What does a real self-pitying pseudo-diary look like?

After one particularly cruel reader complaint, we’ll have none of this pseudo-diary malarkey any more. From now on, everything’s going to be properly dated.

November 8, 2013. A letter has been printed in this magazine. “Oh, for God’s sake,” it begins, “spare me the self-pitying pseudo-diaries of Nicholas Lezard . . .” The correspondent, one Sue Bailey via email, goes on to name two of my fellow contributors, but my vision is already too blurred with tears to read them, and I go off to hide in the wardrobe and snivel.

When the Beloved returns from work later that evening she hands me cups of hot sweet tea and fresh handkerchiefs until I pull myself together. I try to learn something positive from the whole affair. Well, I know a shot across my bows when I see one, and obviously what Ms Bailey is most strenuously objecting to is the way these are “pseudo-diaries”. Fair dos. We’ll have none of this pseudo-diary malarkey any more. From now on, everything’s going to be properly dated.

9 November A very official looking letter arrives. Through the little plastic window I can see the words “Warning Notice” in bold, along with the words “Nickolas Lezard” (sic). It is not until the evening, after the first couple of liveners, that I have the nerve to open it. In the interim, my mind has been racing with possibilities, all of them unpleasant and selfpitying in the extreme. When I think of the things I could be nabbed for, I get butterflies in the stomach, and they’re not light, pretty butterflies either. These are dark, horrid ones, the size of bats.

Anyway, it turns out that Westminster Council has taken a dim view of my cleaning lady’s habit of taking out the recycling on the wrong day, and in its view I am in breach of Section 87 of the Environment Protection Act 1990 and “liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding level 4 on the standard scale (currently £2,500)”. This raises several questions, the most trivial being what kind of an environment they think they’re protecting in the first place – it’s not exactly all red squirrels and rare orchids out there, let me put it that way – and the least trivial being how the hell I am going to find £2,500, considering all my money is gone by the 20th of each month.

The reverse of the letter consists of a photo of the bags of recycling and a sworn statement from the Westminster warden, who is named, but I suspect the dark hand of the Shop That Sells Expensive Wank down the road.

When the Beloved gets back later from work and revives me with a moistened sponge and some smelling salts, she points out that the letter goes on to say I’m not actually being fined, and there is a paragraph that begins “now that the implications have been made known to you . . .”. You can say that again. The toe I bashed two weeks ago still hurts.

10 November My old friend Dave arrives from Rome. My first university friend, Dave was the first of us to pass all the milestones: first to get married, first to have children, first to have a quadruple heart bypass. Half Italian, and a keen epicure, he arrives laden with gifts: a salami the size of a premature baby, a bottle of 2001 Sagrantino di Montefalco, which he assures me is the best in all Italy, and the heart of a three-year-old Parmesan cheese, which comes in a rather unappetising-looking cylinder, but when sliced dissolves in the mouth in a golden crumble of crystalline, cheesy goodness. I am going to have to hide this from the Beloved, who likes cheese even more than I do.

Not much to be self-pitying about. My toe still hurts so badly I can’t put on my Chelsea boots. We run out of wine, but I am not ready to open the good stuff. Dave’s son pops over. He is more of a monoglot than his father but luckily the Beloved can speak Italian so conversation flows. She asks where he lives. I tell you, you have not lived until you have heard an Italian try to say “Willesden Green”.

11 November I have a bath and try to clean between my little toe and the one next to it, as I begin to suspect a large quantity of jam is accumulating there. I move the toe a millimetre and the agony is surpassed only by the blow that caused the injury in the first place. I take to my bed. I think I’m ill, but it is very hard for freelance writers to tell whether they’re ill or not. I see that someone has written “meh” underneath an article of mine. Jesus, the times we live in.

12 November I am now too scared to take the recycling out on any day at all. Blue bags stuffed to bursting now hinder egress and ingress to the Hovel, and are probably now a fire hazard to boot. Toe still hurts. Satisfied, Ms B?

The recycling bins: monsters with ever-changing rules that plague us all. 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 13 November 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The New Exodus

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The decline of the north's sporting powerhouse

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Now, things are different.

On a drive between Sheffield and Barnsley, I spotted a striking painting of the Kes poster. Billy Casper’s two-fingered salute covered the wall of a once-popular pub that is now boarded up.

It is almost 50 years since the late Barry Hines wrote A Kestrel for a Knave, the novel that inspired Ken Loach’s 1969 film, and it seems that the defiant, us-against-the-world, stick-it-to-the-man Yorkshireness he commemorated still resonates here. Almost two-thirds of the people of south Yorkshire voted to leave the EU, flicking two fingers up at what they saw as a London-based establishment, detached from life beyond the capital.

But whatever happened to Billy the unlikely lad, and the myriad other northern characters who were once the stars of stage and screen? Like the pitheads that dominated Casper’s tightly knit neighbourhood, they have disappeared from the landscape. The rot set in during the 1980s, when industries were destroyed and communities collapsed, a point eloquently made in Melvyn Bragg’s excellent radio series The Matter of the North.

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Yet today, we rarely get to hear the voices of Barnsley, Sheffield, Doncaster and Rotherham. And the Yorkshire sporting powerhouse is no more – at least, not as we once knew it.

This should be a matter of national concern. The White Rose county is, after all, the home of the world’s oldest registered football club – Sheffield FC, formed in 1857 – and the first English team to win three successive League titles, Huddersfield Town, in the mid-1920s. Hull City are now Yorkshire’s lone representative in the Premier League.

Howard Wilkinson, the manager of Leeds United when they were crowned champions in 1992, the season before the Premier League was founded, lamented the passing of a less money-obsessed era. “My dad worked at Orgreave,” he said, “the scene of Mrs Thatcher’s greatest hour, bless her. You paid for putting an axe through what is a very strong culture of community and joint responsibility.”

The best-known scene in Loach’s film shows a football match in which Mr Sugden, the PE teacher, played by Brian Glover, comically assumes the role of Bobby Charlton. It was played out on the muddy school fields of Barnsley’s run-down Athersley estate. On a visit to his alma mater a few years ago, David Bradley, who played the scrawny 15-year-old Billy, showed me the goalposts that he had swung from as a reluctant goalkeeper. “You can still see the dint in the crossbar,” he said. When I spoke to him recently, Bradley enthused about his lifelong support for Barnsley FC. “But I’ve not been to the ground over the last season and a half,” he said. “I can’t afford it.”

Bradley is not alone. Many long-standing fans have been priced out. Barnsley is only a Championship side, but for their home encounter with Newcastle last October, their fans had to pay £30 for a ticket.

The English game is rooted in the northern, working-class communities that have borne the brunt of austerity over the past six years. The top leagues – like the EU – are perceived to be out of touch and skewed in favour of the moneyed elites.

Bradley, an ardent Remainer, despaired after the Brexit vote. “They did not know what they were doing. But I can understand why. There’s still a lot of neglect, a lot of deprivation in parts of Barnsley. They feel left behind because they have been left behind.”

It is true that there has been a feel-good factor in Yorkshire following the Rio Olympics; if the county were a country, it would have finished 17th in the international medals table. Yet while millions have been invested in “podium-level athletes”, in the team games that are most relevant to the lives of most Yorkshire folk – football, cricket and rugby league – there is a clear division between sport’s elites and its grass roots. While lucrative TV deals have enriched ruling bodies and top clubs, there has been a large decrease in the number of adults playing any sport in the four years since London staged the Games.

According to figures from Sport England, there are now 67,000 fewer people in Yorkshire involved in sport than there were in 2012. In Doncaster, to take a typical post-industrial White Rose town, there has been a 13 per cent drop in participation – compared with a 0.4 per cent decline nationally.

Attendances at rugby league, the region’s “national sport”, are falling. But cricket, in theory, is thriving, with Yorkshire winning the County Championship in 2014 and 2015. Yet Joe Root, the batsman and poster boy for this renaissance, plays far more games for his country than for his county and was rested from Yorkshire’s 2016 title decider against Middlesex.

“Root’s almost not a Yorkshire player nowadays,” said Stuart Rayner, whose book The War of the White Roses chronicles the club’s fortunes between 1968 and 1986. As a fan back then, I frequently watched Geoffrey Boycott and other local stars at Headingley. My favourite was the England bowler Chris Old, a gritty, defiant, unsung anti-hero in the Billy Casper mould.

When Old made his debut, 13 of the 17-strong Yorkshire squad were registered as working-class professionals. Half a century later, three of the five Yorkshiremen selec­ted for the last Ashes series – Root, Jonny Bairstow and Gary Ballance – were privately educated. “The game of cricket now is played in public schools,” Old told me. “Top players are getting huge amounts of money, but the grass-roots game doesn’t seem to have benefited in any way.”

“In ten years’ time you won’t get a Joe Root,” Rayner said. “If you haven’t seen these top Yorkshire cricketers playing in your backyard and you haven’t got Sky, it will be difficult to get the whole cricket bug. So where is the next generation of Roots going to come from?” Or the next generation of Jessica Ennis-Hills? Three years ago, the Sheffield stadium where she trained and first discovered athletics was closed after cuts to local services.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era