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7 September 2022

With a new resident in Downing Street, I survey 15 years of personal austerity

It is a decade and a half to the day since my life of insecurity and cheap furniture began.

By Nicholas Lezard

I write this on 1 September, a date fraught with significance for me. It’s not just the end-of-summer, back-to-school feeling of this time of year (I always liked the beginning of the new school year: it meant progress, and the hope that maybe it would be an improvement on the last year’s rubbish). It’s also a very specific reminder of the most recent milestones of my life. It marks the 15th anniversary of my arrival, after ejection from the marital/family home, at the place that came to be known as the Hovel; and the fifth anniversary of my ejection from it, setting up a three-year period of deep insecurity about where I was going to live.

I have now occupied my new home, christened the Hove-l by my friend C—, for nearly two years, the longest time I’ve spent in one location since 2017 – but such is my insecurity that I have yet to hang up a single artwork, install a single standard lamp or even lampshade. Apart from the bed, and the chair I sit on as I write, my furniture was bought cheaply from the Brighton antique shop amusingly called Junk. Three repro nesting tables; one repro corner bookcase; one slightly unstable (if you lean on it) repro two-drawer desk. And an oval mirror, propped up on the mantelpiece.

And that’s all the furniture I have, apart from a deckchair given to me by my friend S—. The chair’s canvas, if you could see it under the pile of clothes, is a facsimile of the old Penguin edition of Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. Can you, o pampered, gentle reader, list every item of furniture in your home in as few words as that? And boast that you spent £100 on all of them put together? Actually, I think it’s even less than that. The bookcase itself was a tenner.

This is austerity. I remember being impressed that when Ludwig Wittgenstein taught at Cambridge, the only furniture in his living room was a deckchair; but if I sit in mine I can’t see the sea from the window, and so a wardrobe it has become. The only decorations I have in the Hove-l are my two sunflower plants, Hortense and Gervaise, and they’re not going to be around forever. (Gervaise was called Gavin for about an hour until I remembered that Gavin was the name of a) a university acquaintance who was the single most loathsome person I have ever met, b) a creepy schoolmaster about whom I shall be vague, for legal reasons, and c) Gavin Williamson, the cretin who was given a knighthood by Boris Johnson for – well, we all know what he was given a knighthood for.)

And so the seasons turn with their usual melancholy. The Proms have ended; the cricket season is about to. On this day in 1939 the slow left-armer Hedley Verity took seven wickets for nine runs to give Yorkshire the County Championship; during the season he took 191 wickets at an average of 13.13. If you don’t know what I’m talking about: he was bloody good. And it was also the last first-class game before the declaration of war against Germany; and Verity himself died in an Italian PoW camp in 1943. There, a little perspective. Things could be worse.

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But yet maybe they will be! By the time you read this we will have a new prime minister, and I for one can’t wait. I am genuinely curious, as I bet you are, as to how Liz Truss will manage to screw this country up even further. So far, every single public utterance of hers has given the greatest confidence that she will fill in the corners of what Boris Johnson failed to achieve when it came to trashing the UK’s reputation. I don’t think world war is on the cards but you never know.

Still, I like it here. I like this town, and I like meeting new people simply by standing outside in the evening and having a smoke. (The Surgery rang me up the other day, just to check I wasn’t suffering from loss of appetite and night sweats. Well, I am: the former because of a mini-heartbreak, and the latter because of financial worries, but I didn’t tell them that.) Recently, a couple of kids – aged about 17, I’d say – were walking down the road towards me. They gave me a funny look as they passed. Ah, I know that look, I thought to myself. They stopped, conferred, and then turned back: “Can you get us any weed?”

I have to say, I found this most touching. They might have got the wrong idea about what was in my roll-up, but when I reflected on the number of times at their age I had asked exactly the same question of an older man, I thought to myself: the circle of life is complete.

Of course, I was and am in no position to help them, but for a while I did entertain a fantasy of beginning an empire and financing my forthcoming gas bills in much the way Walter White financed his cancer treatment. And if I did, wouldn’t it show that character trait that Liz Truss has said we Britons are so sadly lacking, namely graft?

[See also: Liz Truss and the cost of winning]

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This article appears in the 07 Sep 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Liz Truss Unchained