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Everything I Know About Love is a shockingly intimate memoir from former sex columnist Dolly Alderton

This is not the story of a “bored and sad and lonely” girl, but something much better – a wonderful writer.

Until recently, I would have placed dating columnists somewhere between car-testers and topiary-correspondents in the hack hierarchy – and past the age of 25, surely it’s a sign that you’ve been sexually rejected by a generation? There’s an exception to this rule, though; if the go-getter is a) gorgeous and b) a good writer, with one bound book they are free.

You wait for ages, then two come along at once: immediately before this, I read Emily Hill’s debut short story collection Bad Romance, in which she effortlessly graduated from being a Sunday Times dating columnist to the Saki of sex. And here is a book from her predecessor, Dolly Alderton, which is nothing short (rather like the 6ft-tall Dolly) of breathtakingly beautiful (ditto).

Virtue-signalling is one of the most irritating cultural tics of our time, and an exceptionally high proportion of young female writers go in for it. Which is a shame and also retrogressive, as it’s just another way of being a good ickle girl trying to get a different kind of male approval at a stage of your life when you should be throwing caution to the wind and being a total self-serving bitch. Such suck-ups also tend to be mimsies who bore on about “self-care” (which is merely self-pity with added vibrators), whereas Alderton’s idea of self-care is a threesome with Ben and Jerry.

Though she’s a middle-class miss from the north London suburbs, there’s something pleasingly Everygirl about her, which the likes of Lena Dunham and Laurie Penny so woefully lack. She’s the opposite of a snowflake – she’s a big, glinting snowball with a razor blade inside.

This book is almost shockingly intimate; the autobiographical writing is so rich, so affecting that without a little leavening it might be necessary to lay it aside every ten minutes in order to maintain some kind of equanimity. But luckily it’s pleasingly interspersed with flashbacks to what Alderton knew about love as a teenager (“Romantic love is the most important and exciting thing in the entire world”), at 21 (“When you are thin enough, you’ll be happy with who you are and then you’ll be worthy of love”), at 25 (“If a man loves you because you are thin, he’s no man at all”) and up to date at 28 (“It is no person’s job to be the sole provider of your happiness. Sorry.”) Also vegetarian hangover recipes (“Got Kicked Out of The Club Sandwich”) and snarky fake group email messages from the sort of self-caring snowflakes whose sororities it would be worth having a sex-change in order to avoid: “There will be craft beer. The Death Of Hackney tastes like fizzy Marmite and smells like a urinary tract infection and is yours for £13  a bottle. Enjoy!”

In these mis-mem dog-days, it’s refreshing to read a young woman who feels no need to pathologise pleasure in order to turn a crisis into a drama. Alderton likes a drink (“Pouring alcohol into my brain was like pouring water into squash – everything diluted and mellowed”) and becomes so drunk that at one point she believes that she is in Oxford city centre when she is actually outside Oxford Circus Topshop. On the heartbreak diet, she feels “like a high-speed train that was magically running on empty”. Her account of her coke-sniffing days is so on the nose it made me wince in recognition.

But looking back at her lost years, Alderton sees the empty glasses as being metaphorically half-full and concludes that “a lot of it was magnificent, carefree fun”. Writing about friendship, she shines most of all:

In over fifteen years, I have never gone more than a few hours without thinking about her… Without the love of Farly, I am just a heap of frayed and half-finished thought; of blood and muscle and skin and bone and unachievable dreams… my mess only takes on a proper shape with that familiar and favourite piece of my life standing next to me.

Alderton is an old soul – not just because of her appreciation for Gene Kelly and Paul Simon but because she has learned life lessons while not yet out of her twenties that many of us post-menopausal matrons are still struggling with. This is the story of a “bored and sad and lonely” girl stranded in suburbia who became not the woman she dreamed of being – “elegant and slim and wearing black dresses and drinking Martinis” – but something much better; a wonderful writer, who will surely inspire a generation the way that Caitlin Moran and my sensational self did before her. 

Everything I Know About Love
Dolly Alderton
Fig Tree, 336pp, £12.99

This article first appeared in the 08 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The new age of rivalry

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“I want the state to think like an anarchist”: Dutch historian Rutger Bregman on why the left must reclaim utopianism

The Dutch thinker advocates global open borders, a universal basic income and a 15-hour working week. 

History consists of the impossible becoming the inevitable. Universal suffrage, the abolition of slavery and the welfare state were all once dismissed as fantastical dreams. But in the Western world, politics today often feels devoid of the idealism and ambition of previous generations. As the mainstream left has struggled to define its purpose, the right has offered superficially seductive solutions (from Brexit to border walls).

One of those seeking to resolve what he calls a “crisis of imagination” is the Dutch historian and journalist Rutger Bregman. His book Utopia for Realists advocates policies including a universal basic income (a guaranteed minimum salary for all citizens), a 15-hour working week and global open borders. Since its publication last year, Bregman’s manifesto has been translated into more than 20 languages, establishing him as one of Europe’s pre-eminent young thinkers.

“I was born in 1988, one year before the fall of the Berlin Wall, and people of my generation were taught that utopian dreams are dangerous,” Bregman recalled when we met for coffee at the London office of his publisher Bloomsbury. A softly-spoken but forceful character, dressed casually in a light blue jacket, jeans and Nike Air trainers, Bregman continued: “It seemed that the age of big ideas was over. Politics had just become technocracy and politicians just managers.”

Bregman’s imagination was fired by anarchist thinkers such as the Russian philosopher Peter Kropotkin. He identifies with the left libertarian tradition, which emphasises individual freedom from both market and state domination. Another formative influence was Russell Jacoby, Bregman’s history professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, whose book The Last Intellectuals (2000) lamented the decline of the polymath in an era of academic specialisation. Utopia for Realists, a rigorously argued and lucidly written work, fuses insights from history, politics, philosophy and economics. Bregman echoes Oscar Wilde’s sentiment: “A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at.”

Such romanticism partly filled the void left by Bregman’s loss of religious faith at the age of 18 (his father was a Protestant minister in the church opposite the family home in Zoetermeer, western Netherlands). “Maybe utopianism is my form of religion in a world without God,” Bregman mused.

For him, utopia is not a dogma to be ruthlessly imposed but a liberating and inclusive vision. It would be “completely ludicrous”, Bregman remarked, for a Western politician to suddenly propose global open borders. Rather, such ideals should animate progressive reforms: one could call it incremental utopianism.

“History will tell you that borders are not inevitable, they hardly existed at the end of the 19th century,” Bregman observed. “And the data is behind me.” Economists liken the present system to leaving “trillion-dollar bills on the sidewalk” and estimate that allowing migrants to move to any country they choose would increase global GDP by between 67 and 147 per cent.

The thoughtful Conservative MP Nick Boles recently objected to a universal basic income on the grounds that “mankind is hard-wired to work. We gain satisfaction from it. It gives us a sense of identity, purpose and belonging”.

Bregman did not dispute this but argued for a radical redefinition of work. “A YouGov poll in 2015 found that 37 per cent of British workers think their own job is absolutely meaningless,” he noted. Rather than such “bullshit jobs” (to use the anthropologist David Graeber’s phrase), work should be defined as “doing something of value, making this world a little more interesting, richer, beautiful – whether that’s paid or unpaid doesn’t really matter.”

In Utopia for Realists, Bregman decries “underdog socialism”: a left that is defined by what it is against (austerity, privatisation, racism), rather than what it is for. How does he view the ascent of Jeremy Corbyn? “Most of the ideas are sensible but they’re a bit old-fashioned, it felt like stepping into a time machine,” Bregman said of the 2017 Labour manifesto (which majored on renationalisation). Yet he recognised that Corbyn had expanded the limits of the possible. “All this time, people were saying that Labour shouldn’t become too radical or it will lose votes. The election showed that, in fact, Labour wasn’t radical enough.”

“We need a completely different kind of democracy, a society where you don’t think purely in terms of representation,” Bregman explained, citing the Brazilian city Porto Alegre’s pioneering experiments in participatory democracy (citizens’ assemblies, for instance, determine public spending priorities). “I call it the anarchist state. The anarchists want to abolish the state; what I want to do is to make the state think like an anarchist.”

Rutger Bregman has a fundamentally optimistic view of human nature: “People are pretty nice” (his next book will challenge “the long intellectual history in the West that says, deep down, we’re all animals, we’re all beasts”).

He dismissed those who cite the 20th century – the age of Stalinism and fascism – as proof of the ruinous consequences of utopian thought. “People are always yearning for a bigger story to be part of, it’s not enough to live our own private lives. If you don’t give them [people] hope, they’ll go for something else.” 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist