I can’t apologise for all my drunken exploits – it would take years

Nicholas Lezard's "Down and Out" column.

Arecherché little launch for a book, itself of no great import, but it is the party season, which is good news for the thirsty freelance hack on a tight budget. It is also within walking distance of the Hovel and this becomes an ever more important consideration as I get older. Anyway, I am wondering how much longer I can take of this – it’s in a jewellery shop and I find that book launches held in either jewellery or, say, perfume shops do not attract people whom one could readily identify as bookish – when I notice a face from the distant past: the Empress of Charn.

She’s not really the Empress of Charn. The E of C was, you may recall, Jadis, the rather overbearing witch figure in C S Lewis’s The Magician’s Nephew. She could snap the iron bar off a lamp post as easily as if it were a stick of celery and in spite of – or probably because of – her imperious nature and scorn for the conventions, hugely impressed the weak and foolish Uncle Andrew. “A dem fine woman”, he would call her in fond remembrance.

Her latter-day avatar was not by any means the evil empress of a doomed empire, who would later become the White Witch and keep Narnia frozen in pre-Christmas winter for centuries. But she did have a way of persuading those around her to do unwise things and my friend S— christened her the Empress after one particular exploit, whose details it is best not to repeat here. She was simply very hard to say “no” to and she also found it hard to say “no” herself. Her appetite for drink and the uglier corners of the pharmacopoeia could land her in the most alarming situations.

This was all a long time ago: decades, in fact. I occasionally wondered what had happened to her and learned a while back that she had cleaned her act up and was now properly and totally sober.

I used, even longer ago, to be scornful of friends who went on the wagon, even if only for brief periods; at that age, I had not yet experienced the devastation that a selfdestructive drink habit can cause. For the destruction is not confined to the self: it is centred on it but has a wide radius. Now, when someone gives up the sauce, I congratulate them and wish them luck, if they are still in circulation. (For some reason, friends who have stopped drinking tend not to see as muchof me as they used to.)

Anyway, it is pleasant to see the Empress again but the first thing she does, after announcing that she is sober these days, is apologise for her past behaviour. At this, I find myself somewhat puzzled. For while she may have been a trial to those in her immediate circle, she was actually rather good company if you were able to peel yourself away relatively easily. Even the blast of a bomb must, once you have reached a certain distance, provide nothing more than a lick of heat and a sense of danger escaped.

This is the thing to do, I learn, in the world of AA: to apologise to anyone who might have got mixed up, one way or another, in your past scrapes. What does one do, though, when at the receiving end of such an apology? There was that line from an early P G Wodehouse story I quoted a few weeks back: the right sort of person doesn’t need an apology and the wrong sort takes a mean advantage of it. I stammer something about none being necessary but there is no getting out of this: I am to be apologised to, for that is part of the process of recovery. To brush this aside would not help.

I also start thinking about what would happen if I went down that road and had to start apologising to everyone who was part of my alcoholic past. It would certainly take up an enormous proportion of my time and involve saying sorry to pretty much everyone I’d met since I was about 15 years old. I gather from sober friends that giving up alcohol not only increases the mental bandwidth but gives you a great deal more time to Do Things and if I was going to go clean, I’d like to spend the extra free time learning how to play the piano properly – not saying sorry to half the population of London.

Still, I wonder whether even without that obligation I would have the fortitude to stop drinking. The wife once tried to stage an intervention for me six years ago but I got wind of it beforehand and sent a withering email to all the parties concerned explaining why I considered this a waste of their time.

For one thing, it was the party season and how you get through that without a snifter is beyond me.

Apologising would just take too long. Photograph: Getty Images

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 08 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The world takes sides

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Arsène Wenger: how can an intelligent manager preside over such a hollowed-out team?

The Arsenal manager faces a frustrating legacy.

Sport is obviously not all about winning, but it is about justified hope. That ­distinction has provided, until recently, a serious defence of Arsène Wenger’s Act II – the losing part. Arsenal haven’t won anything big for 13 years. But they have been close enough (and this is a personal view) to sustain the experience of investing emotionally in the story. Hope turning to disappointment is fine. It’s when the hope goes, that’s the problem.

Defeat takes many forms. In both 2010 and 2011, Arsenal lost over two legs to Barcelona in the Champions League. Yet these were rich and rewarding sporting experiences. In the two London fixtures of those ties, Arsenal drew 2-2 and won 2-1 against the most dazzling team in the world. Those nights reinvigorated my pride in sport. The Emirates Stadium had the best show in town. Defeat, when it arrived in Barcelona, was softened by gratitude. We’d been entertained, more than entertained.

Arsenal’s 5-1 surrender to Bayern Munich on 15 February was very different. In this capitulation by instalments, the fascination was macabre rather than dramatic. Having long given up on discerning signs of life, we began the post-mortem mid-match. As we pored over the entrails, the curiosity lay in the extent of the malady that had brought down the body. The same question, over and over: how could such an intelligent, deep-thinking manager preside over a hollowed-out team? How could failings so obvious to outsiders, the absence of steel and resilience, evade the judgement of the boss?

There is a saying in rugby union that forwards (the hard men) determine who wins, and the backs (the glamour boys) decide by how much. Here is a footballing equivalent: midfielders define matches, attacking players adorn them and defenders get the blame. Yet Arsenal’s players as good as vacated the midfield. It is hard to judge how well Bayern’s playmakers performed because they were operating in a vacuum; it looked like a morale-boosting training-ground drill, free from the annoying presence of opponents.

I have always been suspicious of the ­default English critique which posits that mentally fragile teams can be turned around by licensed on-field violence – a good kicking, basically. Sporting “character” takes many forms; physical assertiveness is only one dimension.

Still, it remains baffling, Wenger’s blind spot. He indulges artistry, especially the mercurial Mesut Özil, beyond the point where it serves the player. Yet he won’t protect the magicians by surrounding them with effective but down-to-earth talents. It has become a diet of collapsing soufflés.

What held back Wenger from buying the linchpin midfielder he has lacked for many years? Money is only part of the explanation. All added up, Arsenal do spend: their collective wage bill is the fourth-highest in the League. But Wenger has always been reluctant to lavish cash on a single star player, let alone a steely one. Rather two nice players than one great one.

The power of habit has become debilitating. Like a wealthy but conservative shopper who keeps going back to the same clothes shop, Wenger habituates the same strata of the transfer market. When he can’t get what he needs, he’s happy to come back home with something he’s already got, ­usually an elegant midfielder, tidy passer, gets bounced in big games, prone to going missing. Another button-down blue shirt for a drawer that is well stuffed.

It is almost universally accepted that, as a business, Arsenal are England’s leading club. Where their rivals rely on bailouts from oligarchs or highly leveraged debt, Arsenal took tough choices early and now appear financially secure – helped by their manager’s ability to engineer qualification for the Champions League every season while avoiding excessive transfer costs. Does that count for anything?

After the financial crisis, I had a revealing conversation with the owner of a private bank that had sailed through the turmoil. Being cautious and Swiss, he explained, he had always kept more capital reserves than the norm. As a result, the bank had made less money in boom years. “If I’d been a normal chief executive, I’d have been fired by the board,” he said. Instead, when the economic winds turned, he was much better placed than more bullish rivals. As a competitive strategy, his winning hand was only laid bare by the arrival of harder times.

In football, however, the crash never came. We all wrote that football’s insane spending couldn’t go on but the pace has only quickened. Even the Premier League’s bosses confessed to being surprised by the last extravagant round of television deals – the cash that eventually flows into the hands of managers and then the pockets of players and their agents.

By refusing to splash out on the players he needed, whatever the cost, Wenger was hedged for a downturn that never arrived.

What an irony it would be if football’s bust comes after he has departed. Imagine the scenario. The oligarchs move on, finding fresh ways of achieving fame, respectability and the protection achieved by entering the English establishment. The clubs loaded with debt are forced to cut their spending. Arsenal, benefiting from their solid business model, sail into an outright lead, mopping up star talent and trophies all round.

It’s often said that Wenger – early to invest in data analytics and worldwide scouts; a pioneer of player fitness and lifestyle – was overtaken by imitators. There is a second dimension to the question of time and circumstance. He helped to create and build Arsenal’s off-field robustness, even though football’s crazy economics haven’t yet proved its underlying value.

If the wind turns, Arsène Wenger may face a frustrating legacy: yesterday’s man and yet twice ahead of his time. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit