You’ll remember my problem with the electrics the last time I stayed in Brighton

The smoke detector first went off about ten days ago, and it’s not stopped since. 

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BIP.

When I first stayed in this place, about a year and a half ago, it had only recently been bought, and so was lacking certain amenities. I knew I wasn’t going to be a permanent resident, so I couldn’t buy any major household goods, but I reasoned that at least I could purchase a toaster for the place, which I did from the local hardware store.

BIP.

Of course, being somewhat low on funds – for a change – I couldn’t get a really good toaster. And I thought to myself: in the final analysis, just how superior can one toaster be to another? They are, after all, composed of the same elements. A slot for the bread to go in, a handle to push it down, wires which glow red-hot when current flows through them, and a timing device that stops the toast from getting burnt. (Don’t get me started on Dualit toasters, by the way.)

BIP.

This toaster turned out to be quite appreciably substandard, in that it set the toast on fire and, thereby, almost the whole flat. The electricity shorted and I spent the next few hours in darkness because I couldn’t find the fuse box, and the next day I spent £100 in cash getting an electrician to point to it, above the door, which, he told me, is often where fuse boxes are these days. I’m still surprised that I had £100 to spare for such fripperies.

BIP.

Since then, a smoke detector has been installed. I’m pretty sure there wasn’t one during the Great Toaster Crisis of 2017, because I’d have remembered it. About ten days ago, it went off, when I was doing nothing more flammable than goofing out on Netflix and eating Doritos dunked into hummus. (Why is that such a good combination? I mean, they come from practically the opposite sides of the globe.) It made a noise like the Last Coming, which nearly killed me, for I am a man of sensitive disposition, and unhappy with loud, sudden noises that I have not requested.

BIP.

When I’d checked that nothing was on fire, or even smoking, I composed myself, and continued to spoon hummus into my face with a trembling hand. I wondered what on earth had caused the smoke detector to have a nervous breakdown like that, and soon it became clear: it was its way of telling me its battery had run down. But this puzzled me, for when I checked it, it appeared to be connected to the mains, so therefore there should be no battery to run down. And yet, shortly after it cried its pain to an uncaring world, it carried on making a little “BIP” noise every few minutes.

BIP.

As I say, this has been going on for some time. It once happened to me in the Hovel, with the novelty that the smoke detector was not only hidden beneath an enormous pile of clothes and rubbish in the wardrobe, it was also a smoke detector whose existence I had hitherto been unaware of. I also didn’t even know then that smoke detectors whose batteries are plucking at their coverlets and gathering their families around them go “BIP” every so often. And the noise is very hard to track down – it seems to come from everywhere, and nowhere, and indeed, for about a month in the Hovel, I was driven to the brink of insanity. (Some might have said that I was driven right over it.)

BIP.

As you might have guessed by now, I have not yet solved the problem of the dying battery. I glare at the wire that quite clearly goes from the detector to something electrical in the wall. Sometimes I stand underneath it to make sure that this is indeed the smoke detector making the noise, and that there isn’t another one hidden on top of a shelf somewhere. But it is a curious feature of this safety device that if you actually get close to it, it stops going BIP entirely, and only starts going BIP again when you give up and go back to doing something that takes a certain degree of concentration; such as, oh I don’t know, writing a column for the New Statesman.

BIP.

So there it is, my new companion. I’ve become quite used to it; almost fond. It’s like the pulse on a heartbeat monitor: it reassures me that everything is ticking over. The strange thing is that it has become internalised; I swear I heard it when I walked along the seafront the other day.

Anyway, I’ve just heard the excellent news that my stay here will be extended to the end of the year. I will have to start paying a bit towards the upkeep, but that’s fine. Of course, one shadow hangs over me: will I, by the end of the year, have managed to stop this noise, or will I have gone absolutely stark, staring mad?

BIP. 

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 14 June 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The closing of the conservative mind