The open fridge: We've all been there. Photo: Chris Hondros/Getty Images
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Late at night, in my dressing gown, I search the fridge for a piece of cheese and contemplate my fate

"I could be Nick Clegg". Nicholas Lezard sees desperation by the fridge light. 

It’s about 11 o’clock at night, I am deadly sober, and I am searching the fridge for cheese. This is not as easy or even as fun as it sounds. With a full compliment of people in residence in the Hovel, the fridge fills up fairly quickly, and things tend to accumulate. Largely this is my fault. Ever thrifty, or at least careful to economise where I can (that is, without doing anything crazy like giving up wine), I find it hard to throw away carcasses with some meat on the bone, rinds of Parmesan now solid as aeroplane chocks, mugs and jars filled with the fat rendered from roasted joints.

Even the remains of the Christmas goose are still around – admittedly, not in the fridge but double-wrapped in plastic bags on the table on the back terrace. Winter is a kind of fridge but by now this goose must be getting a bit ropey. What am I waiting for? For it to grow wings again and fly away south?

Back to the fridge: I am strangely relieved to note that there is a litre of soya milk that was never mine but has been there since before Christmas. Maybe the other inhabitants each think it belongs to the other. I am fairly sure no one thinks it’s mine. It doesn’t take a great deal of acquaintance for people to work out that I’m not a soya milk kind of person.

I find some Brie that is entering the so-so period of its existence; it would do, but what I want right now is hard cheese. I know I have some Cheddar uneaten in there that cannot have got mouldy yet. Briefly I entertain the suspicion that someone else has scoffed it but immediately dismiss it. If there is one thing life has taught me, it is that when something of mine goes missing, it is not because anyone else has nicked it or thrown it away by mistake, however pleasing to the indignation centre of the brain this is. It is because I have mislaid it.

So I rummage through the fridge’s packed, chaotic shelves, and think: I’m rummaging through a shared fridge in my dressing gown in the middle of the night, and I’m 51. Assuming I peg out around 75 – and with my lifestyle that’s a fairly generous estimate – that means I’m three-quarters of the way through existence. What have I got to show for it? Three great children and a pile of brown envelopes I am too terrified to a) open or b) throw away. That, and a phobia, quite well justified, as it turns out, of answering the phone unless the screen shows it is coming from a number already known to me.

Hard cheese, indeed.

A nearly full tub of Tesco Mascarpone and tomato sauce commits a felo de se by rolling off one of the shelves and landing on the floor. If it had landed on my foot that would have hurt. Also, by some miracle, the top stays on, so I do not have to spend another 20 minutes cleaning up, eating into my schedule.

So: things could be worse. I could be wrapped in sleeping bags and pissy newspapers in the Marylebone Road underpass. I could be looking forward to the next of my 50 lashes courtesy of the “government” of Saudi Arabia, as well as the rest of my life in the nick, just for pointing out a few flaws in the system.

I could be Nick Clegg.

See? There’s always a ray of sunshine when you look for it.

But somehow, in the still watches of the night, these arguments fail to console. My love life has gone quite spectacularly wrong, partly as a result of having made the cardinal mistake of trying to be decent, which, let me tell you, upsets everyone concerned and invariably lands you in the shit. I am writing this, as I mentioned in last week’s column, on a computer held together with Sellotape. Which isn’t even holding it together. I am seeking cheese in the middle of the night because I’ve been feeling peaky all day, and when that happens I always entertain the thought of dying in my room and no one finding out until the smell gets unbearable. And, as I have said, I have at most two and a half decades left to play with, and something tells me that when I look back on tonight, I will say to myself: those were the good days. C’est là ce que nous avons eu de meilleur.

I wonder: is this self-pity, depression, or just a good, hard look at the situation? People say the life unexamined is not worth living but I am beginning to wonder whether the opposite is true. Tomorrow, I vow, trudging up the stairs with a corner of slightly furry Brie, I am going to start drinking at six on the dot and not stop until I conk out.

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 23 January 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Christianity in the Middle East

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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