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“I’m also troubled by, not what Senator McCain says, but what members of the party say. And it is permitted to be said such things as, “Well, you know that Mr. Obama is a Muslim.” Well, the correct answer is, he is not a Muslim, he’s a Christian. He’s always been a Christian. But the really right answer is, what if he is? Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country? The answer’s no, that’s not America. Is there something wrong with some seven-year-old Muslim-American kid believing that he or she could be president? Yet, I have heard senior members of my own party drop the suggestion, “He’s a Muslim and he might be associated terrorists.” This is not the way we should be doing it in America.

I feel strongly about this particular point because of a picture I saw in a magazine. It was a photo essay about troops who are serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. And one picture at the tail end of this photo essay was of a mother in Arlington Cemetery, and she had her head on the headstone of her son’s grave. And as the picture focused in, you could see the writing on the headstone. And it gave his awards–Purple Heart, Bronze Star–showed that he died in Iraq, gave his date of birth, date of death. He was 20 years old. And then, at the very top of the headstone, it didn’t have a Christian cross, it didn’t have the Star of David, it had crescent and a star of the Islamic faith. And his name was Kareem Rashad Sultan Khan, and he was an American. He was born in New Jersey. He was 14 years old at the time of 9/11, and he waited until he can go serve his country, and he gave his life. Now, we have got to stop polarizing ourself in this way. And John McCain is as nondiscriminatory as anyone I know. But I’m troubled about the fact that, within the party, we have these kinds of expressions.”

General Colin Powell, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and former Secretary of State. From a transcript of an interview with him on NBC’s “Meet the Press”.  Thank you to the kind reader who sent this to me last week – it’s taken me a while to get round to posting it.

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For longer than I’ve been a firm fan of John Prescott, I’ve been fighting against the British class system, pushing against a glass ceiling that I’ll never be allowed to break. Whatever my educational attainments, however much money I have, whoever my husband is, I’ll never quite belong to the upper middle class.  Because I went to a state school. Because my parents left school at sixteen and because they did not go to university. Because they were not educated privately. Because I grew up in a modern semi-detached house on the wrong side of town. Because I went to a Polytechnic not a proper university. Because of all these things I am tattoed with my lower middle class origins and will never ever be able to cast them off. It is not any one of those reasons that defeats me, but the basket of them all. At least I am Christian, white and Anglo-Saxon. The best I can hope for is for token acceptance, as the oddity, the exotic Labour Party member in a bouquet of Tories.

I don’t know my place. I have ideas above my station, and this is where the trouble starts. I threaten those in the class above me who fear they might not be able to maintain their position in the next generation. Women are the worst, or perhaps the problem for me is worst amongst members of the same gender. I think it is because women’s success is defined more by their class than is true of men who define themselves by their jobs. Upper middle class women tend not to have jobs. Jobs are for lower middle class women and middle middle class women. People tell me that I imagine things. I don’t. I just notice things and happen to come in contact with the upper middle classes quite a lot because, as I said, I don’t know my place. I am uppity.

So a short series of TV programmes featuring Mr and Mrs Prescott cantering through the class system was always going to be unmissable.  Working class John Prescott rose to be Deputy Prime Minister in the Labour government under Tony Blair and has famously smacked a member of the public who threw an egg at him, confessed to an affair and fought to keep his marriage to his glamorous working class wife, and has written and spoken about his bulimia.  He describes himself as a “bag of no confidence” with enough chips to eat with fish.

The first programme deals with class amongst white Britons and takes the Prescotts from encounters with aristocrats to strawberries on the terrace at Westminster with three “chavs”, one of the few words banned in our household. Chav is shorthand for “Council house and violence” according to the most commonly advanced etymology. My daughters’ friends use it the whole time to denote girls (in particular) who dress in a particular way and just happen also to come from a different background.

John Prescott is endearing, and his wife equally so.  The warm, funny, open relationship that the couple enjoy makes you smile with them: there is something chastening about watching a couple who have weathered so much and have emerged with such demonstrable love and support for each other inspite of – or as a result of – the storms, who have loved each other since they were teenagers, and who make each other laugh often.  He was the man who married a woman who had given up a child for adoption.  She is the woman who has stood by her man, understanding his frailties, his insecurities, and forgiving him because she understood them.

For John Prescott is familarly insecure.  Even at 70 he is still hurt to remember how the Blairs never invited them to Chequers.  He craves acceptance from people who will never accept him, whom he describes as The Enemy. 

He talks to two public school boys at the rowing regatta at Henley-on-Thames and challenges them about their upper middle class sense of entitlement. Their badge of entitlement is a gold signet ring on their little finger, bearing the family crest. Easily visible and unmistakeable at thirty yards. It turns out that the army has bought the entitlement of one of them, a privilege reserved only for children of officers.

Watching Prescott wander along the tow path at Henley, he confirms my prejudices.  Nothing he can ever do will ever allow him to leave his class behind.  He will never be a member of the upper middle class and members of that class will always be able to look down on his lower social class origins. The only hope for his white, Christian, Anglo-saxon family is for them to buy into the class system, educate their children privately, and, with any luck, after three generations the working class man will have been bred out of them, much as the Australians tried breeding the black out of Aboriginees.

Self doubt cripples or fulfils an individual with a desire to prove themselves, or both, we hear.  John Prescott is a complicated mixture of neuroses and principles, hating snobs with every breath of his body.   He rails against snobbery and inherited privilege, against the horribly British reality that the privately educated 7% of the population occupy 80% of the top jobs. Cherie Blair, a working class woman like Paula, is still trying to win acceptance. Even being a Queen’s Counsel, a top barrister in her own right, even being married to a Prime Minister, will not help her gain entry.

Cherie Blair and Paula Prescott

I hate snobbery too and I cried as I watched the programme. Almost nothing makes me more angry, and more hurt in equal measure. I hate it that I may be as intelligent, attractive, educated as the next (upper middle) class person, but I will never be quite good enough in the eyes of many of that class or, if I am TOO good, I will need to be put firmly back in my place because my parents could not afford to buy me the proper ticket and so I have no right to be there. I cannot bear to see people, children particularly, being put down because of their social origins and find it difficult to forgive people who do it so unthinkingly. My daughters cringe when a friend says that snobbish c— word, knowing that a lecture from me will follow. And yet, and yet, I find myself steering my children towards acceptable upper middle class clothes, just as I refused to allow them to take on the young girls’ badge of the working class – pierced ears before puberty – lest they find themselves judged and found wanting by their peers.

The only solution is a title – a knighthood or a peerage – which would allow me to leapfrog over the enemy territory to a higher land, to jump from being an Untouchable to being beyond reach. I say “Take the peerage, John. You’ve earned it!”.  Ironically, if he had not done so well, he would not have realised the size of the problem.

Time after time people ask him why he cannot leave his insecurity behind, why he cannot see how well he has done, how much he has achieved.  But he lacks the confidence to do so, the confidence that comes from being educated at public school to know one’s own superiority and that of one’s old school friends. 

We went to look round Westminster School a few weeks ago. Westminster School is possibly one of the least snobbish private schools you could hope to find. It is an anarchic beacon, an admittedly elitist meritocracy, and Elder Daughter would have loved to go there – if it wasn’t so far from our home. From the minute we arrived everyone told our daughter how brilliant she was. She may or may not be brilliant – they couldn’t possibly have known – but it doesn’t take long to start believing the messenger and behaving accordingly. Imagine a school that tells you, day after day, year after year, that you are superior to the unwashed outside the gate. You’d end up believing it, which is what your parents paid the fees for.

Private education is not all about getting a better education.  Private education in boarding schools is rarely about getting a better education, but it will still increase your chances of going to a top University, and winning a top job. Eton is a notable exception to add to those London day schools, and is wealthy enough to offer generous bursaries and scholarships which, in theory at least, put it within reach of every bright boy, even funding boys through the necessary preparatory schools that feed into it.  Even then, the scholarship boy may discover that he didn’t go to the same school as those whose parents paid the fees. I would love every bright boy to have an opportunity of experiencing the education that Eton offers, and every girl.

I don’t get upset by all this much nowadays and things are perhaps changing slowly. I’ve grown a thicker skin or simply an older, tougher one that I feel happier in. But there was a time when it would not have taken much to radicalise me and I still know where I’d plant the bombs if it got really bad.  In my ideal world, I’d abolish private education altogether, though not the schools that provide it, and I’d replace it with something that recognises and rewards an individual child’s merit. Margaret Thatcher had a good shot at doing something similar – by providing means tested Assisted Places to private schools in areas where her beloved grammar schools had been abolished. And isn’t it a scandal that private schools still qualify for the privileged fiscal regime of charitable status – that we, the taxpayers, are subsidising this invidious system?

Nowadays I’ve given up fighting and just play the system and there are few people that have more personal, first hand knowledge of the system than me, from the very top to somewhere close to the bottom. We educate our daughters in the periphery of that detested public school system, in a cloudy nether world – occupied by worthy girls’ day schools and the rump of the old grammar schools – which straddles the border between the Haves and the Have-nots. When they are older they will be able to choose which world they want to live in, and will hopefully blend in to both. You could argue that I should not have sold out my principles, that we should have sent our children to the local state comprehensive school. I would argue that they are my principles, not my children’s; that almost nobody who can afford the private school fees comfortably chooses to send their children to state schools, so entrenched is the purchase of privilege; and that our daughers will be able to choose their principles for themselves, free of the insecurities that have dogged me.

You can watch the programme here, but only in the UK sadly. The second programme goes out on Monday, and deals with class and ethnicity…


One person sits in the middle of the other two.  The other two speak at the same time to the listener sandwiched between them, each speaking into the ear nearest to them about a subject that has been decided on before.  Holidays, say.  Two minutes is long enough.  Then the listener becomes a speaker, and the exercise is repeated.  Then the remaining participant takes the middle seat.  You don’t have to repeat yourself – everyone has had more than one holiday.

I thought I was a good listener.  I pride myself on my ability to tune into a speaker and give them my attention.  But this exercise was an eye opener, as it was intended to be.

I spoke to the man-in-th-middle about the week our family spent in New York in the summer where we met up with a good friend, a fellow blogger.  We’d never met him before, and I’ve spent years warning my children about such encounters, but it was beautifully successful thanks to our two families.  It’s an interesting tale and I suppose I chose it for that reason.  It was not a run-of-the-mill story, and I hoped my audience would listen to me.

Then I had to swop to be the middle woman.  The experience was not at all as I thought it would be.  I found it very uncomfortable indeed trying to listen to the two voices.  I wanted to throw my hands up in the air and scream, pulled this way and that.  I closed my eyes in desperation because I felt I could then concentrate better on one sense, but I was blotting out any body language cues that each speaker might have been giving me.  It was impossible to hear both speakers at the same time, and so I was forced to choose.  I discovered that my inclination was to listen to the person on my left hand side.  He was telling me about his holiday, coincidentally also in New York.  Or perhaps it wasn’t a coincidence – he may have chosen to speak about that particular holiday because he’d already heard about my experience in New York.  It was interesting – he’d shared an experience that I understood.  I also have a tendency to favour my left brain for listening (I choose to hold the phone to my left ear), so I might always have listened to the voice in my left ear more than the voice in my right ear.

I struggled to drag my attention back to my right ear, to the story of the holiday in Epernay, but I could only grab odd words – champagne, champagne, champagne – and I really wasn’t very interested.  I’ve been there too, but I was more inclined to listen to the New York story.  This upset me and made me feel guilty, especially so because the speaker in my right ear is a senior lawyer from the same organisation as me and I felt I should be listening to him in preference to the other man I had never met before.

It was an artificial situation, but actually not that unusual.  Imagine the busy airport queue where your companion is speaking to you, but you find yourself listening more to the fascinating conversation going on behind you.  Or the dinner in a restaurant when you are straining backwards in your chair to discern the juicy indiscrete words of the unknown diner behind you.

The content of the language (how interesting it is to you), the tone of voice, how much you are attracted to the speaker, how loud their voice is, your natural brain disposition – so many factors determine who you are inclined to hear.  The exercise was part of a session at an annual conference in my area of work.  It was aimed at encouraging disputes to be mediated rather than pursued to the bitter end.  Mediators owe a duty to the speakers to give each the same attention, and to set aside their inclinations.  I discovered that was a lot more difficult than I had imagined.

Here is a more detailed description of the exercise.  You might like to try it at home with your family and see how you find the experience, but be prepared to discover that you are not as interesting as the other speaker!

My life in art: The day Bourgeois moved me to tears

The rage, fear and frustration in Louise Bourgeois’ autobiographical art shocked me into understanding what it must be like to be a woman

Will Gompertz, The Guardian, October 8th 2008

Femme Maison by Louise Bourgeois, Tate Modern

The female of the species … view of a series of paintings entitled Femme Maison by Louise Bourgeois, at Tate Modern. Photograph: Christian Sinibaldi

I have been married for 15 years and I think things have gone pretty well. We have four perfectly acceptable children, we all get along OK, and as husbands go, I’m not a bad lot. I’m loyal, I recognise my wife as a superior human being and I even have the odd moment of unselfishness. (I expect such moments to be verbally recognised and physically rewarded.) My wife stays at home to look after the children because returning to the teaching job she loved was made impossible by the incompatibility of teacher’s pay and the cost of childcare. The other option – of me becoming a househusband – was categorically not on the table. I don’t mind a bit of gentle hoovering, but I do mind babies. They’re like drunks: incomprehensible, unreasonable and prone to vomit on you. Anyway she loves it, doesn’t she? Well, that’s what I had assumed, until an incident a couple of weeks ago that shocked my smug, complacent, delusional self to the core.

I see a lot of modern and contemporary art; it’s a pretty fundamental part of my job. The vast majority of work I see I like on some level or another. Even the stuff I don’t like, I find interesting simply by dint of it existing and being revered enough to find itself in a museum or gallery; a sort of sign of the times. On the whole though, most art doesn’t have an immediate emotional impact on me in the same way as, say, a David Lynch movie or an Arsenal football match does.

Art and emotion tends to be a slow burn, built up over a period of time as I get to know and really appreciate the artist and their work. In fact, I would go as far to say that the only time I have been knocked sideways by a piece of art was when I first encountered the work of Willem de Kooning in my early 20s. Of course, when I saw Pablo Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon in the Museum of Modern Art in New York, I was completely blown away, but I already knew what to expect and the sensation was more like meeting your hero in the flesh. So when I strolled along to see a retrospective of the work of the 96-year-old French/American sculptor Louise Bourgeois, I was looking forward to a cerebral hour of gentle perusing and mulling on her Femme Maison that were made by Bourgeois from 1945–47, six years after moving to New York from her native France. By this time, she was married to an American art historian called Robert Goldwater and had three children (the first of which was adopted). Goldwater was a good bloke – a loving husband and a source of intellectual companionship for Bourgeois – and she adored her children. But that didn’t stop her from making a set of paintings that are so filled with rage, fear and frustration that, for the first time in my life, I began to understand what it must be like to be a woman. To have to accept that the world’s view is male and all the assumptions that come with it, such as: everything you do and say is seen and judged through the prism of your sexuality, that the expectation is you will fulfil the multiple roles of mother, housekeeper, companion, worker and lover with deference and gratitude, and that men – lazy, selfish, conceited men – are not forced to wear the same, or any other straightjacket. Bourgeois’s genius is that she is able to put all this across with some small paintings that are so simple they are almost naive.

All the Femme Maison (literally house woman/housewife) paintings share the same idea. In each one, a woman has a house covering her head, below which her naked body protrudes. She thinks she is safe and secure in her domestic prison, because that is all she can see around her. She has no idea that she is flashing her genitals to all and sundry, more vulnerable than ever. It’s the stuff of nightmares where you are publicly exposed and shamed. These paintings succinctly sum up the struggle of every woman and their destiny to live with the responsibilities and constrictions of trying to maintain the balance of wife, mother and housekeeper while trying to retain a semblance of individuality in such sapping domestic circumstances. The simplicity of the paintings adds to the sense of entrapment; there wasn’t the time for anything more studied or crafted.

Artwork by Louise Bourgeois, Tate Modern Struggle within … an artwork by Louise Bourgeois, Tate Modern. Photograph: Christian Sinibaldi These works have been related back to the surrealist movement that began in the 1920s with artists such as René Magritte, where he juxtaposed two seemingly incongruous objects or situations in order to make a point. Maybe they are, she certainly knew Marcel Duchamp and André Breton, the leaders of the movement, very well. But I’m not so sure. I think her work is much more closely aligned to the Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, another woman who found out early what a letdown men can be. Both Bourgeois and Kahlo created warts-and-all autobiographical art, something that had never been done by women before. They exposed themselves to expose the truth, a daunting and dangerous thing to do, which requires immense courage. An approach to making art that can be seen most obviously today in the work of Tracey Emin, another person whose art, I suspect, will prove to be just as important in years to come.

Bourgeois’ Femme Maison paintings scream that women are put upon, jailed, abused and patronised. Up until seeing them I had thought I was a decent, caring husband – now I know I’m just like the rest, a chauvinistic bore. I rang my wife and mumbled some inadequate apology. She was a little taken aback, but not half as taken aback as I had been. Bourgeois made a note in her diary in 1980 that read: “The only access we have to our volcanic unconscious and to the profound motives for our actions and reactions is through shocks of our encounters with specific people.” I should coco, Louise. Game, set and match to you.

 

 

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