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6 September 2019updated 02 Sep 2021 4:54pm

In Brighton’s shops I can only browse for clutter – because in my suitcase, there’s no room for any

By Nicholas Lezard

I’ve just been appointed a temporary theatre critic for another magazine, which is nice. It’s just for a month, which means I only have to go to the theatre four times, which is about all I can handle.

I can’t remember the last time I went to the theatre. I have a feeling it was Fiona Shaw’s 2007 production of Happy Days at the National, and the PA system played the theme tune from the TV show Happy Days as we filed out to the bar in the interval. If I hadn’t been with my mother, I wouldn’t have gone back for the second act, so outraged was I by this crassness. Oh wait, there was that time a couple of years ago when Radio 4’s Saturday Review made me watch a play and I said “I’ve never been, dramatically speaking, so insulted in my life,” on air, and they’ve never asked me back.

My first gig will be Peer Gynt, or rather, Peter Gynt, which according to the National’s website is “by David Hare after Henrik Ibsen”. Here’s Martin Amis on David Hare: “Whenever I run into my contemporary Sir David Hare, he amuses me so much that I can’t think why he isn’t more amused by being called Sir David Hare – a ridiculous appellation, like Sir Johnny Rotten or Lord Vicious.” Amis considers theatre “handily inferior” to the novel and poem, and says, “I agree that it is very funny that Shakespeare was a playwright. I scream with laughter about it all the time. This is one of God’s best jokes.” 

Anyway, Peer Gynt or Peter Gynt, it doesn’t much matter, as I don’t have either of my copies of the play – one the Penguin Classic, the other Geoffrey Hill’s translation – to hand, as they are in a box in East Finchley, along with almost all my other possessions, apart from those books and LPs that have been allowed to stay in the family home in Shepherd’s Bush.

Yes, 12 years on from my ejection and it’s still the books I miss the most. A week doesn’t go by without my dreaming about them; I dreamed about them last night, as it happens. Nothing much goes on in this dream, except that the collection has expanded to include all sorts of rare and fascinating codices and incunabula, great lost works (Byron’s memoirs, etc) and books I have been asking for for years, but with the pleas falling on deaf ears (Empson’s Essays on Renaissance Literature, etc).

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I suppose last night’s dream was set off by the discovery, yesterday, of a second-hand bookshop just inside the covered market in Brighton: although small in terms of footprint, the shelves were tall and full and labyrinthine; I could have spent a lot longer in there than I actually did.

(The books I bought: The Ballad of Peckham Rye and The Adventures of Augie March. I nearly bought the Oxford Classics edition of Ulysses, which would have been my fifth copy. The others are scattered from East Finchley to Scotland. I don’t feel comfortable without being near a copy of Ulysses, but I think five copies of the same edition is a bit much, even for me.)

Well, this is the kind of thing that happens when you don’t have a permanent home. It’s doable, living out of a suitcase. (Here is what you need: six shirts, six pairs of boxer shorts, three pairs of trousers, a dozen or so socks, all black, so you don’t have to worry about mismatches, and a smart jacket and a rough-weather jacket, one pair smart shoes, one pair rainproof/all-terrain. And that’s it.) But it is psychically exhausting. I do not have the book collection, the tasteful knick-knacks, the carefully ordered disarray – the four dimensions (the three usual ones, plus time) with which I can show off my character. I have to rely on my wits alone. I marvel that I can cope without tears of envy when I visit someone else in his or her own home. “Look at all these things,” I say to myself. “They’re all theirs.”

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But it could be worse: there are people who live their whole lives without love, or in pain, and there are people I know who have been doing this for much longer than me. “To turn a key in the first place you’ve considered home in 20 years is quite something,” began a post I saw this morning on a social medium, and it made me think a bit. I’ve been doing this for nearly two years; 18 more will see me well into my seventies, and I’m not sure this is an old man’s game.

Meanwhile, I browse the second-hand shops of Brighton to satisfy, or at least appease, my appetite for clutter. I particularly recommend the Snoopers Paradise in Kensington Gardens: room after room of wonderful junk. So much flotsam, waiting for a home. And without one myself, all I can buy there are presents for others. I got Laurie Penny a charming tea tray.

One day I hope to have one I can call my very own, although I use tea trays about as often as I voluntarily go to the theatre. It’s the principle. 

This article appears in the 17 Jul 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The Facebook fixer