A ten-year study of local rodents

For my fifteenth birthday, my parents gave me a copy of Arno Karlen’s book Plague’s Progress: A social history of man and disease. This is, as the title suggests, mainly concerned with the history of epidemics and pandemics, and how they occur (principally through a disease that is well-established in an animal species jumping the species barrier). It is prescient reading, and so I’ve just whipped through it again in a couple of evenings.[1] Having read and inwardly digested the central message of the book twenty-five years ago (i.e. LOOK OUT), some small part of me coiled itself up to wait, wondering when the next pandemic was going to be. A mere seven years later, the SARS outbreaks occurred, followed by swine ’flu shortly afterwards. The latter prevented me from going to China that year, but otherwise came as no surprise whatsoever. I read a sensible, well-researched book. Based on the evidence, the book predicted a thing; the thing came to pass. Why, then, is the current pandemic such a shock to the system?

One reason, and the idea I want to explore in this post, is the lack of a more meaningful connection between scientific research and policy. Here is a passage from Plague’s Progress in which Karlen explores an outbreak of hantavirus pulmonary syndrome in the Four Corners area in 1993:

a New Mexico biologist, Robert Parmenter, had just finished a ten-year study of local rodents. Heavy rain and snow the previous year had caused a rare abundance of piñon nuts and grasshoppers, staples of the deer mouse diet. When the animals’ food supply expands, they have bigger, more frequent litters and their population grows. From May 1992 to May 1993, deer mice had multiplied tenfold. As result, people were exposed far more than usual to the mice and their wastes. Late in the summer of 1993, the mouse population started to fall, and the hantavirus epidemic in humans waned.

Arno Karlen, Plague’s Progress (London: Victor Gollancz, 1995), p.172.

Notice four important things here. One, somebody (Dr. Parmenter and/or his funding body) decided that deer mice were interesting – so interesting, in fact, that they were prepared to study the little blighters for a decade. Two, somebody (Dr. Parmenter and/or his research team) noticed the explosion in the deer mouse population. He and his team had probably written at least one paper on the subject, including lots of meticulous stats and several photos of whiskery-faced mice looking both cute and harmless. Three, somebody – quite a few somebodies this time – knew that hantavirus was linked to human/mouse contact and it seems reasonable to suppose that this may even have been one of the reasons these mice were being studied in the first place. Stephen Porter devotes two entire pages of The Great Plague to speculating about rat populations in the 1660s, and while his various suggestions are convincingly argued, he has no rat-based data with which to support them.[2] Similarly, Roy Porter makes it clear in his medical history of humanity that one of the reasons we can’t say anything substantial about the rat populations in plague years is that ‘no-one had any reason to suspect rats’.[3] Karlen makes it very clear in the preceding pages that, in the case of hantavirus, the link to mice was known and the virus was sufficiently well understood that it had been placed into the correct family, alongside Bolivian haemorrhagic fever, which he describes as appearing in 1960 and ‘like the Argentine fever, but even deadlier.’[4] Four, notice how keen we are to pin these diseases down to a specific location in the way we name them. This nasty pox can’t have originated here, in our nice clean homes, we imply, but somewhere else, where people are less clean, less responsible and less white (although we might note in passing that there are infestations and infections, from nits to polio, that thrive on cleanliness). This is an attempt, I think, to shift the blame. Rather than focusing on (say) idiotic, irresponsible behaviour here (e.g. the delivery driver who yesterday tried to hand me his telephone, a thing he literally holds up to his face to make it work), it allows us to focus on there: some unfamiliar, barbaric place, where no doubt they do things differently and more dangerously. It is an attempt to make these diseases sound external, invasive, foreign and other. The obvious examples are of course Spanish ’flu (of which more later), German measles and various names for syphilis.[5] Karlen notes that,

People around the world named it for the nations they thought had infected them; in France it was the Italian disease … the Spanish disease in Holland, the Castilian disease in Portugal, the Polish disease in Russia, the Russian disease in Siberia, the German disease in Poland, the Christian disease in Turkey, the Turkish disease in Persia, and the Portuguese or Chinese disease in Japan. [Syphilis] became the most disowned infection in history.

Karlen, p.124. I am also reminded of Flanders and Swann at the end of the Song of Patriotic Prejudice: ‘it’s not that they’re stubborn or naturally bad/It’s knowing they’re foreign that makes them so mad.’

This is a tale as old as plagues themselves. Stephen Porter tells us that,

When the chronicler Henry Knighton described the origins of the Black Death in the 1340s, he noted that it had begun in India, spreading from there to Asia Minor and then infecting the Christian and Jewish populations.

Stephen Porter, The Great Plague (Stroud: Sutton Publishing, 2003), p.1.

Donald Trump’s idiotic label for this latest form of the coronavirus as ‘the Chinese virus’ is, therefore, entirely of a piece with the racism and othering that has been applied to infectious disease for centuries. However, as the syphilis example shows, the origins of a disease are rarely captured accurately or helpfully in its name. Karlen suggests, with reference to polio, that ‘officials responded … as they often do to puzzling new challenges by refighting their last war’[6] and perhaps we can read the current situation in the light of Brexit and other sources and/or expressions of racial tension around the world. British exceptionalism will not save us, as we blunder off into the night, mumbling ‘keep calm and something something’. I’m also getting pretty tired of the situation being described as a war or in warlike terms, given that what is currently required is calm, compassion and good sense (qualities not usually sought out or rewarded in wartime). Again, I read this as othering: wars are, after all, almost always fought against other nations.

We can find a whole load more racism in the efforts made to fight (by which I mean find someone to blame for) previous outbreaks of various diseases. For example, in her review of John Henderson’s book Florence Under Siege, Erin Maglaque speaks of Jews being ‘locked in the ghetto’ during the 1629 outbreak of the plague in Italy; Roy Porter of Jews being ‘penned up in a wooden building and burnt alive’.[7] In the many polio epidemics in the twentieth century across Europe, doctors, public health officials and parents were basically just guessing at how to prevent and treat the disease, and naturally turned on those they already viewed with hatred and suspicion. Karlen describes

a belief that dirt, and polio, were spread by the poor and foreign-born. Scientists and laymen alike feared that hordes of dirty, ignorant immigrants with primitive hygiene were infecting clean-living society. … polio was rare among poor blacks. Yet official attention stayed fixed on ethnic and racial slums.

Karlen, p.152.

In 1916, there was no test for polio, no vaccine and no effective treatment. There was also no idea of how it spread from one person to another. Polio appeared to strike at random (Karlen describes it as ‘evil lightning’)[8] and thus as well as People From Forn Parts, suspected causes included fomites (objects, door-handles, railings and so forth), dogs, cats, dirt, insects, Jews and swimming. In fact, polio is caused by a virus that occurs naturally in the intestines, and that only becomes troublesome when spread (via the fecal-oral route) into the mouth. In some people it will cause a mild infection; in others, the spinal cord will be affected, leading to lifelong paralysis. This explains why polio thrives in clean, warm places: in dirty homes, children are far more likely to be exposed to the virus at an early age, experience a short illness and thereafter immunity.[9]

To return to my comment that the relationship between research and policy is a problematic one, here is Karlen again, on the aforementioned Bolivian haemorrhagic fever:

When the epidemic peaked, in the mid-sixties, there were a thousand cases a year and hundreds of deaths. In one village, the ecological source of the disease became obvious. Spraying with DDT to prevent malaria had wiped out the village’s cats; mice multiplied, and human illness followed. Destroying the mice ended the epidemic in precisely two weeks, the virus’s incubation time.

Karlen, p.162.

A couple of things leap out at the contemporary reader here, I think. Firstly, we might recall the oft-repeated story of villagers suspecting cats to be carriers of the Black Death and killing them, thereby leaving flea-bearing rats and mice to proliferate in greater numbers. Stephen Porter describes the public health measures suggested by Sir Theodore de Mayerne (the king’s physician) in 1630, which including widening the net of death to include dogs, rats, mice and weasels.[10] Secondly, I notice that the people tasked with killing these creatures are (much like our teachers in certain parts of the gutter press) considered simultaneously vital and expendable here, especially since the dogs, cats and weasels that might have happily wiped out the rats had already been pointlessly executed. If we agree with Mayerne that rats needed to be killed (and from our modern perspective with the knowledge that rats carried the plague-bearing fleas, this seems like a sound idea), then being the person tasked with killing hundreds of hysterical rats seems like one of the crueller and more unusual death sentences: I’ve no idea how medieval rat-catchers killed rats, but I doubt it involved hand sanitizer or PPE. Thirdly, if it was established in the mid-sixties that deer mice could carry disease (and a very unpleasant, often deadly disease for which there was no treatment), why was the hantavirus outbreak in Four Corners thirty years later such a surprise, given that it coincided with a tenfold increase in the deer mouse population?[11] Presumably, alarm bells rang for Dr. Parmenter as he documented the massive increase in the number of deer mice. “Gosh”, he probably said to himself, “all those mice rushing about the place is going to increase the possibility of humans catching hantavirus! Thank goodness my university and/or funding body employed me to monitor their population! I should tell someone!” I imagine he thought more or less exactly that, but there was no Deer Mouse Hotline with a big brown flashing handset and Bakelite mouse-ears. The paper I imagined earlier, probably called something like ‘Piñon nuts and grasshoppers: On the population of deer mouse (Peromyscus sp.) in the Four Corners area’ no doubt exists, but it doesn’t even make it into the references for Karlen’s chapter: the best I could do was a summary of the original paper. I wonder how many people read Parmenter’s paper before the outbreak of hantavirus. I wonder how many of those people understood what it meant for human health. Look up the deer mouse and you will discover almost immediately that it is a reservoir of both hantavirus and Lyme disease, and that Peromyscus is the most commonly-used rodent species used in scientific research. No wonder the hantavirus jumped the species barrier: the power of irony compelled it.

Thirdly, there is the reference to spraying (spraying, for God’s sake) with DDT, again, in the mid-sixties. Why in God’s name was anyone doing anything with DDT in the mid-sixties, given that Silent Spring was published in 1962? Silent Spring, in glassy, beautifully controlled prose, did not so much debunk the indiscriminate use of pesticides, fungicides and herbicides as hack it to pieces and hurl the mangled remains onto a fire, much as Damiens the regicide is dismembered in the opening pages of Discipline and Punish. Rachel Carson builds her (absolutely watertight) case with great skill and persuasion. One is both frightened and utterly convinced well before the end of the first chapter. Why, then, does Ernest Shackleton describe the book as ‘brilliant and controversial’? What could possibly be controversial about warning both the public and the policy-makers that substances being merrily used to hose down homes, gardens, people and crops were highly poisonous to both man and beast? The answer is, of course, that it was more convenient to pretend that it wasn’t so. This, too, is as old as time: Maglaque notes that in early modern Bologna ‘officials had forbidden people to discuss the peste, as it they feared you could summon death with a word’ (nope: that’s Candyman).

Silent Spring is riddled with the lack of connection between research and policy (or perhaps the failure of policy-makers to take research seriously). For example, in Chapter 8 we meet Professor George Wallace and his grad student John Mehner, who was doing a PhD on robins in 1954. Much like Dr. Robert Parmenter and the deer mice, Mehner was uniquely well-placed to comment on the almost total lack of young robins after the elm trees in which the robins lived were sprayed with DDT. DDT is incredibly poisonous to both worms and the things that eat worms (including robins: Wallace reports mortality of 86-88%); and even small doses of DDT destroy the reproductive capacity of those that survive, creating eggs that refuse to hatch at all, or eggs with shells so thin that they either break prematurely or cause the baby birds to bake to death under the warm bodies of their brooding parents. The Cranbrook Institute of Science (Michigan)

asked in 1956 that all birds though to be victims of DDT poisoning be turned in to the institute for examination. … Within a few weeks the deep-freeze facilities of the institute were taxed to capacity, so that other specimens had to be refused … sixty-three different species were included among the specimens examined at the institute.

Rachel Carson, Silent Spring (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1964), p.89.

One of the many criticisms levelled at doctoral research is that one spends four years researching and writing something that eight people will read and only five will care about (a criticism that is not without validity). In this case, however, Carson goes out of her way to make it clear that people did care about the dead robins, noting that citizens ‘show a keener understanding of the dangers and inconsistencies of spraying than do the officials who order it to be done.’[12] In other words, while the good people of Michigan might not have found the time to read Mehner’s thesis, they were certainly interested in the dead birds piling up in their gardens (‘one woman calling the institute reported twelve robins lying dead on her lawn as she spoke’) and they also knew that the appropriate thing to do with that information was to pass it on to a scientist.[13] Not every thesis is as carefully situated in the wider context as it might be, but as we can see from the quotation above, it was perfectly clear that the problem was not robin-specific, and that none of the researchers working on it thought it was.

Karlen says, ‘[u]nderstanding ecology means not just sympathy for whales and owls but an appreciation of the entire biota, from humans to weeds to the smallest microscopic parasite’.[14] Similarly, Shackleton writes in the Introduction to Silent Spring that the book is ‘not merely about poisons; it is about ecology or the relation of plants and animals to their environment and to one another.’[15] The remainder of Carson’s exposition of the DDT/robins example in Michigan is as follows:

The robins, then, are only one part of the chain of devastation linked to the spraying of the elms, even as the elm programme is only one of the multitudinous spray programmes that cover our land with poisons.

Carson, pp.89-90.

She lays out over the next few pages the various species, from spruce beetles to screech owls, poisoned and rendered infertile by the spraying of elms against Dutch elm disease. Finally, we reach the devastating conclusion:

Spraying is killing the birds but it is not saving the elms … a drought year brought conditions especially favourable to the beetle [that carries a fungus that is the ultimate cause of Dutch elm disease] and the mortality of elms went up 1000%.

Carson, p.94.

Carson then outlines how, with patience and rigour, scientists in New York established a programme of destroying infected trees and ‘beetle-breeding material’ that actually fucking worked, cost far less than spraying with DDT and didn’t kill anything other than the beetles. Three hundred years earlier, as the plague spread across Europe, Maglaque notes that Florentine officials ‘wrote anxiously to their colleagues in Milan, Verona, Venice, in the hope that studying the pattern of contagion would help them protect their city.’ It’s almost as if information is our best weapon against death and destruction, everyone.

If early modern Italians knew that knowledge was power, my question is this: why do we no longer believe this? If we no longer believe this, what the fuck is the point of research? What is the point of universities? Universities generate knowledge and pass it on. That is the whole reason they exist. Universities are often unclear about their own objectives, including what their top priorities should be: you may notice that institutions in the Russell Group like to describe themselves as ‘research intensive’, but whenever we ask for money, it is the young minds in our care that we wheel out, rather than the latest ugly capital building project or pointless HR initiative that has actually soaked up the funding. Nevertheless, for our purposes here, I am going to take universities at their word that research is somewhere near the top of a list of Things We Do. It seems clear to me that, as outlined above, relevant research is being done. Yet the information – important information, that took work and time to acquire – is frequently ignored, misunderstood, twisted or minimised. Karlen spends most of his introduction explaining the difficulty he had in getting his book published at all:

Almost twenty years ago [i.e. in 1975, for fuck’s sake], I told friends that I was thinking of writing a book about why so many new diseases were emerging. Most of my friends were puzzled. A few asked if I meant Legionnaire’s disease and Lyme disease, both of which had lately appeared. I said yes, those and many others … No publisher was interested. I was told this could only interest specialists.

Karlen, p.2.

I cannot grasp why a funding body would think it a good use of time and money to send someone out into the field to study mice for ten years without a coherent understanding of when and how that research might be valuable – and it could have been extremely valuable to the 32 people that died horribly in the Four Corners hantavirus outbreak, a disease with a mortality rate of 60%. Karlen is acutely aware of the need to research this stuff, learning from the past as we go (surely the task of both researchers and policy-makers). He has much to say here about influenza pandemics, primarily those in 1889 and 1918 (there were several earlier ones). The numbers are quite staggering. Here’s Karlen on the 1889 outbreak, which was ‘the first to move with the speed of trains and steamships, [and which] killed 250,000 people in Europe alone.’[16] Compare those figures to these from 1918. Humanity appeared to have learnt precisely zero about how to prevent or treat influenza in the intervening thirty years:

Influenza deaths reported in the United States numbered 550,000, ten times the nation’s death toll in World War I. Many cases went unreported; the real total may be as many as 650,000. One can only guess at how many died in such badly ravaged countries as India. The global mortality, usually given as 20 million, may have been 30 or even 40 million. World War I killed 15 million people in four years; flu killed perhaps twice that number in six months. Even bubonic plague did not kill so many people so fast.

Karlen, p.144.

Notice that the Black Death is well-known to every schoolchild, even though a) influenza killed far more people; and b) influenza is far more likely to kill somebody known to that schoolchild than bubonic plague. Stephen Porter touches on the same idea, noting in the final pages of his book on the Great Plague of 1665-6 that

[t]he physical manifestations of plague [i.e. buboes, blotches under the skin, vomiting, delusions etc.] and the high levels of mortality among those infected made it one of the most feared of diseases, attracting attention in a way that other large-scale killers, such as influenza, did not.

Stephen Porter, p.130.

Karlen recognises this, but I think what he’s really upset about here is the same thing that is bothering me: the failure of policy-makers to plan for the next epidemic.

[This was] was one of the worst disasters in history and it holds puzzles for virologists and historians today. Their questions are more than academic. If another such virus should emerge – and many researchers expect it will – we may be little better equipped to fight it than people were in 1918 … The 1918 flu pandemic continues to recede from memory. Curiously, medicine was not blamed for failing to prevent 50 million deaths from flu and typhus in the world’s last huge pre-AIDS pandemics…. It seems that, in the 1920s, the country saw its present and future not in the unsolved, lethal forces of typhus and flu but in the rescue of children from infectious diseases.

Karlen, p.144 and p.147. The rescue he is talking about involved huskies dashing across Alaska to deliver diptheria antitoxin in 1925.

Now we come full circle, to the current pandemic (again, by way of early modern Italy). Here is Arno Karlen again, and again I remind the reader that he was writing twenty-five years ago:

in the middle of the fourteenth century came the worst disaster in human history, the second bubonic plague pandemic, the Black Death. It had the usual precursor, a Malthusian crisis of rising population, strained resources and environmental change.

Karlen, p.86.

Note that phrase, ‘the usual precursor’. It should not be remotely surprising that fucking about with nature and squandering resources leads to new and exciting ways to die. Maglaque notes that ‘Florentines flouted the quarantine in ways that were both petty and risky … [they] understood the dangers, but gambled with their lives anyway: out of boredom, desire, habit, grief.’ Unlike Venice, where one in three people died from the plague, and Milan where it was nearly one in two, in seventeenth-century Florence, one in eight people died from the plague. The quarantine measures undertaken in Florence that saved so many lives are recognisable as what we now call ‘lockdown’, a term we have all started using as if it has been part of our vocabulary for years (see also ‘prorogation’). Medical advice is usually kindly meant and generously given, but that wasn’t always the case, and the public were just as reluctant to do as they were asked in early modern Florence as they are now in contemporary Britain.

The epigraph to Silent Spring is a quotation from Albert Schweitzer, which reads ‘Man has lost the capacity to foresee and to forestall. He will end by destroying the earth.’[17] I normally flinch at that use of ‘Man’ to refer to all of humanity, but in this case I think perhaps Rachel Carson intends us to read the gender as it stands. Virginia Woolf argues in Three Guineas (another controlled, raging piece of non-fiction) that one of the reasons the world continually lurches from crisis to crisis (she’s speaking specifically about warfare, but again I think the point stands) is that women aren’t at the decision-making table. Female politicians in the UK have been conspicuous by their absence since the pandemic began (so much so that Woman’s Hour recently asked where on earth they all were). I wonder if somebody somewhere decided that the general public would find it reassuring to see a load of exhausted men running the country, as if all the Men Who Always Sound Tired in The Archers had quietly conducted a coup d’etat.[18]

Jacinda Ardern has implemented public health measures that have so far not so much flattened the curve as crushed it altogether: at the time of writing, the offical death-toll from coronavirus in New Zealand is one. In Britain, nearly a thousand people died (again, officially) yesterday alone. Let’s recall here the criticism of Hillary Clinton as ‘too prepared’; Elizabeth Warren’s famously meticulous and detailed plans, including one that she released to combat coronavirus in fucking January; and Stacey Abrams being shut out of the governorship of Georgia in favour of Brian Kemp. Kemp is a late entrant in the competition our male leaders seem to be having right now as to Who Can Be The Most Like Larry Vaughn (the mayor of Amity Island in Jaws), but Kemp might be ahead by a nose since he did just literally open some beaches. You may have missed Boris Johnson declaring Larry Vaughn to be the hero of Jaws and in the article I’ve linked to the writer urges us all to watch Jaws 2[19], in which Larry Vaughn is still mayor and still doesn’t believe in sharks. That’s not what happens in the original story, however: Peter Benchley’s Larry Vaughn is devastated by the deaths that are the result of his own hubris, losing weight, his fortune and his self-respect in rapid succession and eventually crawling quietly out of town a broken man. However, you shouldn’t watch Jaws 2. It’s terrible. Jaws 2 is not to Jaws as Exorcist II is to The Exorcist, but it’s not far off. Like Exorcist II, Jaws 2 attempts to lull the viewer into a false sense of security by recycling some of the same actors and characters as the original, but frankly that just makes it more painful. I also urge you not to watch Jaws 3-D or Jaws 4: The Revenge or Jaws 5: Cruel Jaws or Sharknado or Sharknado 2: The Second One or Sharknado 3: Oh Hell No or Sharknado 4: The 4th Awakens or Sharknado 5: Global Swarming or Sharknado 6: The Last Sharknado or Deep Blue Sea or Deep Blue Sea 2 or Three-Headed Shark Attack or Five-headed Shark Attack or Six-Headed Shark Attack or Bait 3-D[20] or The Reef or Frenzy or Shark Night 3-D or 47 Metres Down or The Shallows or The Meg or Piranha Sharks or Toxic Shark or Jurassic Shark or Sand Sharks or Sky Sharks or Avalanche Sharks or Snow Shark: Ancient Snow Beast or Ghost Shark or Ghost Shark 2: Urban Jaws or any of the other fucking moronic Jaws rip-offs in this strangely crowded sub-sub-sub-genre. If you want to watch a film with a shark in it, try Jaws (spoiler alert: it’s not really about the shark).

It may seem that I have wandered off the point into a shark-infested backwater, but if you actually watch any of these films (and again, I don’t recommend that you do), you will see a set of familiar, tired stereotypes that are relevant here. Men, filled with rage and violence, but allowed in these oddly specific circumstances to unleash that rage and violence upon sharks, symbols of everything men both admire and fear. Women (by which I mean bikini-clad twenty-five-year-olds without surnames), screaming, taking their clothes off and falling into water for no good reason. Each of these braindead films has led in its own tiny, stupid way to the endangering of every species of shark; Peter Benchley spent much of his life attempting to undo the harm that he felt Jaws had done, but of course Jaws wasn’t the problem. These sub-Jaws films show sharks as huge, terrifying, voracious and unstoppable by any sensible means: generic serial killers, perpetually armed and with no tedious psychology to worry about. Just as the indiscriminate spraying of DDT to save a few elm trees as described above was a massive, disproportionate and destructive over-reaction, notice how these unfeasibly large film-sharks can only be killed by some kind of hastily improvised, highly unlikely and ultra-violent means: electrocution (Jaws 2), nuclear explosion (The Meg) or whatever (any and all of the Sharknado films). In short, we are back to the warfare metaphors I mentioned above, improvisation rather than planning, and narrow, shallow roles for women.

Why do we keep electing mediocre white men? Because so much of our culture tells us that mediocre white men are the answer to every problem. Why do we keep making excuses for them (see Brexit, pursued by a bear)? It’s as if the crew of a starship were offered a choice of Janeway or a semi-sentient potato to captain them through a series of unknown crises, and choose potato after potato because Janeway isn’t ‘likeable’. We could so easily have elected leaders that would been up to dealing with the pandemic. It’s neither fanciful nor unfair to say that our leaders could and should have made informed, well-researched contingency plans for this scenario: the fin has been slicing through the water for centuries. My colleague Prof. Gary Foster has been banging on about pandemics for decades, both in lectures and on Twitter. Literally everyone who studies infectious diseases knew this was coming. All their students knew this was coming. Arno Karlen knew this was coming and so did I. Our leaders did not.

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[1] This meant taking a holiday from Clive James’s massive tome Cultural Amnesia, a book I have now been reading for several weeks. Even here, I have found ideas relevant to our current situation, including this rather lovely echo of social distancing in James’s essay on Georg Christoph Lichtenberg: ‘Lichtenberg’s innumerable observations add up to a single demonstration of his guiding principle: that there is such a thing as ‘the right distance.’’ Clive James, Cultural Amnesia: Notes in the margin of my time (London: Picador, 2012), p.380.

[2] Stephen Porter, The Great Plague (Stroud: Sutton Publishing, 2003), pp.126-127.

[3] Roy Porter, The Greatest Benefit to Mankind: A medical history of humanity from antiquity to the present (London: Harper Collins, 1997), p.125

[4] Arno Karlen, Plague’s Progress (London: Victor Gollancz, 1995), p.162.

[5] Fracastorius was both the first physician to describe the disease and the first poet to write about it in any detail. He did this with great enthusiasm in the poem Syphilis suve morbus gallicus (‘Syphilis, or the French disease’).

[6] Karlen, p.151.

[7] Erin Maglaque, ‘Inclined to Putrefaction’, London Review of Books, vol. 42, no. 4, 20th February 2020; Roy Porter, p.125. Porter notes that Jews were also accused to poisoning wells, an accusation levelled at ethnic Koreans in the aftermath of the 1923 Kantō earthquake in Japan. In reality, the wells were cloudy because of the turbidity caused by the earthquake, but as in the plague example, apparently any excuse to turn on one’s neighbours will do.

[8] Karlen, p.149.

[9] We think of polio as a child’s disease because distressing images of small children in iron lungs and callipers were used to raise money for treatment and research (such as in the March of Dimes campaign), but polio is in fact more likely to be dangerous in adults. Michael Flanders, for example, contracted polio as a healthy twenty-one year-old.

[10] Stephen Porter, p.15. Elsewhere in the book, Porter mentions pigs being killed rather than allowed to wander the streets, a medieval attitude to feral hogs that was new to me and that puts an interesting slant on those charming videos of boar roaming through deserted Italian streets.

[11] Peromyscus (‘the booted mouse’ in Greek) refers to the pattern of fur, in which the underside and feet are a pale colour, while the rest of the mouse is darker, giving the impression that the mouse is wearing boots (or possibly socks to modern eyes).

[12] Carson, p.93.

[13] Carson, p.89.

[14] Karlen, p.229.

[15] Ernest Shackleton, introduction to Silent Spring, p.xiii.

[16] Karlen, p.86.

[17] Carson, p.vi.

[18] Clearly, the only character in The Archers remotely qualified to act as benign dictator was Nigel. I’ve always hated The Archers, but ever since Nigel was pointlessly hurled to his death, nothing beyond the first three bars is tolerated in this house.

[19] Yes, I did completely ruin my YouTube search history adding in all those trailers for you. I regret nothing.

[20] Don’t waste your time on Bait (by which I mean the 2012 Australian horror film about a shark in a flooded supermarket). You might, however, enjoy Bait (by which I mean the 2019 film about Cornish fisherman finally having enough of all the fucking second-homers), even though it doesn’t have any sharks in it.

Strike rate; or, why I haven’t written to the Highways Authority

At the time of writing, we have just experienced Britain’s longest and most comprehensive strike in higher education. It isn’t making even a dent on the news and while that is obviously partly because of the killer virus sweeping the globe, the strike last autumn, which was almost as large and did not coincide with a pandemic, was also barely covered. During that earlier strike, I switched on the radio on a strike day hoping to hear (say) an articulate, smart and dedicated UCU rep being interviewed on the picket line, laying out calmly and clearly the various, entirely reasonable grievances of striking staff. Instead, I caught an outside broadcast from, if memory serves, St. Anne’s College Oxford.[1] The interviewer repeatedly exclaimed how vital both research and university education are to the economy (this is how we spot a Tory, my children: they have no metric other than money). Neither the strike nor any of the issues that prompted it were even hinted at.

A strike and a pandemic (whether they run concurrently or not) are both slightly strange for someone like me: a part-time academic only required to leave the house for teaching commitments once a week, with a chronic illness and a business to run from home in what is effectively pre-emptive self-isolation. This second period of industrial action has been particularly odd because I received an email from a non-striking[2] colleague[3] in HR to tell me that my teaching job, which I have done on a series of temporary contracts for the last seven years, has been made into a permanent role. I’ve been partially or wholly self-employed by my lovely little micro-business since 2005, and I’m very successful. Unlike roughly 60% of small businesses, mine did not fail in its first five years; I’ve managed to hit upon something that accommodates most of the physical and mental issues that my condition comes with; and the mortgage broker was entirely satisfied with both my accounting and the long-term viability of the business. Nevertheless, it’s hard to overstate the feeling of relief that comes with a guaranteed income, holiday pay and sick leave (things I have been without for over a decade). I sat alone in my office and whispered, “I can get the roof done.” Then I high-fived the dog[4], sent private messages to understanding friends and studiously maintained the digital picket line by not saying anything about it in public.

I’m one of the most junior academics in my Dept., which is as it should be: I’m part-time, which excuses me from all the most onerous senior admin roles; I became ill at exactly the point my first husband was supposed to start supporting me financially through my doctoral studies; and I certainly can’t afford to take four years off work to do a PhD now. I have thus spent the twelve years since my diagnosis slowly and painfully coming to terms with the fact that (a) I can’t be a fulltime academic, or indeed a fulltime anything; (b) my ability to get promoted through the ranks is necessarily limited and realistically lecturer (where I am now) is as high as I can go; and (c) I can’t afford for my (hitherto) hand-to-mouth, insecure university job to be my main source of earning power (and thus I can’t justify significant investment in it). That sounds frustrating, but I’m very content in my work. It’s so important to be satisfied with the job that you do, including what you get paid and how you feel about promotion. I resent the hell out of the horrible, predictable interview question “where do you see yourself in five years?” because it implies that the job you are doing right now (or indeed the job you are being interviewed for right now) won’t do and isn’t your main focus. I am happier and more productive when I am fully present in the job I already have.[5] I have a similar issue with the notion of social mobility: while I’m all for people trying to do well for themselves, as I said above I’m wary of anything that measures value in purely economic terms.

I manage the household finances with frugality and care. Helped by the fact that I don’t have to pay into a pension (because I probably won’t live long enough to collect it), we are comfortable. In other words, I am perfectly happy to be one of the most junior academics in my Dept. In addition to the reasons given above, this is partly because I am also one of the most highly paid academics in my department.

Here’s how I know. Firstly, I did not spend four years doing a PhD, for which I would have had to pay fees whilst earning very little and getting further into debt. Instead, I spent that time earning, supporting my first husband through his PhD, quietly paying off our student debt while he (because STEM) received a grant. Secondly, I keep careful track of all the hours I work, because that’s what self-employed people do. This means that working beyond my contracted hours is a conscious choice that costs me money. Obviously working beyond contracted hours costs most people money, but we behave as if this isn’t the case because we can’t quantify it easily or accurately. Those of us that pay ourselves a particular rate per hour, however, know exactly and immediately how much we could have earned in (say) the two hours we spent stuck in traffic. Sometimes I work beyond my contracted hours at very busy points in the academic year, but this balances out across the piece pretty well. I am paid to work 56 hours a month and my spreadsheet tells me that last year I averaged almost exactly that (although this is somewhat skewed by the fact that I was very ill in August, a month in which I did nine hours of university work, averaged four hours of sleep a night and lost a stone in ten days). In a typical week, I do around fourteen hours for the university and around sixteen hours for myself, averaging a total of thirty working hours per week. This is not normal in academia. Junior staff often work multiple fractional contracts, of course, but that’s not what I’m talking about because I have only two jobs, each of which is (now) stable and (now) long-term. What I mean is that a thirty-hour week (i.e. around 0.8FTE in most normal jobs) is nowhere near the norm in higher education. Most academics work ‘fulltime’ and I’m using the scare quotes to indicate that I don’t mean a normal working week of 35-40 hours, but rather a regular weekly workload well over this, doing work that is complex, emotionally demanding and against tight and inflexible deadlines.

Before I became ill, I routinely worked a 45-hour week in various academic support roles, with a significant commute at either end of every working day. I worked evenings. I worked weekends. My first husband studied and worked at the same university, as did most of our friends. I had no boundaries between work and rest (or Work and Not Work, as T. H. White’s ants might have it) and neither did most of the people I knew. I’ve got very much better at policing those boundaries, but people are still astonishingly bad at respecting them. I have written before about the time I went to work on Boxing Day and wasn’t the only person in the building (and neither of us was surprised). I’m no longer physically or mentally able to work like that and most working days now involve no more than four or five hours of work. A teaching day, with its two-hour commute each way and five hours of back-to-back lectures, meetings and office hours, knocks the stuffing out me. Regular readers may recall that I work far longer days when in China, but that’s because a) I have nothing else to do besides work; b) I ride the mighty steed of jet lag as far as it will carry me; and c) I take a full week off to sit in the garden when I get back.

Thirdly, when I say I’m one of the most highly paid academics in my Dept., I’m talking about an hourly rate after tax, not an annual or monthly salary. Here’s an exercise I invite you to undertake, particularly if you work in higher education: without looking at any of the relevant figures, write down what you would like to get paid as an hourly rate (this is something every self-employed person has to do, although of course we do look at the relevant figures). Now work out what you actually get paid as an hourly rate. Be honest about the hours you actually work in a typical week and how much tax you pay. Now compare the two figures.

In the interest of both context and full disclosure (see a relevant post on pay by Plashing Vole), in the current tax year I have paid myself £23.50 per hour as an editor and indexer. My university work pays me a few pence less (it wouldn’t be worth doing otherwise). I put my prices up at the end of each tax year in April, in line with inflation and after looking sideways at the mortgage. The professors in my Dept. are on jolly decent money, but they are working far, far more hours that I am and are expected to do a whole load of boring shit that I’m too junior for. Professorial salaries at my institution start at £60k pa, which means most professors in my Dept. are paying 40% tax on a substantial part of their salary. If they are also working around fifty hours per week, even the most senior professors are taking home around £25 per hour. This means that I’m earning only slightly less (again, in hourly terms) and my workload is far more manageable. It also means that everyone between me and the top-end professors is earning significantly less than I am in hourly terms. Indeed, there are many conceivable scenarios in which a promotion might leave one noticeably worse off, on many levels.

My business allows me to practice a workplace model in which I increase my hourly rate and decrease my hours. For example, if I am asked to produce an index in a week (rather than the three weeks it would usually take), and if I can be arsed to take that job on, I can charge a rush rate to reflect the fact that I will have to turn away other work, perhaps delay jobs already booked and work far more hours in a day than I would really like (and which will then require me to take time off when the job is done). Having planned a week in which I expected to spread my usual thirty hours over the whole seven days, I might then find myself working into the night on a complicated text for four days in a row to meet an inflexible deadline. We do this in academia all the time (marking exams, for example), but we don’t have enough control over our workload to balance this out once the deadline has passed. Having produced an index in no time at all on rush rates, if I’ve planned my work properly, I can take some time off to recover without it costing me any money when compared to a normal week. Based on this principle, my plan for the future of my business is, therefore, not to gradually increase my rates as I become more experienced, competent and highly trained and continue to work the same hours, but to gradually increase my rates and work less: to be content with what I earn and what I do. Rather than the reward for work being more money, in other words, the reward will be the same amount of money – an amount of money that I already know to be sufficient for comfortable subsistence – and less work. This is a deeply counter-intuitive model for a workaholic and I don’t pretend to be implementing it as well as I would like, but nevertheless that is the endgame and one that I wish more of my colleagues had the control and flexibilty to implement. Labor are meno, chaps (we can all work less).

Now imagine if higher education was run like that. Imagine if a promotion meant an increase in responsibility, an absolutely rigid workload model in which everyone worked strictly to contract, and an increase in pay as an hourly rate. I would favour a model in which a member of staff who found they were regularly unable to do their work in the stipulated hours was not penalised by just being expected to do the work anyway, for no extra money and in their own time (as happens now), but one in which their line manager was asked to treat the mismatch between paid hours and the length of time required to do the job as a matter of urgency. When these things are left to individuals, the most conscientious – the best citizens, if you will, who take on the horrible roles that nobody else wants, and who genuinely feel obligated to do them well – will work whatever hours are required.

The kinds of roles and tasks that I’m talking about can bloom out of nowhere like fungi, and they fall disproportionately onto women and/or more junior staff, for obvious reasons that we needn’t rehearse here. Pastoral care, for example, is not spread evenly across academic staff, even if students are allocated to staff in an equitable way: any member of staff perceived as too frightening, too senior, too unsympathetic or brusque, or simply too difficult to run to earth (e.g. someone with a teaching or admin role that means they are rarely in their office; someone whose research involves regular periods away from the university; someone whose office is difficult to find or access) is likely to get off more lightly here.[6] A student with serious pastoral care needs not only takes up a huge amount of time and energy, but may also need to be prioritised above other pressing matters (without warning and at any time of the day or night) if we are concerned that they may be a danger to themselves and others. This is as it should be in the sense that we should love our students; we should want to support them as best we can; and we should see it as a privilege to be able to help them, when we can help them. However, be under no illusion: this work takes its toll. It is often triggering and always exhausting. Moreover, when academics support students, this is often the exhausted counselling the exhausted. I suggest figuring out how to balance one’s unpredictable, draining work – work that must be done properly, if we are to serve each other and our students well – cannot be left to the conscience of each individual academic. One of the most psychologically destructive aspects of overwork is that we do it to ourselves (or, rather, we feel that we are doing it to ourselves). Suicide, illness and self-harm among students make headlines (as they should), but we hear a lot less about the poor physical and mental health of the staff trying to support them and how this relates to the quality and quantity of the support we are able to provide.

I admit that in the model I am proposing there would be an uncomfortably Foucauldian level of scrutiny in terms of keeping track of one’s hours; we would all have to spend more time with our line managers, wrestling our jobs into submission (clearly HR can’t be trusted with this even though it is literally their whole job); and the senior staff would all pay less tax. However, I think these downsides would be more than outweighed by two things. Firstly, HR clearly wouldn’t be needed anymore and thus the whole department could be removed, saving heaps o’ cash and lowering the general cuntishness in the university by a noticeable margin. Secondly, imagine the lightness, joy and productivity of a healthy workload. Rest. Energy. Reading. Giving our best to our students and to each other. Cooking. Eating slowly. Sex. Sleep. Imagine how many books you could read if you worked thirty-five hours a week, at a sensible pace, like a normal person. Imagine how many books you could write. Or, to apply the principle of ‘less but better’ more strictly, imagine if you read and wrote the same number of books and papers as you do now, but gave them the care, time and attention they deserve. Imagine the care, time and attention we could give our colleagues and our most vulnerable students. It would save relationships. I would save lives.

Everyone doing less work per person (so to speak) would mean that there would be a load of work left over, of course, but I suggest that much of that work has absolutely zero value and could simply be abandoned (as the coming months of ‘lockdown’, whatever that means, will no doubt remind us). However, for everything left over that does have value, I draw your attention to the fact that every academic has a precarity story, by which I mean a harrowing tale about a lengthy period in the wilderness, usually immediately after getting their PhD: working multiple jobs; teaching anything that moved; writing lectures, job applications and teaching material (almost all for lectures, jobs and seminars that they didn’t get to do); and watching their peers and colleagues fall away. Academia is merciless. It will rip your throat out the moment your arms get tired. I’ve written elsewhere about being a functioning workaholic, but almost everyone in academia is a functioning workaholic. Indeed, I’m not sure it’s possible to work in academia without being a functioning workaholic. Overwork and work addiction are completely normalised. That’s why so many talented, dedicated colleagues, undergrads and postgrads fall away, through ill health caused or exacerbated by punishing hours and stress, or through realising that they have other, more attractive options. That attrition may sound like survival of the fittest, but of course the selection pressures at work here aren’t the natural external forces of a hostile terrain or scarce food resources, winnowing out those least suited to the environment for the long-term health of the species. It isn’t the best and brightest that are left, but those of us who have already invested too much to walk away; those who can’t do anything else; those who can’t bear to do anything else; those who are institutionalised; those who got lucky; those whose bodies and brains and relationships hold up the best. Meanwhile, into the darkness they go, the wise and the lovely.

Why not spread the work out across more people, then? There is clearly no shortage of workers or work, but a shortage of proper jobs (and, I suggest, leadership). The current model is that of a person who, upon ordering a reasonably-sized piece of cake that they are planning to savour is instead strapped into a chair and force-fed an entire cake. Every so often the person doing the force-feeding whips the cake away for no reason and yells into their face that they aren’t eating it right eat it better eat it faster eat it eat it eat it you bastard EAT IT. Nearby, half a dozen other people who are quietly starving to death (and who have both expended considerable energy, time and money to even get through the door of this cruel and unusual cafe) write endless, hopelessly elegant recipes, with lengthy prefaces detailing how much they love cake and how well-suited they are to cooking and eating it, as well as generally telling other people how fucking amazing cake is. For these tasks, they are rewarded with crumbs. On no account is anyone to be given an appropriate amount of cake at any time.

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Obelix as professor, from Asterix and Cleopatra (words by René Goscinny, pictures by Albert Uderzo). I quote this here because: a) Asterix is not used nearly enough as an explanatory device; b) Asterix and Cleopatra contains some of the best word-related jokes of all the Asterix books, thus illustrating the briliance of both the writing and the translation, as mentioned in an earlier post; and c) Albert Uderzo died, aged 92, while I was editing this post. I note that, since exhaustion is my topic here, several of the articles about his death quote Uderzo’s son-in-law as saying, “[h]e had been very tired for several weeks”.

As well as being one of the highest (hourly) earners, I think I might be the only person in my Dept. with a manageable workload. Again, let us be mindful of the fact that this has been achieved by a combination of bloody-mindedness and chance. It certainly wasn’t via a sensible, transparent and evidence-based process that takes into account the number of hours an academic needs to work in order to be both happy and productive (the kind of process that one might have thought, I don’t know, some department with responsibility for staff wellbeing and working conditions might have developed, if they weren’t too busy being cunts). Since we have already established that many staff (including professors) are apparently content to be paid £25ph, I see no reason why a workload model couldn’t be established (or at least tried, for fuck’s sake) that, alongside the collossal sums freed up by not bothering with an HR department ever again, released enough money to employ some of those talented, committed people currently languishing on multiple fractional contracts, chasing fees and expenses for months and not getting paid at all over the summer. And when I say ‘employ’, I mean properly: with a contract, for years at a time, on decent money that they receive promptly and spread evenly throughout the year, to deliver courses that they have had the time and support to develop well in advance.

As I said above, I’m wary of conflating value with money and my intention isn’t to suggest that senior lecturers, readers and new professors don’t have value, or are in some way stupid or wrong for working so many hours that they reduce their hourly rate below my own. Rather, my point is that annual salaries are meaningless numbers unless they are accompanied by information about the hours worked, the intensity or complexity of the work, the time spent training and preparing to do that work, the money and time spent commuting to a particular place, the emotional labour and stress the role might entail and finally the aesthetic labour of dressing yourself appropriately (another burden that weighs far more heavily on women, even in a sector where tweed and corduroy are considered what my mother used to call ‘smot’). None of those things appear in the job description, and most of them (unlike the annual salary, at least in theory) are not up for negotiation.

To borrow the language of coronavirus, then, the stress of working in higher education does not simply ‘move through the population’, removing the weak, the stupid, the obscure and the lazy. It chews everybody up. Once we have been spat out again, we are then expected to act as role models for our students, teaching without breaks, pushing through office hours on adrenalin and no lunch, and perpetuating workaholism in the next generation. We do everything in a rush, on flights and trains, late at night or early in the morning, and often at the very last minute. With my editing hat on, I have yet to be asked to proofread an application for a job, research money or additional funding that isn’t right up against the deadline. That might not sound like much, but think about who academics are. We are conscientious, bookish, earnest people. We got where we are by paying attention and doing as we were asked. Missing a deadline is something most academics had never done until they became senior staff and found that the good habits we tell students to practice (planning carefully, not allowing oneself to be surprised by a deadline, seeking help as appropriate) simply aren’t possible. That bothers us. We feel we have failed. We feel haunted. We feel guilty. We might even feel stupid.

There are also ramifications of our enormous workload and feelings of inadequacy for the rest of our lives, and indeed the community as a whole. Academics are organised, passionate people. We are thoughtful citizens and have many interests outside those we choose to teach and/or research. Imagine the contribution we could make to society if we had the time and energy to get involved in our communities. Consider also the burden of admin (non-work-related admin) that falls upon the partners and families of academics. I have written elsewhere about how important it is to a romantic relationship that both partners are able to do their share of admin to a reasonable level (again, simply not possible for those described above with the fifty-hour working weeks). I’ve literally no idea how any of my colleagues manage to spend time with their children, or indeed how they found the energy to produce a family at all.

Recall also from an earlier post (Zen and the Art of Relationship Maintenance) how boring-yet-important many of those life admin tasks are. Anne Helen Petersen speaks of  ‘errand paralysis’, arguing that when we expend too much mental energy on simply staying on top of our work, we have nothing left for tasks further down the food-chain, tasks that are then done badly or not at all. She’s right. I’ve had ‘write to Highways Authority about garden wall’ on my to-do list for nearly four months. It would probably take fifteen minutes or so to re-read the relevant paperwork, write the email and file the correspondence in a sensible place – certainly far, far less time than I have spent writing this post. It isn’t the case, then, that I don’t have time to do that boring-yet-important little job. Rather, I don’t have the energy with which to do that job – whatever finite amount of energy I have has been spent on things that are more important, more interesting and more rewarding.[7] And yet, the list of undone things still reproaches me. The full inbox. The endless to-do list. The unwashed plates and unhoovered floors. The half-decorated rooms; half-finished knitting projects; half-abandoned, buttonless dresses. Those last few items are not ‘work’, but they still reproach me, along with all the books unread, films unseen, plays unwitnessed. I don’t feel good about the fact that I haven’t written to the Highways Authority about our garden wall. I feel sloppy. I feel ashamed. I feel less of an adult. There is something deeply wrong with a working culture (and indeed a society) in which ‘busy’ is virtuous, and ‘disorganised’ is a symptom of moral deficiency, because, like the annual salary described above, those labels are meaningless out of context. Also, I’m not disorganised: I know exactly where the paperwork is, who I need to contact and what I’m going to say. I just haven’t got to it yet. There are too many other things in my life that are more important, and I only have so much energy to expend on them. There is no logical reason for me, a competent, responsible person, to feel bad about sensibly prioritising other things ahead of this boring-yet-important little job – and yet I do feel bad.

As I’ve written in another post (in which I argued that love is finite and that one only has so much love to expend on others, and therefore must necessarily make painful choices), one can’t simply pour oneself out endlessly. However, without a healthy workload and concomitantly healthy, proportionate attitude to what is actually possible, agreed upon and shared by all the people involved, neither can one learn not to mind that one can’t do everything. As the Confession has it, ‘we have left undone those things which we ought to have done; and we have done those things which we ought not to have done; and there is no health in us.’

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[1] I put the radio on without thinking, which meant I got the seething self-congratulatory cess-pool of drivel that is the Today programme, rather than the adult perspective of the World Service, the joy and energy of Radio 6 or the light and space of Radio 3.

[2] You’re right: I needn’t have said it. Of course there were non-striking staff in HR. There shouldn’t have been, mark you. Human Resources ought to be more exercised than anyone about our clunky tools, wasted time, suicidal students and inadequate pensions, as well as the gender, race and class pay gaps, the perils of staff/student relationships, poor pastoral care and all the other stressors that those working and/or learning in higher education are beset with. HR ought to be leading the charge. HR ought to be jumping up and down with rage, all day every day. They aren’t, though, because they’re cunts.

[3] Again, you’re right: ‘colleague’ is the wrong word to describe the parasite that clings to the neck of higher education. As I explained above, HR staff have a duty of care to ensure we are able to carry out our jobs as best we can. They don’t, though, because they’re cunts.

[4] Be under no illusion that there was corresponding, supportive high-fiving going in HR. HR fucking hate me and the dick move of sneaking this piece of information out during industrial action is merely the latest skirmish in a war of attrition, currently approaching the end of its second decade. Of course they informed me of this at a time when I couldn’t celebrate it in public. Of course they did. They’re cunts.

[5] I’ve been promoted beyond my competence before and for anyone with a shred of self-awareness it is a deeply uncomfortable experience, for both the person it happens to and those who have to work with them.

[6] Staff with a reputation for being inappropriate with students are also unlikely to be asked to do their share of pastoral care. The students might discuss this amongst themselves, or it may be quietly agreed among the other staff that Professor Handsy needs to be kept away from the kids. Yes, of course Professor Handsy should have been sacked the minute they first laid a sweaty hand on an undergraduate knee, but that’s not how HR in higher education works. That’s not how any of this works. I likened HR to a mousetrap in an earlier post and I stand by it: cruel, ugly and out-dated.

[7] I have spent time today outside sawing wood so that I can light the Aga later and cook a roast and I’ve spent time trying to express the ideas I’ve laid out here. I don’t get paid for either of those tasks and could easily have made the argument that I would have done better to spend the whole day pushing on with paid work, and it’s a powerful argument – exactly the kind of argument that, when taken to its logical conclusion, would mean that I will never be able to justify spending fifteen minutes writing to the Highways Authority about our wall.

Zen and the Art of Relationship Maintenance; or, the Death of Mr. Whiskers

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance uses the notion of taxonomy to uncover the disintegration of its protagonist’s mind, how his motorcycle fits together and how an understanding of the mechanics of the bike is fundamental to maintaining it correctly. Taxonomy as applied to animals (and those that live in the sea in particular) is often traced back to Aristotle’s Historia Animaliam and the so-called Ladder of Nature as applied to ‘cosmic structure’ in The Timaeus, and certainly we can see two tidy minds at work here.[1] Pirsig is interested in ideas of order and disorder, but I think Zen is also a book about being a competent grown-up and what that means, primarily in relationship to technology. Here, I want to think about what that means in relationship to other people and how we categorise ideas and behaviours in relationships.

The opening pages of Zen consist mainly of Phaedrus describing the relationship his friends John and Sylvia have with technology. The novel describes a fundamental disagreement between Phaedrus, John and Sylvia on how much one should maintain one’s motorcycle (and all other kit, by extension) oneself:

It seems natural and normal to me to make use of the small tool kits and instruction booklets supplied with each machine, and keep it tuned and adjusted myself. John demurs. He prefers to let a competent mechanic take care of these things so that they are done right.[2] […] I could preach the practical value and worth of motorcycle maintenance till I’m hoarse and it would not make a dent in him […] He doesn’t want to hear about it.

Sylvia is completely with him on this one. In fact, she is even more emphatic. “It’s just a whole other thing,” she says, when in a thoughtful mood. […] They want not to understand it. Not to hear about it.

Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (London: Bodley Head, 1974), pp.10-12.

I suggest that John and Sylvia don’t want their broken motorcycles to be fixed by a mechanic because they want it ‘done right’, but because they want it done by someone else. Phaedrus gives us another example of a dripping tap. John attempts to fix it and fails. They don’t call a plumber and they don’t ask anyone else for help: they just put up with the drip. To use the terminology of the book, they wish to use technology, but they do not wish to maintain it. They also project the negative feelings that this produces in them (hatred of their own incompetence, say) onto the things they do not wish to maintain, blaming those objects for needing maintenance at all. Quentin Featherston does the same thing in my favourite passage from The Children of Dynmouth:

In the garage, he examined a machine called a Suffolk Punch, a lawnmower than was now exactly ten years old. […] Quentin hated the Suffolk Punch. […] He pulled at the starting device, a coil of plastic-covered wire that snapped obediently back into position after each attempt to engage the engine. […] You could spend all day pulling the plastic-covered coil, the skin coming off your hands, sweat gathering all over you. You could take the plug out and examine it, not knowing what you were looking for. […] You could take it to the kitchen and put it under the grill of the electric cooker in order to get it hot, without knowing why it should be hot.

William Trevor, The Children of Dynmouth (London: Bodley Head, 1976), p.103.

On the following page, we discover that Quentin also hates his car, the washing machine and the radio, each of which require maintenance he doesn’t understand or parts he can’t obtain, and thus each of which fails to work as it should. He takes a plug out of the Suffolk Punch (yes, I was confused too: surely a Suffolk Punch is a horse?) and finds it to have ‘a shell of carbon around the points.’ Naturally, this tells him nothing (‘He never knew if there should be carbon there or not’; Giant Bear, who is much better at dealing with machinery, tells me that no, there should not). In the face of the silent lawnmower, his instinct is to retreat into the shed (a manly space full of Tools For Men) and take up the objects a more competent man might have used to actually fix the problem. We can thus conclude that, in some dim and arm’s length way, Quentin feels that his manhood is being challenged by the lawnmower.

Quentin falls back on the great traditions of Men in Sheds: he wipes the thing with newspaper, considers poking it with ‘a screwdriver or a piece of wire’ and eventually uses a hexagonal spanner to remove the plug, all the time with no earthly idea of what he is doing, hating his own ignorance (and presumably hating the fact that it is taking him so long to make the lawnmower come to life at all, while the lawn remains unmowed), but situating that hatred in the object. In other words, he blames the lawnmower for the fact that it won’t work, rather than reflecting on his own lack of knowledge and making a note to remedy this in the future (ideally, before his next attempt to mow the lawn). Notice that, while I haven’t yet related any of these ideas to sexual relationships, this whole episode is rooted in Quentin’s masculinity (or lack of it; note that he is reduced to fruitlessly taking into his wife’s domain (the kitchen) and putting it under the grill.

I listen to a lot of podcasts, and thus am being regularly hassled by an oft-repeated, faux-spontaneous ad for a podcast called GrownUpLand, which is premised upon the idea that being a grown-up is both baffling and dull, and that listeners require help with the identity crisis that Getting Older will inevitably produce in them. The very first episode is entitled ‘What does it take to be a grown-up?’ and the ‘welcome to’ episode includes the quite startling statement that “an out-of-hand dinner party for me consists of cracking into their parents’ port” (surely grown-ups host dinner parties in their own houses? Surely grown-ups buy their own port?) and a listener asking for suggestions of a tattoo he could get specifically to piss his parents off. The response to this is from a Syrian refugee, who suggests that the listener tries being stateless as a way to distract his parents from his tattoo, and so I want to be clear here that, while I have no intention of listening to something I feel about a hundred years too old for, I am not finding fault with this podcast specifically, but rather the broader social trend that it both represents and feeds upon. I reject wholeheartedly the notion that being a grown-up is something we should resist or mourn. I have always been desperate to have as much autonomy as humanly possible. I wanted to own my own home, work hard at a job and earn an income that I could spend exactly as I saw fit (i.e. on food and books). I craved control, and I craved responsibility.

75b
Not the mug for me.

Adulthood, in other words, was something I could not wait for because being a grown-up means taking responsibility for all your decisions. Secondly, I was also pretty sure that being a grown-up meant, in some sense, being concomitantly more capable. I therefore looked to people who were already grown-ups for ideas of what being a competent adult might look like. It may seem that I have wandered away from Pirsig’s novel, but no:

[John and Sylvia] talk once in a while in as few pained words as possible about ‘it’ or ‘it all’, as in the sentence ‘There is just no escape from it all’. And if I asked, ‘From what?’, the answer might be ‘The whole thing’, or ‘The whole organised bit’.

Pirsig, Zen, p.16.

John and Sylvia, who own a home and have several children (and thus unquestionably are adults) do not want to be adults. More broadly, the people who protest about ‘having to adult’ or who congratulate themselves on social media for ‘good adulting’ because they managed to feed themselves and put the bins out on the same day do not want to be adults; that’s why they are using ‘adult’ as a verb rather than a noun, as if it is something you do rather than something you are. I do want to be an adult, and I think the tension between those two positions comes from a difference of opinion about what being an adult should involve.

We might relate some of these ideas to relationships, and particularly sexual relationships (those with so-called ‘adult’ content, perhaps). I expected my ability to look after myself to keep pace with the level of independence I was granted, and I have consistently suggested to students with questions about relationships and sex that feeling ready for a relationship or a particular sexual experience should prompt self-reflection about the relevant relationship skills and notions of consent. If you feel ready to ask that nice woman on the bus to have coffee with you, you should also be asking yourself whether you feel ready for her to say “no, but thanks for asking”.[3] In other words, if you are big enough to ask for something, you should also be big enough to be denied it, and to take that denial in a calm, grown-up fashion.[4] I felt adulthood would be a time of feeling competent, including within relationships. Surely, I thought, one of the reasons Young People were actively discouraged from sex and other Adult Activities was that we/they were judged to be too immature to do them properly. Such things are for people who are older and therefore by definition more competent, but of course people do not necessarily become more competent as they age. GrownUpLand rests on the idea that we reach peak competence well below the threshold that would allow us to have fully functioning adult lives, and then we just continue to age, becoming steadily more baffled by the bewildering, boring tasks maturity requires us to perform.

Esther Perel’s book about sex in long-term relationships Mating in Captivity also makes a link between adulthood and dullness. Where Pirsig divides schools of thought into ‘romantic’ and ‘classical’, Perel uses the terms ‘romantic’ and ‘realist’:

The romantics refuse a life without passion; they swear that they’ll never give up on true love. […] Every time desire does wane, they conclude that love is gone. If eros is in decline, love must be on its deathbed. They mourn the loss of excitement and fear settling down.

At the opposite extreme are the realists. They say that enduring love is more important than hot sex, and that passion makes people do stupid things. It’s dangerous, it creates havoc, and it’s a weak foundation for marriage. In the immortal words of Marge Simpson, “Passion is for teenagers and foreigners.” For the realists, maturity prevails.

Esther Perel, Mating in Captivity: Sex, Lies and Domestic Bliss (London: HarperCollins, 2007), p.3.

In other words, as we grow older, we also become disappointed, sad and boring. As Hilary Mantel has it in an early novel, ‘You feel, surely there’s more to life than this. But there isn’t, and it [the feeling] passes off.’ No wonder we need cheery podcasts to help us navigate these dreary waters. Perel notices how popular culture tries to prepare us for this decline. She says, ‘the volatility of passionate eroticism is expected to evolve into a more staid, stable, and manageable alternative: mature love’ and argues that this is the natural result of believing that ‘[d]iminishing desire is inescapable’.[5] Louis de Bernières writes in Captain Corelli’s Mandolin that ‘Love itself is what is left over when being in love has burned away’[6], a sentiment I could not disagree with more.

So, while passion might initiate a relationship, it cannot sustain it. Rather, the passion, phoenix-like, must be destroyed so that the couple can then sift through the ashes of their eroticism to see what is left (“oh look, darling – years of arguing about the washing-machine! And is that your elderly mother under that bit of charred pillowcase?”). Add to this how our culture continually positions both love and lust as things that are fundamentally for young people with firm bodies and no responsibilities, and the link between maturity and sexless, passionless boredom is complete. Of course we no longer have sex with each other![7] We’re old! Nobody wants to have sex with old people, including other old people! Evenings that used to be taken up with frantic, tender sex are now to be given over to discussion of the compost bin. Knickers will be flung into the laundry basket rather than over the bannisters. Sofas upon which we once clasped one another with vigour and intent are now places to sit calmly, discussing the relative health of our house plants and planning the euthanasia of our parents.

As a society, we fetishize youth, and we fetishize novelty. Rather than patiently seeking new ways to explore a relationship with one another as it grows deeper and richer with the passing of time, we are, therefore, led to believe that a relationship (and certainly a marriage) will inevitably hit problems that the couple will be unable to solve, and demand compromises they are reluctant to make. One will, then, be faced with the following options: living alone; a revolving door of new partners, each one re-booting one’s sense of desire; or staying with the same boring old person: partly because by the time you realise how miserable you both are, disentangling yourselves will be both complex and expensive; and partly because that’s what adults do (‘[y]ou are expected to tough it out and grow up’).[8] Thus are we sold the myth that the longer a relationship lasts, the duller it will be; a myth, moreoever, that many of the relationships we find ourselves in and that we see around us may appear to confirm.

It doesn’t have to be this way. I suggest that the passage of time is not the cause of this decline, but rather poor relationship skills and unhelpful, normalised expectations. I include here both expectations that are too high (expecting to feel the same butterflies in your stomach when your husband of ten years comes home from work on a wet Wednesday as you did on your first date when you had known each other for five minutes) and too low (thinking that the aforementioned lack of butterflies means that you no longer fancy your husband and that this is Just What Happens). Here is my theory, combining some of Perel’s ideas with Pirsig’s notion of an ‘intellectual scalpel’ and the Aristotelian notion that there is power in both taxonomy and calling each thing by its right name, as Pasternak has it. The activities that constitute a relationship (any relationship) can be divided into two categories, which I’m going to call Joy and Maintenance. Joy refers to the intrinsic i.e. things you choose to do within the relationship, with each other, purely because you enjoy them. Here we might include dating (whatever that means for you); sexual encounters; conversation about things that interest you; any other activities and hobbies that you do simply for pleasure. Maintenance refers to the extrinsic i.e. things you have to do in order for your lives to function and that involve some sort of engagement with the outside world. Here the list might be paying bills, going to work, doing housework and so forth (see Iron Get Hot Now for the division of labour favoured in the Filthy Comma/Giant Bear household). I’m using the word ‘maintenance’ because of Zen, but also because it carries connotations of necessity and regularity that I think are helpful here. However, we might just as easily use ‘admin’ (or, if we really can’t go five minutes without repurposing perfectly good words, ‘adulting’). The activities I am filing under Joy don’t necessarily always fill us with joy, and there are of course some activities (e.g. a family wedding) that could go either way. Similarly, admin doesn’t have to be dull. I am dividing Joy from Maintenance in terms of intention, then, rather than whether it turns out to be enjoyable. This is emphatically not ‘joy=joyful; maintenance=dull’, but rather ‘joy=things that are intended to be fun; maintenance=things that are necessary’. We don’t have to have sex: we choose to do so, because it is intended to be fun. Even if you spend the afternoon having sex that is, for some reason not enjoyable (e.g. wasp), sex is still classed under Joy. Similarly, we have to go to work: we agree to do so because it is administratively necessary. Thus, even if you enjoy your job enormously (and I sincerely hope that you do), it is still classed under Maintenance.

The opening chapters of a relationship usually consist almost entirely of Joy. We go on dates; we make meeting for a coffee last four hours; we have sexual encounters; we meet each other’s friends. We spend time together because we want to spend time together. There is very little admin to be done, beyond arranging to be in the same place at the same time, and so we are using our partner’s ability to Be Good At Fun Stuff as the primary criterion for choosing to continue the relationship. We probably have very little idea whether they are any good at admin yet, because each partner is taking care of their own stuff. I suggest that my hypothetical couple (let’s call them Sandy and Lee so that they can be any gender) and all their friends would find it perfectly reasonable for the relationship to come to an end because there was a problem with the Joy: the sex was patchy or they didn’t like the same books, say. These friends would not, I suggest, be as supportive if Lee ended the relationship on the grounds that Sandy refuses to carry a wallet, doesn’t understand how to use an iron and can’t be trusted to pick up dinner on the way home, but that’s not going to happen in these early stages, because Lee doesn’t know any of that yet. Notice that the first set of examples suggests people living in their own spaces, pursuing their own goals and spending time together as and when they can fit it around their other activities, while the second set suggests a couple sharing a living space, a fridge and probably a joint account. This is because the balance between Joy and Maintenance shifts, subtly but inexorably, the longer a relationship goes on.

In the early stages, then, Sandy and Lee simply enjoy each other. Lee, who is a generous lover, never forgets a birthday and bakes the best ginger cake Sandy has ever eaten, won’t later leave the relationship because Sandy ceases to be fun. Sandy hasn’t ceased to be fun. Sandy has simply continued to suck at admin. Similarly, in the early stages of the relationship, Lee found it endearing that Sandy continually confuses June with July, doesn’t keep a diary and can’t understand money, because at that point what kept Lee in the relationship was the fact that Sandy is funny, gentle and covered in freckles – but Lee will care about these things very much once they move in together and buy a cat. Both Sandy and Lee love Mr. Whiskers, and Mr. Whiskers appears to love them both equally. It is, however, mostly Sandy that plays with Mr. Whiskers and buys him endless treats and toys (Joy), while mostly Lee takes him to the vet, buys the catfood and feeds him (Maintenance).

Being bad at Maintenance kills relationships. It kills them far more often and more thoroughly than being bad at Joy, because the likelihood that someone who is bad at Joy will be in a relationship for more than a few weeks is so low. The admin gradually ramps up as the lives of Sandy and Lee become more tightly entwined, as does the need for the admin to be done promptly and well. Lee gradually does more and more of the admin because Sandy isn’t any good at it, and by the time Sandy remembers a regular admin task needs to be done (putting out the recycling, say), Lee has often already done it, promptly and efficiently, but resentfully.[9] They might try to manage this by each choosing discrete areas of responsibility, but Sandy (who really sucks at admin) can’t seem to do their tasks without being reminded several times by Lee, who is now forced into a role of not doing the admin, but project managing the admin. Lee and Sandy might even phrase this to each other in terms of maturity (“it’s like living with a student”; “it’s like living with my mother”). What ends the relationship, therefore, is not a lack of Joy, but rather a gradual, cumulative preponderance of undone Maintenance. This culminates in an awful week-long row about whose fault it is that neither of them took the keys round to the neighbours so that the neighbours could feed the cat while Sandy and Lee were on holiday. The final, relationship-ending row will appear to be about the emaciated cat, whose pathetic little face will haunt them both for years, but will in fact be about Sandy’s tacit expectation that Lee should take responsibility for admin because Sandy is horrible at it, and Lee’s resentment that Sandy leaves all the admin to Lee. “You didn’t love Mr. Whiskers at all,” they hiss at each other.

My point here is that you have to be with someone for a decent length of time, and probably move in together, before you have any idea of whether they are any good at admin. This is, therefore, a leap in the dark, and most likely a leap that one will make only when one has already reached a certain level of emotional commitment. This emotional commitment makes it tempting to just put up with shitty admin (or to tell oneself that one’s partner is bound to get the hang of it sooner or later, etc.), rather than facing the fact that being bad at Maintenance kills relationships and the fact that your partner doesn’t do the ironing without being reminded three times is a much bigger problem than it might appear. This may be a useful point at which to return to the label ‘maintenance’. Admin is boring, but it maintains the relationship. Bricks are boring, but they keep a house up; bread can be boring, but it doesn’t half hold a sandwich together. By the time Lee fully realises how much Sandy sucks at maintenance, they have been together for three years and living together for two. It feels far, far too late (and far, far too petty) to say, “Sandy, I really can’t stay in this relationship unless you treat the washing up with the seriousness it deserves”, and so Lee doesn’t say it. Instead, a new era of tense, repetitive, mean little arguments ensues, revolving around chores that neither partner particularly wants to do, but which are necessary for the household to function. This is what people mean by ‘the little things’, but these things are not little: they are dull. The relationship circles these tedious issues like water trying to drain past a clogged plughole. There is never quite enough energy to dislodge the metaphorical slice of onion or mushy rice, but neither is there a sincere attempt to really scrutinise how those things got there in the first place (spoiler alert: poor admin).

What makes a relationship work in the long-term, therefore (I suggest) is both people in the relationship working hard at both Joy and Maintenance. Consider Perel’s other book The State of Affairs and Chapter 10 of Mating in Captivity, in which she argues (among other things) that infidelity arises partly out of asking too much of a single person, expecting our chosen partner to fulfil all of our needs: ‘once we have found “the one”, we will need no one else’.[10] Asking one person to be all things to you is unfair, isolating and likely to lead to disappointment, as well as probably causing the partners to spend far more time together than the relationship can stand, making them both bored and frustrated with each other and craving change. The way the relationship is being run is what is creating the boredom, but it is easy to see why both people involved might mistakenly draw the conclusion that it is their partner they need to change, rather than their behaviour. Perel says,

the disenchanted opt for divorce or affairs not because they question the institution [of marriage], but because they think they chose the wrong person. […] Next time they’ll choose better.

Perel, Mating, p.179.

I also suggest that an affair may also seem appealing because, much like the start of a new relationship, an affair is light on maintenance and heavy on joy. That’s the whole point of an affair: spontaneous, short-lived and passionate, we expect it to burn itself out before any maintenance is required.

Let’s go back to the beginning of Lee and Sandy’s relationship, when they spent their time having sex, talking and enjoying their shared love of West German cinema. The time they spent on admin (if any) revolved around who would replenish the KY jelly, what time Sandy would pick Lee up so they could go away for the weekend and whose flat they would be staying at that night. All those tasks are certainly admin, but they all also hold an erotic charge: Joyful Maintenance, if you will. Let’s now run the tape forward to a few days before Sandy and Lee take their ill-fated holiday: a holiday they are taking specifically because “we never see each other”, and which they set off on with light hearts, casually locking the cat in the house with the spare keys (each under the impression that the main set have been left with the neighbours by the other) and waving goodbye to Mr. Whiskers from the back seat of the taxi. At this point, their lives now involve a tremendous quantity of admin, generated by the fact that they now share a home and a cat. There is also a qualitative difference from the admin they did as single people, and in the early stages of their relationship. Lee is paying their bills, ironing their clothes and checking the cat for ticks; Sandy is taking out the bins, cooking hurried dinners and trying to remember why Lee thought it was important for Sandy to balance the chequebook for the joint account. The admin is not sexy anymore. Moreover, because Sandy sucks at admin, and because neither Sandy nor Lee has figured out a way to address the fact that Sandy sucks at admin, the admin is taking up a lot more space in their lives than it needs to. In other words, rather than being able to get the Maintenance out of the way early on and then get onto some Joy (as we might see in the first conversation below), Joy is squeezed out.

Lee: Hello, darling. Did you remember to pick up the dry-cleaning?
Sandy: Yes, and I put it away in the wardrobe when I got home.
Lee: Thanks for doing that. Shall we watch a film tonight? <civilised conversation ensues about the work of Werner Herzog>

Lee: Hello, darling. Did you remember to pick up the dry-cleaning?
Sandy: SHIT THE BINS.
Lee: You forgot?
Sandy: Yes.
Lee: Again?
Sandy: I had a really hectic day.
Lee: I reminded you twice.
Sandy: I know. I’m really sorry.
Lee: Why the fuck do I have to do everything? <argument ensues, with both Sandy and Lee thinking throughout how much they fucking hate dry-cleaning and how they would each happily eat an entire suit with a knife and fork if it meant they never had to argue about the dry-cleaning ever again>

In such an atmosphere, it’s not difficult to imagine Lee having an affair, finding a thrill in the irresponsibility of putting the relationship at risk after being forced to take on far more responsibility than Lee really wanted. Affairs do include some admin, of course (those lies don’t just write themselves), but crucially the admin has become sexy again. For someone like Lee who is good at admin, the kick Lee gets out of having an illicit relationship at all is supported by the smaller (but in some ways more powerful) kick Lee gets from successfully concealing the affair. Sandy will never notice, Lee thinks. This just goes to show how little Sandy knows me, etc.

It’s also not difficult to imagine Sandy having an affair, with (say) a colleague, easily fitted around Sandy’s already chaotic schedule without Lee noticing. In fact, although Lee is more discontented with the situation than Sandy, it’s Sandy who is more likely to stray in some ways. For one thing, Lee is too busy. For another, as Perel says, ‘excessive monitoring’ (which may well be how Sandy interprets Lee’s constant reminders) can push a person into ‘transgressions that establish psychological distance from an overbearing relationship. […] Trouble looms when monogamy is no longer a free expression of loyalty, but a form of enforced compliance.’ [11] Sandy finds an attractive new colleague ‘less anal’ than Lee and revels in naughty takeaways and flirting over the photocopier while working late. Sandy turns this new colleague over in their mind, paying even less attention to admin while in the grip of various fantasy encounters. Sandy’s new colleague doesn’t know Sandy is in a relationship, partly because Sandy never seems to run any of the errands one might expect to see done by someone in a long-term relationship (do your fucking admin, Sandy!), and partly because Sandy and Lee are spending so little time together at home, which is now less a shared home and more of a backdrop to their latest admin-based row. Sandy’s situation quickly escalates into flirtatious emails, groping in corridors and eventually hurried, partially-dressed sex in a slovenly flat. When these things are over, Sandy simply says, “see you tomorrow” and leaves, without anyone nagging about defrosting the freezer or demanding an update on the cat’s bowel movements. Perel says, describing a harassed wife, ‘[she] can feel like a woman again; her lover knows nothing about the broken Lego set or the plumber who failed to show up for the second time.’[12] When Sandy gets home, Lee asks why Sandy is putting work ahead of their relationship and lists the tasks Lee has had to do in Sandy’s absence. “You never spend any time with me or Mr. Whiskers,” Lee might say. Lee is no fun anymore, Sandy thinks. This just goes to show how little Lee knows me.

Chris Kraus’s baffling, tedious book I Love Dick is relevant here. I’ve read the whole thing twice and still haven’t the slightest idea whether it is an elaborate joke that I simply don’t find funny, or 250 pages of navel-gazing drivel. I find so little in it that I recognise as feminist that my first assumption was that the blurb was also a joke. Emily Gould wrote in the Guardian that ‘Everyone is right: this is the most important book about men and women written in the last century’, so I am clearly in a very small minority when I say that it feels to me like an utterly unimportant book about self-absorbed people whose relationships I didn’t care about (although I note that at least two people have taken the time to write ‘self-reflective wank’ and ‘GET IN THE SEA’ in the comments on Gould’s article). Maybe it has something to say about men and women more broadly, but for me the three central characters are so bizarre (and yet so dull) that I don’t feel able to extrapolate any of their behaviours, and certainly wouldn’t consider them typical or representative (not of anyone I know, anyhow). According to the blurb on the back, this is ‘the most important feminist novel of the past two decades’, but I hated it with the fire of a thousand suns and since I only want to use it to illustrate a brief point here, I really can’t bring myself to read it a third time solely to unpack why I found it so unbearable. For my immediate purposes, let’s just consider the notion that it rests upon, which is that an affair is inherently interesting.[13] We know Kraus thinks this is so because literally nothing else happens: the entire book is just three people in a love triangle talking to each other about the fact that they are in a love triangle. Kraus has a whole book of things to say about an affair that takes a hundred pages to get past first base, at which point the marriage is over and so technically not an affair anyway. Chris and Sylvère (the central married couple) have an extraordinary amount to say to each other, too (‘Was the conceptual fuck merely the first step? For the next few hours [HOURS], Chris and Sylvère discuss this’).[14] I Love Dick relies on the idea that an affair (any affair, including a conceptual one i.e. one that will have bored the arse off the reader long before the people in question get round to having sex)[15] is exciting, daring and endlessly interesting, but the affair the book describes is none of those things. The three people involved find themselves in a love triangle not because of a sudden, thrilling passion or a meaningful and completing sense of wholeness, but because all three of them lack relationship skills, self-awareness and boundaries. They certainly have no idea what it is they hope to get out of either relationship, other than a breath-takingly self-indulgent book (‘We never have any fun together,’ she [Chris] sighed into the phone. Sylvere replied gruffly: ‘Oh. Fun. Is that what it’s supposed to be about?’).[16]

None of these affairs make sense, particularly when we remind ourselves that the problem Sandy and Lee have with each other is not sexual, but administrative. What they have created by matching their committed relationship with an affair is a yin-and-yang matching set of relationships. The relationship Sandy and Lee have with each other is now almost entirely admin. Boring, boring admin. Perel quotes D.H. Lawrence at the start of Mating in Captivity, speaking of ‘the great cage of our domesticity’, and it is the meshing together of Sandy’s life with Lee’s, the crushing burden of cumulative admin and Sandy’s inability to do their share that locks the two of them together, making them feel old, bored and boring.[17] This side of the ying-yang circle is leavened with a tiny spot of joy that reminds them they are still fond of each other and therefore just about keeps the pilot light flickering. On the other side, the relationships they each have with their respective lovers are almost entirely joy. Sexy, sexy joy. This keeps them apart, both literally and metaphorically, concealing their ‘other’ lives and allowing them to explore who they can be with another person: someone who feels dirty and conflicted, certainly, but also someone who feels young, interesting and desirable. This side of the circle is marked with a tiny spot of admin that is just enough to keep each affair concealed. Thus Sandy and Lee have achieved balance of a sort, and this is why (and how) so many affairs drag on for years. Having sex with another person is still counterintuitive, given that the sex Sandy and Lee still have occasionally with each other is still good, but that’s not why they are having sex with each other anymore, and that’s not why they’re having affairs.

I imagined Sandy and Lee fighting for a week or so before Lee finally leaves, and that’s because I’m assuming it is during the fight about whose fault it is that the cat has died that one of them will let slip they have been having an affair. This will be devastating to the other party, primarily because of the breach of trust implied by sexual monogamy (joy-related trust, if you will). My argument here is that being trusted with the cat’s life (and failing to take care of it i.e. maintenance-related trust) feels very different to being trusted not to have sex with another person. However, in terms of how small acts of fidelity and care add up over time (or, conversely, how failing to carry out similar small acts of maintenance wear away at a relationship over time), I think they are equivalent. There is more than one way to betray your partner. As before, note that the revelation that one’s partner has been having sex with a co-worker is a socially acceptable reason for ending a relationship, while that same partner forgetting to drop off the keys with a neighbour or repeatedly going into the overdraft is not. This is partly because we have the vocabulary with which to describe sexual infidelity: ‘Sandy was having an affair’, as opposed to ‘Sandy wasn’t any good at relationship maintenance’, which then has to be explained and backed up with a dozen relevant examples before the long-suffering friend listening to this story is prepared to venture an opinion on whether Lee was right to leave.

My own view is that individual affairs can be interesting, both for the people involved in them and for those reading about fictional characters, but only if those people and/or characters are also interesting. For example, The Once and Future King does a beautiful job of showing all three points of a love triangle, in such a delicate and balanced way that a reader can hold sympathy for all three of them in their heart at the same time. That is because the three people involved are all complex, thoughtful and interesting. Each of them feels the pain of their situation and each of them both regrets it and feels powerless to resist it. Arthur even manages to feel sorry for his unfaithful wife and best friend, both of whom he continues to love with great sincerity and gentleness. He goes out of his way to preserve the fiction that he does not know they are betraying him, just as they work hard to keep it from him – not because they dread being found out, but because they do not wish to hurt him. T.H. White’s handling of the currents of emotion between the three of them is extraordinary and exquisite. Meanwhile in I Love Dick, if ever a character begs to be cheated on, it is pretentious, entitled, patronising Sylvère. Wordsworth speaks of the ‘dreary intercourse of daily life’[18] and of course he is talking about interactions in general rather than sexual intercourse, but truly, an affair is a deeply dreary response to a relationship being in a tough spot, particularly if the people involved are themselves dull as shit. There is something profoundly bratty about an affair. Childlike, we demand to have the mutually exclusive, and to be the mutually exclusive: spouse and lover, old and young, adult and adulterous. ‘Unfaithful spouse’ ought to be an oxymoron, but it isn’t. It is a commonplace. An affair resolves nothing. It is both the coward’s way out and no way out at all.

As I said, it doesn’t have to be this way. Relationship skills, patience, realistic expectations and being fucking grown-ups can, I suggest, allow us to flourish. As Wordsworth has it later on in the same poem, taking this stuff seriously can make it possible, ‘Through all the years of this our life, to lead / From joy to joy.’

———————————————————————————————————————–

[1] Armand Marie Leroi, The Lagoon: How Aristotle Invented Science (London: Bloomsbury, 2014), p.277. See pp.101-104 for a discussion of Aristotle’s influence on Linnaeus and Cuvier, among others.

[2] It’s important to note that a few pages later, Phaedrus makes it clear that in fact many of the mechanics both he and John deal with are anything but competent.

[3] Or, more specifically, anything other than “yippee!”. If you feel ready to ask your partner to strike you vigorously across the buttocks with a copy of Middlemarch (say), you should also be prepared for responses spanning the full range from “yippee!” through “may I suggest a hardback copy of Robert Coover’s weird-arse novel Spanking the Maid as a more appropriate choice?” to “get out of my house”. See also Shake it all about for some further thoughts on the teaching of consent and the use of the phrase “no, but thanks for asking”.

[4] “Take it like a man”, as we used to say before we were fully aware of how patriarchy tells men that the word “no” is something they should only expect to hear from women who haven’t yet got with the programme.

[5] Perel, Mating, pp.201 and 3.

[6] I don’t have a page number for this because (i) it is in my mind after hearing the surrounding passage read at a wedding rather than because I read it in a book; and (ii) I don’t have a copy of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin in the house because I’m not in a ladies-only book group from the mid-1990s.

[7] ‘Because they [Chris and Sylvère] are no longer having sex, the two maintain their intimacy via deconstruction’. Oh, do fuck off. Chris Kraus, I Love Dick (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 1997), p.6.

[8] Perel, Mating, p.3.

[9] Giant Bear and I regularly use the phrase ‘Shit the bins!’ as a shorthand for “I’ve just realised that I didn’t do a boring admin task I was supposed to be responsible for! On an unrelated matter, I now need to leave the room!”

[10] Perel, Mating, p.179.

[11] Perel, Mating, p.190.

[12] Perel, Mating, p.183.

[13] I have deliberately not offered a definition of what constitutes an affair, either from my own point of view or for Lee and Sandy. Chris and Sylvère agree that Chris failing to have sex with Dick constitutes an affair (this is the ‘Conceptual Fuck’ mentioned above), but whatever your definition of infidelity might be, I doubt that an evening of watching a video of someone dressed as Johnny Cash and then falling asleep on their sofa bed next to your own spouse would count.

[14] Kraus, Dick, p.6.

[15] Is this like the ‘zipless fuck’ in Fear of Flying (which I also really hated)? I don’t care enough about either book to find out.

[16] Kraus, Dick, p.74.

[17] D.H. Lawrence, ‘Wild Things in Captivity’, line 7, as quoted in Perel, p.ix.

[18] William Wordsworth, ‘Lines composed a few miles above Tintern Abbey’, line 132. Incomplete citation because as a general rule I don’t care for Wordsworth and won’t have him in the house. He also speaks of ‘The coarser pleasures of my boyish days / And their glad animal movements’, but let’s assume he means hiking.

Reproductively, I’m more of a Gaza

The title of this post refers to David Rose’s excellent book Sexually, I’m More of a Switzerland, a compilation of small ads sent to the London Review of Books.

We are in the process of selling our lovely home, in order to move somewhere even lovelier: a house in which we fully intend to live out the rest of our natural lives, in West Somerset. It has a pale view of hills and the heritage railway within earshot. We are thrilled that we are able to do this, but of course the process of actually buying one house and selling another is absolutely brutal: dull, slow, frustrating and expensive. It requires tidying, cleaning, hunting for documents one is only half-convinced one owns, and of course opening one’s purse every few days so that anyone who happens to be passing can help him or herself to the contents. We started looking for a house six months ago, knowing that the process would be ghastly and hoping we might even be able to get it out of the way before term started (no such luck). The previous bouts of house-hunting I have undergone (and I use ‘bouts’ in the full realisation that this is a term more usually applied to vomiting or similar) have been just as dreadful. To appropriate a format from Mil Millington’s brilliant book Things My Girlfriend And I Have Argued About (don’t read it on a train: you’ll be asked to leave the quiet carriage because your giggling is upsetting other people), I present some of these houses and some of the people who looked around our house, alongside some thoughts about disputed territory.

A house. The estate agents declare this to be ‘in need of some updating’, which means that the garden is held up by a massive concrete wall that could collapse onto the kitchen at any moment, and the wiring consists of tangled cables trailing along the skirting board in every room. The thing that looked like a washing line in the lumpy, slanty garden turns out to be another wire that runs the full length of the 60ft lawn to the rickety garage. There is an entire section of perspex roof held up by nothing more than habit, and the beautiful pocket-sized Aga doesn’t work. We do not buy this house.

A house. The estate agent shows us round, even though the lady who owns the house is at home watching the TV, wearing a nylon nightie and wedged into a chair so firmly that she seems to have become part of it. The whole house is beige, except the bathroom, which is a startling vaginal pink, including the carpet, bath, sink, toilet and curtains. We do not buy this house.

A house. The garage has a huge dent in the up-and-over door, obviously caused by something being driven into it at speed, and the whole building smells powerfully of drugs and Alsatians. It seems strangely familiar and on the way home I realise that it reminds me of Dead Dog Farm in Twin Peaks. We do not buy this house.

A house, or rather a cottage. The ceilings are so low that neither of us can stand upright in the sitting room (a fact that could so easily have been mentioned in the details) and Giant Bear is too tall to stand upright in any room other than the kitchen. The bedroom walls have been devised by the set-builder on Crossroads, and the bathroom is at the end of a corridor so narrow that Giant Bear cannot fit down it. “You’d soon get used to that!” the agent exclaims brightly (presumably, by “that” he means a life of outdoor urination), urging us to walk around the (small, flood-prone) garden so that we can admire the terrible shed and breeze block walls. The thatch needs to be replaced in a mere two years at a cost of several thousand pounds and in the meantime is a fire risk. We do not buy this house.

Another cottage. The boiler is housed by the front door, making the kitchen and porch smell strongly of oil. The airing cupboard, which is between the bathroom and the main bedroom, is really just two sets of cupboard doors either side of a damp, mushy-walled hole with a boiler in it. The room that would be my office has a window high up on one wall that somehow faces straight onto a car-park at tyre-height, so that one is literally six feet below the ground. The walls are dark green and cold to the touch. It is a room to kill oneself in. We do not buy this house.

A house. The idiot showing us round has already shown us round another house in the area that day, and thus we set off from the same place at the same time to drive perhaps three miles. We arrive first and spend twenty minutes wandering pointlessly around the garden, while the family cat chews discontentedly on a dead blue-tit. When the idiot finally arrives and lets us into the house, we find that the loft has been converted into a bedroom, with the doorway squished right into the eaves so that the top edge is at a sharp diagonal. It is thus only useful as a bedroom if one doesn’t mind having sex in a room without a door, and anyway Giant Bear can only just fit through the opening (if you know what I mean). We do not buy this house.

Obviously, we expected to look round a fair number of duffers, and we expected that a fair number of duffers would look around our house. What we did not anticipate was how many conversations about the fact that we don’t have children would be generated by these processes. Before I go on, I know. I know. It makes literally no sense. To my eyes, there is nothing in either house or garden (an unexplained, unoccupied bunk-bed, perhaps) to justify such a conversation. To the eyes of other people, however, I myself am sufficient cause, because as we all know, women’s bodies and choices are public property (see The kindness of strangers). This is why people think it’s OK to pat women of child-bearing age on the womb (real example from my friend E), tell them it’s their ‘turn’ soon (real example from my colleague M) or simply turn up at our front door and wordlessly hand over a baby to make it easier to fold up the buggy, assuming that I will instinctively know what to do with a child that age (real example from me, earlier this week). The lady in question handed me her firstborn before saying “hello” or explaining that yes, she was the person who had demanded to look round my house at no notice and not just a random child-catcher who happened to be passing and thought it might be a good idea to get someone else’s fingerprints on the Babygro. The baby was, predictably, small and slightly gross, with that surprised expression they all seem to have at that age. Holding her was rather like holding the Hound, but much less fun because she was neither furry nor cute. Also, the Hound has a personality. He has preferences. He makes regular, increasingly successful attempts to make himself understood, is extraordinarily expressive with both his face and range of noises, and responds to around thirty assorted phrases and commands. This tiny child, however, was not yet able to do anything other than blink, soil herself and look uncannily like some sort of grub. “You can carry her for a bit if you like!” her mother exclaimed. I’m still not sure why.

Once she had reluctantly reclaimed her baby, we went through the familiar rigmarole of walking into each room and stating the obvious. “That’s the wood-burner”, I might say, pointing to a massive black box the size of a fridge, because obviously if I didn’t point at it and say its name, she might not notice the huge glowing thing that is on fire in the middle of the wall. This lady, however, had no intention of dancing these tried and tested steps, and instead began by describing our perfectly good bathroom as “unexciting”. This seemed a strange thing to say to a person both about and in their house, particularly when it might well be financially advantageous to make that selfsame homeowner like and trust you for the next few weeks. Also, while I’ve been in bathrooms that were pleasant in any number of ways, I can’t claim to have been in one that was actually “exciting”, unless we count the Chinese hotel room in which the bathroom was entirely surrounded by full-height windows, allowing both bathing and defecating to become spectator sports. This was followed with a heartfelt declaration that she hated wallpaper of all kinds and couldn’t understand why we hadn’t removed it from our hallway. I pointed out that the (cream, innocuous) wallpaper is literally the whole way up the stairs, covering the entire hall, stairwell and landing, including the ceiling. “Yes,” she said. “How awful.” The Elmer the Patchwork Elephant sitting room (a room that, lest we forget, she has already seen several photographs of) was “too green”, while the kitchen (ditto, alongside a floor-plan giving the exact dimensions) was “too big”.

Our Nights at the Circus bedroom was viewed in stony silence. My office is, thank you so much for asking, also themed after a book (The Lost World) and has beautiful, recently exposed and waxed original Victorian floorboards. “This room needs a carpet”, she declared. I explained that the carpet did not survive the process of us removing three layers of painted woodchip wallpaper and that anyhow I hate carpet. One might have thought someone with such strong views on wallpaper would sympathise, but no.

The many shelves my husband has usefully added in almost every alcove to house our four thousand books were baffling (“I don’t know what I’d put on them!” Have you considered books at all?). As we went downstairs, she commented, “I saw all the books in the photographs and then all the trains and thought it must be a family with lots of children! Where are all your children?” Let us leave aside for the moment the mistaken notions that reading is not an adult activity and that children like to spread their libraries through the house, rather than keeping their books in their rooms. I note only that this comment was made after we had looked at both bedrooms, neither of which remotely resemble the bedrooms of children. Patiently, I explained that we don’t have children; that the books that aren’t about trains belong to me; and that the trains, books about trains and the other, clearly grown-up things in the railway room like the drill and the soldering iron, belong to my husband. She looked somewhere between stunned and outraged. “You don’t have children? But the house is so big! And you are young, and home during the day!”[1] She sighed deeply and ran a thoughtful finger over the washing machine (not included in the sale) before demanding to see my “electric box”. As she left, she handed the baby back to me without a word while she fought with the buggy, observing “I think she likes you.” Fantastic.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this woman. She made us an offer, but we’re not going to sell our house to her and I’ve already forgotten her last name. However, she has stayed with me. Another woman encountered in the moving process has also stayed in my mind (the aforementioned idiot). She showed us around what will shortly become our new house, by which I mean she was in the building at the same time as we were: she made no discernible effort to actually sell it to us and was unable to answer any of our questions. This lady thought an appropriate thing to say to a childless couple as they stare in wonder at a vast, tree-filled garden (a garden we were unable to look round, since she didn’t have “the right shoes”) would be “what a wonderful place to bring up a child!” She was so blithely stupid that Giant Bear suggested it might have been an act, and that had we lingered too long she would have suddenly turned on us, teeth bared and forehead rippling with hitherto concealed brains. Unlocking the shed she claimed not have a key to, revealing a neat row of previous viewers with their lifeless bodies wrapped in carpet, she might then have kicked off her stupid shoes and booted us in too, leaping into her car and shouting quadratic equations over her shoulder as she sped away.[2]

My specific problem with both these women is that, while I accept that nosing around another person’s home is a strange experience that may in some cases create a false and temporary sense of intimacy, that intimacy absolutely does not extend to interrogating a person about their reproductive choices. My wider problem with these women, and indeed all the other people who think it is acceptable to ask whether we have children (and if not, why not) is that while we are both absolutely fine with the fact that we don’t have kids, they don’t know that. I turned thirty-four during our honeymoon and Giant Bear’s parents took many years to conceive, so we were under no illusions that having a family would be easy for us, and had discussed and made our peace with this well before we entered into a formal relationship. We have no objection to becoming parents: we have names picked out, don’t use contraception and even have some semblance of a plan as to how we might make our household work if I, as the major breadwinner, was out of action for several months. Nevertheless, I stress that we both know and accept that parenthood is likely to be something that never happens for us, and that is just fine. We haven’t been through years of painful, expensive IVF. We haven’t tried (and failed) to adopt. We don’t long for a baby to give our lives a sense of purpose and fulfilment. We haven’t been through the trauma of stillbirth and miscarriage. We haven’t had a load of invasive and humiliating treatments or procedures attempting to determine the cause of my barren womb. However, we do understand that all of these things are possibilities when one decides to attempt to become a parent, unlike (one has to assume from the fact that these questions are being asked at all) the vast majority of people who ask these questions. When someone suggests that perhaps we got the Hound because he was the next best thing to having a baby (he’s not, and if people could stop referring to me as his Mummy that would be just spiffy), or expresses surprise that a woman of my age[3] has failed to reproduce, or asks me the whether-and-why question, it doesn’t make me sad. It makes me angry, because that person has probably already caused untold hurt with that question. I once found a female colleague I didn’t much like sobbing in a toilet because she had been asked in passing by another member of staff whether she was pregnant, when in fact her swollen abdomen was due to a recent miscarriage. The sheer number of assumptions that are being made[4] and the cheek of those assumptions take my breath away. These questions also create in me a terrible urge to lie. I want to bellow “WE ARE INFERTILE AND OUR LIVES ARE MEANINGLESS” or “ALL MY CHILDREN ARE DEAD” or “MY DAUGHTER WAS TAKEN AWAY BY THE STATE AFTER I KILLED THE LAST PERSON WHO ASKED ME THAT QUESTION”.[5] I don’t want to appropriate the grief of people for whom these statements may be true in any way, which is why I don’t do this. Nevertheless, the urge remains, because sometimes I feel that yelling something outrageous into their stupid well-meaning faces is the only way to make such people realise that “do you have children?” is not a neutral question and they need to stop asking it.

I have been given an enormous amount of advice over the years by people who think it is their job to tell me what I should do with my womb, and so I’m going to presume to return the favour for a moment. If you want to persuade other people to have children (and goodness knows why you would need your own life choices validated in this way), I have some suggestions. Firstly, remember that you cannot passive-aggressively nag your children, children-in-law, friends or colleagues into procreation. A young couple that came to look at our house returned for a second viewing with several members of their extended family in tow, one of whom observed that my office (or ‘Bedroom 3’, as we never call it) would make a nice nursery. The young woman rolled her eyes. “They want me to have a baby,” she said to me, completely deadpan. “I don’t fancy it.” Secondly, don’t bang on about how much you love your children. I love my dog and my husband, but that’s not the same as thinking everyone I know would be happier if they got themselves a dog and a husband. Thirdly, be honest about what trying to conceive, pregnancy, childbirth and parenthood are actually like, without at any point assuming that your experience is typical. Each of your children is a single data point. Fourthly, the most persuasive thing you could do is to raise kids who are good company, like the twins who looked round our house with their parents last week. The little girl played gently with our nervy little monocular Hound, who was on his third lot of visitors that evening and thoroughly over-wrought, while the little boy asked me intelligent questions about Victorian buildings and looked through our commemorative Jubilee book with his eyes out on stalks.[6] They were as good an advert for parenthood as I’ve ever seen.

Finally, stop asking people whether they have children, and if not why not. Never, ever ask this. Maybe this is an unbearably painful question for them, and maybe it’s not. Either way, this question is not neutral. The landscape in which you are blundering about with your assumptions about biological (cuckoo?) clocks is not Switzerland. It is Gaza.

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[1] I’m nearly forty and work from home four days a week, but whatever.

[2] Panic not, dear reader: I am not typing this with my thumbs from inside a darkened space that will soon become my tomb, like poor Katherine in The English Patient. It turned out that this estate agent was just stupid and terrible at her job after all.

[3] An age they always seem to underestimate. When I correct them and observe that I am between eight and twelve years older than they assume, I always wonder if my apparently youthful appearance is in any way linked to the fact that we haven’t had children.

[4] Would you sidle up to someone who worked on the same floor as you in a coffee break, offer them a biscuit and then ask whether they enjoy anal sex? Of course you wouldn’t — and yet, in many ways, that is a far less personal question than “why don’t you have children?”

[5] “I ROLLED HER IN CARPET AND STORED HER NEATLY IN THE SHED, WHICH I HAVE A KEY TO AFTER ALL “

[6] Our house, street and indeed several of the surrounding streets were built as part of the slum clearance to celebrate Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee and we have a book to prove it. The conversation went as follows:

Small Boy: I like old houses.
Me: Me too.
Small Boy: How old is your house?
Me: 120 years.
Small Boy: WOW.
Me: We have a book from the year the house was built, with all the original adverts and pictures from Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee. Would you like to see it?
Small Boy: YES PLEASE.
Me <takes down book, lets him turn the pages>
Small Boy: HISTORY IS AMAZING.

Sorry not sorry (or, neither a borrower nor a lender be)

I haven’t read any of the Harry Potter books. This is because I agree with Stewart Lee that, whatever the merits of JK Rowling’s work (and no doubt there are many), fundamentally the Harry Potter books are children’s books. I am not a child, nor do I have any children to read them to. The first book was published when I was already too old for it; I was at an age when, among other things, Alias Grace, Knowledge of Angels, Madame Bovary, Great Expectations, Rites of Passage, Lolita and Jane Eyre were more satisfying to me. I also read the whole of Wordsworth’s Prelude and the preface to Lyrical Ballads. I loathe Wordsworth from the depths of my soul, and yet I read the whole of the Prelude and the preface to Lyrical Ballads, and then I read Lyrical Ballads itself and all the other stuff we were required to read for A-level English Literature, because we were asked to do so.[1] As you’ll see in a moment, a troubling sense of misplaced obligation looms large in my reading choices the moment other people get involved in them.

Despite being too old for a children’s book (and seventeen is far, far too old to be reading a children’s book. If you’re experimenting with sex, recreational drugs and Christianity by day, reading about a pre-pubescent wizard by night is downright perverted), several of my coevals apparently forgot that we were all very nearly grown-ups about to be unleashed upon the world of higher education. I was badgered regularly by a friend who had read Harry Potter and the Prisoner’s Dilemma and thought I should do the same. No, I said. There are far too many grown-up books I’d rather read. He said, you don’t want to read it because it’s too long. No, I said. I’ve read War and Peace, Life and Fate and The Name of the Rose. I’ve read all the books in The Fortunes of War sequence and all of A Dance to the Music of Time.[2] I like big books, and I cannot lie. He said, I haven’t heard of any of those books. Oh dear, I said. I should shut up about books if I were you. Well, he said, as the point of the conversation thundered by him like a hungry Megalosaurus, if you like big books, you’ll like Harry Potter and the Pottery of Harr. No, I said. I’m too old for it. I will find it childish, which is not a fair criticism to make of a children’s book, but I will feel that way nonetheless because I’m not a child. He said, don’t be silly. You’ve already decided to hate it. No, I said. I’ve already decided that I’m a grown-up, and this book is not for grown-ups. He said, there’s nothing wrong with adults reading children’s books. No, I said. There’s everything wrong with adults reading children’s books, unless you are reading them to a child. It reduces your attention span. It removes your ability to respond to intellectual challenges, long sentences and complex ideas. Reading is one of the great pleasures of human existence, and you are trying to take that away from me by making me a read a book that cannot possibly satisfy me and was never intended to. If I had read it as a child and had happy memories that might be re-captured by re-reading it (as one might expect from re-reading 101 Dalmations, The Voyage of the Dawn-Treader, or, in a fit of irony, The Borrowers), fine, but I didn’t read it as a child and I don’t want to read it now.

He said, you’re a terrible snob. You don’t like it because it’s popular. You don’t read magazines because you think they’re sexist, and now you think you’re above reading anything popular. Fuck off, I said. First of all, I didn’t say I didn’t like it. I can’t dislike a book I haven’t read; I’m simply not going to read it. Secondly, I do read magazines (by which I meant Vagina Monthly, the only non-sexist magazine available in the late 1990s, which I had to buy from the cornershop in my head). Thirdly, I read popular stuff all the time. I read all the Sherlock Holmes stories last winter.[3] I read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, which sold millions of copies. I read (and re-read) about 80% of the novels of (famously best-selling author) Dick Francis. I’ve read everything Terry Pratchett ever wrote, and he’s wildly popular.[4] He said, stop using books I haven’t heard of as examples. No, I said. I will use whatever examples I like in this conversation, which you initiated. You like this book because it’s literally the only book you’ve read for pleasure in your life. You’re not recommending Harry Potter and the Whatever of Meh to me because you enjoyed reading that book or because you think I’ll enjoy reading that book. You’re recommending it to me because it gave you an experience of reading that was actually fun, and that’s rare for you because you don’t read, and I’m happy for you that you finally had a good reading experience, but I don’t think it is specific to this book and I am not reading this book or any other just because you think I should. You don’t read. You know nothing about books. I do read and I know about books, and I can choose a book for myself without any help from you.

This dreary ding-dong went on for four years, long after we had left school. Eventually, I hit upon a solution, which I recommend to anyone who finds their friends boorishly and dogmatically trying to make them read a book they have no interest in; it’s brutal, but they won’t ever force a book on you again. I said, fine. I will read your children’s book. You will lend it to me, and I will read it. In exchange, I will lend you a grown-up’s book of roughly equivalent length, and you will read that. He said, fine. Thus did two people who claimed to like each other conspire in and commit to a pointless exercise in a shared spirit of self-righteousness and spite.

Let me be clear: I absolutely did not want to read Harry Potter and the Demple of Toom, but I always read any book that has been loaned to me right to the end.[5] This is because, firstly, if someone lends me a book, I assume that they are doing so specifically because they think I will derive pleasure from the reading thereof. Secondly, I am attempting to show that I expect my friends to be able to choose a book that is not drivel. Being given or loaned a book should be a rewarding, fruitful exercise, in which I discover writers new to me, carefully curated by thoughtful, well-read friends and relatives. For example, I recently read The Diary and Letters of Etty Hillesum, which was a gift from a friend. Not only did this book introduce me to Rilke, but every page was thoughtful, clever and sad, and I would not have read it otherwise. Thirdly and finally, if the book turns out to be drivel after all, it’s important to be able to enumerate clearly and precisely the many and various ways in which it was drivel, so that the friend in question understands just how wrong they are and never lends me any drivel again. This requires me to read right to the end, possibly taking notes. This is the only reason I have read all thousand-odd pages of The Executioner’s Song, one of the dreariest experiences of my life. I therefore prepared to read every last paragraph of Hairy Pooter and the Total Insect Fail and posted a book to my then friend. Perhaps this was the beginning of the end of our friendship (inseparable at school and in touch regularly throughout university and beyond, we no longer have anything to do with each other). A week went by and nothing arrived for me, so I emailed him. Where is that children’s book you were going to forcibly lend me? I said. He said, Ah. Well. Yes. The book you forced upon me arrived [notice how quickly he forgot the whole thing started with him forcing his book upon me], and I tried to read it.

The book I chose for my former friend was Bleak House. Dickens certainly has flaws (questionable attitudes to women; sentences longer than life itself; caricature as a default position; a total inability to let a moral lesson go unremarked, and so on), but let’s take a moment to recall the gloriously dank opening[6] of Bleak House. It is, famously, one of the great beginnings in literature (see Nothing but a Hound Dog for other spiffy opening lines), with its marvellous description of the suffocating fogs of the Thames: ‘Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city.’ My favourite lines are these (only partly because they include a dinosaur):

As much mud in the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holburn Hill. Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snowflakes – gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun.

This splendid, sarcastic, swirling plug-hole of an opening[7] is also one of the reasons I chose Bleak House for my moronic former friend, reasoning that even if he felt he had to skip (say) some of Mrs. Jellyby’s twitterings later on, at least the first few pages would give him his second experience of Reading For Pleasure and he’d be into fun things like Plot and Character Development before he knew it. Yes, he would think to himself. A book. A big, fat, complicated book: suitable for a mature mind, demanding both concentration and engagement. A cast of thousands, full of ideas, intrigue, humour and mystery, plus a chap that spontaneously combusts and a load of funny names. A book indeed.

You tried to read it? I yelped at the screen, where his email crouched, embarrassed by its own existence. YOU’RE AN ADULT! I typed, pounding the keyboard much as a Megalosaurus might tenderise an intriguing meal by stomping it to death. You’re studying politics and philosophy! You’re reading lengthy, dry books full of complex ideas every day of the week! You tried to read it? Yes, he said. I tried. I managed ten pages before I lost the will to live. I didn’t know what was going on. I couldn’t concentrate on sentences that long. I couldn’t remember who anyone was. I’m sorry. I can’t. Don’t hate me.

Thus, gentle reader, Harry Potter and the Mansplainer’s Tome never arrived, so the moment passed and I never read it. I am not sorry at all.

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[1] Based on the quality of the discussion that followed, the rest of the class didn’t feel the same sense of obligation. We never quite forgave each other for this mutual misunderstanding.

[2] I had even, God help me, waded through a considerable quantity of The Golden Bough, but I didn’t say so in case he asked me what it was about.

[3] I recommend this most highly, particularly if the winter is a pea-souper-ish one. One story per night, read last thing before bed in front of a roaring fire, with a hot, bitter cocoa to hand and a sleeping Hound on one’s lap, puts one in a splendid mood.

[4] He might have argued that, say, Truckers is clearly and explicitly aimed at younger readers (and no doubt he would have done, had he been familiar with the work of Terry Pratchett). He might have argued that all fantasy writing is for kids (it’s not, but no doubt he would have tried, had he known anything about the fantasy genre). He might have argued that the division between ‘children’s literature’ and ‘adult literature’ is a social construct, as meaningless to two people in their late teens as all the other divisions between ‘for kids’ and ‘not for kids’, but he didn’t make any of these points. Notice how his argument is limited at every turn by his total lack of reading and yet he continued to consider himself in a position to lecture me about books I should put in front of my face and into my brain for four entire years.

[5] I was a ravenous but less omnivorous reader at the time, confining myself almost exclusively to fiction, and I certainly hadn’t read or heard of Daniel Pennac’s Bill of Rights for readers. Had we known it, I was defending the first article (the right not to read), while my former friend was in some ways defending the last (the right to not defend your tastes). See both A ‘small mysterious corpus’ and Tom Sperlinger, Romeo and Juliet in Palestine: Teaching Under Occupation (Winchester: Zero Books, 2014), pp. 49-51 for a discussion of Pennac’s Bill.

[6] Fellow subscribers might also recognise this as a quotation from Vagina Monthly.

[7] See above. It was a bumper issue, with an unusually generous centrefold and an excellent crossword (down clues only).

The kindness of strangers

We have all read, heard or (God forbid) been on the receiving end of the unsolicited opinions of people we don’t know. Friends speak of strangers criticising their parenting, language and propensity to smile, and every woman has many a horrible story about a rude man on a bus, a building site or driving a white van, yelling out what his boner thinks of our clothes, body or willingness to engage in some kind of sexual act. Last year, for example, a man told me to ‘cheer up’ on my way to the station. I said, ‘I’m going to my father’s funeral. Good day, sir.’[1]

Good day sir
The Hound does not like to be interrupted when deciding which rock to rescue from the incoming tide

Today, the woman next to me on the train (who hadn’t reserved a seat) was challenged by another woman under the impression that it was her seat (it wasn’t; she was in the wrong carriage). Starting at polite and moving through icily civil into something more glacial and yet still perfectly within the bounds of normal verbal intercourse, they stood, one in the aisle, one semi-crouched over the seat like a water-skier, and argued all the way to Reading about whose seat it was. Given that neither had the seat number on her ticket and there were plenty of other empty seats, the whole thing was highly unnecessary, but somehow backing down in the face of a stranger was unacceptable to them both. Are strangers terrifying, rude and unpredictable, or, as per a cushion in the window of my local florist, ‘friends you haven’t met yet’? What is the etiquette (if any) of such encounters? How does one challenge questionable behaviour[2] appropriately, without becoming the man that told my friend Other Proofreader she was a bad parent because she wouldn’t let her toddlers play with a flock of crazed geese? Should we all just keep our opinions to ourselves, or are there times when interacting with people we don’t know is desirable or necessary? Here are some encounters with strangers that readers might like to chew over.

Indestructible

A few weeks ago, while waiting for a train, I noticed a man sitting on a bench finish his coffee and put the disposable cup (a cup that will live for a thousand years and therefore is anything but ‘disposable’) back on the bench. Then he got up and took out his ’phone, his business with the Captain Scarlet of cups concluded. My paternal grandmother liked to hand litter to the litterer, saying ‘I’m sure you didn’t mean to drop this’ or similar, but there are things a kind-looking old lady can get away with that I simply can’t. Once, my grandmother (accompanied by me and my brother, both under the age of ten at the time) did this to a skinhead on the Metro. He said he was very sorry, tucked his Twix wrapper into his leather jacket and they reminisced about the local swimming baths for the rest of the trip.

Choose Your Own Adventure

On a boiling hot day last summer, a woman got onto my (very crowded) train home with a small child, and sat opposite me. The small child ate a biscuit with reasonable competence, and then asked her mother whether it was time to get off the train yet. Her mother explained patiently that they had to go four stops. The child considered this and asked if she could have another biscuit to pass the time; she could, provided she didn’t make too much mess. Could she read her book too? She could, provided she didn’t get crumbs between the pages or ‘annoy the lady opposite’ (me; it was a large book that took up much of the table). The small child then wedged herself happily by the window, took up as much of the table as she liked, ate her biscuit and, muttering to herself, read her book (upside down, but perhaps Julio Cortazar[3] has written a book for children that can be read that way). As the mother caught my eye to check I wasn’t bothered by her daughter reading (very much the opposite), I said quietly, ‘she’s ever so well-behaved for such a little one. Well done.’ Her mother responded by bursting into tears. She then apologised profusely and told me that, earlier that day they had been visiting her sister in hospital and a man she didn’t know had marched across the ward to tell her that, in his expert opinion, her daughter was eating so loudly that it was upsetting whoever it was he was there to visit, and furthermore children shouldn’t be allowed in hospitals (except when they are terminally ill, presumably). The poor woman was so upset by this piece of rudeness that she had been ‘in a state’ all day. ‘Angry, or upset?’ I said. She thought for a moment and said, ‘angry. I’d like to see him eat a packet of Quavers quietly.’

Julia Roberts Saves The Day With Her Face

I had been teaching in Nanjing (see Notes from Nanjing).[4] The work was done, and I had travelled back to Shanghai on an afternoon train, in plenty of time to catch my flight home the following morning. I was supposed to be met at the station by somebody called Tabitha, who would then chaperone me and all my stuff back to the hotel. It was a typical Chinese afternoon: very hot, humidity hovering around 80% so that the air appears to have both flavour and texture (neither pleasant), and hordes of people in all directions, all busy and with somewhere to go. This was in the days before I owned a mobile ’phone, so I did as instructed and, balanced precariously on my suitcase, waited for Tabitha to arrive.

Tabitha did not arrive. After ten minutes, I did a quick inventory of my situation. Yes, I was definitely at the right station; yes, I was at the right entrance; yes, I was visible with my bright red suitcase and bright white skin; no, I did not have any Chinese money left (my metro ticket to the airport the following day was already purchased and tucked into my passport); no, I did not have any bottled water or food; and yes, I was exhausted from teaching twelve hours per day for ten days straight. Predictably, after nearly forty minutes of the heat and humidity, I fell off my suitcase in a dead faint onto the concrete.

I was revived by an elderly Chinese man carefully flicking water onto my face. He turned out to be manning the little drinks kiosk by the station entrance, and the water in question came from one of the bottles he had probably expected to sell. He spoke no English and although the Mandarin words for ‘hello’ and ‘thankyou’ are among the few words I know in that language, he turned out to speak another dialect (I assume Shanghainese). Thus, we communicated entirely in sign language, while simultaneously speaking aloud in our respective languages. He expressed concern that I had hit my head (I hadn’t, but I had cut my hand badly on the concrete); I explained this and he responded by tenderly rinsing my hand and wrapping it in a paper napkin. I expressed gratitude (gratitude! Entirely inadequate), and he patted my good hand, while indicating that I should look in the pocket of my dress. This turned out to contain my passport, with the train ticket to the airport still sticking out of it, which I had been clutching convulsively. We parted the best of friends, my hand bleeding quietly through the damp napkin onto another (unopened) bottle of water that he simply insisted I take. Having had a drink and a sit down, of course I realised that I was perfectly capable of remembering the route to the hotel, without Tabitha and with all my luggage, navigating by the enormous poster of Julia Roberts that was helpfully positioned on an important junction. The walk took maybe twenty minutes; on arrival in the hotel, my hand was disinfected and bandaged by one of the hotel staff, while yet another anonymous benefactor carried my case (he was a guest in the hotel; the bellboys were preoccupied with an enormous party of enormous Americans). This delightful man, who again spoke neither English nor Mandarin, disappeared at the door of my room where I was receiving first aid from the receptionist, reappearing a few moments later with a plastic cup of ice-cubes to reduce the swelling. Again, my thanks were conveyed through much gesturing, smiling and pressing of (sore) hands, since the bilingual receptionist also didn’t speak his dialect.

Don’t Be Afraid To Try Again

Contrast this thoughtful, selfless behaviour with a final incident, again in Shanghai. On my first night in the hotel, I woke from a fitful, jetlagged doze to the unmistakable sounds of enthusiastic sexual congress. It was so loud that I thought at first they must be rutting against the door of my room. I opened the door to find an empty corridor, and my colleague (who was in an adjacent room) standing in her own doorway, similarly discombobulated. Raising our voices above the shrieking, we debated which of the doors opposite we should bang on (with our fists) so that we could ask them in our best loud, slow English to shut the fuck up. There were two doors opposite, mirroring our own. Which room would the housekeeping staff be picking their way through in disbelief the following morning? It was impossible to tell.[5] Pressing our ears to the doors was a. gross and b. uninformative. While the room that did not contain our shouty friends could easily have been empty, the possibility of waking some other poor soul at 2am, particularly if s/he had up until that moment been successfully sleeping through the row, and particularly if s/he did not speak English, seemed unacceptable. What on earth were they doing to each other? There were certainly points when the gentleman seemed to be in considerable pain[6] and others when the sounds suggested they were literally eating each other.[7] Having said that, we ruled out all forms of oral sex, since both their mouths were still very much available for being yelled out of, although some more muffled noises suggested that, as Billy Joel has it, everyone goes south every now and then. Happily, while we were discussing the matter, some sort of conclusion was reached by at least one of the invisible couple, so hurray for everyone and we can all have a little sleep now.

The next night, however, this performance repeated itself. What a performance it was: the whole thing was carried out at a volume that generously included the entire floor in the glory that was their love. These deafening exclamations did not constitute clever conversation, but rather the universal language of grunts, groans and, on some occasions, bat-like squeaks that threatened to burst the eardrums. No information likely to surprise the interlocutor was being conveyed; moreover, there was simply no need for them to yell at the top of their lungs for the sake of each other: this was entirely for us, their public. My experience of jetlag is that the first night one just can’t sleep and it is foolish to try; the third night is hell on a stick; but on the second night, I am usually so tired that I sleep straight through. Not on this occasion, though, thanks to Mr and Mrs Shrieky McFuck across the corridor. The following morning, exhausted and grim, I complained at the reception desk. I explained that I didn’t know which room the noise was coming from, but that I had narrowed it down to two. Could the hotel staff make enquiries? They said they would, but it often happens in China that staff are much happier to say they will do a thing than to actually do a thing. The third night I was so tired that I slept through the screaming heebie-jeebies, although my poor colleague assured me over a breakfast that yes, there had definitely been some.

On our last day in the hotel, we queued to check out, bags piled around us, worn out from a long and trying week, but carefree in our waistband-less dresses for the flight home and slightly giddy at the idea of seeing our respective husbands again. Other guests stood about in a disorganised gaggle (the Chinese simply have no idea how to queue). Then, a perfectly ordinary-looking couple in their early thirties were called forward to the desk, and as they dragged their luggage forward, the woman banged her suitcase painfully against her ankle. Ah! she exclaimed, in a voice we knew. What to do? Without any of the relevant words in Mandarin at our command (sleep, deprivation, bastards and dear God sprang to mind), we could do nothing but glare at these hated strangers with a single malevolent eye until they folded themselves into a taxi and left. There wasn’t even a passing streetcar to push them under.

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[1] I was actually going to work and my father fully intends to live well into his nineties, but fuck that guy and his ‘arrange your face so that it is acceptable to me’ bullshit.

[2] For example, shortly after the Brexit referendum, I was forced to intervene in an altercation between three racist Welshmen and a teenage girl (of heritage that I guess was Indian). This was on a train in the middle of Somerset, on a Wednesday afternoon, for fuck’s sake, and in the circumstances I felt justified in being as rude as I’ve ever been to a group of strangers.

[3] I refer to Cortazar’s hyper-novel Hopscotch, which consists of numbered sections rather than paragraphs, and can be read in a number of different configurations. It’s basically a choose-your-own-adventure book that is also Proper Literature.

[4] See also any of my many China-related posts by clicking on ‘China’ in the word cloud or in the list of categories.

[5] Not because the doors had knockers that always told the truth or always lied, but because these people were simply so loud that the doors became irrelevant.

[6] Perhaps he was having a heart attack-ack-ack-ack-ack-ack?

[7] It all depends upon your appetite.

Things to make and do with a fake P45

Theresa May is, in my view, a cold, mean woman and a poor Prime Minister. However, she is also (on the balance of probability) a person, doing an important and difficult job, not very well. I think she knows she’s not doing it very well, because I’ve also done jobs that were, in their local context at least, important and difficult, and at which I was poor. I understand that haunted, gaunt look on Theresa May’s face and her unsteady voice: these are the features of someone who knows they suck at their job.

Do you know what I did when I realised I was in a job I wasn’t any good at? I quit, and let someone more competent take over. Theresa May seems to feel that she has to stay in post, maybe because the alternatives are just too awful too contemplate. This week someone at the Conservative Party Conference actually said on live radio that he thought Boris Johnson would make a good Prime Minister.[1] I know people have been saying that for years, but this fool said it after the British Foreign Secretary made light of civil war in Libya and and after he recited the opening lines of ‘The Road to Mandalay’ in the Shwedagon Pagoda (the holiest Buddhist site in Yangon).[2] Imagine the fuss if a Burmese diplomat spontaneously recited a poem in his native language, protesting about the hundred-odd years of British occupation perhaps and maybe including a bunch of sexually inappropriate suggestions, while visiting Westminster Abbey on behalf of his nation. Imagine also, if you will, how politics in Britain might change if we all stopped pretending that an Oxford education (or a tendency to make jokes in Latin, or a liking for Eton and governesses, or a total lack of respect for other cultures) makes a person special, clever or eccentric. Boris Johnson does a good impression of a Very Clever person, but doesn’t have the wit or humility to acknowledge that he is deeply mediocre. The same applies to Jacob Rees-Mogg, a man so clearly convinced of his own sense of entitlement that I sometimes comfort myself in the small hours by imagining bizarre deaths that might befall him (see also evil sock-puppet Michael Gove). Since I first wrote this blog post, Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson has managed to (yet again) say the wrong thing about a British woman currently in an Iranian prison on trumped up espionage charges, suggesting that Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe was in Iran ‘teaching journalism’. No, she wasn’t. She was on holiday. The Iranian government are now using this information to support fresh charges and there is every chance her sentence will be extended. If you go to the Independent article I’ve linked to above, for the next few days you can hear disgraced former defence secretary Dr. Liam Fox MP for yourself, defending Boris Johnson’s ‘slip of the tongue’ and suggesting that people shouldn’t ‘overreact’.

If, while taking money to do a job I was terrible at, someone had handed me a fake P45 (even in jest), I’d have seen it as fair comment. If, however, one has confidence in one’s ability and knows that one is just taking some time to find one’s feet, then being handed a fake P45 in public isn’t a problem. It’s a gift. Much as I dislike Theresa May’s policies, I hate to see a woman (any woman, but a woman in public life particularly) miss an opportunity to humiliate a man who is trying to humiliate her. Here, then, are some things to make and do with a fake P45:

i. Take fake P45; crack weak joke; finish speech; cry about it later in conference venue toilets. Listen to moron who does your old job being interviewed on evening radio describe breath-takingly inadequate security as ‘disappointing’ and respond to the question ‘what if he had been carrying acid?’ with ‘well, he wasn’t.’[3] Google ‘acid attack’; ponder own mortality; cry some more in Downing Street toilet.

ii. Ignore man attempting to hand you fake P45. Pause speech only to say, ‘If that man isn’t removed immediately, I’m going to make whoever is in charge of security come up here and explain to the class how this person was allowed to get within touching distance of the Prime Minister.’ Wait in stony silence for security to remove P45 Man. Finish speech.

iii. Take fake P45, screw it into a ball and bounce it off P45 Man’s face. Dust hands. Finish speech.

iv. Take fake P45. Walk back to podium and announce that you are firing your current bodyguard. Point out that P45 Man could have been carrying acid, and show you’re capable of going off script and familiar with your own legislation by reiterating the new regulations being brought in to make acid attacks more difficult, thus both protecting the victims of acid attacks and pissing off Amber Rudd, who already announced them.[4] Have epiphany that Amber Rudd is a moron and fire her too.

v. Take fake P45. Walk back to podium and explain that this P45 has reached you by mistake, and was intended for the Foreign Secretary. In fact, this has just reminded you that Boris Johnson deserves to be fired, right now on live television, because of, among other things, the hateful thing he just said about the civil war in Libya and his tone-deaf impromptu poetry recital in Yangon. Note that you are not going to fire him, however, because the whole Brexit fiasco is at least partly his fault, and you expect him to help clear up the mess he has made. Explain that foreign wars are not opportunities for British businesses to exploit, and that representing one’s nation requires one to have some idea of history, context and courtesy. Declare that Johnson will, therefore, not be going on any further foreign trips until he has demonstrated to your satisfaction that he can leave the country without embarrassing it. Apologise unreservedly to the people of Libya and Myanmar. Finish speech.

vi. Take fake P45. Walk back to podium. Announce, in coldest, most menacing tone, ‘It’s a fake P45, everyone. Let me show you what I think of that.’ Tear it into bite-sized pieces and eat it. Take your time over this. Freestyle rest of speech, announcing whatever the fuck you like. Never worry about leadership challenges ever again. Bonus: any subsequent throat problems can be blamed on the fact that you literally just ate that fucker’s joke.

vii. Take fake P45. Walk back to podium. Commenting that you intend to treat this gesture with the dignity it deserves, fold fake P45 into jaunty hat. Put hat on. As P45 Man is removed by security, remove hat and fold it into a paper aeroplane. ‘Accidentally’ release paper aeroplane into the crowded auditorium in such a way that Jacob Rees-Mogg is fatally wounded in the eye and bleeds out as you finish your speech. When prompted in post-speech interviews to comment on this tragic and yet deeply satisfying end, describe the incident as ‘disappointing’.

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[1] Until the end of October, you can listen to this buffoon for yourself on PM via iPlayer (starts just before the 18-minute mark), but the burden of his song is that Boris Johnson appeals to young people (?), whom it is hoped will learn to ‘aspire to the Conservative way of life’ (??).

[2] ‘The Road to Mandalay’ is Kipling in full colonial fig, speaking from the point of view of a retired soldier reflecting on his time in Burma (as it was then). It refers to Yangon throughout as Rangoon (as it was known under British colonial rule), describes the Buddha (again, I remind the reader that Boris Johnson was in a Buddhist temple) as ‘an ’eathen idol’, and a ‘Bloomin’ idol made o’ mud/ Wot they called the Great Gawd Budd’, and suggests that the soldier persuaded a Burmese girl to stop ‘a-wasting Christian kisses’ on the Buddha’s statue by kissing her himself. Fortunately, the British ambassador was able to intervene before Boris had got much further than the fourth line (‘Come you back, you British soldier; come you back to Mandalay!’, which is quite bad enough). I suggest that the British ambassador shouldn’t have to educate the Foreign Secretary as to how to be a diplomat, or to point out that they’re in a Buddhist temple (it’s huge and covered in gold). For such a thoroughly educated man, he is extraordinarily ignorant.

[3] Amber Rudd didn’t even manage to use the question as an opportunity to talk about the legislation she had just announced (again, you can listen to her excuse of an interview via iPlayer for the next few days, from 20 minutes 45 onwards). She could so easily have said, ‘I can’t comment on the specifics of this security breach, but I’m glad you mentioned acid attacks. Acid attacks are very serious, and I just announced a bunch of regulations that will make it harder for people to carry them out.’ It also suggests that Amber Rudd doesn’t understand hypotheticals. What if Jacob Rees-Mogg was run over by a float at gay pride? What if his face was eaten by owls? What if he choked on a quill pen? What if he was smothered in vellum? What if he was wounded in a freak paper aeroplane accident? Well, he wasn’t. So far, Amber Rudd. So far.

[4] The majority of the new acid regulations are pretty sensible and supported by the research, but the age restriction (it will no longer be legal for those under the age of eighteen to purchase acid) gave me pause, because it’s so bloody Tory. They court the youth vote with all that stuff about student loans and home ownership, but they don’t understand them (see above for the ‘young people like Boris’ bullshit), and they can’t help but show their fundamental fear and hatred of young people (see Bing-bong!).

Swear on the Heron

Recently, I bought a Sting album. In my defence, I’ve never pretended to have taste when it comes to popular music (see The uncharitable goat) and I don’t intend to apologise for this now. The album is Soul Cages, which is about the death of his father, and exactly what I wanted to listen to when my grandfather died in April (see Fatherlike He tends and spares us / All our fears and hopes He knows); moreover, Mad About You and All This Time are, whatever you might think of Sting and his works, bloody brilliant songs. Even so: Sting, for fuck’s sake. In recent times I have also developed a distressing interest in gardening, bought an extra-large handbag, and woken my husband up to rub my back, make me a hot-water bottle and then stuff it (the hot-water bottle) down my pyjamas. In short, I am entering the foothills of middle-age.

This is the not the disaster it may at first appear. Firstly, I’m married to a much younger man, which certainly takes the sting (<pounding of desk>) out of ageing. I was asked to present at a careers event at the university last year, alongside another freelancer, and when I was asked the obligatory ‘but what about your pension?’ question, I responded smugly that I was married to my pension.[1] Secondly, there is no rule that says middle age has to involve elasticated waists, twinsets or pearls. Nothing will induce me to dress as the fashion industry suggests middle-aged women should: a few months ago I bought a skirt in a print called something like Bugger Me, It’s The Circus, which is bright green with pink animals and acrobats all over it, and which I’m intending to wear with something unapologetically unsuitable. Owning the Hound, however, has forced me to make another sartorial choice that is unequivocally middle-aged, and which I’m still sad about: I own an anorak. It’s the same colour as a cagoule my mother used to wear to muck out the ducks, and I look depressingly like her in it. An anorak is terribly practical for dog-walking purposes: there are two capacious pockets more than large enough to take a poo-in-a-bag, and the Hound can be whisked into one’s arms away from the slavering jaws of other dogs without fear of ruining one’s arms and/or clothes. Nevertheless, the bloody thing is an anorak deep in its soul: shapeless, crackly and covered in zips. I wore it every day throughout the winter to walk the Hound, and now autumn is upon us with its mists and drizzle, the Mumnorak Returns.

Of course, the only people that see me in my Mumnorak are those that think the nature reserve is the place to be at 8am on a weekday with a one-eyed dog (see Dearer than Eyesight), and most of them are wearing horrible outerwear of their own and/or shouting ineffectually at their own dogs. I’ve noticed a distressing tendency to massively underestimate how responsive dogs are to commands. The Hound cannot be trusted off the lead, so he stays on it at all times. Other dogs that pay no mind whatever to their owners, however, are allowed to roam around freely.[2] The Hound also isn’t good with strangers and frequently attempts to perform a citizen’s arrest on various dishevelled persons passed on our morning walks. They are usually walking swiftly and stiffly, smelling powerfully of drugs, and such is the civic pride of the Hound that he cannot help but seize them by the trouser. He also can’t be trusted when we are alone: if I take my eye off him for a moment, he hurls himself, toddler-like, into either filth or mortal peril (or, most excitingly, both).[3] For example, we recently encountered a man walking through the nature reserve yelling about crystals, or so it seemed. It turned out that he wasn’t a drug addict at all (or if he is, crystal meth isn’t his thing); rather, he was looking for his wife’s chihuahua.[4] When I asked him to describe her, he replied, ‘she’s called Crystal, and she’s wearing a pink diamante collar. She’s just finished being in heat.’ While I tried to say something (anything) other than, ‘right, but what’s the dog like?’, the Hound cavorted cheerfully in a cowpat. On the way home, we met an Alsatian that looked at him in a funny way, so of course by the time we got back to the house, both our respective coats were covered in shit. His went under the tap and then in the washing machine, but the Mumnorak is so hateful that I didn’t even bother to brush it down.

I think the fact that I continue to hate the Mumnorak shows that I haven’t completely accepted my fate as a middle-aged woman, and yet the last twelve months have included another, even more portentous sign of impending senility: I have become a bird-watcher. The nature reserve in which the Hound and I take our daily constitutional is an extraordinary place. I have found the following things lurking in the hedge along the towpath: a dead rat; a dead skateboard; condoms, various; an empty box of chocolates (who eats Milk Tray by a canal?); and a selection of increasingly bizarre graffiti, my favourite of which reads simply ‘MALORY?’ (a difficult evening for the local Arthurian legend reading group, we can only assume). The nature reserve consists of a number of large, flood-prone fields with a brook running through them, various stagnant ditches bridged by narrow, slippery planks, and two tiny strips of green either side of the towpath. It is neither large nor unusual, and yet it holds an enormous amount of birdlife. I’m not doing anything clever involving hides, camouflage or bird-calls to see any of these animals; I don’t even own a pair of binoculars. I just walk with the Hound from our house to the nature reserve and around whichever bit seems to have fewer dogs and/or cows in it, and use my eyes. There are the usual suspects that one might expect to see on a tow-path (see Tales from the canal-bank) i.e. ducks, moorhens, pigeons and blackbirds. However, I’ve also seen two teeny-tiny male wrens fighting in mid-air, squeaking ferociously and trying to peck each other’s eyes out; many an encounter with kingfishers, either skimming along the water or doing little stretchy kneebends on twigs; umbrella-like herons; a Greater Spotted woodpecker banging his head against a tree; hunting kestrels; a jay and a green woodpecker taking turns to laugh at each other; and any number of sparrows, dunnocks, bluetits, wagtails and goldfinches.

So far, so middle-aged. Barring the waterfowl, I could probably achieve much the same list by hanging a couple of bird feeders in the garden and sitting still for a bit, except that there is also a hawk. Wait – did I say a hawk? There is a pair of hawks. There is a pair of hawks, with a nest, which I found, where they made a baby hawk. I say ‘hawk’ because they look superficially like buzzards, but the behaviour (hunting pigeons on the wing), territory (marshy fields)[5] and size difference are all wrong. I simply refer to the whole family as The Bird, and then disambiguate (‘I saw the Bird today. It was Her/Him/The Baby’). They are easily distinguished: He is chocolate brown, with a wingspan just under three feet. The Baby is much the same size and colour as Him, but flies like an idiot, wailing and perching forlornly in trees in the hope that the non-existent bunnies will shin up the trunk, tear themselves into shreds and press themselves into his beak.

68.Him
Him, January 2017

Female raptors are almost always larger than their mates, but the size differential here does my heart good: She must be at least half as big again as He is. She could bring down a gazelle. She could eat Him for breakfast, and I’m pretty sure she ate poor little Crystal. She is massive.

68.Her.jpg
Her (right, peeking coyly around a branch) and Him (left).

The only birds larger than Her on the nature reserve are the herons, stalking about like two pairs of chopsticks (one for the legs, one for the beak), and I’m living for the day when the Bird finally gets around to reading The King’s General and decides the herons are mocking Her with their disgracefully large wingspans, and might make an exciting meal.[6] The story that Robert of Artois insulted Edward III by serving him a roasted heron, as a way of insinuating that Edward was reluctant to invade France because he was a wet (rather than because, you know, France is huge and it might start the Hundred Years’ War) relies on the idea that herons are inherently timid.[7] Beaks prevent birds from expressing emotion with their faces, and yet herons manage to convey both sheepishness (‘sorry to be standing here in the canal again. I don’t know what to tell you’) and a powerful sense of menace (‘yes, I will be eating a live frog in just a moment!’).

The Hound has a vendetta against all birds of all sizes (except the Bird, presumably because he thinks She is a light aircraft). The reader will recall my earlier assertion that the Hound cannot be trusted, and here we come to the heart of the matter. This morning, as we were traversing one of the aforementioned narrow and slippery plank bridges that span the (surprisingly deep) ditches in the nature reserve, the Hound spotted a heron, about six feet away from us, standing quietly in the water. There was a tiny moment of stillness in which the heron, nonplussed by the Hound appearing above him on the bridge, looked both baffled and embarrassed. Then he unfolded himself and lurched into the air, flying right over our heads back towards the field we had just left. The Hound, who is an idiot, borked furiously, banged his eyeless side against me, borked some more, tangled his lead around my legs and skittered off the plank, thus pulling both of us straight into the ditch. I say ‘ditch’, but that suggests something relatively modest in size: it was five feet of filthy, duckweed-y water. The Hound scrambled out on his own, unimpeded by the lead and barely wet, whereas the only part of me that escaped was my right hand (I held the lead above the water heroically, like The Lady in the Really Dirty Lake). By some miracle, both keys and glasses were still on my person when I clambered out (the same couldn’t be said for my dignity); I hadn’t taken my phone; and it wasn’t actually the middle of a thunderstorm or a powercut. Otherwise, things were pretty bad: this bridge is the turning-around point on our favourite stick-gathering route i.e. about three miles from home. We walked it just as we were, wet through, squelching and foul. On arriving home, I had to prop my wellies upside down to drain by the front door, strip off everything in the porch and wash and feed the Hound before I could even make a start on getting myself clean, warm and dry. I literally picked duckweed out of my eyes, teeth, ears and bra. I have washed my hair three times, showered, bathed and cleaned my fingernails, but my arm still smells faintly of stagnant water. My new dungarees are ruined, and the not-at-all-hateful raincoat that I bought specifically to replace the Mumnorak, and which was carrying a full cargo of poo-in-a-bag at the time, will never be the same again. Much like Edward III, I swore on the heron.

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[1] Does your pension cuddle you and tell you how much fun you are? Thought not.

[2] Exhibit A: the massive fucking Doberman the Hound scared the crap out of in the first three weeks we had him. The damned thing cantered out of the mist like a black-and-tan one-headed Cerberus, the size of a pony and its owner nowhere to be seen. I picked the Hound up, which of course merely raised him to nose-level of this monster dog. Upon being sniffed, the Hound jack-knifed in my arms, caught the Doberman savagely by the ear and worried at it furiously, growling deep in his throat. The poor Doberman, surprised and horrified, yelped, ripped his ear out of Peco’s savage jaws and cantered back from whence it came, while the Hound borked triumphantly (‘and STAY out!’) and wagged his tail.

[3] Exhibit B: last week, while I gathered winter fu-u-el, Peco thought a swim (in a ditch, in September, while wearing his clean coat) might be fun. Little did I know this was merely the overture to today’s shenanigans.

[4] Remember when we used to say ‘chichihuahua’? Whatever happened to that?

[5] Other than pigeons, which must take an enormous amount of energy to catch and pluck, what the fuck are they eating? The ground is too wet for rabbits, and the kestrels eat all the small mammals. There are plenty of ducks that could be caught and eaten, but the preponderance of dog-walkers means that they spend their entire lives on the water, so unless the Bird snatches them right out of the canal, I don’t see how. Similarly, seagulls and rooks abound, but they mob the Bird whenever they can, and their (more vulnerable) nests only have delicious Bird-food chicks in them for a few weeks of the year. There are no other large predators (foxes, badgers) that might leave carcasses for them to pick at, and no lambs or other farm animals that might make suitable meals. They built the nest slowly and laboriously, so there must be food in the area. Pheasants? Cats? Unwary cyclists? I have so many questions.

[6] ‘[…] out of the darkening sky fell the dying heron and the blood-bespattered falcon, straight into the yawning crevice that opened out before me. I heard Richard shout, and a thousand voices singing in my ears as I fell.’ Daphne du Maurier, The King’s General (London: Arrow Books, 1946), p. 54.

[7] The teenage Edward is supposed to have sworn a vow on the heron that he would, in fact, pursue his claim to the throne in France (hence Jean Plaidy’s book The Vow on the Heron), which just goes to show that nothing good comes from encounters with herons.

 

 

 

‘Dearer than eye-sight’

 

Right now, I’m supposed to be starting an MA in crime fiction.[1] I say ‘supposed to be’ because we’ve had to spend my MA Savings Pot on the Hound (see Dog Days and Nothing but a Hound Dog), who has been an unwilling participant in a very slow and unnecessarily realistic folk production of King Lear. I offer an account of his recent medical issues as a partial explanation for both my lack of MA-starting and the fact that I haven’t posted anything on the blog since the general election.

I am terribly squeamish about bad things happening to my eyes, and the eyes of those I love. The scene in Quantum of Solace where the guy has his eyes poked out just before his neck is broken was (just about) short enough that the wave of nausea wasn’t enough to make me actually throw up; the subsequent neck-breaking was an act of mercy for both him and me. When I was a student, I skipped the Dept. trip to see Oedipus Rex because I thought there was a good chance I’d reintroduce everyone to my lunch, if not prompted by the sight of eyeless Oedipus itself then certainly by anticipation of the same. Any production of King Lear (other than the one going on in the Oval Office right now, of course, which doesn’t induce nausea so much as despair)[2] forces me to remind myself that it’s not real; it says something for the power of the suspension of disbelief that this is necessary. Recently, I was proofreading a thesis about ‘in yer face’ theatre, a nihilistic modern genre that includes graphic depictions of sex and violence. Most of the seminal (fnar fnar) works were, unsurprisingly, written in the 1990s, and the thesis included a long and detailed analysis of, among other things, at least one character being blinded: his eyes are literally sucked out of his head by another character. You’d think a vacuum cleaner would be a useful capitalist symbol to reach for here, but no: he uses his mouth, like those Greek fishermen that bite octopodes in the brain.[3] I’m a professional, so I read it and marked it up, including correcting the horrible word ‘enucleation’, which is the technical medical term for removing an eye.[4] Having marked it up, I then had to go and have a little lie down and think about something (anything) else.

Knowing somehow that he would be enacting my greatest fear (apart from sharks, but fuck sharks for now. No doubt they’ll get their turn, the toothy bastards), the Hound developed a bulgy eye. It wasn’t clear for several weeks what the problem was, but in the meantime he got bulgier and bulgier, until his eye was right outside the skull, held in by nothing more than two very stretched eyelids and hope. Remember Delacroix’s death in The Green Mile when he goes into the electric chair and his eyes pop out of his head on strings? It was like that, but as if the botched execution happened to Mr. Jingles (i.e. someone who didn’t in any way deserve it), in slow motion and (mercifully) without the burning smell. At one point, under the impression that our numerous trips to the vet were for some other purpose, the Hound put his paw on my knee and simply held his blind, swollen eye out to me, as if to say, I mean, look at this thing. It’s fucked. DO SOMETHING.

July 1st
‘This dog’s eye is possessed. Please send £2 a month.’

He must have been in terrible pain, and according to the vet, likely to have been suffering from nasal and auditory hallucinations from the pressure on his brain and his sinuses; certainly he spent a lot of time barking, apparently at Pain itself. After exhaustive testing and a load of dental work (his teeth were also popping out of his head. Rats leaving a sinking ship), it emerged that he had some form of growth in what is called the ‘cone’ i.e. the space immediately behind the eyeball. The eyeball has a number of blood vessels strung off the back of it, rather like one of those 1970s plant-pot-holder thingies people used to hang in their stairwells. The blood vessels form a cone; at the point of the cone they meet the optic nerve, which then joins the optic nerve from the other eye in a y-shape, and off we all go to the brain. It was, therefore, impossible to remove the Thing without also removing his right eye: the two things were simply too deeply bound up in each other.

The Hound’s Thing (I’m not saying ‘tumour’ because it turned out not to be cancer, and I think the reader might feel the word ‘tumour’ implied that it *was* cancerous) was not the potato-shaped blob one might imagine, but a gnarly, sprawling, many-limbed affair. Moreover, it was growing so fast that his good eye (the left) was starting to turn inwards as the optic nerve reached the limits of its flexibility. Having removed both Thing and eye, the vet described it as ‘crunchy’ and noted that at least three (but probably seven) of the twelve teeth the Hound had lost in the preceding weeks had become loose because the Thing had grown down into the top of his gums and literally pushed them out by the roots, from the inside. It had then inserted a tentacle into each hole to allow it to go on growing: during the enucleation operation, each tendril had to be physically manipulated back up into the skull before the whole Thing could be removed from the Hound’s skull, through his eye socket. When my (amazing, patient) parents-in-law and I went to collect him, the Hound was noticeably lighter than the previous day. ‘He’s lost weight’, I commented to the veterinary nurse. ‘Oh yes,’ she said. ‘He’s lost about 500g [8% of his body weight, dear reader]. That’s partly because he’s missed several meals so we can operate, partly because he threw up his dinner, and partly because the tumour weighed nearly 300g.’ The vet confirmed this, saying that if he had scrunched the nasty Thing into a ball, it would have been nearly the size of a satsuma i.e. only slightly smaller than the Hound’s entire brain. ‘It was so astonishing when I finally got it out that I was going to take a photograph and email it to you. Then I realised it would give you nightmares,’ the vet observed. He’s not wrong.

Peco (or Pequod, as I sometimes call him now that he looks even more like a pirate) has bounced back from the whole ordeal magnificently. He only walks into things now and again, and has become comically bad at judging distances; like all dogs, having fallen down or tripped over nothing, he immediately behaves as if no such thing just happened and cheerfully goes on with whatever he was doing. He also asks for cuddles far more readily. This includes being picked up and (very slowly, so that he doesn’t get dizzy) waltzed around the room, ideally to I Only Have Eye(s) For You, by the end of which he has usually dozed off. One of the vets we took him to advised us to have him put down ‘because he won’t have much of a life with one eye’, clearly not understanding how completely spoilt this dog is (also, the Hound had just bitten him savagely on the hand). The Hound sleeps in our bed, washes in our bath (which he adores, especially if you spray the shower-head right into his tiny face) and sits on our sofa. He goes on holiday with us; we pick up his poo; and I spend more time with him than with any other living creature. This evening, his dinner was giblets fried in butter, following by all the stringy bits of the roast chicken too good for the stock, all of which he ate at great speed and with little grunts of satisfaction. He is one-eyed, velvety-soft and very contented. We could not love him more.


[1] It’s this one (the only such MA in the country). I know, right? The most (academic kind of) fun ever. Fun With Essays, if you will.

[2] I’m not even joking. Did you know Trump literally makes his aides go around the room and say something nice about him before they start meetings? Come, which of you shall we say doth love us most?

[3] Octopuses would be fine, because octopus is a Greek word extracted into English and thus is both English and Greek. We can, therefore, form the plural according to either language, but personally I think English plurals on Greek words are ugly, and thus prefer ‘octopodes’. ‘Octopi’ is just a piece of pseudo-learned nonsense and should not be used in any circumstances: it’s a Latin plural that assumes ‘octopus’ must be a Latin word because octo is common to both languages, and thus has tried to make a Latin plural on a Greek/English word. Here’s a nice lady from Mirriam-Webster to back me up.

[4] My customer had, rather touchingly, spelt it ‘enucleartion’, which I feel out to be the term for removing an extraneous eye that one only has from being exposed to large amounts of radiation, like the many-eyed fish in Springfield.

Bing-bong!

The general election reminds me of the one and only time I have been door-stepped by a political representative. I have touched on this briefly before (see Brexit, pursued by a bear), but here it is again, in glorious detail. The candidate was from the British National Party, and looked every inch of it: sweaty, middle-aged, red-faced. He had been squeezed into a cheap suit and then partially lynched with an offensive tie, before staggering into my front garden where I was pruning a hedge, and demanding I listen to his views on immigration. Predictably, and while casually holding a nice sharp pair of shears, I told him to fuck off back to where he came from. Nearly ten years later, this still fills me with a lovely warm feeling of a job well done. I also I find myself wondering why this heart-warming experience has been an isolated one. Unlike our (awful, recently departed)[1] neighbour, I always answer the doorbell when it rings. Bing-bong! It’s a parcel! Bing-bong! It’s the LRB! Bing-bong! It’s our horrible neighbour collecting a parcel I’ve taken for her because she doesn’t answer the fucking doorbell! She takes it from me without thanks and the Hound growls at her. Usually I tell him off for growling at people and warn them that he’s snappy at the moment because his teeth are hurting, but frankly she can take her chances. She doesn’t answer the doorbell because she’s disconnected it, on the grounds that ‘it makes the dogs bark.’ After three years of listening to the damn things bark at literally anything at all times of the day and night, I wonder if she’s considered making the barking stop by simply hitting them with a frying pan for a bit? Another option would be to leave them alone with our Tiny Hound in a locked room for an hour: they’re twice his size and there are two of them, but a. he would have the element of surprise, and b. he knows how much I hate those dogs. He also knows that if he were to kill them, he’d be allowed to shit on the carpet twice a day for the rest of his life, and I’d clear it up cheerfully, saying, ‘yeah, but you killed those dogs that lived next door! Remember when you borked them to death, ripped their ears off and then partially buried them? Who’s a good dog? Who’s a good dog?’ This may explain, then, why the woman next door doesn’t get door-stepped (‘wait. Why doesn’t this doorbell go bing-bong?’ <silence>), but what about me? I’ve been eligible to vote for twenty years, work from home almost every day and have never voted for either of the two main parties. Why haven’t I been door-stepped more often?

The first and most obvious theory is that I have spent the majority of my life living in safe seats. At the time of my encounter with the Person from Get The Fuck Out Of My Garden, I lived in a safe Conservative seat. Indeed, I have lived in several safe Conservative seats, including those represented by Michael Heseltine, John Major and disgraced former defence secretary Dr. Liam Fox MP.[2] Currently, we live in yet another safe Conservative seat: at the 2015 election, the sitting MP won by a margin of over 14,000 votes, and the candidate in second place represented UKIP (and got over 10,000 votes).[3] Brilliantly, the website of my MP still reads ‘the next general election will be in May 2020’; he’s spelt his own name wrong on another page; and the page on which one is encouraged to contact him to raise issues (‘Your listening MP’) includes an enormous picture of his own ear. And, really, why the hell not? He now has a majority of 16,000 votes! He can do exactly what he likes, including not bothering to doorstep anyone at all; and the other parties know they would do better to concentrate their efforts in other, more closely-fought seats.

My second theory is that it may be genetic in some way. My mother loathed being door-stepped by anyone, and Jehovah’s Witnesses in particular. She once tipped a bucket of water over some people who knocked on the door to ask her if she’d thought about the fate of her immortal soul at all. I was nine or ten years old, off school with a tummy bug, and she had just finished clearing up a load of vomit (i.e. it wasn’t very clean water). Perhaps her reputation has somehow attached itself to me and I am on some kind of list of People Who Should Not Be Bothered?

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My third theory relates to the Hound. Even for a Russel Terrier, he is very small (around eighteen inches from nose to tail), but now that he’s recovered from recent surgery on his teeth[4] his bark is really quite something. He sounds really very much larger and more aggressive than he actually is. His bark says ‘I’LL BITE YER FACE ORF!’, but last night while we watched the election coverage, he fell asleep contentedly on my chest and only woke up when Giant Bear and I high-fived each other over the first few results from the north-east. Perhaps potential door-steppers (here comes the door-stepper!) hear him barking his Big Boy Bark and go to ring the bell of the horrible woman next door instead. Good luck with that, Potential Door-Stepper. She probably won’t answer the door, and if she does, you’ll have to actually talk to her.

I found it fascinating how little Brexit was discussed meaningfully during this campaign. Fox-hunting was suddenly a live issue again for no reason whatever, but it seems that Brexit is just an embarrassing thing that we’re all sick to death of, eyeing it doubtfully much as one might consider a painful, distasteful but necessary operation that one had foolishly brought upon oneself: the removal of an enormous but ill-considered tattoo, for example, or the amputation of a gangrenous limb, although of course it is Britain that will be chopped off and discarded. I’m still furious that the referendum went the way it did, and on reflection I think it’s perfectly OK to be furious with people who voted Leave: some of them at least were, objectively, stupid.[5] Some of them at least were taken in by the lies that were told, and there is no way of telling who was and wasn’t persuaded by that misinformation; as I’ve written before (see Brexit, pursued by a bear), it’s very hard to know why we think what we think or why we vote the way we do, but this nonsense must have had some kind of effect. The slim margin of victory is also bonkers: we recently asked the members of our choir if they wanted to tweak the concert dress, and *all* the things we considered to be binding in the Sub-Committee Of Telling Grown-Up Women How to Dress (I was the mole on the inside) had to have at least a two-thirds majority. In other words, we’re going to leave the EU based on a margin that wouldn’t be sufficient to enact change in your average golf club. More mortifying to me (and more relevant to my argument here) is the cynical way in which the Leave campaign was run. Clearly they didn’t expect to win; clearly they didn’t expect people (or at least, not enough people to change the result) to believe the nonsense they were spouting, which then allowed them to go on spouting it with clear consciences; and clearly they have no idea whatever how to handle the absurd situation we find ourselves in.

Most astonishing of all is that, of all people, Theresa May failed to learn from David Cameron’s fatal mistake, which is that you should never take the electorate for granted. You don’t know how they’re going to vote. If you think you do, why are you asking them? What do you think voting is? She also failed to learn the following from the Leave campaign’s mistakes (and there were plenty, even if we leave aside the whole winning-when-we-didn’t-really-want-to thing): make a fucking plan. It might not go the way you think it will. We know that she seems to have spontaneously lost her judgement because a. here we are, after all; and b. let us not forget that one of her first acts as Prime Minister was to make Boris Johnson Foreign Secretary, a role he is so breathtakingly unqualified for that it almost defies belief. It’s in the same category as Tony Blair becoming a peace envoy to the Middle East, which I still think must be satire.[6] What next? George W. Bush writing a book[7] received by critics as a cogent and thoughtful comment on our times? Putin releasing a range of vegan ready-meals?

These, and other such mad things, have left me tired and cynical. Therefore, my fourth and final theory for my lack of door-stepping is this: everyone over the age of thirty is tired. We’re tired of talking about politics (and hearing about it on the radio, in the pub, at work and on the TV), but also we’re just tired. We’re too tired to ring doorbells (bing-bong! ‘Fuck off!’), and we’re too tired to answer them (bing-bong! ‘Fuck off!’). Yes, people could throw themselves into campaigning in my constituency in the hope of removing Ear Photography Guy, but it’s just too much effort, not very well spent. I teach at a university and so am well aware how brilliant young people are, but it’s worth saying that young people are particularly brilliant in three specific ways: (i) they don’t like being talked down to; (ii) they don’t read tabloids; and (iii) they aren’t knackered yet. They still have the energy to get excited about the possibility of change; to ring and answer doorbells; to have someone tell them to fuck off and not mind too much (the BNP guy really minded). I listened to an interview with someone from the University of Kent yesterday, in which she explained how student volunteers had knocked on doors in the run-up to the election asking students if they were registered to vote (and helping them to register if they weren’t). They also explained to students who didn’t know that they were allowed to register in either their home or university constituency, along with a hundred other things that helped get the vote out. That seat (Canterbury) is now a Labour seat, for the first time in a hundred years, with a winning margin of 187 votes. Young people did that.

In the last few days of the election campaign, I wondered if any of the opposition parties might consider posting huge pictures of Theresa May looking disappointed and chastened (possibly standing forlornly in a field of wheat, possibly not), with the simple caption ‘imagine her face’. Gentle reader, even though she won, she’s making that face right now. She’s dreading the sound of her doorbell (I doubt the doorbell at 10 Downing Street goes bing-bong, but indulge me). Young people did that, too. Bravo.

———————————————————————————————————————–

[1] Departed from the house, I mean, rather than departed this mortal plane, which I guess will have to do.

[2] I refer to him this way as per this brilliant article by Jonn Eledge in The New Statesman, and as per my own rules about never, ever letting powerful people off the hook (see Punch drunk).

[3] This time around, the UKIP guy finished a poor third with about 2,000 or so, and the candidate in second place represented Labour, who received around 16,000 votes. Silver linings?

[4] Sedating our tiny Hound (see Dog Days and Nothing but a Hound Dog) for his most recent operation took twenty minutes. He’s so scared of vets that he climbed onto my shoulder, jumped off the bench four times, hid behind me, up my skirt and under the chair and even tried to get into my handbag, wailing piteously the whole time. Getting the needle into him required three people, two towels and two syringes (he bent the first one). Anyone that says they can subdue an animal larger than a domestic cat gently and single-handed (Exhibit A: Born Free) is a liar.

[5] It is also OK to be furious with people who voted Trump because WHAT THE FUCK WERE THEY THINKING? There was, however, a lot of anger directed at various sub-categories of Trump voters (e.g. white women), and while that’s entirely reasonable (because WHAT THE FUCK WERE THEY THINKING?), the people I am most angry with are people who didn’t vote at all. Have you seen this chart? It shows how ‘did not vote’ would have played as a third party and, honestly, it blows my mind.

[6] Speaking of Boris Johnson, I am reminded that President Trump has, for much of his time in office, worn much the same expression as Boris Johnson the day after the Brexit vote. Clearly, Trump didn’t actually expect to win, doesn’t want to do the job (unless he can make a fuckton of money from it and carry on going to rallies where people cheer his every mangled sentence) and literally doesn’t understand politics, the presidency or basic English. Well, I never expected to fall in love with a creature that licks its own arsehole when it thinks no-one is looking, but here we both are. Suck it up.

[7] George W. Bush reading a book (or using the word ‘cogent’ correctly in a sentence) would be almost as astonishing.