What’s that nice smell? My new shirt – or merely the absence of the old one?

Everything is threadbare right now: my collars, most of my socks, my mind, and there’s a hole developing in the front of my 501s.

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The big news around here is that I bought four new shirts yesterday. This might not sound like big news to you but over here it most certainly is. You probably go about buying shirts all the time, with your fancy disposable income and all that. Men’s shirts, ladies’ shirts, it’s all a big, frenzied carnival of shirt-buying round your way, I’ll bet.

In the Hovel, though, it’s a very different story. For a start, shirts aren’t bought new. They are bought from charity shops, because they are cheaper. If I do not see one in a colour I like – which means white, cream, or pale blue – I don’t buy a shirt. A woman from France once sent me a red shirt c/o this magazine, which was very kind, and I wore it on the day of Thatcher’s funeral. But that was a special occasion. (Am I alone in refusing to countenance the idea of buying trousers second-hand? I cannot even imagine the mind of someone who is happy putting his or her legs and bits where someone else’s have been.)

So what happens is, the collars of the shirts wear out, and I end up looking like more of a wreck than ever. I’ve been told that one can go to a tailor to get the collars turned, but doing so would, I suspect, entail an expenditure not too far from the cost of a second-hand shirt in the first place, and although one likes to give local industries a shot in the arm, one does not like to walk in and announce one’s threadbare existence to a larger audience than necessary.

Everything is threadbare right now: my collars, most of my socks, my mind, and there’s a hole developing in the front of my 501s which is only a few millimetres away, at the time of going to press, from provoking a charge of indecent exposure. (“Why there?” I ask myself. It’s not as if the region is prone to undue pressure in the course of a normal day.)

My mother said she’d get me some shirts for Christmas, only I should choose them myself and tell her how much they cost, and then stand menacingly over her until she writes me a cheque for the amount. So I am now the proud possessor of four shirts from T M Lewin, one pale blue, the others white twill, cotton, with a rather nifty cutaway collar and a double cuff so that I can drive myself into a frenzy trying to put the cufflinks in, should I be invited anywhere posh. I am wearing one now, as it happens, and I am wondering whether what I am smelling is New Shirt Smell, or whether New Shirt Smell is actually the absence of Old Shirt Smell.

Buying them was quite fun, if one can use the word in its loosest sense. The last time I bought shirts from a shop they came with pins in them, but I gather this hasn’t been done since the days of Cool Britannia and the first Blair administration. I had to ask in the shop, though, and by asking that I may as well have added, “because I am old, and broke, and have never really got used to decimal coinage”.

Earlier on I had been invited to try on a demonstration shirt, to check the fit and the collar size: it came in blue and white stripes, of the kind that used to be favoured by the more appalling sort of banker in the Eighties, and may well still be. Looking at myself in the mirror gave me the odd impression that I had slipped into an alternative timeline, one in which I had embraced Big Bang in 1986 and gone into the City to become a wanker. (And in the unlikely event that someone from the City is reading this and feels moved to say “we’re not all wankers”: forget it, pal, because you are.) It was a sobering moment and probably accounted for my request to the assistant for a slightly wider collar, on the grounds that I’ve a fear of tight collars (true) because one of my ancestors was once hanged (not true, as far as I know).

Well, I’ve spilled red wine over the shirt I’m wearing – not right now, last night; even I don’t drink while writing – and I marvel that I can go for years without spilling wine on any number of crappy old shirts but can’t quite go six hours without doing so on a brand new one. It’s all incredibly depressing.

Still, it keeps my mind off what the next instalment will be of the cliffhanger I left you with last week – you know, the one about the Date. I imagine there may even be a few of you who want to know how it went, or if it happened at all. Well, it happened all right. As for the details, I would remind you of the old gentleman’s adage that one does not bandy a woman’s name about. But one might buy a new shirt or two.

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 16 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit and the break-up of Britain