It’s downhill all the way at the moment

I can’t even get my poetry quotations right.

I am not over-fond of this time of year. Summer’s lease hath all too short a stay. Date, I mean. Why do I always get that wrong? Anyway, it’s now autumn. The windows that have been left open are now shut to stop the draughts, the summer plumage – linen, basically, and those cheapo desert boots you buy from shoe shops on the Uxbridge Road for £20 – is replaced by the winter version, and the Proms come to an end. This is particularly sad this year, as it is the first time since 1999 that Roger Wright, head of Radio 3 andthe Proms, hasn’t invited me along to his box to eat his smoked salmon sarnies and drink his wine.

Maybe he has wearied of me. I thought he used to be amused by my having to climb over him for a pee during the long, long wall of sound that is Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande, or making feeble passes at Jenny Agutter, or gawping at Simon Heffer’s profile. How does anyone get jowls like that? He’s only three years older than I am. Heffer, not Wright. Wright is older than either of us but has the ageless good looks of a Donatello putto. I sat and waited for his call all summer long but it never came, and when I heard “Jerusalem” bouncing off the walls all the way from Hyde Park, I had a tear in my eye. So that’s it, then, I thought.

I know I’m not important any longer – I used to be radio critic for the Independent on Sunday until they decided I was surplus to requirements about six years ago – but what about auld lang syne? They sang that, too, as if to wash their mouths out after “Jerusalem” and “Rule, Britannia!”, and that nearly floored me. (Incidentally, I gather the Independent on Sunday has now decided that all its critics are surplus to requirements and has given the entire arts desk the heaveho. You will write and tell them they’re being silly arseholes, won’t you? They had some fine writers on those pages.) Oh well; nothing lasts for ever and at least this year we had a summer to speak of, unlike last year’s washout.

I used to like September, though. I was never particularly fond of school but at least you got to learn some stuff and there was always a good chance that I’d have some new masters who had yet to nurse any grudges against me. The start of the university year was even better: leaving the family home meant the thrilling prospect of going where there were locks on the lavatory doors.

But that was when life was still a process leading to sunny uplands. Each year was going to be better than the last one: you’d know a bit more, be earning a bit more and certainly be having more sex. After all, I would ask myself in my late teens, how could I be having any less? That’s not something I’m worried about now, thank goodness, but as for the rest . . . Well, anyone out there feeling happier, richer and more confident about the future than they were last year?

I thought that at the very least this government had reached the maximum point of stupidity and malice a supposedly enlightened western democracy was capable of, but now I read that the DWP is to start calling people in if it thinks they’re not earning enough money and will tell them to work more. Am I missing something or is this the most brutal move against the poor yet? Other solutions – say, raising the minimum wage – seem not to have occurred to them.

Not only is one’s own life going downhill at an increasingly uncomfortable rate but the whole country is, too. The nights draw in, the clouds roll over. It’s all very well battening down the hatches but what if one has no battens with which to batten them? The eldest child is going off to university and by the end of her course will almost certainly be in debt to the tune of £27,000, which worries me even more than the fact that at least one member of the philosophy faculty not only thinks Descartes was a medieval philosopher, but pronounces his name “day car” to boot. The last time I mentioned that, I got accused of the most outrageous snobbery; I’m bracing myself for that again.

But it turns out that I cannot even take solace from such fragments of learning as I retain. I take my melancholy and do what everyone does with it these days: air it on Facebook. “Summer’s lease hath all too short a stay,” I write laconically, hoping to impress everyone with the lightness of my learning, the deftness of my command of allusion to fit the mood of the time.

“Date,” everyone writes back. “It’s ‘date’, you idiot.”

Summer is almost over. Image: 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 16 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Syria: The deadly stalemate

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Murder by numbers: the legacy of the Grenfell Tower fire

It is difficult to refute the reality of suffering when the death toll is still being reckoned.

How do we measure human malice? Sometimes it’s all too easy. This summer, British cities are struggling through the aftermath of successive terrorist attacks and hate crimes. The Manchester bombing. The Westminster Bridge murders. The London Bridge atrocity. The attack on people outside the Finsbury Park Mosque in north London and on other mosques. The unidentified young men who are still at large in the capital after spraying acid in the faces of passers-by, mutilating them.

In Britain, we are commendably resilient about these things. Returning to London after some time away, I found my spirits lifted by an issue of the London Evening Standard magazine that celebrated the ordinary people who stepped in to help after these atrocities. The paramedics who worked through the night. The Romanian chef who offered shelter in his bakery. The football fan who took on the London Bridge terrorists, screaming, “Fuck you, I’m Millwall!” The student housing co-ordinator who rushed to organise board for the victims of the inferno at the Grenfell Tower and their families.

Wait. Hold on a second. One of these things is not like the others. The Grenfell Tower disaster, in which at least 80 people died, was not a terrorist or malicious attack. It was the result of years of callous council decisions and underinvestment in social housing. On 14 June, entire families burned alive in their homes partly because, it is alleged, the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea would not pay the extra £5,000 or so for fire-resistant cladding. Nor could it find the cash, despite a budget surplus, to instal proper sprinkler systems on the rotting interior of the building.

Kensington and Chelsea is a Tory borough that, in cash terms, cares very little for poorer citizens who are unlikely to vote the right way. In 2014, while the Grenfell Tower residents were refused basic maintenance, the council handed out £100 rebates to its top-rate taxpayers, boasting of its record of “consistently delivering greater efficiencies while improving services”. Some of those efficiencies had names, and parents, and children.

This is a different sort of depravity altogether. It’s depravity with plausible deniability, right up until the point at which deniability goes up in flames. Borrowing from Friedrich Engels, John McDonnell described the Grenfell Tower disaster as “social murder”. The shadow chancellor and sometime Jack Russell of the parliamentary left has never been known for his delicate phrasing.

Naturally, the Tory press queued up to condemn McDonnell – not because he was wrong but because he was indiscreet. “There’s a long history in this country of the concept of social murder,” he said, “where decisions are made with no regard to the consequences… and as a result of that people have suffered.”

It is difficult to refute the reality of that suffering when the death toll is still being reckoned from the towering tombstone that now blights the west London skyline.” As the philosopher Hannah Arendt wrote, “The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil.”

Market austerity is no less brutal for being bloodless, calculating, an ideology of measuring human worth in pennies and making cuts that only indirectly slice into skin and bone. Redistributing large sums of money from the poor to the rich is not simply an abstract moral infraction: it kills. It shortens lives and blights millions more. Usually, it does so in a monstrously phlegmatic manner: the pensioners who die early of preventable diseases, the teenagers who drop out of education, the disabled people left to suffer the symptoms of physical and mental illness with nobody to care for them, the thousands who have died on the waiting lists for state benefits that they are perfectly entitled to, the parents whose pride disintegrates as they watch their children go to school hungry.

We are not encouraged to measure the human cost of austerity in this way, even though there are many people in back offices making exactly these sorts of calculations. This year, when researchers from the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine claimed that “relentless cuts” to the health service could explain as many as 30,000 “excess deaths” in England and Wales in 2015, the government denounced this as “a triumph of personal bias over research”, which, however you slice it, is a callous prep school debater’s response to the reality of 30,000 fresh graves.

There is a species of evil in which an individual allows the dark and yammering corners of his mind to direct him to put a blade in a bystander’s belly, or a bomb in a bustling crowd of teenage girls. That sort of monstrosity is as easy to identify as it is mercifully rare, though frighteningly less rare than it was in less febrile times. But there is another sort of evil that seldom makes the headlines. This comes about when someone sits down with a calculator and works out how much it will cost to protect and nurture human life, deducts that from the cost of a tax rebate for local landowners or a nice night at the opera, then comes up with a figure. It’s an ordinary sort of evil, and it has become routine and automated in the austerity years. It is a sort of evil, in the words of Terry Pratchett, that “begins when you begin to treat people as things”. 

The Grenfell Tower disaster was the hellish evidence of the consequences of fiscal ruthlessness that nobody could look away from. Claims that it could not have been predicted were shot down by the victims. The residents’ association wrote on its campaign website after years of begging the council to improve living conditions: “It is a truly terrifying thought but the Grenfell Action Group firmly believe that only a catastrophic event will expose the ineptitude and incompetence of our landlord.”

That catastrophic event has happened, and the ordinary British response to tragedy – brave, mannered dignity – is inappropriate. When the Grenfell inquiry launches next month, it is incumbent on every citizen to call for answers and to call this kind of travesty by its name: murder by numbers.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder