Briefly back in London for a day or two, I’m reminded of why I left

I am getting tired of this: going back to old haunts and finding their best and quirkiest parts gone.

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And now to Brighton. I stayed in London for a few days; rather fewer days than I thought I was going to, but the tale behind that, like that of the giant rat of Sumatra in the Sherlock Holmes stories, is one for which the world is not yet prepared. (It’s a good one, though.) The change of plan obliged me to beg for shelter at  L—’s place, and because she is the kindest of souls, she obliged. L— is the friend I mentioned the other week who had broken her arm, so I thought I might help by doing some shopping and some washing up, even though washing up is something I find hard to do even with a full complement of working arms.

The only problem with L—’s place, it turned out, was that it was in Shepherd’s Bush, an area I normally have no problem with – am actually am fond of – especially when my children are staying at their mother’s. But they are far-flung now (although the youngest is not too far from Brighton, which is great news), and the peril that lurks in the bosom of the Bush was one that I had forgotten. That peril goes by the name of Stupid P—.

His name was originally “Nicholas”, which, as you might imagine, I consider to be a perfectly good name. It is useful for, among other things, gauging people’s characters: if they start calling you “Nick” without invitation, you can draw some pleasingly suspect conclusions about them.

P— is a someone I am very keen not to bump into, in case I say something regrettably wounding. Actually, no, that’s not it. I hate bumping into him because what happens is that I am never nearly rude enough. He’s a white public-schoolboy with dreadlocks who rails against the welfare state but has been happy to live, for many years, off benefits himself; who didn’t, according to legend, even pay for his own house; who goes on Countryside Alliance marches despite living in an extremely urban area.

During one holiday in Norfolk (we know each other through the National Childbirth Trust, and his children, who are actually great, are the same ages as mine) we went for a coastal walk and, contemplating the derelict pillboxes facing out into the North Sea, he told me that he wished the Second World War had turned out very differently indeed. And I don’t think he was concerned about the plight of Poland.

But the worst thing about Stupid P— is that he thinks he’s a writer. He gave up a perfectly good job to concentrate on his art, and, 20-odd years on, and despite having had a close relative very well placed in the industry, his art remains unpublished. Its working title alone, which I will spare you, is enough to indicate that it will remain so. Believe me, there are few things you can do that upset a writer more than going around saying you’re a writer, without ever having had a word published, anywhere.

Of course, I ran into him, on the Uxbridge Road. He was unchanged; even, I found, down to the detail of remaining unpublished. So I escape by going to the Goldhawk Road, to AR Roberts, the watchmakers and repairers I have been going to to get my watch serviced and its straps replaced since I first moved into the area, some 25 years ago.

This shop has been around for a century. Its frontage remains unchanged, but its personnel don’t. When I first went there it was run by an old Jewish man in a waistcoat and yarmulke; some years ago he was replaced by a young Muslim man. The clothes were different but the eyeglass, and the delight in clockwork, were the same.

I loved the continuity of the Semitic religions as much as the continuity of trade. I only need a new strap but I try to put as much trade their way as I can.

And it’s shut; closed down, for good. I am getting tired of this: going back to old haunts and finding their best and quirkiest parts gone. Once again, I think: that’s it, I’m done with London.

Well, here I am in Brighton now – in which one expects a certain kind of flux, while the place still remains the same. I was last here a year and a half ago and there are more white men with dreadlocks than you can shake a stick at (actually, this is an exaggeration. I think the whole white-with-dreadlocks thing is now seen as cultural appropriation, and perhaps rightly so. But there are certainly lots of white people here who once would have had dreadlocks).

But this is a risk one accepts when one stays in Brighton for any length of time, and good luck to it. And for one thing, I don’t think there are many of them who think that the Nazis got a raw deal at the end of the war. 

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 17 May 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Return of the Irish question