Nicholas Lezard's "Down and Out" column.
Nicholas Lezard's "Down and Out" column.
All book reviewers know by heart George Orwell’s essay “Confessions of a Book Reviewer”. Find one now, go on, and watch his or her lips move in unison with yours as you read out the opening sentence: “In a cold but stuffy bed-sitting room littered with cigarette ends and half-empty cups of tea, a man in a moth-eaten dressing-grown sits at a rickety table, trying to find room for his typewriter among the piles of dusty papers that surround it.”
The typewriter is now a laptop but the principle still applies. It’s probably Orwell’s funniest piece of writing, if you are not a book reviewer. If you are, then it may all be a little too painfully close to home, even if the book reviewer has since discovered you now don’t need to find a surface: you can take your laptop to bed and work from there, which was never really something you could comfortably do with a typewriter. Ah, progress.
The salient point for our purposes today is the term “dressing-gown”. Writers of a certain bent tend not to bother with the whole Getting Dressed Thing until around four o’- clock, when they remember they have run out of milk and need to go to the shops. In my wild youth, I would occasionally trot round the corner in my dressing gown, because what I looked like then, or so I fancy, was a young devil-may-care man unafraid of defying convention. It may not have been Gérard de Nerval walking the streets of Paris with a lobster on a leash, but it was good enough.
Approach the autumn of one’s life, though, and this becomes an option that gets firmly closed off. Cross the road in a dressing gown at my age and not only will people think you are an escapee from an institution for the demented, they may well try to reinstate you there – and I gather that the more hotly you try to persuade them that what they are doing is actually instating you, the more securely they tie you up before dropping you off.
The problem with the Not Getting Dressed Thing, then, is that a residual shame clings to it. The books arrive, for that is the job of their respective publicity departments. Or rather, some of them arrive. “How do you decide which books to review?” I am asked. The full answer should begin with the words, “Well, first they have to get through the door.” After all, there has to be some winnowing process if I am being sent 40 books a week and can only do one of them, and sheer chance may as well be one of the factors as anything else.
If the package is too large for the letterbox, the postman rings the bell. (Sometimes the packages are small but bound together with a rubber band which he is reluctant to remove.) It is usually around 11am. But I am still in my dressing gown and ashamed to face someone who has been up since six and pounding the streets with an enormous trolley weighed down mainly by books addressed to me. So, I cower in bed. I have also probably been further dispirited by making the mistake of reading comments below the line of an article I have recently written. “Mr Lezard is a literary critic, one of the most useless of all occupations,” said one fan. In fact, he or she elaborated on the point in reply to another reader’s comment, feeling that he or she had not gone far enough the first time: “He is a literary critic, so his work is inevitably incomprehensible, unreadable and pointless.”
Anyway, eventually I take a handful of the while-you-were-out cards they sometimes drop through the slot and go to the collection office. The following exchange invariably happens. Me: “Here I am, here is my passport and an official letter with my name on it, and here are some while-you-were-out cards.” Post official: “Yes, we’ve got loads of stuff for you.” (He goes off and returns with an enormous pile of jiffy bags and starts going through the cards.)
“I’m sorry, the cards you’ve given me don’t correspond to the parcels here.” Me: “What?” PO: “I can’t give you these parcels.” Me: “But this is me! Look! Here’s my picture in a passport! Here’s an official letter I would in fact rather have not received!” The last time this happened, last Saturday, I even tried crying a little bit, as I was sure I had the correct cards this time. Still no dice. I turned to the man behind me, as if to apologise for being ahead of him in the queue, but also, perhaps, in entreaty.
“This country is awesome,” he said, deadpan. Quite so. And I thought to myself: wow. We’ve finally done it. We’ve created a dystopia not even Orwell foresaw.