The illness persisted all last week but that didn’t stop the work from having to be done. As it is nice to be asked and I would like to have some money to buy the kids Christmas presents, I found myself having to write six pieces in one week. Normally I only write 1.25 pieces a week, including this one, which just about keeps me out of trouble, and allows for a decent amount of time in bed. But deadlines kept coming in and I had to drag my sorry carcass to the plastic piano in the living room, all of seven paces away, and come up with stuff on everything from smoking pipes and artificial intelligence to the town of Putignano in Puglia and left-wing anti-Semitism (believe it or not, it’s a thing).
The mental callisthenics began to take their toll on the body as well. I will leave out most of the symptoms because you might be reading this over your breakfast, but the general impression I was getting was that the body was shutting down. It was like F Scott Fitzgerald’s answer to the question of how he became bankrupt: slowly, then all at once. The most alarming was the pulsing of the bloodstream I heard when trying to get to sleep: exacerbated or amplified behind the gunk in my right eardrum, I would hear a regular churning sound, like the engines of an ocean liner far away below decks. I have never been on an ocean liner unless you count the Newhaven-Dieppe ferry in the 1980s, and as each time I travelled on it I was either sloshed or seasick I don’t recall the noise the engines made – but I bet it was something like this.
Things got so bad at one point that I found myself too exhausted to put on my trousers and go to the shops, 0.1 miles away, to buy wine or whisky (I make a superb hot toddy, which is one of the good things about being poorly) and so had an alcohol-free evening instead.
[See also: If I lived with someone I’d drive them insane]
At first I wondered if I could do this. If you’re an alcoholic, you can’t, right? I suppose I had a certain amount of security in that there are three 24-hour shops within 0.2 miles of me, all selling booze, but even then I found my inertia overcoming any desire for even a sip of intoxicating liquor. I wonder if I have stumbled on a revolutionary treatment for alcohol abuse: unlike taking Antabuse, which makes you horribly sick if you touch so much as a drop (although it didn’t stop the poet John Berryman from, reportedly, vomiting in the corridors of the university he taught at), my drug would simply mimic the side-effects of illness. A great weariness would creep over one, and one would wish for nothing more than a warm bed and a good book. I found myself awake between half past one in the morning and some time around 6am, but if there’s one thing the Hove-l isn’t short of it’s reading material.
I finally surfaced around 10am, and was interested to note that although at no point did I suffer the DTs I felt absolutely no worse than I would have done had I drunk an entire bottle of Scotch the night before, but with this difference: my mouth felt slightly more like the bottom of a parrot’s cage than it usually does in the morning.
One of my many friends who does not have a degree in medicine assured me that this was the liver ridding itself of toxins and that I should give it a few more days; one of my friends with personal experience of alcoholism (and I have a few of those) said: “The first six months are the hardest.” He’s been sober for almost a decade now, which is brilliant, but he does know what he’s talking about.
I nearly made it two days in a row, I really did, but I had to go and buy some milk and I noticed that Waitrose was conducting its annual experiment on whether it could give me gout by slashing its prices for port down to a level where it makes more sense to buy than wine. Not for the first time, I thought of Italy, where a litre of perfectly acceptable stuff costs something like €3. God damn and blast this wretched country. Well, I suppose He has. Anyway, Waitrose’s offer on Graham’s Late Bottled Vintage was simply too good to ignore so I bought a bottle of that and some Stilton and celery and that was my evening sorted. (The label on the back says “once opened, consume within six weeks”, which always makes me smile.)
And that’s it: the Lezard body has been returned to factory settings, and I can go about my business again with a merry heart and a song on my lips. Well, actually it means going back to bed with a good book. I might even read a bit of John Berryman.
This article appears in the 22 Nov 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The paranoid style