The Atlas of Norbiton is a weekly bulletin from Norbiton: Ideal City of the Failed Life. Unlike its more comprehensive, detailed and discursive mother site, the Anatomy of Norbiton – hailed by Nige as “a thing of strange beauty and wonder, inspired by the South London nowhere known as Norbiton” – the Atlas is intended as a pocket guide to the Failed Life for Failed or Failing Individuals on the move.
It is an Olympian year, and Norbiton is looking forward to seeing the Games unfold across town like one thin random slice from an exhaustive and barmy taxonomical grading of all possible human activity.
But Norbiton is also nonplussed, because it notes that these various antics are rewarded with medals and acclaim and triumph; and Norbiton does not recognise Triumph.
It recognises a triumph. But that is a different matter. A triumph looks like this:
This is Federigo da Montefeltro, Duke of Urbino, making his absurd and ambling antique progress to nowhere in particular, looking not the least troubled. There is nothing triumphant about this, or triumphal. It is only a representation of an ornamental interlude. Life is elsewhere.
Triumph, however, as crystallised in medal ceremonies and award ceremonies, is different: it is understood to be the proper end of achievement. We are supposed to believe that the most rarefied moments of life and its greatest rewards are played out, not in your living room, not in the pub, still less on an allegorical float, but on a podium or a red carpet. This is what you dream of, work towards. This is where you finally come into your own in the public realm.
Needless to say, most of us never get close to a podium and are none the worse for it. But we participate nevertheless. Between Christmas and New Year I drifted over to the Dark Side on a tide of brandy and seasonal indifference, and watched a bit of Star Wars. It has been many years since I last saw any of this most earthbound of galactic adventures and I find that I have, in the interim, lost my taste for gormless epic; but I sat though a couple of the movies regardless, and was greatly struck by the prize giving event with which the first of them (which is to say Episode IV in the revised catalogue raisonné) collapses in on itself.
What astonished me was not the preposterous medallions our heroes have hung around their necks by Princess Leia, or the sight of Han Solo sheepishly loving the adulation, or indeed the fact that the band seems to be playing a derivative of Walton’s Orb and Sceptre, as though the Coronation of 1953 were the only template for collective rejoicing that George Lucas and John Williams could think of.
No. What struck me was the docility of the audience. There they stand in their colour-coordinated ranks, and they clap and cheer, quite as if clapping and cheering were the necessary engine of the Glory to which they bear witness. And so it is. Clapping and cheering are an audible catharsis. We clap because we are pitifully grateful. Award ceremonies, we intuit darkly, are not choreographed for the benefit of those honoured, but to inspire awe and expunge anxiety in the rest of us. If we are handing out medals, then we cannot be losing, can we? Everything must be fine.
I don’t know, having said all that, what a Norbiton Olympics would look like. We like to think of ourselves, not as Olympians, but as forgotten chthonic deities, ancient castrated gods and toothless earth goddesses, fauns, satyrs, centaurs. So I suppose that while there would be a lot of amiable milling about, you would probably be able to walk from one end of Norbiton to the other without realising that a Global Sporting Event was taking place. Everyone would have a drink. We’d possibly seek to ascertain who could throw certain objects the furthest; we’d probably have a kickabout and then forget to keep score. It might be fun. It certainly wouldn’t be oppressive. And it would not have – would not know how to derive or organise – any sort of Medals Table.
The Norbiton Games would above all explicitly recognize that certain forms of endeavour achieve nothing but their own proliferation. Doing them only means you have to do more of them. You cannot award medals in them because you cannot find the end of them, or for that matter number the participants, and anyway the game such as it is merely throws up more imponderables, anxieties, perturbations, is more agonised than agonistic. I am talking of course about the forms of daily life – of work, properly understood, of play, contemplation, idleness and conviviality.
I note that when, in the Return of the Jedi, the liberties of the galaxy are finally secured (by small bears if I have understood correctly), everyone just has a bit of a dance.