Stick to singles
‘If Pliny the Elder were alive today he’d be fronting Frack Off’
What was it E.M. Forster said about Florence? You only enjoy it when you stop trying to memorise who built what, and when, and just wander. The important things sink in by themselves. I arrive, not for the first time, sans Baedeker, and head straight for the Uffizi. The Vasari Corridor — a blissful kilometre of art and windows — was supposed to reopen this year after closing for restoration. It hasn’t. I’m told to come back in 2021. I start to itch for some who-what-when and reach for my phone. Apparently it took just five months for the passage to be constructed in 1565 as a wedding present from Cosimo I de’ Medici to his son. By 2021 its restoration will have taken five years. Forster wasn’t wrong.
The city is quiet at this time of year. At home, the idea of going to a café to write strikes me as utter madness — I depend on absolute silence and scowl at anyone who breaks it — but in a Florentine piazza in early spring everything seems possible. I sit at a rickety table with cicchetti and a pile of papers held down by a heavy ashtray (for once I’m grateful that the Italians still smoke) and start working. I edit a small Greek journal, and one of the articles I’ve brought with me is an interview with British Museum curator Ian Jenkins. I’m struck by something he says about people going through life without realising what we’re really good at. I start to wonder how many of us decide we’re bad at something before we’ve really given it a chance.
I recently experienced an earthquake for the first time. Around 3.40 am the bed suddenly jolted forwards then back, as if someone had applied an emergency brake to a speeding car. I wasn’t in Japan or Greece: I was in Surrey. This was the 23rd and, at 3.1 magnitude, the largest earthquake to have struck the area in less than a year. The Oil and Gas Authority (OGA) has denied that recent seismic activity has anything do with the extraction of oil and exploratory drilling taking place near Gatwick. I find it hard to believe there’s no connection.
There’s obviously much to gain from drilling here. After a well was first dug at Horse Hill five years ago, it was estimated that the area could yield more than 150 million barrels of oil per square mile. But at what cost? We’re blindly falling into the same trap that the encyclopaedist Pliny the Elder identified in the first century. “We all reach into the bowels of the earth while living on top of it,” he wrote, “but are amazed when occasionally it splits open or quakes, as if it were possible that this wasn’t an expression of disapproval by our sacred parent.” If Pliny were alive today he’d be fronting the anti-extraction movements and Frack Off.
It looks as if, after all the tears and tributes, Andy Murray may play again following the success of his hip surgery. For a while I was cross with Murray, who was rumoured to have put his weight and wallet behind plans to transform the grounds of Lord Beaverbrook’s former home into a golf course (how many golf courses does Surrey need?), but I’ve warmed to him, having become semi-serious about tennis myself. It’s an impossible sport. My serve is unreturnable, usually because it lands the ball on the clubhouse roof, but my backhand is improving, except when I play doubles, when I go to pieces. I’m giving it a chance. Murray talks of playing doubles if he doesn’t return to singles (I doubt he fancies his chances against the usuals or the ones behind them — the 20-year-old Stefanos Tsitsipas is the one to watch, I think) but to a novice this is mystifying. Doubles may require less movement than singles but it is so much more difficult. Returning a ball when you’re right up at the net is like swatting a mosquito before it bites you. I lack the reflexes — and the ability to predict what my partner’s up to behind my back. MPs should play doubles. Writers — always singles.
Walking down Piccadilly I’m surprised to see what looks like a bathtub of baked beans in the window of Fortnum & Mason. It turns out to be an enormous bowl, but the effect is clearly intended. Fortnum’s being the last place I’d ever ask for ketchup on my Jersey Royals, I am also taken aback by the ten-times-life-size bottle of it spilling its contents over the window display floor. This year marks the 150th anniversary of the foundation of Heinz. Emblazoning, Warhol-like, the slogan “Beanz Meanz Heinz”by the entrance to the Queen’s grocer may seem the equivalent of serving jellied eels with foie gras, but it bolsters what the rich have always known. Food from a tin is perfectly acceptable dinner party fare.