A house that throws books, a flashing router – and the majestic precision of Pete and Dud

One always wants what one does not have.


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I write this column without broadband. How I will get it to the magazine is a fun problem I will have to deal with later. As problems go, it is one of the larger ones the First World has to offer, which seems wrong somehow. I am preoccupied to the exclusion of almost all other considerations, but then that may be deliberate, as my other considerations are of a nature whereby parking them elsewhere seems like a fairly sensible idea.

Meanwhile, the BT router flashes its silent amber alert. “I’m screwed,” it says, “and so are you.” I recall the odd occasion when my children have had problems connecting to the internet when they’ve been here. I affect an airy insouciance and tell them about how I grew up without it, how they can read a book, use what I once so wittily termed “the internot”, exercise their minds, blah, blah, blah. The look of impatient contempt they give me is unambiguous, and penetrates my blithe manner to reveal the panic beneath.

Also, as their broadband at their mother’s home is supplied by Virgin Media, they already know perfectly well what it is like to live without the internet for extended periods of time, and are perhaps better served by their internal resources than I am.

Then again, I’m not too badly served. I do have fairly good internal resources and, if they fail, I have rather a few books lying around. Unfortunately, they are strewn and stacked and shelved somewhat higgledy-piggledy around the place.

The Hovel squirts out books as and when it thinks I need them. It once handed me, so to speak, my copy of Darian Leader’s excellent Strictly Bipolar at a point in my life when it was very relevant, for reasons I cannot discuss. Mick Herron’s Slow Horses, the absolutely enormous volume of TS Eliot’s poems – harder to hide, you’d have thought, than a rhino – and many others have been released only after the search for them has been abandoned. “You will have these books,” says the Hovel, “when you are ready for them, and not before. That’s your problem. You always want things now.”

The latest offering is Peter Cook’s and Dudley Moore’s The Dagenham Dialogues. I had been looking for this book for ages. I wanted to reread, in particular, the dialogue that goes under the title of “The Futility of Life”. I pretty much know it by heart, but I wanted to remind myself of the exact wording. However, it’s a slim book among thousands of other larger ones, so I gave up. And then – pop! – there it was, at the foot of my bed.

Ah! The majestic precision of Cook’s and Moore’s dialogue!

Pete: No one knows when God in His Almighty Wisdom will choose to vouchsafe His precious gift of Death.

Dud: Granted. But chances are He won’t be making a pounce at this time of day.

Pete: As far as I’m concerned, He can get a bloody move on.

Dud: That’s morbid. Think of all the good things in life.

Pete: Like what?

Dud: Just look out the window. [He opens the curtains and closes them rapidly.]

Dud: Perhaps not.

As I write, the view outside the window is of a dank, mid-August day. It is much the same further west, I gather, as I listen to the soothing Welsh tones of Sally from BT in Cardiff. What a combination, we agree: the broadband down, and weather like this.

Well, that’s it. I will trudge to the trendy new internet café down the road and use its broadband to file this to my editor, who has been waiting for it, without explanation, for a day now. It will be the first time I have been to the trendy new internet café. I’d assumed I was too old, but the other day I saw someone there who just possibly might have been older than me. People were staring at him, although that might have been my imagination. When I go in, will people start making sotto voce comments about Freedom Passes and Wincarnis? Maybe not. I bet they haven’t even heard of Wincarnis.

Meanwhile, I think of all the things I could be watching on Netflix instead of waiting for my new BT router. I got Netflix last month, and only watch Rick and Morty and old episodes of Star Trek: Enterprise (a much under-rated show, with a ghastly theme tune). Now I am painfully aware of a whole world of TV shows beyond my reach.

One always wants what one does not have. And the internet allows one to ignore the rather depressing view out of the window.

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 24 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia