Shallow Assets

I have been sent away to recuperate. I have a little room of my own with a trim single bed and a bedside table. On this are the book that I am currently reading and two get-well gestures. Amy had sent some of the little crispy things that taste of rainwater, in an exquisite china bowl. I texted to thank her.

“It’s beautiful. Is it Qin Dynasty?”

She replied: “Qing. Idiot. ”

Ijaz sent me a selfie. He had printed it, framed it cheaply but neatly and consigned it to the post in a bubble-wrapped envelope. He was wearing his green Lands End slipover but a white skull cap, acknowledging Ramadan. I wondered, but without passion, what the position of the Prophet was on selfies. Was not the representation of the human form frowned on?

And Augustus Sly had come to see me. He accepted a mug of milky tea from one of the nurses, waited until he had left the room and said, “What is this appalling place?”

“You’re only saying that because you got lost on the way from the station. I’m very lucky to be here.”

Augustus Sly was about to explain that as a student he couldn’t afford to travel by car, so I forestalled him by telling about the place, appalling or otherwise. There was a family connection, I told him. It had been the country seat of my great-great-great uncle Featherington. It had been sold decades ago but for some reason a family connection had been maintained. It was now a private home for the mentally frail, its fees not modest, but my mother had been able to make some phone calls and get me admitted for a short time.

“Uncle Featherington had a daughter called Alicia,” I said, “and she wrote a book about her early years spent here. It was never published commercially but you can download it from one of those history sites. Shallow Assets: Memories of a Gloucestershire childhood. It’s not very interesting: fêtes, fun at the Harvest, bucolic Christmases, outbreaks of beastliness at the village school, the usual thing.”

Shallow Assets?” said Augustus Sly. “What are they?”

“It’s the name of the house. It’s a joke, apparently. ‘Assets’ comes from the French ‘assez’, meaning enough. ‘Shallow’ suggests not enough. Or some think it could be a corruption of a dialect word for osiers, which were grown here. It’s marshy land: not very healthy.”

Augustus Sly grunted. He hates exhibitions of pedantry by anyone other than himself.

“One day – before I was sick – Bella grunted like that,” I said, “and involuntarily shat herself. Only a nugget, but she was devastated.”

I smiled to myself. How much I miss her.

Augustus Sly ignored this too. He turned over the book on my bedside.

“Crap,” he said.

He fingered the bowl with the little crispy things that taste of rainwater.

“You can have one,” I said, “only. And it’s Qing Dynasty.”

“Well, only an idiot would think it was Qin,” said Augustus Sly.

“And,” he said, why is that man wearing a white skull cap and a Lands End pullover?”

“I know that,” I said, “because the better half sends me texts quite often.”

“How often?”

“Yes, quite often.

“Because it is Ramadan, she tells me, Ijaz goes to the mosque for prayers five times a day. Sometimes he wears the full formal kit but for other times smart casual is acceptable, so long as the white skull cap is also worn.”

“It sounds like Church in our own mellow tradition,” said Augustus Sly. “Tweeds for Matins, but corduroy trousers and a nice woolly quite proper for Evensong.”

“You get to thinking in here,” I said, after a pause.

“Unwise,” said Augustus Sly.

“What are we doing to our planet, Augustus Sly?” I said. “The hottest year on record yet again. Look at the little leaves! Scorched! Is this an English summer, in our own mellow tradition as you say, as we knew them in our youth? My youth, anyway. I don’t think so. Presenters of television programmes sodomising corpses. And the acronyms, the three-letter-acronyms. All this nonsense about KYC, the gas bills everywhere. What will they do when the gas board don’t send bills? They don’t send me bills, only demands from made-up firms of solicitors…”

“I can’t read about KYC,” said Augustus Sly, “without thinking of KY jelly – talking of sodomy.”

“Exactly,” I said, ignoring him. “Faced with a problem – venal money-laundering bankers in this instance – they invent a three-letter-acronym, KYC, put together a hugely complicated and entirely pointless procedure and employ a bureaucracy to administer it. Then they sit back smugly as if they’d done something useful. And look at female genital mutilation. Can you think of anything where the rights and wrongs are less evenly balanced that having your clitoris cut out without any say in the matter? They ignore it for decades, no doubt because Harley Street is doing very nicely out of it, thank you, and when they cannot do that anymore they turn it into a three-latter acronym, FGM, and endlessly discuss the cultural implications on minority television channels….”

“You’re shouting,” said Augustus Sly.

“I’m sorry.”

He wiped my lips with a tissue provided by the establishment.

“Are you restrained here?” he said, “by any chance?”

“They took my trousers and wallet,” I said. “They said it was for reasons of security.”

“Neither,” said Augustus Sly, “is a problem in the great scheme of things. We must get you out of here. It’s not doing you any good. Do you think the better half would give you a chitty?”

“I don’t know. She said that she was very busy.”

“In that case,” said Augustus Sly, “we will resort to subterfuge.”

He took out his mobile phone and searched for a number.


Secret Water

It’s funny how life imitates art.

The scene in my latest post where my mysterious double Alfredo, in a guise as an Italian which may or may not be natural to him, capers bandy-legged around the lady from the trattoria while uttering the sort of cries that an Italian impersonated by, say, Benny Hill might use, came as I thought entirely from my head. In the post I speculated indelicately about the reason for the bandy-leggedness.

Later the same evening that I made the post I accompanied the better half to the front door of our block of flats for her post-prandial cigarette. Our new neighbour came up to us. He has taken quite a shine to her and when he sees her goes immediately into stage-Italian mode. No finger stays unkissed. He ignores me completely – looks straight through.

On this occasion however there was a significant modulation. For the first time he went bandy-legged. He had capered before but straight-legged, as an Englishman might, if of course the English were given to capering. I was marvelling at the bandy-leggedness, the way the sharp little Italian shoes came up, first one and then the other, each at right angles to the temporarily stationary leg, when he went one further than even Alfredo, as imagined by me, had. Ensuring that he had the better half’s attention he gesticulated at his crotch.

Two big melons! he said.

I felt obscurely vindicated. The better half says that she did not hear the remark, which is a credit to her wholesome cast of mind. Nonetheless, he certainly made it.

Anyway, from the ludicrous to the sublime.

On the morning of my eighth birthday I was called into my parents’ bedroom. Traditionally in our household a gift would be vouchsafed on these occasions, together with a hearty handshake. Afterwards I would go as usual to fetch in the coal. That was my duty. Then half an hour for my Ancient Greek studies, and the family would finally gather for porridge, and then school. Nothing more would be said about birthdays.

Anyway on this occasion we were still at the present and congratulations stage. My mother handed me a book. I could see that it was unwrapped and slightly grubby but it was complete, with a dust wrapper in near-fine condition.

Lovely, I said, a second-hand book.

It’s not second hand, she said. Your father’s reading it.

Give it back, he said. You can have it again when I’ve finished it.

It’s awfully good, he said by way of explanation.

That was my first (and his first) Swallows & Amazon book, by Arthur Ransome. After that they came frequently, with or without a birthday as a pretext, until I’d read them all. And I’ve read and reread them since. I loved the camping and the sailing without for a minute wanting to try either activity voluntarily myself. What I really loved and tried to replicate was the map-making.

In each of the books the children find themselves in a real landscape and they rename all its features to conform to their own fantasies, whether of being pirates or explorers. Sometimes the real landscape (as in the books set on the Norfolk Broads) corresponds more or less exactly to objective reality, but the lake in the early books is a conflation of two different lakes in the Lake District.

My favourite of the books was always Secret Water, partly because map-making is what holds the book together – there’s little plot and nothing much happens. The children spend a couple of weeks in a tidal area, flooded by the sea at high tide and mud flats at low tide. Birds feature, and eels. There is a map in the inside front cover and the islands and inlets on it are named by the children.

I was determined to find out if it was a real place. I knew that it was said to be on the east coast of England so I borrowed the AA road map from the family car and systematically cross-checked. I found it. With the exception of one non-existent creek it matched exactly an archipelago in Essex.

Fifty years of school, university and work then intervened. They invented the internet.

I bet it’s gone, I thought. It can’t have survived anthropogenic climate change. It’ll be under the rising sea. It would only take a few centimetres there to make a big difference. I summoned Google Maps in some trepidation. There is was, just as it always had been.

Well I expect it’s an Arthur Ransome theme park, I thought.

Now that we’ve got a Mini, I said to the better half, we’d better go and find out.

Like many women, the better half is good at multi-tasking.

Good idea, she said. We’ll take the kayak that I’ve borrowed from Thumper and we can paddle round it. I tried to explain that what I wanted was to be alone with my melancholy thoughts, but the kayak was in the back of the car last Sunday when we set out. Fortunately we were meeting our friends the Fosters there and she is too pregnant to be able to bear the excitement even of watching us attempting to boat. So the kayak was quietly forgotten, and by mid-afternoon we were walking down a deserted track (there is no Arthur Ransome theme park) towards the causeway where the children were caught by the tide and nearly drowned, and there it was snaking away to the island where the farmhouse (the ‘Native Kraal’) was just visible in the afternoon sunlight and we could not follow it or we too would have been caught by the tide. I was profoundly moved. We turned, like Moses at Mount Pisgah, and went back to the car.

I don’t think that we are done with Secret Water, and the kayak may well yet come into its own, maybe rechristened and bearing at its prow a small Jolly Roger.

Wikipedia reveals incidentally that the correct and splendid name for the inlet that the children call ‘The North West Passage’ is ‘Cunnyfur Ooze’. That would probably appeal to the smutty mind of our Italian neighbour. On second thoughts, he’d probably be more at home with ‘Enormous Cock Mountain.’

Problematizing Patriarchy Wholesale

What a week it has been for the striking of poses.

Serena Williams, who I am sure needs no help from me, is being criticised for remarks in an interview with Rolling Stone magazine about a sixteen-year-old girl who was raped. Presumably (I haven’t read the interview) these remarks were by the way, and the thrust of the interview was about tennis or fashion or the other things that make Serena Williams such a remarkable person. She is reported as saying that the girl who was raped, having been very drunk at the time, was lucky that the outcome was not worse. Ms Williams has been roundly accused of suggesting that it was the girl’s fault that she was raped. Here for instance is Eris Zion Venia Dyson:

The rape and sexual assault of women in this world has been a tactic of war and control since the beginning of time.

Our bodies politicalized [sic]. We as women are constantly guilty for being women, for being beautiful, for being afraid, for being drunk, for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Search for one woman that was “asking for it” … and you’d have a snowball’s chance in hell of finding one. Williams’ statements hurt plenty of us to our core.

In other words, it is not about the girl, or even about Serena Williams, it is about the very real feelings of hurt experienced by Eris Zion Venia Dyson.

And here is Jill Filipovic, also in the Guardian:

There are few sports more popular in Americans [sic] than beating up on women. While men are disproportionately the aggressors in both physical and emotional abuse, women certainly aren’t immune from attacking our own – particularly, it seems, with words.

Two things occur to me.

The first is that that to suggest that it is foolish to put yourself in harm’s way is not at all the same as saying that the harm that results is your ‘fault’, which has been the universal assumption of the commentators. They are two entirely different things. Rape is inexcusable. Putting yourself unnecessarily in harm’s way is reckless – and that is not a moral judgment but a practical one. Both propositions are true and neither detracts from the other. By the same token, nothing excuses the police when they hurtle along the pavements in their cars, mowing down members of the public in their pursuit of wrong-doers; but to suggest that it is wise to stand well back when you hear their sirens is not, pace Ms Filipovic, ‘beating up on’ pedestrians.

Secondly, Serena Williams is not only one of the supreme sports people of our time, but she has achieved it with grace, style and a very unusual nonchalance. Her post-match interviews do not follow the usual anal and brow-furrowing analysis of the player’s own technique. It would be presumptuous of me to say if she is a positive role model for women: she is certainly a positive role model for human beings. She is entitled to some gracefulness in return.

And then we have Nigella Lawson and Charles Saatchi.

Just as the reaction of the people who were in the room when the American girl was being raped was to film the incident and put it Facebook rather than helping her, so those present when Mr Saatchi put his hands on Ms Lawson’s neck, rather than intervening, took photographs which one of them then sold to a Sunday newspaper for, apparently, £14,000. Ms Lawson has preserved a dignified silence, so we don’t know the context of what happened. Mr Saatchi has been given and accepted a police caution. You might think that the sorry affair had returned to the realm of the private and that journalists who professed solidarity with Ms Lawson would allow her the space to deal with the incident in her own very capable way unaccompanied by little shrieks from the media.

Not a bit of it. As with Serena Williams, a number of commentators have drawn their habitual conclusions about the position of women in society. Eris Zion Venia Dyson has not yet so far as I know confided her views to us, but I dare say that she would assert that this incident too was an example of a tactic of war and control since the beginning of time. People running women’s hostels have opportunistically called for more money from the government.

Most sinister have been the calls on public figures to ‘condemn’ Mr Saatchi. A few, such as Nick Clegg, have declined on the grounds that it’s not clear what happened and in any event it’s none of their business. The editor of the Standard has been urged to cancel Mr Saatchi’s column in the paper. Her refusal has been met with howls of abuse. Failed Tory MP Louise Mensch wrote: ‘”The amount of domestic violence apologism that has gone on is absolutely shocking.”

Again, two things occur to me.

Charles Saatchi may have acted like a pig and a beast. I don’t know. I wasn’t there. But even if he did why are we all expected to join in a huge communal bellow of condemnation? Is there really no place in society any more for saying, ‘It’s none of my business’, or ‘That’s a shame but I’m more bothered about anthropogenic climate change’, let alone ‘I disagree’? Is our liberal metropolitan society, which we are so fond of comparing to the detriment of Islamist intolerance, to revert to that of Salem or the penultimate scene of Lord of the Flies?

Secondly: ‘our bodies politicalized’; ‘domestic violence apologism’? No one who actually cares for people who suffer talks like that.

Kettering as a State of Mind

I cannot say that the appearance of 神秘女郎 is immediately welcoming. Although the fascia has been repainted the door has not. I can’t recall whether it was newly painted when Amy took the premises a year or so ago, but it is not in a location where anything stays shiny for very long. Moreover it is shut. Sometimes it is even bolted, as when the very smelly customer was spotted walking purposefully up the street. The result is that the clientele is limited to the trusted and the apparently amusing.

I am not sure into which of the two categories I fall, but I hope to remain in at least one. Probably it is no more than that Amy likes to read occasionally of her own exploits on this site and indeed every day or so a visitor arrives solely as a result of reading about the place with alablague.

What, I thought as I passed at the door – unbolted on this occasion but nevertheless uncompromisingly shut – what Abraham Cowley, the man who originally gave us ‘great secret miss’, have made of all this chinoiserie? Did they have chinoiserie in the Seventeenth Century or were perceptions of China then limited to travellers’ tales, old copies of the Travels of Marco Polo? I had no idea. Anyway I went in.

Amy was sitting surrounded by her girls. She was explaining something to them. It was a scene not unlike the painting The Boyhood of Raleigh except that that aspiring merchant venturer would not have understood Mandarin. Two things happened as I entered the room. One of the girls, as if by prearrangement as to whose turn it was, went off to make me a cup of green tea; and the conversation mutated into English. Both were instances of that quiet courtesy that brings the customers of 神秘女郎 back again and again.

I tell a personal story, said Amy.

That’s nice, I said.

Some time ago, she said, I was interested in a boy. Can I say ‘boy’? – this was directed to me – is OK?

How young a boy? I said, to establish the nature of the issue.


My analytical powers went into overdrive. Amy’s ‘girls’ are a special case, by their own wish; so the first set of conditions that I applied was that of gender bias. Then I ran ‘boy’ through the rules for sexism tout court. I didn’t expect sensitivity as regards anthropogenic climate change but it never hurts it be sure. Finally I looked at racism: ‘boy’ (or ‘bhoy’ as they had it in the Raj) has some very sensitive overtones but they seemed remote from the present context. It depended of course on the nature of Amy’s interest, but I could always bring the discussion to an end if I felt that she was bordering on the inappropriate.

I discovered later, incidentally, that the word ‘boy’ has an asterix on the translation app, to draw attention to the possibility of its being offensive.

Go for it, I said.

Some time ago, she said, I was interested in a boy. I didn’t know is he interested in me. He was often around but he was never [she paused, fingers on the keyboard] demonstrative. One day it was late in the evening and I got him to my bed.

Was that here, Amy?

I have a vulgar curiosity about her sleeping arrangements, and indeed about that secret part of the premises beyond the public space and the private rooms but before the plumbing and the tapers.

No. This story before 神秘女郎.

Anyway, she went on. I take off clothes and he take off clothes. It is hot night. I lie on bed and hope that he will be friendly towards me.

I could not imagine anyone not wanting to be friendly towards Amy in such a state.

And was he?

No. He said, I am very cold, it is a cold night. He take his side of bed, cover with duvet, cover with counterpane folded double. He looks round the room. He takes my dressing gown. It is beautiful yellow silk. I wore it until then in order to encourage him to be friendly to me. I tied it loosely at the front. It is very beautiful dressing gown and you can see my breasts without difficulty. He said, I put this on top of counterpane – just in case.

He got under this big pile and turn to the wall. He said, I am still very cold. Then he went to sleep. He was entirely [keyboard again] inaccessible. I feel he has taken advantage from me.

That’s outrageous, I said, and I said it with feeling. Did he melt?


With the heat.

He thawed, Amy said, with a half smile. In the end.

One thing bothered me. I didn’t know if I knew Amy well enough to mention it. She had always been insistent on her exclusive loyalty to her husband. ‘I am married person from Kettering: no sex,’ she had always said to the court of appeal judge, when he attempted to be friendly towards her, and if he had had his way in the end it was not entirely with Amy’s consent.

I decided to risk it.

What does your husband in Kettering think about your interests in boys? I said.

Amy frowned.

Then she said two very surprising things.

The first was surprising because it went entirely against so many things that she had said with apparent sincerity before.

I was not entirely truthful with you about Kettering, she said.

The second was surprising as it indicated an approach to things that was totally at odds with the practicality, not to say lack of imagination, that had characterised almost everything that she had ever said to me before.

Kettering is a state of mind, she said.

And she would not be drawn further.


神秘女郎, said Amy.

I can see that, I said.

And indeed ‘神秘女郎’ was newly inscribed in red and gold paint on the fascia of Great Secret Miss.

Tell me again, I said. Tell me in pinyin.

Shén mì nǚ láng, said Amy. Means ‘Great Secret Miss’, of course.

I had guessed that. In fact the previous, English, name was still visible, in smaller lettering, on the glass. My task, self-imposed, had been to identify what it sounded like.

You like it?

I considered.

It’s more classy, I said. On the other hand it’s going to be a bugger for taxi drivers.

A cloud crossed Amy’s face. I should not have said ‘a bugger for taxi drivers’. She didn’t understand the phrase. Until recently she would have asked me to explain but now she has a translation app on her iPhone, which I saw her consult. This left her no wiser and visibly alarmed.

I explained what I had meant.

More to the point, I said, why are you and your girls and indeed your entire staff standing on the pavement outside 神秘女郎? Should you not be inside plying your customers with intoxicating and oneiroferous kefir? Can we go in? Indeed, where are your customers?

One customer very smelly. Had to come outside.

Was he incontinent?

I cursed myself. Out came the iPhone again.

No. Just very smelly man.

She looked infinitely distasteful, and so did her girls. One of them had lit some joss sticks and had ventured in with them.

What you call those things? Amy said.

Which things?

Things look like tapers. Don’t show dead people under the ground, but cover up smells. A girl buys them.

‘Joss sticks’, I said.

The iPhone came out.

J-O-S-S, I said. And ‘sticks’.

Ah, Amy said, apparently satisfied.

The joss sticks seemed to work well enough because the girls filed back inside. I stayed on the street for the length of a cigarette. I didn’t smoke a cigarette because I don’t; nevertheless the time that a cigarette takes to be smoked is a useful unit, and that is the amount of time that I lingered outside 神秘女郎 on the pavement, unwilling to confront the unacceptable smell of the very smelly customer.

I thought about how the gauge of the most modern railway is famously calculated in multiples of the width of a horse’s bottom, since that was the measure by which the size of a Roman road was calculated (two horses per carriage, or cart, so two bottoms’ worth for a one-way street and four with a bit to spare for two-way streets) and roads in the Eighteenth Century were still the same width as Roman ones, nothing in the essential nature of travel having changed in the intervening fifteen or so centuries; and railway gauges, proudly emerging in the Nineteenth Century as an apparently entirely new problem to be wrestled with, are based on them.

It is a story – the horses’ bottoms – from which lessons are often derived by motivational speakers. My thoughts, as I stood on the pavement outside 神秘女郎, cigarette-free, were however not nuanced in a way that a motivational speaker would approve. I simply wondered whether in the remote future, long after we have found something completely different to soothe and poison ourselves with, we will still time our natural breaks from quotidian responsibility by reference to the duration of a normal cigarette, smoked in a normally leisurely way and absent unusual wind conditions.

These musings did not take up the full cigarette-break-unit of time that I had allotted to myself, so I thought about something else too; a disinterested observer would have characterised me as resourceful. I thought of the ecology of 神秘女郎, so precious and so fragile, and how it had been traumatised, how all its denizens had been literally driven out. I thought of the very smelly man. He had done nothing grossly irruptive. He had not been incontinent as regards any of his bodily functions. By his own lights no doubt he simply took an unfussy approach to the matter of hygiene. And yet the consequences had been devastating. The parallels with anthropogenic climate change were inescapable.

I went in.

I have to say that the smell was barely noticeable. Maybe the joss sticks – and the healing passage of time – were already doing their work; maybe Amy and her girls had different standards in these things from me. In any event, it was for them to decide. They had to work there: I didn’t.

In retrospect it was thoughtless not to have realised that she was busy. I strode across the room to her.

Amy, I said. Your very smelly customer. The parallels with anthropogenic climate change are inescapable.

She stared at me for a moment with undisguised contempt.

Anthropogenic climate change, she said. Pft! You help me with joss sticks or you bugger off.

She learns fast.


There is a risk, amid all the challenging discussions of anthropogenic climate change, of overlooking the continuing movements of the Earth’s tectonic plates. These are no longer considered anthropogenic, so far as I know, although the Roman Emperor Justinian famously considered that homosexuality caused earthquakes. That may be a view gaining traction (as they probably call it there) in the University of East Anglia. I considered doing a Freedom of Information Act search to find out, but then, I thought, what’s the point?

What we do know, even without a Freedom of Information Act search, is that there is tectonic movement and as a result some places are getting higher and some lower. One of the saddest things that I have read recently was that some mountains that until recently were not high enough to be Munros (as they call peaks in the Highlands of Scotland that are over three thousand feet in height) have as a result of tectonic movements become Munros.

The Highlands of Scotland are of course arrayed around a volcanic rift valley, and so it is not surprising that if any mountains in these islands are to grow or diminish they will be Scottish ones.

It’s not clear whether, if tectonic movements are indeed caused by the activities of the gay community, it is the Scottish gay community with which we should concern ourselves or the wider gay community acting, as it were, at a distance. I called the University of East Anglia’s press office to ask their view but they said that their lips were sealed.

In any event that is something that we must leave to The Science (as I believe they call it in the University of East Anglia). One imagines white-coated and dedicated men and women calibrating incidents of sodomy against millimetric spasms of mountains hither and thither. It is not in any case my concern here, and it is not why I found the news that we had new Munros saddening.

Some people, men mainly, have always found the Munros a challenge. They have resolved to climb every one of them. Many have succeeded. Many have made things more challenging for themselves by, for example, climbing the Munros at a trot, rather than striding as is more conventional. (Most Munros I believe are smooth on top and can be climbed without resort to crampons and stout ropes, unlike foreign mountains.) All these men have no doubt finished the job with a sense of relief and usually a relaxing of the disciplines required to attempt the feat in the first place. Some have grown old buoyed up with a quiet sense of achievement.

And that is the sad bit. Suddenly, when they are too old or out of condition to do anything about it, a new Munro or three pop up, and they have no longer climbed them all. Maybe they climbed everything that comprised the authentic category of Munros at the time, maybe they climbed the mountains that have since become Munros before they were Munros, but it’s not quite good enough. The quiet sense of achievement evaporates.

We all have our Munros. I know that I do. I am occasionally nagged by the thought that my collection of Buffy Ste. Marie CDs is complete except for the doggedly unavailable Live in Toronto. And I know that even if I did find a copy of Live in Toronto some other live album, available perhaps only in Japan, would sneak into the Amazon lists and then become unavailable before I had noticed.

I was musing about these things as I sat by myself in our local fish and chips restaurant. Skating on Ice (very popular in the fish and chip community for obvious reasons) was showing on a big television set in the corner and although all the contestants reported that they felt very emotional, I was confident that their heightened feelings would not blunt the keen edge of my analysis.

I was eating by myself in the local fish and chips restaurant because the better half was being entertained by friends for dinner and there was nothing in the fridge that I was capable of cooking. These friends are in London for a week or so and have entertained her for dinner most nights. On one occasion I was included. They come over every month or so and entertain the better half on successive nights and sometimes, as this time, kindly ask me along too.

And here’s (as they no doubt say in the University of East Anglia) the thing. They never eat at a restaurant that does not have at least one Michelin star. It is a dogged attempt on the category of London Michelin-starred restaurants. And as with the Munros – more frequently in fact, geological time being what it is – restaurants gain stars or lose them. A rat is found in a previously favoured kitchen: an evening has, in retrospect, been wasted. Some previously spurned fusion eatery gets the nod. Some super-trendy place opens: better wait, just in case. You can never relax for a moment.

As I thrust my tongue into my portion of moist haddock, evanescent hints of the sea playing against the more trenchant notes of the beer batter, it seemed to me that maybe there is more pleasure to be had in the culinary foothills; that a saunter through the strath curling down the mountain, with the water in the burn bubbling over the rocks, the trout dark shadows barely discernible in the pools and the midgies lurking out of the sunlight and awaiting their turn, gives more pleasure than the stern, bare, unforgiving slopes above.

An obsessive Munro hunter, like an obsessive diner out, or a vinyl nut, would tell us curtly that that was not the point.

And fair enough.

But, just a thought, in these restaurants, do they have to tell you what you’re eating?

The last time I was included in the invitation we went to one of those Indian-lite places so much smiled on these days by the Michelin judges. The food was delicious – not as good as my haddock but very nice.

The difference is this. The woman brings you your haddock with the remark, There you go, dear. In the Michelin place they set your plate down and then tell you in detail what it contains.

Good manners prevent your replying, Yes I know; I ordered it.

On this occasion the waiter indicated with a flourish a small copper bowl.

And that, he said, is fish curry.

No it isn’t, we said; it’s chicken.

To which he replied, with the gastronomic acuity that makes reputations or breaks them, but with a charming giggle:

Fish, chicken, whatever.

The Dog is Sick

The dog is sick. It is unfair perhaps that having come through alcoholism and his brush with the Horned One he should have had fallen foul of natural causes, but that is what has happened. Whether it comes of ingesting something that he shouldn’t at the all-male pond at Hampstead Heath or whether cancer has caught up with him in his old age, he has half the weight and half the energy that he had six months ago, he is kept going by steroids and continence is nothing but a happy memory.

The steroids don’t make him noticeably perky, but I suppose that we don’t know what he would have been like without them.

He’s also on a strict diet. His food is as bland as it can possibly be and still nourish him at all. It looks and smells like nothing so much as the ‘white chicken sausage’ to be found on Islam-friendly airlines. The vet says that it is ‘partly pre-digested’. This raises an involuntary picture of school-leavers in Cameron’s Britain, huddled in their hundreds in draughty halls, chomping dog food and then spitting it out into the receptacles provided – anything rather than the dole.

Actually as regards continence, he still does his best; it is just that he is now on a short fuse. Every couple of hours throughout the night he taps shyly on my shoulder with his paw. I struggle out of bed and check the weather through the window: the dressing gown will do unless it’s raining, in which case it will have to be topped with a sou’ wester. He also hesitates at the top of the stairs. His energy levels are not so great as to allow a fruitless journey down the top stairs and, worse, back if I am to change my mind. In that case one or other of the Turkish kelims in the bedroom gets it.

But we set off down, first the top flight and then the main staircase. Once he gets the rhythm he cleverly lets gravity take the strain. Then out into the yard where he does his filthy business. Depending on the nature of his filthy business, I take him inside, go back out and hose it down. Thank God anthropogenic climate change, the terrible drought and the consequent hose-pipe ban have eased their steely grip on Clerkenwell, even if, as the Guardian assures me, the respite is only temporary.

Usually when I get in again he will have got himself up the main stairs and will be lying on the landing floor panting a little.

Back to bed, I say encouragingly.

He does not move.

I explain that it is, as it might be, three in the morning, that he has dragged me from deep sleep (though not a lovely dream, as kefir has been abandoned for the duration) and the last thing that I want to do is to carry him.

He does not move.

I gather him in my arms, bag of bones that he is, and carry him up the top stairs. I deliver him gently onto the bed. He can no longer jump up to it.

Do you want to sleep with us?

This is a special treat. When he was well that was never allowed.

He sniffs the sleeping form of the better half. He sniffs me. After a moment’s considered thought he slithers down and goes to his own bed where no doubt the smells are better.

This disturbs the better half, who demands: What’s going on?

I resist the temptation to say something fanciful, and I report on the nature, extent and quality of the dog’s filthy business. If I can justifiably do so I put an optimistic spin on this.

The better half grunts and goes back to sleep. The dog also drops off and I lie awake listening to their respective nocturnal sounds.

I reported on all this to daughter one. She was the worst person to choose if it was sympathy I wanted. Every night had been like that for her, she said, since the grandson was born six months ago.

But it’s different, isn’t it: the grandson’s optimistic opening sallies compared with what are as likely as not the old dog’s closing scenes.

And besides it is not sympathy that I want. It is only right and almost a pleasure to minister to him after all that he has done and been as part of the family.

There was one terrible night which I thought would be his last. He was in great pain and hallucinating, staring aggrieved at things that weren’t there. I waited up with him and finally at about four o’clock he went to sleep on my lap exhausted. After that he went into hospital, courtesy of Sainsbury’s pet insurance, and he has not been nearly that bad since – although there is a Peter Lanyon etching which when he is at a low ebb he stares at with great hostility and suspicion.

As we used to say when he had his passage with Famous Grouse, one day at a time.