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31 August 2022

I am moping, having learned again that the heart does what it bloody well wants

I knew she was clever and funny but I wasn’t prepared for, well, the whole package.

By Nicholas Lezard

Back from Oxford for more than a week now, and it has been the longest week of my life. I went back via London so I could catch the first day of the first Test against South Africa, which also happened to be my brother’s birthday. My financial situation being what it is, I allowed him, after a brief struggle, to buy me drinks rather than the other way round. Shortly after lunchtime the heavens opened and we went off to one of the bars around the ground to meet Nick Newman, the cartoonist. I posted a picture of my drenched self on a social medium, captioned “I’ve gone to the cricket by mistake” (you will get this if you know Withnail and I) and my cousin, who I didn’t know was at the ground, worked out where I was and joined us. I also let them buy me drinks. I then went back to the family home and stayed up till 1am shooting the breeze with the youngest son.

But London was strange. There was the rail strike, so I was stranded; another night on the family sofa. Then a Tube strike, and I went to meet my daughter and her partner for an aperitif at the French and then lunch in Chinatown. Counterintuitively, I was advised to head out west to Acton mainline station by bus and then take the Elizabeth Line into town. Ladies, gentlemen and non-binary readers, if this column teaches you one thing, and one thing only, let it be this: never, ever under any circumstances, not even if your life depends on it, take the 260 westbound from Shepherd’s Bush to Acton mainline station. You will be caught in a traffic jam on the Old Oak Road of such epic immovability that reality itself changes: you will become not so much stationary as statuary; the sun will track slowly across the sky, empires will rise and fall, all your favourite stars from the 1960s and 1970s will die, and so will you, of old age and exasperation, immobile in a tableau mort of traffic, before the bus hauls itself wearily on to the A40.

But the Elizabeth Line! Oh! It made me feel like a stranger in my own city, as if I were Rip Van Winkle, in Woody Allen’s Sleeper, or a prisoner released from a long sentence staring in bewilderment at a world transformed. It utterly changes one’s notions of London’s geography, whisking one from the extreme of London to Reading at unimaginable speed. Why anyone would want to go to Reading escapes me, but there you are; it goes to, and, perhaps more importantly, from, Reading.

A word in parenthesis about the daughter’s partner: I doubt whether three people, two of whom are meeting each other for the first time, have laughed so much and so continuously as we did. I knew she was a good ’un because a couple of months ago she passed on, via the daughter, a no-longer-wanted copy of John Berger’s Ways of Seeing with the inscription “to a man of lettuce”, the result of a mishearing which amused me greatly. Not even the fact that I hardly ever eat lettuce spoils it.

But the main reason that the week has been so long is that the heart is once again in turmoil. Remember I said last week that I was going in to Oxford to meet a friend? Well, she wasn’t strictly a friend, except on the social medium I mentioned above, but suggested meeting up. I knew she was clever and funny because of her posts but I wasn’t prepared for, well, the whole package, as it were. The evening ended with the very clear possibility of romance, but since then, all has gone quiet. I thought I had made a responsible decision to immunise myself against this kind of thing but the heart does what it bloody well wants and that’s all there is to it. It is as if a castaway on the deserted island was getting used to it, and then sees a ship on the horizon.

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When I went to Oxfordshire I thought I was a man transformed because I had started drinking coffee in the morning instead of tea: it turns out that, what with one thing and another, I am changed even more than that. Since then, after an interruption getting hammered at the cricket, my activities have largely been confined to a) sighing and b) moping. I’ve reverted to drinking tea but it hasn’t turned me back to my old self.

So last Monday I rang the doctor’s to see if they’d had any results from the chest X-ray I’d had a couple of weeks before. They hadn’t got in touch, which I suppose meant good news, but it could have been pardonable inefficiency. As it turned out, all was as well as it was before: the size of the patch of scarring on the lung is unchanged. But such was my mood that there was a part of me that was disappointed: a stupid and self-destructive part of me, true, but it is still a part, and I have been contemplating non-existence this last week with a benign eye, because this is getting exhausting.

After the diagnosis was delivered, I thanked the receptionist and hung up. For some reason, the title of a Saul Bellow novel popped into my head: More Die of Heartbreak. Probably not true; but still.

[See also: Never mind hard-working families – what about occasionally working single people?]

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This article appears in the 31 Aug 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Liz Truss Doctrine