Klimt's The Kiss: a vital clue? Photo: DIETER NAGL/AFP/Getty Images
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It’s been a strange week: I have no idea who wrote the love letter I found on my table

It has been cut out from a reproduction of The Kiss by Gustav Klimt and is about the size of one of those special stamps you get which are a bit too big for the envelope.

I find a little note on the table in the Hovel. It has been cut out from a reproduction of The Kiss by Gustav Klimt and is about the size of one of those special stamps you get which are a bit too big for the envelope, obscuring part of the address you’ve already written. On the obverse is written: “I love you not only for who you are – but for who I am when I am with you x”.

I do not recognise the handwriting. Something about it seems familiar, but not enough for me to able to pin it down. It looks a bit like [name redacted]’s – but not exactly like it.

Is it, I wonder, even for me? I’ve just opened an invitation for the Baileys Prize for Fiction and it may have fallen out of that, this being someone’s idea of a tantalising marketing campaign for one of their shortlisted books. I moisten my finger and run it across the words to see if the ink smudges, this being the way to tell if something is printed or not. It smudges. This does not preclude, though, the possibility that some minion with nice, neat handwriting has been employed to put one of these in each of the envelopes, although it seems a pretty cruel thing to ask a minion to do, given that by the thousandth envelope the minion would not only be ruling out ever using such a sweet formulation in real life, but she would also be thinking dark thoughts about the very word “love”. (The handwriting is feminine, I am pretty confident of that.)

I put the question of handwriting to one side and think of all the women I know who could have written it. I think we can rule out my wife. Others, too, we can rule out, for various reasons. And I doubt that the woman who was referred to some years ago in this column as the WIL (short for Woman I Love) would have written it.

It may, I reflect, have been meant for another inmate of the Hovel entirely. However, the thing that is hammering at my conscience as I write this – and that gave me severe misgivings as to whether I should even write about it at all – is that I know perfectly well who wrote me this charming note, but I have forgotten.

I do this, I know. I forget. My memory is like an Emmenthal cheese: very solid throughout, except for the enormous holes. I was once clearing out the freezer at two in the morning, with drunken resolve, together with H—, and we came across a quarter-bottle of Zubrówka whose provenance I queried aloud. “I think some bird gave it to me,” I said (using the word “bird” ironically, I promise). “That was me, you jerk,” she replied. (We polished it off and woke the next day with two of the worst hangovers either of us has ever had in our lives.) So it is entirely possible that the author of this note, one of the sweetest I have ever received, is reading this and saying to herself, in tones of unimaginable hurt and outrage: I cannot believe he does not remember.

All I can say in my defence, if this is the case, is that initially receiving it must have caused some kind of bomb to go off in my soul, as if the blush I would surely have experienced at the time immediately caused a mini-stroke, obliterating the memory of it at exactly the same time as it was forged.

There’s a nice paradox for you. And there are some compliments that are so vast, I feel I cannot contain them, because I sense not only that I can’t live up to them, but that I would become insufferably big-headed if I kept them in mind. So the nice things get swept under the conscious carpet while the cockroaches and other vermin crawl about freely in plain sight.

So there it is: I am haunted. Meanwhile, another funny thing happened to me the other weekend. The eldest boy, having turned 18, fancied a pint at the Duke after Sunday lunch. A nice idea, I thought, and as we were sipping our drinks at an outside table there was a tap on the window beside us. It was the woman who was once referred to in this column as the WIL – with her younger daughter and her New Man. “So?” you may ask. Well, she lives sixty miles away and was down in London for the weekend, and I happen to know there is at least one other pub in London open on a Sunday afternoon.

Well, we all chatted civilly. Later my son asked me if I had had any further thoughts about this coincidence. Temporarily channelling Doc, the permanently stoned private investigator from Inherent Vice, I replied: “That was no coincidence, man.”

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 27 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Saying the Unsayable

Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.