I accost Stella Duffy just as she steps off a flight from New Zealand. When I tell her what she's missed, she agrees with Miranda, "Mantel wasn't being mean, but she is a very bright woman. She must have known what she was doing.
Stella finds the 'b' word edgy. Even if a friend used it to refer to her, "I'd be hurt, wondering what I'd done to be addressed so astringently. It's like cunt. It has a certain sharpness that isn't applied to men, whereas a word like dick or asshole can be used comedically." Then she tells me how she "reclaimed cunt." Really? "As a word it sexually sums up women's genitalia really well. I made a choice to use it as a sexual word in my crime fiction; some people loved it." But then she intimates how hearing aggressive men brandish the term can make her think twice about the reclamation. Then she voices another concern, "If we start saying you can't ever say this or that we're screwed. We have to be able to use terms freely, but be prepared to apologise if we cause offence."
I'm being spoilt with all this intelligent comment, but something is missing. What Paul shared about his mum's horror- at the title of a 1979 film adaptation of a Jackie Collins novel- gives me an idea. Ask a bonkbuster novelist what she thinks? So I abruptly barge into Rebecca Chance's Monday afternoon writing session and am promptly instructed to call back at 1730hrs the next day. Yes Ma'am! When I return she's fully poised, "If Martin Amis had said the same about Channing Tatum he'd have been called a bitch too!"
She's been monitoring Mantelpiece and insists a host of straight men leapt to the author's defence, largely because "They're not allowed to say anything anymore, so they defend anybody's right to say something mean." Gosh. I wasn't expecting this. So you think Mantel was being bitchy then? "She was slagging off somebody who's prettier than her. There is nothing about William's looks in the article. Why not? Why would she deliberately critique a beautiful young woman?" She continues, "It was extremely bitchy and it made the girl sound like she didn't have a brain in her head; she went to St Andrews and had a perfectly good education. Mantel knew there would be an almighty shit storm. These weren't off the cuff remarks." And then a frightening thought, "She went after a woman who had no right of reply. Katie Price would have savaged her." What a terrifying idea - Mantel V Price. When I tell her about my run-in with the Parisienne, the Bonkbustress snorts, "Oh please. The minute anybody uses the word heteronormative seriously in a sentence it's a lost cause."
Rebecca's sentiments are echoed when I check in with Charlotte, a friend in Mantel's line of work, an art historian and Oxbridge alumnus. Charlotte is fabulous: when she debates art history over cappuccino she slams the table and emphasizes her point with expletives, "I mean what do you think the Greeks were fucking doing darling?" Apparently her lecturers gave up on asking her not to swear. She agrees with Rebecca, Mantel was being, "Fabulously bitchy. She should be praised for her sleight of hand. It will never be forgotten."
She's cautionary on the Parisienne matter "In France the word 'biche' is a far more serious affair than it is here." But then she hits Mantel - and the royals - with both barrels, "What planet is she living on? Surely she knows that her remarks would have caused a rumpus. All I can say darling is she must be riding pretty high on the self-affirmation stakes at the moment." I ask how. "Well, she's feeling sufficiently positioned to comment, and exercising her bitchery in the worst possible way- passive-aggressive darling, which is a pretty dubious place from which to pass judgment." Her cappuccino kicks in, "She's flexing her academic muscles and reminding us of who she is, but really it's a lot of academic hot air about what?" Go Charlotte, "She's saying the girl is a cardboard cutout, but what do we fucking expect? The queen is a common little Hanoverian, but she's exactly what the country requires. If Eleanor of Aquitaine or Richard the Lionheart were around now we'd have no use for them and they'd quickly degenerate into drug addiction."
After Rebecca and Charlotte I realise a definitive view of Mantel-Gate or the 'b' word is unlikely, but I finally realize what's been missing- the straight bloke view. I send Simon Price a message to verify if he identifies as straight; he does, but adds that he is "culturally queer." That'll do. He says I'm "wide of the mark" to call Mantel's remarks bitchy. Why? "Because it demeans the valid points she made and implies that her remarks were made with personal malice, when her beef wasn't personal."
He thinks the 'b' word "Is best avoided." So you don't say it then? "I'm only human, but even when used as a verb it has an undertow of dismissiveness, of trivial in-fighting between women, somehow rooted in jealousy." I think I'm being told off. "You hear people in football parlance saying any skirmish on the football pitch is 'handbags,' a girly slap fight. It reveals a homophobic agenda. Comparing a woman to a female dog is not a progressive position." I mention El Boyfo's Thatcher comment and he laughs, "Yes, everybody knows that there is a difference between a twat and a cunt!" When I mention Miranda's Julie Burchill remark he says, "People like Julie can be very entertaining if you're watching from the sidelines and not in the line of fire."
Simon's clarity is astounding, his position quite inarguable. I admire his circumspection. However you unpack it, the 'b' word is the name for a female dog (or otter) and if you call a woman a dog...
I won't be repeating 'bitchery' as an accolade anytime soon.