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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

Terry Notary's simian appearance as performance artist Oleg in The Square
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Ruben Östlund’s film The Square hammers home the point that we are all still animals

 Each thread and simian guest star shows how little distance there is between the civilised and the primitive.

Yasmina Reza’s play Art, about three friends whose closeness is threatened when one of them spends a fortune on an entirely white painting, offered audiences a series of packaged talking points (Does objective taste exist? What is art?) for their post-theatre meal. Ruben Östlund’s film The Square, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes last year, serves the same function. Before the first scene is over, the Stockholm curator Christian (Claes Bang), a vision of metropolitan spiffiness in his red-framed glasses, has already wondered whether an ordinary bag placed in a gallery would qualify as art. In his current exhibition is a room filled with piles of gravel. A visitor pokes his head in, decides there’s nothing worth investigating, then leaves. We’ve all done it.

Like the canvas in Reza’s play, there is a catalyst for disorder here: the blue neon square set into the gallery’s courtyard. It is conceived as “a sanctuary of trust and caring” but its arrival throws everyone’s behaviour into sharp relief. A woman screams for help as she is pursued by an unseen aggressor, prompting everyone around her to become more than usually engrossed in their phones. Charity workers ask commuters whether they would like to save a human life, only to be given the brush-off. Christian’s relationship with poverty is squeamish. He buys a sandwich for a homeless woman. “No onions,” she says. “Pick them out yourself,” he snaps, incredulous to find that beggars can also be choosers.

His downfall, which starts after he hatches a cockamamie scheme to retrieve his stolen wallet and phone by leafleting the housing estate where he believes the thieves are hiding, is the thread on which the film’s provocative episodes are hung. Each one, such as the gallery chef flying into a rage because no one wants to hear about his balsamic reduction, shows how little distance there is between the civilised and the primitive. A series of simian guest stars, real and pretend, make cameo appearances to hammer home the point that we are all still animals, no matter how many private views we attend. These include the performance artist Oleg (Terry Notary), whose confrontational appearance imitating an ape at a black-tie dinner – not just scene-stealing but film-stealing – exposes the instincts of the herd to conform, even if that means ignoring violence taking place at the next table.

That sequence crystallises ideas that in other parts of the film feel distinctly wishy-washy. Jibes about pretentious artists (a cameo from Dominic West) or crass advertising executives smack of the contrived bugbears of clickbait columnists – what next, jokes about quinoa served on slates? And a section of the film about a bad-taste campaign to promote the neon square will seem penetrating only to viewers who have never considered that ad agencies might stir up controversy for publicity purposes.

Östlund is sharper when he focuses on the discord beneath everyday social interactions, using sound and camerawork to disrupt supposedly simple scenes. He prefers when shooting a conversation, for instance, to linger too long on one participant, rather than cutting back and forth between them, so that we begin to interrogate and mistrust the face we’re looking at. Stand-offs between Christian and the journalist Anne (Elisabeth Moss), including an excruciating argument over a condom, show this technique at its most blissfully torturous.

He is a director who is never more comfortable than when he is making audiences squirm, as he did in Force Majeure, in which a man neglects his family but not his phone when fleeing danger. But the situation in The Square, which escalates to the point where Christian must ignore a child’s suffering in order to safeguard his own existence, would have greater moral force if the film showed any interest in its poorer characters as something other than lightning rods for middle-class complacency.

The Square is undeniably entertaining, though its lasting use may be to demonstrate that movies can have the same effect as popping a coin in the collecting tin. Having seen the film, you can rest easy knowing you’ve already given. You’ve done your guilt for this week.

The Square (15)
dir: Ruben Östlund

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Putin’s spy game