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Getting a telling off from your children is one of those parental rites of passage

Nicholas Lezard's "Down and Out in London" column.

I am still thinking about an article that appeared in the Guardian last week – and, judging by the way it hung about in the “most read” online chart for so long, I’m not the only one. It was by one Philippa Perry, who I gather is a psychotherapist, and what she said was, if I summarise correctly, that people who lie about their alcohol consumption do so because they want to project a favourable self-image; that they are, in short, narcissists.

Which is all well and good, and shows that she has learned how to use the word “narcissist”, which is the insult du jour when you want to tell someone you disapprove of their behaviour and want to sound clever while doing so. A few years ago the word was “entitlement”, but ever since we got a government whose cabinet members stink of self-entitlement so much the smell is unsupportable as far away as Lerwick, the potency seems to have gone out of that rebuke.

Anyway, does it make me any less of a narcissist when I am flat-out honest about my own alcohol consumption to the health authorities? I doubt it. People lie to their doctors because they’re tired of being told off all the time. I am inured to this now so I like looking at doctors’ faces when I say “oh, a bottle, a bottle and a half of wine a night, on rare occasions two”. The dose varies because sometimes I’ve been told to lay off the sauce (or can’t afford it). After I’d had my tooth pulled the dentist said if I had more than one glass that evening I’d bleed like a stuck pig from the hole, so I only had the one bottle and everything was fine. I know someone who assumes a straight face and tells her doctor she drinks one bottle of wine a week, which I suspect is something of an underestimate but there’s something I like about that, too: if you’re going to fib, make it outrageous. I can’t remember the last time I tried barefaced cheek like that to someone I wasn’t married to.

I was toying with the idea of the self-aggrandising lie the other day. Having finally had some funds pushed into the bank account, I had felt brave enough to open the door when the bell rang and it was a man asking if I wanted the windows cleaned. As it happens, believe it or not, the living room windows in the Hovel have about three years’-worth of grime on them and you can’t tell when it’s day or night any more, so I said “yes”.

While I was making him a cup of tea he started asking me how long I’d lived here and various nosy questions like that. I very nearly replied that I was merely caretaking the place for a friend who was doing ten to 15 for murder and that he’d given me the keys because I was the only honest man he knew. But you never know where these conversations can end. He was the kind of person who looks around a place where the books are piled, everywhere, in their thousands, and asks “do you read books?” When I replied, without resorting to sarcasm, that indeed I did, he fished into the bag where he kept his bucket and chamois and handed me a little volume by the Reverend Moon whose title suggested within a recipe for world peace. Maybe I should have read it.

I tried to lie again on Sunday but not for narcissistic reasons. I was trying to get an oyster off the grumpy oyster man in the market I wrote about a few weeks ago, but someone had shown him the article, or he’s an NS reader himself and he refused to serve me. I really can’t say I blame him. Withdrawal of service is the only potent weapon the worker still has and if I was fool enough to think I could get away with such rudeness then serve me right.

I still asked him why, so that I could then claim a case of mistaken identity (“I’m always getting mistaken for that bell-end, it’s beginning to get me down”), but no opportunity was offered, so I had to go away, feeling wretched (Oyster Man: if you’re reading this, I apologise), and endure a lecture from my 15-year-old son, who reminded me that actions have consequences and that it’s not all just me in my own little world.

It is one of the stations in life, getting a legitimate telling-off from one’s offspring. He’ll also be taller than me in a couple of months, the way things are going. I suppose, in his way, and without using the word, thank god, he was calling me a narcissist. For, as I implied earlier, to use the word “narcissist” is in itself rather narcissistic; so what does it mean when you say it of yourself?

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 first appeared in the 11 March 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The audacity of popes