Pool cues at the ready

An invitation to the countryside from C -- , who is actually an ex from my university days but has become a good friend again, even though she reads the Daily Mail. (I suppose it cuts both ways. Someone recently described me as "a jolly nice chap, even though he writes for the Guardian". Just as well he didn't know about this gig; it might have tipped him over the edge.) She lives in the village of K -- , acknowledged by Betjeman - or was it Pevsner? - to be one of England's prettiest, and indeed it is gorgeous. It is also, if you believe this kind of thing, said to be one of England's most haunted, and was the scene of one particularly spooky event in the 1950s, when three naval cadets on leave there underwent what was later described as a "time slip" - they suddenly seemed to step back 600 years into the past, finding themselves in the village as it would have been around the time of the Black Death. Later interviews with an initially sceptical historian corroborated their story.

Certainly, K -- can have a disorienting effect on the effete urban visitor. Although C -- 's company is always a delight, I have to think twice before accepting her invitations. For country life is not like city life. Actually, it's a bit like The Archers - but during those periods when the programme's scriptwriters have a collective rush of blood to the head and decide that now is the time to pick up the pace a bit, get some new listeners in and, with a bit of luck, make the news. I've been sworn to secrecy about some of the shenanigans over there, but life was never dull.

Among the friends I have made are Heroin N -- (who has, I am glad to have gathered, since kicked the habit, but the nickname endures) and T -- the Burglar (whose burgling days, I am glad to have gathered, are long since over, but the nickname endures). They might not be the most conventionally respectable of the village residents, but are far and away the most amusing. (The conventionally respectable residents are largely of comparatively little interest, with the possible exception of one or two, but let's not drag them into this hall of infamy.)

However, "amusing" can also mean "trouble". In the hothouse atmosphere of a small village with only one pub, a limited supply of available women and a seemingly unlimited supply of simmering feuds, tempers can get a little frayed, emotions stretched to the point where they twang and pool cues wielded to the point where they snap. I have, at times, returned from K -- all but sobbing with gratitude to be back in London, where people observe the proprieties and behave with impeccable civility to each other. Because I am dropped into the real maelstrom of village society, rather than operating as a tourist who thinks he's getting in with the locals by staying in a room above the pub, trips to K -- can make me feel like one of the terrorised dupes of a Saki short story ("The Un-Rest Cure", perhaps); although it should be admitted that K -- does have its cultured side. Once, I knocked on the novelist Peter Vansittart's door, on the off-chance that he'd be in and willing to receive me (I'd reviewed his In Memory of England favourably about ten years earlier) - which he did, charmingly, in dressing gown and slippers, offering us a choice of either Scotch or sherry at ten in the morning. For a man nearing his nineties, it was pretty classy, I thought. Sadly, he died last year.

Psychic robustness

Three factors have to be taken into consideration when given an invitation there. First, how psychically robust am I feeling? Second, how much work do I have on? And third, how pissed off will C -- be if I blow her out again? Unfortunately, although the answer to the third question is "quite a bit", the answers to the first two are "not very" and "loads". Which is a pity, as it was my current fragility that prompted the kind invitation in the first place. Also, Razors is poorly. Because he doesn't know how to look after himself like I do, he's been coughing his guts up for weeks now and needs to be cared for.

So even though the weather is lovely, I have to stay in London. I begin to wonder if I will ever get out of here again. I mean, let's face it - am I hard enough?

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 16 November 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Dead End