Tales of the City: I thought I was mad but I'm just financophobic

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Isn't it a relief, when you've suffered for years from an ailment you assumed to be personal to you alone, to find that it's a recognised syndrome with a name and millions of fellow-sufferers? I'm not talking haemorrhoids or gingivitis here, but something much more upsetting.

Isn't it a relief, when you've suffered for years from an ailment you assumed to be personal to you alone, to find that it's a recognised syndrome with a name and millions of fellow-sufferers? I'm not talking haemorrhoids or gingivitis here, but something much more upsetting. I'm talking financial phobia. It's official. Researchers at the Social and Political Science faculty at Cambridge University have discovered that 20 per cent of the population is affected with FP. Yes, about 10 million people greet the appearance of a bank statement on the doormat as they might react to a hand grenade: they'd like to get rid of it, but they'd rather not touch it, so they just ignore it.

Letters from the building society, the insurance company, the credit-card firm which once wooed you so lovingly, or the mortgage people bring out the FP sufferer in sweating palms and pounding migraine. For a psychological ailment, the symptoms are shockingly physical: sickness, dizziness, anxiety, guilt and profound ennui. "Nearly half the sufferers," reads the Cambridge findings, "experienced a racing heart when faced with managing money, 15 per cent felt immobilised, 12 per cent ill and 11 per cent dizzy."

Tell me about it, as the children used to say. I've tried for years to convince sneering friends and pooh-poohing family that my traumas about money go beyond fatuous incompetence into realms of psychosis. Something must explain my inability to pay bills, to ring up any financial institution of any kind, to frame a single coherent question to a bank manager. There must be a reason why, though scarcely poverty-stricken, I often lay awake at 3am, fretting about years of financial negligence catching up with me. Something must explain my reluctance to open any buff envelope marked "OHMS", or any white envelope marked "Private and Confidential". Was it some throwback to one's schooldays and a fear of being ticked off through the post?

Moving into the tertiary stage of the syndrome, I developed a chronic desire, not unlike a death-wish, not to know anything at all about my financial state, along with an (unfounded) dread that I was about to go bankrupt. When Lloyds Bank Cashpoint machines started dishing out statements of your current balance along with your cash, I quickly developed a slick sleight-of-hand movement to remove the slip of paper and tuck it in my wallet, without ever seeing the contents.

Things came to a head. When the envelopes stacked unopened in the hall reached a child-endangering degree, I took them to an accountant and asked him to deal with them. He opened them soberly, revealing, without comment, a few mild enquiries from the Inland Revenue, a score of cheery missives ("Since I have received no reply to my letter of 30 June...") from the bank, and a couple of irrelevant notes from the local dental practice and the public library. He told me to forward everything to him in future and he'd contact me with a precis of the contents. A brilliant plan. Now instead of a dozen letters to ignore, fret about and fail to open, I had just the one...

Then the tax people started ringing up at unearthly hours of the night. Large, bouncer-like men came and demanded huge sums of overdue money on my doorstep. "And the reason for the delay in payment?" they asked, as I wrote out a cheque. I'd look at them helplessly and say, "How can you ask me that?"

The Cambridge honcho, Dr Brendan Burchell, said the onset of FP appeared to coincide with a financial upset outside the sufferer's control. Could that be it? Would my little problem have anything to do with the fact that I inherited some money in 1999 and, after hearing advice from all sides, I judiciously stuck it all in the Stock Market, just as it entered the biggest slump in modern history? I would read confident, judicious articles in the business pages, headed "How I respond to falling stock markets" and think, this is how I respond to them: a) scream; b) faint; c) run around in frenzied manner, waving hands and uttering infantile cries; d) go into instant denial, refuse to think about it in manner of Scarlett O'Hara, thus guaranteeing months of insomnia and ulcerated colon. But that was then. Now I don't care any more. Because I've discovered I'm not mad after all. Just financophobic.

Confessions of a crossword fanatic

You don't have to be a crossword nut to appreciate Sandy Balfour's tremendously beguiling Pretty Girl in Crimson Rose (8), his autobiography of exile that tells the story of the making of a crossword compiler. It begins with a startlingly visual image, as Balfour surveys downtown Johannesburg at night, notices one building with several windows illuminated, converts it in his mind into a crossword grid and starts to fill in the answers. "Can I ask you a question?" says his girlfriend. "Like, how did you get this way?" Balfour is a South African TV director who charts his progress travelling through Europe and Africa in times of crisis (he was in East Berlin when the Wall came down), constantly wrestling with clues in word puzzles as he tries to work out the wider significance of what's happening around him. As you'd expect, he throws in some favourite crossword clues, especially "Hormone red in Lana Turner (9)" which gives you "adrenalin" (an anagram of "red in Lana"), the clue in the book's title (which gives you "rebelled", namely "belle" inside "red") and my favourite, "Play Ankoolger (4,4,2,5)" which is a marvel of structure and economy. I won't tell you the answer, but I'll give you a clue: John Osborne. Balfour's book is published by Atlantic Books on 13 February, price £12.99.

Womb with a (river) view

John Carey, the critic and English professor, once wrote a study of Charles Dickens's imagination, in which he worked out that the great man was a sucker for boats. His ideal interior, Carey revealed, would be a wooden cabin at the top of a ship-like structure (even if it were a house or shop) – snug, cosy and slightly claustrophobic. I couldn't imagine why the Victorian sage should be attracted to such a thing – until the other night, on Chelsea Embankment.

It was the launch of Lucy Ellmann's fourth novel, Dot in the Universe (a blackly hilarious, slightly crackpot jeu d'esprit from the talented daughter of Richard Ellmann, Joyce's finest biographer, in which the death-obsessed heroine is reincarnated as a possum) and it took place on a houseboat, one of those rackety barges that you glimpse beside Chelsea Flour Mill, as you're driving over Battersea Bridge.

A Chelsea houseboat! Readers unfamiliar with Sixties culture cannot appreciate the glamour of the things. When Mick Jagger owned a house in Cheyne Walk, and the new Olympians of the fab decade went partying in Chelsea, the houseboats moored off the Walk seemed the most kickingly trendy places to live.

The party didn't disappoint. In the boat's long parlour, Clive James, a long-standing Ellmann fan, guardedly fenced with a young (female) novelist from Melbourne who seemed anxious to make his intimate acquaintance. A C Grayling, the long-haired philosopher, stood amid the chattering throng, trying to find his wife by ringing her on his mobile. A tiny literary agent, on her way to a new life (and new husband) in Scotland, celebrated her resignation from the London publishing circuit by being spectacularly rude to any writer she encountered. James Fenton, the saturnine former Professor of Poetry at Oxford, munched salsa tartlets with Karl Miller, the venerable but indefatigably party-going ex-boss of the London Review of Books, and gazed at the lovely Ms Ellmann's party outfit – featuring a skirt made of strips of mirror. It was a party at which you invited people at the bar to join you on the poop deck to survey the Thames-side lights; where the downstairs loo featured a Victorian commode the size of a Windsor throne; and where once you'd discovered the cloakroom at the end of a mile-long gangway full of books, you practically had to be crowbarred out of this lamplit cabin. No wonder Dickens was so entranced – the moored houseboat is the closest we'll come to living in a womb, floating on, if not in, the amniotic tide, while still able to report for work in the morning.