Thomas Beck in 1935, styling out a dressing gown as day wear. Photograph: Getty Images
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From dressing gowns at noon to dressing-downs at the post office ... and so the days pass

Nicholas Lezard's "Down and Out" column.

All book reviewers know by heart George Orwell’s essay “Confessions of a Book Reviewer”. Find one now, go on, and watch his or her lips move in unison with yours as you read out the opening sentence: “In a cold but stuffy bed-sitting room littered with cigarette ends and half-empty cups of tea, a man in a moth-eaten dressing-grown sits at a rickety table, trying to find room for his typewriter among the piles of dusty papers that surround it.”

The typewriter is now a laptop but the principle still applies. It’s probably Orwell’s funniest piece of writing, if you are not a book reviewer. If you are, then it may all be a little too painfully close to home, even if the book reviewer has since discovered you now don’t need to find a surface: you can take your laptop to bed and work from there, which was never really something you could comfortably do with a typewriter. Ah, progress.

The salient point for our purposes today is the term “dressing-gown”. Writers of a certain bent tend not to bother with the whole Getting Dressed Thing until around four o’- clock, when they remember they have run out of milk and need to go to the shops. In my wild youth, I would occasionally trot round the corner in my dressing gown, because what I looked like then, or so I fancy, was a young devil-may-care man unafraid of defying convention. It may not have been Gérard de Nerval walking the streets of Paris with a lobster on a leash, but it was good enough.

Approach the autumn of one’s life, though, and this becomes an option that gets firmly closed off. Cross the road in a dressing gown at my age and not only will people think you are an escapee from an institution for the demented, they may well try to reinstate you there – and I gather that the more hotly you try to persuade them that what they are doing is actually instating you, the more securely they tie you up before dropping you off.

The problem with the Not Getting Dressed Thing, then, is that a residual shame clings to it. The books arrive, for that is the job of their respective publicity departments. Or rather, some of them arrive. “How do you decide which books to review?” I am asked. The full answer should begin with the words, “Well, first they have to get through the door.” After all, there has to be some winnowing process if I am being sent 40 books a week and can only do one of them, and sheer chance may as well be one of the factors as anything else.

If the package is too large for the letterbox, the postman rings the bell. (Sometimes the packages are small but bound together with a rubber band which he is reluctant to remove.) It is usually around 11am. But I am still in my dressing gown and ashamed to face someone who has been up since six and pounding the streets with an enormous trolley weighed down mainly by books addressed to me. So, I cower in bed. I have also probably been further dispirited by making the mistake of reading comments below the line of an article I have recently written. “Mr Lezard is a literary critic, one of the most useless of all occupations,” said one fan. In fact, he or she elaborated on the point in reply to another reader’s comment, feeling that he or she had not gone far enough the first time: “He is a literary critic, so his work is inevitably incomprehensible, unreadable and pointless.”

Anyway, eventually I take a handful of the while-you-were-out cards they sometimes drop through the slot and go to the collection office. The following exchange invariably happens. Me: “Here I am, here is my passport and an official letter with my name on it, and here are some while-you-were-out cards.” Post official: “Yes, we’ve got loads of stuff for you.” (He goes off and returns with an enormous pile of jiffy bags and starts going through the cards.)

“I’m sorry, the cards you’ve given me don’t correspond to the parcels here.” Me: “What?” PO: “I can’t give you these parcels.” Me: “But this is me! Look! Here’s my picture in a passport! Here’s an official letter I would in fact rather have not received!” The last time this happened, last Saturday, I even tried crying a little bit, as I was sure I had the correct cards this time. Still no dice. I turned to the man behind me, as if to apologise for being ahead of him in the queue, but also, perhaps, in entreaty.

“This country is awesome,” he said, deadpan. Quite so. And I thought to myself: wow. We’ve finally done it. We’ve created a dystopia not even Orwell foresaw.

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 20 May 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Dream Ticket

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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