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I hear the chimes of noon in Soho and prepare to drown myself in drink and dim sum

Nicholas Lezard's "Down and Out in London" column.

Lunch with the Moose. It is our custom, when this happens, to start at the French House for a little sharpener and then eventually peel off towards Chinatown for our favoured dim sum establishment, the name of which always escapes us but as we know exactly where it is, this is never a hindrance.


I am always haunted by feelings and memories I had thought long dead but were only ormant, when in the French. For those who do not know of it, this is a long-established Soho pub that – as its name suggests – is sympathetic to all things trans-Channel. Or outre-Manche, or something. You can get Lillet there, which is not what you probably think it is but, rather, the vermouth favoured by James Bond for his Martinis. I do not drink this but instead opt for a kir, which they do nicely there. I  believe, along with Ford Madox Ford, that the chief responsibility of a wine is to be red, yet even I can’t really drink red wine for breakfast (technically, I am on an empty stomach, for a prior deadline has obliged me to miss out on anything solid); but the cassis makes the white wine blush a bit, so that’s all right.

Inside, there are memorials to its various louche regulars, old and new, and its splendidly mustachioed former proprietor, Gaston Berlemont, who once invited me to a sampling of a pre-First World War absinthe, but which I turned down because I would have then missed out on a chance of getting laid. I once met Francis Bacon there and was introduced to him by a girlfriend who had never even heard of him, and we spent the whole night being fed champagne by him while he discoursed on life and how happy he was. He was charm itself and I found myself wondering: if I let him fuck me, would I get a painting out of it?

But it is the sliding open of the bolts as the Moose and I wait outside, just before noon, that really takes me back. It is a long time since I have heard that noise. It is one thing, with Falstaff, to hear the chimes at midnight; it is another to hear the chimes of noon and to be panting outside licensed premises as one does so. In this, one experiences the true, old Soho, where noon – or, at the Coach and Horses, 11am – would find any number of well-worn alcoholics trembling outside the premises, their habit vindicated by the company they kept, their own high opinion of themselves and their deep fund of anecdote about the area. So, what with one thing and another, there is often a grace-note of melancholy to our conversation when in the French, although it is really only heard by me.

Over an enormous amount of dim sum, though, the talk falls to the encroaching barbarity. I am told three anecdotes about the children or the pupils of friends who are at universities. Mindful of the accusations of snobbery I received when, in this column, I complained about a philosophy lecturer who not only could not pronounce the name “Descartes” correctly, but sneered at me when I ventured to correct him, I am trepidatious, but lunch has not worn off yet and I am still ablaze. I will not identify the universities concerned, if that helps.

1 Subject being studied: English literature. Student: “And we’re meant to be reading someone called . . . O’Grady?” Moose (guessing wildly): “Do you mean Thomas Hardy?” Student: “Yes! That’s the one!” Moose, helpfully: “Then, er, obviously, of course you should read Tess of the d’Urbervilles, Far From the Madding Crowd and Under the Greenwood Tree . . .” Student: “Hey, hang on! I’ve only got a year.”

2 Subject: Philosophy. Student – no, recent graduate in philosophy (on being asked what philosophers have been studied): “Well, we didn’t study any individual ones, really, but we read lots of articles. Like, on euthanasia.” (NB May not have been euthanasia, but something similar. Was too busy howling to be sure.)

3 Subject: English lit, again. A class of students announces that it refuses to continue discussing, or perhaps reading, Emma because “it’s boring and nothing happens in it”.

Jimmy so vile

And so on. Much of the talk between any two writers these days is spent either on this kind of thing or about which literary editor has lost his or her job recently and where it is all heading. And meanwhile a gang of crazed twerps and hypocrites with transparently vested interests is seriously arguing that the BBC should be closed down because it never sacked Jimmy Savile. A vile, vile, man, one of the vilest, but shut down the Beeb because of him? Really? So forgive me if, every once in a while, I drown myself in drink and dim sum.

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 29 October 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Something Rotten