Down and out in London

Once you hit your stride, you’re spending about 23 hours a day in bed. No wonder I look so well

My many thanks to all the readers (not a huge number, I gather) who inquired after my health when they saw the rubric at the bottom of last week’s page, saying I was unwell. I was not, in fact, unwell; the note was a conscious hommage to Jeffrey Bernard, who used to write a column called “Low Life” for this magazine’s deadly rival, the Spectator. As it happens, I used to hang out with Bernard, to the point that he had the sauce to pinch a girlfriend off me; she came back after a brief interval, during which she had discovered that diabetic alcoholics who drink a bottle of vodka a day can have problems in the sack. But that’s another story for another day.

As to my unwellness, I have to say that, compared to my days in the family home, I am now astonishingly healthy. This may come as a surprise to those who have received calls from me saying I have been too unwell to do X or Y; I will now come clean and say that, almost every time, this has either been because the damage was self-inflicted the night before, or because I simply didn’t feel like doing X or Y.

Genuine illness has struck me down for a total of probably five or six days in the past 21 months – and that’s including one three-day bout of flu, the kind that was putting everyone else out of action for two weeks at a time.

Of course, this is physical illness we’re talking about here. The first three or four months after I moved into the Hovel were spent pretty much in their entirety crying in bed, which I suppose counts as debility of a kind, but at least I could rouse myself enough to get some sort of work done. I have since learned that depression can manifest itself either as insomnia or its opposite, hypersomnia. I can warmly recommend the latter for the man in a crisis. The great thing about hypersomnia is that it builds up into a state that is more or less like the kind of suspended animation that some scientists recommend as the only solution for manned interstellar travel. Sleeping a lot, I discovered, tends to make you more sleepy; by the time you really hit your stride, you’re spending about 23 hours a day in bed.

You do have to get out and about, though, but the other pleasant end product of hypersomnia is its Dorian Gray-like effect on the ageing process.

I know this is tempting the Fates horribly, but I am looking rather well considering my age and what I do with myself. My younger brother was recently outraged to be asked, by a woman who appeared to be in full possession of her faculties, which one of us was the elder. “Him,” he snarled. “Really? By how much?” “Five years.” “Five years!” If I turn my ears in the direction of Dollis Hill, I can hear his teeth still grinding; for he is much more abstemious in his habits than I am, and even goes to the gym. Or runs about. Or something like that.

It is horribly unfair, and although my estranged wife persists, to this day, in the belief that my slender figure is attributable to nothing more than snorting enormous amounts of cocaine off the glistening bottoms of hookers, it really is down to the combination of a virtuous lifestyle and a speedy metabolism. Well, virtuous is pushing it a bit, as I manage to exceed the government’s recommended wine intake by a factor of at least three, have a 95:5 ratio of fatty meat-to-vegetable diet, and do little more exercise than jiggling my foot when watching television (although I do have a pair of six-kilo dumb-bells, which I use for vanity’s sake).

I think I know what the secret is: it is really down to not being shouted at all day, and being able to get up when I want. Had I been forced to live in some really grisly area like Harlesden, I would have succumbed either to shingles or terminal depression or both.

True, it is not all rosy. A molar cracked in half the other day while I was eating what Waitrose had correctly described as a perfectly ripe avocado, and there has been an explosion of mega-zits on my back, whose remnants I could plausibly pass off as an old shotgun wound. (“Anger,” says my friend The Therapist. “Do you wash your back?” asks my housemate J–.) But The Thing I

Am Terrified Is Stomach Cancer and The Thing I Am Terrified Is A Stroke and The Thing I Am Terrified Is A Heart Attack have not returned; they used to circle me like yo-yos. I haven’t even had to go to the doctor since being thrown out.

It is, though, early days, and I could well end up like poor Jeffrey Bernard, with enormous goitres on my neck, being pushed around the Groucho in a wheelchair. And they won’t even have written a play about me.

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 March 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The end of American power

Photo: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
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Conservative disunity is not all good news for Labour

The Tory leadership election could squeeze Labour out of the conversation, just like Blair and Brown did to the Tories.

The first test of opposition politics is relevance. Other key yardsticks - political plausibility, economic credibility, setting the agenda and developing a governing vision - all matter greatly. But making yourself a central part of the relentless cycle of daily politics, the terms of which are generally set by the governing party, is the first hurdle. It matters not whether you sign up to new politics or old: be relevant or wither. 

The issue of relevance is becoming a pressing issue for Labour. Take George Osborne’s favoured issue of the so-called national living wage.  Leave to one side the rights, wrongs and nuances of the policy and just consider the basic political dynamic it creates.  Osborne has, quite deliberately, set up a rolling five year argument over a steadily rising wage floor. On one side, is the Chancellor arguing that his policy is the right thing for Britain’s ranks of low paid workers. Pitted against him are ranks of chief executives of low-paying big business. With each impending hike they will holler at Osborne to go no further and the media will happily amplify the row. In response the Chancellor will quietly smile.

Sure, on occasions this will be uncomfortable stance for Mr Osborne (and if the economy takes a downward turn then his pledge will become incredible; there are always big risks with bold strokes).  Yet the dominant argument between the Conservatives and big business leaves Labour largely voiceless on an issue which for generations it has viewed as its own.

We may well see a similar dynamic in relation to the new national infrastructure commission – another idea that Osborne has plundered form Labour’s 2015 manifesto. It’s far too early to say what will come of its work looking at proposals for major new transport and energy projects (though those asserting it will just be a talking shop would do well not to under-estimate Andrew Adonis, its first Chair). But there is one thing we can already be confident about: the waves of argument it will generate between Osborne’s activist commissioners and various voices of conservatism. Every big infrastructure proposal will have noisy opponents, many residing on the right of British politics. On the issue of the future of the nation’s infrastructure – another touchstone theme for Labour – the opposition may struggle to get heard amid the din.

Or take the different and, for the government, highly exposing issue of cuts to tax credits. Here the emerging shape of the debate is between Osborne on one side and the Sun, Boris Johnson, various independent minded Conservative voices and economic think-tanks on the other. Labour will, of course, repeatedly and passionately condemn these cuts. But so have plenty of others and, for now at least, they are more colourful or credible (or both).  

The risk for the opposition is that a new rhythm of politics is established. Where the ideological undercurrent of the government steers it too far right, other voices not least those within the Conservative family - moderates and free-spirits emboldened by Labour’s current weakness; those with an eye on the forthcoming Tory leadership contest – get reported.  Where Osborne consciously decides to tack to the centre, the resulting rows will be between him and the generally Conservative supporting interests he upsets. Meanwhile, Labour is left struggling for air.

None of which is to say there are no paths back to relevance. There are all sorts of charges against the current government that, on the right issues, could be deployed - incompetence, complacency, inequity – by an effective opposition.  Nor is the elixir of relevance for a new opposition hard to divine: a distinct but plausible critique, forensic and timely research, and a credible and clear voice to deliver the message. But as yet we haven’t heard much of it.

Even in the best of times being in opposition is an enervating existence. Those out of power rarely get to set the terms of trade, even if they often like to tell themselves they can. Under Ed Miliband Labour had to strain – sometimes taking big risks - to establish its relevance in a novel era defined by the shifting dynamics of coalition politics. This time around Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour is up against a Chancellor willing to take risks and pick big fights: often with traditional Tory foes such as welfare claimants; but sometimes with people on his own side.  It’s also a new and challenging context. And one which Labour urgently needs to come to terms with.   

Gavin Kelly is chief executive of the Resolution Foundation