Earlier on in the month, the Aberdeen Press and Journal announced that it would no longer be accepting columns from freelance journalist Carly Fallon, after some people pointed out the strong similarity, with some passages almost verbatim, between Fallon’s pieces and other pieces written previously by national newspaper columnists. The articles themselves were of the high-end quotidian nature, everyday irritations and absurdities rendered in an over-the-top arch Radio 4 style, so that the humour is reliant on tone rather than content. From Lucy Mangan’s column on the arrival of winter, that Fallon ripped off: ‘Every day I add another jumper to my ensemble… By Christmas, I am nothing more than an ambulatory heap of knitwear. The children next door think I’m a Womble, even though, as I’ve pointed out to them on many occasions, Catford is technically farther away from Wimbledon than the sun.’ The story here is – and I’m surely not alone here – not that a regional columnist passed off national columns as her own work, but that national columnists increasingly write like mediocre regional hacks. I mean, who wants to produce this stuff, let alone to plagiarise it?
Nicholas Lezard at first glance is another of the metropolitan lifestyle writing elite. His columns for the New Statesman deal with daily life in the same wry conversational register. But there are differences. For one, Lezard’s life is actually worth writing about. He was a senior officer at British Telecom before walking out of his job to pursue a career in literary criticism (and appears to have achieved this, a startling feat in a country where there are few good literary critics and fewer still who can make a living from what Martin Amis called the ‘lowest and noblest art’.) Around the same time, his marriage deteriorated and he made an exit from the family home to a central London houseshare Lezard refers to as ‘The Hovel’. Lezard’s HMO is a character in itself, a midlife grotesque, described with loving care: the mice, the erratic plumbing, the power cuts, the inexplicable noises the house makes at night. Starting over in your mid forties must be a hell of a thing, and Lezard captures the disorientation and loneliness of his situation with unerring precision. In few other diary columns do you get a sense of writer as person. But reading Bitter Experience Has Taught Me feels like actually knowing Lezard: a literary gentleman of a certain age, small and self-deprecating and smoking constantly, a fan of women and books and the more cerebral kind of English sport. One of the book’s many highlights is a midnight game of drunken outdoor cricket with his housemate (a mysterious middle-aged exile known only as ‘Razors’) which becomes so raucous it draws the intervention of the police.
Lezard knows literature, and scatters his journal with numerous classical references, providing a sense of contrast that is never self dramatising. (He realises his depression is at its worst when he finds himself rereading Wodehouse and hoping, with tearful desperation, that the love affairs work out.) Lezard’s reviewers have tended to fall back on the Montaigne view that happiness writes white and that nothing is more interesting than misery. But in the book there’s a sense that Lezard is succeeding in love and life despite his travails. Perhaps it’s more that stability writes white and the world would be more interesting if only more people led chaotic lives.