Belle De Jour Interview

Belle De Jour Interview

Victoria McEwan
Twitter is a wonderful platform when it comes to casually striking up a conversation with ‘famous people’. Even more wonderful when someone actually responds and you can run off and tell your friends about it; as if to say that person is now a close friend.
Having chatted to Brooke Magnanti (more commonly known as Belle De Jour) on twitter a couple of times, like a complete groupie, I almost squealed like a little girl when I found out Magnanti was talking at the Wigtown Book Festival.

The fact that Magnanti has previously been an escort, is a well-educated woman and was anonymous for a long time, gives us a lot to talk about, but what I really wanted to know was if she is prepared for a zombie apocalypse.

How have people who were fans of the Belle Due Jour books responded to the very factual The Sex Myth?

The reactions have been very different and it has been really mixed. As you can see they have put a sticker on the cover for people that didn’t already know. I don’t know how effective that particularly is.  I think there is going to be an overlap of people who liked the Belle books, being interested in these topics generally, but then there are going to be a lot of people who don’t read non-fiction.  The response and the reviews have been really mixed and I guess in a way that actually surprised me. I expected it to be a lot more negative than it was. So to get any positive reviews was like ‘yeeeeess get in’.

Did anything shock you during your research for The Sex Myth?

I don’t shock too easily (she laughs). I suppose in part it was more thinking about the people who conducted the research and wondering if it shocked them than the results that they found. My science research has always been very well…not sexy.  I sometimes think ‘someone out there is a research assistant to someone whose job it is to put bands around men’s penises whilst they watch porn and measure whether they are getting engorged or what. That’s just a normal day at the office for them’

How does academic writing differ from writing a novel?

It is totally just getting into a different way of doing things. I think what really helped was the original books were structured like diaries so I could take each piece a bit at a time, rather like you would in any kind of writing of a scientific experiment.   
The diaries were written in that style, they did have almost a clinical edge to them and that is why I think (when I was still anonymous) people thought I must be a man. People thought I was Toby Young. There were people who said they ran my work through the gender genie software and that it must be by a man. I think what people were actually picking up on is that I write like a scientist writing a memoir.

So why did it take them so long to find you?

The media wanted very much for it to be one of their own. They were working on the assumption that whoever wrote the book had never been a call girl and so once you have made that assumption it is equally reasonable to say it could be a man as well. So that is why they could not find me for so long. For a long time they were only looking within their own media circle. In 2004 the Times got a forensic linguist from the states to try and work out who Iam.

Have you ever had a misconception about someone?

I agreed to do the interview with Julie Bindel simply because I wanted to meet her. You know, it’s like here’s this person whose articles I have been reading. To meet her in person Bindel is actually really nice although she tears you apart in print.

How important do you think education is in modern day Britain?

I think it is enormously important and I am very aware of the fact that a lot of the advantages I have had in my adult life have come from having had a very good education and having gone to a good school and gone to a decent university.
I do worry sometimes on some level that there is a part of me that knows that maybe people would count me as a sexual phenomenon and some people thinking they don’t have to work hard, they just have to look sexy. It is a little bit depressing sometimes when you hear statistics that 30% of girls want to be glamour models. I have no problem with people being glamour models but do we need so many? It sounds silly but it’s the whole voice in the back of your head that says ‘always have something to fall back on’ and for me that was very much computer programming.
I had intended to quit escorting when I got a ‘real job’ but the computer programming was so boring I kept being an escort because that was something more interesting to do with my time. I couldn’t live the life of going on the tube, sitting in the office, ‘tick tock tick tock’.

What are your thoughts on tuition fees?

When I heard that tuition fees were going up I thought  that’s the kind of money I was paying and you do kind of think to yourself there’s going to be a lot of people thinking oh maybe if I just strip for a summer I can pay that off.  Nobody wants to come out of university in debt if they don’t have to. If you leave university with that level of debt you just have to take what job is offered.

What bugs you the most about the current education system?

I was only ever here as a post-graduate in this country and seeing the debates that go on especially around sex education; this is one that absolutely gets me. A year or two ago when you had people wanting to be able to opt out of sex education in schools but have to accept the fact that media has changed a lot and our kids are wearing various sexualised things. It makes sense that there should be good comprehensive sexual education in schools and people seem to just want to sweep that under the rug.
I have this guest lecture for forensic statistics that I love, love, love and give in a lot of places because I love it. You sort of think the enthusiasm for things like that is missing from a lot of places. I feel lucky that when I was at school our science and maths teachers were just fantastic. They loved it.

What made you move from somewhere like London to Lochaber?
It is beautiful. Wigtown is massive compared to the village I live in. It has about 300 people. There is one shop and then there’s the post office and everybody knows everybody. But I do realise that I am in quite the privileged position to have a career in writing that I can take with me anywhere.

And what about London…

London is a very interesting place to go to but I don’t think I could have lived there much longer than I did. I don’t suit cities at all; I found myself becoming very unfriendly towards the end because everyone has their London face on. 

Really, I always viewed you as a city-loving-girl.

I didn’t make it easy on myself for one thing.  Working as a programmer was very antisocial; sometimes everyone I worked with just didn’t talk to me. You know there was no chummy hanging out in the coffee room kind of thing. I can be antisocial at times but I had days where I would realise if I didn’t have a client the only person I spoke to was the bus conductor.

What do you think of books like Fifty Shades of Grey?

My first book now has a new cover to make it look like fifty shades of grey…
I have read them because I went on a Channel 4 documentary to talk about them. It wasn’t to my taste. 
My mother e-mailed me with just the subject ‘50 shades’. I knew what the e-mail was going to be. ‘She’s going to ask me if I have read it and if she should read it – I said it’s a bit mechanical, you might enjoy it, but I think your taste is better than that’.

Did your Mum read your books?
She read all my books and then she gave them to my granny. Embarrassment!  My face must have registered the shock when she told me she had given them to my grandmother. ‘Your grandmother knows what’s what, she’s had five kids. She knows where everything goes’.
I had such a fear for so long that if my family found out they would never speak to me again.  There have been some members of my family that have got upset with me over it, but they were the ones that knew would, but my mother has been great. She is coming with me to a festival in Chicago in a couple of weeks; sometimes I get questions from the audience asking ‘what would your mother say’ and I’ll be able to say ‘she’s right here’.

After talking about Magnanti’s cousin abroad being kidnapped and held hostage, around the time of Belle’s identity being made public, we get on to the topic of survival and whether surviving a horror film would be possible.

My husband and I sit around and assess our chances of surviving a zombie apocalypse. Our house is kind of on the side of a hill and I we wonder ‘how could we block off the roads to make sure the zombies don’t come in and we need to alert everybody in the area’. We need a look out party and you know we have taken up the hobby of making our own wine and cider because in the zombie apocalypse there are not going to be any off-licenses. So, you need to have a drink.

As Magnanti left the interview room to return to her husband, who must be feeling rather impatient by now given that we had been chatting for over an hour. I thought that I had expected Magnanti to be a little controversial given the sexual context of her work but what did shock me was how different she was to the audacious character I had imagined. She comes across as quite shy but also content with her life in the country nowadays.  I felt comfortable talking with her.  To feel so at ease with a stranger signifies why Magnanti is so popular with the press and public.

What makes Magnanti popular is not only that she was an anonymous call-girl but that she has experienced the feeling of alienation and being scrutinised by the media. Most people, while not being hounded by the press, experience that same feeling of alienation and shame at some time in our lives.  

We can relate to her.

Adventures and Talking With Robots

Adventures and Talking With Robots – Post for The Wigtown Book Festival Blog
The weirdness that encompasses the world is something that a lot of us would not have any qualms admitting we are incredibly curious about; those that claim otherwise are liars.  Reality TV would not be such a hit if this were the case.  Humanity has always had a kink for the unconventional and ‘strange’, from the freak shows of the Victorian era to the Jerry Springer Show of the modern day.

Jon Ronson author of such books as The Men Who Stare at Goats and The Psychopath Test has made a career seeking out some of the most obscure people and places in the world.  Obscure might sound like a detrimental word but Ronson argues that he is in no way mocking those that he documents, as he doesn’t laugh ‘in an imperialistic way, I equally write about my own ridiculousness.’ 

As a journalist I was excited to hear Ronson speak at Wigtown Book Festival, about his adventures, and the mishaps embraced on his journeys as a documentary film maker and writer. 

Ronson has interviewed a whole bunch of interesting people but the one that caught my attention was Bina 48 – the most sentient robot in the world.  He described Bina 48 as being a ‘better interviewee than a psychopath’. Profound questions such as: What does electricity taste like and do you have a soul, were asked. Bina’s reponse – Doesn’t everyone have a solar?

‘I don’t consider myself better than those I interview; we’re all a bit lost at sea’.

He finds it hard to trust aggressive journalism, and prefers the realistic approach of knowing his own weaknesses and being able to take the mick out of himself as part of the job.

His new book Lost at Sea: The Jon Ronson Mysteries discusses the lost at sea theory further, sharing tales of his zany adventures such as being on patrol with real life superheroes. I left Ronson’s talk aching to find out more about his adventures and the people he met.  If you want to read about investigative journalism without pretences and hear some wonderful stories then this is a book for you.  

“and what is the use of a book,’ thought Alice, ‘without pictures or conversation?

To have got to the end of  my adventure into the depths of the book wonderland that is Wigtown, and to have not mentioned the bookshop’s feels almost like a crime.  Perhaps, I am in denial about how many books I returned home with.  The answer is twelve, twelve books.  Two or three books I could have justified, but I am struggling to justify why I need twelve new books, when I have eight unread books sitting at home, and I am getting a Kindle for Christmas.  The charm of the second-hand bookshops just like a charm of a handsome man has sucked me in, that’s the story and I am sticking with it.   
My two weeks of being one of the journalism interns at the festival is over and has brought me to the conclusion that Wigtown is like retreat for writers, and other creative individuals. But coincidently with the amount of books you will be returning home with, you might find yourself needing to visit rehab or book buyers anonymous.
“But I don’t want to go among mad people,” Alice remarked.
“Oh, you can’t help that,” said the Cat: “we’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.”
“How do you know I’m mad?” said Alice.
“You must be,” said the Cat, or you wouldn’t have come here.”
The comfort of being surrounded by so many books and people who love books is wondrous.  Big chain bookstores do not capture the essence of book love on the same level. You don’t walk into a chain store to be greeted by the musty smell of old books, the elegance of leather bound covers that have survived the times, or a warm fire.  Fire in a bookstore, trust me the atmosphere created is worth the potential hazard.
Even when the bookstores are closed the atmosphere is one of wonder, with the clear dark skies and the stars shining brightly.  If you haven’t already, take two minutes to just stop and gaze at the Wigtown sky at night. 
There really is something for every niche in the arts at this festival: from music, poetry, theatre, book sculptures, grass weaving and of course literature. But at the heart of it what makes the festival so wonderful are the visitors, the staff, the community, and the volunteers with their warmness and enthusiasm. 

Laura Ashley Skirts and Acoustic Guitars – The Train in The Night Review

Being a music critic demands one skill above most: being able to listen to and understand music. But what happens when you are faced with the double tragedy of not being able to hear music the way you once did and it causing you actual physical pain.
Nick Coleman has been a music critic for over 25 years and is forced to deal with this exact problem due to neurosensory hearing loss, a condition which has a devastating effect. The way Coleman explained his first couple of days after the illness hit is terrifying.  His description of the frustration of being stuck in bed unable to move and not knowing exactly what was wrong but with a constant ringing in his ears that alarmed him that something was very wrong makes the most calm person feel anxious.
He spoke at Wigtown Book Festival where he promoted his book The Train in the Night: A Story of Music and Loss. You might think that the event would be a bit of sob story but it was actually the opposite. Any music lover hearing him talk will learn to appreciate music on a whole new level and anyone who suffers from any medical ailment will find his strength inspiring.
“Am I going to get it back?” I asked, repeatedly, trying not to be a bore. “My hearing is my most important sense. Well, to me it is. I need both ears for work. Music is my greatest passion in life. I do it a bit, too. I’d rather lose an eye, a foot…”
One of his first difficulties after being diagnosed was to go to see his team Arsenal play. He described the aftermath of this challenge as feeling the highest he has ever been legally due to the happiness he felt at having began his journey towards living with this illness.
He also talked about how his relationship with music has changed. The use of the word relationship could not be more appropriate.  When music is such an intrinsic part of you it does become like a friendship. If you’ve had a bad day you stick your favourite record on. If you’re feeling sad you stick on a song that you can relate to so you no longer feel so alone.

His perception of himself and who he is changed so profoundly that everything felt different.  Anyone who has suffered from either a physical or mental illness will relate to the book on this level; for these are events that can either make or break you as a person but Coleman’s courage in pulling himself out of the darkness is palpable.
He spoke about how he has to use his memory to listen to music since physically was no longer an option.  It’s your brain that makes music meaningful and therefore it is possible to ‘listen’ to music without actually hearing it. We have all had days whereby you have a song sticks in your head – nine out of ten times it’s one you don’t actually like. When you apply this to a song that you have a deep emotional relationship with it can be very moving.
Nick Coleman’s ability to tolerate music has improved and he reviews folk music for The Independent on Sunday as this is the music that he finds the easiest to listen to and understand.  He described his job as “Laura Ashley skirts and acoustic guitars”.  He feels Amy Winehouse is one of the greatest singers the UK has ever produced and that every piece of music has the potential to be good.
The Train in the Night is a must read for anyone who loves music or needs some inspiration in their lives.

Scottish PEN

In the United Kingdom we tend to take our freedom of expression for granted. Most of us have grown up being able to say what we want and with very little consequence if we do say something that is out of turn.  As much as us brits love to complain we should be thankful that we live in a country where we can express how we feel without fear of persecution.
Scottish PEN, part of the International Pen network spread over 100 countries, campaigns for the freedom of expression in places where this simple human right is suppressed.  PEN is committed to campaigning for writers under threat as well as supporting cross-cultural exchanges to build co-operation and fellowship amongst writers.
“Literature knows no frontiers and must remain common currency among people in spite of political or international upheavals”.  – Scottish PEN
The Scottish PEN event as part of Wigtown Book Festival surprised me, how sombre I felt after hearing the writers: Kirsty Gunn, Pippa Goldschmidt, Andrew Cassell and Chrys Salt reading aloud articles by those who champion freedom of expression. The event was chaired by Jean Rafferty, a highly credited journalist, who has written award winning pieces on shocking subjects such as torture, suicide, murder and prostitution.
Andrew Casell read from a James Harkin’s piece from The Guardian.
“My father went back to Homs and he saw our house and my brother’s house. They’ve taken everything. The army broke the locks to search for weapons, and later let the Sabiha rob our houses. They have stolen everything they can carry – fridges, washing machines, cookers – and broken everything they can’t”.  My brother got married two years ago and spent everything he had on his new house. But they’ve even taken the taps. I’m very sad. I miss Homs, but we can’t go back”.
At every Scottish PEN event stands an empty chair representing those that are imprisoned, in hiding or the deceased. To remember them and applaud their fight against the regimes that silenced others.
When I think things I worry about such as the rain or not having time for a coffee they do not compare to the above concerns.
Although the UK does have problems most of us live a comfortable life when compared to the atrocities that happen in countries like Syria where blood is shed due to religion and Mexico where according to Mexico’s National Human Rights commission 74 media workers have been killed since 2000.
We have the advantage of being able to speak out freely against our government and anything else we feel discontent about; the freedom is also there to speak out for those that cannot speak out for themselves.
If freedom of expression is something you feel passionate about find out more at:  New members are always welcome. You will be joining an international community, exchanging experiences and ideas with fellow writers and reaching new readers through events and projects.
Do not let those who are silenced remain in silence; we have the power to speak for them. 

Adventures At Wigtown

Living in Stirling for four years made me miss city life.  Is Stirling not a city, I hear you say.  Well, yes it is but the fact that it does not have a 24 hour supermarket makes me dismiss its city status.  Where I am from I am used to 24 hour supermarkets, taxi’s at any time and being able to get Chinese food at 3am.
I am comfortable in the luxuries of city life but when you step outside the bubble of city life you may find a whole other level of comfortable living.
For the next ten days I am going to be one of two journalism intern’s at the Wigtown Book festival.  
 Yesterday I arrived in Wigtown at 10.30am after travelling from 6.20am – I find this rather impressive considering I am not a morning person.  From then onwards myself and everyone else (the wonderful events interns who have been here a week more so than me) have been working to get the festival set up for beginning tomorrow. Right now Wigtown feels a bit like the calm before the storm.  I have been embracing the quietness of country life but I know this will change come tomorrow
First impressions of the town are that it is quaint and has a certain charm that a lot of places do not have nowadays.  It is Scotland’s National Book Town and as expected such a title the streets are lined with equally as charming book shops.

Tomorrow the festival officially begins and there is plenty on the agenda.  Every time I flip through the festival program I find something new and fascinating that’s on – you too?
The first event I am going to is Jen Campbell talking about her book Weird Thing’s Customers Say in Bookshops at 4pm.  I read the book yesterday and found it utterly hilarious. An example from the book is – a customer asking if they stock the book ‘Lionel Richie and The Wardrobe’.  I will be chatting Jen beforehand too about the book and challenges bookshops face in the economic downturn; so I will report back on this tomorrow night.
Tonight I am going to launch of Wigtown The Festival which is a book festival for young people by young people specifically for ages 14 – 25 and a growing part of The Wigtown Book Festival.  You can find the schedule for all events on the groups Facebook page.