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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There's nothing Luddite about banning zero-hours contracts

The TUC general secretary responds to the Taylor Review. 

Unions have been criticised over the past week for our lukewarm response to the Taylor Review. According to the report’s author we were wrong to expect “quick fixes”, when “gradual change” is the order of the day. “Why aren’t you celebrating the new ‘flexibility’ the gig economy has unleashed?” others have complained.

Our response to these arguments is clear. Unions are not Luddites, and we recognise that the world of work is changing. But to understand these changes, we need to recognise that we’ve seen shifts in the balance of power in the workplace that go well beyond the replacement of a paper schedule with an app.

Years of attacks on trade unions have reduced workers’ bargaining power. This is key to understanding today’s world of work. Economic theory says that the near full employment rates should enable workers to ask for higher pay – but we’re still in the middle of the longest pay squeeze for 150 years.

And while fears of mass unemployment didn’t materialise after the economic crisis, we saw working people increasingly forced to accept jobs with less security, be it zero-hours contracts, agency work, or low-paid self-employment.

The key test for us is not whether new laws respond to new technology. It’s whether they harness it to make the world of work better, and give working people the confidence they need to negotiate better rights.

Don’t get me wrong. Matthew Taylor’s review is not without merit. We support his call for the abolishment of the Swedish Derogation – a loophole that has allowed employers to get away with paying agency workers less, even when they are doing the same job as their permanent colleagues.

Guaranteeing all workers the right to sick pay would make a real difference, as would asking employers to pay a higher rate for non-contracted hours. Payment for when shifts are cancelled at the last minute, as is now increasingly the case in the United States, was a key ask in our submission to the review.

But where the report falls short is not taking power seriously. 

The proposed new "dependent contractor status" carries real risks of downgrading people’s ability to receive a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. Here new technology isn’t creating new risks – it’s exacerbating old ones that we have fought to eradicate.

It’s no surprise that we are nervous about the return of "piece rates" or payment for tasks completed, rather than hours worked. Our experience of these has been in sectors like contract cleaning and hotels, where they’re used to set unreasonable targets, and drive down pay. Forgive us for being sceptical about Uber’s record of following the letter of the law.

Taylor’s proposals on zero-hours contracts also miss the point. Those on zero hours contracts – working in low paid sectors like hospitality, caring, and retail - are dependent on their boss for the hours they need to pay their bills. A "right to request" guaranteed hours from an exploitative boss is no right at all for many workers. Those in insecure jobs are in constant fear of having their hours cut if they speak up at work. Will the "right to request" really change this?

Tilting the balance of power back towards workers is what the trade union movement exists for. But it’s also vital to delivering the better productivity and growth Britain so sorely needs.

There is plenty of evidence from across the UK and the wider world that workplaces with good terms and conditions, pay and worker voice are more productive. That’s why the OECD (hardly a left-wing mouth piece) has called for a new debate about how collective bargaining can deliver more equality, more inclusion and better jobs all round.

We know as a union movement that we have to up our game. And part of that thinking must include how trade unions can take advantage of new technologies to organise workers.

We are ready for this challenge. Our role isn’t to stop changes in technology. It’s to make sure technology is used to make working people’s lives better, and to make sure any gains are fairly shared.

Frances O'Grady is the General Secretary of the TUC.