However the columnist in me was awfully envious of the raw material Alice had at her disposal. She had a publisher husband who was also a brilliant Oxford classicist, many children, a house in London (plus boa constrictor), a house in Wales, a faithful family retainer and lots of weather of the sleet and snow variety. She also had cigarettes, booze and Catholicism and was mates with Kingsley Amis, Oliver Sacks, Iris Murdoch, and Beryl Bainbridge (more of whom later).
All I’ve got is one ex-husband, one child, a small flat in Nelson (plus Fox Terrier), a benign climate and atheism. Not a faithful family retainer anywhere. A lesser person might have sunk into rue and envy of Alice’s literary life in London but an examination of my own small life soon turned up something uniquely mine. Poor Alice probably had to rely on black cabs and the Tube to get around. But I have a scooter.
There's such pleasure in standing upright while sailing along with the wind blowing through your hair. My hair may be turning fifty shades of gray, but when I’m scooting about I feel like a kid again. Transported back to when the days were full skating and skipping and hopscotching, of climbing trees and dangling off the jungle gym. Or belly-flopping into the school pool so often that the chlorinated water fizzed up your nose and the water made slap marks on your skin.
I used to have a cycle, but I always felt slightly anxious riding it - a dear friend died of head injuries sustained in a bike accident - and my body didn’t like exerting itself in a sitting position. The minute I stepped onto the scooter though, I felt absolutely at home.
Scooting seems to suit me better than pedalling and there’s no anxiety to dilute the pleasure of standing upright while sailing along with the wind blowing through my hair.
Back then you were so silly with exuberance and curiosity that you packed a tin can with crackers just to see what would happen when you lit all their fuses at once. Or you’d hack through the rind of a golf ball to find out what was inside.
When you’re in that kind of mood, the playfulness of others becomes more apparent and the world is much more entertaining. For example, I had great fun the other day watching a middle-aged Asian man dashing about Neale Park attempting to catch a butterfly in a bright pink laundry basket. And I admired the handiwork of the anonymous prankster who had hoisted a supermarket trolley into the branches of a tree on Weka Street and left it dangling there like an urban art work.
I got my scooter from Jim at Village Cycles in Richmond. His playful enthusiasm for things with wheels is very much alive. He didn’t bat an eyelid at me, the 60-something woman lurking amongst the kid’s scooters. Instead he gave me frank information about the scooters they had in stock, and about some they didn’t stock. He encouraged me to try out the scooter I liked and then he urged me to try it again after he’d modified the handlebars to fit me better. No hard sell, just competence and know-how coupled with lots of enthusiasm and encouragement.
But back to Alice Thomas Ellis. Alice didn’t have a scooter in the 1980s and neither did she have Google. Exploiting this contemporary advantage I did a bit of on-line research about Alice after I had finished reading her columns and uncovered an intriguing bit of literary gossip.
One of Alice’s best friends was the English novelist Beryl Bainbridge. Beryl lived just round the corner from Alice in Camden, and Alice’s clever husband Colin was her publisher. But shock horror, Colin did more than publish Beryl’s books: he also carried on an adulterous affair with her for 15 years right under Alice’s nose. Thank you Google, for delivering that snippet of literary gossip. But wait there’s more. And it’s closer to home.
Beryl Bainbridge’s first husband was an English artist called Austen Davies with whom she had two children. After they divorced Davies married a New Zealand woman called Belinda, and for a while they lived downstairs in a house in Camden while Beryl and her children lived upstairs. Davies’ wife took no offence. “Beryl was lovely” she told the Daily Mail earlier this year, “We all went on holidays together and had so much fun”. Then, in the 1970s Austen Davies and Belinda moved to Nelson where he became the first professional director of the Suter Gallery. Well, whaddya know?!