Maximum efficiency at maintaining professional standards

Alice O'Keeffe's "Squeezed Middle" column.

The computer screen is swimming in front of my eyes. I pull together every fibre of mental strength to finish my sentence: “. . . streamlining the governance structures of the organisation for maximum . . .” For maximum what? Accountability? Efficiency? Cabbage? Impact! Impact. Phew.

This is my first attempt to work since baby Moe was born. Isla, a former colleague who now has a high-up job in the arts, has asked me to help write an annual report. I get a decent day rate and I can do it from home. If I don’t mess it up, there may be more work forthcoming.

This is a cheering prospect, as we are crazily broke. My clothes are actually threadbare: the other day, I was chatting to some rather stylish mothers outside Larry’s nursery and only realised when I got home that my jeans had ripped right across the arse – and not in an on-trend way. Also, the fateful day on which we will have to renew the car insurance is looming. So I am definitely not in a position to look a gift horse in the mouth.

The problem is that baby Moe is still not sleeping properly. For a reason I have not yet managed to identify, he wakes up several times a night and often howls for more than an hour before, equally inexplicably, popping his thumb into his mouth and drifting off again. I have ruled out hunger, illness and teething. Cuddles work but only temporarily. Even Calpol seems to be losing its magic.

I am trying to implement a draconian sleep-training regime but it is difficult when you are so exhausted that you would gladly pawn your own grandmother for an unbroken four hours. Last night was particularly bad. At one point, I found myself semiconscious on the floor, with Moe draped across my face.

Anyway, here I am, a Writing and Editing Professional. I’m still in my pyjamas, yes, and smeared with porridge, maybe, but I’m nevertheless the Solution To All Your Editorial Needs.

“Er, I think he needs a feed.” Curly pokes his head around the door. He has been trying to keep Moe quiet in the other room so I can concentrate. I stagger across the room, crashland on the sofa and take Moe in my arms. As he suckles away, a delicious wave of relaxation sweeps over me. I lean my head back and close my eyes, just for a moment, until . . . “Babe, I’m sorry, I’ve gotta go.” Curly has his hand on my shoulder. I wrench my head from the cushions and stare at him uncomprehendingly. Go? But his course doesn’t start until seven. And I’ve only got to page three of the report. And the deadline is tomorrow. “I’m sorry. I didn’t want to wake you up.”

He strokes my head. Moe, who after this marathon nap will definitely be awake all night, nuzzles innocently into my armpit. “Perhaps you should tell them you can’t do this work. You’re not ready.”

“I can’t pull out now!” I disentangle myself and run wildly back to my desk, my hair a mess. “I’ve committed . . . my reputation . . . have some standards . . . I’m a professional!”.

Alice O'Keeffe's "Squeezed Middle" column appears weekly in the New Statesman magazine.

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 15 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The New Machiavelli

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Expressions of sympathy for terror's victims may seem banal, but it's better than the alternative

Angry calls for "something to be done" play into terrorists' hands.

No sooner had we heard of the dreadful Manchester Arena bombing and before either the identity of the bomber or the number of dead were known, cries of “something must be done” echoed across social media and the airwaves. Katie Hopkins, the Mail Online columnist, called for “a final solution”, a tweet that was rapidly deleted, presumably after she remembered (or somebody explained to her) its connotations. The Telegraph columnist Allison Pearson wanted “a State of Emergency as France has” and “internment of thousands of terror suspects”, apparently unaware that the Nice attack, killing 86, happened after that emergency was declared and that nobody has been interned anyway.

It cannot be said too often that such responses play into terrorists’ hands, particularly if Isis was behind the Manchester bombing. The group’s aim is to convince Muslims in the West that they and their families cannot live in peace with the in-fidel and will be safe only if they join the group in establishing a caliphate. Journalists, striving for effect, often want to go beyond ­banal expressions of sympathy for ­victims. (It’s a mistake I, too, have sometimes made.) But occasionally the banal is the appropriate response.

Pity begins at home

Mark Twain, writing about the “terror” that followed the French Revolution and brought “the horror of swift death”, observed that there was another, older and more widespread, terror that brought “lifelong death from hunger, cold, insult, cruelty and heartbreak”. The first, he wrote, we had been “diligently taught to shiver and mourn over”; the other we had never learned to see “in its vastness or pity as it deserves”.

That is true: more children across the world die each day from hunger or disease than could ever be killed in a terror attack. We should not forget them. Nor should we forget that the numbers killed in terrorist attacks in, for example, Baghdad far outnumber those killed in all European attacks of our times combined. In an age of globalisation, we should be more cosmopolitan in our sympathies but the immediacy of 24-hour news make us less so.

When all is said and done, however, pity, like charity, begins at home. We naturally grieve most over those with whom we share a country and a way of life. Most of us have been to concerts and some readers will have been to one at the Manchester Arena. We or our children could have been present.

Cheers from Highgate Cemetery

What a shame that Theresa May modified the Tory manifesto’s proposals on social care. For a few giddy days, she was proposing the most steeply progressive (or confiscatory, as the Tories would normally say) tax in history. True, it was only for those unfortunate enough to suffer conditions such as dementia, but the principle is what counts. It would have started at zero for those with assets of less than £100,000, 20 per cent for those with £120,000, 50 per cent for those worth £200,000, 99 per cent with those with £10m and so on, ad infinitum. Karl Marx would have been cheering from Highgate Cemetery.

Given that most people’s main asset – the value of their home – did not have to be sold to meet their care costs until death, this was in effect an inheritance tax. It had tantalising implications: to secure their inheritance, children of the rich would have had to care for their parents, possibly sacrificing careers and risking downward mobility, while the children of the poor could have dedicated themselves to seeking upward mobility.

The Tories historically favour, in John Major’s words, wealth cascading down the generations. In recent years they have all but abolished inheritance tax. Now they have unwittingly (or perhaps wittingly, who knows?) conceded that what they previously branded a “death tax” has some legitimacy. Labour, which proposes a National Care Service but optimistically expects “cross-party consensus” on how to finance it, should now offer the clarity about old age that many voters crave. Inheritance tax should be earmarked for the care service, which would be free at the point of use, and it should be levied on all estates worth (say) £100,000 at progressive rates (not rising above even 50 per cent, never mind 99 per cent) that yield sufficient money to fund it adequately.

Paul Dacre’s new darling

Paul Dacre, the Daily Mail editor, is in love again. “At last, a PM not afraid to be honest with you,” proclaimed the paper’s front page on Theresa May’s manifesto. Though the Mail has previously argued that to make old people use housing wealth to fund care is comparable to the slaughter of the first-born, an editorial said that her honesty was exemplified by the social care proposals.

On the morning of the very day that May U-turned, the Mail columnist Dominic Lawson offered a convoluted defence of the failure to cap what people might pay. Next day, with a cap announced, the Mail hailed “a PM who’s listening”.

Dacre was previously in love with Gordon Brown, though not to the extent of recommending a vote for him. What do Brown and May have in common? Patriotism, moral values, awkward social manners, lack of metropolitan glitz and, perhaps above all, no evident sense of humour. Those are the qualities that win Paul Dacre’s heart.

Sobering up

Much excitement in the Wilby household about opinion polls that show Labour reducing the Tories’ enormous lead to, according to YouGov, “only” 9 percentage points. I find myself babbling about ­“Labour’s lead”. “What are you talking about?” my wife asks. When I come to my senses, I realise that my pleasure at the prospect, after seven years of Tory austerity, of limiting the Tories’ majority to 46 – more than Margaret Thatcher got in 1979 – is a measure of my sadly diminished expectations. l

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 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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