“Are you by any chance Nick Lezard?” This question can, of course, go two ways

“Excuse me for asking,” says the man, “and this might sound like a weird question… but do you write for the New Statesman?”

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The solitude almost assumes physical form after 11 o’clock at night. Everyone else goes up the wooden hill to Bedfordshire; I imagine them all, in their nightgowns and their tasselled nightcaps, yawning, and holding a candle to light their way. Meanwhile, I brood darkly on loneliness. 

I come across this passage in The Pickwick Papers, advice given by Mr Weller Senior to his son, Sam:

“So I’ve only this here one little bit of adwice to give you. If ever you gets to up’ards o’ fifty, and feels disposed to go a-marryin’ anybody – no matter who – jist you shut yourself up in your own room, if you’ve got one, and pison yourself off hand. Hangin’s wulgar, so don’t you have nothin’ to say to that. Pison yourself, Samivel, my boy, pison yourself, and you’ll be glad on it arterwards.”

It’s comforting advice, in its way, especially to someone who’s starting to think about going on a dating site or something. The concern should also be for the other person. I’ve had my heart broken how many times in the last 12 years? I think it’s about four. But how many hearts have I broken? Probably about the same number. There is no democracy in love relationships, as the philosopher Gillian Rose once said.

Anyway, it’s half past eleven at night, and I have run out of poison. I thought I had another bottle in reserve but I don’t. Luckily, Brighton is a place which has 24-hour shops within walking distance who will sell the thirsty night-owl a bottle of Casillero del Diablo for a small mark-up. As I leave the flat I see a young couple sitting on the front steps of the house next door; the man says “all right?” to me in a way which sounds pleasant, ie not mad or threatening, which is welcome at that time of night. On the way down the hill to the shop I think, crazily, that I should have asked them if they wanted anything.

When I get back, they’re still there.

“Excuse me for asking,” says the man, “and this might sound like a weird question… but do you write for the New Statesman?”

Well, there’s no denying it; I do. So I say “um… yes.”

 “Are you by any chance Nicholas Lezard?”

This is a question that can, of course, go two ways. I have said “no” to this on two occasions which I will probably never forget: once to a tax inspector, and once to a bailiff. The tax inspector rolled his eyes and said, in a tone of heavy sarcasm, “Well, when he gets back, could you hand him this card and tell him to call the number on it?” The bailiff laughed and said, “Well, you certainly look a lot like him,” and showed me a photograph of me. I didn’t even know they were allowed to do that.

This young man doesn’t look like a bailiff. And I don’t think they operate in pairs, or at this time of night. So I say, “You have me at a disadvantage, Sir.”

“I told you!” says the man to the woman I presume is his partner.

And off we go. I suggest he gets some glasses, and I pour the wine out, and we start chatting in the cold night air. For about an hour and a half. That’s a long time to stand around nattering. But it is delightful. I feel as if it is I, and not the wine, that has been uncorked; out comes a bubbling stream of anecdote and conversation. I learn that he is a video editor, and she is – have I got this right? – an arts project manager, or something like that. (Forgive me for my vagueness on this point. I am reminded of my friend Sally, who has a high-flying job and whenever I ask her what it is, she says, “I’m not sure really, but I do go to a lot of meetings.”) They have a two-year-old asleep upstairs, the flat close enough for them to hear if he awakes.

It is remarkable how much one can say after long silence. There are some things deep and personal that you either tell people immediately or only after many years of friendship; this pair get the works. I’m conscious of monopolising the conversation, but they don’t seem to mind. It must take some nerve to ask someone if they are so-and-so, and if so-and-so doesn’t say “piss off” but instead hands out wine and chats to them, I imagine that must be fairly pleasant.

Even when I offer some extremely impertinent parenting advice (“Well, you’ve kind of screwed up already by having a male child as the first one” etc), they don’t seem to mind. After about half an hour, I have an idea. “Wait there,” I say, and go back to the flat to give them a copy of my new book, which I then sign for them. And that is how I got to sneak a plug for my new book into this column. 

“It Gets Worse” by Nicholas Lezard is published by Salt

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 29 November 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The English Question

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