Down and out in London

My mate and I scrounge off each other, like climbers scaling a cliff that would defeat solitary moun

It will astonish quite a few people who know me, some of them quite well, that I do not actually like scrounging. Unlike my great-uncle Lizzie, who was a character in the book White Mischief and of whom it was once observed that “whenever he saw a pretty woman, he would mentally undress her right down to her chequebook”, I find it demeaning and humiliating. But sometimes in a person’s life one has to go against one’s principles to make ends meet (for example, writing a column which uses the first person singular with inordinate frequency). Scrounging is the only viable option and I would like to pass on a few tips.

It will help your self-esteem to recall that the scrounger has a distinguished literary heritage.

One recalls the character in Wodehouse who proudly boasts that he doesn’t owe a soul a penny, not counting tradesmen and tailors, of course, and the character in Tolstoy who makes a point of frequenting the very establishments where he owes crippling sums of money, just to show that he is not scared, and therefore confident of repaying the debt some time soon. This is a technique which requires some panache to pull off properly, and it did indeed backfire horribly once on me one evening in a well-known London club when I made the beginner’s mistake of paying my bill with a Maestro card instead of with cash. It set off the alarm that rings when someone who is about a year overdue with their subs is trying to buy a drink, and I had what the French, with unusual Gallic understatement, call a mauvais quart d’heure as the manager forced me to hand over what was in effect the next month’s child support in order to square the books.

To settle that matter has involved doing some actual work, which these days isn’t the easiest thing to do. There are a lot of jittery and broke writers out there.

As for specific wheezes, one thing I like to do is sit on my own in the Duke at a table that would normally be expected to hold four people eating its excellent-but-slightly-out-my-price-range food. The guv’nor, Alan, who has taken pity on me and yet in some bizarre way sees me as an adornment to his establishment (I helped him get a glowing review in the Standard), or at the very least an amusing curiosity, will then shove me over to a less prominent table, but top up my pint by way of compensation. This takes timing, but I’ve got it down, I would like to think, to a fine art. If some real high-flyers come in he will even give me a large whisky just to get me away from them.

Poncing off your friends is another matter. Most of mine are in almost the same boat as me, so I can’t. My housemate, Razors, and I scrounge off each other, because even though he earns a fantastic salary, it all goes straight out again to sort out his own tormented domestic issues. He gets paid in the middle of the month, I at the end, so we help each other like mountaineers scaling a cliff that would have defeated the solitary climber.

And you do find, when you get divorced, that some of your so-called friends never call you again; and some of them lend you £500 when you really need it and say “pay me back when you can”.

Then there is the longer game, such as the one writers occasionally play, called: How Long Can I Get Away With Not Finishing My Book? I have strung this one out for a period of time extraordinary even by the most adept and audacious of players. It requires nerves of steel, mind, and you do have to finish the damn thing eventually (I’m working on it! I’m working on it!), but you can get a great lunch out of it every year if you choose the right agent. My own, a man of such wit, charm and decency that I sometimes wonder if I am not a little in love with him, understands the concept of wining and dining the penniless author. (With my publisher the story is different. Even before he got exasperated to the point of despair, lunch with him was a bowl of noodles and, after repeated requests, a bottle of beer, and the admonition that he was meeting Orhan Pamuk, ie, a much more important writer, later in the afternoon.)

On another note entirely, and to conclude with something that removes us from the sordid realm of finance, I reached a new low this weekend when I discovered there were no mussels available from the fish van at the local farmers’ market. I had been planning to treat the kids with moules marinière, of which they are fond. “Sorry,” I was told. “They’re not in stock at the moment. It’s their breeding season.” Bloody Norah, I thought. Even the molluscs are getting more action than me these days.

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 13 April 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Easter 2009