Friday, 12 August 2011

i can't tell you where we're going

As someone unashamed to call herself a feminist (and I know a lot of people who wouldn't dream of doing such a thing), I'm often dismayed by my failure to register the subtle diminishments of women in the culture around me. Spending time with Miss Velvelette Actionette is invigorating, because her feminism is forthright and astute where mine is meek and woolly. She glares at the things I glaze over, interrogating and challenging assumptions about women that I, not entirely consciously (at least, I hope not), accept, even uphold.

It's surprisingly rare that a work of art should fire up the feminist in me, let alone that it should happen three times in the past three weeks. Things began mildly, with Belarus Free Theatre at the Almeida. I've wanted to see this company since Mark Ravenhill wrote about them in G2 but, in that infuriatingly haphazard way that I have, didn't get around to it before now. Unfortunately, Eurepica. Challenge didn't feel like the place to start. Among its scattershot collection of 12 short vignettes was one rivetingly visceral piece, in which a student protester is interrogated by the authorities: what made it so effective was that the student was represented by a watermelon, which sat, mutely pathetic, as the interrogator showered it with abuse. Its decimation was no less shocking for being inevitable: the sight of its head being sliced off made me squirm, and when the interrogator stuck her hand inside and pulled out its juicy red innards my stomach churned. It reminded me of a production of Pere Ubu I saw years and years ago, I think at the Young Vic, in which all the deaths were devastatingly enacted by a lugubrious chap at a table using cheese graters and tomatoes and other innocuous foods and kitchen tools, a warped appropriation of foley effects that remains one of the best pieces of theatre I've ever seen.

The rest drifted between intermittently involving and drearily awful. I liked the unsettling use of foot puppets to depict child drug addicts in Turkey and the incongruity of a Latvian immigrant rapping his letters home from Ireland. The argument between a Romanian playwright hoping to craft something free and true about his country, and the theatre agent interested only in perpetuating violent cliches, demonstrated a dry, if not exactly subtle, humour, as did the tale of a Swedish woman harassing a beggar on the underground for failing to consider the environmental impact of photocopied leaflets. But as the evening wore on – and it is wearing, watching one satire after another not quite come off – my general disappointment was sharpened by a specific annoyance at the quantity of bare female flesh on stage. The nadir came with a shrill piece from Poland about a priest and a prostitute – and that alone tells you how old-fashioned some of the work was – that never allowed the woman to be more than a squawking object.

The group are already fighting for so much, I feel mean criticising them at all, let alone criticising them for lapses in their representation of women. But it rankled, and left me in an unforgiving frame of mind just as I caught up with The Social Network on DVD. For every positive female figure in the film – Zuckerberg's self-possessed ex-girlfriend, the attorney working with his estranged best friend, the plain-talking junior lawyer – there's a scene of nauseating female subjugation. There's the frat-boy parties, where female students strip off and cavort to animal cheers. There's the two women who throw themselves at Zuckerberg and his best friend, one of whom disappears from the film without trace, the other of whom is revealed as an intolerable jealous hysteric. There's the Facebook celebration party where – and this was the final gratuitous straw – people snort cocaine from a teenage woman's bare stomach. Yes, the dialogue is whip-sharp; yes, the competing legal shenanigans make for entertaining drama; yes, it's brilliant that the characters are so complex, remaining sympathetic no matter how reprehensible they appear. But the casualness of the sexism appalled me so much, I couldn't truly enjoy the film.

A few days later, feminist-me was taxed again by The Village Bike at the Royal Court. I dithered about seeing this play, because I want nothing more to do with any of the writers who contributed to the unnatural disaster that was Greenland at the National, with the possible exception of Moira Buffini, whom I've worshipped for so long that I can't stop now. Penelope Skinner went some way to redeeming herself: The Village Bike is lemon-sharp in some places, quietly moving in others. I laughed when Becky – pregnant, furious at the negation of her self that the invisible foetus has already inflicted on her, desperate for sex – rages at her well-meaning, decent-thinking, infuriatingly self-righteous sap of a husband that their child is in her womb, not her vagina. I gasped when John rails at Becky for shopping at Tesco, expecting him to demand to know why she bought condoms: instead, what shocks him is the appearance of contraband brie on the receipt. I cried when Becky's neighbour Jenny, the beleaguered mother of two young boys, cracks with desperation at her husband's absence, his easy ability to leave the family home for more “worthwhile” endeavour in developing countries, the expectation that she will be kind and supportive and calm even as her children infuriate and insult her. “I'm just stupid old Mummy,” she rails, and my heart bled for her.

And yet. I have serious problems with a play that purports to explore women's sexuality but steadfastly punishes women for indulging that sexuality. Rejected by her husband, Becky starts an affair with a neighbour widely deemed eccentric: together they play out pornographic fantasies in which Becky likes to think she's in control, but never is. She allows herself to be hurt and abused and still comes begging for more. And when she's rejected by this man, she throws herself at the local plumber (a neat pornography in-joke) and feels like a prostitute. By the end, Becky finds the very thought of sex revolting: in a stage direction, Skinner emphasises that she lies on her bed and “stays very very still. As though, if she moves, something will break.”

Here and there, Skinner raises properly interesting questions: about the effect getting married, having children, has not only on a woman's sense of self but on her sense of self-determination, the extent to which motherhood erodes a woman's sense of freedom to act as she chooses and put her own desires first. (And yes, these are questions I face every day.) About the myriad tiny ways in which men, husbands, take advantage of their wives. About the relative ease with which men can enjoy their sexuality and the near impossibility for women of doing the same. But Skinner ruins it all by humiliating Becky, punishing her for wanting sex, having sex, using sex for something other than procreation. What could have been an engaging and provocative feminist argument feels instead as primly cautionary as a Victorian morality tale.

The result of all this infuriation is that, after finishing the biography of Mrs Beeton – whom Kathryn Hughes, persuasively and winningly, depicts not only working alongside her husband as an equal at just the moment in time when those prim Victorians were shunting middle-class women into the confines of the household, but working to reassure the women newly trapped at home that their endeavour there could be worthwhile, as long as they applied themselves to mathematics and science and appreciated the skill required to run a household, not least financially, smoothly and efficiently – I've been drawn back to Adrienne Rich's book Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution. I tried reading it a few months ago, but stopped when I realised that the introduction had washed over me: clearly I wasn't ready to engage with such scrupulous feminist thought. Reading that introduction properly now, part of me feels exhilarated at the parallels between Rich's thinking and my own, but another part of me is pained by how little appears to have changed since she wrote the book in 1976 and revisited it a decade later. At heart, her feminism is anti-capitalist humanism, as captured in this paragraph about the fight for abortion and birth rights in the 1970s:

A movement narrowly concerned with pregnancy and birth which does not ask questions and demand answers about the lives of children, the priorities of government; a movement in which individual families rely on consumerism and educational privilege to supply their own children with good nutrition, schooling, health care can, while perceiving itself as progressive or alternative, exist only as a minor contradiction within a society most of whose children grow up in poverty and which places its highest priority on the technology of war.

I read this travelling home from David Hoyle's spirit-lifting show at Soho on Monday night, knowing that nearby Brixton and Battersea had been attacked by looters, half-expecting any minute to walk into a riot. It was exactly what I needed: a wise, calm voice reminding me that the root of any problem lies deep and must be excavated if real and lasting change is to be effected. Hoyle was brilliant on the subject of the riots, slyly suggesting that we all pop down to Bond St after the show and “have a fun time” helping ourselves to designer goods, provocatively arguing that the looters are simply doing their bit to bring us to a state of communist bliss, in which we wake each day to pick only as many apples from the tree as we need. Add his assurance that today's children would be much improved by being injected with acid at school, that when you're depressed doing something avant-garde instantly makes you feel better, and his astonishing cover of New Order's True Faith that shone a dazzling new light on the song, and yes, it did feel worth risking the riots to be there.

My own thinking on the riots is an inchoate tangle of fury and sadness and bleak optimism (my husband has read that the gangs who live around us crossed territories and forgot enmities to smash up Brixton and Battersea together, proving that some sort of ceasefire is possible), and rather than attempt to unravel it here I'll just direct you X, which is more powerfully articulate and brave than I'm ready to be.

What links X, Adrienne Rich and David Hoyle is otherness and a celebration of otherness, not least the potential for otherness to reject capitalism and forge new social models. As opposed to the old social models that Sam Holcroft, in her scintillating contribution to Double Feature at the National, Edgar and Annabel, craftily argues that we adhere to, script our lives by, almost despite ourselves. Holcroft places Edgar and Annabel in a repressive police state that doesn't quite hold up, but it doesn't matter, because the surveillance under which the couple exist functions brilliantly as a metaphor for the way we survey ourselves: we self-censor and rein ourselves in, controlling impulses and extinguishing desires, not simply respecting but maintaining conservative notions of normalcy and pernicious financial systems, no matter how inimical these things seem to us in theory. Holcroft's characters feel constrained by the roles allotted to them by society, but to break free would be to risk their lives. How different is that from Penelope Skinner's Becky, trapped in a genteel village in nice, safe, democratic England, condemned to play a role that doesn't suit her? Becky isn't a firebrand revolutionary, she's not constructing bombs, she's not rioting. But she is trying to escape the boundaries of her existence, and for that her spirit is broken. Another protest silenced by the forces of conservatism.

Sunday, 7 August 2011

if i could just focus on one thing long enough to...

Among the plots and plans that clatter incessantly in my head is a long-cherished dream of writing a cookbook, almost certainly focusing on cake recipes, almost inevitably modelled on How To Be a Domestic Goddess (despite my deep-seated antipathy to Nigella Lawson, it's one of my favourites) but more indie-punk in spirit: How To Be a Domestic Riot Grrrl, perhaps. I doubt it will have much appeal beyond people like me who find it essentially impossible to follow a recipe without tweaking it in some way, who use them not as lists of instructions but starting points, sources of inspiration. I've just finished reading Kathryn Hughes' biography of Isabella Beeton, which is absorbing, enlightening and infuriating in roughly equal measure; in one of my favourite chapters, she describes how Mrs B fought against the snobbery implicit in much of the cookery-writing of her day, by setting out her recipes clearly, precisely and methodically, thus making them equally accessible to practised chefs and those who didn't know a skillet from a griddle. It's not that I can't see the usefulness of being prescriptive in this way, more that I personally chafe against it.

There is a cheering suggestion of egalitarianism in Hughes' Beeton, something you don't get from, for instance, this opening line in the “Essential information: the golden rules of baking” section of Julie Duff's book Cakes, which makes me fume whenever I read it: “Baking is something to enjoy, but unlike a lot of cookery, it cannot be stressed enough how important it is to follow the recipe.” No it's not! What a pernicious attitude this is. It assumes that only one kind of cake – the kind guaranteed to win awards at competitions run by village fetes – is worth making. It suggests that baking is a daunting, rigorous scientific process (not that I have anything against rigorous scientific processes) to be approached in a spirit of caution. And it's preposterously egotistical, denying other people the opportunity to be creative with their baking, giving the impression that a cake will taste good only if you endeavour to replicate the divine writer's cooking, when in fact – as my friend David is so good at reminding me when I have my occasional baking flaps – it's quite hard for something containing vast quantities of butter and sugar not to taste good, however you go about boshing it together.

I frequently feel a sort of amazement at being friends with David: he's the kind of person I'm more used to worshipping from afar. He's a staggeringly good writer; for a long stretch of time he wasn't well enough to write, so it's thrilling that he's started working again, for The Quietus. He's dazzlingly smart: pretty much every time we're together I learn something from him about music or books or pop or queer culture. He also has a magic ability to befriend people who make the art that he likes: what I find remarkable about this isn't that they should adore him, because on top of everything he's funny and kind and intensely interested in the brilliant things people do, but just that he should have the confidence to form those relationships (I don't, hence my awe). A few months ago I opened up an email from him that he was sending to his nearest and dearest, and when I realised that my name was nestled alongside Mark Eitzel's and John Grant's I nearly fell off my chair.

As well as having impeccable taste in all things music and literature, David has the sweetest of tooths. He's a dab hand at whipping up a cake or jam himself: I savour memories of his iced lemon and pistachio cake, his tangerine and brown sugar marmalade, and the thimbleful of his elderberry jam I hid from the rest of the family, which ranks among the most exquisite confections I've ever eaten. A while ago, he told me about a cake he had eaten at the best deli in Glasgow: a lemon, olive oil and rosemary cake that had been unspeakably good. Since then, we've set about trying to make our own version, using recipes from the internet as rough guides. His was delicious, but the Glasgow one had been quite dense and crunchy and his was more spongy, which made him wonder if it ought to have polenta in it (he had used only flour). I made one for an Actionettes tea party in May that was also good but not quite rosemary enough. I've been meaning to post up the recipe ever since, but – typically – didn't write it down. So I made it up all over again the other weekend, put in too much baking powder and ended up with a sunken cake. None the less, it was yummy: dense but moist, good crumb, crunchy from a bit of demerara sugar I mixed in on a whim, fragrant with rosemary. And this time I remembered to write it down, correcting the baking powder quantity as I did so. So here it is, for David, with love.

Lemon, olive oil and rosemary cake

150ml olive oil

3 eggs

150ml sour cream

juice and rind of two lemons

125g caster sugar

50g demerara sugar

30cm stick of rosemary, leaves stripped off and cut into tiny pieces

100g flour

150g polenta

2 tsp baking powder

half tsp bicarb of soda

There are two ways of doing this. Method one: put all the wet stuff in a bowl with the two sugars and beat them together until they're amalgamated in a luscious, sweet and runny mayonnaise, stir in the lemon rind and rosemary, then fold in the flour, polenta and raising agents. Method two: separate the eggs, put the yolks in a bowl with the lemon juice, olive oil, sugars and sour cream and beat until luscious, stir in the lemon rind and rosemary, fold in the flour, polenta and raising agents, then in a separate bowl whisk the egg whites until they form sturdy peaks and fold those in. I've tried both ways, both come out well, but I probably have a preference for the second method, even though (and possibly because) it's more work. Either way, pour the batter into a 18-20cm round cake tin (I lined mine with greaseproof) and bake at 180-190 (again, I've done both, depending on what else was in the oven, with equally good results) for 45 or so minutes. It's good with lemon icing, either the kind the sits crisply on top or the kind that melts into the cake; it's even better with lemon sorbet on the side. Oh, and don't forget the raspberries.

A coda: I gave up using Julie Duff's book when none of the recipes – and for once I did make an effort to follow them to the letter – had good results. Her dough for raspberry buns was a sticky disaster, whereas when I followed the Mrs Beeton recipe (at least, the recipe in my beloved 1960 edition of the Book of Household Management) they were, as they ought to be, very fine indeed. So there.