Sport 41: 2013
Paul Ewen — John Berger & the Queen’s Horses
Buckingham Palace is a very useful place for manure. It’s horse-poo heaven, especially around the cobblestone periphery and on the large stretch of reddish road known as The Mall that leads towards the gates. By collecting a few pats, scooping them into plastic bags, I’m helping to beautify the surrounds for the overseas visitor, sparing their clumsy sightseeing feet the plops. Otherwise, it’ll wedge between the rubber patterns of their shoe soles and they’ll only go and traipse it through Harrods later, or The Ritz.
Horses are mentioned quite often in John Berger’s Booker Prize-winning novel G. They’re depicted as honourable creatures, as weapons, and as lasting smells on one’s hands. At one point, a galloping horse’s head is even compared to a penis. Today John Berger is appearing at the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA), situated further along The Mall, towards Trafalgar Square. I can’t really afford the price of a ticket, which doesn’t matter, because it’s sold out.
John Berger is perhaps the most notorious of all the Booker Prize winners. When awarded the prize at the official ceremony in 1972, his subsequent speech provoked a wrath of controversy. He accused the Prize sponsors, Booker McConnell, of contributing to the modern poverty of the Caribbean, suggesting they had amassed their wealth via exploitative means. According to John Berger, they had amassed their wealth via exploitative means. He subsequently announced that he would give half his prize to the Black Panthers, whose socialist and revolutionary thinking he could align with his own Marxist beliefs. Much criticism of his outburst would follow, and he would be sidelined from the other writers of the day, branded a rebel. Now living far from the literary scene, on a remote farm high in the French Alps, it is fair to assume he can escape from the encroachments of the media and the public, and meddlesome people like me.
The best time to collect free horse manure from The Mall is after page 269 a big procession, such as a royal wedding, or the demise of a Queen Mum. That’s when all the horses come out, and they tend to get kind of jumpy because of the crowds and the motorbikes and the TV cameras, and they poo more. Fresh horse poo usually hits the ground in large balls. The texture is not too dissimilar from that of a hot cross bun; the dark brown exterior looks as if sugar has been baked into the crusty coating, while the insides have a light yeasty quality, which is often exposed after the steep drop to the hard road. The more intact the balls, the easier they are to scoop into my plastic bags, but even the splattered yeasty bits can be herded and corralled by scraping my dustpan across the rough, tar-sealed surface. My clients would be most impressed if they knew that the Queen’s horses were making their flowers grow, not the common plop-plops of some bog standard sheep or cows. Special delivery poo, thanks to Her Majesty and Francis Plug!
My copy of G is secured within a plastic bag also, to keep it protected from the poo. It’s a first edition, and it’s not actually mine, so it’s important that I keep G from the poo of the gee-gees.
A hardened poo is rolling down my tilted dustpan when two police officers approach.
Policeman: What do you think you’re doing there, sir?
FP: Ahm . . . I’m just taking some of the horse poos away.
Policeman: And why would you be doing that, sir?
FP: Ahm . . . to put in the garden . . .
Policeman: To put in the garden. What’s your name, sir?
FP: Francis Plug.
Policeman: Francis what?
Policeman: Plug? As in bath plug?
Policeman: That’s your real name?
Policeman: Can we see some ID, Francis Plug?
I fish my card out of my wallet.page 270
Policeman: Francis Plug. Unbelievable. Let’s have a look in your bag, Francis Plug.
I open the flap of my satchel.
Policeman: Hmm. That’ll be the horse poo, then!
Policeman II: [Sniggers.]
Policeman: What’s in that plastic bag there?
FP: A book, called G.
Policeman: G? Pass it here please. Why’s it in a plastic bag?
FP: Because of the poos.
I look at my gardening boots.
Policeman: Well, Francis Plug . . .
Policeman II: [Sniggers.]
Policeman: I’m going to ask you to move on now and to refrain from removing any more HORSE POO, understood? Because that’s the home of the QUEEN just there and we don’t like people crouching on the road near the QUEEN’S HOUSE. It’s a bit SUSPICIOUS. Are we clear?
Policeman: Right, well on your way then. And no more of your horse poo collecting, Francis PLUG!
They’re laughing, the two police officers, they’re laughing at me. My hands are shaking, putting the dustpan back into the white plastic bag. The dustpan is light blue and it’s smeared with traces of browny green poo. It smells of horse poo, which is a nice smell, a country smell, a good smell. My hands continue trembling as I zip up the bag, but I’m not acting suspiciously. I am not. I’m not even looking at the Queen’s house, just collecting poos off the road, cleaning the surrounds, helping the tourists. My face and neck are burning as I walk away from the Queen’s house.
FP: [Muttering aloud.] YOU BLOODY IDIOTS! I WAS NOT BEHAVING IN A SUSPICIOUS . . . CAN YOU EVEN READ? page 271 MAYBE YOU SHOULD LEARN TO READ BECAUSE YOU’RE NOT VERY CLEVER YOU KNOW!
When I get to the ICA, I go straight to the bar and fill up.
FP: A drink please, a lovely drink.
Some people sitting near me in the bar are discussing a smell. This reminds me of a passage in G where John Berger describes the smell of the earth during a heavy storm, just as the rain first hits and begins to soak in. It smells, he writes, of meat.
Man: It’s shit. It definitely smells of shit. That guy there.
Woman: Say something! It’s disgusting!
A chair scrapes.
Man: Excuse me mate. There’s a really bad smell coming from over here. It stinks of shit, frankly.
FP: It’s not coming from me.
Man: Well it’s coming from your direction. And it only started when you arrived. It’s definitely coming from you, somewhere.
FP: No, it’s from the horses. From their bottoms.
I fiddle about in my satchel, producing some horse poo, waving it around.
FP: The police tried to arrest me for this, two of them. But it was on the road, outside the Queen’s house. It wasn’t actually in a horse’s bottom at the time.
The man begins talking to the barman who looks across at me, following the direction of the man’s pointed finger.
Barman: Sorry, sir. You’re going to have to leave.
page 272 FP: But I need to have some drinks, I really do. I’m going through a bit of a rough patch.
Barman: [Shaking head.] I’m afraid you can’t stay in here. That smell is very bad. The other customers are complaining.
FP: It’s a fresh country smell. Like . . . like Black Beauty.
Barman: No, people are trying to eat in here. Ok? You’re putting people off their food.
FP: But why are they eating in here? This is a bar!
Barman: Come on, sir.
FP: But . . . but what about those elephant poo paintings? Remember? In that art gallery! Where was it? People paid good money to see those!
Barman: [Shaking head.]
FP: Can I at least finish my drink?
Barman: [Shaking head] I need you to leave now, sir.
FP: [Loudly humming Black Beauty theme tune.]
John Berger is inside Cinema 1, so I sit on the red leather bench seat outside, waiting for him to emerge. It’s a pointless exercise, really. If I want to learn how to be a public author, I need to be in there, inside the cinema. At best I can wait and pick up some tips on how to sign books, and maybe some insights on author fashion. What else can I hope for? That simply by standing close to a real-life famous author, that some of his precious aura and talent may somehow be distributed to me? Transferred like pollen, blown across the air currents and sprinkled about my person?
I’m not the only one waiting. A man sitting further along the bench seat has a black bag with three or four John Berger books in tow. I’ve seen him at signings before. His motivation, I reckon, is a monetary one. His nose is a nose for investment.
Having unwrapped my book, I lay it on my lap, just in case some gland secretions from my sweaty hands should seep into the jacket design and spoil the red colour pigments. To keep the book steady, I hold my knees together, imagining I am a woman from the 1950’s who is wearing a pretty dress, waiting to be asked for a dance. Looking up, I am surprised to find the book investor standing over me.page 273
Book Investor: Do you know where that smell is coming from?
FP: Which smell?
Book Investor: Can’t you smell it? It’s like manure. Animal poo . . .
FP: Maybe it’s these leather seats . . .
Book Investor: Are you waiting for John Berger?
Book Investor: [Nodding towards my book.] You don’t see many hardback copies of G. [He produces an almost identical hardback copy from his bag.] Of course, I’ve got one . . .
He looks at the copy in his hand, turning it over, comparing it with mine.
FP: You know, John Berger once said: Imagination is not, as is sometimes thought, the ability to invent; it is the ability to disclose that which exists.
Book Investor: [Shakes his head.] Did he?
FP: Do you believe in goblins?
Book Investor: No. Do you?
He walks quickly across the large black tiles embedded with craggy stone chips. When he sits down he pulls his jumper up over his nose.
John Berger’s event is running over and now people are congregating for the screening that follows. A few people sniff the air, others whisper. They are screwing up their noses as if they’ve never smelled a farmyard before. It’s starting to wind me up. The police interrogation. The lack of drinks. And now this. Courting unwanted attention via crumbly balls of poo. I can feel myself losing it.
FP: What am I doing here? Learning to be a public author? But I’m outside, in the foyer! Stinking of shit! LITTLE CRAGGY STONE CHIPS, STINKING OF SHIT!!
The doors to Cinema 1 are suddenly thrown back and a crowd of people begin to blow out like air from a balloon. The book investor slips in with the crowd for the next event, fighting against the stream page 274 of those exiting. Is John Berger signing books inside the theatre? Should I be forcing my way in too? No, there he blows, he’s breaking through the counter-flow. His arm is held firmly by a younger woman who directs him straight to the automatic doors and out towards The Mall. I scramble up to follow, bumping my way behind, as if gripping the tail of John Berger’s imaginary cloak.
Outside, he stands with his head bent forward, lighting a cigarette. Despite the wind’s bitter bite, he is covered in little more than a buttoned shirt with the sleeves rolled up. He’s not a tall man, John Berger, but he seems quite a fit and sturdy fellow, such as one who might chop his own firewood. It seems difficult to believe that he’s beyond his 80th year, and as such, one of the oldest winners of the Prize. Only three Bookers were awarded before his, and only one of their recipients is still above ground.
John Berger is quickly ringed by admirers, seeking first-hand contact with the object of their regard. Lighting a cigarette with trembling hands, I attempt to hold the filter end steady and inhale the smoke, just like John Berger is doing.
Standing on the edge of the group, I feel as if I am attending an awkward social gathering that I’ve only been invited to out of politeness. With no formal queue in place, our presence around John Berger seems smothering. Putting myself in his position, simply wanting a quiet smoke, I feel smothered too. My nerves, already frayed, are beginning to snap.
Before long a couple of brazen hangers-on, including the book investor, thrust their books forward without subtlety. I hang back, hoping to get some of the smaller crumbs from the more feisty ducks. However, the young female aid, aggrieved by the leeching crowd, attempts to get John Berger towards the road to flag down a taxi. As he moves off with her, I catch his eye from my awkward background foothold, holding up my book hopefully. He stops and I apologise.
FP: I’m really sorry about the smell.
John Berger: Hmm . . . what is that smell?
FP: It’s my poo. My horse poo! The Queen’s horses!
John Berger: [Laughs.] Fair enough! Just a signature?
page 275 FP: No! No, to Francis Plug. Please!
John Berger: Francis with an ‘i’?
FP: Yes, please.
John Berger: And Plug . . .
FP: P.L.U.G. I’m . . . I’m a writer too.
John Berger: Are you? Well! Keep hard at it, won’t you?
FP: I WILL!
John Berger: Um . . . are you OK there, Francis?
FP: [Nodding, reaching for handkerchief.]
John Berger: You’re sure?
FP: Yes! Thank you very much! Thank you!
I feel like I’m walking through a waterfall as I re-enter the ICA, searching out the toilets. I’m leaning on the basin when the door behind me shudders open, so pushing the push-down taps, cupping the water, I manically splash my face and hair.
FP: [Shouting.] I’VE GOT WATER IN MY EYES! TAP WATER!