Anthony Lane has reviewed films for The New Yorker since 1993. But with the cinemas shuttered, he is compelled to expend his significant faculties upon mere journalism. Here, he analyses the lead interviewer for The Daily Telegraph, that renowned columnist Allison Pearson. Who is also, truth be told, his wife.
A film critic without films to review is a little like a gigolo in a monastery. The desire is still there, as is the ability, one hopes, but the opportunity to dip one’s quill is, alas, very much limited. So one has to expand the repertoire. One has to write about what one knows outside the confines of the screening room, whether it is one’s locale, one’s home, or, indeed, one’s wife. So when this particular commission came in, I responded to it both with alacrity, and with caution. Braver and better men than me have failed in the task.
For I have been asked by my mischievous editor to write a disinterested critique of my spouse’s journalism. It is a truth universally acknowledged that a married man in possession of a happy household must tread carefully indeed. Should one try and err on the side of generosity, knowing that it will presumably result in one’s kippers being buttered the right way at breakfast? Or should one instead offer accuracy and lethal precision, with the proviso that this candour could result in an exile to matrimonial Siberia? I journeyed through such an experience last year, thanks to an unfortunate and indeed potentially compromising incident – but I must draw a discreet veil over the particulars. I have no desire to pack my thermal underwear and ski shoes at any time soon.
So I shall, in the best spirit I can, try and be kind. But, oh my brothers, she has not made it easy for me. I now approach her writing with the kind of trepidation that a sapper would generally reserve for a minefield, with full expectation that I will be blown to smithereens by a particularly colourful metaphor; or perhaps, I might lose a leg, likely to an especially explosive assault on widely upheld standards of decency. I have fortified myself, for the sake of this particular excursion, with rather more than one tot of rum. And I fear that, during the course of my travels, I may have to gently tilt the hip flask in a neckwards direction on several occasions.
She does not write for many titles. I have never dared to broach the question as to whether her lucrative employment for Britain’s best-loved broadsheet (come to think of it, Britain’s only broadsheet, if we ignore the FT), has led her to forswear the racier corners of journalism, or whether commissioning editors have the same attitude towards her writing that society hostesses had towards the late Princess Margaret: a sort of craven panic mixed with noblesse oblige, undercut, of course, with a visceral and profound loathing. Come to think of it, I really must ask her. But there sits an avatar of her visage, a mere two decades old, gazing out at me, inviting me to delve deeper into her oeuvre. A deep breath, then rum. Come on, sir; I’m prepared.
To discover that your fragrant wife is having an affair with our equally beloved Prime Minister is a stumper, to be frank. I am not Harold Macmillan, mildly tut-tutting while the sainted Dorothy was getting her holy orders from the devilish Lord Boothby. I like to think of myself as a broad-minded fellow, broad of church and broad behind, as they say. But even I am defeated when I come across a billet-doux as clear and obvious as has ever made it into the popular press. It talks of how our premier is ‘loved – really loved – in a way that the metropolitan media class has never begun to understand’.
Leaving aside the obvious sally that my wife, although a Cambridge resident, is surely as foremost a member of the metropolitan media class as could be imagined (‘the very model of a modern metropolitan’, perhaps), it ascribes superhuman powers to a character, who, although his ‘vital organs’ may be imperilled, remains a ‘rambunctious hero’.
I think of myself as a fairly successful fellow. My articles are read by degree-holders of many of the world’s leading universities, and indeed their students occasionally write to me for advice. (The usual subtext is the hope that I am ill, and will soon give up my column, and that they might segue snugly into my size ten brogues before too long. No chance of that any time soon, chums.) But, for once, I am defeated by the sheer onslaught of sentiment, mixed with flagrant inaccuracy, in the article.
It sets out its stall from the beginning. ‘He won’t die, will he?’ a friend texted at 11.18pm. ‘My heart will break.’ Reader, I know this to be untrue, because the friend was none other than me, and the context was quite different. I was enquiring about the possibility of being able to travel back to New York, which seems unlikely to happen before the cows have indeed yodelled their way home. And the allusion to heartbreak was less a comment on the man’s health and more a sardonic reference to thwarted professional opportunities. But all is grist to my wife’s mill.
I could bear no more. The rum mocked me in its insolent brown bottle. I forced myself to read to the end of the article, sweating and gibbering as I went, but it was no good. A light-hearted piece of criticism had turned into a searing critique of the matrimonial ideal that would have put Strindberg to shame. So it is with hot and heavy tears that I write these words, reflecting on my beloved’s new-found-faithlessness, and all the while expecting to hear ‘Darling, is something wrong?’
Why yes, I shall reply, it very much is. I now know too much about you. And that is a commission that no writer, no matter how grand or humble, should ever be forced to undertake.
As dictated to Alex Larman