The sewers

It was while reading Jack Blanchard out of off of Politico’s London Playbook that I was reminded of wading through a river of shit.

That’s not a commentary on the standard of his writing. (In fact I swear by the Playbook, I don’t think it gets the recognition it deserves for emerging from a crowded field as the preeminent morning briefing email.)

It was his reference to a scheme to test sewage for coronavirus. An idea mentioned in passing again in parliament yesterday. The thinking is that the bug will show up in our effluent and confirm an outbreak in any given community. And that in turn will allow the authorities to micro target measures to control the epidemic. Not so much laser guided precision as jobby guided interventions. Appropriate given overall the UK response to Covid-19 has been crap.

Jack ended his bit on the proposal with a succinct ‘eugh’.

And this is what prompted me to write something.

For when I think of what’s in the sewers I don’t think ‘eurgh’, I think ‘woah’. Because I’ve been down there. 

I forget the exact year. Some time in the 2000s when I was a general reporter in the last UK newspaper office in Fleet Street. I was charged with reporting on Scots in London and things going on in London of interest to Scots for The Sunday Post. Well, who wouldn’t be interested in a story about the sewers? And there was a ‘Scot in London’ link because one of Thames Water’s press officers was a Scot, distantly related to the then deputy editor. Consequently the suggestion got a thumbs up. (Did other papers run a weird system of ‘suggestions’ for generating stories?)

And a week or so later I climbed down a manhole somewhere in East London.

Beforehand there was a safety briefing about which I remember nothing bar the strict instruction – ‘don’t fall over’.

We were decked out in hard hats, paper overalls – I would’ve preferred something more poo proof – and waders that contained significant metal weights in the soles. I remember clearly the scrape of those metal soles on the bottom of the pipes once we were down there. It was preferable to standing on something soft.

With the manhole open we descended a long ladder one at a time. I can’t remember who was in the group of eight or 10 – me and a photographer and I think the others were Thames Water employees.

Stepping off the ladder you landed in a stream of human waste. It was smelly, though not as bad as you might imagine. There’s a lot of water down there, it’s not pure poop. And it was dark, very dark. I remember feeling very light headed as my body adjusted to the assault on the senses. And I remember dreading fainting and falling into the effluent. Fortunately I remained on my feet and I adjusted to my new surroundings as we moved off.

Guided by a tour guide (poo-r guide?) we set off up a brick tunnel slightly bigger than a man’s reach. Big enough not to be claustrophobic. 

As we moved against the current the level rose; high enough that any enthusiastic sploshing might put something in your waders that would be better outside your waders.

There was plenty of chat about the age of the tunnels we were moving through and how they dated back to Bazalgette’s first Victorian sewer system. I was concentrating rather too hard on my footing to give all my attention to what ought to have been a fascinating history lesson.

Then came the cries of ‘Jeez’ and ‘woah’. 

It was not that we had encountered a particularly stunning stool. 

Instead we had emerged into something resembling a cathedral. A vaulted roof. Solid square, stone columns. Over our heads was something heavenly, beneath our knees was something more earthly. The contrast only added to the awe.

No simple functionality for those Victorians. Toileting may represent the lowest thing produced by humans but Bazalgette’s network to process our poos showcases the heights of our abilities both in terms of aesthetics and engineering.

It’s a strange tale in which the high point is a chamber the size of an Olympic swimming pool full of excrement. But so it goes.

For things go downhill from there. (Don’t worry, I don’t fall over). We left down another tunnel past a monument to unpleasantness – baby wipes, tampons, congealed waste. The start of another fatberg. Bazalgette hadn’t reckoned on modern life. Surrounded by the stuff we’d usually rather clean away it was the cleaning products like wet wipes and nappies that soiled the magnificence. As so often being there, experiencing it hammered the message home, increased my understanding.

As we ascended at the end of our tour I was relieved to have remained upright throughout. I showered thoroughly when I got home. The smell stayed with me, though not on me, for days.

As I understand it I was one of the last people to tour London’s underground sewers. They’d already ended annual public open days when I went. Soon journalists would also be banned. It may have been due to insurance issues. It was probably linked to the terrorist threat, particularly in the run up to the 2012 Olympic Games.

That’s a shame. For, at risk of going all Jerry Springer – a man who knows more than most in glorifying human waste – there are lessons to learn from my stinky stroll. 

Seeing and experience the sewers improved my understanding, increased my respect for the people who designed and built them and continue to keep them functional. 

Boris Johnson unfortunately recently had to experience coronavirus to truly understand it. 

And as long as the epidemic keeps the globe in its grip so many experiences are off the agenda.

Travel in particular is out of the question and people won’t be able to enjoy experiences, deepen their understanding of other cultures and, ultimately, of the human condition. 

That road leads to narrow minds and consequences even worse than tripping over in a tunnel of toalies. 

Restrictions are necessary to save lives, but we must be aware of the those consequences and counter them where we can.


While I’m furloughed from work I figured I’d keep my hand in with some random writing. (I kind of have to since I recommended doing so in another of my furlough projects here)

So here’s the first. They won’t all be about coronavirus


It’s the divergence that marks out this crisis.

In practical terms everyday in lockdown is broadly the same for most of us. The same surroundings, the same routine. It’s boring but it’s easy.

But on an intellectual level it’s a different matter. There is so much that doesn’t make sense.

The pure confuzzlement of the current situation is best summed up in an on-the-money tweet I saw as the lockdown took a hold: ‘How come someone eating a bat in China led to the Brechin vs Elgin match getting cancelled?” Talk about unintended consequences.

One particularly perplexing element of the coverage of has been the cheerleading of Sweden by certain elements on the right of politics.

The same folk who spent the last five years panning Jeremy Corbyn for his lefty views now reckon the state that has arrived in 2020 after a century of socialism is the one to look to for ideas.

Certain journalists, commentators, MPs (but no scientists as far as I’m aware) are frothing over Sweden for they have not locked down. According to this version of events Swedes are broadly carrying on as normal. Something we’d all like to be able to do. However, for most of us the choice between dead relatives and missing popping out to a cafe is straightforward. Not so those lauding the Swedes. They claim that in Stockholm you can have your cake and eat it with grandad.

Nice idea. But incorrect.

While it may be true that there’s been limited legal lockdown in Sweden folk have been advised to stay at home and socially distance. So they have. The contract between government and governed in Sweden is tweaked somewhat compared to that in the UK. Most, but not all of course, are willing to pay higher taxes in return for a more substantial state. This is most notable when it comes to one of my hobby horses – paternity leave. Parents are given over a year away from work after the birth of a child, it’s paid properly and it’s up to them how they divvy it up between mum and dad. While British parents look at their childcare options and see society and economics directing them clearly towards the mother sacrificing her career, and often her mental health, to be the primary parent Swedish parents have a simple mantra when it comes to whether dad should take a healthy chunk of parental leave: ‘He’d be daft not to’. There, the economics and attitudes direct dad to do more. I’ve not seen many articles on ConHome or in the Telegraph exhorting our administration to copy the Swedes on that one.  

Fact is Swedish city centres are as deserted as British ones. It’s just Swedes only have to be told once to follow the guidelines. 

A friend who now lives in Sweden has observed just two groups breaking the rules there: recent immigrants, perhaps because they are less au fait with the culture, and old people, who don’t have that excuse.

And the bottom line is that the numbers are still grim for Sweden. The death toll is worse than their Scandinavian neighbours in Norway and Denmark for example. In fact it’s noticeable that as the body count has climbed so the right wing cheerleading has dwindled.

Of course that leads us down a new, odd rabbit hole of whether we can make useful international comparisons when it comes to coronavirus data. It’s a stupid rabbit hole full of stupid rabbits. Fact is over 30,000 Brits are dead. That’s appalling and the government must be held accountable for that number. There doesn’t appear to be a rigorous interrogation of where and how deaths could’ve been avoided. Hopefully there will be one soon enough. One possible outcome of that inquiry is that coronavirus is horrible, the government did its best, and no or few deaths were avoidable. 

There are other possible outcomes.

Perhaps the inquiry will find that the UK would’ve done better following the Swedish example. That people would’ve done as they are told and sort of self policed. But that seems unlikely given the very people exhorting the example of a country where people trust the government and follow the rules are themselves loudly questioning both our government and the rules.

Questions must be asked of this administration and its handling of Covid-19 now, and into the future.

But if one of those questions is to reference Sweden it cannot be ‘Should we have been more like Sweden?’ Instead it must be a bigger question about culture, society, politics and inequality: ‘Should we be more like Sweden?’ 

Two columns

I write a fortnightly column for the excellent Press and Journal newspaper. They remain one of the biggest selling regional papers. That may well be related to the fact they still believe in journalism – what it’s for, why it matters, how it has to be paid for.

For whatever reason my last couple of columns haven’t appeared on the P&J website. However, I want to share them publicly/preserve them digitally. Mainly as contemporary comments on this government’s approach to the coronavirus crisis. I don’t think it’s been very good.

Every announcement seems to be followed by a barrage of questions. That’s not that unusual. What is unacceptable is that the government so often seems not to have anticipated these queries. 

And while my family have self isolated after my son showed symptoms we learn today that Boris Johnson’s administration doesn’t see fit to join in an EU ventilator scheme.

We have done our bit and it’s hard, mentally there are good days and bad days.

They said ‘whatever it takes’. It’s clear they didn’t mean it. If joining that scheme will save even one life and it’s being shunned in the name of Brexit ideology then it’s hard to put into words just how low that would be.

Anyway, first here’s what I wrote for March 25:

Rank bampottery and alliterating with hats

Gordon Brown was mocked mercilessly when he said he’d saved the world. It was a hubristic slip of the tongue during the heat of Prime Minister’s Questions during his time in Number 10.

However, the claim was only slightly overblown. His intellectual heft and international gravitas did play a huge part in putting together a co-ordinated response to the financial crisis. (We’ll set aside for now how much responsibility he wears for creating the conditions for the crash to happen in the first place as it’s irrelevant to this column).

But it was easy to ridicule Brown’s mistake because there was nothing to compare his efforts with. We could not fairly judge if he’d done a better or worse job than anyone else because no-one else had faced such a scenario.

Not any more.

The nation and the planet face a different sort of crisis in Covid-19. But people don’t change that much. They look to the Prime Minister for leadership, to politicians for competence, to government for action.

But where Brown embodied all three as the world economy teetered on collapse 12 years ago, the current administration offers little but rank bampottery.

The coronavirus crisis has magnified all Boris Johnson’s foibles and failings. 

His penchant for wordsmithery was entertaining in his writings. But when the nation needs to know how to avoid a health catastrophe the message needs to be straight.

He’s notoriously inattentive to detail and fond of delegation, which explains why he sees no problem with allowing ministers to announce measures, that then need another day of clarification. Chancellor Rishi Sunak has essentially made three Budget speeches in the last fortnight, each induced by oversights in the previous one. The PM could blame Number 11 dysfunction if he hadn’t just booted Sajid Javid in the name of taking more oversight of the Treasury. Last week the government told everyone to stay away from pubs, cafes and cinemas on Monday then took till Friday to explain how it was going to support all the people inevitably made redundant as a result. That’s unforgivable in a climate in which people are already anxious about whether they’ll be able to find the ingredients for their next meal. They shouldn’t have to unnecessarily worry about whether they’ll be able to pay for it too.

Of course if the government really put the fate of the economy above ideology as they seem to have done with some of the measures they’ve announced such as wage support and scrapping tax then they’d scrap Brexit, or at the very least postpone it. It’s not a party political point, but putting up new trade barriers next year as the nation claws its way out of recession does not fit with what the Tories often value above all else – common sense.

The PM has a reputation for sloth. Which seems the only explanation for why the government insists on holding press conferences at the end of each day. It’s almost as if they can’t be bothered to get out of bed. Why not hold the press conferences first thing in the morning, get a grip on the day’s agenda and the nation’s worries and possibly wire some confidence through the markets too?

Ultimately this deadly serious epidemic has exposed the Prime Minister’s lack of seriousness. It’s alleged he urged manufacturers to help make more ventilators in an effort jokily referred to as ‘Operation Last Gasp’.

If he uttered them, those words ought to haunt him through the horror that awaits the nation and which we can already see unfolding in Italy.

He referred to the effort to flatten the curve of new coronavirus cases and reduce the stress on the NHS as ‘squashing the sombrero’. It’s not about a funny turn of phrase, it’s about saving lives. Why should anyone else be expected to take social distancing measures seriously if the man leading the nation is focussed on alliterating with hats.

Labour don’t come out of this crisis any better. If Jeremy Corbyn and his cronies had not led the party into oblivion we might have an alternative government to look to for proper leadership. Instead the Magic Grandad and all those vying to replace him have gone to ground. Of course it’s not a good look to undermine the government at a time of such grave matters. But it’s entirely possible to support the effort, help disseminate the key messages and draw attention to the government’s failings at the same time. Or at least it is if you are a politician of moderate skill and mental dexterity. Such people are lacking in this parliament so far. Though leaders will emerge. We may just have to look beyond Downing Street or even parliament to find them.

Almost everyone in the country wants to believe the PM is getting to grips with this issue, we are willing the administration to succeed. But the grim truth is that so far it is not. 

We must hope that changes. It begins with straight talk and hard work. There’s little evidence Boris Johnson is the man to embrace or embody those values.


And here’s my column from Budget Day predicting that whatever Rishi Sunak said would not survive contact with reality. That seems to be a bit of a pattern with his big announcements.

And I may have gone a bit strong with my Handmaid’s Tale comparisons, but we’re now in lockdown, the bulk of the extra childcare responsibilities will fall on women and the government has little interest in addressing or recognising that. In fact they’ve binned the gender pay gap reporting, a step back basically.


Optimism is at a premium

It was the Canadian author Margaret Atwood who said all writing is inherently optimistic, it’s an activity that assumes an audience.

If I write a column I hope someone will read it.

The same is true of Budgets. Chancellors stand up in parliament and set out their fiscal plans assuming, or at least hoping, that the economy will behave and 12 months later the accounts will reflect their projections.

They are always wrong.

The media quickly unpicks the stupid bits. It’s become something of a tradition. The high point of which was the year George Osborne unveiled a pasty tax, granny tax and a caravan tax in 2012’s effort. He had to undo or amend all those measures and he got booed at the Olympics. Remarkably, it was another four years before he got sacked.

What the journalists don’t savage is likely to be upended by the impartial hand of international economics.

Whatever the Brexiteers may tell you about British exceptionalism – or indeed what the SNP may tell you about how the Scottish economy can be kept afloat on whisky exports alone – the coronavirus crisis shows just how interconnected we are. Sunak could announce he’s abolishing tax but that’s not actually going to boost punters finances if the rest of the world is in lockdown.

And that’s why whatever Rishi Sunak says today can be safely disregarded.

He’s a lucky chap in that he only got to be Chancellor because Sajid Javid unexpectedly walked rather than succumb to Dominic Cummings’ oversight. But Sunak is unlucky in delivering a Budget that has already had to be rewritten a number of times in the last four weeks and may even be amended again between the PM’s coronavirus conflab Wednesday morning and actually delivering the speech a few hours later.

The main thing, perhaps the only thing, we know about the outbreak is that we don’t know how it’s going to play out. Consequently predictions and policies announced in the Budget are unlikely to survive contact with the coronavirus.

And anything that is left standing once the bug has blown itself out or a vaccine has put the lid on it will then have to reckon with the culmination of Brexit. This time next year we’ll know how we’ll trade with the EU going forward and just how high the new barriers put in place as a result will be.

Though rest assured if the nation’s bank balance is ragged come Budget 2021 the Brexiteers in Number 10 will solely blame coronavirus and roundly ignore the impact of the only policy they wanted to talk about three months ago.

It seems a fair question, then, to ask why I’m optimistically writing about the Budget if it is in fact a colossal waste of everyone’s time.

The answer is that precisely because we can discount the actual announcements we can look for bigger themes from the Budget, try to discern clues about this government’s outlook and what that tells us about the next four years. This is a meta Budget.

Two clear conclusions emerge.

This is a government that cares about its image. 

Boris Johnson was kept away from the recent floods for fear of photos that made him look daft or, worse, impotent. Strong man leaders must not look weak in the face of some water, the PM’s classical education clearly runs to the tale of King Cnut.

The Budget, and particularly one to be delivered by a young and photogenic Chancellor, presents an opportunity to project a positive image. The Treasury has gone hot for Instagram. And whoever is taking the pics for the department’s social media is clearly hot for Rishi Sunak. We’ve had shots of him laughing, eating, thinking and surrounded by his advisors. All men. All in sharp suits. Not so much the brat pack as the tax pack.

But one thing is noticeably absent from the photos – women. 

And this is the second lesson we can learn. This administration’s attitude to women is found wanting again.

One of Dominic Cummings first acts upon entering Downing Street was to have Sajid Javid’s top adviser – a woman – marched off the premises. Now Cummings has control of the Treasury and it’s an all male team in the Exchequer. Coincidence?

And it’s not just the Treasury. The Department for International Trade – vital to the next stage of Brexit – may be led by Liz Truss but the select committee formed last week to oversee its work includes three men called Mark plus a Mick, a Matt and a Martin, (they’re going to run out of M’s for the nameplates) but no women.

The PM presented his most recent coronovirus press conference flanked by his two top scientists – both men.

There’s a clear message coming out of this government. The big issues facing the country – the economy, our trading future, the health emergency are not really issues for women to worry about. They can go form a committee for fluffy kittens instead.

Men like Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, Dominic Cummings and now Rishi Sunak will look after the serious business.

And this is where Margaret Atwood comes back into the picture. She’s the author of iconic novel The Handmaid’s Tale. It’s set in a dystopian future society in which women’s roles are strictly defined and utterly disempowered.

The Tory woman whose picture has been in the media most for the last couple of weeks has been Carrie Symonds. Because she’s having a baby. It’s a little bit Handmaid’s Tale isn’t it?

Optimism is going to be at a premium going forward.

The history book: I’m an expert

I guess it’s not a hard and fast rule but if a former government minister refers to your book in parliament I think you can count yourself an ‘expert’.

That’s what happened to me this week.

Tracey Crouch, a good ex-minister in the sense she resigned on principle – and a noble principle at that concerning keeping a promise on gambling machines rather than some contentious view about Brexit for example – rather than was sacked for a bungle, led a debate on fatherhood in Westminster this week.

I went along because, as author of a book on the topic, I was interested to hear what was said and to get an idea of how seriously politicians take it.

To my delight and surprise early in her opening remarks Tracey made reference to ‘an interesting book by James Millar’ and followed that up after a couple of interventions of varying quality by referring again to the book and calling it ‘excellent’.

Here’s the clip:

And you can find the whole debate here. It’s well worth your time.

Whatever is said in parliament goes in the official record, called Hansard, and stays there forever. You need to have an ego to be a journalist, keep a blog, write a book – knowing your name will literally be in the history books doesn’t do that ego any harm!

The book she refers to is Dads Don’t Babysit. I co-wrote it, obviously I think it’s excellent. But it’s good to get that sort of recognition. It’s packed full of useful stats, enlightening anecdotes, cogent arguments and crucially concrete proposals.

The thrust of the whole book is that men want to be more engaged parents, if they are then that’s good for men, women, children and society as a whole. We look at why parenting is not equal now and, importantly, draw up a manifesto of measures that would help drive an increase in equal parenting.

If your company wants to get ahead it ought to aim for a more diverse workforce. My book can help you achieve that.

If you want a more productive workforce you need happy employees comfortable with their work life balance. My book can help you achieve that.

If you want me to explain the issues and the advantages of equal parenting for your company to you, your HR department or your workforce get in touch via this website or via LinkedIn or Twitter.

I can make your workforce fitter, happier and more productive. That’s quite a claim but I reckon I can back it up. Get in touch and let’s put it to the test!

Big world, small minds

Monday night I received a call from Lebanon, asking me to go on Turkish telly, to talk about an American advert, from London.

Globalisation is cool and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

I agreed.

The request came because I wrote something about the new Gillette advert and what it says about men and masculinity.

I can’t quite believe that a week on the alt-right characters in the so-called Men’s Rights Activist community who like to bait and bully anyone with a conscience are still being triggered about an advert for razors. But there we go. It’s almost as if they are just old-fashioned bullies and misogynists who don’t like having their out-of-date worldview challenged by anyone, even an advert.

Certainly that was the impression I got from the chap put up to ‘debate’ me on the programme, a show called Newsmakers on TBT, the Turkish version of BBC World.

I did a bit of due diligence, I’m aware of the Turkish government’s record on freedom of speech and their extremely bad habit of locking up journalists. But TBT seemed OK. (Please do correct me and share evidence if I’m wrong, I want to know).

My opposite number was a fellow called Michael Buchanan, founder of the Justice for Men and Boys party that garnered a total of 216 votes at the 2015 election, across two seats. His website reveals him to be an unpleasant character with unpleasant views. But by the end of the TV feature I just had to laugh at him as he claimed a conspiracy by radical feminists to take over every conceivable organisation he disagrees with from the American Psychological Association to the New Statesman. If he’d got more votes at the election, if I thought there was a bigger swell of support for his extremism out there I’d be worried. But he’s just a sad man and the very existence of the Gillette advert proves he’s on the wrong side of history. Men and masculinity are changing, that’s why Gillette have come up with an ad designed to tap into the new masculinity. They are in the business of making money, nothing more and nothing less. Talk of brand values and such is wide of the mark. We live in a capitalist system (for good or ill) and the only brand value any company truly sticks to is making cash.

Do watch the clip. I was particularly impressed with the show’s host who called out some of Buchanan’s patent nonsense. I’d like to see more of that on UK television when guests are so obviously talking toss.

Anyway, here’s the bit in question (there doesn’t appear to be a way of embedding the clip unfortunately). Feel free to share your thoughts on my presentation or on the issue at stake.

And if you think I’d be worth inviting on your TV/radio show to discuss the same please to get in touch!




Getting better the Gillette way

The New Statesman needed something on the furore over Gillette’s latest advert. They came to me because, in the words of the commissioning editor, I’m  “really funny”. Make up your own mind if she’s right. This is the unedited version featuring some coarse (but funny) language that was cut from the published version.

So it looks like I’m going to have to shave for the first time in a decade.

Not because I’m inspired by the new Gillette advert urging men to be the best they can be. But because if all the men’s rights activists, misogynists and sillies like Piers Morgan follow through on their threat to boycott Gillette anyone sporting facial fuzz may immediately mark themselves out as a member of that gang. The gang that remarkably seem to be saying that men shouldn’t be the best they can be.

Oh well apparently beards aren’t cool anymore anyway.

According to the ad being a dick isn’t cool anymore either. That message has proved too much for some men who will fight for the right to be a dick, and are demonstrating that with their reaction to Gillette’s short film.

The advert, titled We Believe, was created by the director Kim Gehrig who was behind the brilliant This Girl Can campaign for Sport England that encouraged nearly 3 million more women to get more active. One hopes her next step will be to combine the two in a film that shows women punching sexists and running away from Piers Morgan.

It plays on Gillette’s legendary slogan ‘The Best a Man Can Get’ and instead asks ‘Is this the best a man can get?’ as men look moodily in the mirror accompanied by news reports of sexual assault, clips of sexist comedy and outrageously cheesy sections in which boys bully each other and scuffle.

The answer coming back loud and clear from the meninists is: “Yes, yes, fighting, cat-calling and barbecuing is basically all we’ve got.”

It would be hilarious if it wasn’t so serious.

Just last week the American Psychological Association (APA) defined traditional masculinity as “A particular constellation of standards that have held sway over large segments of the population, including: anti-femininity, achievement, eschewal of the appearance of weakness, and adventure, risk, and violence” and found that it is a bad thing leading to negative outcomes such as suicide, addiction, violence and early death.

To be clear, the APA wasn’t talking about masculinity per se, rather the strict definition of it that places a straitjacket on males basically from birth.

I know how young it starts, I co-wrote a book about it. The Gender Agenda started out as a project driven by feminism, to record the unfair limits put on my daughter because of her sex. It ended with the realisation that my son is also constricted by expectations placed upon him by the random accident of his chromosomes.

This led me to the same places the Gillette advert goes – role models, popular media and societal expectations that write off bad behaviour with the phrase ‘boys will be boys’ while controlling the female sex with the words ‘there’s a good girl’.

Weirdly the same men who hoist the Men’s Rights Activist (MRA) banner and march forth for the worthy aims of reducing male suicide and improving male mental health don’t like being told a huge part of the solution is rethinking masculinity – ie it’s up to them to do something about it. Unsurprisingly it’s other people who need to change their behaviour. Women mainly. Particularly feminists who don’t think about men and boys enough when they are campaigning for women. It’s almost as if the MRAs are actually old school misogynists using serious issues as cover for a campaign that seeks to control women by telling them what they should be thinking and doing instead of that silly feminism.

And it’s women who suffer from toxic masculinity. The two women a week who die due to domestic abuse, the many more who must live with domestic violence. The girls who don’t speak up in class because teachers unwittingly ask boys for answers. The pupils who actually do worse in their exams when they see an advert conveying negative stereotypes about women on their way to school.

But it’s men who have the power to make it better. That’s not fair. But as long as the balance of power favours men – and it does whether your metric is number of MPs or number of business board members or average salary – then it’s up to men to make it better.

The Gillette ad hones in on that message. (Further reading on the same theme can be found in my latest book Dads Don’t Babysit).

Unfortunately Gillette will now go bust because of their apparent mis-step, in the same way as Lynx did when they turned their back on their traditional advertising approach that saw nearly naked women clamour for spotty youths that smelled of ‘Africa’ (whatever the smell of Africa is – elephant poo? subjugation by the west based on deep seated racism?) in favour of something more thoughtful. The ‘is it OK for guys..’ campaign looked at what teenage boys really do on the internet – look for support and affirmation rather than just looking at porn.

And who remembers Nike? They were big in sports stuff before also piling into politics with their Colin Kaepernick campaign that saw the alt right burn their shoes.

Weirdly the same right wing voices who insist newspapers are above democratic oversight because they answer to a higher and more urgent master – the market, if folk don’t like what they print they won’t sell goes the mantra – are triggered by an ad campaign that surely stands or falls by the same standard. If people are outraged by the idea that men – yes, all men – could be better then they won’t buy Gillette razors and we’ll have our answer as to whether this is really is the best that men can get.

But perhaps what the meninists are really upset about is the knowledge that won’t happen.

Gillette just played them for tons of free publicity.

And ultimately Proctor and Gamble, owners of the Gillette brand are gigantic capitalists like Nike and Unilever who own Lynx.

They aren’t really bothered about values and attitudes, they are only interested in one thing – the bottom line.

And there’s more cash to be made from men who buy into feminism and want to be better fathers than there is from daft dinosaurs who fear a future in which men and women benefit from true equality.

Men’s attitudes and masculinity itself are changing to be more flexible, more healthy, more satisfying.

The reaction to the Gillette ad shows we’re a long way from achieving the best a man can get, but the very existence of the campaign proves men are getting better.



Photo by Matt Collamer on Unsplash

How I wound up David Cameron (balloon on a stick edit)

This was orginally published on Total Politics. But edited slightly for reasons of space. Here’s the full unexpurgated version!:

In years to come this whole Brexit palaver will be taught in Bubbleology 101 – the study of Westminster by Westminster to the exclusion of all else.

George Osborne was the prick that burst the bubble for me.

One of his infamous, and invariably expensive, Budget quips made it very plain to me that neither he nor David Cameron had been paying attention during the Scottish independence referendum. The pair were too indolent to carry out any post-match analysis on that particular vote and too arrogant to listen to anyone who had.

It’s that attitude that has put us where we are now with MPs scared to walk to work and the general public phoning in to the Jeremy Vine show claiming they’ve some sort of Brexit induced anxiety disorder (I didn’t stick around for the item on gout but that’s probably got something to do with Brexit too as people drink to forget what’s going on in Westminster).

Few will remember the joke that accompanied the 2015 budget announcement of £1 million to mark the anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt. Even fewer will remember those commemorations so that was money well spent. But it was made to entertain the Cameroon acolytes at the expense of the greater good. And that illustrates why we find ourselves four years later on the verge of crashing out of the EU.

Back then Osborne jibed: “The battle of Agincourt is, of course, celebrated by Shakespeare as a victory secured by a ‘band of brothers’. It is also when a strong leader defeated an ill-judged alliance between the champion of a united Europe and a renegade force of Scottish nationalists.”

He should’ve spent the £1 million on more of those ‘Ed Miliband in Alex Salmond’s pocket’ billboards.

For Agincourt was an English victory while Osborne was the UK’s chancellor. The ‘joke’ was essentially ‘Ha ha ha, some English killed some Scots and although I’ve been telling you for five years there’s no money I do have money to celebrate that,’ with the added implication that the English had beaten the Scots again in September 2014.

It seemed to set up Tory England against Scotland where 45% of the population had just voted for independence. By implication nearly half of Scots were ‘renegades’ in Osborne’s eyes.

It seemed poorly judged to my ears as someone who had covered the independence referendum six months previously and who knew the wounds of that contest – which was both glorious and grisly, democratic and divisive – had not yet healed.

And as someone of mixed parentage (one English, one Scottish) I was very aware that the Scots don’t take kindly to any Englishman lauding it over them no matter how far back in history the slight might go. And they are particularly ill disposed towards posh boy Eton Tories.

It also seemed unlikely to win over Scots voters to the Tory cause at a time when the party had just one MP.

It was as politically unintelligent as it was comedically unfunny.

It was a throwaway line little remarked on at the time.

But events would prove my political antennae correct. And how.

The following day I had an audience with the then PM David Cameron and I put it to him that the joke signalled the Tories had given up on trying to win any seats in Scotland.

His face went a little redder than usual, he put his hands behind his head and leaned right back, “Do you really think that?” he thundered. “Do you really think that?”

I replied that since he’d visited Scotland quite a bit before, during and after the referendum he ought to know that jokes about it aren’t terribly well received.

He said he thought the Scots could take a joke. Six weeks later the Scots returned 56 SNP MPs and the sole Scottish Tory hung on after a recount.

Those 50 new MPs ought to have turned up for their first day at work with a banner reading “Mac-Ha ha ha”.

It’s not that Cameron didn’t understand post-referendum politics. He didn’t care. As far as he was concerned he won, purred at the Queen and started doing evel – English Votes for English Laws.

If he’d paid attention or had better advisors (Craig Oliver would be in my face before I left the room after the above exchange hissing ‘Are you saying you can’t make jokes in Scotland, is that what you’re saying?’ A little less aggression and a little more listening and Rory Kinnear might’ve been the star of the recent Brexit drama on Channel 4) he would have seen the damage done to Scotland and Scottish politics.

Appalled at the division engendered by the EU referendum? In Scotland friends and family may have patched up relationships that buckled under the strain of the independence debate but many still avoid talking politics.

Isn’t it awful that Anna Soubry and Owen Jones are getting abuse? Jim Murphy had to suspend his campaigning tour of Scotland for his own safety in 2014 and the SNP – the ruling party – lampooned Scotland’s foremost political commentator David Torrance in one of their political ads contributing to his decision to quit journalism, and to leave Scotland. Can you imagine the Tories hiring an Owen Jones lookalike (any 14-year-old boy would do) for a PPB aimed squarely at taking the piss out of him?

Scottish politics is not about left and right but Yes and No. (Which is why Labour have been squeezed out of the national conversation, that and a succession of leaders that look like a de-evolution of political ability; on current trends a balloon on a stick will replace Richard Leonard some time in the next 12 months).

And still Westminster pays no heed. Commentators that talk of a single issue general election focussed on Brexit are way wide of the mark. Any general election in Scotland will still be characterised by a choice between unionist and nationalist candidates, Brexit will be a secondary consideration.

UK politics is now cleft along Leave and Remain lines and the example of Scotland shows that will remain so for the foreseeable future.

We are in an era of post-referendum politics characterised by poor quality and uncivil discourse, a shallow pool of political talent and a media that has muddled news, opinion and gossip.  And Scotland got there first.

The PM talks of moving on. Ain’t going to happen. No matter what happens on March 29.





New mums need new men

I wrote this after receiving a press release from the BBC about some research they’d done for the Emma Barnett show. But the story didn’t run as planned on the radio because Brexit blew up and took the news agenda with it.

This story, about women, about tens of thousands of British women feeling miserable has repeatedly been bumped in favour of Brexit, a story which from start to finish has been dominated by willy waving men. Says it all really.


‘Bundles of joy’ has never been an accurate description of babies.

New research has shown just how wrong it is.

A poll of mothers for the Emma Barnett Show on Radio FiveLive found over a quarter of them basically didn’t like maternity leave much.

Around 750,000 babies are born each year. Apply that to the research and even on a conservative reading you get upwards of 150,000 women feeling miserable, bewildered and inadequate.

That’s a mental health crisis by any standard. And yet those men’s rights activists who have driven male mental health up the political agenda are curiously quiet about this one. It’s almost as if they regard men’s mental health as more important than that of women. (To be clear, mental health need not be a zero sum game where focussing on one area automatically comes at a cost to another area).

And the polling shows that women are suffering. Around half of those surveyed by ComRes said they felt lonely while on maternity leave, one in five wished they’d gone back to work sooner, two in five missed being at work.

And inevitably women were asked about breastfeeding and most said they found it harder than anticipated.

Younger mums tended to find the whole motherhood shebang more of a shock that older ones.

Barnett, herself fresh back from maternity leave, said, “I have had some of the loveliest and most memorable times of my life during my maternity leave. But it’s still been bloody hard, and, at times, lonely.”

These figures are not surprising to anyone who has a child.

Birth and breastfeeding are too often portrayed as ‘natural’. Volcanoes are natural but that doesn’t mean they’re good. You wouldn’t want one in your house.

Looking after small children is often at best boring and at worst downright depressing.

That’s why society says it’s best done by women.

It’s no coincidence that women literally get the shit jobs – whether that’s changing nappies, cleaning the toilets in your office block or dealing with incontinent elderly relatives.

Society expects women to do the hard yards then tells them not to complain. My first book, The Gender Agenda, was inspired by a German project from a generation before which took the title ‘There’s a Good Girl’. The name is appropriate because, from the off, female children are encouraged to conform not complain.

The BBC press release is short on answers. The best they’ve got is a limp response from an NCT representative who tells women to go find a local toddler group to cheer themselves up.

There is one vital word missing from the research – men.

Men who can look at these figures and sacrifice female mental health in return for their own privilege.

The meninist movement has alighted on male mental health as a cloak under which to smuggle their frequently misogynist agenda.

They point to unpleasant and alarming figures that show dozens of men take their own lives each week.

But if they truly cared about male mental health they’d be rallying behind this latest research as a battering ram to getting men and women true equality – the sort of equality that leads to better mental health all round, the sort of equality that sees men take on the tasks traditionally dubbed ‘women’s work’ and recently rebadged as the ‘mental load’.

Women whose partners take on more domestic work enjoy better mental health. When researching my latest book, Dads Don’t Babysit, I spoke to Bridget Hargreave author of Fine, Not Fine, a book about post-natal depression and she explained that while it’s a complex condition support can be key. Having someone to help with the childcare in those difficult early days, knowing that even if you don’t take to maternity you’ll go back to work after a few months and your partner will take over could improve outcomes.

Men who do more parenting enjoy better mental health and a stronger relationship with their partner, their offspring and their friends.

Mental health, like parenting, is not straightforward there’s no silver bullet, no one size fits all manual for managing it. But in the vast majority of cases if men do more childcare everyone’s life is improved. (Even those that don’t have children because if men take more parental leave it frees up women to return to work sooner and boosts the economy to the tune of a few billion quid).

That’s why men need to campaign now for the measures that will close the paternity gap – the difference between what men want in terms of a work life balance and what they currently have.

The manifesto in Dads Don’t Babysit includes beefed up shared parental leave with an chunk of time reserved exclusively for dads, more paternity leave following a birth to improve bonding and relieve the pressure on mums, normalising flexible working for men and women to allow parents to fully engage with family life and challenging cultural stereotypes like Homer Simpson that embed the idea of the hapless and hopeless dad heaping more pressure on women to be the only competent parent.

Today’s papers will be dominated by high political Brexit drama whereas the welfare of millions of mothers will be overlooked.

That’s wrong.

This research ought to trigger a revolution among women who demand better, who expect more from their partners and among the men who can use this data to justify their desire to alter the work life balance away from work and towards a more fulfilling life fuelled by family.

We live in a world where men retain the balance of power, that’s why women are left to do so much domestic work alone and loneliness and disillusionment inevitably follow. But men have the power to change things.

It’s not women who find that maternity leave isn’t all it’s cracked up to be who should feel a failure. It’s the men who allow that situation to persist.




My dad and the meaning of life

A couple of weeks ago I wrote my dad’s eulogy. Last week I delivered it at his funeral.

It wasn’t a terribly hard piece to write, I knocked it out in about half an hour. But that’s largely because in his last days and weeks when I turned out the light and my brain decided to really go to work I’d manipulated and mulled over ideas. So when I came to write it down I knew what I wanted to say. It was, if I say so myself, a decent bit of writing.

Delivering it was less straightforward. But I had a job to do on a difficult day and I did it. (And, as is often the way in such tricky situations, an unexpected and not really appropriate to the occasion tune got stuck in my head with it’s refrain of “I’ve got work to do“. However, at least the Isley Brothers can put a tune together, annoyingly Daniel Bedingfield felt he needed to get in on the unwanted-playlist-in-my-head too).

I’m not going to post the entire eulogy here, it’s too personal for that. But there’s a couple of broader points it contains I think are worth sharing.

My dad worked for the Clydesdale Bank for 35 years including stints in the Victoria branch and the St James branch in London. Last week I found myself in the B Lounge, all that is left of the Clydesdale Bank in London. It looks like a branch of Top Shop from the outside (which is an OK look, if it actually was a Top Shop). Inside there are iPads and phones stuck to desks and a coffee counter in the corner. Maybe that’s what people want from a bank these days. I’ve yet to meet anyone who advocates banks need coffee bars rather than say, more staff in the branch over lunch hour. But this bit of the eulogy speaks to the issue at hand:

For Dad the numbers he conjured with in the bank were not the most important thing. He was an old school banker, and recent history has showed us that is the best sort of banker.

He knew that those pounds and pence represented people – who wanted to buy their first home, save to start a family, or begin a business. In a place like Dollar he knew almost everyone and he didn’t just take that responsibility seriously because of that, he enjoyed helping people. He wasn’t in it to boost the bank’s profits, he was in it to be useful to his fellow humans. 

And because he was interested in people it is not really as surprising as it may at first appear that he found a second career later in life as a writer, columnist, journalist of sorts. 

I leave that last point there because too often journalists like myself regard ourselves as ‘wordsmiths’ in direct opposition to ‘number crunchers’. In fact we’re all people and the best of both do it to improve other people’s lives.

I haven’t been to enough funerals to know what makes a good eulogy. That’s down to age or luck or most likely a combination of the two. But as well as a sort of potted biography and covering what he meant to us as a family I feel it ought to speak to some bigger lesson about what it means to be human. That’s a big and pretentious goal. I didn’t set out to solve the human condition. But I ended with what I feel is a valuable lesson.

It’s an episode from his time in hospital that I want to end with. That I think sums him up.

A couple of weeks ago I went to visit him in hospital. I had to return home to London later that day so I knew that when I said goodbye, most likely it really would be goodbye

I told him that if he had anything to tell me then that was the time to do it.

He looked at me with rheumy eyes and cracked lips and said…

“I fell in the River Thames once!

It was 1968. I was drunk.

I got back out again”

And I left the room sad and upset but with a smile on my face.

And that goes to the core of a man. What better lesson in life to pass on than to find the funny in even the darkest moments. It’s a tactic we’ve all had recourse to in recent days. As a family we are sad. But because of dad we are still laughing.

A bit more levity would not go amiss in our troubled times. A bit more perspective.

My brothers would no doubt have written something completely different. Focusing on other aspects of dads life and personality. But the task fell to me. I think putting people first, keeping perspective and maintaining a sense of humour are key to what makes a good life.

After the service lots of people congratulated me and commended the eulogy. But the one that’s stuck with me is the woman who told me she couldn’t hear it and didn’t understand why people were laughing. She was only one among literally dozens of positive comments and the failure was undoubtedly with her hearing rather than my delivery. And yet hers is the feedback I remember. It’s annoying but somehow it spoke to my themes: you only achieve perspective and humour by being confronted with failure, setbacks, negativity as well as praise and success. And being niggled by the negative is surely a very human reaction.

I’ll aim to post more regularly here in future and the content may be more personal. I suspect I may return to the themes I’ve ruminated on here today – humour, perspective, finding what we have in common, and shit banks.



I done a book. Again.

Dads Don’t Babysit is out now. Please buy it. I only get a few pence per copy so that’s not why I want it to be a bestseller.

It’s because if it sells well I’ll be famous and my ego will be pleased. ONLY JOKING.

Actually it’s because it’s an important message, and therefore, I think, an important book.

The subtitle is ‘Towards Equal Parenting’ and that really is what it’s all about.

Currently women invariably do most parenting in any domestic set up. Men are usually the breadwinners and, to a greater or lesser extent, the second or back up parent.

That’s not how it is for everyone and its not how I want it to be but that’s the world as it is. However, equally is importantly it’s not the world as people want it to be.

Most men want to do more parenting. Most men and women think parenting should be shared equally but for various reasons it’s not happening.

‘So what?’ you may say. What folk do in their own homes is up to them. It’s not for anyone else to tell people how to order their lives.


Except everyone is telling people how to order their lives. Sometimes explicitly. More often in lots of little subtle ways.

For example women are entitled to six weeks maternity leave paid at 90% of their salary and up to 12 months away from work to care for their baby in total. Men get two weeks. Then they can share that 12 months allowance if their partner is happy to transfer some of her leave to him. The message is loud and clear that a mother is more important in her baby’s life and that parental leave belongs to the mum because she ought to be the one using it.

The number of men my co-author and I spoke to who said they’d gone to their boss to discuss flexible working after becoming a dad and the response was an initial ‘oh’ at best and ‘that’s not a good idea for your career’ at worst. Signals that a man doing something about his work life balance is weird. (Flexible working is one of the very few areas where men are actually discriminated against, women tend to get their applications accepted far more easily because they are expected to want to fit their work around their family commitments.)

But men think about their work life balance. Most say they want more time with their families, many – particularly millennials – are willing to sacrifice higher pay in return for a more flexible work life.

Then there’s the dodgy science that claims there are pink brains and blue brains and suggests men are just not made to do childcare. Even though the experience of most men that actually throw themselves into family life is the opposite. And the science doesn’t stack up anyway.

And where are the caring, competent role model fathers? On TV kids get the message early on from Peppa Pig that Daddy Pig is a buffoon who can’t even do the washing. They might graduate to The Simpsons where Homer cares more for beer than his offspring or carry on to Broadchurch where the stay at home dad character is flagged up as weird by his penchant for killing people.

Overcoming the weight of public expectation about the role of a father is tough. But not impossible.

This book came about because Dave Freed sent a message to the @GenderDiary Twitter account. That’s the account my partner Ros and I set up seven years ago to record the different ways our son and daughter were treated. It ultimately led to The Gender Agenda book last year.

And that message not only showed that actually the internet is great for bringing people together but it also pointed to the solution to how we bridge the ‘paternity gap’ – the difference between what men say they want and the set up we currently have.

Making contact and talking is the first and simplest step. If you’ve taken shared parental leave and enjoyed it (as Dave did, and we’ve yet to hear from anyone who regretted it) then tell your friends and workmates. Reach out through social media to those who feel the same and your voice is amplified.

When you go to the pub, as I have done, and hear men engaging in banter that denigrates childcare challenge it. Instead talk about the joys of having children, for there are many. If it wasn’t great nobody would do it!

When a friend recently told me he was going to become a father one of the first things I said to him was ‘are you going to take shared parental leave?’ (Doing this was an idea put forward by Jo Swinson in her own book and in conversation with myself during research for Dads Don’t Babysit). He said he hadn’t really thought about it. Next time I saw him he said he’s doing two months of shared parental leave. That’s not equality but just doing that share with benefit his child’s development, his own mental health and his wife’s pay packet. The parenting hat-trick as we call it in the book.

It’s all in the 300-odd pages of Dad’s Don’t Babysit. Plus there’s Serena Williams, Michael Gove, hormones, heroes and reference to a man pissing a melon.

I think it’s an idea whose time has come. The more people that buy the book the more we can get things done and we really can make the world a better place.