Where everybody knows my name

Are you staying in a hotel? Do me a favour. Go round the room and check all the plug sockets for chargers - phone chargers, computer power packs, anything that can be plugged into a wall. Then rummage through the cupboards and see if you turn up any clothes. Then investigate the bathroom for electric razors, toothbrushes, towels and so on. Then package up everything you find and send it to me. Because the chances are, it will all have been left there by me.

You see, I'm on tour. And although the main purpose of a stand-up tour is for me to go around entertaining the populace with jokes and observations, that's only a cover. It's mostly an exercise in losing your belongings, one by one, in hotel rooms. When the figures are totted up at the end of the tour, I hope to have earned enough at the box office to repurchase all the things I've lost in transit.

It should be so easy. All you have to do, people say, is count each thing back into your suitcase before you leave the room. Those who say this, however, aren't staying in hotels for 26 nights out of 30. If they were, they'd realise that there are only so many consecutive mornings you can begin by saying, out loud to yourself, "Toothbrush . . . pants . . . charger . . . laptop computer . . . other things which hold my life together." After about three or four of these, you begin to be overwhelmed by the mundane repetitiveness of your life, or resentful that you can no longer leave a room without enumerating the things you brought into it, like some sort of OCD sufferer. Either way, there will come a point where you crack. You don't take the register. You trust yourself to organise your possessions without having to list them out loud. And that - in my experience - is the day you leave the charger in the wall, your phone runs out of battery somewhere on the motorway, you spend the rest of the day in technological isolation, miss a major news event, and wonder why, no matter which station you tune the radio to, they're playing nothing but Michael Jackson.

Night callers

Last week I went up to Preston, down to Bristol, up to Glasgow, in that order; this week, it's up to Derby, down to Brighton and up to Manchester. Looking at my schedule, you might imagine that, rather than deriving my income from the actual shows, I'm being paid by the mile. In an average week, I travel the sort of distances that other people would cover as part of a sponsored challenge for charity. I'm single-handedly propping up the motorway service-station industry and its various dependants: the almost-entirely-meat-free-pie-in-a-packet industry, the machines-that-make-something-vaguely-resembling-coffee industry.

I sometimes feel like the sole audience for depressing late-night radio phone-ins, the ones where the DJ says, "If you're listening, we want to hear from you," in a slightly too needy way, and the calls sound suspiciously like they're all being done by one person putting on different voices. Pretty soon, my routine will make me entirely nocturnal, and then it's only a matter of time before I move out of my flat into a more convenient burrow and start living off saucers of milk left out by sympathetic locals.

Room at the inn

But there are consolations, one being that I'm now among Britain's foremost hotel experts. My level of discernment is rising all the time. Where once I would cheerfully pay the £78-per-minute tariff that some hotels have the cheek to charge for internet access, now I'll dig my heels in and mutter phrases like "unconscionable scam" until I get it for free. When I first get into the room, I examine it as diligently as the people in CSI arriving at a crime scene. Has the bed been made? Is anyone dead in the wardrobe? Not much gets past me, these days.

Naturally, the more I travel around, the less likely I am to have these problems, because increasingly I'm returning to establishments. There's nothing so simultaneously cosy and lonely as being such a regular visitor to one set of lodgings that "Welcome to the Grand Hotel, sir" becomes "Welcome back to the Grand Hotel, Mr Watson".

Which does mean that I've got a chance of being reunited with some of those old fav­ourites - the red Woody Allen T-shirt at the Holiday Inn Birmingham (left during the 2007 tour), the Gillette razor at the Malmaison Newcastle (left in 2008, the beginning of a pretty hairy period) and, who knows, maybe even the copy of Moby-Dick I parted ways with in Dun­dee last year. It's been a long wait to find out whether he catches that whale in the end.

Mark Watson is a stand-up comedian and novelist. His most recent book, Crap at the Environment, follows his own efforts to halve his carbon footprint over one year.

This article first appeared in the 25 October 2010 issue of the New Statesman, What a carve up!

Photo: Getty Images
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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.