A sorry tale.

How many dimensions can one uncover to this trivial, slightly tawdry news item? The sight, yesterday, of the Home Secretary’s husband Richard Timney issuing a twenty two second apology outside the family home for downloading two pornographic films, which his wife then mistakenly claimed as part of her parliamentary expense account, fills me with an uneasy sadness and human sympathy. For him. For the Home Secretary. And for their family.

To me, it’s an irrelevant little sidebar to the much more substantive question of how and how much MP’s claim as their expenses or more accurately, their allowances. I pretty much agree with Nick Robinson’s blog today on this one.

I certainly don’t think anyone genuinely believes that the Home Secretary is merrily fiddling the tax payer in order to fund her husband’s porn movie habit. It speaks of a far more mundane human error. Smith wouldn’t be the first woman on earth not to know exactly what her partner/spouse gets up to ( although she may be the first female Home Secretary not to know exactly…………)

Seriously, there’d be no film or television industry or popular book trade if deception ( in some form) of one’s spouse/partner/family member wasn’t a common human story.

The porn-on-expenses ( sic) story also has very little to do with the substance of Smith’s tenure as Britain’s first female Home Secretary and what the government is doing on the major issues of personal liberty, policing policy, citizen surveillance and the rest.

Talking of surveilliance, however, I’m curious: how did the press find out what the Home Secretary’s family watch in the so called privacy of their own home? What invasion of personal liberty was involved in uncovering that?

And, to continue the questioning of the questioners for a moment: how come it’s allright for every newspaper, advertiser, film company, not to mention the multi million pound porn industry, to make massive profits from exploiting womens’ – and mens’ bodies, come to think of it – for entertainment, from the mildly titillating to the truly horrendous, but it’s big news when an adult male actually purchases the stuff?

It’s odd actually, how men are considered seedy for consuming porn but can hold their head high if they write or make it in some form? If Jacqui’s Smith’s husband was writing novels with steamy sex scenes – and turning a healthy profit while doing it – he’d be a national hero. Perhaps not if it was gay porn however………..

An Inspector shouts, an audience giggles………….

Now feels like a particularly good time to revisit J B Priestley’s An Inspector Calls, a classic piece of polemical theatre that held me spellbound me when I first saw it a very long time ago. It was inevitably less thrilling (for me) this time round, because it’s a play that relies on mystery style suspense: the unhinging of a middle class Edwardian family around the story of one woman who has crossed their collective path. But for the teenagers, aged 12-18, whom my two friends and I took along, it was clearly an interesting experience and a big talking point afterwards.

There were odd touches to this production, at the Wimbledon theatre. There was an excessively emphatic, almost manic Inspector Goole, the central character around which all the action revolves; the exquisitely furnished Edwardian house was set amid a ravaged Second World War lunar style landscape. But, overall, the acting was excellent and set was sensational, particularly when the whole house seemed to upend and tip forward perilously, looking at one point as if it would slide right into the audience.

Add to this the fact that on the night we went, the audience was stuffed with parties of teenagers – An Inspector Calls is a GCSE set text – who rustled with school-night-out excitement. At the end, when the ghosts of a uncaring society populate the stage, there was general hilarity rather than the expected sombre silence!

In many ways the play feels dated – all that overt Edwardian sexual hypocrisy – but its political message is bang up to the moment. I don’t have a copy of the playscript but I’m going to get one, for its message is straightforward and timely; greed and ambition lead so often to snobbish isolation, cruelty and hypocrisy of the worst kind. Priestley hammers home his view, that we are all connected and all responsible for each other. And the price of not being? Social disaster. That perfect house, creaking and tipping into oblivion; the ravaged war torn landscape that surrounds it.

Quiet Chaos: Mother’s day reflections on the latest Nanni Moretti film

I love the work of Italian actor and director Nanni Moretti, that subtly animated stillness he possesses. I could happily spend my time watching him eat pasta, drive a scooter or simply sit on a bench doing nothing very much at all.

So why did his most recent film, Quiet Chaos, out this month on DVD, and touching, quite coincidentally on many themes currently in the news, from the deaths of mothers of young children to fatal freak falls, disturb me so?

According to the film’s many, largely admiring, critics, it’s a tender portrayal of the soothing power of routine in dealing with grief, an off beat film about a man coming to terms with deep loss.

Pietro, a top television executive, suddenly widowed, finds he cannot pick up the pieces of his life. Unable to leave his ten year old daughter at school, he spends every day sitting on a bench in the park opposite her classroom. In the process, he has any number of interesting encounters with everyone from a local restaurant owner to a beautiful young woman who walks an enormous shaggy dog past his bench every day. There’s an almost painfully realistic scene ( except we’re not sure if it is, in fact, fantasy) of Pietro having sex with a woman he saved from drowning on the day of his wife’s death, from a freak fall.

Death suffuses this film, and it is certainly billed as a tender meditation on the unexpected ways that loss can hit us, and how parenthood can save us. Except I am really not sure that this is a film about loss and love at all. And while it may be a film about fathers, it certainly has precious little to say about mothers.

Pietro’s dead wife is the most resounding non-presence in a film that I can recall: barely glimpsed, hardly referred to, almost totally unmourned. Her sister, whom we learn Pietro had a brief affair with – Go Pietro! – is presented as little short of a nutcase.

Leaving aside, for a moment, the banal brutality of a possibly loveless marriage, can we sidestep with equal equanimity, the loss of a mother to a ten year old child? Father and daughter continue to live tranquilly in a lovely designer like apartment, where they eat delicious food, prepared by a chef.

It’s a wholly unrealistic portrait of parenthood, with Claudia seemingly totally unperturbed by the absence of her mother. Meanwhile, strangers hear of Pietro’s odd vigil outside the school and talk of him, across tables in smart restaurants, as a popular hero.

We know, of course, that in real life, the loss of loved ones, the loss of mothers, especially to young children, wreaks devastation. We know, too, that art is not there to faithfully depict the real. It can – and should – play about with situations and feelings, like paints all messed up on a canvas.

Even so, I would argue that there is an alternative reading of Quiet Chaos; that this is a film about how just how easy it is for men to wipe women from their consciousness, except to fulfill the passing needs of masculine appetite and vanity.

I may well be missing the point of a subtle art house film but in its cool celebration of all that is young, lovely, and ‘other’ and its mockery and marginalisation of real, known, struggling women, I felt unsettled and cross on behalf of mothers and the middle aged everywhere.

Bury the good news

Discarded needles, enforced mediocrity, petty bullying, too much political correctness, not enough Jesus or competitive sport: New Statesman readers with children in state schools will be surprised – but perhaps not that surprised – to hear that these are common features of our nation’s schools, at least according to our press and broadcasting media, few of whose leaders use the system they so relentlessly traduce ………….( read on here.)

Read Melissa Benn’s latest article, written with Fiona Millar, on contemporary media coverage of state schools in this week’s New Statesman.

What I learned from a hundred seventeen year olds last Thursday

A while ago, I realised that one of the tricks – or is it paradoxes? – of speaking well in public is not to be afraid of your audience, to approach the whole encounter with an open hearted curiosity and excitement; to be interested in who your audience are and what might emerge in the alchemy of you-and-them.

Even so, nothing can quite prepare one – me – for that strange feeling of walking into a room full of strangers: as I did this week, to speak to three separate groups of seventeen year olds at Colchester sixth form centre about politics, high and popular: feminism: journalism and creative writing, organised by a remarkable teacher called Clarissa Ford.

What I learn, very quickly, on that cool Thursday morning, is how much I take for granted so many of my own cultural and political references, from the significant achievements of modern political leaders to the writings of certain 20th century authors to the arcs of development of the major social movements such as modern feminism. What I might call contemporary politics, these students – logically – call modern history.

Being shaken out of my (naive) assumption of broadly shared time lines is bloody scary but also bracing. As I am talking – often rather too fast, to disguise a faint panic that I am not reaching this young audience, and I must not lose them, whatever happens, nor exhaust them, which I am clearly at risk of doing with my dozen a minute observations and general manic form of delivery!! – I am watching them carefully: happy to note a sudden smile here, a nod of recognition there.

With group one and two, I give it my all and they are warm and fair minded in response. But I feel, perhaps wrongly, that only a few of my points get through: that politics is, in the first instance, about what you make of your own experience; always edit your own work ruthlessly; think about how things really are when you write about them. I urge them to read carefully, referring enthusiastically to an excellent article I have just read in that day’s paper, only to find that I have left it on on the London to Lowestoft train!

Many teenagers are shy of speaking out so I am grateful for the few who say what they think, regardless of how it sounds. Thinking about how hard it is to speak in a group, I suddenly blurt out: “If there is one skill I would urge you all to acquire, particularly the women here, it would be to learn to speak up in whatever way, to articulate your thoughts. It is a skill you will never regret having.”

But the most successful session of the morning – judged simply by a degree of stillness among the audience – is as at the end, with the biggest group. This time, I make my points – about politics, equality and its link to education – through telling a story: a story about two girls who are best friends at five, sharing certain dreams and aspirations, but who, by the time they are fourteeen, pass each other, without speaking, in the street.

I am partly telling them this story because in an earlier session, one student was adamant that anyone could make it in this society: that there are no real barriers of class or gender anymore. Whereas I believe, passionately, there are many subtle and not so subtle obstacles in modern Britain, not least the simplistic mantra of ‘reach for your dreams’ peddled by contemporary celebrity culture.

So I talk about V, a hugely bright little girl, who comes from an immigrant background. At eight, she wants to be a lawyer. By the age of eleven, and certainly by fourteen, she is struggling with all sorts of economic and educational difficulties. S., on the other hand, the dreamy child of a middle class family, is by the age of fourteen benefitting from every privilege ( and excess) granted to the children of the wealthy in the western world.

In other words, a mix of school choice, parental income and a dollop of good or bad luck in each of their lives, has not only pushed them far apart as people, full if misapprehensions about the other, but they are confirmed in their social class, with fatal consequences for them, and our society.

I am particularly fired up about this story not just because I have seen this drift-apart happen to real girls, and boys, but because that morning, in that same paper that I left on the train to make its own way to Lowestoft, I had read an interview with two authors of a new book on inequality, ‘The Spirit Level’ – Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett – who talked about how social and economic divisions harm all, poor and well off, in a society.

So now, two days, later, back at home, I am still thinking about the faces of all those Essex teenagers and who they are, away from class, and who they will become in ten, twenty, thirty years, and hoping that some of them will find the right voice, creative, political or merely personal, to make sense of the world they find themselves in, and to speak out against out against injustices they come across.

For my part, I have learned, it is the most subtle divisions, the kind we observe day in and day out and so often call ‘life’, that are the hardest to analyse and combat. ( So I make a note to myself: remember to say that. Next time.)

No quick fix for the soul

This week I was at the House of Commons, chairing a meeting for The Maya Centre, an Islington based multi ethnic voluntary organisation that offers psychodynamic therapy to women on low incomes, work that is clearly making a huge difference. Despite its reputation as home of the rich and cool, Islington has many pockets of extreme deprivation, and associated ill health, including poor mental health; the Maya Centre’s work is crucial to helping large numbers of women move on with their lives.

But the House of Commons meeting, an act of bold political vision by the Maya Centre, had a wider political aim; to try and persuade policy makers and opinion formers of the huge benefit of psychodynamic therapy in this age of CBT – Cognitive Behavioural Therapy – particularly given the government’s recent announcement of extension of funds for the Improving Access to Psychological Therapies ( !APT) programme.

Three speakers, Lisa Baraitser, an academic from Birkbeck University of London, Catherine Crowther, a Jungian analyst who has worked mostly in the NHS, and Margot Waddell, a psychoanalyst and child and adolescent psychotherapist at the Tavistock Institute, gave really thoughtful and moving papers on the impact and clear benefit of long term therapy on womens’ lives and the lives of their families and so on wider society.

In essence, the argument of the meeting was that that while there may sometimes be a place for short term behavioural approaches, we must not lose sight of the immense value of slower, long term therapies that can really help people to think about their difficulties and find a way through.

The meeting was well attended by MP’s, therapists, regional health officials, figures in the therapy world, campaigners and journalists. Everyone was delighted that Sarah Brown was able to come for some of the meeting; in her influential role as first political lady, she has done important work on post natal and maternal health.

It was agreed by all there that we need take the campaign on, particularly in regard to those all crucial policy makers and funders, some of whom have been rather seduced by the economic benefits of CBT approaches to mental illness.

Anyone interested in discovering more about this debate, would do well to start with a very thoughtful article by writer and analyst Darian Leader in Guardian G2 a while ago in which he memorably describes the government’s promotion of CBT as a cure all for society’s unhappiness as a ‘triumph of a market driven view of the human psyche.’

One of Us nominated for British Book Award

One of Us is one of six books on the shortlist for the Waterstone’s New Writer of the Year – a prize aimed at identifying ‘literary stars of the future’ – at this year’s Galaxy British Book Awards.

The nominations were announced today, March 10.

The award is decided by popular vote and voting lines can be reached through the British Book Awards site.

The ceremony will held on the evening of April 3 at The Grosvenor Hotel in London’s Park Lane and will be shown on television on Sunday April 5th.

Men, women and the political novel

To the Bath literature festival earlier this week, to speak with Roma Tearne, author of two vivid, wonderfully told and swift moving novels about both her native Sri Lanka and life as a recent immigrant in Britain, to which she came, aged ten, fleeing the civil war in her country.

I am at the festival talking about ‘One Of Us’ and the first question that fellow writer Chair Jenni Mills puts to us is this: are the political novels of men and women different and if so in what way?

I am glad she gave me – five minutes – notice of this, my first question of the event, as my mind is already swirling with disparate thoughts.

Of course there isn’t a straightforward answer; for a start there are so many different kinds of political novels and political writers. But one thing that occurs to me is how much male political novelists – be it Trollope or Tolstoy or Jean Paul Sartre or Philip Roth – and for some reason I’m completely stuck for names of more contemporary male novelists, except David Peace whom I can’t speak about because I haven’t yet read any of his books! – write about feelings and families and all that traditional girly stuff; in other words, it’s interesting how much of a female sensibility male writers actually have. Yes, the more traditional thriller writers stick to plots, cabals, car crashes, poisoning and the rest but the most interesting of the male writers, in a political genre, will tackle, often most elegantly, the emotions and the emotional structure underpinning social or political institutions, write of these with a very keen eye.

So, just an observation – it’s hot up on that stage! – followed by a second thought: that the most accomplished of the women political writers ( again, in the very broadest sense) like Doris Lessing or Nadine Gordimer can convey the political feel of an era or place with matchless ease. Anyone who wants to understand the European left of the fifties and sixties, or South Africa before or after the end of apartheid, need only turn to the novels of these women to get a sense of the ideas and arguments and conflicts of their time.

Does this mean there is no difference? No, I think there is but where and in what way does it lie? A differing emphasis perhaps on the relative place of the personal and the political? A keen sense, by the women writers, of emotional truths?

So no definitive answer/s but I’m working on it. So, I suspect, is Roma Tearne, who was also put on the spot – or under the spotlight – on this tricky but interesting matter.

Finally, a “young lady” answers back…..

Below, a flavour of the kind of response I attract whenever I write any political piece, particularly about education. I will protect the privacy of the man who wrote it, who mounted a robust and highly personal defence of grammar schools, but I will take the liberty of quoting the more personal parts, that relate to me, of the beginning and end.

“Young lady, firstly, I will give you credit for at least adding your name to your article. You ma’am come from several generations of an aristocratic family. Not blessed with your easy life, I took my degree ( as a young adult.)…………Hopefully one day you will see the light of hard work, and life in the real world, where folk work hard to feed people like you…………”

Usually I am unable reply to these sorts of attacks/assumptions, largely because they are posted on public websites, but as the writer in question sent an e-mail to my personal address, I have the opportunity to reply, which I have done with great pleasure.

Below, my reply, in full, if slightly amended.

Dear Sir,

Firstly apologies for the delay in replying to your e-mail but I have been away for work and have only recently returned.

Thanks so much for taking the trouble to write to me about my piece in the Guardian.

A few minor corrections first; sadly for myself, I am not a ‘young lady’ but a fifty two year old mother of two, author of five books, hundreds if not thousands of articles, speaker and broadcaster, the proud product of a comprehensive education, who has worked hard, to use your own term for a moment, for over thirty years.

Secondly, you identify me as part of an ‘ aristocratic’ lineage. Wrong, again. I come from a long line of public servants and politicians, of whom I am proud. …….

So, not a real aristocrat in sight, I’m afraid, not that that has stopped the press…….. from tarring one sort of critic of the established order with the brush of ‘inherited privilege’. Nor, may I say, has it stopped those, such as yourself, with an apparently good education, from grasping that this is the way that the media treat any serious critic of the status quo. It really pays off to read between the lines of much media coverage of education ( as of so much else.)

So – to the substance of your e-mail; the benefit of grammar schools to those from poor backgrounds. I have no doubt that grammar schools did take and, where they still exist, continue to take, a few children from genuinely low income backgrounds. But this immediately needs to be qualified by several important points:

Firstly, even if they did or continue to do so, this has not stopped the gross injustice of the eleven plus and secondary moderns which consign the 80% who fail this exam to a sense of failure that can persist for life and a (represents a) shameful waste of potential talent.

Secondly, as David Willetts, the Tory spokesman on education until spring 2007 pointed out, backed by masses of research, grammar schools tend to educate children from middle class backgrounds. Thus far from promoting social mobility, grammars are largely a route for the already well off who want a privileged education without having to pay for it as do some faith schools, who covertly select or ‘cream off’ the middle classes through their admissions systems.

Thirdly, the comprehensive system largely came into existence because so many middle class families, including many Tory voters, protested at the injustice of apparently deciding that children were first or second rate at the age of eleven. When she was secretary of state for education Margaret Thatcher was responsible for agreeing to the establishment of a large number of comprehensive schools.

For all these reasons, there is not a single political party, as I pointed out in my article, who now supports selection in theory, although all have continued to promote it in practice, largely because they fear the vested interests of the grammar schools, faith schools and of course the private sector and the powerful education lobby that surrounds these institutions.

At the same time, the best of the comprehensive model has proved itself more than adequate at educating children from all backgrounds. Modern comprehensives are very good at encouraging, and bringing on, every child, so that the most intellectual/brightest are stretched to their full ability, and those who are slower at learning are helped in every way.

I would be the first to say, there is a lot more to do. But it is the only equitable way forward, as even the Tory party now recognise, and the comprehensive is in in no way inimicable to intellectual quality.

I am sorry that you feel the need to couch your pro grammar school arguments in terms of personalised reproach of illusory figures ( such as myself) However, it is very important to point out that opponents of grammar schools, of which there are many, are not promoting foolish egalitarianism but putting a rational argument for a high quality modern system that might eventually break down the wasteful and morally bankrupt class divide that has bedevilled Britain for far too long, the legacy of which you so clearly demonstrate in your own short message to me.

Yours faithfully,

Melissa Benn.