Razors traded in for younger models

By the time you read this, Razors will have gone. How long he will last in New York is anyone's guess - Americans are not the tolerant, easygoing people they once were - but I wish him well. This means, though, that he needs a replacement.

How do you replace a 47-year-old border­-line alcoholic who makes groaning noises at Samantha Janus on EastEnders and understands the rules of night cricket? Not easy. In the end, I have decided to replace him with two girls barely into their twenties.

This is not, I hasten to add, the dream situation you may lazily think I think it is. One of them is the daughter of the Woman I Love, who is also going to start work at the Duke. The other is the woman I wrote about a month or so ago: the Oxford graduate who says she can't drink much - the terrible liar - and is involved with the son of a well-known porn baron and terrestrial TV channel-owner whose name escapes me.

There has been a bit of an overlap between her and Razors, which has been most diverting to behold. Razors, for reasons too complex and private to air in these pages, has lately been suffering from a period of celibacy. So when he rummaged through the DVD collection and picked out Buñuel's Belle de Jour as a film we could all watch ­together, I wondered whether he was thinking things through properly.

As those of you who have seen this film will recall, it is a masterpiece of eroticism that says disturbing things about male and female desire. It also spoke deeply to Razors, who kept glancing furtively at our new housemate, curled up as demurely as Catherine Deneuve on the sofa. After a while the atmosphere in the room thickened, and I could see that Razors was suffering profound inner turbulence, like a kettle about to boil. I could actually see beads of sweat forming on his pate, which he had to wipe off every few minutes.

When our flatmate (who, to make matters worse, glories in the name Emmanuelle) left the room, he shoved his fist into his mouth and bit his knuckles until they bled. When she came back and casually mentioned that a man in the street had tapped her on the shoulder and said, "You have amazing legs; can I have your phone number?", Razors left the room, saying something about having a shower, in a strangled voice.

The old eye-over

Being properly in love with someone else, and therefore blind to the charms of all other women, I can take a detached and amused attitude to all this. And it is nice to fall into the role of avuncular elder statesman. "What's the Groucho Club?" she asks. "What does 'on the game' mean?" (Cue more knuckle-biting from Razors. I do hope his self-control, rudimentary at the best of times, holds out until his departure.)

But when the daughter of the WIL arrives in a few days, we enter uncharted waters. Maybe readers out there will be able to help me. Is there any precedent to this situation in art, literature, history or folk memory? The story of two disreputable men separated from their wives and living together is one as old as time, but one separated man and two 20-year-old women?

I am reminded, eventually, of an episode from my own past. I am 22, and very anxious indeed to leave the family home, having finally got a job a year after graduating. A friend of a friend, Jenny Beerbohm, related by marriage to Max, no less, has a spare living room and sofa in a mansion block in Earl's Court. Would I like to stay with her? At the time, Jenny, an ex-model, is in her mid-forties, beautiful but shy, charming and kind. "Is £30 a week too much?" she asks, as we sip our drinks in the Coach and Horses, Jeffrey Bernard giving her the eye over my shoulder. Even on my salary, and in 1985, £30 is practically nothing, and I say yes, barely believing my own good fortune.

I was meant to stay for only a couple of months, but I ended up living there for over two years; I couldn't go until I'd read every book in the apartment, and besides, I was waiting for my landlady to take advantage of me. She never did, but I did learn something about the dynamics of living with someone twice your age who isn't related to you. The day after I left, the 1987 hurricane swept over south-east England and the flat above my room collapsed on to my sofa. If I had stayed another night, I would have been killed.

Jenny, now, is cruelly dead, as is her best friend, Deirdre, whom I introduced to Jeffrey Bernard, who in his turn immortalised her as "she who would drown in my eyes". I mourn their loss often, and miss their batty wisdom, their tolerance and good humour. And how they would laugh if they could see me now.

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 04 October 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Licence to cut

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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.