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If you are not the biggest fan of travelling, you can avoid it by inviting friends from other lands to come to your home town, to your home even. I don’t have a spare room but for £10 a night my daughter will sometimes agree to rent me her bedroom for any guests and move into her little sister’s twin bed for a few days. (Her little sister has not yet suggested a fee structure for the rental of that bed but it cannot be long now.) In this way, with guests in residence, you import a bit of holiday feeling without having to leave your house, without quite having to leave your chair, which is generally my main aim in life, for better or worse.
Inviting a sense of the new into your home, you give your life and spirits a breath of fresh air, for virtually no emotional outlay. And then, it’s good on occasion to be forced to raise your game. You start by serving better meals. (I roasted a whole turbot on Sunday and poached some forced rhubarb to go with a panettone bread and butter pudding, like it was normal). You go on what used to be called pleasure outings. You take in shows at a much higher frequency. You see an astonishing street dance performance and follow it with tea in a restaurant, served from three-tiered cake stands, sandwiching scones with cream and jam, spreading fresh apricot compôte on mini Gugelhupfs while arguing wittily about the correct pronunciation of that yeasty Austrian confection.
All of a sudden, your home leisure pursuits are designed to dazzle. You engineer chess tournaments, pretend you only slenderly know what a television is. You serve up witty banter along with fresh hot rolls for breakfast in your best polka dot pyjamas and peep-toe, fluffy high-heeled mules, as though you are refugees from a drawing-room comedy.
Your parenting becomes the stuff of illustrated manuals: you have completed three collages with the children before dawn and, for the long-running story with which you soothe them at night concerning two little dogs called Eggs and Bacon, you invent two whole new characters in the form of visiting dogs called Cheese and Ham who, as guests, must be treated at all times with a brand of hospitality designed to stun. There is even talk of reading out loud from The Waste Land after supper, or some of the milder passages of Eugene Onegin, in translation, naturally . . . You bring to mind that T-shirt you sometimes see on the denizens of Camden Market that reads, “Jesus is coming, look busy.”
Then, just before it is too late, you realise you have created a monster and that monster is you. Why are you torturing your innocent guests in this fashion? So you swing right back the other way, a bit like the jury in Twelve Angry Men. You show your friends that, deep down, you are ever so slightly slovenly. You don’t stub out fags into the yolk of your morning egg or anything in that line but you bring a little stylish squalor and slapdash to the way you do things, just to make it all a bit less relentless. You let them get a glimpse of your turbulent underside. Your anecdotes are suddenly less sonnets and bonnets and more monosodium glutamate, reality TV and a perfume named Justin Bieber’s Girlfriend. You allow yourself to be seen sans mascara, wearing bobbly slipper-socks and a pained expression. You release the odd meaningful sigh at life’s travails. You slightly overcook some roast potatoes. You spend an hour jabbing away at your phone. You show a healthy amount of displeasure that there seems to be quite a lot of wax stuck to the stair carpet. You hardly even intervene when a clarinet is used as a weapon in a childish dispute. You make mugs of instant coffee for everyone and serve it with Cadbury’s Mini Rolls. (This is the lunch I used to have at my mum’s.)
Then, you see you have gone too far, so you swing back again. You put on some Chopin Ballades and begin a conversation about sourdough starters until, a minute in, you realise people think you are talking about someone you know who is a “saddo”. Your guests head out for the evening to an old-school Italian restaurant in the neighbourhood, looking mightily relieved. You visit your mother in hospital and sing her some songs, looking out at the lights of London from the 14th-floor ward. Back home you fall asleep in front of The Voice, using your coat as a comfort blanket. And then you realise, nobody minds particularly about how you seem or who you are or what you do.
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