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In a New York winter, it takes a nonagenarian piano player to shut out politics

A strange, embattled year it’s been, but here we still are.

Having written about America last week, I am now in New York, which – depending on your point of view – is either not America at all, or its best and truest representation. I am here with my sister, Debbie, on a pre-Christmas jaunt, and although I may be trying to avoid politics, there is, perhaps unsurprisingly, no escape.

On our first morning we walk the High Line, the public path built on an old freight rail line elevated above the streets on the West Side, starting in the Meatpacking District and ending just below Hell’s Kitchen. I always forget how cold New York is, and this morning, though the temperature on my phone says fine, the wind chill says you haven’t got enough clothes on. Dotted along the path are pieces of public art, the most striking being a huge billboard bearing the complete text of the artist Zoe Leonard’s piece from 1992, I want a president.

“I want a dyke for president,” it begins. “I want a person with aids for president and I want a fag for vice president . . .” Listing all the ways in which a president could truly be one of the people – “a president with no airconditioning” – it concludes by asking why none of these things is possible, and why the president is “always a john and never a hooker. Always a boss and never a worker . . . always a thief and never caught.”

It’s breathtaking, both in physical scale, as it rears up 20 by 30 foot high, forcing you to step back to read it properly, and also in its sense of topical relevance. The piece was placed here in the lead-up to the election, and although it was written 24 years ago and has become a cult hit in the intervening years, it is viscerally shocking to read it at this moment in time.

The next day I’m walking down Fifth Avenue when I notice the police, lots of them, and vans and barricades, and camera crews, and a reporter straightening up in front of the mike to deliver a piece, and I realise I am standing before the vast, gaudy, monolithic Trump Tower. New York is nothing if not good at contrasts.

At dinner the previous night, I had met my first ever Trump voters. They were at the table next to ours in a packed restaurant, a situation that in England would have led to much exaggerated eye-contact-avoiding, but which here meant that they started chatting to us – first to recommend the starters, then asking where we were from and what we Europeans (still European, hooray!) think of Trump.

“We’re all terrified,” we replied, and they seemed sympathetic. Friendly, smart, charming people, they wanted to discuss the Scottish indyref and Brexit, and all they said was that they simply couldn’t vote Hillary, for reasons they never made clear. It was an odd encounter, as it always is when you get that feeling that you have both connected with someone and, at the same time, missed by a country mile.

Still, this is the Christmas issue and that’s enough politics, so let me end with my highlight of the whole trip, which was a performance by Barbara Carroll, the 91-year-old pianist and singer, at the legendary jazz club Birdland. Stick-thin and elegant in a dress and trousers, diamond earrings, hair in a tight chignon, she had to be led to the stage, where she performs an hour-long set at 6pm every Saturday; but, once there, she came glowingly alive. Playing with fluidity and grace, accompanied by Jay Leonhart on bass, she played a choice of songs that reflected a certain poignancy to do with her age.

From my long-time favourite “The Folks Who Live on the Hill” – “And when the kids grow up and leave us/We’ll sit and look at that same old view, just we two,/Darby and Joan, who used to be Jack and Jill” – followed by a brief extract from “Send in the Clowns”, she finished with the Sondheim song from Merrily We Roll Along “Old Friends”. A tribute to the enduring quality of friendship, it ends with lines taken from a great Scottish drinking toast, and I will leave you with them as this year draws to a close. A strange, embattled year it’s been, but here we still are, and as the song has it, “Here’s to us!/Who’s like us?/Damn few!”

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 15 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas and New Year special 2016

Photo: Getty
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The science and technology committee debacle shows how we're failing women in tech

It would be funny if it wasn’t so depressing.

Five days after Theresa May announced, in her first Prime Minister’s Questions after the summer recess, that she was "particularly keen to address the stereotype about women in engineering", an all-male parliamentary science and technology committee was announced. You would laugh if it wasn’t all so depressing.

It was only later, after a fierce backlash against the selection, that Conservative MP Vicky Ford was also appointed to the committee. I don’t need to say that having only one female voice represents more than an oversight: it’s simply unacceptable. And as if to rub salt into the wound, at the time of writing, Ford has still not been added to the committee list on parliament's website.

To the credit of Norman Lamb, the Liberal Democrat MP who was elected chair of the committee in July, he said that he didn't "see how we can proceed without women". "It sends out a dreadful message at a time when we need to convince far more girls to pursue Stem [Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics] subjects," he added. But as many people have pointed out already, it’s the parties who nominate members, and that’s partly why this scenario is worrying. The nominations are a representation of those who represent us.

Government policy has so far completely failed to tap into the huge pool of talented women we have in this country – and there are still not enough women in parliament overall.

Women cannot be considered an afterthought, and in the case of the science and technology committee they have quite clearly been treated as such. While Ford will be a loud and clear voice on the committee, one person alone can’t address the major failings of government policy in improving conditions for women in science and technology.

Study after study has shown why it is essential for the UK economy that women participate in the labour force. And in Stem, where there is undeniably a strong anti-female bias and yet a high demand for people with specialist skills, it is even more pressing.

According to data from the Women’s Engineering Society, 16 per cent of UK Stem undergraduates are female. That statistic illustrates two things. First, that there is clearly a huge problem that begins early in the lives of British women, and that this leads to woefully low female representation on Stem university courses. Secondly, unless our society dramatically changes the way it thinks about women and Stem, and thereby encourages girls to pursue these subjects and careers, we have no hope of addressing the massive shortage in graduates with technical skills.

It’s quite ironic that the Commons science and technology committee recently published a report stating that the digital skills gap was costing the UK economy £63bn a year in lost GDP.

Read more: Why does the science and technology committee have no women – and a climate sceptic?

Female representation in Stem industries wasn’t addressed at all in the government’s Brexit position paper on science, nor was it dealt with in any real depth in the digital strategy paper released in April. In fact, in the 16-page Brexit position paper, the words "women", "female" and "diversity" did not appear once. And now, with the appointment of the nearly all-male committee, it isn't hard to see why.

Many social issues still affect women, not only in Stem industries but in the workplace more broadly. From the difficulties facing mothers returning to work after having children, to the systemic pay inequality that women face across most sectors, it is clear that there is still a vast amount of work to be done by this government.

The committee does not represent the scientific community in the UK, and is fundamentally lacking in the diversity of thought and experience necessary to effectively scrutinise government policy. It leads you to wonder which century we’re living in. Quite simply, this represents a total failure of democracy.

Pip Wilson is a tech entrepreneur, angel investor and CEO of amicable