| || |I'm fundraising for Macmillan Cancer Support by running the Brighton Half Marathon on 16 February 2014, in memory of my friend Alli Tibbatts. This is why.
I knew my friend Alli was going to die. She told me so, and was characteristically open and honest about her prognosis and the state of her cancer. A few days before it happened, her sister warned us that the time was near. But nevertheless, when the news came through on a Saturday morning, four days before Christmas, the shock and the pain I felt was profound.
It seemed impossible that a voice so clear and so definite, a mind so sharp, could be silenced.
I was out when I heard, in a cinema full of yelling children, and hardly able to absorb the news. But later, when I returned home, wherever I looked, I seemed to see Alli. Here in the kitchen was the set of glasses she gave me as a house-warming gift when I first moved to London. Here on the bookshelf, the beautiful vintage editions of “Orlando the Marmalade Cat” books she pressed on me for my four-year-old son, the very last time I saw her. And there were other, more ephemeral gifts – the book title she came up with. The scurrilous and funny stories she told me about her cancer treatment that informed much of the plot of another novel.
But of all the gifts that Alli gave me over a friendship that spanned two countries and twenty years,
two really stand out. Here are the stories behind them.
We met for coffee in London one day, maybe ten years ago. I was broke, doing menial work to get by, struggling to find a job in my field, my confidence hopelessly battered, my energy waning. Against my will, Alli persuaded me into Liberty the department store, and we wandered around breathing expensive perfume and looking at dresses that cost more than I would earn in the next six months. We found ourselves in the accessory department looking at a glass case full of gloves. “Look at those,” I said, pointing to a pair of gold and fawn gloves. “They’re so classy… not leopard print. What would you say? Maybe jaguar print?” We admired the gloves and moved on, but Alli nipped back without my seeing, and later handed me the beautiful Liberty box, with the gloves wrapped in fine tissue paper. There was no card, no fuss, just the unspoken understanding that sometimes, when you’re on the bones of your arse and your pride is dented and your purse empty, there’s nothing in the world you need more than a pair of jaguar-print gloves from Liberty. They won’t pay the gas bill, but my word they’ll help you hold your head up high.
The story of the second gift goes back many more years, to 1995, when we were newly friends. My marriage had suddenly and nastily imploded, and after some ugly wrangling, my then-husband had moved out and I was alone with my two-year-old son. I was just barely keeping it together. It’s never the big things that break you though, is it? It’s the tiny things. And for me, it was a trip to the supermarket. We had nothing in the house, so I took little Matt and went shopping. Somewhere in the fruit and veg aisle, it struck me that I was shopping for two, not three, and that I had no idea how to do that. This realisation brought on the first panic attack of my life. I abandoned the trolley and somehow got Matt and I back home. Of all my friends, I don’t know why it was Alli I rang, but it was. Sobbing, I explained what had happened, and that we were now at home, with nothing to eat. She asked no questions. She simply put down the phone, and arrived an hour later with bags full of groceries. She cooked for us, stocked my fridge, helped me put Matt to bed and let me cry myself to sleep. She slept the night on our sofa, letting herself out quietly the next morning. I think that may be one of the kindest things anyone ever did for me, and I will never forget it.
I cannot begin to repay the value of those two gifts, nor all the others, nor the unaccountable joy of Alli’s company over the years, nor the humbling lessons she taught us all as she battled cancer. She was the personification of wit and dignity and grace, balanced with a kind of earthy honesty that gave all around her courage. I remember when she came to visit me shortly after my second child was born. The contrast between our lives was marked, and I was worried how that would alter our interaction. I had a new husband and a new baby, she had had a mastectomy and was facing many more years of painful and invasive treatment. I had no idea what to say or do. She plonked herself down on my sofa, grinned wickedly and said, “Do you want to feel my tit?” then reached into her bra and hoiked out her prosthesis which she dropped into my hand. “Heavy, isn't it?” It’s hard to feel awkward in the face of that.
She gave an enormous amount and expected very little in return, and now she is gone, I cannot repay her for the abundant gifts she heaped on me. However before she died, I told her that I would be running the Brighton Half Marathon
in February, and that I would be running to raise money for Macmillan Cancer Support.
“They've done a lot for me,” she said.
“I know," I said, “That’s why I chose them.”
“Well, hurry up and get a page set up so I can donate something,” she said.
This page was set up too late for Alli to donate, and in all honesty, I didn't want her to. She gave more than enough. But I am asking you to support this wonderful charity, which gives help both practical and compassionate to those who need it most. Much as my beautiful friend did.
Some years ago, when I still lived in Johannesburg and had a real job, I had an enlightening encounter. Our company had proposed a partnership with a UK organisation working in a similar field. The MD of that company flew to Johannesburg from London, and we held a series of meetings and presentations. I was the lead creative, and the person with whom he would be required to work most closely.
That evening, we all went out for a formal, working dinner. Our main courses were delivered, and as I made a point about our methods to the English MD, I passed him a platter of vegetables. Unseen by the others at the table, he put his hand beneath mine and stroked the back of my hand suggestively. Surprised, I looked up and caught his eye. He stared at me blankly, but kept touching my hand. I smiled brightly, gave the plate a little shove in his direction and turned away to talk to someone else. I didn’t ask him what he was doing, nor did I draw anyone else’s attention to what had happened. I just let him get away with it.
It’s nothing, of course. It’s a nothing, insignificant, inappropriate incident, one of hundreds I have endured in my working life, and very, very far from the most serious and intrusive. And of course, I was right to say nothing, wasn’t I? That’s not sexual harassment, is it? Is *this* the sort of thing those “shrill” women are accusing Lord Rennard of doing? Touching someone’s leg “over their trousers”? What about all those girls, allegedly groped and touched by Rolf Harris, Bill Roache and Dave Lee Travis? Is this what we’ve come to? Is this political correctness gone mad?
Except, if you’re the person being touched, grabbed, stroked or propositioned, the wrongness of it has nothing to do with what the person did with their hands. The man who stroked my hand over dinner didn’t violate my body, but he made something perfectly clear in that momentary, fleeting interaction. While I was thinking about our future working relationship, he was thinking about sex. While I was working hard to present my well-researched thoughts as articulately as I could, he was hearing some words coming out about eight inches north of a pair of tits.
And yes, before the what-abouters jump up and say “but women do it too,” I agree. Sometimes they do. It doesn’t make it right. So if anyone, female, male, gay or straight or any combination of the above, is brave enough to stick his or her head above the parapet and say “I was sexually harassed”, we should listen. As long as we refuse to take complaints seriously, as long as we judge the gravity of an offence on when and where it was committed, or where or how the perpetrator allegedly touched someone, we will fail to deal with the problem.
Sexual harassment in the workplace has nothing to do with where or how you were touched, or what was said. It has everything to do with dehumanising someone, reducing them to the sum of their body parts and transgressing the boundaries of the working relationship. And when the perpetrator is in a position of influence over the victim’s career, it is a betrayal of trust and an abuse of power. Conspiracies of silence and collusion that protect abusers just make it worse. It takes immense courage to stand up to someone and say, “What you said and did was not all right.”
And every time we idly chat about a case, or read a media report which makes light of a sexual offence, or judge the victim for his or her part in it (“You mean after he raped her she went to his house again and he raped her a second time? Well, it isn’t rape then.”), we perpetuate the culture.
Shout loud. Shout often. It’s not “just a bit of fun”, it’s not “banter”. It’s just not okay.
I took a road trip today. I left the house just after 7am, and drove a total of 300 miles, alone. I went to Telford in Shropshire to collect the ashes of my late mother-in-law.
I’d imagined today’s journey as an epic voyage: I packed provisions (well, Maltesers), arranged childcare, and set off before the sun rose, even though I know perfectly well how long it takes to drive to Telford and back, as I’ve done it hundreds of times. Somehow, it seemed epic because it was the last time. As it happened, I hit no traffic, the weather was good and the trip there took a fraction of the time I’d imagined. I wandered around Telford Shopping Centre for a while and even tried on a dress, and then plucked up the courage to go to the funeral home which was in a suburb a mile or so away.
I was inside for a total of about two minutes, just long enough to notice and feel sorry for the family in the waiting room, all standing around in the shell-shocked silence of the newly bereaved. Then the rather perky funeral director handed me the jar of ashes, in a utilitarian, waterproof navy drawstring bag, and I was on my way. I dithered for a while and wondered where to put them, then opted for strapping them firmly into the child’s car-seat in the back. If I’d left them on the front seat, and had to stop suddenly on the motorway… well, it doesn’t bear thinking about, and the hoover would never be the same again.
The journey back was equally uneventful (I stopped for a loo break and a Costa turkey sandwich about sixty miles outside London), and I was home by 2pm. I’ve put the ashes in a safe place, away from curious four-year-old eyes, and I will take them to the church tomorrow, where they’ll stay until we put them in the Garden of Remembrance on the anniversary of her death next week.
It’s a nothing story. Nothing happened today. Nothing momentous. Of course it didn’t. And yet, I had somehow imagined that it would. That somehow, this journey would offer a kind of end, a full stop to a difficult year, and to a time that has been full of pain and inertia. But it hasn’t. This wasn’t Graham Swift’s Last Orders. I didn’t travel with a sage group of friends who could offer the perfect words of comfort. And the one person I needed to hear from was in a plastic jar in the back seat, and couldn’t say them. The trip today is one of the last steps in a twenty-two year relationship, without doubt the most fraught and difficult relationship of my life. And this last year has been the hardest year of it because now she is dead, it’s entirely one-sided.
I remember very clearly the first time I saw Doreen. It would have been in the late August or early September of 1991. I had just started dating a guy, Glen, and he worked in a poster shop upstairs in Rockey Street, Yeoville, Johannesburg. I had gone to visit him at work, and he mentioned in passing that his mum was popping by to drop something off. A few minutes later, we heard footsteps on the stairs, and a head popped up. I saw a short, stocky woman with grey hair and a lined face. She saw Glen, saw me, waved the object she had brought, put it on the ledge at the top of the stairs and left without saying a word.
I’m a writer, and I can’t help turning everything into narrative, and 22 years later, that looks like a metaphor for who she was. Shy, self-effacing, stubborn. I know now what she would have thought: “Glen is busy. I don’t know who that girl is. I won’t disturb them.” But how it came across to me, then aged 22 or so, was that she was just plain rude, or not very interested in other people. It wasn’t the last time we would see the world differently.
We had twenty years of ups and downs. There were some rows, some sulks, some happy times. But I spent the best part of all that time feeling I was failing. That no matter what I did, she thought I wasn’t doing enough. That when she looked at me, she saw the worst of what I saw in myself. Was that true? I don’t know. All I know is that she died before I could stop feeling like that. And I have lost the best part of a year staring into space, feeling sorry for myself and not doing very much at all. Without sounding too melodramatic, it has felt like I had a heavy weight to carry. Sometimes I could shoulder it and carry on. But sometimes I just couldn’t pick it up and keep doing things. It was too heavy.
As I’ve said to friends, in many ways her death has been much harder than losing my own parents (who died in 1995 and 1997). I loved them. I knew they loved me, very much. It was horrible to lose them, but the love felt complete and right, and I could move on with my life, without too many regrets and with lots of happy memories. Not so in this case. I’ve spent twelve months enumerating the ways in which I let her down when she was alive, and even the ways I’ve let her down since she died.
I’ve procrastinated hopelessly about getting a headstone made and bringing the ashes down. Every week for months, I promised myself I would do it, and every week I failed. What would she have thought? That I didn’t care? Probably. Anyway, now I’ve done it, and I don’t feel any different. Will I feel differently once we inter the ashes and put the stone in place? Probably not. Life isn’t a novel or a film. You don’t get to play out a scene that makes everything better, just before the credits roll. I’ll probably continue to remember her, or remember ways in which I failed her, and be floored by it. I’ll also remember the good times, the things she liked, the fun we had. I’ll remember that we took her to the Paralympics in the summer before she died, and she loved every second of it. After a while, I will think of her less and be depressed about it less often. That’s how life works.
So nothing happened today. I completed an errand. I’ll go and make dinner now, and think about the run I plan to take tomorrow, and what to pack for my four-year-old’s school lunch. Life will go on. The weight I carry won’t be lifted by one event. It may erode over time, and get a little lighter. That’s the best I can hope for.
I never thought you’d hear me saying this. Really never. In fact I can’t believe I’m saying it.
But is it time we gave up on feminism?
Not the principles. Not for even a heartbeat would I suggest that. But the word. Yes, yes I know what I’ve said about it before, and how angry it has made me in the past when I’ve heard women say they aren’t feminists. I can hear the muttering and growling already from so many readers, but let me explain further.
This past weekend, I was enormously privileged to attend Blogfest 2013
, the annual conference for members of the Mumsnet Blogging Network. I arrived at King’s Place near King’s Cross and walked into a room which can only be described as awash with oestrogen. It was the single most exciting space I have been in in years. Women’s views ruled. In the opening session, journalist Toby Young interrupted Stella Creasy, MP, and tried to shout her down to make a point. The audience hissed. For once, a middle-aged white man was not going to get to shout the loudest or tell a woman to “calm down”.
The Internet has, in many ways, made publishing democratic. People can make themselves heard with little more than a mobile phone and an email connection. The gateway to an audience is no longer controlled by a media conglomerate, nor is money a barrier. Good blogs rise and are shared. Social media gives us all the right to reply and express our opinions. This is the first time in history where lucky women have the chance to speak for themselves, and on behalf of those who live in situations where illiteracy, cultural constraints and Internet crackdowns prevent them from speaking.
So there we were, sitting in a room full of women – but not just any women – blogging women. Women with a voice, a voice they claim for themselves. Women who have ideas and carve out spaces for themselves on the Internet: having opinions, shaping opinion, writing, making, photographing. They tell stories, give advice, build businesses and make art. Women who, in my definition of the term, are the living embodiment of feminism, every last one of them.
And then… well, then. The final session was named, “Can you be a ‘mummy blogger’ and still be a feminist?” It was a title sure to cause controversy. Those quote marks around ‘mummy blogger’. The choice of ‘mummy’ rather than ‘mother’, or just ‘woman’. Why not just ‘blogger’ without a qualifier? And why ‘still’ a feminist? And unsurprisingly, the session soon degenerated, and in the main, it degenerated over issues of semantics. Can you be a feminist and make jam? Or wear heels? Is ‘mummy’ a derogatory term? Is motherhood the full-stop to your life?
And through it all – the shouting, the scrolling, angry twitter feed on the screen that was eventually turned off as it threatened to upstage the action onstage, the sudden and unceremonious exit of the panel, I wanted to stand up and shout at everyone…. “Listen to yourselves! You’re arguing about the meanings of words because you can! Because you have a voice and a forum! You’re all bloody feminists! Every last one of you!”
Except they weren’t. Many, many women in that room were quick to say they weren’t
feminists, out loud or later in blogs and on twitter. Several I spoke to later at the drinks said the same thing. And the next day, when I spoke to a friend who is a doctor, and qualified in the 1970s when women doctors were extremely rare, she said it too.
And yet… if you were to ask any of these women if they felt that women should be paid the same as men for the same work, that there should be more equable childcare laws, that women all over the world should be granted education and freedom from violence, rape and mutilation, I guarantee they’d all say yes, and many of them are living those aims or campaigning for them for themselves and others. It sounds like feminism to me, but these women reject the word, because for them it has become toxic and laden with things they abhor, wrongly or rightly. For them it has come to suggest humourlessness, a dismissal of familiar feminine activities and pursuits, man-hating, elitism, middle-class smugness, or as my friend the doctor put it, stridency. One could say it has come to mean a bunch of cross, loud, posh women telling other women what they can and can’t do.
It breaks my heart, because feminism is a word I love with all my heart, but it’s not doing us any favours.
So let’s ditch it. Let’s ditch this word if it’s standing between us. Does it matter what we call ourselves? We are women with voices, women who want a better life for ourselves, our daughters and sons and, by extension for the men who can only benefit from our enriched participation in society (even though they sometimes don’t see it quite yet). As much as I love the word, I love the principles more, and I love the astonishing women I know who currently feel excluded by it.
Yes me. Yes really.
Every now and then, an opportunity comes along where you just know you’ll be hilariously, totally out of your depth, but you can’t help yourself and you say yes anyway. Such an opportunity has come my way. I’ll be on a panel at Mumsnet’s prestigious Blogfest
on Saturday 9 November, entitled Cracking yarns and tall tales: how to tell a better story
. Now I’m not averse to the limelight, and I like to think I’m a fairly competent public speaker (all those years at drama school were not in vain), but I’ll be sharing the stage with award-winning blogger and writer Cassandra Parkin, and two other little-known scribblers called AL Kennedy and Lionel Shriver.
I’m sure you understand the blind terror with which I anticipate this event. I can only imagine I’m there to be the comic relief, or target for rotten-tomato hurling. Nevertheless, wild Tories wouldn’t keep me away, and I’ll be there on that stage, if only to learn from these three magnificent women, and from the editor of Mumsnet, Sarah Crown, who will be chairing the panel.
If you’re a blogger, or are interested in blogging, I’m told there are a few tickets left for Blogfest, which features an astonishing line-up of speakers and panellists (any conference that opens with Stella Creasy and closes with Jo Brand must be pretty sound). Blogfest
Saturday 9 November 9am – 7pm
90 York Way
Dear IKEA Wembley,
Today you turned a mild-mannered (well, maybe a medium-peri-peri-mannered) writer into a snarling beast. Today you turned what should have been a simple errand into an ordeal, and made me stand outside your store and shake my fist at the heavens, yelling, “As God is my witness, I’ll never buy another pack of 100 tealights again!”
Do you want to know why? Well you probably don’t, but I’m going to tell you anyway. It’s this. You know that Brand Experience/ Retail Psychology/ Up-Their-Own-Arses Media-Trouser-Wearing Agency you hired at a sum of heaven knows what? They’re wrong. They. Are. Wrong. What they told you to do with your store to “enhance the retail experience”, or “grease the customer funnel” or whatever other bollocks phrase they fed you in that hundreds-of-thousands-of-pounds, multimedia document you paid through the nose for… they were wrong.
You see, I know your store. I’ve shopped there a lot and I know where to find the things I have come to buy. I do my research ahead of time and find the warehouse location of any furniture items. I may often pick up extra bits and pieces, and I’m certain to make use of the canteen, but my shopping regime at your, and other stores, is get in, get what I need, get out – partly because I have better things to do, and partly because I am inevitably dragging a whining toddler with me.
But now, when I come into your store, you've cordoned off the downstairs entrance, and you force me to trek through the whole fucking showroom, following arrows on the floor, behind so many other sad people, all robbed of hope, like a herd of beef cattle being corralled towards the stun-gun room. You've moved everything around, and now you make me wander haltingly through every last sodding department, despite the fact that I have come to your store to buy a duvet cover and a crappy £1.25 waste paper basket. Now I know I said that I've made impulse purchases in IKEA before, but I meant a lamp, or maybe a throw. Not a fucking spare kitchen.
But… and this is the best bit of all, the bit that made fangs grow from my jaw and hair sprout from my knuckles… when I went to the stand in reception where I know I can find a yellow bag for my aforementioned bits and pieces and a handy tiny pencil, I discovered that you no longer offer store maps. I *must* now walk the predefined route without guidance. I may neither know nor guess whether the items I have come to buy are around the corner, or whether I might have missed them. What if I need to retrace my steps, IKEA? What if I turn and swim upstream like an eager, Fjällsta-photo-frame seeking salmon? Will I be ejected for my rebellion? Will the other zombie shoppers turn on me and devour me? No. I must keep going forward, ever forward, to the ultimate nirvana of the self-checkout tills and the 60p hot dogs, whereafter I may once more be free.
In an interview with the Daily Mail this week, your customer relations manager, Gerard Bos said: “As part of the IKEA shopping experience, we aim to offer a fun day out for the whole family and we welcome everybody to be inspired by our range and to touch and feel our products.”
Well, let me tell you this, IKEA… it wasn’t a “fun day out”. It was a day in which I yelled at my small child and barked at my university-going son, for whom the expedition was undertaken. It was a day which gave me an ulcer and a firm resolve never to return… unless I come back in order to shove your Losjön right in your Lillången.
Incensed of Mill Hill
Well, well, well. That Miley Cyrus, eh? When the whole VMA storm broke and everyone and their Auntie Ethel blogged about it / wrote columns/ discussed in the pub, I kind of let it pass me by. After all, I am not and have never been her target market. But then yesterday she released a statement
about the furore surrounding her performance. "Madonna's done it. Britney's done it," she said. "Every VMA performance, that's what you're looking for; you're wanting to make history…what’s amazing is I think now, people are still talking about it. They're over-thinking it. You're thinking about it more than I thought about it when I did it. I didn't even think about it ‘cause that's just me.”
| |And immediately, I wanted to ask, Why? Why
didn't you think about it? Miley Cyrus is an immensely famous young woman. She has a global audience, infinite financial resources (a quick internet search puts her personal wealth at between $120 and $150 million), and her enormous clout grants her close-to-total creative freedom. So given this unprecedented amount of power and control, why did she choose to strip down to a shiny Elastoplast bikini and grind her behind into the crotch of a man old enough to know better? Of all the creative choices she could have made, why that? A choice that she “
didn't even think about”?
It got me thinking about choice. About we women who have it, and the millions of women who have less than us, or none.
Are you a woman with choice? Ask yourself the following questions. Did you/ will you get to decide when and how your education ends? Do you get to decide if/ where you work? Did you choose your own sexual/ life partner? Are you in charge of your own sexual health and contraception? Can you move around the world freely and alone?
If you answered yes, then you are a woman with choices and I would say this to you. We have a responsibility to choose well. Given that we have so many options, we are accountable to women all over the world who have few or no choices. If we have possibilities and opportunities and platforms and we’re wasting them, what hope is there for women who are at daily risk of rape and sexual assault, forced marriage and genital mutilation, and who are denied the right to education, property and autonomy?
So here’s my manifesto. It isn't prescriptive, because I don’t hold with telling people what to do. But these are the choices I plan to live by – and the choices I wish Miley Cyrus and other women of influence might give a thought to. Choose well Choose education. UNESCO statistics
show that education for girls and women is a primary indicator for improved maternal, health, reduced infant mortality and a reduction in crime and poverty across the community. It stands to reason that is as true in North London as it is in Malawi. Education gives empowerment and choice. If you have the chance to get it, grab as much of it as you can. Choose information.
As above. The internet is full of the stuff. So are books, newspapers, magazines and the television. Arm yourself with information on all issues so you can make informed decisions. Think, think, think. Choose financial independence.
You never know what’s around the corner. No matter how lovely your life is now, how committed your relationships, how supportive your family… nobody knows what tomorrow will bring. Be ready. Save. Have the capacity to work and earn, even if you’re not working now. Choose good relationships.
Whether they’re romantic relationships family ties, work connections or friendships, choose well. If someone is degrading you, abusing you, or damaging your self-esteem, walk away and choose better. Don’t let them rob you of your power and autonomy. I also know this is easy to say but difficult to do. Choose positive influence.
If you are in a position of power, and people look up to you, consider how you express yourself (yes, Miley, I’m talking to you). If you’re looking for a role model, think about what the person you look up to stands for. Choose thoughtful creative expression
(yup, another one for you, Miley). If you’re a creative, what does your work say? If you’re a musician, actor, writer, comedian… does your work show you as a complex multi-faceted human being? Particularly if you’re a young woman, are you showing off more than your beauty and sexuality? Choose to help other women.
I attended an event at the Houses of Parliament earlier this year to commemorate the centenary of the death of Emily Wilding Davison
. The roster of speakers was incredibly impressive, women of power and influence in a wide variety of fields. The one thing they all agreed upon is this – if we are in positions of influence, we should mentor, promote and help other women, not pull the ladder up after us. Choose positive sexual expression
. I’m all for sex. I like doing it, and I find it arousing to see it depicted well. But here’s a question to ask. If you’re expressing yourself sexually (actually doing the deed, dancing, posing for pictures, whatever), think about what you’re doing. Is it genuinely exciting for you? Is it turning you on? Or are you acting out a male/ pornified fantasy because you've been taught turning someone else on is more important? That’s my issue with La Cyrus’s performance. I’m not indulging in middle-aged tutting because she was being ‘sexy’. I’m asking whether what she was doing was sexy for *her*. Choose to vote.
No-brainer, Seriously. I won’t even lay a suffragette guilt trip about how women died so you could vote. It’s just so obvious that the government have control over every aspect of your life – your financial well-being, your home, your health care and education. You've been given the right to hire and fire them. Use it.
And finally… Choose choice.
What we don’t realise when we are young is that so many of the choices we make, sometimes blindly or impulsively, can close doors. The wrong relationship. A dead-end job. A baby born when we couldn't really afford it. You can’t plan for everything, but you can always try to keep doors open – keep your career moving, avoid obvious health pitfalls, end poisonous relationships. Look after yourself and your dependents before trying to please other people.
Choose. Because you can.
This week, I committed a shameless act of bribery. No, it didn’t involve a police officer or a public official and a wodge of cash. It involved offering a small child a Disney film and an ice cream, in exchange for ten minutes of uninterrupted silence. Now those of you who are better parents than I are probably tutting right now. Well, tut away. Perhaps, in a similar situation, you would have had a cornucopia of worthy craft activities and a healthy organic snack lined up. Maybe your children are more obedient than mine. All I can say is this. Judge ye not, lest you too have a radio interview in the middle of the summer holidays.
The life of the author, just like the life of the actor, artist or musician, is not bloody glamorous, let me tell you. Maybe when you get into the hilarious, telephone-number-earning sphere it is, but for the thousands of us toiling away at the arts, our lives are just like everyone else’s. We do the laundry. We do the shopping. We try and eradicate the mould from that white silicone stuff in the bathroom. We scream at our kids, and in between, we try to find time and head-space to work. It’s difficult enough to find time to actually write the damned books, but we have to find time to promote them too.
It so happens that this is the week my novel, Wonder Women, is being released in South Africa, my home country. The South African publicist does sterling work, and, among other things, had set up a telephone interview for me with the book show on a South African radio station. It’s great publicity. It’s also, unfortunately, the second-last week of school holidays here in the UK. My angel childminder was on her own, hard-earned summer holiday. My older son was working. My husband, ditto. I had hoped I might be able to time an afternoon nap for the four-year-old to coincide with the interview, but a miscalculation involving daylight-saving time meant this was not to be. Hence the aforementioned bribery and an interview conducted squatting in the hallway leaning against the living room door, hoping that the interview was not going to take longer than the time it takes a four-year-old to eat a Cornetto.
I would feel worse about this if I hadn't tuned into Women’s Hour the very next morning. There, I heard Jenni Murray announce that she would be interviewing the winner of the Foster’s Comedy Award at the Edinburgh Festival, Bridget Christie. Now every publicity-seeking female artist knows Women’s Hour is a plum gig – almost four million listeners, impeccable pedigree – yet Bridget Christie’s interview was conducted over the phone. I wondered briefly if she was still in Edinburgh, or lived somewhere in the sticks, but Jenni Murray said that she was London-based, and then explained that she was being interviewed from home because she was looking after her kids. A quick Google search tells me she has two, aged six and two. And indeed, when I listened to the interview, she sounded distracted and a little flustered. A less astute listener might have thought she was intimidated by being on such a prestigious radio show, but I’m pretty sure she was either (a) in the pantry holding the door closed with her foot, (b) wiping someone else’s bottom, (c) dispensing a snack or (d) making silent threatening gestures and faces at one or both children. Any parent knows when bribery has failed, threats of violence are all you have left.
Bridget Christie, if you ever read this, you have my sympathy, as does every woman (and man) who works from home and tries to juggle being professional with being a parent. It is exceedingly difficult, and at some point, you’re going to compromise one or other aspect of your life. Your cooler-than-cool work-person façade will slip and someone will hear you shriek at your kids, or orange squash will be spilled on a vital document, or you’ll miss a crucial meeting because of chicken pox or a school concert. Alternatively, your kids will spend too much time in front of the TV, or will learn to trade good behaviour for snacks and treats, or will end up just missing you because they’ve been banned from your office/ workspace/ shed/ bathroom while you try to meet an impossible deadline. Indeed, Bridget Christie’s show nearly didn't make it to Edinburgh at all… she is married to comedian Stewart Lee, who also had a show at the festival, and at one point it seemed one of them would have to forego the experience to look after their kids. The juggling and the choices can be heartbreakingly difficult, but in my experience, the people who are performing those impossible balancing acts work harder than anyone. They wait till the kids are in bed and put in hours of work to meet deadlines, they work through illness and crises because they can’t waste sick days on their own bout of flu, they perform miracles in the sixty minutes of a toddler nap. Because they have to.
So the next time you’re on the phone to a homeworker, or expecting an email or a piece of work, remember some people are keeping more than plates spinning. Cut them some slack. They will deliver. And if you go round for a meeting, they’ll almost certainly have Cornettos in the freezer.
All images are courtesy of www.ivereadthat.com. This blog also appears as part of Crime Fiction Week at http://shazsbookboudoir.blogspot.co.uk/One Saturday in the mid-1980s, I was in the Parkview library in Johannesburg, aged probably twelve or thirteen, a precocious bookworm who had exhausted the children’s section. My mother, who was a voracious reader herself, and who was tired of my nagging for something new to read, handed me a book by Ruth Rendell. “You might like this,” she said. It was The Tree of Hands. Memories from when you are young are always so vivid, so my recollection of that day is suffused with the smell of the books, the sunlight through the narrow windows, shining on the parquet floor, and the squeaky, squashy, sweat-inducing blue plastic of the chair I sat in to begin reading.
Ruth Rendell took me by the hand, plucked me out of 1980s Johannesburg, and drew me into London, her London. She did it with her spare, beautiful writing, her ability to create characters who are mentally ill, and wrong-headed, yet whose thought processes we can follow, and with whom we still empathise. Her plotting is impeccable and careful, and she places every clue and hint we need to fully appreciate her brilliant climax and denouement. She opened my eyes to what books could do. “One day,” I remember thinking, “I want to be able to write like that.”
That first encounter with her writing was more than thirty years ago, and I have read her work ever since. I enjoy the Inspector Wexford mysteries, but especially love her more psychological stand-alone books, especially those written as Barbara Vine. Her vivid evocation of the feel and geography of North London played a part in my choosing it as my home in 2000, and even though I have never written crime novels, her skills with plotting and character development have probably influenced my writing more than anyone else I have read.
I give you all this background so you can understand how I felt when I was given the opportunity through the Royal Society of Literature to attend a crime writing masterclass with Ruth Rendell herself. It’s not possible to overestimate her influence on me, and the thought of being in a room with her was overwhelming. When I learned that our assignment for the class was to write a 30-word opening sentence for a crime novel which we would be expected to read aloud, I almost needed resuscitating. Then I went online and read interviews with her. In many of them she sounded a little forbidding and cold, unwilling to discuss her personal life, giving ill-prepared or prying journalists short shrift. Now I was just plain terrified.
I couldn’t have been more wrong. As we filed into the conference room in Somerset House where the class was to be held, she smiled warmly. She is in her early eighties, slim, beautifully dressed, clearly fit and in good health. She spoke clearly and quietly, reading from typed notes, and pausing to go round the room and ask us all questions. Most of those in the class were comparatively inexperienced, aspirant rather than practiced writers, but she listened to everyone’s thoughts, questions and contributions with equal seriousness and answered them carefully.
Kind, witty, warm, the Baroness herself.
She opened by saying that we should always seek to write a good novel, not a good crime novel. Crime may play a part in it, but there is no reason why books in that genre should be considered second-best. She spoke about choosing a geography which we knew well, both to save research and to give our work the ring of truth. With regard to character, she gave one tip so breathtakingly simple, and yet so brilliant, I have yet to stop thinking about it. “Even if you are writing a very bad or evil character,” she said, “Give them something to love. A parent, a child, a pet. It allows us to engage with them and empathise with their inner life.” She also suggested giving a character an interest or passion to make them well-rounded and interesting. “Give them a taste for something,” she said, “And if they’re a very good character, maybe give them a taste for something unsavoury.” It was as close as she could come to explaining her own magical abilities with character, although I fear in less skilful hands, giving your protagonist a taste for booze and a butterfly collection would not make them as curious and fascinating as her finely drawn masterpieces.
She spoke about her process, and how it differs from that of her close friend PD James. She says she does research, preferring books to the Internet, but using all sources. However she is not overly concerned with police procedure, or accurate details about guns, and in all her years of writing has only ever consulted the police once. Rather cheekily, she said, “If you want to know about police procedure, television dramas are excellent. As are the books of PD James.” She begins writing at the beginning, and writes chronologically, going back to change or edit as she goes on, allowing the plot to develop organically.
Ruth Rendell noted that people always ask what she uses to write, and that people often seemed to think writing on computer was somehow to be frowned upon, and that ‘real’ writers work in longhand. She said she felt that was irrelevant. “It is what happens between the brain and the hand that matters.”
In terms of the mechanics, she has indeed moved with the times and has three laptops in different rooms in her house, moving from room to room with her work backed up on a memory stick. She has a table beside her work stations with copies of Roget’s Thesaurus and Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, as well as Fowler’s Modern English Usage.
As a contrast, PD James plans her novels to the last detail, then writes them in longhand and has them typed by a secretary. She will frequently work out of sequence, writing a key or climactic scene first.
What to write? Not surprisingly she said that the Agatha Christie-esque notion of a stately home and a “whodunnit” crime solved by a detective is old-hat. She talked about how she grew up reading Christie and Dorothy Sayers, unable to recognise her own family or people she knew in their worlds of aristocrats, bishops and professors. “Every tiny village in every book I read had a professor in it,” she said drily. “A type of person I had never met.” She urged us to write about real, everyday people, about how we live now, and to write about the why, rather than the who or how of crime.
She talked about creating suspense, about beginning from the very first line, with something that makes the reader desperate to read on. You want them to say, “I could not put it down,” she said. This was the point where we all read our first lines. She listened seriously and responded to each one, then read us her favourite opening line from one of her own novels, the now-famous one from A Judgement in Stone.
“Eunice Parchman killed the Coverdale family because she could not read or write.”
She then answered questions from the floor. The first question, unremarkably, was “How many books have you written?”
“I don’t know,” she said, brushing it aside impatiently. (I know the answer; it’s more than seventy, with the most recent due out in July 2013).
“Which is your favourite of your own books?” she was asked.
She said that she has always loved the books she has written as Barbara Vine (I concur, King Solomon’s Carpet is my personal favourite), and she named A Judgement in Stone and Talking to Strange Men as two particular favourites.
She answered questions about which aspects of writing she found hard. “I find it difficult to write action,” she said, “To move characters quickly from place to place.” One writer spoke about his difficulties with a feature of his work. “If you find something difficult, like me with my action,” she said kindly, “I would say just avoid it.” That got a big laugh.
And finally she urged us all to walk. To enjoy the exercise and to take the time to think and, “listen to the rhythm and the resonance of the words in your head.”
“The world is not very friendly to aspiring writers,” she said sympathetically. However she does scorn anyone who suggests that she has ‘made it’ and should stop writing and retire. She has no intention of doing so while she still enjoys it. And she spoke of the joyous discovery of being a writer.
“There you are, alone with your novel, longing to know something you do not know.”
I have wandered in the imagination of this wonderful writer for decades. In three hours, I could not hope to learn a fraction of what she knows, nor approach her skill. But when I hesitatingly read my written and rewritten first line, and she nodded kindly and said, “Hmm, yes, that makes you want to read on,” she closed a circle, and made the dreams of a thirteen-year-old South African girl come true.
Me in class, trying to think of an intelligent question. Failing.
I am glad to hear you are in hospital. I hope you suffer torture until you die. You idiot. I consider you are a person unworthy of existence in this world, and should like the opportunity of starving and beating you to a pulp. Why don’t your people find an asylum for you?
The more things change, the more they stay the same. Except for the good grammar and spelling, this might well be the sort of message that feminist activists receive on a regular basis in 2013. It seems there will always be people who believe women should be silenced and who are happy to threaten violence and rape to achieve that aim. The letter above, however, is 100 years old, and was sent to the Cottage Hospital in Epsom, when suffragette Emily Wilding Davison lay dying after she had been knocked down by the King’s horse at the Derby.
This month sees the 100th anniversary of her death, and newspapers, magazines and blogs have paid tribute to this most famous of the suffragettes, and a martyr to her cause. Clare Balding’s excellent programme Secrets of a Suffragette
on Channel 4 (available on 4OD) will give you as much information as you could wish for about the woman, her cause and her death.
On Wednesday evening, I was delighted to attend a memorial for her at the House of Commons, organised by Emily Thornberry MP. I’d never been inside the Mother of all Parliaments before and the line-up of speakers was impressive.
When Jane Garvey, Radio 4 presenter of Woman’s Hour
took the podium, she looked around the room and said ruefully, “When Emily invited me to speak at this event; she said there would probably be about 40 people in a conference room.” Instead, she found herself standing in Westminster Hall, addressing an audience of around 900 people. Every seat was filled and more people were standing at the back. It was enough to lift my heart.
The thing about feminism is, at least for me, you get tired. You get tired of the endless anti-female crap in the media. You get tired of the crap in the comments section of every article about feminism in the media. You get tired of abuse, sexism, inequality, infighting, women who wouldn't know the sisterhood if it bit them on the arse, and smug twenty-somethings who can’t be bothered to vote and won’t call themselves feminists because they don’t see why they have to be one. They have earned the privileges they have, obviously. No one else had to fight and die for them. Excuse the rant. But my point remains. The fight never seems to get easier, and on Monday, when Laura Bates of Everyday Sexism appeared on breakfast television, she instantly got a stream of tweets, emails and comments telling her to “get a grip, bitch.” So yes, you get tired, and it often feels like a very lonely fight. I imagine that is a feeling with which Emily Wilding Davison might have empathised.
But then, you get to attend an event like this one, and the stage is packed with some of the most powerful and influential women in the country – Harriet Harman, Theresa May, Diane Abbott, Salma Yaqoob, Sandi Toksvig, Jane Garvey, and Helen Pankhurst. The audience is full of women (and men), who exude positive energy, and you feel a little, just a little, like maybe you are not so alone. And very sadly, I think this is not something Emily Wilding Davison would have experienced, outside of her own militant group.
Before the event began, one of the Doorkeepers took the microphone and said drily, “This event is due to begin at 6pm, and due to finish at 7.45 pm. I have no doubt we won’t start at six and we definitely won’t be finished by 7.45.” He was wrong. The speakers took the stage a few minutes after six, and finished promptly at a quarter to eight. One can forgive him for his pessimism. It probably doesn't often happen that an event in that building has an almost all-female line-up, and including ‘honorary sister’, John Bercow (Harriet Harman’s description), every single one of them spoke concisely and wittily.
Harriet Harman gave her seven principles of feminism (number two was: “If you’re being awkward and difficult, you’re making a difference”). Theresa May pointed out that while there have been 369 women MPs since 1918, there are currently 503 men in the House of Commons. Jane Garvey quoted figures
which showed that in the 2010 election, 97 years after Emily Wilding Davison’s sacrifice, 36% of women didn't bother to vote. Diane Abbott talked about the changes she had seen, recalling that in her lifetime she had known a time when women couldn't get a mortgage and were forced to give up public sector jobs if they got married. Sandi Toksvig quoted legendary economist Beatrice Webb, who, when someone said to her, “Feminism is nonsense, any woman would rather be beautiful than clever,” replied, “That is true, but that is because so many men are stupid and so few blind.” Salma Yaqoob was impassioned and uncompromising, and urged us to see the links between race, class and gender discrimination. “Don’t divide people according to East and West,” she said, “Or into believers and non-believers, women and men. The only division is between the oppressed and the oppressor.” And even as my heart lifted with the speeches these women gave, there remained a niggling thought, which was articulated by Helen Pankhurst, the final speaker.
“This event and its speakers are anomalies,” she said. “We have not arrived at our destination.”
Every single one of the women who spoke echoed one consistent theme. “Are we opening doors for other women?” More than one mentioned the fact that when Margaret Thatcher left office, she left behind an all-male cabinet. I was struck at that moment how very lonely the journey must have been for every one of the very successful women on that stage. Diane Abbott spoke touchingly about how, even if we didn't want to go into politics and leadership, we might support the women we know who have.
“Ring them up,” she urged. “Ask how their day was. Take round a bottle of wine.”
And Sandi Toksvig made the poignant and powerful point that the world does itself a huge disservice in restricting education to so many girls and women. “If the solution to climate change, or a cure for cancer lies inside the head of a girl who hasn't been allowed to leave the house, let alone go to school, then that is a great tragedy,” she said.
When the speeches finished, the speakers all stayed to chat to members of the audience, and around me, I saw women begin to mobilise. Many were handing out leaflets for causes, events, theatrical performances and more. I met Sophie Partridge, an actor and writer, and activist for disability rights, who was there urging people to sign a petition to save the Independent Living Fund
. She saw the event as a chance to get into the Houses of Parliament and put her case to some powerful people, much as Emily Wilding Davison took the opportunity some 100 years ago to hide in a broom cupboard on the night of the Census so she could claim the Houses of Parliament as her address. Support Sophie by signing this petition if you can. Let it be your first step in empowering another woman.
One of Emily Thornberry’s aims with the event was to propose the erection of a statue of Emily Wilding Davison in Parliament. “Of the 100 statues in these buildings who are not kings and queens,” she said, “94 are of men. There are even two of John Major.” If you’d like to support this, you can write to your MP to support Emily Thornberry’s Early Day Motion.
There will also be an e-Petition on the HM Government website soon.
It was an inspiring event, and I feel like I gained heart and hope from being there. I can believe in a better future for women now, although sadly not the Utopia we glimpsed during the event itself. As Diane Abbot was concluding her speech, a bell began to ring incessantly, and all the MPs in the meeting, including Harriet Harman, Theresa May, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott and John Bercow were called away to vote. “We won’t be long,” said Emily Thornberry, “But while we’re away, Sandi Toksvig is in charge.”
Now there’s a leadership I could support…