The Sunday Times: Phoebe Waller-Bridge on Fleabag, feminism and female sexuality

A generation of young writers are redefining the way female sexuality is portrayed. The creators of the hit show tell Katie Glass what happens when feminism and porn culture collide.

In a boho restaurant in a hipster enclave of west London, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Vicky Jones and Amy Morgan are sitting on mismatched furniture, quaffing champagne and debating whether to order the duck profiteroles. “I don’t want to pressure anyone — but I definitely want them,” Waller-Bridge grins. I’d suggested we keep this meeting casual and low-key. By the time the photoshoot ends we’re three bottles in.

Superficially, Waller-Bridge is everything you’d expect if you have watched Fleabag, the darkly comic BBC show she wrote and starred in, and which she originally co-created as a stage play with Jones. Waller-Bridge played the eponymous Fleabag, a glamorously shambolic twentysomething woman chaotically negotiating modern London life. It screened on BBC3 last summer, then BBC2 in the autumn, while Amazon aired it in the US. Last month, Waller-Bridge picked up a Bafta for the role.

Like Lena Dunham’s Girls before it — and Sex and the City and Bridget Jones before that — Fleabag’s appeal lay in how it reflected the experiences of a generation of young women, as we watch Fleabag ricochet between one-night stands, breakdowns, feminist retreat centres and her stepmother’s penis sculpture exhibition. Most of all, though, Fleabag’s genius was in reflecting a contemporary shift in the way many young women talk and think about sex. Joining a new wave of outrageous and explicitly honest women, such as the comedian Amy Schumer (who wrote Trainwreck), Taylor Schilling (Orange Is the New Black), Annie Mumolo and Kristen Wiig (Bridesmaids), and Dunham.

“We loved Girls,” Waller-Bridge says.“It was such a huge defining moment for people talking about women’s experiences truthfully. It had a huge impact on us.”

Today we’re meeting to discuss Touch, a play Waller-Bridge and Jones are producing through their theatre company DryWrite. Jones wrote it. Morgan — best known for appearing in ITV’s Edwardian drama Mr Selfridge — will play the lead.

They are still working on the script, but their excitement about working together is palpable. Hanging out with them feels like having a sleepover with three girly mates. They shout over each other as they debate feminism, the pros and cons of dating apps and crack jokes about porn.

Thrillingly, Jones and Waller-Bridge’s friendship seems rather similar to that of Fleabag and Boo, her best friend in the show. Waller-Bridge shares Fleabag’s naughty cackle and dishevelled elegance — and of course her vintage pin-up looks. Jones, like Boo, is blonde, gentler, softer, calmer.

“The things that happen in the show never happened to us, but they were hugely inspired by our relationship,” Waller-Bridge explains. “There were lines that I stole verbatim from things Vicky said in real life.”

Jones and Waller-Bridge have known each other for more than a decade since Jones (a Birmingham University politics graduate) was fired from directing a play that Waller-Bridge was starring in. Waller-Bridge walked out in solidarity. They spent their twenties on nights out, sleeping around, crashing back home, debating the issues that trouble modern women, such as, “I’d just like my tits to be that much bigger, does that make me a terrible feminist?” — as Waller-Bridge says, gesturing at her breasts.

Available: https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/phoebe-waller-bridge-on-fleabag-feminism-and-female-sexuality-shgks5j55

The Sunday Times: Books: Letting Go: A True Story of Murder, Loss and Survival by Alex Hanscombe

Twenty-five years after seeing his mother killed, Rachel Nickell’s son tells his story.

After 25 years, Rachel Nickell’s name still has the power to move, as we recall images of the beautiful young mother violently murdered on Wimbledon Common in 1992. One of the most distressing details of her death, which dominated headlines for years, was the fact that her two-year-old son, Alex, was with her when she was killed. Now, aged 27, he has written a book about his life.

Starting in the aftermath of Rachel’s murder, when Alex became “the most famous child in the British Isles”, it offers a rare insight into a high-profile crime, revealing how the police and psychiatrists coaxed vital information about the man who attacked Rachel from the young Alex using video recordings and dolls. Alex suffered violent nightmares for years. His father, André, fled abroad with him to escape media attention, which contributed to Alex’s estrangement from Rachel’s parents. André also struggled with the immense pressure of becoming a single parent and facing his own grief.

One legacy of Alex’s formative experiences is a mistrust of authority. He rails in this memoir against the intrusive media, “so-called experts”, interfering teachers, and the “incompetent” police and Crown Prosecution Service, whose mishandling of the case meant it took 16 years to arrest his mother’s killer, Robert Napper. For years, police wrongly accused Colin Stagg, who later received £706,000 in compensation. Alex, meanwhile, was awarded just £90,000 from the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority.

Although the book is not lacking in information, it feels as if much is missing. Alex was so young when Rachel died that he admits his memories are limited. Clearly he has relied on his father’s recollections. Some sentences are lifted from André’s 1996 memoir, The Last Thursday in July. But while André’s book is fraught with pain and longing, Alex’s feels distant.

Available: https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/books-letting-go-a-true-story-of-murder-loss-and-survival-by-alex-hanscombe-hbwjsnvcz

The Sunday Times: How to pass oneself off as posh

Our guide to surviving the Season.

The Season is upon us, that magical time of year when it’s acceptable to wear a Union Jack waistcoat, and for middle-class people to camp in the street in the hope of getting tickets to Wimbledon or the Proms.

Yet, like all things truly English, this is not merely an occasion for merriment. It is also governed by a wildly random yet viciously strict set of rules. How to behave and what to wear during the Season is a metaphor for the class system, the pointlessly convoluted etiquette designed only to distinguish those who know from those who don’t. But fear not: dressing for the Season is actually relatively simple. No knees, no knockers. Think Lorraine Kelly interviewing the Queen over tea. Always wear a hat, except at the polo. Never wear trainers, unless your surname is Delevingne. For men, it’s mainly about not wearing black. Go crazy: try navy blue.

The strictest rules are at Henley, where couples are expected to act as though it’s still the early years of the last century: in the Stewards’ Enclosure, you can’t even use a mobile phone. Women must never wear anything vaguely resembling boys’ clothes: no culottes, no trousers, no shorts. Men, however, appear free to wear a straw hat and head-to-toe candy colours, like members of a champagne-sozzled barbershop quartet. Of course they look ridiculous. That’s the point: everyone’s too drunk to care.

At Ascot, things are more relaxed. Not only can women wear trousers, but this year, in a shocking move towards modernisation, jumpsuits are permitted. Her Majesty will be spluttering into her Bollinger. She’ll be safe in the Royal Enclosure, where men must wear morning dress and top hats. Ladies: no skirts above the knee.

At the polo, the challenge is to find an outfit appropriate for both stomping divots over afternoon tea and grinding up against an Argentine polo player in the club tent that night. No hats, please. A hat at the polo is as much a faux pas as make-up before dinner — but you knew that, right?

At Wimbledon, wear white. Imagine you’re off to a job interview for the reception class at a prep school. Or Pippa Middleton meeting the Pope. You can bring a picnic, but not a selfie stick: they’re banned.

Available: https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/how-to-pass-oneself-off-as-posh-vs7txn3kd

Pink and Blue jobs

Presumably Theresa May is spend this Sunday whipping up a fresh batches of cookies, doing the Shake n Vac and frantically ironing shirts, while outside her husband Phil chops some logs. For this week Ms May revealed that in her quaintly traditional home, “there’s boy and girl jobs”. Phil’s macho housetasks include taking out the bins. “I do the traditional boy jobs”, he boasted, as they appeared together on The One Show.

 

What exactly the Mays meant by ‘boy and girl jobs’ they never explained. Still their comments have been jumped on like the row over pink and blue toys, with more grown-up stakes. Is May (despite allegedly being our busiest Prime Minister) really so devoted to her pinny that she believes there are gendered household tasks? That girls ought to stick to faffy things like dusting and baking while boys should to have all the fun fixing toilet seats and unblocking the drains. (Which, actually sounds like quite a good deal to me).

 

One complication here that May has overlooked is the generation gap. Modern households have changed. Now people flatshare as grown-ups, yet May didn’t explain how are three women living together supposed tackle taking the bins? Maybe wait for a Tinder date to show up? Or how LGBT households should cope. Not to mention how we work out who should take on the gender-neutral jobs like cancelling the Netflix account, cleaning the fridge, buying the gin and washing the dog.

 

I suspect Phil’s pride over handling the bins might have been a feeble attempt to dispel any misconception he was a househusband, although actually it only serving to remind us how much like Mr. Muscle he looks.

 

Some studies show men who do more housework have less sex. Others show men who don’t do housework’s wives cheat on them. In your correspondents own home we balance gender equality with sluttishness by getting a male cleaner in. Meanwhile when I try to get my boyfriend to assemble Ikea furniture he hires a woman to do it.

 

Perhaps, like Margaret Thatcher before her, Theresa was trying to suggest what a great homemaker and wife she is. Or – I hope – she was misunderstood. And what she really meant was that men should put out the rubbish because running the country is a girl’s job. After all Phil confessed that being married to her “if you’re the kind of man who expects his tea to be on the table at six o’clock every evening, you could be a disappointed man”.

The Sunday Times: Women combat soldiers: the inside story

Women are finally going into close-combat roles in the British armed forces. About time? Or political correctness gone mad? Katie Glass reports.

The female warrior has always had a mixed reception. GI Jane is both a heroine and joke. In the Middle Ages, Matilda of England commanded armies, but, rather than celebrate her, people complained about her wilfulness. Eleanor of Aquitaine joined the Crusades with her husband, Louis, reputedly leading her women bare-breasted, dressed as Amazons, so chroniclers wrote her off as a slut. Elizabeth I, wise to the problems of being a female commander, pandered to her troops, assuring them she might “have the body of a weak, feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king”.

Now, for the first time, women in the British armed forces will have the opportunity to fight in close quarters with the enemy. And as usual, opinions are divided. David Cameron lifted the ban on women serving in close-combat ground roles last July, after a two-year review by the Ministry of Defence. The report focused on three risk factors: muscular injury, psychological health and impaired reproductive health. Now, women will be able to serve in positions from which they were once excluded: in the infantry, the Royal Marines, the Royal Armoured Corps and the RAF Regiment.

Last November, the Royal Armoured Corps began admitting women interested in the new roles. The first female officer graduated from Sandhurst 10 days ago and will go on to train as an RAC troop leader. All other ground, close-combat roles will be open to women by the end of 2018.

In other countries, women have been fully integrated into the armed forces for years. Norway has had women in all combat roles since the mid-1980s, Denmark since 1988, Canada since 1989, and the United States since 2013. Yet in the UK the move remains controversial.

Colonel Richard Kemp, who commanded British troops in Afghanistan, was among those angry at the decision, which he called “dangerous PC meddling” and a “foolish move” that will be “paid for in blood”. “The infantry is no place for a woman,” said Colonel Tim Collins, a former SAS officer who commanded the Royal Irish Regiment during the invasion of Iraq. “Pure politically correct extravagance. No one pretends that allowing women onto the front line enhances the army’s capabilities. [This] inevitably will cost lives on the battlefield.” But what do women currently serving in the armed forces think?

The corridors of the Royal Naval Air Station at Yeovilton, Somerset, are decorated with endless pictures of men. There are blown-up photographs of Our Boys in action, crouched beneath helicopters, wielding enormous guns. Posters show sweaty chaps pummelling weights, advertising the Royal Marines Ultra-Fit Championships. There are lads in rugby kit promoting the Royal Navy Rugby Union. There are also jokey photos of men wearing dresses or hula skirts on nights out. Down one corridor, frame after frame shows male soldiers assembled proudly in their squadrons.

“I guess it does affect you,” says Lieutenant Natalie Grainger, 28, a pilot in the elite Commando Helicopter Force. “Because you think: why aren’t there more senior women around? I want to change it.

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“What annoys me is when people say, ‘Women are being allowed on the front line,’ ” she continues, sweeping back her blonde fringe (women are not compelled to have short back and sides). “When people were shooting at me in Afghanistan, wasn’t that me on the front line? We have been there a long time.” She has served with 846 Naval Air Squadron through two tours of Afghanistan, providing aviation combat support to the Royal Marines.

About 10% (15,280) of the British armed forces are women. Hundreds have served in front-line roles in Afghanistan and Iraq — as fighter pilots, in submarines, and in ground-support roles as medics and bomb-disposal experts. Four women received the Military Cross for their bravery on those battlefields. Nine lost their lives.

The new positions open to women differ because their primary purpose is to close in on and kill the enemy over short range on the ground. Entry requirements will be the same as for men, which Grainger approves of: “I can pass the boys’ level, so why can’t everyone else?” It is estimated that only 5% of women currently serving in the British Army could meet the basic infantry fitness test, which requires a soldier to march eight miles in under two hours, carrying 25kg of kit.

I shadowed Grainger through a day of exercises, flying her Merlin helicopter around Somerset. As we pulled on our uniforms, she was pragmatic about the one-size-fits-all male kit. “It’s all money at the end of the day,” Grainger shrugs. For women that means ballistic underwear with a flap at the front, waterproof suits with a front-to-back zip underneath — no good if you need to pull down your pants — and specially ordered combat boots, because the standard sizes are too big.

Available at: https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/operation-glass-ceiling-qm3lzczzr 

The Sunday Times: Torch £20? It’s worse pretending you don’t have money to burn

Watching a Cambridge student in white tie trying to set fire to a £20 note in front of a homeless man is hardly heartwarming, but the rage unleashed against 18-year-old Ronald Coyne for raising his lighter to some crumpled cash has left me feeling oddly sorry for him.

After Coyne was filmed burning money, he was promptly forced to resign from Cambridge University Conservative Association. It branded the student’s behaviour “disgusting” and “abhorrent”.

A petition now threatens to remove Coyne from university, as students clamour to be the most “shocked” and “appalled” by his actions.

Meanwhile, his poor mother was left desperately stammering, “We’re just a normal family. We’re not toffs,” which is probably true, because no one posh ever uses that word.

“He’s been a hard-working student who is very, very lucky and aware of the privilege he has to study at Cambridge. He spoke to us after the event and said he’d done something very stupid and felt really bad about it.”

Of course, Coyne is a fool. But then he’s a fresher and all kids do stupid stuff. It was especially idiotic to upload his actions to Snapchat so that hundreds of people could watch.

But there he joins a wider social media trend for conspicuous shows of wealth, the most extravagant of which are the Rich Kids of Instagram, who post pictures of themselves spraying bottles of Cristal around private jets and fanning themselves with £50 notes.

Such cash-flashing looks pretty trashy, especially if it is done right in a homeless man’s face. I certainly wouldn’t condone such cruel behaviour, but I don’t find it nearly as annoying as the hypocrisy of Silicon Valley billionaires such as Mark “Fifty Shades of Grey” Zuckerberg, whose normcore wardrobe — worn by the world’s greatest capitalists — is designed to show a lack of interest in money.

Coyne’s pathetic delight in having a £20 note to burn isn’t as irksome as listening to Gwyneth Paltrow trill about how “incredibly close to the common woman” she is while recommending $300 (£240) T-shirts, or seeing Kate Winslet brag that she’s “working class”.

Old money has always been falsely modest about its wealth — wearing holey cashmere sweaters in unheated stately homes. Now the same poorgeois aesthetic has spread to the middle classes, who have developed a taste for poverty-chic: buying expensive eco-rags that make them look as if they’re sleeping rough; spending five times the price of a supermarket shop on dirt-covered vegetables at their local farmers’ market and forking out £600 on washing in a tin bath on a “luxury” glamping holiday.

Such conspicuous displays of poverty from the wealthy feel more offensive than Coyne’s stupidity because they insult not our pockets but our intelligence.

It feels worse to pretend not to have money, because it also means lying about how much money matters and how much it helps. To conceal the significance of money is to deny the realities that keep poor people in their place.

It is telling that it is young people — a generation more cash-strapped than their parents — who are so keen to show how much they have.

 

Available: https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/torch-20-its-worse-pretending-you-dont-have-money-to-burn-9n93r9b55

The Sunday Times: Harry and Meghan musn’t shack up. Not because it’s sinful; just unromantic

Sometimes I wake up with my boyfriend, trip over a mug, note the boxers he’s left on the floor and pass a pizza box on the way to the kitchen, where I’m met with the despairing sight of the washing-up. Then I close the front door behind me and cheerfully skip back to my own flat.

I cherish each moment I don’t live with my boyfriend. Why would anybody live with somebody if they could afford their own space? Why — more to the point — would a woman with the kind of career and money that Meghan Markle has want to move into Prince Harry’s place? Even if it is a cottage at Kensington Palace.

He may be a royal but I’m amazed that there’s any whiff of scandal in Harry shacking up with Meghan before marriage. If anything, it’s their decision to move in together that seems so very old-fashioned. Why would any modern couple move in together when living apart makes so much sense?

In the first flush of our romance my boyfriend and I fantasised about how much money we could save by sharing a flat. But we decided nothing would be enough. There is no price you can put on never having to have a conversation about who did the washing-up. By not cohabiting, we are free to argue about Donald Trump, Jeremy Corbyn and Russia but never the loo seat.

As Virginia Woolf said: a girl needs space. How else would I gather my thoughts or dance around to 1990s music wearing only a face mask and pants? Besides, my other half is as interested in spending nights drinking prosecco with a gaggle of screaming girls and gay guys as I am in eating beef jerky while watching Ultimate Fighting Championship bouts.

I’m sure not living together is why, after two years, we are still enjoying the honeymoon period in which we each deny the other has flaws. It’s because we don’t live together that I still feel so excited when he turns up at my door, drunk, at 2am. It’s fun pestering each other to take midnight Ubers across town. Besides, we spend four nights a week together and share a dog. And I recently made the commitment to let him have a drawer at my flat. For now surely that will suffice.

There’s a name for this trend of couples like us “living apart, together”. We are Lats, which sounds unfairly unsexy, given that I bet we’re getting more of it. It helps to keep things exciting that we never have to go to Ikea or discuss who ruined the non-stick pans.

Lats are a symptom of a society in which people get together when they’re older, having already established houses and jobs. Now we’re used to a single way of life. So much so that we’d rather flat-share with our mates well into our forties than cohabit. For women, independence has particular appeal. Friends claim Markle has already started cooking for Harry, which just proves that no matter what kind of money — or humanitarian career — they are juggling, women never escape the second shift.

I’m sure dating Harry is a barrel of laughs — it’s probably a weekend in Vegas at his house every night. And as his Kensington cottage is being renovated, she can surely look forward to a hot tub, a wide-screen and a stripper pole in the basement.

Most couples live together because they can’t afford to rent — let alone own — separate homes. Harry must have access to countless beautiful properties, so why do he and Meghan need to move into just one of them together? He must be able to drum up a peppercorn-rent flat somewhere for her.

To me, such separation makes perfect sense. I don’t think a palace, a ring or a baby would make me give up having my own place. Besides, together-apart is so romantic. The way things are going, I’ll be stuck with my boyfriend for decades yet, so why rush into anything?

Don’t be so pally, Pammy 
You have to be clever to play “high camp” as perfectly as Pamela Anderson. I’ve always assumed that, behind the bleached blonde hair and boobs, she was bright. Hugh Hefner teased her for being the only Playboy Bunny who knew enough about art to tell the mansion’s Dalis and Basquiats apart.

She has transformed her red Baywatch swimsuit into a career as an ethics campaigner. Still, if once Pammy appeared clever, her love affair with the self-serving narcissist Julian Assange suggests otherwise. Publishing a letter online declaring Assange a hero who has “sacrificed so much — to simply share the truth” is not very bright.

Available: https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/shacking-up-together-is-so-yesterday-harry-and-meghan-should-try-lat-love-z5wk8gdsj