Archive for June, 2010

“I want to go to school! I want to go to the Chalet School!” so said one Carola Johnston, fictional 14 year old English girl utterly under the spell of the Chalet School and she wasn’t the only one.

Alpine adventures, kidnapped princesses, jolly mistresses, brown and flame uniforms and Kaffee und Kuchen; the Chalet School series was everything life in rural Ireland was not and a 9 year old me adored it.

Originally set in Austria, the series of about 60 books written by Elinor Brent-Dyer was based on a school which opened in the Austrian Tyrol in the 1920s and spanned right through to the late 1960s, moving to Guernsey, Wales and finally Switzerland.  The books crossed an era of British and European history covering colonial India, Prussia, post World War I, the rise of Nazism, World War II and a post- World War II Britain all through the veiled eyes of a privileged private boarding school for girls.

As with most girls’ books there was a riotous cast of heroes and villains. The Chalet School series recounted tales of generations of girls from the original it-girl ‘Joey’ to her triplet daughters and included one token Irish pupil – the ward of the school ‘Biddy Ryan’ with her cringe-inducing stage Oirish, ghost stories and ‘black flowing hair to her knees’.  Begorrah.

Reading them now these books are wildly inaccurate, hugely racist, incredibly sexist and played on stereotypes to a lamentable degree but they also dealt with multi-culturalism and a multi-religious setting not usually found in children’s books at the time. Looking at the social context is also an eye-opener: the school was run in tandem with a sanatorium where ‘delicate’ children went to be treated for consumption – it was the 1940s before effective drugs to treat TB were readily available – not to mention the acceptance that women would only teach ‘until they married, of course’.

The real fascination for me lay not in the actual stories, though tales of storms in the mountain tops and tragic toboggan accidents were gobbled down with much delight – once I’d found out what a toboggan was – but in the foreignness, the otherness of it all. Those books were probably my first introduction to continental Europe and I was smitten.

Ice cold baths from spring fed water, milky coffee drunk from porcelain bowls, hikes over alpine plains, glaciers, drinking goats’ milk from friendly Tyrolean shepherds (which no doubt I would have detested in real life and refused point blank to drink), the gloomy glow of polished wooden parquet salons and hearty fires in pot bellied stoves during winter. The girls ate brioche, danced local Tyrolean dances, spoke fluent French and German. I couldn’t fathom a more amazing thing than to be able to babble in more than one language, quite forgetting the Irish we all used every day. I was enthralled by the detail and the pure exoticism of their day to day schooling, the accounts of scenes at snowy railway stations, the guttural names of the villages, and the descriptions of sunsets over unpronounceable peaks.

This early love affair with all the delightful differentness of foreign climes has remained with me – and maybe inspired my own subsequent European adventures –  as impressions from often innocuous childhood books often do. I’m sure I’m not the only ‘Chalet schoolgirl’ present but if so what children’s book made a big impression on you?

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Pictures of Anna Chapman, a 28 year-old woman who has been dubbed a Russian spy, are plastered all over the media, and no doubt will continue to appear until the latest version of an obsession with a lady spy plays itself out.  What figures such as Mata Hari, Natasha or any of the Bond women signify in popular culture is a heady promise of illicit sex and the revelation of women’s true nature as treacherous and untrustworthy.  Women in the spy racket are available to a host of male spank-bank fantasy and always make for profitable copy at the newsstand, especially when they are attractive.  Ian Fleming’s highbrow porn revolved around Bond’s bid to bed as many lady spies before he killed or incarcerated them.  It’s a convenient way of avoiding those commitment issues, afterall.

The lady spy narrative is so deeply embedded in culture that folks need only a whiff of intrigue in order to trot out the cloak and dagger clichés, all of which point to labeling Anna Chapman as a conniving,  no count slut with a hidden agenda.  Up until she was lured by counter agents with carrying an invalid passport, the young woman could be accused of little more than being an ambitious real estate agent with designs on becoming a lobbyist.  When men exhibit ruthless business practices, they meet with approval and success and are catapulted to heroics as men to be emulated.  This summer that awful “greed is good” character will be back in cinemas as one archetype of hardnosed men in business who audiences cheer.  For women, the double standard remains that ambition is pathological and on par with criminality.

If you read around the comments left on posts about Chapman, the ugly side of the lady spy narrative becomes all too clear.  They want her to be a repository for sexual fantasy and activity and then they want to kill her, just as in the Bond model of dealing with such nefarious women.  This type of denouement was most graphically treated in Stephen Spielberg’s “Munich,” where the Israeli spies went to extra vindictive lengths to punish and kill a woman working as a spy.  One component of misogyny holds that women use their sexuality as a weapon against men, to lure guys in with their vaginas, and then turn to the spider woman, the femme fatale, the deadly spy.  Screw the bitch and then make her pay for the weak moment of lust.

As an attractive woman who was bold enough to promote herself, network, to try to be successful, Chapman’s automatically guilty.  All the elements are malleable to fit the social script already in place.

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Blame it on my dad, who basically brought up his four daughters to have the cultural tastes of someone who was a small boy in the 1950s, but I have a weakness for retro radio.

The Carey family spend a typical evening together during my 1980s childhood

Yes, along with William Brown, Jennings and our family hero Nigel Molesworth , I grew up enjoying the delights of Hancock’s Half Hour (which I still love), the Goons (meh) and Round the Horne (bits of it haven’t aged well, but I can’t resist Julian and Sandy). Basically, if it was available in Charleville Mall library in the North Strand in the ’50s or aired on the BBC Light Programme, it was part of my childhood.

This is probably why I’m now such a big fan of BBC Radio 4 and, in particular, radio drama. I’m addicted to the Archers, I can’t resist Charles Parris’s adventures and mere words can’t describe my love for recent comedies like Fags, Mags and Bags and Bleak Expectations, which show that what you can’t see is often much funnier than what you can. But I particularly love the old radio programmes often repeated by Radio 4’s digital sister BBC 7.

It was there, several years ago, that I discovered the glorious Paul Temple, mystery novelist and amateur sleuth, and his lovely journalist wife Steve. Yes, Steve. I can’t remember why she’s called Steve, but she is, so there you go. Paul, whose radio adventures were hugely popular from the 1930s to the ’50s, is urbane and prone to expressing any surprise by exclaiming “By Timothy!” in a dashing sort of way. Steve is prone to using her “woman’s intuition” to solve the crimes. Sometimes she’s actually right. Paul and Steve basically spend their time jetting around the place having a fine old time (he never seems to do any actual novel-writing and she never seems to do any journalism work), but every so often Paul’s Scotland Yard chum Sir Graham Forbes turns up at the house to ask for Paul’s help in solving some fiendish crime and another six part series will commence.

These crimes never make perfect sense – there are a lot of red herrings and people turning out to be blackmailers and then getting murdered –  but they’re very exciting, with dead bodies turning up at least once per episode (“By Timothy, Steve, it’s Harry Marx! And….he’s dead !”). If I had seen as many murdered corpses as Paul and Steve, often left by the murderer in the back of our heroes’ nippy little sports car, I’d be in therapy for years. Or I’d at least buy a new car.

Anyway, because Paul and Steve are such talented sleuths, criminals are always trying to kill them, often by luring them into deadly traps over the telephone. Someone will basically ring up Steve and pretend to be Paul (or vice versa) and tell them to come to the Calypso Club in Soho or a yacht club in Portsmouth or something. This happens so often that eventually Paul and Steve develop code words to ensure they’re talking to their real spouse and not an evil criminal holding a hanky over the phone receiver and talking in a funny voice. The one who has been telephoned will ask “Where’s Charlie fishing?” and if the other doesn’t answer “In the Thames” they’ll know it’s a fiendish mastermind. Charlie, by the way, is Paul and Steve’s devoted servant whom they basically treat as a slave. He never seems to get any time off, he has to stay up all night waiting for them to come in from their crime-solving jaunts and he frequently ends up getting bashed over the head by the aforementioned evil criminals whenever they break into Paul and Steve’s flat, as they regularly do. Poor Charlie. I hope he voted Labour in the 1945 election. At the least the NHS would look after his various injuries.

Anyway, Paul and Steve always find the blackmailer/evil crime lord/corrupt night-club owner and bring him or her to justice. Then it’s back to their luxury flat for a drink with Sir Graham and some jolly banter, usually including Steve’s claims that her intuition saved the day (One episode actually ended with Paul crying “By Timothy, Sir Graham, women are extraordinary!”, which even made the BBC7 continuity announcer laugh). Every series seems to involve Steve doing some investigating by buying elegant hats (several of the victims or perpetrators of crime seem to work in the fashion and retail business). As you can tell, the whole thing is totally brilliant, and I salute creator Francis Durbridge and the various actors who have played Paul and Steve over the years.

I also salute the BBC, because since 2006, they’ve been broadcasting brand new productions of old Paul Temple series whose original recordings were lost long ago.  Using the original scripts and vintage microphones and  sound effects, they’ve managed to produce something which sounds absolutely and utterly authentic. Part of the joy of the new series is hearing the actors perfectly reproduce the mannerisms and style of vintage radio acting – I actually don’t know how they do it without sounding like they’re in a comedy sketch, but they do. And the result is pure bliss. The current series, Paul Temple and Steve, originally aired in 1947, but the new version is now airing every Friday on Radio 4. Of course you can hear it online here. Don’t worry about missing the first few episodes – there’s a fantastic summary at the beginning of the most recent one. So if you’re in the mood for some (very) old school crime,  Paul, Steve and the hapless Sir Graham are even more entertaining than Poirot. Though not, of course, as wonderful as my beloved Lord Peter Wimsey (whom I praised in last year’s post on fictional crushes). But then, who is?

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Guess what? Scientists reckon they can now predict when a young woman will start into the menopause by testing her for levels of a particular hormone. Well, so it would seem anyway from reports like this one. A study of 266 women in Iran aged between 20 and 49 measured their levels of anti-mullerian hormone (AMH, it’s made by the ovaries) over a number of years as well as finding out about their reproductive and family histories.

From all this, the researchers came up with a formula to forecast when menopause would start, and apparently they claimed their model could predict whether a woman in her 20s would have an early menopause (before 45). Now before we go wondering whether we want to gaze into that particular crystal ball, can I just point out that these results were presented at a conference – the European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology – so they are not in the gold standard of a peer-reviewed paper for starters. Plus the study itself is pretty small, so any rush to extrapolate to half of the human race is probably premature.

But it raises the intriguing notion that some day a woman may be able to waltz into a clinic in her youth and find out at what age she will start the so-called ‘change of life’.

Would you want to know?

Claire O’Connell

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L’Oréal loves to talk up the science. From its skin-and-hair labs in Paris to Jennifer Aniston steadying her gaze into your living room and warning that “the science bit” is coming, they revel in the white-coatedness of it all. But it’s not just the men in those white coats, no. The cosmetics empire also wants to give women a nudge along scientific research trajectory.

And so two Dublin-based women are packing their bags to go to London tomorrow to represent their dreams of advancing a scientific idea.
Dr Lourdes Basabe-Desmonts, a research fellow at Dublin City University, is developing a surface-based technology to measure how stem cells develop in the lab. Meanwhile Dr Rachel Evans from Trinity College Dublin is looking at a new way to create small-scale organic electronic devices.
They are among eight short-listed candidates for this competition, of which four will receive a 2010 L’Oréal UNESCO UK and Ireland For Women In Science Fellowship that provides £15,000 in funding to further their work.

Now to those of us living in NAMA-land whose ears are tuned into the millions and billions, that amount doesn’t seem very much. But it all counts. And the prestige that goes with a L’Oréal UNESCO award is not to be sniffed at. A 2009 winner of one of their international fellowships (they only gave out 15 worldwide), Dr Lydia Lynch, now divides her time between University College Dublin and Harvard. She is looking at how obesity messes with the immune system and can put people at higher risk of developing cancer. Lynch is definitely on my ‘one to watch’ list and best of luck to the two candidates in the Ireland and UK competition tomorrow.

Claire O’Connell

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On this day 35 years ago, the great Tim Buckley died. I thought of him last weekend when fellow Anti-Roomer Nadine O’Regan asked for summer song suggestions on her Kiosk show. Like its more evil sister question – “what music do you like?” – this is a difficult beast to tackle. Sometimes memory and music are inextricable, bound up for good and bad reasons. The summer of 1982 meant two things: my First Communion and the constant radio rotation of Nicole’s Eurovision winner, A Little Peace. As her song raced to the top of the charts, my mother was engaged in the summer ritual of taking off our winter bedclothes and putting on light sheets. This was, after all, before the advent of the duvet (or “continental quilt” as it was glamorously dubbed back then). Nicole’s childlike tones were easily aped by a seven-year-old, which led to me being badgered into singing the song at family parties. Frankie by Sister Sledge reminds me of dawdling on a neighbour’s wall with friends, sweltering, bored and desperate to be in love, listening to a tinny ghetto blaster (Blue Monday by New Order was also played a lot, much to the irritation of Mr. Murray, our neighbour). My post-Inter (Junior) Cert summer was nightmarishly soundtracked by Bryan Adams clinging on to the charts for 16 grim weeks with Everything I Do (I Do It For You). And then came 1995 – the obligatory J1 summer in America, dominated by Beck’s Loser, mixtapes and Glory Box by Portishead.  My over-riding memory of the balmier months of 2001 is of Saturday nights spent at Thomas the Skank Engine in the Thomas House. The night would end with the windows fogged up, en masse sweating and everyone dancing on the seats to Daft Punk’s One More Time. Those terrifyingly fun nights contrast hugely with the summer weeks of 2007, when my son was born. A difficult sleeper, my only recall of the fuzzy, first few weeks of his life is pushing his buggy rhythmically to Amiina’s lullabies, willing his blue eyes to sleep.

All wonderful, varied, hot, hectic  summers, but one song, appropriately enough, always flits into my head on days crammed with sunshine. Tim Buckley’s Buzzin’ Fly manages to to conjure up rolling American plains, dust bowls, cold beers, cut grass and wanting to feel the sun on your face, like no other tune.

R.I.P. Tim. What are your most loved/hated/evocative summer songs?

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Last month reports surfaced about the poll that asked folks to rate the top 10 iconic dresses of the past 50 years, and only two in the selection were from classic cinema.  Not to sound like an old crank, but does either Geri Halliwell’s Union Jack or Liz Hurley’s Versace safety pin dress really carry any aesthetic influence or longevity beyond the moments they captured in pop culture?  C’mon, those garments consisted of a tea towel and tacky gold pins for pity’s sake.  No one will emulate the look or turn to it in a few decades and agree that either dress was of singular style importance.  Kylie Minogue makes the list at number 7 for gold shorts, which do not even fit the criteria of the list, because hey Ms. Obvious, shorts are not a dress.

By contrast, there is a wealth of timeless, iconic style in classic cinema.  You could walk out of the house in any one of these ensembles with the smug satisfaction that you are the bee’s knees.  My list is highly subjective, based upon repeated viewings and informed by an aversion to all things Marilyn Monroe and Audrey Hepburn, save for the former in “How to Marry a Millionaire” (where Monroe perfected the one ditzy character she had in her repertoire) and the latter in “Wait Until Dark” (the one time Hepburn stopped posing and started acting).  Both “The Seven Year Itch” and “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” are altogether wretched, unwatchable films harbouring seedy messages about women’s status as always available fem-bot sex toys.

I’ll truncate my list to five to underscore the appeal of the celluloid wardrobes on offer.

“Barefoot in the Park” (1967) is saddled with a wooden, affectless Robert Redford, but Jane Fonda sports the most amazing bouncy, shiny hair imaginable matched with an urban, modish wardrobe that suits a new bride.  This film gave me my first glimpse of how fabulous mustard yellow could be when Fonda’s character Corrie be-bops around the NYC love nest trying to set up house.  The swingy coat and boots are also stylish pieces.  It’s not a great film save for the fashion.

Last week’s Style insert in the Sunday Times magazine included a feature on the upcoming hounds tooth trend for Fall.  You need not look any further than Lauren Bacall in “To Have and Have Not” (1944) to see what Christopher Kane aspires to in his own collection.  Bacall’s suit-heavy wardrobe matched the moxie she mustered onscreen when she was only 19 and squared off against Humphrey Bogart.  She was so foxy, she’d melt your eyelashes.  Bacall was also one of the few women who could wear a beret without looking like a pretentious jackass.

The signature dresses worn by Rita Hayworth in “Gilda” and Ava Gardner in “The Killers,” released the same year in 1946, were similar in design, both strapless column dresses, and were accessorized with long gloves onscreen.  Points have to go to Gardner because her dress magnified a countenance which declared she was no doormat.  Gardner’s steely gaze told you no one would be slut-shaming her as they did with Hayworth’s Gilda.  The centre strap has been replicated a million times.

Marilyn’s pleated white dress from the scene where she flashes the crowd receives too much praise since every woman knows that a pleated skirt adds bulk to your ass and hips.  I haven’t worn pleats since the hideous and mandatory Catholic school uniform.  If we’re casting about for a great white dress, look no further than Elizabeth Taylor in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” (1958).  The Grecian goddess draping is universally flattering.  Liz takes this white dress as anything but a symbol for virginity.  Instead, it telegraphs the barely contained lust she has for her husband.  She’s a fashion icon in just the slip she prowls around in, not to mention the white dress.

In “All About Eve” (1950), the first film about a woman’s mid-life crisis, Bette Davis rages onscreen in a design by Edith Head which shows how chic women can be at this age.  The neckline is sublime off the shoulders, as are the careful slits under the arms.  Davis boasted a tiny little waist in the dress and next to the fortified shoulders, it was clear she was going out fighting.  Aside from the brilliantly acid dialogue, all of the women’s costumes are covetable.  Marilyn Monroe’s hip flower appliqué was plagiarized outright by Patricia Fields for Carrie Bradshaw’s closet

Any of these ensembles beats the tea towel and hoochie mama getups folks voted for in the poll.

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