Just a small one... Giant bottle of sherry at Australia House in London, 1958. Photo: Getty
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Razors comes home and that thimbleful of sherry turns into an all-nighter

It’s funny how one’s stamina diminishes with age. I once drank Hunter S Thompson pretty much under the table many years ago but these days I find 6am is pretty much my cut-off point.

Ping! A text appears. It is Razors, my ex-housemate, who is flying over to England to settle some old scores or, as he euphemistically puts it, to “see my family for my birthday”. That old chestnut. I’d completely forgotten he was coming over but it is always a delight to see him, so I put on my pinny and take up my feather duster and give the Hovel a going-over in his honour.

“Jesus Christ,” he says when he sees the place, “it’s looking even more disgustingly Hovelly than it did when I was here.”

“Well, you’ve grown a beard,” I say.

We sit on the terrace, talking of this and that. Razors has become a key player in what I shall loosely describe as the media in New York and I keep trying to steer the subject towards him giving me a job but he manages to evade my skilful moves. Finally, I remember that he has occasionally shown a fondness for alcohol in small doses, so I go to the drinks cabinet and take out the bottle of Harveys Bristol Cream I keep for special occasions. There is about half of it left, which should be plenty. I pour us each a little glass and hope that the poison of drink will mellow him.

That’s always how it starts with Razors. Sherry had a reputation as a civilised drink; maybe they put something in it these days. One thimbleful turns into another and, before we know it, that half-bottle is gone. Razors has turned from a cultivated chap, appalled at the Met Opera’s decision not to simulcast John Adams’s Death of Klinghoffer, to a raging maniac wholly enslaved by booze.

“Shall we get another bottle?” he asks. I know what he can be like when he gets into this kind of mood, so I go to the corner shop and buy a bottle of Blossom Hill rosé (his favourite tipple).

What with one thing and another – and after a few adventures of which we have no memory but that leave us with minor unexplained cuts and bruises on our hands, a court order and, for my part, the sore-throat-like side effects of a choked windpipe – we find ourselves shooting the breeze, back at the Hovel, the debris of countless bottles of wine beside and around us, and it is six o’clock in the morning. The Hovel’s other resident – not the woman who scours the inside of teapots – comes down in his suit to go to work. Normally, he’d be going for his early-morning run at this time, which would have been more than I could take.

However, he is an affable man and if he is appalled at seeing his housemate and a strange man with a beard drinking wine on the terrace at six in the morning, he is good at hiding it. What he doesn’t know is how much worse it could have been. The last time Razors and I tied one on, we came to in the hold of a tramp steamer in the South China Sea and learned we’d enlisted in the Merchant Marine for three years.

It’s funny how one’s faculties and stamina diminish with age. I once drank Hunter S Thompson pretty much under the table many years ago – I always harboured an uneasy suspicion that I may have been slightly culpable in the matter of his early and unwelcome demise – but these days I find that six in the morning is pretty much my cut-off point. Perhaps it is the early-summer dawns that are so tiring.

Anyway, later on in the afternoon, when I have risen again and Razors has tried to push a full English breakfast down me, without a great deal of success, I get a call from the Estranged Wife reminding me of our forthcoming trip to — tomorrow, to take the eldest boy to a university open day. By coincidence, it is the same place I went to with the daughter a couple of years ago and made a bit of a scene with a philosophy lecturer who didn’t know how to pronounce “Descartes”. Relations with the ex are civil to the point of pleasantness these days, as long as we stay off the subject of money, but she tells me to behave better this time. “We’ll have to leave at 8am,” she says.

I contemplate the almost visible springs and coils from my shattered body clock lying about me and remember that Razors wants to watch the England game in a pub that evening. I explain that 8am will be out of the question: Razors is here and I am basically dead. She understands but does not perhaps sympathise. I muster all the dignity at my command; I say, “You’re not the boss of me”; and I relapse into a coma.

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 25 June 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Who was Franz Ferdinand?

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Leader: The unresolved Eurozone crisis

The continent that once aspired to be a rival superpower to the US is now a byword for decline, and ethnic nationalism and right-wing populism are thriving.

The eurozone crisis was never resolved. It was merely conveniently forgotten. The vote for Brexit, the terrible war in Syria and Donald Trump’s election as US president all distracted from the single currency’s woes. Yet its contradictions endure, a permanent threat to continental European stability and the future cohesion of the European Union.

The resignation of the Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi, following defeat in a constitutional referendum on 4 December, was the moment at which some believed that Europe would be overwhelmed. Among the champions of the No campaign were the anti-euro Five Star Movement (which has led in some recent opinion polls) and the separatist Lega Nord. Opponents of the EU, such as Nigel Farage, hailed the result as a rejection of the single currency.

An Italian exit, if not unthinkable, is far from inevitable, however. The No campaign comprised not only Eurosceptics but pro-Europeans such as the former prime minister Mario Monti and members of Mr Renzi’s liberal-centrist Democratic Party. Few voters treated the referendum as a judgement on the monetary union.

To achieve withdrawal from the euro, the populist Five Star Movement would need first to form a government (no easy task under Italy’s complex multiparty system), then amend the constitution to allow a public vote on Italy’s membership of the currency. Opinion polls continue to show a majority opposed to the return of the lira.

But Europe faces far more immediate dangers. Italy’s fragile banking system has been imperilled by the referendum result and the accompanying fall in investor confidence. In the absence of state aid, the Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena, the world’s oldest bank, could soon face ruin. Italy’s national debt stands at 132 per cent of GDP, severely limiting its firepower, and its financial sector has amassed $360bn of bad loans. The risk is of a new financial crisis that spreads across the eurozone.

EU leaders’ record to date does not encourage optimism. Seven years after the Greek crisis began, the German government is continuing to advocate the failed path of austerity. On 4 December, Germany’s finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, declared that Greece must choose between unpopular “structural reforms” (a euphemism for austerity) or withdrawal from the euro. He insisted that debt relief “would not help” the immiserated country.

Yet the argument that austerity is unsustainable is now heard far beyond the Syriza government. The International Monetary Fund is among those that have demanded “unconditional” debt relief. Under the current bailout terms, Greece’s interest payments on its debt (roughly €330bn) will continually rise, consuming 60 per cent of its budget by 2060. The IMF has rightly proposed an extended repayment period and a fixed interest rate of 1.5 per cent. Faced with German intransigence, it is refusing to provide further funding.

Ever since the European Central Bank president, Mario Draghi, declared in 2012 that he was prepared to do “whatever it takes” to preserve the single currency, EU member states have relied on monetary policy to contain the crisis. This complacent approach could unravel. From the euro’s inception, economists have warned of the dangers of a monetary union that is unmatched by fiscal and political union. The UK, partly for these reasons, wisely rejected membership, but other states have been condemned to stagnation. As Felix Martin writes on page 15, “Italy today is worse off than it was not just in 2007, but in 1997. National output per head has stagnated for 20 years – an astonishing . . . statistic.”

Germany’s refusal to support demand (having benefited from a fixed exchange rate) undermined the principles of European solidarity and shared prosperity. German unemployment has fallen to 4.1 per cent, the lowest level since 1981, but joblessness is at 23.4 per cent in Greece, 19 per cent in Spain and 11.6 per cent in Italy. The youngest have suffered most. Youth unemployment is 46.5 per cent in Greece, 42.6 per cent in Spain and 36.4 per cent in Italy. No social model should tolerate such waste.

“If the euro fails, then Europe fails,” the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, has often asserted. Yet it does not follow that Europe will succeed if the euro survives. The continent that once aspired to be a rival superpower to the US is now a byword for decline, and ethnic nationalism and right-wing populism are thriving. In these circumstances, the surprise has been not voters’ intemperance, but their patience.

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