Pub taps. Photo: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images
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Things are looking up: there’s a little cash in my pocket and it’s quiz night at the Uxbridge Arms

Heady pints, asteroid fights and the finest living example of the London landlady.

To the Uxbridge Arms for the quiz. It has been a quiet Sunday and, for the first time in what seems like weeks, I have felt a desire for human company on licensed premises rather than a period of self-medication while watching my Facebook friends have more amusing lives than me. (I have had, by my standards, a most pleasant weekend; as pleasant a weekend as one can have without the offspring in it.)

I also have, for what seems like the first time in ages, enough cash in my pocket to make an evening in the pub not a financial catastrophe. I am early but that’s fine, because I feel like a pint while reading the TLS, which I am pleased to note has a review of John Lydon’s latest autobiography in it and has a stirring picture of him goggling spikily at the camera from his first heyday. I have an enormous amount of time for the man, and when Kate Mossman interviewed him for this magazine I expressed outraged envy. Why couldn’t I have interviewed him?

As it is, although the pub is quiet and I have slapped my TLS down on the counter in a marked “I’m going to read this” fashion, I don’t get the chance to read it. For a start, there is Richard, on my left, to whom it is always a pleasure to chat, who must be said hello to; and there is Tom the Hat, on my right, about whom exactly the same may be said.

Then there is Linda. Long-term readers of this column may remember her. She is the guvnor of the Ux (not to be confused with the guvnor of my local; I wonder what’s happened to him?) and may be considered the finest living example of the London pub landlady; that is, in P G Wodehouse’s words, one upon whom it is unsafe to try any oompus-boompus. Grown men cower before her and when she says, “Jump!” they say, “How high, Linda?”

A smart-looking man in his fifties comes in and asks for a pint of cider. He specifies what kind of glass he’d like: not one of the new tall ones but the traditional cone-section glass. Poor man, I think to myself, and Linda duly tells him he is wrong, that the new glass keeps the head and bubbles lasting longer. “I don’t want the head or the . . .” he starts, but it is too late. There is no use protesting, for Linda Has Spoken.

There is also Debs, behind the bar, and she must also be said hello to – for she is not only surpassing fair but is also possessed of a gob and presence second only to Linda’s. You don’t want to get on the wrong side of her, either.

There is a new face behind the bar, too: a young woman called, I learn, Yoona. (If that’s how it’s spelled. It’s certainly pronounced like that.)

“Nick, tell Yoona about the pub quiz.”

I think for a few seconds.

“It’s where a bunch of horrible old men and some women come to shout at each other for an hour or so,” I say. “It’s an institution.” (Cue predictable widespread drollery based around the word “institution”.)

And they all trickle in as we get nearer to 6.30pm. Grumpy Ed; Mary (real name Michael, but he knows all about musicals, despite being heterosexual, and tonight he’s holding his locks in place with a scrunchy); Nickie (“Hello, Oona.” “It’s Yoona.” “I can’t say that. I’m calling you ‘Oona’.”); my old friend Toby . . .

How long, I had wondered earlier at the bar, had this institution been around?

At least 15 years, was the consensus. Norman, who is setting the quiz this week, by the way, is not horrible. But he is old: about 80. He won’t mind me saying that, for, in the picture round, one of the portraits – sepia-aged, which I tentatively identify as that of Evelyn Waugh – turns out to be of Norman himself. When he reveals this in the answers, he gets a round of applause. Which is just as well, because everyone had been getting very cross indeed about the difference between asteroids, meteors and meteorites and this was before anyone raised the issue of whether we actually know what caused the Tunguska event in the first place. (Malfunctioning warp core, I think.)

Toby and I, playing together, are one point in the lead at half-time. By the end of the quiz, though, we have slipped to a miserable third place. My money has run out and I am bloated by beer, but not enough to forget that I have squandered such scant intellectual capital as I may have had. “We shall not speak of this again,” I say to Toby, as I stagger out of the pub eventually, wondering if I’ll make it home without needing a pee.

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 30 January 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Class Ceiling

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Murder by numbers: the legacy of the Grenfell Tower fire

It is difficult to refute the reality of suffering when the death toll is still being reckoned.

How do we measure human malice? Sometimes it’s all too easy. This summer, British cities are struggling through the aftermath of successive terrorist attacks and hate crimes. The Manchester bombing. The Westminster Bridge murders. The London Bridge atrocity. The attack on people outside the Finsbury Park Mosque in north London and on other mosques. The unidentified young men who are still at large in the capital after spraying acid in the faces of passers-by, mutilating them.

In Britain, we are commendably resilient about these things. Returning to London after some time away, I found my spirits lifted by an issue of the London Evening Standard magazine that celebrated the ordinary people who stepped in to help after these atrocities. The paramedics who worked through the night. The Romanian chef who offered shelter in his bakery. The football fan who took on the London Bridge terrorists, screaming, “Fuck you, I’m Millwall!” The student housing co-ordinator who rushed to organise board for the victims of the inferno at the Grenfell Tower and their families.

Wait. Hold on a second. One of these things is not like the others. The Grenfell Tower disaster, in which at least 80 people died, was not a terrorist or malicious attack. It was the result of years of callous council decisions and underinvestment in social housing. On 14 June, entire families burned alive in their homes partly because, it is alleged, the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea would not pay the extra £5,000 or so for fire-resistant cladding. Nor could it find the cash, despite a budget surplus, to instal proper sprinkler systems on the rotting interior of the building.

Kensington and Chelsea is a Tory borough that, in cash terms, cares very little for poorer citizens who are unlikely to vote the right way. In 2014, while the Grenfell Tower residents were refused basic maintenance, the council handed out £100 rebates to its top-rate taxpayers, boasting of its record of “consistently delivering greater efficiencies while improving services”. Some of those efficiencies had names, and parents, and children.

This is a different sort of depravity altogether. It’s depravity with plausible deniability, right up until the point at which deniability goes up in flames. Borrowing from Friedrich Engels, John McDonnell described the Grenfell Tower disaster as “social murder”. The shadow chancellor and sometime Jack Russell of the parliamentary left has never been known for his delicate phrasing.

Naturally, the Tory press queued up to condemn McDonnell – not because he was wrong but because he was indiscreet. “There’s a long history in this country of the concept of social murder,” he said, “where decisions are made with no regard to the consequences… and as a result of that people have suffered.”

It is difficult to refute the reality of that suffering when the death toll is still being reckoned from the towering tombstone that now blights the west London skyline.” As the philosopher Hannah Arendt wrote, “The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil.”

Market austerity is no less brutal for being bloodless, calculating, an ideology of measuring human worth in pennies and making cuts that only indirectly slice into skin and bone. Redistributing large sums of money from the poor to the rich is not simply an abstract moral infraction: it kills. It shortens lives and blights millions more. Usually, it does so in a monstrously phlegmatic manner: the pensioners who die early of preventable diseases, the teenagers who drop out of education, the disabled people left to suffer the symptoms of physical and mental illness with nobody to care for them, the thousands who have died on the waiting lists for state benefits that they are perfectly entitled to, the parents whose pride disintegrates as they watch their children go to school hungry.

We are not encouraged to measure the human cost of austerity in this way, even though there are many people in back offices making exactly these sorts of calculations. This year, when researchers from the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine claimed that “relentless cuts” to the health service could explain as many as 30,000 “excess deaths” in England and Wales in 2015, the government denounced this as “a triumph of personal bias over research”, which, however you slice it, is a callous prep school debater’s response to the reality of 30,000 fresh graves.

There is a species of evil in which an individual allows the dark and yammering corners of his mind to direct him to put a blade in a bystander’s belly, or a bomb in a bustling crowd of teenage girls. That sort of monstrosity is as easy to identify as it is mercifully rare, though frighteningly less rare than it was in less febrile times. But there is another sort of evil that seldom makes the headlines. This comes about when someone sits down with a calculator and works out how much it will cost to protect and nurture human life, deducts that from the cost of a tax rebate for local landowners or a nice night at the opera, then comes up with a figure. It’s an ordinary sort of evil, and it has become routine and automated in the austerity years. It is a sort of evil, in the words of Terry Pratchett, that “begins when you begin to treat people as things”. 

The Grenfell Tower disaster was the hellish evidence of the consequences of fiscal ruthlessness that nobody could look away from. Claims that it could not have been predicted were shot down by the victims. The residents’ association wrote on its campaign website after years of begging the council to improve living conditions: “It is a truly terrifying thought but the Grenfell Action Group firmly believe that only a catastrophic event will expose the ineptitude and incompetence of our landlord.”

That catastrophic event has happened, and the ordinary British response to tragedy – brave, mannered dignity – is inappropriate. When the Grenfell inquiry launches next month, it is incumbent on every citizen to call for answers and to call this kind of travesty by its name: murder by numbers.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder