After being mugged on the streets of London, Pissed-off Toff contemplates a sense of alienation which is almost complete.
On the first night of this second lockdown, I was mugged. I am still a little shaken, and my memory of the incident remains uncertain. But it happened more or less like this.
It was about 9.30 on Thursday night, and in defiance of the accursed new ‘lockdown’ restrictions, I had just had a drink with an elderly neighbour who relishes any opportunity to enjoy the social intercourse which is now forbidden. She is also one of the few people to whom I can tell my most snobbish anecdotes with complete lack of inhibition, and I duly repeated to her a favourite story of a former headmaster of Summerfields, my prep school in the early 1970s.
The story concerns a young Etonian who is stopped by an American tourist as he saunters down Eton High Street in his tails. “Say, son!” says the Yankee. “Is it true that you have to be a lord to go to Eton?” The boy – a precocious individual – looks at the man and pauses, as though giving careful consideration to this interesting question. “Well,” he eventually says in a languid drawl, “I don’t suppose you actually have to be. But we all are.” My headmaster Patrick Savage, with whom I remained friends until he died, used to roar with laughter at this gloriously snobbish vignette.
My neighbour enjoyed it too, so I proceeded to recite the concluding stanzas of my favourite poem by Hilaire Belloc, in which we hear of a young man who, finding himself in reduced circumstances, is forced to the horrible expedient of getting a job. I quote the last few lines from memory:
And even now, aged twenty-five He has to work to stay alive! Yes! All day long, from ten to four, For half the year, or even more, With but an hour – or two – to spend At luncheon with a City friend.
After the usual exchange of expressions of mutual esteem, I left my neighbour at around 9.30 and set out towards the local Waitrose, which often has good bargains just before it closes at ten. And on a whim, here in the empty street, I started reciting the above lines from Belloc out loud. Why? Perhaps because I had temporarily forgotten the gloom of ‘lockdown’, or perhaps as an act of defiance against said ‘lockdown’. Who knows? Anyhow, as I was in mid-flow in this deserted road, three youths – or were there four of them? – whizzed by silently on these e-scooters that you now see everywhere and which are such a hazard for the innocent pedestrian. What came next happened very quickly, and even now my memory is largely a blank.
Getting off his scooter, one of the youths came up to me and put his face right up close against mine, while his mates surrounded me. “You talkin’ to me?” said this nasty little thug, aged about eighteen, I suppose. Was he white? I think so. Anyhow, he wasn’t black. Perhaps he was something inbetween; Asian, possibly. I just can’t remember.
“Of course not,” I replied, as non-confrontational as possible. “I was reciting a poem, in fact.” And then it came from nowhere: a powerful punch in the face, delivered swiftly and without warning. The oik’s friends now moved in. Realising that I was about to be properly beaten up, I dashed between two of them and ran, as fast as I could, towards the doors of Waitrose on Victoria Street, about a hundred yards away. The youths pursued me. But I got away. Having long since given up wearing decent shoes (what’s the point, in lockdown?), I was wearing trainers, and I soon reached the safety of the shop.
Here the staff gathered around, and the security guard offered to ring the Police. “Why bother?” I replied. “They aren’t interested in crime any more.” An observation which met with general agreement.
Turning down someone’s offer to accompany me back to the flat (they know me in this shop), I walked home alone. And here, I broke down and started sobbing. I couldn’t help it. I suppose I was in shock. Indeed, I think I still am, and for the last day or so I have been prone to uncontrollable surges of emotion, triggered by anything. However, I am lucky. Yes, there’s a bruise on the side of my face. But I escaped the thorough beating up which was undoubtedly coming. My eyes and teeth and hands are intact. And by sheer fluke, my very smart and horribly expensive spectacles were left undamaged.
Mulling over what happened (and it’s still all hazy in my mind), why did the youth come for me? It is clear that I was a magnet for attention. I was not walking along the pavement silently, anonymously and invisibly. No. Declaiming cautionary verse and dressed in a well-cut double-breasted linen jacket and flamboyant bright green trousers bought in that far-off pre-lockdown era, I presented the perfect target on an empty half-lit stretch of road in this half-dead city.
* * * * *
More generally, though, eight months of ‘lockdown’ had already left me with a profound sense of despair, and I have frequently wondered whether loneliness, increasingly pressing financial concerns, and the sight of my country committing suicide are combining to send me a little mad. Perhaps they are … because I am not in the habit of declaiming Belloc on the empty streets. And with this last blow, my sense of alienation from the country of my birth is nearly complete.
So what am I going to do about it? I am tempted to leave this country altogether. But it will be the same elsewhere, I hear you say. France and Italy are in lockdown, too. Madness rules there, also. Well yes, I reply. However, and as I know from experience, the failings of a nation are easier to contemplate as a foreigner. No matter how fluently you speak the language of a foreign land, and no matter how much you love its inhabitants, you remain essentially an outsider, enjoying what you can and trying to ignore the rest.
Will I act on this? Do I have the energy to do so? Probably not. In the meantime, two things only keep me going: my friends, and the grand piano. And also, perhaps, this blog which, I now realise, is essentially a chronicle of the ruin of our country. So perhaps I’d better stay after all … and go on a self-defence course. Because one thing I do know for sure is that I don’t want to be beaten up, ever.