There’s only one word for this sleep-depriving heat: “stiffling” (look it up)

Nicholas Lezard's "Down and Out" column.

There’s only one word for this sleep-depriving heat: “stiffling” (look it up) A friend tells me he has been unable to sleep in this hot weather. Another friend tells me the same thing. Then I read in a paper that there is widespread sleeplessness going on. A nation tosses and turns under its low-tog duvets, counting sheep to no avail.
 
I know the misery of insomnia, especially in hot weather: until the age of 15, once the temperature rose above a certain point at night, I found it impossible to sleep. I experienced every second of every warm summer night from 1969 to 1978 awake. The earliest summers were the worst. My parents had invested in the soundtrack LP of the musical Hair – rather against the grain of their characters and tastes, it must be said – and every time they had people round, they would put this on when they thought I had gone to sleep and I would lie in bed, staring at the ceiling, wondering how many more times I could listen to “The Age of Aquarius” without going mad. (Actually, I rather liked the song but it is funnier to say it drove me crazy.)
 
The sleepless nights stopped in 1978 when I discovered alcohol. Or, to put it more accurately, when I discovered the poise and bearing that would, despite my lack of stature (and though I was only 15), somehow reassure bar staff into thinking I was three years older. Ever since then I have self-medicated, slept the sleep of the just, whatever the weather. I also like the hot weather, as I am a child of the sun; my forebears came from warmer climes. The Beloved, on the other hand, is pure English and, like Manny, the character played by Bill Bailey in the sitcom Black Books, succumbs to Dave syndrome once the temperature hits 88°F. (You don’t want to know.)
 
So I’m tucking myself in the other night, my ticket for the land of nod presented and stamped, when a burglar alarm goes off over the road. It is a loud burglar alarm, pitched high and designed by experts to be distressingly audible for about half a mile around. Thanks to the inverse-square law, from where I am, it sounds bloody loud.
 
I try shutting the window but this shuts off the breeze and I look at the Beloved’s sleeping form and wonder whether this will make her succumb to Dave syndrome in the middle of the night. (You really don’t want to know.) I think of Martin Amis’s example of the typically rubbish opening you get in entries to short-story competitions: “The heat was stiffling [sic].”
 
Feeling that it is better to be deafened than stiffled, I open the window again and assess the situation. It is not wholly devoid of interest, for the alarm has gone off in a building I have not noticed before. How I can have failed to notice an entire building a stone’s feeble throw from my window when I have been living here for six years is a puzzle.
 
The alarm seems to be the manifestation of the anxieties of a very anonymous office building, whose style suggests the mid-tolate 1960s, around the time Hair opened at the Shaftesbury Theatre in London. It is utterly characterless: square, fronted by frosted glass. I must have passed it a thousand times and I never knew it was there until now.
 
On either side, the street is 1850 vintage, so this cuckoo’s existence suggests that the Luftwaffe gouged it out during the war. To pass the time, I look up bombsight.org – the extraordinary site that tells you how many bombs fell where during the Blitz – but we can’t blame the Hun for this one, it turns out; we can blame a council or a firm of architects.
 
And the noise goes on. I wonder what it is that the alarm is protecting. Even if the offices within are in use during the day, who would be interested in carting off a photocopier and a few bulky computers? What else could be there? State secrets? If so, the place would be crawling with Men in Black; however, the guardians of our safety are maintaining a stout indifference.
 
There is no sign of forced or unforced entry. The offices are dark and empty, a non-place. It is as if the alarm went off in response to the office’s inner crisis, a sudden existential awareness of its lack of importance within a vast and uncaring universe. The alarm is simply saying: “I’m here! I’m here!”
 
Several hours later, it stops. I think there is a difference between the insomnia that one suffers on a quiet night and that which one suffers when there’s a racket going on. The dawn is breaking. I check that the room temperature is below 88°F, hum a few bars of “Aquarius” and finally drift off. 
A man sleeps with a newspaper over his face. Photo: Getty

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 29 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue

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How English identity politics will shape the 2017 general election

"English" voters are more likely to vote Conservative and Ukip. But the Tories are playing identity politics in Scotland and Wales too. 

Recent polls have challenged some widely shared assumptions about the direction of UK elections. For some time each part of the UK has seemed to be evolving quite distinctly. Different political cultures in each nation were contested by different political parties and with different parties emerging victorious in each.

This view is now being challenged. Early general election surveys that show the Tories leading in Wales and taking up to a third of the vote in Scotland. At first sight, this looks a lot more like 1997 (though less enjoyable for Labour): an increasingly hegemonic mainland party only challenged sporadically and in certain places.

Is this, then, a return to "politics as normal"? Perhaps the Tories are becoming, once again, the Conservative and Unionist Party. Maybe identity politics is getting back into its box post Brexit, the decline of Ukip, and weak support for a second independence referendum. We won’t really know until the election is over. However, I doubt that we’ve seen the back of identity politics. It may actually bite more sharply than ever before.

Although there’s talk about "identity politics" as a new phenomenon, most votes have always been cast on a sense of "who do I identify with?" or "who will stand up for someone like us?" Many voters take little notice of the ideology and policy beloved of activists, often voting against their "objective interests" to support a party they trust. The new "identity politics" simply reflects the breakdown of long-established political identities, which were in turn based on social class and collective experiences. In their place, come new identities based around people, nations and place. Brexit was never really about the technocratic calculation of profit and loss, but about what sort of country we are becoming, and what we want to be. 

Most social democratic parties in Europe are struggling with this change. Labour is no different. At the start of the general election, it faces a perfect storm of changing identities. Its relationship with working-class voters continues to decline. This is not because the working class has disappeared, but because old industries, with their large workplaces, shared communities and strong unions are no longer there to generate a labour identity. 

Labour is badly adrift in England. The English electorate has become increasingly assertive (and increasingly English). The Brexit vote was most strongly endorsed by the voters who felt most intensely English. In the previous year’s general election, it was fear of Scottish National Party influence on a Labour minority government that almost certainly gave the Tories the English seats needed for an overall majority. In that same election, Labour’s support amongst "English only" voters was half its support amongst "British only" voters. The more "English" the voters, the more likely they were to vote Ukip or Conservative. It shouldn’t be a surprise if Ukip voters now go Tory. Those who think that Ukip somehow groomed Labour voters to become Tories are missing the crucial role that identity may be playing.

So strong are these issues that, until recently, it looked as though the next election - whenever it was called - would be an English election - fought almost entirely in English battlegrounds, on English issues, and by a Tory party that was, increasingly, an English National Conservative Party in all but name. Two powerful identity issues are confounding that assumption.

Brexit has brought a distinctly British issue into play. It is enabling the Tories to consolidate support as the Brexit party in England, and at the same time reach many Leave voters in Wales, and maybe Scotland too. This serendipitous consequence of David Cameron’s referendum doesn’t mean the Tories are yet fully transformed. The Conservative Party in England is indeed increasingly focused on England. Its members believe devolution has harmed England and are remarkably sanguine about a break up of the union. But the new ability to appeal to Leave voters outside England is a further problem for Labour. The Brexit issue also cuts both ways. Without a clear appeal cutting through to Leave and Remain voters, Labour will be under pressure from both sides.

North of the border, the Tories seemed to have found - by accident or design - the way to articulate a familial relationship between the party in Scotland and the party in England. Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson appears to combine conservatism, unionism and distance from English politics more successfully than Scottish Labour, which must ride the two horses of "near home rule" and committed unionism. Scottish Labour has a perfectly good call for a reformed union, but it is undermined by the failure of Labour in England to mobilise enough popular support to make the prospect credible.

Identity politics is not, of course, the be all and end all of politics. Plenty of voters do cast their ballots on the traditional tests of leadership, economic competence, and policy. Labour’s campaign will have to make big inroads here too. But, paradoxically, Labour’s best chance of a strong result lies in taking identity politics head on, and not trying to shift the conversation onto bread and butter policy, as the leaked "talking points" seem to suggest. Plenty of voters will worry what Theresa May would do with the untrammelled power she seeks. Challenging her right or ability to speak for the nation, as Keir Starmer has done, is Labour’s best bet.

 

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

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