This week, I thought I’d run, piecemeal, through some of the smaller follies I’ve encountered in the past seven days, such as the cab rank outside Clapham Junction station – or rather, the attitude of one cabby towards it. The rank is situated in the middle of a busy road with no safe pedestrian access; when I remarked on this, having managed to get wife, child and dog into a cab without them being crushed, the cabby said, “It’s always been like that.” As if this justified any ridiculousness: you could imagine him in all ages and places – say, squinting at rebellious slaves crucified along the Appian Way – and, when you remarked on the barbarism, shaking his head and saying, “It’s always been like that.” This kind of madness has a name – conservatism.
But there are equally deranging purviews that are bang up to date. Dining with elderly friends – all bar one in their 90s – at a fancy bar-cum-restaurant, I suggested to the waitress that she turn off the muzak, because it was making things difficult for those with hearing aids. She was utterly discombobulated. “But . . .” she managed to squeeze out, “we can’t have no music – this is a restaurant.” When I last checked, food-for-sale and tables-to-eat-it-on defined a restaurant, not Phil Collins warbling, “I can hear it coming in the air tonight, oh Lord . . .”
Just as zeitgeisty are obese people on mobility scooters wearing tracksuits. The quintessential sight of modern Britain, it should be put on postcards together with jolly policemen carrying Heckler & Koch rifles, Olympic stadiums with built-in obsolescence and looters trying on clothes.
I was having difficulty getting the organisers of a literary festival to book me a hotel room I could smoke in. The saga went on for some time, until I spluttered over the phone: “Why can’t you just call round the local hotels and find me one?” There was a silence, then my interlocutor said, “Well, you see, we don’t actually book the hotel rooms. It’s done by another company.” A vision of interlocking private enterprises as complex as a medieval mosaic sprang to my mind: once it would’ve been another department that was responsible, but now it’s the Hidden Hand of the Market that’s afflicted with paralysis.
In Boots, the poor pedant in front of me at the till engaged in a lengthy debate with the shop assistant: “Don’t you see,” she was complaining as I tuned in, “on this 25 per cent off voucher it says that it’s valid with transactions over £40, and these two items I’m buying cost £46 altogether.” The shop assistant shook her head wearily. “No,” she rejoined, “the voucher is only valid if one of the items you’re buying costs more than £40.” “But,” said the customer, “that’s not what ‘transaction’ means – a transaction is a single act of purchasing, no matter how many individual items are involved, that’s the dictionary definition.” I wandered to another till – when someone appeals to the dictionary in Boots, hysteria is surely in the offing.
Mind you, at least you could, in principle, consult a dictionary in Boots, because it has bright strip-lighting. Not so in the corporate hotels that litter the arterial byways of our land. I stayed in three last week and in not one of them was the bedside reading lamp worthy of the name. At one, I managed to contrive enough illumination by removing the shade, but mostly I had to adopt rather disturbing – and lewd – postures in order decipher print. Perhaps no one reads in hotel rooms any more, in which case you should find a talking book of the Bible in the bedside table, shouted out by Brian Blessed.
And so, finally, to Gloucester, from where I had to take a minicab to Cheltenham. “Montpellier Gardens,” I said to the driver. “Hmm,” he hmmed, puzzled, “I’m not altogether sure of that location.” I observed that it was probably near the town hall, and he said, “You’re probably right,” I said I had hoped he had a more reliable mental map of the environs than me, given that he was the local, and he said petulantly: “But it’s not local, is it, it’s Cheltenham.” I pointed out that this was hardly Ulan Bator, and besides he had a satnav to assist him. “Ah, but you see,” he said, his tone suggesting that this was the clincher, “they’re always putting up new estates and that in Cheltenham.” Such intense parochialism was at once deranging – and quite comforting. I sat back to enjoy the ride along the A road into the unknown.