Archive for January, 2010

Mr Grant, we salute you!

January 29, 2010

Well, I couldn’t live here and not go, could I? That would just be rude. 

 

Hughenden Road, Horfield. Much nicer than that nasty bronze down on the waterfront.

On the warpath

January 28, 2010

Published in Diva, September 2008
POLITICS A new generation of gay women is getting ready to storm the hustings for the 2009 election. Kim Renfrew wonders whether Whitehall is ready for them.

‘Lesbian politics.’ Not so long ago, these two words were enough to make governments quake. After decades of suppression, the empowerment of the gay liberation movement from America, combined with an international surge of feminism, created the out, outspoken and sometimes outrageous figure of the militant lesbian. By the mid-1970s, everything, especially the personal, was politicised. You had women who chose the gay way as an explicit rejection of patriarchy, and self-sufficient, separatist communes sprang up, withdrawn from any male contact. There were lesbian-only publishers, record labels, language: ‘women’ became detached from any whiff of the male to become the satirists’ favourite, ‘wimmin’. It seemed for a while that a sometimes glorious, sometimes insane, but always entirely lesbian future was dawning. We had the power not just to change the world, but to be the world.

Fast-forward 20-odd years, and times have changed. Section 28 came and went, along with Greenham Common and its missiles. Aids needn’t be a death sentence. The spectre of the Loony Lefty Lezzie no longer haunts respectable society. In some ways, lesbians have become respectable society: we can get hitched (kind of); we can’t be sacked because of who we sleep with – though we don’t earn as much as our male colleagues; we can raise families, although some MPs still aren’t keen on fatherless children. Militancy doesn’t go down well in our own community any more, either. Look at the petition posted by ‘Angrylesbians’ on DIVA’s website against new film Lesbian Vampire Killers – because it is ‘demeaning to women, and lesbians in particular’. Less than 20 years ago, this would have prompted action — remember The Silence of the Lambs? Now it only attracts hoots of derision.

Lesbians’ own political attitudes are clearly becoming more mainstream. Does this mean that the mainstream is reciprocating by letting us into the corridors of power? Not exactly. Since Labour’s Angela Eagle came out publicly in 1997 – the only lesbian MP to do so since Maureen Colquhoun in 1976 – no-one has followed her example. So, how does it feel to be in such a unique position? ‘I don’t think too much about it,’ says Eagle. ‘It’s been more than 10 years now since I came out, and it’s just an aspect of the work I do. Although, obviously, I try to reflect those views at appropriate times, most recently the IVF vote. It’s a privilege to be able to represent that viewpoint.’

Although Eagle is the lone voice in Westminster, there is hope on the horizon, thanks to a new generation of politically engaged young dykes who link their thinking with their sexuality. One of these is 22-year-old aspiring Liberal Democrat Rachel Hamburger, founder of the Islington branch of Liberal Youth. For her, the connection was forged early on: ‘I remember being very young – before I’d started identifying as gay – and reading about Section 28. It immediately struck a chord with me and, as the Lib Dems were being very vocal on the Section, that really drew me in.’

Hamburger and Eagle both belong the traditionally gay-friendlier parties; perhaps one of the more eyebrow-raising recent developments is our being courted by the Tories, with party leader David Cameron speaking supportively of Civil Partnerships. This is unequivocally a giant leap for the party that, only 20 years ago, introduced Section 28 specifically to counteract ‘pretended family relationships’. Now the Conservatives are casting not just for the pink vote, but also for pink candidates, too. One of the most high profile is the party’s vice chair, Margot James, PPC for Stourbridge. She admits that her party’s LGBT record hasn’t been exemplary, and speaks of ‘the bad old days our party went through with introduction of Clause 28: that was really an attack on our way of life. Now we’re making great strides.’

Not everyone is convinced by the Conservatives’ new inclusive stance. Julia Brandreth is a 38-year-old trade unionist. She says, ‘More Tories than before seem to be falling over themselves to show their gay-friendly credentials. However, what is being courted is the (mainly white, gay male) pink pound. I’m not sure that working-class lesbians, white or black, are being courted by anyone’s political agenda.’ She doesn’t see a place for her beliefs in parliamentary politics. ‘I can’t see myself joining a mainstream political party in the near future,’ she explains. ‘I don’t think they represent the views and interests of anyone who isn’t rich and privileged. To me, the disaster of British politics at the moment is that the whole thing is set up to make people think that they can’t change what’s happening.’ For Brandreth, political engagement is more effective at grassroots level, and is evidence that, for those who feel frustrated with the mainstream, there is still space to get involved.

Although all these women occupy different points on the political spectrum, they all agree on one topic: role models. Or rather, their absence. ‘It’s shocking that we still only have one out lesbian MP!’ declares Brandreth. Since women were first allowed to stand for parliament in 1918, the total number of female MPs ever voted in wouldn’t even half-fill the Commons. Furthermore, according to recent research by the Electoral Reform Society, women occupy just 20% of the seats in Westminster, a proportion that hasn’t changed since 1997. At the rate we’re going, it would take around 400 years to achieve parity. And so few women naturally means even fewer lesbians.

‘There aren’t many lesbians in politics,’ says Hamburger ruefully. ‘And the influence of role models mustn’t be underestimated. It’s difficult when you can’t see anyone that’s like you [in politics]. It’s a bit of a chicken and egg situation.’

In May, Iain Duncan Smith’s (unsuccessful) amendment to May’s IVF bill – which tried to make the ‘need for a father’ an obligation for artificially-conceived children – rammed home the message that role models aren’t just about setting a good example, but also about having a say in the way we’re allowed to live our lives. ‘On the floor of the chamber, lesbians were completely absent from the debate,’ says Hamburger. ‘It could have changed our rights to have children, yet there was not one gay woman who debated the issue from that standpoint. It really struck me just how absent lesbians are from mainstream politics. And what a shame that is.’
‘It’s important that the perspective gay women can bring to society gets properly represented,’ says Eagle, who brought her influence to bear during the run-up to the vote. ‘Behind the scenes, I did a lot of explaining to colleagues that lesbians would be denied treatment, and I didn’t think that was fair. My colleagues in the Labour Party realised that once they’d been able to talk it through with me.’

Visible lesbian politicians can also incite more women to get up and do the same,  and it’s telling that even these politically engaged women don’t mention other lesbians as their inspirations. In fact, only James mentioned Maureen Colquhoun, and then as a cautionary tale – her political career was effectively ruined by the media and her own Labour Party, which offered little support – rather than as a figure to be emulated. Thirty years down the line, can lesbians expect better reception? Hamburger, a part of the generation that has reaped the benefits of legislative and societal shifts, says she’s never encountered homophobia. ‘My experience has been wholly positive from beginning to end. You have to be open about it from the beginning, though, which isn’t easy for everyone. I announced to my mother that if I go anywhere in politics, [my sexuality] will be out there. I’m lucky, because I haven’t had any problems with my family.’

Even the most visible lesbian has a generally positive experience. ‘I don’t think I have experienced homophobia face to face in Parliament,’ says Eagle. ‘I’ve had a few incidents in the constituency – you come across people who aren’t happy with it, or who comment, but actually the response I’ve had gives me a great deal of confidence in people’s general good sense.’ Margot James agrees. ‘I don’t feel there are any issues in the Conservative Party – I feel no sense of any problems.’ Where these two high-profile lesbians do see a bigger problem is from the media. Eagle says, ‘The way the media talk about it sometimes can be a bit irrelevant.’ James expands on that: ‘You get the odd hostile interview. Letters in my local newspaper suggested that, because of my sexuality, I’m not able to advance Cameron’s family agenda.’

In the unions, Brandreth says she sometimes comes up against stereotyped expectations. ‘Sad to say, people often still expect a trade union official to be white, male and straight,’ she says. ‘People are often surprised when I turn up!’ But she is very aware that one point of politics is to change attitudes – on all sides. ‘I think what’s great about the trade union movement is that you meet and bond with people at work who you’d never meet any other way. This changes your and other people’s perceptions.’

The other job of politics is, of course, to make the future a better place than today. And these women, although of very different shades of opinion, all agree that the way forward no longer involves single-issue campaigning, now that the major discriminatory hurdles have been vaulted. The future of lesbian politics will be more – that word again – mainstream. ‘I think that 90% of the issues facing gay women are facing all women,’ says James, ‘And probably 70% of those issues face all people.’

For Brandreth, what’s needed now is a drive towards addressing subtler forms of discrimination against lesbians. ‘A big issue is pay disparity between men and women, which obviously has a disproportionate effect on lesbian couples,’ she explains. ‘It impacts on the larger question of whether legislation, of itself, solves problems. The Equal Pay act was passed in 1970, and yet statistics show that, nearly 40 years later, women’s pay is 80% that of men’s.’ Which, of course, is where the unions come in.

In the period that covers the average life expectancy of a woman in the UK, we have made the journey from being allowed to mark an ‘X’ in a box to fielding out-lesbian candidates. But until we have equal wages, until homophobic bullying in schools has gone, until our parenting skills aren’t under fire, until we stop using the word ‘pioneering’ about women like Eagle, we still have a long way to go. The next generation of lesbian politicians is optimistic about the future of lesbian politics. ‘Perhaps,’ says Hamburger, ‘the first lesbian Prime Minister is just a few years away. Think about the leaps we’ve made in the last decade; if they happen over the next two decades, there’s a chance of it… I’m not naive – I think it’s a possibility.’

Dutch courage

January 20, 2010

Published in Diva magazine, August 2005
HOMOPHOBIC ATTACKS ARE ON THE RISE IN THE CITY FORMERLY KNOWN AS THE GAY CAPITAL OF EUROPE. IS AMSTERDAM AT RISK OF LOSING ITS GAY-FRIENDLY REPUTATION, ASKS KIM RENFREW?

Chris Crain surely couldn’t have imagined, when he was booking his holiday to Amsterdam, that his presence in the Netherlands would have a profound and lasting effect on Dutch politics.

He never envisaged what would happen on the night of April 30th. It should have been a happy end to a great day out. It was Koninginnedag, the celebration of ex-Queen Juliana’s birthday, which transforms the Dutch capital into one big street party. The central Leidesestraat was still busy with revellers in the early hours of Saturday morning when Crain – all six-foot-seven of him – and his boyfriend started walking back to their hotel. Not far from one of the city’s small gay areas, they were holding hands.

They walked past two young men, one of whom spat on them, and called them ‘fucking fags’. Relating his story to the Dutch police later, Crain remarked that his attackers had ‘Moroccan features’ and spoke with accents that didn’t sound Dutch. The two aggressors – yet to be caught -were joined by five others, and a scuffle broke out in which Crain ended up bruised and broken-nosed.

What his assailants didn’t realise was that Chris Crain is chief editor of US gay weekly The Washington Blade. Following the attack, his highly publicised account on the magazine’s website has sparked off something of an identity crisis for the Netherlands, and Amsterdam in particular. In the two months since the incident, Dutch natives have been asking themselves: can Amsterdam still legitimately consider itself the gay capital of Europe? Reports across all media have shown that the events of April 30th weren’t a one-off, and that a growing number of lesbians and gay men don’t feel as safe on the streets as they once did.

A survey conducted by the national LGBT campaigning organisation the COC claims that a third of the city’s queer population feel unsafe walking hand in hand with their partners. The city’s mayor, Job Cohen, recently revealed that there are around 20 cases of homophobic violence reported every year. Twenty cases may sound minimal, but for those who regard the country’s famous liberalism as a benchmark of Dutch society it’s a shock: anti-gay feeling in Holland was something that was unthinkable. The changing tide of tolerance – which has always been about putting up with difference rather than embracing it – also shows in the city council’s drive to clean up its red-light district. Part of this move includes the battle to close down those gay men’s backrooms which fall outside a very narrow area of the town centre – which most of them currently do. No conclusion has been reached yet, and the war of words goes on, with Councillor Anne-Lize van der Stoel most vocally in favour of the shutdown. Surprisingly, she’s a lesbian.

But the fact that Crain described his assailants as Moroccan-looking has added another dimension to the debate. The Netherlands’ Moroccan immigrant population has been in the news since the outspoken film maker and author Theo van Gogh was murdered, allegedly by a Dutch-born man of Moroccan origin with extremist Islamic links. Van Gogh critics argue that he was anti-gay, and became a victim of his own Islamomphobia; he reportedly called Dutch Muslims ‘goat-fuckers’. Since that moment in November last year, heated discussions about what: means to be Dutch and the place of immigrants — particularly Muslims — in Dutch society have been raging, and now the focus has turned to lesbian and gay identity. Many Dutch people blame Turkish and Moroccan immigrants, whether first, second or third generation, for stoking up anti-gay hatred. In 2001, Khalil Al-Moumni, an imam in Rotterdam, described homosexuality as an illness, and on national TV compared gay men to dogs. But other people feel that the whole debate is a vicious circle: immigrant people are disenfranchised by Dutch racism, and retaliate by taking out the frustration on gay people – who perhaps symbolise ‘Dutchness’ or Amsterdam – and so it goes on. The role of the Christian Democrat-led coalition government, whose policies are based in part on biblical teachings, shouldn’t be forgotten, either. Anne Klijsters, a lesbian in her mid-20s, think they should shoulder a lot of the responsibility: ‘People in government at the moment are anti-gay. That’s a big problem. They’re afraid of making policies to protect gays. The country’s really going backwards.’

Klijsters’ view is reflected by many lesbians and gay men in the capital, who speak nostalgically about the past gay glory days. ‘It’s strange: eight years ago, people could hold hands on the street and show affection. Now, they’re discriminated against,’ says architect Jan-Peter de Vries.

Nostalgia for the good old days of gay liberation is so strong that Puck Verdoes, a well-known face on Amsterdam’s scene, recently organised something the city hasn’t seen for many years: an LGBT demo. Staged to coincide with the first IDAHO (International Day Against Homophobia) on May 17th, the kissing and hand-holding protest took place just a couple of hundred metres from where Chris Crain was viciously attacked. Several hundred people showed their solidarity – waving placards that read, ‘Gays are Cool!’, ‘I’m a little bit of everything’ and ‘Transsexual Menace’ – an impressive turnout for an event that was organised in less than a week. Another notable, large presence in the crowd was the media. All the major TV and radio stations attended and the demonstration was the lead story on every news programme that night, proof that the media, at least, is taking the problem of homophobia very seriously.

If anything good has come from the attack on an innocent man, it’s that it has galvanised the LGBT community. On June 9th, the police, COC and Amsterdam City Council announced that they would be working together to combat homophobia. And, just two days before that, a new Dutch-based, international gay rights website, http://www.onemilliongays.nl, was launched with the aim ‘to stand up to protect and preserve gay rights within the ever-growing European Union’.

With the Netherlands taking action to curb its burgeoning homophobia, it seems the Queen isn’t going lose her crown just yet.

Coming face to face with death

January 19, 2010

Published on RNW website, 8 July 2005
The fall of Srebrenica’s 10th anniversary
by Kim Renfrew

Tuzla was the ugliest town I had ever seen.

To get there from Sarajevo, we had to drive for four hours through the mountains, passing half-built – or perhaps half-destroyed – villages still pock-marked with bullet holes from the war which had ended ten years before.

It was winter when we went, and the car skidded and slid through the snow to arrive in a town full of filthy chimneys belching out smoke, and row upon row of austere socialist architecture, crumbling now and well past its prime.

Grim setting
There couldn’t have been a grimmer – or a more appropriate – setting for the International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP) morgue. It’s here that part of the painstaking process of collecting and identifying many of the thousands of bodies of men and boys massacred in Srebrenica in July 1995 takes place.

Pieces in a grisly jigsaw
I’d read about similar places. Zoë Brân, in her book After Yugoslavia, has a chilling description of her visit to Bosnia’s Visoko morgue, also engaged in piecing together the grisly Srebrenica jigsaw. She writes of “the all-pervading stink. I thought I’d prepared myself, but it’s not only worse than I imagined, it’s completely different. The mortuary is filled with an acrid, ammonia smell that lingers weakly in the entrance and gets progressively stronger inside the building. The scent of old death disturbed.”
As I walked through the doors I expected to feel nauseous, but the smell wasn’t as bad as I’d feared. It was there, certainly – a peaty, earthy, sort of sweet smell. If you didn’t know it was the stench of death, it probably wouldn’t be that awful.

Grisly truth
The mortuary building itself looked unremarkable: a series of Portakabins, with rooms leading off a long corridor whose walls are papered with war-criminal Wanted posters and pictures of missing men. But behind such workaday appearances lurked a grislier truth. Through the first door, to my left, was a small room that looked like a regular doctor’s consulting room: plain, clinical, with a white table at centre. On the table a young American woman laid out human remains – discoloured, brown bones that she placed in the vague form of a skeleton. When she’d finished, she took a photograph, picked up the bones, put them in a bag and then started the whole process again with another bag. And another. And another. And another. Her task was both precise and – I thought, though I’m not proud of that thought – very, very boring. And it seemed to be endless.

Never-ending task
In fact, the never-ending nature of her work became even clearer when we went into the room opposite. Our guide – a cool, shaven-headed Bosnian wearing wraparound glasses – told me I should put my coat on; it was stuffy, so I was not keen, but he insisted and I’m glad I did, when he pushed back a big steel door and we walked into what was essentially an enormous fridge. It was in here that the sheer size of the massacre hit you. Finding a comparison for tragedy on this scale will always undermine the impact, whatever words you choose – but it was as big as, and looked like, a DIY superstore. Shelves, reaching up maybe ten metres, lined the walls, each packed with buff packages and grubby white bags, labelled, prosaically, “DNA matter”. The male population of Srebrenica will wait in here until bodies are matched to names, then re-interred later in proper graves.

Intimate, everyday objects
Up to now, all this death – though ever-present – remained kind of abstract. Bones aren’t upsetting because they don’t really resemble people. Brown bags of ‘DNA matter’ aren’t that moving because they’re so far removed from what human beings are. But when we entered the room at the very far end of the corridor, which contained the dead Bosnian Muslim men’s belongings, it all becomes too real. Walking sticks, clocks, spectacles, clothes, shoes, all of them disinterred from mass graves along with the remains of bodies. These everyday objects become an old man uncertain on his feet, a bookish boy squinting over his reading matter, someone’s dad, someone’s lover: sad and intimate reminders that nearly 8,000 people lost their lives in the senseless slaughter, which is no easier to understand a decade on.

As well as these personal effects, there were dozens of books – big, hardback things, like family photo albums – documenting page after page of the men’s clothes and belongings. Dependents of the dead men come here to look through them, hoping to recognize something that once belonged to their relatives. The fact that clothes worn by the men were often home made makes it easier for the women left behind to identify what once belonged to whom.

Cold comfort
The process is slow and laborious, but it seems to be working. In 2002, the year before I saw the Tuzla morgue, just 2000 out of the 7800 dead had been found, exhumed from mass graves in and around the Srebrenica region. Only 200 had been identified. In 2005, a year after my visit, still more remains of the dead men have been located, and the identities of 2079 of these confirmed. Small comfort though it is, it seems likely that one day at least, the surviving relatives will know for certain what happened to their menfolk, and know at last where they are buried.

BADASS & BEAUTIFUL

January 10, 2010

Published in Diva magazine, May 2008 

INTERVIEW Sandra Bernhard, the Michigan motormouth, is revving her rage for a one-off Manchester revival. Words Kim Renfrew

Sandra Bernhard has a reputation. The all-round artist and entertainer is known for being tough, intimidating and no mincer of words. In the past, targets such as Mother Theresa and the Bush children have all fallen foul of her acid tongue.

So it’s a bit of a surprise when the Bernhard I talk to over the phone in New York is charming, discreet and even a little cautious, naming no names and skilfully batting away queries about the Kabbalah (the Jewish esoteric practice to which she is rumoured to have introduced Madonna and Demi Moore). Could it be that the Michigan motormouth has mellowed in her middle years? ‘That’s the last thing I’d have done! You can’t live in this life and be mellow. Day to day, I’m mellow: I love my family, I love my life, my girlfriend [Vanity Fair exec Sara Switzer], my daughter… but when I look outside my window and I see the crap going on, you’d better believe it gets my back up.’

No, that razor edge hasn’t been blunted, and it’s clear that Bernhard still rages at the many inadequacies of the world. And boy, can she talk. She leads me through a passionate tirade against the wars in Vietnam (bloodshed, which ultimately, she says, just enabled us to buy underwear stitched together in the Far East) and Iraq, the current futility of American politics and — the hot topic on the day we speak — the presidential race. ‘We’ve had the same sort of patriarchy running this country from the beginning: white men with a narrow view of the world and all their fears and desires to serve the master, the corporate structure. In theory, I would love the idea of a woman president, but I don’t think Hillary Clinton represents the change we need right now.’

In fact, Everything Bad & Beautiful, the album of her current show, is shot through with politics of every kind. Traditional politics is there, in the imagined meeting between US Secretary of Stare Condoleeza Rice and Rosa Parks, the woman who sparked the American civil rights movement in the 50s after refusing to give up her seat to a white man on an Alabama bus. There’s a guitar-driven feminist rant against the bland – though dangerous – conformism of fashion in Undressed, And there’s also tender, yet impassioned, material like The Flame, addressed to her daughter Cicely, now nearly ten. Motherhood has changed Bernhard’s worldview: ‘Certainly I’m looking to the future,’ she says. ‘The world I want to create for my daughter, and the world I want her to live in.’ And it’s seems that some of Mom’s idealism has already rubbed off: ‘She wants to be a hippy, she wants peace, she wants love, she loves John Lennon…’

Everything Bad & Beautiful is Bernhard’s eleventh record, and her umpteenth show in a career that spans 30 years. There’s something very old-fashioned about the honest, hardworking route to fame that Bernhard followed, playing the clubs, plugging away at a bit of this and a bit of that, climbing through the ranks. The opposite, in fact, of the shallow promises of instant fame and fortune promoted by the likes of Pop Idol and its multitude of copyists, a concept that, unsurprisingly, she has little time for: ‘It’s part and parcel of what I’ve been talking about, this sort of immediacy. You don’t have to work for anything, we’ll just hand it to you and – guess what? – it all comes back to bite you on the ass in the end, because every five minutes there’s somebody new.’ It’s troopers like herself that she really admires. ‘Chrissie Hynde, Marianne Faithfull, Joni Mitchell, Nina Simone, Dusty Springfield, the great voices of the past who were destined to be great singers and artists.’

Destiny, though, also involves a hell of a lot of hard graft, and Bernhard is no shirker. After touring Everything Bad… around the UK last autumn, she’s back at Manchester’s Queerupnorth festival on May 9th, something she’s relishing: ‘I love the place and the people. You Brits are just a whole other breed.’

And, thrillingly, she’s reprising her legendary 1988 work, Without You I’m Nothing. Why? Because she can: ‘The show really put me on the map, and we just thought it would be great to bring out a classic for a new generation. There’s really nothing to say, other than it’s a great show and it touched on a lot of things that are still relevant.’

And for this performer, lesbian and gay audiences have changed immeasurably in the time since Without You… debuted. After all, back in the day, when Bernhard played her all-nighter at The Scala in London, she bemoaned onstage the fact that lesbian promoters were perhaps a little on the stingy side, expecting her to do something for nothing. But now ‘the whole gay experience is completely different. People feel much more comfortable and I think that acceptance in general society has changed people.’

As well as looking back, Bernhard is still being carried forward by her compulsion to create. She’s just started writing a new book, she’s touring, doing some music and TV work, and she clearly adores it all: ‘I love being a performer and an artist. It’s really the most fulfilling thing in the world.’ So, is she ever going to stop, or will she still be at it when she’s 90, held together with ostrich feathers and safety pins, like Marlene Dietrich? ‘Why not?’ she says. ‘But I hope I won’t fall off the stage.’

This picture speaks for us all

January 9, 2010


Prolonged cold period seems to be addling people’s brains. Last night, some larky drunk types stood in the street in the middle of the night yelling and singing a dirty version of ‘Winter Wonderland’. Not funny or clever at any time of day; particularly unhilarious at 3am. When sung again. And again. And again.

This morning, I saw a woman walking down the terrace outside in her dressing gown.

JANE BIRKIN SINGS US FROM SEINE TO SOUK

January 7, 2010

Published Amsterdam Weekly, 24-30 November 2004

It’s apt that Jane Birkin is performing at Carré. The theatre, which reopened on 15 November after a €23 million refurbishment had a ribald start to life – it was originally built as a circus – but over the years it’s become a place for far more decorous entertainment, even gaining the royal stamp of approval along the way.

The 40-odd years of Birkin’s career have taken a not entirely dissimilar path to respectability, from her earliest incar nation as a risqué Chelsea girl to being appointed to the Legion d’honneur (a gong she finally accepted from the French government a couple of years back, after previously refusing it).

The journey from pin-up to favourite eccentric aunt began back in Swinging London, and Birkin’s pedigree from the era is impeccable. Discovered by (who else?) the photographer David Bailey, she’s possibly the prototype model/actress/singer/whatever

She got her first acting role (she’s made more than 70 movies since) in The Knack, but it was in Michelangelo Antonioni’s hymn to pot-smoking, free-loving London, Blow-Up, that she made 1966 a landmark year in UK cinema by becoming that nation’s first onscreen, full-frontal nude (blink, though, and you’ll miss it).

Her love life also kept her in the gossip columns from the moment she married James Bond composer James Barry at the age of 17. Yet it was when love and cinema, collided that Birkin really shot to stardom, particularly in France, which would become her adoptive home.

She left her native London for Paris in 1968 to land a part in the film Slogan opposite the complicated figure of Serge Gainsbourg – Renaissance man. musical genius and chain-smoking drunk. After an inauspicious first meeting (she called him “Serge Bourgignon” to his face, having no clue who he was and knowing no French), the pair soon became lovers and were inseparable for the next 12 years.

Birkin eventually left Gainsbourg in 1980 when his drinking, the late nights, and the intimate documentation of their lives got too much: “Nous sommes mythiques,” Gainsbourg said of their very public relationship. And yes, she is pretty close to a living legend.

But those 12 years were ones of remarkable creativity. Birkin inspired and recorded some of her lover’s finest songwriting, from the proto-concept album Histoire de Melody Nelson to her Ex-fan des Sixties (as well as inspiring, in her time, both the tribute band Baby Birkin and Hermes’s most coveted handbag).
But if you only know one thing about Jane Birkin, it’ll be ‘Je t’Aime… Moi Non Plus’, the filthy-chaste duet she and Gainsbourg recorded – with gloriously smutty appropriateness- in ’69. The song immediately caused a furore with its orgiastic moans set against a hypnotic church-organ grind, and was predictably banned.

For that, we can (if we believe music business lore) thank this country’s royal family. Queen Juliana had financial interests in Philips, Gainsbourg’s label, and legend says that when she heard about the scandal the disc was causing she ordered it to be dropped immediately. Naturally, this guaranteed that the record would become a timeless favourite, and 35 years later it can still raise the roof.

But if you think that French pop in general – and Gainsbourg in particular- is just lift music for lounge lizards, then you should hear Arabesque, the album of North African interpretations of his songs that Birkin- now, astonishingly, 58 – has been touring with since 1999 and brings to the Carré on Monday.

She’ll be accompanied by some extraordinary musicians. Djamel Benyelles has worked with the king of rai, Khaled (coincidentally, the first act to play the revamped Carré last Wednesday), and his plaintive violin shadows Birkin’s vocals, alongside Aziz Boularouy’s magical percussion work and Moumen’s haunting voice. Together, they transport Gainsbourg’s compositions from the Seine to the souk, lending them an elegiac quality.

Birkin’s fragile voice, somewhere between schoolgirl and schoolmarm, is never fully French yet not quite English either. Nearly 15 years after the songwriter died, and nearly 25 after Birkin left him, you still get the sense of a woman mourning a lost love she can’t quite give up. Her vulnerability makes the songs valedictory: I defy anyone to hear her ‘La Javanaise’ – an a cappella version sustained by a complex internal rhythm – and remain unmoved. It’s so intimate that you feel you’re intruding on someone’s private grief.

Yet amid the sadness there’s a sense of rejuvenation: North African music was one of the few areas that genre-busting Gainsbourg didn’t master, and Arabesque takes his songs off in new directions years after his death.

With racial tension boiling over, and seemingly no other conversational topic in Amsterdam besides the North African population, Birkin couldn’t arrive at a more fitting moment. For the city to celebrate North African culture instead of treating it as a suspect package will be as refreshing as a sip of mint tea.

And I even want to think – without sounding woefully naïve, I hope – that a Carré full of allochtonen and autochtonen, all there to listen to music at its multi-culti melting pot best, could work its magic and do its small bit to heal the rift.

Fasten your seatbelts

January 3, 2010

It’s going to be a bumpy blog.