Wednesday, 10 April 2019

Eaten up by privilege

In the brilliant, provocative, honest Nickel and Dimed, Barbara Ehrenreich takes a deep dive into the world of low-paid work in America. The story she has to tell is in some ways predictable. She can't make ends meet on the kind of money the lowest-paid make. No shit, Sherlock.

What saves her account from turning those low-paid people into victims, and turns them instead into the victimised – people thrown under the wheels of a systemic problem: Capitalism – is that she never tries to hide the fact that she is privileged, well-educated and cushioned. Her honesty in admitting and claiming this – she makes no bones about the fact that she would never willingly choose to take a low-paid job – means that her work exists in a realistic framework. She is in no sense romanticising the 'poor who are always with us'. And she is not justifying herself. No one can accuse you of what you claim as your own. How I love that her name means 'rich in honour' in German. Mine means 'waxing moon'. Make of that what you will.

Reading Nickel and Dimed made me realise that I have long been tormented – all my life, in fact – by question marks over my own status, both financial and professional. Bringing up the question of money helps me to feel a stark relief. I'm not proud of my story, but I am no longer ashamed of it either. 

I was well supported as a child, because my father, much older than most of my friends' fathers, retired aged 55, in 1974, with an excellent pension from Royal Dutch Shell. I grew up in Norfolk, with neither of my parents needing to work any more, because Mum had put her savings from teaching into buying a house, and then traded up. We had no mortgage, and school fees were not prohibitive at that time. We must have been well-off by most people's standards, but both my parents were anxious about money, something that came from their wartime backgrounds, and my father's first marriage and divorce, which wiped him out. I can remember how he kept track of petty cash on notepads in the kitchen. I grew up thinking we were poor.

I can also remember that I stole money from my mother's purse, and hid it in my wardrobe. One day I discovered some of the money in a tiny plastic purse in the shape of a green kitten's head, with stuck-on fur, during lunch break at primary school. Horrified, I threw it in the bin. When they discovered what I was doing, my parents took me to a psychologist. He told them that I was angry with my father. They didn't go back. 

Being sent to – and loving – my private girls' school, in my safe, parochial home city, Norwich, set me up for lifelong guilt: I felt strongly, even as a child, that I owed my parents and British society something, because I had gone to a private school through my parents’ means, and that means was a derivative of oil money. I knew I was not entitled to my privilege.

I won a Shell scholarship to Cambridge: I was eligible as my father’s daughter. I was probably unique in the history of Shell because my half-brother, from my father's first family, also won a Shell scholarship, and it was unheard-of for siblings to be awarded them.

I didn’t get into debt as an undergraduate at Cambridge, in part because of Shell, but also my parents taking out a covenant to cover my maintenance. Tuition fees were, of course, free in the late 1980s. 

When I got into drama school in 1992, the year after leaving Cambridge, I decided not to go, because I knew I did not have the determination to seek out the necessary funding, and I knew my parents disapproved.

I wanted to prove to them that I had fully 'left home' and was financially independent of them, even at the cost of doing what I most wanted to do – act. They had supported me for eighteen years, and I did not want to owe them anything more. I left home as soon as I could, in the summer of the year I turned eighteen, for paid work, at Cambridge University Press, on an amazing pre-university placement scheme called Index.

Whenever I got into trouble, some problem or other at work, or as I found my feet living away, my father used to say, "Give it up and come home".

I couldn’t think of anything worse. His lack of belief in me drove me to find my own solutions, and I always did. It made no difference: he never recognized my achievements as achievements anyway. Instead I think he simply saw me as a  'worry', highly-strung, difficult, with my eating disorder as an undergraduate, and my bouts of depression.

I felt ashamed when my parents sought to help me financially after I left home. During my languages year abroad, they bought me a small secondhand car. I felt ashamed – but I also made the most of it. I used that car to travel all over Western Europe that year. I drove to Berlin along Hitler's motorways, and picked up a scrap of the Berlin Wall in February 1990. I paid for the little car's running from my earnings as an Assistante in a lycée and then as an independent TEFL teacher in Paris. I felt ashamed, but so grateful for that car.

I left the Assistante job in the Vosges after a boy from the Technical College I was teaching at deliberately attacked the little car, putting a bottle through its back windscreen at a club, because he knew it was mine. I resigned, packed my bags and drove to Paris to look for work. That car helped me save myself. I learnt never to look gift horsepower in the mouth. Vroom-vroom.

After deciding not to go to drama school, I turned to my second-best career choice: a doctorate. I knew I wanted to write, but I could not see how to fund it. And I felt an obligation from 'getting a First' to be worthy of that First. After all, I'd spent most of my undergraduate degree drunk and on stage, not always in that order. I wasn't quite sure how I'd pulled it off, and certainly didn't think I'd 'earnt' it. Fleabag, c'est moi.

I decided that I would do a doctorate if, and only if, I could win British Academy funding for it, and go straight from BA to a DPhil at Oxford, with the best writer on Proust in the country, if not the world, without having to stop and do an MA. I wanted to sort out my career track, take control, and stop wasting time. I was a woman on a mission. It won't surprise you to hear that my chosen subject was… self-justification.

I also felt that setting parameters as hard as possible for myself was a justifiable bargain to make with my determination to be a writer, a professional choice I knew full well to be fraught with the risk of utter failure. I did not want to depend on anyone, and I wanted to demonstrate 'career progression', after all the time and effort of getting into Cambridge. 

At least I would have a qualification at the end of 'being an eternal student'. 

I desperately needed life to Add Up.

My parents gave me a very small supplement during my doctorate, because they could see how poor and vulnerable I was, which I was, naturally, ashamed of. I worked and earnt throughout the four years it took me to kill that doctorate, including a lovely job selling bedlinen in a frou-frou shop; a prestigious Lectrice post at the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris (how French is that: 'normal' AND 'superior' at the same time!); and a teaching post at Wadham College.

Before the end of the doctorate, I won not one but two post-doctoral awards, one at St Anne’s College (poorly funded, ex-Ladies College…), the second a coveted British Academy post-doc, which attracted a lecturer’s salary. This is when I moved to London.

I found dirty, aggressive, unequal London hideous, after my idyllic years cycling round verdant, elitist Cambridge and Oxford, and playing at being breathless in Paris. Within a year I admitted to myself that what I really longed to do was buy a flat, to have somewhere of my own to hide in. I was deeply ashamed that my mother lent me a sum of money for a down payment. The fact of the matter was that I could never have bought property without her. That privilege was naked. I became a woman of property as well as a doctor, but only one of those titles was earnt through my labour.

I was unhappy in academic life in London, and when two lectureship jobs came up in Cambridge, I decided to apply. If I got it, I told myself I would give academic life one last shot. Inevitably, I did – and almost simultaneously met a beautiful, kind man with a deep voice who made me laugh. I fell in love with him and felt utterly torn.

The first thing I did was earn £1000, landing a commission to write a book called Proust for Beginners. I happily tapped it out in six weeks. It gave me huge pleasure, because it had cartoons in it – I really wanted to combine cartoons and writing. 

The second thing was not to return my contract to Cambridge for several months. I felt deeply ambivalent about taking up the post. There had been two jobs going. A man who had started his doctorate with me, had rushed through it and on to a lectureship, was given the senior post. He was a friendly rival, and I didn't begrudge him the job – not least as he was married, and very quickly started a family. I had been advised that the research route was the better one for reputation, and so had taken that way in good faith, and although I too had excellent teaching experience, I was offered the less senior role, with a verbal promise that I would be fast-tracked. Annoying, but understandable. 

It was a poverty trap. I was pegged, fuming, at the very top of the pay scale, precisely because of my experience on entry to Cambridge. 

And then the Head of Department changed. 

Despite or more likely because I was doing well, lecturing on more papers than anyone else, bringing innovation to lecturing and French language teaching, writing, speaking at other unis, cheeky, blah blah blah, when I tentatively went to the new head, to ask if I could apply for fast-track promotion because of the salary issue, perfectly happy for it to be based on my performance, she immediately began to bully me.

At this point my father went mad, because of vascular dementia. I applied for compassionate leave from my college, while carrying on with my departmental duties. 

My HoD told me I couldn't leave Cambridge, even at weekends, without her permission. 

And then… I got pregnant. 

While on maternity leave, I sold my London flat, and made a significant profit. My parents wouldn’t take their loan back. I felt guilty and ashamed – but I kept the money. It was my safety net.

After trying to return to work, I was quickly manoeuvred into a position where I had no alternative but to resign, caught between the bullying HoD, a mother herself, who wouldn't grant me flexible working, and my partner, who was struggling with redundancy and his mother’s breast cancer, and couldn’t cope with our baby on his own while I was keeping term in Cambridge.

It seemed to make sense, when looked at in money terms. He earnt more than I did, or could, although I was doing well, on a good salary, plus college perks, plus renting out my flat, before I sold it.

And so it came to pass that I signed away everything I had ever worked for, in order to marry, be a stay-at-home mother and a writer. 

The first thing we did was move to Sydney. While we lived in Australia, I earnt a nominal amount through writing book reviews: childcare was well subsidised by the state, and I could cover the cost of it simply through review work and a bit of teaching for Sydney Uni. I had three days a childcare. It was bliss. I had time to write and think, and published several things in that time.

Then, in 2005, my father died, and I received some inheritance. Inheritance money is always strange. Because of who my father was, it was particularly odd. I was 37, and inheriting. 

I got pregnant again, had our son, and flew back alone to England when he was three months and our daughter was three.

When my husband also returned to the UK, a few months later, he didn’t have a job. I found we were starting to dip into my inheritance to survive, and couldn’t bear to squander it on Sainsbury’s. That guilt was enough to drive me to stop writing. I was lucky enough to land work as a management consultant.

Again, I felt that I had to pay for all the childcare out of just my income – I don’t know why (although that's a leading question, since it's so obviously internalised misogyny) – and gave my whole salary to our nanny every month. The state dragged its heels approving her status, which deprived us of salary sacrifice help for months. It was hard to make ends meet.

I was working harder than I ever had before, with small children, for no income, not writing, trying desperately to get a mortgage and move out of our tiny flat. It was two years of hell. I liked the consulting work, but it was almost impossible to keep going. 

And, to my astonishment, I was being bullied a second time. This time it was by my line manager, who was my age and envious because I had children and she didn’t (she now does, and is much happier). There were no other mothers at the consultancy, not working at my level, anyway. She made my life miserable, henpecking me and putting me and my work down. I did stand up to her one day, which gave her the shock of her life, and she stopped for a while, but it was never comfortable.

I lasted two years. After leaving, I earnt very little for a bit, then took a research job at an education information organisation (always a mouthful), thinking that, although I was over-qualified, it would leave me time to write. Wrong. Again, I funded a nanny wholly through my salary. My husband was not earning, because he was at home that year, trying to set up a business, a quidproquo for my years writing in Australia, but, like my novel, it sadly never came to anything.

I loathed the education information organisation, not just for its cumbersome mission, but for its pompous management, and quickly made myself persona non grata. I had gone from being Golden Girl, with the British Academy post-doc and the bright future at Cambridge, to Office Bitch, always up in arms about something. 

To cap it all I was being bullied a third time. This time it was by a twenty-five-year old female martinet, promoted over me, who simply had no experience of being a working mother herself, so felt for some reason she had to crush me to get the best out of me. I was back in hell. (The martinet has since had children, and last I heard was being manoeuvred out of her job. When I heard of her plight, I did not feel Schadenfreude, for the record, I felt blind fury – will this cycle of bullying mothers never be broken?)

The end of my education researcher career came when I reduced my martinet to tears one day, by patiently taking her through my contract, line by line, explaining in words of one syllable how it was physically impossible for me to do the job they wanted from me within its terms.

I could not sink lower. I was bullying my own bully.

Once my husband was back on his feet with a contract, I resigned, and told him I pointblank refused to go back into an office job, no matter what financial situation we were in. I said that I would set up as an education consultant and work from home. No more childcare costs met out of my salary, and freedom from the vagaries of his employment in the rock 'n' rollercoaster world of TV development.

I have never looked back, although at points things have, indeed, been financially difficult. The worst came when a contract my husband was counting on evaporated, exactly as our daughter started at a private school. We had to stop paying the mortgage, and borrow, not only from my mother, but also a friend. The shame was excruciating. We stopped seeing any friends and just withdrew. I worked hard, but couldn’t earn enough to make ends meet on my own. My partner was flipping burgers in a gastropub when he finally landed a great job at CNN, after nine interviews. He was my hero. I was wrecked.

That summer, I re-met an old university acquaintance, who invited me to be a writer in residence at her law firm. 

At exactly the same time, in early 2016, I found a lump in my breast. 

You can't make this shit up.

I will always love and admire Ayesha Vardag, as well as the NHS, because when I told her I would need cancer treatment, instead of forcing me to resign as my Head of Department in Cambridge had done, she simply said "Do what you can, invoice us, and keep going".

Ayesha's faith in me meant that I worked and earnt all through my (free) surgery and radiation treatment. And was published in Vogue online. 

About the same time that writing residency came to an end, my mother started to go downhill. By early 2017 it was clear she was dying. I didn’t hesitate. I stopped most of my paid work and went to be with her in Norwich.

My husband held the fort. This time round, with older children, they could all manage without me. It wasn't nice, but it was feasible. Without an income, though, I struggled for food and petrol, and arranged with my brother that I would use our mother's money so that one of us could be with her while she was dying – his work meant he couldn't often make the Cardiff-Norwich journey. 

I can report that it is a not a good feeling, aged 49, to access your mother's bank account, and take money out of it. But I didn’t want to get involved with applying for carers’ allowance, it was too protracted and painful – and in any case, our mother still had an income: her Shell widows’ pension. We had no way of knowing how long she had left to live. I wasn’t going to waste time I could be spending with her, justifying myself to try and beg for state funding. 

Thank goodness, just thank goodness, there was enough in the kitty to pay care home fees for mum and keep me with her, without the heavy intrusive arm of the state trying to prove I didn’t deserve any support.

Thank god for dirty Shell oil money.

After our mother's death, six months later, my brother and I were her executors. We went straight to her lawyer to handle probate, which was expensive, but saved us both so much difficulty. I dealt with mum’s possessions; my brother with the lawyer. Eventually it was all sorted out, after a year.

Now I am able, for the first time since Australia, to be at home, writing, without needing to earn alongside it to keep the family going. My husband is doing well. I have a cushion.

I don’t have the pension I would have had if I’d been able to remain in my university post. I haven't made it to professor. I am not a successful writer. My work as an education consultant does not change the world (let's hope it makes things a little easier for a handful of young people). I am aware that I live with an intra-marital pension inequality, which ties my fate to my husband's. Let's hope we can both live with that.

But. I took out life insurance, following a friend’s death, before I had the cancer scare. And I do have a small SIPP. I have downsized my expectations, and my financial reality, enormously from where I was before having children. 

Yet I am ok with it. Those six months spent with my mother before her death, with the woman I loved most in the world, were crucial to recovering from my shame about privilege.

And I don’t feel that I owe anyone anything anymore – not my parents, not society. I am finally free of a debt I never, in fact, owed. 

Yes, I was privileged to have the education I did. I also did the work to be worthy of it.

Yes, I have ended up a 'kept woman' in some – but not in all – ways, and despite my best intentions. 

Yes, because of inheritance, I am currently financially independent, not for life, but for long enough to mean I can really go for it as a writer for a while. No more doing it with one hand tied behind my back.

I am a composite of 'kept' and 'selfmade' woman. I am lucky, and you can see my scars.

My money story is a long, painful one about trying to leave home financially, prove I was independent, justify my privilege, and create a level playing field as a privileged white woman, many years before it became fashionable to be told this was something to be ashamed of. I've always been a pioneer.

The story failed, because it was always based on an ideological lie: that a woman needs to justify her very existence, and does not have the right to live or fail as she chooses. 

The truth is that I was privileged to come from a family that cared deeply about education, and believed in it. I'm happy they bought into that belief. I buy into it too.

The lie was that I needed to justify myself.

When I was in my twenties, my father told me, as we were driving down a narrow road, that he had not wanted more children, but had had them to please my mother. I was not wanted but tolerated.

That is one part of my emotional legacy: I was unwanted by my father. Did he love me? I will never know for sure. Yes, I think so. 'In his own way' is hard to square with my memories. 

But… I will always know that I was longed for, cherished, loved, to the very end of her life by my mother. 

And that is more than enough. That is infinite riches, more than many can ever have.

Now, as I turn 51 tomorrow, I am finally... free to write, not financially, but emotionally. 

I'd better get cracking: Proust died at 52.

Sunday, 31 March 2019

On Jonah Lehrer and living with lies

Jonah Lehrer

Jonah Lehrer's 2012 fall from grace, following the discovery of errors and 'self-plagiarism' in his published work, is a well-known story in academic and journalistic circles. It seems to have been, not his editorial mistakes, which are so easy to make, as much as his subsequent lies and deception about them, which really turned people off, and caused his spectacular career shutdown. 

In July 2016, Lehrer told the story of 'what happened next', for The Moth in Los Angeles, where he lives with his wife and children. Before you read any further, please listen to what he has to say: he calls the story 'Attachment'. 

I had been made aware of Lehrer's book Proust was a Neuroscientist back in 2007, by friends who knew I'd written on Proust, and who sent me copies of his work. Professional jealousy compelled me to smile publicly but privately find fault with it – he seemed only to have read the opening pages of A la recherche, and was basing complex neuroscience only on the celebrated 'madeleine' episode, rather than digging a little deeper into the Proustian manifold. 

Lehrer was co-opting Proust in his own broader argument – that we need to overcome what C.P. Snow called in 1959 the 'Two Cultures' problem: the over-valuation of the Humanities at the expense of scientific understanding in the British education system. 

'A good many times, opined Snow, 'I have been present at gatherings of people who, by the standards of the traditional culture, are thought highly educated and who have with considerable gusto been expressing their incredulity at the illiteracy of scientists.' 

Snow goes on to point out tartly that the incredulous educated would have been unable to describe the Second Law of Thermodynamics, or even to explain mass or acceleration. I wonder whether Snow would make the opposite case now, when 'creativity' has been appropriated by tech, and the Humanities lie in ruins? 

I was undoubtedly guilty of scorn at Lehrer's lack of deep reading in Proust was a Neuroscientist, and am not too hot on the Second Law myself. But even I could see that, once he'd started lying, Lehrer's 'isolated system' of researching and writing too quickly, without thorough checking, had increased in entropy and was heading from order to chaos. Here was a man who had lived in his head too long, and was about to confront unforgiving reality very hard indeed. 

After his fall, he reached thermal equilibrium instantaneously. The process was irreversible. He was condemned to go home, tail between his legs, and face his wife and daughter. In the story he tells the Moth audience, he makes clear that, as well as being a poor scholar, he had also been an absent father. He had never once put his daughter to bed before the scandal that ended his career. Once he was home, she judged him categorically: she did not know him and did not accept him. She cried herself to sleep, longing for her mother, while he sat outside her bedroom on the landing, and cried too – for himself and his lost status. 

He confesses, humbly, that he does not find parenthood an adequate compensation for his lost career and success. It is tedious, messy, and makes him angry. Who knew? But he knows that he has no choice but to suck up his exile and imprisonment. After all, he brought it on himself, and must endure the consequences. It is the only manly thing left to him to do. 

I found – I find – it difficult to know what to think about Lehrer's story, both the fall from grace and his Moth story of life After the Fall. I had initially been jealous of his young man's success, both for professional ("you didn't read my book, mate") and excruciatingly personal reasons. 

In 2004 (as readers of this blog will be wearily aware), I was forced to make a choice between my baby and my career by my Head of Department, who refused to allow me to work flexibly. My husband was unwell, struggling with the fact of my return to work, and the pressure on him to liaise with nanny and nursery at the end of his working day without me, as I 'kept term' in another city. 

In this false Solomon's Choice, I felt I had no option but to resign my lectureship, so that he had the support he needed to keep working. By the time I read Proust was a Neuroscientist, I had been kicked out of academia.  I wasn't plagiarising or lying. In fact, I'd been teaching on more papers than anyone else in the department. I was pretty good at my job. All that would have been needed was a little support from the Head of Department – with flexible working, I could have gone on performing most of the same duties for the department, and been able to look after my baby, gradually rebuilding as she needed me less. The Head of Department was herself a mother, but would not countenance making a managerial decision to support me. 

I don't regret the decision I made. It was the right one – my daughter did not ask to be born, and deserved all the care and love that I could give her, and my husband needed me. My family came first, there was simply no question.  

Academic life does not matter so much that it is worth giving up marriage and motherhood for. It is not worth killing yourself for. It is not worth lying for.

I have long since made my peace with my choice. It's an old story. What I have never come to terms with, and never forgiven is the madness of the injustice. It was assumed, when I resigned, that I 'wanted to be with my baby', that 'my husband was the main breadwinner', that it 'made sense' as a decision, because I was a mother.  Those things were, of course, partially true. But they did not in and of themselves signify that I no longer wanted any status of my own. Who would willingly choose to abandon everything he had worked for during the course of his twenties, his research, his publications, his teaching… his reputation? I hadn't died. I wasn't ill. I hadn't committed a crime. I wanted to go on lecturing and writing, exploring French literature, keeping literary criticism relevant and alive. That's what I was good at. No one questioned whether there was something untoward about my decision, whether I was being bullied. I tried to tell people, but I wasn't believed. 

Like Lehrer, however, I was expected to defenestrate myself, simply because my partner and I had had a baby. This wasn't the 1900s. It was 2004. I was expected to quit without a fight… and I expected myself to sacrifice myself. Because what other choice was there? 

To put my intellectual needs before my child's? 

To be a writer when there was a pram in the hall? 

Jonah Lehrer stood alone on a Moth stage four years after his disgrace, humble and penitent, a lowly figure to be pitied, and ultimately forgiven. He has been punished enough, he hopes. He is still publishing science writing. He does some (not all) of the childcare – his wife didn't leave him, and they have a second child now. He carries his Fatherload meekly. 

I, too, stood alone on a Moth stage. It was in May 2018, in London, where I live with my husband and children. My story involved screaming at another mother, on a North London high street, in the spring sunshine at 9 o'clock one morning, on my way to a mammogram. Tra la la. 

There is a direct line that runs between the day in July 2004, when I signed off on my own exile and imprisonment, resigning my academic post for the sake of my baby, and the day in April 2017 – my mother dying of a brain tumour, my son bullied by the other mother's little girl, half my left breast removed because of early cancer – when I turned and faced her, a woman attacking me through my child, and finally stopped lying to myself.  

The volcanic fury I sprayed at the other mother that day was not entirely justified by her petty mendacity, I concede. I had survived far worse, and behaved far better. I knew I was just sinking to her level, shouldn't be wasting time on her, that I had far bigger fish to try.  

But it was the day I finally drew a line under the idea that I needed to live a lie, to accept other people's lies as any kind of truth about myself, and started to walk free of my own condemnation. My debts – debts I never owed in the first place – were paid. 

I was terrified to tell my story, and even the director was nervous that it might backfire badly – the audience might turn against me, and take the side of the other mother. After all, I was the one screaming at another mother. It wasn't entirely clear that I wasn't bonkers… It took many rehearsals for me to stop trying to explain and defend my actions, and just spit out the truth. 

I enjoyed unleashing my Fury.  

I made a decision about what I was going to do, in the very second I heard the woman tell a lie about my child, and I never apologised for letting her have it with both barrels, for teaching her a lesson she would never forget (and humiliating myself in the process). I had absolutely nothing to lose – abased as I had been, I could fall no lower.

The audience loved it. 

I will forever be grateful to The Moth, who helped me to tell the right story about my Motherload. I wasn't right to scream my rage, it was a guilty pleasure. 

And I. don't. care. 

Perhaps Jonah Lehrer could have used it as a longitudinal case study in his book How We Decide? 'Deciding fast and slow', perhaps. It took me a minute to sign away my life's work, and a minute to blast away my child's bully. But nearly thirteen years to decide to stop living a lie.  

Enough is enough. I didn't need to be outed by a fellow writer for my lies and deception. I just had to out myself. 

Tuesday, 19 March 2019


Thinking about The US Admissions Scandal had me reflecting on my own pathway through Higher Education and Oxbridge back in the 80s and 90s.

Wow, it only cost me bulimia and an overdose to get into Cambridge. Cheap at half the price! 

Luckily, after my own head of department ended my career as a lecturer at Cambridge, because I'd had a baby, it became financially impossible for me ever to pay Cambridge to get that baby into Cambridge. Or change the broken system from within. Or indeed, save for a pension. 

Instead, these days, Cambridge comes to me as an alumni, asking for money. 

Oh, and so does Oxford. I went there too (Just look for the Ingrid Wassenaar Library). 

These days I earn a living supporting schools and students from different kinds of background through the Oxbridge process. My main goal is that they should mentally survive it. I'm a Tiger Mother who won't be pushing her kids through the Oxbridge mill. 

External markers of success aren't all they're cracked up to be – but teaching young people to work out who is trying to justify themselves at their expense, and stand up for themselves, is worth every penny. 

Now there's a scandalous Admission.

Sunday, 11 November 2018

Britain's broken childcare system

Where are all the children?

Nursery fees rise as free childcare scheme backfires

So this is how life in Britain will get worse, or has never improved.

In France, the State subsidises about 80% of the cost of childcare. They *just pay for it* and have done for years. The amazingly simple rationale is that it's good for kids, and good for parents.

No shit Sherlock.

In Australia, government offers parents a healthy subsidy towards the cost of childcare – it depends on income, but it's generous.

In Britain, the Government makes a promise to 'give' 30 hours a week of free childcare – but doesn't back it with nearly enough funding. This means that childcare providers are at risk of going bust, and have to start charging parents for the so-called free care, which excludes the poorest. The State is simply creating the conditions for a vicious circle. You can't tell both parents in a two-parent family, or single parents, to 'go back to work' after they have children, if you don't offer good enough childcare. Who looks after the children? It's bad enough that it's not seen as 'work' to raise children (the hardest work there is).

I started writing about these so-called intractable paradoxes (which aren't paradoxes at all, they are simple discrimination and state underfunding, in 2010), horrified and completely exhausted by the scrappy, sub-standard childcare provision in the UK, having enjoyed two years of well-subsidised, excellent nursery care in Australia, from 2004 to 6.

At that stage, there was still a childcare voucher scheme in operation in the UK, essentially salary sacrifice, poorly publicised, but a total lifesaver – IF the organisation you worked for understood it and agreed to implement it. That, it turns out, was the high point of the British state's childcare offer.

The childcare voucher scheme quietly closed its doors on 4 October 2018.

The idea that things have only got worse for families since 2010 fills me with despair. We are going under, because the British state has abandoned its responsibilities towards its people. The crisis in childcare is just one of the canaries in the mine.

We are all on our own.

Friday, 1 June 2018

Proving myself as a mother

We recently took a trip to Holland, and were very excited to go by ferry. At least, I was – husband and children were a lot less enamoured of the idea. For me, it was pure Proustian Rush – the car queue in the freezing 6am wind and exhaust fumes on the quayside, the endless monotony of grey North Sea slapping the bows of the ship, the hours and hours of doing nothing except word search games in a stuffy lounge on fixed plastic seats – marvellous! The car ferry has not changed since the 1970s, and this made me preternaturally happy.

But at Dutch immigration, things took an unforeseen turn. Married to an Aussie as I am, I am used to his being sized up suspiciously at immigration. He was once nearly sent back to Australia as we stood there, whey-faced, at the London border control, after the twenty-four-hour flight from Brisbane, because he hadn't transferred his right to remain stamp into his renewed passport. I am used to cracking hilarious jokes about his being 'from the colonies', and he's used to grinning and bearing my frivolity. So when the Dutch immigration officer looked suspiciously at my husband's documents, I blithely explained to the officer, in my somewhat shaky Dutch, that we were on holiday, and he went off to get yet another stamp for hubby's passport.

How my face changed when the officer returned, leant into the car (blonde man bun and all), and asked if I was the mother of the two children in the back seat.

My first reaction was to laugh out loud. I was about to inform him that they were indeed mine but he was welcome to them, hahahaha – when I realised that he was being absolutely serious. His next question was, "Can you prove that you're their mother? You don't have the same surname as your husband. Have you got a marriage certificate, or a birth certificate for them?"

My mouth opened and shut. Images of giving birth, broken nights, endless school runs, countless meals, practising times tables, perpetually-renewed attempts to help with homework, return notes to school, buy clothes, put on birthday parties, attend shows, try and find childcare, arrange playdates, etc etc flooded my brain. I did not know what to say. I was sitting in our car, with my husband, and our two, biological, children, who look like both of us; children I – we – have spent the last fifteen years looking after, and I had no way to prove that they were legally linked to me.

Suddenly it occurred to me that what the passport man was suspicious of was my Dutch name, encased in its British passport, and different from the rest of my family. And that the magic key to proving my maternity might be encrypted in this modern oddity.

Many years before, in some attempt to honour my father, I had insisted on giving both our kids his surname as their third name, which meant that my surname matched a name embedded in theirs.  I babbled in my poor Dutch at the officer, and he slowly scrutinised their passports. To my intense relief, Man Bun waved us through into tolerant, welcoming Holland.

As we drove on, the enormity of what had happened buzzed round my head.

When our daughter was born, we were not married. The only way my partner could be recognised as the father was by turning up to the registration of our baby's birth. I was the one who named her, and gave her my partner's surname. I didn't need to, she could have had mine. If you're out of wedlock, it's the mother who has all the rights. To compensate for our sinful state, we gave her my partner's name as a surname, and my father's as a middle name. But, without understanding the consequences, and thinking we were having a Beautiful Moment, we entered both names on the surname line of the birth certificate, intending only to use my partner's day to day.

To our astonishment, our Beautiful Moment immediately turned into a bureaucratic nightmare. Far from casually being able to call our daughter what we wanted, the name printed on her birth certificate was needed in every official situation, which meant laboriously trotting out an unintentionally double-barrelled surname, featuring no fewer than nineteen letters and a combined total of 5 As. Having 5 As to her name made her sound like her own GCSE certificate. We were once questioned about her identity in Adelaide, when a plane ticket featuring only one surname was deemed not to match her passport, thereby nullifying her identity.

We eventually had to change our daughter's name, by deed poll, which involved putting WASSENAAR into lower case letters, so that it fell off the surname line into middle name territory.

I found it unsettling when our little girl entered childcare settings, and there was always a hesitation about the fact that she had one name and I had another – I was forever explaining that we weren't married, and finding myself apologising. The ghost of some kind of middle class shame haunted these conversations.

Finally, when we moved to Australia, and my partner headed off first, to start his job and find accommodation for us, I decided it would be better if we bit the bullet and married, to avoid any hesitation at border control when I flew over with our little girl two months later. But I still didn't change my own name – I really didn't see why I had to. After all, no one was asking my husband to, and I had all the effort of the Aussie visa to apply for, which took six weeks of near full-time bureaucratic self-justification to pull together. And I used to joke that I didn't really have a name at all, since the name I wasn't changing was my father's.

Yet, despite all our efforts to keep up with what the State wanted, we still couldn't, in peacetime, with completely up to date and proper documentation, travelling as a family, prevent an officious passport officer from forcing me to find a way to prove that I was the mother of my own children.


When my mother and father moved to the UK in 1974, my Dutch father applied to naturalise as British. Having lived under Nazi occupation in wartime Holland, he was afraid of what might happen if there were ever a war again – he did not want to run the risk that the family might be split up, as his brother's had been, put into Japanese prisoner of war camps in Japan and Indonesia. Because of his naturalisation, my brother and I had to give up our Dutch passports and become British. For the rest of my life, I will look Dutch and have a Dutch name, but be British.

In our post-Brexit world, uncertain of how relations stand between neighbouring countries, I realised all over again, held up on the Anglo-Dutch border, that our names do not identify us. Instead they mark us out as strangers.

We have half-dismantled patriarchy, and half-understood globalisation. I discovered all over again on the cold Dutch quayside that, whatever my identity 'is', it stands shivering at an intersection between those ideologies. My fate is forever to be an ex-pat.

Sunday, 25 February 2018

Lessing go

Lara Feigel is publishing what sounds like a fascinating analysis of maternal ambivalence, centred on Doris Lessing. Feigel writes, thoughtfully and thought-provokingly, about Lessing and other female writers on ambivalence.

Here are the thoughts Feigel provoked in this particular ambivalent mother.

I took The Golden Notebook with me when I went away for a month to write the first draft of Motherload, in 2014, and it found its way into the manuscript.

I remember reading it in horror, while wind and rain lashed the February house, and I felt dreadfully alone. Horror, because I identified so much with Anna Wulf, and didn't want to have to. Why had nothing changed between 1962 and 2014?

Just reading the book made me question exactly why I had felt it so necessary to leave my children, aged ten and seven, for a month, to write a book about motherhood.

But it was perfectly obvious why. It had nothing at all to do with maternal ambivalence: of course I couldn't write if I had to bob up and down every five minutes at the behest of the State, the local community, primary schools, social mores demanding I do everything and paste a smile on my face as I did so, be thin, exercise, cook the right kinds of food, somehow straddle the divide between the classes and the two-tier education system, manage the NHS, understand a full spectrum of psychopathology, suffer from it, treat it in others and generally be responsible for it. Oh, and earn a bloody living.

Of course I loved my children – that was exactly why I was in thrall to the whole of society, trying to raise them as well as I could. Not to please anyone else, but because it's been made so impossibly difficult to raise children by the contradictory rubbish we are constantly being fed about how to do it.

Writing takes time and attention, and a place to do it. If all those conditions are missing, of course you can't write. But nowadays you're then expected to beat yourself up, for failing to overcome the conditions of your entrapment. The writing mother isn't Sisyphus, she's just trapped in a pinball game.

So bring on the trolls to tell me I'm a terrible person. Pah! I thumb my nose at trolls. Troll, c'est moi.

The Duchess of Malfi, before her murder, says:

What would it pleasure me to have my throat cut
With diamonds? or to be smothered
With cassia? or to be shot to death with pearls?
I know death hath ten thousand several doors
For men to take their exits; and ’tis found
They go on such strange geometrical hinges,
You may open them both ways: any way, for heaven-sake,
So I were out of your whispering. Tell my brothers
That I perceive death, now I am well awake,
Best gift is they can give or I can take.
I would fain put off my last woman’s-fault,
I’d not be tedious to you.

Exactly. The Duchess of Malfi: working mother. Any way, for heaven's sake, so I were out of your whispering.

Mumsnet was outraged when I announced I was off to the country for a month to write, and I was duly vilified – although a few people were kind enough to admit that the vilification was based on envy rather than fact. The Daily Mail nearly published a story about it. Why they didn't, I don't know, but I like to think it was because even the Daily Mail couldn't make money out of a mother simply… going away to work while the father looked after the children. However pernicious the social judgement, we are, let's try not to forget, in the twenty-first century, in an affluent, relatively progressive country, with laws that protect women, their right to an education, their right to vote, their entitlement to own property and to work. Even if those laws fail all the time. It is social attitude that prevents social equality, not patriarchy, the framework of which has now largely been dismantled.

We are battling demons now. And while we shout about non-existent demons, the social structures that keep us safe are quietly being dismantled behind the scenes.

I wrote thousands and thousands of words in that month away – a whole draft of the book, many blog posts, and while I was lonely and anxious and missed my children and my husband, I could not have achieved this while at home. And indeed I have gone on, for the following four years back home, not to have achieved this again.

My husband, who suggested I go away for a month in the first place, precisely because he had himself just been away for a month to work, is now suggesting I do it again, and this time go to Paris. The children are now fourteen and eleven, and it is eminently possible.

The reasons why I was not able to complete more than a second draft of the book in the four intervening years, however, have little to do with maternal ambivalence, and more to do with death, unemployment, terminal illness, employment, cancer, the book not being good enough, and bad luck with publishers.

I will go to Paris soon, not for a month, or for the six months I was away last year to be with my own mother as she died, but for a week or two, to be able to concentrate, and whittle away at this third draft.

Because I can't do that at my kitchen table, even though I have much more time and space, now that my children are at secondary, my husband has a good job, and most of my family has died.

Now I need to be in a place where I once thought of myself as a writer, to overcome my own imposter syndrome all over again.

To pretend to myself that I haven't completely failed, that it's possible to finish with motherload.

No more equivocation.

Friday, 2 February 2018

The Sewing Machine

The Bernina 730

While my mother lay dying of a brain tumour last summer, in a secluded Norfolk nursing home, hidden away in a suburb of Norwich, I would drive blindly up and down the M11 each week to be with her.

On each trip, I would return down the motorway with things hopelessly ransacked from a home no longer occupied, cold and still. I brought her jewellery back for safekeeping, and some of her scarves to tuck in a bottom drawer. Later I brought thick blue wineglasses from Teheran, tea towels, handkerchieves, her pots and pans, even the cutlery I had grown up using, nearly five decades earlier, much to my children's annoyance.

On one of these return trips, I don't remember when, I brought her Bernina sewing machine back to our home in London. For some months, the machine sat, squat in a pristine cream box, on top of her previous machine, which was in its own worn but sturdy green case, a clamp for its slide-on sewing table attached to the inside of the case, and a compartment for the electric foot-operated pedal. This older machine was also a Bernina, a 730. My mother had given me this model quite some years earlier, when she splashed out on her spanking new bells and whistles model in its cream plastic box.

The elderly Bernina 730 was manufactured in Switzerland, somewhere between 1963 and 1986. I do not know when my mother became its proud owner, but I can picture it sitting on a white desk, in front of a window with net curtains, in the room she used as a guest room, in the house she bought when we moved from Iran to Norwich in 1974. On it she sewed my A-line above-the-knee flowery dresses, worn with long white socks and sandals. Later it churned out khaki Clothkits dungarees, and eventually a spangled midnight blue skating skirt, worn with breathless trepidation and stomach held in, to a school disco in Cringleford church hall.

I remember turning perfectly serviceable skirts into baggy trousers on this machine, after a university-era trip to Turkey, with single lopsided seams and very poor hemming.

After my mum passed it to me, I would occasionally haul the machine out and set it up to make botched and impatient repairs, the needle thrumming madly up and down as I yanked material through. My mother would sigh at my carelessness, and say nothing.

After I had children, the machine came back into play to try to make our son's scuffed trousers last a little bit longer. On her other, newer machine, my mother turned out broderie anglaise-trimmed smocks and culottes for our baby daughter, who proudly paraded them as she waddled about on a Cambridge lawn, stuffing strawberries into my undergraduates' mouths, one summer's day after exams.

But now, here I was with two bulky machines, in a small house, rapidly filling with all the books, photo albums, silver, paintings and weaving of my mother's that I could not bear to let go. I knew I had to draw a line. A non-sewer did not, for heaven's sake, need two electric sewing machines.

I mentioned it to a local friend, a vintage and mid-century textiles designer, herself originally from Norfolk, wondering if she might know of anyone in need of a machine some five decades old but still going strong. She smiled, came and tried out the machine herself, bit her lip, but knew that, like me, she did not have the room. She put the word out.

Barely a day later, someone had written to her — a seamstress from Staffordshire. She was asking would I be prepared to courier it, and how much it would cost. My friend did some online ferreting, and came up with a price for me. The seamstress and I were duly put in touch by mobile. That evening I received my first text:
Hello Ingrid, I hope it's ok for me to contact you at this time. I work as a seamstress on industrial machines, but need a domestic for buttonholes and for sewing in my home when it's too late to be in my workshop!
The next day, sitting in a cafe, I sent her back a text with a price for the machine and for the courier.

To my dismay a message flashed up immediately:
Hello Ingrid and thank you so much for getting back to me. Had I seen the machine last week it would by now have been on way to me! however, poor weather conditions have taken their toll on my conservatory roof, and yesterday I had a roofer over to assess damage. I'm afraid that due to the fact that it's going to cost in excess of £900 I'm no longer in a position to purchase the machine. I'm so sorry as it would've been treasured here. I hope you manage to re home it to someone who will love and appreciate it.
Gutted, I texted back:
If you would really like the machine, I'd be happy to drop the price, and wait until you felt in a position to take it.
Minutes later came her reply:
Ah Ingrid that's so kind of you to offer to wait for me. The problem is that that would probably bother me more than the roof issues! I'm not sure when I would be able to afford to buy it as I'm on my own with my children and although I work very long hours my spare cash doesn't mount up very quickly!
I read the text. A minute passed. I thought, but it was not thought. There was no time to think. I typed:
I'd just like to give it to you if you would be able to use it. If you would be happy to pay for the courier cost, it's yours. 
Seconds later, a text pinged back:
Oh Ingrid I'm crying! This is so very kind of you I can't believe it but I'm feeling uncomfortable about not being able to pay for it. xx
I sat stunned in the cafe, surrounded by chinking coffee cups and chatting people, tears running down my face. The whole drama had played out in a matter of minutes. We had never spoken, never met each other, and now here I was, pressurising a complete stranger in another city to take my mother's old sewing machine. She must think I was mad.

I tried to reassure her, telling her I understood, to take her time, to sit with the idea for a bit. I tried, somehow to explain:
Thing is, you see, the kindness is not mine, it's my lovely mum's. She loved sewing, and then gradually moved to weaving and textiles. Have a think, and let's be in touch. 
Back flashed her answer, needle-quick:
What a fabulous life your mum must've enjoyed being so involved in crafting, we are very fortunate. I thank my lucky stars every day to have been blessed with this inherited gift. I'm a third generation seamstress! 
Exhausted, we took our leave of each other, the matter unsettled, broached. Later that day, I had to take my eleven-year-old son to an optician's appointment. Afterwards, we walked home hand in hand, through the cold January air. I told him the story of the sewing machine.

Before I had finished, he interrupted me. 'I hope you gave her the machine, Mum?' I said that I'd tried to offer it to her, but that she hadn't yet accepted. He was silent for a while, and then he piped up:
'You know Mum, I think you're moving on. You said you'd always know what to do because of your mum, and now you're just doing it, without asking her.'

The following day there was a new text:
Well last night I told my daughter our story. There were inevitable tears from us both but her words to me were... firstly, you are so blessed, this kind of thing doesn't happen to other people and secondly, on the day that I'm in Ingrid's position I would hope to find someone like you to gift your machines to. So, on the basis that I will respect, cherish and of course use your mums machine for the rest of my life I now feel comfortable in accepting it if you would still like me to have it. 
There followed several days in which, via a comedy of errors, the machine was taken to the courier, left behind, in an agony of nerves, to be packed and shipped, and the seamstress tried to use mobile banking to pay the charge. Text followed text between us, as we tried to understand why the money was popping up and pending, not deliverable, what was mobile, what was online. My heart was constantly in my mouth, fearing that the highwire of goodwill we had so improbably strung between us was going to come crashing and tangling down. Were we each who we said we were? Neither of us picked up the phone, all was recorded in the back and forth of blue and grey speech bubbles of text appearing on our phone screens. She could not see me, and I could not see her. We were both blind, feeling our way. In the end she had to post a cheque.

On the third day, I got the news: 'SHES ARRIVED!!!!!!! xxx'

For the seamstress, my mum's Bernina was female:
She's a real lady 😊what a beauty I'm absolutely over the moon. All polished up, test run done I just need to check out oiling points as I'm not used to that as my industrial machines sit in a bath of oil which is majorly different! I'll never forget you nor your mother for this Ingrid because this is very very special indeed xx
Oiling points! Suddenly it came back to me — my mother had shown me the little red-painted dots all over the machine, and given me a yellowing plastic bottle of oil with a long stem, many years before. She had warned me to watch out if I was sewing white fabric, as sometimes the oil could leak out, and stain. Proudly, I passed on my technical knowledge. Back came the response:
Well, I've given this very robust little lady a spring clean, she's been oiled, dressed up, had such a lot of praise already and she's even worked a little bit! She's much more forgiving than my usual work mates, that's for sure. They're definitely male, very hench and not at all sympathetic. I've many a needle up the side of my nail bed I can tell you that! None of that with my Bernina. I've a table in my garage that I need to renovate, I'll be putting her on it for when I need to work when it's dark. 
I told her how much I loved her description of my mother's machine, holding her own like a lady against the rough old male industrial machines. She laughed:
Haha she'll do that alright she's a little tank! Aside from my family I absolutely live for my work and all my aids are loved, looked after and cherished because they pay the bills and keep us in our home. Now all I need to do is find time to renovate the table!! xx


Whenever I find that I am missing my mother, which is more often than I care to admit, I take out my phone, and I scroll through this thread of messages. I think about the third-generation seamstress in Staffordshire I have never spoken to, with my mother's sewing machine on a table in her garage, oiling it, dressing it up, and talking to it, fashioning buttonholes late at night, loving her work and thanking her lucky stars for her inherited gift.

Her name was Julie Spendlove.

I look at my own life and wonder why I make such a meal of it.

My mother's final words to me were: 'Do what you have to do, Ingrid'.