Booze run: shoppers making the most of whisky and gin price cuts at a London off-licence, 1965. Photo: Getty
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Nicholas Lezard: It’s one thing to have a reputation, another to have one that’s so undeserved

All over London, men who should know better are going on the lash and then claiming that they’d been with me, simply in order to remove all notions of their own agency or responsibility.

A month or so, or more, ago – I would rather not be precise – someone, I had better not say who, came round to the Hovel to enjoy a glass or two of wine.

“I can’t stay too long,” he said. Why, I asked. “Well,” he said, “I went out a couple of weeks ago or so and got absolutely smashed. I was so pissed I even fell over trying to get through the front door. Badly enough to have to use a makeshift walking stick for the next couple of days.”

I tut-tutted, saying that it was hardly the behaviour expected of a devoted husband and father. This world may be a vale of tears, and we should be allowed to mitigate the pain in any way at our disposal, but I disapprove of excessive drunkenness, or behaviour that vexes the reasonable; and in fact I can tell you exactly the last time I got pickled in such a way as to be noticeable to the casual observer: it was on 16 May, when I met up with the old British Telecom gang, and if that is not an excuse to pluck the gowans fine and hear the chimes of midnight, then I don’t know what is. And all I did then was act a bit tiddly and goggle in temulent indecision over the display at the snack bar on the platform of Sloane Square Tube station.

Anyway, to return to my friend. I also wondered (for there was something in the way he had imparted this information that had rung a faint alarm bell) what this had to do with me.

“Surely,” I said, “your wife had something to say to you the morning after, if not that night?”

“No, it was fine,” he said. “I’d told her I was going out with you.”

The emphasis, one of those slight but subtle emphases that can so much change the meaning of a line of poetry, was, in case you were wondering, on the word “you”. Not – though I grant it would have made the beginning of a much funnier and more complex anecdote – on the word “out”.

“I beg your pardon?”

“Well, she was expecting the worst,” he said. “Pretty much anything short of a call from a police station at 3am was going to be acceptable.”

Hmm. It is one thing to have a reputation; it is another to have one that is undeserved. And it is a more complex thing to have a reputation that is undeserved and yet that one would be hard-pressed to refute should this kind of thing ever come up in a court of law. After all, is not this very column in part predicated on the idea that not only do I, too, behave in a fashion that is contrary to prevailing medical advice, but boast about it without apology or excuse?

But it’s not like that, not really. The censorious will always have the advantage over the do-what-thou-wilt. For example: everyone, even the dictionary, thinks “Epicurean” means “self-indulgent”, or something along those lines, a calumny that has been around ever since the pious needed a stick with which to beat the atheist Epicurus, whose actual idea of a blowout was a plate of olives and a few pieces of cheese. It was when he answered the question “Do the gods listen to our prayers?” with the words, “I don’t know, I’ve got more important things to think about,” that alarm bells started ringing and rumours began to be concocted; rumours still going strong over a millennium later.

As it happens, this evening I am meeting for dinner a man who has been on the wagon for nearly 20 years; and yet, such was his reputation, that it is only in the past five that people have begun to let the notion sink in that he isn’t sinking a bottle of whisky every afternoon or, in John Peel’s memorable phrase, rubbing heroin into the roots of his hair.

It’s so much easier to rely on hearsay rather than get yourself up to speed with the facts, isn’t it? The other day someone on The Archers had a Martini (an almost unbelievable event in its own right) and the phrase “shaken not stirred” was trotted out, perpetuating the entirely erroneous notion that this is how the cocktail should be prepared.

Meanwhile, all over London, men who should know better are going on the lash and then claiming that they’d been with me, simply in order to remove all notions of their own agency or responsibility.

Look, I like the idea that people think of me as a fun person whose personality is so strong that no one is able to put a hand over their glass when I’m pouring. But I really do wish you’d stop doing this, lads. One day, someone’s going to get hurt. 

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 08 October 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Grayson Perry guest edit

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Richmond is a wake-up call for Labour's Brexit strategy

No one made Labour stand in Richmond Park. 

Oh, Labour Party. There was a way through.

No one made you stand in Richmond Park. You could have "struck a blow against the government", you could have shared the Lib Dem success. Instead, you lost both your dignity and your deposit. And to cap it all (Christian Wolmar, take a bow) you self-nominated for a Nobel Prize for Mansplaining.

It’s like the party strategist is locked in the bowels of HQ, endlessly looping in reverse Olivia Newton John’s "Making a Good Thing Better".

And no one can think that today marks the end of the party’s problems on Brexit.

But the thing is: there’s no need to Labour on. You can fix it.

Set the government some tests. Table some amendments: “The government shall negotiate having regard to…”

  • What would be good for our economy (boost investment, trade and jobs).
  • What would enhance fairness (help individuals and communities who have missed out over the last decades).
  • What would deliver sovereignty (magnify our democratic control over our destiny).
  • What would improve finances (what Brexit makes us better off, individually and collectively). 

And say that, if the government does not meet those tests, the Labour party will not support the Article 50 deal. You’ll take some pain today – but no matter, the general election is not for years. And if the tests are well crafted they will be easy to defend.

Then wait for the negotiations to conclude. If in 2019, Boris Johnson returns bearing cake for all, if the tests are achieved, Labour will, and rightly, support the government’s Brexit deal. There will be no second referendum. And MPs in Leave voting constituencies will bear no Brexit penalty at the polls.

But if he returns with thin gruel? If the economy has tanked, if inflation is rising and living standards have slumped, and the deficit has ballooned – what then? The only winners will be door manufacturers. Across the country they will be hard at work replacing those kicked down at constituency offices by voters demanding a fix. Labour will be joined in rejecting the deal from all across the floor: Labour will have shown the way.

Because the party reads the electorate today as wanting Brexit, it concludes it must deliver it. But, even for those who think a politician’s job is to channel the electorate, this thinking discloses an error in logic. The task is not to read the political dynamic of today. It is to position itself for the dynamic when it matters - at the next general election

And by setting some economic tests for a good Brexit, Labour can buy an option on that for free.

An earlier version of this argument appeared on Jolyon Maugham's blog Waiting For Tax.

Jolyon Maugham is a barrister who advised Ed Miliband on tax policy. He blogs at Waiting for Tax, and writes for the NS on tax and legal issues.