You go, girlfriends

Women A Success Story8

This is not a regular film review, as Women: A Success Story is not a regular film. “A liberating tale for a new generation,” inspired by Joanna Williams’s book Women Vs Feminism, it was made by volunteers and funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, Youth Social Action and the Jack Petchey Foundation; a community project that demands to be seen and shared and discussed, by women and men (there’s more about it here). Directed by Ceri Dingle, it has been put together by 100 volunteers, with 40 talking heads, all women, simply discussing and recalling their lives and experiences over nine decades of feminist progress. Its optimistic conclusion is somewhat foregone. This is not a time to niggle.

Each witness – ranging in age from 16 to 90 – is named in a caption, along with their date of birth, to help place them in their era. The documentary’s oldest participant is Elsie Holdsworth, born in 1928, and one of seven kids. She paints a vivid picture of life at the sharp end of the century, listing “one gaslight, two bedrooms, six children, no radio, no TV, no car, no hot water.” Her memory is pin-sharp and she provides valuable testimony from a pre-enlightenment age when, as a young woman, a job she took at Woolworth’s caused others to say she’s “climbing the social ladder, joining the elite.” (The loaded E-word is being bandied about again by today’s political class in this self-negating age of Brexit, but Elsie’s treatment at the hands of her peers seems almost comical to our modern ears – there’s a touch of “know your place” about such snarky opprobrium.)

Women A Success Story7

Among the more millennial talking heads is Caroline Cafasso, 21, an American who reflects the #MeToo generation when she observes that in her experience young women “consider many men to be dangerous towards women” and is rueful about being “stuck in hook-up culture.” Further insight from the young comes from Millie Small, 16, who offers another blithely alarming insight: “I don’t think pregnancy is a very big fear for people.”

Women A Success Story3

The film is split into clearly titled chapters – The Sexual Revolution and Freedom; Contraception: Free at Last; Mind the Gap – and makes sparing use of public-domain archive from patrician public information films to grout the witness footage (some of the more alarmist ones are from the binary certainty of America’s postwar period). This is not a film that dazzles with bells and whistles; it’s all about the content. That it was borne of a collective effort dovetails into the very subject matter. If there is a sisterhood, it might well be found herein.

Among the reassuringly ordinary witnesses, we meet the extraordinary Nadine Strossen, the first woman president of the American Civil Liberties Union (she objects to women who report rape being classed as “victims” in what she regards as a “persecutorial culture”); also Ivana Habazin, a nun who watched Rocky and took up boxing, thereafter becoming IBO middleweight champion; we may not be too surprised to see Joanna Williams herself, at a Suffragette Picnic in East London – where else? Activists abound. Take Mally Best, thrown out of school at 15, she took an engineering course at college, specialising in aviation and navigation (she was the only woman among 79 men). When she took her exam onboard a warship, male seamen were put on a three-hour curfew so they wouldn’t come into contact with a woman.

For ideological balance, there’s a former beauty queen, Miss Severn Diamond, now in her 50s, who discusses the rights and wrongs of calling female friends “honey.” A proud pageant finalist at 22, she embodies a different strain of female empowerment, saying she “never found men intimidating”. (She discusses motor racing’s hot-button “grid girl” issue too, failing to see the harm.) Meanwhile, Hilary Salt, a member of Council of the Institute and Faculty of Actuaries, declares herself against boardroom tokenism that she thinks is “degrading”. “To me,” she boldly states, “it doesn’t seem be of any advantage for me when I’m sitting on the Council, to be there with my vagina.”

Women A Success Story title

Other, more opaque issues are addressed, from FGM to man-hating and whether or not glamour modelling is simply just “a personal choice” (one participant says she thinks of herself as a woman “from the neck down”).

There’s also a fascinating tour of the now-closed Voice & Vote: Women’s Place in Parliament exhibition, where we learn that in 1918 the first woman MP Constance Markievicz, never took her seat in Parliament as she was a member of Sinn Fein and as such “would never take an oath of allegiance to a power I meant to overthrow.” (The first sitting MP was Conservative Nancy Astor in 1919.) Wallflowers are not in evidence.

Shocking facts arise; domestic abuse was not even investigated by the police in the 1950s, and wasn’t until the 1976 Domestic Violence and Matrimonial Proceedings Act – although rape in marriage continued to be legal until 1990s. Within that context it brings you up short to hear a 1967-born West Midlands bank manager stating, “If you see someone brushing your knee as sexual assault you have seriously lost the plot.” Another woman of similar age is strident on the subject: “We didn’t feel cowed, or worried, we just said no.”

All this and the memory of using a mangle to clean nappies in the 1960s. You might optimistically conclude that men have gone a long way towards being house-trained in the interim. You might prefer to come away from the film with the lingering and powerful image of the daughter of an Eritrean freedom fighter who emigrated to the UK in the late 60s and “grew up with the idea that there was no difference between women and men.”

Either way, man or woman, whatever your view, or gender, or vintage, this film gives plenty of food for thought, and deserves to be shared.

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How does it feel to be the father of 172,907* dead?

Blairface

Who’s old enough to remember the Falklands War? I know we’ve experienced some sabre-rattling about the Malvinas from the Argentine and British camps of late, but it seems unlikely that anybody would go to war over their sovereignty in 2013. I hope not, anyway. Having grown up under the long shadow of the Second World War (my parents were born during it, my grandparents lived through it, one of them fought in it; it influenced the films we watched, the toys we desired and the games we played), and, as a boy, having been fascinated by all aspects of the 1939-45 apocalypse, it was surreal in 1982 to live in a country that was at war, with our tank-straddling Prime Minister sending something called a “task force” to this contested 12,173 square kilometres of dry land in the South Atlantic to repel a South American invader.

There was a war! Alarmist rumours went around school that conscription might be introduced, and, as a paranoid 17-year-old, I had to process what that might mean – even though it was highly unlikely. Anyway, around 900 people died in that stupid war, hence the title of the subsequent 1983 single by anarcho-syndicalist squat-rockers Crass: How Does It Feel To Be The Mother Of 1000 Dead? In many ways, the title was enough, not that it would have robbed Margaret Thatcher of any minutes of sleep on her notoriously short nights.

I hadn’t even fully assimilated my politics at that point, and was still living under the long shadow of my Dad’s, but my eventual conversion to left-wing idealism was taking shape somewhere inside my brain, and it was the accumulation of persuasive signposts like the title of that Crass song – and the collage that packaged it – that helped to build it.

Since 1982, the country I live, pay tax and vote in has been involved in a number of other wars, invasions, air strikes and “humanitarian interventions”, notably the Gulf War of 1990, and the Iraq war, which began with the illegal invasion in 2003 and was never officially declared. We are currently “celebrating” its tenth anniversary, and this means that Tony Blair’s face is back in the news, albeit mostly in montages. In Iraq, which is pretty much universally acknowledged to be in a far worse state than it was before we invaded it, the anniversary was marked by bombs killing 56 people and injuring 200 in Shia areas.

I say “we invaded it” – I didn’t invade it. Irag was officially not invaded in my name, because I marched on February 15, 2003 to say so, along with millions of other sane souls around the world. Ours was the largest march in London’s history, even according to the police’s massaged-down figure. (I also marched against the invasion of Afghanistan two years earlier, on October 13, 2001.) When I look back, I feel proud that I cared enough to march, although it also makes me a little sad, as the marching spirit was beaten out of me by the feeling of democratic powerlessness I felt after Operation Iraqi Freedom (cheers) kicked off regardless at 5:34 am Baghdad time on 20 March, 2003 (9:34 pm, 19 March EST).

London_Anti_Iraq_War_march,_15Feb_2003

What optimism I must have had in 2001-2003. I did not decide to march; I had no choice. I love the foregone conclusion of the way I felt then. I dislike the lack of fight in me ten years later. But there is, at least, one man to blame. And I still hold him to account for what happened: the Christian sense of destiny behind his dead eyes as he told us that Saddam Hussein could attack us with only 45 minutes’ warning with weapons of mass destruction that he was definitely hiding in Iraq. I didn’t believe a word Tony Blair or George W Bush said. And although this might have been viewed as kneejerk leftist aversion, history tells us that I was right not to. That he continues to stand by his decision to follow Bush into Iraq to help assuage his Oedipus complex rankles with me. He always says he “regrets” the loss of life, but not the decision to do the thing that caused the loss of life.

* He may or may not be the father of 172,907 dead, as a definitive figure is impossible to put your finger on. It could be more, it could be less, but is probably more. This is the best current estimate of the Iraq Body Count project – and of course it’s recently shot up after the violent protests to mark the tenth anniversary – and it’ll have to do. You might say I’m being melodramatic dredging up the Crass lyric, but the whole sorry, disgraceful episode offends me, yeah? And the rich, tanned, our-man-in-the-Middle-East Tony Blair really needs to get out of my sight, please.

And, as previously declared, I am reading Jason Burke’s The 9/11 Wars, a pretty exhaustive account of the mistakes, assumptions and dangerous strategic miscalculations made by the invading forces in Afghanistan and Iraq (not to mentions the abuses and crimes committed). We’re just at the point in 2006 when the author declares “the beginning of the end” for bin Laden loyalist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s archaic “Al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia” network, whose worryingly broad stated aim was to “bring the rest of the Middle East and potentially the Islamic world within the boundaries of a new caliphate.” In November 2005, he claimed responsibility for suicide bombs that killed 60 people in three hotels in Amman in Jordan (including 38 members of a wedding party), after which opinion polls showed that Jordanians turned against the Iraqi insurgents, indicative of a wider rejection. If Burke’s book tells us anything it’s that the country, and the region, fell into factional chaos after the US/UK invasion, and took until 2006 before the death toll abated. Claiming strategic victory for the American “surge” strikes me as patting yourself on the back for removing some of a red wine stain you made by pouring white wine onto it.

So, you’ve got my kneejerk reaction, and you’ve got my well-read, analytical reaction. I’ll give the final words on this blood-stained anniversary to Crass.

Your arrogance has gutted these bodies of life
Your deceit fooled them that it was worth the sacrifice
Your lies persuaded people to accept the wasted blood
Your filthy pride cleansed you of the doubt you should have had
You smile in the face of death ‘cos you are so proud and vain
Your inhumanity stops you from realising the pain

In the same casual manner

Huhne

Yesterday, this man was sentenced to eight months in prison for perverting the course of justice. He is Chris Huhne, one-time Liberal Democrat MEP, MP, Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change in the coalition government and something of a “star” of the party. (He ran Nick Clegg pretty close in the leadership battle in 2007, and, if you included postal ballots, which they didn’t, he would have won.) I think we’re all well aware of his crime: after being caught speeding in 2003, when he was a Member of the European Parliament, he convinced his then-wife, Vicky Pryce, also convicted yesterday, to “take” his points by claiming she was driving when the vehicle was photographed by a speed camera. (Ironically, he was banned from driving for three months in the same year for driving while using a mobile phone and she had to “drive him around”, the very inconvenience their deception was designed to prevent.)

Huhne, who pled “guilty” at the last minute, and Pryce, who pled “not guilty”, both received the same sentence. As we speak, they are being “processed” at Wandsworth Prison, which nobody says is going to be a lot of fun for either of them, but will then be moved to open prisons for something like six weeks, after which they will be released, but put on house arrest for the remainder of their sentence. He is no longer an MP, but, after legal costs, he will still own seven properties, and certainly went into prison with a fortune of around £3.5 million, much of that earned when he worked in the City, before entering politics. (When he was the Lib Dems’ environment spokesman, he was criticised for having shares in “unethical” companies.)

For better or for worse, I have a kneejerk reaction against the following types of people:

  • MPs and other elected representatives of either gender who lie
  • Men who abuse power (and it is so often men)
  • Men who leave their spouses and their families for a younger woman (essentially because it’s such a cliché, especially if the affair is conducted “at the office” – what is this, a 1970s sitcom?)
  • Male politicians who give the impression of being a “family man” in order to get elected – as Huhne did in Eastleigh with the family snapshots in election material (“Family matters to me so much – where would we be without them?”) and his public displays of unity at the ballot box with Pryce – when they are in fact conducting an affair in secret and plan on leaving their wife and children when they get in

Here’s where I stand:

I do not think putting Huhne, or Pryce, in prison, even for a couple of months, is a good use of taxpayer money. I stated this on Twitter and, as usual, enraged some who felt I was letting him off the hook. I mentioned “his sort” (which is kind of all of the above), which was misconstrued as “posh/rich/establishment” and taken to mean that this “sort” are “too good for prison”. Far from it. If I really thought that the £800 per week we’ll be paying to keep Huhne in an open prison would change him, I’d consider it. But to my mind – and this is a pure hypothetical as the sentence has been passed – community service would be a far better option. It would cost us less. It would – shall we say – inconvenience Huhne more. And it would put something back into the society he clearly felt he was above.

I state these facts only because, as usual, I felt I was struggling to make my views heard in the ridiculous medium of Twitter. I do not believe that the purpose of community service is “humiliation”. Although I do believe that picking up litter or washing police cars would be humiliating for an arrogant prick like Huhne. (I have never met him, but I know a lot more about him after the court case than I ever expected to know, and I don’t much like the sound of him. Do you?)

Vicky Pryce and Chris Huhne in 2010

Had I been on the jury, I feel in my bones that I would have been less harsh on Pryce. She is, on paper and in a court of law, as guilty as him for the misappropriation of those speeding points, but it certainly sounded like she was “maritally coerced,” which was her defence. A couple of weeks fewer in prison, at least? She is anything but “the little wife”, and she certainly put all of this into motion by going to the press after she was dumped by Huhne, but she seemed at the time to me to be the injured party. It’s hard to know for sure, but that’s the impression I took away from what remains a sordid affair.

Chris Huhne is now hated by his ex-wife, and, presumably, by the three kids he had with her during their 26 years of marriage. That’s their private business. I only care about him because he is an elected official who asked the electorate to trust him and to represent them. Call me a dreamer and an idealist, but I expect Members of Parliament to be honest and to set a good example. I do not give a toss whether or not they are happily married, or have families, those trappings of apparent trustworthiness are not as important to me as they are to many other voters; I merely expect them to do their best, to be upfront with those who elected them, to put their constituencies first, and not to behave as if it’s one rule for them and another rule for the rest of us.

Much of my reaction to this story, which can go away now, is rooted in my own prejudice – and no doubt coloured by the disgust I feel for the Liberal Democrat party since they enabled the worst Tory government in history to take power, while abandoning all their promises – but I am being honest about that, and anyway, nobody elected me. Most people who drive have broken the speed limit. Many have points on their licence. Equally, for most people, a fine and a driving ban would be deterrent enough not to sail too close to the wind too often. When the offender is Chris Huhne, a man with a personal fortune and a property portfolio (two words that really shouldn’t go so casually together), a fine and a ban aren’t going to be enough. He needs to be made an example of, I agree, but sticking him in an open prison isn’t going to do the trick.

And we don’t put people in the stocks any more.

Double history

On Thursday 30 October, 2008, just five prehistoric days before America elected its first black president, BBC’s Question Time came live from Washington DC, something of a coup and a justifiable use of the licence fee. “Welcome to our normal viewers,” snuffled David Dimbleby from behind his standard-issue Corporation poppy. “But also to people around the world, who are going to be watching this on BBC World News – great to have you with us.”

A great advert for the Beeb. The panel was impressive: Elizabeth Edwards, Obama adviser and wife of Senator John Edwards; Christopher Nixon Cox, John McCain exec and grandson of Richard Nixon; Simon Schama, fidgety expat historian; Pulitzer-winning Clarence Page of the Chicago Tribune for civil-rights ballast; and leopardskin-jacketed Republican strategist Cheri Jakobus (“it’s a lovely name,” cooed Dimbleby). A lively discourse ensued for the next hour. Unfortunately, on this particular night in history, Question Time was in the wrong place at the wrong time and heatedly debating the wrong two men.

The two men who made Question Time look woefully off the scent that Thursday night, four years ago, were not a great advert for the BBC. Dimbleby’s “normal viewers” were less interested in the US Presidential race on 30 October than they were in “Sachsgate”, a little local difficulty involving Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross that had reached the point of national seizure on that very day.

Four years on, and the BBC is going through another, worse crisis, also zealously fanned by a right-wing, axe-grinding press but one whose story extends well beyond the walls of Television Centre (or, in the case of Sachsgate, Broadcasting House). Meanwhile, America decides once again. In November 2008, the electorate made history when Barack Obama took battleground states Pennsylvania and Ohio, rewarding those of us who’d stayed up for the Portillo Moment; in that moment, the “retard cowboy fella”, as Sachsgate co-architect Brand had labelled George W. Bush in September as Hollywood-hungry host of the MTV Video Music Awards, was all but forgotten. Never mind that Bush would still be in office for 70 more days; his epoch was so over. Oliver Stone rush-released biopic W., in which Bush is seen in a dream sequence waiting to catch a ball in an empty stadium. Meanwhile, a quarter of a million Obama supporters filled Grant Park in Chicago to roar their approval.

Despite sweaty pre-election Democrat palms about the Bradley Effect (after the black candidate for California governor in 1982 who was ahead in the polls but denied in the booths), Americans who claimed they would vote for a black man did just that. A change came not just to America: Jesse Jackson, another previously unsuccessful black Democratic candidate, cried tears that were mopped all around the world.

This time round, with Obama fighting for his political life in the face of malleable private-equity action figure Mitt Romney – and the real face of post-Tea Party Republicanism Paul Ryan – the US Presidential race is said to be neck-and-neck, with the usual “swing states” holding all the cards – Ohio, again, Florida, again etc. In 2008, I stayed up for Ohio, as I was at the CNN Election Night Party in Central London, surrounded by other politicos, and one or two select celebrities. (You may read my account of that night here.) Weirdly, the party ended at 3am, before the election had been called, which I felt was a massive swiz. I watched them call it from a friend’s sofa, on my own. I shan’t be staying up into the early hours this time, as, uniquely, I am four years older, and I need my sleep. History, or not, will be made without me.

Being the first black American President to be re-elected for a second term does not have the same epic ring of history to it. But that’s surely what the sensible are hoping for? In four years, he’s managed to frighten those on the right with his universal healthcare plan and support for abortion rights and gay marriage, while disappointing those on the left with his failure to do much about anything else, including blowing up Guantanamo Bay. That this policy deadlock is largely down to the intransigence of a Republican House makes no difference to those who demand action. Obama killed bin Laden, personally, of course, a fact that counterintuitively endears him to the head-on-a-spike right, and confuses the left. (I witnessed a fairly heated debate between two comedians on Twitter the other day – Mitch Benn and Andrew O’Neill – about whether or not Obama was a “war criminal”, and whether or not voting for him at all was some kind of betrayal of left-wing values.)

But the real issue of this election, the most expensive and vicious ever, is surely Voter-ID. If you’re not abreast of this issue – and it’s been all over The Daily Show – it’s the way in which an apparently “non-partisan” group, True The Vote (“by citizens, for citizens”) has been pushing for legislature in various states to attach photo ID to one’s right to walk into a polling booth, which not only puts those without a driving licence at an immediate disadvantage (ie. the old, the poor, the unemployed – Democrat voters, maybe?), but also puts the disadvantaged at a further disadvantage, with households containing many occupants (the poor, again? students? immigrants?), targeted as potential voter-fraud cases. Read all about it in this superb, clear New Yorker article from a couple of weeks ago. For me, this is the 2012 Election in essence: dirty tricks by the Republicans.

Commentators – including, well, me, in Word magazine – said that the “real star” of the 2008 Election was David Axelrod. As Obama’s right-hand strategist, not only did he help create the “change” umbrella, he masterminded the first ever internet donor base, mostly under-30s, who contributed small amounts and formed a – gulp! – socialist utopia of engaged young Americans, each with a genuine stake in their chosen leader. Whether this truly recast the way US politics is done remains to be seen, but when, in 2008, Paxman was called upon to gauge the opinion of Dizzee Rascal (“I don’t think he could have done it without hip-hop”), Marshall McLuhan loomed large.

In a rare case of hype being matched by hope, Obama’s victory was regarded as a poultice for all global ills, from the economy to Iraq. He was even credited with boosting Chicago’s bid for the 2016 Olympics, which – hypothetically, as it transpired – earmarked Grant Park as a venue for the archery. (Chicago was knocked out in the first round.) The 2008 Beijing Olympics had provided welcome uplift that summer, with choreographed spectacle from the director of Chinese epics Hero and The House Of Flying Daggers, Zhang Yimou, whose opening and closing ceremonies seemed designed to remind the world that America is not the only superpower – and that the Chinese Communist Party has a knack of inspiring mass synchronisation.

London’s very own Olympics did it their way this summer, and proved that ideas were as important as money and multitudes. Mitt Romney chose our capital for his first official stop-off in what the Huffington Post described as “a three-nation tour carefully crafted to highlight his diplomatic strengths and personal Olympic experience”. He delivered a world-class gaffe when he criticised his hosts for not being “ready.” (I might have said the same thing at the time, but I’m not a diplomat, and I live in London.) Had we got our first glimpse of the next President of the United States? I hope not.

In 2008, the year in which Professor Brian Cox became famous on television for his ability to explain the Large Hadron Collider to the dim, we found ourselves living on a planet where things could only get better, and many of us put our hope in a black man (or “a black”, as Tory Pauline Neville-Jones rather colonially called him on the post-election Question Time, back in Britain). Can we have him back, please?

For some reason, I’m not allowed to vote. In this, I am not alone, thanks to True The Vote, which may well have clinched it for Romney, a man whose Mormonism might ordinarily disqualify him from being a good ol’ Republican nominee, if not for the fact that his competition – Santorum, Perry, Cain, Gingrich, Bachmann – were so lacking in Presidential authority. I sincerely hope that, as I sleep tonight, the swing states swing the right way. I Tweeted a handy link to the New Yorker voter-ID story earlier, and an American expat took umbrage with me for typing, “If the US Election goes the wrong way, at least you’ll be able to say you know why”; he/she responded, “Define ‘wrong way’. Surely whatever we voters choose is the correct way.” Idealism in action. Naturally, if you are a Republican, or more crucially the kind of prevaricating floating voter that actually decides Elections, Romney might be the “right way.” If so, I wish you good luck in that county if he wins. But I warn you not to be poor. I warn you not to be old. And I warn you not to be a multi-millionaire.

It’s a royal knockers-out

Pardon the deliberately lowered tone of the headline, but we must dip a toe here into the murky depths of tabloid intrusion and a very British obsession with bared flesh. Kate Middleton, an attractive if thin Berkshire woman of 30 whose official title is Her Royal Highness The Duchess of Cambridge – or has been since she married, with her eyes wide open, Prince William, His Royal Highness The Duke of Cambridge, Earl of Strathearn and Baron Carrickfergus, in April 2011 – is currently on holiday. It is a working holiday, in the sense that she didn’t choose it, or plan it, and while on it, much of her time is being spent doing things she wouldn’t normally choose to do, while being photographed doing it. This is the life she chose.

Although her role in life is now predominantly played out in public, by her own choice, and much of what she does during the day is arranged specifically to be seen by the public, she is, like anybody entitled to private time. Of course she is. What she does in private is nobody’s business, unless it is against the law, at which point her qualification to represent this blighted nation before the rest of the world would be called into question. To my knowledge, she has not broken the law, and seems, if anything, quite nice.

However, last week, during some private time before embarking upon her current, paid, working holiday of Southeast Asia, she relaxed at the private chateau of Viscount Linley – which is his whole title – son of Princess Margaret, Countess of Snowdon, and Antony Armstrong-Jones, 1st Earl of Snowdon. (Linley’s daughter was a bridesmaid at the wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge in April 2011.)

The royal couple called it a “second honeymoon”, according to the press, who must have been fed this information. And why not? The Chateau D’Autet in Provence, is set “amid 640 acres of ­lavender fields and woodland”. The temperature while they were there reached 31C (88F). Perfect weather for sunbathing, like normal people do.

During a spot of sunbathing, among friends and family, it seems that Kate took off her bikini top. We know this because a man photographed her in this state of undress with a long lens. As far as I know, he is not the first photographer to use a long lens. Again, as far as I can tell (as I haven’t seen the photos, other than on photos of the cover of Closer on the newsstands, which are on the internet), Kate went topless outside, on the verandah or balcony of Linley’s chateau. Now, outside on private property may be private on paper, but if you are outside, in the world, that privacy is harder to apply in actuality. The result of this confusion: scandal. And the second example of illicitly-documented young, royal nudity in two months.

In August, Prince Harry – sorry, His Royal Highness Prince Harry of Wales – took his clothes off in a hotel room in Las Vegas, during a game of what was reported as “strip billiards” and, seemingly, unsupervised. (One imagines the young royals are usually chaperoned for most of the time.) Photos of this nakedness were published in this country in the Sun, and the paper seemed to get away with it. He was naked in private, behind closed doors, but, unfortunately, among a bunch of other people who did not necessarily respect that privacy. Frankly, you take your kit off in a hotel room with other people in it, especially when phones are cameras, and you run the risk of photos being published. This, presumably, is why Clarence House didn’t attempt to sue anybody after the fact.

With Kate, it’s different, apparently. The French version of Closer magazine splashed the pictures (“Oh My God,” it squealed, in the international language of exclamation) and the magazine is being sued. The Irish edition of the Daily Star has also reprinted them, with an Italian magazine, Chi, threatening to do the same now. (Richard Desmond, the notoriously prurient and censorious owner of Northern & Shell, which publishes the Express and the Star, and co-publishes the Irish Star, has threatened to take his ball home and withdraw his stake after the publication of the snaps.)

So … before I comment on the whole hoo-hah, may I just state the following facts:

  1. I am a republican. I do not believe in the royal family. Which is not to say I do not believe that the current royals are descended from previous royals, or that there is such a thing as royalty, or that the current House Of Windsor goes back to 1917, before which it was called the House of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha. I know that the crowned heads of Europe are all historically sort of interrelated, and that cousins have always been marrying, and that by this complicated series of fluid exchanges does Kate Middleton now get called Her Royal Highness as if perhaps we still live in the 15th century. I also know the powers of the constitutional monarchy are limited. I still firmly believe that by the state funding these decorative ambassadors, who are some of the richest landowners in the country, is wrong. I do not think the royals should be guillotined, merely stripped of their public funding and asked to fend for themselves, like the other aristocrats with all their assets.
  2. The world we live in is a coarse and ugly one, and no matter what the outcomes of the Leveson Inquiry, and the News International criminal prosecutions, it is unlikely that our newspapers will suddenly stop being interested in famous people at any time in the foreseeable future. The celebrity culture is here to stay for as long as it sells papers and advertising. I find it unedifying. But for as long as we all flock to the newsstands and the websites to seek out grubby gossip about people who are only by the smallest margin more famous or richer than ourselves, the papers and the websites will continue to print it, within the bounds of the law.
  3. Exhibitionism is now standard. Where once this country was renowned, and mocked, for being stuffy and sexless and tongue-tied and shy, we now seem to flaunt ourselves and our emotions with abandon. We make more noise. Sometimes this noise is cheering, as heard at the Olympics, and can be good noise. Sometimes it is simply shouting, as heard on trains and buses and in the streets after 11pm in cities, or in the afternoon if the sun’s out. (I passed through Euston station yesterday and a man, with his top off, was slumped at the feet of his friends at an outside table on the piazza, shouting at the world.) I am not John Major, or Mary Whitehouse; I do not wish a return to Victorian values, but my abiding prudishness does seem to make me feel increasingly out of step with modern thinking. This is my problem.

With all this said – and I hope I have painted a depressing enough picture for you! – I will say this: Kate Middleton is an idiot. Why, when she is the wife of the future King of the United Kingdom and the 16 sovereign states of the Commonwealth (gosh, even typing those words makes me feel a bit queasy), would she take her bikini top off when she is outside? It was the daytime. The clue that she was no longer inside, away from prying lenses, was that there was a sky above her. Prying lenses work best when there are no bricks between them and the subject. Paparazzi scum have been plying their trade since the 1960s when the term for their profession was coined in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (in which news photographers harass a visiting film actress, and, in a neat reversal, one of their scrum travels out to photograph a sighting of the Madonna at a church). Fellini said that the word Paparazzo “suggests to me a buzzing insect, hovering, darting, stinging.”

Kate’s husband, William, is the bereaved son of Her Royal Highness The Princess of Wales, herself hounded by the paparazzi, who were certainly on her tail when her car crashed in a Parisian tunnel, killing her, in August 1997. If ever a new royal knew what she was getting into, it was Kate Middleton. I am not Kate Middleton. But if I were, the one thing I would make sure I never did, ever, was to take my top off outside. Just in case. (We might remember that no topless shots of her late mother-in-law and arch publicity-manipulator Diana ever came to light, so we have to assume that she never went topless outside.)

It is a tragedy that a 30-year-old married woman cannot take her top off on the balcony of her bridesmaid’s parents’ chateau in Provence without being photographed from a very long distance away by a man who makes his living selling his photographs to magazine and news agencies, but there it is. I feel sorry for her up to a point, as her freedoms, as a holidaymaker in the South of France, have been curtailed in a way that an ordinary woman on a balcony’s freedoms would not be. But then, she is a member of the royal family, and I stopped feeling 100% sorry for her the day she agreed to join this unlikely and surreal firm of interrelated people.

Closer’s editor-in-chief Laurence Pieau described the photos as “beautiful” and claimed that they’d not printed anything degrading: “There’s been an over-reaction to these photos. What we see is a young couple, who just got married, who are very much in love, who are splendid. She’s a real 21st Century princess … a young woman who is topless, the same as you can see on any beach in France or around the world.”

Hey, I’m quaint enough to still be against Page 3. I don’t think women’s breasts should be shown in newspapers which can be seen by children and impressionable teenagers. This is the kind of 1980s woolly liberal I am, and if grown women want to be topless on beaches around children and people they don’t know, that must be their right. And with the internet, you might argue that what’s on the third page of a newspaper doesn’t matter any more. (I think it does.) We all agree that Kate Middleton has not committed a crime. When I first heard that topless pictures of her had been printed, I assumed these were from the days before she was married, from some scummy ex-boyfriend or something. If they had been, I would have had full sympathy for her, as she can’t really have known she was always going to be a “21st Century princess”.

But she slipped up. The world outside the walls of her chateau – a safehouse – is a sleazy one. She should know better. Don’t feed the trolls. The trolls have cameras.