Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Billy Bragg interview: “We need more opinionated women”

Photo: Michael Barbour

After 30+ years as one of our most-respected protest singers, Billy Bragg has never been more relevant than now. In these turbulent days of mass occupations in major cities, industrial strike action and deep-rooted recession, Billy’s no-nonsense approach to trying to change the way we operate makes a lot of sense.
This Sunday and Monday, Billy was in Bristol – primarily for a sold-out gig at the Fleece & Firkin on Monday, but also to perform at the Occupy Bristol camp on College Green, and a spontaneous gig at the recently opened Occupy UWE camp. Throw in getting some rhyming slang for shit on BBC Radio Bristol, and Billy was kept busy on his flying visit.
He also kindly made time to talk with me, and I had the pleasure of catching the end of his soundcheck before his gig – which included a chorus of Please, Please, Please, Let Me Get What I Want: an extra treat for me as it never made it’s way onto the final playlist.

With a career as enduring as Billy’s, it could seem depressing that his songs warning of Thatcherite hell are so relevant again. But he takes it in his stride, saying: “That’s the trouble if you write topical songs.” Bringing it into a more recent perspective, and linking to one of his newer songs (Never Buy The Sun), he adds: “When the Milly Dowler phone-hacking scandal broke, people were saying ‘You’ve got to rewrite the lyrics to It Says Here’, and I thought I probably should. So I looked at them and thought, ‘Actually, you know what, I don’t have to rewrite them at all’. That’s the sad thing about being a topical songwriter – shit comes around and goes around.”
And while that’s true, this has been a particularly busy week for the population concerned with standing up to the shit that’s doing the circuit. Today (Wednesday), Billy was in London supporting the mass public sector industrial action. “Our political discourse has become so shameful that the leader of the Labour party – the LEADER of the LABOUR party – can’t even come out and support public sector workers when there’s industrial action.”
All being well, Billy’s plan was to record vox pops for Radio Five Live… “I’ll be talking to Tories,” he laughs, “Trying to be impartial.” There’s a pause before he wryly adds: “We’ll see what happens.”

What’s been happening since October are the Occupy camps, which are growing in number weekly. The main Bristol occupation on College Green is the second biggest in the UK after St Paul’s, and is gaining in strength all the time – despite concerns from some people that the demands of the camps are unclear, and that women’s issues have not been fully engaged with.
Yet Billy insists he’s seen no evidence of women being sidelined at the Bristol camp or any other. “All I can say is a woman introduced me on stage, a woman sorted me out when I got down there, a woman showed me where to go and what to do. That’s not uncommon. But I think there always is a male thing going on, and as night falls it becomes more macho.”
Expanding on this, Billy adds: “I was down there last night [Sunday] after dark and it was quite Neolithic. People come out of the woodwork after dark, people who may be sleeping on the streets and are tempted by a fire and maybe some beer… There’s bound to be people who are not completely signed up to the programme who want to come for a bit of warmth and company.”
For all that, the Occupy movement has fired Billy with enthusiasm, not least because the spirit of the movement is so closely aligned to his own reason for becoming a protest singer. “The reason I’m here is that I work for a man called Woody Guthrie,” Billy explains, referring to the American protest singer who died in the 1960s. “Woody Guthrie never did a gig like this where he had a dressing room and a rider and someone selling t-shirts. He played schools and picket lines and occupations. So I have to do that, too.”
In reference to his performance at Occupy UWE that afternoon, he added: “I was saying to the students: ‘I’m thanking you, I have to be here because of who I am and what I believe in. But you’re students, you don’t have to be here. So salute you, never mind me. I’m supposed to be up here, I’m Billy Bragg, I’m doing Woody’s work.”
There are many people who have called the Occupy movement wishy washy and complained it is unclear what the demands are, but Billy simply says it depends what expectations you have. “The globalisation movement smashed shop windows and burned cars. You can smash up branches of McDonalds all day long, nothing’s going to happen,” he states. “What’s happening now, though, is different. While all those demonstrations were going in the 1990s, and with the miners’ strikes in the 1980s, capitalism was rampant. Now capitalism is flat on its arse and something has got to change because we’re all up against the wall.”
When pushed on what that change might be, he says: “In a very broad sense, it’s all about accountability. Those who have economic power over us – the bankers, the multinationals, the lobbyists – those people must be held to account. If it was down to me, I would have publically funded political parties and have all lobbying be transparent. Nothing should be done behind closed doors. Why do our politicians want to say things that are off record? We employ them! They are our employees. They should be accountable to us.”
Yet his faith in the current Occupy movement is clear: “I have confidence in them to articulate a compassionate ideal in a way that’s not tarnished by totalitarianism, in a way that’s not held back by what happened in 1917, that looks forward to 2017 and what kind of world we want to live in. Not how Lenin did it, or Trotsky did it. That doesn’t work anymore. Marx isn’t the problem: Marxists are the problem. Those sour old bastards! They need to stop lecturing and start listening.”

It would be impossible for me, as a feminist activist, not to ask Billy where he stands on equal rights for women and feminism. “How would you define feminism?,” he muses. “I’m a socialist but there’s a lot of different definitions of a socialist.” There are a lot of different definitions of a feminist, too, I say. “I believe that women should have equal pay with men. Does that make me a feminist? I believe that childcare should be provided free. Does that make me a feminist? I do the washing up at home. Does that make me a feminist?” I laugh and say that I don’t think it’ a question of ticking boxes! “In that case, in the sense that I believe we should live in a fair and equal society, then I’d like to think I’m a feminist. But I’m also a disablist, a gayest…” Well, I think they all go hand in hand… “Yes, that’s true.”
But when talking about the history of union membership, Billy stresses it was thanks to women’s suffrage in 1928 that the election of 1945 saw the roots of the NHS being planted.
“In 1945, we had the first election where women’s votes really counted,” he says. “A lot of people say that the 1945 election was about soldiers. It wasn’t. Women under the age of 30 first got the vote in 1928, and then there wasn’t an election between 1931 and 1945. So an entire tranche of young women with children had come in, and it was their votes that set up the welfare state. Not the soldiers’.” He’s quick to add: “The soldiers did vote for a better world, but the significant thing was the untapped bulge of young women of childbearing age who did not want to go through what their mothers went through. That was the vote that made the welfare state.”

When the UK riots kicked off in August, Billy was in America and he says it was extraordinary hearing over the wires what was happening at home. “I couldn’t get a handle on it. What was it about? It was weird,” he says, still sounding baffled and saddened by what happened. “I saw rioters had burned down the Westbury Arms in Barking where I come from, and I couldn’t understand that. What would they do that? It was totally illogical in the sense that previous riots had been focussed on some sense of social anger. And although it began with the death of Mark Duggan, it quickly descended into a free for all. It didn’t have a focus.”
What was highlighted at the time, and is the only thing we can salvage from the riots, were the volunteers who selflessly cleaned up the mess. “The anarchy to me was the people who came the next day and swept it all up without being organised. That’s real proper anarchy. That’s what anarchy is in a political sense.”

With the clock ticking towards Billy’s time on stage, I was anxious not to keep him too long. But I wanted to know if he thought it would be possible for a new protest singer-songwriter to enjoy the same longevity that he has? “Five years ago I’d have said it’d be really difficult, because any kid starting out would have been going against the tide,” he says. “But now, with the Occupy movement…”
I ask if he worries that the Simon Cowell-ification of the music industry – an industry that synthesises an unidentifiable, characterless, soulless puppet for a TV series, who is then forgotten three months later – is deadening our ability to recognise real talent. “Abba were number one all the way through punk,” Billy states. “The only punks who got anywhere near the top of the charts were Blondie. The Sex Pistols, The Clash… forget it. They never got anywhere near the mainstream.”
Returning to opportunities for new talent, he adds: “I think the time is coming when you can make political music again, because it’s hard to make it without political context. I’ve managed to keep going because I’ve found an audience that connects with it. I’ve spent my time looking at issues and connecting with things like Woody Guthrie.
“The thing that worries me now is that what supported what I did is no longer there, which is the NME, Sounds and Melody Maker. When I was making political music 30 years ago, the editors of those three papers were children of 1968, they believed that music was the alternative lingua franca. That was how we talked to one another, it was how I talked to my parents’ generation as a working-class person. The only medium available to me was to buy a guitar and learn to play and write songs. But that’s all gone. Even the NME pours piss on anyone who’s political now.”
And it’s not just the printed music press, as we also have a whole world of online commentary to deal with now. And Billy is not a fan of Facebook: “People think they’re engaged but they’re not in the way that the audience will engage with me tonight, I promise you that. Facebook likes are not the same as coming together.”
I ask if he gets much abuse online. He says he doesn’t, adding: “You know why I don’t get as much abuse as you? Because my genitals are outside my body. Women with opinions get a lot more shit. Some people cannot stand the idea of a smart woman voicing an opinion. But we should stand up to people who are abusive to women online. Your freedom of speech isn’t freedom to be abusive.”
It’s time to wrap up and for Billy to grab some food before he goes on stage, but as a parting shot he says: “The younger generation are in the throes of discovery and energised by everything. And we need more opinionated women.”

The Bristol gig was the last night of Billy’s tour, and his set closed with him calling on stage both of his support acts – Sound of Rum and Akala – and the three vocalists performing an extended version of the 1931 union anthem Which Side Are You On? With lyrics rewritten to take in our contemporary situations, the affirmations from the audience were overpowering but not nearly so much as Akala’s repeated opening chant of “We are the 99%” – truly spine-tingling. 
If the future is in the hands of women and men now, as much as the creation of the welfare state was in 1945, then women and men need to jointly keep fighting in solidarity to ensure we keep the NHS and don't let the bankers grind us down. 

Sunday, 27 November 2011

How To Fill a Black Hole – Book Review & Giveaway!

Filling the gap in the market for a serial about children marooned in space, along comes Benjamin Hendy’s debut novel How To Fill A Black Hole (Milliways Books, £7.99 – £1 from each goes to Southampton Hospital Charity). It’s the first in The Marianna Voyages series, with the second instalment out next year.
The book opens in the year 2412, at which point Earth has been uninhabitable for 150 years and humans have been relocated to a colossal spaceship coursing into the unknown. We meet heroes Connor, Grace, Evelyn, Adam and Max just before disaster befalls their parents (and most other inhabitants of the ship they called home), and the five youngsters (aged eight to 15) begin an adventure through space to safety.
Crudely described (by me!) as a cross between Lord of the Flies and Red Dwarf, How To Fill A Black Hole takes the characters on a journey that sees them fighting giant venomous spiders and four-winged vultures, as well as meeting a few more friendly characters who offer a glimpse of hope in their desolate environment. And while the impetus for the novel is clearly the kids’ adventure, I was curious to read it from the perspective of how they handle their grief, isolation and possible futility. As yet, these issues have not been thoroughly explored but then this is only the first book in the series. I was also desperate to know how thorny issue of puberty was going to affect the characters. (Meg Rosoff’s award-winning How I Live Now is a great example of a young adult’s novel tackling life, grief and growing-up without adult supervision.)
How To Fill A Black Hole is surprisingly gripping for a debut novel, and there are plenty of cliff hangers and dark twists to keep you engaged. Being a first book, there’s a few teething problems that will doubtless get ironed out as Hendy develops the series: in places the dialogue is a little clunky and I wondered why – in 2412 – the characters were listening to Abba and Dusty Springfield. But that’s me being picky.
My main concern was that I didn’t feel the children’s grief was dealt with convincingly, except for perhaps the youngest character Max. Although I appreciate it’s tough to make grief into a page-turner, it’s also a topic that many younger readers will unfortunately have to face. A go-to novel handling the topic sensitively would be a bonus on any library shelf.
However, there were enough dramas, surprises and even a budding romance to keep readers hopeful that the second book in the series, The Revolutionary Kind, will be a nice little plot developer. It’s well worth giving How To Fill A Black Hole a punt and watching the series develop.

Milliways Books has kindly offered three copies of How To Fill A Black Hole for a pre-Christmas giveaway. Simply email your name and address to, putting ‘MadamJ-Mo’ in the subject line. The first three names picked on December 9 will be sent their book – hopefully in time for Christmas! You can also download the first three chapters for free here.

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

A patriarchy-free, non-traditional wedding

A lot of people have found this blog by Googling ‘feminist wedding’. Now the wedding is done and dusted, sigh, maybe this post will be more conclusive…


When we began planning our wedding, there were several things we took into consideration:

1 – The word ‘tradition’ had nothing to do with our wedding.
2 – We wanted to support independent businesses whenever possible.
3 – We wanted food and drinks to be locally sourced.
4 – We didn’t want our guests to feel under pressure to cough up.
5 – We had a maximum budget of £2,000 for EVERYTHING. (The average wedding in the UK currently costs £21,000.)

Initially, I was caught up in the wave of materialism and bought a fat wedding magazine at the extortionate price of £5. It was filled with shiny adverts, and pictures of conventionally pretty, slim, Caucasian models in enormous and expensive white dresses. As well as ideas for favours that were a “snip” at £25. Each. I even saw a cake for £900.

This was not our kind of wedding. And that quickly became a much-repeated phrase when planning our wedding.


Another factor was that I wanted our wedding to be proof that it was possible to have a feminist wedding. As the months went by, I had to lessen that expectation. Weddings are inherently caught up in the patriarchy – the very concept involves a woman being passed from one man to another (assuming it’s a heterosexual wedding). BUT it is possible to lessen the patriarchal impact and that’s what we tried to do.

From the outset, I made it clear my father would not be giving me away. As a 33-year-old, I haven’t lived in his house for 15 years, so – by the logic that I am going from one man’s house to another – it would have made more sense for my landlord to give me away. Instead, my fiancé and I walked in to the ceremony together, starting married life as we meant to go on.

The ceremony was in the smallest room possible at the council registry office, and I requested a female registrar. We had 20 guests, meaning it was very intimate. There was no mention of obeying or ownership, and when the registrar handed me the marriage certificate afterwards she did so without (thankfully) making reference to the fact that the certificate is always given to the woman because she is seen as the one wearing the trousers.

For my thoughts on the surname issue, please click here. In short: yes, I changed my name.


 Not being particularly ‘girly’, I get my hair cut by whichever salon is doing a Groupon voucher at the right time. So that was my wedding hair sorted – £40 for wash, cut and style. Perfect! My hairdresser, Sarah, created an unfussy, uncomplicated style that was different enough from how I normally wear my hair, but not so ridiculous that I didn’t look like me.

For cakes, we wanted fresh cupcakes, and conveniently one of my two bridesmaids has a pastry chef cousin, who lives locally and runs a cake-making business from her kitchen. I booked her without even tasting her cakes. We made the cupcake at the top look more impressive with a £1.99 ice fountain from Sainsbury’s. Big thanks to Ruth at House of Cupcakes.

Wedding photographers have a reputation for being invasive, expensive and charging you to print your own pictures. We also didn’t want a stranger intruding on our day. But then I thought of my friend Liz… who is one of the directors of the BBC’s Frozen Planet and a mind-blowingly brilliant photographer. And Liz has done us proud – I can’t recommend or thank her enough. (She took all the pictures on this post, by the way.)

My dress and shoes came from a high street shop. My jewellery was from an online retailer and aided by a discount code, and I also borrowed my maternal grandmother’s wedding ring. One of my bridesmaids kindly did my make-up, after we went for a lengthy (and free) consultation at Benefit.

Invitations were designed and handmade by my wonderful mum, who also took charge of the flowers and my posy. 

 Our reception was at Goldbrick House on Park Street, where we hired the Library and Study at the very top of the building. It’s a wonderfully decorated venue, and has the feel of an old-fashioned members’ club. It’s thankfully not in a chain, and all food and drink is locally sourced wherever possible. Katherine and her team went to great lengths to decorate the rooms how we wanted, and to accommodate my every whim.

My chief bridesmaid, who’s a graphic designer, created some stunning posters that we decorated the reception with. Bunting, decorated paper birds and fairy lights were sourced cheap online, but the piece de resistance at the reception was an old shop window display of paper birds on metal poles that the lovely staff at Oasis in Cribbs Causeway kindly donated to me when they changed their window display. This tied perfectly with our birds and books theme.

We were lucky that our hotel, registry office and reception venue were all within walking distance of each other. It was lovely to walk through our city in our wedding clothes – without coughing up for an unnecessary car (and its fumes).

And THAT is a whistle-stop tour of how we managed to achieve our wedding for just under £2,000, yet still have the day we wanted. And hopefully we managed to do this without conforming to the traditional and patriarchal expectations of the institution of marriage. Phew!

Please feel free to share your suggestions for a patriarchy-free, low-cost wedding in the comments section below.

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

One25 Bristol Community Cake Book

Need a Christmas present for the cake lover in your life? You can’t do better than the Bristol Community Cake Book, produced by essential Bristol charity One25, and selling on their website here for the bargain price of £4.99. I’ve just bought three for presents, that’s how good they are.
The book is beautifully produced, lavishly illustrated with colour photos, and well supported by lots of Bristol restaurants and foodies. Recipes have been donated by everyone from Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall to Pieminster and, of course, One25 volunteers. And those recipes include the tempting Apple, Pear & Honey Cake, Boisterous Brownies and, err, Courgette Cake (well, let’s give it a go!).
All profits from the book go to One25, which is a Bristol charity that is run by women for women who are street-based sex workers, those who are in the process of exiting such work, and those who have now exited. Launched in 1995, the charity helps vulnerable women build new lives away from violence, poverty and addiction. Support One25 by buying this tasty book!

Sunday, 20 November 2011

Feminism In The News

“It is lazy journalists who frequently rely upon stereotypical representations of men and women, and who consequently do injustice to social movements.” (Mendes, p67)
Anyone with even a cautious interest in feminism is aware that we don’t get a good deal from the media. We never have. However, it’s not as cut and dried as all that and there are corners of the media, pockets of publishing, where women’s rights and feminism issues are allowed an airing… although there are always compromises and sacrifices involved.
In this extremely thorough analysis, Kaitlynn Mendes (a journalism lecturer at De Montfort University) goes back to 1968 and examines how feminism has been represented by eight national newspapers (four each in the UK and US).
Feminism In The News: Representations of The Women’s Movement Since The 1960s (Palgrave Macmillan, £49.99) is such a detailed and carefully woven study, presented in an academic yet readable style, that there’s little to find fault with. Apart from with Mendes’ findings that women’s issues have been so consistently and persistently relegated for so long, despite advances in reality!
Depressingly, Mendes’ studies confirm there has been little to no improvement in the perception of feminists as “crazy, ill-tempered, ugly, man-hating, family-wrecking, hairy-legged, bra-burning radical lesbians” (p35) from the ‘60s, and that – as we know – the lie that bras were burned at the 1968 Miss Universe pageant just will not go away. It proves that if the media peddles a story loudly enough, it simply doesn’t matter if it’s true or not, because people will want to believe it if it makes a marginalised group look foolish. However, Mendes also reports an attempt, in 1978, to counter the bra burning myth with an equally preposterous myth of men burning their y-fronts: “Downtrodden men are after something you have already got – equality. Moves are afoot to make 1979 the Year of Men’s Liberation. Bonfires of y-fronts could soon be burning in the streets” (p80). What a shame this equally ridiculous tale never worked its way into folklore in the same way.
What also won’t go away is the attempt by much of the media to ‘humanise’ feminists by needing to state the woman’s marital status and whether or not she is a mother in any introductory text. Mendes cites a 1970 report about Betty Friedan at the Women’s Strike for Equality rally which, she says, spends more time focussing on Friedan’s visit to the hairdresser than it does on the reason for the rally.
There is a lot of weight in Feminism In The News given to the public perception of feminism, because unfortunately this is something that is going to dog us until patriarchy no longer has the upper hand. Feminists on both sides of the pond have always been presented as unfeminine and threatening, an alien and ‘other’ type. While anyone who experiences or lives feminism knows this to be nonsense, sadly it is the willing disbelievers who we have a harder job to convince. Mendes calls this “the normalisation process” that the media needs to go through in order to try and reconcile these unruly deviants as “normal” (p60, p77).
Unable to escape the need to focus on the appearance of women, Mendes also notes a trend in her sample papers – especially in the 1970s – to link feminism women to all manner of apparently unsightly physical conditions from alcoholism to baldness, as well as the antisocial characteristics of bullying and violence (p118). Who knew that feminism could make your hair fall out?
Mendes observes trends in the writing of feminism, with newspapers honing in on one woman’s experience of a topic – thereby skewing or biasing their coverage, and neglecting to represent “the diverse nature of feminist political theory, goals and tactics” (p51).
In more recent years, she observes a trend for newspaper articles about feminism to try and hook the feminist thread up to pop culture, in a bid to make it fashionable. So there were scores of articles pondering whether Sex And The City was a feminist show, whether Bond girls are feminists, and declaring just how much of a feminist icon Cheryl Cole and the like is (p136), which is a trend that’s just not going away.
In almost all areas of her book, I agree with Mendes wholeheartedly and her findings are hard to doubt anyway. But one point ruffled my feathers – Liz Jones from The Daily Mail, whatever Mendes may say, is not a feminist. While rightly stating that The Daily Mail is particularly opposed to feminism, Mendes goes on to add that “certain writers such as Liz Jones are responsible for what little supportive coverage existed” (p148), and later: “Authors such as … Liz Jones stand out for their commitment to feminist values” (p165). Make your own mind up on that one, but I can’t think of one feminist who would stand next to Jones in a line-up.
Clearly, by only focussing on eight newspapers, Mendes’ findings are relatively limited, however to have focussed on more would surely be impossible, and the fact her results from eight titles have been condensed so precisely into this trim volume is a credit to her.
Feminism In The News is an important and useful text, not least because in one book we now have clear academic proof that – regardless of what male editors may like to tell us – feminists have been consistently and repeatedly pushed to the margins and treated like a joke. It would be interesting to see follow up articles and volumes focussing on specific countries, or types of publication, to gain a bigger picture of this problem, as well as to try and suggest solutions for allowing women’s feminist voices to be heard on pages outside of The Guardian.

The Vagina Monologues

Last night, Bristol welcomed a one-night showing of the episodic play by Eve Ensler, The Vagina Monologues. Having been doing the circuit for 15 years, the three-woman production has seen all manner of actresses take the hot seats – from Oscar winners to TV stars.

Billed as ‘hilarious’ and ‘moving’, The Vagina Monologues seems a tricky show to market, especially with the ‘v’ word in its title, titter titter. I overheard one man walking past the Bristol Hippodrome complaining that seeing the word ‘vagina’ on a poster was offensive, and should be covered up to protect children. Seriously! I wonder if the same was said of The Puppetry of the Penis, which the same theatre put on a few days earlier.

Tonight’s production was performed by Louisa Lytton (EastEnders, The Bill), Wendi Peters (Coronation Street) and Zaraah Abrahams (Waterloo Road). And while they were all impressive, Wendi was the standout star – even if it was hard to shake off thoughts of Cilla Battersby!

Based on Eve’s ‘Vagina Interviews’ conducted with women from all around the world, the monologues give voice to human stories, all in some way related to the vagina: sex, love, periods, hair, masturbation, FGM, rape, birth, orgasm, the multitude of alternative names for the vagina… all presenting the vagina as an organ for empowerment.

Understandably, there’s been some debate in the feminist community about The Vagina Monologues. For instance, several critics have damned the play as too anti-male and for implying that heterosexual relationships are fuelled by violence.

As such, I wondered how the (few) men in the audience would feel hearing women talk about themselves and their relationships with men like this? More to the point, as a feminist who is very aware of the PR battle we face when trying to convince men that feminist women are not anti-sex, man-haters, I wondered if this play might in fact convince these men that feminist women are the angry harridans the media falsely portrays us as.

Men are even applauded by the cast for attending, which strikes me as patronising. Why wouldn’t they attend? This is an accessible opportunity to gain an insight into how women think and feel. It’s worthwhile anyone attending.

Here’s a recent review of the play by a male reviewer. It’s interesting to read his take on it. In it, the reviewer Rob writes: ‘It is disquieting to imagine the women one knows thinking like this. How many really do?”, before asking: “Do men have anything about which they feel similarly superior?” My comment here is not in any way directed at Rob personally (I don’t know anything about him), but this tack is dredged up when anything pro-women appears – what about the men? Why does a play called The Vagina Monologues need to pander to men? It is clearly about women.

And being about women, women dominated the audience. All sorts of women. Which was great. Although there were also a number of groups who were on hen nights, maybe thinking this was going to be a raucous, cackling, smutty show. And the feeling of my companion and I was that the performance on stage was great, but the performance from some audience groups was disgraceful. Because while it was fine (if irritating) for the hen parties to shriek in the monologues about, for instance, different types of orgasm, it was wholly inappropriate and disrespectful for the same women to giggle and talk among themselves through the monologues about rape in the Congo, for instance. We observed at least two such groups rightly being asked to be quiet by Hippodrome staff.

The Vagina Monologues is not a hen night show! It’s a thoughtful exploration of a part of the body that often goes ignored. The jarring discomfort of sequencing a monologue about gang rape next to a monologue about the joy of lesbian sex is effective in how it jolts you out of your mental comfort zone, but I wondered how much of the message about the gross global abuse towards women was lost on the hen party goers. Not least because they were giggling through it.

But The Vagina Monologues *is* an important show. The caliber of actresses it has attracted, its ability to fill theatres, and its lasting reputation are all testament to its future. It’s fantastic to hear the vagina being discussed, embraced and simply talked about – when normally, but inexplicably, it’s considered a taboo word. And by mixing serious and fun monologues, Eve Ensler is ensuring that the global inequalities for women are brought home to Western audiences, as well as highlighting more local women’s issues.

Through the success of The Vagina Monologues, Eve has formed the charity V Day, which is a global non-profit movement that has raised around £50m for women’s anti-violence groups worldwide. You can’t sniff at that.

Saturday, 19 November 2011

Reclaim The Night 2011, Bristol

“On 18 November, we ask you to march with us in solidarity.
We ask you to join us in the fight to end violence against women and girls.” 
Bristol Feminist Network

Last night, was the annual Reclaim The Night march in Bristol. And it was a fantastically liberating and empowering experience.

In Bristol, the march is organised by a team of volunteers from the Bristol Feminist Network (BFN). For those that don’t know about Reclaim The Night, I’ve copied a brief explanation of  the march direct from BFN’s website: “Reclaim the Night is an international movement against sexual violence. In Bristol, supporters organise vigils to remember those affected by sexual violence, and march to demonstrate our right to walk the streets at night.”

The most recent statistics show there are an average of 130 rapes every month in Bristol (collating figures between those bravely reported to police, and those unreported for a number of understandable reasons). Sian (a co-founder of BFN) explains how these figures are calculated here, and concludes: “When we know that we have 19 reported rapes per month in Bristol, but that only represents 15% of rapes overall, we can estimate that each month in Bristol there are 127 rapes.” It’s chilling stuff, and I recommend you read her post to get the bigger picture about this.

Sian told me yesterday: "I am just one woman from a larger group who have dedicated lots of time and energy over the past 3.5 years to make Reclaim The Night happen each year. Together, we have worked to create a successful and influential event that is part of BFN's wider work on breaking the silence on violence against women and girls in all its forms. I am proud to be part of this group of driven and determined women who are dedicated to ending violence against women and girls." 

The first Reclaim The Night marches were in 1977, and they fast became a feature in cities all over the world. Yet by the mid-1990s the marches had died out, until they were revived by Finn Mackay in 2004, the same year that she set up London Feminist Network. The first revived march had just 50 women, says Finn, but now around 3,000 women march in London every year.

Finn told me this today: "Revolutionary feminists in Leeds first started Reclaim the Night marches in the UK in November 1977, calling for women to organise synchronised marches on the same night in towns and cities across the country. Up to 400 women, carrying flaming torches, converged on their city centres and took back streets and parks and areas where women were told not to go. At that time women were appalled at police advice to stay indoors to stay safe - where women are actually most at risk of male violence - and at the fact that only one in three reported rapes ended in a conviction.

"Today that figure is one in 20. We don't believe that 19 out of every 20 women who report rape are liars, we demand justice for survivors, safe streets for women, protected specialist services for survivors and an end to all forms of male violence against women."

In light of the facts that the vast majority of rapes go unreported, and the fact that street harassment is still such an enormous issue, as well as a huge number of other factors, the worldwide Reclaim The Night marches remain vital dates on the feminist calendar. Both for women to meet like-minded people and proudly march through their city’s streets, and to reinforce the point to society that women deserve to be treated with respect – and that nobody is EVER asking to be raped or abused. Ever. Whether on the street, at home, anywhere.

In Bristol, this is all sadly extra poignant for us. When Joanna Yeates was murdered in our city last Christmas, the police wheeled out the same public advice that they have done for decades: women should stay home, women should not go out alone after dark (which can mean as early as 4.30pm in winter), and women must take responsibility for not being attacked. There is rarely mention of the attackers taking responsibility for not attacking. To their credit, police in Bristol later altered their advice and encouraged women to carry on with their lives. However, we need to lessen the need for this kind of bulletin in the first place, which is where the Reclaim The Night marches play a pivotal role.

Starting with a moving candlelit vigil on College Green, outside the Bristol City Council houses (ironically, the location where some many bad licencing decisions are made - for lap dance clubs, Hooters etc), we remember the victims of violence. The sight of so many candles flickering in lanterns and makeshift jam jar lanterns is both beautiful and touching, and a fitting start to the march through the city centre. With hundreds and hundreds of people marching (the front of the march is for self-identifying women, but anyone is welcome to join the main section), it’s a truly powerful feeling and sight to take back the streets of our city.

The march concluded with a rally in the central gardens of the Georgian architecture that makes up Portland Square, near the St Paul’s district. Speakers included Sian Norris and Anna Brown (BFN), Dr Helen Mott (Bristol Fawcett), Nimco Ali - above (Daughters of Eve), Lesley Welch (Bristol Domestic Abuse Forum), Susan Lawrence (Bristol Rape Crisis), Jess Dicken (NHS 4YP) and Chitra Nagajararan (No Women No Peace). The whole evening was especially significant when Lesley shared the awful news that a woman had been found murdered in the St George's area of Bristol only three days ago.

BFN states: “The aims of Reclaim the Night are to educate about consent and violence against women. To educate and eradicate the myths that surround rape, to eradicate the belief that women are to blame if their drunk or have a history with the attacker, to educate and eradicate the belief that men can’t stop once they’ve started, to educate and eradicate the belief that only stranger rape is real rape. To educate about respect and consent in relationships. To educate and empower men and women about their sexuality and relationships.”

Bristol’s Reclaim The Night march is in support of Bristol Rape Crisis, the Sexual Assault Referral Centre (SARC), One25 (helping women trapped in street sex work), and other vital Bristol services (whose funding is constantly at risk) supporting women who have suffered rape, violence or any form of abuse.

Finn adds: "If you are in London on Saturday, 26 November, then put your feet on the streets for women and help us shut down central London to say NO to male violence against women and NO cuts to women's services. Be there, be one of many, be a movement - reclaim your night and win the day." 
Take back the streets - Reclaim the night!

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Stripping the illusion about lap dancing

There was a gripping article in the Guardian last week that offered a different perspective to lap dancing to that which is usually touted by the mainstream media – ie that lap dancers are wealthy, empowered and fulfilled. Instead, the Guardian article proposed that the reality for lap dancers is a much more desperate, abusive and damaging experience, often fueled by alcohol and drugs in order to tolerate the physical and mental abuse from clients, colleagues and bosses.

The article was prompted by the recent publication of Stripped: The Bare Reality of Lap Dancing, by Jennifer Hayashi Danns and Sandrine Lévêque (Clairview Books, 2011, £8.99). This really is an excellent book, and one that certainly ought to be placed on the desks of all members of every council’s licencing committee up and down the country – especially those who are in the process of deciding whether or not to grant new licences to existing Sexual Entertainment Venues (SEVs), also known as lap dance clubs.

Through a combination of personal narratives from former lap dancers, journalists, students etc, Stripped creates a rounded picture of the UK lap dancing industry. A former lap dancer herself, Danns is extremely well placed to know what the industry is really like. Her co-author, Lévêque, was Campaign Manager on Object’s Stripping The Illusion campaign until 2010, which concluded successfully with the British Government's passing of legislation that gave councils greater control over the lap dancing industry, and called for lap dancing clubs to be licensed in the same way as sex shops or sex cinemas… not cafes! The law was successfully changed, but the problem of lap dancing clubs still exists…
Written in an accessible and page-turning style, Stripped is a compulsive read – at times a repulsive read. Nonetheless, it’s essential for anyone interested in finding out more about what really goes on in this growth industry. By posing questions and allowing lap dancers a voice, in a non-judgmental manner Stripped poses questions such as: Are lap dancers sex workers or exotic dancers? What attracts so many women to work in this industry? Are women being sexually exploited and their bodies used as objects for male gratification?

The second part of the book moves to a more analytical perspective and offers some possible solutions to the situation, and advice for people working in the industry or who are interested in campaigning in this area.


You may also be interested in the current work of Bristol Fawcett in this area. For years, Bristol Fawcett has campaigned against the normalisation of the sex industry through the proliferation of lap dancing clubs, and has a dedicated group of volunteers who put in countless hours researching the industry in Bristol, finding out when new applications are being submitted to Bristol City Council, and trying to improve the situation both for the women who work in the clubs, and for people who have the misfortune to live or work near the clubs. There is a great deal of information about the campaign in Bristol on the link here.

Thursday, 10 November 2011

Confession: I’m a married feminist… and I share my husband’s surname

* PLEASE NOTE (added 14 Nov, 2011): After some feedback, I'd like to stress (especially to those who know me in real life) that the people referred to in the post below are NOT those whose opinions I actively asked, and whose opinions I therefore valued (regardless of whether they are the same opinions as mine). That would be extremely churlish of me. The people referred to are those (many of whom don't know me in real life,and only know me online) who judged me on a personal issue without being asked for their views.

Taking your husband’s name upon marriage – no other issue incites the same depth of emotion among others when a feminist enters the wedding arena.

When I announced my engagement in January, instead of saying “Congratulations”, several feminist women actually said, while looking disappointed with me for being engaged at all, “I hope you won’t be changing your name.” Like it was their business. I found it hurtful.

For eight long months, I debated ad nauseam the surname dilemma with my fiancé, my friends (feminist and otherwise) and my family. But the decision was mine alone, and my fiancé made it clear that my name was entirely my business.

We immediately ruled out hyphenation because (in our view) it looks clunky, and where does it stop? If double-barreled people marry someone else with a double-barreled name, do they become quardruple-barreled, and then octuple-barreled etc? That’s just daft.

My husband wasn’t averse to taking my surname instead of me taking his – except he’s an only child and I’m one of four (and all my siblings have children who are carrying on our family name).

We briefly entertained adopting a whole new surname. ‘Bowie’ was the top suggestion because David Bowie is a genius. But we knew we’d never have the temerity to actually do it.

Most people assumed I would keep my original surname (I hate the term ‘maiden’ name, as if I’m a helpless damsel), which - for someone as childishly contrary as me – could have been instigation enough to do the opposite. So when I announced in September that I had deliberated for nine months and I would be sharing my husband’s surname, everyone was surprised.

But what business is it of theirs? I’m stunned by how many people have felt entitled to pass judgment on my decision over what I call myself, and the number of times I have had to defend my own name. It’s extraordinary. And rude.

To me, sharing my husband’s surname has nothing to do with losing my identity – quite the opposite. I’m affirming my identity. I recently made a public and lifelong commitment with this man, and it seems bizarre that we would not share a surname. Many believe that marriage itself is an outdated patriarchal institution, and the figures for 2009 (the most recent available) confirm that the UK marriage rate is at its lowest ever. Others say, reasonably, that they won’t marry until marriage is equal for everyone, regardless of sexual orientation. I understand this.

There are a zillion blogs where people have debated this, many musing it as a feminist concern. There’s even the Lucy Stone League devoted to it, which suggests 90% of brides take their husband’s name on marriage, and words it in such a way as to imply these women have been forced into “this tradition of name-abandonment”! I appreciate that when the LSL was set up in the 1920s women had much more of a struggle if they wanted to keep their original surname, but in 2011 this is less of an issue in the western world (except for women like Kate Middleton – I’d have loved to see her try to keep her surname). It’s clear why many think this IS a feminist issue, but in 2011 it is now so common for brides to keep their original surname that I think this is one area where women have made positive strides with our right to a choice.

Far from abandoning my old surname, I have consciously decided to leave it in the past and embrace my future. I love the idea of having a new identity and starting from scratch, it’s extremely liberating.

By changing my name, I’m neither conforming to patriarchy nor holding the feminist cause back. And for anyone to suggest that I am less of a feminist for having changed my name is insulting to me both as an independent woman and as a strident feminist. It’s been a carefully considered choice.

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

The Scarlet Hotel, Cornwall

It’s hard to decide what the best thing about the Scarlet Hotel is, so here’s a short list: the beautiful views from every room, the commitment to sustainability, the delicious and local food, the genuine manner of the staff, the wealth of calm rooms to unwind in, and the fact there are no under-18s allowed. Bliss.
Tucked away at the end of a wiggly road in Mawgan Porth, the Scarlet feels delightfully remote from the real world. You know right from the start that this isn’t going to be a traditional hotel experience. With no reception desk for staff to hide behind, you’re simply greeted by a friendly person who checks you in without the need for a barrier between you and them. Teas and coffees are brought to your room to enjoy while you unpack, and soak up the ambience.

Of course, the first thing that hits you when you reach your room is how quiet everything is without any children hurtling around the corridors or shrieking in neighbouring rooms. This is wonderful. The second thing you realise is the stunning view of Mawgan Porth beach from your room, with the beds perfectly positioned so you can gaze on the roaring waves from the picture window without even needing to stand up. And then there’s the simple elegance that spells out the room’s décor – ours had a tasteful wooden tree motif on one wall, which was much more agreeable than the usual attempt at contemporary art you find in many hotels.

We had a Just Right room… and it was, with wooden flooring and simple but stylish furniture. The bathroom is open plan with the room, and the shower and toilet are behind a screen (perhaps a little exposed for some!), but it works well and the room is infused with the scent of rosemary and lavender from the locally made toiletries. We were given a little cloth bag in which to take the soap home in, so as not to waste it – meaning my bathroom at home now smells as delicious as the Scarlet!

The Scarlet has a calming Ayurvedic-inspired spa, and although we didn’t take advantage of any treatments this time, we were sorely tempted. However, the spa is adjacent to the indoor pool (since it was November we weren’t brave enough to try the outdoor one!), which is a haven of peace and boasts a view overlooking the coastline. Although the 37-room hotel seemed busy with guests during our stay (it never felt busy, I hasten to add, but it just seemed well populated), we never encountered more than two other people in the pool at any one time, so it always seemed peaceful. The pool area also has a beautifully tiled steam room, and a range of enormous beanbags and hammock-tents made for two, which are the most relaxing things ever to lie back and swing in.
As you would expect, all of the food at the Scarlet is locally sourced and prepared with the highest standard of care. We had a delicious dinner (three courses for £42.50 per person) in the restaurant on our first night, and I was delighted that the music included a few Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood numbers. For starters we had pork belly, and fillet of red mullet, both of which were perfectly presented, and just the right size to not spoil our appetite for the main course. I enjoyed the pan fried brill, and my husband had roasted cod with mussels, as it seemed only right to eat seafood so close to the Atlantic (which we gazed out at while we diend). Both were extremely tasty, and the variety of flavours across the plates complemented each other perfectly. The salsa on the side of my brill worked fantastically with the simplicity of the fish and the gentle flavours from the potatoes. We finished our meal with the apple jelly, crumble and custard, which was a charming alternative to the more traditional apple crumble. I sometimes find that a three-course meal can leave me feeling heavy and uncomfortable, but the choice of dishes and sensible portion sizes meant I left the Scarlet’s dinner table feeling comfortably full and very contented.

We rounded our evening off with a few games of pool in the adjoining library, which includes a growing collection of books sympathetic to the Cornish area, as well as some interesting scrapbooks showing the development of the Scarlet since it opened in 2009.

Breakfast, brought to our room, was equally delicious. I had the continental with pain au chocolat, red apple juice, and natural yoghurt with cinnamon and baked apples – which was divine. My husband had a cooked breakfast, which while looking like sausages, bacon and eggs, he assured me was one of the finest he had ever tasted. And that’s saying something.

With bracing walks on the beach an obvious distraction, we ventured down to Mawgan Porth several times, being a short 5-10 minute walk down the hillside from the path outside our room. We climbed over the rocks, bravely paddled barefoot in the Atlantic, and explored the beautifully shaped small caves around both sides of the bay… and watched the dogs being exercised on the beach. What was also noticeable was how clean the beach is, possibly the cleanest we have ever seen in England. Long may it last.
Our two night stay was short but sweet, and it was such a treat to have a little taste of heaven – who knew it was possible to have such a blissful seaside retreat in an typical English winter?! We will definitely be returning, and we will definitely be making sure our stay is a longer one next time. Wonderful. 

Saturday, 5 November 2011

“The Life and Times of Stella Browne” - book review

Stella Browne is a largely overlooked yet pivotal figure in British feminist history, and Lesley A Hall’s meticulously researched biography of the “feminist and free spirit” reminds us just why we should remember and revere Stella.
Born in 1880, Stella had no intention of conforming to the conventional life society assumed for women, remaining not only unmarried, but taking a number of sexual partners of, gasp, both genders! She devoted her life to all number of women’s causes, notably socialism, suffrage, lesbianism and, most significantly for Stella, sexual reform.
She was a tireless writer and campaigner for abortion rights and contraception, at a time when it was considered abhorrent to even mention either topic in polite society. Taking no notice of what was expected of her, Stella wrote and spoke publically to demand women’s rights for safe abortions, revealed to a government committee that she had undergone abortions herself (which was illegal at the time), and co-founded the Abortion Law Reform Association.
Stella is presented in this biography as a frequently unfashionable woman, who was disliked by many of her contemporaries, quite possibly for her dominance, outspokenness and plain speaking. But the simple fact that she campaigned for birth control information to be freely available to women and men, unmarried and married, marks Stella as a deeply important character.
Hall’s book is a thorough and in-depth analysis of Stella’s life, which is no mean feat considering how scant the existing research is. But Hall has unearthed a library of letters and papers that have helped her piece together a well-informed and fascinating insight into this extraordinary woman’s life.
That Stella achieved so much and that her name is not better known is a travesty, but I hope Hall’s excellent book will help to secure Stella a much-deserved place in the feminist hall of fame.

Friday, 4 November 2011

Anthony Quinn – “Half of the Human Race” book review

Continuing my series of suffrage-themed posts, I’m particularly pleased to be reviewing Anthony Quinn’s second novel, Half of the Human Race (Jonathan Cape, 2011), for a number of reasons. 1) It’s an extremely sympathetic account of suffrage from a male writer, 2) it is only recently published, proving the enduring interest in this important historical period, and 3) it’s an absolute page-turner of a story.
Free spirited Constance is the daughter of a middle-class London family who have fallen on hard times since the father died. When the novel starts in 1911, she has abandoned her hopes of becoming a surgeon, instead taking up a post in a bookshop. However, her interest in the women’s suffrage movement keeps growing and she rapidly becomes involved in a series of increasingly daring stunts in support of the cause.
Alongside this is the story of Will, a county cricketer who falls for Constance, but finds her devotion to politics hard to handle in a world where women are expected to be meek.
The sheer detail that has gone into Quinn’s novel makes it hard to believe this is historical fiction, rather than a novel written in the 1910s. And he writes extremely convincingly from the female perspective, leaving the reader in no doubt that he is fully behind the need for gender equality. The details that are highlighted (from the difficulty of a woman being able to enter the medical profession, to the pressure to marry ANYONE rather than someone suitable) are handled delicately and sympathetically.
In the background of Half of the Human Race is a long-running strand concerning the social stigma of having a suicide in the family, showing how common this sadly is, but also how misunderstood mental illness was 100 years ago. We may think mental illness is stigmatised in 2011, but Quinn’s novel shows the associated shame now is nothing compared to what it was. This alone is an important element of the book that is valuable to highlight.
It is wonderful to see a new novel drawing attention to the suffrage movement, and doing so in such a tender and impassioned way. Quinn has clearly researched his topic inside out and writes with authority on this most important of historical periods. Half of the Human Race is so thorough and detailed in its development that it is hard to believe this is not a rediscovered novel from 100 years ago.