Despite a hardy laptop, I've still managed to break mine. Photo: AFP PHOTO/Frederic J. Brown
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I chose a laptop that even Nasa couldn’t break. Somehow, I have managed to break it

Nasa only has to worry about the fiery immolation of its crew, should anything go wrong. They do not have to take into account the treatment you give your machines.

Everything is decaying. A few weeks ago, my laptop screen suddenly developed a horrible black blot in the upper right-hand corner. This was unsightly and unsettling at once: like an electronic canker. It signalled the end times for my trusty Lenovo, a machine that has suffered much unintentional abuse at my hands. My friend Toby-who-is-not-Toby-Young is also my computer guru and he chose the model for me: he thought I would like the keyboard (and I do; everyone else’s is rubbish compared to it) and he also knew it was going to take a pounding – these are the machines that were used on the Space Shuttle (and, I think, in the International Space Station).

As he pointed out, although they are not the lightest of computers, and every ounce added to a payload that needs to reach escape velocity has to be considered, their durability and fixability – you can fossick around in its innards in a way that Apple won’t tolerate – made them Nasa’s laptop of choice.

“However,” he added, “Nasa only has to worry about the fiery immolation of its crew, should anything go wrong. They do not have to take into account the treatment you give your machines.”

This is quite true, and sobering. I don’t know quite how I do what I do to my laptops, because it’s not as if I take them on country walks or anything, but they do tend to attract a lot of detritus. The last time Toby had to take it apart to fix something he looked, mesmerised, at the exposed circuitry. Or rather, that which could be seen beneath the layers of tobacco ash, foodstuffs and other unknown and unknowable oomska (to use Uncle Monty’s excellent word from Withnail and I). Some of the more filthy-minded of you may be speculating about any bodily secretions that might be in there, but all that there would be is saliva – when I read something funny, I snort and a fine spray of spit dashes against the screen, which means that every so often I have to dampen a tissue with gin or something and give it a thorough wipe.

It may have been this that contributed to the screen’s ongoing demise. Things have developed since that first ugly blot: another one, and then the sudden appearance of an interesting cross-hatching of lines which rendered, at first, a fifth of the screen unusable; it is now two-fifths. The blots have now made friends and joined up, and their pattern is exactly like something you’d expect to see in an abandoned factory in a pane of glass through which a stone had been thrown, but, interestingly, in one of those ways that computers use the visual tropes of a world they have replaced (such as the stylised envelope denoting mail), there is no actual hole in the screen; it just looks like one. Spreading lines indicate that the process of decay in the screen has not yet come to a halt.

This machine has its tricks: sometimes a key will stop working, unless you jab at it again and again, making my texts look like Oulipan exercises, like Georges Perec’s novel La disparition, written without the letter “e”, but then the toast crumb or whatever it is dislodges itself and all works again. I did have an external monitor the size and weight of a television screen and I used that for a bit, until it decided it didn’t want to speak to my computer any more; so I am back now to a reduced screen.

It is not so bad. I can’t watch films any more, which is a pain, but the tiny screen YouTube offers squeezes in OK; and although I have to do a lot of fiddly stuff to be able to see the whole screen, for the main part what goes on the right-hand two-fifths, as you will know, is a selection of miserably second-guessed adverts, post-horse-bolting suggestions to buy a book on Amazon that have already been looked up, and offers to meet and marry women from entirely unsuitable demographics.

Also, a new computer would cost me money, which I do not have to spare, as I mention from time to time. However, I do realise I am on borrowed time with this machine. This is a lesson that life teaches you fairly comprehensively about itself as you get older, and in case you were missing the point, you get to watch others around you, who were older to start with, get even older than you. Things in you and in them fall apart, and yet, while there is still some life, some functionality, you don’t want to chuck them out, or see them go. I’m not talking about computers now. 

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 11 June 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Who owns the future?

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Everyone's forgotten the one issue that united the Labour party

There was a time when Ed Miliband spoke at Momentum rallies.

To label the row over the EU at Thursday’s Labour leadership hustings "fireworks" would be to endow it with more beauty than it deserves. Owen Smith’s dogged condemnation of John McDonnell’s absence from a Remain rally – only for Corbyn to point out that his absence was for medical reasons – ought to go down as a cringing new low point in the campaign. 

Not so long ago, we were all friends. In the course of the EU referendum, almost all of the protagonists in the current debacle spoke alongside each other and praised one another’s efforts. At a local level, party activists of all stripes joined forces. Two days before polling day, Momentum activists helped organise an impromptu rally. Ed Miliband was the headline speaker, and was cheered on. 

If you take the simple version of the debate, Labour’s schism on the EU appears as an aberration of the usual dynamics of left and right in the party. Labour's left is supposedly cheering a position which avoids advocating what it believes in (Remain), because it would lose votes. Meanwhile, the right claims to be dying in a ditch for its principles - no matter what the consequences for Labour’s support in Leave-voting heartlands.

Smith wants to oppose Brexit, even after the vote, on the basis of using every available procedural mechanism. He would whip MPs against the invocation of Article 50, refuse to implement it in government, and run on a manifesto of staying in the EU. For the die-hard Europhiles on the left – and I count myself among these, having run the Another Europe is Possible campaign during the referendum – there ought to be no contest as to who to support. On a result that is so damaging to people’s lives and so rooted in prejudice, how could we ever accept that there is such a thing as a "final word"? 

And yet, on the basic principles that lie behind a progressive version of EU membership, such as freedom of movement, Smith seems to contradict himself. Right at the outset of the Labour leadership, Smith took to Newsnight to express his view – typical of many politicians moulded in the era of New Labour – that Labour needed to “listen” to the views Leave voters by simply adopting them, regardless of whether or not they were right. There were, he said, “too many” immigrants in some parts of the country. 

Unlike Smith, Corbyn has not made his post-Brexit policy a headline feature of the campaign, and it is less widely understood. But it is clear, via the five "red lines" outlined by John McDonnell at the end of June:

  1. full access to the single market
  2. membership of the European investment bank
  3. access to trading rights for financial services sector
  4. full residency rights for all EU nationals in the UK and all UK nationals in the EU, and
  5. the enshrinement of EU protections for workers. 

Without these five conditions being met, Labour would presumably not support the invocation of Article 50. So if, as seems likely, a Conservative government would never meet these five conditions, would there be any real difference in how a Corbyn leadership would handle the situation? 

The fight over the legacy of the referendum is theatrical at times. The mutual mistrust last week played out on the stage in front of a mass televised audience. Some Corbyn supporters jeered Smith as he made the case for another referendum. Smith accused Corbyn of not even voting for Remain, and wouldn’t let it go. But, deep down, the division is really about a difference of emphasis. 

It speaks to a deeper truth about the future of Britain in Europe. During the referendum, the establishment case for Remain floundered because it refused to make the case that unemployment and declining public services were the result of austerity, not immigrants. Being spearheaded by Conservatives, it couldn’t. It fell to the left to offer the ideological counter attack that was needed – and we failed to reach enough people. 

As a result, what we got was a popular mandate for petty racism and a potentially long-term shift to the right in British politics, endangering a whole raft of workplace and legal protections along the way. Now that it has happened, anyone who really hopes to overcome either Brexit, or the meaning of Brexit, has to address the core attitudes and debates at their root. Then as now, it is only clear left-wing ideas – free from any attempt to triangulate towards anti-migrant sentiment– that can have any hope of success. 

The real dividing lines in Labour are not about the EU. If they were, the Eurosceptic Frank Field would not be backing Smith. For all that it may be convenient to deny it, Europe was once, briefly, the issue that united the Labour Party. One day, the issues at stake in the referendum may do so again – but only if Labour consolidates itself around a strategy for convincing people of ideas, rather than simply reaching for procedural levers.