What makes Kim Jong-il cute — and Barack Obama not?

The Spectator

Ordinarily, I love books that answer questions I never asked but Simon May’s baffling book has blown my mind. The self-deprecator in me wants to tell you I’m too stupid to understand a word of it. The rest of me suspects this is a sneaking yet sparkling satire on what a university will get you (£50,000 of debt and the capacity to pronounce a penguin cuter than a mermaid.)

I like the visiting professor of philosophy at King’s College London very much. ‘What is a bear with the head of a wolf?’ he demands. ‘Who is a human with cat’s eyes? What is the inner world of a sphinx “really”?’ He writes brilliantly and cites exuberantly. The problem is his subject. Early on he explains his approach to ‘Cute’ was inspired by Susan Sontag’s Notes On “Camp” and Harry Frankfurt’s essay On Bullshit. But the former was so of its moment and the latter so enduring, by comparison, The Power of Cute seems at best esoteric and at worst outdated. Most of the cultural artefacts of ‘Cute’ exhibited to us – E.T., Mickey Mouse, Jeff Koons’ Balloon Dogs, Cabbage Patch Kids – are twenty years old, at least. 

Cute can’t be defined. Despite copious footnotes and a seven-page bibliography, it proves to be pindownable only in its ‘unpindownability’ and we are told this several times. But still, May makes bold claims for it. Cute, he reckons, was invented by the Japanese as a preserve against nuclear attack. ‘It’s a big jump in self-conception from Samurai to Cute, but it perfectly suits Japan’s historical position after the disaster of militarism,’ he argues. ‘Where, today, Germany does remorse Japan does Cute… a spirit which can magically make vanish everything about Japan that is aggressive and threatening.’ 

This may be a compelling idea to flaunt at dinner parties (I wouldn’t know- no one ever invites me.) But, much like the theory that the EU is what stands between European countries and all-out war, it’s a distraction from fact. What’s preventing another nuclear attack is what happened the last time there were nuclear attacks. It’s not that Cute has been unleashed ’as a Weapon of Mass Seduction’ nor that the Japanese army has included ‘doe-eyed anime waifs’ in its recruitment posters. 

After connecting more random dots than exist in a Yayoi Kusama painting, May turns his attention to Cuteness as it exists in famous people. Initially, this seems like a fun game to play during a power cut or if you’re trapped for hours in a stuck lift. A whole chapter is devoted to it. Roosevelt, Churchill, George W. Bush, Golda Meir and Bill Clinton? Cute. Thatcher, De Gaulle, George Bush Sr. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton? Not cute. Madonna – he tells us – is borderline. Or Borderline. I’m never sure how ironic he’s intending to be.

One hopes a lot because his analysis of the relative cuteness of dictators is either perplexing or offensive. Stalin and Kim Jong-il are cute. Saddam Hussein is not cute. ‘There is nothing, but nothing, cute about terrorist groups like Islamic State or Al-Qaeda.’ Why is one murderous entity Cute and the other not? Because the Cute are ‘careful not to be seen, or known, to kill people by their own hand.’ Hitler isn’t mentioned – one imagines because with his natty moustache and habit of saluting (as Hello Kitty does) with a whole arm he’d be ‘Cute.’ Sure, he massacred six million Jews. But Stalin would win on death count in Top Trumps, so… 

Where is this tending? Towards Donald Trump, of course. Cuteness ‘is key to understanding’ him. Here’s how:

‘In a superb analysis of the grotesque in nineteenth century fiction, Thierry Goater says of Thomas Hardy that it is no wonder he can baffle those who read him. For he “outrageously distorts reality and crudely combines genres and modes… to reveal and give form to the ever-changing… world, a world threatened by meaninglessness.” His aim is to evoke “the fragmentation of the world and of the subject, the inhuman, the abject, madness and death,” thus allowing his devotees “to experience chaos from a distance while sensing the threat involved” and, indirectly to posit a different and new existence.’ 

‘In short,’ May concludes, ‘the formula of Donald Trump.’ 
(!?!?!?!)

This is all very annoying because right at the end of The Power of Cute there’s a banger of a chapter about ‘the Cult of Sincerity’ which I’d love a brain like May’s to pick apart from me. ‘Publicly parading one’s tastes and feelings, one’s likes and dislikes,’ he writes, ‘all this owes an indelible debt to Rousseau.’ 

‘Bloody great,’ I thought, he’s going to explain why anyone, ever, Instagrams anything. But then the book ends. I hope he will write another one. 

To publish unpublishable books, look to your readers

An author always writes the book she wants to read. So my short story collection, Bad Romance, was intended for women like me. Now, every time I get a letter from a beautiful creature who loved it, I keep her words with me. Because I know I’ll need them to sustain me the next time I try to publish a book. For me, they prove – so deliciously – that my audience does exist when everyone in the publishing industry insists it does not.

I wrote my first tale, Julia’s Baby, when seized by the black urge to pull apart a white wedding. The second story, Goddess Sequence, came to me when I was drunk and wishing to revenge myself against a man who had not so much broken my heart as torn it out and stamped on it. Both stories turned out old fashioned peculiarly English things – like the twisted tales of Dahl, Saki and Waugh. My first reader, my friend Sarah, laughed at them, wanted more… I wrote on…

I did not know short stories did not sell. Above all, I’m aware of a reader and aware of their previous commercial successes. In the 1920s, the most popular writer in the Soviet Union was a short story writer called Mikhail Zoshchenko who described how incredibly shit it was to live in the Soviet Union. Dark but very, very funny…

So here we are, I thought, in the 21st century, with more single people alive than at any point in history, and the last heroine properly poking fun at how we live now – still Bridget Jones (who is married with a baby now…)

To live in a city like London today is to experience daily struggles undelineated and uninterrogated by memoir writers (who by definition write about themselves) and literary novels which – Rose Tremain recently pointed out – prove almost impossible to finish. I try not to sound bitter but sometimes it’s hard. All I’ve had from those in charge are rejection slips which you’re just expected to take – and are as Isaac Asimov once said – ‘like lacerations to the soul.’

Without readers, Bad Romance would still be languishing in a drawer somewhere. But then, after years of failing to get an agent, I was put in touch with an undeniably brilliant one by a friend and this lady arranged for me to meet Katy Guest, projects editor at the crowdfunding publisher Unbound.

I was excited to meet Guest because she was the last ever literary editor of the Independent on Sunday and her opinion mattered to me dearly. She was the first person with any power to tell me she loved my stories and thought if we could just get enough readers to believe in Bad Romance, the critics would love it too.

I had no idea how hard it would be to beg readers to pay upfront for a book that did not exist. But I was lucky that Julia’s Baby had by then been published in The Spectator so I had evidence of what we could achieve together. Thanks to 300 plus book-mad individuals, we managed to raise the cash we needed within 90 days.

Bad Romance finally appeared this February 8th. Julie Burchill read it, loved it, wrote a rave review. Called me ‘the Saki of sex’. Volunteered the tagline: ‘Bad Romance makes Girls look like Little Women.’ In publication week, it was flagged up on the front cover of ES Magazine and Grazia. Press is a hard thing to get for books and I thought all the attention would demonstrate there was a mass market for my work. It didn’t. Now I watch as books launched with equal – or less – aplomb, succeed as Bad Romance sinks into obscurity.

But then another reader got on her white charger – Alice-Azania Jarvis, features director of ES Magazine, and the master interviewer behind a salon at The Ned whose guests have included everyone from Elizabeth Day to Otegha Uwagba. Those in the know, think hers is the most compelling chat you can get in London and the waiting list to get in is getting about as long as Givenchy’s in the Markle aftermath…

I was so lucky, she had me as a guest, for in the audience, there happened to be another Alice – a Ms. Revel, the book-loving entrepreneur behind Reading In Heels (FutureBook BookTech Company of Year Finalist 2017) which ships out 2000 copies of books she loves to a rapidly expanding horde of readers every month. She asked if we might produce a special paperback edition for her purposes. And as radicals, she and Unbound agreed terms. The book will be shipped out next week.

‘From our point of view, it’s a really exciting move,’ Revel explains. ‘Eventually… as our membership increases, we could potentially fund publication of the writers that our customers want to read. Not just the ones available to us thanks to the big publishers and their schedules…’

To me, every reader who loves my work is a hero and I dearly hope the Reading In Heels girls will become my heroines too… If somehow, in spite of everything, they contrive to make Bad Romance a success, it’ll be thanks to readers, readers and readers alone.

The hidden, horrifying costs of being single

The Guardian – 5th September 2018

Ordinarily, we like to scare the bejesus out of our youth, in the hope they’ll turn out even more boring and compliant than we are. (“Sex’ll give you gonorrhoea. Drugs’ll kill you. Rock’n’roll died with Amy Winehouse – here’s Ed Sheeran!”) And there’s another kind of aberrant behaviour that society wants to prevent. Kids be warned – we’ve made singledom appallingly expensive!

According to research carried out by the Good Housekeeping Institute, “being single carries a price penalty of at least £2,000 a year per individual”. Totting up the figures, I beg to differ. That is a conservative estimate.

First, the government is intent on creating an anti-single state. The most egregious example of this is council tax: on average – in a band D home – you must pay £835 per person if you are married, and a whopping £1,235 if you live on your lonesome. Tory governments, usually so in favour of cutting taxes no matter the social cost, just love keeping them high for singletons. Is it fair to financially punish those who have failed to find true and lasting love?

Our gym memberships are more expensive, our wills are more expensive, even our single person-sized milk cartons are, you guessed it, more expensive. And that’s without examining all the small print. On holiday, we pay extra to sleep alone, fly alone and eat alone.

Then there’s the issue of insurance premiums. “According to insurers, I’d be a better driver tomorrow if I got hitched today,” the financial journalist Emma Lunn has complained. “You can put it to the test by comparing quotes with identical details except marital status.”

Even on a train journey we’re fleeced more offensively for the sub-standard service. The “Two Together” railcard entitles anyone who has someone to hold hands with to a third off off-peak fares. No, there’s nothing to stop two friends buying one together – but how many of us singletons spend every weekend away with the same friend? Why do we get charged more per person by gyms and the National Trust for membership than couples taking out a joint membership?

Of course, things could be worse. We might be living in America. A 2013 survey of the costs of being single found that, factoring in the price of healthcare, “over a lifetime, unmarried women can pay as much as a million dollars more than their married counterparts”. No wonder that every time Beyoncé sings about single ladies the chorus consists of a load of “uh-oh’s”.

Some might argue we shouldn’t worry about the single premium: we’ll all be cajoled into marriage at some point and so rid ourselves of it eventually. But, as Rebecca Traister pointed out in her book All the Single Ladies, there are more unmarried women alive today than at any point in history – and we’re a powerful demographic.

If a woman is single past a certain age, society heaps all the blame – for blame is what it insists on heaping – on her. The birth rate is said to be falling not because many men don’t want to commit but because women are too busy or too picky or too high-powered and put off having children.

Actually, my single friends and I have invested heavily in trying to find a partner we love who loves us so much we become pregnant. On top of all our other single-centric outgoings, according to Match.com we spend on average £1,280 a year on dates (mine have been utterly parlous). I’ve been searching for love since Tinder was invented and all I have to show for it is the lousy state of my bank account. Along with my best friends, I’m fretting about how to have children if conditions don’t improve on the love front. And yes, a single woman’s fertility treatment will cost her twice as much as if she were going through it with a partner.

In the meantime, we’ve also spent a fortune celebrating everyone else’s happinesses – buying house-warming gifts, engagement presents, splurging on hen dos, weddings, christenings. Once, I found a card in a shop that read: “It’s better to have loved and lost than to have spent your life with a psychopath.” And I wish I’d punched the air and borne it home because it’s the closest any cultural artefact has come to celebrating me and my life choices (aside from a book that I wrote myself).

And we’re not just made poorer financially – we’re all but bankrupt culturally. In the 90s, there was Kim Cattrall vamping it up on HBO proving we weren’t sadsacks; now the closest thing we have to a standard bearer for our generation is Fleabag, and who would want to be her?

If you’re past a certain age, everyone expects you to be married with children and if you’re not, complete strangers will demand to know why. Staying single is presented as petrifying on all fronts. The crippling price of remaining so is only one – significant – part of it.

What Would Bridget Do?

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When I was young, I thought Bridget Jones was a joke. Ha, ha, I thought, what a load of bollocks, as she chain-smoked her way into Colin Firth’s boxers. But ever since I turned 30, to my horror I realise it is all true – with added déjà vu – because it is all happening, right now, to me.

Every man you meet is an emotional fuckwit. (If they were ever in the mood for love, they’re taken already.) Your boss will try to sleep with you. (And you lose your job afterwards.) Old friends, post the Pinterest perfect wedding, at which you got unacceptably drunk, are now smug marrieds and treat you as if you have a disease you might transmit to their husbands. You spend the whole Christmas period having to explain to everyone back home why you are still single – as if it is your fault and you have done it on purpose to spite them. And in reply, you never have come up with a line better than there are so many single girls nowadays ‘because beneath our clothes, our bodies are completely covered with scales.’

The only difference between Bridget and I, really, is that Bridget had hope whereas I can’t recognise the meaning of the word. If you’re single, aged 35, everyone seems to think you haven’t tried hard enough. Whereas what you’ve done is tried so hard for so very long you’d rather curl up and die than face a date with yet another Tits-Pervert.

Sometimes, when I’ve cracked open the prosecco at 3pm on a Tuesday, I get to thinking I might cheer myself up by buying that card they used to have in Scribbler which reads: ‘It is better to have loved and lost than to have spent your life with a psychopath.’ That could be my motto. Why does no one recognise this as a signature achievement? Akin to being crowned runner-up in the Great British Bake Off. Or winning bronze in a bout of synchronised swimming.

It seems as if, every week, I lose another comrade to pregnancy. You’ve always shared everything so now she’s holding forth on the state of her discharge, intent on becoming a baby-making machine for 2019, and limbering up to breastfeed in public with great gusto. She gained a ‘hubby’ and lost all sense of proportion. Soon, she’ll stop speaking to you. Because you stop calling her. You’re so grossed out by the updates on the ‘quality’ of her cervical mucus. 

Yes, you like babies too. But have no means of begetting them. And seized by that strange lust, feel a desperate urge to smoke. When you’re so asthmatic that’d be suicide. You keep wanting to write to Helen Fielding and demand: What Would Bridget Do? For it is a truth universally acknowledged that Mr. Darcy is nowhere to be found on dating apps – so what on earth…?

I need such advice because the worst thing about being the reincarnation of Bridget Jones is feeling so alone. Socially – and culturally too. We have no single icons – save Fleabag – who is the married person’s wet dream of what single girls really are, underneath (so desperate and demented they’d do anything up to and including fucking their BFF’s man.) And Lena Dunham – who, I maintain, despite many howls to the contrary, just isn’t funny. And I read the whole of ‘Not That Kind of Girl’ so I know what I am talking about. It was no doubt Lena, and all her indepth accounts of the inner frothings of her vagina, that created the fashion for such grotesque confessions.

Yuck, I grimace, with a savage shudder. In 2019, we still single bastards need a new Bridget for the Tinder age. And so perhaps it is time to imitate her real achievement: consoling herself by writing it all down. Sod it, since I am her, I may as well take control of my life. And start a diary.   

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