Midsummer revelry at Stonehenge. Photo: Getty
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My nerves can’t cope with three random midsummer encounters in the space of 15 seconds

I’d long planned to go up to the Heath on Midsummer Night to frolic under the stars.

Midsummer’s Day was unusual. That’s good: a usual day, these days, involves lying in bed all day wondering when I’m going to tidy up the bedroom enough so I can let the cleaning lady have a go at it without me dying of shame or her resigning in disgust. When you don’t have a lady friend in situ you tend to let things slide a little bit, and your motto changes from “Excelsior!” to “What’s the sodding point?”, only with a more passionate qualifier than “sodding”.

I’d long planned to go up to the Heath on Midsummer Night to frolic under the stars. The last time I had a proper midsummer bacchanalia was when my fellow columnist Mr William Self arranged for a bonfire party on the beach near Sizewell, just round the corner from where he was living at the time. This was all very nice but I’d had to stay up half the night on the evening before, condensing The Tempest into a 15-minute playlet because he wanted us to perform it. (It took a lot longer than I thought it would, but I like to think I turned out a pretty good version.) This time all I was going to do was lie on my back or walk through the woods, with a friend, or rather more than one friend, as I did not want to be mistaken for the kind of person who goes up to Hampstead Heath in the middle of the night for one purpose only. (I am reminded of the wonderful letter in Viz which complained that gay men, going to the Heath for an encounter, could have their spirits uplifted in the knowledge that there was a small but distinct chance they would run into George Michael; whereas there is no public space on earth where a heterosexual man can go in the expectation, however small, that he’ll run into, say, Angelina Jolie.)

So I am to go with my old friend John Moore; a couple of his friends, both women, will be joining us later. En route to my rendezvous I drop in on my old friend C—, who presses upon me one of those cigarettes which, by a curious anomaly, are perfectly legal in Colorado but, thanks to the stupidity and ignorance of successive British governments since 1928, illegal here.

I have noticed on more than one occasion that it is only when one is enjoying the effects of such a cigarette that Providence decides to throw you rather more than your allotted share of odd occurrences. If paranoia is said to be a side effect, then that might be because you have something to be paranoid about. So when an enormous shaven-headed man accosted me on the northbound platform of the Northern Line at King’s Cross, I at first wondered whether my time had come, and the various people and organisations I owe money to had clubbed together and decided that assassination was the only way forward.

“Excuse me for bothering you,” he said politely, “but from the way you’re dressed” – it is a warm day, and I am wearing my summer plumage of white linen – “you look as though you might know what’s happened in the cricket.”

As it happened, I did, and was in the middle of an involved account of how exactly England had got to 318 for 6 against Sri Lanka, when someone else tapped me on the shoulder. Jesus Christ, I thought, this is it! Mr Shaven Head was just a diversion. But it turned out to be Noah, a friend of my daughter’s, who had recently befriended me on Facebook. He once broke a string on my guitar while he was playing it so I made him restring the whole thing; as it’s a 12-string semi-acoustic, this takes about three hours. Had he been stalking me so he could push me on to the tracks in revenge? No, he wanted to thank my daughter for having driven him and his film crew to Wales.

By the time I got to the pub I had more or less recovered from two random human encounters on the Tube in 15 seconds, but was still jittery. As I sipped my pint a young man in a football shirt asked if I would take a picture of him and his friends. As I held the camera up, he asked: “Er . . . are you Nicholas Lezard?”

My usual impulse when asked this is to say “no”, for reasons hinted at above, but instead I said “yes”, cautiously. It turned out that he was a fan of this column; and he even had a copy of this magazine, open at this page, which he took out of his bag for me to sign.

Which has more or less made my year, to be honest, but Philip, if you’re reading this: you nearly gave me a sodding heart attack.

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 02 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, After God Again

Hulu
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Why is the Handmaid's Tale claimed as feminist, when it's deeply ambivalent about the movement?

The scapegoating of the anti-porn movement, Offred’s longing for hand cream - these feel like digs at second-wave feminists.

In a recent piece for the New York Times, Margaret Atwood tackled the question of whether or not her 1985 work The Handmaid’s Tale ought to be considered a feminist novel:

"If you mean an ideological tract in which all women are angels and/or so victimized they are incapable of moral choice, no. If you mean a novel in which women are human beings — with all the variety of character and behavior that implies — and are also interesting and important, and what happens to them is crucial to the theme, structure and plot of the book, then yes."

On the face of it, this seems a reasonable answer. It all depends on what one means by “feminist”. And yet, I can’t help thinking: if that’s the case, are those really our only two options?

Do we have to choose between a feminism which accords women no moral agency and one which merely tells that women are people, too? Certainly if it’s the latter, then Atwood is right that “many books are ‘feminist’”. The trouble is, I’m not sure such a definition gets us very far.

For instance, last week the cast of Hulu’s television adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale caused controversy by appearing to suggest that the story was not feminist at all. In truth what was said did not deviate significantly from Atwood’s earlier comments. “It’s a human story,” claimed Elizabeth Moss, the actress who plays Offred, “because women’s rights are human rights.”

While it’s difficult to argue with that – unless one genuinely believes that women are not human – it’s a statement that grates, not least because it has an air of apology about it. What is really being emphasised here, and in Atwood’s earlier definition? The humanity of women, or the applicability of women’s stories to those humans who actually matter, that is, the men? 

It’s not always clear, which highlights a double-bind feminists often find ourselves in when discussing not just women’s art, but our politics, spaces and experiences. Regardless of whether or not we choose to universalise – “it’s just human experience!” – or to specify – “it’s a female-only issue!” –  there’s always a way for us to end up losing. We’re either erasing or essentialising; either we’re absorbed into the male default or accused of complicity in our own marginalisation.

The Handmaid’s Tale is a rich, brilliant novel, not least because there is no clear moral path one can negotiate through it. This is one of the reasons why I’ve found the impulse of some to treat it as a warning or call to action in the face of current threats to women’s rights both simplistic and inaccurate. The book contains an ambivalence towards women who might be described as feminists which often spills over into outright hostility or blame. This may be part of what is meant by treating women, feminists among them, as human beings, but we therefore need to take care in treating this as any kind of template for a politics of our own.

 “Yes,” writes Atwood in her New York Times piece, “[women] will gladly take positions of power over other women, even — and, possibly, especially — in systems in which women as a whole have scant power.” Yet there are no men in Gilead who rival Serena Joy, Aunt Lydia or even Janine in their grotesqueness. In contrast to them, the Commander seems almost endearing with his scrabble and his old magazines. Certain details – the scapegoating of the anti-porn movement, Offred’s longing for hand cream, the butter used as moisturiser – feel almost clumsy, deliberate digs at what Atwood has called “that initial phase of feminism when you weren’t supposed to wear frocks and lipstick”. It seems ironic to me, at a time when the loudest voices of protest against real-life surrogacy are those of radical, rather than liberal, feminists, that The Handmaid’s Tale’s own depiction of radicals as pro-natalist or extremist has not prompted a more nuanced reception of any purported message.

Yet this isn’t to discount the value of Atwood’s work to feminists exploring issues such as reproductive exploitation, faith and sexual agency. If one accords the novel the same respect one might accord a work that focuses on human experience which happens to be male, then it ceases to be a matter of whether one is able to say “look, women are people!” (of course we are) or “look, the baddies here are the same ones we’re facing now!” (they’re not, at least not quite). Hypothetical futures, in which gender relations are reimagined, expand our own understanding of our space in this world, as women in the here and now.

All too often, to count as human, women must consent to have their femaleness – that thing that makes them other – disregarded. The same is not true for men in relation to maleness. There’s no need to stress the universal applicability of men’s stories; it will already be assumed. By contrast, women are expected to file down all the rough edges in order to make their stories fit into a template created by and for men. It’s either that or remain on the outside looking in. Either women must have no individual narrative or we must have no specificity.

Where is the third option, the one where our own experiences get to reshape what being human actually means? Where our relationship with power is seen as something other than a diluted version of men’s?

I think it could be all around us, in the stories we tell. We just need to piece it together, in a space that is neither outside nor in, neither feminist nor apologetically neutral, but both female and human at once.  

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.

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