Wine economy: the £5.99 to £7.99 rise forced a crisis. Photo: Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/Getty Images
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The universe doesn’t seem quite so random and pitiless when a reader sends you fifty quid in the post

If that particular envelope-opening scene had been filmed in the 1930s or 1940s, it would have been accompanied by a shaft of sunlight and the sound of a heavenly choir.

Ah, the whirligig of fate. It’s a Tuesday morning, or morning-ish. My daughter has been staying, and we seem to have got into the habit of staying a-bed for as long as possible, because whoever gets up first has to bring the other a cup of tea. This can make for some long lie-ins. My daughter is a champion sleeper but I have stamina and cunning. It is a matter of seeing who blinks first, so to speak: the time when you realise that if a pot of tea is not made in the very near future, you will have entered that phase of the afternoon when tea is somehow inappropriate. And the thought of no tea is too horrible to contemplate.

Anyway, I digress. Where was I? Ah yes, Tuesday, morning-ish. Today is the day the affordable wine I can drink with pleasure goes up from £5.99 to £7.99, and so last night I had to blow the reserve tanks – helped with a hefty loan from the daughter – on buying as much of the stuff as I could afford in one go in order, paradoxically, to save money. This meant that Tuesday and Wednesday were going to be awkward: funds do not hit the bank until Thursday morning. We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it, I thought, but I could hear the clanging of warning bells in the background. Things shouldn’t be like this, not at my age.

Well, at least now we have enough wine to last a long siege. (The daughter has a capacity for wine which rivals mine, which means the Hovel’s wine bill has almost doubled. If you have not bought shares in Majestic Wine, do so now. I gather the manager of my local branch has bought a Porsche.) Meanwhile, I want to buy train tickets for me and the three children so that we can go to Scotland for a holiday, the first time I’ll have gone on holiday with them for years. But every day’s delay is putting the price up, and at the moment, according to research done by the Estranged Wife, we are nudging £450.

What will it be by Thursday? I dread to think. What if I buy only singles instead of returns, and, Micawberishly, see what happens further down the line? I love Scotland in general and the people we’ll be seeing in particular, but I would also like to come back from there after our allotted time, and I think they would, too.

I pick up an envelope from the stack of mail. The handwriting looks familiar; is this a belated birthday card? It turns out to be a card; but not a birthday card. It is from my occasional correspondent, L——, with whom I have maintained contact ever since she wrote a particularly articulate and insightful letter c/o this magazine. Being an attentive and close reader, she has worked out that I am skint from time to time, and she has occasionally sent gifts – a £20 note here, a truckle of cheese there – and I am not too proud to accept charity. Anyway, out of this card flutter two twenties and a tenner.

There are times in one’s life when one’s certainty that the universe is random and pitiless takes a bit of a knock. You begin to wonder whether that sentimental and somewhat overstretched film, It’s a Wonderful Life, might have been on the money about guardian angels and all that. Or that there is a providence that shapes our ends, rough-hew them how we will. Or is that the providence that looks after fools and drunkards?

It wasn’t just the gift: it was the timing of it. If that particular envelope-opening scene had been filmed in the 1930s or 1940s, it would have been accompanied by a shaft of sunlight and the sound of a heavenly choir. I rather spoil the moment by immediately suggesting we get a takeaway, but the daughter, who is not as daft as she looks (or as daft as her father, at least), puts the brakes on this idea. Yet it means that we can eat our emergency pizzas, freshly garnished with olives, anchovies, extra mozzarella and capers, without the grim feeling of explorers who have eaten the last of their rations.

So we spend the evening happily, I revelling in the hot, soupy evening air and blessing the fates – and, more importantly, L——, who is not so much a correspondent and benefactor as the whole US cavalry riding over the hill. And then the phone rings, and I learn from my rather frantic mother that my father has tripped on a wire and has, she fears, broken his hip. Her fears prove to be correct. And so the universe, or my perspective on it at least, briefly shunted off-course by an act of generosity, resumes its previous trajectory: headlong, off a beetling cliff.

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 09 July 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The austerity war

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What Donald Trump could learn from Ronald Reagan

Reagan’s candidacy was built on more than his celebrity. Trump not only lacks experience as an elected official, he isn’t part of any organised political movement.

“No one remembers who came in second.” That wisdom, frequently dispensed by the US presidential candidate Donald Trump, came back to haunt him this week. Trump’s loss in the Iowa Republican caucuses to the Texas senator Ted Cruz, barely beating Senator Marco Rubio of Florida for second place, was the first crack in a campaign that has defied all expectations.

It has been a campaign built on Trump’s celebrity. Over the past eight months, his broad name recognition, larger-than-life personality and media savvy have produced a theatrical candidacy that has transfixed even those he repels. The question now is whether that celebrity will be enough – whether a man so obsessed with being “Number One” can bounce back from defeat.

Iowa isn’t everything, after all. It didn’t back the eventual Republican nominee in 2008 or 2012. Nor, for that matter, in 1980, when another “celebrity” candidate was in the mix. That was the year Iowa picked George H W Bush over Ronald Reagan – the former actor whom seasoned journalists dismissed as much for his right-wing views as for his “B-movie” repertoire. But Reagan regrouped, romped to victory in the New Hampshire primary and rode a wave of popular support all the way to the White House.

Trump might hope to replicate that success and has made a point of pushing the Reagan analogy more generally. Yet it is a comparison that exposes Trump’s weaknesses and his strengths.

Both men were once Democrats who came later in life to the Republican Party, projecting toughness, certainty and unabashed patriotism. Trump has even adopted Reagan’s 1980 campaign promise to “make America great again”. Like Reagan, he has shown he can appeal to evangelicals despite question marks over his religious conviction and divorces. In his ability to deflect criticism, too, Trump has shown himself as adept as Reagan – if by defiance rather than by charm – and redefined what it means to be “Teflon” in the age of Twitter.

That defiance, however, points to a huge difference in tone between Reagan’s candidacy and Trump’s. Reagan’s vision was a positive, optimistic one, even as he castigated “big government” and the perceived decline of US power. Reagan’s America was meant to be “a city upon a hill” offering a shining example of liberty to the world – in rhetoric at least. Trump’s vision is of an America closed off from the world. His rhetoric invokes fear as often as it does freedom.

On a personal level, Reagan avoided the vituperative attacks that have been the hallmark of Trump’s campaign, even as he took on the then“establishment” of the Republican Party – a moderate, urban, east coast elite. In his first run for the nomination, in 1976, Reagan even challenged an incumbent Republican president, Gerald Ford, and came close to defeating him. But he mounted the challenge on policy grounds, advocating the so-called “Eleventh Commandment”: “Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican.” Trump, as the TV debates between the Republican presidential candidates made clear, does not subscribe to the same precept.

More importantly, Reagan in 1976 and 1980 was the leader of a resurgent conservative movement, with deep wells of political experience. He had been president of the Screen Actors Guild in the late 1940s, waging a campaign to root out communist infiltrators. He had gone on to work for General Electric in the 1950s as a TV pitchman and after-dinner speaker, honing a business message that resonated beyond the “rubber chicken circuit”.

In 1964 he grabbed headlines with a televised speech on behalf of the Republican presidential candidate, Barry Goldwater – a bright spot in Goldwater’s otherwise ignominious campaign. Two years later he was elected governor of California – serving for eight years as chief executive of the nation’s most populous state. He built a conservative record on welfare reform, law and order, and business regulation that he pushed on to the federal agenda when he ran for president.

All this is to say that Reagan’s candidacy was built on more than his celebrity. By contrast, Trump not only lacks experience as an elected official, he isn’t part of any organised political movement – which enhanced his “outsider” status, perhaps, but not his ground game. So far, he has run on opportunism, tapping in to popular frustration, channelled through a media megaphone.

In Iowa, this wasn’t enough. To win the nomination he will have to do much more to build his organisation. He will be hoping that in the primaries to come, voters do remember who came in second. 

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war