Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Mantelpiece

Christ. The whole furore surrounding Hilary Mantel's speech at the British Museum is a perfect snapshot of British journalism and politics at its most depressing.

The first depressing thing was the Mail's auto-outrage. This takes extracts from Mantel's lengthy and well-argued speech and turns them into an "attack" on the Duchess of Cambridge. This is so much the Mail's operating procedure that I wonder that anyone bothers to get outraged on their behalf. It led neatly on, however, to the next depressing stage - leftie broadsheet journalists decrying the Mail for its (and its readers') stupidity in not reading the speech properly. The apotheosis of this is in a piece by Zoe Williams:
If the tabloids are outraged, well, maybe they shouldn't have been earwigging while the grown-ups were talking.
If ever you're looking for a perfect example of a 'liberal elite' condescending to the lower orders, it'll be hard to do better than that.

So, the story so far: the Mail picks up lines from a speech that are critical about the Duchess, the "grown-ups" say that the Mail clearly hasn't bothered (or is too stupid) to read the speech, which was actually sympathetic to Princess Catherine. To add to the general hilarity, someone takes the opportunity of David Cameron's trade visit to India to ask him what he thinks, and rather than the ideal "don't know, don't care" response that my (and Tom Chivers's) beau ideal of a Prime Minister would come out with, he said that Mantel was "completely misguided". This of course sends Twitter into raptures on how stupid he is for saying such a thing, which causes a hasty reverse ferret when Ed Miliband waits long enough to see the reaction that Cameron has got, before saying pretty much exactly the same thing.

But here's the thing: Hilary Mantel's speech was actually pretty nasty about Catherine - rude and personal in a way that the point being made by the speech simply didn't require. It's a good speech. It's well argued, it's well written - I'm sure it was well spoken. But it's a bit silly to deny that it includes an attack on Catherine personally - not on the role she plays, but on her. Here's the bit:
Kate seems to have been selected for her role of princess because she was irreproachable: as painfully thin as anyone could wish, without quirks, without oddities, without the risk of the emergence of character. She appears precision-made, machine-made, so different from Diana whose human awkwardness and emotional incontinence showed in her every gesture.

That's not a dissection of media attitudes towards her (as an earlier paragraph definitely was); and it's not a dissection of her role as a princess. It's a description that's rude about her appearance, and her character. It's also, for what it's worth, a dismissal of the possibility that William might have chosen Catherine because he was in love with her. They met at university and were together on and off for eight years before getting married. In a piece that describes (and argues against) the reduction of royalty to their form and function, this paragraph quickly and brutally dismisses Catherine as a person in her own right.

In what looks like a supreme irony, the critics who dismiss the Mail as not having read the speech, turn out themselves either not to have read it - or not to have understood it. Lawks eh?

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