What John A. A. Logan, master of the literary thriller noir, adds to startling revelations about the gender dance by Alison Wolf, ace public policy scholar

Shoes have illuminating walk-on parts in both The XX Factor and Agency Woman - photographs: postgutenberg[at]gmail.com

Shoes have illuminating walk-on parts in both The XX Factor and Agency Woman
– photographs: postgutenberg[at]gmail.com

It is to a new novel that we at post-Gutenberg find ourselves turning to answer the question of whether the human race can continue by sexual reproduction – now that men and women have begun to live and work in ways growing ever less distinguishable.

In The XX Factor: How Seventy Million Working Women Created a New Society, published last year, Alison Wolf tells us that among the trend-setting elite of educated, high income-earning couples in the West, and for both men and women …

The new graduate norm is a full-time job, whether you are single or part of a couple. With no old-style wife to come home to.

Men in this social tier, she says, ‘put in more unpaid household work … the more educated the women.’ Will the shrinking gender gap, we wondered – scrolling through XX with musings about domestic goddesses still trailing from our last post – mean that mutual erotic interest will continue to decline, in these partnerships? A February article in The New York Times by Lori Gottlieb, a writer and couples therapist, quoted — to stunning effect — researchers reporting their discovery that, as one put it, ‘The less gender differentiation, the less sexual desire.’ Gottlieb herself was blunter: ‘In other words, in an attempt to be gender-neutral, we may have become gender-neutered.’

XX, in its details, contains equally startling revelations. It is so unlike the usual book by a scholar of Wolf’s standing – she is the Sir Roy Griffiths Professor of Public Sector Management at King’s College London, in addition to other directorships and lofty responsibilities — that to try to cherry-pick its discoveries and stimulating ideas, to recommend it to other readers, is to feel crushed, too soon, by the weight of a whole cherry orchard.

Overall, XX offers not the faintest glimmer of hope for anyone hoping to walk back the gender revolution in futuristic households. It shows brainy young women drawn from all over the East to the Asian University for Women in Bangladesh with exactly the same aim as their counterparts at Oxford – to climb to the highest attainable rungs on career ladders closed, in the recent past, to women. Female hunger for education is so extreme that …

Almost 60 per cent of medical students in the UK are now female; in US medical schools, women have made up just under half of entering students for the last ten years. And in the developed world it is now the norm for law faculties to have a majority of female students.

And the result? XX’s findings are arrestingly filtered through the review in last month’s New York Review of Books by Marcia Angell – a 74 year-old doctor and Harvard professor whose other formidable accomplishments include serving as the first woman editor of the American medical bible, The New England Journal of Medicine. The most striking passage of her assessment said, in part:

Upper-middle-class couples also give up home-cooked meals and spotless households, as documented by Wolf. Very little time is now spent on cleaning and other household drudgery (which still tends to be done mainly by wives), and even less on cooking. […] In the 1970s, there were ads for Wisk detergent that featured women who felt mortified because their husband had “ring around the collar.” Nowadays almost no one would be mortified, and certainly not the wife. In a New York Times article titled “The Case for Filth,” Stephen Marche concludes, “A clean house is the sign of a wasted life, truly. Hope is messy: Eventually we’ll all be living in perfect egalitarian squalor.” Despite the hyperbole, there is something to this view. Since housework takes time these couples just don’t have, I think lowering neatness standards is sensible, …

Women pay a price, where housecleaning standards remain high and exacting. ‘Italian inequality,’ Wolf says, ‘exists almost entirely because of the amount of time Italian women spend on unpaid work. More specifically, they spend world-record amounts of time cleaning the house.’ All across the developed world, at all levels of society, ‘there was a fall in the time women spent on unpaid household work.’

In one of many engaging glimpses she offers into her own life, she admits that on weeknights, she is liable to be found picking up ready-made dinners for her family from a railway station branch of the catering arm of Marks & Spencer in London – ‘a regular in their long lines of suited commuters, male and female, calculating time to checkout against time to the next train.’ With more than two dozen pages of tables and charts in her statistical appendix, and the confidence of a scholar long recognised for her rigour, she is free to have fun – as in disagreeing, tongue in cheek, with a high-ranking female American lawyer about the undesirability of ‘some of the nation’s most … powerful women’ being ‘stranded in cab lines and late for meetings,’ as they teeter in shoes with dizzyingly high heels. With an amused shrug, she classes these women with historical subjects of ‘swagger portraits,’ such as ‘wealthy seventeenth-century burghers of Holland’s golden years [who] wore Calvinist black and showed off their wealth with the size and fine quality of their lace ruffs and shirt cuffs’.

reds dOWNWe have those shoes to thank for the mental leap to Agency Woman, John A. A. Logan’s latest thriller noir — on which we had started a few weeks ago, and set aside for want of the right sort of reading time — to consider far more important parallels between XX and what this irresistible story has to say about the sexual revolution. In one of its early pages, the woolgathering of a character sitting on a bench in a train station in the Scottish Highlands is invaded by vivid sensations of being a knight on horseback when his eye is caught by a mesmerising woman shod in red high heels.

The owner of those heels turns out to be a powerful, high-ranking, female spy – seemingly a ‘better man’ in every respect than the book’s chief male character who, in this scene, is a dissolute, aimless, and troubled wanderer. Other readers surely asked themselves, as we did: will this woman, Lucy, plausibly become this man’s, or any man’s, heart’s desire – or be restricted to acting out the role of a sexual fascinator and dominatrix? For much of the book, it seems as if that could indeed be her fate, at her creator’s hands, judged by fragments like these:

I wish there was more gentleness in her, more kindness. She seems so intent on meeting life head on, smashing into it like a hammerhead shark rupturing its way through the water.

… and …

It’s the information, going into her … She believes it now. She’s processing it. Female computer with blood on her hands.

But, no … John Logan is not remotely a simple-minded thriller-writer – say, Dan Brown, whose female heroine in The Da Vinci Code has all the complexity of a soap dish. For reasons impossible to explain without trampling all over this surreal, often very funny story’s masterly unfolding, we realised, at the end of Agency Woman, that men John’s age – fortysomethings – take for granted, as Alison Wolf says in The XX Factor, that ‘Highly educated women are far more likely to have developing careers, jobs they find fulfilling, jobs that are part of their core identity.’

He writes like a choreographer effortlessly adding new steps to the dance of the sexes, in a novel that has echoes of both John Buchan’s grand, whimsical yarn, The Thirty-Nine Steps – because of chase scenes in rural Scotland, and a spirit of high adventure – and of a 1978 film about America’s Vietnam War, The Deer Hunter, because of excruciating, long-drawn-out ordeals of suffering and endurance inflicted on a reluctant conscript.

The message from Agency Woman about how instinctively astute men are coping with female incursions into traditionally male territory is neither new nor different from the critical prescription for any life: try never to lose your sense of humour. There is a splendid illustration of the right way forward in one encounter between the sexes in this book:

‘It must have been a glacier,’ is all I can think to say. We’ve passed the row of white houses and we’re back at the top of the hill now, just above where the bus dropped us off. We’re looking out over the sea and the sea is obviously sitting in some great depression, long and deep and scooped out from the land. I know nothing about geology or the history of the formation of the earth, but only two thoughts had entered my head when I looked down at the sea and the steep hillside that rose from the edges of the channelled water. First thought: huge dinosaur footprint, the footprint of some giant dinosaur with long, long bunny feet. Second thought: glacier. So I kept the dinosaur bunny feet private and expressed my certainty that this channel had been cut into earth by a mass of ice. A glacier. I know that she has her strong social side. I know that glaciers are socially acceptable, because current scientific theory approves of them, and they are taught in schools. I want her approval so I say, ‘It must have been a glacier.’ In my heart though, I hope it was a dinosaur bunny that did it, running after some dinosaur girl-bunny through this treeless zone. ‘I don’t think this warm weather is very usual up here,’ she replies. ‘The view too, I think this much sunshine is a real rarity up here.’

… No, not for a moment are we supposing that Agency Woman settles the question about reproduction with which this post began, proving Lori Gottlieb wrong – only, that it is strongly suggestive of how Alison Wolf’s research findings are playing out in some actual lives, and in the male psyche, in particular.

Or, as the rascally John Updike – an unreconstructed male supremacist, if ever there was one — put it in one of his last novels, Toward the End of Time: ‘We are condemned, men and women, to symbiosis.’ Only a first-rate novelist can show what he means — now.


Nigella, no longer a ‘domestic goddess,’ has risen through work and the post-print power of the true image to a more dependable claim on our affection

nigella portrait

Nigella on screens last week; Maharani Gayatri Devi with the Maharaja of Jaipur, 1955 - The Evening Standard

Nigella on screens last week; Maharani Gayatri Devi with the Maharaja of Jaipur, 1955
– The Evening Standard

Before we get to Nigella Lawson hammering the last nails into the coffin of the domestic goddess myth, we must record a milestone reached in the suicide last month of 49 year-old L’ Wrenn Scott, the ethereal clothes designer and domestic partner of Mick Jagger. No doubt she killed herself in a tragic confluence of exterior and interior pressures. Entirely unprecedented in the celebrity universe, as far as we know, was the prominence accorded — in speculation about a female suicide — to the possibility that her failure as an entrepreneur could have been the deciding factor. This is a species of tragedy we associate exclusively with the lives of men.

For reasons of interest to no one else, we have in mind today both the miserable and triumphant potential in the lives of women – because of a particular woman we are sending a birthday greeting she can no longer read. What connects the topic to this blog’s interest in post-print media is

• how Nigella’s vindictive ex-advertising mogul ex-husband, Charles Saatchi, was undone by his over-reliance on what remains of his once-tremendous old media influence and connections

• how Nigella’s mediagenic genius – more than mere physical beauty greater and more mysterious than the sum of its parts – came to her rescue in an age of communication dominated by images. How it became the steel-plated shield that excellence in the domestic arts can no longer supply, for her or any other woman – any more than the womanly heart-over-head softness that traditionally went with that

In making work her principal occupation, L’Wrenn Scott – about five years younger than Nigella – had satisfied the now inescapable requirement that a woman establish her worth, both monetary and otherwise, independently of any man. Never mind if she is a delectable nineteen year-old besieged by suitors from every point on the compass bearing engagement rings .

Last month in Britain, following a Law Commission recommendation that British courts actually honour pre-nuptial agreements instead of, presumably, treating them as philosophical tracts, the Guardian columnist Lucy Mangan lauded the guarantee, in these contracts, that she could take what is hers if her marriage should fail. That is too simple a reason for wanting one. The harsh fact is, the action a woman needs to take to protect herself from the peculiarly female forms of vulnerability in long-haul relationships has to precede any such contract.

The setting of terms for a pre-nup will usually entail a chilling discussion. Yet these unenticing agreements that we see becoming indispensable for ordinary people, not just celebrities, set a value on what the chief monetary contributor to a household – still generally male – will owe the provider of non-monetary sustenance, comforts and gifts, including child-bearing, if an ‘uncoupling,’ whether ‘conscious’ or otherwise, becomes inevitable. Unless she has a large inheritance for a lifelong security net, the contributor in kind rather than cash will, ideally, prove her economic value long before any such negotiation; years before she even thinks of spending a span of years working principally as a nurturer.

As any specialist in family law would tell her, one crucial consideration in a court’s decision on what she should receive, in a financial settlement at the end of a partnership, is the size of the cheques from employers that she gave up when she and her partner agreed that she would switch from working outside to inside their home.

The numbers on those cheques could even prove critical in legal proceedings that have nothing to do with divorce. Say that she is a single woman and artist whose forte is highly-praised but uncommercial watercolours, someone who does not see herself settling into marriage for years. She will want to establish the highest possible pre-marital price-tag for her toil in the ‘day jobs’ she does to support herself. Why? As any personal injury lawyer would tell her, that earning power would be weighed in determining what she was owed if — after she has married and taken herself off the market, for any reason – she became the unlucky victim of a road accident.

Her ‘historical’ earning ability could be the chief index of value for the insurance company of the drunk driver who, say, knocked her off her bicycle and hurt her seriously enough to cripple her ability to work for months or years afterwards. If she dropped out of dentistry school or an internship in financial trading to give birth to twins, her compensation from the insurer for the work she has done since, as a loving housewife and mother, would be only a fraction of what she would be owed as a worker who clocked up a few years of practising the profession in which she won her spurs.

… Which brings us back to Nigella, and the particular advantages flowing from her ease before a camera, which have helped to make her story seem part of the life stories of millions of audience members who actually have nothing in common with her. She, of course, sought no financial compensation or alimony in her divorce last summer. That was in spite of submitting to one wrenching adjustment after another in a marriage ‘always on his terms’, and the lustre she lent the Charles Saatchi persona – an especially valuable contribution to a specialist in advertising and the fabrication of glamour-by-association.

In the high drama of having to defend herself, last December, against Machiavellian allegations of a cocaine habit, during the trial of former housekeepers of hers and Saatchi’s, the media commentariat made no reference to the reports, last autumn, that she had agreed to make no financial claims on him. According to the rumours, then, that was partly in the hope of defusing his threat to expose a particularly damaging secret about her. This bargain did her no good, as many signs pointed to his having had some never quite specified role in inspiring the housekeepers’ claims of being indirectly bribed by Nigella to hide her cocaine store and – as she admitted, with unfortunate consequences that have stretched to being declined permission to enter the U.S. last Sunday — occasional use.

For a less resilient woman, becoming the target of Saatchi’s spite, in the latest chapter of a life pock-marked by exceptional suffering, might have been ruinous. But on screens only last week, there were signs of a Nigella recovering her radiance, and drawing on the tremendous capital in respect and affection she has created for herself by following the path that her first husband, John Diamond, put her on. It was he who spotted the potential for the witty, sexy, glamour-puss television cook before anyone else could envisage her in such a role – going by the accounts of other family members and friends.

Alas, a domestic goddess needs a devoted domestic god for a mate. Nigella had one in Diamond, but after he died much too young, she married Saatchi – who, perhaps out of jealousy of the famously enjoyable, casual and spontaneous John-and-Nigella hospitality – proudly broadcast his preference for breakfast cereal over anything from his third wife’s kitchen, and for feeding people in restaurants over anything cooked by her.

As things turned out, at the zenith of her fame as a de-mystifier of the art of cooking – in roughly the last ten years – with a superb, eclectic palate to guide her, Nigella was obliged by Saatchi to be a virtual, if not quite fake, model of a household divinity. Out of consideration for his (understandable) dislike of being invaded by bustling TV crews, her kitchen in the house they shared was replicated in a television studio. In the footage much-loved by her audience of her raiding her refrigerator for nocturnal snacks, she was only acting — like any other performer on a set. Her cookbooks, according to the housekeepers’ court-room testimony, were written in the dead of night, her concentration assisted by whiffs of cocaine. By day, according to other reports, she was responsible for the kind of physical chaos abhorred by Saatchi but more or less typical for creative types of any stripe, though possibly not for chopping-board deities – none of it visible on-screen.

Yet nearly everyone who has watched her at work in a kitchen willingly suspends disbelief to get lost in the parade of beguiling images she offers us, and her self-deprecating and populist – though never condescending – charm. She is a supremely mediagenic phenomenon – all the more so for her emotional transparency. On the day she was photographed striding into court, head held high, she looked as if she was going to do precisely what she did – be ashamed, proud and defensive, all at once; admit to drug use she had fought hard to conceal, but also deny the most extreme related accusations, and explain the excruciatingly painful circumstances (watching her first husband die slowly) in which she was introduced to cocaine.

She made no attempt to hide her tear-swollen and angry face as she left the court. Transparency is what she almost always seems to be delivering, with looks that make her a late-born member of a tiny club of iconic 20th-century women that includes Jackie Kennedy and India’s Gayatri Devi, whose name Google supplies when a searcher does no more than tap in the first few letters of her title, ‘Maharani’. Millions of us exposed repeatedly to free, digitally replicated images of them puzzle over and marvel at their uncanny magnetism.

And Saatchi? There is nothing of presence or anything personal in his form of media power. He made his name as an advertising genius – a canny, intuitive shaper of public perception who, with his much nicer brother and business partner Maurice, put Margaret Thatcher into No. 10, Downing Street. Print barons vied for their agency’s patronage, for the streams of advertising revenue they could put their way – lifeblood, for their newspapers.

Apparently blind to that difference between the sources of his and Nigella’s sway, he imagined that he could reverse the ineradicable damage done by last summer’s tabloid photographs of himself with his hand on her throat with a blizzard of photo-ops arranged to depict himself as genial and aspirationally elegant. In the decades when print media still dictated what the public saw of anyone famous – or not – he could have insisted on only being photographed from his most flattering angles. His is a closed face with calculation written all over it.

Nigella’s, on the other hand, is inexplicably WYSIWYG, as the computer geeks say – ‘what you see is what you get’. Inexplicable, because the truthfulness characteristic of her somehow gets through the layers of television makeup she must often wear, and the contrived domestic haven in the backdrop of her cooking shows. Something about her, as well as plain old hard work, has helped her to create the defences against exploitation and degradation that every woman ought to have.