Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Winter arrives

Tuesday 30th November 2010

The first snow has arrived, not crisp and even as in the north, but wet and half hearted. When I got up and looked out my back garden was covered in fox prints right up to the back door – so deep the animal must have been in it up to its groins if they have them.

A more unfortunate sign of winter – the return of Nigella Lawson, the Alma Mahler of TV cookery shows, with one of her so called cookery programmes and also some of the male equivalents – these programmes are mainly about what to do with turkey leftovers, several obviously filmed in the summer and tossed into the winter schedule, very odd considering how far we’ve still go to go until the big day.

I am off to Toulouse tomorrow for the D Telegraph. Feed a robin in the garden, he's not going to get anything while I'm away which is a bit bothering.

I worry about some of the local cats too - I have noticed a beautiful grey tabby roaming near the former council flats and in Bedford Park. He has no collar and is un-neutered. I mentioned him to Doreen at church who knows everything that goes on in the area. She said, "Oh that's Mr Tom. He's just moved in with two nurses. They are very nice people."

Canny cat. I was glad to hear that! There is a whole quiet sub-culture of middle aged and elderly women keeping their eye on the local cats which is very reassuring.

Sunday, 28 November 2010

Travel Plans


Walking along the road to church, through Bedford Park, wondered if I could estimate how near or far I am from death by looking at the position of other people on the pavement. Quite a distance behind, I saw a figure walking slowly, but pushing a bike. A young man came out of one of the big houses with a fretful child in a pushchair and got between us. When I looked back a few moments later the figure with the bike had gone.

Beautiful Advent Sunday service. The vicar and forty members of the congregation have just returned from the Holy Land. I didn’t know that there is an Anglican cathedral, St George’s, in Jerusalem, which has a partly Arab speaking congregation.

I would love to see it and resolved that I must go on their next visit in 2012.

After the service I told one of the church wardens that I would like to visit Jerusalem and he said he would make sure that I get there. I told him how much one of the doctors had worried me.

“Tell him to fuck off out of your head,” he said.

My friend in Poland’s son is getting married in May next year, and I aim to be there too.

Friday, 26 November 2010

Away Days

Most of the time feel fragile with fear waiting for the cancer tsunami to roar back and engulf me.

The chance to visit Venice for a few days, to write a feature for Private Banking Magazine, was a welcome diversion, and a bit of a challenge as anxiety is so draining and makes one want to hide away.

What can one say about Venice? That was a challenge too. I decided to pitch the piece squarely towards bankers and their wives and mistresses i.e. not much about art or churches.

Last time I was there, in 2005, I didn’t like it much, it rained all the time and I was perplexed by the place. The streets really were full of water and I couldn’t understand why people didn’t fall in all the time. I’m surprised that I didn’t as I was in a kind of daze I get when I am disorientated. I remember reading that old Woodrow Wyatt fell into the Grand Canal. He was smoking a cigar and came straight back up to the surface with the cigar still clamped between his teeth. Don’t know if it was still lit.

I must have gone in September, because it was cold and wet but still blanketed by tourists. At least 7,000 a day in St Mark’s Square. The lines of US college students talking about calzone and the price of “Bud,” defeated me. I didn’t get to see St Mark’s Basilica or the Doge’s Palace or very much at all. It was not a successful travel piece.

When I first arrived, I wrote in my diary about my enchantment and my disappointment :

One moment I was in a graffiti smeared multi-storey car-park, the next I was in a boat on the Grand Canal in the dark, gliding out of the 21st century into the 16th. The only light came from lanterns over narrow doorways. In the dark I saw shadowy figures standing on a small Baroque bridges looking down at us and vanishing, then I was hauled onto a creaking jetty and led through an unlit marble entrance hall, ankle deep in canal water.

“When I saw the carved wooden angels guarding the entrance to my apartment in Palazzo Mocenigo, I became a “Venice Idiot,” this was it – the ultimate place of enchantment.

“This was once the home of the powerful Mocenigo family, where they entertained royalty and political allies in the 1570’s.

Once up a marble stairway and inside, I had a thousand square feet of mosaic marble under my feet, silk brocade walls, six delicately painted wardrobes and Murano glass chandeliers overhead. This was the Venice of my dreams. I spent my first night in a bedroom once used by Lord Byron.

“The morning after, as so often happens, wasn’t so good. Who was this next to me in the morning light? It was the Piazza San Marco, epicentre of European culture, described by Henry James as “the drawing room of Europe,” where Sand, Stendhal, Balzac, Wagner, Mann, Byron, Rilke, Hemmingway and sundry Italian film stars enjoyed bumping into each other in the Florian and Quadri.

“Even in the 1960’s the comedian Kenneth Williams was delighted to spot Dirk Bogarde there, and to get an autograph from Eve Arden.

Today you make your way to the Florian through a slew of litter. Inside a scowling waiter will try to sell you “toasts” while Japanese tourists in identical sun visors troop past the window. The square is more like a fast-food joint than a salon, even though the product being gobbled is culture not calzone.”

This time I did some research before I went, reading Jan Morris’ Venice, looking at the Blue Guide, visiting the Canaletto exhibition at the National Gallery and attending a lecture at the Courtauld about Ruskin in Venice.

This made me feel prepared to take on La Serenissima, and also made me feel like a normal person – the person I was when I first went there, before I was so unexpectedly sentenced to death.

I had an itinerary laid out for me by Bellini Travel, a small bespoke company, and it involved a lot of shoe leather. I was determined to do it all, and see the Basilica and the Doge’s Palace this time. In November the ghastly crowds subside slightly so I wouldn’t have to queue for so long. I bought vouchers on line before I went, without realising that all the major churches charge separately.

I worked hard and at least understood where I was going. Bravely I thought I’d have dinner in Harry’s Bar, near St Mark’s, as most of the readers would have heard of it; once frequented by Hemmingway, Gina Lollabridgida, etc.

You have to push through tired Americans propping up the bar, and until recently the most jaded among them was the barman, Claudio Ponzio. He’d been there for thirty five years, making 700 Bellini a week in the summer. This time I heard that he was recently shipped off to Abu Dhabi where they’ve opened a new Harry’s, and perhaps saved his sanity.

I ordered a frozen Martini, which Truman Capote named a “silver bullet.” I followed with a small plate of baby artichokes, a John Dory which was rubbery and a lemon meringue pie, just like mother used to make, very badly, with no trace of lemon and it wouldn’t have passed the Greg Wallace test on Masterchef. With a glass of wine the bill came to 170 E.

After the alcohol hit me I felt very relaxed and wrote in my note book: “Stop fighting death because you can’t win.”

Full of confidence I rolled back up the tiny streets to the Gritti Palace where I was staying.

The next morning all that confidence had melted away. I found I had also written on a post card showing Harry’s Bar as a dot on a map of the lagoon: “Don’t fight it, no point anyway. Just lay down your arms and enjoy what ever is left. It won’t be too bad.”

At breakfast I had one of the most wonderful views in the world; a weak sun resting on the shoulder of Santa Maria Del Salute, but I looked at the post card and it seemed to have been written by a stranger.

There had been heavy rain early on, the lobby of the Gritti was flooded and the concierge sighed as he helped with rolling up the rugs. I made my way to St Mark’s Basilica, trying to walk on the raised portable tables they put up. I found myself in the middle of the square with some other tourists, stranded, with the walkways all round the edge. We had to wade through water to climb up onto them.

The Basilica was shut because of flooding. Owing to a brief reading of Miss Garnet’s Angel by Salley Vickers, I knew there was a north door I could go through somewhere round the back. I found it, and the walkways led me right into the chapel reserved for private prayer. I looked at the small icon of the Virgin over the altar and wept, then felt embarrassed. Fortunately there was no one in there except plumbers and workmen and no one took any notice of me. I crept out feeling empty and uncertain, no spiritual reassurance received.

I got on a vaporetto to Murano to see the Seguso glass factory. I checked my lipstick in my handbag mirror, and in the sharp light of the lagoon noticed that my eyebrows had returned, and unfortunately some hair on my upper lip, which didn’t used to be there. I hadn’t brought any tweezers along as I haven’t used them for so long.

After Murano, rushing to get back to St Mark’s where a visit to the private palazzo Loredan had been arranged, I made a quick detour to the cemetery island and the graves of Diagalev, Stravinsky and Ezra Pound. It’s a graceful, tranquil spot and it was touching to see the little pink ballet shoes put on Diagalev’s tomb. Stravinsky had the usual roses and Pound a rather suburban shrub, not right for him at all, shards of Murano glass, broken bottles or smashed up flowers would be more appropriate.

On my last morning I had a few hours free before the 12 noon check out, when I had planned to see the Basilica properly, and the Doge’s residence. I didn’t realise how tired I was, or perhaps it was the fault of the dark shutters, but I went to bed at 10pm, felt very restless, woke up at 11. It seemed strange that only an hour had gone by as I felt I had been in bed for hours. I thought I would never get back to sleep and decided to dress quickly and go down to the lobby to use their computer, to kill the dreaded hours of night. When I got there I noticed it was day light outside – I felt a sense of panic as I asked the date. It was the 18th. I had slept from 10pm till 11 am the next day.

I was all of a do-dah then, rushing to get a late breakfast, stuffing in bread rolls and prunes under the two flying cupids in a golden stucco frame, painted by Tiepolo in 1740. I still haven’t seen the Basilica or the Doge’s esteemed home. Wonder if I ever will!

In Marco Polo airport felt an odd pricking sensation, realised later that it must be the pubes coming back.

Sunday, 14 November 2010

An Angel in the Living Room


How’s this for a bad start to a day; 9am decided to order some wine from Tesco on line, using my vouchers. Last month they went out of date before I got round to using them. Got to the “check-out” thinking, this is easy, then it wanted me to register or start a new account. As I once had an on line account with them years ago, it wouldn’t accept a new account and need my old password. I couldn’t remember which cat’s name I was using at the time, so I had to apply for another. An hour later it hadn’t come. Tried to get through to one of their numerous electronic numbers. Permanently engaged. Speak to a Scots lassie on another extension who says she’ll send me a new password, and also advises me not to try extension three for on line shopping as no one can use their vouchers on line and everyone is ringing up to complain. No new password arrives. It would have been simpler to have used a phone in the first place. Write a letter of complaint wondering, uneasily, if I am the only person left who still does this?

Unexpectedly the doctor I spoke to last week then rang to tell me I hadn't had a blood test and needed to come back for one. They are like vampires those doctors. I had one when I went in on the wrong day, the week before. She obviously didn't know that and I forgot to tell her.

Then I made the mistake of talking to her about our last chat, which had become so muddled in my head. She chose her words carefully but it was all dire and tipped me back into the terror which had been ebbing away.

“No one knows how you will respond to the chemo as it’s so early in your treatment,” she says. “Early?” Of course it’s the start, not the end.

Some people are still alive after being diagnosed in 2003, but she says, that is after “a couple more rounds of chemo.” Only a minority have long remissions.

Heard the eleventh hour being declared on the radio, national silence falling like a stone, while sitting at the computer I felt as if my own life had been snatched away by a silent, sneaking disease, as effectively as by sniper or shell fire.

I’d got a great day planned; pay over the money for the new car, two exhibitions at the RA, meet friends later and go to the Private View of the Discerning Eye exhibition, where my painting, Chemo I is on show.

Thanks to Tesco and the conversation with the doctor tears had run into my make-up. I decided to try out the wig, as I am going to Venice on Monday and think it might make me feel more confident with style conscious Italians.

As I set out I cautiously observed people’s looks. They didn’t seem to notice the wig and I didn’t get the same sidelong glances I get when I go out with just the turban. The shaggy thing hangs down into my eyes, covering up my lack on eyebrows.

In the bank I became boiling hot, and felt the remains of the makeup sliding off my forehead and nose. The girl behind the counter looked at me scornfully, what fright must she have seen before her? Her voice was very curt and unfriendly. In my hurry to get out I forgot to get my Euros for the trip to Italy.

As soon as I got to the RA I slid into the ladies loo and removed the wig. The turban felt much more normal.

Back in the Treasures of Budapest exhibition carried on where I left off before. I was stuck by a painting of Christ healing a man, by Tiepolo. It was so wonderfully humane with modern looking figures. I spoke to it, in my head, urgently, admitting for the first time how much I want to live, how much I don’t want to go back to that clinic. After the intensity of this I felt slightly better, as if I had managed to release my subconscious in some way.

In the afternoon as I was drawing St Roch, focussing on his sore leg with its wonderful sharply sculpted knee, my friend Helena appeared behind me. Then my friend Ann from the clinic also arrived. We had an enjoyable time in the Friends’ Room, with tea and shortbread, then set off in the rain and dark to the Discerning Eye at the Mall Gallery, Ann feeling her way with her white stick, whilst I limped along on throbbing nuropathetic feet, what a couple of old crocks we now are!

Quite a good show, lots of wine but no food. Prince Charles had two paintings in, the usual tightly constrained water-colours. One had some very tall, pointy poplar Cyprus trees, which made me wonder if he is having some sexual insecurities. Next to his work it said, “Price on application.” Much of the work was wildly overpriced, it would have been interesting to make that phone call.

He didn't win any prizes and neither did I. First prize, £5,000, went to a sickly looking confection called, “Strawberries and Ice-cream,” showing just that, one of those airbrushed, photographic things, without a visible brush mark. This was rather worrying as I thought the Discerning Eye was one show left which eschewed paintings which aren't paintings but copies. I can't understand why judges go for them.

Helena hurried off to get her train leaving Ann and I together. It was as if we both breathed out with relief – like two compatriots from a foreign country, eager to speak their own language together – ours is the language of cancer-land; symptoms, pains, lingering effects of the operation, what this doctor said, what that one said that was different, things other people have said, the reaction of her partner, feeling our way towards prognosis, and the fear which is the culture and the continent we share.

Friday 13/11/10

Letter from the hospital saying that when they last saw me I had, “no residual disease.” It added that we had had "a candid talk about the future."

All I need now is the faith to live fully. But I want to know that I am cured. If an angel appeared in my living room and said that I certainly was, I wouldn’t be that surprised to see him, after all this praying before old master paintings, but I probably wouldn’t believe him.

Monday, 8 November 2010

Living With It


The doctor said that if it comes back in a year they will be disappointed, if it comes back in two that won’t be so bad and they can treat it again. And then presumably again, and again. So, a remission of two years is good, not sure, her words are all muddled in my head, lost in a fug of dread.

She also said, “It is so early in your treatment, that we can’t tell.”

I’m at the early stage of it, the long haul, contortions which often prove so futile. I am not that scared of death. I can imagine lying in a hospice somewhere gently fading away, it’s the wretched journey you have to go on to reach that point which is so fearful and daunting.

To try and get on with a normal life again I arranged to meet a friend at the Royal Academy to see the Treasures of Budapest Exhibition. She is a “friend” of the RA and has a card for the Friends’ Room; I gave up my card sometimes ago as it seemed like an unnecessary luxury. Now seeing the queue for the restaurant and the impossibility of getting a seat in the cafĂ© decided to join again, £85 just so that I can sit in the Friends’ Room without hassle or queuing. I don’t even like the Friends’ Room much, it is full of rich old ladies with short cropped hair and must be one of the most genteel spots in Europe. What the hell. What am I saving my money for?

The exhibition of the work once owned by the amazing Esterhazy family of Budapest is so extensive that I only get part of the way round, no where near the modern stuff, including the lesbians by Schiele, so craftily put on the poster.

It’s a wonderful collection but a lot of the work is about death and suffering. There are also some polychromatic wooden carvings of St Roch, showing his ulcerated leg, and St Sebastian wallowing in his arrow wounds. While the gallery attendant was looking away, I quickly touched the shiny wooden toe of both saints - invoking the ancient idea that touch can heal, magical thinking.

They are similar to the Spanish sculptures I saw right at the beginning of my ordeal. I can just about focus, but the doctor’s words keep reverberating in my mind. Realise that I am in a fix – it’s like a bad dream from which I just cannot wake and never will.

I asked her if any of her patients live to be old? She side-stepped me by saying that most are diagnosed when they are already old. I take that as a no, and the number five haunts me, as if I have been given a death sentence suspended for five years.

Being with my friend helps a lot, but no words can change anything and there is no escape.


Decide to buy a new car. Approaching garages and the strange creatures who work in them is as tormenting as anything depicted in those Mediaeval paintings, Hieronymus Bosch meets Arthur Daley, and that should take my mind off things.

Try out a Vauxhall and arrange to see a Ford, then decided to take the advice of the men in my local garage and go for a VW Fox. In times of stress, get a German engine.

Luckily for me, Adam, the salesman is Polish and quite civilised. It is actually quite pleasant being with him, he’s not some spiv from another planet who speaks an entirely different lingo. We go for a test drive. The clutch feels oddly high and stiff but I manage OK.

It makes me think of when my Dad used to get a new car, the excitement of joining him on the test drive, then the strange pride of the “running-in” notice he’d put in the back. In those days cars had an infancy and difficult adolescence before they somehow matured into smooth running purring beasts. He understood that process just as he understood how to deal with the senility of TV sets. We would shout out, “Dad, the telly’s gone wonky,” meaning that the line hold had gone again making the picture zig-zaggy, or people on screen looked attenuated or stumpy, as if they were in distorting mirrors. He would settle it with a simple bang of his fist on the top of the set.

Adam offers me a car warrenty of 36 months. I wonder which will run out first, me or the machine. What does he think, with me sitting there as bald as a coot? He gives no indication that he has noticed anything strange.

Signing papers I remember that I’ve also got a mortgage which has to be paid off in ten years. I might not even be here by then. It’s mind and spirit boggling.

I’ve got an endowment policy coming up in 2012 – what a magic sounding year; the Olympics, the Queen’s Jubilee, my endowment, and perhaps my death, or my mother’s.

6pm bonfire party at the vicarage in Ealing. Parking is restricted till 7.30pm By the time I find a parking space I have missed all the food and the fireworks. There are pans of greasy water containing no frankfurters and a slew of used plastic cutlery. People stand about in the dark as a small fire dies down inside a small brazier, eating rolls containing nothing except tomato sauce. Apparently there are vegetarian sausages in the kitchen, but no one wants them. Enjoy standing about in the wet holding a sparkler and chatting.

On the way home pay a call on my friend who looks after Maisie when I go away. There are a lot of guinea pigs on the carpet and they all stop whatever they were doing when they see me. They huddle together warily, except for one who stays in bed by herself watching me from a distance. Elaine has a new hamster. Another sign of modern times – it doesn’t look like a hamster to me. When I was a child hamsters were very small, square, pinkish colour and they were utterly boring. This is obviously a rat which has been crossed with a hamster or perhaps just lost its tail. It’s long and large, with a pointed nose and fine whiskers. He is also delightfully clever. He sorts everything she gives him into groups, putting all the things he doesn’t like into the area he uses for a loo. He keeps what he likes in his play area. Hamsters never used to put anything anywhere but in their pouches. They must be like A level students, increasing their intelligence exponentially every year defying all previously known laws of evolution.

In the evening when I get home and sit by myself my spirits sink and I think I might go mad. There is no one to help.

Saturday 6th Nov.

The shock of the doctors has passed a bit and I feel more confident. There is so much to do – I have to clear out a space under my stairs so that I can have the damp treated. There are boxes and paintings that have been in there since 1995. I am going to the church to volunteer to sell Christmas cards. American actress Elizabeth McGovern, currently starring in Downton Abbey on ITV turns up to open the new Christmas shop. She has tiny little eyes like currents and the skinniest legs I've ever seen. You don't get to see them on TV when she is dressed like an Edwardian.

The rest of the day is busy, I've got a painting to get on with, have to research my forthcoming trip to Venice, a friend is coming over in the afternoon and I am going to a film with other friends in the evening. Seeing people, being busy is the only way to feel that life is flowing normally again even though it isn’t.

In the church meet a young woman from Brazil whom I have seen there a few times before. We have a chat, she doesn’t speak much English but reveals that she thinks St Michael’s is a Roman Catholic Church. She obviously doesn’t notice that the Pope is never mentioned.

I tell her it’s protestant, Church of England but she looks blank. Realise I have no idea how to explain this to her. Someone from Wembley recently told me he has had the same experience with some Rumanian Catholics. There is a new kind of ecumenism, by mistake.

In Turnham Green tube hear two young Sikh boys chatting. One says to the other that it is very difficult to get by tube from Ealing to Hampstead. He says this is “social engineering,” and “by no means an accident.” I would like to talk to them about this, but they are going west while I am going east and as usual everyone is moving at a terrific rate.

Years ago I heard almost the same thing from the late, unlamented Bernie Grant. He said there was apartheid in England and if he set foot in the leafy streets of Hampstead he would be arrested. I never think about Hampstead as it is so far away, as remote from me as Inverness. Perhaps they have a police state up there and have influenced the BBC to keep quiet about it.

The young man’s words also indicated to me that he thinks Hampstead is wealthy and posh, and Ealing rough. That is another change. Only a few years ago Ealing was a very select place. A bourgeois suburb of expensive family houses. Now you can see the population is poorer, a lot of women are veiled, the shops are going down market with “pound-stretchers,” and charity shops arriving. The high street no longer looks elegant and expensive and seems to be joining up with Southall further down the track.

In London these changes can happen so quickly you don’t notice it until it’s become a new reality around you.

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Goodbye Garry


Since my last scan I have been going through the motions of normal life but most of my mind is fixed on dodging cancer, as if I am on the run trying to evade an implacable enemy. I do this by considering everything I eat and drink, and even how I sit and stand, whether any elastic is sticking into me, adjusting my clothes in case they are too tight, trying not to make any wrong move, holding my breath – waiting to exhale but knowing I can’t.

At the weekend I had a very full diary - cinema, theatre, dinner party, lunch. I had a brief chat with Michael Gove in the National Portrait Gallery. I used to know him years back when he was on The Times and whether he really remembered me or not he was charming. As a result of seeing so many people I started to feel almost normal again. The anxiety began to fade but then I had the final consultation at Garry to face on Tuesday.

In the clinic I met Ann and Loretta and the nurses now looked familiar. It was nice to sit and chat, but then I had to see a doctor. I asked to see a woman as in my experience they are just so much more empathetic. This one was kindly and thoughtful, picking her words carefully. We spent some time looking at a cross section body scan scan of my insides, as if I had been cut in half and viewed from above. I saw my heart for the first time. What a bag of wonders, and the not so wonderful. "There is the poo full of air holes," said the doctor sounding fascinated. It's odd how doctors now choose to talk in nursery language.

“I want you to go away from here and forget us,” she said. That sounded good. But then we got into the longer term view. She seemed to think that the cancer would probably come back within two years. Worse, this seemed to be considered a long remission! There also seems to be a five year cut off point beyond which few people go. She did admit that no one can know what will happen. "It's so early yet in your treatment," she added. Not what I wanted to hear.

Back in the clinic Ann and I sat for a long time trying to convince ourselves that we would be among the lucky ones, bargaining with fate and statistics, reasoning that considering our blood, our scans, our treatment, we have every chance. A doctor had told her that it was 50/50 all a matter of chance – so we cling to that.

This England

27th October 2010

Visit Garry Weston for the results of the scan – all clear.

Don’t feel any elation or even much simple joy at having come through so well and got the whole thing over, because everything is overshadowed by the doctor’s grim prognostications. I was obviously an idiot to once think that it was a simple matter of getting the treatment and being cured.

I have heard that this is the way of modern medicine; kindly patrician doctors once kept information back, but now they give you the full works. It’s one of the many aspects of modern culture that puzzles and disturbs me.

Leaving Garry I discovered I’d lost my Oyster travel card. I was directed to Security. To my surprise, I can still be surprised by these things, the man in charge of security could hardly speak a word of English and had no idea what an Oyster card was. He asked a young man behind him who was sweeping the floor in the dark, closet like office. This man seems to have no English at all. I am sorry to say it but he looked just like a Coolie, a Chinese indentured labourer from an old Hollywood film. By a lot of shaking of heads they indicated that they hadn’t got whatever it was I was looking for – no point in asking them to have a really good look, as we would have needed a phrase book if not an interpreter.

Perhaps calling these people “security,” was just one of those modern euphemisms. They might have been what used to be called, “lost property.” There may be other forms of “security” in the hospital, but this encounter didn’t suggest anything very secure to me. The Imperial College hospitals are currently investing heavily in vivisection and a new block is going up at Hammersmith specialising in testing animals, this includes working on the best treatment for wounds sustained in military combat – any animal rights activists out there should take note – security very leaky under Imperial College umbrella.

On Sunday I had another surprise. Got to St. Michael’s early intending to sit outside on the war memorial to read for awhile before the kick off. Along with the smokers, I like to sit surrounded by the elegantly named Chiswick dead; Lyonel FC Wall, Derek Lutyens, C. Cecil Brooks Ward, C. Edgar Allinson, C. Ernest Brooks, Cyril Faustin, etc. It started raining so the smokers departed and I went into the vestry.

The jolly, friendly woman who works for a fair trade charity was setting things out for the small Sunday School, or "children's church" as it's now called, which goes on during the service. Her assistant hadn’t turned up so she asked me to help put out some crayons. I was quickly stopped by another woman who said I couldn’t do anything more unless I’d got a Criminal Records Bureau certificate to say I was safe to work with children.

I did have one, two years ago, when I was doing some tutoring, but that was not enough – to put out more crayons I needed to have another certificate authorised by the church. “But my assistant hasn’t shown up,” the fair trade lady explained. It was decided that I could stay when the children arrived, but only if the official teacher stood beside me at all times, making sure I wasn’t doing some compulsive kiddy-fiddling. I explained that I don’t even like children much, but that doesn’t wash these days.

The service included the baptism of a beautiful baby girl. As we left our pews and crowded towards the font the vicar beckoned us further forwards so that I was right up close when he poured what looked like a pint of water over her head. She looked surprised but didn’t cry, and when he up-righted her she looked quite content. He is terribly good with babies they hardly ever cry in his arms. Surprisingly no special CRB certificates were issued for the congregation but I expect he has to have one.

The baby had beautiful relatives, including a grandmother dressed in a velvet suit the colour of damask roses. In true Chiswick tradition the service was followed by champagne in the vestry. It amuses me that among those we are praying for is someone recovering from a skiing accident. We haven’t yet prayed for hedge-fund managers down on their luck but I might have missed that one.

Along with the champagne we had some shortbread and jam biscuits made by young Father Stephen on his day off. They looked like Jammy Dodgers.

A neatly dressed little boy came up to me. He was so small that I had to crouch down to talk to him. He told me very seriously that Doctor Who was a great fan of Jammy Dodgers. He described a conversation between the Doctor and a Dalek who’d never heard of Jammy Dodgers. Damn foreigners! I asked if he would like to have one. He said, “No, thank you, not at the moment,” and beetled off. I could see him as a Radio 3 presenter of the future. He was adorable and fascinating but happily I did not feel like molesting him.