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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PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn prompts Tory outrage as he blames Grenfell Tower fire on austerity

To Conservative cries of "shame on you!", the Labour leader warned that "we all pay a price in public safety" for spending cuts.

A fortnight after the Grenfell Tower fire erupted, the tragedy continues to cast a shadow over British politics. Rather than probing Theresa May on the DUP deal, Jeremy Corbyn asked a series of forensic questions on the incident, in which at least 79 people are confirmed to have died.

In the first PMQs of the new parliament, May revealed that the number of buildings that had failed fire safety tests had risen to 120 (a 100 per cent failure rate) and that the cladding used on Grenfell Tower was "non-compliant" with building regulations (Corbyn had asked whether it was "legal").

After several factual questions, the Labour leader rose to his political argument. To cries of "shame on you!" from Tory MPs, he warned that local authority cuts of 40 per cent meant "we all pay a price in public safety". Corbyn added: “What the tragedy of Grenfell Tower has exposed is the disastrous effects of austerity. The disregard for working-class communities, the terrible consequences of deregulation and cutting corners." Corbyn noted that 11,000 firefighters had been cut and that the public sector pay cap (which Labour has tabled a Queen's Speech amendment against) was hindering recruitment. "This disaster must be a wake-up call," he concluded.

But May, who fared better than many expected, had a ready retort. "The cladding of tower blocks did not start under this government, it did not start under the previous coalition governments, the cladding of tower blocks began under the Blair government," she said. “In 2005 it was a Labour government that introduced the regulatory reform fire safety order which changed the requirements to inspect a building on fire safety from the local fire authority to a 'responsible person'." In this regard, however, Corbyn's lack of frontbench experience is a virtue – no action by the last Labour government can be pinned on him. 

Whether or not the Conservatives accept the link between Grenfell and austerity, their reluctance to defend continued cuts shows an awareness of how politically vulnerable they have become (No10 has announced that the public sector pay cap is under review).

Though Tory MP Philip Davies accused May of having an "aversion" to policies "that might be popular with the public" (he demanded the abolition of the 0.7 per cent foreign aid target), there was little dissent from the backbenches – reflecting the new consensus that the Prime Minister is safe (in the absence of an attractive alternative).

And May, whose jokes sometimes fall painfully flat, was able to accuse Corbyn of saying "one thing to the many and another thing to the few" in reference to his alleged Trident comments to Glastonbury festival founder Michael Eavis. But the Labour leader, no longer looking fearfully over his shoulder, displayed his increased authority today. Though the Conservatives may jeer him, the lingering fear in Tory minds is that they and the country are on divergent paths. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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