People who understand power and who see themselves as powerful always know exactly what they want. They remain focussed on target until they get it, or they die trying. Conversely, weaker people, or those who perceive themselves as being in a weaker position, can easily be diverted.

That pretty much sums up, for me, why almost 230 years after Mary Wollstonecraft went into battle, publishing A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, the sex she championed is still haring after goals that have nothing to do with achieving her aims for women “to unfold their faculties”. Worse, all too often the goals selected by women recently are own-goals.

Does anyone seriously think that the #MeToo movement has helped women land jobs at the top in the long run? Salary parity? The right, in a business meeting or political conference, to be listened to with as much care and seriousness as men naturally expect?

Red herring number one

Right now Australian women are being asked to throw their weight behind two initiatives that seem to me to be perfect for not just shooting ourselves in the foot but blasting the entire appendage into cartoon smithereens.

The first is about how we decide what sex people are.

The Daniel Andrews government in Victoria looks set to pass legislation which will allow men to decide they are women and, from then on, behave like women with access to all areas and activities where women are allowed, even women-only, safe places. The men will not have had gender-reassignment surgery nor will they necessarily be having medical treatment via hormones. They will simply have decided to declare that they now identify as females. This would be as per the transgender Canadian who, famously, was insisting that female waxing professionals should wax his penis. Because he says he’s actually a female because he identifies as one.

In spite of that much publicised case, and its unfairnesses – some of the women had to close their businesses because they couldn’t afford to fight their case in court – more than a thousand women in Australia have signed an open letter supporting the Victorian legislation which is likely to be passed by that state’s Upper House by the end of this month.

I can’t tell you the disloyal thoughts I had about my own sex when I read about that letter in The Australian last week. What were they thinking?

Is this sporting behaviour?

Cricketing Australia has already – and preposterously – announced its “elite cricket policy … for the inclusion of transgender and gender-diverse people…” As CA’s chief executive, Kevin Roberts, wrote in The Weekend Australian, “I’m pleased to say that transgender and gender-diverse players will be supported to participate in accordance with their gender identity.”

A male friend asked me after that story broke, one of several recently: “What’s the matter with women? Why aren’t they out there objecting? Just as women’s sport gets off the ground, this happens and they do nothing?”

In fact, some women are complaining but not getting far, especially as my friend is right: there’s not enough clamour from mainstream women, just the sportswomen, and their advocates, who are up against the direct ramifications. The website Fair Play for Women lists a few. (Transgender athlete Hannah Mouncey is photographed above playing football.) More disloyal thoughts to my sex ramped up in my mind.

Red herring number two

The second initiative is the demand for “menstrual leave” as a workplace right.

When I was 19, I learned I’d snared a precious three month holiday posting to the local afternoon newspaper as a university student cadet, with the possible option of then working one day a week on the newspaper during term – being paid at full journo rates – if things went well. What an opportunity!

I’m trying to imagine the expression on my much younger self’s face if, at that stage, a militant feminist arm of the journalists’ union had written to me explaining that menstrual leave would also be my right.

Actually, I can’t imagine it. The 70s were about women happily striding into all sorts of jobs and opportunities, determined to prove we could do the job as well as any man. And we did. Supported very often by our fathers, our brothers, boyfriends and yes, our male bosses. It was a fantastic time. Everyone was ready for change. And I experienced nil harassment, nil lack of respect.

Of course I know that was not the experience of every woman at that time and I also know journalism was clearly one of the trades/professions that was an outlier and so I was privileged. But still. (It’s always interesting telling gobsmacked and indoctrinated young women how shocked I was to be on the receiving end of so much more sexism in the later part of my career than in the earlier part. “You should have been there in the 70s, 80s and up to the mid-90s,” I say.)

Younger women seem keen

So it seems incomprehensible to me now that women would be even thinking about something as polarising as menstrual leave. What, so we can be caricatured yet again as delicate, unpredictable, irrational beings as comedian Tina Fey captures in this sketch?

Worryingly, it seems to be, according to one researcher quoted in The Sun-Herald, Dr Elizabeth Hill, younger women behind the push. “… anecdotally, a lot of the younger women are like, ‘yeah, that’s a great idea’.”

Even Paula Kragten, the founder of Period!, a lively Dutch-based website devoted to demystifying menstruation, puberty and menopause, is dubious. In an article for Period!, she is quoted as saying: “…if you can’t do your job because you’re feeling unwell, you’re ill. And if you’re ill, you should be taking sick leave, it’s as simple as that. By calling it menstrual leave, you’re basically wrapping it up in a big red ribbon … you’re just creating a nice red coloured glass ceiling.”

Kragten bravely goes on to confess that she would think twice “if I had to choose between employing someone who menstruates – and is entitled to both pregnancy leave and menstrual leave – and someone who doesn’t.”

Has to be a man’s idea

In the same article, British journalist and editor Catherine Ostler comments of menstrual leave: “An idea so damaging to women, only a man could have dreamt it up.”

And indeed, the person responsible for introducing the idea of such leave in Europe in 2014 was a male professor of obstetrics and gynaecology, Gedis Grudzinskas. And it’s important to note that menstrual leave, while adopted by a very few western companies   like the American Nike, the community interest firm British Coexist, and the Victorian Women’s Trust here, is mostly already accepted in strongly patriarchal societies like Japan, Indonesia, South Korea, Zambia, Thailand and Cambodia.

That should tell us something right away.

Menstrual leave is just another diversion from the main game. It works in the same way a cat or dog can be diverted if you chuck a toy for them to chase.

Women need to tell themselves they’re powerful, not weak, and if they don’t feel powerful, then they need to fake it until they do. Channel every powerful person around.

And then stay focussed.

Non-red herring questions

What do we want: menstrual leave or equal pay for equal work, and equality of opportunity and respect? A no-brainer.

And do sportswomen really want to have to compete against someone who has all the advantages of the male body and endrocrine system while protesting they identify as female? Another no-brainer.

The last no-brainer: do we really want to be stripping down in the showers at the pool with no legal right to complain over who is allowed to share the changing rooms and our nakedness with us?


It’s worth pointing out that the organisation behind the 1000-strong open letter in support of legislation allowing people to change the gender on their birth certificate is Equality Australia.

It’s a bland enough name but, in fact, it actually morphed from The Equality Campaign – which was the most fierce and determined campaigning organisation in the successful fight for same sex marriage and in winning the 2017 plebiscite. The Equality Campaign, which enlisted over 15,000 volunteers and engaged with Australians of all kinds, was, according to its website, a joint initiative of Australian Marriage Equality (founded 2004) and Australians for Equality (founded 2016).

When The Equality Campaign became Equality Australia, the Sydney Morning Herald reported, according to the Star Observer, that the new organisation was able to draw on half a million dollars of funds left over from the marriage equality campaign.

Hmmmm. Did the original donors know when they donated that that’s what might happen to their money? If they were officially notified later, that the money would go towards more such campaigns as same sex marriage, did they realise that one of the campaigns would be to give people the right to change the sex on their birth certificate?

Strategic moves

I believe many, many Australians, and quiet ones too, voted in favour of same sex marriage and were, and are, very happy with the result they achieved. But how many of those same supporters and donors would be as rabidly in favour of the Victorian legislation and other such initiatives as EA now is?

What is happening here is a sophisticated propaganda campaign which has capitalised on winning people’s sympathies for one popular cause, and then has gradually moved on to causes that are less popular, more radical, while doing its best to keep the same public on board.

EA’s website is colourful, restful on the eye and with lots of heart-warming pictures of happy, smiling, non-threatening people. There is a moving and very effective video in which transgender people explain how shaming it is to have to explain to employers the consequences of now being a different sex to their ID.

Terrible. I mean it. I thought the video was very persuasive.

Except I can’t remember ever having to produce a birth certificate for any employer I’ve ever had going back to my first job when I was 16. Can you remember ever being asked for yours?

Fairness versus fact

Equality Australia says it wants fairness: “ensuring all LBGTIQ+ people are free to participate in all aspects of society”. This is ever so slightly different from its other stated aim of “preventing harm to LGBTIQ+ people by tackling discrimination”. I have no problem supporting the latter. With the former, I’d like to inspect the fine print and make sure this is still about fairness to all (including female beauticians who don’t want to wax testicles).

Back to birth certificates and their importance as statements of fact.

Brendan O’Neill nailed it in The Weekend Australian when he explained that this legislation would enable to people to “literally involve rewriting the past”.  He writes, “An officially ­recorded fact — that a boy or a girl was born on a certain date — could be scrubbed from the public record and replaced by what is, to all intents and purposes, a lie… The birth certificate is the measure of ­society itself: it tells us who was born, when and where they born, and who their parents were. To alter such documents — to falsify them — is to interfere with the history and knowledge of society itself.”

Oh, and why are we going to all these lengths?

Given the upheavals now being caused by the demands of the transgender lobbyists, why aren’t more people, especially politicians who should know these things, regularly pointing out that, at most, transgender people make up less than one per cent of the population as I wrote, after extensive digging around, in October 2018. The Australian Bureau of Statistics has reported that 1260 people had identified as “diverse sex/gender identity” in the 2016 census. It noted this was not a representative count because of various limitations and some problems with instructions but “it was an important step” in collecting statistics on this group.

Over half of those – 56 per cent – who did identify to the ABS that way were aged 15 to 34 (27 per cent of the Australian population is in that same age group).

Do we really believe EA’s various campaigns are simply about protecting this tiny, tiny proportion of the population? And the ABS’s figures on the youthful age group might surely indicate other factors – fashion? the influence of recent campaigns and media? – are at work.

EA may certainly argue this is all about such protection but I still worry that something far more cataclysmic is going on and that is the undermining of the very notion that there are such beings as men and women. But such a notion is the bedrock of our society.

As with any revolution coming your way, it’s always wise to step back and ask: what next?


It’s now clear that there are concerns in some legal circles about the majority judgement of the Victorian Court of Appeal to dismiss the application of Cardinal George Pell to have his conviction on five child sex offences overturned.

I am well aware of how many shocking instances of sexual abuse there have been in this country and I sympathise totally with the victims and their families and friends for the trauma they have had to undergo. I am also outraged and disgusted by the people who permitted the abuse to go on by looking the other way or worse. (#YouToo?)

The dissenting voice

But there was always something about the particulars of this case, involving two choristers, one of whom is now deceased, that bothered me. And I now see others who reasoned like me weren’t alone given the reaction to what the one dissenting judge, Justice Mark Weinberg, had to say.

Since then, many respected writers and commentators have covered Weinberg’s opinion in great detail and, with every day, the commentary grows. The full judgement can be read here.

(The panel of the three appeal judges are above, with Justice Weinberg on the right.)

What most concerns me is the knowledge that the two judges who found that it was open to the trial jury in Pell’s case “to be satisfied beyond reasonable doubt” as to his guilt – that is, Anne Ferguson, Victoria’s Chief Justice and Justice Chris Maxwell, president of the Court of Appeal – say they did so because the witness was “compelling” and his evidence “had the ring of truth”, a phrase they use more than once.

They go into other reasons but this is their main one for their verdict on the appeal (which also meant rejecting the arguments of Justice Mark Weinberg that George Pell should be acquitted on the grounds that the jury “ought to have had a reasonable doubt”).

Weinberg’s force

That’s in spite of Weinberg’s 200+ pages of dissenting opinion in which he turns on full blast his knowledge of criminal law, including as Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions from 1988 to 1991, a position he took after he’d practised in criminal law. He then served as a Federal Court judge from 1998 to 2008 when he took up a position on the Supreme Court of Victoria. He retired in 2018 and was appointed a reserve judge in the Victorian Court of Appeal. An opinion piece in the Catholic Herald gives a good wrap-up of Weinberg’s  extensive criminal law experience.

It has been pointed out in numerous articles and news reports on the judgement that Weinberg was the only judge of the three with any substantial experience of criminal law. As The Australian Financial Review reported, Ferguson’s and Maxwell’s experience has mostly been in commercial law.

Reporter John Ferguson wrote in The Weekend Australian’s Inquirer section, quoting a senior silk making a prediction before the verdict: “’He [Weinberg] will be the key. He is the expert and you would expect the others to defer to him’.” Well, as John Ferguson writes in his next sentence, “They didn’t.”

“A witness of truth”

But back to Justices Ferguson and Maxwell and the statement , reported by The Australian and others, that “we were not prompted at any stage [my italics] to doubt the veracity of his evidence”. And, “Throughout his evidence, ‘A’ came across as someone who was telling the truth.”

They also upheld the Crown’s description of him as “a very compelling witness [who] was clearly not a liar, was not a fantasist and was a witness of truth”.

That’s in spite, as Weinberg points out, of a significant number of other reputable witnesses of good character – unchallenged by the prosecution during the trial – contradicting the prosecution’s case. “It was not suggested that any of them had lied.”

As far as demeanour goes, in an opinion piece, law professor Mirko Bagaric noted that “The empirical evidence establishes that there are no definitive tests to determine whether a person is being honest or accurate. Moreover, judges are no more accurate in their assessment of witness credibility than lay people.”

In his dissenting opinion, Justice Weinberg wrote: “The High Court has observed that it can be dangerous to place too much reliance upon the appearance of a witness rather than focussing, so far as possible, upon other, more objectively reliable matters … Empirical evidence has cast serious doubts upon the capacity of any human being to tell the truth from falsehood merely from the observations of a witness giving evidence.”

Evidence versus demeanour

He quoted Australian Law Reform Commission research to back those statements and also Lord Justice Atkin who, when a member of the English Court of Appeal, said this about “regarding demeanour as a guide to credibility: ‘an ounce of intrinsic merit or demerit in the evidence, that is to say the value of the comparison of evidence with known facts, is worth pounds of demeanour’.”

Truth-telling and psychology

In 2006, Justice Peter McClellan, who is now retired but served on the NSW Court of Appeal and who chaired the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, presented an engaging and thorough paper to a legal conference titled “Who is Telling the Truth? Psychology, common sense and the law”. He was then Chief Judge at Common Law on the NSW Supreme Court. The paper specifically looks at demeanour several times, relying on psychological evidence and questioning just how accurate an assessment of demeanour can ever be as proof of whether someone is lying or telling the truth.

There were two assumptions McClellan wrote: “The first is that a witness will exhibit tell-tale signs which will indicate whether or not they are telling the truth. The second assumption is that the trier of fact knows how to correctly interpret any signals that a witness does send.” McClellan wrote that both assumptions were questionable.

He also noted that “some judges” have thus concluded that “a witness’s demeanour should only be relied upon as a ‘as a last resort and with the utmost caution’.” He writes later in the paper, “When demeanour is used to assess credibility, it may be important to avoid blanket findings …” and concludes in the penultimate paragraph that a decision “must be made with a recognition that although ‘common sense’ is a helpful guide, commonly held perceptions may not always accord with scientific research.”

A single voice

Almost every day there are cases in the newspapers and on television and on-line news of good and intelligent people, business people often, being taken in by someone they believed or trusted. In the aftermath of the arrest of New Yorker Bernie Madoff over his Ponzi scheme, there were numerous stories – here’s one and another – examining just how come so many intelligent, smart, good people had been taken in by him. Even, apparently, Steven Spielberg and Jeffrey Katznberg, They were mortified.

Some of the most persuasive people are those who have convinced themselves they are telling the truth. That can happen for all sorts of complex and sometimes even understandable reasons.

Again, none of the above is a comment on the veracity of the complainant in this case. It’s about the essential unknowability of all of us and how that should be regarded and weighed by the courts.

In his dissenting opinion, which occupied about two-thirds of the final judgement, Weinberg wrote: “An unusual feature of this case was that it depended entirely upon the complainant being accepted, beyond reasonable doubt, as a credible and reliable witness. Yet the jury were invited to accept his evidence without there being any independent support for it.”

And also this: “From … the complainant’s evidence, it can be seen that there was ample material upon which his account could be legitimately subject to criticism. There were inconsistencies, and discrepancies, and a number of his answers simply made no sense.”

And most haunting of all from Weinberg: “I am troubled by the fact that I find myself constrained to differ from two of my colleagues whose opinions I always respect greatly. That has caused me to reflect even more carefully upon the proper outcome of this application. Having done so, however, I cannot, in good conscience, do other than to maintain my dissent.”


The best part of Emma Thompson’s latest comedy Late Night is the first half when, as television chat show host Katherine Newbury, she is playing a woman so monstrous she makes Miranda Priestly from The Devil Wore Prada look like a cream puff.

For years Newbury has never deigned to meet any of her writers. After she is forced to do so, because of declining audiences, she can’t be bothered learning their names, instead calling them One, Two, Three, Four and so on.

When one of the writers ploddingly asks for a pay-rise because, as he explains, his is a single income family and his wife has just had another baby, Newbury looks at him with disdainful astonishment, goes on a riff about men and women’s roles and then tells him it’s no concern of hers what he does outside business hours. She asks him, after all, what’s the difference between him and a drug addict who chooses to spend all his salary on drugs? Then she fires him.

Waiting for Australia

One thing she does every time is mercilessly and outrageously cut through to the chase, and I think she is now necessary at every cash register in Australia.

For heaven’s sakes, cannot anyone – and here I’m talking about both cashier and customer – perform a transaction in under five minutes now? I stand behind them wondering what are they doing! Sometimes, it looks as if both have gone into panic freeze at the enormity of what they are attempting so neither of them seems to be moving.

What’s made it so much worse is all the tapping of banking apps on phones and watches which are invariably hit and miss. Or the younger customers can’t remember what they have in their bank accounts so they have to try a few before they reach one with adequate funds. Or, having waited at the register behind other customers for long minutes gabbing to their friend, they leave it until the total is up on the register, to look for their card or money – which they then can’t find.

That last straw

Or the cashier acts as if they have only one customer and all the time in the world to go through your basket, putting items fixedly but ponderously into the register. They wait until you’ve paid to then discover they’ve overlooked one small item. (True, that happened to me twice last week.)

The ubiquitous loyalty cards, which all of us now have, don’t help and in any case, they are gradually morphing into loyalty apps which means more phone scanning and/or phone fails.

But I realised, after behaving rather badly in a sushi bar – I’d waited endlessly for a customer and cashier to do a payment, and then for that cashier and another to slowly confer over a receipt, and then for one of them to add up my dishes before looking completely bamboozled when I presented my own loyalty card, whereupon I wrenched the card out of his hand and said between gritted teeth “Can I just PAY!” – that it isn’t just the process that drives me to the wretched Katherine Newbury point.

It’s the languor with which everything is done, the slowness, the total lack of awareness of anyone else in the vicinity or that people might be getting held up. And don’t think I’m talking about quavery old people here; in comparison, they move like greased lightning.

For me, a trip to the grocer’s or supermarket or chemist or even a sushi bar for a snack is something I do because I have to, and I do it as fast as possible so I can rush back and get on with all the good things I have planned for that day. I can only think that in today’s dreary, over-processed, too-tech, unimaginative world, anyone under 35 has so little that’s truly exciting in their lives and minds that even a turn at the cash register can be stretched out to fill in grey time.

I wonder if they realise it.


British journalist Lynn Barber once opened an interview with Booker prize-winning author Hilary Mantel (Wolf Hall, Bring Up The Bodies) like this: “Hilary Mantel has the most deceptive appearance of anyone I’ve ever met. She looks rather like a gerbil, soft and plump and fluffy, but it is safer to think of her as, say, a ferret or possibly even a tiger …”

Barber ends her profile with this warning: “… don’t ever make the mistake of underestimating Hilary Mantel. This animal bites.”

Would Barber be allowed to write that today? I bet not; I can hear the outraged and the aggrieved squalling in my head already.

Another sneaky revolution

And yet the profile, which ran in Britain’s Sunday Times, is a tour de force of honesty, acute observation and intelligent understanding. It left me knowing a lot more about this clever and hardworking author, her drive, character and motivations. It was deep and enriching and, best of all, bare of any of the cloying and annoying gush that lards almost all profile-writing today.

And yet, this deeply frank piece with its now so very un-PC opening ran in May, 2012. That’s just a short seven years ago. This is the problem with revolutions that sneak up on us; things change utterly, but the changes are so incremental, we hardly notice until it’s too late.

Over the years, Barber has won numerous starry awards in Britain for her profile-writing. She is also the author of An Education, first an essay, then a book, and turned into a film with Carey Mulligan, a memoir of her teenage romance with a businessman who turned out to be a conman and married.

For a while, it made Barber the interviewee rather than the interviewer and as she had, by then, pioneered a first person approach that is forensic, compelling and intimate – which everyone then started copying, often to extreme degrees which Barber would never contemplate – it can’t have been pleasant.

When wisdom gets a use-by date

But a few years ago, she wrote another book, A Curious Career, in which she reprinted some of her favourite interviews along with all the insights she has gained over the years into this most tricky of journalism skills: to accurately and realistically portray another human-being so they are there in 3D, breathing, talking, sniffing, laughing, being charming or objectionable, on the page.

The book fell into my hand the other day as I started on yet another fruitless exercise in ordering my bookshelves. I immediately stopped tidying and began re-reading. The book, published in 2014, is funny, sharp and wise. But I also realised as I buried myself in it again, that already – five years later – her advice belongs to another era.

Its knowledge is perfect for a time when most editors as well as readers wanted truth, not gloss and fairy floss, when public relations might have been throwing their weight around but they didn’t yet dominate what journalism covers, when advertisers certainly didn’t dictate so much of everything that appears, and when you could truthfully describe a writer as looking like a gerbil (which is so spellbindingly perfect for Mantel) without being accused of being a bitch, a bully or sexist.

Barber was simply being honest about Mantel, above, and she makes sure to explain in her first paragraph that the writer was “spikily thin” in her 20s and owes her plumpness to years of medication for endometriosis.

Robert Redford and compliments

Barber’s articles, and asides, about actor Martin Clunes, Marianne Faithfull, Rafael Nadal, Christopher Hitchens and, of course, Mantel, brim with honesty which makes them all the more informative, and – in many places – funnier.

She writes of interviewing actors: “And of course it’s an article of faith that they never slag off the director, or other actors – everyone they work with is always ‘wonderful’, at least while they are plugging the film. I’ve found a fairly fruitful question is: which other actor on the film did you most admire, or most enjoy working with? Invariably, they nominate someone who had such a tiny part you never even noticed them. (Though when I interviewed Robert Redford about The Horse Whisperer, he couldn’t bring himself to praise any of his fellow actors, not even the horse.)”

She writes she loves interviewing pop stars and her 2001 piece on The Pogues’ Shane MacGowan is champion: “I was prepared for the teeth, the famous blackened stumps, but the suit is an unanticipated horror show, with its thickening patina of stains down the trousers culminating in big blobby spatters on the shoes. If he has not been sick down his trousers several dozen times, he must have a very good stylist.”

Later, after much imbibing has gone on, Barber objects to something she has read in a press release about him, “I can’t believe you were a rent boy. Who would pay to rent you?”

Syrup on the diet

By comparison, most profiles I read in Australian media these days are exercises in airbrushing and canonisation. Surely, I think to myself, not every person interviewed can be that lovely, that charming, that clever, that exceptional, with that many admiring friends ready to expound … but apparently so. The only exception is when some conservative politician or figure perceived to be on the right has been dopey or misguided enough to agree to be interviewed by Good Weekend or The Monthly.

Vanity Fair started this slide into unctuous interviewing with its formula of gritty investigations and glamorous noir-style exposes running alongside cheesy Hollywood profiles that made you wonder if you’d accidentally picked up a copy of a 1950s fan magazine. But it didn’t matter what readers thought because the approach guaranteed Vanity Fair red carpet Hollywood access – and tons of luxury advertising, often featuring the same stars.

Gradually, Barber and others like her have found themselves out of fashion. With editors, I hasten to add, not readers. In August, 2018, she was dropped by The Sunday Times magazine. In her time, she has worked for Bob Guccione at Penthouse, The Observer, The Independent on Sunday, The Telegraph, the Sunday Express and even Vanity Fair (though having paid her a fortune, they only gave her six pieces to do in two years, she writes, and there was a bit of a set-to after actor Nick Nolte didn’t like her questions and his uber-agent Pat Kingsley then told the magazine the story couldn’t go ahead; they meekly agreed even though Barber had the interview in the can so to speak).

The warrior PR

Barber saw it all coming. In 2002, she wrote a sharp and funny piece for The Observer, a precursor to A Curious Career, about interviewing the rich and famous, summing it up as, Journalists today are buyers in a sellers’ market and a market which gets tougher all the time. Back in the mists of time when I started, PRs were a pretty dozy bunch on the whole – either clapped-out old hacks who were too sozzled even for Fleet Street, or dimbo girlfriends who thought they liked meeting creative people. They were often very hazy about lead times (the gap between going to press and publication) and barely seemed to know the difference between a daily newspaper and a monthly magazine. That’s all changed. Today’s PRs are focused, professional, dedicated – frankly terrifying.”

She wryly notes of the saturation coverage these warriors can achieve when they set their mind to it: Look at [film] Pearl Harbor last year. The publicity blitz was everything the producers can have dreamed of – it was only the reviews that let them down.

“Thank God for reviews.”

Interesting point. If the devastatingly accurate profile writer is no longer wanted, can it be that reviews, in this time of tight budgets and often compliant editing, will be one of the last bastions of independent journalism? Stay tuned, and keep alert.


On a hot July night, in 1944, in France, a woman lay on a cot bathed in sweat. Her name was Marie-Madeleine Fourcade and, as historian and author Lynne Olson writes in her riveting account of Fourcade’s life as a saboteur and spy in Nazi-occupied France, she wasn’t slippery with sweat because of the heat.

It was fear.

“It was the middle of the night. The air in the barracks detention cell was hot and sultry – typical July weather for the southern French town of Aix-en-Provence. Not surprisingly, the woman lying on the cot was bathed in sweat. But the reason wasn’t just the stifling heat. It was also fear. A few hours earlier, she had been captured by the Gestapo while combing through intelligence reports from her resistance network.

“The Germans who had taken her captive knew she was an Allied spy, but they had no idea of her true identity …”

The dowdy-looking woman in captivity had altered her appearance with a dental prosthetic, hair-dye, spectacles and dowdy clothes. The tricks hid her glamour and her true identity – head of “the largest and most important Allied intelligence network in occupied France”.

Heroism for mortals

Olson’s book, Madame Fourcade’s Secret War (Scribe), is unputdownable but what I cherish about these opening sentences from its prologue is that straightaway Olson reminds us of something we all too often forget with these tales of historic heroism – her subject was human.

Fear was natural. All encompassing.

There are so many books around now about World War II and there are thousands of tales of bravery, courage, defiance against an implacable, cruel and merciless enemy. But few of them ever mention fear or its smell.

The 2008 French film, Female Agents (Les Femmes de l’ombre), is so full of fist-clenching moments as the women characters in it outwit the Germans (or don’t) that I use up at least half a day’s kilojoules every time I watch it. There is one scene that also reminds us what it took to do these missions. A Catholic agent, who has thrown away her own cyanide pill early on because to use it would conflict with her religious beliefs, is captured by the Gestapo. She is terrified, bone-shakingly and sick-makingly so, at what is surely to follow. A woman colleague facing the same torture, takes pity and donates her own single pill.

These women were frightened to their marrow. We need to be reminded repeatedly of such fear – and bravery – as we indulge our taste for such stories. Otherwise it’s all too easy to think of these people from the past as super-human, who did amazing things that, in this case, turned the tide of the war, because they were different from you and me. No, they weren’t. They were, in the main, people who started out just like us.

“Will it hurt?”

In another scene in Madame Fourcade’s Secret War, three men from the Resistance are scheduled to be executed by their German captors the next day. They have been kept in execrable conditions in a fortress north of Berlin. One of them, a young Irish agent, asks an older man, “in a quavering voice if it would hurt when the bullets struck him”. He is reassured by the other man, who through a fluke later escapes being shot himself, that it will all be over in an instant.

Unless we keep remembering this fear, this normalcy, it’s all too easy for any of us to think that because we’re human, we’d never have to put ourselves through such ordeals or face such deaths.

Let’s hope that is true – but let’s also never forget, given the current state of the world, the polarising, the injustices, the human rights abuses, the attack on liberties and freedom and sheer savagery, and the blind, self-interested tomfoolery in so many powerful quarters that means little of this ever gets stopped – that bravery is possible in all of us.


And here is a highlights clip from Female Agents. Do what you can to dig out a copy of the film and watch it. I’ve seen this movie a few times now and I still couldn’t watch even these flashes from it without digging my nails into my hands. Oh and by the way, this film – loosely based on the wartime work of special agent Lise de Baissac – is a lot more inspirational about women than most of what #MeToo has thrown up.