Gorm-ghlas, via Lake Tahoe (updated)


Andrew, are you really moving to the Outer Hebrides to be a crofter?

(long pause)

This is me, carrying my youngest daughter across the vast field of sand that is Uig beach on the Isle of Lewis, where the Lewis Chessmen were famously found.

Without me realising it, this beach existed vividly in my imagination for over a decade before I visited it for the first time last year. Back in 2004, Daniel Warren made a short film called Lake Tahoe, set to a strange, experimental piece of music by my band Swimmer One. The song – for want of a better word – consists of three slightly different recordings of the same monologue, about an American couple called Dave and Kay, ‘upwardly mobile professional types’ from an unnamed big city who go on a weekend snowboarding trip and consider never coming back. The monologue was recorded for an advert, and is full of the kind of hilariously bland aspirational language you only ever hear in cheesy commercials, but for some reason we became hypnotised by it. The more versions we listened to, the more it seemed as if something genuinely profound had happened to Dave and Kay, and Dan’s dream-like film – made up of time lapse footage from three different locations – captured that feeling very well.

I liked that the ‘Lake Tahoe’ in Dan’s film was clearly not the real Lake Tahoe, or even in America, or even a lake. Instead, a beach somewhere in Britain – filmed over a whole day as the tide falls, rises and falls again – seemed to represent a fantasy wilderness, awe-inspiring and empty, romanticised by two city dwellers as ‘the kind of place I could spend the rest of my life’. Significantly, I think, the film ends not on that beach but back in the city – a different city, in fact. Did Dave and Kay ever start a new life in Lake Tahoe? Not likely. It was, clearly, just a fantasy. And so I never asked Dan where the beach was. I felt the film would be more poignant if I didn’t know. It was what it represented that was important.

The year Dan made Lake Tahoe, 2004, was also the year I first met Laura, who is now my wife. We must have watched the film quite a few times back then, but saw nothing of ourselves in it (we didn’t have our own parking spots, for a start, or even our own car). It was only years later, after we had children, that we began to plot our own more modest escape from our more modest city existence. We looked at houses and little patches of land in Bute, Skye, Arran and near Aberfoyle (an amazing place in the middle of a forest, completely off the grid), but they were generally far beyond what we could afford, and we let the idea slide.

By the time we got to Uig we’d put the search on hold for a while; we were just visiting a friend who lived there. And then, almost immediately, we fell in love with the place. It is extraordinary, after all, from the final approach through Glen Valtos, a winding, single track road through a steep-walled valley sculpted by nature from a glacier’s retreat, with waterfalls crashing down spectacularly on each side, to the gradual reveal of one of the most spectacular views in Scotland.

As it happened, we finally had some money – still not enough to buy any of the places we’d seen before, but enough for a crofting tenancy in Uig with a bit left over for a static caravan. We put in an offer and, unable to contain our excitement, began telling friends on Facebook how we’d found the kind of place we could spend the rest of our lives. In response, Dan posted a link to that film from 2004. For a moment I was puzzled. Why was he sending me something I’d seen dozens of times before? And then, for the first time, I realised. Uig beach was Lake Tahoe.

Do I love this place because a film subliminally planted the idea in my mind over the course of 12 years? Was I, on some level, hypnotised into wanting to move there by the constant repetition of the Lake Tahoe story, as I recorded that piece of music and listened back to it? I honestly don’t know. Something had clearly sunk in though. Two years before I visited Lewis for the first time, I wrote and recorded Isle of Lewis, a love song based around a description of an imaginary road trip to the island. Eventually I changed the title to Islands of the North Atlantic but the song is about exactly what my family and I are doing now, driving a camper van to an island in the north of Scotland, laying the foundations of a new life.


Some city friends’ reactions to our plans have been interesting, to say the least. A few are excited and envious, and ask when they can come visit. Others think we’ve gone completely mad. Winters on Lewis are long and hard, they say. (Yes we know). It’s how far from Edinburgh? (About a day’s drive.) Do you know how often it rains there? (Yes we do, and we have bought all-weather clothing.) What will you do? (The same as what we do now, to some extent, but with more animals than before.) How will you survive? (By living cheaply.) Do you know how to be a crofter? (Not exactly, but we’ll figure it out as we go, and there are lots of people we can ask for advice.)  It’ll be difficult and stressful. (Yes we know, but it’ll also be very rewarding – so pretty much like our lives are just now.)

What both these reactions have in common is the implication that we’re living in a kind of fantasy, like Dave and Kay. We might as well have said we were moving to Lake Tahoe.


This idea has been bothering me the more I think about it. Recently I’ve been reading Madeleine Bunting’s brilliant new book Love of Country, much of which is about the various ways in which outsiders project their own views of the world – their own fantasies about it – onto islands whose inhabitants have an entirely different view of their home, their culture, and their history. Her chapter on Lewis is particularly good on this subject. So I’m wary of my own motives and determined to tread carefully. Our neighbour Malcolm ‘Malkie’ McLean, interviewed in Madeleine’s book, has been an invaluable guide to the sensitivities that outsiders need to be aware of when taking up residence on Lewis.

We have lots of practical reasons for wanting to live in Uig. We want to escape the noise and (if possible) the pollution of Edinburgh. We’d like space to grow our own food and keep animals. We want to keep our children safe, and send them to a school with smaller class sizes. We want to be a productive part of a small, closely knit community. We want to help make interesting things happen in a place that can’t be destroyed – like so many arts centres and community gardens – by being sold off to developers and turned into more ‘luxury’ flats and supermarkets. And, since Trident is being renewed, we’d like to live a very long way from Faslane. Uig, conveniently, allows you to do that without leaving Scotland.

The whole enterprise, though, also feels like a bit of a romantic gesture, an act of rebellion, the full meaning of which I haven’t got close to getting my head around yet. And so I’m immersing myself in books about Lewis – and islands, and cultural identity in general – in an attempt to figure it out. Like many people, I’ve been inspired by Alastair McIntosh’s Soil and Soul: People vs Corporate Power, a brilliant, clear-headed book with an internationalist perspective, rooted in Lewis, that connects the history of the Highland Clearances to the various ways, throughout history,  in which ordinary people across the world have had their homes, livelihoods and cultural identity stolen from them by powerful settlers (you could build a really good film, or theatre show, or festival, or writing residency, around its ideas, and if nobody else does I might give it a go). I’m keenly aware that as a family we are benefiting from legislation put in place over 100 years ago, following the Napier Commission, that protects the rights of crofters – and which was put in place only because of a long campaign of protests by local people who had been treated appallingly for generations.

Thanks to that legislation, my wife and I can make – to use the language of advertising – a ‘lifestyle choice’. We can be Dave and Kay, wowed by a beautiful place, with the power to do something about it. Nowadays people a bit like us combine crofting with running a record label, TV presenting, or being a working musician, as well as the more locally based jobs that crofters have always done. Timsgarry is full of people who work in the arts in one way or another (Malcolm, in particular, is a key figure in Gaelic culture who is now heading Lottery bid to build a major new heritage centre just up the road from our croft; our other immediate neighbour is a painter/sculptor who divides his time between Uig and London). My own plan is to continue producing, programming, writing and the various other things I do at the moment, from home but with frequent return trips to Edinburgh. We’ll see how it goes – and a certain amount, as with so many island-based plans, will depend on how good that internet connection is – but ideally my working trips to our flat in Leith will become less frequent as I become more knowledgable about – and more immersed in – Lewis’s rich culture.

We have called our croft Gorm-ghlas, two colours that don’t translate precisely from Gaelic to English but go some way towards summing up the atmosphere of Uig. Laura thought of the name, not me, but I like it a lot – it’s evocative in all the right ways but without being too specific. I can think of many uses to which we might put it, all of which feel less like a fantasy than living in a city.

On which subject, I need to work on my Gaelic (key to any proper understanding of Lewis culture) which is already close to being overtaken by that of the little girl in the photo at the top of this page. ‘Dad, your Gaelic is broken,’ she tells me sometimes as I struggle through a bedtime reading of Meudail air an iasg.

Andrew, are you really moving to the Outer Hebrides to be a crofter?

Yes I am. Wish me luck. I will probably write more about it as things progress. And by the way, if any kindred spirits would like to come and join us, let’s talk. There’s plenty of space.


Happy birthday Whatever Gets You Through The Night

It’s five years since Whatever Gets You Through The Night made its debut, on 26 June 2012 – the original show listing is still on the Arches’ long dormant website.

Feeling nostalgic, I found myself watching Daniel Warren’s film again, and appreciating it even more, particularly the sections filmed at the Arches, which was closed down, unforgivably, three years later. Like the album and the book, I still think it stands up as a beautiful piece of art in its own right, rather than an add-on or a document of the live show, which tended to be thought of as the main event for obvious reasons.

If you’ve never seen it, you can watch it on the player above. Here’s a DVD extras style chapter-by-chapter commentary…

Chapter 1: Ruth and Tom dancing
The film opens with a short sequence showing Ruth Mills and Tom Pritchard in rehearsal at the Arches, just before the show opened. The set is already up – three stages plus screens, dancing pole, and sofa – and there’s a lovely, very Arches moment when you can hear a train rumbling through Central Station overhead (if you ever saw a show in the Arches you’ll know that sound very well). The sequence Ruth and Tom are practising is for Cora Bissett’s song If You Dance With The Devil and – spoiler alert – you can see a more finished version later on in the film.

Chapter 2: Dark Skies, by Emma Pollock
This was filmed much earlier on in the rehearsal process (down in the basement of the Arches, in a room where countless numbers of theatre shows were born) and will be of particular interest to fans of Emma’s 2016 album In Search of Harperfield, where the song finally ended up (although it was originally written for Whatever Gets You Through The Night). It was, I think, the first time Emma had ever been filmed singing Dark Skies – she’s clearly still reading the lyrics off a piece of paper – and it’s lovely watching the other people in the rehearsal room – director Cora Bissett, actors John Kielty and Frances Thorburn, and dancer Steve Ryan – figuring out the harmonies. Dark Skies is one of the best things that came out of the whole project, I reckon – and I often think the video that was made for the song last year would have slotted into the film perfectly.

Chapter 3: All the things that make you want to disappear, by Swimmer One
This is the point at which the film takes on a life of its own, and I’m not just saying that because it’s my band. It’s the first part of the film that doesn’t consist of footage from the live show, or rehearsals, but something else entirely – an evocative, dreamlike sequence (a perfect fit for the lyrics, which are basically a stream of consciousness description of a dream) of us playing the song live in a theatrical props store above our studio in Granton. We were completely upstaged by that room really, with all its multicolour junk shop charm, and I’m absolutely fine with that. It was filmed at night, not that you can really tell, but the feeling it evokes for me is of being sound asleep and wide awake at the same time, your head buzzing with strange images that keep blurring into each other.

Chapter 4: A new case / For the maudlin, by Withered Hand
The original concept for this was that Dan Willson (aka Withered Hand) would play a song on the night-time ferry to Orkney, but it turned out to be too noisy to record there, so instead you get footage of a wee gig he played on the island during the trip (to, by the looks of it, about five people – which is an amusing and unusual way to experience a live show by a man who regularly fills the Queen’s Hall). Dan is the only person in the film who gets to do two songs, which is fitting given his importance to the whole project (he gets two songs on the album too). It was his generous, natural interactions with the actors in early rehearsals, and his ability to write songs on the hoof in response to script ideas, that first made us feel confident the whole concept was working. Most of this sequence in the film was shot at night – except that, being Orkney in Spring, it doesn’t really get dark. I can’t decide which part I like more – the early version of A New Case (or We Let Our Lives Go To Waste as it’s listed in the credits) before all the brass parts and the harmonies were added, or watching Dan singing For the Maudlin, the closing song from his first album, solo in a church (a location that, given his famously intense religious upbringing, has all kinds of resonances).

Chapter 5: If you dance with the devil, by Cora Bissett
Cora was so busy directing the show that it took us ages to get round to rehearsing her own song properly. We were still a bit all over the shop by the time we filmed this, and there’s a howler of a mistake in the first verse (we considered trying to edit that out of the film but decided it was part of the moment’s charm so left it in). Anyway, the first bit was filmed in Swimmer One’s studio in Granton, where the song was recorded. The rest was filmed during the final rehearsals at the Arches (you can see Hamish trying his best to keep everyone in time), with a dance sequence by Tom and Ruth. Both bits feature the brilliant RM Hubbert – a year before he won the SAY Award for 13 Lost and Found – playing a mean flamenco-style guitar.

Chapter 6: Live at the Bongo Club, by Wounded Knee and Bigg Taj
Another sequence filmed, poignantly, in a venue that doesn’t exist anymore, the Bongo Club in Edinburgh, during a club night called Trouble. Putting Drew Wright (aka Wounded Knee) and Bigg Taj together was a stroke of genius on Cora’s part and the two of them went on to collaborate on another film project by Daniel. In their first rehearsal together they improvised a soundtrack to a hilarious drunken club scene that spilled out into the street and ended with somebody throwing a bottle – a scene that became a highlight of the final show. So it seemed like an obvious idea to film them in an actual club. That said, much of the time Dan’s camera lingers on the clubbers themselves, as they dance, hug, flirt, and pose. It’s like a really good wildlife documentary – not one of those cheap, exploitative ones that encourage you to laugh at the animals, but one that shows a deep interest in their habits and habitat and wants you to understand them. I think it’s a beautiful snapshot of Edinburgh nightlife. Look out for a fleeting, Hitchcock-style cameo by Andy Richardson, the DJ and promoter behind long-running Edinburgh music night Limbo.

Chapter 7: Chips and cheese, by Eugene Kelly
In the live show this became a ridiculously OTT spoof of a Broadway-style musical number, with dancing, jazz hands, and a brass band parading through the audience. I played organ and some nights I added a bit of Jesus Christ Superstar at the end just for a laugh. I never did find out what Eugene Kelly made of it all, but we’d taken such liberties with his song that we were really glad to have the man himself in the film, singing the song as it was intended to be sung, accompanied by Chris and Bob from Belle and Sebastian. Having spent substantial amounts of time in brightly lit recording studios late at night, I like the burning-the-midnight-oil atmosphere of this, and I like to think it was was happening at the exact same time as the accompanying scenes of drunk people staggering about Glasgow city centre. See if you can spot anyone you know.

Chapter 8: Lonely taxi 2am, by Rachel Sermanni
I think this might be Rachel’s best song, and is my own favourite piece of music to come out of Whatever Gets You Through The Night. And this is a lovely piece of footage of Rachel and her friend Jennifer Austin trying out the song at Watercolour Music in Ardgour in the West Highlands (and a different version of the song to the one on the album). There’s a great bit towards the end when Rachel suddenly looks up at Jen and gives her a big grin, obviously delighted at what they’ve managed to create together in that moment. Rachel wasn’t able to take part in the Arches show in 2012 because of other commitments (Frances Thorburn sang the song instead, accompanied by me on piano and Hamish on guitar, meaning that I got to know it very well) so from the beginning we were keen for her to have a presence in the film at least. What we didn’t know at that point was that we’d get to do the show again at the Edinburgh Fringe the following year, and that Rachel would be able to perform the song with us every night.

Chapter 9: The muckle sang, by Wounded Knee
This song didn’t feature in the live show, or on the album. The connection is that Daniel filmed this performance at night on Loch Lomond, where the show’s climactic scene – a monologue written by Stef Smith, with an improvised score by Wounded Knee – was set. Stef’s story is about an old man, alone at night, scattering his wife’s ashes over Loch Lomond, and without trying to recreate that (we didn’t include any of the scripted material in the film, instead focusing on the music) I think Daniel still captures some of its poignancy. There are moments here where you can barely see Drew, a dark shadow against a dark, silent loch, his deep voice ringing out. I was at a friend’s party in the north of Scotland earlier this year, listening to people singing Gaelic songs late into the night, by the light of a campfire. It made me think of this, and the power of a single human voice singing in the darkness.

Chapter 10: Set in negative, by Talkingmakesnosense
We used a short version of this for the first Whatever Gets You Through The Night trailer. It is, basically, a long sequence of moments filmed at night on various CCTV and other surveillance cameras, from crowds protesting to fleeting encounters between dog-walkers. It is the only part of the film, I think, that was also used in the show – projected on to the three big screens as a backdrop to a scene about a lonely night security guard, set to music by Withered Hand. It’s a great illustration of the versatility of all the elements in the whole project – in the show, Talkingmakesnosense’s music was put to a completely different use, soundtracking a hilarious scene set in a yoga retreat by Annie Griffin. On the album, meanwhile, the music is the moment the sun rises.

Chapter 11: Embassy approach, by Errors
This is actually the end credits, but it’s a rare chance to hear a different version of this Errors track to the one on the album – a version that we received after the film was finished, but that did end up in the show. A little treat for Errors fans, then. I like that both versions use a lot of the same ideas, but in completely different ways.

And that’s it. Enjoy. The reason the film is in chapters, in case you’re wondering, is that the ten different sections were designed to be shown in any order, or even on their own, perhaps in combination with live performances. Sometimes I think we missed a trick by not making them available individually on YouTube. But I also think there’s something special about seeing them all together in this order, in the same way that there’s something special about listening to a carefully sequenced album in the right order, rather than just cherrypicking individual tracks. The whole is bigger than the sum of its parts – something I think is equally true of the show, the album, and the book. I’m not sure I’ll ever get to work on anything quite like it again, but I hope I do.



Rogue One, a 2016 story


Spoiler warning: If you don’t already know the plot of Rogue One or the result of the US presidential election, this blog will ruin everything.

The scene is a holy city in the desert, a place of pilgrimage already half-destroyed by war, its temple in ruins. A tank is rolling slowly through the streets, accompanied by a small group of armed soldiers on foot, members of a powerful occupying army. What the soldiers don’t know is that a group of rebels have taken up positions on rooftops all around them, and are about to stage an ambush.

In fact there are two separate groups of rebels in the streets, both with different agendas. One of the most shocking things that happens in the gunfight that follows is that a rebel from one group shoots a rebel from the other group, purely to give himself a tactical advantage. It works, briefly. But the shooting hasn’t gone unnoticed, and soon he finds himself imprisoned in a cave at the secret mountain hideout of a man regarded by many, including his own commander, as a dangerous militant.

Does any of the above remind you of anything in the real world? If the answer is no, then you probably work for Disney, and are therefore following the party line that Rogue One: a Star Wars Story is ‘not, in any way, a political film’. But come on, you’re not fooling anyone. All art is political, either because of what it says or what it chooses not to say. As the director Rokhsareh Ghaem Maghami said to me earlier this year, when I asked her about the politics of her compelling, controversial documentary about refugee rapper Sonita, ‘if you make a film in Iran about nature, not showing anything about the country, that is also political.’

Still, it was surprising to me how much Rogue One, a fantasy movie with talking robots, seemed to sum up the political and cultural trauma of 2016. (Traumatic, that is, if you’re from the liberal left. I appreciate that people of some other political persuasions had a fantastic year.)

In case it’s not obvious, I am a Star Wars fan, one of the generation who saw the original films at the most impressionable age, became instantly addicted, thought we’d finally kicked the habit after the long, cold sweat-inducing dose of cinematic methadone that was the prequel trilogy, but then got hooked in again by The Force Awakens. I went to see Rogue One twice on its opening weekend, on Friday and then again early on Saturday morning. I am slightly embarrassed by this, and couldn’t help noticing how that Saturday morning audience consisted almost entirely of men around my own age, probably also seeing the film a second time. We were like alcoholics secretly drinking in a pub where we hoped we wouldn’t be spotted (I even went to a different cinema the second time to avoid the embarrassment of buying a ticket from the same person). Some of the men had brought their children, but I’m fairly sure they were there mostly as props. 

So, you should maybe take the following with a pinch of salt. Beware of addicts, for they see the world through the prism of their addiction. But here, largely for my own entertainment, is a review of 2016 through the prism of a Star Wars film. Make of it what you will.

Everybody died


It feels grimly appropriate that a year in which so many culturally important figures died should end with a blockbuster movie in which every single one of the heroes is killed. I didn’t actually register the shockingness of this until other people began pointing it out, which perhaps says something about how accustomed I’d become, by that point in the year, to news of famous people dying. Earlier this month Ian McCaskill, a beloved figure from my childhood, passed away, and my reaction was ‘oh right, another one.’ How did I become so casual about death – in this case the death of a man who was as significant a part of my TV childhood as Victoria Wood? Numbness, perhaps, and not just because of the loss of Bowie, Prince, George Martin, Leonard Cohen et al in quick succession. Death has infiltrated my social and family circle too this year. At time of writing, two people I know are in the final stages of cancer, and someone very close to me is in what appears to be the final stages of dementia. I’ve never been in quite this position before, and every day I brace myself for bad news. When the news is about someone I don’t know, it’s a guilty relief.

The deaths in Rogue One are like the deaths of 2016 – waves of them, in quick succession, with little time to process one before the next comes along. The film has faced some criticism for this. Why introduce so many characters just to kill them off so unceremoniously before we’ve got to know them? But I actually admire the film for that, and am surprised at Disney’s bravery (this is, emphatically, not a film for anyone under 12). It illustrates how high the stakes are, that so many people sacrificed their lives just so a transmission could be sent that might, or might not, offer some hope to their cause. It certainly makes you watch the opening scene of the original Star Wars in a new way – they went through all that only to get caught ten minutes later?

We were in denial about fascism


One of my favourite moments in Rogue One is when Mon Mothma, leader of the Rebel Alliance, tells our hero Jyn Erso that she hopes to bring her father, Imperial scientist Galen Erso, back to the Senate to face a tribunal. Unlike Mon Mothma, we have already seen the future, and therefore know how utterly doomed this plan is. The Senate, after all, is about to be dissolved by an evil Emperor with a gigantic space station that can blow up planets. The idea that the scientist employed to build this space station could somehow be brought before a committee, and that this might somehow prevent its creation, seems hilariously, tragically naive. It is, of course, quite possible that Mon Mothma knows this perfectly well and is lying in order to get Jyn on side, but the whole exchange still reminds me of journalists and politicians talking about Donald Trump as if he is capable of being a reasonable person rather than a fascist, not to mention a compulsive, shameless liar and a narcissist who has openly boasted about sexually assaulting women, and that we can still talk about democratic political processes with any confidence that they’re going to continue as they did before – rather than, say, pronouncements and decisions of huge, potentially global impact being made on the hoof via Twitter. I think of the media’s reluctance to describe the so-called ‘alt-right’ as fascists when this is plainly what they are. In the UK, I think of the bizarre respectability of Kate Hopkins, an extremist who has described migrants as ‘cockroaches’ and regularly incites racial hatred, yet has been given a platform on the BBC’s flagship politics show Question Time and – in the same week she was forced to apologise for falsely accusing a Muslim family of being terrorists – the Jeremy Vine show.

Is it absurd to compare Donald Trump to the evil Emperor in Star Wars? Maybe, but remember how absurd it seemed this time last year that he might actually be elected as president (the Emperor, by the way, was also an elected politician). Is it alarmist to suggest that not only the US but also Europe is sleepwalking towards fascism? If so, there are an awful lot of alarm bells ringing just now.

Star Wars has always been about fascism, of course. George Lucas himself has said the Empire was modelled partly on Nazi Germany. One of the most interesting things about Rogue One, for me, is that it’s the story of a resistance movement waking up to the reality of what they are up against.

Resistance was divided


If the far right is on the rise, the left seems more divided and ineffective than at any point in my political life. One of the most dispiriting sights this year has been a series of  attempts to blame the rise of Trump on a liberal elite’s obsession with ‘identity politics’, as if Trump’s own campaign wasn’t also driven by identity politics. The argument, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to point out, was always made by white men, one of whom, Simon Jenkins, began his polemic with a statement – ‘I have no tribe’ – that suggested an extraordinary lack of self-awareness about his own tribal perspective on all this. In case it’s not already obvious, my own position is closer to that of writers like Laurie Penny. What was most dispiriting, though, was that it was yet another example of the left fighting amongst themselves, on terms of engagement set by the right, instead of finding a way to articulate an alternative, equally populist narrative, one that doesn’t rely on setting different tribes against each other. And no, this needn’t mean the left has to abandon identity politics (as Laurie points out, all politics is identity politics), it just means that we have to be wiser to the ways in which the right has colonised identity politics for decades, and stake out our own territory. One of my favourite pieces of writing this year was Gareth Fearn’s Debating Immigration: A Labour Strategy for UKIP Votes, a thoughtful proposal for how Labour, instead of pandering to prejudices about immigrants, could go about challenging them.

What has this got to do with Star Wars? Not a lot, perhaps, except the troubling idea that what it takes for liberals to unite against fascism is a crisis so daunting – a space station that can destroy planets, perhaps, or a spoiled, narcissistic child who has nuclear weapons and doesn’t accept climate change is actually happening despite overwhelming scientific proof – that there just isn’t time to debate differences of strategy anymore. There’s a striking early scene in Rogue One when the Rebel Alliance concludes, after years of fruitlessly trying to use what is left of the old democratic systems to fight the Empire, that it has no choice but to reach out to Saw Gerrara, a man from whom they have been distancing themselves because, while he is technically on the same side, he is a terrorist.

Not that it has to go that way, but if you thought 2016 was frightening, the chances are it’s going to get a lot worse.

Sexism was rife


Rogue One is a film with one main female character. One. And she is entirely surrounded by men, on the poster and in the film itself. And yet, long before it was even clear whether Felicity Jones’ Jyn Erso was actually the central character rather than just an equal part of an ensemble, arguments raged over how feminist the film might be. As if a woman being the lead character in a science fiction movie – three decades after Aliens – somehow represented any sort of significant cultural shift in an industry still overwhelmingly controlled by men. This debate had, of course, already begun with The Force Awakens, a film loudly celebrated as well as condemned for its feminism despite the fact that just one of its four new principal cast members was a woman. This, clearly, is not what equality looks like. The parallels between this and the endless sexism directed towards Hillary Clinton are screamingly obvious, and typical of the deeply sexist culture we still live in (as described – far better than I could do it – in this review of 2016 by Vonny Moyes).

Still, one of the most enjoyable things about Rogue One, for me, was that Jyn Erso’s sex is never once commented on. It is clearly irrelevant. She dresses the same as the boys, fights like the boys, and it never occurs to any of the boys to think there’s anything strange about this (more so, if anything, than in The Force Awakens, in which 1. Rey is constantly referred to as ‘a girl’ rather than a woman, and 2. Finn is constantly attempting to rescue her, despite the fact that she clearly doesn’t need rescued from anyone). When Jyn proposes that the Rebels should embark on a possibly suicidal mission to a heavily guarded Imperial facility on the off-chance that they might be able to steal the Death Star plans despite having very little idea of how to find them once they get there, nobody thinks she’s being crazy or emotional, they just line up behind her in exactly the way they would if a man came up with the same idea. Because it’s the best idea anyone has come up with and she seems like she knows what she’s doing. All of which does make me wonder why at least half of the rebels weren’t women, rather than just one. Still, wouldn’t it be brilliant if women in the real world were treated the way Jyn Erso is?

In conclusion

I know. It’s just a movie. And despite my fandom, it wasn’t even my favourite movie of 2016 (Hunt for the Wilderpeople) or even my favourite science fiction movie of 2016 (Arrival). Still, for me, no other film felt quite as in tune with this year as Rogue One, and no other film lifted my spirits more. I liked that it begins with something resembling the messy factional politics of the real world – that street battle in the holy city, in which our ‘heroes’ are a man willing to shoot people on his own side and a woman who has abandoned political idealism altogether – and ends with those same two people knowing that they have done something good and important (a rare feeling in these confusing, idealism-sapping times). I like – if I’m honest with myself – that despite some lip service to the fact that real conflict is full of moral grey areas, with no clear-cut heroes and villains, it’s obvious in the end who the bad guys are (clue: look for the ones in Nazi uniforms with the planet-destroying super-weapon). It would certainly make life a lot easier if I could always feel that about the real world (as awful as Trump clearly is, Hillary Clinton was not exactly a saint). And I like that it points toward the possibility of those bad guys being defeated, without trying to persuade you that this might happen any time soon.

In short, I like the fact that it offers what is probably the only sort of happy ending I’d believe in a year like this – a thin note of hope after a wave of catastrophe, the sound of a spaceship racing away into the distance, not to safety (we already know how this journey turns out) but at least towards something better, eventually. And at this point, 2016 is stubbornly refusing to offer a happy ending, so Rogue One will just have to do.

Public art that the public unmakes: the work of Juliana Capes


A piece I wrote for artist Juliana Capes, ahead of her participation in Deptford X. For more information on Juliana’s work, visit her website.

It’s 23 June, 2016, and Juliana Capes is making what will later become one of my favourite pieces of art. My three-year-old daughter is making it too, and Juliana’s children, and some friends of ours, and some complete strangers, including a guy who we’re pretty sure is planning to steal it afterwards.

This is Annul, an outdoor installation created for the Leith Late festival in Scotland. Over the course of a whole day, a group of people – Juliana, some pre-arranged volunteers, and any passers-by who feel like joining in – hammer £250 worth of pennies into the cracks in a pavement on Leith Walk, one of Edinburgh’s busiest streets. Gradually a large circular bronze mosaic emerges like a flower clock. The theme of the piece is luck. Cracks in the pavement are thought to be unlucky (because they tend to make you fall) but coins found on the pavement are thought to be lucky. Could one of these things cancel out – annul – the other? As Juliana says, “Is luck a currency? Can we earn it? Can we choose to spend it wisely? What about if we have none at all?”

This last part has an obvious resonance in Leith, a place where luck is in short supply for many families. At first Juliana worries that it will seem decadent, hammering £250 (the whole of her festival fee) into the pavement in a place like this. She wonders whether it would feel different if she’d just spent £250 on art materials and left them on the pavement. I appreciate her concern but tell her she is not exactly the KLF burning a million quid.

Annul gets a lot of attention though. Throughout the day lots of people stop to ask what it’s all about, curious, occasionally wary, and then – as Juliana talks them through the idea – engaged and supportive. A lot of them stop to help. Children love it, delighted to have an excuse to crawl around on a pavement; some invent their own version of hopscotch across the coins. And then there’s one guy, in particular, who loiters nearby for hours, intrigued, asking questions, before eventually joining in. It becomes apparent that he is casing the joint. As soon as we are finished he is planning to take all the money.

Juliana is fine with this. Like Andy Goldsworthy’s fragile, intricate stick sculptures, soon swept away by wind, rain or tide, Annul is mostly about the process (and, in this case, the involvement of so many people in its creation). “My installations are rarely permanent,” she tells me later. “I do care about beauty, I can’t help it and I’m attracted to objects and to making. But it’s liberating to let go.”

What will remain after Annul is not the installation itself but documentation (photographs, and a time lapse film discreetly shot from a window above). Juliana never expected £250 of coins to be left alone in a public, unguarded place for long. Besides, the guy looks like he could use the money. And he did help to create Annul, so arguably he has as much right to it as the rest of us. In a sense, he will not be committing theft at all, simply staking a claim on a piece of art that was partly created by him.


I like Annul very much. In purely visual terms, it reminds me of lots of things I love, from Gaudi’s tile work in Parc Guell in Barcelona to seaside town amusement arcade coin machines. Sometimes I think it looks like a piece of religious art, a cross between a stained glass window and a stone circle; this may be partly because creating it feels like a ritualistic act. Conceptually, it reminds me of The Obliteration Room, an interactive artwork for children designed in 2002 by Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama, and restaged numerous times due to its popularity. A room in a gallery is painted completely white, and young visitors are encouraged to add brightly coloured stickers, wherever they like. As hours, days and weeks pass, there is a slow motion explosion of red, yellow, blue, green pink, all over the floor, walls and furniture. Like The Obliteration Room, Annul mostly entrusts the act of creation to its audience, the artist merely providing a guiding hand. And it is more rewarding the more you invest in it.

Both Annul and The Obliteration Room feel very much of their time. Thanks to the internet and mobile phones, we are living in a golden age of crowd-sourced creativity, from art projects like The Exquisite Forest, The One Million Masterpiece and Unnumbered Sparks, to the film Life in a Day and the National Theatre of Scotland’s Five Minute Theatre. In taking place out in the real world, Annul is perhaps closer in spirit to earlier works like Yoko Ono’s Wish Tree, or Yoshihara Jiro’s Please Draw Freely, but like all these projects it challenges the idea of the artist as revered genius, separate from their audience. Instead it offers collaboration, community, connection, equality – and what better way to do all that than to encourage everyone, the artist included, to sit on the ground together building a circle?

Unlike The Obliteration Room, Annul isn’t aimed at children, but the whole experience definitely appeals to my inner child. This is equally true of Juliana‘s other work. In Exodus, dozens of brightly coloured umbrellas ascend in formation, through a window and into the street, like a flock of migrating birds. It is as magical as Mary Poppins soaring into the air. She does something similar with Loveletters, in which that familiar symbol of childhood creativity, the paper aeroplane, is also transformed into a flock of colourful birds. She has, significantly I think, made four installations – Aquifier, Meltwater, Narcissus, and her most recent project, Breakers – from that most coveted of childhood objects, the balloon.

It’s become a cliché to say that artists strive for years to create the kind of work children make without thinking. Blame that famous Picasso quote (“Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.”) Juliana, it seems to me, has made the transition Picasso describes more seamlessly than most. Not that her work is child-like in any reductive sense – it has a subtlety and sophistication that only a deep-thinking adult could achieve – but something about its simple sense of wonder and transformation, its ability to make everyday objects extraordinary, reminds me of the best children’s art, theatre and cinema.

Exodus makes me think of the closing scene of the film The Red Balloon, as if those umbrellas could sweep you up into the air with them. Juliana’s earlier street-based artwork, Pavement Astronomer (in which bits of chewing gum left on the street are joined up by lines of chalk to make constellations) reminds me of the children’s book Beautiful Oops, in which little accidents – a torn piece of paper, spilled paint – are transformed into penguins, elephants, fish and other creatures. Beautiful Oops is as popular with adults as it is with children, and no wonder – it is, on a deeper level, a book about finding beauty and hope in the face of disaster and disappointment. Pavement Astronomer is too, I think. It is, more or less literally, about lying in the gutter and looking at the stars.

I miss the end of Annul because I have to put my kids to bed. The installation is completed around 9pm, I hear. Those still there at that point have a drink, look at their creation for a little while, and then head home or to the Leith Late party. Immediately afterwards a small group of people, who have been waiting for this opportunity for several hours, sweep in with plastic bags, and within minutes Annul is annihilated. Half of them, Juliana is pleased to observe, are children. In a way they are completing the work – “a piece of public art that the public unmakes” as she describes it.


Something similar later happens to Breakers, an installation on the seafront at Portobello in Edinburgh, close to where Juliana lives with her husband and two children. Created in August 2016 for Art Walk Porty, Breakers consists of 70 water filled balloons hanging in a bandstand by the ocean, in a formation that mimics a breaking wave. It survives a little longer than Annul – a whole day – but balloons left on a promenade overnight are, as you’d expect, as vulnerable as coins on a pavement. In this case it is a group of teenagers who destroy it – bursting all the balloons and getting soaked in the process, unaware that the moment is being captured in another time lapse film.

Juliana is delighted. “I never thought I’d feel so elated about something I made being destroyed,” she tells me afterwards. She wonders whether teenage vandalism is what happens to the playfulness of children before teenage nihilism suffocates it. Indeed, is it part of that childhood creativity Picasso talks about?

It also seems like a symbolically fitting climax to Breakers, a word that can mean either a heavy sea wave or a person who breaks something (as well as a period of emotional vulnerability). As Juliana puts it: “The world is constantly unmaking itself. Things fall apart. Waves break. Everything breaks. Why should art be the thing that has to last? Making art is a process of making yourself vulnerable in public. If you are lucky then people engage with your work. In this case the public became the breakers.”

A footnote: the morning after Annul, I take a bus up Leith Walk. Passing the street corner where my children and I spent a couple of hours the previous day, there is no sign that any of it ever happened. And yet, looking at it with fresh eyes, an ordinary pavement suddenly looks like a magical place. And I think to myself, Annul has done its job.

Juliana Capes will be making a version of Annul in London on 23 September as part of Deptford X Festival Fringe, 23 September to 3 October. Footage of Breakers (as staged in Portobello) and Annul (as staged in Leith) will also feature in the festival.



Mental health and the Edinburgh Fringe


“I used to worry that I had gone mad, but really I have no time for that,” exclaims Anna in the opening moments of Stef Smith’s 2015 play Swallow. It got a big laugh from the audience the night I was there. This, after all, is a woman who hasn’t left her flat in two years and is now smashing all her mirrors with a hammer.

This scene stayed with me throughout last year’s Edinburgh Fringe – a festival in which mental illness was not only a big talking point but an unlikely hot ticket. Bryony Kimmings and Tim Grayburn’s Fake It ‘Til You Make It, about caring for a partner with depression, sold out its entire Traverse run in less than a week and added an extra show in the main space at Assembly Hall. Then there was Felicity Ward, who somehow conjured a comedy hit – the third best reviewed comedy show on that year’s Fringe – from talking about irritable bowel syndrome and anxiety.

Swallow stuck in my mind, though, because of the way it presented an almost stereotypical image of mental illness – isolated, delusional, “mad” – then undercut it by showing you how the everyday turmoil of its other two characters was also a form of mental illness. Rebecca, a wife abandoned by her husband, self-medicates with alcohol before resorting to a brutal and yet somehow relatable act of self-harm. Sam is a trans man who hides the truth about himself – that he was born a woman – behind a fake performance of amiable boyish charm, until all his suppressed rage explodes at the worst possible moment, jeopardising his safety. I may not know what it’s like to be transgender, but as a man whose depression is very much rooted in suppressed emotions, and anger in particular, I related to that scene.

In the end, what helps all three characters in Swallow is connection. The same is true in Fake It ‘Til You Make It, in which a man hides his depression from everyone for years until his girlfriend stumbles across his pills. The man is convinced the woman will leave him -instead Bryony and Tim talked about it, then got engaged, made a baby, and spent most of Kimmings’ pregnancy performing a show together that was so honest, direct, funny, and humble about what they were going through that it prompted laughter and tears in equal measure.

In fact, the big theme of last year’s Fringe was not so much mental illness as honesty about mental illness. Kimmings said the spur for making Fake It ‘Til You Make It was the death of Robin Williams. Le Gateau Chocolat was prompted to make his similarly themed show, Black, by the death, a few months earlier, of the theatre-maker Adrian Howells, his mentor and friend. Men, in particular, still seem trapped in a crisis of silence – often unable to seek the help that they badly need because they can’t bring themselves to admit what’s happening to them. (Not to suggest that this is what happened to Williams or Howells in particular – their situations were specific and complicated – but both deaths were so shocking that they certainly prompted a lot of soul-searching, especially amongst men).

Artists are good at forcing into the open an issue that society in general would prefer not to talk about – or, as Kimmings puts it, “airing dirty laundry to oil conversations on seemingly difficult subjects”. It is one of the reasons why the Mental Health Foundation, the charity I work for, has been running an annual arts programme, the Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival, for ten years now. Theatre, comedy, music and other art forms have the ability to cut through stigma and taboos to offer another way to look at the world – while, crucially, making this seem like a fun thing to do.

There is a slight risk in focusing on artists; if you’re not careful, people will conclude mental illness is just something that happens to those wacky creative types. In the run-up to a radio interview at last year’s Fringe, I was asked what I thought of a recent study that suggested comedians have personality types linked with psychosis. My response was to politely sidestep the issue. The idea that there is a link between creativity and mental illness is a persistent one, but if it is more visible in the arts, I suspect the reason is just that it’s a more accepting environment than “mainstream” society. You probably won’t end your career as a comedian, actor or painter by admitting you have a mental illness, but you might if you’re a bus driver, teacher or office manager.

This, for me, is why Fake It ‘Til You Make It stood out from a crowd of Fringe shows on the subject last year. It wasn’t Bryony, the wacky performance artist, who had depression; it was Tim, the advertising account manager who had never performed in front of an audience before. Tim is a classic example of a regular guy who was hiding his mental illness because of stigma – and it took an artist to make him stop. What persuaded him to do the show, he said, was the hope that his honesty might persuade other people like him to admit they have a problem too. Judging by the success of Fake It ‘Til You Make It – which is back on tour this autumn – it seems to have worked.

Communication will only get you so far, obviously. It will not free you from poverty, for a start, as the British government’s austerity policies continue to have a serious impact on the nation’s mental health. So this year the Mental Health Foundation also programmed a new festival, Declaration, exploring the wider issue of health and human rights, which is set to return next year.

In the meantime, we’re back in the thick of the Edinburgh Fringe. Shows about mental health generated a huge amount of media coverage at last year’s festival, and when the Mental Health Foundation brought together some of the most high profile performers – Bryony and Tim, Felicity Ward, Le Gateau Chocolat, and Carl Donnelly, alongside Paul Merton and his Impro Chums – for A Gala for Mental Health, it felt like a significant moment. Bryony told me that there was a real sense of camaraderie in the dressing room – here was a group of people who had all gone through similar difficult experiences and now felt able to talk about it publicly, bonding together. I was very pleased to hear that.


We’re doing A Gala for Mental Health again this year, at the Pleasance on 17 August, with proceeds going to the Mental Health Foundation. Please come along. This year it’s an all comedy line-up – which is partly just a reflection of what seems to be on offer at the Fringe in 2016. I haven’t noticed obvious theatre/cabaret equivalents this year of Fake It Til You Make It, or Black, but there seem to be a lot more comedians talking about mental health. This may be partly the influence of comedians like Felicity Ward, who have managed to bring the most uncomfortable subjects into mainstream entertainment. It may also be something to do with Robin Williams, whose death cast a huge shadow over the 2014 Fringe and will continue to be in a lot of people’s thoughts each August; there’s another benefit show the week before ours with lots of comedians paying tribute to Williams.

Our line-up this year consists of our returning host Felicity Ward (who is doing another mental health themed show this year); Susan Calman, who has just published a book about living with depression; Chris Gethard, who made headlines internationally in 2012 after writing a long and heartfelt letter to a fan who was contemplating suicide; Richard Gadd, whose new show promises ‘a fresh insight into mental illness in the modern age, perceived ‘masculinity’ and how something presented on the outside is not necessarily the truth on the inside’; and Martha McBrier, who, like Bryony, is spending her Fringe show this year telling a story from the perspective of a carer, describing the time she took a group of mental health patients to compete in a pool tournament.

I’m looking forward to seeing all of these shows – and Felicity’s, in particular (I’m off to see it tonight in fact). I still have one moment from her show last year lodged in my brain; when she describes having a panic attack so serious she had to be physically restrained by her boyfriend. Flailing around the stage, she somehow makes the moment hilarious, upsetting, moving, and both cartoonishly weird and deeply human and relatable, all at the same time. That takes a lot of skill and I salute her for it.

Comedy seems like a great way to talk about mental health. Someone like Felicity can put an audience at ease straight away, cutting through a lot of the nervousness people feel around the subject. It’s been fascinating, this past year, watching warm, likeable comedians like Felicity and Carl Donnelly using their own experience of mental illness as a subject for comedy. Neither, conspicuously, is using it as an opportunity to show off their darker, more serious side. They just think it’s funny. And in making audiences laugh with them, rather than at them, they normalise it. That’s progress.

(NB: this blog is an updated version of an article I wrote for Scotland on Sunday in August 2015. But they never got round to putting it online, so…)

Children, creativity and mental health – some ‘issue based’ thoughts.


Issue based (adjective) – based on or concerned with specific problems or concerns rather than an overall ideology.

It’s early June, and I’m sitting in a circle of Imaginate Festival delegates, discussing how children’s theatre can address the huge subject of children’s mental health. The conversation is wide-ranging and positive, touching on acclaimed shows like Titus (about a boy standing on the roof of his school, while a crowd gathers below, everybody wondering what he’s going to do) and Mess (about a teenage girl living with anorexia – pictured above). However a phrase keeps coming up that bothers me – ‘issue-based theatre’.

It comes up because it’s useful shorthand – everyone sort of knows what it means. Sometimes children’s theatre-makers are hesitant about tackling mental health, it is suggested, and perhaps this is partly because they’ve been put off by ‘issue-based theatre’ that didn’t stand up to artistic scrutiny. (Too narrow, perhaps, too didactic, or more like an educational tool than a work of art.)

This reminds me of a column last year by Scotsman theatre critic Joyce McMillan, prompted in part by the programme launch for the 2015 Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival (SMHAFF). While complimentary about the festival’s ‘sheer power and quality’, Joyce added: ‘I still can’t help feeling a twinge of unease at the growing need for arts projects to label themselves in this utilitarian and easily-legible way.’ The best works of art, she suggested, ‘utterly defy any officially approved idea of usefulness’.

As an example, Joyce cited the Edinburgh International Festival’s superb 2015 stage production of Lanark, concluding: ‘It’s worth remembering that great art finally tends to speak to us not because we belong to some particular interest group, but because we are human, bound up in the big story of humanity that sings through a novel like Lanark. And it’s a lazy culture, and a lazy funding system, that ever loses sight of that truth, and begins to use obvious utility as a criterion for interest and support, instead of striving to recognise the deep and often unnameable undercurrents of creative energy that power the greatest work, whatever its theme.’

Joyce’s column bothered me too. I don’t like the idea that my job, arts lead for the Mental Health Foundation in Scotland, is symptomatic of a ‘lazy funding system’ (she didn’t exactly say this, but still). I understood what she was getting at, though, and what those children’s theatre-makers were getting at. Artists want to make art, right? If the work you make has a prescribed social purpose – an ‘obvious utility’ as Joyce put it – does it not feel less like art?

To cite SMHAFF in such a discussion complicates things, for various reasons. The first thing to say, since Joyce was making a point about arts funding, is that SMHAFF is largely funded by the health sector. So it is right and proper that the health impact of the festival is a key concern.

However, the festival does also receive some arts funding – my own work over the past year, for example, has been mostly funded by See Me, Scotland’s campaign against mental health discrimination, but also by Creative Scotland. So I’ll respond to Joyce’s argument from that perspective, beginning with her use of the phrase ‘particular interest group’. At the risk of point-scoring, I can’t help observing that the audience for quite a lot of arts events consists of a ‘particular interest group’ – white, university educated, middle class people – and that SMHAFF is a notable exception to this, frequently reaching a wider audience, the reason being that much of the festival is programmed by community groups and volunteers (our core programming team is directly responsible for only a small fraction of SMHAFF, the majority of it being organised by regional co-ordinators across Scotland).

I’m also tempted to counter that mental ill health is itself hardly the preserve of a particular interest group. At SMHAFF we tend to talk about mental health rather than mental illness; it has less stigmatising associations, but also – and I think this is crucial – it makes the point that what we are addressing is not only the severe, crippling illnesses that afflict a minority of us, but also a whole range of everyday experiences from brief periods of depression to grief. All these experiences are a fundamental part of what it means to be human. Who are these people that aren’t affected by mental ill-health at some point, or haven’t had to look after someone who is? I’m not sure I’ve ever met one. In short, SMHAFF is demonstrably not about catering to a particular interest group, it is about establishing the idea that mental health is something that concerns all of us.

This is important because it’s an idea that mainstream society, still, seems to have a problem accepting. Why? Because, I think, it would force us to confront the fact that so many aspects of our daily lives are damaging our mental health. Instead, we are encouraged to think that there are normal people who are fine – these being the people who are, on the whole, willing to accept society as they find it – and other people who are not fine because they’ve gone through some kind of relatively rare trauma. This is demonstrably untrue. To choose one topical example, the problem of male depression and suicide is to a significant extent a problem created by the narrow, limiting role that mainstream society expects men to play. In other words it is not just exceptional experiences that are making men ill, but everyday life. This is one of the reasons why, when we began programming a conference on the arts and mental health last year, we called it The Dust of Everyday Life.

It is interesting to me that when people talk about ‘issue-based’ art, it often involves a process of othering. Theatre about being transgender, or disabled, or black, or a woman, or in poverty, is considered to be ‘issue-based’ (or, to quote the definition above, ‘concerned with specific problems’ rather than just being about the universal experience of being human). Theatre about being a default man is not. But the fact is, all of us belong to a particular interest group of some kind – it’s just that not all of them tend to be identified as that, only the ones that aren’t routinely allowed a voice. This certainly applies to the way people talk about mental health.

To be clear, I am not accusing Joyce McMillan of doing this, at least not deliberately. Still, I am interested in how work comes to be thought of as catering to a ‘particular interest group’, and the assumptions behind such labels. Lanark, after all, is written from the particular perspective of a white, male, heterosexual artist who lacks sexual confidence. If there isn’t a funding stream or a festival for such people, perhaps it’s because their voices are not exactly underrepresented in culture.

How, then, does all this apply to work made for children that explores mental health? This complicates things further. It is, I think, reasonable to argue that while the best theatre for adults is ‘bound up in the big story of humanity’ as Joyce described it, the purpose of children’s theatre is different because children are not yet able fully to understand or appreciate that big story of humanity. So instead it is about preparing them for the adult world. In other words, it has a prescribed social purpose. It is educational, even if not explicitly. And if you decide that the children’s theatre you are making is going to address mental health, isn’t that, by definition, adding on another layer of prescribed social purpose?

My answer to that is… not necessarily. But I’ll come back to that in a minute.

The subject of children and mental health has preoccupied me for a while now, both as a parent (I have three children) and professionally. How could it not, given the level of media coverage the subject has received in recent months? In March the World Health Organisation reported a 54% increase in the number of children being prescribed anti-depressants in the UK between 2005 and 2012. Three children in every classroom have a diagnosed mental illness, according to YoungMinds. It is difficult to get an accurate picture of exactly what is going on, since many statistics are up to a decade old, but austerity, and the way our education system is run, is certainly having an impact, and schools are not coping. In May the UK government sacked its children’s mental health champion, Natasha Devon, after she said that its own policies were making the problem worse. It feels worryingly like a crisis, one that schools do not have the resources to address.

It is, then, something that SMHAFF – and the Mental Health Foundation’s year-round arts programme – clearly needs to be talking about. And so we are. This year’s Dust of Everyday Life opened with a session on children, creativity and mental health chaired by Imaginate’s creative development director Fiona Ferguson (which you can listen to on Soundcloud). The delegate discussion at this year’s Imaginate Festival was a continuation of that conversation, and we are currently planning further events in a similar spirit, this year and next. This week I will be talking about some of this work at the Royal College of Psychiatrists in London, as part of the 2016 Public Mental Health Network day.

The question posed by the Dust of Everyday Life session was this: ‘how do we talk to children about mental health and what can artists do to help?’ My feeling is that artists have a crucial role to play, precisely because their role is not to be an educator, or a psychologist, or a campaigner, but simply to do what they’re good at – making really good art that comes from a place of curiosity, questioning, and empathy.

Art for children is, of course, different from art for grown ups. Firstly, since it is mostly made by adults rather than children, it is not created by the people whose stories it is telling (we were all children once, obviously, but that doesn’t mean we can remember with any clarity what it feels like). Secondly, children don’t usually decide to experience it by themselves. Adults decide for them. This presents particular challenges for an organisation such as Imaginate, which is exceptionally good at finding and showcasing bold, brilliant, experimental, boundary pushing art that children love. Before it can reach any children, it has to win over the gatekeepers – teachers and parents. This can be difficult if the work is exploring subjects – sexuality, perhaps, or body image, or grief – that alarm the gatekeepers.

“When you see work from other countries you see how much our attitudes towards children are reflected in the work we make,” Fiona Ferguson of Imaginate told me last year when I wrote about the Imaginate Festival (and Eilidh Macaskill’s Gendersaurus Rex research project on children and gender) for the Scotsman. “In the UK we often want to protect children but they don’t often have a loud voice. There’s a contradiction there – a lot of decisions are made by adults about what children can handle.” But are those adults always best placed to make those decisions, or are they part of a system that is harming – or at least not helping – the mental health of children?

Sitting alongside me at the Imaginate discussion this month was Emma Jayne Park of Cultured Mongrel Dance Theatre. A dancer and choreographer, Emma Jayne is passionate about making work that explores mental health, and recently became SMHAFF’s first associate artist. This year she is bringing a family show to the festival called Experts in Short Trousers, in which children help a group of aliens to rebuild their crashed rocket ship. From one perspective, the show has a social purpose – it is about empowering children to learn how to make their own decisions. But it connects with its audience primarily because it is fun, and the children feel an emotional connection with the alien characters, just as Mess connects with teenagers not because they are learning about anorexia but because they love the character and relate to her. At Imaginate, Emma Jayne talked about how she is sometimes able to reach out to school-children because she is not a teacher, or an authority figure. Teenagers feel able to ask her personal questions about her own mental health issues, she feels able to answer them, and a connection is made. For the Experts in Short Trousers tour, she has been wearing a T shirt with the slogan ‘I am not an expert’.

I am certainly not an expert on this subject, but I am attempting to learn. One of the things that makes me think the arts have a crucial role to play is the current campaign by Sue Palmer, author of Toxic Childhood and chair of the organisation Upstart Scotland, to overhaul the education system so that children don’t begin school until they are seven – introducing a new ‘kindergarten stage’ from the ages of three to seven. This is not as radical as it may sound; Scotland is currently one of only six countries in Europe that sends kids to school at the age of four or five. Three of Europe’s most academically successful countries, Finland, Poland and Estonia, all send children to school two years later than Scotland does.

Palmer’s argument is that allowing children space to play is crucial to early development – and yet we neglect this in our obsession with teaching literacy skills. ‘When children are out playing that’s when they are developing resilience in a way they are designed by nature to develop it,’ she told the National last month. ‘We need to realise the self-regulation skills and the emotional resilience can develop in these early years. It is something you cannot teach. Grown-ups have this feeling that children’s minds are like their minds. They are not.’

This chimes with my experience of theatre for young children – the best of which tends to be about encouraging playfulness, and creating a space for that to happen. It has always been striking to me that a lot of children’s theatre-makers in Scotland – people like Emma Jayne Park, Eilidh Macaskill, Xana Marwick, and Brian Hartley – emerged from live art or dance, finding in both worlds an opportunity to play with, and subvert, the rules of theatre. Children, after all, create their own version of theatre from when they are toddlers, inventing characters and situations in the most freeform way. Children, left to their own devices, are much more free and experimental as artists than most adults are, and as audience members they are also more receptive to experimental work – often far more so than parents or teachers might expect.

Palmer’s research adds weight to the argument that children’s mental health is suffering because there is something fundamentally unhealthy about the way we make them live their everyday lives – sending them to school too early, forcing them into a stressful regime of constant tests, and not allowing them enough time outdoors. It would be naive to suggest that art or artists can fix all this, but I do think the lack of importance the arts are considered to have in children’s lives is having a damaging effect on children’s mental health. And, if I can, I want to help to do something about it, even if it’s just amplifying a conversation that’s already happening, which I am currently attempting to do in partnership with brilliant people like Emma Jayne Park, Fiona Ferguson at Imaginate and Alice McGrath of Red Bridge Arts, the producer of Titus.

I am very interested to hear from anyone else – artists, mental health campaigners, educators, children – who has experiences to share on this subject.





Kim Kardashian, Miley Cyrus and me: more thoughts on male vs female objectification

24honey copy 4

Around this time last year I posted a blog about masculinity, nudity, and the difference between male and female objectification, and illustrated it with a couple of photos that my friend Jannica Honey had taken back in 2007. It was, and still is, the most popular thing I have ever put on this website. It’s possible that some of this attention was just people prowling the internet looking for naked bodies (and probably leaving terribly disappointed given that the pictures were 1. of me and 2. not that explicit). But judging by the comments, tweets and emails from across the world, the writing struck a chord with a lot of people.

One particularly moving response was from a gay man who had been married for three years but had never seen his partner naked. ‘He was unhealthily overweight when he was younger, which has taken its toll on his body,’ the man explained. ‘He feels deeply ashamed of it.’ He enjoyed the blog, he told me, because ‘there aren’t that many resources that encourage men to think about their gaze; their bodies; their peers; themselves’.

I agree with that, and had planned to write more on the subject, perhaps a book. I asked Jannica to photograph me again, to see if it would feel different eight years on. We discussed a collaboration – her photos, my writing – that would explore contemporary masculinity, vulnerability, the ageing process, the male gaze, the whole ‘what does it mean to be a man?’ thing. I started doing interviews. I talked to the playwright and novelist Alan Bissett, because his play Ban this Filth and novel Death of a Ladies’ Man are full of smart observations about contemporary masculinity (and, in the case of the former, male nudity). I talked to artist Diane Torr about her Man for a Day workshops, to learn more about the idea of masculinity as performance. And, for similar reasons, I talked to the transgender playwright Jo Clifford, who grew up, married and had children as John Clifford before undergoing gender reassignment late in life, and who now describes herself as ‘a proud father and grandmother’.

And then I lost my nerve and put the whole project on hold.

There were a couple of reasons. Firstly, I got bogged down in a possibly peripheral area of research – transgender identity and, in particular, its relationship with feminism – which is something of a minefield, and I ended up falling down a hole in the internet (although I did get a Bella Caledonia feature out of it). Secondly, I realised one day that, if you did a Google image search for my name, the first pictures that came up were of me naked. Since I was applying for various freelance jobs at the time and so was probably being Googled regularly by potential employers, this freaked me out a bit.

A year on, I am ambivalent about my ambivalence. I really like Jannica’s second set of pictures, one of which is at the top of this blog (cropped – sorry Jannica). And isn’t male nudity everywhere these days, in fashion, sport, film, television and media coverage of all of the above? What’s the big deal? Aren’t we all pretty relaxed about it now?

Well, yes and no. Male nudity is indeed everywhere, but not in a way that’s of much use to anyone searching for the kind of emotional resource described above. You won’t find many naked male bodies that look like mine in the mainstream media, for one thing, and I have not yet found a male equivalent of Herself, the website that prompted much of my thinking on this subject (if one exists, do let me know). Instead there are ubiquitous pecs – Jamie Dornan (in 50 Shades of Gray), Aidan Turner (in Poldark), Channing Tatum (in the Magic Mike films), or models like David Gandy, advertising an ever-wider range of products, from air freshener to salad dressing (a trend known as hunkvertising). If you believe Mark Simpson, the writer who famously introduced the word metrosexual to the world back in 2002, we are living in the age of the spornosexual,  young men raised in a world of instantly available online porn and obsessed with building up their bodies so that they look like sportsmen or porn stars.

I have no desire whatsoever to look like that, but I was happy to discover that spornosexuality at least seems to reflect a more relaxed attitude to different forms of sexuality. As Mark Simpson argued in 2014, “the way straight young men chase and hustle gay attention today represents a major, millennial shift in attitudes…. They instinctively know that male objectification is about enjoying and celebrating male passivity, even — and especially — if you’re straight. So getting the gays proves not only your hotness, and coolness, but also your metaphysical versatility.” As evidence, Simpson cites Dan Osborne being photographed naked for gay magazine Attitude, and the Warwick University rowing team, whose naked charity calendars have been a big hit and are “dedicated to fighting homophobia in sports”. Apparently young heterosexual men even kiss each other on the mouth these days.

So that’s all good, except that the recent ubiquity of male nudity is also distorting discussions around female objectification – typified by the controversy, in April 2015, over an advert for weight loss supplements by a company called Protein World. The ad, you may remember, featured a young woman in a bikini and the slogan “Are you beach body ready?”, and made headlines after women began adding their own slogans to the poster with marker pens, like “Stop encouraging women to starve themselves,” and “If my body is on the beach then it is ready, thank you very much.” At the height of this protest, Mark Simpson tweeted a photo of an advert featuring a typically spornosexual naked man that was appearing on the London Underground at the same time as the one for Protein World. “Strangely, this starkers #beachreadybody ad on the Tube didn’t provoke any demos,” Simpson wrote. “Just a lot of staring.”

Well of course it didn’t, because women weren’t objecting to a photo of a woman in a bikini, but to the slogan, which implied that, unless you looked like the model in the ad, you really shouldn’t be putting on a swimsuit in public. As one protestor, London barrister Harriet Johnson, tweeted on 23 April: “Hey @ProteinWorld, am I (a normal woman) allowed on the beach? You know, if my body’s for me, not to please others?” Others went much further in expressing their anger, threatening to smash the windows of the company’s office, or even bomb it.

This was seized on by writers like Martin Daubney, a former Loaded editor and something of a Simpson disciple, as evidence of the irrationality and extremism of feminist “social justice warriors”, when actually it was just further evidence of the internet’s tendency to polarise and poison debate regardless of the issue. Daubney’s Protein World report, for the Breitbart website on 2 May 2015, took particular pride in its revelation that the hashtag #growupharriet – the company’s condescending response to Johnson’s tweet – was to be included on billboards when the Protein World ad was launched in New York. What he didn’t mention was Johnson’s subsequent tweet, on 30 April: “This week I’ve been threatened with death & rape, told to ‘get cancer’, & abused by strangers. For pointing out an ad was wrong.”

Writers like Martin Daubney and Mark Simpson have spent a lot of time, over the past couple of years, arguing that male and female objectification are essentially the same thing and that we’re all basically equal now. But as any woman knows very well, there is a profound difference between the way women experience objectification and the way men experience it. If we men are objectified, it is almost always through choice. Jamie Dornan and Aidan Turner made a decision to be actors in dramas that required them to take their clothes off – and there is no obvious shortage of roles for young male actors that wouldn’t require them to do this. Posing for Jannica, I made the choice and I set the terms (none of the images would be displayed in public without my permission). Mark Simpson, revealingly, tends to talk about “self-objectification”. In other words, if a man does not wish to be objectified it is easy enough for him to avoid it.

Women, though, are objectified on a daily basis regardless of how they look, dress, or behave. As Barbara Ellen put it in a column on 12 April 2015, “sexual objectification is an ongoing socioeconomic-cum-psychosexual epidemic, affecting the vast majority of women at some stages of their lives. Even when they are no longer objectified (losing looks or fertility; ageing), it’s used against them in a routine way… This is the truth of female objectification – it’s less about personal sexiness and more about impersonal power structures. How could a man begin to appropriate this gigantic, complicated, socio-historically entrenched mess as his own valid experience?” Objectification of women takes many forms but fundamentally it is about male control over women’s bodies and women’s voices. Street harassment, catcalling, stalking, sexual bullying and rape are all forms of objectification, because all involve a person being reduced to an object for someone else’s gratification. And the overwhelming majority of victims of all of the above are women.

Martin Daubney made a revealing comment in his article about male objectification for the Telegraph last year. “These days, it’s acceptable for straight men to admit we actually quite like looking at Jamie Dornan’s body – and Beckham’s budgie smugglers or David Gandy’s pecs. It’s not a sexual thing, because we look at these men as objects: superior physical beings we’d like to be a little more like. Straight men thinking more like gays – and that’s healthy.”

Yes it is healthy, but it’s not objectification. If Daubney wanted to fuck the men he is looking at, to use them selfishly for his own sexual pleasure, then that would be objectification, but apparently he doesn’t – he wants to be them, physically at least. That is something else entirely – projection of our own desires on to another person, which doesn’t objectify that person any more than fantasising about being Tom Cruise objectifies Tom Cruise. No wonder men are so relaxed about it. Far from promoting equality, the spornosexual body does precisely the opposite – it reinforces the power and status of men.

But it also reinforces a particular version of masculinity – one that I find completely alienating. As I asked in last year’s blog, where are the images that find beauty (rather than comedy) in showing men as ordinary, physically imperfect human creatures?


It says a lot about the culture we live in that one of the few places you’ll find such images is as part of a conversation about feminism. In 2012, for example, an exhibition in London called The Naked Muse brought together female photographers and male poets for a series of 30 table-turning nude portraits, in which the poets became muses for women. Since poets are not exactly famed for their frequent gym attendance, the result was a rather more varied display of male nudity than is usually on offer in the media, not only in physique but in age – from 21 to 67.

And then there’s Alan Bissett’s Ban this Filth, a very personal exploration of masculinity and feminism in which Alan switched between playing himself as a teenager discovering pornography, and playing Andrea Dworkin, the feminist writer and campaigner who regarded all pornography as violence against women. At the end of each night’s show, Alan invited his audience to vote on whether or not he should take all his clothes off.

“If I was going to do a show about porn and the objectification of women, I had to be as close as I could to what a women might feel when she’s being objectified,” Alan explained when I interviewed him about it. He recalled discussing the idea with his director, Sacha Kyle, and remarking to her that if he was going to be naked on stage he’d better get himself to to a gym. “And she said, no, don’t, because if you strip off and you’ve got pecs people will go, oh for fuck’s sake you wanted us to see it because you’re beautiful, but if you’ve got the same wobbly bits and slack muscle and flab as everybody else there’s going to be a lot more sympathy.’ So I thought, let’s try and make myself as vulnerable as I possibly can. But the conclusion that’s reached at the end of the play is that it’s not the same sense of peril because I’m still male. I can walk away from this and it’s not going to hurt me. But I still felt it was important to try and go part of that way.”

Having spent years examining masculinity in novels like Boyracers, Pack Men and Death of a Ladies Man, part of Alan’s motivation was, simply enough, to question what it meant for an ordinary looking man to be publicly naked – a question to which he didn’t have an answer. “If I’m standing there undressed in front of an audience they can project on to me what that means,” he told me. “Maybe what it means is ‘fucking look at me I’m a guy,’ maybe what it means is ‘oh my god this is terrifying stop looking at me’, maybe what it means is ‘this is a really ham-fisted attempt to empathise with vulnerable women.’”

What he discovered was that “people get profoundly uncomfortable with male nudity. We’re so used to seeing the naked female form and there’s a lot more titillation around it. What I felt at that point was the audience squirming. Some people took it as almost aggressive, like ‘I’m gonna show you my dick whether you want me to or not.’ Other people were like, ‘no he’s vulnerable, you don’t have to do this mate.’ What I learned is that it’s complex; we haven’t quite worked out what male nudity in society means, which is the whole point about male objectification. What’s happened to female nudity is it’s become commodified, and it’s been commodified for decades. We’re so used to it now. An advert for moisturiser, an advert for a clothes shop, an advert for Thomson holidays. We’re much less used to knowing what male nudity means, which says it all really about our patriarchal culture.”

Another factor in play was the aforementioned ubiquity of the ‘spornosexual’ male body. “What’s much more taboo is the idea of a naked male body that isn’t perfect,” Alan observed. “Because feminism has been successful to a certain extent, the idea of a fat naked woman can be empowering, but nobody sees a fat naked man, or a skinny naked man, as empowering. There’s only one naked male form that’s permissible, which isn’t to say let’s get the violins out for men, just that we’re just not used to seeing that. There’s no product you can sell using a fat naked man. It’s useless as a capitalist symbol.”

Indeed. The manifesto for Herself, which I wrote about in my previous blog, can be read as a critique of capitalism as much as of misogyny: “Let us reclaim our bodies. Let us take them back from those who seek to profit from our insecurity.” Hunkvertising is part of that same process of exploitation; it is not about sexual equality, it’s about money. As blogger Rebecca Cullers put it in AdWeek in 2013, “it had to do with equality back when Cosmo picked Burt Reynolds as the first nude male centre fold. At this point, looking at some abs while drinking Diet Coke is hardly a feminist revolution, particularly when it’s a remake of a popular spot from decades ago.”

So why aren’t men writing Herself-style manifestos about wanting to reclaim their bodies? Most obviously, it’s because things like hunkvertising are simply not a threat to the status of men in general – we are still, overwhelmingly, the ones in charge of that capitalist society, so, as Alan rightly puts it, there is no comparable sense of peril. Also, what would we have to gain? I have never heard anyone claim that men taking their clothes off is ’empowering’ (something constantly claimed about female nudity). It is more likely to be disempowering. That was certainly my fear, rational or not. Would I be taken less seriously as a potential employee?

Another factor is that worrying aloud about male objectification tends to provoke an immediate – and often deserved – backlash from women, as Game of Thrones actor Kit Harington discovered when he complained in April 2015 that “to be put on a pedestal as a hunk is slightly demeaning… in the same way as it is for women”. The response from many women was a blunt, instantaneous “you know nothing, Jon Snow”. How could Harington possibly understand what it feels like to be objectified the way women are? Well, he can’t, obviously, but in terms of the way capitalism turns all human beings into commodities, he had a point – except for his misunderstanding of where the equivalence was.

Perhaps, as Alan’s experience suggests, the main problem is that we men are still in the early, tentative stages of a debate about capitalism and sexual objectification that women have been immersed in for decades, a debate full of questions that tend to leave men floundering because we’ve never had to think about it properly before. What, for example, is the difference between a woman’s body being objectified in a men’s magazine and a woman’s body being objectified in a women’s magazine? Until recently I had thought the right response, for a man who wants to be an ally of feminism, is that a woman being objectified by another woman is fine because the power relationship is entirely different. As Noah Berlatsky put it in a 2013 article on this subject for the Atlantic, “Esquire retails yet another fantasy of mastery for men. Women’s magazines, on the other hand, offer a fantasy of mastery for women.” But if in both cases women’s bodies are being turned into products, is there really that much of a difference?

The more closely nudity is tied to capitalism, it appears, the more complex questions about objectification become – which goes some way to explaining the recent heated debate over Kim Kardashian’s naked bathroom selfie.

Kim Kardashian selfie

The question being asked about Kim Kardashian is essentially the same one that was being asked about Miley Cyrus three years ago. Is a female celebrity taking her clothes off – on her own terms but also in an obvious bid for public attention – empowering for young women or reinforcing misogyny? Both cases demonstrate how deeply women think about objectification, how little men understand it, and how divisive the issue is. Three years on, and after a lot of reading on the subject, my little man brain is still unsure where I stand on the whole Miley thing (and, by extension, the whole Kim thing), but here – for the sake of illustrating a larger point – is my best attempt to sum up the arguments involved (without, I hope, mansplaining). While Miley is my case study of choice, I suspect you can substitute Kim’s name at various points fairly easily. And by the way, as you read this, feel free to ponder whether anyone would ever have a discussion like this about male celebrities.

For some feminists, Cyrus’s appearance at the 2013 VMA awards – duetting with Robin Thicke on a song, Blurred Lines, which had been widely accused of implicitly inciting rape – was a car crash, a leering, fully dressed, married man in his mid-thirties singing “you know you want it” while a 20-year-old “good girl” rubbed her semi-naked body against him. Sinead O’Connor, hearing that Cyrus’s Wrecking Ball video had been partly inspired by the famous video for her single Nothing Compares to U, wrote an open letter to the singer: “You are worth more than your body and your sexual appeal,” she told Cyrus. “You have enough talent that you don’t need to let the music business make a prostitute of you.”

Other women felt differently, like American artist Marilyn Minter, who said Cyrus was being “slut shamed” by such comments and that “there’s a ceiling for women owning sexuality in any shape or form”. Musician Amanda Palmer responded to O’Connor’s open letter to Cyrus with an open letter to O’Connor, suggesting Cyrus was more in control of her own decisions than O’Connor was giving her credit for, and warning of the danger of “women scolding other women”. “I want to live in a world where WE as women determine what we wear and look like and play the game as our fancy leads us, army pants one minute and killer gown the next, where WE decide whether or not we’re going to play games with the male gaze and the starry-eyed hard-ons that can make men so easy to manipulate,” wrote Palmer. “But seriously, let’s all play the game together, with a wink and a nudge… so we don’t hurt each other.”

When Annie Lennox joined the discussion a couple of days later, she initially echoed O’Connor, describing “overtly sexualised” performances like Cyrus’s as “a glorified and monetized form of self-harm… misogyny, utilized and displayed through oneself”. Within 24 hours, though, she had completely revised her argument (while skillfully giving the impression she hadn’t): “There’s nothing wrong with sexuality and sensuality and I think these artists are beautiful, but it needs to be age-appropriate.” The problem was no longer “monetised self-harm”, then, but what impact Cyrus could have on young viewers. Except that this, arguably, is a form of slut-shaming too – a very particular form of it, in which middle-aged women try to shame younger women for their irresponsibility in an effort to assert themselves as a wiser “voice of reason”. The columnist Julie Burchill accused O’Connor of doing just this, acting like “a very dreary blend of a tarot-card reader, prim headmistress and unsolicited agony aunt”, feigning concern while actually just “carping at a younger, prettier woman who sells records in the quantity you used to”.

Complicating the situation further was Cyrus’s apparent disregard for feminist solidarity, mocking O’Connor on Twitter for her mental health problems (prompting four more, increasingly angry open letters from the Irish singer) and surrounding herself at the VMA Awards with semi-naked black backing dancers, her “homegirls with the big butts, shaking it like we in a strip club”. For black writer NinjaCate, there were serious problems with Cyrus’s “association of her newfound sexuality with the traditional codifiers of black female culture, thereby perpetuating the Jezebel stereotype that black women are lewd, lascivious and uncontrollably sexualised. Can we talk about the straight up minstrelsy of that performance? Can we talk about how not a single black person won an award last night even though the people who did win awards have been mining black music and culture for years? No? Ok… I’ll just sit at the back of the bus then. #solidarityisforwhitewomen.”

Leaving aside the racial element, the debate – conducted almost exclusively among women, while most men just gawped and wondered what the fuss was about – was essentially a clash between second and third wave feminism, according to writer Michelle Smith on The Conversation website. While second wave feminists saw Cyrus as an unwitting pawn of a sexually exploitative system catering to the values and needs of men, third wave feminists pointed out that, if a woman is in control of her decisions, what right does another woman have to tell her what she should do? As Vanessa Blanchard wrote of Sinead O’Connor’s open letter, “telling Miley Cyrus to cover up and protect herself from predators negates her right to take up space any way she pleases, and the justification of this attack on her right to be is that it is meant to help her avoid being blamed for the actions of others. Never mind that attacking a person’s worth, so that they will do what you say, is just as misleading and controlling as the predatory behaviour O’Connor warns about.” Except that, as Michelle Smith pointed out, “the third wave perspective that lauds Cyrus’s choice to be a ‘raging, naked, twerking sex-pot’ rests on the problematic idea that gender equality has been achieved and that women are already fully liberated. Can we really say that the career choices available to female musicians are equivalent or comparable to those available to male musicians?”

A common feminist response to all this is more nudity – but nudity in a form that rebels against the capitalist mass entertainment system in which Miley Cyrus and Kim Kardashian operate. The point of the images on Herself, the website I wrote about in my blog last year, is that nothing is for sale. It is not a fashion shoot, or an advert. The photos have not been digitally manipulated to give anyone smaller hips or bigger breasts. You can see spots and wrinkles and cellulite and birthmarks and fat. And nobody’s hands are coyly concealing nipples or vaginas so that the photos can safely make it onto a supermarket shelf. It is one of numerous feminist projects that are, at least partly, about reclaiming female nudity from capitalism.

Jannica Honey’s website is another good example; one of her best piece of work – in my opinion – is a collection of portraits of Edinburgh strippers, which are funny, frank, intimate, mostly naked, but never exploitative. The women are subjects rather than objects, full of humanity, and their bodies, in this context, are not for sale. It is a culture shock seeing photos of naked strippers that are not intended to be titillating, and it is surprising (or was to me, anyway) what a powerful statement it ends up being. Then there is Raising the Skirt, a project started by live artist Nicola Canavan in 2014, in which women are photographed roaring and exposing their vaginas, in wild outdoor landscapes, naked but for a skirt, like clan warriors. Raising the Skirt references folklore across the world that suggests “women could drive away the devils and evil spirits, all through the power and beauty of their cunts”. Its slogan echoes the conclusion of the Herself manifesto, but more bluntly: “Reclaim your cunt, reclaim our cunts.”


Perhaps the most striking British example in recent years, though, was Nic Green’s Trilogy (above), a theatre show about womanhood and the naked body that became a phenomenon. At the Edinburgh Fringe in 2009 it featured around 40 women, of all ages and body sizes, singing and dancing naked. By the time it reached the Barbican in London the following year that number had swelled to around 200 – a mass, communal reclaiming of the female body. “At its very pinnacle, art has the ability to make criticism redundant,” marvelled theatre critic Matt Trueman. Trilogy, he wrote, “is so important, so intelligent, so passionate, bold, heartfelt, honest, amusing, absorbing and valiant that such words simply fade into insignificance.”

In summary, women spend a huge amount of time thinking and arguing about the meaning of female nudity – and, quite often, getting naked while doing it – apparently because it is one of the only ways to feel any ownership over their bodies in a world where female nudity is ubiquitous, often oppressively so, and is used constantly to try and sell us stuff. Men, on the whole, haven’t had to think about much about what male nudity means and so haven’t bothered. We are, probably, about half a century behind women on this subject. Last week I was reading about yet another female artist exploring female nudity, wrinkles, cellulite and all – the painter Aleah Chapin – and was struck by her answer to the question of why she hasn’t painted men in the same way. “Men are less comfortable,” she said, adding that she was going to try and persuade some for her next show. “It’s daunting – but I have to do it.” Good luck with that.

And this is partly why Ban this Filth caused a stir. Here’s the twist, though – Alan never did take all his clothes off. No matter how many times he did the show, he told me, there was never a majority vote in favour of him getting naked. “When I asked people afterwards they all had different reasons,” he explained. “A lot of them said, ‘I had no objection to it but I felt sorry for you, you would have been too vulnerable.’ Other people were like, ‘I just didn’t want to see you naked.’ And other people felt that me in a show about radical feminism exposing my penis would have been completely the wrong message and would have been a macho, patriarchal kind of move, and I accept that. I think there was also a thing in the audience where people didn’t want to be seen voting for nudity, because it would make them look like a perv, which is also interesting because it clearly wasn’t a sexual thing, it was an artistic thing and a political thing but still, it’s like, ‘if I vote for this it makes me look like I want to see some dick.’ But that still makes a point about the taboo of male nudity.”

Yes it does. One thing I noticed when I published my first blog on this subject last year was that, while my female friends were very supportive and positive and kept telling me how brave I was, virtually all of my male friends (the heterosexual ones, at least) were either conspicuously silent or made awkward jokes. One of them pointed out that I had a bit of fluff in my belly button – and this was all he had to say on the subject. I had been living with these photos for eight years and had never noticed the fluff before. In other words, while acting as if it was all a bit of a joke, in his own quiet way he was clearly paying very close attention. Which is progress of a sort, I suppose.

And so I’m not sure where to go from here. As much as I love Jannica’s 2015 portraits of me, I’m not quite brave enough to put them out in the world properly yet. But it also feels like men and boys desperately need to talk about this stuff, and that an important part of that process is for different kinds of male bodies to be celebrated – just as women have been doing for years with projects like Trilogy, Herself, or Raising the Skirt. Another new word I have discovered in the past year is ‘bigorexia’, an anxiety disorder that causes young men to work out compulsively and become obsessed with looking at themselves in the mirror. Rob Wilson, chair of the Body Dysmorphic Disorder Foundation, told the BBC last year that the condition may have become more common as a result of “an increased pressure on men to look muscular, create a ‘V’ shape and have a six pack”. In other words, hunkvertising and spornosexuality are affecting the mental health of boys, just as ubiquitous media images of semi-naked women have been affecting the mental health of girls for decades now.

As difficult as this must have been for generations of girls, at least they’ve had generations of brilliant feminist writers to help them feel less alone – Germaine Greer, Andrea Dworkin, Naomi Wolf, Margaret Atwood, Caitlin Moran, Laurie Penny, to name just a few. Boys have…. Mark Simpson? No wonder we’re in trouble.