February 2013


The Battle of Hastings, yesterday

The Battle of Hastings, yesterday

My son, currently in Year One, is studying the Norman Conquest, or “knights and castles” as it’s been sold to him. He understands the dating and knows that 1066 was nearly a thousand years ago, before even Mummy was alive. He has a basic grasp of the chronology (“Edward, Harold, William – who was a baddie ‘cause he wasn’t Anglo-Saxon, then a goodie ‘cause he won”). There are bits and bobs he still misses , but  it’s understandable at that age. For instance, he thinks women and girls didn’t exist (“because knights and princes and soldiers and kings were all men, Mummy!”). That’s okay, right? It’s perfectly possible to have a reading of the past that obliterates half of humanity, isn’t it? After all, my little boy’s only five (don’t worry, I’ll get him to read some Caitlin Moran when he’s older, then he’ll realise we women were just all busy suffering from cystitis). (more…)

I have in my time been called a “humourless feminist”. Obviously this is something of which I’m very proud. I think if you’re not called humourless at least once – preferably by someone who’s also speculating on where you are in your menstrual cycle – then you’re doing feminism wrong (this rule applies regardless of whether or not you’re someone who actually menstruates. I’m pretty sure my partner’s been accused of having PMS in his time, although clearly not by me). (more…)

Has any woman, in the history of anything, ever thought to herself “if only I could be more empowered“. Empowerment – that ambiguous, Oprah-esque substitute for genuine power – strikes me as pretty low on a woman’s list of priorities. Choice, freedom, respect, yes, empowerment, no. And yet we’re still being told that it’s exactly what we need.

Empowerment is liberation turned into victim-blaming. Once you’re “empowered” everything’s in your hands and privilege ceases to exist. Empowerment is part of the reason why no one believes in workplace discrimination any more. Despite all evidence to the contrary, we no longer entertain the idea that employers might still be sexist. These “empowered” women, well, they make their own beds and they can damn well lie in them.
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For reasons best known to no one, my children have got back into reading, watching and listening to Thomas the Tank Engine. As you can imagine I am devastated. I thought we were over this phase. We’d put it all behind us, weren’t going to speak of it ever again. The hateful phrase “really useful engine” was set to become a distant memory, but suddenly, out of nowhere, the old obsession has returned.

I really hate Thomas, and by that I don’t just mean the series, I mean the individual. “Thomas, he’s the cheeky one”. The cheeky one? He’s the most self-satisfied, obstructive, arrogant little prick on the whole of Sodor. Every single “adventure” involves him smugly deciding he’s going to outshine everyone else in being “really useful”. This invariably leads to some kind of major fuck up, usually involving a crash and some paint / bunting / milk churns, whereupon Thomas seizes on the opportunity to pile on the smarm in his efforts to “make amends”. God, I truly DETEST his supercilious little half-smile. Not that the other engines are that much better. The only one I like is James, except the TV series has got his accent wrong. Rather than chirpy Liverpudlian, it should be pure Leslie Phillips. He’s a rake, is James, welcome to chuff into my tunnel any time he likes *cough*. (more…)

In 2004 Hilary Mantel wrote a piece for the LRB on saints, fasting girls and modern-day anorexia. I read it back then and was not overly impressed (when it comes to disagreeing with Mantel pieces in the LRB, I was way ahead of my time). Looking back on it now, I still find the piece disturbing. Dressed in clever language, it’s essentially a pro-ana piece based on the over-interpretation of what anorexia looks like from the outside (rather like Rachel Cusk’s more recent “anorexic statement” piece for the New Statesman). The arguments are wrong but they are finely crafted and seductive. Mantel, inhabiting a body she dislikes, presents the female anorexic as someone who is able to “opt out” of the restrictions placed on women because of their physical form:

Most anorexics do recover […]: somehow, and despite the violence visited on them in the name of therapy, the physical and psychological invasion, they recover, fatten, compromise. Anorexia can be an accommodation, a strategy for survival.

As a recovered anorexic, I want to say “no, it’s not like that, not like that at all”. And indeed it isn’t. All the same, I read Mantel’s words and feel that I, too, have “fattened, compromised”. As though anorexia gave me ownership of my body and now I’ve lost it, albeit not as dramatically as I lost it once.
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This evening my eldest son and I had our worst ever fight. Or not even really a fight. A contretemps (me), or “Mummy being mean” (him). It ended with him sending me to my room because I wouldn’t get his cherry tomatoes – a sustitute for the lasagne being described as “poo” – out of the fridge. To be honest, I think he was surprised at how eagerly I accepted my punishment, but there had been worse moments than that and I was rather glad to retreat to my duvet and kindle while he stomped around downstairs throwing alphabet fridge magnets onto the floor.
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Most people really don’t like mummy bloggers, do they? By this I don’t mean that the latter are facing intolerance on a daily basis. It’s not as though there are crowds lining up with pitchforks outside Mumsnet Towers (having said that, I’m not sure whether that’s even a real building). Anyhow, I just think that, if you asked most people what they thought of mummy bloggers, those who bothered to have opinions at all would not be expressing positive ones. 

You could say it stands to reason. To the outside observer, mummy bloggers are like Private Eye’s Polly Filla, only with less successful writing careers. They’re whingey middle-class moaners, who think their children are the centre of the universe and that everyone else should be gripped by the trials and tribulations of parenthood. They write whiney posts about potty training, behaviour management, cake baking, childcare guilt and cleaning products. They even write whiney posts about whining. Narcissists of the hearth, they’re unable to see beyond the domestic sphere and engage with what really matters. What’s more, they’re so self-obsessed that they’re even aware that this is going on (in case you didn’t check – why ever not? – all of the above links lead to posts written by me. I’m so vain, I’m pretty damn certain this post is about me). (more…)

February’s issue of Glamour features an interview with the fashion designer Jonathan Saunders. It is, shall we say, illuminating:

“It’s reactionary,” says Jonathan, of the process of designing a new collection.

Too bloody right it is.

“Last season was about a very prim, buttoned-up, put-together woman.”

Riiiiiight.

“That smart woman is still at the core of what we do, but she’s now showing more skin. And I think she’s a little younger.”

Hmm. So Jonathan Saunders designs for an imaginary woman who ages in reverse. Brilliant. And yes, I suppose it’s just a “look”, not a person. But isn’t that the whole problem? It’s not about people, and yet there’s this discomforting pretence that it is, that it could even be about you, if only you weren’t so crap. (more…)

Until this week, I didn’t realise bump painting – having one’s heavily pregnant belly decorated by a professional face painter – was “a thing”. I knew about those plaster casts some women get made, and that some pregnant women choose to wear “statement” T-shirts (“Under Construction”, “Baby on Board”, “It Started With A Fuck” – I may have tweaked that last one slightly). But I didn’t know that some were actually going in for having their tummies made into temporary works of art. This is annoying; if I had known, I’d probably have had it done myself.
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Top tip for partners: If you and your partner have children together and there’s one bit of parenting you don’t usually do – let’s say it’s getting everyone ready for the school and nursery run – and it just so happens that one day you get to do it – let’s say you’re setting off for work a bit later – and it turns out it’s really, really difficult, do you:

  1. think “crikey, this is stressful” and make a note that while your partner may not have to start work as early as you do, that doesn’t mean life’s necessarily much easier?
  2. stomp about wondering why no one has got a better routine established, intermittently asking the kids pointed questions that start with “but don’t you usually …” or “doesn’t Mummy get you to …”?

The correct answer is of course (1). The second one does NOT accurately describe the way my partner behaved this morning, but it just felt that way. Because I’m stressed and tired and so is he. We’re really, really tired and even though our children are lovely, they don’t half whine about irrelevant crap. (more…)

Like most right-thinking people, I want to come from a country where intolerance is tolerated. Live and let others not let live, that’s what I say. If tolerance means anything, it’s allowing others not to be tolerant, providing of course that I’m not the one who’s not being tolerated. If there’s one thing that’s worse than intolerance of intolerance, it’s intolerance of intolerance of intolerance of intolerance. Seriously, that’s just intolerable (providing it’s not intolerant of me to say so).

According to Simon Jenkins, writing in today’s Guardian about the vote on equal marriage, “the true test of tolerance lies in its treatment of intolerance – and we failed that test”. That’s rather damning, isn’t it? I’m not exactly sure what he’s referring to – has the Daily Mail now been outlawed in an effort to pacify the raging bigotryphobes? – but it all sounds pretty serious. Surely we want everyone to feel included, even those who won’t feel included unless other people are excluded. Of course, this then means that we can’t include everyone, hence it makes sense to include only the intolerant people. The only alternative would to include those who are intolerant of intolerance (what used to be known as being “tolerant”) and that wouldn’t be right. After all, intolerance of intolerance is intolerance squared, or at least I think that’s how it works. (more…)

In 2002, back when the world was fucked up in a slightly different way to how it’s fucked up now, Katharine Viner wrote a piece for the Guardian in response to George W Bush’s assertion that war in the Middle East would increase “respect for women”. It ended with this paragraph, which I’ve always remembered:

Feminism is used for everything these days, except the fight for true equality – to sell trainers, to justify body mutiliations, to make women make porn, to help men get off rape charges, to ensure women feel they have self-respect because they use a self-esteem-enhancing brand of shampoo. No wonder it’s being used as a reason for bombing women and children too.

While I’m unsure of a couple of specific examples, I can’t help thinking the general point is spot on, and as true now as it was 11 years ago. Feminism is a brilliant marketing tool, except for when it comes to marketing feminism itself.

This Sunday’s Observer features an article in which Nick Cohen explains “why leftists and ‘revolutionaries’ are not the best feminists”. Cohen doesn’t actually say who the best feminists are (presumably people who think a little more like Cohen himself, despite his own uncertain views on equal pay principles). As for the worst feminists – well, the impression you get is that the more Nick Cohen dislikes you, the worse you are for the welfare of womankind. That, it seems, is a basic rule of thumb. When you act in a misogynist manner – regardless of whether it’s in the specific context of the SWP covering up rape allegations or the Catholic Church denying access to contraception – the overall context is not one of institutionalised hatred of women. It’s one of not agreeing with Nick Cohen. (more…)

I tend to blame my lack of experience with diversity on the fact that I come from Cumbria. For the uninitiated, it’s that weird bit of England that’s north of Manchester and west of Newcastle and not really identifiable as anything. We have the Lake District, which is pleasant, and Sellafield, which is less so. And then there’s livestock farming, which is intermittently interrupted by disease. What we lack is cool, edgy, urban diversity. Almost everyone I encountered while growing up was white and identified, publicly at least, as straight. Perhaps it’s changed (I left in 1993, to go to Oxford University, clearly in search of a posher version of home in terms of cultural mix).

Unlike all the cool chicks from Manchester, London and New York, I have never had a trendy, über-camp yet strangely sexless gay best friend to advise me on fashion and blow jobs. Nor have I (knowingly) had a bisexual boyfriend, which, according to the March issue of Glamour, is the new Big Thing.* Apparently “more and more women” are dating bi guys (“are they naïve – or enlightened? And would you go there?”). There then follows a personal story from a female writer who’s married to a bisexual man, plus – in case it still all feels a bit icky – a nice feature on “Celebrity bi guys” (which sounds like a game show to me, although I’ve not yet worked out the rules). (more…)

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