If William Hazlitt were alive today, he'd be eating 39p Frazzles

It is hard to be without money. To get on without it is like travelling in a foreign country without a passport – you are stopped, suspected, and made ridiculous at every turn, besides being subjected to the most serious inconveniences.

William Hazlitt: secret Frazzles guzzler? Image: Getty

 

You may have heard the news last week about gas and electricity prices going up at roughly three times the rate of inflation, and wages falling in real terms for the past decade. Nor were they that great to begin with. Tell me about it, I thought to myself, as I lay in ambush by the mousehole behind the cooker, saucepan in hand, waiting for my dinner to emerge.

“It is hard to be without money. To get on without it is like travelling in a foreign country without a passport – you are stopped, suspected, and made ridiculous at every turn, besides being subjected to the most serious inconveniences.” That’s William Hazlitt in 1827. It could have been me, six days ago. Before that, I had checked my bank balance and been interested to note that I had £1.27 in my current account to last me until the next payday, which was then 16 days away.

Hmm, that’s a little earlier than usual, I said to myself, referring to that point in the month at which you run out of money. That I was actually owed about £900 over my usual monthly rate – thanks to extra-hard work – cut no ice with the bank, which refused to extend my overdraft. (The manager himself was very apologetic and, indeed, surprised about this, but the decision was out of his hands; apparently all is now decided by computerised algorithm at a central location. What’s the purpose of a bank manager now, I wonder.)

The annoying thing is that after last month’s scare I had become quite frugal, to the point where I now confine my occasional elevenses snack to a packet of Frazzles, who are going through a very welcome phase of printing the price (39p) on the packet and thus discouraging the corner shop from making its usual outrageous mark-up. I could of course go without tobacco (there’s an extraordinary range of prices of Cutters Choice rolling tobacco, from something like £6 in the centre of town to £3.80 in Shepherd’s Bush), or wine, but I calculated that even if going without the latter would leave me more or less in pocket by the end of the month, it wouldn’t make me that much wealthier – and, besides, what is the point of life without wine?

Here’s some more Hazlitt. I quote him at some length because he’s so good. “The want of money I here allude to is not altogether that which arises from absolute poverty . . . but that uncertain, casual, precarious mode of existence . . . the intermediate state of difficulty and suspense between the last guinea or shilling and the next that we may have the good luck to encounter. This gap . . . is really full of many anxieties, misgivings, mortifications, meannesses, and deplorable embarrassments of every description.”

His essay “On the Want of Money”, he went on to say, “is not a fanciful speculation”, and it is some consolation that I am in his company, in this area at least. I was brooding on this because I was off, with my last tenner, to the pub to meet someone who wanted to talk books with me but who also had brought over a couple of packs of filterless Lucky Strike (which you can’t get in this country). Last time I checked, these cost about eight bucks each, and I was worried about how I was going to pay for them. Talk about deplorable embarrassments.

Another one comes when it becomes too painful to check your bank balance. People say it is important to keep an eye on your finances but when each time you do so you feel a pang of anxiety so sharp it may as well be physical, is it any wonder that there is a reluctance not only to be spurned in public by the cash machine but also, in private, to have one’s computer screen tell you a bald, unwelcome truth? In the end, out of that sense where hope and despair are pretty much the same thing, I checked my balance online and found that some saint had paid me £300 of the £900 I was owed. I’m not sure how placed you are to appreciate this, although I have a suspicion that if this column were appearing in the Spectator, there would be a few baffled letters the following week asking why I didn’t just let the under-footman go, but I haven’t had such a fillip for ages.

So tonight I am going to celebrate by getting a takeaway from the Romna Curry House on Seymour Place, which cooks the best curry I’ve ever had despite being a frighteningly underpopulated restaurant. I strongly recommend their food – and I, for one, am getting fed up with eating mice.

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 23 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Russell Brand Guest Edit

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How Labour risks becoming a party without a country

Without establishing the role of Labour in modern Britain, the party is unlikely ever to govern again.

“In my time of dying, want nobody to mourn

All I want for you to do is take my body home”

- Blind Willie Johnson

The Conservative Party is preparing itself for a bloody civil war. Conservative MPs will tell anyone who wants to know (Labour MPs and journalists included) that there are 100 Conservative MPs sitting on letters calling for a leadership contest. When? Whenever they want to. This impending war has many reasons: ancient feuds, bad blood, personal spite and enmity, thwarted ambition, and of course, the European Union.

Fundamentally, at the heart of the Tory war over the European Union is the vexed question of ‘What is Britain’s place in the World?’ That this question remains unanswered a quarter of a century after it first decimated the Conservative Party is not a sign that the Party is incapable of answering the question, but that it has no settled view on what the correct answer should be.

The war persists because the truth is that there is no compromise solution. The two competing answers are binary opposites: internationalist or insular nationalist, co-habitation is an impossibility.

The Tories, in any event, are prepared to keep on asking this question, seemingly to the point of destruction. For the most part, Labour has answered this question: Britain will succeed as an outward looking, internationalist state. The equally important question facing the Labour Party is ‘What is the place of the Labour Party in modern Britain?’ Without answering this question, Labour is unlikely to govern ever again and in contrast to the Tories, Labour has so far refused to acknowledge that such a question is being asked of it by the people it was founded to serve. At its heart, this is a question about England and the rapidly changing nature of the United Kingdom.

In the wake of the 2016 elections, the approach that Labour needs to take with regard to the ‘English question’ is more important than ever before. With Scotland out of reach for at least a generation (assuming it remains within the United Kingdom) and with Labour’s share of the vote falling back in Wales in the face of strong challenges from Plaid Cymru and UKIP, Labour will need to rely upon winning vast swathes of England if we are to form a government in 2020.

In a new book published this week, Labour’s Identity Crisis, Tristram Hunt has brought together Labour MPs, activists and parliamentary candidates from the 2015 general election to explore the challenges facing Labour in England and how the party should address these, not purely as an electoral device, but as a matter of principle.

My contribution to the book was inspired by Led Zeppelin’s Physical Graffiti. The track list reads like the score for a musical tragedy based upon the Labour Party from 2010 onwards: In My Time of Dying, Trampled Underfoot, Sick Again, Ten Years Gone. 

Continued Labour introspection is increasingly tiresome for the political commentariat – even boring – and Labour’s Identity Crisis is a genuinely exciting attempt to swinge through this inertia. As well as exploring our most recent failure, the book attempts to chart the course towards the next Labour victory: political cartography at its most urgent.

This collection of essays represents an overdue effort to answer the question that the Party has sought to sidestep for too long.  In the run up to 2020, as the United Kingdom continues to atomise, the Labour Party must have an ambitious, compelling vision for England, or else risks becoming a party without a country.

Jamie Reed is Labour MP for Copeland.