Howard Jacobson: What do you do if a bunch of drunks decide you look like Osama bin Laden?

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Can someone remind me again what young men are for? It might strike readers of this column as suspicious that, having addressed the patriarch last week, I should be turning to the son this. But it's entirely fortuitous, believe me. Young men just happen to have been around for the last few days and I just happen to have run into them.

Don't ask me to be exact about what I mean by young. Just young. Somewhere between the ages of 17 and 25. But it could be that among those I ran into, several were even older than that. Impossible to tell. Under 30, they all look and sound the same to me. Vroom, vroom! You know what I'm talking about.

Of an age to be declaring war on everything around them, though they have no specific grievance. Simply jissomed up with bafflement and aggression. Remember that the next time you see pictures of an angry mob; remember to take note of the age and sex of the demonstrators; and then ask yourself what sort of new world order it would take to quieten them.

The only way I could pacify the lot I ran into the other day on the train back from Bath – for never let it be said that I shun the planet's hot spots – was to find everything they said hilarious. Me? A dead ringer for Osama bin Laden? Ha! They should see me with a towel round my head. And a white sheet? Absolutely. A towel and a white sheet. And sandals? You bet. A towel and a white sheet and sandals. I could barely contain my mirth.

I even fell into them companionably, rolling with the train and clapping them round their shoulders the way my father had taught me to do when I came home whingeing about being bullied in the school playground. Be a man, he'd told me. Don't be standoffish. Show you're one of them. So that was what I did. Pressed up against the buffet bar of the Bath-to-London express, whither I had repaired for a glass of merlot and a tuna sandwich, I changed my order to a six-pack of Worthingtons and crisps, and offered to find them irresistibly good company. What I'd do if they decided I didn't only look like Osama bin Laden but was Osama bin Laden I didn't know. Go on laughing like a drain, I supposed.

Intermittently, when they were able to forget my resemblance to the world's most wanted terrorist, they'd get me to join them in "Hey Baby", the new DJ Otzi version of Bruce Channel's 1962 classic, which they'd been singing on the platform, post-football, leaping on to one another's backs between choruses and throwing small change (presumably as a substitute for small people) on to the tracks. It was the "uh ah" bit they were especially keen to embroil me in. Jungle noise. Uh, ah! I drew the line at that. I told them it was against my religion, trusting we were still in a sufficiently tolerant world for that to get them off my back. What I most wanted was to talk to them about the King's College May ball of 1962, where I first danced to "Hey Baby" with a titled Girton blue-stocking dressed in a maroon velvet curtain borrowed from the main dining room at Chatsworth. But I decided that might have been too much information. Ditto the fact that although "Hey Baby" was Bruce Channel's only major hit over here and in America, he was, to my knowledge, still writing songs and performing them in Nashville, aged 61 – if they could conceive such a number.

They were pissed, they were over-conscious of their bodies, they were existentially bemused and they were jissomed-up. I doubt they were drugged, but I'm not the one to ask. They were, in other words, in all elements of their superfluity, not unlike some of those lads from Burnley we've been hearing about lately, sent back to Pakistan to find purpose and ending up in the arms of the Taliban. Purpose can be as dangerous as nihilism, that's what that proves; values can kill. But before values can kill, you have to find young men to instil them into.

I doubt whether any extreme movement would have had much use for me in my salad days, though I did make a pretty rabid Leavisite for a while. Too much of a coward. But I was no less pointless, most of the time, than the Bath boys. We used to drive into garages when we first all had cars, ask the forecourt attendant to fill us up – for this was before self-service – then accelerate away, hysterical with laughter, before he could begin, leaving him with the pump dripping from his hand.

Remember that dripping pump, all ye who would remedy the world's ills!

It is rarely the case that humanity's benefactors are those who set out with the noblest intentions. In times like these we would do well to learn from the example of Cynthia Payne, the Streatham madame, who, in a pretty phrase, once and for all demystified the male half of humanity. "No man is worth knowing," she pronounced, admitting no exceptions, "until he has been de-spunked."

She saw it as a daily prerequisite, something that needed to be attended to every morning, like administering cod liver oil or gripe water. Last week it seemed a good idea to drop Kylie Minogue on to Afghanistan; this week, with far more seriousness, I beg you to wonder whether the cause of international peace wouldn't best be served by parachuting Cynthia Payne everywhere.

Comments