Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Penny Red in pantomime

The blog row of the day has been the one between Guido Fawkes and the ubiquitous Laurie Penny. Guido has discovered Penny, who writes the Penny Red blog, advertising for an intern and offering less than the national minimum wage.

There is a big problem over the rise of the intern, because offering these unpaid posts tends to restrict entry to attractive professions to young people from wealthy families. I am less concerned about a short-term, personal assistant post like the one Penny is offering, though how she squares the set up with her very public radical conscience would be interesting to know.

What struck me more was Guido's description of her as a "privately educated revolutionary who learnt about the hard knocks of life at Wadham College, Oxford".

So just another rich kid pretending to be one of the workers, then. I should not be surprised at this by now, but you would have to study Penny's writings very hard to find any hint of this background.

The impression that Penny is merely playing at being a revolutionary is strengthened by a little gentle googling. For she turns out to have been a stalwart of the Oxford Light Entertainment Society. Her triumphs included Jack (in "Jack and the Beanstalk"), Ogdred (in "Cinderella") and Tommy the Cat (in "Dick Whittington"). Such amusing young people!

So is Laurie Penny a serious left-wing figure?

Oh no she isn't!


MatGB said...

"you would have to study Penny's writings very hard to find any hint of this background."

You would? Oh, OK. Having been reading her blog for several years now, I thought it was common knowledge. She's written about her background, her privilege, her health problems, her complete financial collapse and a variety of other subjects in a fairly open and honest way.

Is suspect her current paying employers want her to actually write about what they're paying her to write about, not just apologise for her background constantly.

"is Laurie Penny a serious left-wing figure?"

Honestly Jonathan? I thought better of you than this. Clegg's posh, so's Huhne, do we, as liberals, care?

Yes, yes she is. A little misguided, hopelessly idealistic and very very committed to her beliefs.

You don't work for Red Pepper unless you actually believe it, right?

Jennie Rigg said...

What Mat said.

Laurie is good person, I consider her a friend, and she deserves better than this flippant treatment.

Andrew Hickey said...

I was going to say pretty much what Mat said. I don't often agree with Laurie, but she's a fundamentally decent person and has never hidden her background at all - if anything I've found that she rather overemphasises her own privilege.

Foregone Conclusion said...

Going to Oxford doesn't make you a huge spoilt posho anyway you know. One of the few times I've heard her on the radio was when she was talking about her times in her (I think) student house when she lived, to all accounts and purposes, in complete squalour (hearing her cheerfully describe her vermin problems at five in the morning, including the rat that died noisily in the wall cavity over a period of days, was a rather bad start to a by-election day), and she described her other problems with simply 'getting by' (journalism for most is a very risky and not very lucrative career, after all).

Jonathan Calder said...

"I want to live like common people"

Alix said...

Depends what he's read, Mat. In terms of Laurie's formally published output, I think it's a bit of a fair cop, to be honest - and I'm not sure she'd disagree either. Her blog remains a hell of a lot more complex, honest and interesting than her published stuff (true of all of us). It *is* possible to resist the narrative the media wants you to fit - and the one they want Laurie to fit is chaotic, scuzzy, poverty-stricken, "hopelessly idealistic" radical from t'wrong side of tracks. Indulging them in allowing such an image to be created is a whole lot different to simply not apologising for your background.

Though when I say "resist" I really mean "not write for", which I suppose is the crux of the problem.

Anonymous said...

It says nothing on Laurie's original post about "less than minimum wage"; don't know where Paul Staines or Harry Cole or whoever was writing "Guido" on the day plucked that from. As for her background and her time at Wadham, she's never made any bones about it.

While I find plenty to disagree with in Laurie's blog, there's much that I admire too; in particular, her coverage of the student protests has been honest and passionate. The "Guido" blog, on the other hand, seems to become more sneering and reactionary by the day, rather like a Quentin Letts column with more swearing. Wonder what percentage of it is "fiction"?

Foregone Conclusion said...

P.S. Oxford Light Entertainment Society is rather good (damn, I appear to have outed myself as a faux leftie toff).

Foregone Conclusion said...

And if the whole 'common people' thing is aimed rather mockingly at my description of Miss Penny's shitty student house, perhaps you'd like to talk to Oxford Liberal Democrats, who have been fighting tirelessly for years to get rogue landlords out of the market and force some sort of minimum standards on them. It's not all gorgeous quadrangles and formal dinners you know.

RichardG said...


She would pay 500 quid for 85 hours of work = comes to about 5.88 pounds an hour. Below the minimum wage. She also specifies preference for a female to do the job, in contravention of equality laws.

The issue here is that Laurie has no real "poor person" credibility. She was born into privilege and exercised that privilege. She even admits to always being able to ask Daddy for a handout if things got really tough. She is choosing to slum it, even when she doesn't have to, so why should she profit from that faux credibility?

The poor do not need middle class socialist twerps speaking up for them. Let them speak for themselves: give them that dignity, at the very least. Neither do they need their lifestyles caricatured and fetishised by rich girls like Laurie: she chooses to live like that, they do not. Nothing heroic about that.

She is like all (cheap) champagne socialists. Jonathan is right to point out her hypocrisy. She could ask her father to help pay her intern at least more than minimum wage, if not the "living" wage she champions. One rule for her, one rule for everyone else. It is thus as it ever was, in socialism.

RichardG said...

"It's not all gorgeous quadrangles and formal dinners you know."

Oh come off it: you're trying to argue that Oxbridge students, particularly privately educated ones, aren't the most privileged in the UK, nay, in Europe?

She chooses to live like a tramp. It's just a shame she writes like one too.

Anonymous said...

I only heard of Laurie Penny relatively recently and know nothing more of her than what I read on her posts: I was certainly well aware of her background. She's referred to it on more than one occasion.
I fundamentally disagree with her on a wide variety of things that matter, and I tend to vote for the same party as Guido. But I certainly think she's a voice well worth paying attention to, while he's quite the other thing.
As for pantos &c, that makes me rather warm to her. I'm rather surprised to see you take such a puritan view.

Foregone Conclusion said...


I would be the first to say that students at Oxford and Cambridge are disproportionately wealthy. On the other hand, if you aren't, the financial pressures are very similar to those at other institutions - indeed, since Oxford is an expensive town (or so it seems to a Northerner), perhaps more so. Housing is a particular problem in the City, both for students and locals. Again, I would recommend that you talk to Oxford Liberal Democrats, or even Labour, about that.

And I completely reject the idea that if you are somebody from a wealthy background who deliberately choses to shun this, you are a somehow 'condescending' and marked with some sort of Mark of Cain - no matter how long you live a normal life, your upbringing makes you a champagne socialist even if you can't afford the champagne. And the existence of somebody who deliberately rejects wealth is, from a Christian point of view, somewhat reassuring.

Tristan said...

This is possibly the worst post I've read here Jonathan.

Speaking for myself, I'm privately educated and went to Cambridge. I'm even fairly well off.
Yet I work for a living, I am at the beck and call of my boss. I am frankly just another cog in the machine. I am working class.

Admittedly my parents were never wealthy, they just had wanted the best for their children (and as teachers saw the state sector couldn't supply it), but it is perfectly possible to be a worker and be from a well off background.

Class is not simply about wealth, its about power.

As for Guido, he/they are increasingly shrill conservatives mimicking a few liberal and libertarian views where it suits them. The most vulgar of vulgar-libertarians.

Jonathan Calder said...

A fascinating thread.

I first came across the Penny Red blog when I used to host the Britblog Roundup – posts from it were frequently nominated. I regarded it as a perfectly valid left-wing blog but not particularly to my taste.

But in the last few months Laurie Penny has been everywhere and has been sold as the voice of the anti-cuts protest. I find her articles overwritten and verging on self-parody. She almost seems to be playing a part rather than being herself – selling herself, or being sold, as something she is not.

Hence my amusement upon discovering that her affluent background and enthusiasm for amateur dramatics.

To mention that one person was privately educated is not to attack all people who were privately educated. We live in a society which is increasingly being dominated by those who werer not educated in the state sector. It should be possible to mention this without being accused of holding a personal grudge.

Some commenters are obviously thin-skinned about their education. Note their use of words like “posh” and “toff, which appear nowhere in my original post.

People used to be proud to have gone to a good school. Get over it guys.

dreamingspire said...

Oh! Wadham! A college so poorly constructed that in the cold winter of 62/63 the water pipes under the quad froze and they had to send students home. Yet Roy Jenkins headquartered there during his election for Chancellor of the University.

Lara Buckerton said...

Using people's backgrounds to attack their politics is *usually* just cheating.

PS: Of course anyone seeking public office deserves that kind scrutiny to work out whether they're likely to have hidden agendas, interests or perspectives, & to force them to make the appropriate statements to which they can be held accountable, blah blah blah. But Penny Red? She's annoying, but fight fair.

PPS: Many conservative trolls who take a pop at leftist (or even vaguely liberal) figures with privileged backgrounds tolerate or defend the really vicious expressions and exercises of wealth and privilege in government and business. That's real hypocrisy. I'm not having a go! XXX

Jonathan Calder said...

Lara: I think it is fair to differentiate between Penny Red, a blogger like the rest of us, and Laurie Penny, the ubiquitous journalist.

And I am not using her background to attack her so much as using it to explain the impression I was increasingly forming of her already.

dreamingspire said...

Wadham seems to have an inferiority complex.