Idle and profligate

Ever since taking up my wife’s suggestion that I leave the family home, sleeping on a fold-out sofa, I can’t afford mayonnaise unless I give up wine.

Watching Jeremy Paxman’s programme about the Victorians may have given many people, in these uncertain times, pause for thought. The bit that would have spooked most of them would have been the stuff about the workhouse. The Victorians, explained Paxman, believed that if you were unemployed it was Your Own Fault and the idle and profligate had only themselves to blame.

“Idle and profligate” was the kind of language they used back then. And, having been called idle and profligate, or closely related variations thereof, for much of my life, I can’t help thinking that the shadow of the workhouse looms over me, even though these days the idleness is forced upon me and the profligacy – well, the profligacy isn’t that; it’s just necessary expenditure.

I know this because I had to fill in a form at Brent Magistrates’ Court, and they wanted to know what I was spending, and how much I was earning, in order to know how much they could fine me for neglecting to beep my Oyster card when travelling on a bendy bus to the British Library.

We’re quite a numerous crew, we bendy-bus defaulters. Arrive at the magistrates’ court and approach the security guard with any kind of hesitation, and he will say: “Bendy bus?” You will nod, and, after the business with the metal detector, he will say, with the air of a man who has said this many times in the past, and will say so many more times in the future, that you are to go up to the second floor, Court 4. (Or whatever.)

Being done for such a footling crime, I reflected, represented A New Low. When I think of all the things they could get me for . . . I imagine this was how Al Capone felt when he was pinched for tax evasion: indignant and foolish. Still, the list pinned up outside the courtroom goes all the way down to the floor, and while most people just plead guilty from home and forget about it, I felt that a trip to Neasden in the freezing drizzle was just the thing to buck me up. Besides, I had nothing else on, and I wanted to see what my fellow criminals looked like.

 

I fill in the form which asks you how much you spend and how much you earn. I have always been rather cavalier about the whole earning/spending business; as long as bailiffs are not actually hammering on your door, you’re fine.

 

The interesting thing about this form, though, was that it suggested that the courts are rather more forgiving than the Inland Revenue as to what constitutes a legitimate expense. You are invited, for instance, to say how much you spend on clothes per month. Mindful of the fact that the last time I spent anything on clothes for myself was in the spring of 2007, yet anxious not to look like some kind of weirdo, I put down £5 per month as a token sum.

 

They also ask you how much you spend on food, alcohol and tobacco. I decided that the best thing to do would be to deduct the £5 I had claimed as my clothing allowance from my drinks bill. It still came to a horrendous amount, so I revised that down in case they thought I was an alcoholic. As for food – how much does one spend on food? All I know is that the last time I found myself in a supermarket, I had to remind myself that I couldn’t actually afford mayonnaise. When I eventually tot up my expenses and compare them against what, for want of a better word, we shall call my income, I muse idly (and perhaps profligately) that the courts won’t fine me: they’ll give me a grant.

 

And so this is what it has come to, I think to myself; I am 45 years old, I am, ever since taking up my wife’s suggestion that I leave the family home, sleeping on a fold-out sofa, I can’t afford mayonnaise unless I give up wine, which is out of the question, I share a house which, since the removal of a supporting beam some decades ago, now sags so much in the middle that pans placed on the electric hob actually slide on to the floor if left unattended, and – as a result of brooding about these things, instead of beeping my Oyster card – I am about to get a criminal record. I am turning, ahead of schedule, into Ed Reardon.

 

There are, of course, plenty of people in worse circumstances, particularly nowadays. And there is much to console myself with. I may no longer have a cat, but the hovel I live in has several friendly mice I can play with; my good friend J–, also exiled from his wife and children, shares the place with me; the pub down the road cashes cheques and the girl who works in the local Majestic is of surpassing charm. I forbear to ask the magistrate if there is a workhouse he could send me to.

 

Down and Out in London will appear weekly

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 March 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Planet Overload

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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times