My liver is disintegrating but at least my freezer was alien-free

I wake up on Sunday with a hangover so bad that I feel profoundly altered inside. There have been fundamental realignments of a sinister nature. I have a sudden, vivid image of my liver. I suspect that if it could be palpated, it would be hard but light, used up, like a log that has been slowly consumed by fire yet retained its shape. You could knock it against a table and then it would crumble into ash. I feel . . . I feel . . . I feel as though the government's recent advice to abstain from drinking for two nights a week might not be a bad idea. That's how bad I feel.

I struggle to recall what bacchanalia brought on this misery. Ah, yes: it all comes back to me. I was defrosting the fridge.

This is, for the majority of households, a banal and non-noteworthy domestic task but then the majority of households are not like the Hovel. We do things differently here. Sometimes, we do not do them at all and this was the problem with the freezer.

Cold comfort

It had been becoming a problem for some time. I think I mentioned the freezer in the column that celebrated my third anniversary in the Hovel, which was in September 2010. Even then, I compared the freezer to the kind of sinister Antarctic hell featured in John Carpenter's flawless 1982 film, The Thing, with, possibly, a ghastly alien monster locked in the ice that it would be best not to awaken.

Since that mention, I have not managed to get round to defrosting the freezer; and therefore things have got worse. First, the doors to the two freezer drawers snapped off when I tried to open them. Never mind, they were purely cosmetic anyway and their removal meant it was easier to pull the drawers out than heretofore. For a while. The ice built up, and built up, and gradually the front door of the freezer, which is not at all cosmetic - it is, in fact, rather crucial to the efficient operation of the freezing compartment behind it - inched further and further open. Finally, things iced up so much that not even the wire drawers could be pulled out. When you looked inside the freezer, all you could see was ice.

Those who know me well know that I am not at my best when it comes to Getting Around to Things but this had now got out of hand and even Marta, the long-suffering but largely unjudgemental cleaning lady, has started giving me looks pregnant with despair and rebuke.

So, on Saturday, while cooking a boeuf bourguignon for the Significant Other (I recommend Anthony Bourdain's Les Halles Cookbook for the most elegantly simple recipe, also written with Bourdain's trademark braggadocio), I decide that Something Must Be Done and at about five o'clock in the afternoon I turn off the fridge, leave the freezer door wide open, lay a large towel on the floor in front of it and simply wait for time to do its work. This, I feel, is as elegantly simple a solution to a problem as Bourdain's recipe for boeuf bourguignon, and involving even less effort.

I imagine that all of you experienced, regular freezer-defrosters are snickering nastily away to yourselves now, for you know what is coming. Yes, by one o'clock in the morning, there is a small, damp patch on the towel and the ice mass remains almost completely unchanged in volume. The thawing of Narnia this ain't.

I'll spare you the details. But the SO (who could so easily have left me to it, alone) and I engage in an orgy of ice-removal. She chips away, I cart away huge hand- and towelfuls of ice and snow and slush with my bare hands. The sink fills with the stuff to overflowing. And the hangover? At about two in the morning, we discover a frozen half-bottle of Zu­browka that I had obviously forgotten all about. As we are already well-refreshed, we see no harm in refreshing ourselves further.

Dry ice

At about three o'clock, I convince myself that this whole cleaning-the-freezer business was a metaphor. For what? On Monday morning, as I write this, I am not sure. If it is about achievement, then I am not sure what kind of achievements can only be accomplished after consuming about two bottles of Shiraz and a quarter of Zubrowka. (Incidentally, I thought vodka wasn't meant to give you a hangover.)

Sure, the freezer has finally been cleaned out and there turned out to be no shape-shifting alien monster buried within - although some of the chicken carcasses I had been saving for stock freaked me out at first - but at what cost? I now have to decide which nights I am not going to drink on. Mondays are out, because that's when University Challenge is on, and I like playing that with a handicap. Tuesdays? Wednesdays? None of them appeal.

Any suggestions?

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 23 January 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Has the Arab Spring been hijacked?

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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.