My 500th column, and I’m more afraid than ever that I’m going to be sacked

Round numbers scare me, especially since I was ejected from the Hovel ten years to the day from when I moved in – and if this column goes, then I really am screwed.

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According to the system I use when writing this column, this is the 500th “Down and Out” I have written for this magazine. I hesitate to mention this in case my sainted editor says, “Well, that’s a nice round number to end on.” Round numbers scare me, especially since I was ejected from the Hovel ten years to the day from when I moved in – and if this column goes, then I really am screwed, in a way which will have made the previous years look like a soothing back rub.

I am now more worried that I will be sacked than I was when I had emailed, “I’m sorry, I’m too poorly to file today, cough cough”, and then bumped into Jason Cowley at the Test match. That was some years ago, and since then I have tried to walk the strait and narrow.

Then again, because my system says this is column number 500, that means it is almost certainly not number 500, for there have been times when I have miscounted, when files have gone missing, and so on and so on.

It’s a bit like the fact that AD1 is almost certainly not the year of the birth of Our Lord; it’s just that an accounting error slipped in very early on and it would be too much bother to change things.

Still, 500 of these, give or take. That’s a hell of a lot of grumbling. Even the word count has gone up over the years. It started out at 830 words of mawkish self-pity every week, and then for some reason, a year or two ago, I was told that I was 60 words short. No one knows why. It’s not like the typeface has changed, or the size of the pages.

Still, no skin off my nose, I have a job to do.

As it is, and by an amusing coincidence, illness and cricket again coincide this week. A trip to Lord’s was floated by the team I occasionally – very occasionally – play for, the Rain Men, to watch a day of an end-of-season four-day County Championship match between Middlesex and Durham. The idea was to sit around gossiping and getting vaguely sozzled, and I would show people round the Pavilion. I also invited my friends John and Marie; Marie, John’s partner, has recently become obsessed by cricket in a way that gratifies both of us immensely, and I had a feeling she would get a real kick out of being shown round the sacred edifice. Also, it was her birthday. And furthermore, I liked the thought of John’s being there, as I had a strong suspicion that he would be the only person at Lord’s who had played for the Jesus and Mary Chain.

However, on the day I was due to go, it was quite clear that I wasn’t well. It’s sometimes a fine line between my own despairing lassitude and actual illness, but this time there was no doubt about it: I was poorly. Sweats, shivers, incessant cough. But duty is duty and friendship is friendship and sometimes the two coincide. You don’t go around promising someone a really good birthday present and then bale out at the last minute.

So it was a dank, miserable day, punctuated by rain, and Durham scored ten runs in the first ten overs, Finn pounding in from the Pavilion End and, although bowling well, you knew he wasn’t going to be taking any wickets in a hurry (I gather this was why he was dropped by England); but Marie’s face lit up pretty much all of NW8. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone so pleased.

The Pavilion is stuffed with oil paintings of the game’s grandees. I never bother with these – although there are many kitsch delights, the only one I really have time for, in terms of both technique and subject matter, is Brendan Kelly’s massive, brooding portrait in oils of Sir Viv Richards – but Marie, who is an artist herself, oohed and aahed at pretty much all of them. Her enthusiasm was more infectious than whatever it is I was suffering from.

As it is, I am still suffering from it. And it was bad. The kitchens in the Pavilion were serving up roast pork baps, and there was an enormous bowl of crackling to one side, which no one seemed to be eating from. I think I could live on crackling; but this time I could barely struggle a piece down.

For tea there were scones with jam and cream, which I also think I could live on, for £1.60 each. £1.60! Even I can afford that. But I couldn’t even eat one. Not a crumb.

So I left John and Marie and my fellow Rain Men there and took an early train back to Brighton, and since then I have been coughing, wheezing and shivering beneath the duvet for 18 out of the past 24 hours, and when I’ve finished this I’m going right back there again. 

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 20 September 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Out of control