White out: a bidet following a landslide in Costa Rica, 2010. (Photo: Getty)
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It’s a happy bidet that contains the LRB, the TLS and a few copies of Viz

The appliance hasn’t worked since the days of Callaghan but provides an excellent receptacle for reading matter.

Although the bidet in the downstairs loo has not worked since, I would guess, the last days of the Callaghan government, it is an ill wind that blows no one any good and, as I believe I have had occasion to mention before, it now serves as a handy receptacle for reading matter should you wish to improve your mind. In what some may consider a serious bid to get into Pseuds Corner for the first time in what feels like ages, this tends to be of a highbrow nature: PN Review, the LRB and the TLS, a copy of Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, The Book of Disquiet by Pessoa and Kevin Jackson’s volume on Ruskin.

There are some copies of Viz for the young at heart and for a long time I found Bob Wilson’s Ultimate Collection of Peculiar Sporting Lingo a much better and more fascinating read than I had snobbishly suspected it was going to be when I took it out of the Jiffy bag. But the former Arsenal and Scotland goalie’s book has gone missing, so you’ll see instead a 1991 edition of E M Cioran’s Anathemas and Admirations. This is always good for a chuckle.

Cioran, in case the name is unfamiliar, was a Romanian exile living in Paris. He was of such a bitter and gloomy nature that when he needed cheering up even more than he usually did, he would visit his pal Samuel Beckett. Apparently Beckett grew to dislike these visits and the final one ended with Beckett throwing Cioran out of his flat, saying, “For feck’s sake, Emil, lighten up, you miserable bastard. Things aren’t as bad as all that.” (I suspect I am embellishing the facts rather a lot here, so if you’re writing an academic work on either Beckett or Cioran, it might be best if you do not quote anything from this piece as a primary source.)

Cioran’s maxims are always bracing. “On a gangrened planet, we should abstain from making plans, but we make them still, optimism being, as we know, a dying man’s reflex.” That’s the stuff to give the troops and, as one rises from stool, one feels a braver and less deceived person for it. That, at least, is the intention: you could also have learned why a googly is called a “Bosie” in Australia if some swine hadn’t  stolen Bob Wilson’s book. Visitors to the Hovel are now stuck with Cioran, Pessoa and the rest.

This needn’t be a bad thing. What was that about plans again? (And don’t you love that “gangrened”? So much nastier than “gangrenous”. You hear the green of corruption in it.) I have abandoned making plans ever since I used up the 2008 diary given to me by the Finn. This has resulted in countless missed parties and invitations; and this, in turn, has resulted in people assuming I’m dead, so I now no longer miss parties because I’m not invited to them in the first place. However, I’ll have to plan to clean up the living room within the next couple of weeks because it turns out that the woman who ran screaming from the place when she was shown round it last month has decided that it might be best not to be so fussy after all.

I sympathise with her. Most people, when they see the Hovel for the first time, see it, as Martin Amis said of western tourists visiting India, through the mists of their own rejection and I remember being distinctly unimpressed when I first saw my new home. But all new homes are sad in some way, especially when the circumstances of leaving the previous one have been traumatic. A shared home is doubly sad if you are not sharing it with anyone you love. The new lodger will only be here for six months at most, if she is not put off by weirdo Romanian philosophers in the bidet (“One can imagine everything, predict everything, save how low one can sink”), 16,000 books in the living room (which I am under instructions to deal with – another plan I have to make) and a funny smell in the kitchen, which is not the sweet smell of rotting fruit, as it was last time, but something like an enormous loaf of bread that has gone mouldy, which may well need the services of Rentokil.

I look around me at the piles of books and Jiffy bags in the living room. It will take, I estimate, a full day of hard work to sort them out, so I had better start putting the task off right now.

But look! It’s Bob Wilson’s Ultimate Collection of Peculiar Sporting Lingo! I think Cioran and Pessoa and the tidying can wait. I want to know why West Bromwich Albion are known
as “the Baggies”.

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 05 March 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's power game

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Harmful gender stereotypes in ads have real impact – so we're challenging them

The ASA must make sure future generations don't recoil at our commercials.

July’s been quite the month for gender in the news. From Jodie Whittaker’s casting in Doctor Who, to trains “so simple even women can drive them”, to how much the Beeb pays its female talent, gender issues have dominated. 

You might think it was an appropriate time for the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) to launch our own contribution to the debate, Depictions, Perceptions and Harm: a report on gender stereotypes in advertising, the result of more than a year’s careful scrutiny of the evidence base.

Our report makes the case that, while most ads (and the businesses behind them) are getting it right when it comes to avoiding damaging gender stereotypes, the evidence suggests that some could do with reigning it in a little. Specifically, it argues that some ads can contribute to real world harms in the way they portray gender roles and characteristics.

We’re not talking here about ads that show a woman doing the cleaning or a man the DIY. It would be most odd if advertisers couldn’t depict a woman doing the family shop or a man mowing the lawn. Ads cannot be divorced from reality.

What we’re talking about is ads that go significantly further by, for example, suggesting through their content and context that it’s a mum’s sole duty to tidy up after her family, who’ve just trashed the house. Or that an activity or career is inappropriate for a girl because it’s the preserve of men. Or that boys are not “proper” boys if they’re not strong and stoical. Or that men are hopeless at simple parental or household tasks because they’re, well...men.

Advertising is only a small contributor to gender stereotyping, but a contributor it is. And there’s ever greater recognition of the harms that can result from gender stereotyping. Put simply, gender stereotypes can lead us to have a narrower sense of ourselves – how we can behave, who we can be, the opportunities we can take, the decisions we can make. And they can lead other people to have a narrower sense of us too. 

That can affect individuals, whatever their gender. It can affect the economy: we have a shortage of engineers in this country, in part, says the UK’s National Academy of Engineering, because many women don’t see it as a career for them. And it can affect our society as a whole.

Many businesses get this already. A few weeks ago, UN Women and Unilever announced the global launch of Unstereotype Alliance, with some of the world’s biggest companies, including Proctor & Gamble, Mars, Diageo, Facebook and Google signing up. Advertising agencies like JWT and UM have very recently published their own research, further shining the spotlight on gender stereotyping in advertising. 

At the ASA, we see our UK work as a complement to an increasingly global response to the issue. And we’re doing it with broad support from the UK advertising industry: the Committees of Advertising Practice (CAP) – the industry bodies which author the UK Advertising Codes that we administer – have been very closely involved in our work and will now flesh out the standards we need to help advertisers stay on the right side of the line.

Needless to say, our report has attracted a fair amount of comment. And commentators have made some interesting and important arguments. Take my “ads cannot be divorced from reality” point above. Clearly we – the UK advertising regulator - must take into account the way things are, but what should we do if, for example, an ad is reflecting a part of society as it is now, but that part is not fair and equal? 

The ad might simply be mirroring the way things are, but at a time when many people in our society, including through public policy and equality laws, are trying to mould it into something different. If we reign in the more extreme examples, are we being social engineers? Or are we simply taking a small step in redressing the imbalance in a society where the drip, drip, drip of gender stereotyping over many years has, itself, been social engineering. And social engineering which, ironically, has left us with too few engineers.

Read more: Why new rules on gender stereotyping in ads benefit men, too

The report gave news outlets a chance to run plenty of well-known ads from yesteryear. Fairy Liquid, Shake 'n' Vac and some real “even a woman can open it”-type horrors from decades ago. For some, that was an opportunity to make the point that ads really were sexist back then, but everything’s fine on the gender stereotyping front today. That argument shows a real lack of imagination. 

History has not stopped. If we’re looking back at ads of 50 years ago and marvelling at how we thought they were OK back then, despite knowing they were products of their time, won’t our children and grandchildren be doing exactly the same thing in 50 years’ time? What “norms” now will seem antiquated and unpleasant in the future? We think the evidence points to some portrayals of gender roles and characteristics being precisely such norms, excused by some today on the basis that that’s just the way it is.

Our report signals that change is coming. CAP will now work on the standards so we can pin down the rules and official guidance. We don’t want to catch advertisers out, so we and CAP will work hard to provide as much advice and training as we can, so they can get their ads right in the first place. And from next year, we at the ASA will make sure those standards are followed, taking care that our regulation is balanced and wholly respectful of the public’s desire to continue to see creative ads that are relevant, entertaining and informative. 

You won’t see a sea-change in the ads that appear, but we hope to smooth some of the rougher edges. This is a small but important step in making sure modern society is better represented in ads.

Guy Parker is CEO of the ASA