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The man at our table was a beggar, and he was asking Alistair Darling for change

Chancellors may be handy with big money – but they’re not quite as good at finding a quid for a beggar.

I do a 15-minute programme on BBC Radio 4 called David Baddiel Tries to Understand, in which I try to understand things that I feel most people, including myself, don’t. I don’t feel it, actually: I know it, as the non-understood subjects are suggested to me by people on Twitter.

Halfway through the last series, one of my followers asked me to explain “the International Monetary Fund and global macroeconomics”. In 15 minutes. So I thought I’d give it a go.

My process, on the road to enlightenment about these subjects, involves going to speak to the experts. For this particular programme, we managed to bag the former chancellor of the Exchequer under the last Labour government, Alistair Darling. Which was very exciting.

I met Alistair at a trendy-ish café in Holborn. He did a good job of explaining to me the intricacies of modern capitalism, and, as a bonus, told me how close Britain came, in 2008, to complete financial apocalypse.

“The major banks,” he said, with a hint of well-deserved pride, “were within three hours of actually running out of money, when I wrote them a cheque for £500bn.”

Alistair had just finished rolling his tongue around this ginormous sum, basking in his saviour moment, when I noticed that a man had appeared, standing in between the former chancellor’s chair and mine. I saw straight away that this man was not a waiter (unless the café’s shabby-chic aesthetic extended ironically to the staff – which it didn’t). He was a beggar.

Almost as if God, whom I don’t believe in, had decided to become a comedy director, the beggar said, to Alistair: “Do you have any spare change?”

And, almost as if God, whom I don’t believe in, was good at this new job, Alistair searched in his pockets for a minute, and then looked up and said, in his deep Scottish brogue: “No.”

I have no idea if the beggar had overheard the ex-chancellor’s words immediately before he appeared. I don’t know if he was aware of the deeper irony of a politician telling me how his actions had saved the British economy, only for an objective correlative of how that safety net hadn’t quite caught everybody in the country to appear at his side like a karmic vision.

What I do know is that, after a short pause, as it became clear that the beggar wasn’t going away, I rooted through my pockets and gave him a quid.

Off he trotted to the next table. And the former chancellor of the Exchequer continued – with a tiny flicker in his eyes acknowledging the comic poetry of the moment – to explain to me how capitalism works. 

David Baddiel performs My Family; Not the Sitcom at London's Vaudeville Theatre from 12th September to 15th October.


This article first appeared in the 18 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s revenge

Marc Brenner
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Carey Mulligan is oddly unemotional in Dennis Kelly’s powerful new play, Girls & Boys

If you intend to see Girls & Boys, don’t read this review.

If you intend to see Girls & Boys, then you should do two things. First, come back to this review: it’s a production best seen with no preconceptions. Second: have a child.

Still here? Good, because there is no way to discuss this play without spoiling its big reveal. It opens with Carey Mulligan centre stage, in orange shirt and red trousers, against set designer Es Devlin’s boxy backdrop of purest cyan. It’s a palette favoured by Hollywood posters, because the contrast is so striking. (Van Gogh once used it on a still life of crabs.) Mulligan’s unnamed narrator tells us how she met her husband, who is only ever “he”. Her monologue starts off funny – “Paris? Call that a world city? It’s Leeds with wider streets” – and sexually frank, but it’s also cleverly disconcerting.

She met him in an Easyjet queue and “took an instant dislike to the man”. Why? Because he was obliviously buried in a book – or because of his interaction with two models, who tried to queuejump by feigning sexual interest to stand next to him? (“And he’s just like, well of course… but I get to sleep with one of you, right?”) One of the models snottily tells him that she would never sleep with a Normal like him, and he acknowledges the truth of this. Then he calls them “bitches” for playing with his feelings, makes a chivalrous speech about the transcendence of loving sex, and suggests that sleeping with them would be “necrophilia… wanking into a pretty dress”. The temptation is to cheer – he put those stuck-up cows in their place! – and I wondered if my disquiet was evidence I’ve gone full Millie Tant. (Beware men who think there are some women to whom it’s OK to be sexist.)

But no. The husband is indeed a wrong ‘un. Mulligan’s monologues are interspersed with role-plays against another pure-cyan set; a living room, with details – a sippy cup, a blanket – again picked out in orange. She chides her children, Leanne and Danny, talking to the empty air about their petty squabbles. And then, halfway through the 90-minute running time, comes the punch: “I know they’re not here by the way. My children… I know they’re dead.” My mind went instantly to a routine by Louis CK. “A woman saying yes to a date with a man is literally insane,” the comedian says. “Globally and historically, we’re the number one cause of injury and mayhem to women. If you’re a guy, imagine you could only date a half-bear-half-lion.”

The narrator’s story, of a relationship going sour, is achingly familiar. Her burgeoning career, and growing confidence; the failure of his business, and his consequent loss of status. She asks for a divorce. He tells her: “There will never come a time when you have my kids and I don’t.” One night, he sweet-talks his way past the babysitter and twists a knife into little Danny’s heart, guiding it in with his thumbnail, before stabbing Leanne eight times. (Mulligan marks each wound on her body.) He tries to kill himself.

My friends with kids tell me that giving birth rewired them, leaving them reluctant to watch any drama with children in peril. To me, Mulligan seemed oddly unemotional in recounting these horrors; but perhaps a parent’s imagination would supply all the horror required.

Is it a coincidence that this play had its premiere at the Royal Court, where artistic director Vicky Featherstone has led the theatre world’s response to a reckoning with sexual harassment? Her code of conduct outlines potentially abusive behaviour, from the obvious – “physical force or threat of force, for sexual action” – to the situational: “staring, meaningful glances”. Yet Dennis Kelly’s script, which depicts one poison drop of sexism blossoming into a manifestation of the most extreme masculine rage, shows how difficult such behaviour is to police. When should the narrator have seen the danger? How can women sort the good from the bad?

In an industry convulsed by a feminist reckoning, I was left wondering if a female playwright would have dared to write lines as starkly confrontational as the narrator’s conclusion: “We didn’t create society for men. We created it to stop men.”

Girls & Boys runs until 17 March.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She regularly appears on BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and the News Quiz, and BBC1’s Sunday Politics. 

This article first appeared in the 22 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia