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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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.