International Womens Day 2017 #IWD2017

 In Defence of Tim Walker’s photo shoot of Emma Watson in Vanity Fair

Emma Watson recently caused a “social media storm” as an advocate for feminism and equal rights who nearly bared her breasts in a photo shoot for Tim Walker for Vanity Fair. There has been a steady volley of comment ever since, querying her actions and likening her to a Page 3 girl: “What is the difference?” they ask. After a short ponder and a cursory glance over the accusations levelled at Watson I came to these conclusions.

ac_emmawatson_vanityfair_comp

Emma Watson by Tim Walker for Vanity Fair

Ms Watson does not equate to a Page 3 Model because although she may have voluntarily objectified herself, her reason for doing so was not to sell her body. That is not what is on offer. When any model models there is a wide spectrum of things they may be selling or offering: clothes, lifestyle, titillation, sexual stimulation – indeed the very extent to which women are objectified is manifest in this very argument.

Any midwife will tell you that there is a massive difference between a new mother bearing her breasts and feeding her baby and a girl stripping off in a nightclub. Nothing is for sale in the former, although the availability of milk is offered to the suckling child, and perhaps the innocence of the scene might be marketable. When a woman strips off on a stage or for glamour photography it is a very different story – the act, the pose, the address are all contrived to stimulate sexual desire.

woman breastfeeding

Mother and Child by Hugues Merle (1823-1881)

A woman’s breasts in themselves are not sexual, their reveal does not necessarily sexually objectify  their “owner” (and so it is as if it is written into our current environment that the tits themselves have some sort of agency in this, given that they are so often photographed by themselves and for their own sake, the identity of the model cropped off, the breasts are a separate saleable entity). Their reveal does not necessarily objectify the “owner”: it is the context, the motive and the composition of any situation or image that determines objectification. Clearly some photographs serve up breasts as desireable objects, part of a body to be enjoyed and used, their dominance in the scene  and their presentation, designed to remove identity, intellect and personality from the sitter who is typically sat mouth slightly open, gasping for penetrative sex from any man available.

tittytuesday

Emma Watson had the agency to choose how she was photographed and I imagine to some extent some control over the editorial context of her photoshoot – this is what an Agent protects, surely? However, once published does Watson then have the power to determine how the photograph is read? I would argue that her own lifestyle, morals and attitude are component parts of how this image is read, as well as its being the creative work of the photographer Tim Walker, because this photoshoot will be understood in the context of his other work. It is clear Emma Watson is not selling her body in a way that a glamour model may be. Emma Watson is an actress, a Good Will Ambassador to the UN with a degree in English from Brown’s University, and is not about posing in sexy underwear with a view to seduce, or establish a reputation as a Calendar Girl. The image may be found to be “sexy” but that does not necessarily equate it with photography whose sole purpose is that end.

emmawatson

Emma Watson by Tim Walker for Vanity Fair.

Rather this image is confrontational. Tim Walker is one of my favourite photographers and artists. One might compare him to Cecil Beaton or to Angus McBean for his artistic and imaginative compositions. His book “StoryTeller” is one of my most prized possessions and it is in this context of narrative art work that the photographs must be understood and that is what this photograph must be read as – a piece of narrative.  One might compare the painting recently sold at Sotheby’s, an astonishing work by Artemisia Gentileschi, (a rare thing, a female painter), which was once owned by Charles I. The work was sold on his execution and bought by one of his household.

gentileschi 2

Head of a Woman by Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-c.1656)

 At some point a “prudish owner” cut off part of the painting which featured her naked breasts. There is not a doubt in my mind that the work would have been a magnificent portrait of a woman, who would have challenged the viewer in the same way. Her gaze speaks volumes. It is nakedness, but it is not seductive nudity as understood by male painters. Similarly, Watson’s gaze is not merely seductive, it challenges and defies you to objectify her. It expresses her personality, her history as a demure actress (everybody knows this is “Hermione” from Harry Potter), her current almost inevitable contextualisation now as the new “Helena Bonham Carter” (the hair echoes Bonham-Carter’s role as Lucy in the Merchant Ivory film “A Room With a View”) and her grappling with the identity of grown womanhood and as an actress in this context. The photograph does all sorts of things.

Does it perpetuate Rape Culture? I don’t think so. Although Watson is portrayed as delicate and naked, possibly slightly vulnerable, the photograph also demonstrates a certain trust in the truth. On International Women’s Day let us afford everyone a little more respect: only a tiny minority of men are actually rapists just as only a tiny minority of women are actually sluts!

Advertisements

Candlemas & Josephine

Ever since I can remember, Candlemas has been inextricably linked with the death of my grandmother, who I never met and who died on 2nd February 1961. My father was only twenty, my uncle only seventeen. Their mother died very suddenly collapsing in Kirkgate, Thirsk from a heart attack at the age of 58.

As a result, Candlemas has always been special and we’re lucky always to associate her with it. In fact, as she was the great absence in my childhood, and my first conception of death, it has meant that I have always associated death and the hope of an afterlife with candles. Many do, I know, but I’m lucky to have it cemented in my head through these fastly bound associations of my early years. My conception of heaven or any afterlife was shaped by the the idea that my grandmother was already there.

0184-teddy-josie-marchal-1953-copy

My Granny & Grandpa 

My Granny was a devout RC, her maiden name Harrison coming from a very old Catholic family from Lancashire. All her brothers went to Stonyhurst and so did her father, her grandfather and her great grandfather. A few years ago my father, myself and my children were invited to go and talk to Mr Knight, the archivist at Stonyhurst who took us around and up to the school’s archives where we found records going back a very long way. The Harrisons seemed to be there at the opening of the Lancashire college and there was even a look in the books from before the 1593 move to Stonyhurst – in tiny little leather bound books from St. Omer! There was one Harrison but it seemed to be a false name for a recusant priest.

0112-stonyhurst-college

Old family snapshot of Stonyhurst.

 

Of course this is lovely but I still never met my grandmother. My father and my uncle are full of stories and I’m supposed to bear some resemblance to her. Here are the things I know about her.

Her name was Mabel Josephine Harrison but she was known as Jo or Josie.

She was born on 2nd October 1902. My uncle was born on 1st October, so he was “her birthday present”!

She smoked heavily = heart attack.

She could do handstands even in her fifties.

She was very kind and gentle and funny.

She was a bit absent minded and one Christmas kept running out of stuffing for the turkey and made several fresh batches only to notice afterwards that there was a hole in the other side of the bird and a whole lot of stuffing had gone through it and onto the floor!

She was pretty useless at housework. She had grown up in Africa where, quite naturally for the age, they had had servants.

She was very artistic and iced cakes professionally. Chaos would reign around the rest of the kitchen, but at it’s centre a perfect, immaculate creation! (This is a little like me when I get into a piece of work!).

She had a baby girl called Mary who died shortly after being born. I’m named after her. Partly.

She was one of eleven children.

granny

Edith, Edgar and Josephine Harrison.

She was educated in a convent in Lancashire and one of her sisters was so naughty she was almost expelled.

When wrapping up my Dad and Uncle in (much disliked) knitted woollen hats that tied under the chin for their cold walk to school from the farm just outside Pickering, she would pull my Uncle’s tight and joke that he was “Sister Mary Rosebud”. I do this to my dog with his towel.

She loved the theatre and when she first came over to live in the UK spent all her money on West End shows.

She loved my grandpa very much.

She “would have loved” me; this is something I’ve been led to believe as a definite. I hope so.

 

 

 

Evelyn Waugh 1903-1966

 

 

evelyn-waugh

2016 marked the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Evelyn Waugh and I started writing this post to coincide with the actual date 10th April 2016. Sadly various emotional problems of my own sapped any creative energy and delayed its publication. Waugh is without a doubt my favourite writer and I wanted to write something that expressed this properly so the gestation of this (still inadequate) post has been a long one. So much so, that various newspaper articles I have referred to in previous versions of it are now months out of date and Leicester University has since celebrated “Waugh Day” with a panel discussion including Waugh’s latest biographer Philip Eade and his grandson Alexander Waugh.

This is the first time I have ever written about Waugh. I always refused to study or dissect any of Waugh’s work at university – I was afraid it would destroy the books for me. I wrote on nearly everything else from Morte d’Arthur to T.S. Eliot, even Jane Austen, analysing my all favourites until their lines became like once loved pets that had met with the scalpel. I knew their innards, their mechanisms, their motives, their functions, but the dear pet was dead: every time something precious, complete and whole died. So I refused to write on Waugh: I had to have one author who remained locked in a golden seal beyond dissection or rigorous psychological interpretation and a result his books will remain whole and appreciated by me as the joyous triumphs that they are. I delve a little in this article but this is the first and last time. The books remain sacred!

How do I love him? Can I count the ways? Here are only a few. Not only is his prose some of the most appealing, elegant and precise; exhibiting a deftness of touch that suggests lyrical divination, not only does he have the most anarchic sense of humour, but at his core, beyond all the bluster and snarls so popularly remembered, I’m absolutely positive Evelyn Waugh was a complete honey.

For one, he is one of the most self deprecating of writers. I do not think this is affectation. If a character might be suspected to be loosely based upon himself that character will almost certainly be cast as rather foolish or dull. If a University college is to be described as like his own, it is not a very good college. Tony Last, Charles Ryder, William Boot, even Scott-King, his own sympathies, pain and joy are lifted, transformed and transcribed to parallel fictional situations. Possibly the sense of truth in them is Waugh’s own honesty about his own merits and failures, a brutal honesty which facilitates his ability to see them in others. His own enormous sensitivity to tragedy and comedy allows him to identify the locality of the stings, bites and devastation in chiaroscuro to the thrills, the hilarity, the pure spontaneous joy.

Algernon Stitch went to his office in a sombre and rather antiquated Daimler; Julia always drove herself, in the latest model of mass-produced baby car; brand-new twice a year, painted an invariable brilliant black, tiny and glossy as a midget’s funeral hearse. She mounted the kerb and bowled rapidly along the pavement to the corner of St. James’s, where a policeman took her number and ordered her back into the road. 

(Scoop)

Together they prised the lid of the case and filed the floor with packing. At last they found a neat roll of cane and proofed canvas.

‘It is a tent,’ she said.

‘No, a canoe. Look.’

They spread the canvas on the floor. With great difficulty they assembled the framework of jointed cane. Twice they had to stop when the girl’s laughter turned to a paroxysm of coughing. At last it was finished and the little boat rose in a sea of shavings. ‘It is a canoe,’ she cried. ‘Now I will believe you about those sticks. I will believe everything you tell me. Look, there are seats. Get in, quick, we must get in.’

They sat opposite one another in the boat, their knees touching. The girl laughed, clear and loud, and this time did not cough. ‘But it’s beautiful,’ she said. ‘And so new. I have not seen anything so new since I came to this city. Can you swim?’

‘Yes.’

‘So can I. I swim very well. So it will not matter if we are upset. Give me one of the message sticks and I will row you…’

(Scoop)

As far as I can tell so much of Waugh, so much of his very being is invested in his writing that to me it is little wonder to hear of anecdotes suggesting he sometimes lacked in social niceties : he poured the majority of his generosity into his books. He was first and foremost a writer.

“I went there uncertainly, for it was foreign ground and there was a tiny, priggish, warning voice in my ear which in the tones of Collins told me it was seemly to hold back.  But I was in search of love in those days, and I went full of curiosity  and the faint, unrecognised apprehension that here, at last, I should find that low door in the wall, which others, I knew, had found before me, which opened on an enclosed and enchanted garden, which was somewhere, not overlooked by any window, in the heart of that grey city.”

(Brideshead Revisited)

To capture life with such immediacy and vividness and beauty requires talent and practiced craftsmanship. I can only think of Austen and Shakespeare balancing the music of English so poetically, (and elsewhere so potently, so hilariously). That “faint unrecognised apprehension that here, at last, I should find…”, is an unknowing first step towards Charles’s conversion: Charles is truly on the cusp of the discovery of the privilege of love and it is what is so often felt when reading Waugh as one is drawn along into his prose and meaning.

All the satire, all the superficial disdain is laced with some continuous thread which takes delight in life, as in Shakespeare, in the good and bad. There is equal joy to be had in the antics of the comedic saviour Mrs Stitch and the ferocious yet soppy Brigadier Ritchie-Hook as in the diabolical Basil Seal. Although the general and popular persona of Waugh depicted in the press and media is one of pompous conservative snobbery, I find a kind and sympathetic authorial voice threaded amongst the thorns of black humour, like a persistent honeysuckle amid piquant, thorny brambles.  For example,  for all the ridicule of the child, Winnie, in the ridiculous situation of the shady squalor in the seaside hotel scene in A Handful of Dust, through Tony Last, through the seediness and farce shines the enduring nobility of Tony and the witless helplessness of Winnie and her mother.  The stupidly awkward child and her single mother’s desperate situation as a call girl mirrors Tony’s own at the other end of the social spectrum. The clownishness of their ugly and humiliating state seems to lock that crucial element of tragedy to the comedy. In humiliation there is always that element of mockery which searingly heightens the chiaroscuro between nobility and lowliness. Tony and the single mother are victims of a situation, both largely beyond their own control and a remnant of their relationships with other people. But amid the social mockery there is also a sense of sympathy, of the knight passing the unfortunate maiden. This again is echoed in one of my favourite passages in the book where Tony’s Tennyson-like dream of Romantic love is shattered; it is the turning point in Tony’s mind regarding giving his unfaithful wife a divorce and making her a generous settlement.

“He hung up the receiver and went back to the smoking room. His mind had suddenly become clearer on many points that had puzzled him. A whole Gothic world had come to grief … there was now no armour glittering through the forest glades, no embroidered feet on the green sward; the cream and dappled unicorns had fled…”

(A Handful of Dust)

The Telegraph surprised me with their tone in their commemorative article of April, casting Waugh as a bigot and a snob. There are many types of snobberies these days and it seemed an odd thing for The Telegraph to say. As to bigotry there is only one set of opinions to have these days and those are of the liberal, one cannot be anything else without being termed a bigot, so when I say I like Waugh’s writing, I do not see myself as subscribing to bigotry or snobbery, but just as another free person holding opinions that don’t always concur with the mainstream.

“‘One couldn’t conceive of Granchester without Scott-King. But has it ever occurred to you that a time may come when there will be no more classical boys at all?’

‘Oh yes. Often.’

‘What I was going to suggest was – I wonder if you will consider taking some other subject as well as the classics? History for example, preferably economic history?’

‘No, headmaster.’

‘But you know, there may be something of a crisis ahead.’

‘Yes, headmaster.’

‘Then what do you intend to do?’

‘If you approve headmaster, I will stay as I am her as long as any boy wants to read the classics. i think it would be very wicked indeed to do anything to fit a boy for the modern world.’

‘It’s a short-sighted view, Scott-King.’

‘There, headmaster, with all respect, I differ from you profoundly. I think it the most long sighted view it is possible to take.’

(Scott-King’s Modern Europe)

I have read Waugh’s own self deprecating words about himself in A Little Learning. Waugh holds up a harsh and lucid mirror to himself and condemns his own behaviour to the point that you cannot believe he likes his former self very much and is wholly repentantI have met wonderful glimpses of him in the letters and recollections of others, most notably Alec Guinness, Edith Sitwell and Diana Cooper, and I did read his correspondence with Nancy Mitford but even this felt like an intrusion onto what must for me remain sacred ground. A new biography is out and I doubt whether I shall read it. Online there is more written about Waugh’s private life than there is about his work, this is a tragedy and deplorable indicator of the appetites of contemporary society. Throughout 2016 articles hinting at hypocrisy and nastiness have crept into my sphere of consciousness through social media; idiots have been given platforms and I have avoided them. Like Waugh I am a Roman Catholic so I am fortunate to have the strong and earnest belief that Waugh absolutely repented for any sins and is absolutely forgiven, now and forever, no matter what anyone writes about him now or in the future. What remains of him is love.

 

Blog at WordPress.com.