White out: a bidet following a landslide in Costa Rica, 2010. (Photo: Getty)
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It’s a happy bidet that contains the LRB, the TLS and a few copies of Viz

The appliance hasn’t worked since the days of Callaghan but provides an excellent receptacle for reading matter.

Although the bidet in the downstairs loo has not worked since, I would guess, the last days of the Callaghan government, it is an ill wind that blows no one any good and, as I believe I have had occasion to mention before, it now serves as a handy receptacle for reading matter should you wish to improve your mind. In what some may consider a serious bid to get into Pseuds Corner for the first time in what feels like ages, this tends to be of a highbrow nature: PN Review, the LRB and the TLS, a copy of Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, The Book of Disquiet by Pessoa and Kevin Jackson’s volume on Ruskin.

There are some copies of Viz for the young at heart and for a long time I found Bob Wilson’s Ultimate Collection of Peculiar Sporting Lingo a much better and more fascinating read than I had snobbishly suspected it was going to be when I took it out of the Jiffy bag. But the former Arsenal and Scotland goalie’s book has gone missing, so you’ll see instead a 1991 edition of E M Cioran’s Anathemas and Admirations. This is always good for a chuckle.

Cioran, in case the name is unfamiliar, was a Romanian exile living in Paris. He was of such a bitter and gloomy nature that when he needed cheering up even more than he usually did, he would visit his pal Samuel Beckett. Apparently Beckett grew to dislike these visits and the final one ended with Beckett throwing Cioran out of his flat, saying, “For feck’s sake, Emil, lighten up, you miserable bastard. Things aren’t as bad as all that.” (I suspect I am embellishing the facts rather a lot here, so if you’re writing an academic work on either Beckett or Cioran, it might be best if you do not quote anything from this piece as a primary source.)

Cioran’s maxims are always bracing. “On a gangrened planet, we should abstain from making plans, but we make them still, optimism being, as we know, a dying man’s reflex.” That’s the stuff to give the troops and, as one rises from stool, one feels a braver and less deceived person for it. That, at least, is the intention: you could also have learned why a googly is called a “Bosie” in Australia if some swine hadn’t  stolen Bob Wilson’s book. Visitors to the Hovel are now stuck with Cioran, Pessoa and the rest.

This needn’t be a bad thing. What was that about plans again? (And don’t you love that “gangrened”? So much nastier than “gangrenous”. You hear the green of corruption in it.) I have abandoned making plans ever since I used up the 2008 diary given to me by the Finn. This has resulted in countless missed parties and invitations; and this, in turn, has resulted in people assuming I’m dead, so I now no longer miss parties because I’m not invited to them in the first place. However, I’ll have to plan to clean up the living room within the next couple of weeks because it turns out that the woman who ran screaming from the place when she was shown round it last month has decided that it might be best not to be so fussy after all.

I sympathise with her. Most people, when they see the Hovel for the first time, see it, as Martin Amis said of western tourists visiting India, through the mists of their own rejection and I remember being distinctly unimpressed when I first saw my new home. But all new homes are sad in some way, especially when the circumstances of leaving the previous one have been traumatic. A shared home is doubly sad if you are not sharing it with anyone you love. The new lodger will only be here for six months at most, if she is not put off by weirdo Romanian philosophers in the bidet (“One can imagine everything, predict everything, save how low one can sink”), 16,000 books in the living room (which I am under instructions to deal with – another plan I have to make) and a funny smell in the kitchen, which is not the sweet smell of rotting fruit, as it was last time, but something like an enormous loaf of bread that has gone mouldy, which may well need the services of Rentokil.

I look around me at the piles of books and Jiffy bags in the living room. It will take, I estimate, a full day of hard work to sort them out, so I had better start putting the task off right now.

But look! It’s Bob Wilson’s Ultimate Collection of Peculiar Sporting Lingo! I think Cioran and Pessoa and the tidying can wait. I want to know why West Bromwich Albion are known
as “the Baggies”.

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 05 March 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's power game

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Theresa May's "clean Brexit" is hard Brexit with better PR

The Prime Minister's objectives point to the hardest of exits from the European Union. 

Theresa May will outline her approach to Britain’s Brexit deal in a much-hyped speech later today, with a 12-point plan for Brexit.

The headlines: her vow that Britain will not be “half in, half out” and border control will come before our membership of the single market.

And the PM will unveil a new flavour of Brexit: not hard, not soft, but “clean” aka hard but with better PR.

“Britain's clean break from EU” is the i’s splash, “My 12-point plan for Brexit” is the Telegraph’s, “We Will Get Clean Break From EU” cheers the Express, “Theresa’s New Free Britain” roars the Mail, “May: We’ll Go It Alone With CLEAN Brexit” is the Metro’s take. The Guardian goes for the somewhat more subdued “May rules out UK staying in single market” as their splash while the Sun opts for “Great Brexpectations”.

You might, at this point, be grappling with a sense of déjà vu. May’s new approach to the Brexit talks is pretty much what you’d expect from what she’s said since getting the keys to Downing Street, as I wrote back in October. Neither of her stated red lines, on border control or freeing British law from the European Court of Justice, can be met without taking Britain out of the single market aka a hard Brexit in old money.

What is new is the language on the customs union, the only area where May has actually been sparing on detail. The speech will make it clear that after Brexit, Britain will want to strike its own trade deals, which means that either an unlikely exemption will be carved out, or, more likely, that the United Kingdom will be out of the European Union, the single market and the customs union.

(As an aside, another good steer about the customs union can be found in today’s row between Boris Johnson and the other foreign ministers of the EU27. He is under fire for vetoing an EU statement in support of a two-state solution, reputedly to curry favour with Donald Trump. It would be strange if Downing Street was shredding decades of British policy on the Middle East to appease the President-Elect if we weren’t going to leave the customs union in order at the end of it.)

But what really matters isn’t what May says today but what happens around Europe over the next few months. Donald Trump’s attacks on the EU and Nato yesterday will increase the incentive on the part of the EU27 to put securing the political project front-and-centre in the Brexit talks, making a good deal for Britain significantly less likely.

Add that to the unforced errors on the part of the British government, like Amber Rudd’s wheeze to compile lists of foreign workers, and the diplomatic situation is not what you would wish to secure the best Brexit deal, to put it mildly.

Clean Brexit? Nah. It’s going to get messy. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.