You know you’ve hit a new low when you’re borrowing money off your children

Nicholas Lezard's "Down and Out" column.

It was, in the end, nothing less than a continuous pleasure having the daughter to stay for a fortnight. She’s gone now, and is missed; she’s off to stay for a while in a household in France that is, a generation up, infested with hippies.
 
These are real hippies – the kind who were at just the right age to inhale the full blowback of flower power in the mid-Sixties. They’re pushing their own sixties now and you can spot them a mile off, which is handy if you want to distance yourself. Remember the television ad for a bank around five or six years ago that featured a woman in a headscarf going on about feng shui? That was her, or close enough to make no difference. I stayed there once myself and gave them a present of some delicious local saucissonand cheese.
 
“Sorry,” she said as I was putting them in the fridge, “but I’m getting back in touch with my Jewish roots and would rather you didn’t put the meat and the dairy products on the same shelf.”
 
She is also very partial to wandering around the place completely starkers. This can come as a surprise at first but I suppose it is always well to have a memento mori around the place, like Brideshead’s Sebastian Flyte with his skull inscribed with the legend “Et in Arcadia ego”. I, too, was, or am, in paradise. The ambiguity in tense is crucial.
 
Anyway, my daughter came to stay at just the right time; in other words, at that awkward period at the end of the month when the Lezard economy enters its austerity phase. For those who think I exaggerate when I claim poverty, the last ten days of July were spent working out how to live off £14 and for the first time in my life I started thinking about going to a payday loan company. I find something rather distasteful and dishonest about them, which probably doesn’t come as news to you, and I heard that if you borrow £100 off the best-known one and don’t pay it back for five years, you end up with a debt greater than that of the United States. I haven’t done the maths but I suspect it’s true.
 
In the end, I kept the ship afloat by borrowing small sums, here and there, off a) the Beloved, who gave me a funny look, and b) my friend Toby, to whom I had turned only because I’d already put the bite on c) my daughter. I think it represents A New Low when you’re reduced to that, no?
 
Toby always does his best to help me save face when he gives me my payday loans, which he always does at his local: either handing the money to me as discreetly as a drug dealer handing over his wares in a public place, or else, if scrutiny is unavoidable, pretending that it is money he owes me. This is very chivalrous of him but I think it is important not to dissemble in front of one’s own children and so peeled off a 20 then and there to hand to my daughter, who had come with me.
 
“There,” I said. “Let that be a lesson to you.” In the end, people paid me, and the sun came out, and this month I have resolved not to let things get like that again. Which is why it was probably unwise to treat myself, last sunny Thursday, to a plate of calamari and a carafe of house white at Casa Becci in Marylebone. The problem with austerity is that its relief can lead one into bad habits again. But what is this life if you can’t sit in the sunshine with some fried seafood, a chilled bottle and a copy of this magazine to read at leisure?
 
It is also well to recall civilised modes of existence. The other day I found that my sometime flatmate, this very magazine’s distinguished and gifted correspondent Laurie Penny, had received a death threat on Twitter. It is all too easy, for men at least, to dismiss these as the tiresome yelps of the mindless savage, but a message giving a specific time at which the firebomb in or near your house is going to go off can be the last straw if you get nothing but abuse every time you write an article.
 
It then occurred to me that, had this kind of thing been all the rage a year or so ago, Laurie’s house would have been my house, too, and there may well have been children of mine staying in it as well.
 
It is at this point that contemplation of the kind of scum who get their kicks out of this kind of thing becomes more than academic. I may have gently teased the hippies in the first few paragraphs of this piece, but really, what on earth is so funny about peace, love and understanding? 
Piggs banks accessible only via hammer. 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 19 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Why aren’t young people working

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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear