A brief foray into the streets of London followed by a drink with an elderly neighbour with dementia remind Pissed-off Toff that our world is becoming darker by the day.
I have never much liked science-fiction movies.
There is, so often, the impossibility of understanding the basic premise of travelling back to the past in order to change the future. Worse still, these visions of what lies round the corner are so unremittingly bleak. Turning off the TV at the end of them, you take another slug of gin … and then reflect that at least it’s just a film, just a silly fantasy, just another two hours of one’s life wasted. Perhaps not so very serious, in the end.
However, for the last eight months all of our lives have become a sci-fi movie, and this time it’s all too real and you can’t switch it off. If, not long ago, someone had told you that in the near future you would be confined to your home for most of the day, that you would not be allowed to see your friends or family, that you would not be allowed to travel, that you would not even be allowed to earn a living, and that when leaving your home-turned-prison in order to buy food, you would be obliged to wear a dehumanising face-mask; all this because of a relatively trivial virus whose main symptoms are that you don’t know that you have it … if someone had predicted this wild scenario, you would have thought that they were drunk; or mad; or a coked-up writer working on a particularly depressing sci-fi script.
But no. In a very short space of time, our world has become more ugly than anything we could ever have imagined.
* * * * *
From my home in the middle of London, I recently stepped out, at six o’clock in the evening, onto the streets of the new dystopia created by our megalomaniac leader. Partly as an act of protest against the national enslavement which this clown-turned-prime-minister has engineered, and partly because I was later due to have a drink with an elderly neighbour, I was wearing patent leather shoes made by Lobb in the 1950s, and a smoking jacket made for me by Hall Brothers in Oxford in the early 1980s.
As I walked out of the front door, a mad woman was making her way along the pavement on the opposite side of the street, yelling obscenities into the void. I glanced in her direction. “What are you looking at??!!” she shrieked. Knowing that it is a mistake to engage with these people, I went on my way. “Watch who you fucking look at, you fucking cunt!!!” she shouted after me.
A few yards further on, a man in a dirty shellsuit with a facemask pulled down over his chin hawked loudly and spat out a large gob of mucus as he walked towards me.
When, a couple of minutes later, I walked – unmasked – into the cavernous Sainsbury’s on Wilton Street, a woman at a lectern near the entrance asked to scan my smartphone with her electronic reader … this so that if anyone in the shop were to test positive for Covid, I could be ‘traced’ and ordered to ‘self-isolate’ for two weeks. I was, in other words, being invited to sign up for the chance to win a spell of imprisonment. “I don’t have a smartphone,” I said.
Along the aisles of the supermarket wandered dozens of proles dressed in shapeless grunge, their masked faces expressionless as they threw food into their trollies. Having found the Morecombe Bay shrimps that I was looking for (just add melted butter, and you have potted shrimps at a fraction of the cost of the ready-made product), I queued up at the rapid checkout. Here, a male from the dregs of the underclass was attempting to pay 35 pence by pressing the broken window of his beaten-up smartphone onto the electronic reader attached to the till. “We’ll get there, bruv’,” he said repeatedly to the checkout operative, who stood there politely as the customers in the queue started chafing.
Leaving Sainsbury’s, I came across a group of four drunks, one of them a young woman who hurled a bottle of wine onto the pavement as I walked past. “Fuck! Fuck!! Fuck!!!” she yelled, as the bottle smashed to bits and the liquid spilled into the gutter. I once more reflected that entertained as they are by the agreeable task of fining ordinary citizens for any failure to obey the arbitrary decrees that now shape our lives, the British Stasi have long since abandoned even the pretence of policing the streets. And the canaille knows it.
On my way, lastly, to one of the nearby Waitroses, I passed two girls eating a foul-smelling takeaway on a bench. “I was – like – ohmigod!” said one of them. “Yeah! And I was – like – Is this for real?!” replied her friend.
At the checkout in Waitrose, an attractive black girl had a smile for me. “’Ave a nice evenin’,” she said, as I paid. Leaving the shop, I walked past the black security guard, who now recognises me. “Goodbye, Sir,” he said, touching his right temple. To the more modestly clad customer behind me, he used different words. “’Bye, guv’nor,” he said.
Is it, I wonder, a coincidence that during this brief foray into the streets of central London the scum I came across at every turn were invariably white? Whereas the two black people with whom I exchanged words made my day …
* * * * *
I was, as I say, due to have a drink with an elderly neighbour. Thus the patent leather shoes and the smoking jacket – or that, any rate, was my pretext. This neighbour looks forward to my visits. At one stage I even began to wonder whether she was stalking me, because whenever I step out of the flat, I invariably bump into her. I now know that the reason for this is that she is bored senseless, and spends her days going on one aimless outing after another.
“I’ve just had a series of extraordinary encounters,” I said to her, in conversational manner, as I poured myself a glass of whisky on the sideboard in her dining room. And I started telling her about the mad woman outside the front door, and the man spitting on the street, and the rest of them.
“Oh!” she said, looking at me with incomprehension in her eyes. “Oh! That isn’t very nice!” As we sat down in her drawing room, I continued in a similar vein, lamenting the ruination of our country. And again, the same look and the same reply. “Oh dear! How horrid!!”
The mistake was mine. Because my neighbour is in the early stages of dementia, and with the insanity of the modern age being almost the only thing that now interests me, I had forgotten that the present hardly registers with her. Perhaps she does not even understand that we are under ‘lockdown’.
“Let’s go out to dinner, shall we?” she said, at various intervals. “I’m afraid we can’t,” I replied, each time. “All the restaurants are closed.”
“Oh! Oh dear!!” came the inevitable reply. And then again, five minutes later: “Why don’t we go out to dinner?”
No. The destruction of our world and the creation, in its place, of a totalitarian dystopia is meaningless to her. Any news of the present, or discussion of it, might be partially absorbed for a brief moment, but then evaporates, leaving no trace. What registers, on the other hand, is the past: the days of her youth, a Somerset Maugham short story … or perhaps one of my more snobbish anecdotes, of which she never tires.
Thus for a brief moment, we took refuge in the memory of gentler times.
* * * * *
If, for an elderly woman with dementia, the contemplation of an earlier age is the only consolation that life offers, for me it is cowardice and escapism; and at four o’clock the following morning, I woke with a start, as I now so often do. There are, I know, plenty of others who see that we are rushing headlong into the dark world which Orwell foresaw. But from this nightmare of our own making there is no release.