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29 September 2021

One dodgy kebab and I miss out on a memorable restaurant experience

A friend who earns an obscene amount of money was due to take me out. Instead, I writhe around in bed feeling sorry for myself.

By Nicholas Lezard

Hurrah! I’m off to London, to meet my old compañero Razors at the very swanky Rules in Covent Garden, no less, the country’s oldest restaurant and certainly one of its most expensive. And what is a column called “Down and Out” doing eating at such a venue? It’s being paid for, that’s what. Razors has found some gig in Los Angeles which earns him an obscene amount of money and years of guilt have accumulated enough in his black soul to stir his conscience into action. The date was made a couple of months ago, and I have been ticking off the days with increasing eagerness.

Actually, scratch that: I’m not off to London, to the very swanky Rules in Covent Garden, because on the morning of the bash I wake up at 8am in the greatest pain I can remember experiencing. I know I’ve been going on about pain a bit in the last couple of weeks, but that pain… that pain was nothing ­ compared to this. That was a soothing back rub,  a tickle from a dancer’s ostrich feather on the nape of the neck. This is hitting the lower abdomen, and  is so severe that after a few minutes sweat is dripping off my face and audibly splashing on to the  bathroom floor between my feet. From which position you will probably be able to work out what has happened, especially if I mention the kebab I had last night.

The annoying thing – or one of the secondary annoying things – is that this is an establishment I have patronised before, quite a few times, and their kebabs are so tasty I have been known to have them when quite sober. Was that my mistake last night, not having enough alcohol in my system to neutralise the bacilli?

The most annoying thing, though, is not being able to see my friend. Moving beyond the orbit of bed and bog is beyond me. The pain is almost indescribable, but “having your guts gnawed from the inside by rats” more or less covers it. The nausea – that’s fun, too. Well, you’ve all had food poisoning, it was like that, I won’t belabour the details. The next day on, it’s still a bit like that, but at least I was able to go out and buy some Gaviscon and all the trimmings.

[See also: I had two beers and didn’t enjoy them. Something is seriously wrong]

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But it is so depressing, missing out on Rules, and Razors. I have been to Rules a few times, and always on someone else’s dime. There is absolutely no way I could afford even the meanest plate of its native oysters for my first course. I think the best time I went there it was at the invitation of Ian Martin, co-writer of The Thick of It, Veep and The Death of Stalin, among other things. He didn’t know me: he just liked my stuff, and due to some recent Hollywood work was flush and felt like spreading some happiness around. We lunched from 12.30pm until about 5pm, and the maître d’ had to come over and tell one of us to start minding his language, as some of the other diners, presumably wealthy Americans, were getting upset. Guess which one of us had the potty mouth. Clue: it wasn’t the one of us who had coined the phrase “as much use as a marzipan dildo”.

So I lie in bed instead, or rather writhe about in it, groaning and feeling very, very sorry for myself. My attention span is shot to hell so I try to distract myself by reading boneheaded questions on Quora (sample: “What is the best way to go to Canada?”) and listening to the radio. I catch a bit of Richard Osman’s new comedy panel show, The Birthday Cake Game, which seems to have been devised for the entertainment of people who have been kicked in the head by a horse. I listen to it with fascination. In it, people of whom I have never heard are asked to guess the age of a celebrity whose birthday it is in the week of broadcast. “I’m thinking 44… no, I think I’ll go for 47.” That’s it. I listen for an entire episode waiting for a joke but there isn’t one in half an hour.

How, I wonder, does Osman do it? His novel The Thursday Murder Club has sold more copies than the Bible but I could only manage 20 pages before throwing it across the room. Its follow-up is apparently one of the fastest-selling books of all time. One does not expect the very-best sellers to be stylistically accomplished but we’re talking prose, if not subject matter, on the level of Fifty Shades of Grey or something by Dan Brown. Has Osman sold his soul to the devil at a crossroads? Everything he does is wildly, inexplicably successful. He was even profiled in this magazine a few weeks ago. I bet he can afford to eat at Rules three times a day if he wants to.

[See also: An almost sleepless night, until I have an anxiety dream about this magazine]

In the end I give up on Osman because it’s not really helping with the pain and fiddle around with the BBC Sounds app so that I can listen to a succession of Radio 3’s Night Tracks, followed by Through the Night. This is music for the still watches of the small hours, as the titles imply: music that manages to be both weird and soothing at the same time, and evidence that maybe there is something salvageable in culture after all. Gaviscon for the soul.

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This article appears in the 29 Sep 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Spirit of the Age