Sunday, 27 October 2013

Week Forty - Jeanette

The Politics Of Breastfeeding by Gabrielle Palmer (2009)
Recommended by Kris

I have never breastfed, nor have I ever been breastfed. (I will resist saying ‘and I turned out okay’ because, obviously, that is debatable.) Thus, my opinions of the subject are not grounded in any practical experience.

Doesn’t mean I don’t have any, though.

The benefits of breastfeeding are incontrovertible and to deny them would be stupid. I totally believe that it is a natural process and women should be supported to breastfeed both by healthcare systems and society at large (with the vested commercial interests of artificial milk companies kept at bay). However, what I do get troubled by in breastfeeding dogma is that it’s sometimes accompanied by an implicit (or even explicit) judgement against women who can’t breastfeed, or who choose not to. For me, the narrative can run perilously close to an antifeminist biology-is-destiny outlook, where a woman is expected to do nothing but serve her family.

The Politics Of Breastfeeding, I hoped, would give me an insight into how an innate procedure had become such a charged and emotive issue. Why should I feel that something that is such an intrinsic part of being female can be and is used against women?

It is clear from the outset that Palmer is far from a neutral chronicler of breastfeeding.

In this book I examine the political reasons for a situation which has a profound effect on the whole world from the major economic effects of squandering a natural resource to the individual misery of a sick child or an unhappy woman.

Political reasons analysed by Palmer include the desire of governments to support big business, gender stereotyping, exploitation of the developing world, the sexualisation of culture and, ultimately, the structure of capitalism itself.

Breastfeeding, she broadly argues, is denigrated because women are denigrated in society, partly because of their collectively lower economic contribution: child rearing, at least initially, takes women out of work. Individual men and other women can be supportive, but there is a general lack of will to change this situation because breastfeeding is also in tension with free market economies. Breastmilk, after all, regulates its own supply and demand, no money is exchanged, and it cannot be bettered by a substitute. It is thus immune to market forces – or it should be.

Much as they urge us to think otherwise, the infant feeding product companies are not philanthropic organisations, but competitive commercial enterprises. It is in their interests that women find it difficult to breastfeed.

Palmer is especially and justifiably critical of artificial milk company policies in the developing world. Here, she looks at the Nestle baby milk scandal. The company gave free samples in hospitals, using salespeople dressed as nurses on maternity wards, disrupting the appetite of the baby for breastmilk, and then – with a baby dependent on formula – began to charge for the product. Not only did this get mothers to introduce a pointless and expensive substitute, it caused infant death and disease since the immunising effect of breastmilk was lost. Read the powerful 1975 pamphlet The Baby Killer.

So, is this all of historical interest only? Since 2003, when the World Health Organisation and UNICEF published The Global Strategy For Infant And Young Child Feeding (‘the code’), all national governments have been compelled to promote breastfeeding, and this includes protecting it from aggressive unethical marketing by artificial baby food companies. However, it hasn’t stemmed marketing of breastmilk substitutes; Palmer now looks at the subtler strategies of today, both in the developed and developing world. These comply with the letter of the code, while violating its spirit. Tactics include retaining the name ‘formula’ – conferring a scientific and medical aura to the product – to the creation of ‘follow-on milk’ and its association with very happy and healthy babies. She convincingly argues that the powerful images created by adverts such as this one, below, work to undermine medical advice for exclusive breastfeeding.

A less successful argument for me was when Palmer tackled how women see their own bodies.

Her [a woman’s] perception of her own breasts may be as sexual objects. She may value them herself in this way and feel some anxiety that breastfeeding may take away their sexiness. For many women, displaying the allure of their bodies might be the one time they feel powerful.

Damn right they’re sexual objects! It’s not my perception; Palmer implies in this section that a woman who enjoys her breasts in an autoerotic way, or who loves partners exploring them, has somehow internalized a male way of looking at her body.

They [women] have been programmed to perceive suckling as a sexual activity performed by adults.

I haven’t been 'programmed' to perceive anything of the sort. It feels nice to do that.

I believe there is an argument to be made here: that the aggressive sexualised culture we are in means the breast is treated as an erotic plaything, and that breastfeeding is so troubling to some because it highlights the breast’s other (practical) fuction. But if Palmer was driving at this, she fails to express it clearly; and her near-denial of the especial sexual pleasure found in the breast is plain wrong.

I was also angered by her analysis of feminism and breastfeeding.

Some 1970s feminists had ambivalent attitudes to their bodies and reproduction. In the striving for equality, some women came to scorn birth and breastfeeding.

I absolutely disagree with this sweeping statement. Reproductive rights – from abortion to paid maternity leave – were cornerstones of 1970s feminism. The fight for women to control their own bodies encompassed supporting a woman to give birth, and to breastfeed unimpeded if she so chose. But because some women decided not to – for any number of reasons – doesn’t mean they had ‘ambivalent attitudes' to their bodies. I would say these women had a very clear attitude to their bodies. For instance, Palmer brings up Shulamith Firestone who wrote, in 1970's The Dialectic Of Sex, that reproduction and child-rearing should be as artificial as possible.

Now Firestone’s argument for laboratory reproduction is a nuanced one. It is part of her analysis of how the family, and reproduction, oppress women in culture. Creating and raising children outside of women’s bodies and the traditional family unit, Firestone argues, will help eradicate the gender differences used to subjugate. Now this wasn’t (and still isn’t) a mainstream viewpoint, but Palmer dismisses and mocks Firestone without covering her argument properly, and this does her a great disservice.

Palmer’s use of the first person, and her reliance on anecdotes alongside research, generally sat ill with me. It was more conversational than I would have liked, and the overall book structure wasn’t too logical. There were also areas that she didn’t cover that I feel would have enhanced the book: for instance, it would have been interesting to understand more about the link with cancer prevention (and to look at a different image of the breast: as a site of disease and death).

But, I’m glad I read this: I feel more informed about how breastfeeding has become imbued with dozens of meanings over the years, many of which damage women. I suppose, not being a mother, and never having talked to my own mother about this, I look at the issue from a societal point of view over a child right perspective. Seeing the strands of this book that I’ve teased out in this post confirms this.

Kris herself is very eloquent in discussions of pregnancy, birth and parenthood. I don’t always agree with her viewpoints, or she with mine (but that’s the beautiful milk of life). She more than puts her money where her mouth is: Kris works tirelessly to support women in the transition to motherhood, and helps them to experience positive birth and parenting.

I remember my favourite Kris moment. Someone trotted out the line about how people get more conservative as they become parents. Kris fixed her with a steady glance, and said that no, certainly not in her case. On the contrary, Kris said she had become more radical because parenting made her question societal ‘givens’. She thought far more about the world her daughter was now part of.

It’s really hard to stand up to inequality, especially if the first task is to convince that there even is an inequality. Those who are driven and articulate enough to do this are rare. Kris is one of them.

Sunday, 20 October 2013

Week Thirty-Nine - Jeanette

Nausicaä Of The Valley Of Wind by Hayao Miyazaki (1982-94)
Recommended by Alex

Correct me if I’m wrong, but everyone loves Studio Ghibli.

Surely, from dedicated followers of The Fast And Furious franchise right through to Man With A Movie Camera silent film bores, all are charmed by Ghibli’s fantastical worlds. It annoys me that any shit romcom is branded a ‘feelgood' film, for it devalues something like Spirited Away: cinema that is gloriously enjoyable, yet undeniably profound.

In the early 1980s, Hayao Miyazaki, Studio Ghibli’s founder, pitched a movie about a pacifist young princess living in a world beset by environmental disaster. However Miyazaki, still largely unproven as a director, was told that he needed a manga series to secure funding for this pet project. The argument ran that animated movies based on manga did far better at the Japanese box office than did original stories.

What did Miyazaki do? Churn out a straw manga to please the money men? Or create a ridiculously intricate and multi-layered epic that ran for twelve years?

Set centuries in the future, humanity is on its knees. The industrialist societies of today pushed the earth to its limit. Unable to endure the devastation any longer, the earth roared, creating the Sea of Corruption. This is a vast forest where poisonous spores emit clouds of deadly miasma, and in which mutated and very angry insects dwell. Since the Sea of Corruption is uninhabitable, humans are relegated to its periphery, and then divided into semi-feudal autocratic states. The two primary powers, the Dorok Principalities and the Torumekian Kingdom, are perpetually at war – ostensibly over scarce resources, but there’s quite a bit of old-fashioned belligerence involved, too – while the smaller states are caught in the crossfire. Both Dorok and Torumekia use deeply unethical military strategies: biological warfare, racist inflammation, genetic engineering, and implied rape.

One of these small states is the Valley of Wind. Nausicaä is its beloved princess; she is a pure-hearted young girl who has a unique affinity with the earth. She is even able to communicate with the most feared of all the Sea Of Corruption’s insects, the giant Ohmu. Nausicaä could easily be an annoying do-gooder, but her characterisation is superb: she feels real anguish for human, animal and environmental suffering, while sometimes forced into making dubious moral decisions.

One of these dodgy compromises is her alliance with the Torumekian princess, Kushana. Nausicaä and Kushana share a complicated and fascinating relationship, almost as if they are obverse and reverse to one another.

Kushana was very much my favourite character. A brilliant tactician, ruthless and brutal when necessary, she sprung from a ‘nest of vipers’: a group of ambitious siblings fighting in Roman internecine style for (often short-lived) supremacy. The brief insights we gain into Kushana’s family are among the best panels in the whole manga. How far Nausicaä influences Kushana (and, more subtly, vice versa) is a tremendous tension in the story.

Nausicaä is in four volumes, and a real Gordian knot: it would take paragraphs and paragraphs to effectively explain the story alone. And its philosophical scope is even grander, for it examines different government structures under extreme crisis. As well as Classical history and myth (Nausicaä herself was based upon a Phaecian princess in The Odyssey), I detected influences from pre-1914 Europe, primarily the crumbling Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires. Although my Japanese history is shaky, its Samurai era seems another key reference point. Miyazaki seamlessly links all this with modern theories of environmental destruction, feminism, the abuse of religion, and ethnic scapegoating. Sometimes Nausicaä is about nothing less than what it means to be human, especially when we have devastated the means of sustaining our humanity. Its ambition is as enormous as the Sea of Corruption itself.

The manga was a huge commercial and critical success. Thus, Miyazaki had no trouble getting funding for his movie, which was released in 1984.

It is far, far, far simpler work. Although it’s a good film, it’s on to a hiding to nothing after one has expended the hardcore concentration required to tackle the manga. The world, for once, should be grateful to cautious investors for without them this movie is all we would have.

Similar to my previous graphic novel recommender, Alex is brilliant artist herself. This is my favourite of her drawings: Kirsty MacColl sitting on her bench in Soho Square, created for the board game Soho! 

She is also a respected film academic and a very good friend. I remember when I first met her about ten years ago I really didn’t know what to make of her – she was so different to anyone I’d ever, ever, ever encountered before. I soon realised what providence was telling me: that she was awesome and we should get on with this friendship lark immediately. She is extremely intelligent, highly sensitive, beautifully dressed, and incredibly magnetic. At Kathryn and Rupert’s wedding someone thought she was a film star.

I love things like Nausicaä, which trust you to hold masses of plot and character threads in your head, and then reward you a million times over for paying attention to them. If I may return to that awkward portmanteau word: feelgood. I feel good to know art has such vision, and I feel super good for knowing that I’ve been able to drink deep from its well this week.

Sunday, 13 October 2013

Week Thirty-Eight - Jeanette

 Three To See The King by Magnus Mills (2001)
Recommended by Aaron

Aaron. Wonderful Aaron, Nottingham's best drummer (well, before he moved to London), and one of my very closest friends. We met at a project centred on youth justice a few years back. I always thought he looked interesting, right from the very first meeting. By degrees, we found out that we each liked good music; I told him about Seasons They Change, he told me about his bands, at first the post-rock Souvaris...

…and, more recently, the played-on-Radio-One synth majesty of Cantaloupe.

The last time I saw Cantaloupe play live, Aaron’s movement and sound transfixed me. I’d never seen or heard him drum like that before. He’s technically excellent, but there was something else there that night. It was catharsis, and it was electrifying. This is why we produce (or attempt to produce) any kind of art, right? We seek to work through the chaos in our heads, where feelings are apt to bang around like armour-plated fleas against the inside of our skulls.

Three To See The King is a brief book, and like last week’s Explorers Of The New Century, something of a comment on the intricacies of human behaviour masquerading as a relatively simple fable.

I live in a house built entirely from tin, with four tin walls, a roof of tin, a chimney and a door. Entirely from tin.

This is the unnamed narrator who, isolated but self-sufficient, lives alone on a plain ensconced in his rather spartan tin house. There are a few others around: the ‘half-friend half-nuisance’ Simon Painter, the nearest neighbour at two miles away; plus Steve Treacle and Philip Sibling, and a couple of others beyond that.

We rarely saw each other because we preferred it like that. So was my understanding of the arrangement anyway.

At the furthest point of all is the magnetic Michael Hawkins. This fellow has grander plans than simply living in his tin house; he wants to construct a canyon tin-house community. This is particularly painful to the narrator, because living in a canyon was once his very own dream. Now here was this Michael Hawkins, who everyone loved, actually doing what he himself always aspired to. How annoying is that? One by one, the plain’s diaspora cluster around Michael Hawkins, while extra people, new settlers, arrive to help with and live in the canyon.

‘Michael’s work never ceases!’ he said. ‘Day after day he conducts operations in that canyon! It’s already deeper and wider than any of us could have ever imagined, yet still he goes on.’

Three To See The King is not as cleverly structured as Explorers Of The New Century, but there’s something more human about it. It deals with jealousy and the hard, hard, task of standing alone when everyone else is flocking around what is easiest or what is shiniest. That it does this so successfully, without bitterness or solemnity, is a great credit to its author. It has much, also, to say about the unspoken tropes of community behaviour, and how taboos and structures invisibly formulate (and can strangle).

It’s not without its flaws. I found its female characters awful, especially the shrewish Mary Petrie. In this book men are the movers and shakers, and women, at best, support them and, at worst, hold them back. It seems Mills is another author like Michael Chabon who rather thinks women are a bit of a bother to construct properly, since I can’t really see that Mills created these female archetypes as any kind of comment on gender roles here (and, if he was, it is a seriously misjudged one).

A shorter entry this time, but that's no bad thing; it befits a shorter book. And, 'FYI', I have decided to abandon the alphabetical order aspect of my remaining books (it's already been disrupted once, and do something once, and you'll do it again). Love to Jude. Amen to she and I, and you, reading the fuck out of the rest of this year.

Saturday, 5 October 2013

Week Thirty-Seven - Jeanette

Explorers Of The New Century by Magnus Mills (2005)
Recommended by Hamish

            even in hiding
            the full moon
            teaches us a lesson

Hamish is a poet. The haiku I quote here are all taken from his 2009 book, Our Sweet Little Time, in which he charts a year, the year his daughter was born. The haiku are beautiful, of course. Not only paeans to his wife and daughter, and observations of the shifting rhythms of pregnancy, he speaks of a sharpened sense of season. Things will change and everything takes on a newer meaning.

            winter dusk-
            the sound of knives sharpening
            from a nearby tree

Re-reading Our Sweet Little Time in anticipation of writing this post, I experienced Hamish’s words in a way I didn’t at my first reading. No, I’m not pregnant, but yes, I do feel at a precipice. As if something is swelling within me. I find myself turning over different situations incessantly in my mind. Some are within my control, some are without, but this inner churn has heightened my perception of nature, of both its constancy and its changes. I’ve been up on Loxley Common a lot this year, sometimes to read or to walk with friends, but often, simply, to be. I feel the bracken against my legs and grab at the long grass. I went this morning. October is pinching, and the visitors to the common are fewer. The young lovers who stole kisses over the summer have returned to school, perhaps even split up; the preteens playing with water pistols and frisbees probably won’t do so next year, for they will feel too old for such uninhibited childish pursuits.

Hamish and I have now been penpals for thirteen years – not prolific correspondents, either one of us, but I value my connection with him immensely. We used to know one another in the flesh, yet the decision to sustain our acquaintance by post was exactly the right one. My relationship with him is now so pen-and-ink based it would probably feel very strange to actually speak with him. We’ve followed each other through several changes, not least geographical (the ‘I’ section in my address book is entirely him, four-times crossed out, and one current. Counting up my own house moves, I am but one behind him). I never expect to see him again, but I never expect to lose touch, either.

            sometimes the leaf
            you think is a frog
            is a frog

So I love Our Sweet Little Time. But don’t take my word for it…

            ‘Hamish Ironside understands the art of writing.’
                                                            - MAGNUS MILLS

On the evidence of Explorers Of The New Century, Magnus Mills knows whereof he speaks. This book initially seems to have much in common with The Ascent Of Rum Doodle – a clever satirical adventure tale that depicts the Imperial-era Brits with their enormous sense of entitlement writ large.

‘Very good. Now it’s far too cold to stand here making speeches. I’ve no time for such flummery, so without further ado I think we’ll make an immediate start.’

This is Johns speaking, the wayfaring leader of one set of explorers. He’s ‘not in a race with’ (is in a race with) another exploring party, led by the more austere Tostig.

Tostig raised his field glasses and continued to watch as the distant, tiny figures inched across the scree. ‘Eleven men,’ he said. ‘And two dozen mules. Roughly two dozen. Far more than he needs, I would have thought, unless he’s counting on heavy losses.’

In between moans about the perishing weather and sleeping arrangements, Tostig and Johns continue to snipe at each other – in the most gentlemanly way, of course – as the journeys progress. But where are the parties going, and for what purpose? Early on, we learn it is for some form of Scientific Enquiry, following the Transportation Theory of one Professor Childish; as we press further, we understand that the mules are nervous of the destination; and it is only when we are nearly there (at ‘the Agreed Furthest Point’) that we truly understand the full weight of the expedition.

The reveal of the story is so very very clever that I can’t possibly spoil it for you; hints along the way, tiny asides where I thought, ‘oh, that’s a bit odd, why do they care about that so much?’ all fell expertly into place. I steadfastly blundered down the wrong track for page after page, believing the book to be using magical realist strategies to make an obscure point about isolation, before I almost literally slapped my forehead in recognition at what Mills was actually doing. The use of language and manipulation of reader assumptions is extraordinary.

Although this structural brilliance is an outstanding quality of Explorers Of The New Century, what I found most intriguing was its portrayal of hope. This wasn’t very hopeful.

Without further delay, the expedition continued northward, gradually moving away from the river. Snaebjorn took the lead. The day’s journey was unremarkable, save for a small incident around about noon. During the brief twilight there was a whirr of wings high above them, as in the flight of a passing bird, and a moment later a sprig of foliage fell in their path. Snaebjorn saw it and picked it up. The sprig was withered and dry, but nevertheless its discovery brought encouragement to the entire party. All agreed that somewhere ahead the land must be green and fertile, and on this assumption they pressed forth with renewed vigour.
             But, unknown to them, the bird had lost its way.

Cutting to the quick of any investigative pursuit, whether of the body, heart or mind, Explorers Of The New Century looks at the psychological tricks we devise to sustain hope. For, without hope, how do we know we’re on the right track, even if we get a sprig of foliage dropped in our path? Is the alternative – capitulating to fear, and giving up hope – cowardly or realistic? At what point are we Macbeth, midway in our own river of blood, when to retreat is as destructive as to forge on?

            heart skipping
            a beat, flipping
            like a landed fish

Contemplating metamorphosis and journey as I am, the danger of being a landed fish looms large. In the past, my own river has surged to reclaim me; I hope, hope, that it will ever be so.