Sunday, 10 July 2011

Why Celebrities Matter Too

In amongst the chatter and hum generated by this week’s big scandal, a disturbing idea has been nestling. 

“When it was just celebrities, no-one really had much sympathy,” commented the newsreaders, as they tracked the phone-hacking scandal’s journey from tiny acorn to giant oak. 

“Of course, no-one really cares about celebrities who get paid £5m a film,” posited the panel on Newsnight, as they analysed the fallout from the discovery that people other than the fabulously beautiful and wealthy had been hacked.

“Now it’s not just celebrities but real people involved I care far more,” mused the twitterati, “in fact, now I can muster some real moral outrage.”

As a nation, when we discovered what the News of the World had been up to regarding, not just Milly Dowler, but all the other poor victims of senseless tragedy, we drew in a collective horrified breath.  And rightly so.  These people had had their privacy violated in a most dreadful way.  How could this happen, we asked ourselves.  How could it have been considered appropriate, even for a second, to listen in on the private messages of a murdered teen or a grieving family, just for the sake of getting the scoop?  When did journalists become so callous, so evil?  How did we get here? 

The answer is, we got here by degrees, and it started with our disturbing idea that celebrities are somehow not real human beings. 

No-one cared about this story when it was just the phones of the rich and famous.  Then ‘real people’ got involved and suddenly it’s a scandal that has our political leaders scrambling around to get involved in the mudslinging, suddenly we feel strongly enough to bully companies into withdrawing their advertising, suddenly it’s bad enough that a paper that ran for 160 years is closed down, virtually overnight.  Suddenly.  Shouldn’t our moral outrage have started a little earlier? 

Hacking into someone’s private phone and listening in on their messages is an appalling breach of privacy.  Why was it not that big a deal when the people it was happening to were rich and successful?  The idea that, because a person is vastly more wealthy than we are, they will not feel the same sense of violation and betrayal that we would, or that they would, but it wouldn’t matter because they’re so rich so who cares what they think anyway, is as hideous in its own way as the actions of the phone hackers.  What gives us the right to de-humanise someone just because they have more than we have? 

Celebrities are real people.  We may not like them, and we may not like the rewards they get for their efforts compared to the rewards we get for ours, but they haven’t made a deal with the devil.  They haven’t stood under a blasted oak at a crossroads at midnight and signed away their souls in return for getting to fulfill their creative potential.  For years now we’ve allowed tabloid journalists to bamboozle us with the idea that because actors and musicians are in the public eye, they’re ‘asking for it’, that any intrusion into their lives is justified because they dare to step into the spotlight of fame.  It’s a fallacy, one we’ve believed for far too long.  No-one deserves to have their private conversations eavesdropped on, or to have the details of their sexual and romantic relationships spilled to a red-top, or to have their children followed to school and back for the sake of a picture, or to be harried and pressured and scrutinised and treated like an entertaining pet.  Some people will do anything to be famous, but most truly famous people are simply extremely talented at their jobs.  It’s hardly something to be punished for, but punish them we do.  And how easy, then, for the journos to take that extra step, to lose sight of who they’re targeting.  If Hugh Grant’s feelings don’t count then, really, do anybody’s, when there’s a story at stake?  If a reporter, or a private detective, is prepared to treat one human being in that way, should we really be surprised that they can just as easily do it to another?

So, we may well ask ourselves how we arrived at this point, this week.  It was clearly a journey we never intended to go on, but we took the first step when we started separating out little groups of people in society we felt we didn’t need to care about.  Because once we stop caring about someone just because they’re rich, or famous, or successful, it’s a short road to not caring about anyone. 

Sunday, 3 July 2011

In which I interview Johann Hari...

Johann Hari is a hard man to read, his body language a blank.  He may as well be a computer screen.  The room is hot, despite me opening a window.  I ask him if he's comfortable, but he doesn't reply.  I wonder if he's tense.  He's had a difficult week, being accused of everything from plagiarism to dishonesty to stupidity, after it emerged that many of his interviews for the Independent newspaper were a less than accurate transcript of the encounter.

I open by directly addressing the issue.  The charge of plagiariasm?  "This accusation is totally false." he says firmly.  False?  Really?  Quotes from the interviewees' writings presented as verbatim speech?  Hari is clear in his refutation.  "I have sometimes substituted a passage they have written or said more clearly elsewhere on the same subject for what they said to me so the reader understands their point as clearly as possible. The quotes are always accurate representations of their words, inserted into the interview at the point where they made substantively the same argument using similar but less clear language."  I open my mouth to press him further but he jumps in, ahead of me.  "This does not fit any definition of plagiarism. Plagiarism is presenting somebody else’s intellectual work as your own – whereas I have always accurately attributed the ideas of (say) Gideon Levy to Gideon Levy."

So, not plagiarism then, but what of dishonesty?  Hari is still giving little away.  His mouth is a straight line.  His eyes, behind thin-rimmed spectacles, gaze at me unblinking.  His head remains tilted to one side as we talk.  It's like talking to a still photograph, a press shot.  The room is still hot, despite the slight breeze from the window.  I take my cardigan off then put it back on again.  In the corner of the room Truman Capote flicks irritably through a copy of 'To Kill a Mockingbird'.  I ask Hari about the ethics, then, of his "attributions".  He appears to feel he's doing his subjects a favour.  "I only ever substituted clearer expressions of the same sentiment, so the reader knew what the subject thinks in the most comprehensible possible words."  Gideon Levy, one of Hari's subjects, has, indeed, stood by him, saying the interview was “a totally accurate representation of my thoughts and words.”  In fact, Gideon Levy walks in just as we touch on this.  "In my nearly ten years of interviewing none of my interviewees have, to my knowledge, ever said they were misquoted." Hari says, with a slight touch of petulance.

Levy would appear to agree.  "I stand behind everything that was published in the interview.  It was a totally accurate representation of my thoughts and words."
Hari's tone becomes pointed.  "These are his words." he says, indicating Levy, who nods and repeats "It was a totally accurate representation of my thoughts and words."  I open my mouth to ask him what he feels about the wider implications of Hari's behaviour, but again I'm forestalled.  "A totally accurate representation of my thoughts and words." he says once again, before leaving via the inflatable chute.

Hari seems satisfied with this, but I have to admit I'm not, and neither is Elvis.  He fixes Hari with a ten-yard Tennessee stare.  "You ain't nothing but a hound dog." he mutters.  It's impossible to tell it Hari is affected by this.  I know I would be.  I want to ask Hari what he feels about the awards he's won for journalism, and whether he feels that an interview is actually a compact between two people, a compact he's betrayed.

I raise the point but he returns to his earlier theme.  "I stress: I have only ever done this where the interviewee was making the same or similar point to me in the interview that they had already made more clearly in print. Where I described their body language, for example, I was describing their body language as they made the same point that I was quoting – I was simply using the clearer words from their writing so the reader understood the point best."  It's as though he's avoiding the issue.  The heat rises, and I open a second window.  The sound from the 1904 St Louis World's Fair comes flooding in, a riot of carousel melodies and carnival cries, but it can't be helped.  We need the air.

I get the feeling Hari isn't keen to talk about his awards, or face the fact that he made an executive decision to alter what his subjects represented to him in good faith, for the sake of his own idea about what constitutes clarity.  Is he willing to make any kind of apology for this, at least?  "If (for example) a person doesn’t speak very good English, or is simply unclear, it may be better to quote their slightly broken or garbled English than to quote their more precise written work, and let that speak for itself."  Is that a no, then?  "It depends on whether you prefer the intellectual accuracy of describing their ideas in their most considered words, or the reportorial accuracy of describing their ideas in the words they used on that particular afternoon."  Can he see how some people might find that problematic?  "Since my interviews are long intellectual profiles, not ones where I’m trying to ferret out a scoop or exclusive, I have, in the past, prioritized the former. That was, on reflection, a mistake, because it wasn’t clear to the reader."  Capote glances up momentarily, and Elvis makes a 'pfft' sound. 

I sense there isn't much else he's willing to say.  I know he feels that he's simply presented a truth, the subject's ideas in their purest form.  But isn't he missing a vital point?  Isn't the interview, I ask, a skill in itself, more than just the recitation of the subject's main soundbites? Doesn't it require an ability to draw the subject down unexplored avenues, somewhere beyond their own previously expressed ideas?  Isn't it the job of the interviewer to create an atmosphere, a conversation, in which the subject feels free to express themselves?  And isn't it the job of the interviewer to keep faith with their readers by representing that conversation accurately, however irritating that may be to their sense of clarity or style, however garbled or disjointed that may make the piece?  Finally, isn't it a lie to pretend you have the gift of eliciting clear, concise statements from people when you have no greater ability to do this than anyone else?

Hari says nothing to this.  Perhaps he doesn't want to get into it.  Perhaps he simply doesn't have an answer.  Or perhaps he's distracted by Marilyn, who's come in from the fair to get away from Jack the Ripper and drink her lemonade in peace.

Who knows?  The interview is over and Hari is gone, as quietly as he came.  Elvis shakes his head sadly.  The afternoon heat is starting to fade, replaced by the first chill of evening.  I close the window.  Marilyn tells me she's seen a man who claims he can read minds.  Capote snorts and she pouts at him.  I look through the glass at the fair, thinking about Hari, sacrificing one truth for another.  Outside, the fair continues, will continue into the night, light glittering on a thousand stalls and exhibits, gaudy and demanding.

Sunday, 26 June 2011

Incomprehensible?: Why my mother-in-law is not a jailbird.

Just before Christmas my mother-in-law took voluntary redundancy from her old company and launched herself onto the job market.  At the beginning of June she got a new job doing something complicated in the financial sector.  "Ooh" I said.  "I know" she said.  

But to work in the financial sector you have to have CLEARANCE.  CLEARANCE is something I will never have.  "Ooh" I said, again.  "Precisely" she said.  My mother-in-law's CLEARANCE comes courtesy of an outside company, who work round the clock making sure every new financial sector bod is good to go.  She went to get her CLEARANCE sorted and found herself in a room with a lady who shuffled papers and looked fretful.

" didn't sign on at all during your period of unemployment?" the lady queried, with knitted brow.
"Um....why didn't you do that?"
"I had my redundancy money.  I didn't need to."
The brow knitted further.
"But you could have got money to keep you going.  Free money.  From the government."
"I know, but I had my redundancy pay-out for that."
" could have got your interview travel expenses paid for."
"I didn't need to get them paid for."
"Yes,'s free money, though."
My mother-in-law wondered if there was a different way of saying 'I didn't need to, though'.  She grimaced apologetically and gave a little shrug.  The CLEARANCE lady's brow tied itself into a knot.
"The thing is," she said, "the thing is, though, if you didn't sign on, how can we tell you weren't in jail during that time?"

And there we have it.  This woman, on encountering my clearly middle-class, clearly comfortably off, well-dressed, well-spoken mother-in-law, found it more believable, more comprehensible, that she should have spent the past five months in jail, rather than having chosen not to take government money she didn't feel she needed. 

Every day on my walk with Milly we go past Shipston House, which is the old workhouse.  The Victorians were a good bunch overall.  They embarked on huge public improvement programmes, spent a vast amount on charity, and dedicated much of their time and energy to making Britain a better place to be.  One of the big conundrums that kept them up at night was the issue of the workhouse, and how to run it: make it too harsh a place to be and you were in danger of treating people like animals, but make it too agreeable and you ran the risk of having people choose to live in the workhouse rather than try to earn their own living. 

We still have the same problem today.  Benefits should be available, freely available, to those who truly need them.  But they don't constitute "free money".  Over the past thirteen years Labour have created such a culture of hand outs that anyone not shoving their paw into the pot is actually viewed with suspicion.  It's no longer a question of need.  It's not even about entitlement.  It's about greed.  The old capitalist devil has become a socialist nightmare, thousands of open mouths all shrieking "gimme, gimme, gimme!"

The conversation obviously didn't end there.  My mother-in-law attempted to prove she wasn't a jailbird by suggesting she got the recruitment agencies who'd been job searching on her behalf to testify to her lack of incarceration during the past five months.  The CLEARANCE lady sighed and folded her hands into something neat and frightening.

"Ahh," she said.  "Well, yes, I suppose you could do that.  But isn't there anyone else who could speak for you?"
"Anyone else?  Like who?"
"Well, someone of standing in the community? A doctor, a lawyer?"
"We don't know any doctors or lawyers."
" about the vicar?"
"THE vicar?  We don't know any vicars.  At all."
The CLEARANCE lady unknitted her brow in order to look down her nose with maximum efficiency, and, in a laudable gambit to bring some political balance to this blogpost, threw in some old-school Tory snobbery.
"We know OUR vicar personally." she said.

Sunday, 20 February 2011

Does the Modern World Understand Motherhood?

Here are some things I used to think:

1. Women with prams/pushchairs think they own the street. They should make more of an effort not to inconvenience other people.
2. Breastfeeding in public is weird and exhibitionist. I'd like to have a cup of coffee without having to look at some random stranger's tits, thank you very much.
3. Parent and child parking spaces are unfair and unnecessary.
4. People in restaurants should control their children better.

Here are some things I think now:

1. It's hard enough manoeuvring the pram as it is, without free-walking, unencumbered idiots glaring at you and failing to get out of your way.
2. Breastfeeding in public is sometimes necessary. I'd like to have a cup of coffee, thank you very much.
3. Parent and child parking spaces are a godsend.
4. People in restaurants should control their children better.

The reason for the change of heart is, I assume, obvious. Life with a baby has opened my eyes to a number of things, like how much poo I can actually stand to deal with (a lot, it turns out) and how much sleep I really need (less than I had always assumed). But the thing which really plays on my mind is how very different my perspective on life is now, compared to what it was before, and how very harsh I was in my attitudes towards people with children.

I'm not someone for whom motherhood has come as a surprise, a biological ta-daa! just as I hit thirty. I always wanted children, always planned on one day pushing the pram and suckling the hungry infant. I just wasn't going to do it like all these inexplicably self-absorbed mothers I kept encountering, whipping their breasts out whenever they felt like it, or barging down the centre of the pavement with their two-seater Bugaboos, mowing down innocent shoppers like Boudicca cutting a swathe through a Roman legion.

Then I had Milly and everything changed. Breastfeeding in public became a necessity if I wanted to, you know, actually LEAVE the house, and after every session trying to get some necessary shopping done in town I'd always breathe a sigh of relief as soon as I reached the safety of the back streets, where I could push the pram along without an unending soundtrack of I'm sorries and excuse mes, punctuated by the constant clatter of me bumping into things. These mothers weren't self-absorbed and inconsiderate, they were just trying to get through the day. I'd been the self-absorbed one, putting my own free-walking, unencumbered convenience ahead of that of those who needed to cater for their children's needs as well as their own.

I know I'm not alone in this. At my NCT classes we were all concerned about breastfeeding in public, because we didn't want to freak people out as we, ourselves, were freaked out by it. And I've had many a discussion prior to getting pregnant about the way some mothers act like they should get special treatment just because they've got kids.

So now I can see how bogus that attitude was, my question is: how are we getting it so wrong?

How have we drifted so far away from the idea of hearth and home, amongst all our lattes and broadband providers, and movie channels, that we've become so uneducated about what being a mother actually involves? Why do we look at what these women have to do and see nothing but an affront to our modern, super-convenient lives? Why is "God, the place was full of bloody kids, what a nightmare" such a constant refrain among our litany of lifestyle complaints?

Most people don't have children 'til their thirties, and many spend most of their twenties trying to avoid them. "I don't do children" is said with confidence, as though a complete lack of understanding of how to approach a child or a baby is something to be proud of, a badge of honour that proves the wearer is cool and, importantly, young. "OMG, all they talked about were their kids!" is another cry, followed by "it's like, stop trying to convince me to have one, is that all you can talk about!?".

I don't know when it started. Maybe it was when Rachel from Friends had a baby with no discernible change to her lifestyle, figure, and attitude, except for the occasional half-hearted wave of the hand towards a baby monitor. Maybe it was already happening, as women who chose to put off having children for the sake of their careers also chose to demonise those left in the home as lazy, outdated traitors to the feminist cause, while angry homemakers responded by branding their sisters in the workplace as selfish and shallow.

I don't know how this situation can be remedied. There are two separate worlds trying to exist in the same space, each with little interest, it seems, in the needs and concerns of the other. We need to bring motherhood, and family, and home back to the centre of society, but how? How do we create a world in which the public needs of the mother are not only understood, but accepted and celebrated? And how do we do it without undoing every social advance society's made since the first suffragette thought 'You know what? I reckon there's more to life than this whole staying-at-home-and-having-kids thing. I wonder if anyone else feels the same way?'.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPhone

Thursday, 10 February 2011

Some thoughts on money

Milly is asleep and I, unusually, am not, so I'm writing this and it's about money.

I'm having a long-term, on-off debate with Annikki about whether money is worthy of desire. She holds the firm opinion that it is not. She has known, she says, several properly wealthy people, and their money hasn't made them happy in the slightest. She would like everyone to live in identical houses, so long as she is allowed to paint hers a different colour. She feels that none of the things that really matter in life can be bought, so why waste time and energy scampering and drooling after cash?

Obviously, I disagree.

I don't mean obviously I disagree because her views are ludicrous, (they aren't) or obviously I disagree because I'm middle class and we're all money-grabbing social climbers, mainlining aspiration like it's heroin, (we're not) and I don't mean obviously I disagree because I'm a Tory and we like to lick money (mmm, tasty money). I disagree, obviously, because I wouldn't be sitting here at half eight in the morning writing this post instead of snoozing with my daughter or re-reading The Jane Austen Book Club if I didn't think there was a strong and woefully underused argument for the other point of view.

And it is woefully underused, because to admit to wanting more money, lots more money, in your life is to draw, at least, raised eyebrows from your crowd, and, at worst, to label yourself as a materialistic cash-junkie with no sense of what's genuinely important in life. "She wants to be rich?" people mutter to themselves, "How SHALLOW!" I protest that I'm not shallow, I just think I'd be better off being, well, better off. "She thinks money will bring her happiness!" they then exclaim, quietly and with a touch of smug. "How DELUDED."

Well, I'm neither shallow nor deluded. I just want to be rich. There, I said it, bold-faced and brazen. Judge me if you dare. I want to have a choice of lovely houses to buy from, with many large rooms and a huge garden for Milly to run about in, rather than gloomily checking Rightmove every day to see if something has miraculously appeared in the £170-180,000 price bracket that has more than 2 square feet of garden and a living room you can actually fit a sofa into. I want to go into a car showroom and choose a nice little three-door for Milly and I to tootle about in, instead of looking on Autotrader for sixth-hand old bangers that actually we can't afford anyway. I want to cook with wonderful ingredients, and go to the opera and the ballet, and do Open University courses, and take foreign holidays staying in luxury hotels with spas I can afford to use. I want to buy Simon tailored suits for his birthday and have the option, the OPTION, of sending Milly to private school when she's older. I think these things would make me happy.

It's too easy, too tempting to diss wealth. Of course there are unhappy rich people. There are even people who appear to be palpably suffering for being rich. On the TV last night I saw a clip of a reality show about super-wealthy American teens in which a sixteen year old girl was presented with her $67,000 Lexus at what was, apparently, the wrong moment. She threw the biggest strop I've ever seen, swore at her mother, shrieked "I can't believe you! You've ruined everything! The party's off!" and stormed out in floods of tears. Clearly unfettered access to the best of everything was taking a heavy toll on this child's soul. But it needn't have been like that. The girl's money gives her access to education, travel, people, places; it's not money's fault her parents are jackasses who don't know how to say no. It's also not money's fault if people have bad marriages, or are weak or mean or distant parents.

It's a con to blame money. It makes you think you'd be crazy to want it, which is useful if you're never likely to get it. It makes you think you're breaking free of the class system by rejecting the very thing that puts some people at the top and others at the bottom. But that's the biggest con of all. Have you ever seen any of those films or TV shows where an 'ordinary' family suddenly come into ooodles of money? They live their lives, and they squabble, and bitch, and bicker, then the cash appears like magic and for a while there's a wet dream of conspicuous consumption and everyone has what they always wanted. But wait, what's this? Cracks start to appear, the bickering starts up again, this time over who crashed the Audi in the martini glass-shaped swimming pool. The family starts to implode as integrity becomes corrupted and values disappear. All looks lost until the money somehow vanishes as easily as it arrived. "We were better off all along!" the family cry, tears of enlightened joy in their eyes. "Money made us miserable!".

Bullshit! Money didn't make them miserable, it was what they did with it. You never see people in these dramas using their sudden wealth to access the arts or education, to broaden their horizons, you just see them going crazy for gold-plated Ferraris, like apes in a banana shop. That's because a drama about a family who suddenly get money and become happier, better people for it doesn't make for much of a story. And because the real message of these things is that you, Mr and Mrs Poor Person, you can't handle money. You don't know what to do with it, so it drives you crazy. So back you go, back to where you belong, lesson learnt. Breaking free of the class system, my arse. Like I said, it's the biggest con of all.

So I say hurrah for wealth. It may make stupid people stupider and mean people meaner, but poverty doesn't have such a great track record in that department either. There's nothing shallow about wanting to have better, nor is it deluded to suppose that having it will increase my already quite substantial enjoyment of life. Aspiration is a beautiful thing, so let us aspire to have more and to be more. Come stargazers, come climbers, come dreamers, come doers, come builders of ladders and stairways and rockets. Come, my friends. Onwards and upwards.

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Henri's Amazing Roast Chicken Pie Recipe

This isn't meant to be a food or cooking blog, but various people have asked me for the recipe for this so here it is:

1. Have yourself a delicious roast chicken. Oh, how tasty it is. But wait! What's that? There's some left you say?
2. Take all the chicken off the bone. Reserve any leftover gravy. THERE! The first two tasks are done. You may as well go away and do something else now. The pie is for another day.
3. Right, it's now the next day. You are thinking of how to make your pie. Mmm, you think, chicken pie. Firstly, you need to chop some BACON into lardons and fry them up. Also chop a few cloves of GARLIC but hold off on adding them yet, you mad keen chef, you!
4. When your bacon is looking done then add the chicken which - remember? - you took off the bone yesterday, and hopefully shredded or at least sort of did that rough chopping thing to. Fry all this up together. Did I need to tell you to put some oil in the pan first? Hopefully not. If that isn't automatic then you may well struggle with the rest of this recipe involving, as it does, techniques that require you to have cooked at least one thing before in your entire life. What I'm saying is there's a certain degree of skill assumed here on your part. Don't let me down, now.
5. Anyway, now is a good time to add your garlic and some sliced PORTABELLO MUSHROOMS. You may well have sliced them the same time you sliced the garlic. If not, I don't care. I'm not a chef. Do it your own way. Fry all this up with a little salt and pepper.
6. It's now time to add all the ingredients that make this pie so popular with both friends and family. In no particular order, add CAPERS, THE JUICE OF ONE LEMON, A CHICKEN STOCKPOT THINGY, THE LEFTOVER GRAVY, DOUBLE CREAM, HALF A BOTTLE OF WHITE WINE (or a half bottle, like I said, I'm not bothered, it's your dinner), and SOME DRIED THYME OR FRESH THYME IF YOU HAVE IT THOUGH NO-ONE EVER DOES.
7. Simmer and stir, simmer and stir. It should be pretty thick but if not then reduce it or add a bit of arrow root.
8. Put your delicious mixture in an oven-friendly dish. Top with a sheet of JUS ROLL PUFF PASTRY, glaze it with whatever you use to glaze things in your house, and pop in the oven for an amount of time at a temperature.
9. Serve and enjoy! (Note I haven't said to remove from the oven before serving. This is because, as I said, I'm assuming that you have a basic knowledge of what a kitchen does, and that you're not a moron. If you are, then you're going to spend quite a long time in front of your oven, your confused gaze shifting from the recipe to the burny-foody-hot-box and back again before abandoning the entire enterprise and slinking sadly off the fridge to see if you have any cheese, which you will gnaw directly off the block like the mouse you barely outclass. But I'm sure YOU will be fine. Enjoy your pie! (Or your cheese, you numbnut).

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPhone

Sunday, 16 January 2011

In Defence of Censorship

I never thought I'd say this, being the artsy-fartsy, liberal-(with a small l)-minded person that I am, but thank goodness for censorship.  Thanks goodness there are groups of people in the world who gather with the specific intention, and requisite authority, to decide that there are certain things that the public should not have general access to.  There, I said it.  It felt wrong, but I know it's right.

It's easy to mock the censors.  "OMG!" we cry, derisively.  "They cut bits out of 'From Here To Eternity' because she had too many shirt buttons undone!  How prudish!  How backward!  And how dare they decide what we can and can't see!"

The fight against censorship has been led over the years by artists, writers and filmmakers, who find the idea of a board of anonymous, grey-suited guardians judging what is morally appropriate anathema to their creative expression.  They argue strongly that art must carry us forwards, that we move forwards anyway, and art must reflect this.  James Jones, who wrote the novel on which 'From Here to Eternity' is based wrote, in defense of the use of expletives and gay sex scenes in his original manuscript which his publishers were insisting he remove, that "the things we change in this book for propriety's sake will in five years, or 10 years, come in someone else's book anyway…and we will wonder why we thought we couldn't do it. Writing has to keep evolving into deeper honesty, like everything else, and you cannot stand on past precedent or theory, and still evolve…"  Over and above this is the philosophical point that we are capable, as complex and high-functioning life forms, of viewing and taking in art, films, books, without becoming morally corrupted by the content, and that any attempt to decide what society is and isn't capable of absorbing safely without losing all sense of our own civilised humanity is not just laughable but also a little fascist, a little scary. 

But then you have 'A Serbian Film'.  A horror film released last year, it's now notorious for having the longest cuts ever made by a censor - four minutes (which, given the content of some of the films out there, seems remarkably short to be the longest ever).  And I'm glad they cut it.  I'm glad there's a board of anonymous, grey-suited guardians out there willing not only to watch all the crap, all the grim, dark misery and violence on my behalf, but also willing to stand up, in the face of all of anger they'll receive from filmmakers at the time, and all the derision they'll get from smart-arse social commentators in the future, and say "Enough.  This is not acceptable." 

Because it isn't.  I've thought a lot about whether to include here, for those who might not know, the content of the cut four minutes.  It weakens my arguments not to be able to shock you with it, but at the same time, I have no real wish to disseminate it.  I came across it by accident in an article in a Sunday paper recently, and I wish I hadn't.  So, if you want to know, google it, if not, then take my word for it, it's nasty.  And until I read how nasty it was I had the same reaction to the four cut minutes that I generally have to all reports of censorship.  "Tsk!" I thought, "Who do these people think they are?  I'll decide what is and isn't suitable for my consumption, thank you very much."  But then I read what was cut out and it made me stop and think.  And, having thought, I will join the censors and stand up publicly and say this: "Not everything is art, just because you call it art.  Not everything can be art, just because it can be imagined.  Just because you can, doesn't mean you should."

It's a position that got the comedian Mark Watson into trouble recently with fellow comedian Frankie Boyle.  At some point last year Watson wrote a blog post (we're all at it) about the incident in which Boyle upset the parents of a Down's Syndrome child with some, oh, shall we call them tasteless jokes at one of his live shows.  Watson considered carefully the various defences comedians have in this situation, but concluded "... they don't entirely address the issue of whether, in the 21st century, a rich, successful and physically healthy man should be able to make tons of money by taking the piss out of Down's Syndrome, and pass it off as entertainment. Even though I'm part of a comedy industry which will argue, till it's blue in the face, that you can say whatever you like, I'm not convinced that it represents progress if we're allowed to say things like that."  Boyle reacted angrily and it all kicked off on twitter.  Until recently, I'd actually have sided with Boyle.  I still think the parents in question were hideously unfair to him (they were huge Frankie fans, relishing all of his other, oh, shall we call them off-colour jokes until they were suddenly in the firing line themselves) but my emotional response to what was cut out of 'A Serbian Film' has caused me to reassess.  Maybe Watson has a point.  Maybe it's not enough to just shrug and say "if you don't like it you don't have to watch it". 

And it would appear that people have been taking this to heart recently.  The recent EastEnders Christmas storyline about dead-baby-live-baby-swapping has attracted around 8000 complaints.  Many centre around the sensationalist way a serious topic such as cot death has been handled, but I suspect people are also just fed up with all the relentless, pointless darkness passed off as entertainment.  The EastEnders Christmas storylines included, as well as the death of a newborn baby, someone trying to kill themselves and someone trying to murder their husband. The complaints have caused the 'Enders producers to bring the babyswap story to a premature end, wrapping it up at Easter instead of dragging it out for a whole year as originally planned. 

Maybe this is the start of a new trend.  Maybe people are starting to reject the worst excesses of sensationalism disguised as artistic expression. But even if they do, we still need those anonymous grey-suits.  We can't expect film-makers to self-censor.  It doesn't work if creativity is stifled by the artists having to say "Should we go there?  Are people ready for that?"  We need those who create to continue to push the boundaries, and we need censors to protect us, not from Deborah Kerr's reckless shirt buttons, but from the worst excesses of the human imagination. 

Tuesday, 11 January 2011

Not that I'm competitive, but...

Milly is the youngest baby in her Post-Natal Group, and whenever we're together I'm always conscious of how she trails behind the rest developmentally. She, for example, is only just starting weaning, while others in the group have been chomping down jam jars full of broccoli ice cubes for weeks now. "Look!" the other Mummies cry proudly, "look at how my baby sits up on his own!". Or worse, they affect nonchalance: "Oh, yeah, he's been doing that for a while now." Milly, meanwhile, spits out everything I give her and then slides cheerfully sideways. She's still more interested in her feet than anything else. The others babies are all so over their feet; 2011 is all about rolling, apparently, but no, Milly sits there, displaying an admirable resistance to peer pressure, and gazes in rapt fondness at her toes, squeaking at them happily for much, if I admit it, of the day.

I remember when I was so excited that she'd found her feet. She's the youngest of her Post-Natal friends, but the oldest in her NCT class. "Look!" I cried proudly, "look how she grabs her toes!" "Ohhhh" the others breathed, "our babies don't know about toes yet." Milly reigned supreme and I decided that everything was relative.

But, after Christmas, Simon and I answered a distress call from one of the other NCT Mums, stuck at home on her own with a distinctly bad-tempered little boy. We met at the new fancy tea place in Stratford and she asked about our Christmas. "I can't believe Milly's on solids already!" she said. I smiled proudly over my fancy tea. "I know. I mean, she's only tiny, so she barely eats anything, and most of it goes down her front, but, hey, its a start." "That's so amazing! What are you giving her?" she said. "Pear and apple and cinammon, " I reported, "and sweet potato and broccoli." "Oh, that's wonderful." she said. "I gave Thomas some mashed up banana this morning."

What? Thomas is one of the youngest babies! And bananas are, like, practically finger food! Where did this come from? I had but one hope. "Did he eat it?" I ventured. "Oh yeah! He wolfed it all down. Didn't you, hungry boy?" I smiled, my heart dashing against the rocks of bitter disappointment, and sent Simon to get me a second muffin.

Because that's it now. The other babies may be younger than Milly but they're also all bigger (she's a wee, small thing). We've passed the early developmental stages where it's all fairly well set out on a timetable for you, and we're into the uncharted worlds where all the professionals will tell you is that "every baby's different". And, let me tell you, size matters. Bigger babies are hungrier babies, and, for some reason, sittier-up babies.

So whether we're at a Post-Natal or an NCT gathering the story will now be the same. Other mothers will coo over how much their baby has come on while Milly and I will trail at the back, gazing at our toes and spitting out all our broccoli puree. Other babies will smugly nibble on breadsticks and bits of apple while Milly will continue obstinately to try fit both my nipple and her thumb into her mouth at the same time...

...Wait a minute...

...Oh My God! Look everyone! Look! My baby's multi-tasking!

Saturday, 8 January 2011

What You Don't Know Can't Hurt You

A quick check reveals that I've posted 33 pictures of Milly to Facebook since November. I know I started doing it in November because that's when it's my birthday. I got an iPhone 4 for my last birthday and my life is now 7 times better and 55% shinier. The iPhone makes it easy to upload pictures and so now I do. My friend Cathy commended me a few weeks after Milly was born for not saturating her Facebook feed with pictures of the mini-me. Her pal, she said, has posted a whopping 1271 photos of her child in the first year and a half of its life. "Oh," I said smugly "I'm not that kind of person. I wouldn't want to BORE people." Then I got the iPhone. Sorry Cathy.

To be fair, 33 is a great deal fewer than 1271, but of course that doesn't include the ones my husband posts on his page, the ones her granddad takes with his giant block of a camera and uploads, old-school-style, with a cable (a cable!), or the ones my Mum posts on her page, having recently discovered what the "Share this to my profile" button does. Milly is, by my reckoning, about as throroughly pictorially represented on Facebook as the Adored Centre Of Her Proud Parents' Universe can be.

What you won't see, though, are pictures of her with her friend Bea. Annikki is strict on this, and I respect it. She's a teacher by trade, and not long before her maternity leave they had a talk at her school about the dangers of the internet, particularly of posting pictures of children on Facebook and the like. Paedophiles, in between creating their own child porn, apparently surf their way round the internet looking for innocent photos of children to do in the meantime. It's a dreadful thought...but not one that's stopped me putting up my pictures of my daughter.

I understand why Annikki takes the line she does, and I respect her for it, but I can't follow. I was in Stratford with Milly not so very many weeks after she was born. Stratford being the tourist Mecca that it is, one minute I was pushing Milly along in her pram, the next we were surrounded by a sea of middle-aged Americans, swirling round us happily as their coaches spat them out onto the pavement. Being American, they'd come a long way to be there, and were practically jigging with excitement. In the middle of all the Yanktastic chaos a couple of ladies spotted Milly and me. "Ohhhh, what a lovely baby! She's so beautiful!" they cooed. (She is, it's true. I'm seriously thinking about putting her up for adverts. She's the best baby I've ever seen, even counting for a mother's bias.) We had a brief chat about Milly's name, age birth weight, all the things strangers always ask, and then one lady pulled out her camera. "She's so cute! May I take a picture?"

Now, I could have said no. And in doing so I could have made her feel awkward, and introduced a slightly unpleasant note to the exchange, and she could have then put her camera away and apologised for bothering us and spent the rest of the day feeling like she'd done something inappropriate. Or I could say yes, and spend the rest of my life knowing there's a picture of Milly out there somewhere over which I have absolutely no control, not knowing who could be looking at it, or what they might be thinking when they do. I said yes. It was a split second decision, but not one that I regret. She took the picture, they both cooed a little more, and then pottered off to enjoy their Shakesperience with the rest of their happy band. I don't know if she was a good person or an evil one. But, since I have no way of ever knowing, I have to decide: what kind of world do I want to be living in? The one where the slightly dotty American tourist takes a picture of my baby because she thinks she's beautiful and tells the folks back home that she met this adorable little baby in Stratford, here's the picture, isn't she just the cutest thing? Or the one where the lady working for a paedophile ring spots me and Milly and does her "dotty tourist" act to fool me into letting her get a snap of my baby's screwed up face poking out of a blanket so someone can think vile and unspeakable thoughts while looking at it?

Since I have no way of knowing, and since the fate of the picture will never affect either Milly or myself, I choose to believe in the more pleasant (and infinitely more probable) world. It's dark and scary enough out there without worrying about the monsters I'll never meet. And the same goes for Facebook. Are people hacking into it and scouring it for photos from which to take their twisted pleasure? I'll never know, so I choose not to worry about it. This is one case where what I don't know really can't hurt me. So Cathy is going to have to put up with a few thousand more pictures of my daughter over the coming months (she's been delightfully stoic about it so far) as the iPhone 4 has made it possible for me to shout my pride and joy at having such a wonderful, amazing baby to the world at the touch of a button. And that, my friends, is a world I'm glad to live in.

Thursday, 6 January 2011

Why I Don't Want Any Friends

Sex and the City 2 is coming soon to a Sky Box Office near you, which has made me ponder, Carrie-style, (that is, used a casual stimulus as a jumping-off point for a bout of theorising on a wider, yet connected, theme, whilst sitting on the bed in my pants and vest gazing at a laptop) on the nature of friendship.

I try not to have friends. That is, I have friends, real, proper ones who came to my wedding and whom I meet for coffee sometimes and take great pleasure in catching up with. What I try not to have are Friends. The Sex and the City ones. The ones you share everything with. The ones who know you better than you know yourself and who will always be there for you and who are more important than any know the ones.

It's the fault, really, of SATC, for establishing, over the past ten years, a Tyranny of Friendship. Nowadays no girl would dare call herself a woman unless she has at least two incredibly close pals she can share everything with, who know her better than she knows herself etc etc. Everyone must have slightly differing, while instantly definable, characteristics, and nothing, no hell, no high water, and certainly no man must ever come between these you're-like-my-sisters. Not to have a guaranteed spot on the Girls' Night Out is to be the Bridget Jones of the new millennium. Forget finding the perfect boyfriend - do you have the perfect Friends?

And yet...really? Really?

For a start, no friend is more important than a man. A man, unless you're taking the One Night Only Train, is your future, your wedding, your kids, your grandkids, the hand resting on yours fifty years from now. Any man, right from day one, has the potential to be the most important relationship in your life. Now, I'm not saying you should break prior commitments with friends just to see your boyfriend. That's a rude thing to do to anyone. But any friend who thinks you should side with them over your bloke just because they're your Friend, and, you know, friendship is, like, what really matters, or who accuses you of 'ditching' them to spend time with your man is a Friend, but, actually, no friend. A Friend expects utter loyalty, but a friend knows you have priorities that, ultimately, won't involve them.

Also, I don't want someone to know me better than I know myself. There's very little point in Me if someone else knows me better than I do. It reduces me to the level of a character in their lives. If the whirling, constantly evolving and complex marvel that is Me can fit in my entirety inside some else's head then I'm a great deal smaller and less interesting than I think I am. And I'm not. So there.

Nor do I want to share everything. I don't even share everything with my husband. He has an annoying habit of always surprising me in a moment of quiet with a sudden rabbit-burst of "what are you thinking?". He does it because his head falls empty without constant stimuli and he covets my inner world. On principle, I refuse to answer, on the grounds that one day I may be thinking of something private and if I set the precedent of answering truthfully every time then I'd get in a pickle and try to lie badly and then he'd know and be hurt. And if I don't tell HIM everything, you can bet your bottom dollar I won't be spilling it all to YOU, my Friend.

And it's not just groups of Friends. The individual, the Best Friend, is all of the above intensified to the power of a thousand. The Best Friend has no-one in their lives who is more important than You. That was hard for me even before I had a baby.

So I try to steer clear, because these things only make you happy on TV, and the reality is a twisty mess of group dynamics and worrying about who's offended whom this week. Instead I restrict my relationships to actual friends. People I'm not overly important to but can still spend enjoyable time with. I keep it casual. My husband is the only person I need that close.

BUT. See, Annikki's coming round tomorrow with her baby to play with me and Milly. I spent this afternoon making soup, hoping that it would be a soup she would like. We talk, not just about our lives but about ideas. Tomorrow we're going to compare Upstairs Downstairs to Downton Abbey. Last night we were inventing our own acronyms and texting them to each other. I keep feeling the urge to tell her things. You know, things from Inside My Head. And when she reads this she won't get upset or offended or worry that I don't really like her, she'll just laugh. More than that, she'll UNDERSTAND... she knows me...better than I know myself...

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPhone

Location:Why I Don't Want Any Friends

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Coffee Cake

I've just been to the regular gathering of my post-natal group. It's the first time I've been, having been randomly busy every other time. I was nervous, but figured if I didn't go this time they might stop inviting me, so off I went, accompanied by my nice friend Annikki, who's the kind of person who'll offer to come by your house on their way and walk you somewhere you haven't been before, and isn't averse to being The One Who Rings The Doorbell.

We both took salad, it being the New Year. I also took a coffee cake. I've recently learned to love coffee cake, having spent years wrinkling my nose up at it in disgust. I'm not a coffee fan, which makes me sad, since coffee is like wine and cheese - if you like it, there's a whole world of it out there to love. I did try, a few years ago, drinking spectacularly milky lattes, just to join the party, and for a while I felt wonderfully grown-up in the way that only coffee can make you feel. I gave up in the end, though, weary of the bitterness in my mouth and my envy of those who'd ordered tea instead. I reasoned onwards that one who spurns coffee must surely spurn coffee flavoured things, or where's the consistency? So I've always ignored coffee cake in favour of chocolate fudge, or lemon drizzle, and become anxious when offered 'coffeecake'. Some people use 'coffeecake' for cake-you-have-with-your-coffee, which is not necessarily, but which still could be, coffee flavoured, and then you have to say, is it actually coffee flavoured cake or just cake to have with coffee, and they ask why, and you have to explain you don't like coffee flavoured cake and people invariably say "Really? I love it" as though that'll lsomehow make a difference to whether or not you to put it in your mouth.

ANYWAY, I rejected all coffee cake until a recent NCT afternoon at my house. Awfully, I'd contrived to not have any supplies of cake at all in the house when people arrived, and had to mumble something apologetic and rely on the cake brought by other people, which was Millionaire's Shortbread bites (delicious - I invoked the Rule Of Hosting and ended up having five) and a large coffee cake. There was nothing I could do but have some, since I couldn't sit there with nothing on my plate except for one tiny shortbread bite (the Rule Of Hosting, obviously, has no sway during the actual party itself) because I would a) be hungry, and b) have to explain that I didn't like coffee flavoured cake which would cause the lady who brought the cake to apologise unnecessarily and then I would have to say "no, no, it's me" and we would both feel that the other was secretly judging us on our taste in cake, and it seemed easier just to eat the damn thing. And it was DELICIOUS. (Coffee flavoured chocolates, though: still nasty. So what's that all about?)

The upshot is that now I love coffee flavoured cake and have it often, so I bought one to take to the post-natal group gathering and, because of the Rule Of Hosting, I had to leave it behind because we hadn't got to it before I left. (The Rule Of Hosting: the hostess gets to keep everything brought but not consumed. I am up on shortbread bites, down on coffee cake.) I'd left the remains of my salad, but taken my bowl. "What about your coffee cake?" our hostess asked, as we said our goodbyes. What about it? I could hardly say, "Yes, could I have that back, please?" especially after watching her decant my salad into another bowl. "Keep the salad, it's just onion and beans. The cake, however, is from the Co-Op and claims to be Truly Irresistable!" No, I shrugged airily and said "Don't worry about it!" I said it with an exclamation mark for emphasis.

And that's fine, because soon it'll be my turn to host the gathering and you can bet I'll be invoking the Rule Of Hosting. And if someone brings something nice and that nice thing happens not to get eaten, and I get to eat it instead later, by myself...well, that's just the way the coffee cake crumbles.

Tuesday, 4 January 2011

New Year, New Resolutions

Quickly, while Baby Milly is playing studiously with the label on one of her new Christmas toys:

First up: New Year's Resolutions.  Number one is to lose half a stone over the course of the year.  This, the first and most important, is a Wife's resolution.  That is, I've made it on behalf of my husband as well as myself.  Simon stood sadly in front of the mirror this morning, readying himself for his first day back to work, having abandoned last year's cheap suit because it wouldn't do up.  "It fit last May" he said, mournfully.  This year's cheap suit is a size up and is apparently "a little too big around the middle".  A wife should believe the things her husband says and not publicly confound them, so I shall say nothing and leave you to make what you will of my use of the word 'apparently'. 

So we've weighed ourselves with my brand new Christmas digital scales and I've made a note in the back of Milly's feeding book and next week we shall Compare and Contrast.  Theoretically, he ought to have an easier time of it.  He just goes to the office in Stratford (On-Avon, not Olympic) and to London, whereas I spend my week carting Milly to the houses of all my NCT friends and it would be rude to turn up without cake. 

Number two: finish the novel.  When, I can't tell you.  Babies and novels are not great bedfellows, but I should be able to manage it within a year, surely.  SURELY.

Number three: I did have a third one.  What was it?  Oh yes, buy a house.  Simon and I are habitual renters but now Milly's here it's time to leap as high as we possibly can to try and grab the bottom rung of that property ladder, whence we can dangle triumphantly and sneer at other non-home-owners. 

My big idea for Resolutions this year is to set goals that can be achieved by a number of means.  I imagine (not having ever kept a Resolution, so I can't speak with authority) that it is much easier to achieve a target, one way or another, than it is to maintain a higher and better standard of behaviour, (which I KNOW can't be done).  So I may lose my half stone by diet, or possibly by exercise, or a combination of the two, and I may write a few words every day, or have a big writing blowout every few weeks.  We shall have to wait and see.  Having said that, there's really only one way to buy a house. 

There are other things I plan to do as well, which aren't Resolutions as such, but more General Ideas for Improvement.  They lack the officiality of a Resolution, that signed-in-my-own-blood-at-midnight-under-a-blasted-oak-and-witnessed-by-owls fervour that the birth of a new year magically imparts to any changes you decide to make on or around Jan 1st, but they have, in their own way, a quiet determination.  "We're not Resolutions" they whisper.  "Everyone knows you don't keep Resolutions.  You just make them so you'll feel Important and Changeworthy, and because everyone else does.  We are the real changes, the ones you don't dare give the name 'Resolution' to in case you jinx us."  So, don't tell anyone, but I may well hoover more often, and possibly keep up this blog, and perhaps eat less cake, and finally decide, one way or another, if I'm Team Jacob or Team Edward.  (Team Jacob, I think.  Simon is a hairy, hairy man, so to choose the Pale, Thin Thing over the Werewolf would be extremely disloyal of this Henwife.  Also, werewolves age naturally, and you can bleed near them, and they don't have to answer to David Frost.  Just saying.) 

But now I shall go.  Milly has has grown bored and is beginning to burble grumpily, and we must away into Shipston to get kidney beans and garlic and cider vinegar...