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

Photo: Getty
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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.