London’s Chinatown in Soho. Photo: Getty
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Trawling Chinatown for a backscratcher, I see there are some itches that never go away

Even thinking about a backscratcher makes the back cry out for one.

I’m trying to find a backscratcher. It’s about the only thing my father can make use of at the moment. Complications following his fall – we think – have resulted in him losing most of what little eyesight he had remaining. It has come to the point where, in order to remember all the ways he’s falling apart, you have to make a list. Add to this my mother’s infirmities and the list reaches halfway down the page. My own woes and worries are not trivial in themselves, but they are by comparison: not (touch wood) life-threatening.

So, my father wants his backscratcher. It’s like the answer to the question: what do you give the man who has nothing? He is on the precipice, the crumbling ledge of existence, and there are more ignoble desires. Unfortunately, the house is large and the backscratcher is relatively small. I have little hope of finding it. But where does one buy a backscratcher these days? I imagine a prelapsarian past in which grocers would have bundles of them and in which chemists dished them out with prescriptions. Every high street would have a shop devoted to nothing else; indeed, London was famous for its Backscratcher District, in the way Harley Street is known for doctors and Swiss Cottage for shrinks. All gone now, irretrievably gone, another part of our cultural legacy mown down by the forces of rampant capitalism unleashed by Mrs T.

Trying to find one becomes vexatious. Even thinking about a backscratcher makes the back cry out for one. I am very prone to the suggestive itch and have already had to pause several times to scratch myself while writing this – which is why I knew, deep down, even from childhood, that I could never be an astronaut. I’d start thinking about getting an itch on my nose while spacewalking and would either be driven mad by not being able to scratch it, or pull my helmet off to do so and then die in the inky vacuum of the cosmos.

A backscratcher’s not much to ask for, is it? I go to the local chemist, the one that’s been there for over 200 years. If anyone’s going to stock a backscratcher, it’s going to be this shop.

“We used to have one,” says the nice assistant, peering into a corner where, presumably, the backscratchers would gather, until, one by one, they disappeared, like great auks, or passenger pigeons, or electable socialist politicians.

“But not now,” I say. He shakes his head ruefully. First they came for the backscratchers, I think to myself, but I did not speak up, because my back didn’t itch . . .

I try a social medium. My friend Mei suggests Chinatown. So there is a Backscratcher District in London after all. But Mei, for reasons you might be smart enough to spot for yourself, is able to navigate Chinatown better than I can. I would go to Soho in search of a simple stick of sandalwood, carved into prongs at one end, and end up buying a Mogwai, which would end up causing all sorts of havoc. Besides, there’s enough wildlife in the Hovel as it is.

I go to Boots. The assistant at the till looks at me as though I’m mad, but she gets out a little iPad and does her utmost to help me. We come across something called a “self-massager”, which sounds incredibly rude and looks insanely complex, like something you’d use to shift cargo into the space shuttle (again, the astronaut theme; what’s that all about?), and which costs twenty-odd quid. I am beginning to think it would be easier for me to learn how to carve one myself, or nip up the road from the Royal Free and find a suitably shaped stick on Hampstead Heath.

Of course, now that I’ve written this, the letters about where to find backscratchers will start coming through this paper’s letter box by the dozen; some of the more generous of you may even send me one, and the corridors will echo to the clatter of the things. Please don’t bother. In the end, my mother (in hospital, too, so not in situ) suggests I look in a certain drawer by her bed.

There it is, the faithful family backscratcher, a little more polished with use than I remember it, its teeth a little more worn down, but still slender and graceful, the last living backscratcher in captivity. Yet what you’ll have realised is that my search wasn’t for a backscratcher at all, but for something else entirely: a lost link, perhaps, and also a symbol of something I can do for my father, because the things that I can do for him are becoming ever fewer by the day, it seems.

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 22 July 2015 issue of the New Statesman, How Labour went mad for Jeremy Corbyn

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John McDonnell interview: "We’re going to destroy Osborne’s credibility"

The shadow chancellor on the Spending Review, Jeremy Corbyn's leadership and why trade unions will have to break the law. 

When I interviewed John McDonnell in March, before the general election, he predicted that Labour would be the largest party and confessed to a “sneaking feeling that we could win a small majority – because I think the Tory vote is really soft”. As the long-standing chair of the Socialist Campaign Group, McDonnell anticipated leading the resistance inside Labour to any spending cuts made by Ed Miliband. Eight months later, he is indeed campaigning against austerity – but as shadow chancellor against a Conservative majority government.

I meet McDonnell in his new Westminster office in Norman Shaw South, a short walk down the corridor from that of his close friend and greatest ally, Jeremy Corbyn. The day before George Osborne delivers his Spending Review and Autumn Statement, his desk is cluttered with economic papers in preparation for his response.

“The message we’re trying to get across is that this concept of the Tories’ having a ‘long-term economic plan’ is an absolute myth and they’re in chaos, really in chaos on many fronts,” he tells me. McDonnell points to the revolt against cuts to tax credits and policing, and the social care crisis, as evidence that Osborne’s programme is unravelling. On health, he says: “He’s trying to dig out money as best as he can for the NHS, he’s announced the frontloading of some of it, but that simply covers the deficits that there are. Behind that, he’s looking for £22bn of savings, so this winter the NHS is going to be in crisis again.”

Asked what Labour’s equivalent is to the Tories’ undeniably effective “long-term economic plan” message, he said: “I don’t think we’re going to get into one-liners in that way. We’ll be more sophisticated in the way that we communicate. We’re going to have an intelligent and a mature economic debate. If I hear again that they’re going to ‘fix the roof while the sun shines’ I will throw up. It’s nauseating, isn’t it? It reduces debate, intellectual debate, economic debate, to the lowest level of a slogan. That’s why we’re in the mess we are.”

Having abandoned his original support for the Chancellor’s fiscal charter, which mandated a budget surplus by 2020, McDonnell makes an unashamed case for borrowing to invest. “The biggest failure of the last five years under Osborne is the failure to invest,” he says. “Borrowing at the moment is at its cheapest level, but in addition to that I’m not even sure we’ll need to borrow great amounts, because we can get more efficient spending in terms of government spending. If we can address the tax cuts that have gone ahead, particularly around corporation tax, that will give us the resources to actually start paying again in terms of investment.”

He promises a “line-by-line budget review” when I ask whether there are any areas in which he believes spending should be reduced. “My background is hard-nosed bureaucrat . . . we’ll be looking at where we can shift expenditure into more productive areas.”

From 1982 until 1985, John McDonnell, who is 64, was chair of finance at the Greater London Council under Ken Livingstone. After vowing to defy the Thatcher government’s rate-capping policy he was sacked by Livingstone, who accused him of manipulating figures for political purposes. “We’re going to look like the biggest fucking liars since Goebbels,” the future mayor of London told him. McDonnell, who later described Livingstone’s account as “complete fiction”, has since resolved his differences with the man now co-chairing Labour’s defence review.

After his election as the MP for Hayes and Harlington in 1997, McDonnell achieved renown as one of New Labour’s most vociferous opponents, rebelling with a frequency rivalled only by Corbyn. His appointment as shadow chancellor was the most divisive of the Labour leader’s reshuffle. “People like Jeremy even if they don’t agree with him. People don’t like John,” one MP told me at the time. Mindful of this, McDonnell has sought to transform his image. He has apologised for his past praise of the IRA and for joking about assassinating Margaret Thatcher, rebranding himself as a “boring bank manager”. But there are moments when his more radical side surfaces.

He told me that he supports workers breaking the law if the trade union bill, which would limit the right to strike, is passed. “It’s inevitable, I think it’s inevitable. If the bill is introduced in its existing form and is used against any particular trade unionist or trade union, I think it’s inevitable that people will resist. We established our rights by campaigning against unjust laws and taking the risk if necessary. I think that’s inevitable and I’ll support them.”

“Chaos” might be how McDonnell describes Osborne’s position but the same term is now daily applied to Labour. The party is riven over air strikes in Syria and the renewal of Trident and MPs are ever more scornful of Corbyn’s leadership.

While Corbyn has so far refused to offer Labour MPs a free vote on Syria, McDonnell says that he favours one and would oppose military action. “My position on wars has always been that it’s a moral issue and therefore I veer towards free votes . . . We’re waiting for Cameron’s statement; we’ll analyse that, there’ll be a discussion in shadow cabinet and in the PLP [Parliamentary Labour Party] and then we’ll make a decision. I’m still in a situation where I’ve expressed the view that I’m opposed to the bombing campaign or engagement. I think the history of the UK involvement in the Middle East has been a disaster, to say the least . . .This isn’t like the Second World War where you have a military campaign – you defeat the enemy, you sign a peace agreement and that’s it – this is asymmetric warfare. In addition to the risks that are in the battlefield there’s a risk in every community in our land as a result of it.”

Would he want any of the 14 former shadow cabinet members who refused to serve under Corbyn to return? “All of them, we’re trying to get them all back. We’ve got Yvette [Cooper] helping us on a review we’re doing about the economy and women . . . It’s an open door policy, I’m trying to meet them all over these next few weeks.”

Livingstone, a member of Labour’s National Executive Committee, recently called for Simon Danczuk, who revealed details of a private meeting with Corbyn in the Mail on Sunday, and Frank Field, who told me that MPs should run as independents if deselected, to be disciplined. But McDonnell takes a more conciliatory line. “With Simon [Danczuk] in particular and the others, it’s just a matter of saying look at the long-term interests of the party. People don’t vote for a divided party. They’ll accept, though, that within a party you can have democratic debate. As I said time and time again, don’t mistake democracy for division. It’s the way in which you express those different views that are important. All I’m saying is let people express their views, let’s have democratic engagement but please don’t personalise this. I think there’s a reaction within the community, not just the party, against personalised politics. It’s not Jeremy’s style, he never responds in that way. It’s unfortunate but we’ll get through it. It’s just minor elements of it, that’s all.”

McDonnell disavows moves by some in Momentum, the Corbyn-aligned group, to deselect critical MPs. “What we’re not into is deselecting people, what we want to try and do is make sure that everyone’s involved in a democratic engagement process, simple as that.

“So I’ve said time and time again, this isn’t about deselection or whatever. But at the same what we’re trying to say to everybody is even if you disagree, treat each other with respect. At the height of the debates around tuition fees and the Iraq war, even though we had heated disagreements we always treated each other with mutual respect and I think we’ve got to adhere to that. Anyone who’s not doing that just lets themselves down, that’s not the culture of the Labour Party.”

In private, the 90 per cent of MPs who did not support Corbyn’s leadership bid speak often of how and when he could be removed. One point of debate is whether, under the current rules, the Labour leader would automatically make the ballot if challenged or be forced to re-seek nominations. McDonnell is emphatic that the former is the case: “Oh yeah, that’s the rule, yeah.”

McDonnell’s recent media performances have been praised by MPs, and he is spoken of by some on the left as a possible replacement if Corbyn is removed or stands down before 2020. His speech to the PLP on 23 November was described to me by one shadow minister as a “leadership bid”. But McDonnell rules out standing in any future contest. “No, no, I’ve tried twice [in 2007 and 2010], I’m not going to try again, there’s no way I would.”

Despite opinion polls showing Labour as much as 15 points behind the Conservatives, McDonnell insists that the party can win in 2020. “Oh definitely, yeah, you’ll see that. I think this next year’s going to be pivotal for us. We’re going to destroy Osborne’s credibility over the next six months. But more importantly than that, we can’t just be a negative party . . . we’re going to present a positive view of what Labour’s future will be and the future of the economy.

“Over the next 18 months, we’ll be in a situation where we’ve destroyed the Tories’ economic reputation and we’ve built up our own but we’ll do it in a visionary way that presents people with a real alternative.”  

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.