If it's hard getting a drink at the theatre, try hailing a taxi afterwards

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The Independent Culture
That moment of illumination wherein you are made aware you are a comic, not a tragic person... You had one of those lately? That accumulation of event whereby, whereafter and whereunder every cherished idea of yourself as Prometheus, Oedipus, Coriolanus, crumbles like a Welsh cheese and you realize you are not even Chaplin or Monsieur Hulot, not Abbott, not Costello, not so much as either side of Mike and Bernie Winters, but a prize putz, a Mr Pastry, a Jeffrey Archer, an Ann Widdecombe in long pants... Well, just such an accumulation of event has this week made a fool of me.

It began, where most of my troubles begin, at the theatre. Some of us are good around theatres, some of us aren't. It's an embarrassment thing. There are people who don't feel odd sitting knee to knee with strangers, watching third parties pretending to emotions they don't feel; I don't like it. I don't like the American style whooping which now follows every performance, however indifferent. I don't like the way English audiences have self-consciously "changed", become responsive and uninhibited. We are at our best restrained. I didn't like us when we were restrained either, but I liked us more than I like us now. But what I most don't like is how nothing at all has changed around the theatre bar and how impossible it stillis to get a pre-performance drink.

Never enough staff. Night after night the pair behind the bar go into a blind panic, as though a thirsting theatre crowd is a brand new experience for them. This has been going on since 1563. Had the management known it was going to be busy this particular evening, they would have hired extra help. But how could they have known? It's only David Garrick playing opposite Sarah Bernhardt in Strindberg's Miss Julie with music by Stephen Sondheim.

There are two schools of thought on how to get a drink in a theatre. Some say you take up a position at the bar and stay there. Others favour the opportunistic dart. You spy an opening, you see the barman edging towards it, and you pounce. If it's your lucky night the barman takes your order to the exasperation of everyone who hasn't moved a millimetre since the night before. If luck's against you the barman discovers your ploy, remembers something he'd forgotten, and pirouettes back to that section of the bar where you were previously standing, clearing it in 10 seconds.

A third school of thought, of which I am Emeritus Professor, Vice-Chancellor and Governing Body, maintains there is always something to be gained by running from one end of the bar to the other, neither joining any line nor leaping into any vacant space, but simply getting hot under the collar and voicing strenuous objections. To wit: how dare you theatre Johnnies go round pleading poverty and begging alms when you could finance a brand new auditorium with reclining leather fauteuils in a fortnight if you just hired an extra barmaid! And furthermore, since the barstaff you do have are unable to cope with even a quarter of the immediate business, what the hell do you think you're doing asking us to place our interval orders NOW?

I thought I'd hit the jackpot the other night, finding one solitary teetotaller in front of me, paying, as it appeared, for a single shandy; but then came his interval order - two dozen white wines, half of them dry, half of them sweet; eight glasses of champagne, half of them brut, half of them extra-brut... When the barman had finally totted him up and got around to asking what he could do for me, I was so overwrought I told him "In your dreams, sunshine!" and stormed off drinkless. Fine by way of relieving my feelings, but less satisfactory for the company I was keeping, who without ado approached the bar and grabbed herself a stiff gin.

It was raining when we left the theatre. It is hard enough to catch a cab in London when the theatres are coming out dry, but in the rain it is impossible. Muggers, rapists, assorted minor mafiosi cruise the streets, offering to take you home in a 1969 Cortina for twice the price of a taxi. Some nights you accept. Better to get home dismembered than to be left outside the theatre in one piece, at the mercy of perforatees in sleeping bags demanding your small change.

There are two schools of thought on how to get a cab in London when the theatres empty. I favour the third. You walk away from the crowds, make for the dark, get wet, start shouting, then return to where you'd started. After an hour of this my company suggested we try a hotel. "What, and get a cab in the morning?" I enquired in a high voice. Ha! The point of hotels is that taxis drop off there. If you can be bothered waiting. Ha! again. "Stay here," I ordered, when we reached the Waldorf. Then I ran off, a hero, waving my umbrella, past the Aldwych, across the Strand, down Waterloo Bridge, skirting the Royal Festival Hall, past people boarding trains to Paris, to the Elephant and Castle. For who cannot get a taxi at the Elephant and Castle? Fifty minutes later I was back, triumphant, hallooing from the window of my chariot. My company was waiting in the rain, arms folded, before a row of 15 empty taxis. It was then that the phrase "prize putz" entered the proceedings.

None of this really happened, of course. I am speaking allegorically. So that you should understand how it feels to be a novelist in our time.

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