‘Women Who Eat on Tubes’ isn’t high art. It’s harassment

Independent on Sunday,13 April 2014

Women should be able to use public transport – and eat – without having to worry about weirdos with camera phones

Some men are funny about watching women eat. Lord Byron couldn’t stand the sight because (according to his first biographer) it might disturb his notion of their “perfection and almost divine nature”. A century later, Sigmund Freud identified a “cannibalistic” phase of infant development in which “sexual activity has not yet been separated from the ingestion of food”. He also wrote about the “vagina dentata”, a malign fantasy in which the female sexual organ is transformed into a hungry mouth, crammed with sharp teeth.

A confusion of mouths and vaginas may be one of the reasons why some religious societies, such as Saudi Arabia, expect men and women to eat separately. Evidently the act of eating, when it’s done by women, inspires a whole range of negative reactions – fear, mockery, disgust – even in the 21st century. Let me offer one more piece of evidence, in the shape of a photograph posted on Facebook a couple of years ago: it shows three women eating on a London underground train and the caption reads “Three little pigs”.

The man behind this Facebook group – it’s called Women Who Eat on Tubes – has all sorts of grandiose things to say about it. He’s called Tony Burke and you may have heard him on Friday’s Today programme on Radio 4, demonstrating his commitment to equality by talking over a woman who was trying to explain why she finds the project objectionable. Burke claimed that the group’s pages had been taken down by Facebook but it still operates as a members-only site; other versions exist as well, displaying masses of unflattering pictures of women cramming food into their mouths. According to Burke in various interviews, the site is either “high art” or the equivalent of wildlife photography. (Yes, it’s that old cliché: women as exotic animals.)

In fact, Burke is a self-confessed voyeur, summing up the group’s raison d’être like this on Facebook: “Everywhere I go I see women eating on Tubes… Slowly, secretly, guiltily raising each bite-sized morsel to their salty lips in the hope that no one’s watching. Well, I’m watching. And I’m photographing…”

This is pure projection: he has no idea whether the women concerned are feeling guilty or just in a hurry, grabbing a sandwich on their way to a meeting or to pick the kids up from school. The idea that they’re behaving secretively isn’t borne out by the photos, but it’s that phrase “salty lips” which really sounds a klaxon. An apple isn’t salty but semen is, revealing a classic conflation of sexual and alimentary appetite.

Burke made the link again in an interview while supposedly disavowing it: “I don’t want to have a picture of someone eating a banana and a load of people talking about blowjobs.” So who is talking about blowjobs? Then there’s this response on the group’s Facebook pages to a picture of a woman putting crisps in her mouth: “Tight! Tight! Tight!!!! It’s as if someone else is feeding her. Nice one, Tony!”

I don’t know about feeding women but the group certainly seems to be feeding sexual fantasies. If the pictures were of children, it would have been shut down in no time at all, but the objections to photographing women covertly are just as compelling. The images posted by the Facebook group, showing bulging cheeks and distorted mouths, are clearly intended to shame and ridicule women. The subjects of this unwanted attention have no control over how the pictures will be used; several women who objected when their photographs appeared without their permission have been abused online. The site has been accused of bullying and stranger-shaming, but the most profound objection is that it adds yet another gender-specific hazard to everyday life.

Most women have experienced harassment on public transport; I’ve been accosted by drunks on buses and followed off a Tube train late at night. More recently, the widespread ownership of camera phones has produced the phenomenon known as “up-skirting”, in which a man follows a woman on to an escalator to take photos of her crotch. Last year, British Transport Police secured the first convictions in London for this practice, sending a message that needs to be spread more widely. In the 21st century, women should be able to use trains and buses without having to worry about sexist comments, unwanted attention or outrageous invasions of privacy.

For some men, I suspect, half the fun in taking a woman’s photograph covertly on public transport lies in wondering whether she’ll notice and make a fuss; not every woman dares to challenge a stranger who is bigger than her and might become aggressive. If she doesn’t, it confirms a power imbalance in which men control public space and women have to live by their rules. What’s “artistic” about that? And in case someone asks the time-honoured question – “Don’t you have a sense of humour, love?” – my answer is simple. Yes, but I’ve never been amused by any form of harassment.

Deadly Intent

Sunday Times, 13 April 2014
An ingenious revenge tale from Jo Nesbo is a dramatic opener to our crime roundup
Jo Nesbo is having a break from writing about his troubled detective, Harry Hole. His new novel, The Son, translated by Charlotte Barslund (Harvill Secker £18.99/ebook £18.99), is about a heroin addict who stages an unexpected break from an Oslo jail. The young man, Sonny, is a model prisoner who has confessed to murders he didn’t commit in return for a regular supply of drugs. His escape is followed by a series of killings, which Nesbo describes with his usual relish for ingenious methods of murder. Sonny’s late father was a detective, and a cop who knew them both realises Sonny is out for almost-biblical revenge on the gangsters who staged his father’s suicide. The novel has Nesbo’s trademark twists and turns but sentimentality is becoming a habitual flaw in his writing, inviting the reader to overlook the ethical void at the heart of his fiction.
The French novelist Fred Vargas could be Nesbo’s polar opposite, producing hugely readable novels that never lose sight of her characters’ moral imperatives. Dog Will Have His Day, translated by Sian Reynolds (Harvill Secker £14.99/ebook £14.99), is a departure from her Inspector Adamsberg series and brings back characters from an earlier Vargas novel, The Three Evangelists. Seldom has a murder mystery been kicked off by a more slender clue, a human bone that has been eaten by a dog and deposited in a park in Paris. The bone is spotted by a sharp-eyed ex-cop, Louis Kehlweiler, who is sufficiently troubled to take it to a police station. When his former colleagues show little interest, he identifies the dog and follows the trail to a Breton fishing village. Few contemporary crime writers can match Vargas’s soaring imaginative flights, which have won her the CWA international dagger on four occasions.
Thomas Mogford is a relative newcomer whose crime novels are set in Gibraltar. Hollow Mountain (Bloomsbury £11.99/ebook £7.99) is a classic detective story in which a lawyer, Spike Sanguinetti, finds himself representing an international salvage company. The firm is trying to salvage lead ingots from a wreck and needs legal help after coming across a hoard of silver coins, but Sanguinetti begins to suspect more sinister motives. Some of the plot developments are signalled a little too obviously, but Mogford is a fluent writer and the book gains from its unusual setting.
The American author Ben Pastor has produced a fine series of novels featuring a conscience-stricken Wehrmacht officer in the Second World War. Her latest, A Dark Song of Blood (Bitter Lemon £8.99/ebook £8.99), places Major Martin von Bora in Rome in 1944. While each day brings news of allied advances, Bora is ordered to investigate the death of a secretary at the German embassy. The investigation brings him into conflict with the SS, but he also has to weigh the significance of one unexplained death against a mass execution carried out by the Germans on the outskirts of Rome. This is historical crime fiction at its best, vividly re-creating the atmosphere of a city occupied by an increasingly desperate army.
Depressed male detectives have become a cliché of modern crime fiction, but few have psychological problems on the scale of Harry Bingham’s Welsh cop, Fiona Griffiths. As well as being a woman, Griffiths is recovering from Cotard’s syndrome, a condition that leads sufferers to believe they are dead, and she struggles to feel normal emotions. This makes her an ideal candidate for a dangerous undercover operation in The Strange Death of Fiona Griffiths (Orion £12.99/ebook £12.99), where she assumes a new identity to infiltrate an international fraud. But it also threatens her fragile sense of self, confronting the reader with profound questions about human nature in the midst of a fast-paced plot.

If I couldn’t be Fanny, why not Sophonisba?

Independent on Sunday, 6 April 2014

Traditional British first names are dying out, but what’s interesting is the list of those at risk of extinction

It’s enough to give your average Ukip member a heart attack: traditional British first names are becoming extinct, according to a new study, which shows that some of the most popular names from a century ago are in danger of dying out. Girls’ names are more likely to disappear than boys’, apparently; they’re more at the whim of fashion, whereas quite a few families still think it’s important to keep the same names in the male line. Bloody patriarchy gets everywhere, I say.

Actually, what’s interesting is the list of names at risk of extinction. Horace, Hilda and Doris were among the most popular names in 1905 but, while they may be traditional, their origins are not very British at all. The first is Roman while Hilda is German and Doris is Greek, although I don’t think my auntie of that name was remotely connected to the Dorians, one of the tribes that inhabited Ancient Greece. I’m sure she didn’t have a clue that her name meant “Dorian woman”.

Other names that are no longer in fashion, according to Ancestry.co.uk, are Cecil, Norman and Edna – Roman, Anglo-German and Hebrew respectively. Names say a great deal about patterns of travel and immigration, and the influence of Viking and Norman incursions on “British” names is obvious. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the popularity of a classical education in English public schools was reflected in the number of upper-class children with Greek and Roman first names. Personally, I’ve always hankered after Sophonisba, a Latinisation of the name of a Carthaginian princess.

Joan was not a common first name by the time I was born, although it had been popular in the 1920s and 1930s. My parents’ explanation – that they were expecting a boy and intended to call him Ian – has always baffled me. If Sophonisba was out of the question, I wouldn’t have minded Fanny – now virtually extinct, sadly – after one of my great-grandmothers. Her mother had an extraordinary first name, Deinas or Dinas, which I’ve never encountered anywhere else. The advantages of Joan, as far as I can see, are that there aren’t many of us (unlike Smith) and it’s impossible to shorten. No one has ever called me Jo, except by mistake, although I’ve had to see off a few attempts at Joanie.

Research suggests that shortened forms of first names are very popular, with Lexi replacing Alexandra and Sophie pushing out Sophia. We’re more informal these days and I’d like to think this reflects a deliberate blurring of class distinctions. But then I look at the top 10 girls’ names in 2012, compiled by the Office for National Statistics, and it’s like being slapped with a wet fish: no fewer than seven end with the letter “a”.

OK, I didn’t expect to find any Samiras yet. But there isn’t a single working-class name among all those little Amelias, Olivias and Jessicas.

Fed up? Just listen to Stephen Fry’s humanist secret of happiness

Independent on Sunday, 30 March 2014

The actor sums up a non-religious approach to the big questions of life in just three minutes

I’ve just been listening to the voice of reason, otherwise known as Stephen Fry. The actor has narrated short videos for the British Humanist Association on happiness, truth, morality and death, and I found all of them (even the last one) immensely cheering. The message is forget about old men in the sky, treat other people well, stop imagining an afterlife and enjoy the only one we know actually exists. I could listen to Fry for hours but he sums up a non-religious approach to the big questions of life in two or three minutes.

Secular and humanist values are everywhere. At a dinner hosted last week by the BHA, the television presenter Dan Snow declared that we’re living through the triumph of secularism. Not long after he spoke, the point was made by the reaction of the BBC’s Question Time audience in Brighton to a woman who tried to argue in favour of the traditional Christian view of marriage. She got short shrift, and I can’t help recalling that Brighton has the second-highest number of non-believers in England and Wales.

I love the people who turn up at secular and humanist events. One of the speakers at the humanist dinner was the association’s president, the theoretical physicist  Jim al-Khalili, who presents a wonderful BBC Radio 4 programme in which he interviews other eminent scientists. I also ran into the Labour MP Angela Eagle, who came with her civil partner Maria Exall, and I talked to a woman who has recently become a celebrant at humanist weddings, naming ceremonies and funerals. She told me she was hugely excited by the prospect of officiating at her first same-sex wedding.

Religion is losing one argument after another, from abortion and contraception to gay marriage. It’s one of the best things that’s happened in my lifetime.

Food for thought

In his little video on happiness, Fry advises people to enjoy simple pleasures such as cooking. If only more of us followed his advice instead of relying on takeaways and supermarket ready-meals: according to new research by an organisation called Kantar Worldpanel, we spend half as much time preparing meals as we did two decades ago.

The average time spent preparing the day’s main meal is 32 minutes, compared with an hour in 1993, and spending on chilled ready-meals has risen by 25 per cent in the past two years. At the same time, the annual report from the Chief Medical Officer, Professor Dame Sally Davies, says we have reached a stage where most adults in England are overweight or obese.

The poorer people are, the more likely they are to eat unhealthily, but time is also an issue. Lots of people say they don’t have time to cook, yet British adults spend an average of 27.5 hours watching their televisions each week. You don’t need me to tell you that’s almost four hours a day, a statistic which seems incomprehensible if (like me), you almost never turn on the TV. I don’t spend four hours a day preparing food either, but cooking dinner is one of the highpoints of my day.

It doesn’t make any difference whether I’m cooking for myself or expecting friends; I love making tagines, risottos, cous cous, pasta with home-made sauce or fish with roasted vegetables. I think that’s one of the reasons I’m not overweight, but I’m also sad that so many people are missing out on the profound sensual pleasure of eating meals that they’ve prepared themselves.

Hip hip… dismay

As well as eating a healthy diet, I run 10 miles a week and go to the gym as often as I can. So, I was startled last week to receive a copy of a letter from a consultant orthopaedic surgeon at a London teaching hospital to my GP. He reported that I was recovering well from hip surgery, but have numerous musculoskeletal problems and have been using a wheelchair for several years due to back trouble.

Not me, guv: my hips are fine and I’ve never so much as sat in a wheelchair. The name, address and date of birth were all correct, but clearly the hospital had mixed me up with another patient. I thought I’d better let them know about the mistake, naively imagining that they’d be anxious to sort it out.

After several attempts to navigate an automated switchboard, I finally got through to an operator and asked to speak to someone in orthopaedic surgery. A woman answered the phone and demanded to know how I’d got her number. She said it wasn’t really her job to sort it out, as though the whole thing was my fault, and started denying that there’d been a breach of confidential data. I’m just hoping that the poor woman with the dicky hip, who definitely isn’t me, isn’t still lost in the system.

Abuse victims deserve better

I’m not at all surprised by a new report on domestic abuse, commissioned by the Home Secretary Theresa May, which suggests that the police are failing victims in England and Wales. The report concludes that only eight out of 43 police forces are responding well and says that thousands of people are at risk of injury or even murder. It calls on chief constables to recognise that domestic abuse is a major problem, a recommendation that goes to the heart of the matter.

Domestic violence is much more widespread than people think. Here is a sobering statistic: in London, the police attend more than twice as many emergency calls relating to domestic violence as they do residential burglary. That’s around 330 calls a day, and one third of all violence with injury in the capital is domestic in nature.

Domestic abuse is beset by myths, including the idea that women – 80 per cent of victims are female – “choose” to stay with abusive men. Research carried out by the charity Refuge actually shows the opposite: two-thirds of women who seek help have already left or are trying to leave. Often they have nowhere to go, but the threat to themselves or their children is too great to stay. It requires a kind of quiet heroism to leave, and I wish the police forces which are currently failing these brave women would recognise the fact.

Snared a rock star? They’re asking for it

Independent on Sunday, 23 March 2014

Insensitive reporting of the death of L’Wren Scott conforms to a pattern of media coverage of women who ‘get above themselves’

It is a well-known fact in some circles that rock stars suffer from ‘toxic girlfriend’ syndrome. After dating their rock gods for just a few years, these women inexplicably decide they’ve had enough; they expect to meet the family, move in or get married, and have successful careers of their own. They want it all, in other words, and some of them might even be described as ‘bossy’.

The prototype is the Japanese artist and activist, Yoko Ono. John Lennon’s widow has been unfairly reviled as the woman who broke up The Beatles, and her name has become shorthand in the popular press for any woman who refuses to be a doormat. Some people never forgave Linda Eastman, either, for replacing the saintly Jane Asher in Paul McCartney’s affections. The Daily Mail was still trashing her in 2010, long after she died of breast cancer, as a ‘groping groupie’ who was ‘on the look-out for something more permanent’ when she met McCartney.

The American designer L’Wren Scott never dated a Beatle but she was the partner of a Rolling Stone until her awful death six days ago. Scott was hardly an unknown in the fashion world, having dressed Michelle Obama and Nicole Kidman, but she was described as Mick Jagger’s girlfriend in initial reports of her suicide. That upset a great many people, as did the torrent of cruel and perverse speculation which followed. It included a report in an American tabloid, firmly denied by Jagger, that he had dumped her shortly before her death.

Then came a claim, in the same paper, that the rest of the Rolling Stones loathed Scott and had refused to allow her to accompany the singer on the band’s latest tour. ‘Mick Jagger’s doomed lover…was loathed by his bandmates as the group’s Yoko Ono’, declared the New York Post. The claim came from an unnamed source who also described Scott as ‘controlling’. It was rejected by the band, whose members were reported to have accused the paper of running a ‘vendetta’ against the dead woman. But it was picked up in the UK by the Daily Mail, which gleefully claimed that the rest of the Stones ‘compared L’Wren to woman who broke up Beatles’.

That’s two holes-in-one for misogyny: using a slur against a live woman to damage the reputation of another who has died in tragic circumstances. It is also a breach of the code drawn up by the editors’ code of practice committee, which requires that stories involving grief should be handled ‘sensitively’ – an injunction that has been flagrantly ignored in the last few days. So was Jagger’s request for his privacy to be respected as he flew to the US and started preparing the funeral of his partner of the last 13 years. Some of the reporting has been so cruel that one showbiz website accused sections of the popular press of trying to ‘kill’ Scott a second time.

The code advises caution about publishing ‘excessive’ detail of how someone committed suicide, a clause designed to avoid the risk of copycat deaths. The Daily Mail columnist Jan Moir, whose editor Paul Dacre chairs the code of practice committee, not only mentioned the method Scott used in her very first paragraph; she actually included a fashion detail, which I’m not going to repeat, as though she was writing a breathless account of the designer’s appearance at a red-carpet event.

Moir has form in this connection, having once attracted a record 22,000 complaints in a single weekend for a distasteful column attacking the gay singer Stephen Gately; Moir claimed that his death after a night out in Mallorca ‘strikes another blow to the happy-ever-after myth of civil partnerships’. In her latest column she scoffed at Scott’s ‘life of astounding privilege’ and attacked the broadcasters Clare Balding and Alice Arnold, who were among the thousands who complained about the sexist coverage of her suicide. Balding and Arnold are a well-known lesbian couple, a point Moir may have had in mind when she mocked ‘the scalded feelings of a few peeved she-fems’.

The causes of suicide are complex and no one knows what was in Scott’s mind when she decided to end her life. What is clear – and distasteful – is the way in which the circumstances of her death are being used in a series of narratives which undermine women. Envy of the wives and girlfriends of pop stars is nothing new; it has been around for decades, as Ono, Jerry Hall, Heather Mills and others have discovered. But no stereotype is quite as irresistible to the popular press as the career woman who snares a rock star, but is secretly empty inside.

So much for Leveson

The Guardian, 19 March 2014

The lurid coverage of L’Wren Scott’s death shows that press ethics are being forgotten

It didn’t require much imagination to work out that Mick Jagger wouldn’t be looking great after he was told about his partner’s shocking and unexpected death. The singer had not long arrived in Perth for the Rolling Stones’ Australian tour when he got the news, which was broken to him while he was in an ‘upscale’ restaurant on Monday evening. But anyone who couldn’t quite picture what the singer looked like at this moment of profound shock needed only to turn to the front pages of the UK’s biggest-selling newspapers.

Yesterday morning, several of them actually boasted about the fact they had obtained photographs of Jagger as he was told of L’Wren Scott’s death. The Daily Mail’s front page showed Jagger, his mouth set in a rictus of grief, alongside a headline declaring ‘Moment Mick heard L’Wren was dead’. What looked like the same picture appeared on the front page of the Daily Mirror (’The moment Jagger heard girlfriend of 13 years had hanged herself..’) and the Daily Star (‘Moment Jagger was told of lover’s suicide’).

Whether this was the precise moment that Jagger heard the news or a short time afterwards hardly matters. When news of Scott’s death flashed round the world, a picture of her grieving partner became the next tabloid ‘must-have’. Did it really come as a surprise to anyone to discover that Jagger was ‘pale and shaken’ and ‘utterly shocked’? There may be a universe in which people take the unexpected death of a partner in their stride, but I have yet to come across it.

It’s as if the intense public debate about media ethics over the last three years never happened, Fourteen months after the Leveson report accused sections of the press of wreaking ‘havoc’ with people’s lives, some editors are behaving with the same callous disregard for grief which was highlighted during the inquiry. They haven’t even abided by the editors’ code of practice drawn up by the toothless Press Complaints Commission, which states that cases of personal grief should be handled ‘sensitively’. Today’s front pages show that the popular press has reverted to its pre-Leveson position: people who venture into the public eye for any reason give up their right to privacy in perpetuity. They are public property, even when a close friend or relative dies in the most distressing circumstances.

Initial reports describing Scott as Jagger’s girlfriend, rather than a fashion designer with A-list clients, were bad enough. But as details of Scott’s financial difficulties began to emerge, The Sun took to describing her with crass insensitivity as ‘hanged Mick lover’. What kind of person, I wonder, is capable of writing those words for publication? Even in death – and what a cruel death this seems to have been – the most important thing about a woman is the name of her male partner. I wonder how many 49-year-old men (Scott’s age) would like to appear in headlines as someone’s boyfriend.

There is a line in the editors’ code about reporting suicide, which says ‘care should be taken to avoid excessive detail about the method used’. But some editors clearly feel that publishing a link to the Samaritans at the end of an article leaves them free to speculate about how and why someone has taken his or her life. The Daily Mail reported that Scott ‘appeared to be enjoying success’ but suffered from depression and had recently ‘self-harmed’, invoking a classic stereotype about ambitious women.

Scott was understandably reluctant to be known as a famous man’s girlfriend when she was alive. In the wake of her death, the casual discounting of her achievements has offered a chilling insight into the pressures well-known women have to contend with. And the temptation to publish a story about a ‘celeb’ has once again over-ridden decency, compassion and the editors’ own guidelines about intruding into private grief.

Tony Benn was almost entirely ineffectual – and usually wrong

Independent on Sunday, 16 March 2014

He was wrong about the UK’s membership of the EU, with some of his speeches from the 1970s sounding like a precursor of today’s Ukip rhetoric

I ought to know by now that death sanctifies: even Margaret Thatcher, one of the most divisive prime ministers of the 20th century, was presented as statesmanlike after her demise. I wish I could say it’s mainly the right which is guilty of this form of collective amnesia but it isn’t, a point brought home to me by the glowing obituaries of Tony Benn. Even the Prime Minister felt he had to say something, hailing the former Labour Cabinet minister as a “magnificent writer, speaker and campaigner”. David Cameron could have added, but was either too tactful or too canny to say so, that Benn was an almost entirely ineffectual politician.

I’m happy to accept he was much loved by his family, although on the one occasion I had direct dealings with him – I was trying to invite him to address a meeting – his behaviour on the phone struck me as slightly paranoid. He pulled off the singular feat of managing to be wrong on an astonishing number of issues, and I suspect that’s the real reason why the right liked him. He could be guaranteed to say things which made the left appear naive, petty and idiotic.

Benn was wrong about the UK’s membership of the EU, with some of his speeches from the 1970s sounding like a precursor of today’s Ukip rhetoric. Much more recently, he offered uncritical support to the WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange in a rabble-rousing speech which revealed that he did not understand the meaning of consent in cases of alleged rape. It took him 18 months to apologise.

Even when he was on the correct side of an argument, it was usually for the wrong reasons. Like Benn, I opposed the Iraq war, but I don’t share his view that every instance of humanitarian intervention is a form of Western imperialism. Indeed his attempt to stop the war early in 2003 by visiting Baghdad and “interviewing” Saddam Hussein for Channel 4 News is toe-curling to watch. Benn appears completely out of his depth, trying to talk to one of the world’s worst mass murderers about “paths to peace”. Nor did he do much better in a private meeting with Saddam’s deputy, Tariq Aziz – a key figure in the regime for a quarter of a century – whom he remembered in his diary as “a nice guy”.

The episode is as naive in its own way as Benn’s interview with Ali G, which lumbers to an end without the veteran politician realising he’s speaking to a fictional character. But then Benn veered between sentimentality – he had a romantic view of early Christian radicals, such as the 17th-century Levellers – and a degree of solemn self-belief which didn’t allow for someone taking the mickey.

It was a Labour prime minister, Harold Wilson, who observed rather brilliantly that his former Cabinet colleague was someone who “immatures with age”. Much as I hate living in a world where Cameron is prime minister, I’m awfully glad I did not live in one run by the late member for Chesterfield.

 

The Camerons’ nanny isn’t the scandal here…

Independent on Sunday, 9 March 2014

The whole subject of domestic work is beset by prejudices about class, race and gender

I can’t say I care much whether David and Samantha Cameron employ a nanny. Gina Lima has been with the couple for several years, arriving when they needed help with their disabled son, Ivan, and staying on after he died in 2009. The length of time she’s worked for the family suggests they have a good relationship, and I’d be astonished if she wasn’t paid properly or given sufficient time off.

There is a scandal about domestic workers in this country but the case of the Camerons’ nanny isn’t it. Lima, who is from Nepal but became a British citizen in 2010, apparently joined the family via an organisation called Kalayaan, which helps migrant workers escape abusive employers. It’s based in Notting Hill, where the Prime Minister has his London home, and its website describes the exploitation – physical, psychological and sexual abuse, low pay and long hours – suffered by many workers.

I’m sure Lima is finding public discussion of her circumstances uncomfortable but she isn’t the only domestic worker – nor are the Camerons the only employers – to come under scrutiny. Nick Clegg’s discomfort with the subject was evident on his LBC phone-in. “I have a lady who has a Belgian passport who helps us,” he observed awkwardly. Two more ministers were dragged in yesterday: it was “revealed” that the Home Secretary, Theresa May, has a Brazilian cleaner who now has British citizenship, while the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Danny Alexander, employs a Portuguese cleaner.

As my colleague John Rentoul notes today, the current row was sparked by a sentence in a speech by the new Immigration minister, James Brokenshire. But it’s a ritual that plays out periodically on both sides of the Atlantic, targeting not just politicians who have unknowingly employed an illegal immigrant (as Brokenshire’s predecessor, Mark Harper, did) but those who have hired foreigners perfectly legally. There isn’t much public sympathy for either category, but that’s because the whole subject of domestic work is so beset by prejudices about class, race and gender.

People who work in offices cleaned by minimum-wage migrants sneer at the Camerons or the Cleggs. The fact that most of this labour is done late at night means we don’t think much about the people who do it – or their working conditions. I suspect Alexander’s cleaner is treated better than most, but who cares when there’s an opportunity for political point-scoring?

What’s telling about these controversies is the outcome. A politician may be embarrassed, but it’s the worker who risks most. In 2009, Labour’s attorney general was revealed to have employed an illegal immigrant from Tonga as housekeeper. Lady Scotland, who earned more than £100,000 a year, was fined £5,000 for failing to keep copies of relevant documents. Loloahi Tapui, who was paid the minimum wage of just over £6 per hour, was given eight months in prison and sent back to Tonga.

Watching the detectives

Sunday Times, 9 March 2014

The relationship between children and adults has always fascinated the Gold Dagger winner Belinda Bauer. She began her writing career with a novel about a boy trying to discover the truth about his uncle’s murder, and she returns to similar territory in The Facts of Life and Death (Bantam £14.99/ebook £6.49).

Ten-year-old Ruby lives in a crumbling Devon village, and she is worried her parents might be going to split up. Ruby is a daddy’s girl and she loves going with him on excursions. They spend their evenings driving along country lanes, pretending they’re on the trail of a serial killer who forces his victims to call their mothers just before he murders them. But the murders aren’t a game and Ruby gets too close to the killer in another of Bauer’s gripping and original novels.

When he died, Raymond Chandler left a notebook with a list of titles. Now Benjamin Black (better known as the Irish novelist John Banville) has appropriated one of them for a Chandler pastiche. The Black-Eyed Blonde (Mantle £16.99/ebook £10.99) stars Chandler’s private eye, Philip Marlowe, in a tale that begins with a visit to his Los Angeles office from Clare Cavendish, the eponymous blonde. Cavendish, heiress to a perfume fortune, asks Marlowe to find her missing lover, Nico Peterson. Marlowe learns that Peterson supposedly died in a road accident outside a club in the Palisades, suggesting that his client has been less than frank. The imitation is cleverly done but a little lifeless, while the social commentary that was a feature of classic American crime novels feels heavy-handed here.

From 1950s California to post-apartheid South Africa is a leap, but the country is producing some of the best hard-boiled crime fiction around today. Mike Nicol’s latest novel comes with an unwieldy title, Of Cops & Robbers (Old Street £12.99/ebook £9.99), but everything else about his writing is sure-footed. Unlike his contemporary Deon Meyer, who writes in Afrikaans, Nicol writes in English and relies heavily on slang. It works because his main character, a private detective known as “Fish” Pescado, would rather be surfing than doing any real work. Pescado is hired for, and almost instantly fired from, a job investigating an illegal drag race in which a student has been seriously injured. At the same time, someone is targeting former members of a government-backed assassination squad. Nicol handles these competing plot strands with as much cool as his fictional investigator.

Jussi Adler-Olsen’s fabulous Department Q novels are set in the basement of police headquarters in Copenhagen. His protagonist, Carl Morck, belongs in a long line of gloomy Nordic detectives, but his sidekicks, including a mysterious Syrian cleaner, are in a class of their own. The starting-point in Guilt, translated by Martin Aitken (Penguin £7.99/ebook £4.99), is the unsolved disappearance of a woman who owned an escort agency; the case seems to be linked to a home where troubled young women were forcibly sterilised in the 1950s. Adler-Olsen combines suspense and psychological insight with human sympathy.

Jung-Myung Lee’s extraordinary The Investigation, translated by Chi-Young Kim (Mantle £16.99/ebook £16.99), is set in a period of Korean history that isn’t widely known in the West. In 1944, with the region still under Japanese rule, Korean inmates of Fukuoka prison are not allowed to use their own language. A young guard is ordered to find the killer of another guard and stumbles on a sinister conspiracy — and the work of a Korean poet who writes clandestine verses of rare beauty. Inspired by the work of Yun Dong-ju, the dissident Korean writer who died in Fukuoka in 1945, this is a heart-wrenching novel with many unexpected twists.

PIE controversy: Harriet Harman has got this one wrong

Independent on Sunday, 2 March 2014

If you are a public figure with left-of-centre politics, it is a question that can’t be avoided: how to deal with the Daily Mail? The paper is hysterically opposed to most things I believe in but it has millions of readers, which is why some kind of “Mail strategy” is essential. The Labour leader, Ed Miliband, took a calculated risk last year when he challenged the paper’s distasteful attack on his late father. His deputy, Harriet Harman, tried a similar approach last week, with very different – some would say disastrous – consequences.

Between 1978 and 1982, Harman was legal officer of the National Council for Civil Liberties (now Liberty). Her husband Jack Dromey, who is Labour’s shadow police minister, chaired the NCCL in the 1970s; Patricia Hewitt, who was later a cabinet minister, was its general secretary. The links between the NCCL and an organisation called the Paedophile Information Exchange have been known about for years, and are a stain on its reputation.

The problem for Harman, Dromey and Hewitt isn’t that they were advocates of sexual relationships between adults and children when they were at the NCCL. It isn’t even an NCCL press release in 1976 calling for the lowering of the age of consent to 14 – a terrible idea, but not one supported only by paedophiles at the time. It’s that the origin of the attack seems to have blinded them to the fact that they might actually have something to apologise for.

Hewitt broke her silence three days ago and admitted she “got it wrong” on PIE, but Harman’s tardiness in acknowledging the organisation’s poor judgement has kept the story on the front page. She was defensive on BBC2’s Newsnight programme, and didn’t express regret about the link until the following morning.

I have known Harman for years. I admire the way that she pushed through groundbreaking legislation to protect vulnerable women and children. I’m sure that part of the Mail’s motivation is her support, as shadow Culture Secretary, for the proposals for press regulation in the Leveson report.

But the cases of Miliband’s father and Harman’s role at the NCCL are very different. Miliband had nothing to apologise for, but there was a collective failure at the NCCL to kick out a very nasty bunch of people. Harman’s defence – that any legal organisation was allowed to affiliate to the NCCL – suggests a lack of proper governance. Yesterday a Court of Protection judge confirmed that he resigned in 1979 when he discovered that representatives of PIE were speaking at NCCL meetings at the London School of Economics.

Harman has many talents but she also has a patrician testiness which doesn’t respond well to being challenged. I can understand her revulsion at having to admit that the Mail has a point, but I’m also surprised the story hasn’t blown up before now. The brightest people make mistakes, even if it’s a matter of failing to notice something or act robustly enough.

That’s what Harman, who went to work at the NCCL after PIE affiliated to it, should have acknowledged. Instead, she has played into the hands of a newspaper which wants its readers to believe the appalling smear that the Labour Party is stuffed with covert supporters of child abuse.