Friday, 2 April 2021

Philip Roth and the Ecstasy of Sanctimony

While the sword of posthumous cancellation hangs over the king of American letters, Philip Roth, there’s no better time to revisit his work. 

    Roth’s imminent cancellation is due to a forthcoming biography that reveals him to be somewhat on the priapic side. Not that any of his readers will fall off their chairs in astonishment to learn that. We must not read Roth, apparently, because he was a ‘misogynist’, not only in his life, but in his work. 

    This charge might carry more weight had it not been hurled at every major male writer of the past fifty years who dared to write about male desire, including such unlikely woman haters as Howard Jacobson, Ian McEwan and Jonathan Franzen. Yes, I know, I know – to critics of a certain ideological bent, male desire is violence. But since I understand the nature of my own desire rather better than the average radical feminist literary critic, I simply don’t believe them. 

    Even if Roth was a misogynist, that wouldn’t make him less great as a chronicler of our times, and there is a pleasing irony in the fact that he skewered the very cancel culture that now threatens him.    

    Take The Human Stain, from 2000. A professor is sacked for ‘racism’ because he refers to two absent students as ‘spooks’. 

    ‘Coleman had taken attendance at the beginning of the first several lectures so as to learn their names. As there were still two names that failed to elicit a response by the fifth week into the semester, Coleman, in the sixth week, opened the session by asking, ‘Does anyone know of these people? Do they exist or are they spooks?”’ 

    Unfortunately for Coleman, the students turn out to be black, and he is toast. If this was semi-plausible in 2000, it’s absolutely plausible now. 

    The backdrop of The Human Stain is the Lewinsky scandal of 1998. Rather than defend Roth any further, I’ll allow him to defend himself with this passage, in which he condemns us with painful prescience from beyond the grave: 

    ‘Ninety-eight in New England was a summer of exquisite warmth and sunshine … and in America the summer of an enormous piety binge, a purity binge, when terrorism – which had replaced communism as the prevailing threat to the country’s security – was succeeded by cocksucking, and a virile, youthful middle-aged president and a brash, smitten twenty-one-year-old employee carrying on in the Oval Office like two teenage kids in a parking lot revived America’s oldest communal passion, historically perhaps its most treacherous and subversive pleasure: the ecstasy of sanctimony. In the Congress, in the press and on the networks, the righteous grandstanding creeps, crazy to blame, deplore, and punish, were everywhere out moralizing to beat the band: all of them in a calculated frenzy with what Hawthorne identified in the incipient country of long ago as ‘the persecuting spirit’; all of them eager to enact the astringent rituals of purification that would excise the erection from the executive branch ... No, if you haven’t lived through 1998, you don’t know what sanctimony is.” 

    Unless, of course, you’re living through 2021.

Sunday, 21 March 2021

In Defence of Steinbeck


In their book The Coddling of the American Mind, academics Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt identify three great untruths that are leading to a rise in depression and anxiety among Gen Z.

1.     The Untruth of Fragility: What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker.

2.     The Untruth of Emotional Reasoning: Always trust your feelings.

3.     The Untruth of Us Versus Them: Life is a battle between good people and evil people.


The authors were responding to a change in campus culture, an increased fragility in the face of unwelcome ideas or words. Having taught English in secondary schools for a decade, I’ve noticed this trend in the study of literature, specifically John Steinbeck’s 1937 novel Of Mice and Men. Following recent calls to ban the book in schools, it is worth reminding ourselves that a robust teaching of the novel can form a salutary corrective to the three Great Untruths. 

During Michael Gove’s tenure as Education Secretary, Steinbeck’s story about ranch workers in depression-era California was dropped from the GCSE syllabus in favour of British classics. But many schools retained it at Year Nine. So now it is 13-14-year-olds reading a work in which racial abuse, sexual innuendo and violence abound. But I suspect it is our more racially febrile culture, rather than the shift to younger readers, that explains the increased sensitivity I’ve noticed in the classroom.

Of Mice and Men is an almost perfect book. But despite its linguistic richness and dramatic heft, I doubt it would make it beyond the slush pile of a modern literary agency. Too problematic. This is a novel in which the only female character is not even named, referred to merely as ‘Curley’s wife’. Her sexually insecure husband struts around the ranch wearing a glove ‘fulla vaseline’ to keep his hand ‘soft for his wife’. One character cheerfully monologues for a full page about the relative merits of the local brothels. The mentally disabled Lennie is referred to in frustration by his best friend as a ‘crazy bastard’. And the novel’s only black character, Crooks, is referred to by the N-word numerous times. It’s to his credit that Steinbeck has survived this far into the culture war without being sent the same way as Edward Colston and that Trump-supporting actress from The Mandalorian.

For decades there have been attempts, some successful, to get Of Mice and Men banned from schools in Canada and the US. In January it was the turn of Newfane High School in upstate New York. Sixteen-year-old campaigner Madison Woodruff said: “Kids are feeling uncomfortable. And I feel uncomfortable, and I feel if you’re reading a book in school, where school is supposed to be safe, you can’t make kids feel uncomfortable because of a book we’re reading.”

Her statement is a perfect example of Lukianoff and Haidt’s Great Untruths One and Two.

Expect similar cases to occur in the UK. I hope we are made of sterner stuff, and retain the novel in classrooms, partly because the pupils generally love it. I’m sure I speak for many English teachers when I say that reading the tear-jerking climax of the novel in class is a highlight of the academic year.

Of Mice and Men is problematic, but in a good way. While very much concerned with power dynamics and what we now call privilege, the novel refuses to fall into the easy trap of portraying the powerful as all bad and the powerless as saintly. While its sympathies lie with the underdogs, it offers a rugged challenge to the simplistic platitudes of intersectionality.

For example, the chapter in which we meet Crooks is an all-too-believable scrum for dominance among the most disadvantaged characters. Lennie, whose childish mind lacks the capacity to understand the breaching of racial taboos, wanders into Crooks’s room one night.  Crooks uses his superior intellect to torment him – until it becomes clear that the bear-like Lennie poses a physical threat.

Curley’s wife arrives on the scene, and reminds Crooks, ‘I could get you strung up on a tree so easy it ain’t even funny.’ This line, tellingly cut from adaptations of the novel, reveals not only the racial injustice, but also the power of life and death that white women had over black men in 1930s California. So we agree that Black Lives Matter. But hang on, aren’t we also supposed to also Believe Women? Well, life is more complicated than that. Steinbeck shows us how those at the bottom as well as the top of society fight for dominance, and fight dirty, how they exploit vulnerabilities in others – and yet are still capable of decency. Such universal truths run counter to Manichean worldview of Great Untruth Number Three.

There is another reason we may have to defend the novel against cancellation – Steinbeck’s use of the N-word. The word appears in the novel not only as weapon, but also as a casually descriptive term used by some characters for Crooks. It provides an uncomfortable reminder of how commonplace racism was, how people back then did not have the sensitivities that we have now. The fact that our forebears were different because they didn’t know what we do should be an obvious lesson of history, but it’s in danger of being erased with every toppled statue and renamed campus building.

Of course, racist language requires sensitive handling in the classroom. We don’t know what racial abuse our pupils might have suffered and how it affected them. So like other teachers I’ve spoken to, I introduce the novel with a warning about the language, and if pupils object to hearing the N-word spoken, I leave a split-second’s silence where it appears when reading aloud. Yes, this policy feels a touch absurd. But it has so far precluded the dreaded parental phone call and summons to the headteacher’s office. But for how long will this approach be enough? How long before we can’t teach a novel in the UK that even contains the N-word within its pages?

Recent cases suggest that day is soon to come. The newly appointed director of The School of Oriental and African Studies, Adam Habib, has been suspended after using the N-word in a conversation in which he promised to tackle claims of racism.

In the US, the Black Students Law Association complained about the professor Jason Kilborn’s inclusion of the racial slur in an exam paper about employment law. The word was not even written in full, but as ‘n__’. Even that was deemed ‘mental terrorism’ by a triggered student.

Meanwhile, Donald McNeil of the New York Times resigned after it emerged that he used the N-word in a conversation with high-schoolers about racism.

The distinction between using the N-word to refer to an example of racism, and using it as a racist slur, is significant, and not even very subtle. But it seems the distinction increasingly counts for nothing. The N-word is gaining an almost talismanic power independent of context. If we ban the word wherever we find it, educators and artists will be left with an awkward question: How can racism be challenged if it cannot be portrayed?

It’s hardly surprising that children are confused about racism when some adults send such confusing messages on the subject, often allowing their charges’ misconceptions to shape the narrative. Take the case of a headteacher apologising for using the term ‘negro’ in a lesson about the civil rights movement. No such apology was necessary, merely a calm and firm explanation about the changing nature of language.

As educators, we are responsible for the physical safety of our pupils, but their ‘comfort’ must not be our highest priority. We’re in danger of neglecting to teach the true nature of history, of literature, and indeed of racism. It is tempting to avoid a row by pandering to children’s sensitivities. But if we do so we are bound to fail them, sending them out into the adult world confused, ignorant and weak.



Tuesday, 9 February 2021

"Bush was behind 9/11." Teachers must not be afraid to confront dangerous myths - My article in the TES.

You can read my article in the Times Educational Supplement here:

Friday, 31 August 2018

Advice for Aspriring Writers Part One: Attitude

 This is the first of a series of articles to inspire other writers. Whether you're a beginner wanting to get started, or a pro who's looking for encouragement, I hope you find something that will help you ...

Embrace your creative nature

A while back, a friend of mine, an aspiring writer, lent me a book about how to pursue creative endeavours. The gist was that while many of us have a creative impulse, it is thwarted by what this author called ‘resistance’, in its various forms – self-doubt, the feeling of needing to attend to other, more practical issues and so on. The irony was, of course, that reading the book was itself a form of ‘resistance’. Another anecdote makes a similar point: A famous writer addresses an audience of wannabes. “Hands up who wants to be a writer.” There’s a substantial show of hands. “Then why aren’t you all at home writing?”

So what, exactly, is stopping you from getting started? There are always many reasons not to write, and you need defences against these negative voices of resistance. They will chatter in your ear as you sit and try to write. They say things like -

‘Who cares? It’s not like anyone’s going to read this stuff anyway.’

‘This isn’t as good as so-and-so. Why am I bothering?’

‘Oh, wait, no, I can’t write that. It might make you look like a bad person!’

 Here’s an argument to silence these voices:

Compelling scientific evidence shows that some people are creative by temperament. If you are trying to write, the chances are that you are one of these people. You will have high levels of what the psychologists call ‘trait openness’ which is strongly linked to creativity. You probably enjoy learning, discussing abstract concepts, are moved by literature, music or other art forms. Sounds like you?

So forget, for now, the question of whether you are a good writer. The point is that you are a writer. You need to accept that first. Then you can get on with becoming a better one.

 Okay, so you accept that you have the type of personality that is inclined to creativity. Now, the worst thing you can do if you are one of these people is not create. If your creative impulse has no outlet, you will become miserable. You have a responsibility for your own mental health and happiness, and this will be enhanced by the expression of what is, apparently, your personality.

Don’t worry if not everyone understands your desire to write. Non-creative people won’t get it, because they don’t share your creative impulse. Fine. But other people will. Find some of these people. Join a writers’ group or an online forum and you will feel less of a freak. But the important thing is to write. Because that’s what writers have to do, whether the world likes it or not.

Once you accept this, you will feel more freedom and entitlement in your creative pursuits. Then, write like mad for few minutes each day, or whenever you can find the time. Don’t worry yet about whether you’re produced anything worthwhile. Give this a week or two, then take stock. Did you enjoy the process? Did it have a basically positive effect on your mood? Do you now have something that looks like it might one day be worth reading? If the answer is yes, then congratulations. You’ve made a start. Now push on forward.

(An aside: I suspect there are many people who are creative types, but for one reason or another have not accepted or even discovered this side of themselves. A songwriter I know who works in prisons tells me that many inmates are thrilled to find in themselves a creative flair they never knew existed. And then there are those would-be creatives who are crippled early by self-doubt or vanity. Rather than asking: ‘Am I creative?’ and proceeding from there, they ask: ‘Am I as good as these famous artists?’ and, too early, decide they aren’t and so quit. And then get eaten up with resentment when they see other people becoming flourishing writers. Don’t be that guy.)

So, you’ve accepted that you are inclined towards creativity, and that you have to create. You’ve gone ahead and written something. Now you need to show it to someone. This brings us onto the next section of Attitude:

How to take criticism.

Not all criticism is motivated by a desire to help. Beware the resentful vampires.

Most of the serious learning you will have done in your life will have occurred in times of suffering. Criticism is not easy to take, and because writing is such an intimate, personal endeavour, criticism of your work feels like criticism of you. So it’s bound to be painful. But it’s always worth listening to.

I’ve learned a lot from my writers’ group. Of course I love it when I submit a passage of my novel and everyone thinks it’s great. But when I really learn is when they don’t, when they send me away with my head full of awkward questions: Why didn’t they like it? What’s wrong with what I’m trying to achieve? Why didn’t the effects I was aiming for communicate to others? And, eventually: How could this be improved?

This doesn’t mean, however, that you have to take what every malevolent idiot says to heart. Be discerning. Some people criticise out of ignorance, spite, or because they’ve been trained in cynical ideology. They’ll trash your work without offering any ideas of how it could be better. (Be sceptical in particular of any criticism whose subtext is, ‘You, the author, have unwittingly revealed yourself to be an evil person’.) Learn to distinguish between the resentful vampires and those whose criticism is nourishing and leads you forward. How do you tell the difference? Well, for one thing, I find that the latter type tends to write more, and better, than the former.
Your teacher will be on the side of you that wants to become a better writer.

Teachers are genuinely worth attending to. They’ll be inclined by personality, and pressurised professionally, to aspire to improve your output. They too will be lovers of literature. But many students take criticism personally. I was about 23, on an undergraduate creative writing course, before I realised that teachers are basically objective in their assessments. If you got a C, it’s because that’s what you produced, not because the teacher doesn’t like as much as they like that more charming person who got an A. Yes, writing is to a large extent subjective, but be very wary of dismissing any advice from a professional teacher. It’s very unlikely they’ll be one of the resentful vampires I mentioned earlier. If their written comments don’t make much sense to you, pester them for a conversation about your work. Yes, they’re busy, but they’ll appreciate your willingness to learn from feedback, and the conversation is likely to be more enlightening than their scrawled notes at the end of your story. Teachers are also useful guides to your reading. They might be able to point you towards writers in your genre that will stretch and inspire you further.

So to summarise: Accept that you have a creative nature, and that this needs expression. Write something. Then learn from criticism.

In the next instalments I’ll get down to the nitty-gritty of style, and how to tackle tricky subjects such as politics and sex …

Tuesday, 30 May 2017

Remain - a new short story

When I thought of dumping my boyfriend I pictured:

Having more time to devote to the Party, going on dates, finding a man who didn’t send flirty emails to a colleague called Suzy. Someone who at least attempted DIY and had more … ambition. Someone sexy, powerful, well off. Does this make me a hypocrite? Probably. Actually, yes.

Election campaigns always do something weird to me. It’s easy to forget that the feelings they inspire don’t last forever. I was away a lot. I was running off adrenaline, bonding with my fellow soldiers in a war we were bound to win. And Martin, with his complaints about his boss, his Saturday football matches and Sunday lunches with his mum, seemed like a phase I’d outgrown. And then, with three weeks to go to election day, when I discovered he'd been emailing Suzy again ... I made more of a fuss about it than was necessary, I suppose. When he said that nothing had Happened, I believed him. He has an almost neurotic reluctance to lie (one reason he'd never last in politics). But still I had a point, didn't I, that he must have been thinking about something Happening? Then he broke down and actually, like, cried and did that speech about how lonely he'd been while I was away.
A more decent person might have melted at that. But I'd gone too far in picturing life without him, and I got sort of … drunk on power, I guess. Before I knew it I was saying the terrible, exhilarating words I'd half-planned on saying for weeks. I didn’t expect him to give up so quickly. One minute we were sitting at the table, unable to face that chicken casserole he'd made, having that tearful conversation; the next he was packing.

Why should I waste a moment longer,” he said, chucking stuff into a suitcase I'd not seen since our holiday in Morocco two years ago, “with someone who doesn't love me?”

Of course I love you. It's just that ...”

He gave me a moment to finish and, when I didn't, pushed past me to the door.

It was very quiet after he left. The sort of silence that lurks, gathering force in the corners of the room. So, yes I went and found the Emergency Cigarettes. I sat back at the table, using the casserole dish as an ashtray, planning my political career and telling myself I'd just done a brutal but necessary thing.

Over the coming days the silence was easily filled. There was no time for a long, dark night of the soul. As well as running the regional press office, I was effectively joint-managing the local campaign. I was on my phone all night until I fell into exhausted sleep, then the alarm would go off and I'd get that surge of adrenaline that would propel me out of bed and back onto the campaign trail. To win, you have to see yourself winning. You have to visualise. And boy, was I visualising. Geoffrey, whose seat we were defending, was dropping hints about how there might be a better job for me after the election. A London job. A Westminster job. I pictured … I’m embarrassed to say exactly what I pictured. But I'm sure you can imagine the sort of thing. MP. Then junior minister, then a cabinet post. Home Secretary, maybe, and who knows? One day, even … Look, I know, alright?

I didn’t picture:

Losing the election, obviously.

I didn’t picture the pay cut and counting the coppers and having to drop the gym membership and the subscription to the New Statesman. I didn't picture the overnight massacre of jobs, coming into the office and finding there was just me, for hours on end, with not all that much to do. Then home to the empty flat where I’d fuck about on Twitter, trying not to smoke.

Summer faded; the bed grew cold. But getting to sleep wasn't the half of it. Staying asleep was the challenge. I began to have a regular nightmare, which I came to think of as The Noise. I’m confronted by a disapproving auntie type in a blue dress (a Tory auntie, naturally), frowning at her watch, turkey wattle wobbling as she shakes head in disapproval tinged with schadenfreude. Then she looks at me. I try to shout at her but she puts a choking hand around my throat. Then she opens her mouth, and instead of words out of her mouth comes this hideous clicking sound: tick-tick-tick-tick-tick.

I felt sorry for myself. I felt sorry for all of us. I had a bit of a cry when I was helping Geoffrey out of the office with his cardboard boxes. And I felt really sorry for Ed. You could tell he was as shocked as anyone. Before he left for Ibiza, I found myself in Doncaster, on my way back from a profoundly depressing strategy meeting. I had an hour to kill, changing trains, and I stopped to use the loo in this little cafĂ©. They were putting up the chairs, sweeping the floor, and at a table in the corner there was Ed, miserably munching a panini. There were two blokes with him, fiddling with their phones. No one was talking. I could have introduced myself of course, commiserated. I’ve met him a few times and he’s always remembered me and been lovely. But I didn't think he’d appreciate the interruption. Ed was struggling with the Mozzarella in his sandwich – you know how you can get strings of the stuff that just go on and on? And I looked at him - this man who we thought was going to be Prime Minister, whose legacy would be a more compassionate capitalism - making these clumsy little loops with his fork while his aides looked down at their phones and I thought: Mate, if it wasn’t for Justine, you’d be fucked.

But you fight on. My dad taught me that. He spent decades pounding the streets, taking shit on the doorstep. Three years before his first heart attack he got one lousy term in Morley South before losing to the fucking BNP. Still he kept on. You have to believe or you’re nothing. It wasn't enough for me to send out the odd press release. I had to get back to the grass roots, hear the arguments, even allow myself to be persuaded of the virtues of this crusty old Trot called Jeremy Corbyn. Anything to drown out The Noise.

The far left had been around forever, of course. But for those of us who came of age during the Blair years they never seemed like a serious threat. They were dinosaurs. Then suddenly we were up to our arses in dinosaurs – in freshly hatched velociraptors snapping their bright young teeth and screeching Disaffected Blairite! and Red Tory!

The meeting billed as Beyond Defeat: What Next for Labour? It was in a community centre opposite that awful high-rise university hall of residence, and was hosted by Susan Leatherman. Remember her, Martin? She came to my thirtieth, which admittedly is a while ago now. You couldn't ask for a more dedicated constituency MP. She never got from Tony the attention she felt was her due but she didn’t let that bias her against him. She’s strong, principled. I spoke to her on the phone after election day and she was admirably tough about it all, having only just held her seat. We’d be back, she said. You had to take the long view. Europe would do for Cameron’s government like it had for all the others. Time, she soothed, was on our side.

I arrived early just as she was testing the mic. She stepped off the stage, gave me a hug and held me by the arms.

Now. Are you alright, Laura?”

For a moment I thought she must have heard about Martin leaving. But then I realised she meant, did I still have a job?

Yes. They've kept me on at the press office.”

She smiled. “Everyone values the work you do. That's what I've been hearing.”

No idea, looking back, how true that was. But you can imagine how much I wanted to believe her.

I sat near the front. The room began to fill. There were lots of them and most of them were young, which I took to be a good sign. But then Sue started speaking and I realised something was wrong. She was trying to buck us up with talk of our achievements. The minimum wage, protection of worker’s rights, action on child poverty. Then someone said, “Illegal war!”

Sue's a pro, and she barely paused. But a moment later there was hissing, as if the pantomime villain had walked on stage in a green fog of dry ice.

Blairite!” someone said, smothered in a cough. Then there was some pretend sneezing and Sue stopped talking and glared, which made them laugh. Suddenly I was back at school, feeling sorry for the supply teacher.

Not to mention,” said Sue, leaning into the microphone, “Our proud history of confronting racism. Including anti-Semitism.”

There were sniggers and someone said, “I’ve just got a cold! A – Jew!” and that did it. I was on my feet, turning round.

Pack it in!”

The laughter died away.

You should be ashamed of yourselves!”

Martin always said I’m scary when I’m angry. Well, it has its uses. It went quiet. I was staring at row upon row of handsomely bearded hipsters; young women, faces tight with moral conviction; a clutch of Asian men and their implacably veiled wives. The girl behind me, insolently chewing gum, was pointing a phone at me, filming it all. The familiar faces in the crowd looked old, frightened, outnumbered.

I sat down. Sue gave me a discreet nod, continued speaking. For a while there was no more heckling, and I began to feel proud of myself. But then Sue turned a page in her speech and I knew she was up to a passage praising Tony, and she was about to change her mind, but then thought, no, that’s giving in to them, so went ahead with it anyway. But she rushed it, trying to get it over with as the hissing started up again, along with more of that ‘a-Jew’ shit.

Then she was off the stage and it was the next speaker’s turn, a white Muslim woman called Safa Haque, who I recognised as a former grammar school teacher called Kath Blunt. She did a Tory-bashing posh-boy-scum routine. She tore into Trident, using the old penis-extension analogy. She made a joke, if you could call it that, about Cameron and the pig’s head. She raised the roof with a line about how the Tories’ secret plan was to shaft the NHS to the point of having to privatise it. She attacked the 'lies' of the 'Zionist lobby' and the 'mainstream media'. Oh, they fucking loved her, Martin. You’d have puked.

Afterwards there was a mass exodus to the pub across the street. I went behind the stage, looking for Sue. But she must have left already and who could blame her?

I stepped outside for an Emergency Cigarette. Smoking outside already was a handsome bloke with a shaved head and kind eyes.

Good night?”

I’ve had better.”

He smiled.

How was yours?”

Oh, I’m just the caretaker, love. It’s all the same to me. But I was watching. I’m Gareth.”

I shook his proffered hand, felt its rough palm. “You were pretty feisty in there,” he said.

I bristled: Would he call a man 'feisty'? But he meant it as a compliment. “Thanks. It wasn't enough, though, was it?”

He shrugged. “You tried.” He was gorgeous, I noticed. Sort of tough but soulful-looking with long-lashed eyes. Too young for me though.

Night, Gareth.”

Don’t go yet.”

I hesitated. Was he going to invite me out? I looked into his eyes and before I could stop myself imagined them gazing into mine across a pillow.

Why not?” I said, raising an eyebrow, quite the coquette.

He looked down, grinding out his cigarette with his toe. “Because you’ve got chewing gum in your hair.”

I wanted to get straight off then, but he wouldn’t let me. He took me into the dressing-room, which had a mirror, and from a tool kit produced a pair of scissors. He stood behind me, put those hands on my shoulders. We locked eyes in the mirror and it was all I could do not to press my arse into him. God, I’d been so fucking lonely.

Then he shook his head as if to clear it, began making little cuts with the scissors. “So where's your husband tonight?”

I sighed. “You know, I'd have preferred 'boyfriend'.”

Ah. You'd have felt younger.”

No husband,” I said. “No boyfriend either.”

He caught my eye and this time I had to look away.

You realise it’s over, don’t you?” he said.


The Labour Party.” He shifted my hair, made a more decisive cut. “The centre-left in general.”

Bollocks,” I said.

Maybe.” He plucked out the gob of gum, turned it over in his palm, tossed it into the bin. He smiled at me in the mirror. “Fancy a pint?” he said.

We walked up the road, avoiding the velociraptors at the big, studenty place nearby, until we found a small, modern bar with candles on the table. We carried our pints to a cosy booth.

It turned out that he only volunteered at the community centre. Job-wise, he was a plumber. He watched me as he revealed this, checking my reaction, which was … Ooooh, mixed. You know: Look at good little lefty me, having a beer with a genuine, honest-to-God member of the working class. Also a faint pang of intellectual snobbery and squeamishness: All that shitty water! I'm not proud of either reaction, by the way.

I asked him about being a plumber and he told me about it. But there was a bit of irony in his delivery now. He intensified his Yorkshire accent on words like 'monkey-wrench' and 'effluence', as if satirising the class difference between us.

Oh,” I said at one point, distracted by the proximity of his large, dark eyes and manfully gesturing hands. “That's interesting.”

He laughed. “Is it bollocks, Laura. But it pays the bills.”

I liked the sound of my name on his tongue. I asked if it was true that indigenous plumbers were being forced out of work by a flood of immigrants.

Not round here. But that didn't stop half the people I know voting UKIP. But come on, if Polish plumbers are getting hired, it's because they're good. The answer is to make sure you're better. That's capitalism.”

You didn't vote UKIP, then.”

Don't tell the lads. It's bad enough that I make them listen to Radio Four when we're on the job. I prefer the Today programme to Chris Evans? I must be a poof.”

My head was spinning with challenged prejudices and sexual fantasies. I managed to get out, “So how did you vote?”

Tory, mate.”

And the curious thing was, I did not feel an almost physical repulsion, did not enjoy the hot spurt of righteous anger at being confronted with a morally inferior specimen. I did, however, feel a dark-chocolatey thrill of transgression.

Gareth was chuckling. “Oh dear. Your face, Laura. You fucking hate me now, don't you?” He didn't seem particularly bothered about this.

I don't actually. But don't tell my mates. So. Why Tory?”

I wanted to vote for Miliband. But, come on, really? Sorry, he's probably a friend of yours and I'm sure he means well, but … In times like this you need a government that can take the harsh decisions to get you through a rough patch. It's not a time for pissing about, virtue-signalling. I think Cameron's made a serious mistake though.”

Oh? And what's that?”

The referendum. He'll lose.”

Bollocks,” I said. “You need to get out more.”

He shrugged. I liked the way he was happy to disagree. I don't get that much from people. “Maybe.” He drained his pint. “One for the road?”

When he returned with the next round he was in a playful mood. He began challenging me to name the shadow cabinet.

You're competitive, aren't you?”

You ain't seen nothing yet,” he said, producing a pen and paper.

He turned the whole thing into a game, kept score, though the rules were vague. Before I knew it we were arm-wrestling, collapsing into giggles.

We held hands in the back of the cab and by the time it pulled up outside his flat we were kissing.

He wanted to carry me up the stairs.


“Come on.” He held out his arms for me to fall into.

“I'm too feminist for that nonsense.”

“Alright, compromise. Piggy back.”

I jumped onto his back and he made a pantomime of being surprised at how heavy I was, so I could spitefully kick him in the thighs with my high heels. He took me up two flights of stairs and we collapsed, laughing onto his bed. The first time he was all panting, thrusting and flexing muscles. I thought: typical twenty-something man raised on internet porn. But the second time he was gentle and patient, rocking me slowly, like he had all the time in the world, into orgasm. Did he enjoy this variety? Or was it more that he was proving a point, that he had more than one tool in his kit, so to speak? I stopped wondering about this and fell asleep with his rough-palmed hand stroking my hair.

So yes, Martin. It Happened. He applied his spanner to my nuts and bolts. He unblocked my clogged-up pipes. He stuck his plunger deep into my u-bend. Seriously though. It reminded me what I'd been missing. We used to have that. Where did it go? Was it something we lost when we moved in together? Gradually it got pushed out by me working late, by Newsnight, box sets. Because when you shack up, there's always tomorrow night, isn't there? Until suddenly there isn't.

I woke up late, in a panic. On the way out of his flat I stubbed my toe on his tool box. The ache in my foot that day seemed of a piece with the other bits of me that were sore, sweetly painful reminders of what a great time I'd had.

The morning was slow, and I had a lot of time to make myself cups of tea and remember my night with the gorgeous plumber. But then the calls started, first from the local papers, then the nationals, about what exactly had happened at last night's meeting. I was deliberately vague with some haughty cow from the Telegraph.

“Come on, Laura,” she said. “You can do better than this. I'm reliably informed that you were there. So: Were there or were there not anti-Semitic comments made during Susan Leatherman's speech?”

I told her I'd have to call her back.

“Twenty minutes,” she said and hung up.

Fuming, I tried to raise Susan Leatherman, couldn't get through, ended up having to cobble together some vague bullshit referring to 'disruption' and 'reports of anti-Semitic comments'. I was not going to describe for the Tory-graph the exact nature of the racist sneezing. I finished off my statement with something about how Labour did not tolerate anti-Semitism. When it came back from central office, they'd added “... or other forms of racism,” which to me looked pretty bloody shifty, but there was no time to argue, so I had to send it as it was, and felt grubby and compromised for the rest of the day.

Who leaked the anti-Semitic stuff to the press? Not the velociraptors, surely? Someone on my side, trying to discredit them? What was my side exactly? Oh, shit, I could see where this was going.

I was tempted to call Gareth, but even I know that's not the done thing now. So I waited two days before sending him a message. I wanted to be witty, so looked up the members of the cabinet from a few years ago, then texted him. 'Who's Margaret Becket? You're not allowed to look her up, obvs.

A couple of hours later I started to regret this. Maybe that tone belonged to our pre-shag selves, and now I was failing to appreciate the transforming nature of the sex we’d had. So I tried again.

I miss you. Can we meet next weekend?

Then I spent a few days anxiously checking my phone for messages, imagining hearing it ring, even grabbing it out of my bag only to find that it was mute.

I was watching Question Time, drinking cheap Merlot and smoking my way through a pack of Emergency Cigarettes when his text arrived.

“That was a nice night but I'm afraid I'm a bit busy also loved up with a new bird sorry. PS: Margaret Beckett (two t’s) is Labour. Foreign secretary and then housing minister. Led the No to AV campaign. Survived the expenses scandal. Now something on a select committee? Take care.”

“Fucking Tories,” I said aloud.

I thought that was quite a cool reaction. But there was no-one there to hear it.

There were other blokes, but there's not much of the winter of 2015 to '16 that I care to remember. Only when the referendum campaign kicked in did the gloom begin to lift. Here was another battle to be fought, and one we were pretty much guaranteed to win.

But oh my God.

They sent me to Doncaster, where again and again I found myself arguing on the doorsteps of Brexiteers. Would Britain be better off leaving the EU? They didn't seem to be hearing that question at all. For many of them, it was, Is your life a bit shit? And since the answer was yes, they were voting leave. It was crazy, of course. But then who was I to talk? I can't pretend to be totally baffled by the appeal of a self-inflicted wound in the name of independence. Take back control! Is that what I'd thought I was doing?

You know when people talk about 'shouting at the TV'? It's usually done as a bit of a laugh. But when I found myself shouting at the TV late on June 23, it wasn't funny at all. There were people in that room more exhausted than I was, who had known Jo Cox much better than I did, and when I think of them I still burn with shame.

We were watching Nigel Farage on the big TV mounted on the wall. He was celebrating the victory for 'real', 'ordinary', and 'decent' people.

“And we will have done it without having to fight,” he was saying, his head snapping back and forth, “Without a single bullet being fired -”

“A bullet was fired, you fucking idiot!”

I can't remember what else I shouted. It was Susan Leatherman who bundled me out. She gave me a hug and brought me some sugary tea. Without explicitly saying so she made it clear that I wasn't allowed back in until I'd got my shit together.

Nine o'clock, June 24. I was removing the Remain banner from outside the house when Martin walked up the drive. He wore a nice fitting suit with his tie askew. Without saying anything he hugged me. A chaste hug, but still it felt good. He looked at me and laughed, but sympathetically.

“Glass of wine?”

“Why? So you can hear all about my failures?”

“No. Just thought you might fancy a chat.”

Now that he looked hurt, I realised I didn't really want to hurt him. He turned and began walking back to his car.

“Wait, Martin.”

He turned round.


“You sure?”

“Yes. Stay.” I held up the poster: Remain.

In the pub he explained that he lived only a few streets away. He’d moved out of his mum’s and was renting a ‘shitty flat above a shop’.

But he looked good. His hair was longer in a way that disguised the recession at his temples, and from the way his bicep flexed as he poured the wine I could tell he’d not ditched the gym habit.

“So how are you?”

“How are you?” he said. His tone implied that I was the one we should be worried about. We talked about the election, about Corbyn, about the referendum result, about Hillary and Trump, but before I knew it I was spilling my guts about Gareth the plumber.

“He sounds alright. Still seeing him?”

“Nah. It was just a bit of fun.”

He looked at me. “Really?”

He always understood me. Even when I was bullshitting him.

But then he was standing up, answering his phone. “Hi, Suzy,” he said, stepping away from the table.

I went out for an Emergency Cigarette. When I returned he was back at the table. And if he smelt the tobacco on me he didn't mention it.

“So,” I said. “Suzy. How long's that been going on for?”

“It hasn’t.”


“Last month I was made regional manager. I've been transferred to the Leeds office. We went for a meal last week and … I don't know. It wasn't the same.”

“Why not? She was gagging for it, Martin. And you were -”

“Well - I think it was all based on being in the same office together, being at the same level. But now she takes liberties because we used to be mates and she thinks she can get away with it, and I'm in this awkward position where I have to phone her up and give her a bollocking. So I told her just now that I couldn't see her tonight because I was with you. She didn’t like that.”

“So you haven’t even shagged her?”

“Nope. Turned out I didn’t want to.”

I topped up my glass and drank, surprised at how relieved I felt.

“So. Regional manager, eh? Bit of a pay rise?”

He watched me carefully as he revealed the figure.

“Wow.” I felt him watching me, in spite of myself, making calculations. “Congratulations.”

“Since you kicked me out I realised that weekends are just empty when you're single unless you actively fill them. And all my mates are in couples now. So I started going into the office on Saturdays and putting together a sort of overview of the whole company. I presented it to my boss along with some suggestions and, well, I think he was impressed. So when a vacancy came up, I thought I might as well go for it. I should be able to rent somewhere better before long.”

“Of course.”

“I don't think I'll get my deposit back. I'd been thinking about what you said about DIY. So I tried putting up a towel rail on the bathroom door. Now it looks like someone's been at it with a machine gun.”

“Maybe DIY is not for you.”

“Maybe.” His smile faded. “Does it make a difference to how you feel about me?”

“The towel rail?”

“The money.”

He was trying to look casual but I noticed his hand was tight on his wine glass and the muscle in his jaw was clenching.

“Would you think less of me if it did?”

“Not sure I could think less of you, to be honest, Laura.”

“Oh, thanks!”

“I just mean that I think I know you now. I know the real Laura.” He let out a helpless chuckle that crinkled the corners of his eyes. “And still I miss her.”

“It's not just the money. It's like you were barely even trying. When I was working so hard.”

“Well, maybe I've learnt something. So. How's the single life?”

“Oh, it's great. It's humbling. I've been having nightmares.” I told him about The Noise. “It's such a clichĂ©.”

“There's nothing wrong with being worried about running out of time. Fertility drops sharply in women after -”

“Yeah, yeah, thanks, Martin.”

“Look, I worry about it too.”

“It's not the same for men.”

“No. But ...” He laid a palm on the side of my face. “It's not that different either.”

Touching my face seemed to do something to him and he sat back shakily. “Sorry.” He drank the rest of his wine, tried to smile. “I know you'll never give up the fight. I love that about you. But you are allowed to take a break for – for other things. Look at it this way, Laura. Do you really want to be alone that morning in November when you wake up and Donald Trump is the next president?”

“God, don't even joke about it.”

I reached for his hand.

The waiter came over. Martin nodded to the empty bottle. “Shall we get another?”

“Let’s take one home.”

“Home? Where's that?”

Later I was lying on the bed while he straddled my hips and looked down on me. The setting sun cast a gleam of warm light over his body, but his face was in shadow. Then he leaned down and kissed me. There was aggression in the kiss and for a moment I almost felt scared. What if he wanted revenge?

He straightened, breathing hard. “Are you using anything?”

“No, but there are some jonnies in the drawer.”

He put his hands on either side of my face and said softly, “Let’s not bother with contraception.”

“What? Are you kidding? Why?”

“Oh, Laura ...” His hands seemed to tremble. He bent over me and kissed me again, more gently this time. He smoothed my hair against my cheek. His lips moved to my ear. “Tick tick tick,” he said.