ON: THE WON­DER WOMEN IN MY LIFE

Po­lit­i­cal de­bates with Joan Rivers, Scrab­ble with Cindy Crawford, and the power of punk-rock hero­ines, SI­MON MILLS re­calls the strong, un­apolo­getic women who have made him the man he is

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The women who have made Si­mon Mills the man he is to­day

My fa­ther, a pilot and a keen avi­a­tor, once showed me a photo of one of his boy­hood he­roes. I was used to Dad telling me sto­ries of sec­ond world war dam-busters and der­ring-do dog­fight­ers called Harry and Binkie, but Amelia Earhart was dif­fer­ent.

A gen­uine one off and a coura­geous, fem­i­nist mav­er­ick, she was the first woman pilot to fly solo over the At­lantic and across the Amer­i­can con­ti­nent. Earhart was a glam­orous, fear­less and de­ter­mined woman who railed against con­ven­tion, climb­ing into the cock­pits of Stear­mans and Lock­heeds to beat the boys at their own ver­tig­i­nous game. She was dash­ing and bright-eyed, with a short, choppy hair­cut and el­e­gant, aquiline fea­tures. Earhart wore trench coats, shear­ling jack­ets, horse-hide bombers, gog­gles, leather bon­nets, man­nish jodh­purs, chi­nos, sheep­skin boots and baggy jump­suits with an ef­fort­less, air­borne dash. I was fas­ci­nated. I’ve had a thing for tomboy women, es­pe­cially ones that know their way around an al­time­ter, ever since.

Back down on earth, it was TV that pro­vided a young man with his ear­li­est en­coun­ters with women. In a pre-in­ter­net age, va­ri­ety shows were part of ev­ery Bri­tish fam­ily’s weekly sched­ule, and week­end evenings would be spent watch­ing an end­less pa­rade of perky, cheaply dressed, mid­dleaged males with side­burns host­ing lewd marathons of light en­ter­tain­ment. But among the grimly parochial ban­ter and bad menswear would be a fe­male guest star of such so­phis­ti­ca­tion, still­ness and in­ten­sity that our lit­tle sit­ting room would be ren­dered com­pletely silent for the per­for­mance.

Singers like Dusty Spring­field would stare down the cam­era and burn the song into the liv­ing room of your soul. Her tone mourn­ful, soar­ing, brit­tle and dy­namic. Her hair heroic and im­mov­able.

Dusty took this Hull boy on a trip to Ve­gas. Shirley Bassey, gor­geously aloof and un­touch­able, made me feel like I was in a James Bond movie, but it was Bob­bie Gen­try’s Ode To Bobby Joe that re­ally changed ev­ery­thing. I had no idea where in Amer­ica one would find Choctaw Ridge, but the ap­par­ently glib lyrics of the South­ern Gothic clas­sic (writ­ten by Gen­try her­self) seemed to sug­gest a dark­ness and depth of un­der­stand­ing that was go­ing way over the head of the doo­fus telly host in the frilly-fronted shirt and hit­ting my eight-year-old self right in the gut.

My mother, who al­lowed her­self a men­thol fil­ter tip or two at the week­end, lit up a tri­umphant Con­sulate at the end of the song and some­thing oc­curred to me: women like Bob­bie are pow­er­ful, com­pli­cated, hardy, mys­te­ri­ous, frag­ile, un­know­able. Maybe my mum, with her blonde, Dusty Spring­field bob and her faded denim suit, was a bit like that, too.

Of course, Dusty and Shirley were emo­tion­ally out of my league and way too old for me. The Abba girls? They were all show­biz clothes, teeth and soft fo­cus, and I re­mem­ber find­ing the me­dia’s ob­ses­sion with blonde Agnetha’s bum ob­jec­ti­fy­ing and dis­taste­ful (I know – get me and my mav­er­ick fem­i­nist view­point), but punk rock came along and changed ev­ery­thing.

Siouxsie and the Ban­shees were the anti-Abba. Singer Siouxsie Sioux was flat-chested, had hair like a tar-dipped gonk and dressed like Char­lotte Ram­pling in The Night Porter. Her songs were about voodoo and voyeurism. Like Amelia Earhart, Siouxsie was pi­lot­ing the plane her­self. She was a dark, ex­otic, in­tel­li­gent in­di­vid­ual who sang like she was out for re­venge. I’m not anti-sex or anti-sex­u­al­ity, she’d tell you, ‘just anti-hypocrisy’.

An ob­ses­sion with mu­sic took me to pop jour­nal­ism and into mag­a­zines – a world where women were very of­ten in charge. A man who might feel threat­ened by a fe­male boss sim­ply couldn’t get along in news­pa­pers and mag­a­zines in the Eight­ies. Over the next few decades, I worked with (and for) dozens of bold, clever, funny, sexy women who seemed to have taken their lead from the free­wheel­ing, fem­i­nist spirit of punk rock­ers like Chrissie Hynde and The Slits: Sally Bramp­ton (found­ing ed­i­tor of this mag­a­zine), Janet Street-Porter, Katharine Viner, Caryn Franklin et al. I think I am prob­a­bly a bet­ter man and more rea­son­able work col­league for do­ing so.

In my twen­ties, I was writ­ing for women and also read­ing them with in­creas­ing in­ter­est. I’d never got along with Jane Austen, but the dis­cov­ery of Pa­tri­cia High­smith proved to be a rev­e­la­tion. Af­ter a young life­time of de­vour­ing LA noir pulp lit­er­a­ture – mostly by Ray­mond Chan­dler – where women are rou­tinely pa­tro­n­ised, slapped and de­meaned, I binged on High­smith, who could por­tray the male so­ciopath with more depth and in­sight than any male nov­el­ist be­fore her.

Now, I don’t want to come off as some sort of an­noy­ingly right on, think­ing man’s crum­peteerist here, be­cause in be­tween mak­ing ad­mir­ing and ap­prov­ing noises about, say, Joan Did­ion, I also served my time as a las­civ­i­ous, drool­ing, as­pi­rant (i.e. failed) mod­eliser.

An hour spent in the com­pany of Christy Turling­ton – smart, en­gag­ing and beau­ti­ful in her mid-for­ties – re­duced me to a gib­ber­ing fool. (Sadly, not a date but an in­ter­view.) A game of Scrab­ble with Cindy Crawford had me reach­ing for triple-word-scor­ing su­perla­tives. But it was a (then) 75-year-old woman with a plas­tic surgery ad­dic­tion and a tongue like a caus­tic lightsaber that left the most last­ing im­pres­sion. Ten years ago, I went to The Ritz to meet Joan Rivers for lunch and stayed un­til teatime. She ate noth­ing – partly be­cause she didn’t seem to like food, but mainly be­cause she didn’t want to stop talk­ing. Ev­ery­thing Joan said was ei­ther fas­ci­nat­ing, hi­lar­i­ous, poignant or un­re­peat­able. Or all the above. I loved her.

Joan was in­dis­creet, con­temptible and out­ra­geous, po­lit­i­cally in­formed and con­nected, but had no re­spect for the es­tab­lish­ment, and no time for chau­vin­ism. A show­busi­ness vet­eran of more than 50 years, she had ex­pe­ri­enced soar­ing highs and ca­reer-sui­cide lows and al­ways came back kick­ing, swear­ing, laugh­ing, de­rid­ing au­thor­ity and con­ven­tion. And even in her sev­en­ties, even when the work was dry­ing up and she was los­ing out to women who were younger, more dumbed down, more lip-glossed, tame and asi­nine, our brave, stub­born, smart, ex­ple­tive-happy, re­peatof­fend­ing Joanie would just not give up. And that’s what I call the ul­ti­mate won­der woman.

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