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17 March 2021

Howard Jacobson’s Diary: Clashes with Joe the Jogger, forgiving William Cobbett, and a slip into humiliation

This is my fault. I tutted at him six months ago for taking up the entire ­footpath and a jogger never forgets. 

By Howard Jacobson

I am in Regent’s Park in London, for my constitutional walk. I am double-masked and keeping to the water’s edge in the hope that runners will register the acuteness of my anxiety and give me a wide berth. But Joe the Jogger is coming straight for me. His face is wet with perspiration, his mouth is open and he is pumping his arms, as though to bring up every vestige of coronavirus stored in his lungs. I can tell he is not going to alter his course. If I don’t want him to transfer the contents of his mouth into mine, I have to jump on to the grass or, to be really safe, into the ­boating lake.

This is my fault. I tutted at him six months ago for taking up the entire ­footpath and a jogger never forgets. He is wearing those cycling pants that make you look as though you have terminal fungal growth in the crotch and a T-shirt that says “Microaggression is an oxymoron”. “You should know, you poxy moron,” I mutter as I leap aside, scattering the geese. I fear he’s heard me.

Religion, the box-set

I finally come to the end of Deliver Us, an eight-part Danish television series that could only have been co-written by Agatha Christie and Henrik Ibsen, though I see neither name on the credits.

Will the four people variously threatened and demeaned by a small-town sociopath succeed in killing him without revealing their guilty pasts or losing their minds? Is the Pope a Catholic? The question is pertinent since it takes religion to make a good box-set. No Catholicism and there’d have been no Sopranos. No Lutheranism, no The Legacy. No Judaism, no Shtisel. Atheists are entitled to their views, but I can’t imagine what they find to watch on television.

Stay in for Shtisel

Regarding Shtisel, which is shot in Jerusalem, written by Guy de Maupassant and Anton Chekhov, directed by Sholem Aleichem and declared by me to be the best television series ever, I am pleased to report that a new season is imminent. If all else perished and only Shtisel remained, life would still be worth living. Whatever Boris Johnson decrees, stay locked down and watch it.

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Cheek by jowl by Soho

Though I am as dedicated to merriment as anyone else who can’t remember how old he is, I can’t say I am excited by the prospect of Soho in central London opening up again for a season of al fresco eating, drinking and laughing at nothing. The pattern will be pretty much the same as last year: morning to night riot at tables that are so close together you are not sure whose food you’re eating or whether the person’s hand you’re holding is your partner’s or someone else’s or even a hand at all. But hey, this is Soho.

As a resident of Soho, I did my best to join in the fun last year, measuring the distance between me and my fellow diners with a retractable metal rule and sanitising everything within six metres. All right, yes, I should have waited for people to finish their meals before spraying their tables. Just a question, but is there no middle course between renunciation and licence? As I recall, Martin Luther had an answer to that. And it didn’t do the Danes any harm, did it? “From all this fun, O Lord, deliver us.”

[see also: Simon Heffer’s Diary: My full pint campaign, the real Chips Channon and a cure for dog theft]

Cobbett’s stinkers

I am sorry to read that plans to celebrate the 200th anniversary of William Cobbett’s ­Rural Rides have been shelved because his “vile attitudes” to Jews make his work ­undeserving of our admiration. I must ­confess to being with Hamlet when it comes to meting out deserts: “God’s bodykins man… Use every man after his desert and who should ’scape whipping?”

I enjoyed a lot of Cobbett when I was a student, especially his Advice to Young Men, and (Incidentally) to Young Women, in the Middle and Higher Ranks of Life which I found funny, preposterous and instructive. I got up two hours earlier every morning on his advice and, had there been anywhere to stable it in Prestwich, I might well have bought a horse on which to retrace the more notable of his rides.

Yes, Cobbett numbers among his admirers a lot of “stinkers” – to borrow Roald Dahl’s word for Hitler – but the tide is not to blame for what’s brought in on it. We can’t wholly exonerate Cobbett of responsibility for the vile attitudes to Jews he shared with most of his contemporaries – the greater the writer, the fewer of his age’s vices he will share – but the expression of ugly sentiments is a small price to pay for an otherwise diverting work of literature. God’s bodykins, man…

Mud and egg on my face

A kindly young fella offers to help me up ­after I fall flat on my back in the park. I am carrying a takeaway coffee and a pain aux raisins and rushing to grab a well-distanced bench on which to enjoy them. It’s not a bad fall, just a full-length Woody Woodpecker slide on a field of mud.

If anything, I fear more for the coffee and the pain aux raisins than I do for myself. “I’m OK, thank you,” I tell my rescuer, whereupon he undoes all his kindness and says: “I know, the humiliation is always the worst part, isn’t it?” One suggestion: the next time you help a person out of a humiliating situation, don’t use the word humiliating.

Hostilities resumed

Caked in mud though it is, I eat what I can of the pain aux raisins and, though caked in mud myself, continue with my walk. When I get back on to the footpath I see Joe the Jogger limbering up, shadowboxing a tree and dodging punches, though it seems unlikely the tree would be punching him back.

All this stops the minute he sees me. I hear him take in air. The arms begin to pump. Knowing what happens next, the geese exchange looks and head for the lake. 

[see also: Stuart Maconie’s Diary: Grief in lockdown, the rise of canal-side courting and why I’m still quizzing]

This article appears in the 17 Mar 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The system cannot hold