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Terror of standing on chairs is why men of a certain age put off changing the light bulb

Nicholas Lezard's Down and Out column.

There has been a photographer in the Hovel, because the Sindie wants to have pictures of the kids and me to illustrate the big Father’s Day piece I mentioned a few weeks ago. I had, earlier, written loftily to the children, in that way you sometimes do after a glass too many (“You may be part of the social media generation, which values exposure above all things, but you have, to your great credit, not bought into these values wholesale,” and so on), in case they decided they didn’t want to be photographed or associated publicly with me in any way, but they were happy with the idea, although perhaps privately beginning to wonder if their old man was losing his marbles. Assuming he had many marbles to begin with.

The cleaning lady had been in the day before and I had simply not moved for 24 hours to minimise any damage I could do to the order of the place but, as visitors already know, the Hovel’s system of accelerated entropy has gone too far now for a weekly two-hour blitz to do much more than the most limited damage control. People who have never visited the place before, I realise, can never be prepared enough for the sight that awaits them. The photographer had been told roughly what to expect but you could tell when he entered the living room that he was deeply moved. That’s the great thing about photographers: they see the world in purely visual terms, not moral ones (although he did tell me a story about photographing [name redacted on legal advice], which confirmed that my suspicion that [name redacted] was a complete shit was right on the money).

I once used to joke with the great photographer Roger Bamber that his job was easy, as it was over in a 250th of a second and even sooner if it was a sunny day, which never failed to enrage him, but golly, they do have to work hard. Writers may moan about their lot but we don’t have to lug a hundred kilos of kit around. The bottom line is that all a writer needs is a Ryman notebook (a fiver, indistinguishable, three paces away, from a Moleskine costing three times as much) and a biro. We do not need a lighting rig that goes FLASH and one of those umbrellas lined with silver. (You can safely dismiss any writer who says they would be utterly lost without their MacBook as a fraud.)

We all had a jolly time until at one point the photographer asked me to stand on a chair. The children had already had their turn but standing on chairs holds no terror for the young. After you reach the age of about 25, though, it becomes one of those things that you decide you’ve wrung every last drop of pleasure from; you conclude that chairs are, in the final analysis, for sitting on. You can put your feet on a chair if you’re already sitting in another one but that’s about it. This is a feeling that intensifies with the years. It’s one of the reasons why it takes so long for men over a certain age to change a light bulb.

Doing this made me feel a bit light-headed and it also gave me a new perspective on the living room, so I noticed the fez hanging off the antlers and suggested putting it on. This hat has been in the family gathering dust since a parental trip to Morocco in the 1970s so I pinched it shortly after Matt Smith, in his incarnation as the 11th Doctor, rescued the head wear from the grip of the late Tommy Cooper. Once I put it on, though, the mood among the children curdled. Embarrassing one’s offspring is easier than falling off a chair but this time I wondered if I had gone too far. After all, as my eldest son has remarked, it is not just me in my own little world. (Although, speaking in strictly philosophical terms, that’s exactly what it is.)

We repaired outside to the terrace for some fresh air and more photographs. The outside is less Hovelly than the inside if you turn away from half of the plant pots and the heap of wax that looks as though a candle had vomited underneath the table. It’s at this point I notice that the daughter is suffering: it is bright outside and she had – how shall I put this? – stayed up rather late the night before. Wearing sunglasses indoors had not been an affectation.

The photographer packed up, we shook hands (we’d got on splendidly) and the children left. Except the daughter, who stayed on the sofa and didn’t leave till the next day. She spent the time drinking tea and watching Withnail and I. I wonder what on earth it could have been that drew her to that particular film.

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 11 June 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The last World Cup

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PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn prompts Tory outrage as he blames Grenfell Tower fire on austerity

To Conservative cries of "shame on you!", the Labour leader warned that "we all pay a price in public safety" for spending cuts.

A fortnight after the Grenfell Tower fire erupted, the tragedy continues to cast a shadow over British politics. Rather than probing Theresa May on the DUP deal, Jeremy Corbyn asked a series of forensic questions on the incident, in which at least 79 people are confirmed to have died.

In the first PMQs of the new parliament, May revealed that the number of buildings that had failed fire safety tests had risen to 120 (a 100 per cent failure rate) and that the cladding used on Grenfell Tower was "non-compliant" with building regulations (Corbyn had asked whether it was "legal").

After several factual questions, the Labour leader rose to his political argument. To cries of "shame on you!" from Tory MPs, he warned that local authority cuts of 40 per cent meant "we all pay a price in public safety". Corbyn added: “What the tragedy of Grenfell Tower has exposed is the disastrous effects of austerity. The disregard for working-class communities, the terrible consequences of deregulation and cutting corners." Corbyn noted that 11,000 firefighters had been cut and that the public sector pay cap (which Labour has tabled a Queen's Speech amendment against) was hindering recruitment. "This disaster must be a wake-up call," he concluded.

But May, who fared better than many expected, had a ready retort. "The cladding of tower blocks did not start under this government, it did not start under the previous coalition governments, the cladding of tower blocks began under the Blair government," she said. “In 2005 it was a Labour government that introduced the regulatory reform fire safety order which changed the requirements to inspect a building on fire safety from the local fire authority to a 'responsible person'." In this regard, however, Corbyn's lack of frontbench experience is a virtue – no action by the last Labour government can be pinned on him. 

Whether or not the Conservatives accept the link between Grenfell and austerity, their reluctance to defend continued cuts shows an awareness of how politically vulnerable they have become (No10 has announced that the public sector pay cap is under review).

Though Tory MP Philip Davies accused May of having an "aversion" to policies "that might be popular with the public" (he demanded the abolition of the 0.7 per cent foreign aid target), there was little dissent from the backbenches – reflecting the new consensus that the Prime Minister is safe (in the absence of an attractive alternative).

And May, whose jokes sometimes fall painfully flat, was able to accuse Corbyn of saying "one thing to the many and another thing to the few" in reference to his alleged Trident comments to Glastonbury festival founder Michael Eavis. But the Labour leader, no longer looking fearfully over his shoulder, displayed his increased authority today. Though the Conservatives may jeer him, the lingering fear in Tory minds is that they and the country are on divergent paths. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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