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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[8] Perel, Mating, p.3.

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

[10] Perel, Mating, p.179.

[11] Perel, Mating, p.190.

[12] Perel, Mating, p.183.

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

[14] Kraus, Dick, p.6.

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

[16] Kraus, Dick, p.74.

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

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

Reproductively, I’m more of a Gaza

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


[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?”


[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>

Getting to the bottom of things

Regular readers will recall that your gentle narrator suffers (the word is chosen with care) from bowel disease (see Busting a gut, Bite me, Home Economics, GAH! Michael Gove! and The loud symbols). I have been laxative about contributing to the blog over the last seven months, after being buried under an avalanche of work from which one arm now feebly waves, soon (I hope) to be followed by the rest of me. These two things may not seem related to each other, but my colitis is caused by work-related stress, which is also called work addiction (see I was flying from the threat of an office life and Exemplum Docet). Thus, I live in a little feedback loop, working at whatever pace I feel I can stand and then accepting whatever reward or punishment my insides see fit to respond with. I am eternally grateful to have the skills to work from home most of the time; a husband who finds my swollen stomach and disreputable underwear (of which more later) quirky and charming; and a toilet right next to my study. Giant Bear has even furnished the upstairs toilet with a comfortable wooden seat, a tasteful selection of bra catalogues and a thing called a Primal Stool that cost £20 but is worth its weight in gold (this is a similar thing: do scroll down to see the unicorn-poo advert). John Keay comments on the internal disorder of George Everest (yes, the mountain is named after him. Also, his name is pronounced ‘Eve-rest’, disturbingly), and notes that his ‘[r]ebellious bowels leant an urgency to the working day’. Yes. Yes, I expect they did.[1]

Bowel disease is misunderstood, difficult to talk about, jolly painful and surprisingly common; and work addiction is just everywhere and awful. While I wait for mountain rescue, therefore, here are some jolly facts about bowel disease and work-related stress.

  1. Bowel disease is the great leveller.

People with small children seem to talk about poo all the time: how often their babies poo; how copious, stinky, firm/loose and frequently produced their babies’ poo is; and how their babies sometimes manage to defecate so heartily that they get poo right the way up their backs in a single movement. I don’t have babies, but having colitis allows me to join in nonetheless.

‘Yup,’ I say, finishing my tea. ‘I’ve done that.’
‘When you were a baby?’ My childbearing friend is momentarily distracted by the menu, or possibly the child. ‘Or do you mean last time you went to China?’

  1. Working too much makes you a shitty worker.

My understanding of the strike that junior doctors undertook recently (the first such strike in my lifetime) is that they were protesting against two things in particular, captured (as is so often the case these days) in a hashtag: #notfairnotsafe. This captures two ideas, as follows: one, working longer hours as proposed (for a higher wage, but a lower overall hourly rate) implies that the ridiculous hours and shifts that they already work are not sufficient. Two, working longer hours will exhaust them and make them bad doctors. I don’t understand why there is any discussion to be had about this. We all agree that tired motorists are dangerous. Are exhausted doctors dangerous? YES. OF COURSE THEY ARE: TO THEMSELVES AND OTHERS. I have lost count of the number of mistakes I have made, documents I have deleted and spreadsheets I have cocked up because I was simply too tired to be competent. With the obvious exception of smug health-cunt Jeremy Hunt (Jim Naughtie has established precedent, so this is fine), nobody is stupid enough to think a tired doctor is a competent doctor, but nobody, in any line of work, should be working so many hours that they are too tired to do their job properly. I used to work four days per week; then, to cover for a colleague, I did two months of five days per week. I would have done better to stay at four days per week, because I was so tired that a. I caught a bug and had to miss two days’ work; and b. forgot to save my database and lost another two days’ work. Net gain: nothing.

   3. Number of times I have soiled myself since being diagnosed: four.

Once *just* after a Departmental meeting; once while sitting quietly in a chair, reading a book and minding my own business; once in China after some questionable fish; and this afternoon. When I went to Dublin for a week a few years ago, I packed twenty-one pairs of knickers by the simple method of counting seven pairs of knickers into the suitcase (‘Monday-Tuesday-Wednesday-Thursday-Friday-Saturday-Sunday’) three times without realising I had done so. Do normal people even *own* twenty-one pairs of knickers? They do not.

  1. Being addicted to work means not being allowed to go cold turkey.

Some addictive substances (drugs, alcohol) are things that we have no physical need of, by which I mean that removing these things from our lives, while extremely difficult, is not damaging, but rather may have considerable health benefits. We may feel the need (physical, physiological, psychological, emotional) for another cigarette (I have written about this elsewhere; see A three-pipe problem), drink, high, win or whatever, but we can live perfectly well without these things, just as we can live without smoking, drinking, drugs, gambling, sex or pornography. The most difficult addictions to deal with, I suggest, are those where cutting the destructive substance or behaviour out of one’s life altogether is not possible. If one is addicted to food or work, for example, one has to find some way of changing that relationship to make it healthy and sustainable: one cannot simply stop eating or working. I don’t think there are many therapists who, confronted with (say) a smoker would suggest that he or she learn to manage his or her relationship with tobacco: the end goal would always and unquestioningly be to give up, totally and forever.

  1. Number of times I have thought, ‘that’s it. I’m going to die on the toilet. Like Elvis, except he had a cheeseburger to keep him company’: three.

Halfway through reading this post, my husband showed me a picture of the thing below (it’s a cheeseburger-shaped anti-stress ball) and said, ‘shall we get one, and keep it in the upstairs toilet?’

52. cheeseburger
‘Not suitable for children under the age of three’


  1. Bowel disease makes you feel really, really old

Were I so inclined, I could produce a series of Venn diagrams showing the commonality between my life and that of a woman forty years older than me; let’s call her Daphne. Yesterday’s diagram would show that Jess walked (rapidly, happily) to the train station to catch the same train as Daphne, while Daphne’s great age forced her to make the journey on the bus; Jess has brought a copy of Silent Spring and some knitting to keep her occupied during the journey, while Daphne prefers the Telegraph and crochet; Jess has decided not to bring any food, while Daphne has a packet of mints[2] and so on. Apart from the train itself, the only area of overlap is that both Jess and Daphne will spend a significant part of their day worrying that they are going to disgrace themselves because *there is no toilet at the station*. That’s very annoying, think both Jess and Daphne upon arrival, with enough time to buy their tickets, but not such a long wait that they get cold and cross. The train will be here in a minute, and once we get going I can use the facilities on the train. Imagine the disgust of both our protagonists (Jess says a curse word; Daphne does not, but her lips get very thin) when it turns out that *there is no toilet on the train either*.

My usual train trip is around 50 minutes, and fortunately there *are* facilities at the other end. But, really: good grief. There is a person at the station (sometimes two!) to sell tickets to the Great Unwashed *and* a model railway shop. There must, therefore, be at least one toilet. Giant Bear tells me that there *is* a toilet, but that in order to use it, Daphne and I would have to queue up and then yell through the ticket window that we’d like to borrow the key, please. There is also nowhere for the staff on the train to relieve themselves; at least the ticket inspector can walk from carriage to carriage to distract himself (and maybe do a little poo in the corridor where nobody will notice), but no such luck for the driver. John Pudney said the following about toilets at train stations seventy years ago, much of which still holds today:

For the ordinary run of early railroad passengers, there were no arrangements whatever; and patience was the only necessity. At early morning stops, men were wont to salute the sunrise, as decorously as they might, at the ends of platforms, while women stood in earnest conversation here and there, their long skirts providing cover even though the platform itself offered little by way of camouflage.[3]

  1. Being addicted to work is socially acceptable. 

While I think it could be argued that we have a society with a dysfunctional attitude to many addictive substances and behaviours (food, alcohol and sex spring to mind), the attitude to work goes beyond that into stark raving mad. We all talk about our ‘busy’ lives: it is entirely normal for women in particular to babble on about ‘juggling’ all the things we have to do, on top of earning a living, which somehow takes up far more time and energy than it should. I am no longer surprised to receive (and send) emails at 6am or 11pm; nobody expresses surprise when it becomes clear that I work weekends; and while I was at the university, I once went into the office on Boxing Day and *I wasn’t the only person in the Department*.

  1. Bowel disease has ruined the following words forever: movement, regular, irrigation, stool. On the plus side, Andrew Motion is now a funny name.
  1. Bowel disease makes you feel that nobody will ever want to have sex with you again.

There is swelling (sometimes soft; sometimes tight and hard like a tyre). There is diarrhoea (bright yellow, mostly liquid and excitingly explosive). There is dehydration (headaches, itchy eyes), horrible stomach cramps, massive hair loss, brittle nails, tiredness that mere sleep cannot touch, and endless medical humiliations (pooing into little trays; enemas; strangers inserting Things into one’s special area in the name of Science). There are ruined clothes, from which the physical stains can be removed, but which I can never bring myself to wear again.[4] Finally, there is the terror that every tremor and gurgle in the abdominal region may be about to burst forth into the Bog of Eternal Stench, punctuating yet another day with what can only be described as arse-sneezes: hot, gritty crap that pebble-dashes the inside of the toilet in a splatter pattern strikingly reminiscent of the vomit one sees on the pavements outside student residences, except that this is yellow, streaked with blood and mucus, smells like the devil’s farmyard and CAME OUT OF MY ARSE.

These are the times when the unconditional love (and relaxed attitude to nudity) of an understanding and patient partner is better than all the peppermint oil and herbal tea in the world. Here is a little story I call ‘Disappointment’: the other day, Giant Bear came home from work, and without explanation, silently removed his shoes, tie, waistcoat, braces, shirt, trousers, socks and, with a certain sense of inevitability, his pants. Why, good evening, darling, I thought, ceasing to stir the dinner for a moment, and trying to remember if my own underwear was a. the kind that can be flung aside in a sexy fashion; b. not that kind, but at least stain-free and vaguely respectable; or c. in such a state that I’d have to bundle it up in my jeans and then attempt to kick both carefully into a dark corner. Just as I was about to spoil the moment by talking, my husband had a jolly good look at his pants, turned them round and put them back on again. ‘Had them on back to front all day’, he observed, and went upstairs to get dressed.

[1] John Keay, The Great Arc (London: HarperCollins, 2000), p.146.

[2] To alleviate what George Sherston calls a ‘railway-tasting mouth’. Siegfried Sassoon, Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man (London: Faber and Faber, 1928), p.299.

[3] John Pudney, The Smallest Room (London: Michael Joseph, 1954), p.75.

[4] Just as I am no longer able to eat English mustard because gaaaaaah.

A ‘small, mysterious corpus’

In her excellent book Ex Libris[1] Anne Fadiman writes about what she calls her ‘Odd Shelf’, which she defines as follows:

On this shelf rests a small, mysterious corpus of volumes whose subject matter is completely unrelated to the rest of the library, yet which, upon closer inspection, reveals a good deal about its owner. George Orwell’s Odd Shelf held a collection of … ladies’ magazines from the 1860s, which he liked to read in his bathtub.[2]

Fadiman’s own Odd Shelf is about polar exploration, a subject close to my own heart (for absolutely no reason whatever: I have no desire to visit such places and hate being cold), and I remain confident that we both own copies of F.A. Worsley’s book Shackleton’s Boat Journey and Scott’s Last Expedition (Captain Scott’s journals, recovered from beside his frozen body; see The fish that is black for Scott’s description of watching killer whales attempting to tip his dogs into the water). My own Odd Shelf is somewhat broader, and contains works on exploration of all kinds (see Why Don’t You Do Right?). These are books about men (and a few hardy women) who ‘went out to explore new lands or with toil and self-sacrifice fitted themselves to be champions … the conquerors of the great peaks.'[3]

My explorer books begin with Exquemelin, Bernal Diaz and Zarate chronicling the conquest of South America, continuing with nineteenth- and twentieth-century works by Mary Kingsley and Laurens Van Der Post, mid-century books by T.E. Lawrence (see No means no for Lawrence’s unhelpful responses to his long-suffering proofreader), Peter Fleming, Elspeth Huxley and Thor Heyerdahl, and finally modern writers such as Peter Hessler and Mariusz Wilk. I also have a book by Ian Hibell, a relative on Giant Bear’s side, called Into the Remote Places. This is an account of Ian’s journeys, cycling across various continents. Like Shackleton and Scott, Ian died in pursuit of exploration after being knocked off his bicycle while cycling across Greece; and, like Shackleton and Scott, Ian struggled to explain his need to explore:

I couldn’t explain to them the lure of travelling. You went to a place to get something, they reasoned.[4]

His Sudanese hosts are, I think, meaning a physical ‘something’; Ian might have agreed with them had they meant something less tangible. There is no real consensus on why or how exploration is necessary, or exactly what one is in search of. R.B. Robertson reports a group of whalers discussing their hero Shackleton (Mansell was present when Shackleton’s party arrived in Stromness, having been given up for dead), and again there is no consensus:

… we talked of Antarctic explorers, and the motives that take men down to that terrifying white desert, not once, but time and time again, to dedicate a large part of their lives to its ghastly waters, often to die there.

‘The motives of some of them are only too obvious,’ Gyle said. ‘Personal glory, kudos or ever material gain … others are real scientists who reckon that the knowledge they gain of the last unknown part of the earth is worth the agony of getting it … [and] there’s always a handful of man like Shackleton who keep coming down here as it were for the fun of it … they find … real comradeship. That’s a human relationship second only to sexual love, and a thousand times rarer.'[5]

Gyle may be right here in some instances, but many of the explorers in my collection travel alone, and are profoundly isolated even when surrounded by people. Robertson’s whalers suggest other theories: the unnamed Norwegian bosun argues that Antarctic explorers go south to get away from ‘up there’, and Davison suggests that, ‘Antarctica’s the only part of the world left where it’s still possible to look over a hill without knowing for certain what you’re going to find on the other side.’ Mansell, in some ways the hero of Robertson’s book Of Whales and Men, dismisses all these ideas. His explanation is, for me, the most convincing, and again refers to an intangible ‘something’:

‘Shackletons, and [the] best kind of explorer … come here because they know there is something else, that man can feel but not quite understand in this world. And they get closer to that thing – that fourth man who march[ed] with Shackleton across South Georgia[6] – when they are down there than anywhere else in world. This island [South Georgia], Zuther Notion [this is how Robertson renders Mansell’s pronunciation of ‘Southern Ocean’], Antarctic continent – all haunted places …  [Shackleton and men like him] keep coming back to discover – haunted by what?’[7]

There are some issues with defining one’s Odd Shelf. Firstly, I differ from Fadiman in that I think I probably own too many volumes on the subject of exploration to describe it as a ‘shelf’; secondly, I read explorer books because I find them interesting as studies of human nature, rather than because they describe activities I wish to participate in. Fadiman’s essays ‘The Odd Shelf’ and ‘The Literary Glutton’ describe various trips she has made to the Arctic and Antarctic, whereas I have no wish to actually go to fifteenth-century Peru or similar. Finally, I think there is a difference between amassing literature on or in a particular area, and collecting porn: after Orwell, her second example of an Odd Shelf is that belonging to Philip Larkin, who nobody will be surprised to learn had ‘an especially capacious Odd Shelf crammed with pornography, with an emphasis on spanking.'[8]

I do, however, single out a few books for special status. These are books that I have worked on, contributed to, or am mentioned in. It is, at the time of writing, a fairly small collection, as follows: Pilgrimage (written by my godfather, and dedicated to his godchildren); Edith the Fair: The Visionary of Walsingham by the late Dr. Bill Flint (I copy-edited the book, provided the index and contributed much of the transliteration of the Pynson Ballad in chapter 3);[9] two histories of Hertfordshire and an academic book about the philosophy of evolution, all of which I compiled indexes for; and Salmon by Prof. Peter Coates. My cameo here is in the acknowledgements, on a list of people ‘keen to talk salmon with me’. In my case, this consisted of providing Peter with photocopies of the relevant pages of Mr Philips, a marvellous book by John Lanchester in which Mr. Philips spends a diverting afternoon watching salmon-based pornography (it wouldn’t have been to Larkin’s taste, I fancy)[10] and a photograph of a salmon-skin suit I took at an exhibition of ancient textiles from the autonomous regions of China while in Shanghai (he failed to use this, the fule).

Shanghai, March '08 - 07
Salmon-skin suit, Shanghai museum, taken March 2008

The latest addition to this shelf is Romeo and Juliet in Palestine: Teaching Under Occupation, which I proofread for my friend and colleague, Tom Sperlinger.[11] I have written elsewhere about how we might assess the quality of a book[12] (see The search for perfection) and indeed why one might write or read a book at all. Speaking purely for myself, I write for an audience of one. On the back of Stella Gibbons’s Ticky (a very silly book that I thoroughly enjoyed on the train the other week, muffling my giggles between the pages in the hope of suggesting to the other passengers that I was suffering from a surfeit of sneezing rather than gin), she says, ‘I wrote it to please myself’. Tom is more speculative; he says simply, ‘I try to tell the story of the semester I spent at Al-Quds’. His book also engages with another topic I have explored in other posts: that of why we read (see House of Holes, among other posts). In chapter 5, which is built around Daniel Pennac’s ‘Bill of Rights’ for readers (the first item is ‘the right not to read’), Tom speaks of his struggle to get his students to read more:

Haytham was not the only student who often did not do the reading. Some of the students were taking six or seven classes at the same time and claimed they had too much preparatory work to do. Others saw the reading as peripheral; they wanted to come to class, write down the answers, and prepare themselves for the exam.[13]

The teaching Tom describes here is very different from my own foreign teaching experiences. I don’t teach literature to my Chinese students, but if I did, and if, as part of that teaching, I told them all to read a book or a short story, my sense is that the vast majority would read it (and several would read it more than once); specifically, I wonder what my (overwhelmingly eager and respectful) Chinese students would make of this chapter, and of the students’ reluctance to do what their teacher has asked. In his Q&A after reading from Romeo and Juliet in Palestine at Waterstones a few weeks ago, Tom described the intimacy of the classroom, and how there are things that can be said in that context that wouldn’t (couldn’t?) be said in any other setting. This chimes more closely with my own experiences in China, particularly with reference to sex education (see Open the Box, Some bad words, Please use power wisely and Shake it all about). This sense that the students aren’t holding up their end of the bargain, however, is something that I have only had in a few isolated cases (see No means no): Tom is describing a widespread mutiny, in which so many of the students aren’t doing the reading that discussion of their reasoning is a legitimate topic for discussion in class. A few pages on, Tom quotes Malcolm X’s Autobiography, in which he describes learning to read by the glow of a light just outside the door of his prison cell (the second time I read the book, having read it the first time as a proofreader, this moment reminded me of Chris Packham on this year’s Springwatch describing how he had read by the light of a glow-worm), and the hunger Malcolm X had for reading. Contrast that with my train journey home from Bristol after Tom’s reading: I was the only person in the carriage with a book. I would have been perfectly happy to chat (as often happens when I knit on trains), but the other passengers were all either looking at their ’phones or simply staring into space. There was no conversation, and apart from my own muffled laughter, the carriage was devoid of the sound of meaningful human interaction (the various mechanical beeps of the various mechanical devices don’t count). My chosen book was the aforementioned Ticky, which, in the quiet, conversationless train (and on the way home from an evening spent discussing a book), suggested a superbly ironic reason for which one might choose to read: to avoid conversation.

‘… hand me Bore Upon the Jutes – no, no, that is a Circassian grammar. Bore Upon the Jutes is what I require – no – now you have given me Notes on Early Saxon Religious Musical Pipes [see An unparalleled display of shawms] – I asked for BOREBORE UPON THE JUTES.’
‘I think you are lying upon it, Papa, there is a book just under your pillow?’
‘Oh – ah? is there? – yes, exactly so: I thank you. Well, no doubt you have your morning duties to perform. You may look in upon me again immediately before luncheon.’ … Doctor Pressure held Bore upside down and pretended to read.[14]

Naturally, my frequent train journeys are occasions on which reading is a wonderful way to fill time that would be otherwise wasted, but of course I don’t simply read to fill time or to avoid conversation with one’s fellow passengers (it seems so much simpler to just ask them to be quiet). I read because, among other things (and to misappropriate Nagel for a second time: see The fish that is black), I simply can’t imagine what it is like not to read (or not to want to read).

Nabokov used to encourage his students at Berkeley to read and re-read, as part of a search for detail. In a discussion of why we read, Nabokov might have answered that one reason for doing so is to cultivate the ability to find ‘bigness’ in that which is small. In the Q&A after Tom’s reading, I commented that, were I allowed to teach literature to my Chinese students, there would undoubtedly be a long list of forbidden books handed down from On High, and asked Tom if he would have felt comfortable giving the students The Merchant of Venice rather than Julius Caesar or Romeo and Juliet (I was also thinking of one of Tom’s students, who comments that ‘she stopped reading a book if she did not like the way it made her think’).[15] He replied that yes, that would have been fine, and other colleagues at Al-Quds were teaching The Merchant of Venice. On each of my trips to China, I have considered it my moral duty to take something dangerous to read, in the hope of being (at the very least) accosted at breakfast with the question ‘why are you reading that?’ So far, Alan Hollinghurst’s tale of drug-taking and gay sex in sheds The Spell, Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, The Well of Loneliness, and The Joy Luck Club have all failed to get a rise out of anybody. I suspect this is because one has to have actually read these books to know that they are ‘dangerous’, but this is still very disappointing.

One of Tom’s courses at the university is called ‘Dangerous Books’, and the course description includes this sentence: ‘Why might a work of literature be considered dangerous?’ One answer is, of course, the circumstances in which one reads it (see The search for perfection). This year, my chosen Dangerous Book to flourish at breakfast is also an explorer book: Seven Years in Tibet. While Nabokov might argue that the devil is in the detail, in this case I think Margaret Atwood has it right in The Handmaid’s Tale: ‘context is all’.


[1] Her book The Spirit Catches You and Fall Down should be required reading (the right not to read notwithstanding) for anyone considering medicine as a profession.

[2] Anne Fadiman, ‘My Odd Shelf’, in Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998), p. 21.

[3] Heinrich Harrer, Seven Years in Tibet (London: The Reprint Society, 1953), translated from the German by Richard Graves and with an introduction by fellow explorer Peter Fleming, p. 11.

[4] Ian Hibell and Clinton Trowbridge, Into the Remote Places (London: Robson Books, 1984), p. 96.

[5] R.B. Robertson, Of Whales and Men (London: Macmillan, 1956), p. 60.

[6] The ‘fourth man’ refers to the conviction, held by Shackleton and both of his companions Worsley and Crean, that as the three of them trekked across South Georgia, ‘we were four, not three’ (Shackleton’s words, as quoted by Robertson, p. 62). As Robertson tells us (p. 55) as part of a discussion about how little poetry (plenty of prose) has been written about Antarctica, the one outlier is a cameo by the fourth man in ‘The Wasteland’.

[7] Robertson, Of Whales and Men, p. 61.

[8] Fadiman, ‘My Odd Shelf’, Ex Libris, p. 21. While re-reading ‘My Odd Shelf’, I discovered a postcard pushed between the pages at the start of the essay ‘True Womanhood’ (pp. 45-53). Fadiman describes reading The Mirror of True Womanhood: A Book of Instruction for Women in the World (as opposed to the follow-up volume, A Book of Instruction for Women Floating Aimlessly In Outer Space) by the Rev. Bernard O’Reilly, and intended to convey the take-home message that ‘Woman’s entire existence, in order to be a sources of happiness to others as well as to herself, must be one self-sacrifice’ (Fadiman, p. 47). Fadiman’s response is to compile a list of the virtues O’Reilly values most, and ask her husband to give her marks out of ten in each category (p. 51). The postcard, which shows van Gogh’s Le nuit étoilée, Arles on the picture side, has Fadiman’s list and my marks from Garden Naturalist written on it, from just after our eleventh wedding anniversary. Naturally, the only sensible course of action was to yell at Giant Bear to run upstairs immediately and provide his own scores, which proved to be three marks lower overall. My main failing is apparently in the category ‘Avoidance of impure literature, engravings, paintings and statuary’, in which both husbands have given me a resounding zero.

[9] Dr. Flint died unexpectedly while the book was still in production and although we never met, I remember him very fondly for our first telephone call, in which I explained that, while I was delighted to take his book on, I was also about to be taking two weeks off in order to get married and have a honeymoon. There was a brief pause and a sloshing noise, followed by Bill announcing to me that, having known me for less than thirty seconds, he was ‘breaking out the gin’ in celebration of my upcoming nuptials. Thus did we warm to each other enormously.

[10] I had expected the university photocopier to spontaneously combust, but of course it only does that when one has an important meeting to go to and/or is wearing a long-sleeved top in a pale colour. Salmon was Peter’s contribution to a series of books, each on a different animal, to which the excellent Helen MacDonald (of H is for Hawk fame) contributed Falcon.

[11] Regular readers will notice that I haven’t bothered with my traditional faintly insulting pseudonym for Tom; this is because I want to link to a place where you can see all the details of Tom’s book, which is available for the outrageously modest sum of £9.99 (obviously don’t buy it from Amazon, though. Fuck those guys. I link to it merely to show that Tom has hit the big time: get it here instead). This would naturally make a nonsense of a pseudonym, had I bothered to come up with one (it would have been Voice For Radio, thanks so much for asking).

[12] There’s no need to take my word for it that Tom’s book is marvellous; Tom Paulin and John Berger loved it, too.

[13] Tom Sperlinger, Romeo and Juliet in Palestine: Teaching Under Occupation (Winchester: Zero Books, 2015), p. 45.

[14] Stella Gibbons, Ticky (Guernsey: Alan Sutton, 1943), pp. 162-163. I have concluded that Bore Upon the Jutes, which Dr. Pressure is so keen to read, must have sprung from the imagination of Gibbons, as the first hit when put into Google is the quotation I have just given.

[15] Sperlinger, Romeo and Juliet, p. 46.

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.



[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.


[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 .

Bride And Groom With Ambulance

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

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

A good wedding photographer is expensive, I have discovered. Some of them charge more than our entire budget (£5k. I’m still pretty chuffed that we managed to pull off a hen party, a stag do, a honeymoon and a two-day, two-ceremony wedding with over sixty guests for this money). As a freelance, I totally understand why photography costs this much and don’t begrudge the money, but we were looking at spending around £1.5k on something we’re not sure we care about. We simply don’t have £1.5k to spend on this (and if we did have an extra £1.5k suddenly injected into our budget, we wouldn’t spend it on a photographer). Giant Bear’s delightful mother Beady Bear saw our dilemma and very kindly offered to pay for a photographer. I said I would like to employ a fellow freelance[6], and so the entire two-day extravaganza is being covered by the delightful Shelley of Diamonds and Doodles, who I could not recommend more highly (check out her blog Pretty Thrifty over the next few weeks as I’m going to be writing a series of guest posts about affordable weddings). Before we chose Shelley, however, we shopped around.

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

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

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

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

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

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

iii. Is your customer unusual in some way? Make them feel judged. Bonus points are available if you can also imply that your incompetence is due to the aforementioned unusualness.

A selection of vignettes from yesterday:

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

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

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

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

iv. Only use props of the lowest possible quality.

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

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

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

[3] Anyone else reminded of CJ (‘I don’t care what it is; I care what it looks like!’) and Sam (‘I care what it is!’) yelling at each other in the West Wing?

[4] We’re going for the marriage itself.

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

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

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

[8] Me: The bride’s eyes are shut in this one.

Terrible Photographer: Really?
Me: Yes.
Terrible Photographer: I hadn’t noticed.
Me (inside my head): WHAT?

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

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

Delete as appropriate

My former husband, Garden Naturalist, is a fine man. He has settled into the role of former husband with grace and thoughtfulness, continues to buy me lunch from time to time (or allows me to buy lunch for him as the case may be), and recently took me to see The Magic Flute, with its aria about ‘the joys and sacred duties of marital love’ (we nudged each other and laughed).[1] We talk on the ’phone and he can be in a room with Giant Bear, and while it’s clearly a bit odd for other people, they’ll get over it.[2] It’s now nearly a year since we decided to separate, and so I’ve been thinking about how to have a healthy divorce, and how the legal part of the process could be changed to make this easier, as well as making it easier for couples who consider divorce (but nevertheless decide to stay together) to do so in a healthy manner.

To start with, let me blow your mind: at the time of writing, there is no such thing as no-fault divorce in England and Wales. You can file for divorce on the grounds that you have lived apart for more than two years, so I suppose in that (presumably uncommon) situation, this might constitute no-fault divorce. However, for people who want a divorce because their relationship has broken down, rather than because their partner went out to buy a paper in 1987 and never came back[3] there is no way to get the marriage dissolved that doesn’t involve somebody taking the blame. The options are as follows: adultery (in which case you have to name the third person, who presumably you can then both blame for the whole thing), unreasonable behaviour, or desertion. That’s it. There is no box you can tick that says something like ‘look, we’ve done our best. We worked hard and spent thousands of pounds on counselling and tried to do the right thing, and it just hasn’t worked out. It’s nobody’s fault, and actually saying that it is somebody’s fault is really unfair and unhelpful.’ Equally, there is no box for ‘nobody asked us to tick boxes giving reasons why we wanted to get married.[4] It’s none of your fucking business why we got married, and it’s none of your fucking business why we want a divorce.’[5] One of you has to divorce the other, and unless you want the process to drag on even longer, that means one of you has to take the blame, in the eyes of the law at least. No-fault divorce was suggested several years ago, and it was voted down by MPs who thought it would ‘undermine’ marriage. What the current situation does instead, however, is to undermine whatever relationship it is that the two of you may have left.

Here are the two main things that make me angry about the process of getting divorced. Firstly, divorce is something that happens to both the people in the relationship. The divorce papers frame it as something one of you inflicts upon the other, in return for his or her atrocious behaviour, but in reality I think very few relationships end in circumstances where 100% of the blame can be laid at the door of one person only. The divorce forms ought to reflect the fact that divorce is sad and painful and, above all, normal. If the divorce rate is 50%, and we assume that not all the people who are still married are happily so, one of the conclusions we can come to is that divorce is necessary (and that there is a wider shortage of relationship skills, which also needs to be addressed). Relationships go wrong. Sometimes, relationships go so wrong that they have to come to an end, and a bad relationship coming to an end is a good thing for everyone concerned. It also does *not* mean that a relationship has ‘failed’: it just hasn’t worked out the way you thought it would.[6] Alistair Cooke quotes a judge from Reno as follows:

If the marriage of two hearts that beat as one is a sacred thing, then by the same token a divorce where love is dead is a holy thing. It is a kind of spiritual surgery.[7]

The knowledge that your relationship might go wrong or come to an end should be something that motivates you to look after it properly. Rather than promoting the idea that someone is to blame, the formalities surrounding legal divorce ought to encourage both people in the relationship to take responsibility for the end of it, and the manner in which it comes to an end. This would surely make it much easier to be at least courteous to each other afterwards (and there will be an ‘afterwards’. Even if you don’t have children, you have mutual friends, and there will be birthday parties and weddings and christenings and funerals forever, many of which will be organised by people who will want to invite both of you and who need you to be able to be in a room together). I simply don’t understand why there isn’t a ‘mutual consent’ box that indicates that, for reasons that don’t matter to anyone outside the relationship, the two grown-up people involved have agreed that staying married is no longer an appropriate reflection of the relationship they have with one another.

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

I think that means you have to decide for yourselves when the part of the marriage that means something to you has come to an end. I almost felt that getting divorced was a waste of time, because it didn’t offer any meaningful sense of closure. The sense of closure came from agreeing to separate and taking off my wedding rings (in the middle of a horrible row, while walking home from counselling). Even then, I wouldn’t say either of us had any sense of a clean break, because we still weren’t legally divorced. Divorce takes months: even a straightforward one like ours took six months. We divided all our possessions (including our home) perfectly amicably without legal help, and we don’t have any children. Why does this take so long, when getting married takes a couple of weeks from banns to registrar? Why assume that people might try to get out of a serious commitment for the wrong reasons, but not make equivalent provision to prevent people from getting into that same serious commitment for the wrong reasons? Nobody would argue that people who want to get married should have to explain themselves, and yet people who want to get divorced are legally obliged to do so.[8]

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

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

[2] As Fitz says in The West Wing with reference to allowing people of colour into the military, it did disrupt the unit. The unit got over it.’

[3] Or who, you know, want to get on with their lives, for goodness sake.

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

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

[6] ‘The idea that a relationship is a ‘failure’ because it ends is a pessimist’s construct, anyway.’ (Lindy West (2016), ‘Strong People Fighting Against the Elements’, in Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman (London: Quercus), p. 128). Yes. Surely one of the options when you start a relationship (and certainly the most overwhelmingly likely) is that it will run its natural course and you’ll split up? If someone had said to us when we got married ‘look, you’ll have fifteen years together, and about half of that time will be good’, I for one would have taken that.

[7] Alistair Cooke (1979), ‘Angela Davis v. the Establishment’, in The Americans: Fifty Letters from America on our Life and Times (London: Bodley Head), p. 102.

[8] Much as people who decide to have a child are never met with ‘oh, really? Why is that, then?’, but childless couples will be asked to justify themselves by strangers, colleagues and family alike (see Reproductively, I’m more of a Gaza).

‘The man doctor will see you now’

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

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

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

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

Consider French grammar for a moment. David Sedaris says the following:

Because it is a female and lays eggs, a chicken is masculine. Vagina is masculine as well, while the word masculinity is feminine. Forced by the grammar to take a stand one way or the other, hermaphrodite is male, and indecisiveness female … I was told that if something is unpleasant, it’s probably feminine. This encouraged me, but the theory was blown by such masculine nouns as murder [meurtre], toothache [mal de dents] and Rollerblade [roller en ligne, for fuck’s sake].[6]

The word elles refers to a group of women. The word ils refers to a group of men. Ils also refers to a mixed group, made up of equal numbers of men and women. It can refer to a mixed group in which women predominate and a group in which they don’t. This tiny word ils can, in fact, denote a group made up almost entirely of women, provided that the group also contains a man. Or a male baby. Or a male dog. In other words, the masculinity of a single panting dachshund (even a comparatively effeminate one) in that group, a group which could contain thousands of women, trumps the existence of every single woman there. The same applies in Spanish (and no doubt many other languages that I’m not familiar with). This, it seems to me, is highly objectionable and should be challenged (and changed). Grammar changes all the time, usually for the worse through sloppy usage. It can, therefore, change for the better if enough people decide that it should. This is a battle worth fighting: women objecting to being described as ‘female’, I would argue, is not.[7]

We should seek equality in all things, including grammar. One does not say ‘the man bishops today decided that, actually, some of them would quite like to arrange their own flowers’, any more than one might say ‘the cabinet is made up primarily of man politicians’ or ‘the man doctor will see you now’. We say simply ‘the bishops’, ‘of politicians’ and ‘the doctor’, because we all assume (as does the grammar) that the gender of these people does not need to be stated. This should be on the grounds of irrelevance, but actually, of course, it doesn’t need to be stated because we know what their gender is already: they are all men. This is the default position of both society and the English language: the word ‘man’ would be removed from ‘man doctor’ on the same grounds of redundancy as I suggested above. So the uncomfortable compromise we have reached is to say ‘doctors’ to denote male doctors, and ‘women doctors’ to denote something freakish.[9] This contradicts the basic purpose of grammar, which is to remove ambiguity of meaning from language. ‘Woman doctor’ is anti-grammar: it introduces ambiguity in the meaning. Does it refer to a woman who is also a doctor, a doctor who primarily treats conditions found only in women (as one might say ‘bone doctor’ or similar), or perhaps some kind of weird hybrid of a woman and a doctor, using ‘woman doctor’ as one might use ‘witch doctor’? ‘Doctor’, however, is clear; and ‘female doctor’, in a situation where the gender of the doctor matters, is clear; and ‘man doctor’ is just silly.[10]

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

[2] Did you see what I did there?

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

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

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

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

[7] He’s quite right: the French word for vagina (le vagin) is masculine, despite a. coming from a feminine Latin root and b. OH COME ON. David Sedaris (2000), ‘Make That a Double’, from Me Talk Pretty One Day (London, Abacus), p. 188.

[8] You can read more about the woman/female debate in the New York Times. Or just use adjectives to describe stuff and nouns to name stuff and stop pissing about.

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

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

Things that make me happy, part 2

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

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


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

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

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