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The Telegraph – November 2013
As Live at the Apollo returns tonight for a new series, read Ginny Dougary’s interview with host Eddie Izzard in which he talks about his ambitions to enter politics, learn more languages, run more marathons and start a family.
The lights cascade down in neon green and flashing blue, the electronic music pounds to a climax as Eddie Izzard walks smartly on stage in high-heeled boots, jeans and tails, looks out at the packed Parisian audience, puts up his hand to silence the applause and breaks into… German.
This is quite a good opening joke, since his devotees – and true Izzardians are every bit as committed in their fandom as Star Trek or Dr Who fans – all know that his next goal (having conquered French) is to learn German (for performing purposes, as well as world peace), then Spanish, Russian and Arabic (ditto). Not only is he striving to be an endurance athlete – as witnessed by his recent marathons, with more to come – but he is clearly set on becoming an endurance linguist, too.
The show is Stripped – which he toured in the UK in 2009 – but with a difference: this is all in French, which is quite an achievement, particularly considering it’s a 90-minute show. He spent three months living in Paris last year, polishing his French, performing in French (the young, hip French stand-ups are all fous for Izzard) and living as a Frenchman. ‘I worked my arse off, but I was living in Montmartre, rehearsing in the Jardins des Tuileries, living the Parisian life. I had my passe Navigo [Paris’s version of our Oyster card] and I can make jokes about Le Marais,’ he tells me.
It has taken him 15 years to get to the point where he can perform at l’Olympia, where Edith Piaf once sang – ‘un rêve’ which he has had since ‘******* longtemps’ – in front of an audience of 1,800 people. It’s a (literally) vintage Izzard show, covering the ascent of man, why he doesn’t believe in God, the different mentality of the PC and the Apple Mac, the impossibility of Noah’s Ark (if it were real, for one thing, all the animals would be dead except for the lions and the tigers), a giraffe signalling lion-danger through charades and a cough, and a jazz-crowing cockerel. There are nods to the French (s’il vous plaît, no more holes in the ground for WCs, they make it hard to balance your iPad, for one thing – and how come there’s no broccoli, just endless haricots verts?), jokes in the subjunctive (for which he takes a bow), building up to a finale of a meditation on the frustrations of communicating in Latin (‘quod the ****’) with reference to Hannibal’s defeat, all woven together in a typically ingenious, surreal arc.
We had met back in London, a couple of weeks earlier, where our conversation was not unlike one of his shows; indeed, on the odd occasion, the interview was the show, albeit with an audience of one, in that he was trying out new material on me. He is far more friendly and seems happier than when I last spent time with him, 14 years ago. (This was for his first show in French, in a flea pit in the Pigalle area.) He looks quite different, too – more bearded-blokey and rugged, his skin is clear and lightly freckled; his gaze direct and very blue. Back then, Izzard was wearing a lot of make-up and slightly bondage-y leather skirts and stockings.
It has been ages since he was in girl-mode, for reasons we discuss later. Today, he is wearing a sporty fleece, jeans, boots with a three-inch heel and, the only flamboyant touch, what he calls his ‘political nails’ – plum-coloured apart from one that is the Union flag and another that is the flag of Europe. ‘That’s three statements there,’ he says, extending his fingers. ‘I’m proud of my country, I’m proud of my continent and I’m proud of being a transvestite.’
Izzard is nothing if not ambitious. He is about to embark on what, he claims, ‘I feel pretty sure is the most extensive comedy tour in the history of the world, ever.’ When I exclaim that he is so competitive, with himself as much as anyone else, he replies, ‘Well, you can do the gossip columns and turn up at the opening of hats, you know, or you can go and play the Hollywood Bowl [he was the first comedian to do a solo show there, last year] or Kathmandu or do your gigs in French. So when people say, “Are you dead now?”, I go, “No, I’m not… I just never did a TV comedy show thing. I studiously avoided that.”’
Then he looks at his phone and rattles off some of the places he’s performing in: St Petersburg, Moscow, Belgrade, Berlin (‘which is almost sold out already’), Helsinki, Oslo, Gothenburg, Istanbul, Vienna, Kathmandu, Delhi, Mumbai, Zurich, Geneva, Ljubljana, Tallinn and also the aforementioned Hollywood Bowl; 25 countries so far, throughout Europe, the USA, Africa, Australia, New Zealand, India, Nepal and the Far East. The posters for the new Force Majeure show him looking rather Steed-like, sveltely-suited, brandishing an umbrella, and staring straight at you. They were designed by Sarah Townsend (who sings as Sarah McGuinness), an ex-girlfriend, who also directed the 2009 film Believe – The Eddie Izzard Story, and is directing and filming the new tour. Some years ago, the two formed a production company, Ella Communications, named after Eddie’s mother, Dorothy Ella, a midwife and nurse, who died of cancer in 1968 when Eddie was six and his older brother, Mark, was eight.
It’s 25 years since Eddie Izzard did his first stand-up. ‘It’s worth mentioning that the Stones have been going for 50 years and we’re catching up,’ he says. Although he is less detached now, with his new, ebullient confidence comes a certain tendency towards self-aggrandisement as though – since working in the States (which he has been doing a lot) – he is impatient with the British tendency for self-deprecation. He has achieved a great deal in a quarter of a century, he has worked hard to get here, it took him long enough and hell if he is going to pretend otherwise. At one point he draws a parallel with Nelson Mandela – ‘my most favourite politician’ – saying that by learning so many languages, he likes to think he is following the same path. ‘He is a politician – he’s not a saint and he doesn’t want to be a saint. The reality is that he did politics and he did it well, and he learnt Afrikaans and I would like to feel I’m following in his footsteps by learning French and German and Russian and Arabic…’ – which is quite a large claim to make for oneself.
After dropping out of Sheffield University, where he read accountancy (his father, Harold, to whom he is close, was an accountant with BP), Izzard took a show to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, then moved to Streatham Common in south London with some fellow performers, did street theatre in Covent Garden, and waited to be discovered. ‘I got to 20 and said, “OK, let’s go. I’m ready, I’m cookin’. I’ve been waiting for this. I can make people laugh… someone’s bound to discover me.” But it just kept on not happening,’ he told me when we last met.
The first show he did on his own was at the Banana Cabaret in Balham, followed shortly by a tiny venue in central London, which was at capacity with 25 people, where he did his fly-fishing joke (‘I caught three flies’). Then came the Comedy Store and, soon after, his own sell-out show in the West End. Izzard had arrived, choosing that moment to come out as a transvestite.
He says he is very like his father. ‘We’re about 80 per cent similar. When he got into BP, he thought, “This is bullshit: I’m going to change everything [the system of filing, for instance].” When he was told he couldn’t, he said, “Well, I’ve already done it.”’
During the screenwriters’ strike in 2007-08 in America, after the second season of the TV series The Riches (in which Izzard starred as an identity-stealing Irish traveller con-artist) had aired, Izzard and his father travelled to Aden together, where Harold used to work for BP and where Eddie was born. There he was given some old photos of his mother, which he shows me on his phone: she has a sweet, sideways smile, is wearing a 1950s skirt that fans out, and is cradling her son on her lap. Another one is of his parents on their honeymoon. It’s charming and telling, I think, that Izzard keeps these black-and-white images in his pocket, close to his heart. He suddenly speaks in Arabic to me, saying, ‘My name is Eddie and I was born in the Yemen.’
Izzard has just turned 51 – how does he feel about ageing? He’s in a far better place in every way now, probably than at any time before in his life. ‘Like they say, “Youth is wasted on the young” and so can I do my 20s again please, and not have Thatcher in power?’ he says. ‘It was just hellish for me, that decade – I did get my stuff done, and I came out as a transvestite and had all my midlife crises early. At 20, nothing had happened; at 30, nothing had happened, but was starting to happen; I was OK at 40, and I’m so OK about being 50 I decided to say I was 50 a year before I was.’
In July 2009 he completed seven weeks of back-to-back marathons – 43 in 51 days – around the UK to raise money for Sport Relief. Last May he attempted a bonkers 27 marathons in 27 days in South Africa to honour Nelson Mandela, who was imprisoned for 27 years. Due to health complications, Izzard had to pull out after only four. But, naturally, he is not deterred. As we sit across from one another, in an eyrie above a photographic studio in central London, he occasionally rubs his eyes with fatigue. That morning, he had been running with his new trainer. He had also been to see his doctor to get checked out for another attempt in South Africa.
Part of the health problem last year was that he was on a prescription drug to cut down his cholesterol. He also seems to have realised – after that setback – that it’s foolish to undertake such challenges without being properly prepared. As a glutton for punishment, he had upped the ante by attempting the barefoot running style favoured by many Africans, in specially customised barefoot-style shoes. ‘It’s OK on concrete, but it’s really tough on broken rocks dropped into road surfaces, which is what I was running on in the Eastern Cape,’ he says. ‘The little African kids were just zipping along on it, but it would probably take me six months or a year to acclimatise and I didn’t have that time.’
He gets up to demonstrate the barefoot running style – where everything is pushed back, rather than straining forward, a bit like a Homer Simpson boogie. ‘Think about how a horse runs. When they film a horse that’s running, the legs are all moving backwards.’ He says that he was naturally doing that technique after his 43 marathons because he was so exhausted. ‘I was so tired that my body just clicked into the same sort of rhythm that the tribes and the barefoot runners are doing.’
His next attempt is scheduled for March 2014 and he has started preparing already. As well as the new trainer, he has taken on a sports nutritionist. His team will be expected to transform the comedian and actor into an endurance athlete. For the next 40 years of his life, he is planning to be a low-carb, sugar-free temple of health. Is it very Californian? ‘No, it’s Greek,’ he says, a touch defensively. ‘It’s the Olympian idea of “sound of body, sound of mind”. It’s not Hollywood – it’s feral. I’m trying to get feral because it’s natural – it’s how we used to live.
‘There’s not one wild animal that’s not perfectly fit – like 100 per cent fit,’ he adds. ‘I mean, they’re all getting up to chase the gazelles – it’s just us and domestic animals that are chucking the wrong things down our throats.’
His way of dealing with ageing is to get younger (what’s new?) by becoming slimmer and fitter than he has ever been. He was inspired – this being Izzard – by a lion he was introduced to ‘backstage’ at Boston Zoo. ‘He was about 80 – in lion years – and he came up to us and roared [Izzard roars] and made a sort of feral statement which was, “I could eat any of you if it wasn’t for these bars. I have that in me.” He was like some ancient warrior but was as fit as we would all be in our 20s. So that’s what we should all be trying to do, and I do feel that I’m going to get healthier and healthier.’
He was also inspired by the athletes he met when he was an ambassador and cheerleader for the Olympic and Paralympic Games. During his marathons, he met other marathon runners who were manning the feeding stations (as he calls them), and what impressed him was that they were people in their 50s, 60s and even 70s. One couple had done 730 marathons. ‘They were both in their 60s and were lean and fit. They don’t train but they do a marathon a week, and that’s what I am aiming to do. I want to be a member of the 100 Club – people who have done more than 100 marathons.’
Izzard is also intending, of course, to live till he is 100 – which is why he isn’t panicking, yet, about having children. He has been saying for quite some time that he is determined to be a father in his 50s. In Meet the Izzards, a two-part series which had Eddie travelling from Bexhill-on-Sea, where his father lives, to Namibia, Yemen, Turkey and Denmark, using his own DNA to trace his ancestors, he said several times that he was planning to have a baby – ‘I’ll buy one in a shop,’ he quipped to two elderly sisters to whom he was very distantly related.
Izzard himself has a slightly childlike way about him which becomes even more pronounced when he talks about the practicalities of becoming a father. Will you adopt? ‘Might do.’ Do you think you need another person with whom to do this? (He never talks about his relationships, adopting the Daniel Day-Lewis approach. ‘If Danny doesn’t have to talk about it…’) ‘I don’t know. I can’t figure out the partner thing.’ Would you be happy to be a single parent? ‘Ah… yeah. Er, are you allowed to do that? Your own genetic baby, yeah, but you can’t adopt can you?’
Since he also plans to run for Mayor of London in 2020 and be an MP (he is a well-known Labour supporter) or an MEP, plus all those weekly marathons, as well as his film career, and his stand-up, I can’t quite see the logistics of fitting in fatherhood. ‘Me too,’ he says. And yet he is determined and what he sets out to get he usually achieves. ‘That is the plan. I may end up being a father at 61.’ But, I ask Izzard, you do realise how much a child eclipses everything else, especially at the beginning? ‘Eclipses and dictates things, yes,’ he says. ‘Hopefully all the really tough stuff will have been done, as I now have a certain amount of momentum. A number of people go into showbiz, have their kids and their kids go, “I didn’t see my parents,” and so…
‘I just imagine myself being kind of parenty. I mean, obviously you’ve got to take it seriously. It’s going to take up a hell of a lot of time and things will revolve around this child or children. But I don’t have the answer about the logistics because I’m also thinking I’ve got to do a lot of stuff before I pack this career up. You’re saying you can’t see how I can work it out, and I’m saying the same thing.’
For a long time, he carried a deep emotional wound from his mother dying when he was so young. His father coped by sending the two small boys away to boarding school, aged six and eight.Izzard has talked about how he cried all the time, and was bullied, and how he stopped crying altogether at the age of 11 and how he was emotionally cauterised from that point on. Was he always looking for a mother figure in his relationships with women? ‘Initially, I was in that frame of mind, but
I don’t think I’m still like that. I don’t think you ever get over your mother dying but I’m not a grown man crying into my beer. I’m doing a lot of practical things out of it. I thought she was great, I’d like her to be back, she won’t seem to come back…’
He refers me to the moment in Believe when he is questioned by Sarah Townsend about why he keeps pushing himself so hard, and he answers, ‘I keep thinking if I do all these things, and keep going and going, then… she’ll come back,’ before bursting into tears. Now, he says, ‘It was a moment where I came up with something that I’d never thought about before – which is odd, as it was quite existential.’
Not for him the comfort of knowing that he will meet his mother again in the after-life, as he is a non-believer. ‘I think things just stop, but if I did believe, I’d go to dyslexic heaven, which is Devon.’
When we first met, we talked almost exhaustively about the psychology of transvestism or, at any rate, this transvestite. It was a rather dreamlike encounter, after a show, after midnight – he in my hotel room, wearing a fluffy dressing gown, his face in full slap, talking and smoking into the early hours. It has been five or six years since we saw him in a skirt, and I wonder if he misses his female self – or whether his desire to be famous in Hollywood is more important to him. He says, ‘I can’t get dramatic roles if I turn up at an audition wearing a lot of make-up and going around all girlie,’ which suggests it’s the latter, but in that case, doesn’t he feel repressed? ‘Perhaps it’s the opposite of repressed? Pressed? I’ve got all the boy stuff, except for drinking and vomiting. I love the action movies, wanted to be in the army, I’m football loving and football playing, I’m driven – and I have the girlie stuff, which I feel is about 15 per cent of me.’
I was wondering if it was something a bit more complicated than his desire for film roles. He had talked about the necessity of making himself into the sort of woman he found attractive when he was in girl mode. The ‘look’ he favoured was a sort of saucy punk-rock chick (bustiers, leather, PVC, dominatrix heels), which maybe isn’t such a great image as you go into your 50s. And, also, ageing – himself – could mean he is less drawn to transforming himself into an older woman? But he is having none of it. ‘I’m attracted to women of all ages, you know [the feeling is certainly mutual – my female friends, from young to old, were swooningly jealous; only interviewing George Clooney elicited a similar response], but it’s not something I check.’
But he does admit that knowing how to dress now is difficult. ‘Trying to get it right as a bloke is doubly tricky.’
Izzard really seems to believe that the world can be changed through stand-up. At the end of the show at l’Olympia, he said that the ‘******* melting pot is the way of the future. Maybe we can change some things,’ and he looked quite emotional – or perhaps that was just the standing ovation. Yacine Belhouse, a French-Algerian comedian, whom Izzard chose as the opening act, will be doing a show in English at the Edinburgh Fringe next year. I was sitting next to a young French-African stand-up, Shirley Souagnon, who is coming to the Comedy Store in London next month to do her show in English, too. It’s a bit of a Chauncey Gardiner idea but Izzard seems to have started something. His version of franglais – call it Frizzard – is to make a marriage of splitting a French word and inserting a good, old Anglo-Saxon f-word, one he uses a lot, in between. This is his version of ‘détente’. As he says, ‘Vive la différence but also vive la similarité.’ Formi*******dable.
The Times February 06, 2010
– Ginny Dougary
He was a world-renowned industrialist whose secret life as a gay man led to his downfall. For the first time, Lord Browne talks about the day he was outed, losing his job and falling in love again
Lord Browne of Madingley rebukes me in the gentlest way when I make the mistake of asking a question the wrong way round. If the former chief executive of BP, once widely acknowledged as “the greatest businessman of his generation”, and now chairman of the Tate, could live his life again, would he have been happier making a career in the arts?
“I think probably not is the answer,” he says. “When I started out, I loved science. I adored it. At Cambridge, I did natural science and physics and I loved mathematics and solving problems. I was thinking about doing research until my father made a very good point that maybe I should go and earn some money. So I tried business and I loved it because the problems were bigger and I could stretch the boundaries of my knowledge. And I loved being an engineer for all that time – so I was very, very happy professionally doing that, and I wouldn’t think of doing anything else.”
My question came on the back of us talking – remarkably openly on his part – about the events that led to Browne’s resignation in 2007 from the company he had worked in for 40 years, 3 months earlier than his chosen retirement date. He had been outed by his 27-year-old former lover, Canadian-born Jeff Chevalier, who had sold the story of their four-year relationship to a newspaper.
The Times – October 25, 2007
– Ginny Dougary
How should you interview a celebrity? Our correspondent has some advice for Steve Buscemi
Interview, the movie, boldly goes where no actual celebrity interview is likely to go or have gone before. It’s an intense two-hander starring Steve Buscemi (who also directed) as the duplicitious, alcoholic, pill-popping, manipulative, self-destructive, arrogant, lazy hack and Sienna Miller as the duplicitious, alcoholic, coke-snorting, etc, soap star.
During their extended encounter, bottles are drained, souls bared, dancing, flirting and kissing skills explored, there’s a physical fight and a great deal of psychological warfare. As Buscemi said after The Times BFI London Film Festival screening, Interview is more about the dynamic between two troubled individuals grappling with their personal demons than an excoriating examination of the role of the media in our celebrity-driven culture. The film, however, does offer some instructive lessons in how not to conduct an interview. It should be required viewing for all media students.
Drinking on the job
Most celebrities these days are too fearful of letting their guard down to have a drink with their interviewer. If you are lucky enough to get a good story or scoop out of an encounter, unsympathetic commentators may assume that the interviewer has plied his or her subject with alcohol to exploit the poor vulnerable creature into revealing all. This is irritating, but also nonsense.
Most revealing interviews, in my experience, come about because the interviewees find it a relief to unburden themselves. My advice would be to get the bulk of the interview over with before clinking glasses but, unless you can’t hold your drink, it’s a bit uptight to make alcohol-avoid-ance a hard and fast rule.
There are only three of my interviews that stand out as being conducted under the influence: Christopher Hitchens, who popped open a bottle of champagne, one of a case presented to him for appearing at the Hay Festival; Pete Townshend, who was generous to a fault with his expense account; and Marianne Faithfull, who insisted on getting the first of several rounds in.
Do your homework
This is essential from every point of view. It’s good manners, it’s clever and it’s the right thing to do. It doesn’t matter whether or not you admire your interviewee – it’s important to be prepared.
Buscemi’s character, Pierre Peders, starts his interview by telling Katya, his interviewee, that he hasn’t seen any of her films. He goes on to explain that “I don’t usually do this”. “Interview people?” she says, and follows up with “Do you know anything about me at all?” Peders’s ignorance is his downfall.
Top tip: if for some inexplicable reason you have not been able to read a single book, see a film or read any cuttings before showing up for an interview, do not think it is charming to draw attention to your shortcomings. Miller’s character is implausibly indulgent of her interviewer’s sloppiness.
Equally, however much work you put in, be prepared for the caustic or batty put-down. A very elderly Anthony Powell berated me for not having read the whole of A Dance to the Music of Time (12 volumes) – and indeed every book he had written. He then complained about my “quite horrible, horrible voice” and the interview was brought to a close. Bob Geldof expects his interviewers to be fully nuanced in the intricacies of governmental and nongovernmental aid. Gore Vidal took one arch look at my research notes and accused me of having Alzheimer’s. Swot up on the Kabba-lah before meeting Madonna or risk being lectured on the subject, as I was for a good 20 minutes.
Insulting the interviewee
This approach is popular with some interviewers and may, on occasion, result in a fiery exchange that can be fun to read or watch. You do run the risk, however, of being left without an interview when your subject walks out. Peders cuts a risible figure when he says that he’s used to interviewing important politicians, not two-bit actresses. Charm is usually a more effective weapon. The aim of the interview is, after all, to get some insight into the subject – however unworthy the interviewer may consider the interviewee to be.
Top tip: remember that however badly your subject behaves, the interviewer always has the last word. My trickiest interviewees have tended to be film directors who are clearly uncomfortable with the idea of being directed themselves – Mike Leigh, Stephen Frears, Peter Greenaway and Spike Lee were all prickly and defensive. (Greenaway almost came to blows with the photographer, Nigel Parry.)
Top bully was, not surprisingly, Bob Geldof, with Alan Clark (by turns creepily predatory – there was a worrying moment in his wine cellar – and snappy) and Jeffrey Archer coming in a close second.
Being insulted by your interviewee
I am thinking of compiling a small book of insults from my years of interviewing the famous. For some reason, they feel free to make the most astonishing comments about my weight – which I duly feel free to write about. Benazir Bhutto: “I admire you for letting yourself go.” Martina Navratilova: “You may be happy with the way you look but plenty of people wouldn’t.” Jeffrey Archer: “You should go on a diet.”
How to deal with a pass
This is rather more delicate. A certain amount of “chemistry” does go on in an interview, which is why editors send women to interrogate men and vice versa. But how much you use is a matter of judgment.
Readers tend to find insults more entertaining to read about than overblown compliments. It can also feel a bit mean or irrelevant to expose a subject’s clumsy attempts at seduction. For this reason, I did not include Pete Townshend’s rather slurred confession that he, er, thought, um, that he fancied me. Clive James’, on the other hand, was so preposterous (“I’m falling in love with your right now”) that I did.
The all-singing, all-dancing interview
Katya and Pierre take a spin around her ballroom-sized loft. Clive James chose to tango on his own. But singing is another matter. Some of my more memorable duets have included My Way with Imelda Marcos in Manila and Somethin’ Stupid with Nancy Sinatra in Bel Air (I was singing her dad’s part).
Other dramatic highlights include snorkelling with Kelsey Grammer in Maui in Hawaii and rehearsing an episode of Frasier on the beach (I was Daphne). Norman Lamont, the former Chancellor, reciting a poem in a wild Scottish dialect down the phone was a good moment.
The killer question
It is useful to have one or two of these – but don’t start with them or you might find that your interview is swiftly terminated. My favourite was asking, with some trepidation, Jeanette Winterson about her years when she sold her body to ladies from the Home Counties who paid her with Le Creuset saucepans – of which she had a large collection.
Peders’s killer questions are pathetic: “What makes a man attractive?” and “Are you good at seducing men?” Puh-lease.
Snogging the interviewee
Not generally advisable, particularly prepublication. You never know, he or she may be the one to kiss and tell.
Interview is released on Nov 2
The Times – Body and Soul, December 23 2006
– Ginny Dougary
Many a man can ding dong and hark the herald with the best of them — so why won’t they join choirs?
’Tis the season to be vocal, tra-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-laaah, when even the most curmudgeonly among you are likely to be coerced into doing a ding dong or harking the herald. But among the host of carol singers or church choirs, in how many will female voices swamp the males?
Which prompts me to wonder (not for the first time), what is it with men and singing? For three or four years now, ever since joining my first proper (or, possibly, improper) choir, I have been puzzling over this question. During this time I have asked all manner of men — friends, certainly, but also taxi drivers, hairdressers, waiters, supermarket check-out guys, florists, teachers, scaffolders, bankers, lawyers, handymen — whether they like to sing.
This line of inquiry has sometimes seemed to be redundant since it has been provoked by this or that fellow warbling along to a song on the radio or background Muzak.
At other times, there has been something particularly pleasing about the tone of the man’s speaking voice that has prompted the question. But the reaction is invariably the same — a panicky high-pitched squeak (the subtext being “Oh Gawd, is she some kind of religious zealot trying to recruit me?”) — followed by a rapid descent into gruff denial: “No, really, no, no, I’m hopeless, totally tone deaf, honestly . . . just ask my wife/girlfriend/kids.”
Very often it transpires that the men got the idea that they couldn’t sing way back in their school days, often at the time that their voices broke. It makes me quite angry when I discover how many teachers are responsible for destroying so many young boys’ confidence in their ability to do something natural and joyful, and how this has created a lifelong handicap. For if you have been silenced at such a tender age — told to mouth along to the words but on no account to make an actual sound — it is hardly surprising if you grow up with a hang-up about your voice.
When we started the Brighton City Singers (BCS) three years ago, for a long time there was often a scant handful of men singing alongside 20 or so women. Our doughty founding BCS men hung in and we are now fortunate enough to have about 15 solid male voices (and twice as many females), so we can all experience the thrill of four-part and, on occasion, even eight-part harmony.
This means that when a brave-soul solo male potential recruit walks into our rehearsal room, he no longer feels quite so exposed and vulnerable, and is thus more likely to stay.
Now I have joined another newly formed singing group in London — the South London Choir (SLC) — and it’s the same old story. Ten months on, there are 45 members and yet only three or four of them are men. One evening, there was much rejoicing because we had as many as seven chaps at the back. But this leaves me as exercised as ever as to why so few men are attracted to the idea of singing in a community choir, when so many women clearly find it so appealing.
Here are some additional questions: how come men in crowds sing with such uninhibited enjoyment at football and rugby matches? (Tradition? Alcohol? Vicarious sports euphoria?) Why is it that in Scotland, Ireland and famously in Wales men sing in choirs and pubs and at each other’s homes as a matter or course? Why do scaffolders tend to sing with such abandon, suggesting that they feel invisible even at their most visible? Why do my teenage sons think it is somehow “girlie” to sing in choirs when one is a music scholar and the other is heavily into bands that favour vocal harmony? The mysterious male ego seems to enter the equation, too. While the majority of men seem to suffer from lack of confidence, the obverse is also true. In both the BCS and the SLC, we have women members who have sung in rock bands, West End musicals and the like, but who seem to relish the way that the musical director — MJ (who is herself a professional entertainer) — can coax a magical sound out of this blend of members, many of whose voices are completely untrained. But it is also true, from my observations, that men who have sung professionally will join us only for the big high-profile shebangs of the annual festival or one of our specially commissioned works. That is, they are not prepared to come week in, week out, for regular rehearsals which are the life-blood of a choir. Again, I can’t help wondering why? I have seen what a difference it can make to a person’s wellbeing to sing on a regular basis. Only the other day a choir member told me that she had been extremely depressed for a variety of physical and emotional reasons but had completely forgotten about her unhappiness for the two hours that she was singing. Men are notoriously reticent when it comes to acknowledging that they have a health problem, let alone tackling it. Singing is a proven tonic, and the feel-good factor is enhanced substantially when your voice is joined by others in a friendly community setting. It seems sad that so many men deny themselves such an accessible pleasure when there is so much they could gain from it.
Richard Frostick is an unashamed evangelist for the health benefits of singing. He founded the Islington Music Centre in 1992, running weekend sessions for children and young people from the ages of 6 to 18 (the numbers have grown from 60 to 400) as a way of getting them to explore musicality outside the school framework.
His favourite quote is from Peter Pears, the great tenor, who once said: “A voice is a person.” He, too, feels that there is nothing funny about the idea that someone cannot sing, since what could be more revealing or personal than the sounds that come out of a person’s mouth.
First of all, Frostick says that boys’ voices don’t “break”, they change. “The idea of a ‘broken’ voice is not helpful when you are trying to persuade a 13-year-old boy that he sounds OK! There are changes that occur in the vocal folds but — despite the misguided orthodoxy that still prevails — boys can actually sing safely and happily through the change, even though they may croak and crackle or sound gravelly. It’s better for boys to continue singing through this period than to drop singing altogether.
“Young boys can be noticeably more insecure about singing than girls of the same age, but I’m a great believer in just getting on with it and once the children are singing wholeheartedly in a group, the pleasure of the experience is often all you need to convince reluctant boys; they just get swept up in the general enthusiasm.” Female voices change during puberty, too, but less dramatically, as the vocal folds (formerly known as cords) thicken. Girls’ voices may become deeper and richer but then all our voices continue to change over a lifetime as a direct consequence of changes in our hormone levels. (Joni Mitchell’s smokey deep register in her 2000 version of A Case of You, for instance, sounds nothing like the girlish swoops of her Seventies original.) Few people, Frostick says, are tone deaf and yet “so many have been told this by bad teachers in the past. Nearly everyone can be taught to sing in tune but we don’t have the workforce of teachers that have the skills to do this. Primary teacher training in this country is seriously inadequate when it comes to training teachers to sing in the classroom.
“There are signs that singing is making a comeback and the Music Manifesto has just announced a national campaign,” says Frostic, of the government-backed initiative to provide the young with more musical opportunities. “I really can’t think of a better way to get a child musically literate than through singing.”
As a parent, I know how much difference it can make to the whole atmosphere of a school when you are lucky enough to have an inspirational music teacher.
At my sons’ local state primary in London, Honeywell, we had the fantastic Alexander MacMillan, a Guildhall graduate whose general demeanour (punky hair, multiple earrings) may have been helpful in sending out the message that there was nothing remotely uncool about playing an instrument or singing a classical song. But it was his personality and commitment that made the difference to his pupils’ lives. Every year, for instance, he would put on a musical extravaganza at the Battersea Arts Centre which gave every child, from every sort of background, an equal chance to play an important part in making it a success.
Frostick gets his “reluctant” boys to name as many male singers as they can; all styles, from Top Ten pop to jazz, rock and classical. Once the board is covered with names, he looks them in the eye and says: “Now tell me that singing isn’t a male thing.” So we may have a steer on how to handle and enthuse reluctant young boys to sing freely, but what can be done about their reluctant fathers? Choral singing seems to be all the rage: just think of the terrific car park Honda ad, in which a choir sings the noises of a car’s engine; and the recent BBC Two series The Choir. Even a supreme cynic such as Simon Cowell, with his group Angelis, seems convinced that what the nation needs to listen to now is glorious choral harmony. But will any of the above persuade all the men out there — who would have such a blast if they only dared to rise to the challenge — to turn up to any number of the community choirs that exist around the country and make our day? I asked Frostick, finally, if he thought there was any essential difference between English men and women that might explain the gulf in their attitude to singing. “After 25 years’ experience, what I would say is that it goes very deep. Men’s relationship with their voices is an emotional one. You can disguise your speaking voice to conceal what you are thinking, but it’s far harder to do this when you’re singing. Women are more prepared to take risks with their vulnerability. Men find it more hard to let down their guard, and I do think it’s a particularly English thing. But once they’ve broken the barrier — wow! It’s a life-changer.”
Singing your way to health
A study of children, aged 4 to 6, published this year in the journal Brain, indicates that music can make kids brainier. The children who were taking music lessons had greater brain development than those who were not.
Singing means better breathing and lung capacity, according to a survey of the choral society from Canterbury Christ Church University College. Over half of the members said that their breathing control had improved through singing. To breathe like a singer, pull your diaphragm down, and visibly move the ribcage outwards.
Australian scientists at a pain clinic decided to get their patients singing to see whether it would help with their chronic pain. All of the singing patients improved their ability to cope with pain.
Singing even helps your body with bug-busting. A German study found that singing in an amateur choir not only boosted mood, but also the immune system.
Great posture is also a bonus. Jenevora Williams, the vocal adviser to the National Youth Choir, says to imagine that the crown of your head is being gently pulled towards the ceiling, the shoulders and chest widening and the spine straightening. And, relax.
As part of a rehab scheme for stressed people in Norway, singing increased the confidence and drive of patients.
Singing may be a cure for snoring. The success of Singing for Snorers, a CD by the signing coach Alise Ojay, which has sold 1,000 copies and promises to cure even severe cases of sleep apnoea by strengthening throat muscles, has inspired researchers at the Royal Devon and Exeter Hospital to launch a two-year clinical trial of her exercises, the results of which are due next year.
* * *
ALL TOGETHER NOW
To find a choir near you, visit www.gerontius.net
South London Choir (SLC) and Brighton City Singers (BCS) rehearse every week (from January). Male voices welcome. For SLC, email the director firstname.lastname@example.org; for BCS visit www.brightoncitysingers.co.uk
Islington Music Centre 020-7254 4452
Times Saturday Magazine, November 11 2006
– Ginny Dougary
Francis Latreille’s photographs are a tribute to the North Pole’s majestic, glacial beauty – and a chilling reminder of man’s careless destruction of the natural world
These unique sculptures, each one fashioned by the elements, seem to be living proof that there is no artistry more entrancing than that which is created by nature. They are so dreamlike in their beauty that it is hard to look at them without falling silent, and in that small space of time you step out of the humdrum everyday and into an icy place of the imagination. But flicking through the pages, you also recognise majestic echoes of ancient cathedrals, blades soaring into the sky which resemble the creations of our best modern architects, an iceberg whose profile amusingly mirrors the questing form of a polar bear on the hunt.
You may enjoy these natural art works without pausing to consider their ephemerality. They endure as a sort of trick of visual fiction – their permanence achieved only because they attracted the attention of Francis Latreille, who happened to be there, in a remote place that few people get to visit, and chose to transform something fleetingly spectacular into a lasting pleasure. When he lined up his camera in that chance moment, he knew that the glorious sight that filled his lens was a one-off that could never be recaptured by himself or anyone else.
The experience of gazing at these images – stunning as they are – cannot compare with the exhilaration of witnessing for yourself the treasures of the Arctic gallery in their full monumental glory, the chill of the air on your cheeks, your heart soaring at the sight of the turquoise glowing under the white transformed by a shaft of sunlight into an iridescent gem-like blue. The satisfying crunch of the icy sea-floor under your booted foot, which opens up here and there to reveal: intricate patches of lacework, curious fibre-optic networks, bubbles of air trapped and frozen. You stop to marvel and move on to the next breathtaking vision. The rubble-yards of snow whipped up by the wind, then caught at precarious, tilting angles – as though nature were a mischievous faery child who had waved a wand. A day later, another windstorm, and that frozen Giacometti or Hepworth will have gone. So being there not only gives you the weirdly omniscient sense that each sculpture has been made for your eyes only, but is a constant reminder of change and fluctuation.
It took a man, inspired by the treasures of the Arctic gallery, to bring this evidence back home to share with us – and it is man who is destroying the environment in which these wonders are found. Our first thoughts on looking at these chilly beauties is not of warming and hothouse effects, but the stark facts in the text that accompany these photographs make it clear that Latreille’s book comes with a message.
The Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet. The ice floe or ice sea has lost more than 8 per cent of its surface area and 40 per cent of its thickness over the past three decades – which is why Pen Hadow, the explorer, found himself swimming as much as skiing to the North Pole on his last historic expedition. The Greenland ice cap – containing 90 per cent of the northern hemisphere’s reserve of fresh water – has begun to melt away. The glaciers are retreating. The layer of perma frost, made up of earth, vegetable matter and ice, which covers some four million square miles in Siberia, Canada and Alaska, is thawing on a scale that has not been seen in the past 11,000 years. Fresh water is pouring into the Atlantic Ocean, affecting its salinity, which is already having devastating consequences on the food chain. The tundra has begun to transform into a swamp, releasing incalculable quantities of methane gas – compared to a “sleeping dragon” – presently fossilised in the ice.
What do these bleak bullet points mean? To the Inuit people, it is the destruction of their homes and their livelihoods. The ice shelf is forming much later in the year and is infinitely more fragile than it was before, which means the hunters and fishermen who dare to move across it run a much higher risk of drowning. They are having to dismantle their houses and move them to less vulnerable areas – but as the sea encroaches inland, how far will the Inuit be forced to retreat?
The hunting season has shortened significantly. Reindeer are no longer able to feed themselves because the constant melting and freezing has created a new crust which their hooves have not been adapted to penetrate to get to the lichen below. The caribou population around Peary in Ellesmere Island declined from 26,000 in 1961 to 1,000 in 1997. The most abiding symbol of the North Pole, the polar bear, is fighting for survival because the ice shelf – its food store and playground – is shrinking. There are also disturbing signs that they are being dramatically affected by the pesticides and chemical wastes spilled into the environment, especially into the water, as the pollutants ride the ocean currents that flow into the cold zones… into algae eaten by fish which go into the bellies of the seals which end up powerfully concentrated in the polar bears at the top of the food chain, affecting their ability to reproduce and leading to congenital malformations.
And what do these inconvenient truths mean for us? Do they take the shine off our enjoyment of the photographs, or do they make us more concerned about what happens in these imperilled places of remote and mysterious loveliness? Will we only care when we start to suffer the consequences of such carelessness ourselves – and will that be too late to remedy the effects? In May 2005, in Brussels, representatives of the Arctic Circle, an intergovernmental forum created to promote circumpolar co-operation, issued an alarm declaring that what happens in the Arctic is a barometer for the rest of the world. And that is Francis Latreille’s wake-up call behind the beauty of his book.
Photographs from White Paradise by Francis Latreille, published by Abrams and available from BooksFirst priced £22.46 (RRP £24.95), free p&p, on 0870 1608080; timesonline.co.uk/booksfirstbuy
Times 2 – August 25, 2006
– Ginny Dougary
Dear New Lot of Terrorists,
I thank you for showing me the light and changing my life. Truly, you have liberated me in ways you could never have foreseen. No longer will my heart feel heavy and my spirit be freighted with dread as I wait for the plane to touch down at JFK or Heathrow. By your actions you have taught me the egregious error of my ways, and from henceforth I will travel unburdened by . . .
This was the letter I was drafting in my head as I experienced one of my most pleasurable flights in 15-odd years of schlepping to and from the United States of the Terrible to interview the rich and famous for The Times. In the bad old days — ie, before 10/8/06 — transatlantic travel had become a gruelling feat of endurance and survival of the pushiest. Negotiating that narrow passageway between the rows of seats, with my child-born hips further widened by a bulging rucksack (an object now robbed of its innocent backpacking past — “does my bomb look big in this?”), a crammed briefcase on one shoulder, and on the other a handbag large enough to hold . . . well, far too much stuff.
All of the above to be stored in the overhead locker, jostling for space with the equally bulky belongings of one’s fellow carthorse travellers. And then the anxiety before the stampede to reload everything on to your weary, jet-lagged body as you face the journey at the other end, when you know you will have to trudge in a nightmarish daze down endless corridors and interminable walkways towards passport control.
Now — Hallelujah! — I have known the joys of flying with only my credit cards, passport and a couple of books in a plastic bag, and I’m never looking back. It is possible, of course, that in years to come it may, once again, be considered almost dubious to travel so light. I may even be prevented from boarding flights to the States with nothing but a see-through bit of polythene carrying all my worldly possessions, the very sight of me clutching such a disposable thing setting off alarm bells in the departure lounge — “Oh! Has there been another threat that we don’t know about?” But having tasted the bliss of the unencumbered, I never want to be a carthorse again.
There was, for me, an additionally odd, circular sense of disbelief about this particular journey. Last summer, a few days after the terrorists’ July bombings in London, I was interviewing the fatwa-reprieved Salman Rushdie in New York. A year later, on the very day of the Heathrow drama, I was interviewing his great mate Martin Amis, also in New York, albeit in a secluded enclave in the Hamptons. On both occasions, current events inevitably featured in our discussions. If you believe, as I do, that literature can help to make sense of the life we are living, then the response of these guys should certainly command some attention.
I was born and brought up for the first ten years of my life in a Muslim country. I will be returning to that community in a small town in Kuwait — if I’m assured that it’s safe to do so — with my younger son this autumn. I hope to revisit the home I grew up in, and the garden, where I remember seeing the turbaned men, whom my father employed, downing tools and kneeling at regular times of the day, as the wailing muezzin called the faithful to prayer from their minarets. As a child it always struck me as a beautiful if mournful ritual. I never, ever, was inculcated with the sense that these people and their beliefs were in any way less than me and mine — although there must have been something in the ether even then, since I remember my parents spluttering when my eight-year-old self asked the visiting sheikh why he thought his religion was better than ours.
And so — I’m with Rushdie and Amis as I read all the sympathetic coverage in the liberal press about the poor, puzzled Muslims who feel that they are being picked on in airports and flights. If the parents of the young men who are attracted to this murderous martyrdom have lost control of their sons, then they must shoulder part of the blame. If the Muslims who choose to live in our society, with all its so-called tempting freedoms, do not protest against those who wish to destroy it, then how can they expect our tolerance? Why are the moderates not, in their hundreds and thousands, standing outside those mosques that are known to preach hatred, shouting “Not in our name” down their megaphones or “One, two, three, four, no more terror anymore”?
And where are the voices of the ordinary mothers and daughters and aunts from the Muslim community saying, “Enough. No more violence. No more deaths”, as did all those courageous women who helped to bring peace to Ireland? And if they, our Muslim sisters, are mute slaves to — or, worse, themselves in thrall to — the siren call of the death-wish culture, is there any hope for the rest of us?
Oh, and just by way of a postscript: you’ll never guess who was on my return Flight of Liberation, which ended in a two-hour wait for our baggage and a near-riot when there were no trolleys available . . . yes, Salman Rushdie.
All I want is a room somewhere in NY
New York feels like one giant nightclub these days, for which I blame Ian Schrager who transformed the modern hotel, after Studio 54, into darkly groovesome dens. In my thirties, I used to love staying in his places: The Paramount, his first “budget” hotel, (soon to re-open as The Hard Rock Hotel ) was wildly hip — with its dancefloor music and neon light shows, and that was just the lifts. But in my forties, I found that I was no longer enamoured of, say, “amusing” taps so fiendishly designed that you needed a manual to turn them on, and even the receptionists at The Royalton complained that working in the perpetual night-time of the lobby was “kinda depressing”. But every other hotel that I’ve tried post-Schrager suffers from the same aesthetic. On this recent trip (W Hotel on Lex), I was extended the sort of welcome that George Bush might expect were he to meet Osama bin Laden. All I ask for now is natural light, a friendly atmosphere and a comfy bed.
The art of terror
Reading Martin Amis’s short story about the last days of 9/11’s Muhammad Atta reacquainted me with the haunting power of a photograph. The expression on Atta’s face, quite different from any of his confrères, is one of chilling, implacable hatred. It’s an image as horribly iconic, in its way, as the ones of Charles Manson or Myra Hindley. How long, I wonder, before someone turns it into a shocking new artwork. Or would that be just too scary for everyone?
THE TIMES – Feburary 23, 2006
Last week’s television highlight, for those of us addicted to the desperate goings-on in Wisteria Lane, was seeing the sober-suited working mother Lynette Scavo transform herself into a reckless sexpot — bedroom hair, bustier, “shakin’ her ass” as she strutted along the bar counter — in a last-ditch attempt to out-floozy her demon (and, significantly, childless) female boss. Ever since my favourite Desperate Housewife returned to work, leaving her hitherto breadwinning husband to do the childrearing, we have seen her performing ever more frantic cartwheels to prove that she can be a high-performing advertising executive while still, somehow, being a supermom (or some sort of mom) to her three children.
There should be something ludicrously anachronistic in 2006 about her daily juggling battle; perhaps the one nod to modernity being that the boss of the agency is a woman, who is now insisting that Lynette accompanies her for after-hours drinking and dirty-dancing to prove her commitment to the job. But for all the brave talk in the past decade about family-friendly policies and work-life balance, women are still apparently so fearful about being penalised at work if they dip out to have children that we now have, to quote a front-page weekend headline, a “UK baby shortage (that) will cost £11 billion”.
According to a new study published by the Institute for Public Policy Research, we are on the brink of a demographic crisis with a shortage of children born to support future elderly dependents. Oh great. So now we league of fretters have another Big Worry to add to the list of international conflict, ecological disaster and, er, bird flu: the spectre of the swollen ranks of the Baby Boom Generation becoming Generation Z (for Zimmer Frame) threatening to capsize society as we know it.
I have some experience of dealing with Gen Z as my mother was 32 when she gave birth to me (a year older than I was when I had my first son), on her second marriage to my father, who was 42. He died when he was 75, having had chronic arthritis for almost as long as I remember. My mother died ten years later, at the same age, of breast cancer, which had first struck when I was 8.
The final year of her decline was a distressing unmerry-go-round of hospital stays, stints at home with mostly hopeless (and exorbitantly expensive) agency help, an introductory stay at the hospice, and — worst of all — a short-lived period in a nursing home. The idea of being in one filled her with dread but she decided to try it out, partly because if the experience proved tolerable it would give her daughter a break from all the organisation required in looking after her. The nursing home, however, did not prove tolerable.
It was a clean, genteel place, with a pleasant room and french windows opening out onto an attractive courtyard garden. But what my mother feared more than any physical deterioration was the idea of losing her marbles; her wrath when asked if she knew the name of the Prime Minister was something to behold. She managed maybe two or three evenings of dinners, surrounded by fellow diners who were senile for the most part, and this was her idea of living hell. On day four, she asked us — in desperation — to plan her escape, which we accomplished in an early-morning raid.
One of my friends, who once fitted into the demographic of mid-thirties IVF career women — and who now, happily, has two spirited daughters — and I used to fantasise about creating a franchise of retirement homes for the likes of us in our dotage . . . Hip Homes for the Hip-Replaced. There would be a soundtrack of Van Morrison and the smoking of dope as the preferred pain medication; a sort of chain of geriatic hippy communes. Child of my mother that I am, I can’t help feeling that’s all well and good for Generation Zimmer Frame but not so hot for Generation Ga-Ga.
Royal touch from ancient wonders
So those youthful ancients the Rolling Stones performed for free on the weekend at the Copacabana Beach in front of an audience of two million-odd people. I laughed out loud when I read the line “Fans said guitarists Keith Richards and Ron Wood waved from the penthouse (hotel) balcony occasionally”. It was the word “occasionally” that summoned the image of a Buckingham Palace mechanical and slightly self-conscious royal wave. I hope they gave as good a performance as I witnessed on Sunday from 90-year-old Doris, whose blind eyes sparkled as she warbled her way through Where Did You Get That Hat?
Recent photographs of Tom Cruise, who has been in the newspapers for some reason, has made me think of his role in the film adaptation of John Grisham’s The Firm. He plays a young lawyer who slowly discovers that the pukka firm he has joined is a creepy masonic league of money-filching ne’er-do-wells, and he is in it too deep to get out. The Cruise character eventually derails the firm by detailing his partners’ more innocuous practice of routinely overcharging their clients.
I have spent the past week investigating some routine overcharging that has been going on in my accounts. For instance, for the past five years I have been — unwittingly — paying for two separate insurance companies to protect the contents of my home. The problem with monthly direct debits is that unless you have the time to be super-vigilant, companies change their name and you can easily lose track of what precisely you are paying for.
The good news is that the insurance industry regulators take the position that the clients, who have put themselves in this hapless position, should be reimbursed by both companies to the tune of 50 per cent each. Fortunately, both the Abbey and More Than, between them, are willing to pay back the thousands of pounds I have been doubling up on. Not so Carphone Warehouse, which has been drawing more than £500 from my account over three years despite having documentation that the mobile phone in question was cancelled.
The best offer it has felt it incumbent to come up with is £100 out of “goodwill”.
Is it any wonder that I have become a Grumpy Old Woman?
THE TIMES – Feburary 11, 2006
Sarah Key’s method of stamping out pain is so successful that the Prince of Wales is a big fan. So is Ginny Dougary, after joining a week-long course that brought tears as well as laughter.
Sarah Key is at it again, in her white skirty-shorts, tanned bare legs and pearls, her trusty plastic spinal cord draped over one shoulder like an outlandish stole, urging her “babies“ (aka middle-aged patients) to: “Dance on your pain, rock ’n’ roll, bend like a willow, crouch like a bushwhacker, curl like a swastika, spread like a blow-fly, and suck that fluid into your discs . . . shhhhhhllleeeeeeeoooough.”
“The world of backs is full of bullshit” is another of the Australian physiotherapist’s pithy sayings but there are many more where that came from, as I discovered when I enrolled as a fully fledged back-sufferer for a week of the Sarah Key Method.
There were 11 of us on the course, of all shapes and sizes, varied professions and nationalities — one woman had flown in from the States — and we were all 40-plus, with the exception of one sporty whippersnapper who, despite being only in his early thirties, seemed to be the worst afflicted of the bunch.
Key worked exclusively in the NHS when she was living in London more than 30 years ago. She went private in 1976 and now travels between Sydney — where she has her own practice — and the Hale Clinic in London. She is best known for using her feet to dig deep into stubborn tissue and for treating the collective back problems of the Royal Family, in particular those of the Prince of Wales, who is one of her staunchest supporters and, indeed, is backing her attempt to extend her treatment farther through his Foundation of Integrated Health.
Key uses her feet because she can feel more with them than with her hands. It’s a technique that she hs been honing for 20 years, since she first learnt it in Switzerland. She has treated thousands of people in that time from all over the world and says her success rate with “simple lower-back pain is astonishingly high, though complex problems have to be viewed over the longer term”.
This time last year I wrote in Body&Soul about my first meeting with Key when I interviewed her at Tresanton, Olga Polizzi’s haven of a hotel in Cornwall. It was on the eve of Key’s first Back-in-a-Week course at Tresanton and there was only a handful of patients. I sat in on the first morning’s meeting and every story of a life half-lived because of debilitating pain was dismaying in its own way.
What struck me most forcibly was how much the back-sufferers had sacrificed to be there. These were not people who were even comfortably off: an unemployed car mechanic who lost his job because of his ongoing back problem, who was funding the week with his redundancy money; a young mother, unable to pick up her toddler, who was risking further credit card debt. There was only one person, a Nike executive, for whom the fee at Tresanton of £ 3,000-odd pounds would not have created considerable financial hardship.
But then over the long years of searching for a cure most of the sufferers had already spent that sort of sum on the endless, dispiriting round of cranial osteopaths, chiropractors, acupuncture, surgery, hypnotists and so on.
At that time, through brisk walking and daily exercises, I considered that my own bad back was pretty well sorted. But then Sarah gave me a couple of sessions with her feet and, on the second one, something unexpected happened. As I sat in one of the rather uncomfortable chairs, I felt an extraordinary whoosh of relief. My posture was suddenly radically different. Instead of the pinched sensation I must have learnt to live with, I was sitting in a way that felt completely new — but with a dim memory of it being familiar from a long, younger time ago — undistorted, relaxed, and at ease.
In the weeks that followed that mini-revelation, I felt more supple and spring-out-of- bedish than I had for years. But to maintain that new sensation of lightness, it was up to me to take charge. She gave me a “back block”, a blue Perspex oblong brick about a foot long, over which one is supposed to lie — stretching out the spine, sucking fluid into those all-important discs dried up from the hours of sitting hunched over a computer — twice a day, for the rest of one’s life. And guess what? I didn’t do it.
Therein lies the strength and the weakness of the Sarah Key Method. Her amazing foot action is only one aspect of her method. There is the aforementioned back block, which is already used in some forms of yoga but which she has modified for her own treatment. There is also Key’s approach, which marks her apart from others in her profession.
She is passionate about demystifying what is wrong with you, encouraging each back sufferer to understand his or her specific problems through straightforward diagrams and using vivid, unobfuscating language. She overturns all the usual shibboleths of the back profession and this sometimes feels scarily counter-intuitive: we are urged to bend down whenever possible; told that it is madness, indeed, to think that we are protecting our backs by avoiding using them; and that it’s actually good for us to lift heavy things, and so on.
Far from feeling alternative (where you tend to be urged to listen to your body), this feels more bracingly Mary Poppins-esque: our backs are naughty, stubborn children who need a good talking to and, when properly handled — with a daily regimen of back block and a spoonful of appeasing exercises to help the medicine go down — they will amaze us with how well behaved they can be. In the real world, however, the key question is whether you are the kind of person who is self-disciplined enough to maintain the eternal vigilance necessary to prevent your back, once it is on the mend, from going again.
When I returned to Trensanton as a particpipant in the Back-in-a-Week course, a fair number of my fellow sufferers were Times readers who had read the original piece in Body&Soul. Before, I had been a detached observer; now I had my own anxieties about feeling raw and vulnerable. The previous month, my only remaining adult relative — my older sister, Anne — had died unexpectedly, at the age of 59.
Almost as soon as I heard the awful news, my back went into spasm. The last occasion I had felt such excruciating pain was when my mother was dying and it seemed uncannily similar, almost as though the body itself had an emotional memory.
So there were tears that week but also a lot of laughter. It was instructive and helpful to hear about other people’s setbacks and to be reminded that one was far from alone in experiencing the frustrations of trying to cope with life when every movement causes pain.
I recalled how I had sat on the floor for an hour and a half for a recent interview with Bob Geldof because there were no suitable chairs. A chief executive talked about how she would sometimes have to lie down in meetings, which may have been awkward but would have been more so if she weren’t the boss.
Each day started at 8am with a slide-show lecture. The room was covered with mattresses, pillows and blankets and we were encouraged to lie, sit, stretch and stand whenever we felt uncomfortable. There were initial individual consultations, with Key scribbling over our backs with a marker pen to pinpoint the problem areas, which were then photographed.
Towards the end of the week, these images were flashed on to a screen as we listened to the diagnosis of one another’s cases and Key’s suggested remedies. The exercises that would strengthen one person’s back, for instance, would be disastrous for someone else. By day three, what with Key dancing on our pain with her feet and us rocking and rolling on our mats, most of us were feeling sore and, in some cases, spectacularly bad-tempered; the atmosphere of cheerful bonhomie replaced by monosyllabic grunts. This, we were told, was entirely to be expected since the work is so intensive.
This time round my back seemed more resistant to Key’s earthy foot action, although I was certainly aware of the different, almost musical notes of “sweet pain” when her heel hit the trouble zone and the dull drone from the surrounding areas.
One of our group was actually sobbing on her mat during an exercise session, although it was unclear whether this was emotional or because the movements were too hard for her. Another member put her back out, mid-stretch, and Key had to whack it in with some force. So although there were many jolly snapshots from the week — I particularly liked the moment when the magazine editor, something of a style icon, said the only way she could be persuaded to wear a pillow strapped to her back was if Prada designed the cover — there were constant reminders that back pain really is no laughing matter.
If anyone had come expecting instant results, they would, we were warned, be disappointed. On the penultimate day, Carmel Neale, who had attended one of the earlier Tresanton courses, addressed our group. For seven years she had felt like a “mouse on a wheel” trying everything from surgery to Pilates in her search for a cure, but with no success.
In the months after being released from Key’s care, progress was literally painfully slow, but she persevered with the daily exercises and the back block and now, a year later, her life was transformed; her only medication a glass or two of sauvignon blanc and occasional anti-inflammatories. She had been on hiking holidays and sailing trips, had moved house, and her back had coped throughout.
As Key said: “You must remember that you are all on a journey. You’ll be able to poke your head out but then you’ll probably need to retreat back into your shell.” Two months on, there are mixed reports from our group. The whippersnapper is on three-months’ sick leave from work at Key’s behest, and a couple of the women say that they feel in worse shape than they did before.
The magazine editor is making terrific progress, however, and I’m fine (my back pain, as I believed, was tied up with the shock of bereavement). Almost everyone speaks highly of Key: she has given them hope; they feel that she really cares and takes them seriously; and for the first time they have a diagnosis that makes sense.
The main obstacle to recovery, it must be said, is that although Key is determined to teach her method to more physiotherapists — her hope is that it will be taken up by the NHS to enable those who can least afford it to benefit — she, herself, cannot be cloned and for most of the year she could hardly be farther away.
Two initiatives are needed to discern whether the Sarah Key Method could and should be made more widely available: thorough ongoing research into why her approach seems to work in many cases where all else has failed and the facility for more physiotherapists to be given the opportunity to observe and be trained by her. Both of these will be taking place soon under the auspices of Prince Charles, who wrote the foreword to her Back Sufferer’s Bible (Vermilion, £9.99). “Visualising what is happening inside the back makes it more logical and easy to see why Sarah Key’s exercises really do work,” he wrote. “After all, I should know. As one of her guinea- pigs over the years I can vouch for their effectiveness, if not claim some credit for honing the final product.”
Since HRH has been seeing Key for years, he as much as any back-sufferer would agree that there is one certainty with a problem back: it is sure to be be a long and chequered road ahead. For, as Sarah Key says, and who better to say it: “Backs are buggers.”
THE TIMES – October 25 2005
The Reverend Billy of the Stop Shopping Church leads our correspondent on a campaign against the multinationals.
There’s a man in a cream polyester suit and dog collar causing a bit of a rumpus in Oxford Circus. “Brothers and sisters,” clap clap, he goes with his pale outstretched hands. “This is the SHOPOCALYPSE! Stop your shopping NOW! You are BOMBING Bahgdad with your shopping! It is YOU who are responsible for the SWEAT in the sweatshops! For this — Huh, yuh, yuh, huh (wild eyes rolling) — THIS is the SHOPOCALYPSE, brothers and sisters.” The youthful tourists stopped in the doorway of the large shop — one of the many retail chains proliferating worldwide — are grinning and taking photos of this happening with their mobile phones. Security guards appear; the police, who have other reasons to be around, mutter into their walkie-talkies. Reverend Billy, founder of the Stop Shopping Church, sweat dripping off his face, exhausted by the raging torrent of his words, backs off.
We have spent an unusual day together. It started in a relatively low-key manner when I attempted to interview William Claire Talen, the fake Reverend’s real name, assisted by his wife, Savitri D, in a private members’ club frequented by the media. We had been corresponding with one another for several months via e-mail and telephone. I had read his entertaining book — What Should I Do if Reverend Billy is in My Store? — heard the CD of his choir, and seen the DVD. We had reached an agreement that for the purposes of the interview itself, he would attempt to be plain old Bill rather than his Southern fire and brimstone preacher-man persona. But the Rev — like the ventriloquist’s dummy who wants to show who’s really in charge here — keeps threatening to take over.
I want, in my boring journalist’s way, to pin down this mesmerising fellow in detail, biographical data, facts, provenance. What was it, precisely, that led this particular forty-something New York actor, writer and political activist to transform himself into a pastiche evangelical, with a church and a choir and disciples. In other words, I want to blow his cover.
In one of our conversations, Bill had mentioned that about half of his 40-strong gospel singers were in recovery from the trauma of being the offspring of ministers or preachers. Was he one of them? Well, yes . . . but, actually, no. His father was a banker who loaned money to farmers so that they could buy seed and tractors, and — for reasons that are not forthcoming — was always being sacked, which meant that the Talens were forever picking up and moving on from place to place in the mid-West.
He says his parents were Dutch Calvinists — and so I assume did not employ the florid rhetoric of the evangelical Bible-bashers that Bill has appropriated for his act. Were they strict and abiding about their religion? “No, they were a-bidding,” he laughs. “In the sense that they said, ‘I bid you do this and I bid you do that.” Were Mr and Mrs Talen consumed with the idea of sin? “The only sin IS consumption, ” he says lightning fast.
When he was around the age of 6 or 7 — the sort of age when a child may wander away from his parents and climb up a tree in the back garden to gaze at the stars in the night’s sky and lose himself in the inexplicable wonderment of it all — the young Bill’s imagination was terrorised by his Dutch Calvinist instructors. “I was told that a very old man will decide whether I will go to H eaven or to Hell for eternity when I die, “ he recalls. “And I might die at any moment. And I never got a description of Heaven but I got a HELLUVA description of HELL! ‘You will be standing in a lake of fire and you will be burning forever.’ And I asked, ‘You mean like putting my hand in the stove and hurting my hand but I can’t take my hand off?’
“They said, ‘No, you can never take your hand off. It continues and continues and you don’t get to die and you stand there for an eternity in utter pain and shame’.” Well, that’s lovely. “And this is such an extreme nightmare to tell a child at that age that it fries out your circuits. It makes you a consumer of that imperial God. You don’t DARE have an imagination. You don’t dare go back out to those stars and say: ‘What is this?’ That is tyrannical,” he says. “But somehow I did get back to that place — to that tree in the back yard.”
Bill’s escape from the lake of fire into the tree of life was via the well trod route of teenage rebellion: “The civil rights movement and the protests against Vietnam brought me out back into the stars.” He started hitch-hiking away from home to go to Jimi Hendrix and Grateful Dead concerts and on one occasion ended up in jail when his parents put out a missing persons alert: “And I’ve been going to jail ever since! ” The teenage years were followed by years of hitchhiking between the East and West coasts of America. He once spent ten months in Hollywood, where he sought out likeminded counter-culture figures such as Harry Dean Stanton and Spalding Gray. But the endless round of auditions was dispiriting, “finding myself in lobbies with 40 other Kurt Russell lookalikes all up for the same armoured car driver part doing a fart joke in Beverly Hills Cop I”. Still, the rejections were good fodder for his own monolgues which he acted out back in New York City.
The volume of Bill’s speech has been steadily rising and I am moved — brothers and sisters — to ask him whether he always talks so loud. This is a mistake since he now starts to yell at the top of his voice, “AMEN! ALLELUIA! PRAISE BE!” and then walks over to the window, opens it and preaches to the passers-by below: “SAVE YOUR SOULS, CHILDREN! SAVE YOUR SOULS! AND YOU, SIR! KEEP YOUR CREDIT CARD OUT OF YOUR WALLET. AMEN!” “Come back, Billy,” Savitri says quietly. No more coffee for you, dear, I think to myself.
Ah, coffee. We will return to that vexed theme later. Reverend Billy’s Church of Stop Shopping is part of a broader church which encompasses the concerns of writers such as Naomi “No Logo” Klein, film-maker Morgan “Super Size Me” Spurlock, Kurt Vonnegut, John Pilger, the McLibel Two and all the thousands of anti-global capitalisation protesters around the world.
Billy started out preaching on his own in Times Square, targeting Disney as public enemy No 1. But through his theatre friends and contacts, and because of the peculiarly American nexus between right-wing politics and religious fundamentalism, he hit upon the subversive notion of creating a ministry of his own to mimic the tools of what he considers to be the opposition.
Savitri explains why these sorts of actions are the new theatre. “We don’t think that theatre is changing the world any more,” she says. Apart from the very occasional new work, such as Angels in America, and the annual Arthur Miller revival, “where are the political plays today?” she asks. Even if the subject is political, there’s a feeling that the theatre experience itself has now become such a sponsored corporate event that it dilutes or even taints what you see. “So we ‘politicised fools’,” Billy says, “are trying to perform in the contested spaces between the private and the public domains.” The couple talk about the Madison Avenue advertising culture and how the marketing gurus are now looking to the right-wing, apocalyptic “Christ’s Cowboys” of the South for tips on how to run their campaigns. “For many years the advertising industry resisted the televangelists because they were considered to be insufferable lowbrow hicks,” Billy says. “But now, with George Bush, we’re beginning to see the ‘Hickification’ of Uptown New York. And together they’re going to take over the world.” Who are you talking about when you say “they”? Billy: “Starbucks.” Savitri: “ Marketing in general. Corporations. Celebrity and pop culture. Politicians. All of them are wondering what it is these Christians are doing which is getting them all this power.”
McDonald’s, The Gap, Nike, Wal-Mart . . . I have read or seen exposés of their work practices, but Starbucks? What’s so wrong with them? “Shall I take this one?” Bill asks Savitri, who nods. “We feel that Starbucks is the villain because it epitomises the neo-liberal lie. They have managed to persuade us that they are a green company — even though they are 98 per cent not fair trade. And they have mediocre coffee and mismatching furniture so they look a bit beatniky — and a few avant-garde grace notes — but it is really a manipulation in appropriating the idea of rebellion. It’s FAKE bohemianism and, more importantly, it’s not a fair trade company even though they use it as an advertising thing.”
The spokeswoman from the Fair Trade Foundation in Britain was unable to supply me with the percentage of Starbucks coffee in this country which is Fair Trade certified (less than 2 per cent worldwide according to Starbucks’s 2004 annual report), but says it was one of the first high-street coffee chains in this country to offer any Fair Trade coffee at all. And Starbucks themselves say it is their goal to pay premium prices for all their coffee.
When we come to do our “action” in the Oxford Street area, there seems to be a Starbucks on every street corner. Billy and Savitri have agreed to show me what it is they do that so alarms the Starbucks bosses. In California, for instance, a restraining order has been placed on William Claire Talen banning him from coming within 750 feet of the edge of any Starbucks property.
Saivtri: “They use violent boyfriend language so that Billy was accused of ‘stalking’ the so-called ‘victim’, Starbucks. They use laws which were designed to protect women to keep Billy away.” Billy: “I am enjoined by the Superior Court of Los Angeles from stalking, disturbing, annoying or in any way sexually . . .” No, not sexually? “Oh YES! Sexually abusing . . .Oh yes, oh yes.” But in what way have you sexually abused Starbucks? “I put my hand on the cash register,” Billy says. He now refers to it as “the genitals of the giant”. “And, listen,” Savitri says, “the very same day that he got this injunction there was a woman in Los Angeles killed because she couldn’t get a restraining order on her boyfriend who had been beating her for months!”
In the first Starbucks we visit, it is Billy and I who will be performing “Sponsored Love”. I have agreed that he can touch me in the interests of veracity. We sit down and he starts: “Oh Ginny, Ginny, I love you so much. I want you to take off from The Times and elope with me. I adore you Ginny!” He is gazing into my eyes and stroking my arm and it is like being serenaded by a crooning Elvis when he does his talking bit. But my over-riding sensation is exquisite English embarassment. And it’s about to get worse: “Ginny, GINNY, we’ll be in our cottage on the Isle of Wight and spend our lives together, (voice gaining urgent momentum and — oh no — he is down on his knees!) I LOVEYOUILOVEYOU — brought to you by . . . Nike Sportswear. I love you, brought to you by . . . The Gap. I love you, brought to you by McDonald’s. I’m Lovin’ it, McDonald’s Now with new salads! — since McLibel and Morgan Spurlock.”
Round the corner and we’re in another Starbucks. This action is rather more effective, since it involves a real couple — Billy and Savitri — playing themselves and having a big marital tiff. In the course of the “argument” Billy berates his wife for her addiction to frothy lattes which are being sold on the backs of impoverished workers in Guatemela, they storm out of the shop, she is apparently in tears, they embrace, and one of the girls behind the counter says: “Oh look, they’re making up. bless.” But the stunt didn’t fool everyone. Two men, who did not wish to be identified, thought it was a set-up mainly because Billy was so preposterously over-the-top that he must be an English actor’s idea of an American. A woman who is there with her student daughter, however, thought Billy was so excitable he must be drunk. Both of them were aware that Starbucks had been criticised for not being an exclusively Fair Trade coffee supplier but had gone there because it was convenient and there were no alternatives. Billy and Savtiri would like us to boycott Starbucks, but that’s not going to happen.
Starbucks has become the McDonald’s of the middle classes; it’s quick, easy, and it’s everywhere. But the congregation of the Stop Shopping Church is also on the move. As the Reverend told me when I moaned about how embarrased I felt doing my “action”: “The ocean’s rising, Sister Ginny, it’s crashing through the windows, so STOP BEING POLITE!”
In 2005, Ginny Dougary wrote the lyrics for a collection of songs about David Blunkett’s life and recent times. These were showcased at the Soho Theatre under the working title of David Blunkett The Musical; a collaboration with the composer MJ Paranzino and producer Martin Witts who was behind the award-winning one-man-play, Hurricane. The actors were Mark Perry, Robert Bathurst, Lynne Davies and Zigi Ellison. There was a positive response from the invited audience which included: Sir Terence Conran, John Sergeant, Ann Leslie, Suzanne Moore, Deborah Moggach, Julie Myerson, Theodore Zeldin and Alvin Stardust.
This is what columnist Suzanne Moore had to say about it in her diary in The New Statesman:
“I went to see the run-through of David Blunkett: the musical/the other night, which superbly takes the piss out of the Sextator goings-on and has great tunes as well. It was brilliant to see Boris Johnson (played by Robert Bathurst) rapping and Petronella Wyatt (Zigi Ellison) as his “ho”. But it reminds you that, as lovely as he is, you don’t actually want people like that running the country.”
David Blunkett The Musical is still in development; following please find a list of links to stories about the show.
David, Kimberly, Boris and Petsy: it’s showtime
You’ve read the book, browsed the tabloids: now…
London run for Blunkett the musical
Blunkett’s life to be turned into a musical
Rise and fall of Blunkett in song
The David and Ginny show
Blunkett – The Musical on its way
The tragic tale of a man who lost EVERYTHING for love…
Blunkett story has it all
Sex, power, betrayal? It’s “Blunkett: the Musical”
THE GUARDIAN – July 4 2005
Women In Journalism started as an accident … well, certainly by a sort of fluke and I was there to witness the unlikely uprising. In 1993 Eve Pollard, then editor of the Sunday Express, was also that year’s appeals chairman of the Newspaper Press Fund, and hosted a fundraising evening with a panel of high-profile speakers. The topic she had chosen for discussion was something along the lines of Are Women Getting their Fair Share in the Media?.
At the time, I was writing a book about women in the media (The Executive Tart & Other Myths) and had gone along hoping I might pick up some good stories. It was one of those veal-coloured corporate dining-rooms, and there was nothing in the air-chilled atmosphere to prepare any of us – and there were a lot of us, I noticed – for the heat of the impending debate.
I don’t remember much about the individual speeches but the outcry which followed them was unforgettable. One woman after another got to her feet and told a story about the antediluvian attitudes in her workplace: unequal pay; unequal promotion; lack of women in the boardroom; family un friendly policies. Up stood several very senior respected figures, well-known editors of glossy magazines, and junior reporters – women from newspapers on the left and right, broadsheets and tabloids.
As more and more diners clamoured to have their say, the mood in the room began to take on the emotionally-charged feeling of a revivalist meeting. The refrain was always the same: No, women are not getting their fair share and we’re as mad as hell and we’re not going to take it any more. “You do know that if you take on the men,” one newspaper veteran warned darkly, “there will be blood on the floor.”
At the end of the evening, Eve suggested that perhaps what we needed to do was to form some sort of lobbying group – like women in film and television and advertising. Did anyone think that was a good idea? A resounding cheer. Was anyone interested in get ting involved? Hundreds of hands went up. And that was it.
I was roped into joining the fledgling committee, something I had never done before or since. Amanda Platell, who was then doing something ultra-senior in the Mirror group, made a room available for our initial meetings, and passed the mantle on to Linda Christmas, who ran the post-grad journalism course at City University. We first became official in Eve’s glass-walled eyrie in the Express. Mary Ann Sieghart said, “Right. Let’s all put in £25 and that’ll get us started.” (There were about 30 women crowded around the boardroom table.) I remember Deborah Orr snorting magnificently at this and scribbling a cheque for £25 plus an O.
We were – and still are – a very disparate bunch of people, with our own particular hobby-horses, but united with the feeling that change was long overdue. I was amazed, for instance, while researching my book at how very few women there were in the top ranks of broadsheet newspapers: they existed as editors of colour supplements or Living pages, but were rare in politics, news, foreign, business, sport – all areas which have real clout within a paper. As for the top two jobs, there were only two women editors compared with more than 60 men (the tabloids were only marginally better). Back then, we were yet to see a female editor of the Independent, Independent on Sunday, the Evening Standard, the Daily Express, the Sunday Telegraph or the Sun. It was still highly unusual to see women as deputy editors, whereas now it almost seems unusual not to.
The other area I was keen on monitoring was the way women are written about in newspapers. Other journalists were more concerned about not being sidelined after having children; pressing newspapers to adopt a more reasonable approach to balancing work and family life; finding a way to exchange information about pay and working conditions, or networking in the post-Fleet Street social wasteland.
There were 300-400 women at the launch party of Women In Journalism held in the library of the Reform Club. For the first couple of years, we seemed to have all our parties in similarly august, rather masculine clubs. (I suppose it must have added to our sense of storming the bastions.) On that night, among the festivities, we also started the more sober business of forming groups to tackle the different issues.
Ten years on, or more, I would have to say that although we did take on the men, there was no blood on the floor. There was some initial sneering from one or two male columnists – that was to be expected – but the great majority of newspaper editors were keen to show that they were on side. (Partly to send out the right message to the senior women journalists that were on their papers, but also because all editors are looking to attract more women readers). We did get to do a campaign on the portrayal of women which was widely picked up on and debated, and there has been research into family-friendly policies, the prospects for older women journalists, the ratio of women to men in conference, and so on. There are regular seminars with terrific speakers on everything from How to Ask for More Money? to How to Keep Your Job? (post babies or post menopause).
There have been founder members’ lunches with international guest speakers; a surreal dinner in the revolving restaurant of the BT Tower when editors pledged hefty sums to support Women In Journalism; a memorable drinks party hosted by Gordon Brown in No 11 Downing Street where he learnt that feminist journalists were anything but unfriendly; dilemmas and public arguments (Piers Morgan, a big WIJ benefactor, berating Rebekah Wade, then chair of WIJ, for being sanctimonious; should we be doing a candlelit vigil for WIJ member Yvonne Ridley captured by the Taliban?; what will we do if Germaine Greer and Suzanne Moore turn up at the same function?)
It’s been fun, instructive and necessary – and we’re still going strong. Here’s to the next 10 years.
Tina Weaver, Editor, Sunday Mirror and current chair, Women In Journalism
A lot of guys in the newsroom have a laugh about Women in Journalism. But men have gathered in pubs and golf courses for years, so why shouldn’t women get together? As the chair, I’ve seen how we are an influential networking organisation, offering support and celebrating achievement. It’s very important we are not seen as a very right-on, politically correct, anti-male organisation. Things have changed enormously from the days when women in newsrooms were few and far between – and even then, were just given the girly, soft jobs. Among the first things I was asked to do on the Daily Mirror in 1992 was to dress in a gold bikini and be fired out of a cannon at a circus. Obviously, I told them where to stuff that idea. But gender is not even an issue anymore, as each reporter is judged on their own merit. Women get a good crack of the whip, whether it’s covering wars, politics or the Asian tsunami. WIJ has largely achieved what it set out to do, getting more women in newsrooms and the challenges facing female journalists are those facing any female in employment: family friendly policies in the workplace. The fact Trinity Mirror has a female chief executive and a female national editor shows how far the industry has come.
Eve Pollard , Former editor of Sunday Express and Sunday Mirror, author, honorary president of Women in Journalism
I was the founding member of WIJ. We wanted to campaign for equal pay and to improve the way women were written about in the press. We’ve been more successful in some of those areas than others. One of the first bits of research we did was to find out how many women were included in decision-making conferences. We’ve helped as women are now included far more. That’s not just down to WIJ, but we’ve done our bit. We’ve also helped with equal pay.
Unfortunately, newspapers don’t write about women any better than they used to. It’s a hard one because there’s a whole culture to change. It would be good if we looked at the way women were reported in the press and had some effect. We could be a neutral place to conduct debates and discussions, not only for women but the whole industry.
It is still easier for men than women but with every year, it gets less easy. We now have a constant three or four female newspaper editors, which is very different from when I was a number two. For women coming into the industry, that must help, psychologically.
I’ve had a fantastic time in my job and it’s my duty to pass that down and help. If there’s an old boys’ network, there should be an old girls’ club.
Sue Matthias, Deputy editor, New Statesman
When I joined the Independent on Sunday’s founding team, I was the only senior woman. Even in 1990, it felt old-fashioned, particularly after joining from the Observer, where there were more. In national papers, women have moved upwards into senior positions, but when it comes beyond that, to board level, there are still very few women up there.
We are moving towards a more balanced industry, but we’re not there yet and it would be nice to see more female editors. One of my roles when I joined the New Statesman in January was to increase the female circulation by bringing in more women writers. So in the election campaign, we published the New Stateswoman to reflect and explore the women’s vote. Overall, there has been a feminisation of newspapers, particularly when you look at the direction of the Independent and the Observer, where news is being featurised.
The old stereotypes of women doing features and men doing hard news is changing and we’ve seen much progress over the past 10 years. That old kind of discrimination is being phased out, but it’s noticeable that women in newspapers disappear over the age of 50.
Polly Toynbee, Commentator, the Guardian
I joined WIJ on the grounds that maybe it would want to create a better type of journalist, with higher standards and different perspectives than the macho style that has always run Fleet Street. This was a mistake; it was certainly not how things turned out to be. It’s just about girls networking, not about quality, standards or taking a different approach. Women are only really interested in it as a job promotion scheme. WIJ has made no stand for standards or quality because they are proud of women like Eve Pollard, who have been editors of pretty disgusting papers. They regard doing things just like the boys as a triumph. Sun editor Rebekah Wade has been as dreadful as anyone could be – as dreadful as the men before her. In the past 10 years, the portrayal of women has not changed much in the popular press. The Daily Mail is trashing women every day; their attitude is to tear them down for being too fat, or too thin. Being a woman, if you make it to the levels of being a political commentator, you are rather privileged, but the lobby is still a very macho, male-dominated atmosphere. Female journalists have a responsibility to look at the world through different eyes, not by mimicking men. They should think how to better reflect women instead of joining the lads’ culture.
Sarah Sands, Editor, Sunday Telegraph
I only ever went to one party. I like the idea of female solidarity but in practice women – as individuals – have different aims. Moreover, working women are all short of time and I had to miss the meetings because I was always stuck at the office.
Mary Ann Sieghart, Assistant editor and columnist, the Times
Today it’s more of an embarrassment among male executives if there aren’t women writers in their pages. When I started there wasn’t a single female voice in the op-ed pages of the Times, now there isn’t a day without one. Likewise, I don’t always feel I am in a tiny minority in morning conference. On average though, I still think women are paid less than men, because they are not good at asking for pay rises. A WIJ seminar we did with a role play about how to ask for more money was very popular.
Glass ceilings are still a real problem in national papers, although less so in magazines. Looking at the number of senior executives, I think about 80% are men. Women are not being promoted enough and their views are not taken seriously enough in terms of commentary. Today all papers are targeting female readers. while men are more interested in what are thought to be women’s and family issues. Yet the depiction of women hasn’t changed much.
Suzanne Moore, Columnist, Mail on Sunday
I was a member of WIJ at the beginning. I went to the initial meeting when Eve Pollard and Amanda Platell were there. I’m not a member now, not because of any ideological difference. I just sort of drifted away.
I did one session where you give a talk and people ask questions. I spoke about being a columnist and found the kind of questions people asked were impossible to answer. “I work at Cross-stitch Weekly but want to move across to a knitting magazine, how can you help?” I couldn’t.
I think there’s a networking idea that has permeated the media and actually it’s bollocks. You get a job through what you write. I’ve never got a job through networking. Lots of people think if you turn up to the parties and meet the right people, it will all fall into place. It doesn’t.
The thing WIJ does which is good is people should know how much other people are paid. If you ask for more money they treat you as though you’d made some terrible faux pas.
I was always confused about what the group’s aims were. They talk about family-friendly policies, are they a union? Is it just a networking organisation? Is it just a place to ask for advice? Women in Journalism does have a place but what it could offer me now I don’t know.
I’d be happy to get behind any real campaign. You have to ask, who are the people getting promoted? Are women getting their jobs back after maternity leave? What is being done about sexual harassment? Women in newspapers should push much harder on those issues in their own work environment.
Linda Christmas, Former head of journalism, City University
WIJ was born in my little office here at City University. Journalists didn’t meet because Fleet Street was a diaspora and we thought, wouldn’t it be nice if we could get together? Journalists aren’t really joiners; they’re not good at getting together in a group. They’re too independent-minded.
What we did, very consciously, was get together a group of women who had succeeded, otherwise we would have been earmarked as whingers. That was wise. When we opened our mouths, we had to be informed, rather than speak from anecdotal experience.
I definitely want to see WIJ producing more good research because they’re all highly talented people with access. For me, the research we’ve done is the most important thing because it gives us gravitas. We were born out of a rant but now you have to prove your point.
I want to think about the “so what” factor. If women are just going to go on churning out the same news and the same newspapers, there’s no point. We have to be able to add value as women in executive roles.
The Financial Times has a job share for their news editor between two women. When women wanted to work in a job share in the past they got the gardening page. This is really great, because it means you can’t say anymore you can’t take a job because of the hours.
Jane Johnson, Editor, Closer magazine
There weren’t many female role models in senior national newspaper positions when I started out on my local paper the Southport Star 14 years ago. Although I was inspired by the success of trailblazing News of the World editor Wendy Henry and could look up to columnists like Lynda Lee-Potter, there was a sense that women had to fight tooth and (manicured) nail to get to these coveted positions. Now it’s different – there are three female red top editors. And, spurred on by this, many more ambitious young female reporters going into the business. But I’d say there is still a lack of women on backbenches, the production engine room of a paper is still seen as the macho end. In my experience women are perfectly good at writing brilliant headlines and doing arresting lay-outs. Now I’m fighting for men’s right to work in the increasingly challenging and competitive world of weekly magazines!
Sarah Kilby, Freelance journalist, Former editor, Woman and Home
I became involved in WIJ in 1995. My background is in magazines and I was concerned that very few women managed to get up to the board and they often disappeared after the age of 30. My major concern was about mentoring. I was a magazine editor at that point and was very concerned that not enough women were managing to get into the industry, especially on the business side. The seminars have been key. Women have a reputation for not sharing knowledge but that’s not actually true. Women at WIJ have been very generous with their experiences, happy to make themselves look silly by sharing their mistakes for the benefit of others.
Deborah Orr, Columnist, Independent
I was initially involved in WIJ but typically my job in journalism was so all-consuming, I didn’t have enough time to contribute. In the very beginning, there was no agenda to join for but it seemed to be shaping up as a networking organisation and that’s why my interest waned. When I first started in newspapers at the Guardian in 1990, there were hardly any women. There was Melanie Phillips, the women’s editor, and a few subs. In the past ten years, there have been lots of breakthroughs with women becoming editors but that was changing anyway. WIJ was more a consequence of that change than a driving force behind it.
I really find WIJ very peripheral. I have no awareness of what they’re doing. I think a campaigning group would be a good thing. A lot of women, even those who think they are feminists, don’t understand what it’s like to have children and how much it changes things. Men’s awareness needs to be changed but so does that of young single women.
The whole culture of journalism is macho and a lot of the time women are encouraged to act like men. The worrying part of WIJ was their idea that you needed to have a girls’ network to rival the old boys’ club. You have to act differently to change that culture rather than acting the same way. There is a dichotomy. You’re trying to challenge a culture that expects to work 60 hours a week, bring up children and still find time to campaign for change.
Lindsay Nicholson, Editor, Good Housekeeping, Chairperson of WIJ, 2002-2004
I wasn’t part of the original founding group. I came along later. WIJ are famous for their fantastic parties and I went along to one of those. Those parties are fabulous because you do really network. Women haven’t built up the sort of networks men have over the years and to underestimate their importance is naive. Women have been marginalised by not having access to their own role models.
At WIJ parties, the fact that editors like Rebekah Wade and Eve Pollard not only show up but are really active and talk to people who haven’t yet reached their position in the industry is extremely important. WIJ hasn’t changed how the media operates, that was changing anyway. It has provided a fantastic support for women coming into the industry.
The situation in 2005 is very different from that of 1995. A lot has changed but there is still an old boys’ network. Although the situation has dramatically improved in the past ten years, hopefully in ten years time WIJ will be irrelevant and men and women will be exchanging ideas freely without their having to be a gender split. The ideal would be if WIJ became an irrelevance. If women felt supported, confident and integrated enough, access to role models and turning up to parties and seminars would be unnecessary. WIJ is an organisation working for its own dissolution.
Jean Rafferty, Freelance journalist, Secretary WIJ Scotland
Eve Pollard came up to Edinburgh and threw a massive meeting there. I wanted to be involved because I’m an old-fashioned feminist and I agreed with what they were trying to do to keep women on the agenda. We seem to go forward then we step back. People think women have won equality and we haven’t.
I think WIJ was particularly effective when it was producing research. They did change the industry because with all those women’s contacts, they got things out to the public. Many high ranking women have been on the WIJ committee and that’s validated what we’re trying to do. Women’s subjects are on the agenda more in all newspapers but we’ve got an awfully long way to go because news reporting is still very male. Wars are reported in terms of casualties and “our boys” while humanitarian areas aren’t commented on.
WIJ could do more but the problem is most people on the committee are volunteers. WIJ can’t change the world on its own. The talks they put on in London are fantastic. I’d love to do the same in Scotland but we’re not a big enough pool. I just don’t have the time.
A lot more changes need to be made, especially in the way we report things. I’m a features writer and that’s regarded as a soft option but I’ve written about punishment beatings and I’ve been to Rwanda. The fact that the news agenda is still set by gung-ho men who settle things down the pub is frustrating.
Louise Chunn, Editor, In Style magazine
I was a founder member of WIJ and became involved because I could see working on a newspaper and looking around me, there weren’t as many women as men and very few women who were middle aged. I wondered where they had all gone.
Women do have better jobs but there are still issues to deal with. There still aren’t very many senior women. Not all women want those top jobs but it still seems they don’t get as many opportunities as men. It’s important to remind people there are differences.
Things have changed. There has been a trend towards the female columnist. But in general, it still comes out that men are better at asking for more money or are just given it.
WIJ might like to think it’s about research and campaigning, but it’s also about meeting other women in journalism who inspire you or who you can get a job through. If we were in America we’d say, it’s a networking organisation, get over it. Because we’re in Britain, we don’t. They think it’s somehow spurious, but it’s good. WIJ should be as multi-faceted as it can be without spreading themselves too thin. It should reflect its membership without too many senior members saying it should be about campaigning.
· Interviews by Phoebe A Greenwood and Rob Harris
THE TIMES – May 25, 2005
Sir Terence Conran has designed a Peace Garden at the Chelsea Flower Show. Now he wants to do a Jamie Oliver on our “horrid” homes.
SIR TERENCE CONRAN has been intent on making his own political waves in recent months. There was his letter to The Times applauding Jamie Oliver’s campaign to improve school dinners and asking whether “our rather lethargic politicians” could be similarly jolted into doing something about “our appalling housing”.
He was one of three prominent Labour donors who refused to sign a letter supporting the Prime Minister — whom he refers to these days as “George W. Blair” — in the run-up to the election. And in designing the Peace Garden at this year’s Chelsea Flower Show — commissioned by the Imperial War Museum to mark the 60th anniversary of the end of the Second World War — he also takes the opportunity of stating his fervent opposition to the war in Iraq.
Today he seems becalmed and saddened but mainly by personal rather than political events. The sculptor Sir Eduardo Paolozzi, a great friend and early mentor of Conran’s, has finally died after a lingering half-life following his collapse five years ago: “We never quite knew whether he’d become completely brain-dead. You’d go and see him and he’d sit there and you’d talk to him and talk to him and talk to him and sometimes you’d get a sort of flicker of something but . . .”
Directly after our interview in his Butler’s Wharf office, Conran and his wife, Vicki, and his son, Sebastian, are off to the funeral and “I shall be dreadful, pouring tears . . . I’ve got two large white handkerchiefs.” He pulls them out of his pocket like a mournful magician.
We started by talking about David Blunkett — Conran had come to see the showcase of the musical I’ve been involved in writing — and how he’d cried during some of the songs (Hasn’t He Done Well For a Blind Boy), despite not having had much sympathy for the new Work and Pensions Secretary before. And his eyes start to water again: “It’s very interesting that your emotions should connect to your tear ducts, isn’t it? Vicki ’s the same. If there’s a sad ending to a play or a film, we’ll both sit there and . . .” dab-dab with one of the handkerchiefs.
He seems the same old Conran behind his vast desk, reclining in one of his stylish chairs, puffing away on his cigar, in his pale blue shirt, elegant navy suit jacket to one side. There’s a loose arrangement of blue sweetpeas in a clear vase with a blast of sunshine lighting up the water; terracotta pots of lavender on the ledge outside his window.
But when I say that he looks thinner than when I last saw him a few years ago (and a bit older, at 73, which I don’t say), he tells me that he’s got a burst blood vessel in one eye which is “rather uncomfortable, especially as this is the only eye I can see out of.”
This was the first I’d heard of Conran’s semi-blindness; an arresting affliction for someone whose world revolves around the visual: “I was turning metal on a lathe at the age of 13 and a bit flew out and stuck in my eye — which got me out of National Service,” he says. “But I think an eye for two years’ National Service is a fair exchange.”
It’s probably inevitable, with the death of such a dear old friend pressing on his mind, that our conversation keeps returning to the past. There is something comforting — a form of resummoning — to recollect incidents with someone you have loved when you first knew them. Paolozzi was Conran’s teacher at the Central School of Arts and Crafts, as it was known then, when he was just about the only male student among “33 virgins from the suburbs”.
Conran and Paolozzi lived close to one another and shared a workshop; the young student taught his tutor how to weld and, in turn, was inspired to transform junk metal into his own fledgeling innovative designs.
“Eduardo was also really the first person who got me interested in food,” says Conran, who is slightly dismayed that he’s known these days as a restaurateur rather than as a designer. “He’d cook things like squid-ink risotto which, in the 1940s and early 1950s, was unheard of. I can remember him teaching me how to slice an onion; the manual dexterity that was needed to do it properly.
“He was a most generous man. If he came to stay with you, he’d arrive with an armful of stuff: prints, pieces of cast sculpture. His pockets were always filled with every sort of little, interesting object that he would pick up. He’d sit down with my children and they’d make heads in clay together.”
As a boy, Conran was a dreamy, rather solitary child who liked nothing better than to wander through country fields with his butterfly net; collecting flowers and pressing them. His mother, Christina, was convinced that her son would grow up to be a botanist or lepidopterist. During the Second World War, his family moved for safety from London to Liphook, Hampshire, where there was a large arms dump which the Germans discovered and bombed. The young Conran was evacuated to an aunt who lived near Plymouth, and the bombs followed him.
Meanwhile, back in London, his father’s gum copal business — not far from the Butler’s Wharf area that Conran has colonised and made fashion-able — was bombed along with the family home. “Anybody who was involved in World War Two, certainly as a child, felt ‘Never again’,” he says. “So probably this is partially why I feel so strongly about Iraq. I mean, who am I to say, as George W. Blair did, that I have any sort of right to go and get rid of somebody else’s dictator?” Conran’s first “rather facetious” suggestion for the Peace Garden: “Two big green burial mounds, one with a plaque on it saying T. BLAIR, the other with GEORGE W. BUSH… Yes, it’s peace because we have got rid of two warlords.”
He feels a great deal of fury towards T. Blair, something almost akin to the cold intensity of a duped lover. “It is complicated because I had made a television film for his ’97 election and was initially very, very, very enthusiastic about what new Labour could do for this country.
“In the early days, it was rather like the young Kennedy coming to power in America. You felt an energy and a hopefulness and a freshness . . . and then it started to wane away.
“And the other thing that I was really upset about was the university top-up fees. How can you stand on a platform of education, education, education and then make it that much more difficult for people to get that education they so desperately need?”
Incidentally, he adds, this is not the first time that he has made a public stand against England’s involvement in a war: “I was very, very, very angry with Thatcher at the time of the Falklands and had been asked to some lunch at Downing Street and publicly said, ‘I’m not going’.”
The Peace Garden call from the Imperial War Museum came last year, just after he had completed another garden. The challenge for him, as someone so opposed to war, was how to use the garden as a way to provoke people to think. “How to come up with the appropriate symbolism when it’s a garden of remembrance, really, not celebration . . . quite the reverse,” he says.
Conran was sitting at the dining table of Barton Court, his Georgian country home in Kintbury, Berkshire, gazing absent-mindedly at the plate in front of him, when he realised that the symbolism he was searching for was staring straight back at him. It was his family crest, going back to his paternal grandmother “whose family was quite nobby at one time”, a dove with an olive branch in its beak standing on twisted serpents and the legend In pace ut sapiens. “From peace comes wisdom, and I thought, ‘That’s it!’” he recalls.
So his Peace Garden has an olive tree, and white ceramic doves made by a student at the Royal College of Art (where Conran is provost) emerging from an interesting triangular dovecote (“I would have loved to have live doves but you’re not allowed livestock”), a new frothy white rose called Remembrance, more white flowers with a scattering of scarlet poppies, water flowing with a pool at the centre for reflection, “about half a million pebbles to symbolise all the lives lost by the UK and Commonwealth countries during the war”; a large wall at the back with Peace carved into the stone in about 40 languages and Thinking Men’s Chairs, an early design by Jasper Morrison, who happens to be the son of the sister of Conran’s most recent ex-wife, Caroline.
Although he is famously frugal and believes in using food (at home, I presume, rather than in his restaurants) which is well past its sell-by date — another legacy of the war years — Conran is also generous with his time and his charitable foundation (the Design Museum; an Indian charity set up to protect street children and give them schooling; teaching at colleges in deprived areas such as Peckham).
One of his recent ventures is coming to the rescue of Embassy Court, a Thirties Modernist masterpiece designed by Wells Coates, which was languishing dangerously — “a complete death trap” is how Conran describes it — and disfiguring Brighton’s seafront. He was approached by an indomitable group of women who live there, known as Bluestorm, and agreed to do all the initial work (calling in surveyors, concrete specialists, meetings with Brighton council and so on) free. And, of course, where Conran lends his support, investment tends to follow.
I told him that one of the Bluestormers had mentioned some story about Conran becoming entranced by the building, years ago, when he was in Brighton on a dirty weekend. First of all, he asks: “Who told you that?” And then: “ Oh really . . . I have absolutely no memory of it. I think I’ll have another cigar.” Which may be the closest Conran gets to blushing.
What does Conran make, I wonder, of the survey that found Ikea to be Britons’ favourite shop? “Yuh, and they have fights in it as well,” he says. “I think what it says about us is that maybe the work I did in the early years of Habitat [which opened in 1964 and was sold to Ikea in 1992] — my belief that if you offered people things that were nicely designed and available at a price they could afford, that this has percolated down to the mass, mass market . . . which is where I always hoped it would.”
Conran has a nice line in gentle character assassination. I think this has more to do with an odd social ineptness arising from his shyness — he once described the most striking note of the scent on my wrist as “sweat” — as well as a slightly detached, absurdist response to the world. However his statements sound in print, in other words, I don’t believe they are meant to be snide. Of Marco Pierre White, for instance, with whom he had dined the previous evening, he says: “It was lovely. He talks and talks and talks, very enthusiastically . . . so it was quite a restful evening.”
Of Ingvar Kamprad, the founder of Ikea (which Conran pronounces, correctly, one presumes, as Ick-ee-ahh), he says: “He’s an extraordinary man, quite apart from being one of the richest men in the world.” Didn’t you tell me that he was rather frugal? “I would say that was a totally insufficient description. He’s totally demented about frugality. He would never ever spend money on anything for pleasure.
“Part of his frugality is that he doesn’t believe in paying tax — which is why he lives in Lucerne. So he has this enormously complicated structure in this enormous business which is all to do with avoiding paying tax. Not in a dishonest way,” he emphasises.
He recalls taking Kamprad and his wife out to lunch a few years ago and “Ingvar came in chewing tobacco — because he’s still quite peasant stock — and he took it out and placed it on the side of the table [pulls a face] . . . and I said to his wife, ‘So, are you having a good time in London? What are you doing?’ and she said [sing-song voice], ‘Oh yes, I’m buying silver,’ and Ingvar said, [crossly] ‘No you ’re not! You’re buying silver plate.”
When I tell him that I own a Conran Burnham sofa [the dimensions of a ship] and now an Ikea sofa of more or less the same size and shape but at a fraction of the price, Conran sounds genuinely amazed and impressed. “Really! Really! Ikea’s doing one the same size! Well, you know, I keep saying to Ingvar, ‘For God’s sake, Ingvar, put another 5 per cent on the price and give service.’ Because the service is so bad.”
Jamie Oliver’s success with his school dinner campaign has fuelled Conran’s long-term concern about transforming the way in which people live. It’s not nearly enough for him that the swollen ranks of the middle classes — or even Ikea’s “mass mass market” — are able to assemble “plain, simple and useful” furniture (his William Morris mantra) to fill their houses, if those houses are so woefully ugly and inadequate for most people’s needs.
“We should have a public debate about why the average developer’s houses are such appalling, ticky-tacky little boxes.”
For many years Conran has wanted to make a film, taking the average family on a low income and looking at how they live: “The horrid visit to their bathroom first thing in the morning, down the stairs to this terrible kitchen, going on terrible public transport, taking their children to this terrible school . . . how it is, actually, for most people in this country,” he says.
“And then showing how it could be if thoughtful, intelligent design was used in every way. What public transport could be like, what a local school can be like, what an office can be like. To show the contrast. This is how it is for most people . . . and this is how it could be at the same sort of price level.”
It is hard to think of anyone who would not wish Conran well in this campaign, but it is — of course — an expensive one to fund. He is in talks, as they say, with the BBC, with one particularly enthusiastic producer keen to create a BBC model house. Architects, such as Norman Foster, have been contacted. And he has been trying to persuade James Dyson to design an all-purpose domestic unit that produces hot water, cool air, refrigeration, all the services you need for a house which would then significantly reduce the cost of building it. “We’ve been talking to a company in Japan about it,” Conran says. “But the investment to make it happen is enormous.”
I get the feeling that if T. Blair could rise to this challenge, Conran might even be able to forgive him. “We know in our gut how much we are all affec- ted by our surroundings. How we feel on sunny day, for instance, and when it’s grey and gloomy out.
“If you’re constantly frustrated by the way things work, then it obviously has an effect on you mentally and physically. We know this but I don’t think it’s ever been said to Government, ‘Look! You are responsible for the welfare of the nation. Why don’t you pay more attention to this subject?’
“This is what I’ve been trying to do all my life: to put things in front of people that are a thoughtful alternative.”
Conran once said that he loathed the expression “lifestyle”, which is interesting since he may well be considered the inventor of it.
I wonder what he thinks of Martha Stewart: the antithesis, I would have thought, of the most successful (in her own career) of his three ex-wives, Shirley Superwoman Conran. While her most famous line was “Life is too short to stuff a mushroom”, Martha’s reply would surely be that life is all about the stuffing of a mushroom. “Actually, they’re very similar,” Conran says. “I know Martha a little bit. Both of them are deeply ambitious. Basically Martha fuels her ambition by stuffing mushrooms. But what she’s really interested in is ‘Martha Stewart: the powerful, influential woman with her own television station and magazines and money’.”
So would you be appalled to be called the Martha Stewart of England? “Oh, I have been,” he says. “Don’t worry, and it doesn’t please me in the slightest. But where she has made teaching the American middle classes something which I suppose she believes in, I’ve never seen it as my role in life to be an educationalist. I’ve just done the things I enjoy doing.”
THE TIMES MAGAZINE – May 14 2005
Singing in a choir is a real joy — especially when you can also spread a little harmony, says Ginny Dougary.
For reasons that I am unable to explain or to justify, the physically and mentally handicapped have always left me suspended in a state of indecision. I see a blind person struggling in the Underground and start arguing with myself: “Get off your seat and go to his assistance immediately.” “But what if he resents interference?” “So what? Better to offer than to stand aside.” “But I’m in a hurry and he may hold me up.” “What kind of excuse is that? You’re just procrastinating until a better person than you jumps in.” “Yes but, no but . . .”
Worse than this, I feel clumsy, awkward, uncertain of how to behave around people who are profoundly damaged in some way. If I notice that someone who is clearly unbalanced is walking towards me, for instance, I will invariably cross the road. This fearfulness is not something that marks the rest of my life and I am quite often ashamed of it.
A few months ago, I had a small breakthrough, and this is what this story is about: how sometimes when you do something you enjoy to help yourself, you can end up helping others to enjoy themselves. It all started with the choir I joined two summers ago and wrote about in these pages not long after. In the intervening time, the Brighton City Singers has swollen from half-a-dozen people in a living-room to sixty fully paid-up members, with another twenty or so part-timers.
How do I love the choir? Let me count the ways. Of course, I love having been there at the start and seeing it grow. I love its organic, unstructured nature: the way people disappear for a while because of work or family commitments or travel and return even after an absence of six months or a year; the curious affinity with people with whom you might not normally have very much else in common; the feeling of almost familial recognition when you look around what is now a crowded rehearsal room every Wednesday night and see faces that were there at the very beginning, and others from all the different stages as the choir has developed.
I love its democratic all-are-welcome spirit: there are those who read music and, mostly, those who don’t; the youngest member is in her teens; the oldest are in their seventies. There are dreadlocks and pink locks and piercings. There are couples and best friends, and mothers and daughters, and fathers and sons. There’s a chef, car mechanic, auctioneer, theatre manager, builder, DJ, postman, clothes designer, piano tuner, heavy metal musician and a duo of air stewardesses. There are people who came nursing a broken heart or who needed a break from caring for sick partners, and those who are in terrible pain who have discovered that singing is the best pain relief. There are members who felt propelled to “get a life” beyond their jobs and seem happy that this is the life they got.
The last time I wrote about the choir it was about the joyousness of the actual experience of singing: how good it felt for your body and your soul. There are definite parallels between the minimal but exacting exercises of Pilates and the breathing techniques and correct posture that is required for you to sing out effectively. It has also been well documented that belting out a song, surrounded by other voices in harmony, creates a sense of wellbeing and, indeed, euphoria. I compared it then to the headiness of falling in love, the exhilaration of catching the perfect wave, the melting sensation of eating chocolate. If you work at it, there is a deeply satisfying balance between discipline and abandonment. But there are also other benefits from being involved in a dynamic community choir. From our earliest days, the Brighton City Singers have been keen on performing; flaws and all. We have sung at weddings, fundraising concerts and — at regular intervals — we busk along the seafront or in the gardens of the Brighton Pavilion.
Some of our most upright members have been recruited from seeing us busk, even though we are quite often joined by intoxicated fellows — sometimes surprisingly tuneful — of no fixed abode. (Like most mixed choirs we are always on the look-out for more men.) The choir director once heard a genteel woman complain to her husband: “You know, they let drunks sing with them”, which rather made my heart soar.
What is striking is that the combination of singing and the experience of community seems to draw people out of their shells. I have seen shy, reserved members blossom and gain confidence. It is almost as though finding and strengthening their voices has liberated their buried selves. There is also something oldfashioned and village-like about the car pooling, the sharing of childcare, the unobtrusive acts of kindness, people volunteering for this or that activity, and we come up with any excuse to sing and dance and party.
A mere six months after we really got going, the Brighton City Singers were performing in the Brighton Fringe Festival. This year we have a generous grant from the Brighton and Hove Arts Council. This, too, is a learning curve: developing the skills to approach funding bodies effectively; booking venues; organising tickets and publicity, lighting and sound.
Our new production, Vocal Tango, is an evening of specially commissioned music by local Brighton and Hove composers — some of whom are members of the choir — with tango dancers strutting their stuff for the title piece and the choir singing as instruments. We are also performing songs from David Blunkett: The Musical for the first time before its West End run, since the show happens to have been written by the choir’s music director, MJ, and me.
But there has been a rather more unexpected highlight, which takes us back to where I started. Towards the end of last year the choir decided that it was important to extend our sense of community beyond ourselves. In December, we went carol-singing to collect money for the Martlett Hospice (£369 over two nights! Yes, we were chuffed). And every month this year we have some sort of activity booked: Lewes prison in June (almost as hard to get in as it is to get out; we think this is ingenious forward-planning to line up more men); a centre for the blind; a conference of care workers for the mentally challenged; a gig in Martlett Hospice.
A few months ago we were booked as the live entertainment for the annual party of vulnerable adults — those with acute mental and physical disabilities — and their carers. We lined up in the room and took in our audience: maybe 20 tables, each one with a patient and his or her supporter. In some cases, where the disability was particularly out of control, patients had two or more carers. A great effort had been made to transform the utilitarian setting into something more festive: colourful banners and balloons and streamers; home-made food on a long trestle table; a disco for after our performance. In one corner was a giant screen on which flashed the words for our grand finale: Dancing Queen by Abba.
As we started one of our rousing gospel numbers, a young man became agitated and started to jump around his table. He was wild-eyed and drooling, and was gently escorted back to his seat. But after a couple of numbers, he seemed happy to make a dancing circuit around his space, shadowed by his carer. It became clear that he was having the time of his life. Around the room, blank-faced men and women in their wheelchairs began to smile and clap, and to move around in their seats. One or two of the less severely disabled stood up and did a wobbly waltz with their carers.
There was such a powerful atmosphere of warmth and shared pleasure in that room, and I can honestly say that we have never had a more appreciative audience.
I hope that they’ll book us again. As for me, this experience was the best way of getting over my hang-up that I can imagine.
The Brighton City Singers (www.brightoncitysingers.co.uk) will be performing in the Brighton Fringe Festival on May 21 at the Vocal Tango concert, St George’s Church, Kemptown. For tickets, call the Brighton Dome box office on 01273 709709
THE TIMES – February 19, 2005
Prince Charles is a fan; so is the Queen but physiotherapist Sarah Key’s approach to backs is thoroughly down to earth.
Twang. Ke-dung . . . a sudden lurching sensation in your spine, like a lift crashing through 30 floors, accompanied by the unshakeable belief that if you try to stand up your body will snap in two, several long moments of blind panic, then days drawing into months of different and ultimately ineffective treatments.
That was my first experience of what is commonly referred to as a back problem: one which seems to have afflicted, at some point, and to differing degrees of pain, almost everyone I know regardless of how active or sedentary they are, slim or overweight, up-tight or relaxed.
My own journey round my back took place all over the country when staying with various friends my back would go and, naturally, they knew just the person I should see in Ludlow, a cranial osteopath; in Aldeburgh, where my host had taken to lying on a book before bedtime to straighten his spine, a remedial masseuse; a physio here, a physio there; and in one particularly ghastly episode where I stumbled and completely seized up in a busy street in Wales, an injection in the bottom.
The only thing that seemed to work for me in the end was a daily regime, suggested by a trainer, which combined a lively walk with a set of yoga-cum-Pilates floor exercises.
Then Sarah Key came along. A few months ago I had the opportunity to witness the Australian globetrotting physiotherapist and her legendary feet legendary, that is, in elevated back-sufferers’ circles do her stuff on a handful of patients who had booked into the Hotel Tresanton, in the Cornish village of St Mawes. Since my back was sorted, or so I thought, I was to be an observer for part of the week-long programme rather than an active participant.
Key has been the Royal Family’s physiotherapist since 1983 a detail which appears in all her literature and the Prince of Wales has written forewords to her books. In her Back Sufferers’ Bible (2001), he concludes: Visualising what is happening inside the back makes it much more logical and easy to see why Sarah Key’s exercises really do work. After all, I should know. As one of her guinea pigs over the years I can vouch for their effectiveness, if not claim some credit for honing the final product.
What with this royal imprimatur, the quietly luxurious setting at wonderful Tresanton and the £3,200 price tag for a four-and-a-half day course, I had assumed that my fellow guests would be captains of industry and the generally well-heeled. But on this count, as on several others, my expectations were to be confounded.
Despite her Harley Street credentials (she is, incidentally, a registered member of the UK Health Professionals Council) and regal connections, Key worked for years in the National Health Service and is very much an Aussie in her meritocratic approach. On the day of my arrival, for instance, I found her on her hands and knees applying herself energetically to a team of 20 to 30 staff. This was partly to prepare them for dealing with her patients but also to encourage them to address their own back problems.
Later, on a one-to-one session, she demonstates how she uses her feet which I note are impeccably smooth and clean standing with the full (but, mercifully, light) weight of her body on the manager’s bare back, delving and digging around to release what she calls the sweet pain.
Key learnt to use her feet when she went on a course in Switzerland in 1982. The fellow who taught me was a hugely fat Israeli man who got the smallest girl in the group, put her down on the floor and sort of danced along her back like Yogi Bear, she says. When he came to my back, I was stunned by how natural and earthy it felt.
But where her teachers restricted the use of their feet for patients suffering from failed back surgery syndrome, Key found that she could actually feel more with her feet than her hands and began to adjust her treatment for all her patients, although I did feel a bit outlandish at first I knew it would raise eyebrows.
A year later, after treating a succession of ladies-in-waiting, the Keeper of the Privy Purse and private secretaries from the Royal Household, Key laid her feet on the Queen for the first time. How on earth did Her Royal Highness cope? Oh, she’s quite pragmatic, Key says.
There’s no one I haven’t put my feet on with the exception of the Queen Mother. And Prince Charles has been your most abiding patient, why? Well, he alternates between extremely active phases and then an awful lot of travel which is hopeless for backs. He’s sleeping in a lot of strange beds and sits in helicopters, and he had tried a lot of things before I came along. I think he did have a breakthrough but it’s a matter of maintenance really.
Her hope is that the Sarah Key Method, as it were, will eventually be taken up by hospitals and, with this in mind, she has started giving master classes to physios who are interested in her work. The proceeds from these sessions go to the Prince of Wales’s Foundation for Integrated Health, which Prince Charles set up in 1998 to spread the word about non-mainstream medicine with predictably negative responses from conventional health workers.
Key, like the Prince, is scoffed at for not being professional enough. Her critics, she says, think it’s slightly ludicrous that I use my feet because it breaks the barriers of what’s accepted as normal.
They also criticise non-mainstream medicine for not being evidence-based. People trot that out as a reason for doing nothing, she says. The only evidence a patient is going to care about, is the evidence that his back is feeling better. The following morning, Key’s group assembles and the tears start to flow almost immediately. There are three men and two women, only one of whom fits my preconceptions: Ian, 57, a senior executive who, as he puts it, flies around the world persuading athletes to wear Nike.
Dave, a Royal Mail accountant from Derbyshire, has had a bad back since 1991 when he slipped a disc. He has had surgery and every sort of treatment, and has been off work for three months. He’s worried that he won’t be able to fly again or drive because of the pain. The pain that has been stalking you every minute like a gremlin, Key mutters sympathetically.
While Ian tells his story, a young woman to his left starts weeping silently. He may be sporty he skis, cycles and plays golf but he’s so weak that he can hardly push a door. All my life I’ve been afraid of having children because I wouldn’t be able to play with them, he says. Now he has young twins. There’s nothing more important to me than to sort this back out and enjoy the next 20 years, he says.
Andrew is 32, single, unemployed and lives at home with his mother in Kent. He used to be a car mechanic and that’s when his troubles started. He took painkillers and anti-inflammatory medicine but there was no improvement. He bought Key’s first book and did some of the exercises but was unable to gain long-term relief.
His doctor and the other practioners said there was nothing wrong with him. Did that make you feel mad, Andrew? Key asks. Pretty much so; I felt that I was wasting their time. She asks him who paid for him to come on her course. My last employer, he replies. My redundancy money. All the women are now in tears. It’s been a long, lonely vigil for you, Key says, as her own eyes begin to well and she goes off to grab a tissue, saying: Dear me, I didn’t expect this. Ian asks, Are you going to be able to fix him? Yes, Key whispers. I think so.
Nathalie, 31 from the West Midlands, works in local government and has two young children. She turns to Ian: What made me upset was when you said that you didn’t like getting down on the floor and playing with your children and I long to be able to do that, she says. Her back pain is aggravated by a pubic dysfunction which makes her feel as though she’s been kicked between the legs by a donkey. She apologises for the brutality of the description. Now she’s frightened of doing anything, to the extent that she daren’t even have her daughter sit on her lap. I feel I’ve lost my belief to get it right by instinct and self-management, she says. Only because you’ve had it humiliated out of you, Key says.
Evelyn, 47, from West Yorkshire, has had a serious back problem for 17 years. She’s tried massage, exercise, osteopathy, acupuncture, a corset with metal rods (Dickensian! Key snorts), bed rest in a specially designed bed, and sugar injections allegedly to strengthen ligaments. At one point in this saga, she didn’t sit down for a whole year. She works on a production line rather than an office job specificially so that she can stand all day. She and her partner have cashed in their savings for this course and put their house renovations on hold.
So with the exception of Mr Nike, Key’s patients are ordinary people, on quite low or no income, dealing with unbearable pain. Key told me that she gets people who are at the end of the line, who have been given up on everywhere else. Dave said that when he went to see her for the first time, she did more for him in a couple of hours than he has experienced in years of treatment.
I left Key’s back sufferers, fairly confident that at least some of them would experience a breakthrough, since the previous day I had undergone one of my own. The first time that she balanced on my back, I was rather distracted by the unfamiliar sensation and, yes, the thought that these feet had made contact with all those Royal backs. But the next day, as her toes and heels found what they were looking for, the sense of release a wooshing, almost electrifying expulsion was so powerful that it made me feel giddy with relief.
Afterwards, I found myself sitting back in a chair in a position that felt so wonderfully relaxed and right I am usually perched on the edge, poised to take flight or twisted awkwardly that it made me cry to realise how much I had been adjusting my body for so long to cheat the pain. As Key would say, I had been letting my back become like an alter-ego or a spoilt child that you let get its own way. I’ve promised her and myself that next time, I’ll take my spoilt child in hand and check it in to her Back In A Week programme, as a participant this time, not an observer.