Wednesday, 30 September 2009

Mrs Brown speaks

Posted by Sarah Vine.
Sarah Brown’s short speech ahead of her husband’s at the Labour Party Conference in Brighton will inevitably draw controversy. For every viewer who thought it touching that Mrs Brown should introduce her husband as “my hero” there will be many who will be reminded of that old adage, “don’t put your wife on the stage, Mr Brown”.
In the event, she was good; but was she right? After all, it is one thing to have your wife join you at the podium, all smiles and kisses and beautifully blow-dried hair, at the end of a barnstorming set; it is quite another to unashamedly deploy her as a warm-up act. But it worked last year; not to do it again would have seemed like a vote of marital no confidence. Sarah Brown faced an impossible choice. Stand by her man; or stand down.

Her performance, polished and professional, owed more than a little to Michelle Obama, whose ability to support her husband without stealing the limelight played a significant part in his successful election campaign. Even sartorially Mrs B mirrored Mrs O. Her dress for yesterday’s speech was by Britain’s very own Jason Wu (the recherché, strategically correct young American designer championed by Michelle Obama): Brighton-based designer Erdem Moralioglu.

Erdem (he must be addressed by his first name, in the correct fashionista way) represents a marked departure from the cosy confines of Jaeger. His was one of the more exciting of the recent London shows, and Mrs Brown wore Erdem to her fashion week party at No 10. Paired with the Jimmy Choo shoes (guess what: Mrs Obama has the same in various heel heights) and the Astley Clarke jewellery, it all made for a high-end package, a look that demands the wearer be taken seriously.

Even the speech itself was true to the Obama model. A recent book about the Presidential marriage has referred to Mrs Obama chastising the soon-to-be leader of the free world for leaving his socks lying around; Mrs Brown talked about her husband being messy, noisy and getting up at an unearthly hour. The two men may have failed to get it together over at the G20; but at least they have one thing in common: they are both slobs.

There is, however, one crucial difference. Obama was a man on the way up, a rising star whose reputation has yet to be dimmed by the harsh realities of politics. Currently, Brown resembles more a black hole, sucking in all light and energy before collapsing in on himself. He is entropy in human form; it is going to take more than a little affectionate marital gloss, a gentle “if I can love him, then so can you” to pull him out of it. Likeable, intelligent and capable as Mrs Brown is, it’s not enough. She may be one of Brown’s best assets; but she does not have a mandate from the British people to be Prime Minister. Then again, neither does Brown...

Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Politics as usual

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

Look, I am a Labour person. I’ve always been a Labour person. I have never voted for anyone else, except I think once during the eighties I was so cross with Labour for being unable to challenge Mrs Thatcher that I voted Green. I am a dyed in the wool old lefty, in the pure sense that I really do believe in the state. I know, sue me. I think that private enterprise is, to a greater or lesser extent, red in tooth and claw, as it probably should be in order to survive in the jungle of the free market. And individuals, however benign, may have interests that clash. So I think we need the state, however imperfect it is. But for all that, John Reid simply cannot go around at the party conference telling Martha Kearney of ‘the great global successes we have had, like the economy’. Let us just read that again. The great global success that is the British economy. I might believe in government (I actually have an odd faith in politicians) but I am not an idiot. John Reid thinks I am an IDIOT.

I fight disillusion with every fibre of my being. On my more absurd days, I think it a moral failing. You have to believe in something. There must be high days and holidays and Pollyanna days, otherwise you might as well go and sit in a corner with a bucket on your head. But I am teetering on the verge of thinking All Is Lost. I am in very real danger of becoming one of those people who really does believe that we are overrun with ASBO kids, despite my enduring faith in the Young People. There is debt everywhere one looks, stretching away to the horizon. There is a war so insane and endless that Joseph Heller might have written it, where brave young soldiers die in the dust of Helmand and no one will send them any bloody helicopters. The children still cannot read. No one appears to be teaching history any more. (I care horribly about this; history has been my thing ever since I got the big blue History of England when I was six years old and could not put it down; it was the subject I chose for my degree; I still bless the memory of the splendid and terrifying Mr Woodhouse, who taught me history when I was fifteen, and who truly showed me how to write.)

All the writers who care passionately about the progressive side of politics ask one bleak question: what is the Labour party for? No one has a good answer. There is a post-ideological mood in the country as a whole, a low desperation that says: please, please could someone come along and make the trains run on time. Not in a crazed Mussolini way, but just in an All we ask is to get from A to B way. The marvellous American pollster Cornell Belcher, as thoughtful and articulate a man as I have ever seen in politics, recently came over to Blighty to take our psephological temperature, and was quite shocked to find a complete lack of hope in the future or belief in any politician of any stripe. I would love to say that this was just good old British phlegm (he was all shiny hope and change and yes we can), but it was more than that. It is a searing backlash from that brave new dawn of 1997, when so many people, even those who were Tories at heart, really did believe that a transformation might come. Remember that hopeful sunny morning? Everyone was smiling in the street, I never saw anything like it. And then, little by little, painful reality bit, and now there is nowhere left to go.

I must not fall entirely into the pit of despond. I give Labour peace in Northern Ireland, which was huge and must never be forgotten; I thought it would be like the Middle East and the hating and killing would never stop. I give them the repeal of Clause 28 and the happy introduction of civil unions and impressive reform of petty little immigration laws that discriminated against same sex partners. I give them a vastly improved NHS, although don’t get me started on the notorious IT system that cost billions and did not work. I give them, slightly counterintuitively, the reformation of the Tory party. By dragging British politics to the centre, which is pretty much where it should live, Tony Blair forced the Conservatives to rethink their social policies and become much kinder and gentler, which gladdens my old liberal heart.

But that’s it. Too many of the children still cannot read. No one cares about the libraries, the great unsung Cinderella of the public services. There is no clear thrilling policy to navigate the choppy waters of a changed world. The British public does not want cake every day and castles in Spain; all it asks is that it may look with some degree of hope towards a brighter tomorrow. In the middle of this fervid but somehow empty conference season, I am not sure where we go from here.

Monday, 28 September 2009

In which I beg your indulgence

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

I know that my mission here is to entertain you, but today I must ask you all a huge favour. Instead of offering you some lovely glittering little jewel of a post (one must have one's ambitions) I am asking you to help me.

I am noodling around with a piece about beauty and the media, and I need to know, from my cherished international or well-travelled readers, whether there is any equivalent of the Daily Mail and the celebrity magazines that we see in Blighty in other countries. My suspicion is that narrow Western ideas of female beauty are increasingly being found in the media of places as diverse as Lebanon and South Korea, but that there is not yet any equivalent of our Daily Mail/Heat axis, where women are constantly shouted at for being too fat, too thin, too old, too obsessed with plastic surgery, not obsesssed enough etc etc. You know the drill: pictures of Demi Moore with screaming headlines about her having 'saggy knees'. (Sarah and I have a genteel little rant about this in Backwards.) My sense is that in America this ethos is largely confined to Perez Hilton and the supermarket tabloids, not quite as mainstream as it is here, but I have not been to America for four years and have lost touch with the general culture (although I can of course tell you everything you want to know about the strange journey of the GOP). As for other countries, I am shamefully ignorant. Is there a Daily Mail in Karachi or Lisbon or Sydney? I long to know, and you are the only ones who can help me. Google searches are too diffuse. I need real actual people.

Forgive me for imposing. Tomorrow we shall resume normal service.

Sunday, 27 September 2009

Lovely Sunday Chicken

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

Before the heavenly chicken, a quick bit of housekeeping. As you may notice, I am trying out a new look. I am not certain yet whether I shall keep it. Please do give me your opinion.

Some of you may wonder why I always write Posted By at the top of the post. Although it is mostly me on here, it is officially Sarah's blog too, and so I always want to make it immediately clear who you are talking to. (She is not ruthlessly shunning the whole notion; the reason she appears infrequently is that she has two jobs, two children, a husband and a dog. When she does arrive, it is always worth the wait.)

Now: chicken. I love doing something easy and substantial and slightly rustico on a Sunday, especially when the autumn winds have arrived, and there is nothing easier than this. It's not even a recipe, so I'm just going to describe it. Take some chicken pieces, some small peeled waxy potatoes, a few fat garlic cloves, a couple of very small onions, halved, a scattering of basil and throw them in a baking tray with enough water or stock to cover the bottom, a splash of white wine, a gloop of olive oil, pinch of salt and pepper, and a scattering of basil. Cook at 180 degrees for thirty five minutes. That's it. You might like to do a bit of basting in the middle if you are feeling keen. But really, that's it. The potatoes are the best part, they go sort of chewy and melty at the same time, so good that you have to keep stopping eating them for fear of finishing too quickly. I used Charlottes; the yellower and waxier the better.

Normally when I do chicken in a dish I throw in courgettes and peppers and aubergines and a woody herb, but this new version, which I just made up today, is particularly pleasing in its simplicity, and all the textures are especially delightful: the chicken is tender but crispy on the top, the potatoes are dense and yielding, the onion, amazingly, retains some of its crispness, and the sweet garlic oozes out of its paper shell like toffee. Also, sometimes I just want to eat like the French and not have twenty different vegetables. Sometimes I just want meat and potatoes.


And, after.
And what it looked like outside as I ate it.

Saturday, 26 September 2009

Mists and mellow fruitfulness

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

If I had to choose a season it would be autumn. I think summer is over-rated, all that vulgar sunshine and bank holiday traffic and the imperative that the weather must be fine or it's not worth the candle. Here in the north of Scotland, the last three summers have been dark dreich affairs, but as if the weather gods are kindly making it up to us, they send spectacular springs and autumns.

There is not yet the scent of cold and woodsmoke in the air that marks the official turn of the season. There has been no frost. But this morning there was a heavy dew, so that when I went out to walk the dogs the whole landscape glittered and shimmered in the thick yellow Italianate sun. (There is a quality to the light here that is very different to that of the south; it is denser, somehow; it feels like ancient Roman light.) Most of the country is still green, but the first leaves are starting to turn. The trees are putting out berries; the elders are heavy with black fruit; the roses have magically turned themselves into hard scarlet hips. It is at times like this that I wish I were one of those women who knows about preserving and making jams. My mother, who could do domestic goddess when the mood was in her, used to make a special delicious jam out of tomatoes when I was a child; I have a vague memory that she did this while wearing pearls, although this might be a fantasy. Personally I think one should wear jewels whilst jam-making.

Anyway, here are some pictures for you, to celebrate the greatest season of all.

The little yellow elder, the tips of its leaves just turning magenta.

A view of my autumnal garden. I planted that tree in the middle when it was two foot high.

The dogs, having a slightly regal moment.

The rowan and the elder and hawthorn hedge. When I first moved here, this entire garden was nettles and wild grass. A nice lady came and dug some great beds, put in some trees, and invented the hedge. Then I just started planting anything that took my fancy and hoped for the best. My idea was to make it look as if it all might just have grown naturally. Some people might call it a bit of a mess; I like to call it wild. It's a boho garden.

The marjoram, putting out its final flowers.

A spectacular elderberry.

The old-fashioned cottage rose, amazingly still in bloom, like an old lady remembering her glorious youth.

The mint, still going like gangbusters. Don't plant mint in beds, everyone says, it will take over. I ignored them and now it is everywhere and I adore it.

The rose hips.

These are possibly my favourite trees. I feel amazingly lucky that I have them in my garden. Even though they are traditional Scots pines, I think they look like something from the South of France.

A final, valedictory honeysuckle.

The avenue of old beeches. In a few weeks that whole line of trees will be dark red.

One more for the dog people.

A shy berry.

The first turning of the leaves.

The very splendid rowan tree, a great Scottish native. Look at the colour of that sky.

Thursday, 24 September 2009

Judgement Day

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

I was going to call this piece ‘How we judge’; that was how it first came to me. Then I realised that there was no we about it; it is about how I judge. The WE is always fabulous, giving the illusion that every one of us is part of the collective unconscious, that the particular is, in fact, the universal. I am guilty of this in several discrete ways: I do it with women, Britons, writers. I like to think of myself as a student of human nature, but I have a fatal tendency to clump people into groups. ‘The French,’ I say, blithely, ‘the Italians, the Americans.’ ‘The politicians,’ I declare, without a second thought, ‘the BBC, the intellectuals.’ Often, I say: ‘The Women’. (Women always get a capital letter in my book.) I talk to Sarah down the telephone; I say: we must set The Women free. This is what Backwards is all about, in my mind. Sarah says, calmly: ‘You must never say that out loud, in public.’ All of which is a very long, tangential way of saying: there is no We here. This is all me, much as I might like to extrapolate until my ears fall off.

The thing of it is, I am a nice, ostentatiously educated, middle class liberal. I like to entertain the fantasy that I have no prejudice. I get furious and shouty when I encounter racism, homophobia, sexism, ageism, fattism; of course I do, what else would you expect? I spend a lot of my time pondering where bigotry comes from. I am excessively fond of imagining I am immune. And yet, and yet. I am suddenly, acutely conscious of how I make ruthless judgements, often based on thin evidence. This revelation did not come to me from reading Jung, or Kant, or TS Eliot. It was not the product of deep thought. I was watching one of the flashy American TV shows that I secretly like, and a character said: ‘That’s Bach. I love Bach’. He was a supporting character, thinly sketched. The writers had not necessarily made him loveable, or even three dimensional. On top of that, he was a Catholic priest, and as a feminist and an atheist, I should have some doubts about that. But the moment he said he loved Bach, I loved him. It was like coded shorthand, speaking to my deep heart.

But that is crazy, I thought, the moment I got the warm loving feeling. The Nazis loved Wagner. I am perfectly certain that sociopaths and bankers have been moved to tears by a Schubert quintet. It made me think how judgy I am, despite my fantasy that I am quite disinterested. It’s tribal, I think. It’s a lower order of assumption, not quite the irrational idea of putting people into groups because of their gender or skin colour or sexual orientation, but not so many millions of miles away. If someone knows The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock, can tell me who Lady Brett Ashley is, has read the diaries of Chips Channon, watched Blue Peter in their youth, shamelessly adores the novels of Nancy Mitford, has Blonde on Blonde in their record collection, I am at once inclined towards them. If they think that the two greatest lines Bowie ever wrote are: ‘As they pulled you out of the oxygen tent, you asked for your favourite party’, and ‘It was cold and it rained so I felt like an actor’, then I am their friend forever. If a person uses the words ‘human condition’ in casual conversation, I shall want to listen to them until the end of time.

If I am being finally, brutally honest I think that women who are obsessed with shoes are letting the Sisterhood down. I am suspicious of men who indulge in pornography. When someone tells me that they believe in free markets and Milton Friedman I at once have the thought that they might regard the poor as undeserving and single mothers as a blight on society. I have a mild and inexplicable suspicion of double barrelled names and anyone who owns a yappy lapdog and people who buy their clothes from the Boden catalogue. I am very leery of the wildly rich. Any columnist who starts their piece with ‘Why oh Why?’ or ‘Am I alone in thinking?’ is an instant joke to me.

The horrible truth is it turns out that I might have just as many knee jerk reactions as the people I casually mark as ‘prejudiced’. I may keep my notions to myself, and present a lovely liberal exterior to the world, but that’s not good enough. I am going to go away and work on it. I am, for the moment, putting myself in the corner, until I can work out the difference between reasoned opinion and irrational judgement.

Mrs Palin goes East

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

In Hong Kong for a speech, Sarah Palin matched the verbose Colonel Gaddafi in length if not eclecticism. But she did have her own controversies to offer. It was not out of control banks or excessively impenetrable derivatives or even original sin (pace Rowan Williams) that caused the economic meltdown: it was The Government. ‘The Government forced lending institutions to give loans to people who could not afford them.’ Damn right. There was Dick Cheney, at his secret location, on the blower to recalcitrant mortgage lenders saying: do subprime or else. ‘The marketplace,’ continued the former governor of Alaska, ‘didn’t fail, it became exactly as common sense would expect it to.’ Parse that, you lower 48 rubes.

Despite insisting that her talk be closed to the press, Palin did not account for the power of Twitter. She was live-tweeted by a character called cellomonkey. Sample lines: ‘Nukular!!!’; ‘wow, palin is lashing out against china "we hope for china to rise responsibly"’; ‘palin attributes asian economic prosperity to american commitment to security in the region’; slightly inexplicably ‘palin has found herself a spot on hu jintao’s to do list’; and, magnificently, ‘the guy next to me is reading a macro strategy report’.

When told of the length of the speech, Nobel laureate Paul Krugman said: ‘Ninety minutes, my God, that’s half a Castro.’

Wednesday, 23 September 2009

Today's miracle: the human voice

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

Ignore the crazy outfits; just listen to the music.

There are only two things I really want to know: why can't they spell human? And, who DID let the dogs out?

Tuesday, 22 September 2009

The old people

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

Some of the old people are going. It has been happening, slowly, over the last two years or so. I go to funerals and memorial services, I write those awful condolence letters where you try your absolute hardest not to fall into cliché and then tumble into it anyway. I have been writing some today. They made me cry. I miss the old people; I wish they were not going.

I know the British have this thing about a good innings. When someone reaches a very grand old age, it is considered unnecessary to mourn them because they have had such a long life, a good shot at it. This is fabulously stupid. The longer they have had, the more of a mark they have left on the world, and the bigger the space will be where they once were, impossible to fill. One of the memorial services which made me cry the most was for a 96 year old. He had a good innings all right. I should have let him go gently into that good night. But 96! By that stage, the magical thinking part of my brain believed he would go on forever. He was like the Tower of London or the White cliffs of Dover. The idea of London without him in it was implausible. He had been there through my teenage years, when he took me to the proms and sent me box sets of Mozart, gently expanding my cultural horizons (not many concertos for two pianos in the horse country where I had grown up), and through my university years. When I could not quite get a first and had to settle for a two one, he wrote me a letter calling it a ‘very respectable degree. Never forget that men are frightened of first class women’. It was the kind of joke he really liked. So I don’t give a damn about the good innings, I miss him like hell.

The old person who has just gone was funny, generous, bigger than life. I remember him always smiling. He had been a respectable naval fellow, with his own ship, but he had a quietly subversive sense of humour. I did not see him so much over the last few years, but he was a big presence in my wild twenties and early thirties; holidays, weekends, always good conversation and excellent claret.

I am going to miss the old people. It’s not that I think there is anything wrong with the young people, I love the young people and think that they are not at all the feral creatures capable only of texting and fighting and saying ‘like’ a lot that some of the media like to frighten us with. But I like there being some people around who remember the war. I love the old people’s capacity for understatement and stiff upper lip. I love that the ones I know could present to the world an appearance of utter respectability while a burning flame of subversion flickered under their three piece suits. I love that they got through the Blitz and the three day week and the craziness of the eighties and still kept their dry wit and quiet elan. I love their blatant unapologetic eccentricity. I love that some of them were so much wilder than anyone now would dream of, running off to live in gypsy caravans or doing unspeakable things in Tangier. I love that they remember the days when you could have a good dinner, see a show, take a cab home and still have change from half a crown. I love that they really knew how to wear a hat. I wish they could live forever.

The picture at the top is of my grandmother, one of the greatest of the old people, painted when she was still young. She died in 1985, but I think of her every day.

Sunday, 20 September 2009

Politically correct

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

It's strange, the voices that linger in your head. The ones I keep hearing from this week are: William Shawcross, tremulous with emotion as he told Jenni Murray of his adoration for the Queen Mother, and an anonymous man, articulate, well-educated, crying out in disbelief, 'You can't even tell Irish jokes any more'. I wish I could remember who it was. It's someone you would not necessarily expect. And he was not being asked about the Irish, or jokes, or political correctness. It just sort of shot out of him, like a cork, as if all he had been yearning for was to tell some Irish jokes, and no one would bloody well let him, and he could not contain himself any more.

But you know, he's got a point. I miss those Irish jokes. The gaiety of nations has suffered a hideous blow since you may no longer start a gag with: Paddy was digging a hole for his potatoes. And it's not just the Irish. Don't you hark back to the prelapsarian garden of delight where people could tell spic jokes and poof jokes and dyke jokes and kike jokes? It's amazing we have the strength to carry on. I especially miss the enchanting comic routines about the ladies, usually featuring mothers-in-law or hookers. I mourn the time when everyone knew that what was funny about us girls was that we were slightly thick or excessively hormonal. Remember the glory days when comics could riff about Sambo with his thick lips and his hysterical propensity for idleness? And then along came political correctness and dictated that no one could ever be funny again.

Actually, I have good news for that poor plaintive fellow. There are still lots of Irish jokes out there, it's just that now they are being made by Irish people. Lesbians make jokes about being lesbian; women make PMT jokes; Jews make jokes about Jews. Richard Pryor built an entire brilliant career on nigger jokes, which made white liberals a bit edgy (were they allowed to laugh, even though they were white?). Barack Obama made possibly the best joke ever by a politician when he was asked about Bill Clinton being called the first black president. 'I would have to investigate Bill's dancing abilities,' he said, deadpan, 'before I judged whether, in fact, he was a brother.'

If all else fails, those oppressed by the politically correct may go to, a site so filled with insanity that I am still half convinced it must be a spoof ('if you're not white we hope you die') and laugh their unreconstructed arses off.

Friday, 18 September 2009

In which I get serious about race

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

Sarah rings up over the Jimmy Carter flap. She is uncertain whether it helps anything at all. ‘It just turns Obama into the black guy,’ she says. She says her friend L, who is black, is uncomfortable about the whole thing, thinking it makes black people look victimmy, that they must have an old white guy riding to their aid. ‘Obama’s a big boy,’ she says, ‘he can look after himself.’ ‘And,’ says Sarah, who does not have any of the utopian visions that I am sometimes prey to, ‘why is it always gangs of white liberals who go on the television and get hot under the collar about racism?’

I take her point, even though I am a white liberal who gets hot under the collar about racism. I see that it is politically disastrous for Obama to have to talk about race while he is trying, against all the odds, to get his healthcare legislation passed. I understand that it is reductive and stupid for him to be just the black guy. But the fact remains that he is black, and there are white people who still, even now, in the shining 21st century, really, really care about pigmentation. I find it odd that people mind so much about something that is, literally, skin deep. I find it curious that racism is so ingrained, when we all started out black, it’s just some of us went to live in Finland, and there was a vitamin D thing which evolution had to sort out. But ingrained it is, and I think that is something that people should talk about. I think it should be spoken of because by letting the daylight in, a remedy might be found.

Most prejudice comes from fear and ignorance; it is much easier to hate someone if you know nothing about them. So throw up the windows; talk, instruct, argue, educate. I also think it should be spoken of because it is intellectually interesting. I could go all poncy and talk about investigating the roots of racism, and the psychology of it, the fear of the other, the Jungian projection of the shadow; I could talk about the forms it takes, the code words, the dog whistles, the soft prejudice and the hard hatreds. But really all I want to say is: why, why? I mean really: why? It is just skin. In pure aesthetic terms, it is much more beautiful than the pinkish often mottled stuff that Anglo Saxons got. As Martin Amis once wrote: who decided that white was best?

Yet it seems that the prevailing conclusion is, both here and in America, that it is unhelpful to talk about it. The British decided, fairly early on, that Obama was not really black at all. Not in the pejorative sense of not black enough that made him an object of suspicion among the black community in America early in the primary campaign, but in a more world-weary sophisticate pose. Come on, he wears sharp suits and talks his erudite talk and does not refer to women as hos; he falls into no stereotype, so let’s just get past the racial stuff and talk about something more germane. (Interestingly, this was rather the position that the candidate himself took, not wanting to put himself into an ethnic box, and he would have got away with it had it not been for the pesky Reverend Jeremiah Wright.) So now that President Carter has waded into the fray, the reaction on this side of the pond is very much Sarah’s. ‘It makes everything personal,’ she says. ‘I want people to talk about the policies, not about the man.’ The consensus seems to be: move along, nothing to see here.

I think this comes partly from an old British hangover of stiff upper lip. Despite the Jeremy Kyle Show and the rise of reality television, there is still an idea among the commenting classes that too much hysteria and letting it all hang out is a bad thing. But I also think it is because prejudice in Britain is a different animal than its American cousin. It absolutely exists, but in a more low key way; it is febrile and complex, prone to sudden swerves in direction, hard to get a handle on. Take the odd case of the Irish. There was a genuine hatred of the Irish from the 1960s, when boarding houses in Notting Hill sported signs saying: no blacks, no dogs, no Irish, to the 1970s, when anyone with an Irish accent was automatically assumed to be a member of the IRA. By the 1990s, the Irish were so lavishly adored, considered so much hipper and more glamorous and more romantic than the prosaic British, that Britons poured into Dublin every weekend, ostentatiously drank pints of Guinness, and listened to nothing but U2 records.

As for black Britons, attitudes towards them are hard to pin down. Young black men are disproportionately likely to come from broken homes, fare badly in education, and become involved in crime. They face bigger barriers in the employment market than do white Britons, pointing to lingering prejudices that trace their roots back to Windrush and the race riots of 1958. On the other hand, Britain has the highest incidence of mixed race marriages in the Western world, ‘voting with their squishy bits’ wrote Hugh Muir in The Guardian. The number of black MPs, while small, reflects almost exactly their proportion of the population - 2% in each case, which is much more impressive than the percentage of women members – 17% in parliament, 50% in the populace. Trevor McDonald is a Sir, a pillar of the establishment, a national treasure, and consistently voted the most trusted newscaster in Britain. It is tempting for me, as a hopeful white liberal, to look at the admired black faces in British life – Lenny Henry, Adrian Lester, Diane Abbott, Dame Kelly Holmes, Marianne Jean-Baptiste – and think of them as living proof that we are all fine. It is easy to remember only the good parts of race relations in this country: the passionate fervour among students for Nelson Mandela at the height of the struggle against apartheid, the two tone craze in the eighties, the moment in the early nineties where all the white kids in Notting Hill felt that the height of cool was to act black (whatever that meant). I have never walked down a city street and been regarded with suspicion simply because I am a certain colour, so I may be talking out of turn here, but for all the stains on our history – Stephen Lawrence, Handsworth, stop and search, the nights when Brixton burnt – I still feel that anti-black sentiment in this country is less visceral and less violent than that which exists in America. I could be completely wrong about this, but my suspicion is that it is for one central historic reason: there were never slaves picking cotton in British fields. The British enthusiastically embraced the slave trade until Mr Wilberforce and Lord Shaftesbury came along and spoiled the party, but it was a distant, unseen thing. There was no equivalent of Thomas Jefferson and his plantation. There was, most crucially, no parallel here of the American South.

It is because of Jimmy Carter’s pedigree that I think he should be taken seriously. He is a son of the south; he remembers segregation. Yet, in many areas of the American media, he is being treated as an out of touch old man who knows not of which he speaks. His words have been twisted back against him: he is apparently shutting down debate, playing the race card, tarring all of Obama’s honourable opponents with the racial brush. It seems to me entirely uncontroversial to say that prejudice still exists in America, and that some of it is directed against a black president. Oh, say the critics, but we elected a black president, and he got a 70% approval rating as recently as January, so that knocks that argument on the head. They conveniently forget that people candidly admitted to news reporters before the election that they could not bring themselves to vote for a black man. They ignore the posters of Obama as a witch doctor, as a monkey, eating watermelon. They gloss over the insanity of the birthers, who claim furiously that Obama was actually born in Kenya, and is therefore an illegal alien who should be deported. The people who still insist that Obama is a secret Muslim and that they want their country back are not doing it because they dislike his plans for healthcare.

Sure there is racism in this country, says the strange and bullying Joe Scarborough on his MSNBC morning show, in the same tone of voice as if he had said ‘sure there are traffic jams in this country’, as if racism was a fact of life, a minor inconvenience, something that people just had to learn to live with and not bitch about. Scarborough, who frequently talks of America as the greatest nation on earth, then goes on to say that this opposition to the president is not racist, and that to call it that just shows that those crazy liberals have lost the argument. This is an oddly common conflation: a liberal points out that there are racists who do not like Obama because he is black, a conservative immediately says that the liberal is calling all opposition to Obama racist and therefore the liberal has got nothing better to say than ‘ooh look bigots at six o’clock’, which, of course, liberals always do because they are genetically programmed and can’t help it. Scarborough then circles back to the clinching circular argument: America is great, America elected a black president, only America could do this, therefore America cannot be racist. Joe Scarborough is on the moderate right wing. On the far right, in the addled minds of men like Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh, it is Obama himself who is the racist, with, according to Beck, a real ‘hatred of white people’, and the poor white people can’t say anything about that, because if they do the ‘liberal media’ will say they are all, every last man jack of them, drooling haters of black people.

Race is complicated in America in a completely different way than it is here. It provided one of America’s finest hours with the civil rights movement, the I have a dream speech, the brave freedom riders, the men and women who walked across the burning bridges. It also, within living memory, revealed America’s darkest heart, in segregation, lynchings, Jim Crow, Klan rallies. There was a moment of giddy hope when Obama was elected that he alone could symbolise a glorious post-racial future, that the better angels would prevail. A young black woman was interviewed just after the election, and told the reporter: now I can tell my son that he can be anything he wants to be and mean it. It was one of the most moving moments of the entire campaign. When the man who stands as that glittering role model is depicted in crude posters as a monkey eating a banana, what conclusion is that same young boy to draw?

Sarah is right (she is almost always right) that there is danger of putting Obama into a nice neat little corner labelled: the black man. She is correct that there is an absurdity to seeing tormented white liberals agonising over race, although I would rather see that than white conservatives saying that there is nothing to worry about. But I do think President Carter was also right, and if the shining city on the hill is ever to be built, the fetid bog at its foot must be drained. Politely not mentioning it will not make it go away. Surely this is the time when everyone should be talking their heads off?

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

The Eye of the Beholder

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

I have been thinking this week about beauty, and the images of it that trap women. Scooting around the internet I have learnt that Saudi women long for nothing more than a nose job, Japanese women are having unspeakable things done to their eyelids, Jordanian women are ashamed of their olive skin and are buying skin whitening products by the bucket, and every last American woman is on a diet. All the fashion insiders are saying, in the wake of the magazine-shows-woman-with-actual-stomach affair, that the idea of models getting any bigger than your little finger is a funny joke.

I suddenly wanted to look at women who did not look like models. I am not anti-beauty. I smile when my eye falls upon lovely Audrey Hepburn, or ravishing Ava Gardner, or bewitching Julie Christie. I have a tremendous penchant for those outrageously stylish ladies of the fifties, like Babe Paley. I came of age in the eighties, when the supermodels were truly super, and Helena Christiansen and Tatjana Patitz and Christy Turlington were in their pomp. But the modelliness of models is now so self-referential that it has started to eat itself, and the actresses, sadly, are following in their wake. There is a sameness to the pictures of today's beauties that feels thin and meaningless. If 'beauty' is all there is to see, then horizons narrow and views warp. I suddenly wanted to cast my eye on women who did not look as if they belonged in a magazine.

So I found these. Some of them are anonymous. Some are famous. One won a Nobel Prize. One revolutionised American cooking. One is a supreme court judge. I like them because they look real to me. Sometimes, authenticity is its own form of beauty.

Monday, 14 September 2009

Something to make you go Ah

Posted by Tania Kindersley.
I hate to do this to my non-Blighty readers, for whom the BBC iplayer is a ruthless no go zone, but there is something on there which I think everyone who can see, should see. It is episode two of Stephen Fry's Last Chance to See: The White Rhino. I am not a mad fan of nature programmes, possibly because of having seen too many in my youth. My school thought it educational for us to watch every last episode of David Attenborough that was ever on ever, even though generally they believed television was the work of the Devil. I remember loving them at the time, but once I grew to adulthood the thought of having to see one more fruit bat, or a fellow puffing about in the African bush, or someone doing a special whispery wildlife voice just became too much. So it was in a desultory nothing-else-is-on mood that I sat down to watch this, and only really because it was lovely Stephen. And sure enough, there was the whispering and the puffing about and the fruit bats. But it was all quite fascinating and there was a bit of Congo politics thrown in and some interesting little interchanges between Fry and his conservationist friend, and I learnt the difference between the White Rhino and the Usual Rhino (nothing to do with colour; shape of the mouth, apparently). So I kept on watching. And then, at around twenty-one minutes in, something so unexpected happened that it actually made me cry tears. I am a terrible old weeper, especially over animals, something I inherited from my sentimental Celtic father, but I don't think my reaction was just sentiment. I think this might have been the most confounding and emotional moment I have ever seen in a wildlife documentary. Or maybe I am just a soft old fool. Well, watch it and see. Whether you weep or not, I guarantee you will not be disappointed.

Sunday, 13 September 2009

Who is this woman and why does she matter?

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

I was having a nice quiet Sunday, browsing around on the interwebs, listening to a fascinating programme on Radio Four about how the Celtic Tiger got caught by the tail, eating cold sausages, and thinking gentle thoughts about autumn, when I stumbled upon the name Rachel Zoe in Miss Whistle's blog. I felt rather like one of those old crusty judges from the 1960s: 'Who ARE these "Beatles"?' (Answer, always: 'A popular beat combo, m'lud.') Luckily, the enduringly considerate Miss Whistle, who is much more well-informed but just as baffled as I, had put a link to a New York Times article about the lady.

As I read it, I had a vague sense of memory. I had read about this person before. I remember thinking that her story was so dull and marginal that it never encroached beyond the edges of my consciousness. There is only room for so much in one brain. The great, drunk, talented John Barrymore would never learn his lines when he went to Hollywood to make films after a long careeer on Broadway; hapless underlings would have to contort themselves with idiot boards. David Niven once asked him why he did not just memorise the damn things, and Barrymore said something like - 'My mind is filled with beauty, the Queen Mab speech, Hamlet's soliloquies, why would I want to fill it with this garbage?'. My mind is not quite as crammed with beauty as Barrymore's was, but it has enough beauty in it for me to give up reading Tatler. I admit to occasional unseemly interest in the odd famous person (for some reason, I am riveted by the opera that is Brangelina) but a story about a stylist has me turning the page.

When I first read about Rachel Zoe she was just blasting into the public square, for a very sad reason. She got thin famous people, and made them thinner, and then told them what to wear. From my lofty perch on the moral high ground, I thought this a poor thing. There is a fabulous running sketch in the current series of The Mitchell and Webb Show, one of the funniest comedy programmes on the BBC (go to the iplayer and listen for yourself) where they have a panel of old ladies asking people to explain what their job is for. This week the old dears got in a futures trader. 'How does it help, dear?' they asked. 'Wouldn't you rather open a little shop?' I felt rather the same about Rachel Zoe. How does it help, exactly? But now she is not just a liminal figure familiar only to those in the know, she has a television show and the kids love her.

Reading the piece in the New York Times, my mouth actually fell open like that of a cartoon character. I felt even more antiquated and out of touch than those old Beatles judges. The money quote: '“It’s such a racket,” said one head of publicity at a major studio, who wished to remain anonymous for fear of angering any actresses who work with Zoe or other top stylists. “During awards season, when you are nominated or presenting an award, then it makes sense to have a stylist. But now, B and C list stars are demanding stylists for everything. The level of insanity is very high. But the bottom line is, if you don’t give them what they want, the actresses say they won’t do any press, that they won’t appear at the premiere. Sometimes I feel like saying, How difficult is it to just go out and buy a dress?”'.

When a publicist at a movie studio, where reality is a faintly elastic concept, says 'the level of insanity is very high', you know that madness has run off the scale. I have been thinking of September 11th over the last few days, as have so many people. I did not write about it here, because it is almost impossible to give it words without sounding portentous or sentimental or filled with platitude. Before that, I was thinking about the seventieth anniversary of the outbreak of the Second World War. I was thinking a lot about the Poles. No one can think about the big things all the time, not even me. Even I, with my irredeemably poncy sense of being a femme serieuse, have to wonder occasionally whether all the stories about Jennifer Anniston are true. But when a woman who makes nothing, says nothing of interest, writes nothing, produces nothing, gets paid $6000 dollars a day for dressing very thin people, I start to think that something might have gone a little awry.

Saturday, 12 September 2009

A walk in the woods

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

Over at The Daily Dish, Andrew Sullivan has a lovely feature called The View From Your Window. Readers of his blog send in snapshots from wherever they are, from Tokyo to Montana, Bogota to Berlin. The pictures are not always terribly good, but they carry a curious fascination and power, as if they are opening up the world before my very eyes, one snap at a time. I am not in writing mood today, but a glorious Indian summer has descended on Scotland, as if in gentle apology for the rotten actual summer that came before it, so instead of an essay on world affairs, or people's stomachs, or horses I have loved, or recipes I have cooked, I am giving you some views from my walk this morning. (This goes with especial love to my ex-pat readers in California, where the wildfires have been raging: a cool draft of the clear north, to remind you of dear old Blighty.)

Do you see the moon is still up? And the colour of the sky? Sometimes there are no words.

The view right up into the branches of the oldest and gnarliest and most bent of the great horse chestnut trees.

Someone left a table out. I can see no clear reason for it. But it looks rather glorious, abandoned out there in the long grass.

The burn, with the dogwood in full fig. I remember when that dogwood was eight inches tall.

And, of course, one of the dear dogs, because a blog isn't really a blog unless it has a dog in it. Look at her, all ready for her close-up.


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