Tag Archives: opium

Bow Bells

One of the few builders on our house who is not from central Europe is Pete the carpenter, who is from Plaistow. He no longer lives in Plaistow but he was brought up a block away. His family moved out to Essex some years ago to make room for the likes of me. He told me of his apprenticeship as a carpenter. (If he had been talking to the Gentle Author his eyes would have been shining but he wasn’t and they didn’t. They were fine eyes for all that: dulled by alcohol, but subtly so.)

We used to go down to the River, he said, where they brought in the timber. It was just down on the quay in Silvertown. They would unload it in a state that it still needed to be seasoned. Magnificent boles presided over the quayside, sometimes for years, pickling gently in the London fogs.

Was it wet from the sea, I asked.

Yes, sometimes the wood had been hauled behind the ships, through the sea.

It stood on the quayside often for years until it was ready to be used for building. Some of the offcuts Pete and his fellow apprentices were allowed to practise on, to learn their trade.

I asked if Silvertown was then still Chinese. It had, I knew, been London’s original Chinatown.

Not really, he said. Most of the Chinese had moved west by then. Driven out by people like you, he said. (Had I been the Gentle Author he would have said it with a twinkle.) There were some food emporia, and behind closed doors there was still opium to be smoked and congenial company to smoke it in.

Not for us apprentices, that, of course, he said.

I thought of Mr Lee and I smiled to myself. Not everything had changed.

Pete the carpenter and the landfall for his timber would have been up-river from the mouth of the Lea, though I suppose that in their day shipments of timber could have come ashore at the old East India Dock. Nowadays containers of MDF are craned over the ship’s rail in Felixstowe.

Musing on this I took the track from the East India Dock to Trinity Buoy Wharf and the mouth of the Lea, which at that point is called Bow Creek. As I say there were signs of Hacknification: a phenomenon still mercifully rare in our part of East London; there is wall art, a giant fish, and when I got to the wharf itself an enclave where young people were enjoying a decent merlot.

This used to be an area of unparalleled squalor, even by the standards to which the Victorian poor submitted. There was a tragedy there, which gives some idea. A pleasure boat was run into by a steamer and seven hundred people were killed: many on impact, but most died because, when they entered the water, so, by a bad chance, did a discharge from a local sewer and they died suffocated by human shit.

There was of course a similar disaster, not so many years ago and further upstream. The Marchioness, another pleasure boat, was struck by a dredger, the Bowbelle, and many people were killed. Because of Health & Safety, however, they died shit-free.

Both stories have great emotional resonance. They disturb the even flow of time. I remember a story of a man watching the Thames and remarking to a friend: “Isn’t this where that pleasure boat sank and all those people were killed?” And the friend looked bemused, because the Marchioness tragedy was to take place a week later.

At the end of the quay there is a lighthouse. This in itself is startling: lighthouses are rare in London, to say the least. It presides over the expanse of the river – considerably greater here than in central London – and the O2, baleful on the opposite bank. I could see people walking on the roof of the O2. Lucky people to be doing so!

Lighthouses too have great emotional resonance.

The door was open and I went in. It turned out to be the home of the Longplayer project. Jem Finer, who created the music for most of the Pogues’ best songs – Shane McGowan wrote the words – has created a very long piece of music. Its performance started with the start of the Millennium and will persist until its end. The sound comes from metal bowls, as used by the Tibetans. You can see them there and they are very elegant. The sequences are created by computers in accordance with Jem Finer’s program. They say that it never repeats, but I’m not sure what that means; obviously some short combinations must repeat. There are strategies to cope with the failure of individual computers or of the electric supply. Sometimes people take over for a bit. You can read about it here.

This might have been a conceptual adventure where what mattered was the persistence of the piece over such a long period, rather than the experience of the sound. I went up to the listening area. This is in the top of the lighthouse where once the lamp was. Through the latticed window you can see the O2 and Docklands and you can imagine the music continuing on its placid way when the O2 has flapped away in unseasonably high winds and Canary Wharf has ivy growing up it. And the music itself is beguiling. It needn’t have been but it is. I sat there until the sun started to go down. Then I went home and played it from the website.

I have no idea why a sequence of notes generated by a computer should be so affecting. Maybe it was the lighthouse and the dead pleasure-seekers separated by a hundred years or more. Maybe it’s simply Jem Finer’s musical genius. After all, Fairytale of New York has great emotional resonance too.

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The Bandersnatch of Frome

“I’ve been at the Seventh Biennial Conference of the Anthony Powell Society, at Eton College,” I said.

This was in response to Amy’s question: “Why do you never come to see me any more?”

The true answer is that it is much further from Stratford to Great Secret Miss than from Clerkenwell so I have got out of the habit, but I thought to put her off by a cunning change of subject. It worked.

“He wrote about me in his Society Newsletter,” she said.

“That’s the man,” I said, “but it wasn’t him, he’s dead, and now the Society celebrates him and his work.”

“You should have taken me, said Amy. I investigate him at the internet. I read some books. The wrong overcoat. Compare Gogol.”

She is immensely thorough.

“It was wonderful,” I said, ”the Seventh Biennial Conference of the Anthony Powell Society, at Eton College. I met some lovely people, there were some agreeable wines from the Eton College cellars and I came away with a renewed love for the man and the novels.”

“Grey Gowrie was there?”

“He was. He made a very elegant speech, in lovely well-modulated tones. It took one back to the days when we had Ministers of Culture who could read. In fact all the talks were very good except one from Robin Bynoe. You remember him. He thought that all the characters in the novel should have job descriptions and measure their achievements against targets at the end of each chapter. Probably he thought that Messrs. Heinemann should have published the books with feed-back forms.”

“He don’t understand artistes. He has no soul. He still barred Great Secret Miss.”

“That is as it should be,” I said.

“Cantankerous bugger though,” said Amy.

“Robin Bynoe?”

“No, Anthony Powell.”

“Certainly he could on occasion be not unrebarbative,” I said. “I think that his fictional narrator Nick Jenkins would have been more amenable company than he. But now that he’s dead it’s possible to express our love for both without fear of its being rejected.”

“I think: the bandersnatch from Frome,” said Amy.

“Frome-ious bandersnatch,” I said. “ Mm.”

“Pun,” said Amy. “English humour.”

“I see, I see. Though possibly…”

I was at Great Secret Miss for a specific purpose. Alfredo, my double the assassin, is still staying with us. He has been here for nearly a month. It had not become clear why. He intrigues me and I am happy to have him around – there is never any risk of his doing anything clumsy or rude and unlike many of our house guests in the past he has accurately located the dish washer – but there are always claims on our spare bedroom. Normally it is a revolving-door policy and since he has been with us there have been mutterings from those who regard themselves as in the queue.

Finally he confided in me.

“Life,” he said, “is not always easy for a retired assassin. People say, relax. Try relaxing when you are accustomed to listening for the slightest sound, watching for the slightest movement in your peripheral vision. I am not stupid,” he said, “and I know that I have tied up all the loose ends as much as that can possibly be done; in practice I am not in danger. But I thought that I could leave it all behind and I find that that is impossible. I have tried la dolce vita. I have capered at parties, clutching my private parts. I have worn plastic hats and amusing glasses. I have clasped women to my bosom and encouraged passers-by to photograph us together on my iPhone, entrusted to them temporarily for that purpose. I have drunk excessively, particularly the agreeable wines of the Amarone region. I have tried recreational drugs. I am new to them, as you will understand: they are not compatible by and large with the assassin’s deadly trade.

“Sometimes,” he said, “I have thought that what I need is opium, the drug of forgetfulness. I found an opium den in Limehouse. It was run by a Mr Lee. It wasn’t a success. First, I was the only man there in an open-necked shirt. Then no one, neither the customers, many of whom seemed to be from the higher reaches of the judiciary, nor the Chinese girls serving green tea, addressed any conversation to me apart from the curtest of exchanges. It wasn’t a success. One cannot seek oblivion while socially uneasy. I made my excuses and left.”

Of course I recommended Amy, Great Secret Miss and the recondite consolations of kefir. Even as Amy and I were now conversing, Alfredo was in one of the mysterious back rooms having his titanic and inconsolable ego benignly dismantled by one of Amy’s girls and the elixir of forgetfulness.

As it happens (or ‘ironically’ as we are encouraged to say these days) I have been trying to cut down on my own intake of kefir. Amy allows me my own supply – the gold-standard stuff from Montenegro – so that I am not reduced to that available in the Eastern-European food shops with which Stratford is blessed. But I have taken too much recently. The extravagant dreams muscled in on my waking hours. I awoke feeling as if my mouth has been scoured dry.

So I have given it up for a week or so. Of course that has its effect too. The nights pass in silence and the daytime is distinguished by a banality of almost surrealistic intensity.

I keep this to myself. My colleagues would find it upsettingly alien and Alfredo has his own problems.

At that moment he emerged, wild-eyed and supported by that one of Amy’s girls who had ministered to him. He fixed me with a feverish eye.

“I suspect that something important has happened,” he said.

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In the Shadows of Limehouse

I didn’t recognise her for a moment. She hurried up the street in an anonymous sludge-coloured North Face jacket and a strange hat. This latter was made of mock tiger skin and had two vestigial tiger ears. Neither coat nor hat was anything like her usual get-up, which was restrained, stylish and utterly alien.

I was standing on the pavement wishing that I smoked and had a reason to stand there. It was bitterly cold and inside was steamy and on the cusp of smelling bad. I was about to go home. I was too depressed to be out, but home was not the welcoming place that it had been with the dog there.

She started when she saw me. As if in acknowledgement that this was an unusual encounter she tore off her hat.

Very cold, she said.

Nice ears.

Tiger ears. Kettering clothes.

You’ve come from Kettering?

Yes, yes. Yesterday Kettering day. Come in, come. Very cold.

So I did.

She was not pleased with what she encountered.

I go away one day. Place smell like armpit.

She busied herself. Girls who had been lolling (there is no other word, I am afraid) with customers were organised. A kettle was put on. Sweet oriental scents wafted from somewhere. It became a pleasant place to be again.

Tea, she said. Green tea.

She proffered a china cup with no handle.

Put it down, I said. It’ll be too hot to hold.

No. High tech cup. Hot inside, cool out.

And so it was.

Chinese supermarket, she said. Very good.

How was Kettering?

Very good.

You were telling me some time back how you left Kettering – but something happened; we were interrupted.

Not interesting.

Tell me anyway.

Usual terms?

The usual terms are that, when reported here, she talks in reported speech and whole grammatical sentences.

OK, I said. And this time you talk in whole sentences but I can use drivers with dialogue other than ‘said’. And sometimes with adverbs. OK?

Deal, she grinned.

The relationship with her husband was deteriorating. She left Kettering in dismay. She came to London, working here and there. She would return for twenty-four hours every week or so to her husband with a story about some job that required her to stay on the premises. Money came in.

Briefly she worked for Mr Lee at the opium den in Limehouse.

So you’d met him before?

Oh yes, she admitted ruefully.

You both kept very quite about that.

She remarked that inscrutability had never been a challenge for either of them.

She had also at that early stage encountered Mr Lee’s stakeholders, an experience she hoped not to have to repeat.

And then, she recounted round-eyed, the terrible events had started which had led to her being enslaved in the South China Sea and ultimately rescued by the son.

She finished her shift one night at Mr Lee’s place in Limehouse. It was four in the morning, still dark. Rather than wait half an hour for a night bus she wandered down to the river to clear the obstinate traces of opium smoke from her head. One great liner was at the quayside, its prow far above her, a hawser running down from it to the quay where there was a bollard to which it was attached.

On the quayside was a group of Chinese men. She could see at once that they were up to no good. They talked furtively and when they saw her they retired into the shadows to continue their conversation secretly. There was a gangway up to the ship, but another Chinese man, burly and rude, barred the entrance to it.

She had had no intention of doing anything other than walking past the ship and then going home, she told me frankly, but the deliberate attempts to exclude her had riled her.

I did something very stupid.

As dawn came the quayside finally emptied. There was no one around. She went to the hawser and slowly climbed up it, pulling herself hand over hand and tucking her legs around the steel so as not to be too visible, until she reached the prow of the ship. The hawser itself was connected to some machinery, no doubt it was retractable, but she was able to grasp the rail and haul herself over it onto the deck.

She just wanted to see what was going on. At a deeper level, she admitted frankly, she felt that nothing in her life was going well and an adventure, even an insanely dangerous one, was the only way in which she could change it for the better. She went off to explore the ship.

Of course, she conceded ruefully, it was impossible that she would not be spotted. There was a sudden violet pain, insensibility, and the next thing that she realised, from the motion beneath her, was that they were at sea.

It would be many months before she tasted freedom, or English air, again.

She stared at me truculently.

You’re putting me on.

Of course.

It never happened.

Only to Rupert Bear. My favourite Rupert story actually.

How on earth did she know about Rupert Bear? Was The Daily Express taken in Guangxi Province? But when she said this I remembered the story. It was probably my favourite too. I remember receiving the annual that it appeared in for Christmas, back in the Fifties. Unless I’m mistaken, Rupert finally prevailed with the assistance of some snakes. It was good to be reminded even if I was no further forward as regards the Kettering saga.

Or, as George Orwell would not permit my saying, even if I was back to square one.

She changed the subject.

What that mess round you face?

Where I haven’t shaved? I’m sitting shiva for the dog.

You shouldn’t be here then. Should be at home.

No. It’s not kosher at all, but then I’m not Jewish. It seemed appropriate to pay respect, that’s all.

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trouble with the olympics

Amy came to see me. I wanted to talk to her about the dog’s addiction, immersed as she is in the world of drugs that take you by the throat and never let you go. I myself have learnt the hard way to take kefir one week on and one off, although, as she says now, she could have told me that, had I not been so damnably insistent.

She didn’t put it in those words, but I could see that that was what she meant.

The dog was going though a maudlin phase that day. He lay with his head in her lap, gazing at her with his soft brown eyes. Amy has the limited tolerance for dogs often to be found in those who can read those parts of the menu not translated into English. She eyed him critically, with particular attention I thought to the areas of muscle. He sloped off, with his tail between his legs.

He tail between legs, she laughed. Usually metaphor. Not now.

Her remedy was simple.

Place whisky on top shelf.

But what about his underlying anxieties?

He very old. Underlying anxieties not matter.

It was a harsh judgment, but she has troubles of her own, and they all arise from the Olympics. The district in which she has her business (I’d better not tell you where it is) has been infested with police. They are trying to make it nice for the Olympics and they are busy trying to stop people doing whatever it is that they are doing. I have seen them myself in Soho, walking in twos like lovely bees in their yellow stripy things, and uttering inhuman cries from machines hidden about their chests.

(Bees not yellow, said Amy when I told her the story. Wasps yellow.

(Yes, I said, falling into her vernacular, but wasps not lovely.)

It so happened that I was proceeding peacefully in a northerly direction along the pavement on Wardour Street when I was addressed by three attractive Afro-Caribbean ladies, who asked me with great hilarity if I would like ‘business’.

I was taken aback.

With all of you?

More hilarity ensued.

It was partly the numbers but more so the jollity (it’s not called ‘business’ for nothing) that convinced me that it was all a good-natured joke. I turned to make some appropriate riposte, but suddenly they’d entirely disappeared, melted into some dark courtyard. There instead were two rozzers, squawking without moving their lips.

So maybe the ladies were serious after all.

Anyway, Amy too has had threatening visits from the police. When she maintains that selling kefir is not so far against the law, they mutter darkly about the Border Agency and knowing what’s good for you.

Why a sports-lover from Ukraine, say, staying in our capital city as our guest, should be hindered in satisfying his desire for good-quality dreams I can’t think – or indeed his desire for sex with three attractive West Indian ladies at the same time.

Amy says bitterly that of course Mr Lee has not been troubled.

Limehouse has been much redeveloped, I suggested. Maybe the police maps aren’t up to date and they can’t find him.

She laughed shortly. Apparently Mr Lee not only has local protection but also that of an Olympic potentate, a big cheese in some anti-doping agency.

Every month he come to London on fact-finding mission. Olympics pay. After he one pipe he no find no more facts.

Mr Lee, she said, makes him leave his blazer at the door of the opium den, so as not to frighten the others.

Apparently this personage has provided Mr Lee with a ticket to attend the final of the 100 metres. Amy suggested that she could take or leave the 100 metres but that she did resent Mr Lee’s immunity, compared with herself, from police interference.

Even Aubergine Small no help.

Don’t give up, I said.

After she left, the dog had his inevitable relapse. One minute I was the only one who could save him. The next he was saying the most hurtful things he could. (With dogs, that’s not actually very hurtful.) I reflected that addiction was OK if, like the man from the Olympics, you had power and could control your habit and the world around you. The dog, for all the love that we lavish on him, is at the bottom of the social heap. He controls nothing. I resolved to increase his pocket money, as from the end of the month.

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Hymnody

Daughter three and her Alex are getting married in September. They will do so at our wonderful local church, which is Venetian in architecture and Anglo-Catholic in style. People say that the Church of England is on the skids, but I cannot help noticing that our church has a choice of at least three thurifers. One of them can make the thurible describe a complete circle in the air, though only, like the wall of death, having worked up to it.

I don’t know if daughter three and her Alex will be having a thurifer for their wedding. We have discussed – and the discussions continue extensively – invitations, dresses, flowers and the wider questions of the reception afterwards, but not whether and if so how to cense.

Alex is a retired Roman Catholic and daughter three was brought up under Soviet communism and its aftermath. ‘Religion is the opium of the people’ was Karl Marx’s view and the good people charged with the care of the Soviet Union saw no reason to disagree, even up to my daughter’s time. Poor grumpy old Karl, trundling myopically between Clerkenwell, Soho and the British Museum Reading Room, getting so much wrong; one can imagine him pressing his hairy old face to the windows of the fashionable houses of the Lloyd Baker Estate, watching parties to which he had not been invited and concluding enviously that the bourgeoisie had their wives in common.

He wished!

Mr Lee, from another standpoint, also objects to the phrase ‘the opium of the people’. At his prices, he says, ‘the people’ have nothing to do with it.

Anyway, the consequence of their being brought up respectively under Soviet communism and the rule of the Bishop of Rome is that when daughter three and Alex were asked what hymns they wanted for their wedding they were lost for words. I was sent to my old copy of the English Hymnal (that extraordinary achievement by Ralph Vaughan Williams, who didn’t entirely believe in God but did believe passionately in people who weren’t professionals making music together) and told to come up with a shortlist.

Most hymns date from the Nineteenth Century and fall into the category, which they share with a lot of Victorian art, technically known as barking mad. This may be good or bad. There are however a lot of very good hymns that are quite unsuitable for weddings.

My first thought, as I imagine most people’s would be, was For Those in Peril on the Sea.

Then The Day Thou Gavest, Lord, is Ended. It’s an excellent choice for a funeral; less so for a wedding.

I rejected

A servant with this clause
Makes drudgerie divine:
Who sweeps a room, as for thy laws,
Makes that and th’ action fine

as unnecessarily contentious. Daughter three and Alex divide their household duties with meticulous fairness and would resent any divine interference.

I recalled a fragment from a hymn that always haunted me when I was a child:

Through gates of pearl streams
In the countless host
.

The countless host I could fit into a world view. It was a sort of communion wafer that was unconstrained by the laws of physics: consubstantial, co-eternal while unending ages run and so on. I could also envisage the pearl streams, within the compass of the enormous wafer, like a late Salvador Dali painting. They would be bright and bubbling but deep enough to accommodate pearl divers and the concomitant oysters. It was the gates I had difficulty imagining. Forty years later I suddenly realised what it was meant to mean. I had been thrown by the wholly misplaced emphasis put by the tune onto the word ‘In’. Maybe the hymn was written by a weather girl.

Saint Patrick’s Breastplate, I suggested:

Against all Satan’s spells and wiles
Against false words of heresy
Against the knowledge that defiles
Against the heart’s idolatry,
Against the wizard’s evil craft
Against the death wound and the burning
The choking wave, the poisoned shaft
Protect me, Christ, till thy returning
.

They looked thoughtful. I realised that more investigation was called for.

A lot of hymns fall into the category portrayed in Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life:

Priest: Gosh, we’re all really impressed down here, I can tell You.
Congregation: Gosh, we’re all really impressed down here, I can tell You.

For example, in All People that on Earth Do Dwell:

The Lord, y’know, is God indeed

And what does that actually mean? It seems to me to be perfectly circular. If he, she or it is ‘the Lord’ then he, she or it is by definition God indeed – and if not, not. It goes without saying.

It’s like the Jibjab Woman, who, now that she is in preproduction, is starting to take on the characteristics of a real person. Every time I see her, without fail, she tells me that God is great.

Well, he would be.

All People that on Earth Do Dwell is a strange hymn anyway. All the words are in the wrong order:

All People that on earth do dwell
Sing to the Lord with cheerful voice
Him serve with fear, his praise foretell
Come ye before Him and rejoice
.

It can be strangely moving though, when sung.

Then to confuse things further Alex announced that he didn’t want anything sentimental and certainly nothing about Love.

I’ve found a good manly hymn. It’s usually sung at the feast of Sexagesima, but that needn’t matter:

Arabia’s desert ranger
To him shall bow the knee;
The Ethiopian stranger
His glory come to see;
With offerings of devotion
Ships from the isles shall meet,
To pour the wealth of ocean
In tribute at his feet
.

Just the thing.

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Triadic Memories

It’s important to know whom you’re dealing with. It helps to have dealt with them before.

Predictably, Amy and Mr Lee have fallen out. They had very different personal visions for the opium den. Amy has left to set up on her own. Mr Lee has aggressively removed all traces of her time there. The cushions and the covers have gone. The benches are bare wood again.

My stakeholders prefer it like this, he said.

Who are the stakeholders of an opium den, I asked. The owners? The users?

The owners and the suppliers. Of course it’s all the same families. And it’s very bad if they are not happy. I know from my experience.

Amy talks, as did the Corleones, of going legitimate. Certainly hers is a kefir joint and there is no opium to be seen on the premises. When I visited the place (I decided to keep a foot in both camps) I did wonder if it was entirely legitimate. The appeal court judge was there. He has switched allegiance. The centrepiece of the room is a divan, covered in rich Chinese cloth, kelims, more invitingly woolly rugs from the mountains of Afghanistan and cushions from Turkey. The judge was lying there, in an advanced state of kefir-induced narcolepsy. Amy was spooning the liquid into his mouth. Her shirt was unbuttoned and between mouthfuls of the kefir he would fasten onto her right breast. His teeth rested in an exquisite porcelain bowl on a lacquer table by his side. It was almost translucent, which is how I could tell that it contained his teeth.

The judge’s clothes were also unbuttoned – a loathsome sight.

Amy is admirably direct and told me once that a useful trait of some Chinese women was the length of their nipples. She said that she shared this characteristic. It was handy in maintaining attachment on the part of men with whom she became involved. I had not really wanted to know this, and still didn’t, but as the judge slid into unconsciousness and his head fell to the divan I could see that it was true, or at any rate had been so up to the point at which his attachment failed. She wiped off the excess kefir, covered herself and joined me at the bar.

Are you OK, I asked.

Oh yes. I have good business, entirely new business. Old China hands still go to Mr Lee. My clients more modern, more new.

A pity perhaps, she suggested, about the judge following her.

Do you know Mr Lee’s stakeholders? Will they mind?

They mind about judge. He very value to them. Yes I know Mr Lee stakeholders. From China many years. They very bad people.

And so we left it. Curiously, a day or two later I heard of the judge again. I was having a bottle of port in El Vino’s with my friend Rodney, a barrister. Rodney of course knows nothing of the judge’s tastes. He merely remarked that the old man was clearly going off the rails. The other day I was before him on a trade mark matter and he took a most eccentric view of Section 9, he said; time he retired.

I wondered why. Perhaps he had fallen in love with Amy. That would have been far less of a risk in the bracing atmosphere of Mr Lee’s opium den. Perhaps he would retire. Perhaps his usefulness to Mr Lee’s stakeholders would cease. Perhaps they would blame Amy for it. I truly hoped not.

Of course things came to a head. They usually do. I was not there but a couple of informants were.

Amy was invited to attend on Mr Lee at a particular time and place. She was given to understand that representatives of Mr Lee’s stakeholders would be there; non-attendance would be taken amiss. A brave girl, she resolved to attend alone, but she did leave word of where she would be.

The meeting started badly. There were three of Mr Lee’s stakeholders, small unobtrusive men, but with expressions that were implacable and admitted of no possibility of pity. It was clear that the judge’s switch of allegiance was not forgiveable and that she was to blame.

The conversation modulated to the next part, which would comprise what was to be done about it.

Mr Lee’s stakeholders’ mistake, an understandable one, was to assume that they would be the ones doing the doing. Given his enormous frame and the creaky nature of the old Soho floorboards it is astonishing that no one had any warning of Aubergine Small’s approach. He burst into the room. He was still dressed as a washerwoman (a disguise adopted, it will be remembered, in order not to arouse suspicions on the part of the authorities, who are seeking him for the bisection of a Revenue man). In front of him he brandished a sign:

THE DOOR WAS OPEN SO I CAME STRAIGHT IN

As they gasped he brandished a second one, at Amy:

I AM HERE FOR YOU

It would be nice to say that he dealt with Mr Lee’s stakeholders before they could get into their martial arts first position. In fact they had, and they rained deadly kung fu blows onto him, but he took absolutely no notice. One went through the window as a warning to the people and the other two were left on the floor. They will not walk again.

He showed me the signs later, when Amy told me the story. To my surprise they were printed rather than written.

I keep a number, which are appropriate responses to frequently asked questions, he scribbled. Otherwise I write them specially, but that takes longer, which is a problem when bursting into rooms. He showed me the most used:

ALTHOUGH MUTE I CAN HEAR YOU QUITE CLEARLY

And how did you know, I asked, that Amy needed to be rescued, that her case was urgent. He shuffled the pile and pulled out another printed sign:

I HAVE ENCOUNTERED SUCH MEN BEFORE

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amy cleans up and aubergine small cuts up rough

There is some strain at the opium den. Supplies have been resumed, but there is something obscurely disagreeable about the quality. I woke with a splitting headache the other day after a session there. Amy has continued the availability of kefir as an alternative to opium. More than that, she is presuming on her success during the crisis of supply to make a few changes. The floor has been hoovered and the kitchen surfaces scoured. There are cloths and candles on the tables now and the bare boards of the benches, on which the opium user lies and from which he derives the sores on his hips that are his mark of pride (giving rise incidentally to the word ‘hipster’) have been covered with cushions from John Lewis.

Mr Lee is not pleased. I remarked amiably that Amy had been making herself useful.

Bossy cow more like, he muttered.

I am in two minds. I suspect that the clients rather like the spartan surroundings that we had before. Of course it is hard sometimes to guess their background when they are silently nodding over a pipe, but I imagine that they are old China hands of course, Tory MPs from the libertarian wing of the party, judges, barristers rather than solicitors, some bankers, no accountants.

(I once suggested to an accountant going there together. What’s the percentage in that, he asked.)

Anyway, they are almost exclusively men rather than women and they seem to be public school men on the whole, to whom doing it in public, the bare boards and the real thing – even if a temporarily second-rate real thing – are more likely to appeal than chintz and kefir, even if the kefir is to be administered by Amy and an increasing number of attractive Chinese girls whom she appears to have recruited, sometimes in the private rooms.

I think that Mr Lee suspects that she is manoeuvring herself into a position where she can make some kind of bid for power. Ultimately of course it will not depend on Mr Lee, who is only the general manager, but on the owners, and they, to judge by the hideous expression that fleetingly crosses Mr Lee’s face when I mention them, are capable of enormities that can only be guessed at by those outside the trade.

I hope that she knows what she is doing.

Meanwhile Aubergine Small is also in the soup, and also for reasons of over-enthusiasm.

Since the wild dash across the Omani desert, the son has rather taken to perching on his shoulders as an alternative to walking. He has sometimes in the past had issues around laziness and I remember when he was very much younger charging around and playing hide and seek at a children’s party with him on my shoulders, as he didn’t want to get his own feet dirty. None of the other children had this problem and all the other fathers could be seen at the end of the garden enjoying a gin and tonic.

For some reason now forgotten he was dressed as a spaceman.

That of course is water under the bridge now (not that there is water anywhere near the bridge of The Jolly Thought if the word ‘shipshape’ has any meaning) and, besides, in those days the son still had his twin careers as philosopher and privateer in front of him.

The surprises that life springs on us!

Anyway, they were beating up the Channel when they were accosted by a Revenue cutter. A Revenue man wanted to challenge a tax treatment to which the son had claimed entitlement. Tragically, there was no doubt about the matter. The son was right. He was so entitled. It was all part of the special dispensations allowed to privateers (the son is a privateer and certainly not a pirate) by the present Coalition Government to revitalise industry. The Revenue man had not done his homework, and this had gruesome consequences.

But for them, the encounter would have been farcical: the Revenue man, out of breath having clambered up the side of The Jolly Thought and facing Aubergine Small’s enormous bulk, with the lesser bulk of the son perched on the latter’s shoulders, having a discussion about an HMRC statement of practice.

Small, unable to contribute to the conversation in the conventional way, cut this short by unsheathing his cutlass and cutting the Revenue man neatly in two through his waist. The son told me later that the best medical view is that this is impossible, although a common feature of cartoons. That is really beside the point, which is that the authorities, looking as always after their own, have made it very clear that Aubergine Small is persona non grata on the mainland, for at least the time being.

The son is irritated at having to walk, at least until a taxi comes along, on his infrequent visits to London.

Aubergine Small is my legs, he says, and I am his tongue. Together we make a considerable man.

There’s nothing wrong with your legs, my lad, I replied. And don’t go all Ben Hur on me. I have seen it ten times now and I know it much better than you do.

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Aubergine Small and Amy

We were due to go out together the other night, but as it turned out the better half had some tatting to do so I went by myself to the opium den. As soon as I got through the door (unremarkable, as you’d imagine, in need of a coat of paint and with an almost illegible plate bearing the name of a company in the fruit importation business) it was clear that something was badly wrong. Mr Lee, the General Manager, took me quickly to one side.

There was no opium left. Apparently there was discontent among the Lascars who brought it into London on the great airliners. Some had threatened coordinated action. Houses such as Mr Lee’s, but unfortunately not Mr Lee himself, had stocked up. As a result there was none left.

Just like the petrol tankers, I volunteered.

Mr Lee’s face suggested a total lack of interest in petrol tankers.

You wouldn’t get it with the crack houses, he muttered.

But I have something for you, he said, that I think you won’t regret.

I could hear the desperate sounds of the salesman in Mr Lee’s voice, but I went along with it. To be honest, I have never felt that the opium is the be-all and end-all of an opium den. I go as much as anything for the company and to get me out of the house. (I was about to say that I go for the crack, but you know what I mean!) I am also aware that Mr Lee will always look after me, for reasons which I will now relate.

My son, the privateer, was recently in the South China Sea. There had been an embarrassing outbreak of slaving there and he had been asked to stamp it out.

Turned gamekeeper, I see, I had said.

Nonsense, was his reply. It’s a contract like any other.

Needless to say, the slaver had been located. He had been smoked out of the remote and apparently impregnable island where he had his secret headquarters and his operations had been dismantled with a precision that one might describe as surgical if one had never actually met a surgeon. My son had put the slaver over the side of his ship, by means of the plank, and he described to me his pleasure at the sight, seconds later, of the black fins and the sluggish water temporarily threshed into turbulent activity. My son is not an unforgiving man, but he is a philosopher as well as a privateeer and the practice of slavery offends every idea that he has for the freedom of thought and action of human beings.

When his men went ashore at the slaver’s island they found a dungeon full. They tore off the slaves’ manacles and shipped them without delay to the nearest office of the social services, which manfully reflected the gravity of the situation by staying open after the regular closing time of 4.30 pm, and making Care Orders on them all.

Two however he kept back, and when he put to sea again he could be found, having negotiated the shoals that surround that particular harbour – shoals that might be described as treacherous had they ever expressed a preference one way or another and then gone back on it – in the captain’s cabin of The Jolly Thought having tea with Aubergine Small and Amy.

Aubergine Small has since assumed great importance in my son’s life. He is immense in size and strength, and mute. He has lost his tongue. His loyalty since his rescue is total. He has become indispensable. My son told me of an instance in Oman, as they returned from the South China Sea. They went ashore for an engagement that went wrong. It became necessary to escape the forces of the good but in this case misadvised Sultan, His Highness Sultan Qaboos. There was fifty miles of desert between them and The Jolly Thought. Aubergine Small seized my son, flung him onto his broad shoulders and charged, piggy-back-fashion, across the sands, making the vessel minutes before the forces of Omani law and order. Not all the men were so fortunate, in spite of not having to carry a philosopher on their shoulders.

Anyway, Aubergine Small is not part of this story, except that second only to his loyalty to my son is his devotion to his fellow slave Amy, and it was he who convinced my son, wordlessly but effectively, that Amy should also be kept back from the attentions of the social services.

Amy is as tiny as Aubergine Small is huge. Her real, Chinese, name is unpronounceable for my son – he has no gift for languages – but she insists that Amy will do. The question, when they returned to England, was what to do with them, since clearly a place in the Cameronian dole queue was not an option. Aubergine Small would of course stay by my son’s side, but there was no place for a woman on the fighting machine that is The Jolly Thought. My son consulted me and I thought of Mr Lee. The upshot is that Amy now works in the opium den. I have not quizzed her on her background, but she clearly has a feel for the drug, she assists the sometimes elderly clientèle on their way to happiness, and the takings have gone up substantially.

And that is why Mr Lee will always look after me.

And Amy will look after you, he said.

She took me to a private room.

No opium, I said, conversationally.

This very good, she said.

She made me take my shirt off and lie face down. She worked her fingers into the muscles of my shoulders. After ten minutes or so she handed me a small porcelain cup with a milky fluid in it. Drink, she said, very good.

I drank.

It’s kefir, I cried. I know this.

This very good, she said.

It’s made from the intestinal flora of sheep, I shouted.

Very good dreams, Amy murmured.

And so they were.

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Fun in an Opium Den and Grayson Perry

A typical Friday evening. The better half went out to eat with some of her girlfriends. I enjoyed a supper of cold pork and refried greens with the dog and then decided to visit an opium den in Limehouse where I am known. The dog, like all dogs, is physiologically incapable of sucking, a pipe would be wasted on him, so I leave him shut in the front room.

Lascars from the great ships are chattering in their corner. A Chinese woman offers me some tea. I decide not to take my full pipe but to hold some conversation with the white men in our corner. This is not straightforward. Most of them lie on their sides staring impassively and silently ahead. One has been frozen in that attitude, I swear, throughout the six years that I have been going there. However another of them, a Court of Appeal judge as it happens, it would take a pile-driver to silence. I notice for the first time as he lies there how old-fashioned his tailoring is. His trousers are cut high in the crotch, the waistband up towards his chest. He has slipped his braces off his shoulders when he lay down with his pipe on the bench – a very different bench from that which constitutes his trade! I talk about the iniquity of the directive extending the period of copyright for recorded music. But as I say, he is a verbose man, I soon tire of his conversation and I leave for home.

The better half returns minutes after I do with a confused story, indeed one from which the interesting bits seem to have been removed. An American man, apparently a film director, was in the restaurant. He was wearing track suit bottoms and had no doubt been allowed into the restaurant in error. A discussion ensued in which words were spoken and voices raised. The proprietor of the restaurant asked them all to leave.

At least I think that that is what she said, but I was still feeling a little remote, from the opium, and, despite the better half’s high spirits, disinclined to concentrate.

*

In 2008 we went to the opening at the wonderful de la Warr pavilion in Bexhill of Unpopular Culture, a show of paintings and photographs taken from the archives of the Arts Council and curated by Grayson Perry. I went because among the works featured was a painting by my old friend and hero Carel Weight, The World We Live In, as well as work by other now-unfashionable artists who flourished in the 1960s and 1970s. I found it depressing. Grayson Perry’s thesis seemed to be that the work of that era, safely before the YBAs and the arrival of the artist as celebrity, was actually quite agreeably quaint. He juxtaposed the paintings with photographs that were of a far-away world, 1950s beauty pageants and so on, whereas it seems to me that Carel Weight – and indeed Francis Bacon, who was around then too, though apparently not represented in the Arts Council cellar – are as relevant and unquaint now as they ever were. I thought that what Perry had to say was patronising and suggested that he hadn’t bothered really to look at the paintings in his own show.

But seeing The World We Live In again and the opportunity to spend the weekend on the edge of Romney Marsh were worth a journey to Bexhill.

So it was without much enthusiasm that I went to see Grayson Perry’s new show at the British Museum, The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman. I went largely because of the marvellous assembly at the BM in 1985, Lost Magic Kingdoms, in which Eduardo Paolozzi combined obscure and wonderful things from the BM’s collection with his own work.

My lack of expectation was confounded. It’s marvellous. Perry draws a distinction between his collection and Paolozzi’s, saying that Paolozzi reacted to the work that he found whereas Perry made his work and found material in the BM collection that resonated with it. Of course for the viewer that makes little difference.

What we have is a few strong themes and some amazing objects. The themes are perhaps unexpected in the world we live in: the importance of craftsmanship, the assembly of things that make up civilisation, humility, tolerance, holding one’s beliefs lightly. Perry invents a religion around his childhood bear, with whom he rode to Germany on a specially designed bear-mobile, a pink motor bike with a monstrance on the back. Then he tells us not to take it seriously as a concept, or indeed at all.

One of the objects from the BM’s collection is a soul house for the dead. Perry says that he likes it partly because nothing extraordinary seems to await us in the next world.

Some of the pieces are moving. Perry has created twin sculptures, Our Father and Our Mother. Both stumble along weighed down with the impedimenta of the past, but quite cheerfully. Our Father has a small dog, who is not weighed down by anything but adds, like the semi-divine childhood bear, to the general merriment. I reflect that the à la blague family has elevated its dog to the status of ironic semi-divinity.

The show is partly a love song to the BM itself. There are all sorts of things here from the collection that normally don’t make their way out of the cellars: miscellaneous tribal artefacts, badges from Russia in the 1980s, slipware made by artisans rather than artists, not things that make headlines in auctions. I remember (or at least I think I remember) when I was a child, when the Museum aimed at comprehensiveness rather than comprehensibility – the mission to explain. There were endless dusty display cabinets with things in: some of them very strange things. This show is a celebration of them.

The better half is at the show today and may well have things to say. Her Russian readers will be interested in the eighteenth century Russian print of The Money Devil Showering Coins On The Greedy. No changes there.

Listened to

Pete Atkin

Tomas Luis de Victoria: Requiem Mass

Reading

Names on the Land: A Historical Account of Place-Naming in the United States: George R Stewart

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