Nelson Mandela’s last days, paying for boar stew in Corsica, and the Tories of Generation Y

Peter Wilby's "First Thoughts" column.

One can see why MPs think they ought to have the pay rise – from £66,396 to more than £70,000 –proposed by the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority. The new wage would still leave them well behind many doctors, lawyers, bankers, consultants and other London-based professionals with whom MPs most often mix.

Yet that is precisely why they shouldn’t get an increase. Far too many enter the Commons from metropolitan, middle-class backgrounds and have little feel for how most of the country lives even when they represent provincial constituencies.

Failure to increase MPs’ wages would deter “able” professional folk from seeking election, we are told. Let’s hope it does. We may then have more MPs from humble, non-metropolitan backgrounds. Able or not, they could hardly do a worse job of running the country.

New kids on the right

Why is the so-called Generation Y, born after 1980 and therefore aged under 34, so Tory? According to Ipsos MORI, over 20 per cent of this group supports the Conservatives, double the proportion in 2005. Members of Generation Y also take much harsher attitudes towards benefits and are far less proud of the welfare state than their parents and particularly their grandparents.

The most obvious reason for Generation Y’s Toryism is that it has little memory of the effects of Thatcherism. On the night of the 1991 census, 2,703 people in England and Wales were counted as sleeping rough. The figure was almost certainly an underestimate; a year earlier, the Old Etonian minister George Young (who is now the Chief Whip in the coalition government) had observed, “The homeless are what you step over when you come out of the opera.”

In the 2001 census, the figure was down to 938. Any big-city-dweller knows that the sleeping bags have started to reappear on our streets – according to some estimates, they have doubled in five years –and they will grow in number more noticeably, along with media stories of hungry children, as the benefit cuts bite. Young people’s opinions are volatile and I suspect they may yet swing violently against David Cameron and his government.

Wedded to the cause

On the subject of the Prime Minister, I am baffled by his eagerness to reward marriage with tax breaks. Presumably the idea is to encourage behaviour that is statistically associated with higher educational achievement, better health and lower levels of delinquency among children. Similar associations could probably be demonstrated for all sorts of other behaviours: sitting at tables for proper meals, serving greens, visiting National Trust properties, turning off the television, learning the violin.

Why doesn’t the government simply bug our homes to check we are all conducting ourselves as ministers would wish? Recent disclosures about GCHQ suggest it is more than equal to the task.

The art of a good death

By the time you read this, Nelson Mandela, who was described as being in a “critical but stable condition”, may at last, sadly, have succumbed to the inevitable. In the meantime, I don’t envy his large extended family making decisions about how long to keep him alive. Not only are they divided among themselves, as families often are, they must also contend with a divided nation that clings to Mandela as an icon of the national liberation struggle and unity.

Though obituary writers may praise a courageous fight to the end, nobody really wants to die in hospital, connected to tubes and machines. At nearly 95, Mandela can make at best only a temporary recovery, giving him minimal quality of life. If he is unable to express an opinion about his treatment (as I assume he isn’t), his family will be asked to make one on his behalf.

Prospective parents have no shortage of advice about childbirth, as Sophie Elmhirst wrote in this magazine last week. Yet I know of no equivalents of parenting classes for those struggling to cope with elderly relatives at the end of life.

When my 84-year-old mother neared her end 18 years ago, the hospital asked if, in the event of her heart stopping, I wished them to attempt to revive her. I had no idea what to say. Only later, when a team of black-clad paramedics burst in as she passed peacefully away, did I realise that the answer should have been “no”.

In addition to good food . . .

On a recent holiday in Corsica, I reflected, not for the first time, on the peculiarities of French restaurants. Most of the food was excellent – I particularly recommend the local wild boar stew, provided you make sure they haven’t substituted pork – and it usually arrived in reasonable time. The difficulty was with the bill. At one restaurant, we received, before we had been given our bill, someone else’s change, amounting to about €40. Next, we received someone else’s bill, which was roughly twice the size of ours. Then we got our own bill but minus the wine we had drunk. We pointed this out (generously, I thought) and the correct bill finally arrived, 30 minutes after we had first asked for it.

The staff then seemed bemused that we objected to waiting more than 15 minutes for our change.

Peter Wilby was the editor of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005

A red geranium pictured against the Three Sisters rock formation in the mountains of Corsica. Photograph: Getty Images

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 08 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The world takes sides

Photo: Getty
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Boots sells lots of products used inappropriately – the morning after pill isn't one of them

The aisles are filled with items to “fix” women's bodies, but somehow preventing pregnancy is irresponsible.

As a teenager in the early Nineties, I had a favourite food: Boots Shapers Meal Replacement Chocolate Bars. There was a plain milk version, one with hazelnuts, plus one with muesli which somehow seemed healthier. I alternated which one I’d have, but I’d eat one every day. And that was all I’d eat.

Because the packet said “meal”, I told myself it was fine. Why bother drawing fine distinctions between the thing in itself and the thing in itself’s replacement? Boots sold other such dietary substitutes – Slimfast, Crunch ‘n’ Slim – but the chocolate bars were my go-to lunchtime option. I was severely underweight and didn’t menstruate until I was in my twenties, but hey, I was eating meals, wasn’t I? Or things that stood in for them. Same difference, right?

I don’t blame Boots the chemist for my anorexia. The diet foods and pills they sold – and continue to sell – were not, they would no doubt argue, aimed at women like me. Nonetheless, we bought them, just as we bought laxatives, high-fibre drinks, detox solutions, anti-cellulite gels, bathroom scales, razor blades, self-hatred measured by the Advantage Point. Boots don’t say – in public at least – that their most loyal customer is the fucked-up, self-harming woman. Still, I can’t help thinking that without her they’d be screwed.

Whenever I enter a branch of Boots (and I’m less inclined to than ever right now), I’m always struck by how many products there are for women, how few for men. One might justifiably assume that only women’s bodies are in need of starving, scrubbing, waxing, moisturising, masking with perfume, slathering in serum, primer, foundation, powder, the works. Men’s bodies are fine as they are, thank you. It’s the women who need fixing.

Or, as the company might argue, it’s simply that women are their main target market. It’s hardly their fault if women just so happen to be more insecure about their bodies than men. How can it be irresponsible to respond to that need, if it helps these women to feel good? How can it be wrong to tell a woman that a face cream – a fucking face cream – will roll back the years? It’s what she wants, isn’t it? 

Yes, some women will use products Boots sells irresponsibly and excessively, spending a fortune on self-abasement and false hope. That’s life, though, isn’t it? Boots isn’t your mother.

Unless, of course, it’s emergency contraception you’re after. If your desire is not for a wax to strip your pubic region bare, or for diet pills to give you diarrhoea while making you smaller, but for medication in order to prevent an unwanted pregnancy, well, that’s a different matter. Here, Boots have grave concerns that making such medication too cheap may be “incentivising inappropriate use”.

I am wondering in what instances it may be “inappropriate” to want to stop the implantation of an unwanted embryo in its tracks. I’ve wondered and wondered and wondered, but I can’t think of anything. I’ve used emergency contraception five times (twice from Boots, following the third degree from an embarrassed pharmacist for no reason whatsoever.) On no occasion have I particularly felt like it.

I don’t get high on nausea and heavy, gloopy periods. I took emergency contraception because in the context of my life, it was the responsible thing to do (by contrast, the most reckless thing I’ve ever done is have a third baby at age 40, even if it saved me £28.25 in Levonelle costs nine months earlier).

Clearly Boots don’t see things the way I do. There may be women who use Adios or Strippd inappropriately, but what’s the alternative to making these things easily available? More women getting fat, or fewer spending money on trying not to get fat, and such a thing would be untenable.

As for the alternative to accessing emergency contraception ... Well, it’s only a pregnancy. No big deal. And hey, did you know Boots even sell special toiletries for new mums, just so you can pamper yourself and the baby you didn’t want in the first place? See, they really care! (But don’t go thinking you can then use your Advantage Points to buy formula milk. Those tits were made for feeding – why not spend your points on a bust firming gel for afterwards?).

I get that Boots is interested in profit and I get that pretending to really, really care about the customer is just what you do when you’re in marketing. I also get that Boots isn't the only company which does this. They all do.

But making it harder for poorer women to access emergency contraception just so you won’t offend the customers who’ll judge them? Really, Boots? Isn’t that making this whole charade a little too obvious?

Commenting on what another woman does with her body should not be off-limits (if it was, no one would have ever identified and treated the eating disorder that was killing me.) Even so, it’s instructive to look at the things we see fit to comment on and those we don’t.

Want to inject your face with poison? Augment your breasts with silicone? Have your vagina remodelled to please your husband? Go ahead. Your body, your choice.

Want to control your reproductive life? Avoid the risks and permanent aftermath of childbirth? Prevent the need for an abortion down the line?

Well, that’s another matter. We’re just not sure we can trust you. Forget about those pills. Why not have some folic acid and stretch mark cream instead?

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.