Archive for July, 2007

Music, Opinion

Paean of praise to the ginger-ninjas

The Times – June 29 2007
– Ginny Dougary

When Titian-haired Ginny Dougary wrote a choral piece celebrating redheads, it brought home to her how much ‘gingerism’ there is in England

Click here to listen to Ginger Chorale by Ginny Dougary and MJ Paranzino, performed at the Royal Festival Hall, June 2007

Jenny McAlpine
Photo courtesy Red and Proud

The e-mails from the choir built up to a great clamour in the days leading up to the Overture Weekend – the grand-scale reopening celebrations of the Royal Festival Hall earlier this month. “Have you heard . . ?” “Can you believe it?” “Talk about timing . . .” This was in response to the news about a family in Newcastle who had suffered three years of abuse – smashed windows, graffiti, physical attacks – forcing them to decamp from one council estate to another on two occasions, now pushing for a third move, and all on account of their red hair.

One of the more arresting details was that a council officer had apparently discussed the possibility that the family invest in a few bottles of hair-dye. As a ginger-ninja myself, I was appalled at the idea that the solution to being bullied was to change yourself rather than to correct the behaviour of your tormentors.

The news of a redhaired family’s travails was indeed quite timely since this was the week that a choral piece I had first thought about writing last autumn was to be performed, thrillingly, at the Royal Festival Hall. The title was Ginger Chorale, the story of a bullied ginga (or gingette) who ends the song feeling triumphantly special, after hearing the rollcall of all the amazing redheads who have existed throughout history, and a paean to the wonders of diversity.

There was to be a double-high to the event since I would be singing alongside my fellow choir members of the Brighton City Singers and South London Choir (around 150 voices) who were among a group of 15 choirs throughout the UK picked to perform on that day.

There is something weirdly Zeitgeist-y about gingerism – witness this week’s news about the ginger-haired waitress, Sarah Primmer, from Plymouth, who was awarded £17,618 after suffering “lewd and embarrassing” comments about her hair – but I was totally unaware of this when I was first smitten by the auburn theme.

So what prompted the piece? Well, I have to say that although the elder of my two sons is a redhead, neither he nor I, happily, has been victimised because of it. However, my son is a composer and it was partly considering his musical future that made me think about the ginger theme.

The idea came out of a flippant conversation in which we were discussing how to market his talents and I said something along the lines of “So what’s your unique selling point? Who’s going to be interested in a White Anglo-Saxon Protestant ex-public schoolboy? – the only thing in your favour is that you might be considered ‘different’ because of your hair colour.”

It seemed to me that taking redhairedness as a route of addressing the whole issue of prejudice could be fruitful in that you could make a strong point in an unexpected and inventive way.

It took some persuasion, however, to convince my musical writing partner, the composer MJ, that this was a worthwhile project. She is American and in the United States red locks are something to be admired, apparently, rather than derided. The notion that anyone could be bullied because of his or her hair colour seemed utterly incredible to her. This was echoed in the Times Online response to the Chapmans’ story with American readers clearly reeling in disbelief. Jerry, from Phoenix, Arizona: “Anti redhead? Totally unheard of in the US. Come to the USA. Folks, you will be welcomed.”; Lisa, from Ohio: “Being from the US I have to say this baffles me. There is a lot of stuff that is wrong with my country but I can at least say that redhaired people can live peacefully here.”

It seems that England may be the only country in the world, in fact, to indulge in ginger-baiting. In May, just as we were doing a final polish to the song, I switched on the TV and found myself watching a most entertaining documentary called F*** off I’m Ginger, the personal investigation by a young redhaired (and very cute) comedian, Dan Wright, into why it’s so problematic being a ginga in this country. He believed, for instance, that it was his hair colour that prevented him from getting a girlfriend at university. One of his interviews was with a copper-haired, freckle-faced copywriter who found that his colouring was a magnet to women in France and America where he had lived for some years (he is now married to an American), but the reverse was painfully true for him in England. So are the English simply less tolerant than other nations? I don’t think so. Perhaps it stems from an atavistic hostility towards Scotland which has the highest proportion of redheads (13 per cent of the population have red hair; 40 per cent carry the recessive so-called “ginger gene”), with Ireland coming a strong second.

From the outset, I wanted part of the song to be dedicated to the names of famous redheads and thought that the internet might provide some helpful sites.

Well, what an eye-opening and cheek-blushing revelation this turned out to be . . . let’s just say that there seem to be plenty of men out there who have a positive fetish for scantily-clad Titian-haired beauties.

The most useful (and wholesome) source was one called Red and Proud, which gives an annual award to celebrated gingers (past recipients include Charlie Dimmock and Anne Robinson, whose face adorns one of the club’s T-shirts – “Not a Redhead? You are the weakest link”). Other sassily self-confident legends include: “Ginger Genius”, “Redhot Redhead Ready to Rock”, and “It’s a Redhead thing . . . you wouldn’t understand”.

It fell to MJ to fit these redheads into a musical form and although she found the exercise exasperating in some ways – beating out name after name until she got the right rhythmical combination, she also got a kick out of coming up with absurd juxtapositions such as these: “Ginger Rogers, William Shakespeare, Winston Churchill, James Cagney . . . Rita Hayworth, Charlie Dimmock, Sarah Bernhardt, Prince Harry”, and her favourite, “Oliver Cromwell, Woody Allen, Lord Byron and Kiki Dee”. I thought it was important to use accessible language and terms, with a few exceptions, that most kids could understand . . .”

It’s a smack,/ a knife attack,/ when you sneer,/ when you jeer:/ Oi ginga, you’re a minga,/ stop you’re whining little whinger . . . and so on.

Our first performance of Ginger Chorale was at the Brighton Fringe Festival in May in front of an audience of a hundred, before the big event a month later at RFH which was attended by thousands. It’s hard to know when you sing something for the first time what impact it will make: you worry whether people will hear the words and – more importantly – will they hear the message?

It seems that we had touched a nerve when, after our debut, a beautiful strawberry-blonde young woman in her early twenties came up and told us that the song had made her cry, remembering how she had been singled out and slagged off in her early teens. If only her classroom tormentors had been in the audience.

While it may seem faintly comical to some to equate gingerism to racism or queer-bashing, a punch or a taunt is as cruelly felt regardless of what makes the victim different, “If you prick us, do we not bleed?”

One of the most troubling parts of the Chapmans’ story was that their son – only 10 years old – was having suicidal thoughts. Two years ago a Premiership footballer – Dave Kitson of Reading – said that fans who made fun of his red hair were as bad as racists.

But how dull if we were all the same. As we sung on our big day: “I’m cool, I’m smart – my red hair’s a work of art . . . Don’t berate, let’s celebrate our existence, vive la difference, our good luck, what the f***, this crowning glory my red hair…” I haven’t managed to catch (redhead) Catherine Tate’s sketch about the refuge for Gingers, but as it happens, two members of the South London Choir almost didn’t make the performance at the Royal Festival Hall because they were attending the West End premiere of her new feature film, Mrs Ratcliffe’s Revolution. Its director, Bille Eltringham, and editor, John Wilson, arrived minutes before we were due on stage with a message of support from their star who was “chuffed” to be counted among our illustrious redheads.

It is hard to convey the excitement that we choir members felt on the Big Day. But it was an unforgettable experience. Some of them said that it ranked among the best moments of their lives, and I would have to agree. But it was also thrilling to sing our Ginger Chorale to such a receptive crowd and see the looks of amazement and engagement on so many people’s faces as the message of the song sank in. The best compliment we received was hearing that at least one of the other choirs wanted to include the song in their repertoire. Ginger power!

Celebrities, Politicians

Al Gore – he’s hot

The Times – July 6 2007
– Ginny Dougary

Once derided as a wooden politician, Al Gore is the man of the moment. On the eve of his series of ‘save the planet’ Live Earth rock concerts, Ginny Dougary finds him warm, witty, passionate and attractive

Al Gore
Photo: Brett Wilson

The Goracle – also known in Washington these days as “Al Gore: rock star” – clears his throat and starts singing the lines from a Bob Dylan song quietly and unselfconsciously: “ ‘I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now’ . . . it’s a lovely lyric. He’s written so many great ones . . . like ‘He not busy being born is busy dying’.” The former Vice-President of the United States may be joining the likes of Madonna and the Pussy-cat Dolls on stage at Wembley’s Live Earth concert tomorrow but his vocalising – as far as I know – will be restricted to challenging each and every member of the audience to make a pledge right now to do his or her bit to save the planet.

The rock-star epithet – awarded by The Washington Post – is partly a reference to his involvement in the Live Earth concerts: a massive event spanning seven continents and involving 150 acts, with a global reach of two billion people. But it’s also an acknowledgment of Al Gore’s new charisma (not a word that would ever have been applied to him when he was in mainstream politics), where his name – as a leading, Oscar-winning environmental campaigner – is now a big draw and standing ovations are the norm.

Why, he even looks a bit like a rock star, all in black from his sharply tailored jacket, nipping in his barrel chest, to his cowboy boots: a far cry from the bland Ivy League uniform of chinos and loafers.

The singing came after one of several concerted attempts on my part to establish the definitive response to the question that we all want answered: will Al Gore run for the presidency in 2008? Last week’s poll, conducted in the key state of New Hampshire, showed that Democrats would prefer Gore to any of the declared contenders (Hillary Clinton, the forerunner, would be forced into second place by 6 percentage points) even though he has yet to enter the race.

If you really want to make the crucial difference to affect climate change, isn’t it imperative that you run for the presidency? “Hmmm.” Because even if you don’t care to, and you like your life more now than you did before . . . “Hmmm.” For every person you reach with these concerts and your slideshow lectures and film ( An Inconvenient Truth), the one individual who really has the power to make dramatic changes is the President of the United States … “Hmmm.” And now is your time! And anyway, didn’t you make a sort of promise to your father on his deathbed that you would “always do right”? “Hahahaha.”

This is a hollow, slightly embarrassed, laugh but as the interview progresses the laughter becomes increasingly genuine, until by the end of our brief encounter any trace of the old “wooden” Gore has been replaced by an appealing combination of cool, wry humour and bursts of passion.

Much has been made of the Goracle’s increased heft – and not just politically – in these so-called “wilderness years”, but while he may be fleshier (much continues to be made of the loss of his movie-star jawline), he also radiates the sense of being comfortable in his skin, and that is undeniably attractive.

“It’s a fair point that no position in the world has as much potential for bringing about change as that of President of the US. But I ran for president twice, and [‘eee-arnd’, he says with a southern twang] I have now launched a different kind of campaign” – his delivery slow and measured – “aimed at raising awareness and giving knowledge of the solutions to the climate crisis all round the world. While it’s true that I haven’t ruled out the possibility of running at some point in the future, the reason I don’t expect to is that I’ve fallen out of love with politics.”

What an arresting phrase, spoken with all the disenchantment of a disappointed lover – “fallen out of love with politics”, from a man who was groomed from birth by his Democrat senator father, Al Sr, for the highest office in the land. He knows that there is still anger, and not just among the Democrats, that he didn’t somehow fight harder to prevent the final outcome of that messy election in 2000 which resulted in the Bush Administration, the non-signing of the Kyoto treaty and the war in Iraq.

“I’ve seen the limitations of politics when public opinion will not support the kind of dramatic change that’s really necessary,” Gore continues. “I’ve seen that at first hand. And focusing on changing public opinion at the grassroots level feels like the right thing for me to be doing.”

For someone who is pushing 60 you’re talking very much like a young person, if I may say so. We are always hearing that the young are disaffected with the main political parties but are much more likely to respond to single issues – do you agree?

After his mini-warble, Gore says: “I feel,” (it is striking how often he uses “feel” rather than “think”) that this climate crisis is far and away the most serious challenge we’ve ever faced, and it’s a challenge first and foremost to the moral imagination. We have never in the past confronted anything like this; never had this radically new relationship to the planet.

“We’ve quadrupled population in less than 100 years. We’re using routinely technologies that are a thousandfold more powerful than those our grandparents had available to them, and we’re now the bull in the china shop. And becoming conscious of what we’re doing worldwide about how to stop putting all this global-warming pollution into the air is really the most urgent challenge we have to face.”

I watched An Inconvenient Truth with my family the evening before meeting Gore, and was struck by what an impact it made on us all, regardless of our generation. It’s a film that forces viewers, whatever their experiences, to join the dots together.

As Gore says, while we watch diagrams of the edges of continent after continent submerged in water – the sure result of all this catastrophic melting – it is hard not to shift straight from denial to despair. But optimism is crucial, and not misplaced: “We have everything we need [to tackle this] save political will,” he says, “and in America political will is a renewable energy.”

Gore was a lone voice in American politics to speak out against the Iraq invasion, which he opposed from the outset (Hillary Clinton voted for the war in the Senate, although she now says that she was misled by the Bush Administration). “There’s no longer any dispute about the fact that the Iraq war was a horrible mistake,” he says.

Unlike, famously, Bush or Clinton, Gore has first-hand knowledge of the horrors of war because he volunteered for Vietnam out of a sense of duty, despite his public opposition to it. He didn’t serve his full two years but saw and recorded enough as a military reporter to feel the need to enrol in divinity school for a year on his return: “It was a way of – ahhh – searching in an organised way for answers to some of the questions that I confronted when I faced what seemed to a young man to be a moral dilemma about going to Vietnam. But in any case,” he clears his throat again, “I’ve always been a person of faith.”

He calls himself a Christian but he also meditates in times of stress: “I don’t often talk about this,” he says hesitantly, “but I believe in a very personal definition of what I think the Creator of the Universe is – that God is a moving force in the world – but I don’t think everything is predetermined in any way, and I think that what we do matters and the choices we make matter, and I think it’s up to us to try our best to make better choices.”

He sees no signs of Bush making better choices, but surely we can’t afford to dismiss the possibility that he might. “Well, it’s true and I have to admit to you – however – that I have recently begun to fear that I am – ah – losing my objectivity where Bush is concerned.” This is said with an hilarious deadpan expression. “Yaiiirs, and Cheney, too, I must say.” But on the positive side: “Congress has already acted. I have gone to Capitol Hill and testified before the House and the Senate, and they are now moving. So we can have some new laws even before Bush leaves office.”

Can I draw an analogy between you and Gordon Brown? “Of course,” Gore says in his amiable way: he might just be the politest person I’ve ever interviewed. “You mean, Number Twos who become Number One?” he asks mock-archly. Oh, are you hinting . . . “Well, he made it and I didn’t.” There’s still time. “Hahahahaha, yes, I’m a young man – 59 is the new 49!”

The point I want to make is that with both Brown and Gore (when he was in office) there is an unhelpful schism between their private (witty, charming, relaxed) and public (dour: Brown; wooden: Gore) selves. Does Gore agree? “I used to be described that way but I haven’t been in a long time,” he says. “I think that people see [Brown] very differently now that he is Prime Minister.” Even so soon? “Yes, I do. I think you’ve seen an almost instant change in the way that people perceive him. Perhaps it’s influenced by his excellent handling of this terror threat, but there is some evidence that he is experiencing a surge in the polls. Part of that comes from people seeing him as Prime Minister and not as Number Two. I think that does colour people’s perceptions.”

Do you think it’s true that you seem far more engaged and passionate as an environmental campaigner than when you were running for President? “The perceptions of candidates are affected by the lens that we all use when we look at candidates – and when one is not a candidate there is a different lens,” he says. “But it’s true as well. Even though I was inspired when I was holding political office to address the climate crisis [he has campaigned on this issue for 30 years], there is a kind of luxury in being able to focus single-mindedly on one issue out of the entire panoply, and the opportunity to focus on it intensely might not be as possible for someone holding office.”

Dick Morris, Bill Clinton’s campaign manager, made an arresting comparison between Gore and Clinton’s respective personalities: “In private Gore is what Clinton is like in public. And in public he’s like Clinton in private. When he’s not in front of a microphone, Gore is witty, urbane, informal, empathetic and often subtle, displaying attributes that Clinton reserves for the stage.”

It may sound cheeky, but do you think that Clinton is so charismatic that your lustre was eclipsed by his? “Hmmm, hmmm – well, I never saw it that way. I thought we were an excellent team. I think he’s uncommonly talented as a politician, much as Tony Blair was uncommonly talented, and I think that both Gordon Brown and I have a different set of talents – and someone who is Number Two and in waiting, if you will, is inevitably seen in a different way.”

America, soon to be overtaken by China, is the largest source of global-warming pollution in the world. What will it take to make Americans wake up and believe that global warming is real before it’s too late?

“Well, Sir Winston Churchill said – I’m sure you know the quote – ‘The American people generally do the right thing . . . after first exhausting every available alternative’. And I think we have exhausted the alternatives and we’re now just about ready to do the right thing on climate.”

Lest we feel smug about “those dumb Americans” – and in answer to Bob Geldof’s complaint that tomorrow’s event is just another enormous pop concert and “we’re all f*****g concious of global warming” – it turns out that we’re not as smart as we think we are. Gore points out: “Did you see this morning’s major new MORI poll which shows that in the UK, 56 per cent of the people are notaware that there is a scientific concensus that global warming is caused by human actitivities?” We know from the smoking ban that the unthinkable can become the thinkable overnight. But: “The first establishment of the national consensus on smoking was in 1964,” Gore points out, “and it’s taken that long to convince enough people, one by one, of the need for the new laws on smoking. But we don’t have 40 years left to make enough changes on this issue one by one – so that’s the reason for these mass events like Live Earth worldwide, to speed up that process.

“There’s an old African proverb that says ‘If you want to go quickly, go alone. But if you want to go far, go together’. We have to go far – quickly. And this is just the beginning of a three-year massive campaign.”

Gore doesn’t like to call himself an eco-warrior (“it sounds a bit hubristic and militaristic, doesn’t it?”) but he is gathering forces – Al’s army – in his battle to save the planet. He has already trained 1,300 people to give his slide show, attended by 200 people at an event in Cambridge University (including, rather surprisingly, Sir Alex Ferguson). Then there’s Australia, and India at the end of the year, China next, and Africa – “whatever it takes to persuade enough people to reach that critical mass, that’s what we have to do. So let’s get on with it, that’s my feeling.”

Our time is almost up. I have one final question. Gore has said that he has learnt a lot in the past six years. “Having been through some of the experiences I’ve been through, I can confirm the old cliché that we often learn the most from [a little, rueful laugh] the most painful experiences.”

Could you be more specific? “It’s hard to be. But letting go of . . . Kris Kristofferson wrote a line that Janis Joplin sang: ‘Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose . . .’” Yes, I think I see. So do you feel free now? “Yes,” Al Gore says. “I do.”