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Tom Hollander

The stillness of the autumn morning is shattered by the sound of an old man retching his guts into the mews outside and I realise it’s time to move to the Cotswolds. It’s been creeping up on me. Over 200 different languages and dialects are spoken in this corner of north Kensington, so they say, and in the streets are to be found all the vibrancy and confusion that goes with them. I have loved it for ten years. But now I’ve become a curmudgeon. Yesterday I threw open a window and suggested loudly, in broad mockney, that the father encouraging his toddler to repeatedly honk the horn of his car should tell his little treasure to shut up. The man stared up at me in disbelief, ‘Er, no. You twat. He’s two years old!’ People on the street were starting to watch. I shouted back, brilliantly, ‘Well perhaps he shouldn’t be at the wheel of a f *** ing car’, then I closed the window quickly, suddenly frightened because my accent was slipping and I couldn’t think of anything more to say. My newly double-glazed windows did a reasonable job of muffling the onslaught of abuse as I shrank back into my desiccated bachelor interior, while man and boy leant on the centre of the steering wheel for a full minute and a half before screeching away in triumph. It’ll probably be one of the child’s first memories.

Idon’t have any children. And I’ve often found other people’s a bit annoying. But this summer they were great. I went to France to be with a good friend and his sons. His wife, their mother, died quite recently, and we were in the beautiful place where we all used to go together. It was just us boys, but as the days passed and we got to know each other again in her absence, she gradually reappeared and was there with us, beaming out of her sons.

Then Ibiza: le tout de west London masticating on meow meow and screeching about in dented rental cars between parties, while old Spanish ladies in black, bent double under bundles of wood, choke in their dust at the side of the road. I had a godchild there but I was too hungover to play with her. She was wearing sparkling red devil horns. She said I was ‘silly’ — very astute. Lastly, in Oxford, on a golden afternoon in August, I cycled across a meadow with my fearless niece Beatrice (aged six) perched on the saddle behind me. Then we jumped into the Thames by a bridge. Then we looked at some swans. Then, before we could be stopped by Child Protection Services, we went home for tea.

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Thedog days of summer end with the Notting Hill Carnival, during which my flat, for the rest of the year a gracious double-aspect maisonette over a shop, becomes a stationary carnival float bordered back and front by a sea of swarming, thumping, intoxicated revelry. On Monday evening as the flood recedes it leaves its detritus. . . and a small environmental disaster is revealed. The rivers of piss, unanticipated by Enoch Powell, create a gag-inducing stench that makes you long for several days of rain. This year’s heady bouquet of Red Stripe, rum and urea has lasted a fortnight. Rotting h ill.

The end of the summer is a dangerous time. 31/8/97 — the people lost their princess. 11/9/01 —America had two big teeth knocked out of its perfect smile. I’m always expecting a disaster at this time of year. If the summer was compressed to one glorious afternoon, this is the moment just before everyone goes home — the moment when someone gets hit in the mouth by a cricket ball, bites into an apple with a wasp in it, or spins off the carousel and fractures their arm. It always ends in tears.

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I’m particularly attached to this idea because it coincides with my birthday. Traditionally marked by me with an outpouring of self-pity and increasingly, as I get older, a health scare. The best example of this tendency was my 40th birthday: I cancelled a surprise party that a friend had been planning for nine months and took to my bed while I awaited the results of a herpes test. I couldn’t face the prospect of not kissing the serried ranks of my friends’ children as I struggled to remember their names, an ageing, pox-ridden bachelor. A few days later the test proved negative. By which time I had watched the entire oeuvre of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, and quite a lot of Fellini films. Interestingly, when a few days later I returned to work in Berlin, after a month’s hiatus, I discovered that the unpleasant rash on my inner thigh had in fact been caused by the chafing Nazi jodhpurs I was wearing in the film Valkyrie. A classic.

the spectator | 18 September 2010 |


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