If you want to meet beautiful women, carry a theatre programme around on the Tube

Wandering around London with a theatre programme marks you out as the kind of guy it’s OK to approach and start talking to.

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I seem to have become a theatre critic for another publication. Don’t ask me how it happened, I’m not entirely sure myself. It’s certainly not a well-thought-out plan on my part. Those who know me well will find the very idea hilarious, because I am – how to put this? – not known as a regular theatregoer. Indeed, I tend to hold the art form in mild scorn, and when Uncle Monty in Withnail and I says “thesbian” and “I shall never play the Dane” I hoot with laughter.

Besides, theatre is a relatively recent cultural phenomenon, which only arose in the early 1970s when everyone’s tellies stopped working because of the power cuts. (The piano and the candle were invented at the same time.)

The funny thing is I seem to enjoy it. It’s one thing to be dragged kicking and screaming to a show: I remember once being taken to a stage adaptation of Festen, the Dogme 95 film, emerging several hours later with the knowledge – which I had kind of worked out before – that sexually abusing your children is a Bad Thing. It’s another thing to be paid to go, and then encouraged to write up the experience. If I have a terrible time, I can vent; if the play is enjoyable, then I can say so, and everyone’s happy.

However, this means I have to get out of bed once a month and go to London. I gather that theatre takes place elsewhere – Faversham, I was recently informed, has a thriving culture of amateur dramatics – but my editors have, so far, confined me to the capital. It’s funny going back there. Taking public transport seems unusual. A couple of weeks ago, I was sitting at a Tube station at about half past nine when an extremely attractive young woman came up to me and smiled. She pointed at the theatre programme I was carrying and asked if I’d enjoyed the play. She had a French accent. I said yes, there were only two actors in it, but they were very good. She mentioned that she’d seen a two-hander at the National a few weeks ago. What was the name again? I told her, as I’d seen it myself.

“What did you think?”

At this point I coughed in an embarrassed way and said that I was a critic, and had reviewed the play unfavourably. “I’ll send you the review if you want,” I said, and we exchanged email addresses and phone numbers.

All this in five minutes sitting on the platform, and one stop on the Tube before I had to change for Victoria. Reader, this kind of thing just doesn’t happen. And it certainly doesn’t happen to me. But it just did. And not only that, the email address wasn’t a fake one either, and we have corresponded since. (She was at pains to explain she was in a relationship, but as there is absolutely no way someone looking like that is not in a relationship, I hadn’t assumed otherwise.) Later, I thought to myself: it was the programme, wasn’t it? Clearly, wandering around Tube stations with a theatre programme marks you out as the kind of guy it’s OK to approach and start talking to.

Anyway, I’m back in Brighton again, which means my bird fancier’s lung has cleared up, thank heavens. There are hills again, and the soles of my boots need replacing. I went to Timpson’s and there was a very chatty woman there, about my age, maybe a bit older, dressed in double denim. She was talking about her dog.

“I called him Enoch,” she said, and for a wavering second I, in my innocence, so pure is my heart, thought she was referring to the biblical character (the son of Cain) or “Enoch Arden”, the poem by Tennyson. “After Enoch Powell,” she continued, and a small world crashed. “He was terrific, by the way. Anyway, I got tired of having to explain about Enoch Powell, so I thought sod it, I’ll call him Louis instead.”

As she turned to leave I noticed she was wearing a huge badge – about four inches in diameter – with the legend, in large capitals, “I’m voting Nigel Farage”, superimposed on a picture of the frog-faced rabble-rouser himself.

I tapped her on the shoulder and said, “Madam, I’m afraid you can’t, as your badge says, ‘vote Nigel Farage’ in this election, because the cowardly twat isn’t standing.”

Actually, I didn’t say that. I said nothing at all, but reflected that of all the towns where you were likely to bump into someone who names their dog after Enoch Powell and has a badge like that, Brighton would not be high on one’s list. I suppose it takes a certain amount of bravery. Or lunacy.

It also made me wonder how many Brexit Party voters are also fans of Enoch Powell, and what we can infer from this. And I thought of my new French friend, and wondered what will happen to her if and when we leave the EU; and how happy the Brexiteers would be to see her go. 

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 appears in the 13 November 2019 issue of the New Statesman, How Britain was sold