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the facts rather a lot here, so if you’re writing an academic work on either Beckett or Cioran, it might be best if you do not quote anything from this piece as a primary source.)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

Chuka Umunna speaks at the launch of Labour's education manifesto during the general election. Photograph: Getty Images.
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After so badly misjudging the leadership contest, how will the Blairites handle Corbyn?

The left-winger's opponents are divided between conciliation and aggression. 

When Labour lost the general election in May, the party’s modernisers sensed an opportunity. Ed Miliband, one of the most left-wing members of the shadow cabinet, had been unambiguously rejected and the Tories had achieved their first majority in 23 years. More than any other section of the party, the Blairites could claim to have foreseen such an outcome. Surely the pendulum would swing their way?

Yet now, as Labour’s leadership contest reaches its denouement, those on the right are asking themselves how they misjudged the landscape so badly. Their chosen candidate, Liz Kendall, is expected to finish a poor fourth and the party is poised to elect Jeremy Corbyn, the most left-wing leader in its 115-year history. For a faction that never ceases to underline the importance of winning elections, it will be a humbling result.

Though the crash has been sudden, the Blairites have long been in decline. Gordon Brown won the leadership unchallenged and senior figures such as John Reid, James Purnell and Alan Milburn chose to depart from the stage rather than fight on. In 2010, David Miliband, the front-runner in the leadership election, lost to his brother after stubbornly refusing to distance himself from the Iraq war and alienating undecided MPs with his imperiousness.

When the younger Miliband lost, the modernisers moved fast – too fast. “They’re behaving like family members taking jewellery off a corpse,” a rival campaign source told me on 9 May. Many Labour supporters agreed. The rush of op-eds and media interviews antagonised a membership that wanted to grieve in peace. The modernising contenders – Chuka Umunna, Liz Kendall, Mary Creagh, Tristram Hunt – gave the impression that the Blairites wanted to drown out all other voices. “It was a huge mistake for so many players from that wing of the party to be put into the field,” a shadow cabinet minister told me. “In 1994, forces from the soft left to the modernising right united around Tony Blair. The lesson is never again can we have multiple candidates.”

While conducting their post-mortem, the Blairites are grappling with the question of how to handle Corbyn. For some, the answer is simple. “There shouldn’t be an accommodation with Corbyn,” John McTernan, Blair’s former director of political operations, told me. “Corbyn is a disaster and he should be allowed to be his own disaster.” But most now adopt a more conciliatory tone. John Woodcock, the chair of Progress, told me: “If he wins, he will be the democratically elected leader and I don’t think there will be any serious attempt to actually depose him or to make it impossible for him to lead.”

Umunna, who earlier rebuked his party for “behaving like a petulant child”, has emphasised that MPs “must accept the result of our contest when it comes and support our new leader in developing an agenda that can return Labour to office”. The shadow business secretary even suggests that he would be prepared to discuss serving in Corbyn’s shadow cabinet if he changed his stances on issues such as nuclear disarmament, Nato, the EU and taxation. Were Umunna, a former leadership contender, to adopt a policy of aggression, he would risk being blamed should Corbyn fail.

Suggestions that the new parliamentary group Labour for the Common Good represents “the resistance” are therefore derided by those close to it. The organisation, which was launched by Umunna and Hunt before Corbyn’s surge, is aimed instead at ensuring the intellectual renewal that modernisers acknowledge has been absent since 2007. It will also try to unite the party’s disparate mainstream factions: the Blairites, the Brownites, the soft left, the old right and Blue Labour. The ascent of Corbyn, who has the declared support of just 15 MPs (6.5 per cent of the party), has persuaded many that they cannot afford the narcissism of small differences. “We need to start working together and not knocking lumps out of each other,” Woodcock says. There will be no defections, no SDP Mk II. “Jeremy’s supporters really underestimate how Labour to the core the modernisers are,” Pat McFadden, the shadow Europe minister, told me.

Although they will not change their party, the Blairites are also not prepared to change their views. “Those of us on this side of Labour are always accused of being willing to sell out for power,” a senior moderniser told me. “Well, we do have political principles and they’re not up for bartering.” He continued: “Jeremy Corbyn is not a moderate . . .
He’s an unreconstructed Bennite who regards the British army as morally equivalent to the IRA. I’m not working with that.”

Most MPs believe that Corbyn will fail but they are divided on when. McFadden has predicted that the left-winger “may even get a poll bounce in the short term, because he’s new and thinking differently”. A member of the shadow cabinet suggested that Labour could eventually fall to as low as 15 per cent in the polls and lose hundreds of councillors.

The challenge for the Blairites is to reboot themselves in time to appear to be an attractive alternative if and when Corbyn falters. Some draw hope from the performance of Tessa Jowell, who they still believe will win the London mayoral selection. “I’ve spoken to people who are voting enthusiastically both for Jeremy and for Tessa,” Wes Streeting, the newly elected MP for Ilford North, said. “They have both run very optimistic, hopeful, positive campaigns.”

But if Corbyn falls, it does not follow that the modernisers will rise. “The question is: how do we stop it happening again if he does go?” a senior frontbencher said. “He’s got no interest or incentive to change the voting method. We could lose nurse and end up with something worse.” If the road back to power is long for Labour, it is longest of all for the Blairites. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Pope of the masses