Strong religious belief is no excuse for intimidation

Independent on Sunday, 22 January 2012

It’s been a dreadful week for free speech. A meeting at a prestigious London college had to be abandoned on Monday evening when members of the audience were filmed and threatened by an Islamic extremist. Then the president of a student society at another London college was forced to resign after a Muslim organisation called for a ban on a jokey image of the Prophet Mohammed. Finally, on Friday, the author Sir Salman Rushdie cancelled an appearance at India’s largest literary festival, saying he feared an assassination attempt after protests by Muslim clerics.

Almost as sinister as this series of events has been the reaction to them. The first has received very little public attention, despite the fact that students who belong to the college’s Atheism, Secularism and Humanism Society were unable to go ahead with a perfectly legal discussion of sharia law. They’d come to Queen Mary College, University of London, to hear Anne Marie Waters speak on behalf of the One Law For All campaign, when an angry young man entered the lecture theatre. He stood at the front and used his mobile phone to film the audience, claiming he knew where they lived and would track them down if a single negative word was said about the Prophet. The organisers informed the police and the meeting was cancelled.

The fact that in a democratic country a religious extremist is able to frighten anyone into calling off a meeting is shocking – and so is the lack of a public outcry about this egregious example of intimidation and censorship. Tellingly, what has grabbed media attention is the second incident, when a secularist organisation at University College, London, came under attack for publishing an image on its Facebook page of “Jesus and Mo” having a drink together. The Muslim group that wants to ban the image got a sympathetic hearing in the media, despite arguing openly for censorship. Extremist websites, meanwhile, reacted with the fanatical language that so often appears on such sites: “May Allah destroy these creatures worse than dogs,” wrote one blogger.

No doubt that kind of inflammatory sentiment was in Rushdie’s mind when he decided not to appear at the Jaipur Literary Festival. In a statement read out there, the author of The Satanic Verses said he’d been warned that paid assassins from the Mumbai unrworld might be on their way to the event in order to eliminate” him. While he xpressed doubts about the accuracy of the warnings, Rushdie said it would be irresponsible of him to appear in such circumstances.

Why hasn’t there been a furore about all these incidents? Why aren’t MPs and ministers insisting on the vital role of free speech? None of the people involved was threatening anybody, unlike the three Muslim extremists convicted two days ago of inciting hatred against homosexuals. It’s been left to organisations such as the National Secular Society – I’m an honorary associate – to say that a fundamental human right is being eroded in the name of avoiding “offence”.

Most people in the UK don’t condone violence, but a worrying number think we should be careful around individuals with strongly-held religious beliefs. This argument is mistaken, because it suggests that believers aren’t as capable or under exactly the same obligation to exercise, judgement and restraint as the rest of us.

It’s also based on fear, tacitly acknowledging a link between demands for censorship and threats of violence. One often leads to the other, and it isn’t just atheists and secularists who should be very worried indeed about that.

Now here’s a link to Nick Cohen:


I’ve waited for this ever since they told me I’d been hacked

Yesterday confirmed the degree of suspicion that was created between husbands and wives

The Independent, Friday 20 January 2012

The court was packed, so much so that the judge told late-comers they could be “undecorous” and sit on the floor. I got there early, expecting a crush, and managed to get a seat as the phone-hacking scandal reached one of its periodic peaks. On 18 separate occasions, a lawyer got up and described the extent of the News of the World‘s surveillance operation on particular individuals, from the actor Jude Law to the former Deputy Prime Minister Lord Prescott. It was a shameful catalogue of phone hacking, blagging, harassment and interception of emails.

And on 18 occasions, News International’s counsel, Michael Silverleaf QC, had to get up and apologise to the individual concerned. It was an unenviable task and he performed it doggedly, using the formal language agreed in advance by both sides. Because the list of victims was alphabetical, I had to wait until close to the end of the morning to get my apology. But it was worth the wait, bringing to an end an extraordinary period in my life which began nine months ago, when I was contacted by a detective from Operation Weeting.

A month after that I saw the notes made about me in 2004 by a private detective, Glenn Mulcaire, who’d been asked to spy on me and my then partner by a journalist from the News of the World. I guess it was all in a day’s work for Mulcaire. I don’t know if he was even aware that my partner’s eldest daughter had been killed in an accident only six weeks earlier. Mulcaire did know that I wrote for another News International title, The Times, because he made a note of it. He also knew I was going to Spain – he made a note of that as well – though possibly not that I was due to speak about the importance of free expression at an international writers’ conference.

It’s easy to joke about phone hacking and think it’s of little consequence. Some people assume that the silent listeners had to sit through dozens of mundane messages about picking up dry-cleaning, but my experience and that of other victims suggests it was much more serious than that. One of the reasons I was so angry was the sickening realisation that strangers had listened to my voicemails in the aftermath of a private tragedy.

Yesterday’s statements in open court confirmed the degree of suspicion created between husbands and wives, friends and employees, who couldn’t understand how intensely private material was ending up in a national newspaper. Back in 2002 or 2003, the suggestion that hundreds of public figures and people close to them were under illegal surveillance by journalists would have seemed like something out of a thriller.

It’s also important to point out that until quite recently, News International was intending to contest many of these cases. Remember the “rogue” reporter defence? News International’s lawyers actually entered defences in some of the cases they’ve just settled, changing their position only after our lawyers kept returning to court. The result was nine separate disclosures that showed the astonishing scale of phone hacking, and what our lawyers describe bluntly as a “cover up”.

Of the 18 cases settled yesterday, only a handful of us have chosen to keep our compensation awards private. I’ve accepted £27,500 plus costs, which I think reflects  he gravity of what happened at the News of the World. Our lawyers said that we, the victims, feel vindicated by the settlements. We no longer feel we have to persuade others that bad things were done to us – and I hope it means they won’t ever be done to anyone else. The last few months have been gruelling, but my faith in decent, ethical journalism remains unshaken.


Our worst nightmare

Sunday Times, 15 Jan 2012

With telling insight, two authors deal with the effects of violence on the very young in this roundup of recent crime novels

The impact of violence on children is a sensitive subject. It calls for special interviewing skills and a realisation that the victim may be too traumatised to talk about what’s happened, even if it impedes an urgent  investigation. This is the dilemma facing an Austrian detective, Criminal Commissioner Kovacs, in a striking new novel by the award-winning Viennese writer Paulus Hochgatterer.

Hochgatterer is a child psychiatrist and won the 2009 European Literature prize with his first novel, The Sweetness of Life. The Mattress  House, translated by Jamie Bulloch (Quercus £18.99/ebook £18.99) is set in a picturesque Alpine village whose residents turn up with disturbing frequency in the psychiatric department of the local hospital. Patients slash themselves with razors and post distressing photographs of each other on the internet while their psychiatrist, Raffael Horn, is distracted by anxieties about his marriage and struggles to understand a series of child abductions. The children are all of primary-school age and they reappear with bruises on their shoulders, talking about a sinister “black owl”. Horn and Kovacs come under pressure from worried local people to find the perpetrator, not realising that the beatings are a pointer to something nfinitely more sinister. In a country still haunted by the notorious crimes of Josef Fritzl, The Mattress House offers surreal but telling insights into the minds of young victims.

Belinda Bauer burst onto the scene two years ago when her first novel, Blacklands, was judged CWA crime novel of the year. Her third novel, Finders Keepers (Bantam 4.99/ebook £8.99), has a similar theme to The Mattress House, but her plot about a series of child abductions takes the reader into very different territory. Bauer has established a reputation for plunging her characters into unimaginable gore and her third novel easily matches her previous efforts, exposing village bobby Jonas Holly - still recovering from a narrow escape from death in an earlier outing — to events  unprecedented in British crime fiction. The British countryside has never appeared so alien or macabre.

Simon Lelic’s The Child Who (Mantle £12.99/ebook £8.99) is written under the shadow of the 1993 James Bulger case. A 12-year-old boy, Daniel Blake, has been arrested on suspicion of the murder of a schoolgirl, and the case raises predictable passions. The main character is the boy’s solicitor, Leo Curtice, whose mixed motives include genuine curiosity about the boy and an urge to make a splash with the case. Lelic’s earlier novels drew critical acclaim and his first, Rupture, won a Betty Trask award. But he is an uneven writer, with a taste for sensational subject matter and frequent lurches in tone. When Curtice’s own daughter disappears, the plot loses focus and takes off in a frankly unbelievable direction, leaving behind a general impression of messiness.

Elly Griffiths sets her novels on the bleak Norfolk coast, where Ruth Galloway, her archeologist-detective, lives in an isolated cottage. Galloway is an engaging character, a single mother who wrestles with self-doubt and a fraught relationship with a married detective. A Room Full of Bones (Quercus £16.99/ebook £16.99) opens in a dusty private museum in King’s Lynn where the coffin of a medieval bishop is about to be opened. Galloway arrives early to find the curator dead on the floor, and shortly afterwards the museum’s owner dies in mysterious circumstances. Griffiths’s novels occupy a world where modern science and new-age mysticism coexist, but her characters’ flights of fancy are leavened by common sense and humanity.

Peter May’s novels also have a rural setting, this time the sparsely populated Isle of Lewis. In The Lewis Man (Quercus £12.99/ebook £12.99) a perfectly preserved corpse is discovered by peat-cutters who assume it’s thousands of years old. Knife wounds and an Elvis tattoo dispel that impression, and DNA tests establish that the dead man is related to an island woman, Marsaili Macdonald, who always believed she had no close relatives other than her father Tormod. Marsaili’s former boyfriend, Fin Macleod, is drawn into the investigation despite the fact that he’s given up his job as a police  inspector in Edinburgh. His discovery that Tormod isn’t who he claims to be uncovers a long-buried scandal involving children sent from city orphanages to island families, where they were used as unpaid labour. There is a clunky plot twist towards the end, involving a not very plausible gangster, but otherwise it’s well worth reading.

Tom Benn’s The Doll Princess (Cape £12.99/ebook £13.56) is a first novel from a graduate of the University of East Anglia creative-writing course, and it comes with high expectations. Set in Manchester in 1996, soon after part of the city centre was destroyed by an IRA bomb, the novel is about sex-trafficking and conflicts between gangs. It starts with the deaths of two young women (an Egyptian socialite and a local prostitute) and goes from bad to worse. Neither woman is remotely credible and it is narrated by Bane, a thug with a conscience, in a tiresome Manchester dialect. Violent and cartoonish, the novel is the literary equivalent of being stuck in an early Guy Ritchie

Stuart Neville’s Stolen Souls (Harvill Secker £12.99/ebook £8.99) is a much more satisfying book, dealing in a humane way with the plight of trafficked women. It is set in rainy Belfast over Christmas, where an East European woman is on the run after killing one of her Lithuanian captors. With nowhere to hide, Galya accepts an offer of shelter, only to find herself threatened by a different kind of predator. A weary but decent police inspector, Jack Lennon, has the job of finding her before she falls victim to any of her pursuers. Scary, but always humane.


The Big Society should be about more than cheap labour

Independent on Sunday, 15 January 2012

During the election campaign two years ago, one of David Cameron’s big selling-points was his intention to create a Big Society. He was short on detail but the general idea but the general idea was that a Conservative government would encourage volunteering and get us more involved in our communities. I’m not against any of that but I suspected it might turn into something more coercive, along the lines of the workfare schemes which have been so controversial in the United States.

Now, after 20 months of the coalition, we’re beginning to get a sense of how the Big Society will operate. Imagine an unemployed graduate who volunteers to work in a local museum while claiming Jobseeker’s Allowance. She enjoys the work, feels she’s doing something useful and hopes the experience will eventually lead to a paid job. Everyone benefits and it’s exactly what the Government wants the unemployed to do – the Big Society in action.

So why is the Government forcing people like Cait Reilly to give up a placement in a museum to work unpaid in a branch of a hugely successful discount chain? Ms Reilly, who is 22 and gets the princely sum of £53.45 in weekly benefits, had to stop doing voluntary work at the Pen Room Museum in Birmingham when she was sent to work at a branch of the budget store, Poundland. Ms Reilly was told she risked losing her Jobseeker’s Allowance if she turned down the two-week placement, but she also understood it would lead to a period of training and a job interview. She says she and five other claimants swept floors and stacked shelves, and she didn’t get an interview.

Poundland sells everything in its stores for £1 and has bucked the prevailing economic trend. Turnover increased by 25.8 per cent to £642m in the 12 months to March 2011, while profits were up by 34 per cent to £31.7m. Its shelves have to be stacked by somebody and it seems reasonable to ask why the company can’t use some of its soaring profits to create real jobs, even if they pay the minimum wage.

Last week, Ms Reilly became a whipping-girl for the right-wing press when it emerged that she’s launching a legal action against the Government. Indignant commentators missed the point, possibly because of their reflexive loathing of the Human Rights Act which outlaws “forced or compulsory” labour. Ms Reilly’s solicitor, Jim Duffy, argues that Jobcentres are forcing people into “futile, unpaid labour for weeks or months at a time” in contravention of the Act.

His concerns echo a study commissioned by the Labour government in 2008, which looked at workfare schemes in the US, Canada and Australia. The researchers found little evidence that workfare increases the likelihood of finding permanent jobs, while it reduces the time available to look for paid work. There’s also the danger that workfare replaces paid jobs with unpaid ones, institutionalising poverty while doing little to bring down unemployment.

I don’t have any problem with the unemployed doing something in return for benefits. Many charities and social organisations are crying out for volunteers, and a sense of doing something worthwhile lifts self-esteem. If Cameron means what he says, he could take the simple step of ensuring that no one is required to work without pay for a commercial organisation. Otherwise, the Big Society will start to look like a cover for yet more favours for big business.


Could Mrs Obama be related to the DPM’s wife?

The New York Post raised the spectre of a woman making a covert bid for power

The Independent, Monday 9 January 2012

I’ve never given much thought to Lady Macbeth’s political views, but it’s probably safe to say she wasn’t overly concerned with her husband’s plans for healthcare. In our more enlightened times, everyone knows women have their own opinions and tensions are
likely to surface in a political marriage. That’s why some simple rules have been devised to help clever women negotiate the minefield: bake cookies, support your man, attend fund-raisers, support your man. Are you listening, Michelle Obama?

Apparently not, judging by reaction to a new book about the Obamas. Its author, Jodi Kantor, says aides to the President told her about a “grim” situation in his inner circle two years ago, with much of the conflict apparently caused by Mrs Obama’s uncertainty about her role. Kantor’s book appears to be a serious attempt to analyse the problems the Obamas encountered in the White House. But, in an election year and with the high hopes that greeted Obama’s presidency mostly unrealised, it’s been seized upon by political opponents.

The New York Post described Mrs Obama as a “behind-the-scenes force in the White House”, raising the spectre of a woman making a covert bid for power. Kantor writes more soberly about “a first lady who disapproved of the turn the White House had taken, and a chief of staff who chafed against her influence”. Mrs Obama opposed Rahm Emanuel’s appointment as her husband’s chief of staff, clashed with him on healthcare and was turned down when she asked to attend his morning staff meetings. Kantor claims the President sided with his wife against Emanuel and pursued a vision “more in line with the one he shared with the First Lady”. Emanuel resigned in October 2010.

A wife discussing politics with her husband? I expect it took hostile commentators all of three seconds to summon to mind the requisite historical comparison. Critics of Mrs Obama, a British newspaper reported yesterday, “view her as a Lady Macbeth figure”. I assume this is a reference to the infamous episode when Mrs Obama urged her husband to assassinate Mitt Romney – or do I mean Newt Gingrich? And I’m wondering whether Mrs Obama could be related to the “militantly ball-breaking” Spanish lawyer Miriam Gonzalez Durantez, whose views on sharing childcare – she is married to Nick Clegg – caused adverse comment last year.

Actually, the biggest thing going for Obama at the moment is the choice collection of weirdos competing for the Republican nomination. I can see that the notion of embracing gender equality could be a stretch for some candidates, and Michelle Obama isn’t exactly a Stepford wife. But attacks on the partners of centre-left politicians speak volumes about a culture that’s still struggling with the idea of a relationship between equals. Shouldn’t politics be about more than a contest over who has the biggest balls?


Performing Seals

The Author, Winter 2011

Are you doing Hay? Have you been invited to Cheltenham? Did you hear Richard Dawkins, Martina Cole, Bill Clinton? At some point in the last couple of decades, literature became part of the entertainment industry, sending authors round the country to discuss their writing habits, where they get their ideas from and what they think about their peers. Sometimes a well-known writer makes headlines, usually when he or she plunges into the age-old debate about literary versus popular fiction. Biography is another promising area, especially if someone has unearthed new information about a subject’s sexuality or eccentric domestic habits. Publishers love it and so do the media. Branding is as important for writers these days as it is for footballers and pop stars, as this advertising campaign for a best-selling crime writer – sorry, that should be blockbuster crime brand’ – demonstrates: ‘National outdoor poster advertising will reach 6m shoppers and commuters….Highly targeted online campaign, including Facebook advertising, blogger outreach and video trailer seeding….Joint competitions, cross promotion and in-DVD advertising’. I have to say that ‘blogger outreach’ sounds to me like something that might be carried out by Social Services, aimed at individuals so tied to their computers that they never leave the house. But some authors take to this game with gusto, embracing their ‘brand’ with the enthusiasm of an actor who’s finally been offered the chance to play Cleopatra or Hamlet.

Actually, singing at the Albert Hall may be a better analogy, given that this is about writing as showbiz. The days when an author could stay at home, writing books and behaving like just another human being, are long gone; in this universe, J D Salinger’s lifelong reluctance to be interviewed appears not merely eccentric but perverse. I know that authors have always had public lives, up to a point: Lord Byron’s popularity turned into notoriety because of the drama of his marriage and affairs, while Charles Dickens famously exhausted himself by reading emotional scenes from his novels in front of an audience. Many contemporary writers use their fame to support campaigns, whether it’s promoting literacy and free expression or endorsing political parties. For me, writing has always been inextricably bound up with politics and I’m happy to talk in public about human rights, secularism and the role of a free press. What I’m less happy about is the endless self-promotion and self-exposure required of writers, mirroring the relentless rise of narcissism right across popular culture.

Members of the public flock to see their favourite authors at festivals and in bookshops, queuing for signed copies and confiding that they’d love to be writers themselves. There’s no mystery about that: for many people who don’t know the literary world, writing isn’t about the hard slog of sitting alone day after day, struggling to find the right phrase or come up with a cogent piece of analysis. It’s about being up there on the stage, accepting compliments from an admiring audience, or sitting at the same table as Ruth Rendell and Stephen Fry. In bookshops, appearances by best-selling authors are advertised in much the same way as the opportunity to meet a contestant from Celebrity Big Brother (and sometimes, of course, the two things are synonymous).

There is a problem here. Hardly anyone is prepared to say it, but it should be obvious that public performance has very little to do with writing. It is possible to be a skilled public performer who talks fluently about the process of writing, but the two abilities are almost entirely unrelated. Someone who has written a memoir may have struggled for years with painful memories and internal conflicts, a process that’s bearable on the page but not in front of an audience; a novel that’s become a classic may have initially received lukewarm reviews, creating feelings of rejection and neglect its author does not wish to acknowledge in public. Even if neither of these cases applies, there is no reason why someone who has written a book should automatically want to discuss it in front of an audience and answer personal or inconsequential questions. For many authors, writing is a much more tentative, uncertain and fragile process than publishers’ publicity machines are prepared to admit.

The demand for writers-as-performers is ubiquitous. It’s also based on a series of myths, not least the notion that published authors have special knowledge about the process of writing. Would-be writers are sometimes obsessed with the mechanics yet it’s fairly obvious that what works for one person – writing 500 words each morning, or for three days at a stretch, or in a shed at the bottom of the garden – doesn’t necessarily work for someone else. I realised a long time ago that anyone who wants to write has to discover his or her individual writing pattern, and knowing how or where J K Rowling does it isn’t relevant to that.

Another myth is that meeting authors will provide insights into their books, as though there’s something missing from the work that can be discovered only by questioning them in person; it’s this theory that produces those stilted, not to say embarrassing, ‘interviews’ that sometimes appear tacked on at the end of novels. It’s an unlikely proposition, given that writing is so dependent on the unconscious mind, and writers are left treading precariously along the line between boasting and saying something interesting. I’ve often felt for authors who are clearly doing their best not to sound like deranged egomaniacs but I’ve also shared platforms – and here my point about narcissism is relevant again – with writers whose sole purpose is to talk about themselves as much as possible. Sometimes, it’s even occurred to me that there may be an inverse relationship between a talent for self-promotion and the ability to write.

The entry of showbiz values into the business of authorship means that some publishers are looking for ‘personalities’, larger-than-life characters they know how to promote, as much as writers with original talent. This is particularly true of non-fiction, where the best-seller lists are dominated by famous comedians, TV tie-ins and the occasional footballer’s memoir, but it also has an impact on fiction. Increasingly, novelists need to be able to sell themselves as well as their books, a demand that works against anyone who is reticent by nature or reluctant to jostle for attention. And that has an effect not just on the volumes that get onto bestseller lists but the question of who gets published in the first place. That matters more than ever at a time when so many mid-list – and as yet unpublished – authors are struggling.

In any society, the boundary between public and private life shifts and wavers. The phone hacking scandal that destroyed the News of the World last summer suggests that it’s been drawn in the wrong place for quite some time, turning private life into a commodity. Something similar has happened in publishing, where the assumption that writers are public figures – and indeed public property – is almost unquestioned. No doubt the prospect of becoming a media ‘personality’ appeals to some authors, but others are quite reasonably dismayed by it. A literary culture that favours performance over the unshowy skills of authorship is a bad thing for literature and for writers.


The difference between write and wrong

Sending messages in a hurry says nothing about character

Independent on Sunday, 8 January 2012

I once emerged from an Underground station to find central London in the midst of a torrential storm. I sent a text to my publisher, telling him I’d be late for a meeting while I waited for the rain to stop, and received a perplexing reply. Was I ill? Should he come and get me? I stared at my mobile, wondering what on earth he was talking about, until I re-read my own message. Predictive texting had changed “rain” to “pain”.

I’m sure something similar has happened to anyone who texts, dashes off emails on a smartphone or uses Twitter. I compose tweets on my iPhone, on a keyboard that’s two inches by one, and I’d be astonished if I didn’t make mistakes. Usually I catch them, but I’m also aware of the brain’s ability to see what it expects, rather than what’s actually there. When I read Ed Miliband’s tweet about the death of the TV presenter Bob Holness, I registered the typing error – “Blackbusters” for “Blockbusters” – and thought no more about it. Sadly, I can’t say the same for the people who rushed on to Twitter and composed lame jokes about it. In no time at all, Miliband’s Twitter “gaffe” was being discussed as though it revealed something about his character or his ability to lead the
Labour Party.

Did Harold Wilson ever make a mistake in a handwritten note? Margaret Thatcher? I don’t know, largely because they lived in an age before social media, when their communications would have been scrutinised (if not actually typed) by someone else before being exposed to the world. I hope I’m not destroying cherished illusions here, but publishers employ copy-editors to correct errors by some of their most erudite and
successful authors.

In the case of Twitter, there are compelling reasons to think twice before mocking someone’s latest tweet. Not long after Miliband’s “Blackbusters” error, a political blogger quoted a satirical response that appeared to come from Diane Abbott, whom Miliband had reprimanded a day earlier for a carelessly expressed opinion on Twitter, and suggested that shadow ministers were now “openly taking the piss out of the leader”. Shortly after that, the blogger was on Twitter again, acknowledging that this “Abbott” tweet was a hoax. So, it seems, were recent tweets purporting to come from Rupert Murdoch’s wife, Wendi Deng.

In this unregulated world, it might be wise to think twice before using a single word or badly expressed phrase as evidence of anything. In Miliband’s case, we don’t even know for certain that he, rather than someone in his office, composed the tweet that caused this storm in a teacup. Of course someone is bound to say he should be in total command of everything that’s going on in his office, but that would inevitably lead to accusations of control-freakery. That Ed Miliband, he’s so worried about his image! He doesn’t trust his staff to do anything!

Much has been written about the abuse of social media by assorted bullies, racists and misogynists. What’s been less attended to is the way in which platforms such as Twitter encourage responses from an area of the brain that can’t entirely be trusted. Instant communication is just that: a fast response that doesn’t take into account factual accuracy, conflicting evidence and questions of authenticity.

There is a good side to Twitter, when conversations are conducted civilly and rationally, but sometimes it descends into the kind of name-calling you get at a children’s party. Ed Miliband has nothing to be ashamed of in this trivial episode, which simply demonstrates the capacity of Twitter to turn over-eager users into twits.


It’s obvious – marriage doesn’t suit everyone

The single most effective means of reducing the number of unhappy relationships is education

The Independent, Wednesday 4 January 2012

I had dinner the other night with one of the most successful couples I know. They’ve been together most of their adult lives, clearly adore each other and recently celebrated their 30th anniversary with a trip to Paris. The only problem is that they’re not actually married – being gay, they’ve had to make do with a civil partnership. And their model
relationship doesn’t get a look-in when the great and the good start agonising (again) over family breakdown and the parlous state of marriage.

I agree we have a problem with relationships. Each January, having endured the myth of a joyful family Christmas, thousands of miserable husbands and wives pick up the phone and make an appointment to see a divorce lawyer. The divorce rate is rising, after a period of slow decline, and there are currently 3.8 million children in the family justice system. This is hardly a snapshot of a nation of happy families, and it has persuaded a High Court judge to set up a foundation which aims to reverse the “appalling and costly impact of family breakdown”. Sir Paul Coleridge wants to end what he calls a “recycling” pattern of switching to new partners instead of trying to make existing relationships work. I’ll come back to “recycling” in a moment, but a big part of his mission – the bit I greet with a weary groan – is to promote marriage.

“My message is, mend it – don’t end it,” declared Sir Paul. Unfortunately, his announcement came at roughly the same time as news was breaking of the latest in a series of horrific domestic murders over the festive period. On New Year’s Day, according to Durham police, Michael Atherton shot dead his partner, Susan McGoldrick, her sister, Alison Turnbull, and her niece, Tanya Turnbull; Ms McGoldrick’s daughter, Laura, 19, was injured, but managed to escape through an upstairs window. Friends said the couple separated for a couple of months last summer but got back together, and Laura was “scared” of her stepfather’s violence.

This is an extreme case of family breakdown, but it follows similar episodes last month when two apparently happily married men attacked their families and then killed themselves. Two days ago, in what police are treating as another “domestic” incident, a young mother was found dead from stab wounds in a car which had been used to abduct her from her home in east London.

My point is that many people urgently need to leave dangerous relationships, and no amount of lectures about the desirability of marriage is going to change that. In most cases, warning signs exist in the form of controlling behaviour, if not actual beatings, and everyone who goes into a relationship with another adult should know what to look for. Two women a week, on average, are killed by current or former partners, and there are 13 million separate incidents of physical violence or threats of violence against
women every year.

Pro-marriage rhetoric has little to say about these figures, which suggest there are fundamental problems in adult relationships right across the board. Unrealistic expectations are fuelled by celebrity magazines, which vastly accelerate the process of falling in love, getting married and having children; from first date to fevered speculation about a “baby bump” seems to take about three months. Recycled relationships are the norm among soap stars and reality TV contestants, and no one bats an eyelid when one of Katie Price’s ex-husbands takes up with a woman who was briefly married to a pop star she met in the Big Brother House.

This is real-life soap opera, its miseries cushioned by higher disposable incomes than most couples can call on. And one of its effects is to encourage an addiction to romance, where people who don’t have much else in their lives crave the highs of a new relationship. The result is the phenomenon of women who have babies by several different fathers, all of them absent, and the likelihood of one or more of the children ending up in care.

This is not a happy outcome for anyone, but the single most effective means of reducing the number of unhappy, and indeed abusive, relationships is education. Lessons in what constitutes a healthy relationship and how to deal with conflict should be routine for teenagers, and there are plenty of experts who could be invited into schools to provide it. I’m all in favour of sex education, but it also needs to cover the impact of having children and the fact that some people simply don’t want to become

There’s also an argument for offering relationship classes to adults when they’re going through a divorce or break-up, to help identify damaging patterns and reduce the effect on children. It’s hard to do this if you start from the premise that it’s better for couples to stay together or promote the one-size-fits-all solution of traditional marriage. My gay
friends could teach straight couples a lot about how to live with another adult, but no one thinks of asking their advice. I mean, it’s not as if they’re married, is it?


I tried to bag a bargain but I was outrun

Independent on Sunday, 1 January 2012

I like handbags as much as anyone. Or I thought I did, until I went to the winter sales last week, saw the prices and reeled back. When did a fairly ordinary handbag start to cost £250, even when it’s reduced by half? When did they begin to have names – Marcie, Evelina and Daria – as though you’re acquiring a posh new friend rather than somewhere to keep your keys and phone? I’ve also discovered that there’s a kind of person who’s prepared to queue before dawn – when sensible human beings are still snuggled up in bed – for the privilege of buying one of these over-priced accessories.

In the West End of London, a crowd surged through the doors of Selfridges on the first morning of the sale as though their lives depended on getting inside. “We just want Gucci!” a young Chinese woman exclaimed, heading towards an area of the store that had been roped off in anticipation of the need to control numbers.

I don’t know how the leaders of the Chinese communist party spent the past few days – nervously trying to read the signals coming out of North Korea would be my guess – but I doubt whether it involved queuing half the night for a must-have shoulder bag at a bargain price. Six decades of communist propaganda have evidently produced a generation more knowledgeable about Gucci than about Chairman Mao.

I hadn’t previously encountered the phenomenon of queuing to get into high-end stores as though they’re nightclubs, but it’s also been visible in out-of-town shopping centres such as Bicester Village. In the bleakest economic conditions for decades, such conspicuous displays of affluence turn shopping into a status symbol, suggesting that the individuals waiting behind the rope have more cash than the rest of us and aren’t
embarrassed about it. They’re willing to pay astronomical prices for things they didn’t even know they wanted a few years ago, with huge (in every sense) handbags a case in point. You can’t wear them, and they don’t make you look slimmer, but they announce to the world that the lucky owner can afford to carry a shoulder bag with a full-price tag of £1,000.

Personally, I’ve never been on first-name terms with a handbag, but when Mulberry named one of its bags after Alexa Chung last year, it proved so popular that there was soon a waiting list – and a leap in the company’s profits. Angelina Jolie is the face of the upmarket brand Louis Vuitton, and she was photographed (by Annie Leibovitz, no less) with a huge LV bag in a wooden boat in Cambodia for its current advertising campaign.
Jolie didn’t wear make-up for the shoot and the bag is no longer in production, which, in the strange world of designer brands, counts almost as a bold anti-fashion statement.

At this point, I suppose I should admit I’m not the world’s most successful shopper. I went to the sales last week, fully intending to buy some dinner plates, and came home with a pair of pink sunglasses. I’m a sucker for beautiful objects and I quite admire the fashion industry’s ability to create demand for things we don’t really need, but the cult of the designer handbag is a step too far.

A thousand quid for something that, when you get it home, is full of scrunched-up tissue paper? Which you then have to fill with other things, until it’s so heavy it makes your back ache? It may be called Alexa or Donna and turn some of your friends green with envy. But it’s still just a bag, for god’s sake.