In August, London, more than any other British city, changes. Any given Evening Standard news-stand bill persists for longer, and sometimes the paper gets through the whole day on one disaster; car alarms wail unattended; mobile-phone callers' voices echo hollowly in half-empty rooms. The man sitting next to me in the cafe as I write this has just said three times, "But the Porsche is, like, made to do a hundred and twenty." Across the leafier parts of north London, some of the larger houses have been abandoned entirely, left to the gardeners, who would presumably make much better neighbours than the actual owners, being completely silent, lacking children and dogs and four-wheel drives.
As August in London has become an increasingly marked phenomenon, so August specialists are beginning to emerge. Even now, our kitchen wall is being plastered by a builder who is known never to take holidays, contenting himself with fishing in the River Lea one day a week. I also know one novelist whose sales of a hundred thousand-plus per book are based on years of being published in August, when there's far less competition for space on the literary pages. True, you can never rule out those monster features anticipating the big novels of September. But in return for his willingness to endure the stresses of publication in muggy conditions, my friend has been well rewarded, and the film he wrote was released recently to excellent reviews.
I myself am something of a specialist in August journalism. Whenever I have written a diary for the New Statesman, for example, it has been in August, when more famous, albeit arguably less amusing, people are on holiday. Indeed, I got one of my original breaks in writing because of August. About 15 years ago, Simon Carr used to write a column on the op-ed page of the Independent. He went on holiday one summer, and I stepped in. I was still at the stage where I would cut out and keep all my articles, and I remember, day after day, carefully snipping off the words "Simon Carr is on holiday", which, after all, really meant, "Sorry for the bilge we're serving up instead."
I am always offered more commissions in August than any other month, and whenever an editor calls, I am torn between gratitude and indignation that he should assume that I'm not away in a villa in Tuscany. I often think I might reap benefits in the long run if I pretended to join the August exodus of the rich from London. Those who say, in that desperate, bright tone, "Yes, I'm around over August" are increasingly branded as losers. In fact, it's only a matter of time before the smart stationer, Smythson's, markets an 11-month London diary with an ellipsis instead of this most problematic of months.