by Mark Brown)
Serious political debate and activism seem to have been replaced by nasty abuse and bullying, the writer Hilary Mantel said as she revealed the hate campaign she endured after a public lecture she gave last year.
Mantel's Royal Bodies lecture for the London Review of Books explored the commodification of royalty across centuries.
But the Daily Mail seized on passages in which Mantel talked about the Duchess of Cambridge. With the headline "A Plastic Princess Designed to Breed", the writer was accused of launching "an astonishing and venomous attack" on the duchess. It was no such thing but Mantel, in an interview with this week's New Statesman, said the episode had opened her eyes.
"I do think the level of public debate is debased. To know how far it is debased – well, you have to be on the receiving end of a hate campaign like that to know how bad it is."
She said the insults had been personal and unpleasant. "Mary Beard has pointed out that if you are a woman who ventures an opinion in public, 'you are fat and ugly' is thought to be an adequate response. This is what I got all the time after the Kate business."
Mantel continues: "What appals me is that people mistake this constant storm of trivial abuse for some kind of freedom … It's not. It's actually a huge distraction of the bread and circuses variety. To a large extent proper civic engagement, community engagement, proper political debate and activism has been replaced by this. By illogic. By platitudes. And actually a lot of it is just abuse and bullying.
"There's a nasty, narrow little conformism. And people are afraid, quite understandably, to differ from the norm. I think it's a very sad state of affairs."
There was at least an entertaining side to the media storm which followed the Daily Mail story. "It was very funny to have press camped out across the road in our quiet seaside town and if the pressmen saw any fat woman of a certain age walking along the street, they ran after her shouting, 'Are you Hilary?'"
Mantel was speaking before the West End transfer of the Royal Shakespeare Company's productions of her two Man Booker prize-winning Thomas Cromwell novels, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. After sold-out performances in Stratford the plays will open at the Aldwych theatre in May.
She also hinted that her bruising experience last year is not likely to prevent her having more to say about the present day – in the autumn there will be a book of contemporary short stories published with the provocative title The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher.