Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Show us your Manuelas, Love

There’s an ad on Spanish telly currently that I feel compelled to tell you about. I want you to see it for yourselves. It’s for underwear from the Italian lingerie company Intimissimi, a brand that until now had passed me by, in a sort of “oh yes they’re everywhere but I never really bought anything there, because they’re sort of everywhere and they’re sort of blandly overpriced” way. 

Until this advert found its way into my living room.
Seriously, you have to watch it.

In said ad, we are introduced to a dashing young brunette in her bra and knickers, who appears to be trying to read and make notes in a chilly-looking industrial warehouse space full of books. Ostensibly, she is studying, because soon, flashing onscreen is Maria: Student, Madrid, accompanied by her voiceover - “I’m a student. I’m curious. I’m determined. I am the warmth of my laughter. This is my story.”  (Ok, I admit this is badly, roughly translated from the Spanish, which is in turn translated from the original Italian ad. But I think you get the idea).The hashtag #imastory was all over the screen first, on a book that opened up for us like an enormous disclaimer. It might as well have said #iamcompletelymadeup or #iamtheficticiouswetdreamofanadvertisingexec. 

I nearly spat out my wine as I guffawed at the screen. But then I realised this wasn’t some kind of Rude Tube rundown of the most laughable adverts of the Hispanophone world, it was really an advert trying to sell bras. It was a woman who REALLY was supposed to be a current student, showing us her push-up Manuelas.

¿En Serio? You might well ask. But this advertising concept is too old, and this material too hackneyed, to get all angry young woman about it. It’s just white noise to my generation. We all know we live in a world where Italian lingerie companies don’t have to give a toss about the messaging they send out to young women, or to young men for that matter. What? They’re just #stories, y’all. Students wear lingerie, and yes, they might study for their finals in said lingerie, and yes they might damn well study in large warehouse spaces filled with books in their bras and knickers, and they would be PERFECTLY within their rights to do so, and without judgement. Haters gonna hate.

The main problem I have with this advert, really, is its ludicrousness. But hey, we’ve all seen worse. So maybe, if we just treat it with the same amount of respect that we’d allow a perfume advert with Brad Pitt spouting some nonsense about things being inevitable, or Keira Knightley showing us it is possible to pout intensely whilst driving a gondola or whatever it is she does in those Chanel ads, it’ll make young women who actually are students, and are really thinking, and actually reading, and might already know all about the male gaze, mainstream media’s scopophiliac, voyeuristic and narcissicistic tendencies, treat this ad like the ad execs’ fantasy it really is, and not go rushing out to buy overpriced bland lingerie at the expense of their next couple of jägerbombs, or their books, for that matter.

In fact, why not let’s all go braless in retaliation and squish a few pennies off Intimissimi’s end of year sales figures, in the meantime? You could choose to flounce around an abandoned warehouse space in your drawers, hashtagging it #nobraday as part of America’s Breast Cancer Awareness Month, or take @augustadt_iris’s great advice and schedule a mammogram instead

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Independence Day? Or: Why Catalonia Might Not Be Spain

“You still have this…bullshit?”

That was the reaction of my Spanish housemate as we were sitting at the table discussing our respective political systems, and I’d gotten to the part about the House of Lords.
“Ok, we still have these things in Spain, too: an unelected monarchy, and aristocratic people like the Duquesa de Alba. She had more titles than your Queen,” she smiled.

Our conversation had come about because whilst crossing the street last weekend, I had been stopped by a kind-faced older Catalan woman who had taken great pains to follow me across the street; speaking with complicit urgency, she pushed this leaflet into my hand:

7 Respostes Sobre La Independència (7 Answers About Independence) was all written in Catalan: a language of which I still have limited command after two relatively short bursts of living in Barcelona (this is another subject that could take a whole other column to explore, but we’ll leave it there for now), and so I’d asked my obliging, intelligent compañera de piso, who is from a small town near the border between Catalonia and Aragon, to help me translate it.

The seven questions inside, ranging from Why an Independent Catalonia? to Will It be Economically Viable? Will we stay in the EU? are all answered in equally assured tones.

Yes, independence is the only opportunity to create a better and more just state for everyone!

If Catalonia wants to form part of the European Union, it will.

Yes, economically, the Catalan Republic is totally viable.

They’re pretty simplistic responses to very complicated questions. Examples are given throughout of how independence is the only opportunity to create a new state, changing outdated structures, re-establishing democracy and rejecting the current administration. There’s a lot of talk of creating a more just society and maintaining a sense of dual identities.

Living in Catalonia right now must be a bit like how living in Scotland felt just a little over a year ago. Although Barcelona is by far not the most pro-indpendista city in the region (try ordering a café con leche in Girona, and see how they take great pains to reply in Catalan or English), there’s a real buzz at the moment around the forthcoming Catalan parliamentary elections this Sunday. In these local elections, a host of separatist parties from across the political spectrum are placing their hopes in a consensus from the people in forging ahead with secession from Spain. The Catalan President, Artur Mas, has declared the outcome to be a proxy referendum after patently ignoring Prime Minster Rajoy’s insistence that this would be unconstitutional (The Spanish Constitutional Court voted to suspend a Catalan referendum last September, although a non-binding poll was still held, to the tune of 80% voting yes to independence). 

Even so, it probably wasn’t the brightest idea not to allow 16-odd percent of your country to feel they had a say in their own future, and thus the fervent spectre of independence has raised its head again. Even as Spain’s economy supposedly ‘bounces back’ after announcing its strongest quarterly growth in 8 years, on the ground here there’s still a long way to go. Tackling unemployment rates of 18% is still going to take some doing. And in a region of the country that contributes more than 18% of domestic GDP, hard line austerity measures - savage cuts in public spending on health and education, doled out from Madrid - are about as popular as suckling pig would be on David Cameron’s next dinner menu.

Despite my immediate circle here not including any strong pro-independentistas, there are some strange similarities between the type of political conversations we have here, and those I have with friends in the UK. The overarching themes are usually the same - a widespread sense of alienation with the current choice of leading parties and/or the feeling that the parties whose policies you might agree with have little sway in your constituency (Spanish general elections follow a first-past-the-post format, too.) A sense of widespread corruption built into the existing systems, a sense of inbuilt privilege being the surest route into politics and a real distrust of carefully stage-managed communications in the mainstream media. All of the things that led me to write this for The Malcontent, in fact.

Independence might not be the immediate way forward for the people of Catalonia to change  or combat all of these things, but hoping for change from the status quo and sticking two fingers up at the establishment might be powerful enough to create waves that bleed into other parts of Europe.  Just as the Scottish referendum result was watched here with huge interest, so might the Catalan elections be watched in the Basque country, in Galicia, in Wales, and in Scotland again, in return.

What’s evident is that a leaflet like this could be produced in most regions of Europe, even the UK right now and it would gain readership. Is that a dangerous thing, or a sign of so much disillusion with our current political elite that, if harnessed by the right candidate, could be used as a truly unifying force?

My flatmate and I certainly don’t have all, or even any of the answers. But I at least now understand a bit more of the current situation here, and she’s all up to date on #piggate. 

We put on Pulp’s Common People and had a little dance around the living room.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Flutter (A Short Story, Not At All Autobiographical)

The days were long in June, and the evenings barely blushed and fluttered their eyelids, with a sunset of a little over two hours. He felt that day had lasted forever, as he waited for her to arrive. He idled. The long glass corridors made him uneasy: the ringing out of his heels on the polished wooden floors troubled him somehow, as if he were pacing a hospital corridor. Here he was, in the site chosen to mark the occasion of their long overdue meeting.  
The idea had come to her in a Williamsburg bookshop. She had picked up a series of travel essays about Iceland, and she’d fallen in love with the photos; her glacial eyes gleaming at finding such serene blues on the book jacket. They had picked the Harpa concert hall as their meeting point. “We can pick up our own symphony where we left off,” she had said.
Their lives had been abruptly separated when she had accepted a new job in a New York publishing house.  He had remained in London, unwilling to give up the work he loved as an editor, but also the townhouse, the dog, and his usual weekend stroll to collect the paper, followed with precise regularity by a flat white and some Ottolenghi sourdough toast. It wasn’t that he was stuck in his ways. Just comfortable. It had been four months since their last physical meeting, and an intercontinental ache had set in. He despised the digital. He couldn’t get used to their instant messaging – it just seemed so banal, the information they would exchange: the photos of their lunches, their desks, their walks to work. In the early days, he thought, they might have met at the museum of penises instead. They would have snickered in complicit unison, as they had on their first trip to Amsterdam. The sex museum had hardly been highbrow, but they had wandered about in a dazed glow, giggling as they took in exhibits of Monroe and Mata Hari. That first year had seemed like one long Sunday morning spent entangled in his high threadcount sheets. Now? They whatsapped their salads to one another.

He sighed, his heartbeat quickening. He missed her nape, her scent, her often-fuzzy legs. He fought his impending erection, scandalous in the airy confines of a concert hall with endless windows. He strode, then slowed, then sat, then stood and dialled. A robotic voice asked for his message, but he found he had none.The sun was dipping, lazily, like a cat stretching. There was no sign of her. He tried her phone again, fruitlessly. An icy thought gripped him: panic that her plane hadn’t arrived. As he arrived at the next possible conclusion, he felt nauseous. 

She hadn’t boarded in the first place. 

Light danced on the glass panels, honeycomb glittering in the soft evening sunshine. Final flurries of activity at the concert hall doors were taking place. Attendants collected wayward tickets, wives snapped their handbags shut and husbands downed the last of their drinks. He put his dinner jacket over his shoulder, and hurried down the glossy hallway, towards the briefest of dusks.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015


I recently saw Wild. It’s not often I’m driven to write about a film, but I feel very moved by this one. It’s going to stay with me for a while.

I wasn’t expecting to even see it. I’d seen the trailer and thought that it was one of those trailers where you knew everything there was to know about the film before you’d seen it. I also thought it looked a bit worthy and a bit like Oscar-bait for Reese Witherspoon, who has been funny in other films but who I’d never considered much of a serious actress, except for her turn as June Carter in Walk the Line. I think it was Legally Blonde that did the damage. I liked her in Four Christmases, though. Mistletoe.

But that day it poured all day long, and it was a long weekend here as we had the day off for Martin Luther King day on the Monday. The weekend started out with plenty of activity; a Friday drink, dinner on Saturday with a lovely group of women I work with who are also now all my neighbours, and that day I met some of them again for a sweet little brunch at a nearby French restaurant. But after we all went our separate ways, and after I’d written some emails and thought about what E was doing, and I realised it was a bit too late to call my mum, I temporarily cheered myself up by buying a radio online,  but ye ole faithful – loneliness – set in. (The radio, I’m hoping, will assist with the loneliness but won’t kill all the brain cells that a TV would). Having seen all of the films at my closest cinema – save American Sniper, which I don’t really want to see, after reading all about what a hardened killer the guy was – I looked up the next nearest small cinema, which has only one screen and was showing two films – Wild and Birdman. I loved Birdman, so I took that as a good sign that whoever chooses whatever they show there had good taste. Turned out, that was correct.

I put on my waterproofs and my big boots and braved the rain to catch the bus down to the Beekman theatre. It’s a subterranean cinema in a concrete building (supposedly a location in Annie Hall, too) that looks like a 70s architect’s idea of a lively centre for the arts which has now become just an ugly concrete box. But still, the staff were very friendly. I took my seat in the dark, and realised just in time before falling over in the aisle that there was yellow ‘caution – do not cross’ tape in the first five rows. I couldn’t work out why, until I heard a persistent dripping noise during the quieter first moments of the film. I looked up, and in the half light I made out big patches on the ceiling where tiles were missing. It was leaking at a rate of knots, but once I got more involved in the film, it ceased to matter.
Our Wild heroine, Cheryl Strayer, is a character we can all identify with. Not that I can identify with being a heroin addict, or someone who cheats repeatedly on her husband, but there were some niggly little aspects of her character that I think many of us would grudgingly admit to, although we’d like to be better. Like being a bit sulky and mean to her mum, even as an adult. Or being susceptible to temptation, whether that’s sex or alcohol, or the call of something great that we know will challenge us but compels us anyway. The moment when Cheryl finds the book about the Pacific Coast Trail is a game-changer for her. She knows she must walk it. She’s reached her lowest ebb and it’s a chance at salvation.

Reese Witherspoon is fantastically normal and yet remarkable in this. She’s playing a feminist who quotes Emily Dickinson and is a brave, formidable woman who keeps walking despite all kinds of hardships and setbacks that would make any city-slicker throw in the towel. I was acutely aware of that, watching in a New York cinema, hearing popcorn being chomped behind me as we watched Cheryl run out of drinking water and have to purify liquid from a sludgy green stagnant pond just to survive. It made me think about how cosseted we all are. Especially in NYC, where you can dial some nice obliging person in a restaurant and have food delivered to your apartment door every day, if you want. Where some other nice obliging person will take your dirty laundry and smile, and give it back to you folded up all nice and sweet-smelling. What GOOD it would do us, you, me, all of us, to pare back our lives for a bit and live on our own wits, depending on no-one, at the mercy of the elements, of the wilderness, as we were built to do and as our ancestors did. And not even so many generations ago either. My great-grandparents had to work farmland and raise livestock to survive. Chances are, yours did too.

Cheryl’s journey touched me in a number of ways, and there were several moments of the film where I found myself with tears unexpectedly rolling down my cheeks. The most poignant moments were with her mum, with many telling flashbacks that painted a picture of the most normal and yet the most loving relationship they had, with of course the usual mother-daughter conflicts, and the small sparks that flew from a daughter who says it took time for her “to become the woman her mother raised her to be”, but who ultimately strives for true, lasting self-improvement, and who grieves her lost mother with such rawness and such true anguish that it makes anyone watching who still has their mother flinch and wonder if our love would also drive us to such despair. And in a way, minus the drugs and the cheating and the anger and depression, you would hope that you would feel that same anguish, because at its source would be a true, wholehearted love. 

There’s a scene where Cheryl meets a little boy walking in the woods with his grandmother (and their pet llama, randomly enough), and he and Cheryl have an innocent interchange that becomes life changing for her. He tells her he has problems he isn’t supposed to discuss with strangers, and she admits to him that she has problems too, and in his innocent way he asks her all the right questions that she hasn’t been able to voice the answers too, not even to her therapist. She admits to him that she doesn’t know her father, and that her mother has died, and he sings her an adorable little version of Red River Valley, which is so pure and sweet and lyrically perfect that after they part ways she breaks down and cries for all of her woes, in a way she hasn’t been able to for much of the journey. 

From this valley they say you are leaving
We shall miss your bright eyes and sweet smile
For you take with you all of the sunshine
That has brightened our pathway a while

Then come sit by my side if you love me
Do not hasten to bid me adieu
Just remember the Red River Valley
And the cowboy that's loved you so true

For a long time, my darlin', I've waited
For the sweet words you never would say
Now at last all my fond hopes have vanished
For they say that you're going away

Then come sit by my side if you love me
Do not hasten to bid me adieu
Just remember the Red River Valley

And the cowboy that's loved you so true

After that moment, there’s a realization that dawns anew on her, and urges her to complete the hike and re-start her life again in the way she hoped she would be able to after the purge.

The film ends with Cheryl standing on the Bridge of the Gods, her final stop, and narrating as her future self her achievements, that she could never have seen at that point in time, but which all happened because of that moment, it seems. She tells us that she was married not far from that spot, and had two children not long after, and we know that somewhere in the future we can’t yet see, Cheryl has healed herself and come out of her experience a better person. The film faded out, and there I was, left feeling I’d walked the same epic journey with Cheryl, and that I’d grieved with her, and learned with her. I thought about my own situation, alone in a city I don’t care for much, that oozes selfishness and stress and skewed life priorities, but I stepped out into the night and noticed that the rain had finally stopped. The overall sensation I was left with was one of lightness, and of learning gratefulness and courage in the face of adversity – even self-imposed adversity.

I write tonight with a renewed sense of purpose. We owe it to the universe to know our place. As humans, in the general scheme of things, we come and go – and the wilderness, which no longer defines our existence but could still mean the demise of any of us – is something we must respect and defer to. Ultimately though, the beauty of being here, on this incredible planet, and of being able to feel love and form relationships and discover kindness in others, as well as learning the art of self-reliance, is what it’s all about. Cheryl learned the hard way that sometimes being alone, truly alone, is the only way to learn the value of togetherness. That’s something that has been brought into sharp focus these past months, and I intend to cling tightly to all the love in my life.

Here’s to the wilderness.