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

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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.