I flew from Marseille to Gatwick, rode the Gatwick Express to Victoria, and walked down the thoroughfare of Victoria Street eating a Marks & Spencer egg and tomato sandwich. In Victoria Street, I bought a shirt, pattern of flying ducks, from the House of Fraser selected menswear sale, to replace the sweat-soaked one I was wearing. Then I cut through the passage leading to Palmer Street and dropped in for an unpremeditated haircut at the Pall Mall barbershop. The chap who cut my hair was lively and talkative.
Where had I come from today? France, I said. France? He didn’t like France. He’d tried it a few times but France didn’t agree with him. He just couldn’t get on with it. And what were my plans for the rest of the day? A few drinks outside the Two Chairmen pub, I told him, then a weekly paper’s summer party. Which paper was that then? I told him. And would he be right in thinking it would be a posh party? It would. The Prime Minister of the day usually goes, I said. Well, it was a good decision to get your hair cut then, he said. You don’t want to stand in front of Theresa May looking like Ken Dodd. It would be ‘jarring’ for her.
Jarring! I rejoiced at the word by laughing, and he laughed, and all at once I was overwhelmingly glad to be back in England and among Londoners and their habit of humorously resurrecting antiquated words to flavour their speech. A simple word had reversed my expat entropy and welcomed me back to the land of the living.
When he’d finished snipping, I arose from the chair shorn and with an unwonted side parting. I paid, changed into my new shirt and, feeling resurrected, walked to the end of the street and turned right into Queen Anne’s Gate, paying mental obeisance to Lord Jacky Fisher as I passed his old townhouse. When Fisher joined the Royal Navy as a cadet, aged 13, in 1854, the entrance examination consisted of his writing down the Lord’s Prayer then jumping naked over a chair. I always picture him in midair as I pass it. At the end of Queen Anne’s Gate, I came to the Two Chairmen pub. I went inside, ordered a large one, and took it outside.
The drink on the sunny pavement outside the Two Chairmen before the Spectator summer party is a highlight of my year. The party is often a shouty, sweaty, inebriated scrum; the pre-party drink on the sunny pavement is more placid, and the conversations make more sense. You encounter old friends and achieve alcoholic lift-off gradually and together.
‘Does it strike you,’ said Virginia Woolf in a letter to Vita Sackville-West, ‘that one’s friendships are long conversations, perpetually broken off, but always about the same thing with the same person?’ Outside the Two Chairmen before the summer party is where I resume various conversations after a break of a year or several years. So here comes the deputy editor Freddy Gray, last seen exactly a year ago — large one, please, Freddy — who is funny about anything and everything, but we tend to gravitate to the subject of the Donald and laugh about that. And here, mopping his bald black head with a handkerchief, comes my guest, Cass Pennant, publisher, former football hooligan, with whom I talk nostalgically about the hooliganism of the 1970s. And now here is the marvellous Nick Cohen, who is usually too drunk to speak about anything, but tells me incredulously that he has signed the pledge. And now here is the former Spectator arts editor Liz Anderson, the most civilised person in the world, to whom I apologetically sent this column for donkey’s years, and with whom I now resumed a conversation about France after a gap of about three years. And here’s my old mate Telegraph defence editor Con Coughlin — yes, a double, please, Mr Con — with whom I talk about family, his and mine, and a ridiculous soap opera called West Ham United.
We ambled, finally, Con and I, the 50 yards down Old Queen Street, where we encountered Rod Liddle looking perplexedly at his phone and swearing. Reaching number 22, we went inside and joined the party.
The barman most kindly and solicitously enquired about my health, as he has done ever since the year I passed out in the bushes, and I asked him for a glass of gin, which wrong-footed him. I took my glass out into the garden, where a flailing hand neatly karate-chopped a square inch out of it, but without spilling any, and the gin was still drinkable if I kept my mouth away from the jagged side. And there, at the somehow slightly sinister epicentre of the party, radiating a peculiar power, were the Conservative politicians, at the heart of whom was the former foreign secretary, who grabbed me round the neck and roared.
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