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My new home is Crickhollow, and my new friend is a dog called Mattie

She’s worked out that I’ve been having a rotten time lately, and has come to cheer me up.

I am back in Brighton, not cat-sitting but flat-sitting; at, indeed, our own Laurie Penny’s, while she does important things in, I think, Germany. I am now installed in a basement flat in a road so amusingly named that we have made all the jokes. (I do not want to be more specific because there are an awful lot of creeps out there, as becomes clearer every day.)

It is strangely pleasing for the boot to be on the other foot, and for Laurie being in a position to offer me shelter; it is also pleasing to be able to report that Ms Penny walks the whole “from each according to their abilities” etc walk as well as talking the talk. Raise a cup of your preferred beverage or tipple to her some time today. (Her Wi-Fi network is called “Crickhollow”, a literary reference I find adorably poignant, and she tells me I am the first person to have got it.)

The mood in Brighton is rather different from the last time I was here. Then, it was shirtsleeve weather. Now, it is jumper and jacket weather, and that’s before you go outdoors. The part of town I’m in isn’t so frisky and drop-dead hip as the Lanes; and it is, moreover, at the top of an enormous hill. I thought the hills were a problem in Edinburgh but this is ridiculous. The Edinburgh hills that I saw may have been vertiginous but they didn’t go on for ever. Only Bristol can compete for unending, Sisyphean grind.

On my first full day back in Brighton, recovering from a stinking head cold, I looked back up the hill I had just come down and realised I wasn’t going to be using my feet on the return journey. I was mildly surprised not to see the slope littered, like Everest, with the bodies of those who had attempted the climb. Is there a shop in Brighton that sells oxygen? You’d have thought there would be. A nice little niche area for an entrepreneur, I throw the idea out for free. Set it up next to a vape shop, perhaps. 

So I sat in the Foundry – an utterly unspoiled pub which was also playing a selection from Spotify that may have been specifically designed to soothe me – nursing a pint and wondering how I was going to get back up the hill. I am going to have to revise my policy of falling in love with places that have more than one hill.

Lately, I have been smoking less, for some reason, but doing so has had no particularly beneficial effect on my lungs and I am beginning to wonder if the damage done to them is irreversible. It would serve me right. At the moment the only health problem I have, apart from wheezing, and a fear of inclines, is the return of my boils, one of which has, without the aid of oxygen or crampons, established base camp at the back of my neck.  None has ever climbed this high before, and I wonder where it will all end.

This sets me to brooding – this is the second week in a row I have brooded, I know, and the Foundry, a pub lit largely by candlelight, is an excellent place in which to do it – on this and that, when I notice a small commotion at the table next to me. A Jack Russelly dog is trying very hard to get to me. I am not sure whether it wants to make friends with me or eat me.

The ladies it is with ask me if I have any food in my pockets. I do not. The dog, now frantic, breaks free of its handlers. It is clear that what it wants, right now, is a Lezard, and no substitute will be accepted. It jumps up on to my lap, licks me a couple of times, and then sits down by my feet like a sentry, as if it has found its natural position and purpose in life.

“Are you a dog whisperer?” asks one of the ladies. I bend down to the dog’s ear. “Am I a dog whisperer?” I whisper, which gets a laugh.  

“Actually,” I say, sitting back up and addressing the humans, “I think it’s more the case that the dog is a People Whisperer. She’s worked out that I’ve been having a rotten time lately, and has come to cheer me up.”

And I am indeed cheered up. This is something I’ve noticed in the last few years: I have gone from someone who (as a child) used to be scared of dogs; to someone who just disliked them (too smelly, fur not furry enough; basically, not cats); to someone who could take them or leave them; to – as I am now – someone who is delighted by their company, as long as they are not actually savage.

After a while Mattie – for that is her name – has decided I have been cheered up enough now, and goes back to her original people. This is what the world needs: more Matties, more Lauries. And outside, a taxi is waiting, to take me back to Crickhollow. 

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 09 November 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory sinking ship

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Four key thinkers more deserving of a revival than “Trump’s philosopher” Ayn Rand

If thinkers have enduring value, it is because their ideas are timeless, not timely.

A recent story in theTimes carried the headline, “Trump’s philosopher is heading for your local pub”. The philosopher in question was Ayn Rand, whose works The Fountainhead (1943) and Atlas Shrugged (1957) have been a profound influence on the American right since they were published, and are apparently enjoying a resurgence.

The story went on: the previous week, “about 15 people packed into a room above the Plumbers Arms in Victoria, central London” to discuss Rand. You read that right: 15! Three more than a dozen! Their cups runneth over indeed. We later discovered that Britain’s first Ayn Rand Centre is being set up. Moreover, new groups dedicated to Rand have popped up in Reading and Milton Keynes.

Everything about this story was designed to make me angry. For one thing, Rand was above all a novelist, not a philosopher. For another, it’s generous to suggest that the star of America’s Celebrity Apprentice, who is also the current occupant of the White House, is deeply familiar with her overall body of work. He said he enjoyed The Fountainhead; that’s some way short of her being a favourite philosopher.

But the thing that really riles me is this fashion for stories about intellectual fashions. Last year, apparently, there was an upsurge of interest in, and sales of, George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. During the financial crisis, displaying knowledge of Hyman Minsky’s oeuvre became the columnist’s trope du jour – just as, in the recession that followed, flaunting one’s knowledge of John Maynard Keynes’s The General Theory was a mark of cool and learning.

If thinkers have enduring value, it is because their ideas are timeless, not timely. So here, apropos of nothing in particular, are four other key thinkers that are being unfairly neglected.

1. Polonius The true hero of Elsinore, who manages to distil in one speech more wisdom than the self-indulgent prince manages over five acts. Where Hamlet’s meandering vanities take him hither and thither to no great end, Polonius speaks the language of uncommon common sense to which this column aspires. And how prescient is he? His “neither a borrower nor a lender be” anticipated the post-monetary policy era four centuries before Mark Carney took the reins in Threadneedle Street. And his advice to “Give every man thine ear but few thy voice” is the perfect coping mechanism for social media. 

2. Judith Kerr If you have young children, chances are you are more than familiar with Kerr’s seminal work, The Tiger Who Came to Tea. In it, Sophie is having tea with her mother in the kitchen when a big, furry, stripy tiger knocks on the door. It joins them and promptly eats and drinks everything in the house, forcing the family to go out for a special dinner when Sophie’s father comes home from work. Naturally, I don’t approve of the stereotypical gender roles in this plot; but the message of instinctive generosity and openness to unfamiliar outsiders, with unforeseen benefits for family life, undoubtedly carries lessons for our age of mass migration and rapid demographic upheaval.

3. Meryl Streep Less neglected than my other candidates for your attention, I’ll grant; but I really think Meryl Streep’s assertion, when asked in 2015 by Time Out if she was a feminist, is crucial. She said: “I’m a humanist.” In doing this she proclaimed the connection between feminism and universal ideals, placed feminism within a broader philosophical tradition, and revived interest in humanism at a time when religiosity is again on the march. Given the current conniptions over gender in our public domain, this was an important contribution, don’t you think?

4. Humphrey Appleby Have you noticed that, amid the toxic warfare over Brexit, the once unimpeachable integrity of Britain’s civil servants is now being traduced? Jacob Rees-Mogg criticised them only the other week. I recommend he revisit Yes, Minister, in which the peerless Nigel Hawthorne played the ultimate British bureaucrat. His dictum that “a cynic is what an idealist calls a realist” is both plausible and the perfect coolant for our
overheated democracy.

Back to the Ayn Rand philosophy club: I don’t believe I’ve tried the Plumbers Arms in Victoria. But I’ll make an exception if some New Statesman reader is prepared to start the first UK society dedicated to the propagation of these thinkers’ ideas. Anyone fancy a pint? 

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist