The Airbnb accommodation at Paddington, chez Mohammed, was a fourth-floor room measuring about nine feet by five. As well as having a single bed, this small space was extraordinarily well equipped, with a wardrobe, huge fridge, sink, draining board, ironing board, microwave oven, kettle, two electric hobs, a set of saucepans and enough cutlery and crockery for a select dinner party, and a television set. The room’s heat, which came from an unidentifiable source, was tropical. The mattress had a couple of broken springs and was horribly filthy, but the sheet covering it smelt freshly laundered and for just £22 a night I was well pleased. When I switched on the television to see whether it worked, it showed a photograph of me wearing a dinner jacket and bow tie sitting next to Baroness Trumpington at a Cigar Smoker of the Year awards dinner. Apparently, one of us had recently died and BBC news was showing the photograph to illustrate a jauntily affectionate obituary.
I had taken the room as a London base for a pre-Christmas week of parties, lunches, a reunion and The Spectator’s Christmas carol concert at St Bride’s, Fleet Street. You entered the street door by pressing six numbers on a keypad and then your room by pressing another four numbers on another keypad. So it was possible that I wouldn’t meet my host at any stage of my stay. Happily, however, we met on the stairs as I was returning to my room around midnight after attending the Literary Review Christmas party at the Naval and Military Club. I was pleased to see him and greeted him extravagantly.
Mohammed was a courteous and amiable man and he paused to ask me if everything was okay with my room. I said that, yes, it was fabulous, but I hadn’t been in it for more than half an hour because unfortunately I’d had to go straight out to a party. He congratulated me on spending the evening in such a nice way and asked whether it had been a Christmas party.
No, it was a Bad Sex awards party, I said. ‘Oh?’ said Mohammed. I elaborated by recalling that the first prize was awarded to a detailed and graphic account of a lady’s vagina given by a middle-aged man who had never before in his life seen one close-up. It was excellent and funny, I said. ‘And what was the prize?’ he said. There were so many people in the room that I couldn’t quite see, I said, but I thought it might have been a medal. ‘Nice, very nice,’ said Mohammed, warmly. By which he meant, I think, that not only was it nice that someone should triumph in this way, but also that it was nice they should receive due public recognition in the form of an award; and nice, too, that I had been present at the occasion.
The following evening I went to the Daily Mail travel and property section Christmas party, held above a pub just off Kensington High Street. A small, dimly lit room with no furniture and a sloping floor; 30 or so Daily Mail hacks; cheese on toast; a free bar. Paradise on earth. I can remember at one point everyone gaping horribly at each other’s faces in an informal competition to find who among those present owned the rottenest teeth. It was like watching They Shall Not Grow Old all over again. One mouth I peered into had bits of cheese still attached to the blackened stumps.
On my return to my London residence, Mohammed was on the pavement putting out the rubbish. Noticing that my mental and physical resources weren’t equal to the task of pressing the keypad buttons in the correct order to gain entry, he immediately came to the rescue. ‘Another party, Mr Jeremy?’ he said as he opened his front door much wider than was really necessary, as if he were shepherding an elderly, crippled, unpredictable cow up a ramp and into the back of a lorry. His enquiry was fatherly, amiable, interested. I was totally spent and with five flights of stairs and another keypad now ahead of me, I had to husband what little remained of my strength and therefore could offer only the briefest of explanations. ‘Daily Mail,’ I gasped as I made unsteadily for the banisters.
Whether or not Mohammed knew what the Daily Mail was, or what it stood for, or that it was the only newspaper still clinging to the wonderful old hacks’ drinking culture of Fleet Street, he politely and urbanely accepted these two magic words as all he needed to know about how my evening had gone. ‘Nice. Nice,’ he said. Then I heard him urging me gently on from below: ‘Left! Left, please, Mr Jeremy!’