In every party there comes a critical point when the sober and the pissed have diverged so far that they can no longer communicate with each other. I found myself on the wrong side of the divide at about 10.45pm on Saturday night, staring at the bonfire and sipping a non-alcoholic Sainsbury’s lager. It was a pretty wild garden party: a 40th birthday, strong hint of midlife crisis. Three trestle tables heaved under a quite mind-boggling array of budget booze. There were restless, cider-sipping teenage boys dressed as superheroes and drunken men letting off fireworks. A fourteen year-old Bristol lad with tribal-style stretched earlobes performed an astonishing feat of fire poi to music by The Prodigy. “Lowdurrr!” he kept shouting at the DJ. I could see his arms were getting tired and it occurred to me if this minor maimed himself we cheering onlookers could all be done for some sort of negligence. Luckily he didn’t.
It was a cold night and for most of it I stood eating chilli from a paper bowl and chatting to various characters while enjoying the interesting calefactive cycle of the bonfire: for a time it would be pleasantly warming and you could take off your hat; then it would fade a bit and you’d have to put your hat back on again; then an old man in a neon jacket would heave on a fence or half a shed, after which the furnace-like heat would start melting your face and you’d have to pull your hat all the way down to your chin for protection. While I was talking with some middle-aged women a shaven-headed giant called Jim insinuated himself into the group proffering cans of Blackthorn. “A toast!” he cried. “To the foive of uz!” “And screw everyone else,” I added. Proud Mary blasted from the music shed and the women suddenly started dancing with embarrassingly wobbly exuberance. Jim and I edged away. “Jeeshushchroisht,” he said, and I could tell by his eyes that he was nearly gone. “Never moind ‘kin wood, should throw women on the foire.” I chuckled obediently, as men regrettably will when another makes a statement of grotesque sexism. He stumbled port-a-loowards, roaring a swear as he sliced his hand on some branch that lurked in the gloom. Later I heard him repeating the joke to others, only he was now substituting ‘women’ with ‘immigrants’.
As the critical point approached I slumped into a chair. On the opposite side of the bonfire the old man in the neon jacket and a teenage Robin the Boy Wonder were also sitting and staring morosely at the flames. Other youths with sculpted hairstyles stood in a bleary group like a tubby One Direction tribute act. Teenage girls screeched like One Direction fans because that’s exactly what they were. A lady came out with a plastic pint glass containing brightly-coloured test tubes of absinthe, which she passed around her friends including our hostess. The birthday girl didn’t look 40: photos from her infancy and youth pinned about the place showed she’d hardly changed since the age of 12. Yet there it was, four decades gone like smoke.
Don’t Stop Believin’ came on and mothers and daughters screamed onto the dancefloor, which was an old carpet on the grass. The daughters knew all the words because the song is in Glee, but the mothers were singing the Journey version. They all hokey-cokeyed around in a wild circle. The teenagers were having a fun party; the forty year-olds were trying to feel as they did when they were teenagers and all the fun was ahead and there was nothing behind to be nostalgic about. Maybe in that spinning blur they looked from mother to daughter, and from daughter to mother, and from mother to daughter again and could no longer tell which was which. But I could, and it was time to go home.
Dog bites man. Pope turns out to be a Catholic. Comedy Guardian columnist writes comedy Guardian column opening sentence: “Whenever there’s a 99.8% yes vote in a referendum, it’s a pretty safe bet that something dodgy’s going on.” (Seamus Milne on the Falklands).
Talking of comedy left-wingers, I recently came into possession of a publication called The Ethical Consumer. Basically it’s like a lifestyle supplement of The Socialist Worker and it lists all the evil capitalist shops and brands you must boycott on various points of righteousness. (Turns out you have to boycott more or less everything except Oxfam bookshops, and it can surely only be a matter of time before they’re found to be genetically modifying things, or in possession of an unacceptable carbon footprint, or American). Anyway, proving itself to be bang on trend, The Ethical Consumer now has a tax avoidance section, with Amazon as top villain and a column by Richard Murphy, whom they describe as a ‘Tax Expert’. I don’t really blame them for this as the BBC regularly invites Murphy onto Newsnight and Today and uses the same description. But I happen to know the man and I can tell you that ‘Tax Expert’ isn’t quite adequate. To give the idea: describing Richard Murphy as a ‘Tax Expert’ is approximately equivalent to describing George Galloway as a ‘Middle East Expert’ or Nick Griffin as an ‘Immigration Expert’ – i.e. it rather misses the point.
A while ago I spotted Radio 2 DJ Steve Wright at a motorway service station and noted in this Diary that he appeared to remain in character as himself even when off air. Well I can now report another service station celebrity sighting (is this now a series?) and it’s The Big One. There I was in the Starbucks of Michael Wood Southbound on the M5, when who should stride regally across the carpark, his paradigmatic coiffure oscillating exquisitely in the breeze, but the one and only Richard Madeley! He’d stopped for a wee and a can of Pepsi. At least I think it was a can of Pepsi; it was certainly blue, anyway.
In principle I don’t approve of all-you-can-eat buffet restaurants. All-you-can-eat is anti-dining: you don’t talk to your fellow diners because you’re always hurrying to the buffet and you don’t enjoy your food because you’re always thinking about what to eat next (I think Alexei Sayle defined this as something like “All-You-Can-Eat Panic Syndrome”). There’s also an irksome atmosphere of competition. But I have to admit that Za Za Bazaar is the apotheosis of all-you-can-eat. Situated across the top of three other eateries on Bristol’s watershed, it is vast. It looks like a street market from Bladerunner, with a clattering din and each of the international ‘stalls’ manned by ethnically appropriate cooks. Countless servers buzz around – not so much waiters as medieval kitchen porters ferrying trays of booze and pushing tottering trolleys of soiled plates. I did the place justice, consuming, in order: a pile of steamed mussels and prawns, a Brazilian beer, a clump of sushi, tandoori chicken, jerk chicken, piri-piri chicken, Szechuan chicken, crispy duck with pancakes, sweet and sour pork, crispy beef, a Singapore Sling which I drank through a straw, saag paneer, a chocolate torte, some ice cream and a tiny wee bit of apple crumble. I think next time I won’t be quite so appallingly gluttonous as the novelty factor will be absent and I will be able to relax and just enjoy my favourite bits. Which is to say, I’ll probably skip the sushi.
Which debut novel was described by Dorothy Parker as ‘the picaresque novel to stop them all. Lusty, violent, wildly funny… a rigadoon of rascality, a bawled-out comic song of sex’, yet was praised by John Banville for ‘the sense of sweet and delicate melancholy that clings to the pages’?
The answer is The Ginger Man by J.P. Donleavy, a mysterious and troubling book about which I write in the latest issue of Slightly Foxed. A version will appear on The Dabbler soon, but in the meantime please go and buy your copy of the superior literary quarterly here.