And now on Today, a patronising creep
When their arguments fail, the right’s attacks get personal. Yesterday it happened live on the radio
What to do when reactionaries attack? Do you give them the satisfaction, the oxygen of publicity? Do you play the game and be the po-faced, politically correct Guardianista glumbucket of their imagining? A bit of a poser, that one, as the Daily Mail’s Quentin Letts might say in his Boris-Greyfriars lingo.
There I was on the Today programme, lined up against Letts as he plugged his latest quicky book, Patronising Bastards: How the Elites Betrayed Britain. He lists 100 people he hates. I make it in at No 51. His trope is that a “Brahmin caste” has “posed as liberals” and “crouched behind ‘enlightened’ attitudes while imposing on a populace it claims to esteem but truthfully disdains.”
You know the whole schtick at a glance. “Common sense” has been abolished, “Britons voted Brexit because they were fed up being taken for fools”, and “children were exposed to sex education by schools more interested in dogma than declension. Sex crimes rocketed.” Murderers are set free by sociologists, while smokers feel like criminals, all “bossed about” by “knowalls” on “diet, gender, sexuality, race, even the weather”. His is a life of purest torment. He especially hates “railway Tannoys saying ‘see it, say it, sorted’”.
If you didn’t hear Today, you can imagine what transpired. He took a swing at “our new establishment”, the “new elite … schmoozing and networking”, the “mass of people forever wagging fingers” and “telling us how to live our lives”. And as he did so, he betrayed again that curious paranoia of those who hold power, wealth and influence, and their defenders in the Tory press, pretending that they are the victims. For most of my life, the Tories have been in power, with brief social democratic interludes showing that democracy still functions, if intermittently. They are the captains of just about every commanding height – except, maybe, the most senior figures in the arts. That’s why they are Letts’ great bete noire.
This perverse positioning is always particularly rich from those who take the Daily Mail shilling, for who could be more powerful, more elitist than Paul Dacre, the paper’s grand and pugnacious editor, whose personal portfolio, if we leave to one side a £2m salary, includes a cattle farm in Sussex and a Scottish grouse moor with deer stalking and salmon fishing, handsomely subsidised by the EU? Shouldn’t he be in the book? “I’m not a suicide bomber, for God’s sake,” spluttered Letts.
He was losing the argument. So what does the right do next, what does a Mail man do next? He turned personal and patronising: “Do you know, whenever I’m on with Polly I wish I could just pin her to the ground and tickle her under the armpits and make you smile my dear!” It was creepy, disgusting. In the panic of the live radio moment I simpered a bit. “I do smile!” I said, falling for the trope of the “miserable humourless Guardian old girl can’t even take a joke!” (Old girl is what he called the prime minister on the Mail’s front page last week). And then I kicked myself a thousand times for all the things I might have said. Pin me down? Tickle me? Can you imagine him saying that to Simon Jenkins or Jonathan Freedland?
There was no harm done: I’m not vulnerable. But on Twitter there was anger at another wearying reminder of the extent to which contempt for women informs the Mail culture. This isn’t pussy-grabbing or masturbating in front of actresses. Letts isn’t Trump or Weinstein – but his twee, over-physical little put-down comes from an adjacent place. Men are men and women forever silly girls – old or young.
I guess that this week all women my age have been mentally re-running the bum-pinching, grabbing, intimidating humiliations from men in power of our youth. I remember as a gauche and inadequate 22-year-old reporter, that interview with the author Saul Bellow. Bored, bullying, he ordered me to walk ahead of him in the park so he could look at my legs as they were better than my questions. And shamingly, I did. Mordecai Richler, the Canadian novelist, assumed a fixer had set me up for the night with him on his publicity tour in exchange for an interview. He was outraged when I ran off. I never wrote those things into my interviews, as now we would.
I’m prepared for what might come next, for the right often strikes back and the Mail usually retaliates. I’m a champagne socialist, a hypocrite, a glumbucket, a misery of an old girl who can’t take a joke; just tickle me to death, Dacre.
Letts betrayed that curious paranoia of those who hold power and wealth, pretending that they are the victims