There are times, composing this column, when I feel like King Midas's barber, the possessor of forbidden knowledge. In the barber's case, it is the knowledge that the king has ass's ears, the result of ill-advisedly judging a music competition between Pan and Apollo, as I recall. In the end, the barber digs a hole in the ground and whispers his secret into it: but secrets have a habit of coming out, and this is why, whenever the wind blows in a field of wheat, the grasses say "King Midas has ass's ears".
So I can't tell you the story about how my friend F-, a militant atheist, has started going out with a devout Catholic. "Why not?" I ask her. "This is priceless. He even has a beard." "Because," she says, "it would break -----'s heart."
“Damn and blast," I say, but hold my peace. You will hear no more about this from me. I know all too well how easy it is to steamroller the feelings
of the heartbroken. So, to lunch at the Duke for a consoling session with Kevin "the Moose" Jackson and Antonia Quirke - yes, the same, the talented radio critic of this very magazine. We are a clubbable bunch, we NS writers. The Moose is very happy, as shooting for his new vampire film, self-financed promotional material for his book Bite, has gone without a hitch. This, I gather, is unprecedented in the history of filming.
He shows me photos of the cast and crew on set and taunts me with pictures of the First Corpse, who was to have been played by me. ("He was very good," says Kevin pointedly.) I had been feeling far too dumped to get out of bed, let alone travel to Cambridge for the shoot, although at least my time in make-up would have been brief. Dieters: you can't beat a romantic disaster for weight loss.
Antonia tells a very funny story about another critic, which I can't repeat in this magazine, and I pick at my mushroom and polenta, which Kevin calls a girly dish because it doesn't have any meat in it. I think this vampire business is getting to him.
Then again, at least these people are doing something with their lives. Mine seems to have stalled. I have never been the most active person at the best of times, but, in the past couple of weeks, I have entered a state of torpor that can be rivalled only by a teenager on his holidays. I was meant to have finished writing a book by the end of October, but this isn't easy when you can barely be motivated to stare into the middle distance in an unfocused manner. Thankfully, my main job involves reading books and I can still manage to do that, interspersing duty with large chunks of Agatha Christie, whose prose style, I discover, is wildly variable - "Mrs Bantry reflected a minute and then applied an urgent conjugal elbow to her sleeping spouse", etc.
As if in general sympathy with the mood around the Hovel, the toaster dies. Its catching mechanism fails to catch, which seems metaphorically apt. I trudge through the rain to the customer care department of John Lewis. The toaster barely cost a tenner but it had great emotional significance (see Down and Out in London, 13 August 2009). In front of me is a West Indian woman with an exploded kettle. She has no receipt but insists that she is under divine protection. When the kettle exploded, she said, the Lord was looking after her, because there was smoke everywhere, and the flat could have caught fire, but didn't. She turns to me as if for corroboration. I forbear to mention that if the Lord was looking after her so assiduously, maybe He wouldn't have allowed the kettle to explode in the first place.
The negotiations wear on. The man at the complaints desk, who is beginning to have an air of someone trying to bail out water from a sinking boat, tries to explain that John Lewis has never sold this particular brand of kettle. The woman is not to be stopped. She buys everything from John Lewis, she says, and something about the way she says it suggests that this is on the Lord's advice. Were I an omnipotent divinity, or Apollo, or even the Gnostic demiurge, the semi-competent creator of a botched universe, I, too, would suggest that my people shop at John Lewis - which is never knowingly undersold and whose electrical goods complaints department caves in after 20 minutes of religiously themed haranguing even when you clearly haven't bought the kettle from there in the first place.
When I hand the man my toaster he tells me to pick another one of equivalent price off the shelves. I, too, have no receipt, but there is no fight left in him. I am pleased with this new toaster, until, after a week, it, too, breaks down. What next?