David Cameron speaking from the Olympic Velodrome on 7 February. Photograph: Getty Images.
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David Cameron takes a leaf out of Salmond's book and speaks to the heart, not the head

Britain's muted but certain recovery is bad news for Alex Salmond. David Cameron seems to have learned from the Scottish First Minister, appealing to the heart, not the head.

“Good morning. My name is Jackie and I am from Legacy here at the Olympic Park...” This was probably a well-worn joke, accessible to those who liked the spoof Olympic sitcom 2012 and that sort of thing, but Jackie couldn’t have done more to lighten the mood as she conjured up in our minds a speech by the lady from Sustainability, and an extended coach ride that took us from Stratford International station to the Olympic Park, via Wembley Stadium.

Disturbingly, it was true. She was from Legacy, and she began to explain the regeneration programme. Happily, it created enough of a distraction to allow for initial conversations. I introduced myself to the lady sitting next to me, called Olga it turned out, who informed me she was the CEO of a medical imaging firm. “Why are you here?” I asked. “I do not know,” she replied in a faintly Eastern European accent. “Why are you here?” she retorted. “I don’t know,” I shrugged. After this verbal mirroring finished we determined to stick together in case everyone else knew why they were there.

We needn’t have. Even Paralympian Dame Tanni Grey-Thompson and Dame Tessa Jowell looked slightly wide-eyed at their inclusion (understandably in Tessa’s case – she had had to endure the ranting of the historian David Starkey the night before as a fellow panelist on Question Time), despite the fact that they had more right than others to be at the venue, but weren’t necessarily connected to what was about to be said.

In a sense, I had a connection with the content (namely a couple of articles I’ve written for the New Statesman website on the subject, with the predictable quotidian abuse for doing so) but not the venue. In PR terms maybe we were, collectively, engaged in a piece of cosmic cancellation that rendered the audience almost entirely neutral.

I had already heard at 6:30am on Radio 4 “that the Prime Minister, David Cameron, will be saying later today at the Olympic Velodrome that the people of England, Wales and Northern Ireland should be emailing, texting and telling their Scottish friends to vote to stay in the Union on 18th September...” so I was simultaneously miffed and relaxed about being bussed in as a member of a well-dressed group of extras. To my surprise, Olga, an expert in image analysis, hadn’t clocked that we should be more interested in analysing the image, rather than the content.

Because, as it turned out, and for no other reason than coincidence, the Prime Minister did attempt something that I had urged in a recent New Statesman article – to avoid the technical arguments on Scottish independence, and appeal to the emotions. The “Better Together” campaign appeals (like its spokesman, Alistair Darling) to the mind, while Alex Salmond, leader of the SNP – who doesn’t have the fig leaf of a thought-through policy or a contingency plan to cover his political ambitions – appeals to the heart.

David Cameron’s intervention was specifically designed to redress that balance. And it was a lesson in public speech-making; admittedly sometimes too insistent, sometimes a little too red-faced in delivery, sometimes a little too anecdotal and sometimes veering towards making the case for independence (the list of Scottish cultural and business successes was impressive), but always, and this is something that really cannot be doubted, an enunciation of a personal desire to see the union stay together because he genuinely believes only chaos and diminution lie ahead should Scotland vote “Yes” to independence.

Salmond’s response was unsurprisingly aggressive – he even contrived to use the phrase I predicted for him when he said “game on” during an interview on the BBC One O’Clock News. With Salmond, it really is like waiving a stick in front of a dog when it comes to the points of view of others, especially if you are English, a Prime Minister and called David Cameron. Each and every piece of opposition has to be stamped upon as though he and the SNP are creating an informational version of a Celtic North Korea. But he failed to land a killer blow, even missing the obvious “on yer bike” line for choosing the velodrome as the venue for the speech.

The economic situation of the UK is unlikely to help Salmond in the coming months; there is little to knock the UK off course from its muted recovery, with signs that a new credit cycle is starting while unemployment is falling, and demand for graduates is increasing. These are all things that lead people to desire to maintain the status quo. And since few people know about – or are sufficiently interested in – the niceties of sovereign credit ratings, single currencies or the need for new over-arching institutions to police an independent Scotland, Cameron’s appeal to the heart is a welcome addition to the technocratic angle. It couldn’t have come out any clearer if you’d passed the whole thing through one of Olga’s award-winning image processing algorithms.

Head of Fixed Income and Macro, Old Mutual Global Investors

Qusai Al Shidi/Flickr
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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