The man who used me as a guinea pig for herbal Viagra is back. And he's got brothel creeper shoes

The last time I saw the Guvnor was about a year ago, at the launch of my book, accompanied by a Russian, blonde ex-model, about six inches taller than him, who had the air of a woman upon whom it would be unwise to try any oompus-boompus. Now he's back ag

Ping! A text from, of all people, the Guvnor. For latecomers to this column, the Guvnor used to be the landlord of the pub down the road. Patrolling the tables with mild menace, he would occasionally startle favoured customers with asides of quite extraordinary obscenity, the product of a mind that was as quick as it was filthy.

Every so often if you were having lunch there and he took pity on you, he would join you and start bringing over bottles of wine from far nearer the bottom of the list than the top. You would stagger out of the place at about 5.30, barely able to see.

He once had a porn film shot on the premises; only, this being a British porno, it revolved around the visit of a couple of supposedly oversexed female health and safety inspectors. I ended up learning far more about the separation of meat and dairy products on kitchen shelves – absolutely no innuendo intended – than I did about sex. (He triumphantly produced the DVD towards the end of an extended luncheon I’d been having with the Moose, and the latter, a man of delicate sensibilities, nearly fainted.)

If he wasn’t doing that, he was using me as a guinea pig for the dodgy herbal Viagra he’d taken consignment of, a job I did only once, on the grounds that the stuff nearly killed me. (It worked, in a way, and I wrote about it in these pages.)

Then the Guvnor got exiled from the pub by his wife, who had wearied of his ways, and he became elusive. The last time I saw him was when he came to the launch of my book about the Olympics which none of you bastards have bought, accompanied by a Russian, blonde ex-model, about six inches taller than him, who had the air of a woman upon whom it would be unwise to try any oompus-boompus (as Bertie Wooster once described one of his aunts). He looked well dressed, sleek and happy.

After that, I heard nothing. I imagined a period of forced exile, or a spell in one of the more comfortable correctional establishments. He popped up again at the pub a few months ago but when I asked after him from the staff, I was told he was never coming back, ever, and I got the sense it would be a good idea not to press the matter.

Anyway, here he is again, and he wants to buy me lunch and discuss matters of some import with me, so why not? I arrive a couple of minutes early at the Social Eating House in Poland Street, go to the bar upstairs and fail to enjoy a disgustingly sweet attempt at a Martini served by a boy with the stupidest beard I’ve ever seen – and you see plenty these days – and in walks the Guvnor, wearing, as well as more conventional clothes, bright blue brogues with brothel creeper soles (which, I later learn, cost £540 the pair).

It turns out that he has been suffering from ennui and has been relieving the tedium by idly scanning the pages of a website devoted to single Ukrainian ladies. One of them has taken the fancy that he is some kind of intellectual and has been dropping in references to Proust and Boris Vian. Boris Vian, for Christ’s sake. The Guvnor, whose idea of a library is two copies of Razzle, has been getting busy with Wikipedia but thinks it might be wise to ask me for advice. He shows me her photograph.

“Looks like Kate Moss, doesn’t she?” he says. “Guv, that is Kate Moss,” I say.

He shows me another picture of her. “OK, maybe not,” I say. “But you’ve got to admit there’s something fishy going on here. You say there are 28,000 women on this website. They can’t all look like that.”

The sommelier arrives and although the Guvnor does not bother with the French pronunciation, the look in his eyes tells the wine-man that he is not to be trifled with. I used to feel, when in his company, that I was in a rude, postmodern episode of Minder. Right now, I feel I’m in a Martin Amis novel. But he is soft-hearted and at some point during the next bottle starts showing me pictures of his kittens (his last cats were called, brilliantly, Sid and Nancy). The restaurant, full when we entered, empties. The manager suggests we repair to the bar upstairs. The Guvnor laughs him off; the manager backs away. You don’t argue with people wearing shoes like that. They’re capable of anything.

In my column last week, I said that Irvine Welsh was very nice to me after a disastrous reading I once gave. My memory is even more scrambled than I let on: I meant Stewart Home. My apologies to both writers.

One bottle of wine with an old friend: how dangerous could it be? Image: Getty

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 17 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Austerity Pope

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It's easy to see where Berlin is being rebuilt – just hit the streets

My week, from walking the streets of Berlin to class snobbery and the right kind of gentrification.

Brick by brick, block by block, the people are rebuilding the city once called Faust’s Metropolis. To see it clearly, put your boots on. One of the most bracing walks starts by the Gethsemane Church, which served as a haven for dissenters in the last days of the GDR and takes you down ­towards the Hackescher Markt.

Here, in what is still the eastern half of a divided city that wears its division more lightly, is a Berlin experience both old and new. In three decades of frequent visits, it has been fascinating to note how much this part of town has changed. Even a decade ago these streets were rundown. With crumbling buildings showing bulletholes, it wasn’t hard to imagine what the place looked like in 1945. Now there are lilacs, blues, and yellows. Cafés, bars and restaurants abound, serving the young professionals attracted to the city by cheap rents and a renewed sense of community.

 

Breaking the fourth wall

Looking north along Schliemannstraße, you’ll find a delightful vista of well-tended balconies. It’s a pleasant place to live, notwithstanding the gaggle of grotesques who gather round the corner in the square. On Kastanienallee, which forms the second leg of the walk, an old city feels young. It’s a kind of gentrification but the right kind. There’s more to eat, to drink, to buy, for all.

Berlin, where Bertolt Brecht staged his unwatchable plays, was supposed to have been transformed by a proletarian revolution. Instead, it has been restored to health by a very middle-class one. Germany has always had a well-educated middle class, and the nation’s restoration would have impossible without such people. The irony is delicious – not that irony buttered many parsnips for “dirty Bertie”.

 

The new snobbery

The British Museum’s survey of German history “Memories of a Nation” is being presented at the Martin-Gropius-Bau as “The British View”. Germans, natürlich, are curious to see how we observe them. But how do they see us?

A German friend recently in England  said that the images that struck him most forcibly were the tins of food and cheap booze people piled up in supermarkets, and the number of teenage girls pushing prams. Perhaps Neil MacGregor, the former director of the British Museum who will shortly take up a similar role here at the new Humboldt Forum, may turn his attention to a “German View” of the United Kingdom.

There’s no shortage of material. In Schlawinchen, a bar that typifies Kreuzberg’s hobohemia, a college-educated English girl was trying to explain northern England to an American she had just met. Speaking in an ugly modern Mancunian voice that can only be acquired through years of practice (sugar pronounced as “sug-oar”), she refer­red to Durham and York as “middle class, you know, posh”, because those cities had magnificent cathedrals.

When it comes to inverted snobbery, no nation can match us. To be middle class in Germany is an indication of civic value. In modern England, it can mark you as a leper.

 

Culture vultures

The Humboldt Forum, taking shape by the banks of the Spree, reconsecrates the former site of the GDR’s Palace of the Republic. When it opens in 2018 it will be a “living exhibition”, dedicated to all the cultures of the world. Alexander von Humboldt, the naturalist and explorer, was the brother of Wilhelm, the diplomat and philosopher, whose name lives on in the nearby university.

In Potsdamerplatz there are plans to build a modern art museum, crammed in between the Neue Nationalgalerie and the Philharmonie, home to the Berlin Philharmonic. Meanwhile, the overhaul of the Deutsche Staatsoper, where Daniel Barenboim is music director for life, is likely to be completed, fingers crossed, next autumn.

Culture everywhere! Or perhaps that should be Kultur, which has a slightly different meaning in Germany. They take these things more seriously, and there is no hint of bogus populism. In London, plans for a new concert hall have been shelved. Sir Peter Hall’s words remain true: “England is a philistine country that loves the arts.”

 

European neighbours

When Germans speak of freedom, wrote A J P Taylor, a historian who seems to have fallen from favour, they mean the freedom to be German. No longer. When modern Germans speak of freedom, they observe it through the filter of the European Union.

But nation states are shaped by different forces. “We are educated to be obedient,” a Berlin friend who spent a year at an English school once told me. “You are educated to be independent.” To turn around Taylor’s dictum: when the English speak of freedom,
they mean the freedom to be English.

No matter what you may have heard, the Germans have always admired our independence of spirit. We shall, however, always see “Europe” in different ways. Europe, good: we can all agree on that. The European Union, not so good. It doesn’t mean we have to fall out, and the Germans are good friends to have.

 

Hook, line and sinker

There are fine walks to be had in the west, too. In Charlottenburg, the Kensington of Berlin, the mood is gentler, yet you can still feel the city humming. Here, there are some classic places to eat and drink – the Literaturhauscafé for breakfast and, for dinner, Marjellchen, a treasure trove of east Prussian forest delights. Anything that can be shot and put in a pot!

For a real Berlin experience, though, head at nightfall for Zwiebelfisch, the great tavern on Savignyplatz, and watch the trains glide by on the other side of Kantstraße. Hartmut Volmerhaus, a most amusing host, has been the guvnor here for more than 30 years and there are no signs that his race is run. The “Fisch” at twilight: there’s nowhere better to feel the pulse of this remarkable city. 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage