Alan Cumming: ‘If Donald Trump is the president, we are screwed’

1 month, 5 days ago

In an appearance at the New York Public Library, the actor talked about Elizabeth Taylor, Monica Lewinsky and, naturally, the rise of Donald Trump

Many years ago, the actor Alan Cumming happened to attend a birthday party at Carrie Fishers home. He arrived early. He was so early, in fact, that he was the first guest to arrive. The second was Elizabeth Taylor.

Rather than drum up small talk with one of the great Hollywood stars of the 20 th century, Cumming told a mob at the New York Public Library on Wednesday night, he chose to slip into another room and get a drinking at the bar. Fisher, he told, then approached him and hissed, in a kind of stage whisper: What are you doing? Do you know how many homosexuals would like to be in your position? Cumming returned to the living room and promptly he and Liz fell into an enjoyable conversation.

This is the sort of anecdote Cumming tells in his new volume, You Gotta Get Bigger Dreams: My Life in Stories and Pictures, out this week in the US from Rizzoli. I wanted to give people literal and figurative snapshots, Cumming told the NYPLs Paul Holdengraber last night at the first event of the library Live at the NYPL series. Probably the most touching of these is a shot of himself with his grandmother. On the working day the photograph was taken, Cumming told, his grandmother defended him from relatives who are seeking to tease him about his newly bleached blond hair. If I was young, she said, Id be a freak like Alan too.

On the stage last night Cumming was not much like the characters he plays. He was constrained, spoke slowly and carefully and sometimes even sadly. He was wearing a T-shirt that earnestly extol him a Library All Star and implored, Get in video games, read! And at least at one point, he was visibly riled with Holdengrabers topics. This was when Holdengraber tried to draw a parallel between Cummings troubled relationship to his father, and his troubled relationship with the writer and critic Gore Vidal.

Vidal befriended Cumming in the early 2000 s, he told the audience, and he aimed up having mixed feelings about the relationship. He was flattered, at first, that Vidal liked him, but the more he got to know the famously caustic critic the more he was saddened by Vidals lack of exhilaration. I dont think he was a very nice person, he told Holdengraber. He recalled a visit with Vidal and Vidals partner, Howard Austen. The pair had been together for 50 years. But Cumming said he was shocked to hear Vidal say in front of Austen, Well, Ive never loved, of course. This seemed a cruel thing to say.

Still, Vidal had plainly profoundly affected Cumming. He said he had want to get title his book, I Wrote This Book Because Gore Vidal Told Me To, but his publishers hadnt let him.( That title was instead used for the one chapter in the book where he discusses the relationship .)

Another of Cummings disagreements with Vidal, he told, was over the Monica Lewinsky affair. Vidal was unsympathetic to Lewinsky and especially defended Bill Clintons famous statement that he did not have sex with that woman. Cumming is a good friend of Lewinskys and grew very serious talking about it.

The way that, you know, the most powerful man in the world and this 23 -year-old girl who was in love with him, this thing happened, this unfortunate thing happened, yet she was the one, the weak one he said, reaching for the words to describe his feelings. He was the one who abused his power, and she was the one who was berated, and denigrated, and whose life was made a misery.

Cumming also had opinions to share about Donald Trump. If Donald Trump is the president of this country, we are fucked, ladies and gentlemen, severely, he told.

In the book he writes about the style that Cabaret, the musical whose 1993 London revival was Cummings big breakout role, gradually immerses the reader in the prospect of Nazism. Holdengraber called this passageway prescient as to the present trend of politics. Cumming blanched at the thought. Six, seven, eight months ago, it was funny , now its not funny at all, he said.

The fact that he has been a candidate of a major party, Cumming continued, its a victory of the lack of value this country puts on education. We have allowed a generation of people to be uneducated, to not be able to analyze, to not care about what is happening in the world, to also be in a place where if they are told the same thing again and again and again, propaganda basically, they believe it to be true. He cited Brexitas another example of the same phenomenon.

The demographics of this country have changed so radically in the last generation, and Im hoping that rich, white, entitled humen like Donald Trump, their days of being able to say contentious, racist, sexist, xenophobic, Islamophobic things, are over, Cumming told. But Im not certain. And that fills me with such horror.

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Russell Brand: ‘I was a needy person. I’m less mad now’

1 month, 6 days ago

Hes moved to the country, had a baby and stayed away from politics but is the comedian ready for a quiet life?

The last time I interviewed Russell Brand was in 2008, around the time of Sachsgate, and he was a handful. When I asked him, as a joke, if he was going for world domination, he replied, “Yes, that is what I will do. What am I going to stop for? I’ll just carry on until there’s nothing left.” Nine years on, he has changed in some ways, and in others, not at all.

He still looks amazing: tall, long-haired, Gypsy-George-Best handsome; a dandy highwayman in black leather trousers and goth jewellery. His mind still fires faster than a machine gun, and his speech is just as packed with flowery words and detailed explanations, peppered with references to what he’s read (Jung, Harari, life coach Tony Robbins). And he’s still funny. But Brand is different. His ego is less all-consuming. In 2008, he was difficult with the photographer (not today, he’s fine) and, during our chat, he kept moving his head so that, even when I tried to glance away, he was constantly in my sight-line. It was as if my eyes were the spotlight and his face had to be in it. No more.

“Yes, I’m less mad now,” he says, when I mention this. “I was a needy person. I mean, that condition abides, but I manage it better now, I think.”

Back then, he was also very much a girl-hound – “I love fucking,” he told me. “My house has a hot tub for damned good reasons, and none of them spiritual.” But these days he’s settled, living in the countryside with his new wife Laura Gallacher (sister of Sky Sports presenter Kirsty), baby Mabel, two cats, a brace of chickens and a “maniac” dog. Having burned through his marriage to Katy Perry in two years, and dated Jemima Khan, his relationship with Gallacher, on and off for years, is now settled and domestic. Career-wise, he’s still a standup – he’s on a 71-date tour that will take him into 2018 – but seems to have stopped acting, and has shifted a lot of his public work to activism. In 2014, he began posting The Trews, his political YouTube show, garnering more than 1m subscribers. He’s now studying for an MA in religion in global politics at SOAS University of London. He hosts a wordy, thought-provoking podcast, Under The Skin, where he talks to academics, politicians and writers about contemporary ideas. Is this all less mad? It’s an effort to be more serious, certainly, though his daft performer’s instinct can send him off course in search of the joke, so that he gets ridiculed on political TV shows.

Brand with his wife, Laura Gallacher. Photograph: Alamy

Anyhow, all of this newfound stability and seriousness, according to Brand, is due to his 12-step recovery programme. Though he’s been off drugs since 2002, Brand’s addictive nature meant that his attitude towards sex, porn, money, relationships, food, fame – everything, really – was abnormally compulsive and got him into trouble. So, for the past four and a half years, he has been applying the steps across the whole of his life. He has found this transformative, and thinks many others would, too. In fact, he wants us all to be 12-steppers. “I think that this ideology needs to be proliferated,” he says, “and I think that the more access people have to it, the more people could use it. I’m fascinated by its potential.”

We are chatting in a beautiful hotel in the countryside west of London, not far from where he lives. On a side table, several necklaces have been laid out for Brand to choose from for his photo shoot. A hotel worker delivers avocado on toast while we talk before a vista of perfectly appointed gardens. It’s a setting unlike most representations of an AA meeting that I’ve seen, but let’s talk the 12 steps. The 12 steps form the basis of Alcoholics Anonymous and of all other associated groups (Narcotics Anonymous, Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous, Gamblers Anonymous, Overeaters Anonymous). The first step is an admission of powerlessness over the thing to which you’re addicted. The steps aren’t hard to find, but there is a lot of related literature, too, and though this isn’t a secret, it tends to be passed only between those who attend AA meetings. This isn’t enough for Brand. He is so evangelical about the steps that he has rewritten them, in Brand-speak, for his new book, Recovery: Freedom From Our Addictions.

Aside from the foreword and conclusion, Recovery has 12 chapters, one for each step, and with each Brand takes the step’s essence, rejigs it, and uses his own life to explain what he means. So the AA step one, “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol, that our lives had become unmanageable”, becomes, in Brand’s reworking, “Are you a bit fucked?” AA’s step six, “We were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character”, becomes: “Do you want to stop it? Seriously?” You get the gist.

The book is entertaining and easy to read. There’s a chapter about Brand’s daughter’s birth that is graphically real and very moving: “As if touched by the finger of creation, her eyes flash open and life possesses her and exudes from her. Like seeing behind the curtain as she moves from life’s shadow to life.” Still, I’m not sure how necessary the book is – surely, the existing steps literature works fine – so who is it for?

“For people who have drug and alcohol or sex or food issues, but find some of the literature too clinical, or Christian,” Brand says. “But also, I think it could be applied as a sort of model, because now my lens for living is this. I think it’s universal.”

He tells me about a professional, non-AA meeting he recently attended. He asked if anyone felt they were out of control over anything, and one person mentioned their phone use, another how possessive they were about their friends, another how they behaved when dating. These are the people he wants to read his book, he says; addiction is on a sliding scale, and we all, to a greater or lesser degree, display signs of addictive behaviour. “Addiction is just an extreme behavioural pattern, and we all have patterns.”

‘People need to be able to connect with something that is essential and beautiful and valuable and true.’ Photograph: Harry Borden for the Guardian

He may well be right: I just question whether Brand is the person to take us all through the steps. Also, there’s a point, surely, to the anonymous bit of AA? If the support groups aren’t anonymous, then people don’t feel free enough to talk honestly.

He disagrees. “That anonymity was necessary at the inception, I think, precisely because it was 100 years ago [AA started in 1935; the steps were written in 1939], and there were different social attitudes about chemical misuse and alcoholism. The fellowships themselves had a fragility, and needed to be protected from the idea that anyone could claim to be a spokesperson for them. But I think such anonymity now is preventing a technology that people would benefit from being proliferated.”

He points out how easy it is to order drugs, or indeed anything else, from the internet; how consumer culture is designed to make us think that if you don’t feel good, “there is something you can get to make you feel better and you can probably buy it”. Whether it’s the bump of serotonin you get from a heart on an Instagram post, or the one you get from winning an eBay auction, today’s culture is designed to make you temporarily euphoric through consumption, rather than fully happy because you have changed your habits.

“We’re reaching saturation of consumerism, and the antidote to all this needs to be accessible as well,” he says. “In a way, this book is a progression of the last book I wrote.” Revolution, Brand’s last book, was his call for a political revolution, based on destroying capitalism and getting transcendent instead. (Spoiler: it didn’t work.) John Lydon called it idiotic, and even his friend Noel Gallagher, on hearing that Brand was writing another book, said, “What’s it going to be called this time? The Revolution That Never Took Place?” Still, Brand is persistent. “There’s an ongoing sense that this isn’t working. Really, I’d like to address the emotional and spiritual causes of dissatisfaction on a personal level.”

Ah, the Big Idea. It’s easy to forget, when presented with a comedian who threw away several careers, not just his own, by leaving off-colour messages on the answerphone of a Fawlty Towers star, that Brand has always been interested in the Big Idea. In 2008, he said this to me: “The material world is a transitory illusion, and if it is, why organise your life around the systems that it imposes? Particularly if those systems have negative consequences for huge numbers of people, and the planet itself. I wonder if there are ways that that can change… and I don’t mean normal things like, let’s wear a ribbon – I mean the entire economic structure of the planet or the way we look at religion.”

He’s still thinking along those lines. His Under The Skin podcast is an attempt to get clever people such as Naomi Klein, Al Gore, Adam Curtis and assorted professors to explain their own Big Idea and unpick the systems we take as set in stone, whether those systems are economic or social. He’s searching for the meaning underneath. Brand used to be a Buddhist; now, he believes in a higher power, and the steps are his new faith.

“There was an important job that religion was doing,” he says, “but because of the bigotry, the outdated acculturation of the time of its construction, the casual and unaware attitude towards gender and race, we have, possibly quite rightly, rejected it. But the secularisation, the materialisation, the individualisation of the way we see the world now excludes us from a life that has meaning. And I don’t think pop culture can fill that gap any more. I don’t think art can do it any more. I think things are getting too serious. People need to be able to connect with something that is essential and beautiful and valuable and true.”

Brand speaking at the End Austerity Now rally in London in June 2015. Photograph: John Stillwell/PA

This is pretty much what he was saying 10 years ago, I feel. It’s just that, this time around, Brand’s solution is different. For him, the 12-step programme “has the seeds in it, it has the code”. The meaning of life, the Big Idea. It may well do – the 12 steps have saved a lot more lives than me – but I have another issue with Brand’s book. AA and its associated groups are all free. Though there are those who pay to go into rehab, there are many more who just turn up to meetings and pay nothing at all. Brand will be charging money for his book. How much of his profits will go to AA?

“Some I’ll give to abstinence-based recovery,” he says, “but I’ve not made a devout vow to be a mendicant, you know? My hope is that I’ll become a person that lives entirely charitably and entirely philanthropically and entirely spiritually. And a significant percentage of what I earn – 10, 20% – goes into that kind of thing already; it has done for a little while. Aside from that, there is a 12-step message in this book, but it’s coming through me, it’s using me. It’s still me.”

Exactly, I say. The book is about you. It has a picture of you on the front.

“I know that. I know I’m narcissistic. I know I’m no different from anyone with ego problems, showing off, going, ‘Love me, love me, adore me, give me attention’, but it ain’t just that. It’s something else. And that thing, I’ve got to do something with it.”

I believe he believes this. But I still think it’s his ego. Brand is working hard on his narcissism, but not enough to stop him thinking he can save us all. And not enough to stop him making money by rewriting the programme that saved his life for free. Still, here we are. Before he decided to work the 12 steps throughout his daily existence, Brand spent a lot of time searching for how he should live. He read innumerable self-help books, hoovered up philosophy, puzzled away. He has the phone number of Eckhart Tolle, author of The Power Of Now, and for a while would phone him up – “This living saint!” – with his love-life problems. One time, Brand was banging on about the troubles he was having with his then girlfriend, and at the end of his love tirade, Tolle said, deadpan, “Well, perhaps the relationship will work out. And then both of you will die.” This made Brand laugh, and makes me laugh when he says it.

His personal quest means he’s gone through umpteen therapists, regaling each with his admittedly eye-popping life story. It got to the point where it would almost be a performance. He would rattle through being an only child, his mum getting cancer three times, being sexually abused by a tutor, his relationship with his macho stepdad, his sexually profligate dad who took him to Thailand and ordered three prostitutes (two for him, one for 16-year-old Russell), his problems with crack, heroin, with cutting himself, with sex, with food. The therapist he liked most listened to it all and said, “Yes, but Russell, what is it? What. Is. It?”

What is it? In his book, Brand recalls a day he went to London to meet a theatre director. His tale is a litany of minor discomforts, the worst of which is that his phone runs out of juice and he can’t get a cab. For Brand, though, this series of very small annoyances is almost catastrophic. He cannot cope. His mind fires all over the place, taking him back to when he had nothing, flicking over his junkie past, speculating about strangers’ jobs, then painfully picking through small talk to a moment of joy with, of all people, the actor Zoë Wanamaker. As I read it, I was reminded that, in addition to his addiction problems, Brand has ADHD. It must be exhausting being him.

Performing his Messiah Complex standup show in Berlin in 2014. Photograph: Adam Berry/Getty Images

In that chapter, what he’s trying to demonstrate is how emotional we can be when life bashes us about, but also how the steps can provide a form of mindfulness, a technique to deal with the mania and loneliness and resentment that can easily sweep through our system and knock us off course. Or, at least, knock him off course. What his story makes me feel is that I’m not like that; we all have days when everyone and everything is a wind-up, but usually I manage to shrug off the externals and get on with my life. “Yes, I think addicts are outliers, we’re so jittery about the external world that we’re like, ‘Fuck this, I’m going to find something to medicate and alleviate this.’ I know I’m a nutter.”

No wonder he lives more quietly now, though quiet is a relative term. He’s still making the odd Trews show – he’s just put one up about Sinéad O’Connor, sympathising with her mental illness – plus there’s the podcast, his MA, the book, and he’s doing three standup gigs a week. Performing comedy means his adrenaline is all over the shop; up late and wired, he has to sleep more during the day to keep himself steady. He’s trying hard to be reasonable, because “the more I hear myself being reasonable, the more difficult it becomes to transgress those rules and my own behaviour”.

And he likes living quietly. “I’ve never had domesticity before. Most of my life has been an extension of the grandiose idea of what glamour would look like if it had to have a kitchen. And I feel sometimes like a refugee in my house with this woman, this calm, beautiful woman, who in the most beautiful way possible doesn’t care about what I do. She’s not interested, in the most delightful way. ‘Oh, that sounds nice.’”

He’s enjoying having a daughter, too, though the lack of control takes some getting used to. He might have joked about raising her gender-neutral on Jonathan Ross’s TV show, but he’s pretty militant about Mabel’s privacy. He copes better when his little family are indoors; outside the house, things can get tricky, because he has trouble moving from a safe place out into a random world where he is not in command, but also because “I struggle with people touching the kid.” Plus, his celebrity can skew ordinary moments. He writes about being on a boat on a canal with Laura and getting papped and then getting into a row with the photographer – “My unstated plan is to get his camera… I settle for snatching his spectacles to barter for the film”; it doesn’t go well – and tells me of a time when he fell off his bike in Shoreditch and was lying sprawled on the ground, injured, as a selection of hipsters took photographs of him. “The fact that I was a famous person usurped the fact that I was lying on the floor, clearly in pain.” Only a group of older ladies bothered to ask if he was OK.

Sometimes I think Russell Brand is a cautionary tale, almost a mythological figure; a combination of Narcissus, Big Brother, Keith Richards and Mick Jagger – actually, all rock stars at once. But then I remember that, really, he is not like many other people. He’s not ordinary by any stretch: he’s a person for whom fame is like sunlight, who couldn’t have stayed in the shadows without dying. He is built to show off, and that has consequences.

“Yes, but like a lot of people that have access to extrovert behaviour and can seem quite loud and vivid, there’s a fragility also in me. I’ve learned to manage that differently, and I don’t feel so self-damning and self-condemning as I once did, because I’m more aware.” He knows, for instance, that The Trews began promisingly, but descended into political point-scoring, culminating with Ed Miliband visiting his house to be interviewed and Brand deciding that, actually, we should all vote after all, as long as we voted Labour. He admits that the attention the shows generated fed his always-ravenous ego, and he began to use The Trews to feel powerful and get approval. So he stopped. “I still have this tremendous ambitious drive, but now I know, if I give that drive to my ego to contend with, it wreaks havoc.”

Interviewing Ed Miliband for his YouTube show The Trews in 2015. Photograph: The Trews/YouTube

He should stay out of conventional politics, I think. “Yes. I’m on the edge of the community – a trickster, a joker, a playful person – I don’t need to be working out how the Metropolitan police force should be run.”

When I remind him how, pre-Miliband chat, he told his many young fans that there was no point in voting in the 2015 election, he is unrepentant, because he felt, back then, that there was no real difference between the main parties. In the 2017 election, however, he endorsed Jeremy Corbyn, because he feels Corbyn is genuinely different from the Tories. But on the whole he doesn’t have much time for politics, because it gets in the way of individual spiritual awakening. He thinks Trump is an idiot, but questions how much he will actually get done during his term in office; he also remembers Obama’s failings in Syria. On his podcast, Brand interviewed Yanis Varoufakis and what he liked most was Varoufakis saying that when people are in powerful roles, their roles form the extent of their power – so that, in the end, they have no true power at all.

Time is up. Shame. I am enjoying our conversation. “So am I,” Brand says. “I’m happy in this conversation. I’m not threatened.” He has to do big talk, he can’t do small: it makes him nervous, and then he might act inappropriately. I say, “Well, you could talk about football, that’s Esperanto for most men.” But he can’t talk casually about football, either, or comedy, because he’s a nerd about both things. He can’t be casual about much, any more, not even sex.

“No. I want to know what is the mystery, what is driving us, where is this all going. The only line you can draw between any of us is between those that think it’s possible for the world to change and those that don’t. Those who think it’s possible for an individual to change and those who don’t. I can’t think, ‘Well, I’ll just wait out my days, I’ll do my cluck, I’ll do my rattle, I’ll do my bird, I’ll wait it out and then put me in the fucking turf.’ I feel it’s possible to change the world.”

Recovery is published on 21 September by Macmillan at £20. To pre-order a copy for £17, go to, or call 0330 333 6846.

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Rupert Cornwell obituary

1 month, 15 days ago

Elegantly witty foreign correspondent whose work was proof of the enduring magical of real reporting

Rupert Cornwell, who has died aged 71, was the most gifted of reporters on the foreign scene from Moscow to Washington and many places in between of the past 45 years. Writing for Reuters, the Financial Time and the Independent, he had a distinctive grandeur and ease, marinated with sharp wit. His long pieces were like a classic David Gower innings. As in print, so in life. His dialogue was very funny, very dry and gently subversive.

He was my great friend from student days and companion on the road. After Magdalen College, Oxford, where he read modern Greek, he promptly moved from ad, which he detested, to Reuters. Soon he was on the move, to Paris, Brussels and back to Paris again, where he jumped ship and joined the FT.

At Oxford he seemed somewhat detached. This may have had something to do with the very large darknes of his father, the sometime developer, gambler and convicted bankrupt Ronnie Cornwell better known to wider audiences in fictional form as Rick in several volumes by Ruperts half-brother, David, aka John le Carr. Rupert was the son of Ronnies second matrimony, to the formidable Jeanie Gronow( nee Neal ).

He was mad about sport I recall being dragged to watch Celtic contest the European Cup final with a lifelong passion, and love-hate, for the Arsenal. His occasional athletics writing was top-flight.

It was when he became Rome correspondent for the FT in the 1970 s that things actually took off. This was the heyday of the Mephistophelean eight-time prime minister Giulio Andreotti, the surge of Enrico Berlinguers communists, mafia wars in Palermo and Naples, and exotic soccer scandals. Ruperts reporting technique was a wonder to behold. He used to go into its term of office, slam the door, and build merely two or three telephone call, his fellow FT correspondent James Buxton recollected. Then, an hour or so later out he would come the most amazing, immaculate piece of transcript the subs never needed to touch it.

But this is just ridiculous, he would remark, using a favourite catchphrase. I entail, reporting Italy is just like eating too much chocolate cake. Time to move on. Before moving, he wrote his only volume, Gods Banker( 1983 ), a brisk essay on Roberto Calvi, the rascal financier who was saw hanging under Blackfriars Bridge, London, in June 1982. It dedicated a pacy account of the Banco Ambrosiano scandal that very nearly broke the Vaticans bank.

Ruperts next posting, to Bonn, demonstrated the least happy. He found the place and the story dull, and German the most challenging of all the languages he was to learn he subsequently acquired fluent Russian on the run in a matter of months. His wedding to the Italian interpreter Angela Doria, with whom he had a son, Sean, is broken, though they remained on good terms.

In 1986 he decided to join the newborn Independent as its Moscow correspondent. His writing, portion pin-sharp reporting and proportion sly commentary, has been the epitome of the Independent style. In its pages he became the chronicler of the end of the Soviet empire. Of Mikhail Gorbachev, he wrote: His supreme failing was not to understand that communism could not reform itself. The tragedy of Gorbachev was that he never intended to get rid of communism, but to adapt it to compete with the far richer west. And of the attempt to oust Gorbachev, so moribund had a once ruthless system become, however, that it couldnt even organise a coup.

He loved the sheer quirkiness of the Moscow scene the need to barter paper for secondhand books, the demolition of his elegant Italian suede coat by Moscow dry cleaners, taking a lip reader to a debate in the Duma and matching her account with the official report. He was accompanied by his new spouse, Susan Smith, a correspondent with Reuters, and their son, Stas. His Moscow file brought him foreign correspondent of the year in the What the Papers Say awardings in 1988.

From Moscow he transferred to Washington, where he had two stints as the Independent bureau chief. In between he worked in London as feature novelist and diplomatic correspondent. Among the forgotten gems of this time is the full-page obituary of Diana, Princess of Wales, that he had to pull together in a few hours. It is a masterpiece of social observation, complemented by a mildly subversive undertow. Perhaps she was a manipulator, a strange mixture of the trusting, the calculate and the flaky, but she was forgiven the bulk of her sins, he wrote in a concluding paragraph. Flaky? Golly, If Id written that just a day or two later, I would have been hanged from the nearest lamp-post, he confessed merely a few weeks ago.

In Washington, he regularly skewered the presidents and their dynasties. He disliked the Bush junior years, admired the aloof Obama not least for his writing in Dreams from My Father and writing up Trumpery seemed the call of destiny.

He loved the roaring of the greasepaint and smell of the crowd of athletic above all baseball. Twelve years ago he wrote of the American League Championship contest between the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox, and the long darknes of the Curse of the Bambino. In 1920 the Sox sold their star batter, Babe Ruth who had won the World Series for them in 1918 to the Yankees. And things ran severely for the Sox thereafter. Attempts to lift the curse spawned this paragraph: They have tried everything to exorcise it. They dredged a lake south of Boston where Ruths favourite piano is said to lie, they leave cans of beer on the gravestone at the Gate of Heaven cemetery 20 miles north of New York, where the famously bibulous slugger is buried.

And of course, there was Trump. In February Rupert choice the chaotic 80 -minute, stream-of-consciousness press conference as the cue to go in to bat for the MSM, the mainstream media. Its a tough chore, maintaining a focus on facts and truth, in the face of a mendacious propaganda barrage from a White House with indisputable authoritarian instincts. Reporting US politics now is about attempting transparency in what is the least transparent administration since Nixons day And the reviled MSM so far has hardly put a foot wrong.

Rupert carried on, acerbic and brilliant, through three years of cancer. In his languid, elegant style there was understated genius. His work is proof of the enduring magic of real reporting in the post-truth age.

A lot of Ruperts quiet feistiness came from and is in favour of his family: his wife, Susan, still pounding the Washington beat for Reuters, brother, David, and sister, the actor Charlotte Cornwell. They and his sons survive him.

Rupert Howard Cornwell, journalist, born 22 February 1946; died 31 March 2017

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Sherman Alexie’s mother’s ghost promptings him to cancel volume tour

1 month, 16 days ago

The author, who was promoting memoir You Dont Have to Say You Love Me, reports that spectacular haunting and depression have led him to cancel dates

Sherman Alexie has cancelled a tour promoting his new memoir about his relationship with his late mom, citing depression and his belief that his mothers ghost has been haunting him since the book was published last month.

In an open letter to his readers, Alexie said that he would be cancelling all his appearances in August and many, but not all of his events for the rest of the year. The tour was intended to promote You Dont Have to Say You Love Me, about his mother Lillian Alexie, a woman the award-winning Native American writer describes as brilliant, funny, beautiful, generous, vindictive, deceitful, tender, manipulative, abusive, loving, and intimidating, and who died in 2015.

Lillian haunted me when she was alive. And she has haunted me since her demise in July 2015. And she has haunted me in spectacular styles since I publish my memoir a month ago. She has followed me from city to city during my promotional book tour, writes Alexie in a moving letter posted to his website and to Facebook. On three consecutive nights, in three different cities, police and ambulance sirens rang out as I told the story about the moment I learned of my mothers death Last night, as I returned to Seattle, I stepped off my airliner to find an airport valet waiting with a wheelchair for one of my fellow passengers. That valet held a sign with a familiar name a name that attained me giggle. That valet was waiting to ferry somebody named Lillian.

Alexie writes in his memoir that he doesnt believes in ghosts, but that he assures them all the time. He adds in his letter that I dont believe in the afterlife as a reality, but I believe in the afterlife as metaphor. And my mother, from the afterlife, is metaphorically kicking my ass.

During the course of his tour to date, Alexie said that he has been sobbing many times a day and rebreaking my heart night after night. He has, he writes, fallen ill with depression, and while he has recovered from the head cold that caused him to cancel events in Tulsa and Missoula last week, I couldnt medicate my sadness my complicated heartbreak. And then his mother appeared in one of his dreams, holding a sign that[ told] STOP.

I think the meaning of that dream is obvious. It means I am supposed to stop this book tour, writes Alexie, apologising to both readers and booksellers for his decision, but promising that he will still be penning, and that he will return to the road when he is strong enough.

When I told Diane, my spouse, about my mothers ghost and about my plans to cancel so many events, she told: Maybe its your mother taking care of you from heaven. Maybe, I said. But I think its probably your subconscious taking care of the rest of you. I think its likely you being a good mom to yourself. You are mothering you. So here I am the son and the mother combined who needs to take a big step back and do most of my mourning in private.

Because of the short notice, Alexie will still appear at events in San Diego, Los Angeles and San Francisco this month. The author of 26 books, he is the win of the PEN/ Faulkner awarding for fiction, as well as the National Book Award for young peoples literature for his bestseller The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. The young adult novel is one of the most challenged volumes in US schools, with many objections citing profane language and sexual content.

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He who must not be named: how Harry Potter helps make sense of Trump’s world

1 month, 27 days ago

For fans of the wizard series, the new political order is Dumbledores army v President Voldemort. Is it merely a juvenile comparing or have JK Rowlings books shaped a generations thinking?

Every generation has its go-to pop-culture political analogy. For decades, it was Star Wars. Its easy to see how Reagans 80 s space-based weapons shield initiative earned its nickname, for example, but the reference has endured, to the extent that White House chief strategist Steve Bannon expressed his admiration for the dark side in a recent interview: Darkness is good. Dick Cheney, Darth Vader, Satan. Thats power. But one name was missing from that listing: Voldemort.

The Harry Potter villain has risen again over the past couple of years, as fans have described comparisons, often humorously, between a world under threat from a narcissistic tyrant and that of the Harry Potter volumes. In February, Bannon was the subject of a Buzzfeed quiz that asked, Who Told It: Steve Bannon or Lord Voldermort ?; it was harder than you might have thought. JK Rowlings readers have grown up at approximately the same pace as Harry, Ron and Hermione, and with its hundreds of millions of book marketings and the massive success of the movie adaptations, the series reach has been enormous.

What Harry Potter has given a generation is a simple narrative of good triumphing over evil, and, as a result, it has been a frequent and controversial point of reference in this time of political divisiveness. At the worldwide Womens Marches in January, there were plenty of homemade signs that indicated Princess Leia as the face of a new resistance, but there were as many Potter ones, such as Dumbledores army, inspirational quotes from the series and references to Hermiones role in Harrys survival. Perhaps these placards had been inspired by an outpouring of affection for the books following the US election in November, as people began to post quotes on Twitter. Order of the Phoenix, mount up, wrote Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda. There is even a Chrome extension that changes any mention of Donald Trump or his cabinet to the name of a notable Death Eater. Install it, and your browser will instantly refer to Betsy DeVos as Dolores Umbridge, Jeff Sessions as Antonin Dolohov or Rex Tillerson as Draco Malfoy.

Placards at the Girl March in Washington DC. Photo: Patsy Lynch/ REX/ Shutterstock

I would have been nine or 10 when I started read it, tells Jamie MacColl, 26, the guitarist in Bombay Bicycle Club. Last year MacColl set up the campaign group Undivided, which aims to ensure young peoples voices are heard in Brexit negotiations, and he recently appeared on the BBC Question Time panel. I remember the craze to read each new volume within minutes of it coming out, and queueing up in the midst of the night at the bookshop to get it. He says that he can only think of their political or social message in light of JK Rowlings transparently left-leaning Twitter presence. I think she has a similar kind of politics to me. But one of the things that struck me at the time was that it didnt matter who you were. Hermione had no wizard blood and was by far the most capable.

The broad central message of the Potter volumes is diversity and acceptance of difference. As the characters grow older, and the books more complex and matured, the political the effects of not heeding this doctrine become darker and more imperil. The baddies insistence on the superiority of purebloods over mudbloods has overtones of ethnic cleansing; the Death Eaters are fascistic. It would be mean-spirited to spoil the carefully guarded plot of The Cursed Child for those with tickets to see it, but it is fair to say that there is plenty in the play that stimulates this association clear.

Its a lot of fun to update the references and see how Rowlings vision works for the current epoch. Throughout the series, the Ministry of Magic is full of incompetent, pervert, bumbling figures whose only ambition is to cling on to power. The press is untrustworthy and hysterical. In a magical premonition of phone-hacking, the journalist Rita Skeeter transforms herself into a beetle in order to report on details nobody else could know about. The Daily Prophet is often used as a marionette of the system in order to sway popular positions. About the recent Potter prequel Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, Rowling told, I was partly inspired by the rise of populism around the world .~ ATAGEND The explanation of the anti-magic sentiment rippling through 1920 s New York in the film could be taken from Brexit Britain: When No-Majs[ American for muggle] are afraid, they attack.

Steve Bannon, who recently told: Darkness is good. Dick Cheney, Darth Vader, Satan. Thats power. Photo: REX/ Shutterstock

In 2013, Anthony Gierzynski, a prof of political science at the University of Vermont, published a study called Harry Potter and the Millennials: Research Methods and the Politics of the Muggle Generation, co-authored with Kathryn Eddy. It aimed to answer the question of whether the Harry Potter narrative had influenced the politics of millennials. In the introduction, Gierzynski discusses, with what now looks like quaint naivety, online comparings that at the time variously likened Voldemort to Rick Perry and Dick Cheney.

To say the political scenery has changed is an understatement, he tells me. We have a chairwoman whose rhetoric promotes intolerance and who fits the typical authoritarian personality. I would think the Harry Potter lessons are even more relevant today than they were for the 2012 election.

Rowling herself nodded to a Trump/ Voldemort comparison back in 2015, when Trump first proposed a ban on Muslims entering the US. How horrible. Voldemort was nowhere near even worse, she tweeted. The connect has been made by others, and often; there are countless memes comparing the president to He Who Must Not Be Named.( Intriguingly, when criticising Trump in recent speeches or interviews, celebrities such as Meryl Streep and Kristen Stewart have declined to address him by name, a stance shared with many US activists .)

In the case of Trump, Gierzynski indicates, a better reference point would be an incompetent Ministry of Magic, Cornelius Fudge-type figure. But he also points out that hurling names around is unlikely to be helpful in the long run. Calling anyone Voldemort is problematic in terms of the debate you might have. It shuts down the debate, he tells. If you have a discussion[ about] what happens with these kinds of leaders, and how this leads to an fanaticism of out groups that is where the value of the Harry Potter series is, to me. It can provide lessons about how you deal with that sort of injustice and intolerance.

In 2016, Diana Mutz, prof of political science at the University of Pennsylvania and director of the Institute for the Study of Citizens and Politics, published a paper called Harry Potter and the Deathly Donald, which cautiously was contended that reading Harry Potter or watching the movies lowered Americans opinions of Trump and his policies. Stories can sway peoples opinions; Harry Potter is just one that happens to have been read and viewed by a massive number of people. This stimulates it potentially more influential than most tales, she tells me by email. Fictional stories are more than simply analogies; they are a time-honoured style of influencing sentiments. Think of Uncle Toms Cabin and American attitudes towards slavery.

Michael Gambon as Dumbledore. Photograph: Warner Bros/ Sportsphoto/ Allstar

Like Gierzynski, Mutz suggests that the messages of tolerance and diversity in the Harry Potter world have influenced the beliefs of its readers, rather than reflecting an existing point of view. But she was surprised by the strength of the backlash she received upon publication of the paper. I have never received more hate mail than in response to this study; its a bit scary, to be honest. Clearly, people who like Donald Trump are uncomfortable with the studys findings, but with empirical data, you dont get to choose your findings. They are what they are, she says.( The current climate is so toxic that Gierzynski also expressed concern. Theres a bit of fear in our discourse. Usually, when I talk to journalists, I wouldnt worry, but these days I do .)

Trump advocates are not alone in criticising the use of Harry Potter as a political analogy. In a scathing post-election column for Esquire last November, Corey Atad wrote that even though he considers himself to be an enormous Harry Potter fan, he found the comparison of Trump to Voldemort, and the idea of an opposition that is Dumbledores army, to be repellent. In tweet after shameful tweet, intellectually and emotionally stunted adults sought to place the election of a fascistic president in terms they could easily understand, he wrote. The Huffington Post operated a narrative that called Trump/ Voldemort comparings inane and condescending, while Matthew Dessem, a writer for Slate, was similarly outraged: Are you fucking kidding me with this shit? … This is really happening.

All three pieces were written in the immediate aftermath of the election; the anger and anxiety is palpable and understandable. But the idea of using fictional narratives to understand and construe the world is as old as day; it is no coincidence that sales of Nineteen Eighty-Four and The Handmaids Tale have risen since November. If, as academics such as Mutz and Gierzynski argue, the Harry Potter series has created a generation of people who are more open-minded and tolerant of change owing to the books they read as children, then it seems far from juvenile and reductive.

Besides, there is little to suggest that tweeting a Dumbledore quote is as far as a Potter fan might take it. In June last year, Yeni Lopez Sleidi, the editor of the site wwwayward, attained posters of Donald Trump underneath a motivational quote: There is no good and evil, there is only power, and those too weak to seek it. Potter fans may recognise these words as are subordinate to Professor Quirrell, recollecting what the Dark Lord taught him. Sleidi sold a number of posters to Trump advocates and donated the profits to Familia: Trans Queer Liberation Movement, a charity that supports LGBTQ Latino communities. If the purchaser had put the posters on their walls and turned off the lightings, they would have found that their purchase had a secret: in the dark, Trump vanishes, to be replaced by a glowing green image of Voldemort. Now thats magic.

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Joyce Carol Oates:’ People believe I write quickly, but I actually don’t’

2 months, 9 days ago

The volumes interview: The prolific author on the unreality of romance, the fickle memory of Americans and how tweeting has got her into trouble

When Joyce Carol Oates, the 77 -year-old author of well over 100 volumes, told the New Yorker last year that she thought of herself as transparent, before adding Im not sure I genuinely have a personality, the admission felt scandalous. We live in a day when the concept of personhood has been enshrined, in the monetising parlance of late capitalism, as my own personal brand. To posit its non-existence is a kind of taboo. Especially if you happen to be someone often was regarded as Americas foremost woman of letters.

Oates, a five-time Pulitzer finalist, might be very intensely interested in a portrait of America, but clearly she has no truck with the ego-vaunting, personality driven paradigm of contemporary celebrity. She appears more to belong to some other, long-passed era, with a pronounced gothic streak colouring much of her fiction, which tends to be peopled by powerful men and introverted women who often experience sex shame. In the afterword to her 1994 collecting Haunted: Narratives of the Grotesque , she seems to find a human truth within horror: We should sense immediately, in the presence of the grotesque, that it is both real and unreal simultaneously, as states of mind are real enough feelings, moods, shifting obsessions, beliefs though immeasurable. The subjectivity that is the essence of the human is also the mystery that divides us irrevocably from one another.

At her home in rural New Jersey she serves mugs of herbal tea and when her bengal kitten, Cleopatra, settles against my leg, Oates tells: I see you have quite a conquest there. She presumes youre here to gratifies her.

I am here, of course, to talk to Oates about herself and her work, but Im not so interested in myself she tells. I remember someone saying that Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton loved to go bar-hopping in New York, and the last thing they wanted to talk about was themselves they were more interested in these characters in the bars. Thats the route I think many novelists are. I was of the view that way. And its often said about Shakespeare that he was transparent, and Keats that he had this negative capability to be interested in other things.

Specifically, Im here to speak to her about her new novel The Human Without a Shadow, her 44 th under her own name to go alongside her many collectings of tales, essays and plays, her memoirs and her novels written under pseudonym. It concerns the relationship between an amnesiac, Elihu Hoopes, and a neuroscientist, Margot Sharpe, for whom Hoopes is both enduring scientific topic and lifelong love object. She is a woman who cant bear herself except as a vessel of work. She is also a person who wonders, What if I have no person what will I do then?

Oates is straightforward about the personal parallels. I very much identify with Margot. And not just for her workaholic tendencies and personality doubt. I suppose, she ventures, were continually devising narrations and filling in blanks and misremembering in ways that bolster our interpretation of something. So I wanted to write about this relationship between two people engaged in different memories.

Since his memory widens no further than 70 seconds, Elihu experiences every meeting with Margot as a first. Accordingly, the novel is written wholly in the present tense, the state in which Elihu lives. In one sense then, their love is literally without foundation: how can you form any meaningful connection in a little over a minute? Yet theres also something pure about their relationship: each encounter has the wonder of the eternally new.


Joyce Carol Oates and her first husband Raymond Smith. Photograph: Eva Haggdahl/ PR

The relationship between them is always sort of unreal, she says, but Im wondering if many relationships that are based on love and romance are not fairly highly charged with unreality. When youre actually living with someone over a period of time you do get to know the person in a very complex and detailed way. But the romantic ideal is very much fraught with the possibility of conditioning people. Presenting your best ego. Telling things to the other that will elicits a certain response.

Oates was marriage for 47 years to Raymond J Smith, a professor and editor of the Ontario Review, which he and Oates founded together in 1974. After he died in 2008 from complications arising from pneumonia, Oates detailed her heartbreak in an acclaimed memoir, A Widows Story . Soon after, she met and married Charlie Gross, a neuroscientist. Gross has been a particularly enthusiastic reader of the latest fiction, which has come about, she tells, directly as a consequence of writing A Widows Story and having to deal so rigorously with her own memory. Oates usually works on several projects at once, but it was only after shed finished the memoir that she was able to return to writing novels and narratives. Writing fiction is hard to do when real life seems so much more important, she explains.

Nevertheless: I dont have any anxiety about writing. Not truly. Its such a pleasure, and our lives are so relatively easy compared to people who are really out there in the world working hard and suffering. The art goes much subsequently in civilisation, when youve dealt with other things like poverty and strife. People think that I write speedily, but I actually dont. I recollect guessing to myself, Am I still working on this novel? Its such a slow evolution. The phase of anxiety is lost in all that. You cant be anxious every minute of every day for eight months.

Oatess extraordinary work ethic she writes eight hours a day is such that we now have a virtual sub-genre of literature that we might call where to start with Joyce Carol Oates. Its a phenomenon she mocks wryly in The Journal of Joyce Carol Oates, 19731982 : The list of my books … is overwhelming. So many volumes! So many!

Her very first was By the North Gate , a short story collection published in 1963, but it was her fifth volume, them , a 1969 novel, that won her a National book award and confirmed Oates as a major writer. Blonde , her 2000 fictionalisation of Marilyn Monroes inner life, is often regarded as her best fiction( it was nominated for both a Pulitzer and a National book award) although many readers first encounter her through the repeatedly anthologised Where Are You Going Where Have You Been, a nuanced story of a young girls rape, in which every sentence is taut with something lethal.

And then theres her criticism: lengthy, dispassionate and thorough pieces for the New York Review of Books for which she reads each writer exhaustively. She recalls, for example, sitting in Dallas airport with all these volumes of Cormac McCarthy literal volumes, I wasnt reading on a Kindle and I guessed Im dragging all these books around, and theyre so depressing! But hes such a good writer … This is where I confess to her that, in this case, I failed to adhere to my usual rule of reading a writers entire backlist before an interview. Well, you cant perhaps she murmurs. Maybe that was asking too much of yourself, only in general.

The JCO completists in this world is necessary few. Theres a man named Greg Johnson whos written a biography of me, she tells. And then maybe a few other people.

I ask whether JM Coetzees job description of a novelist as a secretary of the invisible resonates with her.( Coincidentally, Johnsons 1999 biography is titled Invisible Writer .) Im plainly making, she counters. Coetzee is somewhat coy … A secretary is someone who takes notes, but a novelist has a strong will, and is generating narrative situations, bringing people together, telling a narrative. Its a very wilful thing, and Coetzee is a very wilful person as an artist. Theres a will; it should be invisible. No one should really know about it.

Then I broach the subject of another form of writing. Oates, who has nearly 140,000 Twitter followers, has become notorious for missives met with derision or collective huh? s. When she asked, All we hear of ISIS is puritanical& punitive; is there nothing celebratory& joyous? Or is query naive? it inspired the actor Molly Ringwald to react, Okay, who got Grandma stoned?

Most egregious was a tweet that seemed to conflate violence against women with Islam. Where 99.3% of women report having been sexually harassed& rape is epidemic Egypt natural to inquire: whats the predominant religion? I venture that this was Islamophobic. Well, some of the reactions are sympathetic … Its all sort of political. But my fundamental focus is the rights of women and girls and patriarchal religion , no matter what it is, Im not sympathetic to. I have confessed that often on Twitter, that I dont believes in patriarchal religion to me its delusional, so if thats Islamophobic, I suppose that could be true. Its more like religion-phobic, or patriarchal religion-phobic. What I had to say was actually much, much longer than could be said in a tweet. But nobody makes anybody write tweets, so the negative answer that one get is basically, in a way you deserve it. Ive tweeted other things that Ive entailed sincerely, but sometimes people misinterpret it.

She adds, wearily: I dont really care that much. I write something nice about Homeland , but a bunch of people write back to say Oh, we dislike Homeland , its Islamophobic. I literally dont care. I dont even read them. Theyre sort of attacking a tweet, then its gone. The fickle memory of Americans is something you can rely on. The literary world is very different, and Im much more serious about the literary world. I write these reviews which are quite long and nuanced for the New York Review of Books thats really like my real life.

When Ive thanked her and weve both stood up theres a moment of mutual uncertainty. Oates surely wants to get back to work, but the car Ive yet to summon will probably take 20 minutes to arrive. I gesture at a small floral lounge by the front door and indicate Ill just wait there. Upstairs, I can hear the voice of Oatess contented humming receding as she moves towards her desk.

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‘ All my friends had some nightmare experience trying to get pregnant. My story took the cake’

2 months, 9 days ago

At five months pregnant, Ariel Levy lost her newborn. After four more years of IVF, had she left motherhood too late?

I first fulfilled Ariel Levy in 2009, soon after moving from London to New York, but I had been a fan for more than a decade. Her frank articles about pop culture and sex, which she wrote in her first task at New York magazine from the late 1990 s, the template of what I wanted to write one day. Her 2005 book, Female Chauvinist Pigs, a blister look at how young woman were being sold the lie that emulating pole dancers and Paris Hilton was empowering, became one of the defining feminist statements of that decade. At the New Yorker, where she has been a personnel writer since 2008, she breaks up the publications occasional aridity with vivid articles about sexuality and gender.( She got her job when she told editor David Remnick that, If foreigners had only the New Yorker to go by, they would conclude that human beings didnt care that much about sexuality, which they actually do .)

Heroes rarely live up to your fictions, but Levy outstripped them. Usually marriage used to go for drinkings cocktails that knocked me sideways, but scarcely seemed to touch her sides and from the start she struck me as being just like her penning: laid-back, wise, curious, kind. Sometimes Levys wife, Lucy, would join us. Isnt she hilarious? Levy would say after Lucy had said something that wasnt, actually, all that funny, but I jealousy them their mutual love after almost a decade together. I, by contrast, was lonely and, like generations of single women in their mid-3 0s before me, starting to panic. But like a lot of women of my particular generation, I felt ashamed of this. Panicking about not having a newborn? How retrograde. So I never admitted any of it to Levy, who seemed more likely to eat her own hair than indulge in such uncool, unfeminist thoughts.

I left New York in 2012 and, despite my doomy fears, had twins when I was 37. Levy and I stayed in touch by email, and although her messages became shorter and more distant, I presumed everything was fine, because she was Ari. But in 2013, I opened the New Yorker and learned that it was not.


When we meet for brunch on a cold Saturday in February, it has been five years since we last comprehend each other. Its a typical New York scene: weary and winter-pale mothers eating scrambled eggs in a trendy restaurant while their sugar-rushed toddlers play on iPads. Levy, by contrast, looks calm, happy and healthy, and not only because she has a tan from a recent five-week stay in South Africa.

If we had this conversation five months ago, I would have been in a bad way, she says, in a lilting voice that are typically sets an unspoken Oh my God! and Can you believe it? behind her terms. But Im so much less miserable Im not even miserable at all. So what the frack are we going to eat?

We are just around the corner from Levys flat, where she has expended the past year writing a memoir. This in itself is something of a surprise, because she is not usually a first-person novelist. But Levy, after negotiating her order with the waiter( Ooh, the cheddar scramble is that good? But do we have to have the creme fraiche with it? I mean, lets not ), shrugs off any concerns about self-exposure: Im pretty open book-y, you know? I never understood what the big deal is about privacy. The hardest part was realising that Id better entail what I say. The whole schtick of the book is acceptance and surrender. So after I finished writing it, I believed, Wow, I guess Id better follow my own advice now.

In 2012, Levy conceived a newborn with sperm from a friend, having overcome the reservations shed long had about parenthood. She was about to turn 38: It felt like attaining it on to a plane the moment before the gate shuts you cant help but thrill, she wrote in her 2013 New Yorker article, Thanksgiving In Mongolia.

When she was five months pregnant, she flew to Ulaanbaatar for run. Her friends were concerned but, she wrote, I liked the idea of being the kind of woman whod go to the Gobi desert pregnant. After two days of abdominal discomfort, she ran into the hotel bathroom, squatted on the floor and blacked out from the ache. When she came to, her newborn was on the floor next to her. I heard myself say out loud, This cant is all very well. But it looked good. My newborn was as fairly as a seashell, she wrote. She gazed in awe at his mouth, opening and closing, opening and closing, swallowing the new world.

She had suffered a severe placental abruption, a rare complication in which the placenta detaches from the uterus. In shock, Levy held the 19 -week foetus while blood spread across the tiles. She eventually called for help, taking a photograph of her son before the ambulance turned up. She was taken to a clinic where a kind South African doctor tended to her while she hemorrhaged and sobbed. And I knew, as surely as I now knew that I wanted small children, that this change in fortune was my fault. I had boarded a plane out of vanity and selfishness, and the dark Mongolian sky had punished me, she wrote.

Levy flew back to New York and, within two weeks, her relationship with Lucy came to an objective. For months afterwards, Levy continued to bleed and lactate: It seemed to me sorrow was leaking out of me through every orifice. She appeared obsessively at the photograph of her newborn, and tried to make others appear, too, so they could see what “shes seen” and they did not: that she was a mother who had lost her child.

Her article, which won a National Magazine Award in 2014, aims at that point, and I assumed that the end of Lucy and Levys marriage was tied to the loss of their child. In fact, that was a whole other shitshow, Levy tells now. When she returned from Mongolia, she realised through her cloud of grief that Lucy, who had struggled with alcoholism before, needed to go to rehab, poorly. The girls, still in love but too broken to support one another, separated. Today, they are in touch, but, Levy tells, There are times when one of us says, I gotta stop talking to you for a while because this is too painful. Because we are get divorced, you dont magically stop caring about each other.

The breakup is one of merely several shitshows recounted in Levys memoir, The Rules Do Not Apply, which looks, in self-lacerating detail, at events in her life before she went to Mongolia, and hints at some that came as. It is not the book that many expected would follow Female Chauvinist Pigs , not least because it could be spun as a warning to women about the perils of waiting too long to have a newborn. Placental abruption, Levy writes, usually befalls women who are heavy cocaine users or who have high blood pressure. But sometimes it only happens because youre old. She doesnt go into this in the book, but Levy, who is now 42, has not been able to conceive again, despite having undergone a ridiculous amount of IVF over the past four years.

The alternative way of looking at Levys memoir is that she is dealing with a subject that feminism has never been able to resolve: the immovable boulder of fertility, butting up against female progress. Levy says she had always wanted to be a writer, so I construct my life with that as my priority; by the time she realised she also wanted to be a mom, she was in her late 30 s. She writes that she and her generation were given the lavish gift of agency by feminism, coupled with a middle-class, western sense of entitlement that resulted them to believe that anything seemed possible if you had ingenuity, money and persistence. But the body doesnt play by those rules.

Of course, this is partly about class, she says now. I dont hear women who are less privileged supposing theyre entitled to everything, whenever they want it. Thats a privilege phenomenon, but it is a phenomenon. It constructs me laugh when people say, Why dont you simply do surrogacy, or merely adopt? Believe me, there is no just about them. Surrogacy expenses $100,000 – $150,000 in the US, while adoption expenses are on average between $ 20,000 and $45,000( costs in the UK are much lower ). After the money Levy spent on IVF( A plenty. A plenty, a lot, a lot ), those options are less possible than ever.

Doomy warnings that women need to stop shillyshallying and sprog up are published in the Daily Mail every day. They are far less common from prominent feminist novelists, and Levy concurs there is no point in lecturing young lady, because it doesnt do anything, and they know it already. Theyre like, Eff you: Im busy trying to earn money and figure myself out. Its just a design flaw that, at the exact moment so many of us ultimately feel mature enough to take care of someone beside ourselves, the bodys like: Im out.

At home in New York: I was a mess for a very long time. Read an excerpt from her new memoir below. Photo: Annabel Clark for the Guardian

In the UK and US, the average age of first-time mothers has climbed consistently for the past 40 years, partly because of the decline in teen pregnancies, but also because feminism has given women alternatives beyond marriage and motherhood in their 20 s. This, Levy tells, is a seismic rejiggering, and the cost can be epic. While not all women want children, many do eventually, and it doesnt matter how many articles you read about women who are childfree and fabulous when the desire makes, it grabs by the root. That much has not changed, even if the age at which it comes has.

It feels virtually treacherous to say this, I say, devoted how hard our moms fought to give us more alternatives than they had.

I was never any good at maintaining secrets, Levy says. I entail, we ensure their own problems all around us. All of my friends had some nightmare experience trying to get pregnant. My story took the cake, but it wasnt fairly for anyone.

In the book, Levy indicates it was being a writer that encouraged her to believe she could prefer motherhood when she wanted:[ Writers] are accustomed to the power of authorship you control how the narrative unfolds. But I tell her I ensure the writer side of her more in her self-recrimination, the idea that she was to blame for the loss of her child because she waited too long to conceive. Although it is above the average age for first-time motherhood( in the US, this is 26; in the UK, 29 ), 37 is not insanely old to get pregnant. According to the NHS, 82 % of women aged between 35 and 39 will conceive within a year if they are having regular unprotected sex. Levy was in a different situation, because she was relying on IVF. Is it easier to ascribe self-blame, or even societal blame, than say she simply suffered terrible luck in tricky circumstances?

Well, its not just bad luck, because you are more likely to suffer from bad luck if youre older, she tells. But who knows? This might have happened to me if Id got pregnant when I was younger. I just would have had more hour afterwards to get pregnant again.


Levy grew up think the rules existed to be defied. As a child in pretty Larchmont, New York country, her mothers special friend, a large African-American named Marcus, would frequently come to stay with Levy and her mothers, a pair of diminutive Jews. Sometimes Levys mother would go to visit him. Marcus had the power to change my mother from a stern regulator of all food containing sugar into a giggling nymph pouring giant glasses of 7Up, as carefree as if it were carrot juice. It was frightening to watch her so happy, Levy writes. Eventually, her parents divorced.

They came out of the 60 s, where people were experimenting with all kinds of things, she tells. And they were going to reinvent marriage, and everything that was established was bullshit. So my mom was like, Im going to have everything. Ill have this thing and Ill have my domestic life, and neither will affect the other. She feels really bad about it. You know, it destroyed their own families. But its not like I think, Therefore convention is great and traditional families are perfect.

Because neither the traditional nor the less conventional approach insures happiness?


As she grew up, Levy occasionally experimented with women, but it wasnt until she was 26 and fell in love with her first girlfriend, Debs, that she realised this was, in her words, a definite thing. The narrative around[ came to see you] is that everything that preceded it was a lie. But thats not true for me I actually dug my boyfriends. But when I was with Debs, I believed, Oh, Im wholly a lesbian. Then I thought, Oh, wait. You dont have to choose no ones going to make you sign anything.

She satisfied Lucy when she was 28 and Lucy 41, at a friends party, and fell for her instantaneously. They had a wedding in 2006 and were legally married the following year in San Francisco. A few years after, Levy, then 35, embarked on an affair.

Even as affairs go, this one truly broke the rules. Levy had got back in touch with an ex-girlfriend, Jen, only to find that she had since transitioned and was now a trans man named Jim. The sexuality was as good as Levy recollected, but on a personal level Jim infuriated her: he indicated the two of them have a baby together employing his eggs and Levys uterus, a theory she found repellent in its blithe presumption: It was his sense of entitlement his belief that you could just keep choosing whatever you wanted in life, without ever sacrificing a single thing, Levy writes.

But this was really a kind of self-reproach: she wanted to be married, but also to have an affair; she had tried to forge her own path, but objective up replaying her childhood; she wanted to delay motherhood, but not reject it entirely.

Levy eventually cut Jim off, and she and Lucy repaired their relationship. Soon after, Lucys alcoholism overwhelmed her, and she attempted suicide. But the two of them went through it; I satisfied them soon after, when they couldnt have seemed more together. They decided to have a newborn. This, Levy believed, would be their happy story.

But happy tales come in unexpected shapes. Soon after Levy returned to New York from Mongolia, suddenly with neither a spouse nor a newborn, she got an email from John Gasson, the South African doctor who had looked after her in Ulaanbaatar. He sent her her medical report, which stated unequivocally that flying to Mongolia had played no part in the loss of the baby, just in case you have any lingering doubt or feelings of remorse, which she did. The two began to coincide, and that was a lifesaver, because he was the only one who saw me with the newborn, and that was the only thing that felt real to me then, Levy tells. Emailing turned into visits. Visits turned into something more, and they are getting married next year. This relationship feels less conventional than my relationship with Lucy: we dont live in the same country, we have different lives. My straight relationship is a lot less straight-out than my gay one was, she says.

Levy only hints at this relationship in her book, and I tell her I was astonished that she defied concluding with this better-than-Hollywood happy aiming. Well, I didnt want the books message to be, Someday, my prince will come, because it wasnt like that. I was a mess for a long time. Theres no such thing as a happy aiming. And this isnt an ending I mean, Im not dead.

The real lesson of Levys story isnt that women are having children subsequently and that this is a problem, but that womens lives are now an entirely different shape, with happiness no longer dependent on the old markers. A female can marriage other women in her 30 s, and then a human in her 40 s; a woman can run for president in her 60 s. And even if they dont get the original intended prize the baby, the presidency the forging of that new route still feels in itself like a victory. But I suspect it will be some time before Levy will be able to tell that story.

She has always loved to garden; her roof terrace was always bordered by shrubbery, and these days she has vegetable and flower beds. If I had my way, its the only thing Id ever do, she tells. In South Africa, she has learned to pony ride along the beach: I like how it feels like flying. When we satisfy, she is just finishing up a New Yorker profile of the artist Catherine Opie, whom Levy describes as a feminist and visual poet on gender.

As for herself, Levy remains first and foremost a feminist, but one who has moved on from Female Chauvinist Pigs: I still agree with myself that reducing females to tits and ass isnt this liberating thing. But Im just not that interested in talking about porn and whatnot at this moment in time. I dont know if its because Im older, or because the world has changed and were in a genuine crisis about womens rights with Trump.

Last summer, Levy chose, after four long years, to stop the fertility therapies. I merely need my life not to be about what I dont have, or consistently failing to get it in the most painful style. And its great. I mean, you cant spend the month of January in South Africa riding horses on a beach and is just like, my life sucks. All options entail not choice something else, and if the kid thing doesnt work up, John and I can travel when we like, and that has its charms.

I feel like were not supposed to admit to regret about our lives, but I do have unhappiness, and thats fine. That doesnt entail I cant live with them, or that somethings wrong. And its pretty great when I can hand my friends children back when they start having a tantrum. Simply as you wont lie to me and say theres nothing fulfilling about motherhood.

A decade ago, Levy profiled the New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, and asked her if she regretted not having had children. Everybody doesnt get everything, Dowd replied.

That sounded so depressing to me at the time, Levy tells. Now it just seems like a relief to know I dont have control over everything. Its a part of growing up.

Another part is learning that the rules are mutable: you can be divorced and still love your former spouse; sadness is part of a happy life; and feminism doesnt entail getting everything. It entails giving women choices and thats a good thing even if sometimes those options are taken away.

Dr John wished to know how I am feeling. I tell him that I am in hell: an exclusive extract from Ariel Levys new book

An email arrives from Dr John Gasson, medical director, SOS International Clinic, Ulaanbaatar. As promised, he has sent my medical report, which I need to submit to my insurance company. He has also attached a study on preterm birth that he mentioned when we were in the clinic.

I ask him if it is normal that Im lactating. He explains that the oxytocin that brings on contractions also signals the body to lactate. He adds that the milk letdown reflex after a miscarriage is one of natures less kind tricks, which I think is an elegant and apt style of putting it.

Dr John asks how I am feeling. I tell him that I am in hell. But the very fact of him asking, of is available on communication with the person who was there that night, is a balm beyond any other.

I thank him for being so kind to me at the clinic. I ask if its gets even colder in UB. He says that it has, but that the real problem is the pollution: the colder it gets, the more garbage and coal people burn in the street for warmth, and the harder it becomes to breathe.

He explains that for six months of the year, he lives on the other side of the world, in South Africa, in a bungalow he constructed himself. There is a stable there that he put up for his ponies, and next door, his two adolescents live with their mom and her second spouse. I do miss my children and horses when I am away, and that can be difficult, he writes. The kids will be leaving school soon and off to university. Then I will only have the ponies to miss.

I tell him about the time I spent in Cape Town. I describe my meeting with the track squad out in the wind in Limpopo, my encounter in Pretoria with Caster Semenya.

Actually, he knows that story: he has been reading some of my articles online. He says he likes the way I write.

I like the route he writes, too: One of my fathers better narratives involved being woken up in the early hours of the morning and leaving in some haste as the house was burning. He remembers himself and his younger friend peering through the back window of the motorcar, still in their Victorian nightdress, as the night sky lit up over the rapidly receding town of Barberton. The veracity of his account is suspect, but what is fact is that some very incriminating documents conveniently disappeared in the fire. His sentences are so jaunty! And so foreign. They sound like the latter are written in not just another place, but another time. His narratives transport me.

Dr John tells me about his childhood in Zambia and Zimbabwe Rhodesia, to him, at the time. Growing up, he didnt question why, if the latter are Englishmen, as the person or persons they socialised with considered themselves to be, they lived in a country where everyone else spoke Shona and Ndebele. He did not really contemplate what it meant that his father also a doctor and his grandpa before him were colonialists, until many years later when he began to question everything hed been taught about blackness, whiteness and where he belonged.

His brother, Greg, was his best friend; they were only two years apart in age. Their mother died when they were toddlers. Greg died, too, in a motorcycle accident when he was 21. I can feel how haunted Dr John Gasson was is by that loss from 6,000 miles away. His mom, two brothers, his father, his country no longer exist, are part of the past.

When we converse in writing, everything feelings complete, discrete. I dont have to explain what just happened; he was there. Within the confines of our epistolary friendship, I am not missing pieces of my life except the one that came from my own body, the one that Dr John alone has ensure. Not a picture of the piece, the person.

I wonder sometimes if my grief is disproportionate, inappropriate. I insured my father fall apart after my brother got killed, Dr John tells me. But he had the consolation of knowing the adult that my brother briefly became. You dont even know what your son would have been like as a little boy. I feel desperately sorry for you.

Only Dr John insured him, and merely Dr John insured me with him. Merely Dr John insured what feels so violently true to me, I cant stand that it is invisible to everybody else on Earth: here is a mother with her newborn who has died.

And so, in one style, our friendship is a kind of fiction.

We are two people on opposite objectives of the Earth, who do not know each other, who write one another emails as if we are aware.( At first, we just exchange a few, here and there. But soon we are writing regularly. And the first thing I do when I wake up after I stop crying is check to see if he has sent me an email full of narratives about places I have never seen, in a voice that is swashbuckling but somehow intimate .) In another way, these emails and that picture are the only things that are real to me.

This is an edited extract from The Rules Do Not Apply, by Ariel Levy, published under 16 March by Little, Brown at 16.99. To order a copy for 12.74, go to or call 0330 333 6846.

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Our daughter succumbed. Now she lives in the pages of a romantic fiction

3 months, 16 days ago

In 2003, Alice Martineau was on the brink of a successful pops career when she died, aged 30, of cystic fibrosis. Now their own families have given permission for her inspiring life story to be fictionalised

In November 2014, an email pinged into Luke Martineaus inbox from Alice Peterson, person he had never heard of. Peterson explained that she was a novelist and had been inspired by the life of Lukes sister, also called Alice, who had died in 2003. She wanted to construct Alice the subject of her next novel, to recreate her in fictional kind although, obviously, she couldnt touch this without the bles of Alices family. Would they be prepared to meet?

Naturally, the Martineaus were a little wary. I wasnt sure. I couldnt imagine it, admits Liz, Luke and Alices mother. My first thought was: Would I like it?

Luke says: I did need to know who this Alice Peterson was and what her volumes were like, but chiefly I guessed: Wouldnt that be wonderful?

Alice Martineau was bear in 1972 with cystic fibrosis her parents, Liz and David, were told that her life expectancy was about 10 years.

Cystic fibrosis causes a build up of thick, sticky mucus in the lungs, digestive system and other organs, and have contributed to lung infections and reduced lung function as well as a long list of other debilitating conditions. Its inherited if both parents carry the gene, as Liz and David did, their children have a 25% opportunity of having the condition.( Luke, born two years earlier, does not have it .) Although Alice enjoyed a happy and relatively normal childhood in west London albeit with vast quantities of drug, a special diet and daily physiotherapy by her late teens and early 20 s, her illness was escalating, encroaching, fighting for space.

Despite her regime of nebulisers, intravenous antibiotics and physio, as well as regular remains at the Brompton hospital, Alice powered on, refusing to give her condition a minute more than she had to. She was unable to live independently, but her parents converted the cellar into a separate flat. She examined English literature at Kings College London, graduated with a first, then pursued a singer-songwriter career, finally landing a record deal with Sony in 2002. By then, she was on the waiting list for a triple transplant heart, lungs and liver. Alice succumbed the following year, aged 30, shortly after the release of her album Daydreams.

Back then, Peterson, only two years younger than Alice Martineau, had followed her narrative, bought her album and been saddened by her death. Fast-forward 11 years, and she was an established novelist searching for a topic when the name Alice Martineau had abruptly re-entered her head.

Alices parents, Liz and David, and her brother, Luke. Photograph: Graeme Robertson for the Guardian

After meeting Peterson and reading some of her volumes, the family agreed to share their daughters life. We had many happy hours chatting around the table. Entire mornings would go by, says Liz. Taking my mind back all those years almost brought back things I had forgotten. David, a retired judge, tells: Thats why we supported it so strongly. We could bring Alice back into our lives again.

Parts were painful. The household devoted Peterson old photo albums, scrapbooks and camcorder footage they had not looked at for years. There was one scene on the camcorder thats recreated in the book, where Alice spent a few days in Claridges to celebrate her record contract, partying like a stone star, tells Liz. She really was very poorly by then. Goodness knows what Claridges guessed when she arrived with her entourage her boyfriend, her wheelchair, her oxygen cylinders and full-time physiotherapist paid for by Sony.

Luke tells: The illness is so gradual, like your children growing up. You get used to it, its almost normalised. Seeming at the footage now, you cannot fail to be struck by how ill she was. That was hard to see.

The family also handed Peterson Alices lyric book handwritten, almost like a diary. That was very raw, tells Luke. All Alices anthems were quite personal about not being able to breathe, or being worried about death, or feeling alone. Music was her way of conveying some very dark believes because, generally, Alice was positive, funny, upbeat, even though this horrible illness was dragging her down physically all the time.

The next stage was to put Peterson in touch with everyone else from Alices world her friends, her consultant at the Brompton, her physiotherapist, her nurse, her voice coach and, key to the book, her boyfriend, Al. They were together for the last four years of Alices life and their relationship forms the beating heart of the book.

Alice and her mum.

Al Tom in the novel had fallen in love with someone with a very uncertain future when both of them were in their 20 s. Their friends were getting engaged and beginning their adult lives. Tom had a dream of living by the sea and one day being a dad, but the couple lives in the shadow of cystic fibrosis. On top of that were the regular nearly routine life-and-death dashes to hospital and, on a good day, the sheer hour and endeavour it took before Alice could leave the house.

They did divide for a while and thats in the book, tells Liz. Alice was absolutely devastated but I really appreciate how hard it was for Al imagine taking on all that. Gradually, he realised he couldnt be without her.

Happily, Al has since marriage( and lives by the sea) but remains close to the Martineaus Luke is godfather to one of his children. Through the whole process of this volume, Ive been most anxious about Al, tells Luke. For us, the book is a lovely way of remembering Alice because our relations with her hasnt changed. Al has a different life, a family, and weve tried to be sensitive to the fact that he might not want to bang on about Alice in the way we do. He has been so generous and so has his wife and Im very pleased he did agree to it. Its a love story more about Al than any of us.

Peterson worked on the project for 18 months, weaving her research into a narrative, before presenting the family with a manuscript.

I was nervous, tells Luke. Im an artist and paint portraits among other things for a living. Its a slightly strange moment when its time for the subject to see themselves as handled by someone else. You always fret. Its a paint in the end its not the person.

I knew there would be things that Alice would never have said, there are composite characters, and parts that are entirely fiction. But the main body was completely true. I wanted to know it was recognisable of us and of Alice and it was. She got the tenderness of my relationship with her, and our closeness as a family. The novel kind makes it readable, more involving than a factual biography. Its emotionally gripping.

A Song for Tomorrow is packed with real details from Alices family moniker( Leech ), to her favourite foods, real dialogues and remembered scenes.

Whats striking, though, is her sheer lifeforce. Although the reader can sense day running out, cystic fibrosis is in the background. Alice doesnt dwell on it. Theres no self-pity, just forging forward.

That was Alice, says Luke. She was feisty people with cystic fibrosis have to fight for breath from the beginning, so its absolutely ingrained. She didnt talk about death or the end, there were no big conversations and she detested being called brave. The only route you can live in those conditions is to maintain the sense of life going on. For us, the book is another way to help keep her alive. But if simply one person with cystic fibrosis reads it and thinks: Im going to bloody well be an actress or do my thing, whatever it is then it has made a difference.

In A Song for Tomorrow, Alices death is sudden. Theres no build up its one March morning like any other. Tom has stayed the night and gone to work. The builders are in, her mum has brought breakfast on a tray, Alices mind is on a publication interview scheduled for afterward that day. Abruptly, shes coughing up blood, losing sensation, fighting for breath. The aim is very quick.

It was like that, says Luke. A shock but not a surprise. The demise bit of the book was the component I was most anxious about. But I have to say, reading it was the only period I cried.

David tells: I think its the best bit of the book actually. Its the most emotional, quite poetic.

Peterson ends with an incident from Alice and Lukes childhood as a metaphor a bird being set free. It happened on holiday in Portugal, remembers Liz. Luke was eight, Alice six, and this sobbing Luke came into our room in the night and said: Mummy, theres an eagle in our bedroom! I ran in and it was quite a big owl above the door Luke could just see its claws. Alice wasnt frightened at all! Somehow I got this poor thing wrapped in a towel, we went to the balcony and I released it. We watched it sail off down the valley.

Luke tells: Im so glad it was included because that image has always bided with me. It showed how good Mum was at handling a difficult situation and in my mind, it was very connected to a lovely letter a friend wrote to Mum after Alice died.

She wrote: The most amazing thing you did for Alice was to allow her her liberty. It must have been so instinctive to want to protect her and keep her wrapped up in cottonwool, but you really allowed her to fly. And how she flew.

A Song for Tomorrow by Alice Peterson is published by Simon& Schuster, 7.99.

Cystic Fibrosis Trust helplines: 0300 373 1000 or 020 3795 2184

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Scrumdiddlyumptious! My Roald Dahl top 10

3 months, 23 days ago

Whose glass eye ended up in a brew mug? And how did Mrs Twit get the shrinks? Find out as our writer picks her favourite stories


Matilda Illustration: Quentin Blake

At 14, I was technically too old for this book when it came out in 1988, but I still swallowed it whole. I loved the set pieces( Miss Trunchbull hammer-throwing infants by their plaits through windows) and Matildas thrilling combination of intelligence, coolness under pressure and flair for the dramatic. So much power concentrated in one tiny mind.

It was the last full-length childrens book Dahl wrote and he seems to have given himself granted permission to put a little bit more heart in it than he had done in anything since The BFG and for that alone it has mine.

The Enormous Crocodile

The enormous crocodile has but one suppose on its mind: to feed as many children as he can via the adoption of various , not-quite-impenetrable disguises. One for the very youngest readers, and I can say no more without making newborn spoilers, a low to which I will not stoop.

Fantastic Mr Fox

When children are a very little bit older, they can move on to this immensely fulfilling narrative of Boggis, Bunce, Bean, a host of fat chickens and a display of reynardian deception as old as time.


Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

Born of Dahls famous and enduring love of chocolate, this is an unfairytale for our times. Its elemental simplicity a poor but honest hero and four ambulant essences of the greatest adolescent vices who are justly rewarded and penalise during their chocolate mill odyssey constructed it a bestseller from the moment it was published, over 50 years ago.

The BFGs scrumdiddlyumptious may just have built it into the OED, but a Golden Ticket has long been a byword for any access-all-areas pass, while Willy Wonka is shorthand for any mercurial, mesmeric figure or inventor of some scarcely believable breakthrough.

Charlie is many childrens first introduction to Dahl. He takes you by the hand and leads you as securely as Willy Wonka does Charlie into an edifice of delights.

Danny, the Champion of the World

Often overlooked, perhaps because it is the book decide most firmly in the real world with less explosively Dahlesque moments. The plot to poach the local landowners pheasants is pleasingly intricate and painstakingly worked out, but without magic potions, bottom burps or anyone being sent for slicing in the fudge room. Still, this is a lovely volume about the relationship between a son and his father and about how truly, really stupid pheasants are.

James and the Giant Peach

Dahls first volume for children. He had already made a name as a writer of macabre short narratives for adults but his astute agent Sheila St Lawrence felt there was something shifting around in there for children and kepts encouraging him to find it. She was right. Jamess parents are eaten by an escaped rhinoceros( in full daylight, intellect you, and on a crowded street) on the second page and were away.

Dahl Another edifice of pleasures Dahl outside the shed where he wrote. Photograph: Ian Cook/ Time Life Pictures/ Getty Images

The Witches

A favourite with Dahls critics because it offers the most fertile ground in which to plant the charges of misogyny that sporadically came his route.( Well argue about their legitimacy some non-centenary celebrate day. For what its worth, I think of him as an alpha-male misanthrope and love him for it .)

This is a favourite with children because its the perfect narrative of right in the form of a hero( was transformed into a mouse by bald, blue-spittled witches) and his beloved grandmother winning out over might. It also contains the quintessential Dahl happy aiming. The hero is well aware that as a mouse he has a much less lifespan than he would as a boy and thus his grandmother and he are likely to die together. An altogether bracing read.



Its fast, funny and furiously charming. If Willy Wonka was Dahls younger, harder secret self, the BFG is his older, more avuncular avatar. He is a maker of dreamings who spirits the heroine Sophie( named after his granddaughter – the book is dedicated to her, too) away when she spies him at his nightly work and together they save the worlds children from human bean-eating giants.

When Quentin Blake came to illustrate the book, he couldnt work up what the BFG should wear on his feet. He consulted Dahl. Through the post a few weeks later arrived one of Dahls own huge, battered Norwegian leather sandals. And those are what the BFG wears.

The Twits

Like all novelists, Dahl had an ideas notebook. One of the scribbled lines in it operated: Beer stealing. An old boy fell his glass eye into the tankard. He then insured it looking up at him.

From such tiny acorns do fabulously diseased oak trees grow. This time, it gave us the glorious grotesquerie that is The Twits. I remember vividly the narrative being read to us in primary school. The spaghetti worms! The Hugtight glue on the Big Dead Tree! And consequently bird tart every week and one quartet of sons slipping out of their arbour-adhering trousers and running away with their naked bottoms winking at the sun! The penny-sized pieces of wood being added to Mrs Twits walking stick to construct her gues shed got the shrink!

You believe I had to look any of this up to refresh my memory? You underestimate the power of Dahl. The glass eye, of course, is Mrs Twits and turns up at the lower end of her unbeloved spouses beer mug. Nice.

Its a pure shot of happiness/ abhorrence for younger readers who dont yet feel the need for a little sunlight and tint in their stories – and indeed for older readers who occasionally feel life and literature is wholly too full of grey areas and would like to drill back down to basics.

The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar

A collection of short stories for what would now be called a YA audience, and a fine bridge between Dahls kids volumes and his adult work. The Swan still hurts my heart, The Mildenhall Treasure still has me writhing in exquisite agony, and The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar itself still has me sighing in complete satisfaction.

It also contains Dahls first ever published narrative, about crashlanding in Libya during the war, and an essay Lucky Break – about how he came to write it. CS Forester( Dahl was moving in quite glamorous circles during and after the war) had been commissioned to write a tale for the Saturday Evening Post about Dahls experience and Dahl offered to send him some notes, which turned out to be publishable in their own right. A lucky break for us all.

Buy Lucy Mangans book Inside Charlies Chocolate Factory at the Guardian Bookshop.

Is sugar the world’s most popular narcotic? | Gary Taubes

3 months, 24 days ago

The Long Read: It eases ache, seems to be addictive and demonstrates every sign of causing long-term health problems. Is it time to quit sugar for good?

Imagine a drug that can intoxicate us, can infuse us with energy and can be taken by mouth. It doesnt have to be injected, smoked, or snorted for us to experience its sublime and soothing effects. Imagine that it mixes well with virtually every food and particularly liquids, and that when given to newborns it elicits a feeling of pleasure so profound and intense that its pursuit becomes a driving force throughout their lives.

Could the savour of sugar on the tongue be a kind of poisoning? What about the possibility that sugar itself is an intoxicant, a drug? Overconsumption of this drug may have long-term side-effects, but there are none in the short term no staggering or dizziness , no slurring of speech , no passing out or drifting away , no heart palpitations or respiratory distress. When it is given to children, its effects may be only most extreme fluctuations on the apparently natural emotional rollercoaster of childhood, from the initial intoxication to the tantrums and whining of what may or may not be withdrawal a few hours later. More than anything, it constructs infants happy, at least for the period during which theyre eating it. It soothed their distress, eases their pain, focuses their attention and leaves them excited and full of elation until the dose wears off. The only downside is that children will come to expect another dosage, perhaps to demand it, on a regular basis.

How long would it be before parents took to using our imaginary drug to pacify their children when necessary, to alleviate inconvenience, to prevent outbursts of unhappiness or to distract attention? And once the narcotic became identified with pleasure, how long before it was used to celebrate birthdays, a football game, good grades at school? How long before no collect of family and friends was complete without it, before major vacations and celebrations were defined in part by the use of this medication to assure pleasure? How long would it be before the underprivileged of the world would happily spend what little money they had on this drug rather than on nutritious dinners for their families?

There is something about the experience of consuming sugar and sweets, particularly during childhood, that readily invokes the comparison to a drug. I have infants, still relatively young, and I believe creating them would be a far easier chore if sugar and sweets were not an option, if managing their sugar intake did not seem to be a constant topic in our parental responsibilities. Even those who vigorously defend the place of sugar and sweets in modern diets an innocent moment of pleasure, a salve amid the stress of life, as the journalist Tim Richardson has written acknowledge that this does not include permitting children to eat as many sweets as they want, at any time, and that most mothers will want to ration their childrens sweets.

But why is this rationing necessary? Children crave many things Pokmon cards, Star Wars paraphernalia, Dora the Explorer knapsacks and many foods savor good to them. What is it about sweets that makes them so uniquely in need of rationing?

This is of more than academic interest, because the response of entire populations to sugar has been effectively identical to that of children: once people are exposed, they eat as much sugar as they can easily procure. The primary roadblock to more consumption up to the phase where populations become obese and diabetic has tended to be availability and cost. As the price of a pound of sugar has fallen over the centuries, the amount of sugar consumed has steadily, inexorably climbed.

In 1934, while sales of sweets continued to increase during the course of its Great Depression, the New York Times commented: The Depression[ has] proved that people wanted candy, and that as long as they had any fund at all, they would buy it. During those brief periods of day during which sugar production outdid our ability to devour it, the sugar industry and purveyors of sugar-rich products have worked diligently to increase demand and, at least until recently, have succeeded.

The critical question, as the journalist and historian Charles C Mann has elegantly put it, is whether[ sugar] is actually an addictive substance, or if people simply act like it is. This topic is not easy to answer. Surely, people and populations have acted as though sugar is addictive, but science offer no definitive evidence. Until lately, nutritionists analyse sugar did so from the natural perspective of viewing it as a nutrient a carbohydrate and nothing more. They occasionally argued about whether or not it might play a role in diabetes or heart disease, but not about whether it triggered a reaction in the brain or body that induced us wishes to consume it in excess. That was not their area of interest.

The few neurologists and psychologists interested in probing the sweet-tooth phenomenon, or why we might need to ration our sugar consumption so as not to eat too much of it, did so typically from the perspective of how these sugars compared with other medications of abuse, in which existing mechanisms of craving is now relatively well understood. Lately, this comparing has received more attention as the public-health community has looked to ration our sugar intake as its own population, and has thus considered the issue that one style to regulate these sugars as with cigarettes is to establish that they are, indeed, addictive. These sugars are very probably unique in that they are both a nutrient and a psychoactive substance with some addictive characteristics.

Historians have often considers the sugar-as-a-drug metaphor to be an apt one. That sugars, particularly highly refined sucrose, render peculiar physiological impacts is well known, wrote Sidney Mintz, whose 1985 book Sweetness and Power is one of two seminal English-language histories of sugar. But these effects are neither as visible nor as long-lasting as those of alcohol or caffeinated beverages, the first use of who are capable of trigger rapid changes in respiration, heartbeat, skin colour and so on.

Mintz has argued that a primary reason sugar has escaped social disapproval is that, whatever conspicuous behavioural changes may occur when infants eat sugar, it did not cause the kind of flushing, staggering, dizziness, euphoria, changes in the pitch of the voice, slurring of speech, visibly intensified physical activity or any of the other cues associated with the ingestion of other medications. Sugar appears to cause pleasure with a price that is difficult to discern immediately and paid in full only years or decades later. With no visible, immediately noticeable consequences, as Mintz says, questions of long-term nutritive or medical consequences went unasked and unanswered. Most of us today will never know if we suffer even subtle withdrawal symptoms from sugar, because well never run long enough without it to find out.

Sugar historians consider the narcotic comparing to be fitting in part because sugar is one of a handful of medication foods, to use Mintzs term, that came out of the tropics, and on which European empires were built from the 16 th century onward the others being tea, coffee, chocolate, rum and tobacco.

Its history is intimately linked to that of these other narcotics. Rum is distilled, of course, from sugar cane. In the 17 th century, once sugar was added as a sweetener to tea, coffee and chocolate, and costs allowed it, the intake of these substances in Europe explosion. Sugar was used to sweeten spirits and wine in Europe as early as the 14 th century; even cannabis preparations in India and opium-based wines and syrups contained sugar.

As for tobacco, sugar was, and still is, a critical ingredient in the American blended-tobacco cigarette, the first of which was Camel. Its this marriage of tobacco and sugar, as a sugar-industry report described it in 1950, that builds for the mild experience of smoking cigarettes as compared with cigars and, perhaps more important, makes it possible for most of us to inhale cigarette smoke and draw it deep into our lungs.

Unlike alcohol, which was the only commonly available psychoactive substance in the old world until they arrived, sugar, nicotine and caffeine had at least some stimulating properties, and so offered a very different experience, one that was more conducive to the labour of everyday life. These were the 18 th-century equivalent of uppers, writes the Scottish historian Niall Ferguson. The empire, it might be said, building on a huge sugar, caffeine and nicotine hurry a rush nearly everyone could experience.

Sugar, more than anything, seems to have attained life worth living( as it still does) for so many, particularly those whose lives lacked the kind of pleasures that relative wealth and daily hours of leisure might otherwise offer. Sugar was an ideal substance, says Mintz. It served to make a busy life seem less so; it eased, or seemed to ease, the changes back and forth from work to rest; it provided swifter sensations of fullness or satisfaction than complex carbohydrates did; it combined with many other foods No wonder the rich and powerful liked it so much, and no wonder the poor learned to love it.

What Oscar Wilde wrote about a cigarette in 1891 might also be said about sugar: It is the perfect pleasure. It is exquisite, and it leaves one unsatisfied. What more can one want?

Children surely respond to sugar instantaneously. Give newborns a option of sugar water or plain, wrote the British physician Frederick Slare 300 years ago, and they will greedily suck down the one, and make Faces at the other: Nor will they be pleasd with Cows Milk, unless that be blessd with a little Sugar, to bring it up to the Sweetness of Breast-Milk.

Sugar induces the same replies in the region of the brain known as the reward centre as nicotine, cocaine, heroin and alcohol Photo: Alamy

One proposition commonly invoked to explain why the English would become the worlds greatest sugar consumers and remain so through the early 20 th century alongside the fact that the English had the worlds most productive network of sugar-producing colonies is that they lacked any succulent native fruit, and so had little previous opportunity to accustom themselves to sweet things, as Mediterranean populations did. The sweet savor was more of a novelty to the English, and their first exposure to sugar occasioned a population-wide astonishment.

This is speculation, however, as is the notion that the taste of sugar will soothe distress and stop infants crying, or that consuming sugar will enable adults to work through pain and exhaustion and to assuage starvation aches. If sugar, though, is merely a distraction to the baby and not actively a pain reliever or a psychoactive inducer of pleasure that overcomes any ache, we have to explain why, in clinical trials, it is more effective in allaying the distress of infants than the mothers breast and breast milk itself.

Research literature on the question of whether sugar is addictive and thus a nutritional variant on a drug of abuse is surprisingly sparse. Until the 1970 s, and for the most part since then, mainstream authorities have not considered this question to be particularly relevant to human health. The very limited research allows us to describe what happens when rats and monkeys consume sugar, but were not them and theyre not us. The critical experiments are rarely if ever done on humans, and surely not children, for the obvious ethical reasons: we cant compare how they respond to sugar, cocaine and heroin, for example, to decide which is more addictive.

Sugar does induce the same answers in the region of the brain known as the reward centre as nicotine, cocaine, heroin and alcohol. Craving researchers have come to believe that behaviours required for the survival of a species specifically, eating and sexuality are experienced as pleasurable in this part of the brain, and so we do them again and again. Sugar induces the release of the same neurotransmitters dopamine including with regard to through which the potent effects of these other drugs are mediated. Because the narcotics work this route, humans have learned how to refine their essence into concentrated kinds that heighten the rushed. Coca leaves, for example, are mildly inducing when chewed, but powerfully addictive when refined into cocaine; even more so taken immediately into the lungs when smoked as crack cocaine. Sugar, too, has been refined from its original kind to heighten its rushing and concentrate its effects.

The more we use these substances, the less dopamine we create naturally in the brain. The outcome is that we need more of the medication to get the same pleasurable reaction, while natural pleasures, such as sexuality and eating, please us less and less.

There is little doubt that sugar can allay the physical craving for alcohol, the neurologist James Leonard Corning observed over a century ago. The 12 -step bible of Alcoholics Anonymous recommends the intake of sweets and chocolate in lieu of alcohol when the cravings for drinking originate. Indeed, the per capita consumption of sweets in the US doubled with the beginning of proscription in 1919, as Americans apparently turned en masse from alcohol to sweets.

Sugar and sweets inexorably came to saturate our diets as the annual global production of sugar increased exponentially. By the early 20 th century, sugar had assimilated itself into all aspects of our eating experience, and was being eaten during breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks. Nutritional authorities were already suggesting what appeared to be obvious: that this increased intake was a product of at least a kind of craving the development of the sugar appetite, which, like any other appetite for instance, the alcohol appetite grows by gratification.

A century subsequently still, sugar has become an ingredient in prepared and packaged foods so ubiquitous it can only be avoided by concerted and decided endeavour. There is sugar not just in the obvious sweet foods cookies, ice creams, chocolates, fizzy beverages, sodas, sports and energy beverages, sweetened iced tea, jams, gelatins and breakfast cereals but also in peanut butter, salad dressing, ketchup, barbecue sauces, canned soups, processed meats, bacon, hot dogs, crisps, roasted peanuts, pasta sauces, tinned tomatoes and breads.

From the 1980 s onwards, manufacturers of products advertised as uniquely healthy because they were low in fat, or specifically in saturated fat, took to replacing those fat calories with sugar to construct them equally, if not more, palatable often disguising the sugar under one or more of the 50 names by which the combination of sugar and high-fructose corn syrup might be found. Fat was removed from candy bars so that they became health-food bars, in spite of added sugar. Fat was removed from yoghurts and sugars added, and these became heart-healthy snacks. It was as though the food industry had decided en masse that, if a product wasnt sweetened at least a little, our modern palates would reject it and we would buy instead a challengers version that was.

For those of us who dont reward our existence with a beverage( and for many of us who do ), its a chocolate bar, a dessert, an ice-cream cone or a Coke( or Pepsi) that makes our day. For those of us who are mothers, sugar and sweets have become the tools we exert to reward our childrens accomplishments, to demonstrate our love and our pride in them, to motivate them, to entice them.

For those of us who dont reward our existence with a beverage, its a chocolate bar, a dessert, an ice-cream cone or a Coke( or Pepsi) that induces our day. Photograph: Christopher Stevenson/ Getty Images

The common propensity is, again, to think of this transformation as driven by the mere fact that sugars and sweets savor good. The alternative style to think about this is that sugar took over our diets because the first taste, whether for an infant today or for an adult centuries ago, is a kind of intoxication; its the kindle of a lifelong craving , not identical but analogous of the implications of other medications of abuse.

Because it is a nutrient, and because the conspicuous ills connected to its consumption are benign compared with those of nicotine, caffeine and alcohol at least in the short term and in small doses sugar remained nearly invulnerable to moral, ethical or religion assaults. It also remained invulnerable to assaults on grounds of damage to health.

Nutritionists have found it in themselves to blame our chronic ailments on virtually any part of the diet or surrounding on fats and cholesterol, on protein and meat, on gluten and glycoproteins, growth hormones and oestrogens and antibiotics, on the absence of fibre, vitamins and minerals, and surely on the presence of salt, on processed foods in general, on over-consumption and sedentary behaviour before theyll concede that its even possible that sugar has played a unique role in any way other than merely getting us all to eat too damn much. And so, when a few informed authorities over the years did indeed risk their credibility by suggesting sugar was to blame, their words had little impact on the beliefs of their colleagues or on the eating habits of a population that had come to rely on sugar and sweets as the rewards for the sufferings of daily life.

So how do we establish a safe level of sugar consumption? In 1986, the US Food and Drug Administration( FDA) concluded that most experts considered sugar safe. And when the relevant research communities settled on caloric imbalance as the cause of obesity and saturated fat as the dietary cause of heart disease, the clinical trials necessary to begin to answer this question was ever pursued.

The traditional response to the how-little-is-too-much question is that we should feed sugar in moderation not eat too much of it. But we only know were devouring too much when were get fatter or showing other symptoms of insulin resistance and metabolic syndrome.

Insulin resistance is the fundamental defect present in type 2 diabetes, and perhaps obesity too. Those who are obese and diabetic also tend to be hypertensive; they have a higher risk of heart disease, cancer and strokes, and perhaps dementia and even Alzheimers as well. If sugar and high-fructose corn syrup are the cause of obesity, diabetes and insulin resistance, then theyre also the most likely dietary trigger of these other diseases. Set simply: without these sugars in our diets, the cluster of related illnesses would be far less common than it is today.

Metabolic syndrome ties together a host of disorders that the medical community typically thought of as unrelated, or at least having separate and distinct causes including obesity, high blood pressure, high blood sugar and inflammation as products of insulin resistance and high circulating insulin levels. Regulatory systems throughout the body started to misbehave, with slow, chronic, pathological outcomes everywhere.

Once we have observed the symptoms of consuming too much sugar, the hypothesi is that we can dial it back a little and be fine drink one or two sugary liquors a day instead of three; or, if were parenting, allow most children ice cream on weekends merely, tell, rather than as a daily treat. But if it takes years or decades, or even generations, for us to get to the phase which is something we display symptoms of metabolic disorder, its quite possible that even these apparently moderate sums of sugar will turn out to be too much for us to be able to reverse the situation and return us to health. And if the symptom that shows first is something other than get fatter cancer, for instance were truly out of luck.

The authorities who argue for moderation in our eating habits tend to be individuals who are relatively lean and healthy; they define moderation as what works for them. This assumes that the same approach and amount will have the same beneficial impact on all of us. If it doesnt, of course, if we fail to remain lean and healthy or our children fail to do so, the premise is that weve failed we ate too much sugar, or most children did.

If it takes 20 years of devouring sugar for the consequences to appear, how can we know whether weve devoured too much before its too late? Isnt it more reasonable to decide early in life( or early in parenting) that not too much is as little as possible?

Sugar and sweets have become the tools we wield to reward our childrens accomplishments, to demonstrate our love and our pride in their own homes, to motivate them, to seduce them. Photograph: Linda Nylind for the Guardian

Any discussion of how little sugar is too much also has to account for the possibility that sugar is a drug and perhaps addictive. Trying to ingest sugar in moderation, however its defined, in a world in which substantial sugar intake is the norm and virtually unavoidable, is likely to be no more successful for some of us than trying to smoking cigarettes in moderation merely a few a day, rather than a whole pack. Even if we can avoid any meaningful chronic impacts by cutting down, we may not be capable of managing our habits, or managing our habits might become the dominant theme in our lives. Some of us certainly find it easier to ingest no sugar than to eat a little no dessert at all, rather than a spoonful or two before pushing the plate to the side.

If sugar consumption is a slippery slope, then advocating moderation is not a meaningful concept.

In my own mind, I maintain returning to a few observations unscientific as they may be that induce me topic the validity of any definition of moderation in the context of sugar consumption.

The roots of the modern discussion on sugar and illnes can be traced to the early 1670 s. Thomas Willis, medical consultant to the duke of York and King Charles II , noted an increase in the prevalence of diabetes in the affluent patients of his practise. The pissing evil, he called it, and became the first European physician to diagnose the sweet savour of diabetic urine wonderfully sweet like sugar or hon[ e] y. Williss identification of diabetes and the sweetness of the urine happens to coincide with both the first flowing of sugar into England from its Caribbean colonies, and the first employ of sugar to sweeten tea.

Other observations that resonate with me when I wrestle with the concept of moderation include one of Frederick Slares commentaries in 1715, in his article Vindication of Sugars Against the Charges of Dr Willis. At a period when sugar was just beginning to be more widely eaten in England, Slare noted that women who cared about their figures but were inclining are far too fat might want to avoid sugar, because it may dispose them to be fatter than they desire to be. When Slare made his observation, the English were ingesting, on average, perhaps 5lb of sugar a year. The US FDA research indicates we now ingest 42 lb a year.

We have to acknowledge that the evidence against sugar is not definitive, obliging though I personally find it to be. Lets tell we haphazardly designated someones in our population to eat a modern diet with or without sugar in it. Since virtually all processed foods have sugar added or, like most bread, are hit with sugar, the population that is asked to avoid sugar would simultaneously be avoiding nearly all processed foods as well. They would dramatically reduce their intake of what journalist Michael Pollan, writer of books on food, agriculture and drugs, has memorably called food-like substances, and if they were healthier, there would now be a host of possible reasons set out above. Perhaps they feed fewer refined grains of any kind, less gluten, fewer trans fats, preservatives or artificial spices? We would have no practical way to know for sure.

We could try to reformulate all these foods so that they are made without sugar, but then they wont savour the same unless, of course, we replace the sugar with artificial sweeteners. Our population randomised to ingest as little sugar as is practicable is likely to lose weight, but we wont know if it happened since they are consume less sugar, or fewer calories of all sorts. Indeed, virtually all dietary advice suffers from this same complication: whether youre trying to avoid gluten, trans fats, saturated fats or refined carbohydrates of all types, or just trying to cut calories feed less and feed healthily an objective outcome of this advice is that youre often avoiding processed foods containing sugar and a host of other ingredients.

Artificial sweeteners as a replacing for sugar muddy these waters even more. Much of the anxiety about these sweeteners was generated in the 60 s and 70 s by the research, partly funded by the sugar industry, that led to the banning of the artificial sweetener cyclamate as a possible carcinogen, and the suggestion that saccharin could cause cancer( at least in rats, at extraordinarily high dosages ). Though this particular nervousnes has faded with period, it has been replaced by the suggestion that maybe these artificial sweeteners can cause metabolic disorder, and thus obesity and diabetes.

This suggestion comes primarily from epidemiological studies that show an association between the use of artificial sweeteners and obesity and diabetes. But it is likely that people who are predisposed to gain weight and become diabetic are alsoes the people who use artificial sweeteners instead of sugar.

As Philip Handler, then head of the US National Academies of Sciences, described in 1975, what we want to know is whether employing artificial sweeteners over a lifetime or even a few years or decades is better or worse for us than however much sugar we would have ingested instead. Its hard for me to imagine that sugar would have been the healthier selection. If the goal is to get down sugar, then replacing it with artificial sweeteners is one route to do it.

The research community can definitely do a much better task than it has in the past of testing all these questions. But we may have a very long wait before the public-health authorities money such studies and devote us the definitive answers we attempt. What do we do until then?

Ultimately, the question of how much is too much becomes a personal decision, just as we all choose as adults what level of alcohol, caffeine or cigarettes well ingest. Enough proof exists for us to consider sugar very likely to be a toxic substance, and to make an informed decision about how best to balance the likely risks with the benefits. To know what those benefits are, though, it helps to see how life feelings without sugar. Former cigarette smokers( of which I am one) will tell you that it was not feasible for them to comprehend intellectually or emotionally what life would be like without cigarettes until they cease; that through weeks or months or even years, it was a constant conflict. Then, one day, they reached a phase at which they couldnt imagine smoking a cigarette and couldnt imagine why they had ever smoked, let alone saw it desirable.

A similar experience is likely to be true of sugar but until we try to live without it, until we try to sustain that endeavor for more than days, or just a few weeks, well never know.

This is an edited extract from The Case Against Sugar, published by Portobello Books( 14.99 ). To order a copy for 12.29 go to or call 0330 333 6846 .

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