Smirk and mirrors

MailLegsitMar28

Today’s Daily Mail mines a new low in sniggering, boarding-school sexism. Never mind Brexit, the groaning lever by which this country is being torn asunder! Who, out of two powerful national leaders at the centre of this tragic division of a nation, has the nicest legs? Come on! They were asking for it, wearing skirts and having their legs sticking out from under them! Legs-it! Geddit?!

The Mail is clever. It does what the Sun used to do, which is to demean women and put them back in the kitchen by objectifying their body parts, but it does so under the cover of being a respectable, Victorian-values “women’s paper”. The cover story here is essentially a bit of filler by star columnist Sarah Vine, which reads like a caption that’s supposedly dignified into journalism by its “decoding” of what Prime Minister Theresa May and Scotland’s First Minister and Leader of the SNP Nicola Sturgeon look, sit and dress like. “While May’s fingers, elegant with their classic red nails, were relaxed and open, Sturgeon’s grip appeared somewhat tenser,” it mutters in academic assessment. Marshall McLuhan need not shift in his grave.

“But what stands out here are the legs – and the vast expanse on show.”

The legs do stand out. It’s a full-frame crop of a carefully choreographed press shot that presents an uncut, unabashed view of the two women in it. Chroniclers of our time like Sarah Vine can observe all sorts of details, such as Sturgeon’s “right thumb at an awkward angle” and her stiletto that’s “not quite dangling off her foot,” and May’s “stylish navy jacket, patterned dress and trademark leopard-print heels”. But here’s where typing out things that you can actually see turns to cod analysis, with the flourish, “There is no doubt that both women consider their pins to be the finest weapon in their physical arsenal. Consequently, both have been unsheathed.”

Society is falling apart. People who voted for Brexit now shout from the stalls on Question Time, having been forced by draconian liberal thinking at the BBC to hand in at reception their flaming torches kept at all times in case the need to run foreign nurses out of town arises. UKIP is still invited onto television discussion shows despite having just lost its only MP. A violent man in his 50s drives a hired car down a pavement with intent to kill and maim and doesn’t even seem to have the excuse of believing in anything much. The views of 51.89 per cent (or in actual fact 51.89% of the 65.38% of the voting-age population that voted) keep being referred to as “the will of the people.” Boris Johnson, who fucked this country, is still in a job. George Osborne, who fucked this country, is in six jobs. Michael Gove, who fucked this country, is married to Sarah Vine. I hope he judges her every decision and act by how nice or horrible her legs are, because it’s all she deserves, according to Sarah Vine.

“May’s famously long extremities,” she slurps, “are demurely arranged in her customary finishing-school stance – knees tightly together, calves at a flattering diagonal, feet neatly aligned.” This “studied pose” apparently reminds us that “for all her confidence, she is ever the vicar’s daughter, always respectful and anxious not to put a foot wrong.” This semi-pornographic fantasy about knees and alignment continues with Vine’s portrait of Sturgeon, whose Scottish legs are “shorter but undeniably more shapely”, her “shanks are altogether more flirty, tantalisingly crossed, with the dominant leg pointing towards her audience.” End the bullshit!

No, it is not “a direct attempt at seduction”; she does not “seem to be saying. ‘You know you want to.’” This is what decrepit high court judges think about women who wear skirts and drink legally  and are sexually assaulted. (Forgive me, I can’t remember if the Mail still hates high court judges, or considers them pillars of a sovereign society. It’s one or the other, depending on the result.)

Here’s my own observation of our current politics: the men and women who promoted the instant fix of Brexit last summer seem incapable of treating its execution with anything other than smirking and laughter.

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Look at guffawing David Davis, Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union on last night’s special pre-Article 50 edition of Question Time.

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Look at smugly grinning Deputy Chair and Health Spokesperson of the UK Independence Party Suzanne Evans on the same Question Time. I know they feel victorious and vindicated by the result of a referendum which, in my view, should never have taken place, and if it did should not have rested on a tiny percentage for either bloc. The Tory government was running so scared of UKIP it tossed off a YES/NO referendum with constitutional and economic effects that will resonate for generations just to shut up Nigel Farage, when it could have very easily designed it so that, say, a 60% majority was required to decide it. Now that UKIP have wrought eternal damnation on the nation, they should really just fuck off. Why is Question Time still inviting representatives of a party with no MPs? The sooner it packs up and goes back to whichever country it came from, the better for the rest of us as we attempt to pick up the pieces of a golf-club dinner-and-dance they threw which frankly got out of hand.

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On the left – although not far enough on the left to have refused a coalition with a mandate-less Tory party – is Nick Clegg, a former yesterday’s man who seems to have found his spine since Brexit; on the right is David Davis, the sort of bully who leans into your personal space and stabs the table with his fat fingers. Look at him laughing his head off at Clegg’s attempt to keep order. He’s laughing because he thinks it’s a huge fucking lark that large parts of the British (if not Scottish) electorate voted to leave the EU without a clue how that would work. (I’m not saying the electorate was ignorant – politicians clearly had no idea how Brexit would work.) People were so disillusioned with a ruined, self-flaggelatingly spineless Labour Party on one hand and elite Westminster-bubble politics embodied by, well, stuffed suits like David Davis on the other, it lodged a massive protest vote against the lot of them. But the same electorate now wishes the same elites it gave a bloody nose to, to sort it all out, and quickly, please. (Or it will start shouting from the stalls again.)

Here’s the big laugh. It’s going to be slow. And laborious. And boring. And disappointing. And painful. And immigrants aren’t going to stop moving freely just because a sign on a lying bus said they would. And if EU nationals and other foreign nationals do leave the UK, it will be from jobs that British people would rather not do. Foreigners who come to this country do so to find work. British nationals who go to other countries do so to be on holiday.

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I don’t even have the energy to pillory this worldwide prick in a gold lift again. One vandal at a time.

I feel ashamed to be British, despite the fact that this country contains some of the most creative, funny, wise, resourceful, smart, community-minded, friendly, selfless, charitable, hardworking, pluralistic, non-xenophobic, Pointless-contestant, animal-loving people in the world. I feel ashamed that even when something objectively amazing happens, like two of our national leaders being women (not to mention the women leading Scottish Labour and the Scottish Conservatives, the woman leading the Green Party of England and Wales, and the woman who’s the Presiding Officer of the Welsh Assembly), our press resorts to the smirk and mirrors of misogyny, and gets a women to do its dirty work.

 

Postscript

I woke up this morning, on the day Article 50 is triggered, with a knot in my stomach, again. The Brexit cheerleaders seem to be dismissing this act of national suicide as a “divorce,” as if it’s nothing really. This says a lot about them. If it’s a “divorce”, it’s one that has already lasted for nine months without anything actually happening, and negotiations are going to last for at least another two years, and nobody’s thinking about the children. That is more of a living nightmare. And the Mail’s response (“CENSORED BY THE LEFT”) says more than its disgraceful “Legs-it” cover did.

MailLegsit2Mar29

 

 

Bad men

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In July 1983, when I was 18, Peter Adamson – the actor known to and loved by millions as Len Fairclough on Coronation St, a character he’d played since 1961 – went on trial for the indecent assault that April of two eight-year-old girls in a swimming pool. As you can see from the blunt-instrument graphic used by the Sun newspaper, the lines between Adamson and his fictional persona were deliberately blurred. I remember the trial well, as I was an avid viewer of the soap at the time. I stuck the above graphic into my diary on Thursday July 21, mid-hearing, alongside this doctored collage from the same newspaper:

LenFaircloughtrial - Version 2As you may be able to see, I wrote “GUILT” in pencil over Adamson’s suit, so I would be able to add, “He’s got guilt written all over him.” This was my 18-year-old’s idea of a joke. A casualty of trial by tabloid – and the red-tops were pretty despicable then, in their early-80s pomp – I had passed judgement before the court had. (It’s a shame I wasn’t more sensitive, but we cannot rewrite our own history.)

In the event, on July 26, the jury found Adamson – and by dimwitted association, Fairclough – not guilty. But it was immaterial; he’d already been tried and convicted in the public mind. Although he lived until 2002 and managed to get some theatre work, he was never again seen on Coronation St, having been written out back in February, before the arrest, ironically for selling stories to the tabloids. A sad figure by all accounts, he struggled with a long-standing drinking problem and died penniless after a 1991 bankruptcy.

The clinical term “paedophile”, although well established, was not in general use in 1983; it was certainly too long a word for the Sun. I suspect, as well as “dirty bastard”, Len will have been branded a “pervert”. I bring up his story partly because it has stayed with me, and partly because at least two equally well-loved Coronation St stars are currently embroiled in court cases over alleged sexual assault: Michael Le Vell, who’s played Kevin Webster since, coincidentally, 1983, and William Roache, the longest-serving Coronation St star of them all, having been Ken Barlow since the first episode in 1960. Le Vell goes to trial in September for 19 charges, including alleged sexual assault and the rape of a minor; Roache goes to Crown Court next month for the alleged rape of a 15-year-old in 1967. Both men deny all charges.

These big tabloid stories interest us – and, one assumes, appall us – because they are men in the public eye. In the wake of Jimmy Savile, which I wrote about at the time, and Operation Yewtree, the truism is to say that each week discredits another previously loved celebrity from the 60s, 70s and 80s (which covers a lot of our childhoods). If any of these multiple, often historic accusations turn out to be true – and when Stuart Hall pleaded guilty to indecent assaulting 13 girls, aged between 9 and 17 years, between 1967 and 1986, he became the first to cross over from lurid speculation to actual admission of despicable deeds – then it will say dark things about society in the not-too-distant past.

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I’m not really here to talk about “the culture” that permitted a now unacceptable degree of “harmless” fun between powerful men and often much younger women, and children, nor about how boundaries have been more clearly drawn in the more enlightened decades since, as to do so often risks sounding as if you excuse the bottom-pinching that was the tip of a much more sinister iceberg. If an ex-Radio 1 DJ is accused, historically, of groping a female work colleague in the 70s, we should not excuse it just because it was time of Carry On films and Benny Hill, any more than rape should be excused because the victim was wearing a skirt. It’s very likely that the victim either didn’t come forward because she feared he or she would not be believed (that’s certainly the case with Savile’s victims), or that he or she did come forward and wasn’t believed.

This past week, Stuart Hazell, who was not a celebrity but achieved a level of ubiquity through his disgusting deeds, was imprisoned for a minimum of 38 years for the murder of his partner’s 12-year-old granddaughter. At the trial, some pretty disturbing insights into this 37-year-old man’s character emerged. With barely time to catch our collective breath about the prevalence of this kind of abuse and murder of children from within families, we saw seven members of a “sex grooming ring” in Oxford convicted at the Old Bailey of abusing six girls, who were targeted, drugged and suffered “sadistic abuse” while aged between 11 and 15. The details are too horrible. I won’t repeat them. Difficult debates are being had about the ethnic background and religion of the men, which largely matches that of the nine convicted last year after a Rochdale sex trafficking ring was exposed. However, there’s a much bigger coincidence, which links Stuart Hall to Stuart Hazell and every other sex offender in between: they’re all men.

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Suzanne Moore has been writing passionately and controversially about this subject in the Guardian from a long-range feminist perspective (today’s column was particularly furious). Her concern is not just the seeming ubiquity of male sexual assault, whether historic or current, it’s the failure as she sees it of men to do something about it. She has harsh words for the authorities, social services, the police, the media, for failing to act, but she asks, legitimately, why women seem to be more enraged about it than men. Does that make all men culpable?

This line unfortunately takes us down the hardline Andrea Dworkin route (the uber-feminist wrote, in a 1987 paper called Intercourse, “Physically, the woman in intercourse is a space inhabited, a literal territory occupied literally”), and is not helpful, especially when most men – surely! – are not potential rapists, respect and like women, and know that a child is a child.

I’m quick to say that society is to blame, but that’s not to let individuals off the hook. If you talk about “a crisis of masculinity” it suggests you wish a return to the good old days when men were breadwinners and “masters of the house”, and I have no love for those Victorian values. The pressure on men today is not to be “the man” but to be a more caring, open-minded, feminised member of a family or social group. You might say that men are not born this way; to be the leader is somehow in the DNA of the hunter-gatherer, the physically stronger sex, the Martian (if we really are from Mars). But society changes, for the better, usually, and to fail to adapt is to die.

I re-educated myself in the 80s, taking onboard new information, discarding orthodoxies handed down to me from less enlightened times, and adjusting my behaviour and my thinking accordingly. This was not unique for the time. (I also went to art school, a more effeminate choice than most, and was in a minority as a male at my halls of residence and at college, which can only have had a good effect on me. I also looked effeminate, by choice, and was called a “poof” often in my teens, which galvanised my instincts about sexual equality.) I really do worry about subsequent generations who have grown up with available 24-hour porn, and especially those young enough to have come of age in the post-Loaded era of Nuts and Zoo. Those boys are going to have to do a lot more adjustment than I did.

Anyway, there’s a link between casual, seemingly benign sexism among male friends and unspeakable acts. I am not a psychologist, but the need to wield power must lie at the heart of sexual assault. To abuse, to rape, to threaten, to kill, are all acts of power. Stuart Hazell wanted something that was forbidden under the laws of the land, but he could not stop himself from taking it. Once the switch flicks, men are capable of bad things. We all do and say things we regret, and relationships break down all the time, and we can find ourselves saying unkind things to people we love, but all of this takes place within boundaries. To raise a hand is to cross that boundary; to break the law is to cross another one.

I don’t think you should hit women, but I don’t think you should hit men, or children, either.

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Tabloid headlines never tell the whole story. They paint men as “evil”, and quote relatives of victims who wish to see them “hanged”. The headlines above from the April Jones and Tia Sharp cases are designed to lure us in on our basest instincts. The “goodies” and the “baddies” are clear cut in the blunt-instrument tabloid narrative, but the stories also offer voyeurism, and that’s where a lot of the bad stuff starts: looking at things you shouldn’t look at, or looking at things that you should look at, but looking at them in a funny way.

We do not yet know if Rolf Harris, or Michael Le Vell, or Max Clifford, assaulted anyone, although we do know that their careers are likely to be over, even if they are acquitted. We live in suspicious times. (Anyone else see Paul Shane’s name the other night and think, “Oh no, not another one”, before sighing with relief when you found at that, no, he had only died?) The historic cases and the contemporary ones tell a sad story about men. I am, at heart, a self-hating man, in that I have no great love for my gender. I am not perfect, but I do consider myself a feminist and have a pretty sensitive radar to everyday sexism.

I felt very uncomfortable about the fact that, for no real narrative reason, and in a 12A certificate film, Alice Eve stripped down to her underwear in Star Trek Into Darkness. This was a Nuts moment, pandering to the young male’s worst instinct, which is to ogle and objectify. It’s not a trivial matter. Stamp this sort of thing out and you get to the root of the problem: some men hate women and don’t even realise it.