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

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

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

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

Sylvia is completely with him on this one. In fact, she is even more emphatic. “It’s just a whole other thing,” she says, when in a thoughtful mood. […] They want not to understand it. Not to hear about it.[3]

I suggest that John and Sylvia don’t want their broken motorcycles to be fixed by a mechanic because they want it ‘done right’, but because they want it done by someone else. Phaedrus gives us another example of a dripping tap. John attempts to fix it and fails. They don’t call a plumber and they don’t ask anyone else for help: they just put up with the drip. To use the terminology of the book, they wish to use technology, but they do not wish to maintain it.

I listen to a lot of podcasts, and thus am being regularly hassled by an oft-repeated, faux-spontaneous ad for a podcast called GrownUpLand, which is premised upon the idea that being a grown-up is both baffling and dull, and that the listeners require help with the identity crisis that Getting Older will inevitably produce in them. The very first episode is entitled ‘What does it take to be a grown-up?’ and the ‘welcome to’ episode includes the quite startling statement that “an out-of-hand dinner party for me consists of cracking into their parents’ port” (surely grown-ups host dinner parties in their own houses? Surely grown-ups buy their own port?) and a listener asking for suggestions of a tattoo he could get specifically to piss his parents off.

The response to this is from a Syrian refugee, who suggests that the listener tries being stateless as a way to distract his parents from his tattoo, and so I want to be clear here that, while I have no intention of listening to something I feel about a hundred years too old for, I am not finding fault with this podcast specifically, but rather the broader social trend that it both represents and feeds upon. I reject wholeheartedly the notion that being a grown-up is something we should resist or mourn. I have always been desperate to have as much autonomy as humanly possible. I wanted to own my own home, work hard at a job and earn an income that I could spend exactly as I saw fit (i.e. on food and books). I craved control, and I craved responsibility.

75b
Not the mug for me.

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

[John and Sylvia] talk once in a while in as few pained words as possible about ‘it’ or ‘it all’, as in the sentence ‘There is just no escape from it all’. And if I asked, ‘From what?’, the answer might be ‘The whole thing’, or ‘The whole organised bit’.[4]

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

We might relate some of these ideas to relationships, and particularly sexual relationships (those with so-called ‘adult’ content, perhaps). I expected my ability to look after myself to keep pace with the level of independence I was granted, and I have consistently suggested to students with questions about relationships and sex that feeling ready for a relationship or a particular sexual experience should prompt self-reflection about the relevant relationship skills and notions of consent. If you feel ready to ask that nice woman on the bus to have coffee with you, you should also be asking yourself whether you feel ready for her to say “no, but thanks for asking”.[5] In other words, if you are big enough to ask for something, you should also be big enough to be denied it, and to take that denial in a calm, grown-up fashion.[6] I felt adulthood would be a time of feeling competent, including within relationships. Surely, I thought, one of the reasons Young People were actively discouraged from having sex and other Adult Activities was that we/they were judged to be too immature to do them properly. Such things are for people who are older and therefore by definition more competent. The flaw with this otherwise sound reasoning is that people do not necessarily become more competent as they age. GrownUpLand rests on the idea that we reach peak competence well below the threshold that would allow us to have fully functioning adult lives, and then we just continue to age, becoming steadily more baffled by the bewildering, boring tasks maturity requires us to perform.

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

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

At the opposite extreme are the realists. They say that enduring love is more important than hot sex, and that passion makes people do stupid things. It’s dangerous, it creates havoc, and it’s a weak foundation for marriage. In the immortal words of Marge Simpson, “Passion is for teenagers and foreigners.” For the realists, maturity prevails.[7]

In other words, as we grow older, we also become disappointed, sad and boring. As Hilary Mantel has it in an early novel, ‘You feel, surely there’s more to life than this. But there isn’t, and it [the feeling] passes off.’ No wonder we need cheery podcasts to help us navigate these dreary waters. Perel notices how popular culture tries to prepare us for this decline. She says, ‘the volatility of passionate eroticism is expected to evolve into a more staid, stable, and manageable alternative: mature love’ and argues that this is the natural result of believing that ‘[d]iminishing desire is inescapable’.[8] Louis de Bernières writes in Captain Corelli’s Mandolin that ‘Love itself is what is left over when being in love has burned away’[9], a sentiment I could not disagree with more. So, while passion might initiate a relationship, it cannot sustain it. Rather, the passion, phoenix-like, must be destroyed so that the couple can then sift through the ashes of their eroticism to see what is left (“oh look, darling – years of arguing about the washing-machine! And is that your mother under that bit of charred pillowcase?”). Add to this how our culture continually positions both love and lust as things that are fundamentally for young people with firm bodies and no responsibilities, and the link between maturity and sexless, passionless boredom is complete. Of course we no longer have sex with each other![10] We’re old! Nobody wants to have sex with old people, including other old people! Evenings that used to be taken up with frantic, tender sex are now to be given over to discussion of the compost bin. Knickers will be flung into the laundry basket rather than over the bannisters. Sofas upon which we once clasped one another with vigour and intent are now places to sit calmly, discussing the relative health of our house plants and planning the euthanasia of our parents.

As a society, we fetishize youth, and we fetishize novelty. Rather than patiently seeking new ways to explore a relationship with one another as it grows deeper and richer with the passing of time, we are, therefore, led to believe that a relationship (and certainly a marriage) will inevitably hit problems that the couple will be unable to solve, and demand compromises they are reluctant to make. One will, then, be faced with a choice: living alone; a revolving door of new partners, each one re-booting one’s sense of desire; or staying with the same boring old person, partly because by the time you realise how miserable you both are, disentangling yourselves will be both complex and expensive, but also because that’s what adults do: ‘[y]ou are expected to tough it out and grow up’.[11] Thus are we sold the myth that the longer a relationship lasts, the duller it will be.

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

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

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

Being bad at Maintenance kills relationships. It kills them far more often and more thoroughly than being bad at Joy, because the likelihood that someone who is bad at Joy will be in a relationship for more than a few weeks is so low. The admin gradually ramps up as their lives become more tightly entwined, as does the need for the admin to be done promptly and well. Lee gradually does more and more of the admin because Sandy isn’t any good at it, and by the time Sandy remembers a regular admin task needs to be done (putting out the recycling, say), Lee has often already done it, promptly and efficiently, but resentfully.[12] They might try to manage this by each choosing discrete areas of responsibility, but Sandy (who really sucks at admin) can’t seem to do their tasks without being reminded several times by Lee, who is now forced into a role of not doing the admin, but project managing the admin. Lee and Sandy might even phrase this to each other in terms of maturity (“it’s like living with a student”; “it’s like living with my mother” and so on). What ends the relationship, therefore, is not a lack of Joy, but rather a gradual, cumulative preponderance of undone Maintenance. This culminates in an horrendous week-long row about whose fault it is that neither of them took the keys round to the neighbours so that the neighbours could feed the cat while Sandy and Lee were on holiday. The final, relationship-ending row will appear to be about the emaciated cat, whose pathetic little face will haunt them both for years, but will in fact be about Sandy’s tacit expectation that Lee should take responsibility for admin because Sandy is horrible at it, and Lee’s resentment that Sandy leaves all the admin to Lee. “You didn’t love Mr. Whiskers at all,” they hiss at each other.

My point is that you have to be with someone for a decent length of time, and probably move in together, before you have any idea of whether they are any good at admin. This is, therefore, a leap in the dark, and may be a useful point at which to return to the label ‘maintenance’. Admin is boring, but it maintains the relationship. Bricks are boring, but they hold a house up; bread can be boring, but it doesn’t half hold a sandwich together. By the time Lee fully realises how much Sandy sucks at maintenance, they have been together for three years and living together for two. It feels far, far too late (and far, far too petty) to say, “Sandy, I really can’t stay in this relationship unless you treat the washing up with the seriousness it deserves”, and so Lee doesn’t say it. Instead, a new era of tense, repetitive, mean little arguments ensues, revolving around chores that neither partner particularly wants to do, but which are necessary for the household to function. This is what people mean by ‘the little things’, but these things are not little: they are dull. The relationship circles these tedious issues like water trying to drain past a clogged plughole. There is never quite enough energy to dislodge the metaphorical slice of onion or mushy rice, but neither is there a sincere attempt made to really scrutinise how those things got there in the first place (spoiler alert: poor admin).

What makes a relationship work in the long-term, therefore (I suggest) is both people in the relationship working hard at both Joy and Maintenance. Consider Perel’s other book The State of Affairs and Chapter 10 of Mating in Captivity, in which she argues (among other things) that infidelity arises partly out of asking too much of a single person, expecting our chosen partner to fulfil all of our needs: ‘once we have found “the one”, we will need no one else’.[13] Asking one person to be all things to you is unfair and likely to lead to disappointment, as well as probably causing the partners to spend an unhealthy amount of time together, becoming bored and frustrated. The way the relationship is being run is what is creating the boredom, but it is easy to see why both people involved might mistakenly draw the conclusion that it is their partner they need to change, rather than their behaviour. Perel says,

the disenchanted opt for divorce or affairs not because they question the institution [of marriage], but because they think they chose the wrong person. […] Next time they’ll choose better.[14]

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

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

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

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

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

It’s also not difficult to imagine Sandy having an affair, with (say) a colleague, easily fitted around Sandy’s already chaotic schedule without Lee noticing. In fact, although Lee is more discontented with the situation than Sandy, it’s Sandy who is more likely to stray in some ways. For one thing, Lee is too busy. For another, as Perel says, ‘excessive monitoring’ (which may well be how Sandy interprets Lee’s constant reminders) can push a person into ‘transgressions that establish psychological distance from an overbearing relationship. […] Trouble looms when monogamy is no longer a free expression of loyalty, but a form of enforced compliance.’ [15] Sandy finds an attractive new colleague ‘less anal’ than Lee and revels in naughty takeaways and flirting over the photocopier while working late. Sandy turns this new colleague over in their mind, paying even less attention to admin while in the grip of various fantasy encounters. Sandy’s new colleague doesn’t know Sandy is in a relationship, partly because Sandy never seems to run any of the errands one might expect to see done by someone in a long-term relationship (do your fucking admin, Sandy!), and partly because Sandy and Lee are spending so little time together at home, which is now less a shared home and more of a backdrop to their latest admin-based row. Sandy’s situation quickly escalates into flirtatious emails, groping in corridors and eventually hurried, partially-dressed sex in a slovenly flat. When these things are over, Sandy simply says, “see you tomorrow” and leaves, without anyone nagging about washing up or demanding an update on the cat’s bowel movements. Perel says, describing a harassed wife, ‘[she] can feel like a woman again; her lover knows nothing about the broken Lego set or the plumber who failed to show up for the second time.’[16] When Sandy gets home, Lee asks why Sandy is putting work ahead of their relationship and lists the tasks Lee has had to do in Sandy’s absence. “You never spend any time with me or Mr. Whiskers,” Lee might say. Lee is no fun anymore, Sandy thinks. This just goes to show how little Lee knows me.

Chris Kraus’s baffling, tedious book I Love Dick is relevant here. I know the book is, according to the blurb on the back ‘the most important feminist novel of the past two decades’, but I hated it with the fire of a thousand suns and since I only want to use it to illustrate a brief point here, I really can’t bring myself to read it a third time solely to unpack why I found it so unbearable. For my immediate purposes, I’m leaving the relative merits of the book itself aside and just considering the notion that it rests upon, which is that an affair is inherently interesting.[17] We know Kraus thinks this is so because literally nothing else happens: the entire book is three people in a love triangle talking to each other about the fact that they are in a love triangle. Kraus has 250 pages of things to say about an affair that takes a hundred pages to get past first base, at which point the marriage is over and so technically not an affair anyway. Chris and Sylvère (the central married couple) have an extraordinary amount to say to each other, too (‘Was the conceptual fuck merely the first step? For the next few hours [HOURS], Chris and Sylvère discuss this’).[18] I Love Dick relies on the idea that an affair (any affair, including a conceptual one i.e. one that will have bored the arse off the reader long before the people in question get round to having sex) is exciting, daring and endlessly interesting, but actually the affair the book describes is none of those things. The three people involved find themselves in a love triangle because they lack both relationship skills and boundaries. They certainly have no idea what it is they hope to get out of either relationship, other than a breath-takingly self-indulgent book (‘We never have any fun together,’ she [Chris] sighed into the phone. Sylvere replied gruffly: ‘Oh. Fun. Is that what it’s supposed to be about?’).[19]

None of these affairs make sense, particularly when we remind ourselves that the problem Sandy and Lee have with each other is not sexual, but administrative. What they have created, in effect, is a yin-and-yang set of relationships. The relationship Sandy and Lee have with each other is now almost entirely admin. Boring, boring admin. Perel quotes D.H. Lawrence at the start of Mating in Captivity, speaking of ‘the great cage of our domesticity’, and it is the meshing together of Sandy’s life with Lee’s, the crushing burden of cumulative admin and Sandy’s inability to do their share that locks the two of them together, making them feel old, bored and boring.[20] This side of the ying-yang circle is leavened with a tiny spot of joy that reminds them they are still fond of each other and therefore just about keeps the pilot light flickering. On the other side, the relationships they each have with their respective lovers are almost entirely joy. Sexy, sexy joy. This keeps them apart, both literally and metaphorically, concealing their ‘other’ lives and allowing them to explore who they can be with another person: someone who feels dirty and conflicted, certainly, but also someone who feels young and desirable. This side of the circle is marked with a tiny spot of admin that is just enough to keep each affair concealed. Thus Sandy and Lee have achieved balance of a sort. Having sex with another person still seems counterintuitive, given that the sex Sandy and Lee have with each other is still good, but that’s not why they are doing it.

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

My own view is that individual affairs can be interesting, both for the people involved in them and for those reading about fictional characters, but only if those people and/or characters are also interesting. For example, The Once and Future King does a beautiful job of showing all three points of a love triangle, in such a delicate and balanced way that a reader can hold sympathy for all three of them in their heart at the same time. That is because the three people involved are all complex, thoughtful and interesting. Each of them feels the pain of their situation and each of them both regrets it and feels powerless to resist it. Arthur even manages to feel sorry for his unfaithful wife and best friend, both of whom he continues to love with great sincerity and gentleness. He goes out of his way to preserve the fiction that he does not know they are betraying him and T.H. White’s handling of the currents of emotion between the three of them is extraordinary and exquisite. Meanwhile in I Love Dick, if ever a character deserves to be cheated on, it is pretentious, patronising Sylvère. Wordsworth speaks of the ‘dreary intercourse of daily life’[21] and of course he is talking about interactions in general rather than sexual intercourse, but truly, an affair is a fundamentally dreary response to a relationship being in a tough spot, particularly if the people involved are themselves dull as shit. There is something profoundly bratty about an affair. Childlike, we demand to have the mutually exclusive, and to be the mutually exclusive: spouse and lover, old and young, adult and adulterous. ‘Unfaithful spouse’ ought to be an oxymoron, but it isn’t. It is a commonplace. It is both the coward’s way out and no way out at all. An affair resolves nothing and interests nobody. What more predictable course of action could there be?

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

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

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

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

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

[4] Pirsig, p.16.

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

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

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

[8] Perel, pp.201 and 3.

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

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

[11] Perel, p.3.

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

[13] Perel, p.179.

[14] Perel, p.179.

[15] Perel, p.190.

[16] Perel, p.183.

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

[18] Kraus, p.6.

[19] Krause, p.74.

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

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

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Reproductively, I’m more of a Gaza

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

72a
Too green!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The kindness of strangers

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

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

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

Indestructible

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

Choose Your Own Adventure

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

Julia Roberts Saves The Day With Her Face

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

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

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

Don’t Be Afraid To Try Again

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[7] It all depends upon your appetite.

Swear on the Heron

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

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

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

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

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

68.Him
Him, January 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

Chinese Whispers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nothing but a Hound Dog

I love beginnings. In particular, I love the beginnings of books. The opening lines of almost any book tell you something worth knowing about the rest of it: done well, they are fascinating, tantalizing little grace notes that set you up beautifully for the rest of the book, just as an amuse-bouche sets one up for a delicious meal. Of course there are famously compelling opening lines such as those from The Go-Between,[1] Anna Karenina,[2] Pride and Prejudice[3] and so on, but wonderful beginnings are everywhere. My own personal favourite is found in Tom Robbins’s bonkers novel (is it a novel? It’s certainly writing) Still Life With Woodpecker. This book sprang into the world in the same year as I did, and begins thus: ‘If this typewriter can’t do it, then fuck it, it can’t be done.’[4]

Non-fiction has much to offer here too. The Austrian animal behaviourist Konrad Lorenz opens his book Man Meets Dog with a quotation from William Cowper’s ‘The Winter Walk at Noon’ and the following intriguing sentence: ‘Today for breakfast I ate some fried bread and sausage.’ Of course this immediately calls to mind sausages themselves, both real and literary (see W.H. Auden’s poem ‘Since’, as featured in Joining the Dots and Tales from the canalbank), but setting meat products aside, ‘Today for breakfast I ate some fried bread and sausage’ is a brilliant opening line, with no obvious connection to Lorenz’s chosen subject (‘the relationship between men and their domestic pets’, according to the back cover) and sets a charmingly familiar tone, even in translation. Lorenz goes on as follows:

Both the sausage and the lard came from a pig that I used to know as a dear little piglet. Once that stage was over, to save my conscience from conflict, I meticulously avoided any further acquaintance with that pig […] Morally it is much worse to wring the neck of a tame goose which approaches one confidently to take food from one’s hand than it is, at the expense of some physical effort and a great deal of patience, to shoot a wild goose which is fully conscious of its danger and, moreover, has a good chance of eluding it.[5]

Similarly, the Tiny Book Hound, Giant Bear and I are doing our best to set the right tone at the beginning of our relationship (see Dog Days). It’s a steep learning curve for all of us: the Hound has eight years of another owner’s priorities, smells and commands to unlearn (plus two confusing weeks in the shelter), and Giant Bear and I have never owned a pet together, although we both grew up with dogs (and lots of other creatures, in my case). Rescue dogs also bring their own unique challenges. The Hound is frightened of loud noises and towels, hates having his lead put on or his feet cleaned, and refuses to sleep in his basket at night. His ideal resting place is nestled against me on my pillow, where I can be unexpectedly licked in the face at 3am, but we have compromised on pretty much anywhere else on or in the bed. Occasionally, this means finding teeny-tiny paw-prints on the sheets (‘Mr. Holmes, they were the footprints of a gigantic Tiny Hound!’). He doesn’t smell, sheds very little and snores less than Giant Bear, and is thus a perfectly acceptable bedtime companion, but we both wonder how he will cope with (for example) being on the boat (see Tales from the canal-bank), where he will have to wear his harness at all times, the engine is deafening and the bed is four feet off the ground.

Meanwhile, we all continue to learn about each other, including the following Important Lessons from the last three weeks of dog ownership.

  1. The Hound is the only person in the house not that bothered about food.

I think he eats his breakfast and dinner mainly to please us. He likes cheese, and he likes liver treats, and he likes warm shreds of roast chicken, but I’m using the word ‘likes’ to convey the lukewarm nature of such feelings: he will eat these things and doesn’t seem to hate doing so. When we eat our own dinner, he sits on a chair or a lap, but this is so he can see what we’re doing: our food may be inches from his nose, but he’s not interested in eating it. I’ve eaten dog several times in China (it’s delicious) and I wonder what the Hound, an animal perfectly content to eat his own poo, would make of that. Recall Mungo Piers-Foley in Stiff Upper Lip lamenting that he had eaten a piece of horse and hadn’t even noticed until he received the bill.[6] Naturally, by the end of the essay he is enjoying elephant, flamingo and water-rat, among other things, and has learnt the essential lesson of Eating Abroad: ‘Once one leaves the Old Country, one achieves a kind of Universality, a Oneness with Nature. HERE EVERYTHING IS EDIBLE.'[7]

 2. The Hound doesn’t like me to attempt anything without his supervision.

As previously mentioned (see all my innards-related posts), I have chronic bowel disease as a legacy of work-related stress, and work from my lovely little blue office at home the majority of the time, which has what amounts to an en suite. I’m hesitant to declare myself expert at anything, but taking a shit is something I can do without assistance. The Hound has other ideas, however: if I shut him out, he barks and claws at the door; if I leave the door open, he sits as close to my feet as he can, gazing trustingly into my face with an expression of great concern and occasionally sneezing in what I assume he thinks is a supportive fashion.

3. After three weeks with us, he is already better behaved than the dogs next door.

The Hound is allowed to bark at the dogs next door, provided he stops when asked. Bearing in mind that when he feels threatened by a bigger dog, the Hound forgets entirely how frightening he finds (say) agricultural noises on the Archers and clearly thinks he is a tiger that could rip the throat out of a Doberman (see Swear on the Heron for an account of how he tried to do this exact thing), we have decided that barking at other dogs is a normal behavioural whatnot, allowing him to defend both us and his territory. Once I have hauled him away from growling and scrabbling at the ground when meeting a larger dog on our morning walk, he swaggers off, tail wagging and still barking threats at nothing, to show me what a big brave dog he is: woe betide a stick if he comes upon it in such a mood. The dogs next door are only slightly bigger than him, but in his mind they are the enemy at the gate (plus, I fucking hate the dogs next door. If ever dogs deserved to be barked at, these are they). If they start barking while I’m working in the office, I’ve discovered that opening the window (which is low enough that he can get his front paws up on the sill to see and sniff outside) and allowing him to bark out of it (so to speak) works a treat. When I’ve had enough, I shut the window, congratulate him on some excellent barking and the vanquishing of his enemies, and he goes back to his basket in triumph. It’s harder in the garden when only a flimsy fence separates them, but even here we have breakthroughs, as yesterday afternoon showed:

Dogs next door: Yap yap yap!
Hound: Bork bork bork!
Dogs next door : YAP YAP YAP we’re so fucking annoying YAP YAP YAP!
Woman next door: Be quiet, Shithose! Bad dog! Fuckweasel! FUCKWEASEL! NO![8]
Dogs next door: YAP YAP YAP! Yappity-yap!
Hound (don’t talk back): BORK BORK BORK!
Woman next door: Bad dogs!
Dogs next door: YAP YAP YAP!
Hound: BORK BORK BORK why don’t you dig a hole, crawl under the fence, come over here and say that? BORK BORK BORK!
Me: That’s enough, Hound.
Hound <immediately stops barking; ignores dogs next door who continue to yap and snarl and hurl themselves against the fence; gives me his ‘I’m the best dog in the world’ grin; and calmly asks to be let back into the house, where I reward him with a liver treat the size of his face>

 4. No amount of poo bags is ever enough.

The Hound is tiny, even for a Jack Russell; in fact, he’s so tiny that we think he might actually be something called a Russell Terrier instead (essentially, a miniature Jack Russell). How is it, then, that he can produce his own bodyweight in poo on a daily basis? Last week I congratulated myself on my foresight in taking two poo bags on our morning walk, and sure enough there were two poos. This morning, I took two poo bags even though he had done a massive knee-trembler[9] before we left the house. More prepared than a Boy Scout, we wrestled briefly over the lead and set off towards the tow-path; I was even thinking that he might not poo at all on our walk (or indeed ever again), so gargantuan was his first offering. Gentle reader, there were three further poos. The Hound is currently sleeping in his basket, a withered husk. So Kam die Literacystrumpet auf den Hound.

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[1] I think it goes something like ‘The past is a foreign country: it takes ages to get there and the food isn’t as good as you remember.’

[2] ‘Happy families are boring, which is why everyone in this book makes terrible choices and ends up sad and alone.’

[3] ‘A man in possession of an unfeasibly large amount of money and a massive house (but no job) simply must get married, because otherwise he might spend his money on billiard tables, waistcoats and moustache wax and really what are women even for otherwise?’

[4] Tom Robbins, Still Life With Woodpecker: A Sort of a Love Story (London: Corgi, 1980), p.9.

[5] Konrad Lorenz, Man Meets Dog (London: Penguin, 1980. Translated by Marjorie Kerr Wilson), pp.9-10. The book was originally published in German as So Kam der Mensch auf den Hund and features delightful Thurber-esque illustrations by both Annie Eisenmenger and the author.

[6] Lawrence Durrell, ‘Something à la carte?’, in Stiff Upper Lip (London: Faber and Faber, 1958), p.22.

[7] Ibid., p.25.

[8] Giant Bear says we agreed to refer to Fuckweasel as Piss-for-Brains, but potato potato.

[9] Frank McCourt coined this expression in Angela’s Ashes to describe his parents having sex against a wall, but I make no apologies for reusing it here. If one is stupid enough to speculate about one’s parents having sex in print, one has to take the consequences.