Rex (Extra) Sectioned

I tried one of the websites that offer unwanted furniture and personal services – where you are. Using Boolean magic I excluded the furniture and refined ‘personal services’ by entering the word ‘domination’. The results were graphic. Photographs of scenes were provided at which, if they were encountered in real life, I felt that Bella would take fright. I didn’t feel brave enough to telephone the women offering these services. Maria was well-connected. I’d ask her if she knew anyone; a personal recommendation often eases things.

“The fact that I am Romanian,” said Maria, “does not mean that I am a prostitute and a thief.”

“Of course not. But I thought that you might know someone. It’s complicated, you see. It’s not for me personally…”

“Pft,” said Maria. “I know no such one.”

“No worries,” I said, and made for the door.

“Just a moment. I speak to my friend Lavinia.”

She called on her mobile, and talked for a minute in Romanian.

“Lavinia is upstairs. She is busy. She says call this number. They are understanding. Say to them her name.”

I was no further forward, but it was the best I could do. I went home, rang the number, made an appointment and set out with Bella to the address that I was given.

A man answered the door. He put a finger to his lips.

“Neighbours,” he whispered. “Come in, sir, come in.”

He led me downstairs.

“Well, sir,” he said. “Is it to be the bedroom or the dungeon? Is it to the left or to the right?”

“The dungeon, please,” I said. “It’s not me. It’s my dog. She needs acclimatising. Whips etc.”

“No need to explain, sir. Tell it to Mistress Mary. She’ll be along soon. She’s understanding.”

He named a price, which I paid him.

“I should ask,” he said, “Do you need the dog: Rex the dog? You have yours, so I suspect not. Rex is extra.”

The walls of the dungeon were deep red and shiny. There was a bed with rings to which handcuffs would presumably be attached. There was a frame to which a man could be strapped, legs and arms apart in an X shape. The rooms smelt not of bodily secretions but as if an effective household detergent had recently been used to remove bodily secretions. Mistress Mary came in. She was dressed entirely in black leather. She wore no mask but a jaunty peaked cap, also of black leather. She was neither young nor slim and had a friendly face. Bella took to her at once.

“I have a request that you’ll probably find strange,” I said.

“Oh, no, dear, there’s very little that I haven’t been asked. Nothing shocks me.”

“That’s not what I meant. It’s my dog. I need to make sure that she isn’t frightened by, ah, people of your sort. I need to acclimatise her.”

“That is quite strange. Shall I try to frighten her and see what happens?”

“Go on then.”

“Grr,” said Mistress Mary.

Bella wagged her tail.

“Try it with a mask on.”

She donned a mask and said ‘Grr’ again. Bella jumped up and licked Mistress Mary’s gauntlets.

“She isn’t very frightened. Why did you think she might be, dear?”

“Well, I didn’t, but AERSIP did. You know, Action for the Elimination of Racism and Sexism in Pets…”

Mistress Mary became animated for the first time. “I know them. Wankers! They had a go at Rex.”

“Rex who is extra?”

“It was so unfair. I had a client. He asked for Rex too. He wanted me to beat him – the client, not Rex. That was all right. Then he said, ‘Abuse me!’

“’Worm!’ I said and give him a whack.

“’No,’ he said. ‘Abuse me with discrimination!’

“I didn’t like the sound of that. Me, as black as…”

“…the ace of spades,” I said.

“That’s the one. “‘I’ll do no such thing,’ I said.

“But he insisted. I shouted, ‘Worm from the Indian sub-continent!’ and caught him a good one across his arse.

“’No,’ he shouted. ‘Give me the red meat! Give me the real bad words!’

“So I did. I shouted them all, dear. I won’t repeat them. Rex, he howled along. And I beat him till the blood ran. He left a happy man.

“But he had regrets: as so often. Two days later I got a complaint from AERSIP.”

I nodded sympathetically.

“Compulsory training?”

“And the rest. Well, dear, I don’t think doggy needs more acclimatising, do you? Is there anything I can help you with? I do the regular as well, you know, and you have twenty minutes left.”

“That’s very nice of you, and you’ve been enormously helpful. But no, thank you. Pas devant la chienne, you know.”

“Oh well. Might have been nice. Tea, then?”


She returned a minute or so later.

“Should I have tried doggy with the whip?” she said.

I looked round. “I’m not sure that you have the whip you did.”

Bella was in the corner chewing it.

“I’m so sorry.”

She inspected it.

“Don’t worry dear. Doggy’s raised the surface in a few places. They like that.”

I left sure that Bella would not let me down; now I needed to find out when the rally was to be, so that she and I could lend our moral support. I rang the Corporation of London.

They laughed at me.

Newham Council likewise.

I told the story to Ijaz a few days later.

‘All acclimatised and nowhere to go,’ I said. “A practical joke, I suppose.”

Ijaz scowled.

“No joke. Is Thoughtcrime Audit. Thoughtcrime. Your Mr Orwell. Your 1984. They are testing to see if you are having discrimination thoughts. I was audited. I said, ‘I am permitted because of my religion.’”

“Newham Council,” I said. “Who’d have thought? With the cuts.”

“Not Newham Council. Much more serious.”


But he wouldn’t be drawn, and when he’d finished his cigarette he went inside and slammed the door.


Norbert Dentressangle and the Perfect Wave

Portugal is full of exiles. Notoriously, many are British. Some of these are not a savoury sight, clad in grubby shorts, flushed red in face and eye, sitting in bars to which Portuguese people no longer go and complaining. Less well known and much more dignified is a small group of Cherokee ancestry, who live near the beach to which we went. They speak a strange patois, half Cherokee and half Portuguese. Rob has acquired a nodding acquaintance with this tongue, which may prove invaluable for artistic reasons which I will come to later. He was therefore able to understand that some of these people, who had come to the beach to watch Bella surf, had given her a name according to their own tradition. They call her ‘Swims Like Seals’.

As we drove back to England, Swims Like Seals lay in the back seat of the car, morosely dreaming of the Perfect Wave.

The better half has an ‘app’ on her phone, which tells us where to go. A helpful man describes the towns and roads along our route. He is not strong on the pronunciation of foreign place names but he does his best. ‘Castile’, for example, perhaps the proudest word in a proud language, is rendered as ‘car stealer’. Nonetheless he is generally reliable. He took us off the motorway to see the centre of Rouen, but that was quite nice as we could then say that we had seen the cathedral. The worst bit was in Seville, where at the critical moment the connection died. You might imagine Seville: timeless, stiflingly hot, silent, the smell of the orange groves and the muffled peal of cathedral bells; a tradition of cruelty, mystery and faith. The Seville bypass, though, on which we found ourselves mid-morning on a Monday, was not like that. Huge lorries hurtled by us as we hove to on the hard shoulder; the better half gripped the steering wheel as if it were the throat of the nice man from the ‘app’ and shouted, explaining that it was all my fault. But we sorted it out: we looked at a map.

The motorways, as in England, were full of lorries. They all look similar, same number of wheels in the same places – no doubt as a result of EU regulation – except for the dressing. This includes irritating cartoon figures and improbable advertising claims. As a result I always find the vehicles of Norbert Dentressangle reassuring. They are a sober claret colour, and decoration is confined to his name and website address. There is a modest logo, a road device cleverly incorporating the letters ‘ND’. One can imagine Norbert being bullied into this by an alliance of his eldest son, Jean-Hippolyte Dentressangle – more imaginative than sound perhaps – and his accountant.

“You have to move with the times, ND,” they may have said.

“Go on, then,” he would have replied gruffly – or ‘Va t’en’, as they say in French.

I imagine Norbert as taking an old-fashioned and fatherly interest in the welfare of his drivers. He can’t relax at night until he knows that they have all arrived at their destinations and are accounted for. Preferably in his view this means tucked up in bed, although he knows that for those travelling through Spain the attractions of the roadside ‘hotels’ in that country – thinly disguised brothels – may have been irresistible and some of the lads may not be tucked up in their own beds at all but pumping away at some lazy Spanish whore. Norbert takes the view that ‘boys will be boys’ but he doesn’t mention the Spanish ‘hotels’ to Mme Dentressangle.

“Come to bed, Norbert,” she calls, kindly if perhaps a touch impatiently.

He sighs and closes his big ledger. He taps it reflectively with his big haulier’s fingers and then goes upstairs to join her.

What is it, incidentally, about the Spanish? They really have become rather unbuttoned. Whatever happened to Catholic repression? We stopped at one point to get something to eat. The sign on the road had suggested a sensible motorway facility with a choice of M&S or Burger King. Instead it took us to an appalling inn, where, because Bella was a health and safety issue, I had to stand with her in the rain outside while lorry drivers puffed the smoke from vile-coloured stogies at me. The better half went in to get a slice of sausage and some chips and she reported later that the bar was full of members of the sex-worker community, presumably waiting until the drivers had finished their sausage and their smoking and needed relief.

Of course my musings about the Dentressangle family are probably wide of the mark. Maybe ‘Norbert’ is not a Christian name at all but a surname recording a merger or acquisition at some stage involving Norbert interests and Dentressangle ones. And the name ‘Dentressangle’ gives one some pause. What can its derivation be? Presumably ‘dent’ or ‘tooth’ is involved, and ‘étrangler’ or ‘strangle’. That would be a concern. No doubt a visit to the website would clarify all, but one would rather not: one would rather live with one’s dreams.

Anyway it provided an hour’s distraction as we bowled along through the anodyne landscape of Les Landes. Swims Like Seals slept on. Rob, I like to think, has already benefitted from his fortuitous introduction to the members of the Cherokee-Portuguese community. During our time at his house I urged him to relieve the plain white of his veranda wall with a large mural painting of a member – or members – of the Native American community: possibly Geronimo, possibly Buffy Ste. Marie, possibly both. I was surprised and pleased that he liked this proposal: ‘took it on board’, as we are encouraged to say these days. I like to think that even now he is crouched with one or more of them on the beach, examining rough drawings in the sand: an aquiline eye here, a feather there.


We are in the south of Portugal, staying with Rob, whom persistent readers have met before, Ines his wife and Joca, his dog, who kills snakes. It is the fourteenth anniversary of the fortuitous but well-starred day when the better half and I first met in New York. Furthermore, this morning (as I write but not, in the absence of WiFi, post) the preservation of the Union was announced, a matter greeted here with quiet satisfaction. The first dog’s ashes are scattered on Dornoch Firth, the better half has a plan to scatter mine there too in the fullness of time and it would have been distressing for her to have had to submit the little urn to the scrutiny of sneering border thugs, booted and kilted.

The better half is shouting over the telephone at some dozy apparatchik in the office of an aspiring English public school. The reasons are too complicated to relate. She expresses the view that doziness might be acceptable in one of the ancient public schools but less so in one hoping to join their ranks one day and in the meantime clinging on to such reputation as it has by its rouble-buffed finger nails.

Some of the figs that Rob grew during the summer are drying on a wall. During the night it rained heavily, the heavens matching sympathetically (or as it might be imagined sympathetically) the coursing of tears down the Salmondian cheeks. When this happens he dries them (the figs not the cheeks) individually, singing to himself a song from the ‘Canterbury Sound’ of the late nineteen sixties or seventies. They then become ‘twice-dried figs’ (the Portuguese phrase escapes me) which are a considerable delicacy here.

Life is as it should be on holiday.

We took the Eurotunnel and drove down. We spent nights at Deauville, Biarritz and Salamanca. Biarritz we thought would have an understated elegance redolent of the Edwardian era. However that turned out to be Deauville: Biarritz was full of surfers and young people asserting their right to boogie.

Deauville did have understated elegance. They were having a festival of American Film. There were posters for it everywhere; unrecognised starlets posed for photographs on the beach. It was remarkable that none of the posters referred to any individual film or even star. It was American Film pour soi and en soi that was to be celebrated. How French, we thought, smugly. Because it was a minor festival, unlike, say, that at Cannes, there was only one hooker to go round, but she was a game one, with her little shorts and her shirt unbuttoned to the waist, parading up and down with a man who may have been her pimp: equally he may just have been a friend.

A century and a half ago Deauville was painted extensively by Eugene Boudin, its beaches crowded with ladies in crinolines and little tents with bright flags. Boudin is one of my favourite minor painters and the only one named after a blood-based culinary product.

In France Bella was welcomed in hotels and restaurants. When we arrived at the latter we would be ushered to a table, inside or outside as we preferred, and the waiter would bring her a bowl of water together with the menu. The further south we got the more that changed. In Spain she was regarded with obvious reservations and in Portugal with undisguised hatred. The Portuguese word for ‘dog’ is ‘cow’ (no doubt it is spelled differently) and cows are not welcome where people go.

Salamanca, apart from its frosty way with dogs, was special. It is the fourth oldest university in Europe, after the Sorbonne, Oxford and Bologna. Cambridge, The University of the South Bank and the others came rather later. The university buildings are of honey-coloured stone, just like Oxford but not crumbly. In the bright light of the Central Iberian Plain they look like Renaissance paintings, or stage sets. Salamanca is also the world centre (if one rejects the claims of Burgos, an hour or so up the road) for the imaginative treatment of parts of the pig otherwise thought inedible. I read that it is protected by UNESCO, but whether that is for the honey-coloured buildings or the black pudding I couldn’t establish. We ate morcilla and pig’s cheek for breakfast, lunch and dinner and decided that the better half’s strange regime involving uncooked vegetables could have a short moratorium.

There are if I got it right two cathedrals there, and I went into one and hired the audio-commentary. The best bit was El Cid’s chapel, where the faithful can gaze on the great man’s crucifix. When he went into battle against the Moors he would wave this in the hand that didn’t wield the sword, presumably directing his horse with well-practised knees. El Cid had a tame bishop and confessor called Geronimo, who would ride into battle just behind him. Geronimo also had a crucifix, which you can see today. After El Cid met his sad end, famously appearing one last time dead and strapped to the horse so as to inspire his troops to courage and the enemy to despair, Geronimo cut a deal with the Moors, who allowed him to go on being a bishop so long as he didn’t say anything beastly about Muslims.

The Portuguese may not like Bella but her El Cid-like courage has inspired unwilling respect. She has taken to engaging with the great Atlantic breakers. She swims out into the surf and waits for the big one. For a moment she sinks from sight, then there she is to be seen again, ears first, being borne triumphantly onshore, riding the wave and sleek from the foam. The Portuguese stand around in groups and mutter. I imagine that they are saying, ‘Ah [or some more demotic ejaculation]! There is a dog!’

Of course it might be: ‘Surely there is something in the new EU Health & Safety Regs about foreign cows in our, Portuguese, ocean.’

An Evil Haunting

I took Bella to West Ham Park. It is extraordinarily good at this time of year: buds on the trees; furtive women in the formal gardens taking cuttings (one of them hid her haul in her jilbab when she saw us coming); nutters with huskies on leads. Bella ignores the other dogs; investigates vernal smells and runners at their sweaty windings-down; takes an intelligent if uninformed interest in such cricket as may be taking place. First thing in the morning is best. The nutter ratio is higher at a time when good sane people are either in bed or Tube-bound to their work place, and even the sane occupants of the park stride around purposefully in their various directions like yachts setting out, for who knows what purpose.

Ijaz was standing at one of the gates to the formal gardens. He was dressed not in the crisp white clothing that he puts on for prayers, nor his green-for-Islam M&S slipover, but something amorphous involving track suit bottoms. He had contorted his body into a shape that was as unlikely as it was undignified. I greeted him as neighbour to neighbour.

‘Is that tai chi, Ijaz, that you’re doing?’ I said.

Ijaz spat.

‘Not stupid Chinese thing,’ he said. ‘It is activity traditional to my home.’

‘Gujurat State,’ I said.

Ijaz inclined his head.

‘Like yoga, is it?’

He spat again. We smiled at each other in a friendly way. I was about to be on my way, when Ijaz said, ‘Your blog much better this month. No smut. No black women receiving oral pleasure. The Street likes when there is no smut. Augustus Sly. Much better. Augustus Sly is your amanuensis, your Boswell, as we put it in Gujurat State.’

‘I never said that she received oral pleasure. Nor did the local drug dealer say so, although he might have wanted you to think it. It was all in the eye of the beholder.’

Ijaz came closer.

‘I have found very good internet website,’ he said. ‘Many, many black women, with big bottoms, giving and indeed receiving oral pleasure. This is between us as men, you understand. I can give you URL, if you have a pencil.’

I said sniffily that if my capacity for imagining black women giving and indeed receiving oral pleasure ever needed supplementing audio-visually I would rely on the excellent service provided by Messrs Google, thank you. Immediately I regretted being sniffy. If Ijaz finds certain matters suitable for discussion between us men but not for a public site available to his wives, daughters and staff, that is a cultural matter and not for me to criticise. I should, as Dame Jenni™ Murray so often urges me – often on postcards sent second class from Salford where I believe she now works – ‘check my privilege’.

If I want to write about such questionable matters I could after all put it onto the restricted-access part of the site, which Ijaz could then disable on his house computer.

Curiously, Augustus Sly was going on about the restricted-access part of the blog at our last meeting.

‘Not everyone can find it,’ he said.

‘I don’t understand that,’ I said. ‘There’s something, as I say, that you click on, and then terms and conditions apply so you have to click through them too. You managed it, after all, since you asked me about Jesus and the Rabbit, which isn’t on the public part of the site. Maybe some networks just can’t. You have a tablet. Maybe that’s it.’

I was flattering him with my reference to his tablet. As an academic, Augustus Sly is immensely proud of it. Although slim it holds not only a transcript that he has taken of the whole of this blog, including the restricted access part, all the way back to the French roadside whores – still for some inexplicable reason my most searched post – but also his notes for and initial fumblings towards his thesis on it.

‘Yes,’ he said, ‘they want the restricted access stuff, they get a tablet.’

We were silent for a moment. Into the silence came a tiny sound. It seemed to come from the skirting board.

‘Have you got mice?’ I said.

Augustus Sly gave a short laugh.

‘Listen. It’s a voice.’

It was indeed a voice: small, high and querulous.

‘It was in the toilet,’ said the voice.

‘Goodness!’ I said. ‘That sounds like a South African accent. Am I right? And what’s a ‘toilet’?’

‘It does, doesn’t it? I think that ‘toilet’ is an old Afrikaans word for ‘lavatory’.’

‘I thought that there was someone coming out of the toilet’,’ said the little voice.

‘Can you see it? Or him?’ I said.

‘No, frustratingly. Only reaction shots.’

‘Does it do anything else? Does it say anything else?’

‘Sometimes it weeps.’

And indeed at that point a gurgling sound commenced in the skirting board.

‘It’s a good strong sound, that gurgling, for such a little chap,’ I said, ‘if it is a little chap.’

‘I think it’s a haunting,’ said Augustus Sly. ‘Many years ago there was a man in South Africa who shot his girlfriend several times with a gun in the lavatory. He said that it was a mistake.’

‘One that any of us might make.’

‘I think it might be something to do with that. I don’t really mind, except when I’m trying to concentrate on my thesis. And I got a bit off the rent as a result. One isn’t in a position to carp at a bit of the supernatural in one’s student accommodation. Different in your day of course.

‘Boomer,’ he added under his breath.

‘I thought there were people in the toilet,’ said the little voice.

‘It sounds evil to me,’ I said, ‘incredibly evil.’

‘I don’t know about evil,’ said Augustus Sly, ‘but I’m not sure that it has the ring of truth.’

The Link-Boy’s Tale

I walked back to meet the procession, having inspected the shopping centre. Unfortunately, with Cardinal V-‘s pernicketiness about his dress, it was now late in the afternoon and people were leaving. Also the entrance was lower than I had remembered. Neither bothered me unduly.

The procession was a fine sight coming slowly along the road into central Stratford. It had increased in size. Local Catholics, energised by parish magazines or some more contemporary means of communication, were tagging along and there seemed to be far more nuns.

I took a closer look at these. The newcomers turned out not to be nuns, however, but modestly dressed Moslem women, also in black. I noticed one staring at me.

I’d recognise those eyes anywhere.

The Jibjab Woman!

Hello, Al.

Assalamu ‘alaykum wa rahmatullah, I said.

Et cum spiritu tuo, said the Jibjab Woman.

Why are you here?

She narrowed her eyes.

The cause, she said.

I caught the almost inaudible sound of her grin against the cloth covering her mouth.

I am always pleased to see the Jibjab Woman and I feel safer when she is around. So, foolishly, I did not ask her whose cause.

By this time we had arrived at the entrance to the shopping centre. Cardinal V- was flinging blessings around as if they were free, but there was indecision. The cross could not go in upright; the doorway was simply too low. The bell-toller ceased tolling and awaited developments.

I assumed that they would pass the cross in with Our Lord on his back, but apparently that would be wrong. Many creatures in nature – notably sharks – lose consciousness when laid on their backs and it was felt that the same logic (if ‘logic’ is the right word) might apply to Him. The cross was lowered so that He was face down and manhandled through the doorway.

Halfway through this manoeuvre there was a nasty crack. Christ’s bottom half came adrift. He continued to hang by His hands, metal-alloy feet dragging noisily on the floor, but the nails in His wrists were now subject to greater stress than had ever been intended. Mongo, now rather hot and dishevelled, got the cross upright again.

At this point a further problem revealed itself. The ceiling would accommodate the cross held upright in some places but not others, where, because of ducting for example, it was much lower. Mongo indicated that it would be easier to compromise on a semi-upright position that he could maintain. He held the cross at about forty-five degrees. It must have been an immense strain on his shoulders and arms. From the top Our Lord hung forwards, at the same angle. The procession struggled back into life.

My mobile rang. I have, I should explain, a network of young people, crossing-sweepers, link-boys and the like, whom I pay small sums of money to keep their eyes and ears open for me. I had told them all of my urgent desire to see the Angel of Paddington Station again.

So my mobile rang. It was a text from one of them:

What price the Angel of Stratford International? Sighted! Come at once!

I had to make a quick decision. The procession with gorgeous robes seemed to be stable. It could manage without me. But I called a local member of my network and told him to keep an eye on things. He is my source for what happened then. I hurried off to Stratford International.

Hassan is a link-boy, aged about twelve. I have no idea why link-boys have a dubious reputation, unless it is because of that salacious painting by Joshua Reynolds. Whatever may be the case with other link-boys Hassan is an entirely wholesome lad and if he attracts attention it is because of his natural and unaffected good looks. He joined the crowd soon after I left. Almost at once, he told me later, two things happened, followed by a third, and the third brought the proceedings to an abrupt close.

As Hassan scanned the procession his eye lit on Cardinal V-. The latter chose to take this as contact directed at him personally. He deserted his place at the head of the procession and pushed through the crowd (‘like rat up drainpipe’) towards Hassan. He was, Hassan told me, gabbling in an unknown tongue. Whether this was Latin, Italian or the simple incoherent vocalisations of lust we will never know.

As I say, the shopping day was drawing to a close and the shops were shutting. When that happens the area is given over to skate-boarding. The youth had already started to gather, waiting for shoppers, processors and all to depart so that they could describe their arabesques on the marble-effect floor in peace, subject only to the appraisal of their peers. As they waited they spun their boards in and out of their hands, using minimal gestures with their feet.

How Mongo managed to intercept one we shall, again, never know. He was very hot, exhausted and stupid, and he could not see his feet on account of his robing. There is no reason to suspect some malign intervention on the part of the Jibjab Woman. I will leave it at that.

Suddenly, Hassan was to tell me later, he hurtled forward on the skateboard, the cross now held straight in front of him like a lance.

‘That metal man, he was hanging, first two hands then one, feet making a terrible sound on the floor. Then a woman, she was big, big like the man holding the wooden thing, she was Caribbean I think, she seize the metal man and pull him off.

‘She shouts, “My Lord! My Lord!”

‘The man with the red hat, he’s just arrived where I’m standing and he’s put his arm on me. He hears this and turns round. He shouts, “No! My Lord!”

‘Then he turns back as he is more interested in me.

‘The wooden thing is going like clappers. I don’t know how that lady got the metal man out from under it. Anyway it sticks in a shop and can’t be got out.’

And what, I said, did Mongo say?

‘He said, “Aaargh!”’

And after the first two things came the third: the arrival of two policemen.

‘Unfortunately for the man with the red hat he has his hand on my trousers when the policemen feel his shoulder.

‘”We have warrant for your arrest,” they say. “Blah, blah, blah sexual offence…blah, blah, blah minors…blah, blah, blah thieving… blah, blah, blah European arrest warrant…”

I thought that European arrest warrants didn’t apply with the Vatican, I said.

Hassan beamed.

‘The man with the red hat say that too! Police say, “Let’s discuss that down at the Station, shall we, sonny?”’

And that was the end of the procession with gorgeous robes.

The Angel? What a waste of time. Some old whore with red knickers. Late middle-aged, I’d say. What is it about the red knickers that blinds people to everything else?

French too.

The Chorister Stopped at a Chemist

Unsurprisingly, Popes Я Us have not been returning my calls. No doubt the issue of what His Holiness’s position should be on the trans community has slid down the list of priorities with the announcement of his resignation. He may reasonably feel that the trans community can safely be left to his successor.

And who would want that job? As our vicar said to me when I facetiously told him that I had had him down for Canterbury: I may be dumb but I’m not stupid.

And this is Canterbury in spades.

I left a phone message after two or three attempts, with my best wishes for the man. These are sincere. I don’t agree with much of what he has said but he seems to me to be a genuine and godly man in an impossible position. The only time I saw him was in the distance in St Peter’s, soon after his appointment. He was celebrating mass and the congregation, instead of standing with modestly lowered heads, were pogoing up and down like early enthusiasts for the Sex Pistols, holding their mobiles above their heads and attempting to get a good snap. I can’t help thinking that he hoped for better when his colleagues shyly but firmly thrust the keys of the fisherman into his hands.

His enemies say two things against him, both of which seem to me to be beside the point.

The first is that he turned a blind eye to the sheltering by the Church of paedophile priests. That doesn’t seem to be borne out by the facts, which seem to be that he did pretty much all that he could to ensure that the police were involved as a matter of routine, but that things drifted and decisions were put off during the senility of his predecessor.

The second is that when a boy in Germany he joined the Hitler Youth. I think that in his circumstances most of us would have; I myself joined the Surrey Young Conservatives.

(I should say in my defence that I had no hand in the matter. My mother forged my signature on the application form. She thought that it would enable me to make a better class of friends than the cross-dressers and jazz fiends into whose company I had fallen.

Actually there was only the one cross-dresser, and he gave it up when he grew too big for his mother’s clothes. We drifted apart but I believe that like his father he went on to a successful career as a stockbroker.

I never attended the deliberations of the Surrey Young Conservatives. With the over-sensitivity of youth I was never convinced that my tweeding would pass muster.)

Of course there are rumours why the Pope is leaving. By all accounts the Vatican is awash with fraud and sexual incontinence. He has been threatened with the exposure of this secret or that, so the rumours go, unless he resigns and leaves matters in the hands of someone more malleable.

These rumours cannot simply be ignored, and that is one reason why I was anxious to check some of the more extreme of them with Popes Я Us. The crux of it (as regards sexual incontinence anyway, rather than fraud) seems to be that Cardinals have been freely indulging themselves in the Roman gay underworld – many of them, indeed, with rent boys.

The first rumour has some Eminence or other sending out from his eyrie in the Vatican for home delivery. Apparently a ‘chorister’ would act as the go-between. It’s not clear to me whether this ‘chorister’ was a smooth-cheeked treble or an older tenor or bass singer on whom such worldliness would sit more naturally. My belief, though without checking, is that castrati are a thing of the past. It was probably a grown man, as one detail that has come to me involves the purchase of condoms.

Condoms are apparently hard to come by in Vatican City. You will look in vain for a condom dispenser in the public lavatories to be found there, just as, for different reasons, you will look in vain for an ATM with money in it. Nevertheless the application of a condom to His Eminence’s elderly and uncertain member is, on health grounds, as desirable for His Eminence as for the rent boy. His Eminence has researched the knotty theological question whether an act that would condemn a man and wife to the everlasting bonfire might be, for him, pure and free from sin. He has delved into the incunabula of the Vatican Library (to be found between the Hollywood DVDs on the one side and the complete recordings of Paul Simon on the other) and his conclusion is that, whilst condoms are in general the work of the Devil, as used between himself and his young friend no sin is involved as there is no conception to be thwarted. Preventing conception, he has convinced himself, is the nub of the matter. This is despite certain Thirteenth Century manuscripts that assert that the mingling of the fluids of a Cardinal and his catamite is the very best thing for the creation by artifice of certain monsters. He discounts these as superstitious.

Anyway the upshot is that when the ‘chorister’, disappears into the stews of Rome in one of the Papal Zils he stops at a chemist (there is an all-night Booti on the way), buys a pack of three – or ‘Trinita’ as it is colloquially known around Vatican City – and delivers it to His Eminence together with the boy.

That’s why I think that the chorister must be a tenor or bass. The words ‘Trinita, per favore!’, delivered in an unbroken voice of a purity that would, the following Sunday, launch the glories of Palestrina across the great space of St Peter’s, would cause the hardened old pharmacist not to come across with the goods but to sink to his knees in prayer.

Younger Cardinals, on the other hand, take the Papal Zils into town in search of pleasure. Their chosen destination, I gather, is the ‘Bathhouse of Caracalla’. My source (who has been, so he tells me, their chauffeur on more than one such occasion) describes the high spirits with which these saintly gentlemen clamber into the back of the limousine in their Armani suits. Their excitement is such that as often as not they have forgotten to change their collars. What a giveaway! they shriek, stuffing the clerical articles beneath the seat, and appearing at the Bathhouse otherwise impeccably dressed but open at the neck.

Curiously, when I make my way to places such as this, I find that wearing the full Cardinal’s robes, crimson from biretta to Prada-encased toes, makes for a talking point and can break the ice when it comes to introductions. (I am not homosexual myself, but I think that it’s right to keep one’s hand in.)

My informant does not follow the gentlemen into the establishment, waiting outside until they are done, but he tells me that he likes to imagine their smooth well-fed bodies doing the business with the laity of Rome and the great community of Christendom beyond, the latter in town as tourists and drinking up the atmosphere.

Urbi et orbi, he comments wryly.

I was hoping that Popes Я Us could deny all this filthy talk and put my mind at rest. I am still confident that they will. If half of it is true, and it becomes generally known, the Church will be in an appalling predicament. In the meantime we owe it to His Holiness to maintain silence: sceptical but reverent. These secrets, whether true or tittle-tattle, are safe with me.

Frothing in the Blog Space

The very real hurt of the transgender community will not go away. His Holiness can be trusted, I am sure, to take a long and measured view on the matter but not the Dawn Chorus of the Unattached, who rang me spluttering with laughter. Some oligarch – they did say but I have forgotten his name – was in Cannes to attend the launch of a film that he had paid for, and fell in love with a beautiful woman. It was immediately apparent to his entourage, though not to the oligarch, that she was a hooker but what did not appear until a critical moment involving the oligarch himself alone was that she was also a member of the transgender community. The oligarch had taken the position that love was love, but she had explained that he didn’t understand, she had photographs; he had paid her some money (a lot in the context of her published rates but not in terms of his budget for the trip) and the relationship had come to an abrupt end.

I was thinking, having got the Dawn Chorus of the Unattached off the phone, about how questions of gender, especially when seen from the perspective of the straight community, turn irresistibly into questions of sex. I recalled reading a piece somewhere by a member of the male gay community. He said that he welcomed the trend by which gay men were now almost universally respected as such and treated as regular members of the human community. This had gathered pace over the last fifteen years or so in a way that would never have been predicted during, say, the Thatcher years. But he missed being able to be a screaming queen, to be an outsider, and he missed being encouraged to at best seduce and at least outrage straight men.

When I told Popes Я Us about fooling around with Brazilian transsexuals I was of course lying; I was teasing them and attempting to provoke some outrage in return. I succeeded better that I hoped. I have not met many members of the transgender community. Those that I have met have all been quiet and courteous, except one who was terrifying. They were not screaming mimis, or whatever Julie Birchill’s phrase was. But the question of negotiating some sexual accommodation between straight man and transsexual, however remote the possibility, was unmistakeably there. Furthermore, I never got the impression that their greatest ambition was to be accepted as, say, a chartered accountant and an open member of the transgender community; they were happy to compartmentalise their lives.

Unlike the great Buffy Ste-Marie:

They tell ya “Honey, you can still be an Indian
d-d-down at the ‘Y’
on Saturday nights”

She wrote that in the unregenerate 1980s. Now of course we would say:

They tell ya “Honey, you can still be a member of the Native American Community
d-d-down at the ‘Y’
on Saturday nights”

I suspect that there is much in the wonderfully on-the-one-hand–but-then-again-on-the-other hand apologia published yesterday by the Observer’s Readers’ Editor (what exactly does a readers’ editor do?). He wrote:

Concerned readers with no connection to the trans lobby felt hurt that a minority that could expect to be protected by a liberal publication was being attacked in an extremely insulting manner.

There, I suspect, we have it. Many members of the transgender community are getting on with their lives, quietly proud to have provoked Julie Birchill into wit and hysteria, and nearly all the noise is being made by ‘concerned readers with no connection to the trans lobby’, or as we might say ‘busybodies’. Certainly that is what is suggested by most of the frothing in the blog space.

Taking of the frothing in the blog space, what a wonderful word ‘transphobia’ is. Spell Check, it becomes apparent as I type, hasn’t met it before. Literally it must mean ‘fear of across’. Presumably it acknowledges that useful neologism ‘homophobia’. This does not mean, as those of us with a dusting of the Classics might have assumed, ‘fear of the same’, but ‘hatred (it’s more than ’fear’) of members of the gay community’. So ‘transphobia’ indicates ‘hatred of members of the transgender community’. Of course we need such a word, if we are to really stick it to Julie Birchill, and I am sure that when dawn breaks in Seattle on Monday some junior employee of the Microsoft company will be beetling across the yard to the computer room to update Spell Check; but I can’t help feeling that it is a shame. For years I have used the word to indicate a pathology common in the crossword community: ‘fear of across’, and now I shall have to find an alternative if I am to avoid yet again giving offence. I should have trade-marked it. Popes Я Us would have done. But hindsight is a wonderful gift…

I was musing along these lines (as the even greater Anthony Powell occasionally writes, when attempting to crowbar a bit of straight-to-camera into his story) when the phone rang again. It was an overseas call, so it must I thought be either my investment manager in Geneva or someone trying to sell me insurance for my non-existent Bosch washing machine. It was of course neither.

Dominus vobiscum, said a now familiar voice.

Talk of the Devil.


Know you’re busy. Just a quick one.


His Holiness has a question.


What’s so good about jokes? You say that the desirability of Julie Birchill’s jokes trumps any right not to be offended. He asks in all humility, he says, being not only a good Christian but a German.

Has His H read the science fiction novels of E. Doc Smith? I said. I thought not. Let him do so. With E. Doc Smith, travel through hyperspace, which is impossible in terms of conventional physics, enables plot developments that could not otherwise happen. You can cross impossible distances in an instant. You can cut to the crucifixion. It’s the same with thinking and discussing, in addition of course to making us laugh. Jokes take us through hyperspace. Of course it brings risks. You may travel through hyperspace and come out in the middle of a supernova, in which case you’re dead. Or, in our case, you’re the subject of a wigging from the Observer newspaper’s Readers’ Editor.

I see. I will provide that to His Holiness translated into Italian.

Yes, or into German. The German Community is often unjustly vilified for not having a sense of humour. German will do too. And give him a copy of Triplanetary. You’ll have it in the Vatican Library. He’ll like it anyway, and he may even find material for a homily.

Thank you. And he has a comment.

Go ahead.

Tennyson. Only three memorable quotes, you say. What, he asks, and again he says that he does so in great humility, given your infinitely greater knowledge of English literature, especially in the secular space, but what, he says, about: Come into the Garden, Maud.

Memorable or what, he says.


Four, then.