A bit like the rubella jab

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

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

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

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

Women should not have the right to choose who to mate with. That choice should be made for them by civilised men of intelligence.[2]

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

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

I think that in this tendency to reduce complex things to simple labels, we can also see some of the reasons that misogyny continues to exist. There is no simple answer or single change that will prevent violence against women (and men), because the people that commit these crimes, large and small, do so for their own particular reasons. Each case needs to be examined carefully, not lumped together with others that seem similar so that we can declare that violent films (or heavy metal, or poor parenting, or Rush Limbaugh)[3] are the sole cause of everything we’ve chosen to put in that category. One of the reasons that misogyny continues to exist, for example, is that even good, decent men and good, decent women struggle to eradicate it from their own thoughts and behaviour, and one of the reasons they struggle to do so is that we have such bland, broad labels to work with: OK and Not OK.

For example, I read a post from a confused man this morning saying that he always asks him wife’s permission before they have sex, and was this OK? Responses (all from women) ranged from ‘of course. It’s called consent’ to ‘of course not. Sex is something you do together.’ I honestly can’t provide a yes/no answer to this question, and I think that’s part of the problem: not every question has (or should have) a yes/no answer. If that particular man and his wife think it’s important that he asks permission, and if that is part of how he shows that he respects her, good for them. It could also so easily be part of a commodification of sex, in which the man is only allowed to ‘purchase’ a certain amount of sex from the woman when she says it’s in stock (and after he’s ‘paid’ for it in some way, perhaps). We also don’t know whether the consent she’s giving is meaningful: for example, we don’t know if she’s allowed to change her mind; we don’t know whether he pesters or coerces her; we don’t know if he deliberating asks her at awkward moments, forcing her to cancel other plans in order to make him feel better if she says ‘yes’, or giving him ‘reasons’ to be pissed later on if she says ‘no’. I don’t like the idea that I’m doing my husband a favour by having sex with him, or that he needs to ask my permission (but I don’t need to ask his?), but at the same time marital rape is totally a thing and consent should never, ever be assumed, so again for me there is no yes/no answer here, even in my own relationship. Here’s a simpler, more everyday example: a man opening a door for a woman can be a kind, polite and respectful act or it can be patronising, mocking and old-fashioned. You have to be there in order to see how it was done, what the context was and who the people involved were, so that you could judge for yourself.

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

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

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

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

[2] If only this was taken from an essay entitled ‘Some Things Aristotle Was Wrong About’.

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

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.
Me: TO WHOM?
Terrible Photographer: Your bridesmaids.
Me: I DON’T HAVE ANY 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.

Shake it all about

At through the lattice, Deerfeet writes as follows:

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

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

The thing that strikes me now is how the questions that turn up in the Box each year focus on relationships rather than sex. The students are curious about things such as what sort of gifts to buy and when (‘Is acceptable to buy flowers at Christmas?’); how to address the parents of one’s partner (‘Can I use first name, like Andy?’); age gaps and other relationship taboos (‘Can I date my professor? What if s/he is much older than me?’); public displays of affection (‘May I kiss boyfriend in front of street?’); whether it is appropriate to kiss and tell (‘If I allow boy to do sex on me, is it OK for him to tell his friends I let him? Because maybe they laugh’), and so on. Not once have I been asked a question about the vas deferens or how to tell if you have crabs, because the students simply aren’t worried about those things. They are worried about the minefield that is a romantic relationship, and understand instinctively (and correctly) that sex is merely a constituent part of such a relationship. My own experience of sex education in the mid-’nineties was from the Hokey Cokey school of educating young people about sex: a poorly-realised diagram of the Fallopian tubes, some dire warnings about acronyms, and a film involving Sarah Kennedy holding a pear and some cartoon people having sex (but absolutely no fun) on a sofa. There was no suggestion that sex should be put into any kind of context, or that sex would be merely one part of a wider and far more complex interaction. There was also emphatically no room for interpretation or nuance of how we might feel as individuals: the assumption was that, in our capacity as teenagers, we were all hunting the horny-backed toad (or if we weren’t, we soon would  be). Some allowance was made for the possibility that the girls might be reluctant[1] and I recall a lesson where the boys were taken off to watch a baffling video about circumcision, while we were asked to suggest forms of words that could be used to say “no, but thanks for asking”. It was never explained why “no, but thanks for asking” wasn’t good enough, or why nobody seemed to be questioning the premise that the boys, naturally, would pressure us for sex, and we, naturally, would resist this. There was certainly no counterpart lesson on how to say, “Yes, please”. Equally naturally, the ancient idea that the ‘problem’ of boys finding girls desirable in a way that the girls might not care for[2] should be tackled by changing the behaviour of the girls, was also not challenged, or even remarked upon. Formulations that met with our form tutor’s approval (an Art teacher who had been gently marinating in his own despair for several decades) included “I don’t feel well this evening”, “I might throw up”[3] and “I think I might be getting my period”.[4]

To my mind, these and all the other not-tonight-Josephine answers are cop-outs, just as persuading a strange man who hits on you inappropriately to back off by telling him that you have a boyfriend is a cop-out. You may well have a boyfriend, but that’s not the reason he should back off: he should back off because that’s what you’ve asked him to do. “I have a boyfriend” implies that a. whether you want him to back off or not doesn’t matter: the drunken stranger should back away from you because you are the property of another man; and b. were it not for the existence of your real and actual boyfriend, being told you had lovely tits by a drunken stranger would be a delightful experience, which would no doubt lead to casual sex in a benighted gents toilet and/or adjacent alleyway. It’s far more honest to simply demand that he respects your wishes, and state the truth, which is that you’re not interested. Why not extend the same honesty to a teenage boyfriend or girlfriend asking for sex that you aren’t ready for (and, indeed, to all conversations, about sex or otherwise)? If s/he has the courage to ask for sex, s/he also has the courage to take “no, but thanks for asking” on the chin.[5]

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

Eleven girls in my year group were pregnant by the end of our GCSEs (eleven! And it wasn’t a large school!) and therefore I think we can agree that the objects of putting us off sex altogether or propelling us into condoms[6] were not attained. This model of sex education is a failure, precisely because it makes no allowance for individual difference, and because sex is removed from the context of a loving relationship as neatly as a juicy, slippery mussel is plucked out of its shell. A better model might be not to educate students about sex specifically at all, but to focus on relationships instead. If the subject of sex arises naturally in the lessons (as, for example, the subject of racism could be expected to arise naturally and inevitably in a lesson on To Kill A Mockingbird), then of course that’s fine and it ought to be addressed, in its proper context. I think this model is better for both teachers and parents, too: adults may not be comfortable with the idea of a fifteen-year-old having sex, safely or not, but we can all agree that it’s reasonable for him or her to have a boyfriend or girlfriend, and for the relationship (however awkward or primitive) to be respected. I am sure parents whose children have no boyfriends or girlfriends during their teenage years worry just as much as those that have one, or two, or six, or twenty. We can all also agree, I hope, that such early relationships are an important rite of passage. Therefore, it makes sense to educate young people about relationships (which their parents and teachers probably want them to have), rather than just sex (which their parents and teachers probably don’t want them to have); and then, once they have reached the age of consent, to leave them alone to get on with it in whatever way they think best. This would also, I think, encourage young people to keep sex in perspective, and to take responsibility for their own decisions. If they think sex isn’t appropriate in the context of their relationship, good for them. If they do, and they’re old enough to consent, good for them too.

I think a relationship-centred approach would also make it much easier to negotiate the “no, but thanks for asking” example, because the teenagers in question would have had an opportunity to discuss how such a conversation might fit into the trajectory of the relationship as a whole. I also think that feeling secure in the knowledge that people feel ready for sex at different stages, and that this is normal, is a very freeing piece of information: “no, but thanks for asking” is, after all, not the same as “I hate you.[7] Please change your name and move to another county so that we never have to see each other again.” “No, but thanks for asking” is not personal to the person hearing it, but to the person saying it. It might also be argued that how a boyfriend or girlfriend responds to such a piece of news says a lot about them, all of it interesting and useful in determining whether they continue to be one’s boyfriend or girlfriend. Another issue is how to divide sex education between parents and teachers, and again it seems to me that a relationship-centred approach from state-sponsored education would help here. Surely a teenager who had had a lesson about relationship skills (how to apologise after an argument, say) would find it much easier to ask his parents intelligent questions prompted by that lesson than he would after, say, a lesson in which he learned eighteen slang words for syphilis and put a condom onto a boiling tube?

The goal of state-sponsored sex education should not be to scare teenagers into safe sexual behaviour, but to encourage them to develop thoughtful relationships with other people (whether they involve sex or not). This seems to me to lay a foundation for trusting other people and exploring the issues sensitively (with friends and parents as well as one’s partner or potential partner). Alain de Botton says that ‘None of us approaches sex as we are meant to … [w]e are universally deviant’, because we feel unable to make ourselves vulnerable. He goes on to say that sex ‘refuses to sit neatly on top of love, as it should’, and I agree. Whether it refuses or not, I think those of us lucky enough to have the shaping of young people as one of our tasks could do worse than to continually place sex back in its proper place. We think nothing of putting young people in their proper places over and over.[8] As per my earlier thoughts on writing, sex should be no different (see Did he bang her back doors in?).


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

[2] Is that it? I’m not even sure I understand the problem, or why it’s necessarily a bad thing.

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

[4] Nobody pointed out that this was likely to be interpreted as “No, but ask me again in five days.”

[5] Having said that, experience teaches me that very often the *only* variation on “no, but thanks for asking” that actually works is “I have a boyfriend, and he’s twice your size”. What the fuck, men? Do better.

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

[7] One of the marriage guidance books Garden Naturalist and I read while in counselling suggested that the following phrases should not be used during sex: “What are you doing?”; “Why are you doing that?”; “I don’t like that”; “I’ve never liked that”; and “I hate you”.

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

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.

‘He had his thingy in my ear at the time’

Disaster! Volumes 4 and 5 of my teenage diaries have gone so mouldy that they have become unreadable and have had to go in the recycling. I know I said volume 4 was a corker (see The dog expects me to make a full recovery): the Lord giveth, and He taketh away. I was such a prolific writer at this point in my life that this only deprives us of a period of approximately six months. Worse than this, however, apart from volume six and the most recent volume (which covers a period of nearly four years), every remaining volume has turned blue and furry (covering 1994-6. From 1996 to 2009, I stopped keeping a diary altogether, on the grounds that I simply didn’t have the time). If volumes two and three are anything to go by, neither my lack of diary from 1996 onwards nor the demise of the intervening volumes has deprived the world of anything too wonderful in terms of writing. Let us comfort each other with volume six, then, which covers October 31st 1993-February 6th 1994.

Obviously, my productivity has taken a sharp dip in the intervening twenty years or so, particularly when one considers the enormous quantity of letters that I used to churn out as well (of which more in subsequent posts)[1]. The urge to record every tiny event, and to produce writing that is notable for its quantity rather than its quality, continues (January 16th 1994: ‘Sorry to have ended in the middle of a sentence, but I have got so much on my hands. There is so much to write, but I can’t really write now’). Even better, a month later I am undermining even this central theme; for example, see February 6th 1994: ‘I have a million and one things to write’; top of the next page: ‘I can’t think of anything else to say, except that there is a disco on Friday. I probably won’t go’. Judging by volume six, the fact that I can now comfortably fill a notebook over the course of four years is partly because of the strains and responsibilities of adult life, which leave very little time for introspection and the recording of pointless tapir-related dreams (see The dog expects me to make a full recovery); but also partly because I have become less self-obsessed. Consider the following musings from November 12th 1993:

I have the most terrible cough. Which reminds me [how, I wonder?] that I have decided not to swear so much, and to be a nicer person generally. I am fed up with myself. As Bruce Springsteen says, I want to change my clothes, my hair (and) my face[2]. I have started wearing my hair up and now that I am almost of child-bearing age [I have no idea what I meant here since I was thirteen years old at the time], I should stop behaving so immaturely and pull myself together.

I was in an even more priggish and pensive mood on New Year’s Eve, when, with no party to go to, I contented myself with a bizarre summary of 1993, opening with the pompous caveat that ‘I might be forgiven for beginning with several observations regarding the past year. I feel very serious.’

Other trends of note in volume six are my need to be very clear where I am when writing (December 1st1993: ‘am writing this before orchestra: my weekly comment on a Wednesday’); my peculiar brand of non-sequitur (January 22nd 1994: ‘we are working in small groups. I am with Jenny and Sarah, but that’s not the point’); and my very teenage embarrassment at anything and everything that my parents might do or say (December 29th 1993: ‘while I was having my hair cut, Mum took Dad [horror of horrors] to buy me some new bras’). I have also, to my enormous disappointment, become an inveterate gossip. Here we are on January 21st 1994:

Can you believe it? I am incredulous[3]. Sara got off with[4] DUKE VANCE (urgh!) EIGHT TIMES at some disco in Camelford while Daniel Murray sat watching (urgh urgh!). Sara told him (Daniel not Duke) not to tell anyone, so of course he told Jonathan who told Ollie who told EVERYONE (although of course Sara had already told me and I got to say ‘I ALREADY KNOW, TWATFACE’ in a dismissive fashion when he tried to tell me). This was not easy, however, because I am still SO SHOCKED. I am literally open-mouthed with astonishment (much like Sara and Duke, I suppose. URGH).’

What of my enormous proto-crush on Peter Richardson, I hear you cry (see The dog expects me to make a full recovery)? There are, of course, a depressingly large number of pages devoted to this, mostly on the ‘why-oh-why doesn’t he fancy me?’ theme, with the occasion glowing variation on ‘PR talked to me today! It was terribly exciting!’ to spice things up. The only diary entries that have any bearing on actual events, however, are as follows:

January 22nd 1994: My ear has been very sore and I have been taking ear drops for two weeks.

January 24th: Went to see Dr. G today who said I should have my ear syringed. Sounds painful.

January 27th: Today and yesterday I saw the school nurse two days in a row for painkillers and she rang up the surgery and got me an appointment tomorrow with a different doctor (she made a face when I mentioned Dr. G. I will have to miss Music but I don’t care as I can’t hear anything anyhow and my ear really hurts).

January 28th: Went to the doctor today. IT WAS AMAZING. The nurse said, ‘Dr. Richardson will see you now’, and I thought, ‘How lovely. That’s the same last name as PR. I hope he is gentle and nice.’ Then Dr. R came out and it was PETER’S BLOODY DAD (he’s a GP, it turns out[5]). He doesn’t look very much like PR, though (he looks like PR’s brother Doug. PR looks like his mother). PR’s mother is called Rosemary – Dr. R mentioned this in passing while he was looking into my horrible ear so it sounded really loud and booming. ‘Do you know my son Doug?’ he said eventually once he’d asked me all the usual tedious questions about my favourite subject at school and how much my ear hurt on a scale of one to ten (I said ‘seven point five’). ‘Yes,’ I said, trying to sound all casual. ‘But not very well. He’s a bit older than me.’ ‘Ah,’ he said. ‘Do you know my son Peter, then?’ I wanted to nod, but he had his thingy in my ear at the time so I said ‘Yes, I do.’ ‘Ah,’ he said, and wrote something on his pad (hopefully about my ear). ‘We’re in the same sets for French, Maths and Science’, I said helpfully. ‘Ah!’ he said, this time more loudly (or maybe he did something to my ear so it sounded louder?). ‘How splendid.’ Then he gave me some ear drops, which have actually helped and I can almost hear everything again, hurray for me.

January 29th: Today I got to say to PR in the corridor, ‘I met your Dad yesterday. He fixed my ear. He seemed very nice,’ and he said ‘I didn’t know he was your doctor’ and I said ‘he’s not, but he fixed my ear anyhow and I can hear stuff again’, which wasn’t super-sexy but was at least an improvement on ‘Hi, Peter’. Perhaps this is the start of us actually talking.[6]


[1] There was so much correspondence, in fact, that I sometimes used to carry letters with me in case I had a spare moment at school: January 5th 1994: ‘In English today, Mr. Kloska [favourite English teacher, and probably one of the reasons I went on to read English at university] was ill, so we had the pig-in-a-wig (Mr. Kent). Then Mr. Chapman supervised us for the second period and I asked him if I could spend the time writing to S as I had finished all my work. He said that was fine provided he could check the spelling and grammar before I put it in the envelope (I had brought a pre-addressed envelope just in case, which he thought terribly funny)’.

[2]Dancing In The Dark’, of course, which also contains the deathless and oft-ear-wormed line ‘I’m sick of sitting around here trying to write this book’. Amen to that.

[3] Another word that I could spell and use in a written sentence, but not pronounce with any confidence.

[4] I don’t think we even knew ourselves what we meant by this ridiculous euphemism. What did she get off, exactly? The Necking Bus?

[5] Thanks for clearing that up, thirteen-year-old Literacystrumpet. We couldn’t have worked that out otherwise.

[6] It wasn’t.

‘The dog expects me to make a full recovery’

I never finished Middlemarch.[1] I was required to study it in my final year at university, and failed to make it past page two hundred: it became a question of whether my brain was going to turn into soup and drip out of my ears, or whether I was going to put the book down. The memory of sitting on my bed trying to digest this enormous slab of nothing, while out of the corner of my eye I could see a shelf of tantalising, brightly-coloured books (books with characters that didn’t make me want to poke my own eyes out just for something to do) came back to me this week. I am ashamed to say that the horrible writing that prompted this was my own.

Regular readers will recall that I am continuing to trawl through my teenage diaries, and have just finished reading volumes two (July 1992-May 1993) and three (May-August 1993). Volume two has proved to be considerably less entertaining than volume one; indeed, I struggled to find anything of any interest in it at all. It started promisingly enough, with my trademark comments on a holiday, consisting only of i. the number of times I have vomited on the trip home; and ii. some kind of encounter with a domestic animal (August 1st 1992: ‘Home at last. Wasn’t sick, hurray for me. Saw a Pharaoh hound in a layby’). It all goes downhill very swiftly, however, degenerating into nothing more than unedifying comments on how I am getting on at school (‘74% in the French test today. This is slightly better than last time’) and the rollercoaster ride of a truly pathetic crush that I had on a boy called Peter Richardson, who played the drums and spoke to me a handful of times during the four years we were at school together. These entries are so trite and sloppy that one example must stand for all: ‘Saw PR in the corridor outside English today. This made the whole day worthwhile, even though he called me ‘Jenny’ and didn’t come to wind band after school this week. He is so adorable!’

What happened to the sarcastic, slightly grumpy girl of volume one with her lists of how many curlews she saw on the way to school and her precocious vocabulary? Volume two is all very dreary, with endless mooning about Peter Richardson and his ‘strong, drum-playing hands’ (I kid you not) broken up with apparently endless and often highly detailed accounts of my dreams, none of which are interesting enough to record here (January 5th 1993: ‘Last night I dreamt I was being attacked by a tapir’. Recording the rest of the dream takes a full two pages, at the end of which I muse, ‘what does it all mean?’). I appear to be growing up in a vacuum: the rest of the family barely feature, and the only indication that I was living in the countryside comes from entries name-checking farmyard creatures (January 7th 1993: ‘Joe’s Grandpa has broken his arm. Dad says he had a fight with a cow’), and my feelings about any additional animals that my parents felt the need to purchase (February 2nd 1993: ‘Today the sheep arrived. They are enormous. Dad says the one that leads is going to be called MacDuff, but he is not a pretty chicken. I expect Father has been trying to give up coffee again’). The only thing that gives any real hint of my developing character is the following description of an attempt that my brother and I made to sleep outside:

August 12th 1992: Spent yesterday in tent. Put it up without any help. Got into sleeping bags. Then realised from looking up at the way the seams lay that the flysheet was on backwards, so had to get up, take it off and put it on again. Got back into sleeping bags. Then it started to rain and it turned out we had missed out the thingies that separate the flysheet from the rest of the tent and it leaked all over both of us. Took flysheet off; put separators in; put flysheet back on for the third time. Just as we got back into our sleeping-bags, Mum and the dog arrived to see if we wanted to give up and come inside (we did, but said we didn’t because, you know).

Several entries start with exclamations, such as ‘Honestly!’ or ‘As if!’; others begin with terse, unexplained statements like ‘Not speaking to Chantelle. Not after the way she behaved today’.[2] The vast majority, however, are simply dull from start to finish: ‘The day started amicably enough. We have got our results from our Maths tests and the Science test on microelectronics. I got the highest mark in my class of bozos and tossers. Also finished second in the long jump today’. Snore. Overall, I am bitterly disappointed by (specifically) my lack of ability to put a tent up correctly at the first attempt and my lack of pragmatism when offered a warm bed for the night; and (generally) the terrible deterioration in how interesting what I wrote was.

However, all is not lost, gentle reader. There are two things from which to draw comfort. One, I got over it (volume four is a corker). And two, volume three contains the following gem, which just goes to show even the most tedious reading matter can contain something of worth:

June 1st 1993: We spent the day playing Consequences with S and E. We tried the usual stories for a while, but decided letters might be fun. I was going to copy them all out, but that would use too much paper [clearly I was saving the pages for a breathless account of my next utterly pointless dream, in which no doubt I was expecting to be menaced by a sinister dugong]. So instead I have cobbled all the best bits into a single letter, as follows:

‘To my beloved father,

‘I am writing to myself as I have no-one sensible to talk to. As a result, I have mislaid my last letter. Before I get started on my main topic, how are you? I hope you are well, because I’m not. I have been ill with the plague. Fortunately, the doctor says that all he needs is someone to let the dog out in the morning. The dog expects me to make a full recovery.

‘I want to write to you and apologise for the fact that whenever I write to you, it is always a letter of apology. Cook is still very upset. I have tried to apologise to her for my bout of indecency at your party last Saturday, but she just cries and makes endless vats of awful stew. I am sorry to have embarrassed you and I hope you have forgotten all about it (until just now when you started reading my letter, which perhaps you should stop reading and certainly not reply to). Despite disgracing myself, it was a wonderful evening and I had a thoroughly enjoyable time. However, I do not know how you have been feeling. Life is made slightly awkward by this matter and I fear your reply.

‘Yesterday we went rowing in the rain. It was brill-o, but a pity about the rain. Aunt Madge came along and brought gifts for all of us (she’s such a kind woman). Anyway, we gave her tea and were just sitting and talking when the doorbell rang. You just won’t believe who it was: Bruce from the house next door. He wanted me to go to the bathroom during the concert and was very distracting. Douglas is also getting very restless, as he has nowhere to store his cigars.

‘I feel that I should mention that I am writing to you from a spot of quicksand I have fallen into, and the paper keeps getting out of bed. I tripped yesterday and have broken my ear off. I am seriously inconvenienced without and wondered if you could mail me another?

‘To close, I suppose I should ask whether you wife is well? Mine is not. She’s sick in bed at long last, and we’re all wondering when she’s going to hop off. Anyhow, I will just say that I enclose a bomb, so do be careful.

Your puzzled friend’


[1] It’s Casaubominable.

[2] ‘Nobody wants to hear about Vanessa / and the terrible thing Vanessa has done to me.’

Broken Dishes

My current reading matter is the first volume of my diary, covering the years in which I was eleven and twelve. This is an instructive experience. I have recorded events that the uninitiated reader might expect, such as birthdays (‘The best birthday present I got was a trumpet from Mum and Dad. Dad insisted I try to play it. I sounded like a wounded beast’), my first day at secondary school (‘School is fun. I am in a form with the most enormous girl I have ever seen. There are other people there too, but they are squashed against the walls most of the time’) and landmarks such as cross-country races (‘Mrs B [English teacher] got glasses over Christmas. They seem to make her very bad-tempered. She was marshalling for cross-country this afternoon and didn’t seem to care at all that I did it two minutes faster than J’) and my first parties (‘we danced badly and laughed a lot’).

I also made a number of much more peculiar observations in volume one (July 11th 1991-July 24th 1992), from which we can conclude the following things about me, as both a person and a writer. Firstly, I had no sense of priority. A two-week holiday in Cornwall is summed up as follows: ‘Sick twice on the way home. M has an inflatable shark.’ Secondly, I was slightly obsessive about animals. Any encounter with a pet, for example, is always recorded with either name and colour and usually both e.g. ‘Cousin J’s rats are called Fennel and Parsley. I wonder why?’; ‘Midget is a brown pony with a white nose. He lives in a field with a big white horse called Bo’ or ‘I met a cat in a shop today. It was a tortoiseshell called Suzy’. The exact number of animals seen in the wild is also very important: ‘Today we saw eighteen grebes, sixteen deer, two ponies and thirty-three cows. Dad says there are pigs in the New Forest but we didn’t see any of those. Maybe he was making them up.’

Thirdly, and as shown in that last quotation, I show a distressing lack of trust in my parents’ attempts to curb the weirder and/or more pedantic aspects of my character.

24th Sept 1991: Had a major accident.[1] Cut foot open on Dad’s bicycle chain. There is a piece of foot missing, never to be seen again (prob. somewhere on patio). Mother says it will grow back, but I remain sceptical.

4th December 1991: Today’s advent calendar picture was a pipe and tobacco. This relates to Christmas in no way at all but Mum says I mustn’t write to the address on the back and complain as it won’t make any difference.

26th May 1992: Visited W today [Mother’s aged godmother]. She has a pond with newts in. Dad says maybe we can have a pond one day (he didn’t mention the newts, I noticed later, but much too late to bring it up without looking like I had my own agenda).

Note here the correct spelling of tricky words like ‘sceptical’, ‘tobacco’ and ‘agenda’. I put this down to my habit of learning most of my vocabulary from books. This meant that I was able to use such words correctly, and spell them correctly in written form, but often unable to pronounce them with any accuracy. My father still recalls my attempts to say ‘Neanderthal’ (a word I remember finding in The Eighteenth Emergency, in which a small boy is beaten up for writing the name of his bully on a poster showing various forms of primitive man and drawing an arrow to the Neanderthal), and which I pronounced like a phrase rather than a word (‘knee-and-earth-all’). I had the same issue with the word  ‘teetotaller’ (‘tea-toe-taller’).

Fourthly, my sexual development was something I had not quite decided to explore in writing. There seems to be a tension between the compulsion to write (of which more in a moment) and a coyness that I don’t remember and certainly haven’t felt for years. Consider the blank, uncomprehending nature of the following observation from 20th May 1992: ‘According to J, my legs go all the way up to my bum. This didn’t seem like news.’ Wonderfully, I copied many letters I received and wrote into my diary, including one that started with the following sentence: ‘Dear <literacystrumpet>, we are having fairly good weather here, it has been really whomid in recent days’. I should explain that, rather than a letter from an elderly and illiterate aunt, this is the opening line of a letter I received from a very early boyfriend. I have reproduced this in my diary with the original spelling, and then annotated it with a red pen, musing regretfully in a footnote that someone who can’t spell ‘humid’ probably isn’t right for me. The same unfortunate boy appears in the following diary entry, from 1st July 1992:

I have a boyfriend (I’m too embarrassed to write his name as it’s quite posh so I’m just going to call him X). X called on the house today and Dad shouted up the stairs ‘THERE’S A BOY TO SEE YOU!’ as if I was not only deaf but unfamiliar with the concept of boys and their ability to press doorbells. X looked utterly awful when I came downstairs, but I think that was because of Dad shouting and then hanging around as I checked in the mirror afterwards and I looked OK. X asked if I could come out for a walk, but after all that shouting Dad said I couldn’t go out because I have homework to do (this is a lie as I had just finished it, but as it was trigonometry[2] and I didn’t understand it I didn’t want to say I had done it already as then I would have had to show it to Dad [my father is a Maths teacher] and it might have been wrong from start to finish and he would have said so in front of X or told his awful joke about the squaw on the hippopotamus), so I said I didn’t mind and read my book instead.[3]

Fifthly and finally, I felt a compulsion to write that I now find almost embarrassing (1st September 1991: ‘Nothing has happened today. But it is only 10am and I am still in my pyjamas’. Note the startling lack of ambition here). This is true for days on which nothing happens; days on which plenty has happened, none of which now seems worth recording; and days on which I am too tired to write (but not too tired to write ‘I am too tired to write’). I seem to be anxious that, unless an event is recorded (and possibly prefigured, as per Beowulf), it might not have happened at all (2nd Sept 1991: ‘Mum gets back from the Isle of Wight tomorrow’; 3rd Sept 1991: ‘Mum is back from the Isle of Wight’)On Sept. 3rd, the only other item of note was a letter from a friend that I made at one of my many primary schools; while I was being educated elsewhere, we wrote each other copious, lengthy letters. We also learnt early on that we could put more or less anything as the addressee on the envelope, provided the address was correct. For some time, I addressed letters to her at ‘The lady in the green dress’, and so will continue to refer to her as such. The letter in question from The Lady in the Green Dress opened with the following non-sequitur:

Dear <literacystrumpet> How are you? I was just cleaning my room when I came across your letters and realised how long it is since I’ve written to you![4] Here is my list of Top Ten Boys

I was going to include the original list, but reading it now I realise I am still in touch with at least two of the people named and don’t wish to embarrass them. Number 5 on the list, however, reads simply ‘Pickles’. A nickname, or her way of expressing a fondness for vinegary condiments? Neither, it turned out, when I consulted the relevant passage in my book. The list of Top Ten Boys is something I have shamelessly stolen and used in my novel; in fact, reading back through this first volume of my diaries, I was struck repeatedly by incidents, people and feelings that I have used as source material. The Lady in the Green Dress, for example, appears as part of a composite character called Cath, who writes her own list of Top Ten Boys. Reading the fictionalised version (in which I have changed Pickles’s name, for reasons that I can’t recall but which I assume are to do with some kind of witness protection scheme) prompted a dim memory to flick a fin. Pickles, I now remember, was a black-and-white cocker spaniel belonging to The Lady in the Green Dress and her family.[5] Cath, who is considerably dimmer than The Lady in the Green Dress, wonders in her next paragraph ‘I’m not sure if <Pickles> really counts. What do you think?’. Our heroine Alice responds as follows: ‘No, and certainly not ahead of several actual boys’. She then attempts to soften this withering assessment with the more supportive ‘I would like to think you can do better.’ This, it seems to me, is a sentiment that can also be applied to the way in which source material can be reworked into something more structurally satisfying. This process of literary collage is similar to the feeling I have when starting a new patchwork quilt. The diaries are the metaphorical dead sheets, duvet covers, torn shirts and aged dresses, and the process of writing is the (often painful) process of tearing out seams, snipping off buttons, throwing tremendous tangled piles of useless thread and scraps onto the fire, and then patiently cutting, piecing and stitching it all into something beautiful.


[1] I am reminded of Tony Hancock exclaiming (in his own diary, I believe) ‘at last! Drama! Bill cut his finger! I bandaged it! Should I devote my life to this?’.

[2] Broken Dishes is a quilt pattern, predominately made up of tiny triangles.

[3] Poor old X must have thought I was like Senorita Nina from Argentina (‘She said that love should be impulsive, but not convulsive/And syncopation had a discouraging effect on procreation/And that she’d rather read a book and that was that’).

[4] It might have been as much as a week.

[5] How can I be so sure about the colour and the breed, you ask? Because I bloody well wrote it down in my diary as an item of earth-shattering importance the first time I went to play at the home of The Lady in the Green Dress, along with the names of all her stick insects and a list of eighteen ways in which her bedroom was better than mine, that’s how.

Open the Box

Regular readers may have noticed that I went a bit quiet for a minute there. That’s because I’ve been away working in China, The Land That Internet Freedom Forgot.[1] This is a world where creepy men in grey suits (I assume. It may be women in full evening dress) read everyone’s email; ban works of art, arrest people at random, commandeer other countries and destroy their language and culture; where you can be shot or hanged for being a drug dealer or a homosexual; where forced abortions are commonplace, and sexism and lack of religious freedom are givens; and where psychiatry and organ transplants are used as weapons of political oppression. However, before we all get too depressed, China is also a country where, every year, and for reasons that I fail to fully comprehend, the best and brightest students are sent overseas when they are at their most impressionable, to learn skills like independent thought, and the value of questioning assumptions. In other words, it is a country that can change.

China is also a country without Facebook or YouTube, and it has a very restricted blogosphere. While they struggle to deal with being denied instant access to the inane thoughts of everyone they know fifty times a day, Chinese teenagers can comfort themselves with cultural whatnots such as congee (prawn porridge for breakfast), toilets that one is forced to crouch over as if someone is about to strike one vigorously on the crown, and baths that are so short and so wide that I, at less than five foot seven, can only get my entire body under the water by filling the bath to the brim and then executing a sort of walk-like-an-Egyptian pose, in which I cannot reach the soap, the taps or any part of my body that might require washing. There are several interesting things to say about my most recent trip, but I will confine myself to just two for the moment. First of all, as well as several days with my beloved Father, I spent the bulk of the time working with A-level students. They come from all over China and are trying to determine whether they want to apply to universities in the UK, and if so, how to go about it. Therefore, I was in China on business. I must have been, because I had a business visa, I flew business class (but didn’t pay for it FUCK NO), I gave out a ton of business cards and I worked like a dog for four days.[2] Secondly, there were a lot of students. Usually there are thirty or so. This year, there were seventy-eight. SEVENTY. EIGHT. It was an overwhelming experience, something akin to being rolled in catnip and then released into a room of kittens. Normally I would put time and effort into learning all thirty names, but this year that proved to be a task that was quite beyond me. It did, however, lead me to thinking about the names that the students choose for themselves.

We have already given some consideration to the names of things (see Eve’s Pudding), including foodstuffs, babies and small towns. Consider now the names of Chinese students, which generally they choose for themselves in their early teens. It is one of my more interesting tasks to talk to students who may have chosen a name that they may come to regret when they arrive in the UK, and see if they can be persuaded that, say, Desmond Dong isn’t a name they want hanging around their neck like the proverbial albatross for the next three years. This year, my only failure was a girl called Eagle, who declined to change her name (on my list of alternative suggestions were Robin, Linnet, Ava, Jemima and Elsa.[3] I also had Ganymede, which I admit is a little fanciful and perhaps on reflection not a great improvement). Anyhow, she wasn’t having it. “It’s a perfectly good word,” I said, “just a bit unusual as a Christian name. Maybe you could choose another bird?” She thought for a bit and said, “I like ducks. Can I call myself Duck?”

I did, however, manage to persuade a boy called Ding Dong to change his name, although I will admit I wavered a little on this one because I could hear Leslie Phillips saying it in my head (he changed his name to Ben, after Big Ben. This makes me very happy). Another boy changed his name to Ben (this time after Gentle Ben), on the grounds that one, his Chinese name (Da Xióng) means ‘big bear’[4] and two, his chosen name was Marmaduke. Another boy told me that his chosen name was Noah because his Chinese name means something along the lines of ‘big boat that sits on the water alone’. These are the names I like best: the ones where the name can become a talking point with other students in Freshers’ Week; where the student has a genuine reason for choosing their name; and where the name says something positive about them, rather than a terrible pun that they don’t understand and can’t defend themselves against.[5] One of the girls this year arrived with the chosen name Panda. This is a tricky one, I think. Sometimes the really idiosyncratic names are charming, endearing and original (viz. students from previous years named Vanilla, Rock, Young, Bee and Song, all of whom kept those names and all of whom had no trouble with them). Sometimes, however, the students sound like they were given their name by a lazy racist (‘No, no. Lots of British people are called Tiananmen Slitty-Eye. Enjoy your time at university, you tiny yellow idiot’). Moreover, thanks to the Edinburgh Zoo pandas Yang Guang and Tian Tian, British people are temporarily knowledgeable about the habits of giant pandas, and their sexual habits (or lack of them) in particular.[6] Panda was a shy, unassuming creature and I couldn’t bring myself to explain all of my reservations to her. Instead, I simply suggested that maybe Pandora would be marginally better (I had other suggestions, but that was the one she liked best).

As well as choosing a new name based on nothing at all, the students are also expected to navigate a brand new culture with no information whatsoever. In particular, they have not received any sex education. The legal age at which they can get married, the students tell me, is twenty-two for men and twenty for women. The students were also under the impression that these ages are also the ages of consent, but in fact the Chinese staff explained that the age of consent is fourteen for both genders. Therefore, these students are at something of a disadvantage when they arrive in the UK, and so we have attempted to address this with the Embarrassing Questions Box.[7] The idea is that the students may have questions that they want and need answers to, but that they are too embarrassed to ask in front of everyone else, or that perhaps they don’t feel they have the command of English to ask. The Embarrassing Questions Box is usually requisitioned from the local photocopying room, and it lives at the front of the lecture theatre throughout the week. The students write their embarrassing questions on slips of paper and put them into the Box. Lindy West writes as follows of a ‘mother-daughter puberty class’, whatever that is:

There was a part of Growing Up Female where everyone was supposed to write their most embarrassing questions on little note cards and the pube instructor would answer them anonymously in front of the class.

Ladies and gentlemen, for our purposes here, I am that pube instructor.[8] On our last evening in China, I and my male colleague K (and, in previous years, my dear father) take the questions out of the box and answer them as honestly as we can. I wish with all my heart that I had thought of asking the newly-named Pandora to open the Box for us.

The first question out of the Box this year was ‘How can I get a boyfriend like K?’. K is a six-foot-five fluent Mandarin speaker from Belfast with a Cambridge degree and a moustache, so I was tempted to reply that I’d certainly never met anyone like him and that they would just have to work it out; K’s response was to say simply ‘the Box is not a dating agency’ and go onto a question about laundry. Other gems from previous years have included ‘Can you teach us some bad words so that when some native British wants to insult us, we would at least be aware?’ (no); ‘Is it illegal to be a flasher?’ (yes, but more importantly, why are you asking?); ‘What should I do if a homosexual sits next to me on public transport?’ (I’ve no idea how you’d be able to tell simply from the way he or she sat down, but the polite thing to do would be to wish him or her a cheery good morning); and variations on the theme of ‘How can you tell if someone wants to have sex with you?’ (I believe my answer was, ‘if you can’t tell, you probably shouldn’t be doing it’). Having dealt with the Embarrassing Questions in a plenary setting, we then divide the students into two single-sex groups, and I have some time with the girls while the male member of staff has some time with the boys, to follow up anything that may have come out of the Box (hope, for example). Having done this, we swap over, and the male member of staff has some time with the girls and I have some time with the boys. The Chinese staff cram themselves into these sessions at the back, giggling to each other behind their hands. It is not to be missed.

This year, the questions from the girls were very practical: can you explain European bra sizes, will I be met at the airport, can I learn to drive, will British people be able to understand my accent, and so on. The questions from the boys were all about sex. Every single one. We were using the staff room while the girls had the lecture theatre, and the boys were sprawled on the floor, over the sofas and lounging about against the walls, laughing and digging each other in the ribs. There were the usual questions about repelling the advances of homosexual men, who are of course well known for hitting fruitlessly on heterosexual Asian teenagers; anxiety about British girls being voracious sexual predators and/or fawn-like in their skittishness; and of course dating etiquette, in the form of questions about how much they should spend on gifts and meals and so on (plus a question from a student called Jerry, who thought he might be too fat to get a girlfriend and wondered what I thought. I wanted to give him a hug). I was able to respond to a question about whether British girls like facial hair by explaining that the thing on K’s face was a moustache, and that the wispy, sad butterfly things some of them were sporting on their top lips were in fact embarrassing and pointless and akin to donning a sandwich board reading ‘I DON’T HAVE ANY TESTOSTERONE’ (pleasingly, two of them turned up to the final morning session having removed the offending hair overnight). Towards the end of the session, however, the boys surpassed themselves, with my favourite Embarrassing Question ever. It came from Kim (a nervous kid with a stammer), who prefaced his question by saying ‘I’m r-r-r-really embarrassed about this.’ I had already explained to them that, after ten years of university work and student problems, I was completely unshockable and they should make the most of the opportunity to ask whatever they wanted. ‘That’s alright, Kim,’ I said encouragingly, ‘You’re among friends.’

‘Can you t-t-tell us everything you know about s-s-s-sex?’ he said. In the sudden tense silence, I glanced up at the clock. There were ten minutes to go. I cleared my throat.

‘I’ll need a volunteer,’ I said.

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[1] Or indeed most kinds of freedom. I can write that without fear because they don’t have WordPress in China, natch.

[2] Yes, dear readers. This *does* mean that I finally have a job I am actually good at, that I enjoy, that pays me very well, and that doesn’t involve me spending time with people I can’t stand. The university can sink hissing into the sea for all I care (see Exemplum Docet).

[3] Ava is derived from the Latin word avis, meaning bird; Jemima is the Hebrew word for dove; and Elsa is the Anglo-Saxon word for swan, Fact Fans.

[4] I found out afterwards that da xióng can also mean ‘elephant’, yet another quirk of Mandarin that suggests a bunch of baffling underlying assumptions (‘What shall we call that massive grey thing over there? I can’t help noticing that it doesn’t have any fur and couldn’t possibly climb a tree.’ Zhou scratched his head. ‘Hmmm,’ he said. ‘You make good points, Li, but if I’m honest, lack of fur and tree-climbing abilities aside, it reminds me of a massive bear. Let’s just call it that until we think of something better.’ Li shrugged. ‘Fair enough,’ he said).

[5] In previous years, it has been my privilege to rename numerous students, including a very shy girl whose chosen name was, tragically, Swallow Wang.

[6] Yang Guang means ‘sunshine’ and Tian Tian means ‘sweetie’. In other words, even the pandas have better names than some of my students. The word panda itself is not Mandarin (given that da means big or giant, I had somewhat naively assumed that pan meant bear), but probably derives from the Nepali ponya, which means eater of bamboo. Since giant pandas are not native to Nepal, we must assume that this word originally applied to the red panda only (should we assume from this that the red panda came to the attention of the Western world first? Not sure). The red panda and the giant panda, then, are united by their love of bamboo, but are in fact not closely related. The giant panda is a bear, while the red panda is a raccoon. Mandarin calls the red panda hon ho (fire fox), and has various terms for the giant panda, my favourite of which brings us back to where we started: zhú xióng, bamboo bear.

[7] I found this wonderful example of co-evolution in 2014, which I append here to show what a useful tool the Box can be.

[8] Lindy West, ‘Are You There, Margaret? It’s Me, A Person Who Is Not A complete Freak’, in Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman (London: Quercus), p. 27f. Brilliantly, she goes on: ‘I don’t remember what my question was, but I do remember that when I went up to put it in the pile, I recognized my mom’s handwriting on the top card. ‘Please talk about inverted nipples’ it said, succinctly.’