Reluctant servant of the Raj: Burma Sahib, by Paul Theroux, reviewed

Eric Blair, to give George Orwell his baptismal name, arrived in Burma (present-day Myanmar) as a 19-year-old trainee police officer at the end of 1922 and left it in mid-1927 just before his 24th birthday. Not much of his time there had a direct impact on his work beyond a solitary novel, Burmese Days (1934), two luminous essays, ‘A Hanging’ (1931) and ‘Shooting an Elephant’ (1936), a poem or two and a scattering of autobiographical fragments, most of which turn up in the second half of The Road to Wigan Pier (1937). None of his letters home survives and only a handful of reminiscences by people who knew him as

Tea and treachery: Sheep’s Clothing, by Celia Dale, reviewed

‘It was a nice way of living,’ huffs Grace, the fiftysomething anti-heroine of Celia Dale’s devilishly dark 1988 novel Sheep’s Clothing, republished by Daunt Books. Recently released from Holloway prison, and using a demure headscarf and twin-set as cover, Grace teams up with Janice, a former fellow inmate, to rob elderly women. Disguised as social workers, and armed with an illicit supply of sleeping pills, they are after pension money stashed under mattresses, trinkets in shoeboxes and polished candlesticks on mantelpieces. The victims, invariably women (‘even an old man could be surprisingly strong’) often welcome the thieves, happy to have someone to ‘talk at’ and a cup of tea made

Ordinary women make just as thrilling history as great men

In 1348, the year the Black Death reached England and devastated the country, Matilda, the wife of Robert Comberworth, attacked someone called Magota and drew blood. She was fined 3d. Agnes, the wife of William Walker, attacked William de Pudsey and was fined four times the amount. Amica, an official watch-woman tasked with guarding a fruit crop, caught a certain Cecilia stealing. These women are among the many who star in Philippa Gregory’s latest book. Post-Conquest England is well-trodden ground, but Gregory’s history is not one of great men. It is of normal women – the women of legal battles, petitions, wills and letters. Her characters farm, pray, heal the

Caught in a web of lies: The Guest, by Emma Cline, reviewed

This deeply unpleasant novel kept me reading all night. Alex, 22, preys on rich men as an upmarket prostitute, formerly in New York and now in resorts such as the Hamptons. She is a thief and addict, sneaking her boyfriend’s sleeping pills, his valuable watch, a former room-mate’s medication, random jewellery and any available alcohol, while lying to herself and others. Moving among the rich, she pretends to be one of them. Writing about them in their holiday homes, Emma Cline is skilful and observant: The women had a funny, girlish air: their tiny steps, their uncertain smiles, satin bows in their ponytails, though most of them were probably over

A showstopper is at the heart of this winning show: Dulwich Gallery’s Reframed – The Woman in the Window reviewed

Themed exhibitions pegged to particular pictures in museum collections tend to be more interesting to the museum’s curators than to the general public. But with Reframed: The Woman in the Window Dulwich Picture Gallery is on to a winner, as not only is the particular picture a showstopper, but the theme opens up a whole can of feminist worms. Whether it’s her pensive pose, her idle fiddling with her necklace or the shy look in her shadowed eyes, Rembrandt’s ‘Girl at a Window’ (1645) is impossible to walk past. Scholars continue to bicker about her status. Serving wench? Kitchen maid? Prostitute? Rembrandt’s lover? Whoever she was, hers was the face

Angry diatribes and amusing pranks: Donmar Warehouse’s Marys Seacole reviewed

The title of the Donmar’s new effort, Marys Seacole, appears to be a misprint and that makes the reader look twice. Good marketing. The show is a blend of Spike Milligan-esque sketches and indignant speeches about race but it starts as a straightforward historical narrative. Mary Seacole enters in Victorian garb and introduces herself as a woman of half-Scots and half-Caribbean heritage who believes that ethnic differences create hierarchies of competence. Her veins, she says, flow with ‘Scotch blood’ and this gives her an entrepreneurial advantage over her ‘indolent’ Caribbean neighbours. Inflammatory stuff. If a white author embraced that supremacist creed, there’d be outrage. After the history lesson, the scene

Michel Houellebecq may be honoured by the French establishment, but he’s no fan of Europe

For many years, Michel Houellebecq was patronised by the French literary establishment as an upstart, what with his background in agronomy rather than literature, his miserable demeanour, his predilection for science fiction and his gift for unyieldingly saying the unsayable, especially about relations between the sexes. That’s all changed now. He won the Prix Goncourt in 2010 for The Map and the Territory and in 2019 was elevated to the Légion d’Honneur. The Nobel cannot be long delayed, the committee after all having honoured the equally ornery V.S. Naipaul and J.M. Coetzee. Houellebecq’s new novel Anéantir, published in January in a luxury edition of 300,000 copies, was a quasi-official event

The sex work divide in British politics

They seem like completely unrelated questions: ‘Is sex work real work?, and ‘Who will replace Yvette Cooper as chair of the Commons Home Affairs Committee?’ Yet the two are deeply linked. Sex work first. If you’re not familiar with the phrase ‘sex work is work’, get used to it, because you’re going to be hearing it a lot more in public debate in the next few years. The phrase has been around since at least the 1970s, but is now being used with growing frequency and energy by people on the self-appointed ‘progressive’ side of politics. As a result, ‘sex work is work’ is looking like being a new dividing

Why is anyone still defending OnlyFans?

Starting in October, OnlyFans, which has 130 million users, two million contributors and billions in revenue will ban its creators from posting pornographic material on its site, which many sex workers use to sell explicit content. Nude photos and videos will still be permitted provided they are consistent with OnlyFans’ policy, the company has announced. As soon as the announcement was made, the narrative quickly focused on how unfair and discriminatory this move was, with many saying that the victims of the ban would be ‘sex workers’. The BBC suggested the porn ban would be a ‘“kick in the teeth” for creators’. And one commentator argued, ‘OnlyFans grew off the back

Does a man have a right to pay for sex?

A case heard in the Court of Appeal today will decide whether or not carers should be expected to indulge in a spot of light pimping should their disabled client decide he requires the ‘services’ of a prostituted person. This April, Justice Hayden ruled that a care worker who assisted C, a learning-disabled man, to secure the ‘services’ of a prostitute had not committed a criminal offence under the Sexual Offences Act 2003. The Secretary of State for Justice was granted permission to appeal, and there was also an intervention in the case from the Centre for Women’s Justice (CWJ) as well as Women at the Well and the NIA

So long to Leeds’s appalling prostitution zone

Goodbye and good riddance to the Leeds ‘Managed Zone’ in which punters were given amnesty to buy the most disenfranchised and desperate women. Following a seven-year campaign by feminists, residents and some of the women who had previously been prostituted in the zone, this week Leeds City Council announced that the zone will not be re-opening following the end of the Covid lockdown. The zone originated following pressure on the police and council to tackle street prostitution in the centre of Leeds. Residents and workers, sick of stepping over used condoms and fending off harassment from kerb crawlers, complained so regularly that the zone was set up by way of

Disabled men don’t have a ‘right’ to buy sex

In the latest episode of ‘You couldn’t make it up’, a court has ruled that it is lawful for carers in particular circumstances to assist their clients in paying for sex. The case was brought on behalf of a 27-year-old mentally disabled man who was described as wishing to ‘fulfil a natural desire.’ Since when was paying for access to the inside of a person’s body for one-sided sexual gratification a ‘natural desire’? The ruling, unless successfully challenged, will have major implications not only for carers but for society at large. Government ministers have been granted permission to appeal the decision because it clashes with its aim to eradicate prostitution

Women of the streets: Hot Stew, by Fiona Mozley, reviewed

For a novel set partly in a Soho brothel, Hot Stew is an oddly bloodless affair. Tawdry characters drift in and out of each other’s lives but rarely seem to capture the author’s full imagination. Fiona Mozley’s first novel, Elmet, concerned a self-sufficient family living in Yorkshire and occupying ‘a strange, sylvan otherworld’, and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2017. This second book is a decided change of tack. The prose sometimes has an appealing vagueness: After the war, the concrete came, and parallel lines, and precise angles that connected earth to sky. Houses were rebuilt, shops were rebuilt, and new paving stones were laid. The dead were

Let’s end the criminal record trap for sex trade survivors

Today the High Court in London hears a landmark legal challenge. It relates to the policy for criminal records for prostitution to be held on file until those convicted are 100 years old. Currently, women who have escaped the sex trade and have convictions for street soliciting will have to live with this record for ever. And it’s not only the police that can access these records – so too can bodies including the Royal Mail, trading standards and credit checking organisations. This is not just a gross violation of human rights, but also deeply unjust.  As I have discovered during the vast amount of in-depth research on the global sex

The Tories are streets ahead of Labour on tackling prostitution

As a life-long Labour voter and campaigner against Tory policies, particularly when it comes to issues relating to violence against women and girls, I find it odd to be writing this sentence. But today, the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission published a report into prostitution that is so progressive, so comprehensive, and so practical that it leaves the other parties with egg on their faces. Reports into prostitution tend to fall into two categories: either products of unbridled ideology dressed up as research, or a dull sifting of evidence from other countries. Home Office work on the issue falls squarely into the latter. Unenlightening and inconclusive, the tiny proportion of

Farewell, Tequila Leila

Elif Shafak once described Istanbul as a set of matryoshka dolls: a place where anything was possible. As with much of her previous work, that city plays a significant and shape-shifting role in this her 11th novel, where the Bosphorus, ‘waking from its turquoise sleep, yawned with force’ one November morning in 1990. It is ‘life at full blast’ — and yet the story’s beginning also marks an ending. A woman named Leila has just died, inside a wheelie bin on the outskirts of town. ‘Can’t you see, you moron?’ says the ringleader of the adolescent boys who discover her body. ‘She’s a whore.’ For a limited time, ‘Tequila Leila’,

Too clever by half

This book — the title is from Pasternak —is billed as ‘literary fiction’. The narrator, a Russian gambler and drinker who has settled in the West, leaves his rich American wife of two decades when he falls hard for a Russian prostitute he meets in London (‘the first and last love of my life’). Andrei Navrozov has worked as an editor and journalist (he has written for this magazine) and published several books, including a poetry collection with the same title as his new volume. As the subtitle indicates, he and his narrator are keen on self-deprecation — a sure sign that one thinks oneself frightfully clever. The £300-an-hour hooker,

The rise of the pop-up brothel

I had been in Los Angeles for less than a month when I received the call from a concerned neighbour back home in London. ‘Why are there men queuing up outside your flat at 3 a.m.?’ It was a good question. ‘And are you aware that a locksmith came over the other day to change your locks?’ I had no idea. ‘Oh and by the way, your tenant has put some kind of security camera outside your front door.’ Concern turned to panic. ‘And there’s been rather a lot of … erm, activity, you know … to-ing and fro-ing. That tenant of yours certainly has an appetite for the ladies.’ My neighbour

Mothers’ ruin

At the heart of Basic Instincts, the new exhibition at the Foundling Museum in London, is an extraordinarily powerful painting of a mother and baby. At one time the ‘Angel of Mercy’ was sold as a greetings card by its owner, the Yale Center of British Art in Connecticut, presumably intended as something you might send your own mother or child. But take a second glance and you might well wonder who bought the card and who they might have sent it to. In Joseph Highmore’s Georgian scene, a young, fashionably dressed woman is splayed across the canvas, her feet in delicate silk shoes, a tiny baby, naked, resting precariously

Letters | 31 August 2017

Campus censoriousness Sir: I am so grateful to Madeleine Kearns for having the courage to speak out about her experiences at university when others, including myself, remain silent (‘Unsafe spaces’, 26 August) . I have done the reverse of Madeleine in that I, a young American woman, moved from New York City to the UK for graduate school. One of the main factors in this decision to continue my education here is because I feel I have more academic and intellectual freedom. The idea of a balanced argument at my undergraduate university was ‘neoliberal’ versus ‘radically liberal’. We spoke of the importance of diversity, but political diversity was never considered. I