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3 June 2020

There is an etiquette when borrowing someone else’s laptop and I don’t want to transgress it

It is curiously intimate, using someone else’s computer.

By Nicholas Lezard

So it finally happened: the laptop died. It will live again – the problem is a loose power socket, and if you know how to take a computer apart it’s fairly easy to fix – but at the time of its demise, one in the morning on Friday night, I was pretty rattled. The idea of going without a laptop is bad enough at the best of times; during this crisis it’s impossible. I have a phone capable of doing Google searches but not much more than that. I retired to bed with a book and tried not to think about it.

The next morning, though, I had to do something. I rang round some of my Brighton friends. “What do you want?” said one as she answered the phone. “Who says I want anything? I just called up for a chat.” She has known me for 36 years, though, and can tell, probably by looking at the name of the caller and triangulating it with the time  of day, that the only reason I was calling was because of some emergency.

No one could help, though, or no one was in, and I bewailed the fact to my neighbour. At which point he said not to worry, there was a spare laptop in his household. Mac or PC? “PC,” I said brokenly, and five minutes later he was at the door with his partner’s laptop and a slip of paper with the password written on it.

It is curiously intimate, using someone else’s computer. I wonder if I would lend someone else mine for any extended period of time. I once was accused by a woman of being gay (as in “get over yourself, you’re gay”). I only thought of the proper retort on the way home: “Let my browsing history be my witness.” Anyway, it’s been a long time since I’ve done any naughty browsing, so it is no privation to refrain from leaving any incriminating history on this laptop. 

That said, I do have to be careful. I do not want my neighbours to get the wrong impression when I give the laptop back. Just as the carefully curated selection of books behind one’s head in the Zoom conference reveals so much about oneself, so I want to leave the impression of a cultivated, intellectually curious gentleman with no political skeletons in his closet. This means: no clicking on articles in the Daily Mail, even if it is to check that, yes, they are being rude about Dominic Cummings; no clicking on articles in the Spectator, even if it is to look at the latest maverick contribution from Nick Cohen or Alex Massie. And definitely no clicking on either so I can marvel at the comments below the line, which by and large reveal the readership as… well, you don’t need me to say more. Every so often one needs to check the cesspit, but I am happy to forego that for a week.

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Also, I am holding off on my BritBox, AmazonIt is curiously intimate, using someone else’s computer. and Netflix. I am not sure that I want my neighbours to know about my fondness for Doctor Who and various iterations of the Star Trek franchise; much better to give the impression that I am a connoisseur. (Plug: Bringing up Baby and Hitchcock’s Suspicion are on BBC iPlayer  for a year, which is terrific news.)

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One thing they don’t need to worry about is any snooping I am going to be doing. I’m not going to be doing any. I learned a long time ago that snooping never has a happy outcome. I remember one solitary, unsupervised afternoon in about 1975 when, during an unauthorised inspection of my parents’ bedside drawers, I came across something whose packaging identified it as a “neck massager” but that, even as a 12-year-old, I knew was no such thing, and after that discovery I had trouble sleeping and flinched at loud noises for the next two years. I have been living in someone else’s flat for 13 months now and most of it is, for me, a no-go area, and I’m happy with that. Privacy, I think, is one of the underrated rights.

But meanwhile, let me salute the kindness and selflessness of my neighbours. A laptop isn’t as personal as a phone these days, but it is still very personal, so handing one over is a very big deal. I am also enjoying, for the first time in a decade, when I got my last laptop, the experience of typing on a keyboard which doesn’t look as though it has been attacked by a pack of malevolent, chain-smoking gibbons. (That said, I am treating this machine with the utmost respect, and if I had a pair of kid gloves I’d be  wearing them now.)

Well, my laptop man (he’s actually called the Laptop Chap, and if you’re in Brighton and have a PC issue, he seems like an honest and competent guy) has just called. He’s marvelled at the state of my machine. “I’ve taken the keyboard off and cleaned out underneath it,” he says. “There was a lot of sawdust under there. Do you do a lot of woodwork?” Woodwork? Sawdust? Blimey. 

This article appears in the 03 Jun 2020 issue of the New Statesman, We can't breathe