Diary

Jenny Diski

I have to acknowledge (‘confess’ would be the more appropriate word) 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 (they write for the Daily Mail, everyone hates them, both women) 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: love, friendship and work. The kerfuffle that ensued was understood even by the kerfufflers to be the whole purpose of the article both for the writer and the publisher. It worked. Brick’s torment monopolised Twitter, the blogs, comments and lifestyle sections of the Mail, as well as all the other online papers, for a day or so, and then, the following week, she and the Mail rekindled and doubled her notoriety by writing about the suffering her brave and honest assessment of her spectacular good looks had caused her at the hands of the plump, pudding-faced, envious masses who expressed their jealousy, and merely proved her original point, by calling her money-grabbing, deluded, attention-seeking, narcissistic, stupid or deviously cunning, and not even half as beautiful as she supposed herself to be; all that and much more. (The truism about beauty and the eye of the beholder has rarely been more clearly illustrated.) Everyone was niftily caught on the Mail’s hook, I reckoned, some adding to their own bank accounts and filling easy word counts, others witlessly falling into the dollars-per-click pit dug for them by the circus masters, most luxuriating in the virtual group hug that comes from booing the pantomime villain.

Fourteen months later, Twitter began another early morning growl, which by midday had developed into a thundering chorus of virtuous wrath. Stephen Fry had reported that during a recent depressive episode he’d tried to commit suicide by overdosing on drink and drugs. It was universally agreed that a famous person revealing their own clinical despair could only be helpful to the anonymous millions struggling in silence with the stigma of mental illness. Fry was applauded in the columns, on TV and on the front pages, called courageous and thanked for speaking out and bringing great benefit to those suffering from misunderstood mood disorders. In her column in the Mail on Sunday that week Jones agreed that he was courageous, but not so much because he spoke openly about his suicide attempt: ‘I think he’s brave,’ she wrote, ‘to have swallowed that potentially lethal cocktail. That’s what took real guts.’ She led up to it witha description of sitting in a bar with a ‘young female journalist’ who wondered where Jones saw herself in five years’ time. ‘Dead,’ she’d replied. The column continued:

I’m sure people who live in Third World slums would look at me, in that trendy bar, and think I’m lucky. That it’s wicked to wish myself dead. But it’s true. I do wish it. I’ve never taken antidepressants, feeling they’re pretty futile – like gardening in a desert – and one of the reasons they often don’t help depressives is that our illness is not just caused by electrical and chemical activity in the brain, but by psychological factors: our soul, if you like. I’m of the opinion this world is too difficult to live in.

The eruption of fury in response was even greater in volume than the chorus of approval that met Fry’s confession that he’d had thoughts of suicide. Liz Jones was ‘disgraceful’ and ‘disgusting’. Was there nothing that she and the Mail would not do, no subject she wouldn’t sully and trivialise in order to get readers? (Fry’s stated wish to get a massive audience for his story was sanctified by his admirable desire to open up the discussion.) The ‘cynicism’ of her piece was shocking. She was totally irresponsible. She should resign. She should be sacked. ‘The Mail on Sunday are, in my view, criminally irresponsible for publishing today’s Liz Jones piece. This should be a resignation matter,’ James Ball of the Guardian tweeted. Jonathan Haynes, also of the Guardian, described it as a ‘JAW-DROPPINGLY irresponsible and stupid paragraph on suicide from Liz Jones. Cannot believe MoS have published it.’ Did she really not care how many vulnerable people might be induced to commit suicide by her thoughtless, cowardly exploitation of such a delicate matter? She had actually encouraged suicide, many people said, quoting the Samaritans’ guidelines on the way suicide should be reported, although she wasn’t reporting a suicide so much as quoting Fry’s reporting. She didn’t ‘care’ or ‘think’ about what she wrote, so long as it ‘provoked’ and ‘shocked’. And on and on.

I read these responses and then clicked to the relevant paragraphs in the Mail Online ready to be properly shocked by the dreadful woman. I came, rather, to the uncomfortable conclusion that I couldn’t see what the universally abominated Liz Jones (who in my mind was the same ridiculous person who was too beautiful to live) had done wrong. More than that, I thought the piece interesting, brave if you will, and carefully written. Her view of depression as exclusively ‘caused’ by either brain chemistry or psychology/‘soul’, one or the other, was odd, as if chemistry and psychological state of mind (or soul) were incompatible rather than inextricably interconnected, but that wasn’t what people were complaining about. She was making a very personal statement about what it was like to be someone who continuously experienced life as not worth living. A rather bold assertion for someone to make about their own life, but surely a state as deserving of discussion as the bipolar disorder that Fry suffers from. Is it because his condition is intermittent, and so allows him to talk about his suicidal feelings in the past, that he’s permitted to talk about it while her consistently negative view of life has to be hushed up? Someone actually complained about Jones’s ‘negativity’, as if that wasn’t exactly what she was describing. It was suggested that speaking up about it would demoralise readers. Fry manages his bipolar disorder with medication (although it seems not to work all the time). Like many depressives Jones describes her doubts about the utility of antidepressants, and expresses her sense of how difficult it is to end one’s own life even when it feels as if it hasn’t any value. In a world that didn’t demand an upbeat ending to every story, she might have been thought to be offering a real insight into a long-term depressive’s point of view. Other people in her condition (I’m one of them), seeing the way she’d been attacked, might conclude that it was better not to talk about their experience, for all that society presently tells itself that it is vital for people to express their feelings.

Jones’s sincerity too was questioned, as if she might really be a regular, happy-go-lucky sort of gal, who puts out ‘shocking’ contrarian views for financial and attention-seeking purposes. Fry was taken at his word. His bravery in speaking out. Her unacceptable and insincere confession. His inspiring words for those with similar problems. Her words inciting the vulnerable to self-murder. It was as if no one had any experience of what she was describing (or the ability to imagine it), and therefore it couldn’t be true, only shamefully exploitative. Except that I recognised well enough the condition she described, whether or not she felt it herself, and was pleased to see a rare expression of it in popular print. Evidently that kind of long-term despair or dysthymia is very much more infrequent than the well-publicised bipolar disorder, but its rarity and the difficulty or unpleasantness of imagining it isn’t a good reason for denying its existence or suggesting it shouldn’t be spoken about and the sack for those who do. When I told one of her critics that I had often written about that sort of state and asked if I too should have shut up, or not been published, they replied that it was different because ‘you write well.’ I looked again at Jones’s paragraphs: they seemed very well written to me. And anyway, since when has good style been a guarantee of sincerity?

So it was that I found myself obliged to defend the ghastly Samantha Brick, the shallow, exploitative loudmouth who previously was too beautiful to live, but now, it seemed, didn’t much want to. Only months later, when offered Liz Jones’s autobiography to review, did it dawn on me that Samantha and Liz were two different and separate Mail babes. But now, relieved though I was to discover that it wasn’t Samantha Brick whose column I agreed with and was impressed by, it turned out that Liz Jones was held in equal contempt as the worst nightmare of any feminist, liberal, anti-populist reader. Worse still, my discovery didn’t change the fact that I found myself siding with someone published regularly in the Mail, a pale beyond which I didn’t want to go, despite having myself once been its radio critic during a brief strange period when the Mail on Sunday decided to go in search of a more Guardian readership.

Girl Least Likely To (the boastful title of her autobiography and the way she was known to her schoolmates) is a witty, rather cunning and touching book, and its author is as grumpy and downhearted a fellow misery guts as I could hope to find.[*] If I didn’t already have two friends, and therefore more than I can manage, I would put in to be her best friend. Though I would surely regret it. With columns in the Mail on Sunday and the Daily Mail, Jones, as she describes herself in her autobiography, is a complex and irritating character, perfectly designed to garner anathema from every corner of her readership. The true Mail demographic must find her antisocial affect and vocal self-loathing an incomprehensible embarrassment among the rest of the paper’s meticulously measured self-satisfied middleness. They presumably get over their distaste by enjoying her public vilification of and spats with the likes of Rihanna and Holly Willoughby (I know Rihanna is a singer, but have no idea who Willoughby is, or if she and Rihanna might not be the same person). The haters of the Mail would take Jones’s abjection as self-indulgent negativity, the worst kind of popular misery narrative without even a redemptive finale. And both parties must hate her purposeful lack of sentimentality, her apparent failure to care whether or not people believe in the ‘authenticity’ of her self-loathing, and the casual acceptance of whatever hatred comes her way (‘Am I being unreasonable to think Liz Jones is a bitter and twisted old hag? … an odious person with no redeeming qualities?’ they ask on Gransnet and Mumsnet). Not only does she self-obsess, moan and skip all the way to the bank (all the while wailing bankruptcy and destitution), she can also take or leave your view of her doing so.

In the autobiography she chooses her words skilfully, to give the precise tone and colour to the portrait of her life that she requires. She refers repeatedly to having had her ‘breasts cut off’. When the moment actually comes in the book, it turns out that the steroids she’d been prescribed for anorexia had made her breasts excessively large and pendulous. ‘The surgeon came in and I took my top off. “My goodness, they are huge,” he said. They reached almost to my waist.’ In fact she had a breast reduction, which sounds so much less of a thing. After the regular asides about their being ‘cut off’, the reality leaves you a little disappointed (and ashamed at being so). Because of her anorexia – which she partly blames on her mother wanting her to eat buttered toast and marmalade for breakfast – she didn’t have a period until she was 19, and she was still a virgin, apparently (I can’t manage to finish the sentence without that ‘apparently’), into her thirties. This was the consequence of having dreadful taste in men, and also (or: which possibly resulted in) a tendency to clam up at the moment of penetration. A visit to another medical specialist, for the anorexia, ends this state of affairs, and is likely not to have encouraged whatever of the romantic lurked in her.

‘Have you ever had sex?’

‘No! I did try, once, but it wouldn’t go in.’

He then inserted his hand into my vagina, and broke my hymen. ‘There. At least that’s over with.’

As to actual tone and colour, by the end of the book I was left with the impression that whenever she chooses to describe the colour of something, it is invariably brown. Her hippie brother Nick is resplendent in a white Afghan coat. When Jones finally gets one, it’s brown, much less desirable than a white one, and anyway brown. I also ached for an Afghan coat, but like the rest of the hippie world, a white one. You couldn’t have given me a brown Afghan coat (with orange stitching): none at all was preferable. I never understood why they made them in brown. For the perpetually disappointed among us, I now see. For Jones to be unhappy in. She is probably the reason the Creator decided to throw hope into the planetary mix at the last minute. ‘And, for little Lizzie, the possibility of disappointment.’ The only point in her life that she can bring herself to call ‘a triumph’ occurred, she proudly tells us, when she was working on the Sunday Times Style Magazine: she was the one who coined ‘the now immortal “Brown is the new black.”’

The career of this girl least likely to succeed must look exemplary to anyone who ever had a hankering to work in journalism or the fashion world. She begins as a sub on various national magazines and papers (not frivolous, foolish work, though she calls it ‘the lowliest job it was possible to get’) and makes her way via increasingly responsible positions to become editor of Marie Claire. We learn of each of these jobs only so that she can explain how she messed up and was sacked. But none of these ‘debacles’ prevented her from getting the next, usually better job. The problem for her is that in order to make it clear that she was a consistently hopeless failure, she is obliged to describe all the impressive posts she got before she lost them. Her finest disappointment is that her childhood dream of working for Vogue never materialised. On the other hand, editor-in-chief of Marie Claire doesn’t sound much like a career catastrophe. Even when she is sacked (for nothing that looks so devastating to me, but it’s the fashion world) and shunned by the couture houses, it seems quite glamorous to be top of the banned list of every classy catwalk show.

Money is a burning issue. She is always broke, if not penniless, but initially only because she dresses in Comme des Garçons, Jil Sander (a brown trouser suit), Alberta Ferretti, McQueen, Prada and drives BMWs; later she ensures herself a visit from the bailiffs by spending more than she has on setting her sister up in business. Ungrateful family is her financial and emotional nemesis. The solution to all this, she decides, is an invitation to go on I’m a Celebrity … Get Me Out of Here! Others may weigh up the value of the £250,000 fee against the bottomless humiliation of being on the programme. Jones never mentions the problem of the programme’s format or the way participants are degraded and mortified: she only sees a quick way out of penury. Perhaps these celebrity programmes are a kind of benefits system for the formerly rich and famous – and, with all the attendant shame and derision, not entirely different from the other benefits system. Jones gets to the final three and is then turned down in favour of Lorraine Chase (don’t ask, imagine), a rejection beyond cruel. ‘I beat my head against the steering wheel, literally. I didn’t know how I could go on.’ But for the truly dedicated masochist there is always further to fall. Celebrity Big Brother comes to the rescue, and now the fee is £300,000. Her delight is total. She stands in the street to get a taxi to the Daily Mail’s Christmas party and sees ‘all the partygoers streaming through the streets, laughing. I no longer felt separate. I felt like a normal person. Liberated. Without a huge mountain of debt. Almost happy.’ Not a thought for the reality of being on the programme and after. But her editor at the Mail on Sunday vetoed the move – ‘it would ruin my career.’ The dream of solvency ended. The new reality turned out to be a rented barn in Somerset where she lived alone with four collies, three horses and 17 cats. Although of course she still had columns in a couple of the best-paying newspapers and presumably a decent advance in prospect for this autobiography. Poverty is always relative until you get to the bottom. But the story is so good and such an interesting modern morality tale, that whether true to the last detail or not, it’s well worth the telling.

The idea of failure came early. She remembers her father opening the envelope with her 11+ results.

‘You have failed miserably!’ he said.

Oh no. Oh, well. It’s to be expected. Nothing I do ever works out …

‘Only joking! You passed with flying colours!’

No one hugged me.

I dare say many less than sensitive parents have made the same joke, and only some children were hugged, but it stands as a chilling moment in a life. It looks as if the real problem was that Jones’s mother and father were in love and never stopped loving each other. All you can get as a child are parents who do or don’t love each other. Parents who don’t love each other at least have their children to hug and those children grow up remembering being hugged. It might well be more of a burden to have the other kind of parents. It was to Jones, who describes the continual gentle affection between them:

I should have learned that love is not about beauty from the way my dad would bow to my mum and click his brogues together, when she spied him mowing the lawn as she shook a duster out the window.

They always held hands. He always called her darling.

There was not a day when she would say she was cross with Daddy, when they wouldn’t speak. She loved him till the day he died and refused to leave his side in bed, even though he kept her awake when he cried out in pain or confusion.

Jones complains too that she missed out on all the childhood idylls. Roller-skating in the empty attic must surely count as one, but childhood idylls may be difficult to recognise if you always have your parents’ lifelong idyll before your eyes. She was, or perceives herself to have been, a child who couldn’t stand conflict, who wanted to be invisible until one day in the future when she had made herself perfect and ready to be looked at. She was always frightened, she says, always angry. And yet ‘Mum to me was a lap, endlessly safe and soft.’ There are plenty of inconsistencies that are consistent in a self-obsessed person born with a dark soul (and/or a good writer who scorns the fiction/nonfiction borders) recollecting their life. She describes childhood poverty, although it clearly isn’t that. Money is a bit tight, but ‘poverty’ isn’t anything like the right word. They have a car. She asks for riding lessons and gets them. They have Penny, the rabbit, Guinea, the guinea pig, and Pompey, the dog. But it never feels right. Her childhood is always winter and no one will help her to cross the big road. Her life was ‘barren’ and ‘boring’. She failed to win prizes in competitions, the string of pearls her father gave her were plastic. She took to heart the words of the Gypsy who told her mum (who passed it on to her daughter) that ‘one of her daughters was being chased by demons and would live a very difficult life.’ Either that, or her dysthymic chemistry and/or soul was present from the start, as it often is in children who are deemed difficult or moody, when they were actually as chronically depressed as children as they are permitted to be as adults.

It’s quite possible that some or most of Jones’s descriptions of herself and her life have little to do with reality, but that doesn’t automatically make them unfelt or fabrications or out-and-out lies. We fit our facts into our feelings, and our memories obediently adjust to reflect those feelings back at us as recollection. And even if they are fabrications and lies, that doesn’t make them uninteresting. The most any writer can commit to is some sort of coherent narrative. People complain that Jones is insincere, milking or inventing her misery to gain readers and money. But that’s what writers do, whatever they’re writing about. Even more people complain that Jones’s single subject is herself. It is, but that single subject has multiple aspects. You don’t have to like her opinions, but she has them on most public and private issues you can think of. If you’re going to berate writers for self-obsession you’ll be left with dreary bookshelves.

I’m sure there are thousands of column inches of Jones’s writing that I would hate. Her thoughts about feminism or social policy are very likely not my cup of tea. I suppose I could punish myself for liking what I’ve read of a writer whom the Daily Mail is delighted to publish, by reading her archive. But then I’d only have to join in the chorus of disapproval every time she writes something, and I do enough disapproving already. So I’m going to opt for sticking with what I’ve read, finding her interesting and entertainingly self-obsessed, funny and darkly sympathetic. I won’t listen to the podcast I was sent of her ‘being incredibly stupid’ on the radio, and if she does get her dream wish and appears on Celebrity Big Brother, I’ll make a point of being among the four hundred watching BBC Four’s Only Connect instead.

[*] Simon & Schuster, 288 pp., £14.99, July, 978 1 4711 0195 3.