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July 29 2012

Ten things I miss about the 20th century | Ian Martin

Smoke everywhere, lovely great lumps of concrete and chirpy bus conductors – just some of the things I liked about the good old days

1. Vocalised cheerfulness I'm not saying people were happier in the 20th century; they weren't. There was a lot to contend with: war, TB, no bass end on record players etc. But there was more public cheerfulness. People would sing out loud just walking down the street. Try doing that now and see if passersby make eye contact. Remember bus conductors? Chirpiness was a required skill then for a Routemaster crew. Passengers were often treated to a "soundclash" – the conductor perhaps whistling the latest Tommy Steele, the driver loudly crooning something upbeat by Edmundo Ros. It was a bit like nowadays when you get teenagers at different ends of the bus playing syncopated misogyny on their phones, only happy instead of angry.

2. Coal Yeah, I know it killed half of us, but I miss the smell of coal smoke. It used to be everywhere, belching out of trains and chimneys, atomised, inhaled. Most people were addicted to cigarettes too. Everyone died smokey bacon flavour. Buildings were agreeably shrouded in grime. Fog was thick, like a sodium-yellow blanket. Of course we older people are kicking ourselves that we didn't put some soot away for the future. Now it goes for up to £3,000 a scuttleful and is keenly sought after by billionaires, who dress up like the cast of Mad Men and snort it through 10 bob notes. Sooty the hand puppet, he was from a more innocent age too.

3. Proper weather The climate's been broken for years (see "Coal" above, soz) but it can't be fixed because NOBODY DOES REPAIRS ANY MORE.

4. Having a pint with a racist Maybe it's the invisibility of old people, but I rarely "fall into conversation" with morons in the pub these days. It's what happened in the golden age before we had mobiles to check. There'd be a neutral remark about the weather and before you knew it some sullen clump of sideboards and tash opposite would be blaming "them" for his early black-and-white version of Broken Britain. Then you'd have an argument while you drank your pints and it seemed quite important to engage and challenge. Today, if anyone says anything racist the protocol is to smile, pretend to go to the toilet, tweet "Oh my God, there's a totally racist dude in this pub", then covertly film them and hope they say something YouTubeable.

5. Women's liberation So much clearer then: men are shit, we've ruined everything, stand aside, woman's right to choose, equal pay, non-patriarchal parenting, loose clothes. Now feminism's tribalised it's much more confusing. Julie Bindel's lesbo resistance or Caitlin Moran's cock-based irony? Both, obviously. But I miss the days of free thinking and reparations, when New Men did all the cooking and were more than happy to be sexual playthings, although to be honest my mind's wandering a bit now.

6. The majesty of concrete Lovely, egalitarian, optimistic great lumps of concrete, eg the Hayward Gallery, were going up on the South Bank at about the time the Kinks released Waterloo Sunset. We were in paradise.

7. Haughty television Never mind Starkey, Schama and all the other clever dicks with their blousons and gesticulating on battlements and meticulous reconstructed scenes because apparently we can't be trusted to use our own bloody imaginations any more. Before colour telly, AJP Taylor could talk into a camera for an hour armed only with an immaculate brain, a glass of water and 10 Woodbine.

8. Working-class MPs We used to have loads of them. Working miners became union reps, discovered a natural gift for turning rage into oratory and were duly elected as parliamentary tribunes for working people. Dennis Skinner's still there like a pissed uncle at a funeral, but who remembers Coventry's Dave Nellist? When he was an MP in the 80s he insisted on taking only the average wage of skilled workers in his constituency. The rest he gave back to Labour, who in return expelled him for being too militant and then waited gormlesssly for Neil "The Welsh Mussolini" Kinnock to become prime minister. Today our House of Commons is just the Members' Pavilion at Lord's without the hats.

9. Counter culture These days it's all "meta" or "pop-up" and I'm not entirely sure what they are. Oppositional thinking's too sophisticated now. It was all much simpler when culture had three gears only and a puncture repair kit in the saddlebag. Ah, Spam sandwiches, orange squash, purple hearts … sorry, mind's gone again.

10. Non-monetised public space The internet saw the last century out and this one in. Early on there was great excitement about "virtual reality" yet who could have foreseen REALITY TURNING INTO THE INTERNET? A journey through London in 2012 is like navigating your way from one JavaScript nightmare to another in the days before ad blockers. Every available square inch of public space, every cubic foot of public air now has to be jizzed over by flickering ads and corporate branding. And looming above it all the grotesque Shard, our capital's latest and most disgusting lump of privatised skyline. Capitalism giving us a scaly, taloned middle finger. What next – sponsored clouds? Toll pavements? Paywalled churches? Sure, it sounds ridiculous but you mark my words, soon they'll be charging us to get into St Paul's Cathedral. Oh.

Charlie Brooker is away.


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April 27 2012

These magazine covers are graphic examples that sex can sell feminism | Jonathan Jones

Does Newsweek and Foreign Policy's double act of covers objectify women or simply draw attention to good journalism?

Can you judge a magazine by its cover? Or to put it another way, should you judge a society by the images it circulates, or by the laws it enacts and the customs it lives by?

These two covers of current American magazines might mistakenly be seen as an indictment of the hypocrisy and shallowness of western secular society. While Foreign Policy promotes a feature on women in the Middle East with a photograph of a model with her naked body painted to look as if she's covered up according to Islamic principles, the cover of Newsweek uses another naked model, this time wearing a black silk blindfold, to sell an article on what it claims is a vogue for submission fantasies among America's women. The pictures make an entertaining double act as they seem to play off one another in so many ways – one of which is the contrast between recreational submission and actual submission.

Katie Roiphe's piece in Newsweek, to which which the blindfolded nude draws our eyes, is inspired by the bestselling e-novel Fifty Shades of Grey to argue that American women, while enjoying more economic and social power than ever before, are currently fascinated by a "watered-down, skinny-vanilla-latte version of sadomasochism". I would say the cover of Newsweek is actually a subtle illustration of this thesis. It pastiches that contrived "skinny-vanilla-latte" image of sadomasochism. It is closer to a Valentine's card than it is to the X Portfolio. The relationship between image and word in the case of Foreign Policy is a lot more challenging.

Mona Eltahawy's article, which the image of a nude cover-up promotes, argues that the battleground of modern feminism should be the middle east and that women are the true victims of oppression in the region, both before and after the Arab spring. She accuses Arab societies of institutional misogyny. Her article is full of horrifying examples. In Saudi Arabia, she points out, women are perpetual minors who are forbidden to drive and will acquire only very limited voting rights, finally, in 2015. When a school in Mecca caught fire in 2002 "morality police" caused the deaths of 15 girls by forbidding them to escape because they were not wearing headscarves or cloaks. Meanwhile 55% of women in Yemen are illiterate.

Clearly, Eltahawy has said goodbye to a broad swath of relativist, liberal opinion in this article, by rejecting the intellectual respectability of the idea that Islamic practices on gender should be respected and understood as different. The cover of Foreign Policy might be seen as a final parting shot, except of course the writer probably had no control over how her work was illustrated. Does the picture offer ammunition to critics of her piece who can point to its "orientalism" and its graphic evidence of the forces that oppress women in the free western world she apparently so admires? After all, when Naomi Wolf said she felt free wearing the hijab, it was presumably images such as these she felt liberated from.

I would argue the contrary. Some might say that western society's endless representation of women as sexual commodities – as typified by these pictures – is a pretty good argument for religious "modesty". But in reality they reveal a genuinely free society in which women speak powerfully. Both draw attention to incisive pieces of journalism about women, by women. Sex sells, but it can sell feminism, too.

Follow Comment is free on Twitter @commentisfree


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July 13 2011

Pankhurst birthday celebrated with global art project

The iconic image of suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst has become part of an online art project to mark the anniversary of her birthday tomorrow

Her face is known around the world and now the global reach of the internet is being harnessed to celebrate the inspiring work of the Manchester-born leader of the British suffragette movement.

Artist Charlotte Newson has been working with her image for several years and this latest project creates a collaborative online project which she hopes will inspire today's women.

She told me why the image of the woman born on July 14 1858 still resonates today.

"Women are still fighting for many basic rights, such as equal pay and are often still the main carers. Because of that women can still end up in poverty because they haven't had the opportunity to build up sufficient wealth.

"The whole idea of the portrait is a celebration and in spite of all those issues, women are inspirational and I hope this will help bring to the fore that work has still to be done."

In 2010 Newson, who has residency at The Pankhurst Centre, a museum and women's support space on Nelson Street, Manchester, created Women Like You, a photomosaic portrait made up of 10,000 individual images of inspiring women - celebrities, mothers, wives, daughters, politicians, scientists – all sent in by members of the public from all corners of the globe.

The original and intricate artwork took two years to complete and stands 3 metres high and 2.5 metres wide.

For this project the artwork has been turned into a virtual birthday card for women to either sign or post their image onto, creating a personal and very public birthday message to the woman whose legacy transformed the lives of women in this country.


Birthday kit

Newson has also created a range of tools to encourage women to take part in or support the project including a kit which is available to download, featuring Pankhurst's biography, images from home, personal artefacts, memorable quotes, unusual details of her life and some of the personal stories behind the portrait. It also features ideas for how individuals, groups and schools might like to celebrate the birth of the leader of the British Suffragette party.

"The original Women Like You portrait was a hugely moving labour of love for everyone involved and it created a great community of women who wanted to share their stories with the world.

"Now, using the internet and social media networks, we're able to give even more women the opportunity to leave their mark and become part of the Women Like You story with this birthday card tribute to Emmeline Pankhurst."

Visit www.charlottenewson.com to download the free e-card, access the free birthday kit and send signatures or photographs to birthday@charlottenewson.com.


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April 07 2011

Margaret Harrison: a brush with the law

Her art was branded indecent and the police shut down her exhibition. Now the artist talks about the changes that have taken place in the 40 years since then

Forty years ago, in April 1971, the police closed down London's first overtly one-woman feminist art show after just one day, on the grounds of indecency. At first glance, British artist Margaret Harrison's drawings fitted into the imagery that fine art and popular culture were infatuated with at that time: comic-book superheroes and pneumatic Vargas-inspired pin-ups – think pop artist Tom Wesselmann's nudes and the 50s-style glamour girl sprawled, supine, on Roxy Music's debut album.

Yet, unaware of their double standards, the police objected to the portrayal of men in Harrison's work as demeaning. There was Hugh Hefner squeezed into a bunny girl costume, a beefy but emasculated Captain America wearing false breasts and a stars 'n' stripes-patterned basque, and Valerie Solanas, the radical feminist who tried to murder Andy Warhol, stamping on his Brillo box artwork.

These images, says Harrison, "questioned the idea of having a fixed sexuality". She has previously said the police "were reacting as males to the notion that there were other manifestations of sexuality than the strictly heterosexual variety, and that was threatening".

What was her reaction to the suppression of her work? "Shock. I'd been in a cocoon of discussions with other women," says Harrison, who founded the London Women's Liberation Art Group in 1970. "Until then, my work hadn't been in the public domain." Did it politicise her? "The events of 1968 had already done so, but the reaction to the show politicised me more."

A new exhibition of her work, I Am A Fantasy, which combines late 60s/ early 70s pieces with later additions, opens in London next week. It will include a reproduction of the Hefner piece, which went missing during the original exhibition. By coincidence, Hefner is back in the news: a Playboy Club is to open soon in Mayfair (the last one closed in 1981). Does this make Harrison feel her efforts to raise awareness of sexism were in vain? "No, this revival seems quaint, just good retro business. But it's out of step with today. My original bunny girl image highlighted the ridiculous idea that the only career for women was wearing this clothing. You might want to wear this stuff now and then, but it shouldn't be your only option. Lady Gaga and Madonna have used such imagery to great effect."

Harrison is less well known than feminist artists such as Mary Kelly and Nancy Spero, but is highly respected in the art world: the Tate owns seven of her pieces. Living in London in the 70s, the anti-Vietnam war protests and the American artists and writers who had escaped the draft inspired her, as did changes in fashion and rock music and the rise of pop art. "My Captain America piece was also a comment on the Vietnam war," she says. "Other drawings examined the media's equation of women with food. My work also referenced the underground cartoons of Robert Crumb, Eric Stanton and Oz magazine. I was attracted to Vargas's style, too, but wanted to unpick it."

Her 70s drawings crossed pop art with a nascent feminist sensibility, and were spiked with mordant humour: "I was critiquing American pop culture but using irony rather than being militant," she says.

Her late 70s art was more political still. She says Rape, a 1978 piece that spotlights the injustices against women in rape cases via newspaper cuttings and reproductions of classic paintings, did challenge attitudes. "The Arts Council, which bought it, planned to show it at the Serpentine but decided it couldn't because it was a 'family gallery' with free entry, so it moved it to the Hayward gallery. But it ignored the fact that it had been shown at the Battersea Arts Centre, where schoolteachers used it to introduce pupils to this issue."

Some of Harrison's contemporary versions of her 70s drawings, such as an image of actor David Walliams in drag, suggest things have changed for the better, with the notion of ambiguous sexuality becoming more mainstream: "I found an image of Walliams in a magazine wearing a stiffly corseted Vivienne Westwood dress. It struck me that, in the west, images of corseted women previously represented oppression. But this picture shows acceptance of a range of sexuality we couldn't have imagined in the early 70s."

• I Am a Fantasy is at Payne Shurvell, London EC2, from 15 April to 21 May.


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April 01 2010

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