I’m the grumpy captain of HMS Not Getting Any

I have always liked Pozzo's speech in Waiting for Godot when he says that the tears of the world are a constant quantity, and that for each person who begins to weep, another one stops. Not so much because it is the finest speech in Beckett's oeuvre, but because it seems like a reasonable explanation of so many other things, too. At the moment I think that if you replace "tears" with "sex" it works pretty well.

I think of this in conjunction with a remark made by my old pal and boss, Julie Burchill, in a column she wrote for the Independent in which she explained the perceived tetchiness of a certain public figure - I forget whom - by saying he was sailing on the HMS Not Getting Any. (Say what you like about Ms Burchill's opinions, you have to concede that she has a memorable turn of phrase.)

Bin overladen

Anyway, I read that and thought, yeah, that might explain it. I have been in a bit of a grump of late - Laurie has been remiss in tidying up the growing piles of hardening guano on the Hovel's terrace and has still not quite Got It about emptying the bin ("but it comes up to my tits!" she says, and my friend Z -- , also notionally a feminist, says that emptying the bin is "definitely a blue job", which makes me think that I am going to have to impose a ban on the word "feminism" being used in my hearing ever again); and in the face of such minor derelictions I have not lately been the model of selfless detachment and serenity that most people know me as. And it's not just because I, too, am sailing on the HMS Not Getting Any - I'm the bloody captain of the ship and the pressures of responsibility are beginning to weigh on me.

It is a phenomenon under-addressed, I feel, in contemporary confessional journalism, perhaps because it is peculiarly shameful and this is even before you realise it is considered sufficient grounds for mockery by Julie Burchill. It's a pity, really: in other, gentler times I would be seen to be setting a good example. You can read the annals of 19th-century fiction and point to pretty much the vast majority of characters and go: "He's not getting any . . . she's not getting any . . . he's not been getting any for decades, as far as I can see . . . she - blimey, she's healed up . . ."

But in the early 21st century, the crew and passengers of HMS Not Getting Any are a downtrodden, motley and damaged band. We feel mocked and persecuted, inadequate in ourselves and looked down on by others, outcasts from grace and, weirdly, in danger of coming close to reclaiming our virginity. We sniff our armpits and, exhaling into our cupped hands, try to check our breath, and wonder what it is we are doing wrong. And, if I may wheel this column back to the subject raised in its first paragraph, we look to the likes of K -- . Who has, basically, been stealing all the sex.
I have not mentioned K -- in this column yet. At first I was saving him for a rainy day, and then I thought . . . nah. The thing about K -- is that he has two, erm, lady friends. At the same time. "K -- 's been having a bad time," says LF no 1, whom I know quite well. She says this while she and LF no 2 are sitting on a sofa on either side of K -- , each of them nibbling his ears. “Really," I say, positively dripping sympathy.

When I mentioned that I might be using this for material in this column, one of the girls said she would be fine having her own name used, the other one said she'd prefer a pseudonym, and K -- said that he would like his full name printed, along with his photograph and an email address if possible.

Antic disposition

Well, now I'm not even going to give him his correct initial. I heard of some stuff he got up to on his birthday which has made me think, OK, that's it, he's forfeited my goodwill. He was being a bit greedy before, but which man would not, given the opportunity, do the same? But now . . . (that K -- is a clever, amusing and likeable young man makes it even worse, for some reason).

Anyway, even though he is much younger than me, and so does not have the hunched and defeated miasma that envelops men as they come into the final stretch approaching their fifties, I feel that his antics aren't really helping my cause any.

All I have to console myself with are Pozzo's words, which all of a sudden seem strangely apposite: "Let us not then speak ill of our generation, it is not any unhappier than its predecessors. Let us not speak well of it either. Let us not speak of it at 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 08 August 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Slum rule

David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide