Today marks the kick-off of my blog tour. For the next six weeks I shall be guest posting on a whole load of fabulously bookish websites and blogs. There will be interviews, articles, question and answer sessions, excerpts, a few moment of silliness and some wonderful virtual events by magic of Skype and Facebook Chat.
Thursday 9th January… First stop, an interview with Closed The Cover in Florida.
Could there be any place more beautiful than the English countryside when the sun shines? I think it takes some beating. All those years enduring rain rain rain over the summer months, and Lo! This year, the sun came out, and stayed out, and here it is again on September 5th.
The weather man says it’s all going to change tomorrow. There’s double raindrops coming out of the cloud graphic on the BBC website. Sadness overwhelms me. Yet what’s to complain about? It’s been GORGEOUS here, and the rain is what makes us so green and beautiful.
No matter where I go, when the plane gets back into UK airspace, (normally indicated by the thick blanket of white cloud), it’s the green fields that tell me I’m home. Not big green fields, but small ones, oddly shaped, demarcated by the feudal landlords that controlled such things many hundreds of years ago. Ancient stone walls. Cotton-wool sheep. Copses and spinneys, hay bales and giant wheels of golden straw. English countryside, in all its glory.
So thanks, Sun. Excellent job. Well done. Much appreciado. And if the rain comes down tomorrow in a double-raindrop thunder graphic, then so be it. But spare a thought for those of us whose blood is mixed from warmer climes. We need the sun to warm our bones, and our ancient Anglo-Saxon neighbours quite like it too, so don’t be shy. Visit again soon.
In today’s news, Tesco has gone the same way as the Co-Op by announcing a modesty deal with “lad mags”. Covers of these magazines will now be toned down or covered with a bag. They will also be age restricted to over 18s. And it’s taken this long to reach this half-way house.
Publishers of Zoo magazine, who intend to remain on sale with less offensive covers said the magazine’s cover imagery and phrasing had been changed as a response to the “mood of the public”. There would also be “more non-girl editorial” content. Nuts magazine say they are now producing more conservative covers. Bizarre magazine has decided to stay as it is, and will be supplied pre-bagged. They say they are “preserving their brand.”
Also in today’s news is the announcement that two teenage boys, both 17, have been charged with the brutal rape of a 12 year old girl in east London.
Lads mags portray women as dehumanised sex objects, fuelling sexist behaviours and attitudes that underpin violence against women. You know what I feel like doing today? I feel like going into shops and making a huge fuss and tearing up these magazines until I get arrested. My husband is not keen and has suggested I stay home.
Feminism during the seventies, which I remember very clearly, included a great deal of well-targeted vandalism – the word SEXIST was daubed across advertising hoardings and there was plenty of protesting going on. Red paint is particularly eye-catching, and now comes in handy spray cans.
I believe there is something that we can all do if we want shot of this one aspect of everyday sexism. Every time we go into a store selling these magazines, we should tell the staff, preferably the manager, loud enough for many people to hear, that these magazines should be taken off sale. That there is no place in a grocery store or sweet shop for pornography. Speak up and make yourself heard. Other voices will join you.
Small Ones Are More Juicy
Remember that headline for Outspan oranges featuring a bra-less woman in a tight T-shirt? I used to work in advertising and spent quite a few years in some of the big London ad agencies. One of them, Intermarco Publicis I seem to recall, had a particularly awful media man with wandering hands. I had been ordered into a meeting to serve coffee. In those days, men sat at tables and were incapable of handling their own refreshments. As I poured, he patted my bottom and said to the meeting: “isn’t she lovely?”. I emptied the rest of the pot into his lap, (causing him to leap out of his chair with scalded goolies), before calmly leaving the coffee pot on the table and walking out without a word. I then went to the HR department, which in those days was still called “Personnel”, told the woman in there what I had done, and asked her to forward me my P45 and any due wages. I swear I have never seen anyone look so thrilled as her. I was about 22 at the time and quite used to the status quo that my principles would regularly cost me my job.
Fancy a stroll down memory lane? Take a look at the BBC archive on Second Wave Feminism in the 1970s. There’s a great collection of television and radio programmes remembering some of the major feminist thinkers of those years and highlighting the issues they addressed and the attitudes they contested.
There’s been a bit of brouhaha in the press today about The Co-Op issuing an ultimatum to so-called “lad’s mags” to cover up their front pages with sealed modesty bags or to be taken off sale in its 4000 stores. They have six weeks to comply.
It’s about bloody time. I remember, as a child commuting to school, being faced with what were benignly known as girlie magazines at several points in my journey. The sweetshop next to the bus stop. The news stands in the station. The petrol station forecourt I used to cut through. Then of course sitting on the train in my convent school uniform while men sat ogling page 3 of The Sun, or reading a porn mag hidden inside their newspapers. I’m serious. Nobody gave a toss about how it made women or children – particularly female children – feel, being exposed to the overt message that as a female, you were good for one thing and one thing only.
It made me feel frightened, and vulnerable, and worried about my future. It made me feel like a potential victim without knowing why. It made me look at the ground and walk past quickly when I was barely 11 years old.
I have two brothers, both older than me, who went to all-boys schools, and boasted about the availability of porn and brought it home in their sports bags regularly and sat in their bedrooms with their friends and pored over it.
All this was back in the 1970s of course, and if I found it threatening then, god only knows how girls feel about it now that it has turned into a tidal wave of truly shocking material. As a mother of daughters, both in their twenties now, I have done my level best to raise them with a strong sense of self-worth. I hope they see pornography for what it is – a cheap, instantly-available thrill for men to get off on because they lack the skills or imagination to create a fulfilling relationship.
If a person wants to enjoy porn in private then good luck to them. None of my business. None of anybody’s business I guess, provided it’s legal and nobody has been harmed in its making, which is another subject entirely. (Is there really such a thing as victimless porn? Discuss.) But I completely object to its presence in places where innocent children and people who do NOT want to be confronted by overtly sexualised images, (usually of women of course), are unable to avoid it. I don’t want children to be faced with lip-glossed models, tongues hanging out, groping their plastic breasts, while they queue up with their mothers to pay for loaf of bread and a pint of milk. I think it’s wrong.
I’ve noticed a lot of objections popping up to this news story, and to others in a similar vein. The objections are more often than not posted by men, declaring things like censorship and nanny state. I saw an absolute corker this morning that said if magazines like Loaded and Nuts have to cover up, then women should have to cover up too. In other words – if we expect a modesty sleeve on a magazine, then we should expect all women to wear burkas. And I quote: “The next logical step is that if women should be covered up in photographs, that they should be covered in real life (hard to argue with that).” Really?
The defenders of porn, and by that I mean the ones who see nothing wrong with it being displayed and sold alongside sandwiches and Coca-cola, the ones who say it’s fine for it to be piped into our homes 24 hours a day through any electronic device, the ones who claim that it is empowering for the women whose images they feature… you know what I say to those people? I say you should look at those pictures again and imagine it’s your mother, or your sister, or your daughter, or a girl who went missing, or another who is being abused right now, this very moment, by someone in a position of trust. I say you should hold those pictures up and stand on a street corner with a placard around your neck saying “Porn Is Great!” while I stand behind you with a photograph of that bastard Mark Bridger who murdered five-year-old April Jones after subjecting her to god only knows what – a sustained sexual attack – before burning her body in his own house.
You’re a consenting adult wanting to masturbate to photographs of unavailable, unattainable women? Go right ahead. But don’t go thinking that it’s all good old harmless adult fun. It’s not. You want your sons to shut themselves in their bedrooms and do the same thing while downloading mind-bendingly sick images on their phones? You want them to think that this is what sex and relationships is about? You want your daughters to think that that is how they have to behave to attract a boyfriend? That this is an essential part of their value as a human being? Porn has leaked into western everyday culture in the most damaging of ways.
Cover it up. Block it from our homes unless it has been specifically requested. See it for exactly what it is, and for those who don’t want to see it, make it a criminal offence to force it upon them.
In the few minutes since writing the above, my attention has been drawn to an article on jezebel.com, entitled“Can You Tell The Difference Between A Men’s Magazine and a Rapist?”
According to a new study, people can’t tell the difference between quotes from British “lad mags” and interviews with convicted rapists. And given the choice, men are actually more likely to agree with the rapists.
A suspicious smell has been emanating from the back of the pantry. It’s been driving me mad. I’ve been through everything on the shelves, searched the fridge, given it all a good airing, but still, there it lingered. This morning, as the unseasonably warm weather continued to soar, there it was again. Right, I thought. There’s only one thing for it. (Cue me trying to wrestle the fridge out of the pantry in a heatwave.)
Saints alive. I have just had to deal with the most disgusting discovery known to mankind. Trust me: you don’t want to know what was under there. I also discovered that fridges have a little plastic box on the back into which the tiny little hole above the salad tray drains into. Put it this way – had I known it was there, I would have known to empty and clean it every now and then. I am deeply traumatized.
Two hours later, the vile aroma has gone, but my kitchen looks like a hurricane just passed though. I can’t face trying to drag the fridge back into position and I think I may have to open an emergency bottle of prosecco.
My laptop hit a glitch last week and stopped working and I have spent the past week wearing my IT manager hat. This is not good news. My nearest Apple Store is an hour’s drive away, and I have spent the best part of this week hacking up and down the motorway so I can sit at their Genius Bar and pretend to understand what they’re talking about. Perhaps, if I were younger, it would all make more sense. Maybe, if I were cleverer, I wouldn’t come away feeling so hideously inadequate.
I was the only person in the store writing things down on a piece of paper using a dinosaur pencil. The air of pity was palpable. Two hours later, back up the motorway, into my ancient crumbling mouse-infested house, I follow the pencil instructions and update all my equipment onto the latest operating system. And hey presto! my entire calendar has disappeared.
I stopped using a paper diary this year for the first time since forever. My daughters assured me that nobody uses an old-fashioned paper diary any more, and that that was the whole point of modern technology. My phone will speak to my laptop. My laptop will push all critical information to my iPad. And my desktop machine will happily chat to the microwave. I don’t understand any of it, so my daughters and various young friends set it all up and explained it all to me several times over. Then then glitch happened and now I’m royally stuffed. Quite how I’m going to resolve it I don’t know, but I can’t face another visit to the genius bar. I have a feeling I’m the kind of customer who gives Apple a bad name. A customer who takes the phrase idiot-proof to a new dimension.
I’m going to have to wing it on the diary front and hope to God that nothing catches fire. I’m sure there are some deadlines in there, and I know I’m supposed to be at a festival in August. Then there was that thing in September that I have no recollection of. The dentist appointment can remain lost in the ether.
My mother is 84 now. Not only is she rather blind, she has also become deaf…
Telephoning her is a nightmare. Firstly, it’s quite likely that she won’t answer because she can’t hear it, which means that muggins here has to then get in the car and drive for an hour to check she isn’t lying on the floor like a tortoise. Secondly, if I do get through, I then have to scream down the phone until my tonsils feel like they’re going to explode. Even then, she’ll go “hello? hello? are you still there?’ and sometimes hang up. Going to visit her is no tea party either. Her top ten conversational topics go like this…
1. Dead people, particularly people who have recently died, and the method of their demise.
2. Soon-to-be-dead people, with all the details of what’s wrong with them.
3. Dead pets, including the dog in the house fire that was apparently overcome by fumes, even though nobody was around to verify this report, and the dog may well have caused the housefire itself in an delibereate act of arson because it was sick to death of living with an old person.
4. Old sick people with horrible diseases that will probably kill them.
5. People I don’t know or care about, who are either sick, or know somebody who’s sick, or dead.
6. Diabetes (hers).
7. People with diabetes who have contracted gangrene and had to have parts of their body amputated.
8. Ready meals, and how they are not suitable for diabetics, which is a scandal.
9. Dead people, because she can’t remember that she’s already told me about them several times (see No.1).
10. I’m sorry, who are you?
Do not resuscitate!
My mother goes on at me that if she has some kind of incident that involves her being found in a heap on the floor, she does not want to be resuscitated. She goes on about it, then finishes off with a great crescendo, shouting “Do not resuscitate!” Uh-huh, I say, then ask her if she has actually mentioned any of this to her GP.
She doesn’t seem to understand that of course she’ll be resuscitated unless she either has the instruction tattoed on her forehead or, at the very least, noted prominently on her medical records. She’s been dragged off to hospital on a couple of occasions, having been at the KitKats and fallen into a diabetic coma.”I don’t want to live any more,” she says. The thing that baffles me is that an insulin-dependent diabetic has only to leave out their evening dose, or shoot up an extra couple of cartridges, and it’s Goodnight Vienna. It’s no good her shouting at me that she doesn’t want to be resuscitated when we’re sitting there watching Bargain Hunt, is it? Old people, eh? It’s enough to make you want to cuddle them. I have told my daughters, if ever I get old and pesky, just shove me under a bus.
Hello? Hello? Is there anybody there?
The mother is convinced that her telephone isn’t working. She says that it doesn’t even ring most of the time. Then she starts phoning me and my sister, demanding to know Did you just ring me? I call her most days, just to check that she’s still alive, but of course now that I am ringing and getting no answer, chances are I will end up jumping in the car and driving over, thinking she must have fallen down the stairs or come a cropper in the bathroom.
Yet whenever I arrive, there she is, happily glued to Homes Under The Hammer. I ask her, trying to mask my exasperation: ‘Didn’t you hear the phone ringing?’ (My sister and I have tested it several times and it rings just fine. We think she’s probably going deaf.) My sister rang me yesterday, having finally got to the bottom of the big telephone mystery. ‘I know why we’re not getting an answer when we ring,’ she explained. ‘I turned up today and found mum trying to answer the television remote control.’
The following article was forwarded to me by a friend in Canada. Written by a Turkish yoga teacher, Defne Suman, it makes for bone-chilling reading to those of us who are fortunate enough to live in a free, secular society. The open letter she wrote on her blog, appears below…
To my friends who live outside of Turkey:
I am writing to let you know what is going on in Istanbul for the last five days. I personally have to write this because at the time of my writing most of the media sources are shut down by the government and the word of mouth and the internet are the only ways left for us to explain ourselves and call for help and support.
Last week of May 2013 a group of people most of whom did not belong to any specific organization or ideology got together in Istanbul’s Gezi Park. Among them there were many of my friends and yoga students. Their reason was simple: To prevent and protest the upcoming demolishing of the park for the sake of building yet another shopping mall at very center of the city. There are numerous shopping malls in Istanbul, at least one in every neighborhood! The tearing down of the trees was supposed to begin early Thursday morning. People went to the park with their blankets, books and children. They put their tents down and spent the night under the trees. Early in the morning when the bulldozers started to pull the hundred-year-old trees out of the ground, they stood up against them to stop the operation.
They did nothing other than standing in front of the machines.
No newspaper, no television channel was there to report the protest. It was a complete media black out.
But the police arrived with water cannon vehicles and pepper spray. They chased the crowds out of the park.
In the evening of May 31st the number of protesters multiplied. So did the number of police forces around the park. Meanwhile local government of Istanbul shut down all the ways leading up to Taksim square where the Gezi Park is located. The metro was shut down, ferries were cancelled, roads were blocked.
Yet more and more people made their way up to the center of the city by walking.
They came from all around Istanbul. They came from all different backgrounds, different ideologies, different religions. They all gathered to prevent the demolition of something bigger than the park:
The right to live as honorable citizens of this country.
They gathered and continued sitting in the park. The riot police set fire to the demonstrators’ tents and attacked them with pressurized water, pepper and tear gas during a night raid. Two young people were run over by the vehicles and were killed. Another young woman, a friend of mine, was hit in the head by one of the incoming tear gas canisters. The police were shooting them straight into the crowd. After a three hour operation she is still in Intensive Care Unit and in very critical condition. As I write this we don’t know if she is going to make it. This blog is dedicated to her.
These people are my friends. They are my students, my relatives. They have no «hidden agenda» as the state likes to say. Their agenda is out there. It is very clear. The whole country is being sold to corporations by the government, for the construction of malls, luxury condominiums, freeways, dams and nuclear plants. The government is looking for (and creating when necessary) any excuse to attack Syria against Turkish people’s will.
On top of all that, the government control over its people’s personal lives has become unbearable as of late. The state, under its conservative agenda passed many laws and regulations concerning abortion, cesarean birth, sale and use of alcohol and even the color of lipstick worn by the airline stewardesses.
People who are marching to the center of Istanbul are demanding their right to live freely and receive justice, protection and respect from the State. They demand to be involved in the decision-making processes about the city they live in.
What they have received instead is excessive force and enormous amounts of tear gas shot straight into their faces. Three people lost their eyes.
Yet they still march. Hundreds and thousands of citizens from all walks of life then joined them to support for the protestors. Couple of more thousand passed the Bosporus Bridge on foot to support the people of Taksim. They were met with more water cannons and more pepper spray, more hostility. Four people died, thousands of people were injured.
No newspaper or TV channel was there to report the events. They were busy with broadcasting news about Miss Turkey and “the strangest cat of the world”.
Police kept chasing people and spraying them with pepper spray to an extent that stray dogs and cats were poisoned and died by it.
Schools, hospitals and even 5 star hotels around Taksim Square opened their doors to the injured. Doctors filled the classrooms and hotel rooms to provide first aid. Some police officers refused to spray innocent people with tear gas and quit their jobs. Around the square they placed jammers to prevent internet connection and 3g networks were blocked. Residents and businesses in the area provided free wireless network for the people on the streets. Restaurants offered food and water for free.
People in Ankara and İzmir gathered on the streets to support the resistance in Istanbul. Demonstations spread to other cities where citizens were faced more brutality and hostiliy from police. Hundred of thousands kept joining.
Mainstream media kept showing Miss Turkey and “the strangest cat of the world”.
I am writing this letter so that you know what is going on in Istanbul. Mass media will not tell you any of this. Not in my country at least. Please post as many as articles as you see on the Internet and spread the word.
I do not belong to a political party. I don’t believe in politics. I don’t defend any ideology and I am not on the side of any regime. Like many others in Turkey I am tired and frustrated from the polarization between Kemalist seculars and the Islamists. I don’t belong to any of them. I believe in moving away from polarization and towards a new way of relating. I know many people who are out on the streets of Istanbul share the way I think and I know we are not the only ones. We just want to live our lives with human dignity.
As I was posting articles that explained what is happening in Istanbul on my Facebook page last night someone asked me the following question:
«What are you hoping to gain by complaining about our country to foreigners?»
This blog is my answer to her.
By so called «complaining» about my country I am hoping to gain:
Freedom of expression and speech,
Respect for human rights,
Control over the decisions I make concerning my on my body,
The right to legally congregate in any part of the city without being considered a terrorist.
But most of all by spreading the word to you, my friends who live in other parts of the world, I am hoping to get your awareness, support and help!
Please spread the word and share this blog.
For futher info and things you can do for help please see Amnesty International’s Call for Urgent Help
I probably wouldn’t have given it a second glance had it not been for the two glasses of wine over lunch with my agent, but I’ve always been a sucker for a great hat. This one was a doozy. Bright red, fox fur, (I know, I know), and right there in the window of one of those lovely Dickensian shops in the Burlington Arcade. I went in and asked how much, (six hundred and seventy-five quid), backed out pretty quickly without trying it on, only to be accosted by a man dressed as a woman, loitering in the arcade and now peering into the same window. ‘How much was it?’ he asked. Six hundred and seventy-five pounds, I said.
Now, I should tell you right here that in that split second about a thousand things flashed through my mind. First and foremost: oh lord, it’s a man dressed as a woman, a very badly-dressed woman at that, and he’s come out for the afternoon to have a wander about while pretending to be a woman, and he probably does this a lot, pouncing on strangers, having some kind of fantasy about being a lady out shopping. Only an idiot would have thought this was a woman. If the face weren’t giveaway enough, one had only to glance down at shovel-like hands and outsized feet to get the picture. I guessed he was around sixty. The wig had seen better days.
We pursed our lips at each other in disapproval of the price. ‘I love fur,’ he declared, a strained sing-song voice that sounded like Alastair Sim’s headmistress in the old St Trinian films. He was wearing an awful acrylic jumper, pale pink, a double string of pearls, a green skirt that may have been made out of crimplene, and a rather grannyish blue raincoat of the sort you find in Debenhams. This was a man who probably dreamed of wearing mink, and long white satin gloves. ‘Although it’s unacceptable to say so these days,’ he added. I agreed, smiled, and began to walk. So did he.
I had been adopted, him walking beside me, and I got the impression that he was waiting for me to either tell him to bugger off, or to make my excuses and walk away in the other direction, fast. Instead, I slowed down, browsed windows that I had no interest in, and asked him what he thought of this and that. I don’t remember a time when I have seen someone look quite so thrilled. He excused his handbag, which in fairness was truly horrid (I’m guessing Oxfam, purchased in a hurry, possibly not while dressed as a woman), and went on to explain that the one thing he was on the lookout for was a designer handbag. He stressed the word designer, like it meant something. He also told me that he would be on his way to Florence in a fortnight’s time for a holiday, o solo mio. I wondered if he was planning on going to Florence as a woman, and how he would manage that, given the way things generally are at passport control.
‘Do you drink coffee?’ he asked. I told him yes, but only when they’ve stopped serving wine. I had already seen where this encounter was going, and that was fine by me. I adore strange encounters, and I’d been in far weirder situations than this, deliberately. My acceptance of the coffee invitation was met with a gasp of delight, particularly when I insisted she be my guest. I took us somewhere decent, a place where chic shoppers and bored women stop for light lunches and mid-afternoon champagne. She introduced herself as Anthea, and seemed blissfully unaware of the sideways glances she drew from, oh, everyone. They would look at her, then at me, then at her again, like it made no sense.
By four o’clock, Anthea suggested we go to the opera together. She already had the tickets, for next month, but she hadn’t decided who to go with. After a second glass of champagne, she had the most marvelous idea and suggested that I come along to Florence. She wrote down her address and phone number, and I promised to let her know. Asking for mine in return, I explained that I don’t actually have a telephone, and that I was currently living in a hotel due to a small family crisis. Two huge lies, but it was an afternoon of lying anyway and she didn’t appear to notice. I wondered how long it would be before she needed a shave, and whether it was one of those things she had to keep an eye on when she was out, like a vampire hurrying back to their coffin. There was definitely a shadow there.
I wrote to Anthea a few days later, using stationery purloined from The Berkeley hotel in Knightsbridge during a distant stay. I told her how delightful it had been to make her acquaintance, and sidestepped her kind invitations with a flimsy excuse. By way of compensation, I enclosed a jaunty silk scarf for her. I never mentioned that I was a writer. I never do.
My mother introduced me to Pearl Buck some twenty-five years ago. I was visiting my parents, who lived in a village in the middle of nowhere, and found myself at a loose end from a reading point of view. “Have you read any Pearl Buck?” she asked. I reckoned I’d gone through everything vaguely interesting on my parents’ bookshelves years ago. Apparently not.
I started with the 1945 novel, Portrait Of A Marriage, and although I just couldn’t get my head around the annoying dynamic of the marriage, (as a banner-waving feminist, I think it felt too passive and old-fashioned in comparison to the books I was reading at the time), there was something almost haunting about the way it was written. The style was a little too verbose for my liking, but still, I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it all, so I started another, Pavilion of Women, and it all began to drop into place.
Written in 1946, Pavilion of Women is one of Pearl Buck’s superb Oriental novels, and tells the story of Madam Wu, who, upon reaching her fortieth birthday, decides to retire from married life and brings a concubine into the household for her husband. It is a delicate and beautiful story, written of a certain time, and I have never forgotten it.
Pearl Buck was born in 1892 in West Virginia, and grew up in China, where her parents were missionaries. It was there, in the grave-littered grasslands behind their house, that she would stumble across the tiny bones of baby girls who had been suffocated at birth. She started writing in her twenties, and became so prolific that her works are almost unlistable, yet, by the time that I started reading her, she had been largely forgotten.
Many of Pearl Buck’s novels deal with the confrontation of East and West, with the fragile business of customs and traditions, and, most brilliantly, with the intricacies of all-too-human relationships and the lot of women in her far-flung settings. Her 1931 novel, The Good Earth, earned her a string of awards, among them the Pulitzer. In 1938, she was recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature. Her writing spilled over into political journalism, and she wasn’t afraid to speak her mind and to press for Chinese women’s liberation.
I knew none of this when I started reading her, and in my years as a writer, I came to realize how little known she had become. I mentioned her to one of my editors many moons ago, and she had never even heard of her. Then, a couple years back, her name popped up on the radio as the subject of a newly-released biography about her life in China.
The Good Earth re-entered the American bestseller charts in 2004 after being selected for Oprah’s Book Club, over seventy years after it was first published, and thirty years after the author’s death. These days, whenever somebody asks me for a book recommendation, I often hear myself saying, “Have you read any Pearl Buck?”