Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The most dangerous woman in America

I find cooking shows boring generally, although I'm sure there is a sociology thesis out there on how different cooking shows reflect trends in societies. British chefs have a tendency towards autocracy, right from snobby fish-face Fanny Craddock, admonishing housewives to keep up with their neighbours, and pulling contorted sneery faces at poor working-class women, to Gordon Ramsay (Fanny in male drag) - the dictionary definition of a foul-mouthed, dead-eyed work-place bully. Even nice Jamie Oliver gets all didactic and tells us what we can and can't eat although it's for our own good.

Still, I'd take well-meaning Jamie over some of the American tv chefs any day. Take Paula Deen for example - with her Georgia folksy "hi y'all" demeanor, huge white hair-helmet and filthy laugh, Deen is a living Hanna Barbera cartoon right out of the Perils of Penelope Pitstop. She believes that "exercise kills" and seems intent on getting her audience to eat food that is going to significantly shorten their life-spans. Liquid butter features heavily in most of her receipes. Here's a typical one, for deep-fried cheesecake. Yes, cheesecake.

Stick with it to the end. Having fried her cheesecake, Deen decides it's "not sweet enough", then covers it in powdered sugar. But that's only the start. She then covers it in chocolate glaze AND strawberry glaze. Then more powdered sugar. Then a huge dollop of fresh cream. The woman's arteries could be used to hold up sky-scrapers.

Deen has what's kindly described as a "bubbly personality". The more unhealthy her recipes are, the more she gurgles and giggles and takes impish glee in them. It's easier to see why she's popular. She appeals to two distinct audiences - people with bad diets who feel validated by her, and those who find her appalling yet camp. This has resulted in many bizarre edits and commentaries of her show.

This one refers to her "Diarrehea apple pie" for example:

Whereas this one (my favorite) has slowed down the video and put on a creepy soundtrack, which helps to bring out the druggy, scary and sexual nuances in the show. The food makes disgusting slopping noises as it's slapped down on the counter, whereas Paula sounds like an animal when she eats it. Look out for the image of a ghoul at one point.

And Deen is one of those people who seems to attract attention wherever she goes. She made headlines when delivering hams in a charity event, and got one thrown in her face (prompting a "pigs might fly" headline which wrote itself).

In this clip, her trousers randomly fall down, revealing her not-very-attractive bottom, during a public event.

And if you want an even more surreal experience, check out the website Paula Deen riding things.

Deen is a horrific example of a society which places too much emphasis on "rights" while completely ignoring responsibilites. Ignore her at your peril. Yet she is also the gift who keeps on giving. Aren't you a little bit interested in trying out one of her buttery, disgusting, sugary concoctions? Just to see?

Friday, June 17, 2011

One of these is a parody

And one isn't. Which is which?

I'm so pleased that Varla, Evie and Coco are getting back together 10 years later to make Girls Will Be Girls 2012.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Lesbians, Lies and Blogs

I have been following the recent furore surrounding the "outing" (or "inning") of the writer of the blog A Gay Girl in Damascus. This blogger, who claimed to be a lesbian living in Syria called Amina Arraf, was reported to have been kidnapped, but turned out to be a 40 year old married male American postgraduate student living in the UK. Even more bizarrely, another lesbian blogger, who reportedly flirted with "Amina", has also turned out to be a heterosexual man. I've heard of "lesbian invisibility", but this is ridiculous.

LGBT and Syrian activists are understandably upset, feeling that Amina's blog, now exposed as a lie, does little to help real people who experience oppression in Syria. The writers of these blogs have apologised, but argued that they wanted to help the LGBT cause but felt that they would not have been listened to due to their status as heterosexual men.

If that claim is true then it's a shame. Personally, I'd love to see more straight men sticking up for LGBT issues, and when heterosexual rugby union player Ben Cohen recently set up a Foundation to combat homophobia and bullying, he was widely applauded. Here's a gratutious picture (which will probably triple the number of readers of this blog).

So, if you're a straight man who cares about LGBT people, really, you don't need to pose as a lesbian to "get heard". But I wonder if such bloggers had other reasons for assuming lesbian identities - more to do with sexual excitement.

I don't want to judge though. I've taken on the guise of a range of different characters over my long and undistinguished internet history, which began all the way back in the early 1990s when the internet was mainly used by academics (and was a much politer place as a result). I can at least safely say that it was never with political intent or to get a sexual thrill, but merely for the purpose of making other people amused.

Back in the 90s, when the web was a very different place - no videos, fewer pictures - I used to read the Usenet groups quite often (they're still out there - the internet equivalent of Ceefax), and I assumed a couple of "personas". The first was an angry woman called Bessie who was very upset at the amount of swearing and sexual content on television. Inspired by Mary Whitehouse, she was always interrupting threads to complain, and was regularly organising marches to London to picket television studios. Her attitudes were so obviously Victorian and hysterical that she didn't fool anyone thankfully, and I got bored of her quite quickly as she became a bit of a one-note pony. I retired her, and then started up a more interesting persona called Shirley.

Shirley was a much more complex character. Clearly a fantasist, she claimed she had been a make-up lady on a popular television programme, and had many hilarious and clearly untrue stories about the cast members and off-screen dramas. She claimed a long-standing feud with one of the nicest cast members, and would regularly paint pictures of actors which were the exact opposite of the characters they played. She claimed one very butch actor had a collection of antique dolls for example.

She was now retired, crippled with arthritis and housebound - only able to use the computer by holding a stick in her mouth and pressing the keys with it. She was hideously ignorant of many topics (she thought Romeo and Tybalt were characters from Crossroads), jealous of anyone who'd had an education, and had strong opinions on almost everything. She quickly polarised the Usenet group she posted to - some members were "in" on the joke and started fake feuds with her, or claimed to have met her, thus validating her existence further. Others guessed she was a fake but found her hilarious and were happy to have her around. But another group also doubted her veracity and were angry that she was disrupting the group. Shirley responded to all her critics with disarming self-deprecation. She would simply agree with everything that her detractors said, flattering them while pulling herself down "Oh, I'm just a stupid old woman with no qualifications... everything you've said is exactly right and now I've considered it I promise to think more carefully before posting..." which usually had the effect of winning them over or stunning them into silence. It was impossible to hurt her because she was too ignorant to understand that she was being insulted - when someone called her a moron, she mistook it as a compliment. Because many internet users thrive on escalating conflict, they had never met anyone like Shirley who took nothing personally because she wasn't real.

Her crazy postings are still out there - co-incidentally, I came across them by accident a few weeks ago, and reread them all. I don't remember writing any of them, but I'm quite proud of some of them - she was my Edna Welthorpe, and I'm kind of sorry I retired her when I did.

My third (and last, honest!) internet persona is Jamie4U, who was probably the most sophisticated attempt I've had at constructing an online persona. Although also clearly fake, Jamie had his own blog, complete with photos of himself (actually pictures of me dressed up) and all of his friends (or freinds as Jamie spelt it). Jamie is a shallow, narcissistic, idiotic young gay man, enjoying the dubious status of top-dog in a small northern town. He has an on-off relationship with an older man called Brian, who he treats terribly, and catalogues the petty dramas of a small circle of friends - Miss Thang - a frightening drag queen with no morals; Barbara - a drunken middle-aged lesbian, Keith (aka Mavis) - the plain-Jane "friend" who Jamie constantly deserts; Debbie - an overweight, often violent, faghag. Jamie's relationships never last, and whenever he tries to better himself, he always ends up snapping back to type. A lot of the humour is based on the disjunct between Jamie's self-image and how others actually perceive him, particularly when he leaves his closed world and ventures out to the larger cities like Manchester and London. Jamie once published a rude message at Alistair Appleton's website. Alistair Appleton is an attractive gay tv presenter, whose website tends to produce lots of gushing praise from men who are in love with him. Jamie was typically dismissive, and his posting contained an obvious mathematical error regarding Alistair's age (a sore point). Naturally, many of Alistair's fans jumped to his defense. Sadly, Alistair never got in touch with Jamie's haughty offer to be his boyfriend.

I guess you could say that Lubin Odana is an identity - although it's the one that's closest to me. Lubin is much more opinionated than you would find me in real life - where I tend just to keep my mouth shut. But I think my days of being someone else are long gone. It was something I associate with doing in my 20s mainly, and possibly a sign of immaturity. Or maybe I'm just not very funny any more.

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

You're not my hero

In Belfast again for a few days (work). I was staying in a Premier Inn as it was the only hotel I could find in the area, and although I turned my nose up at it, it ended up being rather nice. Unlike certain other hotels, you got all the tv channels, rather than 5 channels and a menu of films that you then have to pay for if you want to watch anything decent.

On the first night I woke up and felt someone or something pulling the sheets off my bed. I started shouting out, and then woke up properly. It was just a weird dream, except it felt so real that I had to turn the light on to check that someone hadn't sneaked in and was hiding at the bottom of the bed.

Had I been rather weak-minded, I probably would have thought the room was haunted. But I don't believe in ghosts, or the tooth fairy or auras or horoscopes or magic crystals or the Loch Ness Monster or God. When I encounter anyone who does believe in any of those things I am always kind and respectful to their faces, while secretly my estimation of them plummets. So now you know.

I'm unlike Richard Dawkins who isn't cowardly and two-faced like me - he's very open about his atheism and seems to enjoy the cut and thrust of public battle. I, who take everything personally, have the mantra of avoiding conflict at any cost, which is why I resort to keeping most of my opinions to myself (or spouting the more objectionable ones under a psuedonym in a blog that a handful of people read).

So Dawkins is my hero - someone who agrees with me, and is even fighting that particular battle in the limelight and with all the controversy that it brings.

I was a bit dismayed then, to find out that in other ways, he is not my hero at all, but an advocate of something I hate. The New College of the Humanities is a private London-based elite college, fronted by academic celebrities. It will charge £18,000 a year (twice as much as the highest fees for non-private universities). Students will get a Rolls Royce treatment, getting face-time with the very best academics in the country. Small class sizes, the chance to learn from the best, and of course to make connections with other elites. How wonderful it would be if your parents could find £18,000 a year. Dawkins is one of the famous names who will be lecturing. I feel like I found out that Santa Claus is into S&M.

The New College of the Humanities stands for everything I hate. It lets an already-elite pay to ensure and enhance their elite status. Students will not pay for those degrees themselves - their rich parents will pay for them. And while there will be financial help for some students - making the whole enterprise seem fair and kind, for the vast majority, this will not be the case.

Education is the key to everything. It is the one thing that wealthy elites wish to control because if they can do it, they can keep the status quo. My mother, born to a miner, realised this early on and spent every last penny she had on books for me. My earliest memory is of her tucking me up in bed, surrounded by dozens of Ladybird books covering the bed, and her saying "which one shall I read to you?" and me saying "All of them!" and her saying "Alright then." If I ever showed a hint of not being top of the class, she turned into a Tiger Mother and cajoled me into working harder. It wasn't always easy, but the sacrifices and arguments paid off. And I changed social classes - to find myself in a new class with people who had been to Cambridge and Oxford, who had had a very different, much more priviliged upbringing to me. Perfectly lovely people - rich people usually are very lovely and have lovely manners, because they've had lovely lives, generally get what they want and people are nice to them. It's easy to be lovely under those circumstances.

I believe that people should have equality of opportunity - and those who try harder, or who have natural talents, should be reasonably rewarded. Otherwise there's little urge to try. But it needs to be within reason, and everyone should get a fair chance. That's why I hate it when rich people buy better educations for their children, because they are cheating the system and ensuring that their kids will get the best advantages, the connections, the best jobs, and so it will go on forever.

And kids from poorer backgrounds, who may have exceptional gifts - are much less likely to have those gifts nurtured and encouraged. If they do go to university, their parents probably won't know which one is a good one. Their funny northern accents will probably mark them out as different. They will probably have to take on extra jobs to help see them through university. They will continue to be disadvantaged in all sorts of ways. And that's even if they get to university.

There is a quote from Wuthering Heights which puts me in mind of the consequences of a free market education system, describing perfectly how gifted-poor kids will be passed over while dim-rich kids will get the best of things: “one is gold put to the use of paving-stones, and the other is tin polished to ape a service of silver." Puts me in mind of some of our current Tory and Liberal politicians.

Looking at Dawkins' biography, it is perhaps understandable why he would support the New College of the Humanities. His father was in the colonial civil service, he was born in Kenya, went to a school that was founded in 1556 and then on Oxford. He's never known anything other than the very best of everything. He's mixed with people very much like him. He can't know what it must be like to be really poor, to be hopeless and helpless. What's perhaps remarkable is that he's questioned an institution (religion) which is very much part of maintaining the status quo. Otherwise, his support of the NCH is depressingly predictable.

Well I've been poor, and I've been rich (or comfortable at least). And if you're in any doubt, being rich is infinitely preferable. And even though I'm not poor now, in arguments like this, I will always back the poor - because the rich are more than capable not only of cheating the system, but of creating the system to make themselves win.

And with the creation of the NCH, they just tipped the balance that little bit more in their favour.