Returning to your old house is an act of unspeakable sadness. The instinct is to avert one’s eyes

The life has gone from it. I imagine this must be what looking at the corpse of a lover is like

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Back in London, for a most melancholy duty: the Hovel is being cleared out and there are a few belongings left of mine that need to go, which missed the last sweep when I was ejected last August. My God, has it been 15 months since I had anywhere permanent to live?

And what is permanent, anyway? My definition of the term has been stretched. I used to think that living somewhere permanently meant living there until you, well, died. Or found somewhere else to live, with any luck nicer, until you, well, died. Now what would I call “permanent”? I’m thinking about a year. And the five months I’ve been in Scotland constitute, I suppose, semi-permanence. The other day the Estranged Wife reminded me of the time we were sitting in a lawyer’s office, making our wills, or arranging our mortgages, or something like that.

“What about if you separate?” asked the man with the forms.

“Oh, don’t worry about that,” I said. “We plan on staying together forever.”

“I’ll never forget the look on his face,” said the EW.

If you want to make a lawyer laugh, tell them your plans.

Anyway, back to the Hovel. What have we got here? Some files of old correspondence, at a glance containing some letters from my great friend M—, as febrile and charming as only correspondence between two undergraduates can be. A cassette tape that looks very much like it could be from the days when, instead of writing my book, I laid down some tracks on a Portastudio, wondering if I was too old for this kind of thing (I was 26).

A pair of bongo drums, about which we will speak no further, except to say they are a very fetching shade of red. A Bakelite radio that featured not only in my childhood but my father’s. (I remember listening to a repeated episode of The Goon Show on it with him some time in the 1970s, and I felt a giddy sense of time’s abyss when I thought that he, at roughly the age I was then, would have been listening to the same show on the same radio.)

It still works, even though the cloth on the speaker hangs in tatters, and every so often it makes a loud BANG that somewhat spoils the soothing effect of its mellow tones. When it’s not going bang it sounds as though the very news is coming from a gentler, nobler age, as long as you don’t listen to it too closely. It’s best for listening to The Archers and Test matches.

What else? Quite a few books, but I reckon that as I’ve managed without them for 15 months I can manage without them in the future, but I do grab the loo-side copy of The Book of Disquiet. And a decanter too. When, I ask myself, is that going to come in handy again?

It’s horrible, looking round the place. In a way, I see it as I saw it when I first moved in: a place of exile, of unspeakable sadness. The life has gone from it. I imagine this must be what looking at the corpse of a lover is like. A great affront has taken place, and the instinct is either to howl, or to avert one’s eyes. I choose the latter option, wondering what overlooked pieces of my life are still tucked away in its many corners.

I used to be a great hoarder, an obsessive archivist of my own life; even when I was eight I would look back at the drawings I had made as a five-year-old, sigh, and say, like Swift, “what a genius I had then”. Now everything is scattered to the four winds, well, sort of. One must keep things in perspective. I listened the other day to a brief interview with an orphaned child who had had to flee Syria. The detail that will stick in my mind for a very long time, I suspect, is that the child had to leave all his toys behind. I find it hard to write these words, because I do not find it hard to imagine the desolation in that child’s heart. Everyone who had a toy as a child will not find it hard; everyone who has had a child will recognise the cosmic outrage of the abandoned toy.

Toys teach us about time, and love. There is a reason the doll thrown into the gutter while the family flees is a cinematic cliché. I remember my daughter’s love for her strip of blanket – the silken edge of a blanket that once warmed me in my cot – and the agony of all concerned when it was mislaid. In a way, it bound us all together.

So I shrug off the dust of the Hovel, and descend its creaking stairs one last time. I loved the sound of those steps: they meant going out to have fun, or coming back from having had it, or someone beloved coming up the stairs.

I call my daughter when I leave. She now has officially left childhood, and has a job that I reckon uses up about a tenth of her brainpower. It breaks my heart to see it, but then all first jobs are shit, I suppose.

“Let’s go for a pint,” I say. “I reckon we could both do with it.”

And we do, and it is lovely. 

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 23 November 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The real Brexit crisis