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Hitchcock has nothing on Charles Saatchi in his power to deeply disturb

Nicholas Lezard's "Down and Out" column.

Back from New York and I discover that once again summer has failed to materialise. It had all been so tantalising on the way out: the trees on the A312, which links the A40 and the M4, were alive with birdsong, and that’s a phrase I never thought I’d be writing in my lifetime. And I arrived in a chilly New York just an hour away from taking a battering from a rainstorm so vicious it was even given a name.

The return journey was the opposite: from a glorious summer New York, not too hot or muggy and with brilliant sunshine, to a cold, grey London. I looked out at the houses on the North Circular and wondered whether they were the most unloved houses in the world. If looking at them makes you feel like killing yourself, what must living in them be like? (For connoisseurs of depressing housing, I recommend the stretch, about three miles long, centred on Neasden.)

Well, the sun has now returned, in a tentative way, like a guest who is not really sure whether he wants to be at the party or not, and is quite conscious that there is a better one down the road but feels an obligation to drop in just for a bit. We have noticed your reluctance, o Ra, and frankly, we are a little disappointed. At least it was pleasant enough for Charles Saatchi to be able to sit outside and half-choke his wife without suffering a chill or getting rained on.

There. I made it right down to the end of the second paragraph before mentioning that incident. For although I have a hunch others in this magazine will be commenting on it and that mine may well be surplus to requirements, I am afraid I am helpless: I have become obsessed with it. The pictures, once seen, cannot be unseen, and the distance between the face of Nigella we all know from the telly and the frightened, weeping face from the paparazzi shots is immense and terrifying. Not even Hitchcock, in art, managed to unsettle so much.

I find myself unable to think of anything else. I have friends who have suffered violence at the hands of the men they love; in one case it was very nearly fatal and the doctors who examined her expressed relief that she had not been beaten for a second longer than she already had, so close had she come to death. I believe a grip around the throat can also be rather dangerous unless you know what you’re doing.

I wonder whether this is Saatchi’s firstever experience as a playful gripper of women’s necks. It is always rather charming when the elderly discover a new hobby but I think it might have been better if he had taken up skydiving, or, if he feels more sedentary, bridge instead.

I have, as it happens, met Lawson myself, some years ago, just as her fame was beginning to crest; we talked briefly, discussing childcare of all things, and I was struck at the time by how unfamous she was acting. A little of that goes a long way when you’re talking to people far, far down the pecking order, and ever since then I have refused to hear a word against her.

So now one of the men at whose feet we can lay some of the blame for Thatcher’s victory in 1979 has revealed something of himself; at best, his idea of play. Or “intense debate”. That “Labour isn’t working” poster was a masterpiece of dissembling; his statement explaining away the photographs rather less of one. You can see how threadbare the material is from too far off. And once again, we find ourselves avoiding the key question of violence against women: if the man had done that to a stranger in the street, would he have been allowed to get on with his business, with only a caution at the end of the road?

I am afraid that I do not know the workings of Charles Saatchi’s mind, never having had the time or the inclination to read his book. Perhaps he may think, on reflection, that he could have chosen a title other than Be the Worst You Can Be. Its subtitle – “life’s too long for patience and virtue” – may also be one he may want to revise should there ever be another edition.

Not that I am implying anything about Saatchi himself. For all we know, he was being playful, and all this Be the Worst You Can Be Stuff is just a blind concealing a sweet and considerate nature, and that when he says he’d rather eat Dairylea on toast than anything his wife cooks, he’s actually concealing a deep and private reverence for and appreciation of her art. But you know what? Somehow I doubt it.

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 24 June 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Mr Scotland