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24 November 2015

In Peep Show, two men in their forties sharing a flat is comedy – what does that make me?

The BBC call me up for a comment on flat-sharing as an adult man, and I start brooding.

By Nicholas Lezard

Ring, ring! goes the phone. “Private number”, says its screen. I hate these. My natural inclination is to ignore it, on the grounds that, at my time of life, all surprises are unpleasant, but this rubric is also what comes up when someone is ringing me up to offer work, and it is very important for me to work, because without work I cannot put Cabernet Sauvignon on the table. Come to think of it, I wouldn’t even have a table.

As it turns out, it is in fact a large, licence-fee-funded media organisation, for whose online magazine I am being asked to supply a few comments, the peg being the new series of Peep Show, which starts today. (That is, the day I write this. By the time you read this it will be old hat.) The mise en scène of the show, should you not know, is that of two characters, played by Robert Webb and David Mitchell, sharing a flat in their early forties. This is being mined for comedy (I have obviously not seen any of this series, as it doesn’t begin airing until this evening, but it’s almost certainly going to be good), the point being that for two men to share a place at their age is shaming and degrading. And the BBC Online magazine wants my two-cents’-worth on the subject.

“You were top of my list for people to call,” says the writer of the piece.

So, after pausing to sigh a little and having brought to mind, once again, my mother’s sardonic line “There are various ways of achieving distinction”, I chat with him for five minutes or so. In doing so, I recall my early days in the Hovel, living with my great friend Razors, who would pee off the terrace and throw wine bottles across the room when he had emptied them, which was frequently. Never a cross word we had, and so armed were we in virtue and innocence (hem, hem) that other people’s opinions as to our shameful status as a modern-day Odd Couple were as the idle wind, which we respected not.

I have now been here eight years, and Razors has moved on. Why have I not moved on? Well, I like it here, I have to admit. I’m in the middle of London, and if the price of that is sharing a somewhat wonky house with others then so be it. Then again, when I contemplate the fact that Mitchell and Webb, and the miserable, unmarried characters they play, are about ten years younger than I am, and their characters are considered failures, what the hell does that make me?

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I started brooding on all this when, shortly after the phone call, I went to see someone else’s house. That is, I was invited round. It wasn’t like a visit accompanied by an estate agent, or “Come round, see my house, and then eff off”.

It was amazing. There were two living rooms, both of which had wood-burning stoves. There was a kitchen you could sit down in. The hob itself was about the size of the Hovel’s kitchen. The decor was not only tasteful but, well, homely, in that it didn’t look like a bloody Ikea showroom. In short, it was cosy and I didn’t feel like Boudu Sauvé des Eaux when I got in there (the tramp in the wonderful Renoir film, remade as Down and Out in Beverly Hills. So you can see the obvious affinity with this column).

Then again, a bit of me did feel like that. I went around, for a while, marvelling at things. You know, pretty basic things, such as the floor, which, unlike the Hovel’s, does not slope at about five degrees off true horizontal. The curtains. The modern sink. The fridge, which has a thing on the door from which you can get water that is already cold. You can tell I was impressed by this, because I even drank some water. It all put my own situation into rather horrible relief. This now happens whenever I visit a house. If you catch me stroking the carpet when I think no one is looking, say nothing.

Then again, things could be worse, and you can regret anything if you put your mind to it. As I type these words, I am reminded of Søren Kierkegaard, who wrote: “Marry, and you will regret it. Do not marry, and you will also regret it.”

By an incredible coincidence, today, but not the day you’re reading this (see above), is the 160th anniversary of his death. He also died at just about the age Mitchell and Webb are now, or, to put it another way, almost ten years younger than I am now, and with a considerably more valuable body of work behind him. Although I bet he never got rung up by the BBC’s online magazine to be asked what he thought about men his age still living together.

This article appears in the 18 Nov 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The age of terror