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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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.