News Brendan O’Connor

Friday 29 August 2014

Triumph and tragedy of a goddess

With that image of a liberal, bohemian and gregarious woman, Nigella won the day, says Brendan O'Connor

Published 08/12/2013 | 02:30

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Nigella Lawson arrives at Isleworth Crown Court in west London last week
Nigella Lawson arrives at Isleworth Crown Court in west London last week

ACCORDING to his ex-wife, Charles Saatchi regards litigation as a form of conversation. And the old advertising man knows precisely who that conversation is with. Nigella feigned a belief that Saatchi was talking to her in the Grillo court case, their "last connection" as she called it. But wily old Saatchi knew that the conversation was with the public. And understandably, this old advertising man thought he knew how to talk to the public better than she did.

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An ad guy like Saatchi knows that these public conversations do not leave a lot of time for debate or to explain the nitty gritty. You have an instant to drive home your message, and it is done in images. Like Don Draper, with his Freudian meditations on our deepest desires, Saatchi knew that a public court case is not about detail, it's about conveying one archetype that goes beyond people's conscious minds and lodges in the powerful ancient part of the brain, the animal subconscious. Saatchi knew that he needed to summon a particular archetype, wrap it around himself, and that people would then write the story for themselves.

Anyone who has been through a libel trial will tell you that the first thing you need to know is that it is theatre. Even for the jury, barristers deal with detail yes, but mainly they look for the big moment, the stunt that packs emotional punch, that goes straight to people's gut and decides things for them.

So, arriving in court for his input into the Grillo trial, Saatchi presented as a sad, broken-hearted, old man of Mesopotamia. The eyes were almost rheumy. Here he was, like an innocent old rug seller from Baghdad, an old fool, made a fool of by a racy young beauty. What did this old Arab know of the modern world and these things they called drugs? And here he was, broken, foolish, sad-eyed and bewildered, suddenly looking every inch of his 70 years.

But Saatchi was up against a woman with an equally good grasp of what pushes buttons, and an equally good appreciation of how simple archetypes tell more than thousands of words of testimony. Nigella knows her career owes more to a few simple images of her licking a spoon than it does to the details of her recipes.

This is a woman who knows more than anyone the power of the easily digestible image. After all, this is a woman who invented a whole new modern archetype, the Domestic Goddess. Her 10-second stroll into the courtroom on her first day of evidence certainly spoke volumes. The long black coat with the puritanical white collar was the first stroke of genius. Suddenly, without us realising it, this became The Crucible and Goody Lawson was being tried as a witch for the simple crime of being a strong woman, a woman who didn't bend.

She also looked beautiful that first day. It would take the slightly different light of the Thursday to make her look like someone who was just about beautiful now but was at that tipping point where facial work starts to have diminishing returns. But the first impression was what counted. And on Wednesday, while her eyes were sad, her gait was dignified and there was a slight hint of disdain for the photographers, the emissaries of the media, the symbols of the intrusion into the private life that Nigella says she has always tried to keep private.

Her testimony spoke volumes, too, and was littered with almost Shakespearean asides and turns of phrase that would cut far deeper than the mere words used. The classic, of course, was "intimate terrorism". Again, without us consciously realising it, Nigella was reminding us that this harmless old Mesopotamian was not just a man from the cradle of civilisation; he was, in modern parlance, an Iraqi. Terrorism is a powerful word to use here, a powerful image to evoke about anyone of Middle Eastern extract. But she got away with it, by putting the word intimate in front of it and hinting, surely, that there were things she was too dignified to tell us about Saatchi, things she could tell us if she needed to, but to spare him and herself and her children, and indeed us, she would leave it at that.

Nigella wove her own true life fairytale, again a tale of powerful archetypes, of the beautiful young woman held prisoner by the dark, swarthy, jealous old man. It is a story we've all known in one form or another since we were children, and we know very clearly who the good guys and bad guys are. Here was this beautiful young woman (even at 52, Nigella passed herself as the ingenue here, and she qualifies, due to her looks and his age) who longed to throw open her house and hold dinner parties, but the jealous old man wouldn't have it. Here was the bountiful mother figure who longed for grandchildren, who wanted a bigger brood of extended family to nurture, and the jealous old Arab spits back that only he must give her any pleasure.

Even when she took drugs, on those few occasions she did, it was when her true love, a man more her own age, was dying, and she did it for him, to perhaps create, and hold on to, some moments. The only other time she did it was as an act of counter-terrorism. And that mention of John Diamond conjured up another image, that of a woman who had known young love, who then became a young vulnerable widow, and who was then married off (by herself admittedly) to this old man. It was beautifully crafted stuff.

Even the lawyers seemed to indulge Nigella and perform this dance with her. When Mr Metzer, Elizabeth Grillo's barrister, asked Nigella if her lifestyle might have clashed with Saatchi's, you can almost hear him spit out the words he used to describe her: "liberal, bohemian and gregarious". And suddenly, with those words was conjured up the Redlands trial in 1967 that saw two Rolling Stones get prison sentences for drug possession at the height of the band's powers.

And with that image of liberal, bohemian and gregarious, Nigella won the day. As much as bohemians and liberals can be unreliable and annoying in practice, we are all for them in theory. And here was Nigella – free spirited, full of life. With Saatchi the cruel, jealous lover who needed to destroy that beauty because he couldn't keep it for himself. Saatchi might know the power of advertising and the power of one timeless image to create an immortal piece of art. But, in the end, a goddess turned out to understand mythology better. Team cupcake wins the day.

Sunday Independent

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