A tyre washed up on the beach at Prestwick, Scotland. Photo: Getty
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Meet the women sailing across oceans to understand what toxins are really doing to our bodies

The aim of the voyage, and the play inspired by it, is to make “the unseen seen” and enhance understanding of what the chemicals we put into the sea and our own bodies are actually doing.

A group of women are assembled in the OvalHouse Theatre on a rainy evening in London to discuss a new theatre production, provisionally called SeaTown Ladies. We begin with a performance from poet Meg Beech, who pours out an internal-rhyme-laden polemic on the birth of a baby girl: “Minute old miniature goddess,” who “will spend life struggling / in debris of sanctified sexuality”. There’s a burst of whooping applause, and then Anne Langford of Likely Story Theatre Company stands up to tell us about the inspiration for the play. She had been on a walk, she said, in Wales, which ended at a pub. The pub had a picture on the wall of a group of women sailors from the early 20th century. They stood face on, chests thrown out, and heads up; legs firm and arms straight down by their sides, in skirts and gumboots. “They looked so bold and full of life,” Anne said. “Like people I wanted to know.” She went to have a closer look and saw that the photo carried a tagline: “Rude and Coarse Women”. 

Anne was intrigued by the disparity between what she saw when she looked at this picture – and what the caption writer had seen. Since she is a dramatist, she decided to explore this disparity by creating a play about women in a boat. And when she hit Google for inspiration, she came across Exxpedition, an all-female crew who will be sailing from Lanzarote to Martinique this November, to raise awareness of the plastics and toxicants in the oceans, and how this may be contributing to a rise in cancer rates among young women. Anne invited Dr Lucy Gilliam, co-founder of Exxpedition, along to speak to us and get our thoughts channelled in the right direction.

Lucy, dressed in a colourful jumper, stands up and starts telling us about the project, which carries the tagline “making the unseen seen”. The unseen that Exxpedition wants us to see is a combination of women’s bodies, which are disproportionately underrepresented in both research science and sport, and the thousands of toxic chemicals that pollute our oceans and marine life. These toxicants adhere to the plastic waste, much of which is so small as to also be more or less unseen, that also dominates our oceans (“There’s more plastic in some parts of the ocean than there is plankton,” Lucy tells us) and gets swallowed up by fish who mistake the plastic for food. The toxicants on the plastic leech into the tissue of these fish, and carry on up the food chain until they reach human bodies. Exxpedition will be trawling the ocean picking up all the plastic and micro-plastic they come across along the way and then testing it for toxicants. They will also be catching fish, assessing the plastic in their guts, and testing their toxicity levels. 

They will also be carrying out what Lucy calls “MeSearch”. Scientists estimate that we are all walking around with at least 700 contaminants in our bodies, many of which have barely been researched, but which may be carcinogenic, and also may be disrupting our endocrine and reproductive systems, potentially causing birth defects. When I meet Lucy earlier on in the day for an interview in a deli in Vauxhall (she brings along her own organic Marmite) she tells me about how scientists accidentally discovered that the Inuit living in the Arctic were carrying the highest levels of contaminants of any population. They had originally tested this population’s breast milk imagining that because the Inuit are not an industrialised nation, they could provide a negative control for research into the problem. But “because of the way that pollutants travel around the earth, industrial pollutants end up up getting deposited on the poles. And most of these industrial pollutants are persistent bio-cumulative and toxic, which means they build up in the food chain. And so people that are eating a diet that’s high in blubber and eating whale meat or seal, are eating loads of toxins.” So because we industrialised nations are pumping noxious untested chemicals into the oceans, babies in the unindustrialised Arctic are chowing down on POPs, PCBs and other incomprehensible acronyms? “It’s incredibly unfair”, Lucy nods.

Lucy is a microbial ecologist who specialises in greenhouse gas emissions in soil. She used to advise the government on climate change, biodiversity and food security, but she “quit all of that to sail around the world selling rum, chocolate and spices” with Fairtransport shipping, an organisation that runs the world’s only engineless sail cargo ship. She met Emily Penn, her Exxpedition co-founder while she was working at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) on chemicals and nanotechnologies. At the time, Emily was campaigning on plastics with Pangea Explorations, an organisation that works on marine exploration and conservation, and which is providing Sea Dragon, the 72ft research vessel which will be used for Exxpedition. “We found that we had an awful lot to talk about,” Lucy tells me as she butters her toast. “I think from the first time we met we were saying how great would it be to put together an all women voyage”. They also decided that they wanted to use the expedition as an opportunity to raise awareness about toxicants in the ocean. Emily is friends with Kris Hallenga, the founder of the breast cancer charity Coppafeel, who developed cancer at the age of 23, and this relationship led Emily and Lucy to discuss the rising prevalence of cancer in young women. 

“I don’t think it’s all down to genetics,” Lucy says. “I think there’s an element that is about toxics and environmental exposure and alongside that we’re also seeing what I think of as essentially like cancer in the world’s oceans: plastics and pollutants [are] building up to enormous levels in the environment and we wanted to tell a story that really joined that up, that drew a parallel between ocean pollution toxics in our body and what that means for humanity and the diseases that we’re getting.” So they set up their organisation and started recruiting for crew members, who have ultimately ranged in age from 24 - 65 (the oldest crew member was one of the original women who protested at Greenham Common), and come from around the world. Their first applicant was Sierra Campbell, who had grown up on a farm that was downstream from a pharmaceutical company. She developed ovarian cancer when she was 14; by the time she was 21 she had had most of her reproductive organs removed. Next to get in touch was Anna Karmen, a Swedish research scientist who works with a UN project called Safe Planet, which tracks twelve key toxicants in blood that indicate a “body burden” of industrial pollutants you’ve been exposed to over your lifetime. She offered to analyse the blood of all fourteen crew members. They will be receiving the results on the 14 November, the first day of Exxpedition, and exactly a month from when I meet Lucy. Is she nervous? “It’s a little bit scary”, she says, but “the interest of getting and analysing the results removes some of the fear”. For Lucy it’s more about questioning how she feels about her lack of choice in having been inevitably exposed to theses toxicants, and what she wants to do about it now. “Are we more in favour of these international regulations, do we want to change the things that we’re putting in our body, putting on our skin?”

For Laura Coleman, director of ONCA, an environmental arts charity, and another member of the crew, to think about the chemicals inside her and how they relate to how she’s been living her life is “very scary”. “Since I’ve started this project I’ve just gradually stopped using anything because I look at the ingredients lists and I don’t understand any of it. It’s so baffling. And so many of those ingredients have potentially negative impacts on our health”. It can be paralysing, she says. “I think it’s very easy to say, ‘there’s chemicals everywhere. We’re all being infected, everything gives you cancer’, and that just terrifies people”. So for her, testing the crew’s blood, although personally scary, “is about finding a way to reach people’s hearts and really think about how we can progress in the future in a positive way. I think focusing on the individual stories of the fourteen women on board could be a very powerful way to present female role models who are willing to looking inside ourselves and look at the stories that have built up over our lives in our blood.”

These questions have taken on a whole new relevance for Lucy since she found out that she was pregnant. “I’m a little bit freaked out getting my toxic results and being like, “oh god what’s that going to do to the baby?”. No one really knows, because the majority of medical trials “are on fit young men”. Women are less researched, partly, Lucy says, because “things can just be dismissed as ‘women’s problems’”, as peripheral and inessential to humanity. “Taboos around things like having periods […] it’s just kind of dismissed as the curse, it’s one of those things, but how much money really gets spent in actually understanding what’s going on there?” As Lucy and Emily tried to find the answers, they were struck by how hard it was – so part of Exxpedition is to be “a platform to discuss these issues and to be able to educate ourselves and then to be able to share the conversation with other people”. It was for this reason she felt it was so important for the crew to be interdisciplinary (they will have artists, activists, scientists, technology developers, policy-makers, nurses, psychologists on-board): together, Lucy hopes that they might be able to design solutions, and “build things that enable us to have more control over our bodies, or to be able to direct research to things that we feel are important”. 

So what can we do in the meantime? “I buy natural fabrics, a lot of recycled things,” Lucy says. “Synthetic clothes can be treated with flame retardants and cotton is one the most sprayed crops globally.” Although, she says, as a continually broke campaigner she doesn’t buy clothes anyway, “so if anyone wants to sponsor me in organic clothes, they are so welcome!” She laughs and takes a bite of her toast. “There are some things that I think about”, she continues, “and there are other things that are so beyond my control, like [tap] water, that I try not to concentrate on them too much. I think being vegetarian, not eating meat, and doing my best to buy organic dairy products [makes me less susceptible to toxins]”.  Food is a major source of what we’re exposed to, she tells me, as are the products we put on our skin. “I don’t use deodorant. I just don’t find that it’s necessary. And there’s lots of ingredients in there that I’m just like oh I don’t want that being absorbed into my body. Your skin can absorb a hell of a lot” – 70 per cent, to be precise. Lucy says that industry is slowly bowing to pressure to become cleaner and greener. There are EU regulations and UN agreements with which industry must comply. And there are organisations working to design out waste and convince businesses of the benefits of a circular economic approach towards products – Lucy mentions the Ellen MacArthur Foundation as a good example of this approach.

But for now, Lucy’s just looking forward to getting out on the water. “I can’t wait to be on board,” she beams. “I like being in the middle of the ocean.” When I ask why, she pauses for a long time, before finally producing a long list. “It’s peaceful it’s not stressful, it’s quite beautiful, when you’re sailing at night, all of the stars”. She tells me about anchoring at the deepest point of the Atlantic and going swimming. Being out there, she says, makes her “feel rooted in the universe”. I reflect that this is the perfect way to be feeling, when you’re considering the connection between the cancer in our bodies and the cancer of the oceans. I hope they come back with some answers. 

Caroline Criado-Perez is a freelance journalist and feminist campaigner. She is also the co-founder of The Women's Room and tweets as @CCriadoPerez.

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Celluloid Dreams: are film scores the next area of serious musical scholarship?

John Wilson has little time for people who don't see the genius at work in so-called "light music".

When John Wilson walks out on to the stage at the Royal Albert Hall in London, there is a roar from the audience that would be more fitting in a football stadium. Before he even steps on to the conductor’s podium, people whistle and cheer, thumping and clapping. The members of his orchestra grin as he turns to acknowledge the applause. Many soloists reaching the end of a triumphant concerto performance receive less ecstatic praise. Even if you had never heard of Wilson before, the rock-star reception would tip you off that you were about to hear something special.

There is a moment of silence as Wilson holds the whole hall, audience and orchestra alike, in stasis, his baton raised expectantly. Then it slices down and the orchestra bursts into a tightly controlled mass of sound, complete with swirling strings and blowsy brass. You are instantly transported: this is the music to which Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers danced, the music of George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, which reverberated around the cauldron of creativity that was Hollywood of the early 20th century, when composers were as sought after as film directors.

Wilson’s shows are tremendously popular. Since he presented the MGM musicals programme at the Proms in 2009, which was watched by 3.5 million people on TV and is still selling on DVD, his concerts have been among the first to sell out in every Proms season. There are international tours and popular CDs, too. But a great deal of behind-the-scenes work goes into bringing this music – much of which had been lost to history – back to life. There are familiar tunes among the complex arrangements that he and his orchestra play, to be sure, but the music sounds fresher and sharper than it ever does on old records or in movies. Whether you’re a film fan or not, you will find something about the irrepressible energy of these tunes that lifts the spirits.

Sitting in an armchair in the conductor’s room beneath the Henry Wood Hall in south London, Wilson looks anything but energetic. “Excuse my yawning, but I’ve been up since three o’clock this morning,” he says. This is a short break in a hectic rehearsal schedule, as he puts his orchestra through its paces in the lead-up to its appearance at the 2016 Proms. Watching him at work before we sat down to talk, I saw a conductor who was far from sluggish. Bobbing on the balls of his feet, he pushed his players to consider every detail of their sound, often stopping the musicians to adjust the tone of a single note or phrase. At times, his whole body was tense with the effort of communicating the tone he required.

The programme that Wilson and his orchestra are obsessing over at the moment is a celebration of George and Ira Gershwin, the American songwriting partnership that produced such immortal songs as “I Got Rhythm”, “’S Wonderful” and “Funny Face”, as well as the 1934 opera Porgy and Bess. Though it might all sound effortless when everyone finally appears in white tie, huge amounts of preparation go into a John Wilson concert and they start long before the orchestra begins to rehearse.

“Coming up with the idea is the first step,” he says. “Then you put a programme together, which takes a great deal of time and thought and revision. You can go through 40 drafts until you get it right. I was still fiddling with the running order two weeks ago. It’s like a three-dimensional game of chess – one thing changes and the whole lot comes down.”

Wilson, 44, who also conducts the more conventional classical repertoire, says that his interest in so-called light music came early on. “When you’re a kid, you don’t know that you shouldn’t like the Beatles, or you shouldn’t like Fred Astaire, or whatever,” he says. “You just like anything that’s good. So I grew up loving Beethoven and Brahms and Ravel and Frank Sinatra and the Beatles.” At home in Gateshead – he still has the Geordie accent – the only music in the house was “what was on the radio and telly”, and the young boy acquired his taste from what he encountered playing with local brass bands and amateur orchestras.

He had the opposite of the hothoused, pressured childhood that we often associate with professional musicians. “Mine were just nice, lovely, normal parents! As long as I wore clean underwear and finished my tea, then they were happy,” he recalls. “I was never forced into doing music. My parents used to have to sometimes say, ‘Look, you’ve played the piano enough today; go out and get some fresh air’ – things like that.” Indeed, he received barely any formal musical education until he went to the Royal College of Music at the age of 18, after doing his A-levels at Newcastle College.

The title of the concert he conducted at this year’s Proms was “George and Ira Gershwin Rediscovered”, which hints at the full scale of Wilson’s work. Not only does he select his music from the surviving repertoire of 20th-century Hollywood: in many cases, he unearths scores that weren’t considered worth keeping at the time and resurrects the music into a playable state. At times, there is no written trace at all and he must reconstruct a score by ear from a ­recording or the soundtrack of a film.

For most other musicians, even experts, it would be an impossible task. Wilson smiles ruefully when I ask how he goes about it. “There are 18 pieces in this concert. Only six of them exist in full scores. So you track down whatever materials survive, whether they be piano or conductors’ scores or recordings, and then my colleagues and I – there are four of us – sit down with the scores.” There is no hard and fast rule for how to do this kind of reconstruction, he says, as it depends entirely on what there is left to work with. “It’s like putting together a jigsaw, or a kind of archaeology. You find whatever bits you can get your hands on. But the recording is always the final word: that’s the ur-text. That is what you aim to replicate, because that represents the composer’s and lyricist’s final thoughts.” There is a purpose to all this effort that goes beyond putting on a great show, though that is a big part of why Wilson does it. “I just want everyone to leave with the thrill of having experienced the sound of a live orchestra,” he says earnestly. “I tell the orchestra, ‘Never lose sight of the fact that people have bought tickets, left the house, got on the bus/Tube, come to the concert. Give them their money’s worth. Play every last quaver with your lifeblood.’”

Besides holding to a commitment to entertain, Wilson believes there is an academic justification for the music. “These composers were working with expert ­arrangers, players and singers . . . It’s a wonderful period of music. I think it’s the next major area of serious musical scholarship.”

These compositions sit in a strange, in-between place. Classical purists deride them as “light” and thus not worthy of attention, while jazz diehards find the catchy syncopations tame and conventional. But he has little time for anyone who doesn’t recognise the genius at work here. “They’re art songs, is what they are. The songs of Gershwin and Porter and [Jerome] Kern are as important to their period as the songs of Schubert . . . People who are sniffy about this material don’t really know it, as far as I’m concerned, because I’ve never met a musician of any worth who’s sniffy about this.

Selecting the right performers is another way in which Wilson ensures that his rediscovered scores will get the best possible presentation. He formed the John Wilson Orchestra in 1994, while he was still studying at the Royal College of Music, with the intention of imitating the old Hollywood studio orchestras that originally performed this repertoire. Many of the players he works with are stars of other European orchestras – in a sense, it is a supergroup. The ensemble looks a bit like a symphony orchestra with a big band nestled in the middle – saxophones next to French horns and a drum kit in the centre. The right string sound, in particular, is essential.

At the rehearsal for the Gershwin programme, I heard Wilson describing to the first violins exactly what he wanted: “Give me the hottest sound you’ve made since your first concerto at college.” Rather than the blended tone that much of the classical repertoire calls for, this music demands throbbing, emotive, swooping strings. Or, as Wilson put it: “Use so much vibrato that people’s family photos will shuffle across the top of their TVs and fall off.”

His conducting work spans much more than his Hollywood musical reconstruction projects. Wilson is a principal conductor with the Royal Northern Sinfonia and has performed or recorded with most of the major ensembles in Britain. And his great passion is for English music: the romanticism of Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Delius needs advocates, too, he says. He insists that these two strands of his career are of equivalent importance. “I make no separation between my activities conducting classical music and [film scores]. They’re just all different rooms in the same house.” 

The John Wilson Orchestra’s “Gershwin in Hollywood” (Warner Classics) is out now

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser