The Sunday Times

February 17th, 2013

To go on or to give in? The awkward age has arrived

‘At 63, a time of life when most women would be thinking about taking it easy, Ms Amazingly Enterprising is about to take up the very demanding position of …” I read no more. While scanning the newspapers last week, my eyes had settled on this first line of an article, only to move quickly on in search of something important and memorable.

But actually I have remembered — been unable to forget — what lies beneath that unremarkable story. It is the painful question of when the time has come to start thinking about taking it easy — when it is time to hang up one’s dancing shoes.

When I first saw that article, the figure 63 struck me as perfectly ridiculous. Most people will need to work until they are much older than that, and will consider themselves lucky if they have work. But I have been wondering ever since.

A friend of mine who is prominent in the media, and working hard at sixtysomething, told me rather wistfully last week that she wondered when, if ever, she should or could give up trying to squeeze herself into skimpy designer frocks and spending her evenings relentlessly networking.

And did she really want to? She feels weary at times, and not always amused by the human comedy, but should she resist the dismal temptation of flatter shoes and a quiet existence? Is taking things easy tantamount to giving up on life? Will letting her hair grow grey lead her straight to the retirement party, whether or not she can afford to retire? These are the awkward questions of a new awkward age — the later middle age of the powerful baby-boom generation. Baby-boomers (born 1946-59, in my opinion) grew up thinking nothing mattered as much as youth. To be young was very heaven.

Now the baby-boomers are beginning to get old and they find it rather hellish. (I say they, but I should say we: it is just that, as part of a generation obsessed with the young and the new, I can hardly bring myself to renounce youth altogether.) And they — or we — are having a hard time letting go of youth and power, or even of middle age and power. Baby-boomers are in denial about old age.

We are surrounded on all sides by baby-boomer propaganda. Fifty is the new forty, we were told some time ago. Now sixtysomething is the new fortysomething. There is some truth in this. Better health, better diets and exciting new hormone therapies all make old people who can afford them seem much younger than they are — and feel it too.

Then there is cosmetic enhancement: the number of stories about famous older men and women who are ageing gracefully without “help” makes me laugh; there can hardly be an ageing celebrity praised for avoiding the knife who has not, in fact, had a lot of work done, including surgery. And why not? No elixirs of youth and vigour, however, no hormones or hair replacements, are entirely proof against the awkward age. This is that difficult period between the moment a person senses the fleeting of youthful middle age and the time when he feels acutely the signs of old age and can no longer disguise them from other people: for a woman, as Oscar Wilde almost said, it is the difficult time between being a ruin and becoming a monument.

Thanks to all the developments of modern science — there’s even a new technique of making a person’s voice sound younger — the awkward age has been greatly, perhaps rather painfully, extended. A fit man may look great in a bomber jacket and astonish ticket collectors with his senior railcard, but, unknown to others, his skiers’ knees may be crocked and his memory less sharp.

A busy woman of sixty something might still be as thin and energetic as her daughter, but she could have arthritis in her manicured hands, winter in her heart and trouble hearing other networkers braying at parties. The constant nagging question throughout the awkward age is how long to go on denying the inevitable, before giving in.

One can hardly describe the present Pope as a baby-boomer and I am not for one moment suggesting that he has used cosmetic aids, but he — rather like my generation — is someone who thought he could and should go on for ever, but had to realise in the end that he couldn’t. It was all too horribly stressful and tiring, and he had to accept that he couldn’t hack it any more.

This terrible realisation will come to most of us sooner or later, though there can be few workplaces in the world quite as unpleasant as the Vatican: one day we will (or ought to) realise we no longer have quite the necessary energy or quick wits or hormonal drive for our work.

This knowledge comes to ice skaters and mathematicians sooner than to most of us, but it will come. There will be plenty of people anxious to point it out — or there would be if ageism were not illegal; they are the younger people who understandably see the powerful baby-boomers as job blockers.

There are some stout spirits who gallantly embrace old age. The writer Virginia Ironside, now 68, is one. For some time she’s been writing funny novels and articles about how wonderful it is to leave behind the hurly-burly of youth and middle age and sex, and embrace senescence, ideally spending long hours in a well-chosen dressing gown.

She’s right that there are many, many consolations and pleasures of older age, such as being rude to people, but I simply don’t believe she really means it. After all, she herself at the age of sixtysomething decided to become a stand-up comedian and is now touring the country with a successful one-woman show called Growing Old Disgracefully. I can’t think of any more obvious protest against old age than that; few young or middle-aged women would have the necessary energy and drive.

Actually, I think the baby-boomers will mostly be spared the decision of when to give up gracefully. Most of us belong to the sandwich generation, between struggling, impoverished adult children and extremely frail ancient parents and their constant need of funds. And at the same time, the welfare state is rapidly running out of money. So most of us won’t be able to choose to give up.

The generation that shopped till it dropped will have to work till it drops, to help support the generations on either side. The baby-boom generation will never have a time to think about taking it easy: it isn’t going to be easy.

The Sunday Times

January 20th, 2013

Hands off, lefties: calm, rational Austen was no Guardian gal

Like Shakespeare and Orwell, Jane Austen is a writer whose admirers all claim her for their own point of view. Janeites, as many seem to call themselves, are extremely possessive of her, complaining loudly about films and novels based on her work that are, in their opinion, all wrong. I am devoted to Jane Austen too, and have reread her novels many times to the extent that I almost think of her as a voice in my head, but I had until last week thought that I was tolerant of other readers’ claims and almost prepared to share her with them.

A few days ago I was proved wrong. January 28 is the 200th anniversary of the publication of Pride and Prejudice, and some Janeites have declared it Jane Austen month. A particularly good new book, The Real Jane Austen, by Paula Byrne, was read last week on Radio 4. In response, The Guardian published an astonishing article on Wednesday headlined “Meet the real Jane Austen, the prototype Guardian gal”. Austen month, the subhead ran, “is a good time to ditch the wilful misogynist misreadings of the revolutionary novelist’s life and work”.

Austen a Guardian gal? One has to agree, of course, about ditching the wilful misogynist misreadings, but the blessed Jane a revolutionary? Claiming Austen for the Guardianistas and the revolutionary left could hardly be more absurd. How she would have laughed.

It is true that at a stretch one might call her novels rather unconventional, in that she deliberately avoided writing the gothic fiction that was so fashionable at the time. Gothic novels are extreme, exaggerated and full of shocking, improbable drama. Austen satirised them in her novels: she was determined to write, as she did, without exaggeration, wildness or improbability. There was also something unconventional in making one of her heroines, Fanny Price, unappealing. In this she might have been seen at the time as slightly avant-garde, but certainly not as revolutionary.

Austen knew a lot about revolution, perhaps more than most Englishwomen of her day. She lived through the time of French revolution (1789-99) and was closely conscious of its horrors; her much-loved older cousin Eliza Hancock was married to a Frenchman, the Comte de Feuillide, and often stayed with the Austen family, describing the terrors of Paris and her fears for her husband. He remained in France and was guillotined in 1794, when Austen was 19.

Hardly surprisingly, Austen was against revolution, and rather against the French as well. She did not mention revolution in her books at all, apart from a couple of brief references to French émigrés. “Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery,” she wrote in Mansfield Park.

She led a much wider life than the one described in the novels, was well informed and knew a great deal about the slave trade, and about war, poverty, scandal and lust. But she chose not to address such things in her novels, or, rather, to do so only indirectly. Whether that is a strength or not may be debatable, but it certainly makes her far from a revolutionary writer.

It is a quaint idea that Jane Austen is a Guardian gal — but it’s worth considering what might be the characteristics of GG.

Hannah Betts, the author of the Guardian article, considers the “prototype GG” to be “intelligent, assertive, humanitarian, engaged, not beyond an interest in the latest bonnet”. But that could apply to any vicar’s wife of the past 200 years, and to a great many women today who would loathe The Guardian and vote UKIP.

The real GG is surely quite different and quite distinctive. In no particular order, she is highly political, inclined to the new and experimental and usually irreligious. She is preoccupied with guilt and misery (unlike Austen) and an advocate of radical social change. She’s frank, open, outspoken, prepared to be loud and frankly a bit shouty at times. She is an enthusiastic member of the confessional culture, and inclined to celebrate vulgarity as “of the people”.

Custom, convention and ceremony have little appeal, as do the ideas of duty, discretion and self-sacrifice, and she insists on the right to follow her feelings and fight against taboos wherever possible. Nothing could be more unlike the Jane Austen of the novels. I’m not talking about the Jane Austen of real life, insofar as anyone now knows her: fascinating though that is, it’s not essential to an understanding of her novels, with her unmistakeably clear, elegant, disabused and understanding authorial voice. This Jane Austen is certainly critical of her own society, but without a radical social programme: the wretched dependence of women upon men is all too clear, as with poor Miss Bates in Emma, but no alternatives are even hinted at.

It’s true that in Persuasion the heroine comes to understand that she should have followed her own heart, but only — in truth — because the man she longed for was perfectly suitable all along. Austen makes Fanny Price question whether it is right to own slaves, but what remains is only the question. She’s not indifferent to the harshness of her society, or to the heartlessness of the rich, or their decadence at times, but there is no hint of any remedy.

What concern her most are the individual’s feelings and morals within the constraints of society as it actually is. This is partly what makes her work universal. She puts duties before rights; she values reticence, modesty, privacy, discretion and self-control; and she cherishes family values even when extremely burdensome.

Above all she values rationality, the importance of moderating feelings with reason. The best and most anguished embodiment of this conflict comes in Sense and Sensibility, with the heartbroken Marianne’s stifled scream of anguish at its centre: feeling is not always a good guide, and can often lead a person badly astray when not checked by good sense, and also by social convention.

There’s something lonely about several of Austen’s heroines: they have to negotiate their roles in society without much help or guidance, particularly as they are often constrained by discretion and good manners.

The novels are often about not saying things — so very different from our culture of confession and therapy and our indifference to privacy. Far from being revolutionary, this world-view would be considered highly reactionary by Guardianistas.

So let’s reclaim Jane Austen. Whatever she may be, she is not the prototype of Guardian gal.

minette.marrin@sunday-times.co.uk

The Sunday Times

January 6th, 2013

Under the swish of Grey’s cane is comfort reading posing as porn

‘Call yourself a journalist,” said a fellow guest with festive aggression late one night over the new year, “and you haven’t read Fifty Shades of Grey?” I certainly had not. I had spent months deliberately ignoring it, as far as possible. Of course that has been difficult. It has become Britain’s bestselling book to date, with 5.3m copies sold here and 65m copies worldwide; the entire Shades trilogy will soon be turned into a film.

The Travelodge hotel chain claims that of the 21,800 books left in its rooms last year, 7,000 were Shades of Grey; that is almost one in three and a striking indication of market penetration. However, mega-success is not necessarily a recommendation — I can’t bear Harry Potter, for instance. And as Fifty Shades has been widely mocked as appallingly written, mass-market mummy porn and sadomasochism lite, it had seemed a book well worth avoiding. Only the angry protests that it was a betrayal of feminism had aroused my interest.

I did ask my most literary (and glamorous) friend whether she had read it; to my astonishment she said she had and thought it rather good because it dealt with what most women really want. That being a highly contentious question, which has baffled countless people including Sigmund Freud, I demanded to know what it was; she replied that it was submission to a dominant man. So one way and another I thought, perhaps I ought to start paying attention to Fifty Shades of Grey. Reader, I read it.

At first it seemed dull as well as badly written and — oddly enough for a book widely hyped as sexually transgressive — nothing even faintly erotic happens until page 51, when the young heroine Anastasia Steele realises she wants to be kissed by the rich, handsome hero Christian Grey. This seems rather slow going for a dirty novel. It isn’t until nearly page 100 that the hero takes the heroine’s virginity in an entirely wholesome, responsible and romantic manner — what he would call vanilla sex. The brimstone and treacle rough stuff is presumably yet to come.

Although the hero does reveal at this time a glimpse of his “red room of pain” and a list of his alarming sexual demands, along with repeated warnings against himself, anodyne vanilla prevails for page after page. Anastasia wonders at great length whether to sign his sado-masochistic sex slave contract and whether pain and submission are what her secret self truly craves; meanwhile, the hero impatiently waits.

During this time the reader, like the heroine, is treated to a mid-market excursion round the alpha-male billionaire life with mentions of sleek cars, first editions, sharp clothes, private planes and an egg-shaped bath. She is impressed: this is an aspirational book. It’s not until the final pages that the suspense is ended: at last, even though Anastasia has not signed the contract, Christian goes much, much too far with a cane and Anastasia rushes out in pain, rage and grief. This assault makes her see finally that Christian is incapable of love. He has always said so. They part. The end.

Why has such stuff sold so astonishingly well? About a third of the way in I began to understand. Either by design or by accident, the author has managed to weave together all kinds of archetypal and/or bestselling strands from all kinds of writing, both good and bad. Simple and unsophisticated though the story seems, it works on many levels and there is something for almost everybody — at least for almost every woman.

Most importantly this is a how-to book for women, of how to enjoy sex from vanilla to a taste of brimstone and treacle: oddly enough, the wilder shores of BDSM (bondage, domination and sado-masochism) get no more than a mention in Fifty Shades but — to judge from my sometime reviewing of how-to books — this one will be for many women a useful sex manual gently presented under the respectable cover of a romantic novel. I suspect this is a large part of its appeal.

At the same time, threads of several fairy stories are interwoven in the stuff of the book, lending it their hidden power with their themes of transformation. (Transformation is the holy grail of the how-to book, so this is where the two genres meet.) Anastasia is Cinderella: she is poor; her father is dead; her mother is far away on husband No 4. She must borrow clothes from her rich friend to go to her first ball with the prince. Christian is King Cophetua, plucking the beggar girl from obscurity and her worn-out VW Beetle to the fantasy life of the alpha male and the executive plane.

Anastasia is also the ugly duckling of fairy tale: she is pale, underconfident, skinny, scruffy and clumsy, falling inelegantly through a door onto the prince’s feet at first meeting and vomiting copiously in front of him soon afterwards. Yet before long she is revealed to be a beautiful swan. Meanwhile, the prince turns into a deviant frog because he doesn’t please the princess.

As well as the frog, Christian is also the little boy lost who has been unspeakably damaged in childhood — the industrious author of Fifty Shades even manages to get child abuse in. This puts him in line with a long bestselling fictional tradition of the abused and damaged male — Heathcliff, Max de Winter — who is always exciting in his mysterious harshness and raises the question of whether he can be saved by the love of a good woman: much of Anastasia’s hesitation about signing the sex contract has to do with her wondering whether she can change her damaged frog.

There’s also a moral or two for most people, even for feminists. Anastasia may fantasise about submission and even experiment with it a little, but she walks out on the man she loves because he is obsessed with dominating her. This is hardly a celebration of violence against women or of female subordination, as some have claimed.

So Fifty Shades could be seen as a feminist text. But equally the book indulges (up to a safe and hygienic point) the feelings of women who don’t accept feminist strictures about female sexuality — who are intrigued by submission or who do not always want to wear the feminist trousers. Finally, the heroine gives up riches and passion in favour of self-respect. The author has skilfully covered almost the entire female book market, apart from the tiny literary sector. If this was by design rather than by accident, she has worked out a winning formula. It’s comfort reading posing as porn.

minette.marrin@sunday-times.co.uk

The Sunday Times

December 30th, 2012

Pesky clerics, Europhiles, nurses’ leaders – it’s all change for you

Since I am so bad at keeping my own new year resolutions, I always make them for other people instead — all too often the same, year after year. Here are a few for 2013.

For rash, intruding clerics Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, as Christ said, and stop interfering in politics. The Archbishop of Westminster must have forgotten this teaching when he gave his Christmas Eve sermon this year. Instead of concentrating on the Christmas message of peace and joy, he made a specifically political attack on the government’s gay marriage policy, accusing the prime minister of “shallow thinking” and calling the plans shambolic and undemocratic. Maybe so, but the Church of Rome is hardly known for democracy or political accountability itself.

For judges Remember your proper place, too: avoid behaving like Sir Paul Coleridge, a High Court judge who last week attacked the government for its approach to gay marriage, saying ministers were pursuing the wrong policies and should be concentrating on marriage breakdown. Right or wrong, judges have no business to make their political and moral views known. It is essential to the rule of English law that they do not.

For Lord Patten and other grand panjandrums Give up your absurd numbers of directorships, trusteeships, advisory roles and do-goodery. It is quite impossible to do so many jobs adequately, let alone well: there would hardly even be time to travel regularly between them. Concentrate on two or three.

Lord Patten, for example, is chairman of the BBC Trust; chancellor of Oxford University; non-executive director of Russell Reynolds (headhunting); adviser to Hutchison Europe (telecoms and transport), BP (energy), Bridgepoint (private equity) and EDF (energy); international adviser to the Japan Art Association’s Praemium Imperiale awards; co-chairman of the India-UK Round Table; co-chairman of the British Council’s Italy-UK Annual Conference; and trustee of The Tablet, a Catholic journal. Not even a journalist would pretend to be able to cover so much of the waterfront.

But Patten is not alone: there are lots of grand panjandrums like him who somehow imagine they can be responsible for several complex roles at once. They can’t, and there are obvious conflicts of interest. Stop pretending and give most of it up.

For Conservatives When all else fails, try loyalty. Unless you prefer the silliness of the UK Independence party or the financial recklessness of Labour, now is the time to rally around Dave and George. Remember Gordon Brown and beware of where your disloyalty might lead.

For Tories in charge of arts Try a spectacular U-turn and announce a big new “investment” in the arts. Forget cuts. Modern Conservatives should present themselves as passionate patrons of the arts and shower the artistic “community” with more money than Labour has ever offered. Artists and luvvies of all kinds would be thrilled — and, more importantly, they would have to stop sneering at Tory philistinism. The beauty of this scheme is that the arts budget is minuscule — a mere fleabite — compared with total national spending, so romancing and wrongfooting the luvvies at a stroke would be very cheap.

For all commentators, politicians and celebrities Stop using the word legacy. It was bad enough when egomaniacs such as Blair and Brown were unashamedly obsessed with their own legacies: there’s no need for everyone to go on about it. Discretion is the better part of legacy.

For the learning disabilities lobby Don’t overreact to the terrible scandal of Winterbourne View. Of course such abuse must be stopped immediately, but there is no single solution. Some private homes (rather than hospitals) are positive places for people with challenging behaviour and should not be shut in favour of everybody living in the so-called community. Some people with challenging behaviour have problems so serious that they cannot safely live in the community. Knee-jerk responses and politically correct wishful thinking don’t help people in grave need.

For book editors and reviewers Stop reviewing books by your friends and acquaintances. Above all, stop putting your mates’ books in your books-of-the-year lists. It’s a minor form of corruption that makes people cynical about the literary scene.

For the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Forestry Commission, the National Trust, the Woodland Trust, the Campaign to Protect Rural England, the Royal Horticultural Society and all others responsible for trees and plants Apologise to the nation for your abject failure to protect our trees, our plants and our landscape from imported diseases. Where were you when we needed you? Next year, if it is not already too late, get a grip and ban all importing of trees and plants until further notice. It’s well known that international hypermobility spreads diseases old and new, far and wide, among humans as well as plants. How is it you cannot bring so much as a sausage into Britain from America, but you can import countless bug-ridden plants from almost anywhere? And why did you not tell us clearly whether it was safe to buy Christmas trees imported from Scandinavia or North America? For the leaders of nursing and teaching unions Take a long hard look at yourselves in the mirror and ask this question: given the state of teaching and of nursing, what is the point of you? For Europhiles, especially the reluctant Explain in simple, unforgettable detail why it would be disastrous for this country — if it really would — to leave the European Union. Eurosceptic arguments are simple and seductive. So if, as every government seems to discover, getting out would be a bad thing, the arguments for staying in must be made childishly clear.

Happy new year.

The Sunday Times

December 9th, 2012

Either reform benefits or curb immigration now

Put yourself for a moment in the position of a Romanian or Bulgarian. The effort will make you feel very glad indeed that you are a Briton. Bad as the austerity cuts may feel here, life over there is truly harsh: poverty means something entirely different.

As a Romanian or Bulgarian you will know that from the end of next year you will have the right to escape from your dismal, corrupt and impoverished homeland and come to live anywhere in the EU. Which country would you pick? The answer is blindingly obvious. You’d be a fool to choose anywhere but the United Kingdom.

That is why it is so alarming that the government refused last week to give official estimates of the numbers of Romanians and Bulgarians it expects to fetch up here in 2014. Keen no doubt to avoid the mess the Labour government got into with underestimating the numbers of Polish and Hungarian arrivals last time round, the coalition claimed in the Commons that it didn’t know how many would come and had no means of finding out.

What it must know, at least, is that there will be a lot. All those waiting for the end of 2013 will have been encouraged by reports from tens of thousands of compatriots already here.

The first, most obvious incentive for them to come is the generous benefits on offer for low-paid workers here compared with the rest of the EU 15 (the member countries before 2004). Only three other countries, according to new research from the think tank MigrationWatch UK, are more generous than Britain — Denmark, Luxembourg and Ireland.

The UK is also more generous in topping up low wages than France and Finland, and substantially more generous than Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden and the rest of the EU. When living costs are accounted for, low-paid workers in the UK are the second best-off in the EU, after Luxembourg.

One might be inclined to question such startling findings, but MigrationWatch has a good track record for accuracy, ruefully acknowledged by the civil service, no less. It also points out that access to unemployment benefit is much easier in the UK, where there are virtually no conditions attached to entitlement, than in all the other EU countries, which have stricter controls.

In other EU countries, migrants can claim unemployment benefit only when they have worked, and contributed to the system, for a specific amount of time. Admittedly, most of them offer a higher rate to those entitled to it, but a bird in the hand is much better than two birds in the Romanian bush, and there’s always moonlighting.

In many countries the actual amount of benefit depends on previous contributions, and the length of time a person can claim it will also vary in this way. In the UK it’s possible to claim unemployment benefit more or less on arrival, without any limit on how long for. So a worker from Romania or Bulgaria will not be penalised for never having contributed anything in tax or national insurance, and can claim all sorts of benefits, including housing, as soon as he or she can find the way to the benefits office.

This is to say nothing of instant entitlement to free schools, GPs and hospitals, which — imperfect though they are — must seem like paradise to people from impoverished southeastern Europe. Why on earth would anyone go anywhere else? Only Denmark or Luxembourg would have something of the same powerful attraction, but smart migrants would choose a multicultural and English-speaking country that is neither freezing nor boring.

No one can blame new EU citizens for choosing to move to countries where they and their families can hope for a better life. They’d be daft if they didn’t. So it is unreasonable to resent the certain mass influx. What we should resent is the disastrously muddled thinking behind the European project — the notion, among other serious and obstinately blind mistakes, that the free movement of people across all the EU would be a good idea, given that it was to include access to welfare.

It ought to have been blindingly obvious that the EU’s rich countries would have to be very rich indeed if they were to extend their generous welfare entitlements as of right to all the huddled masses of greater Europe. It ought to have been blindingly obvious that there would come a point when the EU’s welfare expenditure would be unaffordable, as it exists at present — even without the vast burden of hundreds of thousands of low-skilled and impoverished immigrants.

Even before the terrible economic reckoning of 2008, it should have been clear that the money was running out and government borrowing, such as Gordon Brown’s in the UK, was unsustainable. Now that is all too painfully obvious.

A generous welfare state is incompatible with the free movement of people, whether inside or outside Europe. The two together are unaffordable. Already the combination is pushing down living standards and pushing up borrowing; soon this will be a political catastrophe, not just in the United Kingdom but all across the EU.

It’s a tragedy already gathering force. The lesser but important question, meanwhile, is why the UK has been so much more generous to EU migrants than nearly every other country in the region. I suspect it is down to a combination of vanity, incompetence, wishful thinking and political correctness.

If every EU citizen can come here and use all the benefits of the welfare state, if people from outside Europe can bring in many of their relatives, once they’ve got leave to stay, if they can join the near 50% of British households that take state handouts of some sort, if all this happens in a deep recession when the tax take is declining scarily, this country will either go broke or have to shut its borders. So, if not quite so quickly, will the other rich countries of the EU. To repeat the point, a generous welfare state — a welfare state at all — is incompatible with the free movement of people.

Theresa May has talked of renegotiating the EU directive on the free movement of people. It can only be talk; this is a cornerstone of the EU and cannot be changed. The government could reduce welfare benefits for new arrivals, in line with less generous neighbours, but that would make little difference in the long run.

For one thing, this country has lost control of its borders. More importantly, the entire system, right across the EU, is unsustainable. If I were a Romanian I would waste no time in getting here before things change.

minette.marrin@sunday-times.co.uk

The Sunday Times

December 2nd, 2012

There is an unspoken fear driving our nurses to cruelty

Yesterday was the 70th anniversary of the publication of the Beveridge report, which gave Britain its nobly conceived welfare system, including our cherished National Health Service. But only two days earlier, in the midst of the Beveridge celebrations, the secretary of state for health felt obliged to speak out against a culture of cruelty in the NHS and in social care as well. Jeremy Hunt’s chilling phrase was “the normalisation of cruelty” — perhaps, he said, the biggest problem of all facing the NHS — “where the unacceptable is legitimised and the callous becomes mundane”.

How good it is that he spoke out so unequivocally. But how late. It’s a mystery to me why it has taken so very long for any government to admit the truth. None of the horrors the minister talks about is new.

It must be more than 20 years ago now that I started writing about the dreadful things that were going on in some hospitals. At first my accounts were tentative, based on some shocking observations of my own in several of the great London teaching hospitals. But soon my postbag became so swollen with anguished readers’ stories about hellish experiences on NHS wards that I began to realise something widespread was going on. A culture of cruelty had developed.

At the time it was quite impossible to say so. And when, long ago, a sub-editor (on another newspaper) gave an article of mine the headline “The devil nurses of the NHS“, I felt uneasy: there were and are plenty of fine nurses who would rightly be offended.

But how else would you describe nurses who deliberately and perversely denied painkillers in an intensive care ward to a man who had just had both legs amputated? I saw that for myself in about 1995 in a top London NHS intensive care unit, where my mother was recovering from an operation.

My mother was doing well but she insisted I try to help a man at the other end of the ward who had been screaming in agony throughout the previous night because the nurses had let his epidural drip of painkillers run right down until it was too late to find an anaesthetist to refill it. Now his drip was low again and he was terrified.

So I went to the nursing station and tried politely to explain his fears, whereupon several young nurses very rudely told me to get lost. And sure enough, they let the drip run out and the patient spent the following night screaming in agony again.

A couple of rogue nurses, you might say.

But there was and is too much evidence the other way. I know that public satisfaction with the NHS is generally high and I know there are excellent nurses with an excellent culture of care and compassion.

One example is a post-operative ward in Gloucestershire Royal Hospital, where I spent several hours a day a couple of years ago for most of three weeks, supporting a patient with a learning disability. The nurses could not have been kinder or more cheerful. If they were overworked they didn’t let the patients see it. I don’t suppose they were better paid or less busy than other nurses, but something about the culture there inspired them to be the kind of nurse that everyone hopes for. It can be done.

All too often, however, it isn’t, as people are beginning to realise. It’s hardly necessary to repeat all the horror stories that Hunt listed. A mention of the cancer patient at St George’s in Tooting, south London, whose desperate thirst drove him to call the police, or the needless deaths at Stafford Hospital are enough to make the point.

The question is why this culture has developed and why it is so prevalent. It clearly has little, if anything, to do with pay or workloads: the many compassionate nurses in the NHS prove that. Nor do I think a culture of active cruelty has anything much to do with the training of nurses.

I suspect this institutional cruelty is directed mainly at certain kinds of patient. One day I visited a friend who had just given birth in a famous and respected teaching hospital; the treatment on her ward was excellent. But the same evening I talked to a man who had just visited his mother in the geriatric wing of the same hospital and her treatment was horrifying. He had to go in every day to help her eat, to wash her and to demand some attention from the unpleasant nurses; otherwise, he said, she would be lying in vile neglect like the other patients. There were two entirely different cultures in the same prestigious hospital.

It seems to me the worst NHS and social care horror stories usually have to do with the very old or with people who have mental disabilities or mental illnesses. The scandal at Winterbourne View, the private care home that was shut down after the discovery of horrific treatment of the patients, is a case in point: abuse of this kind is becoming more prevalent in society generally, according to government statistics issued last week.

Perhaps that isn’t entirely surprising. We all have complex and fearful attitudes to ageing and to mental infirmities.

Old people, especially the very frail, are a frightening memento mori. One day I, too, they remind me, will lose my teeth and hair and hearing. One day I will probably be querulous or immobile or doubly incontinent. One day I may lose my mind.

Nobody likes to be reminded of all that and most of us try to forget it for most of the time, but nurses can’t. As well as that, they face the constant difficulty of caring for people who are not going to get better and who may not even appreciate what they do.

I suspect something of the same goes for patients with mental problems: they frighten people in a deep but unspoken way. And the way we deal with people who are frightening is usually to dehumanise them.

We can dissociate ourselves from them by pretending they are different from us, that they are other. And, as history has persistently shown, in the dehumanisation of soldiers in combat, as well as in ethnic cleansing, people we have dehumanised are very much easier to abuse; in fact, abuse becomes a way of asserting our much desired difference from them. That’s why people used to jeer at the local madwoman or the village idiot: it’s a form of self-protection.

None of this excuses callousness or inhumanity in the NHS, in social care or anywhere else. To try to understand is not to excuse. But explanations are urgently needed. Without them the culture of cruelty — the “normalisation of cruelty” — will grow. Beveridge would have been astounded.

The high price of our dementia care failures, Letters, page 25. Is this the future of the NHS?, Dominic Lawson, Magazine, pages 68-73 minette.marrin@sunday-times.co.uk

The Sunday Times

November 25th, 2012

The first law of social work: politics trumps parental love

How could any public servant in her right mind snatch three children away from good and experienced foster parents, just because they belonged to a particular political party? Until last week I would have boasted to anyone that such a thing could never happen in this country. Common sense and political freedom prevail here; only totalitarian police states carry on that way.

But then it emerged that precisely this has happened to a respectable couple living near Rotherham. Better-sounding foster parents you could hardly hope to find: the husband was a Royal Navy reservist for 30 years and works with disabled people; his wife is a qualified nursery nurse. For almost seven years they have been approved foster parents to about a dozen children, and were described as “exemplary”.

A few weeks ago they took in three east European children in an emergency foster placement, and everything seemed to be going well. But one day they suddenly received a visit from a social worker and another official, who explained that the children would have to be taken away from them at once because they were UKIP members and UKIP had racist policies.

Whatever one may think of UKIP, it is a lawful mainstream political party, to which everyone has an absolute right to belong. Yet the strategic director of children’s and young people’s services for Rotherham borough council took it upon herself to decide that UKIP’s policies on immigration and multiculturalism were enough to disqualify these parents from looking after “non-indigenous” children. Clearly she has morphed somewhere in her career from social worker to political commissar.

“We would not have placed these children with you,” she said, “had we known you were members of UKIP because it wouldn’t have been the right cultural match.” The tacit accusation of racism is unmistakeable. But as the foster mother said, “We wouldn’t have taken these children on if we had been racists.” On top of the sadness of losing the children so suddenly, the couple feel that they have been stigmatised and slandered, and are afraid they will not be allowed to carry on fostering.

This senior social worker, Joyce Thacker, and the council as a whole are unrepentant. She now says that she does not think UKIP is a racist party (contrary to the foster parents’ account of their meeting), but “there are some strong views in the UKIP party and we have to think of the future of the children … If the party mantra is, for example, ending the active promotion of multiculturalism … I have to think about their longer-term needs.”

This is odd because she then went on to say — and this is the council’s main line of defence — that the children were placed with this couple only temporarily and “were never intended to stay with the family long term”. Why, then, in an emergency placement such as this, would she have to worry too much about their longer-term needs? This inconsistency suggests that she and the council are either muddled or insincere, and I know which I’m inclined to suspect.

Social workers are very often unfairly criticised. That does not alter the fact, though, that thoughtless, obstinate political correctness of the Joyce Thacker variety is rampant throughout social services. Many of them are highly politicised in plain party-political terms as well. It’s a national disgrace and a national disaster. In adoption, for instance, it is such misguided attitudes that make it so very difficult for a child in need to find adoptive parents.

Ofsted figures released last week suggest that only one in eight couples who want to adopt children is approved by social workers.

In the past year, according to Ofsted, 25,380 couples or individuals made adoption inquiries. Only 16% of them (4,145) went on to apply to adopt a child and only 3,048 were actually approved as prospective parents. This is an astonishing drop-out rate, and a terrible loss to needy children.

No one knows why it is is so high. The family policy expert Patricia Morgan pointed out last week that “we are not being told whether people are being turned down or put off. We don’t know what criteria are being used to approve or eject people … to what extent the decisions are being made on grounds of race, age, health or people’s opinions.”

The government’s determination to encourage adoption is unlikely to succeed without better information about what happens to people when they actually try to adopt. One can at least advise that they might do well to avoid Rotherham.

What happens to social workers? What makes them so politicised? One answer is fear. Again and again it emerges that social workers are afraid of being found insufficiently politically correct, lacking in racial awareness or multicultural enthusiasm or determination to assert gender equality. Their better judgment is clouded over.

Victoria Climbié’s obvious bruises and wounds were, famously, ignored by workers, who said later that physically punishing children was part of her family’s African ethnic tradition, which they felt they had to respect. And there are countless other examples of such muddled, fearful thinking. Thacker herself said in self-defence on Radio 4 that she had been criticised in the past for not making sure children’s cultural and ethnic needs were met.

Fear, however, is only a response to a deep underlying orthodoxy that feels fully entitled to impose itself. This orthodoxy is, or was the last time I looked into it, inculcated in social work training. Even if it is changing, the people trained in this ideological thinking are still in their jobs.

The textbooks I saw seemed less concerned with practical discussions of how to deal with social work problems and real people than with an explicit agenda of social change. This agenda is the usual politically correct stuff, not all of it undesirable, but what stands out is its emphasis on the role of social workers in implementing it. That is why a senior social worker actually thinks it is her job to express through her decisions her disapproval of, say, UKIP or of devoutly Christian foster parents, even when a child might be genuinely happy in such politically incorrect surroundings.

The government should take a long, hard look at the training of social workers. The damage is done from the beginning.

minette.marrin@sunday-times.co.uk

The Sunday Times

November 18th, 2012

Repeat after me: our children will fail unless they learn by rote

In Greek mythology the goddess of memory, Mnemosyne, daughter of heaven and earth and lover of Zeus, was the mother of the nine muses; in their turn, these daughters were the goddesses of literature, arts and science. In this world-view, in other words, memory is the mother of all thought: learning, achievement and understanding cannot exist without it.

The ancient Greeks, as so often, were right. Ask any musician, actor, chemist, mathematician, pharmacist or politician. Ask any heating engineer, dancer, Paralympian, draughtsman, gardener, nurse or cook. Memory is acquired (in important part) through learning by heart, or by repetition or rote learning.

Yet, in one of the strangest and silliest aberrations of progressive educational thought in the West, rote learning has become anathema.

It has become such a bad word that the normally courageous Michael Gove in his excellent speech on Wednesday about exams and how children best learn did not dare to use it, even though he was passionately advocating it. Such is the repressive power of the educational establishment and its mindset.

The self-styled progressives of the educational establishment believe that rote learning is mindless, mechanical parroting — the enemy of child-centred learning, of creativity, self-discovery, the development of critical analysis, the understanding of context and all the rest. Their passionate objections are given dramatic shape by Charles Dickens’s Mr Gradgrind from Hard Times, whose name is regularly invoked in horror by people who ought to think more carefully.

Readers may remember the ludicrous moment when Gradgrind, the headmaster, demands from a wretched pupil the definition of a horse. “Quadruped. Graminivorous,” the boy recites mindlessly. “Forty teeth, namely twenty-four grinders, four eye-teeth, and twelve incisive. Sheds coat in the spring; in marshy countries, sheds hoofs, too. Hoofs hard, but requiring to be shod with iron. Age known by marks in mouth.”

“Now girl number twenty,” says Gradgrind. “You know what a horse is.”

Dickens knows and we know — it is the whole point of the caricature — that this is not all there is to a horse. Of course not. But it is nonetheless useful basic knowledge. It is knowledge that has been memorised so deeply as to need no conscious retrieval, like musical scales and times tables, like the alphabet and scientific formulae. A biologist, a vet, a palaeontologist and any buyer of an ageing pony could not afford to be without it.

Such information is necessary but, of course, not sufficient. Facts are necessary to learning and to life but they not sufficient. It’s here that “progressives” seem to me to be making a crass logical error. “Old-fashioned” defenders of rote learning think it necessary, but — they fully admit — not sufficient for wider learning. But muddled “progressives” think that if rote learning is not sufficient, it cannot be necessary.

Rote learning must be reclaimed. In his speech last week Gove several times quoted one of his educational gurus, the American cognitive psychologist Professor Daniel Willingham, who specialises in learning and memory. Willingham says: “Research from cognitive science has shown that the sort of skills teachers want for students — such as the ability to analyse and think critically — require extensive factual knowledge.”

There can be no factual knowledge without deliberate memorising as well as other kinds of more passive memory. So memorising, according to Willingham and Gove, is a precondition of understanding. Only when facts and concepts are committed securely to the memory, so that it is no effort to recall them and no effort is required to work things out from first principles, do we have a secure hold on knowledge. But in our culture, even in the best private schools, rote learning seems to be in the intellectual doghouse. Schools don’t promote it; exams don’t test it; children don’t do it.

Educationalists who are against rote learning should ask themselves why our schools have been slipping so quickly down international league tables. Employers complain that school leavers lack essential skills and most universities feel obliged to offer remedial teaching to ignorant students. These poor students are handicapped by a lack of essential internalised knowledge, rather like ambitious violinists who don’t know their scales by heart.

Almost half of all adults in Briton have the mathematical skills of an 11-year-old, according to the media mathematician Alex Bellos. It is wrong. And it’s one of the reasons why students from cultures that don’t despise rote learning are overtaking the disadvantaged children of the rich West.

Westerners always marvel at how good east Asians are at doing sums: they are at the top of the international numeracy rankings. In a fascinating BBC Radio 4 programme called The Land of the Rising Sums, Bellos recently set out to discover why.

Among many other fascinating cultural reasons — Japanese has a more rational, user-friendly way of counting than many western languages, and the Asian use of the abacus develops different parts of the brain, including those used for visualising — he discovered that all Japanese toddlers are taught to sing a kind of numbers nursery rhyme call kuku. It is, in fact, a song of times tables, and they sing it by rote in groups, long before they understand what it means.

This way, it seems Japanese children internalise their tables perfectly, permanently and happily, unlike British children. Bellos tested Japanese office workers in a bar; all were number perfect, and one explained it was the memory of the kuku music that made it impossible for her to forget the tables.

It is perfectly clear that neuroscientists still have a great deal of research to do into how learning works, and which parts of the brain can be stimulated in which ways. But it is also clear beyond a shadow of doubt that rote learning works and that children’s memories absorb and retain far more than those of adults.

To prevent children from memorising by heart — poems, scales, letters, grammar, equations, verbs, vocabulary, dance notation, prayers, historical dates, the periodic table and anything else of interest — is deliberately to close their minds and weaken their powers of thought. Let’s not forget Mnemosyne.

minette.marrin@sunday-times.co.uk

The Sunday Times

October 21st, 2012

Frankel, my dear, you’ll never be better than the horse I knew

The astonishing Frankel is being widely celebrated as the greatest racehorse ever. No one can deny that he is among the very greatest, but, even after his magnificent win yesterday, my own opinion is that he is no better than the late great Brigadier Gerard and perhaps not as good. My view is not based on any expertise: it is based on the unusual experience of being the Brigadier’s sister-in-law, so to speak, and being part of his family throughout his life.

Brigadier Gerard was the cherished darling of the late John and Jean Hislop, carefully bred and nurtured by them, and of much greater interest to them during his lifetime than their two sons or me, their future daughter-in-law. I always felt my father-in-law would have preferred me to be a filly. But at least I had the good fortune, from the age of 19, of watching Brigadier Gerard closely. With family bias I have always been convinced there will never be a greater racehorse.

I am hardly alone. The celebrated jockey Joe Mercer, who rode the Brigadier in all his 18 races, said earlier this year that while Frankel might perhaps equal the Brigadier, he could not better him. A Radio 5 Live panel, convened last Thursday to decide which had been the greatest horse on the flat, came to the same conclusion. Cornelius Lysaght, the BBC’s racing correspondent, the late Shergar’s jockey Walter Swinburn and the jockey turned writer Brough Scott debated the question at erudite length and found the Brigadier the equal of any of the greats.

Whatever the truth, the success of Brigadier Gerard, along with his breeder and owner John Hislop, makes a wonderful British fairy story. It is worth remembering, like our Olympics this year, as a very British achievement. For one thing, thoroughbred racing on the flat as we know it today was a British invention: three great Arab stallions — the Godolphin Arabian, the Darley Arabian and the Byerley Turk — were imported to England in the early 18th century by aristocratic lovers of racing, and all racing thoroughbreds everywhere in the world are descended from these three.

The General Stud Book, the equine equivalent of the Almanach de Gotha, lists every single mating, and my father-in-law was in his day a world expert on breeding. He knew the stud book almost by heart as a result of studying it obsessively during many months spent in hospital after a bad injury while steeplechasing — he was himself champion amateur jockey 13 times running before the war, when, incidentally, he joined the SAS and was dropped behind enemy lines in France. This is a British fable but it’s true.

It was John Hislop’s knowledge of the minutiae of breeding — which bloodlines ran to stamina, which to speed, which to character — that enabled him to breed many successful horses without much money, while he did other work. He earned large sums for advising exotic plutocrats on matings and he was a well-paid racing correspondent. But his heart was in breeding. When a particularly beautiful foal was born to him in 1968 from a mare called La Paiva that he had bred himself, he said immediately that this was the one. He never had any doubt. He named the foal after Arthur Conan Doyle’s swashbuckling character Brigadier Gerard and we, the rather less interesting older siblings in our late teens, realised at once that our new brother was pretty much the Messiah.

Brigadier Gerard was cheaply bred. His sire was a horse of no great distinction owned by a friend and neighbour, the racing enthusiast Lord Carnarvon, who lived at Highclere Castle — now widely known as Downton Abbey — and with whom my mother-in-law played vituperative bridge. Quite apart from my mother-in-law hurling her disputed bridge debts in halfpennies at the unlucky butler at Highclere, this was all a very extraordinary introduction to racing life for me. Up until then I had known only gymkhanas and West Country point-to-points. This was rather different.

I was allowed to visit the Brigadier several times. Even in extreme youth he was the incarnation of the alpha male: an exotic girlfriend of my husband’s brother was kept away from him because, according to my mother-in-law, she wore too much scent and it would distract him sexually. Then, as soon as the Brigadier was old enough to race, he won everything. He never lost. Or, rather, out of his 18 races he lost only one, to Roberto at York, and even then, in coming second, he beat the course record. My mother-in-law used to mutter angrily about anabolic steroids. But while we told her that such talk was slanderous, my father-in-law made the much graver charge that it was unsporting.

Watching the Brigadier race was like a long summer dream, very long ago now, in the early 1970s. Towards the end of a race he would just gather speed and leave the rest of the field behind effortlessly. Then there would be champagne. As things progressed there would be not only champagne, but also roars of patriotic enthusiasm from the crowd for horse, owner and Britain, newspaper headlines, introductions to plutocratic owners, the royal enclosure, the winners’ enclosure, conversations with the Queen, invitations to lunch with the Queen Mother, the full Monty. There was even a moment when the then Duke of Norfolk, to my fury, languidly offered me upon introduction not his hand but his finger. I went about in the turbulent wake of my formidable mother-in-law. As I had few “good” clothes, she would stuff me into dresses she thought suitable; I felt like a female impersonator.

Very early in the Brigadier’s career, when the best was yet to come, my parents-in-law were offered £250,000 for him. That was a huge sum and probably worth at least 10 times more today. At the time there was one of those life-changing conversations in the kitchen discussing it but — although my parents-in-law were deeply mired in debt — the entire family wanted to refuse it. I remember my future husband telling his parents that they would regret it for the rest of their lives if they let the Brigadier go.

Neither my husband nor his brother was interested in horses; they were both highly allergic to them, as was John Hislop himself, but he was able to get extremely powerful injections for most of his life until they became illegal. Even so, both sons urged their father to keep this astonishing horse.

The story doesn’t end well. Brigadier Gerard was not much use at stud. My mother-in-law spent the rest of her life, and the rest of all the money they made, in vainglorious attempts to produce another Brigadier. My parents-in-law died penniless and deeply in debt. But what a life! What a man! What an incomparable horse! And how very satisfactorily British.

minette.marrin@sunday-times.co.uk