Na-na-na, can't hear you: wife or husband does not always mean the wind beneath my wings. Photo: Getty
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To cheer myself up, I think of other people’s dreadful marriages

When I encounter the words “my wife” or “my husband”, I get, in some dark moods, a choking sensation beneath the breastbone.

Alles in der Welt läßt sich ertragen,/Nür nicht eine Reihe von schönen Tagen“Oh, God, here we go again,” I hear you saying. “He’s started in German this time.” My apologies but I don’t know how to translate this into an English couplet, even though it’s been bobbing about in my head since a German lesson in 1977 or 1978. It’s by Goethe and it means, more or less, “You can put up with anything life throws at you, except for a row of beautiful days.”

I remember being sort of impressed at the time, thinking, “Yes, that’s just the kind of clever-clever thing a poet would say, but give me a row of beautiful days and let’s see how much I mind it, OK?” I also suspected, uneasily, that there may well be some truth in there. A few years later I came across Francesca’s lament in Canto V of Inferno, the one beginning, “Nessun maggior dolore . . .” – “Nothing worse than recalling happy times when you’re in the shit.” (I give you the gist.) This amplifies the signal of Goethe’s lines but at the risk of losing their paradox.

All of which is my tortuous way of saying I had a bloody good time last week and I was sad when it was over. The B arrived from Sweden on Thursday evening for my birthday, which was a couple of days later; the weather in London was perfect; I had a nice dinner with her, my daughter (who had turned up to deliver a card) and a couple of friends; no one mentioned Nigel Farage. Then the B had to leave on Monday and there was a rather poignant scene of us waving goodbye to each other, with her only dimly visible through the heavily smoked glass of the Heathrow Express and me being yelled at by not one but two platform personnel for standing too near the train. “Step back from the train, SIR!” Whether it spoiled the mood or enhanced it I am still not sure but I do remember thinking: “I’m 51 years old. I know how close I can stand to a train by now.” It certainly didn’t stop the eyes from prickling a bit and a few deep breaths being needed to steady the self, on the mile-and-a-half walk back to the Hovel.

Well, one lives and there are worse things. At least I don’t have to go around lying on dating websites about my height and age and teeth and deep misgivings about almost every area of human activity in order to attract a mate. But this living alone business is getting to me. There was an article a few weeks ago in this magazine by a woman who had one of those deeply unsettling falls when getting out of bed; luckily, her husband was there at the time and was able to help. I was deeply affected by this detail. If I had some kind of stroke or heart attack, who would know? You have to get taken to hospital rather quickly in these circumstances and even if I was in a condition to be able to use the phone, there is a good chance it would be in its regular place – that is, nestled somewhere comfy but inscrutable among the books or the bedclothes.

It’s the kind of thought that has me making a nice cup of tea to distract and console myself. Then, when I put on the radio while waiting for the kettle, I find it’s You and Yours – which is bad enough news already – telling us about yet another study that says people who live alone die younger.

Time to pull myself together. I am prey to a degree of grass-is-greenery when it comes to certain concepts and situations, to the point that my own experience is distorted or sometimes flatly ignored. So, for example, when I encounter the words “my wife” or “my husband”, I get, in some dark moods, a choking sensation beneath the breastbone, for what I hear is “my helpmeet, my lover, my lifetime companion and the wind beneath my wings”, when, as I should know, “wife” and “husband” don’t necessarily mean any of these things.

To cheer myself up I think of all the people in dreadful marriages. (One does hear about some shockers.) I make tea (checking to see it’s not time for You and Yours or Money Box Live) and exercise the mind by wondering whether, if I shaved according to the principle of lawn-mowing – one stroke up and one down – I’d end up with an interestingly striped face. I also reflect on a mind-bending piece of information I learned the other day: Nigel Farage is younger than me. So really he has no excuse.

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 28 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The elites vs the people

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Want to beat child poverty? End the freeze on working-age benefits

Freezing working-age benefits at a time of rising prices is both economically and morally unsound. 

We serve in politics to change lives. Yet for too long, many people and parts of Britain have felt ignored. Our response to Brexit must respond to their concerns and match their aspirations. By doing so, we can unite the country and build a fairer Britain.

Our future success as a country depends on making the most of all our talents. So we should begin with a simple goal – that child poverty must not be a feature of our country’s future.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies projects that relative child poverty will see the biggest increase in a generation in this Parliament. That is why it is so troubling that poverty has almost disappeared from the political agenda under David Cameron, and now Theresa May.

The last Labour Government’s record reminds us what can be achieved. Labour delivered the biggest improvement of any EU nation in lifting one million children out of poverty, transforming so many lives. Child poverty should scar our conscience as much as it does our children’s futures. So we have a duty to this generation to make progress once again.

In my Barnsley constituency, we have led a campaign bringing together Labour party members, community groups, and the local Labour Council to take action. My constituency party recently published its second child poverty report, which included contributions from across our community on addressing this challenge.

Ideas ranged from new requirements on developments for affordable housing, to expanding childcare, and the great example set by retired teachers lending their expertise to tutor local students. When more than 200 children in my constituency fall behind in language skills before they even start school, that local effort must be supported at the national level.

In order to build a consensus around renewed action, I will be introducing a private member’s bill in Parliament. It will set a new child poverty target, with requirements to regularly measure progress and report against the impact of policy choices.

I hope to work on a cross-party basis to share expertise and build pressure for action. In response, I hope that the Government will make this a priority in order to meet the Prime Minister’s commitment to make Britain a country that works for everyone.

The Autumn Statement in two months’ time is an opportunity to signal a new approach. Planned changes to tax and benefits over the next four years will take more than one pound in every ten pounds from the pockets of the poorest families. That is divisive and short-sighted, particularly with prices at the tills expected to rise.

Therefore the Chancellor should make a clear commitment to those who have been left behind by ending the freeze on working-age benefits. That would not only be morally right, but also sound economics.

It is estimated that one pound in every five pounds of public spending is associated with poverty. As well as redirecting public spending, poverty worsens the key economic challenges we face. It lowers productivity and limits spending power, which undermine the strong economy we need for the future.

Yet the human cost of child poverty is the greatest of all. When a Sure Start children’s centre is lost, it closes a door on opportunity. That is penny wise but pound foolish and it must end now.

The smarter approach is to recognise that a child’s earliest years are critical to their future life chances. The weight of expert opinion in favour of early intervention is overwhelming. So that must be our priority, because it is a smart investment for the future and it will change lives today.

This is the cause of our times. To end child poverty so that no-one is locked out of the opportunity for a better future. To stand in the way of a Government that seeks to pass by on the other side. Then to be in position to replace the Tories at the next election.

By doing so, we can answer that demand for change from people across our country. And we can provide security, opportunity, and hope to those who need it most.

That is how we can begin to build a fairer Britain.

Dan Jarvis is the Labour MP for Barnsley Central and a former Major in the Parachute Regiment.