It’s hard work having fun: Wives Like Us, by Plum Sykes, reviewed

Just when you thought the Cotswolds must have peaked as a fictional setting, a new rom-com from the author of Bergdorf Blondes floats like cherry blossom onto a chalk stream. Plum Sykes has chosen a rich (as in minted) target, and she is well-equipped to take aim. As a former contributing editor of American Vogue, she might be considered part of the trans-atlantic glossy posse, but at heart she’s still an Oxford-educated Sykes – with a certain diplomatic heritage. The family seat is the magnificent Sledmere in Yorkshire, which has its own blue-tiled Turkish Room. So Plum is not your common-or-garden mag hag. But she now lives in the ’wolds,

Are smartphones making us care less about humanity?

Generation Z were the first to grow up attached to smartphones. They spent their adolescence bathed in screen-light and now they’re depressed and anxious. Should we have seen it coming? Until very recently my parent friends were in determined denial. Z is the best generation that has ever lived, they said, free from prejudice and determined to recycle. I remember a piece by Caitlin Moran in which she insisted that her children were far more noble and caring than her contemporaries. No one picks up their iPhone to grapple with complex ideological truths Well, those optimistic days are over. The stats are now too stark. We daren’t take the kids’

Laura Freeman

The Insta pilgrims

On Sunday morning, in Puy-en-Velay, I climbed the 275 volcanic steps to the tiny chapel of Rocher Saint-Michel d’Aiguilhe. There, in the gloaming, among the silent stones that have stood on this site for 11 centuries, it was almost possible to imagine the awe of those very first Christian pilgrims who in the 10th century… CLICK! CLICK! CLICK! Ah yes, the sacred selfie, now as much a part of the modern Camino de Santiago de Compostela as the rosary, the walking stick and the scallop shell. A Catholic grandmother taking photographs of her penitent grandson, devoutly picking his nose. A teenager snapping Insta-incense shots. A honeymooning couple in walking boots

Alienatingly sweet and warm: BBC2’s The Newsreader reviewed

When TV makes shows about TV, it rarely has a good word to say for itself. In the likes of W1A, The Day Today and, savagest of all, Victoria Wood: As Seen on TV, the industry has looked in the mirror and ripped itself to shreds. What all these comedies say, in their own way, is that most TV is bombastic, brain-dead, two-star crap put together in a blind panic and a moral vacuum by idiots and monsters. Second only to politics, it’s the satirists’ biggest sitting duck, the gift that can’t stop giving. The Newsreader, a new newsroom drama, turns out to be cut from different cloth. It’s set

Facebook’s empire is beginning to crumble

When empires crumble they slide slowly at first, then the temple walls come crashing down. Facebook is not quite at the latter stage yet, but you can hear the creaking in the pillars and lintels. This week, the social media giant suffered two blows: an outage which took down its platform, along with Instagram and WhatsApp, and an expose by a disillusioned ex-employee who accuses the company of saying one thing about social responsibility in public – while behaving quite differently in private. Many of us might not notice if Facebook suddenly wasn’t there. But it is a different story for the many businesses which have built their model on

The artists ensnared by the capitalist system they affect to despise

A few years ago, the American artist Barbara Kruger covered the façade of Frankfurt’s Kaufhof department store with a pair of huge eyes. It was as if Big Brother had come out of retirement. Above that unsparing gaze was the slogan, in Kruger’s signature Futura bold italic font: ‘You want it. You buy it. You forget it.’ It was a typical work of art by Kruger. She made her career from what’s called culture jamming, subverting media messages by transforming them into their own anti-messages and by indicting the business of capitalism. In 1987, for instance, she took an advertising image of an all-American boy flexing his juvenile biceps before

Shame on the ‘four lads’ meme snobs

We need to talk about the ‘four lads’ meme. Specifically we need to talk about the undercurrent of prejudice, and on occasion outright class hatred, that propelled these four unsuspecting young men from Birmingham and Coventry into the internet spotlight. Anyone who has been online in the past year will know about the four lads. It’s a photograph of four young men looking hyper-preened for a night on the town. Their trousers are painfully tight, their tattooed arms are bulging out of their short-sleeved shirts. This is the fashion among the male youths of aspirant working-class communities. They take pride in their appearance. They look good, and they know they

The most important book on black Britishness has one flaw: its author was white

How many black friends do you have? Do you have any? It’s likely that black people have more white friends than the reverse. In part that’s surely down to demographics and the size of the population. No matter your colour, you’re ten times more likely to bump into a white person than a black person, more or less, depending on where you find yourself, of course. The situation is not so pronounced as in the United States where residential segregation has reinforced social apartheid. In the UK black and white people may live cheek-by-jowl, but that doesn’t necessarily indicate knowledge or even empathy. Out of just over 100 households on

Takes us deep into an unknown world: Channel 4’s Inside Missguided reviewed

If it’s a test of a good documentary series that it takes us deep into an unknown, even unimaginable world, then Inside Missguided: Made in Manchester passes with flying colours — especially for the more middle-aged viewer. Missguided, it turns out, is a fast-fashion company, which means that it spots what celebrities are wearing online and then designs, makes and sells much cheaper versions within days — all while indignantly denying the outrageous charge that ‘we just rip off other people’s designs’. The target market apparently consists of young women obsessed with Instagram and Love Island. And so, on the whole, does the staff, who have names like Treasure, Zee

The new trend for ‘gender reveal’ parties sums up the mood of the past decade

OMG, the end of the decade is almost here, which means it’s time to start reflecting on what on earth has been going on. Yes, there was #Brexit and #Trump, but I’d like to suggest an alternative story which I feel also captures the prevailing mood of the past ten years. It is about a party that went wrong. Badly wrong. In October, a couple in Iowa set about celebrating the imminent arrival of their baby with what is known as a ‘gender reveal party’. They welded a metal cylinder to a stand, packed it full of coloured powder and gunpowder, taped over the top and detonated it. They’d used

‘Instapoetry’ may be popular, but most of it is terrible

Poetry is on a hot streak. Last year, sales in the UK topped £12 million for the first time — a rise of more than 10 per cent for the second year running. According to Parisa Ebrahimi, the poetry editor at Chatto & Windus, one reason for the trend is that poetry is no longer the domain of the white male. This may be true, but how has it happened? Part of the answer is Instagram. Designed as a social network for sharing photos, recently the app has been adopted and adapted by writers — few of them white, many of them women — who, rather than selfies and sunsets,

Be more carthorse: why we would all benefit from a little self-loathing

Leaving the auditorium of the Royal Opera House last week after The Sleeping Beauty, I passed a woman taking selfie after selfie in the mirror of the hall. She had snuck out during the curtain call to have the red banquettes to herself. When she should have been applauding Yasmine Naghdi and Francesca Hayward — goddesses, Olympians, immortals — this complete nincompoop was basking in her own glory. All so that someone will post beneath her picture: ‘Hot lady alert.’ If I’d had a bouquet I’d have thrown it at her. We hear a lot about abuse, the coarsening of discourse, the howls of ‘fascist’, ‘nationalist’, ‘snowflake’ and ‘boomer’, the

The truth about food photography

While looking at the photographs of food in this humorous exhibition at the Photographers’ Gallery, I thought of how hopelessly outdated our own snaps will soon look. What seems fresh, clean and wonderfully modern to our eye — an Ottolenghi salad, say, dotted with pomegranate seeds and za’atar — will soon look almost tragic. How we photograph food betrays some of our deepest fantasies about ourselves. What’s more, good taste can quickly sour. Feast for the Eyes brings together food photography from the 19th century up to the present day and reveals just how much our attitudes to food change. At first, photographers emulated the principles of still- life painting,

Cast off: how knitters turned nasty

At first glance, Nathan Taylor might seem the very definition of a ‘right on’ hipster. He goes by the name of ‘Sockmatician’ online and he’s famous in the knitting world for his complicated double-knit patterns. On his Instagram, in between videos of people speed-knitting and many, many photos of socks, Taylor had posts about what it was like to be an HIV-positive man who came out in the 1980s. He dislikes Donald Trump and Brexit. He has even set up ‘inclusive hashtags’ such as #diversknitty, and his profile carefully sets out the pronouns people should use to address him. So far, so woke. But recently Sockmatician has found himself accused

Snog a Tory

Ew! Are you squeamish? Are you grossed out by meat, by fish, by eggs, by scales and suckers and shells and bones? We live in fastidious times. Now we pick, we prod, we send dietary requirements by return of post. ‘Super excited to see you guys! Btw I’m vegan, non-gluten, non-soy, no-nuts. Sorry to be a pain!’ Last year, Sainsbury’s launched chicken pieces in ‘no touch’ pouches for millennials who won’t handle raw meat unless it’s sans teeth, eyes, taste, everything. And at Somerville College, Oxford, students were served octopus terrine at a matriculation dinner, and a fresher complained that they had been ‘surprised’ by the dish. The college conceded

Round the horn

After the England football team beat Tunisia at this summer’s World Cup, they celebrated with a swimming-pool race on inflatable unicorns. Purple hooves, rainbow manes, cutesy eyes, yellow horns like upended Cornetto cones. The millennial unicorn is unrecognisable from the medieval. The proud unicorns of bestiaries and courtly romances have become the twinkling Bambis of Instagram. Search #unicorn (more than nine million posts) and canter into a pastel clearing of long lashes, swishy tails and crystal horns. ‘My favourite colour,’ announces one unicorn, pink, prancing, wide-eyed, ‘is glitter.’ Compare the simpering My Little Unicorn of the emoji palette with the noble creature in the ‘Unicorn Tapestries’ (c.1500), which hang in

A choice of first novels | 3 August 2017

Remember Douglas Coupland? Remember Tama Janowitz? Remember Lisa St Aubin de Terán? Banana Yoshimoto? Françoise Sagan? The voice of your generation? (If you’ve forgotten the voice of your generation, the brilliant Christopher Fowler’s forthcoming The Book of Forgotten Authors will provide you with the necessary reminder. The voice of my generation, as far as I’m able to recall, was a poet called Attila the Stockbroker, who we used to go and see perform in Harlow, and who did an excellent Peel session. Whatever the hell happened to Attila the Stockbroker?) Three new debut novels might all properly be acclaimed as representing the voice of their generation — though who knows,

Dear Mary | 20 July 2017

Q. Last summer a friend of my brother-in-law’s house-sat for us while we were in Greece for a week. We paid him £25 a day and all he had to do was look after our dog and water the garden when necessary. I left food for him, including fruit, in our fridge. Mary, I say including fruit because, to my annoyance, when we got back we found he had stripped my raspberry canes of every single raspberry and eaten most of our figs. Because we couldn’t find anyone else he is returning this year and it might sound feeble but I just can’t tell him not to help himself. What

Dear Mary | 8 June 2017

Q. We have received a ‘save the week’ card from friends who take a villa abroad every year. We usually like their other guests but my husband has developed a near-phobia of one of their friends, a man who holds opposing political views from his own and is vocal about them. This man is in great demand socially, probably because he’s single and supposedly eligible, and we suspect he may be going too. My husband says that whatever the result of the election, he can’t face being trapped in a house party with this man for a week and won’t go if he is. I think my husband is behaving

Anti-social media

On Tuesday morning I was thinking to myself how oddly pleasant social media seemed. Then Theresa May dropped her election bomb. Immediately the posts started appearing: ‘Tory scum’ and ‘Tories launch coup’, then came the memes and I thought: I can’t take another two months of this. I’d only just tentatively returned to Twitter and Facebook following Brexit and Trump; now I find myself wanting to suspend my accounts again. I think back nostalgically to general elections of yesteryear. I vaguely remember some fellow students being pleased about Blair winning in 1997 but most of us were more excited about seeing Teenage Fanclub at Leeds Metropolitan University. The polls of