Wet, broke and ill in New York – but it’s good to see my old pal Razors

Nicholas Lezard's "Down and Out" column.

So, here I am in New York, shivering and sweating with a lurgy in my old pal Razors’ apartment, digesting the news that, thanks to the reluctance of an accounts department somewhere, I have only £47 to my name. The rain falls in sheets outside and the weeping sore on my foot caused by the new shoes I had to get to replace the suede ones that rotted under the weather’s onslaught throbs ominously. Is this indeed the lurgy at all, or the opening stages of septicaemia?

The other news I am having a hard time digesting is that Razors is apparently now entitled to cast a vote in the Academy Awards. I have to admit I’m impressed, although form obliges me to sneer loudly and incredulously to his face. Those of you who are late arrivals to this column may not immediately grasp why the fact this person can now vote for Best Beard or whatever at the Oscars is a symbol of a civilisation far gone in collapse and moral degeneration. Actually it’s not really that bad and I’d value Razors’ opinion over any one of the other bozos in the entertainment business, with the honourable exceptions, perhaps, of David Lynch and Joss Whedon. Then again, I was slightly surprised to learn that Razors has not seen Mulholland Drive.

“You’d love it,” I say. “It’s got women snogging in it.”

“Right, that’s getting my vote then,” he replies, but I have a hunch that you’re not really meant to vote for films that came out a decade or so ago. Still, it might be worth a shot. And while we’re on the subject of homosexuality, I find it immensely amusing that Razors, despite being – how best to put this? – emphatically and indeed at times clamorously heterosexual, has just moved into the gayest area I have ever seen outside Castro Street.

In my experience gay men have no difficulty at all in discerning whether another man is gay or not – and indeed in this neck of the woods I don’t even have to rely on my very unreliable gaydar, as everyone here is simply flaming, which I think is wonderful – so the spectacle of two middle-aged Britons hanging out together but not actually holding hands causes people to do double takes as we walk down the street. Razors had to enlist my help in order to buy some bedding and a coffee-maker from the local equivalent of John Lewis, and after a couple of drinks to prepare for the ordeal we were smilingly rebuked by a woman for “having too much fun” as we careened about the place making silly jokes about some of the products on offer.

Meanwhile, we have found a routine. We lived together for two years and have a pretty reliable knowledge of what makes the other tick. It is not knowledge that demands particularly arcane skill. Basically, it involves a certain degree of hedonism and that means we fit right in here. People may think that Americans are acutely conscious of their health but this is just superficial. They still make filterless Lucky Strikes with only the most cursory and non-committal of health warnings, and the local diner offers two free cocktails – either Bloody Marys or Screwdrivers – with their three-egg fried breakfasts, which weigh in at about 50 per cent alcohol. A country that encourages you to get smashed at breakfast time should command a degree of respect, wouldn’t you say?

We have also discovered a truly excellent Italian restaurant whose waitress has developed a loathing for us so powerful that we find ourselves compelled to go back again and again in order to experience it. Ah, what a city. I have been coming here for five decades and it never palls. I would up sticks and move here for good if the Beloved and my children were not in London. (Well, maybe not. They don’t understand cricket and no one here seems to be very interested in explaining the finer points of baseball to me, however many times I ask.) Still, my mother, whom I am accompanying, has often wondered why I never did make the move.

Then again, I look at my bank balance and reflect that it wouldn’t cover the cab fare to JFK. I may have to move here, like it or not. Suddenly I find myself getting a bit homesick, an emotion I have not experienced since I was about 11. This lurgy isn’t helping much, either; one prefers to be unwell in one’s own bed, however excellent the hospitality elsewhere (and Razors’ is exemplary). The NHS may be under threat from the Ghastliest British Government Ever but at least it is more than notionally still there.

New York. Photograph: Getty Images

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.