The end of life as I know it

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A HOLE has opened up in my life. Do you want to hear about it? So you shall. It's a deep yawning hole. A deep yawning black hole. What you'd call a pit of melancholy, a chasm of accidie, a gulf of gloom. Do you begin to get the picture of this hole? Good.

I have had holes like this before. They can be caused by debt, women, deadlines or foreclosure. They open up instantly when people with unsatisfactory Estuarine Functionary accents ring the bell and say, "Mr Bywater? I wonder if I might have a word." The sound of a jackhammer-bit being slung out of a Murphy's dirty green Transit can set them off, as can any envelope marked Private & Confidential.

Most of the holes are the result of my own administrative inadequacies. My life is like the wilder parts of Cornwall, the Coober Pedy opal-fields or the streets of central London: a Swiss cheese of subsidence, abandoned diggings and shoddy workmanship, shored over on the cheap with flimsy, rotten boards and ring-fenced with guttering paraffin lamps. It only needs a heavy footfall in the near vicinity and the gulf yawns again. The simple phrases of everyday life can do it, particularly the sort that petty officials and bean-counters use to make them feel grown-up, like small boys in Daddy's boots. "We are disappointed to note." "Please advise us when we may expect." "The situation cannot be allowed to." "It has been brought to my notice that." "Further to our communication of." "Our Clients have ins-tructed us to." All that whole raft of lay-preaching, premature-ejaculating, neighbourhood-watching piggishness. Ugh. Pooh. Phooey.

But this hole is different. This hole has been brought on neither by financial defalcation nor by sexual incontinence. This hole has been dug by others. And how have they dug it?

They have closed my club.

You wouldn't have thought it would matter. I've mentioned the place before: a basement in one of Soho's lesser streets. At one end of the basement, a bar. Tables and chairs occupy the remaining space. Behind the bar, there are drinks, and a bar person who will give them to you in exchange for money. That's it. No snooker table, no juke box, no slots, no theme, bugger-all in the way of decorations. There is an upstairs - was - an upstairs room with a piano in it, but people tended not to use it, because of the inexplicable bridge-players. (I never understood the attraction of bridge, which merely seems like an excuse for four people to sit round a rickety table and get cross.)

And now it has gone.

I never thought I would miss a club. I never regarded myself as having the correct disposition. I joined a "gentlemen's" club once, years ago, and hated it. It was a club for people who had been to Oxford or Cambridge, and was full of stern elderly young men with difficult skin who used the word "gentlemen" a lot and wore those enormous shoes with running-boards. You knew that having been at Oxford (or Cambridge) was the most exciting thing that had ever happened to them, or ever would, and the soul shrank within. Eventually they threw me out, and I never regretted it, not for a moment.

Other people, over the years, have suggested putting me up for other clubs, but I've never found the idea attractive; never wanted to be a member of a club which, in architecture or in aggregate, was grander than I, and in which I had to be on my best behaviour, and there were no women allowed, and the club servants were called "club servants" and were deferential.

There are other sorts of clubs, it's true. Terrible thudding disco clubs stinking of middle-aged testosterone and bimbo greed; dim gambling joints with Arabs going downhill; losers' clubs stinking of loneliness and cheap cigarettes, where they mop the carpet instead of hoovering; the lethal cocaine-and- bullshit joints seething with anxious young liars on the hopeless make, stalled at the development stage of a Hi-8 karaoke backing video project, yeah?

Nah. But the Academy Club was different. The people there were civilised. Nobody ever gained or sought advantage by being a member of it, because all that being a member of the Academy said about you was that you were a member of the Academy. It was just sort of... there. The rules were few, and enlightened. Members were obliged to wear shoes. Cigarette smoking was encouraged. Members who had the misfortune to be sent to prison could claim the unexpired portion of their subscription on their release. Members were expected to talk to each other, unless hiding behind a newspaper (or engaged in intense rapid private conversation, in which case they were not to be homed in on). The best rule was: no poets.

The application of the rules was capricious. One man was barred for several months for the offence of coming to the club too often. "He's down here every evening, drinking brandy-and-ginger and beaming at people," said the barman, petitioning for a ban.

It was, in short, a haven for amiable, civilised misfits who wouldn't have liked it anywhere else, and now that haven has been closed off I feel at sea. Where can I go? Where can I go where I don't have to contend with ball-ripping music, surly barmen, barking yuppies, stinking microwaved food and the sense that I am enriching some filthy coterie of brewery executives? Where can I go, on the off-chance, and be reasonably sure of bumping into someone affable? Where there's nobody on the make, nobody trying to impress, nobody who even owns a cellular telephone, nobody dressed in black? Where people say "Hello" and mean it? Where nobody will laugh at my hat? Where nobody will hit us if we burst into song?

There is talk of reviving the club, at some unspecified time, in some unspecified place. But you can't go back. No; it's over. The best thing to do is climb into my pit and pull the rotting boards over my head. Don't bother to call; from now on, I'm staying in. !