‘As soon as they say “that’s interesting,” you’ve lost them.’ These were the words of cosmic navigator, Gahl Sasson at what ostensibly turned out to be a group therapy session about life and death narratives. When I saw a flyer for a storytelling workshop at my yoga studio, amidst others that promised to open up your hips or shoulders, I was instantly intrigued… I wondered whether it would help me with the tedium of telling my least favourite kind of story: the explanation on-demand. You know the one that’s in response to a question about your whereabouts, your choice of a situation or person. It might be the one you have to tell most often… It’s the kind that could prove genuinely, that word: ‘interesting’, but you’ve had to tell it too many times, and now, you, yourself are the most bored, the most lost in the conversation.
In the end, the workshop didn’t really address my practical need. How should I express myself in the narrow parameters of questions like: where are you from? why did you choose that PhD topic? what are you doing now? These questions are usually asked with the benign intention of establishing concrete facts and getting to know me. But, I actually feel that in answering them, I go to some faraway place ruled by memory and rhetorical conventions: it’s not so much my voice I hear, as mellifluous, well-trodden bullshit. Where I’m from is an accident of birth; the PhD topic was chosen 5 years ago, and do you really want me to breathlessly run through my current freelancer’s routine? When you demand that I repeat these old stories, don’t be surprised if I stare at my feet, shudder as I recall an imminent deadline, or in my friend Whitney’s fabulous phrase, ‘check out of the conversation.’
As I’m re-explaining, I notice how my stories evolve over time – perhaps as a means of keeping me, as I am now, awake and in the conversation. The PhD explanation was originally an idealistic narrative that I now can’t quite recall; though in some portion of spacetime it’s 100% true. These days it’s more a collage of Oliver Twist and Girls. I see it spread out before me in Dorothy Lange Depression-era stills: I’m this opportunistic urchin, who tracked down a topic, funding and respectability, so that I could put off my fear – the mundane reality of an adult 9-5 – a little longer. Of course, even this is a romanticised diversion from a truth I’m unsure of… ‘It was right for me at the time!’ I protest finally, echoing my mother, when asked to explain her marriage. This expression is often met with raised eyebrows – to most people it justifies a first marriage better than a PhD. You’re meant to sound more smugly intellectual, less Oprah when explaining a PhD. But I think its timeliness- like a rescuer on a white horse- is a point of pride.
Sometimes, telling the stories that people want to know about your past from the perspective of the present, pays off. You can laugh together, establish a foundation for intimacy and trust, and move on to what’s juicy and contemporary. But, if I’m honest, I still find questions that corner me into explaining myself persecuting. I literally feel like I’m up for trial and will be judged on answers that don’t represent me as I am now. The real me, the part that can connect with others, is getting lost in defensive explanations.
I know I’m not alone in inwardly shrinking when being asked to explain myself. I have some friends who say that being asked where they’re from, feels like an extension of the bureaucratic visa process that allows them to stay in the country, and others who get anxious when asked about their career or relationship trajectory. And do you know, this interview-style Q&A format hinders the moving, funny and personal stories we all have to tell when we let our guard down. Ultimately there is no shortcut to getting to know someone, whether for the first time, or as they are now. Maybe it’s time to stop asking the most obvious questions on autopilot. Instead, why not engage fully in the situation, listen (and not just with your ears) and enjoy the slow process of someone revealing who they are? There, in the story of making arrabbiata sauce at 8am, or in someone’s primary encounter with yoga or death, you have a lead to the essence of a person. Then, go ahead and ask sensitively, always heeding Monty Python’s warning: ‘Remember, nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!’
On the rainy night before New Year’s Eve, at around 5pm, a friend and I were hurrying to the station, past Victoria Park, when we glimpsed a weirdly poetic arrangement: just past the brim of my umbrella, a fox with a singularly lush pointed tail; in the middle distance, a silvery fountain streaming opulently, and furthest away, the Shard winked at us in its elvish festive get-up. There are no photos of this fleeting composition. Would the fox have stayed for anything in the pissing rain? Would we? Would any Instagram filter have made up for the failing light? But you’ll just have to take my word for it, it was magical in its own way.
So close to the end of the year, I couldn’t help but see this trio as a kind of vision: the fox, the fountain and the Shard- all different and yet complementary- seemed like 3 wishes for the New Year.
My friend, a Californian, told me that when she first moved to London and saw a fox, she initially thought she’d that seen a kind of cat with an odd-shaped tail. I laughed, but her comment made me see the fox with fresh eyes- it wasn’t just a mangy, flea-ridden dustbin hunter, but a tiger-coloured creature with a sly walk and an unearthly cry. Resourceful, shabbily elegant and a survivor until something eventually kills it, the fox is a paradox. Its very purpose is survival in uncertain, precarious circumstances. It will go on the hunt in all weathers and eat anything given the opportunity. By night it will scream and bark to assert its investment in territory or a mate. And yet it maintains that sleek, nonchalant boldness coveted by students of style…
The fox is a relevant symbol for the day-to-day aspects of 2016: earning enough to live, working towards a dream, having antennae for opportunities and putting yourself in the right place at the right time. The fox’s imagination is an earthly one; it sniffs out the way to the prize in the current situation, rather than dreaming up a realm of alternative possibilities. If the fox cared to counsel you, it would say ‘the answer is there… in that old contact/ that box under your bed/ the hobby you’ve been meaning to try for ages…but have you bothered looking?’
The fountain is life, abundance and the flowing of emotions. I hate that so many New Year’s resolutions are concerned with regimentation and meanness towards oneself or others. We strive to weigh less on the scales, restrict our social contact and give less to those who need it the most. We eat dull food, banish the booze and swap the glitter for grey. This is as close to being dead, while still alive, as it gets. I say that we should go the other way… Not that we should necessarily dissolve our livers in Scotch or buy the sequinned jumpsuit that bankrupts us, but just that we should be generous with our time, energy and resources. Keep giving to charity, go out dancing, share a beautiful meal, a household green initiative or a smutty joke. Above all, recognise that we live in a world of abundant possibilities and that generosity of spirit is rewarded in transparent and mysterious ways.
To me, the Shard represents worldly ambition and achievement. Up close it’s a bombastic structure with lucrative views, but at night from a distance, it’s a mystical witness, with one eye to your dreams and heartbreak. I’ve noticed that when it comes to worldly ambition people tend to fall into two camps; those who build their lives around establishing structures and flaunting them, and those who think a life based on worldly acquisition is too bourgeois, restricting or impossible for them. The former risk having a life that’s overly Shard-like, all structure and gloss, but somehow devoid of heartfelt qualities; while the latter, whose lives are effectively written on water, risk depriving themselves from having anything at all. I think it’s okay to have years where you focus more or less on ‘establishing’ goals. 2015 felt like a year when I experienced everything and built nothing. Its overly liquid quality made it one of the best and most frustrating years of my life. This year, however, I’m looking to redress the balance – I’m not going to build another Shard, just plant a few landmarks in my water-garden…
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.
For about 5 years now, a close friend has been advising me to read The Power of Now, a life manual by spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle. She told me it had changed her life and would change mine. Nevertheless, for 5 years I resisted: the overly assonant title (2 ‘ows’, count them) put me off, and I was suspicious of the aura of salvation surrounding the book. I’ve never liked the idea that ONE book can save your life because it seems too doctrinal; instead I prefer to believe that many shape your life.
Anyway, I knew my friend meant business when The Power of Now arrived as a pdf into my Facebook inbox. Despite my earlier prejudices, I couldn’t help but be touched by this gesture, and so I settled down to read about twenty minutes a day. It was unlike anything I’d ever read; part self-help book, part-mantra, with the same elliptical conclusion at the end of each section: all that matters and even exists, is the present moment. The past and the future are psychological constructs, which take us away from the present by distracting us with anticipation, worry, nostalgia and regret. Tolle advises that you should only look forward or back to deal with the practical aspects of your life; learn from past errors or plan for future goals. Rather liberatingly, he conceives that a past identity will only haunt you if your presence, on the most literal level, isn’t strong enough. Reading this, I can now understand why people devote so much time and energy into meditation and mindfulness – so that they can learn to give each particular moment its due, rather than being enslaved by psychological time.
And yet, artists of all types find psychological time incredibly useful. The past (typically, childhood and formative experiences) is a rich resource for many, while notions of future utopias inform a lot of pioneering design. Family bonds are often formed on the basis of mutual memories and plans for the future. In my family, this temporal telescoping happens too much. Some senior members, see me as the little girl I was, or the ‘complete’ woman I will one day be. The restless, intractable young woman I am in the present disappears through the cracks, because unlike some neat mental construct from the past or future, she’s real, and difficult to pin down. I’m not exceptional in this respect, as these family members view others in exactly the same way. When people relate to one another on this projective, non-present basis, though, any possibility of real intimacy is voided, and you are left with the mere promise of love meant for an alternative version of you.
Tolle’s view of happiness, both in life and love is less based on pleasure, which he is convinced, soon turns to its opposite pain, and more on general contentment and feeling at one with the universe. Relationships are there for consciousness instead of fulfilment. So you go in there to learn, rather than feel impassioned, complete etc.When you meet the right one, they will reflect your soul just a bit more than any other part of creation visible from yonder window. Oddly enough, this isn’t so far removed from how love is described in a book Tolle would almost certainly denounce, Wuthering Heights; there Kathy describes her love for Heathcliff as resembling ‘the eternal rocks beneath: a source of little visible delight, but necessary… He’s always in my mind…as my own being.’ This unexpected, intertextual connection made me smile- as much as someone tries to categorise love, separate it out into good and bad, nourishing and destructive, truth and infatuation, it speaks another language, one that doesn’t care too much for our constructs.
And whether you are coupled up, single or in an ‘it’s complicated’ situation, to be happy, he says, accept what is, however challenging, dull or confusing. Unhappiness is caused by resistance to the present moment. When the present moment is unbearable, you have a choice to leave the situation, take direct action or just accept it as part of life. Many people unnecessarily torture themselves by mulling over their difficulties, and escalating their drama. He calls the accumulation of grievances and hurt in a person’s psyche ‘the pain body’. This parasite attacks who we are in the present by making a persona of Our Wronged Selves. Some people are wedded to their Victim/ Tortured Genius identity because it gives them a dash of spice in a vanilla crowd. Perhaps they are afraid to let go of their past wrongs because they fear that they will become insignificant in the present. Significantly, Tolle’s universalist theory makes no distinction between the Basil Fawltys amongst us (always going on about our War wound, the shrapnel in our knee) and those who have been wronged in a major way, for example, targets of terror, ethnic cleansing or rape. While it’s true that nurturing a Victim identity is disempowering for everyone, Tolle’s one-size-fits-all theory feels too simplistic for the complex world we live in.
In a recent article, Simon Kuper argued that our’s was the age of specialists in small things.* Unlike the big-picture ‘greats’ of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (Einstein, Freud, Marx) the scientists, psychologists and political theorists of today, claim to be experts in a choice area of study; they can potentially improve the world in one tiny aspect. Tolle seems distinctly of the previous century, in the sense that he does posit a universal theory. This works fine, for the essential, eponymous premise of his book, but his ideas on gender and sexual orientation in particular seem trite and oversimplified, especially given his position of hegemonic privilege ( Straight White Male). Men are more likely to be divorced from being through mind-dominance (over-thinking), while women are more subject to the pain body, and especially before and during their periods. He regards menstruation as an opportunity to shed not only one’s womb lining, but one’s pain body and thereby one’s resentments. In an unintentionally amusing section, he describes how a ‘supportive male partner’ can remind women that they are suffering from the pain-body during PMT, and bring them back onto the course of acceptance. I can see a cuddle and a whiskey going down better, but what do I know, being a woman and not a spiritual leader?… His view that gays have greater potential to rise above the polarised, acerbic dynamics of the heterosexual world, so long as they don’t make an identity out of their homosexuality, equally reads as naive and dismissive of the long struggle that gay people have had to openly be themselves.
Overall, in spite of its glaring oversimplifications and humourless prose (there’s maybe one intentional joke in there about cats as masters of Zen), I’m glad I read The Power of Now. It’s lessons on living in the present moment, feel especially alive now, in the latest wave of global terrorist attacks. A friend in Paris understandably expressed that she was afraid because she didn’t know when the next attack would be. It’s so easy to feel powerless in this state of uncertainty, especially if you’re not someone who makes policy; but perhaps there’s all the more reason to prioritise what’s important in life, and not take the present for granted. Il faut vivre sa vie!
Eckhart Tolle, The Power of Now, http://www.orgone.ro/doc/The-Power-of-Now.pdf
Simon Kuper, ‘Small Ideas are Better than Big Ones,’ Financial Times Weekend Magazine, October 23, 2015 *
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.
The other day I was leafing through an old notebook and came across a doodled ‘conversation’ that I’d had at a conference. It was a hot June afternoon in a stuffy lecture theatre, the previous chair had let everyone overrun by ten minutes, and the room twitched with restlessness and passive-aggression. The current chair however, wasn’t having any of this, and boldly raised herself up to her full five feet two inches when the speaker had ten seconds to spare. The speaker rambled on even as the chair was swiftly advancing before the pulpit. In arts academia, this is the closest you get to physical conflict- and it shook me out of my stupor. ‘Catfight!’ I scribbled, and slid over my notebook. Trying not to laugh, my friend and I exchanged cartoons of the chair and the speaker bashing it out- punches, karate-chops and insults that were more Real Housewives than Shakespeare. What actually happened, was in a way more awkward- the speaker insistently scrambled through her final paragraph, and the chair immediately cut to questions without thanking her. Still, our doodles channelled something of the repressed discomfort of a room full of thinkers who had been made to stew and fester in other people’s ideas for too long.
If you think that an anger is an odd response to have towards someone who is trying to enlighten you for just that bit longer than they promised, (how generous of them), you clearly have never been to a conference. I’m even convinced that some people go to these things with the intention of being offended. At the last one I attended, a notable speaker provoked ire and scorn for simply pointing out that her institution cracked onto a good idea before a rival. Tim Hart territory this was not, but it’s not a gathering of great minds if it doesn’t leave you seething through your pasted-on smile. Unsurprisingly, passive aggression predominates in thinking or creative disciplines, which churn out mottos such as ‘the pen is mightier than the sword,’ or the Photoshopped smile more winning than the genuine grimace, etc. We’re of course enormously lucky to not work in places of actual physical violence; though I’m not sure this underlying frustration and ill-will is much healthier. But how else do we channel anger, that inconvenient, heterogeneous emotion that arises from feelings of powerlessness, frustration and the desire to make your mark? And anger is as real in cerebral workplaces as it is everywhere else. It comes in the form of unspoken resentment towards the colleague who stole your idea and ran with it, the manager who misguides and neglects you, or the finance people who have delayed your payment yet again. When exploding publicly is verboten, and words and reason only get us so far, our anger, which must take some form, becomes a fantasy…
Just as it’s often the most sexually repressed who are into the seediest erotica, those of us who forcibly subdue our anger imaginatively concoct potent revenge scenarios. Some of them are basically violent- I remember one acquaintance who talked about wanting to bang his dopey colleagues’ ‘fucking heads together,’ and another who worried that if she were left too long alone with her malevolent sister, she would have to strangle her. But disturbing as these are, they’re in a way less interesting than another common fantasy- the showdown. Showdown fantasies are often triggered by the drive to show-up a well-respected but useless individual. A mild-mannered and eloquent friend who works in publishing, has laboured for years under a boss who though essentially kind-hearted, is disorganised and unempathetic. When my friend’s job is rendered unbearable by her boss’s neglect, she fantasises about confronting her in a more aggressive manner than the gentle but persistent entreaties she is accustomed to: the words ‘bitch’ in bright red lipstick scrawled all over her office door.
There’s nothing high-brow about my intellectual friend’s ‘damage to property’ reverie- it could be pulled straight from a Taylor Swift video or a daytime television soap-opera. But this is fantasy, not art- and her only wish is to make an impact far bigger and more spectacular than any she could in real life. Let’s face it, Taylor or Rihanna or Nikki with their bolshy expletives, red paint, and golf-club-to-sports-car-window melodramas make an ado of their anger as no pedestrian woman legitimately can, either at work or in her personal life.
Because women aren’t supposed to show anger, not really. And do the feminine, softly-spoken ones even generate it? I recall this Disney spoof Enchanted, where saccharine princess Giselle is accidentally thrust into gritty New York City life, stumbles upon an unfamiliar feeling of frustration and heat, before finally entertaining the possibility that she is actually angry. Weirdly enough, this fairytale scene resonates with me. I sometimes find it hard to know if it’s anger I’m feeling, something that isn’t helped by others repeatedly telling me I’m ‘sad’, ‘hurt’, or even ‘tired’ ‘instead. ‘You’re not an angry person, though… this is too trivial a matter to be angry about, ‘ I keep hearing. It’s as as though there’s this patronising universal agreement that anger is too martial and dangerous for the likes of women like me. No, it’s more palatable for me to be sad and weep large tears into my lavender-scented hankie…
But when my brother broke my already ailing laptop on Christmas day, and the advent of my PhD hand-in, to watch the crap version of Sherlock Holmes and I belted out an eleven-letter term of endearment at him, no-one could mistake what I was really feeling. My mother ordered me to behave in a more ladylike manner, and to this day consoles herself with the thought that I was a different person that night. I knew it was anger though, because I was back to my ‘sweet’ self the very next day, while I sat for three hours laughing and joking with my brother as he drove us to get the laptop fixed by my cousin, the computer programmer. Yes, I was a different person, but becoming that fury even for a short while, allowed me to return to a more familiar version of myself, unmarred by dogged resentment. Sometimes anger is nothing more frightening than a tempest that blows through you, and then eases once it’s done its job. So why are we still so afraid of it?
* Choler is an archaic word for anger. Medieval folk believed that a choleric temperament was caused by an excess of yellow bile from the liver.
As we approach Father’s Day, we’re inundated with reminders to celebrate the man who taught us how to ride a bicycle, balance a budget or send an unwanted suitor running home to his mummy. The adverts range from predictably cutesy – the start-up promising to deliver a gift ‘as unique as he is,’ to bafflingly creepy- the Aramis cologne advert that reminds you it’s father’s day, and swiftly follows up with the clip of a James Bond-type eyeing up a girl in a swimsuit from behind. Who can bear the thought of their old man as a player? Are they seriously suggesting that you hand him a bottle of Aramis with a wink and ‘Go get ’em Tiger?’
Anyway, though my dad and I love each other to the moon and back, he didn’t teach me any of the practical things that the cutesy adverts promised he would.* (Luckily, I never caught him acting like the ‘dad’ in the Aramis advert either!) Still, his words and actions can be mapped into life lessons. Recently, I’ve been thinking about the beliefs I inherited from my parents, and how my own experiences have either confirmed or challenged them. More and more, I realise that truly becoming an adult is taking responsibility for your life and learning to trust your own judgement. Yet so many of us struggle with the living legacy of our parents’ beliefs. We oscillate wildly between reverence and rebellion, rarely taking the time to think about where we actually stand. So, I thought I’d list and evaluate the things I learned from my dad, to see what should be treasured, and what in the words of my spooky masseuse, Kryztina, should be ‘sent back into the universe for recycling.’
1. Read Homer, quote Homer Simpson. Dad’s favourite Homer quotation is ‘Don’t try kids, because trying leads to failure and disappointment.’
I think that Dad means you should be learned, but not a humourless arse. I’m fully on board with this, and especially feel shortchanged when people give conference papers without the flair of Homer or the ribaldry of Homer Simpson. How dare they take away half an hour of my life, not seek to entertain and move me!
2. People who grow up in conflict-zones (like him) are risk-averse, but people who grow up in relative peace and prosperity (like me and my brother) are adventure-seekers.
Learning this has been invaluable to understanding my Dad, and more cautious, as well as brave and resilient people like him. However, I’ve also seen the opposite: risk-averse squares with stable childhoods, who want carbon-copies of their parents’ lives, and folks who live on a whim because they have never had stability.
3. Days range from bad to exceptionally bad, but that’s the way life is, so be cheerful about it.
I’ve learned that dad’s combination of pessimism, sensitivity and humour is actually quite rare. I once dated a supreme pessimist, and was very naively waiting for him to laugh at his tortured soul, but he never did. There are no two men alike, and looking for someone like your dad, however unconsciously, is futile. The best you can hope for is someone who is wonderful on his own terms.
4. People who love you can disappear and go silent for a while, but they still love you will reappear when they’re ready/ when it suits them. (In the past, my Dad was periodically absent, but he always came back)
Guess what, people who don’t love you can also imitate these behaviours… And life is too short for an eternal game of hide and seek! I still struggle with comings and goings, if I’m honest.
5. Strong, resourceful, intelligent women are far more valuable than the delicate and girly ones. Dad loves telling stories about his infinitely practical mother and martial grandmother.
I admire the feminist sentiment here, but don’t feel that you can polarise women in this way. From my experience, strength and delicacy are not mutually exclusive, and the brave, creative women I most admire are also exceptionally vulnerable. I am somewhat delicate, girly and impractical – maybe as a means of rebelling against my dad’s ideal- though I retain my share of grit.
6. Decisions are final, and have fairly predictable consequences. Dad likes to say ‘Is that what you want?, because that’s what’s going to happen!’
Only in a fairly predictable universe, so unlike this one. Actually, not all decisions are final, and the their is never what you think it is. However, you can hypothesise from patterns in your past.
7. Good books rely above all, upon a solid, stimulating plot. Homer’s epics are timeless, whereas Virginia Woolf’s stream-of-consciousness rambles will eventually become irrelevant.
I disagree, but not as much as I used to. Woolf’s fluid narratives are of course vital because they convey the experience of living and being connected to other lives. They have already stood the test of time, and will continue to do so. But for the most part, beautifully-textured sentences can’t save a boring course of events, and there’s nothing like a pacy plot or fascinating character to make twelve Piccadilly line stations seemingly dissolve into three.
8. Vogue** and other lifestyle glossies are damaging because they plant unrealistic expectations of life into (usually female) readers’ heads. Dad imagines a scenario where a girl, usually one with the wits of one of Marilyn Monroe’s 1950s secretary characters, goes wildly into debt for the love of a Chanel handbag.
Over three centuries ago, the proto-feminist Mary Wollestonecraft expressed similar fears about the expectations of women who read novels. Dad, Ms Wollestonecraft, it’s OK, women read for reasons other than to imitate the lives of It girls called Cressida, or Gothic heroines called Emily. I once tried to explain to Dad that people don’t read Vogue like the Ikea catalogue, with a red marker in hand, drawing rings around covetable items, but for escapism and inspiration. He wasn’t convinced.
9. You can be stingy with yourself, but not with others. Dad only updates his wardrobe when his clothes fall apart, but considers scrimping on food and wine for his guests a major social faux pas.
Agreed- though I’m not especially stingy with myself, and don’t buy the most expensive wine for parties where the primary purpose is to get lashed.
Over the years, I’ve wrangled with my Dad’s lessons, some of them preached, some of them gleaned from his way of doing things. They’re my inheritance, to be dipped into like a wise, if sometimes exasperating favourite book. Yet there are other books to read, and perhaps even write. It’s been liberating for me to learn that I can be open to my dad’s love and advice, and simultaneously form and trust my own opinions.
* Mum taught me to ride a bike and balance a budget, and Madame de Lafayette gives some elegant tips on dealing with unwanted attention.
** By some weird coincidence Dad shares a birthday with the formidable American Vogue editor Anna Wintour. They’re both intelligent, ‘take-charge’ Scorpios. That’s about all they have in common.
Accidents happen when things or people collide. If accidents didn’t happen, some of us wouldn’t be here (on this planet), and almost all of us wouldn’t be here (in this situation, relationship or place). Though I liked the idea of entering the world as a little bombshell, completely unexpected, I actually wasn’t an accident. When my parents got married and bought a cat, their parents complained that this four-legged creature was no replacement grandchild, so they dutifully supplied them with me. My grandmothers began knitting as soon as the pregnancy was announced, so an entire army of immaculate tiny clothes preceded me.
But despite this cushioned beginning, my young parents just weren’t ready for me, and I grew up a sensitive, accident-prone child, susceptible to viruses, collisions with sharp objects and overwhelming impressions. My feeling that I was always on the precipice of disaster, made me retreat into a world of my own making. It wasn’t all bad, though, the surprising people and situations I encountered daily, helped me become creative, empathetic and always ready to laugh. Interestingly, a friend who was almost aborted, because he was initially deemed superfluous, grew up so much more stable and resilient. I’m in awe of his expert handling of risk – he works hard, has antennae for good opportunities, and a knack for minimising misfortune. Both optimistic and pragmatic, this child who almost didn’t make it into the world, sees it as a place brimming with possibility.
Life’s randomness can be unfair, but it is also beautifully invigorating. At their best, accidents can save us from a sleepwalking through a lifestyle that no longer serves us. When I asked my friends about accidents that had transformed their lives, they overwhelmingly spoke about encounters with new people. Polly* had been working part-time in a cafe to fund her career as a musician, when a customer told her that she would get a better wage in another nearby cafe. Following this stranger’s advice, Polly changed jobs, and soon realised that she and the owner, Luke were attracted to one another, despite her engagement to another man, Adam. This inconvenient attraction was the catalyst for making her realise not only, the gaping holes in her relationship with Adam, but that she no longer needed to remain in a city that she hated, to pursue a now out-of-date dream of becoming a musician. Fully awake to her revelation, Polly broke off her engagement with Adam, gave up her teenage vocation, and moved back to the countryside, where she resumed her old job in an antique shop, and now talks about opening up her own vintage tea-house. Some months later, Polly wonders whether without these two encounters- first with the stranger who suggested she change jobs, and then with Luke- she might have married the wrong man and remained in the wrong city. While she’s still unsure of the future, Polly has more confidence in the present, and maintains that you grow by being open and trying things out.
Another friend, Pedro once saw a beautiful girl on his commuter train, but was too shy to approach her. Taking the train everyday, he expected she would be there at some point, and kept rehearsing what he would say in case she showed up. Some months later, when the girl finally made an appearance in his carriage, he mustered up the courage to talk to her. He later learned that the girl almost never took that train, and had only done so on that occasion because she had taken a day off work. Had this been a Hollywood rom-com, Pedro’s chance meeting with the girl would have culminated in a relationship that fulfilled his initial infatuation. In real life however, the girl wasn’t interested in him romantically, but introduced him to a friend, who introduced him to a friend, whose friend, Roberta, (the fourth in the chain), would become his girlfriend for eleven years. Roberta, a highly motivated graphic designer, brought a much-needed sense of stability into his life, which in turn, gave him the determination he previously lacked. Pedro had worked several jobs, but failed to make any headway in any because he felt adrift. When Roberta began to take him seriously, Pedro began to take himself, and his interest in literature and languages seriously. He became a a translator, got a Masters in literature, and then eventually moved from Brazil to the United States to start a PhD. Although they are no longer together, Pedro describes his relationship with Roberta as the defining feature of his adult life, and marvels that he would never have met her, had he not taken a chance with a stranger on a train.
Commuter trains, with their sliding doors, subterranean trajectories and hordes of passengers are picture-perfect locations for prophetic encounters (Just think of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina or the films Sliding Doors and Brief Encounter). Hearing Pedro’s story reminded me of my own frenzied train meeting a few months ago. Suffering from flu, balancing four deadlines and realising that I had no time to apply for what I thought was a unique job, I was sitting on the tube feeling helpless, and the tears just streamed down. Two people approached me- first an older lady, who told me that sickness and death were the only true disasters, and that I was too young to suffer so, and second, a man with brilliant green eyes, a Northern Irish accent, and an odd smell, who tried to comfort me, and then just before my stop, get my number, because I seemed like an interesting person. Part of me wanted to, because he seemed kind and sort of attractive, but in my pitiful state, I also worried that he was an opportunist with a damsel-in-distress fetish. I was also bothered by the smell. So, I thanked him sincerely for his kindness, and got off the train. When I got home, I wondered for a while if I’d done the right thing- but let it go, because with accidental train meetings, only certain Pedros in this world get a second chance! However, my next chance meeting was strangely wonderful, but that’s another story…
* Names and places in this article have been changed for privacy reasons, but the essence of the stories are true. Thanks to my anonymous sources!