‘Wandering the epidermal hillsides were you, little Keith?’ asked Hitch.
It was Claire’s hour, we were at The Pillars, and the Hitch was raking me over the coals about last night’s amorous fencing match. ‘Claire’s Hour’ was 11am, so called because by then only Claire Tomalin was left in the Statesman offices. Everyone else was at The Pillars.
We drank seriously, but rarely wrote drunk. Filing sloshed was considered professionally untidy, as it meant you hadn’t already filed your copy that morning.
‘I may have. Wandering steps and slow though, Hitch. Still, you should have seen this one. Fragrant buttocks, searching eyes. Tits like a genocide.’
‘Naughty, libidinous, incorrigible little Keith.’ said Hitch, with his trademark, inimitable understatement. ‘You’d get on with my friends in Washington.’
‘Elaborate on the last, Hitch.’ I said, zipping my fly up on the way back from Cambodia. ‘Cambodia’ was the gent’s loo at The Pillars, so-called because, in Ian Hamilton’s heart-stopping phrase, it was ‘utterly fucked’.
‘Pen and paper at the ready, little Keith. A lesson. The Americans are tits men. The Germans, meanwhile, are all about the arse: fastidious hand-washers to your casual observer, they’re secretly fascinated with the stuff of decay. The French are the only pure pudenda-worshippers in modern geopolitics.’
‘So the Brits are ponces.’
‘Not so. Suckle at the teat of the Hitch, little Keith, for lessons there abound.’ He glanced at the barman, who refilled our drinks. ‘Now, the Israelis–’
I kissed his hand softly as he spoke. ‘The Germans are arse men’: that was Hitch through and through. A thoroughbred trot, a chivalric bruiser. A giant.
We should mention the P-word. That’s right: prejudice, a vastly superior word to ‘bigotry’, which for some reason doesn’t mean what you, reader, think it means. (In the great hotel of meaning, etymologies make for coquettish bedfellows, but consider: ‘bi’, from the Latin for ‘bisexual’, and ‘got’, meaning literally ‘attained’, ‘shagged’, ‘got off with’ – no, ‘bi-got’ is too amorous a word by half for the stuff of lynching and mass-murder.)
Misogyny – the hatred of birds – is chiefly a female art. Men ponce around with it now and then, but when you’re as clever as I am you realise that its most skilful practitioners are all women, especially the women in my novels. And my quiet, unanswerable objection to misogyny: who would be a misogynist when birds are so fit?
As for racism, I’ve never seen the point of it personally. Growing up in my house, Nazism, racism and their attendant murderous pleasures were chiefly understood as a hobbyhorse for posh birds, a way of staving off adultery. And my simple objection to racism: who would be a racist when the birds are so fit? As far as I’m concerned, the Mitfords can keep their jackboots, while the rest of us get on with our macadamia pleasures.
The only prejudice I could ever engage in would be the universal hatred of all men and women. Racism no, sexism never, but misanthropy: ‘Ah, you’ve got something there lad,’ as Philip Larkin, who might be my dad, once said. Disliking everyone is egalitarian, decent, almost courtly. At its core, misanthropy is a hatred of the thick, and especially of Americans. Yet a question remains and quivers at the back of my mind: who could hate everyone, when the set of everyone includes me and my mates? No, I regretfully confess that other than a hatred of everyone else’s prose, I’ve no prejudices whatsoever.
In Phoebe’s flat I sat down to catch my breath.
‘Mart, be a dear and keep it in your pants would you?’
‘Jesus Phoebe, your tits.’ For there they were. She stepped out of her skirt and shot me a terroristic smile.
‘I know. Terrible, aren’t I? Girls all hate me for it, especially since I eat like a horse. But then I’ve never liked women. Or men. I’m damaged goods, Mart.’
I gave a weak murmur. ‘The abuse sub-plot...’
‘Exactly. Now pass me that Larkin while I take this bath, would you?’
Larkin? Along with being a raging capitalist and sexual jihadi, Phoebe, as far as I could see, was functionally illiterate. What did she want with the paperback of High Windows?
‘Poetry, Phoebe? I didn’t think you went in for that sort of thing.’
‘No. Poncey stuff.’ She turned around, sending shockwaves through the Greater London area. ‘But there’s something going on to do with me and Larkin, remember Mart? You’ve already signalled it three times, and it’s almost time for you to fess up about what’s going on.’
‘Larkin. Kingsley. You’re not suggesting....’
‘I’m afraid so. "Something out of sight becoming..." She slipped into the water tits up, a little way she had of tormenting me. ‘...becoming Martin. Ta-da! Pass the soap, would you?’
I obliged. She began doing appalling things with the soap and her body.
‘I met him once. Your dad.’
‘The other one. Larkin. Doddery old puffin in five-inch specs. You felt sorry for him, really. So I gave him a little treat… right at the end of the evening, I bent all the way over in my short skirt to give him a nice flash of the underwear I wasn’t wearing.
‘You flashed him your nethers?’
‘I thought I’d give him something to keep him warm at night.’
‘But Phoebe, why on earth would you do that?’
‘Oh, sweet little Mart.’ She fixed me with a look of masterful, radiant pity. ‘I did that because you wrote me.’