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10 November 2021

Sunday, mid-afternoon, and the doorbell rings. It could only be a bailiff

Walking back from the seafront I passed a hotel that had a sign in the window saying “Receptionist wanted”. I must say I am tempted.

By Nicholas Lezard

Half past three in the afternoon, and it is time to get out of bed and write this column. I can’t write it in bed because I dare not move the laptop from the desk, as repeated opening and closing has made the screen hang all wobbly to the keyboard, like a carious tooth. The hinges seem to be too strong for the body, and the casing has split near them, exposing the innards unless the screen is propped up to near-vertical, which it is right now by, of all things, a Bible. (A present from my friend N—, the only person allowed inside the flat, given along with a slim biography from the Catholic Truth Society of Father Damien, Apostle to the Lepers.)

I stayed in bed for so long because it is cold outside and I only allow myself to put the heating on for an hour an evening. I owe the gas company money; as I do the electricity company, Brighton and Hove City Council and, last but not least, HMRC. I wonder how long I can carry on like this.

Last Sunday the doorbell rang. It was mid-afternoon. Who rings the doorbell on a Sunday mid-afternoon? I stood out of sight by the front window and after a minute or two a short, bald man with glasses, like a compressed Pickwick, walked back down the front path and out of the front gate. That’s funny, I thought, he doesn’t look like a bailiff. I have some experience of them, after all. I remember the last time I chatted to one.

“Is Mr Nicholas Lezard here?”

“No.”

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“Well, that’s funny, because you look an awful lot like him,” he said, and showed me a photograph of myself. We had a good old laugh about it. I was annoyed with myself later on, for having foolishly opened the door. I’d seen that man before, too, loitering outside the Hovel. “Bailiff,” I thought and backed away, taking the long way round to the pub to sit over half a pint for an hour, until he’d gone.

But I’ve been having to answer the doorbell more frequently recently, as people have been sending me books, and in one or two cases, even wine. If I review the books I can buy wine. However, getting sacked by the Guardian after writing weekly reviews for them for a quarter of a century (“We’ve had a look at the metrics”) has rather undermined my confidence and I fear to ask for commissions, because a refusal often devastates. Walking back from the seafront the other day I passed a hotel that had a sign in the window saying “Receptionist wanted”. I must say I am tempted. It’s a job I’ve done before, albeit many years ago: I was a porter in an art deco block of flats on the Prince Albert Road in north London. I had a uniform, somewhat naval, and had to go under the name “Lewis” because my grandmother lived there, and we shared a rather distinctive surname.

Later on, I took a summer job as a night receptionist in a Bayswater fleapit, and it suited me right down to the ground. I would listen to the radio and sometimes dial random numbers in capital cities around the world just to see who answered. Most nights I would call the Moose, who had taken a job as a night security guard in a fancy office in Albemarle Street. It was as a result of these nocturnal chats that we became good friends.

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“Don’t you ever worry that someone is going to come in with an axe and split your head open?”

“No, not really,” I said.

“Well, I do.” This was a man with a first-class degree in English from Cambridge.

Anyway, the job’s a piece of piss, and the hotel gig I saw is just a hundred yards or so from my place. The only problems I foresee are that I might be too old, and, as I mentioned last week, I’m still deaf. This could make for some amusing Fawlty Towers-type comedy, but it is not really a selling point. I do have a plausible manner, though, and can speak French and a bit of German and Italian. I can also count to ten in Hungarian, a skill that I hope to use to great effect one day.

Yesterday evening, the doorbell rang again. This time I answered it. I pushed the buzzer and assumed the parcel would be left behind. It rang again.

“You have to come down and see this for yourself,” said the voice at the other end, “so it doesn’t happen again.”

“So what doesn’t happen again?” But I got no answer and went downstairs, even though every atom of my being was screaming “bailiff!”

It was Mr Pickwick, carrying a slim parcel, which had been grievously misaddressed. Inside was a copy of the BFI Modern Classics companion to the film Withnail and I, for which I have been commissioned – hallelujah! – to write a new foreword. Rarely have I felt so honoured. The money is next to negligible but I can use it to buy wine and food, maybe even pay some of a bill or two. It is, though, a bittersweet commission because the text I will be writing a foreword to was written by my great friend, the Moose, AKA Kevin Jackson, who died in May. Not by axe.

[see also: Will it be shellfish fed on sewage that finally makes us sick of this government?]

This article appears in the 10 Nov 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Behind the Masks