27 APRIL 2002, Page 8


Recently, owing to the sudden and serious illness of a beloved friend, I've been pondering the difference between contemplating dying at a mature age and facing death before one's time. Premature death must surely be the more annoying, bringing up such words as unfair, wasteful, cruel — and yet one constantly meets people who express shock and grief at the expiry of relatives well past their 80th year. The whole business of living, once one is old, is shadowed by dying, and personally I've been expecting the end since I was 30. I've another friend, no longer young, who would prefer to go instantly, her remains deposited in a bin-bag outside the front door. She faced death at the age of ten; digging up potatoes in a field in Italy she was hit in the spine with shrapnel during what she calls the last 'cannonball' bombardment of Florence. Another friend, also of a suitable age to greet his Maker, denies all knowledge of a cessation of breathing and beats a retreat to the loo if I bring up the subject. For myself, granted I can be free of pain, I would prefer to linger, writing poetic notes and quoting bits from 'A Highwayman came riding, riding, up to the old inn door', particularly the lines, 'I'll come to thee by moonlight, though hell should bar the way?' It's disappointing, isn't it, that nobody ever has?

Sunday lunchtime I went to a very jolly birthday party held in the Cheshire Cheese, Dr Johnson's local in Fleet Street. The guests were many and our thirst great. Naturally enough in such surroundings, some of the fragmented conversations had to do with literature. Dr J., in a gold frame, was hanging somewhere above my head, and I couldn't help remembering that he once admitted that he never read a book all through as it wasn't necessary. My host Tony Ellis, who was addressed as Syd and wore his cricket blazer, knowing of my inability to eat once the drink has gone down, thoughtfully brought me a plate of chips. Afterwards, Senor Paul Bailey and I strolled down the Strand discussing whether Rhoda Comstock's brilliant novel As Flies to Wanton Boys had any chance of getting on this year's Booker shortlist. 'If there's any justice. . . ' he began and, overcome, rested in a doorway.

Most weekdays I saunter across the railway bridge in the direction of Regent's Park. On Wednesday I kept my head down, because the kiddies from the council flats — none of whom seem to know of the existence of the park — were out in the street kicking a hard ball about and bouncing it off car windows. Two days ago, for no sensible reason, I invited five of them into my house. They were very sweet, but they said that they thought it spooky. I think this was on account of the six-foot Christ on the Cross rather than Eric the stuffed buffalo, for two of them inquired if the Christ figure was alive. David Attenborough is obviously having an influence on the nation, a beast being more understandable than Jesus. Crossing the railway bridge and turning right — I won't give the name of the street — I encountered what I took to be a television crew enjoying a sunlight break in the middle of filming some drama. There were all these chaps sitting on the wall swinging their legs in abandon opposite a row of posh houses belonging to the Crown. Wanting to loiter, but thinking it crass, I pushed on ahead and entered the park. There are now two rather mangy ostriches where once wolves prowled behind the railings. As usual, they were standing on one leg and scratching. Presently, who should I see but my friend and neighbour Derwent May, he who wrote that splendid history of the TLS. We walked together down the avenue of trees, the air spangled with the trilling of birds and the distant whooping of gibbons. 'There are some great tits about,' observed Derwent, though apart from a

small boy on a scooter we were alone on the path.

Had a chat on the phone with the house-insurance department of the Abbey National. My landing ceiling on the second floor has fallen down, and someone said that the Abbey would pay to have it mended. They wouldn't. When I told them that it had collapsed through age, they said that wasn't insurable. Then I remembered how 30-odd years ago my mother-in-law had come round to shoot me. She missed, but she did bring down the ceiling on the first floor. As I hadn't claimed then — indeed, in spite of burst pipes and mild outbreaks of fire, hadn't made a single claim in 40 years — could they not reasonably attribute the said ceiling to delayed gunfire trauma? They couldn't.

Derwent rang up to tell me that when he left the park he passed a film crew sitting on the wall beside the railway line. He asked them what they were doing, and they said that they were journalists waiting for Sven thingamybob, commandant of the English football team, who has got himself into a scrape with a foreign lady with a name very similar to that word ejaculated by a man who discovered something vital in his bathtub.

Acomedian in ancient Roman times was known as a scurra. First the scurra merely mimed things by way of entertainment, but as his popularity grew he found his voice and poured forth rustic abuse in alternating verses of jest and response. Later still, the jesting turned savage. One can never walk along Camden High Street without being reminded of this ancient form of outdoor entertainment, for here they wait in doorways ready at a moment's notice to spring up and bring a smile to jaded lips. Only yesterday I was a privileged onlooker at a particularly vibrant display of street theatre. A man lay on his back in the middle of the pavement, his metal crutch beyond reach; grimacing, making clawing movements with his hands, he mimed extreme distress. A youngish lady rushed to his aid, at which he called her something so rude that she turned pale and sped on. A burly man in a City suit, a form of apparel not often seen in Camden Town, took her place. His hands under the fallen man's shoulders, he was about to tug him upright when the scurra grabbed his crutch and bashed the Good Samaritan across the legs. Not many of us applauded. He was left alone after that, muttering to himself. Perhaps he was just raging against the dying of the light.