The start of What Am I Still Doing Here? finds Roger Lewis in a state of deep gloom. But then so does the middle of the book — and indeed the end. This, of course, is just as it should be. The last thing one wants from a professional curmudgeon is brimming red-cheeked jollity, and I’m delighted to be able to report there’s nothing like that here.
There are, however, all kinds of other pleasures. In some respects, this comes as a surprise. If happiness writes white — as every creative writing student is told — you might think that churning discontent should come in a similarly unvarying shade of black. But one of Lewis’s great virtues as a chronicler of his own dissatisfaction is the breadth of his range.
He can be lethally catty — ‘My, she’s piled on the weight’, he notes of the actress Cheryl Campbell — and he also has an unfailingly sharp eye for absurdity, reading in his local paper that
Community Safety Manager Laura Walker of the Hereford and Worcester Fire and Rescue service this week held useful courses of ‘Smoke Alarm Advice for the Deaf’.
But almost in the next breath, he’ll do something quite unexpected. I can’t think of anyone else who would observe that Jesus Christ and Peter Sellers shared ‘the same strange desire for self-obliteration; their sense of self-abolishing’.
Physically, as Lewis notes with mordant relish, he is in an appalling state. He has gout in every extremity — ‘including my ear lobes’ — suffers from ‘drenching night sweats’, has teeth so brittle ‘they’re like maize stumps’ and, to top it all, has recently been diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes as a result of his addiction to carrot cake. Meanwhile, his alcohol consumption chugs along at a steady bottle of claret a day, just as it has done for the last 30 years. ‘That’s approximately 65,700 glasses. Tally it up and put like that, it doesn’t sound so very much.’
Stuck out in the ‘Herefordshire Balkans’, he seethes with envy at the apparently effortless affluence enjoyed by his metropolitan cronies — a predictably disparate bunch including the actor, Mark Rylance and, of all people, Sharon Osbourne. But then nothing that his eye fixes upon delights him. Certainly not Wales — a country with ‘nothing of beauty on view. Woeful.’ — nor his fellow Welshmen, with ‘black spittle pouring from the corners of their mouths’.
His efforts to become a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature are constantly being rebuffed. Instead, he has to judge a dog show at somewhere called Ocle Pychard where he awards the rosette for The Dog That Most Resembles Its Owner to Mr Swainshill and his splendid Airedale. ‘How was I to know that in fact there was no such class and that Mrs Swainshill has had her ovaries and uterus removed, hence the unfeasible hairiness?’
Beneath the bile, though, one periodically catches glimpses of the ‘delicate, highly strung boy’ Lewis used to be, and the preternaturally prickly adult he has become — someone whose desire to be liked has curdled into an equally strong desire to get his revenge in first.
And just occasionally you catch a glimpse of something else — the sentimentality to which most Great Haters are prone. The wedding of Prince William
and Catherine Middleton, does not find him, as one might expect, cackling with disdain, but sitting dewy-eyed on the sofa throughout: ‘I was annoyed at the brevity of the balcony appearance,’ he notes primly.
If Lewis’s range is one of his virtues, another is that he never strains for effect. He may be, as he says of himself, ‘as self-dramatising as Mr Toad’, yet there’s no sense that he’s fashioned an end-of-the-pier persona specially for these pages. In the flesh, one suspects, he’s just as melancholy, paranoid and socially inept as he is here.
However, what singles him out most of all is that — both despite and because of the above — he is wonderfully funny, with a uniquely skewed take on the world. Possibly some people will read What Am I Still Doing Here? without emitting a snigger, but personally I reckon that 20 quid is a small price to pay for any book which contains the following story.
During a rehearsal for an amateur production of The Sound of Music in the north of England, the woman playing Maria suddenly burst into tears. ‘The Mother Superior just called me a cunt face,’ she complained. ‘No, she didn’t,’ the director explained to her patiently. ‘What she said was her line, “What is it you can’t face, my child?” ’
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated October 22, 2011