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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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The 11 things we know after the Brexit plan debate

Labour may just have fallen into a trap. 

On Wednesday, both Labour and Tory MPs filed out of the Commons together to back a motion calling on the Prime Minister to commit to publish the government’s Brexit plan before Article 50 is triggered in March 2017. 

The motion was proposed by Labour, but the government agreed to back it after inserting its own amendment calling on MPs to “respect the wishes of the United Kingdom” and adhere to the original timetable. 

With questions on everything from the customs union to the Northern Irish border, it is clear that the Brexit minister David Davis will have a busy Christmas. Meanwhile, his declared intention to stay schtum about the meat of Brexit negotiations for now means the nation has been hanging off every titbit of news, including a snapped memo reading “have cake and eat it”. 

So, with confusion abounding, here is what we know from the Brexit plan debate: 

1. The government will set out a Brexit plan before triggering Article 50

The Brexit minister David Davis said that Parliament will get to hear the government’s “strategic plans” ahead of triggering Article 50, but that this will not include anything that will “jeopardise our negotiating position”. 

While this is something of a victory for the Remain MPs and the Opposition, the devil is in the detail. For example, this could still mean anything from a white paper to a brief description released days before the March deadline.

2. Parliament will get a say on converting EU law into UK law

Davis repeated that the Great Repeal Bill, which scraps the European Communities Act 1972, will be presented to the Commons during the two-year period following Article 50.

He said: “After that there will be a series of consequential legislative measures, some primary, some secondary, and on every measure the House will have a vote and say.”

In other words, MPs will get to debate how existing EU law is converted to UK law. But, crucially, that isn’t the same as getting to debate the trade negotiations. And the crucial trade-off between access to the single market versus freedom of movement is likely to be decided there. 

3. Parliament is almost sure to get a final vote on the Brexit deal

The European Parliament is expected to vote on the final Brexit deal, which means the government accepts it also needs parliamentary approval. Davis said: “It is inconceivable to me that if the European Parliament has a vote, this House does not.”

Davis also pledged to keep MPs as well-informed as MEPs will be.

However, as shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer pointed out to The New Statesman, this could still leave MPs facing the choice of passing a Brexit deal they disagree with or plunging into a post-EU abyss. 

4. The government still plans to trigger Article 50 in March

With German and French elections planned for 2017, Labour MP Geraint Davies asked if there was any point triggering Article 50 before the autumn. 

But Davis said there were 15 elections scheduled during the negotiation process, so such kind of delay was “simply not possible”. 

5. Themed debates are a clue to Brexit priorities

One way to get a measure of the government’s priorities is the themed debates it is holding on various areas covered by EU law, including two already held on workers’ rights and transport.  

Davis mentioned themed debates as a key way his department would be held to account. 

It's not exactly disclosure, but it is one step better than relying on a camera man papping advisers as they walk into No.10 with their notes on show. 

6. The immigration policy is likely to focus on unskilled migrants

At the Tory party conference, Theresa May hinted at a draconian immigration policy that had little time for “citizens of the world”, while Davis said the “clear message” from the Brexit vote was “control immigration”.

He struck a softer tone in the debate, saying: “Free movement of people cannot continue as it is now, but this will not mean pulling up the drawbridge.”

The government would try to win “the global battle for talent”, he added. If the government intends to stick to its migration target and, as this suggests, will keep the criteria for skilled immigrants flexible, the main target for a clampdown is clearly unskilled labour.  

7. The government is still trying to stay in the customs union

Pressed about the customs union by Anna Soubry, the outspoken Tory backbencher, Davis said the government is looking at “several options”. This includes Norway, which is in the single market but not the customs union, and Switzerland, which is in neither but has a customs agreement. 

(For what it's worth, the EU describes this as "a series of bilateral agreements where Switzerland has agreed to take on certain aspects of EU legislation in exchange for accessing the EU's single market". It also notes that Swiss exports to the EU are focused on a few sectors, like chemicals, machinery and, yes, watches.)

8. The government wants the status quo on security

Davis said that on security and law enforcement “our aim is to preserve the current relationship as best we can”. 

He said there is a “clear mutual interest in continued co-operation” and signalled a willingness for the UK to pitch in to ensure Europe is secure across borders. 

One of the big tests for this commitment will be if the government opts into Europol legislation which comes into force next year.

9. The Chancellor is wooing industries

Robin Walker, the under-secretary for Brexit, said Philip Hammond and Brexit ministers were meeting organisations in the City, and had also met representatives from the aerospace, energy, farming, chemicals, car manufacturing and tourism industries. 

However, Labour has already attacked the government for playing favourites with its secretive Nissan deal. Brexit ministers have a fine line to walk between diplomacy and what looks like a bribe. 

10. Devolved administrations are causing trouble

A meeting with leaders of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland ended badly, with the First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon publicly declaring it “deeply frustrating”. The Scottish government has since ramped up its attempts to block Brexit in the courts. 

Walker took a more conciliatory tone, saying that the PM was “committed to full engagement with the devolved administrations” and said he undertook the task of “listening to the concerns” of their representatives. 

11. Remain MPs may have just voted for a trap

Those MPs backing Remain were divided on whether to back the debate with the government’s amendment, with the Green co-leader Caroline Lucas calling it “the Tories’ trap”.

She argued that it meant signing up to invoking Article 50 by March, and imposing a “tight timetable” and “arbitrary deadline”, all for a vaguely-worded Brexit plan. In the end, Lucas was one of the Remainers who voted against the motion, along with the SNP. 

George agrees – you can read his analysis of the Brexit trap here

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.