No go zone: the wife of cartoonist Barry Appleby washes a teapot in her kitchen, 1952. Photo: Getty
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I’m living with a house-proud northern woman who has just uncovered the kitchen

But if, like me, you are miserably fussy about your tea, then you will know that you never clean the inside of a teapot.

And so there is a new occupant in the Hovel. It can’t be helped. The general consensus among my friends is that the poor woman must be either on the run from Interpol or a homicidal lunatic who has inveigled her way in here under false pretences but, as far as I can see, she is neither: she is simply a house-proud northern woman about my age.

You begin to see the problem right there, don’t you? “House-proud”. I am many things – well, one or two – but “house-proud” is not among them. I am house-shamed.

As I may have mentioned before, I was blessed at birth with the ability to make a room messy just by looking at it. If I want to render it uninhabitable, I have to sit down in it for about five minutes. This is much more than a class thing: it is supernatural. Then again, you will not find me scrubbing the doorstep every Saturday morning, whether it needs it or not.

Anyway, I came down on her first morning to find an entire room where the kitchen had once been. Everything had been tidied away. Where, I know not.

The kitchen, which last saw development around the time Clive Dunn’s “Grandad” was No 1*, has six drawers, three of which are unusable because the bottom has fallen out of them and three of which are unusable because they are full. The cupboard space beneath them is an area bitterly contested between the saucepans, assorted unnameable bric-a-brac and Mousie, apart from the cupboard under the sink, where even Mousie will not go.

Either this woman has access to Time Lord technology or some things have gone, perhaps for ever. William of Ockham told us not to multiply variables unnecessarily, so I will for the time being assume Time Lord tech. Not only theoretically but practically, I know that tidying up is possible. After months of looking around me with a sick feeling and putting it off for ages, I spent the hours of midnight to 2am tidying up the living room the night before her arrival – but who does it voluntarily?

Exhausted, I’d left the kitchen alone, apart from cleaning the breadboard and doing the washing-up, bar a few items of cutlery that were beneath contempt. I couldn’t see where anything else could go.

Anyway, things got off to an inauspicious start the next day. I have, since living practically alone, let myself go a bit. It’s a gradual process, like one’s children growing up; you don’t notice it so much on a day-to-day basis but if you haven’t seen someone else’s kids for a year or so it can be quite a shock.

Likewise, I think I might present an alarming spectacle to someone who last saw me (and only briefly) about two months ago, when I had made an effort to scrub myself up. I now have a straggly white beard, like a strange fungal growth, or a cobweb in a cellar. My toenails have sheared through the front of my slippers and scratch, claw-like, on the ground when I walk.

My eyes are red-rimmed and sunken from a strange combination of too much sleep and too little sleep. My expression is that of a man hunted by the Furies and hag-ridden by nameless fears. I look, in short, like late-period Howard Hughes, without the money.

“You cleaned the inside of the teapot,” I snarl.

Dimly, the last human part of me – think of the remnants of Sméagol still minutely present in Gollum – recognises that, as welcomes to the Hovel go, this is somewhat lacking in politesse. But one becomes attached to one’s mess, especially if it is all one has. Still, the inside of the teapot is another matter. If, like me, you are miserably fussy about your tea (because that, too, is all one has), then you will know that you never clean the inside of a teapot, because doing so ruins the taste. And, as it turns out, the poor woman does not herself drink tea. “My husband never cleans the inside of the teapot,” she says. “I always thought he was just being lazy.”

I conceive an immediate bond of sympathy with this man, wherever he is. I deliver a brief but impassioned lecture about the unwisdom of cleaning teapots, or, indeed, anything else that is My Precious, and claw my way back to bed. Jesus, the poor woman.

*January 1971. Clive Dunn was almost exactly the age that I am now when he recorded it

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 09 April 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Anxiety nation

ELLIE FOREMAN-PECK FOR NEW STATESMAN
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Craig Oliver, Cameron's attack dog, finally bites

A new book reveals the spiteful after life of Downing Street's unlikely spin doctor.

It must be hard being a spin doctor: always in the shadows but always on-message. The murky control that the role requires might explain why David Cameron’s former director of communications Craig Oliver has rushed out his political memoirs so soon after his boss left Downing Street. Now that he has been freed from the shackles of power, Oliver has chosen to expose the bitterness that lingers among those on the losing side in the EU referendum.

The book, which is aptly titled Unleashing Demons, made headlines with its revelation that Cameron felt “badly let down” by Theresa May during the campaign, and that some in the Remain camp regarded the then home secretary as an “enemy agent”. It makes for gripping reading – yet seems uncharacteristically provocative in style for a man who eschewed the sweary spin doctor stereotype, instead advising Cameron to “be Zen” while Tory civil war raged during the Brexit campaign.

It may be not only politicians who find the book a tough read. Oliver’s visceral account of his side’s defeat on 24 June includes a description of how he staggered in a daze down Whitehall until he retched “harder than I have done in my life. Nothing comes up. I retch again – so hard, it feels as if I’ll turn inside out.”

It’s easy to see why losing hit Oliver – who was knighted in Cameron’s resignation honours list – so hard. Arguably, this was the first time the 47-year-old father-of-three had ever failed at anything. The son of a former police chief constable, he grew up in Scotland, went to a state school and studied English at St Andrews University. He then became a broadcast journalist, holding senior posts at the BBC, ITV and Channel 4.

When the former News of the World editor Andy Coulson resigned as No 10’s communications director in January 2011 because of unceasing references in the press to his alleged involvement in the phone-hacking scandal, Oliver was not the obvious replacement. But he was seen as a scandal-free BBC pen-pusher who exuded calm authority, and that won him the job. The Cameron administration, tainted by its association with the Murdoch media empire, needed somebody uncontroversial who could blend into the background.

It wasn’t just Oliver’s relative blandness that recommended him. At the BBC, he had made his name revamping the corporation’s flagship News at Ten by identifying the news angles that would resonate with Middle England. The Conservatives then put this skill to very good use during their 2015 election campaign. His broadcast expertise also qualified him to sharpen up the then prime minister’s image.

Oliver’s own sense of style, however, was widely ridiculed when he showed up for his first week at Downing Street looking every inch the metropolitan media male with a trendy man bag and expensive Beats by Dre headphones, iPad in hand.

His apparent lack of political affiliation caused a stir at Westminster. Political hacks were perplexed by his anti-spin attitude. His style was the antithesis of the attack-dog mode popularised by Alastair Campbell and Damian McBride in the New Labour years. As Robert Peston told the Daily Mail: “Despite working closely with Oliver for three years, I had no clue about his politics or that he was interested in politics.” Five years on, critics still cast aspersions and question his commitment to the Conservative cause.

Oliver survived despite early wobbles. The most sinister of these was the allegation that in 2012 he tried to prevent the Daily Telegraph publishing a story about expenses claimed by the then culture secretary, Maria Miller, using her links to the Leveson inquiry as leverage – an accusation that Downing Street denied. Nevertheless, he became indispensable to Cameron, one of a handful of trusted advisers always at the prime minister’s side.

Newspapers grumbled about Oliver’s preference for broadcast and social media over print. “He’s made it clear he [Oliver] doesn’t give a s*** about us, so I don’t really give a s*** about him,” a veteran correspondent from a national newspaper told Politico.

Yet that approach was why he was hired. There was the occasional gaffe, including the clumsy shot of a stern-looking Cameron, apparently on the phone to President Obama discussing Putin’s incursion into Ukraine, which was widely mocked on Twitter. But overall, reducing Downing Street’s dependence on print media worked: Scotland voted against independence in 2014 and the Tories won a majority in the 2015 general election.

Then came Brexit, a blow to the whole Cameroon inner circle. In his rush to set the record straight and defend Cameron’s legacy – as well as his own – Oliver has finally broken free of the toned-down, straight-guy persona he perfected in power. His memoir is spiteful and melodramatic, like something straight from the mouth of Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It. Perhaps, with this vengeful encore to his mild political career, the unlikely spin doctor has finally fulfilled his potential. 

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories