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Forget about looking for “The One” and have fun with the many, says Laurie Penny

The idea that everyone has a soulmate whom they are destined to love for ever is both implausible and cruel.

I've finally done it. A year after first being ordered to do so by a succession of damp-eyed friends, I've finally finished One Day, the bestselling Hampstead duvet novel that has now been made into a slushy Hollywood blockbuster.

I originally put the book down because the two central characters, who meet on the last day of university in 1988, are both so eminently slappable that I didn't care what happened to them over the next 20 years. Emma's "bluestocking" cleverness does not stop her falling in love with a dim, arrogant borderline alcoholic in the way one might fall into, say, an enormous plothole. And Dexter is the sort of good-looking, overprivileged tosspot whom one could well imagine being made "decent", over the course of 20 torturous years of late-night phone calls and missed connections, by the love and loss of one good woman; but a faster, simpler alternative might have been to hold his head down a toilet till the kicking stopped.

Nonetheless, Dexter and Emma are each other's One True Love, and the pursuit of One True Love, as we are doggedly informed by almost every film, book, pop song and cereal packet that deals with adult emotional interaction, can never be thwarted or questioned. So, they marry, move in together and open a little artisan deli that sells "jars of duck confit", and so overwhelming is the weight of expectation that one of them just has to die in a tragic bicycle accident. The savage predictability of this ending, which I could not bring myself to dignify with a spoiler warning, bears out the tendency of the One True Love philosophy to disintegrate in the face of real life, which has an annoying tendency to carry on after the book is closed and the cameras stop rolling.

The relatively recent cultural narrative of The One - the idea that everyone has a soulmate whom they are destined to love for ever, and that your life will always be incomplete if you fail to meet, mate and move in with that person - is not only implausible, but also cruel. It implies that those who do not find their One will somehow never be complete, that those who divorce, who live and raise children alone, or who find alternative arrangements for happiness, have somehow failed as human beings. To my mind, that's a decidedly unromantic idea.

It's not that I don't believe in true love. I've been in it several times, if only for 30 seconds on the night bus home from Hackney. There are, I am convinced, people out there for whom only the girl they met in Year Ten French or the boy they met in the back of the sticky indie disco will ever do, and no other relationship can possibly compare. I know couples like that, and I'm happy for them.

The three Ms

Those people - and I really feel as if saying this might get me shot with heart-tipped Tasers by the love police - are in the minority. Now that we are not obliged to choose between celibate loneliness and yoking ourselves for ever to a person we may grow to despise, most people's lives contain many important relationships, and sometimes those relationships fade or fizzle out. That may not fit in with the dominant ideology - that monogamous marriage is the only possible healthy way to live, love and distribute welfare benefits - but it's a more accurate map of the human heart, which is not a cartoon symbol, but a complicated tangle of meat and blood.

In One Day, every other person with whom Emma and Dexter interact romantically is drawn as an inadequate no-hoper; in real life, however, human love is not a scarce resource. I don't mean to advocate casual sex, polyamory, housing collectives and late nights drinking bad vodka with bisexual activists as alternatives that necessarily work for everyone, though they've always done so for me. The point is that the three Ms - marriage, mortgage and monogamy - do not work for everyone, either, and there's no reason why they should.

The gap between passionate, everlasting, all-consuming romance and meaningless rutting remains relatively unexplored by the publishing and film industries but, to paraphrase John Lennon, a great many people live in that gap. In real life, while we're all busy chasing The One, there is a superabundance of romance, friendship, partnership, sex and adventure to be had - and that's the most romantic thing of all.

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

This article first appeared in the 12 September 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron vs the shires

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

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 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle