Bride And Groom With Ambulance

Regular readers (and/or people who already know me) will be aware that, in a few short weeks, I am going to become Mrs. Giant Bear. I have been doing my due diligence: reading wedding blogs, talking to married friends, and generally trying to make sure that we don’t waste money or time on things we don’t care about.

Some of these decisions were easy: buying or hiring dresses[1] that won’t fit my body or the vision in my head vs. making my dresses; buying real flowers that will require coolness, vases, water and general fuss vs. spending my hen party making flowers from fabric and knitting needles that I can dismantle and make into a quilt afterwards[2]; forcing my favourite women to wear dresses I don’t want to choose and they don’t want to wear vs. not bothering with bridesmaids at all. Photography, however, fell right on the boundary of what we consider to be Wedding Fluff[3]. Every blog I have read carries the same message when it comes to wedding photography: don’t skimp on it. Several posts I have read suggest that you should trim money from absolutely everywhere in your budget before you skimp on the photographer (‘I’d personally get married in my parents’ back garden and wearing a Topshop dress if it meant I’d get amazing photographs of the day‘). I can see the logic that, barring a house fire, the photographs are one of the few mementos of the day that last forever[4]. However, I just can’t agree that it’s more important to have a good photographer than it is to, say, give your guests a decent dinner. Also, you’ll be there. You’ll be there, all day. Can’t you just remember what it was like? What I want a photographer to do is capture the moments that we might miss, like guests arriving in the church while I’m upstairs cocking up my makeup; people talking or dancing at the reception, which we missed because we were at the other end of the room surreptitiously stuffing each other with cake; photographs of my speech[5], which of course I’ll remember, but from a completely different point of view. In other words, I want to be able to trust him or her to judge for himself or herself which moments, people and objects deserve to be captured, without me having to break the fourth wall to say ‘quick, take a picture of Giant Bear doing a thing. Oh. He’s seen us.’

A good wedding photographer is expensive, I have discovered. Some of them charge more than our entire budget (£4.5k. I promise a further post explaining how we managed to pull off a hen party, a stag do, a honeymoon and a two-day, two-ceremony wedding with over sixty guests for this money). As a freelance, I totally understand why it costs this much and don’t begrudge the money, but we simply don’t have £1.5k+ to spend on this (and if we did have an extra £1.5k suddenly injected into our budget, we wouldn’t spend it on a photographer). Giant Bear’s delightful mother Beady Bear saw our dilemma and very kindly offered to pay for a photographer. I said I would like to employ a fellow freelance[6], and so the bulk of the wedding (Day Two: church blessing, afternoon tea, barbecue and barn dance) is being covered by the very wonderful and talented No Longer A Philosopher, who mainly does events and therefore fits our wish for something informal, quirky and as non-traditional-wedding as possible; he also expressed horror at the idea of formal photographs and of shooting the short but non-repeatable ceremony on Day One. Beady Bear would like some formal portraits, so we agreed to hire a wedding specialist for Day One, to cover the civil ceremony and then take some pictures in the beautiful gardens afterwards.

This brings me to the meeting I had yesterday with Terrible Photographer. I conduct similar conversations myself, when a prospective customer[7] makes an enquiry to see if I can help them improve one of the most important things they will ever write: a dissertation, an application form, a PhD thesis, a book. I attempt to build a rapport; I provide references; I show them examples of my work and talk about relevant experience; I explain, patiently and at length, exactly what they can and can’t expect from me; and I find out as much as I can about what their expectations are and whether I can meet them before I agree to do the job and provide an estimate of the total cost. I have only been freelance for three years (although I’ve had this business for nearly a decade alongside other work), and so I’m prepared to learn from others. Yesterday’s meeting was highly educational. Here are some things I learned from it.

i.                    Make no effort to persuade your customer to employ you.

Firstly, set the tone within the opening minutes, making it clear to your prospective customer that you are already pretty sure the contract is in the bag, and that your prospective customer can’t wait to pay their deposit (non-refundable). Remember that your customer is not nearly as important as, for example, the person that has just called your mobile. This is particularly important if the call is from a family member asking you to pick up milk on the way home, rather than (say) an existing customer. Don’t say ‘I’m with a customer right now’ and cut them off; don’t say ‘do you mind if I take this call?’ before answering it; certainly don’t simply turn your mobile off when you arrive so that you’re not disturbed (are you an animal? What if someone needed to call you about milk!?).

Secondly, don’t bring your A-game: that will only raise unrealistic expectations that you can’t be bothered to meet. Instead, bring a selection of mediocre work, all with a certain sameness about it so that it’s clear you are both incompetent and inflexible. In the case of photographs, why not include a picture of bride and groom where the bride’s eyes are shut, right at the front of your sample album?[8] How about a picture of bride and groom looking uncomfortable, next to a vast and hideous car that appears to be chewing yards of ivory ribbon with its radiator grill and with an ambulance dominating the background? Maybe a series of pictures with important details amputated by the edge of the image, such as the bottom of a bouquet, the top of a stained glass window, or the bride’s fingers? Another useful trick is to include ugly or irrelevant things, as a distraction from the actual people. For example, photographing a set of flower girls in front of a garden fence, in a car-park or nestled into a privet hedge is a simple way to make a wedding look classy. Even in a beautiful church, there is usually a chaotic notice-board or some terrible leaflets in lurid colours that can be positioned behind the bride’s head.

ii.                Make sure your customer is clear that you know less than they do.

The blindingly simple method Terrible Photographer used to get this across to me was to show me his work. Every image (*every* image) showed people smiling uncertainly down the barrel of the camera, square on, about six feet from the lens. No candid shots, capturing lovely ephemera; no long or short perspective; no zoom; no angles; no shadows, reflections or loving close-ups of interesting details; no action shots. Can’t be bothered to do this in person? No problem: just throw together a shoddy website over lunch, using Comic Sans, Clipart and black pseudo-porn-site backgrounds throughout. Sprinkle liberally with grocers’ apostrophes (making sure that ‘photo’s’ is used as many times as possible) and other extraneous punctuation. Put some random phrases in quotation marks for no reason (“Somerset Based!!”) and you’re done.

iii.                 Is your customer unusual in some way? Make them feel judged. Also, having already made it clear that you’re not terribly competent, bonus points are available if you can imply this is the fault of your customer.

A selection of vignettes from yesterday:

TP: Will it be a big do?
Me: No.
TP: How many people will there be at the ceremony?
Me: Nine.
TP: Ninety?
Me: No. Nine.
TP (curious): Why is it so small?
Me: We want it to be small. My parents aren’t coming and I’m not having any bridesmaids, so there will be nine of us.
TP (shaking his head): That’s very small. Not much to photograph there.

TP (coy): I expect you’ll want a picture of Daddy[9] giving you away.
Me (patient. For the moment): As I said earlier, my father isn’t going to be there.
TP (completely lost): Are you being given away, or are you going to just wander in on your own?
Me (resisting the temptation to say ‘who knew women could walk twenty yards unaided? Next we’ll be wanting the vote): Yes. I’m being given away by my friend S.
TP (suddenly understanding): You won’t want a picture of that, then.
Me (baffled): Of course I want a picture of that! Why would I not want a picture of that?
<embarrassing silence>

TP (pointing at a photograph of a colossal pasty bride, thirteen bridesmaids in identical magenta sacks and four miserable flower girls): I expect you’ll want a picture with all your bridesmaids.
Me (somewhat less patient): As I said earlier, I’m not having any bridesmaids.
TP (taken aback): Oh! What a shame. I think it’s nice for girls to have friends.
Me (icy): I have plenty of friends, thank you. As I said earlier, we simply decided not to have any bridesmaids.
TP (ruminative): What a shame. It’s always nice to get a picture of a pretty bridesmaid.

Me (seizing on the only good photograph I had seen all day, of a bride preparing to throw her bouquet): This is a nice one.
TP: I expect you’ll want a picture of you throwing your bouquet.
TP: Your bridesmaids.
TP (not listening): They’ll want to know who’s next for the chop <wink>
Me (past ‘icy’ into a frozen, wind-blasted tundra): Throwing the bouquet is an outdated, sexist tradition; my bouquet is made of knitting needles and weighs nearly three pounds; and the only women present will be Beady Bear and her mother (with ninety-five years of married life between them), who would both be insulted and possibly maimed by having a bundle of knitting needles hefted at them for no reason. The likely outcome is a reproduction of this picture (flipping back through the album to Bride And Groom With Ambulance), except with Giant Bear’s grandmother being loaded into it.
TP (not listening): Ha! That ambulance shot! It’s great, isn’t it?
Me: No.

iv.                   Only use props of the lowest possible quality.

The album containing the sample photographs was small, dirty and cheap-looking.[10] The photographs were in loose plastic cases that were slightly too large, so that they slithered about, slanty and in constant danger of falling out. I was also handed a smudgy leaflet with the comment “this is some of my best work” (it included a generic picture of a pretty church on a sunny day, which anybody with eyes and a camera could have taken). The business card demonstrated a clear lack of any sense of proportion. There was a tablet, on which he attempted to show me the same photographs that were in the horrible album (why, when he knows I’ve just looked at them?). In reality, all he showed me was that he was unable to master the ‘swipe’ action: about half the time, instead of flicking onto the next picture, we zoomed in on someone’s ear, while he yelped in distress. I was also given two forms: one had been personalised with our names (or at least variations on our names) and the other was for mystery couple ‘Mark and Catriona’. I was expected to attach a cheque to one of these forms. I declined.

[1] Because I am divorced, we are having a small and intimate civil ceremony on Day One, and then a blessing in church with lots of people and music the following day. The two occasions are completely different and therefore require two entirely different dresses i.e. one with a giraffe, and one without.

[2] Check out my Etsy shop, where you can buy some of these beauties for yourself.

[3] A reception line; bridesmaids, page boys and flower girls; an ‘engagement shoot’, whatever that is; getting my hair and/or makeup done by a professional; nail polish; fancy shoes (bought ’em on Ebay for £35); and probably a whole bunch of other nonsense I don’t even know about.

[4] I’d like to see some statistics about whether there is a correlation between the amount of money spent on a wedding and how long the marriage itself lasts.

[5] My father can’t be with us, so I’m being given away by S and will be giving the father of the bride speech myself.

[6] The word refers to lone knights wandering about the place on horseback, waiting to be hired by some local dignitary to fight on their behalf i.e. I am free, and I have a lance. Because I’m changing my name shortly, I will also need to change the name of my business and I’m toying with a new, knight-based logo.

[7] I hate the word ‘client’. I suspect it’s the word prostitutes use when they’re being polite.

[8] Me: The bride’s eyes are shut in this one.
TP: Really?
Me: Yes.
TP: I hadn’t noticed.
Me (inside my head): WHAT?

[9] After a moment, I realised he meant my father. Dad hasn’t been addressed or referred to as ‘Daddy’ for at least thirty years. He probably cringed at that exact moment, in the middle of the night in Beijing, and didn’t know why.

[10] “You get one of these, free of charge!” Really? Free? Or simply factored into a payment that has already been made? Also, wow, really? I get a small, dirty and cheap-looking album of my very own? I can barely contain myself.

Requiem for a laundrette

In less than a week, Giant Bear and I will move into our first house together. This is, of course, exciting on many levels and for many reasons. Surprisingly high up the list is ‘not having to go to the laundrette anymore’.

Our local laundrette is about fifty yards from the flat. A full wash and dry of three enormous bags of laundry (colours; whites; towels, woollies and Giant Bear’s sock collection) costs about £20 a throw, takes all afternoon to do and creates a pile of ironing to rival the Matterhorn. Using the laundrette also means venturing into the filthy web of The Creepy Man, who owns the business and lingers by the washers and dryers in a way that suggests he doesn’t have anything better to do than usher unsuspecting females into his sticky lair. The proliferation of bleached posters in the window suggests that he should, in fact, have plenty to occupy his time. ‘WHY NOT TRY OUR SHIRT SERVICE?’ asks one, giving no details whatsoever about what this involves or costs. ‘LET US CLEAN YOUR RUBBER GOODS!’ pleads another. My favourite suggests that customers might care to enjoy a cold beverage while they wait, even though the only means of producing any kind of drink is the Horrible Hot machine, which dispenses horrible hot coffee, horrible hot tea and horrible hot hot chocolate.

The Creepy Man is in his early fifties, greying and with a moustache like one of those brushes for cleaning wellingtons. He is ever so slightly boss-eyed and therefore appears to be eyeing his interlocutrix up even when he isn’t (he usually is). His voice is loud, braying, nasal and comes in nauseating waves. The Creepy Man is invariably dressed in jeans (slightly too short and much too tight), white trainers and one of several dark sweaters of uncertain provenance. He is unapologetically misogynist, enjoying nothing more than telling one female customer about the idiocies of another, attributing all said idiocies to her gender and then laughing heartily. The Creepy Man has confided to me more than once that ‘all women are mad’, and that both of his former wives divorced him without explanation, presumably while in the grip of ovary-based mental illness. No opportunity is missed to manhandle female customers, or (if we are quick enough to nip out of his way) the dirty smalls of female customers. I have a theory that a substantial proportion of his liquid intake consists of the broth given off by these items as they foment in the washers.

Using the laundrette has also given me the opportunity to plunge deeper into the seamy underclass of my chosen seaside town.  I have met, for example, Confused Lady, who uses the same machine every week because she ‘understands’ that one (the machines are all the same); Assorted Dotty Old Ladies, all with different coloured rinses, wrinkly tights and nothing to say (this does not stop them saying it, over and over again); and Quiet Arabic Man, who always holds the door for me and spends his time talking very softly into his mobile telephone in a language I can’t identify. The Assorted Dotty Old Ladies don’t approve of his mobile, his foreign-ness or his desire to hold the door for other people (they actually click their tongues each time he does it). They don’t approve of me knitting while I wait for my laundry to dry (perhaps they are annoyed that they didn’t think to bring any knitting themselves?), or at least I assume that they don’t from the sideways looks I get when I put a half-finished sock out of my handbag. They definitely don’t approve of the horrible hot tea from the Horrible Hot machine, but will nevertheless consume several cups each while they wait, exclaiming after every pucker-mouthed sip how vile it is.

Finally, there is the Very Boring Man. I have a soft spot for the Very Boring Man, because he has twice saved me from the Creepy Man by engaging him in Very Boring conversation while I make my escape. Perhaps he isn’t actually boring at all, but some kind of low-level superhero, using his powers (such as they are) for good. On both occasions, his weapon of choice was a story about a leather jacket that he bought in 1963. I say ‘story’, but it was no such thing. It was simply his thoughts about the jacket, arranged into no kind of narrative or order, delivered in his trademark monotone. The Creepy Man was pinned helplessly against the giant washing machines while he droned on and on, unable to even inject a sexist quip.

‘I bought it in Leatherhead, you see,’ he said. ‘It was black, with a sort of belt round it. Not like a real belt. A sort of belt, you see. With a buckle and holes. Like a belt. And I used to wear it when it was cold, you see.’

The following week, and my last week in the laundrette, it turned out that the Very Boring Man had remembered some further facts about his leather jacket that had hitherto remained forgotten.

‘It was after our conversation the other day,’ he said, at length. Part of the genius of the Very Boring Man is that he speaks extremely slowly, with maddening pauses at points where politeness prevents his listeners from relieving the monotony by, say, getting themselves another cup of tea from the Horrible Hot machine. This is infuriating for Creepy Man and Assorted Dotty Old Ladies alike, but gives the other female customers a window in which to stuff their clean laundry into a bag and scuttle away. ‘And it make me think … about where I was when I bought it. It was 1963, you see.’ He looked up at the ceiling and chewed on nothing at all. ‘I was in Leatherhead. That was the point of the story, you see.’ A baffled silence ensued, broken only by myself and another lady pushing clothes into our respective bags as fast as we could. Eventually one of the Assorted Dotty Old Ladies (the one with the pink rinse) could stand the tension no longer.

‘No,’ she said decidedly. ‘No, you’ve lost me there.’

‘I don’t understand,’ snapped the Creepy Man. ‘You told us last week that you bought it in Leatherhead.’

‘Yes, you did,’ the Assorted Dotty Old Ladies chimed in, all nodding vigorously. ‘Leatherhead.’ The Very Boring Man looked surprised.

‘Yes, it was Leatherhead. I bought it in Leatherhead. I bought my leather hat in Leatherhead. Leather, you see. On my head.’ There was another, much shorter silence.

‘YOU SAID IT WAS A JACKET!’ the Creepy Man burst out. The Very Boring Man nodded sagely[i].

‘Yes, yes, I did. That’s very true. But then I got home and thought some more about our conversation, and thought, no, you see. It wasn’t a leather jacket that I bought in Leatherhead. It was a leather hat. In Leatherhead. So it was leather, you see. On my head. That was the point of the story.’

‘I didn’t know you could get hats made of leather,’ I said innocently, walking quickly but calmly towards the door, as one might on hearing a distant fire alarm. ‘What was it like?’ The Very Boring Man settled himself more comfortably.

‘Well …’ he began. The Quiet Arabic Man softly opened the door for me and the other lady, bowing and smiling as we sailed gleefully into the sunshine, for the last time.


[i] Wouldn’t it have been amazing if, instead of the leather jacket/leather hat confusion, he had meant to say he purchased a leatherjacket (for purposes unknown)? You can probably buy these as a healthy snack in a Chinese supermarket, dried and rolled aniseed or something.

Delete as appropriate

My former husband, Garden Naturalist, is a fine man. He has settled into the role of former husband with grace and thoughtfulness, continues to buy me lunch from time to time (or allows me to buy lunch for him as the case may be), and recently took me to see The Magic Flute, with its aria about ‘the joys and sacred duties of marital love’ (we nudged each other and laughed).[i] We talk on the ’phone and he can be in a room with Giant Bear[ii], and while it’s clearly a bit odd for other people, they’ll get over it. It’s now nearly a year since we decided to separate, and so I’ve been thinking about how to have a healthy divorce, and how the legal part of the process could be changed to make this easier, as well as making it easier for couples who consider divorce (but nevertheless decide to stay together) to do so in a healthy manner.

To start with, let me blow your mind: there is no such thing as no-fault divorce. You can file for divorce on the grounds that you have lived apart for more than two years, so I suppose in that (presumably uncommon) situation, this might constitute no-fault divorce. However, for normal people who want a divorce because their relationship has broken down (rather than because their partner went out to buy a paper in 1987 and never came back), there is no way to get the marriage dissolved that doesn’t involve somebody taking the blame. The options are as follows: adultery (in which case you have to name the third person, who presumably you can then *both* blame for the whole thing), unreasonable behaviour, or desertion. That’s it. There is no box you can tick that says something like ‘look, we’ve done our best. We worked hard and spent thousands of pounds on counselling and tried to do the right thing, and it just hasn’t worked out. It’s nobody’s fault, and actually saying that it *is* somebody’s fault is really unfair and unhelpful.’ Equally, there is no box for ‘nobody asked us to tick boxes giving reasons why we wanted to get married.[iii] It’s none of your fucking business why we got married, and it’s none of your fucking business why we want a divorce.’[iv] One of you has to divorce the other, and unless you want the process to drag on even longer, that means one of you has to take the blame.

Here are the two main things that make me angry about the process of getting divorced. Firstly, divorce is something that happens to *both* the people in the relationship. The divorce papers frame it as something one of you inflicts upon the other, in return for his or her atrocious behaviour, but in reality I think very few relationships end in circumstances where 100% of the blame can be laid at the door of one person only. The divorce forms ought to reflect the fact that divorce is sad and painful and, above all, normal. If the divorce rate is 50%, and we assume that not all the people who are still married are happily so, one of the conclusions we can come to is that divorce is necessary (and, perhaps, that there is a wider shortage of relationship skills that needs to be addressed). Relationships go wrong. Sometimes, relationships go so wrong that they have to come to an end, and a bad relationship coming to an end is a good thing for everyone concerned. The knowledge that your relationship might go wrong or come to an end should be something that motivates you to look after it properly. Rather than promoting the idea that someone is to blame, the forms ought to encourage both people in the relationship to take responsibility for the end of it, and the manner in which it comes to an end. This would, I’m sure, make it so much easier to be at least courteous to each other afterwards (and there will be an ‘afterwards’. Even if you don’t have children, you have mutual friends, and there will be birthday parties and weddings and christenings and funerals forever, many of which will be organised by people who will want to invite both of you and who need you to be able to be in a room together). I simply don’t understand why there isn’t a ‘mutual consent’ box that indicates that, for reasons that just don’t matter to anyone outside the relationship, the two grown-up people involved have agreed that staying married is no longer an appropriate reflection of the relationship they have with one another.

Secondly, there is no ceremony to a divorce. When one gets married, the important parts are making a public commitment in a suitable building, surrounded by friends and family, and celebrating what you have together now and what you hope to make together in the future. Nobody says afterwards, ‘well, the whole public declaration of love thing was OK, but my favourite bit was when we signed that weirdly-shaped certificate thingy. That was ace.’ The bit that carries the emotional weight is exchanging the rings and making the vows, isn’t it? The legal part of the marriage ceremony is a formality: an important formality, but a formality nonetheless. It may be the most important part of what you are doing in some sense, but it doesn’t feel like it. You still have to decide for yourselves as a couple what being married means for you, and the only bit of the ceremony that helps you do that is the part where you make promises to each other. When Garden Naturalist and I got married, I felt that the emotional, religious and legal strands of what we were doing ran alongside each other, and got plaited together in a way that I couldn’t explain. Divorce frames itself as the disentangling of those three parts, and the termination of the legal strand only. It has *nothing whatever* to say to (or about) the other aspects of the commitment you made to each other. These are, presumably, also coming to an end, but in silence.

I think that means you have to decide for yourselves when the part of the marriage that means something to you has come to an end. I almost felt that getting divorced was a waste of time, because it didn’t offer any meaningful sense of closure. The sense of closure came from agreeing to separate and taking off my wedding rings (in the middle of a horrible row, while walking home from counselling). Even then, I wouldn’t say either of us had any sense of a clean break, because we still weren’t legally divorced. Divorce takes months – even a straightforward one like ours took six months. We divided all our possessions, including our house, quite amicably without legal help, and we don’t have any children. Why does this take so long, when getting married takes a few hours? Why assume that people might try to get out of a serious commitment for the wrong reasons, but not make equivalent provision to prevent people from getting into that same serious commitment for the wrong reasons? Nobody would argue that people who want to get married should have to explain themselves, and yet people who want to get divorced are legally obliged to do so.[v]

Overwhelmingly, I feel that the law needs to treat people like adults. Rather than encouraging couples to point at each other like five-year-olds and say, effectively, ‘he/she started it’, divorce paperwork could acknowledge that sometimes relationship breakdown isn’t anybody’s fault, and that being able to say to someone you used to love ‘this hasn’t ended the way I wanted it to, but that isn’t your fault’ might be a really important part of the healing process for both people, and for laying the foundation of the relationship you’re going to try and have in the future. Furthermore, rather than putting pressure on people to just stay together by introducing delay into the divorce proceedings (like the parts where you can’t apply for the next part of the process to happen until an arbitrary period of time has passed), the government could subsidise relationship counselling (it’s worth every single penny, but it’s not cheap). That would encourage couples to work on their relationship in a sensible, structured way, with help from a trained professional who can help them to decide whether staying together is viable or not. We stayed together for a long time because we simply didn’t know what else to do, and for much of that time we were both too depressed and demoralised to do any meaningful work on repairing the relationship. Even if we had felt able to do the repair work that needed doing, who really knows in that moment what the right thing to do is? Our counsellors were both wonderful ladies, who were able to call us both out when we said stupid or inflammatory things, and could help us explore issues that we just couldn’t talk about calmly with each other. Our second counsellor told us that she felt we were waiting for someone to give us permission to separate, and she was absolutely right: not only did we need permission, we needed permission from someone who really knew what they were talking about. Those conversations were one of the things that helped us have a healthy divorce, as did both of us being adults, both of us continuing to care about our relationship in whatever form it took, and Garden Naturalist being a decent man. None of the legal hoops (and they *are* hoops) helped at all.

[i] Spoiler alert: The Magic Flute has the stupidest plot of anything I’ve ever seen, including Lost. The plot summary on Wikipedia includes the following helpful sentence to describe the end of the first scene: ‘Together, Tamino and Papageno set forth (Quintet: “Hm! Hm! Hm! Hm!”).’

[ii] Formerly known as P, but now in need of a longer, more embarrassing alias.

[iii] And if you *did* have to fill out a form when you applied to get married, what the hell kind of questions would it have on it? ‘Do you love your proposed spouse? Yes/No (delete as appropriate)’.

[iv] Surely making it hard to get married makes a lot more sense than making it hard to get divorced? People who really wanted to get married would see it through, and those that didn’t would drop away or make some other, less formal commitment to each other, both of which would be just fine. I still can’t decide whether making divorce lengthy and slow makes you work harder, or whether it just makes you work for longer. I doubt very much if any couple has ever turned to each other and said, ‘well, we both really want to get divorced, but it’s just so bloody inconvenient. Let’s not bother. Then we won’t have to pay £400 and fill out a load of crappy forms. That feels like an excellent reason to be together.’

[v] Much as people who decide to have a child are never met with ‘oh, really? What on earth possessed you?’, but childless couples will be asked to justify themselves by strangers, colleagues and family alike.

‘The man doctor will see you now’

I love Woman’s Hour. It’s a super program, full of thoughtful, passionate women talking about things that actually matter. I admit that there is sometimes an almost audible grinding of gears as they segue from (say) an interview about women being stoned to death in Iran for adultery to (say) an earnest discussion of whether the maxi dress is back, but otherwise this is good radio. Today, however, the phrase ‘women politicians’ issued from the speaker and I can’t let that go.

‘Woman’ is a noun. ‘Women’ is a noun. Nouns. Not adjectives. NOUNS. The adjectival form is, strictly speaking, ‘womanly’ and I’d pay good money to hear someone refer to, I don’t know, Theresa May, as a ‘womanly politician’ (‘she’s womanly, by which I mean it’s legitimate for us to talk about her shoes rather than her policies’). We should not be saying or writing ‘women doctors, ‘women politicians’ or ‘woman presidential candidate’, but ‘doctors’, ‘politicians’ and ‘Hillary Clinton’, because in none of those cases is the gender of the person concerned remotely relevant to what they are doing (even in Hillary Clinton’s case, this is true: she may be remarkable in part for what she is doing for women and the way we are perceived, but she would still be a remarkable politician if she were male, especially with regard to her work on Chinese stoves, of all things[1]). Therefore the word ‘woman’ is not only grammatically dubious but redundant. If one is speaking or writing about a situation in which gender is relevant (e.g. a discussion of whether ladies will be allowed to become bishops in the Church of England, or whether all the excellent women should simply splinter off and form our own church, leaving the sexist rump to arrange their own Goddamn flowers), then one should say ‘female bishops’.

As with so much in grammar, it’s largely a matter of opinion as to whether it’s acceptable to use ‘woman’ as what we call an apposite noun i.e. a noun that is used to modify, identify or explain another noun. The argument goes that, firstly, using ‘woman’ as an adjective (‘woman bishop’) changes the modified noun (‘bishop’) more than using ‘female’ would, and therefore the ‘woman-ness’ of the bishop in question is emphasised. Secondly, ‘woman’ only ever denotes adult female[2] humans, whereas ‘female’ could refer to anything from a whale to a statue, and therefore using ‘woman’ is more respectful.

I think both these arguments are nonsense. Firstly, I think that emphasising the gender of the bishop (or the doctor, or the pilot, or whatever) is simply a way of folding sexism into the grammar, as one might fold an unnecessary flavouring into an otherwise pleasant cake. It’s a way of saying, ‘hark at me! A woman pilot! A pilot who is also a woman! HOW CAN THIS BE?’ See, for example, the splendid old-fashioned chauvinism of She’ll Never Get Off The Ground by Robert J. Serling[3], a novel that makes its intentions clear in the subtitle: A novel about a woman airline pilot …?![4]. The awkwardness of the language (and no-one can tell me that ‘woman airline pilot’ trips off the tongue) echoes the awkwardness that we are supposed to feel about the whole concept (see also ‘midhusband’ and ‘male nurse’). Secondly, I suppose it might be argued that being referred to as ‘female’ is degrading because the same word could equally be applied to a cow wandering vacantly round a field, a spider with half her mate sticking out of her mouth or a dog that’s licking itself, and so it can, and I don’t think that matters at all. What does matter is that ‘female’ cannot be used to denote something intended for use by females e.g. ‘female toilet’. This implies that the toilet itself has gender, which of course it doesn’t. The toilet is not female, any more than a skirt or a bra or a tampon is female; toilets, skirts[5], bras and tampons are for the use of females[6]. I suspect that this horrible phrase is used to avoid the knotty question of how to punctuate the possessive plural (Ladies’ Toilet, the toilet for ladies). If you don’t know how to punctuate a possessive plural, wouldn’t it be better to ask someone with a basic education how to do it, rather than choose a different word to misuse as a workaround? Females objecting to being called ‘female’ is so stupid that I almost can’t be bothered to refute it. ‘Female’ is a perfectly good word. It’s not remotely offensive (or, if it is, it’s a lot less offensive when applied to a woman that it is when applied to a toilet).

Consider French grammar for a moment. The word elles refers to a group of women. The word ils refers to a group of men. Ils also refers to a mixed group, made up of equal numbers of men and women. It can refer to a mixed group in which women predominate and a group in which they don’t. This tiny word ils can, in fact, denote a group made up almost entirely of women, provided that the group also contains a man. Or a male baby. Or a male dog. In other words, the masculinity of a single panting dachshund (even a comparatively effeminate dachshund) in that group, a group which could contain thousands of women, trumps the existence of every single woman there. This, it seems to me, is highly objectionable and should be challenged (and changed). Grammar changes all the time, usually for the worse through sloppy usage. It can, therefore, change for the better if enough people decide that it should be so. This is a battle worth fighting. Women objecting to being described as ‘female’, I would argue, is not[7].

We should seek equality in all things, including grammar. One does not say ‘the man bishops today decided that, actually, some of them would quite like to arrange their own flowers’, any more than one might say ‘the cabinet is made up primarily of man politicians’ or ‘the man doctor will see you now’. We say simply ‘the bishops’, ‘of politicians’ and ‘the doctor’, because we all assume (as does the grammar) that the gender of these people does not need to be stated. This should be on the grounds of irrelevance, but actually, of course, it doesn’t need to be stated because we know what their gender is already: they are all men. The default position of both society and the English language is that these people are all men: the word ‘man’ would be removed from ‘man doctor’ on the same grounds of redundancy as I suggested above. So the uncomfortable compromise we have reached is to say ‘doctors’ to denote male doctors, and ‘women doctors’ to denote something freakish[8]. This contradicts the basic purpose of grammar, which is to remove ambiguity of meaning from language. ‘Woman doctor’ is anti-grammar: it introduces ambiguity in the meaning. Does it refer to a woman who is also a doctor, a doctor who primarily treats conditions found only in women (as one might say ‘bone doctor’ or similar), or perhaps some kind of weird hybrid of a woman and a doctor, using ‘woman doctor’ as one might use ‘witch doctor’? ‘Doctor’, however, is clear; and ‘female doctor’, in a situation where the gender of the doctor matters, is clear; and ‘man doctor’ is just silly[9].

[1] Notice how her opponents can’t stop reminding you that she’s a woman. Why is that important? Because political leaders are men (Indira Ghandi, Benazir Bhutto, Golda Meir, Margaret Thatcher, Mary McAleese, Aung San Suu Kyî and Angela Merkel notwithstanding, we assume. I should also point out that strong female politicians are now such a commonplace that, while I admit I checked where to put the accent in ‘Kyî’, I didn’t have any trouble in coming up with this list off the top of my head). Rather than attack Clinton’s policies, her opponents attack what they consider to be her weak spot (her gender), and they do it in a way that would be beneath a group of sexist teenagers, most recently with badges that read ‘KFC Hillary Special: two fat thighs, two small breasts… left wing’. What can one say about a group of people so profoundly childish, other than ‘FOR THE LOVE OF GOD DON’T VOTE THESE PEOPLE INTO PUBLIC OFFICE!’?

[2] Did you see what I did there?

[3] Mr. Serling is also the author of The President’s Plane is Missing, which was presumably being flown by a woman who wanted to stop off on the way to Washington to purchase a pair of tights and some lipstick. It appears at number 13 in a diverting list of terrible book titles, which also includes the wonderfully stereotyped ‘Big Book of Lesbian Horse Stories’ at number 25, a title that has grammatical problems all of its own in the dangling modifier is-it-being-used-as-a-noun-or-an-adjective confusion from the placement of the word ‘Lesbian’. Are there lesbians and horses, or just lesbian horses? (‘Blackish Beauty’s nostrils flared. She certainly hadn’t expected to be entered at Aintree’).

[4] The incredulous suspension points and compound question mark/exclamation mark also won Most Insulting Use of Punctuation 1967.

[5] One sees this on Ebay every day: ‘Woman’s dress, size 16′ says the heading. As opposed to …?

[6] And Professor John Raven. A role model for small, as yet un-heteronormatived/gender-role’d children if ever I saw one.

[7] You can read more about the woman/female debate in the New York Times.

[8] Thereby reinforcing the idea that a woman attempting to also be a doctor is something to be exclaimed over.

[9] I hope we can all enjoy the clash of stereotypes here: a man can be a doctor, but if he’s unwell he doesn’t have to go and consult a doctor until parts of his body start turning black and withering away.

Shake it all about

At through the lattice, Deerfeet writes as follows:

‘It sort of feels a privileged position as home educating parents, to be able to prepare and educate our children on the changes they will face as they grow older at a time when they each seem ready for it, rather than the blanket approach they would get in school of everyone being given the same information at the same time.’

This prompted me to think about state-sponsored sex education, among other things. The Embarrassing Questions Box demonstrates that it is a privileged position to be a foreign teacher in a strange land, where the students only have a week to come up with more testing follow-up questions. It’s interesting to see how the students vary: some clearly bulge with curiosity and ask questions that have been festering for years, while others appear to have given the subject of sexual relationships very little thought. There is no state-sponsored sex education in China, because students don’t reach the age of consent until their early twenties. Presumably, then, those that do not receive a foreign education must pick up what they can via trial and error, pornography and parenting (both good and bad). Notice that I didn’t list ‘popular culture’ there, because it isn’t done to discuss such things in the public sphere (this is why most Chinese have no idea that their country has one of the worst HIV rates in the world, primarily because of the practice of buying and selling blood for transfusions). However, the one good thing about self-directed learning is that, the questionable quality of the source material notwithstanding, the young people can at least start it at a time of their own choosing.

The thing that strikes me now is how the questions that turn up in the Box each year focus on relationships rather than sex. The students are curious about things such as what sort of gifts to buy and when (‘Is acceptable to buy flowers at Christmas?’); how to address the parents of one’s partner (‘Can I use first name, like Andy?’); age gaps and other relationship taboos (‘can I date my professor? What if s/he is much older than me?’); public displays of affection (‘May I kiss boyfriend in front of street?’); whether it is appropriate to kiss and tell (‘If I allow boy to do sex to me, is it OK for him to tell his friends I let him? Because maybe they laugh’), and so on. Not once have I been asked a question about the vas deferens or how to tell if you have crabs, because the students simply aren’t worried about those things. They are worried about the minefield that is a romantic relationship, and understand instinctively (and correctly) that sex is merely a constituent part of such a relationship. My own experience of sex education in the mid-’nineties was from the Hokey Cokey school of educating young people about sex: a poorly-realised diagram of the Fallopian tubes, some dire warnings about acronyms, and a film involving Sarah Kennedy holding a pear and some cartoon people having sex (but absolutely no fun) on a sofa. There was no suggestion that sex should be put into any kind of context, or that sex would be merely one part of a wider and far more complex interaction. There was also emphatically no room for interpretation or nuance of how we might feel as individuals: the assumption was that, in our capacity as teenagers, we were all hunting the horny-backed toad (or if we weren’t, we soon would  be). Some allowance was made for the possibility that the girls might be reluctant[1], and I recall a lesson where the boys were taken off to watch a baffling video about circumcision, while we were asked to suggest forms of words that could be used to say ‘no, but thanks for asking’ in a sensitive way. It was never explained why ‘no, but thanks for asking’ wasn’t perfectly good, or why nobody seemed to be questioning the premise that the boys, naturally, would pressure us for sex, and we, naturally, would resist this. Equally naturally, the ancient idea that the ‘problem’ of boys finding girls desirable in a way that the girls might not care for (is that it? I’m not even sure I understand the problem, or why it’s necessarily a bad thing) should be tackled by changing the behaviour of the girls, was also not challenged, or even remarked upon. Formulations that met with our form tutor’s approval (an Art teacher who had been gently marinating in his own despair for several decades) included ‘I don’t feel well this evening. I might throw up’[2], and ‘I think I might be getting my period’[3]. To my mind, these and all the other ‘I have a headache’ answers are cop-outs, just as persuading a strange man who hits on you inappropriately to back off by telling him that you have a boyfriend is a cop-out. You may well have a boyfriend, but that’s not the reason he should back off: he should back off because that’s what you’ve asked him to do. ‘I have a boyfriend’ implies that a. whether you want him to back off or not doesn’t matter: the drunken stranger should back away from you because you are the property of another man; and b. were it not for the existence of your real and actual boyfriend, being told you had lovely tits by a drunken stranger would be a delightful experience, which would no doubt lead to casual sex in a benighted gents toilet and/or adjacent alleyway. It’s far more honest to simply demand that he respects your wishes, and state the truth, which is that you’re not interested. Why not extend the same honesty to a teenaged boyfriend or girlfriend asking for sex that you aren’t ready for (and, indeed, to all conversations, about sex or otherwise)? If s/he has the courage to ask for sex, s/he also has the courage to take ‘no, but thanks for asking’ on the chin.

The primary concern throughout my own (mercifully brief) sex education seemed to be safe sex, rather than fulfilling, loving or age-appropriate sex. It was heavily implied that at some point we would move from ‘no, but thanks for asking’ (or indeed ‘I can’t. I’m having my spleen removed at lunchtime, and the stitches might burst’. If you’re going to invent excuses, you might as well enjoy yourself) to ‘oh alright then’, but we were given absolutely no help in determining when this transition would or should take place; how we could be sure that we were really ready for the emotional and physical highs and lows of something we had never experienced; or whether feeling ready to have sex with someone was the same thing as it being a good idea. Worse than all of that, we were not given any reassurance that this point would come at a different stage for each of us, and that this was just fine. There was certainly no room for the idea that the boys might feel reluctant, scared or unprepared, for example, or that sex with the wrong person or at the wrong time, however ‘safe’, could still be incredibly damaging emotionally.

Eleven girls in my year group were pregnant by the end of our GCSEs (eleven! And it wasn’t a large school!) and therefore I think we can agree that the objects of putting us off sex altogether or propelling us into condoms[4] were not attained. This model of sex education is a failure. I suggest that it is a failure precisely because it makes no allowance for individual difference, and because sex is removed from the context of a loving relationship as neatly as a juicy, slippery mussel is plucked out of the dry, inedible shell. A better model might be not to educate students about sex specifically at all, but to focus on relationships instead. If the subject of sex arises naturally in the lessons (as, for example, the subject of racism could be expected to arise naturally and inevitably in a lesson on To Kill A Mockingbird), then of course that’s fine and it ought to be addressed, in its proper context. I think this model is better for both teachers and parents, too: adults may not be comfortable with the idea of a fifteen-year-old having sex, safely or not, but we can all agree that it’s reasonable for him or her to have a boyfriend or girlfriend, and for the relationship (however primitive) to be respected. I am sure parents whose children have no boyfriends or girlfriends during their teenage years at all worry just as much as those that have one, or two, or six, or twenty. We can all also agree, I hope, that such early relationships are a necessary rite of passage. Therefore, it makes sense to educate young people about relationships (which their parents and teachers probably want them to have), rather than sex alone (which their parents and teachers probably don’t want them to have), and then, once they have reached the age of consent, to leave them alone to get on with it in whatever way they think best. If they think sex isn’t appropriate in the context of their relationship, good for them. If they do, good for them too.

I think a relationship-centred approach would also make it much easier to negotiate the ‘no, but thanks for asking’ example, because the teenagers in question would have had an opportunity to discuss how such a conversation might fit into the trajectory of the relationship as a whole. I also think that feeling secure in the knowledge that people feel ready for sex at different stages, and that this is normal, is a very freeing piece of information: ‘no, but thanks for asking’ is, after all, not the same as ‘I hate you[5]. Please change your name and move to another county so that we never have to see each other again.’ ‘No, but thanks for asking’ is not personal to the person hearing it, but to the person saying it. It might also be argued that how a boyfriend or girlfriend responds to such a piece of news says a lot about them, all of it interesting and useful in determining whether they continue to be one’s boyfriend or girlfriend. Another issue is how to divide sex education between parents and teachers, and again it seems to me that a relationship-centred approach from state-sponsored education would help here. Surely a teenager who had had a lesson about relationship skills (say, how to apologise after an argument) would find it much easier to ask his parents intelligent questions prompted by that lesson than he would after, say, a lesson in which he learned eighteen slang words for syphilis and put a condom onto a boiling tube?

The goal of state-sponsored sex education should not be to harangue or scare teenagers into safe sexual behaviour, but to encourage them to develop thoughtful relationships with other people (whether they involve sex or not). This seems to me to lay a foundation for trusting other people and exploring the issues sensitively (with friends and parents as well as one’s partner or potential partner). Alain de Botton says that ‘None of us approaches sex as we are meant to … [w]e are universally deviant’, because we feel unable to make ourselves vulnerable. He goes on to say that sex ‘refuses to sit neatly on top of love, as it should’, and I agree. Whether it refuses or not, I think those of us lucky enough to have the shaping of young people as one of our tasks could do worse than to continually place sex back in its proper place. We think nothing of putting young people in their proper places over and over[6]. As per my earlier thoughts on writing, sex should be no different.

[1] At least, I think this is what was being implied. It may have been that we were being encouraged to put up some kind of show of reluctance, before giving in to our essentially slutty nature. Or something. Sometimes it’s hard to know which particular set of ludicrous stereotypes are being applied.

[2] Not an accurate read-across of ‘no, but thanks for asking’. I would gloss this as ‘you disgust me.’

[3] ‘No, but ask me again in a week. That will give me time to invent a more elaborate excuse.’

[4] Condoms! Squeaky slimy flaccid horrible condoms! I knew a girl at school who ‘double-bagged’ her partners, like supermarket packing people do with fabric conditioner if they want to put it in the same bag as, say, a hand of bananas.

[5] One of the marriage guidance books Garden Naturalist and I read as part of our counselling suggested that the following phrases should not be used during sex: ‘What are you doing?’; ‘Why are you doing that?’; ‘I’ve never liked that’; and ‘I hate you’.

[6] I found myself telling my students to ‘sit down’ this year, and then immediately telling them to ‘sit up’ (Chinese students slouch so). They were, understandably, confused.

A room of one’s own

The room that I used as a study at the house in Bristol faced across the road, and the angle of the window meant that, when the sun was shining, I had to draw the curtains to see what I was doing. The space that I am currently using as a study in my new flat is in what I am calling The Big Room. It is, in fact, three rooms, in that I am using one end of it (the end with the serving hatch[i]) as a dining room; the other end (the end with the view of the sea) as a sitting room; and part of the dining table as my office. Soon, a New Desk will arrive, and I will move my office-related things into the imaginatively-named Small Room, with its view of the other side of the street. This room is currently filled with books, the remaining packing, and approximately forty empty cardboard boxes, which form three co-dependent, silently tottery Towers of Babel.

I do not like working at my dining table. The chair was not designed to be occupied for long periods of time and the table is too narrow to accommodate everything I like to have to hand when I work (calculator, invoice book, nice pen[ii], nasty pen[iii], cup of tea, in tray[iv], out tray[v], filing tray, pending tray and a stamp that says ‘I DON’T HAVE TIME TO READ THIS CRAP’)[vi]. Virginia Woolf’s thoughts on having a room of  one’s own and an independent income (people so often forget that she made it clear that *both* of these things were necessary in order to write) are relevant here: I *do* have a room of my own, where I think I can work quietly and well, but no space for the desk that I also don’t have and certainly nothing approaching an independent income.

My study at the house in Bristol was at its best as a place to work when the weather was bad. There was no glare from the sun, and the large window overlooked the road, allowing me to observe the weather from a place that was warm, dry and smug-making. ‘Look at all those people commuting to work,’ I used to think to myself, watching cars slither about in the snow, or buses surging up the hill carrying grey-faced people to jobs that they clearly hated, or hail pinging off the glass as my neighbours struggled into their cars, coats clutched around their faces. ‘Working for myself is the best thing ever,’ I concluded, toasting the unfortunate commuters with a cup of strawberry tea. The Big Room has an enormous bay window[vii] that looks out over the sea. Between the flat and the sea is the esplanade, affording me an unparalleled view of fat people spending their holidays walking unsteadily up and down the sea front, shouting at their chubby, unfortunately-named children[viii]. Today, the sea is brown and fretful, the colour of hot chocolate from an airport vending machine, flecked with creamy froth and full of sand. The wind is whistling around my building in a strange, mournful harmony and the ropes for the flags on Britain’s shortest but very patriotic pier are twanging noisily against the flagpoles. The wind is strong enough to cause the Victorian lampposts to jiggle alarmingly from side to side and every so often a wave breaks so vigorously that it sprays up over the sea wall, across the esplanade and into the road. Seagulls, of which there are thousands, seem to enjoy hanging in the air as if attached to a badly-made mobile, more or less on a level with my bay window, not going anywhere in particular, just bobbing up and down in a ragged line, apparently for lack of anything to peck. In other words, the view from my new window is a constantly changing, constantly interesting thing. It is considerably more interesting than my current piece of paid work (proofreading The Dullest Thesis In The World), which makes it even more important that I get into the Small Room with its far less distracting view with all speed.

[i] A *serving hatch*. It has two adorably tiny white doors with handles and is my favourite thing in the flat.

[ii] For writing invoices to other people.

[iii] For writing notes to myself.

[iv] Labelled ‘Entrée’.

[v] Labelled ‘Outré ’. It’s important to remember that I don’t share an office anymore, and therefore can be exactly as unfunny as I like.

[vi] M bought me this and I kept it in my desk at the university for years. I lost count of the number of times I reached for it, thought hard about words like ‘unprofessional conduct’, ‘starving to death’ and ‘final demand’, and pushed the drawer back in again. Now that I can use it whenever I like, the only occasion on which I have actually *wanted* to use it was to stamp an email I received from the university. The only reason I didn’t stamp it was that I would have had to print it out in order to do so, and I pay for my own printer cartridges these days. Instead, I gave my laptop the finger.

[vii] Seriously. It’s about six feet across and four feet deep. You could get a sofa in it.

[viii] ‘Caven! What did I tell you about poking that seagull with your icecream? And give Kee-Antee back her chips!’. I want to say that I invented this horrible spelling (as if ‘Chianti’ wasn’t awful enough as a name for a podgy five-year-old girl in a T-shirt with a princess on it), but I’m afraid she was also wearing a pink rucksack with her horrifying name printed on it in silver letters.

‘GAH! Michael Gove!’

Seymour nominated me for the Leibster award, a thing which draws attention to, you know, blogs. WIN. The rules are that I post eleven facts about me (chosen by me); I answer eleven questions (chosen by Seymour); and finally, I pose eleven questions for eleven other bloggers I nominate to do the same exercise. So here goes:

Eleven facts about me

  1. I don’t own (and have never owned) a mobile phone, a microwave or a freezer. I have never read a Harry Potter book (because I’m thirty-three, for God’s sake). I will also shortly be without a television, as per the instructions of the Red Hot Chilli Peppers. I have never watched an episode of Big Brother or any episode of any soap opera. I don’t watch news on the television and I don’t read newspapers, so all of my current affairs-related information comes from Radio 4. I only have the TV at all for films, box sets and televised sport (athletics; gymnastics; figure skating; rugby; snooker if I am ironing; and, in the days when I could still drink, darts, so that I could really enjoy shouting at the TV).
  2. I don’t drink. Sometimes when people ask me why this is, I tell them I’m Amish.
  3. I have a stress-related bowel disorder, caused by working in higher education for ten years. It’s painful and humiliating and is the real reason I can’t drink anymore. Dostoyevsky said the following, which I think describes the bulk of that hellish decade very neatly: ‘If one wanted to crush and destroy [LiteracyWhore] entirely, to mete out to [her] the most terrible punishment, all one would have to do would be to make [her] do work that was completely and utterly devoid of usefulness and meaning.’ Now I work for myself, and can’t imagine doing anything else.
  4. I’m scared of daddy-long-legses (or craneflies, if you prefer). They are so much worse than spiders. I don’t much like spiders (except garden spiders – they’re awesome), but at least spiders are sensible creatures with a purpose and a bunch of skills. Plus, when disturbed they tend to scuttle away and are usually amenable to (nay, grateful for) being caught in a suitable receptacle and returned to the outside world. Craneflies, however, are utterly pointless and seem to delight in zooming about rooms that they shouldn’t be in, legs spread and quivering and making a noise that haunts my nightmares[1].
  5. Bees don’t sting me, even when I pick them up or plunge my hands into their hives. I did this once at the bee place in Portreath. According to the guy there, ‘some people smell like bees to bees’ and don’t need netting or smoke or whatever, a group of freaks that apparently includes me. There was a time when a swarm of bees settled in a garden belonging to friends of mine, where we were peacefully playing croquet, and I was able to pick up whichever ones I thought most interesting (and rescue several from concealed spider-webs) without so much as a suggestion of a sting. I am the Bee Whisperer. The only time I have been stung by a bee was when I found a queen bee in some grass and was so excited to see one up close that I picked her up to have a good look. She was freaking huge, not best pleased to be manhandled, and stung me viciously on the finger. I wonder if some people smell like queen bees to bees?
  6. Where other children might accidentally call their teacher ‘Mum’ or ‘Dad’ and then be mortified, I called my father ‘Sir’ at regular intervals throughout my childhood (and once or twice in adult life), which we both thought was just fine[2].
  7. I think almost everyone looks better in glasses, including Superman.
  8. I don’t like mushrooms. I don’t allow them into my kitchen: they linger outside in the hall on top of the boiler to dry out[3]. Then I put the horrid things into jars and give them away to understanding friends.
  9. I was once asked in an interview what my ideal job was. I can’t remember what my actual reply was, because I was putting so much energy into *not* saying ‘I want to be Colin Sell’[4] (it wasn’t a job that would have involved playing the piano).
  10. I am a tenor, and have been for about ten years (C below middle C on a good day when I have had a cold; C above middle C is very squeaky). I have sung with the same church choir for fourteen years, and the acceptance and joy I have found from doing so means everything to me.
  11. Some can sing; some can dance. I can make marmalade.

Answer eleven questions from Seymour

  1. Tattoo? Yes. I used to have one around my ankle, which read ‘Ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven’ (a quotation from the hymn ‘Praise My Soul The King of Heaven’) during a period of religious enthusiasm. If only I had channelled this energy into something more meaningful than a tattoo. I had it removed when the black ink went green, which hurt like hell but fortunately did not leave much of a scar.
  1. Have you ever collected anything a bit odd? Thimbles.
  1. If you had the time and money to further your education, what would you study? Theatrical costume design.
  1. In the Hollywood feature film of your life, who would you like to play the title role? Jennifer Grey, with her hair as per Dirty Dancing.
  1. What was the last song or piece of music you listened to? Ascendens Christus in altum’, by Tomás Luis de Victoria (I was learning it for Ascension Day). For pleasure, the last song I listened to was ‘Love Has Come For You’ (Steven Martin and Edie Brickell, from their new banjotastic album of the same name).
  1. If you were stuck in a lift for an hour, which historical figure would you most like to have for company? Maurice Sendak.
  1. What is the next book you hope to read? Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I’ve read it five or six times, but it’s an infinitely rewarding book that deserves to be read in times of crisis (and at other times, too).
  1. In a house fire, which of your possessions would you most like to save (apart from the house)? My laptop (which contains my novel and all my work) and as much of my fabric stash as I could carry.
  1. What would be your ultimate comfort food? Homemade meatballs with tomato sauce, spaghetti and lots of cheese.
  1. Where do you stand on politicians, from “I don’t vote” to “they are our only hope”? Women died so that I could have the vote. So I vote. But politicians continue to disappoint me, over and over[5].
  1. Could you summarise how you see your mission in life in a single sentence? (What would it be?) I am deeply suspicious of people who can summarise their mission in life in a single sentence (who has such an uncomplicated purpose?). Maybe it’s my mission in life to teach people the following thing: sometimes using more words is absolutely fine. More words can be clarifying, specific and elegant, while fewer words can mean that a message becomes smeared into something so vague and homogenised that it ceases to mean anything at all.

Pose eleven questions of my own for other bloggers to respond to

  1. Is making music purely for yourself and those you make it with and/or for, or should it be (at least a little) for the people that can hear you?
  2. Does a gift that has been made for you rather than purchased still mean more if you really, really hate it?
  3. Wings or a tail?
  4. Stripes or spots (or, most excitingly, both together)?
  5. Night owl or morning lark? Do you ever wish you were the other one?[6]
  6. Name some things that you wash but don’t iron (my list: sheets, duvet covers, underwear, towels, bath mats, flannels, tights, tea towels).
  7. Name some words that you love (my list: frangipani; anaglypta; cocoa; cruciform; crackerjack; anacrusis; circumflex; nostril; macaroon; thurible; tangerine; toad).
  8. Name some words that you hate (my list: moist; nasal; douche; boil; pouch; slick, esp. when used as a verb e.g. ‘slick on some lipstick’ argh argh).
  9. I once took four of my young nephews to Bristol Zoo, shuffling them to the front of the crowd around the lion enclosure just in time to see that the lions had decided this was an excellent moment to reaffirm their bond through the physical act of love. As an introduction to sex, what it lacked in intimacy and tenderness it made up for in snarling and clawing at the ground. However, when I thought about it afterwards I was at a loss as to what *would* constitute an appropriate introduction to sex for children under the age of ten. Discuss.
  10. I love textiles and I love music. However, I have a passionate hatred of textiles printed with musical notation. Musicians are always having this nonsense forced on them (‘look! It’s got music on it! And you like music, right?’ Good Lord). Do you have any similar beloved x + beloved y = hated z situations?
  11. Really, what is the point of Just For Men? I would really like to know.

Nominate eleven other bloggers

I just don’t read that many blogs, and several of those that I do read (Brainpickings, for example) don’t really need attention drawing to them. So I’ve nominated some that I think deserve to be better known.

  1. Seymour at Seymour Writes (yes, I know he’s already written a Leibster post, and this is my way of making it easy for you to read it);
  2. Emily at Through the Lattice (Seymour has already nominated her, but see above);
  3. Lilian at Bookmouse;
  4. Pete at Garden Naturalist, who really ought to blog more often. It’s been two years, man;
  5. Bakingbiologist;
  6. Alex at closetphysicist;
  7. Robin at Robin Coyle;
  8. Alice at Alice Laird;
  9. Andie at andiesplace;
  10. Catt at DECIPHer, although she’s probably not allowed to come out and play; and finally
  11. Mark at many headed monster (ditto, although he could always do this exercise from an early modern perspective).


[1] That’s what she said.

[2] He’s a teacher, not a knight of the realm. Maybe one day he’ll be both and *everyone* will have to call him Sir.

[3] I think of this as killing them. I know.

[4] I am a splashy pianist at best, so this would not end well.

[5] They also scare me, because (as I said) I get my news from the radio and am therefore prone to starting back in horror when confronted with photographs of public figures I am familiar with, but have never seen (‘GAH! Michael Gove! MY EYES!’).

[6] I’m writing this at fourteen minutes past midnight. Hoot.

Things that make me happy, part 2

  1. A good laundry day. Not a merely blusterous day, but one that is pleasingly warm and windy (much like my dear father post-Christmas pudding), and which causes the laundry to dry swiftly and evenly. A perfect laundry day is warm even first thing in the morning, so that I can peg it out in my pyjamas.
  2. Herbs. Especially the invasive, dominant ones, like mint and lemon balm. I like the cut of their jib.
  3. Wrens. The Latin name is Troglodytes troglodytes, so called because of their habit of venturing into small, cave-like apertures in search of food. In a hard winter, songbirds suffer and die, and none more so than the wren. This is because other songbirds will leave their nests and travel to warmer areas, or places where food is more abundant and shelter easier to come by. Wrens, however, are so territorial that they refuse to leave their tiny nests and, much like those people one reads about who refuse to leave their homes when threatened by floods, volcanoes or mudslides, prefer to die at home. Both the whimsical Latin name and homebody instinct are admirable, but I also like wrens because they behave as if they are unaware of how small they are. There is a pair living in my garden somewhere, and if one is foolish enough to place one’s deckchair too close to the nest, the male will perch on a nearby fencepost and shout (there is no other word for it) until one gives up and goes inside. I quite like the sound and can happily read through it, but he doesn’t care: he will stand there yelling ‘SPINK! SPINK SPINK! SPINK!’ for an hour or more, tail sticking straight up in the air in case I look at him in a funny way.
  4. Printed fabric. I like the stuff that I have plans for best (i.e. that which I anticipate wearing in one form or another), but just as folds and slices of delicious texture and colour, fabric is an endless source of pleasure. I am in the middle of altering a coffee-coloured dress printed with blue sailing boats, which involves replacing the straps, which are too short; replacing the pockets; taking the whole thing in at the front so it looks less like a massive nautical sack; and finally adding some kind of sash to hide the ugly seam across my middle, which is also too high. This requires two scrummy blue prints, one pale blue with little white lighthouses, and the other navy[1] with little anchors on it. I also have something in a seagull print in case either of these fail. Fabric stash win.

Reading back through this list, I notice that these are all things I can see from where I eat my breakfast. Breakfast is an odd time in the LiteracyWhore household. I have recently taken up fasting twice a week, which means skipping breakfast altogether and having a tiny lunch[2]. I haven’t, however, been able to give up sitting at the dining table in my favourite room in the house, with a cup of tea and a view over the garden. I am about to give up my lovely dining room, house and garden, and move out of the city that has been home for fifteen years, into a lovely flat, with a view of the sea and a nonapedal lighthouse. I will, therefore, be eating breakfast (or not eating breakfast, but sitting at the table nonetheless) in a new place, and expect a new list of Things That Make Me Happy to emerge in due course[3]. Here are some more things that make me happy, this time independent of breakfast: change. Friends. Tea. Coloured-headed pins. Understanding and support and lack of judgement, from people that know me, and from people that don’t. My blue glass coasters. The freedom to follow my instincts and trust myself. Stripey socks with spotty shoes. Moving out (and on) at my own speed. Purging my clothes and possessions, while also purging my soul. Deconstructing everything I thought I knew about love, and starting all over again from nothing, only to find that it isn’t nothing, but everything.


[1] Navy! Did you see what I did there?

[2] There’s a lot more to it than that, but those are the headlines. Today’s lunch: Ryvita and cottage cheese.

[3] Presumably including living alone for the first time in my life and not being pecked in the face by gulls.

Home Economics

(or, eating for £1 per day)

This post is prompted by an article by this guy, and a much more sensible blog post explaining why it is nonsense. I’m not going to recapitulate Aethelread the Unread’s perfectly cogent argument, since you can read it for yourself. However, here are some thoughts I had on the subject of food shopping.

i. Planning meals in advance. I have to do this because of my bowel condition (and because I’m a pedant). I limit my consumption of sticky stuff (bread, pastry and cheese), and processed meat (bacon, salami and sausages) because they are difficult to digest. This is also a strategy for keeping costs down, because otherwise one is trapped into the ridiculous position of buying, say, a lettuce[1] to use a few leaves, while the rest of the damn thing slowly turns into a slimy morass in the ironically-named crisper[2]. Unless one becomes a painfully precise food-burglar, one has paid for the whole damned lettuce, and therefore should plan to eat the whole damned lettuce.

ii. Shopping as little as possible. I hate shopping in supermarkets from the depths of my being. I begrudge every single minute I spend doing this. I hate supermarkets almost as much as I hate airports. One should not only factor in the cost to one’s purse and time, but to one’s soul.

iii. Transport. I don’t have a car. Doing lots of ‘little’ shops is time-consuming (people who are financially poor are also time-poor), esp. when you have to walk everywhere, and we’ve already established that I’m planning my meals in advance and hate shopping. So therefore doing one big shop makes a lot of sense. But hang on. I don’t have a car. Can I do a big weekly shop on foot? No chance: it’s too far and the bags are too heavy. Can I do a weekly big shop on the bus? Not easily, no, because of what I’m going to call the ‘shopping via the bus’ problem’.

iv. The shopping via the bus problem. Here is what taking the bus to the supermarket would entail: walk to bus stop; wait; take bus, which doesn’t go direct; get off; walk to supermarket; do shopping; walk back to bus stop carrying bags; wait some more; get back on bus; take circuitous route home; and then, finally, drag shopping through the streets, secure in the knowledge that i. by now, it is the middle of the night and ii. you get to do it all again in a week. I would probably be able to manage the walk from the bus stop carrying many heavy bags, because the bus stop is right outside my house, and I’m thirty-three and in good health, but someone with a small child would have no free hand with which to grasp their small child; someone in ill-health, or who was elderly (or weak from hunger) certainly could not; or might be tempted to buy things on the basis of whether they can carry, say, a bag of potatoes *and* a carton of fruit juice.

v. Comparison shopping. This is the biggest waste of time. Have you seen the smug Asda women crowded round their laptop tapping every single price in to see if they have saved themselves four pence by buying their scourers at Asda? Fuck off, smug Asda women. Who has the time? As we have already established, for someone who doesn’t have a car, the fact that the supermarket in the next town is slightly cheaper is information that they can’t do *anything* with, unless they are prepared to do their shopping via an even more inconvenient bus (see iv).

vi. Comparison shopping again. Comparison shopping does not always produce the results you think it might. I once did two identical shops at Waitrose (my closest supermarket at the time i.e. I could walk to it) and Tesco (which was the second-nearest, and required a ten-mile round trip to the next town). I bought the same brands in both supermarkets, and whenever I would buy Waitrose’s own brand stuff, I bought Tesco’s own brand. The Tesco shop was £1.50 cheaper. Once I factored in the petrol and my time, it was considerably more sensible to shop at Waitrose. I had a car at the time, so the ten-mile drive to Tesco was door-to-door and relatively quick. If I had taken the bus, however, it would have taken over ninety minutes (i.e. an entire evening) *and* cost more than the £1.50 I supposed to be saving.

Here’s where I’m going with this: I don’t think people should aspire to eat cheaply. Food is the only thing you buy that becomes part of you. I have learnt the hard way that it is incredibly important what you put into your body. Don’t fill it with cheap shit: this will not save you money or time in the long run, but will instead make you ill, fat and/or malnourished, and miserable. Think how wonderful food is, and how much pleasure it gives us – way out of all proportion to the purely biological function of sustaining us for a few hours. It matters whether you enjoyed your breakfast today[3]. It matters whether you are looking forward to your dinner[4]. It also matters where food comes from, what’s in it, who grew it/made it/harvested it, and how, and where. Instead of aspiring to eat cheaply, therefore, I think people should aspire to eat economically.

Cheap food is variable in quality and morality (it’s cheap for a reason e.g. it’s made of shoes). It may not have cost you very much, but it cost somebody somewhere. Moreover, eating economically is much more about what you cook and how little you waste than it is about what you bought in the first place. A chicken, for example, is an incredibly economical thing to buy, regardless of whether you buy a super-duper organic Happy Chicken for, I don’t know, £12. You get a roast lunch out of it; then you get a curry or enchiladas or sandwiches out of the leftover meat; then you get two pints of chicken stock out of the bones, which you can use to make a risotto or soup or both (contrast that with a pair of chicken breasts, which will make one rather uninteresting meal). I can make a chicken feed four people four times. If it can do that, it damn well ought to cost £12.

If I were ever to write a cookery book, it would be called Leftovers: Hell Yeah! and it would consist entirely of recipes called things like ‘Three Things You Can Make Using The Leftovers Of The Thing On The Previous Page. You Know, The Thing With The Beans’. The aim would be to throw absolutely nothing away and each chapter would be about how not to waste stuff (e.g. ‘Things You Can Do With Leftover Yoghurt #403: eat the Goddamn yoghurt’)[5]. The focus would be on planning to cook sensible, economical things and then buying stuff accordingly; not going to the supermarket, buying whatever was cheap and then throwing half of it away because a packet of hundreds-and-thousands, a tin of kidney beans, a questionable turnip, some elderly plums and a bottle of washing up liquid doesn’t actually constitute a meal, and anyway you had no idea what to do with the questionable turnips that were left over, and, oh dear, you bought eight of them because it was cheaper per turnip to buy eight even though you only wanted one.

Eating economically, for me, consists of doing the following things:

  1. Not throwing anything away. Vegetables that look sad and old? Soup. Unidentified lentils? Soak them just in case and put them in soup or curry. One slice of bacon left? Omelette. Two small hard pieces of bread? Toast, but also, why did you buy such a big loaf, moron?[6] Glut of tomatoes? You could make pasta sauce or chutney, but really, the point is that if you are throwing stuff away because it went funny before you got round to eating it, the problem isn’t just what you’re cooking: it’s the quantities that you are buying.
  2. Growing stuff that’s really expensive. Chillies are really expensive, but easy to grow and taste much better fresh. Ditto herbs of almost all varieties.
  3. Making stuff from scratch. Some things are not worth the effort (consensus reached between myself and my friend K1: pasta, croissants, gnocchi and brioche are Not Worth It). Ice-cream, however, is dead easy, esp. if you have an ice-cream maker to do the annoying churny bit for you; as is custard; as are scotch eggs, pancakes, porridge[7], and pretty much everything else I like cooking.
  4. Planning food based on what I have already that needs eating. This week’s menu, for example, is based around the fact that I have three eggs (eggs and K2′s leftover ham tomorrow night, with toast and fried potatoes); leftover chicken noodle soup (dinner tonight); some bread (toast for breakfast tomorrow); two pathetic furry turnips (more soup); and some asparagus, which I don’t like (I’ll be feeding this to K2 and P for dinner on Friday, which means I don’t have to eat any of it but it still doesn’t go to waste).
  5. Using the hob rather than the oven. The oven is more expensive than the hob, so if I use the oven it has at least two things in it. I also cook things that can be hob- or oven-based on the hob (e.g. my amazing white chocolate rice pudding [8]).
  6. Making meals out of other meals. With leftovers! Hell yeah!


[1] I never buy lettuce. I hate lettuce. It tastes of nothing and takes up space in a sandwich where there could be more of the stuff that goes in the sandwich that you actually wanted. Plus, it’s not good in soup and is therefore Not Food. It’s only a good example if you imagine someone other than me buying and eating it.

[2] I’m looking at you, Milligan. You bought the whole damn lettuce, didn’t you? Then eat the whole damn lettuce, you cretin, and include the cost of the whole damn lettuce in your patronising calculations. Buying four tons of lentils might be the cheapest way to buy lentils per lentil, but you still need to have enough money to make the initial outlay. And a kitchen large enough to store your lifetime supply of lentils. And some idea of how to soak and cook lentils. And some way of preserving the lentils so that they don’t go funny before you’ve eaten them. And some other stuff to eat with the lentils so that a. you don’t get malnutrition and b. the lentils taste of something. And you have to really, really like lentils, and hope that everyone in your house really, really likes lentils, because you just bought a metric fuckton of lentils, and people who are *actually* worried about the amount of money they spend on food don’t just buy four hundred eggs and exclaim over how cheap this was and why don’t people on benefits do this more. They buy what they can afford, and they eat all of it.

[3] I did. I had toast, with homemade greengage and blackberry jam. It was delicious.

[4] I am. I’m having homemade chicken, courgette and noodle soup. I made it yesterday, so I don’t even have to chop stuff up. Om nom nom.

[5] Things You Can Do With Leftover Yoghurt #404: half a tub of yoghurt you aren’t quite sure about and a handful of dubious carrots can be made into yummy soda bread by simply adding lemon juice, thyme, bicarbonate of soda and flour. Plus it doesn’t require any kneading or proving. It’s essentially bread without the making bread bit.

[6] The point is don’t buy more than you need, even if buying more than you need costs less than buying exactly how much you want. If you wanted two pairs of socks and two pairs of socks cost £4, but six pairs of socks cost £8, you should buy two pairs at £4. If you buy six pairs for £8, what you’ve done is to buy two pairs of socks for £4, and then another four pairs that you didn’t need for another £4 that you didn’t need to spend (plus, the £8 socks are probably cheaper per sock because they’re made from dental floss). If you think £4 is a fair price for two pairs of socks, just pay it, take the socks home, wear them and feel good about it. Even if six pairs cost £3, buying three times the amount you need only makes financial sense if you can think of something to do with the four pairs of socks that you now unaccountably own. This is why the natural resources of the world are exhausted: uncontrolled consumption of stuff you don’t need, didn’t really want and felt you had to buy for reasons you can’t explain.

[7] Scottish food = awesome.

[8] You may want my white chocolate rice pudding recipe, but it’s better for everyone, and your waistline in particular, if you don’t have it.

The day after New Year’s Day

For all that has been, thank you. For all that is to come, Yes![1]

Garden Naturalist and I spent the afternoon of the day after New Year’s Day pruning our dead tree. The dead tree is about sixty feet from the house, and at first glance does not appear to be dead, because it acts like a frame for a monstrous rambling rose and a clematis montana. Both have grown to massive proportions and when they bloom, the entire weird collaboration is a temple of pink and white flowers that can be seen from the other side of the valley. Nevertheless, the tree is most definitely dead, and has been for some time. We agreed that the time had finally come to chop down as much of it as possible before it either fell down or took over the garden completely (recall the rambling rose in Noggin the Nog, which I believe consumed an entire house). We cut off as many branches as we could reach, resulting in an enormous pile of wood; another enormous pile of spiky rose-twigs; and a third and most enormous pile of dead clematis. We both worked hard, bleeding in a dozen places from shallow cuts and nicks, at opposite ends of the garden: Garden Naturalist up a ladder with loppers, I by the house with a selection of saws, hacking the largest pieces into useful lengths to go on the fire.

The story I wish to tell here is twofold. Firstly, this is what we spent our afternoon doing. A few minutes after we came into the house, laden with logs and twigs and flushed with the cold, we had a telephone call that resulted in us spending the remains of the day in a car and then a hospital, and then, after witnessing a mercifully brief but very courageous struggle with death, a car and a strange bed. Secondly, three weeks earlier, we had finally made the decision to end our marriage. It is testament to how much we still care for each other that we were capable of handling the intervening weeks; Christmas Day; New Year’s Day; and then, on the day I am talking about here, a large and symbolically irritating task of repetitive physical labour (married readers will know that, in the darker moments, a marriage can feel like little more than that); and then the tense, twilit drive; the hospital; and the aftermath of all that it brought, supporting and holding each other the whole time. I had been thinking about endings and beginnings and decisions and difficult choices for a few days (as per my introspective teenaged self: ‘I might be forgiven for beginning with several observations regarding the past year’). I made a new and shiny resolution to be a more committed friend (to Garden Naturalist, of course, but to everyone else as well) and felt terribly brave and optimistic, as one does when everything one intends to change is safely inside one’s own head. The lesson for me here, which is what I want to share, is this: love can be changed, lost and found again, and still be love. People can change, leave us and not return, and yet still be people that we love and miss. Of course neither the love nor the person is the same, but we should not need them to be. What I am talking about here, therefore, is not New Year’s Day, but the day after that, and the day after that, and the day after that: the days on which one has to follow through. For all that has been, thank you. For all that is to come, yes. Yes. A thousand times, yes.


[1] Dag Hammarskjöld, who was a Swedish diplomat and writer. In 1961 he became the only UN Secretary-General to be killed in office, on his way to negotiate a ceasefire in what was then Northern Rhodesia. Far more interesting (and relevant) here, however, his only published book (Vägmärken, usually translated as Markings) is constructed from diary entries, from the volumes that he kept from the age of twenty right up until his death.


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