“Beatrice Webb refused to be a deb” – and other centenary clerihews

The satirist Craig Brown’s first published article appeared in the <em>New Statesman</em> in 1978. He fetes our centenary with choice clerihews praising everyone from Jemima Khan to Malcolm Muggeridge.

  1. Beatrice Webb
    Refused to be a deb.
    She thought life much lusher
    In Soviet Russia.
  2. The reputation of Sidney Webb
    Continues to ebb
    As they look through his files
    Under “Stalin’s show trials”.
  3. A C Grayling
    Has only one failing:
    Given the green light he
    Holds forth like God Almighty.
  4. David Hare
    Takes special care
    To ensure his plays don’t lack
    A very long speech about the
    State of England delivered by
    a disillusioned character,
    preferably dressed in a mac.
  5. Hugh Grant
    Said “Shan’t!”
    When told to shut up:
    Naughty pup.
  6. Malcolm Muggeridge
    Gave a thug a fridge;
    He was naturally contrarian
    When confronting the barbarian.
  7. Harold Pinter,
    Outraged the Statesman wouldn’t print a
    Poem called “Fucking Yankee Shit Wank Jerk”,
    Yells: “But it’s a hugely important work!”
  8. John Maynard Keynes
    Helped workers lose their chains
    And, by way of relaxation,
    Wrote The Inflation of Currency
    As a Method of Taxation.
  9. Jemima Khan
    Coos: “Wow, it’s so much fahn
    “Associate-editing the Staggers,
    “One of my absolute fave glossy maggers!”
  10. Alastair Campbell
    Took a gamble
    On WMDs; and lost,
    To our cost.
  11. Eric Hobsbawm
    Considered obeying orders the norm
    And so didn’t react
    To the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact.
  12. John Major
    Went into rage a
    Day after the Statesman laid bare
    The (wrong) affair.
  13. Martin Amis
    Wasn’t cast in Les Miz
    Though they should have found room: he
    Is sufficiently gloomy.
  14. Richard Dawkins
    Favours radio talk-ins.
    “Prof, we’re putting you through
    “To God on line 2.”
  15. J B Priestley
    Was rarely beastly.
    He preferred to sit on the fence
    Of plain common sense.
  16. Cyril Connolly
    Would eat and drink bonnily,
    >Causing him to shout,
    “In every fat man a thin one is
    wildly signalling to be let out.”
  17. Julian Assange Says: “Le patron mange
    “Ici, because I’m now the chief member, see,
    “Of the Ecuadorean embassy.”
  18. Denis Healey
    >Has gone all touchy-feely,
    Recently paying hommage
    To Nigel Farage.
  19. Bruce Page
    Had a talent to enrage,
    Declaring: “Evelyn Waugh
    “Is a writer we deplore!”
  20. Arthur Marshall
    Proved too partial
    To darling Mrs T.
    (Oh deary, deary me!)
  21. George Orwell
    Didn’t tour well;
    He could be heard to murmur
    Rude remarks about Burma.
  22. Kingsley Martin
    Took no part in
    God Save the King:
    It wasn’t his thing.

1 & 2 With only modest reservations, the founders of the New Statesman, Beatrice and Sidney Webb, supported Stalin through the Great Purge.

3 One of A C Grayling’s pieces for the NS began: “What religious people mean by ‘god’ means nothing to me beyond an incoherent cluster of concepts . . . ”

4 The playwright David Hare still contributes to the NS.

5 Despite heavy criticism, the actor Hugh Grant is resolute in his campaign to curb press freedom.

6 In 1955, Malcolm Muggeridge wrote a pioneering article for the NS against the “tedious adulation” of the royal family.

7 Harold Pinter would be sent into a fury whenever a publication turned down the opportunity to publish one of his poems.

8 John Maynard Keynes was the chairman of the Nation when it merged with the NS in 1931, and remained a guiding force.

9 Jemima Khan is the NS’s associate editor.

10 Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair’s former director of communications, guest-edited the magazine in 2009.

11 The late historian Eric Hobsbawm remained a dutiful member of the Communist Party even beyond the Soviet invasion of Hungary.

12 While still prime minister, John Major sued the NS after it printed rumours of an extramarital affair (though not the affair he had earlier enjoyed with Edwina Currie).

13 Martin Amis was the literary editor of the NS from 1977-80.

14 Richard Dawkins guest-edited the Christmas edition of the NS in 2011.

15 J B Priestley was a regular contributor; an article by him led to the founding of CND.

16 Cyril Connolly (pictured right) was a regular contributor to the NS in the 1930s.

17 Julian Assange of WikiLeaks is now residing at the Ecuadorean embassy in Hans Crescent, London SW1.

18 In an interview with the NS last month, the nonagenarian Denis Healey spoke fondly of Margaret Thatcher, Nick Clegg, David Cameron and Nigel Farage.

19 & 20 When he was the editor of the NS, the Australian Bruce Page declared Evelyn Waugh his least favourite author; he also fired his columnist Arthur Marshall, allegedly for saying “Cooee! Isn’t Mrs Thatcher doing well?” while visiting the NS offices.

21 & 22 George Orwell, the author of Burmese Days, fell out with the NS editor Kingsley Martin. In 1962, Martin wrote The Crown and the Establishment, an argument in favour of British republicanism.

Craig Brown’s first published article ran in the NS in 1978

Beatrice Webb, presumably refusing to be a deb. Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

This article first appeared in the 12 April 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Centenary Special Issue

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No, J J Abrams – Star Wars was never “a boy’s thing”

Women love things that are “for boys” because these things are actually “for humans”.

In 1977, millions of people went to cinemas to see Star Wars: A New Hope, and afterwards, a good portion of them were suddenly rendered invisible. It didn’t matter that they rushed to line up for the sequels; it didn’t matter that they were eager to buy and play with the toys; it didn’t matter that they grew up to read the novels and explore the expanded universe and sit through the prequels and introduce their children to something they had loved as a child. They’re a group that overlaps with the invisible force that haunts comic book shops, or plays a lot of video games, or makes up nearly half the audience for superhero films, or, to one New Statesman staffer’s persistent, possibly-only-half joking incredulity, liked Doctor Who long before Russell T Davies got his hands on it. 

With less than three weeks before J J Abrams’s rebooted Star Wars hits screens, the director went on Good Morning America yesterday to talk in vague, broad strokes about his turn with the franchise. But the otherwise-unremarkable interview made headlines because of one segment, when Abrams was asked who he most excited to hear from about the film. He said:

“Star Wars was always about, you know...it was always a boy’s thing, and a movie that dads take their sons to. And though that’s still very much the case, I was really hoping that this could be a movie that mothers can take their daughters to as well. So I’m looking forward to kids seeing this movie and to seeing themselves in it, and seeing that they’re capable of doing what they could never imagine was possible.”

That invisible group of Star Wars fans, who love that well-known “boy’s thing”? Women, who have spent the past four decades loving the franchise just as much as all those fanboys, even if no one else – the fanboys themselves in particular – seemed to take much notice. Abrams’s offhand remark coincided with recent headlines like Bloomberg’s “‘Star Wars’ Toys Aren’t Just For Boys Anymore as Rey Takes Over”, a reference to the female lead of The Force Awakens, portrayed by Daisy Ridley. Across the web, aside from stirrings by the now-mandatory Internet Outrage Machine, the overwhelming response seemed to be one of sad and somewhat resigned frustration, with women sharing memories of falling in love with the series, essentially saying, “We’ve been here this whole time.” My friend Lori Morimoto, in “An Open Letter to J J Abrams”, wrote, “I’d like to tell you the story of a girl who became a Star Wars fan. I hope you can suspend disbelief over my existence long enough to make it to the end.”

Star Wars is a universe populated by complicated gender politics, on and off screen. The three original films fail most facets of the Bechdel test (I laughed out loud here seeing the suggestion that A New Hope deserves a pass because the only two named female characters could have talked offscreen). Princess Leia’s enslavement and escape (and the bikini she wears while doing it) is a cultural touchstone that’s launched a complicated feminist dialogue over the decades. And it is perhaps because of the mostly-male cast in the films – and the long-held assumption that science fiction is a primarily masculine property – that the franchise has long been marketed exclusively to boys, despite the massive and loyal female audience.

But the modern Star Wars empire is helmed a woman, Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy, and when she revealed that two-thirds the story team behind the newest film was female, she also pledged that there would be a woman in the director’s chair before too long. And since one of the leads in The Force Awakens is a woman, her character, along with a black male lead – portrayed by John Boyega – sparked anger from the reactionary white guy corner of the internet in recent months (sorry that the SJWs ruined your movies, guys!). For films that once portrayed a place so alien that only white men were allowed to speak to each other, the widening of representation in this reboot apparently looks to some like a political – or, to them, a politically correct – act.

The welcome diversity of the leading cast highlights all the good intentions in Abrams’s statement: that this new film promises more than a panoply of white guys, that girls and people of colour can see themselves reflected back in these new heroes. All the girls who thought the movies weren’t for them because they only saw men onscreen, or the endless line of male action figures on the shelf, have a point of entry now – that’s what representation means. And that’s certainly worth cheering for, even if it only took us 40 years to get there. But it’s hard for all the people who aren’t white men who’ve found other points of entry over the years, who managed to love it without seeing themselves there. I can speak from personal experience when I say that a lifetime of media about white guys hasn’t stopped me from finding characters and stories to fall in love with.

Here’s a theory: you might not have noticed that you were surrounded by female Star Wars fans all these years because you were the one who rendered them invisible. Women who like things such as Star Wars, or comics, or anything else that leads journalists to write those painful “not just for boys anymore” trend stories, have had to take it from all sides. Enthusiasm for something seen as the province of men clashes with mainstream perceptions of femininity. Even women liking this stuff in the context of traditionally feminised fan spaces, like fanfiction, find themselves fending off assumptions from men and women alike, perhaps the accusation that they are sexualising something too much, or they are placing too much weight on the emotional elements of a storyline. Basically, that they’re liking the thing the wrong way.

But women’s enthusiasm for perceived “male” spaces is always liking the thing the wrong way. The plainest illustration of this is the Fake Geek Girl, in meme and in practice: the barriers to entry are raised immeasurably high when women try to join in many male-dominated fannish conversations. The wonderful Noelle Stevenson illustrates this beautifully – and then literally, when a guy challenges her on her work. I’m sure that just by writing about Star Wars, I’m opening myself up to the angry gatekeeping-style pissing contests that men like to toss at women who claim to like the things they like. (Let’s get it all out in the open here: Star Wars isn’t my fandom. I saw the three original films on dates with my first boyfriend – our first date: Star Trek: First Contact, because we were clearly the coolest kids in town – and upon rewatches as an adult nothing grabbed me. But I am also a fandom journalist, so that’s kind of how this works.)

There’s a persistent myth – and I say persistent because I keep seeing these deluded boys get mad in new viral posts – that women who claim to like geeky things are just pretending, the somewhat confusing notion that they are doing it for attention. (And then there’s the inevitable anger that in this supposedly desperate plea for attention – why else would a woman claim to like their beloved characters?! – these women still don’t want to sleep with them.) And what never seems to occur to any of these gatekeepers is that these women were there all along, liking these things just as much – and are finally being given the cultural space to be open about their interests and passions. But that space is given haltingly; plenty of women, tired of waiting, are going out and taking it. The result is the tension (and, at times, outright hostility) that has marked certain corners of the fannish world in the past few years.

Women love things that are “for boys” because these things are actually “for humans”. There are many reasons that people love Star Wars, and most of them are universal things: the themes, the characters, the archetypal struggle of good versus evil. Most of the time we default to the white guy; he struggles with things we all struggle with, but somehow, he is deemed most relatable. Abrams, Kennedy, and everyone behind the new films should be applauded for their efforts to give non-white guys a turn at the universal story – I think these are incredibly valuable choices, and certainly will make the films vastly more accessible, particularly to children.

But we don’t just need Rey on screen and Rey dolls on the shelves for mothers and daughters – those same mothers and daughters have found plenty to love without many women to look to on their screens. We need boys to love the female heroes as much as we’ve loved the men over the years: we need universal to be truly universal. And when we express that love, the default reaction shouldn’t be a challenge: not, “You don’t like this thing as much as I do,” or, “You don’t love this the right way.” Isn’t it easier to say, “Oh, I’m so glad that you love this, too!”

Elizabeth Minkel is a staff writer for The Millions, and writes a regular column on fan culture for the New Statesman. She is on Twitter @ElizabethMinkel.