A second hand bookshop in Glasgow. How many books is too many books?
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You wouldn’t believe how much more objectionable I’d be if I wasn’t a socialist

That I have lived pretty much entirely self-sufficiently for six and a half years is a matter of some astonishment.

Someone comes round to look at the Hovel with a view to moving into the newly vacated room for six months. I am not wild about this, for it means more sharing of space, but it has to be done.

I reflect that I think about people in the same way I think about dogs: I despise them in theory and consider them, as the Semitic religions do, basically unclean; but once I meet them and I look into their large, liquid eyes, I cannot help but want to scratch them behind the ears and give them treats. They might make me come out in a rash and sneeze – and heaven help me if I stroke them and then rub my eyes – but damn it, there’s something adorable about them.

Is this a sound basis for my socialism, I wonder? I think it could be and it’s all the more sincere for being hard-won, against my ungenerous inclinations. I am reminded, by a roundabout process of association, of the response that Evelyn Waugh gave to Nancy Mitford (I think), who asked what the hell he was doing being a Catholic, as he was such a shit. His rather convincing reply went: you wouldn’t believe how much more of a shit I’d be if I wasn’t a Catholic.

Anyway, this person declined to take the room, giving the reason that the communal living areas were too messy. Considering that these communal areas comprise 1) a bathroom with lots of books in the bidet and bath, neither of which work; 2) a living room filled with books; 3) a kitchen, with lots of jars and bottles of stuff about the place, admittedly, but with only a well-mannered shelf of cookbooks (which, as a confident, self-sufficient cook, I never have to use); and 4) a terrace, an entirely book-free zone but, what with the weather and all that, not somewhere you’d want to hang out on right now, I only dimly understand the nature of the objection.

So I have been placed under orders, politely, to do something about this. Fair enough. All things considered, it could have been a lot worse. That I have lived pretty much entirely self-sufficiently for six and a half years without drowning in a sea of my own detritus and indolence, both physical and psychical, is a matter of some astonishment to people who have known me for a while and something of an astonishment to me, now that I come to think of it.

I think about this after coming back from a dinner with a friend who pities me from time to time and takes me to the restaurant Mon Plaisir in Covent Garden. I first met her not long after being kicked out by the wife and thought, when I clapped eyes on her, “Golly” – but our friendship has, thank goodness, proceeded along entirely platonic lines.

She’s also married and I realised pretty quickly that, even though I was by no means a choirboy when I was married, I have no desire at all to screw up anyone else’s arrangements. The discovery of a latent sense of morality in the autumn of one’s life was something I was unprepared for. I had assumed that leopards did not change their spots, after enduring many long and bitter lectures to this effect. Perhaps I’m not a leopard. Who knew?

My friend mentions that she knows many women roughly my age who are divorced and, to use a rather less weighted adjective than she does, keen to enter another relationship. I head her off at the pass before she can proceed. Even if I were on the market, I say (and I am most definitely not), the idea of entering a relationship with a divorcee would not appeal, on the grounds that such women are at least as set in their ways as I am – and my ways, laissez-faire in the extreme on the personal level, do not appeal to many these days.

I have learned that everyone, after a point, only likes things when they are done just so and any deviation is intolerable. I wonder how many marriages break up because one partner has decided that the other simply isn’t “doing things right”.

Also, there is that inbuilt dissatisfaction so many people cultivate. Marx’s prediction that one of the bad things about late capitalism would be “a contriving and ever calculating subservience to inhuman, sophisticated, unnatural and imaginary appetites” suggests, to me, not only pointlessly craving the latest iPhone but being the kind of person who feels the need to redecorate a room whether it needs it or not. Why, in the end, bother?

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 13 February 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Can we talk about climate change now?

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The NS leader: Cold Britannia

Twenty years after the election of New Labour, for the left, it seems, things can only get worse. 

Twenty years after the election of New Labour, for the left, it seems, things can only get worse. The polls suggest a series of grim election defeats across Britain: Labour is 10 points behind the Conservatives even in Wales, putting Theresa May’s party on course to win a majority of seats there for the first time in a century. Meanwhile, in Scotland, the psephologist John Curtice expects the resurgent Tories, under the “centrist” leadership of Ruth Davidson, to gain seats while Labour struggles to cling on to its single MP.

Where did it all go wrong? In this week’s cover essay, beginning on page 26, John Harris traces the roots of Labour’s present troubles back to the scene of one of its greatest triumphs, on 1 May 1997, when it returned 418 MPs to the Commons and ended 18 years of Conservative rule. “Most pop-culture waves turn out to have been the advance party for a new mutation of capitalism, and so it proved with this one,” Mr Harris, one of the contributors to our New Times series, writes. “If Cool Britannia boiled down to anything, it was the birth of a London that by the early Noughties was becoming stupidly expensive and far too full of itself.”

Jump forward two decades and London is indeed now far too dominant in the British economy, sucking in a disproportionate number of graduates and immigrants and then expecting them to pay £4 for a milky coffee and £636,777 for an average house. Tackling the resentment caused by London’s dominance must be an urgent project for the Labour Party. It is one that Mr Corbyn and his key allies, John McDonnell, Emily Thornberry and Diane Abbott, are not well placed to do (all four are ultra-liberals who represent
London constituencies).

Labour must also find a happy relationship with patriotism, which lies beneath many of the other gripes made against Mr Corbyn: his discomfort with the institutions of the British state, his peacenik tendencies, his dislike of Nato and military alliances, his natural inclination towards transnational or foreign liberation movements, rather than seeking to evolve a popular national politics.

New Labour certainly knew how to wave the flag, even if the results made many on the left uncomfortable: on page 33, we republish our Leader from 2 May 1997, which complained about the “bulldog imagery” of Labour’s election campaign. Yet those heady weeks that followed Labour’s landslide victory were a time of optimism and renewal, when it was possible for people on the left to feel proud of their country and to celebrate its achievements, rather than just apologise for its mistakes. Today, Labour has become too reliant on misty invocations of the NHS to demonstrate that it likes or even understands the country it seeks to govern. A new patriotism, distinct from nationalism, is vital to any Labour revival.

That Tony Blair and his government have many detractors hardly needs to be said. The mistakes were grave: the catastrophic invasion of Iraq, a lax attitude to regulating the financial sector, a too-eager embrace of free-market globalisation, and the failure to impose transitional controls on immigration when eastern European states joined the EU. All contributed to the anger and disillusionment that led to the election as Labour leader of first the hapless Ed Miliband and then Jeremy Corbyn, a long-time rebel backbencher.

However, 20 years after the victory of the New Labour government, we should also acknowledge its successes, not least the minimum wage, education reform, Sure Start, a huge fall in pensioner poverty and investment in public services. Things did get better. They can do so again.

The far right halted

For once, the polls were correct. On 23 April, the centrist Emmanuel Macron triumphed in the first round of the French election with 24 per cent of the vote. The Front National’s Marine Le Pen came second with 21.3 per cent in an election in which the two main parties were routed. The two candidates will now face off on 7 May, and with the mainstream candidates of both left and right falling in behind Mr Macron, he will surely be France’s next president.

“There’s a clear distinction to be made between a political adversary and an enemy of the republic,” said Benoît Hamon, the candidate of the governing Parti Socialiste, who had strongly criticised Mr Macron during the campaign. “This is deadly serious now.” He is correct. Mr Macron may be a centrist rather than of the left but he is a democratic politician. Ms Le Pen is a borderline fascist and a victory for her would herald a dark future not just for France but for all of Europe. It is to Donald Trump’s deep shame that he appeared to endorse her on the eve of the vote.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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