Another suitcase in another hall? Photo: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
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The new lodger moved in and out of the Hovel in a day. Who’d want to live with a middle-aged man?

Unlike others, we have no choice but to live with ourselves - still. A 27 hour residency seems a little brief.

What, ladies and gentlemen, is the shortest you have ever lived in a place? That is, moved in somewhere, with your stuff, and then moved out again? The Hovel can boast a new record: 27 hours, for its latest occupant.

The previous one, whom I’ve written about before as the country girl who seemed more used to giving horses sugar lumps than negotiating London traffic, got streetwise very quickly and we rubbed along together fine for months, but in the end found a place more to her liking. Her replacement, who was invited round to check the place out, declared herself satisfied, and early last Sunday evening she moved in with a couple of big suitcases and a brand-new Marks and Sparks duvet.

I introduced her to my boys, who were, along with me, digesting Sunday lunch, and they were civil and handsome. She went out for dinner and came back with a man she introduced as her “friend”.

Uh-oh, I thought, because, as I may have said before, the wall separating our bedrooms is so thin that the occupant of one can hear what the occupant of the other is thinking about having for dinner. But they were quiet as mice in the end – quieter, in fact. (I can sometimes hear Mousey as he rummages inside the blue recycling sack that sits open on the kitchen floor; what he hopes to find in there is beyond me, unless mice can digest cardboard. I have recurring dreams of vanquishing Mousey with the heel of my boot, but I’d hesitate to do so again, especially after the abuse I got on Twitter the last time.)

And then on the Monday evening at about half past seven she popped her head round the living-room door and announced she was leaving.

Now, it is rarely given to us to see how the outside world perceives us. “O wad some Power the giftie gie us/To see oursels as ithers see us!” as Burns put it, but what many people forget was that it was looking at a louse crawling on a fine lady’s bonnet in church that prompted him to make such a plea. What are the vermin that crawl upon us without our knowledge? What could I have done that would make someone up sticks and away before little more than a day had passed?

My friend K—— lasted a fortnight and that was bad enough, leading to a long period of fruitless introspection; but that was when Razors was living here with me, and we were perhaps too tightly knit for a third party to join. Also, we were probably insufferable.

One thing my conscience can be clear about is my propriety. No one who has lived here will ever be able to claim that I acted in a creepy way towards them – not even my worst enemies would accuse me of that. (And as my worst enemies include [name redacted at insistent legal request] and [ditto], they would be wise not to bring such a charge in the first place.)

But there must be something. F——, the occupant of 27 hours, said that the place she’d originally wanted to live in came up again – that’s her story and she’s sticking to it. And living in the Hovel is like being the Ringbearer: even if you were there for only the briefest of times, you will be able to claim the title of Hovel-dweller until your last breath.

I wonder if she could smell the failure and the desperation. I have been noticing, for the past few years, how it is men in their mid-forties to mid-fifties who seem to be bringing the most woe upon themselves, and on others. They are the ones most likely to kill themselves, or to run amok. The mid-life crisis is no longer the comedy business with the sports car and the secretary; it means the grim march to the jobcentre with the concealed kitchen knife, the family home that’s no longer his burned to the ground from the outside. It is a reaction to redundancy, in the broadest sense of the word – the all-pervading sense of uselessness in the face of a world that has decided to dispense with you.

This is not generally how I see myself, and readers know me as the happy-go-lucky scamp who whistles at misfortune. However, there are some misfortunes looming, which I will not go into, which would desiccate the most insouciant of lips, and I wonder whether it was some sense of these that made F—— decide that maybe it would be best if she took her chances south of the river. So the hunt is on for another lodger; but would I want to live with me? Would I really? Unlike others, I have no choice.

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 19 March 2015 issue of the New Statesman, British politics is broken

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The polls are bad, but Jeremy Corbyn’s office has a secret weapon

How a shake-up of the leadership team has steadied nerves at the top of Labour. 

If polling had existed back in 1906, Jeremy Corbyn quipped at one recent strategy meeting, the Labour Party would never have got started.

As far as Labour’s direction is concerned, it is that meeting at four o’clock every Monday afternoon that matters. The people who attend it regularly are the Labour leader, his aides, the shadow home secretary, Diane Abbott, and the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, as well as the party’s election co-ordinator, and their respective aides.

In recent weeks, the meetings have been stormy affairs, and not only because the numbers from the party’s own pollsters, BMG Research, mirror the uniformly bleak picture from the public polls. There is also concern over Karie Murphy, Corbyn’s office manager. Murphy is highly rated by Corbyn for having brought increased intensity and efficiency to the leader’s office. Corbyn often struggles to deliver bad news in person and appreciates that Murphy will intervene on his behalf.

Her intensity is not uniformly welcomed. “She could start a fight with her own reflection,” in the wry words of one friend. An argument with Jon Trickett – the Hemsworth MP whose unusual career trajectory took him from being a parliamentary aide to Peter Mandelson to the inner sanctum of Ed Miliband’s leadership and finally to the role of election co-ordinator for Corbyn – led to Trickett going on a two-week strike, recusing himself from vital meetings and avoiding any contact with Murphy.

That row eventually led to Trickett being stripped of his role and banished from the Monday meeting. Murphy had a similar turf war with the campaigns director, Simon Fletcher, which culminated in Fletcher resigning on 17 February. In a letter to staffers, he called on the party to “keep the promise” of Corbyn’s first leadership bid, a period when Fletcher was central and Murphy had yet to start working for the Labour leader.

All of which, in better political weather, would simply be part of the back-and-forth of office politics. However, set against the backdrop of unease about by-elections in Stoke-on-Trent Central and Copeland, and a series of unhelpful leaks, it adds to a sense of vulnerability around the leadership. One loyalist shadow cabinet minister calls it “the most dangerous time” for Corbyn since he was first elected leader.

Why the danger? Contrary to popular myth, the backbone of Jeremy Corbyn’s successive landslide victories was not a hard-pressed twentysomething, struggling to find a fixed job or to get a foot on the housing ladder. The shock troops of Corbynism, at least as far as the internal battle in the Labour Party went, were baby boomers. Many of them were either working in, or on early retirement from, a charity or the public sector, deeply concerned about the rightward drift of British politics and worried about the next generation.

Corbyn’s decision to whip Labour MPs in support of triggering Article 50 – the process whereby Britain will begin its exit from the European Union – was, in their eyes, a double heresy. The vote signalled acceptance that the forces of the Eurosceptic right had won on 23 June, and it conceded that visa-free travel, membership of the single market and freedom of movement are over.

None of this is automatically great news for Corbyn’s internal critics – not least because the vote on Article 50 is rare in being an issue that unites Corbyn with most Labour MPs. Yet it adds to the sense that his leadership has passed its best-before date.

Adding to the general malaise is a series of unhelpful leaks. There was a story in the Sunday Times on 12 February claiming that the leadership was road-testing possible replacements for Corbyn, and on 20 February the Mirror claimed that the Labour leadership had commissioned a poll to find out whether or not the leader should quit his post. These stories are hotly denied by the leader’s office. Some in Corbyn’s inner circle believe they are the work of Trickett, embittered at his demotion.

It is true that Corbyn is not enjoying the job as much as he once did. However, if the conversation shifts from the minutiae of Brexit to his natural terrain of the NHS and the continuing consequences of government cuts on education and the prisons service, he could quickly find himself relishing the role once more.

Corbyn retains two powerful cards. His newly energised office, under Karie Murphy, is one. Although her brisk approach has generated some public rows, the feeling in the leader’s office is that a chief of staff was needed, and Murphy has assumed that role. The media team has also grown sharper with the addition of David Prescott (son of John), Matt Zarb-Cousin and the former Momentum spokesman James Schneider.

Corbyn’s second asset is more unexpected. His rivals inside the party now fear rather than relish an immediate end to his leadership. A former shadow cabinet member splits his supporters into two groups: “idealists and ideologues – the first we can inspire and win over, the second have to be got rid of”. In their view, the idealists have not yet moved away from Corbyn enough to guarantee victory; the ideologues, for their part, will slink off as Corbyn puts the demands of his office above their interests, as he did over Article 50.

Although self-defeating panic has never been a rare commodity in the Labour Party, the settled view of Labour MPs is that their leader must be given time and space rather than hustled out of the door. There is an awareness, too, that MPs who are united in opposition to Corbyn are divided over many other issues.

So, while the inner circle’s Monday meetings might be fraught, and Labour’s current polling would have given Keir Hardie pause, Jeremy Corbyn is safe. 

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

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit