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4 February 2023

I am plagued by illness – and my medicine of choice is Columbo

Being poorly these days involves actual discomfort. I would toss and turn if I could – but even that is ruled out.

By Nicholas Lezard

Plans for the trip to Ukraine have progressed no further. Last week I said that my fitness wasn’t great, but compared to this week last week was a picture of beaming good health, like a yoghurt advert. Yesterday was unusually bad. I actually have four bad things on the go but only two of them I can mention in any detail. All I can say about the other two is that one of them is literally biblical, and the other requires me to go up the hill to the surgery and pee in a sterilised sample bottle.

I asked if I could sterilise one of the miniature tasting bottles of whisky I was given for Christmas and pee in that instead, but they said no. Have you ever been given a funny look over the phone? I have. What’s particularly annoying, as opposed to painful and humiliating, about this ailment is that although the symptoms are reminiscent of those you get after an unfortunate sexual encounter, I am coming up to my two-year anniversary of not having encounter of that kind, fortunate or otherwise. Well, I think I’ve told you enough about that.

[See also: I am haunted by the fear of being usurped by an artificial intelligence program]

Of the politer ailments, they include an absolutely shocking cold, an unproductive cough, as they say, a sore throat, and breathlessness. It was the latter that made the walk to the doctor’s a no-no. Today, as I write, things have improved enough for me to get out of bed and sit at my desk. In the normal run of things I would have written to my editor and said, “Can I file tomorrow please? I feel like crap,” but I am the boy who cried eurgh too many times and I am just going to have to put on my big-boy pants and write this. But I see, with the clarity of a vision, the penultimate line of my obituary, should I ever be worthy of one: “Towards the end of his life he was beset by ill health.”

It’s different, being poorly now. When I was a young man – ie up until about a fortnight ago – illness might have involved a degree of incapacity, but as long as bodily fluids weren’t involved all it meant was a day extra in bed, with maybe a bit of existential angst thrown in, but nothing that was going to last for too long. Now, though, it involves actual discomfort. I would toss and turn if I could but even that is ruled out.

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At least one is too preoccupied to think about one’s place in life and the way one has squandered the innate gifts. I do not even have the energy any longer to feel sick with envy or regret when I see a picture of someone’s house. You know, an actual house, with different floors, rooms of relative space and tidiness, and maybe even a garden. Why not? It’s only been a couple of months since I was in the family home, but I was largely confined to the ground floor, so that wasn’t too bad. I feel that if I was to go to a house now I would feel overwhelmed, as dazzled and uncomprehending as if I had been transported to Faërie, or an alien starship.

The only thing consoling me lately is, oddly enough, Columbo, the 1970s detective series featuring Peter Falk as the scruffy, stogie-smoking detective who always gets his murderer. (His cigars always look absolutely rank, and are quite the opposite of an advertisement for smoking.) For those who do not know the template, it involves a murder in the opening minutes, committed by some privileged schmuck who thinks they can get away with it because they’re privileged. We know who did it: the trick is how they get caught. It’s brilliant.

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Columbo, whose very car is such a wreck that Peugeot, the manufacturer, was dismayed that he drove one of its vehicles, is scorned by the murderer, who always looks goggle-eyed with disbelief that such a slob is allowed to exist in the environs of affluent Southern California and the swanky parts of LA. They also live in houses, see – absolutely enormous ones, almost all of them with staff. I used to watch this as a kid and I wonder if this is what turned me into a socialist: I must have begun to associate extravagant property ownership and social and financial success with gross moral turpitude, and after binge-watching the first series I see no reason to change my mind. Maybe photos of the Russian kleptocracy’s dachas have been partly behind my impulse to do good works in Ukraine.

So it is time to hunker down and try to get myself healthier. My lungs feel as if they look like Columbo’s raincoat but I haven’t smoked in two weeks and that’s a start. As I write we are now beginning February and, as they say, if you can survive February you can get through the rest of the year. I am not so sure about that, but it gives me hope.

[See also: I can’t stop politicians invading my dreams, but I can control who plagues me on Twitter]

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This article appears in the 08 Feb 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Silent Sunak