I've seen extraordinary sights in the past few days: a hirsute male Hollywood director queuing outside the ladies' loo in Queen Square; Ainsley Harriott, the enormous TV chef, dancing a graceful solo in a suburban dining room, his outspread hands pushing rhythmically down on what seems to be a hundredweight of invisible dough; the authors of two novels, one entitled Bloody London, the other Bleeding London, standing beside each other, un-introduced and mutually oblivious, at a party in Bloomsbury; the new poet laureate at a prize dinner, effortlessly knocking off a limerick about the royal wedding, in which he managed to find two rhymes for "Sophie Rhys-Jones".
This is what summer days do to the British soul: makes it go all skittish and gamesome in the brief period between the dappled matins and the thunderstormed vespers. But mostly, this week, I've been eavesdropping on conversations in London gardens. They offer some extraordinary aural snapshots of the bourgeois soul in 1999.
A lady film producer in Clapham: "Can you believe what the au pair has done now? She went and boiled my pashmina. I tried to rescue it by washing it in Lux flakes, but it'll never be the same."
A sports impresario in Crouch End, considering his next holiday: "I can't decide. Either it's the three-day walk up to Machu Picchu in Peru, or it's riding with the herd from Montana to New Mexico. Which do you think?"
A theatre critic in Wimbledon: "If you really can't give up smoking, check out your genetic structure and see if you've got P-53. It's not a tax form, it's the gene that governs your predisposition to lung cancer."
A woman novelist in Raynes Park (wistfully): "You know, in 1990, David Trimble wanted to buy my flat in Stockwell. He said the location suited him because it was handy for the Westminster division bell. It was going for only pounds 49,500."
A merchant banker in Streatham: "I've had enough of the City. I'm sinking a lot of money in a travelling production of Steven Berkoff's East. It can't fail. There's a scene at the end where the C-word is said 27 times, until it stops sounding the least bit rude. Totally refreshing."
A physiotherapist in Herne Hill: "I thought the end of the world was supposed to be some time in August, but Jeremy says it's next Sunday, about 10 in the morning apparently. If only it was about six in the evening, we could have people round for drinks."
NOW THAT Cardinal Hume has been laid to rest, how shall he be commemorated? The chances of beatification are pretty high, since so many people thought of him as The Blessed Basil while he was alive. But what about canonisation? Turning a person into a saint is a far more complicated process.
As I understand it, you have to show that they had superhuman powers of holiness, that they performed feats of unexampled goodness, that miracles beyond explanation or comprehension happened in their name, before or after their death.
And blow me down if a perfect witness hasn't come forward, right on cue, in the person of Sabiha Malik, the ex-wife of Andrew Knight, the former Economist editor and sleek newspaper mogul. Ms Malik wrote a lengthy appreciation of Hume in Saturday's Telegraph that must stand as one of the most blissfully self-revealing documents to be published. By way of introduction, she describes at some length her husband's chronic failure to appreciate her intelligence. "If you had been to Oxford," he used to say, "you might have been as formidable as Sarah Hogg" - the kind of remark that, in less enlightened homes, would earn Andrew a blow of a frying-pan across the back of his head. According to Ms Malik, Mr Knight laughed at her attempts to discuss politics, philosophy and religion. Enter Basil Hume, Knight's former housemaster at Ampleforth.
The scene that follows is straight from Diary of a Nobody. Sabiha wants to talk about Isaiah Berlin. Basil adopts an interested posture. Andrew sighs, and begs him: "Don't get her into these conversations - she's hopeless". Sabiha presses on, flinging evidence of her superior brainpower all over the place: John Stuart Mill, she says, what would he have made of Dreyfus, the Suez crisis, apartheid, colonialism, women's rights. Andrew, appalled by her presumption, cries "Darling, you know nothing of all that," and tells Basil to ignore her. Basil goes off at a tangent about how he sometimes wishes he were married.
Since his death, we've learnt how Hume used to mediate between the Vatican and the reforming progressives of the English Catholic Church, about the infinite subtlety with which he kept both sides happy. But Rome and the College of Cardinals must have been as nothing compared to keeping the peace between an intellectual snob and his frustrated consort. Ms Malik writes about her "profound spiritual kinship" with Hume and has an apparently total recall of his conversations, most of which consist of her ("I had a direct relationship with God and scant faith in doctrine or dogma") telling the Cardinal, Archbishop of Westminster, that, in her view, this Catholicism stuff doesn't amount to a row of beans.
She complains about the church's behaviour in the Crusades and the Spanish Inquisition. Hume smiles. She says the Popes in the third century behaved shockingly. Hume agrees. She says she doesn't like nuns. Basil raises a droll eyebrow. She agrees to have her child baptised, but tells Hume she has no intention of bringing it up Catholic (though maybe, she concedes, "catholic with a small c").
At last, climactically, she reports: "I announced that my daughter would have three godfathers, representing the three monotheistic faiths. This would help her see that All is One. "Ah," [Hume] said, and got up to pour some more tea."
I'm surprised the poor guy didn't pour himself something stronger. What leaks out through Ms Malik's narrative is how the Cardinal, faced with the most intense provocation since Job encountered the Plague of Boils, remained stalwart, charming and patient throughout. It must have taken the patience of a saint.
NEXT WEEK sees the release of a new print of my all-time-favourite movie, Don't Look Now, directed by the deeply brilliant British auteur, Nic Roeg. Even those who don't appreciate the film's ingenious cat's-cradle of interlinked images, its chromatic sophistication, the coherence of its bizarre cross- references and the gradual stain of cosmic malignancy that spreads across its surface, will know it at least as an absorbing thriller with a fantastic sex scene. Wanting to write a profile of Roeg, I met him at the BBC some years ago; but the interview foundered on the rocks of my incomprehension.
Either I asked the wrong questions or he was undisposed to explain himself, but I couldn't make head nor tail of his replies as his mind grasshoppered here and there.
But one insight remains with me from that encounter. I'd asked if he'd ever had a terrible shock in his childhood. "No," he said, "unless you count that business with my father." His father had fought in the First World War and his face was partially disfigured. To young Nic (born in 1928) it was just his dad, and his face took on a kind of skewed beauty. Then one afternoon, he invited a schoolfriend home for tea. Afterwards, in the garden, the friend asked, "How long's your dad been like that?" Like what? said Nic. "You know," said the friend, "hideously disfigured like that." Nic looked at his father's face again, and was shocked by what he saw.
And of course that moment - in which a loved and familiar face is horribly transformed - recurs in Roeg's films: when the killer turns round in Don't Look Now, when David Bowie shows his featureless face to Candy Clark in The Man Who Fell to Earth, when Mick Jagger is re-styled as a vicious greaser in Performance, when David Gulpilil's trusted, protecting face is transformed by warpaint for a pubertal dance in Walkabout, when Theresa Russell (Mrs Roeg) is made over as King Zog in Aria and Amanda Donohoe's gorgeous physiognomy gets progressively wasted in Castaway.
Maybe all this doesn't get us all that far in understanding the great visionary's work. But I pass it on to the thunderstruck Film Crit world for what it's worth. If ever there was an illustration of Wordsworth's line about the child being father of the man ...Reuse content