Squeezed Middle: Couples therapy

I genuinely don’t know if I can accept advice from a man who seemingly takes his fashion cues from Simon Cowell but, having got this far, I feel obliged to give him a chance.

‘‘Please take a seat.” Curly and I sit down on the cheap blue foam chairs. It turns out Dr Nutfixer wasn’t our couples therapist, after all. She was just an intermediary and, having assessed us, she has now referred us to Dr Gordon.

I am far from delighted at this development. Dr Nutfixer may have been stern but she was at least wise and female. She was exactly how I had pictured a therapist. Not only is Dr Gordon a man, but his face is strangely immobile. I definitely don’t look at him and think “emotional intelligence”. I look at him and think “fish on a slab”.

I’m sure there is a deep-seated psychological explanation for the overwhelming hostility I am feeling towards him. But right now, I feel like it has more to do with his trousers, which are hitched up and tightly belted way above his waist. I genuinely don’t know if I can accept advice from a man who seemingly takes his fashion cues from Simon Cowell but, having got this far, I feel obliged to give him a chance.

“So. Would either of you like to tell me why you are here, what you would like to get out of these sessions?”

The ensuing silence seems to drag on for years. I have no idea where to begin. I glance hopefully at Curly, who is examining a picture on the wall with intense concentration. It is a still life, a vase of flowers in pastel shades, the kind of mock-art you might find on the wall of a cheap hotel room. I hate it almost as much as the trousers – almost as much as giving a glib summary of my most intimate life to a wall-eyed stranger.

The irony is that after months of waiting for the couples counselling appointment with a desperation bordering on despair, we have actually been getting on pretty well lately. And now here we are, having to stir up the hornets’ nest again.

I muster all the enthusiasm I can and start waffling something or other about how we need to lay a firm foundation for our family in the future. Dr Gordon does not look impressed. He looks bored. When I have finished, he turns to Curly.

“So, a great result the other day.”

What is he on about? It takes a moment before I realise that Curly is wearing his Aston Villa T-shirt. The man is talking football! In time that we are paying for! Is this some kind of trick to get us to relax? If so, it’s not working on me. I don’t feel relaxed, I feel furious.

“Erm. Yeah.” Curly laughs nervously. There is another long pause. I have slumped in my seat like Kevin the Teenager.

Suffice to say, the session is a disaster. Curly is delighted. He never wanted to go to therapy anyway. “You should have seen your face,” he says afterwards, wiping away a tear of pure hilarity.

“Who did he remind me of? His eyes were so weird. Blank.”

“That one from The Addams Family – Lurch.”

I’ll say one thing for Dr Gordon. We haven’t laughed like that in quite a while.

Couples therapy: not traditionally a barrel of laughs. Image: Getty

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 11 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Iran vs Israel

Show Hide image

Labour must reclaim English patriotism if we are to beat Ukip and the Tories

We can't talk about the future of our country unless we can discuss the past. 

I was a parliamentary candidate for Thurrock, but the place which I currently call home is Hackney, London. This distinction is worth explaining. The questions of Labour and Englishness – what exactly is the English problem that we’re trying to solve, why do we need a progressive patriotism, does it already exist, if not why not and if we had one what would it look like? – are, above all, questions of identity and place. We need to build a patriotism that includes and resonates with residents of both Hackney and Thurrock. Currently they are very far apart. 

I’m the little girl who sat on her dad’s shoulders to wave a flag at Princess Anne’s first wedding. And I was also, like Sadiq Khan, waving a flag at the Silver Jubilee in 1977. I’m an ex-Catholic, I’m a Londoner, I’m English and I’m a woman, and all of those identities are important although not necessarily equally so and not necessarily all of the time.

But I’m also a member of the Labour party, not only as a candidate, but now as an activist in Hackney. And that is where I see the difference very strongly between Hackney and what I experienced in Thurrock. 

Thurrock was Ukip ground zero last year - 12,000 people voted for Ukip in a general election for the first time, on top of the 3,500 that had voted for them before in 2010. Most of those 12,000 people had either not voted before, or had voted Labour. 

This isn’t just about being in two different places. Sometimes it feels like more than being in two different countries, or even like being on two different planets. The reality is that large swathes of Labour’s members and supporters don’t identify as patriotic, fundamentally because patriotism has been seized and colonised by the right. We need to understand that, by allowing them to seize it, we are losing an opportunity to be able to reclaim our past. 

We do not have any legitimacy to talk about the future of our country unless we can talk about our past in a better way. We have tried but our efforts have been half-hearted. Take Ed Miliband's call for One Nation Labour, which ended up amounting to a washed-out Union Jack as a visual for our brand. It could have been so much better – an opportunity for an intellectual rebranding and a seizure of Conservative territory for our own ends. Ultimately One Nation Labour was a slogan and not a project. 

There is a section of the left which has a distinct discomfort with the idea of pride in country. It has swallowed the right-wing myth that England’s successes have all been Conservative ones. This is a lie, but one that has spread very effectively. The left’s willingness to swallow it means that we are still living in a Thatcherite paradigm. It is no wonder progressives revolt at the idea of patriotism, when the right’s ideas of duty and authority quash our ideas of ambitions for equality, opportunity for all and challenging injustice. But we risk denying our successes by allowing the right to define Englishness. It’s England that helped establish the principle of the right to vote, the rule of law, equal suffrage, and the fight against racism. 

If Englishness is going to mean anything in modern England, it needs to be as important for those who feel that perhaps they aren’t English as it is for those who feel that they definitely are. And a place must be reserved for those who, though technically English, don’t see their own story within the Conservative myth of Englishness. 

Although this reclaiming is electorally essential, it is not an electoral gimmick. It is fundamental to who we are. Even if we didn’t need it to win, I would be arguing for it.

We need to make sure that progressive patriotism reclaims the visual language that the Conservatives use to dress up their regressive patriotism. Women need to be as much in the pantheon of the radicals as part of the visual identity of Englishness. Women tend to either be there by birth or by marriage, or we are abstract manifestations of ideals like "justice" or "truth" – as seen on city halls and civic buildings across the country. But English women need to be real, rather than just ideal. Englishness does need to be focused on place and connection, and it should include Mary Wollstonecraft and Sylvia Pankhurst as well as Wat Tyler and Thomas Paine. 

We can’t pretend that we’re always right. The most patriotic thing you can do is to admit sometimes that you’re wrong, so that your country can be better. I love my country, for all its faults. But I do not live with them. I try to make my country better. That is progressive patriotism. And I know all of us who want to be part of this can be part of it. 

This article is based on Polly’s contribution to Who Speaks to England? Labour’s English challenge, a new book published today by the Fabian Society and the Centre for English Identity and Politics at the University of Winchester.