On Monday morning, I was on BBC Radio Wales to talk about the Labour Party leadership contest and the travails of the party in general. In brief: Corbyn will win, the party is sexist, and can we all stop pretending that being “opposed to austerity” is a meaningful thing please.
In 2004, after a 25-year estrangement, Susan Faludi’s father reappeared in her life via email. ‘I have had enough of impersonating a macho aggressive man I have never been inside,’ it read, and was signed, ‘Love from your parent, Stefánie.’ The 77-year-old had embarked on a new life as a woman, both a dramatic abruption and the continuation of a biography full of reinvention. He was born as a Hungarian Jew called István Friedman, survived the Holocaust thanks to a talent for imitating Nazis, adopted the name Faludi to show he was ‘100 per cent Hungarian’, and later settled in the US, where he became Stephen Faludi, archetypal ‘American Dad’ and, as a photographer, a master manipulator of images.
In 2014, Stefánie Faludi died, and In the Darkroom is a memoir of the fraught reacquaintance between father and daughter. It’s also a record of Stefánie Faludi’s extraordinary life, and an unsettling interrogation of that modern obsession, identity. ‘Who is the person you “were meant to be”?’ asks Faludi. ‘Is who you are what you make of yourself, the self you fashion into being, or is it determined by your inheritance and all its fateful forces, genetic, familial, ethnic, religious, cultural, historical?’ Primo Levi asked If This Is a Man. Faludi looks at her father Stefánie and wonders, is this a woman? Is this a Jew? Is this a Hungarian? How much of the thing we call a self is truly negotiable?
There’s going to be a lot of argument over the next few months about who can win Labour’s leadership election. Bit it’s also worth talking about who loses. In 1994, it was Margaret Beckett. In 2010, it was Diane Abbott. In 2015, it was Liz Kendall; second last was Yvette Cooper. The 2015 deputy leadership election was lost by a man, Ben Bradshaw; however, Angela Eagle, Caroline Flint and Stella Creasy were all steamrollered by Tom Watson in the end. In 2007, Harriet Harman narrowly won the vote for deputy leader – but she lost anyway, because Gordon Brown decided not to appoint her deputy prime minister. As Angela Eagle launches her bid for the Labour leadership, one of her lines is: “Labour is ready for a woman leader”. It’s certainly time that Labour had a woman leader. But looking at Labour’s track record, it’s difficult to find any reason to believe that the party is ready.
Read the full post at the New Statesman
I know I’m middle class, because the day I needed to claim benefits and burst into tears because the queue was too long and I knew I would be going home without the money to pay the overdue electricity bill, the security guard took me aside and told me that if I came back early the next day, someone would be able to see me. I know the family in front of me were not middle class because the buggy they were pushing was a lesser brand than the one I was pushing, and because they were smoking, and because they had strong Sheffield accents, which I heard when they started to remonstrate with the security guard about the special treatment they (rightly) suspected I was getting. I hurried away, their threats to give me a good slapping echoing behind me.
In 2013, I took part in Den of Eek – Den of Geek’s annual horror storytelling night in support of cancer charities. The theme was urban legends, and my contribution was heavily inspired by just having moved house (the creepy teddies are still in my real-life basement now).
I moved house a few months ago. Of course, it was exhausting – they say it’s more stressful than losing your job or being bereaved, and it’s even worse if the idiots you buy the house off decide to leave you with all their crap to sort through. There were skiploads of it. I don’t think the cellar had been touched in decades. There were all sorts of things down there: mouldy chintz curtains, chests of drawers with broken legs, and these creepy looking teddy bears tumbled in the dirt, like someone had been playing with them. They were so horrible, I couldn’t even touch them. I think they’re still there.
The last story in Rebecca Schiff’s The Bed Moved has a hint of defensiveness about it. It’s called ‘Write What You Know’ and it begins, ‘I only know about parent death and sluttiness.’ Is that really all she knows? Seventeen of the twenty-three stories are written from the point of view of young, American, middle-class, female writer-types. Two are written third-person, one of which is archly called ‘Third Person’ and concerns a protagonist named Rebecca who has a lot of casual sex. Several have a teenage girl as narrator: one can readily imagine each of them growing up to be a young, American, middle-class, female writer-type. Rangy is not quite the word here.
This all suggests that Schiff is lacking in imagination. She isn’t. The best story here is ‘Rate Me’, a five-page dystopian tale where the narrator’s body parts are sent to a company for ‘rating’ and sent back, improved. ‘My vagina couldn’t break five’, she says balefully. ‘When I got my vagina back from them, rated, irradiated, they’d put it in a satin box with a note telling me that I was now eligible to dine with other top-rated members.’ Like Janet Frame at her bizarre best in ‘Solutions’ or ‘The Mythmaker’s Office’, an everyday truth – here, that women are objectified, alienated from their bodies and then convinced to pay for their own mutilation – is refracted into visible form. It’s disturbing, knife-sharp and, most of all, funny.
I was on Phil Hammond’s BBC Radio Bristol show on Saturday morning, with the wonderful artist Alex Lucas, talking – almost incredibly after the week we’ve all had – about things that make us happy. For the full skinny on swimming in cold water, dogs with eyebrows, and songs that sound exactly like fancying someone, have a listen.