Nicole Kidman? Give me an old bag

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HANDS UP EVERYONE who came down to breakfast this morning and someone else told you their dream. Quite so, and it won't do. There's only one acceptable dream to recount, and it goes "I dreamt you were making love to me, and it was catastrophically, oceanically wonderful." I was going to say that that one only works if it's someone you actually want to be dreaming about you, but then I thought, no, hell, it doesn't matter. There are probably goats who dream about me. Probably mullet. Anything. I am glad that their dreams are so blissful.

Unlike mine. Last night's, for example. I woke this morning from a dream of old bags. Or, rather, a particular species within the Old Bag genus: the posh old bag, with sensible denim skirt and big shoes and crisp white shirt. I cannot remember the dream itself, of course; only its emotional flavour remains, the sense of having done something wrong, and being sorted out and no mistake by the old bag, and made to feel small and incompetent but on the other hand left in no doubt that, without the old bag, my life would now be bleaching away somewhere and serve me right.

A famous explorer once told me that old bags were the curse of his trade. "You undergo these frightful hardships," he said, "trekking across scrub and so forth, with buzzy things and bitey things, and things that get in your foot and crawl up and pop out of your eye, and the awful runs, and your system seizes up but you push on, days and days and days, and eventually you arrive, blackened and negligible, at some clearing in the forest where there's a tribe of whatjamacallits who've never seen a white man, let alone a hat, and just as you are savouring the first flush of triumph and writing, in your mind, your acceptance speech for the Royal Geographical Society's medal of honour, an old bag pops out from behind a hut clutching a Thermos flask and a J B Priestley paperback and says 'Hello old chap, have a cup of tea, then I'll introduce you to m'M!xbn'g, the headman's son-in-law, frightfully nice fellow and very good on larvae.' Kind of takes the edge off it, you see?"

You can see his point, and my own experience bears him out. I have encountered this type of old bag everywhere from Coober Pedy to the Jebel Akhbar, not to mention the Languedoc, Mauritius, South Dakota and Clapham. Most of them have at some stage had a husband whom they have shed, either by death's kind hand or by more mysterious means ("Drank. Had to go, dear") and now, exalted by age and an iron will above the frail exigencies of sexual desirability, they have become completely indomitable. They fix things, ride roughshod, put up with no nonsense and get on with it. They don't stand for any of that sort of thing, and when they stare trouble in the face, trouble smirks weakly and shuffles away.

They have a variety of occupations. They can be surgeons, seeing Johnny carcinoma off with as little ceremony as they'd waste on a stroppy railway guard. They can be academics, their brusque demeanour concealing a monumental intellect. The aristocracy is riddled with them, but, curiously enough, there aren't many in politics, which they consider a rather wet (their most damning judgement) trade; although Betty Boothroyd is a definitive example, and Mo Mowlam is in the exciting transitional stage between voluptuous sexbomb and fine old bag.

Old bags are not just effective, but universally loved. You know where you stand with them. Their curiosity, pragmatism and intellectual precision are undimmed by conformism or sentimentality. Any man in his right mind, given the choice between lifetime imprisonment with Nicole Kidman and a generic old bag, would choose the latter. Old bags will not only stick by you and see you right, they will never bore you.

I used to believe that the English upper classes bred the finest old bags in the world. Then, the other day, outside Tottenham Court Road underground station, I paused for a cigarette beside a twenty-something black colossus who was sitting harmlessly on the railings, eating his lunch and peering affably about him at the passing parade of humanity. Unless you were prepared to indulge in bitter jealousy about his physical stature, there was absolutely nothing about this man which could give offence.

And then an old bag hove into view. A West Indian one, about five feet nothing, weighed down with shopping and dressed in the exact manner of Grandma out of the Giles cartoons. She paused by the colossus, prodded him with her umbrella, and in ringing Jamaican tones began to denounce him. "You just sittin there, wastin your life," she declared, "doin nothin, lookin at the girls. Lookin lookin lookin! What you think, you a Adonis? Heh! They not lookin back at you! No! I been watchin! They just passin you by, and life passin you by. Lookin lookin lookin!" The colossus paled and shrank. "Calm down, calm down, Granma," he murmured appeasingly, "I'm doing nothing - " "Hah!" she cried triumphantly. "See? Nothin! Nothin! Wastrel!" She doled out a final blow with her umbrella, caught sight of me, poked me in the chest, announced "And you no better either, so don't smirk at me" and walked away.

The colossus and I looked at each other, abashed. "Never seen her before in my life," he said; "You?" "Me neither," I said. He nodded sadly. We had just been old-bagged - for existing, or being men, or something - and there was nothing we could do about it. She was a true virtuoso, a freelance force of nature like death or a hurricane. And the odd thing about it is that both the colossus and I felt better for it, as though we had somehow been purged and cleansed.

There must be something significant about it, some political or national lesson we can learn, but I haven't a clue what it is. All I can say is, if you come out of Tottenham Court Road tube station, don't hang around. Not that it will help. Somewhere there's an old bag with your name on her umbrella, waiting for you. Don't say you haven't been warned.

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