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Philip Hensher: Miliband’s choice reads like a fairy-tale


Imagine the scene: a politicians’ dinner party in Primrose Hill. The hosts are David and Louise Miliband.

The Budget has been carved up and dispatched with the leg of lamb; the summer pudding arrives, and the conversation takes a lighter tone. “David,” somebody says. “I can’t think what book to take on holiday. Tell me – what should I read? You know – really, just for pleasure.” As it happens, the question has been put recently; the great man speaks. There is a silence. “Ah,” his questioner says, and in a moment the conversation returns, like a circling surveillance plane, to capital gains tax.

Yesterday, all five of the Labour candidates were asked, in a newspaper questionnaire, what book they would recommend to a friend “for pure pleasure”. Ed Balls, to his credit, said Middlemarch. Andy Burnham nominated Tony Harrison’s collected poems. Diane Abbott drew attention to Robert A Caro’s The Years of Lyndon Johnson. All solid, individual, believable choices.

On the other hand, Ed Miliband tied himself in knots trying not to sound superior. “Anything by Henning Mankell – and get it on DVD with Kenneth Branagh (but maybe not the one in Swedish, since this is about pleasure...)” You see, if books are too hard for you after 13 years of Labour-directed education, just get the DVD, it’s exactly the same – and don’t get one with subtitles, ’cos that’s too hard too. His brother David, however, managed the difficult feat of sounding even more patronising. He nominated The Gruffalo, a work of literature intended for readers between three and five-years-old. “All you need to know to get by in life,” Mr Miliband opined.

Has it really come to this? For some years now, adult readers have become less inhibited about including juvenile works in their reading matter. When adults first started to be seen on the Tube reading the Harry Potter novels, it seemed worthy of comment. Now, we are all used to it. All the same, there are limits. If you saw an adult reading The Gruffalo in a public place, the normal reaction would surely be to edge away nervously.

Not all politicians are as enthusiastic readers as Nick Clegg, with his admirably honest keenness for Beckett, or Macmillan with his passion for Jane Austen. Mrs Thatcher once let it be known that she would be “re-reading” Frederick Forsyth on holiday. But has anyone in David Miliband’s position ever been so terrified of intimidating the public that the first book they recommend as reading for pleasure is a book written for three to five-year-olds?

Of course, we don’t believe a word of it. Probably an honest answer to this question from David Miliband would refer to a novel by Ian McEwan, Vladimir Nabokov or EM Forster. But perhaps that would have seemed too risky a strategy. So someone as well-educated and intelligent a person as Miliband has to pretend to be keenest on The Gruffalo, because a proper answer might seem to someone, somewhere, to be a bit snooty. Vote for the Young Dad with a Sense of Fun, or if that’s too much to ask, just stay at home and watch a cartoon.

‘Guerrillas’ will not be the ones to lose out

BP is in enough trouble already, you would have thought, but attacks from an unexpected direction seem likely to place an important part of its public relations in jeopardy. For decades now, it has been a very important sponsor of major arts institutions, including Tate, the National Portrait Gallery’s annual portrait prize, the Royal Opera House and the British Museum. In the wake of the catastrophic oil spill, artists and activists are placing pressure on these institutions to sever their links with the company.

No big name has so far attached itself to these protests, and I suspect, in this excruciatingly difficult situation, there may be too much at stake. Sponsorship on this scale is not at all easy to come by – in the present circumstances, it doesn’t seem at all likely that a windfarm operator, say, would step in to fill a BP-sized gap.

Tate, for one, has an ethics committee which considers its sponsorship affiliations, and its options must be limited. It is not very likely that BP will want its working practices dictated by an array of aesthetes. No, the only choices are to bite the bullet and take the money, or to sever links. It might mean the end of the excellent portrait prize, for instance, and a long-term blow to Tate’s development plans. No-one will envy the choice that has to be made. Everyone wants to do the right thing, but the end result may mean an end to one of the very good things that BP does without effectively addressing its wrongs in any way.

At present, do the voices complaining have anything themselves to lose from the withdrawal of sponsorship? They are people called the Greenwash Guerrillas, the Don’t Panic Collective, and “Matthew Herbert, an electronic artist and composer”. Trouble will come when respected names start to withdraw their works from sponsored institutions, at whatever cost to themselves. There is no answer to this question, and, in the end, there will be no winners at all in this race towards the upholding of principles – institutions, artists, sponsor, oil-soaked cormorants, you or me.

Flattering fashion

It’s well known that large parts of the fashion industry detests women and spends large amounts of time trying to make them look as ridiculous and feel as uncomfortable as it possibly can. But every so often, by mistake, something slips through the net which makes a wide range of women look elegant, and, obviously, feel wonderful.

Walking down the King’s Road in London on Saturday, I was struck by the number of women who had opted for a maxi-length sundress. They’ve been knocking around for a few seasons now, and for all I know are now considered infra-dig by the arbiters of taste. But how wonderful they all looked, swanning around coolly in their floor-length gowns, like early-70s illustrations to the fashion pages in Jackie magazine. Enjoy it while it lasts: this time next year, something uncomfortable, ugly and absurd will have taken the place of this lovely fashion.