They’re coming to stick pins in your children…

You might think that political gains for an actually fascist party would make polemicists ease up on the jackboot rhetoric, however much they dislike social workers and family law. But Peter Hitchens is a special case – someone so committed in his dislike of any state intervention in family life, he managed to turn the Baby P case into the occasion for a column on how social workers are too intrusive (well, too intrusive into the lives of married couples with children earning 30K and above).

You can't hear the jackboots

Peter Hitchens is, basically, incredible: a writer so febrile and deluded that you can legitimately describe Christopher as the “least worst Hitchens” (which is a bit like choosing your favourite boil, but there you are). He’s also admirably shameless about his methods: everything he tells us, he writes, is intended to “scare us”.

This weekend, he instills fear by declaring that the UK is practically a totalitarian state. There are three ingredients to your triumphalist face-stamping government, apparently. Firstly, a proposal (not legislation, just a proposal) to make school attendance dependant on receiving a full programme of vaccinations. Secondly, increased monitoring of home-schoolers. Thirdly, the provison of nursery care. It’s a terrifying vision of a dystopian nightmare brought to life around us.

Oh no, wait – it’s just some policy to be discussed, with trade-offs to be made between the individual and the group. Your precious freedoms are currently intact, including the freedom to make your child vulnerable to preventable diseases and expose other people to illness too. But Hitchens obviously isn’t interested in discussing what’s necessary or effective: “I have no idea if the MMR is safe or not”, he writes. (Somewhere in Mail central, there’s a portrait of a once-competent editor which grows a little more decrepit each time a sentence like that goes to press, when it ought to have been sent back directly with the message, “Really? Then find out.”) You can never be too ignorant or too sloppy when you’re telling people that the state is coming for their children.

Introducing: Don’t Get Mad, Get Accurate

Newspapers are entitled to a worldview. If The Mail believes that only social conservatism and bad body image can save us, then it’s legitimate for their editorial to follow that line. What’s not legitimate is for them to misreport the facts to fit that editorial line. So new blog Don’t Get Mad, Get Accuracy is a pretty interesting proposition (and thanks to Anton Vowl for announcing its existence). It aims to get readers complaining to the PCC whenever The Mail publishes something demonstrably untrue – and while the PCC might not be especially awesome as watchdogs go, it’s still the best venue for organised objection as things are. Read, subscribe, follow their lead, hope that you end up with a better press for your letter-writing efforts.

“I’ve probably written the word ‘I’ more than anyone else in the world”

jones-and-husband

And yet all that self-exposure couldn’t buy Liz Jones a little self-knowledge. She was on  Today this morning, explaining why the gut-spilling journalism she’s perfected for the Mail is a good thing for readers, writers and newspapers.

Liz Jones on Today 12 March 2009

These are extract’s from Liz’s apology for her mucky furrow of writing:

It seemed to me that a lot of women were going through what I was going through and being a bit dishonest about it.

So, nobly, Liz became the lone speaker of truth for unhappily married middle-class women everywhere.

It helped me to deal with things and to confront things – sometimes I provoked an argument just so I could write about it!

There’s a bit of a difference between “confront” and “provoke”: if you confront something, then it’s an existing state of affairs (ahem); if you provoke something, then you’re causing something to happen. And if Liz was provoking an argument to have something to write about, then it seems likely that these discussions would be focused not so much on reaching a contented marital resolution as on eliciting a blazing selection of insults to use in her column.

Yes, I have [betrayed those around me]. And I know you said at the beginning it’s cheap and easy – it’s not, it’s very difficult writing about people close to you. It absolutely destroys relationships, it destroyed my marriage ultimately. […] Even novelists do it, they’ll just change a name. I do think it’s a more honest way of doing it.

Novelists don’t do that. Well, some of them do (Hanif Kureshi comes up in the Today piece), but when they do it’s just as contemptible as what Jones did with her marriage using real names. A better description of what novelists do came from Stephanie Merritt in the Guardian this weekend. She says that many cognitive behavourial therapy exercises were “variations on the processes I used in writing novels: taking experiences and emotional states, giving them to made-up characters and then examining them from a different perspective.” Which is a much more reflective process than the weekly splurge Jones produces, and doesn’t involve announcing the actual devastation of the domestic life you share with another actual person.

I did [feel sorry for my husband], and he would beg me not to write stuff. […] When you see it in print and all your friends are talking about the fact you haven’t had sex for nine months, it’s jolly embarrassing. But if you’re a writer and you decide to do a column you do it, you don’t hide things. You’re either putting it all out there or you’re not.

Jones also calls writing about her private life a “compulsion”, which is a bit sharper than this effort to dress up the confessional as a vocation. Writing a column doesn’t mean you’ve taken a solemn vow of self-revelation. Dan Savage and Greta Christina both write explicitly about sex, and they’re both absolutely clear that their current sex life is private because their partners don’t want it written about. Jones’ attitude sounds like an excuse from someone who’s so profoundly solipsistic, she simply doesn’t care what she publishes about other people.

Journalism has gone the same way as TV – it’s reality TV, it’s real people’s lives. I really think people want that and it sells and people respond to it in a way they don’t respond to someone who never types the word ‘I’. I’ve probably written the word ‘I’ more than anyone else in the world!

Why does Liz Jones count as a “real person”? The pressures on her marriage (apart from the fact that it involved two people who sound supremely revolting) were extraordinary and self-inflicted ones: most unhappily married women don’t have the added pressure of worrying about what their husband will think when he reads an account of their latest relationship hiccup in the country’s biggest-selling newspaper. If Jones can’t learn anything from writing about her experiences, what possible journalistic value can there be in it for any other readers?

Hatred shaped like a fat girl

There are some precious moments when you’re reading the Daily Mail and it seems that the hatreds it espouses are too many and varied to be contained in one coherent feature. The prose is stretched in every direction by loathing but somehow, magically, holds on to its double voice. Around the time of the Hutton report, I gleefully anticipated the implosion of the Mailiverse as the opposing forces of ‘hating Labour’ and ‘hating the BBC’ worked against each other – but of course, if I’d paid as much attention to how the Mail says stuff as I did to what it was saying, I would have been a lot cooler. Those masterful Mail subs don’t let a tiny thing like conflict of interest undermine their copy. These negatively capable editorial geniuses can easily hold on to to contradictory ideas at the same time without any irritable reaching after fact and reason, whipping up disgust all around the reader.

Fat Kate

Welcome, then, beaming journo Kate Faithfull with a magnificent example of this style. She’s the one in the middle, but don’t worry, she doesn’t really look like that – she’s wearing a fat suit to London Fashion Week in a mission to “challenge every received prejudice in the industry” and “show the fashionistas what real curves look like”. Actually, if the industry wanted to know what real curves look like, it turns out in the course of the article that Dawn French was right there anyway being plus-sized and fabulous, so Kate’s weird balloon tits and sack belly would be redundant even if they did have any relation to “real curves”.

The tiny chance that Kate’s mission is in good faith but misguided is rapidly crushed by the sneering prose that follows. Kate feels “soft and sexy” in her fatsuit because “there are no rolls of wobbly flesh” – because real fat would be too revolting for the Mail‘s delicate readers to tolerate. When she has to dress her new round body, she declares: “It’s a good job my breasts are made of foam and don’t require any support — it would have to be a bra to fit two space hoppers.” There’s no sense that Kate has any feeling of ownership or sympathy for this body. She finds it ridiculous, she doesn’t even look for clothes that fit (maybe an actual fat girl could have advised her on bra shopping?), and the outfit she settles on is spectacularly cheap-looking and unflattering. The default colour for both fashion shows and plus-size clothing is black, so how did Kate end up in a fuchsia and pea-green? By trying really hard to look hideous, that’s how.

So while the piece goes on to confirm what Kate claims she set out to discover – um, models are thin! fashion people judge your looks! hold the front page and THINK OF THE IMPRESSIONABLE YOUNG GIRLS! – it’s also able to gratuitously attack the overweight under cover of sympathy. Kate plays her size for laughs again and again: “I will need three [chairs] to accommodate my bottom, not to mention a miracle to prevent [them] collapsing”, she hoots, apparently forgetting that her bulk is lightweight foam and she’s in more danger of blowing away than breaking a seat. But the real magic happens at the very end:

Clearly, the front line of fashion is not the place for me. I feel like a circus freak. I truly can’t face going to the other shows I  –  so I run. With tears in my eyes, I bolt out into the street like a bride sprinting away from a wedding she knows will never make her happy.

For the first time today, I feel like I can breathe again. I think to myself that I hope I horrified and repulsed all those snotty skinnies at the shows.

They live in a rarefied world, and they should be forced to confront reality for once  –  to realise that not everyone looks like them, or even wants to be like them.

I never thought I’d say this, but forget the catwalk. Give me the fatwalk any day.

This is the climax, and it sounds pretty dramatic even if it’s mostly fiction. “Like a bride sprinting away from a wedding she knows will never make her happy”? Really? And what about (again) Dawn French, Victoria Wood and Lorraine Kelly, who apparently all manage to mingle with the “snotty skinnies” without fleeing in disgrace? Never mind that, check out the second to last paragraph. Following on from what’s gone before, “they” seems strictly to encompass the “snotty skinnies”, but sitting nakedly after a line break, “they” could easily be the “fatties” as well. And it makes just as much sense, after Kate’s pillorying of the overweight throughout, for her to be saying that they “should be forced to confront reality for once  –  to realise that not everyone looks like them, or even wants to be like them.” Because whether you’re alarmingly bony or disgustingly plump, the key thing in the Mailiverse is that you’re not acceptable unless you’re ‘normal’. So little Kate turns away from the catwalk, peels off her foam and goes back to being a comfortable size 10. She hasn’t learnt anything. She hasn’t taught anyone else anything. But she has confirmed that the too-thin and the too-fat are almost equal candidates for mockery – which is what the Mailiverse really wanted to know all along.

The Freedom Of The Mail

The threat to our press

“Independence of the judiciary the Daily Mail to pursue matters of public interest hapless sluts who elope with moderately recognisable figures from the world of sport is the vital check keeping this once-great nation from sliding into the morass of fascism. What kind of world will we live in when people are free to privately engage in any kind of unimaginably depraved consensual sex act they like? And how can the British press perform its proper role of scrutinising the nation’s life without the freedom to call anyone a Nazi at any time, without any evidence? Also, I hate the BBC.”