I wonder if there is a right way to contemplate the success of someone who broke my heart

I took a certain pleasure in noticing that the article I read written by an ex-lover of mine was actually quite dull. 

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I had a nasty turn the other day. Not nasty as in unpleasant, but as in very surprising. I was scrolling through the website of a well-known national newspaper, and saw a byline which was that of an ex-lover of mine. Going, in this column’s infancy, under the nickname of “the Lacanian”, she was the first woman to break my heart after my ejection from the family home. (There have been two more since then, and I really, really hope that’s the lot. Interestingly, two of these women called me “Nicky”, which now means that that diminutive sets off a deafening peal of alarm bells.) That was about 13 years, five months, 17 days and three hours ago, and I can confidently say I am now completely over it.

So I read the article, which was on An Important Topic, and I got to the end and it said she was a professor of philosophy at a Prestigious University. Bloody hell, I thought. I knew she was bright and had piles of the TLS by her bed and all that, but I hadn’t realised she’d applied herself so thoroughly. It just goes to show what you can achieve when you go off Facebook. I clicked on the name just to make sure it was her and up came a photo that certainly looked very much like her.

It is interesting to contemplate the success of those with whom one was once in love, or who have given you the boot. I took a certain pleasure in noticing that the article I read was actually quite dull, but reflected that this is what happens when you scale the pinnacles of academe.

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I have seen some once very gifted writers turn out the kind of prose which goes “in the next chapter I shall talk about blah blah blah” and “in the last chapter I talked about blah blah blah and now I am going to discuss blah blah blah” before actually getting down to it.

The worst thing, though, is when one measures one’s own circumstances against those of one’s contemporaries. Today I received a press release from a publisher announcing the latest book by someone I was at university with, and whom I used to bump into at many a book launch when we were young. And then they stopped being other people’s book launches, and started being his book launches. It stopped being quite so much fun then. For me, at least. The author, concluded the press release, “is the multimillion-copy bestselling author of books including X, Y and Z. [At least one of which you’ve bought and read. You’ll have seen some of them on the shelves of the more serious-minded politicians in their Zoom interviews.] He is a columnist and associate editor at [A Very Famous Newspaper], and has worked as the newspaper’s correspondent in New York, Paris and Washington. He regularly presents BBC series based on his acclaimed books.”

I suppose it’s not as bad as when I saw a print interview with Nigella Lawson and on her bookshelf behind her was a copy of –––– by ––––, which was particularly galling as I was suffering a huge crush on NL at the time, and I had given –––– his first gig as a writer of the things he has become famous for in the first place.

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And my own circumstances? Well, the regular reader of this column will be familiar with them, and all the new reader needs to know right now is that I live in a flat so small I have to eat standing up, I have to choose between a bedside table and closing my bedroom door (no contest: a bedside table is an essential), and I am currently enjoying a skin condition on my hands called pompholyx which means that it hurts, quite a lot, to pick up freshly-made toast.

I would also refer you to this column’s title. But do I grumble? No, not me, toujours gai, as Don Marquis’s alley cat Mehitabel says: “i have had my ups and downs/but wotthehell wotthehell/yesterday sceptres and crowns/fried oysters and velvet gowns/and today i herd with bums.” (Actually I don’t herd with bums, but you get the idea.)

Julie Burchill, after reading my column denouncing her the other week, called me a “no-mark”, and who am I to argue? But I still have, touch wood, a roof over my head and, more importantly, three excellent children and a lady partner who at time of writing has not broken my heart.

Talking of which, I went and checked on the professor who had set off this particularly dismal chain of thought. It turns out that she and the Lacanian share a name and similar facial features but are not, in fact, the same person. I should have worked this out, because you don’t get to become a professor at Prestigious University just like that. I suppose the lesson to draw from this is not automatically to imagine that everyone else is better than me, to revel in the success of others, and to pour myself a large drink as soon as I have sent off this column.

[See also: The Julie Burchill affair reveals there is a sort of gutter journalism that delights in causing outrage – and I am sick of it]

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 28 April 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The new battle of ideas

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