peak blighty

middle aged middle class middle brow
give me my country back
all i want
is my country back
back from the brink
back from the future
back from johnny foreigner
back to back
against the wall
dry stone walls and country lanes and church bells and warm beer
and skittles
and football rattles
and cheery banter and clogs on cobbles
vicars and tarts
Elgar and fudge
and proper weather and herbaceous borders and Victoria sponge
gooseberries not avocados
bisto nostalgia
warm crumbly honey coloured yesterday
deference and respect
regret curdled inward looking yesterday
to make do and mend and smiling
bravely and biting your lip and suffering
in silence and patronising
foreigners with pity

everything was better back then
everything has gone too far
no building will be as lovely
as a Georgian country house
no art will be as good
as a Turner no poem
as wonderful as If no writer a touch on Shakespeare
or Dickens
nothing as lovely
as a cottage garden

Nelson Churchill Rolls Royce Flying Scotsman the White Cliffs of Dover
bowler hats top hats Land Rovers Sheffield plate teapots
self congratulations moaning and pomposity
a nation of inventors and entrepreneurs put the great back
in Britain the great engineers the great manufacturers
and the commonwealth will hold
pageants and firework displays
and beg to be back
in the Queen Empress’ good books
everything has gone too far
feminism
political correctness
health and safety
gender neutral toilets
thats us right now
everything has gone mad hasn’t it
we’re living in toytown
are you coming or going
Tinder or Grindr
coming or going
the bagging area call centres computer passwords smart phones
satan and his infernal imps
the money markets the multinational corporations the rich
get out
of the marriage keep the house don’t pay alimony get a shag
at weekends get a bit on the side
dumped betrayed and thwarted
powerless and short of cash
ugly and mean and hurtful and niggling
personal prejudice
hyperbolic idiocies a moronic fugue

manifest stupidities
bitter and vengeful
crass and misguided
incompetent indecisive
absurd claim and counterclaim
no dissent now there’s hyperbole
an exaggerated claim
i’m buff with the power of sovereignty
no dissent allowed
undemocratic and undermining
Western interests
Putin smirking and rubbing
his hands behind the arras
lied to poisoned and cheated
financial ruination and global annihilation
red tape and regulations
work and financial prudence
decent people paying taxes who do not sleep
through the entire afternoon

this sovereignty this thing
this thing we want back
so badly
this thing has nothing
to do
with you
or me
no discernible bonfire as was promised

this culture this European civilisation
the images the stories
on the walls
these people are my people
the music
its scales its instruments its
rhythms and religions
the collective to and fro
the renaissance the rococo the romantics
neoclassicism realism
expressionism futurism
fauvism cubism dada surrealism
postmodernism and kitsch
constant warp and weft
my music
what we eat
the ingredients the recipes
make it harder
more grudging
put up barriers
build walls

this collective culture
this golden civilisation
most inventive
subtle profound beautiful
and powerful genius
the greatest
thats us right now
everything we have and
everything we are
thats us right now

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The tampon tax proves the UK still sees the male body as the default.

At the end of a long, stressful day sometimes only self-indulgent pampering can help. A bubble bath, a glass of wine, high quality chocolate, and a tampon, fresh from the packet. What could be more luxurious?

If something about that description of indulgence seems a little out of place, that’s because it is. Because no matter what this government and the European Commission seems to think, tampons and sanitary pads are not luxury items – even if made from extra-super-absorbent cotton.

It is easy to make jokes about the “tampon tax” debate. Just as listicles of Waitrose’s ridiculous ‘essential’ range are easy to mock (look out for poppy seed thins and limoncello desserts on David Cameron’s planned ‘British Bill of Rights’), the state of affairs that maintains tampons are taxable luxuries, while edible cake decorations, kangaroo meat and pitta bread deserve zero per cent status, is laughable. Stella Creasy’s joke-filled speech in Parliament last week proved the ludicrousness of the tax, as did the surge of tweets following the vote that decided not to scrap it. The situation is absurd.

Yet, while tweets playing on the idea of ‘luxurious’ menstrual products, and videos of MP Bill Cash being forced to actually say the word ‘tampon’ out loud are entertaining, the laughter masks truly depressing circumstances. The uproar over the products may seem like an overreaction to some; why all the column inches over what amounts to only a few pennies per purchase, some may ask. Leaving aside the fact that the average woman buys 11,000 tampons during her lifetime at a cost of around £3 for a basic box, meaning that someone earning minimum wage must work approximately 38 full working days to pay for her lifetime’s supply – leaving that aside – the answer is that this 5% VAT rate is a clear signal that our society is still far from equal, and that when it comes to economic law women’s needs are still not considered. The “tampon tax”, and the recent vote upholding it, are proof that women are still regarded as secondary, their bodies seen as an embarrassing problem.

The visible discomfort displayed by male MPs in discussing the topic – Cash repeatedly referred ambiguously to “products” before being repeatedly compelled by Creasy to refrain from dodging the issue – signals that the Parliament Chamber remains a space where ‘vagina’ is a dirty word. Like overgrown schoolboys, our elected MPs squirm at the thought that half the population need to use menstrual products every month (note the use of the word ‘need’, almost as if the inconvenience and cost of periods was something women didn’t flippantly choose each cycle). Even suggestions that this issue is trivial in comparison to something like transport policy indicates that we still live in a society that euphemizes “women’s issues” and writes them off as marginal. Our political system assumes a male default. Is it really too cynical to suspect that the reason incontinence pads are tax free, while maternity and sanitary pads are not, is that they may catch male leakages as well as female?

That this has incensed many, and has got a Parliament hearing is somewhat encouraging. That the vote was close – 305 to 287 – is frustrating, but also signals that the old guard cannot hold on forever. The union of Conservative and Labour ministers on the subject, with David Gauke, Financial Secretary to the Treasury, bowing to pressure from the Tory backbench and promising to raise the matter with the European Commission, is encouraging. If even social conservatives recognise this regulation is absurd and out dated, then perhaps there is hope that, in the future, girls won’t be brought up to think of their bodies as shameful non-essentials.

That this has incensed many, and has got a Parliament hearing is somewhat encouraging. That the vote was close – 305 to 287 – is frustrating, but also signals that the old guard cannot hold on forever. The union of Conservative and Labour ministers on the subject, with David Gauke, Financial Secretary to the Treasury, bowing to pressure from the Tory backbench and promising to raise the matter with the European Commission, is encouraging. If even social conservatives recognise this regulation is absurd and out dated, then perhaps there is hope that, in the future, girls won’t be brought up to think of their bodies as shameful non-essentials.

Universities’ Mental Health Problem

Older generations have a tendency to go misty eyed when it comes to university life, whipping out memories of their golden, youthful days at the mere mention of lecture halls. Today’s freshers are familiar with the idea that these years are ‘the time of your life’.

The reality is much less rose-tinted. Far from a carefree time of youthful experimentation, knowledge for knowledge’s sake and the postponement of a nine to five grind, more than ever before the current student experience is likely to include serious mental health difficulties. An NUS survey in 2013 found that a fifth of students now consider themselves as having a mental health problem.

Of course, exams have always been a cause of stress; looming deadlines and reading lists are perennial concerns. And behind most misty eyes are memories of emotional strife, whether heartbreak, family worries or flatmate drama. These things are not new. However (at the risk of being deemed another whiny, over-entitled millennial), the dramatic increase in students considering themselves as suffering from mental illness cannot be dismissed as youthful agitation. Too often the issue is shrouded in a narrative of ‘over-sensitivity’ – the idea being that the extra numbers needing help are somehow jumping on a disorder bandwagon, overly eager to categorise themselves as struggling. Too often the media, the government and universities brush the issue under the carpet, while clearly harking back to days they imagine students to have been made of sterner stuff. Too often the story boils down to an image of privileged, molly-coddled, touchy kids, in need of a bit more stiff upper lip.

This attitude is ignorant, and immensely harmful. It belies the fact that student life has changed utterly in the last decade. There are aspects of the current student experience that previous generations were blissfully immune to. Yes, the cheap booze, hangover regrets and library panics remain constant, but the backdrop has shifted. Entry requirements have jumped; tuition fees have been first introduced, then trebled; unpaid internships and zero hours contracts have become the norm for graduates; low pay is expected, as 72% of 18-21 year olds earn less than the living wage; property ownership is out of the question and rent is ridiculously high. Today’s young people face a compound of academic pressure, financial difficulty and employment uncertainty as the norm. With the current Tory bark of ‘hard work’ being enough to succeed, it is impossible to escape the idea that pushing yourself to the limit is the only way to escape a debt time-bomb, and anything less is a failure. Students are internalising social pressures, and damaging themselves in the process. When the number of student suicides doubles in women and rises by over a third in men in just four years, this is not an issue of ‘over-sensitivity’.

Of course, it is overly simplistic to say that obvious pressures and stresses of contemporary student life are wholly to blame for the dramatic rise in mental health difficulties at university. But understanding this background burden should help to make it clear why it is so imperative that universities do not simply continue as normal when it comes to mental health care. Times have changed. And if stress and anxiety are the starting point, then confusing systems, long waiting lists for counselling and customer-service style tick-box forms can be enough to tip a vulnerable student into a dangerous state of isolation. All too often the burden of care falls on individual, who is left to seek alternative counselling options and academic support themselves. When a student is suffering from depression or an eating disorder – when isolation, guilt and self-hatred actively prevent you from looking for help – it is easy to fall through the cracks. Universities are supposed to nurture minds, to expand them. This cannot happen with a distant, hands-off attitude to mental wellbeing.

Jeremy -unt

Fresh from showing he has little respect for healthcare professionals, Jeremy Hunt has proved he abhors the poor. That is the only explanation for his recent defence of the government’s tax credit reforms. Hunt has said the cuts (and, lets be clear, these are cuts, no matter what the Conservative’s Victoriana rhetoric of ‘social reform’ suggests) will send out a “cultural signal” to low paid workers; a signal to work harder, longer and, in Hunt’s eyes, more like the Chinese and Americans. A signal to buck up, pull the socks up and get that nose closer to the grindstone. Because, obviously, the reason once-Great Britain is playing catch up to the world’s two dominant economic superpowers is because of the poorest families, because they are simply not trying hard enough.

There are so many things wrong with Hunt’s statement it is dizzying to think where to begin. Perhaps an explanation of just how low paid ‘low paid workers’ are will help crystallise the issue. Before George Osborne’s welfare cuts, the income level at which working tax credits were eligible to be claimed was £6,420. From April this will drop dramatically to £3,850, meaning far fewer people will be able to claim, meaning anyone earning over £3,850 will have their income reduced more steeply. To be clear, working full-time on the minimum wage would gross £13,124 – already under half the average national wage. The Conservatives are lowering the rung of acceptable assistance to less than a third of this. So do not let Tory spin – from either the government or the right wing media – fool you. Tax credits are not allowing people to lie in the lap of luxury, even at the current levels they are barely making life possible for families in poverty.

So what of David Cameron’s “assault on poverty” pledge just days ago at his party’s conference? A barefaced lie. Even the introduction of a ‘living wage’ (which will be less than the calculated actual Living Wage) cannot cover for the effects of the planned welfare cuts. The Resolution Foundation (headed by former Conservative minister David Willetts no less) has published a report revealing the changes will lead to 200,000 more working households living in poverty by 2020.

The Tories may have attempted to eradicate child poverty through a massaging of definitions, but there is no way to twist these figures. No matter how many times Tory ministers attest that tackling the roots of poverty is at the heart of their national mission, the facts are plain. This is not about ending poverty. This is about an ideology that fundamentally views the poor as lazy, feckless scroungers. It is a Victorian era belief that those at the bottom are simply not working hard enough to get themselves to the top. This is about dismantling the state and returning to a laissez faire attitude, pimped up with modern multinational capitalism, (the same attitude Hunt’s idolised Americans take to healthcare), which leaves the poorest to struggle while the richest sit back, benefiting from inheritance tax breaks and congratulating themselves on their ‘hard work’.

Hunt’s comments reveal the true core of current Conservative policy. The way to incentivise the rich entrepreneurial class is to pay them more, while for the poor it’s cuts and the stick. He may have said he was “wilfully misinterpreted” by the media (that aggressive left wing popular press, right Jeremy?), but how is it possible to misinterpret his suggestion that those receiving welfare lack “dignity” and “self respect”?

The cuts themselves are a flawed and punitive injury; Hunt’s contempt is an insulting slap in the face. Cameron has said multimillionaire Hunt has been “rather unfairly” treated. How very ironic.

Junior doctors, Jeremy Hunt and policy disaster

We are used to the idea of doctors as carers, not fighters. Yet on Monday evening, thousands of junior doctors called for a fight, as they marched into Parliament Square. Waving signs and placards, the crowd yelled “when they say privatise, we say organise! When they say cut back, we say fight back!” Was this the ‘frontline’ David Cameron was referring to back in the nearly-forgotten days of election promises – the one he vowed his party would protect?

The protest comes after a long stand-off over contracts. Talks between the doctors’ union, The British Medical Association (BMA), and the Department of Health (DH) broke down last year, and last month the BMA refused to re-enter negotiation, accusing the government of a “heavy-handed” approach. Never a government to let accusations stand in their way, ministers then said they would impose a new contract in England, starting in August 2016. This contract would extend ‘ordinary hours’ from the current 7am – 7pm Monday to Friday to 7am – 10pm Monday to Saturday and remove overtime pay for evening and weekend work.

To an outsider, the minutiae of pay differences in different settings, at different times can be difficult to grasp – the vociferous reaction perhaps even more so. We’re all in Cameron austerity together, right, doctors, teachers and train-drivers alike?

However, despite the Conservative’s rhetoric, this change is more than an austerity-era update – a slight tightening of the belt and rolling up of the sleeves, in the interest of ‘fairness’ and ‘just rewards’. What is at stake in this change is the future of healthcare in England. The changes to what counts as ‘social’ hours would increase the standard working week for junior doctors from 60 to 90 hours. Not being paid for the dramatically reduced number of ‘antisocial’ hours imposes what would amount to a 30% salary cut. It imposes a 40% reduction to GP trainees’ salaries. Pay protection for women who choose to have children is being removed. Welcome back, gender barriers to the medical profession.

In the words of the trainee doctors group (ATDG) of the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges (which represents the professional interests of all the UK’s 240,000 doctors, including 53,000 junior doctors) “the proposed contracts fail to offer safeguards on hours and working conditions necessary to ensure the safety of all the patients treated within the NHS, and risk a return of exhausted doctors and rise in medical errors”. The government is creating a tired, overworked, underpaid, frustrated health service, and the ones who will suffer will be the sick and the elderly – the most vulnerable in society, the ones the National Health Service was introduced to protect.

The 2016 contract is an open declaration of warfare on the NHS. Shortages are already noticeable in key areas like A&E units, children’s services, acute medicine and general practice, due to their necessary reliance on out of hours work. This contract weakens already stretched young people, most saddled with years of training debts. It will, without doubt, deter young doctors from staying in the NHS, make vacancies even harder to fill and endanger the safety of patients. Latest figures from the General Medical Counsel show that almost 3,5000 NHS doctors applied for certificates allowing professional work abroad in the 10 days following the confirmation of the contracts. The general public is told repeatedly that the bailout of the banks was to prevent bankers going abroad – their contribution to the country too vital to be lost overseas. It is a pity medical care is not viewed as equally vital.

Beware the trolls.

Of all the social media platforms every smartphone owner checks at least ten times a day, Twitter is the hardest to pin down. Is it an inane realm of nobodies saying nothing? Is it One Direction fans’ hallowed space? Is it a tool for barbed political satire, as told through hashtags? (hello #piggate) Can it undermine dominant media narratives and help bring about real change, as during the Arab Spring? Or is it a teeming mass of anonymous trolls, pouring seething vitriol on any in their virtual path?

Depending on who you ask, it is any or all of these. With over 300 million monthly active users Twitter has as numerous a population as the United States – so its tribal variability should be unsurprising. 120 characters may be easy to digest, but 9100 tweets a second are much harder to define, grasp or control.

Created and ruled by its multifarious users, Twitter is a supreme democratic platform. Aside from a blue verification tick, a teenager from Edinburgh is offered the same package as President Obama, Katy Perry or any of the Kardashian clan. Many in the United States and United Kingdom wish their democracies offered nearly such equal footing in matters of voice. It is this unfixed, autonomous format that so threatens traditional media; armed with only internet connection, anyone can become a social commentator, or even destabilizer.

However, as in any democratic nation, the power of individual voice comes shadowed with the problem of free speech. Surely the mark of any democracy worth it’s name is the right to freedom of speech and thought; in times of repression and social control, this freedom is usually the first to be removed (hello North Korea, China and Iran). Yet, another clear mark of a functioning society is safety, and it is here that Twitter is letting it’s users down.

For every sharply worded tweet aimed at the political elite, or unforeseen viral sensation, there are hundreds of tweets composed purely with the intention to harass, intimidate and shame. While the web of free speech, incitement to hatred and censorship is always a contentious one to tread (as eruptions over certain public speakers, or the banning of them often proves), in the offline world there is a general recognition of what constitutes personal abuse. Usually, the repeated threat of violent assault or savage rape would be seen as definitively crossing the line from ‘free speech’ to ‘terrorisation’. Yet, on Twitter, we seem to have become accustomed to public figures receiving barrages of abuse. ‘Trolls’ are no longer mythical, but humdrum everyday.

Lena Dunham has recently announced her withdrawal from Twitter after facing “rapid, disgusting comments” about her body. She is the latest in a long line to bring the issue of Internet abuse to attention. Women’s rights campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez was subjected to over 50 rape and murder threats an hour over a period of days; academic Mary Beard retweeted a troll calling her a ‘filthy old slut’ as an example of the regular abuse she received; the women’s editor of The Telegraph, Emma Barnett, Guardian columnist Hadley Freeman and Independent columnist Grace Dent were all threatened with bomb attacks at their homes. All women; all, in the words of a troll interviewed by Barnett, “asking for it” by putting their heads “above the parapet”, by daring to voice an opinion. Of course, it is not just women who are abused; the gay community, the trans community and prominent people of colour also come in for their ‘fair’ share of anonymous bile. They may be on a new, virtual plane but these trolls are nothing new. This is not freedom of speech, but enforced censorship of any voice outside a patriarchal, heteronormative framework. This is an attempt to push people out of public spaces. It is a silencing act. The sad thing is, as Lena Dunham’s Twitter exit has proved, too often it works.

Turner-ing it around?

So, the Turner prize is heading north of the border. Often deemed the most important and prestigious visual art award in Europe, this year the event will be held in Glasgow, at Tramway. A postindustrial space, in a postindustrial city, almost as far away from London and the capital’s Tate supremacy as possible; the Turner Prize is clearly trying to counter accusations it has gone soft in old age and reclaim the edgy controversy of its youth. The question is, can it? Or will this year’s award further prove the heyday of the YBAs is long gone?

At the time of the Turner Prize’s birth, Glasgow was truly edgy. Edgy as in knife-crime-and-syringes-edgy, rather than exposed-brickwork-artisan-coffee-shop-edgy. The Thatcher years saw urban decay on a grand scale, with violence not far behind. New youth gangs sprang up which were widely believed to be more dangerous than the Glasgow razor gangs of the 20s and 30s (super EDGY). By 1984 George Orwell’s surveillance culture may not have been fully apparent, but neither were many other forms of culture – dystopia was not far off. The majority of Glaswegians were craving stability, let alone a resurgence.

Meanwhile, down south, the Tate Gallery’s Patrons of New Art were courting controversy. From the choice of 19th century painter and national treasure (and now Mike Leigh movie star), J. M. W. Turner, to name the new prize for contemporary artists, to the mysterious anonymous sponsor, to the first winner himself, Malcolm Morley, the Prize caused criticism. Morley was unpopular – he didn’t even return to the UK from his Stateside residence to collect the prize – and the conceptual idea was fuzzy. Was the winner ‘the greatest’ living contributor to British art, or simply an ‘outstanding’ figure? Were the other nominees failures? Was competition good for the art world? Was the art any good anyway? The Turner Prize had definite teething problems.

However, the late 80s saw a blossoming period, that led to a full on bloom in the early 90s. Having narrowly avoided bankruptcy, in 1991 the media love affair with the Turner began, as Channel 4 jumped in as the new sponsor. The prize money doubled to £20,000 and business and art became bosom buddies. As the moneybags got larger, the nominees got younger, as the age limit of 50 was introduced (in 1991 three of the artists were under thirty). Suddenly, the Turner Prize, unlike the eponymous painter, was hip, sexy and fresh. Many of today’s big names of the art world were made in this period, as Anish Kapoor, Rachel Whiteread, Damien Hirst and Antony Gormley were named as winners. Critics railed against many of the shortlists, as video art, multi-media and abstract pieces were lauded (the 1997 winner, Gillian Wearing, showed a video entitled 60 minutes of Silence, which, while showcasing actors dressed as police, pretty much did exactly what it sais on the tin). The Turner Prize seemed all too keen to provoke cries of ‘that’s not art!’, if that also provoked column inches of publicity. Craving attention and pushing against the establishment, the Prize was in its teenage years and living it up. It even had an inappropriately drunken night, when Tracey Emin infamously walked out of a live Channel 4 discussion programme.

But there’s one unchanging thing about ‘cool’ – it changes fast. It was no different for Cool Britannia, as the controversial shortlists, media brawls and big bucks began to lose their shine. The controversy was predictable, and so were the artists, as many began to argue that certain London art dealers were really pulling the strings behind the scenes (cough, Charles Saatchi). Quickly, the cool factor was lost to the alternative Turners, from the ‘Anti-Turner Prize’ of £40,000 for the ‘worst artist in Britain’ (in 1993 Rachel Whiteread won both prizes), to the Turnip Prize, whose judging criteria include “Lack of effort” and “Is it shit?”

So, in an attempt to save itself, the award fled. First testing the waters in a jaunt to Liverpool in 2007 – northwards but still in the family at Tate Liverpool – then to Gateshead and Derry in 2011 and 2013 respectively. And now to Glasgow. The idea is clear and double fold: bring the glitz and glamour of the Turner Prize to a city in need of cultural regeneration, while at the same time avoiding accusations of London-centric, Saatchi-sponsored shortlists. Smart move, right?

Except, here’s the thing. Glasgow isn’t the cut throat, decaying city it looked likely to become 30 years ago. The revitalisation of Liverpool can maybe be linked to Turner juices flooding the city, as it supported the city in its bid to become the European Capital of Culture the following year. But with Glasgow, rather than being the push factor, the Turner is turning up late. Glasgow was the European Capital of Culture in 1990, six years into the Turner’s lifetime and only five years into the Capital of Culture programme. Glasgow was the first city in the United Kingdom to receive the designation. It followed Athens, Florence, Amsterdam, Berlin and Paris, and no one seems to be claiming those cities are in need of revitalising.

Before being host to the Turner, Glasgow has hosted ten Turner nominees as students at the Glasgow School of Art, four of whom went on to win the £25,000 award. Since 1996 seven winning artists have had Scottish links. As London rapidly becomes the sole domain of the super-rich and the YBAs dodge taxes, Glasgow increasingly feels like the natural, permanent home of a progressive, innovative young art scene – but perhaps this is more likely to be found at Glasgow International next April than at this autumns Turner Prize. Watch this space.

A Pound of Flesh

Body obsession is contemporary Western culture’s default state. When it comes to matters of the flesh it increasingly feels there is no space for neutrality, only neurosis. Catwalks and red carpets parade lean limbs; magazine headlines herald new crash diets and magic detoxes; billboards alternately thrust heaving cleavage or jutting hipbones into our collective psyche – impossible Venus and Adonis figures reigning over cityscapes. On every smart device bulging muscles, bouncing buttocks and ever shrinking thighs vie for position. In all probability the average Instagrammer will have seen at least five super-toned midriffs on their phone screen before seeing themselves in the mirror, every morning.

Body anxiety is actively encouraged as the norm. There may have been an outcry when Protein World plastered the London Underground in posters insisting the only way to get “Bikini Body Ready” was through a rigorous programme of meal skipping (their special potion handily illustrated by a female assistant, a modern-day Venus emerging from the sea, complete with prominent ribcage), but the idea is nothing new. Bold yellow signs may be easy to spot, denounce and graffiti, but the insidious belief in the ‘bikini body’ is more difficult to tear down. God forbid your body should be exposed to the world in its natural state; with every beach and poolside doubling as a Facebook album fashion show your two week holiday requires at least two months of preparation. “No carbs before Barbs / Marbs / drinks at the Shard, amirite?!” In the digitised, ever-connected world where anyone can enjoy their fifteen minutes of fame if they garner enough followers, all bodies can be subject to the same scrutiny celebrities face. Facebook stalking is often only the privatised version of the tabloid red circle of shame.

By creating a culture where week long juice detoxes are hailed as the epitome of ‘wellness’ we have created a Frankenstein’s monster, as competing visions of bodily perfection are stitched together into a horrendous unattainable whole.

Tina Fey’s description of the current female ideal reveals the ridiculous nature of this collective fantasy: “Now every girl is expected to have Caucasian blue eyes, full Spanish lips, a classic button nose, hairless Asian skin with a California tan, a Jamaican dance hall ass, long Swedish legs, small Japanese feet, the abs of a lesbian gym owner, the hips of a nine-year-old boy, the arms of Michelle Obama, and doll tits.”

Fey is clearly being satirical. Yet while this jigsaw puzzle creature appears absurd, a grotesque figure of parts, each piece is also utterly recognisable. We may realise that this collection of traits cannot be easily stitched together (no, not even with a special shredding potion), but that doesn’t stop us berating ourselves and our parts for not living up to the fantastical ‘ideal’. Whether ‘not thin enough’, ‘not big enough’, ‘not strong enough’, the message is consistently ‘not enough’. The imaginary creature has enormous power.

And, increasingly, its not just the ‘dolls’ scrutinised in such a way, but the guys too. Bulky-but-not-too-bulky muscles in a lean-but-not-too-lean frame without one ounce of body fat, standing at 6 foot 2, who isn’t a neurotic, gym-obsessive? Daniel Craig ditching the damp bikini babe and emerging from the ocean in tight swimwear himself may have been a plus point to feminism in some senses, but it sure didn’t do anything for bodily self esteem.

Children as young as 8 are now reported to experience dissatisfaction with their bodies. In the largest UK study ever undertaken on children and eating disorders nearly 10% of 8 year olds were unhappy with their bodies’ shape or size. This jumped drastically at age 14, to 32.3% of girls and 16% of boys. At that age, 38.8% of the girls and 12.2% of the boys were involved in what the study calls ‘eating disorder behaviours’. These are children who were born in 2001 – before the surge in social media, apps and online sharing we have seen in the last 6 years. If Instagram’s first post has just turned 5, what will the these statistics be when it turns 15?

It doesn’t have to be all doom and gloom. Social media also allows for grassroots activism. Protests about the fashion industry’s obsession with an anorexic aesthetic, or still-dominant restrictive gender norms, or the lack of older female faces (but presence of younger female breasts), can spread across online platforms like proverbial wildfire. But, despite attacking a jigsaw fantasy creature, these attacks cannot be piecemeal. Defacing a billboard here or a page 3 spread there simply will not cut it. It must be a constant barrage, for the 8 year olds of next year. Body neurosis is a tough beast to battle, but the fight is vitally necessary. How can we address poverty and inequality if we’re all too busy hating our thighs?

Follower, I married him

Little girls are known to dress up in their mother’s shoes, smear make-up on their faces in comic, clownish imitations of everyday feminine facial masks, and play make believe marriage. The cutie-pie image of an angel-faced child in mock up wedding veil is almost as familiar as tiny toes inside stilettos. But am I being old fashioned? Sure, Kinder eggs may now be divided into pink and blue (pony and racing car innards respectively) but haven’t we moved on from boys and stick-swords and five year old girls with full wedding day plans? Isn’t the whole idea of fairy-tale marriage a bit old hat?

In most of the Western world, arranged marriages, or relationships forged for familial economic or social advantage, have been rejected. The secular, democratic age is the also the age of romantic love, of unions based on pure passion and feeling. Yet, despite strict marriage rules being abandoned, and having more freedom to co-habit, divorce, or flit from one union to the next, than ever before, the idea of marriage is still the overwhelming narrative for our understandings of love and commitment. Even more so than thirty years ago, when many of the status-quo bashing students of the 80s declined to walk up the aisle, the blushing bride is holding sway over the collective psyche. ‘Wedding inspo’ rivals ‘fitness inspo’ for newsfeed clogging dominance; Gypsy Weddings rule the television schedules; Kimye’s four-day-photoshopped wedding shoot reigns over Instagram. Kate Middleton.

Why, in the days when divorce rates in the UK edge towards half of all marriages, are our pop culture queens slightly skewed Disney princesses? Why did Kim and Kanye’s kiss in front of ivory flowers garner 2.4 million likes? Why did Beyoncé call her most recent tour Mrs Carter? Why did rumours of trouble in the Carter world cause gossip column tidal waves of concern? Perhaps most importantly, why do prominent women reliably get interrogated over when they will get hitched?

Maybe its because, at whatever level, most of us love what weddings are all about. We like parties and gossip and a bit of glitz, all of which weddings supply. The clothes, the décor, the embarrassing speeches and dancing, the idea of a happy ending. It is not that surprising that photos of Kate Moss, or Angelina Jolie, or Amal Alamuddin, which routinely sell for millions, are worth ten-fold to magazine editors when they are decked out in designer wedding garb. And yet. The dominance of wedding and marriage narratives in our culture do not seem to be just a frothy smile at pretty people in pretty clothes. For it is not just the big day that preoccupies us, but also the run-up and the aftermath. It is not just the blushing bride, but also the fiancé and the spouse that fill column inches. Benedict Cumberbatch’s announced nuptials, Brangelina working together, Johnny Depp and George Clooney finally heading to the altar, Gwyneth and Chris consciously uncoupling, Jennifer Aniston as either spurned / jealous ex-lover or desperate wannabe bride. While it is overwhelmingly focused on the female camp, this obsession is not entirely gender specified, and ‘obsession’ is accurate.

From childhood, certainly through adolescence, we are fed with the idea of love. Adulthood and contented happiness have become synonymous with coupledom. The ‘singleton’ may be portrayed as the wild and free one of the friendship group, the one unhampered by couples bickering, cheating and commitment fears, the one able to go out all hours and regale others with one-night stand stories. Yet, there lurks under these notions the prevailing idea of ‘searching’. There is the assumption that, unless you’ve ‘levelled up’ and coupled up, you are firmly in the dating game. All the world’s a stage and all the men and women merely Players, or something. The modern age of casual flings and no-strings attachments, of Tinder and Grindr and mass online dating, hasn’t made marriage or monogamy things of the fairytale or fifties-housewife past, because we are still gorging ourselves on these narratives. We want it all – the fun and the freedom, and the promise of a soulmate Prince Charming or Cinderella at the eventual stroke of midnight. We want infinite choice from an eternity of options, only a mouse-click away, while also being assured that we are one-of-a-kind. One-of-a-kind that is conveniently also someone’s ‘other half’. Why can’t we be ‘complete’ until paired up?

Loneliness is scary. The prospect of ‘being left on the shelf’ is not a nice one. But that is partly because we have constructed singledom, or serial dating, or polygamy, as social oddities. We have made our own bogeyman fears, by casting such an all-encompassing angelic glow on marital ‘bliss’. It is a conservative and restrictive story we are telling ourselves, imagining it’s escapism. We have more options than ever before; the world is getting smaller by the day. Rather than attempting to fit ourselves into wedding-gift boxes, maybe we should be questioning why the gift-wrap still holds so much allure. Maybe it’s time to blow the bloody doors off.

Her: A Digital Love Story

“Sometimes I think I have felt everything I’m ever gonna feel. And from here on out, I’m not gonna feel anything new. Just lesser versions of what I’ve already felt.”

Falling in love is crazy. It’s kind of like a socially acceptable form of insanity.”

What does love look like? What should it look like? Who gets to decide?

Her is described as a love story, and it opens with a declaration of eternal love, spoken from the lips of a Joaquin Pheonix apparently drained of all his usual rugged, brooding quality. The world is coloured dreamy pastel shades. Yet this fluffy, candyfloss feel, conjuring every Valentines Day greeting card, chocolate box message and romantic movie closing-scene, is a sugar coating on a film that is far from cliché. The initial comforting embrace of the familiar is illusory – despite the hazy, Instagram filter cinematography, Spike Jonze’s love story is, at most, bittersweet. It is as much a science-fiction contemplation of technology as it is a romance; it is as much about loneliness as love. But then, maybe this is ultimately true of all romantic narratives, which promise to welcome lost souls into the land of happy-ever-after. Perhaps we just choose to remain with the sugary layer over our eyes.

Phoenix’s profession of undying love is not his own, nor is it unique. His character Theodore Twombly composes hundreds similar every day, at his office desk, for his heavily ironic office job at ‘BeautifulHandmadLetters.com’. He finds words for those who can’t, adding ‘personal’ touches for people he will never meet. This pastel version of LA is clearly a deeply sentimental society, which eagerly outsources love.

Twombly is a thoroughly postmodern urban man. Post-divorce, living alone in one of the city’s many sleek, minimal apartments, in one of many high rise buildings, he checks his emails on his commute from work and plays video games late at night. The personal touches he adds for others do not seem to have been extended to himself: his flat is as sterile as an Ikea showroom.

Jonze and Pheonix have created a perfect portrayal of contemporary loneliness. In an overpopulated city, Twombly is isolated. All our fears about conversations becoming mere connections, our lives increasingly becoming a breathing hybrid of Facebook and LinkedIn, with our experiences filtered through blue-light screens, are condensed in Twombly’s solitary existence. Perhaps the most surprising thing about the central relationship between Twombly and his husky-voiced personal computer system, Samantha, is that it never strikes as too far-fetched. This is Siri a few upgrades down the line, a Turing tested disembodied entity that reads emails, reminds of appointments and also has the capacity to think independently. For Theodore, Samantha is an ideal blend of secretary, friend, lover and therapist; she fills all the gaps his self-contained life has left gaping. They speak through an almost hidden earpiece – on the beach, at a fair, lying down in bed at night. Theodore opens up his wounds from his broken marriage and they begin to heal. Is this love?

The clever collaging of flashback and current moment paints a poignant contrast between Theodore’s relationships. His marriage, before it soured, is all morning cuddles and crisp white sheets, while his rose-tinted days with Samantha are necessarily missing any physicality. Yet even this does not make the love story unbelievable, rather it gives it a deeper poignant resonance. In the days of long distance loves and Skype relationships, the lack of physical touch is emotionally touching. Under candyfloss coloured skies we are called to question how we relate to people, and what ‘people’ really are. Is this love? Is this just the idea of love?

Technology is increasingly obliterating boundaries. We are accessible in ways unimagined even a single decade ago. Cybersex, sexting, even ‘teledildonics’ are terms entering our everyday language. Is this good or bad? Is there any way we can know, and should we even try to work it out? Who decides? Are we numbing ourselves to and shunning ‘real’ connections in favour of virtual worlds? Perhaps. Yet it seems that, despite technology developing at a frantic pace, whatever the changes or upgrades, we are still searching for ways to share our lives, to be less alone.