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20 March 2023

Over Scotch eggs I am, to my shame, schooled in “The Pardoner’s Tale”

My friend Ben tells me the plot in such a way that I am suddenly inspired to read it, in the original Middle English.

By Nicholas Lezard

Back in Brighton, and extremely grateful for it. Three weeks looking after a cat was by no means tiresome, but being in East Finchley was causing some wear and tear to the soul. It was also not much fun sleeping on a sofa-bed with no linen – only a large stars-and-stripes throw, and another with a picture of a tiger’s face on it that my mother gave me when I moved into the Hovel after being thrown out of the family home 15 years ago.

“It’ll help you get laid,” she said, but its magic seems to have worn off. In East Finchley, I remained as celibate as I was as a teenager, and as celibate as I have been for… ooh, it’s coming up to two years soon.

Looking after a cat is one thing, but looking after my mother is another. I managed about 24 hours before realising I wasn’t cut out for this kind of thing. I didn’t feel too bad about going, because she has a carer coming in three times a day and my brother, who lives 15 minutes away, can pick up the slack. His wife is no slouch either, although as an NHS consultant she is rather busy these days.

In Brighton I get a call from Ben. Ben – writer, ex-boxer, ex-bouncer, occasional roofer – is my great Brighton friend and sometimes I wonder where I’d be without him. Considerably more lonely, that’s for certain. He is also a political junkie, and when the Tories do something outrageous he likes to call me up and say, “Have you seen what those melts have done now?” This has kept him in regular contact with me over the last couple of years. Sometimes I call him. A couple of weeks ago I told him how Rishi Sunak has diverted power from the National Grid to heat his swimming pool in his mansion outside Northallerton.

“Hey,” I say, “guess how he travels to his mansion when he wants to go there.”

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“Taxi?”

“No.”

“Chauffeur-driven limo?”

“No.”

“Oh no. Not helicopter. Please don’t say helicopter.”

“I’m afraid you’re right; it is helicopter.”

This time, he calls me about something to do with the fallout from Linekergate, and during the chat he brings up the TV series Succession. I tell him I haven’t seen it, and neither do I have access to HBO.

[See also: Netflix is moving into live TV – and the BBC should be worried]

“You savage. Come over for dinner tomorrow and we’ll watch it.”

“Ben, I’m not watching a thousand hour-long episodes of a TV programme, however good it is. I don’t have the attention span.” Still, this makes a change from Ben telling me to take up boxing, or go to the gym with him, which can also be filed under Things that Aren’t Going to Happen.

“OK, let’s try something else. You seen The Curse? It’s loosely based on the Brink’s-Mat robbery. I think it’s better than the other one, The Gold.”

“Ben, I –”

“Only six episodes, half an hour each. Baby steps, Nick, baby steps.”

So I go round with a couple of bottles and his wife heats up some delicious M&S Scotch eggs in the air fryer (they are very proud of their air fryer) and we sit down and Ben’s right – The Curse is fantastic, because almost everyone in it is an idiot, and therefore the dialogue is hilarious. Ben says: “There’s a strong element of ‘The Pardoner’s Tale’ in it.” A look steals across my face: the look of someone who does not know the plot of “The Pardoner’s Tale”.

“You do know the plot of ‘The Pardoner’s Tale’, Nick?”

“Um, refresh my memory.”

So Ben, with the kind of patience and enthusiasm that make me realise he would have been an excellent teacher, tells me the plot of “The Pardoner’s Tale”, in such a way that I am suddenly inspired to read it, in the original Middle English. (It is Middle English, isn’t it?) There is a large part of me that is extremely embarrassed, for I have a degree in English literature from one of the world’s leading universities, as they probably describe themselves on their website. I suppose they’ll want to take my degree back if they read this, but I’m pretty sure they can’t do that.

After his lesson, Ben says, driving his point home without necessarily meaning to: “They drummed that into me at my south London comprehensive.”

Earlier that day, I had been reminded that it was exactly two years ago, as the postscript to an argument we had had, probably about Brexit, that Rod Liddle said on a social media platform: “Nicholas Lezard is possibly the most stupid man in the history of the world.” And I suddenly began to wonder if he had a point.

[See also: How the new Great British Bake Off host Alison Hammond charmed Britain]

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This article appears in the 22 Mar 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Banks on the brink