All posts by melissabenn

Sex, cycling and socialism: the revolutionary women that history forgot

Sheila Rowbotham’s latest book plunges us straight into the ferment of the 1880s in Bristol, one of the many cities in Britain set alight in the late-Victorian era by a mixture of radical liberalism, socialism and the rapid growth of trade unionism. Part political chronicle, part emotional narrative, it opens with the story of the blossoming friendship of two fiercely determined women, Miriam Daniell and Helena Born, both from bourgeois backgrounds and drawn towards “unconventional ideas and dangerous causes”. By the late 1880s, not only are both women imbibing the works of Ruskin, Ibsen, Whitman and Blake, they are also deeply involved, under the aegis of the Bristol Socialist Society, with strikes at Fry’s chocolate factory as well as attempts to unionise cotton workers and isolated homeworkers.

But, in keeping with the temper of the times – and the preoccupations that will shape the left and feminism for the ensuing century – these women’s rebellion goes far deeper than political activism. After Daniell leaves her respectable husband for the young Robert Nicol, an enigmatic medical student from Edinburgh, the couple and Born bravely establish a ménage à trois in a poor district of Bristol.

Here they experiment with colour and uncarpeted floors, “while from the most commonplace materials they improve many articles of furniture and decoration, combining both beauty and utility”. By 1890 – with their lives in turmoil because of their unconventional lifestyle and politics, and drawn to “the wider sphere of usefulness” that they glimpse in America – the trio migrate to the United States.

Minutely researching and retelling the political and personal struggles of her characters – six in all – Rowbotham gives us a unique flavour of the era and insight into the bravery, boldness, imagination and occasional wackiness of a period in left-wing British and American history. She eschews the stories of far better-known figures of the era (such as the Pankhursts or Keir Hardie), and even the dominant narratives of suffrage and labour, to bring alive lesser-known causes and ideas, from anarchism to radical individualism. In their attempts to shape a new way of living, these rebels prefigured everything from free love to modern feminism to eco-politics; and, in those Bristol living arrangements, possibly a dash of Habitat-style consumerism as well.

Once in the United States, the narrative becomes somewhat diluted by the vastness of that nation, with the chief figures in the story scattered from California to Boston. New characters join Rowbotham’s crowded and complex tableau, among them another emigrant – the fierce autodidact William Bailie, a Glaswegian basket-maker enmeshed in a loveless marriage and with six children – and Helen Tufts, the only American-born person in the tale.

But the politics, too, seems more abstract: less connected to grass-roots struggle, more prone to high-flown theorising, with several gathering round the flame of Liberty,
the journal of Benjamin Tucker’s philosophical and individualist anarchism. Helena Born becomes an enthusiastic cyclist and wearer of the modern, freer fashions; in later life Tufts, her young American protégée, moves towards more conventional single-issue agitation, while Bailie becomes a gradualist socialist, immersed in schemes for water purification and social housing. Always an honest chronicler, Rowbotham does not shy away from the racism, anti-Semitism and nascent authoritarianism, for instance, that sit uneasily alongside Born’s high-flown Whitmanesque reflections and outspoken feminism.

As the author notes, “attempting to explore the motivations of the famous who declare themselves is difficult enough; pursuing the relatively unknown is far more testing. For even when their deeds are on record, their subjectivity is not.” Newspaper and census records supply the often intriguingly bare facts, but the writer is helped by a stream of stories, novels, poems, articles and essays written by the chief protagonists, including a slim book of essays published by Born herself, which Rowbotham first came across in the British Library in the 1970s and which triggered her interest in these interconnected stories.

Inevitably, some characters are more opaque than others. Why did the highly talented feminist and novelist Gertrude Dix abandon the busy, bohemian milieu of Bristol and London to travel thousands of miles to raise a family on an isolated Californian ranch with Robert Nicol, a man whom (it seems) she hardly knew? Rowbotham can only speculate that it was lust that took her across the globe and sheer grit that kept her there, yet there is a melancholy to Dix’s fate that one cannot quite shake off.

Rebel Crossings is a first-rate piece of social history, a well-paced and extraordinarily well-organised narrative. In many ways, it develops the themes of Rowbotham’s more recent work, from her acclaimed 2008 biography of Edward Carpenter (a man who clearly had a huge influence on most of these rebel lives) to her exploration of the “utopianism of our adventurous foremothers” in her last book, Dreamers of a New Day. Certainly, she handles the multiple ideological threads of the period with an admirably light touch.

But the book’s appeal lies, ultimately, in its illumination of character. At times, it reads like a great mid-19th-century novel, an intricate and absorbing tale of a group of intense individuals who pursue their “inner promptings”, often to the bitter, impoverished end. It is impossible, finishing this book, not to feel a debt of gratitude to so many of them for the boldness of their thinking, their activism and their defiance of hostile convention; and to Rowbotham, too, for bringing their hidden stories into such detailed, sympathetic view.

Rebel Crossings: New Women, Free Lovers and Radicals in Britain and the United States by Sheila Rowbotham is published by Verso (512pp, £25).

This review was first published in the New Statesman on January 12th 2017

Grammar schools don’t help social mobility – we need to start earlier

So now we know for sure, thanks to the permanent secretary at the Department for Education, who really ought to order in some document folders pronto. Jonathan Slater slipped up outside No 10, accidentally revealing a briefing note, and thereby confirming that Theresa May’s government does indeed intend to open new selective schools – although this is only to be pursued “once we have worked with existing grammars to show how they can be expanded and reformed”.

At one level, this is building on David Cameron’s ambiguous stance on selection. Last October the then education secretary Nicky Morgan gave the go-ahead for a new grammar “annexe” in Kent a full 10 miles from the main school. May’s strategy, with its further pledge to open new grammars, and possibly seeking to overturn the 1998 law banning them in order to do so, is even more radical, and will face correspondingly greater resistance. “I simply can’t see any way of persuading the Lords to vote for selection on any other basis,” the note concludes.

Condemnation came swiftly from Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the National Union of Teachers; but opposition to an expansion of grammar schools has united leading figures in education and on the political left and right, including the influential thinktanks Policy Exchange and Bright Blue, and the outgoing Ofsted chief, Michael Wilshaw.

Yet a vital dimension is missing from the debate already raging within and beyond Westminster. The government is proposing a fresh crop of grammar schools as a way of boosting so-called social mobility, but May and her advisers seem to have forgotten that the government already has a social mobility strategy, produced in 2011, and it doesn’t make a single mention of grammar schools. In fact, though it identifies four “critical points for social mobility”, age 11 is not one of them.

The evidence on grammars is by now crystal clear. The educational advantage received by those selected for these schools is more than outweighed by the drag effect of the remaining secondary modern pupils, who perform disproportionately badly. Only 3% of grammar school pupils receive free school meals, and even these will gain only a marginal uplift in GCSE grades. As the Daily Telegraph’s Jeremy Warner says, grammars offer “segregated education for the middle class”. They are elitist institutions that entrench, rather than disrupt or disperse, privilege.

But the evidence is equally clear on what does improve educational outcomes: high-quality support in the early years. According to Michael Pavey, director of Labour Friends of Sure Start, “Neuroscience shows that a child’s brain is approximately 25% formed at birth, and that by the age of three it is 80% formed. It is during this crucial time that gaps open up between children from different backgrounds.”

The government should understand this very well. Independent reports commissioned by the coalition government from Frank Field (2010), Dame Clare Tickell (2011) and Graham Allen (2011) all emphasised the overwhelming importance of the early years. And as the government’s own social mobility strategy declared: “Children’s life chances are most heavily influenced by their development in the first five years of life. By the time children start school there are already wide variations in ability between children from different backgrounds.” So how does testing 10- and 11-year-olds help?

There’s been talk of introducing a small number of targeted grammar schools. But if the government is looking to test interventions, it should concentrate on the early years, targeting maternal health, school readiness, home environment and parenting skills.

Maybe this sounds familiar: yes, Sure Start children’s centres, those much-valued community-based institutions whose budgets have been halved during Theresa May’s time in government, forcing over 800 of them to close.

An independent evaluation of Sure Start in 2012 noted that “children’s centres have been found to be immensely popular with parents, and have been successful in reaching the parents who are likely to be the most disadvantaged. Beneficial effects for parents persist at least two years after their last contact with Sure Start.”

Three years later, the independent charity 4Children found that 90% of parents reported that their children’s centre had a positive impact on their child and 83% believed it had a positive impact on themselves; 80% said life would be harder for their family without their children’s centre.

The government will never improve the educational of lower-income families through the societal guillotine of the 11-plus. Grammar schools belong to the postwar world, when most young people tended to leave school at 15 and only 4% attended university. Not only do most people in education know that, so now does a substantial chunk of the Tory party.

Equally, although Labour’s pledges – to support and bolster a comprehensive system and restore the education maintenance allowance and student grants – are welcome, they still address only the symptom rather than the cause. To truly start to shift profound inequalities, we need to revolutionise support for the early years. In one respect, at least, secondary education is, well … secondary.

This piece was initially co-written with Michael Pavey, steering group member on Comprehensive Future, and first appeared in the Guardian in early September.

Twice Bottled Grief: the defiant life of Tony Garnett

Unlike Ken Loach, his friend and frequent collaborator, Tony Garnett remains a shadowy figure in the story of British radical film-making – yet has been just as vital, responsible for a string of pioneer productions from Cathy Come Home and Kes to Law and Order and This Life. Reflecting on some of the emotional reasons for his relatively low public profile, he comes to the conclusion that it is because “I didn’t want to lie”.

At one level, this makes complete sense: for much of Garnett’s life, his tragic family story was deeply buried. What this impressive and moving memoir shows is that his approach to almost every aspect of his political and professional life has been marked by a refusal of even the most ordinary, socially acceptable levels of mendacity.

A ferocious sense of purpose – born of the alchemy of emotional pain, high intelligence and creative ambition – powers the many overlapping narratives at work here. At its simplest, Garnett’s memoir gives us a spare and cogent account of his life as a cineaste, fighting for the right to make original work from within the establishment, largely the BBC but also Hollywood.

Born in Birmingham into a large, self-confident and loving working-class family (a lost world he evokes beautifully), he had his life chances transformed by the achievements of the postwar welfare state. Garnett then arrived at the BBC at the beginning of the Sixties – what today looks like the creative heyday of the corporation: a time when a fresh young generation of risk-takers was given its head.

Figures such as Loach and Garnett – who began life as an actor – were determined to bust through the stuffy conventions of ossified, upper-class, mostly period TV drama to capture working-class lives out in the world. Often they did this literally: trailing actors, most of them not professionally trained, in as unobtrusive a fashion as possible, capturing naturalistic speech and action on location, using only a “16mm handheld, blimped camera”.

They faced formidable obstacles. Films that showed the reality of backstreet abortion or homelessness were attacked publicly by such figures as Mary Whitehouse, whom Garnett rather admired as “a fine debater that no one could safely underestimate”.Possibly more frustrating was the resistance he encountered inside the BBC. There are wonderful portraits here of a parade of senior managers, from the director general Alasdair Milne, who parried Garnett with subtle charm and a fine single malt, to the choleric, red-haired controller of BBC1 Bryan “Ginger” Cowgill, who, objecting to a single use of “f***” in the 1975 serial Days of Hope, produced by Garnett and directed by Loach, exploded, declaring without the slightest self-consciousness or irony: “If you think you can f***ing well say ‘f***’ on my channel, you’ve got another f***ing think [sic] coming.”

This book could do with an index, such are the numbers of well-known figures from politics and the film industry that pass under Garnett’s perceptive, steely gaze. Loach takes modest centre stage: talented, loyal, unbelievably tenacious and elusively self-contained, even to his closest friends. In harsh contrast, Garnett finds the playwright Dennis Potter a “controlling, manipulative, egotistical self-publicist”, though the two men get to share a tender last drink at a pub on the Portobello Road as Potter tells Garnett that both he and his wife have only weeks to live.

Outside work, Garnett befriended the charismatic Scottish psychiatrist R D Laing, who could drink even hardened alcoholics under the table, and the clever, convincing, but somewhat threatening figure of Gerry Healy, the leader of the Workers Revolutionary Party who managed to win over many of the leading actors of the day to his left-wing sect. In Hollywood in the late Eighties, Garnett produced a film with Paul Newman, who did not disappoint as a star, but had “thin legs that he was rather self-conscious about”. Back in London, he had occasional encounters with a washed-up but ever-buoyant and eternally cigar-chewing Lew Grade, who loved to dispense paternal advice.

During the making of This Life, an iconic BBC series about a group of young lawyers sharing a house in London in the Nineties, Garnett hired the then unknown partner of his bright young producer, Jane Fallon, to choose the opening music and create a tailor-made soundtrack for each character. With his “encyclopaedic knowledge” of music, Ricky Gervais did a fine job.

The book opens and closes with the double tragedy that defines, and has powerfully shaped, Garnett’s entire life. When he was five, his gentle mother, Ida, died of a botched backstreet abortion; 19 days later, his father, Tom, committed suicide, out of grief and guilt, and possibly for fear of being prosecuted. Sent to live with an aunt and uncle he barely knew, a move that at first feels brutally Dickensian, the little boy never shed a tear; nor was anything explained to him about his parents’ deaths until years later, though Uncle Harold and Aunty Pom come more than good by the story’s end.

Tragedy stuck again when a passionate affair with Topsy Jane, a beautiful actress, ended in her terrifyingly swift descent into a schizophrenically induced torpor, from which she never emerged.

Twice-bottled grief and anger drove the intense years of Garnett’s adult life, the decades of non-stop working, drinking and ­socialising. It was only when he returned from a frustrating spell in Hollywood, “frail, dangerously thin, exhausted and a washed-up failure at 52”, that he determinedly decided to enter psychoanalysis – the second attempt on his part. This time, he was lucky enough to be treated by the eminent and ­independently minded Charles Rycroft, who helped free him to far greater enjoyment of life and to write this book.

The Day the Music Died is a fine portrait of a fine individual, tested cruelly early in life, who has pulled through somehow as an artist and as a human being. Garnett is even able to give us that most untypical thing, certainly in the social-realist tradition of which he is such a proud exponent: a genuinely happy ending.

This article was published in the New Statesman on August 15 2016

Why do we love the NHS but not state education?

If you really want to understand the subtly shifting place of education in the nation’s psyche, you could start by watching Channel 4’s 24 Hours in A&E. Dedicated professionals deploying skill, tenacity and tenderness towards citizens of every age, faith, shape and class – it’s a story we seem never to tire of. It’s proof that the NHS, despite all its problems, is still the nearest thing this country has to a religion.

And yet, this passion for our often struggling health system poses a conundrum that has long fascinated me. Both the NHS and free secondary education arose from the collective optimism of the years after the second world war, pillars of the newly founded welfare state. Yet while the NHS, set up in 1948, generated instant and enduring affection, the 1944 Education Act, which established the right to free secondary education for all children up to 15 (now 18), is far less lauded, and our school system has more often spawned a nagging sense of dissatisfaction and division.

In one sense, the reason is glaringly obvious. Although there had been discussion before the war about setting up a “multilateral” (that is, comprehensive) system of secondary education, parliament opted for a three-tiered arrangement, which became two as technical schools never took off. So was the grammar-secondary modern divide born, channelling most poor children into poorly funded, less well-regarded schools.

Imagine if NHS hospitals and surgeries had been set up with two entrances: one for the affluent, one for the poor. Or if politicians had spent the succeeding half a century dismissing big general hospitals as blinkered examples of an outdated “one injury fits all” ideology.

Of course, we need and expect different things from our health and education systems. While our encounters with the NHS are largely episodic, times of emergency and vulnerability, the school we attend is often taken as the crucible of our identity. The wealthy still use A&E, but many wouldn’t dream of going anywhere near a local school, a reminder that perhaps the biggest mistake of that heroic postwar period was the failure to integrate the public schools into the new universal state system, so missing a unique opportunity to bridge what remains one of the most damaging divides in society.

For all that, there have been periods when one could glimpse a shift in public attitudes towards state education, an idealism to match the NHS. One significant moment came in the 60s with the move towards comprehensive education, but although the 11-plus was phased out in most parts of the country, more subtle forms of selection have continued to stoke division.

Gove-ism represented another key shift, as an influential section of the Conservative party finally ditched its party’s traditional support for grammars and embraced an almost militant evangelism about high-quality non-selective education, even if some academies and free schools are driven to use their so-called freedoms to keep out lower-performing children.

Television programmes such as Educating Essex and Educating Yorkshire have generated public affection and respect for the ordinary heroism of staff and pupils in our state schools, while lazy anti-comprehensive prejudice has been undercut by a new generation in public life educated in non-selective schools, including the education secretary, Justine Greening.

We should be deeply worried, then, by reports that Theresa May intends to lift the 18-year ban on creating new grammar schools. The rhetoric is predictably obfuscating, with a lot of guff about making secondary moderns better or letting selective schools operate as “specialists” in a more diverse, choice-driven schools market.

The grammar lobby is clearly displaying post-Brexit braggadocio in trying to drag us back to a discredited past. Such a move would not only be educationally, socially and morally wrong headed, it would be a near criminal waste of a powerful and unprecedented moment in the story of our state education system: the existence of a strong evidence-based consensus across a wide spectrum of political opinion that we could, and should, create a quality system along genuinely multilateral lines.

Build on, and invest in, that vision and it’s possible public loyalty to state education will continue to grow. Return to crass historical divisions, and the dissatisfaction and disunion will surely last for another half century – or longer.

This article was published in the Guardian on August 9th 2016

Well, that didn’t take long did it? Responding to Theresa May on grammar schools

Melissa Benn, Chair of Comprehensive Future, annotates Theresa May’s supposedly ‘One Nation’ speech on the steps of Downing Street on July 13th in the light of announcements that she looks likely to lift the ban on the creation of new grammar schools.

I have just been to Buckingham Palace, where Her Majesty The Queen has asked me to form a new government, and I accepted.

In David Cameron, I follow in the footsteps of a great, modern Prime Minister. Under David’s leadership, the government stabilised the economy, reduced the budget deficit, and helped more people into work than ever before.


Perhaps the most significant aspect of Cameron’s ‘modernity’ as PM was his recognition that the traditional Tory support for grammars had to be ditched. Over the past decade, an influential section of the party studied the evidence on grammars and social mobility and came to the considered conclusion that selective education hindered the life chances of poorer children. In the words of David Willetts, then Tory front-bench spokesman on education and employment, in his seminal speech on the issue, in 2007,‘ we must break free from the belief that academic selection is any longer the way to transform the life chances of bright poor kids..’ and that ‘ there is overwhelming evidence that such academic selection entrenches advantage, it does not spread it.’

But David’s true legacy is not about the economy but about social justice. From the introduction of same-sex marriage, to taking people on low wages out of income tax altogether; David Cameron has led a one-nation government, and it is in that spirit that I also plan to lead.

Cameron’s government recognised that it could never appear serious about ‘social justice’ as long as it continued to back selective education, which so clearly hinders the educational and later life chances of the majority of the working class and less well off. International data is clear: the earlier selection occurs, the greater the effect of socio-economic background on results.

Because not everybody knows this, but the full title of my party is the Conservative and Unionist Party, and that word ‘unionist’ is very important to me.

It means we believe in the Union: the precious, precious bond between England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. But it means something else that is just as important; it means we believe in a union not just between the nations of the United Kingdom but between all of our citizens, every one of us, whoever we are and wherever we’re from.

That means fighting against the burning injustice that, if you’re born poor, you will die on average 9 years earlier than others.

If you’re black, you’re treated more harshly by the criminal justice system than if you’re white.

If you’re a white, working-class boy, you’re less likely than anybody else in Britain to go to university.

A grammar school system is supposedly designed to identify the academically talented from all social and ethnic backgrounds. The evidence is stark: it does not. Recent data from Buckinghamshire’s Local, Equal and Excellent group shows that high ability children from poor backgrounds, and some ethnic groups, do disproportionately badly under the 11+, suggesting that the exam is as much a reflection of family advantage and cultural capital, as raw academic talent.

Meanwhile, in selective systems, such as those which operate in Buckinghamshire, Kent and parts of Lincolnshire, the vast majority of children from lower income homes are turned away from grammar schools and forced to attend a secondary modern (although generally the school is re-badged under another, less damaging, title) where their prospects of achieving good GCSEs have been shown to be worse than if they had attended a comprehensive school.

If you’re at a state school, you’re less likely to reach the top professions than if you’re educated privately.

If you’re a woman, you will earn less than a man.

If you suffer from mental health problems, there’s not enough help to hand.

If you’re young, you’ll find it harder than ever before to own your own home.

All of those social and other difficulties will be hugely compounded if you attend a secondary modern.

But the mission to make Britain a country that works for everyone means more than fighting these injustices. If you’re from an ordinary working class family, life is much harder than many people in Westminster realise. You have a job but you don’t always have job security. You have your own home, but you worry about paying a mortgage. You can just about manage but you worry about the cost of living and getting your kids into a good school.

The ability to buy in ‘intensive coaching’ has been shown to be one of the biggest determinants of success in passing the 11 + exam. Children living in the wealthier areas of Buckinghamshire are twice as likely to pass the 11+ as children living in poorer areas. Children at private schools are nearly three times more likely to pass than children from state schools. In these tough economic times, lower income families who are, in May’s words, ‘just managing’, are highly unlikely to be able to afford the thousands of pounds involved in procuring such extra tuition or paying for a primary education, even if they should want to.

If you’re one of those families, if you’re just managing, I want to address you directly.

I know you’re working around the clock, I know you’re doing your best, and I know that sometimes life can be a struggle. The government I lead will be driven not by the interests of the privileged few, but by yours.

Nationally, grammar schools take a tiny percentage of children on free school meals. Most children at these schools are from more affluent homes. They receive a selective and socially segregated education paid for by the taxes of the less well-off.

We will do everything we can to give you more control over your lives. When we take the big calls, we’ll think not of the powerful, but you.


If the decision to build more grammar schools go ahead, thousands more children will face the ‘biggest call’ of their lives at the young age of ten or eleven. They will either fail to take, or take and fail, the 11+. Under such a high stakes system, the children of the powerful are clearly the most likely to succeed and the children of the powerless the most likely to fail. This will have not just educational, but human consequences.

As Joanne Bartley, a parent who opposes the 11+ in Kent, has said so eloquently, ‘ I think of the 11-plus division of people like this: for every one proud person believing they are cleverer than the rest, there are three people who are quiet, embarrassed, feeling stupid. Every time I hear someone say how fine grammar schools are, I think of the quiet people. Maybe you will consider them sometimes, too.’

When we pass new laws, we’ll listen not to the mighty but to you. When it comes to taxes, we’ll prioritise not the wealthy, but you. When it comes to opportunity, we won’t entrench the advantages of the fortunate few. We will do everything we can to help anybody, whatever your background, to go as far as your talents will take you.

Segregating children from different social backgrounds and ethnicities into different and unequally regarded schools restricts the opportunities and diminishes the confidence, often for life, of poorer children.

It priorities the wealthy – not you. It’s as simple as that.

We are living through an important moment in our country’s history. Following the referendum, we face a time of great national change.

And I know because we’re Great Britain, that we will rise to the challenge. As we leave the European Union, we will forge a bold new positive role for ourselves in the world, and we will make Britain a country that works not for a privileged few, but for every one of us.

Grammar schools were phased out from the 1960s onwards because thousands of parents, among them many Conservative voters, found it wholly unacceptable that their children should be judged failures before reaching puberty and sent to schools that were clearly considered second-class.

That will be the mission of the government I lead, and together we will build a better Britain.

If Theresa May follows through on this policy and re-instates a previously failed, deeply divisive education system her highly praised ‘one nation’ rhetoric on the steps of Downing Street will be revealed as a hollow sham.

On (not) being over the hill…..

“I no longer want what I used to want,” Marina Benjamin declares somewhere towards the end of her lucid and sophisticated exploration of what it means for a woman to turn 50 in a culture that glorifies youth and encourages us at every turn to “disguise … deny … disown” the process of ageing. Single-word chapter headings – Skin, Muscle, Guts, Spine – speak to her promise to bring “the body back into the frame at every turn”, although what she discusses roams far beyond and beneath the merely physical.

For Benjamin, the body is the first port of call in seeking understanding, and forcing brute truths on us. A hysterectomy in her late 40s propels her into “middle age all at once” – leaves her dry-haired and grey-skinned, an exhausted insomniac wandering the streets feeling herself to be in the “slipstream” of humanity. Her father’s death precipitates an extended period of frenetic exercise until injuries force her “to look elsewhere for survival techniques”, and the realisation that “mourning and ageing require a classier sort of attention”.

Benjamin finds no consolation in the popular “Fifty and fabulous!” genre of self-help books that mistake “morale boosting for genuine empowerment” and fail to distinguish “self-knowledge from self-satisfaction”. Despite having turned to oestrogen herself, she is scathing about the “blunt hammer of misogyny that taints the entire history of HRT”. Instead, she looks to literature, offering us a detailed reading of Edith Wharton’s underrated late novel Twilight Sleep, which predicted the “machine age” anxieties and scientific management of time that now besiege us all; she also admires the “absorbed coping” of the ever-inventive Colette in later life.

Benjamin’s central argument, that one must face loss and sadness – “the reconciliation of the ego to the true self, shadow-side and all” – in order to age authentically, seems right to me. But is it bracing honesty or a form of melancholy defeatism to casually describe 50 and beyond as “over the hill”? Older women may indeed turn to a more “generative” role, helping and guiding others, but there is a risk here of underplaying profound cultural, economic and political shifts that have led to a new wave of highly effective women in public life, including, quite possibly, a seventysomething female president of the United States.

For all its interesting examinations of the science, literature and psychology of mid-life, this is essentially a memoir, capturing the poignant changes in the relationships between Benjamin and, among others, her parents, peers and teenage daughter. When one of her closest friends, the academic and writer Kirsty Milne, is diagnosed with an aggressive form of lung cancer, dying just short of her 50th birthday, Benjamin is besieged by feelings of guilt, helplessness and confusion, acutely aware that she has the one thing her friend can no longer rely on: a future.

The Middlepause is a restrained but wonderful guide to the convulsive changes of 50 and over. Whether it is Benjamin’s observation that it’s “the nouns that go” in post-menopausal word blight or her evocation of the “old fever” of conventional ambition, this is a book that yields valuable insights on almost every page.

Jane Miller
 A subtle chronicler of our times … Jane Miller. Photograph: Graeme Robertson for the Guardian

Jane Miller, a former professor of education, author of several memoirs and explorations of feminism and education, is another refreshingly subtle chronicler of our times, although she did not become a journalist until she was 78, when she was asked to contribute a monthly column to In These Times, a leftwing political magazine based in Chicago.

Most of the pieces are on political or cultural topics, but, inevitably, themes of time and loss run through this volume, particularly given the recent death of “my witty, beautiful husband of nearly 60 years”, Karl Miller, the literary critic and founding editor of the London Review of Books.

There’s a lovely essay on the petty frustrations of life as an older carer. While her husband is visited by “old flames, old poets, old reviewers, old colleagues, old friends, young friends and relations”, one visitor observes to Jane that “Karl is not getting enough in the way of intellectual stimulation, and thought it fortunate that he had sons and plenty of male friends”.

When asked to write about the 2011 royal wedding, she thinks her American editor will want an anti-monarchy diatribe. Far from it, he is a “big proponent of monarchy … in a celebrity culture”. Miller is more gently sceptical of the institution, but describes her relief at getting out of one of the “Fuck the Royal Wedding” get-togethers put on by radical friends and spending a “happy morning watching … the carriages and clothes, hats and bishops” on television.

Formidably well connected as she is (Karl Marx, no less, helped her great-aunt Clara with her German homework), some of Miller’s celebrated friends make an appearance here. Seamus Heaney comes to her English class in a large London comprehensive to discuss his poem “Digging”, which the class had recently been set in an exam. In an interview with Eric Hobsbawm just before he died, the two old friends make connections between the Arab spring and the 1848 European revolutions, and discuss the imminent demise of capitalism.

Miller’s politics are firmly left of centre. She deplores the wreckage of state education and the NHS under recent governments, the decline of welfare and the rise of intrusive journalism, and cheers on Occupy and Jeremy Corbyn. But she also reads Tolstoy in Russian, reproves Hilary Mantel for supposedly being unkind to Kate Middleton, and beautifully captures the strangely euphoric day in 2014 on which family and friends scattered her husband’s ashes on a hillside south of Edinburgh.

This is a remarkable collection, a reflection not just of a later life well lived, but a distinct political and personal sensibility. Far from being “over the hill”, Miller is one of a growing and inspiring tribe of female elders who stand right on the peak, taking a wry, wise and witty view of all they survey.


This piece first appeared in the Guardian on June 23rd 2016