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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Why Russia holds the key to resolving the North Korea crisis

China is propping up North Korea’s economy, but it seems to get little influence in return.

For more than half a century, China has seen North Korea as a dangerous irritant as much as an asset. It might be useful for keeping the United States off guard, and regarded as an essential buffer by the military establishment, but China would happily ditch it if there were a better option.

The North Korean regime has tended to be characterised as uniquely irrational and unpredictable. From its perspective, however, its behaviour makes eminent sense: in fact, its argument for developing a nuclear capability closely echoes the rationale of the great powers. It has no declared intent to launch a first strike, but as long as others have nuclear weapons, North Korea reasons they serve a deterrent function. The regime also argues, as others have, that there are associated benefits with civil nuclear power.  

The long history of North Korea’s nuclear programme follows a recognisable path, previously trodden by Israel, India and Pakistan. It goes from the ambition, formed in the mind of North Korea’s founding dictator, Kim Il-sung, through the long years of a clandestine programme, to the gradual revelation of a reasonably mature, if relatively small, nuclear capability. Signalling is also an element in deterrence. The regime is certainly unpleasant and destabilising, but it is a mistake to imagine that there is no clear purpose and no plan.

The dynasty began life as a Soviet puppet, sandwiched between a powerful USSR and a weak China. But from the start, Kim Il-sung’s muscular nationalism and concern for regime survival suggested that he was unlikely to be a docile dependent of either. His attempt to unify the peninsula by force in 1950 led to a bloody war in which Mao Zedong was obliged to come to his rescue. In the course of that war, “fire and fury” did indeed rain down on North Korea: the US dropped as much ordnance on North Korea as it had during the whole of the Second World War Pacific theatre, including the carpet bombing of Japan. To this day, any building site in Pyongyang is likely to turn up some unexploded ordnance. North Korea was born in a rain of fire, which it has incorporated into its national story.

The regime succeeded in maintaining relations with both its patrons through the dramas and tensions of the Sino-Soviet split to the end of the Cold War. But as Kim Il-sung contemplated the future survival of his regime, he concluded that a nuclear programme was essential insurance, both against his major enemies (the US and South Korea) and any territorial ambitions or excessive demands from China or Russia.

China was and remains North Korea’s major ally, but that does not make North Korea obedient. Their bilateral history is a story of growing defiance and increasing alienation: Kim Il-sung ignored Mao Zedong’s attempt to dissuade him from naming his eldest son, Kim Jong-il, as his successor. He had visited Beijing once a year and had promised that his son would follow suit, but Kim Jong-il only visited Deng Xiaoping’s China once, in 1983. His next visit came three years after Deng’s death, a death for which Kim had offered no formal condolences, as even the most minimal protocol required. 

On that visit, Kim heard the unwelcome news that China, already closer to the United States than he would have wished, was to open relations with his bitter rival, South Korea. When the third dynastic leader, the young Kim Jong-un, took power in 2011, relations with China slid further. Tellingly, Kim Jong-un has not visited Beijing at all, nor has China’s leader, President Xi Jinping, visited Pyongyang, although he has held four summit meetings with South Korea.

Kim Jong-un has made his defiance publicly evident. Not only has he chosen to test his missiles and weapons, but he has selected such highly sensitive moments as last year’s G20 summit in Hangzhou to do so.

China is propping up North Korea’s economy, but it seems to get little influence in return, and the value of the relationship has long been openly questioned by China’s foreign policy analysts. China has had little success in encouraging the regime to loosen controls on the economy and make limited market reforms.

 In the current crisis, China has consistently urged restraint, while co-operating with the tightening of UN sanctions. Beijing’s attitude, however, remains ambivalent: it doubts that sanctions will be effective, and is highly sensitive to US suggestions that Chinese companies that breach sanctions would be subject to punitive measures.  For China, the dangers of bringing North Korea to the edge of collapse are greater than the difficulties of seeking another solution.

Today, North Korea’s relations with Russia are warmer than those with Beijing and if President Trump is serious in his search for someone to solve his North Korea problem for him, he could do worse than to call his friend Mr Putin. No doubt there would be a price, but perhaps Trump would have less difficulty in appeasing Russia than in making concessions to Kim Jong-un. 

In July this year, China and Russia put forward a proposal that both sides should make concessions. North Korea would suspend its nuclear and its missile testing in return for a suspension of South Korea’s annual military exercises with the United States. Buried in the joint statement was the assertion that third parties should not negatively affect the interests of other countries.

Both China and Russia aim to reduce US influence in Asia, an ambition greatly aided to date by Trump’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, conceived as a vehicle of US influence; his treatment of long-standing US allies; and his decision to withdraw the US from the Paris agreement on climate change.

Today the US seems poised between demanding that China solve the North Korea problem and beginning a trade war with Beijing. China’s challenge on the Korean peninsula, always difficult, has grown even greater.

Isabel Hilton is the CEO of the China Dialogue Trust

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear