The shame of waking up in bed with the succubus Mistress Motivator

Nicholas Lezard's "Down and Out" column.

So, while the Beloved is away, I find myself once again sharing the bed with a large and varied assortment of reading matter – “the scholar’s mistress”, I believe it’s called, for the books assume the contours and the active gravitational mass of a human body. (Yes, pedantic scientists may point out that the gravitational pull of a body roughly 60 kilogrammes in weight is negligible, but then there are bodies and there are bodies.)
 
It is, indeed, an eclectic bunch: a selection from Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, edited by Kevin Jackson; the last three issues of the TLS and the last two of the LRB; the last-but-one issue of Viz (it had a fake reader’s letter about, of all things, piccalilli, which was so funny that when I tried to read it out to a friend I found myself gasping on the floor for breath, eyes streaming with tears); a beautiful, leather-bound edition in two volumes of Browning, embossed with the arms of Trinity, Oxon, which had been won by an M Davidson in 1904, but which I picked up in a second-hand bookseller’s on Bell Street in central London for £34 (I have not got much further with “The Ring and the Book” than I did in my student days but it smells lovely); a complete set of Peanuts strips from the years 1967-68, its golden period; Marcus Berkmann’s A Shed of One’s Own; and . . . and . . . Jesus Christ, what’s this?
 
It’s as if I had woken up not with a beautiful woman by my side but with a deformed and cackling succubus. The book is by Laura Vanderkam and is called What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast. It all comes back to me. Oh, the shame. Not mine, though: the shame is Penguin’s. It has started bombarding me – whether out of a spirit of malice, or satire or ignorance, I do not know – with the kind of book that goes in the motivational parts of the business section of bookshops. I am, as they say, a long way from my comfort zone here. Opening it roughly in the middle, for I imagine successful people do not bother with the first half of things, I see the words announcing a section, “What the most successful people do at work”, and the chapter heading on the next page is “The secret of astonishing productivity”. These are in capitals in the original but I will spare you. As far as I can see, the main thrust of the book’s advice can be summed up as: “Get up at 5am.” No good for me, I’m afraid.
 
I flick through further and discover what “may be the most important tip in this book”: to plan “something fun” for Sunday nights. Again, no good for me, since I lost all track of what day of the week it was some time during the first Blair administration. (It is, I have discovered, surprisingly difficult to find out online what day of the week it is and I have at times resorted to calling a friend and then nonchalantly, as if in passing, saying, “Ha, ha, what day is it again?”) Sometimes I’d do the Uxbridge Arms quiz, which was on a Sunday, but lately I have started losing horribly at that and do not consider arriving home broke, furious, miserable and bursting for a pee to be my idea of fun.
 
Then there’s Life’s a Pitch: What the World’s Best Sales People Can Teach Us All by Philip Delves Broughton. He also wrote What They Teach You at Harvard Business School, which I concede, if it really is what they teach you at that institution, could represent a significant saving; but if it isn’t, then it might be doable under the Sale of Goods Act.
 
And what’s this? The Launch Pad: Inside Y Combinator, Silicon Valley’s Most Exclusive School for Start-Ups by Randall Stross. (This didn’t make it to the scholar’s mistress but I did find it on the chairdrobe, which gives you a little peek, if you ever wanted one, into the state of my bedroom.)
 
The sub-imprint for this series, I note, is called Portfolio. Its logo is of a man poised to chuck a javelin – at an angle to the perpendicular of about ten degrees, which, as any mathematician will be able to tell you, is about 35 degrees away from the most efficient angle to chuck something if you want it to go anywhere far.
 
A couple of days later, I’m in the pub with the Beloved, enjoying a pint. It is about 6pm and the tables are crowded with office workers. My eyes brim in pity. How many of them own these books, or would be interested in buying my copies if I offered to sell them? But I won’t, because these books represent everything that has gone wrong with society since the end of the Second World War and I wouldn’t want to encourage them. 
A bed full of books at the Frankfurt Book Fair. 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 02 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Syria: The west humiliated

Photo: Martin Whitfield
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Labour MP for East Lothian Martin Whitfield: "I started an argument and ended up winning an election"

The former primary school teacher still misses home. 

Two months ago, Martin Whitfield was a primary school teacher in Prestonpans, a small town along the coast from Edinburgh. Then he got into an argument. It was a Saturday morning shortly after the snap election had been called, and he and other members of the local Labour party began discussing a rumour that the candidate would be an outsider.

“I started an argument that this was ridiculous, we couldn’t have a candidate helicoptered in,” he recalls. He pointed out that one of the main issues with the Scottish National Party incumbent, the economist and journalist George Kerevan, was that he was seen as an outsider.

“I kept arguing for an hour and a half and people started gently moving away,” he jokes. “About two days later I was still going on, and I thought enough’s enough.” 

He called Iain Gray, the Scottish Labour veteran, who interrupted him. “He said, 'Right Martin, are you going to put up or shut up?’ So I filled in the forms.

"Then I had to have a very interesting conversation with my wife.”

One successful election campaign later, he is sitting in the airy, glass-roofed atrium of Westminster’s Portcullis House. Whitfield has silver hair, glasses, and wears a Labour-red tie with his shirt. He looks every bit the approachable primary school teacher, and sometimes he forgets he isn’t anymore. 

I ask how the school reacted to his election bid, and he begins “I have”, and then corrects himself: “There is a primary four class I had the pleasure to teach.” The children wanted to know everything from where parliament was, to his views on education and independence. He took unpaid leave to campaign. 

“Actually not teaching the children was the hardest thing,” he recalls. “During the campaign I kept bumping into them when I was door-knocking.”

Whitfield was born in Newcastle, in 1965, to Labour-supporting parents. “My entire youth was spent with people who were socialists.”

His father was involved in the Theatre Workshop, founded by the left-wing director Joan Littlewood. “We were part of a community which supported each other and found value in that support in art and in theatre,” he says. “That is hugely important to me.” 

He trained as a lawyer, but grew disillusioned with the profession and retrained as a teacher instead. He and his wife eventually settled in Prestonpans, where they started a family and he “fought like mad” to work at the local school. She works as the marketing manager for the local theatre.

He believes he won his seat – one of the first to be touted as a possible Labour win – thanks to a combination of his local profile, the party’s position on independence and its manifesto, which “played brilliantly everywhere we discussed it”. 

It offered hope, he says: “As far as my doorstep discussion in East Lothian went, some people were for and against Jeremy Corbyn, some people were for and against Kezia Dugdale, but I didn’t find anyone who was against the manifesto.”

Whitfield’s new job will mean long commutes on the East Coast line, but he considers representing the constituency a “massive, massive honour”. When I ask him about East Lothian, he can’t stop talking.

“MPs do tend to say ‘my constituency’s a microcosm’, but it really is Scotland in miniature. We have a fishing industry, crabs and lobsters, the agricultural areas – the agricultural soil is second to none.” The area was also historically home to heavy industry. 

After his first week in Westminster, Whitfield caught the train back to Scotland. “That bit when I got back into East Lothian was lovely moment,” he says. “I was home.”

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

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