A mouse (not the one from the author's kitchen). Picture: Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London 1899
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Quite what Mousey wants with the recycling I do not know

I saw the recycling bag shuddering with Mousey’s orgiastic delight and started to reflect on animal cruelty.

I go into the kitchen one evening. Mousey is there: ambling across from the chopping board to where the teapot is.

“Please, Mousey,” I say, “give me a break.” It is late, and I am tired, so tired. Tired of being alone, of being a failure, of being tired. Recently some moron called me a “patronising git” and a “wealthy media lefty” for the column I wrote here in which I said I was very sad that the Tories were knocking down Shepherd’s Bush council housing and replacing it with luxury apartments. There are few things more tiring, in terms of the fruitless exasperation it causes, than being insulted by a moron. (The “wealthy” was especially fatuous.)

Mousey’s normal routine, when I come into the kitchen and he is having a snack, or a stroll, is to turn and scurry away as fast as his little paws can move him, which is pretty damned fast. But this time he doesn’t bother. He just stays there and looks at me for a bit, and then carries on, slightly slower than before, as if in mockery, pausing to sniff at the tea caddy (perhaps his way of saying, “Any danger of a cup of tea next time?”) before he disappears behind the cupboard next to the fridge.

Enough is enough. I have always, since I first read it, been impressed by Shandy’s Uncle Toby’s address to the fly that had been tormenting him all through dinner: “I’ll not hurt a hair of thy head . . .—go poor devil, get thee gone, why should I hurt thee?—This world surely is wide enough to hold both thee and me.” I did once hurt Mousey, very badly, when I found him gorging himself, oblivious, in an ecstasy of gluttony, inside a bag containing what earlier that evening had been a sliced loaf of bread, now reduced entirely to crumbs, and I had twisted the top of it shut and brought my heel down on it very hard and quickly. When I wrote about that, someone on Twitter said I was inhuman, but that person had not seen the bag, shuddering with Mousey’s orgiastic delight, from which I had been hoping to extract a slice for a snack.

My murderous impulses were not there this evening. I was too tired. Also, it is nice when an animal does not flee or attack a human being. And Mousey had not, this time, come to ravish my dinner.

Still, there is the question of infestation. That runs up against some deep-rooted human feelings. We may like cats because they do not flee or attack when we come near (for the most part), but the reason we liked them in the first place was that they killed the mice and rats in our barns, and scared the bejesus out of the ones that escaped. I cannot have a cat here, which is one of the reasons I am going mad, but I had heard that Mousey cannot abide the smell of peppermint oil – and that only costs a fiver from Holland & Barrett and, unlike with a cat, you don’t have to arrange for the oil to be fed if you go on holiday.

So I get a wee bottle of this oil and sprinkle it liberally behind the counters and cooker, which seems to be Mousey’s main thoroughfare. In fact, having no idea as to how much peppermint oil smells, I slosh it about very liberally indeed, and for the next few days I feel like I am living inside a Bendicks Bittermint. I also get some on my hands, and I discover that the sensation that occurs when you accidentally rub some on the sensitive skin at the corners of your nostrils is the closest sensation you can have to burning without it actually hurting. Still, at least the smell of peppermint is nicer than the smell of cigarettes and regret that is the Hovel’s current atmosphere. And Mousey will move on and there will have been no cruelty involved.

Well, you can guess how that turned out. The daughter, who had popped down for a brief weekend visit, came back from the kitchen to say she’d just said hello to Mousey; and a day or so later, I heard a rustling coming from the recycling bag kept next to the bin. Quite what Mousey wants with the recycling I do not know. Maybe he thinks there will still be some Curiously Cinnamon in the empty Curiously Cinnamon box he discerned through the blue plastic. Stupid Mousey.

I leave him. He can do what he wants there. But then next night I come into the kitchen and I see another Mousey standing by the bag, as if trying to give some message of solace and hope to the Mousey who is trapped. This is not anthropomorphism, or pathetic fallacy. I know that posture when I see it, and I am unmanned. Does that mean, then: that I am moused?

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 04 June 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The myths of Magna Carta

Photo: Getty
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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

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