The reception was part of Trafalgar Live 2003: a free concert thrown to show just how great Ken Livingstone's "newly redesigned and pedestrianised Trafalgar Square" has turned out. At South Africa House, I sipped a glass of Pinot Grigio among the pleasant, youngish, smartish crowd of well-wishers. Above our heads, artworks showed mine shafts, gouged mountains, land that had been raped for minerals and gold - grisly testimony to the old regime. But the world has changed. And Livingstone, well, he's changed almost as much as South Africa.
First, there's the suit, the fabulously cut Ozwald Boateng number in imperial purple. Ken now wears this instead of the crumpled Dr-Livingstone-after-an-eight-week-safari look he used to favour. The mayor stood looking every inch an international figure as, over our heads in the square, Morcheeba wowed the crowds. Above the dapper suit is a smart haircut; below, a pair of fashionable black shoe/boots.
But that wasn't all. As I wandered over to say hello, I watched in amazement as he sipped, yes sipped, his wine. In half an hour, he had just one glass. It must have been warm - an outrage. This, remember, is Livingstone the self-acclaimed bon viveur. His skin looked clear of the old parliamentary pallor, the bags under his eyes reduced to mere holdalls. It was all too much. I blurted: "Bloody hell, Ken, you look great." He smiled peacefully and gazed around the room, looking like the Dalai Lama surrounded by adoring disciples. "Mmmm. Not drinking as much, you see."
I babbled on about parenthood and how well the congestion charge seems to be working, but all I could think was: "This guy really, really, means business." Livingstone wants to be mayor again enough to cleanse, tone and moisturise, to buff, trim and detox. In short, the man who appeals to Londoners as the anti-spin candidate is prepared to spin like a top to win next year's election. He looked so respectable that even Daily Mail Matron could now shake his (probably) manicured hand.
I asked about the latest poll figures.
"Well, currently I stand on 51 per cent, with the rest of the vote split pretty evenly among Norris and that lot. Heh heh heh. As long as my enemies keep the vote split, they don't stand a chance."
Meeting the new, improved Livingstone was strange. Getting drunk and dancing beneath Nelson's column was surreal. There were the usual festival-type stalls selling fried chicken, hot dogs, Smirnoff Ice and Grolsch on the periphery. I queued for a drink amid several hundred Londoners. We're a vicious bunch on the Underground: elbows, umbrellas, stilettos all come into play when a Londoner wants to get to the front of the queue. But at the bar, I heard strange, ancient phrases that I thought had disappeared from our language, such as "'scuse me, mate" and "no, no, after you".
The happy (if mainly white) crowd cheered as David Gray was introduced. I smiled up to the sky, loving my city for the first time in a couple of years, and spotted not pigeons but military uniforms on the rooftops, perching behind windows. It was a very mellow event. The lesbian Asian girl standing next to us praised the mayor's recent Respect festival at the Dome and the Gay Pride parade, too. Central London at nightfall was throbbing with the sorts of Londoners who are normally too nervous to enjoy their city at this time. When Gray began singing and the crowd cheered, a tear came to my eye at the thought of leaving "my people". The police walked past and by reflex, I hid the bottles of Smirnoff under my jacket. Then there were some shouts and a scuffle broke out. A drunken idiot had tried to rob the bar of six beers. He was dragged out of the square by no-nonsense security men. Part of me felt relieved to know that in London, some things never change.