"I vote sentimentally. James Callaghan waved at me in the 1970s"

From Samuel Johnson to <em>The King's Speech</em>: a few bits of my interview with Frank Skinner tha

If they sold shares in Frank Skinner, I'd buy some. Not only is he the only man in the world who could make me watch a show about football (Statto!) but he is perhaps the perfect interviewee. He's funny, provocative and has an opinion on just about everything. I interviewed him for the magazine (online here) but here are some of the best bits we didn't have room for . . .

Victoria Coren wrote a column last year saying that she was going to admit that she believed in God, although it was the kind of thing that makes people gasp at dinner parties.

There was a time when, if I said I was a Catholic, people would be quite interested -- a bit like if you said, "I play the percussive dulcimer." People would say, "Oh, what's that? That's really interesting." Whereas [now], if I say I'm a Catholic, it's much more negative and aggressive.

I'm very much in the God camp. Having said that, I have a lot of time for atheists who have properly pursued the topic of God. I prefer people who've read a few books, had some thoughts about it, considered their own experience and then arrived at the position that there is no God, rather than someone who, if you say, "Do you believe in God?", says, "Yeah, I think so."

If you entertain the possibility that there might be a God, would you not pursue that as an interesting and relevant topic to your life? I'd rather have Dawkins than just a dork.

Wasn't Thomas Aquinas the Catholic who was big on doubt?

I've always thought that there was a moment of doubt -- this is going to get quite theological -- when Jesus was on the cross, depending on which occurrence in the Bible you take. I can't remember the Aramaic but he said: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" Then he dies. When I read that, I thought that was because he couldn't go back home and say, "I've been a human being," if he didn't have any doubt. Doubt is really important. That was the last brick in the wall. Once he'd experienced doubt, he could die. The job was done. You can't understand what it's like being a human being if you haven't experienced doubt of your most profound and fundamental belief.

Is your Catholicism something people fixate on -- something they you about?

I probably mention it quite a lot . . . I mean, you brought it up today! I do talk about it light-heartedly in conversation. I suppose I like the fact that it's sort of the antithesis of cool. What's really cool is to know about science and being an atheist at the moment, so I've sort of taken an anti-cool stance. Probably by needs must.

There was a time when you were quite "cool".

I don't think I've ever been cool. How dare you! That's it, the interview ends here!

In the Fantasy Football days.

I don't know if we were cool . . . I once drove to the West End and there was a very fat man being sick in the gutter. He hadn't even moved his feet, so he was being sick on his shoes. He had a Frank Skinner Fantasy Football T-shirt on. And I remember thinking: "That's my people." [Laughs] But what you mean is I used to be more popular than I am now!

You're definitely more refined now. With Opinionated, was it deliberately supposed to be a "nice" show, because it's quite friendly, with comics working together?

I'm slightly wary of saying this, because it could be misheard . . . but panel shows can be a bit like the January sales, when the biggest, strongest, most violent people get the best bargain. And I was very, very keen to have proper women comics on, who have the chance to be proper women comics. That was partly selfish -- I thought there's a whole area of comedy that's been slightly squandered on telly and I'm happy for them to come on the show because my name's on the door. If ultimately people think it's a funny show, I get the credit for it.

Do you think it's hard for female comics when they're seen as doing "women's jokes" -- about hairspray and wedding dresses and stuff like that?

That doesn't apply on Opinionated because we talk about whatever we talk about. I talk about it and the male comic talks about it and the female comic, too. And, obviously, when we get to the audience, we don't know who's gonna put their hand up. It could be a man or a woman and, in one case, even someone in the middle. So I don't know what a women's issue is, really. I mean, I did a column about dieting in the Times; it was about how, as I've got older, when I get ill now, in the gloom there's always a candle flickering saying, "Well, I am losing weight." I don't think men admit to that.

But, oddly enough, there's quite a few male comics who have lost a shed-load of weight.

Yeah, but they never talk about it.

They say: "Oh no, I walked a lot."

Yeah, but it's rubbish. I've always been skinny but there have been periods when I've been un-skinny -- and I was very glad to drop them off. But you know that pair of jeans that women are supposed to keep? I don't have those!

So things seen as being women issues or male issues, I think are slightly bogus. If blokes and women talk about them, you might get a feminine angle on it but it's not excluding it as a topic. I feel we could talk now about babies if you like, or something seen as a feminine thing.

I'm 27, I don't want to talk about babies!

Well, you know what I mean, we could talk about something profoundly feminine and I think I'd be able to have an angle on it.

Is that because you're a man and it's OK - like is it OK for straight actors to play gay roles because they don't get typecast?

Do you think it's OK for straight actors to play gay roles? I only ask that because I watched The King's Speech the other day and thought: "Is it OK for a non-stutterer to play this part?" Is he doing a stutterer out of a job? There isn't much acting work for a stutterer. Also, where is that cut-off point where you can't black up but you can stutter?

You're president of the Samuel Johnson Society. Do you have a Samuel Johnson joke? The only thing I could think of as material was I read that Boswell used to have sex with trees. But it's not necessarily a joke, so much as a horrifying observation*.

Did he used to have sex with trees? Because I understand his motivation. I was tree hugging once at two o'clock in the morning at, what is that festival? Latitude. I've got a bit of a thing about trees. Do you know what I've always thought about trees? If there were no trees and I made one and put it in an art exhibition, it would be considered the most incredible, beautiful thing. But you can walk past them all the time and not even notice them.

When I was at college, me and a mate used to do Johnson quotes all the time. We got obsessed with Johnson. We were with this student, who started telling us that his girlfriend had gone on holiday with an ex-boyfriend and he was worried about it but he trusted her. Except that he didn't trust her. My mate -- I knew he was going to say it -- said: "Sir, never accustom your mind to mingle vice and virtue. The woman's a whore and there's an end on't." As he was saying it, I was thinking, "Please don't say that." But he did.

How did it go down?

Not very well. He probably had a sense of it being a quote but he wouldn't have known the quote. You know, it had the word "whore" in it, for goodness sake.

Do you vote?

Yes. I probably vote sentimentally more than anything else. James Callaghan waved at me in the late 1970s outside Downing Street and I thought: "That's it." That was a factor. But I vote Labour because I have an emotional attachment to my working-class background and I like the idea of being someone who cares about the lowly more than my own tax rate. Obviously, that wavers but I feel like the moment I vote, I am seeing through that ideal of myself.

Do you get asked to do events for Labour?

I do occasionally, but I don't [do them]. I've been asked to do Tory things and Lib Dem things -- not so much since the Times column, where I'm fairly obviously Labour. I always think it's a bit embarrassing, celebrities. Even in the Times column, where I speak about politics to make jokes about it or in a sort of emotional, stylised [way], I don't really understand.

When I read about politics, I never read opinion columns. I want absolutely stark figures, I want to know about facts and figures and stuff like that. But I don't have the capability to write like that so I sort of poetise it. It can be entertaining but I don't know how informative it is.

Do you read newspapers then?

Yes, a lot.

But you stay away from opinion?

I don't read opinion unless it's someone who I feel is an expert or Matthew Parris, who I feel is an expert on everything.

I went to a debate about whether England should be Catholic again. He was brought up as a sort of token atheist but he didn't do an atheist speech -- he spoke on behalf of Anglicanism. He said: "If I did believe, I would be an Anglican and this is why . . ." Then, he did an assault on the Catholic Church, which was brilliant. Some of it, I agreed with and some of it, I didn't. I was with a Catholic friend who was outraged and there were Catholics in the audience booing but I thought it was brilliant.

It's more heroic, presumably, to take that stance?

It was a clever idea to not play the card we all thought he was going to play. If you see Will Self on Question Time, you think: if everyone who was on Question Time was like Will Self, you could watch it every week. You wouldn't need to read anything about politics that week: you would have all the important original thoughts. It's a worry that the people running the country seem much blander, less informed and less generally "on it" than someone who's a bit of a part-timer.

But isn't that our fault for ripping apart politicians every time they say anything vaguely interesting?

I used to think that, until I interviewed some politicians. I realised that I am quite confessional. On the radio, I have talked about my girlfriend; in stand-up over the years, I've talked about every aspect of my sex life. Then, if somebody writes something that I consider to be personal about me in the papers, I'm affronted -- something that's an intrusion into my privacy.

But my whole angle and my whole projection of myself into that world has been my personal life and my most secret thoughts. I'm very happy, as long as I'm in control of them.

Are you wary of making your personal life into a routine?

No, I talk about my personal life on my radio show, which is probably where I'm most "me". I talk about my home life a lot because I'm doing this show every week and it lasts for two hours: it's all grist to the mill. I've talked about big arguments [that my girlfriend and I have] had, whether I'm right or wrong. This week's phone-in was: "Was it right of me not to offer to pay her train fare, blah blah blah?"

How does she feel about that?

She seems fine with it. The second book I wrote, she's in it quite a lot. She was very cool about it but she did seem to ask for a lot of copies to give to her friends.

Frank Skinner's Opinionated returns to BBC Two on 25 March at 10pm. He hosts The Frank Skinner Show on Absolute Radio from 8am every Saturday.

* [Helen's note: I subsequently couldn't find a source for this, so -- worryingly -- I think I might have imagined it.]

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

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Angela Merkel's call for a burqa ban sets a disturbing precedent

The German chancellor's plan for a partial ban of the full-face veil is a clearly political move, which will do more to harm those women who wear it than protect them.

 

In these febrile times, women’s freedom and autonomy has become a bargaining chip in the poker game of public propaganda — and that goes double for brown, Muslim and migrant women. Angela Merkel should know as well as any other female politician how demeaning it is to be treated as if what you wear is more important than what you say and what you do. With the far-right on the rise across Europe, however, the German chancellor has become the latest lawmaker to call for a partial ban on the burqa and niqab.

We are told that this perennial political football is being kicked about in the name of liberating women. It can have nothing to do, of course, with the fact that popular opinion is lurching wildly to the right in western democracies, there’s an election in Germany next year, and Merkel is seen as being too soft on migration after her decision to allow a million Syrian refugees to enter the country last year. She is also somehow blamed for the mob attacks on women in Cologne, which have become a symbol of the threat that immigration poses to white women and, by extension, to white masculinity in Europe. Rape and abuse perpetrated by white Europeans, of course, is not considered a matter for urgent political intervention — nor could it be counted on to win back voters who have turned from Merkel's party to the far-right AFD, which wants to see a national debate on abortion rights and women restricted to their rightful role as mothers and homemakers.

If you’ll allow me to be cynical for a moment, imposing state restrictions on what women may and may not wear in public has not, historically, been a great foundation for feminist liberation. The move is symbolic, not practical. In Britain, where the ban is also being proposed by Ukip the services that actually protect women from domestic violence have been slashed over the past six years — the charity Refuge, the largest provider of domestic violence services in the UK, has seen a reduction in funding across 80% of its service contracts since 2011.

It’s worth noting that even in western countries with sizeable Muslim minorities, the number of women who wear full burqa is vanishingly small. If those women are victims of coercion or domestic violence, banning the burqa in public will not do a thing to make them safer — if anything, it will reduce their ability to leave their homes, isolating them further.

In the wake of the Brexit vote, racist and Islamophobic attacks spiked in the UK. Hate crimes nationally shot up by 42% in the two weeks following the vote on 23 June. Hate crimes against Muslim women increased by over 300%, with visibly Muslim women experiencing 46% of all hate incidents. Instances of headscarves being ripped off have become so common that self-defense videos are being shared online, showing women how to deflect the “hijab grab”. In this context, it is absurd to claim that politicians proposing a burqa ban care about protecting women: the move is transparently designed to placate the very people who are making Muslim women feel unsafe in their own communities.

When politicians talk about banning the burqa, the public hears an attack on all Islamic headscarves — not everyone knows the difference between the hijab, the niqab and the burqa, and not everyone cares. The important thing is that seeing women dressed that way makes some people feel uncomfortable, and desperate politicians are casting about for ways to validate that discomfort.

Women who actually wear the burqa are not invited to speak about their experiences or state their preferences in this debate. On this point, Islamic fundamentalists and panicked western conservatives are in absolute agreement: Muslim women are provocative and deserve to be treated as a threat to masculine pride. They should shut up and let other people decide what’s best for them.

I know Muslim women who regard even the simple hijab as an object of oppression and have sworn never to wear one again. I also know Muslim women who wear headscarves every day as a statement both of faith and of political defiance. There is no neutral fashion option for a woman of Islamic faith — either way, men in positions of power will feel entitled to judge, shame and threaten. Either choice risks provoking anger and violence from someone with an opinion about what your outfit means for them. The important thing is the autonomy that comes with still having a choice.

A law which treats women like children who cannot be trusted to make basic decisions about their bodies and clothing is a sexist law; a law that singles out religious minorities and women of colour as especially unworthy of autonomy is a racist, sexist law. Instituting racist, sexist laws is a good way to win back the votes of racist, sexist people, but, again, a dreadful way of protecting women. In practice, a burqa ban, even the partial version proposed by Merkel which will most likely be hard to enforce under German constitutional law, will directly impact only a few thousand people in the west. Those people are women of colour, many of them immigrants or foreigners, people whose actual lives are already of minimal importance to the state except on an abstract, symbolic level, as the embodiment of a notional threat to white Christian patriarchy. Many believe that France's longstanding burqa ban has increased racial tensions — encapsulated by the image earlier this year of French police surrounding a woman who was just trying to relax with her family on the beach in a burkini. There's definitely male violence at play here, but a different kind — a kind that cannot be mined for political capital, because it comes from the heart of the state.

This has been the case for centuries: long before the US government used the term“Operation Enduring Freedom” to describe the war in Afghanistan, western politicians used the symbolism of the veil to recast the repeated invasion of Middle Eastern nations as a project of feminist liberation. The same colonists who justified the British takeover of Islamic countries abroad were active in the fight to suppress women’s suffrage at home. This is not about freeing women, but about soothing and coddling men’s feelings about women.

The security argument is even more farcical: border guards are already able to strip people of their clothes, underwear and dignity if they get the urge. If a state truly believes that facial coverings are some sort of security threat, it should start by banning beards, but let's be serious, masculinity is fragile enough as it is. If it were less so, we wouldn't have politicians panicking over how to placate the millions of people who view the clothing choices of minority and migrant women as an active identity threat.

Many decent, tolerant people, including feminists, are torn on the issue of the burqa: of course we don't want the state to start policing what women can and can't wear, but isn't the burqa oppressive? Maybe so, but I was not aware of feminism as a movement that demands that all oppressive clothing be subject to police confiscation, unless the Met’s evidence lockers are full of stilettos, girdles and push-up bras. In case you're wondering, yes, I do feel uncomfortable on the rare occasions when I have seen people wearing the full face veil in public. I've spent enough time living with goths and hippies that I've a high tolerance for ersatz fashion choices — but do wonder what their home lives are like and whether they are happy and safe, and that makes me feel anxious. Banning the burqa might make me feel less anxious. It would not, however, improve the lives of the women who actually wear it. That is what matters. My personal feelings as a white woman about how Muslim women choose to dress are, in fact, staggeringly unimportant.

If you think the Burqa is oppressive and offensive, you are perfectly entitled never to wear one. You are not, however, entitled to make that decision for anyone else. Exactly the same principle applies in the interminable battle over women's basic reproductive choices: many people believe that abortion is wrong, sinful and damaging to women. That's okay. I suggest they never have an abortion. What's not okay is taking away that autonomy from others as a cheap ploy for good press coverage in the runup to an election.

This debate has been dragging on for decades, but there's a new urgency to it now, a new danger: we are now in a political climate where the elected leaders of major nations are talking about registries for Muslims and other minorities. Instituting a symbolic ban on religious dress, however extreme, sets a precedent. What comes next? Are we going to ban every form of Islamic headdress? What about the yarmulke, the tichel, the Sikh turban, the rainbow flag? If this is about community cohesion, what will it take to make white conservatives feel “comfortable”? Where does it stop? Whose freedoms are politicians prepared to sacrifice as a sop to a populace made bitter and unpredictable by 30 years of neoliberal incompetence? Where do we draw the line?

We draw it right here, between the state and the autonomy of women, particularly minority and migrant women who are already facing harassment in unprecedented numbers. Whatever you feel about the burqa, it is not the role of government to police what women wear, and doing it has nothing to do with protection. It is chauvinist, it is repressive, it is a deeply disturbing precedent, and it has no place in our public conversation.

 
 
 
 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.