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23 November 2022

The Chancellor takes me back to 2013, Watership Down and being in love

In growth terms we are being taken back a decade – as I struggle with Microsoft Teams I wonder whether that would be so bad.

By Nicholas Lezard

I write this on the day of the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s Autumn Statement, as a result of which living standards are predicted to drop by 7 per cent. I wonder: is this across the board, or will there be wide variations, as with the effects of climate change? I heard on the Radio 4 news, helpfully, that in growth terms we are being taken back to 2013. I’ll return to this.

A 7 per cent drop in living standards doesn’t sound good. It means a significant drop in wine consumption, for a start. I could make a joke about 7 per cent of sod-all still being sod-all, but I don’t have sod-all and it’s no use pretending I do. Certain expenditures are tricky, and fall into the “I’ll put it off” category. The most pressing item is a haircut. I really think I could do with one, and have thought this for three weeks. Eventually, the state of the barnet will become untenable, like it did in lockdown when my sideburns crept into my peripheral vision, but for the moment it’s an extravagance I will have to do without. A haircut in this town costs £15 and that’s two bottles of wine. Can I do without two bottles of wine? I suppose it’s possible in theory, but then how to deal with the boredom and screaming existential anguish that comes with sobriety? The screaming still happens after or during drinking, but it’s muffled, as if in a box.

Meanwhile, 2013… “Ah, no; the years O!/How the sick leaves reel down in throngs!” as Hardy put it in one of his cheery little poems. But 2013 – that was all right. I could live in 2013 again. I had a girlfriend, who was lovely. We were even living together, and one winter I read the whole of Watership Down to her at bedtime. It took a while because she would drop off after a page or two, and it’s not really a short book. It became something of a running joke. “OK, where were we?” I’d ask. “They’ve decided to leave the warren,” she’d say, every time, and that’s on about page 12. (I defer to no one in my love for Watership Down, and was once honoured to write the introduction to the Penguin Modern Classics edition, where I got to write what is still the sentence I am proudest of, despite having written professionally for 37 years: “This book is, inescapably, about rabbits.” The other one bit of writing I’m proudest of is typing “Bleak Mouse” by accident in the first draft of a Folio Society catalogue; it survived until final proofs. So close!)

Another thing about 2013 is that I was earning twice as much then, because I still had a column in the Guardian. How could I have ever had the brass neck to complain about being broke in those days? Surely I was living like a king? But no; even with the income of my Beloved, who had an actual job, we would find ourselves bumping up hard against the last week of each month. But not like now. Now is a kind of joke.

I had a taste of former glory the other day, when my friend Sam took me to lunch at Beach House in Brighton. Sam gets a full namecheck rather than the traditional initial followed by an em-dash, for she edits the excellent magazine Silver, which is, as far as I can gather, a magazine for people of a Certain Age who are not yet ready to take up bowls or knitting (yes, yes, I know knitting is for young people these days. My daughter used to do it, and my friend D—, who is 23 years younger than me, is taking hers with her for a weekend away. But you know what I mean).

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Anyway, Beach House is Brighton’s branch of posh and pricey private members’ club Soho House, which, because I am an ex-Groucho Club member, I am obliged to sneer at. But the food and the service were impeccable, and afterwards I was told that Dan, the front-of-house guy, kept putting my jacket back on my chair because it kept slipping off. As George Eliot put it, “the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts”, so thank you, Dan. And Sam, of course.

That was great but otherwise the modern world is giving me grief. The other day I had a Very Important Meeting on Microsoft Teams. Lockdown was kind to me for several things, not the least of which was only needing to have one remote meeting, and that was for a radio programme so it didn’t matter that my camera was bust. This time I had a laptop whose camera did work, so I got everything ready. I shaved, I tamed my unruly locks, I put on a cleanish shirt and sponged the soup stains off my waistcoat. I even poured my wine into a mug so it would look as though I was drinking tea. (I thought of filling my Sports Direct mug but even I don’t drink that much.)

And, of course, Microsoft Teams didn’t work. It didn’t work on my phone either and that’s a newer gadget than the laptop. Also, I am not technologically illiterate so it’s not my fault. I howled and raged but to no avail, and the Very Important Meeting progressed without me. So, nuts to the modern world. And come back 2013, all is forgiven, not that there is much to forgive.

[See also: I can survive without teaspoons – but find myself thwarted by an unshuttable window]

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This article appears in the 23 Nov 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Russian Roulette