The desire to sleep is overwhelming. It is not the ice and snow of recent days but winter itself that is so enervating, so much so that I harbour the conceit of recent previous incarnations as a dormouse or a grizzly bear. My metabolism noticeably slower, I have no appetite, eat less and fall back on lazy foods — soups and stews, often indistinguishable, and celery. I have no wish to leave the house and do so primarily when driven by my sense of duty as a critic compelled to see before he writes. I don’t even want to wander in the garden — an exquisite pleasure early in the day in all other seasons — where lies another duty, the daily trail from corner to corner to collect the emptyings of bowels deposited by Winckelmann and Lottie; they are big dogs and Lottie’s blatant lack of delicacy in the matter far outweighs Winckelmann’s fastidious sense of privacy. Wrapped in a dressing gown far too large for me, I surrender to comfortable lethargy.
There are, however, things for which I must go out — birdseed and bread among them. Mine is a garden designed (not quite the word) for birds, tangled and dense, with piles of branches to give cover to toads and insects, but under snow the birds cannot rummage in the leaf litter and must be fed; tits, robins and blackbirds are about, but I’ve not seen a wren or sparrow for more than a month. Ice on the pond is four inches thick, but by clearing along one bank and keeping it clear, birds and foxes can drink — every fox in the neighbourhood must be here at night if paw tracks are any indication of their traffic. My continuing anxiety is for herons; they take an occasional fish, even when these are dormant, and dig out a frog or two, but when ice covers the pond they can find nothing and disconsolately stalk the grass. I am tempted to offer them tinned sardines in oil, but that would immediately be a treat for Lottie, who is omnivorous and greedy. Bird experts have, alas, no answer. As for bread — of little use for birds, but desert island food for me — a shop down the hill now sells a delicious dark and crusty loaf baked by an Italian from Matera where, in August 1963, I was not quite bitten by a snake.
I had to discard the dressing gown when the BBC persuaded me to talk to Lenny Henry, the fee for half a day’s work a mere £50, far less than they spent on cars to carry me to and fro. The poor boy has experienced a crisis of disbelief in Jackson Pollock; he had really wanted to believe that there was merit in pouring and dribbling household paint straight from the tin onto a carpet of canvas, but couldn’t quite, and was so disconcerted by my sharing his scepticism that he adopted the role of Pollock’s apologist — ‘There must be something in it if people pay so many millions for his paintings.’ Was there anything in Jonathan Ross, I wonder, because we paid so much for him? Self-important art critics have much for which to answer, in that their momentary enthusiasms are blindly consolidated by the Vicars of Bray who follow them, for then no one dares say nay and not even the ghastly Clement Greenbergs of this world have the courage to recant.
And then there was the hospital to which, for a whole year or more, I have been umbilically attached — an appointment to review my case. The first consultant operated; the second said, ‘I wouldn’t have done that — let’s try hydrotherapy.’ The third now tells me that nothing can be done, that the surgery was far too late, the physiotherapy and hydrotherapy quite futile, and the painkilling drugs unsuitable if I wish my brain to function; all that is left is the advice of a psychiatrist who may, perhaps, reconcile me to my affliction. I point out that I am already reconciled and that swearing is my therapy, that there is something very physically easing in the staccato utterance of the four-letter words, and then ask for cannabis — to which the answer is a silent eyebrow. We part on good terms, but as I totter to the hospital doors I think of all the money wasted on me by the NHS — money that would continue to be wasted were I to accept psychiatric help — when a year ago the first of the consultants could have said ‘Nothing to be done, your wheelchair waits.’ Am I rare as a patient who wants only the unvarnished truth?
Though glad to escape these consultations, I shall miss my visits to Carluccio’s opposite the hospital and the neat packets of salami cut exquisitely thin that I have taken home as consolation. How is it that thinness plays so powerful a part in the attraction? A wodge of finocchiona is nothing but a tough chew, but sliced and transparent as the finest lawn, melting on the tongue, the flavour is ambrosial.
In lax days between art exhibitions I work on an account of my life, not from vanity — my once promising career has long since dragged to a sad end — but to console and encourage others who share my failings. I am constantly astonished by my clarity of recall as well as the quantity of supporting material that has survived. Scribbled in a Christie’s sale catalogue of June 1958 I found a list of 21 books bought for £45, and in the very first of them the bookseller’s reservation note ‘This pile £45.’ My income at the time was £8 a week — but a shoulder of lamb was then 3/6 (171/2 pence) and on that I could live for five days. Eheu, Eheu.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated January 23, 2010