female beauty

Some issues call for plain talking, a democratic and inclusive rhetoric. Not going round the houses. Breastfeeding is one of those, and yet talking about feeding babies naturally, from the breast, is one of Western culture’s strangest and most irrational taboos. Recently, on the Facebook fansite ‘The Politics of Breastfeeding,’ one mum wrote that when she asked an official at an unamed London tourist destination if there was anywhere she could go to feed her baby the official replied ‘Would that be bottle or non-bottle feeding?’ He or she felt there was some sort of indelicacy or a taboo in using the word ‘breast.’ Was it disgust at breastfeeding that prompted this linguistic choice? Or was it a sense that mentioning this woman’s breast was somehow sexually inappropriate? Or a combination of both?

Either way, it is clear that breastfeeding is something that makes many people uncomfortable even to talk about, let alone witness. And yet it is breastfeeding that has kept us alive as a species. Breastfeeding is older than all aspects of our culture: older than science, medicine, agriculture, war, artistic endeavour, or using fire to cook food.  Humans are mammals. Mammal: from the word mammary, or breast. Humans are animals that feed their young with their milk. Breastfeeding is what defines us as human.(1)

How has it come to this? That we can’t even talk openly and without embarrassment about breastfeeding; that women get thrown out of some public places for breastfeeding; that many women in the west find breastfeeding so difficult they give up before their babies are six weeks old (50% of mothers abandon breastfeeding in the UK at or before six weeks); that many teenagers, and especially teenage girls I have spoken to, seem to find the very idea of breastfeeding disgusting (although many of the girls might be quite happy to countenance the idea of major surgery in order to ‘enhance’ the appearance of their breasts).

One reason breastfeeding has become difficult is the increasingly porn-saturated world we live in. In women’s magazines, men’s magazines, on TV, in films, on the internet, breasts are fetishized as sexual objects and women have internalized it all, worrying constantly that their boobs are the wrong size or shape, that their breasts are not sexy enough. These days, the ‘perfect’ breast is not a real breast but an artificially pneumatic and pert surgically altered one. Are you starving yourself slowly in the name of fashion like Victoria Beckham? Well pump up those shrunken malnourished mammaries with a couple of globes of silicone. Childrearing given you a pair of spaniel’s ears? Get them lifted and re-shaped like Ulrika Jonsson.  This kind of self-loathing is tolerated and normal these days. But breastfeeding is not.

But the institutional misogyny that we live with day-to-day is not the only reason breastfeeding is so beleagured. Much of the blame has to be laid at the feet of the formula industry, whose aggressive marketing tactics were angrily and systematically detailed by Gabrielle Palmer in The Politics of Breastfeeding twenty or so years ago. As the new edition of the book makes clear, those strategies have only become more sophisticated despite WHO recommendations that children be breastfed for at least a year and increasing medical recognition of how vital breastfeeding is to the long-term health of both infants and their mothers. These days, Nestlé and others can use the internet, and especially spam bloggers on sites such as Facebook, to market their products, and can rely on the supermarkets to reinforce the message that bottle-feeding is the norm (the sign for baby changing rooms in some supermarkets is a baby bottle, for instance, and the packaging on Tesco’s own-brand newborn nappies recently featured an image of a woman bottle-feeding a baby). Of course the supermarkets love formula: there is no money to be made when women breastfeed. There is no profit-margin on breastmilk.

Profit is to be made in abundance by the food giants whose position as market leaders is often largely determined by the amount of formula they sell.(2) And so the formula companies continue to aggressively promote their products in the developing world to women who can barely afford to feed themselves (Nestlé, for instance, recently ‘donated’ substantial quantities of ‘food products’ to the people of Haiti: philanthropy or an attempt to secure ‘brand loyalty’ in an emerging and potentially lucrative market?) .(3)

As we can see, breastfeeding is a feminist issue: breastmilk is a superior product and breastfeeding is a political act: it says that a mother does not subscribe to the idea that breasts are for male sexual pleasure and that she is resisting the body-fascism which is endemic in our society. It’s a health issue, as we all know: breastmilk is a live substance which changes in its composition to combat the pathogens in a mother’s immediate enviroment, and which gives the correct proportion of proteins, fats and vitamins for the stage of development a baby is at. It protects against allergies, obesity, cancer–the list goes on. It is also an ecological issue: breastfeeding does not involve packaging and the use of carbon involved in making formula. It doesn’t require you to use electricity to heat a feed to the correct temperature. Nor do you need to use plastic bottles and disposable teats to feed your babies. There is no waste: babies take what they need and no more–not so with formula, where it is a matter of safety to discard unused formula from any one feed after an hour or two. Breastfeeding is also a fiscal issue: many of the chronic healthcare problems which financially bog down the NHS (e.g. obesity) could perhaps be alleviated if more babies were breastfed (formula feeding is controlled by the person giving the bottle and does not allow the baby to regulate how much they take in; breastfeeding allows the baby to regulate their own food-consumption).

But who cares about breastfeeding? As a breastfeeding mother of twins, I do–very much. But apart from a small number of breastfeeding women, some medical professionals and charities such as Save The Children, who else does?  When I got Gabrielle Palmer’s book out of the library a few months ago, I spoke to the librarian about the book. It turns out she had breastfed her daughter for two years out in Kenya thirty or so years previously. But when she first saw the book’s title she commented ‘Politics of Breastfeeding?’ I didn’t think there was any politics inloved in breastfeeding’. It seems that most people, even many women who have breastfed, have internalized the idea that this fundamental issue isn’t an issue at all–because it isn’t glamorous or profitable or sexy and because it concerns women, who don’t even regard themselves at important. Politics? That’s what men do, isn’t it?

1) Gabrielle Palmer eloquently makes this point in The Politics of Breastfeeding.

2) Save the Children, which today (15 May 07)  publishes a report on the baby-milk industry, reckons that the total value of baby-milk and baby-food imports is worth almost £16m a year in Bangladesh alone. Source: http://www.guardian.co.uk/business/2007/may/15/medicineandhealth.lifeandhealth] This article is an excellent summary of the marketing tactics used by Nestlé and others to promote formula.


The Boatman's Call cover

At my first Nick Cave gig in 2005, I happened to be standing behind two very drunk fans who began to heckle even before the band had walked on stage. I can’t remember exactly how they phrased it, but their humorous banter went something like ‘get your Bible out Nick, have a good pray. Hallelujah!’ Refraining, but only just, from kneeing them in the bollocks, I contented myself with the thought that Cave must be used to, and even thrive on,  taunts like this. Cave’s unbelieving religious fervour is nowhere better exemplified than in his passion for ‘Amazing Grace.’ On the tourbus, years back, he was known to become physically violent if anyone so much as whispered during the playing of this hymn. He might not ‘believe in an interventionist God’ but he knows his Bible, and to such an extent that his lyrics are saturated in its language: he worships the Bible’s drama whilst rejecting its consolations. Exactly the quality, of the passionate agnostic, that makes him my kinda guy.

Passion, suffering and sexual, hedonistic and holy, is his subject, and there are many examples of songs in the Bad Seeds’ repertoire that have received considerable critical attention for their fusion of depravity and grace. But there is one unassuming song, a ‘stone the builders neglected,’ that is worthy of considerably more attention than it has yet received: ‘Brompton Oratory,’ a quiet wonder nestling at the core of a near-perfect album, The Boatman’s Call (1997).


‘The reading is from Luke 24

Where Christ returns to his loved ones’         Nick Cave

‘But they constrained him,’ Luke tells us in Chapter 24, ‘they’ being the disciples. They are speaking to the risen Christ, whom they still do not recognise, ‘saying, Abide with us: for it is toward evening, and the day is far spent’ (Luke 24: 29). After the vast sorrow of the crucifixion comes this meeting and the King James makes it unbearably sweet. Look at the disciples’ tenderness to Christ: ‘abide’ has to count as one of the most lovely verbs in the English language, deriving from the Anglo Saxon ‘bidan,’ meaning ‘live with,’ ‘remain,’ ‘endure without yielding’ and which is ‘akin to the Latin fidere (trust) and the Greek peithestai (believe).’ (1) ‘Abide’ has more than the force of prayer here because the supplicant is praying without knowing it  and praying to an unknown god at that: the desire is greater than the man who desires. A spontaneous prayer that is both with and without the object of its adoration, it is coupled with the weary beauty of ‘the day is far spent.’ The King James can often catch at the reader’s breath with its poetry, but this phrase ‘the day is far spent’  feels like championship free-diving, like the longest, slowest held breath you have ever taken. In the space of that breath are the distances, the desire for rest, the need to hold the others, hold them and uphold them.

Biblical exegesis isn’t normally my thing, but when looking back at ‘Brompton Oratory,’ it does the song more than justice to read the passage from Luke alongside the erotic lesson delivered by the lyrics. Cave wants his audience to get the references, although he doesn’t demand that they do—even if you do not know and appreciate the poetry of the King James version of Luke 24, Cave does enough in the lyrics to suggest it. But the precise chapter reference indicates that he wouldn’t mind attracting an audience who respond to the Bible as he does because he wants the eroticism of the song amplified as much as possible. Understand the emotional force of the sacrament and the flitting sweetness of Christ’s return and you understand the thirst in the lines that follow on from the reference to Luke:

I look at the stone apostles,

think that it’s alright for some.

And I wish that I was made of stone

so that I would not have to see

beauty impossible to define

beauty impossible to believe.

A beauty impossible to endure:

the blood imparted in little sips,

the smell of you still on my hands

as I bring the cup up to my lips.

Two sacraments fuse here, two Eucharists. Suddenly, the absent ones are present; one in the chalice, one on the uplifted, scented fingers. A prayer has conjured both these presences, a negative prayer: Cave wishes he was ‘made of stone’ and could avoid seeing ‘beauty impossible to believe.’ The force of his longing is such that he asks for it to stop, but it does not, cannot, because it has gained such momentum that it is completely beyond his control. Saviour and the woman’s sex are equivalent sources of desire and desolation. Both return but do not, ultimately, abide.

(1)  http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/bide

[Below are two versions of ‘Brompton Oratory,’ the first being a slightly tongue-in-cheek MTV recording (Cave plays a Casio keyboard on his knees and it all looks a bit wobbly). The second is the album version, set to a fan’s photomontage of stone Christs, angels and apostles, and mercifully complete with the sigh of the original ending: ‘forlorn and exhausted baby/by the absence of you.’   You can also clearly hear the ecclesiastical-sounding organ on the album version, something that Warren Ellis swamps with his violin on the MTV clip.]

This great, flawed novel that I have loved since I was ten years old– weird and warped, sad, penitent and impenitent, northern, aloof, and, above all, fierce– is choked with loneliness and all kinds of passion. It has no characters; not even Jane is a personality. The product of a bursting, terrified, shy mind, Jane Eyre does not know how to talk, and yet it speaks; does not know what to want, and yet it hungers. Rochester, Helen Burns, Mrs Reed, St John Rivers and the rest are not bodies but desires, and the desires are all, ultimately, Jane’s. 

At times it seems as though Bronte’s protagonist wants to be ‘plain and quakerish;’ at times it appears that she gorges on beauty. It’s a pattern of advance and retreat, a spring tide. She fixates on Blanche Ingram’s perfections as much as she does on the blasted beauty of Rochester’s face: she sketches them both, and–she unnerves herself in doing so.  When Rochester desires Jane and wants to prettify her with ‘satin and lace, and roses in her hair,’ she fights back, stubbornly withdrawing into plainness.

Plainness becomes talismanic. She speaks with quakerish fervour and she speaks with obsessive austerity, her words as plain as the ‘grey silk’ dress she insists on wearing. She is right to favour this austerity: the ornate wedding veil (Rochester’s gift) is the one Bertha Mason tears to shreds. Plainness shields her like an instinct. Beauty only combusts.

What is Jane apart from air, air chasing a high and lonely place?  She loses herself on the moor before she finds her family and safety. But in reality, she spends the entire novel out in a kind of storm. Her desires and her intelligence fit nowhere. Gateshead, Lowood, Thornfield, Moor House, Ferndean: she leaves them all, ever the fugitive. Only when Rochester is blinded can he see as she sees, which tells us how much her vision habitually turns in and in on itself. She is inaccessible, destructive, conflicted, witty and punctured. She says: ‘It is one of my faults, that though my tongue is sometimes prompt enough at answer, there are times it sadly fails me in framing an excuse; and always the lapse occurs at some crisis.’ ‘It is one of my faults’; ‘anybody can blame me who likes.’ No desire of Jane’s is ever spent; none diminishes because desire is always accusing desire. It rebounds, echoes and increases. It is Jane’s desire that warps Jane Eyre out of a natural frame, so much so that she even seems to hear Rochester’s blind cries from a hundred miles away. There are no walls in this peculiar novel, even between minds.

‘Hallelujah’ is an infinite song. That’s the conclusion I came to last night as I sat down to Guy Garvey’s excellent hour-long documentary on the subject. Half asleep as I write this, I know it’s infinite because I have a feeling I could continue talking about it forever. Perhaps, in some recess of my mind, I will. Talking ‘Hallelujah’ will serve me well when I’m down in hell; all I’ll need as my get out of Sheol card will be a couple of blogs on ‘Hallelujah’ and the Prince of Darkness will be powerless to resist me. I’ll breeze past St Peter with a snappy rendition of ‘Kung Fu Fighting,’  and before you can say ‘space-time continuum’ Beatrice and Dante will have put the kettle on, I’ll be talking about generous pronouns and Jeff Buckley will be tuning his guitar.

Garvey’s programme was gentle, intelligent and he himself was wonderful when talking about Buckley’s rendition of ‘I Know It’s Over’ in the midst of a live recording of ‘Hallelujah,’ and about the guitar intro Buckley wrote for his version of the song. He was even better than wonderful when he told us that the song is powerful because it uses ‘mantra’ (the word ‘Hallelujah’) and that, writing for Elbow, he uses the mantra idea a lot: listen to ‘One Day Like This’ and you will understand what he’s talking about; by the end of the song, not only will you be singing too, but Dante will have fished out another mug with your name on it, in anticipation of your arrival.

Although Garvey’s show was a real treat (great not to have a presenter who speaks like they’ve been to Presenter Academy) I did feel there were one or two things I wished I’d been there to add. Some talk of pronouns for one thing. Last night, no one mentioned those little functional words and how they deliver the experience of the song to the listener and the singer; how they also allow the song to take on an almost infinite variety of political meaning. The pronouns are powerful, man. Look what happens when I alter them:

She tied me to the kitchen chair,

she broke my throne and she cut my hair,

and from my lips she drew the Hallelujah.


Well, ‘she’ is still OMG sexy, but suddenly the song seems firmly personal. Garvey showed how Cohen’s song really ceased to belong to Cohen the moment it had been released as a record. But if he’d written it like this it would simply have been a lovely conversation you overhear on a bus, say, or in a restaurant, and it would still belong to Cohen. But switch back those pronouns and feel the difference:

She tied you to the kitchen chair,

she broke your throne and she cut your hair,

and from your lips she drew the Hallelujah.


Suddenly someone has broken into your memory, bypassed all the security and has reached the vault where all the precious things are, the ‘Casket of Dreams’ if you like. No guards or weapons can help you and you are utterly defenceless. The speaker can really hurt you now, and he does. But, and this is the amazing thing, he hurts you in a way that makes you thank him and sing back ‘Hallelujah,’ purely or brokenly, depending on how the song finds you at the time.

But the pronouns’ power doesn’t end there. They gift the listener many other things; great sex for one. If you’re lucky enough to have had sex like that, it makes the memory suddenly, overwhelmingly present (‘so that’s what happened, was it? Jesus!’); if you haven’t, it gives you such a powerful sense of being there that for a few glorious seconds you can imagine what that feeling is like. Either way, you experience a kind of ecstasy of imagining. You experience the pain and glory of ‘The Vision of Eros.’ You are more than half a poet.

However, if you’re the right kind of singer or listener, ‘Hallelujah’ can make you more than half a revolutionary too. I’ve already hinted at the political drive in k.d. lang’s interpretation. What happens to me, feminist me, when I listen to the song? One female contributor to Garvey’s programme described how she felt it was a man’s song, because of its use of that pronoun ‘she.’ I found that strange: I have never felt it was a man’s song, as though women were somehow excluded from its ‘Hallelujah.’ Rather, I feel the song is an opportunity to change gender. I become a man when I listen. I am Samson. I am David. I am the strong man tied to the kitchen chair, I am the poet-king. And nobody, the song gives me courage to say, can gainsay my claim–  watch those impish, insurgent pronouns go.

But women, too, can see their own strength reflected in the ‘she’ of the lyrics. How many times, in poems and songs, are women hated and scorned for their beauty or sexual power? Not here. ‘Hallelujah’ is revolutionary in its understanding of female sexual power, just as it also, simultaneously, teaches us about acceptance of sorrow, humiliation and loss. OK, so she cut your hair, Samson, but, you know what? you still got that broken hallelujah, and that’s worth just about everything. Her beauty overthrew you? Christ that hurt but bring it on– give me more– don’t stop–please. You are nothing now, but what a glorious nothing, an infinity of nothing. Submit, let go, be thankful.

‘Hallelujah,’ though, isn’t a political manifesto (no ‘victory marches’ here, no banners, no slogans). But it is poetry. Yet, there’s a paradox. It is only poetry when sung. The lyrics on their own are very fine indeed:

The baffled king composing Hallelujah.

I’ve highlighted the stresses in this line in bold to point out to the poetry anoraks amongst you that this is a deft iambic pentameter line that uses a feminine unstressed syllable at its close in a lovely, breathy way. The line drifts off ‘upstairs, downstairs, somewheres’ at the end, wherever you want it to go. And ‘baffled’ is so just. Overwhelmed by the song, not even understanding what he’s doing or what love is doing to him, the poet-king keeps going, in a state of negative capability.

But the song doesn’t stand up as poetry on its own because the words ache for the melody; dammit, the chord sequence is even described in the lyrics, they’re on such intimate terms. The words, beautiful as they are, need the music to keen properly. More than that, they demand the right interpreter.

‘Hallelujah’ does not render its cover artists magically equal, as Garvey’s programme demonstrated. In fact, the contrary is true–it renders them glaringly unequal. Garvey included many interpreters of the song, but, even he, democrat that he is, still couldn’t help suggesting that there was one supreme singer of ‘Hallelujah:’ Jeff Buckley. All ‘Hallelujahs’ to date lead to him. And the mystery deepens. Cohen’s masterpiece appears to be a bit like the Sword in the Stone: it demands a King Arthur to pull the prize from the rock. Not that Buckley is the only King (Katherine Williams emerges from the programme as a contender) but it does demand a supreme sensitivity in the artist to get ‘Hallelujah’ to fully yield. But to get the song to yield, the artist must first fully yield themselves to it. It’s that thing about risk again, that thing about duende.

So Garvey, here’s a gauntlet. I know you said you’re scared to take on ‘Hallelujah’ (who, after all, wants to end up in the seventh circle of the abyss where Bon Jovi will be doing their tight-trousered ‘Hallelujah’ till kingdom come?) But I know you can take on this song of songs and win. You won’t be able to help it, you little sod. You’re too intelligent, too sensual for that. Go on, give it a go. I dare you.

Buckley does a ‘Hallelujah’ on a fine Smiths song and utterly transforms it. Imagine this inserted into a live version of ‘Hallelujah.’ Or, better still, find Garvey on Listen Again (Radio 2) if you still can.

A link to Elbow’s ‘One Day Like This’:  http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=hooPU2mdsH4

‘I heard there was a secret chord/that David played and it pleased the Lord.’ There. Are there any more perfect lines in all of pop music’s history? I almost don’t need to write about them or the song they come from. I could simply instruct you to sit and contemplate their beauty ‘until ye start as if the sea-nymphs quired.’ That would be enough. But as Guy Garvey, Jeff Buckley, k.d. lang and many others have found, Leonard Cohen’s masterpiece is just too delicious to be left at that. It’s a song that not only aches to be listened to, but aches to be understood and enthused over.

Hallelujah’s depth was all too apparent to me from the moment I came across it for the first time: Jeff Buckley’s superlative, fierce and tender rendering, heard on a compilation tape my now husband made for me back in the first few weeks of our relationship. I don’t remember any of the other songs on that tape. All I remember is ‘Hallelujah.’ Consider that I was in love then like I hadn’t been before. Consider that I might have been especially vulnerable at that moment. But even so, the song’s power was so extreme that there is only one possible explanation for it: duende.

‘I heard there was a secret chord/that David played and it pleased the Lord.’  I heard those lines and began to weep; they cracked me open and broke me. A secret chord? Of course there is such a thing. The idea seemed so powerful because I had always suspected that a ‘secret chord’ existed. In other words, Cohen perfectly articulated an idea I had only ever dumbly sensed: that the beauty of music could be so profound that even God would react to it as I just had: the omnipotent one wouldn’t be able to help it. But there’s more. Actually, what Cohen is suggesting is not just the existence of the secret chord, but also the necessity for the singer or poet to pursue that secret and find it out, no matter what the cost (it’s a ‘broken’ hallelujah after all). The chord is not just a mesmerising possibility but a way of life. Buckley knew that: he lost his life in pursuit of musical purity and intensity. Lang knows it in the way she sings that pronoun ‘she’ in the line ‘she cut your hair.’ She knows the erotic passion and the loss involved, but also the weight of queer history: the song, too, is allowing her to sing of her love for women in such a nakedly erotic way that it it feels like a historical release–from all the secrecy and suffering that used to be involved in being gay. She isn’t singing merely for herself here. In her hands ‘Hallelujah’ becomes the ‘I Have a Dream’ of queer politics.

Lang knows what other great interpreters of ‘Hallelujah’ know: he song is a call to arms, a way and a liberation. Leonard Cohen is a lucky, lucky man that such a song arose in him. And any singer of real duende is lucky when they take on this song, because it will release in them a trueness and sweetness that feels like a pinnacle and a blessing to singer and audience alike.

A link to Buckley’s version is included below.



I am about to write a review for a record that doesn’t exist. White Chalk is the new record by PJ Harvey, and my husband decided to buy it on vinyl. We played it and played it all weekend, thinking ‘this is the strangest thing we’ve ever heard.’ It sounded as though Harvey’s voice was weird, distorted, as though the piano was tinny, wild-west-out-of-tune. ‘Have they slowed her vocal down deliberately?’ we thought. Actually, the sheer strangeness of the sound, given the lyical content of the songs and the Victorian Gothic album cover, seemed perfect. I wrote in an email to a friend that I felt I had been in a dream this weekend, the kind from which you wake up crying ‘without knowing why.’

Actually, of course, the vinyl LP needs to be played at 45rpm, not 33, as we had been doing. Only, there was no indication on any part of the record or sleeve that this was the case. Apart from now feeling rather foolish about the mistake, I’m quite glad of the experience, not least because I haven’t stopped laughing for about the last twenty minutes. But I also feel I managed to somehow access the underbelly of the record: Harvey’s manliness emerged, as did the unbearable sadness and near insanity contained in the songs.

Harvey appears to have mutated now into a Bronte, as her album cover proves: her strange, manly beauty is reminiscent of Charlotte Gainsbourg in Jane Eyre, and the profile shot reminds me of portraits of Emily. That’s why the 33 version of White Chalk seems to show her hand: it’s the nasty dream submerged under the record, the lover mutating into the beloved, destroying herself in the process. It’s Jane becoming Rochester; Cathy becoming Heathcliff; alienated, lonely woman becoming demonic Byronic man.

Oh, and White Chalk at 45 promises to be superb too…