Who's afraid? The wolves are gathering, says Nick Lezard. Photo: Ronnie Macdonald/Flickr
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An email makes me cry. I pull myself together... then get another from my accountant

Down and Out with Nicholas Lezard.

Three emails, hard on each other’s heels. (I know this is the second week in a row I have used recent emails as the kick-off for a column but you know what? They’re among the few human interactions I have these days.)

Email No 1 asks me to accept a 20 per cent pay cut for something. No 2 is from a TV company, which is making a programme on a subject the producers’ would rather I was quiet about pro tem. They want to bend my ear, for reasons that do not entirely elude me. No 3 is from another organisation, which is asking me to be on a panel for something related to the London Book Fair. It can pay my travel expenses but nothing else.

The first email involves me having a little bit of a panic and a cry, followed by a period of pulling myself together and replying – mindful that a 100 per cent pay cut is never going to be entirely out of the question and too outraged a tone might be catastrophically counterproductive – that a 10 per cent pay cut might be more acceptable at this end.

Email No 2 is easier to deal with, especially after email No 1. I tell them that in my experience, being interviewed by a TV company involves having people pinch my ideas for nothing – unless you count an undistinguished cup of coffee something – and then not being on the telly. I take some satisfaction from writing this. (When in doubt, ask yourself: what would Beckett do? And as far as I know, he never appeared on telly.)

I feel a bit worse about the London Book Fair gig but by this time my dander is up and I’m full of piss and vinegar. Even though the person chairing the panel is someone for whom I not only have a lot of professional respect but whose beauty maddens me like wine, I reply curtly that I do not work for free.

Then another email. It is from my accountants. As you might have suspected, for I have hinted at this for some time, I hide from my accountants. To get charged a substantial three-figure sum to be told that I am f***ed goes against what I consider to be the life well lived. And although they did go through my books some years ago and tell me that they had never seen someone so honest quite so f***ed – and went through such rudimentary books as I had at a level of detail that means I would happily pay them to have done so, for they deserve to be paid, if I were not f***ed – I am f***ed, so I can’t quite pay them right at this moment.

But anyway, there they are in my in-box and very politely so, considering the circumstances, if I may add. One detail does not escape me and that is the HMRC officers’ take on all this, which my accountants have thoughtfully passed on. They, too, have been patient but it is along the lines of “the wheels of justice grinding slow but fine”. And if I thought I was f***ed at the end of the first paragraph of my accountants’ email, that was nothing.

When, in the relevant paragraph, I see the penalties, I go into a kind of fugue state, for they are amazing. But not unjustifiable, on their part. I can see their point of view.

Maybe if I wasn’t so f***ed, I would hire an accountant to bring the figure down a bit but at the moment what I really need is the testimony of a mental health panel and I do not have the time or non-f***ed-upness to sort that kind of thing out, which is itself a kind of testimony. After all, if my friend Professor BetterNotNameHimOrHer can, after years of trying to persuade the relevant people that HeOrShe has attention deficit disorder, somehow manage to get a teaching post at a very prestigious university, why can’t I, with my piles of books, my inability even to ask for money I am even owed and my generally disastrous circumstances, persuade them of the same thing?

The answer to email No 1 comes back. They will accept my terms, which comes as a pleasant surprise. Email No 2 is answered with an assurance that I will be paid a small, three-figure sum for my time. This, too, is acceptable. Email No 3 has not, at the time of writing, received an answer but this is understandable, for I had been very curt, what with one thing and another, and had not made a jokey comment about how the chairperson’s beauty maddened me like wine, and so on.

But the wolves are gathering around the door and, in true bohemian style, my tiny hands are frozen. I was inoculated against TB at school but it’ll be something else that gets me, I warrant.

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 09 December 2014 issue of the New Statesman, How Isis hijacked the revolution

Photo: Getty
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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.