Jean-Léon Gérôme, The Duel after the Masquerade, 1857
Secret, secret, never seen…
David Bowie, The Secret Life of Arabia
It is one of the great media tropes, the secret or ‘double’ life. By day, he was an ordinary marketing manager, but by night… ‘Family man’ spent thousands on cocaine and hookers… ‘She’ was a ‘he’, says jilted lover… Usually, one reads these stories and thinks how the lives of others make one’s own seem so drab, somehow.
But what if the secret life wasn’t a Solihull truck driver who was a male escort after night fell, or a junkie priest, or that nice lad at the mosque with a basement full of bleach? What if the double life was being lived by whole countries, entire continents, a hemisphere? What if the world itself had been pulling a fast one all these years? He was very polite, a very nice man. We never thought…
Anyone over 50 and living in the West has, speaking purely materially, lived through peak humanity. We never had it so good, and nor did anybody else. One can only feel sorry for the migrants, all those hundreds of miles across treacherous oceans in a leaky rubber dinghy, all those smiling and helpful NGO girls at the other end spooning you into a boat and feeding you, a bit of a row with the Italian government who for some reason are not sure if they want you until the UN slaps them down, and then? You get to the venue and look at your ticket and find out the gig was yesterday. A prefab in Trestevere in winter during an economic recession will soon have you pining for the simple pleasures of the Maghreb.
Because it’s all downhill from here, and fast and brakeless too. Soon, it will be morning, and there the West will be, sitting on a bench on the railway embankment with a shining hangover, reeking of cheap cologne, the sole missing from one patent leather shoe, the casino closed, closed down, and all his chips still inside. Gambling is a mug’s game when your lucky number is 666.
British jail-birds have a phrase for when their past misdemeanours have finally caught up with them and run them to ground, when the lies have all stopped weaving their magic and just don’t work anymore. Things, say the lags, have come on top. Well, for the Western world, things have most definitely come on top. It did not have to be this way.
Somewhere along the way, nominally the 1960s but expert forensics by trained cultural historians will doubtless place the antecedents further back in the theatre wings of time, something went badly wrong with the Western world. It all got a bit, as mothers used to warn their children not to be, big for its boots.
When modesty and plain living were called for, out came the flash cars and the despoliation of previously pleasant areas of the world with cheap package holidays, out came the fast food and junk drinks, out came cheap – but still over-valued - mortgages on ratshit little houses in dogshit-studded estates, training shoes, daytime TV, white-sand beaches and a cocktail costing nine quid as the height of suburban ambition, theme parks (one could argue that the West itself is a theme park called, Ooh, I don’t know, ShitWorld), 29 flavours of puffed-wheat potato snacks, films based on pop songs or comics, politicians who had only ever worked in PR, advertising and the media, dating apps, television and more television, tattoos worn by people who were not warriors (although were tribal still), sportsball, cars and more cars, television programmes about cars, television programmes about the presenters of television programmes about cars, robot vacuum cleaners, cock-rings and pet groomers. And it could have been so good.
There was another way, there always was. There was always another life the West could have lived instead of the secret, maxed-out life it actually plumped for, and which is rapidly coming on top. It is hard to read the following snippet, kept in place like a lock of hair in a prized locket, from the great 19th-century novelist George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss, without shedding a tear for a Western world that might have been;
‘Here, one has conventional worldly notions and habits without instruction and without polish – surely the most prosaic form of human life: proud respectability in a gig of unfashionable build: worldliness without side-dishes’.
But we had to have the side-dishes, and plenty of them. The rice and the chicken korma just didn’t seem enough. We had to have all the dips and the yoghurt and the naan and the sag aloo. And now the bill is here and we haven’t got any money.
Like Paul Klée’s famous description of drawing as ‘taking a line for a walk’, we have taken an idea for a walk today. What if the West was all fur coat and no knickers? What if you can’t keep borrowing from Peter to pay Achmed? What if you can’t max out another credit card and just get a nought-percenter-till-2022? And, culturally, what if all those cheap rope-chains that look like gold aren’t really gold at all? What if Western culture, which is supposed to be so unique, is just a wet wank on a gloomy Sunday? I’m not talking about what Byron called ‘the glories of Greece and of Rome’, or the Renaissance, or the Enlightenment, or Gutenberg’s printing press or the Sistine or Beethoven’s 9th or Thomas Mann or Raphael or David Hume or Dame Margot fucking Fontaine, I’m talking about L’il Wayne and dildoes shaped like film stars and extreme sports and selfies in Machu Picchu.
What if the West has been living a double life all along, and now Mohammed has brought the bill for all those super-fizzy lagers and there’s no money to pay, and it’s all come on top?
Can’t tell you.
It’s a secret.