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The Hovel is crawling with ants. Where have they all come from?

The ant in the home is a particular problem, an outrage against human civilisation.

“Been busy lately?” asks a friend I haven’t seen for a while. “Yes,” I reply, “you could say that.” As readers of last week’s column will know, I’ve been writing this book, see, and the very peculiar conditions of its conception and execution mean that I can’t do what proper writers of books do, that is, faff about and take a bit longer than they said they would. It’s been 2,500 words a day, no mucking about, and if I miss out on any of them one day I have to make it up the next.

On top of this there’s the usual work to be done – say, this column –and with no noticeable dropping off of quality. And, on top of that, there are all the other things you have to do: eat, sleep and have regular showers. Something has had to give, as I said, and, in my instance, the things I have had to give up are: a) doing the washing-up with civilised frequency and b) any hope of making it down to Marks and Sparks to buy some really clean undercrackers and socks to replace the ones that are gradually, but irrevocably, disintegrating through regular washing and use.

So is it all the crumbs that have gathered around the chopping board that have brought in the ants, or the spooky reification of metaphor? “Look to the ant, thou sluggard,” says the proverb, “consider her ways and be wise.” Solomon, the usually alleged author, went on in a manner that suggested a certain ignorance about the organisation of ants’ nests but what would appear to be a direct line to the freelance writer’s brain, “which, having no guide, overseer or ruler, provideth her meat in the summer and gathereth her food in the harvest. How long wilt thou sleep, O sluggard? When wilt thou arise out of thy sleep? Yet a little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to sleep” – and here one imagines the tired freelancer having 40 winks (just as I have done in between writing this sentence and pasting in the last one), despite knowing full well what happens next: “so shall thy poverty come as a marauder, and thy want as an armed man”. And I have always loathed the ant in the Aesop fable, the smug, self-satisfied little prick who lets the grasshopper starve to death because he sang all summer instead of working. The ant may live in a commune, but he’s a right-wing Tory at heart.

All of which is not to address the very specific, Hovel-located problem of Antie. Or Anties. I would have thought that one of the few positive side effects of having large vermin about the Hovel – ie, Mousie – would be that they would keep the smaller vermin – ie, Antie – under some kind of check. But no. Even though Mousie can move at the speed of, well, Speedy Gonzales, and outpace Antie with ease, he is not interested.

So these are problems that are not going to go away, especially while there are two writers living in the same space, who are both writing books, and are therefore too deep into the Zone to do anything except drool, when not thinking about their books. The ant in the home is a particular problem, an outrage against human civilisation. The mouse in the house is bad enough: but familiar enough, and comic enough, for it to be the inspiration behind at least two cartoon animals. (Warner Brothers, I gather, is now Very Sorry Indeed that it created such a terrible racist stereotype as Speedy Gonzales, and its wretched disclaimer, which you can read on Wikipedia, is as hilarious an example of the genre of pathetic apology as you could hope to find; Mexico and other Latin American countries, as you would expect, don’t give a tiny mouse’s shit about this and the cartoon is still popular with them.) But there are no classic cartoon shows about Archie the Ant. (Archie the cockroach, though, has a venerable literary pedigree. But ants, unlike cockroaches, can’t use typewriters.)

Meanwhile, I have to explain to Laurie that if she leaves the lid of her mother’s delicious home-made marmalade open, it will stop being marmalade and start being antielade, which is not so nice. And all the time I ask myself: how the hell did they get here?

The Hovel does not have a garden. The only vegetation is in the pots of weeds and wildflowers I compost with tea leaves twice a day on the back terrace, none of which is large enough to sustain a viable ant colony. And so, as I am reluctant to put down poison, for numerous reasons, here we all are: people, mice, ants, all busy, busy, busy. Look at us. It’s all about the work. Make it stop.

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 20 August 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Back To Reality