Thursday, 24 November 2011

In which another F-word is inappropriate

Are you an awesome woman? Do you know any awesome women?

That was the question posed by Ashley Fryer (@ashleyfryer), who kept meeting great, funny, interesting women on Twitter and decided to do what few have attempted - transfer these friendships from the online realm and reproduce them IRL*. It's a notoriously tricky manoeuvre, like moving a cake from tin to cooling rack without it collapsing, but it was worth it. And so, Awesome Women of Twitter (#AWOT) was born.

It spread, too. The awesome women invited other awesome women, and the call of awesomeness echoed across the virtual plains like a hunting bugle. Except nice, and nothing to do with killing animals. Soon there was a potential pubful of witty women all waiting to meet up, so Ashley booked a central London venue that would house them, and lubricate their social cogs with gin.

But it was with a huge collective spluttering of tea over keyboards a day later that we discovered the bar had since decided to cancel the booking. Cancel it, because they decided it would be 'inappropriate' to have a 'feminist or women's lib group' in a bar where other people would be enjoying Christmas parties.

Let's break that down. 'Inappropriate', like a nipple before the watershed. 'Other people enjoying Christmas parties', as in the footloose merrymaking of those unhampered by tedious gender equality. God forbid a group of angry feminist Grinches should stomp in and steal Christmas!

It's understandable, of course. Our bra bonfire would have been a fire hazard for a start, and there was always the chance we'd get tiddly and decide to burn a sacrificial male. Germaine Greer might have turned up and instigated a menstrual blood tasting. We could have daubed feminist propaganda all over the walls, and insisted they play Sister Suffragettes from Mary Poppins on a loop all night or we'd bash them with our feminist mallets. It might have been MAYHEM.

The fact that we never claimed to be a 'feminist or women's lib group', just a loungeful of ladies who wanted to give them money in exchange for cocktails, was apparently irrelevant. Would they have had the same reaction if we'd been a hen party? Or a group called Awesome Wives of Twickenham? Or, to play the unavoidable card, men?

After the initial rage and venting passed (hell hath no fury like 75 lady-bloggers scorned), we were left simply sad, and baffled. It's depressing to realise that to many people, feminism is still a sort of niche hobby, like collecting Warhammer figurines.

To me, saying 'I'm a feminist' is as basic as saying 'I breathe oxygen' or 'I enjoy the work of Dolly Parton'. Of COURSE I do, and OF COURSE I am. How could I not be? But others, it seems, still mistranslate the F-word as 'I hate men' or 'I'm going to ruin your Christmas party.' It's ignorance, and it's frustrating.

But it's ok, because we'll change it - one awesome woman (and hopefully a few awesome men), at a time.

*That's In Real Life, for the uninitiated.

In which I get what I want, at least

I am not a reluctant crier. In fact I've often wondered if my tear ducts would be medically classed as overactive. I'll cry at songs; films; broken computers; dropped food; mouth ulcers; elderly couples holding hands in public; lonely-looking animals; memories of other times that I've cried. And adverts. Of course, adverts. Let's play guess-the-inevitable-direction-of-this-article, shall we?

Yes, when I first saw the John Lewis advert this week, I cried. I cried a little bit at my desk, then a little bit more when I described it to my boyfriend later in a Vietnamese restaurant, and then a whole lot more when I played it at home on my laptop, to see if it was as tear-jerking as I remembered.

It's fair to note, though, that the ad could have been a blank screen bearing the words 'BUY OUR STUFF' and I probably still would have cried, because I would be remembering their last ad. You know, the chin-wobbler with the woman in the red dress and Billy Joel's She's Always a Woman playing over the top. Never knowingly out-blubbed, John Lewis has established itself as the Bambi's Dead Mum of the high street.

There is room for cynicism, of course. Saturday's Guardian included a column moaning that The Smiths' Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want, a song about the pain of unrequited love, should never be used to flog us stuff.

It's surprising, granted, that a band who stood for everything anti-consumerism and anti-establishment that Thatcher's 80s Britain inspired, would give the most middle class of department stores permission to hijack their music. But what writer can guarantee all people will react to their songs in the way they intended anyway? Plus, y'know, it's LOVELY.

While there are shops with stuff to flog, they will inevitably try to flog us stuff - if we can at least convince kids that the joy of giving someone a shoddily-wrapped present we've saved up our pocket money to buy outweighs the pleasure of unwrapping four XBoxes, while introducing them to some decent music at the same time, then that's no bad thing.

The cover version itself is a cause for gripe too, coming as it does from the Janet Devlin school of Pick a Good Song and Sing It Slowly in the Voice of a Wood-Nymph. I don't know if you've noticed, but this love of the twee-lady-cover has become the default approach for advertising agencies during the past year. I blame Ellie Goulding.

But the things is, I'm not enough of a Smiths fan to really care. I think it should be admired, frankly, as a piece of ruddy good advertising. When Twinings gave The Calling's Wherever You Will Go the twee-lady treatment, maybe there were hoards of Calling fans on a forum somewhere, furious that a song about beautiful geographic love should be used to flog us tea. But did the rest of us spare them a thought? Did we?

In a Christmas season where the other retailers are dishing up X-Factor finalists, Jamie Oliver and the Boots office girls (you know! The office ladies who get dolled up in the loos!), I think the John Lewis ad is a breath of real, albeit marzipan-scented, emotion. Although that present looks suspiciously like a big tin of Celebrations to me - if I were the John Lewis parents, I wouldn't get too excited.

Sunday, 6 November 2011

In which we didn't start the fire

As a Sussex girl, I know it's shameful that I'd never been to Lewes Bonfire Night before this week.

Our region doesn't hold that many distinctions - there are the Downs, and that pudding with the whole lemon baked inside it, but generally we don't dish up eccentric traditions in that quantities that, say, Gloucestershire or Yorkshire do. We'll be waiting a long time for The Only Way is Sussex to hit UK screens.

Obviously Brighton's the coolest kid at the party by a mile, strutting around in a multicoloured poncho made from hemp, but otherwise we're a gentle region, not given to attention-seeking whimsy. Just be sure to file us under 'not Surrey', and we're happy.

So it's all the more pressing that I experience one of our few proper, newsworthy events with my own eyes - and ears, as it turns out. Because (and you'll know this, of course, Sussex stalwarts that you are, and be shouting 'should have got some earplugs you townie fool'), Bonfire Night in Lewes is LOUD.

I'm not completely unprepared - I know to expect big crowds, fire, colourfully-dressed locals and the threat of minor to moderate underage drinking-fuelled violence. The website warns that we shouldn't take small children, asthmatics or valuables, and that my attendance constitutes 'violent non fit injuria' (Latin for 'strap a pair on, it's only a bit of blood'). But there is still a part of me that thinks, it's lovely fireworks! How bad can it be?

On the train from Victoria to Lewes we meet a girl who thinks otherwise. "You're planning on getting back to London TONIGHT?" she barks. "It's not going to happen." Then with the knowing, mocking, eminently punchable manner of a proud local, she describes scenes of thousands of people queuing for days around the entire town, performing a Lion King-style hyena stampede towards the station and trading first-borns for a three inch square of standing room on the 22.40 via Haywards Heath. "What they hey, we'll just sleep on a bench!" we shrug, knowing there is no way we will ever sleep on a bench.

In the end, it is fun. We practice for the evening by queuing in Bill's for lunch ("see, this is fine! We like queuing!"), then tap my former local friend Liz for insider advice on the bonfires ("Don't pay for anything"), and secure our spot on the high street for the parade ("Are they… um, allowed to hold fire that close to a baby's face?"). We sing Sussex By the Sea heartily, despite only knowing the four words of the title, and flinch like woodland creatures every time an exploding banger is lobbed our way. Then our political correctness-ometer is given a workout by a round of blacked-up Zulu costumes. It's fine, apparently. It's tradition.

Then to round the evening off nicely we DO get back to London, without having to sell any internal organs or bribe a policeman. We manage this by leaving early, and not making a fuss. The Sussex way.

In which I turn on, tune in and all that

I was thinking about it the other day, and, on balance, I think "I don't really watch TV" is one of the worst things a new acquaintance could ever say to me.* "I voted for Boris," "dinosaurs didn't exist" or "I really love the recording catalogue of noughties indie outfit Keane, don't you?" would all throw a great big spanner into the works of our burgeoning friendship, but I daresay they could be worked through and forgiven in time. A non-TV watcher, however, may as well just stroll on by. We're not compatible. Does not compute.

It's not the lack of interest that bothers me per se - telly is, I'll grant you, at any given time at least 85 per cent cack - but the sweeping dismissiveness. "I don't really watch TV," they say. That's ALL of TV. The whole of it. Not "I don't watch BBC Three," or "I don't watch anything starring Martin Clunes," but the entire blooming, multi-billion pound, been-evolving-since-1925 genre.

For TV is, whether you like it or not, one of the most wide-reaching and accessible art forms we have today. And would Team Smug dismiss another medium in the same way? "I don't really read books"; "I don't really watch films"; "I don't really look at pictures or vases or decorative cushions."  Would they stand on John Logie Baird's grave and say "nah mate, not for me"? Let's ponder that.

And before you say it, watching stuff on DVD boxsets or 4oD DOES count. You're being a discerning viewer, yes, but you're still watching the stuff.

As with many divides in human life, though, I've got to admit this is partly down to lack of understanding. I just find it hard to fathom what a TV-less person would do with their time. What do they do on a Sunday night, or when they've got flu, or while they're waiting for their pasta to cook? Also, as Joey Tribbiani so brilliantly put it, what's all their furniture pointed at?

The smuggery is usually accompanied with a dollop of condescension, and the suggestion that while you're slack-jawed, watching Don't Tell The Bride repeats with one hand in a bag of cheese Doritos, they're reading Baudelaire and serving soup to the homeless. But are they? I ask you, are they? Or are they, in fact, down the pub, with slightly less to discuss than normal people because none of them saw The Apprentice last night?

Then we come to the obvious, overriding argument: TV is brilliant. Not all of the time, but sometimes. Often, even. Take Frozen Planet, the David Attenborough spectacular that had us all gasping over glaciers and sobbing about dead baby seals last week.  It was the most beautiful hour of programming I've seen in a long time, even including Russell Grant's Foxtrot. And Team Smug would have missed it.

*Actually the very worst would be "I don't own a TV", but I'd have realised this out on first seeing the mix of smugness and wanton despair in their eyes, and been prepared.