A bit of high-level intellectual colloquy

‘Fire away,’ I said to Augustus Sly.

‘Montenegro,’ he said. ‘Ah, Montenegro.’

We were in London.

‘Or Crna Gora, as the locals have it,’ he said. His pronunciation was just so.

‘Montenegro,’ I said, ‘since you are interviewing me on the subject, is a boost to creativity. Of course, as a country, you shouldn’t judge it by February. It was cold and it rained. It reminded me of the west of Ireland from the days when I used to go there. In Ireland it rained and the cold got you deep down. Ireland and Montenegro both, you would hunch in front of some electric fan heater so that your face burned and your feet still felt like ice. It couldn’t be as cold as it felt, to judge by the temperature gauge in the hired Corsa: I suppose that it was the damp that got into the house and your bones and could only be dispelled by living there.

‘The difference between Montenegro and Ireland,’ I said, ‘is twofold: the music and the gossip. In Ireland there is always music: furious music through an open door, as Mike Scott says.’

‘Waterboys,’ said Augustus Sly.

‘Just so. Room to Roam. In Montenegro, there’s also always music, but it’s Europop…’

‘Kurd Maverick?’ said Augustus Sly.

‘At best.

‘And in Ireland,’ I said, ‘there are always stories. There’s gossip about the people who live there. So and so has become a lesbian. So and so has become a potter. So and so was JFK’s real father, still alive, by God. Such and such a church is the oldest in Europe, celebrated in poems and songs now lost. In that valley they still talk Latin – away from the incomers and the tourists, of course. In Montenegro there are probably stories too, but they’re lost on me, not having the Serbo-Croatian. So I’m driven to making them up.’

‘Kurd Maverick?’ said Augustus Sly.

‘He’s real, actually – but I have made him do things that he didn’t really do. He’s cool with it. No, I was thinking of Apa’tman, the great Sixteenth Century warlord who put his enemies to the sword and then subdued the nation with the benign aid of kefir, but would not survive a Google search.’

‘Apa’tman,’ said Augustus Sly, ‘is not a happy creation. With respect.’

‘Please don’t say ‘with respect’,’ I said. ‘It nearly always comes across as either rude or smug.’

‘In my case?’

‘Smug.’

‘Apa’tman is wholly unbelievable,’ Augustus Sly said. ‘Like Dame Jenni ™ Murray, another of your obviously made-up characters that you lay on with a trowel.’

‘Do you think,’ I said, ‘that there is a danger of making the whole thing more self-referential that it already is if we continue in this vein?’

‘Were you planning to record our conversations?’

‘This?’

‘Yes.’

‘Post them?’

‘Of course.’

‘That was the plan: if your questions were sufficiently amusing. My readers like nothing more than a bit of high-level intellectual colloquy.’

Augustus Sly studied the end of his pencil. He was on his mettle now.

‘Great Secret Miss,’ he said.

‘Ah. Tricky, that.’

‘Where is it, do you think?’

‘I can’t of course say exactly where it is or it would be inundated by my thousands of Followers, which would spoil its peculiar ambience. Soho, I suppose, with The Kingdom further up towards the Euston Road. It has certain Magic Toyshop qualities, though, hovering between real life and the world of dreams. You may not be able easily to see it from the street.’

‘And Uncle Edgerton…’

‘Everyone hates Uncle Edgerton.’

‘No. No. The whole zombie thing. Fascinating. In a way…’

‘What I felt, I’d been very brave. Credit was due.’

Augustus Sly ignored that.

‘The whole zombie thing,’ I said, ‘as you call it. What’s your take on that, then?’

‘Oh,’ said Augustus Sly. ‘Post-ironic anomie. That whole thing. It’s a rather important element of my thesis, actually. Won’t say any more if you’re, you know…’

‘… posting. Of course. Internet piracy. You wouldn’t want anyone else stealing a march.’

‘I’ve been burned before,’ said Augustus Sly. ‘Peer review! Ha! Peer theft more like.’

‘Not on your alablague research?’

‘No. No. A thing on Barthes. Barthes: Roland or Simpson? Peer theft more like.’

‘I’m sorry to hear it. If I do a post about this do you want me to take out the bit about post-ironic anomie?’

‘Yes please,’ said Augustus Sly.

He stared at the end of his pencil again.

‘What will you call it?’ I said. ‘Your thesis?’

‘Before the colon or after?’

‘Ng?’

‘All titles of theses are split about a colon. Pilate Jests: Truth and Lies in the Alablague Blog. Barthes: Roland or Simpson? . That sort of thing.’

‘Is that it? There’s no Pilate in my blog.’

‘No it isn’t the title. That’s a secret. Of course there isn’t Pilate actually in your blog. That would be too blatant a channeling of Master and Marguerite even for you. ‘

Augustus Sly flipped his fingers into aerial quotation marks when he said ‘channeling’.

‘But ‘alablague’’, he went on, ‘ – ‘in jest’ in French; Canadian French anyway – is an obvious reference to jesting Pilate.’

‘Bollocks,’ I said. ‘It’s my surname.’

‘My daughter,’ I said, ‘like you an aspiring PhD, likes to drape her thesis titles around a semi-colon, incidentally, rather than the colon as more generally found.’

‘Bollocks,’ said Augustus Sly.

‘I suppose you’re not telling me the title because of the post-ironic anomie business.’

‘Bollocks,’ said Augustus Sly.

‘I’ll get it out of you.’

He fell silent and ruminated for a moment – figuratively, of course, on account of having only one stomach.

Or so I assume: our acquaintance is still too young for confidences of that nature.

Clearly he was working up to something.

‘Big one,’ he said.

I realised at once that he was not attempting to flatter me by using the vocative case. He meant, ‘This is the big one.’ It was usage I had come across before.

‘Mm?’ I said.

‘Who is Amy?’ said Augustus Sly.

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My Uncle Shall Not Die

I awoke. I was on the same bed. I felt drowsy all over, except in one particular. The woman was still there. She came into view. I was dressed, to some extent, I could just see my bow tie which had come rather rakishly undone, but she was able to inspect me briefly and then, apparently satisfied, went out of my vision again. Had I been restrained? I moved my limbs languidly. No, I was not restrained. I was just very, very relaxed, except, as I say, in one particular.

I felt rather cheerful about it all.

I heard the woman’s voice, as if from far away.

“…awake…..”

Was she talking to me? There couldn’t be anyone else, obviously, in my hotel room, except her and me.

“I’m awake, my dear,” I tried to say. I’m not sure what came out.

I giggled. Not to be able to say “I’m awake, my dear”! What had they put in that champagne!

Of course her spoken English, earlier, had not been fluent. Fluent enough to say ‘awake’ through, I reasoned to myself. I was reasoning to myself, I thought, with another giggle; things are not that serious. She came back into my field of vision. She was still wearing the lovely dress, sheer but immensely stylish, that had first caught my eye at the ball, hours earlier. She gazed at me.

If this is a honey trap, I thought, bring it on!

She was still in her lovely dress, but I noticed with surprise that instead of the long silk gloves that she had worn earlier she had on surgical gloves. The green clashed.

I awoke.

What was that?

It had felt immensely real – not as a dream that I was in but as if someone was talking directly to me.

But who?

I got up agitatedly and made myself some green tea to clear my head. I noticed that it was four o’clock in the morning – not a proper time for green tea. Back to sleep, I thought, getting into bed and placing the mug with the tea on the bedside table. In the other side of the bed the better half was sleeping soundly. Fortunately I had not disturbed her. But I couldn’t get back to sleep. It had been too vivid. I had a sudden thought. The only person who ever tried to contact me like that was Uncle Edgerton, though he’d been quiet for months now. Uncle Edgerton, of course, usually summoned me by using his familiar, P2, who would adopt the shape of a woman known to me and then convey me back in time. I checked the better half under the blanket. No, it was really her, not P2; with P2 there is always a certain skimpiness with the attendant detail.

Uncle Edgerton was in trouble. That gradually came to me and then I couldn’t get it out of my head. It was a most unlikely mise en scène for him, but, yes, it was his tone of voice. Silly, dirty old fool! I remembered with a flash that he was said to have died mysteriously during the War. These were certainly mysterious enough circumstances for him, far from Lewisham and the life assurance company. It came to me even more cogently: he’s got out of his depth and he needs my help.

Or my uncle was going to die.

I dashed, quietly, down to the kitchen and downed a glass from my home supply of kefir. It was essential to recover the dream, or whatever it was – and then I might know what to do. I soon slept again. What I now encountered chilled me to the bone. There was nothing to see and a plain unvarying electronic note. Had Uncle Edgerton flat-lined?

That underlined the danger but I realised that it needn’t be fatal. If I could get back, I could do so a minute or two earlier, and I could deal with the vamp and her accomplice, the one she’d said ‘awake’ to, before they did whatever unspeakable thing it was that they had done – or would do – to my uncle. Actually I could take Aubergine Small and he’d sort them out. He is, as readers may recall, much bigger than I am.

But how? How could I get back in time to what must be the 1940s? Uncle Edgerton had always dealt with that side of things before. He was, after all, an adept of the Order of the Drawn Sword (Third Level) and I wasn’t. I was not thinking straight. I dashed upstairs again and fetched the mug of green tea. It would counteract the effect of the kefir.

I drank it slowly. It was still hot. Green tea is quite delicious lukewarm or even cold, but hot is best, especially when you want to dispel the lingering narcotic effects of kefir.

This round of dashing up- and downstairs had woken the better half.

“What on earth’s going on?”

She was not pleased to be disturbed.

I explained briefly. I probably gabbled.

“And what exactly are you planning to do about it?”

“That’s what I’m cudgelling my brains about….”

“I don’t see P2. So you can’t go back in time.”

The better half, unnecessarily I thought, got on her hands and knees and shouted satirically under the bed:

“P2, come out! P2, are you under there?”

She turned to me again.

“What exactly did he say?”

I told her again.

““If this is a honey trap, I thought, bring it on!”?”

“Yes.”

“I very much doubt that they said ‘honey trap’ in nineteen forty whatever it was, and they certainly didn’t say ‘bring it on’.”

“You mean…?”

“He didn’t say it. You made it up. It was a dream. It’s half past four. Now go back to sleep.”

Swimming

When I was young my parents would take us on holiday to Europe. This was relatively rare then. Flights were expensive, so we drove in my father’s elderly Daimler. Only once did we fly and that was an impossibly romantic stagger across the Channel with the Daimler in a Bristol Freighter, from Lydd Airport to Le Touquet, a service also employed by James Bond in Goldfinger, with, if memory serves, his 1930s Bentley. Lydd Airport is now called London Ashford Airport, because it is not located anywhere near London or Ashford, and it is no longer impossibly romantic.

We drove south and saw things that our school friends didn’t. We saw Naples when it was still controlled by deep-died ruffians, as opposed to Berlusconi-like smoothies. Indeed they broke into the Daimler as we were having a picnic and stole our passports. My identity was later used by a quite important assassin.

The only problem was the sun and the sea. My parents were sure that both were good for us. The sun burnt my pale post-War flesh. There was no such thing then as Factor 50, only some dubious and runny cream that you got from Boots. My parents were convinced that you couldn’t get burnt after three in the afternoon, and the sea into which they drove us washed even the dubious cream from Boots away. It was pure agony the first day. You knew that the second day it would mutate into a fierce itching, worst on that bit of the back that you couldn’t quite reach to scratch, and on the third the skin would come away in sheets; but this was usually academic as the second and third days were always renewed bouts of the first.

When I left home I resolved that whilst Abroad would still have its place in my life I would never again go on a beach or in the sea. I kept to this resolve until quite recently.

The better half prodded me into returning. On a visit to Amelia Island in Florida (as it happens) she was able to demonstrate that Factor 50 actually worked. I rolled up one trouser leg (rather like my Uncle Edgerton through with very different motivation) and she applied the lotion to my knee. I walked in a gingerly fashion up the beach for ten minutes and then back and was astonished to discover that, afterwards, nothing hurt.

The sea came next. First it was at night, and I still do like the reflections of the town lights in the waves as they break over me. Then I tried it in the daytime too.

Of course there was a setback. We were in Oman and staying at the Chedi. This is one of the most elegant hotels in the world and our friend Rob, who then lived in Oman, had persuaded someone to let us have rooms at an absurdly cheap rate, so cheap that the bill passed muster when eventually presented as an expense to my then law firm. Anyway, at the Chedi you felt immune from all danger, and that was where I went wrong. I let down my guard.

I wandered into the Indian Ocean. It was the temperature of momentarily neglected soup, which is how I like it. The water lapped about my thighs. Suddenly there was a fierce current and I was pulled under. I couldn’t locate the sea bed or the surface. I breathed in water.

His Highness Sultan Qaboos appeared to me. He was hovering there, shimmering, neither in the water nor out of it. He was fingering his khanja just the way he does.

Have strength, my boy, he said – or at any rate appeared to say.

Bugger me, a vision, I said to myself. Things are worse than I thought.

And with a last superhuman effort I broke surface and found myself once again knee deep in the benign and sultry waters that abut the Chedi’s private beach.

No one had any sympathy at all, but after that I steered clear of the sea again.

Rob, confusingly, now lives in Portugal. If he were fictional like Uncle Edgerton he would stay put but he isn’t and he doesn’t. Last week we stayed with him there – with him and his excellent terrier Joca, who kills snakes.

It was outrageously hot. The first day I accompanied Rob and the better half to the beach and got burnt in spite of Factor 50. They both discouraged me, as if I needed it, from swimming. The breakers came in from the Atlantic, they said and were big and cold.

For a couple of days when the others went to the beach I stayed behind with Joca, musing over some of the intractable problems of philosophy while he killed snakes. But on the last day I thought I’d try again. There were apparently compensations that the beach afforded above the intractable problems of philosophy. Portuguese woman are often sturdily built and dark-skinned. They lie on the beach, Rob and the better half reported, with gaily coloured string covering, more or less, their private parts – the latter accommodated as often as not in generous and well-oiled flesh. There were two in particular, I was told. They lie close together fingering each other’s gaily coloured string and laughing softly; we call them Bi and Large, Rob said.

Joca and I resolved to investigate this interesting phenomenon. As it happened, we never did. As soon as I got to the beach I got the feeling that Stuart Broad sometimes gets when presented with a row of Australian batsmen or Luke Skywalker when he turns off the machine. I would not fear the sun that burns or the wave that chokes. I would let the force be with me. I stripped to my togs.

Just going in, I said.

It was not cold. The waves broke about me in a manly way and in a manly way I faced them down. Suddenly the better half was at my side.

Do you need help at all? she said.

No thank you very much.

You can stand here, she said.

Yes, I said, I am.

A note came into her voice.

A wave, she shouted, pointing.

I gave her a look, infinitely loving but at the same time infinitely assured. I breasted the wave and swam some way towards Morocco.

A ghostly voice sounded in my ear.

Well done, my boy, said the Sultan.

Or at least I think that’s what he said: of course it was in Arabic.

Standing up to Bullies

One thing I like about Amy, the better half said, is she’s so practical. The girls were giggling at the man’s small penis, you were intent on drawing some specious generalised conclusion and only Amy got the point, which was that the man was a bully.

Our friend Anthony Perry says that you should always stand up to bullies. Indeed he wrote as much in his book Love Me, Love Me, Love Me. It is a line that the better half often quotes, as indeed she did on this occasion.

And so Amy did, ruthlessly, I said. Stand up to bullies. As far as she was concerned the man’s penis was neither here nor there.

The better half was flustered. She had just got back from an evening out and it had ended badly. She spent the evening with two friends of hers. I think of them affectionately as Sounding Brass and Tinkling Cymbal.

(Why Sounding Brass and Tinkling Cymbal?

I explained the reference. 1 Corinthians 13:1:

Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.

Ah, she said. It’s not the same in Russian.)

Anyway, although they had spent the evening in a Wetherspoons pub next door to a Tube station on our line, Sounding Brass had insisted on driving her, not home but to some station where a train could be caught that would take her to another station at which an all-night bus (for it was now long past midnight) might be available.

Tinkling Cymbal, although the reverse of an assertive person, had secured that the meeting took place next door to where she lived, which was the other end of London from the others. She had walked home to bed.

I’m perpetually amazed at the arrogance of people with cars. As with bullies, we should stand up to them. So often a simple ‘No, thank you’ is all that is needed. Here we are, privileged to live in one of the great cities of the world, with the oldest and biggest metro system in the world, planned in the age of Napoleon, magnificently launched with steam trains a hundred and fifty years ago, not to mention our lovely red double-decker buses which are recognised in the most remote places where they have not yet heard that Elvis Presley is dead and don’t even know who Victoria Beckham is, and people like Sounding Brass insist in ferrying us around instead in their nasty Renault Meganes.

The better half was already on edge – who wouldn’t be – after hours spent in a Wetherspoons pub on the wrong side of London, but when she arrived at the station where the all-night bus might be found she was horrified to find herself in the middle of a Santathon. She rang me on her mobile.

Listen, she said. I’m in the middle of nowhere and there is a bloody Santathon.

I could hear that unlike the version that we had encountered last year, which was earlier in the evening and still relatively benign apart from isolated instances of bloodletting, this was unrestrained in its drunkenness and violence. I could hear sounds that, notwithstanding the uncertain acoustic qualities of the better half’s iPhone, could only be described as baying.

Buck up, I said. There’s a bottle of Picpoul de Pinet in the fridge, only just opened.

Heartened by that she made her escape and arrived home not long afterwards. She had read about Amy and the very small penis on the bus.

I notice incidentally that the tambourine-bashing wing of the Church of England now regards ‘sounding brass’ as a mistranslation and prefers the phrase ’noisy’ or ‘reverberating gong’. This is absurd. There is all the difference in the world between the sound that precedes Sunday lunch and that with which Joshua caused the walls of Jericho to come tumbling down. As regards the better half’s friend I mean the latter. I reckon St Paul did too.

In a pathetic attempt at relevance the tambourine-bashing wing of the Church of England also incidentally proposes replacing ‘tinkling cymbal’ with ‘twitter’. But like the very small penis of Amy’s client that is neither here not there.

The better half’s way with a glass of Picpoul de Pinet is as ruthless in its way as Amy’s with a bully, but unlike Amy she eases up with the second round.

Talking of all your strange friends, she said, I thought that there was some crisis with your half-witted and dead Uncle Edgerton. I thought that you were summoned back to 1934 and he had disappeared. That’s gone very quiet.

I thought I told you, I said.

No.

Oh, he was exiled into the future and his nervous system was strung out and bricked into the fabric of a disused monastery in Hendon. It was guarded by necromantic spells and zombies. Aubergine Small got him out.

Well that’s all right then. What about Uncle Winthrop?

Lost his wits. That turned out to be when it happened. Between summoning me and Uncle E’s return. Stress-related. As so often.

Well that’s all right then.

Yes. Only thing was, some distortion in the space/time continuum. When he got back to 1934 it was about a fortnight later. Had to take it as annual leave from the insurance company. Sick as daughter two’s otter, he is.

Poor Uncle E.

The better half spoke without conviction.

And what have you done with Thumper?

Ah. Thumper.

Mechanics

Amy has been reading a novel – in English. She came to me slightly truculently as I sat on a divan at Great Secret Miss, her finger marking a page. I could see that she meant business, so I forestalled her.

I wiped my chin ostentatiously with a paper napkin. It had been provided by the management for that purpose and incongruously enough it bore on it an illustration of a cute Chinese rabbit.

Goodness, I said, this porridge is good. Just the thing now it’s turning cold at last. I do hope that The Porridge Man is not dead but sleeping, but, either way, what a bowl-full!

Amy ignored this, and indicated a page in her novel.

““Good God,” he sighed”, she said. What means ““Good God,” he sighed”? How?

I smiled sweetly.

How what?

How sigh and say ‘Good God’ at one time?

She attempted this feat. She got the sigh perfectly, but, as she suggested, the semantic element was compromised.

It doesn’t mean that. It means, “”Good God,” he said and he sighed” or ““Good God,” he said in a sighing voice.” But I agree. I try never to do it myself. For one thing it breaks number three of Elmore Leonard’s essential ten rules for writing:

Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.

Mind you, ““Good God,” he said in a sighing voice” almost breaks rule four:

Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said”…he admonished gravely

… “in a sighing voice” being an adverbial phrase.

There are worse examples. I particularly hate ““Good God,” he chuckled”. I’ll be the judge of whether there’s anything funny going on. ““Good God,” he gibbered” or ““Good God?” he asked” ought to be all right, but I wouldn’t use them. As I say, I always try to follow Elmore Leonard’s rules. Most of them.

What you mean, you follow Elmore Leonard’s rules?

Don’t you read my blog, Amy?

She looked embarrassed. She had forgotten.

I catch up every week, every two week. Busy with proper novel.

That hurt – twice. Amy, blackest and biggest in the tag cloud, could not be bothered to read what is in many ways her own blog. And then she compares it unfavourably with what was probably a badly-written self-satisfied great lump of fiction, no doubt with a beginning, a middle, a heart-warming end and the flashbacks that seem to be compulsory these days.

I muttered in Mandarin that I was singing to a cow. Because I was irritated I got the tones wrong and had to repeat it. When she finally understood she said:

Hah!

‘Hah’ is a good English word, but Amy brought to it a Chinese sensibility. As a result it bore no relation at all to the apparently equivalent ‘ah’. In Mandarin there are four tones in which vowels may be expressed, those that I had just muddled in my reference to singing to a cow. ‘Ah’ is delivered, even when one is speaking English, in the level ‘tone one’, but ‘hah’ in the more declamatory falling ‘tone four’.

In Pinyin, the tones would be written āh and hàh respectively.

Having delivered her “Hah!” she flounced off.

No doubt Amy’s so-called novel includes at least once the phrase: Never a dull moment!. I would never write that, because I also try to follow George Orwell’s rules for writing, number one of which is:

Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

But Never a dull moment! is what I thought as a stunningly gorgeous transsexual entered Great Secret Miss and walked up to me and in a dark brown voice she said…

…but before she could, I interrupted her:

Lola!

P2 looked slightly crestfallen. I hastened to reassure her.

What a triumph, P2! And what a departure! So much more convincing than the lady in the Ridley Road market.

P2 fingered her crotch, with an air of purpose, but also I thought with an air of slight surprise.

There is not a moment to lose, she said.

It was the cellar room, familiar from so many trips before. The figure had his back to me.

Uncle E, I said.

He turned. It was not my great-uncle Edgerton. It was his brother Winthrop – and he looked grim.

They’ve got him, he said, and you must rescue him. There’s not a moment to lose.

The spine-chilling instructions that Uncle Winthrop then gave me I shall reveal at the appropriate time. Before I knew where I was I was back at Amy’s, on the divan, slightly winded.

I should like to be able to say that I sat there considering the enormity of my task with resolute determination. But you know how at moments of potential greatness irrelevant thoughts buzz round your mind like pernicious flies. So it was with me then. This is what I thought:

First, do I trust Uncle Winthrop? I knew that he lost his wits, but I didn’t know when. Had he lost them already by late 1934?

Secondly, I looked again at the paper napkin. I had used it to wipe The Porridge Man’s porridge from my chin but I had retained it in my hand. It had been to 1934 and back. Something had been nagging at my mind. It was the cute rabbit. The Japanese have cute rabbits but for the Chinese a rabbit is generally something for the hot pot. I looked more closely. Beneath the rabbit in cursive script it read ‘Thumper’. Was the poor lad trying to tell us something?

And lastly I thought, I wish that I understood, like P2, the mechanics of time travel as I try to understand the mechanics of writing.

I could have been a contender.

(Orwell Rule 1).

Apotheosis Deferred

So many stories are working their way through to their conclusions: so many people are working their way through to their apotheoses.

The rain falls constantly. It feels uneasily like the approach of the end of the world. Maybe it’s the coming mid-winter solstice: maybe one of the minority cults is right after all and it is the end of the world. Like Karl Marx on speed, tragedies repeat themselves as farce and then back again to tragedy, all spinning by.

Last weekend we went to the cremation of Evelyn Williams, about whom I wrote recently. It turned out that that meeting was to be our last. The ceremony was enormously dignified, as befits her. God played no part in her imaginative life and didn’t get a look in here, but the occasion resembled more than anything a Quaker meeting, as members of her family and friends stood up to bear witness to the huge influence she, her love and her work had had in their lives.

Unlike most of us, who rely on the memories of others after we’ve gone to provide some sort of half-life, in Evie’s case there is her work. I hope that someone will show it: soon, often and into the indefinite future. Shamefully she was spurned in her lifetime by the Tate, which has different priorities – though it is difficult to guess what they might be.

The dog’s losing fight with cancer ought to be a case of stepping from the sublime to the ridiculous, but of course it isn’t. We commit so much emotionally to our animals that these things do matter, and in the case of this particular animal he is, on any objective assessment, a very good dog.

Others will attest to this.

As I write, he is stretched out asleep beneath a particularly monumental painting of Evie’s. He sleeps a lot these days. He still dreams and, to judge by the fluttering of his paws, still races in his imagination across the huge beaches of Dornoch Firth (his favourite place of all) even though the same paws now fail him when he attempts the stairs, a failure that he bears with dignity, even when he clatters down the bottom half of the flight and lands on his nose.

One effect of his illness is an absence of music in the house. In fact the house is entirely silent, as my beloved better half is away in Germany. When the dog needs to go outside he needs to go quickly and if the sound of Haydn (as it tends to be these days) drowns out that of his toenails tapping on the front door by way of warning to me, the consequences as regards the hall floor are horrid.

I first discovered the consolations of the visual arts over thirty years ago when daughter one as a baby made so much noise that listening to music, for different reasons, became impossible. Now those consolations are still available. So too, when Haydn is not there to divert them, are the fancies that tug unbidden at my sleeve.

Sometimes literally: I was in Ridley Road Market the other day. I was on my way from the bus stop to TLC, the Turkish supermarket which I have mentioned before. My attention was distracted by an Amazon, magnificent, haughty, kallipygous and clad in a dress of a colour and material both of which improved on the beneficence of nature. She was too good to be true. I stared greedily at her back (though also, I am glad to be able to report, appropriately, respectfully and excluding all possible elements of patriarchy, discrimination or condescension). To my astonishment she turned round and approached me.

She was too good to be true. Her face was sketchy, suggesting that after the attention bestowed on her bottom the imagination of her creator had flagged.

P2?

Come at once! Your uncle is in dire peril.

One of the lessons of Evie’s life, it has occurred to me over the past week, is that idiot distractions must be avoided if one is to achieve what actually matters.

Furthermore, I was depressed, and zombie-fighting demands a certain élan.

You know what? I’ll get back to you, I said, and strode on to the shop.

P2 disappeared with an exclamation of irritation and a slight but nasty smell, although the latter may have been the fishmonger’s stall with his pile of catfish which I was then passing.

There would be time enough for Uncle Edgerton.

If it was serious, I thought, as I entered the vegetable department in TFC, there was always Aubergine Small. I gazed unseeing for a second at a tray of the succulent purple creatures for which Small’s mother had presumably named him, unlikely close relations of both belladonna and the potato, so glorious to look at and so unpleasant to eat. No doubt it had sparked the recollection of my friend and comrade in arms.

It also mocked my cowardice.

But I promised apotheoses. There have been two, neither easy. I think however that they will be another story.

World Leader Salutes Blog

The dog woke me with his barking just after dawn. There was someone at the door. It turned out to be a young man, bearded and wearing a dishdasha, his right hand resting lightly on his khanja and his left proffering an envelope and some flowers. I scanned his face but this time it was not my son.

From His Highness Sultan Qaboos, the young man said, so I asked him in.

I recognised the flowers. They are the intensely red desert irises that grow in the wadis near Nizwa in the rainy season. If you have ever spent time in the wadis near Nizwa in the rainy season you will know with what feelings of pleasurable nostalgia I took them and placed them in a suitable vase – glass, with the words ‘A Souvenir of Northants’ etched (or possibly marked by a process equivalent to etching) into the surface.

How is His Highness? Well, I hope.

Open the envelope, said the young man, with suppressed excitement.

First I extracted a press release. This is what it said:

World Leader Salutes Blog

His Highness Sultan Qaboos of Muscat and Oman has congratulated Mr Alablague on the occasion of the first anniversary of the initiation of his blog http://www.alablague.wordpress.com. He wishes it be known that the site is bookmarked on all the royal computers in all the palaces and even some tents and that there is nothing that His Highness enjoys more than reading a new instalment of the adventures of Amy, Aubergine Small and Uncle Edgerton (and the dog but less so) in the company of a young friend or two.

His Highness has enjoyed every step of the way from mendacity to outright fantasy. He feels that it has been a “Journey” that he and Mr Alablague have, in a very real way, shared.

His Highness commends the site to all well-meaning people – except those living in Oman, where internet access is restricted for their own good.

His Highness commends the struggle of The Jibjab Woman to beat the shit out of the enemies of Islam.

In recognition of the anniversary of the initiation of the blog http://www.alablague.wordpress.com His Highness is pleased to make two orders.

Mr Alablague’s son is freely pardoned from the open charges of piracy (well, privateering) and stealing a Lee Enfield rifle plus bullets.

Mr Alablague himself is admitted to the Order of the Falcon’s Tail, Third Class, and is welcome to collect the insignia personally at any of His Highness’s palaces, any time, whatever.

Mr Alablague said, “I’m chuffed to bits. I salute the benevolent rule of His Highness Sultan Qaboos, his encouragement of the enjoyment of the light classics and his aspirations to democracy, and I shall wear my gong with pride.”

All enquiries please to the Superintendent of Police, Muscat.

Contact details followed.

There was also a card and a personal note which I need not reproduce here. The picture on the card, incidentally, was a reproduction of a painting by our friend Julian Barrow of the goat market in Nizwa.

I gave the young man a cup of tea and a piece of fudge left over from daughter three’s wedding and returned to bed. Hours later the parcel post came and again the dog woke me. I signed for a tiny parcel and opened it feverishly. Inside there was a small piece of dried pasta. It was in a rather personal shape.

There was also a card. Its front read:

A Wish for You

And inside:

I hope that this stops you writing your sexist patronising patriarchal filth for at least six months.

Best wishes

Dame Jenni ™ Murray

“at least” was underlined twice.

It was nice of her to take the trouble. Naomi herself hadn’t.

Actually it was probably one of Naomi’s, left over.

Other people have also been very kind. You only have to look at the hundreds of touching tributes on the alablague Facebook site. It’s that sort of thing that gives you the strength to carry on.

His Highness calls it a ‘journey’, which is an idea that (much as I revere the man) I hate. Like Amy, I prefer the idea of ‘good unsought experiments by the way’.

Enough of that. When I went up for my after-lunch nap there was a message in soap on the shaving mirror:

Many happy returns! Good show!

E

How on earth could he tell?