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20 October 2015

A word of advice: don’t ever think you’re safe just because you’re not from St Albans

Ask not for whom the sinkhole gapes: it gapes for thee.

By Nicholas Lezard

The sinkhole that opened up in St Albans the other day looked rather impressive, didn’t it? These chasms are fascinating, and suggest something biblical and apocalyptic, or the opening stages of a particularly scary episode of Doctor Who; portals into hell that open, like the grave, without warning. One can goggle at images of them with an almost pleasurable frisson if they are in Florida or Beijing, but St Albans is a little close to home.

I am a little worried that there may be a sinkhole in the making near the Hovel. There’s a patch of road, about 15 inches in diameter, that would appear to be cursed. It’s on the main northbound traffic artery and takes quite a pounding, but then the rest of the road takes just as much of one and you don’t see it complaining.

I walk past this little patch pretty much every day. How to describe its life cycle? Like the chicken and the egg, one does not know exactly where to start. Let us, for the sake of it, start with a freshly laid ribbon of tarmac that has been spread lengthwise, generously, along the road. Nice bit of tarmac, you may say to yourself. Westminster City Council may suffer from a certain toxic legacy from its past under Dame Shirley Porter (not that its overwhelmingly Tory residents give a stuff about that); but you can’t say that it doesn’t know how to lay down a decent bit of road surface.

However, a few days later, you will notice that the spot the tarmac covered up has become a little depression; a pipkin, perhaps, for foxes to drink out of. And a few days after that, sooner if the weather has been wet, again there is a crumbling cavity, the once-pristine road surface now looking like something that has taken a hit from a tiny shell. One fears to put one’s weight on it.

And a few days after that, you dimly register roadworks at some ungodly hour of the morning. There is that fresh tarmac again. “Nothing’s going to get past that baby,” you can imagine the foreman saying to himself, as he waves the steamroller back to its garage; but oh! The vanity of human hopes.

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It is like those wartime bridges, used in films such as Kelly’s Heroes and Apocalypse Now to symbolise the folly of war, which are blown up during the day only to be rebuilt at night. Or vice versa. If insanity is defined as doing the same thing again and again in the expectation of a different result, then Westminster City Council is – or are – insane; but then who are we to wag the finger, who perform rituals in some kind of cycle but to no ultimate purpose?

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I have been going through a sine wave of health and illness which has accelerated far beyond the normal periodicity of a month or two’s robust good health followed by a couple of days of feeling peaky. I now seem to have one day on, one day off. I seem to recover enough to resume the nightly libations, but the next day one finds one has overdone it while one’s health has recovered only precariously; one has, basically, run a lorry over a stretch of tarmac that is as yet too tender to handle it.

A couple of days ago I got a call from my cousin Tim, who said he was going to be in town the next day; shall we meet up for a drink? Yes, let’s, I said – but check first, I’m feeling lousy today and I might not be able to play tomorrow. (Tim – who has been head of the NUJ in his time – is as sound a chap as you could hope to meet, for not only are his politics commendable, but he is even more nuts about cricket than I am and will not spurn the brimming glass pressed into his hand.)

So he rang at about five as I was returning home from Waitrose, wondering if I was going to die, and I said: do come over but I won’t be able to play for too long.

We eventually managed to close things down at about midnight, and had he not had a hotel to get to in King’s Cross he might well have stayed for longer, and I’d have been happy about that if everything else had been well; but, as you can imagine, the next day – that is today, as I type these words – has been pretty much a write-off, and only the drumming of my editor’s fingers, a sound that can carry over remarkably long distances, has managed to rouse me into action.

Meanwhile, I dare not even contemplate the state of the hole a few yards from my door. In my imagination it has grown monstrously overnight, and will soon yawn wide to swallow up everything. Ask not for whom the sinkhole gapes: it gapes for thee.

This article appears in the 14 Oct 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Corbyn supremacy