All I want for my birthday is a giant packet of Opal Fruits

My birthday. I have now reached the age Goebbels was when he died, although my achievements are fewer. And, thankfully, not in the same line. Still. I am also twice the age that Martin Amis was when he published his first novel and nearly four times the age Mendelssohn was when he completed the symphony for strings I heard this morning on Radio 3.

Scanning the skyscrapers of review copies in my bedroom, my eye catches, as it is meant to, the title of the latest in Slavoj Žižek's suspiciously unstoppable oeuvre: Living in the End Times. End times? Bring 'em on, Slavvy baby. This morning, I found a hastily scrawled "Happy birthday, Nick!" from Emmanuelle on the back of an envelope intended for the art gallery downstairs and an empty bottle of milk, thoughtfully placed in the fridge door. That would be the handiwork of the NS's esteemed columnist Laurie Penny. But she did give me a hug a bit later and I can hardly wag
the finger when it comes to putting redundant items back in the fridge.

I have to say that this birthday has been somewhat flat so far. One expects this kind of thing as one ages, but this has been one of the most Norfolk-like yet. Then again, I can't expect to repeat 2008's retrospectively hollow triumph, when I walked into the Duke, arm in arm with both the Lacanian and Aita (Nigerian, six foot three in her Louboutins and, like the Lacanian, a published novelist), the morning after ramming half the pub out with my friends, nonchalantly monitoring the Guvnor's face for signs of incredulous envy. This evening, in 2011, having given them barely 24 hours' notice, I will be meeting my beloved little brother and my great friends the Doctor and Toby, and that's it. The Doctor is one of the large number of lecturers about to lose their jobs at London Metropolitan University. If anyone can tell me what a 50-year-old Heidegger specialist can do when he's slung out on his arse, both he and I would be grateful.

But the day drags on, becoming an epic of ennui. I have much work to do but little inclination to do it. Hell, it's my birthday. I sit around, waiting for a phone call and seeing how many Opal Fruits I can eat at a sitting. (Answer: a number bound only by the size of the packet and the indolence, and shame, preventing me from going out to buy more.)

The children, though, have sent me some splendid cards and even the Estranged Wife has wished me a happy birthday, which is nice of her. Perhaps she feels bad about the bafflingly rancorous exchange of text messages we had when I mentioned that HMS Belfast's guns are trained on Scratchwood Services on the M1. (How comforting it is to think that someone in the Royal Navy not only has a sense of humour but feels much the same way about Scratchwood Services as I do.)

What do Scratchwood Services and Opal Fruits have in common? They are no longer called these things. I can see why the Department of Hiding Ugly Truths changed Scratchwood's name to "London Gateway", but Scratchwood it will remain in the public and private imagination for years to come. Similarly, no amount of social or ethical conditioning will ever get me to say "Starburst" willingly and on the first attempt. "Here, have an Opal Fruit," I say to the children and then add, with a toxic sneer, "or 'Starburst', as they are now called."

Orwell's warning

Complaining about the changing of brand names is pathetic. We are far from "the horror" of existence - Elfriede Jelinek's term, approvingly quoted by Žižek (I had a browse to cheer myself up) - but the marking of another year gone inclines me to morbid thoughts about the passage of time. (In John Moore's immortal line: we're not growing up, we're just growing older.) And hands up, everyone who thinks that Starburst is a better name for Opal Fruits than Opal Fruits. Not only is the impulse behind the change a cynical warping of language, it is a repudiation and effacement of history, the kind of thing Orwell warned us about.

Then again, there is this to be said for these yahoos and their rebrandings: they remind us that we cannot fight time, even though the endeavour of human culture and art is to put the brake on entropy, to keep what is good of us alive. More Starbursts, anyone?

Then I have a nice drink with my friends and brother; Emmanuelle and our mutual friend Amel ("hope", in Arabic) call from Paris to sing "Happy Birthday" to me; Laurie gives me a card whose handwritten message is so touching that I ought to keep it for ever; and I get the call I was waiting for. Although, what with one thing and another, life, barring miracles, will never be whole again, things don't seem so bad after all.

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 May 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Hands up who knows how to fix our schools

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Is anyone prepared to solve the NHS funding crisis?

As long as the political taboo on raising taxes endures, the service will be in financial peril. 

It has long been clear that the NHS is in financial ill-health. But today's figures, conveniently delayed until after the Conservative conference, are still stunningly bad. The service ran a deficit of £930m between April and June (greater than the £820m recorded for the whole of the 2014/15 financial year) and is on course for a shortfall of at least £2bn this year - its worst position for a generation. 

Though often described as having been shielded from austerity, owing to its ring-fenced budget, the NHS is enduring the toughest spending settlement in its history. Since 1950, health spending has grown at an average annual rate of 4 per cent, but over the last parliament it rose by just 0.5 per cent. An ageing population, rising treatment costs and the social care crisis all mean that the NHS has to run merely to stand still. The Tories have pledged to provide £10bn more for the service but this still leaves £20bn of efficiency savings required. 

Speculation is now turning to whether George Osborne will provide an emergency injection of funds in the Autumn Statement on 25 November. But the long-term question is whether anyone is prepared to offer a sustainable solution to the crisis. Health experts argue that only a rise in general taxation (income tax, VAT, national insurance), patient charges or a hypothecated "health tax" will secure the future of a universal, high-quality service. But the political taboo against increasing taxes on all but the richest means no politician has ventured into this territory. Shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander has today called for the government to "find money urgently to get through the coming winter months". But the bigger question is whether, under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour is prepared to go beyond sticking-plaster solutions. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.