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I’m in Bangladesh as I needed to put a few thousand miles between myself and the Hovel

So I had to go to Dhaka. To its literary festival, to be precise.

So I had to go to Dhaka. To its literary festival, to be precise. I was invited a few months ago, I’m not sure why. It was certainly before some maniac at the London Review Bookshop, probably desperate to drum up custom for an event I was chairing there, described me as “Britain’s most influential book critic”, a title that cheered me up, to be sure, but, for all the benefits that have accrued to me as a result, may as well have been “Ireland’s most unpredictable wasp”, or “Poland’s wonkiest ladder”.

My invitation to Dhaka arrived, instead, shortly before the July attack on the Holey Artisan Bakery by Islamist extremists, in which 29 people were killed. Before then, I had noticed that Bangladesh was becoming one of those countries where writers and atheists were hacked to pieces more than was strictly necessary, and had experienced some collywobbles, but an epic dinner at Rules given me by Ahsan Akbar, the festival’s director, made me snap my fingers at danger.

Really, it would have been rude to refuse to travel; besides, the threat I constitute to myself is at least on a level with the one posed by any militants. If you think I exaggerate, the state of my bedroom alone, which I have not allowed Martha the Cleaner to enter for the past three weeks, on the grounds that it is too shameful, is enough to make me want to kill myself. I had to get out of there before I did myself any further psychic damage by merely looking at it. It was time to put a few thousand miles between myself and the Hovel.

I have been in Bangladesh only a day now, but never, considering how I am being treated, has the title “Down and Out” been less applicable to the words beneath it. The journey started with an Emirates flight from Heathrow, and if what I was in was economy, then heaven alone knows what first class is like. Maybe it is heaven, and indeed the steps leading up to the next floor of the plane suggested something magical and other-worldly, like the staircase in A Matter of Life and Death.

I scanned the inflight entertainment brochure with awe. It covered several pages. I decided to watch La Grande Illusion, the Renoir classic, but then, realising that I actually have the DVD at home but just haven’t got round to watching it yet, settled on a binge-watch of episodes of M*A*S*H and a surprisingly fascinating documentary on the making of Star Trek: the Next Generation. This after playing the Velvet Underground for my take-off. The music selection itself, I must say, is incredible. It’s like flipping through the record collection of your coolest friend. Not just Unknown Pleasures and Never Mind the Bollocks: there’s Captain Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica, for crying out loud. I was aching for sleep, having pretty much not slept since the night of the US election, but it was almost too exciting.

And now Dhaka. We arrived in darkness, but this only made the lights of the police escort all the more visible. Having a police escort is a new experience for me, unless you count the more informally organised police escort I was offered after being caught with two tabs of LSD in the vicinity of Buckingham Palace in 1982. (Long story.) This time, though, the police were armed and, notionally, on my side, though one of them seemed to be giving us the evils.

“No,” said one of my fellow authors, “that’s just a sexy underlook.” (I hadn’t encountered the word “underlook” before, but from now on I intend to adopt one as part of my seduction technique, even if this might be a risky thing to try at my age.)

My fellow authors are delightful. They have to be. The English-speaking author abroad on a cultural jolly is bound by a firm obligation: to ensure that as much as possible of every conversation consists of a joke. I suspect that a convention of comedians would be notable for its seriousness of word
and deed; writers are happier to subvert themselves. Maybe. But even V S Naipaul, who opened the festival from his wheelchair, was able to crack wise a couple of times before and after cutting the ribbon.

The hotel is so luxurious that it fills me with guilt. As for Dhaka, I’ve not been here long enough, except to marvel at the traffic, which moves only at the exact moment you have given up all hope of ever moving again, and at the kindness of the people, and at the warm, soupy air. The city isn’t exactly tidy – but, as you might have gathered, that kind of thing isn’t going to bother me. l

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 24 November 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Blair: out of exile

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The failed French presidential candidates who refuse to endorse Emmanuel Macron

While the candidates of the main left and right parties have endorsed the centrist from nowhere, others have held back. 

And breathe.

At 8pm on Sunday night France, Europe, and much of the West let out a huge sigh of relief. After over a month of uncertainty, scandals, rebounds, debates and late surges, the results of the first round of the French Presidential Election was as predicted: Emmanuel Macron (24 per cent) will face off against Marine Le Pen (21 per cent) in the second round of the election on the 7 May.

While polls have been predicting this face-off for a while, the shocks of Brexit and the election of Donald Trump had thrown polling predictions into doubt. But France has a good track record when it comes to polling, and their surveys are considered some of the most reliable in the world. The irony is that this uncertainty has meant that the polls have never been so central to a campaign, and the role of polling in democracies has been a hot topic of debate during the election.

The biggest surprise in many ways was that there were no surprises. If there was a surprise, it was a good one: participation was higher than expected: close to 80 per cent – on par with the Presidential Elections of 2012 – whereas there were concerns it would be as low as 70 per cent. Higher participation is normally a bad sign for the extremes, who have highly motivated voters but a limited base, and who often do better in elections when participation is low. Instead, it boosts the traditional parties, but here instead of the traditional right-wing Republican (Fillon is at 20 per cent) or Socialist parties (Hamon at 6 per cent), it was in fact the centre, with Emmanuel Macron, who benefited.

So France has so far not succumbed to the populist wave that has been engulfing the West. The contagion seemed to be spreading when the Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi lost a referendum on reforming the constitution, but the fightback started in Austria which rejected the far-right candidate Norbert Hofer in its Presidential election and voted for the pro-European, former-Green independent candidate Alexander Van der Bellen. Those hopes now rest on the shoulders of Macron. After having dubbed Angela Merkel the leader of the free world during his farewell tour of Europe, Barack Obama gave his personal blessing to Macron last week.

Many wondered what impact Thursday night’s shooting on the Champs-Elysées would have. Would it be a boon for Marine Le Pen’s anti-immigration platform? Or even right-wing François Fillon’s more traditional law and order approach? In the end the effect seems to have been minimal.

In the second round, Macron is currently predicted to beat Marine Le Pen by more than 60 per cent of the vote. But how does Le Pen almost double her vote in the second round, from around 20 per cent to close to 40 per cent? The "Republican Front" that saw her father off back in 2002, when he received only 18 per cent of the vote, has so far held at the level of the two traditional political parties. Both Hamon and Fillon have called to vote for Macron in the second round to stop the Front National - Hamon put it nicely when he said he could tell the difference between political opponents, and opponents of the Republic.

But not everyone is toing the line. Sens Commun, the anti-gay marriage group that has supported Fillon through thick and thin, said that it will not call to vote for either party – a thinly veiled invitation to vote for Le Pen. And Nicolas Dupont-Aignan, a conservative, Catholic and anti-EU right wing candidate, whose 5 per cent is the reason Fillon didn’t make it to the second round, has also abstained from calling to vote for either. It is within this electorate that Le Pen will look to increase her vote.

The other candidate who didn’t call to vote for anyone was Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who fell back on a demagogic position of saying he would follow the wishes of his supporters after having consulted them. But as a spokesperson for the FN pointed out, there are remarkable congruities between their respective platforms, which can be categorised as a populism of the left and a populism of the right.

They in particular converge over the question of Europe. Aping Brexit, both want to go to Brussels to argue for reform, and if none is forthcoming put membership of the Eurozone to the electorate. While Le Pen’s anti-Europeanism is patent, Mélenchon’s position is both disingenuous and dangerous. His Plan A, as he puts it, is to attempt reform at the European level. But he knows fine well that his demands, which include revoking the independence of the European Central Bank and putting an end to austerity (the ECB, through its massive programme of quantitative easing, has already been trying to stimulate growth) will not be met. So he reverts to his Plan B, which is to leave the European Treatises and refound Europe on a new basis with like-minded members.

Who those members might be he hasn’t specified, nor has he explained how he would leave the EU - at least Le Pen had the decency to say she would put it to a referendum. Leaving the European Treatise has been in his programme from the beginning, and seems to be the real object of his desires. Nonetheless, having set himself up as the anti-Le Pen candidate, most of his supporters will vote for Macron. Others will abstain, and abstention will only help Le Pen. We’ve been here before, and the last thing we need now is complacency.

 

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