A royal wedding suits this celebrity age

With all eyes on a burgeoning princess, the Royal Family can cling unnoticed to its outmoded practices

Independent on Sunday, 27 February 2011

One day last week, a woman went out in a coat she’d worn before. With a swooning sense of déjà vu, picture researchers accessed archives and established the exact date and occasion, along with the revelation that several inches had since been removed from the hemline. The thrifty woman in question went on to pour a bottle of champagne over an inflatable dinghy, a task she carried out with such ease that she was judged to have passed “a crucially important milestone”.

It’s the Diana effect: tellingly, this trifling event was recorded in a mass-circulation newspaper next to a link directing readers to “more celebs”. Thanks to the late Princess of Wales, Kate Middleton has been elevated to the front rank of international celebrities. Her picture now routinely appears alongside paparazzi favourites such as Victoria Beckham and Katie Price. Unlike the latter, Middleton can be trusted not to blurt out cringe-making revelations about her sex life, but class is no guide to future reticence. Prince William’s fiancée is undeniably posher than Price but nothing like as posh as the late princess, who had few inhibitions about spilling the beans when it suited her.

Thirty years on from the marriage of Charles and Diana, that of their elder son is a good moment to take stock of the British monarchy. In 1981, it was a distant institution, with so little known about its intimate relationships that people still talked about the decision of the Queen’s mercurial younger sister, Princess Margaret, not to marry a divorced man. For most, the monarchy was simply there, while its rituals – the state opening of Parliament, the Queen’s Christmas broadcast, occasional weddings and funerals – were both comforting and predictable.

Lady Diana Spencer changed all that. Marrying into the Royal Family at a moment when media outlets were about to proliferate, the princess’s revenge for an unhappy marriage was modern in at least one sense. Marrying for what she imagined was love and finding herself in a miserable dynastic marriage, Diana used the media to get public opinion on her side, subjecting the Royal Family to a degree of scrutiny it had never expected. If Diana could not be queen, she would be a celebrity worldwide. The extravagant scenes of mourning that followed her unexpected death reflected the success of this strategy.

It was visibly uncomfortable for members of the Royal Family to find themselves in this situation, but there is also a sense in which Diana did them an enormous favour: the elision between royalty and celebrity is now so complete it shields the institution from less comfortable forms of scrutiny. Fevered speculation in the media about Royal Wedding trivia, such as who will make the bride’s dress, plays to an undiscriminating appetite for news about famous people. It also creates an impression of gathering excitement in the country. Like so many matters relating to the monarchy, this is hard to judge by objective criteria.

Take VisitBritain’s claims that the Royal Family brings £500m into the British economy each year and that the wedding will boost tourism. Both claims have been challenged by Republic, the organisation that campaigns for an elected head of state, which says that internal documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act show a different story. There has certainly been an unexpected coda to a flurry of articles about foreign tourists flocking to Britain for the Windsor-Middleton wedding: Gareth Williams of the flight-comparison site Skyscanner has noted a surge in searches by people who want to leave the country on or around the date of the royal wedding. “We have… seen a 275 per cent increase in searches from Brits looking to make the most of the extra holiday and escape the UK and the wedding hype,” he observed.

Polly Toynbee tried to make this point on Radio 4′s The Long View last week, only to be contradicted by the veteran royal correspondent James Whitaker. He insisted that all those globe-trotting Britons would be begging for facilities to watch the wedding on TV in their hotels, and refused to countenance Toynbee’s argument that some of us aren’t remotely interested in the event. At the same time, his repeated references to Middleton as a “commoner” and her lack of “royal blood” spoke volumes about the snobbery still associated with the Royal Family.

The case against the monarchy – that the institution is expensive, unfit for purpose and has a chilling effect on social mobility – rarely gets a fair hearing. That’s due in part to the lack of reliable information about the monarchy; the Royal Family enjoys enviable exemptions under the Freedom of Information Act. The much-quoted claim that it costs taxpayers only 67p per person per year does not include one of the most significant costs: providing security for the Queen and her extended family. According to Republic, the Royal Family costs 100 times as much as the Irish presidency, and it’s certainly hard to imagine an elected president costing as much as the Windsors.

The most damning charge against the monarchy post-Diana is that it has failed to modernise. The Queen is head of state of a democracy in which deference has declined, merit is supposed to be more important than birth, and a growing minority supports the proposal that we should become a republic like Germany or France (both of which, by the way, manage to attract tourists without having a royal family). But the Queen remains a distant and unaccountable figure, surrounded by courtiers who ensure that she meets only a few carefully selected members of the public. At Buckingham Palace garden parties, most of the guests get no more than a fleeting glimpse of the monarch and her relatives as they process from the back of the palace to the royal tent.

Two or three years ago, I was introduced to the Queen at a Christmas party in the palace. Obviously, I didn’t curtsy but I smiled warmly and said hello; the Queen stared, said nothing and, after a moment, moved on. It was a fascinating encounter: not just republican meets monarch but informal good manners versus inflexible protocol. It sparked a fantasy in my mind in which Peter Tatchell had been elected president, striding into the room in red trousers and shaking everyone enthusiastically by the hand.

This year’s Royal Wedding will have considerably less impact on the Windsors than the Prince of Wales’s first marriage, in 1981. Diana Spencer brought youth and glamour to the Royal Family, and Kate Middleton will give royal correspondents something new to write about. But the reflexive sexism that’s already emerged – commentators are vying with each other to insist that her role is to stay in the background, support her husband and produce children – is breathtaking. Marrying a privately educated woman from an affluent background is hardly a radical departure from tradition. Becoming a monarchy that appears in Hello! is as modern as the British royal family gets.

Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman

 The Times, Saturday 26 February 2011

For the children and teenagers in Stephen Kelman’s first novel, avoiding the attention of gang members on the way to school has become second nature. Pigeon English is set among the high-rise flats of the inner city, where kids use the corridors of tower blocks and the space between buildings to play games; the local playground has been vandalised and set on fire.

Eleven-year-old Harrison Opoku is a newcomer to this tough environment, having recently arrived from Ghana with his mother and one of his sisters. His father and his other sister have stayed behind. Harrison, known as Harri, throws himself into his new existence, perplexing though it often seems. He is too young to realise how precarious the family’s toehold in England is, and his mother’s determination to protect her children from the truth denies him essential knowledge.

Meanwhile, Harri simply accepts that his Aunt Sonia has blackened fingers, her fingertips burnt off on a stove so that she cannot be identified as an illegal immigrant; he accepts that other injuries were inflicted by her thuggish boyfriend Julius, without understanding the role that this sinister man has played in his own arrival in England. He is not surprised when his friends find a spoon encrusted with crack cocaine near the school gate and argue over who is brave enough to lick it. Even the blood from a stabbed boy, pooling darkly on the pavement outside the take-away, is something to be approached with bravado.

Harri’s way of dealing with the fatal stabbing is to turn it into a mystery before hunting for clues with his friend Jordan. But he is not sufficiently familiar with inner-city life to understand the risks of playing boy-detective. Acquiring binoculars and using sticky tape to lift fingerprints seems like a joke to Harri, but not to the Dell Farm Crew, who have progressed from childish horseplay to sinister adolescence.

Pigeon English is a superb evocation of a child’s inner world at a moment when each day brings troubling new impressions. Kelman’s novel is too assured to feel like an impersonation, even though he uses Ghanaian slang that will not be familiar to most readers. There are lyrical passages — lanterns during a power cut in Ghana look “like stars all fallen down” — alongside a pre-pubescent boy’s fascination with bodily functions. Bravado alternates with touching moments of naivety. It offers rare insights into a tough environment where knife crime and gang culture simply have to be coped with along with annoying teachers and fierce dogs. What emerges in the end is the sheer arbitrariness of who survives on the rumbustious, confusing and dangerous estates that so many families have no choice but to call home.

Bloomsbury £12.99

Can’t be too thin? Oh yes you can

Independent, Thursday, 24 February 2011

When Samantha Cameron was pictured looking sombre during a show at London Fashion Week, insiders hastily explained that it’s not the done thing to reveal emotion when you’re sitting in the front row. A more obvious explanation for SamCam’s expression is that she couldn’t believe her eyes as the Swedish model Chloe Memisevic glided down the catwalk, looking like a woman who is barely acquainted with the concept of a proper meal. Apparently Memisevic is hugely in demand by labels such as Erdem, and that’s more important than that she looks malnourished.

Of course the Prime Minister’s wife might also have had the disconcerting sensation of being caught in a time warp. In 2011, another crop of stick-thin models is parading on catwalks and once again a very thin woman is about to marry into the royal family. No one is suggesting that Kate Middleton has an eating disorder but I experienced a sharp intake of breath when I saw her wearing that blue Issa dress in her engagement photo. Issa’s designer, Daniella Helayel, says the inspiration for her latest collection is Wallis Simpson, Duchess of Windsor, otherwise known as the woman who told one of the biggest untruths of the 20th century: a woman can’t be too rich or too thin.

The royal family has painful memories to prove how dangerous that myth is. Lady Diana Spencer’s weight dropped alarmingly as her wedding approached in 1981, signalling the beginning of what turned out to be a lengthy struggle with an eating disorder.

Diana started out as a chubby teenager, recorded by a photographer in an unguarded moment at the nursery where she worked. Her struggle with bulimia was an open secret for years before she decided to talk about it publicly, leading to an increase in diagnoses of bulimia and anorexia. After her campaign to raise awareness about the effect of eating disorders, it’s hard to imagine the late Princess being anything but horrified by the cult of near-starvation on display at London Fashion Week.

Chloe Memisevic is not the only model whose extreme body shape has caused astonishment. Martyna Budna’s jutting shoulders and visible ribs put me in mind of parts of the globe where the population faces a daily struggle to eat. I know that the currency of fashion is fantasy, but the industry has become so divorced from reality that it’s promoting a look that millions of starving people in developing countries would give anything to avoid. I’ve seen children with distended bellies in West Africa, and adults suffering the effects of poor nutrition in childhood, and I’m not amused by the spectacle of adult women being encouraged to impose similar privations on themselves.

It’s important, I think, to lay the blame for this decadent phenomenon at the right door. I don’t blame aspiring models, who look at the stars of the catwalk and get the message that high fashion doesn’t want healthy women; I flinch when I see photographs from this year’s shows, and wish that someone would persuade those women to eat a three-course meal. We know that anorexia kills: the US-based National Association of Anorexia and Associated Diseases estimates that up to 24m people have an eating disorder and one fifth will die from complications.

Last year the short life of Isabelle Caro, the French model who became the face of a controversial anti-anorexia campaign, came to a tragic end when she died at the age of 28. At one point in her life, Caro weighed only 55lb, and images from the campaign still have enormous power to shock. Another model, Ana Carolina Reston, died at the age of 21, while Luisel Ramos was only a year older when she expired, having reportedly lived on lettuce leaves and diet drinks. If aspiring to become a top model puts young women at risk of a near-death experience, I think we can understand why Mrs Cameron looked so glum.

When is a house not a home? When it’s a council house

Independent on Sunday, 20 February 2011

We know how strongly the Conservative Party feels about where people live. Home is very important to Tory politicians, so much so that their ambition is to lift the inheritance tax threshold so that families can more easily stay there. The proposal delighted Middle England when it was announced in 2007, and it’s only the annoying circumstance of a financial crisis that’s persuaded the present government to postpone it. Clearly it’s unfair for families to be faced with selling much-loved homes after 20 years or more just to pay death duties. Stable communities where people know their neighbours and support each other are central to the Big Society.

Scrub all that when it comes to social housing. Local authority tenants need to understand that they don’t have homes but temporary accommodation, apportioned to their exact needs, and if they want more flexibility they must join the ranks of owner-occupiers. From next year, council tenants who claim benefits will face financial restrictions similar to those in private rented accommodation; if changes in their circumstances mean that they have too many rooms, their housing benefit will be cut to persuade them to face reality.

Here’s the policy, from the impact assessment published last week alongside the Government’s Welfare Bill: “Where claimants are currently living in accommodation which is considered too large for their needs, the housing benefit restriction will provide an incentive to move to more suitably sized accommodation.” An “incentive” sounds attractive but what it means in this instance is being threatened with eviction. Of course elderly Mr Patel or 84-year-old Mrs O’Grady will be perfectly free to stay where they are if they choose to make up the shortfall in rent from their own resources; the Government isn’t heartless, you know. And local authorities could cut rents, just as ministers challenged landlords to do when they announced similar proposals for the private rented sector.

Up to 700,000 people may have to leave their homes – sorry, temporary accommodation – when the measures come into force. Under the new rules, a separate bedroom is required only for each cohabiting couple and for adults over 21, so a family with two teenage daughters would be regarded as “under-occupying” a three-bedroom council house. So would an elderly woman who has been sharing a two-bedroom flat with her sister, as soon as the latter dies. It’s not clear where the thousands of newly homeless will go, given that there’s a national shortage of 240,000 one-bedroom properties, but that’s a detail. So, apparently, is being forced to move to an unfamiliar new area.

I grew up in council houses which I regarded as home. My parents put up wallpaper and did the garden, in the belief that we had more than a passing connection with the property. I now see the error of my ways, and the sheer self-indulgence of my parents in choosing to live in the old Rothschild mansion in Gunnersbury Park, west London. Not all of it, I hasten to add: my Dad was offered a flat there because he was a council gardener. But that doesn’t excuse my family having ideas above its station.

You can rely on Tory ministers and their middle-class Lib Dem chums to keep the unruly masses in their place. There is a difference between Judy O’Grady and the Colonel’s Lady: only the latter is entitled to more bedrooms than she strictly needs.

Abused, exploited and betrayed

Home Office figures suggest that two women are killed each week by current or former partners

Independent, Thursday 17 February 2011

Italian women have had enough. At the weekend, hundreds of thousands demonstrated against their Prime Minister, a man whose sexual manners would disgrace a Sky TV sports show. Silvio Berlusconi appears to regard his office as an opportunity to make crude jokes and hold alleged “bunga bunga” sex parties. Now he’s facing criminal charges, including one of paying for sex with an under-age girl.

Anti-Berlusconi protesters have adopted the slogan “If not now, when?” from the distinguished author Primo Levi. I don’t imagine for one moment that David Cameron or Nick Clegg has ever attended a “bunga bunga” party, but they do have serious questions to answer in regard to the Government’s treatment of vulnerable women.

Every year, thousands of women flee violent relationships, and Home Office figures suggest that two women are killed each week by current or former partners. Often they take their children and face an immediate housing crisis, as well as needing counselling, medical treatment and assistance to find new jobs. At the same time, thousands of trafficked foreign women are “working” in brothels and massage parlours, controlled by beatings and threats against their families at home. When they are rescued, they face months of uncertainty while decisions are made about whether they are genuinely victims of trafficking, as well as needing medical care for injuries and sexually transmitted diseases.

So why is the UK one of only two EU member states which haven’t signed up to the European directive on human trafficking? Only last summer the Government was accused by the Anti-Trafficking Monitoring Group of failing to meet its current obligations to victims, and the directive gives victims more rights and makes it easier to prosecute traffickers. Now the organisations that care for these women have themselves been thrown into crisis. One of the acknowledged leaders in the field – Denise Marshall, chief executive of Eaves, which runs the renowned Poppy Project for victims of trafficking – has decided to return her OBE to Cameron in protest.

“I’ve worked in this sector for almost 30 years. I don’t want to sound melodramatic but I don’t think I have ever felt as depressed and desperate as I do now,” Marshall said yesterday, just a day after Eaves had an unproductive meeting with government officials. From the end of March, Eaves will no longer be able to provide 54 beds in London for trafficked women, and it will also have to close one of its two refuges in Kensington and Chelsea for victims of domestic violence.

This is nothing short of a catastrophe, and workers in the field say they’re hearing similar stories up and down the UK. Women’s groups in Devon launched a campaign earlier this year when the county council proposed to scrap funding for its domestic-violence support services, but local organisations are still having to absorb a 42 per cent cut.

What’s happening to Eaves isn’t just about cuts. It’s symptomatic of a government which mouths platitudes but wants to provide services on the cheap: Eaves has pulled out of the tendering process after being asked to reduce what it spends on each sick, raped or beaten woman by 75 per cent. Eaves doesn’t believe that can be done, and a huge question mark is hanging over the women it’s currently helping. It’s hoping to keep open 11 beds for trafficking victims, using funds from its reserves.

Perhaps the most significant accusation against the Government is that it is failing to help victims of crime. Trafficked women are often brought to this country with false promises of jobs in bars and restaurants, then forced to “service” British men as prostitutes. Women who are running away from violent men are often victims of repeated assaults, including rape.

The Government says that protecting these women is at the forefront of its policies. Like those brilliant protesters who flooded Italian streets at the weekend, the question I’d like ministers to answer is this: se non ora, quando?

The naked truth about privacy

Monday 14 February 2011

(A shorter version of this article appeared in the Independent on Sunday, 13 February 2011)

Towards the end of last year, a reporter on a large-circulation newspaper called to ask questions about my private life. I told him I don’t talk to journalists about such things, forbearing to mention that I had answered my mobile in the changing room of my gym and happened to be stark naked at the time. It’s hard to think of a more apt metaphor for the notion that we’re all supposed to go through life stripped bare these days.

Privacy is dead, or at least out of date. So claimed the founder of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, when he argued last year that the rise of social networking means it’s no longer ‘a social norm’. Hardly more than a year on, Zuckerberg has had a change of heart, going to court to get a restraining order against a fan who bombarded him with emails, sent flowers and eventually turned up at his house in Palo Alto, California. Under the terms of the order, 31-year-old Pradeep Manukonda cannot go within 300 yards of Zuckerberg, his girlfriend or his sister.

Zuckerberg’s court action to protect himself and his family follows a series of rows about settings on Facebook. Last year the site was accused of complacency about its responsibility to protect users against paedophiles after a serial rapist, Peter Chapman, was convicted of the murder of a 17-year-old girl he met while posing as a teenage boy on Facebook. The ease with which personal information can be accessed has shocked some users, who seem not to have realised it might be visible to parents, employers and even sexual predators.

While this may be a naïve but understandable mistake on the part of a teenager, it’s hard to comprehend what was going on in the mind of a married Republican Congressman, 46-year-old Chris Lee, when he answered a post on the Craigslist website. Lee posed as a 39-year-old single man and as if that were not sufficient evidence of recklessness, he also sent a photograph of himself stripped to the waist to a woman he met through the site, assuring her that he was a ‘fit fun classy guy’. The woman recognised Lee and revealed the correspondence on, inevitably, another website. Last week, Lee resigned his seat in Congress.

There is no limit on these despatches from the privacy wars. The American singer Katy Perry has denied that her three-month marriage to the British celebrity Russell Brand is in trouble but his decision to tweet an unflattering photograph of her, apparently taken in the marital bed, hardly seems a recipe for connubial bliss. Another Katie, this time the much-photographed Ms Price, is said to be divorcing her second husband Alex Reid, complaining without irony that he became ‘fame-hungry’ during their brief marriage. Meanwhile WikiLeaks is threatening to sue over a new book which attributes eccentric personal behaviour to its founder, the transparency campaigner Julian Assange.

Common themes emerge from these anecdotes. One is a blurring of boundaries, so that no one seems quite sure any longer what’s in the public domain or whether it belongs there. There is widespread ambiguity, and sometimes outright scorn, towards people who complain that their privacy has been breached; this is especially true of public figures, such as politicians and actors, and it may offer a partial explanation for the unconscionable delay in setting up a serious police investigation into alleged phone hacking by journalists at the News of the World.

A substantial section of the public appears to take the view that politicians such as the former deputy prime minister, Lord Prescott, who was told last week about ‘significant new evidence’ that his voicemails might have been listened to, don’t have the same rights as private individuals. When pressed, an extraordinary number of people seem to define the limits of privacy in the crudest possible terms as ‘anything to do with me’, raising the question of double standards.

Zuckerberg’s discovery that abandoning the notion of privacy may lead to stalking isn’t the only example of a rethink born out of personal experience. WikiLeaks’ initial revelations included a diplomatic cable accusing a Labour minister in the last Government of being ‘a bit of a hound dog’ around women; such tittle-tattle is of a different order from exposing behind-the-scenes attitudes of Arab leaders towards Iran, and the fact that the man’s name was redacted led to other former ministers being unjustly accused. Against that background, few moments in recent broadcasting history can compare for hilarity with Assange’s assertion during a testy interview with John Humphrys in December that he is a ‘gentleman’ who doesn’t talk about his sexual habits.

In a society where everything is out in the open, anyone who chooses not to place details of their personal life in the public domain is regarded with suspicion. Reticence has lost all value and in its place is a brutal assumption that every transaction between human beings should be open to public scrutiny, even when there is no question of wrongdoing. Some commentators have suggested that any public figure who assumes that emails or phone calls are private is out of touch with reality, a form of blaming the victim familiar from rape trials.

This is not the first time in history when the boundary between public and private has shifted. But a conjunction of discrete phenomena – technology, celebrity, a political culture of extreme distrust – has created an unprecedented assault on the concept of privacy. There is an irony here: if we accept that our emails are being read, our phone calls hacked into, and our private information spread across the internet with or without our consent, we are edging closer to the surveillance society which was George Orwell’s nightmare in 1984. The difference is that in 2011 Big Brother has been privatised, his functions contracted out to hackers, websites, ‘reality’ TV shows and gossip columns.

When will Labour stand up for secular values?

Wednesday 9 February 2011

In 2007 I shared a platform in London with Inayat Bunglawala of the Muslim Council of Britain. Towards the end of the event I asked him to condemn the practice of stoning women and men to death for ‘offences’ such as adultery. He refused.

Bunglawala’s then boss at the MCB, Dr Muhammad Abdul Bari, had been interviewed in the Daily Telegraph the previous weekend. Asked if he condemned stoning, he offered this extraordinary piece of equivocation: ‘It depends what sort of stoning and what circumstances’.

These are extreme views. They aren’t compatible with the idea of universal human rights, which allows adults to organise their own sexual lives and outlaws barbaric punishments. In the same newspaper interview, Bari stated his unequivocal opposition to homosexuality and sex outside marriage, both of which are regarded as unexceptional behaviour in secular democracies.

Despite promoting such extreme and intolerant views, the MCB was for years the first port of call for Government ministers when they wanted to discuss issues relating to Muslims in this country. Last weekend, when David Cameron signalled a shift in the Government’s relationship with organisations which don’t have a commitment to universal human rights, there was an outcry. Cameron’s choice of language was unfortunate, as Tom Sutcliffe argues in his excellent Independent column (http://www.independent.co.uk/opinion/columnists/thomas-sutcliffe/tom-sutcliffe-secularism-is-the-word-cameron-is-looking-for-2207507.html).

But the prime minister was right to insist that organisations which display hostility to liberal values such as equality should be confronted rather than cosseted. I hope Cameron realises that also means no public funds for, say, Christian groups who discriminate against gay couples.

Labour’s response to Cameron’s speech was lamentable, appearing to have more to do with electoral calculation than principle. As a secularist, I’m well aware that self-appointed representatives of ‘faith’ groups frequently complain about discrimination while displaying varying levels of misogyny, homophobia and intolerance. But the Party under Ed Miliband seems as unprepared as ever to acknowledge that people who are disadvantaged are not always shining examples of tolerance themselves, and that a willingness to condemn terrorism is not on its own proof of a commitment to universal human rights.

The ‘war on terror’ has a great deal to answer for. Successive British governments have been so preoccupied with the threat of religiously-motivated terror attacks that they’ve failed to acknowledge other forms of extremism in supposedly ‘moderate’ faith groups. They’ve listened to and funded religious groups which do little to further women’s equality in their communities, while at the same time condemning gay people, holding anti-Semitic views and trying to limit free expression.

We’ve ended up with the lunacy of British ministers condemning stoning in Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan while Government departments hand over taxpayers’ money to ‘faith’ organisations in this country whose leaders refuse to condemn it. Labour’s record doesn’t bear much scrutiny in this respect and shadow ministers would be better occupied acknowledging past incoherence, such as support for publicly-funded ‘faith’ schools, than launching petulant attacks on Cameron. If the Party isn’t careful, the Tories could easily steal Labour’s clothes as the champion of liberal/secular values.

The perfect subject for an opera

Anna Nicole Smith was an adventuress and a self-made woman

Independent, Tuesday 8 February 2011

Her first husband was 16, her second 89. Her life story was a soap opera involving breast implants, Playboy centrefolds, strip clubs, lawsuits, TV shows, threats of bankruptcy and premature death. Next week these events will be replayed on stage when Anna Nicole: The Opera opens at Covent Garden. I can’t wait to see it.

The libretto has been written by Richard Thomas, whose previous forays into American popular culture include writing Jerry Springer: the Opera. But Thomas is clear that he wants audiences to feel sympathy for Smith: “You have to feel that she wasn’t just this cartoon,” he says. And if it seems incongruous for a middle-class venue like the Royal Opera House to tackle the story of a stripper and glamour model dismissed in her lifetime as “white trash”, that’s because it’s easy to overlook the genuinely tragic elements in the biographies of working-class women like Smith and Jade Goody.

Smith’s story is as sad as any of Verdi’s or Puccini’s heroines, with elements of Alban Berg’s Lulu thrown in. She came from a broken home, got next to no education, married for the first time at 17 and had a baby before she was 20. One of the saddest things about her life is that the summit of her ambition was to follow in the footsteps of Marilyn Monroe. Dead blondes don’t make good role models, and the breast implants Smith got to promote her career as a model resulted in chronic back pain and a reliance on painkillers.

Her marriage to a fabulously wealthy (and octogenarian) oil tycoon was regarded with tight-lipped disapproval, despite the fact that she spoke of him with seemingly genuine affection. It’s a curious fact that visiting strip clubs and their modern incarnation, pole-dancing clubs, has been completely normalised, whereas the women who work in them remain suspect; when Smith asked for half her husband’s $1.6bn fortune after his death – plenty of dosh to go round, you might think – she was resisted all the way to the Supreme Court by her stepson. I’m still not clear why wanting a share of the estate makes her a “gold-digger”.

Smith’s death at the age of 39 from an overdose of prescription drugs happened not long after a tragedy of jaw-dropping proportions: the death of her son, also from an overdose, in her hospital room not long after she gave birth to her daughter. A year later, the former Big Brother contestant Jade Goody died of cervical cancer at the age of 28, a circumstance that transformed her previously hostile public image. Both deaths were avoidable, had they known more about their bodies or been given better advice, and between them they left behind two young sons (Goody) and a five-month-old daughter (Smith).

Grand opera likes its heroines less ambiguous than this. Working-class women and high-class prostitutes know their fate, which is to expire beautifully and release the men who have fallen in love with them. Many times I’ve sat in opera houses, moved by the music but wishing that Mimi or Butterfly would get angry and give their lovers a piece of their mind. I’ve always found Lulu more complex and interesting, but then Berg (or rather Wedekind, whose plays the opera is based on) can’t resist throwing her in the path of Jack the Ripper at the finale.

What’s heartbreaking about Smith and Goody is their working-class feistiness, along with glimpses of an intelligence that might have been turned to less risky ends if they’d had a better start in life. Smith was an adventuress, an old-fashioned word that suits the gusto with which she threw herself into one experience after another; she was also a self-made woman, destroyed halfway through her life by the very aspirations that drive popular culture. That she didn’t survive beyond her thirties is a modern morality tale, perfect material for opera in an age when celebrity is both a lure and a trap.

They’re not called soft subjects for nothing

Higher tuition fees and rising graduate unemployment will bring a welcome reassessment of the purpose of universities

Independent on Sunday, 6 February 2011

When Tony Blair’s government announced 10 years ago that it wanted to see 50 per cent of young people going to university, there were sharp intakes of breath. It was a bold but controversial attempt to increase social mobility, and I certainly didn’t imagine they would all sign up for a degree in pure maths or Classics. Not every school-leaver is academically inclined and there was inevitably going to be a growth in non-traditional subjects, prompting endless jokes about improbable courses in Madonna studies or equine tourism.

Satire aside, anxiety about degree courses in media studies and photography isn’t just evidence of snobbery. For a long time, critics have argued that these would lead to a two-tier system: kids from affluent backgrounds would opt for A-levels and degrees in academic disciplines, while students from poorer families would make do with less challenging “soft” or vocational subjects. Now we know for certain that it’s happening, with the Russell Group – Oxford, Cambridge and 18 other leading universities – acknowledging last week that they prefer students who have taken traditional A-levels.

A new guide compiled by the Russell Group suggests that school-leavers need to have studied at least two A-level subjects from a list of maths, English, geography, history, pure sciences and a classical or modern language; if you don’t, the handbook says bluntly, “many degrees at competitive universities will not be open to you”. The guide describes many popular subjects as “soft” and “vocational”, and advises students to think carefully about their motives for avoiding traditional A-levels. “Are you trying to avoid a challenge?” it asks, in what will be music to the ears of Labour’s critics. These include the Association of Graduate Recruiters, which said a year ago that Blair’s target had lowered academic standards and led to a boom in unchallenging courses.

I don’t agree with the association’s argument that universities should be allowed to charge unlimited fees by 2020, or indeed with the Government’s plan to allow top universities to charge up to £9,000 a year. But there is a problem, not just with the funding of higher education in this country but with the philosophy underlying it. Encouraging growth in “soft” subjects is linked to the notion that education is basically about preparing young people for work, an idea that isn’t necessarily compatible with preparing them for life – or as citizens of a modern democracy.

On top of that, evidence is emerging that Labour didn’t even manage to achieve its narrow objective of creating a new cohort of graduates who would be seamlessly absorbed into the employment market. According to Universities UK, there were big increases last year in the popularity of courses such as design studies, cinematics and photography, and hospitality, leisure, tourism and transport. Nursing and social work are also becoming more popular. But while unemployment among nursing graduates remained at below 2 per cent in 2008-2009, it increased alarmingly in other subjects over the same period. More than 13 per cent of design studies graduates were jobless six months after leaving college, while one in five software engineers couldn’t find work after the same period. Unemployment among history, music and drama graduates was lower, while newly graduated dentists barely featured in the unemployment statistics.

Since those figures were published, the economic situation has got a great deal worse. Graduate unemployment reached 20 per cent in the third quarter of 2010, according to figures published last month, making joblessness among this group around two-and-a-half times higher than the national level. But the pain isn’t spread equally among graduates in different subjects.

Furthermore, with tuition fees set to rise sharply, school-leavers are likely to think hard about whether it’s sensible to incur substantial debts if they’re then going to emerge from college with a “soft” degree that’s oversubscribed in terms of job opportunities.

This may lead to a long-overdue re-evaluation of the Blair government’s education policies, and in particular the proliferation of vocational courses. A report for Universities UK argues that traditional or non-vocational subjects don’t limit the range of job opportunities (insofar as they exist) for graduates, with approximately half of all graduate-entry jobs open to graduates of any discipline; employers value the discipline of a degree as much as specific skills or knowledge, the report says.

The Russell Group’s handbook makes a similar point about university admissions, pointing out that a law A-level isn’t essential for a student contemplating a law degree, while some universities believe English is more important than history at A-level as preparation for a history degree.

At the same time, it isn’t clear that the target of sending half the nation’s school-leavers to university is either affordable or desirable. It isn’t elitist to suggest that some young people would be better off doing apprenticeships, especially if the alternative is a university course in a technical subject such as information systems where there is already high graduate unemployment. The coalition government has pledged to increase government funding for apprenticeships from the £398m a year it inherited from Labour to £648m by the year 2014-15. Yet the figure remains tiny in relation to a higher education budget of £7.1bn.

A decade on from Labour’s ambitious pledge to open up universities, new graduates are struggling to find jobs in subjects they’ve been studying for three or four years. Some may wish they’d found a job or an apprenticeship on leaving school, avoiding debts which will have to be paid off when the job market improves. Others may be discovering a hard lesson about the purpose of education: learning to think critically is a better foundation for life than a course in running tourist attractions.

A gilded cage, but it’s still slavery

Notebook

Independent, Wednesday 2 February 2011

I was going to buy a man this week, but then I saw the prices. I mean, what happened to the recession? Cashing in my Isa wouldn’t get me anywhere near the going rate for the admittedly rather dishy Fernando Torres, while all I’d get for £35m is a callow 22-year-old Geordie. Personally, if I were able to come up with that kind of silly money, I’d want someone a little more cosmopolitan than the former (as of Tuesday) Newcastle United striker Andy Carroll.

Sexist? Bear with me for a moment. Two days ago, as the transfer deadline loomed, Liverpool sold Torres to Chelsea and bought Carroll. Chelsea’s billionaire owner, Roman Abramovich, paid £50m for the Spanish striker, despite unveiling an £80m loss at the club in the most recent financial year. And Liverpool promptly invested almost three-quarters of the fee in the inexperienced Newcastle striker, who has played only half a season of top-class football.

Carroll now rejoices in the title of most expensive English footballer in history, which is fine if you’re happy with the idea of human beings being traded like horses. I find everything about this annual meat market distasteful, from the eye-watering sums involved to the suspension of the usual rules that relate to the workplace. Carroll certainly doesn’t seem to have enjoyed his experience of being traded between millionaire club bosses, claiming yesterday that he’d been forced out of Newcastle United against his will.

I know that footballers have more say about which club they play for since the landmark Bosman judgment at the European Court of Justice in 1995. It is also true that top players’ agents are able to negotiate amazing deals with Premier League clubs, as Manchester United’s Wayne Rooney proved a few months ago when he muttered the magic words “Manchester City”. Carroll is apparently going to be paid £175,000 a week at Liverpool and, if that’s slavery, I have to admit it’s a peculiarly gilded sort.

Even so, it seems crazy to me that the salaries of some leading Premiership players now exceed the annual health budget of an impoverished African country. It encourages footballers to aspire to an absurd lifestyle which would be funny if it didn’t sometimes tip over into something darker: Carroll was cautioned for assault in 2008 and pleaded guilty to common assault after an incident in a nightclub in 2009. Wigan Athletic sacked striker Marlon King when he was jailed for sexual assault, but Coventry City snapped him up on his release last autumn, despite the fact he is on the sex offenders’ register.

The game treats top players like children, providing the wherewithal for expensive toys – fast cars, endless parties, glamorous Wags – while shifting them round the country like cattle. Only two months ago, Newcastle United officials were assuring fans that there were no plans to sell Carroll, but this week the player found himself being whisked in the owner’s helicopter to a new club.

If women athletes were treated like this, there would be an outcry. And while sexist attitudes are rife in football, I can’t help wondering if it has something to do with the fact that men are infantilised and rewarded for behaving like “lads”. The annual “sale” of human beings speaks volumes about a sport where no one, except the men with money, is expected to behave like a grown-up.

Films pander to the lowest common denominator

I don’t want to see anything in 3D or by Disney, The King’s Speech is monarchist tosh and Biutiful has had so-so reviews. I can’t remember when I last went to a movie, even though I scour the new releases every week. There’s almost nothing I want to see, which is hardly surprising when you look at the uninspiring list of Oscar nominations this year.

Last year produced some stand-out films, including Shutter Island, Agora and the quietly stunning Certified Copy. But niche marketing – an apparently endless stream of sequels, teen movies and special effects – keeps good films out of local cinemas. I loved The Hurt Locker, which won six Oscars including one for Kathryn Bigelow as best director, but it vanished so quickly from general release that I was forced to watch it on DVD. I still love movies, but I’m not sure the industry cares about me.

Wined and dined by the WikiLeaks boss

Several friends have recently signed up to online dating sites, undeterred by the alarming revelation that the WikiLeaks founder, Julian Assange, used one a few years ago. To be fair, I’m not totally convinced that the post is genuine: would he really describe himself as “87 per cent slut” and claim to like women “from countries that have sustained political turmoil”? Rules me out, thank God, unless living under the heel of the despised Lib-Con Coalition counts as turmoil.

Any woman responding to “Harry Harrison”, as Assange’s online alter ego called himself, might have been disappointed if she expected to be wined and dined in the usual manner. A brilliant profile of the super-hacker on an Australian website (WAtoday.com.au) records that Assange was frustrated “that the human body has to be fed several times a day” and experimented with eating once every two days.

He also insisted on sleeping in a room with a red lightbulb, the idea being that he would see the “gentle light of the campfire” on waking, just like our ancestors. Crazy guy, huh? Though I think that red-light-in-the-bedroom thing could be misconstrued.