I can’t apologise for all my drunken exploits – it would take years

Nicholas Lezard's "Down and Out" column.

Arecherché little launch for a book, itself of no great import, but it is the party season, which is good news for the thirsty freelance hack on a tight budget. It is also within walking distance of the Hovel and this becomes an ever more important consideration as I get older. Anyway, I am wondering how much longer I can take of this – it’s in a jewellery shop and I find that book launches held in either jewellery or, say, perfume shops do not attract people whom one could readily identify as bookish – when I notice a face from the distant past: the Empress of Charn.

She’s not really the Empress of Charn. The E of C was, you may recall, Jadis, the rather overbearing witch figure in C S Lewis’s The Magician’s Nephew. She could snap the iron bar off a lamp post as easily as if it were a stick of celery and in spite of – or probably because of – her imperious nature and scorn for the conventions, hugely impressed the weak and foolish Uncle Andrew. “A dem fine woman”, he would call her in fond remembrance.

Her latter-day avatar was not by any means the evil empress of a doomed empire, who would later become the White Witch and keep Narnia frozen in pre-Christmas winter for centuries. But she did have a way of persuading those around her to do unwise things and my friend S— christened her the Empress after one particular exploit, whose details it is best not to repeat here. She was simply very hard to say “no” to and she also found it hard to say “no” herself. Her appetite for drink and the uglier corners of the pharmacopoeia could land her in the most alarming situations.

This was all a long time ago: decades, in fact. I occasionally wondered what had happened to her and learned a while back that she had cleaned her act up and was now properly and totally sober.

I used, even longer ago, to be scornful of friends who went on the wagon, even if only for brief periods; at that age, I had not yet experienced the devastation that a selfdestructive drink habit can cause. For the destruction is not confined to the self: it is centred on it but has a wide radius. Now, when someone gives up the sauce, I congratulate them and wish them luck, if they are still in circulation. (For some reason, friends who have stopped drinking tend not to see as muchof me as they used to.)

Anyway, it is pleasant to see the Empress again but the first thing she does, after announcing that she is sober these days, is apologise for her past behaviour. At this, I find myself somewhat puzzled. For while she may have been a trial to those in her immediate circle, she was actually rather good company if you were able to peel yourself away relatively easily. Even the blast of a bomb must, once you have reached a certain distance, provide nothing more than a lick of heat and a sense of danger escaped.

This is the thing to do, I learn, in the world of AA: to apologise to anyone who might have got mixed up, one way or another, in your past scrapes. What does one do, though, when at the receiving end of such an apology? There was that line from an early P G Wodehouse story I quoted a few weeks back: the right sort of person doesn’t need an apology and the wrong sort takes a mean advantage of it. I stammer something about none being necessary but there is no getting out of this: I am to be apologised to, for that is part of the process of recovery. To brush this aside would not help.

I also start thinking about what would happen if I went down that road and had to start apologising to everyone who was part of my alcoholic past. It would certainly take up an enormous proportion of my time and involve saying sorry to pretty much everyone I’d met since I was about 15 years old. I gather from sober friends that giving up alcohol not only increases the mental bandwidth but gives you a great deal more time to Do Things and if I was going to go clean, I’d like to spend the extra free time learning how to play the piano properly – not saying sorry to half the population of London.

Still, I wonder whether even without that obligation I would have the fortitude to stop drinking. The wife once tried to stage an intervention for me six years ago but I got wind of it beforehand and sent a withering email to all the parties concerned explaining why I considered this a waste of their time.

For one thing, it was the party season and how you get through that without a snifter is beyond me.

Apologising would just take too long. Photograph: Getty Images

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 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The world takes sides

Photo: Getty
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On the important issues, Louise Casey all too often has little to say

Far from moving the debate on, this new report on integration adds little to the report I commissioned in 2001. 

For 15 years, “numerous government reports on community cohesion and integration have not been implemented with enough force or consistency” concludes Louise Casey’s review of  integration.  The government’s lukewarm response suggests their effort will be as “diluted and muddled” as all the rest.

There’s a deeper reason why governments shy away from the measures that are needed. The report's wealth of data sets out a stark if sometimes contestable picture of a divided society.  But no amount of data can really bring the lives of our fellow citizens to life. As the Brexit vote underlined, this is now a nation divided by class, geography, education, wealth, opportunity and race. Those divisions colour the way we live our lives, the way we see problems in society, the relations we have with others, and our political choices. The report, like many before it, stops short of setting out that reality. It’s easier to pretend that most of us pretty much agree on most things; but just few people don’t agree and they must be the problem. Predictably, much of the early coverage has focussed on the Muslim community and new migrants. If only it were so easy.

According to Casey “in this country, we take poverty, social exclusion, social justice and social mobility seriously” and we do it “across political divides”. Apparently “creating a fair, just society where everyone can prosper and get on” is a cornerstone of British values. Yet for page after page the report chronicles the serial failure of this benign consensus to tackle educational under-performance, and economic and racial disadvantage. If we all agree, how come we haven't done anything about it?

These problems are not certainly easy to solve, but more lip service is paid to tackling them than effort. The practical material issues documented here need addressing, but punches are pulled when hard answers are needed. Given the dramatic impact of mass migration on cohesion, is integration possible while current rates of immigration persist? Can we find the political will to tackle poverty and disadvantage when those who might benefit from the effort are divided against each other by suspicion, race, geography and values? After all, rather than progressive policies producing a cohesive society, social unity is the precondition for the introduction of progressive policies.

We don't actually actually agree on what our “fundamental values” mean in practice. We can all sign up to democracy and the rule of law, but as soon as those are put into practice – see the court case on Article 50 – we are divided. When judges are popularly seen as “enemies of the people” and a vote in an elected parliament as a threat to democracy, in what sense are law and democracy fundamental?

Casey usefully highlights how treating homeless families equally, irrespective of ethnicity and length of residence can create the perception that minorities are being favoured over long standing residents. Our differing views on what is “just” and how “fairness” are defined can tear us apart. Is it fair to favour the newcomer over the indigenous? Is it just to put length of time on the waiting list above housing need? We often don't even acknowledge the legitimacy of other points of view, let alone try to find common ground.

The continual invocation of Britain and British values lends an air of unreality to the report.  Most people in England include British in their identity, but Englishness and English interests are of growing importance. In a worrying development, some areas of England  may be polarising between a white Englishness and an ethnic minority Britishness. Integration won't happen without a shared national story that combines a unifying national identity with the acceptance that we all have more than one identity that matters to us. Ignoring the reality of complex and multiple identities closes off one essential way forward.

None of this means that the criticism of some reactionary and occasionally dangerous ideas and practices in the Muslim community should be ignored and not confronted. But in a country where the established church opposes homosexual relationships and praise for Vladimir Putin's Russia is now mainstream politics it is hard to believe that all our problems can be reduced to the behaviour of a minority of a minority community.

John Denham was a Labour MP from 1992 to 2015, and a Secretary of State 2007 to 2010. He is Director of the Centre for English Identity and Politics at Winchester University