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.

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The decline of the north's sporting powerhouse

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Now, things are different.

On a drive between Sheffield and Barnsley, I spotted a striking painting of the Kes poster. Billy Casper’s two-fingered salute covered the wall of a once-popular pub that is now boarded up.

It is almost 50 years since the late Barry Hines wrote A Kestrel for a Knave, the novel that inspired Ken Loach’s 1969 film, and it seems that the defiant, us-against-the-world, stick-it-to-the-man Yorkshireness he commemorated still resonates here. Almost two-thirds of the people of south Yorkshire voted to leave the EU, flicking two fingers up at what they saw as a London-based establishment, detached from life beyond the capital.

But whatever happened to Billy the unlikely lad, and the myriad other northern characters who were once the stars of stage and screen? Like the pitheads that dominated Casper’s tightly knit neighbourhood, they have disappeared from the landscape. The rot set in during the 1980s, when industries were destroyed and communities collapsed, a point eloquently made in Melvyn Bragg’s excellent radio series The Matter of the North.

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Yet today, we rarely get to hear the voices of Barnsley, Sheffield, Doncaster and Rotherham. And the Yorkshire sporting powerhouse is no more – at least, not as we once knew it.

This should be a matter of national concern. The White Rose county is, after all, the home of the world’s oldest registered football club – Sheffield FC, formed in 1857 – and the first English team to win three successive League titles, Huddersfield Town, in the mid-1920s. Hull City are now Yorkshire’s lone representative in the Premier League.

Howard Wilkinson, the manager of Leeds United when they were crowned champions in 1992, the season before the Premier League was founded, lamented the passing of a less money-obsessed era. “My dad worked at Orgreave,” he said, “the scene of Mrs Thatcher’s greatest hour, bless her. You paid for putting an axe through what is a very strong culture of community and joint responsibility.”

The best-known scene in Loach’s film shows a football match in which Mr Sugden, the PE teacher, played by Brian Glover, comically assumes the role of Bobby Charlton. It was played out on the muddy school fields of Barnsley’s run-down Athersley estate. On a visit to his alma mater a few years ago, David Bradley, who played the scrawny 15-year-old Billy, showed me the goalposts that he had swung from as a reluctant goalkeeper. “You can still see the dint in the crossbar,” he said. When I spoke to him recently, Bradley enthused about his lifelong support for Barnsley FC. “But I’ve not been to the ground over the last season and a half,” he said. “I can’t afford it.”

Bradley is not alone. Many long-standing fans have been priced out. Barnsley is only a Championship side, but for their home encounter with Newcastle last October, their fans had to pay £30 for a ticket.

The English game is rooted in the northern, working-class communities that have borne the brunt of austerity over the past six years. The top leagues – like the EU – are perceived to be out of touch and skewed in favour of the moneyed elites.

Bradley, an ardent Remainer, despaired after the Brexit vote. “They did not know what they were doing. But I can understand why. There’s still a lot of neglect, a lot of deprivation in parts of Barnsley. They feel left behind because they have been left behind.”

It is true that there has been a feel-good factor in Yorkshire following the Rio Olympics; if the county were a country, it would have finished 17th in the international medals table. Yet while millions have been invested in “podium-level athletes”, in the team games that are most relevant to the lives of most Yorkshire folk – football, cricket and rugby league – there is a clear division between sport’s elites and its grass roots. While lucrative TV deals have enriched ruling bodies and top clubs, there has been a large decrease in the number of adults playing any sport in the four years since London staged the Games.

According to figures from Sport England, there are now 67,000 fewer people in Yorkshire involved in sport than there were in 2012. In Doncaster, to take a typical post-industrial White Rose town, there has been a 13 per cent drop in participation – compared with a 0.4 per cent decline nationally.

Attendances at rugby league, the region’s “national sport”, are falling. But cricket, in theory, is thriving, with Yorkshire winning the County Championship in 2014 and 2015. Yet Joe Root, the batsman and poster boy for this renaissance, plays far more games for his country than for his county and was rested from Yorkshire’s 2016 title decider against Middlesex.

“Root’s almost not a Yorkshire player nowadays,” said Stuart Rayner, whose book The War of the White Roses chronicles the club’s fortunes between 1968 and 1986. As a fan back then, I frequently watched Geoffrey Boycott and other local stars at Headingley. My favourite was the England bowler Chris Old, a gritty, defiant, unsung anti-hero in the Billy Casper mould.

When Old made his debut, 13 of the 17-strong Yorkshire squad were registered as working-class professionals. Half a century later, three of the five Yorkshiremen selec­ted for the last Ashes series – Root, Jonny Bairstow and Gary Ballance – were privately educated. “The game of cricket now is played in public schools,” Old told me. “Top players are getting huge amounts of money, but the grass-roots game doesn’t seem to have benefited in any way.”

“In ten years’ time you won’t get a Joe Root,” Rayner said. “If you haven’t seen these top Yorkshire cricketers playing in your backyard and you haven’t got Sky, it will be difficult to get the whole cricket bug. So where is the next generation of Roots going to come from?” Or the next generation of Jessica Ennis-Hills? Three years ago, the Sheffield stadium where she trained and first discovered athletics was closed after cuts to local services.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era