You go, girlfriends

Women A Success Story8

This is not a regular film review, as Women: A Success Story is not a regular film. “A liberating tale for a new generation,” inspired by Joanna Williams’s book Women Vs Feminism, it was made by volunteers and funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, Youth Social Action and the Jack Petchey Foundation; a community project that demands to be seen and shared and discussed, by women and men (there’s more about it here). Directed by Ceri Dingle, it has been put together by 100 volunteers, with 40 talking heads, all women, simply discussing and recalling their lives and experiences over nine decades of feminist progress. Its optimistic conclusion is somewhat foregone. This is not a time to niggle.

Each witness – ranging in age from 16 to 90 – is named in a caption, along with their date of birth, to help place them in their era. The documentary’s oldest participant is Elsie Holdsworth, born in 1928, and one of seven kids. She paints a vivid picture of life at the sharp end of the century, listing “one gaslight, two bedrooms, six children, no radio, no TV, no car, no hot water.” Her memory is pin-sharp and she provides valuable testimony from a pre-enlightenment age when, as a young woman, a job she took at Woolworth’s caused others to say she’s “climbing the social ladder, joining the elite.” (The loaded E-word is being bandied about again by today’s political class in this self-negating age of Brexit, but Elsie’s treatment at the hands of her peers seems almost comical to our modern ears – there’s a touch of “know your place” about such snarky opprobrium.)

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Among the more millennial talking heads is Caroline Cafasso, 21, an American who reflects the #MeToo generation when she observes that in her experience young women “consider many men to be dangerous towards women” and is rueful about being “stuck in hook-up culture.” Further insight from the young comes from Millie Small, 16, who offers another blithely alarming insight: “I don’t think pregnancy is a very big fear for people.”

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The film is split into clearly titled chapters – The Sexual Revolution and Freedom; Contraception: Free at Last; Mind the Gap – and makes sparing use of public-domain archive from patrician public information films to grout the witness footage (some of the more alarmist ones are from the binary certainty of America’s postwar period). This is not a film that dazzles with bells and whistles; it’s all about the content. That it was borne of a collective effort dovetails into the very subject matter. If there is a sisterhood, it might well be found herein.

Among the reassuringly ordinary witnesses, we meet the extraordinary Nadine Strossen, the first woman president of the American Civil Liberties Union (she objects to women who report rape being classed as “victims” in what she regards as a “persecutorial culture”); also Ivana Habazin, a nun who watched Rocky and took up boxing, thereafter becoming IBO middleweight champion; we may not be too surprised to see Joanna Williams herself, at a Suffragette Picnic in East London – where else? Activists abound. Take Mally Best, thrown out of school at 15, she took an engineering course at college, specialising in aviation and navigation (she was the only woman among 79 men). When she took her exam onboard a warship, male seamen were put on a three-hour curfew so they wouldn’t come into contact with a woman.

For ideological balance, there’s a former beauty queen, Miss Severn Diamond, now in her 50s, who discusses the rights and wrongs of calling female friends “honey.” A proud pageant finalist at 22, she embodies a different strain of female empowerment, saying she “never found men intimidating”. (She discusses motor racing’s hot-button “grid girl” issue too, failing to see the harm.) Meanwhile, Hilary Salt, a member of Council of the Institute and Faculty of Actuaries, declares herself against boardroom tokenism that she thinks is “degrading”. “To me,” she boldly states, “it doesn’t seem be of any advantage for me when I’m sitting on the Council, to be there with my vagina.”

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Other, more opaque issues are addressed, from FGM to man-hating and whether or not glamour modelling is simply just “a personal choice” (one participant says she thinks of herself as a woman “from the neck down”).

There’s also a fascinating tour of the now-closed Voice & Vote: Women’s Place in Parliament exhibition, where we learn that in 1918 the first woman MP Constance Markievicz, never took her seat in Parliament as she was a member of Sinn Fein and as such “would never take an oath of allegiance to a power I meant to overthrow.” (The first sitting MP was Conservative Nancy Astor in 1919.) Wallflowers are not in evidence.

Shocking facts arise; domestic abuse was not even investigated by the police in the 1950s, and wasn’t until the 1976 Domestic Violence and Matrimonial Proceedings Act – although rape in marriage continued to be legal until 1990s. Within that context it brings you up short to hear a 1967-born West Midlands bank manager stating, “If you see someone brushing your knee as sexual assault you have seriously lost the plot.” Another woman of similar age is strident on the subject: “We didn’t feel cowed, or worried, we just said no.”

All this and the memory of using a mangle to clean nappies in the 1960s. You might optimistically conclude that men have gone a long way towards being house-trained in the interim. You might prefer to come away from the film with the lingering and powerful image of the daughter of an Eritrean freedom fighter who emigrated to the UK in the late 60s and “grew up with the idea that there was no difference between women and men.”

Either way, man or woman, whatever your view, or gender, or vintage, this film gives plenty of food for thought, and deserves to be shared.


Bits of him are falling apart


I am of an age now, 48, where making a fuss about birthdays is for milestones only, and my next milestone occurs in two years’ time. (I’ll be making a right old fuss about that!) Until then, it’s just an annual day off in early March, as it was yesterday. I did no work. I had my phone off for most of the day. I went to the Roy Lichtenstein retrospective at the Tate Modern, and ate a long lunch in a favourite restaurant in the West End of London, then came home to doze off in front of Mayday. It was a most excellent day. But aging is a poisoned chalice.

I’ve not marked my birthdays much in this blog, largely because I’ve been in my forties ever since starting it, so there’s been little to string bunting up about. The long, hard trudge through your forties is, I have found, one fraught with dichotomies. I’m fundamentally enjoying being in my forties, but, as much as the mid-thirties are as packed with surprises as a suicide bomb-vest, your mid-forties also reveal darker secrets about the passage of time. In your forties, by the very nature of maths, you know more than you’ve ever known in your life, but you also start to forget things. Names, mostly, but it’s alarming to discover what Homer Simpson spotted: every time you learn something new, your brain squeezes out something old.


You also get tired earlier in the evening, so find yourself going to bed earlier, and thus your days get shorter. I’m a morning person, so I have no trouble leaping out of bed as early as 5.45am, and can be working 15 minutes later, but still, I’m not sure I’ve ever loved the feel of my pillow against the side of my face as much as I do now. When it’s just been washed: even more blissful. This is a positive development in sensory terms: I find myself more grateful about small sensations. You’ve heard older people sigh as they sit down. It’s gratitude for the sensation of not being on your feet. It’s a good sound. It’s rooted in the ageing of the bones, but it’s still a good sound. When you’re young, you appreciate nothing, and are constantly in search of kicks. You’ll be amazed how much more easily pleased you’ll be in your forties – and beyond, I’m assuming.

Since discovering a cut-price, no-frills gym last September I’ve been back on the machines, and I realise that doing 20 minutes on a treadmill at 6.40am, as is my preference (I’ve never fancied exercising after work) is almost entirely symbolic of the way that, in your forties, in terms of health, you must literally run to stand still. I’m quite addicted to cardio and resistance work again, as I was in my late thirties, when I first discovered that drinking lager, eating wheat and doing nothing makes you flabby and lethargic, and in my early forties, when I could afford to be in a posh gym. However, as pleased as I am to be exercising regularly, I’m more aware than ever that my body is at a point in its life where it breaks more easily. I put my knee out on the treadmill a few weeks back, and by the end of that day, it was literally painful to walk downstairs. (It clicked back overnight and I was normal again the next morning, but I read it as a warning sign: you’re not as young as you were.)


I read William Leith’s gripping and candid account of midlife decline, Bits Of Me Are Falling Apart, in 2009 when it was first published amid the expected deluge of broadsheet coverage. I have no idea whether it sold or fizzled, but I would recommend it as required reading for anyone, especially men, in their forties. In it – solipsistically but what other way is there? – he catalogues everything that’s going wrong with his body, and many things that aren’t, but which he suspects are on the verge of grinding to a halt or falling off. It’s grimly funny, but rings all too true. (He’d previously written about overeating in The Hungry Years, and seems to have treated his body badly, but even if you haven’t, you’ll see yourself in his paranoia.) In 2009, just four years ago, I felt almost smug, as I had my eating under control, had reduced my drinking to treats only and had perfect eyesight. Today, the first two remain true. I had my first ever eye test last week because an opticians was offering one for a fiver, and the prognosis was, if not grave, certainly worrying.

But hey, every adult I know wears glasses – I mean literally. I’ve got away with it for 48 years, and I look at a computer screen all day, five days a week. Those of us who do “close work” are all basically Donald Pleasance’s forger in The Great Escape waiting to happen. And there are plenty of things you can have wrong with you that I certainly appear not to have wrong with me yet. I’m an optimist by pathology, as you know, so I’m not one for worrying about things that might happen – unlike Leith, who seems predisposed to worry himself into an early grave – but it’s as well to be aware of your own mortality, I guess, and to look after yourself. I find myself holding the handrail when walking down steps at stations all of a sudden. There can be no harm in guarding against accidents.


The only birthdays I have recorded on this blog have been my 41st birthday in 2006, on which, for fun, I listed my birthday presents in homage to what I used to do in my childhood diaries:

A Seinfeld book
A book voucher
A Sideways DVD
A really nice black jumper
Two tickets to see Arctic Monkeys in April in Bournemouth
Two tickets to go and see Malcolm Gladwell live on the South Bank

I must admit, that seems like an indulgent haul, but it was 2006, before the financial crash, when money seemed to be for spending. (A faintly ludicrous, bourgeois concept now.) Another big difference that year: I went to work, on my birthday, even though it was a Saturday, because I used to present the Chart Show on 6 Music. (I find it almost inconceivable to think that I had my own weekly show on 6 Music just a few years ago. I used to have to commute in from outside the M25 in those days, too. What a slog that was.)

I also recorded my 43rd birthday in 2008. It says I had a quiet day, “and then watched both parts of ITV’s newest grisly detective drama, the wishy-washily-named Instinct, starring the bloke who played the policeman on Shameless, Anthony Flanagan. It was one of those with a serial killer who spent an awful lot of time and effort trying to put everyone off his scent. You get a lot of those in ITV dramas. Not so much in real life. Guess what? It was entertaining, but not as profound as it appeared. I’d quite like to write one of those, one day. Plenty of time.”

ITV are still making entertaining crime dramas. I’d still quite like to write one. It’s good to look forward and not back on the day after your birthday, even when bits of you are threatening to fall apart. Plenty of time.