In Kipling’s worst poem he suggests exercise as a cure for the blues

Plus I need to get fit for a cricket match, and at the moment I look like an egg with sticks for legs and arms.

NS

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

I am bored,” writes my friend the Moose. “Tell me something funny.” I struggle to think of anything funny. This morning saw me, for no particular reason save the usual ones, in a particularly glum frame.

“I did 50 push-ups today,” I reply, “in batches of ten, each batch interspersed with a lie-down and a coughing fit.” He has not replied, but then he sent his message a couple of hours ago, when I had gone back to bed in disgust with the waking world.

“Why are you doing push-ups in the first place?” you may ask, and well may you ask. Two reasons. The first is that I dimly recall a poem by Kipling in which he recommends mild physical exertion as a cure for the blues. In one sense this is the worst poem ever written, but in another sense there may be some good advice lurking in there, on the grounds that the relief of not doing push-ups will be desirable in itself.

The other reason is that I need to get fit for a cricket match this weekend, and at the moment I look like an egg on which someone has drawn sticks for legs and arms. Unless, of course, I hold my stomach in. I have been working on my legs, though. This is thanks to the bike. I’ll get back to that.

For those who missed last week’s announcement, my adventures now see me in Oxfordshire, cat-sitting for my friend A— who has gone to Japan to see her son, whose jumpers caused such a sensation in last season’s University Challenge. The cat is called Tybalt, which I think is an excellent name for a cat. But the cat himself views me with a mixture of horror and outrage, dropping in only to eat his crunchies, look at me with a shudder, and then stroll off again to the greenhouse where he maintains his boudoir. (From the French bouder, to sulk.)

Much friendlier are the neighbour’s dogs, and at least two of their three cats. But it’s the dogs who are the best. These beasts – one looking a bit like a Staffie, the other a bit like a terrier – have decided that their lives are bereft without me, and they prop themselves up on the fence and whine and bark piteously until I come over and let them lick my hands. Boy, do they like licking my hands. It is as if I secrete some kind of drug of which dogs are particularly fond. I wonder which one it is. I learned, the hard way, that I am mildly allergic to dog saliva, so have to break off every minute or so to rinse it off, which perhaps compromises the flavour, but the dogs don’t mind.

The village I am in is a little isolated, if you don’t have a car. I don’t have a car. I do, though, have a bike. This bike is somewhat challenging, being one of those whose tyres never quite pump up enough, and whose derailleurs keep slipping, especially when you are trying to go uphill.

The nearest village with a shop is a mile away, which you’d think was nothing on a bike, but it is on this one, especially since that mile is up a hill which is imperceptible to the eye, but agonising to cycle. The agony is compounded by the fact that it doesn’t even look like a hill. I have now done this route, there and back, about a dozen times, and I have not noticed the slightest improvement to my leg muscles.

I find, at the village shop, that my reputation precedes me. “Are you Nick? A— said ‘he likes his red wine,’” says the lady at the counter. “He does,” I reply. This is actually quite a good village shop, as village shops go, and it even stocks this magazine. The thought that this column is now sitting, read or unread, inside the very village shop I am writing about, makes my head spin a bit. I think the French term is the mise en abîme.

I must not complain about the blues. The weather here has been glorious. Even when every single neighbour for a mile around got out their angle grinders to trim their lawns on bank holiday Monday, things were not spoiled. The day before, also Power Tool Day in rural England, saw me wheezing off on the bike to watch a bit of village cricket and check out one of the two local pubs. May I recommend The Star in Stanton St John? (It’s very near the village shop.)

I have now dug out the Ordnance Survey map and, after writing this, I plan a little hike over the fields. We are, basically, in the Shire as imagined by JRR Tolkien. If anyone can think of a better place to be on the planet in clement spring weather than the English countryside, with spectacular views of the Chilterns, do write in, but I bet you’ll be stumped. Meanwhile, I will have to think of something funnier to tell the Moose. Maybe if I sprain something.

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 18 May 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Israel and the impossible war