An awful time of year. The days may be getting longer but it doesn’t feel like it and they don’t look like it. The murk starts at 2pm if not earlier, and it’s not just the murk. We must not forget the gale-force winds and the driving rain. My eyrie is in an exposed place and one feels every gust. It is not quite as bad as when I lived in Scotland, in the MacHovel, when the wind would be so strong one could feel the house shake. The Hove-l doesn’t do that, being buttressed by houses on either side and of sturdier construction in the first place, but still the window-catch rattles in the wind as the rain beats against the windows.
The incessant nature of the gale is beginning to drive me crazy. And it is a gale, as anything over 34 knots (or 39mph) is; and it has been blowing like this for days now. I think of the föhn, the Alpine wind said to cause madness, psychosis and illness, and whose effects on the body are such that some hospitals in Bavaria and Switzerland prefer to postpone major operations when it blows; but reflect that at least the föhn is a warm, dry wind. Here, we have the incessant lashing from the heavens.
It is all contriving to make me feel deeply uneasy, and this is a bad enough time for that already, as it is around now that HMRC gets tetchy again, a certain major contract comes up for renewal and inspiration is at its lowest just when it needs to be at its highest.
Towards the end of 2022 a new terror added itself to the writer’s life: the arrival of the artificial intelligence copy generator. My friend R— asked a writing program to produce “a bittersweet column in the style of Nicholas Lezard about teaspoons” and it came up with something that was crap, of course, but uncomfortably close to being plausible: like Adrian Chiles with mild concussion, perhaps. (R— chose the topic of teaspoons because she had read my column about not having had any teaspoons for two years and had given me half a dozen of hers, on the grounds that she was reducing clutter in her flat; and very nice they are, too. But they are not great contributors to the clutter in my own life. There is considerably greater competition.)
But what with AI, the wind and everything else, and the breaking of my favourite mug, and the liminal nature of the year – for Janus, the two-faced god, looks both backwards and forwards – everything is tainted with apprehension. Oh, and add to that the dreadful state of the NHS and the strikes (towards which, of course, I am wholly sympathetic) and there is an awful sense of doom in the air: what if I have a fall in this weather and need an ambulance? And one does not have to have a fall to need an ambulance. I am writing this the day before Friday 13th, just in case. I suppose I had better get some shopping in before then, too. Just in case.
And yet my thoughts keep returning to the AI writer. I remember that I once had a biro upon whose barrel there was a picture of a lady in a swimsuit. Turn it upside down, and the swimsuit disappeared. At the time I was trying to write a book and it was proving difficult. Will Self came round for tea, as he did fairly often in those days, and I showed him my pen. “Look,” I said, “I’ve got a magic pen.” “Hmm,” he said, and picked it up, and brought it close to his mouth. “WRITE NICK’S BOOK,” he shouted at it; and nothing happened. But for a wild second I thought it might – like something from The Sorcerer’s Apprentice – collect all my thoughts on the pre-Socratics and the nature of modern-day hedonism into something coherent, in a way I had been unable to do. It didn’t, of course. But now there is such a magic biro, of a kind, and if it does not yet make a lady’s swimsuit disappear it is only a matter of time before it can, for they are learning every day.
Another friend contacted me to say that he had got an AI writer to “happily” produce a column by Rod Liddle denigrating Boris Johnson as a socialist; he tried it a couple of weeks later, and this time it demurred, on the grounds that it refused to write anything inflammatory. There may be hope yet. It may develop a conscience and refuse to take the bread from my mouth.
Meanwhile, the storm rages on. “So foul a sky clears not without a storm,” says Shakespeare’s King John; but that was referring, I think, to one of those ugly, brooding, boiling summer skies that precedes a cracker of a thunderstorm; here, we just have a relentless deluge for the rain, and as Shakespeare also says, it raineth every day.
This article appears in the 18 Jan 2023 issue of the New Statesman, How to fix Britain’s public health crisis