The blessed in the West
Travelling to Perth, AA Gill contemplates westerly things: the wild west, the triumph of the West, and the clanking train of Westernness that he pulls around behind him.
To “go west” means to die, to become incapacitated, to be surplus to requirements. Marriages, jobs and expectations go west. It’s supposed to come from the setting sun, the dying of the light, but there is another explanation for this euphemism for death. The condemned would be taken from Newgate prison in the City of London along Oxford Street to the Tyburn Tree, the gallows at Marble Arch.
It was the condemned men who went west, but west is also, contrarily, the direction of new starts, of opportunity (westward ho!), thanks to the great migration of Europe to America. And then when they got there, the immigrants found more west. They had bizarrely arrived on the east coast and had miles and miles of west to discover. The wild west became symbolic of rolling back frontiers, of freedom, of discovery and adventure. And in turn it lent its name to a whole genre, simply, the Western.
West End, West Side Story, west wind, Mae West. And Western civilisation. The triumph of the West. Simply known as The West. Redolent of cultural excellence, democracy, philosophy, Christianity, invention, discovery, but also of colonialism, exploitation, bigotry, hegemony and patronage.
When Kipling wrote that East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet, he was making a political point rather than a geographical one because east meets west everywhere; it all depends on where you start. The triumph of the West is something those of us who by chance have been born in the cultural West have to live up to and down.
The further east I travel, the more I’m aware of the clanking train of Westernness that I pull around behind me, like the tin cans on a bridal limo. It’s not just the assumption of money or the wilful inability to acquire or even notice the nuances of local etiquette.
I once asked a Japanese friend to teach me Japanese table manners. He said politely, no, he couldn’t possibly. I persisted: please, I don’t want to offend people. No, no, he repeated, I couldn’t. Look, I said, flatly, it’s my job to know this sort of thing. Teach me some f***ing manners. No, he said, less pointedly, I mean I can’t because you couldn’t learn or understand. He motioned to the restaurant and the whole of Japan outside it. We have excused all Westerners’ manners. We are not offended, because you know no better and we have agreed not to notice.
Western culture arrives as a boon and a bulldozer. It incites jealousy and dependence and it stifles anything that tries to compete with it. A Tajik taxi-driver in Uzbekistan railed at me for an hour about how it had nearly been his people from the eastern steppe who had conquered the West, and then he told me how much better off the world would have been. Principally, I discovered, because we’d all have more horses and better potato-based spirits. Why the light cavalry of Tamerlane and Genghis Khan didn’t make it to Paris is interesting. It was actually easier and more profitable to go east and south – that’s where the riches were. The West just had ideas and pale people with runny noses and snobbery.
I’m thinking about the West and westerly things because I’m writing this in the West End of London, but when you read it I shall be in the west of Australia, in Perth, a city I am constantly being told is further from anywhere than anywhere else. Obviously the people who tell me have never been to the original Perth, which is on the east side of Scotland. And although geographically it’s in propinquity with quite a lot of places, it is way out on its own when it comes to being spiritually or psychically or socially close to anything or anyone.
Scotland’s Perth is a town that draws in on itself and mutters under its breath. Breath that smells faintly of Parma violets to hide the whiff of medicinal fortified tonic wine. The stern Calvinism that has marked and preserved Scotland was fomented here in the humourlessly frightening low church. The city became famous for linen, leather, bleach and whisky. And not getting the joke.
I gather that your Perth is a centre of mining, and consequently rich, with all the savoir faire, gentility, fine taste and delicate manners that money always brings to Australians. I’m here – or about to be – to take part in a festival of foodism, a celebration of the alimentary roller-coaster, along with Heston Blumenthal and Alex James from England, and many cooks, chefs, chevaliers of taste and harbingers of produce from around the world.
I hope it’s like a great pilgrimage. I want us to process through vineyards offering blessings to Bacchus and dancing around harvest festival offerings to tunes played on pan pipes made out of carrots. I want competitive potato-peeling and waiters’ races and sommelier-dunking and bun-throwing. I hope this is a properly festive festival, all campfires and mud.
Actually, I’m sure I’m having a great time as you read this. I’ve never not had a great time in Australia, though I expect what I’ll find is closer to London, Marseilles, Hanover, Trieste and Rotterdam than it is to Jakarta.
The thing about the West is that although we come from the dying of the light and the end of days, we have been able to repeat our vision of the life worth living right around the globe. And if that sounds like colonial and cultural elitism and insensitivity, it really isn’t. It’s just the way it is. The West won. And I know that what I felt when I stepped off the plane in Perth was an odd feeling of being somewhere completely new but at the same time completely familiar.
This article was published in the November 2012 issue of Australian Gourmet Traveller.