Sue Townsend was writer with a light touch, loved by our children (and us) because her books were funny, real, slyly political, enlivening and truthful. I can’t outdo all those beautiful tributes that have been paid to this author who suffered from so many illnesses and still kept writing and laughing.
How fickle is public opinion - how disquieting the present aura of disbelief and fury against those who allege abuse by men in high places. Do we really think it was all much better when Jimmy Savile, Stuart Hall and other famous villains expected to get away with sexual crimes and did? Or when predatory politicians believed they had free licence to paw, molest, make lewd remarks and sometimes assault women and men at will? I fear we may indeed be pushed back to that future – and that real victims of well-known men will retreat back into their dark misery.
On the day before the twin towers fell in 2001, I wrote in this newspaper that Afghans needed the West to save them from the vicious, reactionary, anti-female Taliban. Last week, as British troops finally withdrew, two women, both journalists, well-known and well-liked in Afghanistan, were shot. Anja Niedringhaus, an extraordinary photographer, was killed and Kathy Gannon badly injured by a local police officer. Election fever is high and people will not let the Taliban keep them from polling booths, but the hardline Islamists, too, seem unstoppable, determined to wreck the process and assert their dominance. How long now before they return and make this Western venture futile, and utterly hopeless? We know that around 3,400 coalition personnel have died and that many other foreigners have perished. And then as ever there are the uncounted (because they don’t count) lives of the Afghan people, some guerrillas and terrorists, most innocents. They have been slaughtered by the Taliban and its associates, and massacred by our sophisticated weaponry, including drones. 2013 was the most violent year in that country since 2001.
Have you heard of Ahmed Kathrada? Too few have. And he, being modest, has not lobbied or clamoured for his place in history. Last Friday, this very special man was acclaimed at the fourth Asian Awards ceremony in a grand room sparkling with chandeliers and couture dresses in a Mayfair hotel. And many of us wept silently. At last, we thought.
Confession: since last Mother’s Day I’ve been on the 5:2 diet. I’d never dieted before but now am hooked and so, properly British, am anxious, obsessed about what to eat, what not to eat, what’s in, what’s out – perpetually discombobulated. For two days a week, I eat only 500 calories, which is very hard and makes me more belligerent than David Starkey; for the other five, I eat normally and become as sweet as honey. And the weight drops off. I am full of fear that I will swell up if I eat reasonably seven days a week, so stay on course. I’m not sure this is a healthy way to be. (Eric Pickles, I salute your guts and free spirit.)
I last saw Tony Benn at the Friends Meeting House in Euston. We were both invited to speak about the austerity measures and their impact on the voiceless. Before the event started, I asked him what had made him give up his inherited privileges and become a ferocious warrior for fairness and justice. His reply: “Nothing special. A conscience and simple, common humanity. We all have that.”
A story appeared this weekend which has really shaken me up. It was about four Arab princesses – Sahar, 42, Jawaher, 38, Maha, 41, and Hala, 39 – daughters of the ailing King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, who have, allegedly, been held under palace arrest, for 13 years. He has given his sons control over the captives. They are allowed no visitors or staff. Two are held in one gilded, echoing cage, the other two in another. Their mother Alanoud Alfayez, 57, lives in London and has been trying all these years to free her daughters who are unmarried, childless and fading away. Hala has serious mental problems. Two of the sisters contacted the British-Lebanese Sunday Times writer, Hala Jaber, via email and she wrote about their cruel incarceration. Jaber is an inspiring award-winning investigative journalist. I am in awe of her, more so now than ever before.
The unholy links between the National Council for Civil Liberties (NCCL) and the Paedophile Information Exchange (PIE) have made us all think more honestly about the free-for-all 1970s when vital, decisive liberties were won but there was also societal chaos, dissolution of moral judgements and smashed boundaries.
Sol Campbell, one of England’s best footballers of recent times, seems to be intensely private, thoughtful and complex. He retired in 2012. Now the tall, black man with intense eyes has spoken up, opened up.
Oxford University, that so, so old bastion of upper-class English traditions, of port and fine wines, of the moneyed establishment, has long been a fertile habitat for public-schoolboy clubs and drinking fraternities, insouciance, high jinx and bad-lad behaviour. And everyday sexism which often turns vile and nasty. Cheerful chappies in the city of dreaming spires, some of whom will go on to be world leaders, still think it’s OK to shout obscenities when females are in the vicinity or to act up like apes on heat, to spike the drinks of young women, or to touch them up and worse.
On Iain Dale’s LBC programme last Friday evening, I was on with the urbane Nadhim Zahawi, Tory MP for Stratford-on-Avon, who claimed nearly £6,000 for heating his stables and £170,000 in expenses in 2012-13. We argued about benefits cuts and rising poverty. Regurgitating Tory propaganda, he stated forcefully that “reforms” enable claimants to move on and up. When Zahawi was nine, his Kurdish family fled Saddam Hussein’s repressive Iraq and settled here. It must have been hard. So the boy done good and done the party good, too. See? They love striving migrants.
Watch this interview on YouTube. It made me laugh, cheer and want to throw a stiletto-heeled shoe at the screen. This chap Sam Rubin – boring side-parting, suit, a bit full of himself – is an entertainment reporter on the American TV channel KTLA.
At the Conservative party conference in 2012, I was having breakfast alone, when a Tory backer from Oxfordshire joined me. He reads this column though it often makes him spitting mad. Even so, I found him genial and open-minded for a landed gent from the shires. He asked: “Yasmin, do you reject this party because you’re a woman, ethnic minority, or a Muslim?” My vote, for him, was inextricably bonded to identity not to political belief. So 20th century. But at least he was genuinely interested. Most of his other tribe members still behave as if the world belongs, by divine right, to pompous, backward, white men.
After due process, actor Bill Roache has been found not guilty of sex abuse. His accusers had their say and were disbelieved by the jury. Since then his defenders have been full of righteous froth, calling noisily for an end to celebrity “witch-hunts”. What an oddly inappropriate term to use. Women, often those who were defiant and feisty, were accused of witchcraft by men in pre-modern times. The named females were put through harsh, terrifying hearings, tortured and killed. This still happens today in many parts of the world. How can such terrible injustice be compared to Roache’s trial before a proper court, where he was represented by excellent lawyers?
My dad Kassam, who looked like Jeremy Thorpe, didn’t eat much, but greedily consumed books on British politics and British wars. He bought them on credit knowing he couldn’t pay the bills. In the end, the owner of the only bookshop in town, banned him from his store. This was in Kampala, capital of Uganda. Exiled ignobly from his daytime hangout, Papa turned into Coleridge’s mad Ancient Mariner, pulling people into his obsessions. One story he told over and over again was of an Indian relative called Jaffer, who had volunteered to fight with the Allies in the Great War – as did thousands of other Indians and Africans.
Our literati and glitterati are back from the literary festival in Jaipur – the famously beautiful, pink city of India – that is the Davos of the book world. It was just wonderful, they say; the talent, sessions, people, gorgeousness, the jamboree not to miss. The festival is, for them, an annual pilgrimage, a visit or revisit to a country that is economically and culturally vibrant, creative, brainy, cricket-mad and glam, too, what with Bollywood, billionaires and a thriving fashion sector.
At the Golden Globes, the actress Emma Thompson walked on to the stage carrying her Christian Louboutin shoes and said it was her feminist rebellion against high heels. Louboutin shoes have blood-red soles, a trademark and perhaps “ironic” recognition that stilettos hurt, hurt a lot, sometimes make feet bleed and have ladies crying in the loo.
I laughed over the François Hollande “affair”, even when Valérie Trierweiler’s “deep blues” resulted her being hospitalised. Seemed like the vapours that conveniently overcame Victorian ladies. Ha ha.
I’m not at all surprised that this newspaper has found credible evidence of gender-selective abortions among British Asian communities. But I am distressed and ashamed that people I identify with still allow this nefarious practice to go on and will not confront brutally misogynist family values.