Friday, 29 October 2010

Pumpkin vs. squash

Although technically a type of squash, I find the light, subtle, juicy orange flesh of the round, orange skinned pumpkin infinitely nicer, both in texture and in taste, than the bland, soapy, sweet, almost perfumey stodginess of something like a butternut squash. Unfortunately, pumpkins only tend to appear in this country in October and then disappear again after Halloween once their novelty factor has worn off, which is a shame for such a versatile vegetable which yields so much delicious food, both from its flesh and seeds. Luckily, pumpkin flesh is ideal for freezing, so it’s easy to eat fresh pumpkin around Halloween then freeze the rest (either in thick slabs or bite size chunks) to be used throughout the winter, in meals as diverse as soup, curries, risotto and lasagna — or simply just enjoyed roasted.

To prepare a pumpkin, I slice the top off with a long, serrated knife and remove the seeds with my hands, setting aside in a bowl (these seeds can be either cooked immediately or frozen). To maximise the amount of flesh I get out of the pumpkin — if you want to carve a face into your pumpkin, then you’re going to need to slice the top off then scoop the flesh out from the inside — I remove the skin with a sharp knife as if peeling a potato (due to the round nature of the vegetable, it can be easier if you chop it into smaller chunks). I then chop the flesh into cubes, and either cook immediately or place in sandwich bags or plastic containers and freeze. After it’s been frozen, pumpkin can either be left out to defrost if planning ahead, or thawed for ninety seconds in a microwave when needed.

Pumpkin and apple soup with cumin

This is the nicest food I know how to make. Pumpkin, apple and cumin really is a dream combination — all three flavours are improved immeasurably in the company of each other. Hearty, warming Pumpkin, apple and cumin is my all-time favourite type of soup — probably because, due to the limited availability of pumpkin the rest of the year round, I only eat it in Autumn when the idea of winter is still novel and before it gets too bitterly cold. Dark, early nights are softened by the cosiness inside, and crunchy leaves and the excitement of Halloween, bonfires and fireworks outside.

Serves 3

550g pumpkin, chopped
4 apples, peeled and chopped (no particular variety — I use the type that come, ten for a pound, in sandwich bags from the Arndale Market)
One large onion, chopped
3 cloves of garlic, chopped
700ml vegetable stock
350ml apple juice
1-1.5 teaspoons cumin
Six sage leaves, chopped
Salt and pepper to season

Sauté the onion in olive oil in a large pan for five minutes. Add the garlic, pumpkin and apple and sauté for a further five minutes. Add the apple juice and stock and simmer for 25 minutes. Add the sage leaves, season well with salt and pepper, stir in the cumin and remove from the heat. Puree with a hand blender, adding more water if necessary.

Roasted pumpkin seeds

These make a satisfying snack during the day or a crunchy alternative to popcorn to take to the cinema.

Simmer the pumpkin seeds, fresh or frozen, in lightly salted water for 10-15 minutes. Preheat the oven to a medium to high heat. Drain the seeds well, place in a shallow baking dish or tray and coat with olive oil. Season well with salt and freshly ground black pepper and cook for 20-25 minutes (checking frequently as there is a very fine line between just cooked and burned!), stirring every few minutes. The pumpkin seeds are done when they are crispy and starting to go brown around the edges.

Roasted pumpkin with gnocchi and rosemary

This quick and simple but effective meal is my favourite lazy convenience food, and one of my favourite dinners. Preheat the oven to a medium to high heat. Take the required amount of pumpkin cubes (described above) out of the freezer and defrost. Drain any water, coat with olive oil on all sides and place in a small, shallow casserole dish with a fat clove of garlic, chopped. Roast in the oven for ten minutes. Chop a few sprigs of fresh rosemary, to taste. After the pumpkin has been cooking for ten minutes, add the rosemary and roast for a further ten minutes, stirring occasionally, until the pumpkin starts to go golden and crispy around the edges. Meanwhile, bring a pan of lightly salted water to boil on the hob. Add gnocchi and simmer until the gnocchi rises to the surface of the water. Drain. Remove the pumpkin from the oven, stir the gnocchi into the pumpkin and its juices, season well with salt and freshly ground black pepper (and cumin if desired), grate cheese on top and serve in the dish it cooked in.

The above recipe also works well with aubergine, with the addition of honey and lots of cumin.

Sunday, 24 October 2010

Masculine, feminine: Shortlist and Stylist magazines

Every Wednesday morning, two free magazines appear on the streets of several cities around the country, including Manchester (as well as airport lounges and French Connection stores). Left in piles next to the Metro newspaper, or handed out by men in yellow jackets, they’re designed to be grabbed by workers on their daily commute.

Why two magazines? Well, with its bold title in an unfussy font and covers in primary colours featuring prominent men such as Alan Sugar, Gordon Gecko, Russell Brand and Fabio Capello staring you straight on, with some cover stars, such as Tony Blair, so important they’re further emboldened in black and white, Shortlist is aimed at attracting the eye of men. The strapline promises that inside you will find ‘News, Sport, TV, Cars, Movies, Style’ — the same subjects you might see covered in the ‘Men’s Lifestyle’ section of a newsagents. Stylist’s decorative font, italicised to give the impression it’s a bit more thoughtful, and backed up by a palette of pinks and lilacs, is meant to attract the female sensibility. Its sleeves show cupcakes, shoes, handbags, a puppy with floppy ears, and singers and Hollywood actresses staring pensively into the distance or looking down shyly. Inside, is ‘Fashion, Travel, People, Ideas, Beauty’.

The two magazines are produced in the same building, and published by the same company, yet their whole premise is that men and women are fundamentally different. Rather than looking at the interests men and women have in common and producing a magazine anyone could find interesting, they focus on heightening traditional male and female pursuits and exaggerating conventionally male or female attributes until the two magazines display complete parodies of what is ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’.

The magazines’ content is primarily concerned with selling a certain, ideal lifestyle — something for men, and women, to aspire to, which often harks back to recapturing the values of an earlier era. In Stylist, interviewees are praised for their sophistication, glamour and mystique, and for being enigmatic — in comparison with what the magazine regards as the ‘laddish’ behaviour of some women today. Shortlist talks admiringly of the ‘hard living charisma’ of Serge Gainsbourg and the glamour of the Rat Pack, emphasising timeless elegance, from Savile Row tailoring to owning a decent watch — ‘The mark of a gentleman’.

Shortlist is obsessed with the escapist themes of adventure, endurance, war and danger, from endless articles about drug lords and South American gangs to reports from war zones, instructions about how to survive in space and lists of the most dangerous places in the world to trade in. Shortlist is also heavily biased towards technology, and keeping up to date with the latest ‘must-have’ gadgets. Interestingly, Stylist has more emphasis than Shortlist on food and literature (although it does liken Philip Larkin, hilariously, to a ‘grumpier, smarter Bridget Jones’), but Shortlist makes more of music, covering newer, 'hipper' bands compared to Stylist's recommendation of mumsy music like Robbie Williams.

In case you’d missed what’s being sold to you, Shortlist backs it up with adverts for beer that promises adventure, deodorant that will ‘give you balls’, face cream that ‘wages war on oily skin’, phones aiding survival and endless adverts for cars, watches, clothes and the Discovery Channel. Stylist, in contrast, is primarily packed with adverts for grooming products such as shampoo and hair dye, IKEA furniture, clothes and the occasional car or rom com film.

Each magazine has a regular columnist with whom we’re supposed to empathise and sympathise. Danny Wallace’s column, in Shortlist, is one of the highlights of the magazine, a feature that rarely fails to make me laugh as he fails woefully at performing everyday tasks, from ordering a sandwich to securing the services of a plumber. His well-written column reads like a piece of creative writing exaggerated slightly for comic effect. I don’t believe for a minute that he’s as hapless as he makes out. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for Dawn Porter, who was somehow given a column in Stylist magazine (which, thankfully, seems to have disappeared for the time being) despite being one of the least interesting women you can imagine meeting. Over the course of a few insipid paragraphs of fluff, Porter shares insights into her life such as being chased by a wasp, dying her hair and having PMT.

In her recent critique of contemporary feminism, One Dimensional Woman, Nina Power said ‘If the contemporary portrayal of womankind were to be believed, contemporary female achievement would culminate in the ownership of expensive handbags, a vibrator, a job, a flat and a man’. We can blame a lot of this on Sex and the City, which, in one of several Sex and the City specials, Stylist claims ‘shaped the cultural development of the 21st century’ and acts as a ‘champion of women…a platform for female independence, career success, a woman’s right to hideously expensive shoes…and made single life sexy’ (I couldn’t agree less with this description of Sex and the City — which focuses on superficial, self-obsessed, dull, needy women whose lives revolve around where their next man is going to come from). Stylist goes on to say that the biggest appeal of the women in Sex and the City is that they are ‘real’, managing to ‘tap into the pysche of modern, professional women brilliantly’, yet they are not like anyone I know or would ever wish to meet. It states that, unlike '99% of the female population', ‘men just don’t understand Sex and the City’ — ignoring all the women who, too, think Sex and the City is banal and shallow.

The biggest problem I have with Sex and the City (aside from its limited depictions of homosexuality and bisexuality) is the same I have with Shortlist and Stylist magazines — the distinctions they make between men and women, and the way they don’t even try to understand each other. The women in Sex and the City show little interest in anything outside men and each other; their level of political engagement is limited to sleeping with politicians, they have no heterosexual male friends and find it seemingly impossible to relate to men on any level other than sex — not that they want to. As Samantha says: “I’ve never been friends with any men. Why would I? Women are for friendships, men are for fucking.”

At the start of this century, David Gauntlett noted in Media, Gender and Identity: An Introduction (one of many studies of men’s and women’s magazines) that the men’s magazine market is relatively new as it had long been thought that “‘real men’ didn’t need a magazine to tell them how to live". Today, however, Shortlist magazine seems hell bent on reclaiming manliness from a perceived social and cultural assault on male values and pursuits. It runs articles with titles such as ‘Why it’s ok to be a man again’, and Giles Coren defending the barbecue as ‘the last bastion of masculinity’. Despite this, there’s just as much pressure on men as women to look after their appearance, from protecting their hair on holiday to ten steps to getting the perfect beach body.

Shortlist and Stylist magazines are inherently conservative. Writing almost forty years ago, in a set of essays entitled Ways of Seeing, the critic John Berger said 'publicity is the culture of the consumer society' — advertisements are the images by which capitalism sustains itself, selling the public an idealised vision of themselves. It manufactures glamour, which is described by Berger as the 'happiness of being envied'. Publicity shows people who they could be and where they could be placed within society if they make the right choices (ie purchases) or, if they already hold that position in society, it sells them the ability to maintain that position — one which is, in the eyes of others, enviable. Shortlist and Stylist magazine, despite masquerading as serious magazines which are read for their content, are in fact just publicity for the dominant, accepted lifestyle. Those who read Shortlist and Stylist do so either because they accept that the lifestyles the magazines portray are something to aspire to, or because they already belong to the social group that can afford such a lifestyle. They see their values reflected, so their place in society is therefore reinforced and confirmed.

I don’t, however, think that either magazine is bad — they both have several features I enjoy, and in both magazines there are whole sections I flick straight through (sport in Shortlist and beauty in Stylist). Shortlist magazine’s ‘Secret Genius’ quiz page is fun for passing time, and some of the ‘Instructions for Men’, such as ‘how to avoid showing fear in a job interview’, are useful. Stylist magazine celebrates female achievements, holds networking events for female entrepreneurs and prints women’s responses to topical news stories such as the Marie Stopes TV advertisements. Its ‘Elsewhere’ page rounds up world news stories relating to women around the world, often focusing on the quirky and bizarre, which I would otherwise have missed. I’ve also cut out and tried several recipes from Stylist magazine (Shortlist too used to publish recipes, but stopped for some reason). ‘Work Life: A one-day diary, from morning latte to lights out’, which looks at the typical day of a different career woman each week, from school teachers to paramedics to zookeepers, is a good idea — although it almost always focuses on women in London and the south. I admired Stylist’s election coverage, which looked at each of the main parties’ policies, and how they affect women, in turn, and even hosted a women’s question time.

Furthermore, both magazines, albeit separately, try to address issues affecting men and women, such as depression, bereavement, work life balance, housework and fertility, and sometimes even offer new perspectives on much written about stories — what it’s really like to be raised by a teenage parent, the psychological impact on men of women waiting longer to have children, the mindset of female terrorists and mafia members, and what motivates women to ‘kiss and tell’.

I’ve been reading Shortlist since it started in 2007 (Stylist is a far more recent addition to newsstands which hit the streets just over a year ago), for the simple reason that it has a sense of humour — it makes me laugh. Of the two, I’d say Stylist is the slightly better magazine — not, I’d like to think, because I’m a woman, but it has more consistently substantial, varied content than Shortlist which, as the name suggests, is full of lists of trivia aimed at a short attention span. Stylist has some good features, from a recent article about women graffiti artists to reports on the oppression of women around the world and pieces on serial killers and prostitution. The main criticism I’d make of both magazines is their homogeneity — the people and lifestyles shown within their pages are rarely anything other than white, affluent and heterosexual.

I don’t understand why, instead of patronising us with sexist, outdated notions of male and female interests, such as ‘a generation of women obsessed with shoes’, Shortlist Media can’t just produce one super magazine that will appeal to everyone, combining the intelligent, interesting, feature length articles and topical news stories of Stylist with the humour and factoids of Shortlist. I, for one, would definitely read it.

You might also enjoy my friend Olivia Singer's article about Stylist magazine and feminism.

Thursday, 21 October 2010

$100 & A T-Shirt — A Documentary about Zines in the Northwest US

A few years ago, a documentary was made about the Portland Zine Symposium, which takes place in Portland, Oregon, every year. As well as showing footage of the event, including a seminar conducted by Calvin Johnson, the film compiles interviews with zine makers from the city’s Independent Publishing Resource Centre, covering such fundamental questions as ‘What is a zine’, and concluding ‘zines are a visual medium we should try our hardest to make them look good’, ‘Who makes zines’ (’99% of us are all nerds’), ‘Why make zines’ not to make profit, but to have fun, educate and ‘alter people‘s perceptions', ‘How do you make zines?’ — something to have in the back of your mind is that ‘everything needs to be a multiple of four’, ‘Where have zines taken us and what’s next’ and, perhaps most importantly of all, ‘Why do people spend all their time in front of Xerox machines?’.

It’s a thorough introduction to zines, suggesting their spirit goes as far back as Martin Luther nailing his words to a church door, and can be identified in publications as diverse as the pamphlets of Thomas Paine, publications from the Labor movement, satirical magazine the Realist, the poetry anthologies of the Beats, and the punk and Riot Grrrl movements, when women made zines in their ‘hundreds and hundreds’.

The interviewees leaf through a zine library, picking out their favourite zines or the strangest, which range from the niche zines about collecting shoes and a publication about substitute teachers to the practical from a pamphlet dedicated to fonts to feminist zines offering advice on rape, sexual assault, the law, where to go for abortion advice and insight into mental health problems and the downright grotesque a zine about ‘the use of bodily fluids for revenge’.

There’s a strong community element, with zine makers sending zines all over in the post and receiving detailed critiques in return. The documentary’s charm is the enthusiasm everyone shows towards what they do, with one participant describing it as a ‘co-dependent relationship I couldn't break up even if I wanted to’ and others concurring ‘You have to find a way to produce it no matter what it takes’ because if you didn’t ‘you’d be standing yelling on street corners’.

Saturday, 16 October 2010

Autumn, Pennine Lancashire and Panopticons

I have a mental list stored up ready for those fortuitous occasions, which happen about once a year, when I have an afternoon spare, it's not raining too much and I am in the company of someone with a car who will drive me wherever I want to go. High up the list of places I have wanted to visit for which a car is essential (or, at least, a lot more convenient than public transport) is the Pennine Panopticon trail, which consists of four monumental public artworks which were installed a few years ago in the hills above Lancashire mill towns.

We made it to the first three, but not as far as the final artwork in Blackburn. We started in Haslingen, walking up narrow country lanes from the town to what I thought was the least impressive of the Panopticons, although the country walk was lovely (bright green, mossy walls, yellow and orange poppies and marigolds growing out of cracks in the thin layers of bricks and leaves trickling down from the trees). Halo is a giant metal UFO which resembles a big children's climbing frame. Apparently it's lit up with green LED lights at nighttime and, seen from the motorway, appears to float over the town, but in the daytime it looked a bit tatty and worn where bits of the plastic hanging down from its structure were already snapped and broken.

Far more impressive is the Singing Ringing Tree high above Burnley, where the clouds hover above the top of the hills, which takes the appearance of a large, windswept tree shivering on the side of a hill. This sculpture interacts with its environment, as it consists of narrow tubes of steel of different lengths which are tuned to produce chords as the wind whistles through them. When you approach from a distance, it coos softly like birdsong, almost making you look out for a hidden chorus of seagulls. Close up, as you stand underneath, noises come at you from all directions, a sort of call and response which reminded me of all the instruments of an orchestra tuning up to A at the start of a concert, listening to each other and adjusting their pitch until they're in tune with each other.

I associate the word panopticon with the nineteenth century philosopher Jeremy Bentham, who designed a prison based on the concept of the panopticon; a place where the prison guard could watch the prisoners at all times, without them being sure when they were being observed (so, a place where everything is on view, and a form of psychological as much as physical control).

The artwork at Colne is based on a broader definition of a Panopticon as a place providing a panoramic or comprehensive view. Atom is a concrete oval structure perched on the side of the hill which has large viewing holes looking out over the hills and a shiny, round nucleus in the middle, which again distorts these views in its reflection. The irregular viewing holes make it resemble a washed up pebble which has been eroded over time by the sea, and the metal coating on the outside of the Panopticon itself is becoming weathered; its turquoise seams show and it's beginning to take on the bloomed, layered look of the landscape around, which is criss-crossed with old walls, dappled with trees and patches of brown and scattered with sheep.

I like the Pennine Panopticons because they aren't just alien interventions in the landscape. As well as being new additions to the spectacular hills that dominate the skyline all around, and being artworks which are fascinating in their own right, they make you look at and think about what's already there. It's impossible to see the Singing Ringing Tree without noticing the huge wind turbines blowing in the wind below; the same wind that produces music for the Singing Ringing Tree generates power for homes in the area. You're also always conscious of the ways that man has intervened in the landscape before, and continues to make a mark, from the dense rooftops of the towns beneath to the ever-present buzz of the motorway in the background.

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Newspapers on Film — visiting the North West Film Archive

I first became interested in films about newspapers after discovering Wakefield Express by the Free Cinema director Lindsay Anderson, a portrait of the town’s newspaper commissioned to mark the paper’s centenary in 1952, which places the Express at the heart of the Yorkshire community it serves. Lasting just over thirty minutes, it’s a snapshot of Wakefield life, and the city’s expansion, which the Express was there to record at every moment — as the narrator notes, ‘the Express has grown with Wakefield’. It was rescreened in the town last year during protests against the Wakefield Express leaving its town centre offices and moving to the outskirts of town.

Similarly, films in the North West Film Archive document Manchester’s history as the ‘second city of newspapers’, where both northern editions of the daily national papers were produced, as well as Greater Manchester's own regional daily paper the Manchester Evening News.

News Story is a twenty minute behind the scenes portrait of the Manchester Guardian made in 1960, four years before it moved to London (and a year after it dropped the ‘Manchester' part of its name), which traces the history of the paper from its foundation in 1821 following the Peterloo Massacre to its status as an international paper.

The NWFA also holds two documentaries about the Manchester Evening News (like the Wakefield Express, the Evening News, too, has now moved out of town — from Deansgate in the city centre to Chadderton, Oldham earlier this year): Here is the News, made to mark the paper’s centenary year in 1968 and The Voice of a Region, from 1970-2, which celebrate the Evening News’ role as ‘an important voice for a famous city’ and ‘a strong heart for the community it serves’.

Lingering on the city’s achievements and admiring its new modernist architecture, they’re modern and optimistic, talking admiringly of Manchester’s abundance of supermarkets and self-service stores, panning past glamorous shop fronts, showing celebrities such as George Best and exalting the young people of the city. In Here is the News, bright yellow Ford vans glide around the city's roads to a soundtrack of jaunty jazz, distributing newspapers like rolled up rays of sunshine.

Shown being read in a suburban home by members of the nuclear family, the Manchester Evening News is ‘the family newspaper that is indeed a member of the family’. It’s a ‘pleasure at the end of the working day’ that's ‘read by all types of people — men and women, young and old, rich and poor’, and is ‘full of the sorts of things that everyone is interested in’, from the stock market, football, dogs and horses to fashion pages, recipes and hints for housewives and nightclubs, cinemas and jobs for young people.

The films rush around the different departments that work towards the ‘daily miracle’ that is the production of a newspaper; from crime reporters at the scene of the crime to clattering typewriters with hands dancing over the keys, splashing chemicals in the darkroom, pipe-smoking men in waistcoats, girls chattering on telesales headsets, the sawing of metal plates and the rolling of printing presses that could turn out up to 38,000 papers an hour.

The Voice of a Region visits the Evening News’ then new premises, purpose-built by the architects Leach Rhodes Walker next to John Rylands Library on Deansgate (where Spinningfields is now), praising the ‘striking modern building’ surrounded by courtyards and squares where the public can relax, ‘soothed by the sight of flowers’. It concludes ‘as the city continues to grow, so will the newspaper’.

Unfortunately, though, within decades the old ways of newspaper production were becoming obsolete. In complete contrast to the confidence of the Evening News films, The Way It Was comprises of grainy, jerky footage shot in Thomson House (now the Printworks entertainment complex) on Withy Grove, base of the Mirror and Telegraph, which was once home to the largest composing room in Europe.

Filmed shortly before the printworks was taken over by the press baron Robert Maxwell in 1985, maudlin classical music accompanies images of the massive machinery which has come to rest, zooming in on contemporary headlines and hovering over the word ‘redundancies’. Another brief film, New Newspaper Premises, shows old staff who made been made redundant being shown the new computerised facilities which replaced them.

If you're interested in seeing archive footage relating to any aspect of local history, you can search the North West Film Archive's website and make an appointment to go in for a viewing. Also look out for public screenings of highlights from the collection.