Woman About Town

First-night nerves

Books, beaches and a beloved bullet

This article is taken from the November 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

By the time this magazine is in your hands, I will be — after much huffing, straining and shedding of tears — a published author. My book Toxic: Women, Fame and the Noughties will be on bookshop tables and readerly nightstands across the country. 

How do I feel right now? The honest answer is, sort of terrible. This anxiety is, I’m told, normal. No one feels good about publishing a book. Maybe that’s why it’s traditional to douse all the nerves in not-quite-chilled white wine at the launch event. 

At least I’ve now undergone the ultimate trial by fire: recording the audiobook, which meant four days of reading my own words back to myself while a producer gently corrected my pronunciation and pacing. If I didn’t hate it after all that — and I didn’t — there’s a good chance the book is pretty good after all. 

Certainly, it seems to be timely. The sexual assault allegations against Russell Brand reported by The Times, Sunday Times and Channel 4’s Dispatches led to an early burst of interest in Toxic. Did I feel guilty about this “good luck”, asked some friends. 

The truth is, no — and it wasn’t luck (though it obviously wasn’t planned). There aren’t many things you can count on in life, but the gradual revelation of men doing terrible things to women is definitely one of them.

* * *

The wild side

Summer holiday was a two-week family trip to Dalmatia — the first time I’ve been to Croatia, and a revelation. The people were friendly, the food was excellent (I never knew octopus burger was a thing before and now I don’t know how I lived without it) and the beaches were bracingly wild. 

I’ve got used to the British seaside, where most spots offer public toilets and a snack shack, most likely under the protective gaze of yellow-shirted lifeguards. Croatia had these kinds of beaches, of course — strips of sand packed solid with sunbathing bodies. But the best places were the inaccessible ones, only hazily signposted from the roads.

One was approached via a steep descent through stubby vines. Another required you to rappel down a short cliff hanging onto a rope, and back up when you wanted to leave. This seemed challenging with a beach bag in tow, but I watched locals carrying parasols, inflatables and whole cool boxes with aplomb: a nation that doesn’t like its relaxation to come too easy.

• • •

Previous experience has taught me that you can overdo the culture on a family holiday. So we kept it light: one trip to the Red History Museum in Dubrovnik (highly recommended, especially for the recreation of a communist-era flat where you can pry through all the cupboards), and a walk round the Roman ruins in Split. 

According to social media lore, all men think about the Roman Empire twice a day. In my marriage, though, I am the Roman-thinker-abouter: I fall asleep listening to audiobooks about Romans (I’m currently doing the new Mary Beard). For me, the appeal is that Romans combine relatable human experiences — office politics, professional rivalries — with a totally alien belief system and attitude to violence. But wouldn’t it be fun if you could remove obstacles to your ambition with a poisoned fig tree?

Scrambling around the ruins of the colosseum outside Split, Roman life seemed almost familiar: here was where you came to be entertained, and through entertainment, understand what power is. Obviously here, also, was where you came to watch the subclass being mauled by tigers for your delight, which seems downright barbaric. Although then I watched Matt Hancock paying for his sins in government by being physically tormented on Channel 4’s Celebrity SAS, so maybe things haven’t changed all that much.

Ammo, amas, amat

But Croatia also meant a sad end to a treasured family mascot. A while ago, my son announced that he’d acquired a bullet. This was by accident: he’d bought a jacket at a kilo sale while at university, and the bullet had been in the pocket.

Cue much fascination with — and speculation about the origins of — the item nicknamed “Bullety”. (This is after a brilliant Peep Show episode where Mark and Jeremy become owners of a gun, and call it “Gunny”.) But after a while, even a mystery bullet can be absorbed into the fabric of family life, and Bullety was mostly forgotten. 

Until we went through airport security at Split, at which point my son got whisked aside for extra checks. I watched a mild but firm member of staff hold out Bullety with a quizzical expression before dropping it (him?) into the contraband bin. She seemed surprisingly relaxed about it, but for historic reasons, perhaps it’s not wildly unusual for tourists to be busted leaving Croatia with old ammo in their pockets.

• • •

Rumpled boyhood

Back in Bath, and to the theatre to see A Voyage Round My Father — John Mortimer’s autobiographical play. It’s a slightly soft rendition that only fully comes alive when Rupert Everett is on stage playing the titular father, a patriarch so domineering that even the fact of his blindness (he dislodged his corneas in a gardening mishap) is never mentioned outright. 

“Watch the TV version,” urged the critic friend I’d gone with. It’s on YouTube, and I recommend you do the same. It’s from 1982 and stars Laurence Olivier. 

On stage, the theatricality of Mortimer’s father is very entertaining, but the medium skews sympathy his way: you like him precisely because he’s a ham. On TV, there’s more tension between the father’s charisma and his coercion. 

One thing that’s true in both, though, is how incredibly odd the child-rearing rituals of the upper classes are. I’d like to think small boys are no longer being dispatched to boarding school to have books hurled at them by disturbed masters, but I wouldn’t bet on it.

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