This isn’t just wine flu

Illness leaves me incapable of doing much more than lying in bed all day reading books. Plus ça chan

Illness strikes. I think it is because I have had the jab for swine flu, and I reflect that one of my bitterly favourite words is "iatrogenic" - that is, an adverse reaction caused by medical treatment. (One of my more amusing friends tells me that what I really have is wine flu. Oh, how droll.) Not that I am one to complain. For a start, the chief symptom of whatever this lurgy might be is that it leaves me incapable of doing much more than lying in bed all day reading books, and as that is what I do most of the time anyway, you could say that no real harm is being done. There is also a strong disinclination to write, though, which is more problematic, as that is how the money comes in. (Would that there were some way of earning money by reading and doing nothing else.)

But I am surrounded by kindness, which is funny, because that is the subject of the book I have to review this week. It is very good, and thought-provoking, although rather heavy on the psychoanalysis. "In Freud's community of solitary, desiring individuals attached 'in the first instance' to their instincts, kindness is a bribe. Kindness is foreplay." Razors comes into my room and expresses sympathy. Would I like a cup of tea and some toast with Marmite? This is very kind. Is there a glint in his eye? No: he's just being nice. I have heard, though, of the kind of marriage where the woman regards the man's illness as itself morally reprehensible, beyond kindness, because it is somehow, obviously, his fault. As I have not been in any kind of marriage for some time now, nor even very ill either, this humane act by Razors almost reduces me to tears.

In bed with Hardy

But being unwell - even at this low level - does give me pause for thought. What, I wonder, would happen if something went seriously wrong? In the marital home, where one is never left in peace for longer than five minutes outside school and office hours, one's corpse would be discovered long before it would have started to putrefy. In the Hovel, this would not apply if Razors was off on one of his jaunts abroad. Reading Hardy's The Well-Beloved, which is in some respects a dreadful book (you can see why, after writing it, he finally gave up fiction and turned to poetry), I note how the sculptor Jocelyn Pierston, when old and ill, and having suffered a string of rather silly love affairs, is looked after by an old fiancée. "You seem to have no other woman friend who cares whether you are dead or alive," she says, and the words suddenly make not being married sound like not such a good idea after all.

But I can't lie around in bed moping all the time. My brother, for one thing, needs me. He's the captain of the MCC backgammon team, and even though he regularly thrashes me at the game - I believe I still owe him a small sum of money - he appears to consider me a good enough player to be worth selecting for the league match against the RAC.

I call him up a couple of hours before kick-off and ask him if there are any keen substitutes who aren't feeling unwell, but he says no. As the elder brother I am legally allowed to tell him to go boil his head anyway, but I don't want to let him down, so turn up to Lord's in
a light fug of paracetamol and codeine.

The evening does not go very well for us, as it turns out. I lose against a nice Austrian who is, like me, a fan of Stefan Zweig, and against the opposing captain, who seems genuinely baffled at what I do for a living. This conversation occurs after the game, so it's not as if he's trying to psych me out or anything. When I tell him I'm a book reviewer, the insolent young pup asks me what it is about my opinion that makes it more valid than anyone else's.

A few answers spring to mind, ranging from "the money I get for it" to a non-verbal response involving the forcible insertion of a backgammon piece up his nose, but tonight I am an ambassador for MCC and must act the gentleman. Also, I don't have the energy for either sarcasm or mild violence. But it is not the kind of question, I feel, that is proper to ask in polite society. Besides, I'm not well enough to answer 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 14 December 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The Muslim Jesus

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No, David Cameron’s speech was not “left wing”

Come on, guys.

There is a strange journalistic phenomenon that occurs when a party leader makes a speech. It is a blend of groupthink, relief, utter certainty, and online backslapping. It happened particularly quickly after David Cameron’s speech to Tory party conference today. A few pundits decided that – because he mentioned, like, diversity and social mobility – this was a centre-left speech. A leftwing speech, even. Or at least a clear grab for the liberal centre ground. And so that’s what everyone now believes. The analysis is decided. The commentary is written. Thank God for that.

Really? It’s quite easy, even as one of those nasty, wicked Tories, to mention that you actually don’t much like racism, and point out that you’d quite like poor children to get jobs, without moving onto Labour's "territory". Which normal person is in favour of discriminating against someone on the basis of race, or blocking opportunity on the basis of class? Of course he’s against that. He’s a politician operating in a liberal democracy. And this isn’t Ukip conference.

Looking at the whole package, it was actually quite a rightwing speech. It was a paean to defence – championing drones, protecting Britain from the evils of the world, and getting all excited about “launching the biggest aircraft carriers in our history”.

It was a festival of flagwaving guff about the British “character”, a celebration of shoehorning our history chronologically onto the curriculum, looking towards a “Greater Britain”, asking for more “national pride”. There was even a Bake Off pun.

He also deployed the illiberal device of inculcating a divide-and-rule fear of the “shadow of extremism – hanging over every single one of us”, informing us that children in UK madrassas are having their “heads filled with poison and their hearts filled with hate”, and saying Britain shouldn’t be “overwhelmed” with refugees, before quickly changing the subject to ousting Assad. How unashamedly centrist, of you, Mr Prime Minister.

Benefit cuts and a reduction of tax credits will mean the Prime Minister’s enthusiasm for “equality of opportunity, as opposed to equality of outcome” will be just that – with the outcome pretty bleak for those who end up losing any opportunity that comes with state support. And his excitement about diversity in his cabinet rings a little hollow the day following a tubthumping anti-immigration speech from his Home Secretary.

If this year's Tory conference wins the party votes, it’ll be because of its conservative commitment – not lefty love bombing.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.