Friday, 21 September 2012

How to be a woman, Caitlin Moran

I set off into this book with a slight prickle about my person. It can get my goat when a book seems to trade in self-deprecating humour, especially when the author is a woman. What is being masked by the humour? So often it is self-loathing, as if the only legitimate entry into public discourse for the (female) speaker is self-negation. Why do women have to twist themselves into such knots in order to speak. Can't they just... Speak? 

Perhaps How to be a Woman trades a little too much in this form of self-justification. But its approach to its subject is so unusual and riveting that it can be forgiven. 

I have never seen a feminist account of womanhood written in such an irrepressible blend of first person memoir and self-help. 

Caitlin Moran has a certain kind of passport past the customs officials guarding feminism precisely because she is not an Oxbridge-educated success story. Hers is a story of success against most people's odds: home-educated -- or rather an autodidact -- in an incredibly poor family, the eldest of an astonishingly large number of siblings, she dreamt of escape to London, to be a music journalist, and somehow wangled her way into Melody Maker aged only about 16. 

It makes me think of Jacqueline Wilson, who similarly managed to get into journalism very young : famously, Jackie magazine was named after her, because they were looking round the office for a suitable girl's name, and spotted the young Jacqueline, still almost the right readership age. 

The passport comes from the entirely unprotected way Moran has set out in life and sought out experience. Rare is the woman who has negotiated the British social obstacle course with quite such relish and optimism. 

Moran writes acutely and vividly about universal female experiences like puberty, menstruation, love, dealing with sexism, marriage and weddings, giving birth, and most arrestingly, abortion and cosmetic surgery. The chapter list reads like a Seven Ages of Woman, and I'm eagerly anticipating her old age, so that we can read about how to be a grandmother, and how to grow old disgracefully. 

What is unique about her is the distillation of deep reading with uninhibited action. She takes the message of women's liberation completely seriously. There are many messages in the book, and most of them are flagged "are the men doing this? Do the men need to worry about this?" Her rule of thumb is that if men do not need to concern themselves with an issue, nor should women. 

This is the philosophy that enables her to take what for many women would be, if not an impossible decision, then certainly a very depressing one, to abort a healthy child. Moran is resolute  in her assertion that women not only ought to have, but actually do have, dominion over their own bodies. She asserts also that this position trumps the attempt to define when life actually begins. These two arguments are key to her painful decision, helping her to go through with the abortion facing up to it completely. She does not suffer afterwards, because she was sure of what she was doing going into the event. She does not deny the physical and mental pain of it, but she is able to bear it because she believes completely in the probity and authenticity of her own capacity to decide about what happens within her own body:

I suppose what I'd been given to believe is that my body -- or my subconscious -- would be angry with me for not having the baby. And that, additionally, their opinion on the matter would in some way, be superior -- more 'natural', more moral -- to the rational decision my conscious mind had made. That women were made to have babies, and that each one that is not brought to fruition must be accounted for and mourned and repented for, and would remain unforgiven forever. But all I could see -- and all I can see now, years later -- is history made of millions of women trying to undo the mistake that could then undo them, and then just carrying on, quiet, thankful, and silent about the whole thing. What I see, is that it can be an action with only good consequence.

'Abortion', unlike most of the other chapters, is not composed of an exclamatory first-person phrase ('I become furry!'). Moran certainly did not take the decision lightly, and the tone of her writing is concomitantly much more serious, measured and careful than the other chapters. To me, that final pair of paragraphs are among the most important in the book. The pro-abortion debate tends not to begin from the position "I have two lovely children and I do not want a third -- I would not be as good a mother to them all". It tends to play itself out in an abstract world devoid of real, pre-existent families. The arguments are of course those that Moran puts forward: a woman has an unimpeachable right to decide what happens to her own body, and this supersedes arguments about when life begins. But situating the arguments in the context of an 'already-finished family', and putting forward the idea that it would be bad for the other children, the mother, and the family as a whole, including the father, to supplement with an accident, an unplanned and therefore unwanted baby, that is quite unusual. 

What is shocking about this, to me, is not the decision Moran took, or her reasoning. It is that I have become acutely susceptible to the opinions of others about my own actions. I do not think I could now take the same decision as Moran, not because I think she is wrong -- rationally I agree absolutely with her -- and not because I believe my body would punish me for an abortion. But because I have become afraid of the judgements of other women about my actions relative to the family. 

Abortion is a big subject, but in the end it's not really abortion I am talking about. It is my own capacity to stand up for what I want and believe in, to the same extent as Moran. 

I cannot bear to justify myself, because I do not believe that I should have to. I studied self-justification for four years in a phd, and concluded that self-justification must come to an end, in order for anything else to happen. 

Yet this refusal to justify myself, because self-justification is inherently in bad faith, nevertheless collapses into capitulation to mainstream, conformist and orthodox activity in my own everyday life.

Not actively justifying myself, as I see so many others around me do, does not lead me to greater strength, or greater assertiveness in my actions, or greater peace. 

The radicalism I feel is not translated into action, not because I don't believe in it, but because I am afraid that my personal radicalism might harm my children in some way. Just as people have second children, not because singletons are unhappier than siblings, but because other people assume that they will be, and just as people with disabilities often say that their greatest disability is other people, so I do not live as I wish because of the opinions of others. 

Moran is my heroine. 

Wednesday, 12 September 2012


This morning was another typical Motherload day: children need feeding, clothing, walking — no, driving to school (driving because another of the electric window motors died last night, and must be repaired, at enormous expense, immediately) — doctor's appointment, forms to fill in, car tax to pay, my own work disappearing further and further down the list of priorities.

Suddenly I remembered that my daughter's swim gear was in the boot of the car, now at the garage.

She needs it, of course, tomorrow. We have, of course, received dire warnings from teachers, while perched on tiny chairs in the classroom, feeling awash with memories of childhood admonitions, warnings about Not Forgetting The Swim Gear Or Our Children Will Be Humiliated.

I rush out of the front door to walk to the garage.

On my way I pass a squat object covered in a black bin liner. A notice taped to it reads, "Piano Stool. Please take".

I walk on to the garage, retrieve swim bag, and return past the piano stool. I sit on it. It's sturdy and comfortable. I pull aside part of the bin liner. It is a comforting red velvet, slightly faded. I feel a kind of bubbling joy, I know that it will be hinged, and that we will be able to store music in it. The green silk pattern on the piano stool I used as a child, hammering away talentlessly and dutifully every morning, returns to me. No one else is on the street. I hesitate, then go to the front door and ring the bell.

I know the routine: objects left outside need no thanks or recompense, the owners want to let them go, and want someone else to benefit from them. We did it ourselves the other day with slightly overly used trucks and trikes, faded from sunshine and rain, much loved in their time. They disappeared within a day, and we can see them as we walk to school, in the front garden of a house just down the road. We feel happy every time we pass.

A bosomy lady opened the door, slightly impatient at seeing a stranger. I stumbled over my words, thanking her, saying I felt I had to say something about such a beloved thing as a piano stool. She was, of course, embarrassed, smiled, but wanted to close the door.

I blushed as I walked up the road with my prize.

Never mind. I have carried it home, put felt on each of its feet, filled it with sheet music, an unplayed recorder, and a music bag, sat on it, played the piece my daughter is picking her way through at the moment.

Thank you.

Sunday, 9 September 2012

A good clearout

I have been hysterical for the past few weeks, roughly coinciding with, oooh, the Summer holidays.

There is something terrible about taking a holiday, an enforced holiday, when you have projects on the go, and people you need to keep talking to, for anything to go forward.

Every summer, indeed every few weeks, I am told I need to take a holiday. Not for the good of my health, but for the good of my children and teachers... or rather the agrarian needs the academic calendar is calqued on. Summer holidays = harvest time. You couldn't keep the critters in school, or rather in church, so best invent a holiday for them. Parliamentary and university holidays were built around the same idea. Holy-days invented by the church to work around farming. Not so folk could go and do nothing, but so that we would all have food to eat in the winter.

Given that we no longer live in an agrarian economy, or rather live in a globalized version which basically does away with seasons, why don't we change this? I go completely nuts with a 6-week break, looking after children.

How incredibly selfish of me, of course — I should be squirming with the delight at the thought of strawberry-picking, homemade ice lollies, going to Norfolk (which seems to have become the second home of all of London), glamping, English beaches, picnics, barbecues, the odd trip to a museum, leisurely time in the back garden… put like that, of course it sounds absolutely idyllic.

But in other ways the reality is a sense of glacial numbness descending in the morning as I realize I have absolutely no idea how to structure the empty day rolling ahead, except through repetitions of activities I have been bored by for years now. It is dark nights spent padding around the house, unable to sleep with worry at the thought of books unwritten, living unearnt, pension non-existent.

I have learnt over these last few years of summer holidays with children that, somehow, if I can give myself up to them, the well-worn activities do acquire the lovely nostalgic tinge they probably ought to have had in the first place. And I've learnt that these feelings happen each year at exactly the same time, and so must be, at some level, normal.

Yet somehow, this summer, returning from a trip to see husband's family in Australia, the combined effects of jet lag and middle-summer-stasis brought me to a pitch of despair and depression the like of which I have rarely endured.

Time slowed to a crawling itch of lethargy and wanness. Never had the local library seemed so much like a lifesaver. I couldn't begin to pick up cookbooks and think about Fun Things To Bake With The Children. No one was around — our return coincided inevitably with a mass exodus, as London went on holiday after the Olympics. It was desolate. I actually hugged my son's teaching assistant on the first day of school. Confused and embarrassed she hugged me back, wondering, no doubt, whether I was having some sort of breakdown.

I think I wondered much the same.

And lest the sharp-tongued among my readers whisper "Bad Mother!", all of the above is not to say that I sat around doing nothing with my fair offspring. OF COURSE we did all the things we were supposed to do, parks, museums, day trips to beach, pub suppers, baking, cinema, etc etc etc.

We also upgraded small son to large bed (long-overdue). And deep cleaned the wretched house as same small son came home from long flight with violent asthmatic reaction. This saw me on my knees, toting a hired carpet cleaner, within a week of touching down from the 24-hour flight, buying anti-dust-mite bedding covers, and feeling as if every surface in our house must be filthy, despite all scientific evidence to the contrary. There is nothing like an allergic reaction to make a mother feel she is to blame. Or is that just me? Is it always just me?

In the meantime, all the work on my desk shrivelled away into nothing: book projects, business ideas, clients, confidence, all dehydrated into the same dust I then spent hours hoovering and washing off the floor of our abode.

How is it possible to beat yourself up for turning into a housewife at the very same time that you are frantically trying to address your son's health problems by taking a more intensive approach to the great art of the house cleanse?

I managed to get through what my calendar continues to inform me was ONLY TWO WEEKS until the start of school, with grim determination, an awful lot of shouting, despite best intentions to contrary, writing self-obsessed screeds to a good friend, and emerged into the blissfully quiet air of the new term to find, to my amazement, that equanimity is restored through structure.

How can it be that we long for the unstructured time of holidays, only to be confronted with our deepest anxieties, insomnia, deep-seated anger, and unhappiness about the past, instead of the relaxation, loving intimacy with our families, and adventure that we crave?

Now I am back in that best of months, September, with its promise of golden days before true Autumn, its oddly Springlike memories of fresh starts, and things moving on, and I cannot believe how terrible much of this summer felt. I am immediately plunged back into regret for time lost, wasted on such dark thoughts.

There is just one comforting thought. Perhaps it's possible to include the resurgence of all those gloomy matted emotions during the Summer weeks as part of holiday time. I deep-cleaned the house, and am proud to have done so, it looks great. And I think I may have deep-cleaned my brain by allowing some of my fears back out of their boxes. Although it felt bad, it is true that I can now see them as fears rather than as reality. Reality is something very different, filled with chance events both good and bad, inherently out of my control, to be managed as it comes.

My fears are also out of my control in some ways, exploding as they do at inconvenient times, lurking, ready to pounce. But actually allowing myself to feel them is also evidence of my brain processing and archiving, testing and realigning. Fears need to be looked at every now and then.

Monday, 27 August 2012


Go and see Brave. Go and see it if you have a daughter.

This is the latest Pixar, and it's directed by a woman, Brenda Chapman. Hallelujah! A female animation director!

Brave manages to bring together Celtic and Norse legend with Astérix-style animation, and produce a story about the transformative power of... transformation.

The rebellious tomboy daughter of a Scottish king rejects her upbringing, and the destiny planned for her by her mother the queen, and inadvertently turns her into a bear, when she foolhardily buys a spell from a witch.

In wanting to be brave, and challenge the status quo, the girl finds herself in a nightmare in which she is on the verge of destroying everything she knows, mother, father and kingdom. Her bravery is revealed to be impulsiveness and pride.

But in turning her mother into a bear, she also enables the mother to see that she is being literally overbearing, and that the daughter needs greater freedom if she is to succeed in life, and if the kingdom's future is to be secured.

As a bear, the mother loses all her finesse and skill. She can no longer use words to reprimand and control her daughter's language, manners, dress and activities, and she cannot model the decorous behaviour she expects of a young lady, because of her ungainly body, and claws where her fingers should be.

The magic spell which transforms her seems to take several days to come to full fruition, and for that time, the queen is in a kind of metamorphic state -- she is neither queen nor bear. She is starving and does not know how to hunt. She must rely on the superior skills of her daughter, an expert marksman and archer, to feed herself.

The young girl and the older woman must reverse the spell before it becomes final. Their adventure involves them in saving the kingdom from sinister forces, ready to resurface from the past, and reactivated by the magic that is used to transform the queen.

They have to learn to respect each other, and each has to learn a new kind of bravery. The queen must defend her daughter through physical action rather than through political strategy, and the girl must conquer her stubborn pride and accept her mother's love and good intentions.

The term 'monster' comes both from monere (to warn) and monstrare (to show). The queen is made physically monstrous the better to examine and unpick what is character and what is behaviour in her. The daughter is given an opportunity by the witch she consults to look more intensely at her mother's intentions and faults. But she is also given a mirror in which she can see what she herself may become unless she learns to control some of her own impulses.

What I loved in this film was its homage to Uderzo and Goscinny, its immersion in non-Christian, non-Romano-Hellenic-Enlightenment narrative, and above all its courage in looking squarely at the mother-daughter relationship.

As I sat there in the dark, with my son (rather scared of the bear) on my lap, and my little girl squeezed in to my side, I kissed her hair and whispered that I loved her.

Then we came stumbling out into the light.

I probably told her to pull her skirt straight and not to screech so much.

And so it goes on.

Sunday, 19 August 2012

Family TV drama

I was recently flying back from Australia and had a good long time to appraise the genre of Family TV, by watching The Middle, Parenthood, Suburgatory, and Modern Families between halal chicken dinners (we flew via Abu Dhabi).

I was surprised to find out how different each series was, even though they were all part of (ahem) one big family.

The Middle is a sitcom that looks at the 'squeezed middle' from the perspective of the harrassed mother and father who can't afford what most of their peers seem able to give their children. They have obligations to both the older and the younger generation. They worry incessantly about the impact their own lack of material success will have on their children. They love and resent their choices. Obviously, the answer is that a loving family conquers all, despite problems along the way, pretty much because the alternatives (divorce, adoption) appear to them to be so bleak.

Parenthood is a family saga drama, featuring a patriarch and Sarah, Julia, Crosby and Adam, his children. Sarah is a single mother teacher, Julia is a corporate attorney, Crosby is a commitment-phobe dropout and Adam is the eldest, forced into conventional duty, but also denied it by having a son with Aspergers. It's based on a film, and could clearly run for ever as more children are born, more marital and material tensions surface and are dealt with by the family firm, and compromise continues to be the answer to everything. It's Corrections for TV.

Suburgatory is another sitcom, the unholy marriage of Desperate Housewives to My So-Called Life, with a spicing of American Beauty. A divorced father and his teenage daughter leave Manhattan for the suburbs and conduct a horrified but forensic anthropological investigation of what they find there. Will they or won't they go native? What have they lost by leaving the quirkiness, anonymity and discomfort of the metropolis for the snobbery, parochial competitiveness and insularity of the suburbs? What can they gain, apart from a bigger house? It's sharp and quirky, and the answer is always to regroup the family unit, however weird its constitution.

Modern Families is a third sitcom featuring three very different families: a gay couple bringing up a baby girl, a conventional heterosexual family with three children, struggling with all the usual boring stuff, and a Latino hottie married to an unlikely partner, doting on their overweight son. Each provides a counterweight to the other. Each episode focuses on a different theme, such as 'learning to let go', and plays out according to the internal dynamics of each family, showing how life lessons are both individual and universal. The three families plait together to showcase the rich tapestry of life, and other clichés. It nods to Desperate Housewives, but without the gothic elements of melodrama and murder — it oddly reminded me more of something like Sex and the City, because of the plaited connections between distinct bodies negotiating the same issues. It's also fairly sharp and funny, but the oddballs are both more caricatural and more memorable than the conventional family, which seems like a problem to me.

Verdict? From the perspective of 36,000 feet, and that mindless sense of desolate futility that comes from the long-haul flight (ah! all life is here, and its seatback is jammed in my face), I loved them all.

The one I can still remember most sharply is Suburgatory, perhaps because it's the cleanest juxtaposition of opposites (unconventional family unit finds itself in universe of conformity). It's also the most alternative, and potentially subversive, scenario. All the others default to the conclusion that conventional heterosexual families are ultimately the most accommodating and flexible units of human socialization, even if they nod to alternative family set-ups.  

Suburgatory starts with and returns to the oddness of families, however constituted and wherever located. There's a lot more dramatic challenge in this — it's closer to the Pinter effect of irradiating minute details with acute psychological analysis than the Eastenders 'you don't have to be mad to live here but it helps' emotional Christmas pudding.

Funny how TV seems a better place to go for investigations of family life than film at the moment. Almodóvar has known this forever, but I'm only getting the point now. TV is ecumenical and plural, neurotic, melodramatic and attention-seeking, ephemeral, fragmented and partial, and above all it is episodic and endlessly self-reinventing. TV is a very peculiar medium, whose tensile properties mimic the tensions within and between families, like the novel (Dickens is its greatest avatar), but unlike film, which can only deal with a few of these highly disruptive tensions at a time.

TV, like the notion of the family, seems eternal and endlessly protean. On the other hand, TV was invented in the 1920s, the tail end of representation, and families are the foundation of human life. When you spend a bit of time looking at how the family is represented on the distorting mirror of TV (look! I can see myself — no wait, that's not like me! Should I be more like that? Oh god, is that what I'm really like?), you wonder which will outlast the other, the medium or the social organization it reflects?

Both seem ultimately threatened by the compartmentalizing properties of a medium like YouTube, which atomizes representation rather than aggregating it into the clumsy coherences of families or TV dramas about families. Clumsy and approximate they may be, but nevertheless both TV and families are fundamentally about relationships and connection. Plato's cave, the flickering images by which we are beguiled. The truth, apparently is outside, if we could only get there, but it's warm inside, and there's so much to watch!

As I watch my two children gradually sucked towards more and more time online, I sit and ponder. If the future of both families and representation is micro-dramas starring solitary individuals, watched alone, transmitted via satellites from cold, dead space, I'm out.

And now, terrified by my own nonsensical entropic thoughts, I need to go back to sleep, I'm, like, toadally lagged.

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Does this have to be how it ends?

I knew going into reading Kathleen MacMahon's first novel, This is How it Ends, that I would have trouble with it. Straightforwardly, this is because it received an enormous advance, and I'm envious. I'm hoping that by outing that here and now, what I have to say will somehow be more objective, as opposed to simply objectionable. 

Let me also say, however, that I really wanted to enjoy it — no one goes into reading a novel wanting it to be rubbish. There isn't enough time for that. You're always hoping for gold.

Here are the problems I had with it:

1. Contrived literariness
It’s such obviously obvious literary ground. It comes across like a recipe for a 'literary novel' — you can feel the market positioning. 

Can you, by the way, have a 'literary novel'? Surely something's either brilliantly well written, or it's not. Surely 'literature' refers to a piece of writing that's so powerful it stands the test of time, has readers returning to it for years to try to understand both it and themselves better. Nowadays there seems to be a whole genre of insta-literature, with authors aiming for categorization even before they get writing.

Look at the elements: A shoreside house. An invalid bear of a father. A troubled single daughter, inevitably called upon to look after him. This American guy, dimly related,  flying in to look into his past, as embarrassing Americans do in Ireland. The tearaway sister with the rich doctor husband and four gorgeous girls. The little loyal rescue dog, Lola — ah! the leetle dog! My heart is already breaking.

More elements: instant, passionate, improbable love (between dimly-related pair).

A journey, pronounced jyer-knee, into both their pasts.

The timeframe: the election of Obama and his inauguration (hope! optimism! promises!).

Terminal illness. 
Change all round. Is improbable love a bubble? Can it last? Will Lady Luck turn her wheel again? Perhaps hope can only exist in fiction, oh the pain of it all

2. Dodgy characterization
The characters are not clear — Della, the tearaway sister comes through well, but Addie is deeply unbelievable. Her wilful naivety in relation to her father is forced. She comes across as mentally unwell, not because she has just suffered a terrible birth experience and the severance of her relationship with a loser, but because she sits about drawing swimming pools all day long. I KNOW she's supposed to be this way, otherwise what would she learn about life, as hers comes to an end? But the cloudiness of her being is deeply irritating — how could she have got through life knowing so little about herself or anyone around her?

3. Technical wobbliness
The switching between perspectives is very erratic. Most of the time we seem to be in Addled Addie's head. Then suddenly there will be a flash of being inside the heads of Bruno the American, Hugh the father, or Della the sister. This is very difficult for readers to cope with — unsettling in the wrong way. The book behaves like several kinds of novel at once, both experimental stream of consciousness and staunch realist, a cross between Woolf and Toibin. But the writing is not masterful enough to pull off this degree of experimentalism.

4. Overstuffing
When the little dog is swept away, as Hugh the father is stranded (on The Strand), his daughter dying, his own life in shreds, it is too much.

And the ending, being the title of the book itself, is terrifyingly trite. The writing simply isn’t good enough to bear this knowingness.

It’s such rich stuff, that in the end it's like reading a huge Christmas pudding: you can’t stop eating, but you're far too full about halfway through. It is — and I am aware how critical this sounds — cod-experimental.

5. Eye to the main chance: the filmable novel
It is so clearly intended to be filmed — many of the scenes could be turned into a filmscript without alteration. It comes across, therefore, as contrived, knowing, while pretending to be so innocent. The whole character of Bruno the embarrassing American seems designed so that the book can be turned into an American heartbreaker, perhaps casting someone like Mel Gibson in the lead. I felt that I was being manipulated, not shown something, which seems to me what novels ought to do.

6. Failing to deliver on the key premise of the novel: forgiveness
Ultimately I was most troubled by the treatment of the father, Hugh, apparently sadistic, arrogant, impossible and about to be dragged through the courts because of it. It was hard to decide whether he was to be pitied and forgiven or further vilified, within the codes set up by the novel — was he the 'bad man' the novel seemed anxiously to insist he was? The novel seemed to judge him as falling short because of his denial of his own feelings. Yet at the same time it offered up a terrible explanation: his loveless adoption. 

What was it saying? That we have a duty to explore ourselves, to forgive ourselves, to keep moving forward? That trauma in our pasts does not justify our behaving badly in the present? Perhaps. And I agree with that.But don’t we also have an obligation to forgive others? Hadn’t Hugh been punished enough? Did he not also deserve some compassion for what he had endured? The passage in which he is depicted trying to learn to cook mother’s food after the death of his wife is heartbreaking.  

He tried, he really did

And so did I.

Friday, 15 June 2012

The Marriage Plot

I loved Jeffrey Eugenides's Virgin Suicides, for its kooky, gothic feel, and the beautiful pendulous, globular writing.

His next, Middlesex, meh, not so much. It felt to me like a novel-length splurge on a Foucauldian or Judith Butlerian problem. Perhaps a little precious of me, but it seemed dated, although apparently to the rest of the world, a thing of wonder. I also felt there were longueurs.

The Marriage Plot, which we have waited many years for, feels like, literally, more of the same. I found it meandering, for all the wrong reasons. If its title referred ironically to its own lack of plot, this raised little more than a tired lit crit eyebrow in me. I kept waiting for the motor to start, to get under way. I felt as though I kept being fed character synopses. Perhaps this was because he'd chosen to write a perspectival novel in the third person: we move from one of the three main characters' points of view to another, filling in gaps in the (very simple) plot until we have the whole thing straight in our minds.

What was interesting in it, and compelling, was the depiction of manic depression. The terror of revealing a mental illness, the attempt to cope with everyday life, the desire to regain a continuity with what others consider normality by playing with the dosage of the medication that is keeping Leonard 'normal', all these things were fascinating, painful to read about, important in a world that continues to stigmatize mental illness.

However, in the end the character capitulates to his own impossibility — he verbally divorces Madeleine, and runs away to the woods. What is going to happen to the brilliant student after the end of the novel? Isn't his the more important story? Does he end up proving that it is in fact impossible to live a normal life with a mental illness, that he is, as he most fears when his depression has its fiercest hold on his mind, broken, defective?

Eugenides seems to sanction this view of manic depression — or he, like his character, runs away from the really long-term consequences of it. Leonard's experiment with lowering his lithium dose until his energy and brilliance return goes wrong: he takes too little medication, and mania overwhelms him, until he is completely out of his mind. But we never see a time where his medication is stable. We are just left with the destruction his illness has caused. Madeleine's parents appear to be right: don't marry the nutter.

That Eugenides should think it compelling to write about the marriage plot spliced with the campus novel, in which the upshot is that no one ends up married or living happily ever after, and everyone apart from the loony just goes back to university, seems to me crass, and ultimately lightweight. Hooray! — it looks as though Madeleine will go to late '80s grad school as a single girl, and study more nineteenth-century marriage plots, and try to get over the madness of her abortive marriage to a manic-depressive. What, and emerge a strident '90s feminist? And it looks as though Mitchell will also go to grad school, and remain exercised about the meaning of life. And perhaps write a novel like The Marriage Plot later on? What does any of it matter? If that's the point of the novel, a sort of fin-de-twentieth-century nihilism, give me Dostoevsky any day.

The novel seemed to be more attentive to post-structuralist theory than to storytelling, and was the poorer for it. Not that I mind reading a depiction of what was, after all, almost exactly my own experience, only slightly earlier. Narcissistically, I'll happily indulge in a clever-clever book that features Roland Barthes's Fragments d’un discours amoureux, a book I loved myself. I'm quite prepared to believe that the first year after college is an immensely delicate, vital year which lays down ideas, patterns and vectors that operate for years to come — it's exactly what I experienced myself, and I feel that Eugenides had struck a rich seam in looking at this time of life. I even managed to have the delightful experience of reading most of the book on the Eurostar on the way to a delicious overnight stay in Paris, city of my intellectually star-struck youth. I wasn't sure whether I was inside or outside the novel at moments. But that isn't enough to make a novel good. One Day, with its superficial clicking through the years, was actually a better fist of a 'Days of our lives' novel than is The Marriage Plot.

I am more and more bewildered by the American craze for extraordinarily longwinded novels, reliant on a deliberately flat, understated style. Has no one noticed that novels, whose unit of rhetorical currency is the distended, multi-clausal paragraph, often seemingly downloaded undigested from the internet, are DULL?

The best thing I've read in years was Andrea Levy's The Long Song. And what gave that novel its coruscating brilliance was precisely what was left out. The American male-authored novel of the last couple of decades, Jonathan Franzen in Freedom, Don de Lillo, Philip Roth, seems to have gone down a path of blockbuster-length hyperrealist platitude. Does no one dare to edit them? Have they forgotten that novels are a craft, rather than a shopping list, or stream of consciousness depressive monologue? Perhaps they would all do well to revisit Virginia Woolf's Mrs Dalloway: the point is that streams of consciousness are literary devices, performances written by authors who go back over their work, nip and tuck, select. Realism isn't actually reality. The traffic between external reality and internal reality isn't unimpeded, it's endlessly refracted: we're never quite sure what we're seeing, because what we make of reality is an interpretation.

Female writers spend years and years trying to give themselves permission to write, terrified of judgement because having endured it in their own minds and at the hands of others for so long. At the moment, however, there's a goodly crop of male writers out there who seem to have forgotten how to pass judgement on their own work, seem to feel that pedantic explanation is the same thing as storytelling, seem unable to remember the particular in the midst of their rambling generalizations. I want to scream at them: go and read Dickens, Flaubert, Proust, Sterne, Woolf, Wharton, Grenville, Mantel. Remember to plot!

Friday, 1 June 2012

Thinking fast, slow and exhausted

Daniel Kahneman was on Radio 4 today. The author of Thinking Fast and Slow set listeners a couple of logic problems. I put down the broccoli chopping and paid attention.
A bat and ball together cost £1.10. The bat costs £1.00 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?
I fell straight into the trap — the ball must cost 10p. I jotted it down, and waited for the next.
All roses are flowers. Some flowers fade quickly. Therefore some roses fade quickly. Is the logic right or wrong? 
WRONG! Just because some flowers fade quickly, it doesn't mean that roses are in that group automatically. And while some roses might fade quickly, it's not because of the reason that 'some flowers fade quickly'.

The latter I felt able to 'do': it was a syllogism, and its third part didn't follow from its first two, a logical fallacy.

The maths question niggled at me, I felt dumb, because I knew it must be a trap, but I literally couldn't think how to solve it: the ball probably cost less than 10p, but I didn't know why. Luckily Ed Vaisey MP got it wrong too, on national radio, giggling and wondering if the answer was 'zero'.

In the end I had to be put out of my misery. Of course! If the whole total is £1.10, then you have to subtract the pound, and halve whatever is left to give you a price for the ball and something to tack on to the pound. So the ball costs 5p and the bat costs £1.05. For Kahneman, I had thought too fast. Doh!

It was my daughter who stumbled on the fact that you have to halve whatever is left over after you subtract £1.00, to work out the answer. Her first answer was the same as mine, the ball must cost 10p. But her very next attempt was to say, "well, it must be less than 10p, so why don't we say 5p"? Bingo, she had the answer and the method — although she didn't realise it.

Such a stupid little thing, but I was so annoyed I couldn't 'do' it. That terrible feeling of brain going soft, just not being quite as quick as I was. There. I've said it.

I can justify my way out of it: pre-pregnancy, I still don't think I would have got the answer right immediately (I can only really do maths if I can translate it into Base Word, as opposed to Base 10). I have broccoli interruptions now. Other things on my mind. Sorting out arguments, homework, name labels, school run, playdates, birthdays, shopping, ironing, aaaaaarrgh, for example.

But it made me think about other logic problems that have got under my skin. The Cretan Liar's Paradox, for example.
Epimenides, a Cretan, said: "All Cretans are liars". 
As Epimenides is Cretan, this means that he is a liar too. But if he is a liar, then his statement cannot be true. Cretans must be truthtellers. Except that if they are all truthtellers, Epimenides, a Cretan, must be telling the truth by saying that they are all liars. But if Epimenides is telling the truth, and all Cretans are liars, what does that make him? A Cretan telling the lie (or the truth) that all Cretans are liars.

It's unresolvable, a paradox. A contradiction that cannot be collapsed. Pointless. Maddening. Pure theory. Is this what we waste taxpayers' money on? Etc etc. My daughter quite liked it, actually.

Proust specialized in paradoxes too: the one I have always loved, and use a lot, is:
[…] les "quoique" sont toujours des "parce que" méconnus […]
from A l'ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs, the second part of A la recherche ("althoughs" are always misunderstood "becauses"). He's painting a vicious portrait of the pompous diplomat Norpois, whose professional identity depends on his being all things to all people. Thus, Norpois focuses on individuals, not despite being so busy, but because of it; he is charming not despite being so much in demand, but because he needs to be everywhere at once. We call it 'working the room'.

Proust's paradox is a linguistic laser, shining from the outside of Norpois's head to its hidden workings. Suddenly Norpois, the slightly overbearing Polonius figure, who puts down the young narrator's writing with a thoughtless remark, is skewered into place, and, uncomfortably, we dimly see ourselves at parties, circulating, hoping not to be stuck with bores, smiling, smiling, trying not to be seen looking past our interlocutor for the most important person in the room, trying to be gracious and not dismissive. Proust's paradox is like a literary version of Gunther von Hagens's macabre plastination process, making the inside visible.

I wish I understood the word "psychology". Kahneman is a psychologist who writes about decision-making and economics (by which I assume he means negotiation, trading, at whatever level — maths in the marketplace, performative maths between humans). Proust was a novelist whose insights into the workings of the mind seem to me to rival Kahneman's, but do so through linguistic description.

In my own daily life, responsible for (or just standing around watching) the psychological formation of two children, I am aware of psychology as an infinitely mutating set of relations. 'Psychology' seems to be something that exists both within an individual's mind, and between individuals, as a constantly-rippling, always contradictory and conflicted relation.

I think perhaps I wasn't so aware of the relational aspect of psychology until I had children, because I simply had no experience of durational development, of meeting minds in flux — I had only theorized about it from well beyond that stage in my own life, with other adults.

Now in a state of near-permanent bewilderment and self-estrangement, I am only intermittently internally connected as I fight to engage with the children's fleeting, fairylike or demonic projections.

My psychology is now fixed, or much harder to change, while my children's is in the process of fixing. How that happens remains a mystery to me, because I do not yet know which of my moods, rules, refusals, omissions will leave a permanent trace in their plastic neural pathways. I must constantly put up and dismantle boundaries, keep them safe from themselves, anticipate but not pre-empt where their wildness will take them, let them invade or escape without harming themselves.

Now that's a paradox.

Let's all Jubilee. Except the working mothers.

Here's something a bit fascinating. I just looked up the definition of 'jubilee'. It comes from the Hebrew, yobel, meaning ram or ram's horn, the thing with which you proclaim a jubilee. In Jewish history, the year of Jubilee was:
A year of emancipation and restoration, which was to be kept every fifty years, and to be proclaimed by the blast of trumpets throughout the land; during it the fields were to be left untilled, Hebrew slaves were to be set free, and lands and houses in the open country or unwalled towns that had been sold were to revert to their former owners or their heirs. 
The Romans got hold of this concept, and then the Christians, so that in the Roman Catholic church during the Middle Ages, a jubilee is 'a year of remission during which plenary indulgence may be obtained by a pilgrimage to Rome and certain pious works'.

By 1526, it's come to mean 'shouting'.

By 2012, as far as this mother is concerned, it has come to mean this:
In the light of the extra public holiday in 2012 for the Queen's Diamond Jubilee, the length of the school year in 2011/2012 has been reduced from the normal minimum of 380 half-day sessions to 378 half-day sessions (189 days). LAs and schools should plan for that school year on that basis.

This change is to ensure that school staff is treated the same as other workers, who will benefit from an extra public holiday.

The 2012 exams will be timetabled on the assumption that half-term will be in the week commencing 4 June so, unlike in a normal year, exams will be held in the last week of May.

So, today, Friday 1 June, schools are shut. This is, as the DfE tells me, so that school staff is treated the same as other workers. I think I'd find that statement slightly more credible if it were grammatically correct. As it is, a DfE 'worker' (presumably educated in Britain) can't work out when the term 'staff' should be treated as a single body or as a group of individuals.

Next week, there are going to be not one but two Bank Holidays to celebrate the Queen's Diamond Jubilee. For all the working-from-home people in this land, it's an interruption of two whole precious working days, whether you are a Royalist or not.

For anyone who is forced to work around school timetables like I am (and please don't say "but it's your choice": I'm a writing mother), this has been extended backwards by a further extra day, and then extends forwards into a full week of half term (and please don't say, "it's lucky for you, in the private system they get TWO weeks off", I can't afford private).

So, school staff will benefit from the two days of public holiday everyone else is getting, because they will already be on half term. Why are they then entitled to ANOTHER day? That doesn't make any sense to me.

My cleaner has asked to work on Bank Holiday Tuesday — she needs the income. I need the income to pay the cleaner (and don't say "you could choose not to have a cleaner". I'm a writer, working round the school timetable, and I don't have the time to do the cleaning on top. I suppose you could ask why my husband doesn't do it, well, because he works full time. Tsk).

This year I have endured strikes, bank holidays, and training days, which teachers apparently need to take DURING the school term. I think it is completely disgraceful that teachers have this entitlement. Why? Because when I was a lecturer, we all worked through Bank Holidays when they fell in term time, because the term didn't stop for Bank Holidays — the work was much more important. Training during term time? No, training you do in your own time. How about in the thirteen weeks of annual leave teachers receive? Yes, of course, teaching is gruelling and exhausting, I know that from direct experience, I like, trust and respect people who work as teachers (I have to, they've got my children). But this? This is powerful unionization.

Nothing has moved me further to the right than seeing how the State education system works. 

P.S. For anyone wondering what my children were doing while I wrote this masterpiece, they were playing in the garden, making their own breakfast, tidying their bedrooms, and getting underway with their homework. So they don't have to do it in half term. 

Wednesday, 30 May 2012

The Sting

So I'm driving along, having just come out of a meeting, towards the end of last week. I hear the phone go, and when I have a moment look to see who the caller is.

It's the children's school.

The only reason the school calls me is if something bad has happened. I brace myself, and listen to the message. "Your son has been stung by a bee. Could you come into the school and take out the sting, as we're not allowed to do it."

What? What? So you're able to take my son and teach him, feed him, demand that he go to the toilet on time, tell him off for not paying attention, let him play in the enormous playground, tell his friends off for being rowdy, tell me off for somehow not teaching him at home enough... but you're unable to administer basic first aid if he is stung?

I go to the school. My son is sitting on his tiny chair, whey-faced, blotchy with shock, clutching a bear, and streaked with tears. He sees me and goes completely to pieces. He is utterly terrified by the ordeal of having waited for me. The sting is clearly visible, hanging from his grubby neck.

Teacher and teaching assistant are, to be fair, as frustrated as I am, protesting that they are simply forbidden to deal with such things.... although it's not entirely clear why. Health and safety gone mad? The possibility that they might hurt the child more by dealing with the problem? That they themselves might be hurt by the flailing arm of a protesting mite? Not really sure there.

I ask for tweezers to extract it with. They haven't got any... wait a minute, the teacher has a pair the children play with... she produces a savage-looking pair with a sharp protrusion between the two prongs. It serves no visible purpose, but could spike anyone who picked the tweezers up. This the children are allowed to play with? But you don't extract bee stings?

I point out that I have never performed this operation. We try to scrape son off the ceiling of his own fears, which takes so long that all the children are running back in after break. I suggest politely that we adjourn to the medical room. There, after further tears, I pluck the offending sting, which will have done more damage to the poor bee than it did to my son, from his neck, and the crisis abates, like the air coming out of a balloon.

I must needs stay and read with son, cosset and comfort him in his hour of need. I think ruefully of the book review I am late with, of the party planning I had on the go, of the book I am supposed to be writing. And I put my finger under the line and start sounding out.

Do I need to spell out the reason for this post? I am infuriated on several counts — not with individual teaching staff, I hasten to qualify, but with the systemic failure this incident highlights:

1. Don't leave a child in pain and shock while you call his mother. Treat the problem.
2. Don't just automatically call the mother. He has a father.
3. Don't waste my time. I am the parent, I parent. You are the teacher. You teach -- and you are in loco parentis. It is a contract.
4. Don't make me feel somehow guilty for saying any of this. I love my son, but how can I love being forced into such a ridiculous position. And why do I need to be?

Friday, 11 May 2012


I was chatting to two good friends over the weekend. First of all the talk turned to the rudeness of dinner guests who RSVP, not with food allergies, but with whole shopping lists of foods they just don't happen to like. In one priceless example, a woman wrote back to one of my friends saying, "if you're thinking of a creamy pudding, I'll pass".

After we'd stopped laughing about this, one of my friends said, "oh, and can I do a straw poll on sheet washing? How often do you do yours?"

It was perhaps sad in the first place that she wouldn't have thought of asking my husband this question, or perhaps it's just a capitulation to the apparently inevitable.

But setting that aside, the point behind her question was her consternation at finding out that mums at her children's school wash their family's sheets every week.

It wasn't that this made my friend feel sluttish. Far from it. My friend runs a highly successful marketing consultancy. Washing sheets has to be a low priority — her husband also works, and isn't going to be feeding the washing machine in his leisure hours.

Sheet washing is the contemporary Lysistrata — the brilliant Aristophanes play analysing men's attitudes to women, in which they go on strike and withhold sexual favours in a bid to end the Peloponnesian Wars.

My friend was horrified at the utter waste of energy, both the women's, but also the environment's. We are depleting mothers and Mother Nature with our pointlessly pristine sheets. Nowadays, women seem to make themselves slaves to each other — after all, men absolutely don't care about sheets, it's just other women with their ready judgements that do.

So not washing your sheets too often is not just a green action, but a feminist action.

Stop the washing.

Wednesday, 2 May 2012

What does the sick child teach us?

This week, my son has been iller than I've seen him for a while.

It's been a strange journey, which began with a headache at the weekend. It cleared up, so we went to visit a friend, but on the journey, he seemed to subside in the back of the car like a wilting leek. By the time we arrived at our friend's, he was sleepy, feverish and complaining of a stiff neck.

The mention of the neck sent us ricocheting to the local A & E, suddenly envisioning meningitis, undiagnosed and fatal. They declared the problem to be an ear infection, and sent us packing with Amoxycillin and ear drops.

I left the hospital, and took him for a treaty snack in a cafe. Whereupon he vomited vast amounts of pink liquid all over the floor, against the bin, up my sleeve, down his coat. Everyone in the cafe froze into a waxworks rictus of horror, pity and concern.

This was the prelude to a couple of days of mystifying fever, projectile vomiting, further agonizing trips to the GP, re-diagnoses (not ear but throat infection, apparently), and changes of prescription. By today, Wednesday, the child has:

1. Eardrops
2. Paracetemol suppositories
3. Anti-nausea medicine
4. Antibiotic

I think that's every orifice covered.

And ice cream. The moment I realised he had turned the corner, after not eating for 48 hours, was when he asked for ice cream.

Now he's watching wall to wall TV, and guzzling pistachios and peanuts.

And what of the mother (and indeed the rest of the family) during this time? A lot of the time I felt dizzy, tense, and driven to run up and down the stairs carrying washing, medicine, clean bowls and wet cloths. I printed out instructions and timings to myself on doling out medicine. I couldn't sleep at night, couldn't focus on any one activity. I started baking, and cooked new recipes for no good reason. I cleaned the house. I checked my messages, email, diary and to do list compulsively — my inbox was clean as a whistle, yet I hadn't accomplished anything. I struggled to work out ways to leave son at home while I collected daughter from school. I forced my husband to give up on an evening in the cricket nets, booked SIX MONTHS PREVIOUSLY, to come home and cover for me. I found myself telling my life story to one of my French language tutees.

Now that the worst has passed, I have become aware of two contradictory pains in caring for my nearly-6-year-old son.

On the one hand, it felt just as it did when there was a newborn in the house, that relentless prowling, the inability to settle, the frenetic focus on minute details.

On the other, I looked at my house, cleaner and clearer than it's been in a decade, toys all neatly put away, and not played with during the day.

I realise that I am looking at the future. One day clearing up and putting away, a perfectly neat and tidy house, seeing the wood for the absence of trees, will be a sign that my babies have grown up and left.

In the moment of my son's infantilizing need of me, he has also signalled his future independence of me.

Saturday, 28 April 2012

What is 'creativity'?

I've been exercised about exactly what creativity is for some time now.

Apparently while I've been exercised about this, others have been busy appropriating it. Which is odd, because I had the feeling that creative used to be what your mother hoped you weren't, so that you'd do well in your exams and get a good job.

These days, creativity is a term that is linked more often with enterprise, innovation and collaboration than with drug-fuelled hippies, going off the rails, and lone artists in garrets.

What's being stolen is the origin of creativity. It's being sold back to us as a commodity, something we can buy cheaply and easily, but which effaces the origins of the product, like brightly-lit supermarkets purveying white milk in plastic containers, rather than cows.

Let me give an example. Jonah Lehrer is a clever young chap, who wrote a book called Proust was a Neuroscientist (by implication, I am not, I am a grumpy old woman). I read and enjoyed this book. Basically it argued that modernist thinkers, writers and artists had somehow (despite being artists!) come up with theories it had taken neuroscience much longer to verify. Theories about memory and perception, essentially.

I noticed that the level of quotation from Proust showed a pretty basic mastery of the novel — had he actually read the whole thing, or just got wind of it from conversations, done a bit of research, and plumped for the standard quotations about madeleines and involuntary memory?

I was willing to forgive the superficial reading of Proust and others for the sake of an original argument... until I realised that Lehrer (isn't it extraordinary how people's names match their professions?) had smoothly moved on from this bouncy early puppydog book to becoming overall spokesman for imagination. Imagine! We can now be told that the 'new rules of creativity' include such insights as:
  • Take more breaks
  • Think like a child
  • Watch more comedy
  • Creativity depends on selection and limitation, as much as on excess and productivity (actually that's my insight, what Lehrer said was "It's not until we encounter a challenge we can't easily solve that the chains of cognition are loosened")
  • Work with strangers
  • Prepare to improvise
These gems are to be found in Wired, May 2012, pp. 110-15.

To give Lehrer some credit, I liked the point he makes about brainstorming. Developing what he'd said about creativity being enhanced by limitation, he cites research by Charlan Nemeth of Berkeley which broke groups faced with a problem to solve into 3 camps:
  1. those who got no instruction in how to work together
  2. those who were told to brainstorm, with the explicit instruction that all ideas are valid (at least to start with)
  3. those who were were told that 'most studies suggest that you should debate and even criticize each other's ideas'
Those who debated came up with more ideas and went on having ideas afterwards. Competition doesn't kill creativity. This I liked — we used to call it stimulating discussion. But Lehrer and Nemeth are not quite right, or somewhat naive. Competitive creativity produces a high level of wastage, and competition does kill some kinds of creativity — there are often other things at play, like gendered behaviour. That kind of debating has to be really well facilitated to work. It's essentially Darwinian, and the fittest ideas survive, not necessarily the best.

So what was being served up as insight in Wired anyone working in the arts and humanities could have told you in 5 minutes of intense conversation. It's not that what he tells us about creativity isn't true, it's just that it's the condition of working for anyone who picks up an instrument or a pen, or a camera, or a sexual partner. These are the implicit rules of the game for frustrated writers, tired performers, hyper-competitive improv artists. Creativity is bloodthirsty, sapping stuff, not painting the walls blue, taking breaks and sucking lattes. Creativity is destructive, and not averse to bullying, gameplaying, bitching, undermining...

Sanitized versions of what it is to be innovative, creative, collaborative, like Lehrer's, are very attractive in a digitized era, because they make creativity look clean, infinitely reproducible, distributable, editable, fun with a neat Brazilian.

The monks that used to illuminate manuscripts, and the artists that painted Bible scenes on the walls of churches have given way to raspberry pis programmed by children. In the name of the democratization of creativity, we are at risk of effacing its origins, and in so doing, forgetting how to do it.

P.S. yes, I know I'm writing a blog on a laptop, and without Apple and Google couldn't be reaching out with my harum-scarum argument. Very clever thing, technology. Just don't tell me it owns creativity. It owns techne.

Monday, 16 April 2012

Fostering independence

A post scriptum to 'Safeguarding Gone Mad in Tescos'....

We were just about on time for the school run this morning. But at the last minute I realised my deaughter wasn't wearing her cycle helmet. So I told her to go back inside to get it, and catch us up. Then I set off with son on scooter, assuming she would join us a few seconds later.

Many seconds later it was clear that something had gone wrong. I sent son on scooter back as an envoy, she was duly found, and caught up with us. At first I tried to quell my ever-present impatience by asking if she was all right. But when she said that she'd been frightened because mummy wasn't there, I'm ashamed to say I lost that fragile patience completely.

I know, I know, I'm not proud of this. Why do you think I write about it?

What happened is that I told her off for not listening to me, and for not using her common sense. If you read the Tescos post, you'll sense a theme here. Into the gap between my expectation of where her logic and common sense should be, and where it actually is, floods my impatience... and anger.

All the horrible way to school, labouring under two gymn bags, a trumpet, a school bag and my own satchel, I sweated and fumed.

It was only when we arrived at school, late, that I found myself wanting to cry with the frustration of it all – the frustration of my daughter's fears making us late for school, and the fact that my daughter's fears also make it impossible to criticize her without crushing her.

And for the fact that what I am confronting here is myself. As a child I was exactly the same – not, perhaps about simple errands without Mummy, which I was able to do from around 6, but about change. I found contemplating the future, and change, absolutely terrifying. Why should my beautiful daughter feel any differently?

Later on in the morning, instead of going home and running errands, getting on with work etc etc, I spontaneously went to have my legs waxed. This is a novelty in my life – a life spent frugally and fearfully avoiding the world of female beauty treatment, condemning it for its vanity, its waste of precious time, its servitude to commodified sexuality and Mammon – but these days, a bit of pampering goes a long way.

I talked to the young woman applying the green gloop about her experience of growing up. She'd loved her teenage years, she said. She'd loved going out with friends, from around the age of 12, although she'd still been taken to school until she was around 13. She'd had a Saturday job from around 16. I realized, listening to her, what my problem is.

Although I long for my daughter to seize her independence, the truth is that she is rather like me, as I was at her age. She is dreamy and imaginative, and sometimes anxious. She's also an actress, and the world is her stage. Her waking life is filled with stories of her own devising – no wonder she doesn't know how to find me in a supermarket, or worries when she can't see me on the school run.

It quite literally doesn't cross her mind yet to use her common sense to solve a problem, and I am going to need to support her to grow this. But I am never going to be able to make her be independent, because, as was the case with me, this is a process that each individual is in sole charge of. In my case, I could run mentally long before I could walk emotionally, and it did me no favours at all, leading to teenage years of acute self-consciousness and misery, as I imagined and punished myself for all the FUN I believed others to be having, unable to bear taking a single step towards it.

I grew up sheltered, but I also sheltered myself, because I was actually unable to set off in life any earlier than I did. For many years I blamed my parents for this sheltering. But now I can see that my forming self actually craved the peace and tranquility of home, and that I simply felt guilty about this, berating myself for not being more worldly, when I had no real wish to be worldly at all. I've always been criticized for my thin skin.

So while it's hilarious that my child can't find me in a supermarket, and makes for a good story, the truth is much smaller and quieter and more painful than that: my lovely child will look for her independence in her own time, and nothing I do (although I should not stop offering her challenges and puzzles and opportunities) will speed that process up.

Saturday, 14 April 2012

It's a jungle out there - lock up your daughters!

Ah, at last, a subject for a mothering blog to really sink your teeth into. Maternal negligence.

So, I took the two children to the supermarket with me. I had only managed this by virtue of agreeing to let my son go to the toy section. He knows this particular supermarket stocks a brand of some unspeakable tut, which appears to be a 'trash monster'. Delightful. We now give our children replica waste disposal units, presumably to prepare them for a lifetime of cleaning up the environmental disaster we've caused.

Anyway, I delivered both the children to the toys, and instructed my oldest, who is about to turn 9, to keep the youngest in sight at all times, and then walk up the central aisle and look down the side aisles for me when they'd had enough of window shopping.

I peacefully got on with my shop, congratulating myself that we had at last got to a point where I could let my daughter be responsible, give her a little independence, and not have them trail after me, whining for what they knew I wouldn't purchase for them. A brilliant solution.

Time ticked by.

I realised that I was pretty near the end of the shop, and felt in my bones that something was awry, but then thought, I'm sure they're fine, I'll just get the eggs and go and look for them.

At that precise moment, I heard "Would Ingrid Wassinaw please go to the scrumupfflyephondobu –". I did not need to be told twice. I whipped the laden trolley round, and fretted my way behind various meanderthals to Customer Service.

There they both were, abandoned orphan waifs, blonde heads peeking pitifully over the counter, while a large red-faced lady with her back to me frowned loudly into a phone, "we've still got them, we'll have to call the police".

Meanwhile, yours truly was unrepentently asking the children what had happened, and whether they had come looking for me.

They had. They had looked all over the toy section first, then looked along every side aisle (carefully avoiding the central aisle, it seems). Then the staff had used the shop cameras to look for me, and identify my car (to reassure the children I hadn't just driven off, they said), and then the staff were about to call the police. They had apparently called out my name, and the car numberplate, 4 times. I'd heard none of it.

Redface was standing over me, hands on hips, glaring down at my clearly negligent head, as I crouched by the children. I wasn't sure whether to point out to her that the shop's reaction was completely out of proportion, illogical, poorly thought-through, and seemingly designed to cause the children maximum distress.

I decided against it.

But I consciously decided not to apologise, or thank them on bended knee for saving my children's lives from the band of child abductors who usually go to that branch of Tescos for their Saturday shopping.

Instead, here is what I did. I took the children round the corner, and told my daughter that next time she should listen to what I'd said, go down the wretched central aisle, and use that vantage point to scan down the sides. I told her to use her Godgiven logic, to which she pointed out that I didn't believe in God. I agreed, and told her to use my brain, which I'd very kindly put in her head. It seems to me that if you have a child who can engage in theological argumentation, she can probably find you in a supermarket.

Then I suggested we play a couple of rounds of hide and seek, in which the children, like two babes in the wood, should count to 20, then come looking for me. They were delighted by this. No, I didn't leave a trail of breadcrumbs (although I did wonder if I was being filmed by the security camera). Once we'd done this a couple of times, the children felt very happy, and I think next time we'll all manage the experiment just fine.

What do I think now? The same as I thought when the redfaced woman bore furiously down on me: what kind of society do we live in, that reacts as though I would abandon my children to their grisly fate, because I let them look at the toy section and then assumed they had the sense to come and find me? In a supermarket they've had the misfortune to mooch around behind me since they were toddlers? I've done the "could you go and look for broccoli for me, darling?" routine ad nauseam. No, give them some independence!

To me, this epitomises what I am up against as a mother. It was so clear to me that I was supposed to kowtow to the staff with their hysterical 'protocols', and not an ounce of common sense – I knew I was being judged for negligence. A few years ago I would have dissolved into tears after an incident of this kind.

Now I just feel completely cold. I no longer have an emotional reaction appropriate to this degree of mass stupidity. I no longer blame myself, and think that others must be right, that others must know more than I do about safety, caution, stranger danger and basic cognition.

How are my children supposed to grow up into independent people who can think for themselves, negotiate the outside world, use their logic, develop their self-confidence and forge lives, in a culture that thinks a supermarket is as dangerous as a trek to the Himalayas?

Basically I trust my children, I knew that they were safe, and wanted to give my daughter some freedom. On one level I feel she used this independence well: when she wasn't sure, she went for help. On another, ever the Victorian mother, I did tell her off for not following simple instructions, or asking me to explain if she felt unclear.

Yet I feel in a tiny minority. I'm using as a benchmark the degree of independence I had by my daughter's age – and I was mollycoddled by comparison with children around me at the time. I would like her to feel able to walk to the local shops or the library, and use the pedestrian crossing, or even walk to school. I get her to cross over quiet roads constantly. We've just managed to persuade her to cycle, on the pavements. Nevertheless she still clings to me, unable to believe that she has it in her to BE any more independent of me. Thanks, Tescos, for reinforcing that belief in my child.

This is the legacy of little Madeleine McCann's disappearance. Because of her terrible loss, because her loss gave form to our deepest fears, and because it is unresolved, we are all living under an imperative to wrap our children in suffocating cotton wool. We are all supposed to keep our little ones zipped to our sides at all times – and if we do not, we are judged negligent for it. But we are breeding trouble for ourselves.

Do people trust themselves so little?