In the past week a relatively exotic bloom has been pushing its way up through the midden of our national media.
The fugitive plant in question turns out to be feminism, never entirely absent from public discourse in the last quarter-century, but never terribly conspicuous either. Suddenly, though, the newspapers are full of the 40th anniversary of the first Women's Liberation conference. Germaine Greer's – I was going to write "seminal", but perhaps this is not quite the mot juste – The Female Eunuch has just celebrated its fourth decade in print, and Ms Greer has been lambasted by her fellow Australian writer Louis Nowra for propounding a thesis that was "hopelessly middle class" and misogynistic. As if to show that this is not merely a nostalgia fest conducted by the bra-burners of 1970, considerable fuss has attended the publication of two books, pictured far right, about the state of feminism, Natasha Walter's Living Dolls: The Return of Sexism and Kat Banyard's ominously titled The Equality Illusion: The Truth about Men and Women Today.
And what exactly is the state of feminism? The problem, as Joan Smith acknowledged in a piece in last week's issue of this newspaper, has essentially been the same since the profoundly oppressive consequences of the Sixties sexual revolution began to kick in: the difficulty that women have in defining a space to be themselves somewhere between the contending forces of Puritanism and exploitation. If there are two factors that have consistently undermined this search they are, first, that the most successful woman of the age – Mrs Thatcher – sustained her rise through what were, effectively, masculine techniques, and, second, the invariable habit of certain feminists – at any rate the ones I met in the mid-1980s – of having their cake and eating it too.
Male bluster was frowned on, naturally, but somehow innocuous timidity wouldn't do either. You couldn't win, because the rules were always being changed on the arbitrary whim of the game-planner.
On the other hand, the existence of a hulking vacuum in society that only feminism can fill was brought home to me last weekend when, while waiting for a long-delayed flight at Belfast International, I started taking an interest in the couple on the seats opposite. They were aged about 20: a wooden-looking boy and a rather charming girl, solicitous of her beloved's welfare, who kept on feeding him crisps. Five minutes later, I looked up to find the girl reading Cosmopolitan while her slack-jawed consort rifled through the Nuts "Boobs special". A relationship built on the foundation of post-modern irony? Or one bludgeoned into insensibility by the steady drip of sexist crap? You sometimes feel that what we really need in this struggle is a few fire-bombed "gentlemen's clubs" and desecrated top shelves.
The news that the television companies – ITV, Sky and the BBC – have now defined the format of the three 90-minute programmes that will pit our political leaders against each other live on prime-time has produced intense speculation as to how the three of them will get on. My own view is that whatever advantage Labour can claw back in the opinion polls by then will be entirely negated by the spectacle of Messrs Brown and Cameron squaring up to each other. Not to put too fine a point on it, Mr Cameron is going to wipe the floor with Mr Brown, just as William Hague, some years ago, used to give Tony Blair the run-around at Prime Minister's Question Time.
There are two reasons for this. The first is that Mr Cameron's Oxford Union debating style is a horribly effective weapon when brought to situations in which form tends to take precedence over content. To put it another way, whatever Mr Brown may have to offer in the realm of policy will be swept aside by that fatal political desideratum, style. The second reason is that Mr Brown is Scottish. The degree of antagonism between English electors and their gnarled, boreal counterparts is not made enough of by analysts, but it is one of the most potent forces at work in contemporary politics. There would, after all, hardly be a Labour government without its tartan contingent, while the "West Lothian question" – why can a Scottish Labour MP vote on English domestic issues while an English Conservative can't return the interference? – has never been satisfactorily addressed. I fear that Mr Brown – dogged, repetitive, shifty and above all Scottish – hasn't a chance.
Still with Gordon Brown, there was an intensely disillusioning moment on Tuesday morning when the Eastern Daily Press printed extracts from Andrew Rawnsley's The End of the Party. These had nothing to do with episodes of alleged bullying, but had an exclusively local interest, in particular Mr Brown's holiday in, or near, Southwold in Suffolk, in the summer of 2008. At the time, the Prime Minister's choice of this delicious old-world seaside town was made much of by commentators, as seeming to demonstrate his down-home domestic side. But, according to Mr Rawnsley, the holiday was entirely Mrs Brown's idea, chosen "to suggest that the Prime Minister was on the same wavelength as Middle Britain".
Worse, the scheme had to be "imposed" on her "protesting husband". Meanwhile, an anonymous source claims that Mr Brown told a friend: "I don't even know where it is." He is thought to have "hated every minute of it and couldn't wait to get back to Scotland". Naturally these allegations have been stoutly denied by Downing Street, but the testimony of the local taxi drivers summoned to drive visitors from Norwich Station to the Brown bolt-hole at Shadingfield Hall, Beccles, suggests that his trips to Southwold were fairly minimal. Of the many betrayals in the past three years – one thinks of the havoc wreaked on the country's education system – this is among the worst.
Together with my 14-year-old son, Benjy, I spent an instructive three hours staked out in front of BBC4's Metal Britannia (to be repeated tonight) – almost as good in its way as the prog-rock extravaganza of Christmas 2008. There, in all their grimy, unwashed, leather-jacketed glory were the ensembles that one remembered from teendom – Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, Uriah Heep – not to mention the noxious weeds bred up in the rank 1980s garden occupied by what was known as the New Wave of British Heavy Metal. This interest in loud music played by people with long hair is not, of course, merely aesthetic. It is partly sociological – the fundamental questions being: what sort of people like this, and why do they like it?
The 1970s stereotype of the heavy-metal fan was that of a hairy orc, who in his wilder moments was capable of swapping chicks and bikes for goats' heads and Satanism. Consequently I was relieved, not long back, to come across a survey suggesting that loud, fast, ugly blues-rock is actually the intelligent young person's music of choice. This would square with another stereotype that could be seen roaming around Oxford University in the early Eighties – the "northern chemist", with his flowing locks, Adidas bag and "Bat Out Of Hell" sweatshirt. The other thing about heavy metal – much the same could be said of pornography – is that it contrives to be both frankly hilarious and deeply sinister. Certainly the sight of Ozzy Osbourne at the 2002 Party at the Palace, at the conclusion of which he muttered the words "God Save The Queen", was one of the funniest things ever seen on television.
The remote Hebridean island of Hirta, on the St Kilda archipelago, is shortly to get its first public toilet, according to a report. In response to an increasing number of trippers, the National Trust for Scotland has announced that it will be spending £400,000 on converting the island's former manse into a visitors' centre with that vital amenity, a lavatory. The local ferryman welcomed the move: "There is no shop. All our passengers take packed lunches and drinks for themselves. It is very basic."
Naturally, the encroaching grip of civilisation is a wonderful thing, but a small part of me resents this intrusion and wonders why the plumbers have to be sent to Hirta. Couldn't those caught short just skip behind a rock? There are not so many places beyond the beaten track these days. Why sanitise those that remain? It was all uncannily reminiscent of a family walk along Hadrian's Wall 30 years ago, when a coach suddenly loomed out of the murk and deposited a gargantuan American couple festooned with cameras, one of whom remarked, in the rich accents of the Mid-West, that "Goddamn, it was some kind of fortafee-cation". Never mind public toilets on Hirta. I don't suppose Hank and his kind would settle for anything less than a Travelodge.