Escape into fantasy: My Heavenly Favourite, by Lucas Rijneveld, reviewed

When Marieke Lucas Rijneveld won the International Booker Prize in 2020 for The Discomfort of Evening, a novel set in the Netherlands about the daughter of a dairy farmer growing up in a strict Christian household in the wake of the tragic death of her brother, the earthy, uncompromising voice was striking. The book was disturbing in its subject matter (the parents, blinded by grief, allow their remaining children to become semi-feral, experimenting with sex and death) and its visceral animal similes: bloody birth, brutal mating, culls for foot-and-mouth disease, slaughter. The ten-year-old girl protagonist had a lot in common with the author; and so it is again in My

I watched it so that you didn’t have to: ITV2’s Big Brother reviewed

Big Brother is Nineteen Eighty-Four rewritten by Aldous Huxley. The detail that George Orwell got wrong is that far from being terrified and brainwashed into submission by Big Brother, the populace would embrace the all-seeing eye as their route to fame, prosperity and freedom. Some of the populace, at any rate. We met 16 of them – there were 30,000 applicants, allegedly – on ITV on Sunday night, mugging and pratting around and enjoying their newfound semi-celebrity en route to entering the new-look Big Brother house, vying to win a £100,000 prize and, presumably, a career in minor-league showbiz by abasing and humiliating themselves in public. Into monopede DJs with

The fiasco of Operation Yewtree: C4’s The Accused – National Treasures on Trial reviewed

At 4.38 a.m., one morning in October 2013, the radio presenter Paul Gambaccini was understandably asleep when the doorbell rang. He was then arrested for sexually assaulting a minor on what proved to be the word of a drug addict with a history of making false accusations. The trouble for Gambaccini, though, was that this wasn’t proved for another 11 months. In the meantime, the allegations were all over the news, he was dropped by the BBC, lost around £100,000 in earnings and started having panic attacks. And Gambaccini, of course, wasn’t alone in being arrested and publicly named like this – not merely without being charged, but before any

How did he even fool the Duke of Edinburgh? Netflix’s Jimmy Savile – A British Horror Story reviewed

The only impersonation I can do is my Jimmy Savile impersonation. This is not uncommon among people of my generation: if you were a child or a teenager in the 1970s and 1980s, Savile was quite possibly the most famous person in your entire world. His show Jim’ll Fix It was the most popular on TV with weekly audiences of 20 million. From Top of the Pops to his endless chat-show appearances promoting his relentless work for charidee, he was excruciatingly ubiquitous. Also, with his long, helmet–shaped, wig-like white hair, his garish tracksuits, bling jewellery and extravagant cigars, his catchphrases (‘Now then, now then’; ‘as it ’appens’) and his distinctive

How Foucault was shielded from scandal by French reverence for intellectuals

Consider the hare and the hyena. The hare, Clement of Alexandria told readers of his 2nd-century sexual self-help manual Paedagogus, was thought to possess both male and female sexes and swapped their roles from year to year. As for the hyena, it was believed to acquire an extra anus annually and ‘to make the worst use of these added orifices’, as Michel Foucault puts it in the newly translated fourth volume of his History of Sexuality. For early church theologians the moral lesson was clear: we must not emulate gender-bending hares or randy hyenas. Rather, sex should be procreative, not pleasurable; we must go forth and multiply, borne by duty,

Gabriel Matzneff: the paedophile who hid in plain sight

Until this book was published, Gabriel Matzneff was a respectable man. The French author may have written about his affairs with young girls and his travels to the Philippines in search of pre-pubescent boys — insert Gallic shrug here — but he still won literary prizes and enjoyed a state stipend. He was celebrated by the chattering classes, who said little when he brought different adolescent girls as his plus one to interviews. Little V, or V sometimes, was one of those girls. She had slipped in and out of his autofiction for decades. In Consent, her memoir, Vanessa Springora returns the favour and refers to him by his initial.

This is what cinema is for: Netflix’s Cuties reviewed

Cuties is the subject of a moral panic and a hashtag #CancelNetflix. It tells the story of Amy (Fathia Youssouf), an 11-year-old Franco-Senegalese girl living in Paris, who learns that her father is taking a second wife. (Polygamy is widespread in west Africa, but you wouldn’t know it from mainstream cinema. You wouldn’t know much from mainstream cinema.) The film deals with the lead-up to the wedding. Amy watches the suffering of her mother (the superb Maïmouna Gueye), who must prepare the house for the interloper, scattering cushions over the marital bed, and the bombast of her small brother, who eats cereal and is learning to be a misogynist. (I

Jeffrey Epstein really was a streak of slime

Did Jeffrey Epstein kill himself or was he murdered — and frankly who cares? Actually, having watched the four-part Netflix series — Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich — about his secretive, sordid life, I care very much. Sure, his squalid death in jail, apparently from suicide while awaiting trial for numerous sex crimes, was thoroughly deserved. But justice would have been far better served if this noisome creep had spent the rest of his days rotting in prison, deprived for ever of all sexual activity save the involuntary variety provided in the showers whenever he dropped the soap. I hadn’t expected to respond quite this viscerally to the Epstein tale. Indeed,

Toxic waste

Bruce Norris is a firefighter among dramatists. He runs towards danger while others sprint in the other direction. His Pulitzer-winning hit Clybourne Park studied ethnic bigotry among American yuppies and it culminated in a gruesomely funny scene in which smug liberals exchange racist jokes in public. The play was morally complex, dramatically satisfying and an absolute hoot to watch. His new show, Downstate, co-commissioned by the NT and Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago, takes on a far crunchier topic than racism. Child sex abuse. We’re in a residential home occupied by a quartet of tagged offenders monitored by a sharp-tongued probation officer. We meet the molesters. Fred was once a music

Secrets and lies | 14 March 2019

Halfway through the first part of Channel 4’s extraordinary documentary Leaving Neverland (Thursdays), I flicked through the comments on social media in order to gauge the global reaction. Surely, I thought, Michael Jackson’s reputation will never recover from these bombshell revelations. If you sat, squirming, though Dan Reed’s excruciatingly prurient documentary you’ll know what I mean. Lots of those who didn’t have been justifying their decision to ignore it with excuses like ‘Yeah, but we knew this already. Michael Jackson was a paedo. It’s hardly news, is it?’ But this strikes me as glib and dishonest. Sure, Wacko’s fondness for prepubescent boys — such as Jimmy Safechuck, the ten-year-old Australian


Grooming is a horrible phenomenon of modern life when it happens to abused children. Yet a magazine such as GQ can announce the ‘Eight best grooming products in the world this week’. The GQ grooming is not of children, nor yet of horses, but of men at their own hands. Identical words can thrive in silos with quite different meanings. A groom was originally a boy, it seems, though the word popped up from nowhere in the 13th century. Some think it related to the Old French gromet, which gave us the English grummet or gromet, ‘ship’s boy’. In French, in the form gourmet, it came to mean ‘wine-merchant’s assistant’,

Anthem for groomed youth

This year is the centenary of the Armistice to end what Siegfried Sassoon called ‘the world’s worst wound’: the first world war. A bare week before the conflict concluded in a grey November, another poet, Sassoon’s friend and protégé Wilfred Owen, whose work now epitomises the waste and futility of that struggle, was cut down by a machine-gun as he tried to lead his men across the Sambre-Oise canal in one of the war’s last battles. Owen’s sombre verse, the ‘poetry of pity’ as he called it, came to represent the disillusion and despair that set in as casualties climbed into the millions and the blood of Britain’s youth drained

Moral maze

Una is a psychological drama about a woman who was abused by a man when she was 12, and who confronts him 15 years later, and it’s a hoot. I’m toying with you. Of course it isn’t. It’s disquieting. It’s disturbing. It’s difficult. It’s 90 minutes of uncomfortably shifting in your chair and wishing you were at the latest heist caper that doesn’t make sense. But it is also compelling, up to a point, and your responses will be so complicated that you won’t know where to start unpicking them. Or how. The film is based on the play Blackbird by the Scottish playwright David Harrower, which has won multiple

Sink or swim | 15 June 2017

I used to worry that I would never be a good writer because my childhood wasn’t interesting enough. I now think there must be some other explanation. Because the truth is that, when I was still pretty young, my parents banished me to an isolated community where for years on end I was compelled to dress in heritage costume, endure the uncanny absence of women and participate in ritualistic group activities, often of a physical or religious nature. That’s right. I am an Old Harrovian. On the face of it, this seems like an odd choice for my parents to have made for me — although it isn’t as bat-cave

Are satanic abuse cops 120 per cent gullible?

I got lost in the forest near my house while walking the dog the other week. The path I was on, and which I thought I knew, narrowed until it was scarcely a path at all. The trees closed in and brambles tore at my legs. Somewhere, high above, I could hear the importuning mew of a buzzard. And then I reached a small clearing where the tall grass and the broom had been flattened. There were signs that a fire had been lit in the centre, and there were the shadows of human footprints in the hard earth. I immediately felt sick inside — for I knew exactly and

The trouble with Francis

On 2 January, the Vatican published a letter from Pope Francis to the world’s bishops in which he reminded them that they must show ‘zero tolerance’ towards child abuse. The next day, the American Week magazine published an article that told the story of ‘Don Mercedes’ — Fr Mauro Inzoli, an Italian priest with a passion for expensive cars and underage boys. In 2012, Pope Benedict stripped Inzoli of his priestly faculties, effectively defrocking him. In 2014, however, they were restored to him — by Pope Francis, who warned him to stay away from minors. Then, finally, the Italian civil authorities caught up with this serial groper of teenagers in

Question time | 6 October 2016

At my wife’s first 12-week scan, I was expecting — and duly got — that much-documented sense of thrilled wonder at the grey blobby thing on the screen. What came as a genuine shock, though, was realising the scan also had the entirely undisguised aim of calculating the baby’s chances of Down’s syndrome, on the apparent assumption that, if they were high, we’d want to terminate. In the event, this wasn’t a dilemma we faced — which possibly makes it easy to take the moral high ground. Even so, the whole process left me feeling both uneasy and rather naive. How long had this been going on? Did everybody else

Cautionary tale

The closing credits of National Treasure (Channel 4, Tuesday) contain the usual disclaimer that any resemblance between its characters and real people is merely coincidental. Well, coincidental maybe, but also entirely inevitable — because this is a drama based on Operation Yewtree. With its choice of subject matter, a cast including Robbie Coltrane and Julie Walters and a script by Jack Thorne (author of the all-conquering Harry Potter and the Cursed Child), the series is clearly intended as an Important Piece of Television. Yet, partly for that reason, it’s so far proving a rather careful one. Nobody who watched the first episode could accuse it of sensationalism. They might, however,

First aid

In the 1980s, supermarkets stocked a fruit juice named ‘Um Bongo’ with the strapline ‘They drink it in the Congo!’. This is the starting point for Adam Brace’s examination of Britain’s relationship with the Congolese (whose word ‘mbongo’ means money). A group of do-gooding Londoners host a festival to celebrate the Congo’s culture and history but they rapidly become mired in controversies about age-old injustices and white-to-black ratios on steering committees. The Congolese party includes a few rogue terrorists whose death threats the British publicists find rather glamorous and titillating. The characters rarely reach beyond the obvious. The Londoners are bloodless yuppie go-getters. The Congolese are suspicious, chippy and mistrustful.

Sins of the fathers | 23 March 2016

A feature film about priests who abuse children is being released on 25 March. Which happens to be Good Friday. Geddit? The sacrifice of the innocents. A conspiracy of religious hierarchs. Hand-washing by the secular authorities. I’m sure I can think of some more analogies if you give me time, but that’s enough to be going on with. Enough, certainly, for the distributors to boast that the movie is ‘controversially slated to be released on Easter [sic] Good Friday’. As publicity stunts go, this isn’t subtle. But the film is. The Club, directed by the Chilean Pablo Larraín, sets out to perplex us from the first frame until the last.