Friday, 31 January 2014

Getting bruised

I was sitting in a cafe in deepest Suffolk today, tapping away at the book, when a call came through from school.

This is never good news, and almost always means our son has done something to himself.

Last summer term, I had The Call two hours before the end of the school year. He'd fallen on his head, and it needed stitches.

Today, the Teaching Assistant was clearly worried. She had not been able to get hold of my husband by mobile or landline, and she knew I was having some time away, so felt guilty for disturbing me, but felt she had no choice.

Son had fallen in the playground, and hurt his wrist. The TA wasn't sure whether it was serious or not, but there was some swelling, it had been bandaged, and she didn't think it was a good idea he did Forest School. She wanted to know whether I thought he should be picked up early.

Son was hanging about (lapping up the love), and I asked for him to be put on. "It's a blood cell," he importantly assured me, and I said it was probably a good thing for him to stay warm and snug until Daddy came.

Hardheartedly, as I listened to him talking about being able to wiggle his fingers, hand and arm, I thought he was probably just fine, but a bit bruised (spot the self-justification).

They asked if I would email Daddy just to make sure, which I duly did. Daddy duly stopped what he was doing and came back from central London to pick up injured son.

When husband got son home, I suggested he send me a photo.

Injured son

Now, I'm no doctor (well, actually I am, in French literature, but as I can't even say "sprained wrist" in French, there being little call for this vocab in Existentialism or Surrealism, I'll be quiet), but I reckon my right-handed son could probably have remained at school until 3.30pm, despite the severity of this injury.

But helpless at two and a half hours away, what could I do but capitulate to Health and Safety?


The TA I mentioned in this piece also happens to be a fellow mother, a friend of mine with a son in the same year as my daughter.

After reading this post, she got in touch to point out that contacting me was the absolute last resort, knowing that I was away, and that she had not wanted to do it, but staff at the school felt they had no alternative, under pressure because of Health and Safety guidance, however paranoid it seemed.

I felt absolutely terrible that I'd turned an already awkward situation for my friend into something embarrassing by sending it up in a blog post, which was as much self-directed as anything else.

I was trying, poorly, to make a particular point — about the way mothers are so often contacted by schools because fathers' phones are mysteriously turned off. As it happens, my husband was not on important business. He was in central London, buying ingredients to make Dim Sum for Chinese New Year for some friends. Well, he would say that was important business, but the reason his phone was off was just because he was in the Underground.

I also wanted to make a second (to my mind more important) point, that national anxiety about Health and Safety precautions can be taken to extremes which actually impact negatively on a child's learning time in school. On the end of a phone line, I was not able to persuade the school that I was happy for our son to stay there — and in fact actively wanted this outcome. There seemed no way around the implication that I was being a negligent or unfeeling mother if I overrode the school's concerns — even if my intuition from listening to our boy was correct. Which is why, I think, it became personal, when it should have remained procedural. The madness of it all is that when the Tories came to power in 2010, they immediately set about slashing at the Health and Safety advice which had mushroomed under Labour, reducing it to a slim leaflet. I know this because I was writing articles about it for an education information service while it was happening. So my 'common sense' approach makes me, apparently, right wing, just to add insult to injury.

In the end, however, these two points were ultimately swallowed up by the fact that, inadvertently or not, I hurt the feelings of a professional who is also a mother, trying her best to do the right thing for my son.

And that, for me, is Motherload.

I apologise unreservedly. Words hurt.

Thursday, 30 January 2014

A Fire of One's Own

Virginia Woolf famously said that, "a woman must have money and a room of her own if
she is to write fiction" (A Room of One's Own, 1929).

What Mrs Woolf omitted in her description of the ideal writing room for women… was a fire.

When I arrived at my cottage for my month in the country, I thought that coffee would be the main operating principle of the whole shebang.
Survivalist's coffee

I might make a little too much and get the jitters, stay up all night, pen prose in my pyjamas, and feel ferally connected to reality by virtue of the caffeine in my system.

Instead, the great revelation has been the fire.

When I first arrived, I timidly assembled little fires with kindling, and the logs to hand. I copped out and used a fire lighter once, but after that I was off.

The whole cottage gradually filled with warmth, and the beating heart of it was the woodburning stove. I dried my clothes and my trainers in front of it. I ate in front of it. I read in front of it.

When I was a little girl, my father loved to make fires. He stood out in the garden, in his underwear, perilously close to our barn and its wooden beams, stoking enormous bonfires, made out of my mother's garden refuse, with kerosene. He scorched a whole wall of fir trees between our garden and the neighbour's. Unrepentant, he built massive fires in our sitting room. We had an inglenook hearth, big enough to walk into if you stooped, with an iron fire basket and cast iron fireback, a sheaf of wheat embossed upon it. He made fires so hot, it was uncomfortable to stay in the room, and we were eventually driven out to seek coolness elsewhere in the house.

Later I saw black and white photos of my father in the oilfields of Maracaïbo back in the 1950s, hands on hips, or shading his eyes against the sun, great silvery pipes behind him sucking oil out of the marshy ground for Shell, and I understood where his pyromania came from.

Here in the Suffolk countryside, I started walking the lanes, looking for kindling to dry out on top of the stove, revelling in the fact that there was no man to admonish me with dire warnings that it would all go up in smoke. I dragged whole pine branches back to my lair and set them alight. Some were too long for the fireplace, and so I burnt half of them, with the other end sticking out and propped up on a carefully-positioned bucket, the poker levered against the door to keep it as tightly closed as possible. I knew my physics would come in handy one day.

I was getting through rather a lot of logs, I noticed, so I decided to replenish. I managed to locate a local supplier, who told me he'd call me back when he'd worked out deliveries, and that it might be a few days. The lorry turned up at 8.30am the next day. Thank goodness I'd had a shower.

I'd been expecting a cubic metre of wood in a cubic metre sized dump bag, which I'd imagined a burly woodsman toting across the lawn to the woodshed for me.

What arrived was a truck with a load of logs thrown in the back. As I watched, the driver activated the hydraulic lifts, and tipped a cubic metre of wood onto the cottage drive.

As I hauled the logs across the grass to the woodshed by myself, and set about stacking the logs, as if I were stacking a bookshelf, with precision and in height order, it occurred to me that the process of sorting out my fire and its fuel was not dissimilar to what I was struggling with indoors.

Now that I have reached the middle part of the book I'm trying to write, the part which has been blocking me for years now, I have started, in my procrastination, to burn the various pages and sheets which are no longer useful to me. These are sometimes duplicates of other sheets, or I have already drafted the things they are referring to, and am now happy with them — they are finished business. Page by page, I feed the redundant sheets into the fire. Although the draft I'm writing is probably not finished, I'm done with the earliest versions.

I'm aware that I'm not really making forward progress with the book, but it has given me deep satisfaction to slim down the paperwork I hauled to the cottage with me on the train. My book's administration system, its ponderous heaviness, has given way to just a few sheets on the table beside me.

What is now left is the very core of the book, the raw problem which I have been running away from for so long. It is the many people whose words I have carefully taken down in interviews, and whose stories I am going to have to edit in order to make them work as part of the story I am trying to tell. I have laid out these interviews on the ground, in little groups, as though they are sitting in a cafe chatting to each other.

I am afraid of selection, afraid of editing, afraid of its cruelty and potential for loss. I prefer digression, frittering, embroidering. I don't like interrupting other people.

But I am too aware of another of Woolf's hardline but all too accurate comments.

Less famously in A Room of One's Own, Woolf also says, "give her a room of her own and five hundred a year, let her speak her mind and leave out half that she now puts in, and she will write a better book one of these days".

Never take the fire for granted.

Monday, 27 January 2014

Take a walk on the wild side

I am not known for my rambling. 

But I know that a ford is not just a make of car.

And I know that I eat these. 

I think this was a public footpath. 

It has been raining a lot, and it is very muddy. 

The way back to London. 

Nature, red in tooth. 

A phallic bud. 

Another Year

I sat and watched Another Year (Mike Leigh, 2010) yesterday, because it was Sunday, I'd done my writing for the day, I'd fixed myself Sunday lunch on a tray, and I needed a way not to miss the family.

Possibly not the best choice, then, a Mike Leigh film. I was intrigued by the Imelda Staunton cameo at the beginning, and thought it was going to be a story about counselling. However, Imelda turns out to be a red herring, sadly, or perhaps a framing device. Her cameo appearance represents the professional life of the main protagonist, Gerri, a counsellor.

The four-seasons structure Leigh uses, around the life of an allotment (our allotted life, its circularity, its cyclicality) is a very old trope. It would shade into unbearable saccharine cliché, were it not that in Mike Leigh's hands, cliché itself is something to turn over in your hands, of which to scratch the surface, flake off a little dust.

The allotment gives Gerri and her husband Tom produce and pleasure all year round. They sit in their three-sided shed, drinking tea from a thermos and watching the rain come down, close together, monosyllabic. Tom is an geologist and engineer who loves his job, looking at London clay, and repairing the Victorian sewer system. Gerri loves her own work, and they have a grown son, Joe, who is as wry and self-effacing as his father, and who comes to visit them from time to time. Their kitchen is filled with comfortable pottery, wooden shelves, old Dutch tea and coffee drawers mounted on the wall (I'd kill for one, wherever did they get it?), plants everywhere. They are a happy family. Nothing much else to say — their contentment contains them.

This portrait, like a Vermeer, is unusual in its own right – for happiness and contentment are as dull as  used shammy leather to others. Drama is usually produced through conflict or lack, so Leigh is inverting the dramatic norm simply by observing this couple nearing retirement.

As the film unfolds, however, we find that Leigh's preoccupation is precisely with duration versus drama. Tom and Gerri have longstanding friendships with Mary from Gerri's work, and Ken, an old friend of Tom's. The lives of these two individuals has not worked out so well. They are both single, semi-alcoholic, and desperately lonely. They visit Tom and Gerri at different times, and end up crying on their shoulders. The couple comfort them and do not judge. We find ourselves hoping that perhaps Mary and Ken will get together. When they finally meet, however, Ken's terrible neediness repels Mary.

The two climaxes of the film occur close together. Tom and Gerri's son brings home a girlfriend, who is immediately accepted into the clan. When Mary comes for dinner, she realises that the place she has made for herself, based on need and pity, has been usurped by another happy woman. She is unable to contain her jealousy, and lashes out at the new girlfriend.

Soon after, it is winter, and we see a shot of the family Volvo, from above, travelling North up a black motorway, snow to either side. We know instantly that someone has died, even before Leigh cuts to black ties against white shirts. We assume it will be Ken, who looks throughout the film as though he's about to have a heart attack. But it is Tom's brother, Ronnie, who has lost his wife. Ronnie's estranged son nearly misses his mother's humble cremation, and belligerently ruins the wake. Tom and Gerri take Ronnie back to London with them for a rest.

In the final scene, Mary, who has not been invited back since her jealous outburst, drops round to find Ronnie alone. It is clear that she is near breaking point. The car she had bought to give her independence has broken down and had to be towed for scrap. She is underdressed for winter and is shivering on the doorstep. She has been drinking ever more heavily.

In a beautiful sequence, she and Ronnie smoke rollups in the darkening, blue-lit conservatory. Through Mary's timid questions, we discover that Ronnie loves Elvis — in her bedraggled state, and pity for another, she draws more out of him than any other character in the film.

The film ends with Mary begrudgingly invited to stay — Gerri tells her friend that she must seek professional help — "you need to take responsibility, you'll be much happier", and warns Mary not to interfere with her family. As the camera travels slowly around the dinner table, we listen to Tom and Gerri telling stories about their early years of travel and optimism. They are speaking about themselves and their personal history for the first time in the film. They echo and reflect the happiness their son and prospective daughter-in-law feel, and draw a circle of shared experience tight around the four of them, as Mary and Ronnie sit silently looking on.

In some reviews, the character of Mary has been seen as ambiguously both a misogynist representation of a lonely single woman, and a sympathetic portrait of some of the intractable difficulties that single women face in contemporary society. Mary is both contained by, but also messily exceeds, her adoptive family: she burrows into them for warmth, perpetually and  indiscriminately hugging Tom and Tom's son, flirting with Joe, yet also talking to him like an aunt. She draws noisy attention to her faults when she arrives late to a family summer barbecue, disrupting everyone. She needs to be put to bed in Tom and Gerri's son's old room, when she drinks too much to go home. She is a child-woman, unable to assume adulthood. Has she not grown up because she has not had a child, or has she not had a child because she has not grown up? The chiasmus bats her back and forth.

It was certainly excruciating to watch some of her drunken confessional scenes, and to draw parallels with feelings I undeniably experienced as a single woman. What was more painful was to watch Gerri, who at points seemed silently disapproving, judgemental and smug, safe in her marital cocoon.

It seems to me that Leigh has very brilliantly and uncomfortably allowed us to look at this dynamic between married and single women — his slow, extended takes and intense focus on interiors and faces seems to echo Gerri's professional work as a counsellor, but he also allows us to see more than Gerri does.

Is Tom and Gerri's the only definition of happiness? Their lives, frankly, look unbelievably boring to the onlooker — it is their stability, their certainty, that we envy. And yet, what motivates their inclusion of Mary and Ken? Does pitying unhappy people shore up or even create their contentment?

Sunday, 26 January 2014

Falling out of love with yourself

This was the thing he never understood: yes, he would give me time to work when I demanded it, but my time was considered to belong to our family unit unless I signalled that I wanted out. His time was considered to  belong to himself and his work unless I demanded that he opt in.  
Even the nice ones don't understand what this is like. ' What's the problem?' They say it sadly, trying to do the right thing. 'All you have to do is ask...'
I did not fall out of love with him at any stage.  I did not fall out of love with our lives here, in this house, with the world we had built around us… I fell out of love with the way I had coped, over the years, with the hard work I had done, the sacrifices I had made… if I fell out of love with anything it was with that competence of mine. I fell out of love with myself. 

Apple Tree Yard, Louise Doughty

A friend of mine told me about the thriller Apple Tree Yard the other day, and sent me these quotations from it. We often talk about being working mothers and what it means. I found the quotations as unsettling as my friend. 

How clearly recognisable the first quotation is — how neatly a mother's time is constructed for her: 'my time was considered to belong to our family unit unless I signalled that I wanted out'. And, conversely, how rationally, and consequentially, paternal time is defined: 'His time was considered to belong to himself and his work unless I demanded that he opt in'. 

There is such a complicated play going on between the female author and the character, here speaking in the first person. Where does this partitioning come from — the author's imagination? Her character's? From real life observation? There are no statistics here, no clear proof. Yet I'll wager that every woman reading this will understand Louise Doughty's words and will nod their heads. 

Was considered by whom? That's ideology at work. That mesh of opinions, judgements, comments, from which each of us draws out individual identities, like candy floss, trying to find reflections of ourselves in society, seeking approval and acceptance. 

For mothers, that apparently, inviolably, naturally means 'belonging' to the children we bear and the families we thereby create. 

Mothers are caught on the barbed wire of that enclosure, in fact we are that enclosure. We create it, nurture it, bound it, protect it, and cannot escape from it. We turn ourselves into the barbed wire of belonging.

It is up to each individual woman to patrol and staff that enclosure, and it takes enormous strength to delegate that work to another, even if it is the father. But why is that? Why do we not trust anyone else to look after our cubs? Why has social evolution not pulled us beyond such a primitive, animalistic instinct? And why are we so concerned with patrolling other women's enclosures, making sure that all is right with the world?

When, at the end of the novel, the protagonist explains how she came to have an affair, here is the fascinating way the author expresses it:
 I fell out of love with the way I had coped, over the years, with the hard work I had done, the sacrifices I had made… if I fell out of love with anything it was with that competence of mine. I fell out of love with myself. 
Competence. She seems to elide 'competence' and 'myself', as if, over the years, whoever she once was had eroded into a remnant of mere management, like a dissolving crystal, or a sandy cliff pummelled by the tide. 

By contrast, the following sentence, 'I fell out of love with myself',  feels like a false note to me. It begs the question, was she ever in love with herself? Or again, was there ever a stable self with which to have fallen in love?

What is so difficult, so all-engulfing about becoming a mother, at least in my experience, is that it so crudely exposes that we — humans —are flux in a tide, we are ever-changing. The selves we thought we were are shown to be so much cardboard construction. What is demanded by motherhood is a plastic, protean identity that can move and shift with each day that passes. In becoming mothers, we find that we are not — and never were — a fixed point, looking out on time passing from the safety of a stable identity, like a little car driving through pelting rain with its wipers going. We turn out to be globular, organic, tentacular, feathery instantiations of time, attaching our minds and bodies wherever we can, then loosening, and floating off again in the wake of the new creatures we have created. 

The trouble is how to fit that truth into school runs, trips to the supermarket, endless school concerts, homework, universal child benefit, welfare to work and all the rest of it. 

Saturday, 25 January 2014

Empathy: A Handbook for Revolution

Roman Krznaric has published a new book called Empathy: A Handbook for Revolution.

I feel like crying.

Everything that he says is, of course, correct.

We are evolved to develop empathic skills by the age of around three.

Empathy, the art of listening and putting one's self in the place of another, is crucial to conflict resolution, whether in marriage, the workplace or in parenting.

I have myself practised an artificial empathy when trying to prevent myself from screaming at my children — he cites the parenting book How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk, from which I learnt to stop, look and listen when my children were acting out, and try to understand what they were feeling, through asking them intuitive questions.

Often, in my experience, you can feel what another is feeling by monitoring the tension levels in your own body. If you start to feel stressed and anxious, ten to one it is not your own feeling, but the feelings of someone close by, someone you care about, and someone who is not speaking about their feelings, but transmitting them nonetheless.

Using an empathic technique, especially in situations in which my own feelings have run away with me (pretty much always around something the children are doing — I've learnt to smile over what most adults do), has been a very handy tool. However it also makes me feel controlling, manipulative and unspontaneous, as if I am playing a role. Perhaps I am, and the payoff in reconciliation is worth it. Perhaps I just have to accept that, as a reflexive adult, I can suspend my own emotions while I engage with a child's, even if it's through a learnt technique. The paradox is that you need to be engaged with your emotions in order to intuit another's. So I don't really know how empathy works. If I can act empathic, am I being empathic?

Oddly, my children are very empathic to others, but totally, brutally resistant to my husband and I.

I, like Krznaric, have come to talk to strangers wherever I go, as a conscious metropolitan survival strategy. Since having children, and encountering the way they solicit social engagement wherever they go, I have decided that I want to cash in on their immense optimism and trust. It's a game, like your own personal Happening, or improv. It's precisely because Londoners tend to be very withdrawn and suspicious of social contact, that I have stubbornly brought my provincial roots with me, and gaily make a complete fool of myself, chatting about nonsense on buses, in supermarkets, and in queues. My children are horribly embarrassed by this behaviour, but I persist, because I get a fantastic hit rate of successful responses, smiles, stories and high points in my day.

When I was younger I would, naturally, have edged away from myself.

So it's not that Roman Krznaric is wrong, of course he isn't. What makes me what to cry is that what he is arguing is what is expected, as a matter of course, of women.

Empathic skills have traditionally been foisted on the Fair Sex, particularly on mothers, as their version of having a mind. Not to acknowledge this is to re-write cultural and psychological history, effacing the very contribution demanded of half its participants.

No one is arguing with Krznaric. But equally, no one is listening to mothers.

Friday, 24 January 2014

Farmers' Market

This morning was the weekly Farmers' Market in the local small town. I had been writing and felt like a change, so walked the mile or so along the side of the field to the town, and found the market in the old Town Hall.

In London, Farmers' Markets are as full as art galleries, cinemas and restaurants. They are places to be seen. You go to them to display your localist credentials. We go to them so that we don't need to sit down at a table to eat goodies. "Look, darling, that's what a real turnip looks like! Don't worry, we're not going to buy one, Mummy doesn't like them either. Now, where are the sausages in buns?"

I was the only customer at the Farmers' Market in Suffolk. There were four trestle tables lined up in the hall, its raised stage at the far end fringed with tired brown curtains. Every word I uttered boomed around the place as if I were Queen Mary come to launch a ship. I felt compelled to buy something from every stall. At one point I heard myself say, "How's trade?"

Scuttling out, I looked for a place to sit and write a card to my daughter, and found a sunny bench. Cars passed slowly, their occupants staring at me as I wrote in the sun.

Two days before, on my previous excursion, the local Barclays had been shut, notices taped to its cash machine and door, talking of 'circumstances beyond their control'. It had been a grey and chilly day, all the other shops had also seemed shut, hunkering down for warmth, and I all but saw tumbleweed blow past.

Today there were people out, as well as the sun. I popped into the other bank, the one next door. "Stupid question," I said, "but can you bank a cheque here if your usual bank isn't around?" "Next door is a Barclays," said the cashier, helpfully. "Oh, it's shut down — I saw yesterday," said I, gaily. The woman looked astonished. "Shut down? I didn't know that!" she said. I popped brightly out to have another look. The Barclays was open for business and full of one happy customer. I popped back into the bank next door. "Silly me! It's open again, just shut for a day, you see? Really was a stupid question, wasn't it?" I laughed blithely at my own silliness. The cashier looked down at some papers she was working on.

Next I saw a sign for a mobile bakery, and sped off to buy pastries. Across the courtyard was a mobile fish van. 'Darren Smith Fishmongers,' read the blue and read sign in swirling script.

When I was growing up in Norwich in the latter years of the 1980s, a young man started to drive a van round, delivering fresh fish. He was a year or so younger than I was, a tall, good-looking man, just setting up in life. Mum bought hot smoked salmon, and sometimes Cromer crab, off the back of the van, packed with ice. The fish lay on the ice as though on diamond-encrusted cushions. Skate, scallops, cod, salmon, trout. Whenever I came back to see Mum over the ensuing years, I nearly always coincided with the Fish Man. Every time I made the same joke to her, "The Fish Man cometh". I used to pad out, hobbling barefoot on the gravel in the drive, on my weekend's break. I fetched the washing up bowl, with the money in it under a stone, that Mum would have left in the garage for him, if she was going to be out. He and I used to make small talk, exchange snippets of our lives. His children, my children. He followed my mother when she finally moved house, after my father had started his slow decline into dementia.

This year, my mother moved to Cardiff, to be closer to my brother, and to be in a town within walking distance of shops. She can walk to a supermarket to buy fish now.

The woman running the stall in the little town in Suffolk was the Fish Man's wife.

Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Country Matters

I got bored of writing at about 3pm today, and decided to have an excursion. First, I went to gather kindling from the paths around the cottage. Then I walked to the little town close by. Here I am, being W.G. Sebald:

What I really did was walk to Waitrose. Of course I did, for this is the country, and I am from the city. I also went to Waitrose because the little town was completely deserted at 4pm and every single one of its shops appeared to be shut. Into the brilliantly-lit Waitrose cathedral I went, grateful for all its comforting condiments, tortillas, eighteen kinds of honey and 10% off with its store card. There's no place like home.

At the checkout, the conveyor belt would not move. My stuff sat forlorn in the middle of the strip. The checkout lady bashed at big red buttons, muttered, got a colleague over. They peered at it together, and had a laugh about not breaking the equipment. Then she asked if I wouldn't mind pushing all my stuff down towards her.

I jovially packed my wares, and enquired whether I could claim my free coffee. In London you get this yourself, from a semi-permanently broken machine, with a long queue of tutting shoppers if it is working. In Suffolk, there is a whole cafe area, and waitresses make the brew for you in real time. The two of them, with identical thin blonde ponytails, chatted amiably together about someone else's two-week holiday in Turkey, during which apparently she hadn't been able to eat a thing, and had been as sick as a dog, and popped my coffee down in a glass without missing a beat.

I suddenly looked up and saw it was getting dark. Gathering my shopping together, I walked outside. Past the closed gift card and framing shop, past the Chinese Fish and Chip Shop, past the flooring shop to the edge of town. There was a narrow strip of pavement, barely visible, and I walked quite fast along it. The street lighting gave out as soon as the shops ended. Cars roared past in the twilight. I felt self-conscious, strutting along in my parka, with my two bags.

At the turn towards the tiny hamlet, it was pitch black. Even though there were houses, nothing was lit. At every set of oncoming headlights, I made for the ditch like a rabbit. My eyes must have glowed at the drivers.

We have made paths everywhere, networks of paths that crisscross fields. Some of them we have paved and enlarged. We moved along those paths under our own steam until we found ways of harnessing first animals, and then mechanical vehicles, to move us faster. Then we found sources of energy that were faster than we or animals were, and we understood that we could make that energy travel along conducting paths made out of wire. So we installed those networks everywhere too, following the old pathways. This meant we could bring more of the world into the light, and push back the frightening darkness, at least in the cities. Now we are able to transmit packets of data using yet another form of energy. We can construct rapid networks of the mind while sitting still — I know you, and you know her, and I met her, so I can connect with her. Only our mental energy is used in this network. It makes us seem immortal. We stay indoors. We do not need light outside. We do not need to move, or if we do, we can fall back on the old form of motorised transport, even if it uses a dirty fuel. It takes its light with it. My dark body, back on a Suffolk side road, was a lumpen, organic liability.

Without a car, I won't be going out again after dusk. 

Between self-help and total social revolution

The other day I was announcing the fact that I'd wangled a month in the country to write a book. Usually there are very few comments on my blog — but this post was somehow noticed by Mumsnet, and then caused a micro-ripple in the blogosphere. 

The gist of the post was that I had felt the ire and judgement of people when I told them I was going away, and had assumed they thought I was a bad mother for leaving my duties for such a long time. 

But the comments were an absolute revelation — people were not judging, they simply felt jealous

I'll write about jealousy another time, but in the heat of the moment, this is what I felt, and wrote as a comment. 

I saw afterwards that it's really the heart of the book I am trying to write:
Oh no! the last thing I want to inspire is jealousy — I want everyone to find a way to do whatever it is they need to be happy. 
— Part of that is a serious critique of the ideologies governing life in Britain now. 
— Part of it is working out ways to challenge the remarkably limiting status quo, subverting it if full scale change is not possible. 
— Part of it is trying to refind some sense of solidarity rather than the loneliness and alienation I currently feel (not through being alone in a cottage, but through being trapped in the contemporary notion of what a mother is and does). 
— Part of it is overcoming the barriers I myself throw up, and hear others throwing up, to positive change, and dealing with the fear of failure — or the acceptance of failure if it comes. 
What I'm trying to do is somewhere between self-help and total social revolution by peaceful means. 
Proust is the greatest analyst of jealousy and envy there is, and he understands they are both acids, one that corrodes our capacity to love, the other that corrodes our capacity to create. At best they form the alloy admiration, which we can use to inspire ourselves, but which itself threatens to compound our feelings of worthlessness. I don't want anyone to feel jealous. I just want people to start their own guerrilla campaign for personal freedom.
I guess I'm taking my own medicine.

Monday, 20 January 2014

A Month in the Country!


This is the main reaction I received to the news that I was going away for a month to write a book (about motherhood, as it happens). 

I couldn't work out whether it was men or women who were more likely to stare in incredulity. As if I was leaving my children on a frozen hillside, or having an affair with a well-known politician.

Of course there were some people who got it (I think), who didn't react with a quickly-suppressed cough of scandal in their throats. These people said, “Go for it, just make it worthwhile, get that book written already! How brilliant that you've got a room of your own!”

Of course it’s the doubtful and silent judgers I believe. Yes yes, it’s wrong to go, I should be safely at home, doing the washing, shopping for the endless routine of children’s teas, monitoring the activities, the homework, the notes home from school, the Forest Schools equipment, doing the Guides run, making inane conversation at drop off and pick up, feeling bad about my ageing body, trying not to mind as friends achieve success, income, status around me. I’m not supposed to want more than I have — a loving husband, two beautiful children, a nice little home. Wanting more is greedy, unseemly, self-indulgent, immoral, ungrateful, negligent, puts too much pressure on the family, and must be punished.

Do I just imagine these thoughts behind their eyes? Are these thoughts merely phantoms of my own guilty conscience? Is the English language more Chinese than it realises — does one word signify multiple, completely different things, depending on tone? “A MONTH!?” It is undecidable. No one ever tells the truth.

Perhaps the only thing I am clear on is that I simply don't feel the guilt I know I am supposed to. Nor do I feel I "deserve" to have this month. I'm afraid I just want to work, I just want to be by myself, thinking and mulling, and putting stuff down on paper, feeling rubbish when it goes wrong, throwing stuff away, having inspirations and being overwhelmed. Like a writer.

My husband, meanwhile, is being congratulated as a hero, the best husband imaginable (and that’s true, except that he leaves his pants on the floor and snores (not at the same time)), for "giving his wife this opportunity". Actually, it was a negotiated settlement.

When he went to China for a month, towards the end of last year, no one batted an eyelid. A few friends asked me how I was getting on (fine, if you want to know). It never occurred to anyone to say, “How could he leave his wife and children for so long, just for work, that’s ridiculous!” In fact, the opposite was true — he was also a hero for going away, because he was earning money to keep the family. 

In other news, what I've actually come to write about is THIS:
Just some of my many Motherload books.
I threw away the What to Expect lot. 

Look at those titles: Working Mother, A Good Childhood, Shattered, Torn in Two, Mommy Wars, The Bitch in the House, Tiger Mother, I Don't Know Why She Bothers… 

These are the titles that glare disapprovingly down at me as I try to write at home. A row of upright, big sisterly spines, that all proclaim they know better than I do how to be a mother, how to work, how hard to work, how to work hard, how hard it is to be a mother, how a mother shouldn't be trying so hard — enough

I think that quite a few of those books were written by women who had got through their children's early childhood, and were damned if anyone was going to get away without learning a thing or two about how tough life as a mother really is.

Well, I'm not going to add to the pile. I'm going to write a book about pleasure. About happiness. About joy. About experimentation. About looking closely at one's lived experience, and testing the theoretical frameworks we are told to live by. About deliberately failing the contrived expectations of contemporary Western society — not by going to live in the woods and daubing myself in woad, but by living up to my own expectations. Which, as it happens, are pretty high. I invite you all to be subversive mothers.