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21 February 2018updated 28 Jun 2021 4:39am

Back in Laurie Penny’s flat, I become prey to some gloomy imaginings

It has always struck me as odd that one of the most fundamental of human needs is one of the most expensive.

By Nicholas Lezard

Back in Brighton, looking after Laurie Penny’s flat while she travels the world, saving it. The last time I was here I was, to start with, unaccountably depressed. These days I am cheerier, although that may be down to a growing acceptance of my condition.

Whether this is a good thing or not, I don’t know. “Why don’t you get a job?” was one unhelpful comment I received not too long ago, but how does one go about that? The last time I had a job, as in one of those things one gets dressed and goes on public transport in the morning to do, Margaret Thatcher was prime minister, and not looking like going any time soon, either.

Anyway, I already have lots of things to do, which, if I were doing them, would take up all my time. I have a book about fiction in translation to write, another book to organise, and a script that is meant to be my ticket out of here. So I have enough on my plate. The day goes a bit like this:

7.45am – 9.00am Wake up.

9.05am Have a look around.

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9.06am Pick up a book, start reading in bed.

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9.07am Fall asleep again.

11.30am Wake up. Panic. Make tea. Read some more. Maybe even write something, if there’s a deadline.

1.30pm Fall asleep again.

4.00pm Wake up, feeling dreadful. Eat something. Make tea. Pick up book. Etc. Until

6.00pm Wine.

Bedtime comes around 1am or 2am.

As you can see, we are not exactly in the realm of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. The person who suggested that I get a job had done a lot of hard work to turn herself into a teacher, for which achievement I have nothing but admiration, but she did so in the knowledge that whatever happened, she would still have a roof she could call her own over her head. Not having a roof one can call etc makes the slightest effort at self-improvement daunting, and you don’t have to Google “psychological effects of homelessness” to work that one out.

One thing I do is pay a lot more attention to the rough sleepers I encounter during the course of the day.

Shelter, the charity I started giving to the moment I got thrown out of the family home, says there are about 4,500 rough sleepers in the UK, a figure I find somewhat at odds with my own observations, although I am prepared to take their word for it.

So I do what I can. I give change when I have it; when I don’t, I ask them what they want and go to the nearest shop to get it. (Last week involved a personal financial crisis, and I was unable to help in any way short of curling up next to them on the street, but I’m not a saint.)

One thing this does is bring home the gulf that exists between the pavement and borrowed accommodation; but then again, that gulf has narrowed, for until I start making rather a lot more than I’m earning now, a room of my own is an impossibility.

It has always struck me as odd, and now strikes me even more forcefully, that in contemporary society, one of the most fundamental of human needs should also be one of the most expensive. Start thinking like this and you become prey to gloomy imaginings, like: what if they decided to do the same with food, and make a loaf of Mother’s Pride cost fifty quid? There seems to be no reason why not, in principle, and it does seem to be the way the world is heading right now.

I apologise for going on about this, week after week. What I really should be doing is, in 800 well-chosen words, considering the place of Flaubert’s L’Éducation Sentimentale in the canon, and persuading people to read it in translation, and then doing the same for many other novels, but it is damn hard to concentrate on anything else. Although today has been one of the better days. For which, as I believe I said the last time I was in her flat, you can thank Ms Penny, who, as I also said before, walks the walk when it comes to rescuing flotsam. Although she does want me to put up some shelves. It’s a blue job, she says. 

This article appears in the 15 Feb 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist