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Age shall not wither me, nor shaving foam stale my vague variety

Could one small pill would help me become a better-functioning adult?

The first time you brush your teeth with shaving cream instead of toothpaste, it takes a while for your taste buds to believe their own evidence. You have, after all, albeit without paying due care and attention, squeezed something with roughly the consistency of toothpaste, from something roughly the same size and shape as a tube of toothpaste, that lives on the same side of the sink as the toothpaste, on to the brush. So, it takes a while for the taste buds to recognise the inappropriate mouth feel, the unusual, to put it mildly, flavour, and to scream out the message that you are doing something fundamentally at odds with the laws of God and man.

Mind the gaps

The second time you do it, you go through the same experience, with the added refinement of feeling like a stupid clot, and “clot” is not the first word that springs to mind. You also start worrying. Is this the mind going? Has it finally started, the descent into senescence? “What a terrible thing to have lost one’s mind. Or not to have a mind at all,” as Dan Quayle once put it; or, if you prefer, “let me not be mad, not mad, sweet heaven”.

I am painfully conscious of my age these days – I tend, what with one thing and another, to be surrounded by the nimble in body and mind, and while the general effect is rejuvenating there is no gainsaying the depredations of age, before you even consider the damage I inflict upon my own grey matter due to my louche and intemperate habits.

So I went down for a late breakfast in pensive mood. (What, you may ask, was I doing going down for breakfast after brushing my teeth? Well, you try brushing yours with shaving cream and see if you don’t need something like strong black coffee to get rid of the taste. It is disgusting.) When I arrived there was a conversation going on that had been picked up from the night before: one of my friends there had recently been diagnosed with attention deficit disorder (ADD), and he was talking about all the hoops he had to jump through in order to get his low-dose Ritalin. Because, as doctors and psychiatrists were at pains to tell him, people with ADD tend not to have PhDs. Or be, manifestly, and by some degree, the most intelligent and amusing person in the room – you know, the kind of person everyone is sort of waiting for to speak, the person you feed the lines to because you know he’s going to make the best joke out of them. Witty in himself, and the cause of wit in others, but without Falstaff’s less endearing traits of cowardice and grossness.

However: these characteristics can be just the kind of accompaniment to ADD. Quick thinking means, by definition, that you don’t have to spend time on it. I think of the oddities that separate me from the majority of my fellow human beings and gradually begin to see that it is all adding up. Inability to concentrate on mundane tasks? I will offer, as evidence, my stack of unopened envelopes from Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, spanning five years. (I’m not a tax dodger, by the way. I now pay them like this: someone from the appointed debt collection agency calls me up every month, I read off my credit card number and pay them X-hundred quid, they say Thank You, I say You’re Welcome. They get their money and I don’t have to do the paperwork. It’s great.) Contract for a book signed in 1997, book named in contract yet to appear? Check. Vast tottering piles of books, papers, newspapers, magazines and God knows what else in every room I inhabit? Check. Complete unemployability in normal world of work? Checkitty check, with knobs on. Tendency to wait until the last minute to do things? Ask the editor who has been drumming her fingers on the desk waiting for this to come in. Vagueness of mind sufficient to make one brush one’s teeth with shaving cream, which, after all, comes in a green tube, instead of toothpaste, which comes in a white one? (“Deep Clean WOW Sensation”, it says on the tube, but “wow” is not the word that I used. The Beloved thought I’d seen a frog come out of the tap.) Checkmate.

Speed freak

I am mistrustful of a culture that seeks to validate individual shortcomings by giving them fancy-sounding names. And I am mindful of the old Freak Brothers cartoon in which Fat Freddy simulates the symptoms in order to get hold of a scrip for what is, in effect, cheap speed.

But my friend’s life has, he says, been transformed, and it would be fascinating if just one small pill would help me become a better-functioning adult. So I will make an appointment with the doctor. If I can – you saw this coming, didn’t you? – be arsed.

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 10 September 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Autumn politics special