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A traumatic visit to the family dentist reveals that my teeth are furred up like a kettle

Nicholas Lezard's "Down and Out" column.

Welcome to my world of pain. I woke up with what I imagine is a trapped nerve in my left leg, making any movement at all that involves it really rather painful. The Beloved told me the story of an Australian nurse who told a friend of hers suffering from Man Flu, “what you need is a six-pack of toughen the fuck up” (it works really well if you do the accent), but really she was sympathetic, particularly as I had to go in this morning to have the various shards of my splintered rear molar pulled out.

It is nice, if “nice” is really the word I’m groping for, to have a dentist within walking distance. But if you’re going “ow” every time you move your left leg, what would have been an otherwise jaunty and insouciant stroll towards a thoroughly enjoyable extraction, as these things so often are, turned out to be like something from Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow. “Cold enough for you?” asked my local Big Issue seller, the nice guy whose pitch is outside Waitrose. I assured him it was and was glad he wasn’t carrying any magazines, as I had only a tenner in my pocket and indeed the world, and needed to buy tea, bread, butter and orange juice on the way back.

As I sat in the waiting room, I took out my TLS and read a very interesting article on the British secret service’s use of torture from the Second World War on. That the reviewer didn’t go into any precise details about the techniques employed was, I suppose, some kind of relief. Then again, the imagination was left free to roam.

On reflection, I think it is safe to say that if you are an arm of the intelligence services of this power or any other, it would be unwise of you to entrust me with any particularly sensitive information that you’d prefer me to keep to myself. Do you know that brief but memorable sequence when Homer Simpson goes to the dentist? You can find it on YouTube but it goes roughly like this: in a dentist’s waiting room, we hear Homer screaming and calling the dentist “you butcher!” A mother reassures her spooked child: “I’m sure that man has a special tooth problem.” We then hear Homer screaming: “I don’t even have a special tooth problem! This is just a routine check-up!”, and the child dives out of the window.

That’s what I’m like when I have a scrape and a polish. I suppose it would help if I didn’t leave an average of two and a half years between check-ups, for the plaque build-up apparently leaves my teeth in the condition of a kettle that has been in constant service, in a hard water area, since the Coronation – but then that’s the way I roll. Take it or leave it. It is also a noble family tradition, inherited down the male line. My dentist, of whom I am actually rather fond, is also the family dentist, and my mother once asked him how good a patient my father was. “It’s all I can do to get him in the chair,” was his reply. I am, perversely, proud; for my father has always been very grown-up and stoic about this, and it is comforting to know that he, after all, has his weaknesses.

Anyway, even with three injections, there was a lot of my saying things like “no, stop”, and “can’t we just leave that bit in?” and, to be honest, the nurse holding my hand. I was interested to note that you really do break into a cold sweat in situations like this. I also only thought much later of saying something funny like, “You know, if you want my bank account details and PIN number, we really don’t have to go through this unseemly rigmarole.”

After a lot of yanking and fossicking about, he finally got the bastard out. And the tooth, ho ho. I looked at it – or rather, its shards – in the little tray next to me. They looked ancient, degraded, like something an archaeologist could plausibly claim dated from the Cretaceous period. Jesus, I thought, are all the others like that? I also wondered why the pink water they give you to swill your mouth out – so coloured, I always thought, to disguise any blood – was in this instance replaced by clear water; for now the blood was plain to see. And the coup de grâce? I’m allowed no more than one glass of wine this evening, for alcohol is a vasodilator, and it would start the hole bleeding all over again. “Don’t they know who you are?” asked my friend Tig. “It’s an outrage!” I wonder whether a little bleeding is such a bad thing.

Oh, and I forgot the bread and the butter at Waitrose. Can’t wait for the mile-and-a-half limp there and back.

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 04 March 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The fall of Pistorius

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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times