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.


To Vienna, to Vienna

What would we do without the Austro-Hungarian Empire to reflect on?

I think of what then seemed, in an age of travel on horseback, its great expanse; of the good abbé, Ferenc Liszt, travelling from town to village to play his piano transcriptions of Beethoven symphonies to people to whom tum tum tum tum tum tum tum tum tum tum tum tum tum tum’ ti tum would otherwise have always remained an unsavoured musical delight; to heroes of stories by Stefan Zweig racing by horse to Vienna to intrigue, marry or die; to Joseph Haydn on the Esterhazy estate, far from anywhere that a man of culture might find congenial, composing his opera The Farewell:

The Farewell, where in the last and most affecting scene the three sisters – all, daringly, cast as contraltos – sing, ‘To Vienna, to Vienna’.

I think of poor old Gustav Klimt ladling gold onto his clumsy paintings, little realising that in a hundred years’ time they would appeal precisely to the new rich of our age, who like all their appurtenances (or what they regard as their appurtenances) – jeans, pictures, food, women – covered with gold. I think of his talented friend Egon Schiele. I think of Dr Freud thinking the unthinkable and, worse, telling it to his couch-bound and corseted patients.

Given my experiences over the last week or so I also think of the bottoms of the citizens of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. These were racially and culturally diverse but as we now know remarkably similar. In the Twenty-First Century we commonly refer to certain bottoms, by way of shorthand, as being of the Austro-Hungarian type. But this similarity became known only towards the very end of the period of the Empire, possibly because of the earlier difficulty of access, in turn due to excessive corseting. Until, partly thanks to Dr. Freud, the people of the Austro-Hungarian Empire became relatively uncorseted, the clinical similarity of their bottoms was a fact known only to a small number of Viennese libertines.

It is difficult to believe this nowadays.

I have never been able to verify the following story, although I was told it in Vienna. It is that the Austro-Hungarian Emperor Franz Josef, when an old man, noticed a young girl working in his kitchen garden. She was bending over, just as my neighbour had. His majesty became inflamed by lust, and, used to having his imperial way, forced himself on the young gardener, who in due course gave birth to the future Frau Schönberg, the wife of the composer. I compared – to his disadvantage – the emperor’s goatish behaviour with my own, which had been cool and scholarly, as Amy and I approached my neighbour’s house intending to tackle the sensitive subject of her bottom, that of Egon Schiele’s model, and their uncanny similarity.

The initial stages of our discussion were made easier since Ijaz had sent her a link to the story on this blog. He sifts my posts with regard to which are most suitable for my various neighbours. Then he puts small notes bearing the appropriate links through their letter boxes. The comments on Anthony Powell he regards as suitable for all, but others he thinks are too smutty for women, for instance. The Jesus and the Rabbit series, on the restricted area of the blog, is embargoed for all. Given that my neighbour featured personally, he sent her the link, so that when we called she already knew what our visit was about. This was a relief.

My neighbour is called Maria, a name that is common throughout Europe, indeed throughout the World. She comes, she said, from Romania. This was discouraging, since Romania was never I believe in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. There is, however, an intriguing connection as regards language. Because her English is weak we sought a way of conversing. She told us that in her family, for reasons now forgotten, they talked German when outsiders were not around. So we spoke in German and I summarised occasionally for Amy in Mandarin or English: the former if I wished to speak to her privately. As with many people who adopt a foreign language for family speech, Maria’s German was formal and old-fashioned. But at some point I asked her if she was aware of something or other.

Ichh waaas nit,” she replied.

I smiled to myself. ‘That’s not conventional German, which would probably have been ‘Ich weiss nicht‘. That’s pure Viennese,’ I thought to myself.

Cunningly, I did not say so.

“The time of reckoning is arrived,” said Amy. “Time for our comparison.”

Maria allowed herself to be led away into an adjoining room. I thought again how accommodating she was being about the whole business, which must have struck her as at best bizarre and at worst intrusive. I found the image on my iPad of the Schiele work and Amy took it with her. Thirty seconds passed.

There was a commotion as of something being knocked over. Amy rushed back into the room. I had never seen her so flustered. She was white.

“双胞胎!”she exclaimed.

Maria shuffled through the door, also flustered. Her trousers were around her ankles and she held my iPad in front of her to preserve her modesty.

“Ng?” she said.

Zwillinge,” I said. “Amy says that you could be twins.”

We all sat down, Maria adjusting her clothing first.

“Well,” I said. “We do have something. My gut feeling was right.”

“We have an adventure,” Amy said.

“Will I be famous?” Maria said.

“It’s a lot to take in,” I said, “all at once. Do you have any green tea? It always settles the emotions.”

“Only PG,” said Maria. “I’m sorry.”

“I have,” said Amy. “Emergency supply. About my person at all times.”

And from her jacket she produced an envelope full of the leaves. I found a teapot, cleansed it and brewed up. We were all silent and thoughtful.

“What next?” said Maria. “Will I be famous?”

A Second Bottom

“Mellow fruitfulness,” said Amy.

“I love the autumn,” I said.

It was all around us, even though we were in Chinatown rather than some gently deciduous forest.

“Mellow fruitfulness,” said Amy again, prodding absent-mindedly at a durian available for purchase at the side of the street. “Keats & Shelley.”

I had not seen Amy for too long, but it was apparent that her study of English literature had progressed from novels to the poets.

“Keats & Shelley my favourite English poet,” she said. “You know Blithe Spirit?”

I admitted that I did.

“I make a new translation, using iPhone translation ‘app’. You want to hear?”

She adopted a declamatory mode of delivery.

Hi Blithe Spirit!
Not a bird –
Small rough growth.

She looked at me expectantly.

“It’s very good,” I said. “An improvement, without a doubt, on Keats & Shelley’s rather limp phrasing. But what’s the small rough growth?”

“Wert,” she said. “The ‘app’ translates. ‘Bird thou never wert.’”

“I don’t think you need the small rough growth. I think you could lose the small rough growth.”

“No. ‘Wert’ is last word of the line. Emphasis. Very important. The lecturer said.”

“Trust me,” I said.

As soon as I’d said I knew it was a mistake. Like many women of my acquaintance Amy always knows best and trusting me simply doesn’t come in to it.

Her brow darkened.

“You’re probably right,” I said, and changed the subject.

Someone had offered me the chance to see the Egon Schiele show at the Courtauld before it opened and I invited Amy to come with me as I hadn’t seen her for too long. We talked instead about the Viennese Secession, about which, I am ashamed to record, Amy knew nothing and I knew little more.

This is no place to record my reactions to the extraordinary work by Egon Schiele on display at the Courtauld, except to say that you should see it. I shall stick to the point. Suddenly I found myself standing in front of a small watercolour: a female nude seen from behind. A shock of recognition coursed through me.

“It’s my neighbour’s bottom.”

Amy pretends to read this blog, but often she skims it. She had no idea what I was talking about.

“Your neighbour’s bottom,” she said. “How you know your neighbour’s bottom? Anyway, all European bottoms look the same. In China…”

I cut her short. I explained what I had inadvertently glimpsed from my window the other day.

“It’s exactly the same. It was only a moment, but I can’t be mistaken. It could be the very same woman.”

Amy, unsurprisingly, was sceptical.

“Characteristics of bottoms in the Austro-Hungarian Empire often remarked by scholars…”

“Of course. Of course. I’m not stupid. This goes beyond generalisation. Far beyond generalisation.”

I started to make little gestures at particular gluteal details, but these were lost on Amy, who had of course not seen the original.

“She have a name? Schiele’s woman?”

It was a good point. For reasons that will become apparent I will not identify the painting, but there was no personal name attached to it, nor did the catalogue give any further clues.

I was so shaken that my attention to the remaining rooms was perfunctory; I promised myself that I would come again. I asked if they had any postcards. They hadn’t been delivered yet, but I got permission to photograph the painting in question with my iPad. We left the gallery.

“I think strong drink is called for.”

We sat on the terrace by the river, one of the many delights of Somerset House. I had a miserly double whisky and Amy, who avoids alcohol, had an apple juice. There was no green tea, which of course is the best thing for those who have just sustained a shock.

“So,” she said. “What’s this nonsense? Egon Schiele’s woman not your neighbour. Egon Schiele’s woman very dead. Bottoms come, bottoms go. Dead bottoms decompose, new bottoms born. No big deal.”

“You don’t understand. It’s not just a resemblance, it’s uncanny. There is a connection. I have to follow it through.”

“And how,” said Amy, “are you going to do that? You going to [she actually said ‘gonna’ and I suspect that that is how, encouraged by her translation ‘app’, she thinks it’s spelt] take your photo to your neighbour and ask her take off her knickers? She send for police.”

“Good point, Amy. But I have special victim status, because of my mental frailty and my sexual encounter with the DJ in Shallow Assets. I’m in with the police.”

“Still not take off knickers. She think you a dirty old man. Mental frailty no help at all. Make it worse. She’s good Eastern European girl. She just happen to have typical bottom of Austro-Hungarian Empire. She never heard of Viennese Secession. She’s never heard of E. Schiele. She send you away with a flea. Good neighbourness in your street suffer terrible blow. Ijaz will have his face like a thunder cloud.”

I sighed.

“Everything you say is true, Amy. And you’re right: I couldn’t bear to upset Ijaz, whose good opinion I value…”


“So, I thought you could come with me. You can vouch for me. You can be my representative if need be during the all-important but sensitive business of the comparison of the bottoms.”

Amy sat over her apple juice with her face like a thunder cloud. I ordered her another.

“Very busy,” she said. “Great Secret Miss not run itself.”

“Of course. Of course.”

“Maybe comparison of bottoms not necessary…”

“Maybe. Certainly.”

“If she has things to tell you; family history.”

“Absolutely. Amy, what would I do without you.”

“I haven’t said yes,” she said, but she had.

She grinned. It had become an adventure.

“You know Chapman’s Homer? What that mean? Crap.”

I thought of telling a Keats & Chapman story, by Flann O’Brian, but decided against.

“You want to see my bottom?”

“Always, Amy.”

“Dream on!”

She laughed coarsely.

An Eyeful

Some weeks ago Ijaz was explaining to me about the restrictions placed on the devout during Ramadan. I had said that I understood that it was not just an injunction against food and drink passing the lips during daylight but anything doing so. I knew this because a friend of mine, living in an Arab country, had told me. Normally accommodating boys, he had said, ceased to be so during this time. It was one of those little pieces of information that one stores away in case it comes in useful. Sodomy, I suppose, would have been acceptable, but a man of taste and manners proceeds to sodomy only by stages.

Of course I did not mention any of this to Ijaz. He, however, took the point, almost with vigour.

“No, no; no sex,” he said. “But it’s more than the mouth, it’s the eyes too. During Ramadan we may not see anything impure with our eyes either.”

“See,” I said, “or dwell on?”

I had in mind the distinction observed by the poet Blake between having an unacted desire and ‘nursing’ it. But Ijaz dismissed this.

“We are men of will,” he said. “It is the same thing.”

I was glad that Ijaz lived across the road from me and therefore had had no chance, as he would have had, some days before, if he lived on our side of encountering a sight that he might well have regarded as impure. It was then still at the very end of the summer. I was idly looking out of an upstairs window. Some doors down there is a house occupied by eastern Europeans. Although we smile and say hello when we encounter each other in the street I have not really met them to talk to, but someone who was coming to see us once got directions from one of them at the nearest Tube station and they walked up the street together. Our neighbour informed our guest that the end of the world was imminent. They based this prediction on signs and portents and also written authority.

Anyway, my eye was caught by the sight of two of them, a young man and a young woman, walking in the garden. He was clad in a shell suit. She was wearing a loose and rather short dress. A flower took her attention and she bent over it and as she did so her dress rode up.

“Goodness,” I thought, “a naked bottom.”

It was round and flat and with all the unmistakeable features of the bottoms of the citizens of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It could not have been a bottom of a member of what we are encouraged in the London Borough of Newham to call the UK host community. It was a bottom that one would not be surprised to encounter in a drawing by Egon Schiele; one could imagine such a bottom – seen, remembered or imagined – taking pride of place in feverish disclosures on Dr Freud’s couch in the Vienna of a hundred years ago. In those days, of course, it would have emerged from elaborate petticoating rather than, as now, out of something bought at Primark.

I looked for a moment in admiration. I then saw that it was not in fact naked. The merest piece of cloth disappeared between the cheeks and re-emerged below, preserving modesty. I moved back from the window. The entire incident had taken a couple of seconds.

I wondered what Ijaz would have done. As a man of will he probably just wouldn’t have seen it. But if it had been, as it were, thrust into his attention, what would his reaction have been?

I hope that it wouldn’t have been laddish. I don’t think so.

Would he have regarded it as no more impure than any other of the female attributes that he thinks it best to be covered up: hair, shoulders, bottoms – all much the same. Ijaz is no fundamentalist and he accepts that whilst he has certain standards he cannot insist on their being upheld by the non-believers among whom he happily lives. Perhaps he would regard the innocent flashing of a Bulgarian or Polish bottom as par for the course in a pluralistic society, to be faced and tolerated in others although spurned for oneself, just as he smiles indulgently when I take out the empty wine bottles as he stands across the road having a cigarette (except of course during Ramadan).

Would he have regarded it as one more innocent example of divine munificence, no more or less beautiful than the flower that our neighbour bent to look at? Again, no I don’t think so.

I suspect that as a man of will Ijaz would not have seen the bottom unless he had absolutely had to, and then he would have been at pains, like Blake, not to have nursed it, Ramadan or not.

And me? Well I suppose that writing about naked bottoms is nursing them if anything is, but then, no harm done, and anyway it isn’t Ramadan and moreover I’m not a Muslim.

Meanwhile, still on our side of the street but to the left rather than to the right, they have erected a tabernacle in the garden. Well, it’s a marquee, but it glows softly at night, and voices can be heard indistinctly like the songs of birds. I listen out for music but there isn’t any – yet. Maybe it is an early stage of some ceremony, a wedding probably, taking place over an extended period. They have hung the front of the house with what we in the UK host community might call Christmas lights, and thank goodness that Ijaz can see for himself, across the street, such a wholesome sight. Maybe on the appointed day people will arrive, magnificently dressed, in rented Bentleys and the sound of the oud will ring out in the autumn air. Maybe it will but I’ll miss it.

The things you see!

Food Porn

The doorbell rang yesterday. It was Ijaz. He was in his religious best.

Eid Mubarak,” he said, and handed me a plate covered with a cloth.

Eid Mubarak,” I said. “Thank you.”

I lifted the cloth. It was biryani, and it looked delicious.

“For you and the better half,” he said. “For the end of Ramadan.”

“I understand,” I said. “Thank you. It looks delicious.”

“Don’t shut the door,” said Ijaz and retreated across the road. He returned a moment later with another plate full of little cakes, each one different.

I was very touched and I carried them into the kitchen.

Sometimes Ijaz expresses the view, with which I entirely agree, that so long as people of all convictions and backgrounds respect each other we will get along all right. I think that the convictions that he has in mind, apart of course from his own, are my unflappable C of E heritage and the Marxism-Leninism which, largely because of her mother’s fiercely sceptical nature, has played almost no part in the better half’s psychological make-up. My problem with the Eid gifts, for unfortunately I had one, arose from certain much more secular convictions to which the better half is, and in consequence I am, currently in thrall. These relate to raw vegetables. Raw vegetables are good. The tasty trays of roasted vegetables, – peppers, courgettes, onion, garlic – which during the previous, roasted-vegetable, phase accompanied most meals are now the work of Satan. So is bread and butter, and don’t mention meat. Raw vegetables are so good that on two days of the week we eat nothing but, washed down with water: still, sparking or tap according to taste.

Yesterday was the first of one of the sets of two days. To make it worse, the better half is away, so I am on my honour. I put the little cakes into the fridge, and gazed wistfully at the biryani, which was warm and steaming gently. There were rice, peas, potato (all vegetables in their way but not unfortunately raw). There was some lamb, on the bone.

I decided on a flanking movement. Taking an apple to stave off the most severe pangs of hunger, I called Jake at The Kingdom. He’d be there but it wouldn’t be open yet. As soon as he answered I realised that an apple was a bad choice: you can’t eat an apple and chat on the phone at the same time. Quite apart from questions of manners it can sound like electrical interference and lead the receiving party to worry about the performance of their service provider. I returned it therefore to the fruit bowl.

“What are you up to?” I said.

This was disingenuous. I knew that he would be cooking. That was why I had called him.

“I’m beating up a pudding,” Jake said.

“A hogget pudding?”

“No less. My mother always called it ‘beating up’ a hogget pudding.”

I told Jake my predicament.

“Skype me,” he said.

I thought he was ejaculating so I said, “I so understand.”

“No you don’t,” he said, and explained. But it proved impossible, even on my new iPad.

“Describe it,” I said. “Give me the sounds.”

So Jake held his phone to the pudding as he beat it up and to the pan full of hogget, which he was cooking over a low flame before assembling the dish all together; hogget is delicious meat but can be tough if brought to the point prematurely.

“Ah!” I said, and I meant it.

“Food porn,” said Jake.

“Ah!” I said.

“Talking of porn,” Jake said, “this hot weather, the clothes the women wear to The Kingdom! It’s hard to keep one’s professional equilibrium.”

“But you must, Jake. Professionalism is what we have and what we are, at the end of the day.”

He ignored this.

“One of them comes in for a coffee on her way back from a gym. Black Lycra. Superb body. Muscular bottom, muscular legs.”

“Frightening. I hope that she doesn’t leave sweaty marks on your stripped pine tables and chairs.”

“Those thighs. Get half a centimetre adrift in your oral attentions and you’d risk a broken neck,” said Jake.


“A French invention, equivalent to 0.3937 of an inch.”

“Thank you,” I said, “but I am distressed to hear you talking in this inappropriate way. I trust that your lubricious speculations do not affect your manner when attending to the young person.”

“Of course not. As you say, professionalism. But my thoughts are my own.”

“You’ve quite taken my mind off the food.”

“Mind you,” said Jake, “if I tell you something can I be sure that it won’t go any further?”

I said nothing. I am devious but never deceitful.

“After we shut,” he said, “I sometimes play back the webcam pictures. You know we have a webcam linked into our website? Mainly where she gets up and leaves and the camera follows her out of the restaurant.”

There was a gurgling sound.

“Is your hogget boiling, Jake?”

“No, I’m all right,” he said.

I hung up soon afterwards and called the better half.

“How are things?” I said.

She got straight to the point.

“I had whitebait. They were tiny, but very delicious. And they absolutely insisted in my having a digestif.”

I shuddered.

“Ijaz says ‘Eid Mubarak’. He bought us some biryani. And cakes.”

“Please tell him ‘Eid Mubarak’ back.”

“I did. The biryani smells delicious. It has lots of vegetables in it. Masses. Peas and so on. Maybe it’ll keep till Wednesday…”

“It’s entirely up to you,” said the better half.

If I had to characterise her tone, the word ‘airy’ would be inescapable.

I took up the apple again. I put it back again in the fruit bowl. Microwaving the biryani was the work of a moment. Goodness, it was tasty, and it survived through the afternoon in the form of little spicy burps, which is more than you can say for most apples.

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.


Well, we had the party. Augustus Sly could be seen across the street with Ijaz, watching people coming and going. I hadn’t asked Augustus Sly, partly because he wanted to come so much. I did invite Ijaz; he declined because of the risk of being exposed to alcohol and non-Halal food – but with a good grace. Other neighbours came, however, bearing different gossip from that provided by the friends, work colleagues and so on; most impressively a family originally from St Lucia, who had relations recently arrived on holiday, who tagged along. Some were of great age and went into the garden where, fortified by strong drink, they slept. Amy couldn’t make it.

People stayed to the very end to show how much more amusing our party was for them than the football match, which began at 11 pm. This disdain for the Tube schedules, lovingly written out in longhand by Boris – apparently it’s the one thing that he will not delegate – and pinned to the tfl website for all to see, meant that some of our guests were still to be found standing at night bus stops in places like Peckham when first Dawn’s rosy fingers etc., etc. Meanwhile we went to bed.

In the morning I felt terrible. You’re hung over, said the better half, counting the empty bottles. I denied this, and I was right. I went back to bed and spent the rest of the day unconscious but hurting. At midnight, the better half said, ‘How do you pronounce ‘diphtheria’, because I think you’ve got it?’

She determined that the best thing was to ring for an ambulance. I’m not moving from my bed, I said. If it’s diphtheria I can direct you. I’ve read Stalky & Co.

We compromised on a visit the following day from my GP.

A home visit from a GP, I thought. Goodness.

It’s not diphtheria, he said, putting away his Stanley knife with some reluctance. It’d the other one: pneumonia.

So I am confined to bed with antibiotics, green tea, of course, weak lemon squash and Bella sleeping on my toes. It has its compensations.

I have been thinking back to the last time that I had pneumonia. It was the spring of 1963 and I was at boarding school. They took me to the school sanatorium and put me in a room by myself. For reasons best known to themselves they didn’t tell me that I had pneumonia and they didn’t let anyone in to see me in case, I supposed in a mildly paranoid way, they dropped some hint. After a certain amount of speculation I gave up, assuming that they knew best, and that if the whole rigmarole was because I had gone mad it would be undignified to ask. I was surprised when I got out to discover that my friends had all thought that I had been on the point of death.

In retrospect the instruction to sleep sitting upright, ‘or you’ll die’, should have been a clue.

It was a well-provided room with a bookshelf, and I spent some weeks there. These things took longer in those days.

I discovered P G Wodehouse and read all the Jeeves books. They were on the bookshelf.

I read Prester John, but it was on a particularly feverish day and I’ve never trusted that book since.

The lights were turned out early but I had a little Bakelite Sony transistor radio with an earphone. I don’t think that model was then available in Europe. It was very cool. I still have it and it still is. It was a gift from my friend Tsunekazu Matsudeira, a colleague with me in the school jazz band. He still plays jazz: in Tokyo. He’s on YouTube. Anyway when Matron had retired to her quarters to nurse a cup of cocoa and muse over rugby-genic multi-fractures of yesteryear, out would come the transistor radio under the blankets (duvets had yet to be invented) and I would explore the music available on its little dial. The Third Programme (as Radio 3 as called) was in its pomp then and not about to make itself accessible to anyone, which is just what I wanted.

Sometimes instead of music it had radio plays. One evening it was Home Sweet Honeycomb by Bernard Kops. I thought that it was the most wonderful stuff I’d ever heard, the wild imagination of it. I wish I’d been able to tell someone. I tried to tell the doctor (I thought him a better bet than Matron) but he just smiled. Bernard Kops, I see from Wikipedia, is still with us, and I am glad to know this, but he hasn’t troubled me since and I suspect that a return would be a mistake. There are hints: the Times-They-Are A-Changin’ cap for example worn, if Google Images is anything to go by, into late middle age. It was a revelation at the time, though, of what might be possible, and I wrote a number of plays along the same lines. Once burnt, twice shy: the doctor didn’t get to see them.

But a major event was to take place in my little Kafkan room during those weeks, it was to change the world, divide my childhood from my youth, and it was on the Light Programme not the Third. On Sunday they had the Hit Parade. In the third week of my confinement the Beatles’ single Please, Please Me went to number one: their first. I hated it, and I still do. It’s the only Beatles song that I dislike musically (with Piggies it’s the words) and I would then much rather that Island of Dreams by the Springfields (featuring the young Dusty) or Diamonds by Tony Meehan and Jet Harris had achieved the coveted number one slot. But my likes and dislikes were of no account in the maelstrom that was about to engulf us all.

But nothing so zeitgeisty this time around – so far.