A bit of Kinnock at Christmas. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Christmas dinner comes early this year, with goulash, Kinnock and serious plotting

Everything went a bit hazy after that. It had got a bit hazy before, to be perfectly honest, because I had drunk about six bottles of wine and several shot glasses of slivovitz.

The last thing I remember is having an arm around Neil Kinnock, giving him some tips about how he should help Ed Miliband win the next election. I also, for what it was worth, put in a good word for the nearest thing I have to a Labour MP, Hammersmith’s very own Andy Slaughter, who has, as far as I can see – and I have been keeping an eye on him – been doing a very good job. (He’s the nearest thing I have to an MP because my children live in his constituency. The area I live in has never returned anything other than a Tory candidate, and never will.)

However, as I said, everything went a bit hazy after that. It had got a bit hazy before, to be perfectly honest, because I had drunk about six bottles of wine and several shot glasses of slivovitz. The wine was, though not entirely my fault as I will explain in a minute, rather a matter of personal indulgence, as it so often is; but the slivovitz was in the line of duty, as it was being poured for us in order to toast the hard-working staff of the Gay Hussar. And they deserved these toasts, for the restaurant was completely packed out with members of the Goulash Co-operative (look it up), formed by the likes of Martin Rowson in order to buy out and therefore save the restaurant, which will otherwise be sold and turned into a Starbucks or something equally boring.

For those who do not know the Gay Hussar (although I would imagine that this magazine’s core readership has a pretty good idea), it is a restaurant that has been going for 60-odd years, nestling in the armpit of Soho Square and Greek Street, serving an unchanging menu of Hungarian food to a clientele largely composed of Old Labour politicians. The walls are adorned with caricatures of various luminaries; the downstairs dining room alone has some 60 of these, all drawn by Martin Rowson. I suspect the idea was to pay for his meal in kind; that’s a lot of free dinners. Not that I am censorious. I was, after all, his guest; the people on his table had bowed out and Martin, asking himself the question “Whom do I know who would accept an invitation to a free lunch at almost the last possible minute?” came up with my name, for some reason.

It was, however, a happy choice. I have a fondness for Hungary and Hungarians, ever since I worked on a film in Budapest in the mid-1980s (with, let me boast, the actor Marcello Mastroianni, writing additional dialogue for him in English, a language he did not speak. The greatest gentleman Italy has ever produced, he treated me with a courtesy that few have ever treated me with since). I can count to ten in Hungarian still; I can read sentences aloud with such a good accent that few would realise I can’t understand what I’m reading; and I still have some phrases, along with a few ripe expletives that used to come in handy when the kids were young and I wanted to express frustration at some immediate outrage.

Also, my politics are as red and peppery as the restaurant’s goulash. It is telling that Tony Blair never ate there; its old-world atmosphere and menu would have repelled him and he hatched his conspiracies in more intimate surroundings. The Gay Hussar may have been a place for off-the-record conversations, but there is a kind of honesty in having a rendezvous somewhere open to the public, so that even if you’re going to be in a private room, people will have seen you and your co-plotter entering about the same time.

In short, history has been made there, and it is a sign of the end of a certain kind of politics that the restaurant is thinking of giving up.

I also blame the end of a certain kind of lunch. That is, a phenomenally alcoholic one that you don’t pay for. Publishers and agents used to do them very well; now a combination of austerity and prissiness has produced a nation that sits at its desk, dyspeptically nibbling on a Pret sandwich while worrying about being fired. This was one of the grand lunches: between me, Martin, his agent and the Moose (the other last-minute guest), we got through a lake of wine and a pondful of duck and smoked goose. And I’ll pass on the thought that – what with the bill of fare tending as it does towards the robust, and the national colours of Hungary being red, white and green, and the heavily oaked decor of the interior – the Gay Hussar is the kind of place that feels permanently Yule-ish; but in a good way. Let this not be its last year.

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 19 December 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Issue 2014

Getty
Show Hide image

The deafening killer - why noise will be the next great pollution scandal

A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. 

Our cities are being poisoned by a toxin that surrounds us day and night. It eats away at our brains, hurts our hearts, clutches at our sleep, and gnaws at the quality of our daily lives.

Hardly a silent killer, it gets short shrift compared to the well-publicised terrors of air pollution and sugars food. It is the dull, thumping, stultifying drum-beat of perpetual noise.

The score that accompanies city life is brutal and constant. It disrupts the everyday: The coffee break ruined by the screech of a line of double decker buses braking at the lights. The lawyer’s conference call broken by drilling as she makes her way to the office. The writer’s struggle to find a quiet corner to pen his latest article.

For city-dwellers, it’s all-consuming and impossible to avoid. Construction, traffic, the whirring of machinery, the neighbour’s stereo. Even at home, the beeps and buzzes made by washing machines, fridges, and phones all serve to distract and unsettle.

But the never-ending noisiness of city life is far more than a problem of aesthetics. A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. Recent studies have linked noise pollution to hearing loss, sleep deprivation, hypertension, heart disease, brain development, and even increased risk of dementia.

One research team compared families living on different stories of the same building in Manhattan to isolate the impact of noise on health and education. They found children in lower, noisier floors were worse at reading than their higher-up peers, an effect that was most pronounced for children who had lived in the building for longest.

Those studies have been replicated for the impact of aircraft noise with similar results. Not only does noise cause higher blood pressure and worsens quality of sleep, it also stymies pupils trying to concentrate in class.

As with many forms of pollution, the poorest are typically the hardest hit. The worst-off in any city often live by busy roads in poorly-insulated houses or flats, cheek by jowl with packed-in neighbours.

The US Department of Transport recently mapped road and aircraft noise across the United States. Predictably, the loudest areas overlapped with some of the country’s most deprived. Those included the south side of Atlanta and the lowest-income areas of LA and Seattle.

Yet as noise pollution grows in line with road and air traffic and rising urban density, public policy has turned a blind eye.

Council noise response services, formally a 24-hour defence against neighbourly disputes, have fallen victim to local government cuts. Decisions on airport expansion and road development pay scant regard to their audible impact. Political platforms remain silent on the loudest poison.

This is odd at a time when we have never had more tools at our disposal to deal with the issue. Electric Vehicles are practically noise-less, yet noise rarely features in the arguments for their adoption. Just replacing today’s bus fleet would transform city centres; doing the same for taxis and trucks would amount to a revolution.

Vehicles are just the start. Millions were spent on a programme of “Warm Homes”; what about “Quiet Homes”? How did we value the noise impact in the decision to build a third runway at Heathrow, and how do we compensate people now that it’s going ahead?

Construction is a major driver of decibels. Should builders compensate “noise victims” for over-drilling? Or could regulation push equipment manufacturers to find new ways to dampen the sound of their kit?

Of course, none of this addresses the noise pollution we impose on ourselves. The bars and clubs we choose to visit or the music we stick in our ears. Whether pumping dance tracks in spin classes or indie rock in trendy coffee shops, people’s desire to compensate for bad noise out there by playing louder noise in here is hard to control for.

The Clean Air Act of 1956 heralded a new era of city life, one where smog and grime gave way to clear skies and clearer lungs. That fight still goes on today.

But some day, we will turn our attention to our clogged-up airwaves. The decibels will fall. #Twitter will give way to twitter. And every now and again, as we step from our homes into city life, we may just hear the sweetest sound of all. Silence.

Adam Swersky is a councillor in Harrow and is cabinet member for finance. He writes in a personal capacity.