I drank Bombay gin and Fever-Tree tonic on the half-empty easyJet flight to Gatwick. I was even offered ice cubes. I was dressed like a peon, so as soon as I arrived in London I went into the nearest Gap superstore and bought jeans, a shirt and a jumper in the sale and threw away the clobber I was wearing. The only items in the sale were either small or extra small so I looked a bit like a frogman, but felt much happier. I had another large one in a pub with overflowing flower baskets, then checked into the hotel, where a decision had been made, said the receptionist, to upgrade me to a ‘club’ class room. The toilet paper in this room was embossed with a pattern of fleur-de-lis, which lent a touch of splendour and improved my overall experience in the bathroom palpably.
I had another large one from the minibar then headed off to the Spectator Life party, stopping on the way for one more at an atmospheric old pub nearby, whose claim to fame is that the Great Train Robbery was planned there. Popping outside for a smoke, I got chatting to an elderly journalist who told me she’d once written a book about how to give up smoking, an experience she found so stressful that she started smoking again. She wrote the last chapter chain-smoking. I’m addicted to How to Give Up Smoking books and had probably read it, I said.
Then I went to the Spectator Life party, where, in the grip of the grape, I shouted at, and was shouted at by, a succession of charming, well-dressed people who seemed also to like a drink. Time accelerates fantastically at Spectator parties. The phenomenon ought to be seriously investigated. After what seemed like ten minutes, but was in fact two hours, the party broke up and a crowd of us went to the pub and shouted at each other some more. Then we went to the Teapot Club in Soho, where, I was assured, we would be forced to drink from the spouts of china teapots. Disappointingly, the drinking vessels turned out to be conventional tall glasses.
The next day was Her Majesty the Queen’s 90th birthday.
In the hotel’s sunny breakfast room the music was a toe-tapping medley of Sixties rock-and-roll favourites. After breakfast, I went to the Spectator office in Old Queen Street to choose and record a batch of Low life columns for podcasts. They sat me down at the vast mahogany table in the elegant Edwardian boardroom to read back copies then went off in search of analgesics. I took down a heavy tome from the shelves and began to read my Low life columns from when I was hired in 2001.
It was a discomposing experience. It was as if I had died and gone to a sort of purgatory where one was obliged to read a catalogue of one’s sin. For a start, I’d forgotten how clinically depressed I was in those days. The tone was often bitter. I read my claims of suicidal thoughts and the tales of self-annihilation with mounting disquiet. Just off the Spectator boardroom is a kitchenette. In an otherwise empty fridge, fortunately, was a bottle of Pol Roger, two thirds full, with a teaspoon hanging inside the neck. I slopped some into a mug, took it back to the table and sipped while I read with fascinated horror the weekly reports by this zombie. I became so engrossed in my former misery that I forgot I was reading for a purpose.
The Spectator boardroom looks out across Birdcage Walk and St James’s Park. The stirring drum and brass of a military band filtered into the room, growing louder. Identifying the tune as ‘A Life on the Ocean Wave’, a favourite of mine, I got up and went to the French windows in time to see rows of scarlet coats and bearskin hats marching past the railings at the bottom of the garden. My poor son, I thought. He was 12 in 2001. What a boozed, drugged, self-pitying mess his father was! I returned to the fridge and poured myself another.
Remembering now that I must choose some columns to record after lunch, yet perturbed by them all, I quickly picked several more or less at random: one about the Prozac starting to work and showing my boy how to kill a crab and the crab refusing to die; one about Sharon buying drugs while I correct her social-work diploma essay. And after several more gins at lunch I sat down at the microphone and started to read, noting with alarm that I was slurring the letter ‘s’.