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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From hard to soft to the “people’s Brexit”: Theresa May’s Britain is in one hell of a frightful mess

Nobody told me there’d be days like these.

Theresa May became Prime Minister only because of Brexit. Her insouciant predecessor, whose most substantial contribution to this year’s general election campaign was to tweet a photograph of his and his wife’s feet as they lay side by side in bed, resigned because of Brexit. May’s successor will become prime minister because of Brexit. The defining question of British politics is Brexit and its effects and consequences.

So much time, energy and anxiety are being wasted on Brexit, and for what? For Britain to negotiate a new relationship with the European Union that will be, in every way, inferior – socially, economically, culturally – to what we have already, and at a time of dangerous instability in the world, when a clown and braggart occupies the White House. Nobody told me there’d be days like these, as John Lennon once put it in a song popularised by his son Julian. Strange days indeed – most peculiar, mamma.

***

David Cameron’s decision to hold the 2016 referendum at the height of the worst refugee crisis in Europe since the end of the Second World War was an act of spectacular folly by a politician who believed too much in the myth of his own good fortune (“Lucky Dave”, they called him). Michael Portillo has described it as the greatest blunder ever made by a British prime minister. After Cameron’s resignation last summer, Theresa May seemed like the only grown-up in a cabal of entitled and squabbling leadership contenders and Conservative MPs duly organised her coronation.

When she became Prime Minister, May delivered a fine speech in Downing Street: she would create a different, more communitarian, even post-liberal conservatism, and she would fight against “burning injustice”. She understood that the vote for Brexit was also a vote of protest against a failed economic model; against austerity, against stagnant wages and in-work poverty, and against ultra-globalisation. People were weary. “I know you’re working around the clock, I know you’re doing your best, and I know that sometimes life can be a struggle,” May said. “The government I lead will be driven not by the interests of the privileged few, but by yours.”

***

Opinion polls seemed to suggest that May was admired and trusted. She was cold and austere but she also seemed serious, and these were serious times. Yet May’s actions were never equal to her early rhetorical positioning and she never reached out to the many millions who had voted Remain and felt excluded.

By the time of the general election campaign, she was reduced to repeating soundbites and clichés. She had become the Maybot. The promising “Red Tory” language of the early months of her premiership – when she spoke about the common good and the need for greater social responsibility – had gone altogether. This is a source of much regret to her maligned former joint chief of staff Nick Timothy.

“My biggest regret,” he has said, “is that we did not campaign in accordance with the insight that took Theresa to Downing Street in the first place.” With her authority and confidence shattered, May will be gone soon: in seeking to deliver the hard Brexit her Eurosceptic supporters in the party and press demanded, she has succeeded only in creating more confusion and tumult.

***

May used to tell us with supreme wisdom that “Brexit means Brexit”. In her Lancaster House speech in January, she explained her preference for a “clean” Brexit (ie, Britain should leave the single market and customs union and be outside the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice). Her use of the word “clean” was philosophically very interesting, especially when you consider its opposite: dirty, as in a dirty or unclean Brexit.

One of the many satisfying outcomes of the general election was that it has reopened the possibility of an alternative to hard (or clean) Brexit, for which there is no mandate in the House of Commons. I have been keeping a note of the different kinds of Brexit that are being touted.

What is clear is that the adjectives “hard” and “soft”, when prefixed to Brexit, are now quite passé. Emboldened by the improbable revival of the Scottish Conservatives, Ruth Davidson favours what she calls an “open” Brexit, and so now does the preposterous Boris Johnson, too, who waits like a big, overheated, hungry dog for the door of 10 Downing Street to open for him, the saliva of ambition dribbling from his mouth.

Keir Starmer, Labour’s serious-minded barrister supreme, is against what he calls an “extreme Brexit”, even if we are not sure what he is actually for, and the Guardian opposes what it calls a “chaotic Brexit”. Andrew Adonis, the Labour peer and educationalist, supports a “sane Brexit”. The Labour activist Sam Tarry wants a “people’s Brexit”. The commentator Philip Stephens has called for an “intelligent Brexit”, as one would expect of an FT panjandrum; and ­Jeremy Corbyn, a long-standing Eurosceptic who leads a party of parliamentary Remainers, wants a Brexit that protects jobs and workers’ rights. Perhaps we should call this a “Bennite Brexit”. Do please let me know if you spot any other variations.

***

My own preference – and I write having been no great enthusiast for the EU before the referendum – is for “no Brexit”, such is the mess into which this country has been dragged by a former Conservative prime minister who believed the simple mechanism of a binary plebiscite could settle an internal party dispute; one that had festered since Ted Heath took Britain into the European Economic Community in 1973. This as well as his desire to assuage the populism of Nigel Farage and appease his tormentors in the press: and all at the time of his own choosing. Strange days indeed – most peculiar, mamma.

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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