The trick with the Ring Cycle is to get really stoned beforehand

Another year, another final pair of digits on the file marked "terror about financial matters". Not that there's anything that I can do about it, except work, and that for little more than peanuts.

Still, the quality of life isn't so bad. The wine that Majestic keeps for me alone only costs £6.50 a bottle; I've tried others and we really have to make a big leap upwards in price before we find something else I like as much.

“One day you're going to come in and ask for something else," says one of the staff at the local branch, "and we'll all faint with shock."

I take mild umbrage. "Do you have anything that tastes as nice and is as cheap?" I ask.

“Er . . . no." "Well, then," I say, "six of the usual, please."

(Funny how if you go to the pub and have the same beer you have every time, no one behind the bar bats an eyelid; in fact, it's considered something of an imposition to have to stand behind another pump to the accustomed one; but keep asking for the same wine all the time and you're considered unadventurous.)

Healing powers

Things emotional are going well, too.

I will not go into too many details because there's a limit to how much one ought to reveal, but suffice to say that those of you who have over the years expressed concern at the shredding my heart has taken can be reassured that all is - touch wood - tickety-boo and the poor, battered old
organ is healing nicely.

And I got to see some opera in the New Year. At the Royal Opera House, no less. Some of you may wonder what a column called "Down and Out in London" is doing at the ROH, but it so happens that I was given a ticket by a friend who can get a staff discount. This, incidentally, is the only way I can afford to see opera. I have never bought a ticket; couldn't afford to. Never could.

I once got to see the dress rehearsals for the whole Ring Cycle at the same venue many years ago because my friend Emma was in charge of the scenery. There was simply no other way I was ever going to get to see it - and you can't just listen to opera, you have to see it, I'm afraid.
The trick with the Ring Cycle, I discovered, is to get really, really stoned beforehand, and try not to think too hard about the fear-inducing politics of all the Wagnerians in the audience around you.

“How much are the tickets for today's performance?" I ask in a whisper to H- as we settle down to the third act of Die Meistersinger. "I think about £200," she whispers back. "Fuck me," I whisper back in turn to her. We missed the first two acts because it was New Year's Day and we were both, by an amazing coincidence, feeling rather groggy, even at 6.40pm, when Act III started (the opera had begun, I gather, some time in December).

The old boy on my left expressed sympathy at our frustration at having had to miss the first two acts. I could see his point, considering how much he'd paid for his ticket, but what to say?

“I know, but this seat cost me nuppence, and frankly, I think two hours and five minutes of Wagner is as much as the constitution can take on New Year's Day, and besides, I know what happens."

That wouldn't do, so all I did was make a strangled English-sounding "uhhh" noise indicating deep confusion, and tried to stay awake for the next two hours.

(I just about managed it. I am trying to perfect a technique whereby one can drift off with only one eye shut, so that the person next to you doesn't know you're asleep. My friend H-, to whom I mentioned this, said it was the maddest thing she'd ever heard, but I read in the Guardian about this man who'd gone through a hernia operation without anaesthetic by sheer willpower, so surely sleeping with only one eye shut can't be beyond the powers of the human body.)

Freelance freefall

Meanwhile, the question persists: How long can I go on like this? I have been living in the Hovel for four years now and I am beginning to wonder whether this is healthy. (The more fastidious visitors to the place tend to glaze over in bewilderment before they take their leave, and the cumulative effect is unsettling.)

The only problem is that I am going to have to make a huge leap upwards in price before I find anything as good, which reminds me of something.

At least I am still - touch wood again - earning a crust, but I do not know a single freelance writer who is not sick with fear about the future. And this is not a condition confined to freelance writers, I gather.

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 16 January 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The battle for Britain

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Lord Geoffrey Howe dies, age 88

Howe was Margaret Thatcher's longest serving Cabinet minister – and the man credited with precipitating her downfall.

The former Conservative chancellor Lord Howe, a key figure in the Thatcher government, has died of a suspected heart attack, his family has said. He was 88.

Geoffrey Howe was the longest-serving member of Margaret Thatcher's Cabinet, playing a key role in both her government and her downfall. Born in Port Talbot in 1926, he began his career as a lawyer, and was first elected to parliament in 1964, but lost his seat just 18 months later.

Returning as MP for Reigate in the Conservative election victory of 1970, he served in the government of Edward Heath, first as Solicitor General for England & Wales, then as a Minister of State for Trade. When Margaret Thatcher became opposition leader in 1975, she named Howe as her shadow chancellor.

He retained this brief when the party returned to government in 1979. In the controversial budget of 1981, he outlined a radical monetarist programme, abandoning then-mainstream economic thinking by attempting to rapidly tackle the deficit at a time of recession and unemployment. Following the 1983 election, he was appointed as foreign secretary, in which post he negotiated the return of Hong Kong to China.

In 1989, Thatcher demoted Howe to the position of leader of the house and deputy prime minister. And on 1 November 1990, following disagreements over Britain's relationship with Europe, he resigned from the Cabinet altogether. 

Twelve days later, in a powerful speech explaining his resignation, he attacked the prime minister's attitude to Brussels, and called on his former colleagues to "consider their own response to the tragic conflict of loyalties with which I have myself wrestled for perhaps too long".

Labour Chancellor Denis Healey once described an attack from Howe as "like being savaged by a dead sheep" - but his resignation speech is widely credited for triggering the process that led to Thatcher's downfall. Nine days later, her premiership was over.

Howe retired from the Commons in 1992, and was made a life peer as Baron Howe of Aberavon. He later said that his resignation speech "was not intended as a challenge, it was intended as a way of summarising the importance of Europe". 

Nonetheless, he added: "I am sure that, without [Thatcher's] resignation, we would not have won the 1992 election... If there had been a Labour government from 1992 onwards, New Labour would never have been born."

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.