This article is taken from the August-September 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.
It is 9.45 on a brisk april morning at the flat overlooking Clapham Common and Mark has been at work for the best part of an hour. His flatmates — a trainee solicitor, an advertising executive and the research assistant to a Tory MP — are long gone and, favouring comfort over monasticism, Mark has relocated himself to the front room.
Here, surrounded by last night’s takeaway containers and their congealing residues, a Fender bass guitar and some rugby kit hung up to dry over the fireplace, he is busy texting an ally on the Times Literary Supplement.
“How abt I do new Deborah Levy?” Mark proposes. There is a brief delay, during which Mark browses the books section of the previous week’s Private Eye. “Sorry, already fixed,” Mark’s friend texts back.
The Bookseller’s Summer Fiction Supplement to hand, Mark tries again. New Amanda Craig might be good, he suggests. Sorry, Bunty doing, his friend ripostes. Chastened by this rebuff, Mark decides to email a contact on The Times arts desk to whom, a month ago, he pitched a provocative piece on the kind of audiences that turn up at Glyndebourne these days, only to discover that she has just gone on a two-week holiday.
By this time the clock has, unaccountably, rolled round to 10.27
By this time the clock has, unaccountably, rolled round to 10.27. Mark smokes two cigarettes, drinks a cup of black coffee and examines a copy of his old school’s alumni magazine, which has just arrived in the post. From this he discovers that his exact contemporary, G.W.Q. Timmins (Podger’s) has just been made a partner at Ernst & Young and is probably earning several hundred thousand pounds a year.
Mark is 31 and has been living in the Clapham flat, whose senior resident he now is and whose rent is subsidised by his indulgent parents, ever since he abandoned a Cambridge PhD thesis on “Agrarian Themes in the Novels of Thomas Hardy”.
It’s 11.03 now and time to read another 50 pages of the 200,000-word novel, translated from the Serbian, which Mark has agreed to review for the Spectator for a fee of £200. Outside it has begun to rain and from the next door flat he can hear the noise of builders at work.
Then, having eaten his lunch — the warmed-up contents of one of the takeaway boxes — he determines to get on with a task that will at least bring in some ready money. The vacuum cleaner catalogue (“smooth, dust-free and kind to weary hands”) is done by 4.30 after which he watches an episode of Breaking Bad on Netflix.
The agency that supplies the catalogue work likes Mark’s copy and has several times offered him a full-time job, but these overtures are always declined.
Gradually the evening draws on and the shadows lengthen over the Common. Mark’s flatmates will be out watching films or dining with glamorous female friends. Mark, rather tired after a ten-hour day that has realised something like £120, opts for a quiet night in over three cans of Red Stripe and an old Mighty Boosh DVD.