Mystery of the disappearing women

A visit from this magazine's own excellent young writer Laurie Penny, who has come for a natter about what it's like being kettled and to watch me drink my customary bottle of Shiraz while she sips from a glass of cider and, later, a cup of tea (like me, and indeed George Orwell, she prefers a good mug of strong builder's tea, made with proper tea leaves). She has a look round the Hovel. Because she is young and is living in the middle of nowhere, she is quite impressed by it. But opening the door of the room that was formerly inhabited by the daughter of the Woman Who Used to Love Me, I am staggered to discover that it is completely empty.

I had heard that the girl had left, but had no idea that all her stuff had gone with her; I'd assumed this was going to be a painful duty that I'd be obliged to help with out of common decency. But no: it's like thieves have struck in the night, leaving me with a similar sense of violation.

But my main feeling - apart from pity for the poor girl, who found London and perhaps the whole awkward situation too much to handle - is one of bafflement. How did she manage it? It bespeaks a formidable level of logistical nous that she had not hitherto led me to suspect she possessed.

And stealth. I've been in the Hovel the whole time, apart from the occasional hour or two a day after school with the kids in the family home, and one evening when I went to my brother's for Thanksgiving. Most of the time has been spent awake, as I have rediscovered insomnia. (The cricket going on in Australia is also playing havoc with the body clock. At the time of writing, Australia are 245 all out and I have become fully nocturnal. Such are the dangers of back-to-back Test matches.) And much of the time is spent in bed, staring at the ceiling or reading. Anyone moving stuff around would have been heard.

Also, I would have been quite happy to help but (and this is another unpleasant thought) it was obviously considered imperative that there should be no further eye contact be­tween myself and any member of the WWUTLM's family. When I tell Razors about this, he says they're in league with the devil, an explanation that is not as true or comforting as he perhaps imagines.

Living dead

But Lord how the misery is debilitating. I do manage to make a couple of exceptions to my stay-at-home regime, despite the intense cold. These involve parties, one given by the left-wing publishers Verso, and the other being the Guardian First Book Award. It is important to go to these parties, as the booze is generally free. They could not have been more different.

The former is held underneath the tunnels by Waterloo Station and is wilfully funky, while the Guardian has gone for class and is at the Victoria and Albert Museum. At the Verso party I start chatting to the writer James -- , who strikes me as a thoroughly good egg. It turns out that we are both mindful of the fact that the free bar only lasts until 8.30. (I am also mindful of the fact that the only person older than me at the Verso party is Tariq Ali.)

“Don't worry," James says. "I am the Jason Bourne of the free bar" - and it turns out he is not exaggerating. We both arrive at the bar at the same time but he gets served about ten minutes before me and carries off twice as many glasses of Primitivo. Several people lie dead at his feet, but this kind of thing happens to people who stand in Jason Bourne's way.

At the Guardian party I run into my esteemed colleague S -- , who I thought lived in Paris. "I thought you lived in Paris," I say.

“I did," he says. It turns out that the woman he was with dumped him. I groan in sympathy. And reflect, not for the first time, on the alarming rise in the number of women who decide for no real good reason that their men are not quite right for them and blithely cast them adrift. At least I didn't have to move cities when I got dumped. (Then again, I, too, have dumped and the woman concerned is still upset about it, if a recent email from her is anything to go by. The difference is I largely assent to her assessment of my character, and feel rotten about it.)

And the cold is making everything worse. The cold snap may be over by the time you read this, but at the moment the chill is Dantescan, insupportable, all-penetrating and another reason for staying in bed. I recall that the deepest part of hell is, according to the Florentine, composed of ice rather than fire. "Io non mori' e non rimasi vivo," Dante wrote: I did not die, and I was not alive. That seems to sum things up perfectly.

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 December 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The radical Jesus