These days, writers are lucky to be taken for a sandwich at Subway

At a swanky literary party - they still exist but they are few and far between - I am introduced to two charming girls who appear to be in their mid-teens. It is getting on, so everyone is a bit tiddly, but the way these girls giggle suggests a natural disposition to good humour, which at that stage of the evening seems most pleasant.

They say they are fond of my work, which I also find very disarming and I am beginning to think that this party is beginning to get interesting, but when I ask them what they do they tell me they are editors at Penguin Classics. Ha ha, I say, good one. But really, what do you do? One of them produces a card with the familiar bird in its orange lozenge. I am tempted to say, come off it, you nicked this off someone, I know what editors
at Penguin Classics are like - they're about 85 and their first language is Latin. But something in her demeanour and that of her colleague suggests veracity.

Them's the Rules

They then mention the possibility of work (specifically, writing an introduction to a Penguin Classic) and that part of the freelancer's brain that locks on to the scent of cash like a bloodhound wakes up and tells the sceptical part of my brain to go and sit in the car park with a bottle of lemonade and some crisps until the important business is done. At the risk of getting boring, money has been getting rather tight of late and what with Christmas and everything, eg various inescapable bills becoming due on 1 January, I find myself in a financial hole so deep that it is only through strenuous self-medication that I can sleep at night.

The first thing to do is to convince these ladies to buy me lunch. When publishers buy me lunch, I like them to do it properly and this means Rules, the 18th-century restaurant in Covent Garden that specialises in game and is, I know for a fact, very handy for Penguin Books. Rules? They ask. Isn't that for old farts?

Au contraire, I reply and then launch into a convoluted allegory whereby my familiarity with oysters and snipe and wine lists will be as to the modern introduction to a Penguin Classic, in which an expert commentator makes the old new again, an ancient text has the dust blown off it and made contemporary once more. I go on at some length, for their eyes start to glaze over.

I know when to give up and over the course of a couple of subsequent emails during the next couple of weeks a more suitable and less expensive venue is agreed on. These days writers should count themselves lucky if they get invited to share a sandwich at the nearest branch of Subway.
(Ah, but I remember the publishers' lunches of old. Newspapers used to give them, too, to promising young turks such as I once was, and fondly do I recall, after one discretion-removing, spectacularly alcoholic lunch, telling my host about the story of -- -- and the cocaine, without knowing that she and -- -- were partners and that -- -- had apparently assured her that he no longer touched the stuff. They split up that day,
I gather. I still feel rather bad about it.)

We meet and even though am feeling a little bilious and not at my best, I do what I can to be charming and sing for my lunch. I always feel ever so slightly uncomfortable when the first thing to pass down one's throat during the day is a glass of Côtes du Rhône (don't get too jealous: as my friend Matthew once pointed out to me 30 years ago, in advice I have never forgotten, the Rhône is an awfully long river), but I man up and keep the ball rolling. I ask them about the counter-intuitive dissonance between their job titles, their place of work and their age. (Like many young people, they look even younger in bright daylight, which almost makes me want to cry.)

Bugsy brains

“Actually," says one, "we're among the older ones. There's a top level of people like -- -- " – she names someone I know who is a couple of years younger than me - "but otherwise it's like Bugsy Malone in there." The trick, it turns out, is to hire the best and brightest as soon as Oxford squirts them out (why, I wonder, not Cambridge graduates? You just don't see them any more, like red squirrels. Where have they all gone?), let them accept a salary that even a teacher might think twice about before reluctantly accepting, and let them get on with the work.

“Anyway, here's a list of the books we're doing which we think you might be interested in." I am shown a list of, indeed, interesting-looking books. I then notice that about half of them were written after I was born. "I think I'll have another glass of wine," I say.

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 30 January 2012 issue of the New Statesman, President Newt