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Why I’m giving up cynicism at 65

As I hit retirement age, what else could I retire from?

I was one of the very first New Elizabethans. Born in 1953, between the accession and the coronation. I’ve been here for all three series of The Crown: The Optimistic Daughter, The Pragmatic Mum, The Stoical Gran. Liz Windsor has been my Queen forever. I’m 65 this month so now, hilariously, find myself in receipt of an old age pension from Her Majesty’s Government.

I can only apologise, boomerphobes. Old white git, already a burden on the NHS, receiving a universal benefit when there are so many more deserving people who aren’t old or white or gittish. I know I should feel guilty. But I don’t. I feel grateful, and weirdly vindicated in my quest to stay alive. Also, bollocks. I’ve been paying tax since the late 1960s and National Insurance since the early 1970s. It’s a little kickback, thanks very much. Her Royal Highness doing gun fingers, making that “chk” sound.

To be honest, I’ve secretly felt like a pensioner for years. Irritated beyond reason by intrusive noise and luminous glare and the general insolence of an artificially-intelligent century that flatly refuses to make itself understandable. I accept that this is my problem, that the world is in many respects better than it was in the 20th century where, let’s face it, I clearly belong, among the tripe and onions and smoke and dope and vinyl and pubs opening at half past five and hot metal type and our milkman’s horse and the amber air syrupy with sodium light and misted coal dust and the blank sky mutely awaiting an undreamed internet and whatever.

But I’m old. It’s my job to be reactionary, to acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness. That’s what pensioners are for. To moan. To whine about the privatisation of bloody everything, from our vast, lost public housing estate to the tiniest speck of digitised data harvested by monetised algorithms. To rage against the shocking, blatant transfer of wealth from taxpayer to shareholder. To mourn the passing of blameless public space, once left blank for our message, now slathered in apostrophic bullshit.

It feels, to this clueless old tosser at least, as if there’s a sinister symbiosis developing between our “real world” and the pixelated shadowlands of the internet. They’ve co-existed for so long, perhaps the two have been exchanging molecules, each increasingly becoming the other, to the point where they’re simultaneous identical realities in a Flann O’Brien universe. To wit, my local pharmacy was once a modest, quiet place. Now, a preposterous screen set into the window is ablaze 24 hours a day. All through the night it dazzles nobody with a looped queue of pharma shorts. There’s even a Sky News scroll across the bottom, keeping nobody up to date on the latest stabbings and celebrity apologies. I look from my front window and there it is – a permanent pop-up ad in a low-resolution world. Still, this is my life now. I’m a pensioner. Maybe my destiny is to simmer and, against earlier expectations, to fantasise about firebombing a pharmacy.

It’s not all fist-shaking and grumbling up here in the OAP lounge, though. There’s plenty of nostalgia, too, for a time before “customer services” when the person on the other end of the line was there to help you, not to minimise corporate liability. When local authorities had money and power and scope. It was in 1979, just before Margo from The Good Life swept to power with a mandate to crush the unions, hobble the councils and hold a fire sale of everything publicly owned.

We’d been renting a flat, had to get out, stumbled across a weary old terraced house and got a mortgage from Lewisham Council. They were lovely. The house was up for £14,000, they insisted on lending us an extra two grand; they knew we’d have to do it up. So yeah. Imagine that, little ones. A local authority mortgage. They said if we found ourselves struggling with repayments – we did – that they’d simply freeze the mortgage for a few months. They did. A properly humane system. I think of the absurdity of it now, a system skewed towards kindness, not business.

I’ve got “tetchy” and “wilful ignorance of the modern world” covered. But as I hit retirement age, what exactly am I supposed to be retiring from? Not work, obviously. The whole point about making a living as a writer is that you can carry on stubbornly until your consciousness is finally overwhelmed by a massive dose of palliative fentanyl. Also, have you seen how much you actually get as an old age pensioner? I don’t want to sound churlish, boomerphobes, but it’ll barely cover starters.

What else do people retire from – “public life”? I rarely leave the house.

No. I shall retire from cynicism. Life’s Act Two is very long, and I’m glad to be free of all the middle-aged mewling about Brexit, all that dead-end shrugging that this is How Things Are. I think Act Three has a duty to Act One, to be positive and optimistic about the future. Of course, of course, it’s easy to share the optimism of youth if your life’s not shit, and mine isn’t and I am deeply thankful. And yes, there’s plenty of evidence that negativity and pessimism is the correct disposition of the old: the beet-faced bastards of Question Time, the neuro-geriatrics who turned Twitter bitter, the sheer curdled hatefulness of every bleating “take back control” racist on statins.

But if old people can’t be arsed to remember how much more pride we used to take in ourselves, how we learned to stop deferring to wealthy arseholes like Paul Dacre and Rupert Murdoch, how we once believed in a better future and equal portions, then what is the point of us?

For God’s sake, I gave up smoking, I can surely give up cynicism. Thank you for my old age allowance, everybody. I promise to be cheerful and hopeful. I am Pensioner, hear me purr. 

Ian Martin has written for “The Thick Of It” and co-wrote “The Death of Stalin”

This article first appeared in the 12 April 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Syria’s world war

Tracey Thorn. CRedit: Getty
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“Not technically beautiful, she has an engaging laugh”: 35 years of being described by men

For women in music, being described most of the time by men is just par for the course.

I am sure you all saw the Twitter challenge that took off the other day – a request to women to “describe yourself like a male author would”, started by the writer Whitney Reynolds. There were thousands of hilarious replies, with women imagining how a bad male author would describe them. I thought about posting an example, but then realised, I didn’t have to imagine this. I’ve been being described by male journalists for more than 35 years.

Katy Waldman in the New Yorker wrote about the challenge, and how it highlighted clichés in men’s writing: “…prose that takes conspicuous notice of a female character’s physical imperfections. This is done with an aura of self-satisfaction, as if the protagonist deserves credit simply for bestowing his descriptive prowess upon a person of less than conventional loveliness.”

And oh boy, that hit home. Yes, I thought, that is precisely how I’ve been described, too many times to recall, so many times that I’ve actually sort of stopped noticing. The following aren’t direct quotes, but near enough.

“Not conventionally pretty, Thorn nevertheless somehow manages to be curiously attractive.” “Her face may not be technically beautiful but she has an engaging laugh.” “Her intelligence shines through the quirky features.” Often what’s irritating isn’t the hint of an insult, but just being wide of the mark. “She isn’t wearing any make-up” (oh my god, of course she is). “She’s wearing some kind of shapeless shift” (it’s Comme des Garçons FFS).

I’m not trying to arouse sympathy. I’m much thicker-skinned than you may imagine, hence surviving in this business for so long. But the point is, for women in music, being described most of the time by men is just par for the course.

A few weeks ago, when I was in Brussels and Paris doing interviews, I was taken aback all over again by the absence of female journalists interviewing me about my album – an album that is being described everywhere as “nine feminist bangers”. As the 14th man walked through the door, my heart slightly sank. I feel like a bore banging on about this sometimes, but it astonishes me that certain aspects of this business remain so male-dominated.

Even the journalists sometimes have the good grace to notice the anomaly. One youngish man, (though not that young) told me I was only the third woman he had ever interviewed, which took my breath away. I look at my playlists of favourite tracks over the last year or so, and they are utterly dominated by SZA, Angel Olsen, Lorde, St Vincent, Mabel, Shura, Warpaint, Savages, Solange, Kate Tempest, Tove Lo, Susanne Sundfør, Janelle Monáe, Jessie Ware and Haim, so there certainly isn’t any shortage of great women. I’ve been asked to speak at a music event, and when I was sent the possible line-up I couldn’t help noticing that over three days there were 56 men and seven women speaking. The final bill might be an improvement on that, but still. Any number of music festivals still operate with this kind of mad imbalance.

Is it down to the organisers not asking? Or, in the case of this kind of discussion event, women often feeling they don’t “know” enough? It’s a vicious circle, the way that men and their music can be so intimidating. The more you’re always in the minority, the more you feel like you don’t belong. Record shops seemed that way to me when I was a teen, places where guys hung out and looked at you like you didn’t know your Pink Floyd from your Pink Flag.

I also have to watch songs of mine being described by male writers, and sometimes misinterpreted. I’ve got one called “Guitar” on my new record. There’s a boy in the lyrics, but he’s incidental – it’s a love song to my first Les Paul copy. That fact has sailed over the heads of a couple of male reviewers who’ve seen it as a song all about a boy.

That’s the trouble, isn’t it? You miss things when you leave women out, or view female characters through the prism of their attractiveness, or when you take for granted that you’re at the centre of every story, every lyric. I bet you think this piece is about you. 

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 18 April 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Enoch Powell’s revenge