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

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Who will win in Copeland? The Labour heartland hangs in the balance

The knife-edge by-election could end 82 years of Labour rule on the West Cumbrian coast.

Fine, relentless drizzle shrouds Whitehaven, a harbour town exposed on the outer edge of Copeland, West Cumbria. It is the most populous part of the coastal north-western constituency, which takes in everything from this old fishing port to Sellafield nuclear power station to England’s tallest mountain Scafell Pike. Sprawling and remote, it protrudes from the heart of the Lake District out into the Irish Sea.

Billy, a 72-year-old Whitehaven resident, is out for a morning walk along the marina with two friends, his woolly-hatted head held high against the whipping rain. He worked down the pit at the Haig Colliery for 27 years until it closed, and now works at Sellafield on contract, where he’s been since the age of 42.

“Whatever happens, a change has got to happen,” he says, hands stuffed into the pockets of his thick fleece. “If I do vote, the Bootle lass talks well for the Tories. They’re the favourites. If me mam heard me saying this now, she’d have battered us!” he laughs. “We were a big Labour family. But their vote has gone. Jeremy Corbyn – what is he?”

The Conservatives have their sights on traditional Labour voters like Billy, who have been returning Labour MPs for 82 years, to make the first government gain in a by-election since 1982.

Copeland has become increasingly marginal, held with just 2,564 votes by former frontbencher Jamie Reed, who resigned from Parliament last December to take a job at the nuclear plant. He triggered a by-election now regarded by all sides as too close to call. “I wouldn’t put a penny on it,” is how one local activist sums up the mood.

There are 10,000 people employed at the Sellafield site, and 21,000 jobs are promised for nearby Moorside – a project to build Europe’s largest nuclear power station now thrown into doubt, with Japanese company Toshiba likely to pull out.

Tories believe Jeremy Corbyn’s stance on nuclear power (he limply conceded it could be part of the “energy mix” recently, but his long prevarication betrayed his scepticism) and opposition to Trident, which is hosted in the neighbouring constituency of Barrow-in-Furness, could put off local employees who usually stick to Labour.

But it’s not that simple. The constituency may rely on nuclear for jobs, but I found a notable lack of affection for the industry. While most see the employment benefits, there is less enthusiasm for Sellafield being part of their home’s identity – particularly in Whitehaven, which houses the majority of employees in the constituency. Also, unions representing Sellafield workers have been in a dispute for months with ministers over pension cut plans.

“I worked at Sellafield for 30 years, and I’m against it,” growls Fred, Billy’s friend, a retiree of the same age who also used to work at the colliery. “Can you see nuclear power as safer than coal?” he asks, wild wiry eyebrows raised. “I’m a pit man; there was just nowhere else to work [when the colliery closed]. The pension scheme used to be second-to-none, now they’re trying to cut it, changing the terms.”

Derek Bone, a 51-year-old who has been a storeman at the plant for 15 years, is equally unconvinced. I meet him walking his dog along the seafront. “This county, Cumbria, Copeland, has always been a nuclear area – whether we like it or don’t,” he says, over the impatient barks of his Yorkshire terrier Milo. “But people say it’s only to do with Copeland. It ain’t. It employs a lot of people in the UK, outside the county – then they’re spending the money back where they’re from, not here.”

Such views might be just enough of a buffer against the damage caused by Corbyn’s nuclear reluctance. But the problem for Labour is that neither Fred nor Derek are particularly bothered about the result. While awareness of the by-election is high, many tell me that they won’t be voting this time. “Jeremy Corbyn says he’s against it [nuclear], now he’s not, and he could change his mind – I don’t believe any of them,” says Malcolm Campbell, a 55-year-old lorry driver who is part of the nuclear supply chain.

Also worrying for Labour is the deprivation in Copeland. Everyone I speak to complains about poor infrastructure, shoddy roads, derelict buildings, and lack of investment. This could punish the party that has been in power locally for so long.

The Tory candidate Trudy Harrison, who grew up in the coastal village of Seascale and now lives in Bootle, at the southern end of the constituency, claims local Labour rule has been ineffective. “We’re isolated, we’re remote, we’ve been forgotten and ignored by Labour for far too long,” she says.

I meet her in the town of Millom, at the southern tip of the constituency – the opposite end to Whitehaven. It centres on a small market square dominated by a smart 19th-century town hall with a mint-green domed clock tower. This is good Tory door-knocking territory; Millom has a Conservative-led town council.

While Harrison’s Labour opponents are relying on their legacy vote to turn out, Harrison is hoping that the same people think it’s time for a change, and can be combined with the existing Tory vote in places like Millom. “After 82 years of Labour rule, this is a huge ask,” she admits.

Another challenge for Harrison is the threat to services at Whitehaven’s West Cumberland Hospital. It has been proposed for a downgrade, which would mean those seeking urgent care – including children, stroke sufferers, and those in need of major trauma treatment and maternity care beyond midwifery – would have to travel the 40-mile journey to Carlisle on the notoriously bad A595 road.

Labour is blaming this on Conservative cuts to health spending, and indeed, Theresa May dodged calls to rescue the hospital in her campaign visit last week. “The Lady’s Not For Talking,” was one local paper front page. It also helps that Labour’s candidate, Gillian Troughton, is a St John Ambulance driver, who has driven the dangerous journey on a blue light.

“Seeing the health service having services taken away in the name of centralisation and saving money is just heart-breaking,” she tells me. “People are genuinely frightened . . . If we have a Tory MP, that essentially gives them the green light to say ‘this is OK’.”

But Harrison believes she would be best-placed to reverse the hospital downgrade. “[I] will have the ear of government,” she insists. “I stand the very best chance of making sure we save those essential services.”

Voters are concerned about the hospital, but divided on the idea that a Tory MP would have more power to save it.

“What the Conservatives are doing with the hospitals is disgusting,” a 44-year-old carer from Copeland’s second most-populated town of Egremont tells me. Her partner, Shaun Grant, who works as a labourer, agrees. “You have to travel to Carlisle – it could take one hour 40 minutes; the road is unpredictable.” They will both vote Labour.

Ken, a Conservative voter, counters: “People will lose their lives over it – we need someone in the circle, who can influence the government, to change it. I think the government would reward us for voting Tory.”

Fog engulfs the jagged coastline and rolling hills of Copeland as the sun begins to set on Sunday evening. But for most voters and campaigners here, the dense grey horizon is far clearer than what the result will be after going to the polls on Thursday.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.