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 Insatiability of Lesbia Firebrace

‘I heard it before I saw it,’ said Alfredo. ‘Like, if memory serves, the Jabberwocky, when it came whiffling through the forest – the tulgey wood, as the poet has it. Or in this case the bedclothes. It was Sunday morning and I was still three quarters asleep.

‘”Not the strap-on again,” I said,’ he said. ‘Or rather, I cried. “It’s Sunday morning. Not the strap-on, for God’s sake.”’

‘Burbling as it came.’

I thought this a constructive – even amusing – contribution, but Alfredo ignored it.

‘Was this,’ I said, ‘your friend from the West Cornwall Pasty Company floor, whose name I never got? What is her name by the way? Was it strapped onto her?’

‘No. She was sleeping the sleep of the just, on my left. This was Lesbia, on the other side.’

Lesbia Firebrace?’

‘The very same. The insatiable Lesbia Firebrace.’

‘Who is not really called Lesbia Firebrace at all, because that is the name of a character in Two Worlds and Their Ways by I Compton Burnett, which Amy was reading at the time.’

‘The name stuck.’

‘Does she know? Does whatever she’s called know that you call her Lesbia Firebrace?’

‘Um,’ said Alfredo.

‘What is she called?’ I said. I was feeling forensic.

‘Um,’ said Alfredo.

‘And the one from the West Cornwall Pasty Company floor: what’s she called?’

‘Um,’ said Alfredo.

‘So you’re living with two women and you don’t know the names of either of them?’

‘Um,’ said Alfredo.

‘I can see that constant sodomy must have its appeal. It must dramatically reduce the occasions where you need to make introductions. Don’t they talk to each other? Doesn’t that give you any clues?’

‘They use pet names,’ said Alfredo.

Alfredo has done and seen horrors at which you and I can only guess but at that moment he shuddered. Taking pity on him, I didn’t ask him to tell me the pet names that Lesbia Firebrace and the woman from the West Cornwall Pasty Company floor had for each other. Because I am a really kind person I didn’t ask Alfredo either what Lesbia Firebrace called him, either before or after having at him with the strap-on.

I reflected affectionately for a moment on the difference in Alfredo. When I’d first met him he had been an assassin with nerves of steel. I had been frightened to go too close to him. Indeed, in our first encounter there had been moments when if the cards had fallen differently he would have done away with me without any remorse; in those days no one would have dared approach him with a strap-on. Now he was a bumbling incompetent like the rest of us, and a much nicer man; I could wholly understand why Lesbia Firebrace wanted to sodomise him. It was all undoubtedly thanks to Amy and her course of kefir. How much of that was attributable to Amy and her personal therapeutic skills and how much to the benign but powerful qualities of her elixir was a question from the answer to which the obligations of client confidentiality debarred me.

‘Powerful stuff that, Amy,’ I had said once, fishing.

‘Data protection,’ she had replied.

We were standing, by the way, Alfredo and I, outside Great Secret Miss. I was about to go in and Alfredo was leaving.

‘How is Amy?’ I said. ‘I was hoping to see her.’

It had been a week or two: one thing and another.

‘Oh no,’ he said. ‘It was one of Amy’s girls. Amy has gone home.’

‘For good? For a holiday?’

‘Only a few weeks, she said.’

‘Thank God for that,’ I said. ‘Home? China or Kettering?’

‘Ah. I didn’t think to ask.’

‘Anyway,’ I said, ‘I was going in. Do you fancy some green tea? One of those little crispy things that taste like rain water? I guess they do them even if Amy is in China. Or Kettering.’

‘You know what,’ said Alfredo, ‘old double of mine, old nemesis of my assassination days, I think not. I have just spent two hours in there. One of Amy’s girls has been unravelling, with the aid of the good Montenegrin kefir, some of the traumas of a life misspent. I’m sure you can imagine. They’re awfully good, all of them awfully good. They don’t have Amy’s lightness of touch, but goodness knows they’re effective.’

‘Is it the elixir or the therapist, do you think, that does the trick? I was just wondering, as it happens.’

‘There’s a question,’ said Alfredo.

‘But anyway,’ he said, ‘after all the Sturm und Drang, no I don’t really want to go back for a little crispy thing. I need a change of place and a change of mood.’

‘The Kingdom?’

‘You’re on.’

We walked up there, chattering away.

‘Jake, my man: your finest hogget pudding please!’

I was feeling light-headed and now regret taking that jocular tone. There was of course no hogget pudding to be had. That had been a treat. There was a good steak pie, though, and it turned out that Jake had just opened a bottle of Corbières. We fell to eating and drinking. I told the story about the local drug dealer and Mrs K, but apparently the former had made less of an impression on Alfredo than had his girlfriend with the split skirt and the latter he had never noticed.

We sat back, full of good things and momentarily silent. My mind reverted to the beginning of our conversation.

‘But what’s it like?’ I said.

‘What’s what like?’

‘You know. Lesbia whatshername with her strap-on.’

Alfredo said nothing for a moment. I wondered if I had presumed too much on our friendship. It was after all a private matter. Maybe it was none of my business. But no, he was scrutinising his mind for the exactly right word.

‘Bracing,’ he said.

The Local Drug Dealer in Love

I bumped into the local drug dealer the other day. It was in Westfield, in Stratford. We fell to chatting. Suddenly I was overcome by embarrassment. Perhaps he was working. Was I insensitively interrupting a ‘drop’?

He laughed. ‘No, no,’ he said. ‘I’m doing the Sales. Big ‘S’ Sales.’

‘I was sad to leave the flat,’ I said.

‘Yeah. I left mine at about the same time. One thing and another.’

‘Nice building,’ I said. ‘The management were useless but the security were nice: useless but nice. And the crows.’

‘Yeah, and the poor old fox.’

‘We have two foxes in the new house,’ I said. ‘Glossy one in the front and mangy out the back.’

‘Like so much in life,’ said the local drug dealer, adjusting his baseball cap, which he wears at a rakish angle.

We fell silent. I was about to move on when the local drug dealer said, ‘And I’ll miss Mrs K-. A magnificent woman.’

He didn’t actually say ‘Mrs K-‘; he named her. In view of what follows, however, I shall use the initial to maintain her anonymity.

I looked blank.

‘Woman in the nails and beauty place. On the corner.’

I knew at once whom he meant.

‘I never met her: doing my own nails and beauty.’

‘Me just the once,’ said the local drug dealer. ‘Want to know about it?’

‘Of course.’

‘I’d often noticed her. Through the window. Leaning over a customer’s nails or whatever.’

‘Oh yes. Those shoulders!’

‘Those shoulders. Oh yes. Anyway I’m leaving the neighbourhood so I thought what the hell and I went in. There’s no one around except her. She seemed happy to talk. We were talking, five or ten minutes, this and that, cup of tea, when she surprises me. She puts a hand on my arm, meaningfully like, and she says, ‘I suppose you want a blow job.’’

‘Just like that? Was this in the nails and beauty area, in full view as it were of the street?’

‘No. We’d sort of drifted into the back.’

‘And what do you suppose inspired this approach, apart of course from your formidable animal attractions and noted headwear?’

‘Bored, I suppose. I was in two minds how to reply to her. It was mid-morning and I don’t know about you but mid-morning I don’t really think about that sort of thing. Even with some magnificent woman like Mrs K.’

This time he did call her ‘Mrs K’: just like that.

I remembered Amy telling me once, ‘Before lunchtime, Chinese people never horny,’ but I did not interrupt the local drug dealer’s flow by passing on that information.

‘Thing is, the night before, in bed with the girlfriend – did you ever meet the girlfriend?’

‘Yeah, Alfredo brought me to a party at your flat and I danced with her. If she’s the one. Slit up the side of her skirt, that party.’

‘Yeah, her.’

‘A magnificent woman too, in her way.’

‘Yeah. In her way. Anyway in bed with the girlfriend, with her, night before, obviously the skirt off at this point, I indicated I was feeling friendly and she repulsed me – viciously.’


‘Viciously. So I’m feeling sort of receptive to Mrs K. I said, ‘No, but I’d like to give you one.’ That put the cat among the pigeons, I can tell you.’

‘And did you?’ I asked. ‘Give her one or whatever?’

The local drug dealer said that it was not for him to speak lightly of a woman’s name and reputation.

‘That’s for her to tell you.’

He may have added, ‘Innit?’

He did however allow himself a dreamy expression, sufficiently dreamy to be unmistakable in spite of his dark glasses.

‘She is a magnificent woman,’ he said.

I imagined Mrs K and her shoulders, the local drug dealer with his skinny body, together in the dark back area of her little shop, the sign on the door changed temporarily to ‘Closed’, the light turned off so that visibility from the street was largely obscure. It was a vision wholly at odds with the antiseptic glare and entrepreneurial optimism of Westfield, Stratford, which surrounded us. It was a vision, to give credit to the local drug dealer’s reticence, that might be wholly at odds with what had actually happened. And whatever had happened I wondered if it had been inspired by the looks and personality of the local drug dealer or whether it was part of the service supplied, semi-officially, at the nails and beauty place. We stood for a moment in silence.

‘Well, good luck with the Sales,’ I said.

‘There’s nothing, innit? Nothing anyone would want. You can see why it’s the Sales.’

I said that I rarely bothered with them. ‘I’ve been sent here by the better half for a loaf of ethnic bread.’

‘Ethnic bread? In Westfield?’

‘Ethnic, well, Russian. Lower ground floor. It’s quite good. Opposite Waitrose.’

‘Well, see you man. Say hello from me to your better half.’

There was a brief pause while the local drug dealer considered describing the better half too as a magnificent woman, but he evidently decided against.

A day or two later I was walking to a bus stop and I passed the nails and beauty place. By chance, Mrs K was standing at the doorway. She looked magnificent. Thinking for a second, as a result of the confidences, such as they were, of the local drug dealer that we were acquainted, I gave her a half smile. Not only did she not make any suggestions such as he had received but she looked right through me, confronted as she no doubt felt herself to be not with a skinny and not unattractive young man but an old fellow scrabbling through his pockets for a temporarily misplaced bus pass.

Like so much in life, as the local drug dealer might well have put it.

The Doors

Unless something dreadful happens we have less than a week before we leave our temporary flat and take possession of the new house. There has been intensive building work there for five months and it is nearly done. The local drug dealer, going through our post, which like that of all the tenants is accessible to anyone with a ruler, found out that we are about to depart and is heartbroken. ‘You set the tone for the whole block,’ he said to the better half, and he pressed a small package into my hand.

“Something to remember me by,” he said.

I was touched. It went straight down the lavatory, of course.

The builders have been excellent, and, since the entire house has had to be stripped to its joists and reassembled, fast too. There are two bosses and others who are more or less permanent. The bosses are called Tomasz and Pavel and they do a Laurel & Hardy double act. Pavel is expansive. Nothing is a problem. ‘Of course we can do it,’ he says, with an appropriate gesture of his arms. ‘We are very good builders’.

Tomasz turns to him and says in Polish, ‘Another fine mess you’ve got me into.’

Then he turns to us and explains in English, ‘It is very difficult, to be honest. We have never done it. It will cost extra.’

But so far it has worked out fine.

Early on, the better half and I decided that if we tried to be joint project managers it would not work: so she has done it. She has been much better than I could ever have been, although I have done it all several times before. She is much more charming than I am and also much ruder. She has a sense of timing when it comes for demanding a discount that Jack Dee would envy. I say ‘Jack Dee’ advisedly: the response from the salesperson who was until that point calculating a commission based of the full retail price is usually, ‘You must be joking’; but she nearly always gets her way.

I have limited rights to comment and ultimate rights of veto. The right to comment is exercised cautiously. (‘It’s much too big.’ ‘Well, we’ll send it back if it is.’ We do.) And the right of veto has to be balanced against a similar such right exercised by the better half and so is retained for things that are truly important and irrevocable. The one such area which has led to raised voices and examined consciences is the doors.

It is a Victorian house. The doors downstairs, leading unto a succession of reception rooms into which the neighbours and even the vicar might have been admitted, had long since been torn out and replaced with nice new builders’ merchants’ creations, mahogany-coloured, with cheeky decorative glass and light as a feather on their little hinges. Upstairs the original doors remained, heavy and solid – in fact twice as heavy as formerly on account of a hundred and fifty years of paint.

‘They’ll be nice stripped,’ I said.

‘Hippy,’ said the better half. ‘Over my dead body.’

The builders closed ranks. They do not like old. We had already had a disagreement when they threw out a cast-iron fireplace, which we asked them to take out of the skip again, and which now, after being lovingly restored in Islington – where else? – graces the master bedroom.

‘Wickes doors better,’ they said.

‘Wickes doors like cardboard,’ I said.

They were shocked. ‘Many, many Wickes doors,’ they said. ‘Some heavy. Some with beading. You will be happy.’

But we stuck to our guns and insisted that the upstairs doors would be sanded – not stripped – and repainted. The builders gave in with a very bad grace and sanded them very badly. ‘It is very difficult, to be honest,’ said Tomasz. ‘And stripping doors like that: it can’t be done, to be honest.’ And so it remained while tempers simmered.

Then there was an unexpected development on the downstairs front.

‘If you really want Victorian doors,’ the better half said to me, ‘I suppose we could. But painted, certainly.’

She went onto the internet and found a man called Stick who sells stripped Victorian doors near Lewes. We had a day out. It was freezing, but Stick was very nice, his dog was even nicer and his shed was full of wonders. We ordered five beautiful five-panelled doors.

‘Waxed?’ Stick said hopefully.

‘No,’ the better half said. ‘We’re painting them.’

Afterwards she had another very good idea. She got Stick to agree to take away the controversial doors from upstairs – he could strip them; he had a tank – in part exchange for ones of the same size that he had in stock. All the doors throughout the house would be solid Victorian doors, but painted because we are not hippies.

The great day dawned: a Saturday. Stick was sending ‘the lad’. He had satnav and our address. It would take two hours or so. We waited. Two hours went by and then four more. Stick told us that all contact had been lost. It turned out afterwards that the lad had got the right road, the A2, but the wrong direction and had gone to Gravesend.

On Monday Stick himself arrived with the doors. The builders were very hostile. ‘They look very bad,’ they said. ‘Worse than the nasty ones you already have. They will never be nice. There are holes where there used to be handles.’

What they said among themselves in Polish was even worse. It was necessary for me (the better half was not there, with her resources of charm) to be curt. ‘This,’ I said ‘is what I want and this is what we’re having. You are very good builders and they will look fabulous.’

I spoilt the effect however by going on to explain why I didn’t mind the holes, through the use of the word ‘palimpsest’.

Then two very unexpected things happened.

The better half arrived.

‘They’re wonderful,’ she said. ‘They’re so wonderful that they should be kept stripped.’

Then Tomasz came up to me. ‘You didn’t say that you wanted the old-fashioned style,’ he said. ‘We do very well the old-fashioned style. I suggest waxed, to be honest.’

And so they do and so they are, and they are everything that as a callow, impecunious and relatively long-haired householder I dreamed of in 1975. And the better half has a sheaf of counter-vetoes up her sleeve for when it comes to the soft furnishings.


‘The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.’

This phrase is regularly produced by contributors to Any Answers, their smug and querulous tones suggesting that they are the good men in question and that their mere contribution to that venerable Radio 4 forum is averting – necessarily – the triumph of evil. It is retailed as a celebrated quotation but as such is of doubtful provenance. It’s variously attributed to John F Kennedy and Edmund Burke but apparently neither originated the phrase.

It is also of course nonsense. Good men doing nothing may I suppose be necessary for the triumph of evil but it is not the only thing necessary. There are good people sniggering and looking the other way in Russia, to take one example from many, but Mr Putin bears the main responsibility for his own evil and its triumph. Many of us reproach ourselves daily for our part in the appeasement of Mr Blair at the beginning of the Century, but in the last resort the responsibility for his misdeeds is his.

This is not a mere quibble. These smug and querulous assertions, whether on Radio 4 or in what we are encouraged to call the social space, make matters worse, not better. The triumph of evil is bad enough by itself.

And what’s all this about ‘good men’? Do women who snigger and look the other way not bear their share too of the responsibility?

Anyway, the better half said something of the sort to justify picking a fight with a neighbour. This is the drug dealer to whom I have referred before. He (it is a he, like the good men doing nothing) is as yet in a small way of business. His drug dealer’s limousine has blacked-out windows but is one of the more modest of the range of small cars offered by the Kia motor company – and not new. However he is admirably hard-working. Lanky youths with bicycles come and go at all hours, collecting small packages and returning with pockets full of what appear to be bank notes.

All this would be a matter of simple local pride if it were not for the nature of the coming and going. The drug dealer’s flat, like all of them in our block, is serviced with two locks and the tenant is provided with two keys for each and two fobs for the front door to the building. These are not replaceable and in the case of the drug dealer’s flat one of the fobs has, as we later learnt, become lost.

He cannot be in his flat all the time. He has to travel around, ensuring that his product remains tip top. His is, I understand, a world where sources of supply can disappear overnight and it is essential always to have a plan B. The result of his absence is a succession of people requiring access at the front door, and when they cannot raise an occupant of the flat in question, they press our buttons indiscriminately. Sometimes there is someone in the flat but they are asleep or ‘nodding off’ as I believe it is known.

One tries to help. ‘Are you a ‘mule’?’ I say to the young men (and again it does tend to be men, notwithstanding what one might expect from, for example, the excellent Harpur & Iles detective stories, where the process of delivery of the narcotics is often entrusted to women) as their faces loom Barry Manilow-like onto the screen in my flat provided for that purpose. Depending on the apparent good faith of their response I may or may not let them into the building.

On one occasion it turned out to be the drug dealer himself, locked out of his own flat. Irritation overcame my underlying desire to be neighbourly. It was the seventh or eighth time that afternoon and I was trying to work. I replaced the phone without first pressing the ‘Enter’ button. He got in anyway – someone else obliged – but he was sufficiently irritated to stand outside my door for some minutes, where he made a sound that can only be described as howling.

This was approximately the point at which the better half took things in hand.

“Something must be done,” she said. “It’s unacceptable behaviour.”

“I don’t really care,” I said feebly. “Local colour…neighbourliness…importance of not upsetting people who habitually use knives…our lovely new car parked just outside.”

And then she said it.

“‘The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”

“Or women,” she added.

A difficult week followed. She remonstrated with the drug dealer. She told him that his howling, whilst acceptable in strictly circumscribed conditions, for example at a Halloween party, had no place outside the door of our flat. He in turn cunningly played the race card and told the management that we were harassing him because he was black. When we passed each other on the staircase we turned away from each other with a contemptuous shrug. The better half contacted her friend George who said that if muscle was needed he was our man.

It was the drug dealer who very decently brought this unfortunate conflict to an end.

“I know it’s been difficult,” he said. “But now it’s new management. You’ll see changes. Sorry for any inconvenience.”

He told us affectingly about the lost fob, which explained everything.

“I don’t know where I can have put it,” he said. “Actually, I suspect foul play.”

I for one was happy to see amity restored before my throat was cut, and so was the better half, whilst glad to have made her point. Now, when we see the young men on their bicycles, plying the streets of Stratford with their precious restoratives, we wave to them. If only all problems with neighbours were resolved so readily. We have more serious ones elsewhere, but that’s another story.

Democratic Music

The English language, as the better half and I often agree, is a wonderful thing. You might think that a brass band was just like a steel band but mellower, or, if you were of a literal turn of mind, yellower, but you would be wrong. You would be very misguided if you drew similar conclusions as regards a band of gold.

These rather trivial thoughts went through my head as I watched a series of performances at Music for Youth’s National Festival in Birmingham last week, some of them performances by steel bands; the brass bands were in another part of the festival and a different hall. Setting a steel band’s equipment up on stage takes a certain amount of time, unlike a brass band which only requires chairs, so while I waited I permitted myself a second train of thought.

Steel bands are the most democratic of musical enterprises, because no one has the tune. The players each have a limited number of notes available on their pans and strike them at the right point, just when the tune has need of them. Then someone else does the next note. People who carry tunes, on the other hand, often develop undesirable habits involving grimacing and the tossing of hair. Jazz trumpeters and first violins in string quartets are particularly given to this; lead guitar players notoriously so; meanwhile the other players look grimly supportive. With steel bands everyone is in it together.

This steel band was particularly good. It was a youth group from Tyneside, thousands of miles from the tradition’s roots. The music ebbed and flowed and there were sudden magnificent crashes. Then, as the final climax approached, there was a fire alarm. Apparatchiks ran into the hall clutching their walky-talkies with one hand and making throat-cutting gestures to the band. It has to be said that their behaviour did not fall far short of grimacing and hair-tossing. Certainly they were enjoying making their throat-cutting gestures much more than listening to the music.

Such was the shock that some of the band wept briefly, before recovering their cool. We all went and stood in the sunshine and then went back in and they played it again. The smell of recently-charred concert hall, incidentally, was conspicuous by its absence, but better safe than sorry.

This throat-cutting gesture is a strange thing. I remember it on one of the two occasions when I was interviewed on the radio. I was sitting companionably at a table in Broadcasting House across from the interviewer and with a microphone in between; I was in full flow. The interviewer was making supportive gurgles and then did the throat-cutting gesture. The combined effect of gurgling and throat-cutting was so macabre that it brought me up short, which I suppose is what she intended.

Anyway, I soon found myself again musing on musical matters in circumstances where no alternative was available.

Last Saturday night there was a terrible commotion in our block of flats. It was mainly shouting and screaming but as the evening wore on there were also sounds of revellers being unwell. It was a very noisy party but not a particularly musical one. It went on until five in the morning. To be fair, though, if it hadn’t been so hot the windows would have been shut and some of the sound would have been muffled.

Actually our windows seem as if they had been designed to magnify the sound below. The other evening the local drug dealer was standing underneath shooting the breeze (is that the expression?) with a friend. We heard every word. He was complaining about how hard it was to make a living as a drug dealer in these terrible times. Sometimes goods were ordered and the orders were cancelled; sometimes payment due was not forthcoming.

Maybe it is because I am black, he said with a sigh.

But I digress from the party. We thought that up to a point revelling could be put up with on a Saturday night. However by mid-evening on Sunday there were ominous signs of party-goers, like the crows, gathering again. The better half met one of them. He said that he was from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, as was his host. His host had just celebrated a birthday and had decided that a two-night celebration was appropriate, although only special guests would be invited to both nights. These favoured ones had gone home to watch Andy Murray on television and change their underwear and were now back for more.

The better half told me that the young man brought this helpful exposition to an end with a proposal of marriage.

Shortly afterwards a limousine arrived and the host came down to greet it. Out stepped five statuesque young women. He kissed each one, a tribute that they accepted regally. Then they all progressed inside. Who are they? I said to the better half. (We were at the gate as they arrived so that she could smoke her after-supper cigarette.) Are they his sisters? Will they sing in close harmony, do you think? Will they burst out of a cake?

Um, said the better half, with the intonation of one who has seen the world.

But five! I said, weakly.

Later that night I lay awake and listened to the sounds. The better half snored gently beside me; she is not musical. It was West African music and it sounded live. First the drummer and the bass player set up a groove. There were guitar and keyboard solos, planned improvisation or merely interjections. Sometimes nothing would be going on at all except the regular beat of the high hat. From time to time there were women’s voices – maybe the glamorous women from the limousine, but, no, probably not.

Like the steel band, it was democratic music, whether it was live or recorded. The musicians were diligently combining to justify the drummer’s groove, and there was no grand-standing.

Or so it sounded as I lay three-quarters asleep with several walls in between.

As I say it seemed to be live. But it’s hard to believe that they found room in one of our dinky little flats for a band and a party, though who knows? This time it was a serious party, no one spilled outside to smoke on the lawn and no one was obviously unwell. I slipped off to sleep before the end and by morning it was as if it had never happened.

Journey to the East

We have moved from Clerkenwell and now live in Plaistow, in the not-yet-fashionable East End of London.

Somewhere in Anthony Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time – I can’t tell you where as the volumes are in storage, but presumably somewhere in The Kindly Ones – Nick Jenkins tells Hugh Moreland that it is impossible to write with the outbreak of the Second World War imminent. Moreland agrees that creative activity is suspended. It is the same with blogging and moving house. This is not because the inventive spirit is depressed by living among packing cases so much as that we no longer have broadband, and in the London Borough of Newham the ox-drawn Wi-Fi cart, which enables (as attentive readers will recall) blogging in Montenegro and the stans further east, has been more or less eliminated on the grounds of maintaining traffic flow around Stratford at a modest but constant speed. BT have promised to install all their goodies, including Wi-Fi, and have sent a series of excitable messages to my mobile phone in anticipation of the visit of their engineer: we shall see.

It is surprising how much one has come to rely on broadband, given that it has been with us for a mere blink of the eye in the great scheme of things. One of the pleasures of life on which I have come to rely is the automatic arrival on my Kindle of the electronic version of The Spectator. This happens between midnight and one o’clock, usually, on Wednesday nights. I have got into the habit of having a lie-in on Thursdays and finishing it before breakfast. Last week I was reduced to going to the Westfield centre in Stratford and attempting to use the free Wi-Fi facility of which it boasts to download my Spectator. This is indeed free of charge but it likes in exchange to capture, as they say, all sorts in information about me. My Kindle is very good at reproducing books but it doesn’t go in for all that online banter and the Westfield Wi-Fi facility finally gave up in disgust. ‘Server error’, it said morosely and could not be tempted further.

Searching for the Westfield W-Fi facility, which was available to me in theory, I discovered all the transient ones that weren’t. Presumably a fair proportion of my fellow shoppers were also beaming away and could, had I identified them and asked nicely, have delivered my Spectator to me if I promised to forget their passwords afterwards. Some of the Wi-Fi accounts have pet names, like Petenleanne or The Patelster.

The Westfield centre is surprisingly good, in spite of the surliness of its Wi-Fi facility. It has a range of funky food stalls for example, which I think that you would not find in the rather bland original Westfield in Shepherds Bush. The Shepherds Bush version is frequented by the better class of drug-dealer, who buy their soft furnishings there and make life in the underground car park a challenge because of their difficulty seeing where they are going through the darkened windows of their 4x4s. We do of course have drug-dealers in Plaistow. The better half overheard one of them standing outside his front door with a pal (this was before the cold weather returned) shooting the breeze about the problems and rewards of being a drug dealer in E13. Later I noticed a degree of tentativeness on his part in putting his BMW (saloon, not 4×4; regular windows) in the street outside his house through a three-point turn; maybe it is a recently-acquired BMW. But they seem to be less in evidence at our Westfield.

The move was surprisingly stress-free. I am sure that in the old days you had to organise moving your gas, electricity and phone supplies well in advance if you were not to be cut off, but these days the companies seem quite relaxed. And gas companies are about the only organisations that don’t demand to see a gas bill before they will talk to you. I suppose that if you see them every day, as they must, they lose their magic.

We were moved by Aussie Man & Van. There were two Aussie Men and they arrived with their Van brashly yellow, bearing images of kangaroos and festooned with Australian slang: ‘hard wakka’ for example, helpfully translated as ‘hard work’.

‘I am Laszlo and this is Laszlo,’ said the boss, alighting from his cab. ‘We are from Hungary.’

They were very good.

When I saw our old house at the end, our home for ten years, dusty, the walls covered with abandoned picture hooks and the carpets liberally decorated by the dog in the final weeks of his disability and the stains no longer tactfully disguised by rugs, I guessed that I would not feel nostalgic and I haven’t. When we arrived at our new house three neighbours came up to say welcome and one of them gave me a very nice hug. We look out onto immense plane trees and in the distance that funicular thing, built at the time of the Olympics, for which Transport for London claims credit but for which I suspect that there is no free travel for pensioners or the disabled. Turn ninety degrees and there is the Shard: just as there always was except that, since we are in the east, we can now see the sunset glinting through the artfully incomplete panes at the top.

The streets are emptier than in central London and, thanks to the Luftwaffe, the sky is bigger. When we had the three or four days of summer last week it was unnervingly like being at the seaside.