about to see Leave. To Remain (An Aristophanic Brexit Tale), a Fringe production modelled on Aristophanes’ Acharnians, whose protagonist, Dikaiopolis, makes a private peace treaty with Sparta while the rest of Athens remains at war. My neighbour was worried we'd be expected to take part in the show. It's set in a not too distant, post-Brexit future, where the British equivalent of Athenian direct democracy is interactive TV programmes.
On 30 May, when the Russian journalist Arkady Babchenko, reported dead the day before, appeared at a press conference in Kyiv, the Russian-language internet responded with the meme 'Tsoi lives'. The rock star Viktor Tsoi and his new wave band, Kino ('cinema', 'film') – with their simple but powerful lyrics, fresh tunes and the frontman's low, casually drawn-out, artfully accented baritone – were hugely famous in the 1980s. A university friend of mine lost much of his street cred when, on hearing someone say, 'Let's put some Kino on,' he replied: 'What film?' Tsoi died in a car crash in 1990, aged 28. 'Tsoi walls', covered in slogans and lyrics, have since sprung up in several cities, along with a number of sculptures, including one of Tsoi on a motorbike (he never rode one).
'The past does not enlighten us – but still, it attempts to say something. Perhaps the crow knows more about us and about history's dirt than we do ourselves.' These lines from Tomas Venclova's poem 'In the Lake Region' often came to my mind as I read Magnetic North, a series of conversations between Ellen Hinsey and Venclova, in which the Lithuanian poet, essayist and scholar remembers his life.
‘There’s a writer in England called … er, Peter Ackroyd,’ David Bowie said in a short film he made in 2003, ‘who wrote a book called … Hawksmoor I think it was. Wasn't it? Yeah.’ Ackroyd's 1985 novel struck him as 'a very powerful book, and quite scary', and in 2013 Bowie included it on a list of his favourite 100 books, ranging from the Beano to The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. His son, the filmmaker Duncan Jones, recently launched #BowieBookClub to discuss 'dad's favs' on Twitter, choosing Hawksmoor as 'an amuse cerveau before we get into the heavy stuff'.
Colourful banners hang from the balconies of Bowater House: 'Under London, heaven's light, grow life, not loot,' one of the 21 slogans says. Another: 'One day will this shadow fall.' The building is part of the Golden Lane Estate, a Grade II-listed social housing complex designed in the 1950s and built on a bomb site in the City of London. Bernard Morgan House opposite is shrouded in white sheets bearing the logo 'Taylor Wimpey'. The developer is about to demolish the building, which housed key workers between 1960 and 2015, and replace it with a 10-storey luxury block called The Denizen.
'People are like boats, we head off for a place we've been longing to visit for ages,' says a character in 'Pirate Rum', a short story by Tove Jansson. 'Maybe an island. Finally we get there. And what happens? We go right past, further out.' Having set off in a canoe, the man gets caught in a storm and is sheltered by two women living on a secluded island.