Will Self and Nick Lezard by Jackson Rees.
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Will Self: I couldn’t believe the Hovel was as bad as Nick Lezard makes out, so I went to see it

From without in the chilly night, the Hovel – which is a maisonette above a shop – looked cosy; I could see lamplight and books ranged on shelves.

Being a sensitive soul (no, really), I was struck by my old mucker Nick Lezard’s plaint about his Thanksgiving predicament in his column in the issue before last. If you’ll recall, he said that his parents were too old to stand around in the kitchen cooking a turkey et cetera (the et cetera are the trimmings), then there was a palpable half-beat pause in the prose before he supplied an ironic afterthought: “Come to think of it, so am I.” Hearkening to his catarrhal wheeze against this dual-generational dying of the light, and wanting to do a bit more for him than just chortling at his misfortune week after week, I arranged to descend on the Hovel with some care cigarettes: I’ve given up and am de-accessioning one of the finest tobacco stashes still in private hands. Anyway, I thought we might have a sort of freelancers’ Christmas party together; usually I just stand by myself in the corner of my writing room, chug on a bottle of crap white wine while shouting at the wall, then masturbate under the desk. When I wake up a couple of hours later I swear I’ll never do it again – but perhaps if I did it with poor Tiny Nick (or so I unreasoned), I might feel more wholesomely festive.

I had an ulterior motive as well: I can’t be alone among regular readers of Nick’s column in finding his portrayal of the Hovel slightly implausible; this, despite knowing him personally for twenty years and having witnessed his complete inadequacy in the face of the most routine household tasks (apart from cooking). Trust me, he is indeed completely boracic – the last pot he was pissing in has long since appeared in the window of Cash Converters by the Edgware Road – but the Gormenghast-inflected portrait of his gaff, complete with rats, filth, cobwebs and indigent ne’er-do-wells, has always struck me as a little de trop. I had to find out for myself whether it was really that bad, and perform a public service by either exploding the myth or confirming the reality. Anyway, the day before I was due to chip up, Nick emailed suggesting he feed me.

Such largesse! There were further exchanges about my high-class food intolerances before he settled on the idea of doing pork belly. Then, approximately three hours before I was due to arrive, he texted saying perhaps it would be better if I ate before I came. Narked – but still sensitive – I texted back asking if he was broke, but the reply came: “No more than usual, it’s just that I’ve had a rather large and bibulous lunch at the Gay Hussar . . . however, there are leftovers available.” This mollified me: despite his inability to put on his own underpants (the problem occurs when he’s lifted the first leg up; forgetting he’s done so, he’ll often raise it a second time, fall heavily, and spend hours unconscious before he’s discovered) Nick is a superb cook and his leftovers would be anyone else’s culinary triumph.

From without in the chilly night, the Hovel – which is a maisonette above a shop – looked cosy; I could see lamplight and books ranged on shelves. Mein host appeared pretty chipper as well when he answered the door. He led me up tip-tilted stairs past a half-landing piled high with old wine boxes; on the scruffy carpet pile lay dust-devils the size of tumbleweeds, while the walls and doors were covered with bilious textured wallpaper of a kind I’d last seen in a B&B in Bideford circa 1974. In the kitchen there was a lot of lino, some of it on the floor, and a shelf of greasy jars and sticky bottles full of desiccated crap. Somewhere in there, I was convinced, would be a small canister of arrowroot that no one had ever opened. But the sink and cooker, though old, appeared serviceable – and there were good smells wafting from the oven. Nick took a pot of boiling rice off the hob; I held the strainer and we drained it together.

Then, just before he was about to dump the rice in the casserole with the lamb I reminded him again about my vampirism: “You’re absolutely sure there’s no garlic in that lamb?”

“Well,” he conceded, “I probably used a clove or so when I was cooking it, but it’ll have long since deliquesced by now.”

“Um, Nick, that’s still some garlic. And anyway, let’s get real: no one cooks lamb with just one clove, now, do they?” He admitted that this was surpassing unlikely, and I – being, as I think I’ve remarked, sensitive to a fault – made light of it, saying: “That’s all right, I’ll just have some rice.”

So we sat in the Hovel’s front room at a table strewn with books and papers; Nick had a glass of wine, I had a plate of rice. It was pretty good rice, actually, and I savoured it as I looked about at the broken-backed furniture and the huge collection of valetudinarian “holiday” booze bottles some former flatmate had piled up in the nook by the book-filled fireplace. After supper I went upstairs for a piss. In the bathroom the bath had been turned into some sort of art installation: knock-kneed drying racks were arranged in it and draped with dog-eared fitted sheets. And I saw, lurking in the otherwise empty cabinet over the sink, a medieval box of Alka-Seltzer and thought: “I should be so lucky.”

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 19 December 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Issue 2014

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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