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These boots weren’t made for walking – they were made for moaning about

Nicholas Lezard's "Down and Out" column.

Another pair of boots has bitten the dust. I was crossing Paddington Street during the cold snap and felt a draught in the side of my foot. I am used to feeling draughts in unusual or unwelcome places and they are invariably signs of what we have come laughingly to describe as wardrobe malfunctions. Normally they strike me in the area that cricket commentators coyly refer to as “amidships” and are the result of a faulty fly button. My children are vexed and confused by me for many reasons but the one that drives them up the wall the most is my predilection for button- flies rather than zips.

What can I say? The Levi’s 501 black jean, which is the only trouser I wear during the winter months (they are modestly stylish, unassuming, the right shape and hard-wearing) does not come with a zip-fly, OK? Unfortunately the middle buttonhole of the fly degrades over time and opens at the slightest pretext, or on no pretext at all. The last time this happened when I was with the kids, the Big Issue seller at the market had to point it out to me. While my offspring died several deaths from embarrassment, the BI seller made light of the incident, reminding us of what Churchill had said when someone pointed out that he was flying low: “dead birds don’t fall from their nests”, which amused me but didn’t make the kids feel any better at all for some reason.

But I digress. This was the boot, one of a pair I had bought about 13 months before, from the expensive manufacturers, and had been so excited about – I’d never spent so much on footwear – I put it in one of these columns. The idea was that by investing in a pair of expensive boots whose makers have a royal charter – I am, I assure you, very much a republican but even I suspect that Her Maj and co don’t put any old shit on their feet – I would have something that would outlast me. My children, their past shame-making experiences with my fly buttons now forgotten, or recalled with a wry, indulgent smile, would find my Loake’s boots, bought in 2011, many years hence while going through my effects. “He loved those boots,” they would explain to their own children. “He looked after them and they lasted him until the end of his days. I hope one day you, too, come to appreciate the hard work that went into his seemingly effortless style.”

Anyway, the bastards more or less exploded while crossing the road at my usual leisurely pace. I showed them to the shoe shop-cum-repair-shop – which only sells that brand – which supplied me in the first place. “Never seen that before,” they said. “You must do an awful lot of walking.”

“I’m a writer,” I explained. “I don’t even get out of bed if I can help it. And I don’t wear them during the summer.” (Which I concede means that in 2012 they only got about a week’s rest, so awful was last year for good weather.)

The idea was that they would get on to Loake, who, realising the value of good publicity, even in this column, would supply me with a new, guaranteed pair at an extremely advantageous rate, and we would all proceed happily. But we examined them – the three people behind the bar tending the machines, myself, and a couple of customers. I must say the boots did not look as they belonged to a gentleman with a sedentary lifestyle. They had gone from something the royal family’s matriarch considered worthy of clicking the “Like” button for to something that both Vladimir and Estragon would have rejected as being infra dignitatem.

I was reminded of the twist on the old saying: “You cannot judge a man until you have walked a mile in his moccasins; for not only are you a mile away from him, you also have his moccasins.” It was if someone had been walking miles in my moccasins and then returning them to me when I slept.

This has been bothering me for a week now. Does this mean I will never trust the royal warrant again? Or that I should try not to think too hard about what goes on the ends of my legs? And is this fannying around with footwear simply a displacement activity, something I am using to distract myself from the ongoing catastrophe that is the rest of my life? (As the tailor says to the customer who complains it took God less time to make the world than him to make his trousers: “but just look at the world . . . and now look at my trousers”.) Anyway, I bought another pair of the damn things. If ER uses them to boot her son up the jacksy, they can’t be all bad.

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 18 March 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The German Problem

Photo: Getty Images
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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.