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20 August 2023

A furry burglar leaves me cheeseless and reeling

The squirrel needn’t have stolen my last bit of Camembert. It had only to ask.

By Nicholas Lezard

I have been brooding lately: I feel threatened, under siege. I woke up yesterday and, stumbling to the kitchen to make tea, saw, on the windowsill, a piece of waxed paper which, the night before, had been wrapped around the last quarter-wheel of Camembert, which I had been saving for a snack. This, in turn, had been placed in its box. Now the box was open and the cheese was gone.

I knew at once who the culprit was. No one had come into the Hove-l through the front door: bitter experience with bailiffs, utility companies and assorted ne’er-do-wells means I keep the door locked and bolted at night. This meant the thief had come in through the kitchen window. As this is two flights up, this could only mean one thing: the squirrel.

This squirrel has form. Sometimes I find myself unable to sleep, and so pass the time by carousing until dawn (summer months only). On two occasions I have heard a noise in the kitchen and been startled by a squirrel rummaging among the bits and bobs on the countertop.

[See also: At five foot nothing and ex-SAS, P— was considerably more menacing than his height]

It is not a large kitchen. Like the pond in Wordsworth’s “The Thorn”, I’ve measured it from side to side: ’tis eight feet long and four feet wide, two of those four feet being the countertop. I have cooked on sailboats with larger galleys. So a squirrel looms rather large, especially when uninvited. I am fond of all animals except wasps, cockroaches and everything in Australia, but there are limits. On our previous encounters the squirrel worked out fairly quickly that it had outstayed its welcome and left without causing too much havoc.

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This time actual theft had occurred. And this was decent Camembert: not the cheap stuff with the gingham cloth in the box but Isigny Ste-Mère, made from raw milk, ladle-moulded, whatever the hell that means, and sold at £4.90 by Waitrose. A squirrel would have to work long and hard to afford to buy a cheese like that with its own money.

My mind drifted back a decade or more, to a spring night in Marylebone, the night of my birthday, when after closing time I had invited the remaining celebrants back to the Hovel for more booze. I had not laid on any food because this was an unplanned invitation, and so at one point I went into the kitchen to be greeted by the sight of David Gilmour out of Pink Floyd staring forlornly into the depths of my fridge, the only edible thing in it being the rock-hard heel of an ancient piece of… Camembert.

“This place reminds me of the squats I lived in in the Sixties before we made it,” he said, not with a “What happy days those were” tone; more “What am I doing here?”. I felt awfully embarrassed, and let him have the cheese. This, after all, was the man who had created that blistering guitar riff on “Sheep”, from their 1977 album Animals.

Back to the present. That cross-circuit of memory sent me into a reverie, an alternative universe where Animals – whose three main, epic tracks are called “Dogs”, “Pigs” and “Sheep” – was issued with a bonus song called “Squirrels”. I then imagined a vast, inflatable squirrel tethered among the chimneys of Battersea Power Station, replacing the pig that had famously graced the album’s sleeve. (In case you were wondering what David Gilmour was doing in my kitchen all those years ago and questioned whether this is not itself some kind of weird cheese dream, he was there with his wife, my fellow hack Polly Samson, and they are both lovely.)

After a while I pulled myself together, leaving myself with the feeling of violation familiar to all those who have been burgled while they slept. All day I kept thinking of squirrels, or of this one in particular. There was a large part of me that thought: it only had to ask. I am, as I said above, a friend to almost the entire animal kingdom without an exoskeleton. In the Hovel I had Mousie, whom I persuaded eventually to eat out of my hand. In Scotland I toyed with the idea of training the crows who surrounded the MacHovel in huge numbers (a mass murder, if you will) to perch on my shoulder, but this would have involved standing outside for long stretches, and that’s something you don’t really want to do in Scotland outside of high summer.

Here, in the Hove-l, the terms of my lease prevent me from having a pet, and I have a horrible fear that I will die before I ever live in a house with a cat again; a friendly visiting squirrel would be acceptable.

I’m also worried that I’ll die before I ever have sex again, which I gather is not against the terms of my lease, but that’s another fear for another day.

[See also: An eight-hour lunch puts the passing of time in perspective]

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This article appears in the 23 Aug 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Inside Britain’s Exclusive Sect