Read Melanie Phillips' memoir and politely disagree: it will annoy her

A fascinating psychological portrait of a woman who seems to feel most alive when under fire.

Guardian Angel: My Story, My Britain
Melanie Phillips
emBooks, 128pp, £7.20 (ebook)

When I worked at the Daily Mail – I know, I’m sorry, please put down the pitchfork! – we had a running joke. Every week, we ran a “Saturday essay” and we discovered that, whatever the ostensible subject of this 1,800-word tract, it could always fit under the headline “The great betrayal”.

It’s tempting to suggest that this explains why Melanie Phillips found the paper to be such an agreeable home after 21 years working on the Guardian and the Observer. Despite her success and public profile – she has appeared on Question Time twice as often in the past 18 months as all of Britain’s scientists put together – Phillips feels betrayed, marginalised and vilified. She is a lone voice crying in the wilderness as hordes of lefties dominate the airwaves and newspapers, urging the destruction of the family, pushing the myth of climate change and insisting on compulsory gayness lessons for under-fives.

Does this sound like a Britain you recognise? It doesn’t to me and, as I read further through this book, I began to feel that Phillips was that most postmodern of literary devices – an unreliable narrator. She clearly describes the facts and then leaps to a conclusion so unexpected, so different to the one I would draw, that I feel breathless.

For example, after Phillips begins to write columns about education at the Guardian, she receives many letters disagreeing with her – although those that agree often mention that theirs is the minority view and they are afraid to challenge the consensus. She concludes: “What was being described was more akin to life in a totalitarian state. Dissent was being silenced, and those who ran against the orthodoxy were being forced to operate in secret.” Now, I know that rightwingers like to mock the Guardian’s relatively low circulation figures but writing a column there is hardly “operating in secret”. And where are all the columns supporting progressive ideas in the Mail? Or is it only “silencing dissent” when left-wing papers have an editorial line?

There are several incidents like this, in which Phillips recounts how oppressed she was by the Guardianistas, followed swiftly by the flat assertion that she was then appointed leader writer, news editor, columnist or editor of an environmental supplement (even after telling her then editor, Peter Preston, that she believed there was no evidence for man-made climate change).

The vocabulary of this book – “shibboleths”, “hate-mongering”, “denounced”, “besmirch”, “mind-bending” – suggests that she enjoys extreme adversarialism, even while raging against it. Finally, when she leaves the Observer – not before applying to be its editor – for the Sunday Times, she quickly becomes bored with not being attacked: “It just wasn’t where the action was because it was not in the front line of the culture war. My place was on the front line.”

This is a fascinating psychological portrait of a woman who seems to feel most alive when under fire. The chapters about her family – her controlling mother and passive father, her monstrous grandmother, suspected of being partially responsible for the death of her aunt – would provide fodder for an army of therapists. So read it and politely disagree. Phillips would hate that.

Melanie Phillips appearing on BBC Question Time.

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.

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Paul Auster's 4 3 2 1 is by turns rewarding and maddening – just like life

Auster’s epic new novel of immigration, politics and consciousness is rich but imperfect.

It’s a cliché, or a joke: the immigrant who arrives in the New World from the Old Country, to be greeted by an official who promptly renames him, mishearing the strange tongue that the arrival speaks. Paul Auster’s new novel begins: “According to family legend, Ferguson’s grandfather departed on foot from his native city of Minsk with one hundred rubles sewn into the lining of his jacket, travelled west to Hamburg through Warsaw and Berlin, and then booked passage on a ship called the Empress of China, which crossed the Atlantic in rough winter storms and sailed into New York Harbor on the first day of the twentieth century.”

Ferguson’s grandfather is called Isaac Reznikoff. Another Russian Jew advises him that it will be wiser to give his name as “Rockefeller” to the official. “You can’t go wrong with that.” But when it is his turn, “the weary immigrant blurted out in Yiddish, Ikh hob fargessen (I’ve forgotten)! And so it was that Isaac Reznikoff began his new life in America as Ichabod Ferguson.”

A joke or a fable: the way that so many stories begin in America, the stories of those who sailed past the Statue of Liberty and the words inscribed on its base, words to welcome the tired, the poor, those masses yearning to breathe free. And so Auster, in his first novel in seven years, presents the reader with an Everyman, Ferguson-who-is-not-Ferguson, not the man who stepped off the Empress of China but his grandson, Archibald Isaac Ferguson, the cranky protagonist and hero of this tale.

Ichabod begat Stanley and Stanley begat Archie, who was born, like his creator, in Newark, New Jersey, in 1947. This nearly 900-page epic is a Bildungsroman, though it would be more accurate to call it a Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungsroman, because Archie’s story is told not once but four times. There are that many versions of the protagonist: in each version, his life takes a different turn, and so everything that follows is altered.

Auster is something of a prophet in exile in his own land. His brand of existentialist postmodernism – in which characters with the author’s name might appear, in which texts loop back on themselves to question the act of writing, in which the music of chance can be heard loud and clear – has sometimes found greater favour in Europe than it has in his native United States. For example, City of Glass, the 1985 meta-detective novel that forms part of The New York Trilogy, will be adapted for the stage here this year.

But City of Glass, like all of Auster’s previous books, is a slender novel. The New York Trilogy as a whole comes in at just over 300 pages. Where much of Auster’s work is elliptical, 4 3 2 1 can be overwhelming, but that is precisely the point. The author creates a vast portrait of the turbulent mid-20th century by giving his protagonist this series of lives. The book is divided into sections that clearly mark which Ferguson we are getting: 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 or 1.4.

Yet there is nothing supernatural about this journey lived and relived, as there was in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. The only magic involved is the magic of the novelist’s imagination, which allows both writer and reader to juggle realities as if they were balls in the air.

However, it is not as if one Ferguson is midshipman and another a circus performer, or one a loudmouth and another shy and retiring. The strength of this novel is that Ferguson remains himself while events shift around him, changing the course of his life. Ferguson’s father dies, or Ferguson’s father lives but divorces his mother, Rose. What happens then? Rose is a talented photographer; does she continue her work when Stanley prospers and they move to the suburbs, or does she take up golf and bridge? Ferguson is a good student, always a writer: does he go to Princeton or Columbia? What’s the difference between translating poetry in a Paris attic and working as a journalist for the Rochester Times-Union?

At its best, 4 3 2 1 is a full immersion in Ferguson’s consciousness, which, perhaps, is a consciousness not too far removed from Auster’s. His protagonist’s youth is wonderfully, vividly conveyed. Even if you don’t care about baseball, you’ll come to care about it because Ferguson does. The details of the young Ferguson’s life are carefully and lovingly created: the powder-blue Pontiac that his mother drives, the pot roast and cheese blintzes served at the Claremont Diner in Montclair, New Jersey – and  the floorboards in an old house that creak when two young lovers make their way between their separate rooms in the middle of the night. Auster builds a world of heartfelt, lived-in detail.

But this is a novel of politics, too. Ferguson is a young man during the tumult of the late 1960s, when dozens were killed and hundreds injured during riots in Newark in 1967; when students at Columbia occupied the campus in protest over the war in Vietnam; when young men such as Ferguson could be drafted to fight in that war.

It is in this last third of the novel that the book flags a little, as lists of events tumble on to the page: one paragraph contains the My Lai massacre, the killing of the Black Panther Fred Hampton and the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont. At times, history lessons threaten to overwhelm the narrative, and Ferguson’s story/stories lose the texture and particularity that have made them so compelling. And its ending is abrupt, a tying-up of loose ends that fragments on the final page.

But then lives – real lives – have strange, abrupt endings, too. This is a rich, imperfect book, often rewarding, occasionally maddening. Again, like life, or at least if we’re lucky.

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster is published by Faber & Faber (880pp, £20)

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era