I was the original Idler

Our boulevardier columnist takes a rare trip to the countryside, which he finds – surprisingly – muc

Somebody “up there” is reading this. Hardly had I claimed that I had an enviable body mass index than – pop! – a little pot belly appeared, as if by magic. (I have become rather fond of it, and shall call it David.) And then no sooner had I complained about the bogusness of London than – whoosh! – circumstances find me in the countryside for a few days with my boys.

This isn’t fake countryside. This is the real deal, three and a half hours from London, four if you take the scenic route over Exmoor, four and a half if you get stuck in the densest fog you’ve ever seen in your life on the B3227 near Wiveliscombe. We arrive in a thunderstorm. Like Marwood’s Jag in Withnail and I, the car has only one windscreen wiper (although, unlike the Jag, it’s in fact meant only to have one wiper. But still).

We are staying at my friend Tom’s place in north Devon. Tom edits a magazine called the Idler, which used to come out six times a year but now appears a more manageable once. This is actually because he works quite hard. Even so, when he gave me a copy of his book How to Be Idle, he inscribed it: “To Nick – who showed me the way.” But he doesn’t live in the countryside in a poncey way – you know, immaculately kept drives, a carriage wheel stuck uselessly on the outside wall, pampas grass (apparently the infallible sign of the swinger, which is one of the traditional ways to relieve the tedium of life in the country).

Life at Tom’s place is not tedious. There’s stuff to do. There’s a pony to muck out. There are ten hens and one lordly chanticleer to feed and keep safe from the foxes. There are two cats who must be stroked. There is a black retriever who must be played with. I am not really a dog person but this is the second-most engaging hound I have ever met in my life. (The most amusing, personable mutt I ever saw belonged to, of all people, John McVicar, who is himself a gent.) There are even bees, but they can look after themselves.

Last year, there were a couple of pigs, which kept breaking down the fence and destroying the next-door neighbour’s garden. It fell to me to round them up and rebuild the fence, learning how to do drystone walling on the job. Man, was I pleased when those animals were turned into bacon. The place itself has only wood-burning stoves and a Raeburn and is a tad chilly, even in high summer. But the kids had a coal fireplace in their bedroom, which they considered the height of luxury – and they were right. The only mod con is a fridge.

People who know me only as a boulevardier are astonished that I get off on this stuff, but I do. Which is just as well as it’s the only place where I can afford to go on holiday. The British mainland is now, in effect, my prison. But when you have an Eden like Tom’s place, that’s not so bad.

Back in the metropolis, an awkward moment. A certain gentleman, whose precise relationship to me it would be indelicate to reveal, approaches me shyly. “I read your column last week,” he begins, with something in his manner suggesting that he is not about to add the words, “and I thought it was a complete scream.” What he says is: “I’m a very private person, so please don’t mention me again.” This puts me in a delicate position. As he must doubtless appreciate, he is not exactly a man whose sensibilities I wish to protect. And what about my professional obligations? My readers? I can’t just bang on about myself every week. This isn’t sodding Twitter. I need the material.

Several replies spring to mind, such as: “You should have seen the first draft”, or: “Thanks – that’s next week’s column sorted”, or that old standby: “Fuck off.” But no. Such facetiousness would be inappropriate. Humanus sum, nihil humanum a me alienum puto, I reply, or, in English: “I’ll write what I like.” This doesn’t seem to satisfy him, so I add: “I’ll bear it in mind.” So he can consider himself not mentioned at all. I am not a cruel man.

But it’s a tricky business, this matter of mentioning real-life people in a column like this. Some people beg to be included. Alan, the guvnor of the Duke of Wellington, gives me a pint whenever I mention his name. (So: Alan, Alan, Alan, Alan, Alan.) Julie Burchill once gave me a huge compliment in a column, but the subs removed it because they thought I’d be upset. It sometimes seems that the only thing one can do is get it wrong.

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 27 April 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Rise of the Geek