I can hear the sirens calling me from W1
I wake early in the summer: the curtain does not fully go across the bedroom window and the traffic in W1, which I get to hear a lot of because I like to sleep with the window open, starts by around 6am. There are also the seagulls, who have wearied of the sea and now wheel and caw miles inland where I thought they had no business. They seem alien and more invasive when in London and I wish I hadn't shown the children The Birds the other week. Not for their sake; for mine. (The film's slow build-up was beginning to oppress the youngest one and then he saw the man in his pyjamas with his eyes pecked out. "Cool," he said, and now lists it as one of his favourites.)
But that's not the main gripe. The worst part about living in W1 is the sirens. I remember, many years ago, when I first went to New York: the police cars really did make that sound! They didn't go "nee-nar nee-nar" like our own tinpot, unarmed police. (New Yorkers also had push-button phones and air-conditioning, the novelty of each of which makes it possible to date me to mid-20th-century vintage.) Nowadays, though, I wonder whether it might not be a good idea to return to a simpler, gentler age when, if you wanted to let the Lavender Hill Mob know you were after them, you blew your whistles and rang a little bell on the roof. As I lie awake one morning at about 6.30, trembling slightly at the thought of another day, already a bit of a nervous wreck, a siren goes off right beneath my window. I am two floors up, but this feels really loud, as if I have a police car in bed with me.
It might not have been a police car. I have come to notice the subtle differences between the various sirens of the emergency services, and have been surprised to note that whereas a police car tends to start off ever so slightly more gradually, with a "waa" sound, those new ambulances, which look as though they are carrying bullion rather than people, have a much more aggressive blast, beginning with a consonantal "BWAA", which the other morning made me jump out of my skin and is probably going to kill me one day. I wonder if the ambulance drivers know that on their dashboards they have the power to leave a trail of heart-attack victims in their wake. You know what? I suspect they do and they consider it great sport.
I am beginning to ask myself if this living in the middle of town is all it's cracked up to be. It's all very well having a W1 address on the cheap. But the thing about W1 is that if you go bleating to the Old Bill about them firing up their blues and twos right next to you at sparrow-fart, they will almost certainly tell you, even if you are standing in front of them in your nightdress, clutching your teddy bear and sleepily rubbing your eyes, that this is not a residential district.
I dearly would love to remove myself to the countryside for a bit - a couple of weeks, just long enough to get bored of it - but you can't go to the countryside on your own because people only go to the countryside on their own to kill themselves, and the temptation is strong enough in London as it is. (Not that I need make any effort in that direction, if the strange sensation coming from the right-hand parietal lobe is what I think it is.)
This is just part of the larger malaise: profound dissatisfaction with my own condition. Living like this is crazy, I say to myself, and things aren't improved when I read an article by Zoe Williams which says, among other things, that "communal living in mature adulthood is incredibly eccentric, somewhere between keeping llamas and being polyamorous". I could qualify this:
I am the only mature adult in the Hovel - I'm certainly the only one who knows how to empty the bin - but then living with two women whose ages don't even add up to mine and who aren't related to me isn't the most normal thing in the world. I have always taken a quiet pleasure in living at right-angles to the rest of society, but I am beginning to think that now is the time to embrace conventionality.
Too late though for that, and I resign myself to turning into a slimmer, more heterosexual but just as unfulfilled Uncle Monty, cursing his native land: we live in a country of rains, where royalty comes in gangs. And do you know how old Richard Griffiths was when Withnail and I was released? Forty. Eight years younger than me. There's a wake-up call for you. l
Next week: Mark Watson