Friends say my house is a sitcom, but no puny mortal could dream this up

A Sunday afternoon, and I am listening to Ligeti and wondering whether it was entirely wise of me to have invited the editor of this magazine for dinner. (The Ligeti is relevant because the movement I am listening to is called "Agitato".) I did so a few weeks ago in a spirit of giddy bravado and having drunk two glasses of red wine - only two, I swear, although they were on an empty stomach. (I have a rule about writing after seven o'clock to people who can fire me.) I passed the fait accompli on to my housemate Laurie Penny and she said, with all the fearlessness of youth, that it was a splendid idea. It would be great for him to come to the Hovel, and see that there are still pockets of squalor in this country that would make an Engels howl.

For long I heard nothing and began to assume that my invitation had been construed by a shrewd analyst of middle-class English discourse as meaning precisely "under no circumstances come to dinner", in the way that "I'll bear that in mind" means "I've already forgotten it", or "oh, incidentally" means "what I've been wanting to say all along".

And then an email arrives saying sometime in early to mid-July would be best and I think, shit, he's really coming. I look about me in panic. A friend who hadn't been here for a year came round last week just after the cleaning lady had been and she still gasped at the mess.

Mess? I said indignantly. It was the books, she said. There were many more than there used to be; and I did then realise she had a point. Just as you do not notice the growth of the children you see every day, so you do not notice the encroachment of review copies if you are perpetually on site. And my friend is right - they're everywhere. One of the leaves of the table in the living room has burst its central bracket and is now tilted at about ten degrees to the horizontal, there are so many books piled on top of it. An alien watching the Hovel might conclude that they were an intelligent plant life tended by the grizzled biped picking them up, opening them, sighing and putting them down again.

Good life

So: how on earth are we going to accommodate the head honcho? Laurie and Emmanuelle eat off the table in front of the sofa, I eat at the table, there being only room for one to do so. Sometimes, when the books are restless, we eat standing up in the kitchen. When my children come we put all the books on the floor and then, making soothing noises, put them back when we're done, but the kids are acclimatised, having been surrounded by piles of review copies since they were born. ("Yeah," said my mother mordantly on the one occasion I let her in, "it's pretty much how I imagined it.")

Then again he was once a literary editor, so he knows how review copies breed. But now that he is an editor, The Editor, might the trappings of power - the gold-plated helicopter, the phone number for Jemima Khan - have made him lose touch with hoi polloi? (I am uncomfortably reminded of Lord Copper's line in Scoop: "I am as accessible to the humblest book reviewer as I am to my immediate entourage.")

So, all in all, I am bracing myself for the kind of disaster that so many sitcoms of the 1960s and 1970s prepared me for: the disaster that befalls when the boss comes round for dinner. Many people have remarked about how the Hovel is a sitcom, but things have happened in the Hovel that could only have emanated from the cosmic mind, not from the puny imagination of the mortal. What kind of mega-catastrophe might be in the offing?

Please, Lord, let me not insist he play night cricket after dessert. The police always stop us playing night cricket after a bit, but no player of the game has hitherto made the news.

And another worry occurs. Am I going to have to talk politics? Once Ms Penny has had her say, I am left with nothing to contribute, which suits me down to the ground, as thinking about politics these days pushes me either into rage or, increasingly, despair. So I let her do my political thinking and speaking for me. "What she just said," I say, and pour myself another glass. But this isn't going to cut it in the fully charged intellectual hothouse atmosphere that I will have to breathe in early to mid-July.

I wonder if I could persuade Laurie to dress herself up as Margo from The Good Life - or, better still, Elizabeth Montgomery from Bewitched. At least that way all she has to do to put everything right is twitch her nose. I'd better check with her first to see if that's sexist or not.

And then I think: oh God, no. Twitter. These days, there's sodding Twitter. Bollocks.

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 06 June 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Are we all doomed?

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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.