Letter from London: A Case in Point

It is 11:50 in the morning. The winter sun spreads across the cluttered tabletop and an unread copy of Night Train by Martin Amis sits on top of Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia. Both writers are dead now but it doesn’t seem that long ago since both were at different times considered two of the most promising young writers in London. Nor do I know why I have so many books always to hand as I never find time to read them all. Aided by some swift Kenyan coffee, I leave the table to itself and take a bus and Tube train to Piccadilly where by some weird coincidence I see the same two books again at a well-known bookshop.

Piccadilly was bought over 400 years ago by a man named Robert Baker who made a killing buying and selling piccadils. Piccadils were those massive lace-like popular collars at the time. Think of the tall and drifting Elizabethan gentlemen in Terrence Malick’s atmospheric The New World — when is Malick not atmospheric? — brushing past Pocahontas as she is presented to the London court as a ‘civilized savage’. Well, these men wore piccadils. As for Night Train and In Patagonia presumably haunting me for not having read them, I make the strange decision to start one of them — Night Train— right there and then in the bookshop, knowing I will at least be able to continue it once home. In this tight little Amis parody of the American detective genre, narrator Detective Mike Hoolihan is in fact a woman, or so I am discovering. ‘What I am setting out here is an account of the worst case I have ever handled,’ she says promisingly.

After a successful meeting nearby, I found myself passing the extensive Grade II Listed BAFTA building where I last had to see an elderly British film legend about why I had not been remunerated for several months of work in South Africa. Independent filmmaking, as I have stressed before, is an insecure business. Of course, it is Oscar time again and we tend only to hear of the successful productions. These are the ones costing enough money to make a hundred movies. I wonder if the French might not have a better idea with their generous subsidies of two billion euros annually. Many good works come from this and none of them with cripplingly high budgets, though there are some critics of the scheme. It is ironic that in this age of continued endless streaming, there remains a paucity of truly good US or UK films, as opposed to those ones not ready to rush into production before the scripts are done. Still, none of us are perfect, certainly including me. ‘And now that you don’t have to be perfect, you can be good,’ as I always like quoting John Steinbeck.

‘I only hope that we don’t lose sight of one thing,’ famously said Walt Disney, ‘that it was all started by a mouse.’ At the far end of the Jubilee Line platform at Westminster is the very same mouse I am pretty sure I see every time. It always steps out just as a train is about to arrive as if it has a friend it needs to see further down the line in Canary Wharf. Then the dream ends and I watch it dart back to the wall. Mind you, the Houses of Parliament are above. They have a mouse problem. Maybe this one mouse was suddenly called away by the House of Lords to vote on delaying Rishi Sunak’s Rwanda treaty.

The first India-England cricket Test began last week in Hyderabad in southeastern India. It didn’t get off to a good start. Not if you were an England fan. I don’t just mean the cricket itself. I don’t just mean the English fans in the stadium having had their water taken but then discovering there was none for sale within. What I mean is that England batsman and off-break bowler Shoaib Bashir was forced to fly back to London because of a visa problem. Bashir is a popular 20-year-old British Muslim of Pakistani heritage. Because of this, the refusal led to accusations of prejudice by India’s increasingly pro-Hindu regime during an election year. Thankfully, for cricket lovers everywhere, Shoaib Bashir has now been issued a visa.

‘It is remarkable how closely the history of the apple tree is connected with that of man,’ once said Thoreau. Before there were even piccadils, there was in London wassailing. It is a continued ritual begun in the Middle Ages. A winter pastime, it involves creeping around cider apple orchards, singing and chanting to the trees to ensure a good harvest. (There are also house-visiting wassails.) Only last week I discovered footage of this happening close to where I live. This was in an allotment where trees were being wassailed by a man with a cross-cross of green and red bands around his jacket and a hat with a brocade of leaves around the brim. ‘Wassail!’ he was shouting, as he banged a pan and blew a horn: ‘Wassail!’ Then he placed a piece of toast into the boughs, saying it was to attract birds which he hoped would eat the bugs and keep the trees healthy. I also couldn’t help but notice the man’s large Adam’s apple.

I am at my table again. Night Train is to my right. (Detective Mike Hoolihan has been wondering about the cosmos.) Suddenly the doorbell rings — it is an upbeat sound that shakes me from my thoughts like a bowl of colourful beads. Expecting delivery of a small but not very interesting package, I descend the stairs dully and unlock the main door. There is a man on the steps standing upright with a suitcase in his hand. He looks like he has come to stay. This is most strange. I am not expecting any guests. He must have come far, too, as there are airline stickers on the handle. Now, I am not an unfriendly person but I do express concern and bewilderment to this man. Then I realize something. Of course. What am I thinking about? It is my suitcase. It is the one I lost at Heathrow Airport well over six weeks ago when I caught my seriously delayed flight via Paris to East Africa. ‘I am so sorry!’ I say abruptly. I thank the man and apologize once again for the confusion.

With a newfound spring to my step, I carry the suitcase back upstairs where I place it — almost adoringly — on the table right next to an even fresher pile of books. (James Salter’s A Sport and a Pastime among them.) I open the suitcase and carefully examine the contents like I should be doing these books. I like what I am seeing. The camera lights. The iPhone stand. The freshly heeled boots. The orange shirt. The list goes on. Everything, absolutely everything, is still there. How could I have doubted it? How could I even have doubted it? I take out all the clothes and wash them. The equipment I return to where it belongs. As Detective Mike Hooligan in Night Train might have said, the case is now closed.

Peter Bach lives in London.