Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Gertrude Stein and Cultural Femicide

The other morning I re-watched the film Midnight in Paris, directed by Woody Allen in 2011. For those of you who haven’t seen it, it’s hardly a classic, but it is good fun. In it, Gil, played by Owen Wilson, is visiting Paris with his fiancĂ©e. He’s a ‘Hollywood hack’ who wants to write a novel, and is obsessed with 1920s Paris. He is walking through the city at midnight, and finds himself transported back in time to 1920s Paris, where he meets the Fitzgeralds, Hemingway, Picasso, Dali, Man Ray, Bunuel, Cole Porter, TS Eliot – the whole crowd. He falls in love with Adriana, played to perfection by Marion Cotillard, who had affairs with Modigliani, Picasso and Braque. In the film, that is.

It’s a fun film and it makes you want to go to Paris. But on my second viewing I noticed something that escaped my attention first time round, and it’s been making me cross.

When Gil meets Hemingway, he asks him to read his novel. Hemingway refuses, saying that you should never give your work to another writer to read. He then says he will take it to Gertrude Stein.

Hold on, I thought to myself. If you should not give your work to another writer to read, why would you give it to Gertrude Stein, who not only was a writer, but was one of the most prolific and one of the most exciting writers of the twentieth century?

It felt to me that this was a classic piece of cultural femicide, where Woody Allen completely erased Stein’s writing, and her contribution to modern literature.

It sounds like just a small thing. But Woody Allen presenting Stein as someone who read work because she was not a writer herself is just part of a much greater dismissal of Gertrude Stein’s importance and influence, and a wider dismissal of women writers living and working in Paris in the 1920s alongside the men who wrote ‘the great American novels TM’.

Hemingway knew the importance of Stein as a writer. Although they fell out over Torrents of Spring, he admitted later that ‘Gertrude was always right’, and explores her influence on him in A Moveable Feast.  In fact, contrary to Woody Allen’s portrayal, everyone in Paris knew the importance of Stein as a writer as well as a salon hostess. Janet Flanner, in one of her letters from Paris in 1926, wrote:

No American writer is taken more seriously than Miss Stein by the Paris modernists.’

But time and time again we see Gertrude Stein erased from our understanding of modernism. She’s not taught on university syllabuses, her influence on writing is not mentioned or celebrated, and trying to get hold of her work at your local bookshop is a bloody nightmare. Yet when you read Stein, you see in her bold, truthful prose that she wasn’t lying when she said that what Picasso was doing with art, she was doing with literature. She knew that Picasso was the most important artist and she was the most important writer. Her experimental form, her desire to create literary cubism – all of it is incredibly influential on the male writers we are all told to read.

The reason that men and women writers went to Stein with their manuscripts and asked for her views on their own words was because they knew her as a writer, as a genius with words. They didn’t just rock up to 27 Rue du Fleurus for Alice’s cooking and a chance to meet Picasso. They went because they knew that she was a writer who they respected to view their work, and advise on their work.

So why is Stein so ignored today, when her male peers and pupils are so celebrated?

Well, part of the problem is the one presented by Allen. Stein knew, and wrote about in Everybody’s Autobiography, that people in the USA were more interested in Stein the figure, than Stein the writer. This is exactly the trap Woody Allen falls into in the film. Here’s Gertrude Stein, the mentor, the hostess, the personality. But where is Gertrude Stein, the writer?

Another part of the problem was the widely-held conception that her work was difficult. Well, yes. Her work is quite difficult but only because it is challenging everything we accept about form and how we use language. It’s exciting. A lot of great modernist literature challenges you as a reader, Stein is no different. But while the linguistic gymnastics of her male contemporaries was admired, in Stein’s case it became something to dismiss and to mock.

The Autobiography of Alice B Toklas was an instant bestseller, but the perceived difficulty of Stein’s work meant most of her writing was unpublished for most of her life. In fact, she famously fell out with Sylvia Beach – proprietor of Shakespeare and Company – because she felt Sylvia was championing James Joyce’s work over Stein’s own. It wasn’t until the success of Alice B Toklas that more of her work began to be published, and ever since then it seems to have fallen in and out of print.

Yet everyone who reads Gertrude Stein surely knows what an extraordinary writer she was. She was the genius she claimed herself to be. Janet Flanner doesn’t lie, everyone knew it in 1926. So why have we forgotten it now?

Stein isn’t the only women writer in Allen’s film who has been sidelined. Djuna Barnes makes a brief appearance, dancing with Gil, who “jokes” that it was no wonder she wanted to lead (this joke annoys me in so many ways).

Now, Djuna Barnes’ Nightwood is widely accepted as a modernist masterpiece. TS Eliot wrote the introduction, and it is a hugely influential text. It is also beautiful, frightening, heartbreaking, funny, transgressive – and the prose is poetic and gorgeous and sensual and stark. Nightwood is a truly great novel.

But where is Djuna Barnes in our cultural landscape? Again, she’s not taught on university syllabuses. She might turn up on women’s history reading lists, her Ladies Almanack is a literary curiosity for students of lesbian history, she’s read by geeks like me who love 1920s Paris and the women who lived there. She’s recognised and celebrated in ‘the academy’ but she doesn’t enjoy the fame of her male contemporaries, even though Nightwood is the masterpiece it is, even though the stories in Spillway are magnificent.

I love Hemingway and F Scott Fitzgerald, and I love Sherwood Anderson and all the big American writers who flocked to Paris and met at Gertrude’s salon and talked to her, writer to writer. But I am constantly frustrated and amazed by the lack of mention of Gertrude Stein, by the lack of respect paid to her, or to Djuna Barnes, or to the many, many women who were writing and working and creating in 1920s Paris, just as the men were.

So, what can we do to try and counter this cultural femicide? Well, we can start by reading Gertrude Stein. Below is a handy reading list for you…

To find out more about Gertrude Stein and her circle, you should start by watching Paris was a Woman and reading the accompanying book. Then try Women of the Left Bank by Shari Henstock. You can also read Noel Riley Fitch’s biography of Sylvia Beach.

To read Gertrude Stein, the best place to start is The Autobiography of Alice B Toklas.  Then Tender Buttons (my favourite is Sugar).  Then there’s Everybody’s Autobiography.  And The Making of Americans.  And Three Lives.

There are loads more – she was incredibly prolific. She wrote every day, barring a period of writer’s block after the success of Alice B Toklas. There’s her writing on Paris, her Novel of Thank You, her portraits of Picasso and Carl van Vechten – seriously there is just so much to read!

You can also read this anthology that has a lot of the above in it, as well as lectures and other things.

Gertrude wasn’t the only writer in the family. Alice B Toklas wrote her memoirs too, and even better it’s packed with her favourite recipes. It’s called The Alice B Toklas Cookbook.

If you want to read Djuna Barnes, this volume includes Nightwood, The Antiphon and Spillway.

Janet Flanner wrote her Letter from Paris for the New Yorker between 1925 and 1939, and her ‘best bits’ are recorded here. If I could have a drink with anyone in 1920s Paris, it would be Janet.

Happy reading!

Finally, here’s Gertrude herself, reading her portrait of Picasso.

Monday, 16 December 2013

Review of Purefinder by Ben Gwalchmai

What is Purefinder, the first novel by Ben Gwlachmai and published by Cosmic Egg, about? It’s a more complex question to answer then it sounds. Is it about Purefoy, a ‘pure finder’ who, stumbling away from heart-breaking news, is pointed to as a murderer, and is taken on a Dantean journey through London by a terrifying moustache’d Irish man? Is it about the fetishization of our Victorian past? Is it about the living geography of the city of London? Is it about grief and violence, about brotherhood, about survival and death, about the impact of a corrupt political elite on all our lives? 

It’s about all these things, of course, and much more. 

Disclaimer – I do know Ben, who wrote this book, but haven’t known him that long and if I didn’t honestly like it I just wouldn’t have reviewed it. I hardly ever do reviews on this blog, as regular readers will know. But I really liked this book and so thought, what the hell. I’ll write something down saying so. Also, we are publishing stable mates, both being in the John Hunt stable (buy my book!). 

Purefinder is an immersive read. It topples you head first in to that ‘living geography’ of London, taking you through its twisted streets – often frightening, sometimes beautiful (discovering the feel of a forest in the heart of Soho), always surprising. There’s a charm in reading this book as someone who once lived in London, although that doesn’t mean those beyond the M25 won’t find that excitement of recognition and difference either. London is a city that lives and breathes in history, the footsteps of millions lies beneath that veneer of tarmac and pavement. You feel the ghosts around you when you walk through some of its older, idiosyncratic streets and you recognise that feeling in the maps that Purefinder draws for you. 

It’s immersive in another way too – in the way Gwalchmai writes the physicality of Purefoy’s journey. Sickness, pain, aches, dehydration – Purefoy experiences the day through the prism of these disorders, and it can make for an unsettling and dizzying read. The visceral descriptions of his physical feeling are unflinching, as the physical reflects the emotional turmoil of grief, surprised joy, fear and desperation. 

Purefoy’s ‘guide’ is a violent Irishman. From the beginning, he is overbearing and frightening. But he also has moments of charm and wit – nothing is one-dimensional in this book. We’re not quite sure where he has come from, or where he is going, but we know where he is leading Purefoy. He has flashes of kindness, but he is too unpredictable for you or Purefoy to ever feel safe. 

The London Gwalchmai writes is populated with memorable characters. There are women working as prostitutes, labourers and lamp-lighters, Opium dens and Polish men and clients and pimps. It is a violent world but it is also a world of friendship, alliances, and brotherhood. 

And then there are Flash and Gideon, two men whose hands show no signs of work. Flash and Gideon are the elite, they are the ones with power. It’s obviously Gwalchmai’s intention that through these characters we recognise the political analogy between power and poverty in Purefinder’s world, and our own present. It’s the same with the Cabinet gang. This could be a risky strategy, but he pulls it off. 

Because you don’t have to read Flash and Gideon and the Cabinet as political allegories (is that the right word? So long since I reviewed fiction!). You can read them simply as characters who reside in the world of the novel and in the world created by the novel. This means that while their role and their voices create another and important dimension to your reading, it also allows the novel to live on into the future. It still works even if you are not engaged with today’s political personalities. In this way you get the best of both worlds – a novel that engages with and criticises our political establishment, and a novel that is packed with original and vivid characters that populate Victorian London, and continue to populate our London of today. 

I guess what I’m trying to say is that sly references to the present situation in a book set in the past can be clumsy and unwelcome, but in Purefinder they enrich and excite your reading experience. And although I don’t agree with all the political arguments in the novel, that is hardly a negative. It is about provoking thought and debate. 

The relationships between men are important in the novel, and not least the relationship between Purefoy and his father. This is a particularly difficult and heart-breaking part of the story, as Purefoy remembers his father’s mental breakdown precipitated by that other war in Afghanistan. Punctuated with fragments of Welsh language songs and phrases, fragments that reflect the fragmentation of memory, the recollections are frightening and moving. 

The shape and sounds of words are important to the novel too. We are reminded how to pronounce words, we are prompted to look at how words look to mean one thing but might mean another. It’s all part of that immersive experience – asking us to take notice of how we are reading as well as what we are reading. 

Purefinder is about all of those things in the first paragraph and more. It can be read in many ways and it invites you to explore all those ways. The characterisation is rich, that ‘living geography’ of the city pulls you in, and the political themes and analogies are cleverly drawn. 

Not bad for a first novel hey? Well done Ben! 

You can buy Purefinder from Foyles and for your Kindle, and all the usual places. 

Connections and Departures by Gaptooth

A friend and I were recently bemoaning the lack of political thought, or any kind of thought, in pop music today. It might be because we’ve reached the age where we start looking for the ‘good old days’, or it might be because, well, it’s kind of true. If you look back through musical history, you see plenty of evidence for a guitar, a keyboard and a voice being wielded to say something. Something important. From the Civil Rights songs, the poetic protest of the blues, to big hits criticising Thatcherite politics to satirical comments on the rich-poor divide. And then, of course, we had riot grrl and cool edgy women in pop claiming their feminism and slamming misogyny in popular culture. 

Recently it feels that there just hasn’t been that much of that. Sure, there’s an old Etonian singing about how Thatcher fucked the kids. And there’s Lily Allen trying to critique music industry sexism whilst simultaneously using all the tropes of that sexism in her video. My two great hopes for some kind of statement, MIA and Lady Gaga, kind of messed it up with their Assange alliance. 

Then, bam. At the end of 2013 something changed. Beyonce put Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche in a furious feminist anthem on her new record. And Gaptooth released her first album, Connections and Departures

I’ve known Hannah, the woman behind Gaptooth, since the mid 2000s when I moved into her house. We organised Ladyfest Bristol 2007 together and have been friends ever since. And so it is with great pleasure and excitement that I take this opportunity to review her album. 

The album opens with the electrifying Ladykillers, a catchy, angry piece of pop that wears its feminist politics on its sleeve. The music crashes in, and Gaptooth’s sweet voice slices through, telling us ‘it’s a man’s world, it’s a man’s business’. From there she explores the side-lining of women in left-wing politics, violence against women, (‘as he’s pinned you to the bed and you’re becoming the 1 in 3, the right to vote did not set you free’), with sly references to ‘being de Beauvoir to your Sartre’. And then the chorus swoops in, her voice soaring over the guitars that she’s ‘tired of settling for less’. 

The song is angry. It is angry about ladykillers – in every sense of the word. But it’s also a brilliant pop song with a chorus that you cannot get out your head and a beat you can’t help but dance to. It's so refreshing to hear some feminist anger in pop music again. It's so exciting to hear anger and passion and pissed off-ness at the horrors women face in a song you can sing along to and dance to. We need music and popular culture to give us pleasure, but we also want it to talk about what is happening, to protest and to criticise.

It’s no easy feat to write a song that makes you want to think and dance, but Gaptooth pulls it off with panache. 

Ladykillers sets the tone for the rest of the album, a mix of synth pop, dancing beats, big guitars, sweet vocals and the personal is political lyrics. There is the touching and painful duet with Oli Trademark, Enduring Freedom. It’s a soaring dance record with a euphoric beat that belies the personal heart of the lyrics. Then you have the witty two fingers to a break-up, Plans and Friends and Records, where Gaptooth celebrates a creative future and waves goodbye to the past with what is perhaps my favourite lyric in the world ever, ‘and when I said I had no protection, that wasn’t what I meant.’ The song goes on to re-write the marriage vows in an unabashed dig at patriarchy. 

Baggage is another stand out track, a little more understated than Ladykillers and Enduring Freedom, with quirky synths and an introspective exploration of being young and feeling alone with the line ‘when the glasses are all empty and the ashtrays are all full, we still are stuck with ourselves’. The song ends with staccato keys that jerk and surprise. 

These Machines takes a slightly different tone, with a driving bass and rockier way in, with angrier shouty lyrics that takes on capitalism and corporations, and the distractions offered to us by politicians: ‘while you were worried about immigration…we send them our carpet bombs for free’. 

Then there’s the heart-breaking ‘Same ghost every night’. The synths take on a darker note, they’re stripped back. It’s a beautiful if almost unbearably painful song about loss that can’t be forgotten once heard. As the song moves forward, the haunting soundscape builds up, becoming more and more intense, with the promise that ‘one day this will be alright’, before bringing you back down again.

It's followed by Badly Planned Recovery which has got hit written all over it as Gaptooth promises that she's 'not the wreck you've seen today'. This track should definitely be released as a single. The last track on the album, Take it Down, is a very pared back vocal and guitar number, with Gaptooth singing over simple guitar chords about liberte, egalite and fraternite, and socialist politics ('you won't find reality in reality TV'). The keyboard comes in but the song remains delightfully simple, letting Gaptooth's voice take priority as she tells her story. 

Each song is unique and individual, but they are all unmistakeably Gaptooth. They are political, personal, feminist, human, angry, witty and catchy. Connections and Departures is a collection of fantastic pop songs that make you want to dance and dance, before lifting up your placard and demanding change. Could this be a new dawn of politically minded pop? I hope so! 

Buy the album on iTunes or listen to it on Spotify 

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Violence against women, statistics and ignoring gender

I can hear you all now. Another blog on domestic violence statistics? How many does that make in the last seven-nearly-eight years? 

But the truth is, talking about the numbers is important. And so I will continue to do it. 

This post was triggered by a discussion on Twitter with a man to whom I gave the benefit of the doubt, but who turned out to be a troll. 

I had tweeted about how Clare’s Law – the new legislation that gives people the chance to find out if anyone has reported their partner for violent behaviour – could not really be effective when refuges are closing and the safety net for women leaving violent men is being slowly ripped apart. This was in light of a report from Women’s Aid who had a ‘snapshot’ day to show the problems women seeking refuge face. They recorded that on one day, 155 women and 103 children were turned away from refuges because there was no room. 

This man on Twitter got in touch to remind me that 1 in 6 men are victims or survivors of domestic abuse too. 

This is true, and it’s a statistic from the Walby and Allen report which also found that 1 in 4 women experienced domestic violence and abuse in their lifetimes. 

The Walby and Allen report – and these two stats in particular – are hugely important in shaping our understanding of how widespread domestic abuse is in our society. The fact that 1 in 4 women and 1 in 6 men will experience at least one incident of intimate partner violence should always be a wake up call to all of us. 

What these two statistics on their own don’t reveal is the gendered nature of on-going domestic abuse – and how women are more likely to experience repeat incidents of violence that can take place over many years

The 1 in 4 and 1 in 6 statistic covers all incidences of domestic abuse – including one-off incidents. When we look at the repeat incidences of domestic abuse however, we see that women are far, far more likely to experience on-going violence. 

The Walby and Allen report reveals that 32% of women who had ever experienced domestic violence (1 in 4 women) did so four or five (or more) times, compared to 11% of men. Women constituted 89% of all those who had experienced 4 or more incidents of domestic violence. These stats from the report are helpfully summarised on the Women’s Aid website

(Ironically, the Twitter troll called those stats ‘Christmas Cracker Statistics’ despite the fact that they came from the same report that he quoted the 1 in 6 number from. At that point I blocked and moved on with my day.) 

We know that, according to the Dodd report from July 04, domestic abuse has the highest rate of repeat victimisation. A woman will on average experience 35 incidents of violence before she calls the police, and still less than 40% of domestic abuse crime is reported to the police. We also know that 2 women a week will be killed by a violent partner – constituting nearly 40% of all female homicide victims (Povey, (ed.), 2005; Home Office, 1999; Dept of Health, 2005). 

Bringing up the numbers around repeat incidences is not to diminish the horror and cruelty of one incident of violence. One incident is one too many. I just want to talk about repeat incidences because, on many occasions, I hear the 1 in 4 and 1 in 6 stat quoted in an effort to try and smudge our understanding of how domestic abuse is still an issue of gender-based violence. And this is really important. 

Increasingly I feel there’s a gender blindness going on when we talk about violence against women and girls. For example, last week I wrote an article for Open Democracy about sexual harassment in schools – a form of bullying overwhelmingly committed by boys, with girls the vast majority of victims. In response to my article, I was reminded on Twitter that girls take part in this kind of bullying too. 

Now, of course girls bully too. But it is undeniable that sexual harassment in the classroom – from non-consensual upskirt shots to groping to sexually degrading name-calling – is a gendered issue. It simply is. If we try to deny the gender element, if we refuse to name the fact that sexual harassment in schools is overwhelmingly boys harassing girls, then we can never solve the problem. We can never take the action needed to reduce levels of harassment and sexual bullying. 

In that article I quote research from the NSPCC and Bristol University regarding violence in teen relationships. Just as before, we see a real gendered difference when it comes to repeat offending. The study found that 25% of girls and 18% of boys reported physical violence, and 1 in 3 girls and 16% of boys reported some form of sexual partner violence. For severe physical violence the numbers were 1 in 9 girls and 4% of boys. Girls were more likely than boys to say that the violence was repeated, and that the repeated violence either remained at the same level of severity or worsened. 

Another example of refusing to see gender was in the recent Children’s Commissioner report on ‘child on child abuse’. Again, all the evidence in the report points to the fact that this is a crime where girls are overwhelmingly the victims and boys are overwhelmingly the perpetrators. Yet most of the reporting of the report talked about ‘child on child’ abuse. The gender of the majority of the perpetrators and the victims was not acknowledged. 

Now, perhaps there is some sensitivity needed when we talk about crimes committed by children against other children. It runs the risk of generalising about young men in a culture that already demonises ‘youth’ so horribly. But if we ignore the gendered element, if we refuse to talk about how these are crimes committed against girls and women because they are girls and women, then again, how do we tackle it? How do we address the causes? How do we tackle the perpetrators, and how do we tackle the lack of accountability, when we refuse to acknowledge that the problem is male violence against women and girls?

If you go back to that report by the NSPCC and Bristol University – 1 in 3 girls report sexual violence from a partner. One third of 16-19 year olds have experienced sexual violence from a partner. This is not ok. We have to talk about how this is a gender-based violence issue.  

This post started out as a chance to explore what domestic abuse stats look like when we compare one-off and repeat incidents. It’s ended with a plea to not deny the reality of gender-based violence – where women and girls are victimised because they are women and girls. If we don’t look at gender, if we don’t look at why gender-based violence happens, then we can’t stop it. We can’t pretend this isn’t happening to women and girls because they are women and girls. It is. And as long as we ignore it, it will continue to. 

This, by Karen Ingala Smith, is a very important read on the statistics around gender and reporting domestic abuse.