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3 September 2015

London has been empty for the entire month of August. What are we, French?

“I hate it,” I said. “I hate it more than I can say.”

By Nicholas Lezard

Have you all enjoyed your holidays? I ask you that in the most curmudgeonly and envious spirit. Let it not be said I am free of the baser, more ignoble emotions. As I write, my children are still having their Big Holidays in the Caribbean. I assure you that, in their case, I am utterly delighted for them, as their mother, a hard but fair bargainer, has arranged it to be the cheapest holiday you can get in those parts without having to join a voluntary organisation; I am only upset because this means that they have had to go to a Caribbean island where the populace have never played cricket.

I had my six days here with them for the first time in years and it was not nearly enough. When I started having children I never thought I’d say that. After fatherhood, my idea of a holiday quickly became: somewhere where I am on my own, apart from a really lovely person, preferably female, preferably in Italy.

I will use the excuse of writing a book as plausible cover. My beautiful and kind ex-landlady Jenny B fitted the bill, with the place in Cipressa, Liguria, she’d inherited from her mother; the mother was a German national who’d had to get the hell out of Germany not long after refusing to say “Heil Hitler” at her wedding. Jenny herself was a model in the early to mid-Seventies, but was also a reader, which disinclined her to the company of fashion folk, and I lodged on the sofa of her living room in Earl’s Court for three years in the Eighties (“Is £30 a week too much?” she asked me anxiously).

She would lend me her room when it looked as though I was going to get laid. I actually wanted to go to bed with her, very badly, but that’s another story for another day. Jenny, however, died, cancer jumping on her like a bandit from a mountain ledge, and I’ll never forgive her for it.

Since then, as I’ve opted for a life without any income to spare, holidays have been a matter, essentially, of asking if I can stay at a friend’s place in the country for nothing while looking after their pigs and chickens for them in return. You think I’m joking. I’m not; and not only that: not a single chicken or pig has died or escaped on my watch. OK, the pigs escaped, but I got them back, which for a city boy isn’t bad. (I once stayed at Will Self’s place in Suffolk by the nuclear reactor and all he asked me to do was look after the silverfish and the flies. And not only did I manage that, but he wrote his excellent if disturbing story “Flytopia” shortly afterwards.)

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Anyway, for the past month, London has been a place where no one is around. I don’t remember it being this way. What has everyone become? French? A whole month? My mother, an American, has for some reason started saying how Americans manage to get by on only two weeks’ holiday a year, but seeing as she hasn’t had a job for about 40 years I’m not sure she can wag the finger. My brother jokes with me (and I suppose I ease him into the joke) that I do not work at all; but actually I do. Reading books takes time; reading around them takes more; but as reading books is what I like doing almost most of all, I don’t mind; it just means that I spend no time not thinking about work. I remember, once on family hols in Tunisia (at a friend’s, natch), thinking that someone might notice me reading the new translation of The Iliad on the beach and mark me out as a ponce; but I didn’t care. It was a really good translation.

No, what I miss is going on holiday with A Woman. The Woman. Whoever it is at the time. I’m really good at that. Even my wife will vouch that, however badly we were getting on at home, once we were abroad, our difficulties evaporated. Even the time I got stopped, outward bound, at Luton Airport with two ounces of weed in my pocket (I’d shoved it there, thinking it was tobacco. Another good story, whose moral is: getting a cheap flight in the early hours of the morning from Luton Airport can turn out to be a false economy, for the most unexpected of reasons).

So I see all my friends posting pictures of their happy holidays on social media, and I am full of bitterness and envy, and also self-loathing: because of the bitterness and envy I feel.

My mother said to me the other day, “Well, maybe you like the bachelor lifestyle.”

The pause of a second or two before my answer was only for form’s sake: rhetorical.

“I hate it,” I said. “I hate it more than I can say.”

This is a topic to which I may well return.

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This article appears in the 26 Aug 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism