Tuesday, 31 May 2011

The Queen's Visit

When Obama visited Ireland last week and spoke movingly about the impact the Irish immigrant community had made in America, he knew how to get the crowd onside. Irish people get emotional about their diaspora in a way the British don’t. Historically, whenever the British moved abroad they were either inspired by the spirit of opportunity and adventure or off to expand the Empire. When The Irish left their homeland it was usually because something depressing was happening.

Even now, Irish people still feel a twinge of guilt and responsibility for those forced to make their home aboard. That’s nothing compared to the guilt felt by the people who actually emigrated. If Ireland could somehow channel this guilt into a form of fuel, George Bush would have invaded us years ago.

I had an auntie and uncle that moved to America during the last big recession in the 80s. The heartbreak of their leaving was matched only by the awkwardness and stress of their visits home. Every two years or so, they’d return with suitcases full of strange sweets, accents warped like old records and speech studded with strange Americanisms like “soda” that we’d all sneer at behind their back. For the length of the visit they tried to slip back into the family roles they abandoned years ago, with siblings they didn’t really know anymore, before returning exhausted back to their real life.

My family never asked questions about their new home; it was as if for those two weeks everyone wanted to forget they were ever away. America was the other woman they wouldn’t speak of. The day they flew back was always the worst. Like a wake the family reunited to say goodbye, bottles of whiskey were gruffly given, neighbours called and hands were shaken. We were ordered to kiss our departing uncle and aunt goodbye, a strange intimacy we treated with giddy embarrassment. Nanny always cried and there was always confusion over she whether going to the airport would be too much for her. Years later, when it was my turn to move abroad, out of choice rather than necessity and only as far away as London, she sobbed as keenly as if I were off to deepest darkest Alaska. Don’t forget me she’d whisper as I hugged her goodbye and guilt sagged like a wet leaden raincoat.

It’s not helped by the fact most of the Londoners I met had gaps in their knowledge of Ireland whole conversations could fall into. I didn’t want to be the clichéd Irish person trotting out Famine statistics and sobbing to Christy Moore, so I didn’t know whether to explain that “southern Ireland” wasn’t a country that Britain isn’t “the mainland” and the Irish language isn’t just pronouncing film as “filum”. Britain seemed clueless about Ireland; it was like discovering your best friend has no idea how old you were and the countries seemed separated by much more than the Irish Sea.

Even now, every trip home, I dread the car journey with my dad back from the airport, where I always get paranoid I’m getting an English accent. As I talk I can feel the strange London vowels in my mouth and my voice sounds awkward and clumsy like listening to a message I left on an answering machine. Now I’m the one bringing home sweets for my nephews and flinching when I accidently say “cupboard” instead of “press”.

Even something as innocuous as watching the Royal Wedding in Trafalgar Square brought a rush of guilt no other European Royal event would bring. Had my head been turned by London with its fancy Palladium architecture and transport system. The Queen wasn’t just the head of a crazy family; she was the head of the British State. What was I doing waving her flag?

So watching the Queens visit to Ireland I wasn’t expecting much. I certainly wasn’t expecting, all the way in Archway London, to feel a lump in my throat and a flush of relief, when she bowed her head before the memorial to the men who had died for Irish independence. The Queen of England, the head of the British army wasn’t just publically acknowledging my past, my history, my version of events she was honouring everything that mattered to my family, my Dad, my Nanny. Britain and Ireland were finally on the same page: London and home feel slightly nearer and I felt slightly less far away.

Friday, 13 May 2011

Oi! You SLAG!

In London next month women will be march to reclaim the word “slut”. I’m shocked by this; I thought we lost that word to the gays years ago. I assumed that like a battered wife determined on a new start, it had moved to Brighton, got a makeover and was now happily describing the shenanigans of gay sexual culture with a jauntiness straight women never quite managed.

But apparently not, a Canadian cop was censured for suggesting women could prevent sexual attacks if they stopped dressing like one. Who knew rapists were so picky? I‘ve never heard of a woman on the brink of being assaulted before her assailant realised skinny jeans were doing nothing for her.

Sluts like the poor have always been with us. Ever since there was property to be passed down the family line, patriarchal society needed to ensure that their male heirs were all Wills and not Harrys. Whenever women have enjoyed any level of sexual freedom, and only the rich of course, it was usually followed by a period of balancing repression. The relative independence of 18th century women was in hindsight blamed as a progressive imbalance that led to the French revolution and resulted in an even stricter Victorian attitude. Ideas such as the medical theory that STDs were spread by the female orgasm made female sexual innocence more important than ever. Since the idea of female sexual independence is barely fifty years old, it’s not surprising a cultural myth as potent as the wanton woman has survived into the modern age.

I’ve only ever heard the word used by a male friend once, a vinegary wash of anger, frustration and spitefulness spreading across his face like lights going up at the end of a night club. It always reveals much more about the man than the woman he’s describing. They are usually describing a woman they’re sure is having lots of sex just not with them. Or if they have slept with them, this proves in their wonderland of self hatred, that they’re soiled nasty goods.

For women, the word “slut” has nothing to do with clothes. Yes we don’t, in general, really appreciate it when other women dress excessively provocatively but that’s more to do with the sober reality that, no matter how sharp your banter is, a flash of flesh will distract the most thoughtful of men. It’s irritating at worst; easy, obvious and equivalent to undercutting in business or crossing a picket line, but it’s not a hate crime.

Slut is a word not really used against women who sleep around a lot either. Most women feel a mixture of concern and rueful recognition for any sister going through that period of her life. Just as the scary witches were often lonely herbalists, the tear stained reality of the woman who will gladly have sex with strangers is usually less glamorous than men’s magazines suggest. They are, by and large, vulnerable, insecure and clumsily working through dormant issues with sole aid of their genitals and vodka. The rule of thumb being, if you don’t really like, respect, or even know the majority of the people you’re sleeping with, then maybe you’re not as happy as you think are. It’s a sentiment equally true for men too.

Women only bring out the S bomb to describe someone who has messed around with someone they care about. The women that steal boyfriends, cheat on their mates or sleep with someone to get an opportunity they didn’t deserve. These women never lose control, self respect and never ever sleep around.

So if, in reality, these larky sex mad “sluts” of the popular imagination don’t really exist how on earth did that Canadian cop feel confident that he could not only recognise one but practically knew where she shopped?

It’s because she is everywhere. You only have to log onto the internet, turn on a music channel or walk into a news agents to see this mystical slag, this chimera of fear and loathing, She Who Must be Laid, staring downing at you, watching your every move, like a humourless sexually available Big Brother. She has no personality, no sense of humour and no clothes on. Her sexiness taken rather than shared, her own pleasure irrelevant, completely defined by her yearning, panting, unquenchable desire for casual sex, especially with the fifteen year old boys the magazines advertisers are targeting. The bitter irony that most women are at their flirtiest, filthiest and most experimental with men they trust, like and respect tragically lost on them for the next twenty years at least.

Call me crazy, call me naïve but wouldn’t it be lovely if the term “slut” gradually fell out of use? If it could quietly slip unnoticed out of modern parlance and join “spinster” “crone” and “witch” as an outdated silly cartoon from the past. Maybe then, if we are very lucky, and fight really hard, many years from now, women would feel free to dress up as one every year for Hallowe’en. I know, I can’t imagine it either…

Friday, 6 May 2011

I'm sorry if this is horribly sentimental but we all know how I feel about the subject

With the death of the last surviving WWI soldier, memory of the first military conflict of modern times fades from the horror of personal experience to the safe sepia of historical fact. For those who fought in it, it was an experience so harrowing that, out of respect for those that died and to protect those spared the experience, they simply refused to speak about it. Now as that generation leaves us, their silence finally becomes complete, a permanent memorial their lost friends.

Although it seems a long time ago, to have experienced the Great War, you only need to have been born about one hundred and ten years ago, which is barely three generations ago. It's only the soldiers todays great grandparents. They’re the same people that bobbed their hair, drove the first cars and wore the clothes still hanging in forgotten wardrobes. They went to cinemas, cheered the present Queen, they were around for The Beatles, it’s not ancient history; their scent still lingers in the air. And yet, psychologically, their generation’s world view had more in common with the ancient past than our own.

Politics was then still the preserve of the aristocracy, women didn’t have the vote and Europe was a family firm run by Queen Victoria’s grand children. In the early days of recruitment before the horrors of the trenches became widely reported the war was sold as an invigorating noble crusade and death at worst an awfully big adventure. If they were to die, it would be as Wendy had insisted in J.M. Barrie’s popular play of the time – as brave Englishmen. Training still involved bayonets and horseback riding. Men were recruited from villages that barely had electricity and fought in battles against automatic weaponry, armoured tanks, gas attacks and mortar attacks. Instead of heroically riding into battle most soldiers waited for nerve shredding weeks in trenches slowly losing their mind. The condition of “shell shock” was coined for the first times and sufferers treated with suspicion bordering on out right aggression. The most common symptoms were either severe stuttering or selective mutism, the English language unable to catch up with what they had experienced.

In the Crimean war, the last major military conflict before The Great War, the most controversial battle of the conflict at Balaclava resulted in the death of 110 men. 19,240 died on the first day of the Somme on the British side alone. There were only sixty years between those two events, less than between now and the dropping of the nuclear bombs in Japan. It’s comparable to our children finding it quant and old fashioned that we find the idea of millions killed in single second strange hard to understand.

At home there was a hysterical craze for mysticism, bereaved families flocked to mediums, scientists attempted to use the newly mastered electricity to try to proof the existence of the soul, serious newspapers reported angels on the battle fields and the latest in photographic equipment captured fairies at the bottom of gardens. Communities that had lost their sons to the industrial weaponry of the 20th century were trying to use dying ancient myths to reclaim them.

Literature imploded; either into the escapism of Tolkien’s “Lord of The Rings” fantasises where homesick confused hobbits battled against faceless industrial death or fragmented into the emptiness of Elliot’s “Wasteland” and Joyce’s streams of consciousness. The safety of Victorian plots abandoned, that A would follow B, the reassurance that everything could be resolved no longer seemed possible. It wasn’t just the demise of literary happy endings; it was the death in the belief of proper endings at all.

The soldiers fighting today have one hundred years worth of vocabulary to make sense of their experiences. Phrases like Pre emptive strikes, collateral damage and Post traumatic stress help to numb the horror, normalise the bloodshed and legitimise the casualties. They have the language but they don’t have the narrative anymore. The reassurance that there is point to it, that order will be restored ,that it will all eventually be worth it. Humans haven’t evolved beyond needing and yearning for those stories but they’re now as ancient and archaic as Edwardian uniforms. With the passing of the last First World War veteran we’ve lost the last person who remembered a world that looked like that.

Now with the old battalions finally reunited, the regiments at last complete, I wonder what the lost boys of the trenches will make of the final aged Tommy returned. If they ask him how the rest of the century worked out, what their war solved and what we learnt from and did with their sacrifice; I hope he’ s able to keep his silence.