Briiinngg! It is the doorbell. I am, to adapt Peter Mandelson’s words about the filthy rich, intensely unrelaxed about the Hovel’s doorbell going off. There has been only one time when it has been a bailiff (“Are you Mr Lezard?” “Er . . . er . . . no”) but the memory is vivid enough, years on, to make a rivulet of sweat form in the small of the back and trickle down the cleft. Also, the doorbell makes a horrible noise, like a wasp the size of a dog right next to your ear. Mock all you like at the ones that go “bing bong!” in a lilting fashion. They may be petit-bourgeois but they don’t make you soil yourself every time they go off.
Anyway it was, as usual, the postie. As you may know, in another life I am a book reviewer and one of the things about that job is that you get sent an awful lot of books. As I like books a lot, this I consider one of the upsides of the job. The worst bit is having to go down in your bathrobe at 11 in the morning and pretend to the postman that the reason you’re dressed like that is because you’re ill, or you work nights, and not because you’re an idle slob. They could undo the rubber band and post the slenderer books individually through the letter box, but where’s the fun in that compared to getting a book reviewer out of his bed and down two flights of stairs?
It turns out, though, to be a sackful of books. (These sacks are made of some kind of plastic weave and I wonder whether these, like their predecessors, were made by prisoners. I also wonder whether I, when I am sent to prison – for this surely is my doom; only whether I will have been sent there an innocent or a guilty man has not been revealed to me – will have to sew mailbags for other book reviewers to receive their review copies in.)
So what do we have? An awful lot of books from Penguin, for some reason. Tony Harrison’s Selected Poems! Hurrah! Richard Sennett’s Together! Yay! Darian Leader’s book on madness! Zing! And – my hands tremble as I clock the cover – a 40th-anniversary edition of Watership Down.
I have a rather special relationship with this book. Not only did I adore it as a child and as an adolescent, I was reacquainted with it when Simon Winder at Penguin Modern Classics suggested I write the introduction to their own edition of it. I hesitated over my jugged hare (we were having lunch at the time and in those days he could be lavish. Nowadays, when we lunch, we huddle over our Pot Noodles in the rain on a bench by the Thames Embankment and I have to buy my own). “An introduction to Watership Down?” I thought. “Does it need such a thing?” But when he told me the fee, I decided then and there that indeed it did need such a thing.
Well, it was great fun writing that introduction and I got to say “this book is, inescapably, about rabbits”, which I’m still rather proud of – although I point out later that it isn’t really about rabbits at all: it’s about Richard Adams’s wartime experiences. Did you know that he was one of the soldiers who liberated the POW camp that Ronald Searle was imprisoned in?
So I get rather excited and suggest to a couple of editors that I write a piece celebrating this great book and meanwhile start reading it again. Golly, it’s even better than I remember. I then look at the printing history and notice that it was first published in 1972. Fortieth anniversary edition? I then go to Amazon and Penguin’s own site, and find that about half the books I’ve been sent were published in October. I am particularly miffed at missing out on the Darian Leader. (A friend came round and, leafing through a chapter dealing with a woman who continually embarks on disastrous love affairs, said: “How come Darian Leader knows so much about my sister?”)
Never mind; these are the breaks. Whether Royal Mail or Penguin are to blame is unimportant. I finish Watership Down, though, and marvel at the way the tension is racheted up. By the time we get to the fight in the thunderstorm with General Woundwort – oh go on, just read it – I am a nervous wreck. The very end of the book I read unwisely in front of my children and have to summon all my willpower not to sob aloud.
So later that evening, when the Beloved comes round, I am a bit out of sorts and suggest a visit to the pub. And sitting outside it, even though he has been legally barred from coming within 100 yards for a year and a half, I recognise the hulking form of the Guvnor.
To be continued . . .