Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Survival of the fittest

I had a very negative reaction to the Dove ‘evolution’ video that’s doing the rounds today. It’s a sophisticated marketing tool which says nothing women (and many men) don't already know – that models used for advertising and women’s magazine features are skillfully made up and the resulting images may then be digitally enhanced.

Dove says: ‘No wonder our perception of beauty is distorted’ and refers to something called the ‘Dove self-esteem fund’ for young women, which of course is welcome – but who benefits from women’s aspirations towards these distorted images? Well, Dove is part of the Unilever group, and sells skin and hair care products. One of their ranges is ProAge, an intensive moisturising collection aimed at older women. Dove may focus their charitable work on the young, but they also play on older women’s insecurities to make us believe we need special shampoos, deodorants (FFS!) serums and body moisturisers, to make ourselves look or at least feel younger. So I take the claim that ‘beauty comes in all ages, shapes and sizes’ with a very large pinch of salt.

Any woman putting on her make-up in the morning knows that images of women in advertising are not ‘real’. We know they are used to sell us clothes, make-up and other fancy things, and many of us go along with it because it’s fun, and because our self-esteem is not solely connected to our appearance. But others really do suffer.

The reasons why ‘beauty’ marketing contributes to poor body image in women are more complex than that we don’t understand what’s going on. The truth is that society values youth and beauty, which is fine by me but the other side of the coin is not, namely that fat, ugly and older women are ignored or derided - often by both sexes. If a woman spends time and money on trying to improve her appearance, it may be an entirely rational reaction to the responses she observes around her. This is particularly so in some workplaces or social circles, or at certain times in women’s lives, and sometimes also, sadly, in families.

So give us more credit, Dove. It’s still survival of the 'fit'test out there and no marketing campaign by a brand which relies on this will lead to real change. When men – and other women – start treating everyone with respect, without derogatory reference to their looks, then women will stop being insecure and a bar of soap will just be a bar of soap. Until then, it holds a dream.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

No comment(s), for once

Much excitement in our small part of the world over the beginnings of the SDLP leadership race. A week ago, Mark Durkan announced that he will stand down as SDLP leader if he’s re-elected as an MP, in order to concentrate on his work at Westminster, where significant cuts in public spending will be made. And that the SDLP, as a nationalist party, shouldn’t be led by an MP in the UK Parliament, where he intends to be doing all this valuable work.

The next day, we are told that’s that, there will be no more to say until after the next election. Two days later, leadership nominations open on November 1st, apparently for a decision at the SDLP conference in February - he’s now going earlier. Today, a week after Durkan’s original announcement, the front runners are Alasdair McDonnell and Margaret Ritchie.

I find it very hard to have an opinion on this contest. I’m curious about the direction the SDLP will take after the votes are cast: towards Fianna Fáil, towards Irish Labour, or carrying on muddling through as at present. I’d like to think that the new leader will help to redefine Irish nationalism and identity through addressing the tensions in the party between nationalism and democratic socialism. I’d welcome stronger alliances with other parties in both the Republic and Britain. I hope the party will move further towards the non-sectarian ‘middle’ of NI politics, assisted by the removal of community designation in the Assembly. The really interesting stuff begins next February - at a time when the Executive will be under increasing pressure to make cuts, and the bigger question may well be whether it can survive that pressure or whether we’ll see the return of direct rule.

Truth is, the SDLP leadership contest is not my fight. So I’ve decided to say no more about it on this or any other blog. I’ll just sit back, pour myself a large one and watch the story unfold.
See also an excellent analysis from Roe Valley Socialist

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Three local restaurants

One of the many nice things about living in Belmont is that there are loads of restaurants, cafés and takeaways within walking distance.

Bennett’s has become a favourite. It’s casual enough for the evenings when I don’t feel like cooking, and with its two main courses and bottle of wine for £23 on weekdays, it won’t bankrupt you either, but it’s also smart enough for a proper meal out. We’ve taken a total of six other people to Bennett’s so far, and none has been disappointed by the ambience or the food, and usually the service is also excellent.

However... recently I’ve had a couple of gripes. It’s clearly very popular, and the business needs to manage its success rather than work on attracting more customers. Perhaps this is why they have recently stopped taking bookings for early evening meals. I only have to walk down the street, but don’t like the uncertainty of not knowing whether I can get my dinner at the end of it. If I were travelling from further afield, I wouldn’t bother.

I’m also not happy about the recent removal of a vegetarian option from the evening specials board. They will provide veggie food on demand, and, as we found when eating there with a vegan friend, will also cook a delicious vegan dish. I have absolutely no complaints about the quality of the food, but I do mind having to ask for something different. Vegetarians are not that uncommon nowadays, I would have thought, even in East Belfast, but if Bennett’s is going to restrict itself to local custom then maybe they think they don’t have to bother.

If you do go to Bennett’s and find them fully booked, you could try the Gourmet Burger Bank a few doors up, although you will probably have to queue there as well. GBB is larger and more family-oriented that Bennett’s, but luckily seems to attract the kind of parents who are training their children to eat out with consideration for others, rather than those who are trying to train other diners to cope with their unruly offspring (Pizza Express on the Lisburn Road, take note). It’s also great for vegetarians, with three burger choices. My only problem here was that the portions are huge; a mini-burger option in the evenings would be appreciated, to leave room for what look like delicious puddings.

Finally, we got around to trying Alden's last night. I’d heard good things about this legendary East Belfast high end restaurant, but of course all from carnivores. There were two vegetarian mains, one of which was a curry, which I wouldn’t order in a Western restaurant, and the other a vegetable flan which was nicely done but not that special. Wine, puddings and coffee were exceptional, service and ambience a little chilly. When we were asked how our meal was going, I did mention the lack of choice for veggies and was told they would have cooked us something else if we’d asked – not what you need to hear after you have finished your main course, they should print this on the menu.

Again, as with Bennett’s, it’s putting the onus on the customer that annoys me. When I go out to eat, all I want to do is select from the menu, not feel that I am some kind of odd person for whom special provision has to be made. Again, to me it indicates that the restaurants of East Belfast are just not that geared up to catering for a range of diets. I’m sure Alden’s would be really good for business lunches and dinners involving lots of meat dishes and alcohol, but I don’t think it’s my kind of place. I’ll be sneaking back over to South Belfast’s Cayenne for their vegetarian menu, on special occasions.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

‘Normalising politics’ revisited

Back in April 2007, one of my first posts on South Belfast Diary was ‘‘Normalising’ politics in Northern Ireland?’, in which I speculated about the choices that might be available to the electorate in 2012. With our MLAs back at work, and with a feeling of change in the air, it seems like a good time to have another look at this.

As I said then, and still believe, we have no way of knowing how our political system might evolve:

On the one hand, normal politics in NI is what we’ve got at the moment: it’s normal for us, and it has evolved in the way it has in response to local conditions. On the other hand, if party political options do change in the next five years or so, there’s no particular reason to assume that the new pattern will be the same as anywhere else, because our society isn’t.
So what are the trends today, and where might they leave us in 2012?

Unionism/ loyalism
The bonkers wing of unionism is alive and well in the new Traditional Unionist Voice (motto: don’t work with anyone else, anytime, anywhere) and in the behaviour of some DUP MLAs – homophobia, creationism, global warming denial, we’ve seen them all. But in general the DUP are ‘still here, still the same’, as I said in 2007. Peter Robinson’s remarks on voluntary coalition were an interesting and successful attempt at agenda-setting, and many DUP politicians are competent and impressive.

Rather than go for being the unionist party with the liberal social agenda, which would have filled an electoral niche and probably suited many of their members, the UUP formed a ‘link’ with the British Conservative party. In 2007 I predicted a full merger, which I suppose may still come about. The ‘Ulster Conservatives and Unionists’ retained the a seat in the European elections, but it remains to be seen whether the new arrangement can compensate for the lacklustre performance of local representatives.

The PUP have continued to be squeezed out of a meaningful role. Despite recent moves towards loyalist decommissioning, the ‘progressive loyalism’ project seems to have stalled. Most PUP members would probably be happy in a fully functioning Labour Party, if we had one.

The ‘middle ground’
As Northern Ireland settles down into an uneasy peace, the key question for Alliance and the Greens must be why they seem unable to attract larger numbers of voters away from traditional allegiances. A couple of years ago, I thought Alliance might try to link up more closely with the British Liberal Democrats - I didn't actually realise that they already have links with the LibDems (and, indeed, that there's a branch of the LibDems here in NI). The idea of a link with Fine Gael was way off beam, though. In terms of what they actually do, Alliance just keep on doing it in the hope that they might pick up a few more votes eventually.

The Greens, with their connections both to the South and to the British jurisdictions, did much better than last time in the European elections, but again they aren’t making a strong enough breakthrough at all levels of our politics. So the voting options here in the middle will remain the same in 2012 – unless the defection of Ian Parsley is a sign that the Greens and Alliance, rather than the sectarian parties, would become weaker if parties from Britain and the Republic decided to move into electoral politics in NI.

Which brings us to the two Labour parties. A couple of years ago, I was hopeful that Labour candidates would by now be preparing to contest the next council elections. But Irish Labour is out of the picture and British Labour is also trying to fudge the issue. The root of the problem is that both Dublin and London are blocking alternatives because they fail to understand why the SDLP are not a suitable democratic socialist party for the whole electorate. I don’t see that changing by 2012.

Nationalism/ republicanism

In 2007 I was sure that the SDLP would merge with Fianna Fáil. But the Celtic Tiger died, Brian Cowen lost interest, and it looked as if the SDLP had turned more towards Irish Labour. Then, surprisingly, a fortnight ago, Fianna Fáil met in the North again, although they have made it clear they don’t intend to contest elections or seek a formal connection with the SDLP. So the SDLP continues to survive as a separate party, despite all the speculation of the past few years. They have a fine collection of policies on social issues, which they consistently fail to put across due to the poor presentation skills of their politicians and, it appears, some muddled briefing. But if you really want to vote for them, it looks like you’ll still be able to in 2012.

There’s very little to say about Sinn Féin. They’ve been around for a long time and aren’t going away any time soon. There are tensions in the South, with their culchie members keen for them to become a Fianna Fáil Mark 2, but up here they remain successful electorally. They even win when running an egregious election campaign for an institution they don’t believe in.

So there you have it. I could have added in a few far left parties; it’s important to note the absence of the far right, despite persistent rumours of their attempts to start up here; and also we should be aware of the perhaps surprisingly low number of independent candidates. Formal political links with parties from other jurisdictions remain rare, and we still only have one all-Ireland party.

In April 2007, the Assembly and Executive were just about to reconvene. House prices were high, unemployment comparatively low, and most of us had never heard of Lehman Brothers, Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, or a young senator called Barack Obama. The world has changed considerably since then, and we have more change coming in the shape of the Cameron government and continuing severe economic problems in the Republic. But NI carries on pretty much regardless. It will be interesting to see how our politicians cope with the challenges of the next few years, and, indeed, whether the Executive can survive them.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Heritage Open Days

European Heritage Open Days 2009 is taking place this weekend. Today, Nick and I decided to visit Campbell College and Netherleigh House, both within walking distance of our home.

Campbell College was built in the 1890s by W H Lynn, a partner in Lanyon’s architectural firm, and I was struck by the likeness to Queen’s . We were given an interesting guided tour and information booklet. My father was a pupil at Campbell and I’d had a brief look around with him a few years ago. He was one of the children of clergymen admitted on reduced rates, which the guide mentioned was a particular feature of the school. The pupils were evacuated to Portrush in the Second World War and the site used for a hospital, so his younger brother was sent to Inst instead.

Then we walked the short distance round to Netherleigh House, which is also thought to have been designed by Lynn. It has an unusual and rather sad history in that it changed hands many times (including being owned by Campbell College for a while) and when bought by the government in 1974, some of the old house was demolished to build new offices. The original entrance on the Belmont Road is now disused (pictured). Again we had an interesting tour, although the practicalities of office use have somewhat muffled the house’s character. There was some amazing art on display, part of the NI Civil Service collection apparently.

Tomorrow we hope to go to Stormont Castle. European Heritage Open Days is a great opportunity to have a look inside some interesting buildings. Many are still open on Sunday, so go for it.

P.S. We did go to Stormont Castle on Sunday, very interesting and, again, some fantastic art.