Tuesday, 31 December 2013

I'm a Lapsed Catholic Bore and I need help.





Mild Mannered Intellectual Husband and I will be celebrating New Year's Eve quietly at home tonight. The official excuse is that he wants to test-drive a paella dish he'll be serving to friends in a fortnight. But we both know the shameful real reason. He cannot take me to parties anymore - or at least not until I seek help for my Problem.  

My Problem, party-wise, used to be that drink made me too flirtatious for my own good. Those were the pre-MMIH days decades and I was busy surveying the field of unsuitable men very, very thoroughly, for reasons I now forget (Book deal? Boredom? Can't tell anymore). It's not that drink was an enabler then, more of a sensible precaution, like donning goggles and protective gear before a spot of welding.

The thing about drink, bless it, is that it affects people in very different ways. 

Some men turn into sex offenders.

Some women will resume a tearful argument they started with their now dead mother 33 years ago.

At any given party in London you'll be cornered at least once by the Property Price Bore. 

The Tedious and Pointless Anecdote Bore is somewhat international ("...so I said to him, it was on the Tuesday, no, wait, the Monday night because Linda had called at the week-end, that's right, so we're in the kitchen, finishing off the...what's the name of that chocolate roll with the thinghies? Oh, anyway, I said to him : "I'd take the red ones if I were you." And he said...no wait, I'm telling a lie, it had to be the Tuesday because..").

The Holiday Bore will pursue you with pictures of his/her latest adventure. They used to be actual photos, arranged in an album or twelve, so you could at least spot these particular bores and give them a wide berth. Now it's all digital so when they whip out their phones and say: "Here, there's something I wanted to show you.." you simply don't know if you are going to be staring at the sonogram of a foetus, a selfie, a particularly fiendish sample of sexting or the peaks of Machu Picchu, which they will insist means 'very small' ("It's Spanish!").

As for me, I can be very tedious about all sorts of things when sober. My political and feminist rants are somewhat legendary. I remember a protracted argument over an alcohol-free dinner with friends in Marrakech (see what I've subtly done there?) about whether it was nice of Angelina Jolie to adopt all those kids or whether she was in fact a publicity hungry anorexic and a shameless husband stealer (can't quite recall now which side I was on).

But when I drink, these days, I turn into a Lapsed Catholic Bore. There, I've said it. 

The reasons are opaque at best. I have now lived in England - a country in which the majority of Christians are Protestant, if they are anything at all, and where no one is making me go to any church - for nearly a quarter of a century. Why would I feel the urge to hunt down and zero in on the poor, frightened Catholic guest at the party (often the only one, or the only other one there) and let them have a protracted piece of my mind about the whole ecumenical matter? 

Why is it that, with a couple of drinks in me, I object so violently to innocent, even charming talk of "well, I've always liked the spectacle, the smell of incense.." which I  have solicited in the first instance with very pointed questions?

These people are not trying to (re-)convert me, far from it. They'd rather not talk about religion at all. They're often (and this, for reasons too complicated to explain infuriates me sooo much more) not that bothered about questions of faith, really. They call themselves Catholics, go to Church maybe a couple of times a year (more often if they're currently trying to get their kids into the excellent Catholic school down the road) and speak with fondness about the incense and the bells. That's all.

It's at this point that a third gin and tonic (or a second Margarita) tips me into ranty unreasonableness. Mild Mannered Husband has taken to kicking me so regularly that I wear protective padding under my trousers but to no avail. Everything I have always hated about Catholicism spills out and gushes forward like sewage from a burst pipe. 

The obsession with sex and reproduction and the indifference to social injustice.

How absolutist it is in theory and how easy it is for most of its flocks to ignore the nasty bits and go on with their lives, thereby feeling no compulsion whatever to work at making the religion itself less rabid and more tolerant.

The 'do as I say, don't do as I do' flavour of the whole thing, which in the rich West translates into a 'do whatever you like' vibe and in the Third World becomes: 'I don't care if you are starving and a virtual slave - you will have as many kids as God feels fit to send you, bitch!' vibe.

The worst possible tactical move my frightened, cornered guest can make now is to minimize matters. "Our local priest was never like this," they bleat, ingratiatingly. "It really depends who you go to"

"Really? REALLY?" I will roar back, spilling half a Margarita on the plush carpet. "You could negotiate, shop around? Buy off the peg, in the sale, the bits you liked? What about confession, eh?"

"...Er, I haven't gone for years (nervous laugh), I don't remember much about it, really.."

"Right, right. I suppose you weren't regularly asked if you touched yourself down there, then. Cos that tends to stick in the mind..."

The guest gulps, MMIH sprays his drink out, breaks into a cough, gives me another furious kick.  It's pointless : I'm possessed, nothing will stop me now. A psychic wound I didn't know I had (being forced by sheer reason to give up a religion I would have loved to believe in if only it hadn't been so incredibly barmy and unpleasant, particularly to women) is now bleeding again. And nothing short of loudly haranguing a fellow Catholic will make me feel better.

"No, really, I'm fascinated...It was never about dogma for you? Dogma didn't come into it, you say. I mean, it's like saying you enjoy the rain and you have never experienced the wetness....Which bits of the introduction did you miss? How often were you asleep during Catechism? I guess you didn't have a priest teaching religious education at your lay state school telling you that divorce is a mortal sin punishable with Hell. You didn't? How odd!"

The guest has backed away against the wall, an empty glass in his/her hand, an olive pit in his/her mouth which is impossible to get rid of.. just like me.

"So in fact, let me guess, you've probably remained unaware that Hitler himself, had he repented a few seconds before death, would have a shot at Paradise after several billion years of Purgatory, whilst a perfectly nice but unrepentant divorcee is confined to damnation for ever. Thought so. You didn't know, never thought...ok, but how does that make you feel NOW?"

I should let it go, I know. Even the Pope is nice and reasonable these days, giving the Catholic Church a bad name with US demento-conservatives. ("If two people of the same sex love each other", sweet Francis is supposed to have said, "who am I to judge it's wrong?" Who are you? You are the sodding POPE! The historical byword for absolute, infallible, categorical pronouncements about good and evil, against which there is no appeal. That used to mean something in my day...)

A new age might in fact have dawned for the religion itself, much to my drunken chagrin.
Don't get me wrong, I hate Catholicism, but much as I hate it, I'd hate it even more to see it evolve and become thereby more...palatable. 

To reform now, as if the whole Aids thing, the whole abortion thing, the whole 'sharing balconies with dictators' thing, the whole pedophilia thing hadn't happened? Sorry, too easy. And another thing...

I know, ok, I know, I need help, spiritual help, fast.

Is it too early for a gin and tonic? 


Monday, 16 December 2013

Life and the child free woman


I feel the need to return to this topic (see my previous post here) as there's been a new rash of handwringing articles about the rising levels of childlessness in women of my generation (the ONS reckons one in five of us will hit 45 without any signs of babies in the nursery).

The culture, from books, to films, to the tabloid media, loves this issue because, even more than the working/non-working mummy palaver, it allows them to whip up entirely artificial divisions among women.
And if women who reproduce  are under constant scrutiny (for having children out of wedlock, too many children, only one child, children they cannot support, children they leave in the care of others in order to earn a living), childless women offer a whole new avenue for vivisection and chastisement.

They are blamed for being career obsessed, for leaving it ‘too late’, for being too picky in their choice of mate, for  having youthful abortions that they’re made to tearfully renege on. They are pushy, selfish, self-obsessed. The only type of child free woman given any slack is the tearful, infertile one, particularly if she’s had the decency to ruin her health, marriage and bank account by going through several rounds of painful IVF. This doesn’t mean she’s a proper woman. But she is tolerated and pitied. There is a script for her.
As my readers will know, I belong to a difficult-to- quantify subspecies of female who is unabashedly childfree by choice. I’m certainly not alone but let me tell you: there is still no script for us.

I first became aware of my predicament when, having kissed every available frog in both Italy and Britain, I finally met my wonderful husband at the age of 36 and realised that had no desire to reproduce at all. Rather, if it had been a matter of handing over some genetic material and tell my partner to get on with it, I probably would have done it. I would have been a dad, at a pinch . But being a mother was an unpalatable proposition, once the possibility existed in practice.
I don’t know how to explain it, other than to say that I felt none of the hormonal pull towards it, whilst at the same time experiencing these realisations:

1) I wanted my life to continue to be about me.  The new fathers I knew seemed to have been able to add ‘children’ to their life’s CV, whilst their partners had gone from being women to being mothers. Motherhood described them and circumscribed their lives completely.
2) My mother and most of the mothers of friends my age all seemed, in different ways, to have felt cheated by motherhood, the very thing they were so desperate to sell us. Most seemed bitter and hypercritical. Many were depressed. These are older women I’m talking about, for whom the trials and tribulations of raising a family were firmly in the past. It struck me that they’d spent their lives expecting some special reward for all the selflessness they’d had to endure, and none was forthcoming. This, I thought to myself, is what happens when you live your life for someone else.

3) There was no structure ‘there’ to make motherhood happen like any other rite of passage, any other phase of life, other than my willingness and desire to put everything else on hold and go for it. From pregnancy to decisions about work, then childcare, then the juggling of the two, the running of the house and so on I knew with absolute certainly that, wonderful husband notwithstanding, having a life that could accommodate children in it (not even at the centre of it) would have been my problem to solve.
When strangers ask me about children I’ve adopted a shorthand response: my husband and I met too late but we have many nephews and nieces.  My face and demeanour says: I know, I’m pitiful yet somehow I will manage to be strong. Inside I’m dancing the Samba , giddy at the thought that I’m allowed to get away with  living my life for myself.

These are the things I love: I love my husband, working, writing, sleep, travel and time to read. I love living in London’s zone 2, in a minuscule house with a relatively tiny mortgage, I love the cultural events I can attend because I live there and disposable income I can spend on them.
And  I love lots of children, from my sister’s little Mouse to several friends’ offspring, some of whom I have somehow become a godmother to. I love them because I love their mothers. They are under no obligation to love me back or make me proud or happy or give me things to look forward to. They are little people I hope to know for the rest of my life (they are bound to become interesting any day now) but whose possible failure,  unhappiness and neurosis won’t be pinnable on me. 

Had the conditions for motherhood have been different would I have gone for it? Ah, now that is a question, and one our leaders might want to start asking themselves. 

It seems to me if we want to encourage women (at least those lacking the natural urge to reproduce) not to opt out of parenthood we need to make motherhood more attractive: less of a, often  lonely and always (it seems to me from the outside) superhuman struggle to keep all the balls in the air, all the trains running on time, everybody else happy and safe. It should be an easier, lighter load, more equally shared in the personal and political sphere. 
When I originally published this post on Mumsnet last week it generated a fair amount of , er, robust comment from mothers who felt that 1) no one who hasn't got the inclination should be encouraged to reproduce and 2) as long as each was 'happy with their choice' why do we need to talk about this at all?
I totally agree with the first point but not the second.  I think we need to talk about this because the 'choice' narrative is empty rhetoric unless we strive for a more even playing field among men and women when it comes to domestic and parental responsibilities - the great untold failure of third-wave feminism.
Having just come back from a long-planned four days trip with three friends who met each other at the school gate I feel as strongly about this as ever. My friends are all highly educated, highly competent, in professional work. Totally equal to their partners you would think, but you'd have thought them inmates of an open prison on day release for good behaviour, both in  terms of the bargaining they had to endure beforehand, the surveillance they were under throughout and the amount of payoff facing them on their return.
They had to arrange all the childcare and complex picking up arrangements for their children, including to and fro all their various activities over four days. They had to bargain with spouses and deploy parents, pack children's bags, arrange play dates then monitor them from another continent in extremely expensive phone calls. One had 14 missed calls one evening when we had left our mobiles behind for a two hour period. No one was dead - she had just somehow failed to report to her probation officer mother who was looking after her child.
The amount of total control and responsibility they still held for the well-being of their brood, (not toddlers, ten year olds) jarred horribly with the infantalising effect of finding themselves dependent to some extent or other on the good will of their own spouses or critical or meddling parents as child-minders, drafted in to help said busy husbands or ex husbands who work. They WORK people.
Needless to say, when the men themselves are away a phone call home every day is the extent of the family duty expected. They are not asked to sat-navs clueless wives all the way to a child's gym kit 'hidden' on top of a dresser. They don't get texted by clueless wives to be reminded again of the baby-sitter's number. They don't have to beg and cajole their own disapproving parents to look after their children. They then get to come home to a full fridge and children who have barely noticed their absence. (Needless say the men don't go away on trips with daddy friends they have made at the school gates as they are the only adults they have time to bond with while their children entertain each other. In fact the men of this particular group of mummy friends had barely met, despite the hundreds of hours their children have spent together).
The difference between being able to retain some sense of self and squeeze some fun out of life and being in a perpetual state of watchful duty, anxiety and guilt is not about choice, people. It's about inequality. If the only real choice women have is between having children or having a life I would not call even my own blissfull childfree status a result to be proud of.

Saturday, 7 December 2013

England on my mind



    Write something about England, I told myself in Chapter 5 of the memoir, which I've just uploaded for your reading pleasure. Well, it turns out that's easier said than done. There’s something slippery about Englishness, something that repels definition like a negatively charged magnet.
    Scotland is a different story. Scotland – at least the stereotype of Scotland - one can smell and hear and see: the forbidding red sandstone, the brewery whiff in the chilly wind, the Tartan racket of bagpipes.
    But what is England? The longer I live here the fuzzier the general image of the place grows. There’s no big concept, no big idea. No ‘aha!’ moment.
    London one can talk about at length, and it doesn’t matter if it’s a different London for each one of its 8 million inhabitants, with their 400 languages and dialects, their patchwork quilt of traditions and religious beliefs, their different versions of the past, their tribal hatreds and strange gastronomic totems. London is in each pasta bowl, in each kebab. Most big cities are like that.
    But England? Once I finally got there  – via a Honours Degree and a long night journey by coach from Edinburgh - I found that, to borrow from Gertrude Stein, there was no there, there. No centre of gravity, no coherence. 
    England seemed to come into focus for me over the years not as a landscape, inhabited by a distinct people, but rather a sensibility, a sense of self, of the right way to be, to think, to behave, so strong and radicated that it is able to tolerates otherness and yet never absorbs it. So that even after 24 years, in which I was able to pursue a great career, buy a house, marry one of the locals, I still feel like a chewed up, half digested, never totally assimilated foreign body. 
   The Chapter contains all sorts of fun facts about what the English say to you if you are Italian or seem particularly happy, especially if no alcohol is involved. 
    It takes you from  my very first summer school placement with a jolly lorry driver's family in Bournemouth to a series of unsanitary London house-shares with penniless postgraduate students, fierce landladies & defective heaters.
   Because it was written 10 years ago, and describes events ten years earlier than that, there are all sorts of nostalgic references to something called an A to Z, which younger readers should try to imagine as frozen, broken up Googlemap screen fragments held together in something called 'pages' by glue (see also under: books).
   Incidentally, it wasn't till many years later, specifically during a performance of Jez Butterworth's Jerusalem, that I had a blinding realisation about the nature of Englishness. I tried to describe it in this blogpost. But as you will see the experience, somehow, once again eluded the telling, like an urgent note scribbled after waking up from a feverish dream in the middle of the night and which, in the cold light of day, reveals a few disjointed words and no meaning. "Puddles, meringues, fear. Lots of penguins. Tell mother."

Monday, 2 December 2013

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Abercrombie Hell

I'd only ever heard of Abercrombie & Fitch, the ugly brand for pretty people, because of their unfortunate but unapologetic determination to discriminate against both employees and customers who do not fit into their standard of beauty.

I have lived a long and happy life without ever feeling the need to darken the doorstep of one of their shops. Unfortunately Lil' Sis decided she really wanted us to buy a A&F sweatshirt for dad: he had once borrowed one and looked good in it, it knocked a couple of decades off him and so on. 


There are no A&F shops in our home town. Lil' Sis has taken care of parental Xmas presents and much else besides since time immemorial. It was my turn to step up to the plate.
The London main store resembles a latter-day Aladdin cave, dark with spotlights shining on jewel-coloured piles of distressed apparel, and perfumed oxygen and very loud music aggressively pumped into the air.

Models/assistants of either gender (that’s what they call themselves), tall, lissom & Bambi-eyed bat their long eyelashes at you uncomprehendingly whatever your request then lead you through a guided tour of the premises, languidly pointing at shelves like sleepy children, hoping, you realise eventually, that you yourself will end up spotting what you were looking for.

At the slightest provocation they then offer to strip to their innermost layer to try on a garment for you, if you are buying something for the opposite gender, that is. Although it's entirely possible that if I'd been looking at a lady's sweatshirt a 16year old girl might have also approached and offered to show me what it looked like 'on her'. It doesn't bear thinking about, really.

In the course of the next 40 minutes I made the following discoveries:


1) I'm old - it's official.  


Not only did I find the music too loud, the bizarre sprayed perfume too strong; not only was I Madam-ed throughout by the model/assistant who served me. I also found I could flirt with him without blushing, like a grandma beyond reproach, without even a whiff of MILF-ery about it.  At one point I heard myself say that the elderly father I was buying  the sweatshirt for "is not as muscly as you". Random, random horrors.  

He, in turn, could hear this stuff without blushing - just a polite laugh and the gentle expression of someone who fully expects you to launch into a  description of your aches and pains next. Which, in a way, I was.

2) Shops aimed at the young, monied brain-dead only seem to stock L and XL for men and S and XS for women. It's the law. I suspect in all cases the range of sizes is the same: 0 to twig. But men are encouraged to think themselves as big, women as small. My un-trendy dad is an unfashionable 'Medium' and that turned Mission Unpleasant into Mission Impossible, but with a Greek chorus of  gorgeous kids wishing me happiness and an 'awesome day', rather than villains stroking cats.

3) Un-stitched, distressed designs and artificially faded fabrics are in. In fact you can buy little else.  But it still costs a packet. For more background analysis of my take on the style, I refer you back to point 1)

Monday, 25 November 2013

Women policing it for themselves

So the wretchedly misguided Clare's Law is going ahead after all. A proposal so barmy it looked made up is actually going to become law in England and Wales.

Here were my thoughts at the time this was first mooted, and let me tell you, I haven't changed my mind.

It seems it's now accepted practice that if women want anything done at all they have to do it themselves - like second class citizens who are not fully entitled to the protection of the state. Hence the campaigns to take down violent misogynistic content on FB, or to fight back violent trolls on Twitter, hence the battle to force police to take rape seriously, to even record complaints made, to protect children against grooming  (with desperate families, in one recent case, told to sit it out and wait till the girls are too old to be of use to their groomers).

But asking women to consult a register to find out of their perspective boyfriend has a history of being a violent thug is a step too far. For one thing it seems to fully outsource the responsibility for women's protection to the potential victims themselves. For another, the logic of the initiative fails at the first hurdle: if enough were done to identify and neutralise violent men in the first place they'd be behind bars, where they cannot pose any risks, not out there luring new victims. Who, in other words, is going to be on this register?

And when are we going to go full circle, give women a gun and a pair of handcuffs and wish them good luck?

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

To Breed or not To Breed? How to make a drama (well, a play) out of a very recent female dilemma.





You know that image of a clock showing that if Earth has existed for a day 'man' has only appeared, in evolutionary terms, at five minutes to midnight?

Well, the subatomic watch hasn't been invented yet that can accurately record the infinitesimally short time in the history of the world in which women have had some say in reproduction. 

For most of human history women got children like they got arthritis or tapeworm: no choice at all in the matter. In a lot of places they still don't have any. 

I guess by the early 60s the invention of the pill gave some women (those from relatively affluent backgrounds living in relative affluent countries) a fairly accurate technique to avoid pregnancy - we're talking a window of the last 50 years or so.

As for permission to decouple sex from reproduction, and have sex for the sheer hell of it, we need to wait till the sexual revolution proper - 1968/69 say - although even that would have been news to my mother, who was still busy being a virgin and planning a big white wedding right then. 

In other words, in the great scheme of things women have had a choice as to when they want to become mothers for mere nanoseconds. After that, for a few years we called it 'family planning' and left it at that, happy enough to be allowed to keep our brood down to manageable proportions, provided you didn't tell the priest, of course.

And yet, right on cue like the first gay divorce following the first gay marriage (and proof to conservatives everywhere that there's no pleasing people), the existence of this choice has generated a fresh dilemma and accompanying agony galore, namely whether we want to have children at all.

How will it change our lives? Do we want our lives to change? What happens if we don't want to? Is motherhood too high a price to pay for bringing children into the world? If so, can you lead a worthwhile life without putting reproduction at the heart of it? Will we regret not doing it? Or worse, will we regret ignoring our gut feeling if we do do it?

Let me specify that I am very much talking about being child-free i.e. the choice not to become mothers, instead of the tragedy of being child-less for women and couples who desperately want parenthood. 

The choice is there, you'll say at this point: why are you still yakking on about this? Because, my friend, it is the choice that kills you. 

Let's consider the data for a second. There aren't yet any large longitudinal studies that I'm aware of highlighting specifically the number of women who have chosen to remain child-free. 

But a 2002 study on Childlessness in Europe by the Economic and Social Research Council showed that in Britain 7 to 8pc of 42-year-old women identified themselves as voluntarily childless, with that figure raising to 12 pc for 30-year-olds. Astonishingly, another third of women aged 30 said they were ambivalent/uncertain about having children in future. 

In 2010 a widely reported US study found that one in five women in their early 40s are now childless, compared to one in ten in the early 1970s. The report found that women with more education were more likely to be childless.

And earlier this year the Office of National Statistics released 2011 figures for England and Wales, showing that one in five women at the age of 45 are childless.

They can't all be infertile or unlucky in love, right? It looks as if women, particularly educated ones, are voting with their feet against motherhood.

I came across those figures when I was agonising over this myself, a few years ago, after meeting my Mild Mannered Intellectual Husband and having therefore run out of excuses of the 'Bridget Jones' variety. 

I found the figures but no debate whatsoever, no literature, no art of any kind addressing the dilemma itself. Lots of Western women, women of my generation and background, were quietly dropping out of reproduction without saying a word about it or leaving any explanation behind.

Recently the issue of non-reproduction has had its fair share of publicity and discussion: stories in the Atlantic magazine, covers of Time, anguished BBC documentaries about nations like Japan quietly driving themselves to extinction rather than address the problems that make the idea of motherhood so abhorrent to many of its women.   

But the dilemma is still not talked about, the internal struggle some of these non-mothers by choice will go through before allowing themselves to make that choice.

As I couldn't find anything informative and inspiring to read on the matter I did the next best thing - I decided to write about it. More specifically I wrote a play exploring that dilemma from a number of angles - six to be precise, one for each of the six colleagues who struggle to their office in central London the morning after a huge snowfall. 

Dylan is bringing up two kids on her own.
Bowie is a cheating dad of three.
Drake might have liked a child but now it's too late.
Jones has all the time in the world ahead of her to think about it.
Conte has finally met a guy would make A Great Dad. So what's wrong with her that  the idea of motherhood seems so grim?
Cohen hopes to grow into a good man and a good father one day.
But no one, apparently, is interested. 

There is no singing, no nudity, no gory scenes of childbirth. No ancient pistol appears on a drawing room wall in the second scene of act one, only to go off in a totally predictable way at the end of act three. There is, however, a lot of swearing.

Beyond that, let me be honest here and admit that my qualifications for writing a play are the same as for flying a plane: I have sat through hundreds of plays and on hundreds of planes, but I've never been in charge of either. The hope, with play-writing, is that I shouldn't cause anybody to actually die, and serious damage to buildings and infrastructure should be minimal. That is the hope anyway. 

To find out for sure I've decided, with the encouragement of my amateur dramatic director friend Antonia, to get this play performed. Unfortunately she's leaving London soon so I need another passionate director and six brilliant and committed thesps to make this happen.

If theatre is in your blood and you live in the London area please get in touch with me on Twitter (@Peebi). 

C'mon baby, let's make a drama out of a crisis!

Saturday, 16 November 2013

Are you man enough to take the Sock Challenge?

The Brits have grown incredibly fashion-conscious in the years I’ve observed them close up, but they remain, how shall I put it, endearingly inconsistent about clothes. So I decided to devote a whole chapter of my memoir, (chapter four, no less) to the phenomenon.

    I started by noticing that despite the ubiquitousness of everything, the sameness of everywhere, despite the fact that countries and people are all slowly merging into one pulsating, digital, grey soup and we all shop in the same shops and buy the same stuff and listen to the same music and aspire to the same virtual dreams, despite all that, it is still possible, walking down a British high street, to pick an Italian man from 20 metres away, and before they’ve opened their mouths.

    There are potent and telling details – the fluorescent Invicta rucksacks and scuffed Superga trainers of the under 18s, the beautiful leather shoes and dark blue quilted jackets the over 50s, the stylish eyewear, the layers of jumpers and padded waistcoats and scarves even at the height of summer. But this is easy, I hear you protest.


    I’d be prepared to accept a much tougher challenge: pick a British and an Italian man who have the same colourings, clothe them in exactly the same suit and shoes and I can still tell you which is which the minute they sit down. If you can discern a strip of bare hairy flesh between the trouser leg and the edge of a Bart Simpson sock, there’s your Brit. The Italian will have subdued dark woollen socks reaching up all the way to the top of his calf and firmly held in place there by an elasticised edge. 
    
   Nothing can prepare an Italian adult woman for the sartorial mess that is the British adult male. Before arriving on these shores the only instances in which I’d seen grown men in short socks emblazoned with cartoon characters was on tennis courts and at visiting hours on hospital wards (psychiatric wing). 
    
   So how about you, or the man in your life? Could you, could he take the sock challenge? For more on this and other tips on urban camouflage to unleash the Italian in you (deep, deep inside you, somewhere) you can read the whole chapter here.

Thursday, 14 November 2013

Where have all your manners gone?

There used to be a time, as Italian correspondent Beppe Severgnini famously wrote, when it took no fewer than six ‘thank you’s to purchase a bus ticket in London. Those times, they are a-changing. In fact they’ve gone and a-changed and, to be frank, they are no more. 

The other  day, coming back from a hospital visit on a bus full of ill, old or otherwise infirm people I personally witnessed a driver/conductor eject an 8-year-old school kid after a screaming standoff over an expired bus pass, with much horrific language deployed on both sides.


“The English are so fake!” my visiting Italian friends used to moan, mistaking a) Britain for England and b) basic civility among strangers for canning duplicity, never having actually witnessed it at home. When those friends visit now they need no longer fear nuanced interactions, fraught with baroque circumlocutions of courtesy. The civic space here is now as joyless, pushy and downright brutal as anywhere else. 

This was already true when I started writing my memoir and this is what chapter three, which I've uploaded today, is about among many other things, things that include queuing, accents, holiday homes, answering machine messages, nepotism and mobile phones. A mixed bag of reminiscences if you like, about how your country has changed in all the time I’ve been here and what was happening meanwhile to my own.  

I hope you’ll have a giggle. The usual proviso applies: this was written in the years between 2003 and 2005, and although I've been doing much refining and rewriting since, I have not updated the actual experiences described.

To be sure the print edition will have to have a special post-scriptum dealing not just with the death of manners but with the messy, bloody autopsy to follow.  Internet trolls, twerking starlets, wall to wall porn will be the dismal Greek chorus of the tragedy of all once-great British institutions slowly collapsing into disrepute, scandal, corruption, ineffectiveness or simple decline, from the BBC and Fleet Street to the Metropolitan Police and the NHS, from expense-claiming MEPs to tax-dodging corporations, via a whole new low level of political discourse dominated by poor-people-kicking, immigrant-bashing and victim-blaming.

Although, come to think of it, I will probably not want to write that book. It's just too sodding depressing.

Monday, 11 November 2013

To the Mouse, who turns ten today



Ten years.

A lot has changed for me since you turned up, dear Mouse. 

I led a busy life but without love, then, and assumed it would be forever thus. In fact the night you were starting the journey into the world I was on a blind date, having dinner with a chap so dull that regular sorties for fags and telephone updates about your mother's contractions from my mother were definitely the highlights of the evening. 

You finally made it out and I got to meet you. And a weird lightbulb went on in my head: suddenly there were children everywhere, babies, toddlers, first graders. This is the new batch, the new model, the world renewing itself, I would say to myself, while gazing at them in wonder, like I didn't know. But I didn't, hadn't known. 

It is impossible, when you are young, to look at children and see your replacement, the next generation, the future bosses, the future creators, consumers, patients, victims, criminals, poets and fools.

So when you arrived the things I did and my place in the word started to matter a little less but the stuff that happened in the world, the sorry state it was in, started to matter a lot. 

I lay in bed, stared out of a plane window into the night thinking about this, willing it, the world, until then just a badly lit stage for my brilliance, to be a better, juster, more gentle place, so it would be safe for you. 

You who were suddenly in it, so perfect and so complete, like you had always belonged to us, been part of us, your atoms and our atoms the same matter, launched at different speed across the universe. So that, all of a sudden, I couldn't look at my father without seeing you, or look at you without seeing your mother, or look in the mirror without seeing you staring back at me. 

Ten years. So, how was it for you?

Let me guess (shall I guess? You always want me to guess something these days..)The first ten years were a dream, not too unlike the slumber of the unborn. 

You are awake now - just. Everything is new and absorbing and yet you're often bored and time takes an age and a half to arrive, pass, go anywhere.

The next ten years and the ten after that will be an eternity, a lifetime, spent on a dizzying roller-coaster which suddenly mutates into the slowest of the slow slow slow-boats going nowhere, at all, ever, and then you are back climbing, climbing, climbing in the air -gasping, gulping- then barreling down again, wind in your hair, tears in your eyes, relief, exhilaration, laugher. Enjoy the ride, the fast bits and the slow, I beseech you.

Then the heavy decades begin, years will slot down with a dull thud, like £1 coins in the dark slit of time, faster and faster.

I'm not there yet but I suspect, or rather I surmise - from experience so far and observation - that towards the end there will be much kicking of the machine, to get scarcer and ever more inferior candy until the last coin is spent. 

Before you know it, before you know that it's the last, before you've had time to take the time to think (as you will have promised yourself a million times) about your life. Curtains. Silence. Discarded wrappings and no change left behind.

I realise how completely meaningless this would sound to a 10 year old boy like you. So let me recap and put this in a language you can understand:

Guess who my favourite little person in the world is? By what percentage? (50 per cent? 85 per cent? What do you say? 100 per cent?). Can you list any or all the ways in which I love you, can you? And finally, and for oh, the fourteen thousandth time, guess who's auntie's sweet Mouse?


Friday, 8 November 2013

In which I get my groove back. Lightly grilled, with a side of steamed broccoli.


So I'm on the 5:2 diet.
I know. I KNOW! But why don't you try to:

a) stop smoking a pack a day and shortly after
b) marry an enthusiastic cook affected by portion size blindness, at a time in your life when
c) your metabolism has reached the menopause and next thing you know you've gone and
d)buggered your back so that for months all exercise is excruciatingly painful.

Why don't you go and do that before you roll your eyes at me and give me the 'fad diets' talk?  At least I'm not on on diet pills (they are bloody expensive and the side eff... anyway, they're bloody expensive).

Thoughts so far:

For
Not at hard as I thought. You are doing this literally one day at the time. Today you fast (that means 500 calories or less) but tomorrow you get to eat normally - you are not on a diet diet.

Increased energy (arguably a rather manic energy at times but that's my favourite type anyway). In my case that has lead to increased creativity - I write more, get some interesting ideas, make interesting connections on the fasting days. (I feel quite sluggish on normal days- so now there are only 5 sluggish days a week when it used to be...always).

As I have said before, I have always held onto the meringue-chomping feminist high ground that dieting or thinking about food is an obscene waste of time and energy, holding  women back from the serious business of running the world. 

I still hold that view but I'm a pragmatist - a pragmatist who was staring size 16 in the face. Mildly obsessing over food twice a week (you have to, like, weigh carrot sticks and everything) beats obsessing over food, then consuming it, then obsessing over the food you have just consumed seven days a week.

It's totally true what they say, that you weirdly do not overeat on normal days. If anything, sporadic famine reboots your appetite and re-calibrates your sense of how large a portion should be, including the whole important basic notion that two helpings are twice as calorific as one. Yes, you read that correctly. Even if you were not particularly enjoying it and were just spooning it in your face in a half-hearted way while watching TV.  Yep, turns out that's still calories going in- who knew, right? 

But if you spent yesterday in a state of acute watchfulness, aware that a small cup of coffee with a small spoon of Splenda is 2 cal and an avocado a whopping 90, today you'll find it harder to shovel stuff in quite as mindlessly even though it is a 'normal day'.

Ultimately I guess the trick is to realise how abnormal it is - on any given day- to gobble a whole bag of jelly babies in one sitting if one has not in fact just completed an ultra marathon. The body doesn't have a chance to cope with that amount of sugar - it's simply cruel and unfair to put it through it just to give your taste buds a 15 minute thrill.

Stuff to watch out for
As my new science crush, the gorgeous Prof Robert H.Lustig, Chair of Charm and Twinkling at the University of Loveliness would say, a calorie is not a calorie, or rather - a calorie from a sprout does not do the same things to your system as a calorie from refined sugar.

So all this feverish calorie counting (on two days a week, granted, not seven) ends up producing questionable lapses, or even mini-breaks, from reason. Like when, thrown by an unexpected social engagement on the evening a 'fasting' day you find yourself muttering "How many calories in a small glass of red? A hundred? Fine, I'll have four!" and misinterpreting the shock on your friend's face you explain : "Well, I have splurged the other 100 on 180 gr of broccoli at lunch, so shoot me!"

But on the whole, actually you drink less.

Against
I suppose the only thing I can think of is sometimes, on a fasting day, when I lean in to kiss a friend goodbye I find myself thinking how totally appetising ear lobes look. Rosy, plump and yummy. Lightly grilled, with a side of steamed broccoli perhaps.

But as long as I don't bite that's not WEIRD weird, right?