A stethoscope. Photo: Carl Court/Getty Images
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My keyboard is held together by Sellotape. And what’s that strange buzzing in my groin?

Failing hardware and Withnail occupy Nicholas Lezard.

It’s a weird period, the week between Boxing Day and New Year. It’s as if the whole country is wandering around in its pyjamas, muttering to itself. I hunker down in the Hovel behind a barricade of wine bottles; it seems like the wisest course of action.

Company eventually comes in the form of the daughter, who likes to use the Hovel as a launchpad for her return to university. She finds it a convivial place and seems to enjoy my ideas of how to entertain ourselves in the evening. (Though she loves her brothers, they are not given to conversation once settled in front of their screens.) So the first part of Monday evening is spent eating pizza and watching Withnail and I. Normally I am strict about the matter of talking when a film is on but we’ve seen Withnail so many times between us that occasionally we feel moved to comment when we have something we think is interesting to say about it.

There are, I gather, people who not only do not like this film particularly but think that it is a bit odd to have watched it around 50 times. (This is a conservative estimate.) To which I can only reply: would you put a limit on the number of times you would listen to a favourite piece of music? Moreover, although the film may have, to us, reached the condition of music, there are plenty of times in life when it seems directly relevant.

One of them, which I keep quiet about, occurs early when Marwood (this is the name of the “I” character), after a 60-hour speed binge, says: “My thumbs have gone weird.” I have not been on such a binge myself and neither have my thumbs gone weird; but my groin has. The only way I can describe it is that it’s as if someone has left a very tiny mobile phone in the front of my undercrackers and left it on “vibrate” mode, set to go off every three seconds or so.

It is the kind of thing one hesitates to go to the doctor about. Not only is it painless, it’s not entirely unpleasant. But it is not normal; I certainly haven’t read about this in the user’s manual. I am, at the moment, due to illness in the family (and terminal illness at that), becoming rather sensitised to the shocks that flesh is heir to and I wonder if this is the start of something nasty. Then again, the toes on my left foot have been ever so slightly numb for about ten years now. That hasn’t got any better but it hasn’t got any worse.

I suppose I am at the age when the downhill progress starts accelerating. I can see this happening right now on the machine I am using to write this piece. A Lenovo PC of some venerability, it is sort of held together by Sellotape and the keyboard makes a funny, squeaking noise as I type. The built-in mouse has ceased to function, as has the fingerprint reader (a rather snazzy feature that impressed my children when this computer was a new arrival). Somehow I managed to dig out an external mouse from the crap on my desk; only now the cursor seems to skip about after a few hours of use and I will suddenly look to the screen – I’ve never learned to touch-type – and see that I’ve inserted several sentences into the first paragraph, where they do not belong.

Which is all rather tiresome but not unliveable with. After all, the alternative – to get something done about these things, rather than simply to put up with them – does not appeal. One would involve a doctor either putting his or her hand down my pants or telling me to stop wasting his or her time; and the other would involve either buying a new laptop, which is financially beyond me, or replacing the keyboard again. Having had both a new keyboard and a new screen, my laptop now resembles grandfather’s axe, or Theseus’s ship, thus raising the philosophical problem of whether something whose component parts have all been replaced can still be said to be the same thing.

Meanwhile, buzz, buzz goes the groin again, as if a miniaturised submarine full of tiny doctors (including, wondrously, a microscopic Raquel Welch) had got jammed somewhere below the pubic bone. Everything else down there, I hasten to add, is in fine working order. Certainly finer than I might expect of someone of my age and lifestyle. So one does not want to go to the doctor in case one is told that one of the body’s key components needs replacing. Or that one needs an external mouse. Actually, that’s a line of speculation I’m going to close off right now. 

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 January 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Churchill Myth

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Wrists, knees, terrible rages – I felt overwhelmed when Barry came to see me

I teach my registrars to be aware how a consultation is making them feel: that can give valuable clues to the patient’s own emotional state.

To begin with, it seemed that Barry’s wrists were the problem. He told me about the pain he was experiencing, the pins and needles that came and went in his hands. I started to examine him. His palms were calloused, his fingers thick and stubby, veterans of the heavy work he’d undertaken throughout his 57 years. Even as I assessed this first problem, he mentioned his knees. I moved on to look at those. Then it was his back. I couldn’t get to grips with one thing before he veered to the next.

I teach my registrars to be aware how a consultation is making them feel: that can give valuable clues to the patient’s own emotional state. Barry was making me feel overwhelmed, the more so as I learned that he’d been experiencing all these problems for years.

“Why are you coming to see me about them now,” I asked, “rather than six months ago – or in six months’ time?”

“I need some time off, doc.”

There was something about the way he wouldn’t meet my gaze. And again, that feeling of being overwhelmed.

“What’s going on at work?” I asked him.

His tone hardened as he told me how he’d lost his temper a couple of days earlier. How one of the others had been winding him up, and something inside him had snapped, and he’d taken a swing at his workmate and landed a punch.

Barry had walked out and hadn’t been back. I tried to find out if he’d heard from his boss about the incident, if he knew what was likely to happen next.

He told me he didn’t care.

We talked some more. I learned that he’d been uncharacteristically short-tempered for months; his partner was fed up with being shouted at. Sleep had gone to pot, and Barry had taken to drinking heavily to knock himself out at night. He was smoking twice his usual amount. Men like Barry often don’t experience depression as classic low mood and tearfulness; they become filled with rage and turn in on themselves, repelling those closest to them in the process.

Depression is a complex condition, with roots that can frequently be traced right back to childhood experiences, but bouts are often precipitated by problems with relationships, work, money, or health. In Barry’s case, the main factor turned out to be his job. He’d been an HGV driver but at the start of the year his company had lost its operator’s licence. To keep the business afloat, his boss had diversified. Barry hated what he now had to do. He was now a “catcher”.

I didn’t know what that meant. Getting up at the crack of dawn, he told me, driving to some factory farm somewhere, entering huge sheds and spending hours catching chickens, thousands upon thousands of them, shoving them into crates, stashing the crates on a lorry, working under relentless pressure to get the sheds cleared and the birds off to the next stage of the food production chain.

“It’s a young man’s game,” he told me. “It’s crippling me, all that bending and catching.”

It wasn’t really his joints, though. Men like Barry can find it hard to talk about difficult emotion, but it was there in his eyes. I had a sudden understanding: Barry, capturing bird after panicking bird, stuffing them into the transport containers, the air full of alarmed clucking and dislodged feathers. Hour after hour of it. It was traumatising him, but he couldn’t admit anything so poncey.

“I just want to get back to driving.”

That would mean landing a new job, and he doubted he would be able to do so, not at his age. He couldn’t take just any old work, either: he had to earn a decent wage to keep up with a still sizeable mortgage.

We talked about how antidepressants might improve his symptoms, and made a plan to tackle the alcohol. I signed him off to give him some respite and a chance to look for new work – the one thing that was going to resolve his depression. But in the meantime, he felt as trapped as the chickens that he cornered, day after soul-destroying day.

Phil Whitaker’s novel “Sister Sebastian’s Library” will be published by Salt in September

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt