The fight against entropy

It all begins with a hard line against Eucryl Tooth Powder.

I suppose it all started when I learned about the Second Law of Thermodynamics at school. There you are, bumbling along in your safe little world, blandly assured that things will go on getting better, that everything will become more prosperous and ordered, and then – wham! – you see that simple little equation, Δ > 0, absorb the implications of the fact that heat cannot pass from a colder to a warmer body, and not only do you understand that eventually the universe will die in a uniform chill of something not much cosier than absolute zero, or something roughly around -700°C, but you also understand how hard it is to keep your room tidy.
 
Since then, I have fought only the most desperate rearguard actions against entropy. “You can’t fart against thunder,” as my Great-Uncle Cecil used to say, when faced with a superior hand at poker – and things don’t come much more thunderous than the heat-death of the universe.
 
Women, though, in my experience, do not see it this way. And in case you think that’s sexist, I should add that most men don’t see it my way, either. Men, though, are more slobby; there are women who are messier than me but they are so spectacularly messy that they get featured on television. The key words here are “in my experience”, and last week, after a few months of Putting Up With Things, the Beloved decided to take a rare day off work, roll her sleeves up and get cracking against the entropy. So that I can help her with this, instead of just lying in bed deeply sensing the futility of all human endeavour to a slightly more intense pitch than I did yesterday, she invents a game called “Keep or Chuck?”, complete with theme tune. The game – and it really is quite clever of her to realise that to get me to help, a game must be made of it; no one else has worked that out before – is played to a strict time limit of ten minutes at a stretch, and the object is to make as many decisions about what to keep or chuck within that time. No overt reward is given for chucking as opposed to keeping something but a little something in the games master’s demeanour suggests that chucking manky redundant things will be rewarded later and keeping manky redundant things will not be so much.
 
So: title music, please. And, bearing in mind I have been living in the Hovel for only six years . . . bathroom cabinet first. Nyrelex for Chesty Coughs (expiry date, 1998): chuck. Night Nurse (now virtually crystallised, best before 1997): chuck. Peppermint foot lotion “of the most extraordinary consistency”: chuck. Brush-on facial hair remover: chuck. Haemorrhoid cream (b b 2004): chuck. Clarins Honey-Tinted Moisturiser (no best before date, but only the letters “ARIN” of “Clarins” remain visible): chuck. Rinstead sugar-free pastilles (b b 2005): chuck. “Soothing and cooling” moist haemorrhoid tissues (b b 2004): chuck. (I begin to sense a pattern here and feel a pang of pity for whoever lived here before me.) Eucryl Tooth Powder – or, as the Beloved calls it, “Eucryl Tooth Powder???? What the fuck’s that???” – keep: I bought it myself. I then have to explain it. Explaining Eucryl Tooth Powder to pretty much anyone under 50 is harder than you might think. Mitchum roll-on deodorant (“so strong you can even skip a day”): keep – the name and slogan are hilarious. No, on second thoughts, chuck. It pre-dates me. (Later inspection shows that it has actually been kept.) Ibis Mosquito Re-Impregnation Kit (no date): keep. Unless climate change gallops along even faster than in the most pessimistic scientist’s nightmares, I won’t be needing this in the Hovel, but how cool is a re-impregnation kit? Even cooler than an impregnation kit, surely.
 
And so on. In the ten minutes allotted to “Keep or Chuck?”, the Beloved has managed to show me an enormous array of redundant products which, despite having been kept in a cabinet for years, have not so much accrued a layer of dust as actually grown beards; and I wonder, not for the first time, what kink it is in my psyche that prevents me, or people like me, from performing this perfectly simple and reasonable act. It is possible that the childhood loss of a loved family member made me reluctant to throw things away, that it’s a reaction against rejection, death being the greatest rejection of all; but then again I know people with similar events in their backgrounds and they’re not untidy at all. Search me. Or not. You don’t know what you’ll find.
Sorting through entropy is notoriously difficult. Image: Getty

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.

This article first appeared in the 30 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory Game of Thrones

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Brexit is teaching the UK that it needs immigrants

Finally forced to confront the economic consequences of low migration, ministers are abandoning the easy rhetoric of the past.

Why did the UK vote to leave the EU? For conservatives, Brexit was about regaining parliamentary sovereignty. For socialists it was about escaping the single market. For still more it was a chance to punish David Cameron and George Osborne. But supreme among the causes was the desire to reduce immigration.

For years, as the government repeatedly missed its target to limit net migration to "tens of thousands", the EU provided a convenient scapegoat. The free movement of people allegedly made this ambition unachievable (even as non-European migration oustripped that from the continent). When Cameron, the author of the target, was later forced to argue that the price of leaving the EU was nevertheless too great, voters were unsurprisingly unconvinced.

But though the Leave campaign vowed to gain "control" of immigration, it was careful never to set a formal target. As many of its senior figures knew, reducing net migration to "tens of thousands" a year would come at an economic price (immigrants make a net fiscal contribution of £7bn a year). An OBR study found that with zero net migration, public sector debt would rise to 145 per cent of GDP by 2062-63, while with high net migration it would fall to 73 per cent. For the UK, with its poor productivity and sub-par infrastructure, immigration has long been an economic boon. 

When Theresa May became Prime Minister, some cabinet members hoped that she would abolish the net migration target in a "Nixon goes to China" moment. But rather than retreating, the former Home Secretary doubled down. She regards the target as essential on both political and policy grounds (and has rejected pleas to exempt foreign students). But though the same goal endures, Brexit is forcing ministers to reveal a rarely spoken truth: Britain needs immigrants.

Those who boasted during the referendum of their desire to reduce the number of newcomers have been forced to qualify their remarks. On last night's Question Time, Brexit secretary David Davis conceded that immigration woud not invariably fall following Brexit. "I cannot imagine that the policy will be anything other than that which is in the national interest, which means that from time to time we’ll need more, from time to time we’ll need less migrants."

Though Davis insisted that the government would eventually meet its "tens of thousands" target (while sounding rather unconvinced), he added: "The simple truth is that we have to manage this problem. You’ve got industry dependent on migrants. You’ve got social welfare, the national health service. You have to make sure they continue to work."

As my colleague Julia Rampen has charted, Davis's colleagues have inserted similar caveats. Andrea Leadsom, the Environment Secretary, who warned during the referendum that EU immigration could “overwhelm” Britain, has told farmers that she recognises “how important seasonal labour from the EU is to the everyday running of your businesses”. Others, such as the Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, the Business Secretary, Greg Clark, and the Communities Secretary, Sajid Javid, have issued similar guarantees to employers. Brexit is fuelling immigration nimbyism: “Fewer migrants, please, but not in my sector.”

The UK’s vote to leave the EU – and May’s decision to pursue a "hard Brexit" – has deprived the government of a convenient alibi for high immigration. Finally forced to confront the economic consequences of low migration, ministers are abandoning the easy rhetoric of the past. Brexit may have been caused by the supposed costs of immigration but it is becoming an education in its benefits.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.