The BBC says it’s 3°C out there, but that’s a filthy lie. It’s much colder than that up here, at the foot of the Cairngorms. Were it that balmy then everything wouldn’t be covered with ice. Last night I made the mistake of going out for a goodnight smoke in leather-soled shoes rather than my knock-off Timberlands and went down like an early slapstick actor on a banana skin. At one point I was, I swear, upside down.
Luckily there was no one to see me, not at that time of night. People go to bed and then rise early here, still a knack I have yet to master. But who can go to bed early when the nights are so glorious? One of the reasons I went arse over tit last night was because I was gawping at the stars instead of looking at the ground. There is no light pollution here and once the eyes adjust the cosmos becomes gloriously manifest. A carpet of light stretched across the sky. I stagger about the place, going “wow”. Other senses besides sight also become enhanced: one hears, in the distance, the lowing of the cattle, the hooting of owls, and the gentle, rhythmic sobbing of vegetarians.
My children, in correspondence with me, have noted that I have taken surprisingly well to rural life. How could I not? There’s a pick-up truck, and they let me drive it into town. Try to imagine, gentle reader, the thrill of being an effete metropolitan softy given the keys to a machine like that. Hot dang! I murmur to myself. All I need is a hound dawg, a barrel of home-distilled whuskey and some loco weed and my inner redneck is finally allowed free expression.
Maybe less of the “redneck”. Scotland is, in many ways, a more civilised place than its southerly neighbour, whose name I forget. I went into the local town the other day to pick up a prescription. As I was leaving I remembered that there had been something incomplete about the transaction.
“Oh, I pay for my prescriptions,” I said.
I might as well have said: “I have three legs.” There were looks of bafflement all around, and then the penny dropped. At which point files were fetched, tills consulted, heads scratched, and they still couldn’t work out how much I was meant to be paying for a prescription faxed over from an English surgery. (England! That’s the name of that bigoted little country to the south.) In the end I just left a tenner with them and told them to put the change in the charity tin.
It is a far cry from London. My last evening there was spent in the Seven Stars, the wonderful, venerably old pub in Carey Street, next to the Law Courts. It was a weekday evening, and by about ten o’clock I had the place to myself, apart from the bar staff and the pub cat, Mr Peabody (named after the estate where he was found). I was warming myself by the fire and wondering how I was going to tear myself away from this idyll when in walked a very noisy young group of – it soon became obvious – lawyers. They had been on a pub crawl which involved drinking pints very quickly in each one. They were clearly reaching the end of the evening. Oh well, I thought, they’ll just be staying for the one, then they’ll sod off.
They did not sod off. They sodding well stayed there. And my sweet Lord, I did not know until then how objectionable a group of young lawyers could be. Well, I suppose they weren’t all bad. One of them even tried to make conversation. He had noticed the copy of Private Eye I was reading.
“Private Eye,” he said. “Ha ha, it’s very funny, isn’t it?” It was as if he had made a great discovery and was anxious to pass his wisdom on to me. He burbled on for a bit. I tuned out. I was mainly worried that someone was going to step on the cat.
“Actually,” I said, just to put a natural stop to the conversation, “Ian Hislop’s a mate.” (He’s not exactly a mate, but every so often we run into each other and he says, “Hello, Nick,” and I say “Hello, Ian,” and we swap a few words, and this pleases me mightily.)
I flush to recall this line. At which point does the solitary middle-aged man in the pub start looking like the solitary middle-aged fantasist? I would imagine at the point where the man claims friendship with the country’s most famous magazine editor, that’s when.
As the lawyers downed their pints, and ordered replacements, and talked with every atom of arrogance and privilege at their disposal, I edged my way out, and thought, happily, of the seven billion stars, as opposed to the mere seven, I’d be seeing the next evening.
This article appears in the 08 Dec 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special