Down and out in London

“Lazy, selfish, borderline alcoholic” – what an enticing prospect for the next Mrs Lezard

Meanwhile, the hunt for the next Mrs Lezard continues in its desultory, defeated way. I have to admit that I do not necessarily represent an enticing prospect.

On the plus side, I have an enviable body mass index, a good command of cooking, and of French, and almost all my own teeth; but set against that there is the fact that these days I am compelled to haggle over the price of confectionery in the shop over the road. (Well, I mean, come on – 70p for a Double Decker? They’re making it up as they go along.) Once I had a house and a Mercedes; now all I have is the laptop I am writing this on, a lovely red guitar, and a bicycle in the hallway with a knackered back brake and two flat tyres (offers considered). I know I was never one to set much store by material possessions, and in fact rather despise those who do, but this is getting ridiculous.

One thinks, inevitably, of Boethius’s Consolatio Philosophiae, and like him I try to maintain a deep serenity born of the knowledge that one’s luck can go down as well as up, but it is the lack of a permanent companion which is beginning to irk me. One of my children asked me recently if I had a girlfriend. “That’s none of your damned business,” I told him, to which he replied, “Oh, so you don’t, then.” Curbing the urge to give him a sound thrashing for his impudence, I said, “Actually, I’ve got seven.” That shut him up.

If you accept the codes of Victorian society, where a stolen kiss or the amorous holding of hands pretty much committed you to a relationship, then I suppose I do have something like seven girlfriends. But in the sense of having someone you can regularly curl up and watch films with, go for walks in the park with etc, and suggest sex to without any serious risk of outraged rejection, the figure approaches zero.

It was not always thus. A woman I will christen The Lacanian and I had a fling last year but it was decidedly temporary. Apparently, the smallest useful unit of temporal measurement is the time it takes a beam of light to cross a proton. It has since been redefined as the length of time The Lacanian thought she was in love with me.

I blame myself; for was it not Slavoj Žižek, Lacan’s greatest disciple, who defined love as “giving something you don’t have – to someone who doesn’t want it”? It’s not exactly Sinatra singing “You Make Me Feel So Young”, is it?

The more I researched Žižek and Lacan to find out what made her tick, the more I realised I was in trouble. The irony that I now write for a magazine that tempts potential subscribers with copies of books by Žižek has not escaped me.

Still, released from the suspended animation of marriage, I have learned, and learned in a hurry, a lot about relationships. Although not going so far as my friend A– , who says that all women should be obliged, like cigarette packets, to bear a prominent government health warning (shouldn’t men, too?), I would advise a certain degree of circumspection.

You may, for instance, hear a woman say: “Is it too much to ask that I find a man who does not beat me up/keep running off to smoke crack in the loo/sleep with my best friend the minute my back is turned?” I have heard this quite a few times, and have since learned that saying something along the lines of, “Well, I do none of these things, and I rather fancy you as it happens, how about dinner?” is a waste of breath. Literally. They look right through you. You’ve got more chance if you say, “Right now, I’m wearing ladies’ underwear” – or even, perhaps, “Well, it’s funny you should mention that, but there’s nothing I like more than sneaking off for a crafty rock or two and then beating my girlfriends like gongs.”

I have also learned that: 1) You can’t make anyone love you back, 2) There’s no fool like an old fool, and 3) When a woman says she’s mad it is wise to take this assertion at face value and not, as I foolishly did, regard it as a winning and auspicious indication of a mind unclouded by self-deception.

So what now? I have learned to mistrust dating websites ever since I saw that my estranged wife used the adjectives “easygoing” and “tolerant” to describe herself on Guardian Soulmates, which, as I sternly reminded her, bore about as much relation to the truth as if I’d said I was “incredibly tidy” and “able to fly”. Thinking sod this for a lark, I announced myself on the site as a “lazy, selfish, borderline alcoholic”, which actually got quite a few replies, and has resulted in more than one good friendship; but no Mrs Lezard Number Two. Ho-hum. Does anyone want that bike?

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 06 April 2009 issue of the New Statesman, God special issue