In praise of wussy feminists

Hey, sisterhood! Look at me! Last week I was a humourless feminist with PMS but this week I’ve decided it’s a whole new me. I’m going radical. So radical, in fact, that I’ve gone full circle and ended up being the wussiest feminist in the whole of wussdom.

I’m worse than Natasha Walter, worse even than Ellie Levenson. Honestly, I am as totally non-hardcore as they come. And in my new, wussy, softcore feminist guise, I would like to wussily propose one thing: I AM FUCKING SICK OF FEMINISTS WHO GET MORE RADICAL THAN THOU. WHY NOT GIVE US ALL A FUCKING BREAK?

Let me be clear about this. I am not saying that one type of feminist is “better” than another. Or than to be an effective feminist, it’s probably best not to get too shrill and ranty and all those other things uppity women are meant to be (and actually never are). I think it’s good to be furious about an awful lot of things. But not about other feminists apparently not being as hard or knowledgeable or clever as you. For verily, therein lies the route to arrogant, hypocritical tosserdom.

For sure, wussy feminists used to piss me off. To a certain extent they still do. I cannot have been the only person banging her head on the table when, just as Living Dolls was published, Natasha Walter admitted that yeah, she may have been a little naive with what she wrote in The New Feminism. As though a million other feminists didn’t point that out to her at the time. For chrissakes, Natasha! There’s being slow on the uptake and being completely unconscious for the past decade. But still, Living Dolls makes some reasonable points. And you can buy it in WH Smiths. Things could be worse.

This isn’t one of those posts where’s it’s announced that hey, it’s okay to be a feminist and shave your legs and wear lipstick and suck cock and blah blah blah. I fucking hate all that, not least because it always seems to me that what’s being said is that since it’s okay, it is in fact what you should do. Come on, feminists! Haven’t you realised that being subjugated is now acceptable! The Spice Girls said so! I don’t have truck with any of that (much as I like the idea of “having truck”, whatever that means). There are in fact feminists who are obsessed with makeup but are also aware that it’s all frivolous crap (not saying any names. Oh, okay then: me, now).

The thing that really gets to me, though, is it being decreed that others have not proved their feminist mettle. And, in particular, that women who make compromises with their feminism – those who might manipulate the light in which it’s seen, depending on the audience – are crap feminists who can fuck off. No, they’re not. They’re human beings negotiating the world. Often they’re just trying to get things done (and no, we’re not thinking of Louise Mensch here. Just of people who need to get a foot in the door somewhere, anywhere, and won’t get it if they behave like a PhD student who has years to sit around just thinking clever thoughts about how no one should be allowed to make compromises. Not saying any names. Oh, okay then: me, ten years ago).

Instinctively, I bristle at the suggestion that it’s not the person who shouts the loudest who gets the most things done. For instance, whenever it’s been argued that the suffragists were more effective than the suffragettes in winning the vote, I’ve thought “no, fuck off! That’s just one massive ‘calm down, dear’ from the historical establishment”. To be honest, I think that still. I think it’s a total lie to suggest that if only women played their cards right and raised grievances through the correct channels, they’d be allowed to join the club. That’s just bollocks. But I think we need a mixture of voices. Including those of women who’ve got to where they are today by positioning themselves as the friendly, made-up, highly compromised face of feminism (again, not saying any names. Oh, okay then: me, in ten years’ time, when I’m famous and stuff and blow the lid on the whole patriarchal conspiracy. I might be dressed like Theresa May, but there’s the one thing I’ve got more of, and that’s my miiiiiiiiiiiind. Oh yes, come the feminist revolution, it will be like the Misshapes video, only with me as Jarvis Cocker).

Until then, though, when I’ve wheedled my way to a position of power, crushing the rad fems underfoot with my chocolate stilettos, there is one thing I need to clarify, though. If you grow your pubes really really long, but then plait them and add Disney Princess hair grips – what kind of a feminist are you then? (not saying any names, though)


Children’s magazines: We used to have it so good!

All my life I’ve been looking for a reason to criticise Emma Thompson. It’s not right; it’s not fair. But I can’t help it. It’s in my blood. My mum can’t stand her. “She’s so middle-class”, she’ll say, sniffily, standing in the fitted kitchen of the Cheshire house she shares with her barrister husband. Yes, that Emma Thompson. She’s not down with the likes of us.

I do, sort of, see what my mum’s getting at. The mind-blowing liberal smugness of Peter’s Friends, and the lingering aftertaste of the Branagh-Thomson 1980s public love-in should not be taken lightly. But still. It really could be worse. Imagine my delight, therefore, when I discovered that it actually is worse. Emma Thompson isn’t just an unimaginably annoying actress; she also writes crap magazines for little girls! Only it’s a different Emma Thompson, this time minus the ‘p’. Which makes me look a prat cos I didn’t realise this at first and wrote a whole post using the erroneous belief that they were one and the same person as a starting point. But still, having two Emma Thom(p)sons  – it’s gotta be worse than just one.

The other Emma Thom(p)son is the creator of Felicity Wishes, a sparkly pink fairy who offers little girls shit career advice with a wave of her sparkly pink wand (actually, I made that last bit up. She delivers the advice via the far more prosaic medium of magazines). There are lots of suitably girly careers that Felicity has to suggest: ballerina, beautician, cake-maker, glitter-butterfly-dream-wisher, that kind of thing. I’m not going to go into it in any detail here; The Alpha Parent has already done so quite brilliantly here. What interests me is Thomson’s response to this much-deserved criticism. It’s pretty damning, to say the least.

To be fair, it is admirable that non-actress Emma Thomson made the effort to respond to the blog post mentioned above, and that she did so in such a calm manner. If I were her I’d have just gone “well, fuck you, I’m a rich actress! There’s a career choice I don’t regret”. Then I’d have sought advice on the best way to flounce via an internet comments box (Thomson could probably pay for a professional opinion on this. That is, if she was the actress Emma Thompson. Which she’s not). But anyhow, that’s not what non-actress Thomson did. She wrote a very measured response. A very measured response, yet also a remarkably rubbish one.

If someone tells you something that you’ve written is total crap, should you:

  1. throw a tantrum
  2. argue that it isn’t crap
  3. sort of agree that it is but then argue that no one will read it much anyhow so it doesn’t matter

While the first option is the most fun, the second is probably the best. Yet Thomson has, unexpectedly, plumped for the third:

Of course, I am well aware of the allegorical impact of children’s stories. However, these were not books (intended to be read many times over) – the editorial content of these limited-life magazines often only have a single-read life span.

Not only does this suggest that “the editorial content” of these magazines is indeed rubbish, it displays a remarkable capacity to underestimate a child’s affection for a magazine.

I tend to buy magazines in Asda in order to keep my children quietly seated in the trolley. Usually they ignore this ploy and carry on grabbing random tins of spaghetti off the shelves. However, now and then there’s a magazine that totally captures their attention and won’t let go. And if it’s a shit magazine, you start to worry that it will poison their minds.

For me and my eldest, this occurred with one particular issue of Thomas and Friends, which included a comic strip story called “Dream On, Thomas”. In it, Thomas meets Spencer “from the mainland” and wants to be as big, strong and shiny as him. Only he isn’t. Not to worry, though, because hey, Thomas is still Really Useful ™. And that’s the whole story (apart from the bit in the middle where Thomas fucks up due to trying to be more special than he is). The moral? Don’t aspire to be remarkable because you’ll just make a prat of yourself; just be a good economic unit and leave being shiny to your betters. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read this story. Way too many. And the worst thing is, children memorise the words and won’t even let you try to slip in a more nuanced message:

And so Thomas decided he was happy to be Really Useful. Although ‘Really Useful’ for whom, that’s the question. Could it perchance be for the bigger, stronger, shinier characters? Could it-

MUMMY! You’re not reading it properly!

So there’s nothing you can do (other than play Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger’s The Ballad of Accounting at the end of every reading, in a desperate attempt to offer an antidote).*

On top of being in complete denial about repeat readings, Thomson seriously underestimates the extent to which the magazines you read as a child can stay with you. I can vividly recall the magazines I loved when I was younger. And I don’t mean stuff like Mizz, Jackie and Just 17. I mean the things I read as a pre-teen. And it wasn’t shit like Felicity Wishes. Hell, no. I read Nikki, possibly the most undervalued and totally fabulous magazine of all time.

No one ever talks about Nikki these days. People remember Bunty and Mandy but Nikki, the slightly younger, funkier sister, was way better, and for several years during the early eighties, it was my world. It didn’t offer rubbish career advice. It wasn’t pink and full of fairies. It was a magazine for girls that recognised one essential, pertinent fact: little girls are people, too, and as such they can be complete and utter psychos. Many of the stories Nikki featured were utterly mental, and terrifying, but I absolutely adored it. And for those of you who missed this total master of the pre-teen magazine world, here’s a run through of the best bits (or at least the ones I can remember):

  • The Comp – a regular strip included at the start of every edition, it documented the life of Sam Green after her arrival at a new Big School. Pitched betwixt the prissiness of The Four Marys and Grange Hill at its Zammo-on-drugs worst, it was perfect for anyone who hadn’t yet been to Big School and had no idea how boring it is in real life
  • School for the Forgotten – serialised strip. Selina Something moves into a new house. Every night when she goes to sleep she’s transported to the School for the Forgotten, a nightmare Victorian workhouse-style hellhole. I can’t remember how or if she escapes, just that being a passive voyeur in all this was rather good fun.
  • The School on Sinister Street. Can’t remember what happened in this one. I can only recall the title. But I imagine it was along the lines of School for the Forgotten, and hence total class.
  • The Power of Eve Black. Takes place at a boarding school where Eve Black is a total cow yet manages to gain more and more power over others. Eventually you find out that the headmistress intermittently turns into Eve Black by drinking an evil potion. How cool is that? (once again, I’ve no idea how it all ended)
  • Rosemary. The story of a girl who left her old school after being a total bully who had no friends. When she arrives at her new school, she finds she enjoys having friends but misses the bullying. Therefore she (Rose) pretends to have a twin sister (Mary) who goes to another school. This enables Rose to have fun with her mates and kick the shit out of them later. Result!
  • Fashion pages: no skinny models here – these pages were drawn by an artist! Good weeks were when C&A featured because there was a C&A in Carlisle. Bad weeks featured Tammy Girl because there wasn’t one of those in the whole of Cumbria (afaik).

Man, I loved Nikki! The stories totally creeped me out, but in a good way. They never made me feel I should be anything other than who I was. In fact they made me happy to be me, a girl who didn’t end up in a Victorian school every night or get slapped in the face by her best mate on the way home.

Surely, on some level, this is precisely the kind of crap that needs reviving for kids today? I wouldn’t even mind if non-actress Emma Thomson had a hand in it. In fact, as a kind of post-modern joke / way to make light of the fact that I mixed up the two when I first wrote this post, you could even have a “The Adventures of Emma Thompson (the actress one)” comic strip, along the lines of those “The Adventures of Five Star” ones you used to find in Look-In. Perhaps every night when Emma goes to sleep she could be sent back to 1980s Cambridge and have Footlights mysteries to solve alongside best mates Kenneth Branagh and Tony Slattery. But then you’d need to have a villain. Perhaps non-actress Emma Thomson gets into the story at this point. Hmm. This may need some development…

* From The Ballad of Accounting:

Did you read the trespass notices, did you keep off the grass?

Did you shuffle off the pavement just to let your betters pass?

Did you learn to keep your mouth shut, were you seen but never heard?

Did you learn to be obedient and jump to at a word?

That is just a small extract from one of the best songs ever. I suspect it was not written as a direct response to Thomas the Tank Engine. But it could have been.

Strange Clanger goes to Nusetry

As a mother who uses daycare, I often wonder whether I’m alone in finding the end-of-day ritual that is “the nursery handover” boring as hell. At 6pm every day I find myself sitting alongside a miserable, exhausted woman, perhaps not yet in her twenties, and she’ll be reading out something along the following lines with complete and utter disinterest:

He ate all of his broccoli tagine for lunch, half his afternoon snack, soiled at 2.27, wet at 4.39…

Inside we’re all dying. Apart from Youngest, who’s going mental with the Happyland bride and groom while he waits for us to finish. None of us gives a shit. Although occasionally things will take a slightly more dramatic turn:

Soiled at … Ooh, they haven’t written down what time he was soiled at. It was Jade that changed him. Hang on, I’ll ask. Jade! JADE!!! WHEN DID HE POO HIMSELF LAST???

I haven’t the heart to say I don’t care about the poo diary. That all I really want to know is whether he’s been happy. Whether he’s been happy and also whether he’s stopped trying to poke Jeremy in the eye with the Ikea forks.

There has been one solitary handover during which things became marginally amusing. It all started off as normal then suddenly took a turn for the surreal:

Today he’s been playing with the stickle bricks, painting a picture of the Gruffalo and talking about Strange Clanger.

She paused. I looked at her. She looked at me. Both of us knew this couldn’t be quite right. After all, The Clangers were almost before my time, definitely before hers, and three whole decades before Youngest’s. And, moreover, they were all quite strange. There wasn’t just one who was singled out for that epithet.

Strange Clanger? I’d better ask Jade. Jade! JADE!!!

Jade was about to come over, brimming potty in hand, when thankfully I worked it out (what with me being a linguist and all).

It says “stranger danger”, not “Strange Clanger”!”

Ah yes. That was what it said. And this led me to draw several conclusions:

  1. Youngest will now want to talk to strangers just to spite me
  2. Whoever filled in this handover sheet has rubbish handwriting
  3. The poor girl telling me about my two-year-old’s day hasn’t a sodding clue what he’s been up to.

(It also led me to wonder which of the Clangers was in fact the strangest. But that can be the subject of another post.)

As the above anecdote might indicate, my son’s nursery isn’t all that great. The handover’s just the tip of the iceberg. The only green space is provided by astroturf. They have a behaviour chart based solely around who does the tidying up.* They have a “phonic of the week” (argh! it’s not even a phoneme, it’s just a sodding letter of the alphabet, you morons!). Worst of all, the staff are all very young and, I suspect, underpaid and at the mercy of insecure shift patterns. It is not a glorious haven of love and learning. It’s a franchise and you can tell. So what am I doing sending one of the most important people in my life there every working day?

I have tried to switch nurseries. Youngest was on the waiting list for our local Sure Start daycare and even made it to the top, but then they changed the opening hours. They now close for the day at 12:30. Presumably this is to suit parents who don’t have jobs, and therefore don’t need to use a nursery and who can prove, once and for all, that there’s no need to offer these subsidised services any longer. Anyhow, my office might have flexible working hours, but even they won’t let you sod off at 12 noon every day. So there we are. Every day we return to the same place and every day I have to leave my child behind, back to “phoneme of the week” and pretend grass and young girls who are probably too worried about whether they’ll be getting “lunchtime cover” or a proper shift to bother listening to his amiable babblings.

Sometimes, just as we’re turning into the car park, I hear a voice from the back seat. “I don’t want to go to nursery!” Only he doesn’t say “nursery”, he says “nusetry”, which is extra cute and therefore extra heartbreaking, although it’s no doubt music to the ears of the average Daily Mail reader. It’s okay once we’re through the door, mind. He runs off and doesn’t even say goodbye. But he’s just sparing my feelings, isn’t he? What with him being a toddler and totally empathetic and not remotely self-absorbed.

When you send your child to nursery, you’re meant to have thrown your lot in with the nursery system. You’re meant to go on about how ace it is and how much he or she learns and how much better it is for both you and your child. How much more he or she gains from being with other children and not just with you tearing your hair out over the dirty washing. How important it is for him or her to see Mummy working and being an independent person. Blah blah blah blah blah. Some of this is true for me, perhaps all of it is true for other mothers. I just wish I didn’t feel so constrained not only from voicing misgivings, but from even having them.

I don’t want to be a stay-at-home mum, first because I’m the only person in our household in paid employment, but second because I seriously think I’d go a bit mad. And in saying ‘”mad” I don’t mean that actually, I’m way too intelligent to be a SAHM and that my poor, stimulus-hungry brain would explode. I know a lot of highly intelligent SAHMs. But they are them, and I’m me. I know from my recollections of maternity leave that it would end badly both for me and my children. So instead I’ve made a compromise. It’s not perfect, but it’s not the end of the world, either. I think I have happy children, but the environment they’re growing up in isn’t always the one I’d like it to be.

Am I allowed to say that? Is it acceptable? Should women like me even be having children? Before I became a mother, I was committed to feeling no regrets whatever I did. This was of course very naive, but it was borne of a desire not to slot my own experience of motherhood into broader moral messages about what women should be and do. So my son’s nursery isn’t great. This doesn’t mean that mothers shouldn’t use nurseries. Just that nurseries could be better.

When I am older will I feel that I have damaged my children? Almost certainly. But not through being a feminist, or through going out to work, or through leaving them with people who don’t know what phonemes are. I will feel I could have done better because any parent who doesn’t is a total twat. Beyond that it’s all minor details.

Still, it would be nice not to feel this way. But it seems self-indulgent to dwell on it any longer. Back to more important matters. Such as, does the Soup Dragon count as a Clanger? And if not, is Clanger a species name or a family name? And is Oliver Postgate still alive? These are the things that matter.

* The behaviour chart thing might not sound bad, but in essence it ends up being based around who attends nursery most frequently. Hence when Eldest only attended once a week, you’d look at the chart and assume he was a complete and utter knob. When he just hadn’t been in as much as the others, some of whom were much bigger knobs. Not that I ever complained about this (apart from once, when I was having a bad day. Thereafter we agreed a “special weighting” for his tidying up. It’s important to help nursery staff use their time in a valuable way).

Contemplating the chocolate stiletto

Often, when promoting a product linked to health and well-being, advertisers will use a skinny, half-starved model plus the phrase “look good, feel great”. As anyone with half a brain will notice, this is a contradiction in terms. Such a model may well “look good”, at least by today’s standards, but she’s probably feeling like death. There she is, grinning like hell as she clutches a smoothie she’ll never drink while she dreams of the Diet Coke she’ll savour later while huddled against a radiator. Clearly, “looking good” is one thing; “feeling great” is something entirely different. And as for being healthy, “looking good” seriously doesn’t come into it these days.

But what about “feeling great”, you might ask. Is that linked to health and well-being? Well, yes. If you’re running and get an endorphin high, for instance, you probably ming to high heaven, but hey, you’re feeling tops! Same goes for having a good, energetic shag. But both of these involve quite a lot of effort. Perhaps we should discard the “health” criteria and aim for “feeling great” alone.

There are lots of things that make us feel great which are not remotely healthy. Vodka, for instance, and Jedward. And then there’s chocolate. Lots and lots of chocolate. It was in the spirit of this (one presumes) that the recent “health and well-being day” at my office included, nestled in amongst the personal trainers and organic veg boxes, a stall representing a luxury chocolate firm.

This was a proper, high-end company. It made Thornton’s look like Candy King. Each piece of chocolate was a work of art. There were chocolate flowers, chocolate raindrops, chocolate animals, everything. Just the thing to drive some imaginary conservative French town insane (in a Joanne Harris novel that I’ve never read). But most amazing of all were the chocolate shoes. These were truly mind-blowing.

You may be thinking, hang on a mo. I’ve seen chocolate shoes before. They’re not that bloody special. Well, yes, I have also seen chocolate shoes before. In Sainsbury’s around Christmas time, on a shelf alongside chocolate spanners and hacksaws for the man in your life. But mildly offensive as those were, the Sainsbury’s versions were all miniature novelties, mere amuse-bouches of the sexist chocolate world. These other chocolate shoes were genuine, life-sized, Louboutin-style high heels. I could actually have worn one, had I so wished, or at least I could have on the following conditions:

  1. I’d found a way not to put any weight onto the massive chocolate heel
  2. I’d acquired some circulatory disease that kept my feet freezing cold in order to prevent the chocolate from melting

Alas, the truth is, as footwear goes, they weren’t all that practical.

And here is the point: the chocolate stiletto is even more useless than the proverbial chocolate teapot. At least with the latter, you’re starting out with something practical and making it impractical, for comic effect. With stilettos, you’ve got something impractical to begin with, and all you’re doing is upping the uselessness ante. And added to this, has anyone even made a chocolate teapot, ever? And yet they’re making life-sized chocolate shoes. What the fuck is going on?

It’s laziness, that’s what. What do women like? … Shoes! …. And chocolate! …. Hey, let’s combine the two! Let’s be honest, if your friends bought you a chocolate shoe, you might think “mm, yummy!”. You would not think “wow! What a thoughtful gift! They know me so well!”. At best you’d think, “hmm. After ten years they’ve noticed that, in broad terms, I conform to gender stereotypes that support the idea that I might be a woman”.

When I was little, at least sexist confectionery was functional. I used to buy push-up candy lipstick from Mr Moore’s corner shop and guess what? It worked! It did make my lips go pink! And all sherbety! Fast-forward thirty years and you’d think I’d be getting fruit salads and blackjacks that made my face turn make-up coloured just by sucking on them. We must have the technology by now. But what are women getting? Fucking useless chocolate shoes (oh, okay, not useless. You can eat them. But you could’ve eaten them before they were shoe-shaped, so that doesn’t count).

I think the chocolate stiletto is a metaphor for the modern feminine mystique: in-your-face, hard-edged, dramatic but ultimately decorative and more useless than you’d ever have thought possible. It’s worse than the glass slipper, which at least enabled you to snare a wealthy man. Plus, pound for pound, it’s a darned expensive way to get your chocolate fix. So I decided to boycott it on principle. I bought a chocolate handbag instead. You haven’t seen my keys or mobile phone, have you?

When’s the right time to start lying to your kids?

Growing up involves finding out that many of the things you believed to be true are in fact total bollocks. By the time I was ten, I’d already stopped believing in God, Father Christmas and Grange Hill. The latter in particular came as a huge relief, since I’d spent a good part of my time at Junior School panicking about arriving at Big School without sufficient scams up my sleeve to fend off Gripper Stebson and Imelda Whatshername (not Staunton nor Marcos, although morally much closer to the latter, especially after that fibreglass incident). Anyhow, I no longer believed in any of that, but there was one strange belief to which I still clung with all my might: the belief that my grandfather founded and owned Kentucky Fried Chicken.

No one ever told me this. It wasn’t one of those jokes that your dad makes, and that you carry on believing long after he’s forgotten ever having made it (for me that was when he claimed he’d played Puck alongside Sir John Gielgud in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I still believed that one at age 30). The KFC myth was something I developed all on my own. It wasn’t completely mad, though. Allow me to present the evidence:

  1. my grandad bought a café before I was born
  2. he looked quite a lot like Colonel Sanders in the red and white logo
  3. his name was Ken (I therefore presumed his secret middle name must be Tucky)
  4. he’d been estranged from the family since I was six, which was why none of us were now benefiting from his ownership of a multinational chain

I’ll be honest: written down it does start to look a bit flimsy. But still, I was utterly convinced that the first KFC had been opened somewhere north of Wigan, and that the special recipe seasoning took shape in the shadows of England’s dark satanic mills. And to be fair, we didn’t have the internet back then – thus how could I possibly check? I could have asked my grandma, but it was a sensitive area. She didn’t have much money, and probably resented the loss of the KFC millions (especially as I suspected that she’d been the one to develop the seasoning. She’s dead good at cooking, my nan). I can’t remember when I stopped believing any of this. I think it dawned on me slowly, and sadly. Somehow, I knew Zinger Burgers just weren’t in my blood.

Now that I’m a mum I get to witness my children believing all kinds of bollocks (and to give them Werther’s Originals, in case you were expecting that as the ending to this sentence). For instance, they think that life is fair, and that the house we live in is reasonably okay and not some environmental health disaster zone. Yesterday we visited Peppa Pig World and I discovered that they even think Peppa Pig is real (“why were they only people in costumes, Mummy? Was Peppa Pig busy today?”). They can be right ignoramuses, my little ones. What I find really interesting, though, is that they also believe things which are true, but which they will have to stop believing, or so it is expected.

This crossed my mind because last week my youngest turned three and I received a “what to expect at this age” email from Mumsnet. It was lovely of them to send this and I am grateful (they even went to the trouble of making it sound generic so that I wouldn’t be embarrassed by how much effort they’d made just for us!). Most of it was really interesting – not too much pressure regarding the dreaded “milestones” – but one sentence in particular jumped out at me: “he knows what sex he is but not necessarily that he will always be a boy”. What does that actually mean? Surely my son won’t necessarily always be male, at least not in terms of how we construct it? Won’t he have the choice? And if not, if he presumes he has this choice now, at what point are we going to take it away from him? Or will a realisation of “maleness” come naturally to him (in a way that clearly it doesn’t to all those who are initially raised as boys)? What do Mumsnet know about my son that I don’t? (I should warn them, you have to be very careful before suggesting my son will have fewer choices than other boys; give him some ELC building blocks and let me tell you, he’s handy.)

Extending this further, there are quite a lot of things that my sons don’t question but which, come the appropriate time, they will be encouraged to think of as patent pants (my partner’s phrase, not mine; always makes me think of shiny leather underwear). Here are just a few of them:

  • Peppa Pig figurines, Lego Star Wars characters and Mummy’s old Barbie are all “dolls”, and one is no better than any other
  • Daddy doing the washing up is not a political statement
  • Mummy goes to work to earn money (as opposed to “Mummy farms me out to strangers because she doesn’t love me”)
  • Pink really is Youngest’s favourite colour
  • They might never get married, or have children, or girlfriends, or boyfriends, and none of these things would necessarily be sad
  • Fat is just a descriptive word, which doesn’t have to be loaded with any moral implications
  • The way they look is fine
  • The way everyone else looks is fine
  • Princess Leia is the hero of Star Wars (“even though”, comments Eldest, “she doesn’t always wear as many buttons”. An interesting response to the bikini scene).

I’m not going to be the one to tell them that any of these are untrue. They will learn, though. Of that I have little doubt. And what can I do to counteract it? Very little, especially when I consider the extent to which I conduct my own life to fit in with things which I don’t, upon further examination, really believe at all.

So what reasonable beliefs are you waiting to have knocked out of your own children? How long do you think they’ve got left? Please address all responses to me, Glosswitch, ex-KFC heiress.

Yummy Mummy Retro Cupcake Mania: A Personal Journey

As a full-on, PMT-ridden, humourless feminist (see previous), there’s nothing I hate more than retro-sexist 1950s housewife yummy mummy cupcake bollocks. Seriously, I can’t stand it. Imagine my surprise, therefore, when I won first prize in the Children In Need bake-off at my son’s nursery. In your face, cupcake mummies from hell! Get a load of my organic, vegan, wholefood feminist vulva-shaped traybake of righteousness! It was a victory for me, and for the sisterhood. Except for one thing: I hadn’t quite made the vulva-shaped traybake of righteousness. I’d made a cupcake caterpillar. The recipe was by Annabel Karmel and I cut it out of an issue of Practical Parenting. Bottom line: I totally aspire to be the yummy mummy cupcake queen. Alas, this moment of glory occurred three years ago. I’m still clawing my way back to those dizzy heights, fingers smothered in flour and grease.

There is at least an excuse for this lowering in cake-based achievement. He is called Youngest (not really – that’s his blog name. He’s really called ‘the spare’). It was much easier to play at being Martha Stewart when I had fewer kids to daub in cake mix. Since Youngest was born it’s been a struggle but hey, not to worry. I have a new weapon in my arsenal, in the form of the Lakeland Limited Cake Pop Maker.

In case you’re totally ignorant about such essential gadgets (like, duh!), it’s like a sandwich toaster, but for tiny spherical sponge cakes.  It only takes four minutes to cook them. All I need to add are lolly sticks and Candy Melts, and total cake domination is once more within my grasp.

I’m actually quite pleased with my early efforts – see Exhibit 1, piggy pops:


And Exhibit 2, Angry Birds:


Not brilliant – can’t quite get the Candy Melts to go on smooth – but let’s be reasonable, it could be worse. Still a bit of refinement needed, but hey, I’m getting there. Of course, by putting this on a blog read by fellow mummies, I’m laying myself open to comments such as “nice, but have you seen my cupcake Taj Mahal? I built it as a symbol of love for the fourteen children I home-school while running my cake-making business”. And yeah, your cakes are probably better but give it time. I’m in this for the long game. Eventually the cake-bakin’ queen bee will be back for good (with bee-shaped cake pops, just to drive home the point).

Of course, I never put anything but home-made cake mix into my cake pop maker. Anything less would be cheating. I don’t see the point of shop-bought cake mixes. They make me go all snooty and sniffy whenever I spot them in Sainsbury’s and thus I have never bought them, ever … Oh, okay, that’s a total lie. They’re great if your kids are insistent on doing every stage of the baking themselves, including the weighing out. If you can’t exert any control over flour-to-sugar ratios, Betty Crocker can (although the one time when I did let my son weigh out every individual element himself, it turned out fine, if a bit pancake-y. Shame we’ll never be able to replicate that recipe again). Nevertheless, if I’m on my own, it’s proper step-by-step weighing out and mixing all the way (I only got an electric mixer last year and still feel guilty about this).

I tell myself that shop-bought cake mix doesn’t taste as good as the real thing. Mind you, the “real thing”, when I bake it, is always plain old Victoria sponge. I ought to be much better at this. Having spent my anorexic teens reading Mary Berry’s cake recipe books from cover to cover, repeatedly, I ought to be bloody brilliant at cake experimentation. Alas for me it’s all theory and no practice. And to be totally honest, the Victoria sponge cakes I make don’t taste that great. That time I won the nursery prize it was all based on appearance. I scarpered with the prize before anyone had the chance to sample the caterpillar’s body. With cake pops, it’s also all about impressing people with good looks, and running off before they uncover the less than pleasant substance beneath (there’s a political metaphor in there somewhere but this evening I’m talking cakes, so I can’t be arsed).

And in any case, where does it all end? If I’m snooty about cake mix, am I snooty about ready-made icing, too? And if so, do Candy Melts count as ready-made icing, even though you should get a free pass with them, because they’re bloody difficult to use? And then, while we’re at it, what does “home-made” really mean? It’s not like I’ve milled the flour, churned the butter, harvested the sugar cane etc. etc. Surely that’s what you’d need to do to make full-on home-made cakes? If not, aren’t we all, to one degree or another, just jumping in at a later stage of the process and splitting hairs about when that is?

Well, anyhow, that’s my excuse in place for when Operation Cake Pop falls apart and I’m back to the rice paper drawing board. But, man, you should’ve seen me in 2009! Cake-wise, I totally rocked!

PS Just a random query here: does anyone else find it quite creepy how Supercook was taken over by Dr Oetker? It’s like Luke Skywalker being taken over by the Emperor.

PPS Whoopie pies – is it me, or were they the minidisc player of cake-baking trends?

PPPS One final cake observation: My eldest thinks you cream butter and sugar so that “you make the sugar disappear, because sugar is bad for us”. I’m not a pushy parent, but come on – that is total genius.

Blogging, madness and rubbish jumpers

Warning: an official up-its-own-arse blogging-about-blogging post

Summer 2011: Buying shoes on Ebay

Autumn 2011: Silk painting

Winter 2011/2012: Knitting

Spring 2012: This.

That’s the trouble with me. I always have to have a “thing”. By that I don’t mean a simple hobby. A hobby would be nice, a good way to pass the time every now and then. By “thing” I mean a full-on, takes-over-your-life obsession. I’ve always got one on the go and I don’t know why. It’s not like I’ve even got the time.

I have a partner, children, a full-time job and a house so appallingly dirty that even the slugs from last year have left in disgust. With all this going on, why can’t I at least get an obsession that would be halfway useful? An obsession with cleaning, for instance. That would help, but no, here I am, still writing as even more dust gathers around me. Blogging has officially taken over my life.

It’s not like I’m not trying to change. I’ve asked to be on the Mumsnet Research Panel, meaning I can review products via the blog. When asked for my interests, I ticked “cleaning”, on the basis that if they send me some free Cillit Bang, I’ll have to test it out before I can write a review. See, that’s a way of getting at least a little bit done (Mumsnet, are you reading this? If so, please note that I only said “Cillit Bang” for humble, comic effect. What I really want is a carpet cleaning machine. I’m sure I’d also be able to write a good review of a home help, or even a manny).

This blogging thing is one of my more absorbing obsessions. With this, I’ve got it bad. Still, I’m better at it than I was at knitting, and I don’t mean that in an arrogant way. I think I’ve written some okay posts whereas all of my jumpers are rubbish (it’s the tension – I just can’t get the tension right). But the thing about knitting was, I didn’t think about it at work, or when I was out shopping, or when I was out with the kids. I just did it of an evening. With blogging, even if I’m not in front of the computer it’s there, in my head, all the time.

Can blogging drive you mad? Can you end up in a state where nothing can happen to you without it becoming blogging fodder? Where real life is just something to blog about? Where you’re living life at one remove, through the blog, with all thoughts and feelings filtered down through your blogger voice? I’m a bit scared this might happen to me. And so I’m gonna step away from the laptop, for a couple of days at least. Till Sunday evening, at the earliest. And now, time to hunt out those knitting needles. There are more crap jumpers to be made!

Femail will eat itself

In terms of both attacking the whole of womankind and of making individual women feel utterly worthless, the Daily Mail has, to put it mildly, got some serious form. I first became aware of this in 1993, upon arrival at university. I was eighteen years old, shy, a self-identified feminist but with no self-esteem to speak of. Our Junior Common Room received every newspaper going, but I’d always gravitate towards the Mail, if only for two reasons: 1) it didn’t feature topless women (or at least, not as a daily feature), and b) it wasn’t a massive broadsheet (back then, you couldn’t get the Guardian or the Independent in a half-way readable format and I was too self-conscious to sit alongside other students struggling beneath a newspaper the size of Helvellyn).

In the early nineties the Daily Mail was obsessed with the new “trend” of “date rape”, or, rather, the new “trend” of young women “crying rape” just for the sheer hell of it. Of course, it’s not a new trend at all; we women have always been “crying rape”, often when people have forced us to have sex against our wills. Anyhow, twenty years ago the main victims of this rape-crying epidemic appeared to be poor male students. I remember two cases in particular. One involved a female student who’d claimed she’d been raped despite the fact that someone had pinned a sign saying “slag of the year” on her door. To read the Mail, you’d think this was all the proof anyone needed that she was a liar. The “slag of the year” sign! Must be true! The other case involved a young man who was acquitted of rape, then posed for a multi-page feature with two “female companions” kissing him on either cheek as he explained how he was great with the ladies and that raping them was so not his style.* I don’t know the truth about these cases. I only know how reading these stories made me feel, in a place far from home, a place dominated, both numerically and socially, by male students (one of whom drunkenly broke into my room in the first week).** It didn’t make me feel outraged; it made me feel really bloody terrified.

These days I’m not scared of the Mail. What’s the worst that can happen? So I get raped, beaten, old, ugly, discriminated against, told I’m useless. World, do your worst. The Daily Mail itself is a mere backdrop to this, the muzak in the lift that moves between levels of genuine hate. To a large extent, I don’t believe in the Mail any more.

What has happened between then and now? Why could it frighten me then, but now leave me unmoved? Part of the reason is that I’m older, and no longer live in a dodgy hall of residence with doors that don’t lock properly, surrounded by men whose hormonal impulses could be used to justify anything and everything. But that’s not all. The other reason is that I think the Mail is not what it used to be. It’s gone beyond itself, beyond parody. The logical response to it is not to feel fear; it is, quite simply, to laugh.

Let us now examine the features in today’s Femail, right now, on Friday 25th May 2012:

  • piece on why women today are too fat because they don’t do enough housework (illustrated by 1950s women doing the hoovering vs 2012 woman lying on sofa eating chocolate – yay! go 2012 woman!)
  • Olympic volleyball team strike a pose in bikini and briefs (although if you ask me it does look a bit nippy out – I’d recommend a nice cardi)
  • ‘What went wrong when I let my boyfriend cheat three nights a week’ (Really? I can’t possibly think what could go wrong with that. After all, you did get that article published)
  • Toe curling tootsies: Jennifer Aniston’s feet are veiny, Kate Moss’s have a serious deformity and Penelope Cruz’s need surgery! (still, let’s hope having crap feet keeps Jen’s mind off being a barren failure of a woman)
  • Can corsets ever be comfy? (no)
  • ‘It is not my job to create something comfortable’ (i.e. Christian Louboutin basically admits he’s shit at designing shoes)
  • What pregnancy did to our bodies: Six brave women reveal the toll having a baby has taken on their figures (interesting definition of ‘brave’, eh? Reveal your perfectly acceptable self in the one place it’ll be deemed ugly as hell. I think the word we’re looking for is ‘fuckwitted’)
  • Amanda Platell on why women over 40 shouldn’t be offered IVF because they’ve just been pissing about having careers and stuff, and it’s about time they realised life’s not all fun and games (for some reason this piece is illustrated by a photo of Amanda posing seductively in a red dress. Is there a message regarding Special K somewhere in there? How come I’ve missed it?)
  • Dating at 38? Men will run a mile vs How women over 30 are more likely to have sex on a first date (so what is it? Is life for us over 30s shag-central or not? Or are we all shagging fellow women while the men continue running that mile? Anyhow, all sounds cool to me)
  • How almost 70% of women would sacrifice sex for the perfect bikini body (i.e. shocking indictment of men’s sex skills / tremendous endorsement of women’s wanking skills. Gotta be one of these, because let’s face it, who can be all that arsed about wearing a bikini?)

I could go on. Let’s face it, all of this is hateful, but it’s also laughable. Is it possible to get upset by this any longer? Don’t we all suspect, deep down, that the Daily Mail has been infiltrated by a feminist network, headed up by the amazing Samantha Brick, and utterly intent on causing the whole thing to implode, leaving only rubble, bile and desperate mocking laughter? I’ve long wondered whether this could be the case, but the Samantha Brick affair has convinced me of it. Samantha is not a person; she is a figurehead, a focal point upon which everything converges. All she has to do is say the word, and the whole edifice will come crumbling down. If she didn’t exist we’d have to invent her. But she does and we don’t!

There was no Samantha Brick in 1993. Only the “slag of the year”, whose face you never, ever saw. Ladies, the time has come to say that perhaps we’re moving forwards. Perhaps it’s not all bad, and perhaps some small victory is within our grasp. Samantha, we’re counting on you.

* You often hear it being claimed that merely being accused of rape is the worst thing that can happen to a man. Good job they’re able to get over it. Strangely, I’ve never seen a rape victim posing triumphantly with her “male companions” following the conviction of her attacker. Isn’t it about time these victims lightened up a bit?

** The room break-in was not the start of an attack, at least not on me. The student was midway through a row with his girlfriend and had got the wrong room. Perhaps looking for something to say he asked me for a piece of paper and a pen. I don’t know what he did with them – maybe he wrote “slag of the year” on her door, shortly before kicking it in.

Oi, Courtney Cox! Wanna go halves on a pashmina?

Hey everyone! Did you know that I look like Courtney Cox? I didn’t, at least not until today. This perhaps because I’ve been suffering from low self-esteem. Alas, others have yet to see the ressemblance, presumably because they’re all suffering from low me-esteem. But they will work it out, eventually. Once I stop wearing crap clothes and looking like a clown.

This morning I received a free Colour Me Beautiful image consultation as part of an employment “health and wellbeing” day (the alternative option I could have taken was a free BMI, cholesterol and blood pressure check. Er, bo-ring!). I arrived at the stand, my consultant sat me down and promptly opened a book to reveal a massive picture of Ms Cox, while exclaiming “that’s you!”. For the record, it isn’t actually me. I’ve not been in Friends or Scream or some ongoing series about how I now need to shag younger men cos I’m in my forties and it’s liberating or something. That’s not me. I think what the consultant meant is “you look like her!”. But not in the sense of “you’re really pretty”. More, in the sense of “you and her share the same colour type” (perhaps I will tweet Courtney later and see if she fancies swapping clothes).

There are six colour “types”. Me and Courtney are both “clear”. This means we can wear full-on, in-yer-face shades without looking like total clowns, or rather, to be more specific, we need to wear full-on, in-yer-face shades to avoid looking like clowns (our own colouring is so “high contrast”, y’see). Indeed, the “clown effect” was mentioned several times. I found it very illuminating. I used to think people didn’t take me seriously because of what I said and did, but no; it’s because I’ve been wearing pastels.

The consultation lasted half an hour (perhaps it lasts longer if it’s not free). Much of it involved sitting in front of a mirror and having various cloth samples held against me so that I could see how the different shades affected my complexion. To be honest, I pretended to notice the difference more than I actually did. It would have been rude to say  “sorry, I wasn’t concentrating on which bit of cloth you were holding when. I got distracted by how old I look and was wondering whether the lighting here is particularly harsh”. Still, now and then, I could actually see the consultant’s point. Yes! I can wear red! (As long as it’s ruby and hence completely different from all of the reds I actually own.)

Obviously all of this is scientific fact and in no way meant to get you to buy more clothes, especially not the Colour Me Beautiful pashmina in the appropriate shade for your colour type, £24.99 (perhaps Courtney will go halves). It has made me want to buy more clothes because all of the ones I have right now are wrong and make me look like Krusty in the Simpsons when I could be looking like Monica relaxing with Chandler and Rachel in Central Perk. But the really funny thing is, overall this has made me feel quite good, regardless of whether I get new stuff or not. It has given me a boost, if only because I’ve realised that finally, I don’t give a toss about not looking like someone off TV. When she said “that’s you!” I just wanted to laugh, but in a good way. At long last, I think this feminism thing is finally starting to work (but Courtney, I mean it about the clothes share. I bet you don’t have any Primark. I’d see you right).

PS Isn’t Colour Me Beautiful an awful, awful name? Nothing should be called Colour Me anything after Colour Me Badd topped the charts with the dire “I wanna sex you up” in 1990. Since then, any phrase starting with Colour Me… is just plain wrong.

Blogging and anonymity: Can you say what you like when you’re not being you?

Having always been an opinionated sod, I used to spend a lot of time writing to newspapers. This was back in the days when I’d read them in hard copy and didn’t have forums or comment streams to respond to. I’d always sign off using my real name, because that’s just what you do with letters. Usually my letters would get published and it would freak me out, a bit, but not too much. After all, my parents would usually hear “your daughter had something controversial to say about abortion in the Guardian” second-hand from someone they met in town and they’d never look into it further (since that would have involved actually buying the Guardian).

When reading online and adding comments became more popular, I carried on using my real name for a while, because it never crossed my mind not to. It was only when I became aware that complete strangers ended up having vicious verbal fights that I began to think twice. Still, I felt there was something quite noble about refusing to resort to a pseudonym. It meant you were standing by your ideas and taking responsibility for yourself in every medium.

One thing I ought to mention at this point is that in real life I have an unusual name. It’s not a particularly interesting one, but it’s one that I don’t think anyone else has. It’s the kind of name where, if you met me briefly and then heard my name mentioned again in a completely unexpected context, you wouldn’t think “oh, that’ll be a different [my name]”. You’d think “crikey, I’d never have thought [my name] would be into that, but it’s gotta be the same person” (i.e. Dave Gorman I’m not).

Several years ago I had a letter published in a national newspaper, alongside several others by different authors. They were all on the same controversial issue, taking broadly the same position, but each making different individual points. A blogger took exception to this, and decided to “take on” the correspondents in a post of his own. Alas, he found it impossible to google the others and get the dirt, since they all had nondescript names and he might have ended up accusing the wrong people. The only person upon whom you could launch a vaguely reliable attack was me – he actually admitted this in his post. Thus the whole thing ended up being about me alone, via a highly selective trawl through everything I’d ever written over the previous ten years (including things which, if he’d asked me, I wouldn’t even stand by myself – I’m happy to ‘fess up when I’ve been a twat. But he didn’t ask). There were things which disproved certain of the wilder claims he made about my political beliefs, but he missed those out. He included other stuff, though, such as the title of the thesis I was writing and why it was a shit title and musings as to why universities let tossers like me in anyhow. Those adding comments to his blog agreed: what a terrible student I must be! (the original letter had bugger all to do with any of this). Anyhow, I discovered the whole thing one evening, alone, drunk and idly seeing what would happen if I googled myself. See? That’s where off-your-face vanity gets you.

If he’d just criticised my letter – that one letter – that would have been fine. I already knew some people didn’t agree with it anyhow, since I’d written it in response to one such person. He could even have said I was a bigoted moron for thinking the way I did, because yes, I knew that would be some people’s interpretation. But that’s not what he did. He suggested my entire life was a total joke and he did it a) because he’s mean and b) because he could since I have a stupid name.

I don’t know if that post is still there. If I were to google myself again, I’d imagine it’d be many pages further along the search results than it used to be, what with me having done stuff myself and not being that interesting a target in the grand scheme of things. My partner found the post before me. He wrote a comment, but the blogger never responded. I considered responding myself, but the sniping about my thesis had upset me more than anything (it was back when I’d failed the first time around, although thankfully, the blogger was not aware of that. A tiny part of me was terrified he was right). I thought about returning to the blog once I had passed and once my book was published, just to go “ner! Where’s your book, sucker?” In the end I never did, because once I had achieved these things it seemed unimportant and petty. I didn’t want to look like I cared and, largely, I didn’t. But by god, if that experience taught me one thing, it was of the value of pseudonyms if you want to maintain some kind of life in online debating circles and you happen to have a name like mine.

The thing I wonder now, though, is whether using a pseudonym means you should restrict what you say about those who are still using their real names. I worry it creates an imbalance; you are hiding and they are not. I mean, if you are responding to them on a single topic and not googling their whole life stories to use as “evidence” against them, it’s probably okay, right? It still leaves me with a sense of unease.

I suppose on one level you could say that people who make money by putting their names to opinions are already advantaged compared to those of us who make money from other things. For instance, if I were to put my name to opinions akin to those of Richard Littlejohn, Carole Malone or Melanie Phillips, it would seriously affect my professional standing. But these people get paid thousands to write these things; being controversial enhances their professional status. It wouldn’t enhance mine (not that I dream of saying the things Richard Littlejohn comes out with; but even the things I say wouldn’t play well with everyone, and I know that). I don’t feel guilty about criticising these people; to me they’re fair game. It’s more problematic when it’s not the big fish. What do you do in a situation such as that? Where does the power lie?

Right now, I appear to have had something of a succès de scandale by attacking a book written by one of the smaller fish. As successes go, it’s very, very minor; daily hits on this blog are modest and this particular post seems to have gained more hits after the main body of the offending text was removed than before. Added to that people have been genuinely upset and it’s all way too much hassle. If this is success, I’d rather have failure (or, ideally, proper success, which would involve no one being upset and, as a bonus, me getting some money). But hey, to be fair to myself, I have at no point googled anyone and attempted to find out “the truth” about anything. I like to think it’s because I’m not a total cow, but perhaps I’m just not arsed enough to be that mean. And anyhow, no one involved has as stupid a name as me.

But that, anyhow, is the reason why I’m Glosswitch. Which again is a stupid name. So I’ve fucked up once more. Should’ve gone for yummymummy27890 or something similar. Ah well. Perhaps that’ll be the next me.

Do little girls really love their dollies?

It may be because I’m mildly hungover, but today I am excelling myself at getting crap songs stuck in my head. Right now I’m in a café and they’re playing Lovesong by The Cure, and what am I hearing by way of a counter-tune? Uptown Girl by Billy Joel. Only it’s not even that, not the original version, nor even the infinitely worse cover version by Westlife. It’s an even worse version than that, because it’s one we used to sing in the playground when I eight. Indeed, back then, it was considered the height of comic genius. And so, in case you didn’t sing it too, I give to you Uptown Dolly:

Uptown Dolly

She’s been living in a Tesco trolley

She said she’s gonna go for Action Man

And they’ve been snogging in the A-Team van

It’s a pity there’s no mention of a soda stream but still, you’d be hard pressed to find four lines that shout early 80s more loudly than that. It’s like we all planned it just so one of us could go and discuss it on one of those “I heart the 80s” nostalgia programmes twenty years later. And we’d have done it, too, if it hadn’t been for that pesky Kate Thornton hogging the show.

Uptown Dolly was not the only toy-related parody song we sang, but the others are all too offensive to write down here. There was one about My Little Pony, but it involved rhyming “plastic” with an ablist term which I’m sure you can all make a guess at. Then later on the trial of the Butcher of Lyon – Klaus Barbie – provided ample opportunities for the creation of Barbie Dream Torture Chambers and the like. We were utterly self-centred, with no awareness of the context in which we made these nasty jokes. But what I think it also shows is that we held no reverence for our toys. We didn’t really want to be like Barbie. We all knew she was fucking ridiculous.

I cut off my Barbie doll’s hair. My mum told me it would never grow back. Like, duh, mum! It’s so much easier to dip your doll’s head in a tin of shoe polish if you’ve already cut off the hair. My brother tripped over my My Little Pony Show Stable, making the purple plastic roof cave in. It didn’t matter; the undignified mounting of Lemondrop by Peachy could still take place, with or without flimsy accessories. It’s not that I didn’t have toys I loved, just as my sons do now. But they were little, cuddly things from early childhood, not plastic zombie-women with miniscule waists or stupid ponies who separated themselves from their own tails if you tried to whirl them around your head while holding on to the latter (and ideally yelling something incomprehensible). I played with these toys but I was not in love with them. I no more wanted to be Barbie than my Eldest wants to be C-3PO (although he is in many ways just like C-3PO. I mean that in a good way).

When I look back on how I treated my Barbies, I think there are perhaps three possibilities:

  1. my friends and I were exceptionally weird or, slightly more generously, behaving like this is a Cumbrian thing
  2. girls today have grown up in a culture which has made them dumber and less capable of holding their toys at any critical distance
  3. girls today still do terrible things to Barbie and make up terrible songs about her

While I wouldn’t want anyone to emulate the all-round, broader offensiveness we embraced as children, I’d still like to think girls today are a bit like we were. And aren’t they, probably, behind our backs? Barbie will get you in the end and she will make you feel like shit. But in the meantime, you should at least be able to have a laugh (but remember, the songs will stay with you forever).

PS Christ, now they’re playing William, it was really nothing. I love this café! And I hate my stupid brain!

Whigfield, bananas and economic growth

There’s a lot about business and economics that I don’t understand. I don’t mean this in a semi-boastful “ooh, I’m just too much of an artiste” way. I just mean that clearly this is something that others spend ages, or at least the length of an MBA course, studying. The rest of us just work for them. (It doesn’t seem fair really. Surely the MBA owners ought to do something literature-related for me in return, where I, owner of a PhD, have dominion over them. Perhaps they could look up references and I’d intermittently berate them about not doing enough to increase this country’s cultural standing because the business schools just aren’t educating them properly. After all, I only want what’s best for the UK.)

Of course, there are some things about business which I get. I understand as much as the average Apprentice contestant. In fact, I could be on The Apprentice. I’d be the one they vaguely refer to as “the Oxbridge graduate” on the basis that I do not actually own or run any business to speak of. I’d have some kind of back story about trying to re-enter the world of work after taking time out to have kids. This would be a lie and it wouldn’t be fair on them, but you can’t have anything resembling a normal, complicated life in business (unless it’s of the sort that lends itself to “family friendly policies”, whatever those might be). Anyhow, eventually I’d be Project Manager and fuck up, and Sir Alan would do this whole spiel about how he doesn’t care about yer BAs and yer GCSEs and all the other letters yer can have after yer name, he just wants someone who’s gonna make him some money. So then I’d counter this with the argument that anyone who’d maintained the slightest hint of competitor awareness could have seen that the Amstrad Emailer was a shit idea. And then I’d do a Donita Sparks on him. (To be fair, former Apprentice rejects have probably done both these things. They must just edit it out.)

In my Apprentice audition I’d come out with some crap about being a lioness in the home and in the boardroom. I might also make some shit pun along the lines of “show me the mummy, I’ll show you the money” (which doesn’t actually work, but these things never do). What I wouldn’t reveal is my actual belief about how business should work, which is this:

  1. You identify a market need.
  2. You find a product that is economical for you to produce to a high quality in a humane way (if you can’t do this, the product’s not good enough. And no, I’m not calling my product a “solution”. I refuse to even go there).
  3. You market and sell your product at an affordable price which still enables you to make a reasonable profit (again, if you can’t do this, you need a better product).
  4. You use the profits to pay your workers a reasonable wage and to invest in future products. If everyone is doing this you will have lots of workers who are paid reasonable wages who can also be your customers.

Is this completely mad? Where’s the outsourcing, the exploitation of unpaid interns, the regular round of staff-bashing to keep them on their toes? I am sure that, in the eyes of the CBI and Adrian Beecroft, what I think makes me a stupid, naive, old-fashioned, idealistic moron who deserves to be poor and wants to ruin this country. It probably also makes me a socialist, although to be honest, I’m not so sure that I am one. Personal experience has taught me that.

The fall of the Berlin Wall is, to me, the most moving and humane thing to have happened in my lifetime (even though it was apparently down to some bureaucratic cock-up as opposed to the standard line, which is all peace, love and David Hasselhof). Shortly after the wall came down I went to live in the former GDR. My recollections of socialism’s impact are as follows: you can’t buy ready-made stir-fry sauces for love nor money; it makes everyone think bananas are fucking amazing; it means people used to get shot dead if, say, they fancied going to live with their Aunt Frieda in Dusseldorf. And Dusseldorf isn’t even that great (Aunt Frieda’s nice, though). My partner also did some former Eastern Bloc hopping. He worked in a school in Hungary, teaching English with a book that used Mr Jones and Mr Smith as its main models for What Capitalist England Is Like (alas, their first names were not Griff Rhys and Mel). Mr Jones owned an evil company called The Spider (I kid you not), while Mr Smith was a mere worker, paid a pittance to clean the office floors. You can imagine what the unit on forming comparatives was like. At the time the book seemed mad, but to be honest it seems less so today (christ, does this mean I am actually missing John Major?). Another interesting thing about the Hungarian school was that it featured a tannoy system, which used to broadcast political messages during break. After the collapse of Communism, no one was quite sure what to do with it. So instead of political propaganda, the students got Saturday Night by Whigfield played in-between their lessons (again, I kid you not. Unless my partner made this up. But he makes it sound very convincing).

Anyhow, apart from having universal free childcare, there is little about socialism that convinces me it’s the way forward. But maybe I haven’t read the right stuff (i.e. any stuff). Maybe the East Germans, with their spying on/ killing people antics, just hadn’t got it quite right.

Still, I don’t think this government’s got it right, either. Even if they had a viable model which meant that businesses would magically grow, I can’t even see the benefit in that, since by that point the rest of us would be working for free (or for “handouts”, if such things still existed), and no one would be, well, happy. What’s the point of it all if no one’s happy?

You can see why I’m crap at this business lark.

Opening chapter of my first novel

Note: Actually, this is not the opening chapter of my first novel, which does not in fact exist. It’s just some drunken ramblings. And no, I’m not writing this ‘the morning after’. I have the presence of mind to recognise the truth right now, and I’m drunk. And hence, being drunk, I am inordinately proud of my ability to recognise my own limitations.

This evening I am “one of those mummies”. Stressed, shouty, wine in hand, vaguely tearful, half-heartedly “on strike” in front of unwashed plates and uneaten toast. I am the mummy the Daily Mail warned you about, the star of countless mum-lit novels, each featuring a stick-thin cartoon lady dashing across the front cover, pram in one hand, dog lead in the other, countless bags floating in her wake. I don’t have a dog; my babies can now walk; I don’t comfort shop unless I’m drunk and it’s on Ebay. But I am that woman. Only less skinny, less amusing and far less likely to have an affair with the rock star who spies me struggling, kookily, with the dog and the pram and the shopping I don’t have. I am stressed mummy, hear me whine. What a fucking cliché.

I shouldn’t even be writing this. I’ve unloaded the bottom half of the Bosch dishwasher (one of my more practical Ebay “winnings”) but have run out of steam when it comes to the top. Instead I’ve started downing wine and blogging about domestic trivialities, which obviously makes no sense whatsoever, but is suitably kooky in its nonsensicality. It would be bad form to have a hangover tomorrow, especially given that it’s my youngest’s third birthday. Bad form, but entirely in keeping with the desperate mummy persona. Or character. Or self, whichever of these it is.

I haven’t even wrapped the presents for tomorrow. There is leftover wrapping paper, somewhere, in the back of a cupboard, but I can’t reach it and my partner’s away and it’s probably somewhere high up, too high for me, because I’m all short and feminine and need a man to help me, probably the rock star I mentioned earlier. If this were a mum-lit novel, I’d find a comic solution. I’d wrap the presents in newspaper and there’d be some dodgy headline and just as Youngest was about to uncover his present, Eldest would suddenly regain a passion for reading and ask what “grooming” meant (which reminds me. I haven’t written in Eldest’s homework book for tomorrow. Hang on. […] Just wrote ‘read both really well’. I used to write shit like ‘read well, but struggled to sound out some words, particularly those including the following phonemes… etc.’. What an over-ambitious wanker).

This is all very much at odds with the self I’d like to project in this blog. Full-on feminist ranty mother, engaged with the world and merely amused at the domestic mayhem she leaves in her wake. But this type of writing – what I’m doing now – isn’t feminist at all, or so it seems. On the contrary, it’s the cautionary tale. The bit where I throw my hands up and confess that yes, I can’t cope. I’m not the mum I’d like to be and my house is a fucking tip. Both of which are trivial concerns in the grand scheme of things (although not, I would argue, if you happen to be my sons). And yes, this is, perhaps, a common feeling, albeit one that usually gains expression in the works of women who are financially secure, struggling with abstract ideas of ‘ambition’ and not the fag ends of necessity (more Polly Filla than Jeremy Kyle guest with ideas above her station). I don’t have as much money as the usual mum-lit heroine; I live on a shitty estate (but I do have a Bosch dishwasher – see above). Perhaps I’m just not meant to care? But the trouble is, I do.

Well, obviously this wouldn’t make a very good novel. I only wrote this in order to have a moan at someone, and 140 characters was definitely way too short. Do you know what would be ace, though? If some hot-shot publishing exec were to read this and think “yeah, actually, what we need is a mum-lit novel written from the perspective of someone who lives in a rubbish slug-infested house and genuinely fucks up as opposed to having the odd kooky mishap. That would be brilliant!” Then I’d write the novel, and make loads of money (cos hey, despite all appearances, all this is interesting), and the story of how I’d been discovered when writing in drunken desperation on a little-known personal mummy blog would be used in marketing the world over. Because that’s exactly the kind of shit that would happen in a novel, isn’t it? (Plus the fact that I’ve now outlined what’s meant to happen, in advance, would give it that added post-modern sheen.)

Hmm. Something tells me another glass of wine is a bad idea. But essential nonetheless.

Mmm. Wine is nice. Could anyone spare me a ciggie?

Consultation on same-sex marriage: Essential guidance for bigots

Being a homophobe must be exhausting. All that time spent fretting about how far down the Gay Agenda “they” might have progressed, and then wondering what hedonistic AOB they’ll have planned for afterwards (plus I bet, if any of the agenda items are bullet pointed, they’ll have gone into “customise” and made sure the points are love hearts rather than straight black dots). With all this worrying, you’d have no time to construct a cogent argument as to why you object to same sex marriage, even though you obviously do. And right now the government’s asking you to contribute to a consultation on the issue. Enough already! Talk to the hand! (Or some other phrase – ideally one that sounds a bit less camp.)

Thankfully, the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child have put together their own set of sample answers to help those too “busy” to think of their own. Quite what denying women dominion over their own bodies has to do with preventing same-sex couples from calling their marriage a marriage is beyond me. But hey, w/evs. All bigots together. Still, the thing that worries me is, how will homophobes necessarily know where to find the sample responses? They might be too absorbed in fighting the gay mafia to make the necessary link with hating women who have abortions? You never know, they might just randomly happen on some feminist mummy blog by mistake. It’s a concern, isn’t it? And so, because I firmly believe that everyone should have their say, even total tossers, I’ve decided to provide some sample answers of my own. They’re just like the SPUC ones (apart from being completely different, which is purely an issue of copyright and not one of wanting to treat other human beings with a basic degree of respect).

Question 1: Do you agree or disagree that all couples, regardless of their gender, should be able to have a civil marriage ceremony?

Suggested response: Disagree (NB when selecting “disagree”, it is essential that you choose the option which DOES NOT include the prefix “dis-“. Otherwise your answer will be a stupid, mean-spirited, utterly self-centred and heartless one)

Question 2: Please explain the reasons for your answer, limiting your response to 1,225 characters (approx 200 words).

Suggested response: I believe marriage should, by definition, serve as the union of a man (or a woman) and a woman (or a man). To summarise, I do not not not disagree with same-sex marriage.

Question 3: If you identify as being lesbian, gay, bisexual or transsexual would you wish to have a civil marriage ceremony?

Suggested response: Yes (don’t worry, this IS the right answer. Of course you would wish to have a civil marriage ceremony if you were one of “them”, which you’re not. But that’s only because if you were, you’d be perverted, which again, you’re not. It’s always good to make it clear that you know what “they” are thinking).

Question 4: If you represent a group of individuals who identify as being lesbian, gay, bisexual or transsexual would those you represent wish to have a civil marriage ceremony?

Suggested response: Yes (again, as for Question 3, it’s good to show you know what “they” are thinking and, in this instance, also what their leaders/corruptors have planned).

Question 5: The government does not propose to open up religious marriage to same-sex couples. Do you agree or disagree with this proposal?

Suggested response: Agree – religious marriage should not be opened up to same-sex couples (NB when selecting this option, please ensure you choose the version of “agree” which DOES include the prefix “dis-” and that the sub-clause does not include “not”. This is VERY IMPORTANT).

Question 6: Do you agree or disagree with keeping the option of civil partnerships once civil marriage is made available to same-sex couples?

Suggested response: Don’t know (do we want to maintain a two-tier system, which could, potentially, put pressure on gays to exclude themselves voluntarily from our social structures, but which might also give them extra options, options that we, the Master Race, don’t have? Just skip this one. It’s a total headfuck.)

Question 7: If you identify as being lesbian, gay or bisexual and were considering making a legal commitment to your partner, would you prefer to have a civil partnership or a civil marriage?

Suggested response: Civil marriage. Because you know they would. They’d do it just to annoy us (or at least the men would. The women would probably prefer the civil partnership option, what with being all butch and stuff. But they don’t really count anyhow)

Question 8: The government is not considering opening up civil partnerships to opposite-sex couples because we have been unable to identify a need for this. However, we appreciate that there are a number of views on this issue. Do you agree or disagree with this proposal?

Suggested response: Agree – civil partnerships should not be opened up to opposite-sex couples (but please bear in mind the rules regarding “dis-” and “not”, as outlined for Question 5).

Question 9: If you are in a civil partnership would you wish to take advantage of this policy and convert your civil partnership into a marriage?

Suggested response: Yes. As in, you would if you were gay, which, as we have already acknowledged, you are not. But the gays will do anything for an extra knees-up.

Question 10: We would not propose introducing a time limit on the ability to convert a civil partnership into a marriage. Do you agree or disagree?

Suggested response: Disagree (see rules regarding “dis-” outlined for Question 1).

Question 11: Do you think there should be an option to have a civil ceremony on conversion of a civil partnership into a marriage?

Suggested response: Yes, there should be an option. That way, we could organise vigils outside, holding up placards mourning the death of “real” marriage.

Question 12: If you are a married transsexual person, would you want to take advantage of this policy and remain in your marriage while obtaining a full Gender Recognition Certificate?

Suggested response: Yes. Just say yes. Otherwise they might get suspicious and think you’re a man or a woman in disguise, or whatever the hell all this means. It’s hard to tell these days, what with women having short hair and being allowed to wear trousers.

Question 13: If you are the spouse of a transsexual person, would you want to take advantage of this policy and remain in your marriage whilst your spouse obtained a full Gender Recognition Certificate?

Suggested response: Yes. Again, it’s the safest option, or they’ll start asking questions about Betty’s M&S slacks/ Brian’s “red but looks pink in certain lights” jumper.

Question 14: [Some stuff on tax and benefit rights blah blah blah]. Do you have any comments on the assumptions or issues outlined above?

Suggested response: I do like Elton John, though. And that nice David Furnish.

Question 15: Are you aware of any costs or benefits that exist to either the public or private sector, or individuals that we have not accounted for in the impact assessment?

Suggested response: What about the fetuses? Tell me about the fetuses, George!

Question 16: Do you have any other comments on the proposals within this
consultation? If so, please provide details, limiting your response to 1,225 characters.

Suggested response: Was Freddie Mercury really one of them? My mum always thought he looked quite virile and manly. She’d have married him.

To submit your responses, please go here. Remember, it’s important. If you don’t do it, “they” sure will.

The personal element: How to shut up everyone you hate

Earlier today I removed a post from this blog for the first time ever. Oh, okay, not the first time ever. There was another post. But that was early on and I’m not saying what that was about. Anyone who’s read it will know but mustn’t tell (damn, I must keep this “trying to look mysterious” impulse under control when I’m actually trying to keep something a secret). Anyhow, the post I deleted today wasn’t the earlier post. It was one I wrote two days ago, on a men’s pregnancy guide called Goodbye Pert Breasts (…).

Like the author of the aforementioned work, I’ve had a book published under my own name. It’s on Amazon and in various university libraries and anyone who wants to criticise it is perfectly within their rights to do so. There have been a few journal reviews, and one or two academics have got a bit sniffy about certain points. Still, no one has accused the book of being actively offensive, which is nice, because I wouldn’t want to be the author of an offensive book (tip for the willfully ignorant: offensive books make people sad). All the same, it’s early days. Perhaps one day my arch nemesis will go onto Amazon in a fit of rage and write reams and reams about how useless it all is. There’s the odd dodgy area where I’d back them up, but as long as no one else has noticed yet, I’m saying nothing. I wouldn’t take any criticism personally, largely because I’ve not made myself the hero of my own book.

I feel very uncomfortable about having deleted what I wrote about Goodbye Pert Breasts for the simple reason that I meant every word of it (even down to me owning a breast pump that plays the theme tune to Byker Grove). I am genuinely bothered by what a book like this suggests about women and pregnancy, and believe there needs to be some corrective to fawning reviews from the Good Men Project. I only deleted the post because it upset one of the people mentioned in the book. Which on the face of it seems a crap reason. Am I saying it’s legitimate not to challenge an expression of misogyny on the basis that hey, misogynists have feelings too?

It’s a difficult one. While I have strong opinions about pregnancy, I’d never write a pregnancy guide as there are plenty of people far more knowledgeable than I. And even if I were an expert who identified a genuine need to write such a guide, I wouldn’t base it on my own partner and children, since then any criticism would necessarily be, or at least feel, highly personal. And is personal criticism legitimate? Surely if you have made your personal narrative the basis for a contentious argument it has to be? If not, isn’t inserting your partner and children into the story essentially using a human shield? A cowardly way of getting to say what you like about humankind, and women in particular, before announcing, primly, “hush! think of the children!” the minute anyone questions you? Or, when that doesn’t work, “jeez, doesn’t anyone know how to take a joke” (while maintaining the same “hurt” face you used during the previous argument)? (Hell, I thought the thing about the breast pump was funny! Humourless sexists!)

So to be honest (in this rather self-obsessed-but-posing-as-thoughtful post) I am a bit pissed off about having censored myself. And a bit pissed off about responding to ad hominem attacks with genuine responses only to be told I’m the one who doesn’t take criticism. And even more pissed off at passive-aggressive suggestions that the person who cries loudest deserves the last word, even when they’re the person seeking to make money from hateful literature and pushing whatever positive reviews they can find. But I’m not saying any more about it. Because that, of course, would be personal and that’s not allowed.

Anyhow, in place of a post that calls out nasty, misogynist writing about pregnancy with the use of genuine examples, I’ll have to make do with one that includes the essential points I’d like to make:

  • it’s not nice to talk about a pregnant partner’s breasts as if they belong to you and will, in future, be defective
  • it’s rather offensive to pretend that doing the tiniest bit of housework makes a man a hero
  • it’s misogynist crap to claim that pregnant women become nasty, violent hormone-fuelled monsters
  • it’s sadistic to take delight in women feeling uncomfortable in their own bodies as they change size
  • it’s pathetic to assume women about to be ousted from the workplace don’t care about finances because they’re too busy worrying about mere fripperies such as buying more maternity clothes

All of this is nasty, bullying, misogynist crap. That, in essence, is what I wanted to say. But ideally with the use of evidence. Lest anyone think that we humourless feminists just make this shit up.

PS Any offensive responses will be collected and put on Twitter with the #feminism hashtag. Then I’ll set Louise Mensch onto you.

Feminism: I’ve finally graduated!

Today, after 36 years of false starts, confused outbursts and misguided ‘girl power’ moments, I finally graduated as a feminist. At long last, after countless attempts at winding up the patriarchy, the Man finally took the bait. I am, according to ‘Sarah’, who commented on this thread, not only lacking in humour, but may also have PMS. Sisters, I’ve made it! I’m a humourless feminist with PMS! High fives all round!

It’s been an arduous struggle getting here. Being heterosexual, having big tits and remaining undecided on Tori Amos haven’t helped, but somehow I’ve made it. Even so, I won’t rest on my laurels just yet. After all, I still haven’t been accused of having hairy legs, being a lesbian or, the biggie we all aim for, hating all men (Sarah, come on! Haven’t I done enough yet? I’ll put on some dungarees if it’ll help). To be fair, I wouldn’t even mind being a lesbian or having hairy legs, since both of these seem perfectly reasonable (or is this the PMS talking?). I’d definitely swap a night of passion with Caitlin Moran for having pre-menstrual mood swings (WHICH I TOTALLY HAVEN’T GOT!!! SO LEAVE ME ALONE!!!!).

Anyhow, tomorrow I’ll get back to the hard work of pissing off all sensible folk and making sure not to laugh at Family Guy, not even during the surreal bits, cos that’s simply not allowed. Not when you’re fully qualified Humourless Feminist (BA, MSc, PMS). Thanks to all who helped me on my way (Jordan and Geri Halliwell, I love ya!). Hey, do I get some kind of certificate for this?

Launching Operation Liberty Shield

NOTE: I was in the middle of writing this when I received a comment on another post claiming that I probably had PMS. This rather put me off continuing, so instead I wrote something on how great it is to be a humourless, PMS-ridden feminist. Way-hey! Except I’m not. Actually, right now I’m on the blob! Jeez, if you want to make the “time of the month” claim, get the sodding time right! Anyhow, now I’m coming back to the subject from which I was so rudely distracted.

Yesterday I uncovered a little-known and frankly shocking fact about George Osborne’s long-term plans for economic growth. Actually, I didn’t. I just didn’t want the first line of this post to be ‘Yesterday I had really bad period pain’. But the fact is, I did.

There is no age at which you can say this without sounding like an idiot. Early teens and you sound like you’re attempting to embarrass a male teacher out of asking for yesterday’s homework. Grown woman under 40 and you just sound pathetic since, let’s face it, it’s hardly childbirth. Woman over 40 and it just sounds like showing off. We know your game. You just want us to know that you’re not barren yet. Well, we’re not impressed. Face it, ladies: there is no time in your life when owning up to, let alone complaining of, period pain will be acceptable.

I’m not talking about endometriosis or anything similarly severe, just straight, common or garden period pain. I can’t even hear the phrase in my head without it being pronounced in mocking, pseudo-sympathetic tones. In the 1980s, Grange Hill featured a character called Roland, whose main purpose was to go around being fat. A girl called Janet would follow him, for no apparent reason, always saying, in half-concerned, half-hectoring tones “why are you so sad, Ro-land? Is it because you’re fat, Ro-land? Why are you so fat, Ro-land?” If anyone is wondering what Janet’s doing now, she lives in my head. Her only task is to say the phrase “period pain” whenever I think of it.

Yesterday I was in agony. I really, really mean it! I ended up taking more pain relief than I’d had when giving birth to my youngest (2 paracetamol for Youngest; 4 Feminax for yesterday’s travails), and I didn’t even get a cute baby at the end of it! All I got was a soggy tampon, and there wasn’t even that much blood! I wanted masses and masses, like in a slasher movie. My partner seemed unimpressed at the period pain complaint, and I was half-hoping, midway through buying my “feminine care”, that I’d collapse in Sainsbury’s and they’d have to call him and then he’d be sorry. They’d carry me out on a stretcher, pale from blood loss, and he’d feel so ashamed for doubting me. Only then we’d get to the hospital and it’d be really embarrassing because (hopefully) there’d be nothing seriously wrong with me and then I’d just be some prat who can’t even “have a happy period” like the Always advert tells her to.

As if the pain itself wasn’t bad enough, I can’t help feeling that struggling with period pain feels anti-feminist. It’s a throwback to ideas of women being controlled by their reproductive organs, and incapable of clear thought due to their monthly cycles (I don’t know why I write “throwback”; it’s not like “time of the month?”, to mean “shut up, you stroppy cow!”, isn’t ever used today, although I’ve no idea why whenever I hear that one in my head, it’s always spoken by Stacey from Eastenders). It’s ridiculous, yet I feel it’s my feminist duty to be positive about periods, even though I can’t see anything to recommend them. Amenorrhoea is the only real benefit of having anorexia (that’s if there wasn’t some link between it and osteoporosis), while the absence of periods is a definite plus when it comes to breastfeeding (always nice not to be leaking from several places at once). But it feels like I just don’t love myself enough as a woman to feel all celebratory about my menses (I have never, ever, used the word menses before, and probably never will again, especially since it’s just got me worrying about what happened to 1980s WH Smith rival John Menzies – does anyone know? And following on from that, does anyone now use the slang “John Menses” to describe their period?).

I haven’t yet decided what I will tell my sons about periods. My mother never told me much, but did manage to scare the life out of me in the swimming baths when I asked what “those machines on the wall” were for. She muttered something about women who have babies bleeding every month, so I decided there and then that I was going to adopt. The alternative sounded horrifying. Even now, my partner and I are very coy in how we talk about periods. During the War on Terror (is it still going on? has it been rebranded?) the US Dept of Homeland Security launched something called Operation Liberty Shield, which obviously sounded like it was something to do with a sanitary towel. For a while, “launching Operation Liberty Shield” became the codeword for my period having started:

Fancy a shag?

Nah, we’re on code red and it’s time to launch Operation Liberty Shield.

I’ve no idea what the actual Operation was, but it has now been shelved, so it’s not as mildly amusing as it used to be. I need a new codeword (don’t worry, I’m not asking for ideas. Anyhow, I am now quite taken with John Menses. It has a nice, retro feel).

I’m not in as much pain as yesterday. I just wanted to make, you know, a bit of a deal of it. Because clearly nobody else will, least of all my liberal feminist partner. And at this point I am reminded of the US rock band L7, probably best known in the UK due to lead singer Donita Sparks performing naked from the waist down on The Word in 1992. According to legend (and, um, Wikipedia) Sparks also responded to a hostile crowd at the Reading Festival by removing her tampon on stage and throwing it into the audience, yelling “eat my used tampon, fuckers!” There is something I find quite delightful about this. Imagine doing this in a board meeting that’s going badly wrong, or when someone’s just told you you didn’t get a job, or when you’ve just been given the sack. Long-term, it wouldn’t be great for references, but oh, the temporary glory. I’d love it if someone did this on The Apprentice, just after they’d been fired. Imagine Sir Alan’s face.

Well, enough late-night tampon-based musings. Fortunately I have a night’s sleep before I have to go to work. Hopefully enough time to forget all this and not accidentally “do a Donita” (although actually, the school run! Now there’s a place where it’d make an impact…)

Humour: The “acceptable” way to tell women they’re less intelligent than men

Where I work I’m lucky enough to sit near two people who are very, very funny. It’s hard to put into words quite what makes them so amusing, but they have a genuine knack of making me, all our colleagues and, above all, each other laugh. It’s all down to their relationship with each other, and the banter, and, every now and then, the songs. One will start singing, then the other will join in, and suddenly they’re parodying Beyoncé in a manner that’s both original and tremendously well observed. All this sounds potentially very annoying, but it isn’t because it’s relatively infrequent and extremely well done. If we worked for some trendy, fake-liberal company like Apple or Ben and Jerry’s, they’d be in line for some annual bonus for being all-round office merriment makers. Or at least they would be, if they were men.

Their type of humour – light, almost silly, but concise, and based on the bringing together and filtering-down of countless snippets of knowledge – does, I think, require a huge amount of intelligence to pull off. It’s a level of intelligence that some might not expect to find in two women in their twenties. And hence some colleagues, men in particular, seem to find it a little strange. They laugh – it’s impossible not to – but then always end on some patronising, belittling note: “Tch! You two! You’re worse than my kids!” As if to say well, sure, you’re funny, but you probably don’t even know why.

We have funny men in our department too (hell, we’re just comedy central). The difference is, they’re not quite as funny (as are none of the other women, either), but also, no one accuses them of being like children. After all, that would be stupid. The humour is self-conscious; they know they’re playing the fool. Not like those crazy females, who don’t really have a clue how or why they’ve struck comedy gold. In any case, comedy geniuses or not, these women keep their humour under wraps when it comes to a boardroom presentation. It’s probably just as well.

Today’s Observer features a piece by Dan Boffey called “Why women’s jokes fall flat in the boardroom“, covering some research completed by linguistics academic Dr Judith Baxter:

An analysis of the 600,000 words used during 14 meetings, seven led by a woman and seven by a man, found sharp differences between the use of humour by men and women in the boardroom – and how the jokes are received. Baxter discovered that the majority of male humour (80%) in business meetings takes the form of flippant, off-the-cuff witticisms or banter. About 90% of it receives an instant, positive response, usually as laughter.Yet most female humour during the course of a meeting is self-deprecatory (70%) and more often than not (at least 80%) is received in silence, according to Baxter.

I read this and it makes me feel instantly miserable. What a quick, direct and effective way to undermine women. Just don’t laugh at their jokes. It’s guaranteed to make a person feel crap. It doesn’t surprise me that female humour is therefore also more self-deprecatory. What do you expect if you’re already in a hostile environment? You’d hardly want to put yourself out on a limb.

Some research into why women are less likely than men to ask for pay rises has suggested that this may, in part, be based on the fact that if they did behave in the same manner as their male counterparts, they would be perceived in a far more negative way and actually undermine their own progress. It’s no good telling a woman to be more like a man; act more like a man when you’re still expected to be a woman, and you’ll piss people off all the more. This is why Baxter’s own advice, based on her research, seems to me to shy away from what’s really required:

What should senior women do about it? They should learn to develop the running gag or light, teasing banter with male and female colleagues at appropriate moments such as the beginning and ends of meetings, passing in the corridor, or while making a cup of tea.

Doesn’t this seem a little, well, patronising? Do women really need to learn the “right” type of humour? Or do we need to learn to respect women enough to appreciate their jokes?

Because I think humour is linked to intellect (one of the many, many reasons why Frankie Boyle isn’t funny), whenever people suggest women “just aren’t” as funny as men, I think it’s a way of saying that actually, deep down, they just aren’t as clever. It’s the new, acceptable way of doing it. They might outperform boys at school, they might be outnumbering men on degree courses, but hey, they just don’t make us laugh. It’s not their fault. It’s just the way they are. Hence we piss ourselves at Russell Brand but smile politely at all the crap “token women” who appear on panel shows. It doesn’t bother us that if these women were saying the same things as the men, we still wouldn’t find it as funny. Oh, it’s in the delivery, we’ll airily say. What part of “the delivery” do we mean? The part that comes with anything being said by someone with a higher-pitched voice? Or the part that comes with us assuming that whatever the subtext of a joke could have been, it probably isn’t there after all, because a woman’s unlikely to get it?

It’s hard to argue seriously about discrimination in humour. You can hardly order someone to find something funny, on the basis that it would be bigoted not to. Furthermore (furthermore! look how serious I’m being!) you can’t objectively measure how funny the telling of a joke is; you can only judge from the response, which can be clouded by all sorts of prejudice. Certainly, from what I see in daily life, women are every bit as funny as men because they’re every bit as clever and capable of making crazy associations, and of puncturing delusions, and of twisting language, and of basically using their minds for fun and to entertain others. We find them less funny only when being so would give them a kind of power.

Funny, that.

BTW, in case you’re wondering whether I’m ever funny in the workplace, no, I’m not. I sometimes make the odd stab at it, but I’m so tired and over-caffeinated people can’t tell whether I’m serious or not, so they end up getting a little bit scared. I do, however, have a good reputation in my workplace for being hilarious on Facebook. I have actually heard colleagues recommend that others “befriend” me, not because I’d be a good friend, but because my Facebook statuses are apparently a laugh a minute. I’m like the Mr Kipling of Facebook: uploads too many boring pictures of her children and won’t add any fish to your virtual aquarium, but she does make exceedingly witty observations about her crap life. It’s reached a point where I can’t take the pressure. What if I lose my touch? I won’t just let myself down, I’ll let down women in my workplace and dampen the “being funny” torch we seek to hold aloft. See, I bet men don’t have similar worries. No wonder they’re laughing.

Raising children: Not like driving cars

Due to not being famous (yet, obvs), there are only three points in my life during which I have found myself thinking “well, excuse moi! Don’t you know who I am???”.

The first involved bumping into Stephen Hawking in a bookshop in Cambridge and, in a moment of total confusion, deciding that I was the world-renowned genius and that he was just being rude (this moment passed when I remembered I was clutching Sophie’s World, bought in a desperate attempt to cover up the fact that I had an essay on Kant due in two days’ time and still hadn’t got a fucking clue what “pure reason” was, let alone how one might “critique” it).

The other two points came when walking out of different hospitals, two years apart, but each time carrying a day-old baby that was, apparently, mine. I found myself staring at the nursing staff, utterly bewildered that no one was doing a thing to halt this ridiculous occurrence. Didn’t they know who I was? I wanted to scream at them “look! I’m a total fuckwit! I might do all sorts with this poor little person! I might drop him! I might sit on him! I might feed him to next doors’ guinea pigs! Can’t you see that I HAVE NO IDEA WHAT I’M DOING?” And yet, no one seemed to see this. They just smiled benevolently and waved me goodbye (having first checked that my partner had fitted the correct car seat. Because obviously the car seat is the main thing, nay, the only thing. Get that right, and the next 18 years is a piece of piss).

Given the levels of insecurity, not to mention sheer bewilderment, that I’ve felt when starting out as a parent, you’d think I’d consider parenting classes to be a very good idea. After all, as David Cameron says, it is “ludicrous” that one should receive more training into how to drive a car than in how to raise children. I mean, it took me a year to pass my test and I’m still shit at driving 18 years later. So what kind of parent must I be?

Actually, when it comes down to it, I’d still like to think I’m worse at driving than I am at being a mum. Clearly, there are times when the one influences the other; I’m particularly shit at driving when trying to switch over the “Wheels on the Bus” CD for “Harry and his Bucketful of Dinosaur Shite” (to give it its full title). I’m not sure what the motherhood equivalent is for parallel parking – probably being good at using a sling, and I’m totally cack-handed at both. But I think I’m there with the “love” thing (love is probably equivalent to petrol or diesel. Only last month I nearly destroyed my diesel car by filling it with unleaded. I don’t want to go into the details of what filling your child with “the wrong kind of love” might mean, but suffice it to say, I definitely haven’t done that).

Thus, having established that I’m better at something for which I’ve had no training at all than at something for which I had to go through hour after miserable hour of arguing with my dad about uphill starts on a rainy industrial estate (god, the memories!), you might think I’m pretty relaxed about the whole parenting class idea. Good for some, but not for me (although actually good for no one, not even imaginary social types, as illustrated by a brilliant Babberblog post on the subject). The trouble is, the idea is just not one I can dismiss with a disinterested shrug. I can’t help feeling bloody outraged by the very concept, and I’ve been finding it hard to articulate just why. And then last night I started to wonder whether not being able to articulate the problem is, to some degree, the problem itself. It’s the vagueness; I can’t stand the vagueness!

As a concept, the parenting class is accusatory, and a means of deflecting blame. Just as the government currently uses education policy as a means of excusing its shit record on the economy (you’re unemployed because you’re ill-educated and exams are dumbed down, not because the jobs don’t exist), it’s now using parenting classes, and the associated notion that, to quote advisor Frank Field, parents are “no longer inspired to do a five-star job of bringing up their children”,  as a means of excusing its record on everything, ever. Because it’s not just a way of getting around properly investing in families, support networks and flexible employment options. Blame parents – the people who bear responsibility for raising all other people – and nothing can ever be your fault. When a teenager tries to blame Mummy and Daddy for the fact that he or she is a total knob, we don’t give him or her the time of day. But now the government seems to suggest not only that this is legitimate, but that the responsibility for all knobdom lies with Mummy and Daddy alone (but mainly with Mummy, I’d say).

The trouble is, there is no direct accusation. Why, for instance, should parents be shit now but not before? Is there any thinking behind all this? If there is (and I’m not even convinced of that) I reckon there’s some dubious gender politics underlying the “crap parents” message. Mummies work (because, like, they never have before). Single mums are considered halfway acceptable members of our society. Violent men in batman costumes are ousted from their rightful position as head of the family. Basically, women are doing stuff and it’s fucking up the kids! But none of that is, I think, what motivates the parenting class move. Along with class prejudice, it’s just a particular bias which encourages people to go along with the idea that parents are worse than they were before. What I would really like is for politicians to make these accusations direct, and specific. Then we’d be able to dismiss them in an instant, as opposed to wading through treacle and having to preface every objection with “look, it’s not that I’m one of the millions of people who are vehemently in favour of bad parenting, but …”

Anyhow, I think it’s really apt that the parenting class programme is launching with vouchers being distributed in Boots. This is a shop which specialises in selling items which have the sole purpose of convincing you that you’re not good enough, and that whatever goes wrong around you could be improved if only you looked better, weighed less, weren’t such a shit mum etc. etc. None of this is true, but none of it matters. As long as there are enough light-reflecting particles to blur the fine lines. All together now: Ta-dah!

Switching beds

During the nineties I spent several summers working in a luxury hotel on the edge of the Lake District. Compared to the jobs I’d had before (service station; cheap, pack-em-in hotel; silver service for boozed-up businessmen) it was idyllic. I’d drive over early in the morning to witness the sun rising over Ullswater. I’d watch the reflection in the shimmering waters, so immersed in self-conscious poetic musings that I’d almost crash the Mini Metro. Then I’d pull over by the side of the road, have a fag (since I still wasn’t allowed them at home), and continue on my way, anticipating a peaceful morning of setting up the breakfast room and serving a tiny number of high-paying guests, before going upstairs to hoover and polish a handful of plush bedrooms.

There were high points, such as serving breakfast to Jarvis Cocker, and to Robert Powell (who played the lead role in the 1977 film Jesus of Nazareth, meaning I can legitimately say I’ve served tea and toast to Jesus). There were low points, such serving porridge to the portly man in Room 11, who took room service in his underpants, and winked disconcertingly at the end of every sentence. There were simply confusing points, such as dealing with a couple who both had alzheimer’s and had no idea where they were, but seemed to be having such a wonderful time together you had no idea whether to feel sad for them or not. And then there were simply shameful points, the worst of which was making a gay couple feel unwelcome in a hotel they’d paid a fortune to stay in.

Every morning we’d go into their room and find the twin beds pushed together, with the duvet covers arranged horizontally, one above the over, so that each covered both beds at once. And every morning the other chambermaid and I would push the beds apart, make up each separately and push a bedside table in between them, as if to keep them permanently divided. Every night the men would return and dutifully rearrange the room they were paying hundreds to occupy, push the beds back together again and adjust the bedding so that they could lie together beneath the same covering. They never said a word about it. I never said a word about it, despite the pitiful shred of decency that at least made me wonder whether this was right. It was just the way we did things. I look back and I feel appalled at myself, and at an environment in which a couple could be so beaten down by discrimination that they wouldn’t complain, not even in a situation where they had the money and, supposedly, the power. We would not have treated a heterosexual couple in the same way. I know this because occasionally heterosexual couples stayed in twin rooms and we had no issues with any rearrangement of the beds. We’d offer to help them with it. But things were different for same-sex couples. Or rather, non-couples. The message to them was clear: you pretend you’re no more than friends and we’ll deign to take your money. Your relationship is unworthy of an establishment such as ours.

Writing all this I feel incredibly ashamed. I’ll regale people with the “serving toast to Jesus” story, but I tend to forget the “treating fellow human beings like shit” anecdote. The thing that reminded me is this piece by John Sentamu in the Guardian. It’s the same old, same old about how gay marriage isn’t necessary because we have civil partnerships, and how, actually, allowing gay couples to marry would damage marriage, which is “built around the complementarity of the sexes”:

Defining marriage as between a man and a woman is not discriminatory against same-sex couples. What I am pressing for is a kind of social pluralism that does not degenerate into a fancy-free individualism.

Sentamu doesn’t bother to tell us what “the complimentarity of the sexes” actually offers or achieves. Presumably it’s something to do with childbearing, in spite of the fact that heterosexual couples can marry regardless of whether they are fertile, have any intention of having children or are still within childbearing age. Yet even if we could regulate marriage law to exclude the unforgivably barren, it is unclear why we’d want to. And then there’s the fact that gay couples can have children with others, or adopt. If all this sounds a bit muddled, it’s because I’m genuinely confused. What is the value of this “between a man and a woman” bollocks? What is this special thing for which we need a special word? As a woman in a relationship with a man, I don’t see this “complementarity”, I don’t recognise it and I don’t want it. Yet I’m still allowed to get married and same-sex couples aren’t. Once again, their relationship is unworthy of an establishment such as ours.

Sentamu recognises that being denied access to the same rights as others (or, to use the proper, gay-friendly terminology, access to “fancy-free individualism”) will make some gay people sad :(. But hey, it’s complicated:

If it was a question of justice, what injustice would result from not turning civil partners into married couples? I suggest: no injustice.

Well, John, I suggest: a great deal of injustice, in addition to a great deal of pain. Because I could look back on one summer in 1994 and claim that what it all came down to was the same pair of beds, the same pair of duvet covers, the same room. Everything was the same. The only thing that was different was the positioning on the floor. And what difference does that make, really? None at all? I think it makes a lot of difference. It’s a question of love, respect and the humane treatment of others. John Sentamu may not be able to see it, and as a naive, selfish nineteen-year-old, neither could I. But surely all of us have to grow up at some point and recognise the importance of our words and actions. It’s not just a label, or the shifting of a bedside table. It’s a gesture that can make all the difference in the world.

Link to Home Office Equal Civil marriage consultation.