A dystopia of demagogues?

Over a drink last night, a friend and I ended up talking about THAT MAN. Well, it’s pretty much inevitable really isn’t it? What would a meeting of friends in today’s world be without a little Trump-bashing?

Once we’d got the hand wringing over and there was no more air left to suck through our teeth as we exhausted our daily outrage quotas, we got into a much more interesting discussion. about the man’s curious penchant for the world’s current crop of “strong men”. Let’s call them, for the sake of argument, Trump’s Posse. And what a band of merry men they are to be sure. I’m thinking al Assad, Jung-un, Duterte, Jinping, Erdogan, el-Sissi and Uncle Vlad Putin and all. They’d likely make all the horrors of the world that Pandora unwittingly unleashed look benign!

As individuals, Trump’s Posse are are called many things. Some of the more polite moniker’s include dictator, autocrat, despot, occasionally even oligarch (I’ll leave you to ponder the long, long list of  less polite options). My own favourite is the deliciously arcane “demagogue” — a leader who seeks support by appealing to popular desires and prejudices and makes false claims and promises in order to gain power. Perhaps more Trump than Duterte, but that might be splitting human rights abuses.

But what to call them as a group my friend and I wondered? Surely they have enough commonality to merit a collective noun of their own we thought. After another glass (or two) of wine and much hilarity (if you don’t laugh you cry right?), we came up with what we thought were some crackers … a doomsday of despots … a deception of dictators … a dystopia of demagogues …  an abomination of autocrats … for some reason we got stuck in the semantic seduction of slick alliteration.

Any better ideas?

Clothes to dye for!

I could never be a naturist! Not that I have any particular beef about naturism per se — if you want to attend Nudefests and retreats, compete in the Naked Olympics, go skinny dipping of a summer’s night, or simply get your kit off and hang out in the buff with your family and mates around the BBQ, good for you. Each to his or her own I say. I salute every human being’s right to self-expression … even if I salute it more if they don’t express this particular form anywhere near me.

No, my aversion is because if I ever had a rush of blood to the head and decided this was the lifestyle choice for me, it would deprive me of one of my greatest pleasures in life — clothes. Clothes (and this is a broad church that includes shoes and accessories) have always felt like an extension of my personality. My clothing selection is as much a barometer of my mood as whether I’m bouncing around like some Latter Day Tigger or in a Garbo-esqeue “I vant to be alone” frame of mind.

When I was a wide-eyed graduate, just let loose on the world, I pondered becoming a fashion buyer and worked in Harrods of London for a few months to try the idea on for size … as it were. It didn’t fit! I hated the place. Before that I also pondered becoming a historical costume adviser for stage or TV. This wasn’t as random as it sounds with an honours degree in Medieval History that included a finals paper on fashion in the English and French Courts during the very specific period of 1330 — 1380. I was mesmerised by the whole concept of the form and function of clothing in defining society and this period is recognised as marking the emergence of recognisable fashion. The fourteenth century saw the introduction of a raft of innovations including buttons and laces enabling much more figure hugging attire than the previous tabard shapes. Imagine the liberation of no longer having to sew yourself into your garments!

I’ve never liked being regimented or told what to wear … or not to wear even. I’m strong on the importance of individuality and uniforms are anathema. I think there is a lot of truth in the saying that there would be no wars if there were no uniforms. At one point the Harrods department I worked in decided to put us in some prissy polka-dot dress with a white collar as our uniform. I hated it with a vengeance — likely the tipping point in my abortive fashion career. But in terms of self-expression, it’s the clothes that are the vehicle not the brand, which can become just another uniform. Reading the coverage of the Tear Drop Ethical Fashion Report this week, which evaluates the performance of leading fashion brands each year, made me glad I hadn’t persevered. The multi-trillion-dollar apparel industry is apparently the second dirtiest industry in the world after oil and gas. These days clothes really are to dye for!

I don’t say this lightly. I went to a thought provoking event a couple of nights ago — Fashun Statement — organised by and featuring some of the inspirational kiwi fashionistas who are at the forefront of the eco-fashion movement. It was both uplifting and horrifying. Horrifying because the first half was given over to looking at the state of the global fashion industry. If you have hopes for the continuation of this planet in any form that includes life as we know it, the statistics are mind-bogglingly depressing. As I’m sure you know, the biggest culprit is “Fast Fashion”. This is the design and distribution of cheaply made clothing  “take, make, waste” behaviours.

Fast fashion uses innovative production and distribution models to dramatically shorten fashion cycles by getting garments from the designer to the customer in a matter of weeks instead of months. This has seen the number of fashion seasons increasing from the traditional two main ones each year (spring/summer and autumn/winter) to as many as fifty to a hundred micro-seasons. I can’t find stats later than 2014 but at that time, the average person bought 60% more clothes than they did in 2000 and kept them half as long. The numbers are increasing exponentially as ever more people in countries like China and India move up the economic ladder. Clothing consumption is projected to triple by 2050 requiring three times as many natural resources compared to what was used in 2000. And what happens to all these disposable ‘rags’? On average, garments are worn only nine times before being binned, creating Everests of additional landfill. Oh and don’t be fooled by conscience salving clothing bins. Apparently, many of these castoffs get exported to emerging nations (if anything is done with them at all), often destroying local businesses and jobs that can’t compete with the influx of our detritus.

One of the presenters showed images of inhuman and abysmal working conditions in factory sweat-shops where people barely achieve subsistence wages and rivers are turned all the colours of the rainbow from industrial waste flowing freely from dyeing shops making rivers and drinking water toxic. For all too many of the big labels, supply chain ethics are sill … er … totally unethical and transparency seems to be something that happens in a parallel universe.

Then there’s the industry’s ecological footprint. Issues like the amount of water and energy required to grow crops like cotton which are the bedrock of the industry. Producing just one cotton shirt apparently requires 2,700 litres of water — enough to keep one person alive for 2.5 years. Cotton farming is also responsible for 24 percent of insecticides and 11 percent of pesticides despite using about 3 percent of the world’s arable land. Polyester production uses less water but is highly carbon intensive. About 20 percent of industrial water pollution is due to garment manufacturing, while the world uses 5 trillion litres (1.3 trillion gallons) of water each year for fabric dyeing alone, enough to fill 2 million Olympic-sized swimming pools. Let’s not forget the oceans of fuel required to ship the flood of new clothes around the world. Clearly, I already knew some of this, but hearing it was a real wake-up call nonetheless.

To everyone’s relief, after the shock tactics came the uplifting part — hearing the inspirational stories of the presenters. Despite being the co-founder of a start-up myself who has evangelised a new technological product in tricksy places like the Middle East, I can’t imagine the true grit it takes with only a few hundred dollars to go somewhere like Indonesia and find a way to set up a manufacturing outlet that is clean, good for the workers and good for the planet. Other than shared admiration for the David v. Goliath success stories we’d heard, in the networking sessions, there was a lot of talk about the growing demand not only for emerging ethical clothing products but also for clothes-swops, re- and up-cycling, getting back to the good old-fashioned (pun intended) concept of actually mending things, using found objects to make accessories from and similar. Online options like TradeMe in NZ and eBay elsewhere offer unlimited potential for the discerning second hand bargain hunter.

The destructive cycle of unchecked consumerism can’t go on — assuming infinite resources when we all know they’re actually finite is not a winning ethos for us humans. Some fashion companies have already acknowledged this and are testing new models like renting jeans, taking back old garments for re-cycling and incorporating “slow fashion” into their business models for competitive advantage.  The only real answer though is to convince people to buy less. Actually, to buy much, much less.

I want things to change — I don’t want my clothes habit to go the way of so many other things that have become taboo because they’re bad for me or the planet and I am encouraged by all the amazing people blazing the trail towards change. I just hope it’s enough. On a personal basis, I’ve stopped being such an avid consumer — I think much more about what I buy and try to find things that will last and which are from environmentally responsible organisations. I know that it’s not always easy or possible to make ethical choices, but at least understanding what’s at stake is a big motivator.

Coming back to my theme of clothes as a statement of individuality, I don’t see finding your own personal style as the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything — that remains 42. But tapping into your inner and unique fashionista can be a wonderfully rewarding journey of discovery about who you are and what you believe in. It’s not about the clothes themselves, it’s more the qualities that set you apart from your peers. It’s about standing for something.  After all, if you don’t know who you are, how can you know you’d like to hang with, love and be loved by, what you want your life mission to be or what your position on religion, politics or any of that stuff is?

Perhaps this all sounds very superficial? Obsessing about clothes when many older people can’t afford to stay warm in the winter and a large chunk of the world is starving does seem frivolous to the point of indecency. Believe me, I’m checking my privilege as I write, but you don’t need money to find make your own statements as the incredible 98-year-old New Yorker, artist and performer Ilona Royce Smithkin (featured image) has shown over the years. To me, she epitomises self-expression with elan and flair. This short video about her take on this is well worth watching. I think that if more people were like Ilona and sure of who they are and were prepared to stand up and be counted, not huddle together like so many sheep in the rain, we might be able to actually do something about all the troubles in our world. As Vivienne Westwood famously said, “you have a more interesting life if you wear impressive clothes.” I’d substitute “individualistic” for “impressive” but thinking about the redoubtable Ms. Westwood’s fashion journey, I get what she meant!

Featured Image — check out this wonderful portrait of Ilona Royce Smithkin and many others equally good at HayDave, to whom thanks.

 

I blame Coco Chanel!

Clearly I don’t blame La Chanel for everything! She probably can’t be held responsible for Altzheimers … or global warming … or weapons of mass destruction … or reality TV … or Weinstein, Trump et al … or … etc.

In fact, in many ways Coco Chanel was entirely admirable. She had a phenomenal impact on womens’ lives leading their liberation from the constraints of the ‘corsette sillouhette’ to a more sporty casual look that became the standard of feminine style. There was the classic Chanel suit, the ‘go anywhere’ little black dress. Oh yes, and bellbottom trousers, bobbed hair, turtleneck sweaters, trench coats … the list goes on. She also made costume jewellery fashionable.

At its peak, the Chanel couture empire employed 3,500. Coco Chanel is the only fashion designer listed on Time Magazine’s list of the 100 most influential people of the 20th century and her achievements have provided inspiration for aspiring career women and female entrepreneurs over the decades. However, there is no getting away from the fact that the ultra-chic and oh-so-famous Chanel must take the blame for some things. To be clear, I’m not talking all that stuff about her being a collaborator and shagging important Germans during WWII, which somewhat un-gilds this otherwise fragrant lily’s legacy. Rather, I’m talking the fact that she has been attributed with making the sun tan fashionable.

With New Zealand heading into summer and the winter outer layers of camouflage clothing being peeled away like so many onion rings, the inconvenient and inescapable truth rears its ugly head; you really are what you eat and drink. After a winter of over-indulgence, I’m contemplating the somewhat depressing and inevitable results and the looming horror of skimpy summer clothes. Clearly, it’s time to reach for the self-tanner and attempt to conceal some of the evidence. But why do I think that being tanned will be an improvement? Fashion that’s why, and it’s all Chanel’s fault!

Chanel regularly vacationed with all the beautiful people in St. Tropez, Cap d’Antibes, Monte Carlo and the other sun-laden playgrounds of the rich and famous that make up the French Riviera. The legend has it that during one of these celeb hangouts on a cruise to Cannes 1923 she unintentionally got sunburnt. Hard to imagine this ultra sophisticated woman all lobster red and peeling, but that’s the story. By the time she got back to Paris, this unwanted blight had turned into what we now know as a tan. This happened at a time when Parisians had also fallen in love with legendary singer Josephine Baker, described at the time as being “caramel-skinned”. The combined social currency of both women sparked a trend; tans became cool and synonymous with health, wealth and luxury in western society.

Cashing in on this new trend, Jean Patou lunched the first sun tan oil “Huile de Chaldee” in 1927 and started a whole new industry of tan-related products. These were designed to help the tidal wave of people who wanted to look as if they were in with the in crowd but didn’t have the in crowd’s available leisure time or money to achieve the desired bronzing. This new trend was a stampede away from the previous peaches and cream beauty standard for caucasian society women who wouldn’t even consider going outside without a parasol — their privideged whiter shade of pale differentiated them as ‘quality’ from the laboring classes with their telltale ruddy complexions from too much time spent outdoors. Many of them even lived in far-flung outposts of empire where they had to contend with the blazing sunshine of tropical climates. For these women, preserving their complexions was a Herculean task, which they stuck to with the tenacity of my late and much beloved Springer Spaniel Oscar on the scent of a possum.

Of course, once the tan became fashionable, there was no going back. Beach clothes shrank in size —disappeared altogether on some beaches — and tanning became a leisure time activity in its own right. The obsession with being tanned led to sun beds, self-tanners, spray on and brush on tanning lotions. Thankfully the ones available now are a vast improvement on the eyesore tangerine tones first on offer and generally associated with those 70s and 80s-spawned medallion men with curly perms. And Trump of course, the leader time forgot, who seems to be stuck in an 80s time warp on just about every count.

But it all still comes back to fashion and perception. Fashion dictates, so shall it be. There was a reason for all those open-shirted men exposing their hairy chests. Fashion! So what, you may well ask? Well, the trouble with fashion is that it’s so easy to become a slave to it. The whole self-image thing for people with less than sculpted bodies springs to mind. The tyrany of the itsy-bitsy-teeny-weeny-polka-dot-bikini is one thing. Without putting too fine a point on it, a tan just seems to improve any pale skinned body no matter how fat, thin, wrinkly, wobbly or droopy it might be. But people can also become fashion victims. In the context of tanning, there’s the accelerated ageing effects of too much intense sunlight. It is likely that wrinkled wasn’t something most of us aspired to be when we grew up and over-exposure to UV rays is a sure-fired way of ending up with a face that looks like a relief map of the planet.

Vanity is a wonderful diffuser of logic. I’m thinking the received wisdom of ages — you have to suffer to be beautiful. But risking death in beauty’s name takes this concept to a ludicrous extreme. For sure, this is all slightly tongue in cheek, but the risk of melanoma most definitely isn’t a joke.To be fair to Chanel, in common with many other fun things that have been rumbled over the last few decades like smoking, drinking and sugar, back in her heyday, getting a tan wasn’t ‘scientifically proven’ to be bad for you. She wasn’t burdened with the knowledge of the co-relation between sun and skin cancer. Nor did she live in the Southern Hemisphere under a hole in the ozone layer where burn times in high summer can be as little as 12 minutes and the prospect of melanoma is an everyday concern. For sure, this is all slightly tongue in cheek, but the risk of melanoma most definitely isn’t a joke.

In any case, and somewhat paradoxically, sunshine in the right quantities is very good for us. It’s one of the main sources of vitamin D and the feel-good factor of summer and sunshine is hard to underestimate. It’s even — allegedly — an effective aphrodisiac. But the best thing is that sunshine is an equal opportunities commodity. You don’t need to be wealthy, educated to within an inch of your life or live anywhere special to enjoy it — although some places have a lot more than others. It’s an option for old and young, fat and thin, socialist and capitalist, man and woman (on either of their separate planets) and people from any ethnicity or minority group — why else would there be Birquinis? Such irony in the French response to those!

The tan retains its allure but nowadays conditions apply. Parents slip, slap and slop sun block on their kids and bundle them up in rash suits to keep them safe from the sun, whilst still benefitting from it. All cosmetic ranges have products with built in UV protection. The basting sun oils are still there, but 30+ sun blocks dominate the sun cream categories and there are great cosmetic products that can achieve a ‘natural glow’ as if from the sun.

I still love sunshine. In fact, as soon as I’m done with this blog post, I’m heading out into it. But times change. In my tan-obsessed youth in London, we actually swopped tactics about how to get and stay tanned. These generally included a cheap, early summer ‘bucket shop’ holiday with a drift of friends at one of a number of Mediterranean resorts to get the all important foundation tan that would set us up for the summer. A week of serious sloth, spot-welded to our sun loungers, basting ourselves and turning on our bodily axes like so many roasting chooks, then falling into the water when the heat and boredom got the better of us. OK I exaggerate, but I’m sure you get the picture. After that, through the summer we would continue to chase opportunities for ‘topping up’. Topping up consisted of ‘pegging out’ as we used to call it, on our roof decks or in back gardens slathered in frying oil on any sunny day that happened to coincide with a day off work or hitting the park nearest to work at lunchtime and shedding as many clothes as the standards of decency in the 80s allowed.

This was at a time when it was still considered a bit ‘not done’ for female professionals to go bare-legged to work, even in extreme heat of the summer. My peers and I were in the vanguard of the change, with hard won acceptance based on baring legs that were bronzed (naturally or artificially) rather than the sort of blue white so beloved of washing powder manufacturers. The getting of a tan at times seemed like an obsession and certainly an intricate part of our then beauty regimes. Not being tanned in summer was as unthinkable as …er … that we’ll all wake up and find that Brexit was just a dream.

These days, my sun worshipping is more muted and often limited to a long walk in a wildlife sanctuary where the dappled sunlight filters through the beautiful native bush and makes exotic patterns on the pathways. I still get the benefits from the all-imporant vitamin C without the risks. In any case, in this part of the world, it’s hard not to get tanned simply by spending any time outside. That’s good because I will always prefer the suntanned look to the alternative. The preconditioning runs deep. But while I am clearly a still a bit of a slave to fashion, I certainly don’t intend to be a victim to in. Pity I didn’t have so much common sense earlier. Might have had a few less wrinkles!

Carpe Diem Baby!

Sometimes I feel that my life is shrinking before my eyes. I’m nearly sixty — how on earth did that happen? I don’t feel old and we live in the world where 60 is the new forty don’t we? So, clearly I’m not. In any case, my soul or whatever you want to call the internal entity that feels like some sort of mini-me remains obstinately and happily oblivious to the passing of the years. Seems there’s a reason why they’re referred to as our ‘inner children’! I think of mine as my inner-Barbie because — like Peter Pan, she seems to inhabit some sort of Neverland where she is forever young. However, unlike the redoubtable Pan who remained a child, my Barbie seems to have cleverly arrested her growth at that beguiling mid-thirties stage. That wonderful place where chronology hasn’t yet won, the body is still beautiful and the spirit is beyond the myopic self-obsession of earlier ages and stages.

Just for the record, I do know I’m not stuck in a time warp circa 1995. I kind of get that every time I’m called to the dark side and consider buying a pair of flat shoes. (Instead of the gorgeously impractical and increasingly hard to walk in high-heeled varieties I have been seduced by all my life.) In recent years two schoolmates and a couple of dear friends have died, among them my first love. That’s certainly chucked a bucket of very cold water in Barbie’s youthful smiley face I can tell you, and accounted for a fair amount of the feelings of shrinkage. But I’m now also facing that old clichéé where time is speeding up. When you’re young the minutes pass like hours and there is a constant feeling of boredom because time stretches out to infinity. Now, I’ve got to that place the young can’t understand where the hours, days, weeks, months and years speed by like the counter in HG Wells’ Time Machine.

Time to carpe diem I say. Grab each day firmly by the throat and make it count. So much better than being subsumed in a myopic obsession about some much desired future state. Whether this state is a new job, a palatial home, a more exciting partner, a super-yacht, some publisher discovering you, winning a career changing award, the in vitro treatment delivering the longed-for and almost given up on baby, running away to live on an Ashram or joining the crew of the Sea Shepherd, putting everything else on hold until some new state arrives seems to be just plain dumb. Let’s face it, scenarios like the current Trump’s/Jong-un brinksmanship play merry Hell with all of our aspirations. But I’m still loving that it’s a gorgeous winter’s day and I’m free to sift through the Op-eds and indulge myself in writing this post. No fires to fight, no ferryman to pay. The future can go hang. I’m happy in my moment. After all, WTF can I do about the mine’s bigger than yours thing that’s going on between those two equally unappealing and childish so-called men?

The carpe diem aphorism comes from Book 1 of the Roman poet Horace’s work Odes written in 23 BC. Carpe diem has long been used as a standalone phrase which people like me think of in terms of living in the now. But the context from Horace is carpe diem, quam minimum credula poster — “Seize the day, put very little trust in tomorrow (the future)”. Horace’s point being we can’t see what the future will bring, but we should do everything we can today to stack the odds. Not to trust that everything will randomly fall into place.

When I thought about it, the gnarly problem of retirement planning sprang to mind. This is something of a sensitive topic for me at the moment as I’ve taken some significant risks with my financial future by treading the path of an entrepreneurial wannabe. The pot of gold at the end of this rainbow has yet to materialise and was looking frighteningly empty for a while. Putting all your financial eggs in the startup basket is a genius strategy if your name happens to be Bill Gates, but not so flash if you’re a John DeLorean and the expected high returns turn out to be little more than surf breaking on the rocks of hubris and self-delusion. While my investments are currently looking a bit healthier than they were a few months ago for a number of reasons, I still have anxiety dreams about becoming an ageing bag lady wheeling my few possessions round in a shopping trolley — pretty certain that the amount I’ve paid into my pension fund won’t cut it on it’s own.

In all likelihood, Horace’s contemporaries weren’t agonizing about whether their KiwiSaver contributions would see the distance. In those days, apparently if a baby made it through its first year, it could expect to live to the ripe old age of 34. Reaching your fifth year delivered the heady possibility of making relatively ‘old bones’ at 48. That’s a total of 17,520 diems to carpe if you want to get granular. Just as an aside, I wonder what went wrong between the Old Testament expectations of three score years and ten and Roman times? Must have been something to do with all that endless wandering around in the dessert as opposed to stagnating in the stews of Rome. Of course there’s also the thing about being God’s chosen people…

Anyway, in Ancient Rome, it’s thought that less than 5% of the population at any one time would be over 65. What a sensible arrangement!  All those lovely younger generations oozing tax denarii into the exchequer leaving no question about the state’s ability to provide for its aged and infirm. Not that Rome was exactly a trailblazer in the realm of social welfare, so this line of thinking is somewhat pointless. But the Roman equations are interesting in comparison to our ageing ‘Boomer’ reality, which is leaving many people angsting about their financial futures. The upside is that this is a temporary blip. Assuming that the militaristic fat boys step away from their nukes and stand down from the standoff, with the rate at which birth rates are levelling off of or falling in the west, we’ll be back to the healthy Roman proportions of youth to age before you can say “climate change is killing us”.

All joking aside, there’s a balance between living in the moment and leaving the future to chance. In the context of financial planning, for sure there are many variables such as how long we’ll live, how much money will be needed to achieve the twilight years lifestyle we aspire to and what environmental factors will kick in to derail it all, not to mention the whole Pandora’s Box of our health. But that doesn’t means there’s no point. Yay, this is where I get to use all those cliches like failing to plan is planning to fail (Alan Lakein after Churchill and Franklin).  Like, if one does not know to which port one is sailing, no wind is favourable (Seneca the Younger — and didn’t those ancient Greeks knew a thing or two BTW? Bet their life expectancy was higher than the Romans). Then there’s, it does not do to leave a live dragon out of your calculations if you live near him (Tolkien). For decades business gurus have been preaching the gospel of vision, mission and values as the foundation to success. Rightly so. Businesses are much more likely to achieve more, do better, make their shareholders wealthier, trade ethically etc. if they have some inkling of what they’re aiming for. It’s no different for us as individuals. Visualising what we want is much more likely to deliver than chasing a series of shiny new things down rabbit holes.

I used to have a friend who was obsessed with spontaneity. She didn’t like being tied into commitments or rules and regulations, preferring instead to live her life on ad hoc terms. We often used to argue a lot about this. Apart from anything else, it was deeply irritating that her need to be spontaneous resulted in her total inability to get anywhere on time. This fed my position which was that I don’t think you can actually be spontaneous unless you live within a structure from which you can break out. If spontaneity is your life mission it’s got to lead to chaos because nothing can ever be achieved. In a similar way, having no life plan invites chaos in. Seizing the day is not only  about visualising and working towards a desired future but also about enjoying the journey no matter what the outcome. As Robert Burns knew so well, “the best laid plans of mice and men gang aft agley.’ Pity to get to where they’ve gone agley and there’s only disappointment and a black hole which sucked in time passed in waiting. The best bit is that with a vision, the whole concept of retirement planning becomes moot because we already know which port we’re sailing to. That we want our days to end in a Disney Castle or an Indian ashram or somewhere in between. Clearly circumstances do frequently rain on this planning parade, requiring regular recalibration, but to me that offers better odds than relying on a Lotto win.

In terms of feeling that my life is shrinking before my eyes, I’m determined to make better use this precious and diminishing time resource that once seemed a commodity. Stop bleeding out on things that don’t matter. Letting time slip away like Dali’s Melting Watch in the featured image. For sure, I need to do what it takes to get some decent returns from all the time I’ve invested in my businesses so the ageing bag lady scenario remains simply a bad dream. But I’m visualising as I write and my scenario always includes enough money to see me out in style and allow me to do all the other things I have factored in.

In this vision, when the bell tolls for me, I plan for it to interrupt something amazing. To continue the annoying references, I will be living my days rather than counting my years. Go to India and Antarctica. Take the sentimental journey home to Scotland and write my memoirs en route. Get therapy for the rampaging arachnophobia that makes any attempt at gardening feel like a journey to Mount Doom! Actually turn up at my orchestra having done more than one cursory run through of the music. Or better, stop beating myself up if I don’t! You get the picture I’m sure? Carpe diem indeed!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder… get it out with Optrex!

 

My elder sister went to art school. On one of her first visits home, she made us laugh with tales of the spectacular graffiti in the women’s toilettes. The one that has stuck with me through the years was “beauty is in the eye of the beholder, get it out with Optrex”. What a great observation! Still makes me smile. And wouldn’t it be great it were true?

If the imprint of beauty could be removed from the eye of the beholder with the simple application of a drop of Optrex how different the world might be? Imagine if Paris had bathed his eyes after his first sighting of Helen — he might never have abducted her and caused her husband Menelaus to launch the 10-year Trojan War to get her back. In that parallel universe, we might still be able to visit Troy. What about Mark Antony whose torrid liaison with Cleopatra ultimately handed ascendency in Rome post-Caesar to Octavian (or Agustus as he was to become) transitioning Rome from Republic to Empire? If Rome had stayed true to its republican virtues instead of dissolving into the lassitude of the late Empire that had no fight in it left when the Vandals came knocking at its gates. If the empire had not fallen, how different would the course of Western History have been? If an eye-drop could have prevented Henry VIII from falling in love with Anne Boleyn and out of love with the Catholic Church (which actually wouldn’t have existed in the earlier scenario if Rome had not fallen), there might not have been a Reformation and we might all still be living in the dark ages deprived of the flowering of the first Elizabethan era.

Optrex wasn’t introduced to the market until the 1930’s so even if it could wash beauty from the hapless beholder’s eye, it was too late to for Troy and Rome. It’s not all bad though, Henry’s VIII’s obsession with Anne Boleyn helped gave us the double whammy of the Reformation and Elizabeth’s amazing reign. In any case, it’s clear that Optrex actually can’t do any such thing, as people have continued to fall in love with the same frequency and occasionally shocking consequences as they did before it’s introduction in the thirties.

I like the idea of beauty being in the eye of the beholder because it allows for the possibility that every one of us can be beautiful to someone. Other than Helen, I’m not entirely clear that any of those spectacular women I’ve just mentioned would be described as classic beauties in the Venus de Milo tradition. Rather their attractiveness and power seems to have stemmed more from their beguiling personalities bringing together intelligence, vivacity, and elegance as well as alluring physical charms. However it’s defined, when we think about beauty, it’s more likely to be the drop-dead gorgeous variety which makes the hormones race rather than the inner type which has a slower burning fuse. Think about it, there’s Angelina Jolie and there’s Dame Judy Dench. While Dame Judy is undoubtedly a beautiful soul, she’s never been in La Jolie’s league physically. Even in her younger days, Dame Judy’s beauty was, like Intel, largely on the inside. I’m sure their mothers loved them equally (although, reading the gossip mags, that may not actually be true), but only one of them had the world (and for many years the divine Brad Pitt) at her feet because of her Helenesque loveliness. It has to be said that unlike the mythical Menelaus, Brad does not appear to have been so beguiled by Angelina that he set out with a flotilla of 1,000 ships to get her back when they broke up. Of course, the peerless Dame Judy also has long had a proportion of the world at her feet, but the adoration is more based on admiration of her art than her drop-dead gorgeousness. That’s not to say that la belle Jolie can’t act, clearly she can, and well. But that skill often gets lost in the hysteria surrounding her looks, eating habits and choices of mate.

Kids at school know the truth — generally before the 17 years it took Janis Ian to understand “that love was meant for beauty queens and high school girls with clear skinned smiles”. Everyone in the playground knows who the cute, adorable ones are. Unfair though it is, beautiful children who grow into beautiful people get more attention, more opportunities and generally more of everything than others. Sifting through articles on the subject, other than the relative ease of finding top quality mates, it’s evident that BPs experience many other advantages. Attractive students get higher grades. Banks and other institutions loan more readily to the lookers (who apparently are less likely to default). In mock criminal trials physically attractive ‘defendants’ are less likely to be convicted and the ones that are get lighter sentences. The BP brigade earns more than their less attractive peers by as much as 10 percent. All of this is hardly news, more like a statement of the bleeding obvious, but in a world where at least a proportion of it’s global citizens are genuinely seeking social equity, this is just another example of the playing field not being even. There’s even is a word for it — lookism. Who knew?

I remember seeing a programme in the early 2000s presented by John Cleese – The Human Face —  which set out to show that there is a mathematical formula for why someone like Liz Hurley (who was Cleese’s muse through the narrative) is so incredibly gorgeous. They used computer technology to aggregate images of many faces into a composite that was considered to be the distillation of the human face at its most beautiful. As I recall, this mathematical grid arrived at heart-shaped face, which the wide range of beauties they then superimposed on the grid all conformed to including the more famous Liz (Taylor), Marilyn, Greta et al.

Youth and beauty, both male and female, have been potent currency since us humans first walked the planet. However unfair, it’s simply a fact of life. But there is also a downside. BPs have to live with the knowledge that they are often not judged on the terms they wish to be. I knew a woman in London who was a Julie Christie look alike. She was truly ravishing — to the point that when she was talking to you, it was hard not to get mesmerised and lose track of what she was saying. It was almost like being under a spell and you just got lost in the glory of looking at her. She said very few people (men or women) looked below the surface to see who she really was as a person. Our circle expected her to marry some A Lister, financial whizz or other distinguished personage. How superficial of us! Eventually she married a really likeable, but pretty run-of-the-mill dude, because she said he actually saw her as a person, not just a beautiful façade and that was good enough for her. In addition to always being taken at face value, as St. Augustine observed, “beauty is indeed a good gift of God; but that the good may not think it a great good, God dispenses it even to the wicked.” Presumably Moors Murderer Ian Bradley found Myra Hyndley (“the most evil woman in Britain”) drop dead gorgeous in the beginning.

Coming back to the opening, if beauty like that possessed by Helen of Troy, Angelina Jolie or Liz Hurley were the only currency for attraction, our species would have become extinct long-since. Imagine the slaughter in Trojan-type wars fought over the limited pool of available lovelies, leaving the rest of us withering on the vine of solitary childlessness and the species unable to reproduce itself. The upside would be that we would have perished sublimely unaware of ticking of The Doomsday Clock as it endlessly re-calibrates the current and very real threats — WMDs, climate change or Donald Trump — that could conspire to destroy us! Thankfully, beauty really is in the eye of the beholder, allowing even self professed “ugly duckling girls” like Janis Ian to shine for someone and no amount of Optrex will ever make that different.

The malice of a good thing is the barb that makes it stick!

Don’t you just love Alec Baldwin’s oh-so-close to the knuckle portrayal of Donald Trump in Saturday Night Live? Last week’s show offered up a short-term (no-one mention multi-term) future in 2018 with the US facing an alien invasion force from the planet Zorblatt 9. The ‘skit’ featured Baldwin/Trump visiting a military base with the irrepressible ‘POTUS’ trumpeting (sorry couldn’t resist it) inspiration to the troops via a classic piece of tawdry trumpery (aka a speech). If that weren’t enough to keep us rolling in the aisles, guest host Scarlett Johanssen did a total number on ‘First Daughter’ Ivanka Trump in a spoof commercial promoting a new perfume, Complicit. Genius!

I read a report a while ago that laughing at other people is very good for us. Not WITH you understand, AT. Who knew? To be honest, I think we all did, but there’s nothing like a report to add legitimacy to what the world, his wife and dog already know! Anyway, turns out there is a fair body of scientific (and not-so-scientific) evidence that advocates the healing power of laughter. In fact, help is even available through the counseling services of ‘laughologists’ and ‘laugh therapists’ … yes really … try Googling them! That laughter is good for us is hard to argue with as a premise. Seems more like a statement of the bleeding obvious as it is, after all, “such fun” (thank you Miranda).

In terms of laughing at, rather than with, I’m thinking all those TV shows where people submit their home video ‘funnies’ in order to win what seems like a small amount of dollars in relation to the humiliation quotient involved. Then there are the formulaic Wipeouts and Fear Factors where we can voyeuristically enjoy other people making complete prats of themselves. And talking of prats, we do love our ‘prat falls’ don’t we? If you think you’re made of better stuff, cast your mind back to any episode of the above mentioned Miranda and consider whether you were able to keep a straight face as she literally went arse over tit in front of Gary, the man she so desperately wanted to impress.

Prat falls are a reminder that random shit happens, and to anyone. A queen can just as easily slide on a banana skin as a commoner, or a president trip on an uneven path and do a spectacular head plant in front of the world’s media. And the more celebrated the faller, the funnier it actually is. The Germans call it schadenfreude or pleasure derived from the misfortunes of others.

But there’s a darker truth running through all this mirth. Since ancient times, writers have understood the potential for laughter to undermine authority and fuel regime change. The use of humour, irony, exaggeration, or send up to expose and criticize people’s stupidity or vices —the medium known as satire — has long been used to shape opinion. At its best, it is extremely witty and often very funny, although the subject matter can be deadly serious. While making its point by entertaining, it holds human, societal or individual vices up to censure through ridicule. To succeed, its subject must be widely known.

For more than a decade between 1984 and 1996 Spitting Image, the hugely successful television programme starring latex puppets of celebrities and politicians, wowed people with the accuracy and malevolence of its send ups. No cow was sacred. Targets included the British Royal Family and Ronald and Nancy Reagan who starred in a spoof drama, The President’s Brain is Missing. Then there was Margaret Thatcher and her Cabinet of Vegetables. Besotted, with Reagan she (the puppet) became progressively more demented as the series went on. Underlying the humour were hard-hitting social and political commentaries about what opponents saw as the harsh realities of Thatcherism. This portrayal may even have contributed to ‘The Iron Lady’s’ ultimate fall. Go Baldwin, McKinnon and the other Saturday Night Livers — on this basis, if you keep up the good work, you might achieve the same result with Trump!

Satire played an important role in the fight for the basic rights and freedoms that the Western world now takes for granted. But its golden age was the period from the end of the seventeenth century to the mid-nineteenth, a time of enormous social change in Europe as industrialisation transformed how people lived and worked and how societies were organised. From the pens of the great novelists of the era came biting attacks on social wrongs, corruption and moral lassitude; Charles Dickens took on the atrocious conditions suffered by the growing urban working class; Jane Austen shone a spotlight on the plight of women; Jonathan Swift savaged the corruptness of the political establishment and William Thackeray and Anthony Trollope skewered the double whammies of class and privilege. Other leading satirists from this period include Moliere, Ben Johnson, John Dryden, Alexander Pope and George Meredith.

The title of this blog post is taken from the play School for Scandal by Richard Brinsley Sheridan (1751 – 1816), the archetypal ‘comedy of manners’.  First staged in 1777 in London, School for Scandal is a social satire that portrays English high society as being mired in gossip, calumny and sexual intrigue. The intention of the piece was to highlight the lack of honor, lax morality, and superficiality of the idle rich, whose primary pastime is jockeying for advancement by destroying the reputations of their peers. Sheridan used exaggeration, clever language, rapier-smart dialogue and telling character names (Ladies Sneerwell and Candour for example) to send up their frailty and folly de grandeur.

During this golden period, cartoon and caricature also came into their own as compelling additions to the satirical toolbox. In eighteenth century England, the etchings of William Hogarth such as Gin Lane, showing the horrific effects of gin abuse by the urban poor, were a powerful protest against prevailing social conditions. In France in the following century, Honoré Daumier created some of the finest political caricatures for the magazine La Charivari during the 1830s. Henri Toulouse Lautrec, at the end of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth, continued this graphic tradition of social satire in his depictions of Parisian society.

While Daumier was creating for La Charivari until censorship drew its sting, in England Henry Mayhew established Punch Magazine in 1841. It began as a democratic weekly, regularly featuring harsh depictions of Queen Victoria and her family, particularly the foreign Prince Albert who was deeply unpopular with the British public. It later became an upper class weekly whose readers enjoyed seeing their own foibles, and those of their servants, tradesmen and recognizable types like social climbers, being exposed. Vanity Fair was launched in competition in 1868. Both publications aimed at a public “in the know”, people who enjoyed the send-up of famous figures and types in every strata of life. Publications of this sort sprang up throughout Western Europe and were forceful channels for molding public opinion. The editorial cartoons in all our current newspapers continue this tradition.

To achieve their goals, satirists often knowingly risk reprisals. The genius of good satire has always been in the cleverness of the disguise. In masking the individuals or issues in question and avoiding libel whilst still ensuring the audience is in no doubt who or what the subject is. Roman poets Horace (65 – 8 BC) and Juvenal (active in late 1st and ealy 2nd centuries AD) went to extreme lengths to stay on the right side of their political masters in their work. In Medieval times jesters or fools provided a mechanism to filter unpalatable issues and opinions to the monarch through the parody of court politics and personalities. They trod a very fine line between mockery and treason. Getting this balance wrong could result in a short, and very unfunny, step to the gallows. Voltaire, one of the greatest of the Enlightenment’s writers and philosophers, famous for his wit and advocacy of civil liberties including freedom of religion, freedom of expression, free trade and the separation of church and state, was an outspoken supporter of social reform. His work and ideas influenced the key movers behind both the American and French Revolutions. In an era of harsh penalties for the breaking of censorship laws, Voltaire was an occasional visitor to the Bastille prison in Paris, as was his compatriot Daumier.

That was an age when the entire fabric of society underwent the seismic shift from a predominantly rural agrarian economy to an urban, manufacturing one. The Industrial Revolution saw huge numbers migrating to cities where they — particularly women and children — lived and worked in shocking conditions. Without any effective legislation, abuses by employers went largely unchecked. Archaic laws, perpetuated by absolutist monarchies and aristocratic and ecclesiastic dominated governments, protected the interests of the old order and put a premium on property in preference to people. Growing disenchantment saw electoral reform become a burning issue at a time when the right to vote was extremely limited and based entirely on property ownership. War between the old elite and a rising new liberal order was inevitable. The bloody French Revolution that erupted in 1789 attempted to create a lasting republic based on the principles of liberty, equality and fraternity was the most extreme example of the winds of change moving throughout Europe at the time. Satire was a brutal weapon used by both sides in this struggle.

Our current Technological Revolution has opened up a new set of social challenges not least being the replacement of growing numbers of jobs with automation, particularly in the manufacturing sector. Many people feel disenfranchised and bewildered by the scale, scope and rapidity of change and how they can assimilate into this brave new world. The rich seemingly get richer while the poor get poorer. We liberals have been well intentioned in our struggle for gender and social equity. But the road to Hell is, of course, paved with good intentions. Our intellectual elitist approach to addressing social issues is at odds with the feelings of the people everywhere that Hilary Clinton disastrously dubbed ‘deplorables’ in the US, who feel patronised and misunderstood. All of this laid the foundations for the all the unthinkable ‘events’  last year — Brexit, Trump, the rise and rise of the ‘alt-right’, the future of European liberal democracy, Putin and his monumental megalomania. It feels as if political insanity is the new black, with Trump in the vanguard, seemingly intent on reversing all the incredible advances in global stability and basic human rights. That is not to say that that things don’t need to change. They do;  conventional thinking and mores are failing us. We need new social models and better ways to prepare our children to live happy, successful lives in a very different future to the one we (Boomers) inherited.

BUT, we can change without losing our humanity. Without trashing the aspirations enshrined in the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights which committed all member states to “promote universal respect for and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion”. While this declaration is just that — aspirational — it’s language remains potent and it’s incredible that these aspirations have so suddenly come under fire. But every cloud has a silver lining. Maybe the current silver lining takes the form of a wake up call to identify and defend what we believe in. If that hasn’t yet extended to manning the barricades, people in droves have been grabbing the placards and marching to protest their indignation at the assault on these values and the lack of concern for our world and ALL its people.

Censorship of the press has been an all-too-frequent counter measure by which the establishment or ruling classes have historically gagged reformers and enforced control when pressure-valves looked like blowing. A disturbing parallel between Trump and his ‘fake news is the enemy of the people’ mantra wouldn’t you say? Satire is a powerful weapon that the liberal media is already using to great effect. In this strangest of strange times it is likely to again play a central role in keeping the metaphorical vandals from our gates. I count myself lucky to have lived in a time and place where I’ve been able to enjoy freedom of speech and expression. I’m unlikely to face any sanctions for writing this opinion piece. But it scares me to see the media, whose role is to serve up truth no matter how unpalatable, being vilified — it’s a slippery slope from this to censorship and repression. In the ‘post truth’ world of ‘alternative facts’ and outright lying, we risk that there won’t be actually any need for formal gagging orders and persecution that past writers face. We may simply lose the ability to tell the difference between what’s real and what’s not and whoever shouts loudest will carry the day.

According to an article in NY Times this week, “traditional television, a medium considered so last century, has seen audiences drift away for the better part of a decade. Now, rattled liberals are surging back, seeking catharsis, solidarity and relief. The old analog favorites are in, with comfort-food franchises like “ Saturday Night Live” drawing its highest Nielsen numbers in 24 years. Despite a dizzying array of new media choices, viewers are opting for television’s mass gathering spots, seeking the kind of shared experience that can validate and reassure.”

The article argues that television offers people a sense that “we’re in this together” and that others are “equally outraged”. This bonding is not limited to the US. If the world is truly a global village, then we all bleed when the leader of  the Western alliance vents his spleen on Twitter and appears to believe, like Hitler, that if you tell a big enough lie and tell it frequently enough, it will be believed. So I say to Baldwin, McKinnon, Johanssen and your ilk; I salute your activism. Keep it coming. Send up the sexism and stentorian stupidities. Ridicule the ridiculous. Make mockery of the monstrous. Lampoon the liars. Use your wit and your waggishness to protect us from the posturing, puffery and purile prattling. As Leonard Cohen so famously said, “there is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.” Find the crack. Let the light in. Keep us honest, free, truthful and on the side of the angels.

Where’s the ‘honour’ in killing?

A few years ago I wrote a novelette — shorter than a novella and longer than a short story — about Anne Boleyn’s last days. Recently I read something that caused me to dust off this minor opus and look at it through a slightly different lens; not just as the story of one wronged woman, but as a story that is part of a deeper context of all wronged women.

Anne Boleyn’s story has always moved me. The Anger of Princes is Death was an attempt to imagine how this extraordinary woman’s last days and hours might have unfolded. What on earth would go through your mind as you walk towards a scaffold where a swordsman is waiting to hack your head from your body? You are an anointed queen and you have sworn before God you are innocent of the charges against you. Your trial was a trumped up farce — you weren’t even allowed the right to defend yourself. Most of your friends and family have deserted you. In many cases, they even testified against you. A man who once loved you with a passion that caused him to move heaven and earth to marry you signed your death warrant and is now waiting eagerly for the cannon fire that will tell him he’s free to marry his new love. Your adored brother and some of your dearest friends — cited as your lovers —have already been tried and killed.

It must surely have been a gruesome vigil waiting for your date with death. Then finally, the last short but seemingly interminable walk from The Queen’s Apartments in the Tower of London to the scaffold. A walk not of shame as your enemies saw it, but of turbulent emotions — a desperate wish to cling to life mixed with a profound longing for the ordeal to be over.

And yet, witnesses say Anne Boleyn took those last few steps to her death with dignity and self-control, and without protest against the system that had condemned her. Many contemporaries saw Anne’s execution as the cynical killing of a woman, who was ‘past her sell-by-date’ and who’d become an inconvenient nuisance to Henry VIII, a view point most historians now agree with. Every time I think about it, I’m disturbed all over again. It’s not as if I knew her or she were my friend or even a friend of a friend. It’s nearly five centuries since this drama unfolded, but her ghost haunts me because of the circumstances and the overwhelming feeling of injustice involved.

It has to be said that Royal Courts, such as that of Henry VIII were notoriously visceral. Power and wealth were there for the taking through service to the monarch, but much pride went before many falls for people who over-reached. Anne Boleyn’s dazzling rise and spectacular plummet is just one example. While the other beheading of a queen of Henry’s, Katherine Howard, his fourth wife and Anne’s first cousin, is still a repulsive act, there isn’t the same sense of injustice because the evidence of adultery is very compelling. Few at the time or since really questioned her guilt. She was a foolish girl and paid a very high price for her folly. While one can argue a whole bunch of things about the wrongness of any form of death penalty, by the norms of the day, she was likely guilty of a capital offence.

Anne Boleyn however, was anything but a foolish girl. She was a spirited woman of the Renaissance. Talented, well educated and intellectually curious, Anne is credited with playing a significant part in the Reformation of the Church in England through her friendship with and advocacy of some of its leading figures and her influence on Henry VIII. It is likely the worst she was actually guilty of was over-arching ambition, arrogance and the inability to produce a male heir for her mercurial and often cruel husband. It seems Henry did convince himself somewhat conveniently that the charges against her were true and while he expressed outrage at her betrayal, the reality seems to be that he had fallen out of love with her and Anne’s execution opened up the possibility of his marriage to someone else who could legitimately bear him heirs.

There are few monarchs or rulers in history that can match the beguiling awfulness of Henry VIII who cemented the House of Tudor on the English throne after the Wars of the Roses (1455-1487). His reign became notorious for his break with the Church of Rome in order to marry Anne Boleyn, after which he made himself head of the Church in England and dissolved the abbeys, significantly enriching his exchequer. Under his watch came the Reformation which caused deep religious divisions in the country and a growing pile of corpses belonging to the many people who didn’t agree with him, most famously Thomas More, his one time friend. And then there were his celebrated marital excesses. The sheer theatricality of the six wives, two of whom were careless enough to end up without their heads, retains a morbid fascination that often eclipses the much more significant events that were taking place.

My interest in history goes as far back as I can remember. But as a kid, the concept of history was little more than a parade of kings, queens, princes and princesses and my friends and I fixated on the ‘gory’ bits. Henry VIII provided endless grist to our imaginative little mills. We used to recite the old “divorced (Catherine of Aragon) … beheaded (Anne Boleyn) … died (Jane Seymour) … divorced (Anne of Cleves) … beheaded (Katherine Howard) … survived (Catherine Parr)” mnemonic in primary school to remember their order. Technically of course, divorce is incorrect as the marriages were annulled, but that was too complicated for children playing Henry VIII and his wives in a school playground! Even as a child it was easy to feel that the last wife, Catherine Parr, had a lucky escape when Henry died and she could marry her true love, Thomas Seymour. But Anne Boleyn was always the romantic heroine of the piece and we all fought to be the one to play her.

I digress. Through the ages, most royal and noble women have been considered and treated as little more than chattels. They moved from the domination of their father to that of their husband and often they had no or little say in whom that would be. Their principle duties were to be virgins at the time of the marriage, reproduce as often as possible, remaining faithful till death so there could be no question about the legitimacy of their children. For the wives of kings, adultery was treasonous and generally carried the death penalty. Very Game of Thrones! (George RR Martin apparently drew his inspiration from the Wars of The Roses.)

But looking at Anne Boleyn’s treatment through my different lens, I see shades of what we now call ‘honour killing’. This is defined as the killing of a family member by other members of the family, due to their belief that the victim has brought shame or dishonor upon the family or has violated the principles of a community or religion. One of the most common ‘crimes against honour’ is of course adultery, although there are many others. In Anne’s case, mirroring that of so many other women before and since, alleged charges — if you exclude the testimony of a young musician gained under torture — were all that were needed to convict her.

The concept of killing adulterous wives and unchaste daughters has a long and inglorious history and is by no means limited to practitioners of fundamental religions. Some examples include The Lex Julia de Adulteris Coercendis enacted by Caesar Augustus which gave the Roman pater familias the right, as a point of honour, to kill his unmarried sexually active daughters or his adulterous wife. Aztec and Inca societies apparently punished adultery by death. In France, the Napoleonic Code of 1810 made it legal for husbands to murder unfaithful wives and partners, but wives did not have the same right in respect of adulterous husbands. Scarily, this law wasn’t formally repealed until 1975 although it’s hard to imagine any court by then condoning such murders! The Napoleonic Code inspired similar legislation in some of the Middle Eastern countries where France’s influence was strong. Throughout Mediterranean Europe the concept of familial and community honour was a way of life and defined the lives, customs and values of many peoples — the Sicilian Mafia being just one example.

What’s so insidious about honour killing is the whole vicious cycle: the killers often take pride or self-righteous justification in their actions, the community leaders protect the killers and the authorities connive the cover up. While it isn’t only women that are killed for honour, women are its main victims. Apparently, instances of this barbaric practice are on the rise. It’s unconscionable in this day and age that, all over the world, women from all walks of life, irrespective of class, ethnicity or religious background are treated as the property of the men with the power of life and death over them. You don’t even have to be a prince for your anger to mean death!

Clearly writing a short story about a long-dead queen does nothing to change this. But re-reading my story, reminded me of the on-going need to speak up against inequality wherever it occurs, particularly when it’s based on outdated and frankly ridiculous concepts of masculine honour and pride. Death is just the most extreme outcome for such women in a world where life is not fair and there is no justice to be had.

If you’d like to read my small, but perfectly formed novellette, The Anger of Princes is Death, it’s available as a kindle book on Amazon. 

I’m sorry, you’re not equal!

I read an on-the-money article in the NY Times after the womens’ marches on 21 January. Another one of those ‘I wish I’d said that’ scenarios. Apparently a post had been doing the rounds on social media along the lines of “I’m am not a disgrace to women because I don’t support the march … I do not feel I am a second class citizen because I am a woman … “

Dina Leygerman’s piece was a blistering masterpiece of yeah right! Although it was largely a blast at American women in the American context, it resonated strongly with me because truth is truth wherever you are. Dina took no hostages in rebutting the idea that we’re equal — ‘wrapped in your delusion of equality’ — citing statistics about abuse, objectification, unequal pay and opportunities to back up her commentary. She also listed many of the American giants on whose shoulders we’ve stood to be able to make our own choices, speak and be heard, vote, work, control our bodies, and defend ourselves and our families.

Co-incidentally I went to a funeral last week that was celebrating the life of Dame Laurie Salas, one of New Zealand’s own giants who fought tirelessly for human rights, gender equality, nuclear disarmament and peace throughout her long life. I didn’t know Dame Laurie. I sing in the same choir that one of her daughters does, and this daughter put out an all points bulleting asking if any of the choir would be able to sing at her mother’s funeral. Being your own boss does have some real advantages like not having to get permission for such things, so I said yes, not knowing anything about her mother. Just seemed like a good thing to do. And it was a good decision as it turned out. As I listened to her family and the other speakers sharing their memories of her incredible life, I was humbled and inspired by Dame Laurie’s story. In addition to being a life member of the National Council for Women, a past President and honorary member of the United Nations Association of New Zealand amongst many others she also raised six children who clearly adored her, as did her friends and colleagues from cabinet ministers to women in refuges.

What I found particularly uplifting was that Dame Laurie did not come across as a firebrand. She was passionately committed, but measured and articulate and convincing. She mentored many younger women and seemingly lived the change she wanted to see. Sounded like she really exemplified the ‘love trumps hate’ message that is so important in the current climate.

NYT’s Dina mentioned New Zealand in despatches — we apparently have the smallest gender gap in wages at 5.6%. Good to see, but not quite true. NZ’s Ministry for Women put this at 12% in 2016 and I don’t think it would have dropped that much in less than a year. However you calculate the number it’s still much worse in the States at 20%. But the fact that we have a gap at all is still an outrage!

For sure in NZ, we’re not the worst when it comes to gender equality. After all, we were the first country in 1893 where women got the vote — thank you Kate Shepherd and your indomitable peers, the ‘first wave’ feminists. We’ll be celebrating the 125th Anniversary of this ground-breaking event next year. Sounds good huh? But women still couldn’t stand for Parliament until 1919 and the first female Member of Parliament wasn’t actually elected until 1933, 40 years later. And, the number of female MPs didn’t reach double figures until the mid-1980s and we’re still under-represented in parliament. We’ve had a couple of female prime ministers — homage to Jenny Shipley (1997-1999) and Helen Clark (1999-2008) — for doing what Hilary Clinton couldn’t and breaking the ultimate glass ceiling here.

Unlike so many other places in the world where women are still little more than chattels, we enjoy the protection afforded through a strong statutory framework giving us full and equal rights and we have a small but effective Ministry for Women. New Zealand is an active participant in annual international meetings focused on the advancement of women and maintains a strong and consistent voice for women’s rights and advancement globally. Our Government is (allegedly) committed to ensuring all women have the opportunity to realise their strengths and achieve social and economic success.

Still sounds good? Keep reading …

  • The female unemployment rate is still higher than the male
  • As noted above, the pay gap remains
  • We do far more unpaid work than men — 63% to 35%.
  • We are still strongly at the mercy of the men in our lives:
    • 1 in 3 women experience physical and/or sexual violence from a partner in their lifetime
    • 76 per cent of recorded assaults against females are committed by an offender that is identified as family.
    • In the four years from 2009 to 2012, 76% of intimate partner violence-related deaths were perpetrated by men, 24% women.

Clearly we still have a long way to go and we’re moving backwards not forward! The World Economic Forum ranks countries annually in its Global Gender Gap Index based on health, education, economic and political indicators. NZ has consistently ranked in the top 10, but recently we dropped to 13. We do some things well — in education for example 61% of tertiary graduates are women. But that’s cold comfort really when you graduate with an equal qualification to your male peers only to likely get paid less when you enter the workforce!

There are many reasons behind this, but topping the list according to people who should be in the know (that I know) appear to be that our current government (nearing the end of its second term) is not pro-active and we don’t have a national plan for moving towards gender equality, despite a lot of rhetoric to the contrary. But there’s also the complacency thing that Dina was railing against and it’s apparent everywhere. All too often women are accepting the endemic, perhaps often subconscious (being generous) sexism that’s ‘always on’ when you cut to the chase. So many entrenched attitudes and subtle or not so subtle put downs remain despite all the progress.

There are compelling arguments for gender equality — and yes, it’s about more than just women’s rights. It’s about ALL people having the same opportunities. World Bank research shows a positive correlation between economies with greater equality and economic performance. Dow Jones has found successful venture-backed start-ups have more than double the median proportion of female executives than failed startups and it’s recognised that companies with gender-diverse boards make more money. Countries with the best gender equality have lower rates of violence against women. In New Zealand itself, it’s estimated that we could add 10% to our GDP annually if we maximised the working potential of all our women. A 2014 report estimated the cost of NZ’s family violence at $4.1 billion — we only have a total population of just over 4m, so that’s a staggering number per capita — and it’s only the tip of the iceberg. Imagine what we could do with all that money otherwise!

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been an individualist with a profound and deeply held belief that the playing field should be even for all. Throughout my (now quite long) career I’ve tilted hard at any glass ceiling in sight and supported other women in my orbit to do the same. I’ve been on the receiving end of significant and often highly depressing prejudice — so damaging to one’s sense of adequacy, acceptance and self-belief.

Many women have chosen to distance themselves from feminism because of the often unappealing stereotypes involved. But to me, feminism is not something any female can detach from. I’m with Maya Angelou, “I’m a feminist. I’ve been a female for a long time now. I’d be stupid not to be on my own side.” Feminism doesn’t have to come with hairy legs and no lippie — that’s simply a choice. The non negotiable is that we cannot be complacent now or ever. After all, feminism is only the radical notion that women are human beings (Cheris Kramarae). In any case, who would go back to what we had even 40 years ago?

Dina Leygerman finished her article, ‘Open your eyes. Open them wide. Because I’m here to tell you, along with millions of other women that you are not equal. Our equality is an illusion. A feel-good sleight of hand. A trick of the mind. I’m sorry to tell you, but you are not equal. And neither are your daughters.”

As Hilary Clinton rightly said, “I believe the rights of women and girls is the unfinished business of the 21st century.” I echo that sentiment wholeheartedly… let’s stand on the shoulders of giants like Dame Laurie Salas and get the job done!

There will be weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth!

And no, I’m not talking about the world’s response to the Trump! The other day I was reminded rather poignantly of a joke that did the rounds when I was a kid in  Scotland.

A stentorian and very ‘no frills’ Minister of the Church of Scotland is haranguing his hapless flock,

“… and there will be weeping, and wailing and gnashing of teeth …”

(For the Scots or Scotophiles currently reading, for fullest impact, if you can, imagine the dialogue in a strong Teuchter accent.)

Anyway, just as our Reverend Brimstone is getting into fully cry, a tremulous hand goes up towards the back of the congregation.

“Well, Mrs. MacDonald, what is it?”

“Minister, I don’t have any teeth.”

“Mrs. MacDonald, where’s your faith?” he thunders, thumping the Bible emphatically.  “TEETH WILL BE PROVIDED!”

And my point? Teeth matter. Tenuous connection, I grant you, but  really they do. Not necessarily in St Luke/Matthew’s context that our Minister above was alluding to where the ability to gnash teeth is a key accompaniment to weeping and wailing as one is thrown out of heaven and cast into outer darkness. No, my hypothesis was a little less New Testament and more New Age. Not only are teeth pretty important in helping us chow down enough food to stay alive, they’re also kind of important in other ways; like the level of dazzle in our smiles. I’m thinking the sort of smile that Charming in Shrek managed to muster where the sunlight gleamed off his perfectly even, blindingly white set. Frankly, he wouldn’t be Charming without them. Toothsome even.

So let’s just accept that teeth matter. Or they do to me, so that’s really all that matters. Perhaps that’s because the dazzle quotient of mine is beginning to slide a little. I guess the expression ‘long in the tooth’ wasn’t coined for  no reason. OK, I know we can get the damn things capped and whitened and have access to all manner of other dental alchemy, but it doesn’t fundamentally change the fact that the little darlings have minds of their own and don’t always co-operate however much brushing, flossing, mouth washing, tongue scaling and similar we do. At least these days they don’t just whip ‘em all out the minute they start to show signs of wear and tear — many of us are likely to die with a fair number of our own pearly whites in place.

Given how important they are to us, I wouldn’t be unique in wondering what sadist designed them with so many built-in flaws that resulted in the dental profession. I swear it’s not just regression to childhood that makes vision a dentist so traumatic — it genuinely is not fun. Take my most  recent experience. You know the drill (LOL). A lot of poking around and scaling with scary-looking miniature instruments that the Auto da Fe would have been glad to have dreamt up. And it has to be said, the person who came up with that spray thing whose sole function seems to be to inflict eye-watering pain by blasting jets if ice-cold water at those very sensitive parts just reclaimed by the scaling cannot have been overflowing with the milk of human kindness, can they?

I was actually at the dentist about two weeks later than scheduled — a bad cold caused me to cancel my original appointment. My dentist was on holiday the following week so I was unable — and I was devastated about this — to get an another appointment any earlier.  That’s when the shit started to hit the fan. In the interim, my not very severe cold turned into sinusitis, which converted my right cheek into a manufacturing facility for brightly coloured nasal emissions that flowed like the Niagara Falls and in similar volumes. An excruciating pain then colonised the lower right hand side of my face. Happy though I was at the weight loss from not being able to eat anything substantial for several days, I’d have gladly traded the pain for several additional kilos.

As it was, the nasal emissions slowly dried up, but the jaw ache got steadily worse and the right hand side of my face was as swollen as a puffball before someone’s squished it. I popped Nurofen like Smarties, moaned a lot to anyone who would listen — a diminishing number as the days wore on — and generally grumped around like … well … er … yup … a bear with toothache. By the time of my appointment the pain was such that I couldn’t wait to get there – practically ran in the door and threw myself at the chair. And there I was. In the hot seat and up to my eyeballs in trouble.

Readers are advised that the following content contains subject matter that contains violence and bad language — discretion is advised.

“It’s going to have to come out! You know that don’t you? We can make a temporary repair, but that’s only postponing the inevitable.”

“FXXX!” I think, overwhelmed by the unfairness of it all.

Turns out I have an abscess. Given the symptoms, not much of a surprise. What was a surprise was that the remedy of choice was to remove the offending tooth. My eternally cheery dentist smilingly told me that antibiotics would clear up the abscess, but there was no alchemy that would save the tooth (or words to that effect). “Damn!” I say (thinking much stronger expletives), trying not to become hysterical. What kind of Hobson’s choice is this? Take the tooth out immediately and be done with it OR pay for a course of antibiotics AND THEN take it out anyway. Even for an abject wimp like me the choice isn’t a difficult one!

So, it’s agreed. The tooth must go. Out of consideration for the delicacy of my readers and my own disinclination to re-visit the trauma that followed, I will not provide a blow-by-blow account. I won’t mention the two enormous injections — “you’ll only feel a little sting”. Who do they think they’re kidding? The little sting was like I imagine you’d feel if you landed in the midst of a smack (the applicable collective noun I believe) of Box Jellyfish. I’ll also spare you the details of the routine check up that happened while the injections were turning my mouth to that slobbering insensitivity that can only be achieved by anesthetic. A cracked filling that needed a running repair was identified … “might as well do that too” … “er, um”, I mumble. Anyone else find it a practical impossibility to say “no” in such conditions? Why do they insist on asking you questions and not just accept that if they need to talk, it’s going to be a monologue?

Anyway, I can tell you reader, my cup ranneth over! The chipping away of tartar involved in the subsequent scale and polish seemed like a positive celebration of life in comparison to the knowledge of what was to come. Finally the dreaded moment of truth arrives. He starts poking around THAT tooth and I know it’s time.

“Let me know if you feel any pain.”

I close my eyes and assume the white-knuckle position, mind dredging up Hogarthian scenes of Victorian medicinal brutality. I feel a strange sensation in my jaw. Is there really a crunch or do I imagine it? (On reflection, it could have been my knuckles popping.) Then it’s over. He pats my head like I’m his favourite puppy and tells me I’ve done very well. I feel ridiculously proud of myself at this, temporarily forgetting my ordeal as I bask in the warmth of his approval.

I leave the surgery with a wad of cotton wool in my face which gives me a passing resemblance to a hamster, sporting an unattractive rigor around my mouth courtesy of the anesthetic. My bank account is in a new stratosphere of red. I’m sniveling gently. I read the post procedural instructions and note to my huge dismay that I can’t even go home and drown my sorrows in a bucketful of medicinal wine. DO NOT DRINK ALCOHOL is prominently displayed in letters large enough to be seen by even the partially sighted. “FXXX” I think to my self again … experiencing extremely negative feelings about whatever moron coined the expression “this too will pass”!

Happily it was a back tooth and I can still gnash away with the best of them, but there’ll certainly be weeping and wailing that would compete with the outcast from heaven if I have to lose any more. Toothless wasn’t something I wanted to be when I grew up!

Trump l’oeil!

Well, the seemingly impossible has happened! THIS MAN is now the leader of the western world!

It seems ironic his name alone opens up so many negative word associations. I would like to think I’ve coined a new one — the Trump l’oeil art form. The better known trompe l’oeil is defined as something that misleads or deceives the eye or senses — an illusion. My version is just a little bit more specific referring to one particular person who misleads or deceives the eye. Sounds like our boy right? The master illusionist who conceals a lack of substance with a now-you-see-me-now-you-don’t swirling mass of contradictions and a sickening spewage of self-indulgent and petulant Tweets from the  top of Trump Tower.

But wait there’s more! To trump this, we are invited to ignore the vitriolic verbiage and look into his heart to discern his truth. More illusion! Sad, as the man himself is so fond of saying. Impossible actually — it has yet to be shown that he has a heart.

Like some egocentric imperial conqueror of ancient times, he’s triumphantly flattened everything in his path on his way to the White House with a breath-taking display of bamboozlement —  Trump l’oeil – and tawdry trumpery.

Like many others, I’m trying not to fixate on the likely ramifications for us all in this brave new Trumpverse. But it’s almost impossible to have read his ‘One America’ inauguration transcript (couldn’t bear to watch the mouth speaking it) and not make some comment. I used the word ‘trumpery’ earlier intentionally and with malice aforethought and I’ll leave you the Mirriam Webster definition of this much underused little sucker for you to ponder:

Trumpery (adj)

  • Worthless nonsense
  • Trivial or useless articles i.e a wagon loaded with household trumpery (Washington Irvine).

Trumpery derives from the Middle English trompery and ultimately from the Middle French tromper, meaning “to deceive.” (You can see the meaning of this root reflected in the French phrase trompe-l’oeil-literally, “deceives the eye”-which in English refers to a style of painting with photographically realistic detail.) Trumpery first appeared in English in the mid-15th century with the meanings “deceit or fraud” (a sense that is now obsolete) and “worthless nonsense.” Less than 100 years later, it was being applied to material objects of little or no value. The verb phrase trump up means “to concoct with the intent to deceive,” but there is most likely no etymological connection between this phrase and trumpery.

What more can one say?  In his speech Trump said, “God will protect us.” Hopefully God (or any benevolent higher beings) will indeed protect us … from Trump!