Lesson one of living together: know when to keep your mouth shut

Nicholas Lezard's "Down and Out" column.

So it is now about two months since the Beloved moved into the Hovel but who’s counting? Bar an unfortunate interregnum of my own misguided advising, we have been stepping out for more than two and a half years and our time together has, as is always the case with couples, been punctuated by arguments. The first argument we had concerned the relative merits of Haydn and Handel as composers.

I am on the record as someone with little time for Handel, considering him as I do, in a phrase I lift from Martin Rowson regarding someone else entirely, a professional brownnoser to the aristocracy; at least Haydn, when employed by a backwoods Hungarian count, wrote a symphony – the “Farewell” – whose final and entire point was to remind him of his obligations to pay him and his musicians on time. That takes some balls. The other argument we have had neither of us can recall. She is against fish, so would rather I never again put anchovies, which are like fish squared, into a roast lamb ever again – but as we have compromised on capers, this doesn’t really count as an argument.

When she told her friends she was moving in, most of them held her hand and said something along the lines of “you’re so brave”, and many of my friends have used the identical adjective to describe her but, really, what is there to be brave about? Unless you are scared of either mice or piles of books, or floors several degrees out of true, the Hovel is nothing to be scared of and neither am I. The only domestic violence that I have ever been involved in has involved me at the receiving end, and even if I concede it was not entirely unjustified, it was never that bad. The only physical danger I represent is maybe rolling over in my sleep, but I do not carry enough avoirdupois for that to bear a threat to anything larger than a kitten.

The only problem that might significantly obtain is my untidiness, for the Beloved is a woman of neatness and although she says she has only cried a couple of times at the mess, every Saturday Marta the Romanian cleaning lady, who comes with the Hovel, pops round to make everything better.

But the Hovel exercises its own benign influence and a certain forgiving, lackadaisical attitude creeps in. And so it is only last weekend that the Beloved gets round to unpacking her last three boxes. As I am lathering the physiognomy during the late-Saturday-afternoon shave, she comes into the bathroom and shows me a carving in soapstone, about the size of a heavyweight boxer’s fist, and asks me, “What am I going to do with this?”

The emphasis she places on the word “this”, and indeed her general tone of voice, invites me to speculate that I am being encouraged to offer my disdain, and although to my eye there is nothing particularly objectionable about the carving at all, I decide to give my negatively critical vocabulary a rare trot around the park. After all, I spend every week being happily nice about a book in the Guardian, even though, for some unfathomable reason, everyone still thinks I am one of the nastiest reviewers around.

“It looks,” I say, “like a woman undergoing severe abdominal pains. Or perhaps,” I add, “she has been caught in private while trying to pass a particularly obdurate stool.” I warm to my theme. As I say, the piece is actually quite good, but once the Scathing Vocab has been unleashed, it is hard to contain the flow. I get a giddy pleasure from it, as the virtuous might get when lured into a den of vice.

I pause, eventually, for breath. Into that pause the Beloved says: “That’s interesting, because I carved this myself when I did a stone-carving course. I didn’t know what to do, and the teacher said, ‘The stone itself will tell you what to carve.’”

A period of backtracking on my part follows. It is more, I say, now I come to think of it, redolent of the primal power and beauty of the Venus of Willendorf, or of the tribal carvings which so inspired Picasso, Modigliani, T S Eliot and the bravest modernists. Stravinsky himself, had he seen it, would have composed the Rite on the spot.

It is no good. The Beloved says she will put it, for now, in the cupboard for Crap She Can’t Quite Bear To Throw Away, and I reflect that although I love all women in general and this one in particular, I will never open my gob to reply to anything they say without first thinking about it for a week, and then making sure that only something nice comes out of it when I do.

Life in the Hovel is exactly like this, obviously. Photograph: Getty Images

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 appears in the 01 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Brazil erupts

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