Jenny Diski · Among the Suits
Travel writers have been in high demand this week, and being one, apparently, I was summoned from Cambridge to appear at the back end of Newsnight to discuss the implications for travel of the volcanic ash episode, along with Alain de Botton. I got there an hour early and was shown into a very small, windowless green-room where all but one space on the two sofas was taken up by three large men in suits. Another man sat on an upright chair. Businessmen and politicians are called 'suits', I now see, because that is what is presented to the world. The suit makes the man work. The head emerges and talks as if programmed by the suit-maker. The suit armours their confidence and ownership of reality. Stiffly tailored, uniform, held together with a tie, a substantial watch and an ever-active mobile phone.
Three of the men were former party strategists come to talk around a table with an equally suited Jeremy Paxman about how the election was going. The other man was from Monarch airlines doing a segment on his own about the repercussions on the air industry of the volcanic cloud. The three men half-stood, bellowed their names and shook my hand when I came in, and then continued to talk among themselves, not addressing a word to me, except to ask me to be quiet when news of election doings came on the monitor. They were not quiet when Paxman was talking to the Monarch man about the volcano. The Monarch man, waiting to go on, discovered I was there to talk (at the soft end, where the writers go) about the possibility of less flying in the world. 'Flat earther, are you?' he said. He didn't wait for my reply, but started to explain to one of the other men that the real problem he had was with logistics.
When Alain de Botton arrived he was greeted by one of the suits with: 'I had lunch with your father.' Then, after a slight pause in case there should be a misunderstanding: 'Before he died.' As de Botton wasn't wearing a tie or a strictly tailored suit, and as he was a writer and at the fluffy end of the programme, no one much spoke to him either except to tell him and me to be quiet when we were talking to each other about our segment. I think, being a writer, he was counted a bit of a girl, too. And, being therefore not of the real world, we were not asked to talk in the serious interview with the man from Monarch.
I've led a sheltered life, I admit, since I started teaching and then writing: largely away from the practitioners of politics and commerce. I was not the only woman there. Although I was the only woman on the entire programme that night, there were two others in the green-room. One was the woman who gave out tea or coffee and then stood by the wall waiting for further requests, and there was the woman in the adjoining make-up room, who warned that if I didn't allow her to put lipstick on me, which I don't use, 'it wouldn't flatter me on screen.' Although the men sat at her vanity unit for a dust of powder, I don't believe any of them had lipstick applied to flatter them.
I suppose if I'd been a younger woman or more power-dressed there would have been a sexual frisson, which would have changed the atmosphere of the green-room if not the air of contempt. Not having a suit of my own, I lost the will to live, or at any rate to participate, long before de Botton and I got into the studio (entirely operated by men), to sit, not at the table (as the grown-ups had), but on a sofa, for the weary concluding pointless bit before the end.
There was another woman – one of the producers, who had phoned me to ask me to come on the programme. She wasn't around, because she was busy editing something for the following day. I emailed her to say that no fee had been mentioned. No, she replied, we don't pay, because Newsnight is considered a news programme, but if I found it unacceptable, I should get back to her and apply for a 'disturbance fee' which she would try and get through the system. No question that I have been disturbed, but perhaps for this lesson in reality I should pay them.