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Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Cutting the Apron Strings

The Jane Shilling memoir I read a while back and reviewed here  got me  thinking about the process of letting children grow go, and what a complicated and intricate business it is.  We might think we have, but have we, can we? 
So, I thought I'd put together some questions, to see how well I was doing at letting my fledglings fly.    

1.       You are going back to work, leaving your baby with a childminder for the first time.  Do you:

a)      Fuss over him, eventually ringing the office to say you’ll have to start the next day?

b)      Throw your arms up in triumph – at last, the first bit of freedom you’ve had in six months?

c)       Leave quickly, and fall apart in the car.  You’re a thousand times more upset than he is?

2.       Your sixteen year old starts going out with a man your own age?  Do you:

 a)      Lock her in her bedroom at night, and insist on chaperoning her to school?

b)      Move out of your own bedroom on the grounds that he’ll be wanting the ensuite?

c)       Leave magazine articles around the house featuring Ron Wood and Hugh Hefner?

3.       How do you respond when your seven year old comes home from school and says everyone’s been invited Rosa’s party, except her – do you:

a)      Ring up all the parents involved, insist on a meeting with the families, the teacher, the head teacher, social services, the police and the local press?

b)      Tell her to get a grip.  When you were a kid, no one even had parties?

c)       Ask her if there’s anything else she’d like to do that day, and keep your sleepless, weeping nights to yourself, and make a mental note not to invite that child back?

4.       Your fifteen year old son wants to go on holiday with his mates, but he’s got no money.  Do you:
a)      Say absolutely not.  Holidays are for families? 

b)      Give him a few hundred quid, and say go and enjoy yourself.  It means seven days without him – that’s too good an offer to miss?

c)       Tell him you can find him plenty of work, weeding, chopping wood, mowing grass, cleaning bathroom and will pay him £3 per hour.  When he argues minimum wage, you remind him he’s too young to qualify but you agree to the rise if he gets on with the job without moaning.  Then you round up the hours from 3 to 6, and give him a bit extra because you can't believe he’s done such a good job?

5.       Your daughter makes an appointment to see the doctor, without reference to you.  Do you:

a)      Ring the nurse, she’s the cousin of your next door neighbour’s best friend.  She’s bound to be able to find out what the problem is?

b)      Ask her outright – you’re her mother, you have a right to know?

c)       Say nothing unless invited?  Actually, you've got no choice.

6.       Your firstborn is nearly at the end of the first year of college.  Do you:

a)      Ring the tutor to check his coursework’s in on time and ask when the parents’ evening is?

b)      Sell the house, move into a one bed apartment somewhere exotic and far away?

c)       Pay their rent.  Given a choice, you’d rather they were hungry than homeless? 

7.       Your daughter will get the sack if she’s late again, and she’ll be late again if you don’t give her a lift.  Do you:

a)      Take her, even though it’ll make you late for your own job.  It’s your fault for not waking her earlier?

b)      Refuse, she had it coming?

c)      Take her, but make your irritation so clear she’ll never want to go anywhere with you and then charge her for the petrol?

8.       Your thirteen year old has been invited to a party where you know there’ll be alcohol.  Do you:

a)      On no account can she go, whatever promises she makes, whatever adults will be present, however important it is to her in terms of her friendship group.  No, that’s final.

b)      Tuck a bottle of vodka in her handbag?

c)      You don’t want to say no, because that will make her even more determined.  You don't want to sanction it by offering her a lift home, but you don't want her getting in some drunk teenage boy's car.  You don't want her staying the night, but it could be safer than coming back.  You ring another kid's mum to find out what they think.  They think the same as you.  Relax, look on the bright side.  The fact that she's told you where she's going is as much as you can expect.  And you won’t discover the half of what she’s got up to until she’s well into adulthood. 

How did you do?

Mostly a)  Your child will be tied to your apron strings till he’s 60.  Either that or you’re in for some serious fireworks.  Neither of these options is pretty.

Mostly b)  Remind me again, why did you have children in the first place?

Mostly c)   Sometimes you get it wrong, sometimes you get it right.  They'll survive, and hopefully you will too.

Friday, 24 June 2011

The First Love Story

Fantastic, I see that the poet, Glyn Maxwell has been commissioned to turn Paradise Lost into an Opera.
I am not a fan of Opera.  I think perhaps it’s one of those early immersion pursuits and I’ve left it too late – it’s also dashed expensive - but I am a fan of Paradise Lost.  I feel about Milton very similarly to the way I feel about Bob Dylan - prepared to snap up greedily pretty much anything by or about, even if a lot of it misfires.

James Barry
Satan and his legions hurling defiance towards
the Vault of Heaven

I did book two for A Level.  It’s really good stuff.  Satan has been expelled from Heaven for insurrectional activities against God and he’s not happy about it at all.  Apart from the discomfort of the eternal fire, his pride is hurt.  His real torture is internal – a mind game that he’ll be playing till the end of time, destined to rebel, but knowing his attempt will come to nothing.  That’s why he picks on Adam and Eve.  If he can’t hurt God, then at least he can have a go at destroying God’s toys.

I won't deny some of it is boring.  For instance, the part where a sanctimonious Son of God chats with his Father about how man will fall and then be saved (by a sanctimonious Son of God), and Raphael telling Adam how the angels were thrown out of heaven - well it's not exactly Stephen King - but they are worth it to get to the parts that are, as Maxwell says, “I mean just – wow!”

To start with, there's the description of the Creation, (anyone who’s not prepared to accept the importance of this story, even as a myth, look away now). 

Let there be light, said God, and forthwith light
Ethereal, first of things, quintessence pure
Sprung from the deep, and from her native east
To journey through the airy gloom began,
Sphered in a radiant cloud, for yet the sun
Was not; she in a cloudy tabernacle
Sojourned the while.  God saw the light was good;
And light from darkness by the hemisphere
Divided: light the day, and darkness night
He named.  Thus was the first day even and morn. 

Don't you think it makes the King James version read a bit like Janet and John?   

But Milton's triumph is to turn the Fall into the first love story.  Adam and Eve, blissful in Paradise, are tricked  by Satan.  Where the bible can only offer illogic or at best misogyny, Milton’s first couple fall because of the very instincts that make them human.  Eve is moved by her boredom as Adam’s sidekick, and he is persuaded by love.  There are so many passages I’d like to quote – Adam and Eve’s canoodling in the garden; her convincing him she wants to go further afield and get on with the gardening on her own; his reluctance, but he won’t forbid it:

Go, in thy native innocence, rely 
On what thou hast of virtue, summon all.  

But the passage I love above all the rest, that makes me weep every time I read it, is this.  It’s the moment when Eve returns from taking the apple and tells Adam what’s she’s done.  And then this:

Lucas Cranach  Adam and Eve

Adam, soon as he heard
The fatal trespass done by Eve, amazed,
Astonie stood and blank, while horror chill
Ran through his veins, and all his joints relaxed;
From his slack hand the garland wreathed for Eve
Down dropped and all the faded roses shed:
I was going to stop there, but just look at what happens next:

Speechless he stood and pale, till thus at length
First to himself he inward silence broke.
                O fairest of creation, last and best
Of all God’s works, creature in whom excelled
Whatever can to sight or thought be formed,
Holy, divine, good, amiable or sweet!
How art though lost, how on a sudden lost,
Defaced, deflowered, and now to death devote?

Adam and Eve expelled from Paradise

Adam has a choice:  Stay in paradise, eating mangoes and talking with the tame tiger, or disobey God and face death with Eve.  You’d think he’d want a few moments to make up his mind, after all he’s only known her a few days, but it takes him five lines:

Certain my resolution is to die;
How can I live without thee, how forgo
Thy sweet converse and love so dearly joined,
To live again in these wild woods forlorn?
Should God create another Eve, and I
Another rib afford, yet loss of thee
Would never from my heart; no no, I feel
The link of nature draw me: flesh of flesh,
Bone of my bone thou art, and from thy state
Mine never shall be parted, bliss or woe.

It’s tempting but cheapening it to say it’s Hollywood.  Opera is exactly the right medium.  And I like the sound of what Maxwell’s done to it.  But there is nothing, absolutely nothing, to beat the original. 

Thursday, 23 June 2011

Another big mess the Tories are getting us into

I am dismayed that Ken Clarke’s modernising proposals for criminal justice have been shelved – if only the subject could be aired in a civilised and rational way, preferably with a gagging order on the Daily Mail, it might  have stood a chance.  But perhaps even more serious, are the proposed cuts to the Legal Aid budget which might save the Treasury £350m, but it will impoverish the country way beyond that saving.
The Justice Secretary says that legal aid will still be available for claims where people’s life or liberty is at stake, where they are at risk of serious physical harm, or immediate loss of their home, or where their children may be taken into care.  That’s certainly reassuring, but let’s just imagine a few other scenarios where it won’t any longer be available:

A woman goes into hospital for a routine hip replacement, contracts gangrene through the hospital’s negligence, which then requires further operations to rectify, resulting in a much longer recovery period, with considerable loss of earnings, and possibly a permanent disability requiring extra care and support, not to mention months, or years of further pain and suffering.

A building firm fails to erect its scaffolding properly and a worker falls, breaking his arm.  He’s an independent contractor, so if he can’t work, he isn’t paid.  It takes him 3 months to get fit to return. 

You’re a plumber and were contracted to do a lot of work on a flats conversion project.  You’ve been engaged in it for the best part of a year.  None of your invoices have been paid, you’ve been fobbed off with excuse after excuse and now you’ve had enough.  You threatened to take him to court and now the builder turns round and says your work was substandard.
There are thousands of scenarios like this, and more controversial ones – cases involving immigration, race, sex, disability discrimination, family cases where parents are locked into disputes over the children. 

Assuming you don’t have the money to take the case to court, you will have two choices – just put up with the injustice you’ve suffered, or try to do it yourself.  And this is where the proposals really fall down.  Countries that spend less on legal aid, spend considerably more on the court system, providing supporters, assistance and guidance to litigants in person to help them through the process.  That doesn’t happen here.  Litigants up till recently have been represented by someone who knows that they are doing, who speaks the language and understands the processes.  Litigants in person require a huge amount of hand holding.  Some judges will be prepared to help these people, but the net effect will be even more of a backlog, less certainty on timings, a clogging up of the system, which will, of course mean more costs.  Judge’s time doesn’t come cheap.
But the biggest loss will be to the moral and ethical foundation of the country; the UK will become a place where only the wealthy can enforce their rights. The victims of these cuts are ordinary people to whom bad things have happened, out of the blue, through no fault of their own.  They are not scroungers, they aren’t greedy, self-serving representatives of the litigation culture who will claim a few quid for stubbing their toe on the pavement, and we must not let the government, of the Daily Mail, persuade us that they are.   Think again, you Tories.  This is a crazy mistake.

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Another cushion

This is my latest cushion creation, a present for my daughter's 19th birthday (yes, that daughter).  It's not a great reproduction, it looks better in the flesh.

The baby is Imogen at two, when she sang Maria from West Side Story all the way to the Loire, well, all the times she wasn't sucking on that tee shirt - the blue one it was called, but it was really a sort of dirty grey.  Later she played the pious nun (ironically), in the Sound of Music. 

In the background are the seven hills of Sheffield where she's off to university in September.  Also are car jokes, diving jokes, an Ahead Only sign (meaning onwards and upwards rather than don't come back), and a piece of pure joyous poetry from our mutually favourite genius.  It says:

May your heart always be joyful
May your song always be sung
And may you stay forever young

It's felt and fabric applique, embroidery, and as a homage to Tracey Emin, laundry marker on an scrap of sheet for the Dylan quote.

She loved it.

Monday, 20 June 2011

What is wrong with the Church of England?

Today’s proclamation by the  Church of England  that it will tolerate the proposition of an openly gay bishop appals and revolts me.  The reason it revolts me is because a gay bishop’s elevation is conditional on his repentance of previous homosexual activity, and a promise to never do it again.  It is a mealy-mouthed, resentful nod to current legislation rather than a decision made on the principles of modernisation, humanity and common sense.  What they are saying is this: it’s okay for a man to have sexual feelings towards another man (we are talking about men here, the church has parked the question of women bishops to at least 2012); but it’s not okay for him to act on them.

Frankly, I would rather have a redneck evangelical or a fundamentalist Muslim declaring that homosexuality is the stain of the devil, and that such sinners must be either cured or condemned, than this squeamish faint-hearted hypocrisy.  

Apart from the irrationality in this approach (either the Bible says homosexuality is okay, in which case, bring on gay bishops, or it doesn’t, in which case, if you really believe the Bible is actually the word of God, then tell them no), it’s what the Church of England’s decision says about its attitude to sex in general that merits picking over.

A few years ago, the Church could have hidden behind the argument that sex should only take place within the context of a monogamous and committed relationship, banning openly gay  bishops on the grounds that they are statistically likely to be promiscuous (I haven’t researched this, but I’m sure it would've been possible to come up with something).  For consistency’s sake, they’d have to have considered extending the ban to unmarried straight men, too.  But since Civil Partnerships became the law in 2004 this argument is no longer available.

So, is it because the church says that sex is for the procreation of children?  Some religions do - Catholics for instance, the ones who don’t agree with contraception even in the face of critical over population, poverty and AIDS, but as far as I’m aware this hasn’t been a big part of the C of E platform.  As far as I recall, I’ve also  not known the Synod to declare a ban on the ordination of married bishops who’ve decided they don’t want, or already have enough, children.  Sex for fun then, it must be supposed, is tolerated amongst the straight male clergy.

So it gets back to the basic bad wrongness of homosexual sex, and this irrationality at the centre of the decision – that a gay man isn’t an abomination in the eyes of God (I'm deducing this from the fact that he can be made a bishop) but if he acts on his desires, he is, which to me is just the same as saying that being gay is wrong.  And for my money, I’d much rather the Church owned up to their prejudice, rather than to pretend they are making a step forward.

When I was still trying to make religion work for me, I attended a service at St Albans Abbey, where Jeffrey John, the man most suited to the job of Bishop of Southwark, but for his being openly gay, is Dean.  He was apologising since had to rush off because he was due to welcome a number of eminent judges who were coming up for some ceremony later that afternoon.  He’d offered his house as a place they could get changed.  He was popping back now, he explained, to his place, where a group of old men were getting dressed into tights and wigs, which was, he added, exactly what a lot of the congregation feared would happen when he was appointed.

Ho ho ho, how the congregation chuckled.  And this is probably the best way to go with the Church of England - little jokes, here and there, bringing it up close to its homophobia, amongst other, prejudices. But if I were him I’d be sorely tempted to say he’d had enough, that they can keep their miserable little illiberal concessions and stuff them up their cassocks.  For me, the church is just too slow to grow up, which is why I’ve moved over to the Humanists.  

Saturday, 18 June 2011

That was then ...

with apologies to Adam Mansbach 

You have a dewy, unblemished complexion
And I am an old crone.
All the more reason, my darling,
To leave my makeup the fuck alone.

Yours is a generous nature,
To a relaxed view of possessions are prone.
When it comes to my makeup, I am the opposite,
So leave it the fuck alone.

You don’t consider it stealing,
You think of it more like a loan.
But foundation, once borrowed, is hard to return.
Leave my stuff the fuck alone.

I love you, my darling, completely,
And at you I do hate to moan.
Give me a break, get your own bloody makeup
And leave mine the fuck alone.

You say you never have money,
Decent brands are too costly to own.
That’s what Maybelline and No 17 are for.
Leave my makeup the fuck alone.

I’ve bought you tons of it over the years
In the hope that you’ll stick to your own.
But when it’s all gone, you just tuck into mine.
Leave it the fuck alone.

I don't check your page on facebook,
I don't eavesdrop your calls on the phone.
I don't rummage through your private belongings
So please leave mine the fuck alone.

I’ve had to ask you so often
My voice, it’s beginning to drone.
For the last time, my darling, keep your sticky little paws out of my wardrobe.
Leave the fuck alone.



Friday, 17 June 2011

My dad - Richard Overton

Even though my dad dismissed Father's Day as a bit of American nonsense dreamt up by the card industry, I am nevertheless going to post the obituary I wrote about him, when he died four years ago.

Richard Charles Overton

My father, Richard Overton, was born on 18 May 1923, in Blundellsands, a suburb of Liverpool, and grew up as the eldest of four children, his parents having lost their first child to meningitis before Richard was born.  He and his two brothers were sent to prep school at Tre-arddur Bay, Angelsey.  The Headmaster, Ioworth Williams insisted on two things: first  that the boys would learn to swim by a dip every morning in the icy waters of the North Atlantic and second that they would learn to skip.  My father took to the swimming, even though it was combined with Mrs Williams’s obligatory prophylactic of raw egg and milk, but skipping was a skill he never mastered. 

Richard moved on to Sedbergh in 1937, another school with physical rigour at its heart.  The ten mile run over the Cumbrian fells was an annual tradition to which he returned regularly over the years.  Richard flourished at Sedbergh - academically, socially and in sporting achievement.  He left both schools as head boy and with a constitution that would see him through the physical hardship of war and a career in the Colonial Service. 

Leaving Sedbergh in 1942, Richard joined the 9th Border Regiment, and began his army career as an NCO, in charge of a group of conscripted Liverpudlians who didn't take well to the early morning starts demanded by the army.  Such was the 19 year old's difficulties in rousing his squadron, that he was reprimanded by the sergeant major.  How, the superior officer asked, did Corporal Overton expect to lead his men into battle if he couldn't even get them out of bed?  Richard was commissioned in Bangalore in l943.  His arrival in Burma coincided with the start of the 180 mile retreat to Imphal, a difficult and dangerous trek across mountainous terrain in monsoon conditions.  The soldiers were ordered to abandon all but the most basic kit, each carrying what he would need on his back, including guns and ammunition.  Richard later wrote to his mother that despite these orders he had managed to hold on to several books.  The Division suffered severe loss, but were successful in their return to the Imphal Plain which would later become the springboard for victory.
Richard 1943

On demobilisation in 1946 Richard went to Magdalen College, Oxford, to study History, a lifelong passion of his.  Oxford was a divided place immediately after the war.  Students arriving straight from school must have seemed immature, untroubled and naïve to the men returning from the front, and Richard reported that some tutors too seemed ignorant and largely uninterested in the traumas these young men had been through.  He transferred to Law, before settling on the Colonial Service training in which he found his true motivation and purpose. 

Richard with the Fon of Banso January 1957
Richard joined the Colonial Service in 1950 and his first posting was to Calabar in Eastern Nigeria.  The Colonial Service offered Richard the perfect career as District Officer.  The role, broadly defined as running the colony on behalf of the Queen, in practice involved a vast miscellany of disparate and at times extraordinary activities.  One day he would be determining appeals on complicated legal questions - polygamous inheritance, custody of children or ownership of land; the next he might be returning an illegally incarcerated chimpanzee to the jungle, or hearing a village's complaint about an elephant that had been causing havoc with the banana crop. 

Richard enjoyed this job enormously, and it's not difficult to see how close a fit it was with his interests and talents.  His passion for fairness, his slowness to judge, a natural tendency to listen with patience and empathy together with his sense of humour equipped him perfectly for the judicial element of the role; his love of the outdoors and walking fitted him well for the long treks to remote stations, often for weeks at a time.  His innate courtesy and good manners and his meticulousness in matters of writing and administration qualified him for the ceremonial and official duties.

Not all tours were spent in the bush and in 1955 Richard was posted to the government headquarters in Buea, Southern Cameroons, as the colonial equivalent to Secretary to the Cabinet.  It was here he met Susan who had recently arrived as secretary to the Commissioner of the Cameroons.  They were married in November 1957 and spent the first years of their happy marriage in Mamfe, making many good and lifelong friends.

Nigerian independence signalled the end to Richard and Susan's time in West Africa and they returned to England in 1962 with two young daughters, a third born later in the year.  Richard worked for a short time in the Drapers' Chamber of Trade before taking up a post at  the Commission for the New Towns in Crawley in November1965, their newly born son completing the family.  Richard remained in this job until early retirement in 1983.   

Richard was never quite complete without a dog. When Susan first met him in Buea, he was caring for a sick dog, a fierce ugly brute (by all but Richard's accounts), which was discovered, on its death, to have been suffering from rabies.  Consequently, Richard had to undergo a long course of painful injections, administered by the wife of a close friend who happened to be the local nurse.  A costly business it turned out to be, both physically and in quantities of whisky the patient required to get through it. 

Richard and the golden retriever, Truman (1982 -97) were a familiar duo around his village, Warnham in West Sussex.  The impartiality Richard maintained in his judicial role in the Colonial Service seems to have been forgotten when it came to this animal.  Whatever the evidence to the contrary, Truman was always assumed to be on the side of the innocent.  I remember one infuriating occasion when the dog disappeared on a walk.  I spent over two hours calling and searching, but in the end was forced was to the house without him.  Dad immediately returned to the spot,  only to find the dog casually waiting for him.  Truman’s word or mine – there was no point even trying.  During the late 80s and early 90s Richard  took Truman on several long walks, including the Coast to Coast from Whitby to St Bee's.  It is typical of Richard's mixture of practicality and eccentricity that he organised, with the precision of a polar expedition, the dog's food parcels to be sent (by Susan) to a series of landladies in advance of their arrival.  And I have no doubt there were, once again, several large hard-backs in his rucksack. 
Richard and Truman

Richard believed in the right of all living things to be treated with kindness and respect, whether they be rabid dogs, hedgehogs, stray cats, stick insects, guinea pigs or, perhaps especially, birds.  An interest in ornithology began early, documented in his first letter home from prep school at the age of 7.  Upper lip remaining firm, he assured his parents of his happiness, remarking upon some "very interesting ducks" to be found near the school.  I remember many family journeys being delayed by the car sidling to a stop, often without use of indicators, as Richard, craning out the driver's side window and peering into the sky, while simultaneously reaching for his binoculars, would declare some indistinguishable dot in the heavens to be a kestrel or a buzzard, waiting until it disappeared into invisibility before resuming the journey.  He put empty beer barrels into the chestnut tree to encourage owls, and nesting boxes on carefully chosen walls to entice flycatchers.  Sometimes his passions would conflict:  the swathes of netting he placed around the lawn to stop the cricket balls getting lost in the hedge could prove lethal to hedgehogs.  A familiar sight during the autumn was Richard, after his nightly inspection, painstakingly disentangling the string from a tightly screwed up ball of prickles.

Since retirement, Richard became increasingly active in various political and environmental campaigns.  Two years ago he attended the end of the Aldermaston walk and only last year, Parkinson’s Disease making such trips very difficult, made it into central London for the CND Conference.  Despite the strongest of political feeling, he never lost sight of his priorities; categorically declaring that "one should never demonstrate on an empty stomach" he bought me a good lunch on both occasions.

Global warming and the threats to the environment were another pressing concern for Richard.  As his illness progressed, he became more lively and intense in his campaigning zeal, writing letters, attending meetings, and finding opportunities to inform and agitate.  He had been hoping to deliver a paper to the Horsham Natural History Society on global warming the day before he went into hospital in January.  His work was characterised by tireless research, reading and discussion.  However strongly he felt, Richard always expressed his opinions with respectful acceptance of a contrary view.  Ultimately optimistic about humanity and permanently questioning, Richard never lost his belief in the possibility for positive change.

Richard is survived by his wife, Susan, his four children, nine grandchildren, and his dog; he has left a deep and resonant impression on many more lives.

Born 18 May 1923, died 11 February 2007

Thursday, 16 June 2011

What I am currently reading: Jane Shilling The Stranger in the Mirror

I was given this book as a present, because it’s about middle age.  I think I am its target reader.

It wasn’t an easy read.  I don’t mean that in the sense that James Joyce isn’t an easy read, or even in the sense that Lolita isn’t.  It’s not the subject matter (I am probably not alone in finding material that so nearly reflects my own situation fascinating) nor the style or structure that’s challenging, it’s more how much, and how little, she describes of herself.

A review in Mslexia Magazine commented that the book was too objective and impersonal.  I disagree.  The style is rather distancing, certainly, prone to metaphor and at times an affected.  Describing the years 20 to 50, she writes:  “Time passes, the seasons turn, the river flows idly; distracted by duty and business we fail to remark a quickening of the current…Then we look up and see that the landscape has altered…the tide has swept us downstream.” 

But the way she rails at her poor singleton son at his lax approach to his orthodontistry, admitting her continuing sense of ownership over his body; her shame and titillation at the prospect of being taken seriously as a sexual partner; her solipsistic observations on how and why she remains single, are unbearably exposing, and through her courage we are ambushed into a reflection of these same questions in our own lives.

Shilling isn’t likeable in this book.  She expects uncomfortably much from her son; she moans on about the drudgery of housework – that’s fair enough, none of us actually like it, but with Shilling, not liking housework becomes pathological.  “Angry reproaches fell from my lips like the toads and serpents from the mouth of the wicked sister in the Grimms’ fairy tale.  And I blamed my son for this, as well.  I wasn’t a harridan by nature, I screamed.  It was he who was turning me into one with his contempt for my standards, my wish to live with a degree of grace, to keep our small shared space clean and orderly.”  But it’s impossible not to admire the degree to which she allows herself to be unlikeable.

It’s difficult to have sympathy with her self-professed feminism too.  She reports having delivered “a stinging feminist lecture on the exploitation of women” and then “picking up one [her son’s] lads’ mags and discovered that half these semi-naked girls were enthusiastic volunteers, rather than professional glamour models.  So now I wasn’t quite so sure of my position on naked breasts, especially not the ones belonging to Readers’ Girlfriends”.  Let me get this right – glamour models posing in magazines in return for money – bad; readers bragging pictures of their girlfriends, for free, good.  Really? 

As I said, it’s a book that is sometimes hard to read, but it takes off and justifies itself in the last couple of chapters.  Shilling’s columnist contract has ended, she hasn’t made financial provision, she is a fifty year old woman with the best part of her working life behind her, she doesn’t know where to go, what to do next, and her son is still her dependent.  Now the crisis of middle age is given meaning; as her place in the grand scheme makes her invisible, so she must get out there,; when her biology suggests it’s time to quieten down, worldly necessity thrusts her back into the maelstrom.  She puts a sweetly brave face on it, chin-up she tells herself, as she contemplates her melancholy calculation.  “Time passes no more swiftly than it did when I was young, but I am haunted by the sense of how little of it is left.”  That’s it, that’s the point. 

Friday, 10 June 2011

What not to say

A fortnight ago I attended a course run by a man called Kenneth Cloke.  He’s well known in the mediation world, an innovator and visionary, with effortless charm and a taut tidy manner.
            He’d been up all night travelling from Edinburgh hindered by high winds and an ash cloud, but nevertheless delivered his articulate and exhaustingly interesting workshop, intricately responsive to the needs of his audience.
            He said many intriguing things during the afternoon, some of which I will drip feed into my next posts, but there was something early on that particularly struck me.  Think back, he said, to the first person you were in love with.  Imagine how different things would have been if you knew as much about relationships then as you do now.
            The point he was reaching towards was to do with how much emotion and energy we waste in arguments that can be better dealt with by a more sophisticated approach to conflict; there was also his theory that the conflict we are experiencing now is calibrated to our capability to sort it out.  But I couldn’t stop myself looking at it rather more crudely.  God yes, I thought, all those things I wish I’d said.
I made a shirt, one Christmas, for my first boyfriend.  There is a lot of work in a shirt; there are sleeves and yokes, collars and cuffs, plackets, pockets, buttons and holes.  It’s a very tricky business.  He’d chosen the fabric, it fitted well, it suited him; this was not your Aunty Betty’s Urangutang Christmas sweater situation, this shirt was one successful garment. 
            He didn’t thank me.  That’s all I remember.  He didn’t thank me.  He just gave me a kind of a look, hard to describe, and put it aside.  A few weeks later, I asked him why – that’s not exactly right – I accused him of ingratitude as part of my justification for ending the relationship.  He explained that thanking me would have been such an ordinary, such a predictable thing to do.  Bring on boring.

A couple of years later, a young man I knew at Oxford, in an effort to seduce me, said:  I bet no one’s ever said you are beautiful.  I still can’t think of the perfect answer to this – there'll be a verbal formula, certainly, but there's also magically turning him into a frog.  He’s a QC now. 

Then there was the Irish bloke with the beer gut and the beard, and truly surprising amounts of sex appeal.  He was the tortured type, blew raging hot and perishing cold throughout the very short time we were together, a period that culminated in our renting a remote cottage in the middle of Wales for half term, so that he could finally make his mind up whether to stay with me or go back to his previous girlfriend who’d cut up all his clothes when he left.  The entire week was seamlessly rank.  He refused to walk with me, talk to me, sleep with me, though I think perhaps we did eat the odd meal together.  We’d travelled in my car, and without securing my agreement, he bought four large bags of Welsh coal to take back to London for his fire.  He was also particularly anxious to be home for a certain time, having made arrangements to see friends, which meant leaving the cottage a whole day before we had to. 

I am very close to leaving this story out, not only because I can't conceive of an ending sufficiently humiliating and infuriating for this man, but also because I can't bear to think what a door mat I must have seemed.  I brought him home, I brought home his coal, I left the cottage a day early, when obviously I should have done none of these.  This isn't fiction, that's the trouble. 

Thursday, 9 June 2011


I am about to do something I never thought I would – say something nice about John Gummer.  He’s the one who famously fed a beef burger to his unfortunate child on telly, to prove that BSE was mere tosh.  He was brilliantly captured by Steve Bell as the twit in the Hiawatha riff, called, if I remember, Running Gaga (no relation), and later in 1975, as the onlooker at the mock pieta, Thatcher as Mary with John Major’s head in her lap (isn’t he brilliant?).  Gummer wrote to the Guardian immediately, complaining that "to be forced to participate in Steve Bell's perversions is degrading." Bell said later, "I put Gummer in because he is a religious bullshitter...I have framed his letter like a commendation."  
Anyway, that was then, and this is now.  I heard him on the PM programme last night, and I accept that he was brought on to stick up for his friend of many years, Ken Clarke, but he was also sticking up for what Ken Clarke is trying to do with the criminal justice system, which, I believe, is the beginning of a very sensible move.

The fact is that prison doesn’t work.  As Gummer pointed out last night, Britain locks up more people than anywhere else in Europe; it has the highest reoffending rate, and we don’t feel any safer.  Gummer went on to blame the Labour Party (on the grounds that it was letting people out of prison before, but not telling anyone about it – an argument I found slightly hard to follow) and what he called the “irredeemable extremists” who run the newspapers, that'll be those guys who won the election for his party through the 80s.  Then he threw in the wrongheaded right of the present government.  

I want to get into why prison doesn’t work, and that the alternative isn’t to let everyone off, scot free, but to put in place processes that help perpetrators of crime and anti-social behaviour understand, acknowledge and find better ways to conduct their lives, is a lot more effective and satisfying both for our society generally, and usually the victims too.  But that’s for later.  For now, let’s have more John Gummers bashing the right wing press, Oxford convocation voting no confidence in the universities minister, The Archbishop of Canterbury reminding everyone that the government has no democratic mandate for the misery it’s delivering to the country.  

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

The blog

The blog, otherwise known as the incredible time sink.  I can't even bear to calculate, let alone tell you how many hours I have spent this week trying to compose, edit, add pictures to, save and publish just this one new biographical page.  A huge thank you owed to James Horne, whose computerly expertise and patience with luddites is massively appreciated.

I'm going to write about books I've enjoyed reading, thoughts I've enjoyed thinking, exhibitions I've seen, films I've watched, music I've sung along to, conversations I've joined in with, and possibly some made up stuff - stories right out of my head.

This is the lady that lives in the gap between the wall and painting in the room I use as a study.  Hamish made her and she was based on me.  She lives too high up to dust, which is why she is covered by a fine grey patina.

Friday, 3 June 2011

Dirge for the Ka

A week ago, my daughter crashed my car.  No one was hurt, and of course for that I am exceedingly grateful.  But the net result is a modestly expensive repairs bill to the Mini Cooper into whose back end she barged, while my insurance company says mine is not worth fixing. 

I am worn to futile tears by the utter wrongness of this.  My car, a Ford Ka, which I’ve owned from new since 2000, has been looked after as one of the family, never had a scratch until last week, and has travelled a mere 43000 miles.  Its book value might be a few hundred quid but its worth to me is far higher, and I’ll never find something so precious for that amount.  The excess on the insurance, for my 18 year old daughter to drive, is higher than what they say the car would fetch. 

This is miserable on nearly every front.  First, environmentally, it makes no sense to trash a nice little car.  The insurance company have worked out their sums on the basis of replacing the squashed bits with new ones from a Ford factory.  A patch up job wouldn’t be nearly so much.  Second, although I am loathe to trust her again, my daughter had only just passed her test, and ideally she needs to get back in the saddle, with the major lesson, which is that driving is difficult when you’re new to it, and requires 100% concentration at all times, having been well and truly learned.  Third, this car was a bit of a luxury for us, kept on only because its modest running costs were commensurate with the convenience it offered.  Now, with increased premiums, repairs and all that, this is no longer true, but we will miss the pleasure of never having to negotiate and plan in advance.  Fourth,I feel embarrassingly sentimental about it, and hate the idea of it being towed away to some car breaker’s yard.  And fifth, because there’s no getting away from the fact that the one moment of lapse will cost my child dear in future insurance, and very probably us too. 

I’ll say again, because it’s worth it, that I know we are incredibly fortunate even to be having these puny little thoughts.  Terrible, terrible things happen when new drivers have charge of a car - deaths, injuries, lives turning into nightmares from which, I’m not sure this is even melodramatic, there will be no awakening.  A bashed up Ford Ka and a few hundred quid the poorer is nothing - nothing, compared to any of that.  But I still wish I’d said no, that last time she asked to take it out.