My joints were aching suddenly and unaccountably — fingers, wrists, elbows, knees, toes — so I cried off the dinner invitation, volunteering instead to pick up Catriona and her lovely daughter, who was staying for a week, at around 11 p.m. At ten, Catriona rang. Had I forgotten? She sounded a bit squiffy. No, I hadn’t forgotten, I said. We’d said 11, hadn’t we? Well, they were ready to be picked up now, she said. When I arrived, the front door was open and I let myself in. The four of them were still seated at the dining table, chatting and drinking over the remains of the meal. I accepted a gin-and-tonic from the host, Andre, and pulled up a chair.
‘So how did you spend your evening?’ Catriona said.
I gave them chapter and verse. I lit the fire, I said, and made myself a meal of sausages, oven chips and a tin of marrowfat peas. Then I had a bath, a tepid bath, as the hot water was used up, and I was dismayed at how difficult it was to raise myself up out of the tub. Then I listened to the Moral Maze on Radio Four on the subject of grammar schools. An education adviser to Tony Blair, I reported, had said that one of the purposes of children’s education, in his view, was to inculcate a belief in ‘diversity’. (Here I maintained a straight face, but in my secret soul I thought it incredible.) In support of a line of inquiry, one of the Moral Maze questioners had cited a controversial study of human intelligence, The Bell Curve, by Charles Murray, in which it is stated that 50 per cent of any given population is of below average intelligence. I’d heard of the controversial book but not read it. So I googled it, curious to know if this statement was part of what made the book controversial, and if so, what exactly was controversial about it. High on the search list, however, was a piece in the Guardian reporting that only the previous week Charles Murray had been shouted down by students at an ‘elite’ US university. He fled the podium and later his car was attacked as he attempted to leave. In the mêlée, a professor had her hair pulled, twisting her neck, and was taken to hospital.
Then I smoked a cigarette smeared with hash oil, I said. Then I read the comments posted underneath the Guardian piece, 170 of them, because the level of debate seemed — to my stoned mind, anyhow — to be occasionally quite high. Some of the contributors said that they were on the left yet abhorred what had happened to Mr Murray. Others seemed genuinely confused by the left’s abandonment of its traditional tenets, and by its new position as a sort of medieval Catholicism. Oh yes, I added, and I’d heard on the news that the latest exit polls were predicting that Geert Wilders had failed to win a majority in the Dutch general election, though he had gained seats. ‘Hurrah!’ exclaimed Catriona’s lovely daughter correctly, while I hid my desperate disappointment behind a bland expression. ‘And how did Manchester City get on in Monaco?’ said Andre. I said that I hadn’t looked, but hoped very much that they lost.
There followed a political discussion between Catriona and Andre about the forthcoming French election, during which her ignorance was exposed, and mine too, though I kept mine quiet and didn’t advertise it. The election next month is a presidential, not a party election. The deputies are elected separately. That I didn’t know. It is therefore theoretically possible — though unlikely, thought Andre — for Marine le Pen to be elected president over a socialist government. Then he patiently unravelled another mystery: what it was that made the fifth republic different from the fourth, and the fourth from the third, and so on. All of this revealed the sad truth that I really don’t know much about anything, thereby fitting the left’s conception of a populist like a bespoke glove.
And then we all stood up, hugged and kissed in the French manner, and I drove Catriona and her beautiful daughter home, on the way narrowly avoiding a solitary wild boar with absolutely no road sense. As soon as I got indoors, I sat down with the iPad to check the Monaco v. Manchester City score, at which Catriona took great umbrage. She said, to my great surprise, that I was rudely ignoring her, and stalked off to bed. Seconds later, her daughter had a severe asthma attack, during which it seemed possible she might die. When I finally got to bed, my finger joints were so painful that I couldn’t unbutton my shirt and had to sleep with it on.