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28 September 2022

As Trussonomics looms, when will I be able to afford to eat eggs Benedict again?

The number of people who will be qualified to write their own “Down and Out” column is about to go through the roof.

By Nicholas Lezard

Today has been a momentous one. For the first time in three, maybe four years, I went to a café, sat down and had a meal. I am not sure I can get much of a story out of this but I shall plough on anyway. The last time was an expensive disaster. I was with my eldest son, who had been staying with me in Brighton. (In those days I had a very comfortable sofa people could crash on.) The café over the road did an excellent breakfast, and I remember the bacon with particular fondness: thick, smoked back bacon, with the rind not only left on, but cooked to crispy, puffy goodness. When my son and I went there, though, feeling a little hungover, I noticed that it had changed hands and had become vegetarian/vegan. But I saw from the chalkboard outside that they served eggs Benedict, so I ordered those.

The “M” in the abbreviation “RTFM” usually means “manual” (“R” and “T” stand for “read” and “the”). That day, I discovered that the “M” can also stand for “menu”. After a disbelieving first mouthful, I looked at the “M” again, and it confirmed what my appalled tastebuds had just screamed at me: that, ethically forbidden from using ham or bacon in their eggs Benedict, some sadist had decided that a layer of shredded beetroot would be an acceptable substitute. Reader, it is not. I had a couple more mouthfuls just to see if they were going to be as bad as the previous one (the hollandaise was from a packet that had been bought in a Moscow supermarket at the height of the Cold War and was like curdled salad cream), and went back to bed, a broken and bitter man. Later, at night, I crept out and burned the place to the ground. And I’d do it again.

[See also: My brush with King Charles 22 years ago still feels like it was yesterday. It was that bad]

Since then, until today, no more cafés for me. The reason being not only that the burnt hand fears the flame, but that I simply can’t afford it. If I have a craving for bacon and eggs, then it is off to the shops and making them myself. Last weekend I was visited by an old friend (an ex-lover, as it happens; the one that dedicated long-term readers will remember as the WIL, or Woman I Love(d)), and basic civility meant going to a restaurant for lunch on Friday and Saturday, and the pub on Friday, and, even only eating starters, this hollowed out the bank account to such a degree that by Tuesday I had to beg for some money from someone who owed me some. So this morning I saw some cash in the kitty and thought: sod it, I’m going to have someone else cook for me again.

I went to Billie’s, a beautiful joint which is something of a Brighton institution and, like the wild and crazy guy I am, ordered eggs Benedict. (“Do you make the hollandaise fresh?” “No.” “Oh, I’ll have it anyway.” It was £3.35 cheaper than their full English.) The sauce was not the best I’ve ever had, but it was a long, long way from being the worst, and the eggs and the bacon beneath them were cooked to perfection, and with it I had a large and extremely delicious Americano, black, of course, which, four hours later, is still giving me the jitters. This is a good thing. And all for a tenner.

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The point of this story, which I am sure has gripped you almost as much as it has gripped me, is that it will be a while, I fear, before I can afford such extravagance again. And everyone will soon be in the same boat as me; indeed, I wonder if Billie’s will be able to stay open once its heating bills go through the roof. The number of people in this country who will be qualified, on financial status alone, to write their own “Down and Out” column is also going to go through the roof. (I will thank you not to park your tanks on my lawn, if I may use a tasteless-under-current-circumstances metaphor.)

We now live in a country whose prime minister has declared that the first action she will take to get the economy moving again is to remove the cap on bankers’ bonuses; the second is to make British taxpayers protect energy companies’ profits; and the third is to ask the Office for Budget Responsibility to shut the hell up about the forthcoming Budget. On what planet, in which alternative universe, are any of these things a good idea? The only good thing about them, and it really isn’t a very good thing at all, is that they immediately confirmed everyone’s grim foreboding that Liz Truss will be an even worse PM than her predecessor.

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While waiting for my food, I read the pamphlet “The Right to Be Lazy” by the Cuban-French socialist (and Karl Marx’s son-in-law) Paul Lafargue. It was extremely instructive. “By working,” he writes, “you increase your poverty, and your poverty spares us having to impose work on you by force of law.” I think we are going to find out, over the next couple of years, that work actually is going to be imposed on the unemployed by force of law; certainly enough Tories are baying for it. So I try to enjoy life while I can.

[See also: With a new resident in Downing Street, I survey 15 years of personal austerity]

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This article appears in the 28 Sep 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Truss Delusion