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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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Geoffrey Howe dies, aged 88

Howe was Margaret Thatcher's longest serving Cabinet minister – and the man credited with precipitating her downfall.

The former Conservative chancellor Lord Howe, a key figure in the Thatcher government, has died of a suspected heart attack, his family has said. He was 88.

Geoffrey Howe was the longest-serving member of Margaret Thatcher's Cabinet, playing a key role in both her government and her downfall. Born in Port Talbot in 1926, he began his career as a lawyer, and was first elected to parliament in 1964, but lost his seat just 18 months later.

Returning as MP for Reigate in the Conservative election victory of 1970, he served in the government of Edward Heath, first as Solicitor General for England & Wales, then as a Minister of State for Trade. When Margaret Thatcher became opposition leader in 1975, she named Howe as her shadow chancellor.

He retained this brief when the party returned to government in 1979. In the controversial budget of 1981, he outlined a radical monetarist programme, abandoning then-mainstream economic thinking by attempting to rapidly tackle the deficit at a time of recession and unemployment. Following the 1983 election, he was appointed as foreign secretary, in which post he negotiated the return of Hong Kong to China.

In 1989, Thatcher demoted Howe to the position of leader of the house and deputy prime minister. And on 1 November 1990, following disagreements over Britain's relationship with Europe, he resigned from the Cabinet altogether. 

Twelve days later, in a powerful speech explaining his resignation, he attacked the prime minister's attitude to Brussels, and called on his former colleagues to "consider their own response to the tragic conflict of loyalties with which I have myself wrestled for perhaps too long".

Labour Chancellor Denis Healey once described an attack from Howe as "like being savaged by a dead sheep" - but his resignation speech is widely credited for triggering the process that led to Thatcher's downfall. Nine days later, her premiership was over.

Howe retired from the Commons in 1992, and was made a life peer as Baron Howe of Aberavon. He later said that his resignation speech "was not intended as a challenge, it was intended as a way of summarising the importance of Europe". 

Nonetheless, he added: "I am sure that, without [Thatcher's] resignation, we would not have won the 1992 election... If there had been a Labour government from 1992 onwards, New Labour would never have been born."

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.