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Back in Laurie Penny’s flat, I become prey to some gloomy imaginings

It has always struck me as odd that one of the most fundamental of human needs is one of the most expensive.

Back in Brighton, looking after Laurie Penny’s flat while she travels the world, saving it. The last time I was here I was, to start with, unaccountably depressed. These days I am cheerier, although that may be down to a growing acceptance of my condition.

Whether this is a good thing or not, I don’t know. “Why don’t you get a job?” was one unhelpful comment I received not too long ago, but how does one go about that? The last time I had a job, as in one of those things one gets dressed and goes on public transport in the morning to do, Margaret Thatcher was prime minister, and not looking like going any time soon, either.

Anyway, I already have lots of things to do, which, if I were doing them, would take up all my time. I have a book about fiction in translation to write, another book to organise, and a script that is meant to be my ticket out of here. So I have enough on my plate. The day goes a bit like this:

7.45am – 9.00am Wake up.

9.05am Have a look around.

9.06am Pick up a book, start reading in bed.

9.07am Fall asleep again.

11.30am Wake up. Panic. Make tea. Read some more. Maybe even write something, if there’s a deadline.

1.30pm Fall asleep again.

4.00pm Wake up, feeling dreadful. Eat something. Make tea. Pick up book. Etc. Until

6.00pm Wine.

Bedtime comes around 1am or 2am.

As you can see, we are not exactly in the realm of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. The person who suggested that I get a job had done a lot of hard work to turn herself into a teacher, for which achievement I have nothing but admiration, but she did so in the knowledge that whatever happened, she would still have a roof she could call her own over her head. Not having a roof one can call etc makes the slightest effort at self-improvement daunting, and you don’t have to Google “psychological effects of homelessness” to work that one out.

One thing I do is pay a lot more attention to the rough sleepers I encounter during the course of the day.

Shelter, the charity I started giving to the moment I got thrown out of the family home, says there are about 4,500 rough sleepers in the UK, a figure I find somewhat at odds with my own observations, although I am prepared to take their word for it.

So I do what I can. I give change when I have it; when I don’t, I ask them what they want and go to the nearest shop to get it. (Last week involved a personal financial crisis, and I was unable to help in any way short of curling up next to them on the street, but I’m not a saint.)

One thing this does is bring home the gulf that exists between the pavement and borrowed accommodation; but then again, that gulf has narrowed, for until I start making rather a lot more than I’m earning now, a room of my own is an impossibility.

It has always struck me as odd, and now strikes me even more forcefully, that in contemporary society, one of the most fundamental of human needs should also be one of the most expensive. Start thinking like this and you become prey to gloomy imaginings, like: what if they decided to do the same with food, and make a loaf of Mother’s Pride cost fifty quid? There seems to be no reason why not, in principle, and it does seem to be the way the world is heading right now.

I apologise for going on about this, week after week. What I really should be doing is, in 800 well-chosen words, considering the place of Flaubert’s L’Éducation Sentimentale in the canon, and persuading people to read it in translation, and then doing the same for many other novels, but it is damn hard to concentrate on anything else. Although today has been one of the better days. For which, as I believe I said the last time I was in her flat, you can thank Ms Penny, who, as I also said before, walks the walk when it comes to rescuing flotsam. Although she does want me to put up some shelves. It’s a blue job, she says. 

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 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist

Photo: Getty
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Michael Carrick is the “Geordie Pirlo” that England misunderstood

The Manchester United legend’s retirement announcement should leave Three Lions fans wondering what if?

That it came in the months leading up to a World Cup arguably added an exclamation point to the announcement of Michael Carrick’s impending retirement. The Manchester United midfielder, who is expected to take up a coaching role with the club afterwards, will hang up his boots at the end of the season. And United boss Jose Mourinho’s keenness to keep Carrick at Old Trafford in some capacity only serves to emphasise how highly he rates the 36-year-old.

But Carrick’s curtain call in May will be caveated by one striking anomaly on an otherwise imperious CV: his international career. Although at club level Carrick has excelled – winning every top tier honour a player based in England possibly can – he looks set to retire with just 34 caps for his country, and just one of those was earned at a major tournament.

This, in part, is down to the quality of competition he has faced. Indeed, much of the conversation around England’s midfield in the early to mid-noughties centred on finding a system that could accommodate both box-to-box dynamos Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard.

As time went on, however, focus shifted towards trequartistas, advanced playmakers and those with more mobile, harrying playing styles. And the likes of Jack Wilshere, Ross Barkley, Jordan Henderson and Dele Alli were brought into the frame more frequently than Carrick, whose deep-lying capabilities were not utilised to their full potential. That nearly 65 per cent of Carrick’s England caps have come in friendlies shows how undervalued he was. 

In fairness, Carrick does not embody similar characteristics to many of his England midfield contemporaries, including a laudable lack of ego. He is not blessed with lung-busting pace, nor is he enough of a ball-winner to shield a back four solo. Yet his passing and distribution satisfy world-class criteria, with a range only matched, as far as England internationals go, by his former United team-mate Paul Scholes, who was also misused when playing for his country.

Rather, the player Carrick resembles most isn’t English at all; it’s Andrea Pirlo, minus the free-kicks. When comparisons between the mild-mannered Geordie and Italian football’s coolest customer first emerged, they were dismissed in some quarters as hyperbole. Yet watching Carrick confirm his retirement plans this week, perfectly bearded and reflecting on a trophy-laden 12-year spell at one of world football’s grandest institutions, the parallels have become harder to deny.

Michael Carrick at a press event ahead of Manchester United's Champions League game this week. Photo: Getty.

Where other players would have been shown the door much sooner, both Pirlo and Carrick’s efficient style of play – built on patience, possession and precision – gifted them twilights as impressive as many others’ peaks. That at 36, Carrick is still playing for a team in the top two of the top division in English football, rather than in lower-league or moneyed foreign obscurity, speaks volumes. At the same age, Pirlo started for Juventus in the Champions League final of 2015.

It is ill health, not a decline in ability, which is finally bringing Carrick’s career to a close. After saying he “felt strange” during the second-half of United’s 4-1 win over Burton Albion earlier this season, he had a cardiac ablation procedure to treat an irregular heart rhythm. He has since been limited to just three more appearances this term, of which United won two. 

And just how key to United’s success Carrick has been since his £18m signing from Tottenham in 2006 cannot be overstated. He was United’s sole signing that summer, yielding only modest excitement, and there were some Red Devils fans displeased with then manager Sir Alex Ferguson’s decision to assign Carrick the number 16 jersey previously worn by departed captain Roy Keane. Less than a year later, though, United won their first league title in four years. The following season, United won the league and Champions League double, with Carrick playing 49 times across all competitions.

Failing to regularly deploy Carrick in his favoured role – one that is nominally defensive in its position at the base of midfield, but also creative in providing through-balls to the players ahead – must be considered one of the most criminal oversights of successive England managers’ tenures. Unfortunately, Carrick’s heart condition means that current boss Gareth Southgate is unlikely to be able to make amends this summer.

By pressing space, rather than players, Carrick compensates for his lack of speed by marking passing channels and intercepting. He is forever watching the game around him and his unwillingness to commit passes prematurely and lose possession is as valuable an asset as when he does spot an opening.

Ultimately, while Carrick can have few regrets about his illustrious career, England fans and management alike can have plenty. Via West Ham, Spurs and United, the Wallsend-born émigré has earned his billing as one of the most gifted midfielders of his generation, but he’d never let on.

Rohan Banerjee is a Special Projects Writer at the New Statesman. He co-hosts the No Country For Brown Men podcast.