Duran Duran's Girls on Film.
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Who’d have thought I’d learn the meaning of life from an Avaaz petition?

Englightenment via Avaaz, Duran Duran and Bananarama.

A visit from my great friend J—. We’d been out of touch for decades but one afternoon a few years ago I was walking in a desultory fashion through the snow in Regent’s Park, looking sadly at the frolicking youngsters, when her phone number popped into my head. I remembered the number because when we were at school I had the most debilitating crush on her, and while such things are on the whole no good to anyone, they do at least have the virtue of making you remember phone numbers, whose first six digits you have dialled often and on flimsy pretexts.

It is a long shot that she is still in the same place but as it’s round the corner I think: why the hell not, and she answers it, which she says is unusual for her as we have reached that period of western civilisation where landline use is largely confined to scammers. We meet up again – and so, every few months, she pops round to the Hovel for a chat and a glass of wine and a game of backgammon.

This time she’s asked to come round at very short notice but as I am at a loose end and could do with some company this is a most pleasant surprise. I had been brooding over a petition that a friend had asked me to sign – for Avaaz, of all people. While its deeper purpose escaped me, the immediate goals of the petition were clear: it laid out three principles for living in 2015 – to show kindness and respect, strive for wisdom and “practice [sic] gratitude”.

“We will show kindness and respect towards ourselves and others whenever possible . . .” it began.

They sort of lost me at the words “towards ourselves”, on the grounds that thinking you’re groovy just for the hell of it is an obstacle to self-knowledge. I mean, Prince Charles thinks he’s pretty amazing and look where it’s got him, the meddling fool. After this, the petition invited us to promise that: “We will seek to be wise in our decisions, listening deeply to ourselves and others, and balancing our heads, hearts and intuitions in a harmony that feels right.”

I glance at the photo. In a crowd of happy disposable- cagoule-wearing people there is a young woman with a circlet of flowers in her hair and a heart painted on her cheek. I also notice that we are to listen deeply to ourselves before we listen to others. Would I want to act on the wisdom of a woman who paints a heart on her cheek and sticks flowers in her hair? That boat sailed in the Sixties. The third plank of the petition, in which we are invited to “practice gratitude”, I have no problem with, but one out of three isn’t enough.

As I’m thinking about this, I get an email asking me if I’d like to be interviewed for a forthcoming television programme. The world has gone mad, I conclude.

J— comes round with a nice bottle of white. I rustle up a couscous and invite her to talk because I gather she has been having a rotten time of it lately.

As she talks, a suspicion that had begun to form a few days earlier – while I’d stared at that meaningless petition – grows, like a crystal in a kid’s chemistry set. The details of J—’s tale will remain private but they involve legal matters, which, unusually even for legal matters, defy all notions of common sense and make the word “Kafkaesque” seem laughably inadequate. She pauses to say that, on the bright side, a plaque is to be put on the wall of the recording studio she runs, acknowledging the important contribution made to local culture by, among others, Duran Duran and Bananarama.

Now, I will not hear a word against these bands, and such a plaque will be an adornment to the area and bring a smile to the lips of many who pass that way. What with one thing and another, and considering all I’ve heard over the past few days; what with the stupid hippies, my ridiculous existence, lawyers, death, Prince Charles, the continuous underlying vapid mutterings of idiocy everywhere, I tell J— that I no longer think that life is meaningless, or a waste, or so on, but that it is, simply, silly.

I think, fleetingly, of the bit in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, when Arthur decides, after an impromptu song and dance routine, not to go to Camelot, because it’s a very silly place. I wonder if I have offended J— after all she’s been going through but she sighs and says, “Yes, it is silly. I think that’s the word.”

Which makes me wonder: have we inadvertently achieved, as that petition urged us to, wisdom?

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 06 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, An empire that speaks English

Photo: Getty
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Who will win in Manchester Gorton?

Will Labour lose in Manchester Gorton?

The death of Gerald Kaufman will trigger a by-election in his Manchester Gorton seat, which has been Labour-held since 1935.

Coming so soon after the disappointing results in Copeland – where the seat was lost to the Tories – and Stoke – where the party lost vote share – some overly excitable commentators are talking up the possibility of an upset in the Manchester seat.

But Gorton is very different to Stoke-on-Trent and to Copeland. The Labour lead is 56 points, compared to 16.5 points in Stoke-on-Trent and 6.5 points in Copeland. (As I’ve written before and will doubtless write again, it’s much more instructive to talk about vote share rather than vote numbers in British elections. Most of the country tends to vote in the same way even if they vote at different volumes.)

That 47 per cent of the seat's residents come from a non-white background and that the Labour party holds every council seat in the constituency only adds to the party's strong position here. 

But that doesn’t mean that there is no interest to be had in the contest at all. That the seat voted heavily to remain in the European Union – around 65 per cent according to Chris Hanretty’s estimates – will provide a glimmer of hope to the Liberal Democrats that they can finish a strong second, as they did consistently from 1992 to 2010, before slumping to fifth in 2015.

How they do in second place will inform how jittery Labour MPs with smaller majorities and a history of Liberal Democrat activity are about Labour’s embrace of Brexit.

They also have a narrow chance of becoming competitive should Labour’s selection turn acrimonious. The seat has been in special measures since 2004, which means the selection will be run by the party’s national executive committee, though several local candidates are tipped to run, with Afzal Khan,  a local MEP, and Julie Reid, a local councillor, both expected to run for the vacant seats.

It’s highly unlikely but if the selection occurs in a way that irritates the local party or provokes serious local in-fighting, you can just about see how the Liberal Democrats give everyone a surprise. But it’s about as likely as the United States men landing on Mars any time soon – plausible, but far-fetched. 

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