Dysfunction and uniform
I went to Doncaster at the weekend to play in a chess tournament. I'm not sure why, as I'm not in the best of form at the moment and Doncaster is a long way to go to lose to players I should beat. Maybe it's because in any given gathering of chessplayers there's always more than a few who are sufficiently socially dysfunctional to make me feel almost healthy by comparison.
Such a one was my second round opponent, who I'd played before, in Blackpool last year, an occasion on which he spent the entire game burping. No hand over the mouth, no apologies, no getting up when it wasn't his turn to move, none of the things he could have done to alleviate the discomfort he was causing his opponent. He did the same again this time round, which persistent impoliteness I used as my excuse for playing without wit or concentration and losing with speed but without fight.
In Searching For Bobby Fischer Fred Waitzkin has some line about chessplayers being badly dressed, socially inept and "defeated in some fundamental way". That's apposite. That's us. Like gamblers, either losing, or even if we're not losing, losers nevertheless - inside when we should be outside, silent when we should be speaking, punishing ourselves in lieu of the capacity to have a good time. Even so, there's a limit to our lack of the social graces, and most of us stop short at burping for three or four hours into an opponent's face.
I don't know that my own personal degree of social dysfunctionality extends much further than talking to cats in the street. On the Saturday night, on my way back from a solitary couple of pints in a hotel bar, I saw a tabby on the other side of the same central reservation, in the middle of Thorne Road, as me. I called out to her: "Puss! Puss cat! Puss cat!" and rubbed my fingers together in the hope that she would come over for a stroke under the impression that she was going to be fed. Instead, she looked at me in horror, ran swiftly behind some traffic cones and then fled across the road at roughly the same speed as the cars she evaded on the way.
This reaction performed no wonders for my self-esteem. It did, however, considerably less damage than what happened next. A car had stopped just behind me and a man got out, opened his wallet and flashed some sort of badge at me. Strictly speaking I've always wanted to see one - I remember talking to a US Secret Service man on a protest when Bill Clinton visited Oxford years ago, and thinking later that I should have asked to see if his badge looked anything like Mulder and Scully's do - but at the time I was simply bewildered as to why trying to make conversation with a cat should cause me to be confronted with a police badge only seconds later.
What was even stranger was that when I looked up from the badge to see its bearer, he didn't look like a policeman at all. He actually looked like a waiter in a Seventies spaghetti restaurant. In fact, he looked like a specific waiter in a specific Seventies spaghetti restaurant. He looked like the weedier of Wolfie Smith's two sidekicks, who - in just about the only thing I can remember about Citizen Smith - had, as well as numerous children, a shortlived job in a spaghetti restaurant where Robert Lindsay once went for a meal with his girlfriend. For some reason, the policeman was wearing a black shirt, black jeans and a bootlace tie. I don't know whether those were his normal civilian clothes or whether he had thought up the ensemble specially for the occasion.
His appearance, odd though it was, was not as odd (and not remotely as offensive) as what he said. He asked me: "are you trying to pick up a prostitute?"
I could not have been more surprised if he'd told me I had won a million pounds in a free prize draw, although I would have been considered less enraged if he had done. I was furious. I was all the more furious for being as shocked as I was. What was he on about? What possible reason could he have for making such a suggestion? Did he go around walking up to people at random and making offensive suggestions to them? "You what?" I asked. or I shouted. Or at least, I raised my voice, enough for him to stand back a bit. I asked "who the hell are you?", which might have been a silly question given that he'd already flashed his badge at me, but I was having trouble adjusting to this completely unexpected and unreal situation. "No. I was talking to a cat. I like cats. Is that all right? Is it all right if I talk to a cat? Is it?"
I must have surprised him with the vehemence of my reaction. I would guess that when they are stopped by the police, real punters try to keep as quiet as possible for fear of anybody noticing them. I'd guess people don't normally shout at them, anyway. And this must have put him off his stride, because I was able to walk off without him saying another word.
Funnily enough, just a few seconds later, so far from approaching a prostitute, I was actually approached by one, with the words "want any business, love?". (The same thing happened the following night, too. Dysfunctional chessplayers? When you've got an Army Recruitment Centre on one main street, as Doncaster has, and open prostitution on another, then you've got something of a dysfunctional town.) She must have seen my argument with the policeman - she couldn't have missed it - and was presumably hoping that the policeman had been right and I had been bluffing my way out. "No thanks", I said politely, and walked on the hundred yards or so to my hotel.
I kept turning round, as I walked, so that I could deliver as many looks of contempt as I could, to the policeman, who by this time had recovered his bearings and was walking down the other side of the street, presumably also in the hope that I had been bluffing. He was about thirty or forty yards away, though, which gave me time, once I had arrived at the front gate, to make some extremely expansive and extremely unmistakable gestures conveying, in lieu of the complaint to South Yorkshire police that I didn't think worth making, exactly what I thought of him and what he had said to me.
It didn't even occur to me that he might have come after me, which he didn't - or it didn't occur to me until I was back in my room, which caused me to peep outside once or twice in case he was still hanging around. I suppose, really, he ought to have bluffed it out himself, and nicked me at the time, dragged me down the police station, done a deal with one of the girls to say I had propositioned her or something.
Obviously I'm glad he didn't. You don't actually want to be nicked for something you've not done - for anything, let alone for that. You don't really want policemen thinking that they're Popeye Doyle. But as it was - he was just so pathetic. Pathetically, he couldn't get it right. Pathetically, he couldn't tell the difference between a man approaching a prostitute and a man talking to a cat. Pathetically, he couldn't think of anything to say when somebody shouted at him for getting it wrong. Pathetically, he had to follow the man on the other side of the street in the hope of catching him at something, and pathetically, he then had to stand there and watch while the man made hand signals in his direction. He wasn't a policeman, he was pathetic. And he looked like Wolfie Smith's pathetic mate from a pathetic spaghetti restaurant.