Toxic relationship

For a long time, it has seemed that you’re nobody until somebody’s tried to get you cancelled

Woman About Town

This article is taken from the June 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Toxic relationship

One of the greatest scenes in cinema is the moment in Annie Hall when Woody Allen, irritated by a stranger’s pompous lecturing about media theorist Marshall McLuhan, summons the actual Marshall McLuhan to issue a correction in the flesh. “You know nothing of my work! You mean my whole fallacy is wrong,” chides McLuhan. “Boy, if life were only like this!” says Allen’s character, happily. 

Well, sometimes it is. Shortly before Christmas last year, I was approached by 11:11, the production company of Paris Hilton, one of the subjects of my book Toxic. Not only had she read the book: she liked it enough to want to turn it into a docuseries. Eat your heart out, Woody.

Then, the wait for the official announcement, which finally came a few weeks ago — and led to the extremely weird experience of being written about not only in entertainment trade paper Variety, but also in the gossip rag to end all gossip rags (and one of the main sources for my research), TMZ. Some people dream of seeing their name in lights. I, apparently, dream of seeing my name next to posts like “Justin Bieber’s mom ‘embracing gramma status’” and updates on the latest rapper beef. 

* * *

Breakfast bacchanals

The gossip press isn’t what it used to be — but then, celebrities are much less wild than they used to be. If the hacks are in need of a new source of stories, can I suggest they look to current affairs journalists? 


At a recent party, it wasn’t the fashion writers or the music critics who kept going till dawn: it was the breakfast presenters, tearing up the dancefloor into the smallest of small hours. As for me, I was out there throwing moves, but I definitely don’t have the stamina for an all-nighter anymore. Leave it to the people who are already intimately acquainted with 4am.

Farewell to a festival

A trip to Bristol to say a sad goodbye to the Ideas Festival. After more than 30 years of making the city a more interesting place with its programme of events, books and screenings under the leadership of my friend Andrew Kelly, the festival lost its funding last year. Two strands will continue (Festival of the Future City and Festival of Economics), but it’s still a sad loss. 

The mix of academics, intellectuals and business grandees mingling over lunch was a tribute to Andrew’s talent for bringing people together. Running a public events series is hardly relaxing at any time, but the last decade or so has been particularly bruising for anyone committed to freedom of speech. No-platforming went mainstream, and, for a long time, it has seemed that you’re nobody until somebody’s tried to get you cancelled. 

Obviously, it’s quite stressful to put together a schedule knowing some people are only waiting to pick it apart. So I’ve always felt a lot of admiration for Andrew’s approach. He’s never been tempted to cast himself as some kind of free speech hero — in fact, he’s never made it about him. He’s simply done his job, excellently, refusing to bow to pressure.

I understand the appeal of self-mythologising. But it’s tedious: I now dread the inevitable moment in a stand-up set when the performer turns to the subject of his own cancellation, whether real or anticipated, because I know that there will be no jokes forthcoming whilst the comic basks in his own bravery. The best way to protect free speech is to treat it as so unexceptional, anyone could defend it — a stance that is all the more damning of those who opt out. 

Hot tub politics

It’s not all doom, though. Or at least, it isn’t if you sit on the left of British politics like I do. After over a decade of defeat after defeat — including the low point of having a Labour leader so bad, Boris Johnson really was the lesser evil — my team is set to win and win big at the next election. 

Have you ever seen footage of rains hitting the desert? That’s a little bit like how this moment feels, only instead of cactuses bursting into bloom, all my friends seem to be bursting into political life. Everyone I know is suddenly writing white papers or advising members of the shadow cabinet. On a weekend away with girlfriends, I looked around the hot tub and realised everyone there would be somewhere near the levers of power in the next 12 months. Although probably not whilst wearing their bikinis.

The bleak years, finally, feel like something I can laugh at. (A particular low point for me: getting screamed at by Corbyn supporters whilst phonebanking for Owen Smith during his leadership challenge, and, if you can’t remember who Owen Smith was, same. I left Labour shortly after.) Obviously, most readers of The Critic won’t share my party politics, so I offer this in a spirit of encouragement for the right’s doldrums to come. Things can only get better.

• • •

Sick note

That kind of smugness deserves karmic punishment, and lo, it has arrived in the form of whooping cough. After the shape-shifting of Covid strains, there’s something reassuring about a disease that does exactly what it says on its NHS page. Cold symptoms? Check. Wracking cough? Check. Intermittent weird monkey sound as my lungs try to reclaim some oxygen? Sadly, check.

So I have spent the last few days in bed, mostly sleeping, emerging only to do some Eurovision coverage from the sofa. The life of your woman about town isn’t all celeb deals and swank parties and hobnobbing in swimwear, you know. Sometimes it’s desperately swallowing cocodamol and hoping you’ll think of something funny to say about a Swiss man in a peach miniskirt before your midnight deadline comes up. 

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