My new home is Crickhollow, and my new friend is a dog called Mattie

She’s worked out that I’ve been having a rotten time lately, and has come to cheer me up.

NS

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

I am back in Brighton, not cat-sitting but flat-sitting; at, indeed, our own Laurie Penny’s, while she does important things in, I think, Germany. I am now installed in a basement flat in a road so amusingly named that we have made all the jokes. (I do not want to be more specific because there are an awful lot of creeps out there, as becomes clearer every day.)

It is strangely pleasing for the boot to be on the other foot, and for Laurie being in a position to offer me shelter; it is also pleasing to be able to report that Ms Penny walks the whole “from each according to their abilities” etc walk as well as talking the talk. Raise a cup of your preferred beverage or tipple to her some time today. (Her Wi-Fi network is called “Crickhollow”, a literary reference I find adorably poignant, and she tells me I am the first person to have got it.)

The mood in Brighton is rather different from the last time I was here. Then, it was shirtsleeve weather. Now, it is jumper and jacket weather, and that’s before you go outdoors. The part of town I’m in isn’t so frisky and drop-dead hip as the Lanes; and it is, moreover, at the top of an enormous hill. I thought the hills were a problem in Edinburgh but this is ridiculous. The Edinburgh hills that I saw may have been vertiginous but they didn’t go on for ever. Only Bristol can compete for unending, Sisyphean grind.

On my first full day back in Brighton, recovering from a stinking head cold, I looked back up the hill I had just come down and realised I wasn’t going to be using my feet on the return journey. I was mildly surprised not to see the slope littered, like Everest, with the bodies of those who had attempted the climb. Is there a shop in Brighton that sells oxygen? You’d have thought there would be. A nice little niche area for an entrepreneur, I throw the idea out for free. Set it up next to a vape shop, perhaps. 

So I sat in the Foundry – an utterly unspoiled pub which was also playing a selection from Spotify that may have been specifically designed to soothe me – nursing a pint and wondering how I was going to get back up the hill. I am going to have to revise my policy of falling in love with places that have more than one hill.

Lately, I have been smoking less, for some reason, but doing so has had no particularly beneficial effect on my lungs and I am beginning to wonder if the damage done to them is irreversible. It would serve me right. At the moment the only health problem I have, apart from wheezing, and a fear of inclines, is the return of my boils, one of which has, without the aid of oxygen or crampons, established base camp at the back of my neck.  None has ever climbed this high before, and I wonder where it will all end.

This sets me to brooding – this is the second week in a row I have brooded, I know, and the Foundry, a pub lit largely by candlelight, is an excellent place in which to do it – on this and that, when I notice a small commotion at the table next to me. A Jack Russelly dog is trying very hard to get to me. I am not sure whether it wants to make friends with me or eat me.

The ladies it is with ask me if I have any food in my pockets. I do not. The dog, now frantic, breaks free of its handlers. It is clear that what it wants, right now, is a Lezard, and no substitute will be accepted. It jumps up on to my lap, licks me a couple of times, and then sits down by my feet like a sentry, as if it has found its natural position and purpose in life.

“Are you a dog whisperer?” asks one of the ladies. I bend down to the dog’s ear. “Am I a dog whisperer?” I whisper, which gets a laugh.  

“Actually,” I say, sitting back up and addressing the humans, “I think it’s more the case that the dog is a People Whisperer. She’s worked out that I’ve been having a rotten time lately, and has come to cheer me up.”

And I am indeed cheered up. This is something I’ve noticed in the last few years: I have gone from someone who (as a child) used to be scared of dogs; to someone who just disliked them (too smelly, fur not furry enough; basically, not cats); to someone who could take them or leave them; to – as I am now – someone who is delighted by their company, as long as they are not actually savage.

After a while Mattie – for that is her name – has decided I have been cheered up enough now, and goes back to her original people. This is what the world needs: more Matties, more Lauries. And outside, a taxi is waiting, to take me back to Crickhollow. 

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 first appeared in the 09 November 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory sinking ship