Neighbours and strangers

Margaret Forster, who died on 8 February, excelled at writing about complex relationships between women. Even old friends, she demonstrated, can experience jealousy, disapproval or dislike. Here, ‘Sarah’ has changed her name to live incognito on the west coast of Cumbria, in a town chosen at random. When she gets locked out of her house, a bond is formed between her and her elderly neighbour Nancy — whose deceased friend Amy once owned Sarah’s rental and left Nancy a key. Although Sarah is ostensibly the one with ‘a past’ (prison), it was Nancy whom I found most interesting. She first appears as a typical busybody, spying from her window, curmudgeonly

Is there still a place for single-sex schools?

NO I am pretty sure my all-girl school turned me into a delinquent. All right, I might not have peed in phone boxes, graffiti’d on trains or spent time in a state penitentiary. But for all of this, I definitely think a strain of delinquency was bred into me by single–sex education. Just outside a sedentary market town in the West Country, my boarding school had presumably been chosen by my mother to instil in me a measure of gentility; it certainly wasn’t for the academia. Old dames, many of whom had been at the school themselves during the Boer War, made up the teaching staff. It is hard to

Great expectations | 13 August 2015

Trainwreck is a romcom as written and directed by Amy Schumer, the American comedy prodigy whose Comedy Central sketch show is properly hilarious and transgressive, from what I’ve seen. Indeed, if nothing else, I beseech you to watch one particular sketch, as viewable on YouTube, where a group of famous Hollywood actresses gather to celebrate one of their number’s ‘last fuckable day’, explained as follows: ‘In every actress’s life, the media decides when you’ve finally reached the point you are not believably fuckable any more….’ So my hopes for this film were sky-high. My hopes were that it would take the standard, misogynist romcom tropes and give them the pitiless

The rise of ‘living apart together’ – and why I’ve stopped doing it

I’ve never lived with a man I didn’t marry: Tweedledee, 1979–1984, and Tweedledum, 1984–1995. (The names have been changed to irritate the pair of them.) So when I left my second union and moved to Brighton to chase the man who is now my third (and hopefully final) husband, I was keen to establish and keep separate households. I was quite pleased to find that not only was I having a blast seeing Daniel while maintaining a maverick social life (he didn’t want to be in a swimming pool full of drunken, shrieking girls’n’gays any more than I wanted to be in a room full of game-playing, beer-drinking men) but

Bookends: Wasp without a sting

‘It may be hard to accept that a chaste teenage girl can end up in bed with the President of the United States on her fourth day in the White House.’ In 1962, 19-year-old Mimi Beardsley (pictured above) landed ‘the plummiest of summer jobs’, an internship in the White House press office. On day four, she was invited for a lunchtime swim in the presidential swimming pool. John F. Kennedy was, not surprisingly, ‘taller, thinner, more handsome in person than he looked in photographs’. The affair lasted 18 months and involved a lot of waiting around in hotel rooms, like most affairs. Amazingly, no one found out until 2003, when

Finding Mr Wright

The film When Harry Met Sally may be infamous for the scene in which the heroine mimics orgasm in a crowded café, but the real point of the story is a question: can a man and a woman ever be true friends, or must sex always get in the way? Jack Holmes and His Friend poses the equivalent question about a straight man and a gay one. If it’s made into a movie, the working title will surely be When Harry Met Gary. Homosexual writers seem to be much better than straight ones at combining high literary style with vastly enjoyable descriptions of really filthy sex. Edmund White is a

Chagrin d’amour

The horror of love: Nancy Mitford’s first fiancé was gay; her husband, Peter Rodd, was feckless, spendthrift and unsympathetic, and her great amour, Gaston Palewski, was endlessly unfaithful. She met him during the war in London and was in love with him for the rest of her life. Palewski was Charles de Gaulle’s right-hand man. He organised the French Resistance in London and commanded the Free French forces in East Africa. After the war, he was appointed De Gaulle’s chief of staff and he became known as the sinister éminence grise behind De Gaulle’s presidency. He and Nancy shared a love of France, beauty and jokes. He was never faithful

A man who quite liked women

It is noticeable that the kind of young woman that a clever public man most likes talking to is intelligent but totally unchallenging. This is pleasant for both. She gets to pick up useful knowledge, while he can hold forth, happy that she doesn’t have the inclination or firepower to disagree, argue or interrupt.    Dr Johnson was a bit like that. He wanted women to be equal ‘but not too equal’.  Hannah More, a successful playwright young enough to be his daughter, had too much natural self-belief for him, and he did not admire her dress sense. He was wary and in awe of the confident poet Elizabeth Carter,

The death of laughter

If you were stranded on a desert island, Ruth Leon would be the perfect companion. She is plucky, resourceful, funny, bright and indomitable: you can see just why the late theatre critic Sheridan Morley fell in love with her. And indeed he did find himself alone with her, on the mental-health equivalent of a desert island, when an otherwise fairly mild stroke seemed to ossify his pre-existing depression. For four years he spent as many hours a day as he could asleep. When he was awake he was either weeping or complaining. I lost count of how many times the word ‘whining’ appears in this book. By her own admission, Leon