A survival hamper arrives from an anonymous donor – with some questionable contents

One item, included as if by way of whimsical afterthought, amuses me: a box of breakfast cereal.

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Ding dong! goes the doorbell. Actually, it doesn’t; it goes BZZZZZ: it sounds like a very angry wasp about the size of a lorry, and has often proved in the past to be the harbinger of extremely bad news, the sound the Furies make when they turn up at the Hovel: a heart-stopping noise of destiny and retribution – Dies irae, dies illa,/Solvet sæculum in favilla, as the old gag has it: the day of wrath that will dissolve the world into ashes. Ingemisco, tamquam reus: I sigh like the guilty one. Most of the time I do not answer it, and dive under the duvet instead. This time is no exception.

Thankfully, one of my housemates has done the decent thing and opened the door, and when I eventually tiptoe downstairs that afternoon, I see an enormous box with my name on it. I recall a conversation I had yesterday with a friend who had wanted to send me a package but had been informed that the company had been unable to deliver it, because the person to whom it was addressed was a poltroon hiding underneath the bedclothes instead of facing up to his creditors like a man. I had not expected it to be redelivered so quickly.

I lug it upstairs and slice it open with the trusty Swiss army knife. Within, protected by a million three-dimensional foam Ss, are: 1 bot Tobermory malt whisky. 1 bot Janneau Armagnac. 1 bot 2006 Château Mazeyres Pomerol. 1 bot Islay gin. (Yes, Islay is better known for its whisky, but this has 22 botanicals in it, so haud yer wheesht.) Assorted jars of olives, artichoke hearts, pickles and other yummies. Comb honey. Lindt chocolate. Fancy tuna. There is more; but I can no longer read the labels, because my eyes are now too full of tears of gratitude. Suffice it to say that this donor, who most strenuously wishes not to be named, may count her name among the blessed, for this box has arrived at a time when it is needed most.

One item, included as if by way of whimsical afterthought, amuses me: a box of breakfast cereal, “Rude Health Honey Multiflakes”. On it, a woman in a stripey top leaps for joy; but her expression, though smiling, carries a suggestion of firm judgement: leap like me for joy, it says, or you will be sorry. (On the back cover she has now changed into a polka-dotted dress and is playing leapfrog with a young man who looks as though he’s had just about enough of this, but what this tells us is anybody’s guess.)

Rude Health, it turns out, is a mixture of wholegrain corn, barley and spelt. (“How’s that spelt again?” I always feel like asking when I encounter the word. Look, it’s habits like this that stop me from killing myself, OK?) “Pure pleasure”, says the rubric on the back of the packet. Well, we shall be the judge of that, I say to myself as I open the box. (Historical note: it took me rather longer to get round to pouring myself a bowl of this than it did, to pluck an example from experience at random, to fix myself a gin and tonic.)

Well, I have now munched my way through a bowl. Hmm. The literature on the back tells us that honey has been “baked on” to the flakes in order to impart “an indulgent sweetness to start your day with a naughty smile”.

Sometimes I wonder about the people who write this stuff for a living. It was a path I nearly chose myself. A well-known advertising agency spotted promise in me once when I was much younger and told me to go and write a strapline for an imaginary range of sports footwear. I was given to understand that they’d hire me as a copywriter as long as I wrote something a little more sophisticated than “Buy our shoes, you stupid bastards”, and even that might have done the trick. However, after sucking my pencil for a few minutes, I decided that what the world needed was fewer and better copywriters, not to mention less and better sports footwear, so I never got round to it. Sometimes I wonder if they’re still waiting.

But I fear for the condition of the soul of the person who considers that some inadequately sweetened breakfast cereal (I don’t have much of a sweet tooth, but even I had to add maple syrup) makes you start your day with “a naughty smile”. There’s only one way to start your day with a naughty smile that I know of. Then again, as I’ve mentioned once or twice recently, that kind of thing is never going to happen to me again, so I might as well resign myself to the stern example and ministrations of the girl in the stripey top.

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 18 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, A storm is coming