Deride Miliband for anything you like, but not his looks

The shabby treatment of the Labour leader opens the door to more of this kind of unedifying garbage

Is Ed Miliband too ugly to be prime minister? Or leader of the opposition? It's a question that has been captivating entirely no-one since John Humphrys, clearly the world's most handsome and desirable man, suggested the younger Miliband was as rough as a robber's dog. And yet, it pops up again. The Sunday Times commissioned a poll to ask the Great British Public what they thought.

Astoundingly, the majority did not reply with "I don't care either way - why are you asking me this? Is this really all you've got, at a time when our economies are circling the drain? Pointless tittle-tattle about the attractiveness or otherwise of leaders of the opposition? I remember when the Sunday Times stood for something, some stray fragment of journalistic integrity, a concept that long seems to have passed you by." Or at least, if they did, their barbed retorts have not been recorded by the psephologists in great detail on this occasion.

Is this what it's come to? Can we only judge our politicians based on whether they are as startlingly delicious as John Humphrys - unarguably the world's most gorgeously enticing man - or fall short of his high standards? Well, apparently it has. Forget Ed Miliband's policies; forget his presentation; forget anything he might say, or do. Is he pretty enough to be PM?

My reaction to this is the kind of thing that makes political correspondents, were they ever to chance upon this page while chortling away about a terrifically clever pun one of their sources told them over an enormous subsidised lunch, shake their heads. Oh but this is the cut and thrust, they would say, were they ever accidentally to happen upon these words. This is all part of the knockabout fun that is the world of politics.

I'm all for making fun of people, whether it's deserved or not. Some of the world's most brilliant and successful political leaders have been disgustingly, repulsively unattractive. You'd hardly want a kiss on the lips from FDR, or Churchill's baby-like face looming over and gurning at you during a moment of passion. Must we want to have sex with people, or consider them attractive, in order to believe in what they say?

Of course, it could get even worse in the near future. Imagine what could happen if Labour's Yvette Cooper, or any other bright and intelligent female politician, managed to become leader of their party. What then? It could all become a pungent mess of whether we could consider them as PILFs - politicians we'd like to fuck - rather than people with progressive policies.

In one sense, then, the shabby treatment of Ed Miliband over this pointless piffling issue opens up the door to more of this kind of unedifying garbage in the future. You can see with the fuss made over Louise Mensch's looks that this kind of thing is just waiting to be unleashed - and it will probably be a lot worse for whichever unlucky female takes over at the top of a political party in the future than it is now for Ed.

Not that that's any consolation. Deride Ed for anything you like - his use of the word 'atmos', for example, which made me cry blood into a bucket last week - but not for how pretty he is naturally. Despite all the attempts to make it so, this isn't a bloody playground. Not yet. Even the stunningly beautiful John Humphrys cannot convince me of that.

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media

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It's easy to see where Berlin is being rebuilt – just hit the streets

My week, from walking the streets of Berlin to class snobbery and the right kind of gentrification.

Brick by brick, block by block, the people are rebuilding the city once called Faust’s Metropolis. To see it clearly, put your boots on. One of the most bracing walks starts by the Gethsemane Church, which served as a haven for dissenters in the last days of the GDR and takes you down ­towards the Hackescher Markt.

Here, in what is still the eastern half of a divided city that wears its division more lightly, is a Berlin experience both old and new. In three decades of frequent visits, it has been fascinating to note how much this part of town has changed. Even a decade ago these streets were rundown. With crumbling buildings showing bulletholes, it wasn’t hard to imagine what the place looked like in 1945. Now there are lilacs, blues, and yellows. Cafés, bars and restaurants abound, serving the young professionals attracted to the city by cheap rents and a renewed sense of community.

 

Breaking the fourth wall

Looking north along Schliemannstraße, you’ll find a delightful vista of well-tended balconies. It’s a pleasant place to live, notwithstanding the gaggle of grotesques who gather round the corner in the square. On Kastanienallee, which forms the second leg of the walk, an old city feels young. It’s a kind of gentrification but the right kind. There’s more to eat, to drink, to buy, for all.

Berlin, where Bertolt Brecht staged his unwatchable plays, was supposed to have been transformed by a proletarian revolution. Instead, it has been restored to health by a very middle-class one. Germany has always had a well-educated middle class, and the nation’s restoration would have impossible without such people. The irony is delicious – not that irony buttered many parsnips for “dirty Bertie”.

 

The new snobbery

The British Museum’s survey of German history “Memories of a Nation” is being presented at the Martin-Gropius-Bau as “The British View”. Germans, natürlich, are curious to see how we observe them. But how do they see us?

A German friend recently in England  said that the images that struck him most forcibly were the tins of food and cheap booze people piled up in supermarkets, and the number of teenage girls pushing prams. Perhaps Neil MacGregor, the former director of the British Museum who will shortly take up a similar role here at the new Humboldt Forum, may turn his attention to a “German View” of the United Kingdom.

There’s no shortage of material. In Schlawinchen, a bar that typifies Kreuzberg’s hobohemia, a college-educated English girl was trying to explain northern England to an American she had just met. Speaking in an ugly modern Mancunian voice that can only be acquired through years of practice (sugar pronounced as “sug-oar”), she refer­red to Durham and York as “middle class, you know, posh”, because those cities had magnificent cathedrals.

When it comes to inverted snobbery, no nation can match us. To be middle class in Germany is an indication of civic value. In modern England, it can mark you as a leper.

 

Culture vultures

The Humboldt Forum, taking shape by the banks of the Spree, reconsecrates the former site of the GDR’s Palace of the Republic. When it opens in 2018 it will be a “living exhibition”, dedicated to all the cultures of the world. Alexander von Humboldt, the naturalist and explorer, was the brother of Wilhelm, the diplomat and philosopher, whose name lives on in the nearby university.

In Potsdamerplatz there are plans to build a modern art museum, crammed in between the Neue Nationalgalerie and the Philharmonie, home to the Berlin Philharmonic. Meanwhile, the overhaul of the Deutsche Staatsoper, where Daniel Barenboim is music director for life, is likely to be completed, fingers crossed, next autumn.

Culture everywhere! Or perhaps that should be Kultur, which has a slightly different meaning in Germany. They take these things more seriously, and there is no hint of bogus populism. In London, plans for a new concert hall have been shelved. Sir Peter Hall’s words remain true: “England is a philistine country that loves the arts.”

 

European neighbours

When Germans speak of freedom, wrote A J P Taylor, a historian who seems to have fallen from favour, they mean the freedom to be German. No longer. When modern Germans speak of freedom, they observe it through the filter of the European Union.

But nation states are shaped by different forces. “We are educated to be obedient,” a Berlin friend who spent a year at an English school once told me. “You are educated to be independent.” To turn around Taylor’s dictum: when the English speak of freedom,
they mean the freedom to be English.

No matter what you may have heard, the Germans have always admired our independence of spirit. We shall, however, always see “Europe” in different ways. Europe, good: we can all agree on that. The European Union, not so good. It doesn’t mean we have to fall out, and the Germans are good friends to have.

 

Hook, line and sinker

There are fine walks to be had in the west, too. In Charlottenburg, the Kensington of Berlin, the mood is gentler, yet you can still feel the city humming. Here, there are some classic places to eat and drink – the Literaturhauscafé for breakfast and, for dinner, Marjellchen, a treasure trove of east Prussian forest delights. Anything that can be shot and put in a pot!

For a real Berlin experience, though, head at nightfall for Zwiebelfisch, the great tavern on Savignyplatz, and watch the trains glide by on the other side of Kantstraße. Hartmut Volmerhaus, a most amusing host, has been the guvnor here for more than 30 years and there are no signs that his race is run. The “Fisch” at twilight: there’s nowhere better to feel the pulse of this remarkable city. 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage