Every good Hovel has a secret room (ashtray included)

Nicholas Lezard's "Down and Out" column.

New Statesman
"We lost something, I think, when we stopped equipping lavatories with ashtrays". Photograph: Getty Images.

I gather that a fairly common dream involves discovering a multitude of hitherto hidden rooms in your place of abode. What these dreams represent or say of your own state of mind it is not for me to say. Personally, I always awake from these dreams a bit miffed to find that the Hovel is not actually like the Tardis, with a multitude of exotic chambers hidden within the folds of space-time. “Welcome to the Hovel,” I say to new visitors. “It’s smaller on the inside.”

Except that I have discovered it isn’t. For an interesting reason I’ll get on to in a minute, there has been a lot of clearing out going on here, and in the course of this I have discovered a whole extra room. Not a big one: but what I thought was nothing more than a glorified cupboard used for storing three-quarter- empty tins of solidified paint actually turns out to be a toilet. Not in the sense that [insert your least favourite town in Britain here] is a toilet, but a real one: you know, the kind you . . . sit on. There is also a sink opposite it, and – this is the detail I find most charming – an ashtray screwed to the wall between the two.

We lost something, I think, when we stopped equipping lavatories with ashtrays. Contrary to what the publicity would have us believe, air freshener doesn’t smell better than cigarette smoke, or, if you find that a hard one to swallow, work better than cigarette smoke at disguising nasty odours. This loo is of marginal utility at best. In fact, as it’s no longer plumbed in, and thank goodness I didn’t have to find that out the hard way, it’s actually worse than useless and makes the room’s new purpose – for shoving all the things that were cluttering up the cupboard at the end of my room into – somewhat compromised.

Still, you don’t half find a lot of interesting stuff when you’re sorting out. My stuff, of course, is all essential, for it was all I could take with me (apart from the 17 boxes of books now pressing down on the loft beams of my parents’ house) upon ejection from the family home. I had already pared myself down to the minimum.

How, for instance, could I have thrown away the leaving card from my first job, in-house copywriter for The Folio Society? The running gags on that one, which dates I think from 1988, are that I am not very tidy and invariably late with my copy. These days I am not much tidier but I now file more promptly. Some editors I know may raise a hollow laugh at that one but believe me, the situation beforehand was much, much worse.

I look at the signatures on the card. Four of the people who signed it are now dead, one of whom I still miss very much indeed. One of them is the mother of my children (our affair was a clandestine one). One or two others I am still friends with. Another, when I bumped into her in the street the other day, has now forgotten we were ever colleagues and accounts for her vague recollection of me by thinking I went to school with her. This was particularly galling because she once made what was almost certainly a pass at me, which I found terribly exciting because (a) I had a huge crush on her and (b) she was the daughter of a multimillionaire. But I was Spoken For – by another colleague, as it happened – and I had to pretend I hadn’t noticed. I sometimes wonder how my life would have turned out if I had taken her up on the offer.

I also find a bank statement from those years. Now that was an eye-opener. I gather that The Folio Society (they always prissily insist on that upper case “T” but no one outside the company bothers with it) now sponsors a major literary prize.

A look at my bank statement will give you a clue as to how it is that a publisher is able to be so lavish: they saved their money over the years by paying me no more than £442 a month, after tax. True, this is more than twice the sum that Iain Duncan Smith claims he needs to live on but it didn’t stretch that far even then; especially when, as I note with some alarm, my overdraft was, as ever, in the four-figure range and the first figure wasn’t a “1”. (Still, as I may have suggested, the pay might have been lousy, but the fringe benefits were considerable.)

Anyway, the reason that I was doing all this shifting of stuff from one place to another is to make room for the Beloved, who is moving in despite the fact that I am a perpetually broke slob who can’t throw anything away.