Tories sail into stormy waters

What's going on on newstatesman.com plus devastating news of a Tory split. Or is it just a big Camer

This week on newstatesman.com the Ukrainian novelist Andrey Kurkov writes exclusively on Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, who related the terrible truth about Soviet totalitarianism in his Gulag Archipelago.

Kurkov observes: "Alexander Isaevich outlived his era and never truly accepted the new ‘post-soviet’ epoch.

"Having sincerely dedicated his life to a desperate struggle against communism, in 1991 Solzhenitsyn suddenly found himself without a battle to fight."

We hear from the great AL Kennedy who has been collecting the Austrian State Prize for European Literature...

"The Austrian Minister for Culture is charming and actually cares about culture and the Austrian prime minister gave me cake – while I tried to assure him my own prime minister would have taken my cake and told me it would be given to the destitute and cake-needy before sneaking it into the cake trough of a cake-spattered man in a mink cake-eating suit. Poor Gordon, though - perhaps soon to be replaced by one or another Miliband. They’re twins, after all. What happens if we get the evil twin? I’ve watched more than enough Hammer horror films to know this is surely a risk."

Only time will tell.

By the way you can see AL Kennedy in person at the Edinburgh Fringe.

Oh and don't miss Hugh O'Shaughnessy having fun with the Colombian statisticians who have elevated their country's president to similar popularity ratings as former Albanian dictator Enva Hoxha.

And check out our series on what Labour needs to do to put itself back on the path to popularity. We've already had contributions from Home Secretary Jacqui Smith, plus ex-ministers Denis MacShane and Barbara Roche.

Coming up Nick Raynsford, Iain Gibson and more.

Moving on to a Tory split...

It's being widely reported that the beautiful relationship between Lexus Dave Cameron and George 'Oik' Osborne has sailed into stormy waters over the thorny issue of marriage.

The Tory leader favours tax breaks for married couples, the shadow chancellor does not. The Times - and others - report a substantial disagreement.

Let's just examine this for a minute. Dave Cameron voiced his support for tax breaks for the legally bound (through marriage and civil partnerships) in a nod to tradition in his first speech as Tory leader. He's keen on research that indicates half of those who simply shack up split up before their child's fifth birthday. That's compared to one in 12 married people.

George Osborne reportedly takes the line it's not the state's job to tell people how to live their lives and that all parents should be supported regardless of family structure.

Of course the state (unless the Tories are planning some really sinister changes) wouldn't be telling people how to live their lives but merely encouraging them in a particular direction. But wouldn't it have to be a pretty fantastic tax break to get otherwise unwilling people to tie the knot?

Call me cynical but I smell a bit of a Tory PR cook-up here. Lexus Dave - much photographed family man and hero of traditional values. Oik Osborne - all that is fresh and libertarian about the Conservatives (really, all) but ultimately not in charge. And a policy proposal which is ultimately more gimmick than anything else. They publicise a stand-off. Oik in the end caves in. The leader and tradition prevail.

Is Dave Cameron is hugging the family values husky?

Ben Davies trained as a journalist after taking most of the 1990s off. Prior to joining the New Statesman he spent five years working as a politics reporter for the BBC News website. He lives in North London.
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I can’t follow Marie Kondo's advice – even an empty Wotsits packet “sparks joy” in me

I thought I’d give her loopy, OCD theories a go, but when I held up an empty Wotsits bag I was suffused with so many happy memories of the time we’d spent together that I couldn’t bear to throw it away.

I have been brooding lately on the Japanese tidying freak Marie Kondo. (I forgot her name so I typed “Japanese tidying freak” into Google, and it was a great help.) The “Japanese” bit is excusable in this context, and explains a bit, as I gather Japan is more on the case with the whole “being tidy” thing than Britain, but still.

Apart from telling us that we need to take an enormous amount of care, to the point where we perform origami when we fold our underpants, which is pretty much where she lost me, she advises us to throw away anything that does not, when you hold it, “spark joy”. Perhaps I have too much joy in my life. I thought I’d give her loopy, OCD theories a go, but when I held up an empty Wotsits bag I was suffused with so many happy memories of the time we’d spent together that I couldn’t bear to throw it away.

After a while I gave up on this because I was getting a bit too happy with all the memories, so then I thought to myself, about her: “This is someone who isn’t getting laid enough,” and then I decided that was a crude and ungallant thought, and besides, who am I to wag the finger? At least if she invites someone to her bedroom no one is going to run screaming from it, as they would if I invited anyone to my boudoir. (Etym: from the French “bouder”, to sulk. How very apt in my case.) Marie Kondo – should bizarre circumstance ever conspire to bring her to the threshold – would run screaming from the Hovel before she’d even alighted the stairs from the front door.

I contemplate my bedroom. As I write, the cleaning lady is in it. To say that I have to spend half an hour cleaning out empty Wotsits packets, and indeed wotnot, before I let her in there should give you some idea of how shameful it has got. And even then I have to pay her to do so.

A girlfriend who used to be referred to often in these pages, though I think the term should be a rather less flippant one than “girlfriend”, managed to get round my natural messiness problem by inventing a game called “keep or chuck”.

She even made up a theme song for it, to the tune from the old Spiderman TV show. She would show me some object, which was not really rubbish, but usually a book (it may not surprise you to learn that it is the piles of books that cause most of the clutter here), and say, “Keep or chuck?” in the manner of a high-speed game show host. At one point I vacillated and so she then pointed at herself and said, “Keep or chuck?” I got the message.

These days the chances of a woman getting into the bedroom are remote. For one thing, you can’t just walk down the street and whistle for one much as one would hail a cab, although my daughter is often baffled by my ability to attract females, and suspects I have some kind of “mind ray”. Well, if I ever did it’s on the blink now, and not only that – right now, I’m not even particularly bothered that it’s on the blink. Because, for another thing, I would frankly not care to inflict myself upon anyone else at the moment.

It was all a bit of a giggle eight years ago, when I was wheeled out of the family home and left to my own devices. Of course, when I say “a bit of a giggle”, I mean “terrifying and miserable”, but I had rather fewer miles on the clock than I do now, and a man can, I think, get away with a little bit more scampish behaviour, and entertain a few more illusions about the future and his own plausibility as a character, when he is squarely in his mid-forties than when he is approaching, at speed, his middle fifties.

Death has rather a lot to do with it, I suppose. I had not actually seen, or touched, a dead body until I saw, and touched, my own father’s a few weeks ago. That’s what turns an abstract into a concrete reality. You finally put that to one side and gird up your loins – and then bloody David Bowie snuffs it, and you find yourself watching the videos for “Blackstar” and “Lazarus” over and over again, and reach the inescapable conclusion that death is not only incredibly unpleasant, it is also remorseless and very much nearer than you think.

And would you, dear reader, want to be involved with anyone who kept thinking along those lines? I mean, even if he learned how to fold his undercrackers into an upright cylinder, like a napkin at a fancy restaurant, before putting them in his drawer? When he doesn’t even have a drawer?

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 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war