Unreconstructed man: a crowd outside a Soho "sauna" in 1972. (Photo: Getty)
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Asked to pop down an alleyway by a working girl, I am relieved to find Soho not entirely sanitised

But it's unsettling to see a woman trying to make ends meet in such a desperate way, especially when dressed as if for the school run.

I went to a fancy restaurant in Soho the other night. Someone else was paying – I can’t remember the last time I went to a fancy restaurant and settled at least my own share of the bill. It was actually a publishing house that was paying and moreover the meal was for about 20 people at Bocca di Lupo, which gets good reviews but is stratospherically out of my financial league. But its co-proprietor sacked his Italian wine merchant when the latter called the Italian integration minister, Cécile Kyenge, “a dirty black monkey”, so it has good karma.

Anyway, it was nice to be invited. “Dinner with a publisher?” asked my old comrade Matthew De Abaitua. “Give my regards to 1997.” And there was something retro about it: the private dining room, the familiar faces, the way the waiters filled up my glass at the merest lift of my eyebrow.

I left earlier than the others, for I was tired – I’d been raising my eyebrow often – but I thought the walk back to the Hovel would do me good. It’s only about a mile and a half and besides it was one of those days when one was acutely conscious of a lightness about the Oyster card. As I walked down Brewer Street, a woman came up to me and asked if I had a cigarette.

It soon became clear that she was not only interested in me as a kind of walking tobacconist. Asking for a cigarette turned out to be near the upper limits of her English but through emphatic gestures and the use of the word “alleyway” – one of those words you don’t often use in everyday life but in certain professions comes with the territory – she began to get her point across.

At the time, because I was full of drink, I was more amused than embarrassed. It is also not easy rolling a cigarette for someone while they are grinding their crotch against yours; I thought it best not to rummage in my pockets for a filter.

My amusement revolved around the thought that at least Soho had not yet been sanitised beyond reproach. In January, Howard Jacobson wrote a very good article about the importance of keeping Soho’s squalid parts. When he was young, Soho had provided the answers to these questions: “what’s it like to do everything you shouldn’t . . . what’s it like to be in the hands of someone who knows more than you do and cares less; what’s it like to let flesh rule you without consideration for your parents, your girlfriend or your homework . . . but why go on? You know what I wanted to find out. What’s it ALL like?”

These are questions that I no longer feel any pressing need to ask and so I tried to steer the subject elsewhere and gently disabuse the woman of the notion that pestering me was worth her while. I asked her where she was from (Poland, she said; I mentioned my Polish ancestry but she didn’t take the conversational bait; also, I think she was from somewhere else); I told her I had a lovely girlfriend waiting for me at home; I started telling her I had only a tenner in my pocket to last me till the end of the week, which I probably now inadvertently owed her, but then decided that she wouldn’t believe me even if she could understand me.

I gave her the cigarette, disentangled myself, lit it for her and parted with an old-world-courtesy nod of the head and my best wishes. (I had been to a screening of The Grand Budapest Hotel the night before and was still feeling somewhat under the sway of genteel, Mitteleuropäische politesse.)

In the morning, I wasn’t quite so amused. I didn’t like the idea of someone with only the most basic of street smarts and opportunities trying to get inside the pants of the likes of me in order to keep body and soul together. That she was dressed no more provocatively than if she’d been doing the school run was also vaguely unsettling. I don’t want to clean Soho up – my feelings on the subject of prostitution are roughly those of St Thomas Aquinas (in brief: a blocked sewer poisons the water supply) – but it is sobering to rub up, so to speak, against the truly down and out.

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 12 March 2014 issue of the New Statesman, 4 years of austerity

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Why Richard T Kelly's The Knives is such a painful read

It is well known that Stendhal compared politics in a novel to a gunshot in the middle of a concert  this novel of modern British politcs is more like a mirror being shot at.

It is well known that Stendhal compared politics in a novel to a gunshot in the middle of a concert: a noise harsh but not dynamic, and with no resemblance to any instrument in the orchestra. What is often forgotten is that his enduring soundbite started life on the losing side of an argument. In The Red and the Black, Stendhal says that he is tempted to present a page of dots rather than subject the reader to an interlude of dreadful speechifying. His fictional publisher replies by asking him to square that with his earlier description of a novel as “a mirror going along a main road”. If your characters don’t talk politics, the publisher concludes – in a scene that does some damage in its own right to Stendhal’s realist aspirations – then your novel will fail to provide an honest reflection of Frenchmen in the year 1830.

Richard T Kelly’s new novel bets everything on this position. Kelly wants to show that a political novel – even one with characters who give political speeches and conduct discussions about policy – doesn’t need to be an ear-bashing polemic or a scuzzy piece of genre writing, but can succeed as a work of realism no less than the story of a provincial dentist’s mid-life crisis, or an extended family crumbling at Christmas.

Kelly is more a descendant of Trollope and Dickens than of Stendhal. His first novel, Crusaders (2008), a consciously neo-Victorian portrait of Newcastle in the 1990s, featured a Labour MP, Martin Pallister. The Knives is a sequel of sorts – a long, dense novel about a Conservative home secretary (Pallister is his shadow) which arrives at a moment when we are thinking about domestic politics, political process, Westminster bartering and backstabbing, and the role of the home secretary.

Kelly begins with a note explaining that The Knives is “a work of fiction . . . make-believe”, and it is true that any resemblance between David Blaylock and the real-life recent occupant of his post is scuppered in the prologue – a long gun battle in the Bosnian countryside with virtually no resemblance to Theresa May’s tenure at the Association for Payment Clearing Services. Yet the novel contains plenty of allusive nudging. Kelly’s member for Teesside may not be standing in for the member for Maidenhead, but a prime minister who is “primus inter pares” of a group of “university contemporaries and schoolmates” rings some bells. There are also borrowings from Robert Peel and Tony Blair, as well as a quotation from Trollope and a discussion of Coriolanus (“He wouldn’t last five minutes”).

As the novel begins, Blaylock is widely respected, has even been named Politician of the Year, but he is also surrounded by possible pitfalls: the presence in Britain of foreign nationals with charge sheets, the proliferation of radical Muslim clerics, the debate over ID cards, mounting questions over his record on unemployment, immigration, human rights. There is also an ex-wife whose work as a barrister converges on Home Office business. The Knives is a full-bodied account of Blaylock’s day-to-day business, in which the relationship between journalism and realism, research and description, is generally fruitful. Kelly’s mirror travels through meeting halls and community centres, down “the plum carpet of the long corridor to the cabinet anteroom”. The problem is that Kelly is too effective – too diligent – and the book is detailed to a fault, at times to the point of mania.

His habits in general tend towards overkill. As well as his note to the reader, he introduces the book with a trio of epigraphs (Joseph Conrad, Norman Mailer, Norman Lewis) and a not-inviting list of dramatis personae – 60 names over two and a half pages, in some cases with their ages and nicknames. Virtually all of these figures are then described fully in the novel proper. One character is compared to a thinker, a dancer, a Roman and a pallbearer in the space of a single paragraph.

Stendhal took his publisher’s advice but did not ignore his own instincts: having accepted that politics might have a place in a realist novel set in Paris in 1830, he is careful to give us an extract from Julien’s 26 pages of minutes. Kelly gives us the minutes. But it isn’t only world-building that detains him. Early in the book, out jogging, Blaylock passes “a young blonde” who is “wand-like from behind”: yet only by virtue of “a conjuror’s trick – a stunning trompe l’oeil – for from the front she was bulgingly pregnant, to the point of capsizing”. Almost every sentence carries a couple of excess words.

In Kelly’s universe, hubbubs emanate and autumn insinuates and people get irked by periodic postal admonishments. At one point, we read: “The likelihood that they worsened the purported grievances of said enemy was not a matter one could afford to countenance.” In a dinner scene, “brisket” is served by the “briskest” of waiters. There are tautological similes, dangling modifiers (“A vicar’s daughter, Geraldine’s manner was impeccable”), truisms (“The law was complex”), fiddly phrases (“such as it was”, “all things considered”), Latin tags and derivations, and every conceivable shade of adverb. When Kelly’s phrasing reaches for the mock-heroic, it often comes back to Earth with too great a thud: “Blaylock, tired of the joust, accepted the black ring-binder.” All this verbiage obscures the novel’s function of bringing the news – or rather, the truth behind the news – and the cumulative effect is grating, even painful, like a mirror being shot at.

Leo Robson is the New Statesman’s lead fiction critic

The Knives by Richard T Kelly is published by Faber & Faber (475pp, £12.99)

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 18 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s revenge