Mary Wakefield has been getting to grips with the terrifying but comic world of the Daily Mail's Lynda Lee-Potter
Lynda Lee-Potter was grinning like a lizard in the top left-hand corner of her page in the Daily Mail last Wednesday. Below her photograph was the headline 'Only one penalty for such evil'. The evil was paedophilia; the penalty was death. As I read on through 'wickedness' and 'sick desires' to 'terror' and 'raw suffering', I had the unnerving feeling that her smile was spreading across her face.
Paedophiles make regular appearances in Lee-Potter's column, always surrounded by the same huddle of aging television-show hosts, young actresses, members of the royal family and pop-stars with knighthoods. Every week they all shuffle wearily on to the page, and every week Lee-Potter smacks each of them in turn upside the head with her frying pan, attacking different aspects of their personalities and appearances. In between mauling celebrities, she wrings her hands about the latest photogenic disaster story or offers homely little thoughts on modern life. If you haven't already discovered Lee-Potter, you're missing out on one of the great comic acts of our time.
She gets away with it by relying on the Daily Mail maxim: if you add to each page of malice a large dose of moral outrage and sentiment, readers will interpret your vitriol as plain-speaking and your prurience as sympathy. This formula won her 'Columnist of the Year' at the British Press Awards in 2001 and a nomination for the same prize this year. Three weeks ago, in a column about Jessica Chapman and Holly Wells, she wrote, 'There can scarcely be a household in the land who doesn't feel anguish for their parents.' Just in case there is, she draws it out. 'Their mothers wait by the telephone, grabbing it with a surge of hope every time it rings. They find it difficult to eat, so are surviving on cups of tea. Normal life has been suspended and the interminable waiting hours are full of terror. They brood on what might have happened and every scenario must appal them.'
A few lines after wiping the damp mascara from under her eyes, Lee-Potter has recovered enough to call Popstars' contestant Carol Lynch 'fat', accuse Jon Voight of 'mawkish self-pity' and describe Sven-Goran Eriksson's girlfriend, Nancy Dell'Olio, as 'predatory and chunky'. This format rarely varies. On 5 June, 'a glorious reminder of who we are' described the Queen's Golden Jubilee. Half a page of Union Jack bowler hats and Morris-dancing in the sun celebrated the fact that the British people still believe in 'fair play, justice, decency, democracy, helping others and doing our best'.
In the shade of this moving lead item lurked several other insights. 'Paul McCartney is a ruthless megalomaniac and a control freak with a massive ego.' His wife, Heather Mills, 'is loathed and feared, a proven liar, a thief, hugely vain, bloody-minded and pushy'. Soap-opera actress Julie Goodyear 'is a selfish, overbearing toughie who even in real life never stops acting'. Judy Finnigan 'is 50ish, fat, frumpy' and looks 'like a social worker who buys her clothes from a Littlewoods catalogue'.
Hang in there for a couple of months and a misty outline of the woman herself begins to emerge, like the image hidden in a magic-eye picture. Lee-Potter's mind is haunted by clichZs. The rich are 'ruthless', the working class are 'decent' and 'disciplined', wronged women are 'anguished' but 'painfully honest', children are 'innocent and trusting' unless they have smoked cannabis, in which case they are 'crazed', 'lawless' and 'feral'. As in Hollywood, only good people are allowed to be 'beautiful'.
It is difficult, however, to be either good or beautiful in Lee-Potter's world, unless you have had to work hard to get where you are. Women who marry money are 'manipulative', anyone who has inherited cash is a 'sponger'. I hope Princess Michael of Kent takes the Daily Telegraph with her breakfast grapefruit, because it's rare to find a column in which Lee-Potter has missed the opportunity to kick the Kents. They are 'pushy', 'exploitative', 'greedy' and 'determined to bleed tax-payers in order to enjoy an existence which they haven't earned'. None of the royal family fares particularly well. Prince Edward is 'so full of his princely dignity that it overrides his ability to behave like a human being'. 'The Duchess of York's idea of making economies is to get her staff to do twice the work for the same money', and the Queen 'expects staff to work for a pittance'.
Only a few lucky celebrities ever emerge unscathed from a Lee-Pottering: Cilla Black, Barbara Windsor and Anne Diamond - all of them tough, game, ambitious, middle-aged, working-class women. Just like Lynda. Once familiar with the geography of Lee-Potter-land, the inconsistencies stand out. If, as her columns suggest, she really doesn't care a fig for posh people and their self-indulgent ways, why is she so keen to let us know that she knows that sending family photographs as Christmas cards and eating pineapple chunks are non-U? In her book, Class Act: How to Beat the British Class System, she admits that 'snobbery has motivated me my whole life. I may be ridiculous, but I don't care.' Do her Daily Mail readers know that she married a man who 'comes from a family where the furniture and silver are inherited'?
Also enjoyable are the stand-alone non sequiturs: 'Pantomime should not be for grown-ups who wish to be titillated by perverted suggestions from a homosexual comedian.' But there's a sad sub-plot running through all this fun-filled hate. Lee-Potter obviously suffers from unrequited love for Sven-Goran Eriksson. Over the years she's done her best to make her feelings known, describing him as 'implacable', 'kind' and 'discreet', with 'the power, status, clout and wealth which make men so very attractive'. Sven's reputation as a 'passionate lover' is often repeated. Sometimes he is the recipient of pieces of uxorial advice about his taste in clothes, sometimes he is gently reprimanded. Rarely is he neglected.
Every week as Wednesday rolls around, Sven must feel like the hero of Stephen King's Misery, a novel in which a devoted fan imprisons her favourite writer. One minute she is crooning endearments to him, the next she is wielding an axe and hacking off his feet so that he can't escape. If the other, less-loved celebrities on the page also feel a little trapped from time to time, they can console themselves with the thought that the judges of the British Press Awards must be having a laugh. The only person who could possibly take this stuff seriously is Lynda Lee-Potter.