Down and out in London

Once you hit your stride, you’re spending about 23 hours a day in bed. No wonder I look so well

My many thanks to all the readers (not a huge number, I gather) who inquired after my health when they saw the rubric at the bottom of last week’s page, saying I was unwell. I was not, in fact, unwell; the note was a conscious hommage to Jeffrey Bernard, who used to write a column called “Low Life” for this magazine’s deadly rival, the Spectator. As it happens, I used to hang out with Bernard, to the point that he had the sauce to pinch a girlfriend off me; she came back after a brief interval, during which she had discovered that diabetic alcoholics who drink a bottle of vodka a day can have problems in the sack. But that’s another story for another day.

As to my unwellness, I have to say that, compared to my days in the family home, I am now astonishingly healthy. This may come as a surprise to those who have received calls from me saying I have been too unwell to do X or Y; I will now come clean and say that, almost every time, this has either been because the damage was self-inflicted the night before, or because I simply didn’t feel like doing X or Y.

Genuine illness has struck me down for a total of probably five or six days in the past 21 months – and that’s including one three-day bout of flu, the kind that was putting everyone else out of action for two weeks at a time.

Of course, this is physical illness we’re talking about here. The first three or four months after I moved into the Hovel were spent pretty much in their entirety crying in bed, which I suppose counts as debility of a kind, but at least I could rouse myself enough to get some sort of work done. I have since learned that depression can manifest itself either as insomnia or its opposite, hypersomnia. I can warmly recommend the latter for the man in a crisis. The great thing about hypersomnia is that it builds up into a state that is more or less like the kind of suspended animation that some scientists recommend as the only solution for manned interstellar travel. Sleeping a lot, I discovered, tends to make you more sleepy; by the time you really hit your stride, you’re spending about 23 hours a day in bed.

You do have to get out and about, though, but the other pleasant end product of hypersomnia is its Dorian Gray-like effect on the ageing process.

I know this is tempting the Fates horribly, but I am looking rather well considering my age and what I do with myself. My younger brother was recently outraged to be asked, by a woman who appeared to be in full possession of her faculties, which one of us was the elder. “Him,” he snarled. “Really? By how much?” “Five years.” “Five years!” If I turn my ears in the direction of Dollis Hill, I can hear his teeth still grinding; for he is much more abstemious in his habits than I am, and even goes to the gym. Or runs about. Or something like that.

It is horribly unfair, and although my estranged wife persists, to this day, in the belief that my slender figure is attributable to nothing more than snorting enormous amounts of cocaine off the glistening bottoms of hookers, it really is down to the combination of a virtuous lifestyle and a speedy metabolism. Well, virtuous is pushing it a bit, as I manage to exceed the government’s recommended wine intake by a factor of at least three, have a 95:5 ratio of fatty meat-to-vegetable diet, and do little more exercise than jiggling my foot when watching television (although I do have a pair of six-kilo dumb-bells, which I use for vanity’s sake).

I think I know what the secret is: it is really down to not being shouted at all day, and being able to get up when I want. Had I been forced to live in some really grisly area like Harlesden, I would have succumbed either to shingles or terminal depression or both.

True, it is not all rosy. A molar cracked in half the other day while I was eating what Waitrose had correctly described as a perfectly ripe avocado, and there has been an explosion of mega-zits on my back, whose remnants I could plausibly pass off as an old shotgun wound. (“Anger,” says my friend The Therapist. “Do you wash your back?” asks my housemate J–.) But The Thing I

Am Terrified Is Stomach Cancer and The Thing I Am Terrified Is A Stroke and The Thing I Am Terrified Is A Heart Attack have not returned; they used to circle me like yo-yos. I haven’t even had to go to the doctor since being thrown out.

It is, though, early days, and I could well end up like poor Jeffrey Bernard, with enormous goitres on my neck, being pushed around the Groucho in a wheelchair. And they won’t even have written a play about me.

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 30 March 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The end of American power