Books: North Face of Soho — 12. Pygge to the Rescue |
[Invisible line of text as temporary way to expand content column justified text width to hit margins on most viewports, simply for improved display stability in the interval between column creation and loading]

North Face of Soho — 12. Pygge to the Rescue


We left the cast rehearsing in the Pillars of Hercules. The rehearsal facilities were out of scale with the scheduled venue. In keeping with his tendency to think big and worry about the consequences later, Ian had picked the Institute of Contemporary Arts in the Mall for Edward Pygge’s one-night stand. Resplendently situated in Carlton House Terrace, the ICA had a huge hall available for performances, brought in from all over the world, of the sort of avant-garde semi-theatrical events that nobody wanted to see in their countries of origin. There was no doubt that Ian’s menacing voice on the telephone would get the whole of literary London to fill the auditorium, but would we, we few, we precious few, be able to fill the stage? Stuck in one corner of the Pillars of Hercules, we already felt short of resources. What would it be like on the night? Ian solved the problem by recruiting one of his entourage, a bright and well-connected bluestocking called Amanda Radice, as the show’s glamour girl. No longer among the living, Amanda won’t mind my saying that she couldn’t act for nuts. But she was so beautiful that it scarcely mattered. I wrote little bits for her all over the continuity script, so as to get her on stage as often as possible, thus to cash in on her appeal, and off stage as soon as possible, thus to minimize the effect of her limitations. But the main thrust of the show was the string of parodies, variously presented by Ian, myself (each of us always sounding the same), and Russell Davies, always sounding different.

I should say at this point that Russell Davies had a real first name, Dai, that had been stolen from him by Actors’ Equity because they already had a Dai Davies on their books. But everyone who knew him called him Dai in private — they still do — and from that evening literary London rang with his name in whatever version he found it expedient to use. He stole the show, as we all expected him to: but he stole it on the scale of the Brinks Mat bullion robbery. His costume helped. He wore a black suit, black shirt, white tie with a Windsor knot, and a black wide-brimmed fedora. He carried a violin case that looked exactly as if it had a tommy gun inside it. The visual image of ruthless gangsterdom was a key element, but the killer blow was provided by his variety of voices, as if the spirit of Peter Sellers had entered the body of Lucky Luciano. His best bit, and the hit number of the night, was his reading of my three Robert Lowell sonnets. If I can be permitted a cross-reference to myself, these pseudo-Lowell sonnets are still available in my book of collected poems, The Book of My Enemy, and I am still proud of the way they capture Lowell’s knack of presenting his own personality as the focal point of all human history. But they needed Dai’s voice to bring out the full flow of Lowell’s self-obsession. There were people in the audience who had real-life experience of the great man’s vaulting solipsism and they yelled with recognition. More important, people who had never met him now felt that they had.

I might be getting things a little bit out of chronological order, but perhaps this is a good place to record my general impression of Lowell’s impact on London, whither he had already, or would shortly, divert his full attention, on the correct assumption that the worshipping natives would crash to their knees with their bottoms in the air as the ground shook to the weight of his Olympian tread. They weren’t entirely wrong. I should say in haste that his early poetry gave him the right to think of himself as a giant. But he was also a nutter, one of the manic-depressive type who, when in a downhill phase, accuse themselves loudly of being Hitler. (They never accuse themselves of being the seventh anonymous stormtrooper from the right at a dedication ceremony for the new blood banner in a provincial town twenty miles from Dortmund: they always accuse themselves of being Hitler, just as the people who had previous lives in ancient Egypt always turn out to have been pharaohs or chief priests, and never night-shift workers on the crew that put up the third tallest obelisk in one of the satellite temples at Karnak.) Eventually I saw Lowell giving a live appearance, as it were, at a memorial evening for John Berryman, held at that very same ICA. Berryman had committed suicide, probably because, as an even bigger egomaniac than Lowell, he was feeling the effects of having a smaller reputation. The memorial evening was organized by Alvarez. Before the event there was a gathering of all those of us who were going to read from Berryman’s poetry or deliver short valedictory speeches.

The gathering took place in a pub only a couple of blocks from the ICA. Alvarez explained to us all that there was a strict fifteen-minute limit on how long each of us could speak. Alvarez explained this very carefully, on the correct assumption that some of those present would have trouble understanding it. Lowell’s lack of protest at the restriction was taken as a sign of assent. Everyone tiptoed around him as if the mere fact that he had been told there was a time limit might be enough to put him over the edge. I was already finding all this pretty weird, but then the funny stuff really started, when Lowell had to be initiated into the concept that the ICA, although only about two hundred yards away, was not in plain sight, owing to an intervening corner. Though Alvarez and several others volunteered to ensure that Lowell would reach the destination successfully, Lowell made it as clear as he could make anything that he looked on the proposed journey as the equivalent of being asked to cross the Andes on his own, with condors circling above the valley and snakes waiting in the bare rocks to bite the ankles of his mule. On the epic journey through the open air, we surrounded him as if Gandhi were transferring his radiant humility from one village to the next. Blessed to be in his company, we reached the venue to be greeted by the crowd as if our individual status had been raised merely because we had walked with the mahatma.

What happened during the event was so predictable that it was scarcely to be believed. In praise of the departed Berryman, we all did our fifteen minutes each. When Alvarez introduced Lowell in roughly those terms with which John the Baptist might have introduced Christ, I particularly admired the way Lowell didn’t reach into the inside pocket of his tweed jacket until Alvarez had finished. Then Lowell produced a fatly folded manuscript that unfolded into something that would clearly take an eternity to read out even if there was only a single sentence on each page. He read the whole thing. It was about the Condition of the Poet in an Age of Nuclear Confrontation. You had to give him credit, though. Berryman was mentioned several times. As Lowell murmured endlessly on, I saw people in the audience fighting sleep as if they were being mugged by it in an alley. Then as now, however, this effect was taken as a sure sign that something truly serious was taking place. Never, at a literary event, have I ever seen even one person rise from the audience and say, ‘This is too boring to bear.’ The loudest rebellion I have ever heard was from Karl Miller at a TLS mass rally somewhere around the year 2000. A heavily laurelled Irish bard — no, not the one you’re thinking of: another one, with less talent — was reading a purportedly humorous poem to the usual sporadic titters, and I heard a recognizable Scots voice in the crowd near me growl, ‘I don’t think that’s funny. Why does anyone think that’s funny? I don’t think that’s funny.’ I looked across in time to see the people around him looking at the floor, as if the secret name of God had been mentioned and they hoped to stave off a vengeful lightning bolt by pretending that it hadn’t. If the cherubic Irish poet could generate that degree of respect, it was no wonder that Lowell, while he still lived and bestrode the Atlantic, was a figure of awe, as if Napoleon, dressed for his coronation, had assumed the proportions of the Colossus of Rhodes.

As I remember it, at the time of the Edward Pygge Revue, Lowell was not yet regularly on the scene, but the word was out, so there was an element of recognition. We got some of our biggest laughs, though, from pure fantasy. I had written a version of The Waste Land as if London’s wartime Indian poetry editor Tambimuttu had written something called The Wasted Land under the impression that he was being original. This was an abstruse enough connection but Dai gave it extra life in two ways. He did a terrific Indian accent of which the Indians in the audience were the loudest in their appreciation. The beautiful Gita Mehta was always a good giggler but it was rare to hear Sonny Mehta laugh aloud. I could see him rocking. The piece got practically a laugh a line and I was already seeing a new future of writing poetry for performance by the time Dai got to the punchline, whose effect on the audience would have completed my spasm of self-satisfaction if I had actually written it. Unfortunately (or, rather, fortunately) it was Dai’s. He had improvised it during rehearsals in the pub and I had incorporated it into the poem instantly, with a premonition that I would have to go on pointing out for the rest of my life that one of my best lines was borrowed. A writer should always be careful to own up on that point, in my view: on a practical level, he will be known as a plagiarist if he gets rumbled, and on the spiritual level there is a penalty of guilt to be paid even if he gets away with it. Or there should be a penalty. I know several writers who steal anything that is not nailed down, and it doesn’t seem to bother them at all. Anyway, at least I had created the pinchbeck crown in which Dai could place his jewel. ‘Shantih shantih shantih,’ he intoned. Gita was already doubled up. ‘It’s only a shantih in old shantih town.’ He took a bow while she howled. I could only tell by the way her teeth shone. There was too much noise.

The Edward Pygge Revue wasn’t all as good as that but it sent them home happy, and it sent me home even happier. From that night until this day, I have always worked on the principle that a poem, whether comic or serious, should pay its way as a theatrical event. There are always plenty of poets — Ian was one of them, in fact — who prefer to believe that poetry, when recited, should merely be overheard. They might have a point. (They certainly have a point if they are seriously gifted, but it should be remembered that most poets are writing poetry only because they can’t write prose, have no more sense of structure than the director of a porno movie, and will escape being forgotten only in the sense that they have never been remembered.) If a poet writes something sufficiently charged with meaning, it should be enough to be present while he or she reads it out. But the degree of self-effacement required would not suit my temperament. Though I like to think that I would go on writing poetry even if it had nobody to appreciate it beyond the four walls of my cell, the evidence suggests that I can’t function without an audience, and that even my periods of solitude — which get longer as I grow older — are always a preparation for the next public appearance. On Pygge’s big night, I had made a public appearance in which poetry had been accepted unquestioned as an item of entertainment. It was a sweet moment, and like so many sweet moments it had powers of deception, as the sirens did when they sang. Immediately I began to dream of bigger things. The gift of foresight might have told me that the success of the event had a lot to do with its having been small. But foresight has never been among my attributes, and indeed I wonder if anybody with the necessary capacity to get carried away is ever truly wise before the event. In those years, I was scarcely capable of being wise after the event. Nowadays I am better at assessing the implications of what has already happened, but that’s about the extent of the improvement. A depressing thought, and not an appropriate one in relation to how I felt at the time.

I felt on top of the heap. The TV column was going well enough for me to contemplate collecting the best of its first four years into a book. Once again I pasted a manuscript together out of clippings, ruthlessly discarding gags that had gone phut or straight statements that had started to generate the unmistakable odour of the platitude. Rather than rewrite to save an idea, I cut it out to profit from the added speed. There were whole columns begging to be put out of their misery. But there was still plenty of stuff left. This time I took the title from a line by Sir Thomas Browne, ‘Dreams out of the ivory gate, and visions before midnight.’ I had first read the line while pretending to study in my college library at Cambridge, and had always thought that those last three words would make a good title for a book. Here was a book to fit the title. I was disappointed that Charles Monteith at Faber didn’t seem to think that Visions Before Midnight was a publishing proposition. Regretfully he assured me that books of collected journalism didn’t sell, and that the column’s regular audience, of which I was so proud, would not buy the book, for the precise reason that they had already read everything in it. But Tom Maschler at Jonathan Cape heard about the manuscript, asked to see it, and said that it might be worth the chance. It was flattering to think that he might be trying to poach me from Monteith, less flattering to notice that Monteith didn’t seem to mind. Though it would take time before Cape brought the book out, for now I could warm myself with the notion that I had two publishers squabbling for my favours. In modern terms, I was in the position of Brad Pitt, torn between the attractions of Jennifer Aniston and Angelina Jolie: maybe the one with tattoos knew something that the other one didn’t. My agent Christine told me to give my conscience a rest: since Cape, with the famously penny-pinching Maschler at the controls, were even more unforthcoming with money up front than Faber, there was no danger of getting a reputation for pulling a fast one. Later on, if there was a hit book in prospect, I would have to choose, but for now I might as well play both ends against the middle. It sounded rather daring.

But what really thrilled me was the prospect of taking the poetry-revue enterprise to another level. It should be said in fairness that the idea of a performance-poetry show was in the air at the time. Such imported Americans as Allen Ginsberg would go on at the Albert Hall under the sponsorship of the British ‘youth culture’ impresario Michael Horovitz, with loud proclamations, in the preliminary press barrage, that the new poetry was now, the now poetry was new, and that poetry, to fit the historical moment, had to be experimental. Though Horovitz’s own way of proving that poetry was for the moment was to write not a line that anyone could remember for five minutes, he had an undoubted gift for herding the more obstreperous poets together and turning the occasion into a news item. Either under his leadership or in emulation of it, performance-poetry events were everywhere. I could not help noticing, however, when it came to the lighter moments of the evening, that scarcely anyone involved was actually funny, unless they were trying to be serious. In the poetry world, as in the literary world taken as a whole, the notion always lingers that the only thing you have to do in order to be amusing is to lighten your tone. The notion is hard to kill because the audience itself, committed to a night out but already desperate with boredom, is ready to go along with any attempt at lightness. At any literary event, most of the people buying the tickets have no more idea of how comedy works than most of the people on stage. There is a big difference, though, between the laughter that an audience will politely grant to some dullard feebly signalling that he considers himself funny and the laughter that is forcibly wrenched from them when someone else actually is. You can’t miss it: it is the difference between a genteel, effortful titter and an involuntary paroxysm. This second kind of laughter is the headiest wine a performer can drink, and now I saw a chance to drink it by the gallon. What about a long poem in rhyming couplets that would take an hour to read out by a bunch of carefully chosen reciters, would incorporate all the parodies I could dream up, and would go for real laughs instead of the tolerant smile and the well-bred snort? I even had a name for the hero: Peregrine Prykke. And I had already invented his area of operations: the London Literary World. To cash in on the Augustan flashback, and to convey the proposed scale of epic grandeur, I would call the poem Peregrine Prykke’s Pilgrimage Through the London Literary World.

By that time the London Literary World’s Friday lunch had moved from Mother Bunch’s to the Bursa Kebab House, an obscure bistro near the new centre of the action. From the literary viewpoint, the New Statesman, still occupying its insanely valuable piece of real estate in Holborn, was in its most glorious period. You could be indifferent, or even hostile, to the opinions expressed in ‘the front end’, but ‘the back end’ had an authority not to be ignored, entirely because the standard of its editing was so high. At one time or another, Anthony Thwaite, Francis Hope, John Gross, Claire Tomalin, Martin Amis, and Julian Barnes were all active at the command level of the magazine’s cultural pages, with a direct line to all the best critics in the country. Contributors flocked and flourished. Christopher Hitchens and James Fenton came to write and stayed to lunch. Mark Boxer started turning up regularly. An erudite student of the dandy tradition, he proved by his mere presence that this was a fashionable event in the rarest sense: but his fastidiousness also had the salutary effect of discouraging the anecdote as a form — he wanted the flash of wit. James Fenton was also quick to spot the threat of boring self-indulgence and curl his lip at exactly the right angle to frighten it into silence. Nobody was allowed to take his time except Terry Kilmartin, who, applauded for every ‘um’ and ‘ah’, knew that he was being guyed and had the charm to make it funny.

The conversational results turned the Bursa Kebab House into a stock exchange for literary quotations. I have never heard better talk about the arts and don’t expect to again, but I think all who participated would agree that the thing really took off when traditional fact gave way to current fantasy. Already becoming famous but still retaining enough anonymity to move among other people without their putting on an act, Martin Amis, in conversation, could translate the circumstances of ordinary life into the kind of phantasmagoria that didn’t show up in his novels until later. When he got going, he was like one of those jazz stars, relaxing after hours, who are egged on by the other musicians into chorus after chorus. He had a favourite riff about the number of thieves in his area. (As I remember it, he was living in Notting Hill at the time, but it could just as well have been Belgravia: in his imagination, all of London turned into a single country, which I think I was the first to call Martinique.) On one occasion the riff developed into a symphony. According to him, he was one of the few non-thieves allowed to live in his district. The thieves did not emerge from their lairs until evening. Then you started seeing them on the skyline, moving, to the beat of tom-toms, in stooped silhouette across the rooftops, on their way to a previously determined destination. During the night, every residence of a non-thief would be visited, even if the non-thief was at home and awake. ‘A pair of white eyeballs at the window,’ Martin would explain, ‘reluctantly absorbing the evidence that the place is inhabited. I look back casually, trying to convey with my lazy sprawl that I would only with reluctance reach for the .357 magnum in my desk drawer. I keep typing away at my article about Henry James. The eyeballs blink.’ By this time the whole table would be helpless, and Martin would be ready for his final evocation of the stooped thieves marching nose to tail along the skyline, ending up in each other’s places, and taking the stuff that had already been stolen from someone else, perhaps even from them.

The key to Martin’s style of talk, apart from his protean range of pinpoint mimicry, was the economical stroke of the whip that did just enough to keep the top spinning. Granted time to think by the massed laughter, he could make the next bit up. (It took him a while to get that good on the page, and there are great talkers who never make the jump, perhaps because they are too modest to be their own delighted audience when they sit alone.) Hitchens, on the other hand, did the reverse of economy, or seemed to. At that time his world fame as a political and cultural essayist still lay in the future, as it was bound to, because his style of conversation — the key to his penetrating sarcasm — was too extravagant to be absorbed into a normal paragraph of prose. If he had been leading the conversation, he could have done a ten-minute version of the chicken crossing the road. (‘Blind drunk ... drunk as only a chicken with no head for alcohol can be ... headless chicken ... sobbing, clucking drunk ... not shedding the occasional feather as chickens are wont to do ... every feather glued to its body by wine-flavoured perspiration ... out of El Vino’s with hanging beak ... the busy, roaring road looming before it ... the broad thoroughfare as an unbridgeable chasm, if I may quote Edith Wharton ... doomed from the egg onwards ... a fish out of water ... standing up to be counted ... helplessly victimized in a chicken-hostile environment ...’) But he hardly ever led. His decorations and interruptions were applied not to his own monologue, but to someone else’s. Thus, if someone was being straightforward he could make them funny, and if they were being funny he could make them funnier. Since the cause of wit in other men is always popular with the other men, his knack of saying the unforgivable thing was invariably forgiven. To ostracize him would have meant staying away, and nobody wanted to be absent when Martin and the Hitch were head to head.

Trying to keep up with either of those two, when they were flying, was the mark of a beginner. It was better to wait and let things die down. In similar circumstances, Oliver Goldsmith used to go home annoyed if he could not, as Boswell put it, ‘get in and shine’. But to listen was sufficiently pleasant, and a lot of us looked forward to Friday as the best day of the week. I think Jonathan Raban, flying back from an assignment abroad, was the first participant ever to re-book his flight so that he would be in time for lunch, but later on a lot of us did the same. It was a very competitive scene, though, and therefore very male, and nowadays it would probably be against the law. Doubtless there were a few women in town who could have done what Dorothy Parker did at the Algonquin before World War II, but they would have had to be ready to fail at it. Nor was it enough to be a good speaker. You had to be a good listener, which is a surprisingly rare quality, and one that I could have used a bit more of. Julian Barnes is still getting a lot of mileage out of my ability to turn the conversation back to my own concerns. Still, they used to accuse Scott Fitzgerald of the same thing. If the assembled company rags you for a failing, you can usually play up to it for comic effect: it’s the failing they don’t mention that you have to watch out for.

Exaggerated stories about my childhood, I noticed, went down well. On the other hand, my liberal democratic political opinions — situated in what Ian McEwan nowadays usefully calls the radical centre — were regarded with barely disguised impatience by almost all those present, and with open contempt and disbelief by both Fenton and Hitchens, who were still basing their positions on the belief that the Russian revolution, even if it had been betrayed, had started off as a good thing. Later on I would have been able to defend my views better, but at the time I was content to be steamrollered. When Kingsley Amis and Robert Conquest started showing up, the steamrollers rolled from the other direction as well, and there were some resonant collisions, especially between Conquest and Hitchens. The Hitch had the snappy rhetoric but Conkers had the right quotations in the original Russian. It isn’t true, however, that they became fast friends later on. They always were. The spectacle of people with radically opposing views still managing to amuse each other is something that makes London different from New York, and very different from Sydney. Amusement was treated as a value — which, of course, as long as it doesn’t attempt to erode sincerity, it is. If it does attempt to do that, it soon ceases to be valuable, and not much later it ceases even to be amusing. There are a lot of people who talk well enough but forfeit a hearing when it becomes clear that they will say anything for effect.

The Friday lunch was too enjoyable to waste. When I realized that I was wasting at least half of it through getting smashed too quickly, I finally resolved to temper my drinking by the only method that I knew would be effective: i.e., to quit altogether. To my later remorse, I could have gone on bearing the shame of passing out on the train while bringing a hangover home to my family. Also I had managed to live with the knowledge that I had been cruelly rude to a keen young Indian who had seen my face on television and concluded that this feat of recognition entitled him to occupy my chair at the table in Mother Bunch’s while I was away in the toilet dealing with the overflow of a largely liquid lunch — one of the last before the move to the Kebab House. Luckily I was the last one left of the assembly that day, so there was nobody there except my voluble victim to see me in action when I came back from the bog and told him to take off. He was out of line, but I would have been more polite had I been less drunk. I might even have engaged him in conversation — or at any rate joined the conversation in which he was already engaged — and thereby learned something. As things were, I gained only the memory of having been arrogant. The young man’s fallen face got into my dreams, haunting me as the imperialist policeman Merrick in The Jewel in the Crown might have been haunted if he had had a conscience. Congratulating myself on having one of those, I foresaw many an internal struggle when drunken idiocy would have to be paid for with mental anguish. Well, I could live with that, too. In other words, I could bear the prospect of carrying on as before. But I couldn’t bear the thought of speaking with a furred tongue in eloquent company. So it was for the sake of ego that I gave up drink, and not out of virtue. These are sorry confessions to make and I feel doubly sorry that I feel bound to make them, but a book about growing wiser would be dangerously untrue if it suggested that there is always something charming about the attainment of self-knowledge. Sometimes it is exactly like meeting the wrong stranger in a dark alley.

Perhaps encouraged by recent theatrical success, I arranged the trappings of a show-business event for the occasion when I would forever abjure the demon rum. It never occurred to me that the best way to quit would be to quit sober. I was intent on going out with the receding wave of one last party. On the big Friday, I told everyone that the drinks were on me. Two hours later, quite a lot of them were. My sweater was soaked. After an initial half-hour during which I had the impression that I was talking brilliantly, I had to be warned against shouting. Well, another glass of wine would be a quick cure for that. But I kept on missing my mouth. Tipping a bottle over had always been an early sign that I was losing the plot, but trying to drink through my chin, instead of my mouth, was sure evidence that locomotia ataxia was setting in. I explained this to the few people left to listen. The trip to the toilet turned into a more epic search each time, until finally I came back and found that only Terry and Peter Porter were left. They were talking about Proust. I joined in, although for a while they did not realize it, because I seemed to be talking about someone called Bruce. Then Peter went off to do a broadcast, leaving only Terry, who kindly reminded me that I had to get back to the Observer and read proofs. (‘Broofs,’ I said knowingly.) Even more kindly, he let me share his cab, which must have been like offering house-room to someone wired up with a time bomb who sincerely wants to abandon his mission but has forgotten the code to cancel the explosion. With a wealth of experience from his own roaring days — which he had spent blessed with a far stronger stomach than mine — he was all too aware of what must eventually happen. That it didn’t happen in the cab was a stroke of luck, especially since it had the sort of driver who didn’t hesitate to announce that if the geezer with the green face had not yet started vomiting — instead of, as Terry claimed, having already finished — there would be a fee to have the upholstery washed, or, if necessary, replaced. Terry exerted his natural authority and kept the driver driving. After that he kept me walking, all the way to the most out-of-the-way of the Observer’s staff toilets.

He waited outside, an exercise of tact for which I was grateful, because a man doesn’t want other men to see him supporting himself at the urinal by leaning his forehead on the wall while he attempts to shuffle backwards far enough to keep his shoes away from the erratic effusion of his bladder. (Shuffle back too far, and your forehead starts sliding downward, pulling the face upright until the upper lip comes in contact with the wall, by which time the momentum is hard to arrest as you go down sneering. Very few women know about any of this.) When I emerged, Terry saw me to my desk. ‘Are you, um, going to be, ah, all right?’ Not daring to speak, I nodded. Seeing that a word was called for, I searched for one, but could not find it. So I nodded again, as carefully as I could.

Thus reassured, he retired to his office and could not have seen me leaving for the toilet again. Once more I placed my forehead against the wall, but partly, this time, because the wall was cool, and I felt very hot. I had not felt quite so hot since the night of the killer joint. It might be a good idea to go into a cubicle. Not that I really wanted to vomit. I never do want to. Once again I was struck by that familiar fear, a fear bred not so much by the actual thing, as by the accumulated memories of the apprehension leading up to it. This reflex attempt to keep it in probably multiplies the force when it comes out. It certainly did in this case. First leaning over the bowl and then kneeling in front of it as if it were an altar, I repeatedly yelled repentance for a misspent life. Mixed liquids and insufficiently pureed solids gushed past my teeth. I heard the noise of an early post-war Italian two-stroke motorcycle giving birth. Things really got noisy when there was nothing in my stomach left to chuck. Through a throat already restricted by the intensity of its efforts, I went on vainly trying to hurl my personality — a hedgehog the size of a badger. When Terry came for me, I was lying on the floor of the cubicle, my body wrapped tightly around the pedestal of the bowl, as if the porcelain were my last source of warmth.