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7 July 2021

Grief can unhinge, taking up your entire emotional bandwidth

When wounded, prepare to face innumerable microaggressions from a callous universe.

By Nicholas Lezard

I read my esteemed colleague Pippa Bailey’s last column and first, I would like to commiserate with her. I wish there was a stronger word than “commiserate”. Losing your lover of four years when you’re not even 30 yet is a hard blow, and it’s even worse when there is no other reason given than a “gut feeling”. I was feeling sorry for myself but she has put matters into perspective.

Second, let me welcome her to the Writing a Column About a Break-up Maybe a Bit Too Soon Club, which I started last month. I didn’t expect another member so quickly but when these things happen they take up all the available bandwidth, and you can’t write about anything else because nothing else feels remotely significant.

As it turned out my column had precisely the disastrous effect I predicted it would, but then sometimes you feel so nihilistic that you simply don’t care. A reckless madness seizes the soul. (After a telling-off, I have since undertaken not to write about her any more. But I am certainly going to write about me.) Grief can unhinge. I remember when the Moose died in May I would turn on the radio and ask myself, “Why isn’t this on the news?”

[See also: My best friend the Moose has died, and it’s as if all the oxygen has been sucked out of the room]

“In six months, a year, I know I will be OK again,” Pippa writes, and this stoicism and self-knowledge is to be saluted. She makes it sound like a prison sentence for something like, oh I don’t know, affray, or not-too-serious harassment, and that’s right, it’s exactly what it feels like, although I can’t help feeling that the person who broke the other person’s heart should be the one doing time. (When writing this, I had a little fun, if that is the word, looking up magistrates’ sentencing guidelines. The very first offence on the list at is “abstracting electricity”, which I like to think of as the new “failing to abate a smoky chimney”, and can result in anything between a discharge or five years in the nick. I suppose it all depends on how much electricity you abstract.) Then again, use every man after his desert, and who should ’scape whipping?

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I suppose being nearly 30 actually is grown up, especially these days, so I’m not going to offer advice, only sympathy, because she clearly knows what the score is. I presume she knows what to face in the way of microaggressions from the callous workings of the universe.

At present, I am being triggered by anything that reminds me of the north-east in general, and Durham in particular. I picked up a copy of HV Morton’s In Search of England and there’s a whole bloody chapter on the north-east and Durham. England’s first One Day International match against Sri Lanka was at Durham. I heard Bryan Ferry’s rendition of the Tyneside (Wearside, technically) folk song “The Lambton Worm” and it nearly finished me. I am having to read the latest Viz very carefully. And this is before we even get to other, less specific or foreseeable triggers, like Co-op mini goat’s cheeses or the sound of wood pigeons. (A pair of wood pigeons would regularly sit in the tree in her garden. Am I allowed to say that?)

Other things that have, over the years, caused me disproportionate grief because of being given the boot: Liverpool FC, anything whatsoever to do with Spain, anything whatsoever to do with Sweden, certain pubs (I still make the sign of the cross when I pass the Larrik in Marylebone), estate agents (no, really), King’s Cross Station, the very word “Cambridge”, gin and tonic. I could go on. All these, with the exception of the Larrik and King’s Cross, which has suddenly bounced back into the charts, can now be faced or borne with equanimity, or maybe at worst a wry smile.

[See also: Anita Rani Q&A: “People will look back at our era with disgust”]

I still don’t know whether it’s better for these things to happen in summer or winter. On the one hand the summer is meant to be the time for romance, not its end. I remember that episode of Black Books where Dylan Moran’s Bernard Black goes mad and decides to stalk a girl because she is his summer romance (should have been six months for that without the option of a fine), but then in winter being made even more miserable than you are already going to be made by the weather could push you over the edge. Oh, that reminds me: I’m going to have to add “summer” to the list above.

Ah well, onwards and upwards. We rise on stepping-stones of our dead selves to higher things and all that rot. I have a quote from Dante about remembering the good times but I’ve already done Shakespeare and Tennyson this week. On the bright side, I had one of the best lockdowns I could have wished for and I now know how to identify wild garlic, butterbur and chaffinches. So it’s not all bad.

This article appears in the 07 Jul 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The baby bust