Tuesday 01 August 1995
My old mum just rang from the States and she tells me that the svelte mice knocked OJ Simpson right off prime time last week, in spite of the fact that the drug has not even been tested on human beings and probably never will be.
Reports are that the fat mice used in the slimming experiments had a genetic predisposition to obesity: an "ob gene". Now, I travel a lot and generally travel rough, so I've seen more vermin in my time than most nice girls ever will. Of all the mice I've run into - field mice, house mice, tame white mice, chirpy London mice, Irish mice (often pink), enigmatic Oriental mice - I have never, ever, not once, seen a fat mouse.
So before we throw will-power out of the window behind chastity, patience, thrift and other defunct virtues, we need to know a whole lot more about those tubby rodents. Like, we should be told precisely what cruel and unnatural things the brutes in white coats did to the poor little buggers that made them too fat to waddle. Then, whatever it was, all those Americans can stop doing it to themselves.
On Sunday, my old mate and Soho neighbour Jeffrey Bernard asked me out for a lunchtime drink. Jeff has been in a wheelchair for some time now, having lost his right leg after an accident, the longest accident on record: nearly 60 years of accidental boozing and heavy smoking. I had never pushed a wheelchair before. It was scary, reminiscent of the first time I took my son out in his pram, only much more perilous.
For a start, the wheelchair is unexpectedly sensitive, it registers every bump. And there is no seatbelt, so Jeff, who was never a very big man and is now a leg's weight less, threatened to pitch forward at every crack in the pavement. The balance of the chair is wonky, or so it seemed to me. Kerbs have to be descended backwards and then the whole contraption turned around nose first into traffic, as if it were a pram or pushchair.
None of the husky lads (or lasses) sunning their bald pates and nipple rings outside the cafes of Old Compton Street offered to give me a hand getting the wheelchair over rough spots. At least, when we finally arrived at the Coach and Horses, it was cool and empty inside, just the pair of us and a few other old regulars: everyone of no note whatsoever was drinking al fresco.
"They're going to let children into pubs soon, I hear," someone said.
"What kind of depraved 13-year-old would want to go into a pub?" asked the friendly barman.
"I did," said Jeff.
The talk drifted, as pub talk always will, to absent friends: one with cirrhosis, another with emphysema, a third recovering from cancer of the larynx. Meanwhile, I was sticking dutifully to disgusting designer water and allowed myself a large vodka only after one of the regulars assured me he was not over the limit and would be well able to wheel Jeff's chair home.
Just a few hours ago, someone I know in this neighbourhood told me about the death a little while ago of a regular from the pub. I can't name her because she wouldn't have wanted me to; I didn't visit her in hospital for the same reason. Irascibility is not uncommon among regulars, you know, nor among pretty women whose looks faded faster than their expectations. Indeed, she was irascible. And even though her shit-list could have peopled a middle-sized town, I think I was probably near the top of it. She did not merely dislike me; she hated me. I miss her, and I will continue to miss her. Hatred is something, isn't it? I mean, it's better than nothing. It requires passion and it stays in the heart quite like love.
The last time mother rang from the States, I started to complain to her about problems with my computer. And then, recollecting that she is, after all, 86 and understandably technophobic, I apologised. "Don't worry, dear," she said. "You go right ahead. I understand you. I understand you imperfectly well."
The same mother not long ago told me that in her retirement community in Princeton there lives a former prostitute, now in her seventies but still trading her ply, as it were. "Aural sex," said mother. "The old men talk: she listens."
"What dreadful hot weather we have! It keeps one in a continual state of Inelegance."
I wish I'd said that. But then, I wish I'd said practically everything Jane Austen said first. "A continual state of Inelegance ..." The English are an aestivating people, I think, meant by nature to sleep through the summer as bears hibernate in winter. At the first hot breeze, Londoners grow negligent in general, and especially about what they wear, if indeed they bother to wear anything much at all. Thirty years ago this week, when I had just arrived here, I was riding on top of the No 19 bus one hot morning, and as we were pulling up to Hyde Park Corner, a big tree brushed my window. Hanging in its branches I saw a tightly furled black umbrella and a bowler hat, articles of male apparel lay on the grass and a few paces away from the trunk of the tree was a middle-aged man. He stood with his head back and his pale arms stretched wide as if to embrace the sun; he was up to his bare backside in high, dry summer grass. I looked around at my fellow passengers. A young woman across the aisle winked at me; the rest of them were paying him not the slightest bit of attention.
It was in that moment I knew, don't ask me why, that London was my spiritual home.
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