I wrote about Turkey’s failed coup for the Guardian – thoughts 4 months on

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Four months ago today, an attempted coup devastated Turkey. It was one of the scariest and most bizarre nights of my life, my tweets about the fear, the explosions and passing F-16s were retweeted thousands of times resulting in constant phone calls from international press agencies and a very late night (and slightly drunken) appearance on Radio 5 Live. Later came international TV appearances, and being interviewed by George Galloway (of all people) for his show on RT, something I’ve still not been able to bring myself to watch. The coup was, thankfully, prevented but since then President Erdogan’s autocracy has gone from strength to strength and hardly a week goes past without the country taking a further dive into darkness in the name of weeding out enemies of the ‘state’. 

Almost a million people have been affected by widespread arrests and purges from state institutions. In the last few weeks alone, 370 NGOs have been shut down, more journalists arrested, a further 15 media organisations closed and the leaders of the pro-Kurdish opposition party were arrested, removing the only democratically elected voice that represented minorities as well as sought for greater moves towards womens’ and LGBTQI+ equality. Removing this voice will no doubt lead to more violence since the collapse of a ceasefire with the PKK last summer, violence that will play right into Erdogan’s hands as excuse enough for government forces to continue their operations in the southeast, razing cities to the floor in the name of counter-terror. And all the while the supposedly ceremonial president edges ever closer to securing the support he needs to rewrite the constitution, finally securing his ‘definitely-not-a-dictatorship’ new presidential system extending his grip on power. Needless to say, Turkey is not in a good place.

While accidentally finding yourself near-on in the epicentre of a coup that is going badly wrong is incredibly frightening, what scared me more was the nationalist frenzy it enabled. Nationalism so powerful, people laid down their lives to protect their country – a feeling that leaves people all too easily controlled and manipulated. I wrote about it for the Guardian, yet little did I know that by the time I would get around to posting it here, we would be living in a post-Trump, post-Brexit world. Despite mentioning both in my article, the West’s capacity to screw itself over, to also be blinded by whipped up nationalism, has taken me by surprise. Nationalism is now a global sickness, and in trouble too is the very nature of democracy. We are now bitterly, and in some cases irreconcilably divided. While it is common to look down on Turkey as somehow backwards, as trying to catch up, the post-truth politics and pointed insults of both the Brexit and the Trump campaigns looked very much like Erdogan tactics to me. It is the nationalism that has been unleashed everywhere that frightens me now. 

You can read the published version here, or the unedited version below. 

 

I was at a BBQ in the garden of the British embassy bar in Ankara on Friday night when F16s started roaring overhead. We soon heard the Bosphorus Bridge in Istanbul had been blocked off, too, and began hearing talk from various off-duty officials of an attempt at a military coup, but it seemed so unlikely at first.

A friend in Istanbul called and said state media institutions had been taken over by army and jandarma officers calling themselves a peace council and that the broadcaster TRT was showing endless weather reports. Then the explosions started and we were told we had to leave – we were turned out on to uncertain streets by an institution we thought was safe.

Some who were there had been informed by their places of work to go home immediately so we sheltered nearby at a friend’s place, close to the Prime Minister’s palace – ‘we’ were a Belgian, an Italian, a Syrian-born Jordanian and three Brits. I had been tweeting what was going on and was talking to various news agencies – before my phone battery predictably died – as the jets continued to fly low overhead. I heard an unfamiliar noise and stuck my head out of the window to see a stream of tanks going past. It seemed pretty serious at that point.

As the night crept on into Saturday morning, the gunshots drew close, it felt like they were metres away, and the bangs, too – a mix of bombs, aircraft fire and sonic booms that are not always easy to distinguish from one another. Some of the explosions were so close the vibrations shook in my chest. My friends were crying and regularly running for shelter in the hall and the TV blanked out. There were frantic messages to loved ones. “This is much worse than it was in Damascus,” the Syrian-born friend kept saying. I even tweeted “I love you mum!”.

“I am calling you into the streets,” president Erdogan texted everyone with a Turkish number at some point in the early hours. He wanted everyone to “stand up” for democracy and peace against the junta. I was disgusted to see on social media later what that meant – boys barely old enough to vote pulled from tanks and beaten, whipped with belts, people posing for pictures with their thumbs up next to the bodies of dead soldiers. The police looked on. What sort of democracy was this?

Much has been said about ‘democracy’ – it was fired out by the government as a motivational buzzword to mobilize people. The quashing of the coup was touted as a ‘victory for democracy’, but democrats don’t burn down the homes of Syrian migrants, they don’t threaten to rape the children of their enemies. The army claimed to be acting in the interests of democracy too. Yet they killed civilians in the street, civilians who should never have been there in the first place. These people were not motivated by democracy, on either side, but nationalism and sense of honour.

Erdogan was Turkey’s first democratically elected president, but what he represents is not democracy. There is little understanding, it seems, among his supporters of the difference between the presence of elections and a true democracy. Democracy is instead used in Turkey as an empty term to legitimise any mob mentality that works in the government’s favour.

For two days and nights, many got no sleep because the mosques regularly called for people to take to the streets. On Saturday, nationalist protests swelled in celebration of what they called democracy – there were flags everywhere, guns, chants of “Allahu Akbar” and nationalist songs. They were out again yesterday and it continued well into this morning. The gray wolf salute of those affiliated with the ultranationalist, arguably racist, Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) were everywhere. My clothing has been disapproved of by passers by, something I have honestly not experienced much of in Turkey. This sort of nationalism scares me and Erdogan has asked for people to remain mobilised like this for a week.

While nationalism has become a global sickness – from Brexit to Donald Trump – as deglobulisation kicks in, Turkish society is crumbling under the weight of this growing tumour. Now an already polarized country will be further polarised and many silenced with the label of ‘traitor’. Erdogan and his party are whipping people into a nationalist frenzy to further their support and consolidate even more power.

While an impressive display of people power prevented the armed coup, it will likely now result in unleashing a further crackdown on dissent. Aside from thousands of arrests, many press outlets have already had their websites blocked. Friday’s events may well grant the government free rein to purge enemies while claiming they are the enemies of democracy – even the push to reinstate the death penalty is being touted as a democratic necessity.

When I finally got home on Saturday, I saw cars on my road squashed flat by tanks like they were little more than a Coke can in the name of democracy. I really hope Turkey’s democratic future won’t now suffer the same fate.

I wrote for the Guardian about Britain and Turkey as Europe’s fringe nations

 

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The Guardian asked me to write something about Turkey and Brexit in the event of Brexit, and of course I though that was never going to happen. Eugh. But I was very happy to get to write something after all so I wrote about Britain and Turkey as two fringe nations on opposite sides of Europe – in more ways than one… 

Unedited version below or the final version here.

So, it happened. Brexit is upon us. The politics of fear won the day – the Turks are no longer coming. As we come to terms with the idea that the long EU divorce process is about to get going, Turkey – the country whose people we are apparently petrified of – is still plodding on with the longest engagement in history.  

Despite all the bile spewed about the country during the Leave campaign, it turns out Britain and Turkey are not so different after all. Like Britain, Turkey blames the EU for many of its ills. The slow speed with which their accession into the union has progressed is often seen as a deliberate move by the British, the US and the EU itself to undermine Turkish power. It is frequently referred to as a Christian expansion project, a union that exists to assert Christian ideals and dominance over the world. “Europe, you don’t want us because the majority of our population are Muslim,” President Erdoğan said at a graduation ceremony in Istanbul on the eve of the Brexit vote.

He also suggested holding a referendum on the country leaving the EU before they’ve even joined – TRexit, of course. “We can stand up and ask the people just like the British are doing,” Erdoğan said. With Frexit – France – also mentioned, and Nexit – the Netherlands – this may be the beginning of a worrying trend.

Also like Britain, Turkey sees itself as a country whose ideals are constantly under threat from outside forces. Turkey would be the world super power, if it wasn’t for those pesky Americans, Russians, Europeans… everyone. The idea that British secret service plots work to constrain Turkey is common. “It might sometimes look like it is Russia or the USA that is behind things. But they are all controlled by the British secret state,” Adnan Oktar, also known as Harun Yahya, a televangelist and leader of an Islamist sex cult – that really is a thingonce tweeted. To which British Ambassador to Turkey Richard Moore amusingly responded, “So now you know…”.

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Yet, despite all this, Turkey’s EU talks have been championed by Britain. Jack Straw led the negotiations in 2005 when Turkey’s membership talks were officially given the go ahead. He even hugged then Foreign Minister Abdullah Gül in celebration, and was later awarded the Order of the Republic – the highest honor a foreign national can be awarded. Many British politicians have championed their bid. Cameron said in 2012 it was unfair that Turkey was being asked to “guard camp, but not allowed to sit in the tent”. It’s no wonder then, Turkey felt betrayed at being used as an excuse for Brexit.

It was Cameron saying that Turkey will join the bloc “in about the year 3000” that really stung – pro-government journalists scrambled to write things along the lines of, ‘see, told you everyone hates us’. Speaking on Newsnight via video link on Tuesday, Erdoğan’s chief advisor İlnur Çevik, said, “The French said we don’t want you. Many countries said this. But the way Mr Cameron put it we feel really, really taken in,” adding, “That kind of attitude really is deeply hurting the Turks”.

“Why should we be flooding Britain?” he said, on the much touted, but largely mythical, imminent invasion of Turkish migrants to the UK. “There’s no reason. Whatever exists in Britain also exists in Turkey. We’re not going to go there just because you produce Cadbury’s chocolates and Maltesers, for god’s sake”.

Turkey didn’t want Britain to leave, but our exit may well dent their EU ambitions enough for them to give up all together. “The fragmentation process of the EU has started. Britain was the first to abandon ship,” Deputy Prime Minister Nurettin Canikli said on Twitter. This all plays right into the hands Erdoğan, who seems to have gone off the EU and instead dreams of building a neo-Ottoman style Muslim union with him at its helm. “The people in Greece, Romania, Bulgaria are saying, ‘Forget about the EU, what could be the new scenario with Turkey?’” another of his advisors, Yiğit Bulut, said earlier this month. “Maybe the governments cannot speak about it because of the German government’s oppression, but people … have started to talk about how they will be ruled from Istanbul”.

Having been shunned by Germany and France in the past, held back by Austria, it doesn’t seem far-fetched to say that Turkey might change direction, or that the EU mıght not well give up on Turkey, too. Far right leaders across Europe are rejoicing at Brexit as a victory for “freedom”, which doesn’t bode well for Turkey.

Ironically to all those who wanted to keep Britain as far apart from Turkey as possible, Brexit could in fact improve relations between the two countries. Britain and Turkey as two fringe nations on opposite sides of Europe, in more ways than one. Both are united by growing romantic nationalism. Perhaps Turkey could even pick up some of the trade slack when we do eventually pull out – investment and exports between the two countries are already high.

If nothing else, Brexit may at least fight claims of the EU being an elitist Christian club. Turkish nationalists understand arguments of sovereignty and have backed the campaign. But with nationalists also threatening the freedoms of Turks who don’t fit their plan – LGBT people and Radiohead fans, to name but a few – is that really a side we want to be on?

I wrote for the Guardian about the silly demonisation of Turkey by Brexiteers

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I was truly ashamed to be British in the run up to the Brexit vote. Living in Turkey, watching the Turkish people be used as a reason to leave the EU was, well, just really embarrassing. I wanted to show Britain how ridiculous it sounded, and incidentally soon after the vote it was admitted that most of the claims (including the Express headline) were false (shocker). The comments on this piece were also predictably awful (never look below the line!), xenophobic, nasty, but the guy who insisted on believing I was Polly Toynbee – as pointed out by several of my friends – did give me a chuckle. 

The unedited version is below or the shinyer finished product here.

 

The Brexit debate has become an all too real version of the time a woman turned a pro-EU leaflet into a game of Cards Against Humanity, accept every single one of Vote Leave’s answer cards say ‘Turkey’. What happens if we stay? Turkey. What is the biggest threat to the UK? Turkey. I drink to forget…? Turkey.

 While Turkey has had more than its fair share of troubles of late and has a long way to go, the vast majority of the ire from leave campaigners has been pointed directly at the Turkish people. The entire of Turkey’s 78 million population, who are mostly criminals, terrorists and gangsters, are preparing to relocate to the UK on the off chance we’ll stay and they will, by some miracle, achieve accession sometime soon. This is quite something considering fears of a Cyprus veto and when only 10% of the population even own a passport.

Turkey’s high birth rate will mean four million extra Turks by 2020 say Vote Leave, and “we can expect to see an additional million people added to the UK population from Turkey alone within eight years.” Within ten years this will cost maternity wards £400m they say, offering no clue as to their workings out. A statistic from a Vote Leave survey warned that 16% of Turks “would consider” moving to the UK on EU accession, but what that means is a whopping 84% wouldn’t even entertain the idea – that’s quite embarrassing when you think about it.

With Turkey considering its own feelings about the EU, imagine if they talked about the threat of us staying in the same way?

“Considering the rate at which Britain’s population is ageing,” they might say, “and based on the 2.5 million Brits who holidayed in Turkey last year, we expect to see our coastal regions destroyed by swarms of Britain’s elderly escaping their chronic bad weather problem. Since the EU will no doubt force us to join the European Health Insurance Card scheme, the strain on our free healthcare alone will be unbearable.

“A life of microwave meals and alcohol abuse means liver problems our health infrastructure just doesn’t have the resources to cope with. Within a year they’ll have eaten all of our biscuits. Are we really going to allow one of the fattest nations on earth have free reign of our hospitals? Their fat teenagers attend our free universities? Already some five million Brits live abroad and as anyone who’s ever been to the Costa del Sol will tell you, the problem is they just don’t assimilate.”

And who could blame them? A predominantly Christian Britain will bring forced Christmas with them. Our Islamphobia will, of course, push Turkey’s young people to becoming radicalised. Let’s not even get started on the threat of troubles starting up again with northern Ireland — if that flares up again, how do they know the 1.8 million residents won’s use it as an excuse to move to Turkey?

“Violent crime is up,” the newspapers might cry, “and they don’t have enough spaces for prisoners so they could ship them all here – they did it to AUSTRALIA.

“They will flock here, force women to wear high heels to work, if they wear anything at all, and the vast majority will expect wages so high they will force hardworking Turks out of the job market.

“We are talking about a people who not just eat pork, but whose prime minister engages in sexual activities with it. A country whose most famous entertainers are allowed to touch children. Whose royal family… who have a royal family.

“There is nothing but a ‘pourous’ ocean between them and the US – how can they protect us?

“They are rude, their men like to get drunk, put on dresses and fight each other. They will never speak the language.

“If the UK remain in Europe, there will simply be no Turkey left to enjoy the benefits the EU will bring.”

As someone who lives in Turkey and has been welcomed, even as that most threatening of all migrants: an economic one, I am ashamed. Brexit really has brought out the worst of British. Get over yourselves! During the eight months or so I taught English, I asked my students if they’d like to live in the UK. Without exception they said no — it’s expensive and racist.

Turkish people are not symbols of an approaching migrant apocalypse. Politicians, government figures from superior, everyone-wants-to-live-there Britain vilifying a whole people for political gain? Sounds like you have more in common with our Ottoman brethren than you thought.

I interviewed trainers from TV show Dogs Might Fly for the Guardian

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I interviewed the trainers from Dogs Might Fly, a TV show that aims to show how lovely rescue dogs can be with the right care and attention while, yeah, also teaching them TO FLY A PLANE, for the Guardian. Read it here or unedited version below.

 

Can a dog fly a plane? And, if it could, would you go as far as to, say, get in a plane that a dog was piloting? Probably not. However, Victoria Stilwell, one of eight dog experts on new six-part SKY 1 show Dogs Might Fly, would. Despite being a nervous flyer she can “confidently, 100% say yes.”

The show, presented by Jamie Theakston, will see 12 rescue dogs, handpicked from shelters across the country put through their paces in a series of challenges designed to highlight their extraordinary abilities before three luckily finalists graduate to doggy flight school.

So how in the name of dog do you attempt to train a canine for aviation? “A dog is a ground-based quadruped, so they’re not designed for flying – as humans aren’t,” understated Mark Vette, an animal psychologist on the show. Dogs “don’t have arms and hands – they’ve got four legs – so there were some issues with dexterity: how would they manipulate the yoke and the controls, and how they would sit up comfortably?”

“We went through some pretty challenging experimentation… The [Civil Aviation Authority] were adamant that we minimise changes to the plane. A big challenge was set, and that’s what the series is about.”

Although tight-lipped about the details of the process, the trainers did reveal the key attributes they looked for – confidence, a strong ability to read human signals and a dog who is, as Stilwell puts it in language more normally associated with City headhunters, “willing to go the extra mile, to problem solve and to investigate how to work something out for themselves – that’s the kind of dog you want flying a plane.” The muttley crew include Shadow, a Staffordshire bull terrier who was just hours away from being put down by the council when the team discovered him. He was, according to Stilwell, “really good at unlocking [doors] and then pretending he hadn’t done anything wrong.” He was such a top notch Houndini that during his audition he escaped twice before auditionbombing the other hopefuls.

“The crew were chanting ‘who let the dogs out’,” said Charlotte Wilde, a trainer who has supplied animals for Harry Potter and Pirates of the Caribbean. “Shadow also found love at the airfield – hopefully you’ll see in episode six – and has already taken a small part in a shoot… Hollywood here he comes!”

Then there’s Wilf, a 22-month old collie cross, who Stilwell, star of dog behavioural show It’s Me or The Dog, said: “Loved eating water”. “He loved his paddling pool and would dive in trying to eat the water instead of drinking it.” Spike, a terrier-mix, was “brilliant at not doing any of the challenges set for him and instead was really intent on licking everybody’s faces, all the crew. You’re trying to get the shot and he’s just in your face having a fabulous time.” And, when working with dogs, there’s always one that “takes a dump somewhere right in the middle of the beautiful set.”

Challenges include an aviation-themed theatrical show with puppets (yes, really, really, really) – the dogs operated puppets through a series of specially designed platforms. We can also look forward to the “rock performance of a lifetime”.

“You’ve got to make sure that the dogs don’t mind sound,” said Stilwell. “You do these tests to see if the dog can be around a drum kit.” The dogs are rewarded for touching markers with their paws and noses before moving onto important things such as drum pedals. Not every dog, however, has the skills to be the next Ginger Barker or a Phil Collie. One of Stilwell’s favourites, Spot, a “wonderful” Beagle-mix, is “the funniest dog you’ll ever meet.” “She wasn’t that adept at playing the instruments so she was a backing vocalist. You teach the dog to sway, one paw to the other. It’s so cute.”

The dogs also had time to chill out in their luxury Sussex countryside pad, The Dog House, where it was no dog’s life. “As well as their very own Dog Studio,” said Wilde, “there were sofas and comfy dog beds. Although the dogs didn’t learn how to operate the Aga unfortunately. Or the bathroom.”

“They were treated like royalty,” added Stilwell. “They had the highest quality food, delicious treats, their own groomer and 24 hour vet care.” Bar the odd scuffle, the housemates got on too, which is refreshing for reality TV.

We’ve seen a pooch in space and now, just 59 years later, are we about to see the world’s first dog pilot? “I can’t tell you because I think it might be quite surprising,” said Stilwell. “Watch the show and you’ll see and you’ll go ‘wow’.”

– Dogs Might Fly goes out on Sky 1 at 19:00 on Sunday 28th February

– All of the dogs featured on the show have since found permanent loving homes.

I wrote a piece for the Guardian about man-shaming portmanteaus – they need to die

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I wrote a thingy for the Guardian about man-shaming portmanteaus – mansplaining, manslamming, manterrupting, manspreading, etc. They’re stupid, stop it – men are people too, I suppose. Male entitlement is an issue. Derogatory words highlight the problem (and are fun, let’s be honest), but fuelling gender-squabbling isn’t doing equality any favours. Funnily enough, this seemed to be a popular piece with men-folk. Fancy version here, unedited version below. 

Men. If they’re not ‘mansplaining’ things to women they’re ‘manslamming’ us in the street, ‘manspreading’ on the tube or ‘manterrupting’ us during work meetings. Even as a hairy, sensible-shoe wearing man-hater – otherwise known as a feminist – the rise and rise of the man-shaming portmanteau has left me feeling a little uncomfortable.

First there was mansplaining, which was declared 2014’s Aussie word of the year by Macquarie Dictionary of Australian English this week. It refers to the very real tendency of some men to explain things to women, whether they need them explaining or not, because of an ingrained assumption that they’re too ignorant – their pretty little heads too full of boys and make-up, no doubt – to understand.

The term is thought to have been first coined by feminist commentators in 2008 following the publication of Rebecca Solnit’s scathing essay, Men Explain Things to Me. The piece recounted the painful tale of the time an over-confident and clueless man at a party explained her own book to her – an experience that many women can sympathise with to some degree.

One of the problems with simplistic terms like this however, is their ease of use and humour risk diluting any message. They become an easy-to-mouth solution for a more complicated problem, and this one quickly took on more pejorative meanings. It became a go-to phrase for mumbled or garbled explanations and the trump card in arguments, but this sort of overuse just desensitises us to the real issue which is that, yes, some men really do talk down to women.

More recently, manspreading reared it’s ugly, er… head. According to the New York Times, who announced a Metropolitan Transportation Authority campaign to banish it from the New York subway late last year, that’s when men “spread their legs wide, into a sort of V-shaped slouch, effectively occupying two, sometimes even three, seats” on crowded trains. Then New York Magazine hit us with manslamming: pedestrian collisions caused by the refusal of some men to make space for other people using the same pavement, especially women. They said of the two issues that “arguably, both are symptoms of a culture that teaches men to self-assuredly occupy any and all space available to them, regardless of who’s nearby.”

While a sense of entitlement certainly causes some people to behave inappropriately towards others, privilege is far more complicated than man versus woman. Aside from a few word derivatives – such as ‘whitesplaining’ – the man-shaming portmanteau ignores other socio-economic factors associated with entitlement like race, class or aesthetic values.

The most recent lexical blends to enter the fray are Time magazine’s manterrupt and ‘bropropriate’. The former blending ‘man’ and ‘interrupt’ to describe an unnecessary interruption of a woman by a man, often in the work place, and the later denoting the stealing of a woman’s ideas and taking credit for them. It puts me in mind of an old Fast Show sketch where three men are discussing how to break into a car, presumably one of them has accidentally locked his keys inside. Arabella Weir, who happens to be strolling past, suggests putting a half a tennis ball over the lock, “then smash it with the palm of your hand and the air pressure forces the lock up”. The men ignore her and then pass the idea of as their own while she looks on, horrified: “can any of you actually here me?”

While women are certainly not equal at work, a recent survey found that female employees felt they were held back by negative office politics, neologisms like manterrupt risk trivialising the problem and undermine feminism’s message of equality, not anti-male rhetoric. They serve to polarise people rather then unite us against gender-based social discrepancies and invite absolutism – “manterrupting? Never speak when a woman is speaking because she is a woman,” raged one Redditor.

It reeks of gender essentialism – the idea that specific physical, social and cultural traits are native to a particular gender. It may be satisfying, refreshing, even empowering, to give men a hard time, but I can’t help imagine how I would feel if faced with similar accusations – ‘womanterrupting’ or ‘womansplaining’ for example. It would be degrading.

Besides, bad behavior is not exclusive to the male half of the species. I’m guilty of at least a few of these terms. I’ve had the odd fracas with tortoise-paced members of the public during a frenzied morning commute. Not because of their gender, but because in the awful time-sparse world of a city dweller they were – and I’m not proud of this – collateral damage. On the tube, I find it comfortable to sit with one leg crossed over the other, despite the fact that it means accidentally kicking standing passengers sometimes. I have patronisingly explained the obvious to intelligent people on more occasions than I care to recount and, sometimes, on intercity trains, I leave my coat on the seat next to me so people think I have a friend in the toilet.

Entitlement is still a problem. However, before we go smooshing any more man-words together, it might be worth remembering that a prat is a prat, whatever their gender.

Breakfast TV: Why are female presenters so glam at 6:30am?

From the Daily Mail

From the Daily Mail

I was asked to write a piece for the Guardian G2 Shortcuts. Hope you enjoy…

Once upon a time, if a conversation arose about breakfast glamour, it would probably have been concerned with shiny high-class toasters. But something has happened to breakfast TV over the past few years, it’s gone sexy. So sexy, in fact, that Clare Balding said in an interview with the Mail on Sunday last weekend, that the female presenters look “as though they are going to a cocktail party.”

While most of us are still wiping the lip cheese from our mouths at 6:30am, presenters such as Good Morning Britain’s Susanna Reid are already glossy and preened. Even at this ungodly hour, they manage to bring us the news in killer heels and dresses as tight fitting as a lace wetsuit. More controversially, the trend for plunging necklines is revealing a bit more tattie than most people are ready for prior to their morning caffeine hit. Especially when the only growths you were looking for were the ones concerning the war in Syria.

“Why do you have to do that?” Balding said, pointing out that women should be judged by their talent, not their appearance. “Why would it be wrong to sit there in trousers? Why don’t they wear a dressing gown, present the show in their pyjamas once a week, maybe every Friday?”

And she’s right, the worth of female breakfast TV presenters – who, after all, are just doing their jobs, not running for Miss England – is assessed far more on looks than their male counterparts. A few weeks ago, Australian TV anchor Karl Stefanovic admitted to wearing the same blue ­suit for a year in order to make a point about the way his female colleagues are unfairly judged. He came up with the idea after hearing that co-presenter, Lisa Wilkinson, had been sent a letter by a viewer telling her to “get some style”. But predictably, no-one noticed despite the fact that blue, like, isn’t even his colour.

In the eighties, our wake up call came from Anne Diamond in an array of high-necked blouses and garish jumpers. In the nineties, it was a floppy haired Kirsty Walk. Today’s presenters might look as though they’re about to be whisked off to an impossibly classy soiree (not a single Ferrero Rocher in sight), and it may not be progressive, but with women in the media now under such close scrutiny, it’s understandable.

In the interview, Balding also talked of how she’s uncomfortable wearing “a skirt or dress because it is difficult to look good sitting down… I want to feel like nothing is going to distract from the job I am doing.” But until things do change, it’s likely that even pyjama-Friday would be a glamour-fest.

I wrote a piece for the Guardian about vaginas (well, feminine hygiene products)

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I wrote a piece for the lovely Guardian women’s blog about some of the more ridiculous things women have been convinced to do to themselves in the name of fanny-improvement. As always, you can read the original here, or my original below. 

Ever worried that your vagina doesn’t smell like soft fruit? Me neither. Yet last week, in a spectacularly unpopular attempt at foof-commodification, two Silicon Valley startup bros unveiled plans for a new probiotic supplement that enables women to biohack their nether regions, leaving them smelling of peaches. While the product’s official use is as an anti-microbial, the scent serving as an indicator that it is working effectively to protect against problems such as yeast infections, it’s an uncomfortable proposition that has caused outrage online. Especially as the pair’s other fragrant collaboration is a probiotic that makes pet dung smell like bananas.

“All your smells are not human. They’re produced by the creatures that live on you,” said Austen Heinz, CEO of Cambrian Genomics who plans to make Sweet Peach Probiotic using DNA laser printing technology. Adding: “We think it’s a fundamental human right to… personalise it.”

Science has long been misappropriated in order to sell products, particularly those aimed at women. Some products have used vagina-guilt to sell totally unrelated products: “We all perspire up to 2 to 3 pints a day, scientists say,” claims one 1920s advert for Lux soap flakes. “Undies absorb odour. You don’t notice it, but others do.”

Other products however, have adopted more of what you might call a full cuntal assault – if eau-de-peche sounds a little fanciful, then how about smelling like toilet water, literally? During the first half of the 20th century douching – or the rinsing out of the vaginal cavity – was a popular method of treating infection, deodorising and even used as a contraceptive (though it is not generally recommended by medical professionals now as it can upset the sensitive bacterial balance of the genitals). The most popular douche brand in the US was Lysol, an antiseptic disinfectant advertised both as a household germicide for use in toilet bowls and a feminine hygiene product. Until 1953 it also contained cresol, a toxic methylphenol that can cause inflammation to the skin and burning. According to motherjones.com, use of the product killed 5 people and resulted in 193 cases of poisoning before 1911. Yet, it was still marketed as safe, employing aggressive ad campaigns that implied that, without it, women were doomed to a life of loneliness with a distant husband. One poster entitled “Love-quiz… For married folks only”, shows a forlorn wife whose man is about to walk out of the door, and reads: “Why does she spend her evenings alone?” before finishing with a solemn warning: “Always use Lysol.”

While companies are unlikely to get away with claiming that a lack of internal bleaching will render a woman forever alone in the 21st century, we’re still not free of unnecessary vag-products. My New Pink Button, for example, the feminine dye for graying vulvas that comes in four shades and brings a whole new meaning to the phrase ‘having the painters in’.

Following the backlash and subsequent withdrawal of funding from some Cambrian Genomics investors, Heinz admitted his pitch had been incorrect. Pitching partner Gilad Gome – who had spoken before of hacking microbiome to make vaginas “smell like roses and taste like diet cola” – was in fact not involved in the project and the founder of Sweet Peach Probiotics was actually previously unmentioned “ultrafeminist”, Audrey Hutchinson. The importance of scent in the product, she said, was grossly exaggerated and it really was intended for the much more useful task of curing thrush.

Yet until now, who’d considered that personalising fanny-cologne was even a possibility? It seems as far-fetched and pointless as wishing for tomato-flavored eyeballs. But it could well be a hint as to what to expect from feminine hygiene in the future – a healthy dose of biotech.

I wrote about EastEnders and comebacks for the Guardian

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I wrote a piece for the Guardian on a topic of GREAT importance: EastEnders. I’ve been getting a bit peeved with the heavy flow of characters making a comeback recently, especially as the new(ish) Carter family are simply wonderful, and more than enough for me. So I wrote a short little thingy for the TV and Radio blog. You can read it here, or my full version below.

Last week, EastEnders gave us the somewhat inevitable slick-haired and black-clad second coming of Nasty Nick Cotton. And just when you thought that was enough soap resurrection to be going on with for a while, the latest round in the EastEnders comeback extravaganza was revealed with a whopping four characters set to be raised from the dead for this year’s Children in Need special. All before you’ve even had a chance to perfect your best oak-tinged ‘hello Ma’.

The sketch will see Ian Beale knocked unconscious. Oh sorry, that’s not the good bit – and later he is confronted by the ghosts of mum Kathy Mitchell, aunty Pat Evans (although whether her voluminous taste in earrings has been allowed to continue in the afterlife is yet to be confirmed), ex-wife Cindy and daughter Lucy, whose murder earlier this year is still to be solved in one of the most achingly drawn out storylines in TV history. But after a slew of recent comebacks, EastEnders is becoming more like a tedious Facebook meme than a soap – ‘like’ if you remember Kathy getting beaten up by Phil!

Since Dominic Treadwell-Collins – DTC to fans of the show – took over the reigns as executive producer of EastEnders in late summer last year, the tally of returning characters has racked up more notches than Max Branning’s bedpost in an attempt to boost flagging ratings. So many, I simply haven’t got the word space, or patience, to mention them all. Along with Dot Cotton’s dastardly son, recent revivals have included: Womanizing David Wicks, Stacey Slater, broody – and no doubt less of a hit with female viewers following the hard-hitting Linda Carter rape scene – Dean Wicks, wet-flannel Sonia Fowler, Ben Mitchell with yet another new face – as actor Harry Reid took over the role – and even a brief surprise appearance from Peggy. With Martin Fowler’s return looming and rumours that frankly dull Charlie Slater, last seen in December last year, is to make another appearance, this extended trip down memory lane is becoming boring.

“It’s good to have one foot in the past while looking to the future,” said Treadwell-Collins in an interview with Radio Times earlier this year. “My idea is to make the show feel fresh with the Carters, but also a bit nostalgic by bringing back characters we love.”

And surprisingly to anyone who anyone who sat through the frustrating rehash of the Phil-Mitchell-gets-shot-and-sadly-survives storyline, he also said that “EastEnders has got to shake up the audience. We don’t want to do cover versions of greatest hits. EastEnders has to sing new songs…”

However, the episode, which saw Shirley shooting Phil in a jealous rage after he married Sharon, did bring in 7.13m viewers. It’s a long chalk from the 17m it received the first time round in 2001, but after ratings slumped to less than five million last summer – lower than Corrie and Emmerdale – he must be doing something right. Nasty Nick’s return has further boosted the show’s audiences, too, but how many characters can one show bring back? Will we be seeing a wet-tongued return from Wellard soon, or a surprise home visit from Doctor Legg?

Too much nostalgia can turn to indulgence, and indulgence inevitably leads to flabby storylines and before you know it, we’re going to need a forklift truck to get this thing up and running again. With the run up to the 30th anniversary in February under way, it’s easy to see why Treadwell-Collins is keen to relive some of the soap’s history, and who could be so mean as to deny the show a little whimsy for a good cause? But once the Children in Need festivities are over, enough with the comebacks – this girl’s had enough.