Decorated toilets are displayed as part of a public art installation titled 'C'mon, give a shit' to mark World Toilet Day. Photo: Getty.
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The Hovel’s lavatory is dead – long live the toilet, khazi, bog, or whatever you want to call it

We got a new toilet.

We have a new toilet in the Hovel. Or is it a lavatory? Being déclassé, I have never been able to remember which is the word you must never use in front of polite society. Anyway, that thing you piss in. I consider squeamishness one of the more useless reactions to a world that is unavoidably full of “oomska” (to use Uncle Monty’s term) but even I was beginning to get fed up with the old one. In a colour that, in a paint catalogue of unusual honesty, would be described as “diseased peach” and dating from the early 1970s, its innards had become so rusted and manky that even the rudimentary flush mechanism had ceased to function.

Its decline, like that of an invalid, could be marked in stages. The float either floated too much or too little so it never thought its cistern was full and the days and nights were accompanied by the endless hiss of water coming in and the endless trickle of water going out of the overflow pipe. I know the plumber’s old trick of bending the float’s arm to put an end to precisely this kind of nonsense but (a) I could never remember whether to bend it up or down and (b) it was so oxidised anyway, it looked as though any attempt to bend it one way or another would snap it in two.

Then the pin connecting one bit to another failed, or rusted away, or something, and even though I and Piotr the plumber (yes, a Polish plumber, golly, how original this comedy is; but the truth is that he is Polish and he is called Piotr and he’s very nice, too) would alternately try to jerry-rig something Heath Robinson-esque to make it work – the idea being that it seemed crazy to spend hundreds of pounds on a new khazi when all that was wrong with it were some bits of metal worth about 3p – it got to the stage where the only way to flush the thing was to take off the lid of the cistern and pull up the lift rod (correct term) yourself. 

This involved immersing your hand and forearm in the water, with the result that when people came to visit after a long journey and said, “Can I use your loo?” the only proper response, until they’d had a few drinks to nerve themselves, was: “No.”

Once I’d explained, they saw my point. But it is still surprising how many otherwise intelligent people confuse or equate the water that sits in the cistern with the water that sits in the pan below. Our own Laurie Penny, who is otherwise one of the smartest people I know, was particularly obdurate on this point the last time she came to visit and her cries of protest when I explained the modus operandi to her were long and loud. 

So now we have a new bog. 

(Is that the right word?) It’s smaller, neater and whiter than the old one and you now push a button to flush it; in fact, you have a choice of buttons and you don’t have to be a genius to predict that when it fails, which it most certainly will, you won’t be able to fix it, however temporarily, with a bit of coat hanger. 

The wall behind it bears signs of the trauma of the sick toilet’s removal – it had, over the decades, basically welded itself to the brickwork – and the cheap, small-scale reproduction of The Fighting Temeraire that I had wittily hung up behind it is now off-centre and doesn’t go so well – but at least everyone can relieve themselves without getting their arms wet.

And so the bathroom is beginning to resemble Theseus’s ship, or grandfather’s axe, that old philosophical noggin-scratcher whereby the replacement of individual components raises the question of the historical integrity of the whole: the sink was replaced a few months earlier and now has a plug that doesn’t work instead of taps that don’t work, which is much better. Meanwhile, the bath, the size of a hippo and completely unusable for about five different reasons, sulks beneath its burden of its clothes horses and reminds me and every visitor that this is not like other bathrooms. 

Everyone else, with one or two exceptions, now has a better shithouse (any better?) than I do. These days, the smallest room (Jesus, what a twee coinage) is meant to be pristine, a place you could eat your dinner off or perform surgery in. Mine is a relic of an older time, only authentic, unlike the pathetic recreations of medieval huts at historical fairs. And it does not, like today’s sleek, pampered thing, pretend to be anything other than what it is. Whether it’s legal is another matter altogether. 

It’s a jakes. That’s the word.

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 04 December 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Burnout Britain

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Jeremy Corbyn faces a dilemma as Brexit solidifies: which half of his voters should he disappoint?

He comes from a tradition on the left that sees the EU as a capitalist club.

Imagine a man who voted to leave the European Economic Community in 1975. A man who spoke out against the Maastricht Treaty in 1993, saying that it “takes away from national parliaments the power to set economic policy and hands it over to an unelected set of bankers”. A man who voted against the Lisbon Treaty in 2008.

You don’t have to imagine very hard, because that man is Jeremy Corbyn. When campaigning for the Labour leadership in 2015, he told a GMB hustings, “I would ­advocate a No vote if we are going to get an imposition of free-market policies across Europe.”

When Labour’s Brexiteers gathered to launch their campaign in 2016, several seemed hurt that Corbyn and his shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, were not there with them. “It is surprising, when we voted against the advice of the chief whip on a number of European issues over the last decades, that Jeremy and John, who have always been in that lobby with us, that they would want to lead a campaign that isn’t even asking for a renegotiated position,” said the MP Graham Stringer.

I mention this because since the election campaign started in April, I keep having an odd experience – people insisting that Corbyn is not a Eurosceptic, and that he will use Labour’s new-found strength to argue for a softer Brexit. Others claim that Labour’s current position on freedom of movement (ending it) is the obvious, common-sense – even progressive – choice.

This matters. Look, if the evidence above doesn’t convince you that the Labour leader is intensely relaxed about exiting the European Union, I don’t know what else would. Yet it’s clear that some Labour activists strongly identify personally with Corbyn: they find it hard to believe that he holds different opinions from them.

The second factor is the remaking of Brexit as a culture war, where to say that someone is a Eurosceptic is seen as a kind of slur. Perhaps without realising it, some on the left do associate Euroscepticism with Little Englanderism or even flat-out racism, and see it as a moral failing rather than a political position.

But I’m not impugning Jeremy Corbyn’s character or morals by saying that he is an instinctive Brexiteer. He comes from a tradition on the left that sees the EU as a capitalist club. You can disagree with that premise but it’s a respectable line of reasoning.

Also, the Euroscepticism of Corbyn and his allies will undoubtedly give them an advantage in the months ahead; they are not consumed by fatalism, and the members of McDonnell’s shadow Treasury team feel that the removal of European state aid restrictions can help revive ailing bits of the British economy. They have a vision of what an ideal “Labour Brexit” would be – and it’s not just sobbing and begging Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel to take us back.

We do, however, need a reality check. Now that the necessary humble pie has been eaten, Labour’s unexpected revival at the ballot box means we can begin to treat Corbyn as a normal politician – with the emphasis on the second word. He’s not the Messiah, but he’s not a joke either. He is a charismatic campaigner who is willing to compromise on second-tier issues to achieve his main objectives.

From the general election, we can see just how good a campaigner Corbyn is: he can fire up a crowd, give disciplined answers to interviewers and chat amiably on a sofa. That throws into sharp relief just how limp his performances were last year.

He might have little else in common with Theresa May, but they both looked at the EU referendum and thought: yeah, I’m going to sit this one out. He called on activists to accept the EU “warts and all”; and said he was “seven, or seven and a half” out of ten in favour of staying in it.

For both leaders, this was a pragmatic decision. May did not want to be overtly disloyal to David Cameron, but neither did she wish to risk her career if the result went the other way.

Anyone in Labour would have been equally sane to look north of the border and back to 2014, and remember just how much credibility the party immolated by sharing stages with the Conservatives and allowing itself to be seen as the establishment. By limiting his involvement in the Remain campaign and whipping his MPs to trigger Article 50, Corbyn ended up with a fudge that gave Labour some cover in heavily pro-Brexit regions of the country.

That’s the politics, but what about the principle? I can’t shake the feeling that if Corbyn campaigned as hard for Remain in 2016 as he did for Labour in 2017, we would still be members of the European Union. And that matters to me, as much as left-wing policies or a change in the rhetoric around migrants and welfare claimants, because I think leaving the EU is going to make us poorer and meaner.

That’s why I worry that many of my friends, and the activists I talk to, are about to be disappointed, after waiting and waiting for Labour to start making the case for a softer Brexit and for the single market being more important than border controls. As Michael Chessum, a long-standing Momentum organiser, wrote on the New Statesman website, “Recognising the fact that immigration enriches society is all very well, but that narrative is inevitably undermined if you then choose to abolish the best policy for allowing immigration to happen.”

Labour’s success on 8 June was driven by its ambiguous stance on Brexit. To Leavers, it could wink at ending freedom of movement when they worried about immigration; to Remainers, it offered a critique of the immigrant-bashing rhetoric of recent times. But can that coalition hold as the true shape of Brexit solidifies? Over the next few months, Jeremy Corbyn’s biggest decision will be this: which half of my voters should I disappoint?

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 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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