New Humanist | Beatlebone by Kevin Barry


This has been a big year for literary resurrections of famous men. The Booker Prize went to Marlon James’s A Brief History of Seven Killings, an epic that centres on the 1976 attempt to assassinate Bob Marley, while the shortlist for the Goldsmiths’ Prize, which recognises experimental fiction, includes Max Porter’s Ted Hughes-conjuring novella Grief Is the Thing with Feathers, and Beatlebone, which summons John Lennon circa 1978.

Of the three, Beatlebone is the most fearless in its advance on an icon. James and Porter keep their daunting subjects at something of a distance, a vortex around which events circle (James), or safely refracted through artfulness (Porter). Kevin Barry, though, storms headlong into the psyche of Lennon. It’s a curious place: Lennon at this point in his history is in retirement, reconciled with Yoko Ono and a full-time father to their son Sean. He is famous, but no longer doing the thing he’s famous for – he simply is a celebrity, on the run from his public and from himself.

Read the full review at the New Humanist

Statement in response to London Young Labour Summer Conference Motion 8 supporting the decriminalisation of sex work

The London Young Labour summer conference takes place this Sunday. Among the motions to be voted on, motion 8 deserves particular scrutiny from feminists: it is titled “Standing up for sex workers’ rights, supporting the decriminalisation of sex work.” It is principally concerned with committing LYL to opposing the Nordic model. A number of feminist activists, academics and frontline service providers have collaborated to critique the claims and evidence offered in this motion.

As a feminist and a Labour Party member, I am publishing the full document below and hope that any delegates attending the LYL conference will consider it carefully before voting. It is a detailed and thorough rebuttal of motion 8, and very much worth reading in full. However, the conclusion is a particularly powerful explanation of why the Labour movement should never legitimise an industry founded in exploitative power relations:

as feminists we believe that women who sell sex are fellow human beings who operate under the constraints and limitations of all human life. Most of them are neither superior, sexually liberated entrepreneurs, nor weak and defenceless victims. They are responding to the demand created by men and catered to by pimps and traffickers (among others), a demand which can and should be delegitimised through the introduction of legislation that signals that sexual exploitation is not an acceptable “service” to purchase, even if the money exchanging hands seems to make it a “free” transaction on behalf of the class of people thus being exploited. The protection of those who sell should not be conflated with the legitimisation of those who buy. Those within the Labour movement who fail to distinguish or even acknowledge these two very different constituent elements of the sex industry, and who do not identify which holds the power, should explain their position better and more honestly than they have done in this motion.



Here are some things I have thrown away over the last month:

Two sandwich toasters.

A full set of Ikea cutlery.

A two-pint glass with “beer monster” printed on the side.

A fridge that was probably fine.

A load of wooden beams for roofing. (“That is good wood!” said the man who works at the recycling centre, incredulously, as my husband pitched the slats into the big skip for waste wood.)

A scratched but sound table top. (“That’s wood, not bric-a-brac,” said another man who works at the recycling centre, waylaying me and ending my hopes of sending the table on to whatever the furniture version of going to live on a farm is. “It’s not good enough condition.”)

A perfectly fine bedstead. (This I slung bitterly into the wood skip, not willing to risk another bruising rejection of my rejected possessions.)

After the savage dismissal of my table top, I sat in the car and cried for a bit. Not just because I was 13 days into a two-week process of house clearance and moving, though I was, and that seems like a perfectly legitimate reason to have a brief sob; it was the waste that got to me.

My own detritus was painful enough. When you move, it’s sensible to carry only what you want to take, and in the preceding month, we unloaded uncountable bin bags of stuff to the charity shops of Bath. I don’t think of myself as profligate or wasteful, so this evidence of both my profligacy and my wastefulness was unwelcome. Clothes that didn’t fit or didn’t suit. Toys our children had neglected or outgrown. Books – not many of these, but the packing made it undeniable that a whole mass of volumes have sat on our shelves, unopened and unliving.

But then there was the other stuff, other people’s stuff. The house we were moving into had been student accommodation for most of a decade, and the whole cellar was tightly packed with boxes of possessions no one wanted to take with them, and no one wanted to throw away.

Someone had left a full wardrobe of clothes and a collection of manga in a zip-up bag, all now lightly mildewed. There was set after set of crockery and cutlery: plain white economy porcelain, or the mix-and-match assembly of spares from mum and dad. Person after person had come to this house, each bringing their own offering to the underworld of homewares in the foundations.

My husband and I hauled everything out. We were Jesus of the unwanted pots, harrowing the hell below our living room floor. And then we ditched it all – some we donated and some we kept, but more that I would have liked went to the tip. Guilty as I felt, I decided the original sin of this stuff was in its making, not its junking. All of it had been wanted at point of sale: the doughnut maker, the “beer monster” stein, the cock-and-balls cookie cutter with optional depresser for marking a biscuity bellend (student house). And none had been wanted after.

This seems an abjectly terrifying use of human ingenuity and natural resources. It seems so hideously inefficient: shouldn’t there be some kind of system so the owner of sandwich toaster one could inform the owner of sandwich toaster two that an operational sandwich toaster was already in residence, so no need to add your own to the small electrical graveyard? A register of unnecessary objects.

But I know also that this stuff is all necessary in its way: these are the tokens by which wealth is circulated, production maintained, employment created. All this festering junk is the waste crapped out by a functioning economy, and we fill first our homes and then the land with shit.

Comment writer as flapping tongue crab


I want to write better. Over the last five (five!) years of writing comment pieces, I’ve learned to write more effectively, but a lot of it is about learning to fill a small frame (500-800 words) quickly (sometimes, the hour-long lunch break from my office job). This is a skill, and it’s one acquired by much practice; but it’s a skill that can only be developed in its own interests.

I can get quicker, I can learn to hit the right phrase first time, I can craft the rhetorical devices and structural tics that shelter my spots of ignorance from scrutiny. But however good I get at writing 600-word reactive comment pieces in an hour, I will still be writing 600-word reactive comment pieces in an hour.

The online comment writer is often in the role of debunker. Debunking is a thing of long standing and some usefulness, but the thing about the debunker is, they always need something to debunk: the debunker is parasitic on the thing they claim to oppose. And because the debunker inevitably repeats the claims they ostensibly wish to invalidate, the debunker become a very specific sort of parasite: you become the crustacean that replaces a fish’s tongue, living on the host’s blood while flapping away in its service.

If you debunk (say) misogyny over and over, what you also do is replicate that misogyny for the purposes of debunking. (This is an observation borrowed from Kenneth Burke.) There are times when comment writers appear to seek out the most obnoxious figures for the purposes of making them a foil; there are times when I’ve done this, and there are times when a ridiculous person is the best way of ridiculing a ridiculous idea. And yet, if all you do is elevate the ridiculous and bad without celebrating the good and the interesting, ultimately you are living within and on the thing you purport to hate.

The problem is that a successful comment piece needs a readership, and there are few writers who can deliver that readership on their own – I am not one. There are some outlets that have a broad and tolerant audience who will give consideration to a piece that sets its own terms. But in general, most pieces that traffic well do so by entering an argument that has already established the terms of its controversy. This is not a criticism: this is good editorial sense. But it does mean that as a writer, you can end up responding reflexively and unreflectively if you’re not careful.

The Raging Bull image of a face reeling from the impact of a fist is thrilling to see, but comment writing can feel a little like putting your head in the way of the swinging glove on a weekly basis: take the blow and show the shiner to the crowd. Boxers might get better at taking punches, but they rarely get cleverer from their time in the ring, and sometimes I fear that this is the fate of the reactive comment writer. Your recoil grows more dramatic as your brain grows more pulpy. Online comment writers give the appearance of being scrappers, but I wonder how many ever land an actually damaging blow on an opponent.

I hope I have not yet become the flapping tongue-crab or the mat-crashing middleweight. I hope that when I write, I add something to the store of kindness and curiosity and humour in the world, that my brain is not pulped, and that this hour’s work will turn in at a satisfactory 600.

Photo by University of Salford, used under Creative Commons

#AdviceHijack! My vagina says your boyfriend is repulsive


Well here is a problem, and here is maybe the worst imaginable response to it from Pamela Stephenson Connolly:

My boyfriend of three years has never actively looked at my vagina or shown the slightest interest in it other than the usual foreplay. He performs oral sex occasionally but always under the darkness of the duvet and has admitted he doesn’t find vaginas particularly attractive, joking that mine is especially repulsive. I feel hugely hurt and ashamed and his behaviour makes me consider him childish. He jokes that bodily fluids are disgusting and always washes after sex. I feel self-conscious and unattractive and worry that we’ll never enjoy the explorative sex life I’ve had with previous partners.

Besides biological factors, each person’s sexuality is created and influenced by early experiences: family attitudes to sex, friends, religion, along with the messages about sex received from school, the media and society. Your boyfriend’s background may have made it difficult for him to be comfortable with his sexuality, or with your genitals. And like many men, he may have picked up a misleading notion of an ideal kind of vagina (“neat”, evenly proportioned and hairless) from media images. Help him receive some sex education to adjust his sexual attitudes by inviting him to join you either watching educational DVDs or reading a well-written book that accentuates sexual and physical diversity (for example Our Sexuality by Crooks and Baur). Discuss the material as equal adults, not teacher/pupil, and reward him when he demonstrates maturity.

Lady, I don’t know your boyfriend, but I know this much: my vagina finds him repulsive, and so should yours. He sounds like a heel of the first order. And not one of those fun, romantic heels who you stick with while you wheedle him into being not-a-sociopath, because under his heeldom there’s a shining and irresistible humanity which it is your job to coax out.

No, under your boyfriend’s heel-like exterior, there’s just more heel. Layer on layer of heel to be peeled back, revealing more heel until you reach the very core of him, his true essence – which is a teeny-tiny, minuscule and crusted heel.  And the reason he isn’t the salvageable kind of heel is that salvageable heels are a made-up thing. They don’t exist.

The kind of man who tells you that he finds all vaginas – yours especially, lol! – disgusting is not the kind of man you want anywhere near your fanny. You are not going to be the possessor of the one very special vagina that can change his mind, and Jesus Christ, why would you want to be?

I’d consider it a bit out of order if a partner told me he found all chili con carnes revolting – especially mine (joke!) – then went to brush his teeth immediately after dinner. That would be a flat-out dumping offence, not for the difference in culinary opinion (hey, a man is allowed not to like chili! Or vaginas) but for the utter bastardly rudeness with which it was expressed.

If you are generous enough to give someone access to the squishiest, tenderest bits of your body, a little bit of politeness is the least you should expect. Someone who makes you feel “hurt and ashamed” is not your friend, and they’re definitely not your boyfriend.

But before you ditch him (maybe with a parting shot about how his perineum always made you nauseous? Think about it, at least), consider taking the opportunity to ask him this: why would a man who finds vaginas repulsive ever want to have sex with a woman? Women, after all, often include a vagina, so it would make sense for someone strongly vagina-averse to consider avoiding women.

The fact that he’s decided to have a relationship with you, and seems determined to make you share in his absurd disgust at your anatomy, makes me suspect that he doesn’t hate vaginas so much as he hates women. You have encountered an honest-to-goodness misogynist. Take a moment to marvel at his unpleasantness. Then kick him right out, and “reward him” by not vomiting on his nutsack.

Let me tell you about Middlemarch Club


Welcome to the latest incarnation of my plan to never sleep more than five hours a night – it’s Middlemarch Club! Some of you will have come here because you already know of and are interested in Middlemarch Club, but for those who don’t or those who would like to know exactly how minutely organised fun can be, I’ve written up the particulars below.

What is Middlemarch Club?

Middlemarch Club is a bunch of people all reading Middlemarch at the same time and ocassionally talking about it – that’s all. Middlemarch is very probably my favourite book ever, and I’ve been meaning to reread it for a while now: how much better to go through that rereading in the company of others, who can all bring their various perspectives to the pier glass? (That’s a Middlemarch reference right there. I’m enjoying myself already!) People who’ve expressed an interest include Victorianists, scientists, philosophy lecturers and videogame designers, so there should be plenty of interesting conversation.

How do I join Middlemarch Club?

That’s easy: get a copy of Middlemarch, and start reading it. I’ve also set up a Twitter account called @PaperhouseBooks, which I’ll be using for Middlemarch Club-related admin – you may wish to follow that, though I expect to run the discussions through my personal account, @SarahDitum.

Is that it?

Not quite. Once a fortnight, I’ll be kicking off loosely organised discussions about the book so far using the hashtag #middlemarchclub. If you’re not on Twitter because you consider it a den of wastrels and idiots (and frankly, who could blame you?) there will be an open post right here on this blog to collect your thoughts on the study of provincial life, and I’ll collate all the observations into a round-up blog post.

One request: please, please don’t share major plot points until the deadline for each section has passed. Spoilers suck, even for 140 year old books.

What’s the schedule?

Middlemarch is 750 pages long in the Everyman edition, handily divided into eight books of 100 pages or fewer each, and I’ve planned the reading as follows:

11-24 May Prelude and Book I: Miss Brooke

25 May-7 June Book II: Old and Young

8-21 June Book III: Waiting for Death

22 June-5 July Book IV: Three Love Problems

6-19 July Book V: The Dead Hand

20 July-2 August Book VI: The Widow and the Wife

3-16 August Book VII: Two Temptations

17-30 August Book VIII: Sunset and Sunrise

Bloody hell, I’ll die reading Middlemarch at that rate.

I aimed for something that would suit as many people as possible, and also let us read Middlemarch episodically. I firmly believe that the Victorian triple decker is meant to be read as part of life, rather than joylessly inhaled. It also means that if you fall behind (by, saying, having things to do that aren’t reading Victorian novels) you should have a chance to catch up in the next block.

Do I need a particular edition of the novel?

I like the Everyman edition, but to be honest, any unabridged version will be absolutely fine. If you have an ereader, you can download Middlemarch from Project Gutenberg.

God, you sound like a nerd.

Thanks! Hope you can join in!

Why women’s mags might not be the great Satan on glossy pages

ImageHold onto your hoohahs because I am about to shock the liberal ladypants right off you: I like women’s magazines. Yes, I know that feminist blogs are existentially bound to be the mortal enemies of anything glossy that sits on a news stand. Yes, I know that there’s some egregious bullshittery within the editorial gospel of these shiny-papered organs. I know it’s easy to hate on women’s magazines.

And yet women’s magazines are the only publications where female writers aren’t massively outnumbered by male ones. They’re one of the few sectors in any industry where female authority is the norm, rather than a freakishly dickless aberration. And they’re almost the only media where things in which women are interested – fashion and beauty, but also friendship and family and sex – are treated as things a normally intelligent person might be interested in, rather than the brainfluff of vacant-headed boob carriers consigned to a section called “Lifestyle”.

Let’s take a look at Elle, because it’s the one I read most (and the one I’ve written for). Yes, actually read, not just look at the pictures: every issue, Elle carries at least four good quality features, the kind of thing you can start in an idle moment while the kettle’s boiling and find yourself still reading as your tea goes cold.

Over the last few years, they’ve run a fantastic essay about feminism by Sarah Churchwell; a series of outstanding pieces by “beauty extremist” Avril Mair, going into the kind of genuine hard work it takes to develop and maintain a fashion-class body; and wonderful discursive articles about careers, relationships and the meaning of style. Seriously, you haven’t even inflicted consensual superficial bruising on the subject of fetishwear as fashion unless you’ve read UK Elle’s article from 2011. (They also have the inevitable occasional Ultimate Celebrity Interview, but you can’t get everything right.)

When it comes to the actual fashion – the photo shoots – I think even the most passionate defender of the glossy has to acknowledge some capital-I-issues. It’s obscene that teenage models are routinely presented as avatars for an audience twice their age. It’s obscene that a starvation level body mass index is presented as a normal, desirable female look. It’s obscene that short, black, fat (and I’m talking fashion-fat here, as in size 10 or above) and disabled women are either non-existent to fashion or fetishised half to death if they do appear.

All that sucks. But get this: it sucks the same in almost every branch of the media. Wailing on women’s magazines as if they’re the only place this happens is so self-defeatingly dumb, I almost can’t bear to think about it. I mean, take one of the main purveyors of the j’accuse approach to women’s magazines: the Mail’s Liz Jones. A woman whose entire journalistic career is founded on niggling and picking at other women, and who when she’s not writing about how disgusting fat poor people are is whining about the privations of being an anorexic living in a massive barn. (CONFIDENTIAL TO LIZ: YOUR EMPLOYERS MAY NOT BE AS CONCERNED FOR YOUR WELFARE AS THEY SAY IF THEY’RE PAYING YOU TO INDULGE YOUR POTENTIALLY FATAL NEUROSES,)

Women’s magazines could be better. They could adopt a saner approach to diet and exercise. (Seriously, if you have six weeks to get a bikini body, you need to either have one to start with or think about buying a bigger bikini.) They could act like consumption isn’t a sacred rite (and maybe they will, when the advertisers finally all walk into the online sunset and readers are actually paying the paper and production costs rather than being a bought audience). They could let go of the crack-brained arguments about “having it all” or “keeping him happy”.

You know when that’s going to happen? When smart, funny women recognise that smart, funny women make women’s magazines. When readers demand better and writers push to provide it – we know they can, because of how many great women writers already work (or have worked) for women’s magazines. And please, tell me where else I get to see female performers and creators lauded on the cover just for being rocking. (Well, beautiful and rocking.) When Wired magazine – with the notionally gender neutral remit of “tech and shit” – puts a woman on the cover, she’s posed to mark her token nature in a male dominated industry, or she’s naked, or she’s just tits. WT everliving F is up with that, Wired?

So every time some chippy blogger rips into the great Satan of the glossies, as if they’re the only papery barrier between us and total emancipation, I like to take a moment to count all the other brilliant venues for women’s interest journalism. And then, after I’ve blinked, I take a chilly satisfaction in thinking of how happy that blogger would be to get – if she’s one of the very, very fortunate and talented ones – a single page of Grazia to spread her thoughts on.

Image taken from jaimelondonboy‘s Flickr stream, used under Creative Commons

An earlier version of this post appeared on The Flick