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5 September 2017

Never in my life have I been so happy to be described as miserably incorrect

I accept that things are getting out of control.

By Nicholas Lezard

I think I am going mad. It is, paradoxically, the only sane response to the year I’ve been having. I have not stuck pencils up my nose and put my underpants on my head, like Blackadder, but there are definite internal stirrings and flickerings of the mind, like a faulty neon tube.

The external symptoms present as an inability to sleep on alternate nights and an inability to wake up on the other days; a disinclination to socialise; a complete inability to socialise with more than one person at a time; and an even worse than usual inability to tidy up my mess. I manage to keep the kitchen under some kind of rudimentary control but the bedroom is that of a man who has given up all hope. Readers familiar with this column will know that I am not exactly Mr Tidy but earlier today I couldn’t find my trousers, which I think you will agree represents a new low.

Eventually I found them after an intensive, increasingly baffled search (“How can you lose your trousers? How can you lose your trousers?” I kept repeating to myself, my voice an octave higher than normal), but I accept that things are getting out of control. On Friday the mess ate my wallet and I realised that it was going to take me longer to find it than it would to call up the bank and arrange for some emergency cash. This will be the third time this year, and there are still four months to go, but at least I am familiar with the drill, which struck me as magic the first time I encountered it. (Getting money from a machine without using a card! A new universe briefly flashed into view.)

Also, the Swiss army knife my children gave me has gone missing among the debris. Luckily, this happened shortly after I cut my toenails but, unluckily, shortly before I was due to cut my fingernails, and now they are approaching that awful stage at which they click against the keys on the laptop and collect grime and muck as if by their own volition.

The Howard Hughes effect is marked and is becoming more so. I did find a pair of those crappy little curved scissors you get from the chemist but these are worse than useless – they are an insult to the very idea of nail-paring. As you will have found out if you’ve ever tried to use them, all they do is bend the nail, sometimes managing to tear it a bit, in a way that makes me feel mildly nauseated. I wonder why these scissors, which promise so much but deliver so little, are still allowed to be sold.

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So I was waiting for some good news. And it arrived, unusually, in the form of a pair of emails, forwarded to me, telling me that I had been wrong. The actual formulation was “miserably incorrect”, and never have I been so happy to be proved wrong.

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You may recall, a couple of weeks ago, an unusually gloomy column (even by my standards) about the disappearance of the second-hand bookshops of Bell Street, in north-west London. The two indignant emails asked for a correction: there was still a perfectly functioning second-hand bookshop further up the street, if only I’d bothered to look. As it was, I was dimly aware that there was another one up the road (and another around the corner from that, if I am not mistaken). I was just not, at the time, in a fit state to see if it still existed. The prospect of that one having gone was too grim, so I turned back for home.

But lo! The Archive Bookstore still survives, it seems, at 83 Bell Street, and it was the one with the wonky piano in the basement! And also a sign that tells the passer-by, or customer, hitherto unremarked on by me: “It’s going to get worse.”

I am in need of solace, so I head up there immediately. And, yes, it thrives, in that mysterious way second-hand bookshops thrive: half in, half out of the world. I am, as usual, the only customer. How I mentally translated this shop – for it had been the one I’d been thinking of – 50 or 60 yards up the road from its location I am not sure. Perhaps it is another one of my symptoms of madness.

This time I am not going to splurge on a rare antiquarian volume. I snaffle up translations of Zola’s La Bête humaine, Théophile Gautier’s Mademoiselle de Maupin, Apollonius of Rhodes’s The Voyage of Argo and a small score of Berg’s Violin Concerto. As I’m paying up, I notice what looks like a first edition – and is – of The Thurber Carnival. Still with jacket. It’s £4.50. I’d have paid ten times that. Well, seven times. So it’s comforting to know that I’m not the only loony out there.

This article appears in the 30 Aug 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The decline of the American empire