Let's blame the silly season for bringing out the malice in us all

In all fairness, Mark Thatcher might be innocent of anything except offences against loveliness

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Can't decide who to blame (or do I mean thank?) for the amount of
schadenfreude I've been experiencing this last week - Mark Thatcher or Paula Radcliffe. Though no sooner do I write the sentence than the decision makes itself. Even the arrangement of letters which comprise Mark Thatcher's name is unsympathetic.

Can't decide who to blame (or do I mean thank?) for the amount of schadenfreude I've been experiencing this last week - Mark Thatcher or Paula Radcliffe. Though no sooner do I write the sentence than the decision makes itself. Even the arrangement of letters which comprise Mark Thatcher's name is unsympathetic.

Not nice to take malicious pleasure in the discomfiture of others, but it's the silly season, there's nothing on television, all my friends are away on holiday, and I can't find anything else to do. What makes it worse is that I know neither of them personally, have taken no interest in either of their careers, and would no more recognise the one than the other were I to find myself squeezed between them - God help me - on an aeroplane. That's not entirely true in the case of Paula Radcliffe whom I did once find myself sitting next to, but I'll come to that occasion and the bruised feelings I still nurse from it, in due course.

A profile of "the charmless Mark" in Thursday's Independent helped me to understand what I have against him. Not his politics - I never hold a man's politics against him provided he doesn't wear badges announcing them - and not his money either - with the same proviso - but what one might call the aesthetics of both. Taking beauty as the measure, is there a single venture Thatcher has had his finger in, a single place he has associated himself with, that hasn't been indecorous and inapt? Of propriety I cannot speak, least of all when it comes to the impropriety of which he currently stands accused; but there is loveliness in the world and there is unloveliness in the world, and Mark Thatcher, going only on what I read in the newspapers, appears to have been unfailingly drawn to the latter.

Arms. Oil. Rallying. Stockbroking. Accountancy. Consulting. Takeovers. Loans. Aviation fuels. Oman. Texas. South Africa.

Don't get me wrong - taken on their own, none of these activities or locations constitutes an offence. Some of the nicest people I know live in Oman, or in Texas, or in the wealthy enclave of Cape Town they call Constantia, that "mink and manure" valley of dreaming wineries, trotting horses, mansions and marriages of monetary convenience. Ditto rallying and accountancy. Ditto stockbroking and consultancy. One at a time you can't fault them. It's when your career path takes you through all of them, sometimes simultaneously, that you risk obloquy from aesthetes like myself.

Oil, you would have to say, he couldn't help. Oil was his father's business. Oil oiled not just his fortunes but his mother's, and in that sense, back there in those heady Thatcherite days when we beat up moralists and aesthetes in the street, oil oiled us all. But there is a contamination in oil. Say oil and you can taste the wrongness. Say oil and you have the tang of injustice and prevarication in your teeth, a mouth full of everything that's cruel and greedy and dishonest in our times. We cannot forgive Bush for oil. We cannot forgive the Saudis for oil. And at the last we cannot forgive oil for oil. Show me a barrel of oil and I will show you pure evil.

A touch extreme, maybe. I know some lovely people in oil, as I know some lovely people in Texas and Oman. But they are only accidentally oil people, oil people by mischance, and are not be confused with oil people to the bone. It's for the latter, men reared in oil, men whose eyes are pools of oil, that one reserves one's malicious joy when they're bundled into police cars, with luck never to be seen again. In all fairness, though, Mark Thatcher might be innocent of anything except offences against loveliness, free by the time you read this column, just as Paula Radcliffe might have recovered her self-esteem and won the 10,000m.

So what is my argument with Paula Radcliffe? Only this: that we sat together waiting to be interviewed by a London radio jock a year or so ago, she to talk about some piddling marathon she'd just won, I to discuss a major novel I'd just published, and while I said well done to her, she didn't say well done to me. Not, "I've always admired your prose style", not "For me you are the Chekhov of the English novel", not even "How's it selling?".

Between the self-absorption of the athlete and the egocentricity of the novelist there is not space enough to slide an after-dinner mint. The rest of the world might as well not exist for either of us. But there is one difference: novelists have manners. We remember to pretend. Though there are few questions more dangerous to ask an athlete than how are you feeling, we ask it. Three hours later she has moved up the foot from the twinge in the metatarsal to the slight swelling around the lateral malleolus. Because we have manners, we go on nodding with feigned concern, even though we know it will be tomorrow before she gets to the soreness in the 12th thoracic vertebra where the problem actually is. The novelist's equivalent of this - but there is no novelist's equivalent of this because no one is polite enough to ask. Least of all an athlete.

So while I didn't wish her not win, or to leave Marathon betimes and in tears, I felt that I was watching not so much the disappointment of an ambition as a disintegration consequent upon a pathology. Paula Radcliffe was not the only runner running. Others, too, had their ambitions. Others, too, had trained for this very moment for years. Yes, she bore a burden of expectancy, but it was an expectancy she had created in us by virtue of her finding herself so interesting that for a brief minute - the deadly compact of celebrity - we agreed to find her interesting as well. Mistake. No one is that interesting. And maybe no one is as unlovely as we think Mark Thatcher is, either.

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