The open fridge: We've all been there. Photo: Chris Hondros/Getty Images
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Late at night, in my dressing gown, I search the fridge for a piece of cheese and contemplate my fate

"I could be Nick Clegg". Nicholas Lezard sees desperation by the fridge light. 

It’s about 11 o’clock at night, I am deadly sober, and I am searching the fridge for cheese. This is not as easy or even as fun as it sounds. With a full compliment of people in residence in the Hovel, the fridge fills up fairly quickly, and things tend to accumulate. Largely this is my fault. Ever thrifty, or at least careful to economise where I can (that is, without doing anything crazy like giving up wine), I find it hard to throw away carcasses with some meat on the bone, rinds of Parmesan now solid as aeroplane chocks, mugs and jars filled with the fat rendered from roasted joints.

Even the remains of the Christmas goose are still around – admittedly, not in the fridge but double-wrapped in plastic bags on the table on the back terrace. Winter is a kind of fridge but by now this goose must be getting a bit ropey. What am I waiting for? For it to grow wings again and fly away south?

Back to the fridge: I am strangely relieved to note that there is a litre of soya milk that was never mine but has been there since before Christmas. Maybe the other inhabitants each think it belongs to the other. I am fairly sure no one thinks it’s mine. It doesn’t take a great deal of acquaintance for people to work out that I’m not a soya milk kind of person.

I find some Brie that is entering the so-so period of its existence; it would do, but what I want right now is hard cheese. I know I have some Cheddar uneaten in there that cannot have got mouldy yet. Briefly I entertain the suspicion that someone else has scoffed it but immediately dismiss it. If there is one thing life has taught me, it is that when something of mine goes missing, it is not because anyone else has nicked it or thrown it away by mistake, however pleasing to the indignation centre of the brain this is. It is because I have mislaid it.

So I rummage through the fridge’s packed, chaotic shelves, and think: I’m rummaging through a shared fridge in my dressing gown in the middle of the night, and I’m 51. Assuming I peg out around 75 – and with my lifestyle that’s a fairly generous estimate – that means I’m three-quarters of the way through existence. What have I got to show for it? Three great children and a pile of brown envelopes I am too terrified to a) open or b) throw away. That, and a phobia, quite well justified, as it turns out, of answering the phone unless the screen shows it is coming from a number already known to me.

Hard cheese, indeed.

A nearly full tub of Tesco Mascarpone and tomato sauce commits a felo de se by rolling off one of the shelves and landing on the floor. If it had landed on my foot that would have hurt. Also, by some miracle, the top stays on, so I do not have to spend another 20 minutes cleaning up, eating into my schedule.

So: things could be worse. I could be wrapped in sleeping bags and pissy newspapers in the Marylebone Road underpass. I could be looking forward to the next of my 50 lashes courtesy of the “government” of Saudi Arabia, as well as the rest of my life in the nick, just for pointing out a few flaws in the system.

I could be Nick Clegg.

See? There’s always a ray of sunshine when you look for it.

But somehow, in the still watches of the night, these arguments fail to console. My love life has gone quite spectacularly wrong, partly as a result of having made the cardinal mistake of trying to be decent, which, let me tell you, upsets everyone concerned and invariably lands you in the shit. I am writing this, as I mentioned in last week’s column, on a computer held together with Sellotape. Which isn’t even holding it together. I am seeking cheese in the middle of the night because I’ve been feeling peaky all day, and when that happens I always entertain the thought of dying in my room and no one finding out until the smell gets unbearable. And, as I have said, I have at most two and a half decades left to play with, and something tells me that when I look back on tonight, I will say to myself: those were the good days. C’est là ce que nous avons eu de meilleur.

I wonder: is this self-pity, depression, or just a good, hard look at the situation? People say the life unexamined is not worth living but I am beginning to wonder whether the opposite is true. Tomorrow, I vow, trudging up the stairs with a corner of slightly furry Brie, I am going to start drinking at six on the dot and not stop until I conk out.

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 23 January 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Christianity in the Middle East

Garry Knight via Creative Commons
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Why Barack Obama was right to release Chelsea Manning

A Presidential act of mercy is good for Manning, but also for the US.

In early 2010, a young US military intelligence analyst on an army base near Baghdad slipped a Lady Gaga CD into a computer and sang along to the music. In fact, the soldier's apparently upbeat mood hid two facts. 

First, the soldier later known as Chelsea Manning was completely alienated from army culture, and the callous way she believed it treated civilians in Iraq. And second, she was quietly erasing the music on her CDs and replacing it with files holding explosive military data, which she would release to the world via Wikileaks. 

To some, Manning is a free speech hero. To others, she is a traitor. President Barack Obama’s decision to commute her 35-year sentence before leaving office has been blasted as “outrageous” by leading Republican Paul Ryan. Other Republican critics argue Obama is rewarding an act that endangered the lives of soldiers and intelligence operatives while giving ammunition to Russia. 

They have a point. Liberals banging the drum against Russia’s leak offensive during the US election cannot simultaneously argue leaks are inherently good. 

But even if you think Manning was deeply misguided in her use of Lady Gaga CDs, there are strong reasons why we should celebrate her release. 

1. She was not judged on the public interest

Manning was motivated by what she believed to be human rights abuses in Iraq, but her public interest defence has never been tested. 

The leaks were undoubtedly of public interest. As Manning said in the podcast she recorded with Amnesty International: “When we made mistakes, planning operations, innocent people died.” 

Thanks to Manning’s leak, we also know about the Vatican hiding sex abuse scandals in Ireland, plus the UK promising to protect US interests during the Chilcot Inquiry. 

In countries such as Germany, Canada and Denmark, whistle blowers in sensitive areas can use a public interest defence. In the US, however, such a defence does not exist – meaning it is impossible for Manning to legally argue her actions were in the public good. 

2. She was deemed worse than rapists and murderers

Her sentence was out of proportion to her crime. Compare her 35-year sentence to that received by William Millay, a young police officer, also in 2013. Caught in the act of trying to sell classified documents to someone he believed was a Russian intelligence officer, he was given 16 years

According to Amnesty International: “Manning’s sentence was much longer than other members of the military convicted of charges such as murder, rape and war crimes, as well as any others who were convicted of leaking classified materials to the public.”

3. Her time in jail was particularly miserable 

Manning’s conditions in jail do nothing to dispel the idea she has been treated extraordinarily harshly. When initially placed in solitary confinement, she needed permission to do anything in her cell, even walking around to exercise. 

When she requested treatment for her gender dysphoria, the military prison’s initial response was a blanket refusal – despite the fact many civilian prisons accept the idea that trans inmates are entitled to hormones. Manning has attempted suicide several times. She finally received permission to receive gender transition surgery in 2016 after a hunger strike

4. Julian Assange can stop acting like a martyr

Internationally, Manning’s continued incarceration was likely to do more harm than good. She has said she is sorry “for hurting the US”. Her worldwide following has turned her into an icon of US hypocrisy on free speech.

Then there's the fact Wikileaks said its founder Julian Assange would agree to be extradited to the US if Manning was released. Now that Manning is months away from freedom, his excuses for staying in the Equadorian London Embassy to avoid Swedish rape allegations are somewhat feebler.  

As for the President - under whose watch Manning was prosecuted - he may be leaving his office with his legacy in peril, but with one stroke of his pen, he has changed a life. Manning, now 29, could have expected to leave prison in her late 50s. Instead, she'll be free before her 30th birthday. And perhaps the Equadorian ambassador will finally get his room back. 

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.