In the Critics this week

Richard Mabey on autumn, Jason Cowley on George Osborne and Sarah Churchwell on A M Homes.

In the Critics section of this week’s New Statesman, Richard Mabey, in his final seasonal diary (autumn), considers how to evaluate the significance of wildlife. “The problem is that we don’t have an agreed alternative scale for the 'value of species,'” Mabey writes. “That clunking, portmanteau term 'biodiversity' doesn’t help. Like 'natural capital' it’s an intruder from corporate-speak.”

In Books, NS editor Jason Cowley reviews Janan Ganesh’s biography George Osborne: The Austerity Chancellor. “Who is this book for?” asks Cowley. “Is it for the general reader interested in Westminster politics or Janan Ganesh’s friends in journalism and those aides and special advisers who work for George Osborne...?” Elsewhere, Tom Wolfe’s latest novel Back To Blood is reviewed by Leo Robson. “The new novel is broadly concerned with the limits of what the US is willing to assimilate and accept,” Robson writes.

Also in Books: writer and literary critic Sarah Churchwell reviews A M Homes’ novel May We Be Forgiven (a “comic epic of modern America”); Yo Zushi looks at David Byrne’s How Music Works (“a partly autobiographical trawl through music history and theory that is essential that is essential reading for anyone with even a passing interest in the subject”); and William Skidelsky reviews Steven Poole’s You Aren’t What You Eat: Fed Up With Gastroculture (“the author’s two main charges in this polemic are indeed that, on one hand, “foodists” talk a lot of rubbish and, on the other, that an overweening interest in food is a new, specifically western type of deviance”).

In his “Personal Story”, Hunter Davies makes a confession about his 1968 Beatles biography and reveals the origin of the phrase “I am the eggman.”

Elsewhere in the Critics: Rachel Cooke is won over by new US TV show Girls; Antonia Quirke on Simon Callow and Classic FM’s Tasting Notes; and Alexandra Coghlan reviews Decasia.

PLUS: Will Self’s Real Meals, Nina Caplan on Drink, Down and Out by Nicholas Lezard, and Ed Smith’s Left Field.

George Osborne at the Tory Party conference (Photo: Getty Images)
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A new BBC program allows us to watch couples undertake mediation

Mr v Mrs: Call the Mediator is a rather astonishing series - and it's up to the viewer to provide judgement.

Somewhere in Epsom, Surrey, a separated couple, Sue and Peter, are trying with the help of a family mediator to sort out their financial situation. It’s a complicated business. Long ago, when she was in her twenties, Sue lived with a man called Bernard, a partner in the accountancy firm where she worked as a clerk. Bernard, though, was 25 years her senior, and because he already had three children the relationship seemed to have no future. Sue wanted a family of her own, and so she left him for his colleague Peter, whom she married in 1982. In 2015, however, she fell out of love with Peter. One morning in January, she cleaned the house, made a casserole for him and the two of her  three adult sons still living at home, and scarpered back to Bernard.

You wouldn’t call Bernard a Svengali. He is soon to be 80; his major pleasures in life appear to be golf and mah-jong. But he does play a role in all this. Every offer Peter makes, Sue takes home to Bernard, who then goes through the small print. If he sounds gleeful at what he regards as Peter’s pitiful idea of a settlement, she seems not to notice. But then, Sue, a housewife, seems not to notice anything much, least of all that the well-off Bernard insists he can’t keep her, financially speaking – never mind that, come lunchtime, it’s she who’s there in his well-appointed kitchen, dutifully dotting Worcestershire sauce on molten slices of Cheddar. Is Bernard taking his revenge on ­Peter for having nicked the woman he loved all those years ago? Or does he genuinely care only on grounds of fairness that everything is split 50:50? You decide!

I’m not joking: you really do. The BBC’s rather astonishing three-part series Mr v Mrs: Call the Mediator (Tuesdays, 9pm) offers no judgement in the matter of Peter and Sue, or any of the other couples it features. In this, it reflects the mediators, whose sanguine exteriors I find quite disturbing.

“You’ve had some intimacy, yes?” said Judith, a mediator working in King’s Cross, as a woman called Nichola complained that her ex, Martin, had broken into her flat and begged her for sex, an act that required her to have a “full health check” afterwards (post-coitus, she discovered he had joined an internet dating site). Nichola didn’t answer the question, choosing instead to stare at Judith’s earrings (dangly earrings appear to be a requirement for jobs with the Family Mediation service). Meanwhile, Martin walked out, fed up of Nichola’s “snidey remarks”. Another woman, Victoria, had agreed to mediation only if she and her ex-husband could sit in separate rooms; their mediator, Irene, had to shuttle between them every 15 minutes. How the mediators keep their mouth shut when people are behaving like this, I have no idea. To the long list of jobs I can never do, I must add another.

Everything about this documentary series is eye-popping, though that doesn’t mean I’ve much appetite for it. Some people descend into snarling madness when they split up; their hurt, to which they cling as if to a soft toy, makes rational thought all but impossible, and it is horrible to see. I was mildly surprised that National Family Mediation allowed the BBC access, but I suppose they’re only hoping to encourage more people to sign up, the better to avoid expensive court battles. What is far more astonishing is that these couples were willing to be filmed as they yelled and cried and exposed their most intimate flaws and secrets. Why did they do it?

Jason, who sends his ex-wife “helpful” web links mansplaining how a child’s teeth should be cleaned; Nichola, who won’t even talk to her husband when he delivers their small sons back to her (they must run in the dark from his car to the stairwell of her flat); Sue, whose mediation, thanks to Bernard, drags on for three months before she accepts Peter’s offer: I can’t think that any of them is a bad or cruel person. In their misery, however, they seem so. Lots of us have been there. But when things improve, we get to look back in horror, to gaze wonderingly at the sickness that then took hold. For these couples, it’s all preserved for posterity: the meanness, the futility, the mind-turning hate. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain