Book review: Diane Abbott – The Authorised Biography

Probably no one in British public life has been as unfairly reviled as Diane Abbott MP.

In the six weeks leading up to the 2017 General Election, for example, 45% of all abusive tweets directed at female MPs were aimed at her. Much of this occurred as a direct response to an LBC interview with Nick Ferrari in which she was unable to provide figures on how much 10,000 police officers would cost. As Shadow Home Secretary, this was undoubtedly an error, but the ferocity of the media response was disproportionately fierce. Abbott conducted seven interviews that morning: only the LBC one went awry.

As it happens, Prime Minister Theresa May also did a bad interview on that day. Criticism of May’s performance on the comments section of YouTube suggested that “she is not strong and stable, she is uncaring and arrogant” or that “she obviously doesn’t care about poor people.” The criticism of Abbott was notably different in tone. She was described as a “racist bint,” “a communist anti-white bitch” a “stupid racist dumb bitch” and “a retarded liberal woman.”

Twitter hostility to Abbott almost invariably has a strong racist and sexist undercurrent, often also focusing on her weight and the Cambridge graduate’s supposed lack of intelligence. Much of it spells her name wrong (for example, ‘Dianne Abbot’). Much of it threatens her with sexual violence. The print media is similarly vitriolic often obsessing about her past relationship with Jeremy Corbyn. The so-called ‘quality press’ is often no better. “It’s not racist to point out that Diane Abbott is a bungling disappointment,” Zoe Strimpel wrote in a notable personal attack in the Telegraph. “Without descending into nasty comments about her voice, her expression, or her odd mixture of seeming cluelessness and arrogance, it’s worth simply reviewing a few of the mistakes that have made her campaign such a disaster.”

We should remember: Diane Abbott has put up with this sort of thing for her entire life. Born to Jamaican parents in London in 1953, at grammar school, one English teacher refused to believe she wasn’t copying her essays from somewhere else. Although consistently bright and hardworking, she was told “she wasn’t up to it” when she enquired about applying for the Oxford and Cambridge entry exam. She was one of the few black students to attend and graduate from Cambridge in the 1970s. There are not many black students at Cambridge University even today. On arriving at the May Ball shortly before graduating, she was greeted straight away by a man who said, “oh great, you must be here to wash up.”

In 1987, she became the first ever black woman to be elected to parliament. She has been an MP for longer than any other black person and for longer than any serving woman Labour MP except for Harriet Harman and Margaret Beckett. On first arriving in the Commons, she repeatedly had to prove she was an MP to officials sceptical that a black woman could actually be a serving member of parliament.

She has been re-elected by her Hackney constituents seven times. She has spoken on and taken action frequently against poverty, austerity and racism amongst many other issues. An outsider during the Kinnock, Blair and Brown years, she stood in the 2010 leadership contest. She has served on the front bench and in 2019 became the first black person to speak at the Despatch Box in Prime Minister’s Question Time.

This thoroughly researched book by Robin Bunce and Samara Linton which completely ignores Abbott’s personal life should go some way to restoring the reputation of someone whose life should ultimately serve as a rich source of inspiration to many people.

Diane Abbott – The Authorised Biography. By Robin Bunce and Samara Linton. Published by: Biteback.

Book review: The Problem With Men, by Richard Herring

Some years ago, the comedian Richard Herring noticed something funny happening on Twitter.

Many unusual things happen on Twitter, of course, but Herring noticed this particular trend always occurred on March 8th, the date officially designated as International Women’s Day.

“When is international men’s day?” one tweet would typically begin. “Or am I once again being positively discriminated against?”

Other such tweets would be more argumentative in tone. “Imagine the uproar if there was an international man’s day…” Or “Is there an international man’s day? #askingforafriemd” or even “When’s international men’s day then? Of course there isn’t one. So much for equality!!”

Lots of these tweets appear every year. The vast majority are posted by men. All have been prompted by news of International Woman’s Day. Perhaps they make a reasonable point?

Well, in fact, no. In fact, they do not.

Because firstly, as Richard Herring points out, all of them have been tweeted simply in an attempt to spoil International Women’s Day. This is a silly and childish response, the equivalent of a child having a tantrum at another child’s birthday party, which they have been invited to, simply because it is not their own.

Second, almost everyone tweeting may be safely presumed to have some sexist intent (e.g. to rile women or feminists).

And thirdly…there is an International Men’s Day already! There has been for years, a fact any one of the multitude of idiots sending out the army of tweets on the matter, could have found out simply by Googling it within seconds. It is on November 19th.

Richard Herring is one of Britain’s most likeable and intelligent comedians and often likes to set himself these little challenges. Years ago, he set himself the task of replying to every single tweet asking the inane question always with a witty response informing them that the big day is on November 19th.

Two years ago, he started doing this for charity. If I may quote Wikipedia:

“On 8 March 2018, in aid of International Women’s Day, Herring raised over £150,000 for domestic abuse charity Refuge by responding to anyone on Twitter who asked when International Men’s Day was (it is 19 November).He did the same on 8 March 2019, raising almost £130,000. He repeated the exercise for the final time on 8 March 2020 and streamed himself responding to tweets live on Twitch. He raised a further £70,000.”

Three cheers for him!

In fact, four cheers as this short book detailing his experiences is a treat. Extending into such topics as why many men confidently believe they could score a point against Serena Williams on a tennis court (they couldn’t), why female leaders have a better record on dealing with COVID-19 than male ones do and whether a man can ever be considered a feminist, this is thought-provoking, intelligent and lots of fun.

The Problem with Men: When is it International Men’s Day? (and why it matters), by Richard Herring. Published by Sphere, November 5th 2020.

Richard Herring is politely trolling people on Twitter on International Women's Day.

Book review: Notes on a Nervous Planet by Matt Haig

 

Notes

“I sometimes feel like my head is a computer with too many windows open,” writes Matt Haig. “Too much clutter on the desktop.”

He is not the only one.

In recent years, the world has become an increasingly anxious and stressful place. And Haig should know: he has suffered from debilitating attacks of depression in the past himself. This book is essentially a follow-up to his bestselling 2015 account of his own experiences, Reasons To Stay Alive. This book is less about Haig himself though. It is more of a self-help book, divided into short, concise chapters. And I’m well aware the phrase “self-help book” is not exactly inspiring. But this isn’t the usual Eat Drink Pray Shoots and Leaves dross. Haig (a talented novelist) can write and knows what he’s talking about.

So what is the problem? Part of it is down to the rapid rise of technology. At one point, Haig lists a selection of technological developments we have become accustomed to just since the start of the 21st century. It’s a surprisingly long list.

Supermarkets radiate harsh electric light. Twitter debates turn everyone into either a friend or foe in an instant. A simple viewing of a news broadcast can be a harrowing experience.

Haig is certainly not anti-technology per se: he is a prolific user of Twitter himself and recognises the importance of the resources of emotional support the internet can provide. But he cautions against overuse of these medium, such as the endless mindless trawling of the internet, so often carried out on our mobile phones. Perhaps you are even doing this now as you read this. If so, cut it out. Or at least, think about how much time you’re doing this.

At one point, Haig summarises a small part of his argument in a poem:

“When anger trawls the internet,

Looking for a hook;

It’s time to disconnect,

And go and read a book.”

Perhaps start with this one. You could do a lot worse.

Notes on a Nervous Planet: How To Survive the 21st Century

Author: Matt Haig

Out: now

Published by: Canongate

haig