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19 February 2020

The recent storms made me anxious – reminding me of how close I once came to death

If I had stayed one more night in that flat, I would have died.

By Nicholas Lezard

As I write, it seems as though our recent storms have finally blown themselves out. This will be old news to you, for I write this column some days before publication, but for me the howling of the wind is still ringing in my ears. When I was up in Scotland, living first in a castle and then an exposed and dilapidated Hovel, I expected the wind to make a noise like something out of a corny horror film. Not so much in the basement flat of a 19th-century house in Seven Dials, Brighton. But once the feeling of being cosily warm, dry and protected wore off, the wind outside started driving me crazy.

Winds do this: there’s the föhn – an Alpine wind – the Mediterranean sirocco, the American chinook, and the Toulousain autan, all of which can unhinge people with their persistence. I have slightly more reason than most people, though, to be made anxious by high winds, for they always make me think of my death, or how close I once came to it.

I was in the living room of a mansion block apartment in Earl’s Court. I had a narrow sofa to sleep on but it was very comfortable, I was having a lot of sex on it, and the rent was £30 a week. The owner of the flat was kind and stunningly beautiful (she had been a model), there was a healthy and fascinating bohemian culture among her friends, a handsome and friendly cat called Stanley, and so what had been a temporary, three-month arrangement turned into three years. 

But after a while, we realised that it was time for me to move on. Well, she realised. As I might have mentioned, I am not the world’s tidiest person, and even though Jenny, for that was her name, had the patience of a saint, even saints can say “enough already”, especially if their son is coming back from boarding school and will be taking up most of the available space on a permanent basis.

So after three happy years I packed up my stuff and took it, trying not to cry, to my parents’ house, where I installed myself in my childhood bedroom. I felt like a failure. To be 24 and reduced to living with one’s folks again! My then girlfriend lived in a tiny shared flat in Clapham – not enough room for me. Besides, the relationship was going to end; I had met and fallen in love, without yet telling anyone, with the woman I was to marry and have children with.

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That night I went to the Old White Lion by East Finchley station and drank myself silly in order to still my thoughts. When I got back to the family home I noticed that it was a bit windier than normal. The weather, I remember thinking at the time, was doing a good job of impersonating my mental turbulence. The trees, too, were swaying almost as much as I was. “Bollocks to everything,” I thought, and went to bed.

The next day, I got a call at work. (Yes, this was so long ago that I even had a job.) It was Jenny, sounding a little freaked out. It turned out that at some point during the storm, part of the fourth floor of the mansion block had decided to move into the third floor, and the sofa on which I had spent most of the previous 1,001 nights sleeping was now underneath a heap of late-Victorian masonry. In other words, if I had stayed one more night in that flat, I would have died.

The thought of this close shave gives me goosebumps to this day. (It was, of course, the Great Storm of 1987.) The general take on this, from me and my friends, is that this is an example of Providence at work, or some Higher Power, and that I had been spared for a Great Purpose. As I journey towards the autumn of my life without anything particularly great accomplished, or even on the horizon, this theory begins to look a little threadbare. I haven’t even been on Top of the Pops, unlike my fellow columnist Tracey Thorn.

The concept of a guardian angel is not one that has survived – in this part of the world, at least. It does not bear too much rational scrutiny, and even though I know three priests well enough to ask what the official church position is on them, I would feel a little silly asking. What happened to the guardian angels who were meant to be looking after all the people who were flattened by rubble, trees or powerlines during that or any other storm? Why am I so special? I’m nothing. I don’t deserve saving. Or has everything that’s happened since that night been my extended death reverie? (I promise I am not writing this while stoned.)

I can’t say. Luck is dumb, but it can’t be that dumb, surely? Unless the clue lies in the words “the woman I was to marry and have children with”. For now I think about it, it wasn’t me who was being spared, it was my children’s very existence. So perhaps from now on I should be a little less nonchalant when crossing roads, walking through storms, or, um, smoking cigarettes. My work is done. 

This article appears in the 19 Feb 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The age of pandemics