Ladybeard: A New Kind of Women’s Magazine?


Sunday morning was a nice morning, if you were situated under the right bit of sky. I happened to be, and, in the spirit of making the most of the day, was subjected to breakfast in the garden. As croissant-crumb flying and paper flapping ensued, it became clear fairly quickly that the only things destined to actually make the most of a day like this were large wind turbines. Still, Vitamin D was pouring into the pores of selected lucky Britons, and, if you squinted carefully, life looked a little bit like The OC.

Things got even better when, peering past a mug-cum-paperweight and clinging onto my skirt, now a loyal servant to the God of Exhibitonism,, I read the Why We’re Watching column in the Observer Magazine. This featured Kitty Drake and Sadhbh O’Sullivan, the creators of Ladybeard, a fledgling feminist magazine currently fundraising on Kickstarter to bring out a first issue to “fight fire with fire”, offering a beautiful and interesting alternative to women’s lifestyle magazines currently found on the shelves.

I have read said women’s magazines, and their teenage equivalents, since I was relatively young. I liked the convivial atmosphere generated by Mizz, some curious friends and a packet of onion rings after school. The problem pages were dutifully dissected, along with the latest brace-wrenching-out-shining-adolescent-teeth delight of the “cringe section”. It became customary for us to refer to the endlessly mysterious and marginally gross opposite sex as whichever term was in, vogue with our Vogue of the time. The term “lads”, the favourite of Shout, was generally the most popular.

No doubt these magazines inflicted small amounts of psychological bruising to my delicate sensibilities. I don’t think I’d have been as aware of weight had I not devoured so many glossies bulging with pictures of women wearing shoes miraculously wider than every visible section of their leg. Nevertheless, I will always thank these mags for their provision of health, puberty and contraception advice. I don’t think the dawn of periods would have been quite as easy to navigate had not a Tampax-promotion-disguised-as-feature reached out a comforting hand.  Similarly, given that sex education in girls’ schools seemed to be nothing more than a few shifty sessions in which it became clear that another one of your classmates’ cherries had popped, those helpful descriptions of contraception methods were a godsend.

Now, a little older, and less centred on finding instructive photographs of a curvy girl (someone just like me!) on the beach wearing her prescribed print tankini, I have longed for a magazine to pass around among my friends in the same way. Cosmopolitan was a friend for some time, until I realised that the crab, starfish and rocking cowboy were all basically the same position and I no longer needed to pay for new issues. This overkill really does extend to questionable places; after reading Cosmo’s advice to place a mushy banana, um, there, I was suddenly filled with the irrepressible urge to read Good Housekeeping at high speed, where bananas are used only with granola, breakfast yoghurt, or in the treatment of veruccas.

Elsewhere, I covet Stylist on a weekly basis, but as a non-London dweller, clicking on links on a website and duly sharing them on Facebook doesn’t have quite the excitement of that past onion ring daze. I am considering a relocation based on this principle, but would quite like something to flick through for the time being.

Ladybeard has similar drawbacks — still in its early stages, the production team are be investigating university towns in which the magazine could be distributed. Still, the first issue will be print only, which ensures that it has the right sort of allure: you can read it with wet hands in the bath, actually follow the recipe on the page without the fear of whipping cream splattering across a laptop and, best of all, you can physically swop it with your friends. Amazing. Swopping is far better than sharing on Facebook, no matter what the 21st century says. Hopefully at some stage, it will make it somewhere near me. And you, if you’re interested.

Thinking back, I liked teen magazines because they told me what to do. Growing up was a complex mission of trying to do the acceptable whilst elders glowered down and called it unacceptable. Numbered guides to leg waxing, eye brow shaping, and “lad”ensnaring offered a seductive glimpse of the adult world. Now supposedly adult(ish), I feel far more interested in breaking the rules than I really ever did in my teens.  Sort of like Hermione Granger when she becomes rebellious after everybody else. I’d like to read pages of suggestion rather than instruction, and tousle with that great question: how to be a woman. Now if anyone wanted to provide an illustrated, step-by-step guide to that (complete with free gift), I would be immensely grateful.

Best Settings for Detective Stories

The thriller writer's best friend: confined transport arrangements
The thriller writer’s best friend: confined transport arrangements

Euphoria reasserted its position in my emotional pantheon this week, following a text from my mum that read: “New Foyle’s War on, Sam looks different, you could watch on ITV catch up.”

And watch it I did. Euphorically. There really is no greater comfort than listening to Honeysuckle Weeks discussing a tin of Spam with her compelling new husband, or watching Michael Kitchener glowering at someone in uniform, every syllable leaving his mouth weighed down with that noble air of social responsibility.

Like his Alex Rider novels, the setting of Anthony Horowitz’s Foyles War is wish fulfilment; the romance, secrecy and drama of second world war Britain, horrors removed, is an ideal stage on which to live out fantasies of espionage and heroism.

Inspector Morse, apparently floating over the roofs of Oxford.
Inspector Morse levitates over the roofs of Oxford.

Setting is of course key in these tales of crime and punishment. Take the Inspector Morse and Lewis series. The dreaming spires and secret-swathed colleges make for late night indulgence so gluttonous that the traditional accompanying tea and biscuit to such a scenario becomes almost redundant.  These ancient learning halls also facilitate the presence of Lewis’s serious, misplaced, and curious young Sergeant Hathaway, (James, not Anne), who would probably flail in the waters of most other television shows, thereby denying all of the crossword, architecture or theology obsessed the pleasure of a truly almighty crush.

In Britain we’re passionate about crime; not just on television, but in its literary forms too. I often notice people murmuring things like, “Honestly, I could make millions if I had time to sit down and write a story like that’”, in reference to the latest thriller. Indeed, my parents have long been ruminating over the potential of the starting point “I was taking out the bins one night, just the same as every other night, and then I saw a dead body lying next to the cat litter tray.” (Why we have a cat litter tray still in the garden remains an unsolved mystery.)

Wish fulfilment doesn’t just underpin the plotlines of these tales; it exists in the minds of Britons across the country, all mentally outlining but never penning that great addition to genre fiction.

To help all those poised, biro-bearing and royalty  hungry, over an expectant white paper pad, here are some ideas for the best places to set that bestselling mystery.

1) Rural North Wales

Mountainous, bleak, sea-shrouded, patriotic, arty, bardic – North Wales is a relatively overlooked gem of detective fiction potential. Those claustrophobic village controversies, the lifeblood of Midsomer Murders, could be created en masse, whilst the slightly farcical, cake-devouring sweetness of middle England would be lost in this bleak landscape. Just think about the characters: a lonely farmer, a woman who relies on dream-catchers for life support, a secret wrapped up in the Welsh language, never to be told.  Welsh crime novels really could start taking off.

2) Durham

Hailed as the Oxbridge of the North, Durham offers the mystery sparked by the grandeur of the stone walls of Oxford’s Magdalen, whilst bearing a distinctive charm of its own. Indeed, the town and gown complex exists here; the beginning of a seemingly endless yarn in detective story plot potential. From the cathedral green, looking down into the valley, Durham provides the kind of rugged, pagan experience those upmarket Oxford bars can’t supply. A perfect setting for the lonely hippy to meet his downfall, or the rune expert to fall from the highest peak of the Cathedral tower.

3) Barge Holidays

1940s crime novel does no favours for narrowboat holidays.
1940s crime novel does no favours for narrowboat tourism

Agatha Christie was, of course, onto something with the Orient Express:  the thriller knows no better friend than confined transport arrangements. Racking my brains, I realised that canal boat travel is the most compelling parallel in Britain today. In a highly amusing article in the Telegraph last year, Neil Tweedie said, in reference to his canal boat holiday “Like it or not on the canal boat, tempus doesn’t fugit.” And when tempus doesn’t fugit, one is left with dark brooding on the minutiae of your thoughts, a claustrophobic family setting, and a series of tense engagements with other canallers. The dark rippling water and grimy riverside pubs also paint the picture nicely.

4) The New W.I

I have long been tempted to join the Shoreditch Sisters, the groovy brand of the Women’s Institute for cool, edgy women. The circle itself provides a wondrous setting for intrigue, backstabbing (with or without the use of knitting needles), and ill-fated romances. The allure of Foyle’s War lies, in part, in its costumes. I imagine the costumes in this scenario would be a fun-fest of hip, like flipping through a procrastination-enhancing fashion mag. Murderous bliss.

The Rise of the Sugar Daddy

Photo by D. Sharon Pruitt
Photo by D. Sharon Pruitt

Bargains take place in all relationships. The phrase “give and take” is ingrained in most psyches in the nursery school sandpit, or during the sharing of Friday sweets. As time goes on, this comes into play romantically – the buying of cinema tickets and popcorn are discussed squeamishly in front of a bored steward, and nights are a fitful insomnia of compromise as one is woken by the landing light the other just can’t sleep without. But what about when relationships start subscribing to a more extreme type of transaction?

Sugar Daddy culture hit the news this week, following the discovery that 28% of South African schoolgirls are HIV positive, whereas only 4% of the boys were identified with the infection. The country’s Health Minister, Aaron Motsoaledi was quoted by the Sowetan as saying: “It is clear that it is not young boys who are sleeping with these girls. It is old men. We must take a stand against sugar daddies because they are destroying our children.”

The exchange of sex for money and glamorous gifts, although not a new phenomenon, has been largely attributed to the consumerist boom in urban South Africa. Expectations of glamour are cited as generating a certain kind of relationship. A relationship whose focus is the acquisition of macho power for men, and drinks and cellphone money for the Sugar Babies involved.

If these are the sinister consequences of the rise of the Sugar Daddy in South Africa, should we be more worried about the portrayal of such relationships in Britain?

Some women’s magazines seem to actively promote the concept, running articles like “Six Ways to Snag a Sugar Daddy”. Such pieces sell the role of Sugar Baby as a brand of feminism, targeting women reasonably in charge of their sexual destiny, and apparently keen to disregard any heavy emotional ties a relationship may bring.

Sally, a married working mother, tells me that this desire may be a consequence of women being overwhelmed by juggling a job and a family; successful career women who have come to find that “having it all” is a case of “having too much to do”. She points out that although these women hold responsible professional positions, many find they are stunted domestically by entrenched and hard-to-eschew gender expectations. Housework may be technically equally divided, but Sally found that the “ticking over” of the home – hunting for a PE kit late at night or sending that card to Aunt Agatha in hospital – still ended up being done by her. In light of this, the idea of a man swishing about a credit card and purchasing lingerie (that definitely isn’t either polka dot or from M&S) can become very tempting.

Surely this sort of temptation is borne from fantasy though? Indeed, it appears that the concept itself is rooted in wish fulfillment. Talking to university friends, one law student brought up the idea of the young muse and the older man as another manifestation of the Sugar Daddy and Baby model.

disgraceThink of David Luries, JM Coetzee’s protagonist in Disgrace. His fascination with Melanie is an ego massage, designed to combat his dwindling sexual allure to women his own age. “Overnight he became a ghost. If he wanted a woman he had learn to pursue her, often, in one way or another, he had to buy her.”

But what does Melanie see in Lurie? Having left behind the halls of learning not so long ago, I can remember assessing the “sexy dad” potential of some lecturers from behind a pile of notes. This was done in jest, but friends did remark that the Sugar Daddy principal is perfect for young women who are looking for intelligent conversation. Indeed, the Telegraph reported earlier this year that Cambridge University was the top University for Sugar Daddy dating.

For the female student who comes to university looking for sophistication and excitement, the dopey smile of a nervous date offering to split a portion of doughballs in Pizza Express might be a little disappointing. The promise of red wine in an actual house may be tempting, especially if it comes with the promise of a nice wodge of cash. If Channel 4’s Fresh Meat is anything to go by, I doubt relationships like this generally work out in the long run, garlic-butter breath and bad-kissing-technique free as they may be at the time.

Sugar Daddy relationships are based on fantasy. And relationships that are based on fantasy rarely work out in real life. (Think back to how your Disney Princess aspirations turned out.)

But can a real, loving and committed relationship successfully contain elements of the sugar daddy fantasy?

Modern Sugar Daddy relationships seem to play on gender roles now outdated in Western culture. They place a strong emphasis on power dynamics, which, if we face it, is something that all relationships boil down to in the end.

Lots of couples flirt with power and gender dynamics – just take a look at the magazine articles, aimed at both men and women, on how to make your sex life just that little bit more Fifty Shades of Grey. For some people, relationships can be a game, a game in which the women involved are able to wander happily around in a corset one night, and the next night come home from their highly paid job to find the hoovering done and a chummy bowl of Pringles proffered by last night’s corset appreciator.

This game only remains fun, however, if the fantasy stays a fantasy, and both party knows that they hold an equal standing in the relationship.

There are some of us who are in a position to flirt with outdated gender expectations. There are indeed some of us who can take those gender expectations, flip them around, and gorge on the fruits of our own innovation.

Nevertheless, Julie Bindel’s recent article, “Why Fun Feminism should be Consigned to the Rubbish Bin”, was thought-provoking. She cited the new brand of fun, mainstream feminism, as channeled by writers like Caitlin Moran, to be harmful to the collective movement, and damaging to some of the most vulnerable women in the world. I am a great subscriber to modern feminism, but I can also see that Bindel has a point. Accepting stereotyped gender behavior for the white middle classes has a wider effect on the expectations of larger numbers of people.

This applies to flirting with the Sugar Daddy concept too: if some women are vulnerable enough to be used for sex by men, and if some men believe that they have to buy things for women to look good for their friends or find company, then the Sugar Daddy scenario clearly has the potential to cause.

The Sugar Daddy concept manifests itself in different ways; within relationships, through internet transactions, in fantasies in the lecture hall. It’s clear that there can’t be one rule for all. Nevertheless, I think participants should be issued with a manual before they decide to play. And, as such a publication has not yet been provided, we should think long and hard about playing. These exchanges are clearly not a game for everyone.

The Sad Demise of the Love Letter

Photo by Rosemary
Photo by Rosemary

“I love you, with all that I have.” A relatively cheering message to flash up on your computer screen, right? Especially if you’re at work, sitting next to Sassy Sophia who, despite constantly professionally outsmarting you, is too much of a humourless control-freak to get a date. Ha ha ha.

The romance fades slightly, however, when you realise that the message has been plucked from and your admirer is either a) pervily rubbing their hands together in glee or b) functionally illiterate.

Is this the destiny of love in the digital age? Death to papery, tangible outpourings of yearning? A frenzied click before swiching to the online shopping order? I’d like to say no –I’ve spoken to a few friends who have been blessed with an earmarked and curling love letter in their time – but written declarations of love certainly aren’t encountered as often as they once were.

Perhaps this is why the story of the Australian physicist’s online proposal gained such attention recently. Brendan McMonigal popped the question to his girlfriend in the form of a scientific paper. The document was posted to the site Reddit, incurring international “Isn’t-he-lovely-ing”. Entitled Two Body Interactions: A Longitudinal Study, it outlines the development of their relationship, with a graph plotting the couple’s happiness over time ratio (upward trend, thank goodness). Not a love letter, per se, but some sort written effort to declare passionate feelings. I approve.

Christie (girlfriend and fellow physicist in Sydney) also approved, it seems; the proposal was accepted.

I think I would have been even more pleased by the tale had the proposal remained in the hands of the receiver, albeit whilst she clutched her lab coat sleeves in surprise, or projected one of those eye- wash lab fountains into the air as a mark of jubilation. A sort of end-of-Mamma-Mia meets love-in-a-lab celebration.

Don’t get me wrong, I do understand that if your boyfriend was original, cool, and clever enough to propose to you like that, you’d want to share it with the world. I’m just not sure that the digital world is a very benevolent nurturer of true love.

Returning, as I do so often, to, it’s clear that internet loving is a breeding ground for immediate, disposable affection.

So many people are beginning relationships on Facebook these days that it seems essential to lurk there late at night running through a Spotify playlist carefully designed to attract romantic attention.Once a relationship is secured, Facebook plays Cupid between the two of you and your followers, providing a brand of relationship PR like no other.

Sending even a private romantic message on Facebook poses problems. It’s hard to concentrate on your one-and-only with the constant jostle of green chat dots reminding you of all the other fish in the sea. Typing an intimate message on email may seem more personal, but words can still be erased and perfected, edited over time; moments of sincerity whitewashed over by the clatter of keys.

Love letters should be revisited because they are personal and private. They can be kept forever at the back of a drawer, an eternal record of an emotion at a certain point in time. It doesn’t matter if the drawer also contains a defaced picture of the person concerned, or the debris of the condom wrappers you cheerfully tore open with their successors. As a friend pointed out, no matter what happens in the relationship, one will always be able to hold on to that record of love. It is proof, if you like, that you weren’t completely crazy.

Missives like those of Katherine Mansfield to John Middleton Murry pin down the exactly why love letters work.

Katherine Mansfield and John Middleton Murry
Katherine Mansfield and John Middleton Murry

My love and my darling. It is ten minutes past eight. I must tell you how much I love you at ten minutes past eight on a Sunday evening, January 27th 1918.

This attention to the moment just doesn’t feel the same with emails. With an inbox lying in front of you, everything moves so quickly that the moment gets lost in the constant flurry of activity. Letters command a pause; they command an audience. Flicking through my collection of love letters in which this one of Mansfield’s is included*, it became very clear that, well, flicking was not an option. It’s almost unnerving to read so many striking  juxtaposed so tightly, like watching a concert where Bono and Beyonce are being forced to share a stage.

So I commend Mr McMonigal, for his written statement of love. Maybe it would be nice if we stopped worrying over captioning our couply photos on Facebook, and scrawled something inky and private once in a while. Someone could even do the Post Office a favour and start selling, say, 1001 paper documents on the cheap, to be lovingly encased in an envelope and sent on a romantic trajectory. It means more on paper, after all.

*Love Letters, selected and edited by Peter Washington, Everyman’s Library, 1996

Literary Characters Who’d Be Good at Twitter

prideandprejudiceSocial media is a delicate game to play. The unacknowledged but vital rule of the whole shebang is to sound like you’re so comfortable in your own skin, you barely notice it’s there anymore. This is, of course, regardless of the sweaty punching of new personality traits into your bio each week. A delicate game, indeed.

Following Litro’s Twitter fiction experiment #litrostory, I started wondering how social media-savvy some of my favourite literary characters would be.

There are some characters, for instance, whose tweets I’d happily follow. E.M. Forster’s Mr Emerson, I feel, would broaden my horizons in three characters, let alone a life–transforming 140.

mremersonMr Emerson @emersonsnr
I don’t care what I see outside. My vision is within! Here is where the birds sing! Here is where the sky is blue! #RoomWithAView

Speaking to others about the idea provoked interesting responses. American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman was mentioned as a potential tweeter,  with particular consideration given to the wealth of interest he could bring to #businesscard as a trending topic.

Glancing through my bookshelves, however, it became clear that there is one particular fictional world in which the social media game would really soar. The latent derision, the explicit familial embarrassment, the romance? Jane Austen’s characters make for social media magic.

Of course, Mr Darcy is exceptionally fun to play with in this scenario. He probably wouldn’t be the biggest Facebook fan. I imagine it being thrust upon him by a slavering Caroline Bingley, longing to tag him in her photos of the annual Minimally Sexual Ball. Needless to say, any interaction would be begrudging, and so as not to offend his dear friend Bingley (an avid Facebook user and dilgent tweeter of all jolly sporting adventures.

bingletCharles Bingley @NetherfieldLad
Big shout out to Mr Bennet for allowing me to shoot on his land today #considerablegenerosity

I’m not sure whether Facebook Mr. Darcy would be any more amenable than his fictional self appears to be on first meeting. But it is a truth universally acknowledged that Facebook is one of the few acceptable places where being an evasive snob actually makes you compelling. He would, no doubt, be one of those people you know by sight, but can never find when actually daring to type their name into the search bar.

If he were findable though, poor Facebook Mr Darcy would, I imagine, be highly susceptible to the post-ball pokes of Lydia and Kitty. After all, in this day and age, it is a foolproof method by which to secure the attention of those you admire. This is, of course, greatly enhanced by the number of pokes you make, and I can imagine them taking it in turns until the arrival of Jane, worried about any bruising the misunderstood fellow might accrue.

Lizzie Bennet, of course, would manage her Twitter persona carefully, every character polished and poised, wit and intelligence blended into one humbling feast of perfection.

Pride and prejudiceElizabeth Bennet @bennetsis2
A lady’s imagination is very rapid; it jumps from admiration to love, from love to matrimony, in a moment.

Of course, if Elizabeth and Darcy had been tweeting each other, their mutual attraction could not have been concealed for long. As we all know, Twitter manages to document the highest intellectual debates, and thus the two probably would have been drawn to one another long before the novel allows.

I can imagine Lizzie delving in and out of feminist forums, political petitions and earnest academic debate with ease and humour, her virtual prowess inciting almost tangible envy from aspiring ‘cool girls’ (as coined by Gillian Flynn’s Amazing Amy), and a heady deal of lust and admiration from Darcy. Further cementing their relationship would be the fact that Lizzie would know Wickham was an untrustworthy cad from the start. Facebook timeline would hardly facilitate the cover-up of poor Georgiana’s debacle, no matter how much soul Darcy managed to sell to Mark Zuckerberg.

So, mixing social media and Jane Austen makes the nation’s most coveted couple (I use the word ‘most’ lightly, I do know about Will and Kate) even more desirable than before. Nevertheless, for those partial to schadenfreude, especially in the case of characters so blessed with assets that vomit comes to mind (or mouth), it is rather pleasing to remember that however intelligent, thought-provoking, and heroic Elizabeth Bennett would be on Twitter, all success would have been dutifully undermined by Mrs Bennet’s social media presence. Just imagining it fills me with rapture. Oh, how I would await the status updates, gleaming with shameless filial preference.

mrsbennetMrs Bennet @yummymummy
@colonelforster A spot of sea bathing would suit me down to the ground #theregiment

Perhaps, subjected to such over exposure, even Elizabeth Bennet would be reduced to brainstorming acceptable personality traits on a piece of scrap paper, whilst subtly fending off Family requests on Facebook. If social media would reduce even our wittiest heriones to insecure wrecks, perhaps we shouldn’t feel quite so daunted by the whole delicate game.

How would your favourite characters fare on the net? Let us know in the comments, or tweet us @litromagazine.