Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Malmaison Belfast

Continuing my Belfast posts...

Hidden inside a former Victorian seed warehouse is Malmaison Belfast. It is no surprise to learn that the carved stone-façade hotel is Grade-A listed. Inside, the foyer hints at the trademark black and burgundy themes of the sumptuous Mal chain, with plush velvet seats and chaise lounges, plus heavy drapes.

After a swift and friendly check-in, we head up to our room. Having previously stayed at Mal London (as well as Mal Belfast), we knew what to expect, and even though this time we were in a cheaper room, there was certainly no scrimping on comfort or indulgence. Our room overlooked the street, but it was wonderfully calm. On the Saturday evening we caught the end of Beady Eye’s live outdoor set at the nearby Belsonic Festival, which wafted in through our open windows on the warm evening.

Over our two-night stay, we had breakfast in the dining room on the first day (a Sunday, so there was a later finish) – and my boyfriend filled his boots with the eggs Benedict, which he’d been salivating over since our last visit. On the second morning, we opted for breakfast in bed as breakfast finished at 10am on a weekday, and we were enjoying time off from work. For no extra charge, our breakfast was delivered in belted hampers, with a newspaper on top, and inside the compartmentalised hampers were an amazing choice of yoghurt and granola, fresh juice, fresh pastries, cereal… It was so good, I took a photo and Tweeted it.

Belfast is a city that has much more to offer than a troubled political past and is such a welcoming city. Apart from anything, the customer service we experienced everywhere in Belfast put everywhere in England to shame. There’s so much history to this city and there’s so much ignorance in England about the Northern Irish capital, which is only an hour away by plane. The English played such a pivotal role in creating the Troubles in Northern Ireland that it’s astonishing how little awareness many people here have about the country our forefathers fought so hard to attain. So if you haven’t already, take a trip over and enjoy the city for yourself – it’s well worth it.

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Henry Rollins at Belfast’s Empire Music Hall

For 30 years, Henry Rollins has toured the world. He enjoys a seemingly nomadic existence, rarely in his native America, more commonly flitting from venue to venue, relentlessly performing. Word has it he performs for more than 100 nights a year.

A musician, writer, actor, TV presenter, activist and spoken word king, Henry returned to Belfast for a sold out show on Sunday, which was his first visit to Northern Ireland since 2008.

His stage for the evening was the beautiful Empire Music Hall, which, despite appearances, is not a lovingly maintained Victorian music hall – but a Victorian church that was renovated into a live venue in 1987 in the style of a Victorian music hall. You would be forgiven for thinking otherwise, though. Bedecked in classic fittings, the Hall boasts an ornate Victorian back bar mirror, padded music hall seats, huge murals of absinthe-esque damsels on either side of the stage, and small tables nestling on the upper balcony. It’s a spectacular venue.

With no fanfare or announcement, Henry burst on stage at 8pm, a hulk of muscle, shaved head and tattoos, and with an excitable, irascible pleasure at life’s little wonders. And for two hours, he stands with his feet almost rooted to the spot on the stage, and fires off anecdote after reminiscence after goodhearted banter, with such confidence, such self-assurance, such a clear mind. He never stops talking, he never uses ‘umm’s and ‘ahh’s while his brain catches up with his mouth. He’s unstoppable.

Henry’s chosen topics cover a broad range. He starts with celebration for the West Memphis Three, who were released from jail only two days before after 18 years for alleged murder. Henry, along with many others, has noisily campaigned for their release, firmly believing in their innocence. Feeling vindicated, Henry states that their release proves that “if you stay on it hard enough, you can make some change. It’s been 48 hours since they were released and I’m still in shock.”

Less intense is Henry’s spiels about the perils of politeness, which saw him eat a glut of roasted rat livers “with gusto” while filming a National Geographic documentary, in order to avoid offending the local people. More blunt is his bewilderment about why people would pay for sex: “Renting an orifice or a cavity? Eww!” Although he concedes admiration for the rent boys he used to pass on Santa Monica Boulevard when he lived there in 1981, describing it as an “avenue of men for sale”, adding: “They looked amazing. They looked like punk rock on steroids. I couldn’t not respect them.”

There is a long, but in every way entertaining, diatribe about Henry’s first ever visit to Costco. Tackling the simple mission of buying a ladder, Henry becomes fanatical about the dregs of American humanity that he finds inside the superstore. He says: “Americans need to buy many things, because the more things we buy, the better we are than you.” On his bewilderment at the amount of fast food scoffed by shoppers in Costco’s dining areas, Henry states: “This isn’t dining, this is feeding. As they eat, they die.”

And so it goes on. As the show progresses, Henry’s clean, dry t-shirt, becomes drenched with his sweat – which goes from being a small patch on the front, to becoming a perfectly formed heart shape across his entire, mammoth chest. What this means, I don’t know. But it certainly strikes me as impressive. Just like the man himself. A mountain of a man, with the sort of physique that makes you want to cuddle him just to find out what it would feel like.

Henry is deeply impressive. Rapid fire wit, fast thinking, no time to hesitate. If you want to see him for yourself, be advised that he’s coming to St George’s in Bristol on 17 January. I suggest you buy your tickets soon, and you can buy them from here.

Monday, 15 August 2011

"What About The Mens?"

Here’s a few of the many things that were amazing about UK Feminista last weekend:

1) Meeting up with the wonderful Twitter fems
2) The volume of support for our objections to the Bristol lapdance clubs
3) Hearing the mighty Finn Mackay on the opening afternoon

Here’s one thing that troubled me: the Sunday session led by Matt McCormack Evans called ‘Mobilising Men into Feminist Activism.’ As you probably know, Matt set up the Anti Porn Men website "for (mainly) men to write about and discuss anti-porn issues. The Project also provides and sign-posts anti-porn resources and news concerning pornography". As an eloquent young man, he is becoming the face of male feminism. He’s doing a great amount of positive work to challenge men who are resistant to feminist thinking and suggest an alternative view for them. Matt is a good thing.

My problem with the session has nothing to do with Matt personally, but everything to do with a man (any man) running a session for a mostly female audience, and urging them to think of ways to include men in the movement. Yes, I support men being feminists, and yes, obviously the more men who recognise the benefits of feminist thinking, then the closer we are to achieving equality. But why do we need to indulge the men in order to flatter them into allowing us, or helping us, achieve our demands?

To my mind (and many others, if Twitter is to be believed), it was troublesome to have a man stand up and tell women what to do (never mind clap his hands to silence us at one point). As women, when we finally achieve equality, we need to have achieved it on our own terms – not by running to men and asking them to help us. Surely, that’s not even an issue?


One of the topics discussed was about whether feminist groups should be women only spaces or mixed gender.

“Feminism is becoming a mainstream mass movement. It’s not a club,” Matt pointed out. “It makes no sense to exclude almost half of the population. Men can be useful. How can we see an end to violence against women without engaging the people committing the violence? In a lot of ways, feminism needs men.”

I disagree. Strongly: FEMINISM DOES NOT NEED MEN!!! If feminism ‘needed’ men, it would not be feminism.

In simplistic terms, what Matt says in the above quote is true. Feminism IS becoming a burning issue again, and it was wonderful to see so many young women attending the UK Feminista conference, some of whom were just doing GCSEs. But I was worried that those who were new to feminism and who had flocked to Matt’s workshop (which was attended by three times as many people as there were seats allocated for them, such was his popularity) based on his media presence, were going to be sucked in by what he said just because of the individual man saying it. I don’t mean to disrespect Matt by saying that, as I have great admiration for what he does and genuinely think he seems like a nice bloke.

But as a 30-something feminist, I am concerned to see the next generation hearing “feminism needs men” and not questioning it. Afterwards, I talked with several groups of young women who had attended Matt’s session, 100% of whom were really pumped and totally convinced by what they had heard. They seemed shocked that I said the session had made me angry and that I was fuming with feminist rage about how patronised I felt. So we talked about it, and I explained that I was frustrated to see so many enthusiastic female feminists believing that they could only achieve gender equality by enlisting men to help them do it. They all told me they had never thought of it like that before. And this worried me enormously. What else were people being told and not questioning? I don’t want to sound patronising (and am aware that I may do, for which I apologise), but if people are not questioning what they are told – then patriarchy has already won. It’s as simple as that.


Matt suggested we should be aware that men experience sexism, too. I mean, seriously, he actually said that. Before you say anything, I’ve had my share of self-righteous men asking me why I’m so strident campaigning against Hooters or lads’ mags, but why am I not worrying about the exploitation of the poor men at Butlers in the Buff, or on Heat’s Torso of the Week page. Seriously – some people actually think this is a valid question (and presume they are a great male mind for having dreamt up such a facetious poser).

So for a respected man like Matt – a man with influence among young feminists – to strand up and say (and seriously, he said this), that we needed to counter men who scorned us for having PMT by pointing out that men could be a bit moody too, sometimes, well, fuck me – the steam was coming out of my ears. (It was probably just my hormones, though.)

You see, poor old men, they’re on the receiving end of sexism, too. They’re expected to be uber macho, and to like only football and tits, when they might like something else. Oh, so what?! They should try being a woman in a male-dominated society! I know that men experience sexism… but by turning it into the tired old “what about the men?”, “think about the men” argument, it totally devalues all the good work of hardcore feminism.

The solution, says Matt, is to “frame feminist issues as men’s issues as well as women’s issues”. No, that’s really not the solution. Why the fuck should feminist women have to pander to men, or waste valuable time and energy solving male problems, when we have a hard enough time trying to get patriarchy to take our existing concerns seriously? In the 1970s, there were seven key demands made by the feminist movement. It is now 40 years later and we still have six and a half of those demands still waiting to be met. Feminists do not have time to indulge men – we are fighting a slow and uphill battle to achieve our own rights. Men can look after themselves. And stop holding us back while they do it.

It was around about this point in the session, that Matt’s Powerpoint display flashed up the overused image of Bill Bailey wearing Fawcett’s ‘This is what a feminist looks like’ t-shirt. This is an image that most people agree has been publicised to death because it’s, like, a funny man, and he’s wearing a feminist t-shirt, titter titter. But shockingly the giggles in the room were fresh – many people seemed not to have seen this photo before. But how could they have missed it? It’s been all over Fawcett’s website for a verrrrrry long time, and it’s all over the internet. The only way they could have missed it was if (gulp) they had never been to the Fawcett website. But they’re feminists. How could they NOT have been to the Fawcett website? (The tailback of implications here is terrifying, considering all of the attendees at the conference were self-identifying feminists.)


Apparently, NOT ALL OF THE ATTENDEES AT THE CONFERENCE WERE SELF-IDENTIFYING FEMINISTS. This came about after various women in the audience started trying to re-name feminism.

Let’s just pause and digest that horrific fact.

Yep, there are some women at a feminist conference who want to lose the word ‘feminist’ because it has “negative connotations”. What did they have in mind as an alternative? Someone suggested ‘The Anti Sexism Society’. Someone else suggested ‘Gender Egalitarians’. Another woman suggested ‘Pro-Feminists’ (which doesn’t even mean anything, by the way).

Matt pondered what would happen if we did as some suggested and re-brand ‘feminism’ as simply ‘equality’. Fortunately, he immediately explained why he recognised this was a terrible idea: in short, “This would ignore the problems of patriarchy.” Damn right, it would.

He followed this with the most sensible thing he’d said in the whole session (and there were plenty of other sensible things he said, I hasten to add): “Men’s problems don’t come from the same place as feminist issues.” No, they don’t. And that is precisely why feminists should not be expected to tackle men’s problems in order to somehow earn the right to be able to continue fighting for their own demands. Matt said: “Just because feminism has the answers to men’s problems, should we change it’s name? No.” (I’m ignoring the contradiction between his two quotes, as essentially he’s talking sense here.)


While I admit I went to Matt’s session as a sceptic, I wanted to be proved wrong. I wanted to see how a session led by a man at a feminist conference could be a positive experience. I’m sorry to say the session left me insulted, angry and patronised (not necessarily by Matt, and in many cases more so by some in the audience).

Much of what I have written here is a general problem I have with finding a satisfactory way of including men in feminism, and is not a personal attack on Matt. Like I said earlier: he seems like a nice bloke, and I’m respectful of all he has achieved, and hope he goes on to achieve. However, his session inspired me to write this blog post and address my concerns about a) men in feminism per se, and b) a male-led session at a feminist conference.

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Alison Fell vs Marilyn French

For the few weeks, on and off, that I read Alison Fell’s 1984 book Every Move You Make (Virago Modern Classics, but out of print), I kept being reminded of Marilyn French’s 1977 classic The Women’s Room (also Virago Modern Classics, albeit still in print). Marilyn’s book is infinitely better known, more readable and has coined phrases that have now entered our everyday language, even if we may wish they hadn’t (such as when the character Val claims that “all men are rapists”, after her daughter is raped).

To me, aside from being a really good novel, what The Women’s Room offers is a socio-historical snapshot into what life must be like for a bored, suburban housewife in 1970s America who discovers feminism and women’s liberation by chance. From that perspective alone, it is an important, historical text. And my reading of Every Move You Make sees Scottish author Alison Fell tackle a similar task but across the pond, here in the UK.

Set in London, Every Move You Make follows single mum June, who lives in a communal feminist house in north London (modeled on – and written in – Lynne Segal’s famous house in Islington, and Lynne makes reference to this in her autobiography Making Trouble), and works for a feminist press (Alison worked on Spare Rib). With her consciousness already raised before the novel starts, Every Move You Make follows June in the early 1980s as she struggles to marry up being a young single mother with her failed marriage, her two separate lovers, her failing mental health, the fight for feminism, and all in front of a background of Rock Against Racism concerts.

It’s not always the most engaging read (although this was Alison’s debut novel, so let’s cut her some slack), and goes through peaks and troughs of being enjoyable – but in a way this echoes June’s own struggles with her happiness, her depression, and her worries that she is not fit to be a mother in a society that is struggling to get to grips with what it now thinks it expects of a woman, wife and mother. One that we are still, to a lesser extent, seeing the effects of now. However, Every Move You Make is a deeply satisfying read, and fascinating as a snapshot into a period of history that has been a little neglected – especially in terms of England. It seems easy enough to find 1970s feminist memoirs of American women, but less so for our English sisters.

For this reason, I call on you to scout around charity bookshops (my copy came from the Oxfam Bookshop on Park Street, Bristol), or snap up one of the plentiful copies on Amazon Marketplace (yours for a penny), and rejuvenate this forgotten treasure for yourselves.

Monday, 8 August 2011

Celebrating the Southbank

It’s impossible to be bored in London – if you have a spare half day to while away, you will never be short of mind-blowing things to do. What’s really caught my attention in London lately is the celebrations for the 60th anniversary of the Festival of Britain. So much so that I’ve been twice now, and plan to go again before it closes on September 4.

The Southbank is one of the most exciting parts of London regardless of season. Obviously riverside, in it’s vicinity (even if not a part of the Southbank Centre) is the London Eye, a plethora of iconic bridges, City Hall, the National Theatre, the BFI, the famous Southbank Book market tucked neatly under Waterloo Bridge, and so much more. The Southbank Centre itself sits amid all this, and includes the Royal Festival Hall, the Hayward Gallery and Queen Elizabeth Hall. A mixture of architectural curios and monstrosities, the Southbank Centre is defiant and proud – and there are many arguments for seeing beyond the concrete ugliness of the brutalist construction and embracing the structure for what it brings to the art it displays.

Visiting the Tracey Emin retrospective in the Hayward recently, I had every opportunity to give the ugly building another chance and see what else it had to offer. It’s a clunky, chunky, raw and exposed space, and no matter how many of Emin’s appliquéd blankets (with heart-tugging messages of abortion and rejection) you display on the walls, they’re never going to be softened. It’s a landmark building though, and one that (since it opened in 1968) has firmly embedded itself into the Southbank’s skyscape. Like it or not, the Hayward deserves to stay.

Currently crouching near the roof of the Hayward (on the terrace above the neighbouring Quen Elizabeth Hall) is an enormous urban fox made of straw bales by Pirate Technics. First viewed as I took a bus along Waterloo Bridge on evening, I revisited the fox the next day in glorious sunshine and marveled at his size, his beauty and his simple splendour.

Further round the rooftop walkways is a display called The Lands, that features a variety of stone walls and piped in soundtracks to recreate the wild noises you’d hear if they were in their traditional habitat. For me, this wasn’t entirely successful. But they were located close to a glistening chamber of polished Welsh coal, which is confusing at first glance but rather pleasing to the touch and senses.

Back on ground level, the outdoor display that most caught my attention was of poems written on paper planes suspended in the sky on wires from a temporary structure up to the roof of the Royal Festival Hall. The display is intended to represent the former Lion and Unicorn Pavillion, which was a part of the original 1951 Festival of Britain but long since demolished. Utterly beautiful to look at and admire from every conceivable angle, this was without doubt the most stunning of outdoor artworks on show at the Southbank.

The Spirit Level basement of the Royal Festival Hall has been dominated by a free exhibition curated by Hemingway Design to create a vibrant collection of memorabilia, artworks, personal histories, models and memories from the original festival. Free to enter, the museum needs a good hour or two of your time to be enjoyed properly, and the attention to detail is overwhelming. The highlight being, without a doubt, the recreation of a 1951 living room, complete with all of the iconic fabrics used in the original festival (and many preserved today) by Robin and Lucienne Day. As an aside, I was particularly struck by the ladies’ toilets on the basement level (not a part of the museum, but a permanent fixture), which still has a separate, golden wooded annex for the sole purpose of women to touch up their make-up and hair. It’s a beautiful reminder of a more gentle time.

There’s more to the celebrations than I’ve had space to mention, and there’s more going on than I’ve had a chance to see. But if you have time in London over the next month, there’s nothing better you can do than head over to Southbank and soak up the celebratory sights there. This is truly a celebration of all that was great about the festival, and is a promise of all the achievements and performances that will take place there in years to come.