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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

75b
Not the mug for me.

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

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

Pirsig, Zen, p.16.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Perel, Mating, p.179.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[8] Perel, Mating, p.3.

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

[10] Perel, Mating, p.179.

[11] Perel, Mating, p.190.

[12] Perel, Mating, p.183.

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

[14] Kraus, Dick, p.6.

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

[16] Kraus, Dick, p.74.

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

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

The kindness of strangers

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

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

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

Indestructible

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

Choose Your Own Adventure

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

Julia Roberts Saves The Day With Her Face

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

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

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

Don’t Be Afraid To Try Again

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[7] It all depends upon your appetite.

Chinese Whispers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

eqb2


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

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

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

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

Tightus Groan: a quest for the barely adequate

I hate tights. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that, although I am unaware of having wronged tights in any way, tights hate me.

I go without tights for as much of the year as I can bear, but in the colder months there is no option but to start wearing the buggers again, and thus my hatred for tights (or ‘fucklegs’, as I think of them) crests in a series of little waves throughout the winter, each thicker, blacker and more sepulchral than the last. The Filthy Comma does not often post product reviews (although see my thoughts on the Russell Hobbs 18617 Easy Plug and Wind Iron (With Extra-Long Flex) as described in Iron Get Hot Now). Here we have a case in which brands are largely ignored; rather, the garment itself is called into question. Just as 1066 And All That notes of King John that he had no redeeming features, is there anything at all to be said in favour of tights? Is there such a thing as a pair of tights that actually do the job they were made to do, or are they all bastards? And if they are, how is one to clothe one’s legs in winter? These are the questions we shall seek to answer.

It seems to me that the reasons to hate tights are manifold, various and entirely obvious, but for the benefit of any readers not familiar with the Anti-Christ and His works, my reasons are as follows.

i. Tights do not stay on my body.

This is the minimum requirement for an item of clothing, and tights do not meet it. It is simply not possible to pull a pair of tights up (an operation that is necessary a few thousand times per tight-wearing day) in a modest and dignified fashion. Moreover, having wrestled the stretchy bastards back into place, they waste no time in wriggling back down again; or getting themselves twisted; or revolving quietly as though one leg has decided it would quite like to have a look round the back; or making one swelter and itch in areas that should really be kept as air-conditioned as possible; or squeaking as they brush against each other; or building up a static field between themselves and the lining of one’s skirt so that it clings and/or creeps up one’s legs just as the tights are creeping down; or a hundred other things that one would never tolerate from any other item of clothing. One might as well try to steer one’s legs into a pair of angry pike.

ii. Tights lie.

They do this in two ways. Firstly, they pretend to be sexy (viz. a pair of tights I saw for sale in China that promised to clothe me from ‘crotch to sandalsome toe’), but in fact it is not possible to put on or take off a pair of tights with any modicum of decorum, nevermind sex appeal. In my considered view, for a garment to be sexy, one needs to be able to either a. saucily leave it on during The Act; or b. take it off ahead of time in a way that at the very least doesn’t make one look like an idiot. Tights fail spectacularly on both counts. Worse than this, cheap tights never quite get clean, building up layers of sour dust around the toe area, over-stretching round the heel, and generally deteriorating with alarming speed into limp, over-extended squalour in a way that does one’s legs no favours.

Secondly, they pretend to be useful. For the first few minutes that they are on, and during activities that involve sitting or standing perfectly still (i.e. things that barely qualify as ‘activities’), tights are fine. Yes, they seem to say. We will totally stay where you put us just now, for the entire day. Feel free to walk about! We understand that it is our purpose to stay on your legs, regardless of whether you are using your legs or not! And yet, for anything that involves my legs actually moving around (i.e. being legs), tights are 100% useless. A woman that might need or want to walk for more than a couple of minutes at a time (and I walk for an hour every day) is something of which the manufacturers of tights cannot conceive. After teaching, I once walked from university to where my car was parked in Leigh Woods (about three miles) and had to stop thirty-seven times to pull my tights up. In the end I went into the public toilets[1] on Clifton Suspension Bridge, took the bloody things off and stuffed them into a bin. Then I kicked the bin until I felt better.

iii. Tights are uncomfortable.

The waist elastic is never strong enough to hold the blasted things up, and yet at the same time more than strong enough to squash one’s belly in ways that are deeply troubling. Tights are designed by people who think a narrow waistband predisposed to spontaneously fold or roll over itself into a spandex sausage when one sits down, stands up or otherwise moves about in a perfectly reasonable fashion is the last word in comfort. Such people should be flayed (with tights, while wearing tights).

iv. Tights are unflattering.

Just look at all the new and interesting ways in which your insides can bulge painfully through your clothes! Hopefully, the look you were going for was Stealthily- and Unevenly-Inflating Plastic Woman, because that’s the look you’ve ended up with. And it’s all thanks to Tights, The Bastard Accessory.

v. Tights are instruments of torture for people with bowel disease.

Stretchy stupid tubes that squeeze your bowel, offer no protection against incontinence and can’t be removed in public? What a fabulous idea.

Fucklegs
Exhibit A: some fucklegs

 

vi. The better the colour, the worse the tights.

I own several pairs of brightly-coloured tights, including four pairs with knitted spots. The most impractical pair are a prune colour, with spots the size of egg yolks in green, yellow and orange. Naturally, these are the tights most willing to stay on my body, because they know full well that they don’t go with anything else in my wardrobe (and certainly nothing that makes me look and feel like a grown-up professional woman). Fuchsia tights? Stay up all day and cause only mild embarrassment and indigestion. Plain black ones? No chance.

vii. Tights spontaneously self-destruct.

Were you stupid enough to put them on with your fingers, you utter fule? Did you get within two feet of a wall, chair or doorframe during your exciting day of sitting-and-standing-perfectly-still? Did you spend the day having cats hurled at you unexpectedly, battling death-owls or furtively handling sharply-edged stones? Were you, per Gertrude Stein, climbing in tights? It doesn’t matter whether you did any or none of these things, because you could spend a tight-wearing day in a sensory deprivation tank and still find the buggers had managed to snag themselves on the passage of time itself. You would also have wasted your time and money on a sensory deprivation tank, since tights are so bloody uncomfortable.

viii. Tights cause other people to recapitulate information that you are already in possession of (e.g. ‘You have a hole in your fucklegs’).

Such people, apparently unaware that grown-up women dress themselves, fail to realise that a woman wearing holey tights is doing so for one of two reasons. One, the tights were perfectly fine when she put them on, and have since self-destructed. Two, all tights the same colour look identical in the damn drawer. You put your hand in, you take out a pair of tights. Entire mornings can be lost searching for a pair with either no holes (or at least a pair with a hole that will be concealed by today’s chosen outfit), so you pull a pair out of the drawer and put them on and hope for the best. Why not just throw out the pairs with holes in, you say? Because tights, as well as being flimsy, uncomfortable, unflattering and traitorously unable to stay the fuck up, are also expensive.

ix. The alternatives to tights are crappy.

Leggings provide a solution from crotch to sandalsome shin only; bare legs are no good in the winter; and suspenders are a bad, male joke played on women to make us feel like stupid cold slags.

What is the solution to this Gormenghastly problem? Gentle reader, I have it. Finally, after years in the stretchy, fall-downy, why-the-fuck-did-I-wear-these wilderness, I have it. The solution is twofold. One: covering everything else up, choose a good book and a large hat and tan thy legs so that going bare-legged will be viable (nay, pleasant) for as long as possible. Two: in the few scant months now left in which tight-wearing is necessary, purchase these tights, and these tights only. I bought them in a fit of desperation, and <angel voices> they actually function as garments. They fit. They don’t fall down. They can be worn two days in a row without going baggy. They haven’t gone into holes or ladders. They are sensible colours. They are comfortable, warm and soft. They don’t crackle, snag, itch or create static, and although they weren’t cheap, they have outlasted several other, cheaper, shittier pairs and thus are much better value for money. In other words, they warm my flinty heart. They meet the bare minimum of what tights ought to do, and I am satisfied.


[1] God bless public toilets! See Getting to the bottom of things.

Getting to the bottom of things

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

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

  1. Bowel disease is the great leveller.

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

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

  1. Working too much makes you a shitty worker.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

  1. Bowel disease makes you feel really, really old

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

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

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

  1. Being addicted to work is socially acceptable. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Iron Get Hot Now

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

iron

——————————————

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Better together

I have written before about conflicting ideas of roles within relationships in young people (see Some bad words); the idea of a ‘normal’ introduction to relationships (see Punch drunk); and the place of relationship skills in sex education, as both student (see Shake it all about) and teacher (see Open the Box). I’ve argued (see Shake it all about) that isolating sex from the wider context of relationships is like teaching someone about baking by throwing eggs at them.[1] The over-arching argument I’ve been trying to make in all these posts is that good relationships and good relationship skills are enormously important, and something we don’t see enough of in wider society. Today, I’m interested in what makes a grown-up relationship work, in the context of the General Election.

Here is a brilliant video via Jezebel, showing parents talking to their children about ‘where babies come from’. My favourite things about this film, in ascending order of how much I love them, are as follows: the little girl in purple that says that God sends babies down to be born, particularly her epiphany face when her mother adds some basic biology to her basic theology; the kid and his mum who say variations on the word ‘vagina’ to each other until he’s happy he’s saying it correctly; and another little girl in purple, who identifies the primary physical difference between her parents as her father having ‘bigger hands’ and greets her father’s pocket-based explanation of sex with a perfect Sceptical Toad[2] face and the comment ‘eugh’ (as well she might). Later in the video, however, this second little girl in purple, whose name is Melody, completely nails the whole of sex, marriage, parenting and any co-operative relationship in two words. Her father says, ‘when two adults want to have a child, they have to …’ and Melody fills in the gap for him. She says, ‘work together?’

The upcoming General Election annoys me for many reasons; there simply isn’t the time to go into them all here, particularly since one of the things that has annoyed me is how long the campaigns have taken (urgh. Is there really a whole week to go?). Therefore, I will confine myself to just two Annoying Things. Firstly, the infantile tone of the debate. Some of the politicians that get interviewed speak as if that very morning they were issued with a mouth and ears for the first time, and are still having trouble negotiating the trickier elements of both listening to what they are actually being asked and responding in a meaningful way. These are people who speak in public, on a given range of subjects, for a living. Why are so many of them so terrible at it? Why do they recycle the same General Election Bingo terms until you could swear you had already flung the radio across the room, and the babbling in your ears is actually the rushing of blood? The lack of cross-referencing in the way some of these people speak about each other and about issues is breath-taking. For example, we are all perfectly capable of remembering the soft soap of the Better Together campaign, suggesting that it was better for both Scotland and the rest of the UK for everything to stay Just So. Regardless of whether that’s the case, we all remember the way the coalition attempted to frighten everyone into doing what they wanted. Skip forward to now, and suddenly the Scots are the enemy. I don’t understand the tactic of wheeling out Sir John Major (knighted for services to People With Boring Voices) to argue that the SNP are dangerous nutters who will flounce off to eat porridge and toss cabers the minute negotiations become strained, thereby destabilising the government whenever they feel like it. Does nobody remember any British history? Of the various parts that make up the United Kingdom, is Scotland really the country most likely to bully others into doing what it wants? I don’t recall Scotland having an empire spread halfway around the world, subjugating other nations, stealing their natural resources and eradicating languages and traditions, but perhaps it happened when I was in the aforementioned radio-based red mist.

I also think it’s bonkers to attempt to frighten potential SNP voters with the notion that the two main parties are ‘unable’ to work with the SNP. This suggests to me that independence would be vastly preferable to being effectively shut out of British politics altogether, by either Cameron or Miliband taking the huff. You’ll notice also that both leaders of the larger parties continually invoke Alex Salmond as the bogeyman representative of the SNP, because Nicola Sturgeon is likeable, professional and popular both sides of the border, so a. let’s pretend she doesn’t exist; and/or b. she’s not really in charge. Alex Salmond is standing for election in a Scottish constituency, but he’s been well out of the limelight since leaving office, isn’t the leader of the SNP and hasn’t been for six months. Despite that, and despite (for me) Nicola Sturgeon putting on a consistent show of leadership skills and general competence, yesterday on PM, she was asked a series of questions implying that Alex Salmond was secretly in charge. Why? This isn’t as bad as the way Hillary Clinton’s gender is used as a stick to beat her with (see The man doctor will see you now), but I doubt very much that a male political leader as popular as Nicola Sturgeon would be asked if he was ‘really the leader’ in this way.

My second Annoying Thing is the way in which so many of the politicians (particularly the men. Imagine my surprise)[3] feel they have to assert themselves by banging on about who they will and won’t collaborate with. Here’s something I’ve learned from my various jobs: I am very lucky to be able to choose who I work for and with (see Exemplum Docet and I was flying from the threat of an office life), and in being able to negotiate the balance of power within each working relationship. However, the majority of people get the colleagues they are stuck with, and have to make the best of it. That is because choosing a new head of department (say) is a collaborative process, and won’t/can’t involve absolutely every person who will be required to work with the successful candidate once they are in place. Similarly, MPs don’t get to choose who we elect. Once we’ve elected them, all the MPs in government, as part of a coalition or whatever, should show that they are grown-up people who respect the choices made by the electorate by working together. In any context, but particularly in the context of the Scottish independence referendum and how close it was, it simply doesn’t make sense for either of the larger parties to say ‘we won’t work with the SNP’, when the SNP members will have been elected by exactly the same democratic processes used to elect the person speaking. Yes, you will work with the SNP (or the Lib Dems, or UKIP, or the Greens, or Plaid Cymru, or whomever). If you don’t, you are denying the democratic rights of every single constituent that politician represents. Moreover, those potentially SNP-voting constituents are, I hope, smart enough to realise that ‘I shouldn’t vote for the SNP because the Conservative/Labour party is too childish to work with them’ isn’t sound logic. You may want to throw your toys out of the pram; you may not like having to work together, but in such a close election full of uncertainties, one of the few things we can be sure of is that whoever is in government will have to work with at least some people they find distasteful.

Finally, consider this: just as everyone else has to work with people they may not like much, everyone has to deal with disagreement within their relationships. Everyone. Imagine a coalition/collaboration between (say) Labour and the SNP. Imagine that partnership as a difficult marriage (see Delete as appropriate) and it becomes clear fairly quickly that, again, Melody is spot on. You won’t agree with your partner on every single damn thing and sometimes you will argue with each other. Our metaphorical spouses are going to be exhibiting classic Dysfunctional Couple Behaviour and arguing in public.[4] In a political context, again, I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing. A healthy relationship is not one in which the partners never disagree; that would be both weird and dull. A healthy relationship is one in which disagreement is expected, because you are both complex, passionate, grown-up people with your own opinions. A healthy relationship is one in which those disagreements are handled in a calm, mature and open way, probably involving compromise on both sides, but which ultimately makes the relationship better. Therefore, if political disagreements lead to more public debate, fine: the largest governing party will be unable to rely on an overwhelming majority who can be whipped to vote a particular way, but instead will have to actually persuade a bunch of people who don’t agree with them in order to get anything passed. In other words, they will have to do politics properly.

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[1] The kid in the video I mention in the second paragraph who describes having a child as ‘sperm egg collide blah blah blah’ is the closest read-across to our current sex education, except we don’t bother with the ‘blah blah blah’ part.

[2] Also the eponymous central character of my first children’s book, Sceptical Toad Goes to School. 

[3] Contrast that with the group hug between the three female party leaders during the TV debate, and the way various female politicians talked this morning on Woman’s Hour about co-operation and working to change British politics as a whole.

[4] ‘I don’t care if you like the own-brand chickpeas better!’ <flings can into trolley>

Punch drunk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[8] DOZENS .

Some bad words

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Please use power wisely’

This year’s trip to China was a little like Men in Black: shorter than one might expect, but packed with incident. There were the usual strange little vignettes that stay embedded in the mind like burrs in a sock: the incomparable Benedict Cumberbatch advertising Dunlop tires via an exchange of eloquent glances with someone I think we were supposed to infer was his butler; the comment from Chinese friends and colleagues that my new husband ‘look like Brunel’ (because of his sideburns, rather than his propensity to wear a stovepipe hat); snippets of conversation, overheard or relayed later (my colleague K, giving interview feedback to an un-named Chinese student: ‘You speak extremely slowly’. Chinese student: ‘I … disagree’). Of course there were also the wonderful malapropisms, urging me to leave my ‘privates’ in the smaller of the two laundry bags, ‘keep hand on your package and prepare get off with other passengers’ on the airport shuttle bus, and reminding me to switch the lights and air conditioning in my room off at night (not like at home, where I recklessly leave both on until 3am), so that the hotel could ‘use power wisely’.

Looking through my reports on the individual students, I am struck by how some of them spring into focus immediately, while others have already faded, never to be recalled. Here is a sentence from my report on a student called Jack:

This was the only student whose name I never managed to get right, because he is so quiet (I want to describe him as ‘anonymous’ because that is almost literally true). Even now, I would only be able to pick him out of the group by a process of elimination, by which I mean lining up all the students and naming the other twenty-seven first.[1]

People who haven’t visited China (and who don’t fully realise that what they are about to say is both factually inaccurate and borderline racist) sometimes comment that it must be difficult to tell the students apart because they all have the same hair colour, the same eye colour and a small number of haircuts arbitrarily divided between them.[2] I find these similarities cause the differences in facial features, voices, body language and other mannerisms to stand out more. Moreover, everyone having black or brown eyes isn’t the same as everyone having the same black or brown eyes. This year I met a student called Chengxi with the most extraordinary bloom to the irises of her eyes. It was almost pale blue in colour and formed a sort of ghostly corona around the pupil. Similarly, a student last year named Terry stands out for having unusually curly hair (curly for a Chinese, that is), with a noticeable sprinkling of thick white strands, which he told me were caused by pollution. Jack notwithstanding, I rarely have trouble remembering the students’ names or telling them apart, even this year when we had students called Lavender (who reminded me of a girl from two years ago called Sunny) and Ruby (who reminded me very strongly of a student from last year called Lavender). Those that stand out in the mind most clearly, however, are the strong students, and the unusual students.

The students do presentations about their subject area on the final day, for which I arrange them into groups. The presentation should take any form they like, last no more than five minutes, and describe why their subject or subjects are relevant, useful and important. One group decided to create a diagram, filling a six-foot-long whiteboard in such a way as to show what contribution each of them would make (once qualified) to building and maintaining a new town. Lavender (town planner) drew two maps, one showing empty, riverine countryside, and the other plans for houses, shops, public buildings, roads and bridges. Ann (architect) drew a beautifully-realised architect’s diagram of a public library, in perfect perspective and without a ruler. Pauline (civil engineer) sketched Golden Gate Bridge (instantly recognisable and also without help from anything with a straight edge) as a symbolic gesture (‘it mean I do this sort of thing’, she explained). Finally, Rain (who, wonderfully, wants to be an environmental engineer, which is why I allowed her to keep her name just as it is) drew a diagram of the chemical reactions involved in cleaning the river water to make it drinkable. Better than all of that (and, of course, the real object of the exercise), they had enjoyed animated discussion of exactly where the lines lay between their different disciplines; I overheard Pauline saying to Ann (with some heat, which I guess is why she switched to English), ‘Engineer do bridge! Architect do building!’ When I asked the girls whether they would like to live in the town they had designed, they all said yes immediately. Lavender explained that the whole idea behind the design of the town was community. The banks of the river running through the town were to be divided into allotments; the river was to be filled with carp to keep the water clean, and the fish were to be fed by the people who lived nearby, creating a sense of ownership and civic pride (a term she learned during the week and was delighted to say back to me). Moreover, they had included tourist attractions, one of which was Ann’s library, and a large park to encourage people to mingle with their fellow citizens as well as those from outside. I hope I don’t need to point out that this is somewhat different from the last few thousand years of Chinese foreign and domestic policy.

Finally, their town contained only one building taller than two storeys (the pentagonal clock tower of Ann’s library). I found this quite startling, as all the students come from vast Chinese cities of millions of people living in high-rise buildings. ‘Why have you done that?’ I asked, directing the question to all of them since it seemed to have been a joint decision. The answer was that this would ‘allow people to see right across town’, in the hope that they would get to know each other. The clock tower was to have a clock on each side ‘so people not need wear watch, but can watch library’ (the accidental pun made them all giggle, in that charming, childlike Chinese way, behind an upheld hand, but with the smile poking out either side). Rain added, ‘Yes. If people go up the library tower, they can see people in the town. And also, they can wave!’ She waved cheerily. ‘Like this!’[3] Lavender responded that another reason for keeping the buildings low to the ground was to make it easier for drivers and tourists to find their way, and the street-lighting more efficient. ‘We want to use power wisely,’ she told me, ‘like it says on the power unit in the hotel.’

There were several other students that struck me as both strong and unusual this year. When you consider that they come from a country where uniformity is almost always considered a good thing, it becomes all the more impressive to meet students that have no intention of being uniform. As usual (and as I have written before: see Open the Box), the Embarrassing Questions Box proved a useful tool for encouraging students to think about broader cultural issues. One question read: ‘Which is more important to British man? Real love, or sex?’ Having agreed that it depended on the man in question, later on that day I asked the boys to vote on which they thought was most important in a relationship. Intriguingly, real love and sex received the same number of votes each, with one abstention. I noticed particularly that none of the boys (except Daniel, the student who abstained) had any trouble deciding which they preferred. Daniel was strikingly reminiscent of Oddjob, minus the lethal hat, plus glasses and a T-shirt declaring vegetarianism to be the way forward. He explained to me very seriously that although he wasn’t vegetarian, he liked the T-shirt because the pictures of vegetables were arranged in neat rows, ‘like vegetable patch grow on my chest’ (this in turn made me wonder whether the girls had got the idea for their riverbank allotments from Daniel’s T-shirt, or whether the idea had arrived by some other route). Daniel is a large, soft-spoken boy, cautious of expressing an opinion he hasn’t had time to think through. I asked him why he abstained, and he replied, ‘I need to try both options before I decide’. I said, ‘With the same girl?’ He said, ‘Ideally, yes’.

Another student stopped me as I wandered around the room with the Box in search of questions (we call this ‘feeding the Box’), and said that he had been thinking about the purpose of the Box and its symbolic power (‘what Box mean’). He said, ‘the Box know everything. If we don’t know something, we should ask the Box. He is very wise.’ He thought for a moment, his face screwed up. ‘Also, perhaps it is a she-Box. I am not sure. But the Box knows everything, so it must know if it is a he or a she.’ I put the Box on his desk. ‘Do you remember me explaining earlier in the week that knowledge is power?’ I asked. He nodded. ‘Yes. Box powerful.’ The Box, as I described in an earlier post (see Open the Box), is nothing more than a cardboard container, previously home to reams of paper, and with (on this occasion) ‘Embarrassing Box’ scrawled across it. It doesn’t look very powerful, but of course he was right: like any deceptively simple, well-designed item, the Box is powerful.

‘Would you like to feed the Box?’ I asked. He tore a page from his notebook, wrote feverishly for a second and dropped it in the Box. It read, ‘Dear Box, Please use power wisely.’

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[1] I’m ashamed to say that, although the reports appear alphabetised by first name in the final document, I had to write this one last so as to be absolutely sure.

[2] France used to have a list of approved names for new babies. Is there a similar list of approved haircuts in PRC?

[3] That all four girls were happy to live in the town they had designed reminded me that I, the creator of the Box, am obliged to answer the questions that are put into it. It also recalled a conversation had I overheard as we were removing our baggage from the overhead lockers in preparation for leaving the ’plane in Shanghai:

Stubbly American (rueful): Hell is a place where everyone who designed a shoddy product has to use it.
Scottish guy (laughing): I agree. Like the bastard that invented the ironing board.
Stubbly American (lifting down his case from the overheard rack): Right! Ironing boards, man! Or this piece-of-shit case I have to use!
Scottish guy (sympathetic): Did you design it yourself?
Stubbly American (hangs head): Yes.

Robert Fulghum tells a similar story: ‘I report a conversation with a colleague who was complaining that he had the same damn stuff in his lunch sack day after day. ‘So who makes your lunch?’ I asked. ‘I do,’ says he.’ Robert Fulghum, It was on fire when I lay down on it (New York, Villard Books, 1989), p. 6.