I came up to town for a party to launch a new publishing company called Notting Hill Editions. One thing led to another afterwards, my rail ticket was open-ended, and I stayed up in town for two days and nights, drinking in pubs and clubs. Two incidents stand out in my mind from the broken kaleidoscope of experiences, one right at the very start, one near the end.
In the first, an evangelical Christian flung himself down next to me in a crowded railway carriage and started boasting about his close relationship with God. In bragging loudly about God to me, he was also testifying to the entire carriage. The more people who heard him, was the line of thinking, the more chance there was of the Holy Spirit convicting someone of sin and adding to his tally.
He was a tall, fit-looking guy, dressed for cycling. Calves furry with golden hair bulged out of three-quarter-length technical trousers. The tanned face and lantern jaw were brimming with self-satisfaction and a sort of fake excitement.
He was a prison chaplain, he said, and he was the pastor of a church. Seeing God at work among prisoners was amazing. Wasn’t God amazing? He was continually amazed at how God changed lives, particularly prisoners’ lives. And he was amazed at how God chose the unlikeliest raw materials for the building of His Kingdom. Why, one guy in his Bible class went from being a hardened habitual criminal to a full-time youth worker. God speaks more clearly to those who have reached rock-bottom, didn’t I think so?
I’m a susceptible chap, happy to see the other person’s point of view more clearly than I see my own. And the Cross doesn’t offend me, either, as it seems to do so many. I was disposed to give the guy a hearing, even a debate. Unfortunately, he was an idiot. He thought God’s mind and his were alike, except God’s was slightly more daring and versatile. And now here he was, on this train, trying to interest everybody in this absurd projection of his imagination.
I looked at him, irritated that God should be so misrepresented. God amazes you, I said. Is that what you are telling me? Well, whoopee, I said. What were you expecting? English middle-class conformity? The guy was so shallow and self-regarding he became even more excited on hearing this. He thought I was there for the taking.
The other incident came near the end of my stay in London. I was lying on my back on a wet pavement near Piccadilly Circus trying to sleep. I suppose I’d intended drinking in clubs till dawn and the trains were running again, or going home with the Chinese woman I’d met in Soho. But she suddenly seemed to prefer dancing with this other Chinese bloke who was about ten times more effeminate than your average woman and was there with his boyfriend. I bore her no ill will. It can’t be much fun dancing and drinking with someone who is so drunk they can barely speak. Leaving them to each other, I tottered down the stairs and out into the street to look for somewhere to lie down and shut my eyes.
I don’t know if you know the Piccadilly area at three o’clock in the morning? Surprisingly, the pavements are as crowded and noisy as they are at midday except that everyone is drunk, walking faster, and leaning forward slightly as though going downhill. So if you want to lie down and don’t want to be trampled underfoot, you have to get off the main thoroughfare.
In a side street I found a tiny triangular public area under a spreading tree. The ground was already populated by two vagrants. One was old and filthy and lying in the foetal position on the paving slabs gibbering angrily to himself. The other was sitting down with his legs out and sadly contemplating his boots. It was raining as lightly as it is possible to rain without it not raining.
I lay down on my back, crossed my ankles, and composed myself for sleep. But even here in the side street the pedestrian traffic was considerable. And perhaps because my suit, tie and cashmere overcoat contrasted with the gibbering vagrant’s filthy rags, I was noticed. Four cheerful Arabs prodded me awake and wanted photographs. I obliged them. Next an anxious-looking man was shaking my shoulder and asking if I knew where the Bang! Bang! club was. Inevitably a tragic face wanted to sell me a back copy of the Big Issue. And I was about to nod off, finally, when I heard this strikingly sober voice speak into my ear, saying that he was here to help me and did I know that Jesus loved me. With this last one I kept my eyes shut and pretended to be too deeply unconscious to hear him.