Hitchens was witty and clever, but he was no secular saint

Independent on Sunday, 18 December 2011

There is a kind of man – witty, dashing, raffishly handsome – who is attractive to both men and women. Lord Byron was one such, and so was the writer Christopher Hitchens, who died on Thursday at the cruelly early age of 62. Appreciations have focused on his ferocious intellect and contempt for cant (another trait he shared with Byron). I admired his disdain for religion, which he maintained to the end, and latterly I enjoyed his forensic demolition of the death-loving cult of jihad.

Hitchens belonged to a circle of writers – Martin Amis, Ian McEwan, Julian Barnes, Salman Rushdie – who were fiercely protective of “the Hitch”. He grew up in the austere years that followed the Second World War, and his ideas were shaped by the intellectual upheavals of the Sixties. “I was a 1968er”, Hitchens once said, and his politics reflected the unthinkingly male outlook of his generation.

Later, after the 9/11 attacks, his support for the war in Iraq led to bitter accusations that he had betrayed his principles. I was on a platform with him in London when he declared he was no longer a socialist, but my difficulty with his politics pre-dated that change of heart. The problem wasn’t particular to him: Hitchens was typical of a group of intellectuals who relished challenging traditional power structures, but their
radicalism stopped at the bedroom door. He argued with feminists over abortion, and even though he later supported a woman’s right to choose, he never stopped describing the foetus as an “unborn child”.

It’s not unusual for revolutions to propose a redistribution of power among a limited group, and the shortcomings of Sixties radicals were striking in the matter of gender. In his memoir, published just before he was diagnosed with cancer of the oesophagus, Hitchens barely mentions the women in his life. At some points in the book, he seems to regard women as another species, artlessly quoting Amis and the poet Craig Raine who believed “that there is a design flaw in the female form and that the breasts and
the buttocks really ought to be on the same side”.

Hitchens recalled hearing the feminist slogan “the personal is political” for the first time, and said it filled him with a “deep, immediate sense of impending doom”. He dismissed it as escapist and narcissistic, appearing to place one of the great ideologies of the 20th century in the same category as what he called “New Age gunk”. I don’t think he hated women, but he appeared to regard them as having limited usefulness.

Hitchens admired the ideas of the Enlightenment, but had little self-knowledge. One of his friends, the CNN commentator Barbara Olson, died in the plane that smashed into the Pentagon on 9/11, and I sometimes thought that might account for his intemperate rage towards people who opposed the subsequent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. His second wife, Carol Blue, described him perceptively as one of “those men who had never really been in battle and wished they had been”.

His premature death is a sad loss, but he is no more a secular saint than George Orwell, another radical who had strange ideas about women. Hitchens once said women aren’t funny, which is nonsense, but it’s also revealing about the way in which he formed his opinions. Like many clever men, he believed he inhabited the rarefied world of the intellect, but he couldn’t always distinguish between a thought and a feeling.


Control can lead to family slaughter

Whenever one of these tragedies occurs, it always has a long history

The Independent, Thursday 15 December 2011

Four adults and three children are dead; two children are in hospital. This is the grim tally from just two incidents of extreme domestic violence committed in ordinary British homes in the last few days. Such apparent murder-suicides have a profoundly shocking effect on family and friends, who are left asking painful questions, but they also underline the need for the Government’s new consultation on how domestic abuse is understood and handled in this country.

It is only a week since a former police inspector, Toby Day, murdered his wife and youngest child and wounded two older children before killing himself. Last weekend, another father, Richard Smith, like Day, aged 37, stabbed his wife and two sons before setting fire to a bedroom and dying of smoke inhalation. We’ve since seen a heart-rending photograph of Smith holding his baby son Aaron, while his wife Clair places a protective arm around their elder son, nine-year-old Ben.

They look like the perfect family, and it’s far from unusual for stunned neighbours to talk about men who appeared to live for their wives and children. Clearly this impression of normality cannot be right, but it also shows that the understanding of what constitutes domestic abuse is too limited. Physical violence is just one of the ways that abusive men (and some women) maintain control over their partners, as social workers and refuge staff know from working with victims. Men who “live for” their families often have an abnormal need for control; when they experience stressful events, such as losing a job or discovering an affair, they may decide that their families would be “better off” dead. By then, their partners may have endured years of controlling behaviour – shouting, bullying, restrictions on what they are allowed to wear – without recognising that the situation could escalate into lethal violence.

Yesterday, in a welcome development, the Home Office announced that its consultation will focus on whether the definition of domestic abuse should be widened to include “coercive control”. Obviously the signs are less easy than bruises for outsiders to spot, but it would be a significant step in changing how victims themselves think about abuse, and hence their readiness to talk to someone about it.

The consultation will also look at expanding the definition to victims below the age of 18. The Director of Public Prosecutions, Keir Starmer, recently warned that 16- to 19-year-olds are now the group most at risk. The murders of two families in a single week are extreme and unusual events. But whenever one of these tragedies occurs, it always has a long history. No matter how difficult the circumstances, adults in happy, healthy relationships do not suddenly slaughter their nearest and dearest.


Filling your face with popcorn is not a human right

Independent on Sunday, 11 December 2011

As a breed, Conservative politicians hate the nanny state. So do right-wing columnists, some of whom are still whining about the fact that they can’t smoke in public places. Any suggestion that the principles behind the smoking ban be extended to junk food prompts near-apoplexy, as though we have an inalienable right to consume as much high-fat, sugary rubbish as we wish.

I’ve never been convinced that eating popcorn is a human right, and the argument that governments shouldn’t intervene in the nation’s eating habits looks shakier than ever. According to an analysis carried out at the Wolfson Institute of Preventive Medicine and published last week, around 40 per cent of cancers could be avoided by a change in lifestyle. High among the bad habits that need to be tackled are smoking and excess body weight, which we’ve known for a long time, but the study makes hard-hitting
claims about the specifics.

Among women, being overweight ranks second (after smoking) in the lifestyle factors linked to cancer, while for men it is fifth. The analysis suggests that 17,000 cancers a year are linked to excess weight, but warns the figure may be an underestimate. Another 29,000 may be attributable to poor eating habits, from insufficient fruit and vegetables to excess red meat and salt. Overall, the analysis suggests that around 134,000 cases of cancer a year are linked to environment and the way people live,
including poor diet, weight, smoking, alcohol consumption and inactivity.

That figure is bound to rise as more people exceed sensible weight limits, with one study published in The Lancet predicting that half the population could be obese by 2030. The cost in extra health care alone would be about £2bn a year, and that’s without taking into account all the misery caused by cancer and other obesity-related conditions such as heart disease. Last week, cancer charities were keen not to blame individuals for habits that raise their risk; it’s clear that many people find it hard to
resist fatty food and cheap alcohol, which leaves government intervention the only serious option.

It’s worked with smoking, which used to be enjoyed by more than half the male population and has now dropped to a fifth. The success of campaigns against tobacco, from graphic health warnings on cigarette packets to high rates of tax and an advertising ban, provides an optimistic model of how self-destructive behaviour can be altered. But Labour governments were never as bold about tackling the food and drinks industry, and Conservative politicians have a visceral loathing of imposing punitive rates of tax on, for example, cheap alcohol and fatty food.

Of course they don’t have the same scruples when it comes to other species of “interference” in people’s lives, such as telling them they shouldn’t expect to depend on state benefits. Cancer charities claimed last week that new proposals mean even patients on chemotherapy in hospitals will have to prove they are too sick to work. The
Government says the proposals have been misunderstood, but wouldn’t it be more
sensible to try to reduce the number getting cancer in the first place?

Thousands of lives have been saved by the smoking ban. Unless it wants to look criminally irresponsible, the Government should tackle weight and alcohol problems with the same ferocity. Bring on the nanny state, and ignore the predictable protests.


Dominique Strauss-Kahn is irresistible. Allegedly

Independent on Sunday, 4 December 2011

It could happen to anyone, surely? You walk naked from the bathroom of your hotel suite and encounter a cleaner, who gives your genitals a seductive look. In a moment, and without a word being spoken, the two of you are at it like rabbits. The whole thing’s over in six minutes and you put on your clothes, ready to enjoy an agreeable lunch on your way to the airport. Then you board your plane, first-class of course, heading for Paris and Berlin where you have important meetings.

If this sounds like a fantasy from a 1970s lads’ mag, you may be surprised to learn it’s what’s supposed to have happened to the former director of the International Monetary Fund, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, in a New York hotel. In real life, DSK’s pleasant day in Manhattan – shower, blow-job, lunch – was rudely terminated by the arrival of the NYPD, who removed him from his plane seat on suspicion of attempted rape.

Yet it was all an unfortunate misunderstanding, according to Michel Taubmann, DSK’s biographer, whose book on the furore has just been published. The politician’s friends might think the last thing he needs is more publicity; it’s only a couple of months since French prosecutors decided there was evidence that DSK committed a sexual assault on a journalist in 2003, and declined to proceed only because it fell outside the three-year statutory limit. But Taubmann says he talked to DSK half a dozen times, and he offers a version of events that prompted a pithy headline in New York magazine: “Ladies Look at DSK and Instantly Want to Do Sex, Says DSK Biography”.

The book repeats the claim that DSK was the victim of an international conspiracy to prevent him becoming the Socialist party’s residential candidate, a theory that has also been given space in the New York Review of Books. But the most startling passage in Taubmann’s book refers to the moment when DSK emerged naked from the shower to find Nafissatou Diallo in his suite and is said to have concluded, although he didn’t speak to her, that she wanted to have sex with him: “The flesh is weak. Dominique Strauss-Kahn saw a proposition. The situation amuses him. Rarely in his life has he refused a moment of pleasure. He does not resist the temptation to receive oral sex. The act is fast, very fast.”

Ms Diallo’s lawyers dismiss the notion that she consented to DSK’s “violent and abusive sexual acts”, along with Taubmann’s claim that she stole his BlackBerry. Elsewhere, Taubmann discusses DSK’s alleged involvement in what’s become known as the Carlton affair, a French plice investigation into claims that a prostitution ring existed at the luxury Carlton Hotel in Lille. Taubmann says DSK admits to having enjoyed “libertine gatherings” but denies paying “even one cent” for sex, fleshing out his portrait of a man who is irresistibly attractive to women.

That isn’t the picture that’s emerged since DSK’s arrest. Though charges in New York were dropped, the politician looks more and more like a figure from a previous age. Feminism and gender equality have passed him by, leaving a man who behaves more like an 18th-century rake than a progressive politician.

Two days ago, DSK started to distance himself from Taubmann’s book, but his insight comes a little late. In the modern world, there isn’t much sympathy for men who appear to attribute such improbable pulling power to the penis.


A woman’s place is off the pitch, is it?

The insidious bit excuses the ‘experts’ and places the blame firmly on the public

The Independent, Thursday 1 December 2011

Imagine the scene at the BBC. There they are, busily collecting nominations from sports editors for the BBC Sports Personality of the Year award, when someone notices that most of the names belong to men. I mean, how on earth did that happen? Especially after they went out of their way to create a “level playing field” – I think that’s the requisite cliché – by seeking nominations from such admirably gender-neutral publications as Nuts and Zoo. Sick as parrots all round!

As I’m sure you know by now, this year’s 10-man shortlist is exactly that: no Rebecca Adlington, no Jessica Ennis and no Jill Scott (plays football for England, in case you didn’t know). And someone said, as someone was bound to do, that “you shouldn’t include a woman just for the sake of it”, as though there are so few women involved in sport at the top level that they couldn’t possibly get on the shortlist on merit.

The thing about most lists, whether they are of sports stars, chefs or public intellectuals, is that they’re more likely than not to display a (mostly) unconscious male bias. What comes next is a series of rationalisations as the people responsible try to argue themselves out of a hole, claiming that it’s not their fault – they just canvassed “expert”
opinion – and that, anyway, women simply haven’t got to the same level as men.

This is usually “bollocks”, to use a technical term, but it chimes with the prejudices that excluded half the population in the first place. For all the sour claims that women run
everything these days – enough to get you a documentary slot on TV if not a mini-series on Radio 4 – it’s still the case in most professions that men confer authority on other men. It’s not so much a matter of disliking women (though some do) as the simple fact of not seeing us in the same way. Andy Murray is always more likely to get on a list of top sports people than Rebecca Adlington.

Now we come to the really insidious bit, which ecuses the professional commentators and places the blame firmly on the ublic. Sorry, guv, the argument runs, but your verage viewer isn’t interested i women’s sport, and it won’t get anything like the same coverage unless and util that changes. Of course, this sidesteps the question of who makes the
decisions that shape public taste in the first place; it’s pretty obvious that people can’t watch sports that aren’t shown on television, no matter how interesting they might find them.

This year’s Sports Personality of the Year shortlist includes three golfers. If it was up to the lads at Zoo, it would also feature a snooker player. That’s all you need to know about the assumptions of the people who helped compile it, and I have a timely piece of
advice for the BBC. Next year, ask Vogue.