How about Top Trumps, but with the graphic photos on fag packets?

Nowadays, one doesn’t have to look far for the gruesome.

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I have been ill again. This time it coincided with T—’s  birthday celebrations, which made me feel even worse. But the Lurg seems to be happening a lot more frequently these days. Also the boils on the back. These went away for some time and even some of the scar tissue had gone, as far as I was able to tell. Now they are back with a vengeance, so much so that, at times, unless I position the pillows carefully, it hurts to lie back – and let me assure you that really is a gaping wound in my lifestyle.

I wonder: what could be causing this multiple bodily breakdown? Could it be the unhealthy diet? Surely not. I made a couscous salad for me and my friend A— the other day and it had olives, red peppers, cherry tomatoes, spring onion and coriander in it (among other, secret, ingredients) – and those were just the vegetables. Or, technically, fruit and vegetables.

Anyway, they’re the things you’re meant to eat five of every day – and that was five of them all at once. OK, they’re the first vegetables I’ve had all year apart from roast potatoes, but surely I should be healthy now?

So it must be the stress. It’s how it seems to affect Lezards, or at least some of us. Why the back, though? I think I’ve worked it out, at least in my case. It’s because, while they are the physical manifestation of a worry I am doing my best to ignore, at least the body has the decency to keep them out of my sight.

It is a misplaced decency. Just as when I was a boy, I have a gruesome, half-repelled interest in spectacular-looking wounds and bodily malfunctions. I’m not alone in this. T—, mentioned above, and I would often, when having wearied of our studies in the college library, go to the medical section and gawp at the pictures in the Big Book of Forensic Pathology. “Jesus Christ!” we would go when coming across a particularly spectacular outrage upon the body, until the other library users went “shhh!” (Come to think of it, there is a long tradition of picturing Christ’s wounds as “realistically” as possible, a recent memorable iteration being Mel Gibson’s ridiculous film – you know, the one in which the Redeemer is shown inventing the table.)

Nowadays one doesn’t have to look far for the gruesome, especially if you’re a smoker. Packets come with a range of graphic photographs showing people suffering terribly from the effects of smoking. My favourite isn’t that disgusting at all, but it made me laugh a lot: a nude man curled up in the foetal position on a bed, probably crying. This was meant to illustrate impotence, and the reason I found it funny was because if smoking makes a young man like the one on the pack impotent, then I’m a Dutchman. It may make you impotent when you’re in your sixties and other things are dropping off too but, in my experience, the only substance that has ever given me cause for concern in that area is highly illegal and far too expensive for the likes of me.

There are other, far more graphic images on the packs, and I am beginning to look out for them, just as I used to look out for new football cards when I was a kid. (Lord, how many unnecessary Alan Balls did I have as a child?).

The latest one I’ve seen shows a foot split almost in half by what I suppose is gangrene, the warning being that smoking damages the circulation. That is a really cool picture – well up there against the standards of the Big Book of Forensic Pathology. Consequently I would like now to copyright the idea of a variation of Top Trumps using these visual health warnings, with points being awarded for gruesomeness, plausibility, and lack of risibility.

But back to my boils. My back-boils. Occasionally I try to glance at them by twisting in front of the mirror. From what I can see, the surface of my back looks like the surface of one of the moons of Jupiter. Io – that’s the one. (I have previously described my back as looking as though it has been blasted at some point in the past with shotgun pellets, but that was during a period of inactivity.)

The only consolation is that there is currently no other person who might get to see my back, and risk being repelled by it. This, though, is one of the reasons I’m stressed enough to have them in the first place. The only good thing about them is that when I quoted from the Book of Job in last week’s column, I did it with feeling, and a degree of insight that other commentators may have lacked. 

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 06 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn mania