Sunday, 27 January 2013

Patsy Stone and A Grand Night Out

Recently I happened to see a stand-up routine by the waspish comedian, Simon Evans, who lives in the Brighton and Hove area. Most of his rant concerned the vast numbers of scantily clad ‘hens’ that hit both towns during weekends, leading him to posit that perhaps it would be a good idea if the local prostitutes were to wear badges so that punters could more easily identify the real working girls from the amateurs.

This comment did ultimately raise a laugh, but it was preceded by the sort of collective intake of breath that must have warned Evans that he was perilously close to the precipice, the point at which a triumphant Sunday Night at the London Palladium becomes professional suicide on the stage of the famously tricky Glasgow Empire.

Perhaps I laughed earlier than the rest of the audience, because this observation was one that I had recently made myself, when watching some fly-on-the-wall documentary about the mess that police and paramedics are forced to confront on the streets of Britain’s cities every weekend. Watching one crowd of women staggering along the street, clad in what can only be described as inappropriate attire considering the inclement weather I had thought exactly the same thing myself. Having been absent from my home country since 1982, I started to wonder at which point it became perfectly acceptable for young women to venture out at night in what would have been regarded in the 1970s and 1980s as the classic uniform of a brass.

At this point I would like to state that I have absolutely nothing against prostitutes; these women perform a very useful service and I would love the profession to be legalised, thereby offering them an increased level of protection against pimps who are a bit too handy with their fists and equally violent punters. Without this protection, many prostitutes are forced out onto the streets where they become easy prey for men like Steve Wright, the lorry driver who murdered five women near Ipswich in 2006.

The bald fact is that when you have something to sell – in this case, sex – you have to make sure that the potential customer can see the goods in advance of payment. So, that is the prostitute’s angle; what tempts the ordinary lass out on the town to market herself in exactly the same way?

In the 1990s I started to be aware of the now well-worn phrase, “I’m confident in my sexuality.” This is all very well and would perhaps explain an attitude that might persuade women to put their melons on show: “See these? See how ripe and luscious they are? Well, have a bloody good look, love, because this is the closest you’re ever going to get to them!” That is a dangerous game at the best of times but, coupled with an intention to drink one’s own bodyweight in alcohol, it becomes damn near suicidal.     

Recently Joanna Lumley has added her own five cents to the debate by advising young women on ways that they might keep themselves out of harm’s way. “Don’t look like trash, don’t get drunk, don’t be sick down your front, don’t break your heels and stagger about in the wrong clothes at midnight,” she said. Sound advice, I would have thought. Yet delivered in La Lumley’s cut-glass accent, this sensible warning has been construed by The Guardian’s columnist, Tanya Gold as an attack on working class culture.

Speaking as a member of the bourgeoisie I would like to posit that, were I working class, I would deeply resent the implication that a typical night out for me would inevitably involve donning a fanny-flashing dress, downing an industrial-sized quantity of Bacardi Breezers and sitting in a puddle of my own wee.

It is perfectly natural, upon reaching middle age, to imagine that the years of one’s youth were far superior to anything on offer today, but given the evidence that many of Britain’s towns and cities are virtually no-go areas most evenings (and especially on weekends), wouldn’t it be great to return to the days when all generations felt comfortable about hitting the town after dark?

On the odd occasions when my friends and I could talk our way out of Bryntaff, our boarding house, and onto the mean streets of night-time Cardiff (and this always involved a lie about going to the cinema), we inevitably applied make-up and wore our “going out” clothes. We usually ended up in a pub, in conversation with some slightly lairy, but perfectly decent blokes from somewhere exotic like Port Talbot or Neath and probably had a bevvy or two. I am heartened to note that a night on the town for my 25 year-old goddaughter is pretty much the same; having seen photos of her social life I can confirm that she and her friends also prefer the ‘dressing up’ to the ‘dressing down’ option. Probably they have a drink or two, but stop long before they lose control.

The main problem is that, in combination with excessive amounts of booze, wearing a PVC nurse’s uniform that barely covers one’s arse cheeks is an invitation to trouble, whatever Tanya Gold says. When I was a teenager I was advised not to wear cripplingly high heels because, if some man with evil intentions did decide to rape or mug me, it would be more difficult to make my escape. That seemed like sound advice then and it still does now.

There is a vast gulf between offering advice to help women stay out of trouble and stating that, “They asked for it!”

Like many of us who experienced our teenage years in the 1970s I was raised on the old feminist anthem, “Whatever I wear, wherever I go, yes means yes and no means no” but I hadn’t factored in the possibility of living in an era when women would drink so much that they would finish a night out so drunk that they would be unable to withhold sexual consent.

Being too drunk to say no is a massive problem – possibly one of the largest facing young women these days.

It’s for this reason that courts are obliged to hear cases which revolve around “he said, she said” non-consensual sex scenarios and the incidence of STDs like chlamydia are higher than they have been for decades.

In advising girls not to dress like tramps and drink like fish, Tanya Gold accuses Joanna Lumley of colluding with the Taliban. This is clearly complete nonsense, but does expose the current British obsession with not being judgemental.

Maybe it is time that we rediscovered the positive aspects of being judgemental. Maybe it is time that we told young women that to venture out at night in clothes bought at Anne Summers and combine their inappropriate attire with copious amounts of alcohol is a thoroughly bad idea. Maybe it is time that we told them that a little responsibility for their own actions is in itself empowering – and far more celebratory of their sexuality than going commando in a perilously scanty French maid’s uniform.

“Whatever we wear, wherever we go, yes means yes and no means no.” I still believe in that philosophy; any sexual assault is ALWAYS the fault of the rapist. However, when my friends and I chanted this, all we were thinking about was displaying perhaps a centimetre more cleavage than our parents would deem suitable.

If I acquired a Porsche convertible and parked it in an area of high crime and left the keys in the ignition I would anticipate a stern lecture from the local constabulary about my carelessness and lack of common sense, were it stolen.

Of course, it is a big mistake to associate rape with revealing clothing; most sexual attacks on women by men have absolutely no bearing on their choice of outfit, but it certainly is true that a combination of trashy costume and terminal drunkenness is a pretty good guarantee that a night out will end in trouble, whether this involves pregnancy, an STD or finding yourself in bed with a total stranger.

As we seventies feminists have long realised, ending up in bed with some unpromising herbert due to the application of beer goggles does not a rape or serious sexual assault make.

You want equal rights? You’ll just have to butch it out and admit your mistake.

When I was a teen there was a phrase that used to send us all into gales of laughter. It was very popular with Play for Today style dramatists and always involved a scenario where a girl was debating the merits of sleeping with her boyfriend: “Will you still respect me in the morning?” Oh, how we laughed!

Funnily enough, it doesn’t sound quite so amusing these days.



Saturday, 12 January 2013

Bowie and Me

In his typically humorous memoirs, The Life and Times of The Thunderbolt Kid, Bill Bryson frequently comments on his status as a baby boomer and philosophises about the way in which the average boomer’s expectations of life differed from his or her parents’.

Born in 1951, Bryson is definitively a baby boomer as, born in the final quarter of 1960, I am too. Maybe I limbo-danced my way into the great boomer party at five seconds to some mythical midnight, but I have no less a right to consider myself as part of this great post-war reproductive experience.

One thing that quite clearly separates us from our pre WWII parents is our status as perpetual teenagers. This is something that was made blindingly obvious to me last week, when David Bowie released his first new work for a decade.

Even if Twitter had existed when my Mam had been 52, as I am now, I can hardly imagine her tweeting “OMG have you heard the new Andy Williams album? #amazeballs” to her followers; yet many of we Bowie fanatics have been rediscovering our teenage years with the news that our favourite Starman is on the brink of releasing a brand new album at the age of 66.

One comment that I saw on The Guardian’s website struck me as particularly apposite: “David Bowie made me who I am today” it read and, had it name checked almost anyone else, I would probably have guffawed; loud and long. Yet how can I scoff when I have to admit that in my own life there is a Bowie-shaped fault line?

All it took was one picture; an exotic, glamorous creature reclining on a chaise longue, one arm raised gracefully over his head, a head which is incidentally adorned with gloriously long tresses. Oh, and did I mention that he was wearing a dress?

That picture which, I later learned, featured on the cover of an album entitled The Man Who Sold the World, was to divide my life into BB (Before Bowie) and AB (after Bowie).

BB KJ was a happy, innocent child who liked nothing better than to throw on a pair of blue and green tartan ski-pants, a jumper knitted by my grandmother in wool of such an intense colour that it could probably be seen from outer space and a pair of wellies (I was a style icon even then) so that I could ‘help’ my grandfather in his vegetable garden. Granted this assistance generally involved accidentally slicing earthworms in half with my mini-spade and marvelling that they didn’t die, eating peas straight out of the pod and wandering off when some random thought distracted me, but it was a healthy, out-of-doors existence and it suited me very well.

AB KJ was a very different beast. All I recall after seeing that picture (and where was it, I wonder now; in some teen magazine possibly?) is training bras, Clearasil and the development of a very bad attitude. To my grandfather’s dismay, the genie was out of the bottle and it was never going to be pushed back in, however hard he tried.

A long-haired man in a dress was quite possibly the worst thing that you could have ever shown Granddad; let’s just say that he didn’t share my enthusiasm for all things Bowie, who quickly became the centre of my pre-teenage universe. Why would anyone bother with Donny Osmond and David Cassidy (sorry, boys) when the man who fell to earth was carving out new territory?

Bowie quickly came to represent the possibilities of the world outside my little rural patch of West Wales. I cannot imagine how a man in a dress, more beautiful than many women, would go down at the Martletwy Young Farmers’ Club but something told me that he would have to be very handy with his fists to avoid a good kicking.

Of course, what I did not realise that the late sixties and early seventies would later be famous for its celebration of androgyny and ‘gender-bending’ as it later came to be known. We Bowie-istas like to imagine that our hero sprung, fully formed, from the rib of Zeus or something equally mythological but, as Peter Doggett reminds us in his excellent book, The Man Who Sold The World: David Bowie and the 1970s, Bowie is nothing if not a magpie, albeit a very intelligent example of the species.

With input from (amongst others) Anthony Newley, mime artist Lindsey Kemp and his contemporary, Marc Bolan, Bowie began his process of Ziggyfication and unwittingly became the template for many other later music stars, including Madonna and Lady Gaga. My first Bowie album was The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders From Mars, reaching backwards to embrace Space Oddity, The Man Who Sold the World and Hunky Dory, before he reached what, to me, will always be his apotheosis, Aladdin Sane.

Due to his talent for recreating himself in a variety of fascinating guises, Bowie’s career has been something that we fans can constantly dip into at various stages along the way. Tin Machine did not appeal to me, although 1999’s distinctly Hunky Dory-ish Hours did.

The nearest I have ever come to meeting Bowie was during my time at drama school in 1981, when a fellow student volunteered her boyfriend to help with the sound on a production of Godspell since, “he has worked in the music industry a bit.” He turned out to be Tony Visconti, producer of both Bowie and Bolan and on meeting him I was so hysterical to be shaking the hand that shook the hand etc. that all I could manage was a high-pitched squeak. Prepare ye the way of the lord, indeed. My middle-aged self, of course, is furious that I lacked the gumption to make him a cuppa, sit him down and winkle as many stories out of him as I could when I had the chance.

I have no desire to meet Bowie in the flesh; to me, as to many of his fans, he is an almost mythological creature. To discover that he has, for example, bad breath and a post-nasal drip would make him human and that is one thing that I cannot afford to acknowledge.

No, even as an old geezer with a career that spans 45 years, Bowie has to retain that air of inscrutability and exoticism that has epitomised his personae since the beginning and with Where Are We Now he has proved that he retains his seductive air.