Joseph O’Neill’s novel Netherland uses the English sport of cricket as a metaphor for civility and order amid the narrator’s existential crisis of post-9/11 New York. I was reading Netherland as I spent my first days alone in after moving to London, feeling similarly alienated; without work, money or friends and only the Dole queue for company, I was regretting the decision to move to the capital on a whim. But I met a local figure who is well known among the rough sleepers and mental patients of the Hackney area as Uncle G. He bounded up to me with two rudders sticking out from his tracksuit bottoms asking if I was here, at the entrance to London Fields, to play table tennis.  I was not, but I took him up on the offer, and have since begun an intriguing journey of romantic possibility, whose pot of gold at the end of the rainbow will most likely contain a combination of squatting, drugs and table tennis as a cure for my destitution in the big city.

The Uncle makes it known that is going to roll a joint before play begins on the only outdoor table tennis table I know of in London, which is okay with me. “The more wasted I am, the better I play”, he said in a working class London accent which may have been smoothed out by a brief spell at boarding school or university some time back. “The other week I’d just come back from a crack party, and the morning after I was unbeatable!” As the first few points play out, the Uncle is on top form with the anecdotes, which means he is maddeningly sober, for his shots are getting blown all over by the wind and missing the table by quite a distance.

A few more brief rallies pass before he throws the spliff to me, asking “You’re not undercover police are you? There’s hundreds of them around here. The other week I walked up to one of them and told him ‘nice disguise, you arsehole’ and walked off. ”. With the assistance of the wind, he hits a tricky slice which is unplayable. The grass smoking must have given him some form, and he looks poised, if a little mashed, as he crouches at the table waiting to receive my serve.

I’m not undercover police, or anything of the sort. I’m actually looking for some acid to regale the autumn splendour, and I think the Uncle may have some idea where to find it. “Yeah man, I know a few people. I can get it for you myself if you definitely want some.” All this talk of drugs must be like a half time orange and kick up the arse, refreshing and inspiring him to slam another winner cross-table.

“That’s very helpful, I’ll sort you out the cash”, I promise, as I pick up the ball from a cardboard box next to the table.

“Watch out for my food, man”, I hear him warn, referring to the assortment of bananas and tomatoes inside. “I just found all that shit, it’s real good.”

“What do you mean, you found it?”

“I don’t believe in buying things; food, clothing, nothing, so I find all my shit in bins, I get all my clothes for free from people, and I sleep anywhere, in the park, in squats, right now I’m squatting on a boat.”

We start a game, and the Uncle’s serve is strong, hit low and hard cross-table, and for the first few plays I struggle to win a point. I’m a bit stoned, and I’m not used to the wind playing a part in what is usually an indoor sport, and he is clearly using the unusual conditions to his advantage.  Despite being several points down, I like the variables which come with playing outside, adding impetus to shots played with the wind cross-table, making the slice a formidable weapon as the ball holds up in the air. I mention as much to the Uncle, who is in full flow, using his full repertoire of tricky slices and mean forehands. “I love it man, I spend all of my time here. A lot of the people who I play think they are professionals, they like everything to be just perfect. But I’m a bit more abstract, like I’ll take my shoe off and use it as a bat, just anything to fuck with the other player’s head and disrupt their concentration”, he says, breathing the vitality of his own existence into the game.

“Because I’m used to playing Mental Home Rules, the rules they play in mental homes. A lot of mental homes have tables for the patients cause it helps them relax and gives them something to concentrate on.” I don’t know if this comes from his experience as a patient or a visitor, and would not be surprised by either.  So what are Mental Home Rules- the ping-pong equivalent of lawn tennis, or perhaps the crazy golf of nutters? “It’s where you can bounce the ball off anything. Bounce it off walls, off the bin, or you can even bounce it off the other guy’s head, which is what a lot of them do.”

More interested in telling tales than winning the game, the Uncle has let his own concentration falter, and I’ve worked my way back into the game by keeping the ball in play and waiting for his mistakes which are coming thick and fast once more. Does he have any more marijuana, the Lucozade of the homeless, to get him back on track? At 18-11 to me, the Uncle is telling me about a guy in the mental home who is a twenty stone schizophrenic and always wears ten jumpers, but is absolutely unbeatable, even among the doctors and warders. I hit an unplayable topspin which clips the edge of the table. 19-11. The Uncle dribbles a weak serve into the net and I’m two points from victory. A prophet of local expedience, he is advising me to sell my clothes at Brick Lane market on Saturdays rather than the hugely popular Sunday market. “The police,” he says, “have only given me trouble once, and that was because I was staging an anti-Rankin protest. But generally you will make much more on a Saturday than you will on a Sunday, because you’ll be one of the only ones there selling shit. I make as much as I can on Saturdays, selling all the stuff I find, and then use the money to buy drugs. You can’t argue with that, can you?”

I certainly can’t, as the wind takes the ball sailing over the edge of the table. It’s match point, and I’ve been playing safe balls all game. As the Uncle hits a good long topspin, the ball bounces to shoulder height, and I let loose with a reckless smash as it reaches its apex, playing hard and fast with my comfortable lead. I really don’t want the game to end so that he can tell me more, ignite me with his bank of wonderful experiences. But I made a perfect connection and it skims off the table, past the Uncle’s paddle and onto the grass behind. I jovially pump my fist, mission accomplished, and we shake hands.

As we say our goodbyes, I feel uplifted not so much by the inconsequential victory, but in finding such humanity in a city which was beginning to eat me up piecemeal by the day. His amazing tales have offered a new perspective to my life which was fast disappearing into a vault of depression and regrets. I’ve met Uncle G a few times since that first chance meeting as I have walked through London Fields, he’s nearly always there, and we’ve played a few more games of table tennis, and he has told many more tales which are just as fantastic. He is so full of wisdom, I know why he calls himself Uncle. I wish he were my uncle, and in an abstract way he is. He taught me more about London, and about life, than anyone else I have ever met. As I turn to walk away, he sees a man on a bike with six cans of special brew and a bag of pirate DVDs. “It’s a good time to leave”, he tells me, “because that bloke’s going to get his head kicked in.”