Joan Smith: The lights are on but I'm in the dark

NHS lets women down
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The Independent Online

"Is this it?" asked a friend as we walked into Martin Creed's entry for the Turner Prize at Tate Britain on Tuesday evening. We were standing at the edge of a large, empty room, with the lights flicking on and off every few seconds, and I was pleased with myself for grasping, without checking the label on the wall, that this was indeed it.

At least it didn't take up much of our time, unlike Mike Nelson's installation, The Cosmic Legend of the Uroboros Serpent, where we became trapped by the crowd in what felt like a pretty faithful replica of an aisle in a DIY store. I especially liked the fact that, just like in a real shop, the assistants are nowhere in sight.

The only jarring note was the appearance of the other visitors. You don't find many customers in kitten heels and velvet evening cloaks in a DIY store. I had an even more acute sense of voyeurism while watching Richard Billingham's video of his alcoholic father in bed, but questions about class, and the difference between observation and exploitation, didn't seem to trouble anyone else at the party that followed the preview of this year's short list. Earlier, the debate had centred instead on the age-old subject of the nature of art, with the painter Edna Weiss declaring that she had mistaken Nelson's installation for a storeroom. Weiss nominated the ice-cream van outside the gallery for the prize, a thought echoed by my friend who mused that he might enter his bedroom next year. Dave's Bedroom 2002 sounds a plausible candidate, although I think the judges might like something a bit more suggestive of the complexity of contemporary masculine experience, such as Am I Sleeping Beautifully?

Artful disorder or studied vacancy are the things to aim for, both of which confuse observers with their demand for a counter-intuitive response. The natural reaction to an empty room with the lights flashing on and off is to go and do something else; I know it's supposed to symbolise Creed's refusal to fill the world with clutter, but neither the idea nor the work is remotely engaging. This is not, I hasten to add, because I think "real" art consists of old masters. There are plenty of great artists whose work I loathe, from Tiepolo and Canova to the pre-Raphaelites. The problem is how to mount a critique of any cutting-edge modern artist without appearing fogeyish; it has become almost impossible to trust your instincts without sounding like Brian Sewell. Yet the vast majority of today's artists will deservedly be forgotten in 100 years' time and we are far more likely, at any given moment, to be looking at the equivalent of tomorrow's dusty saleroom relics than the Rembrandt de nos jours.

Such scepticism is a good starting point. But it is easier to go with the crowd than question the apparently unmediated working-class experience in Billingham's film or point out the perversity of Nelson's drably mimetic vision. "I thought it was much better than last year," someone remarked loftily as we were leaving, although he didn't explain why. In fact the main topic of conversation at the party was the other events going on that evening. The hot ticket was a bash at the achingly cool Delfina Studios in Bermondsey, so of course I ended up in a marquee full of model dinosaurs at London Zoo. You couldn't call it art, but at least the lights stayed on.

At Kathy Lette's party a couple of evenings later, I had a long talk about the war in Afghanistan with Bianca Jagger. She asked whether I'd been following the debate in the US media about torture, which has hardly been reported in this country. I have and it's jaw-dropping stuff: a Newsweek columnist recently reflected that "in this autumn of anger, even a liberal can find his thoughts turning to ... torture". I have to say I never find my thoughts tending in that direction, although the writer went on to say he was not personally advocating the use of "cattle prods or rubber hoses" on terrorist suspects who refuse to talk. I suppose we should be grateful for small mercies.

The Fox News Channel has asked viewers whether law enforcement officers should be allowed "to do anything, even terrible things" to get information. On CNN's Crossfire programme, a conservative commentator went even further and asked whether torture might not be the lesser of two evils. At this rate, it can't be long before General Pinochet is on the phone to President Bush, offering his expertise with electrodes and cattle prods.


Abortion has been legal for more than three decades, yet the NHS still fails to provide a proper service. Guidelines say that women seeking a termination should see a gynaecologist within five days, but the first audit of NHS services shows that this does not happen in a third of clinics. The audit also suggests that one woman in four risks acquiring an infection after the procedure.

More women than ever (180,000 a year in England and Wales) are having abortions. Obviously there is a need for better education about contraception, but it's hard to resist the conclusion that patients are being given a bad deal because of the unspoken assumption that the NHS shouldn't make abortion too easy. If that is the case, it isn't working. Somewhere between a quarter and two-fifths of women under the age of 45 have had an abortion, and they deserve a safer, more efficient service.

A TV researcher telephoned me last week, and invited me to take part in a new programme for couples who aren't getting on, to discuss their problems with a panel of experts. I was being approached, she explained, in my capacity as an authority on how to have a happy divorce – an expertise I wasn't previously aware I had.

It wasn't until after I'd turned her proposal down that I realised I could have had a lucrative new career as a TV agony aunt. But the only really useful piece of advice I can think of was passed on by a friend ages ago: "Leave him (or her). Get a car."