Dead man walking: a man dressed as a zombie in Hyde Park, London, August 2013. Photo: Getty
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I think I might be dead – it would explain a lot about the past seven years

A friend comes round with some old copies of the New Scientist and I read a piece about Cotard’s syndrome, whose symptoms present as the conviction that you are dead.

An email arrives from a friend I haven’t seen in a while. “I’ve been reading about that s***hole you infest for so long now I’m minded to come and take a look at the gaff. You around at the moment?”

I read this while lying on the bed, around lunchtime, in my underpants. Around me, the scholar’s mistress – the various reading matter that accumulates in the bed of the solitary writer – has been putting on weight. Downstairs, the living room is a heap of old plates and the usual piles and piles of books.

For the past week or so I have been the Hovel’s sole occupant. The Woman Who Scoured the Teapot has finished her stint of working in London and returned to the family home; the man who crashes here from Monday to Thursday to save himself a commute has gone on holiday with his family. My children are on holiday. My girlfriend is in Sweden. My cat . . . I don’t have a cat.

Esse est percipi, Berkeley tells us: to be is to be perceived. Well, no one is perceiving me at the moment. So, do I exist? I’ve let things slide a little, and the prospect of someone rocking up to the front door – someone who I happen to know is a man of tidy habits – puts me into a bit of a flap. Also, I have two deadlines, including the one for this column. I cannot shower, shave, get dressed, tidy up and write the number of words I am contracted to write as well as entertain someone, however desirable it would be to see him.

Solitude has strange side effects. The loneliness is a given. What’s surprising is the way you don’t want to see anyone despite being lonely – it’s as if one is no longer confident in one’s ability to project a persona. One is also acutely aware of the gulf that exists between the figure shambling around in his undercrackers all day long making endless cups of tea, and the suave, witty and dapper raconteur, which is how the world sees you. To clean oneself up and talk as if one were a self-assured and functioning member of society who can make other people laugh would, in some way, feel like an imposture; and so you become like the tree in the Berkeleyan forest which falls without anyone being around to confirm it.

Still, you can’t become completely isolated, however convincing the philosophical case; so, when I get a call from my friend Toby, who is normally, after six o’clock, as hard to shift from the Uxbridge Arms as a limpet is to shift from its rock, doing me the signal honour of proposing a meeting at the Barley Mow, my own local, for a pint, I accept.

Toby brings with him, as has become most welcome custom, a plastic bag full of the past dozen or so New Scientists. (I find that it is a magazine best enjoyed when gorged upon, rather than bought weekly.) And in the first issue I open when I get back to the Hovel, 19 October 2013, I read a piece about Cotard’s syndrome, whose symptoms present as the conviction that you are dead. Or, as one sufferer cited put it, more carefully, the “strong feeling” that she was dead. These may not have been her exact words but I do like the nuance.

I vaguely recall hearing about this at the time of publication and thinking: that’s a delusion? The train of thought tentatively set off last October judders into motion again. Is it possible, I wonder, as someone who first tentatively thought these things after reading “The Waste Land”, specifically the lines about the Dantescan crowds flowing over London Bridge, that it is not realising that you are dead that is the true pathology?

After some days, the idea still grips me. It would account for a great deal I’ve been pondering on for the past seven years. In fact, as an explanation for what is going on, as the TLS’s review of The Matrix said at the time, it makes a great deal of sense. And I have to admit that, as an excuse for late delivery of copy, “I can’t file right now – I’m dead” packs a certain punch. I am also reminded of Will Self’s excellent joke, in his story “The North London Book of the Dead”, that when you die, you just move to another part of London; and what have I done, since being ejected to the Hovel, but move to another part of London?

QED. The problem with most sufferers of Cotard’s on record is that they are distressed at their condition; this, I would venture, is where they are going wrong. 

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 August 2014 issue of the New Statesman, A century of meddling in the Middle East

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This is the new front in the battle to control women’s bodies

By defining all of us as “pre-pregnant”, women are afforded all the blame – but none of the control.

For several weeks, YouTube has been reminding me to hurry up and have a baby. In a moment of guilt over all the newspapers I read online for free, I turned off my ad-blocking software and now I can’t play a simple death metal album without having to sit through 30 seconds of sensible women with long, soft hair trying to sell me pregnancy tests. I half expect one of them to tap her watch and remind me that I shouldn’t be wasting my best fertile years writing about socialism on the internet.

My partner, meanwhile, gets shown advertisements for useful software; my male housemate is offered tomato sauce, which forms 90 per cent of his diet. At first, I wondered if the gods of Google knew something I didn’t. But I suspect that the algorithm is less imaginative than I have been giving it credit for – indeed, I suspect that what Google thinks it knows about me is that I’m a woman in my late twenties, so, whatever my other interests might be, I ought to be getting myself knocked up some time soon.

The technology is new but the assumptions are ancient. Women are meant to make babies, regardless of the alternative plans we might have. In the 21st century, governments and world health authorities are similarly unimaginative about women’s lives and choices. The US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently published guidelines suggesting that any woman who “could get pregnant” should refrain from drinking alcohol. The phrase implies that this includes any woman who menstruates and is not on the Pill – which is, in effect, everyone, as the Pill is not a foolproof method of contraception. So all females capable of conceiving should treat themselves and be treated by the health system as “pre-pregnant” – regardless of whether they plan to get pregnant any time soon, or whether they have sex with men in the first place. Boys will be boys, after all, so women ought to take precautions: think of it as rape insurance.

The medical evidence for moderate drinking as a clear threat to pregnancy is not solidly proven, but the CDC claims that it just wants to provide the best information for women “and their partners”. That’s a chilling little addition. Shouldn’t it be enough for women to decide whether they have that second gin? Are their partners supposed to exercise control over what they do and do not drink? How? By ordering them not to go to the pub? By confiscating their money and keeping tabs on where they go?

This is the logic of domestic abuse. With more than 18,000 women murdered by their intimate partners since 2003, domestic violence is a greater threat to life and health in the US than foetal alcohol poisoning – but that appears not to matter to the CDC.

Most people with a working uterus can get pregnant and some of them don’t self-define as women. But the advice being delivered at the highest levels is clearly aimed at women and that, in itself, tells us a great deal about the reasoning behind this sort of social control. It’s all about controlling women’s bodies before, during and after pregnancy. Almost every ideological facet of our societies is geared towards that end – from product placement and public health advice to explicit laws forcing women to carry pregnancies to term and jailing them if they fail to deliver the healthy babies the state requires of them.

Men’s sexual and reproductive health is never subject to this sort of policing. In South America, where the zika virus is suspected of having caused thousands of birth defects, women are being advised not to “get pregnant”. This is couched in language that gives women all of the blame and none of the control. Just like in the US, reproductive warnings are not aimed at men – even though Brazil, El Salvador and the US are extremely religious countries, so you would think that the number of miraculous virgin births would surely have been noticed.

Men are not being advised to avoid impregnating women, because the idea of a state placing restrictions on men’s sexual behaviour, however violent or reckless, is simply outside the framework of political possibility. It is supposed to be women’s responsibility to control whether they get pregnant – but in Brazil and El Salvador, which are among the countries where zika is most rampant, women often don’t get to make any serious choice in that most intimate of matters. Because of endemic rape and sexual violence, combined with some of the strictest abortion laws in the world, women are routinely forced to give birth against their will.

El Salvador is not the only country that locks up women for having miscarriages. The spread of regressive “personhood” laws across the United States has led to many women being threatened with jail for manslaughter when they miscarry – even as attacks on abortion rights make it harder than ever for American women to choose when and how they become pregnant, especially if they are poor.

Imagine that you have a friend in her early twenties whose partner gave her a helpful list of what she should and should not eat, drink and otherwise insert into various highly personal orifices, just in case she happened to get pregnant. Imagine that this partner backed his suggestions up with the threat of physical force. Imagine that he routinely reminded your friend that her potential to create life was more important than the life she was living, denied her access to medical care and threatened to lock her up if she miscarried. You would be telling your friend to get the hell out of that abusive relationship. You would be calling around the local shelters to find her an emergency refuge. But there is no refuge for a woman when the basic apparatus of power in her country is abusive. When society puts social control above women’s autonomy, there is nowhere for them to escape.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle