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Saturday, 14 May 2011

Sally Brampton: The Beginning

One of my favorite writers, Sally Brampton has set up a blog. She suffered badly from depression and wrote about it in a very approachable and practical way: Shoot the Damn Dog.

Monday, 9 May 2011

Role Models for Girls

A while ago I wrote a series for Radio 4 about girls comics. In the first episode which was about Girl comic and set in 1952, I learned that the comic editors wanted a story about a girl pilot. It was to be called Kitty Hawke and her All Girl Air Crew! Sounded fabulous, but their readers didn’t want girl pilots steering planes over mountainous ranges. So the story was changed to Angela the Air Hostess. Oh well. Twenty years later, the mighty Bunty magazine featured working class girls who had ambitions to go to grammar school – despite what their mean uncles and aunties had to say about it. ‘You’re getting ideas above your bleedin’ station!’ roared one particularly mean uncle to the plucky heroine who only wanted to wear the badge of St Plum in the Gob. My own favourite was Catch the Cat featuring a girl in occupied France who wore a very dodgy looking cat suit and went around foiling some seriously stupid Nazis. But scoff all you like – these were girls who did stuff. They didn’t just sit there looking pretty in between getting their kit off for men’s mags, crying on cue and occasionally beating up women in toilets did they Cheryl Cole? But hey – guess who The Girl wants to be when she grows up?

It’s hard to talk about this stuff without sounding all po-faced, but who has heard of Hermila Garcia Quinones? The female police chief of Meoqui, Mexico was gunned down on her way to work. A short while later another young girl, Marisol Valles called ‘the bravest woman in Mexico’ took the job. She was twenty! After several months and many more death threats she had to flee to the US, but who has heard of her? Let’s try someone else. Maria Bashir. When the Taliban banned girls from getting an education, she set up a school in her own living room and risked death every single day. Now she's the first female prosecutor in Afghanistan. I would imagine she’s got more to worry about than whether Heat will print a picture of her arse looking a bit fat.

I’ve just put an idea into Radio 4 for Women’s Hour, about Ida and Louise Cook. Never heard of them? Well, they were two ordinary young women in 1930s Wandsworth, who fell in love with opera, and saved up to travel across Europe to see their favourite opera stars. During this time they began to notice the persecution of the Jews. Meanwhile, to fund their operatic travels, Ida started writing for Mills & Boon. And the money she made enabled the sisters to provide sponsorship and a place to stay for some 29 desperate Jewish families. Ida and Louise smuggled these people out, under the noses of the border guards, priceless diamonds pinned to their scruffy cardies. They stayed in expensive hotels to show they had nothing to hide and once, Louise was chatted up by Joachim Von Ribbenthrop, Hitler's Foreign Minister. 'He thought I was just another admiring fool,'. They were named as Righteous Among the Nations in the sixties. I reckon the reason that nobody has really heard of these amazing sisters is because they were naturally self-effacing, from a time when women didn’t seek publicity for themselves but also because they weren’t particularly pretty. But if they had been – they would probably have gotten married and never had such extraordinary lives.

My producer doesn’t want to call it Ida and Louise because she thinks it recalls Thelma and Louise. But it’s stuck in my head and they were around before Thelma and Louise. And they don’t drive off a cliff at the end – they merely go back to Wandsworth.

So, I’m just saying that there’s room for Cheryl and that one from The Only Way is Essex, the models, the actresses and models, and other gorgeous girls who’ve got somewhere with their good looks. I’ve got no problem with that – just that they shouldn’t be the only role models for our daughters to look up to. After all, as Ida said once, ‘in the end, you are what you do.’

Thursday, 5 May 2011

Empowerment - that bloody word again

I really hate the word empowered. Like resting for actors, it’s a word that’s slipped its ken and is used as a stick to beat us. Any kind of dubious activity or product that involves the endless commoditisation of the female body – you just slap a variant of empowered on it and any protest reduces you to a hairy arsed feminist with no sense of humour. Pole dancing? So empowering. Playboy pencil cases for six year olds? Pre-teen empowerment. Abstinence only sex education for girls but not boys? No . . .not the swivel eyed lunacy of right wing fundamentalism, Nadine Dorries, but empowering girls.
Someone from a documentary company rang me the other day. BBC4 are exploring how ‘women see their bodies’ throughout all stages in life. 'It’s particularly relevant since the presenter has just had a baby so she’s talking to women – real women. And they would be interested in wondering how my attitudes to food and body image have affected The Girl. It would be quite (all together now!) empowering,' she says.
We have a little chat and of course it soon becomes apparent that what they really want is a woman who dislikes her body intensely, is obsessed with calorie counting and is passing this self loathing onto her daughter. How can that be empowering I ask? 'Because the woman would be aware of what she’s doing.' How marvellous.
I point out that a dinner lady at The Girl’s school told me that there’s a five year old girl who has to have her food separated on the plate. So peas can’t touch the potatoes which in turn have to be kept away from the chicken. An eating disorder in the making. At five. ‘Can you give me her number?’ the researcher asks, trying to keep the eagerness out of her voice. She is very disappointed when I tell her that I don’t have the number.
I put the phone down feeling depressed. Surely a better way would be to talk to women who don’t live their lives with the spectre of the scales looming – they are out there. Women who (whisper who dares) actually enjoy their food and who want their daughters to enjoy it too. Women who despite the billion pound industry which informs us that we are nothing without the impossibly sculpted waist, the fat free thighs, topped off by space hopper tits have actually managed to retain a sense of self. That would be really empowering.

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Beetroot Ice Cream with Sweet Cheese

It had all been going so well. I was sitting in one of those restaurants where the food is so expensive that faces dramatically drain of colour when the bill is presented. But never mind – what’s handing over three months wages to eat small puddles of dribble and blobs? With my companion, a gourmand, bon viveur psychologist, film maker and even more greedy than me, we were nibbling our way through a twelve course taster menu at L’Enclume in The Lake District.
L’Enclume nestling in the small village of Cartmel means anvil and refers to the fact that the oldest part of the building is a thirteenth century blacksmith. You can tell it’s a genuine medieval construct because anyone over five foot one spends their time shouting, ‘Ow my head!’ every time they enter the building.
I’d tried taster menus with my companion before and he always frets about not getting enough to eat. He’s actually on a diet but it’s Atkins and amazingly – he’s losing weight. Whenever we go out to lunch ‘to discuss projects' ie for him to remind me that I’m supposed to be writing a script for him, just before we start gossiping, he smugly eschews chips. Instead he orders steaks with great blobs of sauce and creamed spinach. And no – there is no history of heart failure in his family. Although this may change when we are presented with the bill from here.
He reminds me of the taster menu at Sketch, another restaurant of hushed food-is-religion where we hmmd, hawed and oohed our way through small artful piles of canapés and blobs. All wonderful and while I didn’t rise from the table groaning in stuffed shame, I was full. Not enough for him though. ‘Let’s have the twelve course one’ he says slapping the menu down. Because it’s that sort of restaurant, the lovely waitress adjusts the pebbles on our table (pebbles? When did they become fashionable) and laughs as though he’s said something hilarious.
Then we wait. There’s no bread to snarf down while waiting. ‘They probably don’t want us to fill up on it’ I grumble. So we eavesdrop on the next table instead. There’s a truly appalling man who we think is having dinner with his wife, son and the son’s stunningly beautiful girlfriend. All we can hear is the man’s voice going on and on like a particularly loud and obnoxious mosquito. ‘I hear you have a degree in flirting and she has a degree in nagging,’ he says loudly, nodding at his wife. I sneak a peak. He’s wearing a well pressed (by his wife I bet) casual blue shirt and chinos. He also has a bad combover. Exactly the kind of man who would gratuitously insult and then accuse the person of not having a sense of humour. At that moment, the kitchen doors swing open and a young waitress glides towards us with our first course: carrot sacks with juniper fried cake with cress. Yeah I know. But it tastes amazing! Sort of carroty exploding sharpness with lemony stuff and a bit of cake. (AA Gill would probably do this better). It’s far too posh a restaurant to lick the plate so we use our fingers. Meanwhile Combover Man is blah blahing away to the Sommelier about his extensive knowledge of wine. The Sommelier has a fixed smile on his face. I do hope they spit in his food.
Our plates disappear and there’s a wait of about five minutes before the next course comes. It blurs a bit after a while. Tiny little words of art – Kohlrabi, millet pudding, brassica . . . . bread. Bread! We can mop up the plate with it. Just then our latest course arrives. It’s about number seven and I’m beginning to get slight taster fatigue. ‘Vintage potatoes in ash with a touch of wood sorrel,’ says the waitress with a perfectly straight face while we both look nervously down at our plates in surprise. I think I’ve scraped some of this off the walls of the garden shed.
Combover man is on his way out and surprise! – he’s short! He does however look very clean and pressed with polished shoes and manicured fingernails. His wife has a defeated look on her face and her clothes are crumpled. You have a degree in flirting and she has a degree in nagging. ‘She should have divorced him for saying that’ says my companion. He’s right but you leave someone the first time they insult you like that. But this latest insult is probably only one in a long long line of digs, comments and pokes that maybe she hardly hears. Why do you stay with someone like that? ‘Cheer up’ says my companion. ‘Yes he’s a cunt but maybe he’ll have a heart attack and die and leave his wife a fortune.’ It’s nice to be with someone who has a really positive outlook.
We are now at course twelve – pudding, bypassing a trayful of cheese the size of a bed because I’m full. ‘You have some’ I say to my companion who is looking longingly at a lump of stilton the size of a wardrobe. ‘No I’m fine’ he says and twitching, turns back to a beautifully presented nugget of sorbet pink and a glowing white blob of loveliness nestling next to it. ‘Beetroot ice cream and sweet cheese!’
My brain is telling me it’s raspberry sorbet and pannacotta. My mouth is telling me it’s an abomination. Feeling my face settling into an unbecoming sulk I put my spoon down and do a convincing impersonation of Lou in ‘Little Britain’. ‘Don’t like it.’
But despite not being able to eat the final course I realise to my slight surprise that I’m very full. Annoyingly the old maxim about the brain taking a good fifteen minutes to register fullness is true.