The man who used me as a guinea pig for herbal Viagra is back. And he's got brothel creeper shoes

The last time I saw the Guvnor was about a year ago, at the launch of my book, accompanied by a Russian, blonde ex-model, about six inches taller than him, who had the air of a woman upon whom it would be unwise to try any oompus-boompus. Now he's back ag

Ping! A text from, of all people, the Guvnor. For latecomers to this column, the Guvnor used to be the landlord of the pub down the road. Patrolling the tables with mild menace, he would occasionally startle favoured customers with asides of quite extraordinary obscenity, the product of a mind that was as quick as it was filthy.

Every so often if you were having lunch there and he took pity on you, he would join you and start bringing over bottles of wine from far nearer the bottom of the list than the top. You would stagger out of the place at about 5.30, barely able to see.

He once had a porn film shot on the premises; only, this being a British porno, it revolved around the visit of a couple of supposedly oversexed female health and safety inspectors. I ended up learning far more about the separation of meat and dairy products on kitchen shelves – absolutely no innuendo intended – than I did about sex. (He triumphantly produced the DVD towards the end of an extended luncheon I’d been having with the Moose, and the latter, a man of delicate sensibilities, nearly fainted.)

If he wasn’t doing that, he was using me as a guinea pig for the dodgy herbal Viagra he’d taken consignment of, a job I did only once, on the grounds that the stuff nearly killed me. (It worked, in a way, and I wrote about it in these pages.)

Then the Guvnor got exiled from the pub by his wife, who had wearied of his ways, and he became elusive. The last time I saw him was when he came to the launch of my book about the Olympics which none of you bastards have bought, accompanied by a Russian, blonde ex-model, about six inches taller than him, who had the air of a woman upon whom it would be unwise to try any oompus-boompus (as Bertie Wooster once described one of his aunts). He looked well dressed, sleek and happy.

After that, I heard nothing. I imagined a period of forced exile, or a spell in one of the more comfortable correctional establishments. He popped up again at the pub a few months ago but when I asked after him from the staff, I was told he was never coming back, ever, and I got the sense it would be a good idea not to press the matter.

Anyway, here he is again, and he wants to buy me lunch and discuss matters of some import with me, so why not? I arrive a couple of minutes early at the Social Eating House in Poland Street, go to the bar upstairs and fail to enjoy a disgustingly sweet attempt at a Martini served by a boy with the stupidest beard I’ve ever seen – and you see plenty these days – and in walks the Guvnor, wearing, as well as more conventional clothes, bright blue brogues with brothel creeper soles (which, I later learn, cost £540 the pair).

It turns out that he has been suffering from ennui and has been relieving the tedium by idly scanning the pages of a website devoted to single Ukrainian ladies. One of them has taken the fancy that he is some kind of intellectual and has been dropping in references to Proust and Boris Vian. Boris Vian, for Christ’s sake. The Guvnor, whose idea of a library is two copies of Razzle, has been getting busy with Wikipedia but thinks it might be wise to ask me for advice. He shows me her photograph.

“Looks like Kate Moss, doesn’t she?” he says. “Guv, that is Kate Moss,” I say.

He shows me another picture of her. “OK, maybe not,” I say. “But you’ve got to admit there’s something fishy going on here. You say there are 28,000 women on this website. They can’t all look like that.”

The sommelier arrives and although the Guvnor does not bother with the French pronunciation, the look in his eyes tells the wine-man that he is not to be trifled with. I used to feel, when in his company, that I was in a rude, postmodern episode of Minder. Right now, I feel I’m in a Martin Amis novel. But he is soft-hearted and at some point during the next bottle starts showing me pictures of his kittens (his last cats were called, brilliantly, Sid and Nancy). The restaurant, full when we entered, empties. The manager suggests we repair to the bar upstairs. The Guvnor laughs him off; the manager backs away. You don’t argue with people wearing shoes like that. They’re capable of anything.

In my column last week, I said that Irvine Welsh was very nice to me after a disastrous reading I once gave. My memory is even more scrambled than I let on: I meant Stewart Home. My apologies to both writers.

One bottle of wine with an old friend: how dangerous could it be? 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 17 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Austerity Pope

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle