Keep mum – she’s not so dumb

My mother's birthday. We have lunch upstairs at the Duke; very nice. The Guvnor may look like someone from Euston Films' darkest dreams, but he runs a tight ship and I can warmly recommend the asparagus with poached egg and hollandaise sauce. Conversation with my mother is like everyone's conversations with their mothers, but with a twist.

“How come you never tell me what you're up to, but you reveal your innermost thoughts and most shameful anecdotes to everyone who reads the
New Statesman?" she asks.

“Well, if you match their rates we may be able to come to an arrangement," I say. Actually, I don't say it. She has a point.

My mother is a wonderful and remarkable person, but I suppose I do tend to play my cards close to my chest with her. She's usually able to guess what I'm up to, anyway.

On leaving the pub, she expresses a desire to inspect the Hovel. This is something I have been putting off for two and a half years. It is not that it is disgusting. The cleaning lady - who is called Marta, but Razors and I spell her name "Martyr" - has been in and done her best, as always. ("Is this the worst place you have to do?" the Woman I Love asked her one morning. Apparently it was, if a rueful nod of the head and a wan quarter-smile mean "yes".)

It's just that I do not want her to see the evidence of my own failure so close at hand. Let me put it like this: the big news in home comforts this week is that I have found the 18-inch-long piece of wood that I use to prop my bedroom window open. Between this and the six-inch piece of wood I use to prop my bedroom window open, I can now prop my bedroom window open either two, six or 18 inches. Doubtless, using some combination of both pieces of wood, I could prop it open in even more variations of width, but let's not get carried away - three choices are plenty for me.

When my father was my age, he had two cars, a semi-detached house in East Finchley with a big garden and a company directorship. (He had also, mystifyingly, considering he once described Margaret Thatcher to me as “a dangerous pinko", been awarded the Order of Lenin [Fifth Class], but that's another story for another day.)

Well, I have more hair than he did, but then I haven't had to deal with print unions every day or a son who, at the age of 11, made a speech at his school's mock election urging everyone to vote for the Socialist Party of Great Britain. (I got two votes, one of which was mine. I've always wondered whose the other one was.) And you can be sure he did not need pieces of wood to prop the windows open with.

Inspector calls

Anyway, it is my mother's birthday, after all, and if she wants to see the Hovel, she may as well see it now. It's not in a disgraceful state at the moment; it is, in fact, in as good a nick as it's going to get, although we will get that fused bathroom light looked at one day soon, honest. The thing is, I don't really mind living like this - that is, in a place where people are always surprised to find that the kitchen sink actually has a mixer tap.

In fact, in many ways I have fallen right on my feet; or, like Brer Rabbit, into an especially nice briar patch. I wouldn't want the two cars or the big garden (although there is something cool about the Order of Lenin [Fifth Class]). I have never been acquisitive, and my circumstances now give me
a chance to show just how non-acquisitive I am. But other people, particularly in the middle classes, do not think the way I do, and would see my circumstances as catastrophically ignominious.

There then follows a slow inspection. I forget to show her the terrace, which would have pleased her because the view from it is very New Yorky.
“Well, it's pretty much what I thought it was going to be like," she says, finally. Is that good?

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 03 May 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Danger