The big news round here a while back was the opening of a Sainsbury’s Local on Baker Street just two doors down from the Tesco Express. The challenge is bold, and welcome. We lefties do not really like Tesco. Sainsbury’s is also handy when one is too tired, or broke, or it is too late, to make the mile-and-a-half round trip to Waitrose.
I am walking pensively to the shop when, as I pass the Sherlock Holmes hotel (let us pass over that name in silence for the moment), a man sitting at a table outside accosts me.
“Excuse me,” he says, “are you Nicholas Lezard?”
The important thing in these situations is not to panic. So I reply in the affirmative and ask to whom do I have the honour, etc. (Actually, the attentive and experienced judge of human character and mood would have detected quite a lot of anxiety behind the urbane reply, but if the mask slipped at any point at least it didn’t fall to the floor with a crash.)
I get stopped in public places like this about once every year or so. To my immense relief, the encounters are invariably pleasant, for the people who recognise me seem to wish me well, and if I seem diffident in my replies, it is because I am lowering my head so that they do not see me blush, even when they say: “Are you that bloke who writes for the Spectator?” It’s an easy mistake to make.
Anyway, back to my interlocutor at the Sherlock Holmes hotel. It turns out he is a Swedish documentary film-maker, in town to cover the elections, and presumably bracing himself with a coffee before a trip to Thanet to see how Ukip is doing. He is at the Sherlock not because he is some idiot tourist who believes that it is so named because the great detective did indeed live there, or lives there still, but because he used to live in York Street, just opposite, and (I presume) wanted to revisit an old haunt of which he had pleasant memories. Incidentally, for all I know, the hotel is fabulous, but I hope you can see why the name might give us pause for thought.
The fact remains that here is someone who is familiar enough with my columns to be able to recognise me, in motion, in the street. Which means he will probably have read what I have had to say about his nation in the past. But he interrupts my train of thought by saying, “Didn’t you have a girlfriend who went off to live in Sweden?”
“Yes, that’s right,” I say, remembering the mean things I have said about Sweden, which I look upon as the rival boyfriend who is very sensible and tidies up after himself but isn’t much fun and can’t cook. I have been told by the woman concerned to rein it in about Sweden.
“Sorry about all the mean things I have said about Sweden,” I say.
“No! Don’t be!” he replies. “It’s one of the things I love about your column.”
I continue on to Sainsbury’s. Their coarse liver pâté is on offer at £1 a pack, and a jar of pickled gherkins is the same. There is also a loaf of bread, a photo finish away from its sell-by date, on offer for 19p. This is surely my lucky day. I am asked at the till if I have a Nectar card and when I ask if it’s worth it, the young lady looks around conspiratorially and then says, “No, not really.”
Meanwhile, I brood on my earlier encounter. For a Swede to hail someone in the street like that is unlikely in the extreme. For one to claim to revel in another’s disparagement of his country is, if anything, still less likely, for the Swedes are very proud of what they have achieved. Is he, I wonder, really Swedish? Could he even be… Norwegian? (The Norwegians drive the Swedes up the wall, who consider them uncouth yokels who have pinched all of Sweden’s coastline and oilfields.)
As I walk back past the hotel with my shopping, I see that the man is still there. “Sorry to bother you,” I say, “but did you mean that about it being OK for me to tease the Swedes?”
“Absolutely,” he says. “Do it as often as you like!”
Later in the Hovel, as I spread my pâté on my toast, offsetting its unctuousness with a couple of gherkins, I muse on how often I could tease Sweden; and also how much I want to see the woman who went to live there again. Sweden is the kind of country where the shops actually sell something called “household cheese”, yet even that doesn’t put me off. If you shave it with one of those little cheese slicers that look like a tiny shovel, it can even be rather tasty.