I haven’t got the bottle to give up

I wake up at 7.30am feeling fine. This is never a good sign and, sure enough, by about noon I am feeling rotten. Ho ho, I hear you snigger, Lezard has been at the happy juice again. Well yes, all right, I have, but no more than usual - the standard iron rations of a bottle a night. Let's get one thing clear: it's not too much.

I remember mentioning to Guy the Millionaire, the second friend I made in the area after moving into the Hovel, that drinking a bottle of wine a night was one of the reasons Mrs Lezard chucked me out.

“And then what?" he asked, baffled. Guy made his squillions himself, by the way, and looks and acts how Alan Sugar would act if he were a nice human being.

I was also heartened to read a letter in the "Last Word" section of the New Scientist, from a man who had drunk, on average, a bottle of wine a day for over 30 years, with no ill-effects. No readers, in their replies, called him an alcoholic, suicidally reckless or immoral. They largely said "me too".
Anyway, I am feeling poorly with something that feels nothing like a hangover - the dizziness and fatigue that are the hallmarks of the Lurgy.

I have to spend the day with the kids and am even more useless with them than usual, and by the time I get back to the Hovel I am half dead. I watch EastEnders with Razors in an uncomprehending trance and go to bed at 8.30pm with a glass of tonic water. I do feel just about well enough for a glass or two of wine, but I think - hey, why not give Mr Liver a break for the evening? I'm sure he'll appreciate it, and it might reduce the circumference of my belly by a millimetre. If I keep it up over several weeks, I might lose it altogether.

At the moment I look pretty much like the year-old photograph that adorns this page, apart from slightly greyer hair and a protuberance that makes me look as though I am in the early, but visible, stages of pregnancy. My daughter has taken to laying her hand on it in silent rebuke, or as a gambler might touch a bald man's pate for luck.

I am also glad to discover that I am not an alcoholic, in the sense that I do not develop the shakes or start hallucinating. I have given up alcohol before, for a month, after a disastrous escapade on a hen night in Amsterdam during which I was the only male present. This resulted in my literally having to be wheeled back on to the plane (sprained ankle, in case you're wondering) as well as an ultimatum from Mrs Lezard to stop drinking for a month or be kicked out.

I managed the month rather more easily than I thought I was going to, though I did find the evenings dragged on a bit. (Apart from the time we watched The Matrix on video and I had a little dope: I began to accept the film's premise as an extremely plausible explanation for everything.)

Self control

And so the evening did drag on a bit. I recalled that I had gone a night without booze recently and found sleep impossible to fall into easily because I spent half the night worrying about the wiring in the Hovel, and whether the place would burn down in the night. Say what you like about the fruit of the grape, it certainly stops you from freaking out about your electrics.

I read a lot: about half of the Purgatorio and a volume of Clive James's memoirs, which are infallibly entertaining but always leave me with an acute and debilitating awareness of my own failure.

I remember when my colleague Will Self started on his admirable life of total sobriety and he recommended it on the grounds that, among other things, it increased the mental bandwidth considerably. Imprisoned in my head, I found no similar benefit whatsoever, apart from a step-up in the
level and intensity of fruitless speculation.

Why have I not got round to doing my accounts? Why have I achieved so little? Am I too free and easy with accepting friend requests on Facebook? What's going to happen to me when they stop paying writers? Are my children going to be happy and fulfilled members of society when they grow up? Is Test Match cricket ever going to be free-to-air again? What's going to happen when the ice caps and the permafrost melt? And why does my pee sometimes smell of Sugar Puffs even when I have not eaten Sugar Puffs?

I wake up the next morning feeling like shit, as usual. On the whole, the experiment has been a success, but I think it'll be a while before I try it again.

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 30 August 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Face off

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.