The last outpost of Bohemia

I may be surviving on carpet lint and the charity of friends, but at least I don’t have to get up in

For reasons that I do not feel have been adequately explained to me, I have been asked to file my copy a day early, which is an outrage. At the time of being told, I blithely said – Lord, how I cringe to recall it – that a delivery date of Monday was “cool”. What I had failed to take into account was that this Monday was the day after my birthday, and so was to have been spent entirely under the duvet, with maybe the Test on the radio in the background playing very quietly indeed.

But I cannot grumble. I live in the last outpost of Bohemia, and am full of pity for all the people who have to get up in the morning at least five days a week. I once was one of them, and would vow to myself, as I found myself jammed against my fellow commuters at half-past eight in the morning, that I would, come what may, arrange my life in such a way that I would never suffer such horrific indignity again.

Buying a motorcycle went some way to addressing the problem – it meant that nowhere in London was ever more than 15 minutes away, which meant extra time between the sheets every morning – but it did not solve the central issue of having to sit in an office every weekday and listen to a load of bollocks about Total Quality Management and pretend to be excited about fax machines.

Not that it was too bad. I discovered that the way to survive in a large company was: a) to have an office with a lockable door and b) to make sure that when outside the office, en route to canteen, pub, or sympathetic fellow wage slaves to waste a bit of time with, I always walked briskly carrying a piece of paper with something written on it. I survived for two or three years like this until one day I was offered promotion. Realising that any organisation that was going to promote me had to be imbecilic
up to top management level, and that my degree of inactivity might have fooled everyone else but not the secretary I was going to be given, I resigned. (The only stroke of work that I can remember doing was writing a flyer for a forthcoming exhibition of answerphones or something. Completely stumped for ideas, I went to the local for a few jars and when I came back scrawled “The Future Starts Here”, and nothing else, on the back of an envelope and handed it in with a sneer. I was lauded as a genius. Christ.) Resigning wasn’t the smartest move ever, because two months later the company – a large telecommunications business you might have heard of called British Telecom – decided to sack half its executives anyway, sugaring the pill with substantial amounts of cash. I had been suspicious of the company ever since my interview, which consisted of them asking me what I would do with a lorryload of surplus dental amalgam, and what I would do if I were a transport minister charged with switching the country to driving on the right. (“Grow a beard and leave the country,” I said. And: “I went to Cambridge.”) Sometimes I dream I’m still there, becoming increasingly anxious about being paid a reasonable wage without having the faintest idea of what I am meant to be doing.

Still, I do not regret giving up the day job, and now find myself in the position of the great Hungarian playwright Ferenc Molnár, whose greatness resides, in my opinion, not so much in his literary ability (of which I am largely ignorant) but in his attitude to mornings, which as far as he was concerned could go and screw themselves while leaving him in peace. The story goes that he was once called as a witness in a court case, and a friend was despatched to make sure he got up in time for it. Stumbling bleary-eyed through the commuter-thronged streets, Molnár asked his companion, “Bloody hell, are all these people involved in this stupid case as well?”

Not having to get up in the mornings does, though, mean that you don’t get much opportunity to use the creative faculty when it comes to feigning reasons why you can’t come into work that day. I was once delighted when a young lady who was sharing my bed one Monday morning called the office to say, “I’m afraid I can’t come in, my glands are up,” and then, with the most outrageous wink, “and I can’t swallow anything.” Through iron self-control I managed not to laugh, but I damn nearly gave myself a hernia suppressing the impulse.

But we are not meant to do this kind of thing – go to the office every day. When I did, I would cry myself to sleep every evening. I am amazed that everyone else doesn’t do the same thing, too. Of course, it means I have to survive on carpet lint and the charity of friends, but it beats getting up in the morning.

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.

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No, David Cameron’s speech was not “left wing”

Come on, guys.

There is a strange journalistic phenomenon that occurs when a party leader makes a speech. It is a blend of groupthink, relief, utter certainty, and online backslapping. It happened particularly quickly after David Cameron’s speech to Tory party conference today. A few pundits decided that – because he mentioned, like, diversity and social mobility – this was a centre-left speech. A leftwing speech, even. Or at least a clear grab for the liberal centre ground. And so that’s what everyone now believes. The analysis is decided. The commentary is written. Thank God for that.

Really? It’s quite easy, even as one of those nasty, wicked Tories, to mention that you actually don’t much like racism, and point out that you’d quite like poor children to get jobs, without moving onto Labour's "territory". Which normal person is in favour of discriminating against someone on the basis of race, or blocking opportunity on the basis of class? Of course he’s against that. He’s a politician operating in a liberal democracy. And this isn’t Ukip conference.

Looking at the whole package, it was actually quite a rightwing speech. It was a paean to defence – championing drones, protecting Britain from the evils of the world, and getting all excited about “launching the biggest aircraft carriers in our history”.

It was a festival of flagwaving guff about the British “character”, a celebration of shoehorning our history chronologically onto the curriculum, looking towards a “Greater Britain”, asking for more “national pride”. There was even a Bake Off pun.

He also deployed the illiberal device of inculcating a divide-and-rule fear of the “shadow of extremism – hanging over every single one of us”, informing us that children in UK madrassas are having their “heads filled with poison and their hearts filled with hate”, and saying Britain shouldn’t be “overwhelmed” with refugees, before quickly changing the subject to ousting Assad. How unashamedly centrist, of you, Mr Prime Minister.

Benefit cuts and a reduction of tax credits will mean the Prime Minister’s enthusiasm for “equality of opportunity, as opposed to equality of outcome” will be just that – with the outcome pretty bleak for those who end up losing any opportunity that comes with state support. And his excitement about diversity in his cabinet rings a little hollow the day following a tubthumping anti-immigration speech from his Home Secretary.

If this year's Tory conference wins the party votes, it’ll be because of its conservative commitment – not lefty love bombing.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.