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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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

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