Tag Archives: Hilary Mantel

The New Literalism

2 Oct

It’s a fairly general trait of encroaching middle age that the world makes less sense and everything becomes more annoying, but I can’t be alone in thinking it’s been a terrible couple of weeks for common sense here in the UK, at least as far as the arts are concerned.

First there was Mantelgate Part 2. I’m calling it “Mantelgate”. I don’t think anyone else did. Mantelgate Part 1 came when Hilary Mantel, author of the amazing Wolf Hall and its sequel Bring Up The Bodies, wrote a piece in the London Review of Books about Royal women that was misconstrued as an attack on the Duchess of Cambridge by a media desperate to chase the latest storm in a teacup, like Bill Paxton in a shit remake of Twister. Part 2 involved Mantel’s short story, The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher. Set in 1983 it depicts an incident in which an unnamed narrator – presumably based on Mantel herself – meets an IRA assassin hell-bent on killing the then Prime Minister.

Hilary Mantel (picture from the Telegraph)

Hilary Mantel (picture from the Telegraph)

The story is a fairly whimsical one, and explores the anger Thatcher inspired (and after last year’s hagiography-fest, it’s worth remembering that many people hated her), but which also cocks a snoop at her more comfortably off, suburban critics. It is not a textbook for how one might go about assassinating the late Prime Minister, and yet Tory peer Lord Bell thinks Mantel should be investigated by the police for writing the (fictional) story.

No sooner had that minor brouhaha died down than the Barbican chose to cancel Brett Bailey’s show Exhibit B (pictured at the top), a kind of theatrical installation featuring live performers, about the ugly 19th and early-20th Century practice of so-called “human zoos”, in which black Africans were paraded in front of white spectators as if they were animals. Birmingham-based blogger Sara Myers (who hadn’t seen the work) spearheaded a protest against Exhibit B, claiming it was “racist”, and the Barbican halted the show before it had begun.

Picture from the BBC

Picture from the BBC

Now, in the latest sorry chapter of idiots winning the day, Clacton-On-Sea council have destroyed some graffiti by Banksy (pictured above), because it was deemed potentially offensive and – yet again – racist. That the painting is taking the piss out of the anti-immigration lobby apparently flew over the council’s heads, and it’s worth emphasizing here that they didn’t say it was destroyed because it was graffiti, but because it might cause offense.

While Lord Bell has – so far- proven unsuccessful in getting the police to pay a visit to Chez Mantel, and while both the Banksy work and Exhibit B strike me as a little trite (though, in the case of the latter, it’s hard to form a judgment if you haven’t actually seen it), the three cases all speak of a wider problem; one of idiotic literalism.

It’s one of the hallmarks of a complete clod that he or she can’t tell the difference between art and life. Salman Rushdie learned this the hard way when the Ayatollah Khomeini couldn’t differentiate between a novel and a philosophical tract (not that the latter would have justified a death sentence). If Mantel can be grateful for one thing, it’s that the closest a British conservative (or Conservative) will get to issuing a deadly fatwah is writing an irate column for the Telegraph. 

If they're really pissed off, they'll set Simon Heffer on you.

If they’re really pissed off, they’ll set Simon Heffer on you.

As for the Banksy story, well… it’s graffiti. He must know by now – and hopefully has always known – that the majority of his works are ephemeral, and I always find it galling when some local authority expresses regret at painting over one by saying, “Well, if we’d known it was a Banksy…” An insult to other (and often better) graffiti artists, if ever I heard one.

The Exhibit B case is more concerning, but it once again demonstrates how an uninformed mob can silence artistic expression.

And how the word "privilege" has become the rhetorical equivalent of "no backsies". (Picture from the Guardian.)

And how the word “privilege” has become the rhetorical equivalent of “no backsies”. (Picture from the Guardian.)

The decision to cancel the show may have been the Barbican’s, but that decision was made under pressure and the fear of violent protest, disruption and worse, and all because Myers & Co can’t tell the difference between a work about racism, and racism itself.

If this is the way things are going to be, where do we stop? Do we ban Schindler’s List for its antisemitism, or Nabakov’s Lolita for its hebephilia? In the Mantel case enough people called bullshit for it to come to nothing, but if she had been a conservative author, would she have enjoyed the same level of support? The counter-argument for Exhibit B only came, in the pages of the Guardian and Independent after the show was cancelled. Unless the Left learns to defend freedom of expression, even when it disagrees with what’s being expressed, the literalists will win, and that means everyone else will lose.

Whatever happened to the words “I don’t know”?

25 Feb

I Don't Know

When was the last time you heard someone in the public sphere admit they didn’t know something? I’m not talking about dodging or side-stepping a question when it was clear they didn’t have all the facts. I’m talking about the actual words:

“I don’t know.”

I’ve been thinking about this, and the truth is… well… I don’t know. I can’t remember. I cannot remember a single – let alone the last – time I heard someone admit they didn’t know something. Admitting you don’t know something, when asked a direct question, is seen as a weakness, even when it’s the most honest answer you can give. Better to rush to an answer, however mangled, however indirect it may be.

Of course, we expect this of politicians, who are too well-trained, and too used to our demands, to ever admit that they don’t know something. For a politician, saying, “I don’t know” is career suicide. Say “I don’t know”, and the next day every front page of every paper shows a picture of you, beneath the headline “I DON’T KNOW”.

The Sun

What I’ve noticed in recent years is that this inability to say those three small words has spread. Now, no-one says it, and the one thing exacerbating this beyond measure is social media. Twitter has accelerated the pace of major and minor events alike. We’re expected to digest all the facts and formulate our reactions and opinions in the time it takes to type 140 characters. Whereas 50 years ago we may have been allowed a few days, or even weeks to mull something over, now we’re given seconds. In a world of 60 minute news cycles, saying “I don’t know” is as good as saying “Duuuurrrr”.

But rushing to conclusions, regardless of nuance, heedless of the facts, and blind to whatever changes may come only generates lynch mobs and witch hunts. Who has time for investigations, inquiries and due process when the Court of Twitter demands an instant verdict?

In a relatively short space of time we’ve gone from “Everyone’s entitled to an opinion” to “Everyone’s opinion is valid” to “Everyone must have an opinion”.

Which is how shit like this happens.

Which is how shit like this happens.

At the trivial end of the scale, we have people predicting how good or bad Doctor Who’s 50th Anniversary special will be, when not one of them has read a script or seen a nanosecond of footage.

More seriously, we have people declaring their verdict in the Oscar Pistorius trial before the defense and prosecution have so much as made their opening statements.

Between Doctor Who and Pistorius, we have all those mid-range stories, the stuff that’s neither entirely trivial nor a matter of life and death.

Take Hilary Mantel’s recent lecture for the London Review of Books, in which she satirised the way the media and Royal Family have shaped and moulded the Duchess of Cambridge’s public image. Newspapers such as the Daily Mail and Telegraph, realising that their weird, obsessive, forlock-tugging sycophancy was the target, cherry-picked some choice quotes from the lecture and claimed Mantel had “attacked” the Duchess of Cambridge. Of course, as everyone who read it knew, she’d done nothing of the sort, but before you could blink we had British journalists – in fucking India – asking David Cameron what he thought of it.

"No no no. You've done your turban all wrong. You look like a surgeon. Here, let Rajesh do it for you."

“No no no. You’ve done your turban all wrong. You look like a surgeon. Here, let Rajesh do it for you.”

Rather than say, “I’m really busy touring India right now, so the truth is, I don’t know…” Cameron jumped straight onto the bandwagon with, “What (Mantel) said about Kate Middleton is completely misguided and completely wrong.” Within minutes, it seemed, Ed Miliband too had chipped in, saying he found Mantel’s comments, “pretty offensive”.

Would anyone, apart from the Telegraph and Mail, have been offended if Cameron or Miliband replied, “I didn’t read the lecture, so I’m not really qualified to comment?”

More recently still – in fact, within the last 48 hours – we have the case of the two young men from Manchester who claim they were refused a double room at a London hotel by a homophobic member of staff. Now, the known details paint a far-from-clear picture. The men arrived at the hotel around midnight, several hours after their original booking would have become subject to changes if the hotel was overbooked. They weren’t turned away from the hotel altogether, they were offered a family room.

So far, so Schrodinger’s Cat. Without being there, in the lobby, when they checked in, we can’t know what tone of voice was used, or what exact words were spoken.

And yet, based on a single tweet written by one of the two young men, Twitter erupted into a storm of righteous indignation. They were the victims of homophobic abuse, Thistle Hotels should be boycotted, something ought to be done.

Etc. Etc.

What confused – and worried – me was how quickly so many people I like and respect jumped in and picked a side before the hotel had a chance to look into it properly. And why? Because nobody can bring themselves to admit that they just don’t know. Essentially, they’re saying, “I don’t know what happened, but I care about this sort of thing, and I’m against homophobia [nothing wrong with any of that so far], but Twitter simply won’t wait for this to be dealt with by those directly involved, so HERE’S MY OPINION! HERE IT IS! NOW! RIGHT NOW! THIS IS WHAT I THINK!”

Modern life is hectic and stressful enough; we’re bombarded with information and requests from the minute we wake up to the second our head hits the pillow. Why add to that stress by deciding you have to have an opinion about absolutely everything?

I’ll start the ball rolling. These are the issues I have absolutely no opinion about, either because I just don’t know enough about them, or because my opinion, even if I did, would be invalid.

  • The Euro – Not a fucking clue. Is it a good thing? Is it a bad thing? No idea.
  • Climate Change – I’m not a scientist. Why the fuck should anyone care what I or anyone else who hasn’t dedicated their life to understanding it has to say about the matter?
  • Abortion – I’m never going to conceive. My partner’s never going to conceive. My opinion, if I had one, would be worthless.
  • Renewable Energy – Again, a bit like Climate Change, I haven’t got a fucking clue. Nuclear sounds good. Except there was that whole nasty business in Japan. But that was Japan, where they have earthquakes. We don’t have earthquakes. I DON’T KNOW.

There are probably others. In fact, there are definitely others. Think long and hard, and you’ll realise you have some, too. And then we can all hold hands, and say as one:


"Don't ask us. We haven't got a fucking clue."

“Don’t ask us. We haven’t got a fucking clue.”