I come back up the hill, wheezing and puffing, to find an elderly gentleman in the small communal front garden. At first I think he is Paul, the ex-convict who leaves breadcrumbs out for the birds (prisoners are meant to have a special fondness for birds, aren’t they?), but it’s not. He is around the area where the crumbs are laid, but he is inspecting the small but neat box hedge, which has been suffering from a blight. This, it turns out, is what has been bothering him.
“I’ve been sent by the council,” he explains. “It looks like you have box tree moth.” As I have mentioned for the past couple of weeks, I have gone deaf, so some of this conversation has to be reconstructed later. (But only this part, because of the ambient traffic noises. Later on, where it gets weird, I swear to my veracity and the accuracy of my account.) So there’s something he says, or that I thought he’s said, which makes me think I am somehow responsible for the state of the hedge.
“I’m afraid it’s not my responsibility,” I say. “I’ll drop the landlord a line.”
He says something that I don’t quite catch. It’s about the council again. He doesn’t sound like he’s from the council: that is, he sounds very posh. But, you know, nice posh, the kind that makes you feel both friendly and polite. A sort of wide-eyed, innocent poshness. Not the supercilious, sneering poshness of Jacob Rees-Mogg, whose voice, whenever I hear it, makes me feel as though it’s given me some horrible internal disease I do not want to name.
“Put a note through the letterbox,” I say, “and I’ll get on to them.”
“God love you. I’m an entomologist. Moths and butterflies in particular,” he says. Twenty minutes later, the intercom buzzes.
“I just thought I’d tell you I’ll make a report later on.”
“Fine, thank you.”
“My name is Dr —. Like the playwright, you know.” He names one of the very few 18th-century English-language playwrights I can think of. You probably know the one I mean. He uses the playwright’s more unusual middle name as his first.
“The family married into Lord Byron’s family, too, so I have some of that.”
“I’m worth £27m.”
At this point I am strongly tempted to say, “Well, give me some,” but I don’t.
“But every penny has gone into schools in Yemen.”
“That’s excellent.” (A small world crashes.) “Well, do give the council the benefit of your expertise.”
“Thank you. God bless you and love you.”
It occurs to me that one of the reasons we’ve never really gone in for chopping off the aristocracy’s heads is because so many of them are absolutely potty. Which is a shame, really, as I can think of few sights I would love to see more than Rees-Mogg in a tumbril.
But is Dr [Playwright] really potty? Brighton certainly does attract the unusual, but not all this unusualness is internally generated. Not only do I have no reason to doubt Dr [Playwright], I think the world, and my heart, would be a poorer place if I did.
Brighton is not too hard a city in which to make friends, especially if you widen your social orbit from aristocratic entomologists. There is Nathan, whom I last wrote about when he was covered in scabs, a year and a half ago, begging in the Seven Dials area; he’s moved over here now, but he’s looking a lot better, if still homeless. There was Ewan, a young man whom I first met outside Waitrose, where he was wearing a blanket as a cape, waving an unlit cigarette and bellowing into the darkness: “I SAID: DOES ANYONE HAVE A LIGHT? I’M GETTING TIRED OF ASKING!” I did, and we chatted for a few minutes.
Then, a few minutes later, in the Sainsbury’s Local a little down the road, I was stopped by a security guard. As my conscience, when it comes to shoplifting, has been squeaky clean since the age of eight, my heart did not leap into my mouth. Instead, I saw a vaguely familiar face: she reminded me that she was a friend of my ex-neighbours, the gay couple I bonded with over a shared love of Lagavulin and Samuel Beckett, and we’d met outside one evening and had an informal doorstep party. This was about a month into the first lockdown, and I’m rather impressed she remembered me.
Right now, though, I am going to have to hold off on making new friends. This is the problem with deafness: it shuts you off. All I can hear with clarity is a persistent hiss, like that of a gas ring that has been left on, unlit – a noise that has always been associated with impending disaster. When I put my eardrops in, a fizzing noise is added, and I hope that means that something unpleasant is being dissolved, but it isn’t making my hearing any better. Yesterday, I lost my only pair of glasses for an increasingly panicky half an hour. I thought: the larvae of the box moth caterpillar are destroying the hedge of my sanity.
This article appears in the 17 Nov 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Democracy's last stand