On the train back from Edinburgh, I have now passed Peterborough and I have no idea where I am going to be spending the night. At Durham I’d had the bright idea of calling my brother but he’s away for the weekend, or has someone else staying, or something. So I now have three options: East Finchley at my mother’s, a sofa at my friend Zoe’s, or a flophouse in King’s Cross that calls itself a hotel.
East Finchley I rule out, of course. My mother always asks me if I am an alcoholic every time I pour myself a drink. This is not exactly a new development but it is a technique she has been making increasing use of lately. If an alcoholic is someone who needs a drink in the presence of his mother then yes, I am an alcoholic. But I do not think I meet the strict medical definition of one.
As we pass through Stevenage I decide I will go to Zoe’s. I can smoke indoors there and I haven’t seen her for ages. But as we pull into King’s Cross she texts me to say that they have company that night, and I remember her boyfriend voted for Brexit. I am not in the mood for company or for nutjobs who voted for Brexit so on the platform I make an executive decision to stay at a flophouse.
The Grosvenor Hotel – not its real name, but close in tone and association to it – lies on the opposite side of the Euston Road to King’s Cross. There are others, on adjacent side streets, but this is the nearest, and my bag is heavy, and I am exhausted. Isn’t it funny how homelessness makes one so tired? (I am writing this up in the British Library and I am having the devil’s own job of staying awake, and I got nearly 11 hours sleep last night.) There is an Australian in front of me, who asks the desk porter the time. Nine o’clock, he says. The Australian turns to me.
“Nine o’clock,” he says, “and all’s well.”
“No it’s not,” I say.
It is my turn at the desk. A room costs – a lot. Not three figures, but not far off it. It is the last one, I am told. It is up three flights of stairs, in a part of the hotel not serviced by a lift. I try to negotiate the stairs, but my bag – a Slazenger cricket bag, as it happens – is too wide to fit in the staircase, unless I upend it, which means it will be impossible to carry one-handed (my other hand is busy with another bag). This is no good. I go back to the desk.
“Forget it,” I say. “I want my money back.”
I am told that the porter does not have the facilities to refund the money.
I stare at him wordlessly for a full minute.
“Hang on, there is another room,” he says, handing me another key. This time it is accessible by lift.
It is tiny. It is hard to conceive of a room any smaller into which a human being could fit. Two floors up, and I can hear the conversation of the drug-dealers on the street; the red neon of the arcade over the road gives the room an infernal glow. I would say I am paying about four pounds per square foot for the experience. But there is a shower, and a tooth-mug, which I will fill with wine once I have nipped out to get a bottle.
I had a landlady and friend once, the divine Jenny B, who once said that I could find a way of making myself comfortable even if I had been chained to a radiator in Beirut (this was back in the days when chaining visitors to radiators was, in Beirut, all the rage). This room, I think to myself, represents a new challenge, a New Low.
But – and here’s the odd thing – I come to love it. King’s Cross may be trying hard to gussy itself up, but it is irredeemably, incorrigibly sleazy. The dealers salute me as I leave, the tarts and junkies stride with purpose through the night, and the whole scene looks as though it has been filmed by Scorsese in the 1970s. It is more decaying New York than London, and I love decaying New York. After weeks in the middle of nowhere I thought I would hate this, but the traffic soothes me to sleep. Life in these parts is seamy and unjudgmental. This is a place where humanity can take its shoes off and fart to its heart’s content.
A couple of nights later, after an interlude in Shepherd’s Bush, I find myself back in East Finchley after an extremely trying day. It is about half past five in the afternoon. I open a bottle of wine and pour myself a glass.
“Are you an alcoholic?” asks my mother.
This article appears in the 25 Oct 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Poor Britannia