Well, you can't stay in London every single day of your life, you'd go mad, and so I accept an invitation to go to Perthshire with H -- . Not that
I do not do so without apprehension. In the first place, the occasion is a massive shindig to celebrate G -- getting his PhD, and I have never met G -- . Neither have I met his or H -- 's friends, who all went to the same Oxford college and are all 30 years old, getting on for two decades younger than me. I will stand out like an old and withered thumb.
(I had a very nasty moment about a month ago when I noticed an ancient man with mad grey hair staring at me in a most unsettling manner in a café. He turned out to be an old schoolfriend of mine and an exact contemporary. Since then I have been feeling the weight of anni domini all the more keenly and reading a description of a 40-year-old man in a story as being "older than the rocks he sat on" didn't help much, either.)
In the second place, this isn't any old home. It's an ancestral home; technically speaking, a castle. It's a pretty long-standing family: they've been looking after the same estate since the early 13th century, when a canny doctor cured Alexander II of Scotland of a hairball (caused, apparently, by the monarch chewing his beard from anxiety. As anyone who's seen Macbeth knows, being king of Scotland wasn't the most stress-free job at the time).
As for the castle, it isn't, I suppose, in the general scheme of things, a very big castle - the number of bedrooms is, I gather, only in the high teens, so it's more of a big house, I suppose.
Like many lefties brought up in this country in relative privilege I have an ambivalent attitude towards the gentry. On the one hand, they are all parasites who should be stripped of their estates and titles and obliged to get honest work. On the other, there is an atavistic urge to prostrate oneself before them. At times like this I feel like János Bátky, the hero of Antál Szerb's The Pendragon Legend, a mild Hungarian scholar upon whom the names of the aristocracy "fall like hammer blows", so deeply is he impressed by them. These two conflicting attitudes produce an unstable mixture that I always fear will resolve itself into some appalling social solecism.
That this is all happening in Scotland somehow makes it worse - like many English people, I am, for weird reasons of masochism and history-guilt, appallingly susceptible to Scotophilia and even more so when the favour is extravagantly unreturned. I imagine a vast dining room of arctic chill, where the laird sits beneath a shield decorated with crossed sabres, glaring at me from beneath startling eyebrows, while a mangy, evil-looking hound gnaws discarded deer bones with its yellow fangs.
Of course, it's not like that at all. In fact, I am going to have to go light on the details because you will think I am either fantasising, crawling or simply trying to make you jealous. Suffice it to say that these people are made of the right stuff. They are ecologically aware and politically sensitive Guardian readers, and I notice, when building a fire (I volunteer for the post of fire monitor to prove that I am not a wholly useless metropolitan softie) that a photo of Richard Branson in that paper has been defaced by the daughter of the house, which is the kind of political gesture I think it is important to make from time to time. The interior itself is in a state of functional chaos, superficially shambolic but with a deeper order at work. The Hovel, when it sleeps, dreams of being this place.
It gets better. In a frame in the kitchen there is the indignant report from the Daily Mail about the youngest son, who was one of the student protestors arrested for occupying Fortnum and Mason. (Which means that, by bizarre coincidence, he knows my housemate, Laurie Penny.) And G -- himself turns out to be extremely funny and clever.
As for the party, I marvel at the way that about 30 people can be reunited so regularly and without (well, relatively without) friction. I suppose I could rustle up about half a dozen people from my university days who could just about stand being in the same room, but even then half of them wouldn't piss on the others if they were on fire. This lot get on with each other so well that they even have no issue with the one of their number who has become a Tory MP. (Who, to make matters even worse, has a distractingly pretty girlfriend.) I start the evening by sneering at his too-polished shoes and immaculate suit. By the end of it we have pulled guitars out and are jamming together. God help me.