Just a small one... Giant bottle of sherry at Australia House in London, 1958. Photo: Getty
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Razors comes home and that thimbleful of sherry turns into an all-nighter

It’s funny how one’s stamina diminishes with age. I once drank Hunter S Thompson pretty much under the table many years ago but these days I find 6am is pretty much my cut-off point.

Ping! A text appears. It is Razors, my ex-housemate, who is flying over to England to settle some old scores or, as he euphemistically puts it, to “see my family for my birthday”. That old chestnut. I’d completely forgotten he was coming over but it is always a delight to see him, so I put on my pinny and take up my feather duster and give the Hovel a going-over in his honour.

“Jesus Christ,” he says when he sees the place, “it’s looking even more disgustingly Hovelly than it did when I was here.”

“Well, you’ve grown a beard,” I say.

We sit on the terrace, talking of this and that. Razors has become a key player in what I shall loosely describe as the media in New York and I keep trying to steer the subject towards him giving me a job but he manages to evade my skilful moves. Finally, I remember that he has occasionally shown a fondness for alcohol in small doses, so I go to the drinks cabinet and take out the bottle of Harveys Bristol Cream I keep for special occasions. There is about half of it left, which should be plenty. I pour us each a little glass and hope that the poison of drink will mellow him.

That’s always how it starts with Razors. Sherry had a reputation as a civilised drink; maybe they put something in it these days. One thimbleful turns into another and, before we know it, that half-bottle is gone. Razors has turned from a cultivated chap, appalled at the Met Opera’s decision not to simulcast John Adams’s Death of Klinghoffer, to a raging maniac wholly enslaved by booze.

“Shall we get another bottle?” he asks. I know what he can be like when he gets into this kind of mood, so I go to the corner shop and buy a bottle of Blossom Hill rosé (his favourite tipple).

What with one thing and another – and after a few adventures of which we have no memory but that leave us with minor unexplained cuts and bruises on our hands, a court order and, for my part, the sore-throat-like side effects of a choked windpipe – we find ourselves shooting the breeze, back at the Hovel, the debris of countless bottles of wine beside and around us, and it is six o’clock in the morning. The Hovel’s other resident – not the woman who scours the inside of teapots – comes down in his suit to go to work. Normally, he’d be going for his early-morning run at this time, which would have been more than I could take.

However, he is an affable man and if he is appalled at seeing his housemate and a strange man with a beard drinking wine on the terrace at six in the morning, he is good at hiding it. What he doesn’t know is how much worse it could have been. The last time Razors and I tied one on, we came to in the hold of a tramp steamer in the South China Sea and learned we’d enlisted in the Merchant Marine for three years.

It’s funny how one’s faculties and stamina diminish with age. I once drank Hunter S Thompson pretty much under the table many years ago – I always harboured an uneasy suspicion that I may have been slightly culpable in the matter of his early and unwelcome demise – but these days I find that six in the morning is pretty much my cut-off point. Perhaps it is the early-summer dawns that are so tiring.

Anyway, later on in the afternoon, when I have risen again and Razors has tried to push a full English breakfast down me, without a great deal of success, I get a call from the Estranged Wife reminding me of our forthcoming trip to — tomorrow, to take the eldest boy to a university open day. By coincidence, it is the same place I went to with the daughter a couple of years ago and made a bit of a scene with a philosophy lecturer who didn’t know how to pronounce “Descartes”. Relations with the ex are civil to the point of pleasantness these days, as long as we stay off the subject of money, but she tells me to behave better this time. “We’ll have to leave at 8am,” she says.

I contemplate the almost visible springs and coils from my shattered body clock lying about me and remember that Razors wants to watch the England game in a pub that evening. I explain that 8am will be out of the question: Razors is here and I am basically dead. She understands but does not perhaps sympathise. I muster all the dignity at my command; I say, “You’re not the boss of me”; and I relapse into a coma.

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 25 June 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Who was Franz Ferdinand?

BBC
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Would the BBC's Nazi drama SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago?

This alternate history is freighted with meaning now we're facing the wurst-case scenario. 

Would SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago? Though the clever-after-the-fact Nostradamus types out there might disagree, I can’t believe that it would. When it comes to the Second World War, after all, the present has helpfully stepped in where memory is just beginning to leave off. The EU, in the process of fragmenting, is now more than ever powerless to act in the matter of rogue states, even among its own membership. In case you hadn’t noticed, Hungary, for instance, is already operating as a kind of proto-fascist state, led by Viktor Orbán, a man whom Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, jokingly likes to call “the dictator” – and where it goes, doubtless others will soon follow.

The series (Sundays, 9pm), adapted from Len Deighton’s novel, is set in 1941 in a Britain under Nazi occupation; Winston Churchill has been executed and the resistance is struggling to hold on to its last strongholds in the countryside. Sam Riley plays Douglas Archer, a detective at Scotland Yard, now under the control of the SS, and a character who appears in almost every scene. Riley has, for an actor, a somewhat unexpressive face, beautiful but unreadable. Here, however, his downturned mouth and impassive cheekbones are perfect: Archer, after all, operates (by which I mean, barely operates) in a world in which no one wants to give their true feelings away, whether to their landlady, their lover, or their boss, newly arrived from Himmler’s office and as Protestant as all hell (he hasn’t used the word “degenerate” yet, but he will, he will).

Archer is, of course, an ambiguous figure, neither (at present) a member of the resistance nor (we gather) a fully committed collaborator. He is – or so he tells himself – merely doing his job, biding his time until those braver or more foolhardy do something to restore the old order. Widowed, he has a small boy to bring up. Yet how long he can inhabit this dubious middle ground remains to be seen. Oskar Huth (Lars Eidinger), the new boss, is keen to finish off the resistance; the resistance, in turn, is determined to persuade Archer to join its cause.

It’s hard to find fault with the series; for the next month, I am going to look forward to Sunday nights mightily. I would, I suppose, have hoped for a slightly more charismatic actress than Kate Bosworth to play Barbara Barga, the American journalist who may or may not be involved with the British resistance. But everything else seems pretty perfect to me. London looks suitably dirty and its inhabitants’ meals suitably exiguous. Happiness is an extra egg for tea, smoking is practically a profession, and
the likes of Archer wear thick, white vests.

Swastikas adorn everything from the Palace of Westminster to Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace is half ruined, a memorial to what the Germans regard as Churchill’s folly, and the CGI is good enough for the sight of all these things to induce your heart to ache briefly. Nazi brutality is depicted here as almost quotidian – and doubtless it once was to some. Huth’s determination to have four new telephone lines installed in his office within the hour is at one end of this horrible ordinariness. At the other is the box in which Archer’s mutinous secretary Sylvia (Maeve Dermody) furiously stubs out her fag, full to the brim with yellow stars.

When I first heard about The Kettering Incident (Tuesdays, 12.20am; repeated Wednesdays, 10pm) I thought someone must have found out about that thing that happened one time I was driving north on the M1 with a more-than-usually terrible hangover. Turns out it’s a new Australian drama, which comes to us on Sky Atlantic. Anna (Elizabeth Debicki), a doctor working in London, pitches up back in Tasmania many years after her teenage friend Gillian disappeared into its Kettering forest, having seen a load of mysterious bright lights. Was Gillian abducted by aliens or was she, as some local people believe, murdered by Anna? To be honest, she could be working as a roadie for Kylie, for all I care. This ponderous, derivative show is what happens when a writer sacrifices character on the altar of plot. The more the plot thickens, the more jaw-achingly tedious it becomes.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit