You know you’ve hit a new low when you’re borrowing money off your children

Nicholas Lezard's "Down and Out" column.

It was, in the end, nothing less than a continuous pleasure having the daughter to stay for a fortnight. She’s gone now, and is missed; she’s off to stay for a while in a household in France that is, a generation up, infested with hippies.
These are real hippies – the kind who were at just the right age to inhale the full blowback of flower power in the mid-Sixties. They’re pushing their own sixties now and you can spot them a mile off, which is handy if you want to distance yourself. Remember the television ad for a bank around five or six years ago that featured a woman in a headscarf going on about feng shui? That was her, or close enough to make no difference. I stayed there once myself and gave them a present of some delicious local saucissonand cheese.
“Sorry,” she said as I was putting them in the fridge, “but I’m getting back in touch with my Jewish roots and would rather you didn’t put the meat and the dairy products on the same shelf.”
She is also very partial to wandering around the place completely starkers. This can come as a surprise at first but I suppose it is always well to have a memento mori around the place, like Brideshead’s Sebastian Flyte with his skull inscribed with the legend “Et in Arcadia ego”. I, too, was, or am, in paradise. The ambiguity in tense is crucial.
Anyway, my daughter came to stay at just the right time; in other words, at that awkward period at the end of the month when the Lezard economy enters its austerity phase. For those who think I exaggerate when I claim poverty, the last ten days of July were spent working out how to live off £14 and for the first time in my life I started thinking about going to a payday loan company. I find something rather distasteful and dishonest about them, which probably doesn’t come as news to you, and I heard that if you borrow £100 off the best-known one and don’t pay it back for five years, you end up with a debt greater than that of the United States. I haven’t done the maths but I suspect it’s true.
In the end, I kept the ship afloat by borrowing small sums, here and there, off a) the Beloved, who gave me a funny look, and b) my friend Toby, to whom I had turned only because I’d already put the bite on c) my daughter. I think it represents A New Low when you’re reduced to that, no?
Toby always does his best to help me save face when he gives me my payday loans, which he always does at his local: either handing the money to me as discreetly as a drug dealer handing over his wares in a public place, or else, if scrutiny is unavoidable, pretending that it is money he owes me. This is very chivalrous of him but I think it is important not to dissemble in front of one’s own children and so peeled off a 20 then and there to hand to my daughter, who had come with me.
“There,” I said. “Let that be a lesson to you.” In the end, people paid me, and the sun came out, and this month I have resolved not to let things get like that again. Which is why it was probably unwise to treat myself, last sunny Thursday, to a plate of calamari and a carafe of house white at Casa Becci in Marylebone. The problem with austerity is that its relief can lead one into bad habits again. But what is this life if you can’t sit in the sunshine with some fried seafood, a chilled bottle and a copy of this magazine to read at leisure?
It is also well to recall civilised modes of existence. The other day I found that my sometime flatmate, this very magazine’s distinguished and gifted correspondent Laurie Penny, had received a death threat on Twitter. It is all too easy, for men at least, to dismiss these as the tiresome yelps of the mindless savage, but a message giving a specific time at which the firebomb in or near your house is going to go off can be the last straw if you get nothing but abuse every time you write an article.
It then occurred to me that, had this kind of thing been all the rage a year or so ago, Laurie’s house would have been my house, too, and there may well have been children of mine staying in it as well.
It is at this point that contemplation of the kind of scum who get their kicks out of this kind of thing becomes more than academic. I may have gently teased the hippies in the first few paragraphs of this piece, but really, what on earth is so funny about peace, love and understanding? 
Piggs banks accessible only via hammer. 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 19 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Why aren’t young people working

Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.