A fortnight ago, I shared with readers my encounter with four total strangers during a four hour cab journey from Waterloo to Basingstoke. I can report no dramatic consequences – none of them, to my knowledge, has eloped with another. I thought I had met enough strangers in unusual circumstances, but more surprises lay in store.
MP’s like to give the impression that we spend every waking hour in our constituencies; visiting schools, serving coffee to pensioners, sorting letters, cutting ribbons, selecting winning raffle tickets, picking up litter or, recently, shooting Oddjob in Casino Royale with a water-pistol; but of course we don’t. When the House of Commons is sitting, we spend every waking hour at Westminster and, if the truth be told, the occasional non-waking hour. And when we are not at Westminster, we are in our flats in the shadow of Big Ben.
I live in a block of 25 flats. London is more impersonal than Andover. Although we have all clubbed together to buy the freehold from our spendthrift landowner (using legislation I introduced ten years ago) no one could call us collegiate. We grunt and nod at each other in the lift. We have now got to know each other a lot better. We have had the taxi cab experience.
This is because, on two recent occasions, the fire alarm has gone off in the middle of the night. Happily, there has not been a fire. But of course you don’t know that when the alarm interrupts your dream as you are about to skewer the Prime Minister at Question Time.
When the alarm went off the first time, I sprang out of bed, put on a dressing gown and slippers, and headed down the staircase. I was outside, breathless and shivering in the snow, before anyone else. That is when I discovered that there is an alternative approach to fire alarms. My neighbours emerged a little later, the ladies superbly coiffured and made up, the gentlemen expensively dressed in silken outfits; and they had all had the time to collect many accessories for the occasion - thermoses, books, mobile phones and iPods. While the London Fire Brigade combed the evacuated building for traces of smoke, we conversed. On the pavement at 2 am, the ice was literally broken. I got some free legal advice from a barrister, some tips from a hedge fund trader, and advice on where best to eat out from the gourmet in the block. In exchange they received a somewhat biased commentary on the political scene. After about 40 minutes, a man with a yellow helmet pronounced the building safe and the party was over.
When the same thing happened a little later, it was like a school reunion. Friendships were renewed, gossip updated and refreshments shared. As the weeks roll by, my network of friends expands in unpredictable ways.
PS. Readers will gather from this that I lead a self-sufficient life in London. This does not stop my dear wife from assuming I have no domestic skills; when she leaves the marital home near Andover for occasional trips abroad, she leaves notes everywhere.
Notes about what to have for each meal. Where to find the ingredients. How to cook them. How to wash up. In which bin to put the bits that, for whatever reason, I have rendered inedible. (I leave her a note saying that I have eaten in the pub). And then, inexplicably, there is the note to end all notes.
“Cleaner coming Tuesday. Make sure house is tidy.”