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.

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.’

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[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!).

Chinese Whispers

Regular readers will recall that I often return from China with thoughts, on voting (see Brexit, pursued by a bear), the Rape of Nanjing (The fish that is black and Notes from Nanjing), insect bites (Bite me), asking and answering questions, both in interviews (No means no) and when drawn from the Embarrassing Questions Box (Please use power wisely, Shake it all about and Open the box) and salmon-skin suits (A small, mysterious corpus). This year (and what a year it has been!), it has taken me rather longer to process my thoughts. Of course, being in any city a few weeks before the G20 carnival comes to town would be interesting. Every journey that involved actually leaving one’s hotel room required the approval of a small man in white gloves and a nondescript blue uniform, sitting at a desk with a bunch of other uniformed and remarkably non-threatening people standing around it. His desk was right by the lift, and one was required to provide one’s room number and passport before proceeding to the upper floors. The hotel restaurant was on a mezzanine only accessible from the lobby, which meant we all had to take our passports to breakfast, and then carry the wretched thing with us for the rest of the damn day. I kept mine inside my copy of Night Watch[1] on the grounds that a whole book was easier to keep track of than a skinny little passport, which meant that like a teenager with a spot, I was constantly running my fingers over it to check that nothing had changed. Hangzhou was looking its best, including the twin globe-shaped hotels, one intended to resemble the moon and therefore lit up with white lights, and the other the sun, lit up with yellow ochre (it looked rather like a pumpkin, but a very splendid one). The waterfront, beautiful lakeside parks and (that peculiarly Chinese thing) musical fountains were all poised to welcome President Obama, although I note that the first piece of music chosen for the fountains while we were there was ‘Time To Say Goodbye’.

Hangzhou is a charming place, but the highlights of the trip are always the students. For example, there was a student called Peter, with such a strong perfectionist streak that I had to physically remove his laptop from him to stop him continuing to tinker with his (excellent, finished PS). A quiet, perpetually worried-looking student named Hannah used The Power of Maths to demonstrate that Professor Sir Tim Hunt’s comments about female scientists being ‘distractingly sexy’ were nonsense. She also argued (successfully, in my view) that male scientists who found their attention wandering needed to pull themselves together, in the following deathless sentence: ‘I can concentrate all the way to the end of an experiment, even if there is a boy in the room.’ Another student (rejoicing in the name Jordan at the beginning of the summer school and renamed Bernard by the end)[2] expressed concern about the character count in his PS:

Bernard: You told me to use ‘she’ in all my hypothetical examples, but I need to cut the characters. Can I say ‘he’?
Me: If you want to, Bernard, but it’s becoming common practice in academia to use ‘she’.
Bernard: Why?
Me: Centuries of oppression.
Bernard: I have no further questions.

This year I also threw together a pub quiz on the subject of the United Kingdom in a few hours, learning a great deal about my students in the process. The incredulity in the room on being told that our Commander-in-Chief is a little old lady, for example, was highly educational. I asked them to name their teams after something British, which generated the predictable Big Ben, British Boys and Spice Girls, as well as the frankly baffling Spicy Chicken (I’m told this is a terribly funny pun in Mandarin). I grouped the questions into rounds, of course, including one on food that required them to draw a traditional tiered wedding cake (everyone got this one right), asked which food is served sunny side up (‘sunflower seeds?’), and how fish and chips is made. The answer ‘boiled and then set on fire’ received no marks, whereas ‘plunged into boiling oil’ got an extra mark for making it sound like an answer from the previous round on medieval history. Unsurprisingly, their knowledge of British history was scanty at best; the question ‘Name the two sides in the Wars of the Roses’ was answered correctly by one team only (the only team with a PPE student in it), although I also gave a mark to Spicy Chicken who happened to guess ‘red and white’. ‘When was the Civil War?’ drew answers from across the centuries, including one team who thought it was in the 1980s; and the question ‘How did Charles I die?’ was answered tersely by the team that went on to win with the grim little sentence ‘he have no head’.

The round on international politics asked the students to name the countries with which Britain enjoys the Special Relationship (every team answered ‘China’)[3] and the entente cordiale; here, incorrect answers (nobody got it right) included Sweden (‘cordiale sound a bit Swedish’), Germany (‘because I think entente sounds bad and I know Germany is bad’), Australia, Canada and New Zealand. Another round cherry-picked ten striking pieces of vocabulary from their PS drafts (i.e. at least one student in the room ought to know what at least one of the words meant) and asked them to tell me whether the word was an adjective, verb, noun or preposition and what it meant. This turned out to be a bit like the Uxbridge English Dictionary. The words were as follows: conurbation (‘when someone build a town without ask’), orca (‘orc that is lady orc’), zooming (‘making a zoo’), feudal (‘place where eat food’), Anglophile (‘place to file things’), nevertheless (‘definitely never happen’), kidnap (‘when child is sleepy’), compliment (‘you look nice’), complement (‘you look nice but no-one notice’) and collate (‘you are late because your friend is also late’). Bearing in mind that the only sports that capture the interest in China are badminton and basketball, I also put together a round on sports popular in Britain, including the question that offered them a point for every team they could name from the Six Nations. I was pleased to see everyone score at least three for naming England, Scotland and Wales (two teams, with a certain amount of inevitability, also suggested ‘Northern Ireland’, for which they got half a point: the answer was wrong, but the thinking was good), but the remaining suggestions ranged wildly around the world and included many nations that have no rugby culture whatever (my favourite was ‘Madagascar’). The only question from this round that everyone got completely wrong was ‘What is the profession of Mervyn ‘The King’ King?’ Brilliantly, they all answered that he was the Governor of the Bank of England, forgetting of course that this was a round of questions on sport.[4]

At the end of the (raucous, laughter-filled) quiz, after the points had been totted up and the prizes awarded, with what little voice I had left, I asked some of the students how they had learnt so much about the United Kingdom, given that they don’t study history and receive very little unfiltered news from the outside world. It seems that almost everything starts as a rumour that they might or might not bother (or be able) to verify, remarkably (and depressingly) like Chinese Whispers. The real joy, of course, always comes from letting the students ask questions rather than answering them, and thus the following day we braved the Embarrassing Questions Box.

eqb1
Eight months later, I still have no idea why this student felt the need to cut their question into the shape of a bus.

In a previous post, I declared my favourite question from the Embarrassing Questions Box to be from a student named Kim (‘Can you tell us everything you know about sex?’; see Open the Box). Chinese Whispers is a game without a winner, and it’s fortunate that I don’t have to pick a favourite here as 2016 was a vintage harvest of Embarrassing Questions, including the following gems: ‘Which area in the UK has the greatest number of handsome boys?’; ‘How do you dry your underwear every day? Because you can’t possibly use dryer every single day, right?’ and ‘How to find a boyfriend in the university?’ I love this last one because it suggests exactly the fruitless wandering I did so much of in my first few weeks at university (I wasn’t in search of a partner, but rather various rooms and noticeboards).

eqb4
‘How do I date a foreigner? Is it by making my face really sneaky? Is it?’

My favourite question this year, however, was this: ‘What do you think of real love? What is it?’ As I read the question out, I must admit that I wondered how on earth I came to this: standing in an air-conditioned room in Hangzhou, wondering if I was going to be able to make the projector work well enough later on to show them The Man in the White Suit, clutching a cardboard box in one hand, looking forward to my evening bowl of noodles and trying to answer philosophical questions about love. I actually didn’t find the question difficult to answer, but the fact that it was asked at all should give us pause. Two weeks of asking and answering questions all day (including mock Oxbridge interviews; see also No means no) causes both question and answer to feel rather slippery after a while, just as repeating a phrase over and over can both reveal and strip away layers of meaning. I said, ‘real love makes you feel that, even at your worst, you deserve to be loved.’ Naturally one doesn’t actually deserve love, but it is given freely anyway, and that is precisely what makes it so wonderful. I’m quite proud of that as a spontaneous explanation; I jotted it down in my notebook immediately afterwards, which is why I’m able to quote it with such confidence. This was the last question and as we broke for dinner, my student Zoe told me that it was her question, and that she liked my answer very much. One shouldn’t have favourites, of course, but Zoe was my favourite this year, partly because she was such a thoughtful young lady: both in the sense of being considerate to other people, and also in the sense of turning things over in her mind constantly. In each interview I did the following day, I finished by asking them Zoe’s question. One of the best answers was, ‘If you don’t know the difference between real love and not-real love, it is not real love.’ (‘That’s a good answer’, I said. The student replied, ‘Yes. I think about that question all day. It stick in my mind’).

P1030506
The students gave us T-shirts as gifts at the end of the week (among other things), suitably vandalised with messages and caricatures, including this one.

In the face of huge, Trump-based global-scale nonsense, it’s hard to feel able to exert any kind of influence over events, but it seems to me that anyone who teaches, asks or answers questions has more influence than they realise. The whispers of a good question go on forever.

eqb2


[1] I took both Night Watch by Terry Pratchett (his finest work, second only to Thud!) and Night Watch by Sarah Waters (her finest work by a mile), for no reason other than it pleased me to do so.

[2] Bernard was concerned that his name might be a little old-fashioned, and when I asked him what other names he liked he said, ‘Jim, or Humphrey.’ Thus did we uncover his love of Yes, Minister.

[3] Enjoys! What was a cosy flirtation is about to becoming a savage buggering.

[4] Mervyn ‘The King’ King is a darts player. Even had the question been ‘Who is the Governor of the Bank of England?’, Mervyn King is still not the correct answer, as Mervyn King the Baron of Lothbury was replaced as Governor of the Bank of England in 2013 by Mark Carney.

Iron Get Hot Now

Giant Bear and I have a jolly sensible arrangement when it comes to housework, dividing the tasks between us based on a combination of practical considerations and personal preferences. Our division of labour was recently endorsed by Woman’s Hour, no less: they had an online calculator thingy, which weighted the various tasks based on whether you enjoyed doing them, how often they needed doing, how gross they were, how many hours of paid work and childcare each partner did (both of these bought one out of a certain amount of housework, so to speak) and so forth. This gave each partner a score, the important thing being not the raw number, but how it differed from the score of one’s partner.[1] Depressingly, according to the programme that accompanied the online calculator thingy, the majority of housework is still distributed along gender lines i.e. lots of men ub heterosexual relationships simply don’t do any (or if they do, they describe it as ‘helping’).[2]

One thing that isn’t taken into account in either our own discussions of housework or public discourse, however, is the additional burden of Inanimate Object Rage carried by the partner who does the majority of the housework. Hell hath no fury like Inanimate Object Rage. If a pet, partner or friend continually frustrates, ignores or forgets you, there is suitable socially-acceptable recourse: reasoned discussion, shouting if required, and possibly mild violence involving a rolled-up newspaper. Inanimate Object Rage, however, has no such acceptable means of expression. Smack, kick or threaten the cause of your rage, and it merely sits there, unmoved and less willing to do the job it was purchased for than ever.[3] Consider trying to hoick a mattress upstairs; cardboard boxes that obligingly fold flat and tidy until you attempt to do something outlandish like pile them against a wall or put them in the car; shelves that stay up until you put something on them; drawers that don’t draw; can-openers that don’t open cans, but give you a sore hand and no lunch. These are all infuriating in their various ways, but are as nothing to the Inanimate Object Rage induced by having to use a tool that simply isn’t up to the job on a weekly (nay, daily) basis. Gather closer to the firelight, children. I am speaking of the Russell Hobbs 18617 Easy Plug and Wind Iron (With Extra-Long Flex).

Ironing is one of my jobs. Artificial fibres make me sweat terribly and Giant Bear has to wear a suit and concomitantly smart shirt for work. To keep on top of all the ensuing cotton, I do at least half an hour of ironing every day, with the radio for company. Purchasing a new iron, therefore, is not a trivial task, and we put considerable time and thought into our choice. The appeal of the Russell Hobbs 18617 Easy Plug and Wind Iron (With Extra-Long Flex) was threefold: one, the extra-long flex, which we hoped would be both practical when ironing and able to double as a weapon if it became necessary to strangle a burglar; two, the ceramic plate, which according to the instruction manual was going to be so silky-smooth and whisper-quiet that ironing would become an experience verging on the erotic; and three, the promise of gushing steam on demand, moister, hotter and in greater quantities than ever before.[4]

My hopes, thus raised to unattainable levels, were cruelly yet gradually dashed. The iron disintegrated gently over time, like a lemon in a compost heap. This started simply enough, with a reluctance to get up to temperature, a slow but persistent leak, and a peevish disinclination to produce steam on request. As I wrote in the opening paragraph of my Amazon review, the steady pace at which the Russell Hobbs 18617 Easy Plug and Wind Iron (With Extra-Long Flex) deteriorated was, in many ways, the most distressing thing about it. It worked tolerably until it was just too late to send it back to Amazon; as this moment passed, some kind of shrill alarum that only the iron could hear sounded, at which point it seemed to feel that it was perfectly acceptable to refuse to make any steam at all, and to ooze unexpectedly and messily onto the clothes like an infected eye. A week later, even when turned up to the highest setting (three blobs next to the terrifying, cryptic label ‘LINEN’) and full of water, the ceramic plate could be described as tepid at best.

My time was not totally wasted, however. I learnt two important things about the Amazon reviewing system: one, it isn’t possible to give no stars (I tried my best); and two, there are rules about the type and number of swearwords that can be used in a review (see also Some bad words on the topic of swearing more generally).[5] The word ‘crap’, for example (as might be used in the phrase ‘FOR GOD’S SAKE, WHY WON’T YOU WORK YOU PIECE OF CRAP?’), is allowed, as is its somehow weaker sibling ‘crappy’; indeed, all the one-star reviews of this iron (and there are several) contain variations on this word. Any heartier Anglo-Saxon, however, is frowned upon, and will result in an email that begins,

We were unable [they mean ‘unwilling’, but whatever] to publish your Amazon review of your recently-purchased RUSSELL HOBBS 18617 EASY PLUG AND WIND IRON (WITH EXTRA-LONG FLEX) because it violated our policy on obscenities.

This comes from the keyboard of someone who has never debated with themselves whether breaking all one’s toes from kicking an object repeatedly might, when seen in the wider context of emotional release, still constitute a win. I surmise that this is a person who has either a partner or a parent to protect them from the twin burdens of housework and Inanimate Object Rage.

On a fundamental level, I object to the idea that I am being simultaneously encouraged to give my view on a product and prevented from deploying words invented for just such a scenario. The idea of allowing the Russell Hobbs 18617 Easy Plug and Wind Iron (With Extra-Long Flex) to go un-reviewed, and therefore my aching thumb, throbbing temples and soggy, crumpled clothes unavenged, however, was even less acceptable. I am a professional copy-editor (among other things), and therefore must be able to compose a review that still conveys the full force of my displeasure without the saltiness so helpfully supplied by swearwords. Looking upon it as a professional challenge, I therefore removed all the profanity from my review. The word ‘fucking’, for example, was replaced with ‘stupid’ (‘the water reservoir is extremely awkward to fill and you have to keep tilting the stupid thing back and forth to see if it has reached the ‘maximum’ mark. Also, as one might read in an uncharitable review of a disappointing mail-order bride, there were no jugs included and the hole was extremely small’). A complicated analogy involving a surprised banshee and several sex-based obscenities was replaced with a milder, more everyday metaphor, implying that the anguished squeaking sounds produced by the Russell Hobbs 18617 Easy Plug and Wind Iron (With Extra-Long Flex) when asked to produce its much-vaunted ‘steam shot’ were akin to those I emit myself, when, under greater pressure than usual from my faulty and capricious bowel, I suffer the private agony of constipation. I also rewrote the section on the ceramic plate, in order to describe the Iron Get Hot Now indicator as a ‘lying weasel’, rather than ‘a deceitful fuck of an orange light’.[6]

Happily, the final section in which I evaluated the instruction manual and the extra year under guarantee (one receives this in exchange for a lifetime’s supply of spam) required no changes at all. The instruction manual contained a series of dire warnings regarding the horrors that might ensue from allowing this diabolical object into your home, which I share with you now in a spirit of public safety. Firstly, one should never leave the Russell Hobbs 18617 Easy Plug and Wind Iron (With Extra-Long Flex) on when not in use. This was conveyed through a jolly drawing of a house with flames belching hysterically from the upstairs windows. Secondly, the Russell Hobbs 18617 Easy Plug and Wind Iron (With Extra-Long Flex) should never be left with water in it. Water! In an iron! Were you raised in a bag!?[7] Thirdly, raising more questions than it answers, we are advised that children under the age of eight ‘must be supervised at all times when ironing’.[8] Similarly, keep an eye on freely roaming pets, as they can become tangled in the Extra-Long Flex; the manual remains silent on how it might be that nobody would notice the cord stealthily winding itself around the neck of an incautious cat or similar until it was too late. Finally, towards the end of the manual we find something for people whose level of laziness oscillates wildly. Too lazy to take your shirt off, yet somehow not too lazy to iron your shirt at all? This manual was written for you, my intermittently industrious friend, by someone who feels that the overlap between the kind of person who would attempt to iron clothes that had not yet been vacated and the kind of person likely to read an instruction manual from cover to cover is almost total:

Don’t iron clothes while they are actually on yourself or another person!

Wise words. Here are some even wiser ones: don’t buy this fucking iron.

iron

——————————————

[1] I scored 28, Giant Bear 27.5. Viva la sposi!

[2] Man in Post Office (to the rest of the world in general, seeking approval/sympathy): She didn’t tell me she doesn’t do ironing until after we were married!
Woman in Post Office: You didn’t tell me you don’t do ironing, either.
Man in Post Office (incredulous): ME! Why would I do ironing? I’m a man!
Woman in Post Office (witheringly): You don’t do ironing with your Man Parts.

[3] My friend As Many Tattoos As She Likes say this is called ‘resistentialism’, a concept that posits everyday objects and the people that use them as in a state of perpetual conflict. See M.R. James’s short story ‘The Malice of Inanimate Objects’, Paul F. Jennings’s ‘Report on Resistentialism‘ in the Spectator, and of course Pratchett’s goddess of things that stick in drawers, Anoia.

[4] I am reminded of Sarah Michelle Gellar’s porn star character Krysta Now from Southland Tales, who has the only decent line in the whole film.

[5] I refer you also to Dr. Adam Rutherford’s review of A.N. Wilson’s book Charles Darwin: Victorian Mythmaker, which Amazon wouldn’t publish because it contained the word ‘batshit’. Also, just to dispel any notion that ‘batshit’ is an unfair description of this book, at the time of writing it has thirty-five one-star reviews on Amazon, including the one I’ve linked to by Dr. Rutherford, and an equally damning one from respected historian of science Dr. John van Whye under the headline ‘The worst biography of Darwin ever written’.

[6] A proper Iron Get Hot Now light comes on when the iron is heating up, and then turns off again when the iron is up to temperature. This is weaselly distinguished from the deceitful fuck of an orange light on the Russell Hobbs 18617 Easy Plug and Wind Iron (With Extra-Long Flex), which goes on and off whenever it feels like it *for no raisin*. That’s stoatally different.

[7] That’s interrobang! Let’s rotate the board!

[8] Otherwise, they might collapse mid-sheet from a combination of insufficiently nourishing gruel and ironing at eye level (see footnote 3, Please use power wisely), thereby leaving your ironing undone and the iron itself dangerously liable to explode and set the upper storey of your house on fire. Nine-year-olds are fine, though.

Punch drunk

It’s pretty irritating watching treasured childhood memories being chewed up and spat out. We have the new Jurassic Park movie next year, hoping to make us forget that there have already been two grim sequels; recent films of Paddington Bear, Tintin and the Narnia books; there is even talk of a sequel to Labyrinth, for God’s sake. As if re-booting Thundercats in 2011 wasn’t bad enough, somebody re-made Willo the Wisp and thought it would still work without Kenneth Williams. Absolutely nothing is sacred and I am weary of hearing about such projects and not knowing whether to be pleased that there is a little more sauce in the pot, or frightened that the sauce will be poisonous crap. I put this trend down to three things. One, the people who decide what gets made into a film have no ideas of their own, and no idea how to address their own lack of creativity. Two, they are roughly my age and watched the same programmes as I did when they were small. Three, they are bastards. Soon, all pretence at concealment will be abandoned and men dressed as the Clangers will simply break down my front door, go straight to the shelf of children’s books and defecate right onto the pages.

As if this wasn’t bad enough, much like a parade of mournful and bloody Shakespearean ghosts, celebrities from my childhood continue to be unmasked as sex offenders. I used to tell people about the time my mother got Rolf Harris to open our new school nursery (true story. My brother and I got signed photographs of that week’s Cartoon Time illustrations); now I feel dirty if I catch myself humming ‘Sun Arise’. Who next? Floella Benjamin? Michael Rosen? Professor Yaffle?

Consider the historical allegations of child abuse that have been in the news recently, going back to incidents that took place thirty or forty years ago. Jinny suggests in The Waves that we should decorate our Christmas trees ‘with facts, and again with facts’. We haven’t decorated our tree or indeed any of the house yet (in true Advent fashion, we are watching and waiting), but for those of you with trees already up, here is an undecorative and completely non-fact-like fact: according to an interview with a battered woman on Woman’s Hour earlier this year, some instances of domestic violence are not categorised as domestic violence, sexual assault, GBH or ABH, but common assault. This is a category that would also include something like a drunken altercation with a stranger outside a nightclub. Actual or grievous bodily harm charges can be made at any time, but an allegation of common assault has to be made within six months of the assault in question. That means that if a woman reporting her partner for domestic abuse is told that her allegations fall into this category, she has to report a specific incident (not years or decades of abuse, but a specific incident) within six months of that incident. If one thinks for a moment about how long it may take such a woman to be in a position to make such an allegation without placing herself (and perhaps her children) in further danger, this does not seem reasonable.

Imagine a woman who suffers a single incidence of child abuse in her teenage years, at the hands of a family friend, in his car after a lift home from netball practice, let’s say. Now imagine that next door to our teenage netball player is a family, consisting of a middle-aged wife, two children and an abusive husband. The predatory family friend can be prosecuted at any time. The message that family friend should take away from the many recent high profile cases is that he is never safe: his (now adult) victim can go to the police at any time, and while the traditional barrier of women not being believed is a significant hurdle, he can see for himself that successful prosecutions can and do follow decades later. By contrast, the abusive husband might well get away with a smorgasbord of horrible behaviour for just as many decades, without any negative consequences for him whatsoever, thinking to himself (with some justification) that his chances of being imprisoned or even arrested are vanishingly small.

This is for many reasons, two of which I want to think about here. One, the crimes of the abusive husband are not very interesting to the police and the general public. Operation Yewtree is a nationwide witch-hunt against child abusers, but I find it hard to believe that any future government is likely to give the same prominence and resources to a similar campaign to root out the perpetrators of domestic violence. Two, it is much more difficult for abused wives and girlfriends to report this kind of crime. It has been a source of tremendous irritation to me to hear people criticise the women who have alleged mistreatment and rape at the hands of Bill Cosby for not coming forward sooner. First of all, several of them did so and were ignored; and second, what we should be asking is why women don’t feel able to go public with this information sooner, and then doing something to fix that. Third, maybe women don’t come forward sooner because they expect to be criticised and ignored. Maybe there are other women who would very much like to come forward and report their abusers, but who don’t do so when they witness the victim-blaming of women who do. If it’s OK for cases of child abuse to be investigated (successfully! Even in cases when the perpetrator has died!) decades after the fact, why can’t we extend the same courtesy to all victims of sexual crimes? Why do we laugh when Mr. Punch slaps his ugly old wife around, but not when he smacks the baby? Why do we offer ‘he was drunk’ as an excuse for a handsy colleague, but ‘she was drunk’ as an accusation? Why is it OK to abuse a woman, but not a girl?

What I want to explore here is why is it that we are so much more shocked by (and interested in) the sexual abuse of children and teenagers than the sexual abuse of grown-ups. There have been many examples in recent months of people talking about domestic violence and rape in ways that make me terribly angry, but listing then all here would weary both writer and reader. Suffice it to say that victims of rape, sexual abuse and domestic violence do not need to be told how to behave, or what they could/should have done to avoid the abuse, or why whatever it was that happened to them a. didn’t happen; b. wasn’t that bad; or c. is probably their fault. Nevertheless, the phenomenon of victim-blaming interests me (see A bit like the rubella jab). I wonder if part of the problem is simply that we can all imagine (or remember) what it’s like to be angry with a spouse, and so find it easier to relate to the idea of being violent towards someone who may have been annoying in a low-level sort of way for many years: changing the channel without asking, ignoring our haircuts and consistently leaving the seat up. We find it much harder to imagine molesting a thirteen-year-old in a twilit car after a netball match. However, I think that is to misunderstand the fundamental nature of domestic violence. The women (and men) who are victims of domestic violence do not get a frustrated, end-of-tether smack and then an immediate, shame-faced apology, as my husband would get if I ever raised my hand to him (assuming that his habit of leaving piles of receipts and small change randomly around the house as a sort of money-based spoor got too much for me). In such a situation, Giant Bear and I would have reached a point where we needed to have a conversation about his annoying habit and my short fuse, which (while possibly heated) would be in the wider context of a loving and mutually supportive relationship. The victims of domestic violence are not in any such context. They get their bones (and spirits) broken, over and over again, by someone they may still want to trust; maybe someone they have children with, and maybe who also abuses his children, or beats their mother in front of them; maybe someone they are financially dependent upon; probably someone they cannot avoid, placate or escape; certainly someone they don’t feel able to reason with. Maybe they even still love the person that is hurting them. Maybe they want to stay.

It seems to me that there are four possible explanations as to why the media prioritises child abuse over domestic abuse. Firstly, child abuse is more visually appealing, because children are more visually appealing. A news editor can print a photograph of our netball player: a frail, coltish girl with a pained expression, looking wistfully into the camera. This can appear above a vaguely titillating story and a much smaller picture of the same woman at the time of the interview. This will sell far more newspapers than, say, pictures of a fifty-year old woman with a broken nose and three decades of physical and emotional abuse to talk about. Secondly, child abuse is clear cut: child vs. molester. The child cannot possibly have encouraged the abuse and is legally unable to consent, so we can be 100% outraged with the molester. Our response can be visceral, sincere and above all, simple. We don’t feel this way about a thirty-year marriage, because marriage is complex and involves two grown-up people. I think an abusive marriage is pretty clear-cut, actually, but because we have no frame of reference other than our own, non-abusive relationships, it’s tempting to assume that the conflict within other relationships must be like the conflict within our own relationship: complex, nuanced, variable, and with blame on both sides.

Thirdly, leading on from the supposedly murkier subject of blame within an abusive marriage, I wonder if the third and most disturbing explanation for the way in which society turns away from victims of domestic abuse is that it is too easy to identify with. We’ve all been furious with a partner at one time or another, and maybe even wanted to strike them. Maybe some people then sublimate that desire into a pattern of behaviour that makes their partner feel that everything wrong in the relationship is their fault (and therefore it’s OK to be abusive towards that person in a non-specific, unprovoked fashion, because they’re bound to deserve it one way or another). It’s not such a stretch from there to striking that person next time we lose our temper. Instinctively, we turn away from our darker impulses when we see them in ourselves, and when we see them in others. In other words, there is never going to be a situation when it’s OK for a grown-up man to molest a teenager, but it isn’t nearly so hard to imagine a scenario when it might be acceptable for a grown-up to strike another grown-up. Add to this the culture of victim-blaming I mentioned earlier, and we may find it easy to believe that a thirteen-year-old was unable to resist her attacker (just as she is unable to consent), but harder to believe the same of an older, larger and more experienced woman.[1] Surely, we say from a position of no information whatsoever, she must have had options?[2] Thus it becomes easier to say ‘poor little thing’ about the netball player, and ‘why didn’t she just leave?’ about the battered wife.

Finally, we have the commodification of youth, and of formative sexual experiences. Recall our unfortunate netball player: one reason that her story is shocking that we feel she deserves a normal introduction to sexual relationships. However, as I hope every student I have ever taught would immediately point out, that statement doesn’t mean anything until you define the central terms. What do we mean by ‘deserves’, ‘normal’, ‘introduction’ and ‘sexual relationships’? Moreover, why is this girl entitled to a happy, safe, supportive relationship when her neighbour is not? I am not trying to set up a simplistic dichotomy of ‘victims of child abuse’ vs. ‘battered wives’, because I don’t think comparative victimhood helps anybody (although this kind of relativism is something you will see in the media all the time): my point is that as a society we are far less upset by (and a lot less sympathetic towards) adult victims of abuse than we are towards children or teenagers. I don’t want to say ‘as far as wider society is concerned, young women are valued because they fit the ideal that women are supposed to conform to more closely’ vs. ‘older, less attractive women are barely people at all’, but, beyond my tentative suggestions above, I can’t come up with anything better. Would we feel different about Punch and Judy if Judy were young and pretty? I think we would.

It is, thankfully, possible to move on from child abuse and live a normal life. It’s certainly possible to deal with (have therapy for, think constructively about, understand and move on from) a single incident, or even years of repeated abuse. Not everyone is able to do this, but many people can and do. Women (and men) do this all the time. I wonder how easy it is to move on (emotionally, financially, practically, physically) from an abusive marriage. Remember again that such women may have children that don’t know what a non-abusive relationship looks like; that the violent husband is unlikely to face arrest, trial or prison for his crimes; and that the ties that bind our battered wife to her abuser are numerous and strong. She may also have her own internal conflicts to deal with. Perhaps she struggles with the concept of divorce for religious reasons; perhaps her children are too young to understand their father’s behaviour and will hold her responsible for removing him from their lives (more victim-blaming); perhaps nobody else knows about the abuse and she will be subjected to many well-meaning but ill-informed interventions. Perhaps she also feels a sense of guilt and shame at the situation she finds herself in. I have written elsewhere about my own extremely amicable divorce (see Delete as appropriate), in which we were both very clear that there was no question of either of us being ‘to blame’ for the end of the relationship. Nevertheless, we both still had to listen to other people’s opinions on the subject; and throughout the long dark patches of our marriage, we felt compelled to conceal how bad things were from almost everybody. I stress again that neither of us had anything to be ashamed of, and yet we both felt the failure of our marriage represented some profound personal disgrace.

In all the recent scandals, there has been a great deal of muddying the waters with speculation and focus on the perpetrators. For example, we can’t talk in an informed way about Bill Cosby and the (at the time of writing) seventeen women who have made accusations against him, because he hasn’t been tried in a court of law, and so we are left wading about in a load of hearsay and weak inferences.[3] I don’t find it difficult to believe or ‘side with’ these women, because I can’t name a single woman who became rich and successful by accusing a male celebrity of rape. I can name several male celebrities who have done just fine with all sorts of accusations of inappropriate sexual behaviour hanging around their necks (Roman Polanski, Francois Mitterand, Woody Allen, Bill Clinton, Francois Hollande, Michael Jackson, John Prescott, Paddy Ashdown, David Mellor, Neil Hamilton, O.J. Simpson). In some cases it even did them good[4]: I don’t think there’s any doubt that many people felt John Major’s extra-marital affair with Edwina Currie made him more interesting, for example.[5] I can even name one or two men who have served time and yet still somehow manage to go on with both their lives and careers, such as convicted rapist Mike Tyson and convicted rapist Ched Evans.[6]

I mention Ched Evans here because his case confuses the issue, by (again) placing the focus on the rapist rather than the victim. Just as in The Accused the emphasis is placed on the consequences of a prison sentence for the lives and careers of the rapists (the poor little rapists!), I find it hard to stomach the sentiment that ‘Ched Evans has been punished and should be allowed to go back to work.’ The fact that he has served a prison sentence is neither here nor there, because he continues to deny committing the crime at all and remains completely unrepentant. That matters because a. even small children are told to say sorry when they do something wrong; b. it suggests that prison has had little meaningful effect, which means c. he’s likely to do it again.

We divide those who commit sexual crimes against children (paedophiles) from those who commit sexual crimes against grown-ups (common or garden rapists, if I can put it like that). The first group are subjects of horror. We can see from the pattern of crimes committed by (say) Jimmy Savile[7] that such people tend to obsessively repeat their crimes, are always dangerous to those around them, have few if any scruples about who they will prey upon, and (partly because of the horror with which other people regard such crimes) often choose to murder their victims as a means of protecting themselves, rather than choosing to stop. The second group are treated in a completely different way, even though they are not demonstrably different. In the US, statistics show that, on average, someone who has been convicted of rape once will go on to commit another five or six rapes. What I mean here is that, on average, a man convicted of his first rape is likely to be convicted of another five or six rapes after that, but of course once we consider the shocking rates of reporting and prosecution, the likely total of rapes he actually commits is probably best calculated in dozens.[8] It is, therefore, vital that when such a person is imprisoned, he receives some kind of therapy to help him alter his behaviour, and that when/if he is released back into the community, he expresses contrition and demonstrates beyond all reasonable doubt that he has changed sufficiently to be no danger whatever to those around him.

Here is what I am driving at: dividing sexual predators into two groups based on the demographics of their victims, and saying that one group is more dangerous or depraved than the other, is extremely stupid and dangerous. Choose a sexual predator at random and examine his behaviour. The pattern is usually as follows: he starts small (cat-calling, flashing); he makes insinuations and threats that become less and less empty; he moves on to threatening and touching women he can access easily (girlfriends, sisters, daughters, neighbours, colleagues); his behaviour and his crimes escalate in direct proportion to what he thinks he can get away with, and he continues to assault whomever he can for as long as he can. He stops only when he is compelled to stop, and prison (even repeated periods of incarceration) is less powerful than whatever urges are driving him. The demographics of the victims may have practical implications, but the underlying pattern remains (and remains largely misunderstood).

Finally, the woman Ched Evans raped was nineteen years old at the time of the crime. Nobody would be saying ‘he’s served his time’ if she had been nine.

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[1] This is relevant to the situation I discussed recently (see The fish that is black), where it seemed reasonable to some people that a woman who is scalped in the process of being killed and partially eaten by a killer whale is to blame because she wore her hair long, rather than blaming (say) the people who employed her and others to get into the water with an animal twice the size of any other orca in captivity that was known to have killed two people. The first thing that was actually said about this death was that the whale seized her by the hair (swiftly debunked via video footage, which you can see as part of Blackfish), including in an interview with someone who had never met the dead woman, who stated that she would have been the first to say ‘she got it wrong’.

[2] It was suggested in a television interview with a woman claiming that Bill Cosby forced her to perform oral sex on him that she should have bitten him in the penis. This is how you know we are through the looking-glass: refraining from savaging somebody’s genitals can be described as equivalent to ‘yes, darling, I’d love to. Remind me how you like it.’

[3] ‘Janice Dickinson doesn’t seem credible because she’s kind of a bitch; Beverly Johnson does, because she seems more dignified’ is about the level we’re at, when we should be asking why the word of one man is being trusted over that of nearly twenty women. Here’s an idea: let’s prosecute him for his crimes, and then we’d know beyond reasonable doubt whether he did them or not. Once that’s done, let’s have a conversation about whether pitting one woman against another is a mature way to discuss sexual assault (spoiler alert: it’s not).

[4] This post was written some considerable time before the election of self-confessed woman-hating serial abuser Donald Trump, the prime example of rich, powerful men being able to do whatever the hell they like to women without damaging themselves one iota. ‘Locker-room talk’ indeed.

[5] I freely admit that it could hardly have made him less interesting.

[6] If it were up to me, it would be compulsory to preface the name of a convicted rapist with the words ‘convicted rapist’ e.g. ‘What a terrible mistake from convicted rapist Ched Evans! He’s given away possession and broken his own leg. Maybe his career really is over this time?’

[7] In truth Jimmy Savile doesn’t belong in this first group of sexual predators who prefer young victims, because his victims included women of all ages, including pensioners with terminal illnesses and women who had already died. I mention this here because I think it shows (again) the irrelevance of such categories.

[8] DOZENS .

Some bad words

Sexism and gender bias in China is extraordinary, widespread, insidious. It hides in plain sight. For example, female students are allowed to study medicine, but they ‘can’t’ become surgeons. I have been told every year, by students and staff, that this is because women are ‘not strong enough’ for surgery, as if surgeons were expected to spend their days sawing at the femurs of un-sedated soldiers with hastily-sharpened plastic rulers. As is so often the case, a question that they don’t know the answer to is met with silence and a blank look. ‘What about keyhole surgery?’ Blank look. ‘What about surgery on soft tissues, like abdominal surgery or caesarean sections?’ Blank look. ‘We have female surgeons in Britain. Do you think they are less competent than the male surgeons?’ Blank look. I also had to intervene in a conversation between two students (one male, one female), both intending to study engineering. The girl (Jane) was brighter than the boy (Eric) and I had encouraged her to consider studying Engineering Maths at Bristol, a five-year course with a very small cohort and some very special students. Jane and I were looking at the syllabus on her laptop, which included a picture of two rather dashing male students in serious conversation with a not-very-dashing male professor. Eric leaned over and pointed at the screen. ‘You not apply that,’ he said. ‘That for men.’

Three years ago, I hit upon the idea of showing the kids a British film at the Chinese summer school. My original intention was to supply material for the practice interviews. Accordingly, the film we showed them was Passport to Pimlico, as I’ve described before (see Bite Me). Last year, and with gender issues in mind, I chose The Full Monty (recall Gary saying to his fellow unemployed former steelworkers that, ‘a few years and men won’t exist, except at the zoo … not needed no more, are we? What can lasses not do?’). This is the perfect film for those trying to learn about British culture. There are regional accents, a non-Oxbridge setting, social issues such as unemployment and broken families, changing gender relations and lots and lots of swearing.

Several things have stayed with me from the 2013 film night. First of all, the students laughing at some of the same things that would amuse a British audience, such as Gary and Dave discussing Gary’s plan to steal a jacket to wear to a funeral (Dave: ‘what colour?’; Gary: ‘orange’), which I thought might actually damage some of the students, they were laughing so hard (partly at the joke, but also I think partly out of sheer pleasure that their knowledge of both English language and culture was good enough that they understood the joke). There are also things that are much funnier to a Chinese audience because of their love of physical comedy and slapstick (Nathan dropping the steel girder in the canal, leaving Gary and Dave trapped on an abandoned car, which then starts to sink). Secondly, I was asked to pause the film at the point when Dave rescues Lomper from his car, in which Lomper is attempting to kill himself via a hosepipe attached to the exhaust. The students asked me to pause the film because they hadn’t understood what was going on (‘his car won’t go like that!’ one of them said agitatedly. ‘He will choke!’ said another). I explained that he was trying to kill himself, my words falling into a suddenly silent room.

Thirdly, the response of the students to the homosexual relationship between Lomper and Guy. The film is exquisitely restrained in how it deals with this: we see the two of them mostly naked and panting, I admit, but they are mostly naked (as are all our heroes at that point) because they have been raided by the police while practicing their striptease, and they are panting because they have fled the scene and then climbed through a first-floor window. Later, we see them holding hands at the funeral of Lomper’s mother, and that’s it. The students, who I will remind you live in a country where homosexuality is illegal (and which can be punishable by death in some circumstances), greeted the sight of Lomper and Guy holding hands at the graveside with a spontaneous oh! of recognition and sudden understanding. I think they were genuinely touched (one commented to me afterwards ‘just like married couple. I never see that’). If I may channel Jane Elliott for a moment, people aren’t born with prejudices. They learn them, and anything that can be learned can be unlearned.

Fourthly, again the power of the Embarrassing Questions Box asserted itself (see Please use power wisely), in that when I was trying to decide which film to show, I leafed through some of the questions from the 2012 Box, and came across this one: ‘Can you teach us some bad words so that when some native British wants to insult us, we would at least be aware?’ (see Open the Box). Accordingly, as the film loaded, I explained that what they were about to see was going to include a lot of swearwords, and that I wanted them to jot down as many as they could, to see whether they could identify swearwords simply from the context and tone in which they were used. At the end of the film, the kids listed the words they had written down.[1] We classified the words into nouns, adjectives and verbs as we went along, to help the students use the words grammatically. They even picked up some of the more unusual naughty words, like ‘chuff’, which I don’t think gets used much south of Watford. One student then raised his hand and told me seriously that he had written ‘pick-and-mix’ and was pretty sure it was a noun. ‘Did anyone else have pick-and-mix?’ I asked, at which point two more students put up their hands (one held up his notebook as evidence, like they do on Countdown). ‘Dave said it,’ one of the students explained, absolutely straight-faced. ‘He says, that fucking pick-and-mix was driving me crazy. He probably means his manager, or colleague, is a pick-and-mix.’ For the rest of the week, the students could (very occasionally) be heard using the phrase ‘pick-and-mix’ to each other in exactly this way, and then dissolving into giggles.

Fifthly and finally, the discussion after the film, which largely revolved around gender relations, has stayed with me. You may recall that Dave is made redundant, while his wife continues to work fulltime, and this creates ‘female’ behaviour in Dave, such as comfort eating and anxiety about his weight (much of this takes place in that most masculine of strongholds, his shed). ‘Dave clearly thinks that a husband should earn more than a wife,’ I said, ‘and that part of a husband’s function is to earn money. How many of you agree?’ The class of thirty was split, roughly 50/50, but not along gender lines as you might expect: five of the twelve girls expected a husband to earn more than his wife and thought it was part of a man’s role to have a job and earn money. Again, as with the surgeon example above, the reason give was that ‘men are stronger’. ‘Alright,’ I said. ‘Dustbins, cooking pots and hoovers are pretty heavy, aren’t they? If men are stronger, shouldn’t they do more housework?’[2] One of the girls said, ‘yes. Men should do more housework.’ I was about to ask her a follow-up question (‘more than women do, or more than men currently do?’) when she added, ‘unless they earn enough to employ a very strong maid.’

Several years ago at the summer school, I took six male students into a room on their own and shut the door. This was in order to ameliorate the face problem that they would have had if I had chosen to say what I had to say to them in front of all the other students (and staff), an option that I personally would have preferred.[3] The students that come on the summer school are supposed to be very bright, very motivated and able to speak, write and understand English at a level concomitant with their ambition to study at a British university. While I don’t flatter myself that I am anything like as accomplished a teacher as the incomparable Jane Elliott, I model my teaching style on hers, in that I tend to hold a conversation with the class as a whole. These six students, who had sat right at the front of class every day, had not joined in that conversation once. When students send me a complete, finished PS, I keep the good ones intact, to use as source material for future years. I only ever keep a mediocre or poor PS as a series of anonymous quotations to use in a PS workshop, where I show the students examples of both good and bad personal statements and ask them to critique what they are shown (which, in turn, I hope, teaches them to apply the same thinking to their own work). Of the six students I am talking about, two had not submitted a draft to me at all; two had ‘finished’, in the sense that what they had written had improved as much as it was going to; and two were still ‘working’ on what they had written.[4] One of these personal statements has disappeared forever into the mists of time, while the other exists as a single slide in the workshop I mentioned above.[5]

I hope that quick summary conveys this simple fact: these were not strong students. They were not bright or motivated, and as I was wondering how to help them, I realised that there were two interlocking problems. One was that they lacked the third quality I listed above (good English). This also explained why they were sitting right at the front of class, where they might be able to do some lip-reading. The other was that they were all boys, with markedly lower grades than the other students, as if I had been teaching a top set and one of the tables had been quietly switched for a table from set three or four. In other words, these boys had not earned their places, but nevertheless somebody other than them had decided they should be present. When I asked the Chinese staff about these students, they were all open about the fact that the students’ parents (in four cases they used the word ‘father’) had demanded that their sons be included.[6] These six students were clearly not to blame, so they all had some time with me discussing some second-tier universities that might actually be interested in making them offers, and they all had what the other students had at the end of the week (a more or less finished application, a list of universities and courses, and a realistic idea of what they could expect), as well as the very clear message (from me, to their parents) that I was Not Amused and they should not expect such a tactic to work in Britain.

If one removed these six students from the cohort that year, the gender balance was equal: twelve girls, twelve boys. I couldn’t help wondering whether the three girls who had been excluded were as bright, and as likely to be dismissed, as Jane.

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[1] It was like a very smutty game of Boggle: the kid that initiated the discussion shouted ‘BASTARD!’ at the top of his voice and then looked horribly embarrassed.

[2] My own hoover is so heavy that sometimes I have to ask Giant Bear to carry it upstairs for me.

[3] Because I was under the (mistaken) impression that the students were deliberately wasting my time and therefore needed to be told off (and that it couldn’t hurt the other students to hear me doing so).

[4] I’d like to put ‘still’ in single quotation marks too: they never started an activity that I would have described as ‘work’, and therefore ‘still’ isn’t any more accurate than ‘working’.

[5] The student had attempted to convey his love of his chosen subject (Architecture) by beginning his personal statement with the arresting sentence, ‘A boy like look lots of buildings every day’.

[6] I didn’t get a straight answer to the follow-up question, ‘did money change hands?’, annoyingly, but it would be entirely consistent with what I know of Chinese culture and the way in which parents in particular can be utterly ruthless.