Full English: the MCC's chief executive (centre) and others at Lords 2011. Photo: Getty
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I wear my egg-and-bacon tie with pride – MCC membership is my last link to civilisation

My politics may place me firmly on the left of Labour, but confess to owning an MCC tie and people start looking at you in a whole new light.

As I write these words, England have declared on 575 for nine and Joe Root, the Yorkshireman who became old enough to vote only on the second-last day of 2008, has scored an unbeaten double century at Lord’s. I should have been there, but I have to file this column.

At which point I have a confession to make. I shall do so in a roundabout way. Imagine, if you will, the scene. It is Queen Charlotte’s Hospital in Chiswick, many, many years ago, and an American woman is entering the final stages of labour. Outside in the corridor, her husband clips the end off his third Partagás in a row and, pausing only to give a passing hospital porter a thrashing with his malacca cane, considers his options should the resulting issue be a boy. He has only one firm idea: that he should be a member of Marylebone Cricket Club.

Cut to many years later. That child, now grown to full estate, his marriage and finances in ruins, living in circumstances only two phone calls away from utter destitution, awaits an envelope. It is March; to save money, he has turned off the heating in the Hovel he lives in. Wrapped in several layers of ancient jumpers and moth-eaten scarves, he reads an out-of-date copy of Metro by the light of a guttering candle, which he also uses to heat up the tin of Heinz lentil soup that constitutes his daily meal. He’d burn the piles of review copies of books that surround him in the grate if he were not living in a smoke-free zone of London.

Downstairs, the letter box clatters and he runs down as fast as his joints, now nearly completely seized up by lumbago, will let him. His hands, warmed only partly by his fingerless gloves, tremble as he picks the brown buff envelope from the floor. Most buff envelopes are harbingers of doom, but not this one. He has already checked the franking mark, palpated it, and felt the tell-tale resistance in one corner. It’s here! His last link to civilisation, to the life that was his birthright. His breath condenses in the freezing air as he sobs his gratitude. His new MCC membership card has arrived.

You know, you don’t get a lot of sympathy in some circles when you let on you’re an MCC member. I have a feeling that even coming up with the above, a slightly exaggerated version of the truth (MCC passes are actually posted in April), isn’t going to stop me from getting a certain amount of flak from sections of this magazine’s readership. My politics may place me firmly on the left of the Labour Party, but confess to owning an egg-and-bacon tie and people start looking at you in a whole new light. Which is funny, because it’s like a mirror image of what happens when you sit down in the smoking enclosure in front of the Pavilion at Lord’s with a copy of the Guardian and the latest New Statesman.

“Goodness me,” one of the adjacent members will say. “Is that the old Staggers? I didn’t realise it was still going.” They may then ask if they can have a look. I watch as he flicks through its pages. A slight empurpling of the features may follow.

“Do you really read this?”

“It gets worse,” I say. “I write for it.”

By the afternoon, after a few drinks have been taken, the mood tends to mellow, and once or twice I have even elicited a vague promise from my neighbour to give this magazine another go, because it’s much more fun than it was in 1923, which was when he last saw a copy.

But I do not care too much, because, as I have got older, I seem to love the game more and more, and in particular the long form of the game, with its easy pace, its relative courtliness; the very sound of it and the look of the whites against the green. Also, you can’t see the sponsors’ logos from where I sit; and, as I refuse to pay for Sky TV, and couldn’t afford it even if I wanted to, this is the only way I can get to see live cricket. For a yearly outlay considerably less than that for a satellite or cable subscription, I can stroll into Lord’s for any game I like without buying a ticket. Last year, after a particularly glorious day, during which all cares, and there have been plenty of these, had disappeared, I found my eyes brimming with tears of happiness and gratitude. This is not an exaggeration.

“Do your colleagues ever give you stick for being an MCC member?” I was asked the other day.

“Sometimes,” I say. “But I tell them to go **** themselves.”

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 18 June 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Islam tears itself apart

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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser