I was walking up St James’s and happy to be in London. For a change I was not rushing but strolling in a leisurely manner, on time for lunch with Charles Moore, editor of the London Spectator from 1984 to 1990, at his club, when the lack of deference of certain Americans hit me like the proverbial pie in the face.
‘I mean, like, who the fuck does she think she is? I’m not taking this crap from anyone. This is my life and this is me…’
The young woman bellowing at the top of her screechy voice had those ubiquitous wires hanging from her ears, was wearing leggings — she was not bad-looking, incidentally — and was as unaware of her surroundings, while she shouted into her contraption, as it is possible to be. St James’s is a quiet street of gentlemen’s clubs, demure shops selling men’s shoes and an old-fashioned men’s hairdresser. It is probably the last street in London where suits and ties outnumber gym clothes and sneakers. The oblivious American kept at it. I turned in to a club and that was that.
I mentioned this during lunch and Charles Glass, the third in our party, cringed. What is it about loud American women that makes men like Charlie Glass and myself, two fairer-sex-obsessed males, wince? Is it their pushiness and assertiveness, the high decibels or the aggression? Perhaps it’s just that I’m old — used to sweet young Southern belles and the shy debs of long ago.
Never mind. Lunch with two very old friends was wonderful: Charles, a fountain of knowledge and good sense; Charlie, writing books nonstop, his latest about the shell-shock hospital where Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen were sent during World War One. The problem was poor little me. The moment I opened my mouth, I coughed, the result of the bronchitis I’d had since before Christmas.
Both my companions put manners ahead of self-preservation, never mentioning the Chinese virus threatening to lower the world’s population. And instead of listening to myself talk, I learned things. Then a funny thing happened. Charlie Glass and I left the club, drank some brandies next door and puffed away like gangsters in 1940s black-and-white films. It was obviously the worst thing to do for my poor old lungs, but the cough disappeared quicker than you can say ‘tuberculosis’. So I continued boozing and puffing away, and then it was time for Charlie’s dinner to celebrate his 69th birthday.
But first I was driven to the offices of the London Spectator to give editor Fraser Nelson a bottle of his favorite Scotch whisky. Once there, I realized that I had forgotten to buy it, so I made do with making a fool of myself in front of Fraser and a pretty pregnant lady. The London cabbie who dropped me off said: ‘Don’t get any more sloshed than you already are, mate.’
Charlie’s dinner was an all-male do with his sons, George and Edward, and my boy, John Taki, providing the gaiety missing from the faces of older lefties who are close friends of the birthday boy. I sat next to the famous war photographer Don McCullin, who keeps his political opinions to himself and is a very cool cat. What made my evening, of course, were the patronizing looks of the self-regarding ‘enlightened’ folk who made up the rest. A couple of them looked so annoyed at my presence they made me feel like a combination of Messalina and Lady Macbeth. Here was this drunken older man, self-satisfied and dressed in a very expensive Anderson & Sheppard suit, with a silly smile on his face, trying to flirt with the young waitress.
After a while, Charlie’s boys and JT decided that I had tortured the dinner guests enough and deposited me in a taxi. The next day, my boy and I flew back to good old Helvetia. Once back on Swiss soil, I read that the Sackler family have sold their digs in the Bagel and are moving to Switzerland. Well, it’s a very smart move. Back in the good old US of A, the Sacklers’ Purdue Pharma is facing around 2,600 lawsuits implicating its OxyContin in users’ deaths.
Switzerland has a far more tolerant view of rich people whose methods of making the root of all envy causes people to drop dead. What they do outside the country is none of Switzerland’s business. And if they spend their ill-gotten gains here, everything’s hunky-dory. That is a smart outlook, but it tends to attract the wrong types. It’s one of the reasons I have to fly to London and New York to attend parties nowadays. The only wrong type who hasn’t bought a chalet in the Alps is Al Capone, and he has very good reasons for failing to buy.
This article is in The Spectator’s April 2020 US edition.