The Baby Wars
Sunday 14th October 2007
If you don’t have a child under ten, you’re unlikely to appreciate the significance of Gina Ford’s attack on Claire Verity last week. Verity is the 41-year-old “supernanny” who is currently appearing on a Channel 4 series called Bringing Up Baby in which she advocates a return to the Spartan child-rearing philosophy of Truby King. King was a Victorian health reformer who believed it is in a baby’s best interest to be kept on a strict routine when it comes to feeding, sleeping and bowel movements — an attitude that was passionately argued against by Dr Spock, the American pediatrician who advocated a much more flexible approach, including feeding-on-demand.

Ford’s attack came in the form of a letter to the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children in which she accused Verity of “child abuse” and the reason it was such a surprise is that most people think of Ford as being in the anti-Spock camp. Ford’s main claim to fame is The Contended Little Baby Book, a child-rearing manual based on her own experiences as a maternity nurse in which she argues for a return to routine. The crucial distinction between her and Verity — the reason Ford has “gone nuclear” in the Baby Wars, so to speak — is that Verity believes parents should feed small babies every four hours, whereas Ford believes they should be fed every two or three hours, depending on their size and weight. In addition, while both are passionately opposed to feeding-on-demand, Verity recommends ignoring babies who cry in between feeds, whereas Ford believes in trying to “settle” them.

To those of us with small children, it is not surprising that such infinitesimally small differences should provoke such a ferocious dispute. Among my peers, no topic is more likely to polarize dinner-party conversation than child-rearing techniques. The War in Iraq pales into insignificance by comparison. I imagine that it is now one of those subjects that ambassadors are trained not to bring up at state dinners, alongside religion and politics.

Why should this be so? My theory is that childrearing has become the new battleground in which the ideological disputes that divide Generation X are being fought out. The main fault line is between those who were brought up in liberal households and have reacted by becoming more conservative and those who were brought up in more conventional circumstances and now embrace a hedonistic libertarianism. The former subscribe to the childrearing philosophy of Gina Ford, while the latter adopt a more laissez-faire attitude, often presented as a more “natural” approach. The irony, of course, is that the Fordists are the products of Dr Spock’s teachings — Spock was very popular with liberal parents — while the parents of the Back-to-Nature brigade are more likely to have been influenced by Truby King.

The conclusion would appear to be that no member of my generation wants their children to turn out like them. (For a different take, see this piece by Frank Furedi, the author of Paranoid Parenting.)


The Muhammad Ali of British Politics
Wednesday 10th October 2007

Has David Cameron rope-a-doped Gordon Brown? “Rope-a-dope” was the phrase coined by Muhammad Ali to describe the strategy he used to achieve his famous victory over George Foreman in the 1974 World Heavyweight Boxing Championship. In essence, it involved lying back against the ropes during the first six rounds of the fight and allowing Foreman to punch himself out before launching a ruthless counter-attack in the eighth round that culminated in a knock-out punch.

There’s certainly a striking similarity between the Rumble in the Jungle and the battle between Brown and Cameron. Foreman was an old-fashioned heavyweight, relying on his punching power and methodical cunning to win his fights, while Ali was much more agile and light on his feet. During the bout, Foreman looked much stronger than Ali in the first five rounds, just as Brown completely dominated Cameron during the first three months of his premiership. By the sixth round, however, Foreman was clearly exhausted and his punches became increasingly wild, just as Brown’s have done in the past 48 hours.

In this context, Cameron’s performance in the House of Commons today was the verbal equivalent of the devastating combination of punches that Ali used to finish off Foreman in the last 20 seconds of the eighth round. Ali preceded his onslaught by taunting Foreman — “Fight hard. I thought you had some punches?” — just as Cameron has urged Brown to call a General Election. Then, Ali unleashed his barrage. Here is Norman Mailer’s description of it in *The Fight*:

Now Ali struck him a combination of punches fast as the punches of the first round, but harder and more consecutive, three capital rights in a row struck Foreman, then a left, and for an instant on Foreman’s face appeared the knowledge that he was in danger and must start to look to his last protection. His opponent was attacking, and there were no ropes behind the opponent. What a dislocation: the axes of his existence were reversed! He was the man on the ropes! Then a big projectile exactly the size of a fist in a glove drove into the middle of Foreman’s mind, the best punch of the startled night, the blow Ali saved for a career. Foreman’s arms flew out to the side like a man with a parachute jumping out of a plane, and in his doubled-over position he tried to wander out to the center of the ring.

Of course, the analogy’s hardly perfect. There was no moment of fatal hesitation on Foreman’s part just before Ali turned the tables on him — on the contrary, he was going after him, hell for leather, from the very beginning — and Brown clearly isn’t about to fall to the canvas. Nevertheless, there are enough similarities for Cameron to have earned the right to be called the Muhammad Ali of British politics, particularly after today’s performance at the dispatch box.


Moonlight & Magnolias
Monday 8th October 2007
“The movies are one of the bad habits that corrupted our century,” wrote Ben Hecht, the veteran Hollywood screenwriter. He claimed that of the sixty movies he wrote, more than half were completed in two weeks or less — and he bragged about using the two Oscars he’d won as doorstops.

Fifty years ago, when Hecht wrote those words, such sentiments were fashionable among the literary intelligentsia — and even today most intellectuals still look down their noses at Hollywood. Small, independent films are one thing, but how can a movie created for the sole purpose of making money be considered art? By its very nature, a big-budget studio picture will have to appeal to a huge number of people if it’s going to recoup its costs — and the only way to do that is to pander to the lowest common denominator.

Against this can be arrayed the dozens of Hollywood films that were made for purely commercial reasons, but are now acclaimed as masterpieces — films like ‘Gone With the Wind’, generally considered the first ever blockbuster. Ironically, Ben Hecht was one of the many uncredited writers on ‘Gone With the Wind’, having been locked in a room by the film’s producer, David Selznick, and told to come up with a screenplay within seven days. Hecht didn’t have time to read Margaret Mitchell’s book, so Selznick and the film’s director, Victor Fleming, acted it out for him, scene by scene — an episode now regarded as a quintessential example of the seat-of-the-pants style in which films were made during Hollywood’s golden age.

The week that Hecht, Selznick and Fleming spent locked up together has been turned into a terrific new play at the Tricycle Theatre by Ron Hutchinson, himself a veteran screenwriter. Called ‘Moonlight & Magnolias’, it manages to combine a good deal of low comedy — Selznick insisted on restricting Hecht’s diet to peanuts and bananas, which he regarded as “brain food” — with a high-minded exploration of the art v commerce theme. What makes it particularly interesting is that Hutchinson is at least as sympathetic to the film’s producer as he is to the writer, portraying Selznick as a visionary prepared to risk everything in pursuit of a dream and Hecht as a talented, but self-loathing hack.

Of course, it is hardly news that great art is often created for low-minded reasons. Samuel Johnson famously said that anyone who doesn’t write for money is a fool and there are countless examples of classic novels being written by authors to pay off their debts, beginning with Walter Scott’s ‘Waverley’. Nevertheless, ‘Moonlight & Magnolia’ is a salutary reminder that the films regarded as great works of art in their day — such as Antonioni’s ‘L’avventura’ — are nearly always forgotten, while the studio pictures dismissed as schlock often go on to achieve immortality.

‘Moonlight & Magnolias’ is running at the Tricycle until November 3. For tickets call 020-7328-1000 or click here.


The New Sloane Ranger Handbook
Monday 1st October 2007
In 1956, Nancy Mitford wrote a famous article in ‘Encounter’ in which she outlined the various linguistic rules whereby the Upper Classes differentiate themselves from everybody else. Thus, “napkin” is U, while “serviette” is Non-U. It was the first example of what would become a journalistic staple: a posh writer unravels the mysteries of the Upper Classes for the benefit of the General Reader.

This tradition reached its zenith with the publication of ‘The Official Sloane Ranger Handbook’ in 1982. Co-authored by Ann Barr and Peter York, it did for the British aristocracy what John James Audubon did for the birds of America and was a massive bestseller — thanks, in part, to the recent emergence of Diana, Princess of Wales.

Now, 25 years later, the book has been updated, though with Olivia Stewart-Liberty standing in for Ann Barr. This time round, the authors distinguish between eight different types of Sloane and claim that, contrary to appearances, they are more plentiful than ever. The message of ‘Cooler, Faster, More Expensive: The Return of the Sloane Ranger’ couldn’t be clearer: the efforts of Margaret Thatcher, John Major and Tony Blair to usher in a more meritocratic society have failed. The British aristocracy is still going strong.

Less clear is whether the book’s authors approve or disapprove of this state of affairs. ‘The Official Sloane Ranger Handbook’ anatomized its subjects with a good deal of affection — partly because Barr herself is a Sloane. The attitude of York and his new collaborator is more ambiguous, something that’s reflected in the names they’ve come up with for their different sub-species: Chav Sloane, Thumping Sloane, Turbo Sloane, Euro Sloane, Sleek Sloane, Eco Sloane, Party Sloane and Bongo Sloane.

“These are not the decent Sloanes I wrote about,” says Barr. “They are basically selfish jet-setters.”

Could it be that the authors of this new work are closet socialists? Is this book a thinly-veiled attack on David Cameron? York himself is certainly no Tory. Educated at a progressive school in North London, he now runs a successful market research company called SRU — and his own fortunes have been closely intertwined with those of New Labour. Indeed, he once employed Peter Mandelson. It may be that ‘Cooler, Faster, More Expensive’ is a gift to the new Prime Minister, a silver bullet that Gordon Brown can use to assassinate his Eton-and-Oxford educated Conservative rival.

Interestingly, Evelyn Waugh came to a similar conclusion in his assessment of Nancy Mitford’s article. He summarized its message as follows: “Hear me, comrades. I come from the heart of the enemy’s camp. You think they have lost heart for the fight. I have sat with them round their camp fires and heard them laughing. They are laughing at you.They are not beaten yet, comrades. Up and at them again.”


Boris Johnson’s Mayoral Campaign: A Disgraceful Attack
Friday 28th September 2007

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