The author on the red carpet for The Falling. Photo: Stuart C. Wilson/Getty Images for BFI
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Back in front of the cameras this week – and posing doesn’t get any easier

The more we acknowledge that it hurts when someone is cruel about your appearance, the closer we might get to being kinder.

I've had my photo taken quite a lot in the last couple of weeks, being at the start of another promotional merry-go-round, and it never fails to amaze me how difficult it is; how, after all these years, the simple process of having a camera in front of my face can reduce me to jelly. I know I’m not alone here, and in fact I wonder whether the great joy of the selfie lies in the absence of any photographer looking at you. No human eye staring and judging, just that impartial lens, and you can delete and delete until you’re happy with the result.

At a photo shoot so much depends on the social skill and personality of the photographer. Thrillingly, one of them told me recently that I was “very photogenic” – and astonishingly this was after a menopausal hot flush had postponed the start of make-up until a fan, or air-conditioning, or a window to stick my head out of could be found. Then at a different shoot a few days later, the film director Carol Morley and I were reprimanded for being “hopeless at chilling”. Guess which of those two comments made me more relaxed in front of the camera?

So they vary, these sessions, and can go either way. I used to love working with Juergen Teller, with his camera-in-each-hand, gunslinging approach. Point and shoot, point and shoot, he’d go, sometimes while wearing a sarong. There was a hint of danger, but it was arty danger, not pervy danger, and at least he never minded you looking like yourself. Pretty wasn’t the point, interesting was. And Marcelo Krasilcic – who took the photos that produced Everything But the Girl’s Walking Wounded album cover – made me and Ben look like a glamorous version of ourselves; again, he seemed to like what he found and just wanted to make the best of it.

On the other hand, there’s a photographer out there who apparently describes me on his website as the most unpleasant person he has ever had to work with, and I imagine that’s because he frightened and brought out the worst in me, back when I was young and fear made me snappy and defensive. Equally, it can be frustrating that editors often have their own, predetermined idea of how I should look, so I can stare defiantly down the barrel of the lens for 19 frames, but turn to gaze wistfully through the window on the 20th, and that’s the shot chosen.

Being photographed and looked at is rarely easy for those of us without model/film-star looks. Sarah Millican wrote last year about her experience of attending the Baftas as a nominee and presenter. Thrilled to be there, she was nonetheless intimidated – “I had a few awkward photos taken by the wall of paparazzi. Awkward as I’m not a model (I’m a comedian), have never learnt how to pose on a red carpet (I’m a comedian)” – and devastated afterwards by cruel comments about her dress. In a moment of honesty that brought cheers of support and recognition from other women, she confessed that the criticisms had been “like a pin to my excitable red balloon . . . My dress . . . was destroyed by the masses . . . I cried in the car.”

I’ve put up with this kind of stuff throughout my career, albeit on a smaller scale, as most of my pop-star days pre-dated the internet (for which, in this instance, I am extremely grateful). But I remember make-up artists and cameramen huddling and whispering as they tried, not very tactfully, to work out how to prettify me. I remember being told to hold my stomach in, despite weighing eight and a half stone, and I remember a video where my make-up melted and my ears went red, and how I had to keep singing despite feeling ugly. I look at the video now and think I look beautiful. Of course I did: I was 23.

But I tell you all this not in a downhearted way, or fishing for compliments, but more in a spirit of hope that the more we say these things out loud – as Sarah Millican so wonderfully did – the more we acknowledge that it hurts when someone is cruel about your appearance, the closer we might get to being kinder. And then being photographed will be easy! Some hope.

Tracey Thorn appears at the Cambridge Literary Festival on 18 April (for more details visit: cambridgeliteraryfestival.com) and Wapping Project Mayfair, London W1, on 30 April (newstatesman.com/events)

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 17 April 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Election Special

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France is changing: an army stalks the streets and Boris Johnson wanders the Tuileries

Will Self on the militarisation of France, and Boris Johnson at the Foreign Office.

At the corner of the rue D’Hauteville and the rue de Paradis in the tenth arrondissement of Paris is a retro-video-games-themed bar, Le Fantôme, which is frequented by some not-so-jeunes gens – the kind of thirtysomethings nostalgic for an era when you had to go to an actual place if you wanted to enter virtual space. They sit placidly behind the plate-glass windows zapping Pac-Men and Space Invaders, while outside another – and rather more lethal – sort of phantom stalks the sunlit streets.

I often go to Paris for work, and so have been able to register the incremental militarisation of its streets since President Hollande first declared a state of emergency after last November’s terrorist attacks. In general the French seem more comfortable about this prêt-à-porter khaki than we’d probably be; the army-nation concept is, after all, encrypted deep in their collective psyche. The army was constituted as a revolutionary instrument. France was the first modern nation to introduce universal male conscription – and it continued in one form or another right up until the mid-1990s.

Even so, it was surprising to witness the sang-froid with which Parisians regarded the camouflaged phantoms wandering among them: a patrol numbering eight ­infantrymen and women moved up the roadway, scoping out doorways, nosing into passages – but when one peered into Le Fantôme, his assault rifle levelled, none of the boozing gamers paid the least attention. I witnessed this scene the Saturday after Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel ran amok on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice – it was a little preview of the new state of emergency.

On Monday 18 July the French premier, Manuel Valls, was booed at a memorial service for the victims of the Nice attacks – while Marine Le Pen has been making all the populist running, whipping up anxieties about the enemy within. For many French, the events of the past week – including the failed Turkish coup – are steps along the way limned by Michel Houellebecq in his bestselling novel Submission; a via dolorosa that ends with La Marianne wearing the hijab and France itself annexed by a new caliphate.

Into this febrile drama comes a new player: Boris Johnson, the British Foreign Secretary. What can we expect from this freshly minted statesman when it comes to our relations with our closest neighbour? There is no doubt that Johnson is a Francophile – I’ve run into him and his family at the Tuileries, and he made much of his own francophone status during the referendum campaign. In Paris last winter to launch the French edition of his Churchill biography, Johnson wowed a publication dinner by speaking French for the entire evening. He was sufficiently fluent to bumble, waffle and generally avoid saying anything serious at all.

Last Sunday I attended the Lambeth Country Show, an oxymoronic event for which the diverse inhabitants of my home borough gather in Brockwell Park, south London, for jerked and halal chicken, funfair rides, Quidditch-watching, and “country-style” activities, such as looking at farm animals and buying their products. Wandering among ancient Rastafarians with huge shocks of dreadlocks, British Muslims wearing immaculate white kurtas blazoned with “ASK ME ABOUT ISLAM” and crusty old Brixton punks, I found it quite impossible to rid my mind of the Nice carnage – or stop wondering how they would react if armed soldiers were patrolling, instead of tit-helmeted, emphatically unarmed police.

I stepped into the Royal Horticultural Society marquee, and there they were: the entire cast of our end-of-the-pier-show politics, in vegetable-sculpture form and arrayed for judging. There was Jeremy Corbyn (or “Cornbin”) made out of corncobs – and Boris Johnson in the form of a beetroot, being stabbed in the back by a beetroot Michael Gove. And over there was Johnson again, this time rendered in cabbage. The veggie politicians were the big draw, Brixtonians standing six-deep around them, iPhones aloft.

The animal (as opposed to the vegetable) Johnson has begun his diplomatic rounds this week, his first démarches as tasteless and anodyne as cucumber. No British abandonment of friends after Brexit . . . Coordinated response to terror threat . . . Call for Erdogan to be restrained in response to failed coup . . . Blah-blah, whiff-whaff-waffle . . . Even someone as gaffe-prone as he can manage these simple lines, but I very much doubt he will be able to produce rhetorical flourishes as powerful as his hero’s. In The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History, Johnson writes of Winnie overcoming “his stammer and his depression and his ­appalling father to become the greatest living Englishman”. Well, I’ve no idea if Bojo suffers from depression now but he soon will if he cleaves to this role model. His Churchill-worship (like so many others’) hinges on his belief that, without Churchill as war leader, Britain would have been ground beneath the Nazi jackboot. It may well be that, with his contribution to the Brexit campaign, Johnson now feels he, too, has wrested our national destiny from the slavering jaws of contingency.

Of course the differences between the two politicians are far more significant: Johnson’s genius – such as it is – lies in his intuitive understanding that politics, in our intensely mediatised and entirely commoditised era, is best conceived of as a series of spectacles or stunts: nowadays you can fool most of the people, most of the time. This is not a view you can imagine associating with Churchill, who, when his Gallipoli stratagem went disastrously wrong, exiled himself, rifle in hand, to the trenches. No, the French people Johnson both resembles and has an affinity for are the ones caught up in the virtual reality of Le Fantôme – rather than those patrolling the real and increasingly mean streets without. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt