The prime minister’s hour-long personal demolition derby on regional radio stations on Thursday was rightly taken as an occasion to celebrate the skills of local BBC breakfast presenters, who did a fine job of holding her to account and exposing the horrible yawning vacancies of her position.
Characteristically, those who praised the local journalists, however, also invariably used the example as an occasion to bash national broadcasters in comparison. I happened to be listening to the peerless Mishal Husain on the Today programme calmly eviscerating Treasury minister Chris Philp at the same time as I was following Liz Truss’s shaming performance on BBC Sounds. The conjunction was a neat dramatisation, for me, of our current obsession with binaries in all things. Both were exemplary pieces of broadcasting, but in our social media-driven world it is never possible for one thing to be praised without another being trashed.
This is particularly the case in arguments involving the capital and the rest of the country. It is one of the key reasons that our politics is in such a calamitous state. F Scott Fitzgerald famously observed that the definition of intelligence “is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function”. The UK is not only a series of either/ors. Both London and the rest of the country can be capable of excellence; it sometimes seems we are in danger of losing that understanding.
On Friday lunchtime I wandered down to Leadenhall Market in the heart of the City of London with a particular mission in mind: I had, along, I’d guess, with most of the rest of us, the powerful urge to scream. For four days last week one corner of the market hall had been given over to a “Screamatorium” for just this purpose. The notion behind the “decompression space” is that “as the long, hot summer of 2022 draws to a close, many of us may be experiencing post-holiday blues – causing stress levels to rise”. Along with the opportunity for channelling Edvard Munch, the space also featured a meditation zone. It was the screaming that drew in most punters. Though not, in my experience, a long-term fix, it was good while it lasted.
One of the most quietly disturbing things I have ever witnessed happened some years ago in the Iranian city of Qom. I had travelled to the city – the centre of Shia scholarship – with a small team of people from the British Museum who were organising the loan of some Persian treasures for an exhibition. In a tour of the madrasas we were mostly warmly welcomed, but in the streets of Qom the women in our party were a few times stopped by somewhat sinister policemen wielding large feather dusters.
The dusters would be used to indicate a lapse in dress decorum, to show the women where their scarves had fallen a little off their face, and to instruct them to adjust accordingly. There was a kind of comedy in this at the time – the Ken Dodd feathers were employed, we were told, to indicate that this was “light touch” enforcement – but the spectacle was nonetheless a chilling reminder of how choices for Iranian women were ultimately so rigidly circumscribed. Watching the incredible courage of women cutting their hair and burning their hijabs on Iran’s streets this past week in protest at the death in custody of Mahsa Amini reminded me of those feather dusters; perhaps, finally, their days are numbered.
• Tim Adams is an Observer columnist
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