Bad Romance reviewed in The Spectator

By Julie Burchill

How I love short stories! Long before the internet realised that we can’t sit still long enough to commit to the three-volume novels of yore, these little beauties were hitting the sweet spot repeatedly. I especially love female short story writers — Shena Mackay, Lorrie Moore, Grace Paley — as they often read quite gossipy and friendly-like, as opposed to men who have to go out and shoot something to make some depressing point, or at least try to prove they’re the strong and silent type. Strong and silent writers should be true to themselves and simply shut up.

The young journalist Emily Hill is, on the strength of this gorgeous debut collection, the Saki of sex: she shares his grim good humour and glinting malice, grounded not in cheap scepticism but in a vast imaginative grasp of how fantastic life can be and how odd it is that we choose to make it so narrow. (The final story ‘Super-Lies’, documenting the operatic nightmare of a muse’s meltdown, even sounds like one of his titles.) ‘Julia’s Baby’, the opener, is as perfectly constructed a short story as I have ever read.

The femme fatalities in these stories are past-mistresses of painting on a smile and putting the best red-soled foot forward; Hill takes a scalpel straight to the screaming skull beneath the expensively smoothed skin, zooming in on the hallucinogenic hollows of heartbreak. She is both compassionate and merciless, full of scorn and sorrow. And droll, too:

The 21st century is full of second chances. The stakes aren’t very high for anything any more. Not when it comes to love. Think of all the romantic heroines of literature. There wouldn’t be a story, today. Anna Karenina would have divorced that dullard Karenin. Sued for custody. Rejoined society. Cathy and Heathcliff — a clear-cut case of antibiotics and social services. Romeo and Juliet witness protection.

Mugged by children, tormented by rabbits and sexually harassed by leopards, these girls could pick the sole sticky end of a lollipop out of a bran-tub of Tiffany’s trinkets. Unnatural love and the natural world conspire to bring down our plucky heroines, thorns and cads in tandem tearing at their clothing as they sashay blithely up the primrose path to emotional mayhem. They are sleepless, reckless, feckless and altogether adorable in their hacked-off humanity, displaying the strange dignity of total exposure: adventuresses who make one move too many on the wrong man, lose their footing and end up as smashed Meissen figurines.

There’s such harrowing honesty in these tales from abandoned boudoirs that they’d have the Sex and the City mob clutching their pearl necklaces in horror; and such flights of surrealist fancy — Hitler turns up as a peeping tom landlord; a single girl avoids party bores by boasting that her boyfriend is the late Soviet poet Vladimir Mayakovsky — that it makes Girls look like the pedestrian plod it always was.

I’m keen on things that aren’t what they seem, and this book is a shining example; it’s pleasing to think of it selling to young women expecting a comforting dose of chick-lit and then finding themselves hurtling headfirst into a surrealist extravaganza. It seems unlikely that the dolly blonde of the jacket photo who writes a dating column seems all set to become the heir to Hector Hugh Munro, but as Emily Hill’s stories illustrate so beautifully, life is full of surprises.

Final dating column

To date, my love life has been a tiresome chronicle of bad romance. But it takes only an instant for things to go right. And, oh, how glorious it is when they do.

I call him the Special One, since he had a tattoo of Jose Mourinho on his shoulder blade. He had enormous brown eyes and was an ex-public schoolboy, something the Inner Circle dating app specialises in.

For our first date we went to an engagement party. He said he was a fan of irony. When I agreed to meet him, I expected nothing. But it was an auspicious moment, the one night nothing could go wrong. I was so vicariously happy for Marzena, the bride-to-be, for she is an angel. She lives on the floor below me. Our flats were built on top of the communal boiler and we met one summer while dangling half-naked out of our respective windows, which is how we are forced to live for the month of June. After decades and decades of even worse romance than mine, aged almost 50, she met a man who was worth the wait. He proposed last year. I’ll be their bridesmaid in June.

The Special One met me at a pub beforehand. I thought it would probably end there, but I felt he liked me because he made it damned obvious by buying me an absolutely enormous drink.

I’ve been told by all my friends who have stumbled upon their soulmate that when it’s meant to be, it simply is. But I wonder if any of them have an inbuilt self-destruct mechanism like I do.

I tried to hold off sleeping with him, knowing I’d lose my mind if it was in the slightest way any good. But I’d convinced myself it wouldn’t be. So I thought why not try, it’s been a long time… And then, when he took me to bed, the sex was so breathtaking my lungs might have quit and died. For I found myself, quite inexplicably, in heaven. And I wish that was how and where I’d remained. The tale at an end. And me waving at you from the start of a happy ever after.

But the magnificent sex was the end of it all. For, of course, he was too good for me. I had to get out before he went off me, at which point I’d hurtle back from happy-ish to utterly dejected again. I made an excuse and said goodbye. Then regretted it, fiercely.

Everyone agrees that on the third date you get laid, but there’s no law as to when your shag pal becomes your boyfriend. There should be some rule that says if you just hold yourself together until date 15, you get a free and automatic upgrade to relationship status.

It only takes a second for everything to go right. And roughly half that for it all to go wrong. Trust me, I’m an absolute expert at screwing everything up.

Baby Hitler: The Remarkable Rise of Sebastian Kurz

The Gentleman’s Journal

Ordinarily, when a hot young politician sweeps to victory on the popular vote – think Obama, think Trudeau, think Macron – we all hug each other and get terribly excited that change is going to come. But when, last autumn, Austria ushered in a political prodigy so youthful he’d be declared ineligible as a US presidential candidate, we gasped, collectively, instead – wondering what the hell just happened.

This, surely, was worse than Trump – who espoused right-wing rhetoric without actually forming a coalition with ex-neo-Nazis. The morning after the election result, the German satirical magazine, Titanic, responded by tweeting: ‘Time travel in Austria – it’s finally possible to kill baby Hitler.’You couldn’t predict, just by looking at him, that we’d anything to fear from fresh-faced 31-year-old Sebastian Kurz. Nor would you suspect, if you were introduced to him in person – at least according to Austrian journalist, Tessa Szyszkowitz, who has met him several times. ‘He just comes across as a really nice boy,’ she says. ‘Which he basically is… I had the feeling he was almost surprised when I said, “don’t you know that everyone in Europe is looking at the coalition you will build with suspicion?” He said, “Oh no, most people come to me and they congratulate me!” I had the feeling – either he’s trying to spin this or he’s really naive. And I don’t think that he’s particularly naive.’

Born in 1986, in a working-class district of Vienna, Kurz is the only child of Catholic parents – his mother a teacher and his father an engineer. His personal life – not that Austrians would be so prurient as to take a look at it – appears quiet bordering on the dull. He shares a flat with his long-term girlfriend Susanne Thier, who he met as a teenager, whilst studying law at the University of Vienna. Last year, on the day when many of his fellow Millennials were decking themselves out in rainbows to celebrate Gay Pride in Vienna, Kurz joined a ‘March for Jesus’ instead.

Kurz’s political rise has seemed swift, almost inexorable. When still in his early twenties, he was elected chairman of the youth branch of the Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) and promptly sought to sex up its staid and stuffy image by slicking back his hair and riding around Vienna in a hummer, in the company of busty beauties sporting t-shirts in the party colours, with legends that read ‘Schwarz macht Geil’ (‘Black makes you Horny’). Such tacky tactics got him noticed. Two years later, he ditched his degree altogether to become the party’s Secretary of State for Integration. In 2013, he was elected as a member of the Austrian parliament and appointed Foreign Minister. He was still only 27.

It was in this post that he started to make his mark – and began to shift in a different direction. By 2015, polls showed that Austrians were increasingly unhappy about the number of refugees flooding across their borders. In 2016, Kurz proved instrumental in closing down the so-called ‘Balkan route’ by which hundreds of migrants had crossed illegally into Europe. Austrians were – reportedly – ‘mad as hell about refugees’ and this was Kurz capitalising on it.

Already nicknamed ‘Wunderwuzzi’ (‘wonder-hotshot’), last May, Kurz was unanimously elected the new leader of his party and threw himself onto an election footing, rebranding his party turquoise (as opposed to horny-black) and modernising fast. His key aide was 38-year-old, ex-MEP Elisabeth Köstinger – whose office is alleged to feature a disco ball. In Septempber, she tweeted enthusiastically about how he’d conducted an important interview – in emojis.

Two weeks before the election, the Social Democratic party (SPÖ) with whom Kurz’s party had been in coalition, panicked that he was proving too popular. The Schmutzkübel (dirt bucket) rocked Austrian politics – as there was an attempt to smear Kurz via Facebook where doctored images and videos were uploaded, accusing him of ‘secretly paving the way for a new wave of immigration from Islamic countries’ and of being in a ‘dubious political network’ with Hungarian billionaire George Soros.

It was a strategy which backfired spectacularly.

On 15th October 2017, Kurz’s party won 31% of the vote, beating the SPÖ into second place, and promising coalition talks with the far right Freedom Party (FPÖ). ‘The biggest contradiction is that though Mr. Kurzis by far the youngest western PM to enter public office, he’s been in government since 2011 and he’s running a party which has been in power for 30 years,’ argues Reinhard K. Heinisch, Professor of Austrian politics at the University of Salzburg. ‘Kurz moved to the right as a strategic move because Austrians were preoccupied with the immigration issue. The party hasn’t changed. The old elite and its mechanisms are still there. We’ll see if Mr. Kurz will actually prevail with his agenda.’ So far, Heinisch adds, ‘I don’t see Kurz as substantive – I see him as a communications genius.’

Szyszkowitz agrees that Kurz has managed to present himself as an agent of change but argues that he’s stumbled into very dangerous political terrain by opting to form a coalition with the FPÖ, which ‘is really the scum of Austrian society,’ she claims. ‘These are people who in their student years went to neo-Nazi exercises in the forests of Austria. This is not a joke. And it seems to me that the severity of that has not totally sunk in. If you look at pictures of the coalition talks they’re all smiling as if they’re having a nice meal together and are discussing what they’ll do for Sunday brunch. They’re actually discussing how they will build a very right-wing coalition which will change the character of Austria for as long as they are in power.’

Internationally, there is particular concern about the FPÖ’s leader, Heinz-Christian Strache. ‘According to eye witnesses, the findings of the German authorities, and archives,’ the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung has reported, ‘Strache was active in Neo-Nazi circles for years, and was still part of the movement when his FPÖ career began.’

Austria is populated by nine million people. It is one of the richest and safest countries in the world. According to Berenberg economist Carsten Hesse ‘the Austrian economy, at the moment, looks really, really good. The unemployment rate has come down around 5.5%. There’s a small budget deficit of around 1%…’

For Brits still mired in miserable growth forecasts after years of austerity, the situation in Austria seems positively utopian. So why are Austrians fuming?

‘Particularly for low earners,’ Hesse adds, ‘there hasn’t been a strong uptake in their earnings over the last decade. Obviously it’s always easy to blame someone else for that. And it was blamed on too much immigration. “There are too many people coming and that’s why…”’

But many think Kurz’s anti-immigrant shtick is not the sole reason for his success. Many Austrians are thought keen on shaking up Proporz: the political system invented to ensure political stability in Austria, after WWII, which many now perceive as responsible for total immobility. ‘The centre left and the centre right party constantly oppose each other,’ Professor Heinisch explains. ‘There’s no sense of change.’ Kurz seemed to promise ‘political momentum’ again.

So far Kurz has proven – much like Donald Trump – extremely adept at appealing to voters who felt disenfranchised. But it’s highly ironic that the only millennial who has so far won power, appears to stand for everything his contemporaries abhor. In America, they went wild for septuagenarian Bernie Sanders. Over here, they flocked to wrinkly old socialist Jeremy Corbyn.

‘All the millennials are going for the old lefties,’ says Pepijn Bergsen lead analyst for Austria at the The Economist Intelligence Unit. ‘Kurz is very much a hard right-y. I’m not sure that young people are his main support base. I think that’s probably middle aged women who see him as the perfect son-in-law. It’s the 45 to 50-year-old ladies who swoon over him.’

Politically, Kurz is a gambler – but it’s the Austrian voters themselves, says Szyszkowitz, who’ve taken all the risk. ‘In Vienna, most of the refugees who came in 2015-6 have been very well taken care of so it was really unnecessary to bring the far-right to power in my view,’ she says. ‘Many Austrians may believe all they’ve done is elect a moderniser… I think they’re lying to themselves. If you move a party to the right you will end up on the right.’

There is also, Professor Heinisch adds, a secondary concern, ‘that the Freedom Party not only has an agenda that is to the right on cultural issues but they actually prefer a different kind of democracy – more Swiss-style, where things are decided less in parliament but through the authorisation of the public. That would be a populist democracy and there’s some concern about that.’

Kurz is infinitely more likely to prove a baby Trump than a baby Fuhrer. But while it may be alarmist to fear that Austria is lurching back into the past, there are many legitimate concerns as to where Kurz will take his – and its – politics, in future.


The Spectator

I loved a man. But our affair was nasty, brutish and short. Copious weeping was my un-tart retort. All that’s left of him is a stained T-shirt. I must rid my mind of him now. That’s long overdue. But how? These three books seem to present three answers. I’ve been wonkily underlining whole paragraphs and brooding over what to do.

Nowadays, if you admit to being heartbroken after the fact you’re treated as a malingerer. So I very much appreciated Giulia Sissa’s Jealousy: A Forbidden Passion — a scholarly defence of indulging your violent fury. In the age of Tinder, your next paramour is but a thumb-swipe away, so the attitude is: ‘They don’t love you. Why would you care? It’s all in your head. It’s all in your past. It’s always your problem. Enough!’ I agree with Sissa. We women ‘do not like being treated like an interchangeable, meaningless, replaceable presence’, and it’s OK to feel green about it.

But I am confused by how much emphasis she places on Medea, who, according to myth, helped Jason slay the Minotaur, only to be abandoned by the ungrateful wretch when he took a fancy to another woman. In response, Medea slaughtered all their children. This might signify much for what Sissa calls our ‘erotic dignity’; but when seeking to prove that jealousy is not ‘the most obscene emotion of all’, Medea is an odd choice of heroine.

So I dispensed with the idea of becoming homicidally jealous and turned instead to Stephen Fineman’s Revenge: A Short Enquiry into Retribution, in which he argues, very persuasively, that revenge is a dish we really should serve — whether cold, hot or as a lukewarm canapé. ‘Our compulsion to avenge a wrongdoing is among the most primal of human urges,’ he explains. ‘Getting even shows there is a price to pay.’

I raced through this book, cackling — and relishing in particular the pages pointing out how, throughout history, and still in some areas of the world, mine is the sex that has been persistently maltreated and oppressed and that it’s jolly nice finally to be getting our own back. Fineman points out that wartime rapes have barely been prosecuted and refers to honour killings today. I suspect he is itching to write a fresh chapter on how Harvey Weinstein finally got his just deserts thanks to the #metoo brigade.

Fineman seems quite a fan of vigilante justice — as long as the target is indisputably guilty. He doesn’t understand why we should get screwed over again and again without doing anything about it. ‘Turning the other cheek,’ he observes, ‘is simply an invitation to be slapped again.’ He gives voice to all the waiters who avow they are not ‘robots to respond to finger clicks’ and lament of their customers: ‘I wouldn’t treat a dog, the way they treat us.’

He adds: ‘Minor acts of sabotage can bring relief from intrinsically alienating or monotonous work.’ I have known that pleasure. So I adored, above all, Fineman’s air hostesses, who break wind in the direction of obnoxious passengers, redirect all their luggage to, say, Tokyo, and when asked by a man to smile, say they’ll smile if he will too. When he does, they shoot back: ‘Now freeze and hold that for 15 hours.’ The customer is not always right. When he’s vile he should get his comeuppance.

But not all revenge is quite so righteous. Sometimes it’s just vicariously amusing. ‘Never wrong a writer,’ Fineman advises. ‘They get their revenge in print.’ (A statement that may send a shiver down my true love’s spine.) Take Norman Mailer, who so despised his third wife, Jeanne Campbell, he had her double strangled and thrown off a tenth-floor balcony in An American Dream. Campbell dubbed this light fictionalisation of their unhappiness together ‘the hate book of all time’.

‘Mailer’s venom is palpable,’ Fineman concludes. ‘But it is trounced by Ernest Hemingway.’ When Papa’s third wife, Martha Gellhorn, walked out (wondering why she should ‘be a footnote to somebody else’s life’) he retaliated by writing a poem to her vagina, likening ‘said organ to the crumpled neck of an old hot-water bottle’. Then, in a short story called ‘It was Very Cold in England’, ‘a Hemingway-like character compares the sexual performance of a Gellhorn-like character to a washed-up mine that had failed to detonate’.

Tempting as it would be to assassinate my man in print, I don’t want to come off looking as petty as all that. So I turned to The Museum of Broken Relationships which claims to sum up ‘modern love in 203 everyday objects’. The museum was founded in Croatia by two ex-lovers who wanted to memorialise their former passion for one another, and I found the accompanying book very affecting. I don’t want to fall in love again if this is how it always has to end.

Each page consists of a photograph of an item sent to the museum together with a note explaining what it symbolises to the one who posted it. Each tale is different. And yet all are curiously the same — bleak and stark and heart-mashing. It’s like a cheerfully coloured catalogue of suicide, divorce and venereal disease.

At times, there’s nothing to do but laugh: at the ‘can of love incense’ (explanation: ‘didn’t work’); at the ‘sweatshirt with a smiley face on the front and the reverse on the back’:

‘The angry face tells me that he went to a South American transgender prostitute on Vesterbro and paid 800 Danish Kroner for a blow job on Christmas Eve. ‘Now we have gonorrhoea,’ the face says.

But best by far was the note accompanying the twin silicone jellies salvaged from a reversed boob job. (‘My ex had convinced me to get breast implants… at the time I hadn’t had enough therapy to tell him to go f*** himself.’)

I was persuaded. My love may sleep peacefully in his bed. I’ll just ship what’s left of him to Zagreb. There his T-shirt can join all the other tragic tat. A monument to our nothingness. A promise to forget.