Lucy and Todd

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“Feminism and Family” (Edinburgh Book Festival Debate)

In Recent Articles on August 21, 2013 at 5:16 pm

(What follows is a slightly extended version of LE’s speech at the debate on Aug. 20, 2013, at which Alan Bissett also spoke. Chaired by Kate Mosse.)

‘Marriage,’ Stevenson wrote, ‘is an institution recognized by the police.’

The home was originally constructed to protect and perpetuate the species. Birds do it. Bees do it. Caring for offspring is considered by most creatures their most important task, often coming before self-preservation. Think of salmon painfully jumping up waterfalls, or mother bears risking all for their cubs. But in our society domesticity and motherhood have been downgraded to the lowliest of pursuits. We are all supposed to neglect our children now in favor of work, work, work. The kids are offloaded onto childminders, who are ill-trained and ill-paid. Or grandparents, who have to  give up their retirements to provide free childcare. Women get their little maternity leave, men even shorter paternity leave, and then you’re on your own.

In the patriarchal system, founded on war, domesticity is denigrated, while bombs and guns are revered: in other words, anything that can DESTROY a home is okay.

Women earn less but spend more, on clothes for work, and all the cosmetics, beauty treatments, gym membership and plastic surgery they’re supposed to buy into in order to appeal to men. But do men appeal to women? There used to be an understanding that men would pay for stuff, because women had less money. Men used to pay for the drinks at least. Sometimes with a string attached. Now women have to pretend they’re above needing men’s money. But the thing is, they do need it and they deserve it. Being a woman is so expensive. Men should pay for everything. They own the world, they made it the mess it is, they should pay!

How about Nigella Lawson, refusing to take any of Saatchi’s cash? What was all that about? Okay, she has her own money, but why not take his as well? What sort of example does that set? Saatchi owes her big-time, after all those years of alleged temper tantrums. After all those cupcakes, and picnics on planes!

Men are really very little help to women anymore. They don’t support them financially. Their contribution to pregnancy is ludicrous. Okay, fathers sometimes change nappies and handle the barbecue. Big deal. Women are forced to become single parents, because men are so lazy or unfeeling or violent or insolvent. Men seem to have NO responsibilities, while women have them all. And then single mothers get demonized by the government, and men form hooligan gangs called Fathers4Justice. There’s no ‘justice’ in any of it.

We have all been persuaded that work will save us, that women must infiltrate the workforce. But doing two jobs, at home and at work, hasn’t helped women’s status one bit, it’s just made them more exhausted and more compliant. Why should women have to work so hard anyway? In prehistory, so-called because it predates the history of patriarchy, people worked a three to four-hour day, leaving plenty of leisure time. Prehistoric women had time to invent agriculture, astronomy, medicine, spirituality and the arts. Now we just slog for men in dead-end jobs and head home to do the washing-up.

Working-class women have always worked, that’s nothing new, and where did it get them? It’s slavery. Women don’t get to do anything the way they want, and have to look pleasant about it at the same time! Where are the advantages, where are the thrills, what’s in it for the woman as she hoovers and yells at the kids and sorts out the bills, while the man’s upstairs watching his requisite five hours of porn or football or curling and skittles?

We’ve tried doing everything the male way, and it’s brought life on earth to its knees. So I don’t think feminism’s dead. But I think it’s in its infancy. Young women act like the word ‘feminism’ is naughty, like ‘socialism’ or ‘asylum seeker’. Feminism Lite makes it all seem friendly and apolitical. But sexism really can’t be separated from every other kind of hideous injustice: racism, anti-semitism and homophobia, capitalism, sadism, the despoiling of the earth, the mistreatment of animals, genocide. They are all of a piece, the stuff of brutes. And we have to do something about it – urgently. We can’t just sit around on our plump little incomes, or not so plump, and let men wreck everything.

I’ve seen enough misogyny for a lifetime. I baulk when I hear about unequal pay and unfair housework rotas and twitter rudeness. I can’t take any more wife beating and family annihilations – when men kill their whole families, in the ultimate form of punishment within the domestic sphere.

I’m sick of porn, sick of page 3, and nit-picking about the different ‘types’ of rape. I’m sick of the obsession with looks and the self-mutilation that comes with it. I’m sick of watching women ruin their ankles in high heels on cobbled streets to please men who ignore, discard and undervalue them. I’m sick of children not being able to play outdoors. I’m sick of the way women are treated in the arts too, and in the literary world, where male writers are still considered the Real Thing.

I’ve simply had it with men’s disrespect for women. It’s obscene, it’s shameful, and it’s ruinous for human civilisation and the natural world. I’m no longer trying to understand it, I’ve had it! Judges saying little girls asked for it when exploited by 40-year-old men. Men throwing acid in women’s faces. The threats made against Criado-Perez, for getting Jane Austen’s head on a banknote. Or the way Marion Bartoli was treated, for daring to win Wimbledon.

While writing Mimi, I compiled scrapbooks. Cuttings from newspapers, just from one year, 2011, on rapes and murders of women. Another on family annihilation. Another on war. Torture. Gun rampages. One on all the non-violent forms of sexism. I needed two books to cover all the murders!

Let me describe a little utopia:

Living by a lake is a thriving and contented community. They base their family life on women and women’s sexual pleasure. All money and property are handed down the female line, and women never marry. At puberty, girls are given their own bedrooms and there they conduct their love lives. Sex is only consensual, and male partners arrive at night and leave by the morning. Men make no claims on women, and any offspring are brought up by the mother’s extended family.

The women are not ashamed of their sexuality, no big issue is made of virginity, and no one denigrates women for having several partners, or for having children by different men. The women in this community enjoy a rare freedom of action, being in complete control of their sexual and procreative lives. And … everybody’s happy.

The thing is, this isn’t made up. This utopia exists. It is the way things are run in the Mosuo culture, which was featured in the Guardian today (Aug. 20, 2013). 40 or 50,000 people still live this way. As an anthropologist points out on Wikipedia, the Mosuo traditions challenge a lot of handy assumptions we have in the West about family life:

1, that marriage is a universal institution
2, that marital harmony profoundly affects the stability of children
and 3, that parents who have multiple partners jeopardize their kids’ development.

Not so. Unmarried parents living in a misogynistic culture may well jeopardize their kids’ sense of stability and security, whatever they do – but Mosuo parents do not.

One of the last matrilineal societies in the world, the Mosuo system fits right in with the simple solution I offer in Mimi.

As I said before, it’s time men did something to help us. Women have done enough. We’re tired. We want to put our feet up. We don’t want to take out the trash, only to be treated like trash ourselves, like witches and bitches. Why can’t men do something? I’m sure there are a lot of men out there who are equally sick of women getting raped and murdered, men who don’t like sex slavery and don’t approve of the capitalist usurpation of every last resource. Men who would rather not have to worry about their lovers and sisters and mothers and daughters coming to harm through misogynistic acts. A lot of men want a happy home!

(We can deal with the less amenable ones later. And Fathers4Justice.)

Here’s what I think we should do. Men have run the world with money. So give women the money. If each man gave his money to one or more women, wealth would eventually lie in female hands. I think this is the only way for women to get both the respect and the down-time they deserve. I call it the Odalisque Revolution, because it will allow women to relax, to become centers, beacons even, of pleasure-seeking. And once women own all the land, all the houses, all the schools and hospitals and offices, it will become unthinkable to violate them.

Wouldn’t it be a great joke on the male death wish if we could accomplish this peaceful revolution behind the scenes, merely by moving money around?

Well, I said I believe there are men who’d like to do something to change the sexist culture we’re all stuck in. Yet not one has written to me since the book came out in February, asking for his Mea Culpa Declaration to be stamped, which would allow him to join the Odalisque Revolution. This surprises me somewhat. Where are the men who truly want to help women, and humanity? Where are the heroic men who will save us? All they have to do is sign this:


I, the undersigned, confess to having, consciously or not, overtly or not, been part of a worldwide terrorist conspiracy that has constrained women’s lives through centuries of violence, repression, distress, and discouragement.

I recognize that this treatment of women has been a ploy in a power game, the result of male cowardice, stupidity, perversity, and corruption; and that the status of men has been artificially exalted by it.

I acknowledge that vast numbers of women have been unfairly treated throughout the period of male rule. I therefore apologize for any tyrannical behavior of my own, and that of other men, and pledge to do my utmost to prevent such injuries, insults, and injustices from occurring ever again.

I apologize for stubborn male resistance over the centuries to women’s ideas, thoughts, decisions, and remarks—in the home, at work, in business, in the arts, in education, and in government. In light of this loss of female input over centuries, I now agree to abide by the decisions women make, without resorting to mindless criticisms, meaningless reflex contradictions, and senseless derision, no matter how wacko or whimsical the ideas expressed by women may seem to me to be.

I renounce male power and privilege, on the grounds that they were unsportingly won. I wish to relinquish all remaining economic, social, and political advantages I may have obtained either as a mere consequence of being male, or because of my active participation (now regretted) in misogynist acts of terror.

In aid of this, I have transferred and/or will transfer, and will continue to transfer, my financial resources to a woman or women, with no strings attached.

By such means, I hope to foster a more humane environment, in which women are less likely to be mistreated and maligned.

It is my hope that the hand-over of power and property to women will ultimately lead to a transformation of society, benefiting people, animals, and the natural world, as well as insuring a future for human culture, and the preservation and continuation of artistic endeavors.

I believe in the pleasure principle, and therefore renounce the male work ethic, an indecency imposed by men who wished to profit from subjugation. I hereby attest the inalienable right of all creatures to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.




Enough tweaking of the sexist hierarchy here and there, enough promises of equality. Equality just won’t do it anymore. It doesn’t work. What we need is female supremacy. The only answer to male domination is ZERO TOLERANCE.

(copyright: LE)


Too Many Bison

In Recent Articles on May 2, 2013 at 8:03 am

My husband and I made our way from Edinburgh to London for the launch, on Valentine’s Day, of my new novel, Mimi – a sort of romance based in New York but written mainly in Orkney. This happened to coincide with ‘One Billion Rising’, a worldwide mass action against male violence, organized by Eve Ensler. I thought of going to the rally at Westminster myself but was scared of being kettled and missing my launch party! I also had reservations about the usefulness of this global stunt (reservations mainly to do with the American flavour of it all, and the use of dancing as a form of protest). But Ensler’s project did at least give women across the world a sense of camaraderie, if only for a day. Nik Williams, a friend who works for ‘Peace One Day’ (a global movement set on enshrining at least one day of peace a year: September 21st), was there and reported back that it was a lively event, featuring for instance a banner that said, ‘BIG SISTER IS WATCHING YOU’.

It’s a start, but is it enough? I’m not convinced pointing at the sky with an index finger (the One Billion Rising’s chosen hand gesture) and copying American dance moves are really going to change things fast enough. The One Billion Rising protests got very little coverage in the British papers, which were devoted instead to Oscar Pistorius’s alleged murder of his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp – who herself had recently tweeted about her opposition to violence against women. Women speak out, women dance, and none of it stops the violence.
What we need is a local, national or global strike every time a woman is raped or murdered. Withhold our labour, and governments would soon be forced to reduce violence and resolve war.

As Carlos Fuentes said in a talk on Don Quixote at Edinburgh University’s Playfair Library in June, 2005 (I’m paraphrasing): ‘Fiction is fiction and power is power. Art and literature can change things, but only over a long period of time.’ Much as he wanted the pen to overwhelm the sword, he felt we should be realistic about its chances. Still, I object to things best when sitting down – at my typewriter – and in Mimi I provide a very simple solution to violence against women, something even simpler than a strike. And more peaceful.

* * *

One of the inspirations for my novel was Catherine Blackledge’s book, The Story of V (2003), which examines female genitalia from a biological point of view. She points out that the vagina is instrumental in selecting sperm for procreative use. This means that, to ensure their genes survive, males, from fruit flies to humans, must strive to please females as best they can. Most mating is not rape, despite what Andrea Dworkin said, but the outcome of courtship, perhaps even love. Porn has helped us forget this, but nature prioritizes female pleasure, not male. Maybe this is the real reason for our continuing absorption in the female nude. Prehistoric relics too suggest that femaleness was honoured in art and ritual for tens of thousands of years. This satisfactory status quo was ruined by the invention of lethal weaponry in the Bronze Age.  Men then had new powers and new games to play. Tired of venerating women and nature, men stole the show, and look what a mess they’ve made of things.

A second influence on my book was the work of Marija Gimbutas, the Lithuanian archaeologist who developed a comprehensive theory about the art of Old Europe’s ‘gynocentric’ matriarchal cultures, in which violence played very little part. Instead of war, these stable, socialistic societies devoted themselves to more beneficial pursuits like calendar-making, astronomy, botany, horticulture, and the arts. As Gimbutas writes in The Language of the Goddess (1989):

‘I do not believe, as many archaeologists of this generation seem to, that we shall never know the meaning of prehistoric art and religion. Yes, the scarcity of sources makes reconstruction difficult…but the religion of the early agricultural period of Europe and Anatolia is very richly documented. Tombs, temples, frescoes, reliefs, sculptures, figurines, pictorial painting, and other sources need to be analysed from the point of view of ideology.’

From semi-abstract objects depicting breasts or vulvas, to spirals, zigzags and all kinds of animal forms, Gimbutas meticulously studied artifacts until they began to fit a pattern. She had detected a fathomable culture, and a cult of goddess-worship that lasted for thousands of years. Art was paramount. Of course. What else have we ever done that’s of any worth but art, music, dance and literature? It’s even better when they all come together in the form of opera! Opera features in my novel too, and at the launch we sipped martinis while three people from OperaUpClose performed extracts from Puccini. Even I, an introvert, loved that party.

* * *

The British Museum’s latest show offers a rare chance to see some of the types of sculpture Gimbutas was talking about. Its peculiar title, ‘Ice Age art: arrival of the modern mind’, instantly reminded me of Robert Benchley’s reaction to a caption under a picture of ancient Egyptian art: ‘Remarkably Accurate and Artistic Painting of a Goose…Drawn 3300 Years Ago’. ‘Why’, Benchley asked (in My Ten Years in a Quandary, 1947), ‘is it any more remarkable that someone drew a goose accurately 3300 years ago than that someone should do it today? Why should we be surprised that the people who built the Pyramids could also draw a goose[?]… They may not have known about chocolate malted milk and opera hats, but, what with one thing and another, they got by. And, presumably, every once in a while somebody felt like drawing a goose.’

The commentary on the walls of the BM exhibition expresses a similar confusion in the face of art created long ago. The whole show is pervaded by a profound and unthinking wonderment. Perplexity seems to be the main aim here, not elucidation. Perplexity and money. Who after all has the right to claim ownership of prehistoric artifacts? The BM is raking it in with this show. Elsewhere in the museum you can see three eggs in a little pot (an Anglo-Saxon grave offering), and it’s free!

We woke early and rushed to our timed, £10-ticket, moment at the BM – all to be squashed into a tiny gallery with hundreds of other people trying to peer at dimly-lit bits of mammoth ivory or reindeer horn. It was like Lenin’s tomb in there: funereal, chaotic and weird. To add atmosphere, there was a flickering light under one bison sculpture, and a heavily amplified drip-drip sound throughout the exhibition, as if we were all in a cave together. Did prehistoric people never go outside? And there were too many bison. Inspired by them, the people with headphones kept bulldozing us out of the way so that they could reach the stuff the audiotapes were ordering them to view.

The curators’ remarks on the labels were full of idiocies. Not a mention of vulvas, nor of Gimbutas and the whole system of symbols she so forcefully delineated. Just a lot of infantile talk about how much time Ice Age artists spent making these things. It took four hundred hours to produce the Lion Man, thirty-five to do a horse, etc. The label for an implement reverently designated ‘The Spoon’ explained that its design ‘suggests the object did have a use’. Yeah, as a spoon! And everywhere we were reminded that these artists had human brains. Thanks. One statement would have driven Benchley wild: ‘The combination of human and animal features shows the capability to imagine something that does not exist. Through this invention the artist expressed ideas rather than the real world. This required a creative mind.’ Why all this surprise about signs of intelligence in prehistory? WE’RE the lame brains.

Scattered around were a few pieces of twentieth-century art – Matisse, Henry Moore, Käthe Kollwitz, Mondrian – but nobody was looking at them and their relevance did seem obscure.  Matisse had apparently been dragged in to echo the ancient interest in women’s bodies, Kollwitz for a suggestion of motherhood, Mondrian and Moore for grid patterns and abstraction. It was hard to estimate exactly how many people were being patronised here, but they included at the very least Matisse, Kollwitz, Moore and Mondrian, along with prehistoric artists, the twenty-first-century goops who bought timed tickets for a show they could barely squeeze themselves through, and children, at whom the whole thing seems to be aimed. (Proof of which came with the dinosaur toys in the gift shop.)

They’ve dumbed down the National Museum of Scotland in Chambers Street the same way. This powerhouse, once full of Scot-land’s design heritage, used to be a miniature version of the V & A; now it’s just an amusement arcade, a caricature of a museum, a kiddy fun park. (Contradictorily, they even got rid of the goldfish, which were universally liked.) Why can’t children be exposed to the adult world once in a while, in which art is adequately displayed and labelled? Soon there’ll have to be a roller-coaster in the Sis-tine Chapel. In being kid-friendly, museums are art-unfriendly, and that’s ultimately bad for kids too.

What’s worse is the BM’s disrespectful treatment of prehistoric female-centred art. ‘The oldest portrait of a woman’ was considered noteworthy mainly for the supposed abnormality of one of her eyelids. (We couldn’t see anything wrong with it!) Elsewhere, sculptures of women were described in the hollow terms familiar to our brutish age. The curators had helpfully evaluated the assembled female forms for us in terms of their attractiveness. Some of the female figures are young, so presumably attractive; others are mothers, of therefore dubious attractiveness; and others older and not attractive at all. This tells us more about our own banality and poverty of imagination – our ‘modern minds’ – than it does about the culture from which these pieces came. It’s like getting a paedophile to assess putti.

Finally, we came on a film of cave paintings that they jazzed up by projecting it onto a piece of awkwardly-draped cloth, to imitate the curves of a cave wall. Added to this magic lantern show were some modernistic flashing white lines, unexplained. Everything there served to distract you from the real beauty and artistry of these crowded objects, which included some great horses, breasts on sticks, and one smooth, plump female backside. A billion women should rise up against these inane interpretations of their genuine and essential prehistory.


(This article first appeared in the Scottish Review of Books, Vol. 9, No. 10, 2013)


Response to this article:

I would be grateful if you could pass on my thanks to Lucy Ellmann for her article in the last Scottish Review of Books.

It is a quality piece of writing which pinpoints the problem with recent museum developments, and I’m not the only museum curator who feels deeply appreciative of her analysis.


Dr. Elspeth King

Director, Stirling Smith Art Gallery and Museum
Dumbarton Road

The rest of us zhlubs want to be happy too

In Lying in Bed Watching Movies, Recent Articles on February 23, 2013 at 12:30 pm

Being abnormal used to be normal. In movies such as The Apartment (1960), it was redemptive. CC Baxter (Jack Lemmon) and Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine) are outsiders who’ve missed the boat, careerwise and hopewise. She’s wasting her time on a married man, while Baxter is caught in a sexual vortex established by his superiors, who have clandestine trysts in his apartment while “Buddy Boy” gets nothing but colds and TV dinners. It’s when they both decide to ditch the self-hatred and take more of a risk that things start looking up, romancewise.

There are a million films in which the staid and stable (but wrong) choice of mate loses out in battle with the dynamic and volatile. As in “Cinderella” and Jane Eyre, in these stories the hare, not the tortoise, wins. Some hare escapades tragically fail: in Brief Encounter (1945), Laura (Celia Johnson) relinquishes Alec (Trevor Howard) for the sake of her amiable but dull husband and children. But in screwball comedies, risk-taking often pays. In Bringing Up Baby (1938), Cary Grant is swept off his feet by zany Katharine Hepburn, and thereby saved from a sexless marriage to a woman interested only in dinosaur bones.

We try to formalise it with weddings and His and Hers towels, but love is a childish, dreamlike state and that’s what’s so good about it. Bringing Up Baby, The Philadelphia Story (1940), and Holiday (1938) – all starring that odd pair, Hepburn and Grant – are comedies of mismatch, in which oil must be separated from vinegar, in that the childlike hero or heroine must be prevented from collapsing into the arms of some treadmill adult. In these plots, conformity is a cul-de-sac that can’t accommodate real emotions. The supposedly stable alliance falls flat on its face, while the farcical candidate from leftfield emerges as the winner. “Our relationship has been a series of misadventures from beginning to end,” Grant tells Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby. But we want him saved, essentially from adulthood – all work and bank balances and Gradgrindian facts.

In The Philadelphia Story, it’s Hepburn who’s about to marry the wrong guy, having divorced Grant out of pique. But at the start of Holiday, Johnny (Grant) is in a pickle, newly engaged to a creep. He rushes over to tell his friends, Nick and Susan, whose own eccentricity is displayed in their unAmerican reluctance to answer the door (in TV shows devoted to conformism, Fred MacMurray and Mary Tyler Moore always answered the door). “She’s sweet, intelligent, the perfect playmate,” he tells them. No she ain’t. The first thing his fiancee Julia does is scold him about his hair and his tie. She’s rich, self-satisfied, conventional, and in love with money, not him. It’s Hepburn as Linda, Julia’s aimless sister, the black sheep of the family, who perfectly comprehends Johnny’s aversion to business, security and stolidness, his aversion to America itself. Their love is celebrated by leaving the country. Catastrophe averted, they catch a boat with Nick and Susan, creating their own Fun Squad. It’s a triumph of eccentricity over the perversity of normal.

In the more kindly form of romcom (none of them very recent), looks don’t count and weirdness wins the day. Green Card (1990) has the “nice” Brontë (Andie MacDowell) confront with distaste the French “oaf”, Georges Fauré (Gérard Depardieu). At first, she’s all effortful serenity: a beautiful NY apartment, charitable gardening work, occasionally seeing her “nice” vegetarian, environmentalist boyfriend. Salvation comes when she relaxes and takes on the chaotic and unpredictable, in the form of the more human, if ungainly, Georges. One of the thrills of this movie is its plea for foreignness, even making the case for economic migrants in search of green cards. But mainly it’s about francophilia – the solution to much American ennui has after all been to head for Paris.

France feeds Julie and Julia (2009) too, that misshapen movie about Julia Child (Meryl Streep) and her culinary stalker, Julie Powell (Amy Adams). Compare these two marriages. Julia Child’s is a late-in-life pairing, but happy. Child talks funny, looks funny, is very tall and awkward – but every day after lunch she and Paul jump into bed (the secret of marital happiness). In Paris. “What if you hadn’t fallen in love with me?” Julia asks Paul sombrely at one point. “But I did,” he answers.

Julie Powell and her husband in Queens never convincingly congeal; they’re just playing house. Because they’re in their 20s and have been brought up on bad movies and no books, they have no emotional vocabulary. There’s something objectionable about the dime-store morality of Julie French-cooking her way out of her job in a call centre helping victims of 9/11. The only proper response to other people’s tragedies may well be to stuff oneself with butter, but at least have the grace to do it in France.

Powell’s self-improvement route to fulfilment is also promulgated by Eat Pray Love (2010). In this abysmal Julia Roberts vehicle, Roberts, as Elizabeth Gilbert, checks out gurus all over the world in a quest to regain her joie de vivre, leaving quite a carbon footprint behind her in every anorexia-ashram she visits. Never mind the film’s obnoxiousness about religion, paternalism and, most shamefully, Italy. The worst thing about it is the implicit instruction that, to deserve a man, women must now transform themselves spiritually and psychologically, as well as physically. Gilbert’s mystical retreat is really just the latest form of charm or finishing school, like carrying a book around on your head. But what are the men doing to make themselves acceptable to Gilbert? Drinking beer and crashing cars. As usual.

Two recent French films differ in their interpretations of eccentric love. Delicacy (2012) offers a skewed, cruel adult sphere in which everyone misconstrues what’s important, and pursues their offensive goals in a confusion shared by the audience; The Fairy (2012) dumps notions of conformity for a surreal, childlike, more innocent world where love is not barred to the unprepossessing. In the first, an ordinary-looking man woos a pretty girl. Big deal, you’d think. But oh the consternation this causes. The friends of Nathalie (Audrey Tautou) express horror about her going out with someone they regard as not handsome. Isn’t this the sort of adolescent nonsense we all try to leave behind as soon as possible? But there’s no real questioning of the status quo in this movie. We’re left as perplexed as her pals about Nathalie’s choice.

Delicacy chooses to address the issue of male beauty, but we all know the pressure is on women in terms of beauty. Now everybody’s supposed to be beautiful. So we’re stuck with plastic surgery, sun beds, cosmetics bills, sadness and disappointment. Whatever happened to love among the real?

The Fairy takes a more compassionate look at the rights and desires of the funny-looking. Fiona Gordon, as the fairy, displays her long, sinewy legs as if the human body – any human body – were beautiful, a revolutionary idea in this age of artifice. All seems comically dismal at first. A miserable hotel receptionist (Dominique Abel), down on his luck, nearly chokes to death on a ketchup bottle top hidden in his sandwich, and is saved by a strange woman (Gordon) who may have just escaped from the mad house. But their love is transformative, as you see when these two sad sacks suddenly start to dance – underwater. And the jokes keep coming: at one point, Abel is in the foreground moaning about a cut finger while Gordon is in the final stages of giving birth to their baby in the background; just as a Bandaid is applied to Abel’s wound, the baby pops out, as if the two torments are equivalent.

At the end of Some Like It Hot (1959) gender no longer seems a relevant concern. Another endearing relationship is depicted in Harvey, an anthem to eccentricity and probably the first and last American movie in which the pleasures of alcoholism are given their due. James Stewart plays Elwood P Dowd, and Harvey is his love object, an invisible 6ft white rabbit sometimes described as a “pooka”, a sort of sprite who can make your dreams come true. There isn’t a single character, whether confined to the asylum, or working there, or driving a cab, or singing an aria at a tea party, who doesn’t display an array of unusual behaviours. In the midst of trying to get her brother Elwood committed, Veta (the splendid Josephine Hull) is constantly readjusting her girdle, flirting with a judge, and wondering when she can go upstairs to bed and just “let go”. Her spinster daughter, Myrtle Mae, finally attracts the attentions of a psychiatric orderly on the strength of her egg and onion sandwiches. The head of the hospital wants to avail himself of Harvey’s magical powers so he can have a three-week break in Akron, Ohio, being patted on the hand by a mysterious young woman. But as the Laingian shrink in Bringing Up Baby says, sporting a startling facial tic, “All people who behave strangely are not insane.”

The heroine of my new novel, Mimi, is plump, middle-aged and menopausal. She has hot flushes, big feet and a big mouth. She’s not the narrator Harrison’s type at all. He’s a New York plastic surgeon fully persuaded that physical appearance can be usefully adulterated. Despite all this, he and Mimi fall in love. I offer this improbable romance, in contravention of all the crap that our culture tries to instil in us about who deserves love.


(A version of this article appeared in the Guardian, Feb. 9, 2013)

Everything Unelectric

In Recent Articles on January 25, 2013 at 3:20 pm

Once there was a world without power. No power stations, power surges, or power suits. A world in which, okay, people ruined their eyesight sewing stuff in the dark, and had the occasional riding accident. Indoor plumbing too still had a way to go. But at least genes and gonads weren’t permanently damaged by manmade radiation leaks, and nobody was ever in a multi-vehicle pile-up. They were spared so much, our ancestors! Mowing the lawn, wrestling with the Teasmade, ferrying children to piano lessons… They had it all – they had freedom, individuality, culture. And then electricity was tapped, Henry Ford discovered the source of the vile, and Steve Jobs handed Eve her Apple.

With technology, industrialisation and their bedmate, alienation, we’re not just losing sight of what art is, but what the human hand can do. It’s capable of a lot more than just gliding a mouse around or struggling with Velcro. As James Joyce said about the hand that wrote Ulysses, ‘It did lots of other things too.’ Hands are great! We wouldn’t last a minute without them. Nobody would catch you when you’re born, or affix you to the nipple, or change your nappy. No matter how much we like computers, consumerism, and sitting motionless in front of the TV fingering the remote, the human hand is our biggest love. Not to see anything made by hand, on a human scale, is a kind of death – like the prospect of never being touched again.

I’m tired of electricity, gas, petrol, and nuclear power. I’m just sick of any energy other than the kind plants and animals naturally expend going about their daily business. I now search the world for anything that doesn’t require electricity. I’ve come to view electricity as a kind of ethereal rapist, that can’t stop interfering with everyone: gas and electricity insinuate themselves into the house, and the money drains out of the bank. It’s a form of abuse. Electrification has taken the place of education as the one thing governments must provide (at the risk of every type of nuclear disaster!). And we seem convinced we must use it all up as fast as possible, before developing countries get their mitts on it.

I’ve recently started observing in myself a disgust with all things buzzing, humming and zapping – a definite increase in my allegiance to simple stuff that doesn’t move without help, stuff that just sits there, stuff that doesn’t require the aid of power stations to validate its existence. These things include: toilets, bicycles, butter, jam, keys, buttons, belts, Bandaids, blankets, books, pens, pencils, paper, shoes, sheds, sleds, skis, skates, bells, wind-up clocks, musical instruments, typewriters, wooden tools and hand-powered gardening implements, cutlery, clothing, Kleenex, needles and cotton, corkscrews, cigarettes, doors, door knobs, candles, see-saws, tennis rackets, tulips in a glass of water, Japanese padded silk panels, cupboards, tables and chairs. Just thinking about anything unelectric, ungaseous and non-nuclear fills me with a warm, private, low-tech, halogen-free glow.

The shutters in my bedroom, that keep out the light and the cold, are manually operated. A human being has to effect any change in their position. No other force, no artificial, doomed or dwindling power source, is involved. And they work! The duvet works too, without electricity, as do the cupboards, shelves, floorboards and rug. So too the pictures I love on the wall, and my husband, who runs on his own steam, especially when steamed about something. It’s a simple pleasure, but I like the fact that you can open and close our bedroom door without having to enlist the services of the National Grid.

But there are lamps in the room too – though not as many as a friend of mine would advise (she always says I have too few lamps, while I think she has too many: she makes no allowance for my aversion to electricity!). There’s also a laptop, and an electric heater. These things jar.

I have fantasies of electricitylessness. To live in a steading somewhere, equipped with a reliable well, vegetable patch, fireplace, maybe a wood-fired Aga. Cold white wine would somehow emanate from its own spring just outside the door. Inside, it would be all porridge and patchwork quilts, padded silk hangings in progress, a chicken or two, and musical instruments, which we’d play to warm ourselves up. Yes, I would miss the ready supply of the finest music, now provided instantly by CDs. And washing clothes by hand would be a chore. And it’s easier to fill a hot water bottle if you’ve got an electric kettle. Many household machines, I admit, are useful – but they take up so much space!

And the noise! Noise is a new fetish with us. Why rake leaves quietly, allowing neighbours to sleep late, when you can frazzle everybody’s nerves with a leaf-blower? Why sweep the streets manually with brooms when you can send out an ineffectual (but expensive) little mechanical pavement sweeper with a cutesy name and vexing electronic voice that repeats the command ‘Attention. Take care, pavement cleaning in progress’, all the way down the street? (Though from afar it sounds like ‘Buzz off buster, buzz off buster…’)

You can’t even have a baby anymore without using vast amounts of electricity, though our ancestors somehow managed without, and most animals still do. We revel, we wallow, in our dependence on electricity. But what about power cuts? After 2012’s Hallowe’en hurricane, people in New York couldn’t use the elevators, had no water supply, the food in the fridges rotted, and dialysis had to be rationed. We’re completely at the mercy of energy-providers. We have given up any remnant of self-sufficiency to become mere capitalist units that purchase electricity. We exist only to establish more and more outlets for electricity, and to make more requirements of it.

It would be wonderfully calm and quiet in our steading, and so private.

Things were still beautiful a few hundred years ago, before the hatred of anything natural took us over. Okay, so there was no whooping cough vaccine. But there was a lot more clarity, not just in the air and the water, but in people’s minds. Now we go to war over oil! Is it really worth killing for? Maybe we need to use all the remaining electricity to manufacture bikes, and then turn it off.

You know what works without electricity?  Nighttime. We survive hours and hours of electricitylessness at night (unless you’re dependent on an electric blanket or iron lung). You can sleep right through these low-tech periods of darkness, or go for a walk. You might fall over a bit, but with any luck you’ll see some stars. And other people. They’re not electric yet either – but they’ll probably soon be replaced with robots out on ethnic cleansing missions, so enjoy real people while you can.

This world is too expensive, too ugly, too heartless, too handless. Where’s art, where’s humanity, where’s comfort? Where are the simple, amiable, graspable products of our labour? All I’m saying is, when the primordial shit hits the electric fan and all current sources of energy are kaput, I will have books, pencils, paper, needles and thread, socks, slippers, long johns, a loo, a toothbrush, a typewriter, some candles and a wind-up torch. I hope. What’ll you have?


A version of this essay appeared in Aeon Magazine, Jan. 24, 2013

Log Cabin Coziness

In Recent Articles on January 2, 2013 at 1:02 pm

It’s all so innocent: you live in a log cabin with the guy you love, snuggle up every night under patchwork quilts, somehow give birth all alone to several obedient children, make butter, tend animals, cook stuff, sew stuff. That’s the woman’s point of view. The man’s? You perform powerfully outdoors: you hunt, you fish, you farm, and you trade furs and lame jokes at the general store before making your way back through blizzards, bears and buffalo wolves to your family. Your gun is slow, you think before you shoot, and you can rustle up a little log cabin any old time.

A far cry from the state of the union today, in which the woman worries constantly about celebrities and cellulite, resentfully doing her 98% of the housework while the husband works two jobs, or none at all, and spends his leisure hours acquainting himself with porn. Their children go to school to be indoctrinated, bullied, drugged, shot and horrified – never educated! – in a society that cherishes only the shortest of marriages and the measliest bundle of human rights, a nation devoted to ugliness.

All of this was in train when Laura Ingalls Wilder’s family wandered the American plains in their covered wagon – they just didn’t notice. They thought the further west they got the freer they would be. They didn’t know that America, founded on usurpation, as much as on the hopes of emigrants and philanthropic forefathers, had been stitched up from the start. Who helps you in a capitalist set-up when the locusts eat your crops, or fire destroys your homestead, or the bank calls in your loan? A neighbor, if you’re lucky. But mostly, it’s each man for himself – everybody’s too busy and confused complying with capitalism to try outsmarting it.

They should have all stayed in Europe. Still, it’s nice to believe, even temporarily, that the world is your oyster. Charles Ingalls, the father Wilder depicts in her novels, has a gift for keeping cheerful. Here’s the deal: you kill, you cook, you eat, you sing songs, and you do it with a positive attitude or you’re probably going to die. Optimism is not a sign of imbecility in such a situation, it’s a necessity. The poverty and deprivation is at times severe: Pa once has to walk for hundreds of miles in worn-out boots, just to find enough work to keep the family alive. At another point, he more or less hibernates for three days in a snow hole, unable to find the house in a blizzard. Is this any way for a man to behave? Ever thought about a desk job? But during the Depression (Wilder embarked on writing this autobiographical series in the 1930s), a lot of people were in similar trouble.

Which is why we need these books now! In an era when the individual is dishonoured for failings in beauty, health, wealth and technological know-how, Wilder’s world-view (reinforced by Garth Williams’ memorable illustrations, from the ’50s) seems strikingly humane, even socialist at times. People act like the western expansion was accomplished by a few Republican Paul Bunyans, chopping down trees and tee-pees as they went. It wasn’t. America could not have come into being without collective effort. The Ingallses are tirelessly charitable towards everyone they meet (even tiresomely so – was it really necessary to make Laura give her rag doll to a spoiled brat?). In Little House on the Prairie, Ma manages to overcome her distaste for Indians and feeds the Osages, whose land the Wilders mistakenly occupy – and the chief later saves the family from slaughter. In The Long Winter, Pa persuades the storekeeper to sell grain for no profit to the starving townsfolk marooned for seven months by snow. Pa calls it ‘justice’, not communism, but the capitalist ethos is nonetheless brought (briefly) to its knees.

Pa’s the more charismatic of the two; Ma is steady, quiet, probably shy (like her daughters). But Pa’s pleasure in her is an important element of the books. The imprint of her palm on the cornbread, he says, is all he needs as food. Wilder’s world is full of the imprint of the female hand. Pioneering was not a solo masculine activity – women were there too. Somebody had to make the codfish gravy to go with the cod philosophy. Men don’t do anything without dragging women into it somehow; they can’t do anything without love (who can?). Women imposed home comforts on the log cabin, comforts essential to the survival of infants. They brought coziness. These stories aren’t just about woods and prairies and Plum Creeks after all: they’re about the house in the woods, the shanty on the prairie, the dugout by the creek. Wilderness is there to be tamed by the American family – and the Ingalls family is almost wholly female.

Nobody knows what feminism is anymore, but it isn’t just about equal pay and abortion rights. It’s about appreciating femaleness for femaleness’ sake. Wilder was rightwing, religious, practically silent as a writer until her sixty-fifth year. What pulls these books of hers, unwittingly or not, on to a feminist level derives from her innate rebelliousness, a rebelliousness hinted at in the fictional Laura’s moments of indignation, sisterly rivalry and dare-devil escapades. Wilder boldly took the American dream and eighteenth-century individualism to include herself, and wrote without apology about the daily lives of women and girls. She’s not writing about eyebrow threading or how to please men, she’s writing about survival. Women aren’t frail here: they’re noble and brave.

Wilder did write about a boy once: her second book, Farmer Boy, was based on the early life of her husband, Almanzo. Clearly an act of love – but she couldn’t help descending into envy. His parents ran a prosperous farm in New York state, and for Wilder this meant that Almanzo had access to a quite unbelievable amount of food. Pancakes, sausage cakes, golden buckwheat cakes, gravy, oatmeal, thick cream, maple syrup, fried potatoes, preserves, jams, jellies, doughnuts, spicy apple pie: that was breakfast. For snacks, he’d grab some apples, more doughnuts, cookies, popcorn and watermelons. For supper: four large helpings of fried apple’n’onions, roast beef and brown gravy, mashed potatoes, creamed onions, boiled turnips, ‘countless slices of buttered bread with crab-apple jelly’, a thick slice of birds’-nest pudding covered with sweetened cream, huckleberry pie and blueberry pudding. At Christmas there was roast goose and suckling pig, candied carrots, cream pie, mince pie, horehound candy and fruitcake – but any ordinary Sunday would involve a three-chicken pie, beans and fat pork, pickled beets and rye’n’injun bread, pumpkin pie, then a piece of apple pie with cheese, all provided punctually by Almanzo’s dexterous mama.

But wait a minute – how does she do it? I find it hard enough to feed two people once in a while – how can there be all these mashed potatoes and doughnuts everywhere when the woman’s always huddled upstairs over her loom, weaving cloth to make home-tailored suits for her husband and sons, or spinning, dyeing, knitting, patching, and darning, or churning prize-winning butter and molding a year’s-worth of candles…? She makes soap too. The only thing she doesn’t do is card her own wool (it gets machine-carded in town). Get real, lazybones.

‘Have to finish my mother’s goddam juvenile’, wrote Wilder’s daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, whose role in the editing process has unsettled some Wilder fans. Rose wrote adult novels of pioneering life, stealing her mother’s material but substituting the sourness of maturity for the warm-heartedness of Wilder’s children’s fiction. They smell of the lamp. Her contribution to her mother’s efforts consisted of a thorough line-edit, many questions and some pretty bossy advice – more typing and griping than anything else. Wilder stuck up for herself during clashes of opinion on content, in a working arrangement that was fraught. Wilder once commented in a letter to Almanzo (as reported in John E. Miller’s informative Becoming Laura Ingalls Wilder), ‘The more I see of how Rose works the better satisfied I am to raise chickens.’

Whatever editorial influence Rose had, she didn’t manage to remove every peculiarity of her mother’s style. Wilder’s technical descriptions, from bobsleds and railroads to growing a giant milk-fed pumpkin or constructing a whatnot, are often hard to follow. The narrative is suddenly abandoned so she can explain how to make a door-latch: ‘First he hewed a short, thick piece of oak. From one side of this, in the middle, he cut a wide, deep notch. He pegged this stick to the inside of the door, up and down near the edge. He put the notched side against the door, so that the notch made a little slot. Then he hewed and whittled a longer, smaller stick…’ After that ‘up and down near the edge’, I’m lost. Practical advice is always welcome, but it’s got to work. She’s also quite a comma-flinger, our Laura, Ingalls, Wilder, and uses the word ‘little’ too much.

She just needed more practice. In Little House on the Prairie (the third book she wrote), Wilder’s getting into her stride, with better character-development, a real sense of place, and plenty of drama – cattle out of control, the flooding creek, leeches, and locusts (not just chomping through crops but astounding everybody with a sudden exodus). Laura now emerges as a fully conscious being, ‘naughty’ and inventive – qualities that come in handy when she exacts a malicious revenge on her enemy, Nellie Oleson (making good use of those leeches).  Her impatience with church-going too is endearingly honest.

Wilder’s descriptions of landscape are often elegiac. But who are they for? They assume more feeling for meadows, birds and flowers than I think most children have. As a child, I skipped them, but now I like them. Maybe she wrote these passages for herself, nobody else, just to record sensations that mattered to her. She later formulated this love of nature into a policy: ‘I can still plainly see the grass and the trees and the path winding ahead, flecked with sunshine and shadow and the beautiful gold-hearted daisies scattered all along the way. I am beginning to learn that it is the sweet, simple things of life which are the real ones after all.’

Sure, there are disasters, such as Laura’s older sister Mary’s blindness, that must and can be borne (and sanitized, for our benefit), but there’s also the importance of repeatedly rolling down an irresistible hay-stack, or getting a fur cape for Christmas, or seeing Jack, the faithful bulldog, turn up at the campsite when they all thought he’d drowned. And there’s love, for her family and particularly her father, who can converse with nightingales on the violin. ‘Phoebe-birds called sadly from the woods down by the creek… Softly Pa’s fiddle sang in the starlight… The large, bright stars hung down from the sky. Lower and lower they came, quivering with music… The night was full of music, and Laura was sure that part of it came from the great, bright stars swinging so low above the prairie.’

When they have to leave their little house on the prairie, Pa claims that they’re taking away more than they brought. ‘I don’t know what,’ Ma replies. ‘Why, there’s the mule!’ he says. But you feel it’s more than that: experience, solidarity, the rocking chair he carved for her…and a girl in the back of the wagon who will later tell the world their story and make Pa a hero.

(Quotations from Wilder’s and Lane’s letters, etc., and my interpretation of Rose’s editorial role, are based on John E. Miller’s book, Becoming Laura Ingalls Wilder, University of Missouri Press, 1998.)


A version of this article appeared in the Guardian, Dec. 29, 2012