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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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

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