Wednesday, 29 April 2009

More random thoughts on Twitter, the young people of today, and the rumour that we are all going to the dogs

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

The low hum of the mythical golden age which infects the media, the national conversation and the very zeitgeist itself has snarled up into a roar. A new book in America claims to have identified an ‘epidemic of narcissism’. In a similar epidemic of word association, once narcissism is out there, it immediately leads to Twitter and blogging. Miss Whistle has a lovely post up about a dinner party where an opinionated gentleman had a nice rant about all the self-regarding idiots who Tweet. In last week’s Spectator, Bryan Forbes, a good director and a kind man, had a mad as hell piece about how we are living in a society of vapid celebrities and lying politicians, while the education system spews out ‘armies of illiterates’. The headline yelled of our ‘morally impoverished culture’.

The overt message of all this is, as usual, that we are all doomed. We are a bunch of craven solipsists, palsied by our obsession with Britney Spears, atomised in our little virtual worlds where we must document what we had for breakfast, for the world to know. The implied message is that because it is all shit now, it must have been wonderful then. I keep scratching my head in a frowny effort to work out when this marvellous time of moral rectitude, selflessness and unimpeachable public life was. I am not going to test your glorious patience by running through the list of child labour, anti-semitism, glassy-eyed housewives hopped up on tranquillisers, plutocrats screwing down wages, and lack of welfare that littered much of the 20th century. I don’t need to remind you that some of the most lauded world leaders had peccadilloes that would not survive a moment’s scrutiny by today’s tabloids – Gladstone with his ladies of the street, Kennedy with all ladies, street or not, Churchill with his brandy. I am not going to send you blind with statistics, although I could point out that in this moral wasteland that is modern Britain, over five million people work as unpaid carers, their ruthless selfishness driving them to look after the halt and the lame.

Instead, I am going to direct you to Twitter, the lair of the contemporary narcissist, where all the me-me-mes come out to play. Over the last two weeks, this is what has been going on in my little corner of the Twitterverse –

A viral campaign has been raging to try and influence the Iranian government to free Roxana Saberi, the journalist incarcerated in Evin Prison. (I’ve written about this before, and I shall write about it again.)
Sarah Brown is using Twitter to raise awareness about the thousands of women dying needlessly in childbirth.
People have made actual jokes.
A fellow in America is mounting a furious one-man action to get Joe Scarborough sacked from his show on MSNBC, because he keeps shouting at people about how waterboarding is not really torture, and what are we supposed to do to suspected terrorists – give them birthday cake?
Recipes have been swapped, interesting articles highlighted, and general helpful household tips exchanged. (One of the best things about Twitter is that it is like a filter for the morass that is the interweb: you find interesting people to follow, and they then direct you to interesting things they have found out there in cyberspace, saving you amazing amounts of time and trouble, and letting you become informed about subjects you had no knowledge of.)
One man in France has continued his genius idea of writing a novel every day in three lines. The vignettes are surreal, intellectual, funny and surprising.
This morning, for no particular reason, a quotathon has broken out – Scott Fitzgerald vs Oscar Wilde vs Winston Churchill. I suspect it may continue for some time.

I’m not getting pious about Twitter. It has its patches of dullness and pointlessness just as life does. There are people who tweet of bagels and muffins; there are people who trade in banality; there are people who indulge in an orgy of shameless self-promotion. But it is not the sewer and sink of all our ills, and to say so is just cheap and lazy, and, ironically, blastingly dull.

And as for the young people, this fabled army of ASBO illiterates, capable only of texting and annoying old ladies on the bus and saying ‘like’ a lot – if you believe, like me, that they are getting a bad press, just go and have a look at The Speaker on the BBC iplayer. I’m not much for reality shows, but this one makes me cry. It has its flaws – breathless, slightly manipulative voiceover, excessive sense of its own drama – but it is a true tonic for the troops. The simple premise is to find young people who want to win a public speaking competition, put them through a series of tests, see who has the right stuff. What is astonishing and tear-making is not their undeniable talents, but their characters. They mostly come from working class backgrounds, comprehensive schools, council estates. They are bright, witty, passionate, determined and kind. In the snapshots we see of their home life, they are surrounded by love from friends and family. I refuse to believe that in some scurrilous piece of social engineering, the BBC has managed to find the only children in Britain who inspire hope and admiration. I think, whisper it, that they might be representative of something that is not going to the dogs at all. I think they tell us, without ever saying the words, that we might not be doomed after all.

Tuesday, 28 April 2009

Don't panic!

Posted by Sarah Vine.

So. In anticipation of the imminent collapse of society as we know it, I spend last night nursing my tonsillitis (as it now turns out) and doing a bit of on-line panic buying. It is always entirely possible that I may have got carried away under the influence of rather too much Neurofen Cold and Flu, but here is what I bought.

4 Tuna in Olive Oil 225g
4 Ambrosia Creamed Rice Pudding 425g
4 Ambrosia Devon Ready to Serve Custard 1kg
2 Anchovy Paste 90g
2 Apricot Halves in Fruit Juice 205g
1 Assorted Savoury Crisps 6 x 25g
2 Borlotti Beans 410g
2 Cannellini Beans 410g
2 Chopped Italian Tomatoes & Basil 400g
2 Cooks' Ingredients Olive Oil for Cooking 1L
2 Custard Creams 400g
2 Flageolet Beans 400g
2 Greek Currants 500g
2 John West Corned Beef 340g
2 Mandarin Oranges in Light Syrup 310g
2 Nestle Condensed Milk 450g
2 Peach Halves in Fruit Juice 410g
2 Pineapple Slices in Fruit Juice 220g
10 Pure Apple Juice 6 x 200ml
1 Ready Salted Crisps 6 x 25g
2 Rich Tea Biscuits 400g
4 Still Mineral Water 5L
4 Spaghetti Hoops 410g
2 Spam Chopped Pork & Ham 340g
2 Tunnock's Caramel Wafers 16 x 30g
2 UHT Semi Skimmed Milk 6 x 1L

Personally, I think that makes for a very good bunker menu. It may have been slightly influenced by the fact that I was watching Ashes to Ashes as I did it. Note the custard creams. Very important for morale, don't you think?

Monday, 27 April 2009

Tomato heaven

Posted by Sarah Vine.

Okay, so last night, with a razor-blade throat and exhausted from a long journey, I improvised with some tomatoes. I am always amazed by the healing power of the humble tomato. This is unbelievably simple to make, but utterly delicious (I think).

Take as many tomatoes as you can find in the bottom of your fridge (it doesn't matter how old they are, just sling them in). I would say the minimum for two people would be about 20 small ones. Small ones are the best, those little plum tomatoes are ideal. Pop them in a pan of cold water with a little salt and bring to the boil.

Meanwhile, assemble the following: some fresh basil (or sage, or even at a push parsley or thyme: just as long as it's fresh), a handful of olives (pitted and cut in half, preferably black), about four anchovies (chopped) and two cloves of garlic (chopped). NO ONIONS PLEASE. Choose your pasta (fusilli are especially good, since they catch the sauce nicely), and bring a large pot of salted water to the boil. You will also need a small glass of red wine, some black pepper, a pinch of dried chilli and about a cup of grated parmesan.

When your tomatoes are on a rolling boil, the skins will start to come away. Take them off the heat and douse in cold water. Remove the skins, cut off the bottomy bits and slice in half. It's best to do this on a plate if you can, so that you don't lose any of the lovely juice.

In a small saucepan, gently fry the garlic in olive oil, taking great care not to burn it (if you do burn it, start again: burnt garlic is horrid, and it will blow away all the other flavours). Add your fresh tomatoes and simmer. Throw in the anchovies (no salt at this stage, you'll need to wait and see how salty the anchovies make it first) and the wine. Stir. Add chilli and pepper to taste, and half the basil.

Turn the heat down and allow to simmer. By now you pasta pot should be bubbling away nicely, so you can cook the pasta. Remember to stir thoroughly once the pasta is in (no need to add olive oil if you do this).

Check your sauce, which should be reducing nicely. Adjust seasoning if necessary (you can add a bit of sneaky Bouillon at this stage if you like, but just the merest pinch). When the sauce begins to thicken (after about 10 minutes), add the olives and the rest of the basil. Simmer for a further couple of minutes and then the heat off.

Drain the pasta and return to the pot immediately. Place on a low heat and stir in a good glug of olive oil. Now add the sauce, stir, and finally the parmesan. Spoon into large bowl and eat, very hot. Mmm.

The Little Horse Who Could

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

I think even people who have no interest whatsoever in racing will love this story. This is like the Susan Boyle of the equine world. As the capitalist system crumbles about us and swine flu stalks the land, it is an enchanting glimmer of light.

In Hungary, there is a little racehorse called Overdose. He does not have the sleek, killer looks of the serious thoroughbred. His breeder thought so little of him when he was a foal that he said he looked like a car with three flat tyres; the only answer was to get rid of him as soon as possible. At the Newmarket sales, Zoltan Mikoczy, a steel trader with an incurable love of racing, put up his hand for a joke, because no one else was bidding, and got the horse for two thousand guineas. To put this in context, twenty-five grand is considered cheap for a good racehorse.

Mikoczy took the horse back to Hungary, where racing, once a proud sport of emperors, was in terminal decline. Kincsem Park, the government-owned racecourse in Budapest, was a bleak windswept place, redolent of tumbleweed and smashed dreams. It was named after the mighty mare Kincsem, who won all 54 of her races in the 1870s, a record that has never been beaten. Now, talk was that the whole thing would be sold off, razed to the ground, and developed for flats. The feeling in the country at large was one of profound gloom, as the credit crunch bit, and Hungary had to go to the IMF in a humiliating plea for help. When presented with Overdose, the mood of the trainer Sandor Ribarski was not much better; his initial verdict was ‘short and kind of ugly’.

But what the hell, they sent him out to run. And he ran, and ran, and ran. He beat everything in sight, bursting out of the stalls like a rocket and just not stopping. He demolished them in Budapest, he ran them into the ground in Rome, he took them apart in Vienna and Baden Baden. No one seemed to have told him that he wasn’t supposed to be any good. He smashed track records left and right. He went straight to the front and galloped and galloped until he was eight, nine, ten lengths ahead of all rivals, leaving them labouring in his wake. The Hungarians, who had had nothing to shout about for a long time, went crazy. People said he was like Seabiscuit, another unfashionable odd-looking horse, who became a public hero in the great American depression of the 1930s. Charles Howard, Seabiscuit’s owner, once said of him: ‘See, he doesn’t know he’s little,’ and Overdose seemed to have something of that same spirit. By the time he won his twelfth race on the trot, back at Kincsem Park a few days ago, the normal crowd of a thousand had swelled to twenty thousand; the national anthem played, the Hungarian flag was unfurled, and the horse was accompanied out onto the track by an honour guard of Hussars, dressed in splendid uniforms littered with gold braid. Overdose, to the crowd’s hysterical delight, beat the course record by three seconds.

Horses that capture the public imagination don’t come along that often. You can count them on your fingers: Arkle, Red Rum, Eclipse, Desert Orchid, Phar Lap. It’s not enough to be good. In an odd, counter-intuitive way, sometimes the really good ones are quite hard to love; there can be something slightly soulless, machine-like, about their brilliance. It is too diamond-sharp, light bounces off it. There needs to be something extra, indefinable, a sprinkling of fairy-tale stardust. With Overdose, there is the enduring little guy appeal: underdog horse from underdog country takes Europe by storm. But it is also something about the way he runs. When you watch him, you find yourself smiling and exclaiming out loud. Successful front-runners are quite rare in racing; they usually get burnt off, come back to the field; winners often have to be covered up, as the parlance goes, lying back in the field until the final stages. But Overdose just charges off in front, like a wild thing, because no one ever told him the rules; he doesn’t care, he just wants to go. His stride lengthens and deepens, until it is as if he is flying. He seems, for a magical moment, to suspend the laws of physics. Maybe the joy of it is that, seeing him fly, we are reminded that the most unlikely things are possible.

For footage of the Budapest bullet, as he is becoming known, click here:

Wednesday, 22 April 2009

Earth Day; or, a wild flash of optimism

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

Happy Earth Day, everyone.

To tell the unvarnished truth, as I sometimes like to do, I have absolutely no idea what Earth Day is. I heard someone mention it on the wireless this morning, but I was not concentrating. If I had to guess, I should say it's a day for remembering that the planet must be saved. And it absolutely must. The problem, it seems to me, is that no one has any idea how. (Answers on a postcard.)

My fear is that Earth Day might be an excuse for all the most extreme sides of the argument to come out and dance the pasa doble. In one corner, we have the mad flat-earthers, who insist that climate change is unproven (it's just a cycle, see) and that business must have its sway and we must all drill, baby, drill. In the other corner, we have the smug greens, who want you all to go and live in yurts, and intimate that if you ever set foot on one more aeroplane you will be personally responsible for the next cyclone in Bangladesh. Meanwhile, China, who answers to no man (nor woman neither) is building a coal-fired power station every week, the ice caps are melting, the polar bears have nowhere to go, and the people of the South Pacific islands will very soon have to live on rafts. At this point, your dutiful installation of low energy lightbulbs might seem very slightly irrelevant. It's all too crazy and unstoppable, and everyone shouting at each other will not stop people wanting to drive cars, and we are all doomed.

And yet, and yet. Astonishing, unthinkable things do happen. Entrenched attitudes do change. Regard human history: slavery did end, women did get the vote, a man did step onto the very surface of the moon. So maybe you and I, with a little recycling and buying local and turning off the lights, can make a difference. Perhaps it's not such a puny plan after all.

My own, personal Earth Day is going to consist of contemplating the absolute wonders of the world. Outside my window, as if in celebration, a vivid sun is shining out of a high blue sky. The first of the cherry blossom is out. The fat, sticky buds of the horse chestnut have just unfurled into tiny new leaves of stinging green. In the south meadow, newborn lambs are actually skipping, just as lambs are supposed to do. The oystercatchers have come in from the coast, and are celebrating their mating season by singing raucously all night long. Down by the burn, the ducks are building their nest in their usual secret location. I watch each day for the swallows to come back all the way from Africa to my garden shed.

Slip the lens a little, and contemplate the wider view. The truly astonishing thing about those photographs of earth taken from space is not just the timeless beauty of the blue planet, but that it is the only blue planet to be seen in the known universe. Of all the lumps of rock out there that we have discovered, it is the single one that has the exact conditions required for life. A few miles closer to the sun, a little less carbon dioxide and phtt - solar storms and arid rock; no Mozart, no Shakespeare, no nothing. There are, of course, many other universes that the Hubble telescope cannot see, that may be beyond anything in our imagination; the physicists are talking of a possible eleven dimensions and that parallell universes are not science fiction but science fact. But in our little corner of the cosmos, we are the only ones that got lucky, which is perfectly extraordinary in itself.

So just for one day I am going to, as the great Johnny Mercer once wrote, accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative, and not even think of messing with Mr Inbetween. It's Earth Day, and Earth is a bloody miracle. I'm going to listen to Mr Louis Armstrong, old Satchelmouth himself, because just sometimes, despite all the sorrows that flesh is heir to, it is worth remembering that it is a wonderful world.

For your very own dose of Satchmo, click here:

Tuesday, 21 April 2009

Roxana Saberi and the women of Evin Prison

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

As I start to write this, I keep feeling I should apologise for getting too serious. This blog was started as a light-hearted foray into all things that might be of interest to women. There were recipes for Charlotte potatoes, diversions into ballroom dancing or the nature of fame, adorable snapshots of small people in Easter bonnets. There are pictures of my dogs, for heaven's sake. I allowed myself the occasional rant, with one eye firmly on the self-indulgence police. So today, when I am going to hit you with a post that contains not one ounce of levity, I have a tremor of alarm. Shall I finally go one step beyond, descend into po-faced how can you laugh when the world is so oppressed self-righteousness, and lose every single one of my loyal readers, whom I cherish so much? And why is it that I even think this might be true?

The whole point of Backwards was that it celebrated the fact that women have the alluring ability to turn from profound to frivolous on a dime. It said: there will be no putting of the ladies into boxes, thank you so very much. You may enjoy deconstructing great eyeshadow disasters of our time with just as much vigour as you bring to the ethics of waterboarding. And yet, and yet. For some reason, I still want to say - forgive me. Perhaps it's not a gender thing at all; perhaps it is because I am British, and I have been taught all my life to do anything in my human power not to grow earnest and dull. Now I must close my eyes, take a deep breath, and risk both. But then, it's not really the end of the world, is it? It's not being locked up after a secret trial with no explanation.

So - As if the story of Roxana Saberi were not strange enough - from illicit wine drinker to international spy - now it seems that her entire case may be part of some labyrinthine political grandstanding within Iran. Commentators can only guess at what the real endgame is: it's hardliners rattling their sabres, it's a massive double bluff on the United States, it's a test of the novice President Obama. Sometimes, in moments of despair, I start to think it's just that the Iranian courts really love locking up women. There seem to be tiny green shoots of hope: an appeal has been allowed, Ahmadinejad has, for reasons of his own, made a vaguely conciliatory statement (before going off and bitch-slapping Israel at the UN), a Nobel Laureate has joined the defence team. We still do not know how this will end.

Here is what we do know:

Delara Darabi was sentenced to death at the age of 17 for a murder she clearly did not commit. She is now 22 and still on death row. If her appeals are not successful, she will be executed in two months' time.

Evin prison, where Saberi is being held, is a black hole of legal limbo. Mahboubeh Hosseinzadeh, an activist who helped organise the million signatures movement to work for improved women's rights, was arrested and sent there in 2007. She reported on a hellish scene of ill, drug-addicted and suicidal women. Several of them had killed their husbands. Forced into marriage at ages as young as 13, beaten, raped, made to work as prostitutes, unable to divorce, they turned to murder.

In March, Marzieh Amirizadeh and Maryam Rustampoor were arrested on charges of being anti-government agents and sent to Evin. Bail was set at $400,000. Amazingly, their families managed to raise the money, but it was then rejected on the grounds that the charges had changed, although they were not told what the new charges were. It appears that the women's real offence was to be Christian.

In 2003, Iranian-Canadian photojournalist Zahra Kazemi was incarcerated in Evin prison for taking photographs just outside. She died in custody. Her body showed signs of extreme violence and brutal rape. Official cause of death: stroke.

This is what we know of the prison in which Roxana Saberi is being kept and the judicial system that condemned her.

Saturday, 18 April 2009

More thoughts on Twitter: a force for good?

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

A very strange thing happened today. I woke to the news that the American-Iranian journalist, Roxana Saberi (pictured left) has been sentenced to eight years in an Iranian jail for 'spying'. I knew a little about Saberi after hearing an interview with her father a few weeks ago on NPR, the nearest America has to Radio Four. (I get it in Scotland through the wonder of podcast.) At the time, the Iranians insisted that they were holding her because her journalist's permit had expired; she was actually arrested because a shopkeeper reported her for buying a bottle of wine, which is illegal in Iran. Her father was extremely worried about her state of mind, but it seemed that the authorities would soon let her go, and were mostly posturing, possibly for some kind of tactical diplomatic gain. Then, instead of the happy ending of Saberi going home to North Dakota, the whole thing escalated into spying charges and eight years' incarceration.

I found myself incredibly upset and frustrated by this: what they do to the women, and what they do to journalists, under repressive patriarchal regimes, often in the name of god, drives me nuts. So I put out a Tweet. It felt mildly stupid, almost adolescent, yelling into the wind. But I had read a story about how a critical mass of people on Twitter had contributed to the freeing of a man called Roy Bennet from a prison in Zimbabwe. I thought: if Twitter can take on Robert Mugabe and win, then maybe it has a chance against the Mullahs. I know that the young people in Iran are always reported to be very tech savvy. I thought: maybe nothing will come of it, I have only a meagre hundred followers, but I'll send it out into the Twitterverse anyway.

This is when the extraordinary thing happened. I went back after a couple of hours and it had been re-tweeted, over and over, by people I had never heard of, had no connection with, did not follow. How had they even found it? I am so new to Twitter that I don't quite understand the retweeting process. It seems to work something like this: when someone finds a message they like, they copy it out and post it on the site again, presumably to get it out to a wider audience. My newness also means that I have absolutely no idea how these strangers even found my message in the first place. As far as I can see there is no search facility on Twitter, or at least I have not found it (although I have not spent much time looking). I use the whole shebang in a very basic way: I write a couple of Tweets a day, trying to be either interesting, informative or, if at all possible, mildly droll. I regard avoiding banality a matter of honour. I engage in conversations with my new, fabulous Twitter friends, mostly women who are so brilliant that lately some of them have taken to making Twitter jokes in Latin. I still have not mastered the art of posting links, I am so much in the basic stage. I like Twitter because it makes me laugh, it gives me glimpses into other people's lives, which is always riveting, and in distilling my thoughts into 140 characters, it makes me pay a slightly Zennish attention to moments in my day, which I think might be an excellent contribution to mental health.

So this whole Roxana Saberi retweeting phenomenon felt like a miracle to me. I have no idea how it happened, so it has an aura of absolute magic about it. I sometimes feel a little protective of Twitter, because people bash it so lazily and so easily. (I know about this: I was once one of those very bashers.) Until today, I thought: come along, cross people, it's just a little bit of harmless fun. Now I wonder if it is not more than that. I wonder if it might not turn out to be an actual force for actual good.

Friday, 17 April 2009

The real shock about Damien McBride

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

I am terribly sorry about this picture. It is really not what you want on a Friday. You are thinking of the weekend; of lying in, eating fried eggs for breakfast, maybe catching a matinee. You might be planning to read an improving book or do some pruning. The last thing you want to see is that shining red face staring out at you. I am afraid, though, that I must use it for illustrative purposes.

You see, I have just discovered that Damien McBride is 34 years old. I know. THIRTY-FOUR. I assumed he was hitting fifty. What has he done to himself?

What is really fascinating to me is that while every single newspaper took great care to publish the age of the transcendent Susan Boyle, no one until today has mentioned McBride's age, although it is much more startling. (Are those gin blossoms I see?) And no one, apart from the brilliantly caustic Marina Hyde over at The Guardian, has talked of his physical appearance. Compare this to the evisceration of Ms Boyle - she might have a singing voice that brings tears to the eyes, but the newspapers are still having the vapours over the fact that she has the temerity to appear 'frumpy'.

McBride worked for a government which has been talking a great deal of obesity and something called 'wellness', which basically means encouraging people to eat vegetables and lay off the hard stuff so that they don't cost the poor old NHS too much money. It is a perfectly sensible idea of prevention - Sarah, my co-writer on Backwards, feels so strongly about this that she thinks there should be a supertax on sugar. I once floated the idea that green vegetables should be subsidised, so that they are not only available to the middle-classes (have you seen the price of watercress lately?). But my point is that Mr McBride looks like a poster boy for unwellness; he appears to be only two Macburgers away from a serious infarction.

Maybe this doesn't really matter. Too much blatant animal health can be alarming. Sometimes those little Miliband boys look so bright-eyed and bushy-tailed that I have to put on my dark glasses. If Susan Boyle has taught us anything, it is that the book and the cover often have no relation to each other. (Although by all accounts Mr McBride's book was a rather nasty read.) But there is something deeply disturbing about that preternaturally aged face, the scarlet cheeks, the sheen of unhealth. You see, I'm a Labour girl through and through. I've never voted for any other party. And, like a faltering football team, they have put their supporters through a lot in the last nine years - dodgy dossiers, double-speak, spin, being perfectly horrible to asylum seekers, wasting unimaginable amounts of money on IT systems that do not work. The whole point of the Left is that it is supposed to be kinder and gentler than the tough social darwinists of the traditional Right. It would not stigmatise the poor, the single mothers, the lesbians and gays; it would not abandon the weaker elements of society, leaving them clinging to the wreckage. That was my last best hope. I would sometimes rather be romantic and wrong than ruthless and right. Now everything is turning upside down: Labour has turned into the nasty party, while many Conservatives appear reasonable and well-mannered.

Maybe what is so disturbing about Damien McBride emerging from his bunker is that he looks like the quintessence of nastiness. You don't get to look fifteen years older than you actually are by harbouring idealistic ideas about making the world a better place. It is as if the darkness of his dark arts are written all over his face - the unhealthiness of his soul reflected in the unhealthiness of his complexion, the cynicism towards his fellow humans glinting through his little squinty eyes.

I might be having a slightly excessive reaction to all this. It has been known to happen. I am sure that there are plenty of unhealthy-looking people who are perfectly pure of heart; there must be bigots and tyrants who brush up beautifully. It's not an exact science. But there is something in that florid face that makes me feel I am hanging onto my faith in politics by my fingernails.

Wednesday, 15 April 2009

If you watch one thing today, please make it this

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

I don't often put up links to Youtube sensations. It is partly because they seem to me often fleeting and not that pointful; partly because I'm not much for fiddling around with links; and mostly because the magnificent Sara Silverman singing I'm Fucking Matt Damon spoiled me forever for anything else. But this one is in a category all of its own.

I don't watch talent shows, and have only a sketchy idea of who Simon Cowell is or what he means. I know he is cynical and grumpy and apparently takes pleasure in telling deluded performers that they will never amount to anything. Clearly that was what he was gleefully preparing to do when a slightly awkward 47 year old Scottish woman walked onto the stage and said that she wanted to be as famous as Elaine Paige. She did not look the part; nothing about her was equipped for fame, from her unpainted face to her admission that she lived alone with her cat. Then she opened her mouth, and it turned out, in a glorious, shocking moment of surprise, that she could sing. Cowell went from sceptical rolling eyes to cartoonish jaw drop of pure astonishment. Then, to his credit, a smile of pure, uncontaminated pleasure spread over his face. The lovely Susan Boyle achieved something no one else in the country has ever been able to do: she made Simon Cowell look like a human being.

There are several fascinating things about this whole affair. Everyone was prepared to write Susan Boyle off, simply because she did not look right. The newspapers, even after her triumph, have used cruel descriptions of her - 'a dowdy spinster' said one reputable broadsheet. Interestingly, the audience was much more generous - the moment they saw she could sing like an angel, they went nuts; they were all for her, they were on her side, nothing else mattered but this beautiful voice. On the blogosphere, the thing everyone is saying is that it has taught them the most important and overlooked lesson of all: don't you go judging a book by its cover. The final thing, which affects me on a personal level, is that the media is defining her as a forty-seven year old woman who has never married. This comment does not have to be illuminated; it stands alone, meaning: freak. Well, I am a forty-two year old woman who has never married. I would like to stand in solidarity with the miraculous Miss Boyle and say that not doing the expected thing does not make one entirely beyond the pale.

Watch it, anyway. It is a little parable for our times. It is the classic story of the underdog coming out and beating all comers. It made me cry like a baby.

Tuesday, 14 April 2009

Twitter: random thoughts from a broad

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

I am going to refrain from another long, earnest essay, since I subjected you to one of those yesterday. I have many, many thoughts on Twitter - I suspect that it might be one of those phenomena which is more important than its constituent parts, and therefore deserves some contemplation; I suspect that people miss the point on account of being blinded by the 140 characters thing, and the jargon of tweets and tweeps and twitterverse. However, I am not going to spill my musings out in one indigestible blurt, but scatter them around graciously like confetti, over the coming days. For this, you need to picture me as Grace Kelly in High Society when she is pretending to be the most tremendous society girl in a huge swirling dress to frighten away Frank Sinatra. As if anyone could frighten Frank.

It took me about six months to start twittering. I signed up, had a look, and could not get the point. I just could not see it. I did not understand it. I felt old and cross and out of touch, even though, oddly, Twitter is not really a thing for da kids, but beloved of middle-aged men like Jonathan Ross and Stephen Fry and Toby Young. But still, it was a new internet 2.0 kind of deal, and I did not get it. So I turned away in disgust, and easily joined all those ranks of critics in the mainstream press who had decided it was clearly the spawn of Satan, designed for the pathetically narcissistic and the terminally mad. I wrote, crossly, on this very blog, that it was a site of staggering banality.

Then I thought: oh come on, what the hell, let’s try again. And after a couple of days of still not really getting it, I suddenly realised: Twitter is like the great British pub. The whole narcissism trope misses the point entirely – if someone is out for a drink talking a little too loudly about what they think about things, you would not write them off for high-grade solipsism; that’s what people do in social situations. Twitter is a social situation. Just like the pub, it has its bores, its kooks, its regulars. It has the ones who are really just playing the slot machine all night, the ones who are showing off about their great new business, and the ones who are so fascinating that you just want to eavesdrop on them until your ears fall off. It also, in oddly British fashion, even though it is an international operation, has the ones who love to talk about the weather. (Eddie Izzard, you know that means you, you little tinker.)

So, as in any gathering, there are the dullards – ‘having coffee at work and thinking of booking a summer holiday’. There are the frankly incomprehensible: ‘I unlocked 2 X box achievements on Assassin’s Creed!’ (I know, NO idea). There are the slightly unexpected: ‘Thinking of going back into US navy to help catch pirates’. And there are the funny: ‘Thinking of writing brilliant novel: ‘A Tale of Two Tweeties’. Would be 21st century epistolary novel in 140 character bursts’.

It’s also very friendly, in the tradition of the public house. People you have never met before will buy you a drink. They will politely laugh at your jokes. There is a great deal of unspoken etiquette.

So for the grumpy columnists out there who are convinced it is the end of civilised discourse as we know it, I say, as would the clearly fake but highly diverting Tim Westwood – chill the fuck out, brothas. It’s just the Dog and Duck.

Monday, 13 April 2009

In which I mount a revolt against the pre-eminent thinker of the day

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

This morning, a strange thing happened on the wireless. A man mentioned the word ‘pessimism’ and everyone else in the studio went crazy with delight. It is bank holiday Monday as I write; a dazzling sun is shining out of an untroubled sky; a lone oyster catcher is dozing on the grass in front of my study window. The cool air has that sharp spring scent of infinite possibility. I was going to write a nice, whimsical piece to do with Easter and daffodils or I don’t know what. But the men on Radio Four are haunting me, so instead, my darlings, I am afraid you are going to get a rant.

So there I was, listening to Start the Week, vaguely happy, looking forward to a little cerebral stimulation. And on came Professor John Gray, the leading thinker, the pre-eminent philosopher, as Andrew Marr took care to remind his audience. I always love a good philosopher on a Monday morning, so I settled down happily to pay attention. I started getting ruffled fairly early on, but that is fine, because my entrenched ideas and prejudices must always be challenged, that is what I pay the licence fee for. I waited for the other guests to put up a counter-argument, or just ask a question, because that is usually what happens, but instead they all piled in behind Gray, gleefully smashing up everything I believe in in the process. And that was when I became very, very cross indeed.

The burden of Gray’s song was that any idea of human progress is a chimera. He was especially scathing of the Whig view of history, which has been largely discredited, but for which I still hold a small guttering candle of fondness. He said that despite undeniable technological and scientific advances, humans and the lives they live and the values they hold do not improve. And so, pessimism must be the only correct reaction for the thinking person. Yes, yes, cried Michael Portillo, in a perfect fandango of joy. Pessimism is what true conservatives should and do embrace. Of course, of course, said Peter Ackroyd, in a grumbly chorus of agreement – do moderns think any better than Aristotle? Has drama improved since Sophocles? (Personally, I prefer Ibsen and Chekhov myself, but that’s just me). Marr made a slightly pathetic attempt to put the other side: we do know more, he said, weakly. Yes, but what do we do with that knowledge? said Gray. Implication: nothing good.

The only gentle dissenting voice came from Amanda Craig who said that she would rather be a woman now than a hundred years ago. Although she was polite and diffident, I thought that was the crushing point, but Gray waved it off. We might think of that as progress, he admitted, but it was so fragile and reversible as not to count. In other words, at any moment, all human achievement and striving could be wiped out by some unnamed malicious force, taking us back to the dark ages. It’s the bleeding obvious, said Portillo, giddy with happiness, smacking the argument home.

I knew at once that I did not agree with this argument. Every part of me revolted against it. But Professor John Gray is the foremost thinker of our time, and I am just an irrelevance who sits at home in a room with my dogs. What do I know? I have no PhD; Radio Four producers do not come and build a willow cabin at my gate. My rational mind said: perhaps he is right, perhaps the low humming optimism about the human condition that I carry with me is no better than the kind of magical thinking that believes in ghosts or horoscopes. Years after the slave trade was abolished, there are still young women being trafficked, and illegal immigrants working for little better than slave wages. Centuries after the Enlightenment, there are still people in the most powerful nation in the world who believe fervently in the rapture and the end times, some of them in public office. Years after the poor laws and the invention of the welfare state, there are still old ladies who dare not turn on their heaters in winter. Perhaps I am just a posturing Pollyanna who knows nothing.

And yet, and yet. The more I think of it, the more I think that this intellectual pessimism is a cheap trick. There was something about the fervid eagerness with which it was embraced in the studio which carried a whiff of snobbism, a rotting fish stink of us and them. We brilliant thinkers know the truth, which is that we are all doomed; while you unreflective dolts out there carry on with your plebeian optimism. I think that most humans do believe in progress; it is why people fight and die for the vote; it is why huge crowds in Prague recently roared Barack Obama to the echo when he talked of the Velvet Revolution; it is why parents will sacrifice almost everything to get their children educated. Hope is not just a slogan or a political sleight of hand or bovine group-think, it is an absolute necessity for life. If the pessimists had been in charge when humans learnt to make fire, they would have convinced the populace that it would only ever be good for arson.

It is easy to look around the world and find examples of poverty and oppression and bigotry. It’s all hell and handcarts, and thinking otherwise is stupid and naive. But I thought it instructive that it was the only woman in the room who took Gray on. I have a small, fledgling theory that women might be more inclined to believe in progress than men, just now, because they feel it so keenly in their daily lives. You don’t even have to go all the way back to the suffragettes. In my own family, university, which was inevitable and expected for me, little swot that I was, was unthinkable not just for my mother but also for my older sister. Small, hardly noticed things have set women free – the washing machine and hot running water mean that the laundry no longer takes an entire day of steamy battling with mangles and other hideous contraptions. Women in the West may do jobs, keep their own money, and run countries. This is progress. Even in the countries where advances seem illusory, there are women fighting for freedom – there are feminists in Afghanistan and Iran, and I believe that one day they will prevail.

Casual prejudice is no longer accepted in polite drawing rooms, or any room. As recently as the 1970s, one of my stepfathers used to stalk about the house talking of kikes and coons (my mother in those days had famously bad taste in men). Now, Britons view anti-Semitism and racism as incontrovertible wrongs. In living memory, children were sent down coal mines, which would be unthinkable today. The mentally ill are not regarded as sub-humans to be herded into asylums, but increasingly understood and treated. Despite the Iraq adventure, it is generally considered bad form to go about invading other people’s countries so that you can paint the map a pretty shade of pink.

To say there is no such thing as progress is to tell all those who fought for trades unions, women’s suffrage, human rights, rule of law and full democracy that they have been wasting their time. Blind optimism is a kind of delusion, and the human condition is not perfectible, but full-scale pessimism will surely only lead to ulcers and despair. Advances in anything do carry a fragility which must be guarded; smugness and complacency will not do. But a hope for better things is not idiocy, a crazed pipe dream which we would do better to give up. It is what gets me out of bed in the morning; and I wish that the pre-eminent thinkers would not try and take that away from me.

Thursday, 9 April 2009

The Price of Fame

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

Have just spent thirty-six hours ill in bed, feeling rather doleful and old-ladyish. I consoled myself with Nick Cohen's excellent new collection (the section on quack medicine is worth the cover price alone and reminds me that I must go back and re-read Francis Wheen on why mumbo jumbo has conquered the world) and also those kind of forbidden publications that feature large glossy photographs of the famous. I pretend that I never read these because I am excessively highbrow, and far too busy thinking about quantitative easing and the scourge of moral relativism to have time for fripperies. But occasionally even I have an unconquerable urge to find out what Brangelina is up to. And I was shocked, shocked I tell you, when I saw a banner headline yelling: Stars in Crisis!

I was concerned to find out what this crisis could be. Had the San Andreas fault finally taken its cosmic revenge? Were the studios going bankrupt because Bernie Madoff had run off with all their money? Was the collapse of Western capitalism causing the stars to question their very way of life?

It turned out that three women were having, according to 'sources', a not very good week. Madonna was not allowed to adopt a little girl ('Madonna does not do failure' apparently); Angelina Jolie was cross because Brad Pitt is acting opposite an attractive woman; and Jennifer Aniston has, and this may be my favourite, 'sworn off men' because John Mayer keeps ringing her up.

I admit that 'some famous women have not very good week' is not the kind of headline that grabs the attention in the same way that 'stars in crisis' does. I quite see that the entertainment industry runs on hyperbole, by its very nature. But there is a hysterical excess in this that gets the pedant and the puritan and the precisionist in me cross and ruffled. Words matter, as Barack Obama will tell you, if you ask nicely. In headline terms, a crisis is Darfur, or North Korea, or what is happening to the girls in Afghanistan. If crisis is Angelina Jolie having a bit of green-eye, then the very word is drained of meaning.

As I lay on my sick bed, aching as if I had been kicked all over by a small Shetland pony, I had one other thought about all this. One of the oddities of the contemporary age is that everyone, apparently, wants to be famous. I am not entirely certain this is true, but it is a constant trope - the young people do not want to learn to sing or dance or write, they just want fame as an end in itself. The more apocalyptic commentators regard this as the single proof of the End of Civilisation As We Know It. If it is the case, I wonder why. The famous always seem to be having a horrible time. Their marriages are on the rocks, their plastic surgery goes wrong, they are busted for crystal meth. Some of them, like Joaquin Phoenix, just go frankly nuts in public. Even if, like lovely Hugh Laurie, they earn big money and get awards and have number one hit shows, the magazines run one grumpy photograph as proof that the wages of fame is utter misery. The women must always be hungry, because if they put on weight their careers are over. If they break up from someone, they are 'doomed in love'.
Faced with all that, would you not just want to stay at home and have a nice cup of tea instead? I'm just asking.

Tuesday, 7 April 2009

I would like to thank the Academy...

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

Thrilling, slightly unbelievable news comes from the blogosphere. Despite being very new to all this, and, I sometimes fear, faintly amateurish (although never forget that the word amateur is derived from the Latin for love), Sarah and I have been given a special AWARD. The lovely Mrs Trefusis has named Backwards in High Heels as one of her top five blogs. Since Mrs Trefusis is a woman of exceptional grace and poise, and writes like an angel, this is a high honour. I accept it in a spirit of true humility and actually slightly outlandish excitement.
The prize comes with a set of rules (as there are rights so there are responsibilities) as follows:


1. You have to pass it on to 5 other fabulous blogs in a post.

2. You have to list 5 of your fabulous addictions in the post.

3. You must copy and paste the rules and the instructions below in the post.

Instructions: On your post of receiving this award, make sure you include the person that gave you the award and link it back to them. When you post your five winners, make sure you link them as well. To add the award to your post, simply right-click, save image, then “add image” it in your post as a picture so your winners can save it as well. To add it to your sidebar, add the “picture” widget. Also, don’t forget to let your winners know they won an award from you by emailing them or leaving a comment on their blog.

So, here are my five fabulous blogs:

The majestic LibertyLondonGirl, Queen of bloggers, who knows about everything from fashion to books to architecture, and is currently delighting us with despatches from her intrepid travels through the wilds of California.

The enchanting So Lovely, who sends out charming and sometimes faintly whimsical posts from sunny Los Angeles, and can actually make her own hot cross buns.

The outrageously funny Belgian Waffle, who makes me laugh so hard it startles my dogs. I don't know how she does it, day after day, with the funniness. She should get a government grant, in these Troubled Times.

Also exceptionally funny - the clever and eclectic Lucy Fishwife, who knows that literature and strong cocktails go together like carriages and horses (although how many people do you see riding around in a carriage, nowadays, apart from the Queen?).

And the incomparable Cassandra Castle, who never fails to make me smile and does lovely and often surprising things with words. It was because of her that I started this blog, and she was the first to welcome me to the blogosphere and make me realise that it was not the terrifying place I had feared.

I know it's only supposed to be five, but I can't go without also bigging up the fabulous La Beet, whose enquiring mind never fails to stimulate.

These are not the only blogs I adore - go to the blog roll of honour for the others that I love and follow - but they were the first ones I discovered when I started all this. The writers are not only startlingly good, but they were unbelievably kind and supportive to a new girl, and they hold a special place in my heart.

Now for my five addictions:

My dogs. Can't help it. I'm not going to go into it now, because I think very soon it will be time to give the glorious creatures an entire post of their very own. With pictures. I'm warning you.

Books, obviously. When I was a little girl I would read so hard that I did not used to notice the light was failing. 'You'll ruin your eyes,' everyone said. I am the only one of my brothers and sisters who has to wear strong corrective spectacles, so this was clearly true. But it was worth it. Highest obsessive rating: Mrs Woolf, Scott Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Mrs Parker, TS Eliot, Jane Austen, and Nancy Mitford. I also love Helen Simpson, Lorrie Moore, Terence Blacker, Cynthia Heimel, Brian Greene, Justin Cartwright and Martin Amis. I think Midnight's Children deserved every inch of its Booker of Bookers and get very grumpy when people get cheap laughs on Radio Four by saying that Salman Rushdie is unreadable (politicians especially do this, as if it is a badge of honour when it's just stupid and wrong).

American politics and MSNBC. My absolute secret vice is an excessively geekish fascination with the American politicial system. Whenever I have a free moment I race to my computer and watch Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow. I even know arcane House and Senate rules; I can explain the intricacies of the filibuster or the reconciliation process, should you ask, which I recommend you do not. During the Obama campaign, I stayed up all night every Tuesday that there was a primary on, to get the results. When he won, I cried actual tears of joy, and I love him still. This addiction also gets fed by medicinal doses of The West Wing.

The Big Life Questions. There is absolutely no excuse for this. Most people would think it pretentious and pointless. But I really want to know why we are here, what we all think we are doing, and what is the answer to the Universal Why. I want to understand the brain, unravel the nature nurture debate, map the development of language, and know where all the taxis go the moment it starts to rain. I want someone to tell me exactly what it is about women that is so scary that for thousands of years we were not allowed to vote or have opinions or enjoy sex.

Radio Four. I adore and worship it, even when it is going through a slightly dull patch, which it is at the moment. Melvyn Bragg and In Our Time is worth the licence fee alone. It makes me feel both interested and safe, which is a charming combination.

And since I allowed myself six favourite blogs, I am going to permit one more addiction, which is writing, naturally. I love everything about it, even when I find it so hard that it makes my eyes ache. I love the nature of words and what they can do. I love punctuation, especially the semi-colon, my favourite punctuation mark. I love the rules of grammar, and sometimes breaking them. I even love the tap tap tap of my fingers on my computer keyboard. I love the fact I can touch type, and still feel bizarrely proud of it after twenty five years. I love being able to say, when asked what I do: I'm a writer.

Sunday, 5 April 2009

Calling all history buffs

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

Do go and have a look at this majestic documentary about Gladstone and Disraeli.

It must have Lord Reith dancing with joy up in the celestial Bush House in the sky, being both educational and informative. Also, William Morris would be pleased, since it is beautiful and useful. My only tiny caveat is that it cannot resist the idiotic habit of using modern actors who look nothing like great statesman of the past to do pointless dramatic tableau, and is occasionally a little heavy on the string section. Otherwise it is a joy and a delight. For you Tintin lovers out there, it will also tell you the origin of the epithet 'bashi bazook', which I am ashamed to say I did not know until now; Captain Haddock was clearly better informed than I.

You can watch until Wednesday, or download and keep for a month. I am a little obsessed by the BBC iplayer at the moment, and am in danger of going up to complete strangers and telling them that it is worth the cost of the licence fee alone.

Friday, 3 April 2009

The single most important thing Michelle Obama did this week

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

Concerning the magnificent Mrs Obama, three stories dominated the press this week. What was she wearing (and who is this J. Crew?); the thing with the Queen, the thing with the Queen; and, possibly most crucially of all, would she win the sartorial shoot-out with Carla Bruni? The Guardian says: yes. To which I say: HA. (Although I was once introduced to Carla Bruni, a hundred years ago, before she was Carla Bruni, and she could not have been more charming and friendly. Considering I was wearing a dress that cost £18 from Miss Selfridge at the time, I thought that was a definite mark in her favour.)

But the point is, and there must always be a point, otherwise I risk arrest by the relevance police, none of these things mattered a straw compared to what the divine Mrs O did at the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson school in Islington. (Elizabeth Garrett who? you may say. I certainly did. It turns out she was born in Whitechapel, one of the twelve children of a pawnbroker, became Britain's first woman doctor, in the 1860s, and her life should be an inspiration to all our daughters.)

On the day that the tabloids chose to run headlines about Michelle Obama wearing a cardigan that committed the crime of carrying golfing overtones, she was inspiring a group of schoolgirls to tears of delight. Her visit was a surprise. She listened to them sing, she clapped and gave out high fives, she hugged as many of them as she could reach, to the flapping panic of her secret service detail. She was so touched by the show they put on for her that her voice cracked with emotion as she spoke to them. 'You are all jewels,' she told them. It was not just first lady guff or pointless sentiment. The American press has decided it likes Michelle Obama, but the narrative is that this is because she has done nothing political or controversial. Early on in the campaign, the story was that she was too scowly and grumpy, she was too educated, not patriotic enough. 'Why is she so angry?' the pundits shouted, angrily. They mistook determination and a refusal to simper for radical black rage. Now they like her because she is all Mom-in-chief and vegetable gardens. But what she told those girls, most of them from poor backrounds, was acutely political. It was just that the press was too caught up with the fashion story to notice.

She said that the health of a country depends upon the health of its women. She meant health in its widest sense. She told them that the world needs educated women, that good schooling is the silver bullet that will set the girls free, and enable them to be whatever they want to be. She said, most importantly of all, that it is all right to aspire to be intelligent. She said: 'I never cut class. I loved getting As, I liked being smart. I thought being smart is cooler than anything in the world. You, too, with these values, can control your own destiny. You, too, can pave the way.'

It was a simple, eloquent, explicit feminist statement. It was absolutely lovely to watch. The girls clapped and cheered. They cried and jumped up and down. They were electrified by what she said. Some of them will forget, once the excitement dies away. But in years to come, when they are teased for being swots, or mocked for being too clever by half, some of them will remember that cool, smart, affectionate woman, and refuse to give up.

The longest clip of the speech is on the Telegraph website; link below. The Times and the BBC have shorter versions.

Wednesday, 1 April 2009

Lovely spring greens

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

Spring greens are in their pomp just now, and here is a delicious way to make them into a kitchen supper.

Take four heads of greens, four rashers of streaky bacon, I think smoked is nicest here, four cloves of garlic, and one dried chilli.

Remove the woody stalks from the spring greens and then roll up the leaves and slice into very thin ribbons. This takes a while, but it's worth the effort - it's a texture thing. Cook in boiling salted water for five minutes. Sometimes I use a tablespoon of Marigold Bouillon instead of salt, for a more interesting flavour.

While the greens are cooking, slice up the bacon into strips and cook over a medium heat in its own fat. Finely chop the garlic. Once the bacon is crisp, turn the heat right down to almost nothing and add the garlic. It must not brown or it will go bitter and you want it sweet. Throw in the sliced chilli. If you do not want too much fire, then do not add all of the seeds. Stir about for a couple of minutes. If the bacon has not produced much fat, add a little olive oil to help it all along.

Drain the greens, mix in the garlic and bacon, add a generous gloop of extra virgin olive oil, and check for seasoning. The bacon will be salty, so you may not need to add any extra salt. If you want some, I recommend Maldon sea salt. And there, a lovely healthy supper for two. I like eating it on my lap whilst watching sexy Jon Stewart do The Daily Show on More 4. You may have quite other ideas.


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