Thatcher’s legacy, baby-faced dictators and funny women

Helen Lewis-Hasteley on Maggie and legacy-building, tots with lethal toys and the press and the publ

Amid a sea of tributes to Christopher Hitchens - including the invention of a genre of journalism, the "then I woke up with a terrible hangover, while the Hitch had already filed a 3,500-word essay on G K Chesterton" article - there was one that stood out.

It was by Salon's Glenn Greenwald, and it used Hitchens's death to ask: when is the appropriate moment to question the career and legacy of divisive public figures?

Noting how the Hitch had been one of the few to speak ill of Ronald Reagan during a fiesta of Republican-patrolled grief in 2004, Greenwald wrote: "To allow significant political figures to be heralded with purely one-sided requiems - enforced by misguided . . . notions of private etiquette that bar discussions of their bad acts - is not a matter of politeness; it's deceitful and propagandistic."

It's a question that left-wingers must ask themselves about Margaret Thatcher, who will apparently be awarded a state funeral when the time comes. There will be huge pressure not to criticise her actions - and point out their effects today - in the days after her death. Show some respect. Think of her family.

It's a tempting argument, but wrong. Politicians are public property. They must submit to being pilloried by cartoonists and columnists in office and having their legacy fought over once they step off the stage. Their death should not be a signal for immediate canonisation but one for unblinkered reflection on their life.

I was only seven when Thatcher left power so I don't have any visceral feelings about her (although the mere mention of her name is enough to send my mother, a woman so mild-mannered she uses "Bugs Bunny" as a swear word, up the wall; I suspect my coal-miner grandfather would have a few choice words, too). And if I'm honest, if she were a left-winger, I'd probably argue she deserves a state funeral as our first female prime minister. So I can't get worked up about that: let the right give her a state funeral, as long as the left doesn't have to pretend to be sad that she's gone.

Bah, humble

A scan of the words that entered the dictionaries gives you a flavour of 2011: Merriam-Webster has "bromance", while Collins has "clicktivism" and "unfollow". As portmanteaux are all the rage, here's my nomination for next year: humblebrag, or boasting under the cover of humility. The Humblebrag Twitter account is full of US reality stars saying, "SOOOO weird to see my ugly face on a billboard LOL," and thespians sighing, "Damn, the last time I cried I was paid for it." My favourite is this, from Malcolm in the Middle's Frankie Muniz: "Just involved in a major car accident . . . In my own driveway . . . Involving two of my own cars." Tiny violin time.

Young guns

When I heard that North Korea was to be ruled by the 27-year-old Kim Jong-un, my first thought was: great, there's a leader of a nuclear power who's younger than me. More ammunition for my mother this Christmas. Over in Pakistan, Bilawal Zardari Bhutto is co-chairman of the Pakistan Peoples Party with his father, President Asif Ali Zardari. His birthday is 21 September 1988 (1988! Surely only actors in Skins were born in 1988!). As the sun sets on my twenties, I've had to get used to pop stars and footballers, then novelists and TV presenters, being younger than me. Next on the list, it seems, are the people with access to weapons of mass destruction.

Private lives, public deaths

A few years ago, an acquaintance committed suicide by jumping from the roof of a restaurant in the City. This spectacular exit ensured that his death was reported in every national newspaper - making what was already an agonising time for his family and friends even harder, as reporters sniffed around for any hint of sex or drugs or dodgy dealings to explain why a talented young man would choose to end his life. On 27 November, another man with seemingly everything to live for - the football manager Gary Speed - was found dead at his home.

Aside from a long-lens picture of his house printed on the Mail website, I had thought the media were showing commendable restraint in their reporting. Then, two days before Christmas, the Times ran an extraordinary editorial (which, even more extraordinarily, was re­printed in full in the next day's Daily Mail) arguing that the Leveson inquiry into press standards was inhibiting the tabloids from fully exploring the circumstances of his death. "Mr Speed was a person of power and influence . . . Suicide is, or at least should be, a matter of public concern. And, since his death, the internet has lit up with unsubstantiated rumours."

To which the rejoinder must be: we have coroners' courts for a reason; by and large, they do the job of investigating causes of death a lot more carefully and soberly than newspapers. And if the Times believes this to be a matter of such burning public interest, why should it be left to the tabloids to investigate it?

A woman's wit

Last year, I wrote about the paucity of funny women on TV. Three bits of good news: the first is that Sarah Millican's latest DVD, Chatterbox, has sold 150,000 copies - a record for a female comedian. The second is that the BBC devoted 90 minutes to a Victoria Wood retrospective in a prime Boxing Day time slot.

The last is the continuing success of the columnist Caitlin Moran, whose autobiography, How To Be a Woman, was the book I referred to most in conversation this year. For the first time I can remember, here was not just a funny woman but a funny mother. Mums are many things in popular culture - organised, put-upon, loving, harassed, nagging - but I can't recall one being hilarious before. Things are looking up.

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.

This article first appeared in the 02 January 2012 issue of the New Statesman, And you thought 2011 was bad ...

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France is changing: an army stalks the streets and Boris Johnson wanders the Tuileries

Will Self on the militarisation of France, and Boris Johnson at the Foreign Office.

At the corner of the rue D’Hauteville and the rue de Paradis in the tenth arrondissement of Paris is a retro-video-games-themed bar, Le Fantôme, which is frequented by some not-so-jeunes gens – the kind of thirtysomethings nostalgic for an era when you had to go to an actual place if you wanted to enter virtual space. They sit placidly behind the plate-glass windows zapping Pac-Men and Space Invaders, while outside another – and rather more lethal – sort of phantom stalks the sunlit streets.

I often go to Paris for work, and so have been able to register the incremental militarisation of its streets since President Hollande first declared a state of emergency after last November’s terrorist attacks. In general the French seem more comfortable about this prêt-à-porter khaki than we’d probably be; the army-nation concept is, after all, encrypted deep in their collective psyche. The army was constituted as a revolutionary instrument. France was the first modern nation to introduce universal male conscription – and it continued in one form or another right up until the mid-1990s.

Even so, it was surprising to witness the sang-froid with which Parisians regarded the camouflaged phantoms wandering among them: a patrol numbering eight ­infantrymen and women moved up the roadway, scoping out doorways, nosing into passages – but when one peered into Le Fantôme, his assault rifle levelled, none of the boozing gamers paid the least attention. I witnessed this scene the Saturday after Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel ran amok on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice – it was a little preview of the new state of emergency.

On Monday 18 July the French premier, Manuel Valls, was booed at a memorial service for the victims of the Nice attacks – while Marine Le Pen has been making all the populist running, whipping up anxieties about the enemy within. For many French, the events of the past week – including the failed Turkish coup – are steps along the way limned by Michel Houellebecq in his bestselling novel Submission; a via dolorosa that ends with La Marianne wearing the hijab and France itself annexed by a new caliphate.

Into this febrile drama comes a new player: Boris Johnson, the British Foreign Secretary. What can we expect from this freshly minted statesman when it comes to our relations with our closest neighbour? There is no doubt that Johnson is a Francophile – I’ve run into him and his family at the Tuileries, and he made much of his own francophone status during the referendum campaign. In Paris last winter to launch the French edition of his Churchill biography, Johnson wowed a publication dinner by speaking French for the entire evening. He was sufficiently fluent to bumble, waffle and generally avoid saying anything serious at all.

Last Sunday I attended the Lambeth Country Show, an oxymoronic event for which the diverse inhabitants of my home borough gather in Brockwell Park, south London, for jerked and halal chicken, funfair rides, Quidditch-watching, and “country-style” activities, such as looking at farm animals and buying their products. Wandering among ancient Rastafarians with huge shocks of dreadlocks, British Muslims wearing immaculate white kurtas blazoned with “ASK ME ABOUT ISLAM” and crusty old Brixton punks, I found it quite impossible to rid my mind of the Nice carnage – or stop wondering how they would react if armed soldiers were patrolling, instead of tit-helmeted, emphatically unarmed police.

I stepped into the Royal Horticultural Society marquee, and there they were: the entire cast of our end-of-the-pier-show politics, in vegetable-sculpture form and arrayed for judging. There was Jeremy Corbyn (or “Cornbin”) made out of corncobs – and Boris Johnson in the form of a beetroot, being stabbed in the back by a beetroot Michael Gove. And over there was Johnson again, this time rendered in cabbage. The veggie politicians were the big draw, Brixtonians standing six-deep around them, iPhones aloft.

The animal (as opposed to the vegetable) Johnson has begun his diplomatic rounds this week, his first démarches as tasteless and anodyne as cucumber. No British abandonment of friends after Brexit . . . Coordinated response to terror threat . . . Call for Erdogan to be restrained in response to failed coup . . . Blah-blah, whiff-whaff-waffle . . . Even someone as gaffe-prone as he can manage these simple lines, but I very much doubt he will be able to produce rhetorical flourishes as powerful as his hero’s. In The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History, Johnson writes of Winnie overcoming “his stammer and his depression and his ­appalling father to become the greatest living Englishman”. Well, I’ve no idea if Bojo suffers from depression now but he soon will if he cleaves to this role model. His Churchill-worship (like so many others’) hinges on his belief that, without Churchill as war leader, Britain would have been ground beneath the Nazi jackboot. It may well be that, with his contribution to the Brexit campaign, Johnson now feels he, too, has wrested our national destiny from the slavering jaws of contingency.

Of course the differences between the two politicians are far more significant: Johnson’s genius – such as it is – lies in his intuitive understanding that politics, in our intensely mediatised and entirely commoditised era, is best conceived of as a series of spectacles or stunts: nowadays you can fool most of the people, most of the time. This is not a view you can imagine associating with Churchill, who, when his Gallipoli stratagem went disastrously wrong, exiled himself, rifle in hand, to the trenches. No, the French people Johnson both resembles and has an affinity for are the ones caught up in the virtual reality of Le Fantôme – rather than those patrolling the real and increasingly mean streets without. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt