New Statesman | View from Rutland: economic tensions in England’s smallest county

2017_23_rutland_obs

The journey from the village of Cottesmore in the East Midlands county of Rutland to the town of Oakham is four miles. It takes about 40 minutes by bus, which runs only every two hours. I lived in Rutland until I was 18 and this bus was one of several things about the area that made leaving an absolute imperative. This time, though, I’m just visiting. To an outsider’s eye, the gently rolling farmland and wooded avenues we meander through are beautiful.

Signs for the Plough, the Wheatsheaf and the Fox and Hounds slide past: pub names that suggest an ideal of rustic England. As the bus collects its passengers, it fills up with chat: who didn’t make this journey last week because they were working late shifts, what’s been happening at the depot. Everyone really does seem to know everyone else but then there aren’t that many people to know in Rutland. As well as being England’s smallest county, this is also one of the most sparsely populated, with just 38,000 residents.

Read the full piece at the New Statesman

New Statesman | A government that includes the DUP is profoundly bad news for women

gettyimages-693926762_1_

This extraordinary election has seen one horrible irony for women traded for another. At the start of the campaign, when Theresa May looked to turn her high personal ratings (lol) into an even higher Conservative majority (lololol), it seemed that the UK’s second female prime minister was going to bring about a depressing decline in female MPs: because only Labour has a substantial record of getting women into parliament (thank you, all-women shortlists), anything that hurts Labour hurts sexual equality on the benches.

Back when a 1930s style collapse seemed plausible (lololololol), names on the line included Jess Phillips and Thangam Debbonaire, among other redoubtable feminists who have brought their feminist politics into parliament. Well that didn’t happen. Instead, Labour’s surge saw Phillips add 10,000 votes to her majority; Debbonaire’s vote share went from 33.7 per cent to a dizzying 65.9 per cent.

Instead of losing women, Westminster gained a record intake of them. And the Tories lost, lost, lost (one final lol here). But this is where the next irony comes in, because the only way for the now-diminished Tories to form a government is for them to join a coalition with the Democratic Unionist Party in Northern Ireland. And a ruling coalition that includes the DUP is profoundly bad news for women.

Read the full column at the New Statesman 

Literary Review | Selfie: How We Became So Self-Obsessed & What It’s Doing to Us by Will Storr

selfie.jpg

The idea that all of us have a self – essential, irreducible and inherently valuable – is something that’s accepted across social divisions, party-political lines and ideological differences. The mere suggestion that the existence of the self is a belief rather than a natural law can induce the scratchy, uncomfortable feeling of cognitive dissonance. Yet, Will Storr argues in Selfie, it is only a belief: in reality, human beings are inchoate creatures, acting under influences we barely comprehend and creating post-hoc rationalisations for our behaviour to sustain the fiction of coherent identity. And this is all just in the first chapter.

Read the full review at Literary Review

Spectator | The Children of Jocasta by Natalie Haynes

Sculpture in Ephesus

Beyond the patricide and even the incest, the horror of the Oedipus myth lies in its insistence that our fates are not ours to change. And yet the story itself is far from unalterable, having been handed down in multiple variants — something that Natalie Haynes knows very well as a classics scholar. Now Haynes has written her own version of the tragedy, finding new space in the narrative by looking at it through the eyes of two characters neglected by antiquity: Oedipus’s mother/bride Jocasta and their youngest daughter Ismene.

Read the full review at the Spectator

GE2017: In this election, Corbyn is the house, and the house always wins

18893109_10155431368448872_4143167929859774538_n

Tomorrow I will go and vote, and when I vote – for Labour – I will feel a heavy despair, and I will recite again all the arguments that got me as far as the booth in the first place. That the candidate is a solid local councillor, who I want to see do well. That I am a party member, and signed up to clause one. That Labour is a party that has brought growth and redistribution in government, the party of the Equality Act, the only party with a feminist record. That I am voting for, effectively, the party of Harriet Harman; only I’m not, because given first-past-the-post and the constituency I live in, my vote is not going to help to elect any Labour MPs.

My vote will, in the end, only be useful to one member of the parliamentary Labour party, and that’s Jeremy Corbyn. If this general election ends on a Tory victory, and if (more on these ifs in a second) that precipitates another contest for the Labour leadership, the size of the Labour vote this time will be an important part of Corbyn’s case for staying on.

At the start of this election, I was sure of two things: that Labour would lose, and that Corbyn was unconscionable as a party leader and prime minister. Now I’m somewhat less confident about the first, and still absolutely certain about the second. Since April, Labour have advanced impressively in the polls. Well, some polls. I didn’t foresee that. But then, I didn’t foresee Theresa May being as cataclysmically awful on the campaign trail as she has been. Charmless, robotic and authoritarian, yes. Frightened, flaky and often absent, no. Whereas Corbyn, of course, has been in his element: relaxed, confident, even (and this is painful to say) likeable. He can’t lead a party, but can he ever do a campaign.

I also didn’t foresee a situation where, somehow, Corbyn was outflanking May on security. Perhaps I should: her greatest weaknesses as a PM have always had a tight crossover with the qualities that helped her stay in the Home Office so long (controlling, combative, reluctant to delegate), so it figures that her record in Home should also be a millstone. Any security failings and police funding cuts that might have contributed to the recent attacks are on her, and there is no way to strong-and-stable her way out of it.

Yet this leaves us in the extraordinary position where Corbyn – friend of Hamas, ally to the IRA – is posturing as a bulwark against terror. Those alliances speak, too, of the ways in which he is simply unsupportable as a leader (or should be simply unsupportable, anyway: this would not be the first election where I found myself standing well wide of the electorate, clutching my ragged principles).

Hamas is an explicitly anti-Semitic organisation (or was so, anyway, until it reformed its constitution last month). He took money from the theocratic, anti-Semitic, LGBT-persecuting Iranian regime to appear on the Iranian state broadcast network, Press TV. Corbyn has failed abjectly to acknowledge the moral seriousness of anti-Semitism in the Labour Party, or to assert his leadership against it. On Ireland, Corbyn’s decision to sit out the EU referendum was simply reprehensible, given the dependence of the Good Friday Agreement on open borders. There is no sign that he even now appreciates what is at risk. Why would he, when peace in Ireland is one of those New Labour achievements that we are now apparently supposed to repudiate along with everything else “Blairite”?

Labour’s history on women’s rights is one of the most valuable things to me in politics; yet Corbyn supports total decriminalisation of the sex trade that would only be in the interests of pimps and punters, allowing women to be exploited on an industrial scale (it’s all anti-capitalism till you get down to vaginas, eh). The Labour manifesto includes a commitment to make “gender identity” (which of course is not defined, because no one actually knows what a gender identity is) a protected characteristic – a piece of well-intentioned reflex liberalism that would make rank nonsense of protections now afforded on the basis of sex.

Corbyn has shown deep carelessness when it comes to women’s representation in Labour; and of course, when misogynistic abuse was committed by his supporters and in his name, his reaction was merely to “condemn all abuse”, as though he were simply a hapless bystander rather than the inspiration for it. I don’t give a hoot whether he has support from women, by the way. I care that his policies and actions have been objectively bad for women.

For his supporters, none of these things matter. They’re smears, or fake news, or tabloid distractions intended to prevent a Truly Left-Wing Leader from reaching Number 10. His high-ranking supporters have gradually peeled off, but his rallies are still vast. The devotion he inspires is still passionate in a way usually reserved for popes, or pop stars. And yet – if Corbyn’s supporters are standing in parks to catch his megaphoned words, or lining up to get a touch of his hand, who’s knocking on doors? Who’s manning the phone banks?

Away from the ultras of politics, all I have heard this election is that people would rather not be having it. The electorate is done with voting. The one pledge that seems to be a guaranteed loser this year, for both the Lib Dems and the SNP, has been the promise of another referendum. No one wants it. Meanwhile, Labour candidates report a frosty reception on the doorstep. Historically, that’s a sure sign of a bad result to come. The local election results point to the same. If so, that means a terrible blood-letting of Labour MPs – a huge injury to the party’s ability to rebuild, a huge injury to women’s representation, a huge injury to politics.

If Corbyn loses but exceeds the worst expectations (say, it’s an ’80s level defeat rather than a ’30s level one), he still wins, because he’ll stay on. If he loses as badly as the early forecasts had it, he wins – because who will be left to replace him? If he actually wins, or if he (less implausibly) wrangles a hung parliament into premiership for himself, then of course he wins, though the likelihood is he would then revert to his off-campaign peevishness, and the UK will have a leader with all the moral integrity implied by his record on Ireland, anti-Semitism and misogyny. A better leader than Theresa May, possibly. But still.

I’m not particularly good at political predictions. The only reliable intuition I ever have really is pity: once I start to feel sorry for a politician, it’s all over. Poor wounded-bear Brown staggering into 2010. Osborne, with his endearingly odd fringe and extraordinary hi-vis clad performances of what a normal person might do in 2016. Theresa May’s twitching discomfort this year. I do not feel sorry for Corbyn. In this election, Corbyn is the house, and the house always wins. For the rest of us, there’s nothing good.

New Statesman | Can the media focus on transgender politics reveal anything larger about identity?

2017_21_trans_inside

This is a review essay of four new books about trans issues: Trans Like Me by C. N. Lester, Becoming Nicole by Amy Ellis Nutt, The Secrets of My Life by Caitlyn Jenner, and Man Alive by Thomas Page McBee.

The world of transgender politics is full of big claims and bold declarations, but here is an understatement to start with: “The media is having a trans moment,” writes C N Lester in Trans Like Me. They are not wrong (“they” because Lester identifies as non-binary, and so asks to be referred to with gender-neutral pronouns). Besides the books addressed here, recent additions to the discussion include the novel This Is How It Always Is (based on the transition of the author Laurie Frankel’s own child), The Gender Games by the Glamour columnist Juno Dawson (modestly subtitled The Problem With Men and Women . . . from Someone Who Has Been Both), The New Girl by the Elle columnist Rhyannon Styles, True Colours by Caroline Paige (the first openly trans person in the British military) and Surpassing Certainty by the trans activist Janet Mock – a second volume of autobiography to follow 2014’s Redefining Realness.

These books cover memoir, popular science and manifesto. Inevitably, they are wildly variable, both in quality and in ideology. I suspect that Lester might prefer a little less ideological range. Trans Like Me opens by asking, “What does the word ‘trans’ mean to you?” which, Lester then explains, is how they begin the corporate diversity training sessions they lead. Few books have so accurately captured the experience of being detained in a conference room and forced to reckon with a whiteboard.

Read the full essay at the New Statesman

The Lancet Psychiatry | The merciless mirror: Sylvia Plath’s art, suicide, and influence

SYLVIA+FACEBOOK

The relationship between Sylvia Plath and suicide – the extent to which she glorified death in her work, and has been glorified for her death posthumously – has niggled at me since I was a teenager reading her for the first time. In an essay at university, I compared her to Medea based on a fairly overwrought reading of one line of Ariel: not strictly supported by the text, but the closest I could get to explaining the witchy and destructive power invested in her most famous work.

Yet the death she is famous for is a poor representative of her as a writer. It gives no account of her vivacious wonder at the miracle of her own children, for example, in a poem like You’re: “Right, like a well-done sum. / A clean slate, with your own face on.” Nor does it recognise her tremendous funniness: The Bell Jar is savagely witty, something that comes as a delightful surprise every time I go back to it.

When The Lancet Psychiatry commissioned me to write an essay about art, influence and the phenomenon of suicide contagion, it became an opportunity to reckon with all the parts of Plath I struggled to reconcile. The end result is something that made me understand her, and the cult around her, more than I ever have before. 

Sylvia Plath was 30 years of age when she died by suicide in 1963, and in her lifetime published only one volume of poetry and one pseudonymous novel. But in the subsequent decades, this material has been joined by a large body of posthumous work and has become the basis of a furiously contested mythology, profoundly shaping the understanding of the relationship between art and suicide. Indeed, her death inspired the landmark work of literary criticism on the subject: her friend Al Alvarez’s The Savage God.

Read the full essay at The Lancet Psychiatry (subscription or purchase required)