Tuesday, 29 June 2010

Know thy Enemy

It's interesting to me that however many books and articles are written about men, how many Cosmo quizzes and pieces entitled What Men Want, What Men REALLY Want, and What Men Want You to Think They Want are churned out, there is still always a market for this 'insider information'. The generalisation of 'men' is nearly skipped over; they, as opposed to us, want certain things. They are animals, cavemen, an alien race. They need to be manipulated, seduced, decieved in order for us, the often-wronged party, to get what we ultimately want. I know there is still a readership for this frenzied speculation, because when a workmate sent me this link today, I clicked eagerly and scoured it for some useful new data on Why Men Do What They Do and How to Beat Them at It. What's funny is that this gender war is only really evident in print; I don't know that many women actually engaging in such media-advocated mind games. We're supposed to hold back and say certain things, not get in touch too much and under NO CIRCUMSTANCES mention weddings, babies or meeting parents - but most women I know just follow their instincts (or hormones) and turn into romantic fools, after which sometimes it works out and sometimes it doesn't. Foolishness aside, my problem is I do still have faith in men, however much evidence life and Cosmo continue to throw at me. I still implicitly hope, if not believe, that when someone is being inconsistent, hurtful or confusing, that they themselves are just confused/busy/immature/having a hard time and will turn out to be perfectly-formed boyfriend material eventually.

Of course, being friends with boys throws a spanner in the works. If you've ever lived with men or just spent enough time at the pub with them, you'll have been privy to the sort of bluntly expressed mantalk which makes you despair for your lovelife. Coming from a family of four women and one fairly reserved man, I had been cocooned in a world where dates and relationships were only talked of in terms of hope and romance. 'It sounds like he really likes you,' we would coo, showing each other sonnet-like text messages and giving dreamy accounts of magical first dates. Even the bad boys were talked of with gentle fondness. Talk new relationships with your close, platonic male friends and you're speaking an entirely different dating language. 'She's alright,' they'll grunt. 'It's not a big deal but she's quite fun and her dad's got season tickets.' We're really just sleeping together', they'll say of the girl you saw glowing with excitement as she cooked him lasagne hours earlier. It's agony, because even if your friend is just a player or a bad egg, the current object of your affection could be saying the very same thing to their girl friend at that moment. And you know they're not a horrible person through and through, they wouldn't be your friend otherwise. It's the male capacity for early dismissal of a new love interest and their ability to keep up a romance while publicly declaring their indifference elsewhere. 'I know I'm not going to marry her, but it's ok for now' is another painfully common statement. But does she know that you're potentially wasting her time and emotional energy while you scout around casually for something more spectacular? I'm not saying women are never as badly behaved, but in my experience if they find themselves having lead someone on or having to let someone down, they do feel bad about it and try and get out as quickly and neatly as possible.

I think I've had enough varied man experience (and eavesdropping) to have a fairly rounded opinion of how they function. In their defence, it's usually the case that only someone very special is enough to lift them out of their wayward commitment-phobe habits. But I do agree that they need to let the non-specials know much earlier if they aren't invested. Much of the above Times article is utter bullshit:

What he says and what he means

Says: “Great to meet you.”
Means: “I didn’t love meeting you and probably won’t be calling.”

Well, this is just a little too easy. For British guys, in all probability this is just a polite reflex their mothers drummed into them as a child, plus if you were a friend of a friend or met online, maybe it really was great to meet you. I'm not going to go around slapping every dude who tells me I was nice to meet, anyway. Writer of this article and author of What The Hell is He Thinking?, Zoe Strimpel claims she spent 'almost a year' talking to a variety of men about their feelings and actions towards women in order to give us such titbits as these (cooking you dinner or watching a dvd early on are 'a studied, and not unenjoyable way of getting you to sleep with them.') But some of her findings, such as men going all out in the beginning in a desperate pursuit of love and attention, then cooling off as they process the long-term potential, join a lot of dots in the man-puzzle for me. In a collision of interpretation, women are taught by the fundamental sources of Disney and romantic novels that an immediate rush of gestures and words is a sure precursor to the L word. In turn, lots of (particularly young) men think they should go in all guns blazing but don't get around to doing the compatability mathematics in their head until much later. I think Strimpel is on to something here, not necessarily groundbreaking stuff, but a decent explanation for the 'mixed signals' dating epidemic currently sweeping my social circle. Strimpel does come across a little bitter in this piece, it's all bad intentions and worse communication, focusing entirely on male cowardice and insensitivity. There are a lot of lovely men out there (there are, there are, there are) who aren't just waiting for the next chance to make you feel stupid and irrationally attached. But my God, do they have their moments.

Monday, 28 June 2010

E is for Elegance

When I'm wandering around London or at a glamorous party, my eyes are never drawn to the suited and booted gents around me, but always to the female of the species. This is not me coming out to the blogosphere; for kissing, dating and arguing with, I like boys. That's just me. But for sheer aesthetic satisfaction, it has to be women who win every time. It's probably because of the range of fashion options and physiques, whereas boys just have short or not-so-short hair and dark or not-so-dark jeans to work with. I've been enamoured by a number of women who have passed my way lately due to an elusive elegance that wafts along with them. It could be a symptom of my working in a far more corporate environment than I'm used to, but mainly it's because I have become less than elegant, and I aspire to be a lot more so. I hesitate to use the term 'let myself go', but I've certainly become a bit relaxed and blase to the way I eat, (skip) exercise and dress day-to-day. Not necessarily a crash in self-esteem, but a lack of anything to make me up my sartorial game. I am not naturally elegant, but I seem to have stopped trying to be, and this is what peturbs me.

A number of factors foil my attempts to join the E-list, and these are as follows: I am incurably clumsy (known as 'the spiller' amongst friends), prefer keeping my heels under my desk than braving the commute in a sleekpair of 4-inchers, I do not drive, therefore acquiring a flustered rosy glow on the trek to various chic destinations, I do not have a limitless bank balance (I know money shouldn't matter but with style it definitely helps) and alas, I am not of the pale, slender, high cheekboned, ravenous Eastern-European persuasion which bombards our perception of beauty. Actually the latter does not quite fit my own idea of elegance; it can be anything from exceptionally radiant skin to beautifully coiffed hair, stopping by cinched waists and gloriously classic handbags on the way. Beautifully pedicured feet in sandals, light golden or porcelain skin, a glimse of slender wrist in a simple bracelet or a little Smythson leather diary are all part of a very London-specific elegance.

I keep seeing effortlessly shift-dressed ladies, their (usually glossy brunette) hair piled up in a chignon - seriously, who in real life can put together a chignon at 7am? - sleek waxed legs lengthened by simple black or nude pumps, a tres-chic hint of perfume completing their aura. It's true, many of these women will also have the misfortune of being a UBH (Unfriendly Brunette Hottie), casting doubtful glances at frizzy-haired, flat-shoed bag ladies like myself as they grab a soy latte. But often they are smiley, chatting ladies with a spring in their step who are just that lucky. It may take a few more hours at the gym, some high-maintenance grooming and months of saving for a better handbag, but I am determined to take a few more steps towards this kind of urban elegance. I was definitely more gazelle-like a couple of years ago (when I was also brunette, incidentally, although hopefully a friendly species) and I'm sure it can't take too much willpower to head back that way.

Thandie is Chanel-clad, Moet-sipping, chignon-rocking elegance personified

Friday, 25 June 2010


I've officially been online dating for a whole week now. Well, I haven't really in the sense that I haven't been on a date yet (the ettiquette appears to be a lot of back and forth messaging and covert sizing up of people first), but I'm out there and it's a work in progress. Maybe three or four interests so far, all with fairly interesting degrees and quirky profiles. I've mainly gone for mid-twenties, good looking (but not scarily adonis-like) cuties with a hint of geekiness and wit to their profile. Only one has already asked me out for a drink outright, but I'm happy with a bit of web chat for a while. I suddenly feel a bit self-conscious about the whole blind (well, I've seen a picture - visually impaired?) date thing. What if I'm not very interesting? What if they're nothing like they say? What if it's a total clash of peace-loving, unwashed barefoot hippie and high-maintenance me looking for a nice cocktail and a great view? I know I'll be employing my failsafe 911 tactic of having a friend on call to text if I need them to call me with 'bad news' so I have to dash out of there. In some ways you've got nothing to lose by going on such a date because you haven't had a chance to get excited about them as a person, but I also haven't had one in about a year and a half, so I feel rusty and useless.

Out of the 32 messages I've received from guys on the site, only four were from people I'd added as favourites, and the range of email subjects ranged from the standard 'Hi' to the more bizarre 'sup, fellow aspiring writer' and 'fancy taking the kitkat challenge?' I didn't stop to find out what the challenge was but I'm pretty sure it was a bit unsavoury. Lots of people have got the big comedy thumbs down (sorry overly sensitive readers,* but I'm not on there to be nice to weird strangers.) I haven't recieved any thumbs down but I have had a couple of my messages go unanswered (worse, I think). So it's not like I've whooshed in there and stolen lots of hearts, but it's ticking along quite well; it's heartening to log in now and again and see messages waiting. I'm still surprised by how great some of the men on there seem, very funny and successful - I think a lot of people are just there looking for a bit of a flirt in a city where much of your out of work time is spent wedged in a train with someone's armpit in your face, or being heckled by tramps. It's not the most romantic way I've been wooed, and it's fairly businesslike keeping on top of your mails and who's added you as a favourite, but there's something to be said for organised fun. Less painful uncertainty and less at stake, in some ways. I'd be interested to hear anyone's experiences of internet dating, all romances and horror stories welcome...

Ones to keep at bargepole distance:

Anyone! Who uses too much! Punctuation!!! Just sounds desperate/amphetamine-laced.

Or an overload of smiley faces. :) ;) :P Be a man.

The seriously, no-way-on-this-earth-are-you-a-day-under-forty thirty year old who just messaged me saying I had great pictures, but 'hope you don't run screaming from mine!' Sign me up.

Someone who wrote a boring three-liner about not knowing what to say in these messages, trying out the weather and plans for the weekend, before concluding that both approaches were rubbish. Yup.

Anything with too much self conscious LOLing at their own sentences. Nothing that funny - this is a weird pick-up scenario, so just try to sound as normal as possible. Shouldn't be too hard. Haha. Lol. Rofl.

*For the record, I am aware that I'm not perfection personified myself, but I don't think I should be agreeing to a date with people who come across as awkward, basement-dwelling or psychopathic just because it's nice to be nice. A couple of people have pulled me up on this, but I don't settle for average in my normal dating life, so I haven't lowered my standards for this approach. Plus so many males (the gender most critical of my attitude in this respect) treat women they're dating far worse when they do know them. I see it as being smart and assertive to be straight about what I'm looking for. I'm not just hunting for a perfect Action Man type, I'm scanning for a glimmer of humour and intellect, so it's not entirely superficial. If you've got a nice face and don't LOL your way through life, you've got a shot. Over and out.

Soul Food

I finally caught up on last week's Jonathan Ross last night; amazing Glee cast interview, especially Amber Riley's acapella singing, but Alan Carr kicked Wossy's ass with his Chatty Man one by breaking into I've Had The Time of My Life with Matthew Morrison. Among other guests, JR also had Al Green - the Reverend Al Green, I should say. The soul sensation who brought us Let's Stay Together came across as totally bonkers, truly talented and above all, really, really happy. Like, prozac happy. Living a rock'n'roll lifestyle in his 70s heyday, Green 'found God' after his girlfriend committed suicide in 1974, subsequently becoming a pastor in 1976. After being injured while performing in 1979, he took it as a sign from God and stopped making his patented seduction music for many years, sticking instead to gospel. In the late 80s he saw sense (in his own words, he realised that without the 'good times' none of us would be here) and returned to performing his soul catalogue, even releasing an album in 2008 featuring duets with Corinne Bailey Rae and John Legend.

As you know, I am an atheist and feel a little uncomfortable with the oversharing, preachy aspect of evangelist Christianity. Green's crediting of everything to God and the navigation of his life and career according to whatever he suspects this elusive being wants for him still grated a little, but it got me thinking. The music industry is a surreal place - so many legends are taken down by the sudden wealth, travel, access to drink and drugs, and a general elevation from the real world to the cloud nine of fame. Green's wide smile, still-soulful voice and his connection of his faith to spreading love, joy and great music was actually quite inspiring. He suggested that he would not be here without his faith, with a nod to late greats like Barry White and Marvin Gaye, but refused to say outright that he thought they should have chosen religion. On the year anniversary of Michael Jackson's death - perhaps the ultimate case of wealth and worship transporting an artist to their own disconnected realm of behaviour and habit - Al's fervour made me think, 'Good for him.' He found something that he felt to be real and worthwhile, and eventually found a way to reconcile his talent with doing good. As a pastor he baptises children, sings, preaches and entertains, in a way, but is happier in his church than on the path he had started down in the early 70s.

I've never particularly felt before that celebs 'finding God' or 'being saved' was anything other than annoying (not to mention cliched) but Reverend Al changed my mind a bit yesterday. If lost souls like Michael Jackson, Elvis and Janis Joplin had found something they felt to be a purpose, other than living up to their own iconic reputations, they might have stuck around a little longer. I browsed the web a bit to look into music legends that died young, and a couple of commenters & message boards have hinted that people are glad that we aren't watching Kurt Cobain or Jimi Hendrix get a beer gut, go bald and swap heroin for Earl Grey. I think that's the problem; fans feel like they own a person if they're high profile enough, and if their image belongs to the public, what do they have left? Michael Jackson obviously wanted a family even though he couldn't seem to form or sustain a normal relationship to do so, but his money meant he could strike a deal and essentially have someone breed for him. That's the kind of too much money, not enough reality I'm talking about here. Jacko was definitely into spreading the love and promoting kindness, but he was also caught up in his own image, the headiness of his millions and the extravagance of his lifestyle.

I suppose religion gives someone like this a sort of monastic perspective which means their hype and their bank balance don't matter, or if they do, not as much as God and the church and spreading the word. Looking at Al Green, smiley, relaxed, loving his music, enjoying his age, I felt a new positivity towards the abstract concept of God; it causes so much conflict all over the world but it also gives a lot of hope on a very small, personal scale. Maybe this omnipresent prozac is merely a placebo effect, but I think Al Green (about to embark on a UK tour with a healthy mind and still-sultry voice) is living proof that for some souls, it's worth being saved.

Monday, 21 June 2010

D is for Dating

We don't really date, as a nation, and I think that's a shame. There is a bit of a suburban culture of one-at-a-time, orderly queue relationships, where it's considered somewhat exotic and experimental if you have a drink with more than one of the opposite sex in the same month. If us Brits did as the Yanks do and shop around a bit for a significant other (with no confusion about the casual nature of a single date) I think we would have better relationships and less painful break-ups. Due to the city pressures of careers, commuting and the sheer volume of human traffic, London in particular has started to embrace singles events, speed dating and the like in last couple of years. In the spirit of this new urban date market, I have decided to cast aside my closing-in-on-5 months of wallowing singledom and join a dating website.

Online dating? I hear you gasp. Surely this is for painfully awkward folk, those almost clinically inept at attracting a mate, or merely specimens with unnervingly lopsided faces? Well yes it is, in some ways - of which more later. But I've jumped on the bandwagon anyway. I felt my attitude towards online dating change gradually this year as I kept finding myself chatting to very normal, attractive, charming people who had given it a whirl and reported back with mixed, but often positive, experiences. A particularly attractive male acquaintance confided that he had tried most of the big sites, and admitted it was awkward at first but on the whole, great fun. A good female friend (who is a dating dream: bright, successful, pretty & interesting) was giving it a go and feeling boosted by the assertive nature of the process, and even one of the most straight-talking, no-nonsense girls I know was nosing into cyberspace in search of a hottie. Maybe it's the facebook revolution or perhaps people are just bored with pretending that we meet fantastic potential life partners every day, but it's no longer weird to approach your lovelife as you would an ASOS spree. So as a single, slightly bored blogger, I felt I needed a slice of the action too.

I plumped for MySingleFriend.com, highly recommended as the least intimidating and most relaxed UK dating site. Instead of trying to match you intensely based on life values and pet preferences, MSF aims to be more like a large online pub - you scout around for faces you think look nice, get the insider info on them from their friend, and 'favouritise' them much like a facebook poke. The idea to have a friend write your description is a stroke of genius - there are no cheesy 'I like walks on the beach, sunsets and a nice glass of Merlot' spiels, as well as it hugely taking the pressure off creating your profile. As a result of the recommend-a-friend system, there are no GSOHs or 'free-spirits', just a lot of quirky descriptions and jokey speculation as to why their single pal hasn't met the right person yet. On my first man search (a heady experience, shopping online for cute boys) I was surprised by the amount of passionately bromance-y descriptions by male friends, even more so by the amount of older sisters giving their hapless little bro a nudge onto the market, but most of all by how many friendly faces and witty profiles I actually came across.

Now, don't get me wrong, MSF is no Cosmo centrefold; there are plenty of nice guy/hopelessly lopsided face scenarios, and even a few tanned and waxed Adonises who appear to have clicked 'seeking a female' by mistake. But now and again you come across an interesting description, a lighthearted picture and a hook of some sort, be it an Anchorman quote, a PhD or a winning closing sentence. Considering I don't tend to go for muscley dreamboats so much as funny geeks, I was quite relieved to see the focus was firmly on personality. If nothing else comes of this experiment, it has proved a huge ego boost with minimal effort from me. I asked a friend to back up that I was not a psycho or a misanthrope, came clean about my musical theatre habit and lust for Greek food, stuck a couple of pictures up and went about my own business. On returning to my inbox 24 hours later, I had 30+ notifications that people had added me to their favourites, and even a few messages were coming in (some concise and witty, others stilted and cliche-ridden). So it's good to know I am not hideously malformed or tragically invisible. Granted, some of the aforementioned facial landslides were among those singling me out as a possible match, but as part of the well-organised wonder that is MSF, you can send a delightfully crisp and cruel 'Thanks, but no thanks' message to any real Quasimodos. It's actually a bit nicer than it sounds, more 'I don't think we're a good match but good luck with your search and all that', but it does mark the rejected party's messages with a cartoon thumbs down sign, clearly separating the tasty wheat from the dating chaff.

So what have I learned in part one of the saga? A good male friend took the time to say that I'm quite a nice person (I blushed a little), 60 random males took the time to click on my profile and liked what they saw enough to add me as a favourite (woo-ha) and I learned just what my bizarre and fairly shallow manhunting criteria are, doing it as I was sober and from the comfort of my sofa. In short, nice face - tick, good smile - tick, too much sport - no thanks (they'll only be disappointed at my lack of ineffectual berating of little men on TV), too much travelling/skydiving/shark-wrestling - next, any mention of food loving - on the right track, bad spelling - chaff, chaff, chaff, and any admission of guilty pleasure films or TV are also surprisingly attractive amongst hundreds desperate to look cultured. I am being a little brutal, but that's the great thing - you never have to meet these people or worry about crushing their feelings so you can judge away on first glance. Knowing how to sell yourself (and having a witty friend) goes a long way on this site, so it will be very interesting to see how profiles compare with the real product... if I ever stop hiding behind my laptop and actually accept a date with any of these virtual suitors.

My top tip so far would be ALWAYS look at the 'secondary' pictures as well as the one on the profile. Some people just have one very flattering shot (or have gone for black and white, moody lighting or a good angle) and their further shots are nothing short of horrifying. I'm also watching out for anyone who has 'possible marriage material' selected as one of their personality traits; I don't care if their friend ticked it, it's totally weird for a man not to appear shrouded in commitment-phobia at first and it actually isn't what women want to be hit with before they've even met the bloke. There are also a few 'thirty year olds' who have either spent a large proportion of those years chain-smoking in bright sunlight, or are in fact not thirty at all. No one said it wouldn't be a minefield, but just like a Wetherspoons on a Friday night you have to dodge the old creepies, sidestep the court jesters and keep an eye out for the cute advertising exec at the bar with a nice glass of red. Next stop: testing out the actual dating bit...

Tuesday, 15 June 2010

C is for Controversy

So, apparently I caused a bit of a rumpus in Glamour HQ this morning.

I casually tweeted Glamour magazine's editor, Jo Elvin (@jo_elvin) some thoughts on their June Women of the Year issue; namely that I had been a bit unimpressed by Lily Allen opening the section with a somewhat self-pitying attitude. As we all know, Lily's tired of the limelight and wants to retreat into 'oblivion' and have lots of babies. So far, so good - more power to her. But in the context of a section filled with witty, successful celebs like Ruth Jones, Zoe Saldana and Lea Michele, all at the top of their game, her moany interview just went down like a lead balloon with me. Anyway, Jo wrote a blog post on their website defending Lily from those criticizing her life choices. I can see how my comment suggested it, but I don't actually have a problem with Lily's bid for domesticity. I do however, have a problem with her own 'issues' with fame, stardom and a few grand in the bank - issues she feels compelled to press on us every chance she gets.

I like Lily; in a sea of PR-savvy schmaltz, she really is refreshingly honest. But when presented with an award voted for by thousands of readers, I'm sorry, you just suck it up and say thank you. Her response didn't seem to say that at all. Instead she criticized the public ('people have stopped buying music'), the media (particularly 'the image we're sold of beauty' - by magazines like Glamour, Lil?) and basically everyone who's got her to where she is today. Because she doesn't seem to like where she is, even if that is at the top of the charts, the awards shortlists and the style pages.

I just felt disappointed that someone could be offered a lovely photo shoot, an interview with the editor-in-chief, and ANOTHER award, and still feel compelled to re-iterate their boredom and disillusionment with their situation. It's not exactly the worst of the worst, after all. And yes, Lily, we get that you're all loved up right now, but I really didn't need to hear you witter on about getting your man's dinner on the table in time for him getting home after football. I, personally, don't think that's very inspirational (or even relevant) in a woman's magazine, in a section about great female celebs. I do agree with Jo Elvin that a woman's right to choose between dizzy heights or washing his whites is important and should be respected, but I just don't think Lily proved herself a great choice by being so negative and melodramatic about her own stardom.

Monday, 7 June 2010

Picture This

I read the news every day, partly to generate blog ideas and partly just because I like to keep up. I do buy papers but I tend to promiscuously read all of their websites on weekdays (Buy papers! Jobless journos and failing publications everywhere!) and they are very useful when it comes to getting up-to-the-minute news on current events. In an intriguing and macabre fashion, you could follow the hunt for Cumbria killer Derrick Bird last Wednesday, as the news sites kept a moment to moment account of any police information. Similarly political announcements, such as the first coalition press conference and today's speech on the budget deficit, are reported live online. I'm a bit of a comments freak (as you may be aware, I do read my own ;) and I tend to scroll down, particularly on opinion pieces, to see what people have to say. It's interesting as it provides an insight into a site's readership, general public opinion and the reasons people have for commenting at all. If it's a lighthearted article, the wit of the readers can add to or even surpass it, whereas on serious news stories you get the vitriol or the sympathy of the public and often the debate between them.

Recently, I have started to notice a real distaste for the way some of the more respected papers have published particularly grim stories on their websites. Not the words chosen, though - the pictures. Last week, the breaking news of shootings in Cumbria was accompanied by a picture of a concerned policeman radioing information while a blanket-covered body lay just visible in the background, behind crime scene tape. Immediately the comments began, demanding to know why Sky News were putting up a picture of a victim. It was distasteful, heartless and tacky, they cried. People seemed more distressed by the pictures than the unfolding events. People seemed to be saying they had opened a news page only to read and imagine the information, and that the visual evidence was a step too far.* As far as I remember, there have always been appalling images to accompany alarming news reports, from desperate businessmen jumping from the smouldering twin towers to the footage of teenager Neda Soltani dying in the street after being hit by a bullet during the Iranian protests last year.

Today's sad news that twin baby girls had been mauled by a fox that had managed to get into their house was met with dismay, not only because of the essential tragedy of the story, but due to The Times' leading picture of their mother's face, crumpled with devastation. I do think this picture, like the innocent victim's body, is uncomfortable to look at, but sometimes the world is an uncomfortable place. There were no pictures of the infants' injuries, obviously, and no tabloid-sensationalist description save a few clinical comments on the sites of the wounds (face, arms). The only visual they could go for was presumably a shot of the family house, the hospital they are being treated at, or the parents. As the story centred around the mother's comment on her daughters' condition and the incident itself, I don't think this was an invasion of her private grief - just a shocking image to summarise a shocking story. She obviously felt ready to express her worry and sadness to the press, and I find it hard to see how a visual confirmation of her quoted statement could offend. Perhaps I am oddly resilient; I didn't feel disgusted at Sky's use of the Cumbria photo - which was also used on either the Guardian or Times website, it's near impossible to find archived 'breaking news' - as I felt it summed up the serious nature of the case and was probably one of the first or only images from the scene. What were they supposed to have, a Sun-style 'this is what a gun looks like, folks' illustration? I remember first learning the word propaganda in high school history, and spending hours analysing the choice of pictures in home and foreign press in the past. A picture can hit you with the story much faster than the text, and it is an important part of the story in my opinion, far more than being simply decorative.

I would be interested to hear if you think a certain level of unpleasant image should be left out of the news. Maybe some people read the 'highbrow' publications to hear only very brisk, factual accounts of current affairs, and avoid the emotive nature of tabloid fare. Even if this were so, I fail to see what could be more factual and straight from the source than a photograph. What of the war, genocide, violence and natural disaster that happen all over the world? Maybe we wouldn't feel the full weight of the story or attempt to help in some way without being faced with the grim pictoral evidence. When I was working at a tabloid around the time of the Haiti earthquake, they filled a two-page spread with the image of a child's body being thrown on a pile of corpses as locals attempted to to clear the streets, along with a moving first-hand report of the devastation. This is probably one of the more horrific photos I've seen used, but I bet it stopped a few fatcats from wealthier countries in their tracks. When people die from drug abuse or drink driving, relatives sometimes have the strength to give a photo of their dying or dead loved one to the papers in the hope that it might make people think twice and prevent more needless deaths. I don't believe it's a sick voyeurism that puts these images online and in print, but the media's basic function as a transmitter of information. We are very lucky to have an uncensored press, and I for one don't think the desire of a few people to bury their heads in the sand during dark times is reason enough to remove the important aspect of photography from our news.

*Incidentally, if I search the original news stories I cannot find the image I am referring to - perhaps the voice of the people won in this case? There is a similar shot on the NY Daily News site as the of the shockwaves of the shootings continue to be reported.

Thursday, 3 June 2010

B is for Britain

We all seem to have a daily rant here in Britain about the rubbishness of the weather, the transport, the politicians and the chavs, but I have to say I bloody love this country. Not in an English-flag brandishing, football-loutish or snobbishly imperialistic way, but in that I'm happy being here most of the time. I don't share the now-fashionable obsession with emigrating to sunnier climes (although it's amazing to get away and I would love to live abroad temporarily) but I do have what is better described as an overwhelming fondness than a fierce patriotism for this sceptred isle.

It's easy to forget the fundamental joys of living in a developed Western country, but of course they are many - freedom of speech, equality, democracy and an uncorrupt justice system. But it's the littler things, those you miss at the end of a holiday, that warm my heart on a regular basis. The politeness - I have been told by more than one non-Brit than our pleases and thank yous are excessively and unnecessarily used, but I appreciate every little piece of verbal etiquette that comes my way. Yes, we apologise when someone else bustles into us, and often to entirely inanimate objects, but it's a compulsion that makes us loveable. I love the amount of satire in our press and on TV, especially the topical panel shows such as Have I Got News For You where no-one and nothing is too sacred for examination. I enjoy our eccentrics (even the Royal Family for their entertainment value) and traditions, and personally think we have a pleasant balance of conservative and liberal minds. I enjoy a cup of tea on a drizzly day while snuggled inside on a sofa. Sunshine puts me in a great mood, but 365 days of roasting heat a year leaves no room for seasonal contrast or variety, from your wardrobe to your leisure activities. Can you imagine being without the glorious novelty of a beer garden in summer, or a snowball fight in winter? We appreciate jetting off somewhere warm so much more for having such an unpredictable climate here. I love the smalltalk, the wit, the humour and the diversely styled fashionistas. I enjoy our straight-talking celebs more with every bland Hollywood soundbite from a US star, and the irreverence of our entertainment TV and awards shows. The history and culture of London is far superior to so many tourist destinations, we just find it hard to see that when we're so close to the action.

From our offbeat advertising to our disloyalty to political parties (the 'Ok, show me what you've got' approach to this year's election was truly impressive) and our ability to laugh at our own failings, from teen mums to snobbery, is what makes Britain unique. In some ways - mostly financial - we could be described as Broken, but in essentials we are flourishing. I like that a grown man can be reduced to tears by the kick of a ball and someone convinced they are Yoda or Jesus can get on their soapbox at Speaker's Corner without being moved on. In the next 24 hours I will definitely complain about the weather, become enraged by fellow commuters and needlessly mock a public figure, but deep down I'm happy that by random chance and good luck, I happen to live here.

When Derrick Bird shot twelve people on a seemingly motiveless killing spree in Cumbria yesterday, the reports were not met with sad resignation as a sign of the times. There were and are ripples of outrage, numbed shock and furious questioning in every paper, on every website and around every watercooler in the country. Do we ever stop and appreciate that such large-scale and tragic violence is a distinct rarity here? Sometimes it's hard to remember amongst the tax moans and the MP gags, but from high school shootings to Taliban-esque restrictions, terror and violence is part of the everyday for so many people around the world. That's not to say it is any less tragic that twelve innocents have been killed by one selfish man determined to punish the world for his misfortunes; simply that we should look around us once in a while and reconsider our disdain for this little piece of earth.

Tuesday, 1 June 2010

Thin Skin

I came across this piece today about Mariella Frostrup's apology to the editors of Radio 4's Today programme for calling them misogynists. Another hot-headed woman, I thought briefly and unconsciously, before looking into the story behind her accusation (like you've never fleetingly cursed 'Bloody woman driver', girls!) Turns out Today editor Ceri Thomas had hinted in an interview that the reason there weren't more female presenters in his line of work is simply that men have the thicker skin and therefore the employable edge to deal with the pressures of the job. What he said was this, essentially that women should have a place on the BBC but probably not on the Today programme, as it's really scary and tough and they might cry. Now, I can see how this was very tactless, especially as he works in the media, but perhaps the exceptional thickness of his very manly skin has numbed any sensitivity to such matters.

Here's a surprise though: I agree with him a bit. Not with the 'all women', but with the 'why not as many women appear on confrontational current affairs shows' bit. I'm a woman, and as a very tiny percentage of the population (and a small percentage of the media-career-inclined) I can tell you with no hesitation that I'd be too fragile and emotional for that kind of full-on daily environment. Most women I know are not ambitious enough, or conversely they're smart enough, to avoid any job where they may end up in rehab, heart-attack territory or simply hiding in the toilets in tears. That isn't necessarily to say we have thinner skin, although I secretly agree with that too - of which more later.

Jennie Bond, who apart from the curious 'ie' choice of name spelling has the hardy air of an ex-Olympian about her anyway, dismissed Thomas's comments as "complete bollocks" (interestingly gendered choice of words there) and quite correctly stated:

"I reported extensively for the Today programme and presented it for three years. It's tough, it's hard and it's challenging but of coursewomen can present it."

The point, I feel, is not that they physically can, but that they aren't. Most of the gals are going for cushy daytime sofas and entertainment reporting because it's fun, full of perks and they are less likely to be depicted as a stone-cold harridan in the media. Who wants that sort of pressure that early in the day anyway? Men, in my humble experience, seem more inclined to go for such 'challenging' (read: often unbearable) positions - they are less likely than women to weigh up home and work life, personal and professional happiness, and health and success before taking a promotion or new job.

"Women have a different way of having a thick skin," said presenting veteran Joan Bakewell when asked her views by The Guardian. Bakewell was dubbed the original 'thinking man's crumpet' after daring to be both a talented journalist and a regulation hottie (it's a bit of a sexist industry, in case you're not up to speed.)

"It's amazing how you can get your own way without being confrontational. Women are good at analysing how to tell a story. Don't you get tired of all those clashes [on the Today programme]? Look at Prime Minister's Questions. I think it's probably intolerable for any woman to watch that without hating all politicians. Women are bad at it [shouting at the dispatch box] basically because they don't like doing it, and it isn't the only way to do things, it genuinely isn't."

I quote Bakewell so heavily here because, crumpet or not, it's the sanest viewpoint I've read on the subject so far. Not wildly defensive, a la Frostrup (even when retracting her misogynists comment, she mainly conceded that the Today editors were 'not demons') and not blithely in agreement either. She simply iterates that women have a different approach that is valuably used elsewhere; I think, for example, that women make better interviewers for print. I dislike Jeremy Paxman but can appreciate his battering-ram function in the media sphere. Sometimes 'thin skin' makes for wonderfully perceptive journalism. My very first work experience placement was on the late Richard and Judy show, which I loved - live and packed with crazy segments, debate and guests of all backgrounds, the reason it worked was the combination of Madeley's rhino-skin pushiness and Finnigan's more patient and paced interview style. From this and many other media encounters, I learnt the valuable difference between trying to be a man in a man's world and using your innate femininity to get that bit more out of a situation. Would a male interviewer have boldly gone far as Caitlin Moran in her recent sensational profile of Lady Gaga, or would he have sat opposite her, barking questions and jotting down notes on the size of her thighs while half-listening to her answers?

I fear we may have become so fixated on total gender equality that the facts of our (sometimes wonderful) differences must be hushed up. Men and women are different, not in terms of either being harder, better, faster or stronger, but in having different skills and strengths. Nearly all stem logically from primal instincts (compassion, aggression, patience) and although there are always individual exceptions, look around in any workplace and you will see a lot of male focus and drive at work alongside a lot of female negotiation and diplomacy.

I am always eager to be proved wrong though, so if you are a woman who is ferociously determined to get to the front line (of journalism, management, politics, Afghanistan) please do comment with your thoughts.