May 11, 2022
One of the best-known public intellectuals of the pandemic gives her account of two years that shook the world
Professor Nabila Sadiq was only 38 when she died of Covid-19. Unable to find a hospital bed in her native India, which had been overwhelmed by the virulent new Delta variant, her heart-rending Twitter messages pleading for help were picked up around the world. The story clearly hit home with the Scottish public health expert Professor Devi Sridhar, who is around the age Sadiq was and whose family are of Indian heritage. As she writes poignantly in her new book: “She would have lived had she been in Scotland, like me”.
Accidents of geography are arguably a key theme of Sridhar’s book, an ambitiously wide-ranging study of a global pandemic with the emphasis firmly on the global. As she points out, individuals’ fates were too often determined by where they happened to have been born: living through the pandemic in Vietnam or Kerala was not like living through it in Britain. The refreshing twist in her tale, however, is that often it was countries from whom we are not used to taking public health lessons that got it right while a complacent west messed up. Continue reading...
Mar 20, 2022
Michael Ashcroft’s unauthorised biography can’t seem to decide whether the prime minister’s wife is a shallow non-entity or a sinister power behind the throne
Carrie Johnson is a fascinating woman. An undoubtedly complex character, inspiring fierce loyalty from some and equally fierce loathing in others, she wields an influence unlike any previous British prime minister’s wife and arguably represents a new archetype of female power. But if Michael Ashcroft’s thoroughly unauthorised biography of her is to be believed, she only really got interesting when she met her husband.
Her old headteacher reports that “she didn’t stand out” and there is little memorable to say about her student years. Politically, an early boyfriend describes a “fairly blank canvas”, who fell into working for the Tory MP Zac Goldsmith (her springboard to a press officer job at party headquarters and subsequent special adviser gig) largely because of a shared passion for animal welfare. The one character who really comes alive in the early chapters is her father, Matthew Symonds, co-founder of the Independent newspaper, accused of brandishing packets of condoms in morning conference – a way, one ex-colleague suggests, of letting everyone know that despite being married he was still having lots of sex – and trying to wangle his mistress Josephine McAffee a job on the paper. When Carrie was born as a result of this affair, he financially supported and spent time with his daughter, but didn’t leave his wife. Something here sounds uncannily familiar, but if there are intriguing parallels between the absent father and the married ex-journalist two decades her senior who Carrie eventually fell for, Ashcroft isn’t the writer to explore them. His real interest isn’t in making sense of her character but in how he thinks she shaped a Conservative government. Continue reading...
Jan 13, 2022
So often we bring our emotional baggage to work with us – but it doesn’t have to be that way, a work coach explains
Hamish is a rich and successful entrepreneur, a man who seems to be winning at life. Yet secretly, he is falling apart. His second wife has left him, he’s stressed out of his mind and he has just mournfully realised that no matter how many trophy girlfriends or French chateaux he acquires, some other millionaire will always have a better one.
If you hate Hamish already, then you may be missing the broader lesson of this book, which is that unhappy working lives are just as complex and fascinating as the unhappy private lives they frequently mirror, and also just as deserving of attention. Hamish, it turns out, is now a happy social entrepreneur with an admirable sideline mentoring former care leavers and ex-prisoners into work. Continue reading...
Jul 18, 2021
Two weighty books on the debate around gender-critical feminism and transgender rights strike different tones
Last month, the Royal Academy dropped the feminist artist Jess de Wahls’s work from its gift shop after objections to her views on trans rights. To some, it looked like a textbook case of so-called “cancel culture”, in which anyone challenging the idea that trans women are women in the fullest possible sense supposedly risks a career-ending backlash. But the story did not end there. After a flood of emails from women threatening to boycott the Academy’s exhibitions in protest, the institution swiftly un-cancelled De Wahls, who is now swamped with orders. Something, in short, seems to be shifting.
And that broadly fits the thesis of the Economist writer Helen Joyce’s Trans: When Ideology Meets Reality, which argues that a tide is now turning. She sees support for the idea that individuals can change biological sex as a “crony belief”, one people mostly hold to look good in front of others, and that may be dropped quite easily if enough of those others start publicly challenging it. As the former Olympic swimmer Sharron Davies, vilified for arguing that trans athletes shouldn’t compete in female sporting categories, puts it: “It’s not that people disagree with me, it’s that they’re frightened of the activists.” Since recent YouGov polling finds falling numbers of Britons strongly agreeing that “a transgender woman is a woman”, and rising numbers either somewhat disagreeing or only somewhat agreeing, Joyce may be right about the broad trajectory of public opinion. Whether you find that heartening or terrifying determines whether you’ll want to read both this book and Kathleen Stock’s Material Girls, or throw them across the room. Continue reading...
Apr 15, 2021
The diaries of the former Tory minister dismiss the PM’s Brexit arguments as ‘puerile junk’, but Britain’s stagnant politics is the real target
Serious times call for serious people. If living through a global pandemic had somehow failed to underline that, then the sight of violence returning to the streets of Northern Ireland in recent weeks should. The argument for grownups in the room could hardy seem clearer. But until recently you might have got good odds against Alan Duncan emerging at its standard bearer.
Still, cometh the hour, cometh the diarist. In the Thick of It, this former Tory minister’s account of the four years running up to Boris Johnson’s landslide election victory in 2019, initially grabbed the headlines thanks to the sheer gleeful bitchiness of the insults littered throughout. But there’s a more serious message at the heart of this book, reeking as it does of decline and despair. Continue reading...
Sep 17, 2020
From Dominic Cummings as an ‘amoeba’ to royal political preferences and David Cameron’s colonoscopy ... a behind-the-scenes Tory reveals the political gossip
We have come a long way, thankfully, since the days of political wives being expected to stand mutely by their man. But Sasha Swire is still perhaps unusual in standing behind hers with a notebook. A former journalist who gave up her career to look after her family, she had kept a diary since childhood, and carried on jotting down daily insights gleaned throughout her husband Hugo’s time as a minister under their good friend David Cameron (and subsequently as a backbencher under Theresa May). She insists she never originally intended to publish the resulting inside story of a turbulent Tory decade, for fear it would be seen as a betrayal. Yet somehow she ended up showing the diary to a literary agent – as one does, when absolutely determined not to betray anyone – and bang, here she is, author of one of the most thrillingly indiscreet political memoirs I have ever read. The dedication, to Hugo, consists of one single breezy word: “Sorry!” Well, the reader won’t be.
Imagine the Alan Clark diaries, but written by his wife Jane instead: all the high-octane political gossip, set against a backdrop of country house shooting weekends and boozy dinners at Chequers, but seen through the sceptical eyes of a woman one step removed from all the head-butting stags. From Samantha Cameron’s appalled reaction to the prospect of a no-deal Brexit, to what can only be described as too much information about David Cameron’s colonoscopy, she spills the guts of four governments in a book most of Westminster will doubtless be reading this autumn. One can only imagine Buckingham Palace’s reaction meanwhile to her observation, following a private dinner with Prince Edward in 2010, that he “seems overwhelmed with relief that the Conservatives have got in”. Continue reading...
Jun 17, 2020
Calling out hostile men ... a rallying cry for global female equality and a strong counter to ‘lean in’ feminism
Why do girls in parts of rural Africa so often drop out of school in their teens? When Linda Scott started asking this question in Ghana more than a decade ago, the received wisdom she got was that girls are just too materialistic; they want clothes and phones, so they start trading sex for them, and then end up falling out of education because they are pregnant. The problem, she was told, lay with girls themselves.
It won’t surprise many people to learn that this turned out to be the wrong answer. Scott, an Oxford scholar and expert in women’s economic empowerment, was in Ghana testing the theory that girls drop out of school when their periods start due to a lack of sanitary pads. But she quickly discovered that it wasn’t just the embarrassment of being seen to bleed through their clothes that deterred them from staying in class. A girl reaching the age of menstruation is deemed old enough to be sexually available; once men find out, she can expect to be followed home from school, sexually harassed, perhaps even raped. Giving girls sanitary pads which allowed them to keep their periods secret would not protect them for ever from predatory males, she concluded, but it could buy them a little more time in education. Sure enough, the girls who enrolled in a pilot project handing out free pads and information on puberty did spend more days in school. But that solution wouldn’t have been possible without turning the question on its head, asking not what’s wrong with girls, but what might be wrong with the conditions under which they are forced to live. Continue reading...
Apr 18, 2020
The journalist and author on how nature can boost mental health treatment, even on lockdown
Isabel Hardman is assistant editor of the Spectator and author of The Natural Health Service: What the Great Outdoors Can Do for Your Mind. She was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder following events she chooses not to disclose, and has intermittent anxiety and depression. She lives between London and Barrow-in-Furness in Cumbria, and is expecting her first child.
How did you first realise that being outdoors helped your mental health? Continue reading...
“I’ve always enjoyed being outdoors – I grew up in the country, and I was nerdily into gardening as a child. When I got sick, my GP insisted that I got out of the house every day. When she found out I used to do a lot of riding, she said: “Well can you book yourself some riding lessons?” She’d be as interested in what I was doing outdoors as she was in how my medication was working.