Basking like Alice in the sun

The weather is being a bit silly right now, alternating between rain and brightness, but I am holding on to fond memories of last week's mini-heatwave. Londoners fall into two distinct camps here: those who revel in the heat, and those who loathe it. There would appear to be no middle ground. My poor friend the Moose cannot bear high temperatures, and calls warm weather "beastly"; those who, like him, come from honest British yeoman stock tend to suffer.

On the other hand I, with the blood of at least three southerly nations in my veins, delight in it. I remember how pleased I was to discover that the French verb lézarder means "to bask". Did my ancestors pick their surname on purpose, or was it bestowed upon them? It is worth a bit of unimaginative teasing at school to have a name that describes what you do, like being a Cooper and still making barrels. "This is what lizards like doing in the heat, and so do we," is the message my forefathers are sending down the generations, and who am I to argue with that?

I love it when it is too hot, when the decomposing rubbish starts to remind you of the smells of Moroccan souks, when the air becomes almost liquid, and you can cultivate a really striking watchstrap mark. I colour easily, and take a perverse pleasure in making people think I've been
to Egypt when all I've done is loaf about in the sun, or, at my most energetic, play cricket. The heat makes me do unusual things, like drink white wine or buy pots of basil.

And so it is with all this in mind that the Woman I Love and I head to the park. Although she looks rather more like she has Viking ancestry than I do, she, too, worships the sun. We had been planning on going to St James's Park, but it is too hot to go further than about half a mile, so I take her to the Broad Walk, one of my favourite parts of Regent's Park - a colonnade of sculpted trees and spectacular beds of flowers that I hope she will be able to identify for me. Among her other talents, she is a knowledgeable and gifted gardener, with a talent for inspiring enthusiasm even in me. I have taken to watering the pots on the Hovel's terrace, and although at the moment they contain little more than used tea leaves, thistles, some fairly pretty weeds and, in one, a plant that recalls nothing so much as the tree in the second act of Godot with "four or five" leaves on it, I like to think I am getting into good habits. Besides, this is a kind of existential garden. Or, if you prefer, a Darwinian garden, where only the plants most fitted for this harsh environment can survive. (There is some lavender in one of the pots; how that got there I can't imagine.)

Down the rabbit hole

After only half an hour even I find myself thinking about heatstroke and considering moving on. We are lying by one of the fountains and I am reluctant to use the recycled pond water, green even as it gushes from the pipes at the base, to wet my hair, but I do anyway. Doing so more than once might invite catching something from the ratty pigeon bathing himself in the fountain's highest bowl. We get up and walk along the avenue until we get closer to a crowd that, from a distance, we had thought was a queue for an ice-cream stand.

It turns out to be an audience surrounding a parquet floor. And then, after a brief announcement, the audience moves on to the floor and becomes a crowd of dancers. The music is a waltz, a tune of rudimentary schmaltz produced by a synthesiser - and yet it is bewitching. The couples dancing are stately, serious, rapt in their own technique and ability. They are young and old; gay and straight. One couple wear, below their casual shorts, patent leather dancing shoes. The floor is crowded but there are no collisions.

The spectacle is mesmerising and surreal, like something from a dream sequence, or a moment of pivotal elegy in a film; I wonder if I have already seen it and forgotten. The WIL nails it for me: there's a climactic scene set here in one of our favourite novels, Howard Jacobson's The Act of Love. The effect of this realisation is strange, as if the traffic between reality and its representation had become reversed: the heat, drowsiness and meta-fictionality combine to make me feel thoroughly, but pleasantly spooked, as if we had become a pair of Alices, dozing on the bank.

However, I think as we walk slowly back to the Duke for a beer, the day I find that I can dance like that - that's when I'll know I have fallen down the rabbit hole.

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 26 July 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: leader of the Labour party