Wednesday, 3 October 2012

What happened to feminism?

We had a very interesting week a month or two ago: in the same week we went to see 'The Taming of the Shrew' at the Globe, and 'A Doll's House' at the Young Vic. 

They were both terrific productions, I thought. I've always liked the idea of playing Petruchio as a clown, someone who's unconventional but has worked out how to do it within the boudaries of society, and wants to teach Katherina how to do the same. The BBC production years ago cast John Cleese in the part, and it worked very well. The Globe's actor went rather further, and the shock value was great. Their Katherina was what's always called 'feisty' so it was interesting to see what they'd do about her final speech. You can play it as Kate taking the piss rather to win the bet, but that's a bit of a cop-out; instead they played it pretty much straight.

What was interesting, at the Globe, was to feel - physically feel - how uncomfortable this made the audience. At first it felt like disbelief - was Kate really saying this stuff? How could she possibly mean it? Wasn't anyone going to stop her? And then it slowly turned into shock - she really was going to say it, and apparently without irony, and actually all the people on stage were in agreement with her. The sense I got from the audience was that, despite everything that they'd seen in the play, they hadn't really realised that this was, once, how some people thought. It made me want to look really closely at the text to decide whether it's possible to deduce if Shakespeare is actually over-egging it at this point, or whether you can read it as a statement of his values.

What clinched it was that we had much the same experience watching Ibsen's 'A Doll's House' at the Young Vic.At the point where Torvald, the husband, talks about how he's always seen Nora as the child that he took over protection of from her father, there were gasps from the audience. How sexist! How could he say that! What was Ibsen thinking of.... I wanted to stand up and shout - "This is how it was! This is what decent people thought in 1879! THIS IS WHY WE HAD FEMINISM!"

Both were very strange experiences. Have people somehow forgotten that things were once different? Do play audiences not know that the position of women in society has changed dramatically in the last hundred years?

I suppose there's a side point too, that it's crazy to expect the work of the past to conform to the orthodoxies of the present. I've always strongly disliked the tendency of feminist criticism to accuse the works of the past of not being feminist enough – how could they have been? And you can't demand of all writers that they be politically aware. Gah!

Friday, 22 June 2012

Henry V at the Globe

Saw a terrific production of Henry V at the Globe on Wednesday. Unusual - but really no reason - to have a female chorus. And when she said 'this wooden O' (about thirty seconds in) my eyes filled with tears to think that once again it was literally true.

I didn't know the actor - we don't really watch television apart from the odd thing on iPlayer - but Henry himself was terrific. He was very good at conveying the physical effort: lots of wiping of brow, wincing at bruised hands, and so on. And good at doing the thinking between scenes, so they developed without words. And those tricks like coming in before the other person has stopped - because you're not meant to know exactly how much the other person is going to say. But more importantly, he brought the words to life and said them as though he understood them, and they were relevant, without losing the poetry. The set pieces were truly inspiring - I felt moved to cheer louder than I ever have at the Globe, and standing in the yard is a great inducement to cheering. I wanted to boo the French, too, but nobody else did. (I also laughed at a few jokes that nobody else did - not use whether that betokens great subtelty in my understanding of Shakespeare's lanugage, or simply reflects how many of the audience don't have English as a first language.)

The actor playing Katherine was lovely in her first scene, but almost the only quibble I had with the production was that she didn't yield enough to Henry's courting. I'm sure you could make a strong case that the character wouldn't; but dramatically, I felt it needed her surrender as a princess to reflect the surrender of the country. But I like the way that the concluding dance often supplies a consummation that hasn't had quite enough time to play out in the drama. That's one of the many things I like about the Globe.

Another is the interval treats. They've always done nice nibbles and things. This time there were very classy burgers, and some good-looking frankfurters. Cider at £5.90 a bottle seemed a bit much, though.

What I don't like is the website, which in the many years I've been using it has never had some fundamental usability flaws fixed. Find the play you want to see, find the date you can go, click Book tickets.... and start again from scratch. Do you want the Theatre, Education, Globe on tour? Oh, come *on*! It's as rubbish a user journey as you could hope for.. What could be worse than taking a user who's made a decision to buy, and forcing them two steps back in the process?

Get over that hump and you face a larger one. Your £5 ticket has a £2.50 transaction fee. Splutter! Some theatres - such as Cambridge Arts Theatre - host outside productions, and the booking fee is the only way to get their percentage - apparently, though it's another one of those things that you'd have thought they could equally just bloody well sort out among themselves, frankly. But the Globe has its own company and does its own productions. It has the same layout and ticket prices for every single play, so far as I know, so there's no reason why the ticketing process should be so frightfully complicated that it has to be subcontracted to an outside agency who'd have to take their rake-off. So why the fifty percent surcharge?

I asked at the box office when I collected my ticket, and the person there said "It's a transaction fee." For what transaction, I asked - using a credit card? That's only ten percent. "It's a transaction fee."But you don't have a ticket agency - "It's a transaction fee." (At this point the person next to me said "It's not worth it, they're just robots.") The staff member said "You don't pay it if you book by phone." And I said "WHAT??? I phone you up and use up your time and I don't pay, or I do it all by myself and you charge me a whacking great fee? What the hell are you doing?" "It's a transaction fee."

So there you are. Don't use their website: it costs fifty percent more than talking to a human being. Insane. And how stupid, that such a great institution should have one big fat lump of idiocy that sours the whole experience - which, apart from that, is stupendous.

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Why make up is bad

A while ago, a friend invited me to chair a book group meeting on Catlin Moran's How to be a Woman. I was very chuffed, partly because I was flattered to be asked, and partly because I love the book to bits. It turned out to be pretty hilarious; all the women there (it was a women-only book group) were vaguely feministy in some degree (up to and including "I'm not a feminist but" where the but includes a belief in equal rights for women, but I was the only hardcore, unreconstructed, 1970s radical feminist - well, there may have been one other, but I was definitely the only person present who didn't shave my armpits (why should you? Men don't. If armpit hair is disgusting, why isn't it disgusting for everyone? Plus I think shaved armpits look horrid), which some people found so intriguing - they'd never seen an unshaven female armpit! Imagine, sisters! - that I stripped to show them. Shame nobody was interested in my pubes, really.

Anyway, as usual I digress. Next morning the friend asked me why I objected to make-up and as I wasn't really awake I said I just thought it wasted a lot of time. Sensibly - some people are so alert int eh mornings, it's really unfair - she asked me what I thought I achieved with the time I saved compared with her, as she wears a bit of make-up, every day I think. I rambled on dopily about all the stuff I do, and realised very quickly that I wasn't making much sense, plus she does loads of stuff too so it was pretty patronising. Ever since, I've wanted to think of a better answer. Here it is.

When I get ready in the morning, I have a wee, wash my face in cold water, get dressed, brush my hair and leave the house. When I get dressed up for a concert I wash, put on floor length sequins, brush my hair, and leave the house. So long as I remembered to wash and I brushed my hair (and it was reasonably clean - I've recently started washing it twice a week instead of once, but I reckon if you wash it more often it simply needs it more often) , I know I'm presentable. Now obviously this is time-efficient, and that can be bloody useful. But I think there's a more important, and that's that as long as I'm neat and clean, I'm happy. I don't have to doll myself up to feel I've made an effort. I don't feel that I can't face the world without my mascara. I don't fret that people won't take me seriously if I haven't got mascara on. I don't worry that I can't sleep with someone I fancy (harking back a bit here) because he'll see me in the morning without my hair straighteners, my lip gloss, my special bra, whatever. What you see is what you get. I'm good enough. I don't have to make an extra effort to look extra nice. That seems to me to be truly liberating.

It's also how it is for men. They wee, they wash, they shave, they dress, they're ready to go. Why would things be really different for women unless something weird was happening? Unless the rules for men and women were oddly different?

Another friend says she likes to put on lipstick when she's going out - it's a trigger: the act gets her into a going-out mood. That makes sense. That's not a need or an obligation; that's for fun. What I worry about is when it's not for fun, it's a necessity. If you can't got out without it, then it's a crutch, maybe an addiction. Certainly an inconvenience.

I have also never, ever ever ever, seen a woman I thought looked better with make-up on than without it. Call me a diehard old radical feminist, but smearing greasy crap into your face just seems bloody weird to me. It looks funny. You look great without any of that stuff. Honest.

Friday, 10 February 2012

Sasha knows what sex he or she is

Hmm, I have a feeling that it's a bit pointless continuing to make this blog keep the secret. Anyway, if you've been reading and not known whether Sasha is a boy or a girl, skip this post.

Yes, of COURSE Sasha knows he's a boy. How could he fail to notice that he's got a willy? We have never concealed from him what sex he was. That would be silly. Plus, he's got a willy so how could you even attempt it? Duh!

The thing we don't push is GENDER. That is different. We don't say "Ooh, he's a typical boy" or "Don't  run like a girl" or "You sound like an old woman" or "Big boys don't cry".  We don't say that only girls are interested in dolls and colours and what they look like; we tell him he's beautiful. We don't assume that he likes diggers and lego because he's a boy; I like diggers and lego, and I'm a woman. Mummy has a toolbox; Daddy does the cooking. We just don't believe that stereotypes are useful when you're dealing with individuals. So we try not to restrict Sasha's options based on generalisations about gender. On the other hand, we do restrict his options based on good taste and our own opinions, which can border on sheer bloodymindedness. Barbie is banned (except for jumble sale bargains) because she is BORING and Disney is banned because their Princess crap is too yukky and they over-merchandise, and because I have never forgiven them for ruining two of my favourite books, Alice in Wonderland and Winnie-the Pooh.

What things do you ban, as a parent?

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

The truth about Sasha, the ‘gender-neutral’ five-year-old

Here's what I'm telling everyone now I've had a chance to write something down:

The truth about Sasha, the ‘gender-neutral’ five-year-old

When Sasha was born, we'd asked the midwives not to tell us whether the baby was a boy or a girl. For about half an hour, we just held the baby and got to know it. When we announced Sasha's birth by email to all our friends, we just said "It's a baby!"

I tried not saying what sex Sasha was when I went to local postnatal classes, but quickly realised that people only ask because they're trying to be nice and because there's nothing else you can ask about a baby except its weight. Sasha had been a November baby and as soon as the weather got warm enough was frolicking around the garden with no clothes on anyway. So everyone in our village who knows us knows what sex Sasha is.

But I did write a blog about my experiences of pregnancy, childbirth and parenting (and lots of other things). Because I am a writer and editor by trade, with accessibility as a key criterion, and because writing non-sexist language is part of making copy accessible, I decided to see if it was possible to write about Sasha without using sex-specific terms. To date, I have never revealed Sasha's sex online, in my blog. Some people have got the Internet muddled up with Real Life.

We can't think of any way we could have "brought up little Sasha as gender-neutral" - what would that mean? What we have done is try to give our child a gender-rich environment, with toys some people might say are girls' toys alongside those they might call boy's toys. We've also tried to make sure that dolls, for example, have different skin tones so Sasha doesn't think the world is white (Nana (grandmother) being Anglo-Indian probably helps with that too!). Kieran has a son and daughter from a previous relationship who live with us some of the time, and we have a dressing-up basket with magic wands and cutlasses, capes and and shawls, fairy wings and tiger suits, and tutus for everyone.

We also try not to assume that Sasha will be just like us, so we try not to assume that our child will be musical (as we are) or will go to university (as we did) - we don't want to set expectations that Sash might not be able to fulfil.

All we're doing is what most parents do - trying to do our very best for our child.

Beck and A

Monday, 16 January 2012

Is your child musical? Is mine?

Gosh, it's all happening today. I got my flute out a while ago meaning to see if I could still produce any sound at all, and while we were waiting for cakes to bake (a subconscious impulse as I'd completely forgotten that I need them for I Fagiolini tomorrow!) Anyway, there's a tuning fork in the case and Sasha was playing with it, so I played an A and asked if Sash could sing it. Sash didn't want to. (I wonder if the pitch was too high? When we were singing this morning, I was asking for higher notes but Sash seemed only able to use chest voice.)

Anyway, then I played an A on the flute, asked Sasha which note was higher and which lower, thinking as I did that I've never had a very acute ear and I couldn't actually tell myself. But small confident person said without hesitation "That one", pointing to either the flute or the fork, I can't remember which - anyway we tried a few more times and Sash did the same each time, giving the answer as though it was *really* easy. And you'll have spotted, of course, that I had no way of I telling whether the answers were right or wrong as I didn't know! When I went from zero to grade eight flute in eighteen months in 1979 to 1981, tuning it was the only bit I was rubbish at. You can imagine what my violin playing sounded like.

Anyway, it's a funny little miniature tuning fork I bought in Switzerland, and Sash was having trouble getting it to sound, so I went and got the full-size one. That was bought in the same shop, and I'd always wondered whether the titchy one might be a bit gimmicky and not actually in tune, so I sounded them both at once and asked Sash which was higher and which was lower. And lo... Sash said something about silly mummies - "They're both the same sound."

Then pointing at the smaller one - "I can't hear that one." I think that meant the two notes were so blended you couldn't tell the difference. So maybe that interference thingy you're meant to be able to hear when two notes are different (and that's the thing I've never been able to hear, so no wonder I can sing so flat without noticing) wasn't there and so there was no way of distinguishing the two sounds.

I'd love to hear what other musicians think. Have you tried this on your kids? Have you found any other fun things to try?

Oh, and the other big question: now that we know (unless that's changed?) that it's caused by early proximity to a keyboard instrument and isn't inherent, are you going to make an effort to give your child, or an effort to not give your child, perfect pitch?

Magazine in a muddle

Well, that seemed to go well. Celia Back was very nice though of course, like policemen, she was much younger than I expected. (Which only really means that I'm much older than I expected. Golly, I *love* being middle-aged and confident and clever - I must tell you later about explaining the physics of frost and snow to Sasha this morning on the way to school.) It really helped being an ex-journalist and an amateur magazine editor now: when she said things like "So, did Sasha ever go round with a [can't tell you what the anti-stereotype toy is or I'll give away whether Sash is a boy or a girl which though known elsewhere is still a secret on this blog]?" I was able to say "No, I'm afraid not - ooh! But we did once have a great game with something else..." and know why she'd asked, because she needed some strong things to build the story around, and what might do instead. I hope. She seemed very interested in the principles behind it all, and that was very encouraging.

So now I'm off to the supermarket to buy a magazine to see what that column is about and check what Woman is actually like these days. (That really is them, btw - very strange URL but I suppose the obvious one was always going to have been taken.) Now and again I pull a Good Housekeeping or YOU or Elle magazine out of a skip (or someone else's recycling - is that a social faux pas? It's much more meaningful recycling than having them pulped and made into new magazines) and have a look to see what nonsense is being peddled to my sisters. Things have got a lot worse, though possibly still not as bad as the copy of US Cosmo that Mike brought back from a visit to the States for me in the early 1990s. The message of that was "You're a strong smart glamorous working woman who needs to buy buy buy a lot of make-up and perfume and things to stop you smelling nasty because you feel so utterly shit about yourself". Let's see whether Woman has got it a bit better than that.

My life in magazines

So, I'm pretty excited that I'm going to be talking to Woman magazine at midday - I might nip down to Budgens and buy a copy so I can check that they're with the good guys: their journalist certainly sounds nice but as I keep telling Sasha, you can't always tell the ones that are EVIL just by their spooky red eyes.

One of A's many endearing characteristics when he first moved in with me was that he'd often turn up carrying a copy of Woman that he'd bought to read on the train. Loved that he as secure enough in his own skin not to feel he had to mind other people's daft stereotypes or prejudices. That's what both of us want for our children.

I was thinking about how you can map your life through magazines. I was born in 1965, so mine went   something like...

Pippin... Bunty... Jackie...  Punch... Cosmopolitan... Spare Rib... The Socialist Standard....

the I went to Cambridge and even the Alternative bookshop in Gwydir Street didn't get the SS. I expect I just read Stop Press, which had been Varsity and later switched back.... Punch was an odd one - my dad bought me a subscription as birthday presents, in my early teens, I think. I started by reading quite a lot of it, but by the end it was just the cartoons and that Hunter Davies column called 'Father's Day' which must have been quite groundbreaking at the time.

Then I subscribed to Private Eye for years until I realised it was actually making me a bit depressed. Oh lord - just remembered I moved to Sawston and subscribed to Country Living. I'd forgotten the incidental ones. I subscribed to Uncut for ages but never got round to reading it - oh, and I read Q for a while because I worked in music magazines. And I used to look out for launch issues - I still have the pile upstairs if anyone would like them for posterity. Does anyone remember Minx magazine? It was really, really, good - got the content and the tone spot on: sensible info given in a cheeky tone.

My first magazine job was on Home & Studio Recording, whose wonderful editor Dan Goldstein taught me everything I know about compound hyphenation. Then a great time with Sam Molineaux (now called Graham, tut tut) on Keyboard Review, her editor and me production editor then deputy editor. I did some great interviews - bought a floppy disk reader specially to upload them here but it's still the box five years later.... When Music Maker got taken over by Future I got made redundant and spent rather a sad year as a sub on Sound on Sound, out in the wasteland that was Bar Hill then. Then I got made redundant from there... I'll have to check my professional blog... Oh, I'd forgotten my first job, on BBC English magazine in Saffron Walden. I Facebooked about the horrors of superscripted ordinals and Microsoft's hideous predilection for them recently and an old colleague from there, Donna Sharp, found me, which was lovely. That lasted three months, mostly spent struggling with Ventura, a user-hostile early DTP programme - just as I was getting the hang of the bloody thing the bailiffs arrived to tell us the company had gone bankrupt. So I got made - no! the suspense! - redundant.

After Sound on Sound I moved back into information design. Applied for dozens of magazine jobs but just didn't get anywhere - I remember going to Hanover house for a sub job on House and Garden, and meeting some Voguey girl in the lift who was wearing a miniskirt and black tights who looked me up and down, and I knew I wasn't going to get it. Then the editor said she was working on an anniversary issue and someone had mentioned that the magazine was in a song - had I ever heard of it? I was so gobsmacked that she didn't know the Flanders & Swann number (on YouTube at 6.00 in) that I expect it may have shown. I was right, didn't get near it. Which magazine, that was a bugger - hours and hours of research, interviews and writing tests, it was more work than a bloody O level, then I got a standard rejection letter that didn't even get the facts right – "We regret that you have not been selected for interview" – oh do you, best hold those tears just for a moment; and they appointed an internal candidate so that was a week of my life wasted. I think it was after that I just gave up. I got a job as a freelance sub on Internet magazine, which was fun, then as freelance production ed on some business telecomms titles whose names were so odd I can't even remember them - bet there are copies in the attic. But the staff were lovely - always have been, everywhere I've worked. Do people who care about words by definition care about people?

Sunday, 15 January 2012

Boys and girls and Lego and Barbie

Great to see the Lego magazine debacle provoking so much comment - and so much of it witty and well argued: I feel no real need to contribute anything more than this.

Our three (11, 9 and 5, mixed sexes) were playing some kind of mash-up of Star Wars, Ninjago, Pirates of the Caribbean and Creator which often seems to involve everyone being in a classroom where the teacher keeps swearing but this is represented by saying "BLEEP!". Anyway, the catchphrase for this is uttered in a sort of sinister slightly lecherous tone and goes:

"Hi... I'm Anakin Deweddawend... Nice to [sniff] *smell* you..."

The sniff is a real sniff and you have to sniff the other person at that point - Sasha tells me. I'm not sure whether it's a skit on the fact that I like to take deep breaths inhaling Sasha's scent (back of the neck is lovely) - Sash has got used to it but we're all rightly treating it as a bit of parental eccentricity - or just a fart joke.

The older kids are one of each sex and so got both copies of the magazine and saw immediately what had happened. I'm told there were shrieks of outrage. In our house there are all sorts of toys for all sorts of children to play with. (Barbie is banned, but when someone brought back a few from a jumble sale recently, I didn't make much fuss. The eldest used to make a big thing of chasing me with a pretend Barbie -"Grrr.... I've got a Barbie! Beck doesn't like Barbie! Watch out, Beck, here comes Barbie!" which was a cute way of subverting the whole thing. With not much encouragement, the kids are extremely good at subverting such things as dubious marketing tropes, and songs you get taught at Sunday School.) In fact, I'm being interviewed for Woman magazine tomorrow about it all, and it sounds as though they've got a positive and sensible take on things, so fingers crossed that we can make some progress here! (And that I do make it into print.)

On that subject, I've also been interviewed by Emma Higginbotham for the Cambridge News about that thing I did of not telling anyone whether Sasha was a boy or a girl - and I completely forgot to tell her about this blog, where I tried to go on writing about Sash without ever mentioning it - a good chance to combine my political views with my writing and editing principles, which have always included gender-free writing. (The only time anyone has ever been annoyed was over my use of 'Chair' rather than Chairman or Chairwoman in Sawston Scene, but I've had some good discussions over the years.) This will be a feature but not online, so I'll post here when I know which issue it will be in - Emma reckons Thursday or Friday this week. Though I've just realised that this blog never revealed the secret, but if I say any more about the article it will, so I'll stop there. They should have some nice stereotype-subverting photographs of Sash and me too! (One thing that doesn't seem to have changed is that nobody's has expressed any interest in talking to Sasha's father - the kind of thing we were trying to fix at the Fatherhood Institute, where I worked for a year (before being made redundant, to continue that them! My sixth and most recent time.)_ And yes, as their web editor I did try to persuade them that you can't update a website once a month. Let me know (becklaxton, the at sign, gmail, a dot, com) if they say anything about this - I would so love them to run with it.