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All change please - Boris’s travel announcements must terminate now

These are times that try men’s souls.


These are times that try men’s souls. And women’s, obviously. This is, I gather, the “London issue” of this magazine but I am finding it hard to fall into line as I am actually beginning to get sick even of the very word “London”. If I write “London 2012” here, could the Olympic Branding Police come round to the Hovel and take me off to a nice prison somewhere up north, please? Somewhere without a telly?

Seriously, a city that has got large, well-populated sections of it that are accessible only by train or buses with letters as well as numbers on the front has got to be seriously screwed up when it starts bragging about itself as a world contender. I am thinking, precisely, of Clapham Junction but I am sure you can nominate your own south London contender, what with only 10 per cent of tube stations even now being south of the river. 

The Beloved hails from these regions and often mocks me for the anxiety that strikes me the moment I travel across or under the Thames, but even she concedes that there is something wrong about buses with letters on them as well as numbers.

Korea move

But not nearly as wrong as the pre-recorded announcements being made at stations. While dashing to catch a train to Clapham J the other day, I suddenly heard the voice of London’s Mayor, Boris Johnson, urging me, as far as I could tell through the haze of my own urgency and nausea, not to take a train during the Olympics. What fresh hell, I murmured to myself, is this? Are we now living in North Korea? I have before, in this very column, borrowed the term “gestapo khazi” from Peter Cook in order to describe this country’s push towards stupid authoritarianism but this new intrusion into our public life, both farcical and sinister, is a New Low. Last week, when I said that an Olympic travel-related fiasco on a grand scale would finish “Jackanapes” Johnson’s re-election chances for good, I was, I feared, being a little optimistic; but now I have heard his voice on the platforms, and those murmured “fuck off, Boris”es that raise a little cheer from other commuters, I begin to think that he really might have gone too far. 

If there’s one thing that Johnson incarnates, it is that toxic mixture of greed and ambition that has done so much to enhance the reputation of the Conservative Party in recent years and – more relevantly – the widening wealth gap visible in this city. This is really beginning to get me down. Go into the centre of town and you risk being run over by some bell-end in a Ferrari who thinks it’s fun to do 60mph in town. Go to Shepherd’s Bush and you risk being run over by someone in an electric wheelchair who thinks it’s fun to do 15mph on a crowded pavement. 

I jumped over the wealth divide the other day. The Beloved and I were invited to a dinner in Islington, mwah mwah. Actually I do not want to be too rude about this as one of the hosts is an old friend, and his girlfriend, who owns the flat I went to, is delightful, but still there are Things to be said. 

The first is, well, Islington. Have you seen it lately? I’m old enough to remember when it was run down. This is the kind of thing that can really age one. But that’s not the real problem. That would be the venue. Do you get the idea if I say there was a lift from street level to the living-room itself? I didn’t see this until the end of the evening, and when we went down 

I suggested we all move to the edges. I mean, only supervillains have private lifts, right? With floors that open to plunge you into a pool of sharks. 

Guest from hell

I was anxious to escape because one of the guests was one of those people you wish never to see again in your life, but who always shows up. The last time I met this pustule, whom I shall call “Damian”, it was at the last dinner party I went to, which was about 15 years ago. Having endured him at both big and little schools for over a decade, I had wearied of him before he started becoming the Person Who Pops Up Every Few Years and Makes You Think You’re Living in a Novel Sequence by Anthony Powell. Fate has a nasty sense of humour sometimes. 

But my big problem, the one that has been keeping me awake for days now, was with the bookshelves. The flat, as tall as the Sistine Chapel, was well-stocked with books. But, as a design statement perhaps, all the spines had been turned to the wall. And when this happens – books as pure decor – we can truly be said to have come to civilisation’s end. 

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 30 July 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The London Issue

David Cameron shows Labour how to do it

Leftwing rhetoric masked rightwing reality in Cameron's conference speech.

“The tanks are in the kitchen,” was the gloomy verdict of one Labour staffer to a speech in which the Prime Minister roamed freely into traditional left-wing territory.

But don’t be fooled: David Cameron is still the leader of an incredibly right-wing government for all the liberal-left applause lines.

He gave a very moving account of the difficulties faced by careleavers: but it is his government that is denying careleavers the right to claim housing benefit after they turn 22.

He made a powerful case for expanding home ownership: but his proposed solution is a bung for buy-to-let boomers and dual-earner childless couples, the only working-age demographic to do better under Cameron than under Labour.

On policy, he made just one real concession to the left: he stuck to his guns on equal rights and continued his government’s assault on the ridiculous abuse of stop-and-search. Neither of these are small issues, and they are a world away from the Conservative party before Cameron – but they also don’t cost anything.

In exchange for a few warm words, Cameron will get the breathing space to implement a true-blue Conservative agenda, with an ever-shrinking state for most of Britain, accompanied by largesse for well-heeled pensioners, yuppie couples, and small traders.

But in doing so, he gave Labour a lesson in what they must do to win again. Policy-wise,it is Labour – with their plans to put rocketboosters under the number of new housing units built – who have the better plan to spread home ownership than Cameron’s marginal solutions. But last week, John McDonnelll focussed on the 100,000 children in temporary accomodation. They are undoubtedly the biggest and most deserving victims of Britain’s increasingly dysfunctional housing market. But Labour can’t get a Commons majority – or even win enough seats to form a minority government – if they only talk about why their policies are right for the poor. They can’t even get a majority of votes from the poor that way.

What’s the answer to Britain’s housing crisis? It’s more housebuilding, including more social housing. Labour can do what Cameron did today in Manchester – and deliver radical policy with moderate rhetoric, or they can lose.

But perhaps, if Cameron feels like the wrong role model, they could learn from a poster at the People’s History Museum, taken not from Labour’s Blairite triumphs or even the 1960s, but from 1945: “Everyone – yes, everyone – will be better off under a Labour government”.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.