Scorsese: doesn't rhyme with "foresees". Photo: Getty
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“Don’t say anything nasty,” my son pleads, as we head for a university open day

A couple of years ago, I’d gone with his big sister to another university, where a lecturer had mispronounced one of the most prominent authorities in her discipline and I had got into a fight with him.

To Manchester, with the eldest boy, for the open day at the university. Such English roots as I have are from the west of the Pennines; for that reason, I had asked his mother to take him to Leeds for its open day. Besides, that was where she had gone, so she was better placed to make comments along the lines of: “This used to be really nice,” “There used to be a great pub here but I see they’ve pulled it down,” “I was sick here once,” and so on.

My memories of Manchester were patchy and dim. The last time I had been there was years and years ago, taking a train up with Mr Self so that we could drop in on Mark Radcliffe’s BBC Radio 1 programme, on which Will had a slot talking about books. “Welcome to Manchester,” I muttered, as we left the station. “Twinned with Mordor.” For it was dark and drizzly and cold and we were at the end of our tethers: the man sitting next to us had spent two hours swearing at an Action Man-sized doll of Michael Schumacher; indeed, he’d encouraged us to join in. (This sounds unlikely but is quite true; Will gave me a “Sorry, this kind of thing always happens to me” look.)

Manchester was much nicer this time round. For one thing it was, if not exactly sunny, at least unseasonably warm and we’d had a quiet journey up, without anyone abusing homunculi in the shape of German Formula One racing drivers. But because of a misreading of the rudimentary map handed out by the university, we walked the wrong way down Fairfield Street for a few minutes and it didn’t take us long before we were in one of those urban landscapes that seem beyond redemption. I hate making stupid, basic mistakes like this – I hate it only a little bit less when a child of mine reads the map on his phone better than I read my paper one – so we turned back, almost running into, as we did so, a couple of bedraggled, near-toothless women in conversation. Something about their attire seemed wrong and as we passed them I realised, from the embonpoint of the one and the short skirt/boots combo of the other, as well as the lipstick that served only to bring the barrenness of their surrounding features into sharp relief, that these were prostitutes. It was about noon.

I didn’t fancy explaining to the boy, should he have asked, what these ancient women were doing got up like that and, while he has spent much of his young life playing the Grand Theft Auto games, in which I gather prostitutes feature more than they do in real life, I doubt any of them look like that. But everyone was civil, the encounter passed without incident and we proceeded along to the campus.

The boy had anxieties of his own, I knew that. A couple of years ago, I’d gone with his big sister to — University, where a lecturer had mispronounced one of the most prominent authorities in her discipline and I had got into a fight with him; the boy wanted no repetition of anything like that. But he wants to study and make films and I was quietly confident that no film-maker was ever going to – to give a comparable solecism – pronounce Scorsese as if it rhymed with “foresees”.

“Also,” said the boy, “don’t say anything nasty about Manchester.”

As if – even if the author of a horrible letter about me last week, in this very magazine, came from the city. I pointed out the grandiosity and permanence of the Victorian civic architecture, although, for instance, the Fire Station on Whitworth Street had long since been separated from its original purpose. Both of us marvelled at the way that it had black cabs and I said that Manchester had produced an inordinate number of great bands and that if the boy did not form or play in one for at least a couple of weeks while
he was here, I’d disown him.

Later, after I had had a pleasant nap in the lecture theatre while the relevant prof introduced us to the outlines of the film course, we sat eating our lunch on the campus green.

The boy, who was still discombobulated to think that you could have black taxis and double-decker buses and yet be in a city that was not London, reflected that he had hardly been to any other city in Britain; whenever he left London, it was either to go abroad or to go to the country.

This struck me as a very true and useful observation and one that should make Londoners a little bit abashed and a little less cocky.

“Leeds was really nice, though,” he added. To which I had nothing to say at all. 

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 29 October 2014 issue of the New Statesman, British jihadis fighting with Isis

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Everyone's forgotten the one issue that united the Labour party

There was a time when Ed Miliband spoke at Momentum rallies.

To label the row over the EU at Thursday’s Labour leadership hustings "fireworks" would be to endow it with more beauty than it deserves. Owen Smith’s dogged condemnation of John McDonnell’s absence from a Remain rally – only for Corbyn to point out that his absence was for medical reasons – ought to go down as a cringing new low point in the campaign. 

Not so long ago, we were all friends. In the course of the EU referendum, almost all of the protagonists in the current debacle spoke alongside each other and praised one another’s efforts. At a local level, party activists of all stripes joined forces. Two days before polling day, Momentum activists helped organise an impromptu rally. Ed Miliband was the headline speaker, and was cheered on. 

If you take the simple version of the debate, Labour’s schism on the EU appears as an aberration of the usual dynamics of left and right in the party. Labour's left is supposedly cheering a position which avoids advocating what it believes in (Remain), because it would lose votes. Meanwhile, the right claims to be dying in a ditch for its principles - no matter what the consequences for Labour’s support in Leave-voting heartlands.

Smith wants to oppose Brexit, even after the vote, on the basis of using every available procedural mechanism. He would whip MPs against the invocation of Article 50, refuse to implement it in government, and run on a manifesto of staying in the EU. For the die-hard Europhiles on the left – and I count myself among these, having run the Another Europe is Possible campaign during the referendum – there ought to be no contest as to who to support. On a result that is so damaging to people’s lives and so rooted in prejudice, how could we ever accept that there is such a thing as a "final word"? 

And yet, on the basic principles that lie behind a progressive version of EU membership, such as freedom of movement, Smith seems to contradict himself. Right at the outset of the Labour leadership, Smith took to Newsnight to express his view – typical of many politicians moulded in the era of New Labour – that Labour needed to “listen” to the views Leave voters by simply adopting them, regardless of whether or not they were right. There were, he said, “too many” immigrants in some parts of the country. 

Unlike Smith, Corbyn has not made his post-Brexit policy a headline feature of the campaign, and it is less widely understood. But it is clear, via the five "red lines" outlined by John McDonnell at the end of June:

  1. full access to the single market
  2. membership of the European investment bank
  3. access to trading rights for financial services sector
  4. full residency rights for all EU nationals in the UK and all UK nationals in the EU, and
  5. the enshrinement of EU protections for workers. 

Without these five conditions being met, Labour would presumably not support the invocation of Article 50. So if, as seems likely, a Conservative government would never meet these five conditions, would there be any real difference in how a Corbyn leadership would handle the situation? 

The fight over the legacy of the referendum is theatrical at times. The mutual mistrust last week played out on the stage in front of a mass televised audience. Some Corbyn supporters jeered Smith as he made the case for another referendum. Smith accused Corbyn of not even voting for Remain, and wouldn’t let it go. But, deep down, the division is really about a difference of emphasis. 

It speaks to a deeper truth about the future of Britain in Europe. During the referendum, the establishment case for Remain floundered because it refused to make the case that unemployment and declining public services were the result of austerity, not immigrants. Being spearheaded by Conservatives, it couldn’t. It fell to the left to offer the ideological counter attack that was needed – and we failed to reach enough people. 

As a result, what we got was a popular mandate for petty racism and a potentially long-term shift to the right in British politics, endangering a whole raft of workplace and legal protections along the way. Now that it has happened, anyone who really hopes to overcome either Brexit, or the meaning of Brexit, has to address the core attitudes and debates at their root. Then as now, it is only clear left-wing ideas – free from any attempt to triangulate towards anti-migrant sentiment– that can have any hope of success. 

The real dividing lines in Labour are not about the EU. If they were, the Eurosceptic Frank Field would not be backing Smith. For all that it may be convenient to deny it, Europe was once, briefly, the issue that united the Labour Party. One day, the issues at stake in the referendum may do so again – but only if Labour consolidates itself around a strategy for convincing people of ideas, rather than simply reaching for procedural levers.