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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Theresa May's big thinker - an interview with George Freeman

The Conservative policy board chair on the meaning of Brexit, state intervention and whether "Mayism" exists.

Theresa May’s three months as Prime Minister have been marked by ruthless changes of both personnel and policy, from grammar schools to fiscal targets. The man tasked with overseeing the latter is George Freeman, a newly bearded 49-year-old who jokingly describes himself as “a designated thinker”.

“It’s a huge privilege,” Freeman told me when we met recently in Westminster. “As [May] has indicated, she’s determined to open up the policymaking process to good ideas from a much wider pool.”

After entering parliament as the MP for Mid Norfolk in 2010, Freeman distinguished himself as one of the most intellectually energetic Tory MPs. He founded the 2020 group of Conservative modernisers and became the first ever life sciences minister in 2014. Before this, he had worked for 15 years as a biotech entrepreneur.

Politics is in his blood. The Liberal prime minister William Gladstone was his great-great-great-uncle and Mabel Philipson, the first female Conservative MP, his great-aunt. Yet Freeman attributes his reformist zeal to the belief that “with privilege comes responsibility”. He boarded at Radley College after his parents, both alcoholics, divorced and has spoken of his “emotionally damaged” childhood.

It is unsurprising that May, confronted by the greatest policy challenge since 1945 – EU withdrawal – has called on his services. The chair of the Prime Minister’s policy board, to give Freeman his official title, was a passionate Remainer but told me “we are now all Brexiteers”. The “Brexit roar”, he explained, was “a mixture of very deeply felt concerns and complaints about globalisation, powerlessness and the growing gap between London and [other] places . . .

“There’s an understanding that if we simply delivered Brexit, and didn’t tackle the rest, we would only have dealt with some of the problem.”

His ambition was “to do for our generation what Disraeli did in the 19th century, in understanding that the extraordinarily challenging pace of franchise extension was also a huge opportunity to harness and fashion a New Model Conservative Party”.

Besides abandoning the surplus target (“to boost growth and investment in infrastructure”), Freeman cited welfare policy as a point of departure. The government would “better differentiate” between changes in the welfare budget and systemic reform – a division that May believes was eroded by George Osborne.

The Prime Minister underlined her commitment to industrial strategy by naming a new department after it. But what does it mean? “I think there is a recognition that we are embracing something unrecognisable from the failed ‘beer and sandwiches’ interventionism of the Sixties and Seventies,” Freeman said. “Twenty-first-century Conservative industrial strategy is about backing our science, innovation and knowledge economy, and other sectors where we have serious global leadership.” He spoke of “stepping in where only the state can”, citing the publicly funded Diamond Light Source synchrotron facility, which he recently visited with the astronaut Tim Peake. The government must be not merely “pro-enterprise”, but “more enterprising”.

May has endured her heaviest dissent over education, and Freeman was notably lukewarm about the idea of new grammar schools. “As well as her position” on the latter, he emphasised, “the Prime Minister set out a much broader vision”. Asked whether he understood MPs’ objections to academic selection, he said “there will be all the usual consultation and discussions through parliament about specific measures”.

The Prime Minister has entered office with greater ideological definition to her thinking than David Cameron, who struggled to reconcile his early vision with austerity. Can we speak of “Mayism”? “I’m not sure the ‘ism’ is helpful or appropriate at this stage. The Prime Minister is very strongly driven by her conservative values, and converting those values into effective policies to tackle the challenges we face. I think we have to wait for the judgement of history to define the ism.”

Freeman is close to “DC” (as he calls Cameron) and praised his premiership. “I was very sorry to see him go. But in the end, given the way the referendum turned out, it was inevitable. I thought he handled that whole last week in the most exemplary way: typical of the man. In time, I think he will come to be recognised as a transformational leader who brought the Conservative Party to terms with modern Britain.”

He rejected the former education secretary Nicky Morgan’s suggestion that May would struggle to “reach into” the marginal seats that the Tories won under Cameron. “Theresa May is appealing widely across whole swaths of the country as a One-Nation leader,” he declared.

With the re-election of Jeremy Corbyn, Freeman said, “the centre ground of British politics, once dominated by Blair and New Labour, has been vacated . . . That is a huge opportunity for a One-Nation Conservative Party to demonstrate our relevance beyond our core vote to those around the country who have clearly felt so marginalised.”

Corbyn’s triumph “illustrates the extraordinary challenge for mainstream political parties in this age of asymmetric, post-Brexit politics . . . We now have to use the opportunity of incumbency in government to tackle the root causes of the insurgency that has taken out the Labour Party.”

Freeman acknowledged the risk that Labour’s divisions would produce an internal Tory opposition.

“It also creates a question for the Conservative Party. Will we turn in on ourselves and generate our own arguments, or unite and reach out into the space that Corbyn has vacated?” 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories