One wedding which made me wonder how I'd behave in a war

Being a lefty, arty intellectual, part English, Polish, American, French and Jewish, I would have been wanted dead by Hitler six or seven times over. I bear this in mind as I arrive at one of many recent weddings.

As I might have mentioned before, among the nice things that have been happening lately is the fact that I have, thanks to relatives who are the right age, and friends of the Beloved, been getting invited to lots of weddings.

At my age, there is nothing bad about a wedding. Before I got married, going to the weddings of my contemporaries had something of the vibe of bomb disposal about it, or potential contagion: I wondered if my then girlfriend would let all the celebrations cause her to lose her mind and insist on a wedding of her own. To me.

Which wedding would be the one that would set off the unstoppable cascade of emotions? This far down the line, I can’t remember which one it was, so I just hold them all equally to blame.

These days, all a wedding means to me is, happily, an excuse to dress up (threepiece suit for autumn/winter, lightly crumpled linen for spring/summer, thus making effective use of the only two suits I possess) and get stuffed and hammered at someone else’s expense.

But the latest one fills me with a certain trepidation, for it is a military wedding, and one of the Beloved’s friends is marrying a flight lieutenant.

At this point I can imagine what you’re thinking. “Ah, that conchie Lezard is going to express his misgivings about the armed forces, and his guilt at having anything to do with the oppressive military-industrial complex and the forces of Babylon, etc.” At which point I will have to gently disabuse you and say that I am afraid the problem lies entirely in the opposite direction.

I remember vividly the fat-bottomed historian Andrew Roberts* once calling me a conchie live on air, saying that I would not have fought in the Second World War. The comeback that instantly sprang to mind was too incendiary to say (“My dear chap, I’m sure that you would not have hesitated to volunteer; only I’m not sure for which side”), so all I could do was seethe.

I most certainly would not have sat that war out. Being a lefty, arty intellectual, part English, Polish, American, French and Jewish, I would have been wanted dead by Hitler six or seven times over, and I am very glad indeed that when I learned German it was because I wanted to, and not because it was compulsory. Not, of course, that I would have been able to learn it compulsorily, because, as my private-school peers were keen to remind me, I was “good enough for the ovens”.

So when I get up close to the military, I am very mindful of the fact that their predecessors put their lives on the line for the likes of me, and I’m very happy that members of my family did what they could, too. (My gambling-mad great-uncle Lizzie parachuted behind enemy lines to see what he could learn from his old croupier pals, became known as “the man who broke his back at Monte Carlo” and was tended to full recovery by the French Resistance. Another great-uncle actually was a conscientious objector, but did his bit by volunteering to be a pathfinder: that is, flying, unarmed, ahead of a bomber formation in order to guide it to target. That takes some balls. Amazingly, he survived.) Things are made worse by the fact that this is going to be a proper RAF wedding: ceremony at St Clement Danes, reception at the Honourable Artillery Company, the works. Even the groom’s father is an army chaplain. So I’m very worried that I am going to get drunk and start gushing, or worse. “Try and stay sober, Lezard,” I say to myself, as I try to remember how you tie a tie.

Oh well. Even before alcohol touches my lips, I am unmanned. RAF St Clement Danes (as it is officially called) bursts with history; officers form an arch of swords for bride and groom to walk through; the bells play “Oranges and Lemons”; and every single person on the top deck of every single bus that passes swivels their head to gawp at the scene.

A lump forms in my throat and I seem to have something in my eye. The Beloved sees me, excited as a seven-year-old, and says: “You’re a crap pacifist.”

*Legal note: I gather that, since this exchange, Andrew Roberts has undertaken some kind of slimming regime and his rear end is no longer so adipose. But believe me, at the time these remarks were made, it was the size of Wales

Military weddings come in many forms. 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 30 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Should you bother to vote?

Getty
Show Hide image

Is defeat in Stoke the beginning of the end for Paul Nuttall?

The Ukip leader was his party's unity candidate. But after his defeat in Stoke, the old divisions are beginning to show again

In a speech to Ukip’s spring conference in Bolton on February 17, the party’s once and probably future leader Nigel Farage laid down the gauntlet for his successor, Paul Nuttall. Stoke’s by-election was “fundamental” to the future of the party – and Nuttall had to win.
 
One week on, Nuttall has failed that test miserably and thrown the fundamental questions hanging over Ukip’s future into harsh relief. 

For all his bullish talk of supplanting Labour in its industrial heartlands, the Ukip leader only managed to increase the party’s vote share by 2.2 percentage points on 2015. This paltry increase came despite Stoke’s 70 per cent Brexit majority, and a media narrative that was, until the revelations around Nuttall and Hillsborough, talking the party’s chances up.
 
So what now for Nuttall? There is, for the time being, little chance of him resigning – and, in truth, few inside Ukip expected him to win. Nuttall was relying on two well-rehearsed lines as get-out-of-jail free cards very early on in the campaign. 

The first was that the seat was a lowly 72 on Ukip’s target list. The second was that he had been leader of party whose image had been tarnished by infighting both figurative and literal for all of 12 weeks – the real work of his project had yet to begin. 

The chances of that project ever succeeding were modest at the very best. After yesterday’s defeat, it looks even more unlikely. Nuttall had originally stated his intention to run in the likely by-election in Leigh, Greater Manchester, when Andy Burnham wins the Greater Manchester metro mayoralty as is expected in May (Wigan, the borough of which Leigh is part, voted 64 per cent for Brexit).

If he goes ahead and stands – which he may well do – he will have to overturn a Labour majority of over 14,000. That, even before the unedifying row over the veracity of his Hillsborough recollections, was always going to be a big challenge. If he goes for it and loses, his leadership – predicated as it is on his supposed ability to win votes in the north - will be dead in the water. 

Nuttall is not entirely to blame, but he is a big part of Ukip’s problem. I visited Stoke the day before The Guardian published its initial report on Nuttall’s Hillsborough claims, and even then Nuttall’s campaign manager admitted that he was unlikely to convince the “hard core” of Conservative voters to back him. 

There are manifold reasons for this, but chief among them is that Nuttall, despite his newfound love of tweed, is no Nigel Farage. Not only does he lack his name recognition and box office appeal, but the sad truth is that the Tory voters Ukip need to attract are much less likely to vote for a party led by a Scouser whose platform consists of reassuring working-class voters their NHS and benefits are safe.
 
It is Farage and his allies – most notably the party’s main donor Arron Banks – who hold the most power over Nuttall’s future. Banks, who Nuttall publicly disowned as a non-member after he said he was “sick to death” of people “milking” the Hillsborough disaster, said on the eve of the Stoke poll that Ukip had to “remain radical” if it wanted to keep receiving his money. Farage himself has said the party’s campaign ought to have been “clearer” on immigration. 

Senior party figures are already briefing against Nuttall and his team in the Telegraph, whose proprietors are chummy with the beer-swilling Farage-Banks axis. They deride him for his efforts to turn Ukip into “NiceKip” or “Nukip” in order to appeal to more women voters, and for the heavy-handedness of his pitch to Labour voters (“There were times when I wondered whether I’ve got a purple rosette or a red one on”, one told the paper). 

It is Nuttall’s policy advisers - the anti-Farage awkward squad of Suzanne Evans, MEP Patrick O’Flynn (who famously branded Farage "snarling, thin-skinned and aggressive") and former leadership candidate Lisa Duffy – come in for the harshest criticism. Herein lies the leader's almost impossible task. Despite having pitched to members as a unity candidate, the two sides’ visions for Ukip are irreconcilable – one urges him to emulate Trump (who Nuttall says he would not have voted for), and the other urges a more moderate tack. 

Endorsing his leader on Question Time last night, Ukip’s sole MP Douglas Carswell blamed the legacy of the party’s Tea Party-inspired 2015 general election campaign, which saw Farage complain about foreigners with HIV using the NHS in ITV’s leaders debate, for the party’s poor performance in Stoke. Others, such as MEP Bill Etheridge, say precisely the opposite – that Nuttall must be more like Farage. 

Neither side has yet called for Nuttall’s head. He insists he is “not going anywhere”. With his febrile party no stranger to abortive coup and counter-coup, he is unlikely to be the one who has the final say.