And so, last Sunday, to Carey Street – the old term for bankruptcy, on the grounds that this street was where London’s bankruptcy court was situated. Which, as it happens, is a looming problem. But this time I am, literally, going to Carey Street, for a surprise party has been arranged for Charles Boyle, publisher, feuilletoniste and sometime poet, and I’m known as a champion of his work, and that of his publishing house. (Normally I maintain a cordon sanitaire in this column around my work for the Guardian as a book reviewer, but now its breach is unavoidable.)
He has announced his retirement from publishing, and some friends have arranged an event at the Seven Stars in Carey Street about which He Knows Nothing. An almost thrilling level of deception has gone into the planning of this event. And it is a sunny day and I have heard that the landlady of the Seven Stars, Roxy Beaujolais, aka Foxy Roxy, has heard of me and is particularly looking forward to meeting me. Me! I do some research and find out that Roxy is a London institution, and if there is one thing I admire, it is a landlady who is a London institution, and since Linda left the Uxbridge Arms (oh Lord, I could tell you what has happened to the Uxbridge Arms; but I will spare you that, for the time being) I have been worried about this superior class of humanity.
Naturally, when I get on the Tube for Holborn I find that the only free seat in the carriage is next to Charles Boyle. I do not realise it is Charles Boyle until he turns to me and says, “Hello, Nick. What a funny coincidence.” (Unspoken but implied: “On a Sunday, on a Central Line train, at about half past 11. Come on, what’s the game?”) I struggle to smooth over the man-caught-by-his-wife-in-bed-with-another-woman look that must be plastered all over my face, and launch into a long, well-polished anecdote about the time my friend Toby and I were joined on the Tube, out of the freaking blue, by his then girlfriend when we were both absolutely out of our minds on LSD. As I say, it is a well-polished anecdote, for it is true, with a happy ending, and as it rolls smoothly off the tongue I formulate a plan, say my farewells at Tottenham Court Road (for non-Londoners: the stop next to Holborn), and wait to get on the next Tube but one. Having inhaled three of Mick Herron’s spy novels in about as many days a month or so ago, I know how to shake off a tail.
I walk across Lincoln’s Inn Fields to get to the pub. It’s a strange, magical area of town, even though during the week it is heaving with lawyers. It’s a continuation, in both architecture and spirit, of the trajectory from public school to Oxbridge – but just as the lights of Piccadilly Circus are beautiful if you are illiterate, the buildings around here look wonderful if you do not know what they are for.
And the pub . . . the pub itself is heaven. Pure, unadulterated heaven. It dates from Tudor times, apparently; its ceiling low and undulating, dried hops in the windows, a slightly punky barmaid doing the serving. And all of Charles’s friends are gathering and I tell them my story of sitting next to him by mistake, which goes down very well, and even though I am surrounded by people I have never met before, which can throw me into a panic, for some reason these are the kind of people who seem to be putting me at my ease, which is especially remarkable when I consider that all of them are writers, and a large proportion of them are poets.
A menu has been printed specially: “Ah! C’est dimanche, me dis-je. À l’instant toute disposition intérieure au bonheur s’envole,” it says on the front, a quote from Stendhal (Boyle loves Stendhal): “Ah! It’s Sunday, I say to myself. Instantly, any internal disposition to happiness vanishes.” “No pudding”, it says in the menu list itself; and that the food has been prepared by hand and not, as Roxy’s term for the microwave has it, in “the tucker f***er” (she is Australian).
As for Roxy: well, let us say I’ve found my new chatelaine. Interestingly, it turns out that she has heard of me not from this disreputable column, but from the literary one in the Guardian, which she says has informed many a choice of hers over the years. So it saddens me to tell her that, after a quarter-century of writing for them, the paper is not going to be renewing my contract come the end of July. Perhaps drink has loosened my tongue; but not enough to tell Charles, because I do not want to spoil his day.
This article appears in the 31 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Labour reckoning