Six vodkas and five champagnes down, and it’s time to talk to George Osborne

 I thought to myself, “I can get a column out of this.”

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It’s been an unusual week, in that I have actually spent it seeing people instead of staying in bed all day and reading. (I’m having a break from Jack Reacher novels, and am currently on The Pickwick Papers. I haven’t read this for ages, and it’s much funnier than I remember. Also, everyone in it is pissed almost all the time.) My first trip was to London for a party given by the Folio Society to celebrate a new translation of Dr Zhivago. The FS were my first employers, and they paid me so pitifully at the time – I think it was something like £5,000 a year, which wasn’t a lot even in 1985 – that I feel honour-bound to eat and drink as much as humanly possible on the rare occasions they invite me to one of their beanos.

As the theme was Russian, the food was tiny blinis with lumpfish caviar and sour cream; the drinks were both proper champagne, and shot glasses of chilled vodka. I got into pleasant conversation with Craig Raine – who has featured in this column before – and we drained quite a few vodkas. It was important, I thought, to get into the spirit of things.

 I looked around. The only other person I knew there was C—, who was the one who had invited me. I’d known her from her first days at the publisher. She’s now a director, but authority has not gone to her head, and she is as delightful company as ever. Knowing only two people at a book launch is fairly unusual for me, but then the FS is an unusual publisher, in that it’s subscription-based, so it exists at right-angles to the conventional model of publishing.

Just how unconventional it was I soon realised while scanning the room, for there, among the intimate gathering, was the former chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne.

This was something of a shock. I spent his entire term of office, from 2010 to 2016, entertaining dark fantasies about what I would do were I to run into him. The only person about whom I entertained darker and more frequent thoughts was, of course, his boss, but when I saw that photograph of Osborne – you know, the one where he’s doing that thing with his legs – something snapped, and he went to the top of the shit-list. (Not forgetting Alexander de Pfeffel Johnson, whom I once almost literally bumped into in one of the inner courtyards of the Palace of Westminster. I was so taken off my guard that I didn’t take the opportunity of punching him in the stomach, or calling him a Bad Word.)

But here was the funny thing. Such are the desperate and depraved times we live in, I could no longer summon any hatred for the architect, or enabler, of austerity, despite the countless thousands of lives it has ruined, and continues to ruin. (Not to mention the cruel idiocy of the policy itself.)

My first thought was: good for him for being here, instead of [redacted] with [redacted], which legend has it he used to be fond of doing, in his wild youth (and, to be fair, sounds kind of fun).

My second thought was: hang on, he’s giving me a rather funny look. Surely he can’t fancy me? I didn’t think I was his type. I thought he preferred [redacted]. The third thought, which to tell you the truth followed hard on the heels of the sixth vodka and the fifth glass of champagne, was “I’ll say hello to him. For he is, after all, when I write a book review for the Evening Standard, my editor.”

That thought was probably prompted by the miniature version of me, red-coloured, with bat’s wings, a goatee beard and trident standing on my left shoulder, with an evil grin. On my right shoulder, a miniature version of me in white robes, with much nicer feathery wings and carrying a harp, said, “For Heaven’s sake, don’t do anything of the kind.”

In the end, the evil version of me won the day, but with a compromise: I didn’t say anything stupid or malicious. Instead I just congratulated him on the books pages of the Standard. I didn’t slur my words, or burp, or throw up over him; it all passed off in a very civilised fashion. Of course I should have said nothing to him at all, but then how often does one get the chance to do something like this? (“And,” I thought to myself, “I can get a column out of this.” Sometimes I wonder whether the only reason I do anything at all is to get a column out of it.)

Later on, I thought about my change of heart vis-à-vis the former chancellor. He has gone from someone who was my Private Enemy Number One to… well, I mean, look at the current bunch. Amoral, lying, wicked shysters the lot of them. Osborne may have immiserated thousands, if not millions, but he was a Remainer; he was regularly horrible to and about Theresa May when she was PM; and he’s at least pretending to be interested in Pasternak. 

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 November 2019 issue of the New Statesman, They think it’s all over