A party on a towpath, an encounter with a Brexiteer and why my friend the Moose, a writer, hates writing

It’s been an interesting week. 

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A busy week, spent travelling up and down from Brighton to London, to Cambridge, and back down to Brighton. Thanks to Thameslink, there is now a train that goes direct from Brighton to Cambridge. It’s not terribly fast and on the day I used it was more of a zoo on wheels than a train, but I was ill and exhausted and was grateful to have somewhere to sit down for two and a half hours without having to get up. Although the woman who kept talking all the way from Royston to Saint Pancras was beginning to drive me a bit crazy.

“It’s the safest form of transportation,” she was saying to her companions. “The train is. It’s the safest. It’s safer than aeroplanes. It’s safer than cars. It’s safer than bicycles. It’s safer than motorcycles. It’s safer than…” and she went on to list every single mode of transportation that had ever been invented.

“It’s safer than cruise liners. It’s safer than yachts. It’s safer than coaches. It’s safer than…” Well, a train’s not that safe if someone throws you off it, is it? But I was so tired that I found it all rather soothing in the end, and I dropped off
to sleep.

First up had been a book launch given by my great friend, the Moose. It is not friendship alone that compels me to give his book Greta and the Labrador a plug; it’s the quality of the work itself, ostensibly about a dog devoted to Greta Garbo, but actually a lot deeper than that. The party itself was one of the best I have been to, largely because of the people there – and the venue, on the towpath at King’s Cross, next to a barge that serves as a second-hand bookshop.

Well, not all the people. A woman came up to me and introduced herself. The name was vaguely familiar; we were connected on a social medium. She then went on to tell me that she was a member of the Conservative Party, was going to vote for Boris Johnson as leader, and had voted for the Brexit Party in the European elections. All this told with a certain defiant pride. I held my peace even though I hadn’t asked for any of this information, apart from the question of whether she’d voted for Farage and his gang of runts, as I suspected she had (I know a few Tories, and they all voted for Farage’s gang of runts). Her husband, she said, had had a job to do with tax in Brussels, and the way she said it seemed to indicate that this meant her opinion was considerably better-informed than mine. So I asked her my second question, the one I often use on Brexiteers: “Can you give me one – just one – European law or regulation that has irked or inconvenienced you in any way at all? Just one.”

Normally this makes them go away, because they never have an answer. This woman’s reply had an interesting twist to it, though.

“I know this sounds bad,” she said, “but I’ll have to ask my husband and get back to you on that.”

Yes, madam, that does sound bad.

The trip to Cambridge was somewhat more melancholy: a memorial service for the late Dr Eric Griffiths, who had done his best to teach me about English literature when I was there. A stroke had robbed him of his (considerable: I once saw him make the late Norman Stone burst into tears) powers of speech, and he spent the next ten years trying to die; last year, he succeeded. He was not universally loved, and the Moose, who knew him well and lives in a nearby village, didn’t want to go to the service. But he did want to see those of his friends who were going, so a few of us slipped away from the revels and joined him at the Eagle for a bottle or two.

The Moose was in fine form, grateful for the conversation: his parents, particularly his mother, are no longer compos mentis, and the staff that care for them, while all absolutely wonderful and dedicated, did not have English as a first or in some cases even a second language.

Still, he said, everything was better than writing. I started quoting Oliver Goldsmith’s line at him (“no turn-spit-dog gets up into his wheel with more reluctance than I sit down to write”), and he brushed it aside with a “yes, yes”, as if it was inadequate to express his disdain for his own profession.

“Let me put it like this,” he said. “I had to wipe my father’s arse the other day, and even that was better than writing.”

And yet this is what we have to do to put bread on the table and wine in our bellies – “to keep body and soul apart”, I once said, thinking I was being witty and original; but I discovered the other day that the phrase is Dorothy Parker’s.

The Moose, however, is a more original thinker than I am, and once said, while in the grip of a bad hangover, “but I know that my liver redeemeth”. Now that’s pretty good, you have to admit.

Hang in there, Moose. 

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 24 July 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Shame of the nation