Pants man: Yul Brynner and Virginia McKenna in the 1979 London stage version of The King and I. Photo: Getty
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As Ian Hislop once told me, name-droppers have a distorted sense of their own importance

It’s probably a fault I picked up from my mother, who until she met my father used to be a very up-and-coming star on Broadway.

It was leaving drinks for the Yank the other day at the Uxbridge Arms. For those who missed her earlier appearances in this column, I summarise: New Yorker, loud, funny, often moved to sarcasm (“Oh really?” sounds very good with a Noo Yoik twang), fond of a drinkie, and for a few months a traumatised resident of the Hovel. (It’s like being a ring-bearer. However briefly you carried the burden, you are in an exclusive club, and can be taken to Elvenhome when you’re about to pop your clogs by way of recompense.)

Anyway, all was going swimmingly, until I heard someone at a table not far from me – the Yank, being popular, had managed to pack out one of the pub’s bars – make a joke, or shall we say an observation, that revolved around my being something of a name-dropper.

This rather dented my enjoyment of the evening, for I like to think of myself as not so much a name-dropper as the sprinkler of a little minor-celebrity fairy-dust in order to put a little sparkle into other people’s lives. It’s probably a fault I picked up from my mother, who until she met my father used to be a very up-and-coming star on Broadway. I would, every so often, in that charming way children have of loving to hear a favourite tale repeated, ask her to tell me again about the time Yul Brynner chased her around her dressing room in his underpants when they were both appearing in The King and I. (To tell the truth, I was never entirely convinced of the veracity of this anecdote until I saw on the family shelves a copy of Michael Chekhov’s To the Actor: on the Technique of Acting, preface by Yul Brynner, and with a very large and bold inscription to my mother from the bald thespian himself, in handwriting that seemed, all these years down the line, to be still chasing her round the room, in its underpants.)

Also: I liked the way that this column’s godfather, Jeffrey Bernard’s Low Life, would drop the odd name from time to time; when Bernard mentioned the actor Tom Baker (and his very sensible idea that the NHS should be allowed to prescribe money as well as medicines) I thrilled to the knowledge that this man might have been a miserable alcoholic perpetually on the edge of destitution, but he knew Doctor Who. I never thought, “Huh, show-off.”

As it is, the number of names I can drop isn’t that very many, and as they’re almost all writers I have come to know after 20-odd years in the biz, they shouldn’t come as a complete surprise. And anyway, the man who made the remark about me should count himself extremely lucky to be at liberty to have made it on licensed premises two and a half miles from Wormwood Scrubs, rather than imprisoned within it, for he has done far worse things than name-drop, and for once I do not exaggerate for comic effect in the slightest.

But the problem that name-dropping reveals of the character of the droppers is the false estimation they have of their own importance in the grand scheme of things. This is all part of the fun.

Which is all by way of long explanation for the excitement I felt the other day when I got a phone call from Ian Hislop’s assistant, checking she had the right number for me, and could Ian call me soon? Now, I do know Mr Hislop well enough to go up to him at a party, say “Hello, Ian” and not actually be met with a blank look, but we are not quite on calling-each-other-up terms. So my thoughts ran in this order: 1. Private Eye has discovered The Awful Truth about me, and Ian is telling me that now might be a good time to flee the country. 2. Something awful has happened to Francis Wheen. And 3, which I decided in the end was the one I liked the sound of most, Mr Hislop has seen what was in front of his eyes all along and wants me to appear on Have I Got News For You. In which case my long struggle against alcoholic destitution will be over and my burgeoning TV career will sort out any financial unpleasantnesses for the rest of my life. In the bath, as I waited for his call, I fine-tuned my screen persona and frame of topical reference. Would I, though, do an ad for butter, like John Lydon? I don’t know. It would depend on the script.

Later on I learned that all he’d wanted was Laurie Penny’s email address. A small world crashed. But did I ever mention that I know Laurie Penny?

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 01 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The Islam issue

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The Autumn Statement proved it – we need a real alternative to austerity, now

Theresa May’s Tories have missed their chance to rescue the British economy.

After six wasted years of failed Conservative austerity measures, Philip Hammond had the opportunity last month in the Autumn Statement to change course and put in place the economic policies that would deliver greater prosperity, and make sure it was fairly shared.

Instead, he chose to continue with cuts to public services and in-work benefits while failing to deliver the scale of investment needed to secure future prosperity. The sense of betrayal is palpable.

The headline figures are grim. An analysis by the Institute for Fiscal Studies shows that real wages will not recover their 2008 levels even after 2020. The Tories are overseeing a lost decade in earnings that is, in the words Paul Johnson, the director of the IFS, “dreadful” and unprecedented in modern British history.

Meanwhile, the Treasury’s own analysis shows the cuts falling hardest on the poorest 30 per cent of the population. The Office for Budget Responsibility has reported that it expects a £122bn worsening in the public finances over the next five years. Of this, less than half – £59bn – is due to the Tories’ shambolic handling of Brexit. Most of the rest is thanks to their mishandling of the domestic economy.


Time to invest

The Tories may think that those people who are “just about managing” are an electoral demographic, but for Labour they are our friends, neighbours and the people we represent. People in all walks of life needed something better from this government, but the Autumn Statement was a betrayal of the hopes that they tried to raise beforehand.

Because the Tories cut when they should have invested, we now have a fundamentally weak economy that is unprepared for the challenges of Brexit. Low investment has meant that instead of installing new machinery, or building the new infrastructure that would support productive high-wage jobs, we have an economy that is more and more dependent on low-productivity, low-paid work. Every hour worked in the US, Germany or France produces on average a third more than an hour of work here.

Labour has different priorities. We will deliver the necessary investment in infrastructure and research funding, and back it up with an industrial strategy that can sustain well-paid, secure jobs in the industries of the future such as renewables. We will fight for Britain’s continued tariff-free access to the single market. We will reverse the tax giveaways to the mega-rich and the giant companies, instead using the money to make sure the NHS and our education system are properly funded. In 2020 we will introduce a real living wage, expected to be £10 an hour, to make sure every job pays a wage you can actually live on. And we will rebuild and transform our economy so no one and no community is left behind.


May’s missing alternative

This week, the Bank of England governor, Mark Carney, gave an important speech in which he hit the proverbial nail on the head. He was completely right to point out that societies need to redistribute the gains from trade and technology, and to educate and empower their citizens. We are going through a lost decade of earnings growth, as Carney highlights, and the crisis of productivity will not be solved without major government investment, backed up by an industrial strategy that can deliver growth.

Labour in government is committed to tackling the challenges of rising inequality, low wage growth, and driving up Britain’s productivity growth. But it is becoming clearer each day since Theresa May became Prime Minister that she, like her predecessor, has no credible solutions to the challenges our economy faces.


Crisis in Italy

The Italian people have decisively rejected the changes to their constitution proposed by Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, with nearly 60 per cent voting No. The Italian economy has not grown for close to two decades. A succession of governments has attempted to introduce free-market policies, including slashing pensions and undermining rights at work, but these have had little impact.

Renzi wanted extra powers to push through more free-market reforms, but he has now resigned after encountering opposition from across the Italian political spectrum. The absence of growth has left Italian banks with €360bn of loans that are not being repaid. Usually, these debts would be written off, but Italian banks lack the reserves to be able to absorb the losses. They need outside assistance to survive.


Bail in or bail out

The oldest bank in the world, Monte dei Paschi di Siena, needs €5bn before the end of the year if it is to avoid collapse. Renzi had arranged a financing deal but this is now under threat. Under new EU rules, governments are not allowed to bail out banks, like in the 2008 crisis. This is intended to protect taxpayers. Instead, bank investors are supposed to take a loss through a “bail-in”.

Unusually, however, Italian bank investors are not only big financial institutions such as insurance companies, but ordinary households. One-third of all Italian bank bonds are held by households, so a bail-in would hit them hard. And should Italy’s banks fail, the danger is that investors will pull money out of banks across Europe, causing further failures. British banks have been reducing their investments in Italy, but concerned UK regulators have asked recently for details of their exposure.

John McDonnell is the shadow chancellor

John McDonnell is Labour MP for Hayes and Harlington and has been shadow chancellor since September 2015. 

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump