A second hand bookshop in Glasgow. How many books is too many books?
Show Hide image

You wouldn’t believe how much more objectionable I’d be if I wasn’t a socialist

That I have lived pretty much entirely self-sufficiently for six and a half years is a matter of some astonishment.

Someone comes round to look at the Hovel with a view to moving into the newly vacated room for six months. I am not wild about this, for it means more sharing of space, but it has to be done.

I reflect that I think about people in the same way I think about dogs: I despise them in theory and consider them, as the Semitic religions do, basically unclean; but once I meet them and I look into their large, liquid eyes, I cannot help but want to scratch them behind the ears and give them treats. They might make me come out in a rash and sneeze – and heaven help me if I stroke them and then rub my eyes – but damn it, there’s something adorable about them.

Is this a sound basis for my socialism, I wonder? I think it could be and it’s all the more sincere for being hard-won, against my ungenerous inclinations. I am reminded, by a roundabout process of association, of the response that Evelyn Waugh gave to Nancy Mitford (I think), who asked what the hell he was doing being a Catholic, as he was such a shit. His rather convincing reply went: you wouldn’t believe how much more of a shit I’d be if I wasn’t a Catholic.

Anyway, this person declined to take the room, giving the reason that the communal living areas were too messy. Considering that these communal areas comprise 1) a bathroom with lots of books in the bidet and bath, neither of which work; 2) a living room filled with books; 3) a kitchen, with lots of jars and bottles of stuff about the place, admittedly, but with only a well-mannered shelf of cookbooks (which, as a confident, self-sufficient cook, I never have to use); and 4) a terrace, an entirely book-free zone but, what with the weather and all that, not somewhere you’d want to hang out on right now, I only dimly understand the nature of the objection.

So I have been placed under orders, politely, to do something about this. Fair enough. All things considered, it could have been a lot worse. That I have lived pretty much entirely self-sufficiently for six and a half years without drowning in a sea of my own detritus and indolence, both physical and psychical, is a matter of some astonishment to people who have known me for a while and something of an astonishment to me, now that I come to think of it.

I think about this after coming back from a dinner with a friend who pities me from time to time and takes me to the restaurant Mon Plaisir in Covent Garden. I first met her not long after being kicked out by the wife and thought, when I clapped eyes on her, “Golly” – but our friendship has, thank goodness, proceeded along entirely platonic lines.

She’s also married and I realised pretty quickly that, even though I was by no means a choirboy when I was married, I have no desire at all to screw up anyone else’s arrangements. The discovery of a latent sense of morality in the autumn of one’s life was something I was unprepared for. I had assumed that leopards did not change their spots, after enduring many long and bitter lectures to this effect. Perhaps I’m not a leopard. Who knew?

My friend mentions that she knows many women roughly my age who are divorced and, to use a rather less weighted adjective than she does, keen to enter another relationship. I head her off at the pass before she can proceed. Even if I were on the market, I say (and I am most definitely not), the idea of entering a relationship with a divorcee would not appeal, on the grounds that such women are at least as set in their ways as I am – and my ways, laissez-faire in the extreme on the personal level, do not appeal to many these days.

I have learned that everyone, after a point, only likes things when they are done just so and any deviation is intolerable. I wonder how many marriages break up because one partner has decided that the other simply isn’t “doing things right”.

Also, there is that inbuilt dissatisfaction so many people cultivate. Marx’s prediction that one of the bad things about late capitalism would be “a contriving and ever calculating subservience to inhuman, sophisticated, unnatural and imaginary appetites” suggests, to me, not only pointlessly craving the latest iPhone but being the kind of person who feels the need to redecorate a room whether it needs it or not. Why, in the end, bother?

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 13 February 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Can we talk about climate change now?

Show Hide image

Jeremy Corbyn supporters should stop excusing Labour’s anti-immigration drift

The Labour leader is a passionate defender of migrants’ rights – Brexit shouldn’t distract the new left movement from that.

Something strange is happening on the British left – a kind of deliberate collective amnesia. During the EU referendum, the overwhelming majority of the left backed Remain.

Contrary to a common myth, both Jeremy Corbyn and the movement behind him put their weight into a campaign that argued forcefully for internationalism, migrants’ rights and regulatory protections.

And yet now, as Labour’s policy on Brexit hardens, swathes of the left appear to be embracing Lexit, and a set of arguments which they would have laughed off stage barely a year ago.

The example of free movement is glaring and obvious, but worth rehashing. When Labour went into the 2017 general election promising to end free movement with the EU, it did so with a wider election campaign whose tone was more pro-migrant than any before it.

Nonetheless, the policy itself, along with restricting migrants’ access to public funds, stood in a long tradition of Labour triangulating to the right on immigration for electorally calculated reasons. When Ed Miliband promised “tough controls on immigration”, the left rightly attacked him.  

The result of this contradiction is that those on the left who want to agree unequivocally with the leadership must find left-wing reasons for doing so. And so, activists who have spent years declaring their solidarity with migrants and calling for a borderless world can now be found contemplating ways for the biggest expansion of border controls in recent British history – which is what the end of free movement would mean – to seem progressive, or like an opportunity.

The idea that giving ground to migrant-bashing narratives or being harsher on Poles might make life easier for non-EU migrants was rightly dismissed by most left-wing activists during the referendum.

Now, some are going quiet or altering course.

On the Single Market, too, neo-Lexit is making a comeback. Having argued passionately in favour of membership, both the Labour leadership and a wider layer of its supporters now argue – to some extent or another – that only by leaving the Single Market could Labour implement a manifesto.

This is simply wrong: there is very little in Labour’s manifesto that does not have an already-existing precedent in continental Europe. In fact, the levers of the EU are a key tool for clamping down on the power of big capital.

In recent speeches, Corbyn has spoken about the Posted Workers’ Directive – but this accounts for about 0.17 per cent of the workforce, and is about to be radically reformed by the European Parliament.

The dangers of this position are serious. If Labour’s leadership takes the path of least resistance on immigration policy and international integration, and its support base rationalises these compromises uncritically, then the logic of the Brexit vote – its borders, its affirmation of anti-migrant narratives, its rising nationalist sentiment – will be mainlined into Labour Party policy.

Socialism in One Country and a return to the nation state cannot work for the left, but they are being championed by the neo-Lexiteers. In one widely shared blogpost on Novara Media, one commentator even goes as far as alluding to Britain’s Road to Socialism – the official programme of the orthodox Communist Party.

The muted and supportive reaction of Labour’s left to the leadership’s compromises on migration and Brexit owes much to the inept positioning of the Labour right. Centrists may gain personal profile and factional capital when the weaponising the issue, but the consequences have been dire.

Around 80 per cent of Labour members still want a second referendum, and making himself the “stop Brexit” candidate could in a parallel universe have been Owen Smith’s path to victory in the second leadership election.

But it meant that in the summer of 2016, when the mass base of Corbynism hardened its factional resolve, it did so under siege not just from rebelling MPs, but from the “Remoaners” as well.

At every juncture, the strategy of the centrist Labour and media establishment has made Brexit more likely. Every time a veteran of the New Labour era – many of whom have appalling records on, for instance, migrants’ rights – tells Labour members to fight Brexit, party members run a mile.

If Tony Blair’s messiah complex was accurate, he would have saved us all a long time ago – by shutting up and going away. The atmosphere of subterfuge and siege from MPs and the liberal press has, by necessity, created a culture of loyalty and intellectual conformity on the left.

But with its position in the party unassailable, and a radical Labour government within touching distance of Downing Street, the last thing the Labour leadership now needs is a wave of Corbynite loyalty-hipsters hailing its every word.

As the history of every attempt to form a radical government shows, what we desperately need is a movement with its own internal democratic life, and an activist army that can push its leaders as well as deliver leaflets for them.

Lexit is no more possible now than it was during the EU referendum, and the support base of the Labour left and the wider party is overwhelmingly in favour of free movement and EU membership.

Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell and Diane Abbott are passionate, principled advocates for migrants’ rights and internationalism. By showing leadership, Labour can once again change what is electorally possible.