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18 June 2023

Penury is the mother of invention, so I now put dirt-cheap red plonk in the fridge

I am having to get by on £4.30 a day. This is, to put it mildly, sub-optimal.

By Nicholas Lezard

As your faithful correspondent sits down, it is a sultry 26°C outside and roughly the same inside, actually a little more, and although I will not say I am nude as I write this I am not far off. But there is enough evil in the world without your having to contemplate me in the nip. And the heat is really the least of my worries. After a couple of months where I thought I could relax and buy things which were kind of important but not cheap – a pair of glasses whose frames were not the cheapest in the shop, the resoling of shoes, that kind of thing – I am back to square one, or maybe even square zero.

We are not quite halfway through the month and I have worked out that unless various people and publications (not this one: they’re saints at the New Statesman) pay me what they owe me I have £4.30 to last me a day. This is, to put it mildly, sub-optimal. (If everyone paid up I would have more money than God.) I have discovered a red wine that is on offer for £4.99 a bottle and just about drinkable if you put it in the fridge first but one still has to eat and besides, there are still those bills which one forgets about and leap out of the bushes at odd times of the month. I could borrow money from friends, but the only ones who have offered are not very much wealthier than me and isn’t that always the way? They understand what it is like to be on the bones of one’s behind.

[See also: Some birthday… my shoulder is so bad I cannot pull a cork from a bottle]

But toujours gai, like Don Marquis’s Mehitabel, and it is possible to find pleasure in simple things. As my much-missed landlady and friend Jenny B said in the 1980s, I’d find a way of making myself comfortable if I was chained to a radiator in Beirut (in those days chaining people to radiators was all the rage in Beirut). I have, for instance, discovered the joys of cheap food, and in particular the cheese and tomato sandwich. I never particularly liked these as a child but if you spread the bread with mayonnaise instead of butter it takes it to a new level. And putting the dirt-cheap plonk in the fridge? I can’t claim to have invented the cheese and tomato sandwich but this one is definitely mine. Yes, I know there are red wines that can be and sometimes are served chilled, but this is specifically about making horrible wine drinkable. My fridge also runs either very cold or not at all, so I might as well take advantage of it while it works.

But the real source of pleasure these days is entirely passive. And that is not having a beard any more. As you might recall, I only grew it in the first place to impress a woman, but as after a few months she remained unimpressed I had no other choice but to let it go. I did this shortly before I went to that party I wrote about last week, and it was the liberation and new-found comfort that gave me the confidence to talk to pretty women in straw hats. There was never a time when I was not aware of the beard, and although I confess it gave me an air of authority I decided in the end that authority be damned, I didn’t want to feel like ants were crawling all over my face 24/7. The correct term is formication. So that’s something.

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By the way, another word about that party. The headline in this magazine said I “didn’t disgrace myself” but that’s not strictly true. What I’d forgotten to mention, because I didn’t recall until the sudden memory made me sit bolt upright in bed at three in the morning the other day, was that when we were sitting round the firepit someone suggested we sing “London’s Burning”, the rather weedy nursery-school roundelay, if that’s the word (“London’s burning, London’s burning… fire fire! Fire fire! Pour on water,” etc, ad nauseam).

However, being of a certain age and temperament I assumed that they meant the Clash’s song of the same name. I launched into the first verse fortissimo, doing a rather good impression of the late Joe Strummer too if I say so myself, before the nice people gently corrected me. Honestly, I had erased that memory, but you can never fully suppress trauma and I have a horrible feeling there are now some people who will only remember that party as “the one where that awful man sang that awful song round the fire and made a jolly big fool of himself”.

The worst thing is that a few of them are local and there’s every chance I’ll run into them. So I’ll have to grow a beard again as a disguise. Bah.

[See also: On a trip to Poland, I am reminded that my heyday has been and very much gone]

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This article appears in the 21 Jun 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The AI wars