Hilary Mantel's precise, unkind words have been twisted into a "venomous" attack on Kate

If it's Team Mantel or Team Middleton, Sarah Ditum knows which side she's on...

There's an irresistible circularity in the Daily Mail making a front page story out of Hilary Mantel's sinuous essay on the public scrutiny of the Royals' most intimate bodies. 5,500 words of sharp, considered prose in the London Review of Books becomes a one line bitchfest on the cover of the Mail: "'A plastic princess designed to breed': Bring Up the Bodies author Hilary Mantel's venomous attack on Kate Middleton".

Though she never singles out the Mail by name, the Mail is one of the primary producers of the kind of Royal scrutiny Mantel anatomises. The Mail has tugged at the threads of every outfit that Catherine, the Duchess of Cambridge has worn, hungrily anticipated her pregnancy from the moment she got married, sniffed at the fertile perfume of princessly nausea, and snorted derisively at the Middleton family – especially Kate's sister, who has been cast as both a grasping middle-class arriviste capitalising on her sudden accession to quality, and as the princess-a-like you can wank over without landing yourself in the Tower.

Mantel's essay is about that doubleness in the outwardly reverent attitude to royalty. "We are ready at any moment to rip away the veil of respect, and treat royal persons in an inhuman way," she writes, "making them not more than us but less than us, not really human at all." She ends – not that you could possibly know this from the papers' retelling today – with a plea for Kate to be spared from the public's appetite for princess's bodies: "I’m not asking for censorship. I’m not asking for pious humbug and smarmy reverence. I’m asking us to back off and not be brutes." And for writing that, Mantel herself has to be cast as the brute.

In the retelling, we're even informed that Mantel "suggested Kate could have few complaints about private pictures of her being taken on holiday – observing: 'The royal body exists to be looked at.'" You only need compare that malformed quotation to the "back off and don't be brutes" line to see that it's a sheer sly distortion of Mantel's intent. But Mantel will recognise the technique, and so will anyone who's read her incandescent recreations of the political world of Henry VIII, Wolf Hall ("A rich and subtle wonder" – the Daily Mail) and Bring Up the Bodies ("Mantel's remarkable prose and turn of phrase … makes this a must-read" – the Daily Mail).

The Mail is playing the role of court prosecutor, assembling its case for treason the same way Thomas Cromwell does in the novels – shearing off a little of the truth here, elevating a select portion of it there, so that without ever telling an outright lie, it can turn the truth into something very unlike its original self. That's not to say, of course, that Mantel is just a sadly misrepresented purchaser of commemorative plates: she's too good a writer for the precise unkindness of her descriptions to be a slip. But Mantel's guillotine-sharp descriptions (the juxtaposition of Kate to Marie Antoinette is, again, not mere clumsiness) aren't aimed at the Duchess herself, but at the entire strange edifice of royalty and the public's bizarre relationship to it.

Of course, Mantel includes herself among the public: she makes herself its principal exemplar, catching herself in the act of consuming the Royal body when she has an encounter with the Queen:

I passed my eyes over her as a cannibal views his dinner, my gaze sharp enough to pick the meat off her bones … And I felt sorry then. I wanted to apologise. I wanted to say: it’s nothing personal, it’s monarchy I’m staring at.

The Mail can't identify that mix of sympathy and savagery with its own methods (maybe because it only really has the savagery), so it alchemises Mantel's subtle critique into a woman-beware-woman narrative. Kate on the right, doe-eyed and beaming softly; Mantel on the left, middle-aged and round-faced, menacing the poor princess. Choose your side: Team Mantel or Team Middleton. Well, if the Mail insists. I've never been all that fond of well-behaved princesses anyway. I'm with Mantel.

 

Hilary Mantel. Portrait by Leonie Hampton for the New Statesman

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

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Why do videogames only ever show one kind of apocalypse?

There’s more to post-apocalyptic fictions than desert wastelands and nuclear disaster, but you’d never know it looking at the games we play.

There is bravery inherent to apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic works of fiction. To attempt to portray the future of humankind in the wake of catastrophe, to imagine our species eking out a living in the smashed remnants of our former civilisation, this demands that a creator face up to the painful idea that our world as we know it will end. It requires the skill to create characters and situations that resonate with us, even though they are based in an ended world.

It is a field that has spawned some powerful, moving and thought provoking works. But for some reason, when it comes to videogames, this manifests itself as a lot of stories about men in deserts who look like they’re going to ice hockey practice in dune buggies and hordes of shambling zombies who have overwhelmed the army but can be resisted by isolated pockets of plucky survivors.

In general the post-apocalyptic scenarios tend to fall into these camps. The desert wastelands in the distant wake of a nuclear apocalypse have become a standard setting. The Fallout and Wasteland series set the tone here and both have endured to this day, albeit with something of a hiatus for Wasteland. With new Fallout and a Mad Max games coming this year this setting isn’t going away any time soon.

The alternative apocalypse in games tends to be disease-based, usually with a side-order of zombies or similar monsters so that our heroic survivors have somebody to kill. The Left 4 Dead, Last of Us and Resident Evil games all fit this profile.

There are a lot of appealing elements about setting a game after the fall of society. For example, you get to keep modern frames of reference and have relatable characters having adventures, being the big hero and shooting everybody they see. There’s a clear appeal to having a familiar hero unleashed in a suddenly hostile world and there is a sense that the fall of society is less of a tragedy in such games and more of a release, that the game is letting you know that you’re on your own and free to do what you like.

Something lacking in post-apocalyptic games, however, is the bravery that I spoke of at the start. During the Cold War a lot of post-apocalyptic fiction was based upon the idea that a catastrophic nuclear war had obliterated society. This fear was real, because between the Cuban Missile Crisis, a couple of near-misses and the collapse of the Soviet Union there was ample opportunity for the world to blow up. Looking back at films like Threads or When the Wind Blows, they spoke to a very real fear that world leaders might one day see fit to throw civilisation under the bus for reasons that probably wouldn’t have made a lot of sense to the people being vaporised on the streets of New York, London or Moscow.

Fast forward into the twenty-first century and for games at least the apocalyptic visions are either based in nostalgic worries about nuclear wars that never happened or the pure fantasy of a zombie horde. Where visions of the end of the world were once scary, now they are comfortable silliness. Here we are, as technologically advanced and for the most part as comfortable as our species has ever been, and we laugh at the notion that it might all end. We survived the Cold War and we got the Frankie Says T-shirts, so what is there to be scared of? Nothing, apparently.

Yet in the twenty-first century we face our own apocalypse. If climate change is not dealt with urgently then it will cause incalculable damage to civilisation as we know it, perhaps even destroy it. The science that is telling us that climate change is real and will have terrible consequences is as solid as the science that tells us what happens when a hydrogen bomb is detonated. But we don’t speak of it in fiction and especially not in video games, at least not often.

Herein is the problem endemic to video games with a post-apocalyptic setting. They don’t have the courage to be gloomy. Games have been post-apocalyptic and had downbeat stories, such as The Last of Us or The Walking Dead, but these games are still careful to ensure that the actual apocalypse itself is fantastical. There has been no equivalent to these games dealing with problems that might or are actually occurring.

Even when a game touches upon climate change it is seldom willing to see it as a bad thing. Anno 2077 is set after the seas have risen and the old world order has collapsed, and it ends up being a cutesy city building game where you build thriving super-modern metropolises on islands. Civilisation: Beyond Earth sees the collapse of Earth’s ecosystem as the trigger for a space adventure. The end of the world is seen as a kick in the pants to start a glorious new age. The design fixation of games, to go forward and build bigger is completely at odds with a reality that is screaming at us to dial everything back if we are to avoid catastrophe.

Ironically, one game that has looked at the contemporary consequences of severe climate change is Attila: Total War, a game set in the fifth century. By having the world get colder it demonstrates what can happen when habitable spaces shrink and people are crammed into what remains. It is no small feat of design to set a game in the dark ages and have it resonate with contemporary concerns, from climate change to mass migration and the gradual collapse of established power structures.

In the end, games love dune buggies and deserts and shooting zombies in the face. They love levelling up, unlocking new things, expanding into new lands. They don’t love entropy and they don’t love loss. We have seen great games in post-apocalyptic settings, but we might never see a game that evokes the sort of real world dread that a post-apocalyptic story should.

Phil Hartup is a freelance journalist with an interest in video gaming and culture