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Philip Hensher

Philip Hensher: Embrace your inner weirdo, Ed


Politicians often have to answer questions which the rest of us would think not very polite.

All the same, I don't know what the correct answer would have been when the Today programme asked Ed Miliband to respond to the claim that too many voters regarded him as "weird". Mr Miliband settled for saying, "I think I'm a pretty normal guy," which is, if you think about it, quite a weird thing to say. Or perhaps it's simply that the rest of us have never had any reason to declare whether we are weird or normal.

Blaming a politician for being weird seems much like suggesting to a go-go dancer that they shouldn't be so extrovert. By the normal standards of the human race, the lives, characters and behaviour of politicians can only be regarded as abnormal. The facade of cosy normality which politicians find it convenient to foster is only that, a facade – one thinks of Mrs Thatcher and James Callaghan in the 1970s, both of whom found it convenient to be photographed in pinnies doing the washing up.

Is that abnormality or, if you prefer, weirdness, a bad thing? On the contrary. Many of the most impressive politicians have a quality of uniqueness, of not being very much like anyone else. Who, really, was like Churchill, or Attlee, or Macmillan? If, sometimes, we elect people who appear to be a recognisable type, they have a definite tendency to disappoint us quite quickly. On the surface, John Major was a sort of person we thought we knew about. When he turned out to have a much more original and interesting mind than we thought, we were quickly disconcerted. Perhaps better to be conspicuously extraordinary from the start, like Mrs Thatcher.

As the week of the Conservative conference succeeds the week of the Labour conference, there is no reason to suppose that they resemble the great mass of the population any more. An ill-wisher could perfectly well find Tories to call "weird". If voters find Ed Miliband a strange and unfamiliar sort of human being, one wonders what they think of David Cameron. Now, whatever you think of the Prime Minister, it is perfectly pointless to pretend that most of the electorate have ever met anyone much like him. He represents a very small caste indeed, and some of his colleagues represent no one but themselves. It's an interesting question: why is Ed Miliband, in his uniqueness, easily labelled "weird", and Boris Johnson, much more nearly unique, anything but weird?

Probably the image consultants have learnt an important lesson with Gordon Brown. There is no point whatsoever in trying to make somebody pretend to be more average than they actually are. There is certainly no point in trying to make a natural non-smiler grin on command. Some politicians, like David Cameron, have a warm and convincing smile; others, like Ed Miliband, have an awkward and unpractised one. When Miliband smiles, he resembles Samuel Beckett's Watt, of whom it was said that "some little thing was lacking in Watt's smile, and people who saw it for the first time ... were sometimes in doubt as to what expression was intended. To many it seemed a simple sucking of the teeth."

And yet we expect our politicians to smile convincingly, as we expect them to be both normal and exceptional. Rather than demand that politicians stop being weird, let us realise that "weirdness" is simply a quality of the exceptional, regarded with hostility. We may or may not admire the politician; some are both exceptional and atrocious; and some, of course, are very much weirder human beings than others. But let's not pretend that any of them are remotely normal. The politician who leads us, in the end, out of the current mess will, as a human being, probably be as weird as we can conceive.

The curious pleasure of unbuilt buildings

Zaha Hadid, the architect, never had a building put up until 1994 when she added a fire station to the Vitra factory in Weil am Rhein. (They decided it would be better used as a showroom for designer chairs.) And her next completed building was in 2001.

These days, of course, Ms Hadid's buildings are shooting up all over the place, and she has just won the Stirling Prize for the second year running, this time for her Evelyn Grace Academy in Brixton.

I rather miss the days when Ms Hadid's projects were marvellous castles in the air, built only in miniature, in glass vitrines, and on drawing boards. The Evelyn Grace Academy is no doubt a very excellent building, but it seems a shame to have Ms Hadid's fantasy sullied with boring questions of health and safety, fire exits, and questions of square metres of air per pupil.

Plenty of architects have made their names with buildings that were never built, or perhaps never meant to be built. The French revolutionary architect Etienne-Louis Boullée's massive geometrical style, most famously in a colossal cenotaph to Isaac Newton, exerted great influence while only ever existing on paper.

One can enjoy Ms Hadid's dramatic buildings in the real world while hoping that, all the time, she is continuing to dream of the sort of impossible projects which made her name in the first place.

A literary device not worth thinking about

"Long-awaited" is a bookseller's cant term, hardly ever accurate, but it is literally true of Haruki Murakami's enormous new novel, 1Q84. I heard of its existence in 2009, when it sold a million copies in Japan within a month, and have been badgering Harvill Secker's publicists pretty well ever since. It arrived this week, and I started it immediately. A page or two in, and I found myself crying out with rage. Murakami, or his translator, Jay Rubin, or conceivably the publisher, has decided to put all the characters' thoughts in italics.

Am I the only person who detests this? It started, I believe, in American mass-market fiction, though careful exponents of the art still eschew it – the wretched Dan Brown does it, but Elmore Leonard doesn't. At first, it seemed a sign the author knew he wasn't writing for sophisticated readers, who couldn't distinguish style indirect libre from a narrative sentence. But then it spread. I was horrified to see David Mitchell's last novel was soiled by outbreaks of internal italics. And now Murakami, a wonderfully sophisticated novelist, has fallen for it. Only the quality of his previous work persuades me to continue; and from now on, any novelist who insultingly indicates a thought with italicisation goes straight in the bin.