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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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle