It was a hot day as Zoggs and I laboured up the long hill from Camden Town through the north London suburbs towards Hampstead, looking forward to the cool civilisation of our favourite drinking place, The Gilded Lily. Built three hundred years before as an inn for travellers arriving in London, it was low ceilinged, unconventionally dark having been built in an age when the poor were taxed on light that came through their windows, and traded on its reputation as a haven for those who enjoyed the rather old fashioned pleasure gained from stimulating conversation and good company.
At rush hour, as office workers poured into their cars and hit the road, only to move at snail's pace towards their homes, our walk could be made unpleasant by the density of exhaust fumes, but the reward, a pint of beer, cold and sparking, hand drawn by old Splicer or one of his pretty bar staff, and good conversation with an amorphous group of companions, was worth the effort. Especially on a night such as this.
England were playing an important international soccer match which would be screened on one TV channel, the ninety minutes action stretching to almost three hours to allow for pre - game analysis, post game debate, action replays of the highlights, interviews with players and coaches and a fashion item about what designers and hairdressers the players' wives and girlfriends favoured. Plus the commercial breaks of course. Other channels always reran very very old films on such nights and in all pubs and bars the drinkers would be clustered round the TV, only one topic of conversation being allowed. The Gilded Lily, always dedicated to drinking and talking, was a haven for those not interested in sport. As we plodded on Zoggs chattered about the latest scientific bee-in-his-bonnet.
"So this Frenchman OK, he's utterly discredited in the scientific community but is not bothered because he thinks he's onto something and will be vindicated eventually." My companion was trying to explain the nature of some experimental work being carried out on the fringe of science where the weird meets the incontrovertibly loony "And anyway, he's succeeded but there's all these professional sceptics, failed conjurors, establishment lackeys and the like queuing up to shout fraud, only if you think about it the whole thing is feasible." Zoggs was a scientist, his job in one of the major hospitals involved doing tests on bits of dead people which if you think about it must get as boring as being an accounts ledger clerk "you can see it can't you?" he asked enthusiastically.
"Dunno, run it past me again." He talked me through the theory that information can be encoded in energy and that water, being the only inorganic substance to exist in liquid form at atmospheric temperatures is the best medium to record information until we can unravel and reassemble atoms, not just smash them to bits like nuclear reactors do, but take them to pieces and actually put them back together. The Frenchman in question had recorded a picture of his hand, then printed it and sent it round the world on the internet. Zoggs found this really exciting. "so you see, there is the scientific process that explains the feasibility of ghosts and telepsychic activity."
"How do you arrive at that conclusion. I mean, how does this thing work."
"Well you stick you hands in a bucket of water and swunch them around..."
"Yeah, its a scientific term. Sort of a mixture between a swish and a scrunch," he mimed the two actions, "that makes sure every molecule of water has flowed through the cosmic energy side emissions from your hands. Each atom of tissue leaves its imprint in the water. And all you have to do is build a receptor sensitive enough to transpose it into digital information.
"What? I'm not getting this. What happens? #How does this picture get into the water?"
"OK. You know homeopathy yeah? You treat an illness with something that causes the same symptoms. Only as these things are usually really really toxic they have to be diluted exponentially. You get one drop of stuff and nine drops of water and give it a good shake to make sure it is well mixed and every molecule of water has physically contacted a molecule of substance. Then you take one drop of that mixture and nine drops of water and repeat the process. Then again and if necessary again. So eventually what you are giving the patient is so dilute there is none of the original stuff in what they swallow, just a memory of it stored in the atoms of oxygen and hydrogen. A ghost of the medicine. But it works, people respond to treatment. The shadow of the substance's energy acts on the body's atoms and our defence mechanisms start to fight it."
"How? By dying? That's a response."
"Oh come on, you are always talking about this kind of supernatural, phycic stuff in the Gilded Lily. You must believe in Ghosts."
Talking about it and believing it are not quite the same of course.
"I saw one about five years ago - a ghost," said the Bagman who had been gradually catching us up for a while.
Zoggs perked up. "You believe in the supernatural? It's scientifically feasible that spirits affect us all don't you think?"
"Could be. They say Absinthe makes the heart grow fonder."
The Bagman was noted for off the wall and unconnected remarks. His presence in any conversation was greatly valued because of his ability to turn thought chains round and send them in another direction before the more pedantic conversants had chance to become boring.
"You SAW a ghost? Did it talk? Have arms and legs? A face? What time of day was it? Had you been inhaling cleaning fluid?" Now Zoggs was scientific, wanting facts, equations, evidence. Bagman told his stories in a desultory way. It could take most of the next week to discover what he actually saw. Bagman was an antiques restorer and often accused of making illicit use of the fluids and potions of his trade. I decided to widen the scope of the discussion.
"Have any of you seen the old guy in Victorian period costume who comes in the pub?"
"What, top hat, opera cloak, sort of flumpy lips like a little debauched cupid, always wears a green flower in his cloak? Bagman asked.
"That's him, yeah."
"Can't say I have. Not like actually seen him that is, not like I see you guys now. I've had like an impression of him, but not actually seen him. You know, you sort of see something on the edge of your vision but when you look its gone."
"Men in black, the angel of death? Zogg's chose to play the cynic.
I was about to add that I had spoken to the mysterious figure several times but only briefly, he seemed to disappear after dropping a very apposite comment into a conversation. My interjection was drowned by a group of young men heading for the city centre, all wearing football shirts and chanting Ing-Ur-Lund Ing - Ur - Lund. Football and good diction have never been close companions.
Most bars with a regular clientele tend to be cliquey. Particular cliques have their own tables, certain barstools or places on a bench are worn into the shape of a specific set of buttocks and an evening can be thoroughly ruined by the souring of atmosphere that results from somebody sitting in the wrong place. Craving for the security of familiar things is a blight on urban civilisation. People gather in the same place, say the same things, leave at the same time. The Gilded Lily had escaped infection. Conversations took on a life, attracted their own tribes, people would join and leave a table at random, flitting between diverse companies. The topics too were unconventional. Normal pub conversations are constrained by strictly gender related parameters. Men talk about football and sex. Women talk about men and sex. It is considered socially unacceptable to talk about politics, culture or religion as the risk of being embarrassed by the revelation of an unorthodox opinion is too great. People stay with what is safe.
Conversation is a game really. One of those children's street games that children are no longer encouraged to play because sociologists would rather they spent their free hours being molested by the local paedophile or indulging in creative pastimes like setting fire to old people and animals. The one I'm thinking of is where we would all stand in a circle and try to keep a ball in the air. You could use any part of your body but you could not catch or hold the ball. What was it called? No matter, conversation should be like that, but with ideas. Keep an idea in the air using any form of words you like. And when the game is over everybody remembers the feeling of playing but nobody remembers who said what. In the Gilded Lily conversation was like that, words were toys not social weapons. You could say that all organised religion should be made illegal and an atheist would challenge your point. The place was an intellectual gym.