Bearing down: Miliband used the phrase so many times it was like being in a maternity ward. Photo: Getty
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Bearing down: how Ed Miliband got tangled up in jargon

Antonia Quirke reviews World at One on Radio 4.

World at One
BBC Radio 4

Some praise for Martha Kearney. One of the memorable things about her lunchtime interview with Ed Miliband (16 May, 1pm) was the quiet, untriumphant way she stood back and allowed the politician to tie himself into knots with his favourite new phrase: “bearing down”. “The idea is to bear down on low-skilled immigration,” he said. “It’s important we bear down . . . I’m gonna bear down, er . . . I believe we should bear down as a country.” He said it no fewer than six times. It was like being in a maternity ward.

At least Miliband came over as a human being. Perhaps this was because Kearney, as his interlocutor, is evidently a well-balanced person not remotely interested in making World at One all about Martha Kearney – unlike Eddie Mair on PM, which has long been about the presenter fancying himself as a comedian and dropping all manner of “deadpan” routines into the show.

I suppose it is the destiny of all newsrooms to wind up a little like The Day Today. But John Humphrys’s Today interview with Nick Clegg on 15 May, on the subject of an EU referendum, only made him sound even more like a strange, Rumpelstiltskin figure who would fit right into Ron Burgundy’s crew in Anchorman, ever twisting the debate into yes-and-no questions and yelping victoriously when Clegg – perhaps foolishly – used the word “unpatriotic”.

Kearney managed to get Miliband to move from flatly refusing to “make false promises” about immigration to articulating a firm election pledge during the interview: that newcomers will have to “wait at least six months, if not longer”, before they can claim benefits.

She managed to achieve this in under two minutes. Often, she simply applies the word “perhaps” to the end of her sentences, opening the door to compromise. “With the freedom of movement, perhaps?” she  might say to Ed, building up to the more insistent, “What about now?”

You could sense Miliband’s pulse slow,  his natural discomfort fading, and he started to drop some of those unyielding phrases. (“No, I don’t think so. And let me tell you why!”) Kearney’s tone is key: it’s serene and never smug. But in truth her secret weapon as an interviewer is simply that she listens.

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 21 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Peak Ukip

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Drama without sensation: A Separation is an unsettling novel of distances

In Katie Kitamura’s novel, it is the distance between the narrator’s two selves that causes her most discomfort.

In a 2013 interview with Guernica, the online magazine, the novelist Katie Kitamura discussed how publishing’s “deeply patronising attitude” towards female readers results in overtly feminine book covers, featuring, for instance, women in bathing suits. “That’s not the kind of book cover that makes me want to buy a book,” she said.

The cover of Kitamura’s latest novel, A Separation, does, surprisingly, feature a woman in a bathing suit. But there is something quietly unsettling about this picture: the woman, who has her back to us, is awkwardly cropped out of frame from the elbows up, and she is sitting at the edge of an oddly shaped pool. Most of the cover is solid turquoise – a bright wash of negative space.

Kitamura’s unnamed narrator is a poised literary translator. As the novel opens in London, we learn that she is married to Christopher (a charming, haphazard non-author) but, in secret, they have been living separately for the past six months. When she receives a telephone call from Christopher’s mother, Isabella, informing her that he has seemingly gone missing in Greece, she doesn’t let on about her disintegrating marriage but boards a plane to look for him.

Much of the rest of the novel takes place in Greece: at a “very pleasant” hotel, in “perfect weather”, the pool “heated to a very comfortable temperature”. The area has recently experienced a string of devastating fires, leaving patches of scorched earth. The location has an almost eerie surface stillness that jars with the mystery at its heart. In this way, Kitamura (an art critic as well as novelist) creates a setting somehow reminiscent of David Hockney’s A Bigger Splash, Christopher’s sudden disappearance leaving behind no visible ripples.

The narrator, too, has a glassy composure at odds with the tumultuous events. On deciding to end her marriage formally, she shows neither despair nor relief, but anxiety about the etiquette. “I assumed – I had no prior experience to go on – that asking for a divorce was always discomfiting,” she says with typical understatement, “but I could not believe it was always this awkward.” Of her feelings for her new partner, Yvan, she notes that they seem more like “administration rather than passion”, and then offers a moderated gloss of Hamlet, “You cannot say you did it out of love, since at your age romantic passions have grown weak, and the heart obeys reason.

Her emotional separation from the trauma of her circumstances allows the narrator to examine the facts of her husband’s disappearance. She knows Christopher was unfaithful and she immediately identifies the hotel receptionist as the object of his attentions. We never see the narrator professionally translating, but the novel is concerned with her attempts to read the deeper meanings behind the remarks and behaviour of those around her. She finds it easy to imagine unseen contexts to conversations: an argument between Christopher’s parents, an embrace between her taxi driver and the hotel receptionist. As she writes, “Imagination, after all, costs nothing.”

Her propensity for projection is such that some things remain lost in translation. Even the most minute interactions can be misread. When Christopher’s mother comments that the two women’s love for her son connects them, “she was looking over my shoulder, as if watching someone approach . . . she was staring at nothing”. The novel occupies this imaginative negative space: the gap between what people think and how they appear.

Ultimately, it is the distance between the narrator’s two selves that causes her most discomfort. How long will she allow others to read her as the concerned, loving wife? Should she admit she wants to find Christopher in order to request that they separate officially? As her search continues she notes, “There was a small but definite wedge pushing between the person I was and the person I was purporting to be.”

There is a suspenseful and menacing tone to Kitamura’s prose that might trick a reader into thinking, at first, they are in the territory of thrillers such as Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train. Both these novels, like A Separation, have narrators who defy readers’ attempts to fathom their emotional depths and to deal with questions of how well you know anyone – even your own partner. But this is a work free of sensation, or even resolution. As the narrator notes, in the shock of an event it is natural to look for a more dramatic narrative. “But in the end,” she says, “this is only chasing shadows. The real culpability is not to be found in the dark or with a stranger, but in ourselves.”

A Separation by Katie Kitamura is published by Clerkenwell Press (231pp, £12.99)

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution