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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Donald Tusk is merely calling out Tory hypocrisy on Brexit

And the President of the European Council has the upper hand. 

The pair of numbers that have driven the discussion about our future relationship with the EU since the referendum have been 48 to 52. 

"The majority have spoken", cry the Leavers. "It’s time to tell the EU what we want and get out." However, even as they push for triggering the process early next year, the President of the European Council Donald Tusk’s reply to a letter from Tory MPs, where he blamed British voters for the uncertain futures of expats, is a long overdue reminder that another pair of numbers will, from now on, dominate proceedings.

27 to 1.

For all the media speculation around Brexit in the past few months, over what kind of deal the government will decide to be seek from any future relationship, it is incredible just how little time and thought has been given to the fact that once Article 50 is triggered, we will effectively be negotiating with 27 other partners, not just one.

Of course some countries hold more sway than others, due to their relative economic strength and population, but one of the great equalising achievements of the EU is that all of its member states have a voice. We need look no further than the last minute objections from just one federal entity within Belgium last month over CETA, the huge EU-Canada trade deal, to be reminded how difficult and important it is to build consensus.

Yet the Tories are failing spectacularly to understand this.

During his short trip to Strasbourg last week, David Davis at best ignored, and at worse angered, many of the people he will have to get on-side to secure a deal. Although he did meet Michel Barnier, the senior negotiator for the European Commission, and Guy Verhofstadt, the European Parliament’s representative at the future talks, he did not meet any representatives from the key Socialist Group in the European Parliament, nor the Parliament’s President, nor the Chair of its Constitutional Committee which will advise the Parliament on whether to ratify any future Brexit deal.

In parallel, Boris Johnson, to nobody’s surprise any more, continues to blunder from one debacle to the next, the most recent of which was to insult the Italians with glib remarks about prosecco sales.

On his side, Liam Fox caused astonishment by claiming that the EU would have to pay compensation to third countries across the world with which it has trade deals, to compensate them for Britain no longer being part of the EU with which they had signed their agreements!

And now, Theresa May has been embarrassingly rebuffed in her clumsy attempt to strike an early deal directly with Angela Merkel over the future residential status of EU citizens living and working in Britain and UK citizens in Europe. 

When May was campaigning to be Conservative party leader and thus PM, to appeal to the anti-european Tories, she argued that the future status of EU citizens would have to be part of the ongoing negotiations with the EU. Why then, four months later, are Tory MPs so quick to complain and call foul when Merkel and Tusk take the same position as May held in July? 

Because Theresa May has reversed her position. Our EU partners’ position remains the same - no negotiations before Article 50 is triggered and Britain sets out its stall. Merkel has said she can’t and won’t strike a pre-emptive deal.  In any case, she cannot make agreements on behalf of France,Netherlands and Austria, all of who have their own imminent elections to consider, let alone any other EU member. 

The hypocrisy of Tory MPs calling on the European Commission and national governments to end "the anxiety and uncertainty for UK and EU citizens living in one another's territories", while at the same time having caused and fuelled that same anxiety and uncertainty, has been called out by Tusk. 

With such an astounding level of Tory hypocrisy, incompetence and inconsistency, is it any wonder that our future negotiating partners are rapidly losing any residual goodwill towards the UK?

It is beholden on Theresa May’s government to start showing some awareness of the scale of the enormous task ahead, if the UK is to have any hope of striking a Brexit deal that is anything less than disastrous for Britain. The way they are handling this relatively simple issue does not augur well for the far more complex issues, involving difficult choices for Britain, that are looming on the horizon.

Richard Corbett is the Labour MEP for Yorkshire & Humber.