Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Learning life lessons from our foremothers

As a side effect of Cameron’s odious cupcake culture and his desire to drive liberated women back to the domestic prisons of the ‘50s, the giftbook market has become saturated with quaintly packaged reprints of ye olde manuals for new brides.

But apart from tittering at the preposterous suggestions for deterring your husband from making advances (lie silently in the dark so that he can’t find you), and going cross-eyed at what a miserable time women are portrayed as having in days of yore, is there anything useful we can learn from our foremothers?

Four weeks from my own wedding, I’ve been on the receiving end of a few of these tomes, plus some delightfully dated cookbooks. So I decided to take a closer look at them and see if there was some accumulated wisdom to inherit, tucked away between the pages about skinning a rabbit or turning the mattresses over weekly.

So let’s start at the beginning. Or, 1861 to be precise, the date of the oldest book on my shelf. Mrs Beeton’s Household Management (Wordsworth Reference, £3.99) has 1,120 pages crammed with 2,751 entries covering everything from childbirth to poison and how to cure apoplexy (“the strong kind”), and not ignoring domestic abuse. By the by, the recipe layout we now know (where the ingredients are listed at the start of each recipe) was apparently pioneered in Beeton’s book.

Moving on… Sex Tips for Husbands and Wives from 1894 (Summersdale, £4.99), is by vicar’s wife Ruth Smythers. Let there be no doubt: she does not want new brides to be getting up to mischief with their “lascivious” husbands. With a fresh look for 2011, this is one self-help book that won’t be of help to anyone… although it’s ideal for poking fun at on your hen night. (“While sex is at best revolting, and at worse rather painful, it has to be endured.”)

Fast forward to 1934, and let me introduce you to The Country Housewife’s Book, by Lucy H Yates (Persephone Books, £12). This no-nonsense tome is for the country wife who is busy gathering crops in order to ensure her dishes are seasonal. Which is terribly fashionable now, of course. The recipes themselves (stewed lettuce, pigeon pie, mushroom ketchup) may not seem the most tempting, nor the ‘hobbies’ (dressing rabbit skins, using fowl feathers) the most appealing, but Yates’ book is beautifully put together, as Persephone reprints always are, with delightful illustrations by Mary Gardiner.

Heading out of the country and back into the city, and in 1936 there were two small but deadly books called How to Be a Good Wife, and How to Be a Good Husband (Bodleian Library, £4.99 each). Decorated with smart drawings from the Army & Navy’s clothing catalogues from the same era, these tomes are surprisingly forward thinking in some respects. For instance, wives are told to ensure their sons respect girls and women from day one: “Do from the earliest years, teach the boys to pay every respect to women, not forgetting their sisters. The boy who is so brought up will find himself welcome and at ease in any class of society.” Yet on the other hand, wives are reminded that they must be permanently presentable, otherwise they only have themselves to blame if hubby has his head turned by his secretary. 

When the tables are turned, men are advised that to be a good husband they must never be “like a bear with a sore head when your wife’s mother arrives”, but also to “cultivate the habit of coming down to breakfast with a smile”. So, despite the bluntness of the wiles women must employ to ensure her man doesn’t stray, at least there’s a hint of equality in the kindness and manners each must show the other. Not that it should need spelling out! More importantly, the husband is reminded: “Your wife will probably have ideas of her own.” Yes, she will.

Hopping on to 1949 and Kay Smallshaw’s How To Run Your Home Without Help (Persephone, £12). Aimed at the post-war wife who is setting up home sans the servants who helped her mother, Smallshaw’s wife is presumed to know nothing and told the hard facts straight. Filled with briskly British maxims, Smallshaw issues plenty of bright-side statements such as: “Bedmaking can be quite a pleasant interlude from the dusting and sweeping. Also it has the advantage of stretching the muscles without undue exertion.” “With more housework to do, cooking must be as simple as possible, so choose a steamed meal.” What-ho! Not to mention one-and-a-half pages devoted to instructions for washing up efficiently. Further chapters advise on “entertaining with enjoyment”, and encouraging your husband to peel the vegetables at the weekends.

Taken with a pinch of salt, as a fledgling bride with no domestic skills whatsoever, I have to say I found a lot of useful information tucked away in How To Run Your Home Without Help… seriously.

In 1969, Mary Berry presented The Bride’s Cookbook (Conde Nast, out of print), complete with deliciously psychedelic cover and title pages (above). There’s no beating about the bush here, and Berry begins by saying: “Remember that a great deal of your time will be spent in the kitchen so make it an easy and pleasant place to be”… making mealtimes sound like a prison sentence. Berry tells the new bride how to plan her food shopping, make a good pot of tea, and prepare a “tropical pineapple tower” for a party. The Bride’s Cookbook is a beautiful history lesson into not only the tired gender attitudes still prevailing on the cusp of the ‘70s, but also into the foul-sounding dishes couples were expected to consume (spice tongue with raisin sauce, frankfurters with eggs).

However, as with the other books, the most revealing bit is the thin section devoted to ‘Man in the Kitchen’… where Berry advises it is best to get your husband used to helping out as soon as possible, otherwise there’s no hope. And of educating him about the best way to do the weekly shop, before he stops off at the Spotted Dog for a pint. “The husband should be provided with clearly written instructions as to the quantity and description of the goods required. Until he is experienced, the simple words ‘cheese’, ‘bacon’, ‘biscuits’ will not suffice.”

Finally, bringing us pretty much up to date is Anthea Turner, whose book How To Be The Perfect Housewife (Virgin Books, £12.99) accompanied a BBC3 series of the same name in 2007. The most alarming thing to notice about Anthea's book is that being so recently published means it cannot be viewed as quaintly historical or dated... in fact, this must be how Anthea maintains women in the 21st Century should behave! Much of the information she provides is the same as in the books already mentioned (the book is even subtitled "Lessons in the art of modern household management" in a nod to Mrs Beeton). With a few nods to contemporary life in the form of sections about how to run your home office, and some more appealing sounding recipes than in previous books (baked pears with honey and almonds, yum). 

There's a fair deal of useful information in Anthea's book (the art of ironing a shirt, of stain removal, or planning the perfect dinner party etc), but it's wrapped up in a fairly sugar-coated manner that implies Anthea possibly has more time on her hands than the average housewife, who - after juggling her job, children and social life - may not have time to disinfect her dustbins every week, or to make her own furniture polish.

So, what did I learn from these books? Well, while Smythers' book is clearly dated in terms of how most women view sex, the other books above (tone and language aside) don’t seem so dated in spirit. A book published now would be rightly ridiculed if it tried to tell brides their place was in the kitchen, looking permanently beautiful, while effortlessly whipping up three course meals. But the popularity of cupcake culture and the growing rise of cookery TV shows (Berry is currently a hit on BBC’s The Great British Bake Off) proves there is both a media drive to promote the Cameronification of old-fashioned domesticity, and a public willingness to lap it up.

I’m not for a moment saying you can’t enjoy cooking while also being a successful woman, but the messages coming loud and clear from the books mentioned here is that you are a wife first and a woman second… which sadly doesn’t seem a million miles from the Big Society push to drive women back into the home, and keep them there.

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

"Coasting" at Bristol Old Vic - theatre review

It’s a brave production that seats some of its audience on the floor. Especially when some of those people are press. But Coasting (directed by Emily Watson-Howe, from a script by Natalie McGrath) makes this decision, as part of the experimental spirit imbued through the script. Whether this is to reinforce the claustrophobia of the characters, and/or to strengthen our solidarity with the uncomfortable existence of those souls… who can say? Maybe it’s merely a quirk designed to make you view this as an avant-garde theatrical experiment? I’m only guessing.

In the heavily misted Studio, we wait and then watch as druggy clubby ‘80s urchins Pearl (Nadia Giscir) and Ocean (Tom Wainwright) ricochet and screech from one side of the room to the other. Their rapid speech is littered with bizarre patois, and the characters refer to themselves in the third person, which is strange, but after a while you think perhaps this is a device to underscore their closeness. Regardless, for the first few minutes I hadn’t got a clue what they said!

Coasting watches Peal and Ocean in their impoverished existence in a nameless seaside town on Bonfire Night. There’s a threat in the air and the looming presence of an otherness… quickly identified as “lily law”, aka lonely policewoman Falcon (Helena Lymbery).

The issue of burgeoning sexuality in an unforgiving and hateful world is as topical now as it was in the late ‘80s, the era in which Coasting is set according to the programme. However, this is at odds with the early ‘80s pop played while we waited for the play to start. Aside from being years out, it seemed doubtful that characters living on the fringes of society would spend their time listening to early Human League or OMD. That’s not a tricky detail to get right and, as with anything, it’s the details that make something a success… or not.

Wainwright is passable as a disheveled angry gay man, but Giscir carries the show with her strong performance, her believable emotion and her growing terror. However, Lymbery seems ill at ease alongside these two. Her performance, in a deliberately contrived script, jars with those of Wainwright and Giscir, who have a spark and have clearly rehearsed and rehearsed their lines, generating genuine chemistry.

Coasting is an interesting experiment in playful language, imaginative use of the theatre space, and casting of homegrown talent, but there’s still a long way to go. If you take risks and try something new, you have to work twice as hard to ensure it pays off, and I don’t believe this is there yet. That’s not to say there’s not talent on display: Giscir is clearly a gifted actress, and McGrath’s script shows great potential. But as it stands, I didn’t feel carried along by the sway of Coasting or invested in the characters… meaning that the end came as something of a relief.


Coasting is presented as part of Bristol Ferment, which is a year-round programme for the community of theatre-makers from Bristol and the South West.

Coasting is being performed until 15 October. For more information, visit the Coasting microsite. And to book tickets, please visit the Bristol Old Vic website.  

Thursday, 22 September 2011

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

“Well done, sister suffragette”

Last week, @TheNatFantastic posted an eminently sensible tweet.

Recently, I’ve been reminded about how awesome the suffragettes were and just how many things we have to thank them for. It started after I stumbled across this incredible WSPU pin badge from the 1910s in Bristol City Museum, which I took a photo of and keep returning to and studying.

I look at this badge and find myself wondering who the woman was who owned it: what her story was, what her role in the fight was, did she go to prison, was she force fed, what did her family think, and – more than anything – that I hoped she lived long enough to see women achieve the vote, thanks to her and her sisters.

I want to know how this badge ended up in the Bristol City Museum: the signage by the case indicates it was donated as part of a large collection of costume jewellery from someone in Oxford. But how did it come into their ownership, and by what means did it leave the suffragette’s hands, or her family’s? Were her family not proud of her amazing fight, so tossed it out with the rubbish? Maybe the badge was absent-mindedly lost and later mourned by the suffragette's ancestors. Perhaps nobody appreciated the socio-historical value of it.
The badge is a wee thing – about 3cm high and 1.5cm wide. But among a museum of countless mind-blowing artefacts, this is the one thing that is guaranteed to receive my attention every time I visit (which is regularly).
But the badge isn’t the only suffragette symbol to return in recent weeks. At the UK Feminista Summer School last month, I was delighted that environmental activist Tamsin Omond stood up before her talk and bedecked herself in a glorious ‘Deeds Not Words' sash, echoing the slogan of our fore-sisters. A little digging around tells me Tamsin models the action of her activist group Climate Rush on the suffragettes. I’m going to find out more about her, and hopefully contact her to ask about her loyalty to the suffragettes.
Back in March, a few of us Bristol feminists joined the audience for the suffragette-set play Her Naked Skin, performed by drama students at the University of Bristol. It was excellent. And my friends and I earned ourselves some sideways glances from other audience members for cheering and clapping loudly at appropriate points in the story (and boo-ing at a few, too)! You may be interested to know that Her Naked Skin was written in 2008 by Rebecca Lenkiewciz  and was the first play by a female writer to be produced on the main stage at the Royal National Theatre, London (opened 1963). A 45-year wait. But why?
And with all this going on, and having had a fairly stressful few months lately, the combination of Nat’s tweet, finding this incredible badge, applauding Tamsin for her sash, plus some general reading around the suffragettes to learn more about them (having admired American Djuna Barnes’ support for the UK suffragettes so much that it took up much of my first MA thesis), the spirit and legacy of the suffragettes has kept my head above water.

And in the background to all of this, stuck in my head, is the rousing call of Mrs Banks to her Sister Suffragettes in the 1964 film Mary Poppins (dir: Robert Stevenson), set in London, 1910. I’ll assume you know the film, which has been one of my favourites since I was about six and I used to watch the video on rotation, mesmerised by it, although at six, I knew nothing of suffrage or voting. But I remember the most interesting school history lesson ever was when I was about 12, and the suffragettes got a mention in one solitary class. For once, I was fired up by a teacher to know more about these outstanding women. But I remember going to the school library and looking for a book about suffragettes… it was not there. The suffragettes popped up again in an English literature class, for which maddeningly I can’t remember the book’s name or author, but it led to some exercises involving writing letters and diary entries as if we were the imprisoned suffragettes we were reading about. More chillingly, it involved imaging you’d been forced fed and writing about how that felt.
At the time, I wanted to bring in my Mary Poppins video and play Mrs Banks’ song to the class. I wasn’t allowed, but now into adulthood that hasn’t stopped me playing 'Sister Suffragette' in regular bursts from the soundtrack CD, and watching the film in times of low spirits.  The lyrics are mostly bang on (bar the line about men being “rather stupid”), and are well worth repeating. I print them in full here for your reading/singing pleasure. Deeds not words. Stand up, sister suffragettes. Solidarity to all, and particularly those who have been exceptionally kind during my recent struggles.
We're clearly soldiers in petticoats
And dauntless crusaders for woman's votes
Though we adore men individually
We agree that as a group they're rather stupid!

Cast off the shackles of yesterday!
Shoulder to shoulder into the fray!
Our daughters' daughters will adore us
And they'll sign in grateful chorus
"Well done, Sister Suffragette!"

From Kensington to Billingsgate
One hears the restless cries!
From ev'ry corner of the land:
"Womankind, arise!"
Political equality and equal rights with men!
Take heart! For Missus Pankhurst has been clapped in irons again!

No more the meek and mild subservients we!
We're fighting for our rights, militantly!
Never you fear!

So, cast off the shackles of yesterday!
Shoulder to shoulder into the fray!
Our daughters' daughters will adore us
And they'll sign in grateful chorus
"Well done! Well done!
Well done Sister Suffragette!

Saturday, 17 September 2011

Penny read: Reviewing Laurie’s latest book

Among my mail last Friday was a review copy of Laurie Penny's forthcoming book and the latest issue of the New Statesman. Left-wing literary leafs, indeed. 

Flicking through the NS, I stumbled on Penny’s weekly column and read it – enjoying her turn of phrase and agreeing with her on the state of the contemporary romantic relationship as depicted in David Nicholls’ novel One Day.

And then I flicked through the latest published collection of her columns, Penny Red: Notes from the New Age of Dissent (Pluto Press, published 20 October), and read the foreword by Warren Ellis. Something in what he wrote sounded familiar. So I returned to her column in the NS, then back to Ellis’ foreword, and made the connection.

In his introduction, Ellis includes the sentence: “Sometimes she makes you so angry in the way that makes you want to hold her head down the toilet until her legs stop twitching.” And in her NS column last week (12 September issue), Penny ends a sentence saying: “…a faster, simpler alternative might have been to hold his head down a toilet till the kicking stopped.”

Oh, Penny… Are there no original thoughts in your head?!

I wanted to enjoy her new book, I really did. I wanted to prove to Penny and to everyone else that I don’t take pleasure in criticising a sister feminist, and that my arguments with Meat Market (Zer0 Books, 2011) were not personal.

In summary, Meat Market was presented and sold as, well, fresh meat, yet some light Googling quickly confirmed the content was ripped from Penny’s old columns and was actually anything but fresh. Penny later told me: “Zer0 don’t say they’re [collections of old posts] but that’s what most of them are… To be honest this is such common practice in small scale writing that I can’t help feeling a little singled out.” I felt cheated by this. Penny continued to squirm, petulantly insisting it was not her fault that the citations were missing from some quotes in her book, quotes that I pointed out were actually sourced by other people. In addition, some quotes in Meat Market were purported to be from interviewees who subsequently told me Penny had never interviewed them for the book – despite at least one of the quotes being explicitly presented as interviewed for Meat Market.

Over the course of the 26 messages Penny sent me (messages conveying an increasingly paranoid, dramatic and pointlessly emotional tone), the amount of things that turned out to not be her fault in her own book made me wonder why she is incapable for taking responsibility for her professional work.

Penny Red is honest in the fact it is a collection of old columns. Although I do wonder when she will write something new, rather than keep capitalising on existing material. At £9.99 for the 68 pages of Meat Market, and £12.99 for the 211 pages of Penny Red, she’s not a cheap date. So I wish Penny would actually say something, rather than churn out rehashed books for no better reason than the vanity of having her name on a spine.

All this aside, what of the content?

Penny obviously writes well: she can produce a good turn of phrase and is adept at making the most miserable of scenarios sound picturesque. I’m not convinced she’s a journalist, although she might be a poet. Clearly she’s cornered the market in pitching up at London’s unfortunately frequent riot scenes, and writing about them in a verbose manner to make them sound like mighty battles of the people, rather than the messy and distasteful scuffles they really are.

She has an incessant desire to drop into every column the fact that she smokes roll-ups as if that makes her cool, and she likes to write about hanging off traffic lights with her “monkey instinct” as if this turns her into some sort of anarcho-acrobat. In Penny’s mock-Dickensian vocabulary, ‘cigarettes’ become ‘fags’, policemen become ‘coppers’, and ‘friends’ become ‘comrades’. While on one hand it’s interesting, relevant and eye opening to read witness reports from these contemporary battlegrounds, it quickly becomes exhausting to have to wade through so much prosaic waffle to actually access the information.

This book had the working title Riot Porn (based on an early listing on Amazon), and that’s exactly what the first section is. Penny is trying to create the impression that - despite her public school schooling, her Oxford bachelor degree, her internship in Parliament and the fact she inherited a stash of money (yet she frequently refers to herself as poor, a fact that made me hum Pulp’s Common People while reading) – she’s some sort of heroine of the disenfranchised youth.

To return to the “Riot Porn” issue, that is exactly what Penny Red is. It is smothered by the following type of phrases, which are literally ten a page - meaning the effect of her ability of write is diminished. “The kids start to sing, sweet and off-key, an apocalyptic choir knotted around a small bright circle of warmth and energy” (p16). “Everyone is stiff and hungry, and our phones are beginning to lose signal: the scene is Dante-esque, billows of smoke and firelight making it unclear where the noises of crying and chanting and the whine of helicopters are coming from” (p21).

Quite why Penny wants to paint herself as some anarchic bohemian, I don’t know. She summons up an image of herself shuffling bleeding from riot zone to police kettle, or swinging through the city from traffic light to lamppost with her aforementioned “monkey instinct”. Penny turns a student riot into a beautiful battleground, which it is not. Despite what she may think, Penny is not the Kate Adie of disenfranchised youth.

However, once we’ve ploughed through the turgid repetition of the first chapter, which focuses on the student and anti-cuts demonstrations, the tone changes and the book becomes less suffocating in its desperation to make a tasteless scene look romantic.

We’re presented with columns about the damage to society caused by page three, the misogyny of vajazzling (a word my spellchecker rejects, as do I), and a very good rant about the injustices being dealt to those who genuinely need to receive disability benefits. I also remember a column in the NS earlier this year that she wrote about how people misunderstood depression, which was excellent, although it’s not included in this book. You can access it on the NS website here, though.

There are plenty of other good columns, ones that tackle important issues in an informed, intelligent manner. There’s also quite a lot of frustrating columns in here, and on reflection I conclude these mostly seem to be the columns where she attempts to infiltrate an event (eg a gathering of the Conservative Future party, or barging into Tate Britain to observe a limp scuffle about the Turner Prize). Here, she seems to shout about her balls at being somewhere covert, but then doesn’t have a story to follow this up with. That’s not journalism, that’s vanity.

On the whole, I agree with many points Penny makes throughout her book. Clearly not every point, but then I’d be pushed to name one person who I agree with 100% on everything. Penny has the ability to provoke and rile, and I’ll be interested to observe over the next few years whether her career takes off and she develops her genuine ability to write well, alongside a journalistic nose for hunting out a story rather than reporting from the sidelines.

While reading Penny Red, I wondered how long it would be before Penny repurposed her existing writing a third time into The Memoirs of an Anarchist or some similar tract purporting to be the handbook for the student generation of protestors. I have no doubt that she will produce a further book, but I sincerely hope she actually comes up with some new copy for it. Otherwise even her staunchest supporters may start to lose interest.

Oh, and one last thing: whatever Penny says, it’s not cool to smoke. Apart from the fact it’ll make you stink like a tramp’s armpit, it’s extremely expensive and will kill you.

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Bristol City Museum and Art Gallery

After living in Bristol for three years, I realised I’d only ever been to the Bristol City Museum and Art Gallery once. Which is exceptionally pitiful when I tell you I work five minutes away. So over the past few weeks, I’ve been popping in during my lunch breaks to explore this amazing (and deceptively small-looking) building to see what I’ve been missing. My conclusion, for those too lazy to read to the end, is that Bristol City Museum and Art Gallery is brilliant – way better than the M Shed, which I’ve also written about but less flatteringly.   
Owned and run by Bristol City Council, the FREE museum features a labyrinth of rooms, all housing a varied hotchpotch of exhibits, many of which rub shoulders with seemingly unrelated items in a wonderfully charming manner.     
But let’s start with the building itself, which is beautiful. Situated at the top of Park Street, it is a grandly imposing Edwardian Baroque-style structure that quite rightly is grade II* listed. Having previously been housed further down Park Street, the museum as we now know it opened in February 1905 and has evolved and expanded ever since.    
Going up the stone steps, through the pillars and through the glass doors, you arrive in a cavernous and imposing entrance hall, with a wonderful jamboree of features. Above your head is suspended an enormous replica flying machine, to one side is a Banksy angel with a paint pot on her head, and elsewhere are Egyptian vases. This should give you an indication of the mixed bag you’re in for. Rolling up my sleeves, I dive in.    
The museum is well known for it’s impressive and expansive collection of artifacts from Ancient Egypt in a permanent exhibition on the ground floor. From a child’s garment, to tools and a stunning collection of sarcophaguses, nothing is overlooked. Where this collection really comes into its own is with the computerised display that considered the options when a mummy owned by the collection started to rot in the 1970s. The results are mesmerising.  Elsewhere, you have the option to look at the remains of a once mummified man – which leads to some thought provoking discussions about the ethics of exhibiting human remains.   
Back out in the main hallway, take some time to stand in awe at the enormous “Departure of Cabot” painting by Ernest Board, in which the great and the good of Bristol saw John Cabot off on his exploration. Turn around and there’s a colossal Chinese water fountain from 1993 behind you. Look up and see an enormous replica Box Kite. Glance back down, and see Banksy’s angel with a paint pot on her head as a reminder of the famous 2009 exhibition held here. All housed in an ornately designed hallway with the names of famous painters carved into the stonework, embroidered banners hanging down, and a magnificently mammoth chandelier.    
Further back on the ground floor, you pass a case with a polar bear skeleton in on your way to the Curiosity gallery (see what I mean about charming incongruities in locations). This is a little erratic for my tastes, though I am distracted by the poster leading me in, which has three people photographed – one of whom is Big Jeff, well known to Bristolian gig goers as the wild-haired man who is always bouncing at the front, while boasting an unmatched knack to headbang at the most unlikely of gigs (eg, Midlake at the Anson Rooms in 2009).    
At the far end of the ground floor is the café (even if you’re not hungry, put your head in and admire the mega chimney piece on the far wall), but whatever you do, do not overlook the costume jewellery exhibition in an alcove in front of the café. You can’t miss it, it’s just past the colossal 18th century Chinese bell! Seemingly tucked away in a nook that many might bypass, the costume jewellery collection (which extends around a few windy corners, so it’s worth being nosy) is beautiful. And after peering intently at rows and rows of displays, I was delighted to spot an early Women’s Social & Political Union pin from the suffragette movement (stand up, sister suffragette!).    
Up the marble staircase, and – depending on which staircase you took and whether you looked left or right at the top – you’ll find yourself starting to realise just how expansive this museum really is. After 10+ visits, I was still finding rooms and nooks I’d previously overlooked… and still remain unconvinced I’ve found all the collections!     
The first floor houses, among others, a historic collection of pianos, a gypsy caravan, the geology and mineral collections (check out the Bristol diamonds – sparkly), the Bristol dinosaur, endlessly fascinating maps of ye olde Bristol through the centuries around the balcony, and the famous wildlife collection of taxidermy creatures. Whether it’s the much-loved gorilla Alfred (who lived at Bristol Zoo until his death in 1948), or lesser-spotted birds, a hunted tiger or a pair of hippos… this is an comprehensive collection, housed in a charmingly old-fashioned manner of cabinets – many of which spot hand-writted, calligraphy information boards (presumably they also date from the pre-computer era).     
There’s some controversy about whether it’s gruesome or unethical to display the stuffed carcasses of dead creatures in this way, and I’m a little torn to both sides of the argument. However, ultimately, I’d veer towards celebrating this impressive collection as an antiquated example of the way people used to treat the unknown.     
We’re not done yet, not by a long shot. So catch your breath, and get set to head up to the even larger second floor – before wondering how it is possible for the second floor to seem larger than the floor on which it rests.     
Here, things become even more twisty and turny in terms of corridors and secret rooms to discover on multiple visits. Fill your curio boots. The second floor is definitely my favourite of the whole museum, not least because this is where the seven art galleries are housed, but also because it’s generally less populated by fellow visitors – affording you some much-deserved solitude and quiet in which to sit on a bench in one of the many rooms, and quietly take in your surroundings in these rooms full of artistic masterpieces and centuries old silverworks, knowing you are but metres away from the bustling activity of Park Street in the centre of a city.    
There’s not a chance that I’ve seen everything up here… but goddamit, I’ve put the effort in. However, on my travels so far, I’ve taken in the pottery and ceramics, and stumbled on a tucked away (yet enormous) room filled with a celebration of a donated collection of Chinese dragons (seriously – why haven’t you been here?). Interspersed among the collections are locally made glassware, silverware, pottery and more, all of which are informed by the wider examples around them, and most of which are intricately described in the accompanying information.    
However, the art galleries are where I really feel at peace. With seven to choose from, you’ll be spoilt for choice, but you can always sift through the genres and find the space that best suits your mood. Whether it’s a Pierre-Auguste Renoir you’re after, a Barbara Hepworth lithograph, the obligatory Beryl Cook, or a more contemporary installation by Richard Long… there are oodles to choose from. 
Overall… as you’ll have gathered, I’m a keen fan of Bristol City Museum and Art Gallery. I’m thinking of volunteering some time to work here, that’s how much I love it. We should celebrate this amazing treasure in the middle of our wonderful city and if, like me, you’ve walked past a hundred times and always meant to pop in, then do yourself a favour and bump it up to the top of your to-do list. You really won’t regret it.

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Looking good? Thoughts on Catherine Hakim and 'Erotic Capital'


Catherine Hakim has enjoyed a lot of column inches lately, not to mention TV coverage, thanks to her book Honey Money, which claims attractive people earn 20% more than their scruffy colleagues. Hakim’s book is divided into six categories: beauty, sexual attractiveness, social skills, liveliness, social presentation, and sexuality itself.

Honey Money claims men and women can both use “erotic capital”, but women need to take more advantage of it because men are more sexually motivated than women, and therefore they will find women more appealing as colleagues if they are nicer to look at around the office. BUT… Hakim spots a problem. Patriarchy has tried to make women feel bad for spending time and money on their looks, as have radical feminists (those pesky radical feminists), who “reinforce patriarchal moral objections to the deployment of erotic capital”. The result, says Hakim, is to “champion femininity rather than abolish it”. She concludes: “Why does no one encourage women to exploit men whenever they can?"

Celia Walden at The Daily Telegraph was in on this last April when Hakim’s original report was published in an academic journal, which makes me wonder why it’s taken the rest of the world so long to catch up, but anyway. Walden seems quite enamored with the concept, enthusing: “The best news? If you’re not born with it, you can learn to have the EC factor.” (Hakim cites Coleen Rooney as an example.) “We have this idea that you can’t be beautiful and clever. But what’s superficial about beauty?” Hakim asks Walden, adding, as if to prove her point: “Cleopatra exploited her erotic capital and nobody thought the worse of her for it.” Case closed.

In The Guardian, Zoe Williams recently interviewed “social scientist” Hakim, but arrived and left unimpressed. The result, by the way, is well worth reading as an exercise in how to interview someone you really don’t like. In trying to get Hakim to explain her six categories of erotic capital (listed above), Williams elicits this: “I'm saying that there are six elements of which only one is purely sexual, and the second one, sex appeal, is only partly to do with sex. Four of them have nothing to do with sexual attraction.” Towards the end of the interview, Williams writes: “[Hakim] disowns her views then restates them with abandon. She gets incredibly cross. I am slightly too old to capitulate just because someone is unpleasant to me. This you might call my unerotic capital.”

Over at Stylist, the question of the week was: “Should your looks dictate your pay packet?”. Hakim wrote: “Women should stop worrying that it is frivolous vanity to spend time on make-up, nice hair and nails, or good clothes that help you stand out from the crowd. The investment yields benefits. Smile at the world and the world smiles back.” Julie Bindel countered: “I believe we should be judged for our abilities not our dress sense.” She added: “This obsession with remodeling our bodies, face and hair, in order to look acceptable for men, further perpetuates the gap in power between the sexes.”

At Time, the question was rephrased as: “What's wrong with emphasising inner beauty and qualities like kindness, altruism and courage instead?” And the New York Times felt that uglier people should be protected by the same legislation that protects already recognised minority groups. 


So, having racked up mileage on both sides of the pond, let’s head over to Bristol’s Watershed where, this evening, Catherine Hakim took to the microphone as part of Bristol Festival of Ideas to tell us where we’ve been going wrong. I had the dubious pleasure of being in the audience…

Poor old Catherine Hakim. That's what I say. The woman seems genuinely baffled by the hostility she received from the audience this evening (the splattering of empty seats around the room revealing this was certainly not a sold-out affair), and seems genuinely convinced that she is right and if only us ignorant, ugly folk would see this, the world would be a much more attractive place for her and her equally superior chums.

Here are some of the best pearls of 'wisdom' uttered by Hakim this evening:

  • "Erotic capital is more important now than ever, and this will only increase. We [who?] have found being attractive will earn you more. All research evidence [what research evidence? A Nuts survey? A poll of 10 people on the street?] shows men benefit more than women from their erotic capital by more than 17%. Attractive women only earn 12% more. So women need to do something to catch up. This will eliminate the pay gap." 
  • "People will always have different ideologies. But men achieve more from being attractive than women do. So women should get full value from their erotic capital and close the pay gap."
  • "The pay gap is partly due to the fact women don't bargain in the workplace."

  • "The argument from feminism is that it was felt people had to use their looks to sell themselves into marriage. The argument from feminists is this is maybe no longer needed in the current day, and it's no longer important to invest time and effort into being an attractive person. The central argument of my book is that this is wrong. My research shows that being attractive is important." 
  • "Feminists argue that male and female sexuality is of equal weight, but that's an outdated idea."
  • "Patriarchal men treat the beauty of women as superficial. Feminists have made a fundamental mistake in accepting that ideology."
  • "I didn't have space in my book to write about feminists and their views. But there is at least one important central idea that is still around, which comes from feminists like Sheila Jeffries. There is this legacy of antagonism to this idea that beauty is invaluable. And I'm hearing it a lot today in this room."
  • "I'm arguing that there are three forms of personal capital that are well recognised, in terms of skills, qualifications and social capital. They're well established in social science. But there's a fourth unrecognised strata — erotic capital. It's not recognised because feminists positively reject it. I say they're wrong." 
  • "Being personally and physically attractive is vital in all areas of life."
  • "We're happy to reward intelligence achieved through hard work, even though that discriminates against those who are less intelligent. Therefore, we should reward those who are above average in attractiveness through the hard work they put into looking good." 

  • "Pierre Bourdieu  focused on the social status of people. I'm not, because it's simpler not to. One of the reasons Bourdieu missed erotic capital was because erotic capital isn't completely inherited and can't be controlled by the wealthy. This is why it is problematic."

  • "This is an occupation where erotic capital is highly rewarded. Women quite voluntarily earn 2-40 times what they would earn in an ordinary labour market. The maximum value of erotic capital for sex workers is much higher."
  • "Prostitution should be neither prohibited nor promoted. Prohibition makes life more difficult for the women involved. I don't think sex work should be promoted, but prostitution sees erotic capital get its highest potential economic return. What people who claim to have studied the sex industry overlook is that it's an industry that shows the potential market value of erotic capital."
  • "The public perception of sex workers is wrong. The media focuses on trafficking, street workers, drug addicts, victims and the exploited. But everyone who has studied the sex industry seriously knows these people make up only 5-10% of all sex workers."

  • "Gay men have more relationships than heterosexual people. I wouldn't call them meaningful relationships though, because 'meaningful' implies a moralistic tone, so I don't use that word. All research evidence on the gay community shows that short term relationships are much more salient in the gay community on the whole. A study showed that some gay men in North America had up to 1,000 partners a year. I don't think many heterosexuals would say that."

  • "The media have reduced my argument into being about sexuality. That's not true. It's also about social skills." 

So, there's a lot to digest there. Or is there? It seems to me that Hakim has one rather weak and tired idea (which is by no means original), which is that people who are more attractive do better than those who are less attractive. That's it. Except she seems to have stretched it out into a very weak-sounding book (I haven't read it - not for £20!) based on a set of nameless studies (or at least unnamed in her talk, although I am very interested to know their academic worth) over the past 10-15 years.

Hakim's arguments against feminists are extraordinary. I would love to know why she hates feminists so much, and keeps referring to them as an 'other' type? What have feminists ever done to her? Other than ensure she has the right to vote, that she is able to have had her university education, that she is able to work in a senior role and earn her own income? I have no idea if she is married or a mother (frankly, I doubt it), but if she is, then feminists have ensured she has plentiful rights there that she would otherwise not have enjoyed. And whether or not feminists achieved this on days when they wore lipstick, Hakim would be advised to realise quite how much of her freedom is down to feminists. She'd also be advised to realise that while Sheila Jeffries is indeed a feminist writer, she is far from the only feminist writer in the world, and there are many a lot closer to home than Australia, where Jeffries is based.

There's a well worn saying that people in glass houses should not throw stones, and the uncharismatic presentation (both verbally and physically) by Hakim this evening brings this phrase to the front of my mind. I would not normally comment on someone's appearance in this way, however in this context it seems wholly relevant. Her extreme defensiveness to criticism, and her persistent reluctance to engage in discussion positing an alternative perspective is staggering, as is her willingness to blame others for misinterpreting her writing — perhaps she should have written more clearly in the first place, since so many people have apparently misunderstood her.

Hakim presents as a woman who doesn't seem to like women much, and who holds them in extremely low regard. I'm always curious about these women-who-hate-women, and in my idle moments (not many) I plot conducting my own cod-sociological study into them. Sadly, I doubt Hakim will participate — as the session concluded, the chairwoman asked Hakim if she had an email address where people could ask her more questions on her theories. Hakim looked horrified and said sniffily, as if this was something far beneath her: "I don't have any kind of online forum."

(By the way, Honey Money is currently floundering with only 2.5 stars from 15 reader reviewers over on Amazon, showing that the proof really is in the pudding. The reviews are headed with titles such as: “Cosmo article with footnotes”, “Theoretically weak scholarship” and “Nothing we don’t already know”.)

8/9/11 — Postscript: I have asked the publishers of Honey Money, Allen Lane, if they'd be able to send me a review copy, so that I can read it and see if Hakim explains herself better in written word than spoken. As yet, they have not got back to me.