All posts by melissabenn

Giving something back

Read my latest Public Finance opinion piece

The tone was positively Churchillian: ‘Britain can beat this… just like we’ve beaten everything else this world has thrown at us. We’ll win by pulling together, not by facing the storm alone.’

But such stirring language came not from beleaguered national leaders at a world summit but from a bog-standard government press release issued earlier this week. It quoted the rather colourful Liam Byrne, Cabinet Office minister, on the pledge to give £42.5m to help charities weather the effects of the recession….. ( Read the rest of the article here……………

Missing in ( Domestic) Action, Part Two.

My friend K is burning up with righteous indignation. ‘Why aren’t women rioting in the streets? Where is the anger? None of my male friends are facing this problem.’

Now in her mid twenties, K has landed a junior job in a top company in her field. The hours are already killing; some of her peers are already hollow eyed with exhaustion but there’s a chance of a more senior post coming up.

Looking round the office, K asks herself ‘ Where are all the women over 40? The few who are there hardly see their kids, and they say, it doesn’t matter, that it’s good for kids to learn to deal with disappointment. But I’ll want to be with my children if I have them won’t I?’

Listening to K talk I feel, in turn, sympathy, anger, ( mostly at the stories of her female colleagues weeping with exhaustion in the toilet) shame ( for what we have failed, yet, to change) and a motherly urge to make it all better.

But I also know that, given what can so often feel like the unique drama of personal choices, it’s easy to lose sight of the big picture, the deep rooted unfairness of it all. And that the answer is, as ever, not to wail or weep but to demand change. And every generation has to carry the fight forward, in their own way.

K messages me later sounding more cheerful at the idea of what she calls ‘The Third Way’. I think she means, seeing her dilemma as a political question rather than just an unpalatable choice between dropping out in despair or passively conforming.

Net Etiquette

Since I started occasionally posting pieces on the Guardian’s Comment is Free site, I’ve had my first taste of real net malice. My current favourite remains ‘Melissa Benn. Pig Ignorant and Stupid With It.’ the headline of quite the most extraordinarily insulting blog,  posted by The Devil’s Kitchen, in response to an article I wrote a couple of months ago about Tory education policy.

I know experienced writers who will not enter into the world of net comment for fear of attack. I completely understand their distate and worry; it can be unsettling and even frightening to face such verbal violence.

On the other hand, why let the bullies win? Here, I think my political upbringing may have proved useful. As a child and teenager, I became used to reading nasty diatribes, either in the press, or in the steady flow of abusive and threatening letters sent directly to my father or our family as a whole. So I learned that long term, it is the abusers who reveal themselves to be weak and spineless and the person who can put their point of view calmly, firmly, with wit and thoughtfulness etc, will usually emerge the winner.

Needless to say, that Devil’s Kitchen headline has stayed with me in recent weeks; its comedy has swelled in my imagination: so much so, I’ve actually been considering getting a fridge magnate or a kid’s party style badge made up with those very words on it. It’s the ‘ ……and Stupid With It’ that really cracks me up. As if ‘Pig Ignorant’ alone is …well………just not ……quite………rude enough.

Missing in (Domestic) Action

 There was something important missing from Sabine Durrant’s The Chore Wars, an otherwise interesting double page feature in yesterday’s Guardian about the degree to which mothers are still left to carry the domestic can. And that was any reference to any sort of feminist analysis.

After all, there is a long, troubled, truculent, fascinating backstory to this issue of the domestic division of labour, and the apparently personal complaint of women and mothers. Modern feminism – second wave feminism – whatever you want to call it – began, in part, with womens’ collective anger/depression at the way domestic life was left to them. The first wave of women to get a decent further education post 1944 suddenly found themselves in the mid to late sixties beached up at home with the dishes and the babies while their male peers discovered sixties radicalism. Whoosh; the flame of fury and, subsequently, modern feminism was lit.

And yet here we are, four decades later, and a major liberal/left newspaper publishes a feature forensically dissecting womens’ continuing domestic burdens, that so clearly have knock on effects on everything from pay differentials to the the lack of women in senior positions, without any suggestion that this IS a stark illustration of continuing structural inequality?

For me the most telling quote of the piece came from a woman who gave up her job as a lawyer to care for her children, “My fury stems from seeing somebody ( her husband)  living in a world that’s not my own, a career world that feels denied [to me].”

Durrant  also quotes a recent survey in which ‘60% of respondents said that they either didn’t share these experiences with their friends or, if they did, they made light of them.’ No wonder when everything is reduced to personal complaint.

The piece also quotes Denise Knowles of Relate, who says “you need to work out, am I angry with my husband or am I angry because I don’t understand what is happening?” To which I would add a third option, ‘ Or am I angry because I DO understand what’s happening?’

I know the F word has been out of fashion for decades and that ‘structural inequality’ might not be quite the way to put it in a daily newspaper but surely there was some way to say at some point: hey, you know what, the personal is still political?

The public lives of private couples

Writing about his and Barack Obama’s favourite book Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals in his blog today –  – Alastair Campbell  makes the important  point that great leaders like Abraham Lincoln would never have survived the 24/7 rolling news culture and the intense public scrutiny of political life at the top.

Lincoln and his cabinet were riven by feuds and political disputes but because these arguments and rivalries were not magnified by daily and nightly news, these men could still sruvive and govern, strengthened by what came out of the clash of dissenting views.

It  occurs to me that that you could apply a similar argument to many private relationships lived out in this same 24/7 culture.Some of the strongest partnerships, surely,  are characterised by regular argument and quite fiery clashes. But these require privacy to be properly resolved.

But expose a couple to the prying lens of the media and the gossip columnists and something else happens; an ordinary row becomes public fodder; very few people can row back from that.  

There’s something peculiarly humiliating about having the world observe you sulking and certainly screeching. And once captured on camera, it enters the bloodstream of the  You tube culture for ever.

Any couple entering public life should wise up to this asap. If possible they should  a) try and keep the dissenting/combative elements of their relationship alive but b) do everything they can to keep everyone else away from their disputes, while at the same time accepting that  c) life often doesn’t quite work out like that.

Good luck to the Obamas on this one, as on so much else.

Freedom Writers

…………..And while we are on the subject of love, hope and change in unlikely places, please watch Freedom Writers starring Hilary Swank as an idealistic young teacher, apparently foolish enough to wear a string of pearls in her new job as an English teacher in a tough LA public school. The film gathers pace slowly but it works because it is admirably understated while knowingly utilising the conventions of TV drama.

This is Hollywood all right but it’s thoughtful, closely observed Hollywood. Even the intimate kitchen table scenes featuring agonised conversations between two middle class professionals having ‘relationship issues’ are saved  from banality by the careful, well turned dialogue.

But Swank’s personal relationship is the side show. This is the story of a bunch of gang blasted kids who are slowly led towards a love of learning. They read Anne Frank’s diary in pristine new editions, books denied the students by the hard pressed and cynical management of the school but bought by Swank who works extra shifts as a concierge and underwear saleswoman to pay for them. She gives each student fresh minted A 4 size notebook in which to record their thoughts and the things that happen in their lives. The fragments that are read out are real, I presume, as this film is based on a true life story. It sent shivers down my spine.

Milk – Sean Penn

My respect for Sean Penn has grown over the years; the deal was probably sealed when I saw him in 21 Grammes with Naomi Watts. But if you’d told me even a year ago that this brooding charismatic actor was going to take the part of the impish but extraordinarily tenacious gay activist of San Francisco’s Castro district, Harvey Milk, I would have been puzzled or dismissive. Or both.

But Penn is brilliant in the role. He creates an entirely convincing and moving portrait of Milk, a vulnerable, determined, mischievous, clever and instinctive politician who recognised the importance of political representation and canny alliances to promote the cause about which he cared most passionately.

Milk is not just a moving recreation of a key cultural and political moment in recent history. It’s a hymn to the power of democracy, raw and messy as it so often is.