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Hygiene has always been a challenge in the Hovel, but now we’re in hell

I’m a piles-and-piles-of-books-and-papers-around-the-place kind of person.

Nightmarish times. I am having to write a book. I won’t say what it’s about, because this isn’t the place to do that kind of thing but all you need to know is that it involves writing a minimum of 2,000 words a day, and not just any old rubbish either. Well, that’s the idea, at least. So what? You might say. Loads of people are writing books, too many of them in fact, and Trollope used to write 10 million words about MPs or bishops every morning before going off to work and inventing the pillar box. Yes, but I am not Trollope and besides Trollope did not have the internet to distract him. He Facebooked not and neither did he tweet.

Neither did he have my own indolent habits. In the course of a journalistic career spanning four decades – a rather fancy way of saying since 1985 or so – I have managed to arrange things so that I have produced precisely zero books.

Modest habits and a stately couple of thousand words a week, I found, would be enough to keep the largest and meanest wolves from the door, after which I could retire to my boudoir to read detective stories and eat chocolates.

Well, those days are gone and it is time to knuckle under, and one of the snags with this is that the most excellent Laurie Penny, who has been away in New York for three months, is back in the Hovel, which is wonderful, except that she, too, is writing a book under pressure.

I don’t know if you read the acknowledgments at the beginning of books. I do – they’re often a rich source of paraliterary comedy, sometimes intentional. The best ever is from Wodehouse: “To my daughter Leonora, without whose never-failing sympathy and encouragement this book would have been finished in half the time.” That’s of course an inversion of the formula, which generally goes, with variations minor and major, elegant or inelegant, something like this: “with heartfelt thanks to my husband/wife and children, who put up with me for two long years while I wrote the
book you now hold in your etc etc”.

I always curled my lip a bit at that kind of thing, partly because I had over the years discovered that writers can become perfectly insufferable without even writing a book. And although writing is hard and boring (I think it was Thomas Mann who said: “a writer is somebody for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people”; he’s not wrong), it’s not exactly working down the mine, is it?

Oh, how little I knew. While you may think writing lots of words a day means simply clearing a few hours’ free space and keeping out of everyone else’s hair, and making sure they keep out of yours, the knock-on effects of a more than sevenfold increase in one’s daily output are manifest to the most casual visitor to the Hovel. There is the kind of writer who finds that the production of long-form prose mysteriously inaugurates a new-found interest in housework down to its most pettifogging details (oh, I think it is time to clean out the gunk from the cracks of the living-room
table with the tines of a fork and rearrange the books in alphabetical order); and then there is the kind of writer who found even doing a weekly laundry beyond him at the best of times and who now lets the space around him – it’s usually a him – deteriorate to the point where either council services or a TV crew have to be called in, if only to bear witness to the astonishing squalor.

Laurie, I have to say, is not the tidiest of people. I do not say this to mean “she’s disgustingly messy”; I just mean it to say she’s tolerant and about as tidy as I am, although our untidiness manifests itself in different ways. She’s a leaving-coffee-cups-around-the-place untidy person; I’m a piles-and-piles-of-books-and-papers-around-the-place kind of person. But now . . . well, she’s stayed about the same, whereas I . . . I’ve gone into hyperslob mode.

The last time I was this much of a grungebag was when I was catastrophically depressed. I’m not depressed now, far from it, but suffice it to say that Laurie, who has, in the year or more we have been sharing the same space, never said a thing, had good cause to point out that Things Are Getting Out of Hand. The mess is . . . awesome. And I have become unstable: snapping at her half the time, weeping with contrition for my outbursts the remainder. All with, in Ian McEwan’s great phrase, “the exculpatory ticket of high intent”. (Meaning: self-righteous with it.) If I were living with me, I’d shoot me. At least I have to finish my work in a week; by then I’ll be in a padded cell. But at least these, I gather, are very easy to wipe clean.

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 13 August 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The New Patriotism