What counts as sexual harassment?

No reasonable person could deny that it’s completely unacceptable for a woman to feel afraid of being sexually harassed when walking alone on a street at night or on her own in a bar. No-brainer. Obviously. But how is that perfectly justified fear to be removed? Now there’s talk of introducing a crime of ‘street harassment’. But what would count as such a crime? Where is the line to be drawn?

One TV interviewee I heard recently included wolf whistling as a form of sexual harassment. When I was growing up, wolf whistling was regarded as an acceptable way for a man to signal his appreciation of a woman’s physical charms. The woman would usually smile, feeling complimented, and continue on her way. Wolf whistling may be crass but is it now to be considered a crime?

Or suppose a guy in a bar approaches a woman standing alone. ‘Hello, gorgeous!’ he says with a drunken leer. ‘You on your lonesome?’ The woman finds the man creepy-looking, his attentions are unwanted, she feels threatened and reports him to the police. Has he committed a crime? Perhaps he’s just a jerk. Aren’t we back in the realm of ‘Your behaviour offended me, therefore you need to change your behaviour’?

Of course it’s clear that the behaviour of some men, perhaps particularly younger men, does need to change. But putting a crime of street harassment on the statute books is unlikely to bring about that change. It goes far deeper than that. Brought up in a world of online porn in which women are routinely depicted as sexual omnivores, literally ‘gagging for it’, is it any wonder that some young men imbibe those attitudes and project those perceptions onto the women around them? But how do you halt the flood of online porn without shutting down whole sections of the Web in a way that we’d be quick to condemn if it was carried out by the likes of China or North Korea?

We seem to be at a fork in the road. One path leads to ever-increasing licence in the portrayal of sexual relations to the point where pretty much anything short of rape or murder is permitted. The other path leads to the erosion of fundamental democratic rights such as the right to freedom of expression. Which path will prevail in this forking hell?

What counts as racism?

The recent Royal racism row – I mean of course Meghan Markle’s revelation that Harry was asked by a senior Royal about the likely skin colour of the couple’s forthcoming child – has got me hot under the collar. Not because of any suggestion that the remarks of the senior Royal in question may have been motivated by racial prejudice – how can we possibly know whether that’s the case? we weren’t present when the remarks were made – but rather because of the media’s unwholesome relish in immediately placing such a construction upon those remarks.

In language, context is everything. Exactly the same form of words may have two entirely different meanings depending on the situation or the tone of voice in which they’re expressed. Hence irony. Hence sarcasm. For all we know, the subtext of the senior Royal’s remarks may have been: ‘we hope, for your child’s sake, that he or she won’t be too dark-skinned because otherwise they’re likely to encounter the most shameful and deplorable racism’. Or maybe even: ‘we hope your son or daughter is dark-skinned because we don’t want another ginger minger in the family’.

It’s still borderline acceptable today to make jokes about people with red hair, but for how long? How long before it’s considered taboo to make jokes about, or even simply to criticise, anyone from a minority background, whatever that minority happens to be?

But hang on a minute, isn’t everyone from a minority background of one kind or another? Take me for example: an elderly white heterosexual man. Aren’t we also in a minority? Shouldn’t it therefore be taboo to make jokes about people like me? Surely, in the interests of fairness, there should be no difference between one minority and another.

Typically, the response to this will be: ah, but people of colour are routinely discriminated against, whereas white people aren’t. To which I would reply: actually, the minority to which I belong (white heterosexual male writers – hey, we’re all allowed to self-identify these days) is also discriminated against. Look at the editorial board of any publishers, look at the judging panel of any literary prize, look at the shortlist for those literary prizes, look at any book programme on TV – they’re all dominated by women and people of colour. Occasionally you will spot a white male but usually they’re gay.

No doubt many people who might read this post – fortunately perhaps, very few people will read it and most of those are friends – will have me down as a racist or sexist or homophobe because of the comments above. Which is just another version of the ‘I was offended by your words, therefore you are in the wrong’ argument. In other words, everyone has a right not to be offended. Well, in my world we don’t have that right. Offence can sometimes be a positive and necessary thing. Do you imagine that slave traders weren’t offended by the arguments of the early abolitionists? Do you imagine that vegetarians (another minority I belong to) aren’t offended by adverts for McDonald’s and Burger King? Do you imagine that Christians weren’t offended by evolutionists?

Sadly, that world is vanishing before our eyes. Even as we speak, Orwell’s Thought Police are donning their riot gear in preparation for the battle ahead, batons at the ready.

Civil War Two

A vision of the near future in the US: two thin coastal strips of liberal, progressive, pacifist democrats separated by millions of deluded fanatics who get all their news from social media and only speak in soundbites via Twitter, led by one of Trump’s children, who continues to peddle the lie invented by their father that there’s a giant conspiracy against them and they’re actually in the majority and need to seize power by force. In other words a Second Civil War. Or, as the Americans will call it, Civil War Two.

Meanwhile …

In the midst of a global pandemic with the UK recording its highest ever daily death toll from Covid, plus impending civil war in the US with the threat of a possible nuclear strike on God knows who, the lead story on BBC News – likewise Sky News – is that the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh have received their Covid vaccination. Cue archive footage of the Queen speaking to various unknown people or shaking their hands, while a voiceover repeats the fact that the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh have received their Covid vaccination. Then an interview with someone or other about the fact that the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh have received their Covid vaccination, followed by the voiceover repeating the fact that – did I mention this? – the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh have received their Covid vaccination. All this above a rolling ‘BREAKING NEWS’ banner stating that the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh have received their Covid vaccination.

Is it me or has 2021 got off to a bad start?

A Personal Note

40 years ago today John Winston Lennon was shot and killed outside the Dakota building in New York. The day, I’ve always felt, should be declared a public holiday in the UK, though there’s no sign it ever will be. After all, the US has Martin Luther King Day and Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ is surely just as important a cultural object as MLK’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech.

The day has a special significance for me because, in December 1980, I was living in New York with my Swedish partner, who was completing her PhD on children’s outdoor play in the relatively new field of environmental psychology. We were renting a room in the Long Island City brownstone of Pia’s supervisor, Professor Roger Hart at CUNY, a fellow Englishman, from Nottingham. Shortly after Christmas 1980 we moved to Berkeley, California, for the second half of Pia’s doctoral study-year, where we were joined by her 5-year-old son Mattias (born, coincidentally, one day after Sean Lennon and now a diplomat at the UN in New York).

On the night in question Pia and I had been to watch The Elephant Man in Manhattan. Returning home, we opened the front door to see Roger coming down the stairs and informing us, ashen-faced, that a report had just come on the radio announcing that Lennon had been shot by (according to the radio report) ‘a local screwball’. At that time, immediately after the assassination, it was uncertain whether Lennon would survive or not. It soon became clear that he would not. In a state of shock we switched on the TV and followed the news coverage showing the Dakota building and the vigil that was already beginning to assemble. We could have joined the vigil but chose not to, preferring to grieve in private.

Throughout the previous month Lennon’s songs from Double Fantasy had been on the New York radio with almost monotonous regularity. ‘Woman’, ‘Beautiful Boy’, ‘Watching the Wheels’, ‘Starting Over’: Lennon seemed to be genuinely happy for the first time in his life and entering upon a newly creative phase after 5 years of house-husbandry. He’d turned 40 on October 9 — the same birthday as Sean — and on that day Elton John gave a free concert in Central Park, which Pia and I attended. During the performance a small plane flew over the stage trailing a banner bearing the words ‘Happy Birthday John & Sean’. The greeting, it transpired, was arranged by Yoko and, as the Dakota building overlooked Central Park, I imagined the three of them watching the stage show and seeing the banner from their apartment window. Who could have predicted that, just two months later, this tight, bright family unit would be so cruelly ripped apart?

40 years on, Lennon’s legacy remains. Surely it’s time his life was celebrated and his death commemorated by some public acknowledgement of that legacy.

Language Notes #1: The Museum of Taboo Terminology

Why is it that certain words, once considered perfectly acceptable, eventually come to be regarded as taboo? I think of this whenever I hear someone refer to ‘disabled’ people or people ‘of colour’ and I recall how, not so very long ago, it was thought to be OK to refer to ‘handicapped’ people or ‘coloured’ people. After all, there’s nothing intrinsically offensive in the words ‘handicapped’ or ‘coloured’. Indeed, those words were coined precisely because they were felt to be inoffensive. So why are they now taboo?

Or take another example: IQ tests once came with a scale for grading intelligence, a scale running all the way from ‘imbecile’, ‘cretin’ and ‘moron’ through to ‘genius’. I remember seeing such a scale in Hans Eysenck’s book of IQ tests back in the 1960s. ‘Imbecile’, ‘cretin’ and ‘moron’ were originally quasi-medical terms, as were later terms such as ‘retarded’ – a word that has always struck me as deeply inoffensive in its intended sense, since it simply meant ‘delayed’ or ‘late to develop’ – and ‘educationally sub-normal’ (ESN) and ‘special needs’. Yet none of these terms is any longer considered acceptable.

The conclusion is inescapable: words such as those mentioned above have a limited shelf life, a built-in obsolescence. For a while they’re permissible, even encouraged. But eventually, inevitably, they begin to be used in contexts where they carry negative connotations, and from there it’s only a short step to becoming terms of abuse. They have to be replaced.

This is happening right now with the growing currency of words such as ‘BAME’ or ‘non-binary’ or the alphabet soup of ‘LGBTQ+’ in discussions of ethnicity and gender and sexual orientation. How long before terms like ‘gay’ and ‘transgender’ and ‘of colour’ become as anachronistic and taboo as their predecessors and must be ruthlessly expunged? And how long before their replacements themselves need to be replaced?

Language evolves, we all know that. New words, like new species, emerge, have their moment in the sun and finally become extinct, ending their days in historical dictionaries like fossils in museums of natural history. In other words, as long as there is a negative valorization of people who are gay or disabled or from ethnic minorities, the terms used to denote such individuals will inevitably acquire similarly negative associations. Language, alas, can never be value-free.

Death of the Short Story?

The Penguin Book of the Contemporary British Short Story, edited by Philip Hensher, was published in 2018, following on from The Penguin Book of the British Short Story, also edited by Hensher, which appeared a few years earlier. This contemporary collection shines a welcome spotlight on an increasingly neglected literary form, though the stories themselves are a mixed bag, with a scattering of genuine gems balanced by a clutch of meretricious duds and the rest somewhere in between. Foremost among the duds must surely be Kazuo Ishiguro’s contribution, ‘Come Rain or Come Shine’, which reads like a badly-plotted sitcom with the comedy removed and is unlikely to persuade anyone encountering Ishiguro for the first time to try one of his many excellent novels.

Ishiguro’s story is taken from his 2009 collection Nocturnes. In fact all but three of the stories in Hensher’s selection are taken from collections by their authors rather than from magazines or periodicals – the exceptions appeared in Granta and the New Yorker – which on the face of it seems a surprising decision. Exactly how contemporary (defined by Hensher in his introduction as post-1997, the year of Blair’s election success and Diana’s death) are these stories, given that many of them are set in the last century or at an unspecified time? In fact, considering how few of the stories mention mobile phones or computers or other recognisable insignia of our digital age (less than a dozen out of 30 in total), I suspect that a large number of them were written prior to Hensher’s start date of 1997.

Hensher justifies his approach on the grounds that the short story has all but disappeared from the contemporary magazine or periodical, crowded out by the welter of self-published stories available for free online. This is certainly a fair point: very few magazines or periodicals today provide a paying market for short stories, to the point where it’s virtually impossible for a short-story writer to make any money from a single story unless it happens to win a competition. The editorial board of the literary journal or magazine has been replaced by the judges’ panel of the literary prize.

And here Hensher is spot-on in his assessment of the dearth of opportunities available to the contemporary short-story writer. He rails against the value of short-story prizes such as the Sunday Times or BBC awards, pointing out that the winning stories in such competitions invariably appear to have been chosen on the grounds that they address some ostensibly important social or political issue or are regarded in some other way as ‘worthy’ rather than because of any intrinsic literary merit they may possess. Few of these stories, as Hensher rightly says, have any popular appeal and even fewer contain any humorous or comic content, something that seems to be anathema to the literary judge. Identity stories about gender or ethnicity on the other hand are particularly well-placed to get a favourable reception.

Hensher’s introduction makes a number of other valuable observations about the contemporary short story, such as the rise of so-called flash fiction or micro-fiction and the suggestion that publishers could benefit from the popularity of such fiction and its more extended cousin by marketing appropriately-priced digital versions of such stories. Indeed, as I argued in the introduction to my own short-story collection, published as an e-book in 2011 to universal indifference, the short story would seem far better suited to our modern digital age, with its many competing demands on our time, than the novel. It’s always been a mystery to me why so many people will happily plough through a 500-page novel of dubious merit but show no interest in an elegantly-crafted story of intricate design that it takes a fraction of the time to read. Perhaps there’s an analogy with the dipsomaniac who eschews the lunchtime pint or post-prandial tipple in favour of the weekend bender. More likely it’s precisely the fragmentary nature of modern life that gives the long novel, with its countervailing sense of continuity and immersiveness, its appeal.

Hensher also makes a number of puzzling remarks, however. For example, he objects to a certain prize-winning story because it contains the vernacular phrase ‘I think to myself,’ which he regards as a careless redundancy. Yet he includes in the collection a story by Jackie Kay in which that selfsame expression occurs. Similarly, he objects to the ‘absurdly prevalent mode’ of the ‘single character monologue written in the second-person present tense,’ which he says ‘has become completely conventional while hardly ever appealing to a paying customer’. So why does he include a story by Helen Oyeyemi written in the second-person present tense? And why include Hilary Mantel’s story about a novelist researching her family history or Gerard Woodward’s story about a short-story writer forced to pen a political speech in an unnamed police state – one of the best stories in the book – when ‘I did not need to trouble about the many stories…that incorporated a novelist as the main character. These seemed fairly deadly to me’?

Sometimes, too, I wondered whether he had got his facts quite right. Can it really be the case, for example, that the two volumes of short stories published in 2002 and 2009 by Jonathan Tel (winner of the Commonwealth Prize, the VS Pritchett Prize and the Sunday Times award) had sold, according to BookScan, a combined total of just 34 copies prior to 2018, when the introduction was written? Hensher uses this fact, if fact it is, as evidence of the failure of prize-winning stories to appeal to a popular readership.

One thing I’m sure of: the literary short story may be ailing but it isn’t deceased quite yet, as attested by at least some of the stories in this uneven collection. Perhaps, to adapt US critic Mary McCarthy’s famous remark about Nabokov’s extraordinary jack-in-the-box novel Pale Fire, the literary short story isn’t dead, it’s just playing possum.

Morrissey the Writer

Finally, at the third attempt, I’ve managed to finish Morrissey’s Autobiography, though it was sometimes a struggle. I should state at the outset that I’m a die-hard Morrissey fan, having lived with his songs in my head for the best part of forty years. One of the minor pleasures of reading the book lay in spotting the snippets of lyrics slipped unobtrusively into the text (without quote marks or italics) for the benefit of the aficionado.

But frankly this was one of the few pleasures. The bulk of the book is devoted to settling old scores – with ex-Smiths members, managers, record company execs, music journalists, fellow musicians, DJs, lawyers, judges, in fact virtually everyone Morrissey seems to have met in his life. When he’s not rehearsing old grudges he’s annotating the chart position of every one of his singles and albums in the UK and US charts and badmouthing all those who stopped his songs from reaching a higher position out of sheer bloody-mindedness. Do I feel I know Morrissey any better at the end of this book than at the beginning? No, but that’s as much a testament to the strength of the songs as the weakness of the book. Would I like to know him better, now I’ve read it? Hmm, not sure. Will his songs continue to exert their peculiar hold over me? Almost certainly.

Having said all that, there were parts of the book I enjoyed. His account of possibly seeing a ghost on Saddleworth Moor, site of the infamous Moors Murders (and inspiration for the memorable ‘Suffer Little Children’), points to the ghost of a genuine writer lurking within the cantankerous curmudgeonly frame of the public Morrissey. And there’s something strangely vulnerable and touching about the sense of validation (he refers to it repeatedly as ‘love’) that he seems to take from his relationship with his adoring fans in Mexico, Chile and Sweden. Finally, as someone who gave up eating meat in the 1980s, I had no argument with his occasional, surprisingly restrained animal-rights diatribes, even applauding him for walking out of a meeting with a lunch partner who insisted on ordering frogs’ legs, a not uncommon occurrence by all accounts.

As one might expect, the book is written in a highly idiosyncratic, idiomatic style, full of offbeat alliterative riffs. Sometimes the wordplay is clever and amusing, more often it’s bizarrely unfathomable, and most of the time it’s in need of a good editor. Morrissey may think he’s writing in the tradition of Oscar Wilde or perhaps even James Joyce, but a writer who doesn’t know his garner from his garnish or his hew from his hue should probably stick to songwriting.

I’ll leave the last word to Morrissey himself, taken from a passage that encapsulates both the peaks and troughs of his miserabilist tier: ‘Only the grand completion of a recorded song allows my heart to laugh… But once you have said Life is a Pigsty, where to go from there?’

Post-Brexit & post-human

Ben Elton is best known to most people as a writer of sitcoms such as Blackadder and, before that, as a stand-up. This is a pity as he’s also a writer of very good comic fiction. His latest offering, Identity Crisis, is a razor-sharp satire of post-Brexit Britain whose targets include: English nationalism, political correctness, gender and identity politics, MeToo, politicians who misspeak but subsequently own their misspeaking (‘This is not who I am’) and much else besides. It’s a world where all rape victims must be referred to as ‘survivors’ even if they’re dead (at which point they become dead survivors), a world where Samuel Pepys (1633-1703) is investigated for historic sex crimes, and a world where a retrospectively non-consensual kiss on Love Island can be considered a kind of oral rape. I found little to disagree with, and a lot to laugh at, in Elton’s gleeful skewering of these subjects. Unfortunately for him, his novels will never win a major literary prize because they’re funny and accessible, qualities that seem to be anathema to most literary prize judges.

Another novel I recently enjoyed, though with some reservations, is Jeanette Winterson’s Frankissstein, a terrifying and often shocking fable updating the Frankenstein story to a futuristic world of sexbots and post-human AI. Winterson pulls no punches in her dystopian vision of an AI-engineered world, a vision that may well prove as prescient in its own way as Brave New World. The novel also includes a beautifully-observed recreation of the circumstances surrounding the inspiration for, and composition of, Frankenstein – one of my all-time favourite novels – conceived when Mary Shelley was just 19 years old. Unfortunately I felt the book somewhat lost the plot, literally so, in its second half and ended with more of a whimper than a bang. Nonetheless it’s a bold and brave attempt to warn against an all-too-possible future and confirms Winterson’s status as one of the most gifted British writers at work today.