Thursday, 23 January 2014

You don't get it

Trigger Warning - sexual assault, harrassment, rape. Don't read this if you're unsure about it.  

   When you are a creature of routine, you tend to see the same people over and over again. Monday to Friday, doing the school run, I see the same people, the same cars, the same cyclists. The Blondies and I have developed a game where we assign nicknames to them and play nickname bingo to try and distract us from the monotony of our cold and damp trudging. Pretty Red-Haired Girl, Grumpy Granny, Teenage George Osbourne, The Count…

     The Count. A nickname that I settled on because he looks exactly like the Count in Sesame Street. I always saw him on my way back home after dropping The Blondies off. There’s one road that I usually walk along, very straight and flat, and I would pass him walking in the opposite direction, presumably on his way to work. Norwich is a friendly place, and most strangers smile at you, sometimes even a ‘Good morning!’, especially if you see each other regularly. We’d fallen into the habit of greeting each other as we passed, but… So very British of me, but it was starting to get a bit awkward. The road is so straight that I would be able to see him approaching a good five minutes before we actually drew level with one another, and we would have to do that slightly baffling thing of pretending we hadn’t really spotted each other until we were close enough to smile and make our acknowledgement. It’s not that he seemed creepy or weird, just a slightly awkward situation that one can only understand if one comes from the UK.

     Then on the last day of term, I spotted him walking towards me again, big smile. But this time, instead of continuing past me, he stopped, extended a hand and started talking. ‘Hi, nice to meet you, I’m Andrew, what’s your name? Just thought I’d say Merry Christmas to you, do you have any plans?’ I was initially polite, said nothing much, just at home with the family, yes, I’m walking home after dropping my kids at school, yes, I have children, no I’m not single, I have a partner, no, I don’t want to meet you for a drink, no, please let go of my hand, I said let go of my hand, FUCK OFF.

     Happily for me, I have a plethora of other roads to walk home along in the morning, so I haven’t walked back that way since term started back. I’ve told a few people about it, and the difference in reactions is telling. Before I even get halfway through it, the women are already rolling their eyes and saying ‘I know where this is going.’ The men seem quite stunned by it. Men, it seems, just don’t get it.

     Men don’t get ogled when they’re walking down the road. Men don’t get pinned up against the wall at a PTA ceilidh and groped. Men don’t have to fend off wandering hands in the pub. Men don’t have a car pull up alongside them and ask ‘How much?’ when they’re 16 and on their way to take their RE GCSE exam. Men don’t get their arses grabbed in the middle of a busy street. Men don’t have to step in and physically remove unwelcome hands that are fondling their friends when they’re out for the night. Men don’t feel intimidated when they have to walk past a group of people of the opposite sex, and steel themselves for the shout that will inevitably come. 

     Men don’t have the experience of being chased through an underpass by a group of drunk people they thought were friends, the ‘friends’ shouting that they’re ‘going to fuck you up good and proper.’ Men don’t get confronted by flashers when they’re out walking  in Earlham Park. Men don’t  have people offering to light their cigarettes and holding the lighter too low so their top can be looked down. Men aren’t confronted with images of other semi-naked men in national newspapers on a  daily basis, and being told ‘it’s just a bit of fun’. Men don’t get their clothes torn in a hotel room, trying to get away from a hotel employee, when they’re 14. Men don’t get followed around Valley of the Kings when they’re 17. 

     Men don’t get a penis pressed into their back on public transport. Men don’t get rape threats online. Men don’t get told not to wear certain clothes.  Men don’t get told not to go out alone after dark. Men don’t get told not to get drunk in case someone takes advantage of them. Men don’t get told to take it as a compliment. Men don’t get raped on a beach when they’re five years old, and then asked why they didn't shout or scream at the time.

     Men don’t get it. But women do. The above is only my experience to date. If you think I’m exaggerating, have a look at Everyday Sexism and see for yourself. See what women get. And if you’re a man, you might just get it.

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

I capture the castle

     Getting it out of the way, I bloody love Norwich. It is my city, a fine city, filled with history, stories, and a wonderfully bolshy state of mind. But sometimes, the weight of history gets a little much. And if you’re already taking The Black Dog for a walk, strange things can happen. Strange things like sitting in the castle keep, alone, for an hour, thinking too much about things after looking at the chapel. And having a weird, fatalistic rant into your notebook. I'd appreciate a visit from someone in possession of a wet fish. My face is sorely in need of a slap.

     All these images, all these people, all these stories, these scratchings. All of those lives, lived, experienced. Laughter (muted?),tears (infrequent?), passions, arguments, all that was felt and hoped for, cared about, all of that, every moment, every precious moment that meant too much and was so important. People cared enough to record their existence, to tell people, to leave a mark, to try to express something to the people they lived amongst, and to the people who came after.

     Something tangible, an absolute marker of their existence, a tiny scratching left to act as a reminder, a statement. A warning? We might consider ourselves important take ourselves too seriously. Believe that our thoughts and lives matter, but ultimately, what we see on the walls of buildings informs us that we are ephemeral and transitory. None of this will matter in 100 years. Perhaps none of this will matter in 10 years. 10 days.

     So, really, all that striving, all that caring, all of that effort, it counts for nothing. We’re born, we live, we die. And for all of the energy that we put into things, it’s really only sound and fury, signifying nothing. Once you’re gone, that’s it. One might argue that if you have children, some part of you retains a link to the world. But that suggests you see children merely as extensions of their parents, not people in their own right.

     Create a masterpiece? A work of art, or some other monument to the creative intensity of the human mind? But, truly, what does that achieve? You may be lauded, garlanded, the toast of the people whose praise you desire. But things change, the world moves on, and your words will fall by the wayside.

     There is no mileage in immortality, no way of sustaining life beyond what is in the here and now. And whilst we might care about the present, our family, our friends, what the immediate future holds for us in a personal sense, we are no more significant than a pair of initials scratched into stonework 500 years ago.

We can be safely ignored and our feelings forgotten.

(Seriously, someone tell me to stop being such a twat. If you don't feel able to do so to my Massive Face, then just buy me a coffee).

Thursday, 16 January 2014

Who do you think you are?

     And then the fun began is messing with my head. I’m still thinking about her label blogpost. Read it. It’s good. But it’s provoked something of an existential crisis. Just who the buggering hell do I think I am?
I am an unemployed stay at home mum whose children are both at school. But I’m not a housewife (as anyone who read any of My Increasingly Frantic And Angry Cleaning Tweets earlier this week will already be aware). And I don’t ever introduce myself as ‘Just a mum’. Fuck, no. Firstly, no one is ‘just a mum’. And there is no way in which anyone with children should allow themselves to be defined by  what got created by bumping uglies with someone else. I get magnificently fierce if anyone other than The Blondies calls me ‘Mummy’. Really quite scary. My brother-out-law asked me, in front of The Blondies if I was ‘going out for a cigarette, Mummy?’ My response was to say to him that if you’re someone I haven’t squeezed out of my fanjo, then don’t ever call me Mummy. Then I let go of his collar and put the knife away.

     So I’m more than just a mum.

     I’m unemployed. I have been for a long time. Nearly four years, in fact (almost certainly will be writing a terrible, pretentious wanky blog about that in a few weeks, You Have Been Warned). But I'm not looking for work. Far too risky, when you've cocked your life up as spectacularly as I have.

     I write, but I am not a writer. To me, a writer I someone who actually has demand for their work, has dedicated readers who actively want to read more of their creative output. Writers get their work published, whether it’s books, magazines, online, wherever. Someone with a blog on blogger is not a writer. They’re just someone who happens to be a little bit selfindulgent. And maybe, like me, they find that writing things helps.
HANDS, do what you’re bid;

Bring the balloon of the mind

That bellies and drags in the wind

Into its narrow shed.

     It does help, a lot. Firstly, the act of trying to articulate your thoughts on something is never anything other than useful. How on earth do I know how I really feel about something, until I’ve thought about it for an obsessively drawn out length of time? Until I’ve walked around it, taken a few steps back, peered at certain parts, examined every aspect, walked away for a moment, only to pelt back and look at it some more? Until I’ve countered every argument against what I think and feel?

     Then the hammering. Fingers flying over the keyboard, stabbing away at the letters, feeling a bit like Jessica Fletcher in the opening titles of ‘Murder She Wrote’. That’s good too, because if I care about something enough to blog about it, then bashing the keyboard for an hour or so gets rid of a lot of pent up emotion. I never really thought about that aspect of it much until recently, but there we go. It’s surprising how much stress can fly out of one’s fingers.

     Then, the slow, irritating (and frequently utterly pointless) attempt at checking what I’ve written. Does that work? Is that sentence clear? Is that a typo? I’ve missed out a word… It’s fairly pointless, because I know what I want to say so well, that I am blind to mistakes, so I read what I expect to be there, not what actually is there. So when you see a mistake, that’s why.

     And then I click ‘publish’, sing ‘And be damned!’ in the voice of Hugh Laurie impersonating an upper class elderly female, and that’s it. Over and done.

     (And I write fiction as well, by hand, in notebooks, with a fountain pen. But no one’s ever seeing that, so don’t ask. Trust me, I’m doing you a favour).

     So that’s what I do. But I’m not a writer.

     Writers write. I know, because I follow a fair few of them on twitter. And for the most part, they use twitter like quite a lot of us do. To share pictures of cats, have a moan, celebrate that it’s wine o’clock, querulously  ask where the gin is. Now and again, they’ll mention they’re off to see their agent, or that their new book is out – just like everyone else does, when they want to promote something that they’re involved in. Just like I do when I’ve blogged, and want people to read it.

     But, and I’ll let you into a secret here, these writers, these Real, Proper Writers, don’t fucking bang on about it. They don’t go on and on about a major plot twist. They don’t say ‘ooh! A day of writing awaits!’ They don’t fucking go on about word count, and, veering off course here, can I just say that every time an aspiring writer tweets ‘Hmm, only 632 words today… SadFace’ I want to tweet them a link to this

     And say ‘No one cares. Seriously, no one on here fucking cares about your word count. Were they good words? Funny words? Thought-provoking words? It’s not about the number of words you write, it’s the quality of them. Are they words I want to read? Based on the vapid and self obsessed nature of your words on here, probably not. If you really want to be a writer, then engage with the world. Because right now, you’re waiting for the world to come to you, and you are missing out on the most wonderful and useful source of inspiration you will ever have access to – people. Don’t assume that just because you’ve written words, everyone wants to read them. One of the funniest writers on twitter is the fucktastically sweary Scarlett Parrish. And she doesn’t ever go on about Writer’s Block, or ‘Ooh! New chapter alert!’. Reading tweets about #amwriting which tell me nothing about the character of the writer is guaranteed to make me never want to read another word of theirs. JUST FUCKING WRITE IN PRIVATE AND BE YOURSELF ON TWITTER.’

     Sorry, that rant’s been coming for a while. Anyway, cough, shuffles foot…

     So what am I, really? I’m a mum who blogs, but I’m not a Mummy Blogger. I’m unemployed, but I’m not a jobseeker.  I write stuff, but I’m not a writer. I’m a compulsive hair twiddler, but never wear my hair down. I am a singer, but I can’t hold a note. I am a cricket fan, but have never learnt the rules. I am a dancer, but I am a stranger to rhythm.

     I am a heaving mass of contradictions, wrapped around a thousand insecurities. And if someone would like to tell me just who the mascara arse I am, that's be a great help. Thanks.

Birthday Boy

     Today is The Boy’s ninth birthday. Nine years since a freakishly quick labour resulted in a tiny, wasp-waisted little person being placed on my chest whilst I quavered in previously unused Joyce Grenfell tones ‘My baby! My baby!’.

     It’s been emotional. In the very early days of being pregnant with him, I remember passing a primary school and seeing the children running around the playground. I had a sudden realisation that This Shit Just Got Real. One day I would have a child doing exactly the same things as those children. Jesus. Pregnancy was a bit of a blur after that, until I woke up at 04:11 on Sunday 16th January 2005 and realised ‘Oh. Fuck. So this is what contractions feel like.’ For the only time in his life, The Boy was in a hurry, and arrived dead on 07:00.

      I still remember how the midwives were trying to urge me to take him home within two hours of giving birth and I looked blankly back at them thought ‘What? You mean I have to look after him? Don’t I have to pass an exam or something first? Don’t leave me alone with him! I’ve got no idea what I’m doing! I’ve never even changed a nappy!’. They begrudgingly let me stay in overnight and were openly amused when I approached them during the night.

     Me: I need to go to the toilet.

     Midwife: Go on then.

     Me: But my son… I can’t leave him alone on the ward.

     Midwife: Err… he won’t be alone. We’ve got a full ward.

     Me: No, I mean, I can’t be without him, but I can’t fit the bassinet into the bathroom.

     Yes, I know. Precious First Born.

     But all of those moments, all of those memories still stay with me. The fact that when he was two days old, he looked like Mr Burns (not helped by the fact that he had jaundice, so was robustly yellow).  

     His first smile. First steps. First word (yes, of course it was fucking ‘Daddy’, I had to wait until The Girl to hear ‘Mama’). How I used to sit him in his high chair to feed him, and the border collie we had at the time would sit and watch. How I used to put cooked lentils on his bare feet so the dog would lick his toes and make him giggle.

     And all the hours of reading to him, playing with him, trying to get him to go to sleep, please, just sleep, I’m tired, you’re tired, look, I’ll sing one more song, sitting on the floor next to your 80 year old cot, in the dark, but then it really is time to sleep, no, I mean it this time, ok, I’ll sing ‘Golden Slumbers’ one more time, but then, oh alright, yes, and ‘Summertime’ too, ok, if I sing ‘You are my sunshine’, will that make you go to sleep? Then panicking because he would always sleep in late, and I’d hover anxiously in the doorway of his bedroom, wanting to check on him, but not wanting to wake him up. Then seeing his blond head lift, cheeks flushed with sleep, and a smile spreading across his face as he saw me. His love of his grobag, or as he called it, his ‘babass’.

     I remember how we used to wander the fields together, him stoutly marching and roaring into the wind with me (it’s great, try it). How I discovered him, aged two, standing on a chair on the kitchen counter, trying to reach for the packet of olives I’d stashed away from him. How, when pregnant with The Girl, I would read ‘There’s a house inside my mummy’ to him, and never make it to the end of the book without bursting into tears, and how he would say ‘Don’t cry Mummy, it’s ok, I love you.’ Which only made me howl all the more, as he gently patted my back, and rubbed his cheek against my arm.

     The day he became an older brother, and refused to go near The Girl for the first 72 hours of her life. How confused he was when he saw her nappy being changed for the first time, and the confident manner in which he told his cousin ‘Her willy will grow when she’s older’. The time when, in a fit of pique, he tried to throw a toy metal aeroplane across the living room, but only succeeded in splitting his head open (blood everywhere, four hours in A&E). His first day at school, bouncing happily in from the playground, no shadowy forebodings of what was to come. Then the upheaval of his mother losing the fucking plot a few weeks after his fifth birthday. Life settling back down again.

     The time he cried because his great grandfather had died. The direct question of why I no longer speak to my brother (had to fudge that one a bit). The time he told me he was proud of me for writing things. His obsession with his far too long hair, and how his fringe has to sit just so. The way he selects and rejects polo shirts for school, based on how annoying the collar is. Our ongoing battles over what is and what isn’t appropriate for him to watch. His vagueness and inability to pay attention. ‘What’s that thing you just said I have to do more of, Mum?’ ‘CONCENTRATE, THE BOY! CONCENTRATE! YOU NEED TO CONCENTRATE!’ The school report that said he is loyal, kind, caring and ‘has an interesting interpretation of the world around him’. The time he told me not to cry, because I wasn’t a shit mum, I was the best mum in the world. The birthday card he wrote ‘Ed Balls’ in over forty times.

     The day I walked past his playground, and saw him, happily skipping along with his best friend. This Shit Just Got Real.

     And I owe him so much. For restoring ‘Northern Sky’ to me. For giving me the mother of all earworms with ‘Slipping through my fingers’. For making me see the world with clearer eyes. No one can make me laugh or cry quite like he does. There’s one song that I used to listen to a lot, and the final part of it didn’t really much to me until recently. But then I heard The Boy listening to it and he wanted me to write the last part of it down for him, because the girl who reads it starts to cry halfway through it. And now, it seems to me, it could have been written about The Boy.

     Like a broken arrow, I’ll catch the tail wind and draw the clouds, burning sugar, as black as smoke, closing walls; I open my heart. He sings when he hurts. It’s good to sink deep inside, to my only touchstone. He’s a friend in the dark, my strength, my memories. He delights in torture, but he holds my hands and never shields me. Because the best shield is to accept the pain, then what can really destroy me? Let me close my eyes and lie invisible, and perhaps the clouds will pass through me.

     Happy birthday The Boy. Thank you. You’ve taught me a lot. I hope you never change.

     All my love, always,


Friday, 10 January 2014

Pretentious? Moi?

     Against my will, I took Theatre Studies A Level. There was a group of us who’d sat GCSE Drama and were keen to continue with the subject. Our sixth form hummed and harred and finally partially conceded. Drama A Level wasn’t considered academic enough, but Theatre Studies was, so our teacher took a crash course in it and we were plunged into it.

     Frankly, it was a waste of time. None of us had any pretensions towards directing, lighting, analysing playwrights or types of theatre. All of us, without exception, just wanted to act. But that only counted towards 20% of our marks. So, unwillingly and truculently, we had to study all sorts of stuff that none of us cared a fig for. And most hated of all was the year we spent studying two key theatrical practitioners – Stanislavski and Brecht.

     I’m assuming you’ve been spared the joys of becoming as intimately acquainted with these two as I was. Stanislavski was a Russian actor who became best known for his collaborations with Chekhov and ‘The System’ – a series of techniques to be employed by actors in order to uncover the psychological truths of the characters they were playing, via mental and physical exercises. This was later adapted into ‘Method’ acting in America by people like Marlon Brando, Robert de Niro and Dustin Hoffman, whereby actors ‘become’ the characters they portray.  Brecht was a German playwright whose best known  works are The Caucasian Chalk Circle and The Threepenny Opera, and also known for his confrontational style of presenting plays – sparse, unemotional, and didactic.

     I promise I am going somewhere with this. It makes sense in my head, even if I am going to labour this analogy until it squeaks.

     I was having an Actual Real Life Interaction with someone I met on facebook, and she mentioned something about work. I didn’t know anything about what she was talking about, and asked her to explain. Slightly affronted, she said ‘Oh. I’d thought you would have read about it on my website.’ I’d never bothered visiting her website and said so. Clearly this annoyed her. And then, a few days later, something made me think of Stanislavski and Brecht (I think it was on my birthday, when I was, bluntly, shitfaced for a good ten hours) and I developed a theory…

     Stanislavski represents real life. Brecht represents social media and the internet.

     No, wait! Come back!

     With Stanislavski, it’s a gradual building up of layers, blending together motivations, wishes, thoughts and movements, just like a real person. When we meet someone for the first time, we see only the external view. It’s only as we get to know them that deeper layers are revealed, nuances and shadows become visible, known and understood. So, just as the actor imbues the printed words on the page with meaning to create a fully fleshed out character, so too are we more than simply one dimensional facades that we present to the world. When we first meet, we know nothing about one another. It’s only as we become more familiar that little quirks and peculiarities reveal themselves. Obviously, this is both good and bad – you might quite like someone, only to discover they are a swivel-eyed UKIP supporter. Or you might meet someone and think they’re a twat, until they tell you that they love John Fuller’s Valentine poem.

     With Brecht, the reverse is true. Everything is laid out, bare and unvarnished. There’s no discovery, no gradual revelation of the psyche, just as it is on facebook and twitter. 'I like this'. 'I disagree with that'. 'I shared this'. You might think you ‘know’ people on these sites, but really, all you’re gaining insight into is the little piece of their soul that can be crammed into 140 characters. I’d like to think I am more complex and rounded than that. I certainly hope that you are. Yes, you might see things I tap out and come to a quick and simple decision about whether you like/dislike or agree/disagree, but you don’t know anything of the subtleties behind what I post. It’s effective, but it’s very black and white, and doesn’t reflect any of the complexities of the people you interact with. Even if you progress to DMs on twitter, it’s still a confined space in which to work.

     The problem nowadays is that it’s all out there. It would be very easy for me to pick someone I follow at random, find out their real name, look them up on facebook, Linked In, google etc., and find out all about their life to date. Where they went to school, who they’re married to, where they used to work, what they do now, do they have children. All the facts are out there (which is part of the reason I write this under a different name – I don’t want any random person to be able to google my real name and stumble across this, my private ramblings. I know you’re probably a complete stranger to me, but that’s fine. You don’t know who I am). But does that really tell me anything about the person they are? What they really feel about things? How they react to certain situations? Would they and I get on in real life? The only way to find out is to meet outside of the ether.

     And, on balance, I have to say that I prefer Stanislavski’s approach. I might follow you on twitter and we might have a giggle or share mutual outrage about something. But until I get to know you, the real you, the offline version, then I don’t know who you are, however assiduously I read your tweets. And I prefer to keep things that way. Larkin wrote that the sexiest word in the language is ‘unbuttoning’.  I agree. I would rather unbutton your personality than strip it bare.