I expected to be irritated by Liz Jones's book, I hadn't expected to be bored

Liz Jones's autobiography, Girl Least Likely To, is so drenched in self-pity it becomes draining to read.

In “The Snow Queen”, Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale, a splinter from a magic mirror ends up in the eye of a boy, Kai. Made by a troll, this mirror distorts as it reflects, magnifying the bad and erasing the good.

Liz Jones sees the world through a similar filter. In her new autobiography, Girl Least Likely To, pitched as advice on how not to be a woman, she amplifies every small slight while every joy is diminished. She confesses: “Nothing was ever good enough for me.”

Jones – fashion editor of the Daily Mail and mad monarch of confessional journalism – is well known for her self-loathing. And it’s displayed here in abundance. She is “in doubt” about her “right to be alive”. Her appearance turns her stomach. “I am unlovable,” she declares, after her marriage collapses.

What is strange is how this is coupled with a clear self-regard. After all, what more powerful way is there to say one’s life matters than to write an autobiography? And Jones is so self-obsessed that she always seems to put herself at the centre of everything. In an article for the Mail in 2011, she retraced the last steps of the murdered landscape architect Joanna Yeates, somehow making this young woman’s death about herself.

In the autobiography, this manifests itself largely in a belief that the whole world is in cahoots against her. When out dancing as a teenager, she is told that her grandfather has been knocked off his bicycle and killed. Jones’s reaction? Irritation that her mother makes her leave the nightclub and that the boy she likes then kisses someone else: “I learned I was never, ever going to get what I really wanted.” On 11 September 2001, much of the fashion press is at New York Fashion Week and witnesses the twin towers collapse. Jones is envious of these other editors, who are part of “this momentous occasion”.

Knowing Jones’s columns, I had expected to be irritated by her book. What I hadn’t expected was to be bored. The sections on her early childhood are so drenched in self-pity as to be draining.

Later, I started to feel sorry for her. Every experience she has with a man – from the boy in the playground who assaults her to her adulterous husband – is awful. And her life has been ruled and ruined by anorexia. Yet this suffering inspires little empathy with others. Even though she hates her own looks, she doesn’t seem to have any qualms about criticising the appearance of other women.

Her best writing is on the fashion industry: the way journalists are bought with freebies, the industry’s cruelty to animals and the branding of waiflike models as “fat”. On the designer John Galliano’s anti-Semitism trial, she raises questions about the duty of care of his ex-employer Dior.

As Jones’s miseries play out in public, that is something the Daily Mail should consider, too. Her writing doesn’t feel cathartic. Like her starving herself, it feels like self-harm.

Daily Mail fashion editor and monarch of confessional journalism, Liz Jones. Photograph: Chris Lloyd/Camera Press.

This article first appeared in the 29 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue

Show Hide image

Bertie Carvel's diary: What would the French think about infidelity to Doctor Foster?

The joy of debuting a new series, Rupert Murdoch's squeamishness and a sting in the tail.

According to the adage, the first thing an actor does when he gets a job is to go on holiday. And so, having finished our sold-out run of James Graham’s Ink at the Almeida and with the show (in which I play a young Rupert Murdoch) about to transfer into the West End, I’m packing my bags.

But before I can skip town, I’ve one more professional engagement: the press launch of series two of the BBC drama Doctor Foster, which we finished filming at Christmas. I’ve now seen the final cut of all five episodes, and I’m excited to share it with an audience. There’s no substitute for seeing other people’s reactions at first hand, especially with a show that got people talking so much first time around, and it’s electric to sit in a cinema full of expectant journalists and commentators and feel the room respond. Nothing beats this: to put so much into making a thing and then experience an audience’s unmediated, reflexive reaction. When it goes well, you feel that you’ve shared something, that you’ve all recognised something together about how things are. It’s a unifying feeling. A sort of bond.

Cheating spouses

Handling the interviews has been tricky, when there’s so little one can say without giving the plot away. (The first series began with Suranne Jones’s character Gemma, a GP, suspecting her husband Simon of having an affair.) What’s more, lots of the questions invite moral judgements that I’ve tried my best to avoid; I always think it’s really important not to judge the characters I play from outside, but simply to work out how they feel about themselves, to zero in on their point of view. There’s a sort of moral bloodlust around this show: it’s extraordinary. People seem to want to hear that I’ve been pilloried in the street, or expect me to put distance between myself and my character, to hang him out to dry as a pariah.

While I’m not in the business of defending Simon Foster any more than I’m in the business of attacking him, I am intrigued by this queer mixture of sensationalism and prurience that seems to surface again and again.

Shock horror

Oddly enough, it’s something that comes up in Ink: many people have been surprised to find that, in a story about the re-launch of the Sun newspaper in 1969 as a buccaneering tabloid, it’s the proprietor who considers dropping anchor when the spirit of free enterprise threatens to set his moral compass spinning.

I’ve never given it much thought before, but I suppose that sensationalism relies on a fairly rigid worldview for its oxygen – the SHOCKERS! that scream at us in tabloid headlines are deviations from a conventional idea of the norm. But what’s behind the appetite for this sort of story? Do we tell tales of transgression to reinforce our collective boundaries or to challenge them?

For me there’s a close kinship between good journalism and good drama. I’m reminded of the words of John Galsworthy, who wrote Strife, the play I directed last summer, and who felt that the writer should aim “to set before the public no cut-and-dried codes, but the phenomena of life and character, selected and combined, but not distorted, by the dramatist’s outlook, set down without fear, favour, or prejudice, leaving the public to draw such poor moral as nature may afford”.

So when it comes to promoting the thing we’ve made, I’m faced with a real conundrum: on the one hand I want it to reach a wide audience, and I’m flattered that there’s an appetite to hear about my contribution to the process of making it; but on the other hand I think the really interesting thing about the work is contained in the work itself. I’m always struck, in art galleries, by how much more time people spend reading the notes next to the paintings than looking at the paintings themselves. I’m sure that’s the wrong way around.

Insouciant remake

En route to the airport the next morning I read that Doctor Foster is to be adapted into a new French version. It’s a cliché verging on racism, but I can’t help wondering whether the French will have a different attitude to a story about marital infidelity, and whether the tone of the press coverage will differ. I wonder, too, whether, in the home of Roland Barthes, there is as much space given to artists to talk about what they’ve made – in his 1967 essay, “The Death of the Author”, Barthes wrote that “a text’s unity lies not in its origin but in its destination”.

No stone unturned

Touring the villages of Gigondas, Sablet and Séguret later that evening, I’m struck by the provision of espaces culturels in seemingly every commune, however small. The French certainly give space to the work itself. But I also notice a sign warning of a chat lunatique, so decide to beat a hasty retreat. Arriving at the house where I’m staying, I’ve been told that the key will be under a flowerpot. Lifting each tub in turn, and finally a large flat stone by the door, I find a small scorpion, but no key. I’m writing this at a table less than a yard away so let’s hope there won’t be a sting in this tale.

Ink opens at the Duke of York Theatre, London, on 9 September. More details: almeida.co.uk

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear