Sunday, 28 March 2010

It's never too late to enthuse about the Tudors

The Tudors have long been my favourite period in history, and while the six wives of Henry VIII fascinate everyone to a degree, they are too often reduced to the mnemonic ‘divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived.’ Behind that phrase lies a wealth of fascinating scandal, betrayal, ambition and politics, which until fairly recently, was left undiscovered by popular culture. This was changed by two things: Philippa Gregory’s novel The Other Boleyn Girl (2001), subsequently made into a film in 2008, and the BBC series The Tudors (2007).

I am aware that I’ve missed the boat on this by several years, but while I adored The Other Boleyn Girl upon its release, I have only recently found the time to read the novel and watch The Tudors. I instantly fell in love with the film The Other Boleyn Girl, mostly for its insightful portrayal of the role of women. Both Anne and Mary Boleyn are mere pawns in their father and uncle’s games of ambition; as their mother puts it, women are “traded like cattle for the advancement and amusement of men.” The way that Thomas Boleyn effectively prostitutes first his youngest, and then his eldest daughter to the king, never ceases to shock.

But if the film is amazing, Gregory’s novel is a hundred times more brilliant. There is so much detail to the story that the film cannot – and The Tudors doesn’t even attempt to – convey. The impossibly complicated relationship between Mary and Anne is a tapestry woven of love, jealousy, hatred, ambition and sisterly bond, and yet somehow Gregory expresses this beautifully. Written from Mary’s perspective, the novel gives us an insight into the tension between her imperative duty to serve the family’s interest, and the fierce rivalry with her sister which means she cannot help but feel satisfaction at Anne’s losses. And yet, the sisters’ relationship is patterned by love and affection too – such complexity is beyond the reach of any screenplay.

One of the reasons I love the Tudor period so much is because it is steeped in irony; it never crossed Anne Boleyn’s mind that by displacing Catherine of Aragon and destabilising the istitution of marriage, she was laying herself upon to being put aside too, and her demise is so perfectely fitting. Everything which Anne made Catherine suffer, she must suffer herself, only with far less grace.

Likewise, Henry VIII sacrificed absolutely everything for his unbending desire for a son, and yet his eventual male heir was a sickly boy who never reached maturity and died at the age of 16. It was Elizabeth I, of course, who became one of the greatest monarchs England has ever known, which is where the greatest irony of all lies. Henry humiliated Catherine, broke with Rome, tore his country apart to instability and the threat of invasion, ordered dead some of his oldest friends, and beheaded Anne Boleyn, all because he thought women were too weak to rule. How wrong he was.

Thursday, 25 March 2010

No, we're not all internet-cheaters, thanks

Am I the only one who's sick of reading that no-one is faithful anymore? I can't really blame everyone from taking the same line after the parade of celebrity cheats doing the rounds (and I almost did myself in my last post), but I've essentially read the same article in The Observer, The Times, Stylist...

Apparently 'monogamy is unrealistic' and no-one is faithful anymore, especially now technology has made it so easy for us to sextext/sexemail/have illicit affairs with strangers we met online last night. One woman in Stylist's article on the topic explained that if it wasn't for email nothing would have happened with her American lover who she met at a work conference, but since it was so easy to flirt this way, the next time he came to visit it was 'inevitable' that they'd end up in bed together, despite the fact that she had a husband of four years. Now, this seems to me both the poorest of excuses and frankly unbelievable.

The fact is, that the outrageous affairs and drama of celeb-land is completely unrelated to most people's lives - for almost everyone I know, the advent of the internet has not made it acceptable to shag anyone you like just because they're a mere click away. Yes, we're in contact with more people on facebook these days, but if my boyfriend ever used that as an excuse for cheating on me, I would blink at him blankly.

Before deleting him as a friend on facebook and replacing him with some guy from friendsreunited. Of course.

Thursday, 11 March 2010

Latest serial cheat Mark Owen admits to ten affairs - is no woman safe?

Father-of-two Mark Owen confessed today to cheating on his wife with at least ten different women. "I don't know how many girls there were in all. Maybe ten," he told The Sun. Maybe? How could he possibly have lost count? And yet, since December when we all lost count of the interminable girls lining up to claim they bedded Tiger Woods, anything seems possible in the world of celebrity cheating.

Have men lost their minds? Look at the state of Ashley Cole's bits on the side compared to gorgeous Cheryl, weigh up the cost of the England captaincy against a few furtive fumbles, and it doesn't take a genius to conclude that it's simply not worth it.

Cheating is nothing new, especially amongst men with the riches to attract hoardes of fame-hungry girls, but it's the sheer scale of these recent affairs which astounds me, not to mention the fact that this plague of infidelity is affecting even the most squeaky-clean of men.

I mean, Mark Owen, really? With his soft voice and limp, girly hair? Let's be honest, in a list of 'celebs who shag about', he'd be pretty far down the list. Who's next, Prince William?

What's in a name?

Weddings traditions are sexist and outdated, so can a feminist still get married keeping her principles and surname intact?

In the Church of England’s traditional marriage vows, the groom promises “to love and cherish” his wife, while the bride promises to “love, cherish, and obey” her husband. When my mother married my father in 1980, a modern service, which omitted the word ‘obey’ from the vows, had just been introduced. However, the vicar refused their request for this service because he claimed that, “When a wife does not submit to her husband it causes conflict in a marriage”.

As an independent woman who believed her relationship was based on equality, my mother was determined not to make a promise she could not keep, but unable to find another vicar a week before the wedding, she decided to mumble ‘olé’ instead of ‘obey’ during the ceremony. “When it came to the day though, I was so nervous that I think I said obey after all”, she explains. “In the end, I realised that ‘obey’ was just a word, and the only important thing was that we were getting married.”

Is it just a word though, or does it signify the patriarchal values which are deeply entrenched in marriage and which women need to stand up against? Twenty-nine years after my mother and father married, the Church of England now offers couples a choice between the traditional and modern vows, but aside from this, little progress has been made in eradicating sexist wedding rituals.

For example, the tradition of the father giving away the bride has its roots in the centuries-old belief that women were the property of their father, and thus marriage is a transferral of property from father to husband. Moreover, the white dress signifies the sexist idea that women must be chaste but men can sleep with who they choose.

Therefore, while I would like to get married one day, patriarchal traditions such as these clash horribly with my feminist values. One of the biggest dilemmas I would face if I were to get married would be whether to take my husband’s surname, keep my own or compromise by double-barrelling our names.

Over the past 30 years, the number of women who keep their maiden name when they marry has increased, but overall these women are still in the minority. A survey in 2007 found that more than a third of single women plan to keep their maiden name. However, intention is not the same as action, and the poll by Debenham’s Wedding Gift Service also revealed that only seven per cent of married women refused to take their husband’s surname, while 51 per cent of men would be extremely offended if their wife did not take their family name, and a third of men said they would demand their fiancé to take their name.

The comments posted underneath a news story on this survey shed a worrying light on why there is a discrepancy between the number of women who want to keep their maiden name, and the number of those who actually do. “Any man who marries a woman who thinks like that is asking for trouble,” wrote Richard Lines from Somerset, betraying the fact that some men still see their name as a form of ownership in marriage. Furthermore, Carolyn Jackson from the Isle of Man explained: “I didn’t want to change my surname when I got married. I was quite shocked at the response from my fiancé – either I change my name or we don’t get married. I gave in and did change my name.”

Personally, I would seriously re-consider marrying a man who thought he could bully me into something I didn’t want to do. That aside, why is it that so many men would be extremely offended if their wife did not want to take their name? Men that I asked answered that it would go against tradition, and would send out the message to the world that their fiancé was not proud to be their wife.

“If my fiance flat out refused to take my surname, I would be really quite offended,” said Ben Snowdon, a 22-year-old student. “It depends what reason she gave; if she gave the reason of wanting to keep her identity, then I would understand that, but taking your husband’s name when you marry is about demonstrating your union to the world as much as it is about identity.”

This is an important point, and many agree that sharing the same name is crucial to a husband and wife’s sense of unity, especially when children are involved. However, why should it be the husband’s name which is shared? A double-barrelled surname would achieve this end just as well, as would, dare I say it, the wife’s surname. Indeed, most men that I spoke to were left stumped for an answer when I asked how they would feel if they were expected to give up their name, their family history and identity.

Like so many other out-dated traditions, perhaps it is time that this one changed. A hundred years ago, when women married young and were denied the right to a career, keeping one’s maiden name was not an issue. However, today the average age for a woman’s first marriage is 29.8, according to the Office of National Statistics, and by this time many women have established a working reputation which they do not want to dismantle by changing their name.

For example, the MP Ruth Kelly still practices under her maiden name, while Courteney Cox returned to her maiden name after originally changing it to Courteney Cox Arquette when she married. Cox says she made the decision after her father died and she did not want the name to be lost. This highlights another important issue; many women do not want their family name to die out, particularly if it is special to them

However, as my mother came to realise, the most important thing about marriage is the celebration of a couple’s love and union. And surely if those two people love each other they should be able to come to a compromise, whether that is deciding to double-barrel their surnames or choosing to omit certain traditions from the ceremony which they feel are outdated. I am confident that when I get married my fiancé and I will do what feels right for us. I just hope his surname has less than three syllables.

Review: Jean Rhys, Wide Sargasso Sea

This tale of subjugation and madness will show you there is another side to every story...

Wide Sargasso Sea refers to Charlotte Brontë’s 19th century classic, Jane Eyre, giving a voice to literature’s most marginalized subject, Bertha Mason. Bertha, Mr. Rochester’s violently mad first wife, is the original ‘madwoman in the attic’, that symbol of confined Victorian womanhood. Disturbingly, Brontë’s novel aligns Bertha’s madness and sexual excess with her Creole identity, and denies her a voice, a history and her humanity. As readers also, we are far too caught up in the love story of Jane and Mr. Rochester to question what turned Bertha into the monster the novel portrays.

It is this complacency which Rhys challenges in Wide Sargasso Sea: retelling the story from both Antoinette (Mr. Rochester later renames her Bertha) and Mr. Rochester’s perspectives, Rhys gives Bertha a voice and exposes the darker side to Brontë’s romantic hero. Rhys believes that Brontë's novel is ‘only one side - the English side’, and as Wide Sargasso Sea teaches us, there is another side to every story.

The novel is set in the sensuously and beautifully described Jamaica, where Antoinette Cosway, a lonely Creole girl, grows up in a world of isolation and conflict between the crumbling white aristocracy and the insurgent emancipated slaves. Through her description of this world, Rhys sensitively shows us why Antoinette grows up distrustful and without a sense of belonging.

All but deserted by her family, Antoinette agrees to marry an Englishman, Mr. Rochester. However, her husband is mistrustful of his foreign surroundings, and fuelled by his prejudices, he believes the vicious rumours he hears about Antoinette. Through his cruel behaviour he drives her to madness and, in a sinister re-enactment of master and slave relations, renames her Bertha and takes her back to England.

Wide Sargasso Sea thus challenges us to question the unnerving discourses underlying Jane Eyre. And yet, Rhys’s novel is also well deserving of literary merit in its own right, as it explores the complex issues of identity, slavery and madness with sensitivity and intelligence. A thought-provoking and enjoyable read.

Clash of cultures

In the summer of 2008, my friend Laura and I jetted off to Gibraltar on a whim to discover life in this unique country, which is an intriguing mixture of Spanish and British customs

Sitting in the infamous ‘border queue’ into Gibraltar, I suddenly begin to feel nervous as the realisation creeps upon me that I have no idea what to expect from the next few weeks or months - not even my date of departure. My friend Laura and I have booked a one-way flight to Gibraltar with vague plans to stay in her cousin’s flat over the summer and work in a bar. When we booked the trip, it felt exciting and whimsical, but now I feel apprehensive.

We are met by Laura’s cousin Keely at Malaga airport, and now, as she drives us into Gibraltar, Laura and I stare out the window at the strange juxtaposition of the familiar and the unfamiliar. Red telephone boxes, lurid symbols of Britain, look out of place after driving through the soft ochre and olive hues of the Spanish countryside. After we have, somewhat alarmingly, driven over the airport runway which cuts across the entrance to Gibraltar, we pass a road sign: Winston Churchill Avenue. Gibraltar, it seems, is determined to leave visitors in no doubt that this is British territory.

After driving us expertly through many sharp turns and steep climbs, Keely parks the car on a dusty street and announces that we have arrived. Together, we heave our cumbersome suitcases up the stairs and Keely shows us into our bedroom. I am immediately drawn to the small balcony which overlooks the harbour, and amazingly, I can see the soft outline of Africa in the distance.

That evening, after settling into our room, we cross the border into the Spanish town of La Linea for the annual fair, a huge carnival event which is nothing like the tame funfairs we are used to in England. Here there are beer tents, huge terrifying rides and stalls filled with colourful rows of sugary delights.

The atmosphere is vibrant as we thread our way through crowds of people talking excitedly and drinking beer from plastic cups, as young Spanish girls swish past in bright polka dot dresses. The Spanish mood contrasts starkly to the British colonialism of Winston Churchill Avenue, less than 2kms away.

When we return to the flat, Keely tells us about the animosity between the Gibraltarians and the Spanish. Gibraltar has long been a point of contention for British-Spanish relations; the Spanish want to reclaim it, but the proud Gibraltarian people are determined to remain as they are, rejecting a proposal of joint sovereignty in 2002 by an overwhelming 98.5 per cent.

The next day, we eagerly set off to explore Gibraltar, and soon discover how small it is; roughly half of the total area of 7sq km is uninhabitable because the country is built upon an enormously steep rock. Hence, life in Gibraltar centres around Main street, where shops from the British high street such as Marks and Spencers are dotted amongst tourist gift shops and cafes, many of which are named patriotically, such as Penny Farthing Café. As the street heaves with holidaymakers and the Mediterranean sun bakes the ground, it feels strange to see so many references to Britain.

Main Street leads down to Casemates, the major square of bars and restaurants, which is where we head a few evenings later. There is a lively, buzzing atmosphere, as patrons from every bar mingle and merge together outside. The excited chatter of the locals is the unique sound of Gibraltar; the country’s official language is English, but Gibraltarians mostly converse in Llanito, a mixture of English and Spanish. Fascinated, I listen intently as the locals effortlessly switch between the two languages.

After a week in Gibraltar, Keely takes us on the long-awaited Rock tour. This is the steep climb up the Rock to visit what the country is most renowned for: its colony of barbary macaques. It is thought they were first brought here by the British in the early 18th century; legend has it that the apes are a symbol of British sovereignty and if they ever depart, so will the British.

On the upward climb, Keely tells us that the monkeys are well-known for snatching bags from unsuspecting tourists, so by the time we reach the Rock’s summit, Laura and I are too nervous to go within grabbing distance of the macaques. Keely suggests that we can see them close up while remaining in the safety of the car by luring them onto the bonnet with crisps.

Cautiously at first, a monkey lopes towards us and launches itself on to the car; as Laura and I huddle together, its hairy hand gropes down from the roof ominously. With a thunderous bang, the monkey jumps onto the wing mirror, snapping it off. Gasping, we break into shocked laughter. But as Keely tends to her car, I can’t help thinking that we have no one to blame but ourselves.

A week later, Keely manages to get us a job working for her old boss, who is opening a new roof terrace bar, Boyd’s. Our first shift is the opening Friday night, so we arrive in the midst of chaos. The manager shows us the bar, barks a few instructions and disappears. Talk about being thrown in at the deep end.

The bar soon fills with people. Scanning the jostling faces in front of me, all trying to grab my attention at once, I struggle to remember who is next.

“Darling, darling, three vodka red bulls please,” cuts a lilting Gibraltarian voice through the din. I look up to see a woman with a mass of dark curls spilling over her face, gesturing wildly.

Flustered, I fumble with the bottle in my hands. “I’ll be with you in a minute,” I shout above the blaring music.

By the end of the night I am exhausted and longing to crawl into bed, but first there is one more job to complete: clearing up. In the Gibraltarian custom, Boyd’s does not close until 5am, after which we must sweep up cigarettes and broken glass, wipe sticky tables and heave wheelie bins downstairs for the next hour and a half, until I reek of nothing but alcohol and smoke and am ready to collapse.

Gradually however, Laura and I slip into a routine and learn how to cope with working by sleeping through the midday sun the following day like true locals. Before I know it, the new university term is looming and it is time to book my
flight home. It has been an incredible experience and I have found the unique Gibraltarian culture fascinating, but the relentless heat is oppressive and after five weeks away, I look forward to returning to the wet and breezy shores of Britain.

Getting there
Monarch fly to Gibraltar from Luton and Manchester from £32 return excluding taxes.

Where to stay
If you’re on a budget, the 3 star Queen’s Hotel is just £70 per night for a double room. For a more luxurious stay, The Rock Hotel, voted Best Hotel in Gibraltar by the World Travel Awards, costs £160 per night for a double room.

Where to eat
Casemates Square has plenty of great restaurants; try All’s Well for good quality pub food.