Inside the congregation of mostly middle-aged people was, by the look of it, meditating. They were in St James’s, Piccadilly, to hear a life-coach speak. Zelda Dinkiwicz had brought me. I met her in Los Angeles some years back. We robbed Borders in Westwood of its Deepak Chopras. On this occasion, however, I wasn’t following her in. It cost ten pounds. Around the corner you could buy Chinese duck for that. Also, I knew I’d feel out of place in their collective unconscious, informed as it might be by Celtic symbols and, perhaps, a few Celts bickering with Saxons over who let the Moor in. It would be okay if one of those women from Lord of the Rings piped up, “’twas I, for the Moor is my lover”. At which point I would point out I am not a Moor, a tired task at the best of times.
“He is welcome,” her father would say with classical English courtesy. “Be seated, dine — the Moor the merrier.”
We would sit to a dish of no potatoes, for there were none, followed by no tea for there was none. The British had yet to turn the East into a corner shop and were further still from using it as a petrol station.
“What does your father do in Persia?” asks Mr Plenterleif, the dad.
“He was a court jester but now he is in exile.”
“Was he subversive?”
“No, he just wasn’t very funny.”
“And your mother?”
“A belly dancer,” I tell him, and to his look of bemusement say, “Morris dancing without the sticks.”
“Morris dancing without sticks — how novel.”
“And with dancing.”
“– with dancing? Delightful.”
“What is the nature of your interest in Polly,” he asks.
Not knowing how to respond I tell the truth: “Well, her bosom is ample and… we share a fondness for pixies.”
“Do you practice a trade?” he inquires.
“Peasantry.” I say.
“You’re a peasant?”
“That’s what my father calls me.”
“How do you intend to support her?”
“She’s done okay without me, so far.”
“You must have a plan.”
“Gardening — it’s like Morris dancing without sticks. You might dig it here — if you’ll excuse the pun.”
“It’s fusing aesthetics with nature. Nice little rosebush there, cobbled path, fountain. You’ll love it.”
“Sounds like a right little earner. I suppose I’ll be paying for the wedding!”
“No, we’ll happily live in sin. It’s far cheaper.”
“Where are your parents?”
“They were on their way to the United States, couldn’t find it, now they’re in Sweden.”
“Impressive mythology, I’ve always thought. Not bad social democracy either.”
“Bunch of axe-wielding blonds, if you ask me.”
“Yes,” I say nervously.
“Can you go back to Persia?”
“I have passport issues.”
“Are you from London?” I ask, turning the tables.
“Cornwall,” he says.
Rather cheekily, I say: “Can you go back there or is there an Islamic government?”
A man in one of the pews turns around and looks at me as if to say, “nob”. I hadn’t even bought a ticket and here I was connected with a stranger on a Celt/Saxon-Moor level.
Days earlier I’d dreamt of going to Iran with my parents, as happens. The next day I asked my mother how she found it, if she had had the same dream. It was okay, she said, but in hers we went to Zimbabwe.
The talk nudged people towards their ambitions. Around four hundred were assembled in the church, clocking four grand for the organiser, not bad for a night’s work. At the pay desk I could see the altar. No one had bothered to drape or remove the imposing cross there. Religious symbols scare me. Once I hung a jacket over a cross in a church I was performing a school play in (or at least the other children were, I was a spotlight operator). My art teacher’s wife looked shocked but said nothing. As if in revenge, the sight of this cross cut a gash across my chest no-one could see. Okay, I exaggerate, but it undid my buttons.
The line to the table shortened. Banknotes recoiled, reluctant to join another’s coffers. My money doesn’t like to be a bit-part player when being spent. It wants a central role. It likes me to buy me duck.
Some weeks ago, I went to a restaurant. On the menu was a note in Chinese. I thought by ordering from it I would get a meal the people themselves would eat — not the tourist stuff. But the woman said: “We looking for waiter.”
I had a friend from Hong Kong at university, Simon. When other students walked past us, I’d speak mock Chinese to him to impress them and he would humour me, say something back.
In our local takeaway, however, he’d speak English to the owner. Cantonese and Mandarin were so different, he said, it would be like a duck talking to a goose.
Having decided not to go in, Zelda and I split. She had to feed her snakes. I made for Camberwell, an area in south London, I’ve just moved to. It’s a place where no one will think it slightly odd if you walk down the street and talk to yourself. You can even froth at the mouth while doing so wearing your grandmother’s cardigan.
There is much room for gentrification. The other day I found myself on a street corner quoting the bible: “Blessed are the middle class, said Jesus, for they shall inherit the earth.” Instead of repent, I shouted “Gentrify! Gentrify!” the first-rung homebuyer’s mantra. I was arrested for breach of the peace. During my time in a cell I contemplated my loyalty to the lower-working class and decided that the poor are great in theory but Engels never got on the number 28 to Kilburn.
I chanced upon a Cypriot café, ordered a moussaka, took a seat. A refrigerated lump — cooked with little love — was placed in the microwave. Two minutes. Then the guy twisted the dial back. There was no way I could eat, or pay for, what he was about to serve. Rather than argue I got out of the shop and ran. I ran and ran up a street until I was so far no one carrying lasagne, kleftico or any other nuked Mediterranean dish could follow me. I went home and boiled an egg.