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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Is anyone prepared to solve the NHS funding crisis?

As long as the political taboo on raising taxes endures, the service will be in financial peril. 

It has long been clear that the NHS is in financial ill-health. But today's figures, conveniently delayed until after the Conservative conference, are still stunningly bad. The service ran a deficit of £930m between April and June (greater than the £820m recorded for the whole of the 2014/15 financial year) and is on course for a shortfall of at least £2bn this year - its worst position for a generation. 

Though often described as having been shielded from austerity, owing to its ring-fenced budget, the NHS is enduring the toughest spending settlement in its history. Since 1950, health spending has grown at an average annual rate of 4 per cent, but over the last parliament it rose by just 0.5 per cent. An ageing population, rising treatment costs and the social care crisis all mean that the NHS has to run merely to stand still. The Tories have pledged to provide £10bn more for the service but this still leaves £20bn of efficiency savings required. 

Speculation is now turning to whether George Osborne will provide an emergency injection of funds in the Autumn Statement on 25 November. But the long-term question is whether anyone is prepared to offer a sustainable solution to the crisis. Health experts argue that only a rise in general taxation (income tax, VAT, national insurance), patient charges or a hypothecated "health tax" will secure the future of a universal, high-quality service. But the political taboo against increasing taxes on all but the richest means no politician has ventured into this territory. Shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander has today called for the government to "find money urgently to get through the coming winter months". But the bigger question is whether, under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour is prepared to go beyond sticking-plaster solutions. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.