I’m having another holiday in the garden - leaving the country is just too hard

Nicholas Lezard's "Down and Out" column.

I am trying to think of the last time I took a holiday. A proper holiday, two weeks in a warm and sunny place, which means abroad. Somewhere with, at the very least, a reputation for good weather and drinkable local wine. And I’d like it to be in Italy, please.
Anyway: last holiday? Not sure. I have a hunch it was Spain, which was a bit of a hairraising experience at first when I discovered, upon being frisked at Luton Airport, that the pouch of tobacco I’d groped for in a dark room before the pre-dawn drive to the airport turned out not to be tobacco at all. This was especially tiresome as I had resolved not to take any risks with that kind of thing ever again when travelling internationally. I was escorted to an interrogation room where I invited the customs agents to look out of the window at my wife, above whose head could be seen gathering the kind of atmospheric disturbance associated with extreme meteorological events. There may have been even the odd flash of lightning.
“See that woman over there?” I said. “I am far, far more scared of what she’s going to do to me than anything you could.” I had the pleasure of seeing the officers – one experienced, one young and keen as Tabasco – peering through the door’s small window. It was a charming cameo seen from behind; seen from outside, it must have looked rather comic.
After a few seconds’ observation, they turned around. The older one sighed. “Go on holiday,” he said, scribbling on a piece of paper in a pad and tearing it off. “Take this chit. When you come back go through the ‘Something to Declare’ channel and present it.” The farce of what happened on my re-entry into the country need not detain us here but I can tell you that I got to say, “What’s wrong with me? I can’t even get arrested in this town,” without using the phrase figuratively.
That would have been, oh, ten years ago, I think. After that, we stayed in the country for our hols because of the financial knock-on effects of having three children. Then we separated and the financial knock-on effects of that are unbelievable. So apart from the odd snatched long weekend staying at a friend’s place in either Paris or Rome, I just sit around in the sun. Last year it rained all summer long, so I sat in the rain instead. It wasn’t the same. But to tell you the truth, it’s not just lack of funds that keeps me from travelling; it’s an inability to organise a holiday. I’ve never done it. Parents, girlfriends and wives seem to have a knack that I simply do not possess. It’s at times like these that I start thinking they should give air miles to people who can’t afford to buy plane tickets, rather than hand them out to people who fly all the sodding time.
I have recently discovered that the inability to execute plans to leave the country successfully can be inherited. My daughter has had similar problems and so, because of a scheduling error on her and others’ parts, she is obliged to stay with me and the Beloved in the Hovel for a couple of weeks. It’s all rather unusual. Normally I have the children for only two days at a stretch on alternate weekends, so being a full-time parent for the first time in six years is a little weird. That said, the daughter isn’t a child any more: she’s 18, although she looks rather elfin. But it means I can’t tell her when her bedtime is any more.
That said, we do get on rather well. Have done ever since her mother screamed, “She’s you! She’s YOU!” at me after an incident of five-year-old insubordination or insolence. She also seems to have adopted a similar attitude to the various cushions on the divan of pleasure.
One evening, I gently remonstrated with her about not applying to my alma mater when making her university choices. I think they like that kind of thing, deep down. “I don’t want to follow in your footsteps, Dad,” she said. I gestured silently at the roll-up in her hand, the full glass of red wine in her other hand, and then, as an afterthought, my wristwatch, which was telling anyone who wanted to look that it was well after midnight. To give her credit, she saw my point.
Having a mini-me around the place the whole time does make me wonder a bit about heritable traits, though. Did I stay in bed that late when I was her age? Yes, if not later. But was I as fluent a talker as she is? No: I was shy. And now she tells me she’s arranged a combination of trains and planes to get her to her holiday destination. I could never have done that. Can’t do it now.
It's not only the money that makes going on holiday a nightmare - it's the organisation. 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 12 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, What if JFK had lived?

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Keir Starmer: “I don’t think anybody should underestimate the risks of getting Brexit wrong”

The former director of public prosecutions is now heading up Labour’s response to Brexit. But can he succeed in holding the Tories’ feet to the fire?

Early in his new role as shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer was accused of being a “second-rate lawyer”. The gibe, in a Commons debate, came from none other than Iain Duncan Smith. Starmer was director of public prosecutions for five years and later stood for parliament in 2015. No novice, then. Within a few days, Duncan Smith stood again in the House, this time to offer his apologies.

A fortnight later, I met Starmer at his quiet office in Westminster. He was sitting at a table piled with papers, in an office that, a discreet family photo aside, was unadorned. He had just got back from a whirlwind trip to Brussels, with many more such visits planned in the weeks ahead.

Starmer returned to the shadow cabinet after Jeremy Corbyn’s second leadership election victory last month. “The series of agreements we will have to reach in the next few years is probably the most important and complex we’ve had to reach since the Second World War,” he told me.

Starmer, who is 54, took his time entering politics. Born in 1962, he grew up in a Labour-supporting household in Surrey – his father was a toolmaker and his mother a nurse – and was named after Keir Hardie. After studying law at Leeds University, he practised as a human rights barrister and became a QC in 2002. In 2008, after varied legal work that included defending environmental campaigners in the McLibel case, he became the head of the Crown Prosecution Service for England and Wales as well as director of public prosecutions, positions he held until 2013.

When in 2015 Starmer ran for a seat in parliament to represent Holborn and St Pancras in London, it was assumed he would soon be putting his expertise to use in government. Instead, after Labour’s election defeat under Ed Miliband, he served as one of Corbyn’s junior shadow ministers, but resigned after the EU referendum in June.

Now, he is back on the opposition front bench and his forensic scrutiny of government policy is already unsettling the Conservatives. Philippe Sands, the law professor who worked with him on Croatia’s genocide lawsuit against Serbia, says he couldn’t think of anyone better to take on the Brexiteers in parliament. “It’s apparent that the government is rather scared of him,” Sands said. This is because Starmer is much more capable of teasing out the legal consequences of Brexit than the average Brexit-supporting Tory MP. Sands added: “It would be fun to watch if the stakes weren’t so very high.”

Starmer is a serious man and refused to be drawn on the character of his opponents. Instead, speaking slowly, as if weighing every word, he spelled out to me the damage they could cause. “The worst scenario is the government being unable to reach any meaningful agreement with the EU and [the UK] crashing out in March 2019 on no terms, with no transitional arrangement.” The result could be an economic downturn and job losses: “I don’t think anybody should underestimate the risks of getting this wrong.”

If Starmer seems pessimistic, it is because he believes time is short and progress has been slow. Since the referendum, disgruntled MPs have focused their attention on the final Brexit settlement. Yet if, as he argues, the starting position for our negotiations with the EU is wrong, the damage will have been done. MPs faced with a bad deal must either approve it or “risk the UK exiting the EU without a deal at all”.

It is this conviction that is driving his frantic schedule now. Starmer’s first month in the job is packed with meetings - with the representatives of the devolved nations, business leaders and his European counterparts.

He has also become a familiar face at the dispatch box. Having secured a commitment from David Davis, the minister for Brexit, that there will be transparent debate – “the words matter” – he is now demanding that plans to be published in January 2017 at the earliest, and that MPs will have a vote at this stage.

In his eyes, it will be hard for the Prime Minister, Theresa May, to resist, because devolved parliaments and the European parliament will almost certainly be having a say: “The idea there will be a vote in the devolved administrations but not in Westminster only needs to be stated to see it’s unacceptable.”

In Europe, Starmer said, the view is already that Britain is heading for the cliff edge. It was May’s pledge, that after Brexit the UK would not “return to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice”, which raised alarm. And among voters, there is “increasing anxiety” about the direction in which the UK is moving, he said. Even Tory voters are writing to him.

In the Labour Party, which is putting itself back together again after the summer’s failed coup, immigration remains the most vexed issue. Starmer told me that Labour had “earned a reputation for not listening” on the issue. Speaking on The Andrew Marr Show shortly after becoming shadow Brexit secretary, he said immigration was too high and ought to be reduced. But later that same day, Diane Abbott, a shadow cabinet colleague, contradicted him, publicly criticising immigration targets.

Starmer believes there is a bigger picture to consider when it comes to Britain’s Brexit negotiations. Take national security, where he warns that there are “significant risks” if communications break down between the UK and the EU. “Part of the negotiations must be ensuring we have the same level of co-operation on criminal justice, counterterrorism, data-sharing,” he said.

Crucially, in a Labour Party where many experienced politicians are backbench dissenters, he wants to reach out to MPs outside the shadow cabinet. “We have to work as Team Labour,” he stressed.

It’s a convincing rallying cry. But for some MPs, he represents more than that: a lone moderate in what can be seen as a far-left leadership cabal. Does he have any ambitions to lead Labour? “Having had two leadership elections in the space of 12 months, the last thing we need at the moment is discussion of the leadership of the Labour Party.” He has agreed to serve in the shadow cabinet, and is determined to stay there.

Starmer has found his purpose in opposition. “If we think things aren’t going right, we’ve got to call it out early and loudly. The worst situation is that we arrive at March 2019 with the wrong outcome. By then, it will be too late.”

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage