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Reading between the lines

Germinating feminism

Germaine Greer's assault on 'lipstick feminists' is a bit rich, says Tessa Mayes, from a pioneer of the notion that the personal is political

  • The Whole Woman, Germaine Greer, Doubleday, £16.99 hbk

Germaine Greer is furious about women's low level of pay, domestic violence, the exploitation of women by giant cosmetics companies and the narcissistic women who go along with it. She is just as mad with modern-day 'lipstick feminists' who have abandoned the 'real' issues. Her rage against the reduction of feminism from social liberation to personal beautification seems like a refreshing antidote to the recent self-obsessed guff about vagina-worship.

It is not surprising that a veteran of the women's liberation movement should want to pour a bottle full of astringent over some of the young lipstick feminists. But what are the origins of this focus on cosmetics rather than contraception, on ablutions rather than abortion rights? Why, classic feminist writers like Germaine Greer, of course, who pioneered the notion that the personal is political.

For all her complaints about the pettiness of today's feminists, Greer continues to worship the personal as a political statement. She berates women who undergo cosmetic surgery because they conform to men's idea of the ultimate woman with inflated breasts and svelte thighs. So what should women do? Defenders of Greer in the press claim that she is not telling women to stop improving their looks. However, if all forms of self-improvement smack of male-enforced images, as 'the high priestess of feminism' suggests, then not messing with nature seems like the only conclusion to be drawn.

It is the flipside of lipstick feminism. Both claim that what you do or don't do to your body is a way of making a statement and an impact on the world. For Greer, wearing your face naked is showing 'self-definition'. You can't win on this ticket. To many modern-day feminists it seems that sticking your boobs in a man's face is also a way of showing empowerment, flaunting your flesh in the name of 'self-definition'. Either way, it's all about me, me, me!

Greer's rationale is that women should define their own physical image in opposition to an overwhelmingly masculine culture, rather than conform to it. She cites the dominance of football and misogynist rock musicians as proof that women still need to fight for recognition. Culture has become 'far more masculinist than it was 30 years ago'. Excuse me, are we living on the same planet?

As football has become more culturally important, so it has been subjected to a more 'feminised' etiquette, from the no-swearing, no-smoking rules in the all-seater stands to the ban on hard man tackles on the pitch. Rock music's dinosaur bands like AC/DC ('She likes to crawl my lady all around the floor on her hands and knees/Ooh, because she likes to please me') are as good as dead, and Robbie Williams - looking as cute, emotionally vulnerable, and made-up as his teenage girly fans - rules the roost.

But if that is not bad enough, Greer implies that what we need is even more girliness throughout society. Ever keen to stress the personal, Greer screams that women's emotional grief is the path to liberation. Apparently the important thing about the reaction to the death of Princess Diana was that it was a cry by women who identified with a woman, expressing their feelings in a way that only women know how. She concludes: 'If we can find ways of harvesting the energy in women's oceanic grief, we shall move mountains.'

In fact the institutionalisation of emotion has already begun. It's not just Tony Blair's caring tone of voice, but the fact that we are encouraged by everybody, from the media to the education system, to let our emotions run riot. Britain's enormous fleet of new counsellors are imploring people to pour out their hearts all over the place.

Greer's call to arms ends up being pretty conservative. It encourages us to become engrossed in our own feelings and to worry about our image. She may say this is part of the process of politicising women; but since when did navel-gazing help people change the world?

If personal behaviour and exploring feelings are the key to political change, as they are in Greer's world, it's not surprising that 'new' feminists should see swearing and physical adornment as doing their bit for the cause. 'Old' feminists may not like it, but they started it. If the personal is political, it follows that doing whatever you want in your private life becomes the definition of a radical act.

If women should be outraged about anything these days it is this narrow philosophy, not perfume and size 32DD silicone implants. And as far as women's personal habits go I can only leave you with that old standard: free ablution on demand - as early as possible and as late as necessary!

Classical musing

  • The Test of Time, Andrew Holgate and Honor Wilson-Fletcher (eds), Waterstone's Booksellers, £1.99 pbk

In essence The Test of Time is a promotional device for Waterstone's bookshop chain but, cynical or not, it's an inspired idea and a great read. Contributors like JG Ballard, Julie Burchill, Roy Hattersley and Tom Paulin outline their own ideas of what makes a book a classic. From political correctness to relativism to a simple rejection of the importance of quality, the essays taken as a whole show the main cultural trends of today.

If The Test of Time represents a discussion in itself, it is also responsible for the most heated rows I have had recently. With the authors' choices of 'classic' works ranging from Middlemarch and Jane Eyre to Peter Pan and (God help us) Bridget Jones's Diary, there is little option but to offend and be offended whenever you mention what you are reading. Indulge and enjoy.

So what is a classic? 'There's something terrifying about a book whose greatness we will have no choice but to accept, because generations of critics have gushed with all the authority at their disposal. How difficult to be spontaneous when reading a book we know we'll simply have to end up loving', writes Alain de Botton. While according to Richard Hoggart 'the term can be useful. But today its use is extremely muddled. On the one hand some people mistrust it because it sounds "elitist".... A foolish misconception hiding a fact such people do not want to face: that some books are better than others'.

The reason people choose their classics are as interesting as their choices. ICA director Philip Dodd chose Frankenstein 'because it gave birth to one of the few modern myths; because it has the greatest chase in fiction; because it transmutes terror into tenderness'. André Brink chose Ulysses, 'that inimitable fanfare for the common man, in which centuries of accumulated storytelling erupt in the miraculous and exuberant celebration of a single day'. On the other hand, Sarah Dunant said of Joyce's epic, 'Intellectually and historically I completely understand why this novel is a classic - the problem is every time I try to read it I can't get through it. Sorry'. Janice Galloway is more bullish in her denunciations of what she considers to be overrated classics: 'I'd rather give President Clinton a blowjob than read Lolita, Lady Chatterley's Lover, La Nausée or The Well of Loneliness again. The whole set, mind, or no deal.'

Some contributors might have done well to note the title of the book. Quality literature ought to be more than a contemporary fashion statement - something which can only be judged out of immediate context. In too many cases here, the established classics are criticised subjectively - the 'it didn't do anything for me' school of thought. Other contributors explicitly, and more reasonably, assert that they are listing their favourites, rather than the best. The most infuriating are those who seem incapable of distinguishing between the two.

Irene Miller

Dome mongers

  • In Defence of the Dome, Penny Lewis, Vicky Richardson and James Woudhuysen, Adam Smith Institute, £12 pbk

Rumours abound that film producers are reconsidering the plot of the next Bond movie (in which Pierce Brosnan stops an evil genius from blowing up the Millennium Dome), for fear that cinema-goers will empathise more with the baddie. Hardly surprising really. In a recent survey 98 percent of people thought that the money for the Dome could be better spent.

While Penny Lewis, Vicky Richardson and James Woudhuysen acknowledge that 'drug pushers are more numerous and popular than fans of the Dome', they do not follow the predictable defensive line. Instead the book is a morally charged exposition of the benefits of the millennium celebrations. At a time when art for art's sake is seen as having no social benefit, the authors ask 'what's wrong with that?'.

Characterising, and in some instances caricaturing, the two sides of the Dome debate as 'whingers' and 'enthusiasts', the book charts the influences of each, lavishing scornful attention on the whingers. However, the authors are no government lackeys, and they use the force and momentum of their arguments to insist that the celebrations could, and should, be even better. In a thorough critique of the core discussions around the Dome, they take the highly unusual step of recommending alternatives and improvements. This is important, since they charge the whingers with not engaging in the debate in its own terms.

My main criticism is that the book too often conflates two aspects of the debate - the Dome as metaphor and the Dome as material reality. By engaging in the debate on both levels the authors sometimes portray any attack on the form of the Dome as an attack on the aspirations represented by it, so discarding constructive criticism along with the sour grapes carping. Furthermore, their recognition that 'the Dome sums up what British society feels about itself' can become a catch-22 bind. Surely, given a society filled with pre-millennial gloom, all the practical recommendations under the sun won't necessarily make the celebrations more dynamic?

It is about time that alternative views like these attempted to occupy the high ground. Unfortunately they don't, of course, but In Defence of the Dome is a good example of what design aspirations might be like if those excited about the millennium had the whip-hand.

Austin Williams

Crisis-ridden capitalist

  • The Crisis of Global Capitalism: Open Society Endangered, George Soros, Little, Brown, £17.99 hbk

Top currency speculator George Soros' pessimistic view of global capitalism today is that it is more like a wrecking ball than a self-correcting pendulum. It used to be that the more negative a view of capitalism one had, the more you were interested in creating a better society in its place. But these days the speculators and right-wing ideologues have cornered the market in pessimism about the free market. The difference is that their negative assessments point not towards positive change, but to the need for a more orderly and restrained market. As Soros says, 'I do not want to abolish capitalism....I want to prevent the global capitalist system from destroying itself'.

Soros' demand for curbing speculation sounds like a case of 'poacher turned gamekeeper'. It is informed by bad experiences of speculating on the Indonesian rupiah, where President Suharto's unexpected resistance to an IMF package cost Soros dear when the currency continued to fall. As a proponent of free trade, he is obliged to recognise that 'the countries that kept their financial markets closed weathered the storm better than those that were open', especially Mahathir's Malaysia. For Soros now 'the challenge is to keep international financial markets stable enough to make capital control unnecessary' - so that speculators like him can continue to make a safe killing.

James Heartfield

Jimminy tapeworm

  • Filth, Irvine Welsh, Jonathan Cape, £9.99 pbk

  • Three Verdicts, Donald Findlay, Neil Wilson Publishing, £9.99 pbk

It would be hard to think of two Scots more different than the Edinburgh schemie and Hibs supporter Irvine Welsh, dubbed 'poet laureate of the chemical generation', and Donald Findlay, the pipe-smoking Queen's Counsel, prominent Scottish Conservative and vice chairman of Rangers FC. Not surprisingly, these are two very different views of life north of the border.

The title of Filth sums up Welsh's feelings about the police. Detective sergeant Bruce Robertson is a racist, sexist, corrupt cop, a lover of Hearts and heavy metal; even his diet of canteen sausage rolls and cakes is reprehensible. It is the key to his salvation though. Welsh blesses Robertson with a talking tapeworm to act as the voice of his conscience. Rather like a post-Burroughs version of Jimminy Cricket (Pinnochio's insect conscience in the Disney classic), the tapeworm allows the author to assert decent values for the benefit of the reader. (The big difference is that Welsh approves of drugs, and Uncle Walt disnae.)

Robertson is a soft target. Some of his un-PC antics make him quite likeable - his rant against the junkie poet so beloved of middle-class liberal wankers is particularly witty on Welsh's part. But Robertson is ridiculed like a cartoon baddie. When he takes a reluctant prostitute to a friend's farm to make a dirty film with a dog, we just know that the dog is going to be more interested in Robertson than in its intended co-star. Driving home alone in soiled C&A trousers, having lost the prostitute to his better-off friend, Robertson is no more pathetic than he was when Welsh dreamt him up in the first place.

Three Verdicts, on the other hand, is a straightforward thriller with few intellectual pretensions, and Findlay's characterisation suffers a little from his desire to play the heroic cop as well as the heroic advocate. The author clearly identifies with detective superintendent McAllister just as much as his more obvious alter ego, the pipe-smoking James Muirhead QC, and it is easy to forget who is who. Nonetheless, the book offers an interesting insight into the mind of a high-ranking legal professional.

The author is a somewhat lop-sided pillar of the establishment who clearly delights in taking pops at the privileged elite - there is much talk of silver spoons, or the absence of them, in the mouths of characters. But Findlay's love of the law is obvious throughout. Faced with the perennial question of how he can defend criminals when he 'knows' they are guilty, Muirhead lies that he is in it for the money. The truth is that he treasures the abstract principle that a man is innocent until proven guilty and feels compassion for his clients. But try telling that to a world for which the law is personified by Bruce Robertson.

Muirhead believes that judges, like children, should be smacked regularly to keep them in their place. At the same time he has no illusions about the criminal class: he struggles throughout the novel to keep his defendant off the stand, reasoning that if the jury see what a nasty piece of work he is, they'll want to lock him up whether he's guilty or not. But an even nastier criminal (with Irish paramilitary connections) is determined to see the boy put away, and Muirhead must put his own life on the line for the sake of justice. Crime and Punishment it ain't, but Three Verdicts serves as a reminder that principles reside in people rather than in institutions, and as such it displays a certain passion that is lacking from the otherwise more stimulating Filth.

Dolan Cummings

Sacred eco-cows slain

  • Environmental Health: Third World Problems, First World Preoccupations, Lorraine Mooney and Roger Bate (eds), Butterworth-Heinemann, £30 hbk

'Intellectual postmodernists enjoy the benefits, but they have forgotten what it was like before wealth, industry, chemicals and the like improved our lives so dramatically.' Like the earlier What Risk?, now available in paperback and also compiled by the European Science and Environment Forum, this volume offers rich pickings for those seeking hard facts to counter environmentalist arguments about pollution and disease. In particular the tragic re-emergence of malaria in Africa, which affects more people in the world than any other disease, and cholera in Latin America, are exposed as stemming from the overzealous suppression of DDT and chlorination respectively, on the basis of Western sensitivities.

Sacred eco-cows are slain as one by one fashionable prejudices about nitrates, dioxins, benzene, PCBs and PVC, among others, are profaned by the irreverent authors, nature's own toxins being exposed as more potent in each instance. Kirill Kondratyev of the Russian Academy of Sciences looks at the particular failure of risk analyses to make use of the recent insights into our understanding of carcinogenic mechanisms. Kondratyev confronts the widely held assumption that all carcinogens are cumulative in their impact, that these are 'linear' or 'zero-dose threshold' relationships. This is akin to accepting that if a temperature of 200šC kills 100 percent of the population, then 20šC should kill 10 percent. Frank Furedi, more familiar to readers of this magazine, places all health panics into a wider sociological framework, focusing in particular on how the objectification of risks, exemplified by the passive concept of being 'at risk', separates them from the solution of active intervention.

Bill Durodié is a researcher at LSE Health

Labouring in vain

  • Things Can Only Get Better, John O'Farrell, Doubleday, £9.99 pbk

One-time Spitting Image and Have I Got News For You writer John O'Farrell was in his own words 'embarrassingly left wing in the eighties'. O'Farrell's account of a socialist faith that held that smiling was a concession to the right wing is the beginning of a great joke. But this lifelong Labour supporter nurses the secret belief that face-painting was just so excruciatingly naff that the Pentagon must have invented it to undermine the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament - except that he knows that it, and so much like it, was an own goal. Sadly, the older O'Farrell's embarrassed New Labour optimism is no more plausible than the younger's Bennite pessimism. The humour tickles along when he is looking back at his early leftism, but dries up completely with an earnest account of the rise of Blair. New Labour, No Fun, as the left almost used to say.

William Deighton

Reproduced from LM issue 119, April 1999

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