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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A new German law wants to force mothers to reveal their child’s biological father

The so-called “milkmen’s kids law” would seek protection for men who feel they have been duped into raising children they believe are not biologically theirs – at the expense of women’s rights.

The German press call them “Kuckuckskinder”, which translates literally as “cuckoo children” – parasite offspring being raised by an unsuspecting innocent, alien creatures growing fat at the expense of the host species’ own kind. The British press have opted for the more Benny Hill-esque “milkmen’s kids”, prompting images of bored Seventies housewives answering the door in negligées before inviting Robin Asquith lookalikes up to their suburban boudoirs. Nine months later their henpecked husbands are presented with bawling brats and the poor sods remain none the wiser.

Neither image is particularly flattering to the children involved, but then who cares about them? This is a story about men, women and the redressing of a legal – or is it biological? – injustice. The children are incidental.

This week German Justice Minister Heiko Maas introduced a proposal aimed at to providing greater legal protection for “Scheinväter” – men who are duped into raising children whom they falsely believe to be biologically theirs. This is in response to a 2015 case in which Germany’s highest court ruled that a woman who had told her ex-husband that her child may have been conceived with another man could not be compelled to name the latter. This would, the court decided, be an infringement of the woman’s right to privacy. Nonetheless, the decision was seen to highlight the need for further legislation to clarify and strengthen the position of the Scheinvater.

Maas’ proposal, announced on Monday, examines the problem carefully and sensitively before merrily throwing a woman’s right to privacy out of the window. It would compel a woman to name every man she had sexual intercourse with during the time when her child may have been conceived. She would only have the right to remain silent in cases should there be serious reasons for her not to name the biological father (it would be for the court to decide whether a woman’s reasons were serious enough). It is not yet clear what form of punishment a woman would face were she not to name names (I’m thinking a scarlet letter would be in keeping with the classy, retro “man who was present at the moment of conception” wording). In cases where it did transpire that another man was a child’s biological father, he would be obliged to pay compensation to the man “duped” into supporting the child for up to two years.

It is not clear what happens thereafter. Perhaps the two men shake hands, pat each other on the back, maybe even share a beer or two. It is, after all, a kind of gentlemen’s agreement, a transaction which takes place over the heads of both mother and child once the latter’s paternity has been established. The “true” father compensates the “false” one for having maintained his property in his absence. In some cases there may be bitterness and resentment but perhaps in others one will witness a kind of honourable partnership. You can’t trust women, but DNA tests, money and your fellow man won’t let you down.

Even if it achieves nothing else, this proposal brings us right back to the heart of what patriarchy is all about: paternity and ownership. In April this year a German court ruled that men cannot be forced to take paternity tests by children who suspect them of being their fathers. It has to be their decision. Women, meanwhile, can only access abortion on demand in the first trimester of pregnancy, and even then counselling is mandatory (thereafter the approval of two doctors is required, similar to in the UK). One class of people can be forced to gestate and give birth; another can’t even be forced to take a DNA test. One class of people can be compelled to name any man whose sperm may have ventured beyond their cervix; another is allowed to have a body whose business is entirely its own. And yes, one can argue that forcing men to pay money for the raising of children evens up the score. Men have always argued that, but they’re wrong.

Individual men (sometimes) pay for the raising of individual children because the system we call patriarchy has chosen to make fatherhood about individual ownership. Women have little choice but to go along with this as long as men exploit our labour, restrict our access to material resources and threaten us with violence. We live in a world in which it is almost universally assumed that women “owe” individual men the reassurance that it was their precious sperm that impregnated us, lest we put ourselves and our offspring at risk of poverty and isolation. Rarely do any of us dare to protest. We pretend it is a fair deal, even that reproductive differences barely affect our lives at all. But the sex binary – the fact that sperm is not egg and egg is not sperm – affects all of us.

The original 2015 ruling got it right. The male demand for reassurance regarding paternity is an infringement of a woman’s right to privacy. Moreover, it is important to see this in the context of all the other ways in which men have sought to limit women’s sexual activity, freedom of movement and financial independence in order to ensure that children are truly “theirs”.  Anxiety over paternity is fundamentally linked to anxiety over female sexuality and women’s access to public space. Yet unless all women are kept under lock and key at all times, men will never, ever have the reassurance they crave. Even then, the abstract knowledge that you are the only person to have had the opportunity to impregnate a particular woman cannot rival the physical knowledge of gestation.

We have had millennia of pandering to men’s existential anxieties and treating all matters related to human reproduction, from sex to childbirth, as exceptional cases meaning women cannot have full human rights. Isn’t it about time we tried something new? How about understanding fatherhood not as winning gold in an Olympic sperm race, but as a contract endlessly renewed?

What each of us receives when a child is born is not a biological entity to do with as we choose. It is a relationship, with all of its complexities and risks. It is something worth contributing to and fighting for. Truly, if a man cannot understand that, then any money wasted on a Kuckuckskind – a living, breathing child he could get to know – has got to be the least of his worries. 

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.