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20 April 2022

The Great Doormat Heist diverts me from my impending flat inspection

The place is not a shambles but it doesn’t look that different from the time it was deemed unacceptable.

By Nicholas Lezard

A call from my good friend Ben. Normally he  rings so he can have a rant at the latest outrage perpetrated by this scurvy government or our even scurvier prime minister. This means I get calls from him on an almost daily basis. He does tend to have a touching belief in procedure, or the fundamental decency of the stinking suet pudding with a mop for a hairdo who is, to this nation’s shame, its representative at international conferences etc.

“So, do you think the ****’s going to resign this time?”

“No, Ben, he’s not going to resign. He never will.”

Deep sigh. “I suppose you’re right.”

But this time there is an added urgency to his voice.

“Those ****s at the council have stolen my ****ing doormat! Hang on, I’m going to send you a photo.” I rub the sleep dust from my eyes and look at the photo of the letter the council have put through his letterbox. At first I wonder if I wake or dream. It says they have removed his doormat, and are holding it to ransom. If he wants to see his doormat alive again, he has to pay them £20.

“It was a Clash doormat. I don’t think you can get them any more. I was rather fond of it.”

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As the day progresses, I am given updates. He has one of those doorbells that films people.

“Look at these clowns,” he says, as two unprepossessing men, one of them with one of the largest beer bellies I have ever seen, potter about, removing doormats. Apparently, they’ve done the whole estate: four tower blocks, each with about 100 flats. Four hundred doormats at 20 quid apiece: that’s quite a heist. They have been removed because, apparently, they constitute a hazard. What kind of a hazard I am not sure. Some flats had potted plants outside on windowsills: they’ve gone too.

[See also: I lack most things in life, but have somehow acquired a third Swiss Army Knife]

Meanwhile, I have my own worries. The landlord  is coming round to inspect the Hove-l and I am terrified that my tidiness will be found wanting.  I tear around, clearing up. At one side of my bed is a 2ft-high pile of books, papers and magazines.  They do not constitute a hazard but someone with high standards might object. It would take about a day to sort through them all. In the end I throw  a duvet cover over the lot.

More news about the Great Doormat Heist. Ben has called the council and does an imitation of the unfortunate council employee whose direct line he has managed to get hold of. You know that whiny bureaucratic voice that pen-pushers and jobsworths are always given in sitcoms? Like John Major’s? It’s like that.

“You won’t win, you know,” said the man from the council, after Ben had called him for the sixth time.

“Hang on,” I ask. “He really said that?”

“Straight up.”

“And he really sounded like John Major?”

“Yes. Not that I’ve got anything against John Major these days. Compared to the clown in 10 Downing Street he’s a paragon of all the political virtues.” For a while, the drama of the doormats and the matter of Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak’s fixed penalty notices become intertwined. We agree that whenever a politician uses the word “smear” these days, as Sunak did when people pointed out some awkward facts about his wife, it’s a cast-iron guarantee that that politician has been caught bang to rights.

Ben goes off to call his MP; I carry on tidying. It has been about three weeks since the cleaner appointed by the landlord came round, and things have reverted. With about half an hour to go before the inspection  I can’t think of anything more I can do. The place is not a shambles but it doesn’t look all that different from the time it was deemed unacceptable. I lie down on the bed and wonder if I could get a council flat, like Ben’s. The problems in the tower block are not, he says, doormats and potted artificial plants, but the puddles caused by leaks, and the detritus left in the stairwell by the junkies.

And then it is time for the inspection. I wonder where I’ll live after this. Will I stay in Brighton? I’d like to, especially now the weather’s getting nicer. The inspector is the same woman who came round a couple of months before. She has a quick nosey round.

“Oh, that’s much better!” she says. Well, it’s her call. After she leaves, I go back to bed, shattered.

Ben rings. He has been in touch with the office of Kemptown’s Labour MP, Lloyd Russell-Moyle, who has, somehow, miraculously, sorted everything out. The doormats and plants have been returned. I try to imagine what a pile of 400 doormats looks like, and how they managed to locate and return each doormat to their lawful owners. Again, I wonder if I wake or dream. Ben asks me if I’d like his doormat, a gesture so touching I almost cry. But of course I couldn’t take it.

“So,” says Ben after a pause. “That **** Johnson.  Do you think he’s going to resign?”

“No, I don’t. But I wish Lloyd Russell-Moyle was prime minister.”

[See also: I make sure I never run out of phone charge, so why do I run out of money?]

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This article appears in the 20 Apr 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Law and Disorder