Robert Irwin

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.

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