Tuesday, 13 October 2015

The Pleasure of Spending Time Alone

 The other evening I had our house to myself. Both of my flat-mates were out. I spent my time cooking, a chopping board on one side of the hob and a glass of white wine on the other. I listened to a podcast and pottered merrily. It was bliss. A very simple, easy form of bliss, yes, but wonderful nonetheless.

Spending time alone is one of those funny things that some of us relish, and others loath. Either it’s a luxury, a much-looked-for window to fill with solitude and self-determined activity, or it’s a to-be-avoided-at-all-costs kind of situation. Or, you know, it’s something somewhere between those two extremities. I err much more towards the camp who love snatching any chance to spend several hours being solitary. Not for too long, mind. There’s definitely a sweet spot between independence and isolation.

But give me a book, a museum, a river to walk along, or simply a morning to play around with unaccompanied by anyone else, and I’m content. It’s when I get all my thinking done. Lots of my seeking and learning and scheming too. Also most of my writing – though I only tend to count that as proper ‘alone’ time if it’s not accompanied by a nagging sense of fear at one looming deadline or another. It’s worth mentioning though, as I do seem to spend approximately half my life on a laptop with headphones in and fingers whirring. However, here I’m mainly interested in lonesomeness for leisure, rather than work…

‘Alone’ is such a different word to ‘lonely’ though. One is just a description of a temporary state of being that doesn’t include other people. The other is charged with dark resonance. Loneliness, the newspapers tell us, is on the rise. To be lonely is to be somehow lacking. Of course, the former can be used in just the same way. How many of us, at one point or another, have sighed/ cried/ written in a diary “I just feel so alone?” (Levels of melodrama up to the individual's discretion.) But now, to me, to be ‘alone’ is to have some much-appreciated time and space to call my own. 

In fact, being happy to spend time by myself is something I remain supremely grateful for. Of course there’s the odd spot of loneliness, but mainly I feel at ease in my own company – happily self-sufficient. There were definitely points where I was less keen to just hang out with my thoughts. Perhaps they’ve helped to build the sturdy appreciation for mornings lazing around in bed with books, or evenings going to the cinema solo.   

In case I’m painting some winsome, slightly sickening image here of days on end spent wandering through meadows and reading poetry on my own (that only happens occasionally, promise…), I should also point out here that I adore socialising. Most of my friends know that I tend to thrive on dashing around from one conversation to another. Last time I was in London I saw four consecutive lots of people, and collapsed, knackered, back on the train at 9pm. But I was also thrilled. The buzz of a day filled with good chats, ideas bandied back and forth across a table or living room, gave me a satisfaction like little else. In fact, I could flip the entire premise of this blog post to write something reveling in seeking and finding pleasure in the presence of others. Spending time with those I admire or appreciate is the most wonderful, joyous experience.

Maybe I welcome both states of being – intensely sociable, quietly solitary – precisely because there’s a balance between them. They cohabit side by side. Raucous laughter is fun. So is getting up early and cycling through a near-empty empty city. Each increases appreciation of the other. Maybe it helps that both are active choices – things I've had the ability to prioritise and value. And what a wonderful privilege that is... 

These photos were taken over the summer in Sweden - where I was with my family, and played A LOT of very competitive Scrabble with my younger brother, but also spent a lot of time happily in my own little world: merrily reading, swimming and scribbling notes/ poems/ general witterings. I also spent lots of time swanning around in this glorious vintage Liberty print two-piece, which I adore. I nicked all the accessories from my mum. 

Tuesday, 6 October 2015

Through the Looking Glass

This was originally written for the second issue of the wonderful Ingenue magazine (which I suggest you all go and buy, as it's absolutely gorgeous and packed with intelligent content) - so it's a fair bit longer than your average blog post.. One of my favourite commissions I've worked on in a while though. Quick content note - some discussion of sexual assault. 

When I was in my early teens there were so many things I was uncomfortable with: the assumption that it was normal  - and expected - to shave off all body hair; the divide whereby guys who slept around were ‘lads’ while the girls were ‘slags’; the fact that to be female was to be judged according to your weight, your appearance, your desirability; the assumption that certain spheres like politics, business or science were just a bit more male; the way in which women were usually represented (or rather misrepresented) in the media.

Well, I’m not sure if I was consciously frustrated with the latter. I was certainly aware of it though. How could I not be, when it was one of the contributing factors to all those other forms of unease? I’m not claiming that it was solely fashion ads and movies and porn clips and newspaper commentary and gossip mags and website features and music videos that instilled those feelings, but they certainly contributed - especially when all of that filtered down into the realms of secondary school, where bitchiness ruled and judgment was par for the course.

In spite of so many advances, we continue to live in a culture where boys are expected to be active and girls are expected to be beautiful. One where actresses are asked about their weight-loss regimes rather than the nuances of the characters they play. One where gossip rags focus in on every perceived female ‘failing’ – encouraging us to mock any sign of life or age, like cellulite, sweat-marks, weight gain, weight loss, or wrinkles. One where the dominant ideal of beauty is slender, young, and white – anyone falling outside of those parameters labeled as an exception if they attain mainstream celebration. One where a woman speaking out is a woman who is threatening – perhaps one who needs shutting up. One where, ultimately, we are shown that female achievement isn’t manifested in skills, but in the width of a waistline.

Well, fuck all of that.

A little later on, I began to question those corrosive assumptions and expectations. I also started responding critically to what I was reading and looking at. A flourishing interest in feminism gave me a framework for what was going on – also, most importantly, a means to analyze the uneasiness. I realized that what I was consuming wasn’t a given – but something that could be challenged.

Maybe you’re reading this going “yeah, yeah, beauty ideals, gender roles, underrepresentation, the wage gap, inequality, capitalism etc – I get it.” If so? Great. That’s a good position to be in – one of awareness and education and anger. But it took me a while to reach that stage. As one person says in the excellent documentary Miss Representation, “the media is the message and the messenger.” For most of us it requires quite a bit of work to unravel those messages – to get a grasp on just what the messengers are doing at the moment, and then, maybe to consider how to change them.

Luckily there are plenty of others who are both clear-sighted and proactive, like Madeline Di Nonno - the CEO of See Jane, an organization set up by actor Geena Davis (she of Thelma and Louise fame) to look at gender inequality in films and TV. With a mix of research projects, education resources and an increasing number of events, they’re provoking big conversations. Their statistics have been groundbreaking, while the symposiums focused on women onscreen are opening up new dialogues within the industry.

Incidentally, Thelma and Louise does a pretty fabulous job of passing the Bechdel test (a set of requirements dreamt up by Alison Bechdel, in which a film must have at least two women in it, who talk to each other and, crucially, talk about something other than a man). Yes, there’s a fair bit of shooting, but also an incredibly nuanced, in-depth look at female friendship. It’s as political as it is entertaining. We still need more films like that, more than twenty years on. 

I sat down with Di Nonno recently to discuss the work of See Jane, spending plenty of time comparing our teenage years and time at university before we got on to talking about films. I mentioned how the revelatory thing for me was seeing all of those things I was aware of (the lack of powerful women onscreen, under-representation of women of colour etc) being quantified – properly researched to provide hard evidence.

Alongside these studies, See Jane has a very specific set of ways to combat inequality. They mainly work from the inside out. As Di Nonno points out, ‘by fuelling what’s going on behind the camera, you can then see the results on camera.’ From encouraging more multifaceted women leads to discussing the lack of female directors, writers and other creatives, they’re interested in both the process and the product.

Their main mantra is ‘if she can see it, she can be it’. It’s a simple point. If we could see female presidents and leaders and breadwinners on screen, then young people would hopefully consider that to be what’s normal - just as it’s currently seen as standard for all those positions to be male-dominated.

Essentially, See Jane wants to readdress the balance. ‘If we can organically change the content that our children are seeing, and boys and girls grow up seeing media images that have lots of girls doing interesting things, then subconsciously it becomes the norm, and not the exception.’

And my God, is visibility important – in so many ways. It affects what we think is acceptable, expected, right, everyday. Recent research showed that children between 8 and 18 spend around 7 hours a day engaging with media. It’s a huge force – one present whenever you open a magazine or watch a film or eye up your phone. If you can transform that force, you can transform how people – especially young ones - think.

‘The approach we’ve taken is collaborative – one in which we don’t shame,’ says Di Nonno. ‘Every studio, network, production company etc has been extremely responsive - because we’re saying, “we all want our children to grow up with a sense of infinite possibilities, our girls, our boys.” When it’s positioned that way, and we’re able to say that our research is showing that we’re bereft of female presence - but we’re 51% of the population - everyone is shocked.’  It’s not about pointing fingers, but encouraging positive, active decisions to do things differently.

All Walks Beyond the Catwalk do similar things with fashion, placing gentle pressure on the industry from the inside out – asking change to come from designers, photographers, stylists, casting directors, and anyone else who can actively choose to challenge the status quo. Like See Jane, they’re all about both showing and telling. It’s important to raise rallying cries and point out what’s wrong and shout loudly, but also to push for transforming what young women and men are seeing and taking in everyday – whether it’s on film or in a fashion ad. Both of them also offer up a set of tools – a way to engage critically, and question what’s put in front of you.

Di Nonno also mentioned the presence of ‘unconscious biases’ – of the way certain types of status quo are assumed to be normal. There’s no huge conspiracy here, no tycoons rubbing their hands and going “hahaha, let’s reserve all the big, serious roles for men” (Maybe. Hopefully.) Instead it’s just that ‘the default is always male.’

I pointed out to her how irritated I get that it seems like the ‘LARGE SERIOUS THEMES’ are reserved for men. If an experience is to be considered ‘universal’, it’s most likely embodied by a male protagonist – whereas if the main character is a woman, it’ll be considered niche or specialist or mainly for female audiences. Some progress is being made in breaking the mould – everything from The Hunger Games to Mad Max: Fury Road – but they’re still considered the exceptions.

It’s unsurprising that this is how it is in films, in an age where research has also showed that books with male main characters are more likely to win serious literary prizes. ‘As an artist, you write what you know, you want to be authentic,’ Di Nonno says. ‘So if you’re a storyteller, and the ratio of male to female storytellers is five to one, then that automatically is going to manifest in terms of the product that’s onscreen.’ See Jane’s 2012 study showed that if there’s a female writer or director, there’s a ten percent increase in female roles onscreen. Change the narrative, change the creator, change what the audience sees.

There’s often this argument that comes up when talking about gender and the media – a rallying cry that there are “more serious” issues to focus on, as though there’s a set ranking of issues neatly ordered from ‘mildest’ to ‘most awful’ that must be addressed in strict sequence. But this fails to chart any of the intricate links between different areas of inequality, or to take account of the way the media normalizes certain things.  

For example, images of violence against women are rife in the media: in shadowy fashion ads suggestive of assault or death; in film and TV narratives that use rape as a gratuitous plotline rather than something explored sensitively; in video games that allow female characters to have two functions: a.) Physical object, all boobs and bum and no personality, and/ or b.) punchbag.

Add to this the disquieting fact that under the American Film classification system (the MPAA), scenes featuring sexual violence towards women often gain lower age restrictions than those showing women enjoying consensual sexual pleasure. Brutality inflicted on a female might gain a movie an R (those under 17 can only see it accompanied by an adult), but if a woman is shown receiving oral sex, it’s immediately an NC-17 (basically the equivalent to a UK 18).

And oh, remind me where all this is taking place? Ah yes, in a society where women are overwhelmingly (though not exclusively) the targets of domestic violence; where rape victims are often assumed to have been ‘asking for it’ or to somehow have been provocative; where female pleasure is still seen as vaguely taboo. The media doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It exists on our screens, in our houses, seamed throughout our conversations and expectations.  

I’m not arguing here that there’s a direct A to B link, as though one causes the other. Oh no. Instead it’s a series of relationships and influences. It’s all wrapped up – the focus on image and attractiveness, the over-representation of women as objects, the under-representation of women as complex individuals, the marginalization of women of colour, of older women, of women of all sizes... Sexualisation, body image, job prospects, violence, gendered stereotypes, aspirations, assumptions, anxieties – all interacting, all connected.

That sounds kind of miserable though. Surely we, as individuals, can attempt to make changes too? ‘There are so many things that people can do who are not making movies,’ argues Di Nonno – firstly pointing to social media. From the #askhermore hashtag to the ability to critique things, ‘everyone can have a voice, and call this out.’ Next she says, ‘I think it’s important if you’re a care-taker to watch what your children are watching… to watch it with them and have a conversation.’ It’s about chatting, giving young people a space to ask questions and be responsive.

What if you have some kind of authority? ‘For people who are in a leadership position… How are you attracting diversity? What is your means of messaging – print, website, social media? What are your hiring practices? How many women do you have on your board? How many executives?’

She also relayed the story of a guy she worked with at one point. ‘He sat through and listened to our research, and at out next meeting, he said “you’ve changed how I parent.” I said, “really? What happened?” He replied, “well, I have a son and a daughter – they both play soccer, and are both really into sports. But I realized that when I saw my son, I’d ask him about the game, or what he was doing, and when I saw my daughter the first thing I’d say is “Oh you look so pretty today.” All I was reinforcing to my daughter was her beauty, and not recognizing that she’s as good an athlete as my son.”’

So it’s about conversation. About using what Di Nonno calls ‘a gender lens’ to opening up chats, critique what you see, always be curious, query the stuff in front of you, and never get complacent. It’s about wanting more from our media-makers, and also changing our own behaviour. It’s about supporting those doing good stuff, like Act for Change (a project aiming to encourage diversity across the stage and screen), Arts Emergency (they look to get young people from all sorts of backgrounds into the arts through mentoring and schemes), The Fawcett Society (a charity campaigning for gender equality) and The Women’s Room, (an organization set up to get more women in the public eye, especially experts in their field), to name but a handful. It’s a good position to be in – one where our voices are important. And it’s one where they can only get louder.

The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media are partnering with the BFI this autumn – hosting a global symposium on gender in media on October 8th.

Monday, 28 September 2015

Orange Silk and Green Hills

At 8.30am this morning I was strolling along the edge of a lake with my dad, our boots slowly soaked through by wet grass. There were spiders-webs on the thistles – each strand perfectly picked out by dew and light. Dad had his camera with him, and kept stopping to catch this bird or that reflection in the water. Looking ahead, everything was soft and slightly blurred by mist. Looking behind, it was all blue sky and bright sun.

I scrabbled around by the trees looking for conkers. Those wonderful, prickly green shells have already begun falling. There’s a knack to cracking them open. You have to find a point on either side where you can grip without lacerating your fingertips on the spikes, then squeeze hard. Each shell divides perfectly into segments. Sometimes you only need one to come loose. Sometimes you’ll need to totally dissect the shell, pulling apart those spongy white wedges in turn. Either way, there’ll be treasure in the middle – a wonderfully smooth, shiny, lopsided blob of brown. A conker. Doesn’t matter how many years I’ve done this now. There’s still a fresh sense of magic in the way they fit in a palm like sea-washed pebbles.

Today I collected nine, clutching them together like treasure. They perfectly matched my suede sleeves. A handful of glossy, solid satisfaction. Maybe that’s what I marvel at most. There they are – hidden away in their funny big jacket of bristles, so small and so strong. They’re hardy little buggers though. No wonder plenty of playground games used to revolve around smashing them together. In fact, when I was at primary school, one of the songs that our music teacher rolled out every autumn (without fail) included a raucous chorus beginning: “conkers! I’m collecting conkers! I’m trying hard to find the biggest and the best!” Unsurprisingly, they’ve become part of that general set of images we associate with autumn, taking their place alongside orange leaves and warm firesides and hot mugs of tea. I like conkers in particular though because they’re seeds – nothing but burnished potential.

As you may be able to tell, this weekend I caught a last gasp of the countryside – returning home and throwing myself back among the trees and sharp air and sun-warmed paths for the last time before uni begins. I rarely miss it when I’m away, only realizing on return how much I’m still a countryside girl. I’ve had three days full of gold-stubble fields, woods dappled with late afternoon light, valleys dotted with hay-bales, and hill-top views that stretch for mile upon mile.

I also tend to forget how exhilarated it all makes me feel. It’s an intriguing mix of memory, familiarity, and possibility: all the resonances of past escapades (walks and den-building sessions and hours spent exploring), and a sense of what’s ahead to enjoy (a part of me still harbours a very fanciful, flighty urge to run away to a tumble-down cottage and just write poetry all day). There’s also a sense of being grounded and brought back down to the immediate: an in-the-moment-here-I-am-nothing-exists-but-this-sunny-afternoon kind of sensation. Maybe we all need a bit more of that.

This time last year, I had tea with a friend in Hyde Park – she’d brought along a flask in her bag. We sat outside and chatted and drank and ate dark chocolate. As we got up to leave, brushing grass seeds from our legs, she picked up a conker and said I should keep it, because it would always remind me of that afternoon. It’s now sitting in a martini glass (among my jewellery, obviously…) in my new room in Oxford. She was right. Every time I see it, I recall that day vividly. I have a feeling that the same thing may happen with those nine conkers I scavenged this morning. I left them scattered on my desk at home. They’ll stay there for a while. Mementoes of nothing particularly extraordinary - just a bright misty morning and a brief moment of calm.

My mum took these photos in one of our favourite spots. I've been dragged up this hill since I was tiny. Now I'm a little more willing to climb to the top... I'd planned a whole outfit around the dress (those images will come at another point), but there was something so magnificent about the simplicity of this. We just had to leave it as is, and soak up that magnificent light. 

Thursday, 24 September 2015

A Few Favourite Female Essayists

I spent a vast amount of this summer reading essays – partly for academic reasons, partly because I bloody love them. (And partly because I also happen to write quite a few myself.) Normally something of a novel-gobbler, the last few months have involved an unusual level of straying into non-fiction territory. It’s been wonderful. There’s something intensely delightful about a good essay; a sensation akin to the kinds of conversations that leave you buzzing from the thrill of new ideas to contemplate.

However, the minute you begin to stray back into the history of the essay, the same thing happens as with every other area of literature… As the decades roll back, the list of notable names becomes ever more overwhelmingly male. Big surprise. That’s not to discount how excellent Montaigne, Hazlitt, Lamb, Addison etc etc etc can be (or, to give some slightly more more recent examples, Laurie Lee, Alan Garner, George Orwell, Al Alvarez and Philip Larkin, who have all produced stunning essays). It’s more of a nod to the fact that in my brick-sized edition of The Oxford Book of Essays, there are a mere handful of works by women.

I wanted to readdress the balance here, and focus in on all the collections by female essayists that I’ve adored reading recently. I tried to stick to writers who are still alive and kicking and working, but with a few others thrown in who were too ideal to resist. It was meant to be a top ten, but somehow an extra one snuck in  - so it’s my top eleven, for the time being…

Siri Hustvedt – Living, Thinking, Looking and A Plea for Eros

I picked up Living, Thinking, Looking on a whim in Blackwell’s, thinking it looked potentially interesting. I then spent several days completely rapt, snatching every spare moment I could to immerse myself in the workings of Hustvedt’s clear, engaging thoughts. It was the same experience with A Plea for Eros. In both cases, the topics (books, psychology, family etc) are approached with a kind of decisive, penetrating directness.

Anne Fadiman – At Large and Small and Ex Libris

At Large and Small is one of those delightful collections I just want to foist on friends and family. “Look!” I want to say, “an essay that uses the phrase 'The Emperor of Ice-cream'! Another on the history of coffeehouses! Lots on things that aren’t to do with food too. Read it, read it, read it.” Well, something like that. It’s delightful and life-enhancing Oh, and Ex Libris is a glorious little morsel of a collection – one that approaches the topic of books in a number of wonderful ways. Expect everything from the perils of re-shelving to her literary upbringing.

Marina Keegan – The Opposite of Loneliness

I’ve already written about Marina and her work here. To reiterate what I said then, 'Whether she’s talking about generational hubris, food allergies, empathy for animals, or the contents of her car as the “physical manifestations of… memories”, she’s kind of dazzling. To me, the best essays pluck at the thread of something, no matter how simple, and hold it up to the light - making you stop, think, respond. Here the fine filaments of analysis and honesty are strong and flexible. She weaves them with care.'

Ali Smith – Artful

A series of essays on topics from ‘time’ to ‘form’ to ‘edge’, each is a compelling, page-turning ramble or meander through various ideas, creators, and possibilities. Yet this is isn’t a straightforward series. These essays are embedded within and woven around a quietly devastating (fictional) narrative of an individual whose lover has died. I’d love to read more collections that play with form like this.

Jeanette Winterson – Art Objects: Ecstasies and Effronteries

Like much of Winterson’s writing, this is a slightly dizzying and very exhilarating gallop through topics from sexuality to the power of Virginia Woolf’s prose. I sometimes end up feeling slightly breathless or overwhelmed by the intensity of her sentences.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – We Should All be Feminists

This is cheating, as it's a single essay. But it's worth including. Brilliant in the first place and popularised further by Beyonce, this concise piece is not so much a cogent argument (I mean, it is) as a necessary call to arms. Adichie is coolly precise and powerful in every sentence, in the kind of way that makes you simultaneously wish you could express yourself as beautifully as her, and also feel like she’s making points you’ve always known FOREVER and really needed to hear articulated.

Margaret Atwood – Curious Pursuits

A mixture of book reviews, autobiographical pieces and general reflections, this is an incredibly satisfying collection to dip in and out of at will. As with her novels, Atwood has a keen sense of vivid scene-making and telling details.

Susan Sontag – Illness as a Metaphor and Against Interpretation

I found Sontag a struggle at first. Her sentences can be dense, her ideas requiring a little bit of time to unpack and truly ‘get’. It’s worth the legwork though – her observations are brisk and brilliant, whether she’s (almost literally) dissecting our cultural use of the word ‘cancer’, or discussing cinema as “a new language.”

Zadie Smith – Changing my Mind

Worth it alone for her glorious, glorious essay on Katharine Hepburn and Greta Garbo – as well as 'Ten Notes on Oscar Weekend', which feels like reading a gossipy magazine article with actual solid substance seamed throughout. Her literary essays also have the conspiratorial tone of a good conversation with a smart, savvy friend.

Virginia Woolf – A Woman’s Essays/ A Room of One’s Own/ every essay she ever wrote

Just do it. She’s the mistress of essays. I love her work unreservedly, and get excited/ overwhelmed all over again whenever I remember that I still have lots of her work left to gobble up.

Angela Carter – Nothing Sacred and Expletives Deleted

Carter is witty and sharp, always. Nothing Sacred holds what is possibly my favourite of her essays: Notes for a Theory of Sixties Style (predictable, me?) There she writes, “Clothes are our weapons, our challenges, our visible insults.” Expletives Deleted focuses in on book reviews and discussions of authors, but becomes the launchpad for interrogations of topics from fairytales to the snobbery of food choices.  

And here’s a quick list of the essayists I’m yet to discover, but have been told (in no uncertain terms) that I should investigate: Joan Didion, Roxanne Gay (who I know for her writing online, but am yet to read Bad Feminist), Rebecca Solnit, Janet Malcolm, bell hooks, Cynthia Ozick, Audre Lorde, Anne Carson (I know her poetry), Sheila Heti, Hermione Lee… Let me know if you have any others to add to my ever-growing, ever-tottering ‘to read’ list. 

Of course it had to be icecream-sundae shades of pink (and plenty of roses) for this post.. What else to celebrate women?! I joke, I joke.. However, I did enjoy picking out all the books I could find in our house with vaguely similar-tinted covers, shading through from magenta to baby pink. The dress is vintage. I've been meaning to shoot it for the blog for years now. 

Oh, and if you like this combination of reading recommendations + pink clothes (which somehow I seem to have turned into a formula), see this blog post here for some suggestions of individual essays.