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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The Women's March against Trump matters – but only if we keep fighting

We won’t win the battle for progressive ideas if we don’t battle in the first place.

Arron Banks, UKIP-funder, Brexit cheerleader and Gibraltar-based insurance salesman, took time out from Trump's inauguration to tweet me about my role in tomorrow's Women’s March Conservative values are in the ascendancy worldwide. Thankfully your values are finished. . . good”.

Just what about the idea of women and men marching for human rights causes such ill will? The sense it is somehow cheeky to say we will champion equality whoever is in office in America or around the world. After all, if progressives like me have lost the battle of ideas, what difference does it make whether we are marching, holding meetings or just moaning on the internet?

The only anti-democratic perspective is to argue that when someone has lost the argument they have to stop making one. When political parties lose elections they reflect, they listen, they learn but if they stand for something, they don’t disband. The same is true, now, for the broader context. We should not dismiss the necessity to learn, to listen, to reflect on the rise of Trump – or indeed reflect on the rise of the right in the UK  but reject the idea that we have to take a vow of silence if we want to win power again.

To march is not to ignore the challenges progressives face. It is to start to ask what are we prepared to do about it.

Historically, conservatives have had no such qualms about regrouping and remaining steadfast in the confidence they have something worth saying. In contrast, the left has always been good at absolving itself of the need to renew.

We spend our time seeking the perfect candidates, the perfect policy, the perfect campaign, as a precondition for action. It justifies doing nothing except sitting on the sidelines bemoaning the state of society.

We also seem to think that changing the world should be easier than reality suggests. The backlash we are now seeing against progressive policies was inevitable once we appeared to take these gains for granted and became arrogant and exclusive about the inevitability of our worldview. Our values demand the rebalancing of power, whether economic, social or cultural, and that means challenging those who currently have it. We may believe that a more equal world is one in which more will thrive, but that doesn’t mean those with entrenched privilege will give up their favoured status without a fight or that the public should express perpetual gratitude for our efforts via the ballot box either.  

Amongst the conferences, tweets and general rumblings there seem three schools of thought about what to do next. The first is Marxist  as in Groucho revisionism: to rise again we must water down our principles to accommodate where we believe the centre ground of politics to now be. Tone down our ideals in the hope that by such acquiescence we can eventually win back public support for our brand – if not our purpose. The very essence of a hollow victory.

The second is to stick to our guns and stick our heads in the sand, believing that eventually, when World War Three breaks out, the public will come grovelling back to us. To luxuriate in an unwillingness to see we are losing not just elected offices but the fight for our shared future.

But what if there really was a third way? It's not going to be easy, and it requires more than a hashtag or funny t-shirt. It’s about picking ourselves up, dusting ourselves down and starting to renew our call to arms in a way that makes sense for the modern world.

For the avoidance of doubt, if we march tomorrow and then go home satisfied we have made our point then we may as well not have marched at all. But if we march and continue to organise out of the networks we make, well, then that’s worth a Saturday in the cold. After all, we won’t win the battle of ideas, if we don’t battle.

We do have to change the way we work. We do have to have the courage not to live in our echo chambers alone. To go with respect and humility to debate and discuss the future of our communities and of our country.

And we have to come together to show there is a willingness not to ask a few brave souls to do that on their own. Not just at election times, but every day and in every corner of Britain, no matter how difficult it may feel.

Saturday is one part of that process of finding others willing not just to walk a mile with a placard, but to put in the hard yards to win the argument again for progressive values and vision. Maybe no one will show up. Maybe not many will keep going. But whilst there are folk with faith in each other, and in that alternative future, they’ll find a friend in me ready to work with them and will them on  and then Mr Banks really should be worried.