On Saturday morning I was on Dateline London, the BBC current affairs debate programme. We were about to go on air to talk about energy companies and Syria, but in the green room all talk was about Nigella Lawson and Charles Saatchi. One observation struck me: this was a story of carefully fashioned images and fantasies about perfection. Charles Saatchi got rich creating adverts, the religious icons of contemporary society; Nigella marketed herself as a goddess of luminous beauty, hearth and home, artfully mixing sensuality with joyful domesticity. She had suffered multiple tragedies and losses, seemed to crave affection, battled against the shape of her body and at times seemed to inhabit pleasure and pain in the same moment – think of her filming while her beloved first husband, John Diamond, who had terminal cancer, floated in the background.
We, who adored her, knew all that and still succumbed to the myth. Most Britons don’t believe in God but worship perfection. It is salvation, redemption, the most fervent prayer from the heart, the way to glory.
Lawson and Saatchi shattered this faith, their own statues and the temple wherein they dwelt. First came those terrible photographs of him with his hand around her throat while they sat outside at a restaurant table. Then the divorce, sharp and fast. She, our Isis, said nothing in public. He said too much.
Last week in court one of his emails to her was read out: “I’m sure it was all great fun and now everything is perfect – bravo, you have become a celebrity hostess on a global TV game show. And you got the pass you desired, free to heartily enjoy all the drugs you want, forever. Classy!” It’s not our business to intrude into their post-divorce grief and rage. But this bit illustrates superbly how perfection is but a dangerous illusion and one that is making us all paranoid, crazed, and some, especially young people, self-destructive...
Here comes the season of hedonism, false promises and hopeless pursuits. Sunday papers offered the “ultimate cookbooks”. My ascetically inclined husband (also a stickler when it comes to words and grammar) asked if that meant there would be no more cookbooks ever again? Of course not, dear, don’t be so out of touch. “Ultimate” now means the top, never bettered – until tomorrow when another TV chef will bring out a tome to help us cook the perfect Christmas dinner, the ultimate pudding and on and on, groan.
OK, so there’s nothing at all wrong with pictures and scenes showing wonderful food churned out by these kitchen wizards. It’s magic; we all love magic. But the surfeit of chefs selling superlative culinary skills and delights may be scaring and undermining people. How can we ever reach those heights? Bake a cake that looks as if fairies have spent all night on it, like those made by the finalists in The Great British Bake Off? There must be a connection between the consumption of frozen ready meals and fast grub and the explosion of ultimate, impossible cookery. One reason for that could be the despair of never being able to achieve the impossible.
Sex, like food, is an essential of animal life. In today’s Britain, this simple, natural activity has been turned into an Olympic game, and is so ubiquitously used for marketing, it seems to be losing vim and vigour. The substantive 10-year National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles, whose findings were announced last week, was revealing and disconcerting. We have the toys, the porn, Fifty Shades of Grey, come-hither clothes to make a whore blush, unprecedented sexual freedoms. But yet, one in 10 women says she has been forced into sex and 16- to 44-year-olds are having less sex than a decade ago. People have gone off sex, possibly because they cannot come near the super techniques, tireless couplings, fantastic orgasms – consummate consummation – they think they must achieve to be real men or women. Perfection has wrecked their sex lives.
Worse than all of the above is the impact of these stupidly unreachable standards on the young. British, European and American researchers into the impact of the web have found that social media can cause children, teenagers and young adults to become inconsolably dissatisfied with life, jealous, self-loathing and depressed, sometimes suicidal. Facebook connects up people brilliantly but those connections can undermine users and turn toxic. Too many users think others have idyllic lifestyles, bodies, relationships, out-of-this-world sex, the best of everything – that they are the losers.
The Lawson/Saatchi drama shows the futility and dangers of following the mirage of perfection. He sold it, she embodied it. Now they have had to wake up. Now they become true role models, exemplars of how not to live a sham, invented life. But how to get real.
The hidden history of Asian Britain laid bare
I am unabashedly plugging Asian Britain, by Susheila Nasta, a photographic history from the 19th century to the present day. Asians were here in earlier centuries, too, some of them painted by artists.
The title is strong and assertive. Not Asians in Britain, as we are usually described, but now embedded.
It contains dozens of previously unseen images: a photo taken in 1916, in a nursery of Japanese, Scottish, English and Indian babies; Indian soldiers in Blitz-smashed London; three turbaned, oriental “soothsayers” in Blackpool, holding prayer beads and waiting for customers; Asian suffragettes; famous Indian cricketers, who have played for England since the 1890s; half-Muslim Noor Inayat Khan, who spied for Britain and was tortured and killed by Nazis; doctors, politicians and artists, writers and actors. Oh, and, of course, millionaires, the one lot we boringly hear too much about.
The broadcaster Razia Iqbal writes in the preface: “[The book] can only touch the edges of a much bigger story ... it offers a partial window on a history that still remains incomplete.” That story needs to be completed, told over and over again.
Rupert Brooke wrote the beautiful lines: “... there’s some corner of a foreign field that is for ever England”. There are also some corners in England that are for ever Asian.
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