The Filthy Comma

The lucky seven meme

The rules of the Lucky Seven Meme say that one is supposed to go to page 7 or 77 of one’s current manuscript; go to line seven; and then post on your blog the next seven lines or sentences. I’ve already done this once, a couple of years ago when I hadn’t had the blog very long, but I’ve done so much work on the book in the intervening period (including indulging myself by spending the whole of this afternoon writing), that I thought it might be fun to repeat the exercise with two new paragraphs, which appear below.

For the first quotation from page 7 (chapter 1), I’ve included two more sentences for free so that the paragraph remains whole. The novel has two narrators, and these words are from Jayne. Her mother is referring to the way in which cats produce multiple litters of kittens throughout the year, if allowed to do so (she is quoting from Doris Lessing’s thoughtful and idiosyncratic book Particularly Cats). For the second passage, the lasso happened to fall neatly around an intact paragraph from page 77 (the beginning of chapter 8), which comes from the other narrator, Alice (Jayne’s teenaged daughter). It’s striking to me the coincidence of subject matter between these two passages.

(page 7)

“You can have Marmite with that,” she snapped as I reached for the jam. “But not jam. Your sister has already finished the jar I was saving for the sponge.” She snatched the jam away and nestled it against her tea. “They have dozens, four or five times a year if you let them, five or six to a litter, over and over.” She jabbed at the book. “It says here that in the wild–” she waved her hand at the wretched square of grass outside the window “–cats lose at least half their litters to birds of prey. It says here–” and here she traced her man’s hand’s finger under the line that interested her “–a litter of six kittens in a warm basket in a town house can be seen, perhaps, as eagle and hawk fodder in the wrong place.” I sat quietly, transfixed by the grasping talons crashing silently out of the sky, crushing the furry ribcage, plucking out the eyes, gobbling up the heart. Mother snorted. “Perhaps,” she repeated.

(page 77)

Father likes us to go walking as a family. This usually takes place by the river (or, on bad days, in the river, such as when Hugh has accidentally flung a glove into the water with an expansive but wild gesture and must slither down the bank to retrieve it). Hugh and I walk together like normal people; Father strides on ahead with an imaginary dog; Mother generally lags behind. Hugh and I rather enjoy these attempts at family unity and use the time to exchange thoughts and ideas. We might discuss, for example, the domestication of animals.

A bit like the rubella jab

Many important things happened this week. Two of them were as follows: Dr Maya Angelou died, and a mentally unstable racist and misogynist shot some women.

Straight away, I’ve reduced both those things in terms of detail, impact and nuance: I haven’t explained who Maya Angelou was, how she died or why it’s important. Similarly, ‘shot some women’ ignores the numbers involved (could be four; could be forty), ignores the men who died (there were actually more male victims than female) and didn’t name any of the people involved. It’s that tendency to reduce complex stories to a few words, how that causes us to lose accuracy and detail, and how that in turn compromises our ability to have a sensible debate prompted by events, that I want to talk about here.

First of all, let’s un-collapse the two statements above, starting with Dr Maya Angelou, who died this week aged eighty-six. As one might expect from someone with many talents and a long life, she made substantial contributions to many fields in many different ways. She was a dancer and actor, but also a director, playwright, scriptwriter and composer. She wrote the script and composed the score for the 1972 film Georgia. Her script was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize and Georgia was the first film ever made with a script by an African-American woman. She was a political activist: she knew both Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, was consulted by several presidents, and believed in (and campaigned for) marital equality. She was a journalist, writing for The African Review and the Ghanaian Times and editing The Arab Observer (living and teaching in Africa while she did so). She was professor of American Studies at Wake Forest. She won three Grammy awards. She spoke six languages. I’m also making sure to use the prefix ‘Dr’ lots of times because I have read that she placed a great premium on politeness and formality. Dr Angelou was best known as a writer and poet, of course, and in particular for her first and best-known collection I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. The first poem of hers I ever encountered was ‘And Still I Rise’, which was part of my GCSE anthology. Modern technology allows us to hear her reciting her own work, and it’s a rather more compelling experience than reading it aloud line by line in a classroom. She recites from memory, as if the words have just come to her as she is sitting there (with the possible exception of the late Clive Merrison[1], she also has the best laugh I’ve ever heard). Dr. Angelou died quietly in her sleep, and her death is important because it causes us to reflect upon her life, and why that is important.

The ‘mentally unstable racist and misogynist’ I referred to above is Elliot Rodger. His online rants make it clear that he hated women for rejecting him sexually, and that he hated men for having access to sex that he didn’t. He killed four men and two women. Their names are as follows: Cheng Yuan Hong, George Chen, Weihan Wang and Christopher Martinez. The women were Katherine Cooper and Veronika Weiss. You will notice that the first three men I named have Asian names (they were Rodger’s two roommates and a friend of theirs), and hence my use of the word ‘racist’ because in this case the two different prejudices are intertwined: Rodger described Asians as ‘repulsive’ and attributed some of his own failure with women to his racial background (he was half-Asian), before then stabbing three Asian men for being more sexually successful than he was. No, that doesn’t make any sense, but see above where I said he was ‘mentally unstable’. I don’t think I need to prove that Rodger was mentally unstable, because that’s at a tangent to what I want to say, and also because it seems clear from what has come from Rodger himself that some of the cogs were rattling around in the box. I also don’t think I need to justify my use of the word ‘misogynist’, because he just killed six people to make himself feel better about his lack of sexual success. However, if proof were needed, here is a sentence from his ‘manifesto’:

Women should not have the right to choose who to mate with. That choice should be made for them by civilised men of intelligence.

I’ve read some comments online from people proud of their own ability to do maths, who say that a man who kills four men because they can get sex and he can’t isn’t a misogynist if he only kills two women. That’s nonsense. First of all, these are clearly primarily opportunistic killings, since he didn’t actually know either of the women and only two of the men. Neither of the women had rejected him and it seems that none of the men ‘stole’ women from him. Secondly, a person who thinks men are entitled to sex is a misogynist, regardless of who they then choose to take their ensuing rage out on. Plenty of good men are caught in the crossfire of domestic violence and misogyny, sometimes literally. The boyfriends, husbands and friends of women who are the intended targets are also at risk, and it doesn’t make sense to say that *only women* who are hurt by men who want to treat women as possessions are the victims of misogyny. These four men were killed because of the racist and misogynist beliefs of Elliot Rodger, and his mental fragility, and how easy it is to get hold of knives and guns. In the wake of these murders (and Elliot Rodger’s suicide), there has been a lot of discussion, online and elsewhere, about violence towards women (#Yesallwomen; #Notallmen and so forth). I don’t use Twitter so I’m not going to comment on that specifically. Instead, what I want to think about here is why we can’t seem to have more nuanced, grown-up discussions.

Dr. Maya Angelou’s death has lead to a proliferation of inspirational quotes (some taken from her work, some not). She was unquestionably an inspiring woman and her work is eminently quotable, but I find this reductionist. It’s straight out of the Oprah Winfrey school of therapy, where the things that help you deal with your problems are not reflection, friends and getting professional help, but pithy sentences printed on the sleeves of coffee cups (I know Maya Angelou was Oprah Winfrey’s friend and mentor, but I think the point still stands). Try Googling ‘Maya Angelou’ and you will find that ‘Maya Angelou quotes’ appears above ‘Maya Angelou poems’, for example. I don’t think this is an adequate way to mark the life of such a person.

I think that in this tendency to want (or need) to reduce complex things to simple labels, we can also see some of the reasons that misogyny continues to exist. There is no simple answer or single change that will prevent violence against women (and men), because the people that commit these crimes, large and small, do so for their own particular reasons. Each case needs to be examined carefully, not lumped together with others that seem similar so that we can declare that violent films (or heavy metal, or poor parenting, or Rush Limbaugh)[2] are the sole cause of everything we’ve chosen to put in that category. One of the reasons that misogyny continues to exist, for example, is that even good, decent men and good, decent women struggle to eradicate it from their own thoughts and behaviour, and one of the reasons they struggle to do so is that we have such bland, blanket labels to work with: OK and Not OK.

For example, I read a post from a confused man this morning saying that he always asks him wife’s permission before they have sex, and was this OK? Responses (all from women) ranged from ‘of course. It’s called consent’ to ‘of course not. Sex is something you do together.’ I honestly can’t provide a yes/no answer to this question, and I think that’s part of the problem: not every question has (or should have) a yes/no answer. If that particular man and his wife think it’s important that he asks permission, and if that is part of how he shows that he respects her, good for them. It could also so easily be part of a commodification of sex, in which the man is only allowed to ‘purchase’ a certain amount of sex from the woman when she says it’s in stock (and after he’s ‘paid’ for it in some way, perhaps). We also don’t know whether the consent she’s giving is meaningful (we don’t know if she’s allowed to change her mind, or whether he pesters or coerces her). I don’t like the idea that I’m doing my husband a favour by having sex with him, or that he needs to ask my permission (but I don’t need to ask his?). Here’s a simpler, more everyday example: a man opening a door for a woman can be a kind, polite and respectful act *or* it can be patronising, mocking and old-fashioned. You have to be there in order to see how it was done, what the context was and who the people involved were, so that you could judge for yourself.

What I’m driving at here is that of course there are some behaviours that go straight in the ‘don’t ever do that’ pile, but I think there is also a huge grey area, in which men and women blunder about, trying to figure out if they’re being offensive/offended or not. The fact that the grey area exists, and that both men and women seem confused about what is OK and what is not, gives misogynists a place to hide. It allows them to say ‘feminists can’t make up their minds’ and to complain about how difficult it is to be a modern man. When they are told off for doing/saying something unacceptable, they get to say that they don’t know what the rules are and so can’t be blamed for breaking them. That’s not good enough. We need to be able to have a more nuanced (and more balanced) discussion of these issues so that people can’t make that excuse. Yes, all women know real misogyny when we experience it. We need to learn to identify it when we are told about it, too. We need to educate men and women to understand that the context, nuance and the intention of what was done or said is what makes it acceptable or not. Nothing else (*nothing* else) is relevant: not clothing, not drunkenness, not marriage, not age, not culture, not previous behaviour.

This morning, I have read an enormous number of stories from women talking about their own experiences of rape, sexual assault and misogyny, and they’re all appalling, as is the sheer number of them, and how many of these women received further abuse from people they confided in, including from other women. The lack of nuance in some of the responses to these stories is deeply depressing, lumping them all together so that a blanket statement can be made, about how men or women (or parents, or the police) should change their behaviour to make things better. That isn’t going to work, not because the changes being suggested are facile (although a lot of them are. 8pm curfew in university towns, anyone?), but because the nuances of the different stories have been lost. You would not lump together all the sick people in a hospital and give them all the same advice (‘eat more fruit’, say). Similarly, the celebrities who have been in the news recently (Jimmy Saville, Stuart Hall, DLT, Max Clifford and so forth) and their systematic abuse of vulnerable girls and women are just as appalling as (but also very different from) family members that abuse younger relatives, or vicars/teachers/scout masters who take advantage of the children in their care, or husbands that beat their wives and children, or burglars that rape frightened old women, or creepy colleagues that feel entitled to touch you up whenever you are unwise enough to make yourself a cup of tea. I’ve just grouped four male celebrities of similar age and habits together for the purposes of making a point, but if you examine those cases individually, they are all different from each other again. Just as you need different methods and tools to clean crap off different surfaces, we need different methods to tackle these different manifestations of the same thing. Just as we can do better than to reduce Maya Angelou to a single sound-bite, we can do better than to simply advise women to dress conservatively and carry pepper spray. So many of the stories I have read in which women *did* report what had happened to them described being met with ‘slut-shaming’ i.e. questions about their clothing and behaviour. This isn’t just misogyny reflecting back on itself, but part of the search for a quick, simple fix that will make everything better without anybody having to do any proper thinking. As long as there are men (and women) who think that women owe men some sex, and that they signal this through the way in which they walk, dress, flirt or stand (rather than what they say), the sense of entitlement and confusion that Elliot Rodger felt will continue.

Alan Alda likens misogyny to disease (specifically polio), and asks why we can eradicate one but not the other (why indeed?), and it’s a compelling analogy. Misogyny is like an illness that some people have chronically and cripplingly, but that makes almost everyone cough or sneeze from time to time. Feminism needs to be something that men buy into, and that they feel included in. Feminism doesn’t say that men are animals that need to get themselves under control. Feminism says that men are people, and women are people, and everyone deserves respect. Feminism actually does men the courtesy of expecting them to be civilised. If I may over-stretch the medical analogy, it feels to me sometimes that feminism is a bit like the rubella jab: only women are entitled to it, and only the ones that were at school that day.

————————————————————————————–

[1] Merrison is my favourite Sherlock Holmes in sound only (although of course I also love Benedict Cumberbatch, Jeremy Brett and the rather wonderful Richard Roxborough, who played Holmes in an adaptation of The Hound of the Baskervilles a few years ago that I don’t think has been bettered). Clive Merrison’s diction and tone are perfection, with the (surprisingly dirty) laugh the cherry on the cake.

[2] Rush Limbaugh thinks the Hunger Games are to blame for these murders, because Rodger’s father works on the series and the series involves people killing other people. If I kill some people this afternoon and leave a YouTube video saying that my reasons for doing so are important, nuanced and relevant to any subsequent discussion, is my father’s tendency to bark ‘that’s irrelevant’ at people relevant?

An unparalleled display of shawms

A cursory glance at the walls of a friend’s room, house or other similar display of personal effects is likely to contain pictures of them in Foreign Parts. An unscientific trawl through Facebook pages today included pictures of friends and acquaintances riding elephants, posing on or near the Great Wall of China, the Taj Mahal, Machu Picchu, or in one way or another recording their presence in some country than isn’t Britain. I leave aside the wider (but not very interesting) question of why people put so many photographs of themselves on Facebook at all. One friend of mine has over three thousand photographs of himself on his Facebook account, a large number of which show him in semi-darkness, gurning in a desperate, out-of-focus sort of way, with no caption or explanation as to where he is or what he might be doing beyond the cryptic album titles (‘Mobile uploads'; ‘Found on memory stick'; ‘untitled’). Instead, I want to consider why it is that anybody travels to another country if they don’t have to i.e. the phenomenon that is the foreign holiday.[i]

I like a city break as much as the next man, but if I’m honest I can’t stand more than four or five days in (say) Copenhagen before I start to feel like a leech and a fraud.[ii] I feel like a leech because here I am, spending my own hard-earned money on nothing but my own pleasure: taking myself to art galleries, museums and parks, eating out three times a day, speaking another language (extremely poorly and only when I need to order food) and generally wandering about Looking At Stuff. I feel like a fraud because I know I can’t really afford to do this. One of the best days Garden Naturalist and I ever had on a city break was during a trip to Brussels, when we went to the Museum of Musical Instruments. I think one of the reasons we enjoyed it so much (beyond an unparalleled display of shawms and medieval bagpipery) is that it cost us very little. By accident, we had arrived on the one day of the month when entry to the museum happens to be free, thereby saving ourselves ten euros or so. This, in turn, made us feel that we could afford to eat in the museum restaurant, which is on the roof and has a spectacular view across the city. While doing so, we heard an announcement that there was about to be a (free) performance downstairs of a trio, playing dulcimer, piano and double bass, starting about five minutes after we expected to finish our lunch. We watched the entire performance, sitting on the steps up to the exhibition of proto-oboes. The three middle-aged musicians were astonishing, particularly the dulcimer player (an instrument I had never seen played before).

Dulcimer

Thus, we were kept amused, educated and busy for most of a day, paying only for food. Most city breaks, however (and I’m thinking particularly of cities like Vienna) are ruinously expensive if one isn’t careful, which in turn (for me) produces pressure to be squeezing as much fun or edification as possible out of the experience at all times. This has become even more the case since going freelance fulltime, because I now know exactly how many hours it has taken me to earn whatever sum I have just dropped on a boat trip up the Seine or whatever.

Fundamentally, I cannot reconcile myself to the idea that travel in and of itself makes one a better or more interesting person. With the exception of the Louvre, I have been to all the major museums in Paris. I’ve enjoyed this enormously, but I struggle with the notion that anyone other than myself has been enriched by this (and even more with the idea of articulating exactly how I feel I have been enriched). A longer, less intense trip produces the same, nagging sense of ‘unentitlement’. My first trip to China was in 2008 and Garden Naturalist and I saved up around £2,000 to pay for three weeks of holiday, visiting Xi’an, Beijing and Shanghai. Again, we had an amazing time, visiting most of the places and things that you visit when you go to Xi’an (terracotta warriors, hot springs, towers, street fountains), Beijing (Great Wall) and Shanghai (the Bund and, for me, the textile museum). I’m sure we were both enriched by the experience in some ill-defined way, and the trip certainly achieved its other two stated objectives: to spend time with my father; and to get me away from Britain altogether, so that I could recover from the horrible job I had just quit, while at the same time being totally inaccessible to any of the people I no longer worked with who might want to ask me questions or persuade me to come back to work on a temporary basis.[iii] The ‘enrichment’, however, I find an elusive concept. The idea of planning either a city break-type trip, or a longer visit to one particular place, feels enormously self-indulgent. Yes, I would have a wonderful time, in exchange for my hard-earned cash. I would learn a lot and meet people and look at foreign whatnots and eat foreign food. Good for me. Is that really a good use of that money? Is travel simply to broaden one’s mind (and I am not at all sure that it has been proved that travel achieves this) legitimate?

The conclusion I have come to is that I am unsuited to holidays abroad in which the ‘seeing the sights’ part is longer than three or four days. It makes me uncomfortable (almost itchy). Holidays in my own country don’t make me uncomfortable, and I think this is because having the language means I can be less of a parasite: I can buy food and cook for myself, read signs and notices and navigate accordingly. This in turn makes it easier to feel that I am (temporarily) ‘living in’ whichever place I am visiting, rather than clamping myself to it like a limpet for a few days, sucking out £500-worth of pleasure, and then going home again. My annual trip to China, for example, typically consists of four or five days of fun-time (this overlaps with ‘recovering from jetlag’ time), followed by a week of hard work. This balance suits me: I work incredibly hard for a week (and am paid accordingly), and so feel I have earned the fun-time that precedes it. When people ask me why I’m in/going to China, I say ‘I’m here to work’. That feels legitimate: I am here to be enriched by the experience, certainly, but my primary purpose is to give something to, or do something for, the country I am visiting at that moment.

Giant Bear and I have just returned from our honeymoon, which consisted of three days in Cornwall and a week in a narrowboat on the Worcester-Birmingham canal. We had incredible weather, more like Corfu in summer than Britain in April: clear, burnished blue skies that allowed us to do honeymooner things like walking hand-in-hand on the beach and pointing out each other’s sunburn. It never occurred to us to have a foreign honeymoon, but if we had, I don’t think I would have felt able (allowed?) to enjoy it fully. Other considerations aside, Britain is really very beautiful and I don’t feel I have explored even a tenth of what home has to offer. I have also come the wider conclusion that perhaps mind-broadening comes from what you do, who you are with and what you bring to the encounter, rather than where the encounter takes place. This is similar to my thoughts on education expressed in a previous post, in that I remain unconvinced that simply sitting through an education produces anything worthwhile: you need to know why you are there, and what you are supposed to be getting out of it. I think the same thing has to apply to foreign travel: it is simply so costly, both environmentally and financially. If I’m not sure what the object of the exercise is, as I remember saying to an unnamed and slightly creepy man in a pub many years ago who offered to buy me a drink, I think I’d rather have the cash.

——————————————————————————————————————————————

[i] Or, as Edwin Starr might have phrased it, ‘Travel! Huh! Good God, y’all! What is it good for?

[ii] I considered calling this post ‘The fraudulent leech’ as a sort of companion piece to ‘The uncharitable goat‘, but decided on balance that this might have been misleading.

[iii] I discovered later than it took several months for them to appoint a replacement – they hadn’t even drafted an advert by the time I left, even though I gave three months’ notice.

Why Don’t You Do Right?

I have a bad habit of attempting to influence the reading habits of my students, both covertly and overtly. For example, a recent seminar on footnotes and referencing used examples drawn exclusively from the explorer geek section of my non-fiction library, specifically Thor Heyerdahl, Alan Moorehead and Peter Fleming.[1] In an attempt to encourage my students to improve their writing and reading habits, I also recommended some of my favourite non-fiction titles to them. These included Annie Dillard’s dreamy book Pilgrim at Tinker Creek; The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, which should be compulsory reading material for everyone entering medicine or any related profession; and The Fatal Englishman by Sebastian Faulks.[2]

The Fatal Englishman has a number of proofreading and editing errors that make it professionally distracting to read: for example, there are several plurals rendered possessive with the grocer’s apostrophe, particularly in the middle section on Richard Hillary, and several instances of inelegant repetition that one would have expected a sensible copy-editor to quietly remove, as an alert waitress might sweep crumbs off a table before allowing the next patron to choose a seat.[3] It is also a great pity that the publisher’s budget did not run to printing the plates of Kit Wood’s art in colour, to complement and possibly illuminate Faulks’s careful analysis of Wood’s narrow colour palette in his later work. Nevertheless, it is a fascinating book, beautifully written in many places and showing a sensitive, concise and deft handling of the three young men that make up its subject that other biographers would do well to emulate; I very seldom read biographies because they are so often dreary, with events filtered by what the biographer is able to substantiate rather than what is actually interesting. I can’t get on with Faulks’s fiction, but this venture into non-fiction speaks to me. It contains three brief but detailed accounts of promising young men who died early and tragic deaths: Kit Wood, an artist who died at his own hand after many years of opium abuse; Richard Hillary, a pilot and writer, killed in a ’plane crash; and Jeremy Wolfenden.

Wolfenden’s profession and death are less clear-cut. The lives of Hillary and Wood both seemed to me to be dominated by their respective passions. The account of Kit Wood’s life makes it clear that he was driven by an overwhelming need to convey his artistic vision; similarly, Hillary seems to have been as much consumed by flames as he was by his own internal need to fly and to write about it. Both men, it seems to me, died as a consequence of being unable to balance the needs of their calling with their own physical frailty. Wolfenden, by contrast, is a clear example of someone unable to realise his talents in a meaningful way for reasons that seem to slither about the more one attempts to grasp them. He eventually slid into journalism and then espionage, apparently for lack of anything better to do; his death occurred in mysterious circumstances, but was probably a result of alcohol abuse one way or another. Again, drinking seems to have been something he did out of a sort of languid pointlessness, as if the idea that something more challenging or rewarding might exist had been scotched in early childhood. Although I find Wood and Hillary more compelling than Wolfenden (isn’t passion always more compelling than lassitude?), it’s Wolfenden that has given me the idea for this post.

Faulks makes the following observation: ‘None of the four Wolfenden children ‘achieved’ anything in the sense their father would have understood. This would not matter if they had seemed happier or more fulfilled in other ways.’[4] Faulks makes it clear that Jeremy Wolfenden was superbly gifted, so why didn’t he achieve more? Why didn’t he write a dazzling novel, play or collection of poetry? Why didn’t he stun the world of journalism, politics or indeed anyone outside the immediate circle of his acquaintance with his brain and wit? This inability to convert one’s gifts into socially-acceptable and comprehensible success is something I have noticed in my own life, and those of my friends. Two of the cleverest people I know, for example (S and H), have both struggled to realise their gifts. Both went to Cambridge and got first-class degrees. S is currently in the final stages of a PhD, but had many years in the wilderness prior to re-entering the sanctuary of academia, and H, the brightest physicist of her cohort, is an accountant. My Chinese students are under the impression that a first from Cambridge will open the world to them like a picture book, but that hasn’t been the case here. For myself, being top of the class for most of my school career (in my chosen subject, at least) converted into feeling thoroughly baffled for much of my time at university as to really, exactly what it was I was being asked to do and why (nobody seemed to be able to articulate it); finishing university with no real idea of what I wanted to do in exchange for money; wandering into a career in university administration that ruined my health; and now working for myself: happily and regularly, but below the income tax threshold. I could easily name another half-dozen friends with similar stories of academic success that then fails to convert into anything very much. What the hell happened to all of us?[5]

My theory is that school and university don’t (and in their present structure, can’t) do the job they appear to set out to do. It isn’t that academia fails students, or that academic success is meaningless, or even that academic success only means something in an academic context (although all of these statements have some truth in them, I think). It’s also not that academic success doesn’t convert into professional or personal success (clearly, for many people, it does). I think it’s that, very often, academic success fails to convert into what one has been lead to expect. Faulks quotes Wolfenden’s friend Colin Falck as follows: ‘[Wolfenden's] inability to find a way to live and be happy seemed not so much a personal failure as somehow a failure of all the English structures and systems that had produced him.’[6] This has the ring of truth to it, as does the whole of Faulks’s account of Wolfenden’s largely wasted gifts and opportunities: he simply didn’t know what to do with them. He was being prepared for something, but nobody knew what.

Other reading (Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance in particular) suggests that participating in any form of education or training that one has not chosen to participate in is wasted time.[7] The point I want to suggest here is slightly different: I wonder if education or training where the point of what you are learning has not been made clear is a waste of time? In my own teaching, I am very careful to explain to my students at the beginning of each session why they need to know what I’m about to tell them, when they should expect it to be useful to them and how to rediscover the salient information at that point. For example, in a seminar about the correct way to footnote an essay, I might explain to them the consequences of not footnoting correctly; I might then suggest some points in the essay-writing process at which they should engage with the process of citing primary and secondary literature in a way that will meet the relevant requirements; and I might also point them towards useful online resources, encourage them to make helpful notes of their own, and provide a condensed ‘crib sheet’ of the take-home messages afterwards. We are all very clear what the point of us being in a room together is, and why whatever we are learning about is important.

This particular group of students are studying a foundation year prior to university, and so they are also very clear what the value of university study is and why they should want to pursue it. I’m not sure that’s true of school, however – neither the individual lessons nor the wider concept. Personally, I feel pretty cheated that working hard at school and university and jumping through all the hoops I was asked to jump through hasn’t resulted in a fulfilling job and heaps o’ cash.[8] That’s not because I feel I ‘deserve’ those things, but simply because that’s what I was lead to expect as a reward for all that work. The chain of logic that linked ‘working hard now’ to ‘fulfilling job and heaps o’ cash’ was never clearly articulated or explained, however, which leaves me wondering this: did I misunderstand the point of what we were doing, or did I fill in the blanks, in the absence of any real explanation?

What is the point of an education? Is it to prepare you specifically for employment in a profession that you choose in your teenage years? If that’s the case, I think a much stronger argument could be made for dropping subjects that have nothing to do with one’s proposed career much earlier in the process, to focus in on what is actually relevant. Is it to prepare you for life in general? If that’s the case, then surely the opposite approach should be taken, giving each student a broad base of subject knowledge and skills, on the grounds that many of these will be relevant both in and out of the workplace.[9] If one attempted to retrofit this idea, a quick examination of a randomly-chosen sample of schools shows that some schools take the focused approach and some the broad. In other words, they don’t know either.

Muriel Spark explores the etymology of the word ‘education’ (through the mouth of Miss Jean Brodie) as follows: ‘The word ‘education’ comes from the root e from ex, out, and duco, I lead. It means a leading out. To me, education is a leading out of what is already there in the pupil’s soul.’[10] She goes on to make a distinction between this drawing out of what is already there, as though one were extracting metal from a mine or rubber from a rubber tree (I’ve used those examples because duco also gives us the word ‘ductile’), the raw material then being fashioned into something useful at a later day, and the alternative method. This is represented in the novel by the choice that the girls have to make between ‘Classical’ and ‘Modern’ education, and by Miss McKay, Miss Brodie’s headmistress. She characterises the other, non-Brodie alternative as intrusion, ‘from the Latin root prefix in meaning in and the stem trudo, I thrust’, as through one were stuffing a goose.[11] It should be noted, however, that for all her grand talk of Latin, Miss Jean Brodie does no such ‘drawing out’, but is just as keen to push her views into her students as anyone else (‘Who is the greatest Italian painter?’ ‘Leonardo da Vinci, Miss Brodie.’ ‘That is incorrect. The answer is Giotto, he is my favourite.’)[12]

If Miss Jean Brodie is correct about the true nature of education (and, in the absence of any other input, lets assume that she is), then it seems to me there are three possible conclusions that can be drawn, broadly. One: that education should consist of drawing out something that is already there, but in this country and this age of league tables and exams, it is no such thing and we should use some other word to describe it (or, perhaps, because teachers are frail humans, it cannot be done objectively and one’s teacher will always be an intruder to a greater or lesser extent). Two: that the raw material of education is the students themselves, and therefore an unsatisfactory education should lead the student to consider his or her own contribution to the education and the concomitant lack of satisfaction. Or finally, three: the mismatch identified in the first conclusion leads students to draw some things out of themselves, but not others. The drawing out of the internal something-or-other is piecemeal, fragmented, ill-conceived and mismanaged: partly because teachers are under enormous pressure to do n things that have nothing whatever to do with why they want to teach in the first place, but also because none of the people involved are clear what it is they are supposed to be doing. In other words, we’re not bad: we’re just drawn that way.

—————————————————————-

[1] So as to set a good example for my students, I’m going to cite this post properly (something I never normally bother to do because this is the internet and people can just look stuff up for themselves). Thor Heyerdahl, Aku-Aku: The Secret of Easter Island (London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1958. English translation made from the original Norwegian under the personal supervision of the author); Alan Moorehead, The White Nile (London: Penguin Books, 1962); Peter Fleming, News from Tartary: A Journey from Peking to Kashmir (Edinburgh: Birlinn Ltd., 1936). For some reason Aku-Aku is not as well-known as The Kontiki Expedition (almost always stripped of its gripping explanatory subtitle, ‘across the Pacific by raft’) by the same author, but what it lacks in stories about sharks being hoiked out of the Pacific, continent-crossing vegetables and drowned parrots it makes up in tales of midnight meetings in underground caves, civil wars with the two sides delineated by a preference for the degree of stretching performed on one’s earlobes, and the final explanation of how the massive Easter Island statues were raised on end.

[2] Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (New York: Harper Collins, 1974); Heyerdahl, Aku-Aku; Anne Fadiman, The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1997); Sebastian Faulks, The Fatal Englishman: Three Short Lives (London: Vintage Books, 1997).

[3] I must admit that I’m never sure whether it should be grocers’ apostrophe (to indicate that there are lots of grocers, who all make this error), or grocer’s apostrophe as I’ve rendered it here (to include the error that it describes).

[4] Faulks, The Fatal Englishman, p. 321.

[5] I chose the title for this post as a reference to Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, partly because Bob Hoskins died this week, and partly because I think it reflects some of the frustration and helplessness this topic makes me feel. You can also enjoy Jessica Rabbit singing the whole song (dialogue by the divine Kathleen Turner, singing by Amy Irving), with this phrase in context.

[6] Faulks, The Fatal Englishman, p. 323.

[7] Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Enquiry into Values (London: The Bodley Head, 1974).

[8] Again, I stress that I have a fulfilling job and enough money to subsist on comfortably enough, but this has only come about after years of stress and soul-searching.

[9] One would also want to see more practical stuff included in the curricula. For example, I use maths to do my accounts, budget our finances and fill out my tax return, all of which could have been included in the maths GCSE (in place of, say, critical path analysis). Or perhaps I am making an argument for two streams of education: one teaching academic content (critical path analysis; French verbs; sonata form; close reading of Chaucer) and one teaching practical or more obviously applicable content (comparing mortgage rates; conversational French; sight-reading; really understanding the difference between ‘your’ and ‘you’re’). Both seem equally attractive to me, but they are certainly not equally useful in terms of what I am more likely to reach for on a regular basis. The ‘academic’ stream seems analogous to a complex, beautiful and seldom-used piece of kitchen equipment (an egg harp, say): perfect for the job it does and that job only (a job which it would be impossible to perform with any other kitchen tool). The ‘applicable’ stream seems more like, say, a good sharp knife: pretty good at most jobs, and used most days to prepare most meals. Should a well-equipped kitchen contain both, or one and not the other?

[10] Muriel Spark, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (London: Penguin, 1961), p. 36 (she repeats some of this on p. 45).

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid., p. 11

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; 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[2]. 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[3]. 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[4], 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 (£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 were looking at spending around £1.5k on something we’re not sure we care about. 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[5], and so the entire two-day extravaganza is being covered by the delightful Shelley of Diamonds and Doodles, who I could not recommend more highly (check out her blog Pretty Thrifty over the next few weeks as I’m going to be writing a guest post about affordable weddings). Before we chose Shelley, however, we shopped around.

This brings me to the meeting I had yesterday with Terrible Photographer. I conduct similar conversations myself, when a prospective customer[6] 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?[7] 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 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[8] 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.
Me: TO WHOM?
TP: Your bridesmaids.
Me: I DON’T HAVE ANY 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.[9] 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 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] 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.

[3] 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.

[4] 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.

[5] 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.

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

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

[8] 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.

[9] “You get one of these, free of charge!” Free? Or is it 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 in 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.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 213 other followers