The resulting programme that your columnist did not appear in. Photo: BBC/Wingspan Productions/Richard Ranken
Show Hide image

Why I was edited out of Victoria Coren Mitchell’s BBC4 show about “bohemians”

This programme and I have a history.

I am standing in the second-hand bookshop, waiting. The man in front of me has brought along a pile of issues of The Face that I recognise from the 1980s and 1990s. One, with Transvision Vamp’s Wendy James on the cover, I remember fondly. (If you do not consider their 1989 hit “Baby I Don’t Care” a glorious song, you are dead to me.) The buyer at the counter does a sum in his head. “Sixty pounds cash, £120 exchange,” he says.

This is excellent news. Dire financial necessity has brought me to this shop, as well as the encroaching upon my Lebensraum of several weeks’ worth of review copies. The two situations mesh nicely and the ex-wife has agreed to give me and the eight boxes of books a lift into Notting Hill. It is important that I get a good price for them and if they’re going to give away 60 big ones for a pile of ancient Faces, they’re going to go crazy over my review copies, each of which has been a wrench to part with and is a significant contribution to the literary consciousness of our time.

“Fifty-three cash, £106 exchange,” says the buyer.

“Oh, come on,” I feel like saying. I have taken an old Penguin collection of G K Chesterton’s essays from the shop’s shelves, priced at two quid, and am wondering whether to put it back. “Cash,” I say, wearily.

The man, young enough to be my son, looks at me with something approaching pity. “Call it £55,” he says. I wave my Chesterton at him. (This sounds naughty but isn’t.) He tilts his head to indicate that he’ll chuck that in for free, too. Well, £55. That helps the finances considerably and also allows me to nip over the road to the Uxbridge and say hello to a few people over a pint.

This recent incident came back to me vividly as I watched, on my manky laptop, Victoria Coren Mitchell’s BBC4 show How to Be Bohemian. This programme and I have a history. Because I was once rash enough to write here that the Hovel represented one of London’s last surviving examples of true bohemia, someone thought it would be a good idea to interview me for the show and emailed me. I replied that, in my experience, involvement with TV production companies means that they come round and pinch my best ideas and two hours of my time for no money and I do not appear on television. They said, “How does £150 sound?” I said we had a deal.

Things got a bit sticky when two 12-year-olds from the production company came round and picked my brains for two hours and, at the end of it, asked me if I had any questions. “Yes,” I said. “Where’s my money?” (Not my exact words. I give you the gist.) “Ah,” they said, “what we have just undergone was not actually an interview.” At which point the atmosphere, hitherto congenial, curdled and I sent them off, with imprecations, back to their lairs. I mentioned this to my compañero Will Self and not only did he say that he had been collared for the programme (at, I suspect, a somewhat higher rate than mine) but he told me to write to them instantly and tell them that if they did not pay up, he wouldn’t appear on their show. This was writerly solidarity of a high order and I protested but he insisted.

So even though, in the end, Victoria Coren Mitchell came round to interview me and I got my £150, the filming process was fraught. I was grumpy and hung-over and said that anyone who called themselves a bohemian probably wasn’t and the idea of being considered bohemian, or wanting to be so considered, was silly in the extreme and that if you go back to the source, Henri Murger’s Scènes de la vie de bohème, you’ll see that the defining condition of bohemianism is poverty and if we say, for the sake of argument, that bohemianism is a definable, non-ridiculous condition, if you’re able to afford a holiday abroad in a hotel, then, honey, you ain’t bohemian.

Victoria asked me why I didn’t “find a nice lady off the internet” or, in order to combat penury, drive a minicab in the evenings. Having never been asked such questions before in my life, I could only reply with a startled silence. Hence the return to my home in TV land: the cutting room floor.

I could only manage 15 minutes of the second episode in the series before giving up on it. This is not Ms C M’s fault: she is an experienced broadcaster who delivers what the format demands. At least I got to see Will making the point about rich bohemians being frauds. As for me? Baby, I don’t care. 

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 June 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Bush v Clinton 2

Photo: Martin Whitfield
Show Hide image

Labour MP for East Lothian Martin Whitfield: "I started an argument and ended up winning an election"

The former primary school teacher still misses home. 

Two months ago, Martin Whitfield was a primary school teacher in Prestonpans, a small town along the coast from Edinburgh. Then he got into an argument. It was a Saturday morning shortly after the snap election had been called, and he and other members of the local Labour party began discussing a rumour that the candidate would be an outsider.

“I started an argument that this was ridiculous, we couldn’t have a candidate helicoptered in,” he recalls. He pointed out that one of the main issues with the Scottish National Party incumbent, the economist and journalist George Kerevan, was that he was seen as an outsider.

“I kept arguing for an hour and a half and people started gently moving away,” he jokes. “About two days later I was still going on, and I thought enough’s enough.” 

He called Iain Gray, the Scottish Labour veteran, who interrupted him. “He said, 'Right Martin, are you going to put up or shut up?’ So I filled in the forms.

"Then I had to have a very interesting conversation with my wife.”

One successful election campaign later, he is sitting in the airy, glass-roofed atrium of Westminster’s Portcullis House. Whitfield has silver hair, glasses, and wears a Labour-red tie with his shirt. He looks every bit the approachable primary school teacher, and sometimes he forgets he isn’t anymore. 

I ask how the school reacted to his election bid, and he begins “I have”, and then corrects himself: “There is a primary four class I had the pleasure to teach.” The children wanted to know everything from where parliament was, to his views on education and independence. He took unpaid leave to campaign. 

“Actually not teaching the children was the hardest thing,” he recalls. “During the campaign I kept bumping into them when I was door-knocking.”

Whitfield was born in Newcastle, in 1965, to Labour-supporting parents. “My entire youth was spent with people who were socialists.”

His father was involved in the Theatre Workshop, founded by the left-wing director Joan Littlewood. “We were part of a community which supported each other and found value in that support in art and in theatre,” he says. “That is hugely important to me.” 

He trained as a lawyer, but grew disillusioned with the profession and retrained as a teacher instead. He and his wife eventually settled in Prestonpans, where they started a family and he “fought like mad” to work at the local school. She works as the marketing manager for the local theatre.

He believes he won his seat – one of the first to be touted as a possible Labour win – thanks to a combination of his local profile, the party’s position on independence and its manifesto, which “played brilliantly everywhere we discussed it”. 

It offered hope, he says: “As far as my doorstep discussion in East Lothian went, some people were for and against Jeremy Corbyn, some people were for and against Kezia Dugdale, but I didn’t find anyone who was against the manifesto.”

Whitfield’s new job will mean long commutes on the East Coast line, but he considers representing the constituency a “massive, massive honour”. When I ask him about East Lothian, he can’t stop talking.

“MPs do tend to say ‘my constituency’s a microcosm’, but it really is Scotland in miniature. We have a fishing industry, crabs and lobsters, the agricultural areas – the agricultural soil is second to none.” The area was also historically home to heavy industry. 

After his first week in Westminster, Whitfield caught the train back to Scotland. “That bit when I got back into East Lothian was lovely moment,” he says. “I was home.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

0800 7318496