As I write, I can hear Marta the cleaner upstairs, doing my room. Through the floorboards, I hear cries, curses, imprecations, stifled sobs. Noises that bespeak huge, traumatic labour. I cower in shame under the onslaught and think of Geoffrey Hill’s description of his great poem “Funeral Music”: “a florid grim music broken by grunts and shrieks”. Has she seen worse? Not in this postal district, for certain, and probably not in Romania, her native land, either.
I have my excuses, my threadbare scraps. I have been poorly for the past couple of weeks and so confined mostly to my room; and I did not make things any better when I thought it would be a good idea to eat a whole packet of Haribo Goldbears at a single sitting. Reader, there are a lot of bears in that packet; but, God, how delicious they are. I abandoned all self-control and gorged myself into a coma, during some point of which I must have raised myself from my bed like a zombie and made a bit more mess before passing out again. So it all accumulated and she never got the chance to keep it under some kind of weekly control and now it is Gehenna in there. The bedsheets alone . . . No, let us leave it there. She will come down after the passes with the Henry Hoover, her face ashen. (Even the silly anthropomorphic smile on the Henry will have been replaced by a Munch-like scream.) I will make her a cup of strong, sweet tea, which she will accept with an almost steady hand, but she will not look me in the eye.
All right, I exaggerate. She does her work in silence and without complaint. And now I have a bedroom that only looks as though it has been recently burgled, as opposed to bombed, burgled and subjected to a localised hurricane. There are books everywhere but not so many of them on the bed.
But this is all thanks to recovering from whatever it was I had. The symptoms were a kind of trembly, nauseated exhaustion and when I managed to go out to the shops for milk, even the local homeless person, Wayne, asked after my health with some concern. (He also asks after my career. “Do you think you could write a bestseller if you put your mind to it?” “Well, um, yes, I suppose
so, but, er, you really have to want to do it.”)
And now I have to sort myself out before going to Los Angeles. This means trying to get ahead of my work. I thought I had managed this when I opened an envelope containing Will Hodgkinson’s remarkable memoir, The House Is Full of Yogis, which I read with my eyes boggling from my head (I know his brother and have met their mother and, from what I can remember of her, which is etched on to my memory like acid on to a photographic plate, I think what her son writes of her has the air of total veracity); but it turned out that it had been published last March.
I spent much of the rest of my sick time reading a book about the socio-economics of the Industrial Revolution, or rather trying to, and, like the person who read Browning’s Sordello during an illness, wondered whether I was going mad, because the writing seemed so impenetrable. After a little bit of research – that is, looking at the back cover – it turned out that the author was Swedish and that everyone at the publisher had obviously been too terrified to correct what he thought was English. If a book is written in such a way that not only can you not tell if it is bollocks or not but it is 600 pages long to boot, then maybe it is wise to give it a miss.
So in the end I resorted to reading Asterix comics online (my daughter has all the books) and The Criminal Alphabet, a book of prison slang written by Noel “Razor” Smith. After a while this got too terrifying and when I started reading the entry for “teabagging”, I decided that I’d had enough.
The term does not, the author informs us, have the same meaning in prison as it has acquired in the outside world. It “comes from the Tetley teabag adverts that boasted of the bags having
a thousand perforations”. I trust I do not need to elaborate, or explain why it was that reading this made me feel distinctly queasier.
Meanwhile I have to isolate which aspect of my behaviour it is that is causing me to fall so ill, so frequently. Surely it can have nothing to do with my wine consumption. That is crazy talk. I am going to put the blame instead on those Haribo Goldbears. Yes, it has to be the bears. Anything so moreish has to enact its own, terrible price.
This article appears in the 25 Nov 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State