I have been working on a review of a facsimile edition of Vivant Denon’s Voyage dans la Basse et la Haute Egypte (first published in 1802). After only a couple of hours of typing and revising, I am tense. I visualise the tension as a spider perched on the nape of my neck, where it inserts its poison-tipped legs into my flesh. From the neck, the tension spreads to the back and the head. The lettering on the word-processor’s screen dances before my eyes, just out of focus. It is time to skate. Freud remarks somewhere that the only true pleasure in life comes from fulfilling in adulthood the desires one wasn’t able to satisfy as a child. In Freud’s case, I vaguely recall that it was eating an ice-cream on the slopes of Mount Vesuvius. In my case it is roller-skating – easily the most delightful discovery since sex. Like sex, roller-skating is an activity that seems to have an affinity with flying, and my dreams of roller-skating and flying are perfectly interchangeable.
I have moved from the old-fashioned skate with wheels at each corner of the boot to what the trade calls in-line skates. But I prefer to call them roller blades and to think of myself as a blade runner, someone who is waiting for a Philip K. Dick novel to happen in. Specifically, I now glide about in the faster and more graceful Rollerblade Coolblades. These have a moulded and vented polyurethane boot with ratchet fastenings and high-rebound, polyurethane, Kryptonic wheels with sealed bearings. The wheels on the reinforced nylon frame are rockered so that, contrary to appearances, only two wheels of the skate are in contact with the ground at any one time. Moreover, a real skater works with the edges of those wheels, because the lightest pressure of the toes, transmitted via the frame, will take the edge of the blade one way or the other. All the same, there are probably people who still think that a roller-skate is just a shoe with wheels screwed onto the sole. My skating accessories include wristguards to protect my typing fingers, a head-band to stop my glasses flying off when I spin, a Walkman with a cassette of Fred Astaire’s tap-dance numbers on it and a pouch on the belt with a spanner and spare batteries.
I roll over to Battersea Park. For preference, I would skate on what was known as the British Genius site at the time of the Festival of Britain in 1951, but these days there always seems to be a fairground or a trade fair occupying the area. Today, I encounter a man from the fairground riding a unicycle down the central avenue. He tells me that he used to be an instructor at the Brixton roller-rink back in the Seventies. At his request, I perform a salchow and a camel spin and he criticises my style as too loose. I skate on and I continue to think about what to say about Denon and his transition from courtier and libertine to earnest proto-Egyptologist of the First French Republic. I imagine that someone somewhere has made a study of walking as a stimulus to composition, covering the Lake Poets, the Inklings and scores of other writers who composed as they walked. (Lord of the Rings in particular reads like an overly grandiose guide to fell-walking in Middle Earth.) But I am sure the relationships between skating and literary style have not yet been the subject of serious study.
As I skate, I keep an eye out for the Parks Police. Policemen regard roller-skaters with suspicion. Roller-skaters, nomads on wheels, are the pariahs of the parks, subject to arbitrary bans and regulation. The somewhat shady reputation of skaters goes back a long way. A handbook published in 1892 and looking back on some of the undesirable aspects of the roller-skating craze of the 1870s did not mince its words: ‘So frantic were the ladies who were bitten by the mania to attain proficiency, that they would accept the proffered assistance of any stranger who seemed capable of helping them; and if the stranger who offered his help was a good skater, and if the lady could not skate at all, the help given was so material that a feeling of gratitude was the result, and acquaintance, and possibly an undesirable acquaintance, was thus formed in a way wholly contrary to the recognised social rules.’ I like to think of myself as the sort of person the handbook warned of, a good skater cruising the parks looking to make undesirable social acquaintances.
All this notwithstanding the sickly pieties of the roller-skating manuals, from which one learns that roller-skating is fun for the whole family, promotes health and happiness, and is the sport of the young and the clean-living. The paradigmatically youthful, clean-living skater does warm-up exercises first, observes rink etiquette, is alert and courteous at all times and gives way to pedestrians. Undesirable acquaintanceships are, by implication ruled out. All the manuals I have seen are top-heavy on this sort of homiletic, and correspondingly weak on technical detail. Also, they are without exception written in the parish-magazine prose of the dedicated hobbyist. This goody-goody-two-skates literature makes me think of the astrology columns in newspapers, where readers are constantly being exhorted to come out of their shell a bit more, to take stock of things, to be a bit more adventurous, and to face the problems of the next few weeks with equanimity. I think that we all, roller-skaters and others, should resist this kind of creeping socialisation.
A Belgian musician and designer of automata, John Joseph Merlin, first skated on an early version of roller blades while playing the violin in 1760. But if roller-skating has a long history, it has only a short literature. Unlike cricket, it does not command literary partisans of the calibre of Harold Pinter and Tom Stoppard. Neither can it match swimming’s distinguished roll-call of writer-enthusiasts: Horace, Sidney, Marlowe, Byron, Arnold, Brooke, Gide, Scott Fitzgerald and, most recently, Charles Sprawson. It is true, of course, that Vladimir Nabokov was a keen roller-skater back in Berlin in the Twenties. More recently, my own novel The Limits of Vision included an extravagantly irrelevant vignette of a Victorian roller rink. However, it remains the case that there is a distressing cultural thinness about the sport.
For example, I know of no roller-skating short story to match John Cheever’s ‘The Swimmer’, in which the protagonist decides to swim home across a county via the pools of his rich friends, a story which is simultaneously an allegory of dream and disillusionment in a man’s life and a satire on affluent America. Suddenly it comes to me that this is one gap in literature that I may be uniquely placed to plug. Consulting a map of London, I see how I might be able to skate across the city from park to park, from Regent’s Park to Vauxhall Gardens via Hyde Park, Green Park and St James’s Park. Such an epic skate would be more than just a wheeled version of jogging: it would be a personal odyssey, perhaps an allegory of life, as in the Cheever story. Even as I pass through London on my Coolblades, my journey will turn into an oblique commentary on the state of the nation. I will have adventures and encounters with ghosts from the past as well as with assorted eccentrics. It is a journey that cries out to become literature. (This flash of revelation is a bit like that moment in the old musicals where Mickey Rooney smites his forehead and cries: ‘Why! We can do the show right here in the village hall!’) Resolving to skate from park to park across London on the first dry day, I roll home to finish my review for the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society.
The next morning starts bleak and damp and I am tempted to return to bed. However, guilt about competing deadlines drives me back to the word-processor. This morning I am feeling most guilty about the slow progress of my novel, so that is what I sit down to. Since the novel is about louche bohemians in Fitzrovia in the Thirties and Forties, there will have to be sex in it. But sex scenes are difficult to write at the best of times and just recently Auberon Waugh, from his offensive base at the Literary Review, has made things even more difficult by advertising a booby prize for the worst written sex scene in the coming year’s fiction. I start to tense up as I begin work on the first of my novel’s obligatory sex scenes. Then a schedule co-ordinator from Penguin rings to tell me that since my new book about the Arabian Nights was initially set in the wrong typeface, I will need to look at a second set of proofs. Someone else rings about arrangements for the Frankfurt Book Fair. The phone continues to ring and, by the time I have dealt with the fourth call, the black spider has once more settled on my neck.
I abort the sex scene and switch off the machine. The sun has after all come out and it is time for me to begin that journey which will be simultaneously a voyage of self-discovery and an investigation of the state of England. I take the tube to Camden Town and from there walk over to the central avenue which runs along the edge of the Zoo. Nervous about venturing on strange territory, I consult the notice-board which displays The Regent’s Park Royal and Other Parks Regulation, 1977. From this I learn that it is forbidden to land a helicopter in the park, which does not surprise me a bit. What is more disturbing is Section 3, Article 11 a, which states that ‘no person using a park shall play any game or engage in any form of sport or exercise.’ I decide to tough it out and I glide off down the central avenue, watched by the wolves in their enclosure. There are few people on my path and the downhill skating surface is good. I carry a notebook and pencil and I make jottings as I glide southwards. I am trying to construct a dialogue between a committed seducer and a no less determined virgin. ‘He says ... Then she says ... Then in response he says ...’ Working on the novel in this way is like playing chess against oneself, an exercise which is hard to do with conviction.
I am middle-aged, heavily built and slightly overweight, but once I am on my skates it is possible to experience myself as Ariel. The 13th-century Arab sorcerer, Abu’l-Qasim al-Iraqi, wrote in a grimoire of a spell to make a pair of sandals from gazelle hide and described how the ground concertinas under the feet of the possessor of such sandals, so that he may cover a month’s journey in a day. Roller-skating is like that. It transmutes the distance to be covered into the purest pleasure. Towards the southern edge of the park, I put on my earphones. I have a cassette of Satie’s Gymnopédies in the Walkman. My boots are less heavy than they look and I have been dancing on skates for years. Still, I am conscious that my performances may bear a passing resemblance to those of Beachcomber’s Huntingdonshire cabman:
To fairy flutes,
As the light advances,
In square black boots
The cabman dances.
From Regent’s Park I proceed down Baker Street and along Oxford Street. The streets are crowded. Occasionally, people turn to gawp, blocking the pavement as they do so. Although the Rollerblades come equipped with a heel-brake, I have had mine taken off in the interests of greater manoeuvrability. So, if the gawpers continue to stand their ground, I have only two alternatives: I can either leap over their heads or I can vanish in a puff of smoke. Time and again, though, I succeed in skirting disaster, and spotting gaps in the crowd ahead becomes a game. Hyde Park is approached by a subway. There is a Gents in the subway with a notice which advertises ‘a slippery floor’. For a skater this is irresistible.
I cruise around Hyde Park for quite some time. I have a dim memory of the park as it was in the late Seventies at the height of the last great roller-skating craze. I vaguely recall that there used to be an area of hard surface, perhaps a sealed-off road, where hundreds of skaters used to congregate and watch the masters zig-zagging along a line of tin cans, leaping over park benches and practising spins and spread-eagles. Eventually I find the place I was looking for on the north side of the Serpentine, but there are no skaters here today. Despite the introduction of the sophisticated four-in-line skate (developed in Minnesota in the early Eighties), the craze has never quite picked up again and the old roller discos, the Starlight and the Roxy, closed a long time ago. Even in New York one can no longer hire skates in Central Park.
From Hyde Park I cross over to Green Park. The paths continue to slope quite steeply downwards. Travelling north to south on wheels brings it home to me how all London slopes down to the Thames. From St James’s Park, I glide on through the nondescript streets of Victoria and Pimlico. Having crossed Vauxhall Bridge, I roll into Vauxhall Gardens. No longer the haunt of Addison, Fielding and Johnson, this bleak little wasteland masquerades as a park and is haunted by tramps. Here, in the contrast between the well-tended gardens of Regent’s Park in bright morning light and the glass-strewn pleasurelessness of Vauxhall Gardens in late afternoon, one might, if one really tried, find an allegory of something or other. But by now, I am conscious I have really blown it. I have encountered nothing that could be described as an adventure. I have met no old flames or memorable characters. It has been a very satisfying skate, but in literary terms, it has had more of Pooter than Cheever in it. But then it occurs to me that perhaps my day on skates has presented me with an accurate allegory of my life, as I glide effortlessly on well-oiled wheels through place after place, almost always alone. Whatever.
I have heard Dirk Bogarde describe the period between sunset and the failing of the light as l’heure verte. Before the melancholy of the green hour has time to steal upon me, I return to the word-processor. At last, I am ready to tackle the scene between the seducer and the virgin without panicking.