Sam Cam up till midnight! Outrageous!

I secretly hope she was just limbering up on Friday night

Independent, Tuesday 31 May 2011

Once again it was Twitter that broke the big story: Sam Cam went to a rave in Ibiza last weekend. She was spotted by a British user of the social networking site who spoiled her coup – that rare occasion when the words “rave” and “Ibiza” and “prime minister’s wife” could legitimately appear in the same sentence – by commenting that it was funny to see Mrs Cameron among so many “young ravers”.

Oh, come on. Mrs Cameron is 40 and it hardly takes much energy to stay until the end of an event which apparently finished at … midnight. I mean, what’s happened to Ibiza? I go to dinner parties in London that end later than that.

When I had a little drinks party last winter, people slept in every room of the house and the last guests left after breakfast the following morning. I secretly hope Sam Cam was just limbering up on Friday night, getting ready to move on to the real party while the twentysomethings stretched, yawned and went to bed.

All right, I know Norma Major didn’t go to raves. I can’t think of another prime minister’s spouse in history who’s queued for a budget flight to Ibiza, checked out the scene and joined a crowd of thousands to watch the dance DJ Pete Tong, although I suppose Denis Thatcher might have gone to Spain for the golf. It’s a generational thing, and Norma’s husband John Major just happens to be the last British prime minister born before the baby boomers came along and changed (almost) all the rules.

Gordon Brown is technically a baby boomer but it’s even harder to picture him at a rave than it is Disraeli, who did at least have a bit of louche style. Brown even went on holiday in a suit, looking as though he was desperate for an international crisis to erupt so he could get back to the office.

I know we all hate Tony Blair but one of Brown’s misfortunes was that his predecessor created a new style of prime minister, relaxed and informal as well as (in the end) widely loathed. You may not want to be reminded of this but back in 1997 the Blairs were youthful and almost cool, filling 10 Downing Street with pop singers and soap stars.

The Camerons are the next generation and there’s no denying they’re the baby boomers’ cultural heirs. They don’t share the centre-left politics – I guess it’s hard if you’re that rich – but they’ve absorbed the rest of our assumptions wholesale. Age-appropriate behaviour, what’s that? The youngest of Sam Cam’s children is less than a year old but that doesn’t mean the PM’s wife can’t go to parties and stay out really, really late, sometimes coming home after midnight!

The astonishing thing is how long it’s taking the rest of the world to catch up. I’m forever reading that this actress still looks amazing at 50 or that TV star turned up in wellies at Glastonbury, even though he’s entitled to a bus pass. So what? The seven ages of man (or woman) always seemed a pretty crap notion to me, involving giving up most of the things you liked – rock ‘n’ roll, fashion, sex, parties – without getting much in return.

I used to love Blondie, now I listen to Lady Gaga and I’m not going to pretend I’m suddenly a big fan of Mahler. In this world that knows the rules have changed but hasn’t got used to it, Sam Cam is at a dangerous age. When her husband joined her at the weekend, she stepped out in a blue halter-neck dress that showed off her upper arms; there’s almost a fatwa on bare arms if you’re a woman over the age of 29, but that’s something else no one’s told the PM’s wife. Obviously she doesn’t think she’s too old to have fun – and that’s just about the only thing I can ever imagine agreeing on with a Tory.

Shoesmith’s humiliation is not justice. It’s vengeance

Independent on Sunday, 29 May 2011

I know we’re all supposed to hate boring old judges who want to stop us posting our witty, scabrous or downright furious observations on Twitter. It’s freedom of expression, innit? But it’s also just conceivable that the judiciary, on occasion, takes a longer and more measured view of controversial cases than the self-appointed tribunes of the people.

Such an event happened two days ago when the Court of Appeal in London ruled that the then children’s secretary, Ed Balls, was wrong to announce that he was removing the Haringey children’s services boss, Sharon Shoesmith, on live TV in 2008.

She had become a hate figure following the horrific death of 17-month-old Peter Connelly, and Balls certainly appeared to be playing to the gallery when he declared her “not fit for office” at a press conference. In a damning judgment, the court decided last week that Shoesmith had been made a “public sacrifice” and took the extraordinary step of suggesting that it would be appropriate for Haringey Council to seek a “voluntary contribution” from Balls towards any compensation she might be awarded.

Shoesmith hadn’t even seen a critical Ofsted report on her department or had an opportunity to defend herself. But a week later, her sacking was confirmed by Haringey. Last week the court upheld her appeal against the council as well, ruling that its procedures were “tainted by unfairness”.

Let’s be clear: what happened to “Baby P” was unspeakable. He was on Haringey’s child protection register when he died at the hands of his mother, Tracey Connelly, her lover Steven Barker and Barker’s brother, Jason Owen, in 2007. It was one of those shocking cases which raises questions about child protection procedures, but that doesn’t mean the professionals involved lose their right to due process. Indeed, one of the consequences of Balls’s conduct is that Shoesmith may be entitled to reinstatement of her pension rights, her salary since her sacking and compensation.

I’d much rather live in a world where public employees are given the chance to defend themselves at an impartial hearing, but it’s also clear in this case that such a course of action would have been cheaper for taxpayers. Bizarrely, the Department for Education and Haringey Council announced on Friday that they would now take the case to the Supreme Court, racking up the costs even further.

I know Ofsted’s report exposed failings in Shoesmith’s department and she didn’t succeed in her legal bid to have it quashed, even though it emerged at the High Court last year that the report had been “beefed up” at the request of Balls’s department. He was a minister in a Labour government that took the much-criticised decision to merge child protection and education services, which meant that people whose experience was in education (like Shoesmith) were suddenly in charge of social work departments with huge case-loads.

Shoesmith’s lawyers said in court that the impact of her dismissal and the hate campaign against her had been “catastrophic”. She has been unable to work for two-and-a-half years, she’s had suicidal thoughts and she’s still hounded by the media. Even after the judgment, Balls and was unrepentant, while indignant commentators toured the TV studios, claiming to speak on behalf of the entire nation.

Not for me, they don’t. I’m sickened by a public appetite for vengeance that will be satisfied only by this woman’s total ruin and humiliation.

Ignore the critics – ‘Sex and the City’ is still a hit

Lapping up a formula that needles men and cheers women

Independent on Sunday, 30 May 2010

They’re back – and once again hostile reviews miss the point. On Thursday evening, the stars of the new Sex and the City movie appeared at the premiere in Leicester Square, arms entwined and as glamorous as ever. I loved Sarah Jessica Parker’s very modern strapless frock, which was the perfect foil for Kim Cattrall’s classic goddess dress. The actresses have always used clothes to express their on-screen characters and Parker’s Carrie still comes across as chic and playful, a woman who doesn’t care if she makes fashion mistakes.

It’s more than a decade since Sex and the City began attracting huge TV audiences, delighting generations of women: Seventies feminists who saw the stars as living out the precepts they’d struggled for, and their daughters who suddenly found a language for their own aspirations and anxieties. The characters explicitly set out to have sex like men, and the inclusion of an “older woman” – in those days, anyone in her forties was heading for cardigan-land – made ground-breaking television. Cattrall’s Samantha embodied the most liberated version of feminism, even if her struggle with breast cancer towards the end of the series felt like a punishment for the freedom she’d enjoyed.

There were always false notes in the series, but that’s inevitable in a show that ran for so many episodes. The new film, unimaginatively entitled Sex and the City 2, is getting even worse reviews than its predecessor, but that’s unlikely to damage its prospects at the box office. For the record, I saw the first film twice: once to write about it and the second time with my boyfriend, who loved it.

We don’t watch Sex and the City for plot, unexpected twists or subtle characterisation; it’s more like catching up with old friends, giving their clothes the once-over and plunging back into the giddy world of talking about sex and relationships.

That, I suspect, is why the new film has left New York behind for Abu Dhabi, sending the four women on a trip without their various husbands and children.

Married Carrie is less interesting than her single counterpart; the scenes in the first movie of her friends rallying round after Mr Big jilted her were far more engrossing than the wedding with which it ended. Not long ago, a friend of mine returned to London after the end of a relationship and we met in a bar where we hugged in front of startled strangers; it was spontaneous, but also a pure Sex and the City moment.

What the show has to struggle with is our appetite for more of the same and the producers’ covert conservatism which demands that the characters have “real lives”. Charlotte (Kristin Davis) was always the most conventional of the four, and in the new film she’s been landed with two kids and a permanent anxiety that her husband will leave her for the nanny. The first movie ended with Carrie looking on approvingly as a younger generation of sassy New Yorkers stepped out for an evening on the town, signalling that the baton was being handed on to younger women, but that isn’t what the audience wants.

The idea that the women have reached an age where, with the exception of Samantha, they have to settle for domesticity is a failure of nerve, and I wonder if it’s linked to catty reviews which repeat unthinking prejudices about age. “No doubt they will be applauded in some quarters for their fashion bravery,” a fashion writer observed in The Times last week, apparently surprised that “women over 40″ can manage to look glam and unable to resist a snide remark about Parker’s “knobbly knees”.

Who cares? Sex and the City gets things wrong but it’s still a fantasy of empowerment. You’ll have to excuse me now – I’m off to see the movie.

Veiled Desires

 Tuesday 25 May 2010

I’ve just been in Bahrain, where I found these beautiful, incredibly subversive images of women. Most are adverts from the bazaar, but I also interviewed Khadija (middle) who drives a London taxi for a living. Bahrain is connected by a causeway to Saudi Arabia, where women are not even allowed to drive their own cars. Khadija says no one has ever refused to be driven by her, and clients often ask for a woman driver. Some politicians say the relative freedom of Bahraini women is having an impact next door in Saudi – they may be over-optimistic, but I hope they’re right.

When is a child not a child?

Frenzy still surrounds James Bulger’s killers. But with two boys guilty of attempted rape, the consensus is they were too young to understand what they were doing

Independent, Wednesday 26 May 2010

Rituals are comforting: they create a sense of togetherness and help people cope with traumatic events. But they are not universally benign, as recent events in the criminal justice system attest. Two days ago, the hugely controversial trial of two boys from west London for rape and attempted rape concluded at the Old Bailey. On this occasion, the headlines – the ritual which guides our response – have been overwhelmingly exculpatory of the defendants. Despite the fact that both boys were convicted of attempted rape, the consensus is that they were too young – they were both 10 at the time of the assaults – to understand what was happening and the trial should never have taken place.

“Why were children forced to go through rape trial?” demanded the Daily Mail, a newspaper not usually sympathetic to youngsters charged with violent offences. One answer was supplied by Alison Saunders, chief prosecutor at the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) in London, who said that the eight-year-old victim “had given a clear and compelling account to the police” which was “consistent with the medical evidence and with the accounts given by other witnesses”. It should be noted here that the CPS is not exactly known for taking weak cases to court, which is one of the reasons why so few reported rapes end in convictions in this country.

I shall return to the evidence in the west London case in a moment, but first I want to point out the extraordinary inconsistency of public responses to instances of child-on-child violence. Two other cases come to mind in this context: the abduction and murder of a toddler, James Bulger, by two 10-year-olds on Merseyside in 1993, and the near-fatal assault on two boys in Edlington, a village just outside Doncaster, in April last year.

The horrific injuries inflicted on James Bulger have been rehearsed too often to need repetition; the attackers in the Edlington case were brothers, aged 10 and 12, who stamped on their young victims, attacked them with stones and broken glass, and forced one of them to strip and perform a sex act. Both cases prompted bouts of anguished soul-searching about “feral” youngsters, along with demands for condign punishment of the defendants. The recent return to prison of one of the young men convicted of the Bulger murder prompted frenzied demands that his new identity should be revealed, even though it’s obvious that doing so would place him in mortal peril.

Neither forgiveness nor the possibility of rehabilitation has played a role in either case, while the public assumption has always been that the youthful perpetrators knew exactly what they were doing. That seems to include the ghastly sexual assaults which featured in both cases, whereas the consensus about the two west London boys – who were identical in age to the children who attacked James Bulger – is that they were too young to understand that some kinds of sexual behaviour are wrong.

This was the argument advanced in court in their defence, namely that a consensual game of “doctors and nurses” had been blown out of all proportion and turned into something much more sinister. In the wake of the verdicts, this explanation found favour among columnists who suggested that the decision to take the case to trial was evidence of a massive failure of common sense.

Writing in yesterday’s Times, the former Director of Public Prosecutions, Ken Macdonald, argued that games of “You show me yours and I’ll show you mine” happen in every playground in the country. “When did we forget?” he lamented. Around the same time, I should say, that “we” forgot the standard defence of just about every rapist who has the misfortune to find himself in court. It goes like this: I climbed in through her bedroom window, which she’d left open, and how was I to know she didn’t want sex? She danced with me in a club and I walked her home, so naturally I assumed she wanted to have sex. Every single one of them believes, quite sincerely, that the victim was willing, even if she was unconscious or shouting “No!” at the top of her voice.

Indeed the most obvious explanation for the discrepancy in responses to the west London trial and others involving child-defendants is that the former has been seen primarily as a rape case, with all the baggage that that involves. As in any adult rape trial, the victim was questioned to the point of exhaustion, the seriousness of the assault played down (just “doctors and nurses”) and the outcome widely seen as unfair to the defendants.

Press reports of the case focused on the victim changing her story under cross-examination, placing little if any weight on the fact – pointed out by the judge when he refused pleas from defence barristers to dismiss the case – that she had been entirely consistent in her account to police and doctors before the trial. Mr Justice Saunders said he was unhappy about the way such a young child had been treated in the witness box, and asked for a report on potential psychological damage to the girl. His anxiety was echoed by an NSPCC lawyer, Barbara Esam, who said that many young witnesses do not understand the questions they are asked under cross-examination.

What is truly amazing about this case, however, is that there seems to have been little dispute in court about whether the girl was sexually assaulted. During legal argument which took place in the absence of the jury, one of the defence barristers admitted to the judge that “there is evidence of sexual assault and we do not dispute that”.

On the day of the attack, the victim’s mother was alerted by a five-year-old boy who told her that the two defendants were “doing really bad things” to her daughter. When questioned by police, each boy blamed the other, with one of them saying explicitly that his friend “kissed her and then entered her”. The older boy admitted exposing himself and touching the girl in a sexual way. The jury listened to all the evidence and found both boys guilty of attempted rape.

There is a question in my mind about the morality of trying children in adult courts, but the public mood is as inconsistent on this issue as the popular press. In this latest case, it’s clear that the person who suffered most during the trial was the victim – and that’s an indictment of the way the criminal justice treats victims of sexual assault, regardless of how old they are.

Excuses for rape – men and the myths that won’t die

Independent on Sunday, 22 May 2011

Let’s talk about men behaving badly. No, actually, let’s talk about rape and sexual aggression, which are more accurate descriptions of some of the behaviours that have just caused a media frenzy. Most of the myths around the subject have surfaced during the past seven days and so – without commenting on anyone’s innocence or guilt – I’m going to list them as a small public service.

It wasn’t really rape. The Justice Secretary, Ken Clarke, claimed some rape cases are something else, such as consensual sex between an 18-year-old and his 15-year-old girlfriend. This has never counted as rape in English law; Clarke got it wrong and went on to cast doubt on ‘date rapes’, putting his fitness to continue as Justice Secretary in question.

She’s too ugly to have been raped. Sections of the French press reported that lawyers for Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the former head of the IMF, were shocked when they saw how ‘unattractive’ his accuser was. Such claims are a further assault on the alleged victim, based on the myth that suave, successful men couldn’t possibly have a sexual interest in someone who isn’t young and beautiful. Rape is an indiscriminate crime, perpetrated against girls, women and indeed men of all ages, appearances and ethnic groups.

She overreacted. He didn’t mean anything by it. When influential men misuse their position to grope someone with less power, their behaviour is reinterpreted as something less culpable. DSK has been known for years in France as a “great seducer” even though his aggression towards women was an open secret. A French journalist, Tristane Banon, broke the silence when she claimed in 2007 that DSK tried to tear her clothes off during an interview, but she was persuaded not to make a formal complaint.

He can’t help himself. He likes women too much. The former governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger, portrays himself as a red-blooded male who can’t resist an attractive woman, but he’s been accused by more than a dozen women of grabbing their breasts and bottoms. Schwarzenegger is a serial predator, and the fact that he had sex (and a child) with a domestic employee while his wife was pregnant should surprise no one. 

It wasn’t a serious rape – he didn’t use violence. Ken Clarke again, suggesting that rape involves a man “forcefully” having sex with an unwilling woman. Rape is a serious crime whether or not it involves physical force. As with other serious crimes, individual circumstances are taken into account at sentencing.

It’s a conspiracy. Sixty per cent of the French public believe DSK was set up. There’s a parallel here with the accusations against the WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, which his supporters dismiss as a dastardly plot to lure him to Sweden and hence extradition to the US.

He’s the real victim. It was reported (wrongly, says her lawyer) that DSK’s alleged victim is HIV-positive. This is a sneaky way of casting aspersions on a woman’s sexual history, while the suggestion that DSK may need an HIV test turns the alleged attacker into a victim.

But after a week in which these myths resurfaced, something interesting has happened: DSK faces serious charges, Clarke is only just hanging on to his job and Schwarzenegger is being divorced. Even in France, Le Monde accused French journalists of dressing up sexual aggression as ‘libertinage’ and reinforcing toleration of sexual violence. ‘Libertines’ everywhere had better watch out.

Labour was simply wedded to the wrong man

Independent on Sunday, 16 May 2010

It’s a weird business, going into opposition. I heard David Miliband talking about his mother on the radio last week, and he’s never sounded more human – but then he doesn’t have to worry any longer about how Gordon Brown might react. There’s been a perceptible lifting of spirits since the great clunking fist (and the rest of him) left Downing Street. The Labour Party has emerged from the elections with a creditable share of the national vote, control of half a dozen big councils, a woman as acting leader – shame on the Lib-Con coalition for its unappealing maleness – and an opportunity to come up with fresh ideas.

After 13 years in government, politicians get tired and defensive. Like any party, Labour has had some really bad ideas and the longer it was in power, the nearer it got to foisting them upon us. I’m not sorry to say goodbye to ID cards or a third runway at Heathrow, while the Nick-Dave coalition – this smirking creature I have begun to think of as the Clemeron – is going to legislate to bring in fixed-term parliaments and an elected House of Lords, measures Labour should have introduced a long time ago. I don’t think anyone should underestimate the depressing effect Brown had on party morale, and that isn’t a state of mind that’s conducive to innovative thinking; having the wrong leader is a bit like being married to the wrong man, constantly having to make excuses and never quite getting up the courage to divorce him.

One of the reasons Labour got into this situation was a belief that internal elections are destructive, a hangover from the days when Denis Healey and Tony Benn squared up to each other and almost tore the party apart – and that was only a contest for the deputy leadership. But it doesn’t have to be like that, and I’m confident that a less macho, more intuitive generation of Labour politicians will be able to stand against each other without the kind of rancour we saw in the past. There hasn’t been an election for the top job since Tony Blair defeated John Prescott and Margaret Beckett in 1994, and 16 years is a very long time for a democratic party to keep its members waiting for an opportunity to have a say. Last time round, Brown was the ghost at the feast, bottling out of challenging Blair – he would have lost – and lumbering the party with an undemocratic transfer of power when his arch-rival stood down in 2007.

That’s all in the past, and I see no reason why the leadership contest shouldn’t be courteous, civilised and even invigorating. It’s clear that there is a progressive, centre-left majority in this country, and the Lib Dems will have to make such big compromises in government that it will fall to Labour to articulate its aspirations. The party held its core vote 10 days ago – canvassing in Labour’s South Yorkshire heartlands during the election campaign, I saw no evidence of a Lib Dem surge – but to win power again it has to appeal to a broader constituency.

Labour’s working-class supporters want social justice, which means a commitment to provide social housing, training and jobs, but the party also has to speak to a middle class that in recent years found itself to the left of Labour on issues such as civil liberties and faith schools. The party urgently needs to ditch its reactionary baggage, not least the charade it imposed on parents who had to pretend to religious affiliations to get their children into good schools, and affirm its commitment to a politics that draws on its best instincts. That means secular, European, egalitarian, environmentally aware – and intellectually confident under a new, democratically elected leader.

Peculiar case of Inspector Norse

Our writer hunts for clues for the popularity of Nordic writers

Independent on Sunday, 15 May 2011

Towards the end of 2007, I settled down for a train journey with a proof copy of an unpublished crime novel.

I hadn’t heard of the author, who was Swedish and had died before the book’s publication in his home country, but I quickly realised that his unsettling juxtaposition of computer hackers, Nazi sympathisers, and misogyny would be a huge success. I wrote an enthusiastic review but didn’t expect that in no time at all Stieg Larsson would be one of the world’s bestselling crime writers.

These days, Larsson’s name is as familiar as Ruth Rendell or Ian Rankin. The Larsson effect is having a dramatic impact on other Scandinavian (or Nordic, if you include Finland and Iceland) novelists, with a Danish crime writer of whom most people in this country have never heard being interviewed on Radio 4′s Today programme two days ago.

Jussi Adler-Olsen is a terrific novelist, but his name doesn’t exactly trip off English tongues; and the Norwegian crime writer Jo Nesbo topped the hardback bestseller list earlier this year with The Leopard, but he has lost the final “slashed o” of his surname in the process.

All this is pretty astonishing in a country that is notoriously resistant to translated fiction. Despite the success of his fellow Swede, Henning Mankell, Larsson was turned down by a dozen mainstream British publishers – who must all be kicking themselves – before The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo found a home. Now Scandinavian publishers are rushing out English translations of crime novels that wouldn’t have stood a chance here five years ago and British viewers have been persuaded to embrace The Killing, the Danish TV series covering 20 days of a murder investigation.

Last week, Sissel-Jo Gazan was in London to talk about her novelDinosaur Feather, which has been named Danish crime novel of the decade, while Sofi Oksanen (Finnish-Estonian, published in more than 40 countries) also paid a flying visit. Posters publicising Oksanen’s gut-wrenching novel, Purge, about a young woman on the run from Russian sex traffickers, have just gone up on the Tube.

How these writers have managed to breach the insularity of British readers is a fascinating question. One of the most striking things about the Nordic crime wave is that it is so contemporary, reflecting a version of city life familiar to anyone who knows London, Manchester or Glasgow.

Although the characters have foreign names, they visit the same kind of cafés and bars that we do and they use modern technology without a second thought; Larsson’s Lisbeth Salander, with her extraordinary ability as a hacker, could have stepped out of a computer game.

Flawed, sophisticated and highly literate, they have revealed the unexpected fact that we identify with them more readily than with the endless parade of indistinguishable hard-talking American cops chasing serial killers.

The other beguiling aspect of these Nordic bestsellers is that they are intensely political, though not in the shallow sense of exposing corrupt senators or presidential candidates. Larsson’s other life as a radical journalist is well known and a conspiracy within the deep state is the unifying theme of his Millennium Trilogy. Mankell has made it his mission to expose the seamy underside of Sweden’s model social democracy, while Iceland’s Arnaldur Indridason addresses the plight of ethnic minorities in his acclaimed Reykjavik crime novels.

The world that these Nordic bestsellers describe isn’t pleasant, but it is recognisable, realistic – and a reminder of our common humanity in these troubled times.

The McCann case is tragic – and unsettling

Saturday 14 May 2011

I’m sure Kate and Gerry McCann never wanted to become public figures, least of all for something as dreadful as the abduction of their daughter. Desperate for news and unhappy with the Portuguese police investigation, they decided a long time ago to trade their privacy for a public profile which might help to bring her back, and the latest step in the process is Kate McCann’s book. It’s been serialised in the Sunand Mrs McCann has also written a letter to David Cameron, leading him to order a review of the case by the Metropolitan Police.

This is an unusual step: the crime happened four years ago, there don’t appear to be any new leads and it happened in a foreign country. Questions are being asked about the propriety of Cameron’s intervention and the cost of the review, but I think there’s another reason why the case prompts widespread unease. I’m not talking about the personal abuse directed towards the McCanns, which is distasteful and reflects the growing incivility of public discourse; what I have in mind is the sense that something isn’t quite right about the public’s intense emotional investment in the case.

To put it at its simplest, I think there there’s a mismatch between what the McCanns feel they need to do, either to get their daughter back or to make her continuing absence bearable, and the impact of their campaign on the rest of us.

Grief is in essence a private matter. It’s intensely painful, causes a great deal of regret and soul-searching, and its strength eventually begins to diminish because life wouldn’t otherwise be tolerable. From the beginning, the McCanns asked the rest of the world to observe their grief and identify with it, hoping against hope that it would produce information which led to their daughter. So powerful was this appeal that millions of people felt personally involved, endlessly discussing it with their family and friends; I remember a total stranger, sitting next to me at a formal dinner that summer of 2007, turning to ask anxiously whether there’d been any developments in the search since we sat down to eat.

The huge publicity didn’t do what the McCanns hoped, but it did create myriad rescue fantasies in which people who had nothing to do with the case wanted to believe that the story would have a happy ending. Some of them even persuaded themselves they’d seen the little girl in locations as far apart as Morocco and the Netherlands.

Vicarious grief is hard to live with, and risks stirring up unconscious hostility. The emotions that have been aroused can’t last – they’re not real – and outsiders start to become frustrated and even bored. No matter how distressing for her parents, it was inevitable that Madeleine McCann’s abduction would eventually fade from the headlines, allowing millions of people who’d never met the family to get the event into some kind of perspective.

Now Mrs McCann’s book has revived conflicting emotions towards the little girl’s disappearance, and the Prime Minister’s intervention has created the unfortunate impression that the family is getting special treatment compared to other parents of missing children. No doubt the McCanns feel that is a price worth paying to get the case reopened. From their point of view, everything they’ve done is justifiable because it may lead to the discovery of their daughter alive, like Natascha Kampusch.

But I think we have to recognise that while the intensity of their grief is undiminished, the rest of us can’t and shouldn’t share it. The family deserves sympathy but I don’t think the passionate identification so many people felt in 2007 – and which Mrs McCann’s book implicitly asks for again – is helpful or healthy. The popular press has a case to answer for in all this, reproducing image after image of Madeline McCann last week as if the abduction had only just happened, and turning intimate details of the family’s life after the disappearance into banner headlines.

This isn’t good for anyone, neither the McCanns and their growing twins nor readers of newspapers, whose emotions are being manipulated once again. It’s time for a degree of tact and discretion in this troubling case, until such time as the police review comes up with some conclusions.

Granta 115: The F Word, edited by John Freeman

The Times, Saturday 14 May 2011

Look, I don’t quite know how to put this. Feminism — it isn’t just about relationships. It’s an international movement encompassing everything from the original demands for equal pay and political representation to new campaigns against the exploitation of women in the sex industry. It has produced thousands of controversial books, essays and fiction, while campaigns on subjects such as prostitution still attract full houses at public debates.

If I were asked to list the subjects at the top of the feminist agenda I would start with the disproportionate impact on women and children of the UK Government’s cuts; the urgent need for protection of women and children in war zones; the continued use of female genital mutilation (FGM) in Africa; the abuse of young women from Eastern Europe, Africa and South-East Asia by sex traffickers; and how to support the women who have taken part in the wave of popular uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa.

So why am I reading this lacklustre and apparently random collection on the theme of feminism from Granta? I should have been warned by it taking the literary magazine so long to acknowledge one of the most significant political movements of the last half century. The magazine has always had a laddish reputation but even I didn’t anticipate a volume that seems to have been assembled on the premise that feminism means “anything by women” or “anything about women”.

Thus it ticks the following boxes: lesbianism, student-professor sex, Native Americans, power struggles between men and women and feminists letting each other down. There’s a handful of exceptions, chiefly a standout piece of fiction by Taiye Selasi, “The Sex Lives of African Girls”, and an extract from Caroline Moorehead’s forthcoming book, A Train in Winter, about a group of Frenchwomen transported to Dachau in 1942. But overall the volume manages to convey the impression that its subject is a mild, puzzling and rather dated phenomenon.

What’s it all about then, feminism? Better get some big names, which is the only reason I can think of to justify the inclusion of A.S. Byatt’s tepid recollections about men-only institutions at the University of Cambridge and Durham University. A smart editor might have talked Byatt out of a whimsical title inspired by a grandson (No Grls Alod. Insept Mom). The same individual, had she or he existed, would surely have pointed out to the poet Linda Gregerson (Ariadne inTriumph) that it’s impossible for any woman to have “her arm and leg akimbo”. Some elements of anatomy are inescapable, even for the most passionate feminist.

Passionate feminists — and there are still plenty of us, from women in their 70s to younger women campaigning through groups such as the London Feminist Network, or those organising the “slut walk” anti-rape marches around the world — will wonder at the omissions. Even if it was put together too early to reflect the role of women in Tunisia and Egypt, and the hostility that they have encountered, there’s no work from distinguished writers such as Ahdaf Soueif, Nawal el-Saadawi or Hanan al-Shaykh. There’s nothing to reflect the struggle for survival of women in Iraq, Iran or Afghanistan. Has anyone at Grantaheard of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, the Iranian woman still waiting to find out if she is to be stoned to death for adultery?

Subversive feminist organisations such as Ni putes, Ni soumises, which have made powerful contributions to debates about the rights of Muslim women in France, are ignored. Instead the tone is set by the opening piece, an inward-looking reflection (Aftermath) by the novelist Rachel Cusk on gender roles in a failed marriage.

Does this volume seriously reflect Granta’s view of feminism? It strikes me as an astonishing achievement — though not in a good way — to reduce a great movement to this etiolated affair. What I’d like to suggest is that The F Word should come with a health warning: readers are unlikely to be shocked, moved or made to think on more than a couple of occasions. And that certainly isn’t feminism as I know it.