Jenny Diski

Jenny Diski’s In Gratitude, based on her LRB diaries, is out now. 

Mother’s Prettiest Thing

Jenny Diski, 4 February 2016

Im not​ as fond of David Bowie as most people seem to be. I’m certainly not dancing a reel in the streets. Some good songs, an enviable capacity to shapeshift, but not so much charm, or humility, as some who nevertheless die young, younger, with children and grandchildren to leave. But that more than anything made me tear up during the tribute programmes. What distressed him most...

Doris was​ in her early forties when I arrived in my vile mustard-coloured coat with a brown velvet collar, my first ‘grown-up’ item of clothing. It was hung in the airing cupboard alongside some marijuana that Doris had grown in the garden her first summer in the house and was now drying out. I never wore the coat again, though we did smoke the dope. Being grown up and behaving...

Who’ll be last?

Jenny Diski, 19 November 2015

If it were​ a race, the first man home – except for Iain Banks who won the trophy by a mile – would be Oliver Sacks (announced 19 February – died 30 August), with Henning Mankell (announced 17 January – died 5 October) a close second. Lisa Jardine won a race of her own, staying shtum publicly, her death a surprise except to the few who knew. So Clive James (announced...

Almost every day since I began writing these pieces I get a letter or an email from someone who has read or remembered and liked my work; they talk about the recent pieces about my cancer or my memories of my teenage years and my relationship with Doris Lessing, my older books, fiction and non-fiction, something they’ve read or remembered. They’re remarkably kind (my paranoia wonders, but I fight back the idea that the LRB’s editors hold on to the ones that are not so positive). They are well meant, offering as solace the people ‘out there’ in the real world who have enjoyed my work.

My Word-Untangling Machine

Jenny Diski, 10 September 2015

I am not writing volume three of my autobiography because of possible hurt to vulnerable people. Which does not mean I have novelised autobiography. There are no parallels here to actual people, except for one, a very minor character.

Doris Lessing, The Sweetest Dream

I can’t​ get away from that paragraph. It feels like a well, bottomless; time to hold your breath before you...

Peter Lessing​ died in his flat, of a heart attack, in the early hours of 13 October 2013, aged 66. His mother, Doris Lessing, died four weeks later, on 17 November 2013, aged 94, in the adjoining house. An interconnecting door had been cut into the shared wall and was always left open. This very nearly tells the story of their lives as mother and son, in the sense that we know our planet...

Spray it silver

Jenny Diski, 2 July 2015

In between​ the metaphysics, the memoiring and a previously unknown addiction to vanilla ice cream, there’s been some doctoring, testing, diagnosing and everyday hovering and waiting. Plus standing by for the new grandchild, whom I don’t suppose I’ll know for very long, scoops of the vanilla ice cream, and statistics that will no more keep me alive than the eggs, cream and...

I jumped out of my bedroom window so I wouldn’t have to speak to anyone downstairs having breakfast. That’s what happened around the Easter weekend of 1966. It was the last straw. For Doris, for me, for Doris’s friends. A point of departure. My friend X from St Christopher’s and I were still angry – three years after the event – that St Chris had chucked me out without concerning itself about what happened to me. ‘Well, you certainly fell on your feet,’ the headmaster had said in a voice that told the whole world that it showed life was unfair but that Quakers would at least have the moral upper hand, and porridge.

In Gratitude

Jenny Diski, 7 May 2015

After​ a few months, my father finally agreed with Doris that I could go back to school. I apologised to her for my grasping, embarrassing father. Doris laughed and said he was easy to handle. I had my doubts about settling back into the life of a schoolgirl but I was ready to go to the local comprehensive after a full year of being out, since it seemed important to Doris. Also, I had to...

I can’t​ remember a time when I didn’t provoke myself with impossible thoughts. To begin with I wouldn’t have known which were impossible and which not. But, curled up in a favourite dark place (I’ve always longed to be behind those deep red velvet curtains where Jane Eyre sits on the window seat, leafing through Bewick’s History of British Birds), or...

A few years ago, someone asked how it came about that I ended up living with Doris Lessing in my teens. I was in the middle of the story of the to-ing and fro-ing between my parents and was finally reaching the psychiatric hospital bit when the man said something extraordinary, something that had never occurred to me or to anyone else to whom I’d told the story. ‘Why didn’t you just do what you were told?’ he asked. I was lost for words.

The treatment​’s over and done with. First from August to October, the three cycles of chemotherapy, then I graduated from the poison infusions to the death rays, with daily radiotherapy throughout November (weekends off). All done: the killing of cells in my body, the ‘good’ along with the ‘bad’, all of them just being, reproducing and doing whatever else...

Doris and Me

Jenny Diski, 8 January 2015

I don’t remember the exact date when I went to live in Doris Lessing’s house in Charrington Street, north of King’s Cross. I think of it as being just a few weeks after Sylvia Plath killed herself in early February 1963. The suicide was still very raw and much discussed by Doris’s friends. So at the earliest towards the end of February. In any case it was before Easter, which fell in April that year, because at long last, released from my father’s prohibitions, I went on the Aldermaston March. (‘Ignorant, unwashed mob. You can’t go, you’ll be raped, and that’s that.’)

The Screaming Gynaecologist

Jenny Diski, 4 December 2014

After​ waiting that long week for the results of my post-chemo scan, the answer to the hovering question about the effect it had on the tumour in my lung and the affected lymph nodes was much the same as most eagerly awaited answers to important questions. Inconclusive. As I’m learning to expect, nothing very decisive has resulted from the treatment. After three cycles of...

Tick.​ The final infusion of the three 21-day cycles of chemo is done. I’ve been of a mind to follow Alan Bennett’s excellent observation that he doesn’t wish to be so familiar with the treatment as to call it by its nickname. But adding the ‘therapy’ each time has become peculiarly tedious and needlessly pointed. Back when, I used to pronounce R.D....

What to call her?

Jenny Diski, 9 October 2014

When she died last November at the age of 94, I’d known Doris Lessing for fifty years. In all that time, I’ve never managed to figure out a designation for her that properly and succinctly describes her role in my life, let alone my role in hers. We have the handy set of words to describe our nearest relations: mother, father, daughter, son, uncle, aunt, cousin, although that’s as far as it goes usually in contemporary Western society. Doris wasn’t my mother. I didn’t meet her until she opened the door of her house after I had knocked on it to be allowed in to live with her. What should I call her to others?

A Diagnosis

Jenny Diski, 11 September 2014

The future flashed before my eyes in all its pre-ordained banality. Embarrassment, at first, to the exclusion of all other feelings. But embarrassment curled at the edges with a weariness, the sort that comes over you when you are set on a track by something outside your control, and which, although it is not your experience, is so known in all its cultural forms that you could unscrew the cap of the pen in your hand and jot down in the notebook on your lap every single thing that will happen and everything that will be felt for the foreseeable future. Including the surprises.


Jenny Diski, 21 August 2014

I finished OITNB because I’d started, but I’ve ended up baffled by the lack of criticism. It’s easy enough to get carried along from episode to episode. The show is a repertory piece, and a masterclass on how to manipulate the viewer with capsule narratives that lead to regular delicious paroxysms of love and hate.

The subtitle of Nikil Saval’s book is curiously inapt. Cubed is not a ‘secret history of the workplace’, but the not (entirely) secret history of a very particular kind of workplace. The main title is intended to pull that particular workplace into focus, I suppose, to narrow the vast number of possible workplaces down to a single square box (or latterly a three-walled lidless box) that will inevitably bring to mind the environment of the white-collar pen-pusher, although it has been a very long time since office workers reliably wore white collars or pushed pens to fulfil their duties.

On the Sofa: ‘Happy Valley’

Jenny Diski, 3 July 2014

I can​ take more than my fair share of crap TV cop drama. Formulaic is good: I haven’t seen True Detective yet, but I fear from what I’ve read that it might be less rigidly structured than I’d like. Two of the Law and Order police procedurals, plain old Law and Order and Law and Order: Criminal Intent, provide the perfect sort of thing. Intro: a kid’s dog comes...

One of the problems of ageing is knowing when to start complaining about being old. I received an email not long ago from a woman who had read something of mine in which I described myself, at 66, as old. She said she worked with elderly people and her 85-year-olds call people my age young. What’s more, they never refer to themselves as old. The point of my piece was to report that I supposed I must accept that I was old because my hairdresser says, ‘Ah, bless,’ in response to whatever I say in answer to her questions.

‘Madness is a childish thing,’ Barbara Taylor writes in The Last Asylum, a memoir of her two decades as a mental patient. The book records her breakdown, her 21-year-long analysis, her periods as an inmate at Friern Mental Hospital in North London, and in addition provides a condensed history of the treatment of mental illness and the institutions associated with it. Taylor was in the bin during the final days of the old Victorian asylums, before they were shut down in the 1990s, and their patients scattered to the cold liberty of the underfunded, overlooked region of rented accommodation.

Diary: On Knitting

Jenny Diski, 21 November 2013

Until recently nothing about my experience of knitting or anything I had noticed about it suggested that it might become a cultural ‘thing’. Certainly no sign that I would ever find it a daily itch. The history of my failure in the handicrafts began early. I really looked forward, in my single-figured life, to mixing the paste to pour into the rubber moulds that made plaster of...

On Knickers

Jenny Diski, 10 October 2013

Was there ever a time when clothes were worn purely for warmth? La Mécanique des dessous, the book of the exhibition at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris (until 24 November) begins its investigation into underthings in the 14th century. You have to start somewhere and the actual beginning is too difficult: speculative, lacking the beautiful, horrific, enticing objects...

Diary: In Defence of Liz Jones

Jenny Diski, 12 September 2013

I have to acknowledge a misunderstanding. Only when I got her book did I realise that Liz Jones is not Samantha Brick. Scandalised Twitter links melded them together in my lazy mind as the same person in spite of the huge clue that one was called Liz Jones and the other Samantha Brick. The mind has mountains and makes molehills. I was led to an article in the Mail by Samantha Brick over a year ago. The piece told in notably style-free prose how Brick’s exceptional beauty had been the cause of injustice and suffering in all the important aspects of her life.

Diary: In Praise of Older Men

Jenny Diski, 6 June 2013

There’s a joke going round on Twitter that ‘they are arresting the Seventies.’ The ‘Seventies’ they are arresting is the decade rather than the mean age of those being rounded up by Operation Yewtree, though 73-year-old Jimmy Tarbuck is the latest entertainer from the period known to have been questioned about historical sex abuse allegations. Max Clifford,...

Under the Steinway: Marco Roth

Jenny Diski, 7 March 2013

I have a tendency when reading biographies and autobiographies about elderly or dead people of great accomplishment to want to skip through the early part, especially the childhood. The residue of psychoanalytic theory and Just-So psychology is spread thick on most retrospective accounts of individual origins. Received assumptions and teleology come too easily. Both writers and readers are...

Short Cuts: Mary Whitehouse’s Letters

Jenny Diski, 20 December 2012

I’m not good at forgiving. It’s always been one of the worst aspects of my character, and now that I am old, there’s no chance it’s going to get better. I won’t have a warm retrospective feeling about Margaret Thatcher. I don’t see Reagan or Nixon in a new perspective with the passage of time. And I still loathe my wicked stepmother. This last is what needs...

It is Sunday afternoon, preferably before the war. The wife is already asleep in the armchair, and the children have been sent out for a nice long walk. You put your feet up on the sofa, settle your spectacles on your nose, and open the News of the World.

Orwell published his famous essay ‘Decline of the English Murder’ in Tribune in February 1946, six months after the end of...

Alistair Cooke can be seen in an old TV clip, thanks to the bottomless well that is YouTube, carefully cross-legged, wearing a blazer, a discreetly silver-striped black tie on a pearl grey shirt, and what can only be called slacks. He sits on a high-backed black leather and polished mahogany library chair. Behind him to his right, hung on flocked wallpaper, is an ornately framed landscape painting winking ‘old master’, on the other side an overarching potted palm, between them a window hung with heavy, draped velvet curtains, and beneath his elegantly shod feet a fine oriental carpet.

Zeitgeist Man: Dennis Hopper

Jenny Diski, 22 March 2012

As charm is to Cary Grant, awkwardness to Jerry Lewis, vulnerability to Montgomery Clift, so malevolence is to Dennis Hopper. Very few actors specialised as Hopper did in convincing malice. Vincent Price was too camp to be really alarming, even as the witchfinder general. Peter Lorre was heartbreaking as a child murderer. James Gandolfini, playing an incorrigibly mean-minded godfather for...

Short Cuts: The Falklands

Jenny Diski, 8 March 2012

I can’t say that I’ve ever had a strong opinion – or any opinion – about Sean Penn. I may have watched a film he was in, and I booked but didn’t get as far as the cinema to see The Tree of Life. In future, I’ll be hanging on his every word. He finds Britain ‘colonialist, ludicrous and archaic’ for hanging on to the Malvinas, and refusing to try...

The Me Who Knew It

Jenny Diski, 9 February 2012

I was in my late thirties before it struck me that there was something odd about the tableau I have in my mind of a familiar living-room, armchair, my father in it, silvery hair, moustache, brown suede lace-ups, and me, aged six or so, sitting on his knee. The layout is correct – I have been back to the block of flats and sat in the living-room of the flat next door, with the same floor plan. Door in the right place; chair I’m sure accurate, a burgundy moquette; patterned carpet; windows looking out onto the brick wall of the offices opposite.

Short Cuts: The Future of Publishing

Jenny Diski, 5 January 2012

A few years ago I taught a writing workshop with a graduate of the UEA creative writing course, who offered very firm advice, such as ‘Always keep the active part of the sentence for the end so that the reader will find it easy to want to read on to the next one.’ It hadn’t occurred to me that this was the main job of a writer. In fact I don’t know how to teach someone...

What might they want? UFOs

Jenny Diski, 17 November 2011

The problem with that ‘blue sky thinking’ we were introduced to by New Labour is that we happen to perceive the sky as blue only because of our particular physiology and arrangement of senses on this particular planet. ‘Blue sky thinking’ doesn’t so much encourage limitless imagination as embed in its own metaphor our absolute inability to think outside our perceptual and conceptual limitations. We can’t help but do it our way. We get a poor enough result when we use ‘blue sky thinking’ to figure out innovative ways to deal with economic or social problems, and do no better contemplating the possibility of life elsewhere in the universe. We think of aliens and immediately cut them down or up (or some other inconceivable dimension) to our size.

Diary: The Three Christs of Ypsilanti

Jenny Diski, 22 September 2011

In 1959, Dr Milton Rokeach, a social psychologist, received a research grant to bring together three psychotic, institutionalised patients at Ypsilanti State Hospital in Michigan, in order to make a two and a half year study of them. Rokeach specialised in belief systems: how it is that people develop and keep (or change) their beliefs according to their needs and the requirements of the social world they inhabit. A matter of the inside coming to terms with the outside in order to rub along well enough to get through a life. As a rule people look for positive authority or referents to back up their essential beliefs about themselves in relation to the world: the priest, imam, Delia Smith, the politburo, gang leader, Milton Friedman, your mother, my favourite novelist.

On the Beach: Privacy

Jenny Diski, 28 July 2011

Christena Nippert-Eng loves the beach in spite of the noise, the bugs, the pebbles, the filth and the fact that her dermatologist insists she wear factor-60 sunscreen from April to October. It’s a nexus thing for her and she is quite lyrical about it. The beach is a place where all manner of stuff comes together, juxtaposed ‘in the most enchanting of ways … Creatures that...

A bout de Bogart

Jenny Diski, 19 May 2011

It is most likely that I first came across the idea of Humphrey Bogart not in a Bogart movie, but in A bout de souffle. Not in 1960, when it came out – I was more likely to have seen Spartacus then – but three or four years later, when the Godard movie was shown again (and again) at the Academy cinema on Oxford Street, the Hampstead Everyman or the NFT, while I was hoovering up the backlist of the Nouvelle Vague. In the crucial scene Belmondo, cigarette lolling at the corner of his mouth, hat carefully tipped down over his eyes, gazes at a poster outside a cinema showing Plus dure sera la chute, a.k.a. The Harder They Fall – Bogart’s final film – and after a moment growls ‘Bogie’ in American-accented French.

Academics: beware of loving what you write about. Fandom can tempt intellectuals to take uncharacteristic risks with their primary sources. Even Stanley Fish, who as the author of Is There a Text In This Class? knows better than anyone how important the division of insider and outsider is for keeping amateurs at bay. In 1993, Fish-the-fan, enamoured of the American television series The Fugitive, joined the faithful at a convention in Hollywood to rerun, adore and discuss the episodes, to listen to actors and directors of the programme talk about their experience. There’s probably an internally understood hierarchy of TV series obsessives, but I don’t know where Fugitive-heads come in relation to Trekkies, Python freaks or Dynasty divas.

Short Cuts: Google’s Ngram Viewer

Jenny Diski, 20 January 2011

Some years ago Stephen King announced that he would put his new book online before publication, for anyone to read freely. His publishers were spitting dollar signs and the fans delighted. In my memory he did as he said, and put the entire book on his website, but the 100,000-or-so words of the manuscript, though all there, were in alphabetical order. If you wanted to read the book from...

Never Mainline: Keith Richards

Jenny Diski, 16 December 2010

I’m going to hang on to Keith Richards’s autobiography, because sometimes I worry that I lead a boring life and wonder if I shouldn’t try harder to have fun. When that happens, a quick flick through Keith’s memoirs will remind me that I’ve never really wanted to live the life of anyone else, not even a Rolling Stone. Or especially. I haven’t bought a Stones...

Short Cuts: HRH

Jenny Diski, 4 November 2010

There seems to be little doubt that the planet is in a parlous state and that we need to change how we live on it. Who wouldn’t be pleased by a very well-funded, attention-grabbing campaign to raise ecological awareness and encourage the more thoughtful use of natural resources? Any steady drip or sudden deluge that might help to nudge industrial and personal behaviour towards a more...

Diary: Happiness

Jenny Diski, 23 September 2010

Every day in every way I grow more and more despondent, and I started from a pretty low base. There are some words I find impossibly difficult, and they are undoubtedly related to my long-term and/or innate despondency. ‘Love’, ‘feeling’ and especially ‘happiness’ are at the head of the list. This is not because I haven’t experienced any of them, but because whenever I think about using the words I don’t really know what anyone means by them. I’d find it easier to sit down and write a book about each (coming, obviously, to no conclusion) than to use them casually in speech or writing. I’m not alone in my stuttering, but most people seem to get by with those sorts of word, understanding them in an accepted, acceptable sense. I find it hard to use them seriously (I was going to write ‘sincerely’, but that’s another problem word) or without some form of qualification.

Old Bag: Silence!

Jenny Diski, 19 August 2010

The penultimate time I asked the young man over the way in my narrow terraced street to close his window when he played his CDs, he replied that the legally permitted decibel level was 85 dB and that he was not above it, would I like to see the read-out on his player and, by the way, I should ‘get a life’. I suggested that these particular rabbit-warren streets needed a degree of...

Toxic Lozenges: Arsenic

Jenny Diski, 8 July 2010

Raymond Chandler writes in ‘The Simple Art of Murder’ (1950) that ‘the English may not always be the best writers in the world, but they are incomparably the best dull writers.’ He’s specifically referring to crime novelists – the likes of Dorothy L. Sayers, Ngaio Marsh, Margery Allingham, Agatha Christie – in an attempt to wrest the detective story...

Short Cuts: Melanie Phillips

Jenny Diski, 13 May 2010

We should give thanks for Melanie Phillips, who writes for the right in a column for the Daily Mail here in the UK, and now has a book out in the US with Encounter Books (other new titles: How the Obama Administration Threatens Our National Security, How Barack Obama Is Bankrupting the US Economy, The Bad Science and Bad Policy of Obama’s Global Warming Agenda – which would make...

Diary: Crabs

Jenny Diski, 22 April 2010

For two years or more, in hospital and out, I was convinced that I was infested. ‘Infested’ was the word, I thought, as well as ‘contaminated’. The pubic lice multiplied to a plethora and became imaginatively licensed to inhabit my entire body. They crawled on my arms, my torso, my legs, my hair, sometimes my face and neck. They had become all-rounder lice. Not even lice, if someone had pointed out the impossible ethology I had invented for them. They were … I didn’t know what they were, but they were. Insects, lice-like, flea-like, tic-like crawling creatures that lived on me, and indeed, in me.

Short Cuts: Fragrant Antonia Fraser

Jenny Diski, 25 February 2010

Anyone might want to celebrate their life in print. Or a long-term relationship brought to a close by death. Lots of people write about their lives and their loved ones, and some pay to have their writing printed and distributed to their friends and relatives. It’s called vanity publishing, but it’s not very different from Antonia Fraser, say, going through her own diaries written...

Mother! Oh God! Mother! ‘Psycho’

Jenny Diski, 7 January 2010

‘This is where we came in’ is one of those idioms, like ‘dialling’ a phone number, which has long since become unhooked from its original practice, but lives on in speech habits like a ghost that has forgotten the why of its haunting duties. The phrase is used now to indicate a tiresome, repetitive argument, a rant, a bore. But throughout my childhood in the 1950s and...

Diary: Rape-Rape

Jenny Diski, 5 November 2009

What is it like to be 13, a wannabe movie star, in the presence of a powerful movie director in the house of a famous movie star, being given a powerful drug and alcohol and then invited to give the great man a blow job or make yourself available for cunnilingus? I was neither dazzled nor drugged into sex when I was 14 – I was embarrassed into it.

Short Cuts: Periods

Jenny Diski, 22 October 2009

It’s only lately that there has been any choice about menstruation: if you were a woman before the wide availability of the contraceptive pill you bled once a month from the age of 12 until you were around 50, except during pregnancy and lactation (which might mean, of course, that you actually bled rather rarely). For her book The Modern Period: Menstruation in 20th-Century America...

It was on Good Friday 1930 that listeners who tuned in to the BBC for the 6.30 evening news bulletin heard: ‘There is no news tonight.’ Piano music filled the hiatus before the next programme. In the same year the BBC’s Variety Programmes and Policy Guide for Writers and Producers stated:

Programmes must at all costs be kept free of crudities. There can be no compromise...

All Eat All: The Cannibal in Me

Jenny Diski, 6 August 2009

Meiwes gave a TV interview and explained: ‘I sautéed the steak of Bernd, with salt, pepper, garlic and nutmeg. I had it with Princess croquettes, Brussels sprouts and green pepper sauce.’ You begin to see, as the suburban lace curtain drifts into place, that the reality of cannibalism could be far less interesting than the idea of it.  I think it’s the Princess croquettes in particular that cause the disappointment.

Queening It: Nina Simone

Jenny Diski, 25 June 2009

The life of Nina Simone, who died at the age of 70 in 2003, doesn’t make for a happy tale, but then if it did, who would have written it? Given the melodrama and the perfect fit with the troubled-intolerable-her-own-worst-enemy diva cliché, it’s quite strange that there has been no substantial account of her life until now, apart from a highly unreliable ghosted memoir of...

Diary: Back to School

Jenny Diski, 30 April 2009

It has been my habit, since I was very young, to keep easy sentiment, nostalgia, optimism even, in a secure box, and to forget where I left the key. This isn’t a confession, as it might seem to be in these emotionally overindulgent days. It’s simply a strategy; I’m a non-believer in the recuperative power of easily expressed instinctive feeling. Even so, I teared up at...

Short Cuts: Gail and Jade and Me

Jenny Diski, 12 March 2009

I was six the last time I experienced such a naked and indefensible aversion to someone. I was given a new girl to look after at school. She was fat and happy, or so my memory goes. There’s nothing else I can remember about her at all apart from the round contentedness of her sticky, continuous presence. My hatred was immediate and visceral. I can summon it now: something acidic...

Campbell’s novel is about a psychiatrist who is having a breakdown while helping his patients come to terms with their problems … Oh, let me evade for a moment more. Campbell’s first book was The Blair Years. That was not a novel, but an account of being spin-doctor supreme in the government of Tony Blair. As Blair’s director of communications and strategy and then adviser, Campbell was involved, among much else, in presenting the massaged facts that took us to war, and dealing with the press after the death of David Kelly. He was a gleeful fixer, bully and phrase-maker for a prime minister who had streamlined the Labour Party (as in discarded anything that smacked of socialism) until it was indistinguishable from the Tories, and oversaw a government obsessed with wealth, targets and the corporate organisation of public services. Nothing in his public life inclines me to like him.

The Khugistic Sandal: Jews & Shoes

Jenny Diski, 9 October 2008

Great shoemakers of our day: Manolo Blahnik, Jimmy Choo, Christian Louboutin. None of them, I think, very Jewish. And if there had been any great pre or postwar Jewish shoe mavins they would certainly have been pointed out to me by my parents, who identified any Jewish achiever in any sphere as one of the family: Alma Cogan, Einstein, Marx, boxing promoter Jack Solomons (the Sultan of Sock), it didn’t matter what they were known for, everyone counted. Even, like the Kray Twins, a little bit Jewish and murderers would make them ours and make us proud – but there was never a mention of shoe designers.

Diary: trying to stay awake

Jenny Diski, 31 July 2008

If you set aside the incomparable cruelty and stupidity of human beings, surely our most persistent and irrational activity is to sleep. Why would we ever allow ourselves to drop off if sleeping was entirely optional? Sleep is such a dangerous place to go to from consciousness: who in their right mind would give up awareness, deprive themselves of control of their senses, volunteer for paralysis, and risk all the terrible things (and worse) that could happen to a person when they’re not looking? As chief scientist in charge of making the world a better place, once I’d found a way of making men give birth, or at least lactate, I’d devote myself to abolishing the need for sleep. Apart from the dangers of letting your guard down, there’s the matter of time.

Diary: On Not Liking South Africa

Jenny Diski, 3 July 2008

The ‘you can’t understand until you’ve lived there’ argument had kept me from visiting South Africa quite effectively. If being there would make me understanding of apartheid, I preferred to stay away. But now it had to be a very different place, 18 years after Nelson Mandela walked free from prison, 14 years on from the day when South Africa had its first democratic election. I was going to be there anyway – Cape Town was the end point of another journey – and I thought I’d spend a couple of weeks and look around; be a regular tourist in a place where minds had been changed.

Extreme Understanding: Irmgard Keun

Jenny Diski, 10 April 2008

As any adult can tell you – or any adult not given over entirely to mawkish and convenient notions of innocence – children are born spies. Every parent (previously an independent individual pursuing their own interests and desires) knows: a child arrives and it starts to watch you. You are never alone again, not really. There is someone who has arrived and will not go away; who...

Ugliness ought to be just as obvious as the not-beautiful; the opposite, the negation of beautiful; the offal vileness beneath the skin

Don’t Die: among the Handbags

Jenny Diski, 1 November 2007

There’s a science-fiction short story, I can’t remember by whom, which has a New York journalist on a hiking tour, lost in the Appalachians. He comes across a ramshackle house lived in by a family of hillbillies and they give him a bed for the night. In the morning at breakfast he notices that one of the girls has her headscarf tied in a manner he’s never seen before –...

Short Cuts: Internet Misfit

Jenny Diski, 18 October 2007

The word ‘resources’ sets my spine tingling. My old hippy-but-curmudgeonly soul had high hopes of the World Wide Web. The future, in some respects, was living up to expectations, providing videotapes of movies you didn’t have to leave home to see again, music remastered to a complexity not heard even in the concert hall let alone your own bath; and now here was a space that...

And now for the other princess: the one who failed to stop all the clocks in Kensington Palace and Mustique, and grew old.1 In doing so she became sick, fat, grumpy, drunk and unloved. This, you might think, is the fate of many people who leave dying to their later years. But in a princess these flaws, if not the necessary concomitants of age then surely an entitlement of age, are particularly...

Tunnel Vision: Princess Diana

Jenny Diski, 2 August 2007

I had​ supper with a friend on 31 August 1997. He arrived looking wonderstruck. ‘Are we just going to have dinner?’ he said.

‘Why, you think we should sit shiva?’

‘But if she can die then anyone can.’

I don’t think anyone else ever got around to articulating that quite so precisely.

One friend spent the day of the funeral in his study, locked...

Seriously Uncool: Susan Sontag

Jenny Diski, 22 March 2007

Susan Sontag intended something like the book which is now published as At the Same Time to be her final collection of essays. After that, says her son, David Rieff, in his foreword, she intended to get on with what she most valued, writing fiction. Edited by her, somewhat differently no doubt, this would, then, have been her next book. As it is, published two years after her death, and put together by Rieff and her assistants with an eye on her preliminary sketch of its contents, it is her last book. Or rather, it is her first posthumous book, since Rieff plans to bring out further collections of her letters, diaries and unpublished writings.

Jowls are available: ‘Second Life’

Jenny Diski, 8 February 2007

Most religions suggest that we get at least one other go at being. Christianity offers an afterlife, Judaism suggests an altogether better existence once the Messiah arrives, while Hinduism and other Eastern religions try to deal with samsara, the terrible burden of having to do life over and over again until you get it right. But I don’t think any of them offer much help with the alarming notion of multiple worlds, which quantum theorists have arithmeticked to prove entirely possible. As far as I can understand it, Many Worlds Theory proposes that there are n zillion worlds like this one but marginally different, operating in parallel to the only world in which we think we exist.

Diary: The Friendly Spider Programme

Jenny Diski, 30 November 2006

Autumn looms darkly and terrible in my life. From midsummer I start to worry, and by late August I am filled with dread. My arachnophobia has ensured that the autumnal mating urge which causes spiders to wander into our houses – confused by some sudden indefinable but compelling ache in the forefront of their small minds – in search of a nice warm dark corner to nest (don’t think about it), ushers in my personal annual festival of anxiety and horror.

In 1968 my next-door neighbour in our ward at the Maudsley Hospital for the psychologically bewildered or the just plain cross was a woman from Wales in her early twenties who had slowly been going blind since a gang of boys threw lime into her eyes when she was 15. She still saw light and shadow, so she knew if a person passed between her and the window at the end of her bed, but not who the...

Look at Chapters 13 to 16 of the Book of Judges, and what do you see there? Is it Samson the hero, Samson the lummox, or Samson the poster boy for gang moronics, for self-destructive, incommensurate revenge? According to David Grossman, all Jewish children when they first hear the story learn to call him Samson the Hero. He is wrong about this, but then my Jewish childhood was not in Hebrew...

What is the only place in England the joke went, where you can buy three cemeteries and a pint of beer and still have change from a pound? Answer: the London Borough of Westminster. Boom boom. This makes the price of a pint of beer in 1986 slightly less than 85p. The cemeteries, in Hanwell, East Finchley and Mill Hill, whose upkeep was the responsibility of the Highways and Works Committee of...

In the membership roll of the worshipful guild of enabling wives, the name of Martha Freud ranks with the greatest: Mrs Noah, Mrs Darwin, Mrs Marx, Mrs Joyce, Mrs Nabokov, Mrs Clinton, and their honorary fellows, Mr Woolf and Mr Cookson. Wives, of either sex, are what keep the universe orderly and quiet enough for the great to think their thoughts, complete their travels, write their books and change the world. Martha Freud was a paragon among wives. There is nothing more liberating from domestic drudgery and the guilt that comes of avoiding it than having a cleaning lady who loves cleaning, a child-carer who’s content with child-care, a homebody who wants nothing more than to be at home. And Martha Freud was all those things. Quite why she was those things is something that her husband might have been the very person to investigate, but Freud was nobody’s fool and knew when to leave well alone in the murkier regions of his personal life – especially that dark continent in his mind concerning women.

On 9 February, an exhibition of remarkable new photographs by Josef Hoflehner opens at the Atlas Gallery in London. The pictures show interiors of the base camp huts built and lived in between 1901 and 1912 by Scott’s and Shackleton’s polar expeditions. The huts and their contents have been preserved intact, and the photographs show intensely close details of things long left...

Diary: The Je Ne Sais Quoi

Jenny Diski, 15 December 2005

Apart from those possessed of blind faith who go along with the view that only God can know the truth about the truth, most people assume that what we don’t know could be known by somebody looking hard and skilfully enough at the problem. I’m not sure if in the 21st century there is quantitively more in the world that isn’t known, but certainly we know that there is more we...

Diana Melly was of her time. She went to sleep clutching razor blades, became obsessed with her knickers, wept, screamed, sacked nannies about whom she became paranoid, was hospitalised and endured a course of ECT. When (Patrick upstairs doing his homework, the other children in bed) she saw on the news that a militant had been hanged in Rhodesia, she thought: ‘I had to identify more closely.’ So she decided that if she took an overdose and was stomach-pumped ‘the action of swallowing the tube would be similar to strangulation.’ She tipped all her Valium into herself and explained to George and then to the hospital doctors what she had done, but having obediently pumped her they found no trace of drugs. When she was discharged from the hospital ‘it was discovered that I couldn’t walk.’ This is a gold standard of 1960s flakiness; the kind of behaviour that gives hysteria a bad name.

I blame Foucault: Bush’s Women

Jenny Diski, 22 September 2005

‘W. stands for women,’ cried Barbara Bush, Laura Bush, Lynne Cheney, Condoleezza Rice, Karen Hughes, Elaine Chao and Gale Ann Norton at the 2004 Republican National Convention, and in case the Good Ol’ Boy’s good old ladies didn’t get it, a banner explained: ‘The country and my administration have benefited from the strong women who serve as senior members...

Just after the beginning of the first Gulf War I arrived at Toronto airport to take part in a literary festival. Along with a couple of dozen others (mostly dark-skinned or from Islamic countries) I was sent to wait in a queue for special questioning when I presented my passport. After about an hour I was taken to a cubicle by a short but perfectly square woman in uniform who lolled behind a...

Mirror Images: Piers Morgan

Jenny Diski, 31 March 2005

Blair comes out of this as Morgan’s twin brother. Mirror images you might say. Blair, like Morgan, promises and evades, sulks and blames others. He cajoles, whines, ducks out of sight and makes threats based on his position. Blair and his advisers might as well be Jordan, Fergie and Patsy Kensit flirting with Piers in the hope of getting more of the right kind or less of the wrong kind of coverage. They might as well be editors of tabloid newspapers offering perks to their mates and doom to their enemies. I had thought that the obsession with celebrity and PR was just the idleness of the newspapers and television providing what was easiest to sell for an audience who wanted what was easiest to absorb. I imagined that there was some more solid substance beneath the mental lassitude. But it seems from these diaries that it is actually the way the world is. It is the real world. I do live in cloud-cuckoo-land. Politics and reality TV are one and the same at present, if the Piers Morgan experience is anything to go by. Popularity is the only thing. Numbers are what count.

Almost everything I’ve ever done has very rapidly become normal. It’s the way human beings tend. ‘Adaptation’, they call it. Once I lived with a heroin addict in a kitchen. Every morning he went out for the day to score, kissing me on the cheek, and I pulled the candlewick bedspread – gold – over the mattress opposite the cooker. I washed his used syringe in the sink, squirting out the blood left in the barrel, getting it nice and clean. It seemed ordinary at the time. It was. Somewhere out there, I understood, suburban housewives were dusting and polishing, making the beds, clearing the breakfast table, and I thought they were really weird. How could anyone live like that, I wondered. It takes no time at all to get used to whatever we are doing. Something to do with the amygdala complex in the medial temporal region of the brain, I believe.

XXX: Doing what we’re told

Jenny Diski, 18 November 2004

Tell people to go to war, and mostly they will. Tell them to piss on prisoners, and mostly they will. Tell them to cover up lies, and mostly they will. Authority is government, the media, the business sector, the priestly men and women in white coats or mitres. We are trained up in the structure of the family, in school, in work. Most people do what they are told. Apparently, a majority of people in this country did not want to join the US in making war on Iraq. This country joined the US in its catastrophic adventure nevertheless. Great passions were aroused, and yet . . . It could be inertia, or a sense of helplessness, or it could be that our fear of the consequences of disobedience holds sway over our judgment. It all happened, and goes on.

We could, as a homage to Derrida, go deep with this story of an immigrant, a wealthy man, a publisher and ‘cultural tycoon’ (Quartet Books, Women’s Press, the Literary Review, the Wire, the Oldie, chief executive of Asprey’s and, in 1993, voted Retail Personality of the Year), who employed an educated but intellectually insecure Scots woman, a translator with an...

Diary: in New Zealand

Jenny Diski, 5 August 2004

After 23 hours in the air, I got off the plane at Christchurch, New Zealand to be informed by the walls in the airport that I was in Middle Earth. I was groggy enough not to care where I was, so long as I was somewhere (actually I still wasn’t; only in transit to Wellington on the other island). I was sick with lack of sleep, lagging a day ahead of myself, and Middle Earth seemed as...

There must be certain texts which become available to each generation in their youth and then remain with them: a background, forgotten bass rhythm throughout their lives. Certainly, I had forgotten about reading Erving Goffman in the late 1960s and early 1970s: Asylums, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life and, I think, Stigma. They were required reading, part of the unofficial...

Cuddlesome: Germaine Greer

Jenny Diski, 8 January 2004

The problem​ with being a dedicated social trouble-maker who has not self-destructed is that, as the decades roll by, the society you wish to irritate gets used to you and even begins to regard you with a certain affection. Eventually, you become a beloved puppy that is always forgiven for soiling the carpet. No matter what taboos you kick out at, people just smile and shake their head....

It’s so beautiful: V is for Vagina

Jenny Diski, 20 November 2003

For many women in the 1970s, the response to the exhortation ‘Know thyself’ took the form of specula, hand mirrors, torches and a group of comrades who would angle the looking glass and beam just right so that, reclining on your elbows, you could look down through your bent legs and see what really lay between them. It was considered to be an essential encounter with the centre of your being. Consciousness-raising began, as it always must, by peering into the heart of darkness.

Sometimes she would allow guests a viewing of her brother dressed by her in a white pleated robe like a Brahmin. Meta von Salis . . . was appalled when she read a newspaper article by a journalist who had been allowed to watch Nietzsche sleep and to observe him being fed bits of cake as he cowered on a chair. Rudolf Steiner tried to teach Elisabeth her brother’s philosophy but gave up in disgust at her lack of understanding. In time, Thomas Mann, Romain Rolland and Spengler all resigned their posts at the archive, unable to tolerate what Elisabeth was doing to her brother’s work and her cosying up to the Nazis.

As a child in a very small flat with two argumentative parents, a cup of tea – one of the normal eight to ten cups a day – meant that they were getting on or making up: nobody suggested tea in the middle of a fight or in the sullen unresolved aftermath. Tea was recuperative, it made things better, or it celebrated uneventfulness, emphasising that nothing was wrong.

Even so, he did not run, as others did, to join the partisans in the forests. He waited, maybe with hope, maybe because he wanted to see things through to the end – or perhaps simply with that disbelief in one’s own death that flutters around us all under all circumstances. With each Allied success, Kruk asked if it was good or bad for the Jews. Each triumph that brought liberation closer was also potentially lethal to the Ghetto and the camps.

Mad Monk: not going to the movies

Jenny Diski, 6 February 2003

I think it is two years since I’ve been to the cinema. This is something of a mystery to me, like love gone wrong: in fact, it is love gone wrong. Was the love misguided in the first place, have I simply aged out of the way of love, or has the beloved altered beyond all recognition? Naturally, lovers whose love is depleted are inclined to think the last: it makes them feel better, less...

Diary: Dragged to the Shoe Shop

Jenny Diski, 14 November 2002

Taking off the lid, he brought out a pair of the grimmest black lace-up school shoes I had ever seen in my life. ‘Sturdy’ doesn’t even get close to describing their brute practicality. In today’s fashion-diverse world it is hard to imagine the despair I felt at the sight of what he expected me to put on my feet.

Hang on to the doily: Catherine M.

Jenny Diski, 25 July 2002

A slag is someone who will let anyone do anything they want to her, do anything for them, and do it for nothing. She belongs round the back of the bike sheds, her hair is lank, her eyes are usually dull, and she is not expected to be a high-achiever academically. She’s dumb and she’s easy and she’s not just cheap: she’s free. But not a free spirit. That’s another kind of sexual woman, much more up Catherine Millet’s street. Catherine M. will let anyone do anything they want to her, do anything for them and do it for nothing, but no one could say she’s thick.

Life is too short to read Philip Larkin’s juvenilia. Reading ‘Trouble at Willow Gables’ and ‘Michaelmas Term at St Brides’ is up there with stuffing mushrooms: there is a part of me which, as I read – or stuff – has precognition of the moment of my death and the very last conscious thought, which is the blinding awareness of the precious hours wasted...

There must be people who, during their lifetime, get their minds right enough not to feel bitterness as the end looms and they realise that nothing much else is going to happen to them apart from death. I understand from reading and anecdote that some people do die with a smile and the words ‘It’s been a good life’ on their lips. But not many, surely? It seems to me almost...

Entitlement: Caroline Blackwood

Jenny Diski, 18 October 2001

At the age of 86 and with a broken hip, the Marchesa Casa-Maury was interviewed by Caroline Blackwood for her book about the last dreadful days – months, years rather – of the Duchess of Windsor. The Marchesa had been the Duke’s mistress for fifteen years when Wallis Simpson arrived on the scene. Blackwood explained to the old lady how the Duchess was being sequestered in...

It’s a male thing, misogyny. No matter where you look, then or now, here, there and everywhere, up ethnographic hill, down historical dale, men disparage women. In his trawl of anthropological data, historical records, literature and letters, art and music, David Gilmore finds that men have always and everywhere expressed fear, disgust and hatred of women. From the peaceful and gentle...

My Little Lollipop: Christine Keeler

Jenny Diski, 22 March 2001

Christine Keeler votes Conservative. She would, wouldn’t she? Having seen off the Macmillan Government in the 1960s, exposed the squalid underbelly of upper-class public life and fired the starting pistol to begin the sexual revolution by revealing that ‘You’ve never had it so good’ was actually ‘You’ve never had it so often,’ she reckons she knows...

Diary: Einstein at the Bus-Stop

Jenny Diski, 8 February 2001

For the purposes of plain getting on with things – keeping warm, staying fed, making babies – there is no reason on earth, or off it, why anyone not actively engaged in the world of science should comprehend the underlying workings of physics. All we really need to know is that, accurate or not this week, relativity, cosmology, quantum mechanics don’t concern us in our...

Stinking Rich: Richard Branson

Jenny Diski, 16 November 2000

I find myself nostalgic for the time, long ago, when one thing the very rich and very famous could be relied on to do was shut up. Paul Getty, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Princess Grace of Monaco wrapped their money around themselves in the form of impenetrable walls and/or designer sunglasses and kept silent while the world wondered and chattered. And you would imagine that if money could do...

For a committed sedentary like myself, one of the most striking aspects of the populating of the town of Celebration, Florida, built by the Disney Corporation in the late 1990s, was the ease with which people made the decision to sell up and move there. In some cases, they crossed the continent, gave up substantial careers, took the kids out of school, put their property on the market, and signed a financial commitment to buy a plot of land on which not a single brick had been laid, in an alligator-infested swamp owned by a corporation which specialised in producing cartoons and simulations of historical and geographical clichés. Some people just popped in after a trip to next-door Disneyland and signed up for a new existence, others packed up and moved to rented accommodation nearby in order to be on the spot when the lottery for the first plots of land was announced.

A year or two ago Germaine Greer, discussing the shortlisted artists for the Turner Prize, ended huffily by saying that if this is the way the world is now, she was delighted that she wouldn’t have to be part of it for very much longer. Time was she would have leapt on the barricades and given the world a piece of her mind, explaining exactly what it had to do to shape up. Of course, the fact that she has to complain now about the world gone to wrack and ruin means that back then, at her most gladiatorial, the world took not a blind bit of notice and went on its way, impervious. It’s a generational thing, disappointment; part of a cycle of anger, action and failure that is as inevitable as hormone fluctuation, but which seems to have taken the postwar baby boomers quite by surprise. It was there to be read about in classical and modern literature, in histories, in drama, poetry and the defeated mutterings of our own grandparents and parents. But our time was different, we thought, and we seem still to think, because even now we can’t work out what happened.

At Free Love Corner

Jenny Diski, 30 March 2000

Reading, according to Barthes, is like those other solitary occupations, praying and masturbation. Certainly, there are those who are troubled when they come across people publicly performing the act of silent reading. When the youthful Augustine found Ambrose reading without moving his lips, he made every effort to excuse his mentor:

Diary: hairdressing

Jenny Diski, 2 March 2000

At 17 I was (let me be bold, let me put it on record) gorgeous, and gorgeous in exactly the way a person was supposed to be in 1964. Thin as a leaf, a Biba size eight, hips that held hipsters perfectly in place, and legs that were perfectly designed for emerging from skirts that were little more than a pelmet. But – oh what a waste of temporary good fortune – none of that mattered. My 17th birthday present was a haircut at Evansky’s, as stylish a hairdresser as Vidal Sassoon at the time; the place where hair was cut into the essential knife-sharp meticulous geometric shapes that swung like chain mail as you walked. I sat in the chair while behind me Robert, the senior stylist, cast his professional eye over me, lifting hanks of my long hair with a comb and letting them drop, flicking sections this way and that to see how they fell, examining its possibilities. Finally, he pocketed his comb and with a sigh that would have broken a Mock Turtle’s heart intoned to my mirror image: ‘Every mother prays that their daughter will have straight hair.’ I shrank down in my chair with shame, but I didn’t need to be told. I knew my case was hopeless. My hair curled, it was thick and wiry; in a million years and with all the hair-dressing talents in the universe I could never have that sleek hair that fell of its own accord straight and shiny into an immaculate bob as soon as I got out of bed in the morning. Hair then, as Vidal explains in the current edition of the Hairdressers’ Journal International, had to ‘make a statement rather than just make someone look pretty’. All my hair ever said was ‘sorry’. Robert did what he could, he cut it as if I had the right kind of hair and then blow-dried it with agonising tugs of the brush, pulling it away from my scalp to straighten it. I didn’t mind, I deserved the pain. I used an iron and ironing-board myself. He made it look wonderful, right, just like those women who had been blessed with proper hair. I had the style, it made the statement. I looked as I was supposed to look when I left, but then it rained, and by the time I got home my hopeless hair had sprung back into frizz, the knife edges serrated, the weighty slab of fringe cork-screwed. What ever else was right about me didn’t count. My hair was wrong, and in the 1960s if your hair was wrong, nothing could be right.’‘

Above all else we are concerned, in whatever form we let it take us, with memory. The idea of memory enables us to believe we can grasp the vanished past, historical or personal, and restructure its moments into a pattern that will give us in our continuing present, and them in the future, a coherent narrative of the time we have spent here. What else have we to console us for the blank extinction of all things before the beginning and after the end? Memory as order and record is all we’ve got to stand against the monstrous fact of non-existence. Portraits, snapshots, journals, itineraries, biography, historical records, databanks and time capsules are no more than symptoms of our desire not to get lost in eternity, to hang onto the brief fact of life. Attempting to prolong our stay on the planet through physical survival and reproduction (and their refinements) may be the main priority, but recording our time here is pretty much what we do with our considerable spare brain capacity. Well, we have to do something with it, and it passes the time that would have passed anyway, but there are those, like Beckett and, it would seem, W.G. Sebald, who, in addition to being compelled like the rest of us, are condemned to meditate on their compulsion. It makes for a melancholy disposition, if not for occasional attacks of madness, but somebody’s got to do it.

From The Blog
25 July 2014

In 1971 I had just finished a teacher training course and was teaching at a comprehensive school in Hackney, now a flourishing educational establishment, but then a place where the sixth form consisted of the highest achievers doing their CSEs in the near forlorn hope that they might get work in a bank. When I first started teaching there, none of the kids had ever taken A-levels or gone to university. It was a place where good teaching really meant doing social work and trying to pump up the kids’ ambition and interests (it was an all girls’ school) beyond getting free from school and family by getting pregnant. At the same time, I was involved in a freeschool I’d started with a friend, for seven siblings and a couple of others from the locality I’d got to know from their hanging about in the local playground, and whose real social worker had come to me and said that unless I invented a school for them over the weekend, they would be taken into care for non-attendance at school.

From The Blog
26 March 2014

The new rules that govern what prisoners can be sent in the post by families and friends have caused small tremors in the social media, calling them and their perpetrator, Chris Grayling, the minister in charge, mean, vicious, offensive and disgraceful. The aspect of the changes that has upset people most is that books are no longer allowed to be sent to prisoners. Other 'small items', such as underwear and handmade cards from children, are also prohibited. One odd thing is that these new rules were put in place in November. I remember there being some pieces in the newspapers and comments decrying the changes on Twitter and Facebook. But it didn't take fire as it has now. I don't know why an article about it by Frances Crook has gripped those who care about books and prisoner rehabilitation now, rather than in November when it actually happened.

From The Blog
18 February 2014

Nembutal, an old friend of mine from other days, turns out to be pentobarbital, US executioners' drug of choice for lethal injections. Now a problem has arisen. The licensed manufacturer refuses to allow it to be sold for that use, and so it comes about that the state of Missouri, which has an inmate, Michael Taylor, on death row waiting to be dispatched this month, has no stocks to hand and can't get the wherewithal. Unable to source the real thing, they looked around for someone to cook it up for them. Homemade pentobarbital can apparently give you a very nasty death – on top of the already nasty death you get from judicial execution. In a recently recorded use of it, the victim's heart continued to beat for ten minutes after he had stopped breathing; last month another recipient of such an injection said after 20 seconds: 'I feel my whole body burning.'

From The Blog
22 January 2014

Being told to say sorry for my wrongdoings was my introduction to the double bind. I got the hang of how it worked, but never figured any way out of it. 'Don't just stand there. Haven't you got anything to say for yourself?' It became clear pretty quickly that a rational discussion of the pros and cons of my misdemeanour was not what the parent had in mind. 'Well? And you haven't even got the decency to say sorry.' Deep breath while I prepared myself for entering the mire. 'I'm sorry.' 'No you're not. You're just saying that, because you think you should.' This was almost always true. I was certainly sorry for the trouble I was in, but rarely sorry in a contrite way. It would go on like this. The demand for an apology, the apology, the rejection of the apology and further fury until some punishment was decided on and I was sent in disgrace to my room.

From The Blog
3 May 2013

The Duke of Cornwall, heir to the throne, Prince of Wales, wealthy in his own right (£18 million a year from the Duchy of Cornwall) and in receipt of state benefits (£2 million a year), also gets the money of the dead. Die intestate in Cornwall, without heirs, and whatever you've accumulated in your life (aside from your joys and sorrows) goes into the bank account of Prince Charles. It isn't quite like the wealthy pensioners who were urged by Ian Duncan Smith to return their winter heating allowance to the cash-strapped government. Charles isn't spending last year's windfall of £450,000 on dancing girls and kedgeree; he's using it – well, some of it – to fund his own special charities.

From The Blog
17 April 2013

There was a funeral today. I'm really very bad at ceremony. I giggled at both my marriage ceremonies, and for grief I much prefer to be alone than in a crowd. But there wasn't much grief at this funeral. For one thing Margaret Thatcher had been felled long ago by strokes. She lingered. And it's not sad when people in that condition die; if they are old, it's a relief. Funerals are a time for memories. I cherish the memory of Thatcher ousted by her own party, leaving Number Ten. The miners will remember her making sure that the strikers' families didn't get any benefits. We are all beholden to her for beginning the boom in private greed and the rampant capitalism that has got us where we are today.

From The Blog
4 April 2013

By now, if you're British, you've probably taken the test based on a new study of social class for the BBC by Manchester University. If you're not British, you won't know what I'm talking about – just move along. The old three-class structure is irrelevant and outdated, the survey found. It's too simplistic and no longer 'nuanced' enough. The new nuanced British class structure looks like this, with seven classes: the elite, the established middle class, the technical middle class, new affluent workers, the traditional working class and the precariat or precarious proletariat, which comprises 15 per cent of the population. We're all middle class now, except for 3/20ths of us, and they, it seems from their name, don't know whether they're coming or going.

From The Blog
27 March 2013

I'm not one to talk. I know very well about the befuddling spell of clothes, the nature of desire fulfilled for just a moment by the perfect this or that, and then the need to find it again. What I want is the elegant, the perfectly simple and comfortable that tends to come at a bit of a price. It's at this point that Buzz Bissinger, the writer, 20 years ago, of Friday Night Lights- and I part company. Though had I known about it we would have parted company when he endorsed Mitt Romney. He spends all he wants on clothes, and at a rate I could only nightmare about, but what he's after is 'rocker, edgy, tight, bad boy, hip, stylish, flamboyant, unafraid, raging against the conformity'. You don't spend $13,900 on a Gucci ostrich skin jacket to achieve comfort.

From The Blog
14 March 2013

Neanderthals again, and why they died out. Of course, perhaps they didn't die out, and just mingled themselves into non-existence with us. I suspect we find that idea a bit distasteful, like discovering that we have the servants in our genes. Much better that they died of lacking something we most value that we had more and better of. The latest theory is that their eyes were too big. They've measured the orbits in the skulls and yes, they are larger than Homo sapiens skulls. So they saw better in the dark, but more of their brains were devoted to interpreting the messages from their great big eyes. Eyes bigger than their cerebral cortex. But Homo sapiens with their smaller, less efficient eyes, had room in their brain pan to develop their cerebral cortexes and use them for social networking and therefore learning and making the great cultural leap forward. Oh dear, yes, 'social networking' is the phrase they use. In my anthropological day, it was just called 'socialising'. But our clever brains are too smart to settle for mere socialising when they can come up with social networking. Evolution. There you have it in a nutshell, or a network.

From The Blog
6 February 2013

We should all use language carefully. That is an obligation on the literate. But carefully doesn’t mean fearfully. There is a danger that concern about insensitive use of language can be cynically used to muddy reasonable debate about political issues, and close down criticism. The Liberal Democrat MP for Bradford East, David Ward, has been under pressure and finally apologised for saying at a Holocaust Day ceremony: I am saddened that the Jews, who suffered unbelievable levels of persecution during the Holocaust, could within a few years of liberation from the death camps be inflicting atrocities on Palestinians in the new State of Israel and continue to do so on a daily basis in the West Bank and Gaza. Ward failed to specify that the Jews he was talking about are those who agree with destroying the livelihoods of Palestinians, building Israeli settlements on much-reduced Palestinian land, and with Israel retaliating incommensurately against Palestinian provocations, rather than considering and dealing with the reasons for them. Ward’s statement doesn't seem to me to refer to me or anyone else who is Jewish and does not support Israeli policies in Palestine. He was wrong; he shouldn’t have conflated ‘the Jews’ with ‘Israel and its supporters’ – or, to put it another way, me with Netanyahu. But that doesn't mean he didn't have a legitimate (if naive) point, that the memory of what the Jews went through ought to give Israeli politicians pause for thought before subjecting other groups to persecution. As a Jew I've thought so with great sadness myself, while understanding that the argument about Israel must be a political one.

From The Blog
28 December 2012

I'm knitting a vibrant stripy blanket. It's a blanket because I'm a rubbish knitter, and it's stripy because being a rubbish knitter I can only make it interesting in the most simple way possible. It's vibrant, because the knitting pattern says it is, although I've long since gone feral on the order of colours the pattern sets out. So far it's about ten inches long. It has three little holes where there shouldn't be holes, and a couple of places where stiches have been retrieved the wrong way round so the pattern (a most basic garter stich) goes off in the middle of a row or two. This doesn't matter, I decided, because if I wanted the soon to be born grandson to have a perfect baby blanket, I could have bought one for half the price of the wool and needles, and spent a fraction of the time achieving it. At least in part, this is me taking up my proper place in the proper way, as a sign of my consent to my new role.

From The Blog
10 October 2012

If you lived through the 1960s and 1970s, and are a woman, it's really hard to be shocked or surprised by the tolerated sexism back then that's currently crawling out of the woodwork. It wasn't in the woodwork at the time. It was just there, in the air you breathed, in the world you walked about in. It wasn't just DJs and comedians. It wasn't even only the touching up, the comments, the boss who called you in to deal with a pile of filing that needed putting away in the bottom drawer of the cabinet right opposite his desk (think 1960s miniskirts). The men who felt you up on the Tube at least knew they were doing something wrong, even though they didn't think it was very wrong, or only wrong because it was in public. You could say, in a loud voice, 'Take your hand off my body,' and they would look ashamed. You could strategise to avoid those you knew were trouble, you grew a tough skin walking about the street being shouted at, having your body commented on, being sneered at when you didn't respond. Learning to deal with loathesome men in public and at work was part of being a young woman. But it was more pervasive than that.

From The Blog
19 September 2012

In July, Santander wrote to tell me that there were going to be changes to the online account for small businesses I have had with them for around eight years. They began: Our aim is to build the bank we know our customers want. A bank that takes the time to listen... Then it went on to tell me what it was that I wanted.

From The Blog
14 September 2012

When I was a child I used to tap around the flat with a stick trying to find out what it was like to be blind. I folded scarves into triangles and knotted them around my neck and arm to make the sling for the broken arm I never had. I always wanted but never needed spectacles. I tried on other people's braces in the playground and limped around the corridors of my block of flats in imitation of children at school who had had polio and wore calipers on their legs. I thought it so glamorous to have 'a condition', and I was also curious to find out what it was like being without something I took for granted. But I have no memory at all of pretending to be deaf. I played games putting my fingers in my ears, of course, making things louder and quieter, but I never thought of it as seeing what it was like to be deaf. There were children in the playground who wore hearing aids, pinky beige flesh coloured implements you couldn't miss, but I never wanted to try them, or wondered what life would be like without hearing as I wondered what life would be like without sight.

From The Blog
20 August 2012

It's a big week for rape. And it's only Monday. In a mid-August special, the Republican candidate for the Senate Todd Akin and balcony diva Julian Assange's best friend George Galloway have come together to bring you the truth about rape. What it is and what it isn't. Akin, who sits on the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, has explained that there is no need to consider abortion for rape victims since 'from what I understand from doctors’, women rarely get pregnant from 'legitimate' rape as 'the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.' If, by some chance, this mechanism fails, 'I think there should be some punishment, but the punishment ought to be on the rapist, and not attacking the child.' In that last sentence you will notice that there is no reference to the raped woman, only the 'child' – that is, foetus – and rapist. Did I mention that Akin is on the House committee on Science, Space and Technology?

From The Blog
30 July 2012

'I forgot how rare and intoxicating collective joy is. It revives the heart, a bit, doesn't it?' said Megan Cat-Noises on Twitter. I may be the only person in the country to have woken up depressed on Saturday morning. Perhaps it's just what collective joy does to me and I am therefore to be pitied. It's certainly the case that I deeply dislike spectacle of all kinds and the heavy symbolism it demands. Still, let me try and clarify a little my response to the Olympic opening ceremony.

From The Blog
9 July 2012

Public crying has to pass some pretty stringent tests to get my approval. I don't think of myself as stoical, nor, certainly, would anyone who knows me; I moan and complain to a gold standard. But I have an aversion to crying in front of strangers, even familiars, and especially those waiting for me to do so - those boxes of tissues that shrinks have, and push forward as a spur to tearing up, for example, make a desert of me. I was once invited to cry in front of the whole school for my wrong doing, but chose to make my inner cheek bleed in preference. I can sort of see the point of crying on achievement after enormous effort, and even feel the prick in my own eye. But mine was, apparently, the only dry eye in the country (both countries, Scotland and 'Britain') at the tearfulness displayed by Andy Murray on losing a Wimbledon final.

From The Blog
3 July 2012

Although, during his speech congratulating his mother on having been queen for a long time, he mentioned that many people were suffering financial hardship, it's clear that the Prince of Wales isn't struggling to get by. Aside from his own personal fortune, he is in receipt this year of £18.3 million (a rise of 3 per cent) from the annual takings of the Duchy of Cornwall. This landed estate is given to the monarch in waiting. Since 1337, 'the duchy's main purpose has been to provide an income for the heir to the throne'. I don't know who gives it, or how the money received from it can be described, as it is, as the prince's 'private income', if the estate is owned by the Crown rather than the Windsors.

From The Blog
15 June 2012

The hideous cloud of productivity now looms over all our lives. It seems that actual writers use productivity apps to get on with their articles and books. Helen Oyeyemi advises writers to download the Write or Die app onto their computer (or does she write on an iPhone?). In ‘kamikaze mode’, if you stop writing for more than 45 seconds it starts deleting the words you have already written. Other writers claimed they use it (‘great for those days when you simply can’t start’) or joined in with advice for getting those words down on the page. Pomodoro forces you into 25 minute slots and five minute breaks, making writing like interval training. Written? Kitten! gives you a cute kitten pic for every hundred words you get down. Stick or carrot? You decide.

From The Blog
14 May 2012

A day at the Leveson Inquiry, as tweeted by @Diski Although I have an old-lady crush on Lord Leveson I do think he should say 'good morning' to start the day. 'Unspoken understanding = science fiction' Actually science fiction is a human being who doesn't know about unspoken understandings #leveson How to spend my day? Watch the #leveson inquiry or read Mrs George Osborne's new novel: Park Lane 'One address, two very different worlds' Now that's a novel concept. Where do you get your ideas from, Mrs Osborne? Especially adore Leveson because one can get so much private thinking done while he chooses each precise phrase with glacial lack of hurry. And his Lordship is so considerate to the help. Where can I apply to be his shorthand writer so he can give me a break? #gratefulforanycrumb Will sign off all communications in future with DOLL: Dote On Lord Leveson

From The Blog
26 April 2012

I'm not sure this is more urgent than the destruction of the NHS, or the latest recession (remember sherbet dips at primary school? It makes it hard to quail at the notion of the double dip), but I couldn't take my eyes off this week's magnates and moguls parade at the Leveson Inquiry.

From The Blog
27 March 2012

There's nothing even remotely surprising about the Cruddas 'bluster', or the fact of Cameron's 'kitchen suppers'(the latest thing in cool dining) for top Tory party donors. Though the class aspect is a bit interesting. Peter Cruddas was offered the post of Tory party co-treasurer in June 2011, taking over from David Rowland, and sharing with Lord Fink, both high-level donors themselves who have both been present at dinners chez Sam and Dave. But, although Peter Cruddas's donation of £382,451 in (you guessed it) 2011 is well over the Premier League sum of £250,000 requirement for intimate invitations, Cruddas, unlike Fink and Rowland was not, as Cameron has carefully pointed out, one of the boys shooting the breeze around the prime minister's kitchen table.

From The Blog
24 February 2012

'This is the most humble day of my life,' Rupert Murdoch said after trying to avoid attending and before failing to give satisfactory answers to the Leveson Committee on 19 July last year. It was very probably true, at least in so far as he appears to have entirely ditched humility since that day, or moment. In January, Murdoch opened a Twitter account. For those of you not following him – why aren't you following him? – here's a taste of what you are missing. He does global politics, international finance, domestic UK and US policy on education and welfare, and jokes. Here's a joke from 19 February: 'Miracles do happen! Sun shining in London.' The sun was shining, it was a lovely day. But the following day Murdoch announced the launch of the Sun on Sunday. See? What a tease.

From The Blog
1 February 2012

If you remember the BBC's Tomorrow's World, you'll feel a moment of nostalgia at reading about this exciting scientific breakthrough. The tomorrow of Tomorrow's World, like all tomorrows, never came. The marvellous invention or brand new piece of research that was going to change our lives for ever (tomorrow, obviously) never quite got to the point where it arrived in your kitchen or at a hospital near you. The marvellous machine today is the fMRI scanner. Today's promise for tomorrow's fMRI magic is that we can, finally, know what is going on in people's minds. Other people's minds. This is the great mystery and annoyance we all have to put up with, though if it ever comes to pass, I would be most eager to borrow it and find out what's going on in my own mind first.

From The Blog
17 November 2011

It's been almost disabling, this nothing interesting happening. The world having become entirely uneventful, no worries, no problems, nothing to engage the mind and heart. It's a dull time to be alive, but at last there's a break in the complete dearth of matters to care about. Jane Austen might have died of arsenic poisoning. And since she might have died of arsenic poisoning, she might have been murdered. If only the tedious old Janeites couldn't be relied on to get their knickers in a twist, we could disinter her bones and put them to the test. Now are you excited?

From The Blog
1 November 2011

When you complain that the Prince of Wales is living above our means, you need to bear in mind that as the owner of the Duchy of Cornwall he is not entitled to spend any of the Duchy's capital, merely its annual income, which in 2007 was a niggardly £16.3 million. And here is evidence that the Duchy is well aware of the hardship and struggle ordinary people are suffering during the present financial cutbacks and wishes to do its bit to help:

From The Blog
10 October 2011

I'm not sure if I've got my miserablist head round this exactly, but it seems that not only do pessimists generally have a much more realistic view of the world than optimists, but optimists maintain their unrealistic position by ignoring bad news. Tell someone that the 40 per cent chance they thought they had of getting cancer is actually 30 per cent and they'll revise their estimate to a realistic 31 per cent. Those who believed that their chances were just 10 per cent 'only marginally' increased their odds of getting the disease. MRI scans showed that the frontal lobes of the happy-go-lucky 80 per cent of the population just weren't letting any mopey facts change their upbeat, can-do, won't-die minds.

From The Blog
22 September 2011

Doom and gloom doubled last week when the Economist announced not just the death of books, but proved it by the death of bookcases. In particular Billy, a classic IKEA item of furniture that has been available for thirty years, has five adjustable shelves, is cheap enough for students to give up the brick and plank solution to book storage (though I don't know why they would) and which even 'may be completed with BILLY height extension unit in the same width for added storage vertically'. Billy, the Economist said, was suffering a redesign that suggested a change of use: the shelves were being deepened from 11" to 15" in order to hold ornaments, framed photographs, trophies, plants, decorative boxes. Glass doors have also been added: through which to look at objets, rather than to give instant book access. IKEA, it seemed, was declaring the end of books as we know them, a sure marker that the ebook revolution was complete.

From The Blog
17 June 2011

Ever since it began, years ago now, I've bought frocks and stuff from the Toast catalogue and online. In their first couple of outings they even had some over-40-year-old models. They are long gone, but I've remained loyal even though, as a young friend said, their clothes look like a conscientious but ironic remake of Miss Marple. It's hard growing old and still wanting to wear vintage-looking clothes. Two pluses so often make a minus. But recently, Toast has been alarmingly taken with its retro image, believing itself apparently to be more Virginia than Agatha.

From The Blog
25 May 2011

Were you looking forward to it? Just a little bit? In spite of yourself? Well, perhaps it's just me, but there's something about finality. All that goes-round-comes-round gets wearing after a few decades. My sense of potential completion depended, of course, on not being one of the Elect. Imagine. There it is, the End of Days and damn me if it's not all starting again - perfect, obviously, but still, starting again. I had no fear though, being a firm unbeliever. So six o'clock Saturday comes and goes, and shows every sign of coming again next Saturday. I'm not alone in my disappointment.

From The Blog
2 May 2011

Mrs Osborne (centre) looks back, concerned at the chancellor’s squeezed middle; or, What is that woman doing with her hand in the chancellor’s flies?

From The Blog
18 April 2011

Why should I worry me about the last white rhino leaving the planet, or the loss of a language that no one speaks any more? To tell the truth, I’m not sure. All loss is loss and needs noting, but do I really care apart from theoretically? Philologists and linguists will care that Ayapaneco, an indigenous Mexican language, is dying out, but since it’s the first I’ve heard of it, it would be dishonest to say I minded specifically about its passing. I’m never sure about museum-making.

From The Blog
9 February 2011

Big news from the Institute of Mental Health and the West London Mental Health Trust suggesting not only that grandmas don't know how to suck eggs but that there’s much less of it – mental health – around than we imagined. Perhaps imagined isn’t the right word. One thing people with Personality Disorder don’t have is delusion. It’s practically the sole defining characteristic – at least the only symptom not mentioned. At least 4 per cent, or possibly 13 per cent of us suffer from it. In fact, the definition is so broad that it may be we all suffer from it, all of us who don’t actually see things that aren’t there when we’re awake and not drunk or drugged.

From The Blog
25 November 2010

Damn, I'm enraptured, yes, enraptured, at Eric Cantona's suggestion that everyone take their money out of the banks. A wonderful, and possibly even serious (it's hard to tell from the English translation of the Belgian French) website, Bankrun 2010, set up by a screenwriter and an actor, has now set aside 7 December as International Take Your Money Home With You Day:

From The Blog
29 October 2010

The Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment has had its funding withdrawn in the quango cuts through which the Coalition is saving the country from bankruptcy and shame. But does this mean that no one's going to bother about what we see? Just a week after the quango's abolition, the Foundation for the Built Environment has very kindly made an offer to take over the job and give design advice on projected plans. HRH the Prince of Wales is the president of the foundation,

From The Blog
5 October 2010

I know nothing about snooker, but the other week I noticed that someone called Ronnie O'Sullivan almost refused to pot the final black in a maximum break (whatever that means) because there wasn't a decent bonus for doing so. Previously he would have got £147,000 but it's been dropped because it can't be insured against any more since the maximum break thing is too common an occurrence. So O'Sullivan would only have got an extra £4000 which he'd already won for the highest break (whatever that means). He said it wasn't worth the effort, especially once he'd paid tax on it.

From The Blog
1 October 2010

I misread the headline of Faisal Islam's blog on the Channel 4 News website. I though it said that the new deputy governor of the Bank of England told him that Britain's savers should now 'eat their reserve cash'. The fact that he's called Charlie – or Mr – Bean didn't help. But no, what he actually said was that people should be eating into their savings. It's the point of the Bank of England policy of keeping interest rates low, he said: an intended penalty, not, as the idiotically virtuous saver had supposed, an alarming side effect. How right I was to sneer at my parents' generation when they told me that I should save for my old age. It won't be like that then, I said. And here it is, not like that at all.

From The Blog
21 September 2010

One of the perks of being a writer these days is that from time to time you get to sit next to politicians at BBC-hosted dinner parties and on publicity-seeking panels of writers feeding the face-time craving of readers. Just before the 1997 election there was Paul (now Baron) Boateng on my left (at the table, not politically) responding to my ill-mannered complaint about the destruction of the point of the Labour Party by the invention of New Labour and its Tory policies on poverty. Don't worry, he said conspiratorially, you'll see. We have to get into power. Then we'll legislate to improve the condition of the poor. We're still the old Labour Party, but we have to get elected. New Labour is the only way to do it. Wait and see, we're playing the long game. But once you're in power, you'll have another election to fight. Just wait and see, he said. I waited and I saw.

From The Blog
7 September 2010

I've always had trouble with cataloguing books. In Ireland I came across a bookshop that had a wall of fiction divided into two. They were labelled: Novels by Men and Novels by Women. I left weeping. I'm in two minds about Daunt Books' method of geographic cataloguing. Graham Greene and Joseph Conrad all over the shop, though Dostoevsky safely under Russia.

From The Blog
2 September 2010

Provenance and authenticity are always problems for art investors. How do you know it's the real thing? So much more of a problem when the work of art or otherwise is a stencil on a wall that appears overnight. Banksy has posed a difficulty to collectors – even if it's real, who owns that wall, and can I please take a chunk of it away? It has happened. These days you look for a Perspex covering to tell you if it's just some schmuck graffiti-ing the wall or a Banksy worth it's weight in gold bricks. Excitement followed by despair modulated by an upbeat local story then for North-West Londoners who found in Primrose Hill, Belsize Park and Kentish Town a series of grannies clasping kettles to their comfy bosoms next to the words: 'Make tea not war'. A most suitable image for the leafier parts of Camden.

From The Blog
13 August 2010

Today, as if there wasn't enough sadness in the world, the Guardian gives us more to shake our heads about. Has the dignity of the dead hedgehog fallen foul of efficiency accountants? Apparently, the taking-away-roadkill department didn't turn up in time, so the road painters painted on according to schedule. Even penguins (who I haven't mentioned nearly recently enough) go round a static object, rather than over it. A spokesman for Hartlepool borough council said, clearly with a degree of satisfaction and relief: 'This is obviously an unfortunate incident, but it was the only one reported during the massive project.' But all may not be what it seems.

From The Blog
22 July 2010

Moving on from arsenic, we come to cyanide. Is that a kind of maturity? Like going from cheesy triangles to morbiers? What I know about cyanide comes from Agatha Christie or somesuch and is, in totality: smells like bitter almonds. So, you think, why would anyone drink it in their coffee without first wondering if their nearest and dearest were trying to kill them. Answer: because almost certainly Starbucks has an almond syrup latte that has breathed new life into the wife-poisoning industry. Then again people are always knocking back cyanide in their champagne in Christie without complaint, until their hand flies to their throat, their face contorts into a hideous mask and they fall writhing and then lifeless to the ground. Miss Marple and M. Poirot only have to bend their heads down to the lips of the corpse to get a whiff of almonds and know exactly how, why and who done the deed. I suggest you just say no if your beverage smells of bitter almonds.

From The Blog
28 May 2010

Adaptability. That's the quality that got homo sapiens to the head of the evolutionary queue to destroy the planet. The great apes couldn't manage it, though viruses are sneaking up on us in their sneaky way. Adaptability: making the best of a bad job. Cue the Paddy Power Novelty Bet: First to become extinct in the great BP Oil Spill race. Which species will you bet on? Not looking good for the Kemp's Ridley Turtle or your winnings, at 4/5. Brown Pelicans (presumably now sticky black) are a better bet at 8/1. Very likely the adaptability factor (what fun and profit can we get out of this misery?) is in inverse proportion to your distance from the Louisiana coast. A local fisherman or fish probably less likely to take a punt than me sitting in my Cambridge eyrie.

If that's a little depressing, click back at the top of the page from 'First to become extinct' to the higher category of BP Specials and the odds on Next CEO of BP.

A Human Being: Karl Marx

Jenny Diski, 25 November 1999

They say, and it does seem to be true, that we get the prime ministers and presidents we deserve. Now, it looks as if each generation is going to get the Karl Marx it deserves. There are advantages in watching the process of a Marx revived again and again according to the perceptions of social pundits: with each recasting and each self-appointed recaster of Marx representing the texture of current thought, we’ll have a chance to observe something about our state of mind, while, if we were there before, we can comfort ourselves with the notion that our Marx – naturally – was the real Karl. Right now, columnist, game-show pundit and biographer of Tom Driberg, Francis Wheen is here to tell us that all the previous practitioners and theoreticians of Marx’s work – both the governments and the academics (in economics, history, geography, sociology, literature) who professed themselves Marxists – have ‘calamitously misinterpreted’ his thought. The academics and zealots have had their day apparently, and it is time, Wheen says, ‘to strip away the mythology and try to rediscover Karl Marx the man’. If your immediate response is ‘why?’, you’ve probably been off-planet for a few years. The biographical obsession, personality-bound cod analysis, has got everywhere. We prefer to see the portrait of the man, rather than think about his thoughts. The retreat in search of lively personal origins as a form of explanation is less demanding than the perpetual examination of ideas and their development. In October 1998 the New Yorker named Marx as ‘the next great thinker’ (possibly following on from the author of The Little Book of Calm). Marx the Movie is surely just around the corner, and not long after we can – oh please can we? – expect the musical ‘Carbuncle!’; maybe, if we get very lucky, Disney will animate lovable, hairy Karl, or as Wheen describes him ‘squat and swarthy, a Jew tormented by self-loathing’ (voiced undoubtedly by a frantically guttural Robin Williams) scribbling The Communist Manifesto at his desk while a chorus of comically evil creditors sing a hummy hymn to capitalism, ‘We’ve got nothing to lose but our claims.’ Oh, what an exciting new century we have to look forward to.’‘

Feel the burn: pain

Jenny Diski, 30 September 1999

You may have missed out on love, transcendental oneness with the Universe, the adrenaline rush of the warrior, but you’ve had a headache or a bad back. Pain is the one engulfing, undeniable, incommunicable experience we’ve all had. And yet for all its ubiquity, pain is a solitary encounter, a lonely way of discovering the certainty that you exist. I hurt therefore I am is rapidly followed by I hurt therefore I am alone. Two people in pain are not nearly as likely to commit themselves to each other for life, or found a religious community, or become comrades in battle as they are to curl up silently in separate corners of the room to suffer alone what can’t be shared. Nasty business. One of the nastiest we can think of. Fear of death in a secular society is largely fear of pain. It’s not hard to imagine longing for death as a release from pain, but very difficult to believe one would wish to trade the blankness of death for living agony. Even self-confessed masochists are clear that the pain they want is the pain of their choosing, at the time of their choosing and with the sadist of their choosing, not an attack of toothache or appendicitis.

Whatever the truth of the appealing though dubious proposition that by forty everyone has the face they deserve, it looks as if getting the biographer you deserve post-mortem is pretty much pot luck. Here are two beautiful, displaced, canny women with a powerful sense of their own purpose. For Stacy Schiff, the Véra Nabokov she introduces is ‘the figure in the carpet … Hers was a life lived in the margins, but then as Nabokov teaches us – sometimes the commentary is the story.’ Laura Beatty, however (including the word ‘Morals’ in the title for more than mere alliterative satisfaction), prefaces her tale of Lillie Langtry with the following deadly judgment: ‘Motivation is the key to character, and Lillie’s reasons for doing the things she did, range through panic and muddle to greed and plain wrong-thinking. She was after all seduced, and it will not be possible to exonerate her from the ultimate charges of corruption and betrayal of self … The genius is the only type of human whose agenda is pure enough for his [sic] motives to be incontrovertible. Lillie was not a genius.’’‘

The problem with Nancy Mitford, according to one of her sisters (the Communist? Possibly. The troublesome, giggly one who fancied Hitler? Not likely. The Duchess? Probably), is that she never came first with anyone. It’s doubtful if coming first is part of the human birthright, but it feels as if it is, both to those who do come first with someone, and those who don’t. Coming first is coterminous with being loved above all else – which is a definition of having a place to stand in the world – but to a weary eye, it seems a pretty unlikely proposition. Coming second is a more reasonable ambition, because only your own self can really be relied on to put you first. This is a discovery everyone makes sooner or later: if sooner you may end up a little bitter and twisted, but you will avoid great disappointment; if later you will almost certainly take to your word-processor and key in the story of your life. Historians in the present worry that historians in the future will be overwhelmed by the avalanche of primary sources lying around on floppy disks. History itself will be choked to death by information overload. Everyone has a story to tell and eventually, in a bid to come first with themselves and posterity, everyone will have committed their story in its unedited detail to paper. Among these mounds of autobiography will be Margaret Cook’s effort at self-valuation. It is a classic of the genre. Unlike most of these productions, Dr Cook’s memoir has been professionally published, but that is her consolation prize for having had the misfortune or bad judgment to be married for thirty years to the current Foreign Secretary.’

Ossie Clark, for those who never hankered after his confections in the late Sixties and early Seventies, was a dress designer. His designs are in museums of fashion quite as legitimately as a gold necklace from ancient Egypt is displayed in the British Museum, or the uniform of the Light Brigade is illustrated in the Imperial War Museum. Each item tells us something about its time and place, certainly not everything, but something. Nevertheless, they become a good deal more vivid and more informative when we are given a living context for the artefacts. The most exquisitely chipped stone arrowhead is better appreciated if we know something of the life of its maker.

The Will of the Fathers: Abraham

Jenny Diski, 10 December 1998

To accuse the book of Genesis of being patriarchal is like complaining that cats throw up fur-balls, or dogs sniff each other’s bottoms. It’s not pleasant, but that’s cats and dogs for you. On the other hand, you can choose not to have a cat or dog, whereas, says Carol Delaney, Genesis we’re lumbered with, deep in our psyche and social structure. Therefore we need ‘a new moral vision, a new myth to live by’. (This is to accept that we are helpless victims rather than interpreters of myth, and that our consciousness is entirely conditioned by it, which is a bleak view of humanity’s capacity for analytical thought, and an even bleaker view of the consequences of feminist criticism of patriarchal stories.) However, she continues, ‘I cannot provide such a myth – no one person can do that,’ and so her book is not taken up with offering new gender-free myths to live by, but with a surprised and outraged analysis of the patriarchal assumptions in the story of Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac. Her surprise is somewhat surprising. When Delaney declares that she has discovered ‘sexist presumptions’ in Luther’s understanding of the Scriptures, adding, ‘Nor does he ask what right Abraham had to involve other people in such a unilateral decision’, and announces that she believes that the story of the binding of Isaac ‘represents the construction, establishment and naturalisation of sex role differences [her italics]’ you can only shake your head and murmur: ‘Well, yes, and the Pope’s a Catholic.’’‘

Diary: Diski at Fifty

Jenny Diski, 15 October 1998

I’m nine years old, in bed, in the dark. The detail in the room is perfectly clear. I am lying on my back. I have a greeny-gold quilted eiderdown covering me. I have just calculated that I will be 50 years old in 1997. ‘Fifty’ and ‘1997’ don’t mean a thing to me, aside from being an answer to an arithmetic question I set myself. I try it differently. ‘I will be 50 in 1997.’ 1997 doesn’t matter. ‘I will be 50.’ The statement is absurd. I am nine. ‘I will be ten’ makes sense. ‘I will be 13’ has a dreamlike maturity about it. ‘I will be 50’ is simply a paraphrase for another senseless statement I make to myself at night: ‘I will be dead one day.’ ‘One day I won’t be.’ I have a great determination to feel the sentence as a reality. But it always escapes me. ‘I will be dead’ comes with a picture of a dead body on a bed. But it’s mine, a nine-year-old body. When I make it old, it becomes someone else. I can’t imagine myself dead. I can’t imagine myself dying. Either the effort or the failure to do so makes me feel panicky.‘

The title startles. The children of Noah were tower-raisers, nomads, farmers, slaves, desert wanderers, warmongers, city-dwellers, poets and musicians even, but sailors? Jewish seafaring? Jewish seafaring? Certainly, there were family days out at the seaside: my father would roll his trousers up to his calves, and my mother discard her shoes to sit on their deckchairs, but neither of them ever ventured seaward beyond the darker, wetter stretch of sand. I was taught to swim (not by my parents, who I never saw buoyant), though, as I understood it, the lessons were so that I could get out of the sea, should I ever be so foolish and unfortunate as to find myself in it. For even non-practising Jews like us, the sea didn’t seem kosher. Jewish people I knew were tailors or shopkeepers, their children were supposed to become businessmen, doctors, lawyers, academics, no one ever mentioned the possibility of a career as a mariner. It made traditional sense to me: hadn’t Moses ordered the Red Sea to part rather than have the Children of Israel get their feet wet?

Diary: new words

Jenny Diski, 1 January 1998

With New Year (anxiety of New Years past, dread of New Years future) breathing hot down my neck, and time itself moving along so fast that it seems to be about to lap me, Oxford University Press has produced a dictionary of two thousand new words. I haven’t learned all the old ones yet. It’s very stressful. There ought to be a word for that second-half-of-life sense of time accelerating out of one’s orbit. The feeling of never quite catching up, of being always slightly then and never quite now, and out of breath with it. Or those nightmares of sitting for exams on subjects you never studied. But I haven’t found it so far, if you don’t include ‘ageing’. Here I am still trying to come to grips with black holes when suddenly I find that cold dark matter is on everyone’s lips. Being an inept visualiser, I am unable intuitively to grasp that a buckminsterfullerene is a ‘stable form of carbon whose nearly spherical, hollow molecule consists of 60 carbon atoms arranged in a shape with 12 pentagonal faces and 20 hexagonal ones (a truncated regular icosahedron)’. My heavens, ‘nearly spherical’, a ‘truncated regular icosahedron’, whatever happened to certainty and precision in science? Call it by its alternative name, footballene, and light comes flooding in (unless it is just my particular gift to be able to visualise a football).‘

New Faces on the Block

Jenny Diski, 27 November 1997

What happened to Rosa Travers, after she’d been skinned (carbolic acid and phenol), had her nose snipped, received paraffin injections in her breasts and was irradiated to remove undesirable body hair? That would have been the first part of her prize. When all was done, she had an opera audition. Rosa Travers was a sweatshop worker who in 1924 had the distinction of winning the New York Daily Mirror’s competition to find the ‘homeliest girl in New York’:‘

Mrs Straus’s Devotion

Jenny Diski, 5 June 1997

We are moved but not overwrought at the fate of those who died at Pompeii, with the sinking of the Mary Rose, during the San Francisco earthquake and at the collapse of the Tay Bridge. We respond much more uneasily to the sinking of the Herald of Free Enterprise, the Estonia and the Marchioness. Lives cut short are less poignant once, to paraphrase Beckett, they would have died anyway. We are on the cusp of having the emotional load of the sinking of the Titanic lightened, but not quite there yet. As I write, there are at least two, and possibly seven, very elderly survivors of the disaster still alive, but late 20th-century impatience – with age, with taste, for trivia – has made us run a little ahead of ourselves. So it is with unconcealed regret that the authors of the Titanic cookbook point out that there is no way of knowing exactly what was on the menu at the super-first class A la Carte restaurant on the evening of 14 April 1912, because ‘unfortunately, none of the surviving passengers who ate there on the last evening tucked a copy of the menu into the pocket of a dinner-jacket, so we can only surmise what the bill of fare included.’ That would not be an insurmountable obstacle in itself: one of the less fortunate passengers might have provided the clue. A damaged but still partly legible menu from 12 April ‘recovered from the body of a third-class passenger’ is given a full-page reproduction (porridge, smoked herrings and jacket potatoes for breakfast), to prove the authenticity of the small steerage-class recipe section that follows.’

Get it out of your system

Jenny Diski, 8 May 1997

It would be nice, wouldn’t it, a sort of comfort in a morally confusing world, to find some sweeping generalisation we could all agree to, regardless of history, culture or class? Only a brave and doubtless partially informed person would claim definitively to have found anything which all humanity has in common beyond microbiology. Try a life without love being meaningless, the need for the individual to have control of the means of production, or the ubiquitous appeal of the smell of frying onions, and there will always be someone ready to show that these truths are not universal. It’s just possible, however, that William Miller has cracked the problem with his simple but glorious statement: ‘One simply did not drink pus, even back then.’ If we want to find a common response on which all people at all times and all places can agree, then the pus-drinking activity of St Catherine of Siena, c. 1370, is surely where to look. The usual mêlée of cultural and emotional variation falls away in the face of it. Relativism withers at its mention. Not even those whose pus St Catherine drank managed any degree of equanimity. As her hagiographer, Raymundus de Vineis, tells it, only Catherine was prepared to attend one of her fellow nuns whose suppurating breast cancer smelt so bad that no one else could abide being in the same room. So far, so decent. When, however, Catherine came to dress the wound, the stench caused her to vomit. In order to punish her wilful body, and get a saint-like hold on herself, Catherine decanted the pus into a cup and drank it. The patient was less than grateful; she came to loathe Catherine, taking the rather modern view that whenever the ‘holy maid was anywhere out of her sight … she was about some foul act of fleshly pleasure.’ She was not so far wrong. Christ appeared to Catherine in a dream, and as a reward for subduing her nature, drew her mouth to the wound in his side and let her drink to her heart’s content. We may or may not, down the generations and across belief systems, consider this behaviour holy, but would anyone deny that it is disgusting? Mind you, relativism dies hard: there are South American peoples who regularly feast on manioc root softened with the saliva of the women of the tribe, and groups who make soup out of the ashes of their dead, so let us say that in a variable world it is impossible for us in this time and place to imagine anyone not finding pus-drinking disgusting.

The Girl in the Attic

Jenny Diski, 6 March 1997

I wonder if to be Jewish is to be by definition lonely in the world – not as a result of the history, but on account of the theology. If ardent young men attending the yeshiva have traditionally engaged each other in intense arguments nagging at the nicer points of interpreting the Torah, it is surely because the Jewish God is notorious for evading questions directed at him. Was there ever such a one for sliding out of an argument as Jahweh? The last time he responded to a direct question must have been when the blameless Job, suffering a foreshadowing of the 20th century with the loss of his children, his worldly goods and afflicted with all manner of physical ills, demanded – quite politely under the circumstances – to know why of his maker. ‘Where,’ boomed the Lord, ‘wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth? … Hath the rain a father? … Out of whose womb came the ice? … Canst thou draw out leviathan with a hook?’ All interesting questions, but not really to Job’s point. God does not seem to be a good communicator. Too busy with the overall scheme of things, perhaps. He’ll give out ten blanket rules, but he won’t tell you why your life seems to be so bloody difficult lately. The problem of the senior executive without the common touch. Catholicism seems to have understood the Almighty’s failing and provided its faithful with a bevy of more approach-able under-managers, each with their own speciality, willing and able to intercede with on high on behalf of the baffled individual. A Catholic knows exactly who to apply to when hoping for better health, safe travel, release from drudgery or persecution. There is a saint for almost everything that ails you. For the Jews, however, there is only a single very busy, self-important and fractious God. So it seemed to me when I was young. I was troubled by the unreliability of prayer, rather as one feels anxious about sending important letters to large organisations.’

A Feeling for Ice

Jenny Diski, 2 January 1997

I am not entirely content with the degree of whiteness in my life. My bedroom is white; white walls, icy mirrors, white sheets and pillowcases, white slatted blinds. It’s the best I could do. Some lack of courage – I wouldn’t want to be thought extreme – has prevented me from having a white bedstead and side tables. They are wood, and they annoy me a little. Opposite my bed, in the very small room, a wall of mirrored cupboards reflects the whiteness back at itself, making it twice the size it thought it was. In the morning, if I arrange myself carefully when I wake, I can open my eyes to nothing but whiteness.’

Life, Death and the Whole Damn Thing

Jenny Diski, 17 October 1996

Oliver Sacks seeks for meaning in the chaos of neurological deficit. He has that in common with his patient Mr Thompson, one of two Korsakov amnesiacs described in The Man who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, who, says Sacks, ‘must seek meaning, make meaning, in a desperate way, continually inventing, throwing bridges of meaning over abysses of meaninglessness, the chaos that yawns continually beneath him’. Mr Thompson invents personal narratives over and over again with endless variation, but, according to Sacks, they fail to work ‘because they are confabulations, fictions, which cannot do service for reality while also failing to correspond with reality’.

Cool It

Jenny Diski, 18 July 1996

Snow is cold. Some more information I am prepared to accept as plain fact: near 90° South if you take your gloves off for more than a few moments, your fingers die; at its edge, the 5.5 million square mile ice-cap (twice that size in winter) calves bergs, some as big as London, the largest recorded 60 miles long, which drift through the most turbulent seas in the world; no land-based vertebrate inhabits the southernmost continent, because nothing can live on it apart from breeding penguins and seals; the seas freeze into great shifting platelets of ice which can crush to toothpicks a ship caught in their grip.

Sweetie Pies

Jenny Diski, 23 May 1996

Denis Thatcher is entirely inventable – as John Wells understood: he comes in a flat pack with easy-to-follow instructions, all the components familiar general shapes, all parts from stock, no odd angles, no imagination required. When they came up with the idea for Ikea, they used Denis Thatcher as the prototype. You can make him up in the time it would take to boil an egg.

Having Half the Fun

Jenny Diski, 9 May 1996

Once, the mad were exhibited at Bedlam for the fascination of Sunday tourists; ooh’ed and ahh’ed at as examples of how the human mind can distort the civilised and rational behaviour which was supposed to be its very particular accomplishment. Lately, they are more freely available between the covers of books, described and philosophised over by neurologists, psychiatrists and therapists who, besides seeking to cure them, wish to illuminate the meaning of their mad patients for the general – as in normal – public. We are offered the chance to marvel at the way minds warp, and to feel that there is some telling connection between the warped mind and its supposed original state of sanity. There is anxiety, too, mixed with a little excitement, at the indistinct boundaries between madness and sanity, and perhaps a degree of envy, with the suspicion that the mad, agonised though they may be, are having a more interesting, or at least more significant, time of it.’

Diary: On Meeting the Creatives

Jenny Diski, 22 February 1996

It’s a bad year for snow in Zermatt. Mont Cervin is mostly bare red rock. Even the Matterhorn has only a frosting of snow. But the pistes are all right: every few hundred yards bright yellow snow-making machines, like small snub-nosed cannon, soak up water from the lakes and shoot it ten metres into the air to do what God can usually be relied on to achieve, and keep what skiers there are on the move. Still, the shopkeepers and hoteliers are not a happy bunch, and there are nothing but shopkeepers and hoteliers in Zermatt. The lights in this tacky twinkletown flitter merrily, gold watches glisten in the jewellers’ windows, but the faces are glum. There is no other point to the place except to enable wealthy folk to slide down the mountain into the shops and bars to spend their crisp Swiss francs. Except, that is, for one long weekend each year when two hundred people gather together in a windowless, air-conditioned hall in the basement of one of the swisher hotels in order to learn how to be creative. The director-generals of Lancôme, Ciba-Geigy, ABB and Nestlé, along with their underling executives, have all paid four thousand or so Swiss francs to discover how to add a mysteriously desirable cache of creativity to their already accumulated, though more concrete, store of wealth and power. Like so many overbred princesses, they still feel the pea, no matter how many feather mattresses they lie on.

Made for TV

Jenny Diski, 14 December 1995

The death of Dennis Potter may have been authored by God, but it was adapted for television by Potter himself. It began after a brief report in the Guardian suggested that Potter’s terminal cancer related to his lifelong addiction to nicotine. By return there was a gleeful letter from Potter revelling in the Potteresque fact that far from his ‘beloved cigarettes’ being the culprits, his forthcoming death from pancreatic cancer was probably iatrogenic: the result of years of lethal medication. The Guardian letter assumed its readers knew that he had suffered all his adult life from psoriatic arthropathy, which, of course, they did. But tellingly, so did the readers of the Sun and the News of the World, who were more familiar with Potter as the‘Dirty Drama King’ and ‘Television’s Mr Filth’. Very few playwrights have had this kind of reach, and none has put it to such dramatic and manipulative use as Dennis Potter in his leavetaking broadcast to the nation. Though Potter was a Methodist, it was a final performance worthy of the archetypal Yiddisher momma having her guilt-laying, emotional-blackmailing finest hour. He may, as a lad, have gone three times every Sunday to a chapel called Salem, but it’s not for nothing that one of his plays was entitled Schmoedipus – as in the old Jewish joke, ‘Oedipus, schmoedipus, what does it matter so long as he loves his mother?’’

Diary: Pearl’s Question

Jenny Diski, 19 October 1995

There are some questions that are so urgent that they have to be asked repeatedly, even though there has never been, nor ever will be an answer. They may be addressed to another person, but it is just as likely that they are spoken aloud to an empty chair when no one else is present. Certain questions have to be articulated, made real and sent off pulsing into the ether. When another person is present they behave as if they were expected to answer and focus their attention on the question, even perhaps, attempt some form of words, knowing all the while that the only proper response is a bewildered shake of the head. There is some ineffable Zen Buddhist koan to which the correct reply is to take off a shoe and place it on one’s head. It’s a response which is as absurd as the question that has no answer, but which also respects the necessity of the question by engaging with it.

Whatever happened to Ed Victor?

Jenny Diski, 6 July 1995

‘Time! It’s passing. Oh, God. Time!’ mourned the legal adviser to Oz, transfixed by his wristwatch after his first and last joint. Who said nothing profound ever came of smoking the weed? Time was passing. It has passed. Twenty-five years after the dope, the hair, the music and the flowery rhetoric flowed tree, those of us who were young enough to inhabit the land of spiked milk and honeyed hash fudge are in our forties and fifties. Which is only to be expected, although, of course, it was the last thing that anyone did, in fact, expect. There’s nothing more difficult to get a solid grip on (except perhaps the Anthropic Principle in quantum physics) than the passage of time between being young, and the discovery that, at best, you’re halfway through your allocation It feels as if an error has been made – a decade skipped by some careless calendar designer. Try and make sense of it: 25 years ago I was 23. All right, that’s not so difficult. Twenty-five years before that the date was 1945: the war had just ended, and I was two years short of being born. Twenty-five years from now it will be 2020 and I’ll be 73 (maybe). Which is ridiculous – these are altogether different sorts of 25 years, surely? Why didn’t anyone tell us about time passing, the way it accelerates, how it skitters along without so much as a pardon-me-do-you-know-you’re-in-the-way? It would be a simple enough statement: you get three lots of 25 years and then you die. It’s possible, of course, that someone might have mentioned it, but we had the music (‘The Times They Are a-Changing’; ‘I Can’t Get No Satisfaction’; ‘My g-g-Generation’) turned up too high to hear.’

Although it’s counter-intuitive, neither sex nor the pursuit of self were inventions of the 20th century. In his snatch of vérité during the film Reds, Henry Miller hazarded the view that people have always done a lot of fucking. Montaigne settled to his solitary task of reflective self-examination in the mid-16th century. Sex and the self as subjects for investigation share the characteristic of always making their examiners feel like pioneers in uncharted territory. Either because of this, or because what there is to know is naturally limited, the data don’t so much accrete over time as repeat themselves.

Diary: A Looking-Glass Land of Sorts

Jenny Diski, 23 February 1995

It always happens somewhere between pages 120 and 150. This is what they tell me, and I suppose there must be something in it, because I only have to get a certain look on my face and the daughter and ex-husband nod knowingly at one another and say: ‘Page 120.’ Invariably, between half and two-thirds of the way through a novel, the whole thing turns to dust. The choice is to take a deep breath and re-write, or chuck the whole thing into the dustbin at just the right moment on a Thursday morning so there’s no time to retrieve it before the dustmen come and claim it. After the event, with a slab of finished manuscript sitting on my desk, I call it a second draft: now with months of work a heap of ashes, a pile of incoherent words whose meaning I cannot for the life of me fathom, I wring my hands, drag my feet, and announce dully to anyone who’ll listen that this time (yes, I know last time, and the time before that, but this time) it’s an irretrievable disaster. And my loved ones yawn as if Karl Popper had never lived.

Bob and Betty

Jenny Diski, 26 January 1995

Those given to hasty judgments might find the title of Betty Maxwell’s autobiography something of a logical contradiction. Even leaving aside the strangeness, to feminist eyes, of the title’s construction, just a passing knowledge of the dynamics of Robert Maxwell’s ego would seem to preclude the possibility of having the one while being with the other for 47 years. Yet, when one has read the book, it becomes clear that the colon is, after all, perfectly placed between the two propositions, and that the initial judgment turned on a very narrow and possibly rather transitory definition of having a mind of one’s own. If living with Robert Maxwell provides satisfaction, however specialised, then to do so is perfectly in keeping with having a mind of one’s own.

Porter for Leader

Jenny Diski, 8 December 1994

Rose was my next-door-neighbour-but-one when I lived in the furthermost reaches of Camden – three steps and one foot off the pavement and I was alienated in Islington. Rose was in her eighties and her husband had just died. I popped round to have a cup of tea and found her sitting in her darkened front room as glum as an old wife and new widow might be expected to be. ‘It’s terrible,’ she said. I nodded silently; even when tragedy isn’t surprising, it’s a bugger. ‘The bulb’s gone,’ she said, looking up at the ceiling. ‘Just like that. Bang! I haven’t got a new one, and anyway I get dizzy if I don’t have both feet on the ground. First him, now this. They say things go in threes. Gawd knows what’s going to happen next.’ Rose was a real Londoner. She’d lived in the same place since she was a child and told me once when we were chatting outside the corner shop, how she remembered the herds of cattle thundering up York Way from King’s Cross to the slaughterhouses in Market Road. ‘You could feel the ground shake under your feet well before you could see them. It was always dangerous crossing that road,’ she’d say, standing on the kerb, eyeing the cars and lorries as they streamed past.’

You could scream

Jenny Diski, 20 October 1994

The last thing that dreams should do is come true. It would end in futile tears if they did, much as it would for the autophagist who chomps away at himself from the legs up until he comes to his head and realises that he can never achieve the final consummation. Dreams are for dreaming about. The Hollywood dream-masters got it right when they had Judy Garland playing a star-struck teenager gazing at a pin-up of Clark Gable and singing ‘If you were the only boy in the world’. It’s if, not when. Mix them up and you remember the story of Gable resting on set minus his false teeth shouting gummily at another passing icon: ‘Look here, Marilyn, America’s sweetheart.’ It adds enormously to Gable’s individuality, but plays havoc for ever after with the moment when he’s frank with Vivian Leigh.

Rhythm Method

Jenny Diski, 22 September 1994

Not long ago a friend of mine was walking back to her car after the cinema when, not unusually for the time and the place, a distraught man placed himself in her way. She was not frightened; he was easily identified as mad, not bad. A shuffling walk, a drooping, defeated posture which required a special effort to raise his head so he could address her, and eyes, when they lifted, which were more distressed than aggressive. He put out a hand, as if the fact of his body being in her path would not be enough to gain her attention. ‘Can I talk to you?’ he asked. My friend felt around in her handbag and came up with some money which she pressed into his hand. It was a normal inner city exchange. Except that the man shook his head, put the money back into my friend’s open bag, took some more from his own pocket and dropped that in too. ‘No, I’ve got money. It’s not money. I want to talk to you,’ he said, and launched into a rambling tale of woe about being evicted from his hostel and how it felt to have nowhere to go and no one to tell. He was not asking for anything except what is most difficult to give: time and attention.

Homage to Barbara Cartland

Jenny Diski, 18 August 1994

I could have left well alone; read the new autobiography and a novel or two and got stuck in. I’m not a great believer in the principle that talking to people is the best way of finding out who they really are. I’m not sure I’m even a great believer in the notion that there is a who-they-really-are to be found out. So why I petitioned for an interview with Barbara Cartland still baffles me, except perhaps that I enjoy improbability and (occasionally) being in situations that are entirely beyond my ken.

Diary: A Plot in Highgate Cemetery

Jenny Diski, 23 June 1994

For some time now, it’s been clear to me that consciousness of death is a kindness bestowed on us by the Great Intelligence, so that even if all else succeeded we would always have something to worry about. This, of course, accounts for pussy cats and lions sleeping 18 hours a day and therefore failing to invent the fax machine. Us humans, up and anxious about death, have passed the time thinking up civilisation as a way to distract ourselves, or at least to let others know that we’re awake, too. Unfortunately, the fax machine having already been invented, I had to settle simply for being up and anxious all Bank Holiday weekend, brooding darkly and leafing restlessly through the Gazetteer of London Cemeteries.


Jenny Diski, 28 April 1994

It goes against all the currents of current wisdom that a public man should be just what he seems to be. Is there anyone left in the world who doesn’t believe at some level or other in the disjunction between appearance and reality? I suppose somewhere deep in the forests where no white man has trod; in the highest, most inaccessible plateaux of some far-flung mountainous region, there might be a few primitive folk left who still think that what they see is what there is. But the rest of us are not completely astonished to discover that nice, ordinary MPs who take decent girls to Tory fund-raising dances prefer stockings and electric flex in the privacy of their own kitchens, or that our favourite English poet of quiet suburban gloom had a nasty sense of humour and some unfortunate habits. We know that beneath all exteriors lie subterranean streams and caverns where the private, unknowable self contradicts the stated desires and achievements of the visible life.

He could afford it

Jenny Diski, 7 April 1994

This is the story of a man who insisted on having precisely 12 peas on his dinner plate every evening. He threaded the peas all in a row on to his fork and ate them, but if one of the peas was too big to fit on the prong with the rest, it was returned to the chef to be replaced by a pea of standard size. Once you know this everything else follows.

It’s Mummie

Jenny Diski, 16 December 1993

‘It was not ever thus in England,’ says A.N. Wilson, stilting his prose in deference to the text he’s introducing. He’s speaking of the deluge of intimacies we can expect these days in the press about the Royal Family. The ‘mystique of kingship’, Wilson explains, was restored in the late Thirties by George VI and Elizabeth, who, even before they moved into Buckingham Palace, erected a wall of silence around the House of Windsor, as soundproof as the walls of all those castles they processed around. Who knew of David Windsor’s dereliction of duty in favour of love (or whatever it was) until a week before the Abdication? Well, quite a lot of people actually, but not the readers of the popular (as in lower orders) press. Marion Crawford, governess to Lilibet and Margaret Rose, started the rot by ratting on her employers in 1950. Which means that, like liberated and consequence-free sex, the period of royal mystery was brief, helped by the fact that a large war was going on for much of the time, when the intimate doings of the royal family may not have been uppermost in people’s minds.

The Synaptic Years

Jenny Diski, 24 June 1993

It’s a race against time, but, as this century totters to its close, we might, in the final few years, catch up with the arithmetic and discover that it’s the 20th century we’ve been inhabiting, and not, after all, a dreamlike prolongation of the 19th. We’ll feel bereft, of course, as we pack away the old Middle-European 19th-century philosophies – we’ve played with them for so long there appears to be no alternative. Actually, we’ve got nothing to lose but certain habits of mind, and not much to fear since forming habits of mind is a special talent of our species. And there might be enough of a hiatus to feel sweet relief as the weight of Marx and Freud lifts off us, and the burden of history, public and personal, becomes a thing of the past.’

Diary: On Palm Island

Jenny Diski, 22 April 1993

It’s six-thirty, I’m wide awake and all fired up to go to Palm Island. As I’m about to run the bath, a sudden silence breaks over the flat. An electricity blackout. A little urban catastrophe and a personal disaster: no hot water. How can I start the day, let alone go off lotus-eating, without a cup of tea and immersing myself in hot water? I assess my resources, and in the spirit of pioneering sell-sufficiency (pre-desert island practice) put three large saucepans of water to boil on the gas stove. I shall have my bath and cup of tea – and go to the ball, too, if I want! But ten minutes later the electricity clicks and hums all the machines back into life, and almost immediately a fax comes through in the study. It is from P., currently out of town, wishing me bon voyage. No need to scan it; it’ll be deliciously filthy, designed to keep his memory jiggling in my base and basest cells as I idle away my fortnight in paradise. A mistress of the deferred and doubled pleasure, I save it to read with a cup of tea back in bed, while the bath runs.’

The thought came to Ellen in the middle of one night. First she was asleep and then she was awake with a single question in her head, as if it was asking itself so urgently it couldn’t wait until morning to have itself thought about. The question was this: does Mount Rushmore exist? And then, in answer to her weary: Well, of course it exists; a supplementary question: How do you know?

Good Housekeeping

Jenny Diski, 11 February 1993

By the age of 31 Jeffrey Dahmer had killed 17 people, all men, none of whom he had known for more than a few hours. He masturbated with the bodies, dissected them, had sex with the viscera and performed fellatio with the opened mouths of severed heads. Not long before he was caught, and while in the process of yet another killing, his flat in Milwaukee contained two corpses in the bath, a headless torso immersed in bleach, several severed heads, hearts and genitalia in the fridge and freezer, and the body of a man killed two days previously under a blanket on the only bed, where, presumably, Dahmer slept until he discovered the head crawling with maggots, and was obliged to cut it off and prepare it for freezing.


Jenny Diski, 5 November 1992

There are really only two things people want to keep from public scrutiny: their real, private self; or the fact that they have no private self of any particular interest. Now, my instinctive guess is that everyone is nursing the fear that the real them doesn’t amount to very much worth knowing. The famous fear it most, but everyone, I think, suspects that they might not really exist in any interesting way beyond their public and superficial selves. Still, some part of me rebels at this thought, if only because it’s so dull. Surely, there might be some individuals whose exterior and apparent love of themselves and all their works is genuine adoration for what they find in the privacy of their own self-regard. It’s not my experience of how human beings are, but I might have missed something. I look, therefore, with great interest, at self-revelation and where its limits lie.

Perfect Light

Jenny Diski, 9 July 1992

One of the mysteries of our time is the hunger we have to know details about the lives of people we have never met. Years ago, walking down Heath Street, I saw, at the bottom of the hill by the station, the most extraordinary glow in the air. I was still too far away to see what was causing the strange disturbance, but as I got closer the picture resolved itself into two figures encased in a golden shimmer, the light zinging around them. Naturally, I was thrilled to be getting my first authentic sighting of extraterrestrials – and in Hampstead, too. Sadly, my vision firmed up quite soon, as they and I got closer to each other, and I recognised the not-quite-extraterrestrial, dumpy, middle-aged forms of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton panting their way up the hill. The glow was not, of course, from their outward perfection, nor their inner beauty and wisdom, but the result of years and years of attention from precision-ground lenses and high-wattage lights being focused and shone at them. They had absorbed the energy, and like fully-charged batteries, radiated it back.

Diary: Three Whole Weeks Alone

Jenny Diski, 28 May 1992

Moving day. My ex-Live-in-Lover will come this afternoon to move his things out, eighteen months after moving in. First thing, I wave the daughter off to Ireland with her dad, for an Easter holiday of dosing sheep and castrating lambs on a friend’s farm. Apparently, they use elastic bands. Father and child might be having me on. What do I know, born and raised in the Tottenham Court Road?

From The Blog
6 May 2010

In Germany a man married his cat when he learned from the vet that she was dying.The article say that it's illegal to marry animals in Germany, which suggests that it might not be illegal to marry animals somewhere else. As it was, he went through a form of marriage with puss (or Cecilia as she is known to her husband) officiated by an actress. I've heard of people marrying people who are dying because they need to make sure of taking care of any children, or to avoid death duties and family problems over inheritance. The article doesn't say whether the cat had an independent income, or whether there were children or kittens between the German and his pet.

From The Blog
22 April 2010

Travel writers have been in high demand this week, and being one, apparently, I was summoned from Cambridge to appear at the back end of Newsnight to discuss the implications for travel of the volcanic ash episode, along with Alain de Botton. I got there an hour early and was shown into a very small, windowless green-room where all but one space on the two sofas was taken up by three large men in suits. Another man sat on an upright chair. Businessmen and politicians are called 'suits', I now see, because that is what is presented to the world. The suit makes the man work. The head emerges and talks as if programmed by the suit-maker. The suit armours their confidence and ownership of reality. Stiffly tailored, uniform, held together with a tie, a substantial watch and an ever-active mobile phone.

From The Blog
1 April 2010

Some days anything will do as news. For example, we learn from the BBC's Earth News that some (though not all) toads may (or may not) have advance warning of earthquakes. Unfortunately, the toad watchers, having serendipitously observed toads leaving home a few days before the 6.3-magnitude earthquake struck l'Aquila in 2009, couldn't quite put their finger on how the toads sensed it was on its way. A bit of a rumble, I shouldn't wonder. But since they were 74 km away, they might just have decided to have a weekend break, since only mating pairs or males took off – spinster toads stayed home. On top of the unknowability of what, how and if the toads knew, the report rather eeyoreishly adds that:

From The Blog
31 March 2010

More climate change unhappiness – James Lovelock in the Guardian: Even the best democracies agree that when a major war approaches, democracy must be put on hold for the time being. I have a feeling that climate change may be an issue as severe as a war. It may be necessary to put democracy on hold for a while. The man who invented Gaia has announced that humanity isn't evolved enough, and is 'too stupid' to tackle climate change. The Daily Mail blog and a site called Climate Realists are already all over it. 'You Could Not Make It Up' says the headline of the latter. Actually you could.

From The Blog
23 March 2010

Some ex-ministers one of them ByersRevealed themselves greedy and liarsBoth Hoon and Pat HewittSaid pay me and blew itBut they all pale into insignificance beside the post-prime-ministerial £20 million of Tony Blair.

From The Blog
8 February 2010

A properly sceptical article by Anthony Gardner on the creative writing industry, in the latest Royal Society of Literature mag, quotes one teacher explaining that ‘creative writing schools in the US teach that a poem needs to have what they call “redemption”: something at the end which lifts the reader up.’ And you will know of course that all stories (including novels) need a beginning, a middle and an end. Also that short stories need to have a surprise final sentence, that all fiction must be written about what you know and rooted in your own experience and that paragraphs must never begin with ‘and’ or ‘but’.

From The Blog
30 November 2009

In 1968 and thereabouts, when I wanted drugs, a coffee, sexual or intellectual companionship, to see an exhibition or a play, or to watch a movie on the mattress-covered floor (often of people sleeping or the Empire State Building standing stately), I'd pop down the road from where I lived in Long Acre to the Arts Lab in Drury Lane. It was open day and night, a great facility for wild young people feeling clubbable. It was started and run by Jim Haynes, an American entrepreneur of the world of Happenings. He hung around the place, a little older than many of us. Long-hair, beard, droopy moustache. Much like everyone else, but with an avuncular proprietorial air. He was hosting the day-and-night party-and-recovery site that was the Arts Lab.

From The Blog
4 November 2009

Let me say immediately that I don't doubt that Planet Earth is on its way out. I couldn't be more gloomy about its future. I'm also not much of a fan of Clive James, in fact I was involved in an angry lunchtime argument with him on the subject of Iraq and what he called 'the triumph of Democracy' the last time I saw him, some years ago. I am, on the other hand, constantly interested in how I can know whether what I read and hear is reliable. I couldn't for example put my hand on my heart and say that my belief that climate change is irreversible is based on anything very much more substantial than a tendency to trust in the green and the left, and the fact that I know from history and experience that human beings are inclined to do what they want to do until they use up the ability to do it.

From The Blog
5 October 2009

You know the way John Wayne was hopelessly typecast, forever the cowboy, never Hamlet – who knows how vast a range he might have had? Well, so it's beginning to seem to be for me and penguins. One of these days I'm going to branch out and give my attention to spaniels, or water buffalo, but in the meantime, those gay broody penguins I've mentioned before, who were given their own egg in a zoo, are the subjects of a children's book, And Tango Makes Three which has made it to the top of the American Library Association's list of the ten most frequently challenged books of 2008. Challenged, as in: take that filth of the shelves.

From The Blog
1 October 2009

They've done a new version of a 1960s Stanford experiment. Sit a small child in a room with a marshmallow on a plate, and tell them that if they stay sitting in front of it and don't eat it, they will get a second marshmallow when the experimenter comes back. Then leave the room and make sure a camera is trained on the kids.

From The Blog
10 September 2009

'What makes Melville Melville is digression, texture, and weirdness,' says Damion Searls. No, said Orion Books in 2007, all that extraneous business just gets in the way of the story arc. Without all that whale stuff, you could make a readable book. Hey, maybe someone could make an action movie. The result was Moby Dick in Half the Time (which you can buy in a bargain bundle at Amazon with Vanity Fair in Half the Time and Anna Karenina in Half the Time). 'All Dick and no Moby,' said Adam Gopnik in the New Yorker. Moby Dick is the novel you read to see what novels can be, and for delight.

From The Blog
6 August 2009

Stanley Middleton died last week at the age of 89. He didn't start writing until he was 38 but had 44 novels published and one manuscript with his publishers at his death. He wrote a calm, whispering prose, full of unspoken suggestion between ordinary acts of daily living. Once, long ago, before it was the abysmal circus it is now (though it was always a circus) he shared the Booker Prize with Nadine Gordimer, but it didn't make much difference to his sales. He lived in Nottingham, was not seen at London literary events or dinner tables. He refused public honours and didn't supplement his income by becoming a talking head, but taught English at secondary school until he retired. In the evenings and during holidays he wrote his novels out in longhand. Writing, he said, exhausted him.

From The Blog
31 July 2009

An email from a researcher doing a documentary for BBC3 on the history of teenagers arrives. That’ll be short, I think. She wants to talk to me about ways of presenting the Sixties to today’s teenagers, who she has discovered know nothing about the period. BBC3, with a viewer age range of 16 to 24, doesn’t do history documentaries as a rule, so it’s a bit of an experiment. She phones. ‘We’ve got a bit of development money for the project and I saw you had a book out about the Sixties. The reviews said you were involved with young people, and I was wondering if you had any ideas for grabbing the attention of modern teenagers about what teenagers were like in the Sixties.’ A researcher. She had (mis)read a review or two of a book she hadn’t even looked at. Might be worth a phone call.

From The Blog
17 July 2009

As I was heading for the chemist the other day, a very large, wild-looking man paced outside, agitated, mumbling, grubby. He came in while I was waiting to be served, walked distractedly up and down for a bit and then stood still beside me and loomed. I turned to look at him. 'I'm not drunk,' he said to me, 'I'm mental.' Actually, that was what I supposed he was. Street drunk looks different from street mad. I understood the distinction as well as he wanted me to. I once lived in a flat full of dopers with a junkie who insisted: 'You lot just take drugs, but I'm an addict.' He meant both that he was more serious then we were, and that he was under the doctor. It's probably the case that being an alcoholic is as much of a condition as being 'mental', but there's a kind of respectability or responsibility hierarchy involved.

From The Blog
22 June 2009

It shouldn't come as much of a surprise that rats gamble, since everything that lives and moves gambles. Getting out of bed in the morning is a gamble that the day and life won't end when a hammer that has slipped out of the hand of a roofer two doors down from the newsagent where you get your paper every morning doesn't land on your cranium as you pass. You bet it won't happen, or you stay in bed and sod the crossword. Foxes gamble when they rummage through your rubbish bin that the local hunt isn't about to come round the corner and tear them to pieces (no one having told them about the recent legislation). The pigeon in my garden gambles that the cat won't sneak up behind it as it hoovers up the spilt seeds under the bird feeder. It knows the cat's around, knows the food's around. Doesn't want to die, wants to eat. Takes a risk, on whatever basis pigeons work these things out. Living things gamble or they stay absolutely still and die of starvation.

From The Blog
5 June 2009

There was a great huffing and puffing by the biblical-respectablists a couple of decades back when someone brought out a book for kids about a little girl living with her father and his partner, called Jenny Lives with Eric and Martin. Oh, the fuss about promoting unnatural ways. And yet all along it was as natural as penguins in a zoo. (I can't seem to get enough of penguins and their ways, lately.) A pair of male penguins in a long-term loving relationship at Bremerhaven zoo, called, I'm thrilled to say, Z and Vielpunkt, were given an egg by their keepers and have nurtured it between them to chickhood. It's four weeks old now, and doing fine. Gay partnerships are not uncommon in penguins in zoos.

From The Blog
28 May 2009

David Cameron and I visited the Open University the other day, he to give a speech to the world, me to learn something about day-old chicks and biochemistry. Neither of us knew the other was going to be there. I was told at the reception desk to wait on one of the seats behind me and handed a label, one of those clip things I can never work out how to fix to myself. As I turned to go to the chairs, preoccupied with my label dyspraxia, someone grabbed me by my elbow and pulled me to the left. I dislike being grabbed so I pulled away and carried on the way I was going. But I'd failed to notice that the world had changed while I had my back to the room, and a semicircle of large chests in suits were claiming all the space for the man at their centre.

From The Blog
21 May 2009

There's a kind of hum all over the world. But only some people can hear it. It turns out not to be aliens – though I don't see why aliens wouldn't hum as they went about their world-conquering. Sometimes it's from local factories, electricity wires, fridges, or in my case a nearby airport that emits a thunderous roar when they're testing engines. All these things hum officially and it's not hard to find the source, not as hard as tracking down the humming aliens. But in two-thirds of cases, there's no obvious cause, and it has been decided that if you can still hear the hum you're suffering from vicious-cycle over-sensitive hearing. I think we may be on the verge of a new syndrome.

From The Blog
14 May 2009

It's like being a grown-up caught picking your nose and eating it. There you were all alone, absent-mindedly doing what you do – doesn't everyone? – when all of a sudden you realise that that door is open and someone's standing there watching you. Were they there when you . . . ? You drop your hand to your side and frown into your book, your keyboard, the clouds outside the window in the hope that either they weren't there, or that your new move obliterates, invisibilises, what you were doing. But for the rest of your life at any time, waking in the middle of the night, sitting on the loo, chairing a committee, that moment will come to you and you will seize up inside, curl, if it's at all possible, into a foetal hummock and moan gently. Can it be otherwise for the MPs who see their receipts in the Telegraph?


How they laughed!

22 April 2010

Jenny Diski writes: Ah, yes, I remember in the bin there was a young Australian woman (we were all young then) who was there because she had a psychosomatic rash that wouldn’t go away no matter how many antidepressants and antipsychotics she was given. Eventually, after she insisted, they tested her for allergies. She was allergic to rubber. She always slept with a hot-water bottle – cold...

Who Is Dennis Rodman?

24 January 2008

If anyone could make me feel ashamed of my ignorance of Dennis Rodman (tall basketball player) then it would be Karon Monaghan, whose cultural nous and strict prose show me up for the know-nothing that I’ve turned out to be (Letters, 21 February). Going out more wouldn’t help – I would be sure to go to the wrong places. As for staying in and watching TV, I can’t fit any more...
Jenny Diski writes: I was under the impression that I had suggested that Catherine Millet’s book might be fictional. In my review I certainly queried whether Catherine M. was one and the same person as the author, Catherine Millet, and I expressed some doubt about the vast number of sexual encounters and her responses to them. Perhaps I wasn’t doubtful enough: but J.G. Ballard was. Offering...

Straight or Curly?

2 March 2000

I am thrilled to read of Diana Hendry's interest in my recently straightened hair (Letters, 16 March). I wish I had a simple answer to her question. The only conclusion I can come to, short of reversing my long-held belief that the idea of fairness and justice is a charmingly human contrivance in a universe that doesn't give a toss about the agony of the curly-headed, is that my hair has become straight...

Clean Bowled

26 January 1995

Kenneth Hoyle (Letters, 23 February) suggests I have the punctuating ability of a greengrocer. In a general sort of way, I would agree with him, though I suspect that many greengrocers have powers of punctuation far in excess of mine. However, the particular error he cites – the use of double quotations for the word bowl to correct Robert Maxwell’s phrase ‘throw a googly’ –...

Montaigne had his own literary stalker. Eight years after the Essays first appeared in 1580, he received a breathless letter from a young woman called Marie le Jars de Gournay, who declared...

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A good God is hard to find: Jenny Diski

James Francken, 4 January 2001

Was God created by a woman, a writer who dreamed up the early stories in the Bible? Differences in vocabulary and style suggest that the Old Testament is a composite of various sources. The...

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Bad Blood

Lorna Sage, 7 April 1994

This is a compendious, layered novel – see ‘historiographic metafiction’ in the narratology handbook – the sort of novel that intercuts time zones and genres of fiction...

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Drabble’s Progress

John Sutherland, 5 December 1991

Some readers do not much like Margaret Drabble’s later novels because they are so different from her earlier successes. She may have lost one public and not as yet entirely won over...

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