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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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Four times Owen Smith has made sexist comments

The Labour MP for Pontypridd and Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour leadership rival has been accused of misogynist remarks. Again.

2016

Wanting to “smash” Theresa May “back on her heels”

During a speech at a campaign event, Owen Smith blithely deployed some aggressive imagery about attacking the new Prime Minister. In doing so, he included the tired sexist trope beloved of the right wing press about Theresa May’s shoes – her “kitten heels” have long been a fascination of certain tabloids:

“I’ll be honest with you, it pained me that we didn’t have the strength and the power and the vitality to smash her back on her heels and argue that these our values, these are our people, this is our language that they are seeking to steal.”

When called out on his comments by Sky’s Sophy Ridge, Smith doubled down:

“They love a bit of rhetoric, don’t they? We need a bit more robust rhetoric in our politics, I’m very much in favour of that. You’ll be getting that from me, and I absolutely stand by those comments. It’s rhetoric, of course. I don’t literally want to smash Theresa May back, just to be clear. I’m not advocating violence in any way, shape or form.”

Your mole dug around to see whether this is a common phrase, but all it could find was “set back on one’s heels”, which simply means to be shocked by something. Nothing to do with “smashing”, and anyway, Smith, or somebody on his team, should be aware that invoking May’s “heels” is lazy sexism at best, and calling on your party to “smash” a woman (particularly when you’ve been in trouble for comments about violence against women before – see below) is more than casual misogyny.

Arguing that misogyny in Labour didn’t exist before Jeremy Corbyn

Smith recently told BBC News that the party’s nastier side only appeared nine months ago:

“I think Jeremy should take a little more responsibility for what’s going on in the Labour party. After all, we didn’t have this sort of abuse and intolerance, misogyny, antisemitism in the Labour party before Jeremy Corbyn became the leader.”

Luckily for Smith, he had never experienced misogyny in his party until the moment it became politically useful to him… Or perhaps, not being the prime target, he simply wasn’t paying enough attention before then?

2015

Telling Leanne Wood she was only invited on TV because of her “gender”

Before a general election TV debate for ITV Wales last year, Smith was caught on camera telling the Plaid Cymru leader that she only appeared on Question Time because she is a woman:

Wood: “Have you ever done Question Time, Owen?”

Smith: “Nope, they keep putting you on instead.”

Wood: “I think with party balance there’d be other people they’d be putting on instead of you, wouldn’t they, rather than me?”

Smith: “I think it helps. I think your gender helps as well.”

Wood: “Yeah.”

2010

Comparing the Lib Dems’ experience of coalition to domestic violence

In a tasteless analogy, Smith wrote this for WalesHome in the first year of the Tory/Lib Dem coalition:

“The Lib Dem dowry of a maybe-referendum on AV [the alternative vote system] will seem neither adequate reward nor sufficient defence when the Tories confess their taste for domestic violence on our schools, hospitals and welfare provision.

“Surely, the Liberals will file for divorce as soon as the bruises start to show through the make-up?”

But never fear! He did eventually issue a non-apology for his offensive comments, with the classic use of “if”:

“I apologise if anyone has been offended by the metaphorical reference in this article, which I will now be editing. The reference was in a phrase describing today's Tory and Liberal cuts to domestic spending on schools and welfare as metaphorical ‘domestic violence’.”

***

A one-off sexist gaffe is bad enough in a wannabe future Labour leader. But your mole sniffs a worrying pattern in this list that suggests Smith doesn’t have a huge amount of respect for women, when it comes to political rhetoric at least. And it won’t do him any electoral favours either – it makes his condemnation of Corbynite nastiness ring rather hollow.

I'm a mole, innit.