When I lived in Ladbroke Grove, several of my neighbours used to disappear on Friday afternoon in their enormous wagons to go down to Wiltshire to their second homes for the weekend. I never envied them much. Oh, I envied the idea that they were off to the country, at least in the abstract, but when I saw them packing the wagon with dogs and clothes and food and children and furniture and rolls of kitchen paper and all the other things they should have been buying in Devizes from local shops, and thought of the frantic hours of driving which would precede and follow their country idyll, I gave thanks for the delights of Notting Hill.
My perspective is slightly different now.
I live in the depths of Wiltshire and go to London only on the odd occasion.
And they do seem to be odd occasions.
For instance, I was asked to do an after-dinner speech in January for a gathering of building surveyors, an offer which I accepted unhesitatingly because money was going to change hands, and because it was in the unlikely but interesting surroundings of the crypt of St Martin In The Fields, the elegant church which dominates one corner of Trafalgar Square.
I got to London early to have lunch with an old friend and then found myself with a whole afternoon and early evening to get through before the big event. It was cold, and I felt tired, and what I wanted more than anything was forty winks, but without a home in London I didn't know where I could have a quick siesta. I don't think I had ever encountered the problem before, and I thought nostalgically of the late Paul Jennings's half-joking invention of the ‘Zizzomat’, a sleeping space rather like an enlarged left luggage locker into which the tired businessman or traveller could insert himself for a quick zizz after having inserted some coins in the lock . . .
Well, I did what visitors to London are meant to do and went to an exhibition in the National Gallery (‘Painting Very Quickly in France In The Nineteenth Century’ or some such - a nice selection of Impressionist paintings) and emerged, as I always do from dutiful culture, feeling even more tired and pallid than before. It occurred to me that I could just get on a Circle Line train and fall asleep till I got round to my original station, which would give me somewhere warm and dry to snooze, but some second sense told me that the train would probably break down miles from home, and then some third sense told me: Why not go into St Martin's church itself and adopt a praying position? Nobody will disturb you there unless you snore . . .
And so I did. The last time I had entered the church it had been crammed full of people come to share in Ronnie Scott's memorial service. This time there was nobody except a couple of musicians doing some rehearsing who serenaded me for a while and then packed up and went; a couple of old chaps in homeless beards; a lady or two genuinely praying; and me, trying to find the best position in which I could a) look as if I was being devout b) go to sleep c) not attract any attention. It's usually the other way round for me in church. Thanks to a non-stop Christian upbringing I am now not much of a believer, so when I find myself at weddings or funerals I think it is hypocritical of me to kneel and pray, and I tend to lean forward in a sitting position instead with chin on my hands, looking like Rodin's The Man Pretending to Pray. Here in St Martin 's I wanted very much to look as if I were praying, so that I wouldn't be thrown out for dozing.
It was rather odd to be in a large space in central London with life teeming outside the windows and nothing much going on here, but it was very restful, and I slept well. The only thing that awoke me was an announcement that the church would now be closed for afternoon service, and would people please stop wandering round. For a fleeting moment I felt I should leave, but then realised that if I didn't wander round, I was quite safe, and indeed I think the people who arrived to celebrate afternoon service, which took place quite close to me, assumed that I was a fellow participant, if over-devout.
It must be several decades since I last sat through an ordinary church service, and it hasn't changed much, I think. Though as there were only a dozen or so celebrants, the clergyman didn't trust them much to sing, and insisted on saying the psalms. There was a prayer for the Prince of Wales, and one for the Queen Mother's health, and there was a prayer for ‘Clare to get her job back', which I think must have been a special request from someone in the congregation, and in and out of all this I slept and dreamt, while the light faded outside the church, and the night grew crispier and frostier. An enchanting experience . . .
I awoke in time for the dinner downstairs, which I joined, much refreshed. The building surveyors turned out be a jovial and stimulating lot, and when I finally got the last train home, I was never in the slightest danger of sleeping through Bath and finding myself in Weston-super-Mare. Years ago John Wain wrote a short story about a man who approached sleep as other people approach sex - as a voluptuous experience to be enjoyed in as many different ways as possible, from sleeping in dry leaves to snoozing in a crowded hall - which, for some odd reason, I have always remembered when I can never remember anything else he wrote, and I think I would unhesitatingly add sleeping in church to that.
Just so long as you don't get locked in by a zealous vicar. Now, that would be even worse than sleeping on till Weston-super-Mare.
The Oldie March 2001
Best By Miles 2008