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Hugo Rifkind

The Chinese water torture of everyday sexism

16 March 2013

9:00 AM

16 March 2013

9:00 AM

So I’m outside Finsbury Park tube station, the other morning. There’s a girl in front of me, white, twentysomething, rosy-cheeked, long and ruddy hair bouncing in the brisk spring air. Not that I’m, like, noticing. From behind me, overtaking, comes a tall, handsome black guy, smartly dressed.

‘You’re so lovely,’ he booms, as he draws level. With her, that is. Not with me. Alas. ‘You’ve made my day,’ he says. ‘It’s wonderful just to see you.’

‘Oh,’ she says, blushing red. ‘Thank you.’ Then he pulls out one — but only one — of his earphones and for a few paces they chat before off he strides. And all around us, people start craning their necks to see who this girl was and come to their own silent judgments about whether she was really as lovely as all that.

Not a great story, really. No edge. But I keep thinking about it, because the whole scenario just seemed so… transgressive, somehow. Should it have done? She didn’t seem to mind, but maybe that was the result of a lifetime of conditioning, etc, masking a true horror at being singled out while minding her own business on the way to work, and her looks offered up for contemplation, as though she were a painting, or a vase. Did you see that article Petronella Wyatt wrote the other day? Apparently she didn’t mind being actually groped by Laurence Olivier, Robin Day, Albert Finney, Lord Lambton and virtually every other man she’s ever met. I think briefly spoke to her once, at a Spectator party, but I kept my hands to myself. She must have thought me terribly rude.

It all sounds so old-fashioned, that’s the thing. Something is happening to women. They’re manning up. The case is being advanced, persistently and credibly, that a cultural change is only half-made. I’m sure it’s relatively rare these days, at least in the office, for a chap to put hand to bottom, or even eye to chest. There’s a new fight going on, though, and that seems to be to make us grasp exactly why we shouldn’t; forcing men to comprehend that it’s not just a bit annoying for many women, this sort of thing, but culminatively closer to terrifying. A while ago, I started following a Twitter stream called @EverydaySexism, in which women tally their survival of wandering hands, off-colour remarks and attempts at assault. Individually, often, they don’t seem a big deal. ‘Quit moaning,’ you might say. But Christ, so many of them, one after the other, day in, day out. Like a Chinese water torture.

I don’t think I’d have ever sidled up to a stranger and told her she was pretty. Not really my style. It’s only recently, though, that I’ve come to grasp that if I did, it would not be an event in isolation. It would sit alongside the bus driver’s ‘love’ and the eyes of the silent, spooky cashier in the shop where she bought her newspaper, and the man too close on the train, and the boss who asks her to make the coffee, and the husband she’ll one day have who expects her to quit work for the kids. And yet, at the same time, I still don’t know if she minded. And it’s complicated, also, by how very thrilled I know I’d be if a woman — even one who looked like Robin Day — should ever lean in close and say such a thing to me.

Labour’s Eastleigh triumph

Regardless of the way they got 9 per cent of the vote and came fourth, I think the Labour party might look back upon the Eastleigh by-election as a triumph. Because since then, the right of the Conservative party has gone insane. And with gusto.

Sure, a combined Tory/Ukip candidate could have romped home there. But everybody knows most of Britain doesn’t look like Eastleigh. Or don’t they? There’s a selective myopia to it; the Tory right finding an excuse to care more about the things it cares most about already. I’m not going to get shrill about this; you lot do what you like. But shifting the party from the centre will make for one that the people already in it like more, and hardly anybody else likes at all. You’ll see.

The mystery of Bitcoin

A while ago, mainly because I was researching an article about how you buy heroin on the internet, I read about an emerging -internet currency called Bitcoin. I can’t begin to understand the maths of it, but it functions without banks or any central body, in a peer-to-peer fashion. So, if I’m in -Britain and you’re in, say, Vietnam, I can theoretically transfer any number of Bitcoins to you instantly, with hardly any transaction fees, and without either of our governments knowing it has happened. Chances are, your tax authorities would only spot it when you downloaded yours into dong.

I forgot all about Bitcoins until a couple of weeks ago, until I read an article on an obscure tech blog about the way they’ve rocketed in value lately, by a factor of three since January. So I spent a hundred quid on some, and didn’t spend any of it on heroin at all, and today it’s worth £141. Which is pretty good in a fortnight, right? Some enthusiasts reckon Bitcoin will change the world, others thers are nervous it might turn out to be a  Ponzi scheme. I wouldn’t buy any more, because the latter lot are probably right, but I would quite like to know what the hell is going on and I don’t really know who to ask. Can somebody cleverer than me write an article about this please? Much obliged.

Hugo Rifkind is a writer for the Times.

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