Pointless populist gestures: a new series?

Saturday 15 May 2010

David Cameron has decided to dispense with motorcycle outriders. He says he’s prepared to sit in trafic jams like the rest of us.

Oh really? The prime minister isn’t like the rest of us. I don’t want him wasting time in heavy traffic when he’s supposed to be meeting a visiting head of state. Nor do I think he should make himself and the people who have to travel with him a terrorist target. This is what happens when posh people try to do ordinary.

Stop press:

1700 hrs Monday 10 May 2010

After spending three days with senior Tories, the Lib Dems have asked for negotiations with Labour, Gordon Brown is standing down and Labour is to hold its first leadership contest for 16 years. Result!

 

Chronicle of a Death Foretold

Tuesday 11 May 2010

I don’t know how many times I pointed out that Labour couldn’t win under Gordon Brown. Long before he became prime minister, I said he should take Al Gore’s self-deprecating joke – ‘I’m the man who used to be the next president of the United States’ – as his model, and let someone else become leader.

Brown isn’t modern, and he isn’t emotionally intelligent. His words and his body language tell very different stories. He isn’t even much good at politics, which is amazing for someone who’s spent most of his adult life doing it.

Now the Party can get on with choosing a new leader who doesn’t talk endlessly about his (or her) Dad and the manse. Dour Scottish patriarchy is over. There’s always something to be cheerful about.

Hang on a minute

Monday 10 May 2010

No, the UK didn’t vote for a hung Parliament last week. Almost 20m people (19.3m to be exact) voted for one of the two main parties. I don’t know of any evidence that the 10.7m who voted Tory or the 8.6m who voted Labour were trying to get something else – especially not the weird situation we’re in at the moment.

This was the media election par excellence, in which excitable commentators talked up the Lib Dems to a point where it sounded as if they might come first in the popular vote. That was never a real possibility, but my guess is that it did influence voting intentions; people voted Lib Dem in constituencies where they hadn’t a hope, when tactical voting could have kept a Tory out. That’s what happened in Scarborough & Whitby, where Labour was the only party which could defeat a sitting Conservative MP with a small majority; instead people turned to the Lib Dems, who still came third, ensuring that it remains a Tory seat.

One of the things the Lib Dems now have to fear is another general election this year in which the party loses seats because its supporters rightly want to get David Cameron’s Tories out. Why wouldn’t they? The Tories are Europhobic; they’ve formed an alliance in the European Parliament with extremists and homophobes; they are miles apart from the Lib Dems on immigration, the voting system and how fast to reduce the deficit; and last week’s results have produced a lurch to the right as socially-conservative (to put it politely) Tory candidates won seat after seat.

This is not where any of the parties wanted to be after the election, and I doubt whether many of their supporters wanted it either. Personally, I also have to say how cross I am to see women totally excluded from the behind-the-scenes negotiations between Cameron’s and Clegg’s teams. A lot of blokes talking to each other in secret? No recall of Parliament so our elected representatives have a say? So much for the ‘new’ politics.

Nick Clegg meets his new friends

Sunday 9 May 2010

I’m sure the Lib Dems are very busy this weekend, but I hope they’ve had time to meet some of their new friends. Here are just a few of the people Clegg’s classically liberal party will have to work with if it forms an alliance with David Cameron’s Tories:

Priti Patel, newly-elected Conservative MP for Witham. Wants to bring back hanging and is dead-set against the euro.

Nicola Blackwood, who defeated the outstanding Lib Dem MP Evan Harris in Oxford West and Abingdon. Blackwood is a member of the Conservative Christian Fellowship, wants to see more religious influence in public life and opposes the principle of a secular state.Chris Grayling, shadow home secretary, who played a very low-key role in the Tories’ election campaign after expressing sympathy with the owners of a B&B who wanted to turn away gay couples.

Andrew Bridgen, newly-elected Tory MP for North West Leicestershire, who supported Grayling’s views on anti-gay B&B owners.

Julian Lewis, shadow defence minister, who opposed lowering the age of consent for gays from 18 to 16 because of the ‘seriously increased risk of HIV’. Apparently thinks the risk of HIV infection from male gay sex is comparable to the danger of serving on the front line.

They’re Tories. That’s what they do (to borrow a phrase from the brilliant Pulp spoof). Good luck, Nick.

In the studio, in the House… where are all the women?

Independent on Sunday, 9 May 2010

Was it a virus? Something weirdly gender-specific that incapacitated women for the duration of the election campaign? Day after day I turned on the television to find men interviewing men, men arguing with men, and men sitting on panels with men.

Not one of the big broadcasting networks – not even the publicly funded BBC – could be bothered to find a woman to moderate the historic leaders’ debates. It was pretty much the same on election night. My admiration for David Dimbleby’s stamina, at 71, was tempered by irritation at the bias towards male anchors and commentators.

In that sense, the networks performed even worse than the political parties, which did at least manage to ensure that a fifth of Commons’ candidates were female. There will be some new female faces in the House, including Rushanara Ali for Labour in Bethnal Green and Bow, Louise Bagshawe in Corby and Priti Patel in Witham for the Tories, and Caroline Lucas for the Greens in Brighton Pavilion. But it will take 50 years, at this rate of progress, for the gender composition of the House of Commons to reflect the population as a whole.

The current level of representation isn’t because we aren’t interested in politics: I’ve known plenty of women who would like to become MPs. But for years an unacknowledged beauty contest ensured that they were selected to fight marginal seats or ones held by the opposition.

Labour’s policy of all-woman shortlists has gone some way to correcting that unfairness, but as long as women are a minority in the Commons, there’s little chance of breaking the male stranglehold on party leadership. While the London-based media were swooning over Nick Clegg, I was seething over the fact that all three parties were stuck in the old groove of male-dominated politics. What’s modern about an election in which the two front-runners are former PR-men who went to single-sex public schools?

Equally annoying is the beauty contest among broadcasters, where a woman has to be young(ish) and very attractive to get a look-in. Emily Maitlis and Julie Etchingham fully deserved their roles in the election-night coverage, but where were all the other women? The BBC switched between Dimbleby, Jeremy Vine, Jeremy Paxman and Andrew Neil for on-the-night commentary, as though it was the natural natural order of things, while women were despatched to the counts countrywide. Age and appearance have little effect on men’s careers in broadcasting, but does anyone seriously believe that Maitlis will have a major election-night role when she’s in her seventies?

Of course there are female political commentators but there’s a significant difference between them and their male colleagues. Men are more likely to be regarded as neutral while it’s almost a requirement of the job that women who comment on politics – Polly Toynbee of The Guardian, say, or the Telegraph’s Janet Daley – should be tribal in their loyalties. That significantly limits their ability to cross over into broadcasting where there’s a polite pretence that presenters and anchors have no political allegiance, even if, as Sir Robin Day did, they’ve stood for Parliament.

In the final days of the campaign, the Lib Dems used a linguistic sleight-of-hand to play down the risk of paralysis in the event of an unclear outcome. A “hung” parliament became a “balanced” parliament. But “balanced” is not the word I’d use to describe a legislature in which fewer than a quarter of the seats are held by women.

We needed a trial, not an execution

Independent on Sunday, Sunday 8 May 2011

It isn’t Hollywood. It isn’t an action movie with Sylvester Stallone or Bruce Willis crashing through an upstairs window, spraying bullets. On the contrary, it seems likely that Spielberg or Scorsese would make a more coherent version of last weekend’s operation in Abbottabad, appreciating both its moral dimension and the need to get the story straight in advance.

For most of last week, the United States government seemed to be operating from a series of bellicose scripts. US special forces had met fierce resistance in Osama bin Laden’s compound; they were involved in a fire-fight lasting up to 40 minutes; the al-Qa’ida leader (or someone) had used one of his wives as a human shield. In Washington, President Barack Obama and his top advisers had witnessed bin Laden’s death, relayed to them live from a camera on the helmet of one of the US Navy Seals. The tension was reflected in a photo taken in the White House situation room, Hillary Clinton nervously covering her mouth.

Now it appears that none of this is true. The US team met little resistance and surprised bin Laden in a doorway. Yesterday’s spin, that he turned to go back into the room, possibly to retrieve a weapon, raises even more questions about why he wasn’t captured alive. Distastefully, he appears to have been shot in front of his 12-year-old daughter, while his wife was wounded in the leg trying to protect him. Obama and his aides didn’t see the raid live. It isn’t clear what they were watching – a DVD of Saving Private Ryan?

Even a halfway-competent script editor would return this dog’s breakfast with acerbic comments. But the White House’s lamentable handling of the raid has begun to tarnish the celebrations that erupted (tastelessly, in my view) on the streets of America after the killing was announced. Too many people have died to characterise this sombre event as some kind of edge-of-seat sports fixture.

Last year, the President shocked liberal commentators with the announcement that he had approved the “targeted killing” of a US citizen, the Islamist cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, who is believed to be in Yemen. Last weekend’s operation shows that the administration has gone further and is operating a policy of extra-judicial execution against its most high-profile enemies, even when they are not actively engaged in terrorist attacks. And that should trouble all of us who believe in the rule of law.

I loathe bin Laden. I despise his cruelty, puritanism, misogyny and romanticising of violent death. For all these reasons, I’d rather see him demystified in a courtroom day after day than transformed into a martyr. The Allies managed to put leading Nazis on trial at the end of the Second World War, even though they posed a much greater threat to Europe than bin Laden’s pipe dream of a return of the caliphate.

The election of Barack Obama was supposed to mark a definitive break with the cowboy lawlessness of the Bush administration. It was supposed to be the moment when liberals could feel solidarity with the US again, instead of wincing each time an American president claims leadership of the free world. Countries that aspire to a model of universal rights can claim moral superiority over the miserable theology of al-Qa’ida, but there are no exceptions. No matter how great the temptation, and identifying bin Laden’s hiding place falls into that category, democratic leaders have to behave better all the time.

The book that had it all

Rona Jaffe’s The Best Of Everything was one of the first novels to depict the lives of modern working women. Now a Mad Men cameo has helped it back into print. Joan Smith applauds a classic

Independent, Monday 9 May 2011

In 1963, American journalist Betty Friedan wrote a book that became an immediate bestseller. The Feminine Mystique was a cry of rage from a generation of college-educated women who had embraced domesticity and found themselves bored to tears in the suburbs.

These intelligent women felt as though they were going mad, but how had they arrived at such a place? Five years earlier, the lives they led before entering those suffocating marriages were laid bare in another bestseller, The Best of Everything by Rona Jaffe. It was a publishing phenomenon, riveting readers with its frank account of life in the skyscrapers of New York.

Jaffe’s characters work for a pittance, sharing cramped apartments with pull-down beds and they know how few choices they have. Caroline Bender, Jaffe’s alter-ego in the novel, has just started as a secretary at a publishing house and she knows that dozens of other young women would kill for her lowly job: “They’re all college girls with good educational backgrounds and no experience and they’re willing to work for practically nothing.”

Caroline is different, already feeling the stirrings of an ambition to be an editor. Jaffe understood that the power imbalance between men and women, both at home and in the workplace, was not sustainable in affluent post-war America. In 1959, only a year after publication, The Best of Everything was turned into a movie starring Joan Crawford. So why, until very recently, had so few people heard of the book – or indeed of Jaffe? It’s taken an appearance in the TV series Mad Men to get it back on the radar and this month The Best of Everything is being republished as a Penguin Classic. It marks a belated moment of recognition for a novelist who wrote about the power struggle at the heart of women’s lives before Friedan, Mary McCarthy or Jacqueline Susann, anticipating some of the themes that would exercise 1970s feminists in novels such as The Women’s Room.

In many ways, Jaffe was ahead of her time. She was a native New Yorker and after graduating from an Ivy League college, got a job as a filing clerk at a publishing house, where she was able to talk freely to secretaries and junior editors over lunches and drinks. Few of them realised that they were a generation on the cusp of one of the biggest social changes in history, but Jaffe sensed that change was coming.

Decades before Sex and the City, she recorded the minutiae of women’s lives and broke powerful taboos; in the 400-plus pages of The Best of Everything, single women talk about illegal abortions, affairs with married men and how to conceal from prospective husbands the fact that they aren’t virgins.

Indeed the novel is almost a very early SATC, following five main characters to the TV series’ four and revealing their difficulties with boyfriends, money and predatory bosses. In another parallel with SATC, New York is almost a character in its own right, a glamorous city where people do “marvellous secret things” in “those tall buildings at the cocktail hour”.

But this was a period of early marriage and the elevation of domesticity into an almost sacred goal, so that young women began to worry if they weren’t engaged by 21 or 22. Jaffe’s characters scrimp on food to buy clothes they can wear at parties where they desperately hope to meet eligible men; Suzy Parker, the willowy 1950s fashion model, was chosen to play one of the five leads in the film version. Crawford, then in her 50s, played one of the novel’s least sympathetic (and most stereotypical characters), the unmarried older editor who is sleeping with the boss and a bully to secretaries.

Looking back, it’s clear that Jaffe was writing proto-feminist fiction for an audience of women readers who would later move on to the feminist classics. She continued producing novels into the first decade of the 21st century, but long before she died in 2005, her star had waned. That might have been the end of it had it not been for a scene in Mad Men, the TV series set in an ad agency on Madison Avenue in the 1960s.

Don Draper, the cad who might have stepped out of the pages of one of Jaffe’s early novels, was shown lying in bed next to his long-suffering wife, Betty, while rifling through a copy of The Best of Everything. Social networking sites lit up, demanding information about the novel and its author, while bloggers who’d managed to find a copy started raving about the book.

It was an awesome demonstration of the power of the small screen to influence popular taste and not the first time it had happened.

Other beneficiaries of the series have been the poet Frank O’Hara and the novelist Sloan Wilson, whose The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit attracted a similar surge of interest when the title was used to describe Draper in an early episode. I’ve always loved Jaffe’s novels and I was shocked to realise what a forgotten figure she’d become. I don’t think it’s entirely healthy for a writer’s status to depend on something as random as featuring in a successful TV series but Mad Men’s use of The Best of Everything was nicely ironic. Betty Draper is a member of the generation which was promised “the best of everything” – the phrase comes from an ad that Jaffe spotted in the New York Times in the early 1950s – but she’s ended up like the frustrated housewives Friedan wrote about in The Feminine Mystique.

If Betty had been reading the novel in place of her husband, she might have recognised the false promise of domestic bliss that Jaffe had instinctively distrusted a decade earlier.

The novel isn’t judgemental, but it is full of ambivalence. Why does Gregg, the novel’s aspiring actress, settle for a destructive relationship with an older man who won’t even allow her to spend the night in his apartment after they have sex? Why does April stay with her upper-class boyfriend after he talks her into having an illegal abortion? Most shocking of all is Caroline’s decision to plunge into an affair with the fiancé who jilted her for another woman three years earlier.

Caroline has already been promoted to an editing job: “Can you imagine me signing a check for a man?” she asks, breathlessly, imagining a time when she’ll have her own expense account to take authors out to lunch. But now Eddie is back, on a business trip to New York without his wife and child, and keen to follow a pattern that should be horribly familiar to Caroline: he wants an affair; a change from the wife he’s bored with and he can think of no-one better suited to the role than his former fiancée.

Getting ready to have dinner with Eddie, Caroline realises that for the first time she has spent an entire day at her office without doing any work. But she tells herself that Eddie is “her life, her future. What was fifty pages of a manuscript compared to that?”

For a moment, she’s on the verge of betraying everything she’s aspired to in the novel, but Jaffe is too good a writer to allow her star a traditional romantic ending. It’s vital to the book’s integrity that Caroline is a woman torn between two ways of life; one of them at the beck and call of a man who will always put himself first, the other carrying the risk of loneliness but ultimately more fulfilling.

In the 1960s, Jaffe was recruited to write for Cosmopolitan by Helen Gurley Brown, placing her at the heart of feminism’s version of the sexual revolution. Biographical information about her is scant, although she went on to write 16 more novels. She died in London, aged 74, and stayed true to her ideals, bequeathing a grant to encourage young women to write.

Jaffe would have recognised the world of Mad Men, but it’s harder to know what she would have made of the contemporary fascination with movies and TV series that look nostalgically at the 1950s and 60s. “The Best of Everything is a sociological document,” she wrote in the year of her death, “but it’s also about change: how your dreams change, how your life changes, how each thing that happens to you changes something else.”

More than 50 years ago, Jaffe saw a world that didn’t work for women and tried to show there was more to life than being desperate housewives.

We needed a trial, not an execution

Independent on Sunday, Sunday 8 May 2011

It isn’t Hollywood. It isn’t an action movie with Sylvester Stallone or Bruce Willis crashing through an upstairs window, spraying bullets. On the contrary, it seems likely that Spielberg or Scorsese would make a more coherent version of last weekend’s operation in Abbottabad, appreciating both its moral dimension and the need to get the story straight in advance.

For most of last week, the United States government seemed to be operating from a series of bellicose scripts. US special forces had met fierce resistance in Osama bin Laden’s compound; they were involved in a fire-fight lasting up to 40 minutes; the al-Qa’ida leader (or someone) had used one of his wives as a human shield. In Washington, President Barack Obama and his top advisers had witnessed bin Laden’s death, relayed to them live from a camera on the helmet of one of the US Navy Seals. The tension was reflected in a photo taken in the White House situation room, Hillary Clinton nervously covering her mouth.

Now it appears that none of this is true. The US team met little resistance and surprised bin Laden in a doorway. Yesterday’s spin, that he turned to go back into the room, possibly to retrieve a weapon, raises even more questions about why he wasn’t captured alive. Distastefully, he appears to have been shot in front of his 12-year-old daughter, while his wife was wounded in the leg trying to protect him. Obama and his aides didn’t see the raid live. It isn’t clear what they were watching – a DVD of Saving Private Ryan?

Even a halfway-competent script editor would return this dog’s breakfast with acerbic comments. But the White House’s lamentable handling of the raid has begun to tarnish the celebrations that erupted (tastelessly, in my view) on the streets of America after the killing was announced. Too many people have died to characterise this sombre event as some kind of edge-of-seat sports fixture.

Last year, the President shocked liberal commentators with the announcement that he had approved the “targeted killing” of a US citizen, the Islamist cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, who is believed to be in Yemen. Last weekend’s operation shows that the administration has gone further and is operating a policy of extra-judicial execution against its most high-profile enemies, even when they are not actively engaged in terrorist attacks. And that should trouble all of us who believe in the rule of law.

I loathe bin Laden. I despise his cruelty, puritanism, misogyny and romanticising of violent death. For all these reasons, I’d rather see him demystified in a courtroom day after day than transformed into a martyr. The Allies managed to put leading Nazis on trial at the end of the Second World War, even though they posed a much greater threat to Europe than bin Laden’s pipe dream of a return of the caliphate.

The election of Barack Obama was supposed to mark a definitive break with the cowboy lawlessness of the Bush administration. It was supposed to be the moment when liberals could feel solidarity with the US again, instead of wincing each time an American president claims leadership of the free world. Countries that aspire to a model of universal rights can claim moral superiority over the miserable theology of al-Qa’ida, but there are no exceptions. No matter how great the temptation, and identifying bin Laden’s hiding place falls into that category, democratic leaders have to behave better all the time.

Cleverness isn’t sexy any more

Independent, Thursday 5 May 2011

President Reagan, Governor Schwarzenegger, but no Prime Minister Ignatieff: the acclaimed novelist and cultural commentator has just led the Liberals to a shattering defeat in Canada’s general election.

Michael Ignatieff will be remembered in the UK for his appearances as a presenter on BBC2′s cultural magazine programme The Late Show in the 1980s and 1990s but he didn’t even manage to hold on to his own seat in liberal, arty Toronto.

Ignatieff has been described as Canada’s “sexiest cerebral man”, offering a welcome riposte to the lazy jibe that politics is showbusiness for ugly people. But he wasn’t sexy enough to bring in the votes, it seems, and his humiliation says something worrying about the decline in status of the public intellectual.

Actors do well in politics – some would say acting was Tony Blair’s most significant talent – but intellectuals are having a bad time generally. Even in France, where the philosopher Bernard Henri-Levy has rock-star status, the current President is a hyperactive populist with a supermodel wife. His bitter rival, Dominique de Villepin, is an aristocratic intellectual who publishes poetry, essays and volumes of French history. But it’s Sarkozy, not Villepin, who currently resides in the Elysee Palace.

Cleverness is out of fashion, and it’s possible to argue that it enjoys (if that’s the word) an inverse relationship with celebrity. The cult of personality is all about emotion, not reason, and to succeed in this world you have to sell yourself as much as your ideas.

Historians who want to get on these days need to have their own television series, preferably with their name in the title, and write popular commentaries about events like the royal wedding. If AJP Taylor were alive today, he’d find himself wooed by TV producers who’d expect him to stride up and down outside Buckingham Palace, telling viewers his feelings about the Windsors: “Come on, Alan, try to make it a bit more personal.”

One of the problems with a culture that denigrates intellectuals is that it reduces important debates to beauty contests. There’s less and less space for anything that needs to be explained in more than two sentences, which means that critics, philosophers and politicians get pushed into more extreme positions than they intend to occupy. Politicians are expected to give Yes or No responses on complex matters such as immigration, and any attempt at thoughtful qualification is treated as shameful prevarication, especially on Radio 4′s Today programme.

TV and radio have a great deal to answer for. When the former Big Brother contestant Jade Goody was told she had terminal cancer, I wrote a column expressing unease about the abrupt alteration in public sentiment towards her; she went overnight from being a laughing stock to a saintly figure “battling” cancer.

A BBC producer asked me to go on a radio programme to elaborate on these ideas, which was fine with me until I heard the words: “Oh, and you’ll be on with a woman who’s in remission from cancer.” The registers of the participants in these so-called “debates” are so far apart that there’s really no point in doing them.

I’ve always thought that the Conservatives were smart to go for David Cameron, a man who has the confidence of an Etonian combined with a sneering populism (“Calm down, dear”). Ed Miliband is less of an austere intellectual than his brother David, but he still sounds as though he’s only just keeping his temper when he has to field idiotic questions about his personal life or his nasal problems.

Michael Ignatieff was once rated the world’s 37th most influential public intellectual by Prospect magazine. I’m afraid that doesn’t count for much when the anti-intellectual tenor of our times can be summed up in just two words: Silvio Berlusconi.