There is very little in the way of conversation at home. Uncle Jack sometimes appears in the hall to ask someone where he is, what he is doing here, or what time of the year it is. The rest of us communicate so rarely we are rapidly losing the power of speech. Occasionally someone might attempt a comment at mealtimes, then forget the word for something, a crucial noun usually, and we all sit there waiting for it, as if we're taking part in a séance. If my mother or my sister is present, exchanges take the form of a parlour game in which players take it in turns to compose simple sentences containing the word 'nice'.
But twice a year or so my mother's friend John, a retired doctor, comes to stay for a week. Dr Lovepants we used to call him. John's second most salient feature is his tremendous eloquence. He's talking as he walks through the door with his suitcase and he doesn't stop talking until he gets in his car at the end of his stay and drives away again, and the house subsides into silence until his next visit.
You'd think he'd just escaped from a Trappist monastery. It's non-stop. He buttonholes you and you can't get a word in edgeways. You watch for a gap in the monologue to excuse yourself and there isn't one for half an hour. If you walk away he follows you, still talking. After a day or two we all hide.
On the plus side, though, it's very handy having a retired doctor around the place for an informal consultation when you need one. I told him I was feeling a bit depressed. He described for me in minute detail the chemical composition of my central nervous system. Then he made me sit outside in the sun and smoke a cigar. The combination of sunlight on my retina and nicotine on my brain wouldn't have me up and doing a song-and-dance routine right away, he predicted, but I would certainly begin to feel more optimistic about the future. While I sat puffing in the sun, John sat beside me and delivered a lecture on the anatomical composition of my eye, on the structure and function of my optic nerve (which is, in fact, a part of my brain), and on how sunlight absorbed via the eye affects my mood.
Yesterday morning I came home after having been up all night drinking vodka, smoking hashish, snorting cocaine and watching pornography. Unable to face another of John's monologues until I felt better, I went undetected into the garden and lit the incinerator, intending to spend a pleasant few hours alone with a forked stick in my hand, burning my correspondence.
It was not to be. At the first plume of grey smoke John was at my shoulder talking at me. His subject: Adolf Hitler. He'd seen a documentary about Diana Mitford and was indignant about how Mitford has been vilified since her death for liking Hitler when she met him in 1933. Of course she would have liked him, he said. Hitler was charming, intelligent, a good conversationalist and an excellent mimic. It was said that Hitler doing Himmler always had Mussolini in stitches. The fashion for writing Hitler off as 'evil' or a born lunatic or simply a self-educated bore is dangerous nonsense. Hitler was an exceptional individual. He was a political genius for a start. How else could such a nonentity seize power, rebuild a shattered nation in less than a decade, then lead it on the most audacious military adventure in the history of the world? If we tell future generations to relax because Hitler was simply a nut, how will they recognise the next one? And in any case Mitford said she only liked him until 1936. And so on.
So John's going on like this and I'm prodding at my burning correspondence with the charred end of my stick. Next I get the history of Germany from the days of the Holy Roman Empire to Diana Mitford's wedding reception in Goebbel's drawing-room, as seen through Hitler's eyes. I go indoors to get my journals and everything else I've ever written. It's all going on the fire. Nothing like a clean start now and again. John follows me to my bedroom, telling me about the failure of German liberalism, the ambitions of the Junkers, the diplomacy of Bismarck, the undue harshness of the conditions imposed on Germany by the Versailles Treaty.
I shove everything I can find into black bags and carry them outside. The heat coming from the incinerator must have become very intense while we were away, because the tree above and the side of the shed facing it are also on fire. John follows me into the shed to get the hosepipe telling me about the Danzig corridor. I can hardly see him for the smoke in there, but I can hear him all right. If what he's telling me is correct, Hitler was right to be aggrieved. John follows me to the tap and back telling me about Alsace-Lorraine. By the time I've got both fires under control, and the smoke has cleared a bit, we've moved on to the Sudetenland and war is imminent.