In the Critics this week

Leo Robson on Martin Amis, Peter Hennessy interviewed and Rainer Werner Fassbinder remembered.

In the Critics section of this week’s New Statesman, the NS’s lead fiction reviewer Leo Robson takes the measure of Martin Amis’s new novel Lionel Asbo: State of England. Amis, Robson reminds us, for all that he is credited with importing the rhythms of the modern American novel into English fiction, “started off as a neo-Dickensian”. Lionel Asbo, Robson writes, is “a more or less straight piece of updated Dickens pastiche” – albeit one that is “at least as interested in race as class”. This is, Robson concludes, “is a contentedly throwaway piece of work, as can be deduced from the almost complete absence of reflections on physics, fascism and the waning powers of the middle-aged novelist”.

In the Books interview, Jonathan Derbyshire talks to historian Peter Hennessy about his new book Distilling the Frenzy. A substantial portion of the book is devoted to an examination of the office of prime minister, one of the defining paradoxes of which is that it has a tendency to “overmightiness”, even though the occupants of No 10 rarely feel powerful. Hennessy agrees, though observes that “those who are on the receiving end of excessive prime ministerialism certainly feel it”. On the two great “command premierships” of the postwar period, Margaret Thatcher’s and Tony Blair’s, Hennessy says: “There’s a difference. Margaret liked to get her way after a bloody good argument. Tony didn’t like the argument … And that’s a big difference.”

Also in Books: John Gray reviews Anthony Beevor’s “utterly absorbing” The Second World War; Peter Wilby on How England Made the English by Harry Mount; Helen Lewis on Tubes: Behind the Scenes at the Internet by Andrew Blum; and Alex Preston on Simon Mawer’s novel The Girl Who Fell From the Sky.

Elsewhere in the Critics: Ryan Gilbey assesses the career of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 30 years after the German director’s death; Antonia Quirke is entranced by Newshour on the BBC World Service; Will Self examines the subtle relationship between irony and snobbery; Alexandra Coghlan goes to Glyndebourne; and Rachel Cooke wades through a weekend’s worth of Jubilee programming on television.

Neo-Dickensian: Martin Amis (Photo: Getty Images)
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As the language of break-ups changes, are we regarding our ex-partners differently?

From “conscious uncoupling” to “LAT” couples, we are learning to retain friendly – even familial – post-romantic bonds with former lovers.

Is the conversation around break-ups changing?

When Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin announced their “conscious uncoupling” in March 2014, I was among the bemused detractors. Was it just a hippy-dippy euphemism, a nicer way of dressing up a plain old separation? Wasn’t a break-up bound to be easier if you had money and several houses?

Yet, almost two years on, it’s hard to deny that it seems to have worked well for them. “We’re still very much a family, even though we don’t have a romantic relationship. He’s like my brother,” she told Glamour magazine last week.

They’ve holidayed together and been photographed smiling and laughing like dear old friends. Perhaps surprisingly, it hasn’t prevented either from moving on to new romantic partners.

Even some of my (non-Hollywood) peer group are starting to come round to the idea. “I may be the only person in the world who likes the term,” posted one friend in a Facebook thread when I announced that I’d done such a volte-face that I was going to call my new solo show The Conscious Uncoupling.

It quickly turned out that she wasn’t the only person at all, as other friends added that they rather liked it too. Mind you, comedian Kate Smurthwaite commented that she’d only be likely to utter the words if she’d “accidentally swallowed poison and needed to regurgitate it”.

Now that we have an alternative phrase, albeit one that carries a divisive whiff of pretension, it does seem to be empowering us to behave differently, thinking more carefully about bringing greater compassion and communication to this life-changing painful process.

A male comedian friend described to me how he and his wife had, “agreed and admitted that this might all be over but we would still want to be friends – because at heart, we are.

He added: “No one teaches us that this can happen. If you split up, you must scream and shout and never talk to the other person again. Previously I’d have advised people not to flog a dead horse and just get out but recent events have changed my thinking.”

Yet perhaps this behaviour did already exist. In previous decades, lesbians typically went through lengthy, turbulent transitions to form lasting family-like connections with ex-partners. The community was so small and secret that you “simply had to get on”, according to Dr Jane Traies, who conducted a comprehensive survey of older gay women in the UK.

It wouldn’t be the first time that the gay community have been pioneers of trends that have caught on enough to generate their own new language. They were “living apart together” long before anyone talked about so-called “LAT” couples.

So for those of us embracing the concept and ideology of conscious uncoupling yet not wanting to associate too strongly with Paltrow, how about an alternative term?

I’ve tended to talk about “post-romantic” relationships, while the writer Anna Freeman says she has used the word “metamorphosis” to describe “a changing closeness”.

I’ve also mooted the idea of a “decompression year”, a consensually agreed 12-month untangling, as opposed to abrupt endings that usually come as a shock to one party and render ongoing friendship impossible.

New York psychotherapist Esther Perel has recently called for greater “relationship accountability” in the wake of alarming new trends, “ghosting” and “icing”, which respectively see partners disappearing without explanation or finding excuses to suspend a relationship and put it on hold.

If we extend a sense of accountability to online dating and short-term flings, maybe we should offer a suitable substitute match to everyone we reject.

It’s not a million miles from a popular comedy industry ethos whereby you offer a replacement of an equivalent quality and experience level whenever you drop out of a gig.

In an era where we can download relationship agreements committing to a certain number of date days per week, perhaps the most important clause should be the one about negotiating an ethical ending.

Whatever our feelings about conscious uncoupling, the idea of embracing the good things about your ex seems a pretty sound one. Therapist Katherine Woodward Thomas, who claims that she coined the phrase, has added something important to the conversation around breaking up – while celebrity endorsement of it has simply made more of us sit up and pay attention.

Rosie Wilby is a stand-up comedian, broadcaster and writer.