I was the original Idler

Our boulevardier columnist takes a rare trip to the countryside, which he finds – surprisingly – muc

Somebody “up there” is reading this. Hardly had I claimed that I had an enviable body mass index than – pop! – a little pot belly appeared, as if by magic. (I have become rather fond of it, and shall call it David.) And then no sooner had I complained about the bogusness of London than – whoosh! – circumstances find me in the countryside for a few days with my boys.

This isn’t fake countryside. This is the real deal, three and a half hours from London, four if you take the scenic route over Exmoor, four and a half if you get stuck in the densest fog you’ve ever seen in your life on the B3227 near Wiveliscombe. We arrive in a thunderstorm. Like Marwood’s Jag in Withnail and I, the car has only one windscreen wiper (although, unlike the Jag, it’s in fact meant only to have one wiper. But still).

We are staying at my friend Tom’s place in north Devon. Tom edits a magazine called the Idler, which used to come out six times a year but now appears a more manageable once. This is actually because he works quite hard. Even so, when he gave me a copy of his book How to Be Idle, he inscribed it: “To Nick – who showed me the way.” But he doesn’t live in the countryside in a poncey way – you know, immaculately kept drives, a carriage wheel stuck uselessly on the outside wall, pampas grass (apparently the infallible sign of the swinger, which is one of the traditional ways to relieve the tedium of life in the country).

Life at Tom’s place is not tedious. There’s stuff to do. There’s a pony to muck out. There are ten hens and one lordly chanticleer to feed and keep safe from the foxes. There are two cats who must be stroked. There is a black retriever who must be played with. I am not really a dog person but this is the second-most engaging hound I have ever met in my life. (The most amusing, personable mutt I ever saw belonged to, of all people, John McVicar, who is himself a gent.) There are even bees, but they can look after themselves.

Last year, there were a couple of pigs, which kept breaking down the fence and destroying the next-door neighbour’s garden. It fell to me to round them up and rebuild the fence, learning how to do drystone walling on the job. Man, was I pleased when those animals were turned into bacon. The place itself has only wood-burning stoves and a Raeburn and is a tad chilly, even in high summer. But the kids had a coal fireplace in their bedroom, which they considered the height of luxury – and they were right. The only mod con is a fridge.

People who know me only as a boulevardier are astonished that I get off on this stuff, but I do. Which is just as well as it’s the only place where I can afford to go on holiday. The British mainland is now, in effect, my prison. But when you have an Eden like Tom’s place, that’s not so bad.

Back in the metropolis, an awkward moment. A certain gentleman, whose precise relationship to me it would be indelicate to reveal, approaches me shyly. “I read your column last week,” he begins, with something in his manner suggesting that he is not about to add the words, “and I thought it was a complete scream.” What he says is: “I’m a very private person, so please don’t mention me again.” This puts me in a delicate position. As he must doubtless appreciate, he is not exactly a man whose sensibilities I wish to protect. And what about my professional obligations? My readers? I can’t just bang on about myself every week. This isn’t sodding Twitter. I need the material.

Several replies spring to mind, such as: “You should have seen the first draft”, or: “Thanks – that’s next week’s column sorted”, or that old standby: “Fuck off.” But no. Such facetiousness would be inappropriate. Humanus sum, nihil humanum a me alienum puto, I reply, or, in English: “I’ll write what I like.” This doesn’t seem to satisfy him, so I add: “I’ll bear it in mind.” So he can consider himself not mentioned at all. I am not a cruel man.

But it’s a tricky business, this matter of mentioning real-life people in a column like this. Some people beg to be included. Alan, the guvnor of the Duke of Wellington, gives me a pint whenever I mention his name. (So: Alan, Alan, Alan, Alan, Alan.) Julie Burchill once gave me a huge compliment in a column, but the subs removed it because they thought I’d be upset. It sometimes seems that the only thing one can do is get it wrong.

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 27 April 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Rise of the Geek

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The Tories' aim is to put Labour out of business for good

Rather than merely winning again, the Conservatives are seeking to inflict permanent damage on the opposition. 

The Conservatives are numerically weak but politically strong – that is the peculiarity of their position. Their majority is the smallest of any single-party government since October 1974. Yet, to MPs at the Tory conference in Manchester, it felt like “2001 in reverse”: the year of Tony Blair’s second election victory. Then, as now, the opposition responded to defeat by selecting a leader, Iain Duncan Smith, who was immediately derided as unelectable. Just as Labour knew then that it would win in 2005, so the Conservatives believe that they have been gifted victory in 2020. David Cameron has predicted that the party’s vote share could rise from 37 per cent to a Thatcherite 43 per cent.

For Cameron and George Osborne, who entered parliament in 2001, this moment is revenge for New Labour’s electoral hegemony. They believe that by applying Blair’s lessons better than his internal successors, they can emulate his achievements. The former Labour prime minister once spoke of his party as “the political wing of the British people”. In Manchester, Cameron and Osborne displayed similarly imperial ambitions. They regard Jeremy Corbyn’s election as a chance to realign the political landscape permanently.

Seen from one perspective, the Tories underperformed on 7 May. They consistently led by roughly 20 points on the defining issues of the economy and leadership but defeated Labour by just 6.5 overall. It was their enduring reputation as the party of the plutocracy that produced this disparity. Those who voted for Labour in spite of their doubts about Ed Miliband and the party’s economic competence may not be similarly forgiving of Corbyn. To maximise their gains, however, the Tories need to minimise their weaknesses, rather than merely exploit Labour’s.

This process began at conference. At a dinner organised by the modernising group the Good Right, Duncan Smith, Michael Gove and the Scottish Tory leader, Ruth Davidson, affirmed their belief that, contrary to Thatcherite orthodoxy, inequality is a problem. Only the Business Secretary, Sajid Javid, an admirer of the libertarian heroine Ayn Rand, insisted that equality of opportunity was the defining metric.

George Osborne’s assured speech was most notable for his sustained appeal to Labour voters. Several opposition MPs told me how unsettled they were by the Chancellor’s declaration that Labour’s new leadership calls “anyone who believes in strong national defence, a market economy and the country living within its means” a Tory. He added, “It’s our job to make sure they’re absolutely right. Because we’re now the party of work, the only true party of labour.” The shadow minister Jonathan Reynolds told me: “We’ve got to be extremely clear that this is not business as usual. This is a real attempt by the Tories to put us out of business – possibly for ever.”

The Conservatives’ aim is to contaminate Labour to the point where, even if Jeremy Corbyn were deposed, the toxin would endure. For those opposition MPs who emphasise being a government-in-waiting, rather than a protest movement, the contrast between the high politics of the Tory conference and Corbyn’s rally appearance in Manchester was painfully sharp. They fear guilt by association with the demonstrators who spat at and abused journalists and Tory delegates. The declaration by a rally speaker, Terry Pullinger, the deputy general secretary of the Communication Workers Union, that Corbyn’s election “almost makes you want to celebrate the fact that Labour lost” was regarded as confirmation that some on the left merely desire to run the party, not the country.

But few Tory MPs I spoke to greeted Corbyn’s victory with simple jubilation. “It’s a great shame, what’s happened to Labour,” one said. “We need a credible opposition.” In the absence of this, some fear the Conservatives’ self-destructive tendencies will reassert themselves. The forthcoming EU referendum and leadership contest are rich in cannibalistic potential. Tories spoke forebodingly of the inevitable schism between European Inners and Outers. As the Scottish experience demonstrated, referendums are almost never definitive. In the event of a close result, the party’s anti-EU wing will swiftly identify grounds for a second vote.

Several cabinet ministers, however, spoke of their confidence in Cameron’s ability to navigate the rapids of the referendum and his pre-announced departure. “More than ever, he’s the right man for these times,” one told me. By this December, Cameron will have led his party for ten years, a reign exceeded in recent history only by Stanley Baldwin, Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher. That the Conservatives have so far avoided cataclysm is an underappreciated achievement.

Yet there are landmines ahead. An increasing number of MPs fear that the planned cuts to tax credits could be a foul-up comparable to Gordon Brown’s abolition of the 10p tax rate. Despite the appeals of Boris Johnson and the Sun, Cameron and Osborne have signalled that there will be no backtracking. At such moments of reflection, the Tories console themselves with the belief that, although voters may use Corbyn as a receptacle for protest (as they did Michael Foot, Neil Kinnock and Ed Miliband), they will not elect him. They also acknowledge that the current Labour leader may not be their opponent in 2020. The former paratrooper Dan Jarvis is most often cited as the successor they fear. As with Cameron and Blair, his relative lack of ideological definition may prove to be a strength, one MP suggested.

William Hague is fond of joking that the Tories have only two modes: panic and complacency. If the danger before the general election was of the former, the danger now is of the latter. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.