Broken men? Not in Cosmo Place

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The Independent Culture
In another life, I could have been an aircraft-maintenance engineer. I know this because I corresponded with one once, on the Internet, and his sign-off quote has stuck in my mind ever since. It was:

"If it ain't broke ... break it."

That's what we do, in my trade. It ain't broke, but we break it anyway, because it's tempting and fun and makes us seem clever and important (but only to ourselves. Everyone else thinks: miserable prick).

Take Cosmo Place, last Thursday, 9pm. You'll know Cosmo Place. You walk up from my flat, along Great Ormond Street where the children lie in their sick-beds, taking it much better than their parents, who you can see standing outside by the railings, having a quick fag, going to pieces. You walk along Great Ormond Street, across Queen's Square, past the corner with Old Gloucester Street, oddly named because it would never get you to Gloucester, no matter how far you walked, unless Old Gloucester was in a different part of the country from the one we have now.

But there it is. Old Gloucester Street, starting-point for many a journey of furtive excitement, culminating in a plain brown envelope and a trip to the potting-shed; this is where British Monomarks live, the mail-redirection place at No 27, where you write off for white rubber catsuits or naughty brochures. I picture it as staffed by elderly ladies, no illusions gone, gossiping by their pigeonholes. "Ooh Mavis, here's another one for Westward Bound, you know, the dungeon place, he'll be lucky, they must be booked up till the millennium." "Never mind that, Enid, here's that wicked old Lord Chuffington, sending off for another full-body suspension harness, it's the fifth since April and he must be in his eighties if he's a day."

Move along now, past all the Queen's Square hospitals huddled together for comfort, past Faber & Faber where T S Eliot used to watch from his window as the consumptives coughed their days out in the gritty Bloomsbury air. Now you are in Cosmo Place, a little pedestrian alley cutting through to the fishy, dieseling turmoil of Southampton Row, but for 50 yards it's not London at all. It's Italy, it's Valetta, it's full of restaurant tables and the hum of chatter, the clink of glasses and waiters bobbing and twisting like welterweights in the heavy, breathless humidity. The air is hot and still, like a headache, and your skin is damp within a minute of leaving the cool indoors, but here they are, enjoying themselves, talking, eating, drinking, flirting, preening. A thin Italian trails behind two boisterous girls in short shorts and big boots, crop-headed, Brixton-dyke style; they are pushing a divan bed along on its side, weaving perilously between the tables. "E! E! Be a careful!" cries the Italian; "I got a to sleep on this!" Nobody purses their lips. Nobody says "If you don't mind ... " or "Shhhh" or "Some people just don't know how to behave" or any of those other ter- ribly British things. It's summer; it's hot; they have full bellies and are enjoying the lazy heat among others of their species.

Normally you smile to yourself and pass on. But me, I do nothing of the sort. I sharpen my knife and begin my litany of denunciation: this man is too fat, that man is wearing shorts despite his white stringy legs. Here's a woman on the make, look at those morons in their leisurewear, here's a Swede with a face like a fish, here's a Dutchman with a face like a cheese, look at those Africans, ugh, look at those Japanese, ugh, look at those Spaniards, ugh, look at their table manners, ugh, ugh, ugh.

And then the stories start. General principles at first - the aimlessness, the dim blank eyes, the speechless couples, the days of blistering, stupefied plodding about, holding up the traffic, taking photographs which won't come out, buying hateful T-shirts from lethal street-traders with stewing armpits. The whole abominable apparatus of tourism: the nylon money-pouches, the exchange-rate calculators, the robotic hotel receptionists, the filthburgers, the coaches, the awful homogeneity of luggage, the bedroom sex on impersonal sheets, the doomed reconciliations, the belly-ache, the perplexity, the aeroplanes, the sights.

Then the stories home in. If it ain't broke ... break it. Pick on one of them, one poor bastard thinking he's on his holidays, having a good time, a nice plate of farfalle alla puttanesca and a bottle of wine in Cosmo Place on a warm summer's night. Pick on him, isolate him, hunt him down. He's not having a nice time. Ho dear me no. He's a white-goods distributor from the Piedmont and this is his first holiday for five years. The woman he has brought is not his wife. His wife left him two years ago because he's a workaholic but Rosa, the woman he's with, is only there for the free trip; she puts out, yes; that's expected, and it's not too bad, over in a few minutes, but it's going to stop when they get home; she's made her mind up about that, grazie tante, thank you very much. Meanwhile, his brother-in-law has persuaded Papa to rewrite his will, the white-goods dealership is on the verge of bankruptcy, the bank manager who your man has been modestly bribing for 12 years now has been arrested, and Head Office in Rome have sent in a bitter little bastard with an MBA and a domineering mother to go through the books ... his car has been stolen from the long-term car park, his new camcorder (brought for the trip, so that he and Rosa will be able to look back on their memories when they are old and grey together) has been improperly adjusted by the salesman and hasn't recorded a thing.

That's what I do. But not this time. Something's gone wrong. It's like being a physi- cist who suddenly finds himself thinking: "Hell, I get gauge theory, I get super-symmetry, I just about get string theory. It kind of works. Let's leave it at that, and go fishing." I look at these people and think: there they are, en- joying themselves; good for them. It's worrying. If it ain't broke, break it; but what if it can't be broke? !