Finally, I found it. In a cupboard, cut-glass decanters were lined up like soldiers. The stopper of each was sealed with a sort of paper net. I selected what looked like brandy and, with infinite care, eased off the seal - without breaking it. A schoolboyish delight suffused me as I poured out the precious mood- enhancer. And then, befuddled, I contemplated my triumph and found it ebbing away. Would not the butler notice that the level of just one of his libations was lowered?
Briefly, I considered topping it up with water. But perhaps they had some spectrometer which would reveal the new, paler, colour? 'Dammit,' I thought, and surely it was a moment of spiritual growth, 'North, you're grown up now. No one minds that you've taken a drink.'
I went to bed and read a few pages of the Osbert Sitwell memoir I had picked from the hundreds of books in the bar. (They had probably been bought by the yard from Richard Booth in Hay-on-Wye.) But I couldn't read. The Americans I was dealing with were undoubtedly nice, but they were not obviously flippant. I fell to wondering if the chief executive officer of the corporation had enjoyed my dinner-time observation that America is not so much the home of a great civilisation as a collection of rural peasant worlds displaying hybrid vigour in their transplantation from sad old continents.
I had tried to persuade the CEO, my temporary paymaster, that we should all troop along the street and catch Salena Jones's last set at the Pizza On The Park, but he'd said that, while it was a lovely idea, he had to get up early to jog.
I repaired to the gig alone and drank a bracing mineral water in a half-empty room while the excellent, modest British jazzmen of the John Pearce Trio backed that warm, clear voice and its swing through the standards.
I worry that I do not take getting as seriously as I take spending. And yet I cannot see that it is entirely a mistake to devote as much effort as I do to what the Americans call partying, an activity whose definition I stretch to include any afternoons spent in cinemas and art galleries.
Sometimes it all comes together. One of my happiest moments this year was spent sitting in the downstairs lavatory of the mansion of a billionairess in Fort Worth, with a glass of champagne in my hand. On the wall were three drawings from Picasso's Vollard Suite. Those images of man and beast, voyeur and woman, and predator-artist and victim-model set me in a spin, as they had the year before when the purest good chance let me stand in front of others from the series after a jolly fish lunch in Antibes.
My luck will, of course, run out. One can't seriously hope to get away with this amount of fun. Penitent, I wandered from the Lanesborough to see the Wilton Diptych in the National Gallery, and gorged myself on the scene of a king, Richard II, on his knees before Mary and the angels. I love the snippet of information that, as a boy, he was so weak and tired that he had to be carried through his coronation.
Richard demonstrated that sucking up to God does not save you from a sticky end. But a better king might have been a patron of less luminous art. So I have carted the idea of Richard and his love of the red-and-white flag of St George (it is also the symbol of Christ resurrected) to all the thrashes that have shoved the thought of my overdraft to the back of my mind.
At one fantastically good party during this pre-Christmas Bacchanalia, we celebrated the 60th birthday of the Kentish Town bike shop owner who used to let me mend Sturmey-Archer three-speeds in his workshop. He once came grape-picking in France, and quite enjoyed it; but in the past decade he has made the kind of money which has turned him into a globe-trotting tourist and a golfer rather than a stay-at-home coarse fisherman. He says he will come to Hereford if there's good golf to be had.
A nearby undertaker used to come into the workshop and enjoyed gossiping among the living. He has died, and that is sad, granted that he was quite young and the gentlest of men. I caught up with another regular visitor, a policeman who gave up The Job after the Tottenham riots because, he thought, the Met had lost its way. He is now married to a brainy blonde bombshell chemistry teacher, and happily sells insurance from a smallholding in Sussex.
Even after forays to the Smoke, I am no longer surprised that the Christmas dinner in the community hall in the village last weekend could match the best of them. Sometimes at these dos, drink and jiving have led to misplaced flirtations, and the retaliation of the slighted has been condign and exciting to watch.
Then there are the fissures between the various tribes of the place, especially among those who have land and are peeved with each other about planning permissions given or denied as they all scramble to build houses. This time, however, the village ate turkey and boogied in a mood of subdued riot, and I thought that - on the whole - home was a not-half-bad spot.Reuse content