Wednesday, 20 February 2013

Reader/Writer Beware!

I was once in the Daily Mail.  Mr Walker and I were waiting for a flight to New York in November 2001 when the plane crashed in Queens.  We were immediately surrounded by journalists who asked us repeatedly if we were afraid to die as terrorists would no doubt blow up our plane like they had just done again in Queens (which they hadn't but that isn't a good news story).  I muttered something about being utterly terrified and it was duly printed.  I sobbed for the entire flight. That is the point of today's post which has been inspired by the fuss over Hilary Mantel and the Duchess of Cambridge.

In the blue corner...
In the red corner...

Many of you are writers, many write historic fiction or blogs or the suchlike, like myself.  Many of you would defend your subjects with 'terminal intensity' (as we say in the Walker Household), feeling an emotional connection with people who we could never know in real life but have built up a 'relationship' with through many years worth of research and work.  I am happy to talk at length and with vigor about Fanny Cornforth and feel I am qualified to do so.  I am always as careful as possible not to attack others unless I am sure of my ground and hope that I always, always make sure that you know that what I write is my own opinion that you are free to agree with or otherwise because, after all, it is only my opinion.

My chosen subject for my work is artists' models, with Fanny being my specialism.  I could give you my opinion of models today if you like: they are very pretty and I'm sure they are nice people.  Especially Andreas Dithmer, I'm sure he's lovely.  If you had asked me a couple of years ago what I made of Kate Moss, after she reportedly said 'Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels', I would have given you my very honest opinion indeed.  In my opinion that is a very stupid thing to say which buys into teenage girl fear of fat, reinforces women's body-hatred and generally adds nothing to people's life experience.  I remember the newspapers were outraged and much wailing and fist-shaking took place.

However, that wasn't what she said.

Look at the newspaper article I attached to the quote.  When asked if she had any mottos, Moss answers she has many and one is 'Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels', she then adds 'You try and remember, but it never works'.  That changes the point of her answer; she is pointing out how her job should rule her pleasures, but it doesn't.  For the record, my lemon drizzle cake tastes much better than skinny feels.  And so does Andreas Dithmer.

Andreas Dithmer, modelling for Rowan Wool
Back to today and Hilary Mantel.  In Royal Bodies, Mantel's lecture for the London Review of Books, she looked at past and present princesses/queens and people's obsession with their bodies and what came out of them.  She opens with a passage about her impressions of the Duchess of Cambridge, Kate Middleton as was, and how she felt no connection with a young woman who was projected as a clothes horse with a monarch-making womb.  None of this is ground-breaking, she merely reflected popular opinion which seems to be obsessed with the Duchess' weight and clothes.  If you read her speech, it is full of 'seems' and 'appears', leading me to conclude that Mantel was not attacking the Duchess as much as the constant bombardment of the public with the image of perfection, although this could be a little clearer.  She revealed odd moments of being in awe of the various royals, and goes on to talk about how the public still rake over the lives of the Boleyns (notably a couple of days ago I saw a headline about love letters between Anne Boleyn and her brother).  Very interesting stuff about the Tudors follows and then she finishes with a lovely bit about being compassionate towards people and stop picking over the Royals.

We all know what happened next.

I write this after reading today's back and forth of mudslinging.  For the record, I think the bits about the Duchess could be phrased clearer for the journalists who weren't willing to read to the end, but what she said and why is now not really the point.  It is older lady vs younger lady, fat lady vs thin lady, some rather horrible stuff about reproductive systems of both and all manner of worse.  I stopped reading the comments when I read people calling Mantel 'Worzel Gummidge' and the Duchess 'a brood mare'.  What is wrong with us?  I could quite happily blame journalists for pitching into the non-argument but the whole business can be filed under 'irony' if it wasn't so hideous.  Mantel's point was that we pick apart people like animals. Looks like she was right.

Why am I talking about this?  Well, it rang a chime with me as both a reader and a writer.  As a writer, you can never be too clear of your point and you should be aware the you do not exist in a vacuum.  Part of me expects that Hilary Mantel is unsurprised at the media storm, after all her piece covered the cruelty of the press and the mob.

As a reader, do not do what I did, which was to just read the newspaper and form an opinion immediately.  It's too easy to do that and now we have to be smarter and know that you can do better than read newspapers.  You can.  I promise you that each of you are capable of forming your own opinion far above anything that any of the papers offers.  You have the ability to read Hilary Mantel's piece and make up your own mind, you have the ability to not read speculation over womb-envy.  You do not need to enter the swamp of journalism.  Each and every one of you is better than that.

Last word to Hils:  'I’m not asking for censorship. I’m not asking for pious humbug and smarmy reverence. I’m asking us to back off and not be brutes.'

What she said.


  1. thanks, nice piece.

    I think the point you make about writers is really important. Readers are reading differently than they used to. Its a pity and it causes problems but its not because they are lazy its because they are trying to read/engage with too much (really the opposite of lazy) So writers need to remember that. If you have something to say, say it. Then explore and substantiate it for the readers that are interested enough to stick around.

    Also, I like your point about readers more than the 'lazy' one everyone else is making. I take you to mean that rather than waste our time reading what everyone else thinks we should read close to the source and think for ourselves. That said, nice to read what you think ;)

  2. Sarah, yes, exactly. One of the first things you learn as a historian is to return to the source. We don't trust ourselves enough to read the original source, but seem to have enough confidence to respond with vitriol. It's a puzzler but it is easy to respond to something when it has been simplified beyond its original point.

    Having said that, always read what I have to say. I'm fascinating.

    Thanks for your comments, they were just what I would expect from the highly intellectual and well-balanced people who read my blog.

  3. Thank you for giving me the other side of the Hilary Mantel issue. The whole thing looked a little odd.

    As for the Daily Mail, when I first moved to the USA, about 8 years ago, I discovered my native land was falling apart. Pre-teens having babies, drugs and drama, hopelessness and debauched misery. And after a year of two of this I realised my home page picked up Daily Mail headlines by default. So I fixed that and Britain seems to be doing rather better.

  4. We don't read a newspaper, and we get our news from the radio or via the BBC website. While not perfect it cuts back on commentary by people who are no smarter than me. I think I bought the Daily Mail last when they were giving away DVDs. It made me very grumpy indeed. Mind you the others are not better, they just use bigger words. I think the Mantel/Cambridge scrap shows how really all the papers are the same in essence.

    Thanks for your comments :)

  5. I know what you are saying about the press not picking up on the whole story but I do think that Hilary Mantel would have been wiser not to say those things in connection with Kate - things which could well be construed (even by a Times/Guardian reader) as a nasty personal attack. While on the subject of nasty personal attacks, does anyone else think there's something strange about HM's face - like she's had botox?

  6. PS any chance you could change the background of this blog to something less revealing?! I am always afraid when reading ita t work that people will think I'm looking at you know what...

  7. I noticed that the press used some awful pictures of HM in connection to the story, as if to emphasise how mad she was. God help me if I ever say anything that can be misconstrued...

    I shall put my boobs away to save your reputation...

  8. I heard this on the radio, Radio Four played Ms Mantel actually speaking and it seemed harsh. However, one of the points she spoke about was that 'once she has got over being sick the press will describe her as radiant' and that, folks, is exactly the phrase used the next day. My view is that if I was Kate Middleton listening to that I would be hurt. They were cruel and hurtful remarks. The Duchess is a person, she is alive now and she is not a dusty old Boleyn. I appreciate the angle she was taking, that of the role of royal women but it seemed a cheap shot and she's certainly got a lot of publicity from it.
    I'm not a royalist, for the record. I agree about the not being brutes, that's all I ask. It seemed brutish.

  9. I think it must be extremely difficult to speak about living people when you are used to talking about people from the past because it is impossible to be critical (in all senses of the word) without the sensitivity.

    Mind you, it still gets a bit fisty among the Pre-Raph historians at times...

  10. I think you're right. It was almost as if she was thinking of The Duchess of Cambridge as either an historical figure or a character from a book.

    A bit fisty? But with cravats, obviously.

  11. And a break for cake and tea, before throwing the next round of punches...


Many thanks for your comment. I shall post it up shortly! Kx