New Statesman: Tattooing your name on your partner’s forehead is an act of control, not devotion

“I do it because he’s paranoid and wants to have me branded.” These are the words of Kourtney Leigh, who has the name of her boyfriend, Ryan Wibberley, tattooed across her forehead.

According to Wibberley, she is not the first of his girlfriends to have his name inscribed on their bodies, although none of the others have gone for quite so obvious a location. “It’s a laugh,” he tells the Sun, “It’s not taking advantage because they want it done.”

Should we be judging Leigh for consenting to be, as Wibberley puts it, “branded like Heinz Beans”? Or is it an act of devotion, perhaps not all that dissimilar to Johnny Depp’s famous “Winona forever” – now “wino forever” – tattoo? There might be a gendered context to this, but isn’t getting your partner’s name tattooed on your forehead on the same continuum as changing your name to his? Or reassuring him that the children you bear are definitely his? It’s all about ownership, when all’s said and done.

Read the full post at the New Statesman.


New Statesman: HBO’s Divorce is uncomfortable viewing for feminists

In Episode 2 of HBO’s Divorce, Thomas Haden Church’s Robert visits his friend Nick in hospital. Nick has had a heart attack following a violent row with his wife Diane.

“Seems like it’s open season on men around here,” notes Robert, before adding that it must be “hell” for Nick to be lying there, “can’t speak, clucking hens all around you.”  In case Robert’s anger at womankind has not yet been made clear enough, he then tells his wife Frances’ friend to “get the fuck away from me you old harpy.” As far as Robert is concerned, women are the enemy.

One could say he has good reason to be mistrustful. Not only was he almost shot by Diane, he recently found out Frances has been having an affair with a granola-making academic. Having changed the locks on their home, he asks Frances whether she ever slept with both her lover and him on the same day: “Because officially that would mean you were gang banged.” He tells Frances that he is going to make her miserable: “And more to the point I’m going to make our children hate you.”

Divorce is written by Sharon Horgan and executive produced by Sarah Jessica Parker, who also plays Frances. It would be difficult – and unfair – to argue that this is a dramedy in which female perspectives on relationships have been sidelined. Even so there’s something about Robert’s embrace of misogyny, almost as a form of liberation following years of repression, that I find deeply discomforting. It’s not unfamiliar territory in TV shows or films relating to the topic of separation, but still it leaves me, as a viewer, on edge.

Read the full post at the New Statesman.

New Statesman: “I did not want her to become a decrepit old hag.” Why elderly men kill their wives

“I did not want her to become a decrepit old hag. I loved her too much for that.” Those are the words of 89-year-old Philip Williamson, who last week received a suspended two-year prison sentence for the manslaughter of his 83-year-old wife Josephine.

A retired teacher, Josephine was suffering from dementia and becoming increasingly dependent on her husband, who had terminal cancer. Philip claims to have been following his wife downstairs when “something took over me and I pushed her”. Once she had reached the bottom, he also strangled her. The judge presiding over the case, Joanna Cutts QC, accepted that in killing Josephine Philip “felt this was the only way to limit or prevent her suffering”.

Philip Williamson is not the first husband to make such a decision on behalf of an elderly wife suffering from dementia. In December last year Ronald King, 87, shot dead his wife Rita, 81, at the care home where she lived. King told staff that his wife “had suffered enough”. He was found guilty of manslaughter on the grounds of diminished responsibility, in what the investigating police officer described as “a particularly sad and tragic case”. Other cases, such as that of Angus Mayer and his late wife Margaret, who had Alzheimer’s, have yet to come to court.

Read the full post at the New Statesman

New Statesman: In super-rich divorce cases, I find myself cheering for the Gold Digger

Being female is an expensive business. It’s not just that the lipstick and high heels don’t come for free. Financially you are hobbled from the day you are born.

There’s no way of putting an exact figure on how much being a woman costs. There are various ways in which people have tried, estimating gender pay gaps, comparing pensions and savings, even checking how much more parents spend on presents for sons than for daughters. But so much of this is unquantifiable. What’s the cost of your time, your emotional labour, all those things you do or don’t do because the world belongs to men and you are not one of them? How does the impact of your sex intersect with your class, your race and your location? It’s impossible to get a precise figure for how much each of us is really owed. Still, since no one’s offering us any actual compensation, I suppose we don’t have to anyway.

At primary school in the 1980s we used to sing a song called Supermum. Vastly inferior to Billy Connolly’s Supergran, it was a study in patriarchal passive aggression:

Supermum, you’re wonderful, but very underpaid.
Supermum, you’re cook and cleaner, handyman and maid.
If you put in a bill, for all the work you do,
There’d be an awful lot of wages due.

Ha! How better to indoctrinate little girls into the ways of the patriarchy than by piling on the insincere praise? It’s not as though “Supermum” ever would ask for payment for her labours; indeed, that she doesn’t is the whole point. While we might occasionally see articles which fancifully estimate what the yearly salary of a stay-at-home wife and mother should be (£159,137, apparently), these are meant to be all the reward a woman needs. You don’t need the actual money, just someone to tell you (ideally via the medium of song) that your labour could be considered economically valuable. It could be, but it isn’t. Soz about that.

Read the full post at the New Statesman

New Statesman: Ellie Butler murder: Are the female partners of abusive men responsible for their crimes?

On Tuesday Ben Butler was sentenced to a minimum of 23 years in prison for the murder of his six-year-old daughter Ellie. It’s a death that is particularly tragic because not only was it predictable, but it was predicted, again and again.

Ben Butler was a violent man, with prior convictions for assaulting an ex-girlfriend and two strangers. He was jailed for attacking Ellie when she was six weeks’ old, but this conviction was later quashed. He and Ellie’s mother, Jennie Gray, won back custody of Ellie in 2012, despite Gray’s father protesting that this would lead to the little girl’s death. It took just eleven months for this prediction to come true.

Gray was not present when her daughter died, but she later helped Butler in his attempt to make the death appear to have been an accident. She has been sentenced to 42 months’ imprisonment for child cruelty. The Daily Mail describes her as “the twisted mother who sooner saw [Ellie] die than turn against the savage thug who beat her to death,” while according to the Mirror she is “evil” and “scheming”. But Gray was also a victim of Ben Butler. Despite her own protestations to the contrary, the physical suffering and mental torment endured by Gray – who wrote secret “letters of prayer” begging for Butler to “stop being angry, hateful and violent” – should not be in any doubt.

Read the full post at the New Statesman

New Statesman: Leap Day love: Once every four years, women are allowed to propose to men

You know the trouble with heterosexual relationships? One party desperately wants marriage and babies while the other doesn’t, and the lengths to which the former will go to tie down the latter are frankly staggering.

We all know, for instance, that straight marriage doesn’t offer women as much as it offers men. Getting married boosts men’s health and income, while the only thing boosted for women is the number of pants to wash. Women are more likely to initiate divorce and less likely to suffer ill-health as a result. Recent research has suggested that single, childless men want babies more than their female counterparts, hardly surprising given who pays the highest price in health risks, workplace discrimination and domestic drudgery. So is it any wonder that poor, needy men have been forced to come up with elaborate schemes in order to snare independent, commitment-phobic women? Otherwise what straight woman in her right mind would ever end up walking down the aisle?

For the full post go to the New Statesman

Tim Lott, the men’s rights movement’s very own Polly Filler

Quick magazine idea: the feminist version of Private Eye. Like the sexist one, only not sexist, and hence far more aware of the misogyny that runs through politics and the media (sexist Private Eye included). I’ve already planned the reversioning of several features: Rod Liddle would provide a model for the new Glenda Slagg, the OBN would be joined by the MBE (Mansplaining Badge of Excellence), as well as Lookalikes we’d have Sexist-a-likes, Pseuds’ Corner would be joined by Rape Apology Circle (£10 for the most topical submissions, £15 for any starting with the phrase “we all agree rape is an abhorrent crime…”), plus the school newsletter would be set at the Mike Buchanan Academy for Boys and Men (“and the women who love them”). I’ve been struggling to find my new Polly Filler but finally, today, I happened upon him: it’s novelist Tim Lott. More specifically, novelist Tim Lott in his Man about the house column for the Guardian.

I’m not quite sure why Lott has up till now escaped my notice. Perhaps I thought he and Tim Dowling were the same person.* Today, however, someone tweeted Lott’s latest report from the domestic front into my twitter timeline, a piece portentously titled There are no final truths in relationships.** A sort-of review of the film Before Midnight in which Lott a) slyly compares himself to Ethan Hawke’s character (ha!) and b) offers a passive-aggressive critique of his wife’s own habit of criticising him, it’s both hilarious and disturbing.

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Enough of the bride-bashing!

This morning I found myself reading a blog on the Independent about a very ungrateful bride, who mocked a wedding guest for sending her a personal gift rather than money. Or rather, that’s how the blog started off. Following on from that particular tale of selfishness and greed readers were treated to first, a rather weak attempt at observational comedy (“why weddings are crap if you’re a guest” sort of thing) and second, a full-on sexist rant about the sheer horribleness of brides, or bridezillas, to give them their properly sexist name:

The mistake too many brides make is to think that their wedding is a gift to all those invited and therefore they deserve remuneration. Their addled brains think their finely-tuned bonanza of self-indulgence is every bit as meaningful and exciting for her guests as it is for herself. She forgets that most of those attending are only there because it would be rude not to turn up; that if they had the choice they would be in the pub or at home watching TV with a pizza; that the only real draw to the reception is the free food and booze and the chance to see old mates.

Oh, just sod off, Andy West, and take your difficult transitions from the third person plural to the third person singular with you. Yes, weddings can be a pain, but guess what? Brides are not wholly responsible for all of the materialistic, trivial-yet-high-pressure expectations that surround them. Bride-bashing might seem like a bit of fun but in a pink-blue world where little girls are still encouraged to hold out for taffeta and handsome princes it’s not fair to then castigate them for vanity and self-indulgence. They’re trying to do what’s expected, even though they’re damned either way. Continue reading

Bigotryphobia: The real social evil

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

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

The bisexual male: Yet another must-have accessory

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

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

Girl power, loneliness and avoiding “the friendzone”

According to a piece in today’s Guardian, “the girl power generation are confused”. I’m not surprised. I’m confused, too, not least because I’d always assumed was part of said generation. Alas, it turns out I’m too old. Already 21 when Wannabe was released, I can’t be one of the “twentysomething women” who can claim to be “the most liberated and educated women ever”. So liberated, in fact, that they get to be defined by a 1990s girl band (the lack of a corresponding Boyzone generation can be taken as clear evidence that the pendulum has swung too far).

But wait! Said twentysomethings might be liberated and educated, but as you’ve already guessed, they’re still not happy! And not just because previous generations were awarded enigmatic letters such as X and Y whereas they got the sodding Spice Girls. Today’s young women are unhappy because too many people have written too many books telling them what to do. From The Rules to He’s Just Not That Into You, books have bombarded women with “contradictory messages” which leave them “in a bind, and without much help in figuring out what they actually want” (see, that’s what happens when you make the ladies literate): Continue reading

If that’s respect I’m Chrétien de Troyes

So feminists don’t do chivalry? Frankly, I find the very suggestion reveals a complete lack of politesse. I’m a feminist yet I’ve always been a friend of courtoisie. Indeed, I’ve read whole books that seek to define appropriate ritterliches Benehmen (I didn’t study medieval literature for nothing  – well, actually, it’s starting to look like I did. But still …).

The debate on chivalry has been “restarted” by an article in the Atlantic (a publication which I sometimes feel was set up with the sole purpose of rewriting Femail in Pseud’s Corner-friendly language). You know all that stuff about how feminists get really mad if men hold doors open, so then men get told off for holding doors open, then women – who are not the same as feminists – get pissed because the told-off men have stopped holding doors open etc. etc.? Well, it’s that. Again. “The breakdown in the old rules, which at one extreme has given rise to the hookup culture, has killed dating and is leaving a lot of well-meaning men and women at a loss.” Blah blah blah – you know the drill. Except – except! – there’s a sort-of social sciencey bit.

According to Emily Esfahani Smith, a recent study has shown that “chivalry is associated with greater life satisfaction and the sense that the world is fair, well-ordered, and a good place” – so a world not unlike the end of an episode of Mike the Knight. Who could possibly be unhappy with that? Well, the authors of the study to which Esfahani Smith refers, for starters. What Kathleen Connelly and Martin Heesacker actually observe is that benevolent sexism – a term which the Atlantic piece immediately dismisses as a kind of Orwellian doublespeak – “is indirectly associated with life satisfaction for both women and men through diffuse system justification”. This isn’t quite the cause and effect scenario that Esfahani Smith would like to suggest. Still, never mind – where made-up social science stumbles, let’s throw in some made-up history instead! Continue reading

On hearing an unknown couple fight

When you’re lying awake in the dark there’s plenty of time to think, perhaps even to over-think. This Sunday morning – I don’t know the precise time – I found myself in a hotel room, eyes wide open, unable to sleep. Everything around me was silent, but I was still listening, just in case.

My partner and I were spending a night away from the children, just the two of us, as a special treat. At some point both of us had been woken by the sound of raised voices. I couldn’t work out what was happening at first. Two people in the next room, a man and a woman. The man was angry, the woman apologetic, fragments of back story echoing through the walls. Something about a fight in town. He’d been left without his phone or money. The police were mentioned, I’m not sure why. She’d returned to the hotel earlier, and he resented her for having done so. You left me for dead. She said sorry, tried to leave the room. He wouldn’t let her. She started to plead and that’s when we switched on the light.
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Violence at Christmas: Peering through the frosted windows

When the brilliant @therealsgm mentioned she was organising a bloghop as part of 16 Days of Action on Violence against Women, my almost-instant reaction was “I know! I’ll write something on VAW at Christmas!” Not because I’ve experienced it myself or because I’m an expert on the subject, you understand. Merely because I love Christmas almost as much as I hate violence against women, therefore … Well, anyhow, I didn’t think the general ignorance would be a problem. I assumed it would just be easy to look up stuff on the internet. Turns out it is, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy to write about it.

To begin with I was obviously going to adopt a smug, pseudo-saintly position, from which I would inform everyone that actually, abusing others IS BAD and surely at this time of year – AT CHRISTMAS, of all times! – we should all be nice and love one another. For the fact is, Christmas is a time for families and children and … well, that’s the whole problem. Violence really rains on the whole Christmas parade. Continue reading

Husbands, wives and sperm: His body, his choice?

There’s a story in the news at the moment relating to sex, reproduction and consent. Well, okay, there are several (and each is maddeningly offensive in its own special way). But this one stands out from all the others. This one relates to husbands, wives and sperm donation. A woman in Surrey whose husband donated sperm without her knowledge is calling for new guidelines to treat sperm as a “marital asset”, which would mean that in future sperm could not be donated without the spouse’s views being taken into account. Continue reading

Cherie Blair vs the yummy mummies: Just what we need

While I wouldn’t quite say it’s my favourite song, I’ll confess to having a real soft spot for Tammy Wynette’s Stand By Your Man. This is partly because I love her voice, but it’s also because it was number one in the UK charts on the day I was born. I mean, I doubt I was appreciating the song mere moments after my arrival in the world. I was probably crying and whatnot (for some reason, my memories are hazy). Anyhow, because it was number one then, I feel it is symbolic. A bit like star signs, or something. And yes, I have grown up to feel that sometimes, it’s hard to be a woman. Especially if you’re also a gemini.

As a feminist, I don’t find the song particularly offensive. I do stand by my man. Given the mother he’s got, I’ve no bloody choice. Therefore I was most displeased to learn that, in 1992, Hilary Clinton had a pop at Tammy in order to demonstrate how independent she was from husband Bill. In a TV interview Clinton announced that she was not “sitting here as some little woman standing by my man like Tammy Wynette”. Well, no. If Tammy Wynette had been on TV, it would have been to do some singing, quite possibly, at that time, with the KFL (I don’t recall Clinton ever being “justified and ancient”. Or “bound for MuMu Land”, for that matter). Hilary was on TV because she was married to Bill Clinton, by whom she was not, however, standing. Or sitting (she does seem to get a bit muddled on that point). This comment obviously offended Tammy and Hilary had to apologise, but not before the whole thing had been mediated by Burt Reynolds, of all people (it’s not quite Gazza bringing chicken to Raoul Moatt, but as crazy mediations go, it’s pretty good).

Twenty years later, we may be needing the help of Reynolds once more. This time it’s Cherie Blair who’s been misusing pop culture references in order to talk bollocks and lecture the rest of womankind on how they ought to be (rest of womankind: “Great. Just fucking great”). And the parallels don’t end there. Like Clinton in 1992, Blair is an exceptionally successful woman in her own right. But she’s successful in ways that wouldn’t normally give a person the public platform that she actually has. Part of the reason what she says is reported is down to the man she married, just as pretty much all of the reason why Clinton was on TV in 1992 is down to the man Clinton married. Put it this way, it’s not a great position from which to lecture womankind on what independence means (rest of womankind: “Too fucking right”).

During a speech at Fortune magazine’s Most Powerful Women event in London (just writing that clause makes me want to vomit), Blair is reported to have said the following:

One of the things that worries me now is you see young women who say: ‘I look at the sacrifices that women have made and I think why do I need to bother, why can’t I just marry a rich husband and retire?’ and you think, how can they even imagine that is the way to fulfil yourself, how dangerous it is […]

You hear these yummy mummies talk about being the best possible mother and they put all their effort into their children. I also want to be the best possible mother, but I know that my job as a mother includes bringing my children up so actually they can live without me.

Obviously, as a mother in full-time paid employment, I read this and think go Cherie! Sod the mother-in-law and her “making sacrifices for the children” bollocks! You’re on my side! Yeah, that’s exactly what I think. Or it would be if I wasn’t so busy thinking excuse me, Cherie, but what fucking planet are you on?

In a horribly crass troll-baiting manoeuvre, the Guardian has decided to respond to Blair’s comments by asking readers what is a yummy mummy, exactly? (the faux innocence of the phrasing is great, isn’t it?). Cue lots of pointless comments on how Blair’s mixed up stay-at-home motherdom with yummy mummyness, which has nothing to do with financial dependency, but involves being fit and fuckable (a MILF, as many of the commenters point out, eager to show off their knowledge of sexist acronyms). To a certain extent, they’re right. I’m in paid employment and that doesn’t stop me from being a yummy mummy (the fact that I ming, however, does). But I don’t think that’s the whole point.

It is easy to interpret Blair’s comments as reigniting what the American press refer to as the “mommy wars”, SAHMs vs career mummies, each fucking up their children’s lives in their own particular way. There’s an element of that, but I think what Blair is saying is so far removed from the reality of most mothers’ lives that it barely touches upon the tensions that we really feel. It’s a cardboard cutout version of life. We’re just not playing these Daily Mail roles.

How many women or girls do you know who have said “why can’t I just marry a rich husband and retire”? I bet you don’t know many. That is because, unlike Cherie Blair, we don’t all hang around in the vicinity of potential rich husbands. In my life I have known only two women who did this, both of whom didn’t have the qualifications or career opportunities enjoyed by women such as Blair (or indeed me). For one of these women, it worked splendidly. She’s now mega-rich, never works and isn’t being driven mad by her three kids because they’re at boarding school during the week. I could say “oh, but she isn’t fulfilled”, but the truth is, she seems perfectly happy to me. Life isn’t some great morality tale (although I imagine if you’re married to Tony “A Journey” Blair, you have to pretend that it is). For the other woman, it didn’t work out so well. She’s now left holding the babies with no career history and nowhere to go. But still, even if she’d chosen a different route, I doubt she’d now be a QC giving speeches for Fortune magazine.

The assumption of privilege in what Cherie Blair is saying is, frankly, painful. Blair claims that “every woman needs to be self-sufficient and in that way you really don’t have a choice – for your own satisfaction”. But not everyone’s career is satisfying. Not every woman relishes “self-sufficiency” when the alternative is destitution. Not every mother can even afford to work. And for many of us, whether we are in paid employment or not, what makes us “a success” – the things we’d like our children to admire in us – isn’t tied to how we pay the bills. Blair links paid employment for women to personal self-realisation and to setting a good example for children. To me this seems horribly sexist. Do you know, Cherie, some of us just work to pay for stuff and if we’re lucky, we have a job involving something we’re good at. It’s a bit like how men work. Actually, when you think about it, it’s exactly the same.

At the moment my partner doesn’t have a job, although he has an interview this Friday.* It is the only interview he has been offered all year and the post is part-time. But in some ways, this is good. Our youngest would only have to go to nursery half the week and he’d get loads of time with Daddy. Only now I’m wondering, would Cherie Blair approve? Would my partner be sacrificing his “self-sufficiency” in order to bring a child up unable to live without him? Would he be making himself a terrible role model? Would he be doing all this, despite the fact that this is the only sodding job on offer? Perhaps it doesn’t matter, what with him being a man. Should Tony be the one commenting on this? (I’d worry he’d be a bit “alpha” on this particular one. And indeed on everything else.)

Anyhow, I suppose my next question is, what’s the male equivalent for “yummy mummy”? No one seems to have found one. I haven’t thought of one yet, but perhaps I never will. I know my partner’s a great dad, and he’s also dead fit (a FILF, no less), but, after all, as Tammy would say, he’s just a man.

* I was in two minds as to whether to mention the interview in a post, in case it jinxes things. Then I thought perhaps someone who reads this post might be willing to think “lucky thoughts”. So if you would like to, please do so. But only if you are a “lucky” person.

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.

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.

How to find a boyfriend in 1998

In the summer of 1998, my friend Cath and I were bored. Really, really bored. We were in our early twenties and while everyone else we knew appeared to have moved on with their lives, we both found ourselves spending the “school holidays” back home with our respective parents. I remember the two of us in my bedroom one evening, dancing to “Cigarettes and Alcohol” by Oasis. “It’s true, though”, Cath observed, “that is all we’ve found round here. Cigarettes and alcohol.” The only difference was that Liam Gallagher wasn’t still hiding his fags from his mum and dad (whenever Cath’s mum found cigarettes, they were “mine”; whenever my mum found them, they were “Cath’s”. It would be insulting everyone’s intelligence to pretend that anyone believed this shit).

Both being single, we came upon an idea. Let’s just shag each other! Only kidding; this was a small town in the north of England. And yes, we could have livened things up by re-enacting Oranges are Not the Only Fruit, but we just weren’t that way inclined. So we decided on something else. We would find boyfriends! Sod Cigarettes and Alcohol; it was time to find our Wonderwalls (whatever that might mean).

We were both 23 and had each never had a proper boyfriend. This was, naturally, disconcerting, although we responded to it in different ways. Cath was the joker; I was the total slag. Each response was clearly unacceptable; after all, that was why we were still single. Hence we decided to step things up a gear and take some positive action (although, to be fair, the shagging around could be quite positive at times; but it was time to set aside such ladette fripperies once and for all). And thus, allow me to reveal to you our amazing three-step plan, all conceived and executed in the summer of ’98.

Step 1: Visit a fortune teller

Before one embarks on any serious project, it’s a good idea to know in advance whether it’s likely to work. So we ventured out to see Mystic Mary, deep in the wilds of Carlisle town centre, possibly somewhere near The Lanes. With Cath, once she’d established that my friend hadn’t come to discuss concerns about “coming out” to her family (by then we were looking quite couple-y; probably could’ve pulled off the whole Oranges thing after all), Mary talked about meeting “a man” within the next year. With me, she said I’d meet “a man” within the next two years (it was clear I still had a lot of “personal stuff” to work on). As an extra detail, she mentioned that my man would be taller than me (I’m 5′ 1″, so it was a long shot). Utterly elated at these glad tidings, Cath and I went off to treat ourselves to lager and lime and cheesy chips in a tiny pub ‘neath the shadows of Carlisle Cathedral.

Step 2: Visit the “personal development” section of Bluebell Bookshop 

There we hunted down our essential literature, the bible that would tell us, once and for all, how not to stay single. Thus, when we happened upon a book that was in fact called How not to stay single, we thought we’d struck gold. Alas it was not to be. “How not to stay single” might also have been called “How to stalk and freak out the entire human race until it places a restraining order on you and you have to go and live out the rest of your days, alone, on an island at least 10km away from any other inhabited island, in all directions”. Man, it was freaky. The thing I remember most was the insistence that you say “hello” to fifty complete strangers every week (or was it day? Hour?). The book mentioned the example of one woman who hadn’t done her requisite number of greetings and was running out of time, so positioned herself at the end of a marathon yelling a desperate “hello” into the face of every male runner crossing the finish line. And guess what? One of these men became her husband! Presumably he was too knackered to say no. I just couldn’t go for any of this, and nor could Cath. Where we come from, the random “hello” will just lead to no end of trouble (especially as, while you might think you’re greeting a stranger, it’ll turn out to be a friend of your dad’s and the news that you’ve been smoking in town will just reach home all the quicker).

Thus we descended upon another, more established guide: The Rules for Dating, by Ellen Fein and Sherrie Schneider. You’ve probably heard of it; if not, there are lots of rules, a whole book (and desk calendar) of ’em, but these are the essential ones:

  1. Remember you are “a creature unlike any other”. We’re all individuals and you’re no exception.
  2. In spite of your bog-standard individuality, you must act in exactly the same way as any woman following the rules. Otherwise they won’t work.
  3. Play hard to get. That’s the main thing. A man doesn’t like to feel pursued. And he does NOT want to shag a woman who does anything which might indicate she might want to shag him.
  4. Your main objective is not, in fact, “getting a boyfriend”. It’s “getting married”. Always “getting married”. Without that in mind, you’re lost.
  5. Your husband doesn’t have to be “someone nice”. He just has to be “some man”. Don’t worry; it won’t cause conflict. You’ll just fit in around whatever he wants. Still not sure of the point of having a husband if that’s what it all means? Well, don’t be. Just don’t. That’s not one of the rules.

This all sounds like complete crap, doesn’t it? But hey, it all sounded much more doable than what the other book said. So it was time to move on to Step 3.

Step 3: Fuck it all up

So, we were creatures unlike any others. Time to put on some makeup, head off into town and go and sit in the Board and Elbow, looking “mysterious”. As a prop we rented a copy of the Cameron Diaz film The Last Supper from the video shop across the road. It worked! Some boys came over and talked to us! They told us the film was shit! We just smiled mysteriously. After a few more cider and blacks (halfs – a pint is NOT “mysterious” so you just need to get more orders in), we went home “empty handed” (apart from the shit film, which I actually thought was okay), but it was a result!

The next day we ventured further afield – to Pooley Bridge, our nearest Lake District tourist hotspot. And as this was a tourist hotspot, we got even more made-up – short skirts, heels, full-on hair with that extra Sun-in glow. Alas, we had not considered the fact that said tourists were fell walkers. As a feminist I would argue that a woman has the right to dress however she likes without being presumed to be a prostitute. However, if you go to somewhere where everyone else is wearing walking boots, fleeces, waterproofs and rucksacks, and you are wearing a short skirt and heels, you look like a prostitute. Especially if you spend the whole day hanging around in a pub looking “mysterious”. No one came and talked to us. Even if we’d wanted to be prostitutes, we’d have failed miserably. Despite our early success, things were suddenly not going quite so well.

Finally, we decided on having a proper “girls’ night out”. One during which we would look totally independent, to demonstrate that we just didn’t need no man. Of course, lots of men would be attracted to this independence, this not-needing of them. It was genius! We’d start out in the local Italian, then head off to Blues nightclub for Ladies Night, a night in honour of feisty independent women and not, as others might suggest, a total fucking meat market. And indeed, the night started well. Over pizza and copious amounts of chardonnay, we discussed our independence, how much we valued it and how nice it would be to find that special someone who’d value it, too. Then we drank a bit more, and tottered to Blues, fags in hand, buoyed up on cigarettes and alcohol once more but feeling at the top of our game. I’m not sure where it all went wrong. Basically, I was too drunk to remember. I snogged some bloke called Simon (hey! I remember his name!) against the wall of mirrors at the end of the dancefloor, then slurred something along the lines of “no, cantgohomewivoo, amfollowintherools” before Cath pulled me away. It was well classy, but not the behaviour of a Rules girl.

The morning after, through the fog of my hangover, I discovered two things: 1) I’d been accepted to do a masters at Cambridge University, and 2) I wasn’t going to even attempt The Rules ever again. Thus it was that one month later I arrived at Downing College, full of hope and optimism. And thus it was that one month after that, the less “enlightened” of my housemates were already calling me “the college bike” (no mean achievement, when you consider the number of actual, non-metaphorical bikes in a place like Cambridge).


I did not find a boyfriend in 1998. I finally found one, very briefly, in 1999. He was a computer programmer and he didn’t really like me. His friends didn’t really like me, either. For some reason, I liked him, or a made-up version of him, so it lasted four months before he dumped me. I should’ve known it would never last. Hadn’t Mystic Mary told me I’d have to wait two years, not one?

And then in 2000 I met my partner, who is, just as Mary predicted, taller than me. We met at a Pet Shop Boys themed birthday party. I didn’t even know the person whose birthday it was. I’d only been invited because I’d confessed to a fellow student that I didn’t have any friends, having spent the first four months of my PhD hanging out with computer programmers who didn’t like me. When I got to the party, the girl who’d given me the sympathy invite wasn’t there, so I decided to leave. I’d already opened the front door to go when I spotted her. Five minutes later she introduced me to the man I’m still with today. If I’d decided to leave a minute earlier this might never have happened. I’d still be single now, or I’d be with someone else. Or I might have multiple divorces behind me, or be a serial monogamist, or be in a threesome, or in a polygamous marriage. Who knows? Knowing how desperate I can get at times, I sure don’t.

The one thing I do know is that there’s a lot of chance involved in meeting the right person. You can’t achieve it by following rules, certainly not ones that insist you cease to be yourself for the rest of your entire life. And if all else fails? Well, there’s always cigarettes and alcohol (joke. That’s all really passé, anyhow. Twitter and Newsnight, kids. That, not love, is all you really need).

PS Apart changing the name of my friend (who may wish to deny all knowledge that any of this ever took place), I’ve kept to the truth. Shameful as it is, all of this took place. I didn’t even bother to change Simon’s name. I am assuming he’s forgotten me by now. Although, had I not been vaguely attempting to follow The Rules, perhaps we’d now be married with kids.

Shut up, mummies! It’s all been said before

Yesterday evening I asked my partner if he would mind me taking Saturday “off” from caring for the kids. He said “no, I wouldn’t mind” but in a way that obviously meant “yes, I would” (that’s the thing with men. Say one thing but mean another. Luckily I was able to overcome my stubborn female rationality and use a bit of male intuition to work it all out). So anyhow, I said “you mean you would mind”. and he said “yes”. So that, it seemed, was that, and we went back to watching Russel Howard’s Good News in complete and utter silence.

This morning, however, I was still cross about it so I got all shouty. I mean, really, really shouty. Not at him – he’d already left for his training – but at our kids, just because they were there. And because I am really, really fed up. I just want a day off, that’s all. Who have I become? Shirley sodding Valentine? Well, no, actually. Shirley Valentine, well, she had it easy.

Somehow I have managed to fuck up so spectacularly that I’m in a situation where I’m now the main earner and the main carer in our household. Hooray for me! Of course, it’s more complicated than that. It hasn’t always been like this and it won’t always be in future. But that’s how it is now. It makes for a great anti-feminist morality take: “Ha ha! Look at you with your big ideas! Betcha didn’t realise that having it all meant doing it all!” etc. etc. Yeah, it’s all fucking hilarious. But in terms of personal family decisions, it has nothing to do with gender stereotypes. Even so, on a wider scale the stereotypes really don’t help.

Being female and all, I’m not even meant to say anything about the work-life balance, at least not if I don’t want to be accused of being an archetypal moaning, self-absorbed, middle-class Polly Filla. I’d be accused of this despite the fact that:

  1. no, I don’t believe I’m the first woman ever to have kids
  2. no, I don’t think my situation compares to that of someone who’s terminally ill or who’s children have died or who is, in any other way, having an all-round shitter time than me
  3. no, I am not called Allison Pearson or Rachel Cusk

Indeed, when it comes to point 3, I’m a bit sick of a select number of writers being decreed the authorities on what my experience is and where the boundaries of my “moaning rights” should be set (“you’re fed up? Rachel Cusk was fed up in 2002! Surely that’s the final word in mummies being fed up!”).

It would be different if moaning about other aspects of life were treated in the same way as moaning about motherhood. Can you imagine, for instance, what would happen if a journalist who’d recently gone from being a freelance to working in an office were permitted to write about “office work” in the way that some new parent journalists write about having kids?

Well, it’s been two days since I earned my “office worker” stripes and let me tell you, it’s nothing like they say in the training manuals! It’s about time someone blew the lid on what it’s really like. For instance, office chairs – sometimes they’re swivelly, and some of them have wheels! Yet no one ever tells you that! Then there’s Office Outlook – some offices don’t have the most recent version yet everyone just accepts it. It’s not the “done thing” to complain. And as for the coffee machines, well, that’s one of those things upon which we office workers will never agree  …

etc. etc. etc.

And thereafter, once this column had been published and then made into a book and then serialised as a column again, whenever anyone else who worked in an office fancied discussing their working life – say, to bitch about a colleague, or express concern about an overdue project – they’d be told “oh, for chrissakes! We’ve already read about that shit in Allison Cusk’s “Office Politics” column for The Times. Surely what she says offers the final word on anything and everything to do with your life and that of every other office drone? So shut the fuck up, will ya?” Of course, none of this is going to happen. Alas, for mummies and motherhood, it’s happened already.

As for me, well, I am going to “do a Shirley Valentine”. Tonight, when my partner gets home, I’ll have pinned a photo of that bit in town near Boots and Lush onto the kichen cupboards. And when my partner asks “what’s that?”, I will say, very dramatically and in as good a Liverpudlian accent as I can muster, “it’s a place. A place where I’m goin’ to”. Then he’ll throw his egg and chips across the room but I shall stand strong for the sake of my dream. Except I won’t because I already texted him this morning to say “you’re having the kids on Sat, no questions”. Plus one or two swearwords, cos I was still in a shouty mood. Ah well. Modern motherhood – it’s not all candy floss and cuddles. It’s time someone blew the lid on this.

ANNOYING POSTSCRIPT: My partner rang me late this afternoon. On our land line. Turns out he’s lost his phone so hasn’t yet seen my text. Also turns out he’s spoken to his training supervisor, re-arranged his responsibilities and will be working like mad this week so that I can have a day off. After all, he wants me to know just how much he appreciates me. Bugger. Bugger, bugger, bugger. Unless I can find that phone, I’ll be in the wrong. And that’s hardly fair, is it?