I don’t know if this is a phenomenon exclusive to timepiece-mad Switzerland where I have spent most of the past fifteen years of my life, but there is one particularly obnoxious publicity campaign that has assaulted my senses from every direction for as long as I can remember. A well-known watch manufacturer has taken it upon itself to broadcast what must be one of the more nauseating advertising ideas I have seen in recent years.
Anyone who has ever walked down the aisles of a Swiss airport will know the advert I mean. It is the picture of a Man with revoltingly sleek hair, an impossibly well-fitting suit and, quite clearly, a capital M. He is accompanied by a younger version of himself of more than usually revolting narcissism, and the imposing words: ‘You never actually own a Patek Philippe. You merely look after it for the next generation.’
The one redeeming feature of these posters is that they allow you to construct your own back-story for the characters. By now, I take comfort in imagining, the father will have lost his two million pound a year job with the brothers Lehman and the son’s father issues are so developed that even his psychotherapist may not be sure whether the Electra complex applies to him or not. Hey, that’s two psychology references in as many weeks – there must be some sort of prize for that. Maybe a buy-one-get-one-free deal on personalities?
But I’m getting distracted. The truth is that I don’t want to spend too much time on the overblown pretension of the figures in the images, the inane grandeur of the slogan or the diseased mind-set required to actually purchase a Patek Philippe. Such reverse snobbery is likely to come amiss from someone typing with a wrist weighted down by a Tissot. There. I’ve taken it off and the gloves could potentially come off with it.
But I have bigger fish to fry. As ridiculous as the Patek Philippe motto is when applied to a piece of metal you attach to your hand to avoid having to look up at the sun to know when to check your e-mails, it’s a pretty good sentence.
And it’s ideal when it comes to describing London. London is not a city anyone lives in. It’s a city that temporarily permits your existence until the time has come to move on. Not even the current resident of 10 Downing Street (I hesitate to give him a specific name: this article is supposed to be relevant until next Friday. Who knows what will have happened by then?) can truly claim to live in the city.
Whereas Manhattan intimidates with the ruthless grandeur of its architecture and the sheer petrifying breadth of its pavements (or do I mean sidewalks?), London needs no such physical displays of domination. The imposing nature of London comes from the ruthless grandeur of its great figures and the sheer petrifying breadth of its history.
If cities were high-class escort girls, Paris would get you a good time; gleefully faking her satisfaction loudly and often. Manhattan would probably have a book open behind your arhythmically thrusting back, totally and humiliatingly indifferent to you and your inadequate performance. Asking me to name the book might be to get carried away by the flow of the metaphor, but I would hazard a guess at ‘The Wealth of Nations’ or, perhaps, the TV Guide.
London, however, is where my metaphor really breaks down. Try as I might, I cannot picture London as a buxom bimbo with amusing sexual characteristics; I cannot visualize any act of closeness a person can have with this city. It is impossible to be on intimate terms with a city that has survived wars, revolutions, epidemics, fires, bombings and 5 months of Boris Johnson. Let Manhattan and other cities aggressively take you for a ride, brutally exhaust you and leave you spent and broken on the sidewalk (or do I mean pavement?). London may treat you more gently, but with an impassive dignity born of knowing your complete unimportance.
London is not a place you can mould to your own image. It is a city that inexorably moulds you. The city as it stands today is the product of countless generations, and your own insignificance weighs you down wherever you go. In smaller cities and towns you have the impression that you can make a difference. As though you can leave a mark that will last forever. Not here. A city where you can daily walk past the seat of kings, look up at the 51.6 meter phallus on which a one-eyed admiral who helped save an empire is perched, stare at the mother of all parliaments on your way to get something to eat or pass by the shrapnel-indented western wall of the Victoria and Albert museum is not a city anyone can be so arrogant as to claim to own or belong to. It’s a terrifying, dominating and unstoppable city. Our admiring may be done while crawling the kerbs and walking the streets, but the metaphor stops there.
As we are breathlessly carried along in its wake, all we can do is look after it for the next lucky generation.