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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Theresa May’s Brexit speech is Angela Merkel’s victory – here’s why

The Germans coined the word “merkeln to describe their Chancellor’s approach to negotiations. 

It is a measure of Britain’s weak position that Theresa May accepts Angela Merkel’s ultimatum even before the Brexit negotiations have formally started

The British Prime Minister blinked first when she presented her plan for Brexit Tuesday morning. After months of repeating the tautological mantra that “Brexit means Brexit”, she finally specified her position when she essentially proposed that Britain should leave the internal market for goods, services and people, which had been so championed by Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s. 

By accepting that the “UK will be outside” and that there can be “no half-way house”, Theresa May has essentially caved in before the negotiations have begun.

At her meeting with May in July last year, the German Chancellor stated her ultimatum that there could be no “Rosinenpickerei” – the German equivalent of cherry picking. Merkel stated that Britain was not free to choose. That is still her position.

Back then, May was still battling for access to the internal market. It is a measure of how much her position has weakened that the Prime Minister has been forced to accept that Britain will have to leave the single market.

For those who have followed Merkel in her eleven years as German Kanzlerin there is sense of déjà vu about all this.  In negotiations over the Greek debt in 2011 and in 2015, as well as in her negotiations with German banks, in the wake of the global clash in 2008, Merkel played a waiting game; she let others reveal their hands first. The Germans even coined the word "merkeln", to describe the Chancellor’s favoured approach to negotiations.

Unlike other politicians, Frau Merkel is known for her careful analysis, behind-the-scene diplomacy and her determination to pursue German interests. All these are evident in the Brexit negotiations even before they have started.

Much has been made of US President-Elect Donald Trump’s offer to do a trade deal with Britain “very quickly” (as well as bad-mouthing Merkel). In the greater scheme of things, such a deal – should it come – will amount to very little. The UK’s exports to the EU were valued at £223.3bn in 2015 – roughly five times as much as our exports to the United States. 

But more importantly, Britain’s main export is services. It constitutes 79 per cent of the economy, according to the Office of National Statistics. Without access to the single market for services, and without free movement of skilled workers, the financial sector will have a strong incentive to move to the European mainland.

This is Germany’s gain. There is a general consensus that many banks are ready to move if Britain quits the single market, and Frankfurt is an obvious destination.

In an election year, this is welcome news for Merkel. That the British Prime Minister voluntarily gives up the access to the internal market is a boon for the German Chancellor and solves several of her problems. 

May’s acceptance that Britain will not be in the single market shows that no country is able to secure a better deal outside the EU. This will deter other countries from following the UK’s example. 

Moreover, securing a deal that will make Frankfurt the financial centre in Europe will give Merkel a political boost, and will take focus away from other issues such as immigration.

Despite the rise of the far-right Alternative für Deutschland party, the largely proportional electoral system in Germany will all but guarantee that the current coalition government continues after the elections to the Bundestag in September.

Before the referendum in June last year, Brexiteers published a poster with the mildly xenophobic message "Halt ze German advance". By essentially caving in to Merkel’s demands before these have been expressly stated, Mrs May will strengthen Germany at Britain’s expense. 

Perhaps, the German word schadenfreude comes to mind?

Matthew Qvortrup is author of the book Angela Merkel: Europe’s Most Influential Leader published by Duckworth, and professor of applied political science at Coventry University.