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14 February 2018updated 28 Jun 2021 4:39am

I live on the threshold between two worlds and I share my bed with an ape

I cannot afford anything that costs more than £5.13, for those are the funds left in my bank account. I run the risk, if I take the Tube to the British Library, of not being able to take it back.

By Nicholas Lezard

I am sitting with my wife on the bed, watching University Challenge. A small family of chimpanzees sits on the bed with us, grooming each other. There are also a couple of gorillas, one of whom has taken a liking to me, and she holds my hand gently. I am worried, though: I have heard that the great apes can be violent, and the phrase that keeps popping up in my head is “ripped his face off”, from a long-ago news report, and that was just a chimp. Lord knows what a gorilla could do.

“How long are we looking after this lot again?” I ask.

“Until around midsummer,” she says.

“Midsummer!” I yell, and suddenly it’s the radio alarm clock, and John Humphrys on the Today programme.

My dreams have been getting weirder lately. I will spare you the worst. I wonder if it’s where I’ve been living. I am under strict instructions not to open any windows – apparently the cat is an escape artist. The lack of fresh air is doing things to my subconscious.

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A more interesting explanation is the area I’m in. Olympia is in an interesting part of London. If you wanted to make someone a present of Hammersmith, Shepherd’s Bush, Kensington and Earl’s Court, Olympia would be where you put your finger on the knot to tie up the parcel. Yet it is weirdly difficult to get to: you have to use the Overground train, and although there is also a Tube station, it only works at weekends. Don’t tell me that isn’t an inversion of the natural order. In the morning, I can stand in the kitchen in my underpants and watch gouts of commuters leaving the Overground every 15 minutes. As often as not it’s been raining, and I watch with pity.

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The area is liminal, on the threshold between worlds. Turn left out of my door and you are in a part of the world where JK Rowling has her London pied-à-terre, and where Jimmy Page and Robbie Williams have furious rows about the latter’s proposed basement extension (I am so with Jimmy Page on this one). But turn right out of my door and before about 60 yards are up you can be staring, as I was, at some of the grimiest and most depressing housing that this country has to offer. In west London, the bricks are yellow – the capital’s traditional London yellow stock, made from the local clay – as if the road to Oz has been torn up and used to make houses. The exteriors may be Victorian but you can tell from the state of the net curtains what it’s like inside, and the mental picture is not a pretty one. Then again, who am I to judge? Right now, anyone with an interior they can stay in or return to for the foreseeable future is in a better position than I am.

Carry on up Holland Road, and you get to Shepherd’s Bush station, and from there it is but a 15-minute walk to the family home, where the wife and I raised our chimps – I mean our children. She is after a divorce, understandably enough, and keeps calling me to check that I have done my taxes. “I’m doing them, I’m doing them,” I say. (It is my financial condition that is giving her demand for official separation some urgency. I completely understand this.)

As I write, it is the last day for filling in tax returns before fines start to build up, and I am being beset by anxieties. I have not filled in a tax return in my life; I have always got someone else to do it for me. Now I cannot afford to pay anyone else to do it: I am unmanned. In fact, I cannot afford anything that costs more than £5.13, for those are the funds remaining to me in the bank account. I run the risk, if I take the Tube to the British Library, of not being able to take it back, and it is a long walk. Meanwhile, I am waiting for some Albanians to give me the advance for a book they want me to write about a part of Albania. Rereading that sentence makes me realise it may be unwise of me to base any future financial decisions on this advance.

So I suppose that wraps it all up nicely. What with the air, the psychogeography, and the sense of looming disaster, no wonder I’m dreaming of primates, sitting around me on the bed, waiting to tear me apart. 

This article appears in the 07 Feb 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The new age of rivalry