My New Statesman tote bag was a symbol of hope and belonging, and then it almost killed me

Ah, the irony! That I should be immolated by a bag advertising the very magazine that employs me!

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How long have you been locked down for? I mean, when was the last time you left your home? I left two days ago, to go to Waitrose. I checked my watch before I left and checked it when I got back and I found I’d been gone for 13 minutes. It wasn’t a Big Shop, but then as I have only the one reusable bag, I can’t really do a Big Shop. It’s a tote from the 14th Berwick Film & Media Arts Festival, and I have it not because I ever went near the 14th Berwick Film & Media Arts Festival, but because the lady who sent me the binoculars (see “Down and Out”, 28 October) used it as part of the packaging. Until then, I had been using a larger bag, and I’d like to think that it is the most triumphantly middle-class thing I have ever used: my very own New Statesman tote bag.

These were handed out as parting gifts at this magazine’s election night party. I can’t now recall if it was the 2015 or 2017 party. (Since 2010, New Statesman election night parties are great fun until the exit polls start coming in, at which point a certain sombre note creeps into the proceedings. The trick is not to stay too late, like I did in 2010; after about midnight, I started hearing muted sobs from various parts of the room. We take Tory victories very much to heart over here.)

But whatever the election result, the New Statesman tote bag was a splendid thing: in plain, cream-coloured fabric, with the magazine title in red climbing boldly up the side. I used it not only as somewhere to put my shopping but as a kind of talisman, or the favour a knight would bear when at joust; Tories would cower before me, enlightened and gentle young men and women would come up to me and say: “Are you the man who writes that wonderful column? You know, the one about being broke and not getting laid that cheers us up so much? Would you like to come back to my place?” etc.

[see also: Let me describe the flat in which I will be spending lockdown… it won’t take long]

Well, the chances of meeting a Tory in Brighton are slim (although I did once see a woman wearing a Nigel Farage badge the size of a dinner plate in the Churchill Square Timpson in 2019) and no one has actually invited me back to their place because I’ve been carrying the bag (although my neighbours Dave and Lauren did recognise me, and would have invited me in had it not been for this pesky virus. Dave, Lauren: if you’re reading this, I haven’t been in touch because I have a new phone.)

But there are maybe other reasons, too: over the years, various assaults upon the pristine nature of the bag have taken place. There was the bottle of red wine that broke inside it; the black shoe polish that for some reason smeared itself over the outside; and countless spillages, absorptions and stains from the baser world have turned it from a bag that delighted the eye and the mind to one that looked as though it was single-handedly responsible for the pandemic itself. To be honest, when I hoisted it on to the checkout till at either the Co-op or Waitrose, I cannot say that it was a great advertisement for either myself or this magazine.

I confided this to a friend. “Put it in the wash,” she said. No, I said, I can’t do that: it will become crumpled, the wine stains won’t come out, and it will look even worse, although it will, I concede, be cleaner. “Iron it,” she said. Ah, I replied, but I have no iron. There was a ghastly pause when I realised that its only hope would be if I took it to the dry cleaner’s, and I had a little vision of myself, going to the (very good) dry cleaner’s round the corner, carrying a New Statesman tote bag, decrepit and filthy, like some kind of lunatic, asking if they could dry clean it. That would be an eccentricity too far, even for me.

Finally, fate intervened. Returning from one of my exciting trips to the shop last week, I lit the gas ring under a pan of water – it’s the only way to heat up the kitchen – and carelessly unpacked the bag; carelessly enough for one of the handles to catch fire.

It’s always interesting, isn’t it, when the smoke alarms that go off for no reason except to give you a heart attack in the middle of the day stand down when an actual fire has started in your kitchen. I should add that the kitchen itself is not the tidiest of places, and for a while it looked as though the whole place was going to go up. Ah, the irony! That I should be immolated by a bag advertising the very magazine that employs me!

But as you’ll have worked out, I survived, and nothing save the bag and my nerves were damaged. I’m sure there’s a lesson here somewhere, beyond the obvious one, that is. And that’s what I’ve been up to this week. Beat that for excitement. 

[see also: If there’s one good thing 2021 has to offer, it’s the return of romance in my life]

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 22 January 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Biden's Burden

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