Men in black suits control the doors, checking people’s mandatory name tags and wristbands. It isn’t a huge conference and the level of security feels irritating, but after all, we live in a post Charlie Hebdo Europe, where saying what you think can cost you your life. Perhaps the organisers are afraid that PEN International’s commitment to free speech makes us a target.
It turns out, though, that there’s a particular reason for the ramped up security: a very special guest, unpublicised and unannounced on the conference schedule - Zineb El Rhazoui, the 33 year old Charlie Hebdo columnist who was on holiday in her native Morocco when 12 people were killed and 11 injured at the satirical newspaper in an attack by Islamic militants, the brothers Saïd and Chérif Kouachi.
Zineb is accompanied by her personal men in black suits, two bodyguards who stay with her throughout her time at the conference. She has paid dearly for writing what she thinks - after the January shootings she had multiple death threats and now lives everywhere and nowhere, moving from friends’ houses to hotels, accompanied usually by her husband and always by the men in black suits.
One IS threat warned they would separate her head from her body. Later a Twitter campaign against her bore the hash tag #findherandkillher. ‘At Charlie Hebdo we knew we were targeted. All my colleagues knew they were risking their lives,’ she says. ‘Before the massacre I never took events seriously, but after what happened to my colleagues I do. I must be careful - all those who defend freedom of speech have to be careful now.’
What she has now is less a life than an existence. She is constantly on the move, never alone. Daily life is difficult, it’s hard to practise her profession, and she misses her dead colleagues, particularly her mentor, the magazine’s editor-in-chief, the cartoonist Stéphane (‘Charb’) Charbonnier. She can’t even pop out to the shops for a loaf of bread. ‘My whole life is in my bag,’ she says. ‘Sometimes I change my dress in the car, hidden by the policemen. When you go to the toilet they’re with you. They don’t enter but they’re next to the door so they know everything about you. They become your best friends.
‘I miss things like going for a coffee somewhere without deciding two hours before or letting your bodyguards choose the place and verify it before you go. I miss something I feel the terrorists have taken from me, a kind of unconsciousness.’
It’s a touchingly human admission from a woman whose life has been lived with a fierce kind of consciousness - opposing her religion, her government and the misogynistic views of her culture. Born in Casablanca to a French mother and a Moroccan father, she lived a typically middle class life, with compulsory classes in Arabic and Islam from kindergarten to high school before going on to university in Paris to study foreign languages.
’I’m an atheist but I was born Muslim and brainwashed a Muslim. No-one asked me for my opinion. When I started to have intellectual independence I started to ask questions, started to have doubts on what I was growing up in. You don’t become an atheist because you desire it, you become an atheist after years of deep questioning. It’s a deep process. You need to search the truth where you find yourself. I started to have some doubts, to feel that Islam is not for me, by the age of 15. By the age of 19, for the first time in my life I was convinced I will not need God again. I was intellectually and spiritually convinced that God did not exist - and I did not need him.’
Without wishing to contribute to the objectification of women, it has to be noted that she is exceptionally beautiful and charismatic and a mesmerising public speaker, not just for the passion and articulacy of her views but for a kind of guileless candour that is the opposite of speechifying by politicos. Camera phones start clicking all around as soon as her words start tumbling out.
That personal magnetism is no doubt one of the factors that led her to become a prominent spokeswoman during the time of the Moroccan Spring, explaining the country’s revolution to foreign journalists.
After university she taught Arabic for a couple of years at the French University of Egypt but in 2007 made the decision to return to her home country.
‘It was not an easy decision,’ she says. ‘As a woman you have to think before going to settle in a country where women are not free, where as a woman you don’t have the same legal rights, where society doesn’t look at you in the same way as men. But I thought to myself, maybe Morocco needs me now.’
She began working as a journalist on an independent weekly newspaper and co-founded a movement called MALI (Mouvement Alternative pour la Liberté Individuelle), a play on a common Moroccan phrase meaning, What’s wrong with me? MALI was an informal group dedicated to funny and provocative direct action involving the public. In September 2009, Zineb and her co-founder, psychotherapist Betty Lachgar, decided to stage a public picnic during the month of Ramadan, when Moroccans could be jailed for eating in public.
That led to Zineb’s first fatwa, issued by Moroccan state theologians, who said the event was offensive to Allah and the Prophet. She went into hiding, though the police announced in an Arabic newspaper that they’d arrested her. They had not, though they had arrested many of the people at the picnic.
After a week they released everyone.
’They were very stupid,’ says Zineb, unable to hide her amusement. ‘They couldn’t sue us - they arrested us before we ate.’
MALI’s next stunt was a street happening against sexual harassment. Girls wore T-shirts with moustaches and the slogan, Do you respect me now? Boys wore pink T-shirts. Their slogan was Big Pink Porks, which may say something forZineb’s sense of humour. She and Betty were arrested and not only interrogated but insulted by the police. Bitches, they called them before releasing them.
The authorities’ next move was more violent. The police came to her flat at 5.45 in the morning and arrested her and her then boyfriend, who was also an opponent of the regime. Because she was unmarried and alone with a man they intended to charge her with prostitution, an offence punishable by prison. She lights an impossibly long cheroot and blows out a stream of smoke.
‘Once in the police office I said, First of all, I never planned on being the Virgin Mary. I defend the right for modern citizens to sleep with why they choose - and am against these other laws, against homosexuals. A normal Moroccan girl would be afraid of the scandal but when they realised I wasn’t afraid at all they released me because they understood it would be a big scandal for them.’
The authorities continued to harass her and other activists, closing down many independent newspapers - Zineb’s among them, leaving her unemployed. There was no warning, no judicial process - they simply moved in and physically shut down the offices.
‘Many journalists who I met had apartments, cars, normal lives, but they ended up homeless, with nothing to eat.,‘ she recalls. ‘I lost my apartment in Casablanca and was living with a friend of mine in her father’s house. She gave me hospitality like a sister.’
When the Moroccan Spring started in 2009, Zineb, homeless and jobless, was in the perfect position to become one of the movement leaders. She was excited by the fantastic upswing of political energy among ordinary people and vocal in explaining the situation in Morocco, where the King and his cabinet rule everything. A new constitution was written, but if anything, was more repressive than the original. Journalists were regularly being beaten up in the street and Zineb never went out alone.
‘I always took someone with me, not for protection but to witness if anything happened to me,’ she says.
In the end the harassment got too much and she applied to the International Cities of Refuge Network (ICORN), which offers support to writers exiled from their own countries because of political persecution. She was given a home for a year in Ljubljana, the capital city of Slovenia - ‘a country where women can walk alone in the woods at night in short skirts and not be attacked. I thought, That’ll do for me,’ she says with a smile, though her own dress is modestly elegant and falls below the knee. Only the killer stilettos and ankle straps are a clue to her feisty nature - as a young girl she wore black nail polish and low-cut bras to school, refusing to be afraid of her conservative, long-bearded teacher.
While in exile in Europe she met the Charlie Hebdo team and went to work for the paper, one of the cartoonists reportedly taking a cut in salary to finance her place on the payroll. She wrote a book with Charb, the paper’s editor, and contributed to the most contentious issues, but she happened to have gone back to Casablanca for a holiday with her husband, a business lawyer, when the massacre at Charlie Hebdo took place. Immediately she returned to Paris.
‘I wanted to see my surviving colleagues,’ she says. ‘I felt, it’s the place I need to be. Charb was fantastically, extraordinarily courageous. He’d been living under protection since two years before he was killed. His bodyguard was killed with him. The other bodyguard escaped because he was parking the car. Charb felt something will happen. He was really thinking he will be targeted alone or somewhere in the street but never imagined that others will be with him. He said, I prefer to die standing than down on my knees, and he was standing when they killed him. He was a man fascinated with Arab culture and language and he’d say, Allahu Akbar, Let’s do it, as a kind of war cry. These two brothers came and they said Allahu Akbar. It was a real war cry for them. They asked, Who is chief? He stood and they killed him. Then they shot all the others around that table.’
She is fiercely loyal to both Charb and Charlie Hebdo, even though the magazine suspended her in March when she contributed to a letter signed by 15 staff members, urging the owners and management to stay true to its original ideals. So much money has poured in that the group were afraid the magazine’s stance would be softened. They wanted it to become a co-operative and the money - millions of euros - to be placed in a trust fund that would guarantee Charlie Hebdo’s survival for the next 30 years.
‘Charb was my friend, my protector, like an elder brother for me. He was always looking after me in the newspaper. We had a lot of projects to do together. Now I will do those projects, give them life for him,’ she says, recalling a recent event in Canada where she was asked to sign their book. It was the first time she’d done so alone and she burst into tears.
She relaxes in the late afternoon sunshine, a brief moment of respite before the practicalities of the evening ahead of her present themselves, before returning to her life of constantly being on the move, constantly having to reinvent herself. Normality has been taken from her, perhaps forever.
‘When you have such violent death threats and a contract on your head, you think, do I deserve to make children? Do I have the right to have children? I don’t see very clearly into my personal future. Only my future as a freedom fighter seems clear to me. I have no doubt that I have to continue struggling for the values I believe in.’
The price of freedom is high and some people, like Zineb El Rhazoui, pay more than most.
Summer is causing seismic shifts among the salonistas. The Divine Ms Anna greets her guests this evening in the garden - dressed in a onesie. A onesie! The garment of choice for those who want to hide away from the world, slumped on the sofa while watching the Kardashians and eating Cheesy Wotsits.
The garment used to humiliate prospective grooms on their stag dos, in a far more agonising way than the traditional stripping naked and zapping with shaving foam. Guaranteed to lead to the calling off of the wedding if the bride ever sees him in pale blue nylon fur adorned with pink cow’s udders.
What, you might ask, is the Divine Ms Anna thinking of? Thankfully hers is a spectacular garment, charmingly summery and spattered with multi-coloured flowers. It emerges she bought it in Asda in Elgin when she realised none of the clothes she had with her were suitable for the unseasonal summer that seems to have descended on us this week. (It’s only June and we have a heatwave, for goodness sake.)
‘The funny thing is,’ she reflects, ‘that I stood out in Elgin not because of my onesie but because I was the only person there whose skin was completely free of tattoos.’
The arrival of Elginer Marion, with tattoos on both arms and goodness knows where else, rather confirms her statement.
But the summer break with tradition is not limited to Ms Anna’s wardrobe. The redoubtable Maggie Lennon has, it transpires, become a bird-watching expert since our last salon. A recent glamping trip has confirmed her status as a deeply knowledgable ornithologist. She stayed for four whole days in a log cabin somewhere in Perthshire, eating in the open air, having to fight her way to the communal washhouse for showers.
’Oh yes,’ she says authoritatively. ’Most unusual to see the siskin so far north at this time of year.’
Or maybe it was some other bird. Not being a twitcher myself I can only marvel at the wealth of knowledge she‘s acquired from The RSPB Pocket Guide to British Birds. In such a short period of time too.
The culinary traditions of the salon are also thrown to the winds tonight - no soup. Ms Anna bought the makings in Elgin but has arrived back home just fifteen minutes before her guests. Or most of them - La Lennon has been here since six, supervising Anna’s daughter Nina’s homework and casting a benign eye over her eight year old son Joe’s attempts at mountaineering in and out of the flat’s front windows. As it’s extremely hot and we’re eating in the garden, no soup is a good decision. Bread and cheese, roasted peppers and the best pork pies in the city are delicious and easier to eat.
My own collection of novellas, The Four Marys, published by Saraband, is the featured book tonight, bringing the salon full circle as my novel, Myra, Beyond Saddleworth, kicked it all off just over a year ago. That night Ms Anna stated her preferences in salon readings. ‘They should always have sex,’ she said firmly.
In deference to this I’ve chosen a scene from The Diva, a story about a Glaswegian woman who becomes a great star on the operatic stage. She falls in love with a famous tenor when they appear together in an open air concert at a stately home.
Authors always have a certain amount of trepidation just writing sex scenes, given the various Bad Sex awards on offer. But reading them out loud? Is there no limit to the challenges facing the modern author? I’ve had to learn how to tweet, where to sign a book (the flyleaf), even how to take a selfie. Becoming a performer is the last straw, but the Divine Ms Anna is stern when I talk about choosing the reading.
‘Let’s be honest,’ she says. ‘Your book is full of squelchy bits.‘
There seems to be a general consensus that the book is pretty female, which is no surprise to me as I am pretty female. I’m more startled by the fact that no quarter is given to the male characters in the book. Having been a rabid feminist all my life, I’m now finding that other women leave me standing in their lack of tolerance of ordinary male behaviour. No-one likes my kind tenor because he‘s been unfaithful to his wife and the husband of the baby snatcher is written off as a waste of space. Even the hot art teacher who marries the sealwoman is roundly condemned.
‘He’s exploitative,’ says Ms Lennon in crushingly final tones.
The male gender having been dismissed, we go on to more literary discussion. The stories feature shape-shifting, baby-snatching, two infanticides and a hanging, so are not gentle domestic dramas - the book’s strapline, Is Motherhood Every Woman’s Destiny? was worked out in conversation with the fabulous Sara Hunt, Saraband’s publisher. With such subject matter there are few options for the reassuring ending. I’m thinking of adopting No Redemption as my new motto, though my publisher is not entirely convinced. (‘I can actually conceive of a situation where redemption might be appropriate,’ she notes.)
As the carrot cake is handed out and more wine is poured, there is discussion of the demands society makes on women, the myths around motherhood, and of women finding their own identity outside marriage and childen. Though it seems I have failed as a writer: ‘I thought the baby in the second story was going to turn out to be a demon child,’ says Maggie Lennon accusingly. ‘That would have been a much better story.’ A plotline I’ll save for future use.
Despite the breaks in tradition Ms Anna is in contemplative mood tonight, looking back to the past and the start of the salon. She had just separated from her husband and wanted to find out what she liked rather than what they had done as a couple. ‘It’s totemic for me,’ she says. ‘I had to work out who I was again, what I wanted to do.’ She gestures round the high-ceilinged room with its elegant cornices, its feeling of space.
'This place can soak up a lot of people. I like it when it's full of friends, noise, wine, books. Joe complained after one salon that he couldn't get to sleep because we were laughing too much. Sorry Joe, but that's the way I like it.'
Looking round at everyone still volubly discussing identity and stereotypes and gardens and Asda’s bread, I can only agree. Divine, Ms Anna.
What a Puritan society we've become, when Miley Cyrus and her twerking can be considered the end of both civilisation as we know it and the end of feminism. I'm a lifelong feminist and I'm going to put my hands up here and admit I think she's fun. If nothing else, the way she has people falling over themselves to be either politically correct or prudish is highly entertaining.
Yes, the music business puts pressure on women to be sexual, but I don't think it's a coincidence that today's female performers go farther than the generations immediately preceding them. These young women are an assertive bunch who're not afraid to display their sexuality. So what if Rihanna and Beyonce and the rest strut on stage with minimal costumes? You'll see similar outfits on the streets of our big cities every Saturday night. And in the north east they wear pelmet skirts and bare legs even in winter.
What's particularly striking about the reaction to Miley is all the elder stateswomen of music weighing in with 'motherly' advice. Could the Cher criticising her for unprofessionalism really be the same Cher who bestrode a gun barrel on USS Missouri, singing 'If I Could Turn Back Time,' the Cher whose costumes for the video included a see-through black lace dress and a modest little ensemble featuring a transparent bodysuit, suspenders, a leather jacket and a thong that flashed all she had to offer every time she turned her back. If ever there was a female performer who colluded with male expectations it was Cher, yet no-one in their right mind could look at her sheer joie de vivre and accuse her of not feeling 'empowered.' Just a shame she had to be empowered by endorsing military values, the one obscene thing about her video if you ask me. Miley Cyrus looks positively demure in comparison.
Sinead O'Connor's sincere letter was a kind gesture, and correct in its assessment that the men running the music business care only for profit, not the performer, but her constant references to Miley as 'young lady' sounded like my old headmistress talking— and she was a nun. It's a very curious way to address a young woman when you're talking about sexism. If there's one role Miley Cyrus clearly doesn't want to be stuck in it's that of young lady. I never saw her Hannah Montana series, but I do know it was made by Disney and if it's anything like the bland slop they usually serve up as a representation of human experience, then the character Miley played was undoubtedly too cutesy to be tolerated by any red-blooded female.
In fact, the only shocking thing about Miley's performance at the Video Music Awards awards was the length of her tongue, a stupendously lewd and lascivious appendage that rivals Mick Jagger's lips for iconic value. Even the fabled twerking is just a new name for a fairly common dance move that's been around for years. In the inaugural issue of Feminist Times, musician Dana Jade of Clitrock (a charity to combat female genital mutilation) claims it for her native Trinidad, where it's called win'in', (winding) but I've seen it at parties, on music videos and have even been known to do it myself, though not perhaps in as empowered a fashion as Ms Miley.
Feminism is absolutely right in fighting the constant commodification of women, but what worries me about the response to today's performers is that instead of asserting one kind of power over women, we're simply substituting another, the fascism of good behaviour, which demands that every woman be kind, caring, nurturing—and ladylike. Miley Cyrus's dancing with Robin Thicke at the MTV awards was gangly, sassy and humorous, a point which seems to have been missed by those comparing it to prostitution. Anyone watching street women hanging round the cold streets of our major cities waiting to be picked up, whether by punters or police, would not see anything funny in it. Cyrus herself has said, 'If I wanted to do a raunchy sex video I wouldn't have come out dressed as a damn bear.'
Robin Thicke's own Blurred Lines video has been heavily criticised for its 'rapey' lyrics and the fact that the men in the video are fully clothed while the women are half-dressed and trot about like horses. But if you examine what's actually going on, the men preen and posture, ogling the women and bragging about their prowess and private parts. They get nowhere with the women, who strut about in see-through plastic mini-dresses, looking aloof. Even the suspect lyrics don't hold up: the singer has tried to 'domesticate' the woman but failed. She's the animal who can't be tamed, not him. He sees beyond her appearance and tells her she's not plastic. There's no excuse for the crassness of a line like I'll give you something big enough to tear your ass in two, but it's clearly the man bragging about the size of his organ, a point made in the video with the graffiti saying Robin Thicke has a big dick. In the end, You know you want me sounds like wishful thinking rather than a threat. The video was directed by a woman.
The surprising thing about the recent controversies is that women have been taking their clothes off for entertainment for hundreds of years. In Belle Epoque Paris, more than a hundred years ago, women danced the can-can wearing split crotch drawers that revealed their private parts. In nightclubs from Paris's Crazy Horse to the nude tableaux of the Windmill Theatre to the spectacular strip shows of Las Vegas, they go topless or bottomless. Some women have brains or personality to offer but there is no shame in offering beauty, a wonderful gift in woman or man. Yet we get ourselves in a moral frenzy over a young woman clowning around in elastoplast knickers and a sports bra, which is more than Kate Middleton wears on holiday.
Like most women I get fed up of gratuitous sexualisation from the advertising industry, which uses women's bodies inappropriately to sell all sorts of consumer goods, from the female bodies painted to look like a Fiat car to the American unisex shirt ads that feature fully dressed men staring straight at the camera in their tartan shirts while the women are half naked in theirs. I sympathise with the mothers who fear for their daughters in this normalisation of sexual imagery all around us, but if we're talking about really pernicious imagery, those in the fashion industry are far more dangerous—British designer Jenny Packham, beloved of the rich and royal, recently showed her collection of the most romantic, ethereal dresses, but the girls who wore them had frangible legs and scary-skinny arms. That seems more frightening to me than an athletic-looking young woman briefly showing off her healthy body or licking chains and wrecking balls.
Do we really want to say that naked bodies are pornography? Or that men and women shouldn't look at each other? A lot is said about the male gaze, but women look at men too. I remember a programme years ago where a middle-aged woman was unknowingly linked up to some kind of scan that monitored her eye movements when she met a young man. She was mortified when it was revealed that her gaze constantly returned to his crotch. The naked body has its own power and to say that a young woman displaying the beauty of hers is a victim is just disingenuous.
I was a teenager in 1960s Scotland, which had heard about Swinging London but hadn't quite caught up. The pressure to conform to the good girl template was stultifying. So when I hear women of my generation tut tutting about the drunken ladette behaviour of some young women today, I just want to remind them how far we've come. Women may still not have caught up economically with men, but we certainly have more personal freedom, more space to dream of lives other than those of wife and mother than we ever had in the past. Miley Cyrus clearly knows what she's doing and is determined to follow her own path. I'd like her to be a little kinder to Sinead O'Connor, but niceness is not mandatory in a performer or a woman.
However, as it seems to be the fashion for older women to give Miley Cyrus advice, I do have one thing to say to her. Take a look at Josephine Baker dancing her sensual, comic numbers in the 1920s and know you're in a proud tradition. Baker was one of the most iconic women of the 20th century, a performer whose mixture of erotic and eccentric (and topless) dancing won her admirers all over Europe. She was one of the rare few who have brains, personality and beauty. Courage too. She helped the French Resistance during the Second World War and fought racism in her native US after it. Her adopted family of children was known as the Rainbow Tribe because she chose them for their differing races and religions.
But Miley, she wouldn't have dreamt of wearing that ugly underwear. Shake a tail feather, baby!
THE DELICIOUS INGREDIENTS OF A
First, take one stylish hostess, Anna Burnside, in fabulous wedges that she confides are the sensible alternative to her 'mad shoes,' and pink cropped trousers that match her kettle.
Throw in a bunch of mixed professionals, including journalists, social workers, a film producer and a gardener.
Stir in home made pea soup, runny soft Brie, countless nibbles and copious amounts of drink and conversation and you have the recipe for a splendid evening.
I'd never been to a literary salon before and was honoured to be invited to talk about my novel, Myra, Beyond Saddleworth, in the divine Ms Anna's elegant flat in the West End of Glasgow. Not being familiar with salons and how they're conducted, I was a bit flummoxed to be asked to do a reading but luckily I'd appeared at Glasgow's Aye Write Festival the week before and still had the print-out of the extract I'd chosen. I'd like to say it was forward thinking that led to its presence in my handbag, but alas it was blotched with either coffee or wine stains (my two staples) and had an email address scrawled on the back. I'm sure I'll remember soon why I was to contact the lady.
A literary salon, according to Wikipedia, 'is a gathering of people under the roof of an inspiring host, held partly to amuse one another and partly to refine the taste and increase the knowledge of the participants through conversation.' They've rather fallen out of fashion since their heyday in 18th century France but this is perhaps the moment for their revival, when the literati are mulling over the paradox that women are the main consumers of fiction, yet wield much less power than men. A recent breakdown of the gender balance of literary magazines showed an astonishing bias towards men, with a magazine such as the London Review of Books, for example, featuring 174 female book reviewers, authors reviewed and bylines compared to 574 male. No wonder Spare Rib is making a comeback.
The glittering French salons gave women the opportunity to shine. The most famous were run by fashionable hostesses famed for their erudition and brilliant conversation. Just like us Weegies really, though Ms Anna, the Glaswegian Mme de Staël, confessed that some colleagues at the magazine where she was working found her 'strong meat' because of her lack of inhibition in expressing her opinions. They clearly hadn't encountered the irrepressible Maggie Lennon, who was also there that night.
Anna eschewed the French tradition of lounging on her bed with her guests around her and instead brought out an eclectic collection of funky modern chairs. The other Jean Rafferty (Jean Bond Rafferty), an American who lives in Paris and whose invites to fashion shows I'm always receiving, would no doubt have been able to identify them. I just know they weren't IKEA.
It's an interesting process for writers to be in such an intimate setting with their readers. I've appeared at a couple of literary festivals and there's almost a protective veil between you and the audience—you're on a platform, you have a chairperson to moderate. I know Ms Anna would have jumped in if things had got heated, but this was a more democratic forum. And there was wine!
'I was very stern with them,' she told me. 'I insisted they all had to read the book beforehand.'
The result was a group of people genuinely addressing the issues of the novel—why did the Moors Murderers do it? why were they so reviled when subsequent serial killers have killed far more people? was their background enough to explain their actions?
The group were, of course, all women—they rather than men seem to have embraced the novel as an art form, perhaps because it doesn't require specialisation. In general women, no matter how elevated they become in their chosen profession, are still involved in the minutiae of domestic and family life. They're the ones who get off the red-eye from New York and still spoon yoghhurt into the kids or drive them into school. They never get too far from reality, so stories of human beings seem viscerally important to them in a way they don't seem to be with men.
Fiction ranges through every level of human activity, from philosophy to morality to passion to shoes. You can refract science or religion or love through its lens; you can use it to reflect on literary form or to reflect on eternity. That's what makes it such a useful vehicle for discussing big issues, the nature of reality.
And some small ones. Our inspiring hostess Anna Burnside led the discussion into unexpected areas, such as when did M take the wig* off after she met the priest who became her lover? And wasn't he hot? She also produced the most delicious banana bread which, like Proust's madeleine, stirred distant memories—in my case, that of chewing a bar of banana split toffee and jumping over puddles after I'd got my pocket money.
The whole thing was a delightful experience and I look forward to the next one, which will feature a male writer whose name Anna would not disclose. That's the other ingredient of the successful literary salon, a pinch of spice—and that Ms A has in abundance.
* M didn't sleep with the priest at their first meeting. The next time they met she brazened it out and turned up with her normal brown hair. He, being a hot male, wasn't looking that far north anyway.
** Men and haircuts: they're dimly aware you've changed something but they're not sure what.
I carried Spare Rib everywhere with me in the 1970s. I worked as a theatre stage manager then and fought for the right to dismantle stage sets like the men—and to earn overtime like the men. Once I even had to threaten to resign for the privilege. We were on tour and every woman on the set, even Hazel, the slight wardrobe assistant, lifted the steel girders down from our West Side Story set and trotted out to the lorry with them. The theatre manager watched in amazement and boasted about how proud he was of 'his girls.' I really liked him, but the complexities of our victory were not lost on me.
Spare Rib gave women a language to talk about how the world treated them. It gave them facts and ideas and I loved it. Perhaps too much. Once, when I was furious at a work colleague, I hurled the worst insult I could think of at him. 'You're so... so... patriarchal,' I yelled.
So the news that the iconic magazine is being re-launched by Charlotte Raven is thrilling to me. I long ago stopped reading women's magazines as they seem to be full of eating disorders, recipes, fashion and shoes. Even Marie Claire, which under Glenda Bailey was both exciting and glamorous, became tired and predictable.
Women today don't understand just how backward things were in the days of the original Spare Rib, particularly outside London. On the day my brother got married, there was a gap between the service and the reception and I went to a Glasgow pub with my two younger brothers, one of whom was under age. I was in my mid-twenties by then. As we walked in the door, the barman shouted at me. 'You get out. We don't allow women in here.'
So when I hear people criticising today's young women for their drunken binges I don't agree that it's a misuse of women's equality for them to behave in a laddish manner, I'm simply grateful that they have the choice. I rejoice that the deadly concept of being a lady has been tossed away with their bras, their decorum and anything else they care to dispense with.
Many of the issues we fought for then have been resolved, but many are still with us. Sometimes it feels as if each generation has to learn anew that men and women are equal. Up until a few years ago I taught a journalism course in a Glasgow university. One day I heard the students talking about a woman as a slut, a term I thought had disappeared about two decades ago.
'I suppose you mean sexually active,' I said, but they just shrugged.
'No, a slut,' said one of them.
If we're still so wedded to the idea of female continence as one of the bulwarks of our civilisation, then we haven't come as far as we think we have. Actually, we haven't come as far as we think we have anyway. More men may wash the dishes or change the baby's nappy, but women still do the bulk of domestic work and their wages are still lagging behind men's. The UK is only 18th for gender equality among developed nations and women's unemployment is currently rising towards a 25 year high. Men's, on the other hand, is decreasing. Sixty percent of new jobs in the private sector since the beginning of 2010 went to them.
These continuing inequalities are basic and obvious and the reporting of them in the end just blurs into more of the same. What the original Spare Rib used to do was explore why things happened and put them in a context, whether philosophical or political. They told you about women all over the world, helped you understand the world. There was none of the metropolitan smart-mouthing that you get in today's broadsheets, none of the liberalism lite that's so prevalent in the formerly left-wing qualities. The writers were earnest and passionate and angry and full of life. They weren't distanced or cynical. There was no irony and they didn't pose as cool. They cared about women's equality and they were right.
No magazine can re-create itself in its original form and I wouldn't want it to. I may have great nostalgia for the Spare Rib of old but I don't want it back. The world is a more sophisticated place and it needs a more sophisticated women's magazine. We all absorb information from all sorts of different sources so what's needed is not more information but a more intelligent way through it all. I'm sick of articles casting women either as victims or super-achievers—life for most of us does not fall into such simple patterns. I want us to admit the ambiguities, acknowledge that not all women are saints and not all men are bastards.
I'm so excited I've pledged money I can't really afford to become a founder member. Bring on George Galloway serving drinks at the opening party, bring on the Raven razzamatazz and the dancing feminists. But above all, bring on that first issue. I just can't wait to see what the new Spare Rib will be.