‘I hope there are theatres wherever she goes on to,’ I wrote, when I learned that my mum’s elderly neighbour had died. The afterlife would be no heaven for Pat if it was a mere resting place, devoid of art, entertainment and gossip.* I don’t know everything about Pat, but I remember this: as a young woman she got into RADA (Royal Academy Of Dramatic Art) and her father forbade her from attending. Something about actresses not being entirely respectable. It was probably the late 1950s or early 60s, when Dames Judy (Dench) and Vanessa (Redgrave) were beginning to hit their stride, an untimely period to squander this opportunity to fear and small-mindedness. Who knows what would have happened if Pat had been allowed to take her place? Her talents might have made her another Dame of the Realm; she could have joined a low-budget travelling theatre group and slept on cold creaky floors all around the country; or jacked it all in to marry the first Stage Door hound who asked. She might have been happier or less so, or both at different times. I wonder what her ghost will do, if it has a choice.
Careers are born when talent meets opportunity. In my view, talent always meets with opportunity; it just might not be the one you anticipated. In the arts, opportunities are rarely tailored to individuals as snugly as Cinderella’s slipper matches her foot. Most art practitioners, curators and academics are clomping around in odd-fitting roles. Sometimes you can feel too big for the tiny, Miss-Havisham-sized boots that have been assigned to you. You’re boxed in, blistered and unable to grow. At other times, your little feet might be pacing through a multitasking army of boots that would better suit a human centipede. Given the grail-like scarcity of a fulfilling, decent-paying role, square pegs are filing down their idiosyncratically calloused edges to fit the prescribed round hole. There’s this sense that steady, even career progression doesn’t exist- you have to acquire training and experience, promote your work and then the rest is down to canniness and fortune. It’s a wonder arts professionals don’t go about with a string of good-luck charms.
There are a disproportionate number of stories about people risking everything for love, but in my lifetime, I’ve seen people do bolder and madder things for art. Here is a select list of impassioned acts: working four days a week, full-time, unpaid, to gain experience, at the same time as finishing a masters (that was me); leaving your well-paid, secure job to make or research something with erratic returns; moving an ocean and maybe a few continents away from everything you know to pursue training and opportunities which will leave you with unfathomable levels of debt; making a criminally low salary s-t-r-e-t-c-h to cover rent, living expenses and the occasional perk in one of the most expensive cities in the world; saving money and gaining bohemian kudos by staying in the same room as a couple, separated from them by a partition so thin, you can tell they’re not having relations; holding out for that one perfect job in your industry, though someone might have to retire or die for you to get it; setting yourself the task of completing something nearly impossible, whether it be a theoretically nuanced survey of Tudor brooms or an initiative to revive the cod-piece for a new generation.
The subsistence theme crops up in almost every example, because most arts practitioners feel that at least half their creative energy goes into making ends meet. In fact, the stories of how people stay afloat whilst serving the Muse, are often more engrossing than the art itself. How much are people willing to yield to sometimes nonsensical conditions to further their goal? Everyone comes to know their limits. I soon learned that working unpaid for other people doesn’t agree with me. Apparently it’s meant to make you feel beatific with self-sacrifice and gratitude. It never worked out that way for me. Instead, it made me broke, anxious and gluten-intolerant. The latter was especially cruel, because bread and pasta cost less than the lentils and nuts I had to replace them with. (FYI, I was able to eat toast again as soon as the exploitation stopped). But the worst symptom of all, was that a previous delight had become a burden, a guilty excuse for not finding a decently-paying job that served society more transparently.
Some years later, I’m serving a different muse, more a Calliope (epic poetry) than a Clio (history), and have taken earning into my own hands. To the great shock of some employers, I insist on knowing (and sometimes naming) my salary out-right. It can be tight and my tax return, which has to account for so many different income streams, is an epic to work through in itself. But, it’s a path I’ve wanted and was free to choose, where Pat wasn’t.
*As a teenager, I remember my friend saying that she thought heaven wouldn’t be the generic glowing place but the deceased’s personal idea of bliss. For both of us, that was New York, a city we’d never visited, but had been sold to us through sitcoms, Alicia Keys and advertising. To this day, each time I take my first steps in New York after a hell journey, I float in a jet-lagged haze, where everything, from the fire-escapes to the drains is tinged with wonder. I feel an almost divine rush of energy from my feet to the crown of my head, like I’m priming myself for miracles. And each time I leave, I get depressed because it’s an expulsion from Paradise.
The tipping point is the moment from which nothing anyone could say will interest you. I’ve combined the conditional and future tenses intentionally, because I mean nothing in the whole possibility of things to be said (conditional) will be of any interest from this moment on (future). You’re at an event and your social switch has suddenly flipped to the ‘off’ setting; perhaps you’ve have a concentrated mingling period and your sanity demands that you hermit away for a week; or perhaps, like me, you’re uncomfortable with formality and prefer socialising like a twelve year-old, in pairs and threes.
As a fidgety introvert, I like immersive environments that allow me to focus my energy and attention. I’ve enjoyed the following: intense one-on-one discussions; being a bridesmaid in a best friend’s highly choreographed wedding and attending a two-day birthday party with activities and escape nooks as well as boozy chatter. Over the years, I’ve engineered my life so that it includes a fair amount of zany, whimsical dos and a minimum of the formal drinks, barbecues and dinner parties whose lifeblood is appearances and group conversation. What turns me off these events is small talk, constrained spaces and dress codes that usually force me to be colder than I’d like. Moreover, I’m prejudiced that in these situations people are stuck in a muted midpoint between the personal and professional, but reaching the fascination of neither.
My new boyfriend however, takes a different view. He sees formal occasions as an opportunity to wear your nice shoes, catch up with old acquaintances and meet people you otherwise wouldn’t. He’s genuinely interested in what people do, where they’re from and what they think about foreign policy; whereas I gravitate towards their silliness and their soul. I usually arrive and leave in the middle; he jokes that he’s got a reputation for being the first to arrive and the last to leave, and by the way, would I like to go to a party or two with him?
When I see civilised-looking strangers standing around with drinks, talking politely, I’ve already reached my tipping point, though we’ve just arrived. Conversations are hard to follow and words coming from people’s mouths vie for my attention with song lyrics, background chatter, overpowering aftershave, the glare from the sequins on someone’s dress and the slightly off taste of Country White. Someone tells me where they live and I instantly forget; I have no opinions or knowledge of Thailand’s economic policy, or even anything related; I’m bored replying to a question on what I do, and get distracted by a ladybird crawling on a fence. I’m squeezed by the competing sensations that there’s an awful lot to take in and absolutely nothing to do. I begin to long for a book to read or colour. I’m not even joking.
Afterwards, barely having scraped through, with my dubiously stained slip dress and ready death-stare, I think back to the wished for colouring book. I interpret it as the desire to solve this problem creatively. What I need to do, is keep myself interested so I don’t zone out, and simultaneously, stop myself from getting overwhelmed. By this point, the socially-adjusted reader will think that I’m developmentally challenged; other emotionally-motivated socialisers however, might recognise some of my anxieties. This list of mood-altering suggestions is for them:
Preparation : The Debutante Nap vs Running on Adrenaline If you’re sure that the tricky event will be blessedly short (under three hours) you might consider racing into it from an action-packed day, so you don’t have to think too much. However, if said ordeal is likely to last more than three hours, take a nap if you can, or do your choice of endorphin-boosting activity beforehand.
Catch the most interesting talk Once you’re there, remember that you’re mobile and not glued to your partner’s side or to the poor sod who insists on a detailed explanation of your third PhD chapter. Find the conversation that most piques your fancy, then pay attention and ask about the things you genuinely want to know. Hopefully they’ll do the same and who knows, you might enjoy yourself. Some people advise playing the ‘relatables’ game, i.e.: no, you don’t have a mortgage, but your best friend says getting one is bloody hard etc… I think this is a slippery slope unless it’s a topic you actually want to talk about. If you’re not interested it will show in the dead goldfish expression on your face.
Be inspired by a recent Chinese immigrant Neville*,who is only on his second month in this country, set a shining example of how to socialise. Naturally serious and mellow, he was obviously at ease in his own skin. He talked about things that interested him, responded observantly and casually looked at his phone when the conversation turned to British school boards. I noticed how despite Neville’s lapse in concentration, he remained part of the group – his feet were pointed towards us and his body language was relaxed.
When you meet the worst person in the world Stuart was busy showing off a camera app on his phone that didn’t only let him monitor his son, but his son’s babysitter and even his wife, so that she wouldn’t go out and shop too much. I would have disliked Stuart under any circumstances, but at a party he wears right into my already short social fuse. My death stare won’t actually kill him, or convert him into a reasonable sort of man, but it will make everyone around me feel awkward. What I can do instead, is try to see Stuart for the hilarious specimen that he is. He is clearly compensating for something. I visualise that he has a petite prick and feel better already. If I’m in a gutsier mood, I might challenge him on the finer points of his spying system: does it cover the toilets as well?; is it in any way democratic? Most importantly, I need to keep Stuart in perspective. He is a single blight on humanity. If I leave because of him, then I make him as important as he wants to be. On the other hand, 3 Stuarts and I’m out!
Drink if you can get away with it and it’s your thing The green fairy (absinthe) and her descendants make everything flow much more smoothly. Some people would put this at number one.
Find on-site distractions when you need a break from the monotony of constant talk. Not everyone is a conversational marathon-runner. Offer to help with serving or setting things up. Playing with children and animals can also give you a breather, ditto pool tables and card games.
Take a luxury break When you’ve reached your tipping point prematurely and it’s beyond the first hour, say you have to make a phone-call, yes even on a Sunday (your boss doesn’t know the meaning of a day off) and take a walk. Make this break, all twenty minutes of it, as voluptuous as possible. Go where you’re out of sight and read a chapter of your novel, instagram a few porches or look in the local antique shops. Try not to come back with an entire dining table. You’ll be the re-born phoenix of the party. I reckon you can get away with this twice in a single event.
And when you’ve really had enough, the party’s moved location three times and the crowd has started thinning, it’s time to go. After all, no-one should overstay their welcome.
Savage Fighter has no spare time. Or hobbies. He instinctively sidelines anyone you introduce him to. He has a mouthful of yellow incisors and never misses an opportunity to beat up his enemies. Savage Fighter might sound a bit like the worst boyfriend you’ve ever had, but he’s actually a character in a story by my nine-year-old tutee Joseph.* Savage Fighter was born a child of Sparta for two reasons: 1) When I met him, Joseph didn’t like to write very much ( SF’s lack of characteristics meant he could written up faster) 2) When Joseph did write, it was always about warrior heroes- bloody conflicts, earthly or celestial, fascinated him and redeemed the process of writing. You might be surprised to learn that Joseph is also a kindhearted cat-lover, who recently wrote about a lego utopia, where no one ever dies.
A lot of people attribute the resistance boys like Joseph have to writing, to their maleness. ‘Like all boys he can’t be bothered… Boys aren’t very creative…’ are things I’ve heard from parents and friends alike. With a growing roster of male tutees, all of whom had difficulties in writing, I might have believed it. But I couldn’t quite square it with four years study of mainly male authors during my English Literature degree; or with how books by male authors are still taken more seriously, to the extent that in 1996 Bailey’s took a break from perfecting the churn of fermented Irish cream, to introduce a prize for women’s fiction. Does all this mean that there are two types of man: the kind who can write, the literary genius entitled to immortality and earthly perks (a writer friend thought he did better on Tinder because he could deliver more than ‘wow ur fit, fancy a drnk?’ ) and the strong, silent man of action/ mathematical formulae?
I also couldn’t square these stereotypes with my experiences as a tutor. Each boy, at this age of 9 or 10, when they can be lumped together in one conglomerate category, is different. Some write riotously fast with an ear for comic detail. They just want to communicate their ideas and aren’t too fussed about what Flaubert termed le mot juste. Others deliberate over everything they write and are as eager for new words and sentence structures as a Michelen-starred chef is for nuances to their method. The overriding similarity is a preference for adventure stories with almost nonsensically complicated plots and varying degrees of bloodshed. When a boy is overly obsessed with shoot-outs, with describing the exact dance of bullets though a torso, we negotiate a sort of Arms Treatise, whereby we agree that only a small proportion of stories can feature brains being blown out by AK47s. Though it’s not my main role, I feel like I have some responsibility, as an accomplice to these boys’ visions of life in writing, to show them that gun-crime isn’t a joke and that narratives can be just as exciting when they’re not littered with corpses.
Violent or otherwise, their fictional worlds are resolutely male, with a protagonist who they identify with, and the male sidekicks, superiors and enemies he interacts with. Mothers appear fleetingly, as did one obese neighbour called Sally. Girls aren’t that interesting yet, (and you wouldn’t want to force them into someone’s latency period), but do they have to be banished entirely from the fictional worlds of adventure? Should I intervene? This is fiction, after all; in reality, they treat me and every other woman they speak of with respect. And yet, I don’t think it will harm them to imagine more inclusive scenarios…
As I teach, I find that I’m also thinking more about the process of writing and the problems that crop up, whatever your level. Here are three simple observations:
Environmental factors creep in and shift things around. ‘I think I made it rain because it started outside,’ one boy explained.
Everyday actions get in the way of/make a good story. Together we debate when to reel out the detail and when to cut to the next scene. It’s a question of tone and pacing. We really don’t need to know that your characters brushed their teeth before bed every night; but if you don’t make unlocking the treasure chest last for at least two sentences, the discovery will be anticlimactic.
It’s pretty difficult to write about someone’s eyes in an unromantic way. I kept this observation to myself while my tutee, Oliver, churned out 5 variations of his story’s opening line. The story began with a dream of President Obama letting him know with one look that he was about to be entrusted with a special task. Oliver’s variations included: ‘President Obama gazed at me with his cloudy brown eyes’/ ‘looked at me with his warm brown eyes’/ ‘stared at me with his intense brown eyes’ and so on. Although Oliver had been encouraged to write as descriptively as possible at school, using ‘strong adjectives’ and ‘powerful verbs,’ I was half concerned that when his mother saw the sentences she’d think I was engaging him in a Mills & Boon assignment for my own satisfaction. Then I thought that unless you’re giving a deliberately unflattering account, your writing on eyes automatically gains an erotic charge, because it shows that you’ve been looking enough to notice their colour, size, shape and expression and you’ve carried this memory through time. This may or may not have been your original intention.
Over time, I feel my own taste for language changing. As I encourage my tutees to use more sophisticated language, I’m learning to appreciate simpler, more spontaneous turns of phrase. Those staples of arts academia, long latinate words like problematise (which should be banned because it sounds ugly), destabilise, amanuensis , deconstruct and fashioning, make me grimace whenever I hear them. Spoken within too close a range of each other, or too often, they feel pompous and long-winded. They can take you so far from what you actually mean; you can lose yourself in them. My tutees would simply say that you’re trying to sound ‘clever and posh’ by using long words. It’s not that I want to go back to being ten, unlearn everything, but I do want to write in a way that’s more authentic, less studied. The irony is, I’m studying anyway, filling whole notebook margins with passing snippets of so-called common parlance.
Writers’ retreats are as wanky as they come, but necessary when you’re writing a book. They furnish inspiration at the beginning and filter out everyday distractions when you’re trying to finish. There are the formal ones that take you to the countryside haunts of Writers Of The Past for quite a fee. It is always the countryside, because the retreat-goers want some level of escapism, and a bucolic manor does this better for most people than a post-industrial wasteland. I’ve only gotten to the ‘scanning the brochure’ stage of these retreats, so really can’t comment on what goes on there…
Here are some nice alternative retreats I’ve heard of. No.1: THE CHILDHOOD FAMILY HOME. A friend who lives somewhere so remote and picturesque that I’m surprised that she hasn’t figured out that she can set up her own Writers’ Retreat and charge £700+ per week, goes back to stay with her family in a slightly less picturesque place when she wants to make serious progress with her book, because they are the funniest human beings alive. They feed directly into the book’s dialogue and amp up its mood. I imagine that another perk of this retreat, is that it provides free food and shelter…
No.2: THE EXOTIC. Another friend has quit her job and is moving to Bali for three months to finish the novel she’s had on her heart for six years. Bali! There will be chilled sunbathing, yoga and cafes by day, and furious writing by night. She’s been there before and says the energy is supportive for writing. Board and food are not free, but they are a lot cheaper than London. So, if you can get enough money for the plane ticket…
And mine? Let’s call it MY MOVEABLE FEAST. Yes, like so many other writers I went to Paris. I went there because it was easy to get to and I have somewhere free to stay, but also because I wanted to feel like I was writing the width of my book as well as the length of its plot. The clichés are right, Paris is one of the best places to observe life and jump into it. Apart from its beauty, the city’s social dynamic catches my eye straight away. People notice each other. They look, feel and register each others’ presence far more openly than in London. I remember this man’s shudder in the Metro when two women strode past him in clippety cloppety heels. It was as though he felt them walk right through him. Then there is how the waiter just knows to duplicate someone’s order when their companion arrives; the huddling of fur coats in the sudden giboulées de mars (a kind of snow-sleet, which returns to Paris every March)
I also went to do some location research for my novel. Some places left me dry, but in others I experienced this strange kind of synchronicity, where I felt like the novel was unfolding around me. Before coming to Paris, I had envisaged a scene where a character gets the fright of her life in a graveyard. This idea was on probation- I could discard it at any moment for being too predictable and unconvincing. Anyway, I figured out that I had had half an hour before meeting a friend for brunch, so I would go and visit the nearby Montmartre cemetery to test the water.
Passing by the tawdry wide front of the Moulin Rouge, the black and red sex shops and the funerary outfitters selling wax flowers, grecian urns and statues, I approached the cemetery casually, like it was another thing to look at. And then I saw that some of the graves had been moved beyond the cemetery gates, underneath an overpass, where vehicles thunder past constantly and there is a thick smell of gasoline. In case you’re interested, the graves were moved to this damned spot to fulfil Haussman’s stringent city plan in the late nineteenth century. These people’s families had built them elaborate marble fortresses to give them protection and standing in death, and now here they were, like vagrants under a bridge. I didn’t know what was worse, that these bodies had been moved, or that the families had put so much energy into trying to immortalise their dead, as though to deny the inevitable.
Inside the cemetery, I felt even more unnerved, seeing that the headstones faced in all directions, and some of the death fortresses’ glass vitrines had fist-shaped cracks in them. A crow in a tree behind me made a choking sound; a wasp buzzed right past my ear, causing it to ring for a good five minutes, and giant cobblestones threatened to trip me up at any time. The place had so unhinged me that when a young girl in spectacles whizzed down the middle bannister of the stairs separating the higher and lower parts of the cemetery, I briefly entertained the idea that I had seen a witch of the storybook variety. I had gone into this place to pull the cheap parlour trick of a character who gets the fright of her life, and in a rare post-modern moment, I had gotten the fright of mine.
It may be expected that after this experience I wasn’t able to eat a bite at brunch- but no, I was starving and went at it like a Brit who’s paid and is getting her money’s worth. That night in bed though, I couldn’t get the cemetery out of my mind. Images from the day kept flashing back. I panicked about the unhappy ghosts wreaking their revenge because I was exploiting them for creative profit; pondered upon a friend’s comment that girls like me were the most susceptible to being spirited away in graveyards, and feared that I would develop post-traumatic stress disorder and never be able to erase the images from my mind.
When trying to force myself calm didn’t work, I tried a counter-scare tactic. I should be more frightened of terrorists than ghosts, I told myself. A Londoner who hasn’t had a major terrorist attack in her city in the past two years, might think that terrorists are more of a real threat in Paris. Terrorists can’t walk through walls though, my subconscious answered back. They can’t just linger, like ghosts can.
This wasn’t to say that I wasn’t conscious of the possibility of an attack. It was unlikely, but you just had to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. I have to admit, I did try to second-guess the terrorists a little: judging by their previous record BD (comic-book) shops and anywhere hipster could be more risky, while the exhibition of gowns worn by Proust’s muse at the Musée Galliera in the chi-chi 16th district, was probably too obscurely girly to be on their radar.
I also instinctively searched for signs of terror in people’s faces and in the streets. Place de la République near where the attacks had happened was alive with breakdancers, lion statues daubed in bright graffiti and colourful poems, candles and bouquets for the terror victims; but Canal Saint Martin seemed a little deserted and sad for a Saturday. This may have been have been more due to the ferocity of the giboulées than the terrorists, though. A Parisian friend told me that the first weeks after the attacks, everyone was looking at each other suspiciously on the metro. By now, things were getting back to normal. Life goes on.
I realise that I’ve become distracted from the retreat theme in the process of writing. But maybe that’s what retreats are meant to be; a place where ideas can magically sweep together like pins to a magnet, but also somewhere where new yarns begin. Another labyrinth for Ariadne…
I’ve had a golden book under my wing for the past week, Amy Cuddy’s Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Life’s Biggest Challenges. It’s golden in at least three ways: in colour; in its sunny, empowering message, and in drawing attention to its reader. Whenever I’ve been with the book in public, I’ve been approached by strangers who want to talk about presence: what it means in this age of constant distractions; can we ever achieve it totally?; and is it even desirable?
Cuddy defines presence as authenticity manifested through the body. When you’re present your intention, vocal range and body language are all synchronised and you are the most powerful and compelling version of yourself for that moment in time. Presence isn’t a permanent or inevitable state, but one you can key yourself into through certain physical cues. It’s about taking up your fair share of space rather than shrinking, and also, interestingly, about taking up your fair share of time when you’re speaking or making decisions. Cuddy observes that a lack of confidence doesn’t just make us hunch and avoid eye contact, but we might rush our words or hurry an important decision for fear of taking too much of others’ time.
I definitely experience presence as mutable. It’s both connected to my mood and a tool-kit of tricks that I can mobilise for an instant dash of courage. On good days I instinctively stand tall, intuiting my yoga teacher’s advice to keep the back of my neck long and expand my vision. I love this posture because it means I can actually see more, gain perspective and connect better with what’s around me. Then, there is Wonder Woman pose- hands on hips, feet apart – which is a life-saver before difficult conversations or walking past a band of leery dudes on Regents Canal. There’s something about this simple pose that makes me feel solid and puts me in touch with what power I have.
Where I really struggle to be present, though, is in goodbyes. Even in everyday partings from people I see habitually, I find it difficult to maintain eye contact and keep my voice from dropping into my shoes as I turn away. I wonder sometimes, if part of me doesn’t quite believe I’ll ever see them again and that I’m somehow protecting myself by not being fully present at the moment of goodbye. Sometimes, I’m so absent when I say goodbye, that the moment etherealises and barely sticks in my memory.
Oddly enough, I find it easier to be present in emphatic partings- like the end of a relationship or a job, where it’s mutually obvious that it became terrible and you won’t see each other again. These situations replay concretely in your memory for months, in all their awful glory, but they are also in a way simple, because when you said goodbye you meant it; you felt it.
No, it’s hardest to know where to place yourself, mind, body and soul in the goodbyes where there isn’t too much ill-feeling, but you’re leaving one situation for another. These are often slow goodbyes, and should be painless, but drag out torturously. I’m so tempted to create a drama, close the old situation with a bang, and rub salt into old wounds. See, there was a reason to leave! Or, I’ll go for a fade-out, and drift through the goodbye, so I don’t have to feel as much. Because the truth is, any kind of parting, even if it’s from a situation that suits me less, to one that suits me more, is a loss. I leave someone behind, I leave part of myself behind, and that hurts.
Right now, I’m in the process of moving house. I’m leaving the certainty of the home I’ve lived in for nearly three years, for something riskier and more exciting. I’ve been entertaining this decision for a while now, and am confident that it’s the right one for me. I’ve been lucky with where I live, as it’s hardly a hole and my flatmates aren’t the textbook definition of sociopathic. But leave I will, and this past week I’ve obsessively marketed my room via any means possible, and thrown actual tantrums when my flatmates insisted that they wouldn’t settle for a marriage of convenience with Mr Perfectly-Nice He’ll Do from Spare Room and instead wanted to be wooed and taken to the ball by several High Recommendations (you know what kind of high). I point out that if their Dream Princes (sorry Recommendations) don’t materialise, I will be the one crying. Slams door.
When I step back and reflect, I realise that I’ve been unconsciously trying to make leaving this place as Guillotine swift and unpleasant as possible. It’s a way of hiding my feelings about going (which are more mixed and chaotic than I’d like to admit) under a shock parting. It’s a mask of false confidence, saying: I’ve definitely made the right decision, now watch me go! Of course the grown-up option, of standing by my decision to leave, but dealing with all the inevitable fall-out of parting, will be much more difficult. I’ll have to be awake to the conflicting feelings of excitement, fear, loss and nostalgia. There will be some moments when I’m raring to go, others when I’m much more reluctant. Indeed, when the first Mr Perfectly Nice He’ll Do from Spare Room came for the viewing I’d so carefully arranged, I felt something between butterflies and nausea, and was grateful that I had an excuse to leave the flat while he was there. To mis-quote Shakespeare, ‘Parting is such sweet sorrow…’
‘You know the Bowery Hotel?… if you walk about a block South there is a laser hair removal centre that’s very hip. I did the waiting room,’ quips Greta Gerwig’s Brook to Lola Kirke’s Tracey in the film Mistress America (2015). Five months after its release, Mistress America has stayed in my mind for its zany account of someone who restlessly chases after new beginnings. Brook, the central character of Gerwig and Noah Baumbach’s modern screwball comedy, is a 30-year-old multitasking dynamo with fingers in many pies. She’s a freelance interior decorator, specialising in the City’s ancillary spaces; a maths tutor and a spin-class leader. When Brook meets 18-year-old Tracey, an insecure college student and her future stepsister, she’s about to launch Mom’s, her most ambitious project yet. Mom’s will function as an eatery, hair salon and sanctuary for frazzled Manhattanites. But when investment from Brook’s absent rich boyfriend Stavros falls through, and she is sent on an unlikely hunt for funds via a fortune-teller, her arch-enemy and an ex-boyfriend, Tracey suspects that Brook maybe headed for ruin. Whilst remaining on sisterly terms with Brook in person, Tracey, an aspiring writer, turns this to her advantage, by penning ‘Mistress America,’ a story where the central character Meadow is a scarcely-camouflaged Brook. With the inexperienced sagacity of an eighteen-year-old, Tracey pathologises Brook for her combination of hare-brained schemes and lack of ‘follow-through.’
Brook might fall into martial arts trainer George Leonard’s definition of a ‘Dabbler.’* According to Leonard, ‘The Dabbler approaches each sport, career opportunity or relationship with enormous enthusiasm. He loves the rituals involved of getting started, the spiffy equipment, the shine of newness… The Dabbler might think of himself as an adventurer, a connoisseur of novelty, but he’s probably closer to being what Carl Jung calls the puer aeternus, the eternal kid.’ The Dabbler, Leonard considers, will never achieve mastery in his career or relationships because he finds the inevitable plateau that follows the initial spurt of excitement, unbearable. He is unable to plough on with his work when he’s not making obvious progress and gets bored and frustrated easily. Dabbler characteristics are anathema in martial arts and anything else where progress is slow and achieved with persistent hard work. But isn’t Brook required to be a Dabbler of sorts to thrive in the modern metropolis? Isn’t it her ability to abandon failing projects and find new ones that enables her to get by?
If we strip back the screwball glamour of Brook’s eccentricities, her character and lifestyle are hardly unique. She is essentially a young woman with abundant ideas and energy, who has been trying to not only survive in New York City, but contribute to its status as a hub of urban innovation. She has thrown herself into numerous projects, which have flash-in-the-pan satisfaction and limited currency. By the time she haphazardly conceives the idea for Mom’s, she is ready for a more substantial commitment, which will liberate her from having to expend her energy on finite enterprises. Living in London, a city, which like New York, is a shiny jewel for magpies with artistic skills, education and ideas, I have met many variations on the Brook theme. As someone with myriad eclectically-financed projects on the go, I’m a version of Brook. Her trajectory through niche commissions, part-time jobs and wild-goose-chases for funds, feels both hilarious and authentic.
Post-recession, I would even argue that those who have forgone the cover of a corporate graduate scheme or other equivalent stability, have had to show Brook’s level of versatility (and charm), in order to earn enough to survive, or to ensure that they collate the diverse portfolio of skills needed for an ever-changing job market. When short-term contracts and one-off commissions are the norm, even if you do want to stay in one role and achieve what Leonard terms ‘mastery,’ you have to move on. Or maybe your dream-job, that you’ve trained all these years for, is about as hard to come by as snow in June, (or December for that matter), so you’re taking baby-bird steps to get there, via serial loosely-related fringe roles. Maybe you’re doing your dream job anyway, and don’t earn a living wage, so you have to scavenge for something that pays. Maybe mastery in one thing isn’t that important to you and you genuinely enjoy trying different types of work – is that a valid reason for self-flagellation? Whatever, the causes, ‘Mistress America’, with more hats than the Mad Hatter and more wiles than Katharine Hepburn’s Susan in Bringing Up Baby (1938), is no mythic unicorn, but a real modern type. Interestingly, the original 1930s screwball comedies with their untoward plots, physical humour and scrappy heroes who were capable of improvising their way into and out of trouble, were made in an era of mass unemployment following the 1929 Wall Street Crash. Perhaps it’s unsurprising that Gerwig and Baumbach should re-invent a version of the genre for our own age of precarious employment and economic uncertainty.
I realise that this is an odd Winter Solstice post, but it resonates with what I’ve seen, heard and felt this year. There are beginnings everywhere, but how can we tell which ones have mileage and which ones will lead us on the quest for a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow? And if they do send us on a leprechaun path is that such a bad thing?
*George Leonard, Mastery: The Keys to Success and Long-Term Fulfillment (New York: Penguin Books, 1991).
I don’t steal other people’s books so much as ‘borrow’ them when they haven’t been officially lent to me. A primary instance happened when I was about eleven and my best friend and I were looking for trouble in her attic and found The Joy of Sex, a 1970s sex manual. We opened it up and simply stared. Body parts swelling and merging in ways we couldn’t imagine! And the man had long hair and a beard! This was mystifying in the age of Leo and the Backstreet Boys. We heard footsteps, and quickly stuffed the book back in its place, ensuring that the loose double-pages were folded back in. At that stage, we wanted a peek at knowledge that wasn’t available to us, but weren’t really ready to come to terms with it.
This summer, I was in the makeshift office that had once been my brother’s bedroom and spotted a tomato-red, twenty-fifth-anniversary edition of The Alchemist by Paulo Coehlo. I remembered my brother mentioning it before his motorcycle and bonobo monkey research trip around Africa, and was curious. On the inner leaf was a dedication from an unknown Nik to ‘Mowgli’, his explorer alter-ego:
I wasn’t on the African adventure, but wanted to identify with the ‘true warrior’ who would receive such a dedication, so I slipped the book into my bag. I didn’t feel too bad about it because my brother freely ‘borrows’ my books and returns them in the state of shipwrecked voyagers, with curled pages and half-eroded covers. Besides, he was out of reach, so there was no way to ask him for permission. The Alchemist, a story of a shepherd boy’s trek to Egypt in search of the pyramids and a promised treasure, accompanied me on my own journeys across London for the 5 days it took to read it. In Alan Clarke’s translation, Coehlo’s prose had the spare and sparkling quality of a fairytale, with a touch more sentiment.
Proverbial phrases from the sages the boy meets on his journey, jumped out at me. They seemed relevant beyond the novel’s concise 171 pages and made me feel that its quest was my own. This was Coehlo’s intention for the book and I took the bait. Here’s an assortment of proverbs:
1.‘A blessing ignored becomes a curse…’ How simple, and yet how true. Neglected treasures, whether people, talents or possessions have a way of skulking around, casting great guilty shadows and becoming our enemies. A silk dress left in the closet attracts moths, a beloved who is taken for granted becomes a shrew, and creatives who sideline their practice are notorious drama queens and time-wasters.
2. ‘I know sheep can be friends… I don’t know if the desert can be a friend…’ This could be my favourite of the boy’s musings! It expresses gratitude and tenderness for the friendships he already has, and curiosity about the unknown. Sure, in many ways the arid desert seems the opposite of the shepherd’s fleecy flock; but he’s not about to dismiss it as an enemy out of hand. If more people were this open to difference, there would be less mistrust in the world and fewer wars, seriously.
3. ‘Love never keeps a man from pursuing his personal legend. If he abandons that pursuit, it’s because it wasn’t the love that speaks the language of the world…’ This comes up when the boy considers relinquishing his quest for treasure upon meeting Fatima, his heart’s desire, in an oasis. The statement advocates a world picture based on abundance and trust rather than scarcity and fear. It’s idealised, but I admire its generosity.
As much as The Alchemist paved its way into my thoughts, at times its gender bias reminded me that I had stolen the book from my brother. The male nameless shepherd’s personal legend is journey towards the treasure; whereas his Intended, Fatima’s personal legend is him. Fatima is given some of the most beautiful and moving lines in the book:
‘I’m a desert woman, and I’m proud of that. I want my husband to wander as free as the wind that shapes the dunes. And, if I have to, I will accept the fact that he has become a part of the clouds, and the animals, and the water of the desert…’
Her words are noble because they describe love as gift to be open to, but not as an entity that can be possessed and controlled. And yet, there is something limiting (Penelope-like) about her destiny as an eternally receptive vessel with no journey of her own. Doesn’t she want to wander too, have a personal quest that can coexist with her love, not be wholly informed by it? But there I go, imagining fairytale endings for a story that’s not mine…
Some borrowings require more tact and subtlety. Every Thursday I sit in my supervisor’s office for an hour, when students can come and ask questions about the course. They rarely do. So I sit on her spinning chair and scan shelf upon shelf of books. Some are gleaming and expensive, with the aura of gifts; others are tiny, rare and cloth-bound; these, I imagine, have been carefully sourced. Intriguingly specific studies of now-forgotten designers are juxtaposed with sentimental titles like Wartime Kiss and generic volumes from grand theorists. The books have been thematically arranged and delicately handled. Apart from the odd volume placed askew, perhaps as a reference point, they appear as untouched as Snow White under rock crystal. When I take one to pass the hour, because after all, no one said I shouldn’t, I’m careful not to touch the book too much, change its shape, or God forbid, break its spine, and replace it with the exactitude of evidence in a murder scene. In this space, bibliophilia means something different from my own cavalier love for my travelling volumes. As a thief of sorts, I must be respectful, or get caught.
Poaching books is a way of crossing each other’s boundaries. We do it because we’re curious and want to be close, perhaps as a way of identifying with someone, or gaining some sort of subtle knowledge about them, or for ourselves. It could be seen as a creepy act, because no-one has given you direct permission; but, done respectfully, it can also be an empathetic gesture. Perhaps a person’s books, like their actions and body language, are indirect or surrounding manifestations of their character and dreams, beyond the words they choose to speak. To adopt Coehlo’s theme, these unspoken signals form part of ‘the language of the world.’
Alex Comfort, The Joy of Sex (London: Quartet Books, 1974). *
Paulo Coehlo, The Alchemist: 25th Anniversary Edition, trans. Alan Clarke (New York: Harper Collins, 2014).
Alexander Nemerov, Wartime Kiss (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012).
*I can’t remember which edition we found in the attic, but this is the original.
I’m one of the lucky ones. I spend about an hour and a half on trains every day and rarely in rush hour, so I usually get a seat. I have access to a communal garden, which tempts me out when I have a spare half hour on warm days. I have a couch and bed for cold days. This means I actually have time and space to read books, some doorstopper thick and unportable, some sleek enough to go everywhere. The books I have on the go (typically two at a time) offer a commentary on wherever I happen to be, whatever I’m doing. They’re closer than friends, and their words revisit me inadvertently at unthinking moments… Sometimes, on a day like today, when I’m mildly hung over, I’m walking to the tube stop and the line ‘…My Paris/ Was only just not German’ (Ted Hughes, ‘Your Paris,’ The Birthday Letters) interrupts me for a reason I can’t completely understand. Why do I need this relatively unremarkable line right now?
When I get home, I find the poem. Hughes’ autobiographical account of how the Paris he remembers from his time as a soldier in World War II , (a city occupied by the Nazis where ‘So recently the coffee was still bitter/ As acorns’), differed from the experience of his wife Sylvia Plath, who tried to distract herself with ‘American’ Hemingway and Fitzgerald fantasies from the pain of her own memory of being rejected by a former lover in the city. The phrase I remembered is preceded by another forgotten one: ‘I kept my Paris from you’ (Hughes to Plath). These 6 words take me back to where I accidentally found The Birthday Letters the second time, in Word on the Water, a secondhand bookshop in a tugboat, on leafy Regent’s Canal in July. I was falling in love, and at the height of my giddy infatuation, my reunion with The Birthday Letters in such a poetic surrounding felt like kismet (his word not mine). Of course, The Birthday Letters document a love/hate dynamic, a narrative of intimacy and misunderstanding, and I could have seen them as a warning. What started out as passion and the immense desire to share everything, turned into hurt and privation, something being kept from me. Not a city, but a story it was thought I would never understand.
It’s funny, but Plath and Hughes volumes seem to jump off the shelves at me whenever I embark upon a cliched passion-motivated affair like theirs. Something about the dissenting voices, the sensuously acrid imagery, reflects something real right into my soul. Their words and my own satellite relationships give me no shortage of thrills, but leave me a little raw and hungry.
Seeking rootedness, sunshine and inspiration, I turn to my other relationships, and a trip to San Francisco. As I’m walking in the city’s Sunset District, I become intrigued by a neoclassical-fronted public library, guarded by marble lions and walk in. On a table I spot a book called Fairyland by Alysia Abbot. It’s cover is illustrated with a black and white photograph of a slick, elfishly handsome man in a dark suit, holding a white magnolia. Behind him is an earnest, exquisitely-featured little girl in a long chintzy white nightgown. It must be magic realism, a modern fairytale, I think, and turn it over. But when I do, I find out that it’s a woman’s memoir of growing up in San Fransisco with her gay father in the 1970s and then nursing him through Aids. I’m not sure I can read this right now- It feels a little too close to home when I’ve recently been overwhelmed with the news of one close friend’s serious illness and another’s bereavement. I put the book down- it belongs to the library anyway, so it’s not like I can take it away. But then the day before I’m due to catch the ten-hour flight home, I persuade my friend Nikki and her mum to go to touristy North Beach, and drag them into City Books, (Jack Kerouac’s favourite, incidentally), where all I want to buy is Fairyland.
It’s beautifully written, searching and honest- I like how Abbot pilfers through her father, Steve’s poems and private correspondence to conjure up his side of the story as a counter-narrative to her own. Poetry, bohemianism and love are prominent, but Abbot doesn’t brush over the mutual inconveniences of their family unit. Her presence as a demanding child and bratty teenager damages Steve’s credentials as lover, and there are times when his flamboyant homosexuality and hippiness embarrass her. Abbot’s account of her search for a life of her own as a young woman as Steve’s illness advances, is especially moving. Much of this is related through their letters, precious documents where they exchange ideas about life as well as reports of their everyday experiences. I’m reminded that dying and living aren’t the opposites that they’re generally seen to be, that a sick person may be languishing in body, but enjoying a vivid mental and spiritual experience. This book, which has made me a little less afraid of sickness and death, ends on a tender, marvelling note: ‘This place Dad and I lived together, our fairy land, wasn’t make believe but a real place with real people and I was there.’
While my foray into the life and death theme was accidental, over the past few months, I’ve been consciously drawn to makers’ narratives. It’s essentially the same story told a little differently told each time. A person with big ideas, a smattering of talents and scattered means, makes something of their life. I’d been meaning to read Deborah Lutz’s The Bronte Cabinet: Three Lives in Nine Objects for a while, and found it in the Camden Waterstones last month. It’s a weighty tome with a midnight blue waxy jacket, gold lettering and a comely aloe smell. I could only read it at home or on journeys when I knew I wouldn’t be walking much. Anyway, I found Lutz’s account of how the Brontes created their famous stories in and amongst their possessions, chores and life crises strangely comforting. Books doubled as storage units, presses and even writing paper, when the latter was scarce and expensive, and someone had a story idea that just had to be captured, even if there was literally marginal space for it. Plots were discussed around pudding bowls, and developed in breaks from sewing- an accomplishment the Bronte girls wanted to keep up, so that they wouldn’t become decadent, unfeminine literary types. I like this idea of creativity amongst stuff and busyness rather than ascetic vocationalism, not only because it’s realistic, but because it’s generous and intricately woven into life.
The figure of Emily Bronte, the wildest of the sisters has always intrigued me the most, and it horrified society to think how this ‘slim, wick of a girl,’ a clergyman’s daughter nonetheless, conceived a hero as violently savage as Heathcliff. As far as we know, she had no such lover, or even character in her life; but Lutz speculates that Emily’s familiarity with Lord Byron’s works, as well as her affinity with the untamed moorland and acute observations of dogs, (pre-Chiuaua-era they were much closer to their lupine cousins), would have been enough. About one hundred years later in Paris, people would marvel at how the seemingly innocent eighteen-year-old Francoise Sagan (real name Quoirez) could create a novel as candidly racy as Bonjour Tristesse. Anne Berest’s focused study of Sagan’s life in 1954, the year of Bonjour Tristesse’s publication, is another account of how a green young woman possessed the sensitivity and acute powers of observation to write beyond her personal experience, and get published. I think that Emily and Francoise’s examples stand out in my mind, because there are things that I want to achieve where I can envisage the result, but not the next step. So many times, writers are told to draw from their own experience, but Emily and Francoise didn’t have that much, so they took what they had, and with a dash of inspiration, jumped into the unknown.
Alysia Abbot, Fairyland (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2013).
Anne Berest, Sagan: Paris, 1954 (London: Gallic Books, 2015).
Ted Hughes, The Birthday Letters (London: Quality Books, 1998).
Deborah Lutz, The Bronte Cabinet: Three Lives in Nine Objects (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2015).
The lady and the tramp aren’t real, but they’ve followed me my whole life. The lady is to the manor born, the tramp is a wanderer, dispossessed of any nicer quality. I can switch from one to the other in seconds, with the lilt of my steps, the carriage of my neck and head, the tone of my voice. And so can many of you.
The charm lies in what the anthropologist Marcel Mauss termed ‘techniques of the body,’ skills like one’s mode of walking, handling objects and people, that are not natural, but learned through everyday social interactions. These bodily techniques create an illusory social presence. For women, alongside their behaviour, these corporeal traits have long informed how they are judged, which narrative category they fit into: Lady or Tramp. Will they be contained within social expectation, or drift on the margins? This is the question that surrounds the heroine of Henry James’ nineteenth-century novella ‘Daisy Miller,’ and unfortunately, one that still defines how women are perceived today.
The lady is above all moderate, distant and admired. She entered my life when I was around 5, in my mother’s advice to avoid clashing colours and prints, and soon after that in my grandmother’s admonition that my cousin and I couldn’t tear the fluff off blankets and throw it at people from the pulpit at church, because we were ‘ladies’ now. The lady is always on her best behaviour, wanting to please and placate, not make a scene. She’s convenient in those social situations when you don’t really want to be there, just float above things on your good manners. She’s always watchful, of herself in the glass, and of other people. Who are they, and what are their intentions towards her? Because of her extreme choosiness, fussiness if you will, she comes across as sensitive and vulnerable. These impressions are enhanced if she is actually petite- as I am. There are times when my ability to pass as a lady has kept me safe from the worst that people can do. One man told me that a lot of women could ‘take it’ – his, shall we call it errant love?- whereas I was ‘delicate’, could be easily damaged and therefore had to be protected. Did these ‘tough’ asbestos-skinned hussies really exist, or whether they were a convenient invention for this man? I was suddenly put in touch with some inverted nineteenth-century system, where my apparent fragility became my strength. My ability to be read as a lady was an unfair, guilty privilege, but could also shroud me from experience and isolate me.
The Tramp is a nomad, who rubs up against the world in as many ways as she can. As a little tramp I pretended to be orphaned, and trailed around my other grandma’s garden barefoot with tangled morning hair, in her electric-shock inducing, nylon nighties. These 1960s satiny relics, coloured in lurid shades of pistachio and confetti pink that had long died out, liberated me from my navy blue and polka dot uniform and made me Queen of a slatternly kingdom. With nothing better to do, I daydreamed and played solidly until noon, when I was taken on some educational outing or other. The tramp is giddy with freedom and permissiveness- she strews her possessions (and other people’s) around her in meandering disarray, masterminds pranks that she may not get away, with and appears not to care what you think. She gives into the impulse of the moment, using her present vitality and her future death, as an excuse. She spills a lot- laughter, tears and the occasional obscenity.
At best, she’s mysteriously creative, like Emily Bronte who trekked across the moors, sparred with dogs and wrote a melodrama beyond the capacity her meagre life-experience, or as in touch as Juliette, Brigitte Bardot’s character in And God Created Woman, who repeatedly kicks off her ballet shoes so that she can run better, love better, feel the warm ground beneath her feet. At worst, she’s the heroine of that Rolling Stones song, Backstreet Girl, a slave to her passionsand socially marginalised. She’s too ‘common and coarse’ to be part of the singer’s ‘world’, but there when he fancies having her ‘around.’* Folded into the song’s lulling cadences, is the dismal fate of ‘some chick’ Mick Jagger knew, someone who strayed right into the trap laid for her by narrator. I’d like to think that in the style of many a tramp, she escaped and found a way to tell her own story, in her own words
Lady and Tramp stories are continually re-interpreted and re-invented for a new age. I recently saw two London exhibitions that inadvertently referenced the subject.** Audrey Hepburn: Portraits of an Icon at the National Portrait Gallery pays homage to woman who bought some trampiness into static notions of ladyhood as she continually evoked the Cinderella narrative of rags to riches, whilst retaining the rag-girl’s waifishness and pluck. Hepburn’s appeal lay in her enormous doe eyes (blue, not pitch black with twin globes of reflected light, as some photographs suggest) which gave her a vulnerable, expectant look, and her encyclopaedic range of expressive movements: ungainly coltish strides and tumbles metamorphose into dynamic spirals and gaited runs, and back again. Like many revered 1960s icons, Hepburn projected a tramp-like pep and emotional freedom, whilst having a proverbial briefcase of ladylike tricks to fall back upon. In Breakfast At Tiffany’s (1961), she plays a prostitute, but holds herself like a ballerina, while in Sabrina (1954) and Funny Face (1957) her awkward adolescent persona is a mere shell for the sparkling, gracile woman inside. Trampiness here acts as a spice, something that can be delicately added to a textbook lady for flavour and interest.
The Foundling Museum’s The Fallen Woman exhibition tells the stories of women who strayed from Victorian ideals of female chastity and then as a result of a pregnancy, were found out. The success of these women’s petitions to have their illegitimate babies adopted by the Foundling Hospital depended upon an all-male panel’s judgement of the mother’s virtue. The letters exhibited, demonstrate the pressure to prove that the pregnancy was a result of chance, violent encounters with the unnamed ‘F’ who ‘would have his will.’ While there is no doubt that many women were raped, not every sexual encounter results in pregnancy, and some accidents were a consequence of prolonged consensual affairs. As exhibition curator Lynda Nead has explained, evidence of the mother’s sexual agency or desire, was completely eradicated from the story. Instead, the mid-nineteenth-century paintings on display, obsessively meditate on the luminous swell in the woman’s drapery, which barely conceals her bump or bundle. The shamed women were repeatedly portrayed braving the elements in flapping cloaks, so unlike the insect-shaped upholstery that their respectable peers wore. Here, the journey from lady to tramp seems a formulaic game of consequences. But it’s important to remember that each experience of straying was unique, and that some women subverted the paintings’ prescriptions in their flights from convention.
The lady and the tramp are close, so close, that they sometimes turn up in the wrong places . The lady has embarrassed me at edgy parties, where she stands ballerina-erect, preciously wrinkling her nose at the weed on the football table. The tramp arrives half an hour late, breezy and provocative to a sober meeting with work superiors. In these situations the lady and the tramp feel less like personas than perfumes, diffuse, concocted and potent.
*Mick Jagger, who wrote this song in 1966, said the ‘French cafe style’ melody and lyrics about some ‘chick’ he knew, came easily. Its strangest line goes: ‘Please come right up to my ears, you will be able to hear what I say…’ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PWrPuehVrWc
** Audrey Hepburn: Portraits of an Icon http://www.npg.org.uk/whatson/hepburn/home.php
The Fallen Woman http://foundlingmuseum.org.uk/events/fallen-woman/
Any fairly liberal-minded person can convince themselves that they’re a feminist. They preach sexual equality, advocate that women should be allowed to make their own decisions about what happens to their bodies, and champion female role models in politics, sport and science. Great. But what about the everyday choices that shape our modes of self-expression and our interpersonal and intimate relationships?
It’s here, in the unwieldiness of life that feminism is really put to the test and can fall through the cracks. We end up with dazzling contradictions: the female rights campaigner in an abusive relationship; the man who devotes his career to Gertrude Stein, but is stringing two women along in his personal life; the housewife who supports her daughter’s career in astro-physics. Are people living out these contradictions by choice, or have they fallen into them by chance?
I decided to ask my friends and extended social network how feminism played out in their daily lives and whether they thought they were living up to their ideals. What I ended up with, was a diverse collage of experiences from both more evolved (diehard) feminists and less evolved (newbie or reluctant) feminists. Despite their differences, everyone agreed that in the context of centuries of patriarchy, feminism is hard. For some it’s definitely not second nature. Even for those who identify themselves as feminists, it’s often the brave, controversial choice rather than the easy, instinctive one.
WHAT WE WEAR, AND HOW IT MATTERS
Self-expression is a key area of feminist debate. For the most part feminists advocate that women should be judged on what they do and say, rather than by how they look. Iris*, who works at a Montessori nursery school told me that everyday she is faced with girls as young as three who want to ‘advertise’ and ‘define’ themselves by how they dress. She feels dismayed that her young pupils are already copying an image of decorative rather than active femininity, and says that her challenge is to break this stereotype ‘without making it a fight. Every day I chose to ignore their comments and mention what they are capable of, not what they look like.’
There can be no doubt that Iris and other early-years educators like her, play a vital role in shaping girls’ self-perceptions and mitigating the tide of feminine stereotypes coming from the media, families and friends. However, some women feel that their sartorial choices are part of their self-expression as feminists. They have said that dressing: androgynously/for comfort/ modestly/ eccentrically etc. means that they look as they wish, rather than satisfying the male gaze. Personally, I’m uncomfortable with such statements, because they create divisions amongst women, indicating that some are more procurable than others just because of how they look and express themselves. Differences in how women relate to their body and sexuality should be respected, rather than overly scrutinised and judged.
Instead of obsessing over hem-lines, if you would dress like a feminist, consider the provenance of your clothes. Garment factory workers are overwhelmingly female, but the majority in today’s globalised fashion industry struggle to earn a living wage. This means that despite working long hours, with few breaks and draconian discipline, many do not earn enough to feed their families. Shockingly, the majority of high-street retailers underpay their factory workers, and even the most progressive still have a way to go before all their staff receive a living wage. Ethically-produced garments can be prohibitively expensive, but the tide is slowly turning, and we’re not completely powerless as consumers. Two ethically-minded friends have recommended the website ethicalconsumer.org for helpful information on different manufacturers’ human rights credentials. If enough of us boycott the most exploitative manufacturers and continue to campaign for workers’ rights, then perhaps we’ll reach our most feminist sartorial state yet.
FEMINIST INTERACTIONS IN DAILY LIFE AND AT WORK
Those I spoke to were conscious that feminism is achieved in our everyday acts and interactions, and not merely in theory or activism. Diana, defines herself as ‘a whistle blower of feminism,’ who makes a direct stand against inequality when it directly affects her or those she knows. Diana feels that her sense of justice was instilled in her from a young age by a family who raised her to ‘believe that as a woman’ she was ‘entitled and allowed to have all things that are available to men’ such as an ambitious career-path and sexual freedom. She anticipates that if she has a child, she will negotiate arrangements for childcare with her partner, depending on both of their career needs. Crucially, she believes that ‘what is feminist is the platform for discussion, open mindedness and hearing each others’ needs without making’ one partner’s ‘perspective superior or righteous based on traditional gender norms.’ Personally, I feel that Diana has hit the nail on the head – feminism is not a solution to inequality, but an ongoing discussion, the ability to critique established models and come up with a workable solution.
Natalie has been challenging established norms in her male-dominated consulting firm. She has been vocal in pointing out that the established practice of taking on too many projects in a short amount of time results in missed deadlines, mistakes and employee exhaustion. While a male colleague acquiesces to the client’s every unreasonable demand, is willing to plough on until 3 am on a regular basis, and claims he gets sick if he has more than 4 hours sleep, Natalie’s sense of balance, and perhaps even pragmatic common-sense, rebel against the system. Her unofficial protests against the sometimes austere sausage-fest that is Workaholics Anonymous, have included wearing pink at interviews and presentations, collapsing into tears of exhaustion and eating chocolate by her boss’ desk. However, when she recognised that her rare skills were essential to the firm’s success, Natalie used her negotiating power to request a more humane work schedule, and organised a meeting to put this in place. Natalie’s crusade, if it pays off, won’t just benefit her, but her colleagues and the firm’s future employees. Though Natalie’s protest isn’t directly about women’s rights, I consider it a feminist intervention because it’s a challenge to the patriarchal prioritisation of profit and results over the staff’s sense of well-being and pride in their work. She’s bringing previously under-considered factors into the equation, and thereby envisioning a new model of work.
MALE FEMINIST CHALLENGES IN EVERYDAY INTERACTIONS
The men I spoke to related that they had to challenge their biological biases and time-worn assumptions, when interacting with women at work and in non-relationship contexts. Joseph, a self-described ‘straight guy with relatively macho traits,’ who works in the female-majority environments of tourism and teaching, finds the ‘totally male focus’ of sports a refuge from ‘thinking about girls.’ Joseph’s use of sports as a niche for homosocial bonding, where he can drink, swear, banter, etc. with a liberty that he feels isn’t available to him in the co-ed world, isn’t unique amongst the men I know. Nevertheless, Joseph’s recent experience of watching the Women’s World Cup, which he enjoyed no less than the men’s one ‘confirmed to me I’m a feminist, as I all but forgot it was women I was watching- they were just footballers and I got as tensed up watching them as I do the men!’ I have to confess I didn’t watch the Women’s World Cup. I hated PE at school, and my jolly hockey-sticks PE teachers even more: I would have happily busied myself with an embroidery sampler over being forced to pay a repetitive game of ‘fetch’ in the cold, any day of the week. But Joseph’s genuine shift in perspective after he witnessed the female footballers’ skill and drive at the Women’s World Cup, reinforces how important media exposure of women’s achievements and activities is as a counter to the vast swathes of material focusing on their appearance.
Phillip classes himself as a ‘sexist feminist’… Raised by a working mother and stay-at-home father, Phillip considers that his wife, Laura’s career is equally important to his own, and maintains that housework and childcare should be divided equally. When Laura pointed out that his porn-watching habit was at odds with his support of fair-trade and human rights because porn-actresses were objectified and often demeaned, he went cold-turkey. (Don’t read into that metaphor)
Nevertheless, Phillip says that he struggles to be fully a feminist, owing to his extreme heterosexuality. He had virtually no latency period, and from about the age of four, ‘did my best to get laid… I think I failed more than I succeeded.’ He still feels ‘like a predator’ every time he sees an attractive woman: ‘everything completely disappears, only the cleavage or butt.’ (When Phillip told me this, I couldn’t help but think he saw women like the Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland, which periodically disappears, all but for its toothy grin: so I’m calling this Cheshire-Cat syndrome) Phillip is aware that this response ‘must colour my first interaction with women,’ and he has to physically remove himself from the situation, diverting his eyes, or making tea. He’s not sure whether his Cheshire-Cat syndrome is biologically or culturally determined: probably both. ‘I wish I wasn’t so much a man!’ he exclaims, conscious that his initial objectification of women stops him being a feminist to the core, and truly relating to them as equals. But he’s consciously making an effort. A pragmatist as well as an idealist, Phillip recognises that Laura may also be attracted to other men- it’s only natural- and he’s fine with it, confident that they can both stay ‘disciplined’ if they’ve come from a happy home.
FEMINISM IN INTIMATE RELATIONSHIPS
Practical feminism is most put to the test in intimate heterosexual relationships, where biology and feudal-era customs dictate that attraction is based on gender difference. Some women I talked to openly expressed the need to feel ‘feminine’ as well as equal in relationships. They want their partner to value their opinions and intelligence, and also recognise that they are different from him, and prefer him to take the initiative, making them feel ‘special,’ ‘protected,’ and even ‘small’ or ‘delicate.’ Interestingly enough, these women felt that the old-fashioned ‘masculine’ qualities of decisiveness and integrity were in short supply amongst the men they dated, whereas modern ‘metrosexual’ attributes such as versatility, interest in arts and culture, and flakiness were pervasive. None of them thought that feeling feminine and being a feminist were mutually exclusive.
Diana went a little further, arguing that ‘one of the “safest” and perhaps the only appropriate instances where gender inequality MAY exist, is in the arena of sexuality… if we are just talking about sex, ergo fantasy (or a platform for fantasy and fulfilment)…It’s all about communication. If a woman likes the idea of a hyper-masculine male, and that turns them on, then go for it! I believe that same woman can then look at other realms of her life and say, the inequality is exciting and satisfying here, but doesn’t have a place in these other areas.’ Diana referenced the psychoanalyst Esther Perel, who posits a ‘European’ model of gender complementarity as opposed to the ‘American’ model equality, which apparently results in ‘boring sex.’ I question how far a couple’s sexual and non-sexual communication can be diametrically opposite. From my experience, elements of the sexual relationship inform non-sexual communication and vice-versa. I can’t help but think that if you wanted a relationship that was equal in all areas but sex, you might have to draw up a virtual Fifty Shades style contract, complete with terms and conditions. Some people might find that a turn-on, I suppose…
What I’m curious about, is how this culture that still idealises notions of masculine strength and feminine delicacy, and consciously unequal relationships ( albeit relegated to the arena of sexuality ), feeds into the lives of women who find themselves there by accident, out of a mistaken feeling that passes for love. Inequality can take many forms, but includes: physical or emotional abuse; verbal put-downs; being objectified, strung along, or used for sex; your partner engaging and disengaging with you on a whim; being treated as though your opinions and feelings are irrelevant. Of course women can be the perpetrators, and men the victims of these malpractices. But in the context of centuries of feminine subordination, and continued media and social preferences for yielding, seductive peacemakers, women sometimes struggle to stand up for themselves in relationships with men, and to leave situations that are depleting them. Regardless of her successes in other areas of her life, no-one can be truly empowered when she’s accepting to be treated as though her thoughts, feelings and well-being are irrelevant. I don’t believe these unequal relationships benefit men either, because by denying their partner’s full potential, they’re stunting not only the relationship, but their own human growth.
Some women, whether as a result of nature or nurture, have a built-in bullshit radar and precise mode of expression that commands respect and leaves anyone who would mistreat them quaking in their boots. They take the initiative in leaving situations where they’re being treated unequally. Others of us, who are less assertive, and perhaps witnessed our mothers take the guileless, gentle role, are getting there by practice. Just as Phillip has to battle with the Cheshire-Cat syndrome that compromises daily interactions with women, I’ve had to challenge the primitive part of me that softens in an argument and strives for easy reconciliation, and listen to the small voice that says: ‘Speak up, it’s important, I’m important.’
IN THE END…
Feminism is a struggle, and exists amongst many contradictions. But it’s encouraging that so many people have spoken up about their difficulties and triumphs in feminism on both macro and micro levels. What’s interesting is that everyone I talked to related some kind of vision for a fairer, better world within the stories of their everyday feminist challenges. Just as theoretical feminists talk about feminism being the alternative to accepted patriarchal norms, the practical feminists I interviewed were committed to doing things differently. Feminism isn’t a blanket solution, it’s a discussion, and it begins with all of us.