Down and out in London

At this party no one is even smoking. I feel like the Ancient Mariner, only not so garrulous

It is about midnight on a Saturday. I am lying full length on the decaying garden bench on the back terrace of the Hovel, having a cigarette and brooding on life, and the party that is taking place across the way. There is a very Rear Window-ish aspect to the backyard of the Hovel, which is great, as it would be rather exciting to discover a murder taking place on the other side of the courtyard, particularly if I was with Grace Kelly.

No murders tonight; but a very loud party. It seems like fun. There is a lot of whooping and from what I can tell there are more girls than boys there. At which point one of them leans out of the window and calls out, “Oi! Come on over!” Well, why not? I appear to live in a part of town where people hand out such impromptu invitations.

I recall the time when I was entertaining a couple of friends on the terrace and a man leaned out of a window in a house to the left. Instead of asking us to shut the hell up he asked if he could join us. After conferring – were there enough of us to overpower him if he turned out to be a loony? – we asked him if he could bring anything, and he brought down a bottle of Grey Goose and some other goodies whose precise nature I have since forgotten.

He did turn out to be a loony, though. You do not have that many tattoos, or muscles that big, or disappear for ever the next day leaving your BlackBerry behind if you are a merchant banker, even if your name is Javier. But that’s another story for another day.

When I trickle over to the party a few minutes later, I am struck by a number of things. The first is, golly, what a lot of drunk girls there are. They are doing that thing of dancing with each other whereby Girl A grinds her bum into the crotch of Girl B, while Boys A, B, C and D’s eyes pop out on stalks. Everyone is about 30 and looks incredibly youthful and healthy. I, on the other hand, feel like the Ancient Mariner, only not so garrulous. “Do you dance?” one of the girls asks me. She may as well have asked if I fly space rockets, or play the theremin. I do not dance. Women have fallen out of love with me when they have seen me try.

But the others, who do not know this, are looking at me with friendly curiosity. Perhaps I seem frightfully exotic to them. And they must be pissed enough not to find my age and looks actively repellent. Something like an orderly queue for me forms. In fact, I haven’t had this much attention from women at a party since . . . well, ever. As luck would have it,I am very happily spoken for, as I explained last week, and so completely off the market that my only impulse is to flee. I find out that it is a 30th birthday party, and that most of the people there work for Rio Tinto. “Ah,” I say, “I used to demonstrate against you.”

My interlocutor drifts off and I try to work out what else is wrong with this picture. The place is very clean. It doesn’t look like one o’clock in the morning. I remember a place off Fitzjohn’s Avenue where a party had been going on for months; no one had ever got round to stopping it, and the house was so large, and so multiply tenanted, that a kind of 24-hour shift pattern evolved: while one bunch recuperated, another lot took their place. And as everyone was so out of their mind on drugs, few people could tell or cared if it was day or night. Now that was my idea of a party. (I drive up Fitzjohn’s Avenue every couple of weeks or so to see my folks and sometimes wonder, wistfully, if it’s still going on.)

But at this party no one is even smoking. At which point I realise the appalling gulf that exists between myself and the younger generation. They’re drinking some vile concoction involving Coca-Cola and – ?? – mint leaves that not even I can finish. They’re nice enough people, considering they’re all probably filthy rich and have never read a book in their lives (a nosy stroll through the place reveals no evidence to suggest that I’m wrong).

I grow old, I murmur to myself as I return home, I grow old, I shall wear the bottom of my trousers rolled. Who now knows Eliot, or has his lines etched into the brain? I suppose their forebears from 20-odd years ago who watched, baffled, as grungy students waved placards denouncing what was then Rio Tinto-Zinc, wouldn’t have known any Eliot either. And it is not as if knowing a few snatches of modernist poetry has brought me great wealth or peace of mind.

I look around me at the Hovel, so dilapidated in comparison with the place I have been in, that it seems not far off attaining the status of a condemned building. In fact, the love of my life, who knows about these things, says that what with one thing and another, the Hovel would not pass legal muster as a House of Multiple Occupancy. This is much more like it, I think.

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.