Monday, 31 August 2009

Twenty-seven cheers for the dear old BBC

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

James Murdoch, the son of Rupert, has gone a bit wiggy on the subject of the BBC. In a speech in Edinburgh, he described it as a satanic cult which sucks out of you the very will to live. I’m paraphrasing, obviously. Then he and Robert Peston, the BBC’s business person, started yelling each other at a dinner in front of Kirsty Wark. One of them actually said fuck. In front of stern, respectable Kirsty. The newspapers went crazy. The message boards on The Guardian lit up with exercised citizens saying things like ‘At last, Auntie grows a pair of balls’, and there was a lot of lovely lefty comment about the spoiled sons of billionaires throwing their toys out of the pram.

Actually, if you go and read the speech, it is pretty much plutocratic, free market, management-speak boilerplate. There is a slightly inexplicable diversion into creationism as Murdoch tries to make the very strained analogy of BBC operatives as mad creationists, while he is the lucid Darwinian. It might strike some as surprising that a person would choose this particular moment to mount a rampantly unapologetic defence of capitalism red in tooth and claw, just as that same unfettered capitalism has brought the world to the brink of economic collapse. But the speech itself is not quite as shocking as the reporting might suggest, until you get to the very end. It is as if Murdoch has tried to be fairly sensible, and then, in the final paragraphs, he just can’t help himself. ‘The expansion of state-sponsored journalism is a threat to the plurality and independence of news provision, which are so important for our democracy,’ he states. ‘As Orwell foretold, to let the state enjoy a near monopoly of information is to guarantee manipulation and distortion.’ He does not explicitly call the BBC Orwellian, as some papers have insisted, but the implication is very clear.

What is really fascinating about this is that it is Murdoch himself who is using a form of doublespeak. I agree with him that a media controlled by the state would be a ghastly thing; shades of North Korea and endless broadcasts praising the Dear Leader. Any government which can censor the news or put out propaganda instead of objective reporting is a severe threat to the democracy that Murdoch so cherishes. But if you take those sentences out of the speech, and let them walk the streets of the actual world, where real people live actual lives, you can see at once how absurd they are. The BBC is not state-sponsored. It is true that it is incorporated by Royal Charter, and so technically dependent for its very existence on our own dear Queen (gor bless you ma’am) but only the very wildest Bilderberg conspiracy theorists would believe that Her Majesty is sitting at an undisclosed location deciding what John Humphreys is going to say on any given morning. The government has the power to approve the licence fee, which is a very long way from ‘sponsoring’, let alone having any power over the content that the BBC sends out into the world. Far from being a puppet of the state, or more specifically the Labour government, the BBC seems to play a happy parlour game of pissing off elected officials. Certain elements of the Right believe that the BBC is involved in an elaborate plot to make sure that black lesbian one-legged single mothers end up ruling the world, with an assist from illegal immigrants. Parts of the Left think that the Beeb is a cringing, pro-Establishment, Oxbridge-infested Trojan horse, determined to bring down New Labour with its own bare hands – remember Alistair Campbell busting into Channel Four news after the Gilligan affair to foam at the mouth live on air? It seems to me that if both sides of the political divide accuse the BBC of bias, then it must be hitting pretty much the right note.

But quite aside from its attitudes or perceived biases, the BBC does not belong to the state at all. It belongs to the people. I know this sounds like the kind of thing a naive unreconstructed bleeding heart liberal like me would say, but it is true. We, the people, pay the licence fee. The BBC Trust is responsible to us. Its remit is to ‘represent the views of the licence-fee payers’ and to ‘ensure the public interest’. Nowhere in even the smallest print of its charter does it say that it must ‘keep Gordon Brown happy’ or ‘advance the devious plots of the State’.

Far from pursuing Orwellian mind-meld, the BBC provides the British public with the most trusted news brand in the world. If you asked the man on the Clapham omnibus, or the lady on the N17, whether they felt manipulated and brainwashed by the BBC, they would both look at you as if you needed strong medication and a lie down in a darkened room. What is even more interesting is that, earlier in the speech, in the less mad part, Murdoch insists that he trusts ‘consumers’ above all. It is his mantra: trust the people. The people trust the BBC. Which slightly busts open his entire argument.

The BBC, like that other beloved British institution, the NHS, is not perfect. BBC3 is a joke. The great dramas that used to stalk BBC1 are now rare as hen’s teeth. Auntie has never offered any contemporary series as beautifully written and compelling as The Wire or The West Wing. The comedy on Radio Four is often frankly embarrassing – Count Arthur Strong, anyone? But against all that are the shining jewels of the BBC – The Today Programme, Question Time, Newsnight, everything David Attenborough has ever done. There is John Simpson and Jeremy Paxman and the entire Dimbleby family. ‘Richard Dimbleby,’ says my mother. ‘That was the voice of the BBC. I remember that hushed voice, as if the Queen must not hear.’ Would any free market, consumer-driven, profit-led organisation ever, in any country, produce a series such as In Our Time, where Melvyn Bragg sits down once a week with a panel of professors and discusses everything from quantum physics to The Peasants’ Revolt? And on radio, where no one can even see his magnificent hair?

The BBC produces some absolute rubbish, but it also does things no privately owned corporation would consider. For all The Sun’s vocal support of Our Brave Boys, would the Murdochs provide something such as the British Forces Broadcasting Service, where the BBC devotes two channels to programmes for the troops serving overseas? Or set up a Gaelic language television channel in Scotland as the BBC did last year? Would any profit-driven organisation run the equivalent of the BBC Asian network? Which private company would keep the World Service going? What would happen to the Persian network, which proved so pivotal during the recent events in Iran?

In his final, bizarre, ringing sentence, James Murdoch says: ‘The only reliable, durable and perpetual guarantor of independence is profit.’ I could parse that until I was blue in the face, but I am not going to insult your intelligence. A child of ten can understand that profit is not a moral indicator, or a driver of anything. Profit is just itself; it is hard cash; it is reward for a successful business. It guarantees nothing except pay packets and investor dividends. To take this amazingly idiotic logic to its final conclusion, you would have to accept that all non-profit organisations, from Amnesty International to Medicins Sans Frontiers are, by definition, deprived of independence. In fact, you could argue that large corporations built exclusively on the profit motive are utterly dependent: on the whims of their proprietors, the shifting sands of public opinion, the unexpected lurches of global finance. And also, just because I’m on the subject: independent of what? The more I read that sentence, the more meaningless it becomes.

What Murdoch clearly wants is a model like that of America, where there is little regulation and no BBC. There is poor NPR, which struggles courageously on through the brave new world, but has nothing like the scope and range of the BBC and is reduced to begging its subscribers for cash. The rest of the radio landscape is dominated by the shoutiest of shouty voices, extremist nuts, and Rush Limbaugh. We have Melvyn, they get Rush. America produces some of the best television programmes in the world, but the actual watching experience is marred by advertisements every seven minutes, so one minute you are watching Jack Bauer and his miraculous never-needs-recharging mobile telephone, and the next moment you are watching an advertisement instructing you how to cure your piles or get a better erection. I am going to go out on a limb and say that the major US news networks cannot hold a candle to the BBC. Because of the profit motive that Murdoch adores so much, serious, respected news anchors like Brian Williams have to insert snazzy little showbiz items into their broadcasts in a way that Huw Edwards would never have to put up with.

Then there are the wilder shores of cable. CNN, the little station that could, had its moment of glory during the first Gulf War, when its reporters bravely stayed in Baghdad under fire and scooped the huge organisations who had pulled out. Now it seems to me a bit of a joke, with gimmicky sets, and reporters reduced to reading out Twitter feeds on air rather than doing any actual reporting. (I love Twitter, but I am not sure that its place is in a serious news programme.) MSNBC sometimes rises to great heights: Rachel Maddow is currently mounting a spirited campaign to investigate the organisations behind the ‘grass roots’ opposition to President Obama’s healthcare plan, but it is spotty and prone to sensationalism and sentimentality. It is often entertainment, more than news.
And then, of course, we have Fox. If Fox News admitted that it was a station devoted to the opinions and desires of the Right, it would be perfectly fine. Free speech and all that. But its slogan is: fair and balanced. In its quest to fulfil its remit of ‘we report, you decide’ it allowed one of its stars, the perpetually strange Glenn Beck, who appears to be having a prolonged nervous breakdown on air, to say that Barack Obama is a ‘racist’ who ‘hates white people’. He offered no objective reporting to back up this extraordinary statement. I suppose at least you could say it meets James Murdoch’s definition of independence: even the old Digger would not put that particular worm into Glenn Beck’s seething brain. The most damning indictment of American reporting, where the free market model holds sway, is a recent Time survey which revealed that the satirist Jon Stewart was America’s most trusted source of news. This would be like British viewers saying that Ian Hislop or The Now Show was their most trusted news source.

I admit my own bias freely. I love and revere the BBC. I cannot imagine life without Radio Four, which is on in every room in my house. I am permanently grateful for Lord Reith and his founding notion that broadcasting should educate, inform and entertain. But I suspect I am not alone. There is a reason that the Beeb is a cherished part of British national life, where Sky is not. Britons are not a bunch of crazed statist commies, as they have been lately depicted in certain parts of the American media, but I think they understand very well that there is more to life than profit. If recent economic events have shown us anything, it is that profit is not always king. Perhaps I am getting a little too misty-eyed, but I actually think that James Murdoch should be grateful to the BBC. It is the gold standard, which inspires all its competitors to do better. It may be the single most important reason that Sky News in Britain is so stratospherically superior to Fox News in America, with respected journalists doing proper journalism, instead of angry men having mid-life crises in front of a live audience. Far from the ‘chilling effect’ that Murdoch warns of, you could argue that good old Auntie has a galvanising effect, making everyone else pull up their socks in true British tradition. And so, everyone wins.

Friday, 28 August 2009

A hostess speaks

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

As you might have noticed, I have had guests all summer long. One of the very few things that makes me sad about my decision to flee London and end up six hundred miles north of Hyde Park Corner is that I miss my old friends. Luckily, the hardier of them will sometimes pack up their entire family, get on plane train or automobile ('is it Charnock Richard services that I should avoid on the M6?), and pitch up at my front door. This of course leads to a girlish ecstasy of excitement, but also, equally of course, a hard dose of hostess anxiety.

The hostess anxiety has several roots. Like those Jewish and Italian mammas who may only exist in our imaginations, I associate good cooking and the taking of pains (flowers in the bedroom, the best sheets) with love, and I want to shower my friends with the love. Also, the poor things have flogged all the way from the south, often with small people in tow, so the least they deserve is as much comfort as I can give them. There might be an echo of childhood memories of my mother, who spent at least a week getting ready for guests, religiously laying out the finest towels, heavy glass bottles of Malvern water by the bed, biscuits in a little tin in case anyone should awake, starving, in the night, and a sheaf of writing paper, should someone be suddenly struck by the urgent need to write a letter. Perhaps there is a batsqueak of defensiveness, a small desire to prove that despite leaving the naked city behind I can still live the good life, so far north. And then there is a massive dose of general overexcitement, because visitors are still a relative rarity, and a delightful excuse to make detailed menu plans, show off my latest culinary invention, get out the loveliest linen.

I am not nearly as anal as I used to be. There were times when the entire house would have to be reorganised for about a month in advance. Now I am older and more blurred around the edges: I understand that my friends accept that I live in a constant state of mild muddle. There is no point trying to hide the piles of paper in my office, or the books that live on the stairs. They are not coming to see Martha Stewart, after all. It seems that they will go on forgiving my foibles, even though I shall never turn into the Organised Person of my dreams.

In being a hostess, as in life, it is the little things that often make the most difference. I think it is reductive and stupid to make rules for these things, just another way to make women feel inadequate about their lives. Ignore firmly any sentence that starts: a good hostess must... Having people to stay does not have to look like something out of a glossy magazine. The best fun can be had with nothing more than some good conversation, a bottle of wine and some bread and cheese. But if I were to come over all Martha-ish, these would be my own indispensible elements for a charming weekend:

Flowers by the bed.

This one definitely comes from my old mum. It does not have to be a Constance Spry arrangement; I favour a small Moroccan tea glass filled with pretty things from the garden, usually, in my case, mint and sage as a base, and then whatever is flowering at the time - most recently, a white hydrangea, a deep purple geranium and some marjoram. This is the smallest of the small things, but it is a telling act of care, and also makes you feel tremendously domestically goddesslike as you do it If you do not have a garden, or it is the dead of winter, a little glass of tulips is very fetching, and quite cheap.

A well-stocked bathroom.

I live in a rented house, and my long-suffering guests have to put up with a tiny bathroom with woodchip on the walls and an avocado suite. They all say, sweetly, that it reminds them of the 1970s, when they were small, but still. To divert them from the aesthetic horror, I fill the bathroom with as many luxurious products as I can lay my hands on. They get Floris and Jo Malone and huge bars of scented Portuguese soap. Also: far too many towels. I think you can never have enough towels. Another nice thing is to provide basic items they might have forgotten to pack, so there are always spare toothbrushes, toothpaste, cotton wool, moisturiser, body cream etc etc. I do a little hotelly bowl filled with needles and thread, cotton buds, and what I believe are called 'sundries'. No one ever uses them, but it gives me inordinate pleasure.

The good linen.

Before the credit crunch caught us all in its snapping teeth, I had a rush of blood to the head and bought some actual linen sheets (quite good value from The White Company sale, if you have any money left). These are kept for best and proudly brought out when the visitors come. I am quite hard line when it comes to bedding. I think a spare room should have pristine white pressed sheets, at least four good pillows, and plenty of extra blankets (one house I once stayed in was so cold that I was reduced to getting up in the night and putting on all my clothes, including socks, so that I could get to sleep).

The good linen, seen here in action. That pretty wallcovering is a Chinese-style fabric, designed by my very own talented sister, if I can say that without sounding too swanky.

The good food.

It does not have to be fancy. I used to break out the fillet of beef the moment guests arrived; I do live in Aberdeen Angus country, after all. Now it is more likely to be salmon fishcakes and roast chicken with smashed potatoes with olive oil and basil. In some ways, the simpler the food is, the better, because there is more time for chatting. I think the only rule is that it should be made with love. I have given up doing three elaborate courses. Now, people get a little soup in a tea glass instead of a first course, or some homemade salsa with tortilla chips, then one good main course, followed by watercress salad and cheese in the continental manner, and some Green and Black chocolate to finish. If you kill yourself making a la di dah three course dinner with all the trimmings you will just end up feeling flushed and faintly martyrish, which is not the point at all. Where I do veer into Martha territory is breakfast, where I get quite carried away - berries with natural yoghurt, sausages and bacon and tomatoes, and soda bread hot from the oven with special Deeside jam. After that, I usually have to have a little lie down.

A free period.

Even though I mostly want to spend every waking moment with my lovely guests, compensating for the weeks we spend apart, I have learnt that this does not make for the most successful visit. It can be too much, and everyone, especially me, gets fretful and overstimulated. So my new rule is that after lunch everyone gets a free period. I usually go and lie down on my bed, like an old lady, either reading a book or having a little disco nap. The guests will either mount an expedition of their own - a trip to the bookshop at Ballater, or a beautiful drive along the south Deeside road, where they may see Highland cows and black sheep and even, if they are very lucky, an eagle - or just lounge about in the sun, should there be sun, or, in the winter, sit quietly by the fire with a newspaper. Then we are all doubly delighted to see each other again after tea.

So, my dear readers, there are my thoughts on the art of the hostess. It is not exactly Lady Otteline Morrell, but it seems to work for me. You will have your own theories and strategies. My sister, who can be stricter than I, boils it all down to one, iron-clad principle: guests, like fish, go off after three days.

The house, ready for guests, complete with slumbering dogs on the newly plumped-up sofa. They have NO sense of decorum.

Sarah's lovely children, William and Beatrice, who came to stay this week, watching something very serious on the television, with, of course, dogs in their usual position.

Thursday, 27 August 2009

A fleeting salad

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

Sarah and her family have been staying for a few days, so I have had no time for blogging. Am now of course in post-hostess exhaustion, so my brain is not working properly. All I can really think of is food. At the risk of going all G Paltrow on your ass, I am giving you my version of a lovely fresh end of summer salad to say goodbye to the dog days of August.

This is not an Official Salad. I just made it up, from what was in the fridge. I like it because it is crisp and sharp and it looks pretty on the plate.

Take a selection of whatever green leaves you love the most. Add a few sliced radishes, a little diced cucumber, a chopped avocado, and a crumble of feta cheese. A herb is nice: flat leaf parsley, or a little torn basil. Dress with a good grassy olive oil, a squeeze of lemon and some sea salt. And for a final je ne sais quoi, scatter some toasted pine nuts on the top. I know pine nuts are terribly 1990s, but I love them, I can't help it. And I have never understood why food is considered something that goes in and out of fashion. Bring on the coronation chicken and trifle, I say.

This is the kind of salad you can play around with - some sliced heart of palm or artichoke hearts might enhance the experience; you could try manchego instead of feta. My only caveat would be, as with all good salads, do not throw in too many different ingredients, or the whole thing collapses into a mess. I wish you, as always, good eating.

Monday, 24 August 2009

The unbridled joy of soda bread

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

I have absolutely no talent for making risen breads. It is rather lovely to get to the age when you may admit frankly to your limitations. I am never going to get the trick of anything involving yeast, or kneading; for years all efforts have come out flat, and sad, and just plain wrong. It is clearly not a genetic thing: one of my most vivid childish memories is of my mother's glorious bread. There is a theory that it is to do with the temperature of your hands: hot for bread, cool for pastry. I can do pastry, so perhaps that is the answer. But whatever the reason, the lack of homemade bread in my house always made me a little melancholy. And then, one banner day, I discovered that what I do have the knack for is soda bread.

Soda bread is often seen, quite inexplicably, as the sad, mousy cousin of breads. It does not have the panache of the ciabatta, or the sophistication of the sourdough, or the international va va voom of the baguette. The commercial sort is always rather dry and disgusting. But made in your own kitchen, with a little love and care, it is a thing of beauty and a joy forever. It is also fabulously easy.

I have guests arriving today, and it has become tradition that a new loaf of soda bread is presented to visitors like an amulet. It is perfect with cheese, delightful with soup, and ambrosial toasted for breakfast with Marmite. And it is the ideal thing for a harried hostess, because it takes literally five minutes to make, half an hour to bake, and comes out perfect every time.
I have experimented for months to find the perfect version, and I think I have finally cracked it; the secret is slightly more white flour than you might think, and the addition of oatmeal, which came about by pure serendipity when I saw a new flour I liked the look of in my local shop.

My very own soda bread:

I do the amounts by sight. Just imagine the size of loaf you want, and use the corresponding amount of flour. I can't be bothered with weighing and measuring, and there is something satisfying about extemporising. So - into a large white mixing bowl put two thirds Doves Farm strong white bread flour, and one third fine oatmeal. I have discovered the most delicious oatmeal from a little place called Golspie Mill in the highlands of Scotland. You can get it in most good food shops, but if you have trouble just use a good strong wholemeal flour instead. Scatter over a large pinch of sea salt, a teaspoon of bicarbonate of soda, and mix everything up. Add a tablespoon of natural yoghurt. This is important as it activates the raising ingredient. Then pour in enough water to make a lovely loose dough - not too sticky, but slightly on the wet side of firm, otherwise the bread will be too dry. I do this again by sight, just adding the water until I get the consistency I want. Flour your hands and then take the dough and shape it into a flat round loaf. Put it in a baking tin, dust with a little flour on top, make a deep cross in it with a knife, and bake at 180 degrees for half an hour. To see if it is ready, tap it on the bottom; a good hollow sound should greet you. It may need another five minutes. This is for a small or medium loaf; if you are making a very big one, it will take forty minutes to cook properly.

It is best hot from the oven. To keep it, wrap it in foil or clingfilm. Because there are absolutely no preservatives, it will not keep its freshness into a second day, but it will make delicious toast. The most fun, when you have visitors, is to get up early and make it before breakfast, so they come downstairs to the smell of baking bread. I know I am straying into dangerous domestic goddess territory here, but it really does make everyone very happy, most especially me.

Sunday, 23 August 2009

The view from the train

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

Back from doing an event at the Edinburgh Book Festival, of which more later, and too tired from that and the emotion of England winning The Ashes to do a proper post. But I thought you might like to see what I saw from my train window on Friday, as I travelled down the east coast from Aberdeen. Sometimes I think when the sun shines on Scotland there is nowhere else I would rather be. I felt very happy and lucky, anyhow.

Thursday, 20 August 2009

Terrible admission

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

Having gone all poncy about the loveliness of Twitter and the idiocy of those who bash it all the time, I must make full disclosure. I rather pompously said in my last post that I try NOT to write about my own life but endeavour to provide Tweets of general interest. Having checked my Twitter feed, I see that I talk about myself all the time - my dogs, my swallows, my pea soup, my rare moments of Scottish sunshine. Oh, the fantasies we entertain about our own actions. So I give you full mea culpa. I still maintain my central point: no one has to read it. If I go on like this, nobody will.

And now, my dear old things, I am returning to the cricket. If Twitter is good enough for Aggers, it is good enough for me.

Into the Twitter trenches, redux

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

Dear old Janet Street Porter has leapt onto the creaking Twitter-is-crap bandwagon, just before it disappears out of sight down a dusty road. Her piece is so silly that at first I did not think it worth writing about. I wanted to write about the cricket, or the recession, or the simple beauty of a perfect loaf of soda bread instead. But the little Twitter worm has been twitching away in my brain since Sunday, and so I must rush into the breach or I shall develop an irrevocable nervous tic.

Here is what Janet says: ‘anyone who suffers from the desire to communicate exactly what they are doing and thinking every moment of the day in fewer than 140 characters is best described as a twat’. Delighted by this opening salvo, she goes on to trot out the exact same exhausted arguments that all anti-Twitter columnists so adore: it is mindless, it is narcissistic, it is banal. She takes a dangerous swipe at ‘techno bore’ Stephen Fry, which is just asking for it. If Stephen Fry is a bore, then Janet Street Porter is Dull McDull of the Clan Mogadon. She is furious that proper reviews by proper reviewers are being replaced by one line tweets about cultural events, or that proper conversation is reduced to ‘knee-jerk reactions’. I am frankly amazed that she does not insist that the entire world is going to the dogs.

This is so staggeringly stupid that it almost does not merit a reply. I shall give one anyway, with a weary, patient nod of my head. The first and most obvious point is that no one, not even the most crazed, self-absorbed, absolutely-nothing-else-to-do Twitter users communicate exactly what they are doing at every moment of every day. To say so is just babyish and wrong and asinine. It also betrays a crashing ignorance of the nature of Twitter, which leads to the observation that it is slightly odd to mount a scathing assault on something of which you know so very little. But the more important point, the one that none of the Twitter bashers seem to understand, is that Twitter is not replacing anything. The idea that once you start tweeting you may never again have an interesting conversation or a complex opinion or a deep thought about the human condition is blatantly incorrect. People who use Twitter also read broadsheets and follow politics and have intricate jobs and fascinating friends and rich lives. It is not, as the business people like to say, a zero sum game. There is also this excessively curious idea that no one in real life is ever mindless, or banal, or narcissistic. No, no, it is only on the evil, soul-sucking Twitter that solipsism comes out and does the fandango. Has Janet never been cornered by the pub bore? She has spent her life in London media circles, where there are certain people who make a life’s work of the narcissistic. Do I really have to say again that Twitter is an exact mirror of life, where there are the bores and the non-bores, the generous and the mean, the self-promoters and the self-deprecators, the quirky and the pedestrian? Does she think the power of Twitter is so great that the moment it catches you in its drooling jaws it replaces your brain with a suppurating mass of green gloop? She starts to sound like those Area 51 enthusiasts who believe that half the population of Nevada has been kidnapped by space aliens and replaced by a pod.

The other oddity is that every exponent of the Twitter-is-your-very-own-secret-satan school misses the glaringly obvious aspect of the whole enterprise. Twitter is a finely honed Darwinian tool. It is absolutely survival of the fittest. If you are banal and mindless and narcissistic, no one will follow you. Janet need not worry; the dullards may tweet to their heart’s content about their bagels and their office chairs and what they ate for breakfast, but only one man and dog will read them, and the dog will almost certainly be doing so by mistake. Bores are ruthlessly cut. Ironically, this is much easier on Twitter than in life. At a cocktail party, you have to make up some convoluted excuse about seeing your second cousin twice removed across the crowded room; in Twitter, you merely press a button, with no need for mendacity or bad manners. If it is mediocrity that Janet hates so, she should be celebrating Twitter: it is a harmless outlet for the solipsists. They may warble away into the empty ether without bothering anyone. A possible unintended consequence is that, having got their quotidian concerns off their chests online, they may be less inclined to corner strangers at the bus stop to bang on about subjects of no possible interest. Twitter may, in fact, be saving us from the bores.

In every era, in every corner of society, there have always been exhibitionists. Look at me, look at me, see what I am doing; let me tell you what I think, look at my interesting hat, see how I can tap dance. They have found any possible outlet for their cherished self-expression – the stage, a public square, a newspaper, a sandwich board. As a writer, I have to admit myself to their number. (When I was small, I was told often to stop showing off; ‘oh do pipe down,’ my exasperated grandmother once told me as I rattled on and on about something which could only interest my six year old self.) When asked, which is not very often, I give interviews, I have my photograph taken, I go on the wireless to offer my view of the world. (My proudest moment is when I used the word ‘anal’ on Woman’s Hour. Jenni Murray very bravely took it on the chin. She was asking me about pornography, after all.) What is interesting about my own experience of Twitter is I find it has a chilling effect on my dangerous tendencies to egotism. I purposely do not talk about my latest book or my newest blog post or any kind review that has come my way. I quite often do not talk at all about what I am doing, instead tweeting about something out in the world that has caught my interest, and might be of interest to others. I try very hard to be either amusing or informative or slightly left-field. I do not always succeed, but the attempt is there. I am not certain where this imperative comes from. I have the same feeling that I have about this blog: I am communicating to complete strangers, who guard their precious time; if I am asking them to give me a moment out of their life, I had better give them something good in return.

Twitter is a series of bulletins from an astonishing variety of lives. It does not stand in for life, but is a cherry on the cake of existence. It is a little like the old traditions of sending postcards or telegrams, two great British habits. In my Twitter feed I get blasts from foodies, politicos, mothers, feminists, broadcasters, The Young People, activists, dog lovers, charity workers and the Mayor of London himself. I am in communication with people from America, Rome, New Zealand, Iran, Belgium and Canada, as if I have finally achieved my adolescent dream of being a citizen of the world. My months on Twitter have educated me about things I knew nothing about: the poet Frank O’Hara, the dusty towns of Sicily, ballroom dancing in Pakistan in the 1960s, the streets of Tehran, the sleepy suburbs of New Jersey. The nature of Twitter means that you do not get much detail, but your interest is piqued, and you may then roam across the wide prairies of the interweb until you are educated in any novel area you may wish to explore. Twitter is not War and Peace, nor was it meant to be. But all human life is there, and to knock it for its limitations is as vacuous as saying that a haiku is a travesty of poetry. There is value in brevity; pithy is not pathetic. Do I really have to write this all over again? Is it not time that the droning critics got onto their banality ponies and galloped off into the sunset?

Postscript: should you by any chance have missed the previous Twitter rants, and have a masochistic desire to catch up on my Tweetish despatches from the front line, here they all are. (Amazingly many; I am starting to think the nice people at Twitter should be sending me a fat cheque for services rendered.)

All right, that's quite enough narcissistic self-promotion for one day. Now I must go to Twitter and tweet about how fabulous and fascinating I am....

Wednesday, 19 August 2009

The madness of beauty

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

Galvanised by the lovely LibertyLondonGirl, my fellow blogger and constant inspiration, I am going to get angry today about beauty.

Possibly the strangest thing in the contemporary world, apart from people comparing the clever, funny, pragmatic Barack Obama to the sociopathically mad and bad Adolf Hitler, is the current Western idea of beauty. It is: very thin, with stretched smooth skin, with a big head. The lollipop girls, they call those little starlets in Hollywood, who diet so hard that their heads look enormously large compared to their frail bodies. It is also frantically exercised. Madonna now spends six hours a day in the gym (I read it in the paper so it must be true), which means that she can have no time left to read Robert Lowell or make a frittata or gossip on the telephone or do any of the other twenty-seven things that make life worth living.

The strange thing about this accepted template of pulchritude is that you hardly ever see it in real life; it is in every magazine, all over the internets, scattered across the tabloids, so present that you are in danger of thinking that it is normal. I once did see the very thin, muscled, botoxed women in life. I was asked to one of those glamorous places, where the exceptionally rich gather – not just a nice Mercedes and a house and some land rich, but never again flying commercial rich. I was terrified that I would feel like a frumpy old hick, with my size fourteen and my hair dyed from a box in the bathroom and my cussed refusal to have a laser resurfacing peel. I am forty-two and I have had some fun and some late nights and one too many Lucky Strikes, and I have the marks on my face to show it. But when I saw those tiny polished women, with their identical emaciated frames and their stretched foreheads, they looked so sad and discontented and fragile that I wanted to take them home and make them soup. I thought I would feel intimidated by them, or judge them for their vanity and their frippery and their obsession with eternal youth. I just felt acutely sorry for them. They had managed to catch very rich husbands, but I saw no sign that it gave them any joy.

I am not anti-beauty. I am not one of those mythical feminists who are fabled to insist that anyone who plucks their eyebrows or shaves their legs is in hopeless thrall to the patriarchal conspiracy. I exfoliate. I love a good fire-engine-red lipstick. I get a keen pleasure when my eyes fall on a pretty face. When I was younger, I could not wait for the new edition of Vogue. But as a good unreconstructed liberal, I am all for moderation and the middle ground. Extremes alarm me. And it seems now that there is something excessive about the narrow emphasis on physical appearance. Certain newspapers make it their life’s work to mount rabid attacks on famous women for any signs of imperfection. Kate Moss was recently seen with a couple of wrinkles on her forehead and a faint acne scar on her chin. The tabloids went crazy. Otherwise serious columnists felt compelled to rush into print on the matter, as if it were a thing of national importance. A few weeks before, Elle McPherson was photographed with a small stretch of slightly saggy skin on her left leg. There was a frenzy of speculation; the offending area was blown up, with great red lines circling it, so it could be examined in minute detail; doctors were called in to talk about muscle tone and diet and the ageing process. I do not know Kate Moss or Elle McPherson, but they seem like perfectly nice women to me. They have both built successful careers from a standing start. As far as I know, they do not insult old ladies for fun or drown kittens in sacks, but from the media reaction you would think they had been out selling crack in kindergartens.

The biggest beauty push now is towards youth. Everything must be ‘anti-ageing’. Rush rush rush to stem the evil tide of time; defy nature at every turn; erase those crow’s feet or any chance at happiness will be ruined. God forbid that you may look as if you have lived a little; any sign that you may have once smiled or frowned must be wiped clean. At first, you can do this with a good cream and drinking your eight glasses of water a day. But there comes a stage where, if you are serious about having a blank face, only serious intervention will do it. So there is the Botox, and the restylane (‘banish those give away lines’ says the website; give away of what? I think – being human?); there are the chemical peels, the fillers, the lasers, or the whole hog – have your face sliced off with a scalpel, pulled tight, and stitched back into place. The absolute irony of all this is that, in almost all cases, the treatments do not so much make the women look younger, even should you decide this is a resolution devoutly to be wished, it just makes them look as if they have had work. When I am not thinking about the human condition and the roiling subject of geo-politics, I like to watch crappy commercial American television shows. One of my favourites is Alias, where Jennifer Garner gets to save the world whilst wearing a serious of fabulous outfits. In one series, they had Faye Dunaway as the guest star. I had not seen her on screen for a while, and I was absolutely mesmerised by her appearance. I remember her in The Thomas Crown Affair; I knew she must now be in her sixties; but there was not a mark on her face. I shuffled right up to the screen like a six year old, looking for clues. There was nothing: no wrinkles, no laugh lines, just a smooth expanse of white face. And yet, she still looked her age. Was it her neck, I thought, or the backs of her hands that gave her away? No, nothing there. In the end, I realised that it is the very quality of the skin that changes with age; there is a sort of thinness to it as the collagen goes, a delicate fragility, an intimation of mortality. No matter how much you get it stretched and pumped and resurfaced, that quality cannot be hidden. People don’t think that you look thirty when you are fifty, they just wonder which surgeon you are using.

At the end of all this, what I really wonder is: what is the point? Why are so many perfectly intelligent, discerning women being convinced that beauty is the great goal? The beauty bombardment is so constant that even I, determined feminist that I am, have occasional moments when I wonder what it would be like to look like Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. But say one of these wonder creams or science fiction treatments or magic pills actually worked. Say that you too could look like Julie Christie if you really tried hard enough. Then what? What does beauty actually get you? It will get you the smiles of strangers; it will get you the benefit of the doubt; it will get you tables in overcrowded restaurants. You may take some pleasure in knowing you add to the general aesthetic. But beauty has its dark side. It can get you commodified – you are A Beauty, and that’s it. Soulless men will try and make you their trophy wife. Other women may warily keep their distance, afraid that the blinding light of your perfect looks will cast them forever into the shade. In the end, it seems to me that the only real goal in life is to love well and be loved in return. Beauty does not get you that. Great beauties get left and heartbroken and disappointed, just like everyone else. Their dogs die, they go broke, they are not immune from disease. Their friendships are not more profound, their lives do not magically become a festival of laughter and good times.

Whenever I am casting about for meaning and perspective and the truth of things, I imagine what happens when we die. I think of the moment when the mourners come. At your funeral, I guarantee that no one is going to cry because they will miss your sculpted cheekbones. They will weep because no one ever again will make them laugh quite like you did. They will miss your quirky conversation, your fascination with obscure subjects, your sudden moments of kindness, your ability to listen, your special trick with chicken soup. At the wake, they will not discuss your peaks of perfection. They will talk of what you might have thought of as your flaws – it will be your little freaks, your curious idiosyncrasies, your moments of screw-up that will make them laugh. Balzac said that we love people because of their flaws, not in spite of them, and he was right. It is your failings that make you human, and being human is what makes you loved. That is true beauty, and you cannot get it from a knife or a jar.

Monday, 17 August 2009

The NHS and the spirit of Dunkirk

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

My guests have left after a rather wonderful weekend and I am of course now prostrate with post-hostess exhaustion and in no position to write a coherent sentence. Luckily, Sarah has an excellent article today in The Times on the National Health debate. So I am handing you over to her -

Also, because you know I like to keep you on your toes, and because it is Monday and everyone needs cheering up on a Monday, I am giving you the promised photograph of The Other Dog. I apologise to the cat people.

Friday, 14 August 2009

In brief

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

A heavenly friend is coming to stay two days earlier than expected, so for all my grandiose promises about tremendous blogging and hard-hitting political comment and you-can-only-get-it-here transatlantic observation, I am reduced to offering you a few paltry lines as I am in full hostess anxiety. Serves me right for taking my blog far too seriously. Must must must keep working on those perfectionist issues.

All I have time for now are a few quick notes. If you want to get yourself in a fine state of indignation, have a google about for Senator Charles Grassley, a supposedly moderate Republican who has been insisting that that the NHS would have killed Ted Kennedy with its bare hands. (He also recently told a meeting of constituents that he did not think it the role of government to 'pull the plug on grandma', thus endorsing the crazed idea that all President Obama really wants to do is kill people's grandmothers.) If you want to get even crosser, have a gander at elected representative Paul Broun saying, on the floor of the House, that Britain and Canada do not have the same respect for people's lives that Americans do. And if you want to lace your fury with disbelieving laughter, have a look at the egg all over the face of Investor's Business Daily, which claimed that Stephen Hawking 'would not have a chance' in Britain, because we would consider the life of 'this brilliant man worthless', before having half the world point out to it, including Professor Hawking himself, that he is in fact British and the NHS has been perfectly charming to him in every way.

And then, after all the ugliness, the loveliness. Britons, who are happy to have a tremendous old moan about the national health service among themselves, get grumpy when right wing Americans in bed with insurance companies and corporate interests start insisting that it likes killing the old and the infirm. The NHS may be many things, but it is generally not wilfully homicidal. Quite unexpectedly, the British arm of the Twitterverse rose up with one voice, making welovethenhs the number one trending topic on Twitter for two days in a row. At one point, the weight of stories of grandmothers saved, limbs sewn back on, sweet nurses and hard-working doctors was so great that Twitter actually crashed.

My final question: who is Daniel Hannan, why does he have such mad staring eyes, and who was it who gave him his insane air of certainty? If I could hunt them down, I would ask them, very politely, to take it back. He should be sent to a nice dark room to ponder the great British virtues of self-deprecation and irony. He is so shining with self-importance that he looks as if someone polishes him every morning, like an apple. Also, should he really be palling around with Glenn Beck, a very peculiar television personality who recently said that Barack Obama is a racist who hates white people? I'm just asking.

That's all the liberal outrage I have time for today. I must go and check the sheets and make out menu plans. I apologise for the scattergun approach. (Oh, oh, oh what happened to my great plans for serious analysis and cogent argument?) Just to calm us all down, most especially me, I am leaving you with an entirely irrelevant but utterly beautiful picture of one of my dogs. She cares not at all about the excesses of the healthcare debate, she is just dreaming of rabbits. I sometimes think I should follow her example.

Wednesday, 12 August 2009

In which I interrupt scheduled programming for a brief dissertation on frittata

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

I know this was billed as America week, and I promised you all the good political stuff, but today I did not have the heart to ask why it is that people will go around shouting Nazi at a perfectly nice, rather moderate, democratically elected politician. The reason I lost heart is that I have a horrible, horrible suspicion it is because he is black. And then we are onto the whole why on earth would you get so upset about a little bit of pigmentation argument and I never know the answer to that. I know the theories about out-groups and I know the ancient fear of the other, but sometimes an explanation does not add up to a good reason. I never saw anyone less other in my life than Barack Obama. Also, the Republicans are being very, very rude about the NHS, and although I freely admit that it is frayed around the edges and nothing like as shiny and efficient as it should be, it is our NHS, and I hold a twisted pride that it should have existed for sixty years. It's like family: we can be rude about it, but don't anyone else dare laugh and mock the old lady.

So I made some frittata to take my mind off it, and I'm going to write about that instead. My frittata can be a little hit and miss, but this one was a dilly. I made it up according to what was in the fridge, which this evening happened to be leeks, courgettes, peas and parmesan, with a tiny bit of chilli for oomph. I like to make sure all the food groups are represented.

So, for two people -

Take five or six eggs and whisk them gently with a pinch of sea salt. Very finely slice one leek and one courgette. In a small, non-stick saucepan, add a dollop of olive oil and gently cook the vegetables for about ten minutes until they are soft, but there is still some life in them. At the end of the cooking time, throw in a handful of frozen petit pois, and swish about until they are bright and green and not frozen any more - it takes about a minute. Add a pinch of sea salt, a scattering of torn basil leaves, a snip of dried chilli, and a quick grate of parmesan cheese. This last is entirely according to taste, it depends how cheesy you feel. Put the heat up to medium, add the eggs, stir about a very little to make sure everything is evenly spread, and then leave to cook for five minutes.
Here it is, on the stove.
Grate a little more parmesan on the top and finish off under a medium grill until the thing is firm - it should not take more than a couple of minutes.

And there you are - a lovely, easy, quick, credit-crunchy supper. It looks very pretty on a white plate, perhaps with a tomato salad on the side. Sadly my food photography skills are not accomplished enough to reproduce the full beauty of the dish, but it should look something like this -

It's not quite Martha Stewart, but it's mine, and I loved it.

Tuesday, 11 August 2009

It's not all doom and gloom

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

There are going to be more pictures from now on. Even though I believe, with every last inch of my being, in the power and beauty of words, sometimes all one really wants is a snap.

Here is some Scottish evening light. It always makes me happy, however bad the News.

In which I declare America Week officially open

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

All right, my darlings, I am back. My guests are gone, my pitch is sent across to my co-writer for fine tuning, my desk is metaphorically if not literally clear. I am ready to rumble.
I have had low level angst about not doing more blogging over the last ten days or so. I find this oddly psychologically interesting. What can it matter if there is a little hiatus every so often? And surely it is too much to ask for people to read constant, dense bombardments from the front line? No one is paying me, there is no small print. And yet, I feel there is a kind of contract in this blogging. Having set up the thing, and been lucky enough to get some regular readers, I believe that I am under some obligation to provide quality content. This is absurd of course. The point of blogging is that there is no contract, there are no rules; it is, in the best spirit of the internets, a freeform medium. But I can’t escape the feeling that if you are kind enough to give me your precious time, I owe you the good stuff.

In this spirit, I declare America Week officially open. As some of you may have gathered by now, I am geekily obsessed by American politics. I followed the elections, right back to the first shots of the primary battles in the snows of Iowa in 2007, like they were some great gaudy sporting event. I had to learn a new set of rules and an entire new vocabulary. I thought I knew quite a lot about America, having spent my life watching American films, listening to American songs, reading American novels and poems and plays. I liked to think that Britain and America were two great cultures united as much as divided by our common language. I thought we admired and understood each other. Once I became steeped in American politics, in its startling details and odd scandals and unexpected rituals and too strange to make up cast of characters, I realised that all this time I had known nothing about the country at all. It was as if I was starting all over again.

I have resisted writing about this too much because I felt it was bad manners to expect you to join me in my obsession. Now I think: what the hell, let the big dog bark. It is silly season; the Today Programme is running items about tortoises. Let’s have some big, meaty cultural and political questions to keep August lively. There are so many of these questions that I am going to divide them up over the next few days, otherwise this post will be so long that it will make your eyes explode. Today’s instalment concerns the vexed matter of healthcare. That sentence might sound horribly dry and off-putting, but stick with me. It is Shakespearian. It is a four act opera. It has produced events so shocking and peculiar that I have to scrabble hard to find any explanation for them.

To understand the labyrinthine matter of Americans and their sickness and health would take an entire book, possibly in two volumes. The basic skeleton of it is this strange fact: alone among the industrialised nations, America does not provide its citizens with healthcare. The very poor and the very old are cared for by the state. All the rest must have health insurance. This may be bought privately, but is expensive, and is usually provided by employers. There are several problems with this: if you lose your job, you lose your healthcare, so suddenly you cannot have that operation you need. There is also a health gap: there are about forty-seven million Americans who are not poor enough to qualify for state help, but not rich enough to afford insurance. Beyond the problem of the uninsured, who just hold on by their fingernails, hoping they do not fall ill, there are the limits and exceptions and devilish small print of the health insurance business. It’s not just the upfront stuff: it is stated clearly that you have to pay part of the costs of your treatment, often running to thousands of dollars. It’s the insidious unspoken stuff, told by indignant whistleblowers whose job it was to comb policies line by line to see if there was any way the insurance company could get out of paying. A woman was recently denied treatment for breast cancer because she had once received medication for acne. Then there is the racket of pre-existing conditions: you may be refused insurance because you are too thin, have once had a yeast infection or have high cholesterol. And finally, there is the cost. An average insurance policy would cost a person about $4300 in the US. Here, a PPP policy costs £307.12. For £5.90 a week, less than the cost of a packet of cigarettes, I can get private hospital rooms, an operation any time I need it, and swanky Harley Street consultants in three piece pinstripe suits. The only exception is psychiatric treatment, so if I go nuts in the night I am in trouble. But then I have the dear old NHS to fall back on.

I could blind you with numbers about the bloated healthcare costs in America, the number of bankruptcies related to illness, and the high price of drugs. But it seems that the one number you need to know is that the World Health Organisation ranks the US at 37 in quality of healthcare. Opponents of reform say, over and over, as if someone laminated it on a card for them: ‘We don’t want to be like Europe. We don’t want a system like England.’ (For some reason they leave Wales and Scotland and Northern Ireland out of it; too Celtic, not socialist and scary enough, I don’t know.) The very word Europe stands as a terrifying shorthand for slavering, leftist, big government coming to refuse your operations, tell you what pills you may take and let you die in agony on a mixed ward. The massive irony, so big you would need to build an extension to house it, is that the number one country in the WHO ranking, the five-star ocean-going fur-lined healthcare system of the entire world, which makes its citizens so happy that their only complaint is that it is too lavish is.....France. The crazy cheese-eating surrender monkeys, when they were not wafting about smoking Gauloises and being too intellectual for their own good, actually took the time to build nice gleaming hospitals to which all their citizens have access. Even the creaking old lady that is the NHS, which the right wing in America points to as a death service rather than a health service, and about which we Brits like to bitch and moan, puts Britain twenty places above America in the world health rankings.

Even reciting these bare facts leaves me shocked all over again, like Mary Whitehouse hearing someone say fuck on the television before the watershed. In the face of this startling state of affairs, you would think that when an American politician mentioned healthcare reform everyone, from left and right, up and down and round the houses would shout YES YES GIVE IT TO US NOW. There would be parades and dancing in the street. No one, not even a grasping multi-national corporation making billions of dollars of profits a year, would want to see American citizens dying because of the terrible holes in the health service. (Depending on whose figures you believe, somewhere between 18,000 and 22,000 preventable deaths occur in the US each year, six or seven 9/11s; I have absolutely no way of explaining why this is not front page news.) The citizens would rise up in delight and relief and bake cakes and send flowers. Or at least, this is what I would think. Instead there is bareknuckle political fighting, last ditch resistance from vested interests, confusion among the populace, a very, very strange moral equivalence from the media, almost as if they collectively want the President to fail because it makes the story more interesting, death threats, intemperate insults from talk show hosts, blatant lies from Sarah Palin, shouts of fascism, mobs bussed in to town hall meetings with instructions to disrupt the proceedings and shout the other side down, cowardice from so-called blue dog Democrats, yelps of socialism (‘Well, Hitler was a socialist,’ says Rush Limbaugh, who is a very peculiar man inexplicably popular on the wireless; ‘it was called the National Socialist Party.’), violent denunciations of all forms of government programmes, and accusations that it is all part of Obama’s evil plan to kill your granny. I am not making that last one up for comic effect. It was stated in terms by an elected representative on the floor of the House.

This is when I realise that I do not understand America and how it works. It is the greatest power in the world. It has more money, more Nobel Prizes, more brilliant technology than anywhere else. It has a dream, dammit. One of the things I like about America is that it is not just a country, it is an idea. And it is a truly marvellous idea. The idea is that all men and women are free and equal and entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. A corollary to this enchanting idea is that anyone, be she never so humble, be he never so obscure, can rise to the very pinnacle of national life. Barack Obama, the black son of a single mother, proved this idea rather brilliantly in the last election. Obama is the American dream, walking and talking and wearing a sharp suit. And now people are calling him a Nazi. (Oh, and a racist, too, just for good measure, although you would think that if he is such a staunch student of Hitler that goes without saying.) The reason he is being accused of fascism is not because he wants to herd people into camps or insist on racial purity, but because he would like to fix a system which puts the mighty United States only two notches above Cuba in the world health ranking. He would quite like (call him old-fashioned) for twenty thousand odd of his compatriots not to die because they don’t have insurance. He would like, dangerous radical that he is, for people to pay less for life-saving medicine.

If a great country has a crappy system for guarding its citizens' health, it seems only logical that you would want to change that system. There is something about the extreme reaction of the opponents of healthcare reform that suggests they are very frightened. You don’t go around screaming Nazi and talking of government ‘death panels’ if you are feeling calm and confident and good about yourself. What I genuinely do not understand, and can find no answer to, no matter how much I read on the subject, is exactly what it is that these people are so very scared of.

Excellent links for further reading:

For an overview:

The lovely, clever Eugene Robinson of the Washington Post gives a balanced view:

Sarah Palin thinks Obama is coming to kill her children, and the odd moral equivalence of the media:

The tremendous Rachel Maddow with a serious and rather scary analysis of what is really going on:

And for a special treat, the always majestic Jon Stewart and his 'little box of crazy':

Thursday, 6 August 2009

A quick thought

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

I want to apologise for the blog being a little spotty over the last week or so. There have been deadlines to meet and miles to go before I sleep; and despite my enduring battle against the evils of perfectionism (there is a staunch section on this peril in Backwards, every word of which Sarah and I stand by) I still have a stupid reluctance to knock something off just for the sake of it and post it here. I want always to give you good thought, polished prose, or at the very least a diverting picture of a pig. All of which means that occasionally the week's content is a little more slender than I would like.

This week, I have one of my oldest and dearest friends and her two tiny children to stay, all the way from California. Hostessly duties, compulsive chatting, and the making of the soda bread for breakfast have kept me from giving my full attention to the blog, and I have ruthlessly deserted Twitter altogether. But here is one of the miracles of the blogosphere - and you know that is a subject to which I return over and over - is that while I have been only semi-present, you have magnificently filled the breach. I direct all my dear readers to the comments below the last two posts, where a great amount of stimulating opinion, fervent discussion and illuminating facts I did not know have been posted. It is as if you have been doing my work for me, filling in with the meaty stuff while I take a tiny sabbatical. So I thank you all, and especially send out thanks to exromana who always guides me into new areas about which I do not know enough.

Wednesday, 5 August 2009

A lovely list of feminist icons

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

Sarah called yesterday. She was to write about icons for the new feminism in The Times. Who would I nominate? Natasha Walter, I said, at once. I love Natasha Walter; she is rigorous without being pompous, articulate without being hectoring, sticks to her guns without being pious. She wrote a great book about the new feminism a few years ago, which I recommend enthusiastically.

Then we thought farther afield. It could not just be the obvious suspects. The one who fights fundamentalist Islamists, I said, you know. Yes, yes, said Sarah, the one who gets the death threats. What is her name? I said. Ali, Ali, something, Sarah said. Our minds went suddenly blank. I can see her face, I said, I have heard her speak, best friends with Christopher Hitchens. We both started googling madly: feminism, Islam, death threats, Hitchens. Hirsi Ali, we both shouted in chorus, rueful that we could forget. Neither of us is brilliant with names, but even so. I have put her picture up at the top of the post, so that I shall not let that name go by me again.
Here is the list -

You will have your own favourites. What was interesting about the conversation was that we found it very easy to think of old feminist icons, the ones who have been around since the second wave - Andrea Dworkin, Kate Millett, Germaine Greer, Gloria Steinem- but it was much harder to think of those of our forty-something generation or younger. There is no woman in the public eye in her thirties that I can think of who would describe herself as a feminist. In some ways this is not a desperate thing: you do not have to carry a placard or a label to be a feminist, you can just live your own liberated life and not call it anything except what it is. But as a proud, unreconstructed, unrepentent feminista, I find it a little sad that the word has become something to fear, or even worse, is regarded by anyone born after 1975 as an antiquated irrelevance. When women in the Sudan are getting flogged for wearing trousers and girls in Iraq are having acid thrown in their faces for daring to go to school and honour killings still exist and the CEOs of top Footsie 100 companies are almost all men, the feminists must still be needed, surely? Or did I just read too much Female Eunuch at too formative an age?

Tuesday, 4 August 2009

In which Sarah talks of air-brushing and dinosaurs

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

Forgive feckless lack of blogging lately. I have forty-seven excuses, including guests, men in skirts (always a doozy), deadlines, the cricket, excessively long and diverting conversations with my mother, and a faint sense of malaise possibly due to the lack of discernible summer. But the fact is in the end you are a man or a mouse and there is no excuse.

To make up for my own lamentable lack of content, I direct you to Sarah's coruscating diatribe on the air-brushing issue. As you may imagine, she is quite grumpy.

In the meantime, I send you apologies and shall be back very soon.

Oh, and if you want to see some truly inspiring woman, have a look at this feisty refusenik and her supporters in Sudan.


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