Queen of Scott’s: Nigella Lawson arrives for the first day of the trial of her assistants, December 2013. (Photo: Getty)
Show Hide image

Name-dropping in Manhattan, Ukrainian deals and those Nigella pictures

Sue Douglas’s Diary.

Respite from the weather at last. But a cold front of non-meteorological proportions instead . . . an icy-cold wind fluttering across our horizons, needling into the recesses of our memories of an old world order. I sat early morning and late night, motionless in front of my widescreen TV, Sky News on a constant spool of live updates from Kyiv, transfixed by the unravelling drama.

I felt more involved than my journalistic licence usually allows when seismic stories appear from nowhere and threaten to engulf us. Just over a week ago, I had been to dinner at Scott’s in Mayfair. I have a tiny bolt-hole flat around the corner. People tease me that it’s my local café. Other people I work for do not find the bills I put on expenses so amusing. Something always happens at Scott’s. Perhaps the biggest something was one of the most poignant stories of last year, as Nigella Lawson and Charles Saatchi locked in combat, unaware of John Gordon’s paparazzo lens a matter of feet away. I ran the picture in the Sunday People newspaper the first week of my new job there. But I digress.

I digress into the wonderfully random nature of life. I had just been reappointed as media queen, aka publisher of Sunday Brands at Trinity Mirror, and lots of people held their breath. Not for long. My ambitions were strangled – but didn’t die, and, leaving Trinity Mirror two weeks ago, I am about to rescue my new media baby from its adopted parents.

 

Oysters, champagne, big business

I was dining at Scott’s with a clever and charming Ukrainian businessman, interested in my new media business venture. We were joined by his effervescent boss, Lada Firtash. Lada has quickly become a very dear friend. She is also a sharp businesswoman in her own right. She should not be defined by who she is married to, any more than I ever wanted to be judged by my now ex-husband, Niall Ferguson.

However, as we sat eating oysters and sipping champagne, I lived a little walk-on part of the events unfolding in Maidan Nezalezhnosti. Dmitry Firtash is the husband of Lada. His Wikipedia entry says that he “has become one of the leading investors in the power sector and chemical industry in central and eastern Europe. His . . . companies are present in Ukraine, Germany, Italy, Cyprus, Tajikistan, Switzerland, Hungary, Austria and Estonia.” It rattles on about his wealth, his power through his Inter Media TV companies and his extravagant philanthropy, including chunks of Cambridge and the Ukrainian Catholic University. Then it cites some controversy about his implication, never proven, in the imprisonment of Yulia Tymoshenko and mentions his close association with the regime of the fallen leader, Viktor Yanukovych.

Back at home, I turned on the TV again. And there was Tymoshenko, wheelchair-bound, with her signature Heidi hairstyle, released from her prison cell only hours earlier. She was addressing the crowds in measured, almost soothing tones while the president disappeared east to nest with his protector Vladimir Putin.

I called my dear friend Askold Krushel­nycky, who was filing a report from the square for the Sunday Times. It was before dawn there but it was hard to hear what he was shouting against the tumultuous noise. I think it was something like “. . . things are never ever what they seem”.

 

Celluloid sleb fever

The cold winds were blowing when I arrived in New York. Six inches of snow was forecast but only a dusting fell. In the meantime Obama’s froideur about Ukraine resulted in US visa bans and possible economic sanctions against certain Russian and Ukrainian officials implicated in the occupation of Crimea. But the city was really preoccupied with red carpets and Oscar mania.

The cloying reverence of celebrity culture in the US palls, even when you have been a tabloid queen as I have and lived for the colour of Kate Moss’s nail varnish. Much as I enjoyed 12 Years a Slave on the plane, the way CNN practically attempted to own anti-slavery made me gag. The rictus smiles of TV presenters and the shameless obsession with actresses’ clothes and hairstyles is enough to make you long for a war zone.

 

Logophile in New York

The power of the written word: I fell in love as a schoolgirl and the affair only deepened. So, when my daughter Freya, who hitched a weekend in New York with me, dragged me to the Met’s Chinese exhibition “Ink Art”, I got all excited about my Fleet Street days and hot metal. The show is a beautiful snapshot of the vibrancy and life in the shapes and colour of words on parchment and paper – all black and white and splashes of red, a bit like tabloids in the Eighties. I liked the show nearly as much as the Guggenheim’s mesmeric “Italian Futurism”, based on the manifesto Marinetti published in 1909 in Le Figaro, which we also went to. Words as hero, again. It isn’t often that a child can teach a parent so much in half an hour.

 

Where the rich things are

And finally, a glimpse of another Scott’s. I missed the familiar faces and menu of my favourite Mayfair eatery as I took my seat, and my Bellini, at the Cipriani between Lexington and Park Avenues on the Upper East Side. “Can you tell the identity of a tribe (as in rich metropolitan show-offs) by what they eat, or where they eat it?” I wondered. There were seas of corpulent businessmen with waifer-thin younger wives and partners, bedecked in designer kit and, apparently, displaying a great deal of Botox. They all seemed to have the same handbag.

My friends Jacqui Safra, an investor from the Swiss banking family, and the producer Jean Doumanian were indulging me. If I sound like I’m name-dropping, I am. It’s much more fun being in an affluent goldfish bowl at feeding time than it is to stand in the queue at Nando’s with your kids. Jacqui, Jean and I enjoyed the other diners much more than the food. Which I am not sure I would say at Nando’s. Things are never, ever what they seem.

This article first appeared in the 12 March 2014 issue of the New Statesman, 4 years of austerity

Getty
Show Hide image

The allegations of abuse in sport are serious – but we must guard against hysteria

This week in the media, from Castro and the student rebels, hysteria over football coaches, and Ed Balls’s ballroom exit.

From the left’s point of view, the best that can be said of Fidel Castro, who has died at 90, is that – to echo Franklin D Roosevelt on the Nicaraguan dictator Anatasio Somoza – he may have been a son of a bitch but he was our son of a bitch. Denying Castro’s dreadful record on human rights is pointless. According to the highest estimates – which include those who perished while trying to flee the regime – the death toll during Castro’s 49 years in charge was roughly 70,000. His immediate predecessor, Fulgencio Batista, whom Castro overthrew, murdered, again according to the highest estimates, 20,000 but he ruled for a mere seven years. For both men, you can find considerably lower figures, sometimes in the hundreds. It depends on the politics of the estimator, which shows the absurdity of such reckoning.

 

Murder is murder

What is certain is that Batista ran a corrupt regime with close links to the American Mafia and presided over outrageous inequalities. Even President Kennedy, who ­approved a failed military invasion of Cuba in 1960, said that, on Batista’s record, “I am in agreement with the first Cuban revolutionaries”. Castro, on the other hand, created a far more equal society where illiteracy was almost wiped out, and free health care brought life expectancy up to levels comparable to those in the US and western Europe. You could say that the numbers saved from early deaths by Cuban medicine under Castro easily exceeded the numbers that faced firing squads.

But nothing excuses torture, murder and political imprisonment. There isn’t a celestial balance sheet that weighs atrocities against either the freedoms from ignorance and disease that the left favours or the freedoms to make money and hold private property that the right prefers. We should argue, as people always will, about which freedoms matter most. We should be united in condemning large-scale state brutality whatever its source.

 

Spirit of ʼ68

Though his regime became an ally (or, more precisely, a client) of the Soviet Union, Castro wasn’t a communist and he didn’t lead a communist uprising. This point is crucial to understanding his attraction to the mostly middle-class student rebels in Europe and America who became known as the ’68ers.

To them, communist rulers in eastern European were as uninspiring as the cautious centrists who hogged power in Western democracies. They were all grey men in suits. Castro had led a guerrilla army and wore battle fatigues. As the French writer Régis Debray explained in Revolution in the Revolution? – a book revered among the students – Castro’s band of revolutionaries didn’t start with a political programme; they developed one during “the struggle”. Their ideology grew organically in the mountains of Cuba’s Sierra Maestra.

This do-it-yourself approach seemed liberating to idealistic young people who didn’t want to bother with the tedious mechanics of bourgeois democracy or the dreary texts of Marxism-Leninism. They had permission for “direct action” whenever they felt like it without needing to ­formulate aims and objectives. They couldn’t, unfortunately, see their way to forming a guerrilla army in the Scottish Highlands or the Brecon Beacons but they could occupy a university refectory or two in Colchester or Coventry.

 

Caution over coaches

Commenting on Radio 5 Live on the case of Barry Bennell, the Crewe Alexandra coach convicted in 1998 of sexual offences against boys aged nine to 15 (the case came to fresh attention because several former professional football players went public about the abuse), an academic said that 5 per cent of boys reported being sexually abused in sport. “That’s one boy on every football pitch, every cricket pitch, every rugby pitch in the country,” he added.

This is precisely the kind of statement that turns perfectly reasonable concerns about inadequate vigilance into public hysteria. The figure comes from an online survey carried out in 2011 by the University of Edinburgh for the NSPCC. The sample of 6,000 was self-selected from emails to 250,000 students aged 18 to 22, who were asked about their experiences of physical, emotional and sexual harm in sport while aged 16 or under. “We do not make claims for the representativeness of our sample,” the researchers state.

Even if 5 per cent is accurate, the suggestion that abusers stalk every playing field in the land is preposterous. After the Jimmy Savile revelations, just about every DJ from the 1960s and 1970s fell under suspicion – along with other prominent figures, including ex-PMs – and some were wrongly arrested. Let’s hope something similar doesn’t happen to football coaches.

 

Shut up, Tony

Brexit “can be stopped”, Tony Blair told this magazine last week. No doubt it can, but I do wish Blair and other prominent Remain supporters would shut up about it. The Brexiteers have spent 20 years presenting themselves as victims of an elite conspiracy to silence them. Committed to this image, they cannot now behave with the grace usually expected of winners. Rather, they must behave as though convinced that the prize will shortly be snatched from them, and treat any statement from Remainers, no matter how innocuous, with suspicion and resentment. Given enough rope, they will, one can reasonably hope, eventually hang themselves.

 

Strictly Balls

Perhaps, however, Nigel Farage et al are justified in their paranoia. As I observed here last week, the viewers of Strictly Come Dancing, in the spirit of voters who backed Brexit and Donald Trump, struck more blows against elite experts by keeping Ed Balls in the competition even after judges gave him abysmal ratings. Now it is all over. The BBC contrived a “dance-off” in which only the judges’ votes counted. 

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

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