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

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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.