It was a struggle for the elderly gentleman to bend right down. But it seemed rude to let him know he wasn't fooling anyone, by picking the apple up for him. He straightened slowly, and held it out, almost complete, one bite missing.
"Look at this," he said. "What a waste."
What a waste indeed. That apple, apart from the year-old natural cycle needed to grow it, had probably been air-freighted from abroad, sprayed profligately with pesticides, plumped up carelessly with fertilisers, and handled by any number of workers in the complex chain that brings cheap things from far away, so that we can hold them in contempt.
All so that one sunny Sunday it could be bitten into once, then tossed in a gutter, not quite right for someone's jaded palate, and not quite worth that final little effort either, that would see it disposed of with a little consideration.
You don't have to have been through the privations of war to understand that our society today is obscenely wasteful. But as it happens, the particular critic who had retrieved it from the roadside was a veteran of the Second World War, a former pilot and a decorated war hero, smart and groomed at the weekend, in town to take part in the final day of a week's celebrations.
He was pleased to hear that I was around for the same reason, waiting to meet my family and spend the afternoon reflecting on the war. "You know what they're going to do, do you?" he asked me, his voice suddenly childish with pride and enthusiasm." When the Queen comes out on the balcony this afternoon, they're going to fly a Lancaster right down the Mall, open the bomb doors, and release a million poppies."
They did this, of course, hours later, and it was an amazing sight. At first the poppies looked like a solid streak of red in the sky, and then like coloured smoke. They dissipated so quickly as they fell to earth that standing almost directly below, we saw none reach the ground. This was, I reckon, one of the few occasions when litter-bugging was justified.
The pageantry of the weekend, the streets of London filled with up to half a million people, the Queen and the Prime Minister watching ceremonial events on streets bristling with be-medalled, blazered chests, has of course been co-opted into the show of stoic resilience that London is displaying in the wake of the bomb attacks on Thursday. We are carrying on as normal, our way of life, we tell ourselves, will not be threatened by terror.
I wonder, though, what thoughts we might allow ourselves to have were these celebrations not so inextricably linked to the "war on terror". How, really, has the post-war consensus served us? And how wisely have we spent the currency of freedom that was so expensively won for us 60 years ago?
One of the bits of business, after all, that London simply got on with in the face of death and agony and loss and fear, was the trip to the Big Brother house to scream and jeer at a young man who may or may not have indulged in penetrative sex on television. On Friday, as usual, there was a huge crowd in the east London location, certainly showing resilience, but perhaps the sort more readily associated with narcissistic personality disorder than with the Blitz.
This freak show, with its desperate, disordered competitors selected especially because they might behave in the way that they have is like a sexed-up modern-day version of the old trips round Bedlam. The fact that the very same building now houses the Imperial War Museum is an irony that has the charm of thematic order, if only for linking forgettable exploitation with the unforgettable horror of war.
Is it trivial to look at the veterans, marching solemnly in step up the mall, 70, 80, 90, their old arms holding heavy pennants aloft in the blazing sun, and wonder if the freedom to get drunk on live telly and then copulate while schoolchildren watch saucer-eyed the antics of grown-ups was what they and their comrades had in mind as they fought and killed and died. I don't think it is really. Their heroism might be a high-water mark for bravery and courage in a just war. But the likes of Jade Goody - who made her name by bringing some young man to orgasm under a duvet on a previous series of the show - are seen somehow as rather heroic themselves today.
In a recent survey, a good deal more than half of all young people declared it their ambition to be a reality television "celebrity", while a quarter of young women expressed a desire to carve out a lucrative career in lap-dancing. Yet it's almost seen as bad form to do anything other than ignore this stuff any more, now we are engaged in the "war on terror". Suggesting that the West is in fact losing its way in a mire of decadence is too easily read as somehow giving succour to the Muslim fundamentalists, who would have women stoned to death for even reading the tabloid reports on the behaviour of Maxwell and Saskia, or Makosi and Anthony.
Yet while these young people give young people a bad name with their lack of restraint and self-respect and their greed and need, it is instructive to remember what many other young people were doing when the bombs hit London last week. They were up in Scotland, protesting against a group of world leaders who were hunkered down persuading the single most powerful man among them, of the truth, among other things, of a scientific argument so apparent to the vast majority of us, that we almost cannot believe in such stupidity.
What's sinister, though, is that these young people, not the television shaggers, are the ones that mainstream politics seeks to demonise. The main demonstration - the largest ever in Scotland - was barely reported by the media, let alone properly analysed. Not until there was "trouble" was some interest shown in what was going on. So furious are these young people at the deliberate, self-interested, stupidity of the Western mainstream that the inevitable consequence is the occasional scuffle between them and the police.
Before the attacks of 7 July, all eyes were on Gleneagles, and most security efforts. The message of the G8 leaders, with the acceptable face of youthful protest neatly sequestered behind the perfectly admirable celebrities who position themselves at the truculent end of the mainstream consensus was that with a few tweaks the world could be healed. For a little while Bush and Blair got to live in their fantasy world, where those young radical Westerners who seek to show that their pious fiddling at the margins of catastrophe is wrong are painted-up, quite erroneously, as the enemy.
Now they're back in the real world, the one we all help to make. And the awful truth is that there are enemies all over the place, not all of them as crudely murderous as terrorists, but many of them perilously dangerous all the same.Reuse content