Thursday, 28 February 2013

In which I read through February

February was a vintage month for books. The best run I’ve had in a long, long time. Any of these are thoroughly worth picking up.

6. Title: The Handmaid’s Tale
Author: Margaret Atwood
Recommended by: @photogirl_uk as the first book of the London Book Club, bought as a second-hand copy from Amazon
Read: 7 – 13 Feb
Set in a dystopian, totalitarian, theocratic future, where women are subjugated, reduced to nothing more than their fertility. Beautifully, beautifully crafted; engaging; and chilling. Brilliant. Highly deserving of its literary prize nominations / awards.
Score: 10/10

7. Title: The Last Girlfriend on Earth
Author: Simon Rich
Recommended by: @meganjgibson after I said I loved his New Yorker pieces, and bought from Amazon
Read: 13 – 15 Feb
Just superb, quite frankly. A collection of short sketches on the theme of love. If you don’t kill yourself laughing at Unprotected, the life and times of a condom, you don’t have a sense of humour. Glorious.
Score: 10/10

8. Title: The Mist in the Mirror
Author: Susan Hill
Recommended by: Given to me by @owlsandflowers as a birthday present
Read: 16 – 23 Feb 
Being an enormous wuss, this ghost story something I’d ever have picked up for myself, but the person I got it from has an excellent track record with book recommendations, so who was I to argue? It’s by Susan Hill, so the writing is predictably brilliant and eerie and evocative and sends you straight back to Gothic England. The length of time it took me to read this belies the fact it’s quite a skinny little thing, and whilst it isn’t quite as spine-chillingly terrifying as her better-know Woman in Black, it’s still plenty scary that I refused to read it before I went to sleep.
Score: 8/10

9. Title: I Feel Bad About My Neck
Author: Nora Ephron
Recommended by: everyone when it was announced Ephron had died. A Christmas present from Ma Blonde.
Read: 23 - 27 Feb

“Never marry a man you wouldn’t want to be divorced from.”

“If only one third of your clothes are mistakes, you’re ahead of the game.”

“Everything is copy.”

I can’t begin to tell you how utterly brilliant this book is. I think I might just start to live my life by it, word for gloriously chosen word. Buy it, read it for yourself. Love it.
Score: 10/10

Wednesday, 27 February 2013

In which it's still not a compliment

It’s not a new phenomenon, and I’ve written about it before, but it’s ongoing and I imagine I’ll write about it again until something changes. Because being harangued in the street when you’re going about your daily business was not, is not, and never will be okay.

It’s not a subject that’s tackled an awful lot in the leading mainstream press (blogs and online feminist mags, yes. Mainstream press, no) probably, I think, because it’s not seen by most people as a particularly serious issue. So it was deeply refreshing yesterday morning to hear the subject of harassment being discussed on Today, a flagship news programme and agenda-setter.

I’m well aware of the arguments on the other side: that women need to lighten up; that’s it’s a compliment; and that it’s just not that big a deal. And I’d have some sympathy for those arguments if a leer, or a whistle, or a shouted comment happened as a once off. But it doesn’t. It might – if you’re lucky – happen once a month. But it’s more likely to happen once or twice a week, if not every day.

And once you’re subjected to it every week, or every day, it’s not a compliment, and it is a big deal. Because the insidious comments and catcalls and whistles seep into your consciousness.

Take a moment, whether you’re male or female, to imagine a man you don’t know yelling at you in the street: he’s commenting on your bum, or your smile. Happening once, you’d brush it off, you might even laugh at it. But then imagine it happens over and over again – all men you don’t know, commenting publicly that you’re “sexy” or what they’d like to do to you. Throw in a guy letting his hand rest against you on the tube. And then a man on a building site whistling as you walk down the street to work. And then, as you’re walking home alone quite late at night, when there are few other people around, a man yelling after you, asking what your name is.

In isolation, the events might seem harmless. In conjunction, they’re an epidemic, and they’re deeply, deeply unpleasant. They make women change their clothes, their hair, their route to work.

Yesterday morning, I was walking to the tube station at about 8.15am. A guy yelled, “yeah, yeah, yeah, baby” after me. Bored of the behaviour, tired, and in a rush, I turned on my heel, snarled at him and gave him the finger. Not sophisticated, not clever, not articulating my point – and, most would argue, an overreaction.

But he was the second guy on that short walk between my flat and the tube station to do something like that. They followed a man asking me my name as I walked home, alone, in the dark at 9.30pm on Monday evening. And they followed three separate incidents on Saturday morning when I was buying the paper and then vegetables in the market.

I refuse to believe that I shouldn’t be able to leave the house with my hair worn loose, or wearing red lipstick (both of which, I’ve noticed, correlate with an uptick in Neanderthal behaviour). I don’t think I should need to be with my boyfriend at all times when in public to discourage this kind of inanity.

And the more it’s talked about, written about, discussed in the mainstream media, on Today, in the papers, online, the more that people who previously just didn’t realise what it’s like read about it and think about it, the closer we might come to being able to walk around and not think about where the next idiot might be waiting.

Monday, 25 February 2013

In which I can't tell the difference between tech support and flirting

Sometimes a situation needs no reading. Sometimes you know full well that the remark from your particularly passive-aggressive colleague about what you’re having for lunch should just have been phrased, “Well that clearly explains the size of your bottom”; or that the plumber is trying to pull a fast one because he’s on the phone to a young woman when everyone knows, plumber included, that £50 per hour is NOT a reasonable rate to change a loo siphon.

But sometimes a situation is slightly more opaque and you're not quite sure what just happened...

I was in the pub last week, nursing a G&T and waiting for Domestic Slut and La Chanteuse for a long-overdue, post-cat acquisition (DS), post-wedding (LC) catch up. I’d elegantly plonked myself down at a table next to the radiator, wrapped up in a leather jacket against the biting South London, February winds.

Whipping my iPad out of my bag (it was either that, or the copy of Horse & Rider I had at the bottom of my bag, and I tend to find that any equine periodical tends to elicit very peculiar looks anywhere inside the M25), I settled in with my drink to catch up on some reading.

At the next table was a man in his mid-thirties, tapping away at a laptop. Every so often, as I took a sip of my drink, I could see him looking over in my direction. I thought nothing of it, and carried on with an excellent and highly recommended Wired piece on Gunther von Hagens until a gentle cough caused me to look round.

“Um, er, excuse me,” he’d stopped typing and was looking at me from over his laptop. I lowered my iPad and looked up. “Are you any good with computers?”

I laughed. “God, no, not in the slightest. Sorry.” And went back to my plastinated cadavers.

“Oh, um… I was hoping you’d be able to help me… I don’t know quite what’s going on.”

“I really don’t think I’m going to be much use, I promise you.” Again, I tried to turn back to the screen.

“Oh, er, it’s just that… well, I’m typing, and then I go backwards, and it types over the text that’s already there.”

“Oh! Oh gosh,” I said, slightly baffled that there would be any sort of computing difficulty I’d ever be able to lend a useful hand with. “You’ve just hit the overwrite button. Try hitting the ‘insert’ key – that should fix it.”

He tapped a button on the keyboard. “Ah! That’s done it. A stroke of brilliance. You’re clearly…” He looked down at the table. “Oh, sorry, would you mind if I just…? Hi, yep, what is it? I’m just…

I turned away as he took the phonecall, to see my companions bluster in from the cold night outside.

I never found out what I clearly was; whether he was clearly in need of a little more computer literacy; or whether he was just so clearly terrible at the chatting up-thing that it was difficult to tell it from a genuine cry for tech support.

Friday, 22 February 2013

In which haters gonna hate but I wish they'd shut up about it

Gods above, but snide, bare-teethed cynicism is woefully dull.

Along with the certainties that are death, delayed tubes and taxes, trends are a part of London life. (As a point of order, I make the distinction because in my experience, trends are far more prevalent in the capital than they are outside it. Life in Home County, where wellies are worn solely for gardening and walking the dog, is far less subject to the whims and caprices of fashion than it is traditions, or convenience, or practicality.) And one sector that seems to be particularly slavish to fashions is the restaurant industry.

Over the past years and months, we’ve seen any number of trends come and go – and some come and stay. We’ve had street food, “dude food”, hot dogs, fried chicken, burgers, sharing plates, no bookings restaurants, Peruvian restaurants, imported New York restaurants, noodle bars, resident chefs and we’re apparently on the cusp of pickling (the “next big thing”, if some people are to be believed).

Yes, the whole thing can be slightly mind-boggling. Yes, it can become slightly irksome if the current trend isn’t in line with your own food preferences. And yes, there are always going to be the people who pride themselves on being at the cusp of the trend before it begins, and on to the next thing before everyone else has worked out whether they want their chicken fried in buttermilk, or ramen instead of udon.

But that’s about the extent of the irritation. Because for a trend to be truly successful, enough people have to be doing the same thing well – and surely, if you enjoy food and eating out, then lots of people doing whatever it is they’re doing really well is a good thing?

But for some people, that doesn’t seem to be the case, and recently, the backlash against, well, pretty much everything, seems to have begun. Because no sooner has a trend been born than the detractors come out, sneering at not being able to book (conveniently forgetting that, sometimes, being able to book leaves you with a Dabbous situation on your hands), or at apparently ubiquitous stripped-back Soho d├ęcor, or at the fact that someone else is opening a burger place and god, don’t they know burgers are SO winter 2011, how pathetic. It’s not enough for them to be ahead of a trend: they have to be seen to dislike it, and vocally. It’s like Mean Girls with mayonnaise.

I’m all for pointing it out when the Emperor’s wearing new clothes (and gods above if that isn’t the case at the bar where you have to TAKE YOUR OWN BOOZE), and am a big believer in the instructive merits of a little constructive criticism (which The Writer bravely tried out last week on an instance of my punctuation. I had to concede that he was right). But snark, cynicism and bitchiness that serves no purpose other than to be snarky, cynical and bitchy about something from which many others derive pleasure is cheap, hugely lacking in imagination, and enormously boring.

A lot of life – and, indeed, London’s food – is utterly brilliant. We’re lucky enough to live in one of the most vibrant cities in the world: if you can’t find the enjoyment and pleasure in it, how about just backing off altogether? If you so despise the new restaurants that make up the food “scene” and are enjoying a moment in the sun; if they bore you so very much, then the answer’s simple: just don’t get involved – go eat, and whinge, somewhere else.

Wednesday, 20 February 2013

In which I prefer being made to wait

“It’s going to cause the breakdown of society as we know it.”

That was The Writer’s entirely unmelodramatic assessment of House of Cards, the new political drama series that premiered on Netflix earlier this month, as we had supper one night recently.

His statement was premised on the fact that by releasing entire ‘box sets’ (I use the term loosely, given there’s no actual anything that comes inside a box) at once, the social aspect of television has been removed leading to an eventuality in which we’ll all stop talking to each other, and never ever leaving the house because between Waitrose deliveries and endless episodes of Breaking Bad, well, why would you need to?

I can see what he’s getting at. By releasing the whole lot at once, there are no defined times when the drama pauses, when audiences can collect to discuss and dissect, no ‘water cooler’ moments to be had. There are no enforced weeks between episodes where you can sit and stew and idly speculate about what might come next – or, if you’re TW, posit something that turns out to be bang on the money, meaning you’ve ruined the ending for your viewing partner. (I swear if he pulls that crap with Breaking Bad, I just might leave him.) Instead we’re left like unsupervised children with an entire bag of white mice, able to binge on as many as we can fit in before we feel slightly nauseous and in need of a run around in the fresh air (although some people do seem to be wholeheartedly in favour of this form of television consumption).

And that’s before we get to the sticky issue of spoilers. It used to be that if you missed an episode of Spooks, you avoided TV review pages and various bits of the internet until you’d had a chance to catch up on the episode. But once a series is out in its entirety, you don’t know which journalist, blogger or person you follow on Twitter who’s retweeting someone else entirely has forfeited a weekend in order to plough through the entire series in a single sitting. Now, there’s no telling where an enormous clanger might crop up, ruining with a single sentence the entire story arc of a series and the hours you’ve lovingly put in to watching.

Yet, for all that, I think TW is wrong on this one.

Yes, this disruptive model is new and a bit different – just like the advent of multiple channels was new and a bit different back in the day. As were the ‘plus one’ channels. As was the ability to pause and rewind live telly; or record an entire series on Sky. But I don’t think we’re seeing the death of television as a social event – because social television survived all those things and it’ll survive this.

Whilst some channels and services like Netflix might opt for binge-release, others won’t – and those who focus on making so-called “destination TV” might be inspired to raise the quality of what they’re producing in the hope that it draws in audiences in increasing number. You’ve only got to look at Homeland (the first series – the second was disappointingly average) or Africa to see that people want to be involved somehow, whether that’s tweeting along, or discussing it afterwards.

Personally, I’m far more nostalgic for that very particular kind of sublime agony that comes with being made to wait to find out what happens next. From unexploded bombs in chest cavities (Gods above, I love Grey’s Anatomy) to the possible death of the President at the end of the first series of The West Wing, there’s nothing that quite compares to the delayed gratification of a bloody good cliffhanger. Because it’s all very well knowing exactly what happens after Walt cooks his first perfect batch of blue meth, but there’s nothing like hearing Ross say “Rachel”, not “Emily” to get you screaming at the telly.

Saturday, 16 February 2013

In which it was a bad week for women

Gods above, but that was a bad, bad week for women.

In amongst the other enormous breaking news stories (resigning Popes; covert ground-up horse in apparently everything; meteors hitting the Earth), a woman was shot dead in the middle of the night, allegedly by her boyfriend.

The story has garnered far more media attention than any other case of domestic violence might because the man who’s been charged with her murder is a world-famous Paralympian athlete. This, understandably, has meant that the focus of the story has been Oscar Pistorius, rather than the victim, Reeva Steenkamp. The faint irk that she seemed to be referred to for the first 24 hours of reporting as “his girlfriend” rather than by her name was nothing in comparison to the anger felt the following day when tabloid newspapers around the world saw fit to illustrate the story with pictures of law graduate and model, who spoke out about empowering women, in the skimpiest bikinis and underwear they could find.

Picture from Jezebel
Then, on Friday morning, between a tweet about a band’s new single and Bruce Willis flogging his latest film, Daybreak tweeted the following:

I’m well aware that Daybreak isn’t the epitome of high culture and sophisticated discussion. That’s fine: there’s space for both it and BBC4. But it’s a programme with an enormous audience, and one staffed by people who should know better than to put out such idiocy. ONS stats might be a deeply worrying portrayal of Britain’s attitudes towards women and sexual violence, but the responsible journalistic approach isn’t to start a “debate” where there isn’t one. It’s to educate viewers that there aren’t two sides to the argument. This might be an individual incident, but it’s individual incidents that combine to add up to a culture in which blaming victims is acceptable, when actually the only people who are responsible for crimes are those who have committed them.

Because these two incidents came in a week when the 1 Billion Rising campaign was launched, highlighting and campaigning against the fact that one in three women will be raped or beaten in her lifetime. They came in a week when the BBC ran a deeply saddening but entirely unsurprising piece about women’s attitudes to their own safety when walking home after a night out. The verdict was unanimous: from Ramala to Kampala, Melbourne to Rio to Ottowa, women don’t feel safe. They make sure they have something they can lay hands on as a weapon should they need to. A quick, unscientific Twitter poll of followers elicited the same information. Check with your female friends: I guarantee the majority of them will have done it, at least once, if not regularly.

Is it any wonder, really, given that – globally – there’s a culture of violence against women. It’s a systemic problem; that if we don’t speak up against it where we see it, nothing will change, and one billion more women will suffer.

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