What a funny old summer this is turning out to be. First, there’s the weather. As Jane Austen wrote in Emma: “The weather added what it could of gloom. A cold stormy rain set in, and nothing of July appeared but in the trees and shrubs, which the wind was despoiling, and the length of the day, which only made such cruel sights the longer visible.” However, there have been some remarkable thunderstorms, the likes of which one would normally expect in Kansas, or in a Hammer horror film.
Then Iceland knock England out of Euro 2016, the Duke closes down and I see that a wag stripping the pub has drawn an obscene graffito on the bar. I wonder what kind of mind is amused by drawing a spurting cock on a piece of early-Victorian furnishing. Perhaps the same kind of mind that delights in shouting at foreigners in public, which we have been seeing rather more of lately than we are accustomed to. Then again, when society collapses, it will be the moments of quiet dignity and tolerance that become the exception. And society does look in a bit of a fragile state, does it not?
As I write, one of the candidates being mooted for the Tory leadership – and therefore potentially our next prime minister – is someone who has links to a group that thinks homosexuality is a curable disease. The Labour Party has lost official count of how many members of its front bench have resigned, and a friend of mine is considering rejoining just so he can do his bit to squeeze out Jeremy Corbyn. He let his membership lapse, after a white, male heterosexual at a party meeting accused him of racism and homophobia. My friend – this may not come as a shock to people who know the Labour Party intimately – is gay and his name is Ravi.
I pop along to the Uxbridge Arms for my friend Toby’s birthday. He is a month and ten days younger than I, so, for 41 days a year, he gets to tease me about my age. I turn up to his revels in order to serve time on this unseemly behaviour and buy him a pint. This is a routine that has been unchanged for at least two decades: he holds court in his seat, known as “the Cat Basket”, as he does on the other 364 days of the year, unless he is poorly or visiting his mother in Cornwall.
I have written about the Ux before. This is the one with the pub quiz that exists mainly to infuriate the regulars and fleece those unwise enough to think that they have the edge on us. Frankly, if you’re under 45, you haven’t got a hope. The frame of reference is fixed squarely on the life experiences and knowledge of the middle-aged. It’s not exactly my local, because it’s three stops away on the Tube, but it’s the place I go to, should I want company. The Barley Mow in Dorset Street may be delightful, unchanged since the 1790s, but it’s not where one goes to drink alone unless one wants a contemplative pint in the afternoon, and not even I do that very often. The Ux, though, is guaranteed to contain, at any given time, someone I know well enough to chat to.
It is also the demesne of Linda, the landlady. To borrow P G Wodehouse’s phrase, she is someone on whom it is unsafe to try any oompus-boompus. She rules with a hand that is firm but fair, in the classic mode of her occupation, an archetype that probably dates back to before the Norman conquest. But now it turns out that she is going. Christ in heaven, is nowhere safe?
The owner of the lease has decided to sell. How long she remains in situ depends on the whim of the market. With Ragnarök around the corner, she might get to hang on for a little longer. It’s an ill wind that blows nobody any good, eh?
So the celebrations at the Ux are somewhat muted. N–– is back from a business trip to Düsseldorf, railing against the Germans (I will not repeat her language), and I look around anxiously to see if there are any Germans in the bar. Another woman is asked how her children are. “Alive,” she replies sardonically. I suppose this is all part of the usual cantankerous banter at the Ux, or at any one of 10,000 pubs up and down the country. But still.
“Ah, love,” I feel like saying, “let us be true/To one another!” For some reason, I have been hitting the poetry hard since everything started to go wrong. It has been bubbling up unchecked a lot lately, what with us being as on a darkling plain, swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight, where ignorant armies clash by night, and all that.
This article appears in the 06 Jul 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit bunglers