Scrabble is like life: you’ve got to be innit to win it

Not much doubt about the big news of the past couple of weeks: there are a dozen new words allowed in Scrabble. You can now get points for INBOX (only 15 years or so after it entered everyday vocabulary), WAGYU (upmarket steak, guaranteed to psych out your opponent, who will conclude that you can afford to eat in more expensive restaurants and are thus a more accomplished wordsmith), and - perhaps controversially - TWIGLET (as in, er, Twiglet, the wheaty snack). They've also opened the doors to VLOG (a video blog and a deeply uncomfortable word to say out loud) and QIN: a boon to anyone who's been frustratingly stuck with a Q, the queen of letters but among the most intractable. Yes, like I said, this is big news. I can't wait to play QIN, have someone challenge it and smoothly refer them to a recent news story. I might carry around a laminated copy of the Guardian story that broke the news, in anticipation of just such a challenge. There's nothing like ruining someone's day with a laminate.

Game changer

Some people, undoubtedly, are going to get annoyed when the new words come out. They'll be hot under the collar that INNIT (as in, yes, "isn't it") is suddenly a legitimate strategic play, rather than - as it should be - something you hear on the train and try to pretend didn't happen. They're the same people who complain bitterly when you win the game by playing AA or XI or JO. "Those aren't real words," they moan. "It's not a fair test of vocabulary. I put a lot of effort into saving up my letters until I could write CAMEL. You should be ashamed of yourself."

What these people fail to grasp is that Scrabble exists in its own autonomous universe. It's not obliged to be faithful to the genuine patterns of popular word usage, any more than Monopoly should be condemned for popularising the idea that you can buy Mayfair for a few hundred pounds (although its rail system, which becomes more and more profitable the more stations you annexe, eerily presages the modern age of privatisation). Scrabble is about tactics, not words. If you know the tricks, you'll get ahead; if you show too much sentimentality towards your favourite words and objects, you'll be bulldozed. In this respect it mirrors real life very well. It's not really fair that people get cheaper train tickets just because they book earlier than you; they're still taking up the same amount of space on the train. It's unjust that a reality TV show winner sells a thousand times as many records as a more gifted but obscure singer-songwriter. Nevertheless, this is the world we live in. On almost every level, it's a competition, just as evolution is a competition to see which species make it and which die out muttering about not being able to use their Zs. We can learn from Scrabble. Life is about winners and losers. Be a winner. Commit the word WAGYU to memory now. It's 24 points on a double-word. I don't need to say more than that.

If further proof were needed that modern life is even more of a cut-throat competition than it always has been, you should see the current series of Masterchef in Australia, where I've spent the past three months. Masterchef is popular enough at home, but down here it brings the populace to a standstill. Never has food been spoken about with such seriousness; never has a silver cloche been lifted, to reveal a dish of steak and kidney pie, with quite such portentous musical accompaniment.

Half baked

On the episode I watched yesterday, three contestants faced a sudden-death Baked Alaska contest. The tension at the unveiling of the dishes would not have been out of place in an operating theatre (which might be an idea for a future TV series: Britain's Got Surgeons, perhaps). The judges nibbled at the desserts as if the creator of the least impressive one would be put to death. The contestant with the worst Baked Alaska, teetering at the doors of elimination, wept and said cooking was his dream. He was reprieved and someone who hadn't cried was eliminated instead.

Fair? No - but once more, a useful lesson in the way to get ahead. Presentation is more important than product. People can complain that reality TV has made us all shallow and vacuously results-driven, but it only reflects a trend that has been in progress since cavemen first began to compete for wives, cave-space and the survival of their genes. Life is a game with winners and losers. It's no more than a glorified, feature-length version of Scrabble or Masterchef. If you don't like the rules, find a way to beat them. Innit. l

Next week: Nicholas Lezard
newstatesman.com/blogs/mark-watson

Mark Watson is a stand-up comedian and novelist. His most recent book, Crap at the Environment, follows his own efforts to halve his carbon footprint over one year.

This article first appeared in the 23 May 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Obama 2.0

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By refusing to stand down, Jeremy Corbyn has betrayed the British working classes

The most successful Labour politicians of the last decades brought to politics not only a burning desire to improve the lot of the working classes but also an understanding of how free market economies work.

Jeremy Corbyn has defended his refusal to resign the leadership of the Labour Party on the grounds that to do so would be betraying all his supporters in the country at large. But by staying on as leader of the party and hence dooming it to heavy defeat in the next general election he would be betraying the interests of the working classes this country. More years of Tory rule means more years of austerity, further cuts in public services, and perpetuation of the gross inequality of incomes. The former Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Seema Malhotra, made the same point when she told Newsnight that “We have an unelectable leader, and if we lose elections then the price of our failure is paid by the working people of this country and their families who do not have a government to stand up for them.”

Of course, in different ways, many leading figures in the Labour movement, particularly in the trade unions, have betrayed the interests of the working classes for several decades. For example, in contrast with their union counterparts in the Scandinavian countries who pressurised governments to help move workers out of declining industries into expanding sectors of the economy, many British trade union leaders adopted the opposite policy. More generally, the trade unions have played a big part in the election of Labour party leaders, like Corbyn, who were unlikely to win a parliamentary election, thereby perpetuating the rule of Tory governments dedicated to promoting the interests of the richer sections of society.

And worse still, even in opposition Corbyn failed to protect the interests of the working classes. He did this by his abysmal failure to understand the significance of Tory economic policies. For example, when the Chancellor of the Exchequer had finished presenting the last budget, in which taxes were reduced for the rich at the expense of public services that benefit everybody, especially the poor, the best John McConnell could do – presumably in agreement with Corbyn – was to stand up and mock the Chancellor for having failed to fulfill his party’s old promise to balance the budget by this year! Obviously neither he nor Corbyn understood that had the government done so the effects on working class standards of living would have been even worse. Neither of them seems to have learnt that the object of fiscal policy is to balance the economy, not the budget.

Instead, they have gone along with Tory myth about the importance of not leaving future generations with the burden of debt. They have never asked “To whom would future generations owe this debt?” To their dead ancestors? To Martians? When Cameron and his accomplices banged on about how important it was to cut public expenditures because the average household in Britain owed about £3,000, they never pointed out that this meant that the average household in Britain was a creditor to the tune of about the same amount (after allowing for net overseas lending). Instead they went along with all this balanced budget nonsense. They did not understand that balancing the budget was just the excuse needed to justify the prime objective of the Tory Party, namely to reduce public expenditures in order to be able to reduce taxes on the rich. For Corbyn and his allies to go along with an overriding objective of balancing the budget is breathtaking economic illiteracy. And the working classes have paid the price.

One left-wing member of the panel on Question Time last week complained that the interests of the working classes were ignored by “the elite”. But it is members of the elite who have been most successful in promoting the interests of the working classes. The most successful pro-working class governments since the war have all been led mainly by politicians who would be castigated for being part of the elite, such as Clement Atlee, Harold Wilson, Tony Crosland, Barbara Castle, Richard Crossman, Roy Jenkins, Denis Healey, Tony Blair, and many others too numerous to list. They brought to politics not only a burning desire to improve the lot of the working classes (from which some of them, like me, had emerged) and reduce inequality in society but also an understanding of how free market economies work and how to deal with its deficiencies. This happens to be more effective than ignorant rhetoric that can only stroke the egos and satisfy the vanity of demagogues

People of stature like those I have singled out above seem to be much more rare in politics these days. But there is surely no need to go to other extreme and persist with leaders like Jeremy Corbyn, a certain election loser, however pure his motives and principled his ambitions.

Wilfred Beckerman is an Emeritus Fellow of Balliol College, Oxford, and was, for several years in the 1970s, the economics correspondent for the New Statesman