The author on the red carpet for The Falling. Photo: Stuart C. Wilson/Getty Images for BFI
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Back in front of the cameras this week – and posing doesn’t get any easier

The more we acknowledge that it hurts when someone is cruel about your appearance, the closer we might get to being kinder.

I've had my photo taken quite a lot in the last couple of weeks, being at the start of another promotional merry-go-round, and it never fails to amaze me how difficult it is; how, after all these years, the simple process of having a camera in front of my face can reduce me to jelly. I know I’m not alone here, and in fact I wonder whether the great joy of the selfie lies in the absence of any photographer looking at you. No human eye staring and judging, just that impartial lens, and you can delete and delete until you’re happy with the result.

At a photo shoot so much depends on the social skill and personality of the photographer. Thrillingly, one of them told me recently that I was “very photogenic” – and astonishingly this was after a menopausal hot flush had postponed the start of make-up until a fan, or air-conditioning, or a window to stick my head out of could be found. Then at a different shoot a few days later, the film director Carol Morley and I were reprimanded for being “hopeless at chilling”. Guess which of those two comments made me more relaxed in front of the camera?

So they vary, these sessions, and can go either way. I used to love working with Juergen Teller, with his camera-in-each-hand, gunslinging approach. Point and shoot, point and shoot, he’d go, sometimes while wearing a sarong. There was a hint of danger, but it was arty danger, not pervy danger, and at least he never minded you looking like yourself. Pretty wasn’t the point, interesting was. And Marcelo Krasilcic – who took the photos that produced Everything But the Girl’s Walking Wounded album cover – made me and Ben look like a glamorous version of ourselves; again, he seemed to like what he found and just wanted to make the best of it.

On the other hand, there’s a photographer out there who apparently describes me on his website as the most unpleasant person he has ever had to work with, and I imagine that’s because he frightened and brought out the worst in me, back when I was young and fear made me snappy and defensive. Equally, it can be frustrating that editors often have their own, predetermined idea of how I should look, so I can stare defiantly down the barrel of the lens for 19 frames, but turn to gaze wistfully through the window on the 20th, and that’s the shot chosen.

Being photographed and looked at is rarely easy for those of us without model/film-star looks. Sarah Millican wrote last year about her experience of attending the Baftas as a nominee and presenter. Thrilled to be there, she was nonetheless intimidated – “I had a few awkward photos taken by the wall of paparazzi. Awkward as I’m not a model (I’m a comedian), have never learnt how to pose on a red carpet (I’m a comedian)” – and devastated afterwards by cruel comments about her dress. In a moment of honesty that brought cheers of support and recognition from other women, she confessed that the criticisms had been “like a pin to my excitable red balloon . . . My dress . . . was destroyed by the masses . . . I cried in the car.”

I’ve put up with this kind of stuff throughout my career, albeit on a smaller scale, as most of my pop-star days pre-dated the internet (for which, in this instance, I am extremely grateful). But I remember make-up artists and cameramen huddling and whispering as they tried, not very tactfully, to work out how to prettify me. I remember being told to hold my stomach in, despite weighing eight and a half stone, and I remember a video where my make-up melted and my ears went red, and how I had to keep singing despite feeling ugly. I look at the video now and think I look beautiful. Of course I did: I was 23.

But I tell you all this not in a downhearted way, or fishing for compliments, but more in a spirit of hope that the more we say these things out loud – as Sarah Millican so wonderfully did – the more we acknowledge that it hurts when someone is cruel about your appearance, the closer we might get to being kinder. And then being photographed will be easy! Some hope.

Tracey Thorn appears at the Cambridge Literary Festival on 18 April (for more details visit: cambridgeliteraryfestival.com) and Wapping Project Mayfair, London W1, on 30 April (newstatesman.com/events)

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 17 April 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Election Special

Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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