Thursday, March 25, 2010

Online Perusal

Since my ruthless spring-clean-out of blogs I am pleased to say that I am squandering far less time online perusing the self-congratulatory bum-licking that persists in academic blogs of a Certain Persuasion. Also less time on blogs that just serve up dull lists of who's reviewed what. And much less time reading the mad ravings of bitter nobodies with teeny-tiny-teensie points to make that, frankly, no-one gives a fish's tit about. Ah! That's better! I can't say I've missed any of the ones that I've deleted.
But I do miss having something to read over my mid-morning coffee, and although I have had a look at a couple of news sites, I'd really like to find a blog that has something new to say of interest on a regular basis. A lot of bloggers seem to start off with good intentions and then, I guess, the novelty wears off or the pressure of work diverts them. Or maybe they run out of things to say. A couple I discovered haven't had any posts for months and are going to go in the second-wave of blog-culls soon.

The Times Literary Supplement is always good browsing, and the articles are sufficiently long to take up an entire coffee break. Having said that I don't think I'll be stumping up cash if The Times presses ahead with plan to charge for reading their online editions. The TLS writing's usually pretty high-quality too, which one might expect from people who....well, write for a living. The down-side of this is that most reviews end with book details, which makes me jump immediately onto Amazon, and then of course I have to look at my recommendations, and before long I've made an inadvisable purchase. If I'm honest, books are coming in faster than I can read them, a problem addressed in one of my other blogs ( in truth - just a dull list of books)
but if I'm honest, even that doesn't reveal the full horror of my morbid bibliophilia. I'm lucky in that my doctoral bursary covers the book bills, but some of the stuff I can't really justify. Actually, having said that I bought Neil Gaiman's American Gods on the strength of just having read up on the bicameral mind theory. Good justification, eh?

Still, all good things come to an end, as will my funding eventually and I'll be left, scratching and babbling vacantly, sitting on a midden of books. Even the husband, tolerant to the nth degree, looked around in a rather irritated fashion the other day and noted the colossal number of books scattered about. And this after he'd built two full-height, full-wall bookshelves to accommodate my stuff a couple of years ago. A lot of the volumes could go, the Classics text books in particular(but NOT my Loeb Classical Texts!), but I am loath to sell them at the risible prices they would command. I suppose I could donate them to my old university library, but it looks like the Classics department there is going to be run-down in the 'Ratnerisation' of the Russell Group and in favour of something less elitist like nail therapy or welding theory. So I'm going to hang onto them, even if it means boxing them up for storage in the attic. Maybe I could become an Amazon subsidiary seller.....but that means I'd be on Amazon even more, so any money I made would be ploughed back immediately into the Behemoth That Sunk Borders and is currently hammering nails into the coffin of many independent book shops. *shakes fist* Damn you, Amazon! Why do you always have to have the stock in at such reasonable prices!!! Just add the thrill of a package plopping through the letter-box and you've got me, quivering, in your thrall.....

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Another Bite of the Poisoned Apple

There seems to be - coincidental to my last post, which was largely based on an article in last Saturday's Guardian newspaper - a whole rash of items on 'feminism'.
The series Women, aired on BBC4 during the week, rounded up all the old-school (70's) womens' libbers and grilled them about what the feminist movement had ultimately achieved. I think that to a man (so to speak) that they were underwhelmed, to say the least. It was a bit of a shock to see them looking rather elderly, particularly as they are only slightly older than myself (Germaine Greer was sporting a shawl arrangement similar to the one that I myself don if a little chilly) and I remember their firmer - and, I have to say, somewhat more optimistic - features smiling out from the books that I once devoured so eagerly.

In the same vein, a riffle through the online TLS also revealed a review of a book by Natasha Walker entitled Living Dolls which explores the emerging New Sexism that purveys pink fluffiness to young girls and encourages them to base their sense of self-worth on their looks and, rather more sinisterly, makes sexual allure a necessary component. This Lolita complex is the 'poisoned apple' that is being handed to young girls today as an acceptable image of self.

Walker quite correctly identifies the virulent poison of advertising that promotes a feeling of permanent dissatisfaction, a dissatisfaction that, of course, can only be corrected by the purchase of the advertiser's product. This sense of looks-based anxiety and lowered self-esteem impacts not only on their mental well-being but also their intellectual life. A girl who is constantly checking out her looks and her notional rivals in the 'hotness' stakes is doomed to do poorly, not least because she is not giving her studies full attention! Added to this is the annoying tendency manifest amongst many teenage students to regard enthusiasm for learning as 'uncool' (this drives a couple of my colleagues to distraction: bright and promising girls shooting themselves academically in the foot for want of application) and you have a recipe for a generation of female under-achievers.

I think that this is now apparent enough that there are vestigial stirrings of discomfort amongst women who formerly considered that a fondness for glittery nail-varnish and killer heels would not have a negative impact on how they were perceived. Definitely time for a rethink.

Whilst girls are given the message that looks trump brains, or that looks (largely a matter of luck) equal achievement we are doing them no favours whatsoever.
It's not the message that I give my daughters, either explicitly by encouraging clothes-shopping or crass magazines, or implicitly by fretting over my appearance or wardrobe.

I hope I encourage them (and the Bright-Eyed Boy too, of course) to develop as people, citizens of the world, and to critically engage with those around them, judging each on their merits - not the way they look.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

The Poisoned Apple

I've never really been one for '-isms', considering them mostly to be strait jackets to broader thinking, but one that I might have considered subscribing to in its heyday is feminism. The raw, angry politicised approach that blossomed in the 70s achieved much in terms of equality of pay and rights and it seemed for a while that things were set fair for steadily continuous improvement over the coming decades. True, there were spectacularly silly aberrations, the refusal to use the words 'women' because it contained the word 'men', or 'history' for a similarly ridiculous reason, the deliberately strident, irritable and unappealing tendency to see any man as 'the enemy' because they happened to be male, a prickly hostility and lack of humour that betrayed lack of confidence.......just silliness, really, that undermined a lot of good work and was seized upon gleefully by anti-feminists. Still, it all seemed to even out in the end, the millennium turned and things were pretty looking good.
Then something happened. Women wobbled and took their eye of the feminism 'ball', and many seemed to metamorphose or become re-absorbed by the cult of femininity. I believe that the tide turned with an overconfidence in the power of irony.
The domestic goddess emerged: women who had the nous and intelligence to know better, re-invented themselves as 'ironic' retro-bakers, apparently happy to surrender themselves to floral-aproned afternoons, coated in butter icing and producing 'wicked' chocolate fudge cakes and madeleines for the gasping, swooning delectation of their audience. With a knowing wink, of course.

The pneumatic slut appeared: clad in insufficient cloth to keep a hamster decent, waxed, tanned, hair straightened and extended, they teeter in 'killer heels' from wine bar to wine bar getting more and more incoherently vociferous, groping and propositiong men in a horrendously insulting (and frankly, dangerous) copy of what they imagine to be 'laddish' behaviour, swearing and vomiting, because...well, 'we're up for a laugh aren't we, and why not?' With a knowing wink.

The gym bunny appeared: not a million miles from the pneumatic slut, equally waxed and tanned, but also toned and trim and teetotal, worshipping their bodies as temples, eyeing up the calories, carbs and salt, religiously devoted to three days of cardio, three days of weights and stretching. They can be seen in health-club changing rooms all over England, unsmilingly moisturising their taut exfoliated limbs. No knowing wink there though, it's a very serious business (and actually, not much irony either).

No doubt if questioned all would nod vigorously at the notion that they are indeed - oh yes! - liberated ladies: the fascinated obsession with their looks and the renewed fetishisation of the attributes of femininity is because they love to make 'indulgent treats', they enjoy casual sex 'as much as men do' (honest!), they want to 'take care' of themselves. The hyper-feminine behaviour that has emerged over the past decade is viewed from within certain female ranks as both ironic and self-originating. It's funny because, well, we're not really like that are we? Are we?
But strip away the unsustainable and invisible (because it isn't obvious to the observer) veneer of 'irony' and you are left with good old, fifties-style female caricatures. Cooking mummy; harlot woman; the ice goddess. Ooo-er missus! Look at her lovely buns!

Just consider for a moment the familiar images lined up on womens' magazine shelves for the appraisal of the impressionable; Nigella Lawson, Katie Price, Victoria Beckham to name a few. The clothing styles in a lot of shops; Kath Kidston, shoes that would make Chinese foot-binding an easy option, Playboy clothing for the pre-pubescent. The women that succumb to the images flashed at them by marketers have compounded and willingly tied themselves to the crass stereotyping that used to hold sway before feminism got its act together, women reduced to an existence as comforter, facilitator, sex-accessory and ornament.
For God's sake, what messages are being passed on to young girls on the brink of womanhood today?
That today it's cool to be a mahoganied, depillated, vamped-up cooker of buns, a mindless zombie subjugated to the kitchen, boudoir and the treadmill? Women, no longer using their energy to think and act, but to prink prettily, mesmerised by shiny things and subborned by time-consuming vanity; domestic bower-birds laying out their wares for consumption; silly geese, entranced and paralysed by their own self-imagined reflection in the mirror. Vacuity. This is what they should aspire to?
Ominously, this indeed seems to be presented as a viable proposition. By who? Other women? [Come on girls, we all love shoes and chardonnay and lippy don't we? Wink, wink.]
Or by men, oblivious to the ironic overlay, saying 'See? This is what women are really like after all......What we thought they were in the first place'.

How can girls behave in an intelligently female way when all they see around them are parodies of womanhood, as rooted in reality as the pantomime dame? Where are the good role models, women who have rejected stereotyping - the thinkers, the reformers, the activists, the fighters, the writers, the academics, the politicians, the astute, the editors, the pioneering, the brave? Their presence must be made more apparent!
It's difficult to bring up girls as people when all they see around them are hyper-feminised, hyper-sexualised golem, brought to life and sustained by the fickle breath of celebrity.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Restless in the Sunshine

I am feeling particularly restless today which can, for the most part, be put down to the weather. The sun is shining in a clear, pale blue sky and there is not a trace of the horrendous snow/rain/fog that has dogged us since before Christmas. It's picking out the smeary Dog nose-prints on the windows (where she stands on the back of the old sofa with her nose pressed to the glass awaiting our return) but I've also noticed that there are bulbs poking through the soil and every thing feels.....full of potential.
I've also reached a natural break in my chapter and don't feel (today at least) like striking out in a new mental direction, so I am going to wait until the post is delivered - I'm expecting a copy of The Travels of John Mandeville from the Book Depository - and then take a trip into town to find a suitable coffee shop to sit and read it.

I am a great fan of coffee shops, and enjoy the sense of pseudo-community that they engender. This has been late coming to British shores and really has only arisen since the appearance of Starbucks, Nero and Costa on the high street. When I was doing my OU studies, I used to go to the Cafe Nero in the centre of town when smoking was still allowed upstairs. the ambiance was slightly bohemian and it was not unusual to see people jotting in notebooks or working on papers. When smoking became a no-no, there was not much to keep me going there - it was a bit grotty really, so I decamped to the Starbucks situated upstairs in the large (now defunct) Borders store, and that became my regular haunt. This was slightly more upmarket: men in suits held informal meetings there and smart ladies with laptops availed themselves of the free wi-fi. I got to know the staff reasonably well and quite often preferred to work there, amidst people, rather than at home alone. When I travelled to Leeds University on the train, my penchant for arriving early meant that I could call in at the Nero en route, and one of my most enduring memories of this time is the day when I'd gone extra-extra-early (it was exam time and I was paranoid about being late) and watched the morning sun gradually turn the building opposite white-gold as I sat entranced, latte and croissant to hand, my revision notes laid out in front of me.

Since the demise of Borders and its Starbucks, a new Nero has opened and has recently become the place where, if I feel the need of caffeine, I end up. I can never understand women who won't go for a cup of coffee on their own. I was surprised by a survey done recently (by Woman's Hour, I think) that revealed just how many women feel uncomfortable on their own in public, which seems to me a shocking indictment of their autonomy. Why would you NOT go for a cup of coffee if you wanted one? Why would being on your own make you feel awkward? Are you so self-obsessed that you imagine that you are constantly being scrutinised, or judged as lonely or on the pull? Oh, get over it! I actively enjoy having the time to myself, to sit down, read, people-watch,'s one of life's pleasures. And one I think that I am going to indulge in later, I think.