The Common Reader
The Common Reader
Helen Lewis interview

Helen Lewis interview

How to be difficult...

Before we get started…

Writing elsewhere

I have recently written about modern Russian literature for CapX, as well Victorian YIMBYs and Katherine Mansfield and 1922, for The Critic.

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Helen Lewis is a splendid infovore, which is how she has come to be one of the most interesting journalists of her generation. You will see in this conversation some of her range. We chatted before we recorded and she was full of references that reflect her broad reading. She reminded me of Samuel Johnson saying that in order to write a book you must turn over half a library. I recommend her book Difficult Women to you all, perhaps especially if you are not generally interested in “feminist” books. Helen is also working on a new book called The Selfish Genius. There’s an acuity to Helen, often characterised by self-editing. She has the precision — and the keenness to be precise of the well-informed. She was also, for someone who claims to be a difficult woman, remarkably amiable. That seeming paradox was one of the things we discussed, as well as biography, late bloomers, menopause, Barbara Castle, failure, Habsburgs and so on... I had not realised she was such a royal biography enthusiast, always a good sign. Helen’s newsletter, by the way, has excellent links every week. It’s a very good, and free, way to have someone intelligent and interesting curate the internet for you. Her latest Atlantic feature is about defunct European royals who are not occupying their throne. Let’s hope one of Helen’s screenplays gets produced…

(I do not know, by the way, if Tyler Cowen would endorse the reference I made to him. I was riffing on something he said.)

[This transcript is too long for email so either click the title above to read online or click at the bottom to go to the full email…]

Henry: Is Difficult Women a collective biography, a book of connected essays, feminist history or something else?

Helen Lewis: Start nice and simple. It was designed as the biography of a movement. It was designed as a history of feminism. But I knew from the start I had this huge problem, which is that anyone who writes about feminism, the first thing that everybody does is absolutely sharpens their pencils and axes about the fact that you inevitably missed stuff out. And so I thought what I need to do is really own the fact that this can only ever be a partial history. And its working subtitle was An Imperfect History of Feminism, and so the thematic idea then came about because of that.

And the idea of doing it through fights, I think, is quite useful because that means that there was a collision of ideas and that something changed. You know, there were lots and lots of subjects that I thought were really interesting, but there wasn't a change, a specific "We used to be like this, and now we're like this," that I could tie it to. So I don't think it is a collective biography because I think there's no connection between the women except for the fact that they were all feminists, and to that extent, they were all change makers. And I've read some really great collective biographies, but I think they work best when they give you a sense of a milieu, which this doesn't really. There's not a lot that links Jayaben Desai in 1970s North London and Emmeline Pankhurst in 1900s Manchester. They're very disparate people.

Henry: Some people make a distinction between a group biography, which is they all knew each other or they were in the same place or whatever, and a collective biography, which is where, as you say, they have no connection other than feminism or science or whatever it is. Were you trying to write a collective biography in that sense? Or was it just useful to use, as a sort of launching off point, a woman for each of the fights you wanted to describe?

Helen Lewis: I think the latter because I felt, again, with the subject being so huge, that what you needed to do was bring it down to a human scale. And I always feel it's easier to follow one person through a period of history. And weirdly, by becoming ever more specific, I think you'll have a better chance of making universal points, right? And one of the things that when I'm reading non-fiction, I want to feel the granularity of somebody's research which, weirdly, I think then helps you understand the bigger picture better. And so if you take it down all the way to one person, or sometimes it's more... So Constance Lytton and Annie Kenney, that's sort of two people. I think probably Constance is bigger in that mix. It helps you to understand what it's like to be a person moving through time, which is what I wanted to kind of bring it back. Particularly, I think, with feminism where one of the problems, I think, is when you get progress made, it seems like common sense.

And it's one of the things I find I love about Hilary Mantel's, the first two of that Thomas Cromwell trilogy, is there is a real sense that you don't know what's going to happen. Like the moment, the hinge moment, of Anne Boleyn's star appears to be falling. It's very hard not to read it now and think, "Well, obviously that was destined to happen. You'd obviously jumped ship to Jane Seymour." But she manages to recreate that sense of living through history without knowing the ending yet, right? And so maybe you should stick with Anne Boleyn. Maybe this has all just been a temporary blip. Maybe she'll have a son next year. And that's sort of what I wanted to recreate with feminism, is to put you back in the sensation of what it is to be like making those arguments about women having a vote at a time when that's seen as a kind of crackpot thing to be arguing for because obviously women are like this, obviously women are delicate, and they need to be protected. And when all of those arguments... Again, to go back to what it's like to just to live in a time where people's mindsets were completely different to... Which is to me, is the point of writing history, is to say... And the same thing about travel writing, is to say, "Here are people whose very basis, maybe even the way that they think, is completely different to all of your assumptions." All your assumptions that are so wired so deeply into you, you don't even know they're assumptions. You just think that's what consciousness is or what it is to be alive. And that's, I think, why I try to focus it on that human level.

Henry: How do you do your research?

Helen Lewis: Badly, with lots of procrastination in between it, I think is the only honest answer to that. I went and cast my net out for primary sources quite wide. And there was some... The number of fights kept expanding. I think it started off with eight fights, and then just more and more fights kept getting added. But I went to, for example, the LSC Women's Library has got a suffragette collection. And I just read lots and lots of suffragette letters on microfiche. And that was a really good way into it because you've got a sense of who was a personality and who had left enough records behind. And I write about this in the book, about the fact that it's much easier to write a biography of a writer because they'll fundamentally, probably, give you lots of clues as to what they were thinking and doing in any particular time. But I also find things that I found really moving, like the last letter from Constance Lytton before she has a stroke, which has been effected by being force fed and having starved herself. And then you can see the jump, and then she learns to write again with her other hand, and her handwriting's changed.

And stuff like that, I just don't think you would get if you didn't allow yourself to be... Just sort of wade through some stuff. Someone volunteered to be my research assistant, I mean I would have paid them, I did pay them, to do reports of books, which apparently some authors do, right? They will get someone to go and read a load of books for them, and then come back. And I thought, "Well, this is interesting. Maybe I'll try this. I've got a lot of ground to cover here." And she wrote a report on a book about… I think it was about environmental feminism. And it was really interesting, but I just hadn't had the experience of living through reading a book. And all of the stuff you do when you're reading a book you don't even think about, where you kind of go, "Oh, that's interesting. Oh, and actually, that reminds me of this thing that's happened in this other book that's... Well, I wonder if there's more of that as I go along." I don't think if you're going try and write a book, there is any shortcut.

I thought this would be a very... I'm sure you could write a very shallow... One of those books I think of where they're a bit Wikipedia. You know what I mean. You know sometimes when you find those very 50 inspirational women books, those were the books I was writing against. And it's like, you've basically written 50 potted biographies of people. And you've not tried to find anything that is off the beaten track or against the conventional way of reading these lives. It's just some facts.

Henry: So biographically, you were perhaps more inspired by what you didn't want to write than what you did.

Helen Lewis: Yeah, I think that's very true. I think writing about feminism was an interesting first book to pick because there's so much of it, it's like half the human race. It's really not a new subject. And to do the whole of British feminism really was a mad undertaking. But I knew that I didn't want to write, "You go girl, here's some amazing ladies in history." And I wanted to actually lean into the fact that they could be weird or nasty or mad. And my editor said to me at one point, and I said, "I'm really worried about writing some of this stuff." She said, "I think you can be more extreme in a book," which I thought was really interesting.

Which I think is also very true in that I also feel like this about doing podcasts is that I very rarely get in trouble for things I've said on podcasts because it's quite hard to lazily clip a bit of them out and put them on Twitter and toss the chum into the water. Right? And I think that's the same thing about if you write something on page 390 of a book, yeah, occasionally, someone might take a screen-grab of it, but people hopefully will have read pages 1-389 and know where you're coming from, by that point.

Henry: Maybe trolls don't read.

Helen Lewis: Well, I think a lot of the stuff that annoys me is a shallow engagement with complexity, and an attempt to go through books and harvest them for their talking points, which is just not how... It's just such a sad, weathered way of approaching the experience of reading, isn't it? Do I agree with this author or not? I like reading people I disagree with. And so for example, the fact that I call the suffragettes terrorists, and I write about that, I think people are reluctant to engage with the fact that people you agree with did terrible things in the pursuit of a goal that you agree with. And I think it's very true about other sectors. I always think about the fact that Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for terrorism. And that gets pushed down in the mix, doesn't it? When it all turns out that actually, he was a great man. And that incredibly long imprisonment in Robben Island is its own totemic piece of the history of modern South Africa, that you don't wanna sit with the awkward bits of the story too.

Henry: You've had a lot of difficult experiences on Twitter? Would you have written this book if you hadn't lived through that?

Helen Lewis: I think that's a hard question to answer. I tried not to make it a “Here is the cutting of all my enemies.” And actually, my friend, Rob read this book in draft and he insisted that everyone I knew that I was going to argue with had to be of sufficient stature to be worth arguing with. He's like, You cannot argue with, I think I put it in my drawing piece, a piece like Princess Sparklehorse 420. Right? That's quite hard when you're writing about modern feminism, because actually if you think about what I think of as the very social justice end of it, right? The end of it, that is very pro sex work, very pro self-identification of gender, very pro prison abolition, police abolition, it's actually quite hard to find the people who were the theorists of that. It's more of a vibe that you will find in social media spaces on Tumblr, and Twitter and other places like that. So trying to find who is the person who has actually codified all that and put that down to then say, "Well, let's look at it from all sides", can be really difficult. So I did find myself slightly arguing with people on Twitter.

Henry: I'm wondering more, like one way I read your book, it's very thought-provoking on feminism, but it's also very thought-provoking just on what is a difficult person. And there's a real thing now about if you're low in agreeableness, that might mean you're a genius, like Steve Jobs, or it might mean you're a Twitter troll. And we have a very basic binary way of thinking about being difficult. And it’s actually very nuanced, and you have to be very clever about how to be difficult. And in a way, I wondered if one of the things you were thinking about was, well, everyone’s doing difficult in a really poor way. And what we need, especially on the left, is smart difficult, and here is a book about that, and please improve. [chuckle]

Helen Lewis: Yeah, there was a lot of that and it's part of the sort of bro-ey end of philosophy is about maybe women have been less brilliant through history because they're less willing to be disagreeable, they have a higher need to be liked, which I think is kind of interesting. I don't entirely buy it. But I think there's an interesting thing there about whether or not you have to be willing to be iconoclastic. The thing that I find interesting about that is, again, there's another way in which you can refer to it, which is the idea that if you're a heretic, you're automatically right.

Henry: Yes.

Helen Lewis: And there's a lot of...

Henry: Or brave.

Helen Lewis: Or brave, right? And I think it's... You can see it in some of the work that I'm doing at the moment about the intellectual dark web being a really interesting example. Some of them stayed true to the kind of idea that you were a skeptic. And some of them disbelieved the mainstream to the extent that they ended up falling down the rabbit holes of thinking Ivermectin was a really great treatment for COVID, or that the vaccines were going to microchip you or whatever it might be. And so I'm always interested in how personality affects politics, I guess. And yeah, how you can be self-contained and insist on being right and not cow-tow to other people without being an asshole is a perpetually interesting question.

It's coming up in my second book a lot, which is about genius. Which is sort-of the similar thing is, how do you insist when everybody tells you that you're wrong, that you're right. And the thing that we don't talk about enough in that context, I think Newton is a very good example is that, obviously, he made these incredible breakthroughs with gravity and mathematics, and then spends literally decades doing biblical chronology and everyone tells him that he's wrong, and he is wrong. And we don't really talk about that side of it very much.

All the people who spent all their time studying phlogiston and mesmerism, or that's more complicated because I think that does lead to interesting insights. A lot of people who the world told was wrong, were wrong. And we're over-indexing, always writing about the ones who were the one Galileo saying the Earth still moves, and they turned out to be correct.

Henry: Yes. There are good books about biographies of failures, but they're less popular.

Helen Lewis: Which is tough because most of us are going to be failures.

Henry: Yes. Well, you’re not gonna buy a book to reinforce that.

Helen Lewis: No, but maybe there could be some deep spiritual learning from it, which is that a life spent in pursuit of a goal that turns out to be illusory is still a noble one.

Henry: That’s a fundamentally religious opinion that I think a secular society is not very good at handling.

Helen Lewis: Yeah, maybe. Yeah. I’ve been doing lots of work for Radio 4 about the link between politics and religion, and whether or not religion has to some extent replaced politics as Western societies become more secular. And I think there is some truth in that. And one of the big problems is, yes, it doesn’t have that sort of spirit of self-abnegation or the idea of kind of forgiveness in it, or the idea of just desserts happening over the horizon of death. Like everything’s got be settled now in politics here, which I think is a bad fit for religious impulses and ideas.

Henry: What is the role of humour in being difficult?

Helen Lewis: I think it’s really important because it does sweeten the pill of trying to make people be on your side. And so I had a long discussion with myself about how much I should put those jokes in the footnotes of the book, and how much I should kind of be funny, generally. Because I think the problem is, if you’re funny, people don't think you’re serious. And I think it’s a big problem, particularly for women writers, that actually I think sometimes, and this happens in journalism too, that women writers often play up their seriousness, a sort of uber-serious persona, because they want to be taken seriously. If you see what I mean, it’s very hard to be a foreign policy expert and also have a kind of lively, cheeky side, right? We think that certain things demand a kind of humourlessness to them.

But the other thing that I think humour is very important, is it creates complicity with the audience. If you laugh at someone’s joke, you've aligned yourself with them, right? Which is why we now have such a taboo and a prohibition on racist jokes, sexist jokes, whatever they might be, because it’s everyone in the audience against that minority. But that can, again, if you use your powers for good, be quite powerful. I think it is quite powerful to see... There’s one of the suffragettes where someone throws a cabbage at her, and she says something like, “I must return this to the man in the audience who's lost his head.” And given that all the attacks on the suffragettes were that they were these sort of mad, radical, weird, un-feminine, inhuman people, then that was a very good way of instantly saying that you weren’t taking it too seriously.

One of the big problems with activism is obviously that people, normal people who don't spend every moment of their life thinking about politics, find it a bit repellent because it is so monomaniacal and all-consuming. And therefore, being able to puncture your pomposity in that way, I think is quite useful.

Henry: So if there are people who want to learn from Helen Lewis, “How can I be difficult at work and not be cast aside,” you would say, “Tell more low-grade jokes, get people to like you, and then land them with some difficult remark.”

Helen Lewis: Use your powers for good after that. It’s tricky, isn’t it? I think the real answer to how to be difficult at work is decide what level of compromise you’re willing to entertain to get into positions of power. Which is the same question any activist should ask themselves, “How much do I need to engage with the current flawed system in order to change it?” And people can be more or less open with themselves, I guess, about that. I think the recent Obama memoir is quite open about, for example on the financial relief in 2008, about how much he should have tried to be more radical and change stuff, and how much he... Did he actually let himself think he was being this great consensualist working with the Republican Party and therefore not get stuff done?

And then the other end, I think you have the criticism I made of the Corbyn project, which was that it was better to have kind of clean hands than get things done. There's a great essay by Matt Bruenig called Purity Politics, which says... No, what is it called? Purity Leftism. And it said, “the purity leftist’s approach is not so much that they're worried about that oppression is happening but that they should have no part of it.” And I think that’s part of the question of being difficult, too, is actually how much do you have to work with and compromise yourself by working with people with whom you're opposed? And it's a big question in feminism. There are people who will now say, “Well, how could feminists possibly work with the Conservative Party?” Entirely forgetting that Emmeline Pankhurst ran as a Conservative candidate.

Henry: She was very conservative.

Helen Lewis: Right. And there were members of the suffragettes who went on to join the British Union of Fascists. That actually... Some of the core tenets of feminism have been won by people who didn't at all see themselves on the left.

Henry: If I was the devil’s advocate, I’d say that well-behaved women, for want of a better phrase, do make a lot of history. Not just suffragists but factory workers, political wives, political mistresses. What’s the balance between needing difficult women and needing not exactly compliant women but people who are going to change it by, as you say, completely engaging with the system and almost just getting on with it?

Helen Lewis: There’s a scale, isn’t there? Because if you make yourself too unbelievably difficult, then no one wants to work with you and it's... I think the suffragettes is a really good example of that actually. The intervention of the First World War makes that story impossible to play out without it.

But had they continued on that course of becoming ever more militant, ever more bombings, and pouring acid on greens, and snipping telephone wires... The criticism that was made of them was, “Are they actually turning people off this cause?” And you get people saying that, that actually the suffragettes set back the cause of women’s suffrage, which I'm not entirely sure I buy. I think I certainly don’t buy it in the terms of the situation in 1905. Fawcett writes about the fact that there were loads of all these articles decrying the suffragettes, whereas previously they’d just been... The cause of suffrage, which had been going on for 70-80 years, quite in earnest, in legal form, had just been completely ignored. So there was definitely a moment where what it really needed was attention. But then, can you make the same argument in 1914 about whether or not the suffragettes were still doing an equal amount of good? I think then it's much more tenuous.

And there was a really good article saying that, essentially your point, well-behaved women do make history, saying that a lot of boring legal heavy-lifting... And it's one of the things I find very interesting about where modern feminism in Britain is. A lot of the work that’s most interesting is being done through things like judicial reviews, which is a lot of very boring pulling together large amounts of court bundles, and people saying, “Is this obiter?” This word which I once understood, and now don't anymore. But it’s not people chaining themselves to railings or throwing themselves under horses. It’s people getting up in the morning and putting another day shift in at quite boring admin. And I do think that maybe that's something that I underplayed in the book because it’s not so narratively captivating. Brenda Hale made that point to me that she would have been a suffragist because she just believed in playing things by the book. You won it by the book.

And I do think now I find I don’t agree with throwing paint and pies and milkshakes and stuff like that at people whose political persuasions I disagree with, right? I fundamentally don't believe in punching Nazis, which was a great debate... Do you remember the great Twitter debate of a couple of years ago about whether it’s okay to punch a Nazi? I think if you live in America or the UK, and there are democratic ways and a free press in which to make your political case, you don't need to resort to a riot. And that’s not the case all over the world, obviously. But I do think that I am... I think difficulty takes many, many forms.

Henry: A question about Margaret Thatcher.

Helen Lewis: Yes.

Henry: Was she good for women, even though she wasn't good for feminism? So millions of women joined the labour force in the 1980s, more than before or since. It was the first time that women got their own personal allowance for income tax, rather than being taxed as an extension of their husband’s income.

Helen Lewis: I'm trying to remember. Was that a Tory policy?

Henry: That was 1988 budget, and it came into effect in 1990. And she also publicly supported. She said, “You should be nice to mothers who go out to work. They're just earning money for their families.” So even though she definitely did not, consciously I think, help the cause of feminism, you would probably rather be a woman in the ’80s than the ’70s...

Helen Lewis: Oh yeah, definitely.

Henry: But because of her. That's my challenge to you.

Helen Lewis: No, it's a good challenge. And I think it's one that has a lot of merit. I’m not sure whether or not she would be grateful to you for positioning her as Margaret Thatcher, feminist hero. And it's really into having... I wrote a screenplay last year about the women in politics in the years before Margaret Thatcher, and it’s very... And I cover this a bit in the book. That women have always struggled in Labour, a collective movement, where it’s like if you let one woman through, you’ve got to let them all. Like, “I’m the vanguard” versus the Thatcher route, which was like, “I’m just me, a person. Judge me on who I am,” and not making such a kind of radical collective claim. So that’s the bit that holds me back from endorsing her as a kind of good thing for women, is I think she was Elizabeth I in the sense where she was like, “I’m good like a man,” rather than saying, “Women are good, and I'm a woman,” which I think are two different propositions. But it’s definitely true that... I think that growing up in a society that had a female prime minister was a huge deal. America still hasn’t had a female president. It’s just not... If you're a girl growing up there, it’s just... That’s something that you’ve never seen.

And the other half of it is, I think it was incredibly powerful to see Denis Thatcher. The true feminist hero that is Denis Thatcher. But genuinely, that's somebody who was older than her, who was willing to take a back seat. And he found a role for men that was not being the alpha. It was kind of the, “I don't have anything left to prove. And I like playing golf. Haven't I got a great life while the little woman runs around with her red boxes. All a bit much.” I think that was almost a more radical thing for people to see.

And it’s interesting to me that he was somebody who had fought in the Second World War because I think the ’70s and the feminist revolution, I think in some ways depends on there being a generation of men who didn’t have anything to prove, in terms of masculinity. And it’s really interesting to me that... So Barbara Castle’s husband Ted was also, I think, a little bit older than her. But he was also very much in that Denis Thatcher mould of, “Woman! Right, you're exhausting.” And Maureen Colquhoun, who I also write about in the book, her husband Keith was, by all accounts, a very decent guy who was totally accepting of her ambitions. And then he conducted himself with incredible dignity after she left him for a woman. And I think that’s a story that I’m interested in hearing a bit more about, is of the men who weren’t threatened. So I do think that's a big challenge that the Thatchers did present to orthodox values. But let’s not underplay them as conservatives.

Henry: Oh no, hugely conservative.

Helen Lewis: And also the fact that, to some extent, Margaret Thatcher was reacting to an economic tide that was very useful to her. More women in the workforce meant more productivity, meant higher GDP. And I think it was at that point a train that was just not... Why would you throw yourself in front of it to try and reverse it and get women back into the home?

Henry: Her advisors wanted a tax break for marriage.

Helen Lewis: Oh, that’s a classic Conservative policy.

Henry: Because they said, “We're in office, and this is what we're here for.” And she said, “I can't do it to the mill girls in Bolton. I can't give a tax break to wives in Surrey playing bridge.” And in a way, I think she was very quietly, and as you say for political reasons not entirely openly, quite on the side of the working woman for moral reasons that we would usually call feminist. But which because it’s her and because of everything else she believes, it doesn’t really make sense to call them feminist, but it’s difficult to think of another Prime Minister who has had so much rhetoric saying “Yes, women should go to work, that's a good thing. Don't yell at them about it.” And who has implemented economic policies that's giving them tax breaks and trying to level the playing field a bit. So it’s a sort of conundrum for me that she didn't want to be called a feminist, but she did a lot of things that quotes, if you were that sort of person would say “undermined” the traditional family or whatever.

Helen Lewis: Yeah. And she found a way to be a powerful woman and an archetype of what that was, which I think again, is based enormously on Barbara Castle, I think Barbara Castle is the template for her.

Henry: Oh yeah. Down to the hair. Yeah.

Helen Lewis: With the big hair and the fluttering the eyelashes, and that kind of, what I think of as kind of “Iron Fem” right? Which is where you're very, very feminine, but it's in a steely ball-crushing kind of way. Although interestingly, Barbara Castle cried a lot. She would have frequently burst into tears about stuff, which again was, I think kept the men around her slightly off balance, they didn't know how to... Which I think any good politician uses what they’ve got. But the thing that struck me when I read more about Thatcher last year, was about the fact that if she hadn't been the first female Prime Minister, I think we would write a lot more about her lower-middle middle class background and what a challenge that was. And the fact that that really, in some ways, I think the Tory Party really loved having a female leader once they got over the initial shock because it was kind of like, “Well, aren't we modern. And now Labor can’t have a go at us about all this kind of stuff, 'cause look at our woman leader.” What I think was more of a profound challenge for a long time, was the kind of arriviste sort of idea that she was, as you say, a representative of working people, upwardly mobile, or from right to buy being an example of one of these policies. I think that was a big challenge to the kind of men in smoky rooms.

Henry: I don't think they ever got over it. Carrington called her “a fucking stupid petit-bourgeois woman.”

Helen Lewis: Petit-bourgeois is exactly the right, I think the right term of abuse. And there was a... And I think that’s why... I mean, I think it came out as misogyny but actually it was also driven by class as well, the fact that she was no better than she ought to be, right?

But that’s about... I think that’s how you see, and honestly I think Ted Heath experiences as a great... Leading to the incredible sulk, one of my favorite phrases, [chuckle] that he just never kind of got over that he had been beaten by a woman. I think that was an extra kind of poisoned pill for him, of the ingratitude of the party, that they would replace him with a woman.

Henry: And a woman of his own class.

Helen Lewis: Right. And exactly, it’s not like she... So she wasn’t sort of Lady Aster wafting in a cloud of diamonds and violet scent. It was, “Hang on a minute, you're saying this person is better than me.”

Henry: Now, before Margaret Thatcher became leader of the Tory Party, almost nobody thought that she was going anywhere, right up to say a week before the leadership election. People would have meetings about who the candidates were and they wouldn't even discuss her. Who are the people in politics today that no one’s really sort of gathered actually have got this big potential?

Helen Lewis: Yeah, I think that’s really interesting isn't it, that essentially she goes into that leadership context and they sort of think, “Well, someone's gonna shake it up a bit, someone’s gonna represent the right to the party.” And then they go round... And it was Airey Neave who was running her campaign, going around sort of saying, “Well, you know, vote for her, it’ll give Ted a shock.” And then the first ballot result comes in and they go, “Oh God, it’s given us a shock as well.” And then I think at that point, Willy Whitelaw piles in, doesn’t he? But it’s too late and the train’s already moving. And the other one who's... It's Hugh Fraser is the other... And he runs very much from the sort patrician candidate background. I love that, that leadership election, it symbolizes what I like about politics, which is just that sometimes there is a moment, that is a hinge when a force that’s been bubbling away suddenly pops up. And not to get too much into the great man or in this case, a great woman theory history, but someone makes a big decision that is either going to be the right call or the wrong call.

And for Margaret Thatcher is almost insanely ambitious, and she could have ended up looking incredibly stupid, and because the life didn’t take that fork in the road, we’ll never look back on that. But there are many people who have made that gamble, and again, go back to failures point, have crashed. You have to have that kind of instinct in politics.

Who’s good now? I was just thinking this morning that Bridget Phillipson of Labor, who is now currently shadow education, I think has been underrated for a long time. Finally less so, given that she’s made it to the Shadow Cabinet, who knows if she can make an impression there, but she is smart. So I’ll give you an example, she was asked the inevitable question that all labor politicians are now asked, like, “What is a woman?” And she said, “The correct... “ This is Richard Madeley asked her this. She said, “What to my mind is the correct legal ounce that would also makes sense to normal human beings who don't follow politics all the time, which is, ‘It’s an adult human female or anybody with a gender recognition certificate. And there are difficulties in how you might sometimes put that into practice, but those are the two categories of people.’”

And it was like this moment, I was like, Why? Why has it taken you so long to work out an answer to this question that is both correct and explicable. And I think that is an underrated gift in politicians, is actually deciding what issues you’re going to fudge around and which issues you actually have to come out and say what you think even if people disagree with it. It was one of Thatcher’s great strengths, was that she made decisions and she stuck to them. I mean, obviously then you get to the poll tax and it becomes a problem. But I think there’s... One of the problems I felt with the Ed Miliband era of Labor was that he didn't want to annoy anybody and ended up annoying everybody.

Wes Streeting, I think is also... No, I won't say underrated, I will say he's now rated and clearly has got his eye on the leadership next.

Bridget Phillipson has a much more marginal seat than you'd like to see from somebody who’s going to be a leader. Wes is an interesting character. Grew up on free school meals, has been through cancer in the last couple of years, is gay, has a genuinely kind of... But is also on scene as being on the right to the party. So he’s got lots of different identity factors and political factors that will make people very hard to know where to put him, I think, or how to brand him, I guess. But those are two of the ones who you make me think that there's some interesting stuff happening.

On the Tory side, there are some people who are quietly competent. So Michael Gove, I think, whatever you think about his persona or anything like that, is the person they put in when they want stuff actually to happen. I think Nadhim Zahawi did very well as Vaccines Minister without anyone really noticing, which is probably not what you want when you’re a minister, but it’s probably what you want from the public.

Henry: Why are so many women late bloomers? Well, obviously, the constraints of having a family or whatever.

Helen Lewis: I think the answer is children, I think is the answer to that one.

Henry: But there must be other reasons.

Helen Lewis: I think... I mean, who knows? I may be straying into territory which is pseudo-science here, but I do also think that menopause is quite important. When you lose all your caring for others, nicely, softly, softly hormones and your hormone profile becomes much more male, I think that makes it easier to not care what people think about you, to some extent. As does the fact that you can no longer be beautiful and play that card. And I don’t know, I think also... Again, this is... I don't know if this is supported by the evidence, I think there's more of... I think more of the men fall away. I don't know, I think if you're a guy who’s found it very hard to form personal relationships, then maybe your 50s and 60s can be quite lonely, whereas I think that’s often the time in which women kind of find a sort of a second wind. Does that make sense? This is all... I mean, none of this is... There's no evidential basis for this, this is just based on my sort of anecdotal reading of people that I’m thinking of.

Henry: Camille Paglia once wrote, she put it in very strict terms, she said something like, when the menopause happens, the wife becomes this sort of tyrant and starts flourishing.

Helen Lewis: Yeah. No, I’m very much looking forward to that, yeah. Oh yeah.

Henry: And the husband becomes this kind of wet rag and his testosterone level drops and the whole power balance just flips. And you're sort of, you’re saying that, but not in quite that... Not as quite an aggressive way as she’s phrased it.

Helen Lewis: Yeah, and it’s not a universal truth.

Henry: No, no, not at all.

Helen Lewis: I just think for the people for whom that happens, that is quite an arresting thing that often gives them the liberation. I also do think there’s a kind of mindset change. I don’t have kids, but I know from women that I know whose kids have gone off to university, that if you have been the primary caregiver, there is suddenly a great, big hole in your life, and what do you fill it with? And actually, do you have to find a new focus and direction and purpose, because you don’t want to be sort of turning up at their halls of residence going, “Hello, just thought I check in, see if you’re alright.” And whereas for men, who’ve maintained a sort of career focus throughout, whilst also adding on a family, that’s not such a kind of big realignment of their day and their life and what they feel the focus of their life is.

Henry: I spoke to Tyler Cowen about this and he wondered if there’s something about women become more acceptable in their looks. So you think about Angela Merkel and Margaret Thatcher as... I think you were sort of implying this, when a woman reaches middle age, the public or the people around them are less likely to judge them on whether they’re good-looking, and so some of that sexism slightly falls away, because when you are a woman in your 20s or 30s, you’re very susceptible to being looked at or rated or whatever, whereas Margaret Thatcher had a sort of, I don’t know, a motherly quality that no one would... There was a kind of cult of finding her attractive and Alan Clark said disgusting things about her.

Helen Lewis: Yeah, and also we've had a queen for 70 years, right? So we do have that sort of idea of what female power looks like, which is icy and so it's non-emotional, but yeah.

Henry: But I've seen that in the office, that women in their 20s have a difficult time if they’re good looking because there are a certain type of men...

Helen Lewis: Well, people assume you’re stupid as well.

Henry: Well, and also it’s just what men go to. They talk about you being that, whereas once a woman gets slightly past that, men don’t automatically sort of go, “Oh, how would you rate her out of 10” or whatever? And that creates a space to see them as the person.

Helen Lewis: And see them as actual human. I think that's a really interesting thesis. I also think that there’s a... I think being a young woman is a particular kind of problem. So I think there’s definitely a form of ageism against women, where it’s silly old bat, right? Which I do think you get silly old duffer as well, but there is some extra level as well about women, it’s like, “Why are you still talking? No one wants to hear from you? Your... “ This is a phrase they use in the internet now, “You're dusty, you and your dusty opinions.” But I think you get the contrary version of that as a young woman, whereas I think we find... The phrase Young Turk implies man, doesn't it?

It’s like, thrusting young guy, on his way up, super ambitious, he’s the new generation, whereas I don’t think you necessarily have that whole sort of coalition of positive stereotypes about young women. It’s untested, learner, still needs to learn the ropes, that kind of...

I’m eternally grateful to my boss in my 20s, Jason Cowley of the New Statesman, for making me deputy editor of the Statesman when I was 28, which I think was a pretty radical thing to do. When I don’t think it would have necessarily felt so radical to make a 28-year-old guy.

Although I say that, but then Ian Hislop became editor of Private Eye when he was 26, and there was like a revolution among the old guard. And he had to metaphorically execute a few of them outside the woodshed. So I do think that... I also think people begin to... There’s... Now, this is really straying to some dangerous, choppy feminist waters. Competition between women can be very fierce, obviously. I write about this in the book in the terms of Smurfette Syndrome. The idea that there's only one place for a woman, and by God, I’ve got to have it. But I do think that there can be some jealousy that maybe recedes. And I think it’s probably true for men and women. As you get older, people don't see you as a threat because they think, “Well, by the time I’m 40, maybe I'll have all the stuff you have.” But if you’ve got that stuff at 28, I think there’s a real feeling from other people in the generation that those, the stars are peeling away, and there’s a real resentment of them. So one of the things I do is I provide kind of counselling services to young journalists who’ve just suddenly had like a really big promotion or career lift or whatever it is. And I feel indebted to go and say to them, “By the way, this is amazing, but people will hate you because of it.”

Henry: It’s very striking to me that we’ve had a period of very young politicians being leaders, but they’re men. And the women who’ve either competed with them or become leaders afterwards are in their 50s. And I do think there’s something about what’s an acceptable public woman.

Helen Lewis: And the idea of authority, I think that’s the thing. I think as you get older as a woman, it’s easier to seem authoritative.

Henry: Someone like Stella Creasy, I think, has had a much more difficult time just because she happens to be under a certain age.

Helen Lewis: Yeah, I think that’s interesting. And I think the fact that she's now got very young children at a relatively older age. I know that’s... Sorry. Apologies to Stella, if you're listening. But it is comparatively old to have children after 40, still. That that will be interesting of how that complicates her next decade in politics.

And I do think those super top jobs… There was a really brilliant piece of research which I put in the book about the sort of so-called demanding jobs, the kind of lawyers, the top lawyers, and I think journalists and politicians. Greedy jobs, they're called. And the fact is that they have become more demanding in terms of hours as women have entered the workforce. And now the thing has become fetishized as can you do the 14-hour days? And it becomes a soft way of excluding women with young kids.

The problem, I think, will come with all of this when both men and women end up needing to look after elderly parents, as we’re having more and more of that extension, those decades at the end of life when you’re alive but maybe you’re not as mobile as you were. Maybe you need more help from your family. And I think there is a lot of anger among certain types of women that they just feel like they’re finally free from their caring responsibilities, and then they get landed with another one. But I know, I’ve been to some feminist conferences recently where... There’s a famous saying which women are the only minority that get more radical with age, which I think is probably true. You can meet some groups of 50-something women, and they are fuming, really fuming. And they’ve now got the time and the sort of social capital with which to exercise that fuming-dom, as it were.

Henry: Is Roy Jenkins overrated?

Helen Lewis: [laughter] That’s the most random question. He’s not my favourite politician, mainly because I'm Team Castle for life, right? And I think she was treated very badly by the men in that Wilson cabinet, the first, the ’66 to ’70 one, of whom he was one, right? I think that, yeah. I think... Do you know what? I haven't got very strong opinions on him compared with my strong opinions on James Callaghan, who I am anti. And I know there are some Callaghan-stans out there. But I think the utterly cynical way in which he sucked up to the unions in order to get the leadership at the cost, ultimately, of then Margaret Thatcher in ’79, out-strikes me as one of the most sort of cynical pieces of politicking.

Henry: You are sailing very close to being a Thatcherite.

Helen Lewis: I'm not a Thatcherite. I'm not.

Henry: No, I know.

Helen Lewis: But I can see... I think you... And I think Rachel Reeves has basically written about this, who's now Labour’s Shadow Chancellor, that if Barbara Castle had succeeded with In Place of Strife on what were, now, to us, very mild measures, right? A conciliation pause where you have negotiations, strike ballots, no wildcat strikes. If she’d managed to push through some of those, then some of the excesses of the ’70s would not have happened. Or at least, Labour would have been able to show that it had a grip of them. But you have a situation where the teachers were asking for something like 25% pay rise in the run up to the ’79 election. And the Labour government just looked completely out of control. And so yeah, that’s my Callaghan beef. What's your Roy Jenkins beef, then?

Henry: I don’t have beef. I can’t remember why I wrote that question. I read about him in your book. I suppose I think that he did implement some good progressive measures, but that he was essentially a sort of patrician wannabe. And that his whole career in politics is much more middling and establishment, and his radicalism was... I don't know. Perhaps overrated, when we look back.

Helen Lewis: Well, I will go away and read some more. I read quite a lot of the... The mad thing about the cabinet, particularly in that Wilson government, is that they were all obviously sitting there writing copious amounts of... To the extent that Barbara Castle would actually write literal notes in cabinet, save it for diary later on. But Tony Benn was writing notes. Crossman was writing notes. Jenkins essentially wrote lots of... A very full memoir. Harold Wilson wrote one of the most boring memoirs that the world has ever seen. The trade union leaders wrote memoirs. Jack Jones wrote a memoir. It was an astonishingly literate and writerly sort of set of people. And yet the cabinet was, in some respects, kind of utterly dysfunctional, but with Wilson still running a sort of... You know, sort of like who was kind of currently had been nice to me. And he went... And of course in his second term, he became incredibly paranoid.

It was not a model of good government really. And again, Callaghan is one of the greatest political resurrections ever, right, when he completely screws up the Treasury and then uses Northern Ireland's Home Secretary in order to kind of make himself back into a respectful mainstream figure. But before we go and fight Roy Jenkins-stans, we should both go and find out what our beef is with him.

Henry: I'm gonna say her name, well, Colquhoun?

Helen Lewis: Colquhoun.

Henry: Colquhoun. She said, “Labor would rather fight Powell than solve poverty.” Is that still true?

Helen Lewis: What read it out there is a phrase that I think Maureen Colquhoun said after not “the rivers of blood” speech, but another Enoch Powell speech in the ’70s, which got her in enormous trouble. Would you like to endorse this sentiment that got her called a racist? And it was used as a pretext for drumming her out of the Labor party. So what happened to Maureen after that is that she... Her local party tried to de-select her, it then went to an appeal at the NEC. She eventually ended up holding on to her candidacy and then she lost in ’79 to a guy called Tony Marlow, who’s one of the most... Talk about Thatcher, I mean... He was bristly, to the extent that his nickname was Tony von Marlow. But yeah, he has some terrible quote about Harriet Harman as well, which is something like, “These bra burners have got a chip on their shoulder,” or something. It was something terrible mixed metaphor involving how you couldn’t wear a bra if you also had a chip on your shoulder. Anyway, I digress.

Henry: I’m not trying to endorse her quote, but if you replace Powell with Boris.

Helen Lewis: I think it’s a really interesting quote about... It comes back to purity leftism, what we were talking about before, is actually, “Do you want the win or do you want the fight?” And there is, I think, more of a tendency on the left than the right, to want to be on the right side of history, to want to be pure, to want to be fighting, and that sort of sense that... The perpetual struggle is the bit that you want to be in, that's the bit that’s exciting, rather than the win.

I think one of the really interesting sounds to me is gay marriage. I was just reading this Jonathan Rauch piece this morning about the fact that... His argument being, that there was a coalition of kind of right-wingers and centrists and liberals in America who fought with the radical left, who wanted gay rights to be predicated on the idea of sort of smashing the nuclear family and everything like that, to say, “Let’s make gay rights really boring, and let's talk a lot about how much we want to get married. And maybe we wanna adopt. Let’s recruit all the people who happen to have been born gay, but are also Tories or Republicans.”

And I think a similar thing happened to him here, where you have David Cameron saying, “I support gay marriage not in spite of being a conservative, but because I’m conservative.” And you frame it as essentially a very norm-y, boring thing. And I think that has been really interesting to watch in the sense of... I think that's why gender is now come much more to the fore because it's a sense that, “Well, if even Tories are okay with people being gay, it’s not... Like what's left? How is that interesting anymore?” And so, I think the criticism that she was trying to make there is very true in the sense that sometimes Labor wants to look right more than it wants to win a halfway victory.

Henry: What are some of the best or most underrated biographies of women?

Helen Lewis: That’s a really interesting question. I read a lot of royal biographies, so I very much like Leonie Frieda’s biography of Catherine de' Medici, for example. There is also... You’re gonna think this is terrible, Princess Michael of Kent wrote a joint biography of Catherine de Medici and Diane de Poitiers, the mistress of Henry II, which is called The Serpent and the Moon, which is a really... I think it's... Actually, it’s not a bad biography, but I think it’s quite interesting to write a biography of the wife and the mistress together.

Henry: Yeah, I think that’s a great idea.

Helen Lewis: Because the story of them is obviously so intertwined and their power relationship obviously changes, right? Because Catherine is the dowdy wife who bears the 10 children, Diane is the kind of unbelievably gorgeous, older woman. But then of course, the king dies and it’s like, “Oh, nice chateau you've got there. Shame, one of us is the dowager queen and one of us is now just some woman,” and makes her hand back her Chenonceau to her. So I enjoyed that very much. I’m trying to think what the best political women biographies are. Do you have a favourite Elizabeth I biography? I think there must be a really great one out there but I can’t... I don't know which one actually is best.

Henry: Well, I like the one by Elizabeth Jenkins, but it’s now quite out of date and I don’t know how true it is anymore. But it’s, just as a piece of writing and a piece of advocacy for Elizabeth, it’s an excellent book. And it sold, it was sort of a big best seller in 1956, which I find a very compelling argument for reading a book, but I appreciate that a lot of other people might not.

Helen Lewis: No, that's not to everyone’s taste. That’s interesting. I like Antonia Fraser as a biographer. I don't know if you'‘e got a strong feelings, pro or anti. Her Mary Queen of Scots book is very good. Her Mari Antoinette book is very good. And I actually, I interviewed her once about how she felt about the Sofia Coppola film, which is basically like a two-and a half hour music video. She was totally relaxed, she was like, “It's a film, I wrote a book.”

She didn't say it like that, she didn't go, “Film innit,” sucking on a roll-up, she said it in a very lofty, Antonia Fraser kind of way. But I think that’s a good thing if you’re an author, to kind of go, “What works in a biography is not what works in a film,” so...

But yeah, I grew up reading those Jean Plaidy historical novels, so I guess I read a lot of biographies of Queens. I’m trying to think whether or not I read any biographies of modern women. I haven’t read... I have on my shelf the, Red Comet, the Sylvia Plath biography. And I also, which is on my to-read pile, as is the biography of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas by Janet Malcom, which I one day, will treat myself to.

Henry: What are the best or most underrated biographies by women?

Helen Lewis: By women? Well, again, then we go back to...

Henry: I mean, you’ve named some of them, maybe.

Helen Lewis: The interesting thing is, I remember when I did Great Lives, they said... The Radio 4 program about history. That they said, the one thing that they have tried to encourage more of, is men nominating women. Because they found there was no problem with getting women to nominate men and men to nominate men, but they found there weren't that many men who picked women, which I think is interesting. I really wanted, when Difficult Women came out, I wanted a man to review it.

Henry: Did that not happen?

Helen Lewis: No, it didn’t happen. And I think everybody would’ve... I think, from the point of view of your male reviewers, why would you review a book on feminism when you're gonna get loads of people going, “Ew, what are you doing?mansplaining feminism?” But it’s an intellectual project, right? It’s not a... It should be open to criticism by absolutely anyone, not on... You don't have to pass an identity test. It’s an ideology and a school of history. And so I would... What's the best biography of woman written by a man, is kind of a question I'm interested in.

Henry: Yes. That’s very difficult to think of.

Helen Lewis: And how many of them are there? Because it just strikes me that when I'm naming all my women, biographies of women, that they’re all by women.

Henry: Yes. It’s difficult to think... It'‘ easy to think of biographies of men written by women.

Helen Lewis: Right. Hermoine Lee's out there repping for Tom Stoppard biography recently. But yeah, people can send in answers on a postcard for that one.

Henry: Should there be less credentialism in journalism?

Helen Lewis: Yes. I started as a sub-editor on the Daily Mail. And I worked alongside lots of older guys who had come up through local papers at the time when the trade unions were so strong that you had to do two years on local paper before you got to Fleet Street. And therefore, I worked with quite a lot of people who had left school at either 16 or 18 and were better at subbing than people who’d... than recent university graduates. And so, the way that journalism has become first of all, a graduate profession and now a postgraduate profession, I don’t think it’s got any real relationship to the quality of journalism. There are a sort of set of skills that you need to learn, but a lot of them are more about things like critical thinking than they are about literature, if you see what I mean?

That’s the thing. That is what I find very interesting about journalism, is the interesting marriage of... You have to have the personal relationships, you have to be able to find people and make them want to be interviewed by you and get the best out of them. Then you have to be able to write it up in prose that other humans can understand. But then there is also a level of rigour underneath it that you have to have, in terms of your note-keeping and record-keeping and knowledge of the law and all that kind of stuff. But none of that maps onto any kind of degree course that you might be able to take. And so, I think that’s... And the other huge problem, I think in journalism is that, everyone in the world wants to do it, or at least that’s how it seems when you’re advertising for an entry level position in journalism.

When I was at the New Statesman, we used to recruit for editorial assistants and I once had 250 applications for a single post, which was paid a fine amount, you could live on it just about in London, but was not... It was a plum job in intellectual terms, but not in economic terms. And I think that’s a real problem because I could have filled every position that we had, with only people who’d got Firsts from Oxford or whatever it might be. But it wouldn't have been the best selection of journalists.

Henry: No. Quite the opposite.


Helen Lewis: Yes. I enjoy your anti-Oxford prejudice. [chuckle] But you know what I mean is that I... But the fact that you had to have at least a degree to even get through the door, is sort of wrong in some profound way. And actually, some of the places have been... I think Sky did a non-graduate traineeship for people who were school leavers. And I think that there are profound problems in lots of those creative arts, publishing is the same, academia is the same, where you could fill every job which is low paid, and in London, with middle-class people whose parents are willing to fund them through. And the credentialism just is a further problem in that it just knocks out bright people from perfectly normal economic backgrounds.

Henry: Do you think as well, that in a way, the main criteria for a good journalist, whether they're a sub-editor, or writing leaders or whatever, is common sense? And that a good English degree is really no guarantee that you have common sense.


Helen Lewis: Yeah. I couldn’t put my hand in my heart and say that everybody I know with an English degree demonstrates common sense. I think that is actually not a bad... The famous thing is about you need a rat-like cunning, don’t you? Which I think is also pretty true. But yeah, you do need to come back to that kind of idea about heresy and you do need to have a sort of sniffometer, not to be... I think you need to be fundamentally cynical, but not to a point where it poisons you.

The right amount of cynicism is probably the thing you need in journalism. Because my husband's a journalist and quite often, there'll be a story where we just go, “I don't believe that. I just don't believe that.”

And it really troubles me that that’s become harder and harder to say. So I wrote a piece a while ago, about TikTok and people who claim to have Tourette’s on there and actually quite a lot of them might have something else, might have functional neurological disorder. But there are whole genres of that all across journalism, where people will talk very personally and very painfully about their personal experiences. And the other half of that is that, we are not... It’s mean, to question that. But they’re often making political claims on the basis of those experiences. And you therefore can’t put them in a realm beyond scrutiny. And so it’s interesting to me, having been a teenager in the ’90s when journalism was incredibly cruel. I’m talking about the height of bad tabloid, going through people’s bins, hate campaigns against people. And a lot of this “be kind” rhetoric is a response to that and a necessary correction, but I do think there are now, lots of situations in which journalists need to be a bit less kind. That's a terrible quote. [laughter] But do you know what I mean?

Henry: I do know exactly what you mean.

Helen Lewis: When you have to say, “I know you think you've got this illness, but you haven't.” That's tough.

Henry: People need to be more difficult.

Helen Lewis: That's always my marketing strategy, yes.

Henry: I want to ask if you think that you are yourself a late bloomer? In the tone of voice that you write in, you very often... You write like an Atlantic journalist and there are these moments, I think, of real wit. I don't mean jokey. I mean, clever. And so, a line like, “Your vagina is not a democracy,” is very funny but it's also very...

Helen Lewis: It’s true.

Henry: Sort of Alexander Pope-ish.


Helen Lewis: That’s the best possible reference. Yes, I hope to write very mean epigrams about people, one day.

Henry: Please do. But you can also be very jokey like when you said, I think in a footnote, that you don't watch porn because the sofas are so bad.

Helen Lewis: True.

Henry: Now, there is something in those moments of wit that I think suggest that you could, if you wanted to, go and do something other than what you’ve already done. Maybe like Charles Moore, you’d become a biographer, or maybe you'd become a novelist, or maybe you’ll run a think tank, or maybe you’ll set up a newspaper and only employ 16-year-old school leavers, or... I don’t know. Is that how you think about yourself or am I...

Helen Lewis: You are trying to tell me I need to just grow up.


Henry: Not at all.

Helen Lewis: Stop clowning around like a sea lion for applause after throwing fish.

Henry: My theory on Helen Lewis is, you’ve got all the accolades that someone could want from a journalistic career.

Helen Lewis: Not true. I’ve only ever won one award for journalism and you’ll love this, it was Mainstream Video Games Writer of the Year.

Henry: Oh my god.

Helen Lewis: That’s it. From the Games Awards in 2013, which I only remember this because every so often my publisher will put award-winning journalist as a merit that I have. Not really gov, not if I'm honest.

You're right though. I have one of the plum jobs in journalism which is I work three days a week at the Atlantic, and then I make radio documentaries on the side and write books, and that is a position which is enormously enviable. But I have also... So I’ve moved away from column writing, in the last couple of years — I used to write a regular op-ed column — because I found it a deeply unsatisfying form. And I think, when you do jokes, you begin to realize that you can actually just say stupid, easy clap lines and with sufficient confidence, and people will respond to them, and after a while, you begin to hate yourself for doing that.


Well, that's one of the reasons I again... Like getting off Twitter. You know what I mean? You see some of those accounts that just exists to do lazy little dunks about the people that are appointed, that are sort of designated hate subjects. So if someone gets designated as a hate subject, then you can say nasty things about them and then everybody will applaud you. And I fundamentally revolt from that and I don't like it.

I think that as a journalist, you should always try and be at right angles to whatever the prevailing opinion is. And actually as I've got older, I value the sort of... The people I think of as contrarians who I think really believe it rather than the people who are doing it for effect. Someone like a Peter Hitchens. He’s got a whole ideology that’s very much not mine and a set of interesting opinions and he believes them, and he truly argues them, and although they... Whether or not they’re popular or unpopular is of no interest to him, that’s what he believes. And I distinguish that from other people I think are opportunists who end up tacking where they see that... And a lot of the anti-woke people end up in that space where they just... That’s the little niche where you can get kind of clapter. And so I really do think that’s the point of journalism, but... Yeah, I take your point. I think I feel I’ve exhausted having glib opinions at short notice. And that’s not something that I'm interested in.

Henry: So there might be a second act where we see a whole new Helen Lewis?

Helen Lewis: Well as I say, I wrote a screen play last year and I’m now having meetings with TV companies. And I certainly at the Atlantic, have moved to writing much less than I used to and then much weirder stuff and much more in-depth. So I’ve got a piece that's coming out in the magazine this month which is about Europe’s ex-Royals and what they do. What do you do when you should be Emperor of the Austro-Hungarian Empire but there’s no Austro-Hungarian Empire, right? Or you should be king of Albania but Albania doesn't have a king anymore. And I thought this is really weird. I get to interview a Habsburg, which is basically the pinnacle of my life.


It’s all I've ever wanted from journalism. But to do that kind of stuff is interesting.

But you’re writing a book so you are just about to embark on the fact that writing a book is the worst possible thing that you can do to yourself. Because it’s like torture, probably to no end, that you've chosen freely. So you literally got no-one to complain to. When... On the day when you’re like, you just cannot focus on writing your book, no one wants to hear it. My granddad went down a mine. That’s a job you can complain about. I have to sit in the library and try and think how these two ideas connect in my mind. No-one cares. The tiniest violin is even then too big for that complaint. But I like the idea of being a late bloomer. What I like more, I guess, and bloomer makes you imply that you're somehow bigger. I think it's more about being different.

And my best friend, Laura’s had the most amazing career. So she did PPE at University and then she went to work for KPMG and then she went to work... To Teach First, then she became a teacher and she taught at schools in East London for a while. Then she took... Started working a PhD about Charter schools, then she took Michael Gove to court. Then she founded a newspaper about education, now she’s founded an app that surveys teachers. And it all has a coherence to it, right? It’s all in the same genre, she's obviously interested in education. But at no point has she ever thought, “Right, that's it, that's me. Done. I'll see you at 65 when we... For some golf and gardening.” It's always been about, “How can I keep moving?” She’s the shark of education. And I think that's true, and if you don't have kids, she doesn’t and I don't, you have the luxury to be able to do that, and therefore you should keep moving on and... But I do think it’s... Don’t you think that people want to be able to categorize you?

Henry: Yes, it can be very career-limiting to do different things. Depending on what sort of career you want. Whether you care about what other people think is the critical effect.

Helen Lewis: Yeah. I think if I wanted to win lots of awards and or have a nice well paid life, I would just keep writing the same book about feminism 90 times, and then people will be like, “Oh that's... We need to get the feminist speaker in. Who’s the feminist speaker? It's Helen.” So I think you have a more interesting career. But it’s interesting, which writers... Penelope Fitzgerald, who I know you love too...

Henry: Yes.

Helen Lewis: She writes a different book every time.

Henry: Yes, although there’s a sort of continuity in the type of characters and the weirdness of her settings, even though the actual places are very different. So she’s not quite one of those novelists who really does move from one thing into another and you can't...

Helen Lewis: Yes, some sort of baroque revenge drama to then suddenly writing a kind of realist detective fiction and you go, “What?”

Henry: But that definitely meant that reviewers and sort of all the highbrows who were enjoying Martin Amis at that time, it gave them another reason to say, “Who is this old woman and what are her books? I don't understand.”

Helen Lewis: Why is this one on a boat? Obviously, yeah.

Henry: “Why is she not Salman Rushdie?” That made it very easy for them to do that to her.

Helen Lewis: Yeah. And I think that’s probably what happens in journalism too. Columnists tend to last for an incredibly long time because people just sort of have a familiarity to them. And I used to think that was kind of... I would read the Richard Littlejohn column and be like, “He’s written this column again?” But then I realized that people quite like the... They want to know what a Richard Littlejohn column is and what all of his opinions are going to be.

Henry: Might it be different now, because you've got people who read your newsletter who are more interested in you than in, “Oh, I want another Helen Lewis column.” And if you did turn around...

Helen Lewis: No one has ever said, but go on.

Henry: Well, no. I think there'‘s a certain truth to... You have more control over your audience then just it being the people who read the Atlantic because they get what they get. If you did turn around and say, “I’m going to write a history of Sardinia,” or whatever. Something totally sort of, “I'm going to write a history of defunct royals or I'm going to be a playwright.” They might go, “Great. I'm in it for what Helen Lewis is doing,” and I don't know, it might be easier to have that sort of career now.

Helen Lewis: I think that’s interesting. I think maybe is true as well, because I think writers now do become brands and there's a version in economics, this idea of superstar theory, where it’s become very hard to be like a mid-level musician.

But if you’re Taylor Swift and Beyonce, you're making better money than anyone ever made. And I think a similar thing has happened with journalism. If you look at Substack, if you’re Bari Weiss or Andrew Sullivan or one of the top, Matt Yglesias, one of the top people, you’re earning millions. Far more than you would have got from a staff job at a paper and you are the brand. But at the same time, it’s actually... I would say, the wages have stagnated enormously for a kind of sub-editor on a paper. It just hasn’t gone up at all, and inflation is just eating it away. And so, I think there is a big reason to be a brand, much though the word makes me want to cry.

Henry: And in a way, what that argues for is to say, “Well, if I'm not going to be Matt Yglesias and make x millions, I should do lots of different things, because otherwise I'll get caught in being the same. In 10 years, I'll turn around and say, “God, I'm still doing this and I'm not a millionaire.””

Helen Lewis: But that’s it, but I don't know why you want to write, but the reason I want to write is that I’m incredibly nosy and I love finding stuff out. Nothing makes me happier than the idea of finding stuff out, and even more so if I can then find people who will listen to me, telling them the thing that I just found out. And why would you want to not... Being curious and having licensed curiosity, I like nothing more than getting off a plane somewhere new and weird and being like, “Well, this is all different. The cups are different, and I'm going...”


Whatever it might be, that you're just going to immerse yourself, and I feel like that about reading history as well. When you just suddenly find out about what it was like to... Tudor toilets were like. It's sort of mind-blowing that you go, Why, even the toilets were different, which of course they were, but that’s to me, the point of writing. There are any number of things that are easier, better paid, have better hours, whatever it might be, than writing. But the thing you get with writing is that, you get to keep moving and keep digging new soil.

Henry: That's why I'm wondering if you might turn around and become a historical novelist or a biographer of a defunct Habsburgs. Royal biography sells very well.

Helen Lewis: It’s true.

Henry: Especially in America.

Helen Lewis: But I don’t... I speak a bit of German and I speak slightly better French, so Royal biographer is tough. I feel like all the British royals have really been kicked to death, at this point. Mary II, that’s an underrated...

Henry: Very underrated.

Helen Lewis: Royal biography. Perhaps I can write that. But I have been enjoying trying to write screenplays. It’s a very different discipline because you have to... But it’s all about hard decisions. You have to make the hard decisions, and you have to put your characters in places where they make hard decisions, and each time, you’re like a tiny... Like a judge banging a tiny gavel about [laughter] deciding what an incident means or who was in the wrong or who was in the right. So it does force you to take positions, I think, which is not something that... Something I feel like I’ve cleaved away from. There’s someone that did a thing about why young people write... It was maybe even you. Did you mention this? That young people write better rock songs?

Because they're very certain about what's wrong and what's right and they're very angry and they're angry and the same thing that the guy behind Slate Star Codex has written about one of the things that happens with bipolar people is, you tend to get less. I think it's about, is it bipolar or is it borderline personality? Maybe it’s borderline, where people tend to... One of the things that ameliorates it is age, because we generally will become more stable and grounded and boring. And at 50, you’re not seeing some guy on the bus and immediately falling in love and writing poetry about him. And I think the same thing has happened to me in terms of my career. I feel a lot less certain about stuff and I’m not as interested in putting forward my incredibly strong opinions on stuff. And I wonder if that’s a reaction to social media or I wonder if that’s just, “I'm going old. I'm now in my nuance era.” [laughter] I’ve entered my nuance years. And have you entered your nuance years or were you always in them?

Henry: I think I’ve been here for a long time, I’m afraid. I’ve been told that I’ve been old for a long time.

Helen Lewis: I was an angry young woman, I guess, and I just maybe I have mellowed.

Henry: Helen Lewis, thank you very much.

Helen Lewis: Thank you very much for having me.

The Common Reader
The Common Reader
Literary discussion
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Henry Oliver