Monday, 6 February 2012

A Real Dog's Dinner

The following article first appeared in the Autumn 2011 edition of The Spark (

Feeding your animals ethically is no easy task. It’s hard enough feeding yourself with worries about GM crops and your carbon footprint, but at least we can choose the foods we consider to be both healthy and ethically sourced. I want to make sure that Henry (pictured licking his lips), my Staffordshire bull terrier, and our three cats (Felix, Nell and Ruby) live long, happy and healthy lives but, with around half of the UK’s domestic animals now clinically obese thanks to a poor diet and lack of exercise, how can I make sure that they’re eating the right things?

The UK pet food market is worth approximately £1.5bn annually; is it a coincidence that as that market grows vets are seeing an increasing number of diet-related health issues? Packaged pet food contains a number of ingredients used to bulk up low-quality, reclaimed and factory-farmed meat or to make poor-quality ingredients more appetising: salt, sugar, cereals and worse. The “meat and animal derivatives” listed on the packaging may be sourced from animals considered fit for human consumption but at best it comes from the parts of the animal which are surplus to requirements, such as lung and sinew. Some of this ‘meat’ is rendered: carcasses are boiled until every last bit of muscle fibre, fat and marrow is extracted, dried and added to the mix.

Feeding animals a vegetarian or vegan diet also poses a huge ethical dilemma. Although dogs can exist without eating meat, in general cats cannot as they need taurine, an amino acid found in animal tissue which cats cannot produce naturally. Without taurine cats will go blind. Some companies manufacture vegetarian cat food, but these have synthetic or vegetable-based taurine added.

But it’s not just about the quality of ingredients: would John Noakes and Leslie Phillips be happy cashing their paycheques if they knew the brand of pet food they advertise is routinely accused of serious animal abuse? How can you be sure that the makers of your brand of cat chow aren’t also vivisectionists? The UK pet food market is dominated by four companies, Proctor and Gamble (P&G, who make Iams and Eukanuba), Nestlé (owners of Purina, Friskies, Go Cat, Felix, Spillers, Winalot and others), Colgate Palmolive (who manufacture Hills Science Diet) and Mars, the company behind the majority of well-known brand names on the supermarket shelf including Pedigree, Kitekat, Pal, Frolic, Chappie, Whiskas and, via Crown Pet Foods, Royal Canin and James Wellbeloved. All four companies have come under scrutiny for animal testing: P&G are the subject of a worldwide boycott instigated by animal rights campaigners, and a cursory glance at their website shows that, even in 2011, the company still tests products, including household cleaners and cosmetics, on animals even though they claim their “goal is to ultimately eliminate all animal research”. As recently as 2007 Mars was exposed by PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) for funding deadly experiments on rodents (see; Nestlé has been unable to hide its animal testing policies, even with such greenwash tactics as the takeover of the Body Shop via L’Oreal (part-owned by Nestlé) and thelaunch of Nestle Fairtrade coffee. Although Hills strenuously denies any cruelty, claiming they only “use non-invasive, humane research methods”, owners Colgate Palmolive admit that “animal testing is conducted at outside laboratories under Colgate supervision” for some of their products. It’s a minefield; and don’t get me started on the pet treats market.

So how do you feed your animals ethically? Although canned dog food first appeared

in the UK in the 1930s, prior to the Second World War the majority of domestic animals were fed scraps from the kitchen and didn’t seem to suffer. There is no reason why you cannot give your pets home-cooked food; however you really should consult your vet first, as there is a risk of Henry or Felix missing out on essential vitamins and minerals. Make friends with your local butcher: mine is happy to give me free bones for Henry which, according to the Raw Meaty Bones Support Group, are just about all you need to feed cats, dogs and even ferrets, although you must be careful with uncooked chicken, for example, as it can carry the salmonella virus which can be transmitted via your pet to you.

If feeding raw carcasses to your pooch strikes you as a little too feral, and cooking your own isn’t an option, there are companies in the UK manufacturing high-quality pet food; the only problem is finding it on the supermarket shelf.

Burns Pet Nutrition, Europa Pet Foods, Lily’s Kitchen, OrganiPets and Naturediet regularly feature in the lists of the best pet food companies produced by Ethical

Consumer magazine and the Ethical Company Organisation (publishers of the annual Good Shopping Guide), rating companies by standards such as animal welfare, animal testing, armaments funding and traceability. Henry, a fussy eater at the best of times, wolfed down his tin of Lily’s Kitchen Goose and Duck Feast with Fruits and, incredibly, asked for more: not surprising when you learn that the recipe contains 32% goose and 31% duck, unlike the 42% “meat and animal derivatives (minimum 4% meat)” in a can of Pedigree. He always turns his nose up at dried food, but Lily’s Kitchen Organic Chicken and Herb Bake was demolished in seconds and I couldn’t get their Apple and Cheese Bites out of the packet fast enough.

“The ethos of our company is its focus on natural, wholesome and nutritional ingredients,” Katy Taylor of Lily’s Kitchen tells me. “Every ingredient has a specific nutritional purpose and all our food is either certified organic and holistic or certified holistic. We only use free range/organic meat in our food as animal welfare is extremely important to us. All of our packaging is recyclable and our dry food bags are compostable.” It’s not cheap; a tin will cost you about three times as much as a can of Pedigree but, if the look on my dog’s face is anything to go by, it’s worth it. OrganiPets was born when the owners of the company took on Raffy, a rescue dog diagnosed with terminal cancer and given less than six months to live. Five years later, after a diet of home-cooked organic food, Raffy had reached the grand old age of 15. “Our vets couldn’t understand why Raffy was not only alive but very fit and well,” says founder Liz Nuttall. “When we told them about feeding her with our own organic dog food they told us to start a business and OrganiPets was born!”

As I’ve already said Henry is no lover of dried food, so I was surprised to see him scarf down a bowl of Burns’ Alert Lamb and Brown Rice within seconds. The common health problems that vet John Burns saw in everyday practice led to the formation of Burns Pet Nutrition. “At a time when it was common practice to treat the symptoms rather than finding the cause of problems such as bad breath, itchy skin and digestive upset, John’s own interest in oriental medicine and traditional philosophy led to the realisation that poor diet was a common factor,” says Rowan Flindall of Burns Pet Nutrition. Europa dried dog food, which like Burns is widely available and realistically priced, is certified by the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection as not tested on animals. Henry is a huge fan too of Naturediet’s chicken with vegetables and rice (although neither of us like the plastic packaging); the company proudly boasts that all of its range contains 60% meat and the packs only cost a little more than the most popular tinned brands. “Naturediet is as natural product,” a spokesperson for Naturediet tells me. “It is wheat and gluten-free and we do not use any chemical preservatives, fat emulsifiers, colourings, flavourings, binders, fillers or gelling agents. We also do not add any salt or sugars. We are what we eat; not only does this rule apply to dog owners but also for our canine friends. Giving them a healthy, natural diet means a happy, healthy dog.”

“Ethical can encompass a great deal of things and it is unlikely that one company will be able to tick every single box,” Rowan tells me. “The most obvious things to look for are the welfare standards behind the meat and protein sources and whether or not the company is involved in invasive testing or uses caged animals for research. Vague language can obscure all sorts of things: just because something is EU approved or EEC permitted may not mean that it is natural or ethical.”

Monday, 16 August 2010

The Pride Is Nigh

A feature article, published by Venue Magazine (Issue 932, August 11, 2010) about Bristol's first major Pride event

Pride: a celebration of all that is good about the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered (LGBT) community or, if you’re not swayed by the idea of gay people having a good time, a preliminary to the last days of Sodom and Gomorrah. Whichever side of the fence you sit, Pride is a huge fuck-off party when, for one day of the year drag queens, diesel dykes, big fat hairy poofs, skinny little disco bunnies and all manner of people covered by the rainbow flag can come together as one to commemorate the hard-won freedoms that for decades were denied us. Why call it Pride? Because Pride is the opposite of shame, which has for so many years been used to control and oppress LGBT people and, in many countries of the world, still is.

Many of the world’s major cities hold Pride events. The first took place in San Francisco in 1970 (two years after the Stonewall riots galvanised the gay community into political activism) and since then successful Pride parades, parties and celebrations have taken place regularly in cities as diverse as Sydney, Berlin, Johannesburg, New York and Jerusalem. Here in the UK dozens of towns and cities hold annual Pride events: London, Manchester, Brighton, Edinburgh, Cardiff – even Gloucester and Glastonbury. Yet for years Bristol, a city which boasts one of the largest LGBT populations in the country – has had nothing.

The last event that came close was Bristol’s final Mardi Gras in 2006, a patchy affair which grew from the aborted Queenfields/Big Cheek event of 2003. Each year since then a different group of well-meaning people has struggled, and failed, to get Pride off the ground, often hampered by the kind of mismanagement which has plagued similar events for years. Big Cheek fell apart amid concerns over venues and accusations of organisers lining their own pockets; the final Mardi Gras was to be no different, with one of the principle organisers disappearing shortly afterwards owing a lot of people a lot of money. An event planned for 2007, Pride South West, also went tits up: last year the event’s Operations Manager was found guilty at Bristol Crown Court of cashing dodgy cheques in an attempt to recoup some of the wages he claimed were owed to him. Every time the city’s gay venues have come together to try and get the ball rolling they’ve fall out with each other within weeks. The Pineapple Street Party and Old Market’s Village Pride events have come and gone, but no-one has been able to get a proper, city-wide Pride past the planning stage. So what will make this year’s event different?

Planning for Pride Bristol 2010 began last August, when a loose group of people – including Richard Whittle of Invisible Security, Stuart Hayles of Flamingos, Simon Nelson (then at THT but now part of Bristol City Council’s Equalities team), events manager Leighton de Burca and others came together in an attempt to organise a Pride event for the city. It hasn’t been easy: of the 12 people on the original committee only one, Simon Nelson, is still involved today. People have fallen by the wayside whilst others with more time and/or experience have come on board to offer their services, but that team has evolved into a tight group with one thing in common – none of them have a vested interest in making money from the event.

“The team has formed around a core that was already there,” says Pride Director Anna Rutherford. “We brought in people who knew about promotion and press and for the last few months we have been working hard to make sure that, through sponsorship and fundraising events, the money is there to make sure that Pride Bristol 2010 happens. Being independent has been massively important, as has been applying for charitable status. It gives the event transparency: we have to publish our accounts so everyone can see where the money has gone.”

It’s going to cost around £70,000 to put on and, if you had to add wages, web site development and programme production into the equation, you could easily double that. Bristol City Council, through the offices of Equalities Officer Jo McDonald, has contributed around £3,000 to the pot, but most of the rest of the money has come through sponsorship. Co-Director Daryn Carter, formerly a Diversity Champion at the BBC but now entrusted with the job of sorting out sponsors, has worked tirelessly not only to secure funding for this year’s festival but also to elicit guarantees of cash for next year’s event. Like everyone else on the team he has been working full-time for no pay to make sure that Pride Bristol is a success. “Sponsorship has been so important,” he says. “Nothing could happen without it.” Each time the group have hit a problem they’ve had to find a way around it. “When the management of Cabot Circus didn’t want to know we went to the shops instead and many of them have been really keen to get involved. We’ve also managed to sort some ‘in-kind’ donations – such as Veolia, who will deal with the waste that will be generated on the big day. That’s saved us around £4,000, and we’ve had hotels give us rooms for free, venues offering their services for free and so on. It all helps.”

“We really wanted businesses to be part of this,” Anna tells Venue, “To show that they’re supportive of the gay community. The amount of support we’ve been getting from outside of the gay scene; places like the Hippodrome, the Old Vic and the Watershed have been brilliant. It’s really important for us to be holding events outside of the recognised gay venues; we want everyone in the city to know that Pride is happening.”

It was always intended that the main event, held in Castle Park, would be free. It’s a very Bristol thing; a big outdoor party that’s free for everyone. It breaks down borders and aligns Pride with other free events which have taken place over the years including the Harbour Festival, the Balloon Fiesta and the Ashton Court Festival. “Keeping it free is something we’re really passionate about,” Anna insists. “We wanted to make sure that anyone could come along. We will be asking for donations on the day but there will be no pressure or obligation.”

“We want people who might be walking past to feel that they can come along and join in without having to pay,” adds Daryn. Anyone donated a suggested £3 will get a wristband allowing them discount on Pride events happening over the weekend.

The range of events planned for the week leading up to Pride Bristol is, like the team itself, massively diverse, with film screenings (including an outing for the Bristol-filmed and produced prison drama Release), live comedy with Rhona Cameron performing her first stand up in Bristol for more than a decade, dance at Circomedia, a raft of events for the Trans community (headed by UWE lecturer Dylan Glynn), a sports day on Clifton Downs bringing the area’s gay and gay-friendly teams together for the first time and, naturally, a march through the city on Saturday August 21 setting off at 12 noon from the fountains on St. Augustine’s Parade and stopping the traffic as the route takes marchers along Baldwin Street to Castle Park and the Pride Festival site. An integral part of Pride, this is the first time that the LGBT community has marched through the city since the mid 1990s.

The main event is preceded by two huge parties – AC Disco at Trinity Arts and a pre-Pride shindig at the Watershed – and rounds off with a men’s party, Wrapped, uniting three of Bristol’s monthly men’s club nights (Come to Daddy, Gear and Primal) again at the Trinity and Wonderland, organized by Wonky and women’s monthly night Liberty. “It’s a cheesy line,” says Daryn, “But there really is something for everybody.”

Getting that mix right hasn’t always been easy, and poor communication (often down to former members of the committee) and the difficulty of establishing Pride Bristol as a new event with no ties to the past has, on occasion, led to some issues but it’s clear, from talking to people involved in the local LGBT community, that the team have built up a tremendous amount of respect, and the backbiting and in-fighting which has marred so many similar events in the past are non-existent. “Daryn, Amy (Wilson, another core member of the team who has been working virtually full time) and Anna are three of the most driven, inspiring and organised people you could work with,” Thekla press officer Lou Trimby tells Venue. “They’re really good at motivating people and at changing people’s attitudes.” Says Daryn: “There really are no egos at all. We might be struggling to make ends meet personally, but we’re not doing this for us, we’re doing it for the community.”


Monday, 1 February 2010

And Another Thing...

A column, published by Venue Magazine (Issue 887, September 25 2009) about local gay politics

A few weeks ago Bristol-based charity EACH (Educational Action Challenging Homophobia) was awarded nearly £400,000 by the Big Lottery Fund which, over the next five years, they will use to fund their ground-breaking project REACH, helping young gay, lesbian or bisexual people develop a sense of pride in their identity while challenging homophobic bullying.

EACH has an impressive track record working with schools around the country, and anyone with a brain cell would agree that £80,000 a year is a tiny amount to donate towards eradicating the blight of homophobic bullying. According to an NSPCC survey, 31% of children experience bullying by their peers. Bullying has a terrible effect, causing permanent damage and ruining lives but no-one knows exactly how many kids are affected by homophobic bullying, as many never report it. But if this award means a handful of young lives are spared the pain and humiliation it has to be money well spent, surely?

Yet the leader of Bristol’s Tories, Councillor Richard Eddy, called the award “a mistaken and misguided, outrageous waste of money,” going on to say that “it seems to be further confirmation that the Big Lottery seems obliged to dole out punters' money to a raft of politically correct lobbies which clearly sit within the Labour Government's priority.” Suicide statistics show that in the UK at least 16 children kill themselves each year because they are being bullied at school: judging from the Bunterish buffoon’s comments, that’s perfectly okay though.

It’s no surprise that the Evening Post chose Eddy to comment on the EACH story, rather than a politician who might be sympathetic: he’s their candidate of choice every time there’s a remotely contentious story they can misrepresent. It’s no surprise either that a Facebook group immediately sprang up to demand Eddy’s resignation. The group’s organiser, Darren Lewis, tells me: “It got me angry. It concerns me that the leader of the opposition in Bristol is happy to laugh about homophobia. It feels like political point scoring and unless you challenge people when they say things like this they’ll just carry on.”

The boorish councillor, happy to be photographed grinning like an idiot whilst waving a gollywog at press cameras – an incendiary act which caused him to be removed from the council’s Tory group back in 2001 - really is ridiculous. Mavericks and mischief-makers are always welcome in politics, but the man branded “hugely embarrassing…stupid and moronic” by the chairman of Bristol West Conservatives has completely lost touch. Says Councillor Mark Bradshaw: “Eddy’s negative comments show how backward looking he and some of his Conservative colleagues really are. Young gay people are up to six times more likely to commit suicide than others in their age group. Bullying can be a contributor to a young person deciding to end his or her own life.

“This is the man who year after year wants to cut funding for all equalities work in our city, further marginalising the disadvantaged, the disabled, and those who do not fit his 19th century vision for Bristol.” Darren Lewis adds: “The party took action relatively quickly over the gollywog incident. How is this any less important or less offensive?”

I contacted every member of the council’s Tory group, including Cllr Eddy, to ask if they intended to take any action against him or if he felt he should make an apology to people angered by his comments. Not one of them bothered to reply. At a recent full council meeting Darren Lewis asked the chamber (including dozens of protesters gathered in the public gallery) to stand against homophobic bullying. Eddy grudgingly rose to his feet. Half of the Tories (including my own ward councillor, Alex Pearce) refused to.

If Gordon Brown seems hell-bent on handing the Tory party the next election on a plate, Bristol’s own Tory Boy seems determined that the city will never see a Conservative majority on the council.

© 2009 Darryl W Bullock/Venue Magazine

Shanked by the BFI

A feature from 3Sixty Magazine about how the British film industry fails to support the UK's gay film-makers

After another successful run this year’s London Lesbian and Gay Film festival is now touring the country, taking the cream of gay film-making out of the capitol and into cinemas in around 30 towns and cities, including Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Dublin and Bristol. But although programmers might be congratulating themselves on a triumphant 23rd season, some UK film makers are questioning the validity of a British film festival that only included a handful of British-made films.

According to figures from the British Film Institute (organisers of the Festival), just 23 UK-produced films made the cut this year, and only one was a full-length, narrative feature. One particular movie overlooked by the selectors is Shank, the debut feature from 20 year-old director Simon Pearce, an often violent, drug-fuelled portrait of a young man involved in Bristol’s gang scene struggling to come to terms with his sexuality.

Co-writer and producer Christian Martin, who has petitioned the BFI endlessly for the movie to be shown, tells 3Sixty that he cannot understand the logic behind their refusal to include the film. “The festival is supposed to showcase the best in gay cinema, and the BFI has a remit to support British movie makers,” he says. “Clearly they are not achieving either of those stated aims.”

Although the BFI found Shank unworthy of inclusion in the LLGFF an awful lot of other people disagree. The film has been programmed by 30 other International gay film festivals, has been picked up for distribution by TLA Releasing and last month Simon Pearce won an award for Best Emerging New Talent in Queer Cinema at the Miami Gay and Lesbian Film Festival. Sandra Hebron, Artistic Director of BFI Film Festivals, says: “Whilst a film may attract support from other quarters, our programmers are under no obligation to include it. Having viewed and discussed Shank they did not feel it was of sufficient merit to include.”

“In light of the fact that Simon has been recognised as an emerging talent the unfounded comments from the BFI that Shank has no quality or merit continues to astound me,” says Martin, who has had run-ins with the BFI in the past, although they refute any suggestion that their decision not to programme Shank was personally motivated. “They have written to confirm that they will not offer any support to the film; it’s been left to the rest of the world to do just that.”

But Shank is not the only British film overlooked for this year’s LLGFF. Mr Right, a romantic comedy from brother and sister team David and Jacqui Morris has also been receiving accolades and has been accepted by some of the world’s most prestigious gay film festivals including those in Berlin and Miami. NewFest, the New York Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Film Festival, one of the most comprehensive showcases of international LGBT film and video in the world, has chosen the movie to open this year’s festival.

Both Christian Martin and Jacqui Morris were incensed by an interview given to the Independent by LLGFF’s senior programmer Brian Robinson which claimed that the local film-making talent isn't there to take advantage of the showcase the annual festival provides. Adds Martin: “The international success that Shank and Mr Right are attracting at the very least demonstrates that the view that there is a lack of ‘local film making talent’ is wrong. Even if the assertion was correct, what is the BFI doing to help bridge this alarming gap in local talent and why doesn’t the LLGFF have a specific strand for new and emerging British talent?”

In his defence Robinson said: “We received over 800 films for consideration in the festival but have room for less than 200. We’re really passionate about the festival but only want to show films that we feel will appeal to our audience.” Lisa Daniel, director of the Melbourne Queer Film Festival (which programmed both Shank and Mr Right) finds the figures a little hard to swallow. “We received 430 submissions for our 2009 festival. Of those 152 were selected and screened, and 30 were Australian.” Domestic movies made up 20 percent of one of the world’s biggest gay film festivals: the LLGFF chose just 12 percent. Yet a spokesman for the BFI states: “None of the BFI’s objects require it to positively discriminate in favour of British Film.”

The importance of the LLGFF cannot be understated, and the festival’s endorsement can often be crucial to a film’s success, as Jacqui Morris tells 3Sixty: “When I completed the film it managed to attract the attention of a well known, mainstream distributor. We were in talks at the time for selection for the LGLFF and were absolutely devastated when we were turned down. We were given no proper explanation, just a second-hand message from Brian Robinson stating he felt it was a bit too long. I mailed him and explained that a screening at his festival could just tip the scales in our favour. I explained we were first timers, and that I wasn't disputing his comments. In fact, I pretty much begged him to find us a slot but there was no response. We didn't secure the distribution deal, and although we'll never really know why, without a doubt, acceptance from our home turf would have played a significant part.

“Highly-paid people are making decisions that affect the livelihoods of British film crews, and they should be held accountable. Considering the magnificent talent we have in this country it's shameful and scandalous that the British film industry isn't a healthy, thriving, money making business. But when you have one of its leading ambassadors making irresponsible comments about the lack of British talent, what hope do we have?”

Lee Gunther, of TLA Releasing, says: “The LLGFF is important to us as a distributor as it's the highest-profile and best-attended lesbian and gay film festival in the UK. It's always great to be a part of it for any filmmaker or distributor as we should embrace every opportunity to celebrate and promote the genre.

“I don't necessarily think the festival should be biased towards British-made gay films; the most important factor should always be the quality and relevance of the production. However, I do think that the LLGFF audiences are interested in seeing what British gay cinema has to offer and it's always beneficial to support home-grown talent, so it is important for these films to be a part of the programme.”

“We understand that a film-maker is very close to his project and is upset when his film is not selected, and we appreciate all of the labour that goes into making a film but, at the end of the day, we’re not film-makers,” Brian Robinson adds. “What we are is a small team of six who spend three months trawling through film festivals and watching DVDs to choose the films we feel will work best for a balanced festival.”

A (slightly) edited version of this feature first appeared in 3Sixty Magazine, June 2009. (c) 2009 Darryl W Bullock

Sunday, 31 January 2010

Grace Jones

This 'interview' was conducted for Venue magazine, and appeared in January 2009. Unfortunately, despite many attempts on my part to secure some face-to-face time with Grace, or at least some time on the phone with her, all of the quotes from her came via email from her PR company. I still do not know for sure if the words originated from Grace or some PR flunky. Ahh well, such is life.

I’m no stalker, but my quest to track down the chanteuse, occasional actress, sometime model and renowned TV host attacker Grace Jones made me feel that I was in danger of joining some police-arbitrated list of recidivist prowlers. If I’d have been based in London it wouldn’t have been a problem, but the smoke’s PR companies frown upon us poor, provincial hacks: we’re of little use when it comes to selling tickets, even if Colton Hall’s press office insist otherwise. I have stacks of unanswered emails, promises of interviews (broken, rescheduled and broken again), and a sore ear from the amount of time spent on the ‘phone trying to garner a few short minutes with the woman more famous for slapping the late Russell Harty (an event which topped a BBC poll of the most shocking British TV chat show moments in 2006) than for her musical output.

If I’d have been any less of a man I’d have given up. But I’m not. It took more than two months, and even then was conducted by email rather than in person, but you don’t get the chance to interview Grace Jones very often.

Grace Jones is an enigma. Born in Jamaica, her family relocated to the US in the mid-60s where she studied theatre in Philadelphia and New York before her striking, almost alien looks brought her fame as a model. Hanging around on the fringes of the arts scene in the Big Apple and in Paris, mixing with the likes of Andy Warhol, Keith Haring (the graphic designer who went on to paint her body for the I’m Not Perfect video and who succumbed to AIDS in 1990) and Jean-Paul Goude – the French artist who became her partner, fathered her son and defined her image - she became one of the faces at legendary New York disco Studio 54, started to branch out into movies (her debut was in the 1973 flick Gordon’s War) and, in 1977, released her first album, Portfolio.

Signed to Island Records, her sultry, smoky vocals and androgynous facade were put to good use on a string of classic albums, although she failed to make much headway in the UK charts until 1980’s Warm Leatherette which featured her first top 20 single, a cover of the Pretenders’ Private Life. Suddenly Grace Jones was everywhere: the early 80s saw five hit albums (including the top five compilation Island Life), hit singles on both sides of the Atlantic, acting roles in A View to a Kill and Conan the Destroyer and, of course, that infamous incident on a certain early evening BBC chat show which consolidated her scary persona. Then nothing: one album, the poorly-received Bulletproof Heart in 1989, and barely a whisper save from an alleged bout of ‘train-rage’ on Eurostar and an appearance on the Graham Norton Show, for two decades. Until now. “Some people thought I was dead,” she laughs. “It might make the Guinness Book of Records for the longest gap between albums.

“I never worry about people wondering if I'm dead or not because I think it makes it more intriguing, the fact that eventually there's something new. Where's that come from? She's actually popping her head up again. And it's about the quality of the music. If the new thing you do has quality the time it might have taken is irrelevant."

Grace’s new CD, Hurricane, was heralded by a stunning performance at the Massive Attack-curated Meltdown Festival at London’s Southbank Centre. It’s a surprisingly strident return to form from a woman who recently qualified for her bus pass. Anyone expecting a change of direction will be disappointed: long-time fans will be rapt. “I don't try to keep up; I think that's what it is. If you don’t try and keep up you just sound like yourself, which should sound like the moment.”

The album, called Hurricane because, as she says: “It’s heavy and it’s powerful and it’s right in your face,” has had a long gestation – at least one track was originally attempted back in the mid-80s - and features contributions from (among others) Tricky, Brian Eno, long-time co-conspirators Sly and Robbie, her son Paul and percussionist Tony Allan (Fela Kuti/Good, the Band and the Queen). Originally slated for 2007, thirty years since Portfolio, it finally saw the light of day in November 2008. “I like the 8,” she says. “It’s two complete circles, which I love.”

It would be easy to throw her into the same carton that contains those other post-60 gay-friendly divas - Ross, Streisand, Minnelli – but she owes more to Yoko Ono than to Cher; she’s plodding her own, unique musical path. Several tracks, especially Well Well Well, would not sound out of place on 1981’s Nightclubbing, although the woman is adamant that she’s not harking back to the past. “I've always been out of the loop,” she adds, “So it's impossible to put me in a box when I've always been out of a box. It doesn't matter in a way that it's taken 10, 15, 20 years. It sounds like now, whenever now is.”

The centrepiece of the album is Williams Blood, which began life when Grace was working with Trevor Horn, the former Buggles/Yes frontman who went on to co-found ZTT and produce, amongst others, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, the Art of Noise and Grace’s Slave to the Rhythm. She describes this autobiographical tale as being: “About sibling rivalry, about being split between two sides of a feuding family, between God and the devil. My mum was born a Williams, and that’s the wild side, very talented. Her step-grandfather was a musician: always touring, womanising, drinking; he really did go on the road with Nat King Cole. And my mother always said if you carry on like this you’ll end up dying young like her step-grandfather. You’re living too fast. You need to marry a bishop, become a missionary. Maybe the fact I kept being told I was going to die young meant that in the end I didn’t.” It’s brilliant and bonkers, and ends with her duetting on Amazing Grace with her mother, Marjorie. “She has an amazing voice and it’s one of her favourite songs,” she says. “She used to sing background vocals for me but I could never credit her because as a Bishop’s wife she wasn’t supposed to be singing the devil’s music.”

She believes (or does she? Are her well-manicured fingers typing these answers or have they come courtesy of the office intern?) that being torn between wanting to perform and trying to please her minister father has shaped her character, but insists: “I'm not scary. The people that really know me know that. I was brought up in a very strict way, and maybe that's why my personality has this scariness. That comes from the dark, edgy part of my childhood. But I've embraced it and I understand it, and when I turn it around and I put it out there to the public or on the stage or whatever they're just as scared as I was when I was little.”

Nigella Lawson, Kitchen Goddess

The following interview first appeared in Folio Magazine, November 2007. Despite being a phenomenally busy woman - at the time she was zipping between the US and the UK, filming and promoting her latest book, she still found time to indulge me. I was already a I'm even more so.

Journalist and broadcaster Nigella Lawson is one of the most recognised culinary personalities in the UK. In a medium dominated by loud-mouthed men, Nigella comes across somewhere between TV tottie and earth mother, and her soothing, sultry style a welcome respite from the hot-headed antics of some other established cookery stars.

Coming to both Bath and Bristol this month to publicise her new book, Nigella Express (which contains recipes from her current BBC2 series), the daughter of former Chancellor of the Exchequer Nigel Lawson began her career over 20 years ago. Having read Languages at Oxford, she went on to become Deputy Literary Editor of the Sunday Times, where she met her first husband, journalist John Diamond, before moving on to establish the food column for the Spectator. Diamond, the father of her two children, sadly succumbed to throat cancer in 2001, but in 2003 Nigella remarried, this time to art collector and advertising guru Charles Saatchi.

Nigella has written for dozens of different publications, including Vogue, the Evening Standard, The Guardian and the Daily Telegraph. Her first book, How to Eat: The Pleasures and Principles of Good Food was published in 1998, and since then she has authored a further five cookery tomes and garnered a clutch of awards. Surprisingly modest for someone so instantly recognisable, Nigella tells Folio that she never expected to become a household name. “I don't think I ever thought that. I had the notion that I would, if anything, ‘make my name’ in other fields,” she candidly admits. “The writing I did about restaurants was a diversion for me; it never occurred to me that I would move away from the other journalistic areas I was working in.”

“I don't regard that part of the job,” she says when asked about how she deals with her celebrity status. “I just feel inordinately blessed to have work that I truly love.”

It must have been difficult for her to be taken seriously as a writer when she first started. Did people assume she was simply trading on the family name? “I'm sure people assume all sorts of things,” she replies. “But I don't believe in dwelling on other people's preconceptions or prejudices. Anyone starting off in work has to struggle and there is nothing wrong in that. In fact, I regard that part of my working life as particularly precious.”

Nigella’s TV career began in earnest in 1998 with regular guest spots on Nigel Slater’s Real Food Show on Channel 4. This was quickly followed by two series of Nigella Bites, where she honed her trademark style of offering fuss-free food with maximum taste, prepared with minimum effort; an ethos that has come to fruition with Nigella Express. Her favourite dish is not something expensive or difficult to prepare, as you might expect, but: “Roast chicken. It’s the perfect supper.”

This approach to food was, and still is remarkably different to many other TV cooks and chefs, and has proved a massive hit with the viewing public. “I think that seeing someone who is not trained, no kind of expert, and indeed not a professional chef, must strike a note,” she tells us. “I am just a home cook like those who watch the programmes.” Asked if she ever feels the wrath of other cookery writers for giving the game away, using shop-bought stock for example or cutting corners with pre-prepared mayonnaise, she adds: “I am so not part of the professional food world that I don't know what they don't like about me! I am not part of their gang being, as I said, a home cook rather than a chef!”

Several more cookery series followed, along with a stab at her own daytime chat show and a famous appearance on Have I Got News for You, wearing a t-shirt cheekily emblazoned with the word ‘Delia’. She even has own cookery utensil range.

Regular viewers will know that much of her inspiration comes from her own family, although she is a huge fan of Anna del Conte, listing three of her books in her top 10 of essential reads for keen cooks. “I didn't really think about cookery books or their writers since, although my mother was a fantastic cook, I never saw her use a cookery book or refer to a recipe,” she says. “When I came across Anna del Conte in the 1980s, I was enraptured: she's scholarly, informative, her recipes are delicious and practical and she continued my love affair with Italian food.”

One of the features of Nigella’s TV programmes is the way in which viewers are carried into her world; we see the busy mum preparing lunch for her kids, seeing them off to school, or grabbing a bite whilst on the hoof between appointments. Her children often feature, and Folio wondered how they felt about having such a famous mum. “Well, I think it is both embarrassing for them and yet pleasing for them to be part of it,” she admits. “As for the ‘famous mum’ bit, to them I am just their mum and I think they probably don't get other people's interest in what I am doing.”

Saturday, 30 January 2010

A S Byatt

Here's a real treat. I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to interview the brilliant A S Byatt late in 2008, but unfortunately, because of space constraints, I was only able to use around half of the material. Here, for the very first time, is the complete interview.
Booker-prize winning novelist AS Byatt has published more than two dozen novels, short story collections and critical biographies since her first book, Shadow of a Sun, in 1964. The sister of novelist Margaret Drabble, she was awarded the CBE in 1990, a DBE in 1999, and received the Shakespeare Prize in recognition of her contribution to British culture. She’s in town as part of the Festival of Ideas.

Q: You’re in Bristol to discuss art and science with Semir Zeki, of the Institute of Neuroesthetics. He feels the artist is a neuroscientist, exploring the potentials and capacities of the brain. Do you agree?

A: I agree with Professor Zeki that there is no difference between mind and brain – art is produced by the brain, shaping and arranging the material it works with, including its own memories. I don’t like words like “creative” and “inspiration” because these are religious words, and the artist is neither making new things ex nihilo, nor receiving messages breathed in by higher beings. I like words like “making”, “crafting”, most of all “imagination”, which represent the human animal using capacities it has developed. “Intelligence”, “understanding”, comparing and relating things and experiences. Language occurred and was developed and refined by human animals over time – every good writer adds something to what language can do, and hands that on. I don’t think neuroscientists are yet in a position to say anything about the most complicated art or writing – though Professor Philip Davis in Liverpool has done some interesting work, with experimental subjects, on the effect of Shakespeare’s syntax. Even so, what Professor Davis himself says about the sentence structures is very considerably more interesting than the experimental statistics.

Q: You’ve picked up an extraordinary collection of awards over the years. Are you comfortable with that level of veneration?

A: Being venerated is a horrid idea. I understand the Yeats poem about becoming a “smiling public man” and I don’t want to be a smiling public woman. Katherine Whitehorn, I think it was, wrote about being a “statutory woman” who gets put on committees because it is thought politically necessary to have a woman. I have sat on various committees but I try to choose them so that I shall find out something I didn’t know, and want to know. I like talking to scientists, for example. And they talk to me partly because they know who I am. Writing my last novel was very exciting because when I asked people to help – people in museums, and historians, - I got answers to queries, and personal tours of closed places because I was taken seriously. And then I make friends where I once couldn’t have expected to make friends. It is useful to have won the Booker because all sorts of foreign countries run university courses (for better for worse) on a list of Booker winners – and suddenly I find I have messages from extremely interesting people in China who tell me things I didn’t know.

Q: You once said that the Harry Potter books were "written for people whose imaginative lives are confined to TV cartoons, and the exaggerated mirror-worlds of soaps, reality TV and celebrity gossip." Do you think we’re too easily pleased?

A: This remark has been taken continuously out of context. I was trying to compare J.K.Rowling as a mythmaker with things I read as a child, and particularly with Tolkien. Tolkien’s great strength is describing landscape. He describes a world without machines and his creatures exist in forests and mountains and marshes and rivers in a spacious landscape which has vanished more and more from our consciousnesses during my life time. Rowling knows how to invent magic for people who live in confined spaces, don’t run wild, and have their heads full of images from the magic mirror or window of the small screen. She is very successful in magicking – reinserting the sense of the magical – into things which would have been in themselves inconceivably magical when I was a child – cell phones, animations, pop videos. She makes them strange which is difficult because they seem magical anyway. I don’t think she is good at sub-myth as Tolkien is. Her evil creatures don’t really threaten; her sense of the nature of things is confined inside the boarding school where her child characters have magical powers and good jokes. All I was trying to say in that article is that I can’t see why a very good children’s writer has become a kind of literary guru for grown-up people.

Q: Many of your novels have been concerned with characters from the 19th Century. Do you hark after a time when intelligence, sophistication and the use of language were more highly regarded?

A: Not really. I have no desire to live then. Though you put it well – I do write about the nineteenth century because the language was adapted to serious thinking. Really I write about that time because I think that we are its descendants and need to understand where we came from. We have made gruesome and sentimental images of gloomy Victorian men and women in black crape and repressive suits. We don’t need any nostalgia for then – the streets were horrid with horse dung, the chimneys blasted out smoke, kitchens were grim and laborious. But we do need to understand the complexity of people’s lives and thoughts.
Q: Who are your own favourite authors?

A: Oh, impossible to start. Shakespeare, Coleridge, Proust, Balzac, George Eliot, John Donne and George Herbert. Ambivalently Thomas Mann.

Q: Your early education was at a Quaker-run school. How has that influenced your outlook on life?

A: It’s left me wracked with guilt about almost everything, and sure that I am inadequate. Also the Quakers in a good and strong way felt that the arts were either bad or relatively unimportant and that rubbed off on me. For many years I wrote novels knowing I ought to be a Social Worker. And finally they left me with a respect for silence. I need silence as I need food and exercise. And it’s harder and harder to find. There is too much music, there are too many building works, the Heath Row traffic goes incessantly overhead. Travel has potted music, so do lifts, you can’t buy a dress in silence in a store. “Our staff would leave if you asked for the music to be turned off.” They are even beginning to play music during tennis grand slams.

Q: Is there a God?

A: Not one I think anyone knows anything about. I’m an agnostic, not an atheist, because there is so much we don’t know – and going back to Professor Zeki – are not equipped to apprehend or understand. It is clearly, as E.O.Wilson says, universally ingrained in human societies to have gods. If there were a personal God, It would appear to be somewhat insouciant, unjust and evil. But I see no evidence that there is. There is what Professor Zeki calls a Brain Concept...