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22 January 2020

Disillusioned as ever, I’ve returned from New York to nothing but talk of Harry and Meghan

People have spoken of only the royals, with interludes in which to snigger about Gwyneth Paltrow’s vagina-scented candles.

By Nicholas Lezard

It’s twenty to eight in the morning and I’ve given up on trying to sleep. I’ve been awake for six hours now and have read about 600 pages of various books, including an entire Jack Reacher novel, half of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and a third of Iris Murdoch’s The Bell. I list these books not to boast about the breadth of my reading – well, OK, a bit – but to show how a mind can toss and turn as sleeplessly as a body. I wonder if it’s jet lag.

Since returning from New York my body has been acting very strangely indeed. But I don’t normally get jet lag; when I flew out I just told my body what time it was and it knuckled under. My trick is to get hammered on the flight as quickly as possible and then sleep. This is also my trick for flights back across the Atlantic, but I am beginning to revise my strategy for flights eastward across five time zones.

I have a natural tendency to stay awake far later than I ought – unless, as I mentioned in this column a few weeks ago, I am not drinking, in which case my eyelids start drooping at 9.30. But put a glass in my hand and keep filling it up and I can stay awake and surprisingly lucid until the dawn. Can anyone explain this? Anyway, right now, my internal clock has absolutely no idea what time it is – other than Deadline Time. Which admittedly is not for three hours, but in three hours I hope to be asleep, even if that means I have become exactly 12 hours out of step with the civilised world.

Part of my sleeplessness must be anxiety, of course. I am resolved to fill in a tax form by the end of the month, ie on time, for the first time in my life, but the thought of how I am going to be able to afford to pay that tax fills me with, to put it very mildly, a certain degree of anxiety.

A very closely related question, this time involving rent, is also bothering me. Come the end of January, my income will be reduced by £400 a month and how I will make it up I do not know. These are not the greatest times to be someone whose only income is writing. Everyone else I know who is in a similar boat has a sideline career teaching something to do with writing at a university, but I’m not sure I have the patience to do that. How would my lessons go? “Oh, just keep plugging away and try not to begin consecutive sentences with the same words. Now piss off and leave me alone.” I am not sure this would impress many institutions of higher learning. And the idea that I could impart wisdom… well, come on, let’s not be ridiculous.

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I suppose I am also deflated at being back in the UK. I’ve been here for few days and people have been talking about nothing but Meghan and Harry, with only brief interludes in which to snigger about Gwyneth Paltrow’s vagina-scented candles. The strongest smell that I can pick up from these discussions is misogyny and I’m not going to contribute to that toxic atmosphere. (Imagine how Paltrow would be being treated if she had a black parent. The mind boggles.)

I think of uprooting to the US; I have dual nationality, after all. And D—, with whom I stayed, said I was the perfect guest: happy to loaf about the place instead of demanding to be shown things. Well, I have seen plenty of them before on previous trips. But I had not seen the new Wall Street subway station, which is the only man-made structure to have given me vertigo while I have been standing on the ground floor – I think of the old romantic notion of the sublime, which actually means “the heebie-jeebies, but in a kind of good way”.

Nor had I seen Jimmy’s Corner, a dive bar off Times Square that is full of boxing memorabilia and serves the cheapest drinks in Manhattan.

“You should have seen the look on your face when the barman said the bill came to $7.50,” said D—. The only unpleasant thing about the place was the presence of another Englishman at the bar. And I bet he thought the same about me. Englishmen in dive bars in New York, I suddenly realised, are like cats in New York apartments: you might think the idea of having more than one in the same place is cute but they really won’t appreciate it. Especially when some wag says: “Hey, I think you’ve found your new best friend.” As these words were uttered, the other Limey and I glared at each other, united in suspicion and loathing, and it was only lunchtime.

So here I am, disillusioned as ever, if not more so. What are those splendid lines of Uncle Monty in Withnail and I? “We live in a kingdom of rains, where royalty comes in gangs.” I feel I have come back from holiday by mistake. 

This article appears in the 22 Jan 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Power to the people