Don't you know who I am? Apparently not

I am settling into a very sedentary, comfortable existence. Nowadays the big excitements of my quotidian life revolve around the London Underground. If taking a train from King's Cross to Baker Street, will it be one of the normal, boring Circle Line trains, or one of the excitingly different Metropolitan Line trains with those small overhead luggage racks that no one ever uses? If travelling from Baker Street to Piccadilly Circus, will I get a Bakerloo Line train whose carriages contain seats facing forwards and backwards, as opposed to the ranks that face each other lengthwise? I can barely contain myself with the excitement of it all.

This makes a big change from the first few, or indeed many, months of separation from the first Mrs Lezard. Life might have been grim, but it was made interesting by the uncertainty of whether I was going to make it to the end of the day without killing myself. Heartbreak and exile may make life intolerable, but when every interaction with the outside world, and indeed every private, internal palping of one's own miserable state, causes almost physical pain, you can't exactly say you're bored.

I'm not bored now - but then no one with as many books lying around the place as I have has any right to be bored. Still, it's funny what raises the heartbeat these days. I write this, you see, in the trembling aftermath of an encounter on the Hammersmith and City Line, not 48 hours ago. There I was, on the way to pick up the youngest from primary school, alternating between reading Clive James's latest collection of essays and wondering idly whether a bowl of Waitrose Sultana Bran constitutes one of the recommended daily servings of fruit and veg (and then, by a not completely tortuous chain of reasoning, if it's possible to make a pot belly go away simply by glaring at it), when I noticed someone a few seats away from me reading a copy of this magazine.

Well, naturally, one wants to take a further look. Of course, as the circulation of the NS soars to Hello! levels under its dynamic new editorial team, this kind of thing is going to become more and more common, but for the moment catching someone with the NS on the Tube on a Tuesday afternoon is a fairly rare event.

Covertly at first, I examine this splendid specimen of humanity. Sandy-haired, smartly but casually dressed and, at a guess, a decade younger than myself, he is also carrying a few planks of timber. Excellent: a man good with his hands, not afraid of physical labour, and a public transport user to boot.

However, after a while I begin to notice a strange internal sensation: that of the ego expanding to the extent that it pushes the brain into a corner.
Is he, I find myself thinking, going to recognise me? It suddenly becomes evident to me that I have adopted an unfamiliar, extravagantly nonchalant posture, as if I am trying to take up as much space in the carriage as possible. No, your senses are not deceiving you, my body language is saying, I am indeed Nicholas Lezard, regular columnist for the illustrious periodical you hold in your very hands.

I blame byline photographs for this upsurge in vanity in myself, if not in other writers. A particularly cruel refinement in this publication is the bit
where they ask the Subscriber of the Week which page they turn to first. Every time I am not cited, a little part of me dies, and don't tell me other regular contributors to this magazine don't feel the same way. (For the record, my companion was reading the first-class Bibi van der Zee, with every sign of concentration and appreciation.) At one point, he did look me squarely in the eyes, but his expression was unreadable. It could have been anything from "Who are you and what the hell are you staring at?" to "You compromise and degrade the reputation of an otherwise great and venerable publication".

It's a funny business, the half-lit public life of the columnist. Years ago, I saw a very attractive woman chuckling over something I'd written in the Guardian, but unaccountably held my peace; I was once accosted in a tea shop attached to a derelict abbey in Herefordshire by what I suppose I have to call a fan; and again, last year, in Marylebone High Street by a Liverpudlian who told me to "keep up the good work".

That's it, I think, in over 20 years of full-time writing, and yet it suffices, for the moment. Which is handy, because I would not care to be unable to step outside the front door without running a gauntlet of paparazzi. In fact, after a while, I imagine it would get rather boring.

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 05 July 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The cult of the generals