Melania

This month, I’ll be publishing the first of a regular fiction feature at Berlin-based online literary magazine The Wild Word. My column’s called The Other Half and will consider the lives of those allied to people in the spotlight. The idea came from a story I wrote about how I imagine life for Theresa May’s husband, Philip. You can guess from the title of this post whose perspective I’ll be imagining this month.

Will post and link to the piece here once it’s up.

 

 

Advertisements

Brexit drama: weak characters, no romance and a dull plot

Read this post on DW Business here.

I get it. Writing a drama is hard.

There are so many things to think about. Characters. Plot. Pacing. Dialog.

And when you’ve got a following as large as Brexit does, the pressure to deliver must be huge.

But I can’t hold back any longer. The last few episodes have been woeful! It’s got to the point where I can no longer bear to watch the show.

Don’t get me wrong. It started off brilliantly. I remember literally holding my breath as the votes were being counted in the middle of season one.

The writers had done a fantastic job of building up tension. I was totally emotionally invested when the referendum came around.

I mean, just think back to the first episode where David and Nigel play cricket. It’s clear from their angry batting that they hate each other. At one point, Nigel hits a six. His teammates go wild, waving Union Jacks stuck on cocktail sticks around and shouting “take back control” like hooligans do when their team’s losing.

David throws his bat down in rage and Nigel starts taunting him. “Can’t take it Davey, can you? Too afraid to lose?” David scrunches up his face until it’s redder than the Labor party and goes: “I’m calling a referendum!” Nigel’s mouth drops open in surprise, then quickly contorts into triumph. “Bring it on,” he says and sticks the Union-Jack-on -a-cocktail stick behind his ear just like Violet Beauregarde does with her gum in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

When the vote happens a few episodes later, it’s super gripping TV because you’ve no idea which way it’s going to go. All I remember thinking is that regardless of whether David or Nigel wins, there’s going to be some amount of drama ahead.

The first plot holes begin to emerge around the end of season one when both David and Nigel disappear. Their country is on the edge of an abyss because of their cricket game and they don’t have a backbone between them to stick around? How credible is that?

But whatever. Maybe the actors had other commitments. It happens. Besides, I was actually pretty glad when Theresa came along in season two. It’s not many political dramas that have a female lead.

And to be fair, season two does feature some pretty interesting psychology. For one, Theresa chooses to lead the country in a direction she fundamentally opposes.

312px-david_cameron27s_visit2

Theresa May and David Cameron walking on the pavement together. The early seasons of Brexit were far more compelling. Picture source: UK Home Office Wikipedia Commons License here

Granted, it’s a weird thing for a character to do but I was willing to give the writers the benefit of the doubt. Maybe she just really wants the job. Like, more than absolutely anything.

At first, things go okay. After egomaniacs David and Nigel abscond, the British people embrace Theresa as a refreshing alternative. A safe pair of hands.

And here I have to commend the writers for luring us into a false sense of security. I for one did not see those initial approval ratings going to her head like that. I remember gasping in surprise when she calls a general election in the finale of season two.

Season three opens with Theresa in bed smoking a cigarette and googling “Arlene Foster,” “Good Friday Agreement” and “Who owns Northern Ireland?” A Polish cleaner comes in quietly to remove the empty whiskey bottles strewn under the bed.

And honestly, if you ask me, they should have wrapped up the show around there. Because beyond season three, Brexit is practically unwatchable.

After Theresa’s election disaster, the show just falls to pieces. Maybe it was a case of writer’s block but the whole “Northern Ireland” thing just comes out of nowhere.

As viewers, we’re expected to believe that the UK’s most seasoned lawmakers and commentators have no idea of the history of their own country and that of their neighbor, the Republic of Ireland.

It gets worse. Season four and five basically just feature Theresa bickering with Jean-Claude and Michel about something called a “backstop” which the writers don’t even bother to explain.

There’s not even any simmering romantic tension to distract from the tedium.

Things don’t even get better after a deal is reached.

In fact, this season, Brexit really has hit rock bottom.

The writers, evidently completely burned out, have tumbled to the very bottom of the barrel where they scraped frantically and emerged with the “backstop.” Again.

And hey, ho: suddenly this flimsy plot device is all lawmakers care about. Especially those only vaguely aware that the Republic of Ireland has been independent almost as long as their family’s name has appeared in Burke’s Peerage.

It’s got to the point where the episodes just blur together into some version of the following:

Theresa begs parliament to approve the deal she made with Jean-Claude and Michel after one too many cocktails courtesy of the EU commission. (At the time, they teased her, accusing her of being a scrounger).

Parliament says “no way.”  Theresa puts on her tough voice and facetimes Michel and Jean-Claude who are busy measuring the curvature of a Hungarian banana.

“You’re right, it’s leaning too far to the right,” Jean-Claude says. “Oh hey, Theresa. Do you know what time it is?”

“It’s time-to-talk-tough-on-the-backstop o’clock,” Theresa says.

“No offense,” says Michel. “But would you mind calling back? We’re kind of busy.”

So Theresa goes back to parliament and says: “Now do you like my deal?”

“The nays have it,” says the speaker of the House.

“Fine,” Theresa says, as visions of a glorious retirement flash before her eyes. “If you don’t approve of my deal, do you even approve of me?”

“The ayes have it!” says the speaker of the house.

And so it goes on. And on. Ad nauseum.

Let’s be frank. Brexit is a drama that began with real promise. But like Friends did about three seasons in, it’s run its course. Passed its peak. Exceeded its sell-by date.

For the sake of fans and critics around the world, it’s time to face the truth. Brexit seemed like a great idea at the start. But having failed to deliver on its promise, the time has come to scrap the drama.

Not every show must go on.

Gillette ad cuts deep into male ego

The following piece was published by DW Business. You can read it here.

Gillette’s latest ad featuring men behaving badly has sparked a furious response from commentators. Men have every reason to be upset. They should be encouraged to express their feelings.

Some men are so upset they’re throwing their razors away. Anything to avoid sissy stubble! Even if it does mean looking like a Neanderthal.

Speaking of Neanderthals, they had it good, didn’t they?

In the cave, the scripts were crystal clear. Men hunted and women gathered. Nothing to be ashamed of there. And the cave ladies always had a smile for you when you returned from the kill.

Oh, but those were the days! When the biggest threat to your ego came from a bear and not a blade. When women used their creativity to make jam out of juniper berries. Not ads based on their everyday experiences.

1024px-gillette_mach3_razor_from_indonesia,_2015-08-03

Attribution: Wikimedia Commons User: Crisco 1492 Picture features Gillette Mach 3Razor blade

It’s almost enough to make you well up like those effeminate men in the Gillette ad.

What’s their problem anyway? What reason have they to contemplate their identity while a montage of sexual harassment from the real world and film plays in their minds?

The enlightened commentator Piers Morgan, himself on the brink of growing a beard, has it right. “Let boys be damn boys & men be damn men – and stop this damaging war on masculinity,” he tweeted.

 

Hear, hear.

And, truth be told, this is a war. Not the traditional kind for which our bodies are routinely sacrificed. They’re the good ones. At least they feature real tanks. The PC brigade steered by hairy feminists howling “sexism” is far more pernicious. And Gillette, by allowing it to pass into the exclusively male world of grooming, has gone too far.

There is no safe space left.

The least they could have done is issue a trigger warning. Even a gun, which is far less threatening to masculinity, has one.

“The following ad may force you to contemplate yourself in a negative light,” it could have said at the beginning, allowing you to skip watching and cut straight to the comments section.

But no, just as you’d man-spread yourself out on the couch expecting your favorite razor blade producer to offer the usual suggestion of a connection between a good shave and sporting prowess, they delivered something truly heinous: an appeal to your conscience.

It’s these architects of reflection who are the real enemy in the #metoo era.

Those who dare to examine our fragility. To point out our weaknesses. To call us out for our misbehavior.

Because, you see, it hurts!

It hurts to realize that you might be complicit in a culture of degradation not just of girls and women but of boys and men.

It hurts to think that the time you whistled at a girl or made a suggestive comment to a waitress might have been inappropriate. It hurts to think that you’ve spoken over your female colleague, or taken the credit for her ideas. That you may have belittled boys who didn’t conform to your ideal of what a man should be. Or tried to mold them into a mini version of yourself.

It hurts to see yourself as a villain.

So allow yourself to hurt. Be like a snowflake and have the courage to reflect on the world around you.

Let that anger melt away. Turn it into the best it can be. And remember that no matter how well you wear that beard, the Neanderthals who inspired it are now extinct.

My right honorable wife Theresa May

Everyone always talks about how Benazir introduced us. As if she were the catalyst that ignited a fire destined to burn in our bellies as soon as our eyes locked. But it wasn’t like that at all. Especially not for Theresa.

I remember watching her on the dancefloor that night and thinking she moved a bit like a pump. Expanding and contracting, carving out her own space. Graceless but full of conviction.

She conjured associations I found reassuring. Girls playing tennis with their socks pulled up to their knees. Hymns in church. But also, a schoolboy’s desire to be put in his place.

She was holding a glass of orange juice when Benazir pulled her towards me and said: “Theresa, do you know Philip?”

“No.” Not a hint of expectation in her voice. Neither impressed nor disappointed by the sight of me. I felt immediately at ease.

“I suppose I quite liked him,” was what she told Kirsty Young on Desert Island Discs a few years ago. I had to laugh when I heard that. It was only marginally better than the truth: that I was neither especially desirable nor particularly objectionable.

But those traits stood to me. Theresa has always been a pragmatist. And I suppose she figured I was as good a catch as any other.

On our wedding day, I watched her tuck a blanket round her mother’s knees. She even insisted on pushing the chair from the church to the parish hall. She’d have made a good matron, if she wasn’t so clever.

Our early years together were shaped by her mother’s decline. At university, we would spend our Saturdays stuffing envelopes for the Conservative Association. In the evenings, we would drive down to her parents to deliver the beef casseroles she’d made the night before.

It seemed to me at the time that the prospect of her father being left alone was more painful to Theresa than her own grief.

But even in that regard, fate wasn’t kind to her. The more pragmatic she is, the more the universe conspires to smite her.

One evening, a year into our marriage, I came home from work and found the lights in the hallway off and the telephone hanging loose. Strange – Theresa was almost always home before me. Back then, the Bank of England wasn’t the tight ship it is now. I called her name but there was no reply.

I raced upstairs and found her on the bedroom floor, crouched in the fetal position.

I thought she’d been attacked. Violated. I looked stupidly at the bedroom window for signs of an attacker’s escape.

“Theresa?”

I squatted beside her. “Theresa, are you alright?” I took her hand. It was bone dry and cold.

“Theresa, what’s happened? Answer me.”

Her breathing was shallow. She didn’t move.

I wanted to shake her. But I managed to keep my voice gentle. “Theresa. What’s happened? You need to tell me what happened.”

“Daddy’s gone. Killed in a car crash.”

It came out matter-of-fact. Like she was reporting the death of a dog.

“What?”

But that was all she said that evening. It was only as I made one excruciating phone call after the other that I discovered the rest.

SONY DSC

Attribution: ukhomeoffice [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

She stayed on the bedroom floor and barely moved all night. In the early hours of the morning, she let me pick her up and bring her to bed. When I put her down, she drew me towards her and clung to me with a ferocity I had never before encountered.

There was no gradual decline like with her mother. No opportunity to pre-emptively fill the holes left by grief with stews and custard tarts. It was just a case that one day he was there, and the next he was not.

On Desert Island Discs they talked about how she has 100 cookbooks. She name-dropped Ottolenghi and dismissed Delia as too precise. The future prime minister, Theresa told the country, in no words at all, is more of a handful-of-this-and-a-handful-of-that kind of cook.

But really she cooked her grief away. For two whole years. First for her father as he watched his wife decline. Then for her mother as she waited, unaccompanied and in need of constant care, for her own early death. Afterwards, out of habit, for me.

“You just get on with things,” Theresa told Kirsty.

You get on with things and then you die. That has been my only guiding principle for the last two years as I watch our lives and country.

Last night I got a drink with my friend Richard. He asked me how I was doing. I told him I felt like I was living in a dystopia where nothing except doom was a certainty.

I could tell he wasn’t sure if I was joking or not.

“How is Theresa?” he asked.

“I think she might be dying.”

“What?”

“There’s no other way to describe it.”

“She’s been very courageous,” Richard said, carefully. “There aren’t many who would have kept going.”

Richard voted to remain, obviously. But he, like I, wished he’d never been given the choice. There is nothing in the world that unites us more than our shared hatred for David. The man who did this to my wife.

“Nothing feels real anymore.”

“It’s too much for a single person, isn’t it?” he said. “Those pricks have left her out to dry. It makes my blood boil.”

I said nothing.

“Do you talk about things?” Richard asked.

“Never.”

“Never?”

“When we’re together, I carry her to bed, then I switch off the light and we just lie there. The only thing I ever ask is if she’s had her insulin.”

We pretended to ignore the TV screen behind the bar. But there she was again, locked in the car. Angela Merkel waiting outside. The puddles on the ground glistening in anticipation. Ready for my wife’s next humiliation.

That was just over 24 hours ago.

Now my wife is sitting across from me on the couch. Even in the flesh, she no longer seems real.

We’re in a back room of Downing Street, waiting for Sky News to deliver the Conservative Party’s verdict on her leadership.

We both know she’s survived well before the vote is in.

An aide has made a pot of tea. The cups sit absurdly in their saucers.

Empty vessels one of us should fill. But neither of us makes a move.

Finally, the tally comes in.

200 to 117 in favor of our lives continuing to slip away from each other.

“She’s survived but that’s a whole lot of Tory MPs who want her out. And don’t forget Chris, she still needs to get that deal through parliament.”

“That’s right Sam … She’s certainly not out of the woods yet. Plenty more turmoil to come…”

Theresa’s eyes are closing. Her chin falls to her chest. Like a mouse spat out of a bored cat’s mouth.

I want to lean across the cushions and take her hand.

But there is something sacred in the chasm between us.

The space wehre words have been dispensed of. Where we both dared to hope that this might indeed, by some miracle, have been the end.

Please note: This is a fictional piece written from the imagined perspective of Theresa May’s husband and inspired by current political events. It is not intended as political commentary.

November update

It’s been a busy few weeks! LSH and I had a wonderful belated honeymoon in Cuba, which I’ll definitely be writing about at some point. It’s such a beautiful, fascinating country and I can’t stop thinking about the people and places we encountered there.

I also began writing an economics column for Germany’s international broadcaster, DW. You can read the first two installments here and here.

And – most excitingly in a way – I was shortlisted for a writing prize! I didn’t win but I got to read my short story at the Irish embassy in Berlin. It was such a wonderful feeling afterwards when people in the audience spoke to me about my characters as if they were real people.

 

The story of Stella Goldschlag

Last night I went to a small Berlin theatre to see a one-woman play called Blonde Poison.

It tells the story of Stella Goldschlag, a German woman who collaborated with the Nazis to send hundreds, if not thousands of people to their deaths.

Using a poisonous cocktail of good looks and charm, she infiltrated hiding places and revealed them to the Gestapo.

Ferocious in her pursuit of victims, she was a dream come true for the Führer and his followers.

Blue-eyed and blonde, she epitomized the Aryan ideal.

Except for one thing.

She was Jewish.

Yes, you read that right.

Stella Goldschlag was a Jewish woman who embodied Nazi terror.

It’s an uncomfortable thing to write. Especially here in Germany, where the horrors inflicted on six million Jews are omnipresent – carved, literally, into the pavements and our consciousness.

The notion of a Jewish woman engineering the brutal deaths of her own people is something we might prefer not to think about.

Except, of course, that we must.

Because whether you consider her a monster, a victim of one, or something in between, Stella Goldschlag was a real person.

And real people do grotesque things. Most of the time, without considering themselves vile.

In the production I saw at the Brotfabrik, Stella Goldschlag is brilliantly portrayed by Dulcie Smart as an old woman waiting for a journalist to come and interview her.

As she paces nervously about the stage, counting down the minutes until she can put the coffee on, we witness an extraordinary pyschological range, which reveals not only the intelligence but also the empathy of the actress, who flits seamlessly from one state of heightened emotion to the next.

We see the girlish traces of vanity and vivaciousness and the suggestion of how they could have morphed into tools of treachery and deceit.

The flickers of innocence and pride as she recalls the way her father used to call her “Pünktchen” – and tell her she was destined to become a star.

We learn that Stella Goldschlag continued to betray Jews even after her parents were murdered at Auschwitz.

dulcie

Dulcie Smart as Stella Goldschlag Source: Brotfabrik

We watch in horror as her thoughts advance unrestrained.

She speaks of the mortification which must be experienced by those who get spinach stuck in their teeth. To tell them or not to? That is the question.

She is proud of her clean, white smile and examines it frequently in the mirror.

Her anti-Semitism is expressed in the disgust she has for the hooked noses and black hair of her fellow Jews.

Is she mad or bad or both, we wonder.

A victim or an engine of a totalitarian regime?

You will leave the theatre with an unsettled feeling in the pit of your stomach.

Embrace it.

It’s the sting of a painful truth.

Despite our enormous appetite for it, there is no such thing as a single story.

No one embodiment of monstrosity.

No defined point at which democracy erodes.

No real wisdom that can fit into 142 characters or less.

We may be closer to the truth in the theatre than on Twitter.

But even then, the sign of a good production is one that reminds us that in a functioning democracy, the absolute truth is allowed to elude us.

Did Brett Kavanaugh really brush his teeth?

There’s a gaping omission in Brett Kavanaugh’s June 1982 calendar.

To his credit, he had the courage to address it during his lengthy testimony.

Some have noticed that I didn’t have church on Sundays on my calendars. I also didn’t list brushing my teeth. And for me, going to church on Sundays was like brushing my teeth, automatic. It still is.

Hmm.

I really want to believe this is true.

But if Kavanaugh really has been brushing his teeth every Sunday, why is he only reporting it now?

And if his dental record truly is so stellar, how come no one can recall it?

I mean sure, other people have recently come forward with their own stories of weekly dental care. But such a last-minute onslaught of claims does not ring true.

I’m not questioning that Kavanaugh’s teeth may have been brushed by some person in some place at some time. But does that prove that he’s truly innocent of the charge of poor, or at least, irregular dental hygiene?

Let me be clear. I intend no ill will to Mr Kavanaugh or his family. In fact, the other night, as I was saying my prayers, a pious child I know said, “We should pray for that man.”

That’s a lot of wisdom from a 10-year-old, who went on to suggest that we should simply believe that Mr Kavanaugh brushed his teeth every Sunday. Because why would he lie about it?

And I have to admit that only a heart of stone could fail to be moved by the text message Kavanaugh’s friend, a self-described liberal and feminist, sent him the night before his testimony:

“Deep fresh, minty breaths. You’re a good man, a good man, a good man.”

After listening to the emotional testimonies from both sides, perhaps it’s best to follow the wisdom of Kavanaugh’s mother, herself a lawyer, who used to say:

“Use your common sense. What rings true? What rings false?”

Why would a man lie about brushing his teeth?

Why would he endure some of the hardest weeks of his life played out in front of the entire world?

Why would he open himself up to harassment and death threats?

Why would he allow himself to be called the most vile and hateful names imaginable?

To be rocked to the core by a wave of hatred sweeping across the country?

Maybe, just maybe, the only thing worth such torture is the truth.

But don’t take my word for it. Let Kavanaugh himself present the closing argument:

You may defeat me in the final vote, but you’ll never get me to spit. Never.