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