Latest squeeze: James Fearnley of The Pogues performs in New York, March 2011. Photo: Getty
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How my literary life became an ever-lengthening index of people to avoid

With the editors to avoid and the editors to endure, book publishers’ parties can be a minefield – thank heavens for the Pogues’ accordionist...

To the summer party of A Certain Publisher. For many years I owed them a book, and so I’d turn up in the spirit of Levin – is it Levin? – from Anna Karenina, who would make a point of going to places where he owed money, just to show he wasn’t scared. I remember once, at another gathering, having someone say to me, “I don’t know how you have the nerve to show your face here,” and, for some reason, I found this rather thrilling. Anyway, even though the organisers of this party have no reason to glare at me (I gather it’s a glitch in the system that gets me invited every year), apart from the fact that the book they published was more of a succès d’estime than an actual success, there are plenty of people there of whom I would be wise to steer clear.

There is, for a start, the small but ever-growing band of writers whose books I have reviewed unkindly. Even though there aren’t many of these, the recipient of a stinker, as I have always suspected, and as experience has taught me, will remember it until the end of time.

Then there are the editors. There are two kinds. Editor Type 1 is the editor of the book you are meant to be writing. You have to deal with these, although the conversation may be pained. Often the relationship with an editor can be more fraught after you have written your book than it was while they were still drumming their fingers on the desk waiting for it.

Also, the question you learn very quickly not to ask is the one with the word “sales” in it. As a more experienced writer friend of mine explained to me a while back, they will be the first to tell you if there is good news on that front. If they have not personally called you up to congratulate you, it is not because they’ve had a busy day. It is because they have little to congratulate you for.

Editor Type 2 is, of course, the editor of the publication you write for. Here, the rule is simply to avoid at all costs, but when the publication concerned is a newspaper, that’s easy, as they move in different circles, usually several miles above the earth, in gold-plated stratocruisers, being smeared in caviar by oiled houris of their preferred gender. The editor the common or “garden” hack has to deal with – the one you file to and who sorts out your sloppy phrasing – is an approachable human being, a rung or two above you but nevertheless recognisably of the same species. They’re fine.

The problem is when working for publications the size of, say . . . oh, I don’t know . . . let’s call it the Modern Politician. The editor of such a publication is approachable; he or she may even have hired you himself. But you must under no circumstances talk to this person when you have taken drink, because you will make a tit of yourself, either by word or by deed, and the memory of this will haunt your days and nights with dread and remorse for years to come. Luckily, the Modern Politician’s chief rival, a right-wing publication called . . . um . . . the Onlooker, was having its own party that night, and they were serving Pol Roger, the bastards, and they may well have invited the Modern Politician’s editor along to that, so no harm done.

The other category of people to avoid is those whose correspondence I have failed to return, whose invitations I have forgotten about, and whom through any number of acts of thoughtless omission I have offended; and the numbers in this category are large beyond counting. First up is Craig Raine, who asks me why I have not replied to his suggestion that I write a huge piece on Gabriel García Márquez, for what I suspect would be a nominal fee.

“Never heard of him,” I say.

In the end, after dodging the extremely large number of people I need to avoid by talking to the accordionist from the Pogues for a very long time (he’s also very sharp, and funny, too, so that’s good), I suddenly find myself talking to a Famous Person who, it turns out, is reading my book.

She has brought her husband along, who is An Even More Famous Person, and, moreover, one who I think, like her, deserves his fame, and I get a bit giddy and tip my glass of rosé over her in my excitement. Things go downhill a bit after that, and as I trudge home, reflecting on the degree to which I have, yet again, made a tit of myself, despite all efforts not to, I think of Samuel Beckett’s wise words from – is it “First Love”? – “The mistake one makes is to speak to people.”

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 08 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The end of the red-top era?

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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear