Rung choice: a workman up a ladder paints traffic lights in 1933. Photo: Getty
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I know it’s silly but I am superstitious: I’m trapped in the Hovel by a ladder in the doorway

Down and Out with Nicholas Lezard. 

I have to go out but as I open the front door I see a ladder propped up bang in front of me. Like many rationalists who revere science and the rule of reason, I am deeply superstitious, all the more so for knowing that it is very silly. It is the very silliness that exercises its grip on me.

Anyway, there it is. It’s bad luck to walk under a ladder and now I am paralysed by wondering if opening a door to find yourself already under a ladder can be said to constitute walking under it; and then by trying to work out whether I am slightly to the left or right of its centre, so that if I sidle out in that direction, I can claim that I have not, strictly speaking, contravened the injunction by not having passed through its vertical axis.

All this is very annoying, as I am cutting it a bit fine for the thing I have to go to and do not have time to go back in, have a cup of tea and hope that the workmen painting the bit above the front door will have finished and gone away by the next time I try to leave.

I muse a lot on fortune, though. Long-term readers of this column with unusually retentive memories may recall that I used to invoke The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius, in which he remarked, while in prison after falling spectacularly out of favour with Theodoric the Great, that life’s all ups and downs, innit, although he put it rather more elegantly than that. We are all at the mercy of fortune’s wheel, he said: consul one moment, awaiting execution and sharing your bread with rats the next.

Because of my great good fortune of having been born in an affluent country at an epoch in history in which there are anaesthetics and medications that relieve asthma (once, gasping without an inhaler in the middle of a spidery house in the middle of nowhere in France, I found an old medical textbook that confidently asserted that asthma attacks were “never fatal”; had I been born even a century earlier, nothing on the broader scale of time, I would have been killed by medical ignorance), there is a certain resistance to the downward motion of the wheel. If you’re born to a poor family in most parts of the globe (and, increasingly, this one), then your lowly position on the wheel isn’t going to change very much.

So I’m not grumbling. But there is a certain contingency to all lives and somehow it has to be acknowledged. I once thanked Providence that I had met a certain person; she said that this sounded a little bit like thanking God. Maybe it is but I tried to wriggle out of this one by saying that it is a neutral way of not taking things for granted and Providence is nothing more than a shorthand for “what has happened” or “the way things have turned out” – although, yes, I did capitalise the word in my head, just in case Providence turns out, despite the lack of unambiguous evidence, to be a matter of the Abrahamic God, or the Fates, or some Nordic crones with a thing for spinning wheels, who have a stake or an agency in what goes on. I like to cover my bets, for the precise reason that one never knows what might happen.

Meanwhile, I know that very bad things indeed can happen, even if you have been born to become an adult in 21st-century Britain. It may not feel like that at the moment, when the worst here merely looks like the rise of Nigel Farage or any of the other clowns who constitute the political scene, but there are terrible things out there – the imagination can become a fire hose spewing out nightmares if you let it run away with itself and even if touching wood and thanking Providence are obviously futile gestures that will have no bearing on anything, they at least represent, like the coin in the chugger’s bucket, a token of consideration, the homage made to the sense that one ought to do something, however small, however feeble the gesture. And I am still aware, as indeed are the National Westminster Bank and all my other creditors, that I am too near the precipice to be able to walk with a carefree swagger through life.

Anyway, after a while, I decide to sidle round the doorway as far to the right as possible, the people in the shop next door thinking that I, always clearly on the brink of madness, have finally sailed off the edge. Breathing a sigh of relief at having outwitted the Norns, or whoever, I get run over by a No 13 bus on Gloucester Place. All right, I don’t actually but it could have happened

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 13 November 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Nigel Farage: The Arsonist

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What happens when a president refuses to step down?

An approaching constitutional crisis has triggered deep political unrest in the Congo.

Franck Diongo reached his party’s headquarters shortly after 10am and stepped out of a Range Rover. Staff and hangers-on rose from plastic chairs to greet the president of the Mouvement Lumumbiste Progressiste (MLP), named after the first elected leader of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Diongo, a compact and powerfully built man, was so tightly wound that his teeth ground as he talked. When agitated, he slammed his palms on the table and his speech became shrill. “We live under a dictatorial regime, so it used the security forces to kill us with live rounds to prevent our demonstration,” he said.

The MLP is part of a coalition of opposition parties known as the Rassemblement. Its aim is to ensure that the Congolese president, Joseph Kabila, who has been president since 2001, leaves office on 19 December, at the end of his second and supposedly final term.

Yet the elections that were meant to take place late last month have not been organised. The government has blamed logistical and financial difficulties, but Kabila’s opponents claim that the president has hamstrung the electoral commission in the hope that he can use his extended mandate to change the rules. “Mr Kabila doesn’t want to quit power,” said Diongo, expressing a widespread belief here.

On 19 September, the Rassemblement planned a march in Kinshasa, the capital, to protest the failure to deliver elections and to remind the president that his departure from office was imminent. But the demonstration never took place. At sunrise, clashes broke out between police and protesters in opposition strongholds. The military was deployed. By the time peace was restored 36 hours later, dozens had died. Kabila’s interior minister, claiming that the government had faced down an insurrection, acknowledged the deaths of 32 people but said that they were killed by criminals during looting.

Subsequent inquiries by the United Nations and Human Rights Watch (HRW) told a different story. They recorded more fatalities – at least 53 and 56, respectively – and said that the state had been responsible for most of the deaths. They claimed that the Congolese authorities had obstructed the investigators, and the true number of casualties was likely higher. According to HRW, security forces had seized and removed bodies “in an apparent effort to hide the evidence”.

The UN found that the lethal response was directed from a “central command centre. . . jointly managed” by officials from the police, army, presidential bodyguard and intelligence agency that “authorised the use of force, including firearms”.

The reports validated claims made by the Rassemblement that it was soldiers who had set fire to several opposition parties’ headquarters on 20 September. Six men were killed when the compound of the UDPS party was attacked.

On 1 November, their funerals took place where they fell. White coffins, each draped in a UDPS flag, were shielded from the midday sun by a gazebo, while mourners found shade inside the charred building. Pierrot Tshibangu lost his younger sibling, Evariste, in the attack. “When we arrived, we found my brother’s body covered in stab marks and bullet wounds,” he recalled.

Once the government had suppressed the demonstration, the attorney general compiled a list of influential figures in the Rassemblement – including Diongo – and forbade them from leaving the capital. Kinshasa’s governor then outlawed all political protest.

It was easy to understand why Diongo felt embattled, even paranoid. Midway through our conversation, his staff apprehended a man loitering in the courtyard. Several minutes of mayhem ensued before he was restrained and confined under suspicion of spying for the government.

Kabila is seldom seen in public and almost never addresses the nation. His long-term intentions are unclear, but the president’s chief diplomatic adviser maintains that his boss has no designs on altering the constitution or securing a third term. He insists that Kabila will happily step down once the country is ready for the polls.

Most refuse to believe such assurances. On 18 October, Kabila’s ruling alliance struck a deal with a different, smaller opposition faction. It allows Kabila to stay in office until the next election, which has been postponed until April 2018. A rickety government of national unity is being put in place but discord is already rife.

Jean-Lucien Bussa of the CDER party helped to negotiate the deal and is now a front-runner for a ministerial portfolio. At a corner table in the national assembly’s restaurant, he told me that the Rassemblement was guilty of “a lack of realism”, and that its fears were misplaced because Kabila won’t be able to prolong his presidency any further.

“On 29 April 2018, the Congolese will go to the ballot box to vote for their next president,” he said. “There is no other alternative for democrats than to find a negotiated solution, and this accord has given us one.”

Diongo was scathing of the pact (he called it “a farce intended to deceive”) and he excommunicated its adherents from his faction. “They are Mr Kabila’s collaborators, who came to divide the opposition,” he told me. “What kind of oppositionist can give Mr Kabila the power to violate the constitution beyond 19 December?”

Diongo is convinced that the president has no intention of walking away from power in April 2018. “Kabila will never organise elections if he cannot change the constitution,” he warned.

Diongo’s anger peaked at the suggestion that it will be an uphill struggle to dislodge a head of state who has control of the security forces. “What you need to consider,” he said, “is that no army can defy a people determined to take control of their destiny . . . The Congolese people will have the last word!”

A recent poll suggested that the president would win less than 8 per cent of the vote if an election were held this year. One can only assume that Kabila is hoping that the population will have no say at all.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage