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6 March 2024updated 07 Mar 2024 2:44pm

As a deadline approaches, I become a master of distraction

The problem with being paid upfront is that one feels the work has somehow magically been done already.

By Nicholas Lezard

In all the excitement last week of lunch at the Regency (oysters and whitebait; their portions of the latter are so large that a main course of them can be shared between two) and my brush with death by bus (entirely my fault), I forgot to tell you about my lunch at the Ivy. The one I was to enjoy for free in return for writing 1,000+ words on “How I Discovered My Purpose”. The problem with being paid upfront for a gig, as any freelancer can tell you, is that the association, the muscle memory, of work followed by payment is so ingrained that one feels the work has somehow magically been done already. If monkey get banana before monkey press red button, monkey not feel like press red button. Banana good, pressing red button pain in bum. And writing thousand words make pressing red button look like soothing back rub.

I dithered a bit, reluctant to engage in the work I had agreed to do. Sitting down at the plastic piano to write the damn thing became an exercise in displacement activities. I found that an algorithm on a certain social media platform kept showing me old episodes of Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares. I had never seen any of these first time round because I was too busy co-raising children and watching my marriage fall apart. When it finally did fall apart I moved to a place where someone nicked the aerial on the roof (those were the days – aerials on roofs!) and it would have cost too much to replace, so I gave up on TV altogether.

I found the programme deeply soothing. There is something about the incompetence of others that is comforting, especially if it happens in another country, and many years ago. The best bits are the ones where the incompetents flatly refuse to acknowledge that they are doing anything wrong at all. I will cherish, for the rest of my life, the chef who handed out risotto he had cooked a week earlier and was draining the bank accounts of the idiotic but well-meaning restaurant owners by buying asparagus out of season from the other side of the world. On those occasions where the problems are solved and the restaurant becomes a happy place again, I get bored and move on to the next one. Such is human nature – or mine, at least.

But each time I watched one of the programmes I felt a twinge. Something was nagging at me: some association between restaurants and guilt. I would think of the kitchen at the Ivy, and wonder if chaos ruled there, too; had my shepherd’s pie been cooked from frozen? Had it even been shepherd’s pie? But this was only evading the issue: my deadline was coming up, and I had nothing to show for it.

I had made some notes, of course, but these had come late at night, when I was… relaxed. They were both incoherent and grandiose. “Codey writing v imp bec just like kid in sch m,aking bull laugh to avoid beaten up com writ helps laugh in face of biggst bull of all ie death.” All I can say is thank goodness I hadn’t written these notes by hand: they would have been indecipherable. Even so, it took me a while to work out the next day that “codey” meant “comedy”.

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The deadline came and went; it was due on Wednesday and it was now Friday. A small part of me – a little freelancing devil with horns and goat’s feet – popped up on my shoulder and said: “Just stay in bed watching Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares and don’t bother writing it. They’ll forget about it eventually.” But I’m a professional so knuckled down.

The thing was, the correlation between being pissed and writing down ideas for the piece was by now so strongly ingrained that I found I had to have a drink before I started, instead of as a reward for when I had finished. Monkey/banana/button all over again. You might think I write sloshed all the time but I promise you I have, in 40 years of writing, only done this twice before, and one of those times was when I brought a hip flask into the last exam of my finals. (It was this, I think, that stopped me from getting a first; oh, and the not doing any work.) I won’t tell you what the second time was, but it was also a long time ago and I got away with it.

I eventually got the thing done. It was hard: like trying to climb a very steep hill on a knackered bicycle. I kept thinking of JG Ballard, who would hit the Scotch and the typewriter the moment he’d dropped his kids off at school. (How he picked them up I have yet to learn.) After clapping a hand over one eye so I could reread the text without seeing it in stereo I pressed send and went back to bed. For some reason I didn’t feel like watching Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares.

About ten minutes later my inbox pinged and I feared the worst. But no, it was from my commissioner, and the subject line of the email said: “Pure unadulterated genius.” Well, it was technically somewhat adulterated, but I’ll take that.

I am writing about these inconsequential matters because something terrible has happened to a friend of mine and I am not ready to write about it yet.

[See also: My health scare is over, so now there is space for all my other worries]

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This article appears in the 06 Mar 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Bust Britain