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

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Private renter poverty has doubled in a decade - so where's Labour?

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation named housing market failures as driving poverty. 

Labour’s economic policy task is enormous. It must find a coherent argument that addresses Brexit, the “left behinds”, and a nervous business community. But there is one policy area that should be an open goal – private renting. 

The number of private renters in poverty has doubled over the last decade, according to a new report from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. Those most likely to fall into poverty are working families – there were 2.8m of these people in 2014-15, compared to 1m a decade earlier.

“Failures in the housing market are a significant driver of poverty,” the report noted, after finding more than 70 per cent of private renters in poverty pay at least a third of their income in rent.

This is particularly the case if you consider the knock-on effect - housing benefit. This benefit was frozen by George Osborne, meaning that by 2015 Shelter calculated rates had fallen behind actual rents in nearly 70 per cent of England. For families out of work, of course, housing benefit is also included in the benefit cap. 

Private renter poverty is easily characterised as an inner-city problem – the kind cherished by the “metropolitan elite”. But in fact, across Great Britain as a whole, roughly one in ten children under 19 lives in a family that is privately renting and claiming housing benefit. The highest percentage was in Blackpool, followed by the Essex coastal area of Tendring, followed by London boroughs. Private renting is a trend that affects both the Remain strongholds and the Leave coastal towns.

So far, Labour has been relatively quiet on private renting. During the summer’s leadership campaign, Jeremy Corbyn promised to introduce “rent controls, secure tenancies and a charter of private tenants’ rights” (a promise he repeated as part of a longer speech in November). But this is hardly a blockbuster campaign. 

And the challenges are great. A convincing renting policy must explain how Labour would deal with a reactionary letting market industry (including pensioner voters), whether renting should be a step to buying, or an end in itself, and how new council and social housing would be allocated.

Labour could also, though, tie a rent campaign into other trends - the growing army of self-employed that find it hard to prove their wages to a landlord or mortgage lender, the working families on frozen benefits, and the employers that find their employees priced out of the local area. And pissed-off tenants are not hard to find. 

If Labour doesn’t move soon on an issue that should be its natural home, the government may steal the keys. In the Autumn Statement, Philip Hammond helped himself to Ed Miliband’s 2015 promise to ban letting agent fees. The government has also set up a working group with members of the private renting industry. (Yes, the government may also be selling off social housing under Right to Buy, but if you never had the option of social housing anyway, this may pass you by.)

Fixing the housing market takes imagination and a steeliness to take on entrenched interests. But if Labour does come up with a solution, it could touch the lives of voters, both Leave and Remain. 

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.