Forget what’s on the inside

IMG_0765.JPGAsk the Beast, of French fairy tale (and latterly Disney) fame.

Whilst watching this latest Hollywood retelling with The Bloke and the offspring  recently, I got to wondering (and missed half the plot as usual) whether a brutal and prolonged moral lesson can really ensure permanent transformation from a snooty and self-serving bounder into a paragon of virtue?  I am in two minds, as is my wont. But I promise a conclusion.

A few hundred years in beastly form with only a clock and a candlestick worth talking to (did I just diss a teapot and a coatstand? I think I did) would probably give one pause for thought. I imagine it’s a macro version of having D+V and resolving to change your life as soon as you’re off the closet (up at dawn, running shoes on, ayurvedic diet henceforth): you mean it at the time, but as soon as the memory of the cramps and the astonishing stench in the bathroom has faded, you’re eating kebabs, drinking absolutely no turmeric tea whatsoever and spending your evenings watching Judge Judy. And what’s to stop the prince reverting to type after the honeymoon period, when the banality of life sets in? I’ll give Belle a month – tops – before her newly transmogrified, less hairy spouse is looking down his nose at the locals, throwing obscenely lavish parties and leaving his socks on the floor for her to pick up. People like him don’t change.

So that’s one mind. Here’s the other.

I do believe under certain circumstances people can and do make changes. Positive, lasting ones. Consider this interaction from earlier today. But first, the backstory…

The Bloke read the last of the Adrian Mole books recently. He hasn’t read the first, or the others. Just the last one.  Mr Mole is now a hapless socially inept man and not a naive schoolboy of 13¾. However, the Bloke loved it, laughed all the way through it, couldn’t put it down. But why didn’t he get the first one, first? The classic? Because he’s impatient, that’s why. It wasn’t in the library, simple as that. After he’d raved about this book, we discussed the fact that neither of us have the read the original (which I’m embarrassed as a child of the 80’s to admit. I was probably distracted by the rude parts in my mother’s DH Lawrence collection at the time).  So, the next time I’m in the library, on a whim, I order The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, aged 13¾, on my library card. Not the Bloke’s. Mine (The thrill of interlibrary loan requests, I can’t begin to tell you. Books for free! Library closures should be fiercely resisted). My email to herald the arrival of Adrian came yesterday. The Bloke and I, having a rare day together today minus our precious progeny nipped in the library on our way out for a luxury sandwich. He returned his copy of ‘Spitfires, Spies and Sheds for the Casually Interested’ and wandered off to the DIY section.  I returned  ‘100 Flowers Fairies and Cupcakes for the Emancipated’ and retrieved Adrian, which I then waved aloft with a gleeful ‘Bloke! Look what I’ve got!’ Then we went for our wildly anticipated lunch, the Bloke cutting a strangely silent, brooding figure.

More scene-setting required now. Patience, a conclusion is coming!

I have a list of books I feel I should read – classics, Man Booker winners, the Times list of ones to read before you turn your toes up, etc etc. I am slowly working my way through this list. It’s taking some time. There have been mishaps. I ordered Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, only to find I’d ordered the easy reader version. Middlemarch on collection disappointingly turned out to be not the novel at all, but A-Level notes on the novel. This has set me back. What has also set me back is greed and laziness. I pick up too many at once. I read more than one at a time. I pick up ones not on the list. Adrian Mole is not on the list (although it probably should be). But I read the first paragraph, a fatal mistake, knowing that Horse Walks into a Bar (Man Booker winner, boring me to tears) is on the floor next to the bed,  abandoned. I really should finish Horse first. Show some backbone.

So perhaps it was guilt that led to this exchange with the Bloke.  We’re driving home following our aforementioned eating-without-children hedonism and I’m sniggering to myself already, reading snippets of Adrian out to him. He gets this wistful, sad look on his face and gazing at the book in my hands says ‘I wish I’d got that out’, in a tiny voice full of longing. We pull up and get out of the car and I hear myself say ‘Bloke, I am willing to let you read it first.’ A look of high suspicion first. A narrowing of the eyes.

‘Really?’ he says ‘You would do that for me?’

‘Yes’,  I reply  ‘because I am a good and kind person’.

The Bloke is transformed. A beatific smile, part joy, part disbelief passes over his face. St Paul himself could hardly have looked more radiant. He is clearly moved by this act of self-sacrifice, and, close to tears now he reaches his arms out for me and says ‘Wife, you’ve come such a long way.’ We embrace, I go and fetch the boring Man Booker from upstairs, he puts the kettle on, opens Adrian and promptly falls asleep with it on his chest. The end.

Now this says far more about me than it does about him. He is accustomed to my inability to share (especially food) and hotly debating the right to watch Twin Peaks before Game of Thrones, and refusing to let the children win at games unless it’s a genuine, unassisted win. The Boy has yet to win a game of snap, for example and I am steadfastly tolerating the hissyfits that ensue. This is not just about selfishness by the way, it’s about what is right and proper. Justice, that’s the word. I got that book out fair and square he was expecting me to say, fastest finger first, loser.

But no. For I have made changes. This does not mean that my value system has changed at all. I still think things should be fair. But now I’ve confused myself and I stupidly promised a conclusion (this often happens when  I start writing  – or is that righting? – about this sort of human-quagmire stuff). Was this a pure act or not? Or does it mean that I can bend my values when it suits me? Am I just helpless against the Bloke’s puppydog routine? Does it mean that I have not made any genuine changes at all?  That I am just acting out another more subtle facet of my deep seated self-centredness? Was my first mind correct?

I don’t think so. I really have made changes. To my behaviour at least. It’s about flexibility. Having fixed ideas is not the same as a coherent value system and is nothing to be proud of.  I can shift my love of fairness and act out of something else (kindness, love, generosity) without resentment and without  worrying that I’ve lost face, or credibility. There are other small but notable shifts: I can admit fault more readily; I can wear clothes that are not black; I can challenge rudeness in others, sometimes without swearing. I like to think that this is due to having put in some serious psychological and emotional elbow grease over the last few years. Age might have something to do with it, and becoming a parent, but without the work I think The Bloke would be looking daggers at me right now with  ‘Barbecues, Explosions and Boobs Through the Ages’ open on his knee whilst I would be hooting at Adrian’s Dad getting the dog pissed on cherry brandy.

Right, then. A conclusion.

Can people change or not? I believe people can make changes to their behaviour, with practice and a big dose of willingness, yes. In other words, a leopard can rearrange its spots on a temporary basis. But it will always have those spots and they will always gravitate to their usual position. The de-beastified prince will always be arrogant and vain at base even after the magical equivalent of gastroenteritis. But he might abstain from looking in every mirror he passes and the next time an elderly woman knocks at the door and asks for shelter on a stormy night he will probably welcome her in with great cheer and offer to rub her feet. Some will argue this would makes his behaviour invalid, inauthentic or even dishonest. and I would disagree. When it comes down to it, what matters is what we do and say, not what we think. You could even argue that we are even more noble when we are willing to behave in a way that is good – because it’s the right thing to do – even when our thoughts run to the uncharitable. When we do this, it’s acknowledgement of our basic human twattishness and aspiring to something better. When we are talking about behaviour, it’s what’s on the outside that counts.

One final note, for the benefit of the Bloke: Enjoy Adrian, my love. But please, hurry up with it.

Advertisements

How to write

 

I’m afraid this advice might be annoying. I was definitely annoyed when I learned the secret. I wanted a chant, a tincture, or at least a step by step guide on wikihow. Actually, there is one of those, but it doesn’t work. It turns out the formula is very simple, but often hard to do.

You just have to do it. You can’t learn to make a table by thinking about wood, regardless of how many guides you read. At some point you have to have a go at making a table. There’s really no other way to make a table happen.

But let me just backtrack a bit, in order that you might reap benefits from my mistakes. Some time ago I started keeping a list of ideas, a stockpile of stories and blogs waiting to be written. Some floated into mind while I was doing something mundane, some were overheard conversations, weird dreams, or something on the news. I dutifully wrote these ideas down, for future reference – and then forgot to write any of them. Forgot about them completely in fact.

So this list of ideas sat there, waiting resentfully in the wings for an attack of blogger’s guilt. When I eventually found it in a long forgotten folder and blew the virtual dust off it, every one of these ideas – beautiful, original, startlingly relevant and impossibly witty at the time, all of a sudden seemed sort of stale.

Lesson number one then: ideas are like bread from the in-store bakery at Morrison’s (which is really nice – that’s not the point at all – I am in no way denigrating Morrison’s bread, or any other Morrison’s product, they’re all marvellous, please don’t sue): you have to cut it up and use it for sandwiches on the day, the next day at the absolute latest, otherwise it’s no good.  Completely unusable. Yes, you could freeze it but it’s not the same. It loses that lovely fluffy, springy texture and the only thing you can do is toast it and hope for the best. Which is sort of what you have to do with the idea. And believe me when I say, that trying to breathe life into an old idea makes for excruciatingly unnecessary hard work.

Honestly, this is all true. Write a list and do nothing with it, and when you come to look at it again, it will seem lame, trite, naïve, pointless. You could experiment with this if you really need proof, but I wouldn’t recommend it (I’m still trying to think whether I’ve had any ideas that last forever like crap white sliced from the corner shop. I’m sure I have. Anyway). In my case, this experience sent me scurrying back into my non-writing cave of self pity.

So when inspiration strikes, you just have to sit down and get it hammered out. Do not delay. It doesn’t matter if it’s full of typos or if it doesn’t flow right away. Because this is lesson number two: just doing something – anything – creates a kind of magic. Honestly, this is also true.

I have a quote from Stephen King above my PC at home where I usually write, it goes like this:

‘Don’t wait for the muse… Your job is to make sure the muse knows where you are going to be every day from nine til’ noon. Or seven til’ three. If he does know, I assure you that sooner or later he’ll start showing up.’

This is very important for all would-be writers (or artists of any description) to remember.  My own writing history has involved a lot of sitting around and sighing, waiting for a perfectly formed idea that I will of course simple transcribe as it flows into me – from the ether, via my mind, through the pen and onto the page. Easy.

I was in my early thirties before I realised that a book was not simply going to present itself in finished form while I sat watching Tipping Point and hey presto – a bestseller! This was a crushing blow. It involved some thrashing around, and shaking my fist at the sky, lamenting the lost years and telling myself that not only am I not good enough but that I’ve also left it too late and should just forget about it. Luckily, through a series of fortunate events  I learned the secret, and got over myself.

Just write. Anything. Something. Just move the pen, the pencil, fingers over keys.

This is an on-going process, usually preceded by dread and fear. Some writers claim that a blank page fills them with excitement and happiness and they just can’t wait to get started. I think they are in the minority. Most of the time, my opening sentences begin like this:

‘I don’t know what I’m doing. I don’t know what to say. What is this piece meant to be about anyway. I don’t know how to start. Oh, bollocks. BOLLOCKSBOLLOCKSBOLLOCKS’

It doesn’t matter. What matters is that I start typing and keep going for as long as it takes before the magic happens and all that nonsense drops away, including self-consciousness. That’s when  words become sentences become paragraphs become stories.

So a quick recap on how to write: sit down and start writing. Every single day. And when the muse finally does turn up and plants a seed in your imagination, write it down as quickly as possible. I find imagining smoke billowing off the keyboard helps.

See? Easy.

 

 

 

 

 

What you wearing tonight?

 

I don’t get out very often. So I may just be very behind, but I was pleasantly surprised recently when I found myself in a busy and popular bar at night. It could be that I’ve frequented the wrong places all these years or maybe I’m the wrong demographic or something and its always been like this. But I’m not a full time hermit (yet) and this was really quite striking. And I’m not talking about the price of Rola Cola.

Women’s clothing, and demeanour. Women – in this bar at least – are neither dressing to live up to hypersexualised stereotypes, nor to suit expectations of femininity in general, or even to any particular trend these days. Now the fact that I am blogging today about how women dress when they go out might suggest that I too am bowing to prevailing social attitudes to women, so let me redress the balance. Men also dress to trend and to expectation. But historically and certainly in the 90’s when I was clubbing and having (ahem) large portions it has been women’s clothing that has been far more subject to scrutiny and judgement, which is my justification for focusing on it today.

Against the worrying backdrop of rape culture in the media; the rise of lapdancer/glamour model as valid career choice/ independent sexually liberated woman and thirteen year old duck-faces on instagram (gah) – was this bar. It contained a broad range of ages and ethnicities. I can’t be certain about social class but I’d take a guess at largely educated middle class (which is pertinent, honestly I’ll come back to that) and these women were wearing all manner of clothing, that I wouldn’t normally associate with a night on the tiles (which of course reveals a lot more about me than I’m comfortable with but never mind).

Corduroy pinafores, skirts with full petticoats, dungarees, checked shirts, pigtails, shaved heads, theatrical makeup, no makeup at all, big ole’ glasses and a sea of flat shoes, boots and sandals. These women were dressed to suit themselves, or dressed for comfort, or dressed for a giggle, or dressed without even giving it a second thought. There certainly seemed to be very little sense of competition in the air, or that nasty judgmental edge I associate with trendy bars. I also didn’t sense anything predatory. No leering gangs of men mutely scanning the room, pointing out the most pissed women to each other (sorry but that really does happen), no unfortunate lapses of judgement on the dancefloor. And I would say as a teetotaller that I’m in a good position to carry out a reliable assessment (sobriety can often mean that you are left with time to observe what’s going on, which is more fun that you might think. More about that another time). It was a joyful sight to behold. These women were having fun. In fact, everyone appeared to be having fun. Folk were absorbed in conversation, engaging with one another, and as far as I could tell, the only person concerned with the length of anyone’s skirt was me, ironically.

So how has this happened? Is it possible that women are finally pushing through all that virgin/whore crap against all the odds, that there is a gathering of momentum for women to have control of their own identity and not feel somehow ‘less than’ if they aren’t crippling themselves on 6 inch platforms (and please don’t tell me a thick platform sole makes them more comfortable. This is hideous self-deception. They might make the heel shorter in relation, but they also make it harder to balance which increases stress on the calf muscles and the likelihood of snapping your foot clean off at the ankle. They are not comfortable. Just needed to clear that up…)? Or, have I been asleep for a million years and woken up to a world where Caitlin Moran is compulsory reading in all comprehensive schools? God, I wish.

Sadly, I suspect divergence is what’s actually happening. This was not a bar frequented by poor or uneducated women. Those women are forced into city centres where shots are 2 for 1. I’m sure there were exceptions as there always are, but I’m from a working class – nay, underclass – background and I know my own. As already noted, and if MSN newsfeed is anything to go by, women are still being measured and judged by extremely narrow standards, placing themselves in risky situations in the name of sexual freedom (like the phenomenon of  women being pressured into sending nude selfies which inevitably end up on their Nan’s Facebook page ) and being afforded virtually zero protection from the establishment that encourages girls to sacrifice their integrity in the first place. Are the statistics changing at all, in terms of violence against women for example (for which current sexist attitudes undoubtedly provide fertile ground)? Nope. That particular statistic has been stable for about 30 years last I heard. And yet the first questions we all ask (myself included I’m ashamed to say but this is how deeply ingrained this stuff is) are along the lines of ‘why did she walk home alone?’ or even ‘what was she wearing?’ when the question really ought to be ‘why does that person think it’s ok to sexually assault someone?’ or ‘why does that person have no respect for women’ or ‘ why does that person have no ability to exercise restraint?’ or perhaps most importantly ‘what are we going to do as a society – as a community –  to change the behaviours of abusers and stop the rot at an earlier point in their development and encourage both boys and girls to respect each other?’

So. What to make of the notable costume change in my trendy bar? If we assume that there really is divergence – with one half of us reaching higher and the other half racing to the bottom – is there anything to celebrate here at all? Like all good Geminis I’m going to say yes and no. For one layer of society it’s an incredibly good thing, and I’d say an exciting time. The women I observed were not ‘dressing down’ to avoid male gaze, or unwanted attention – they were not hiding themselves away or practising modesty. Au contraire. These women were having fun and making choices and being playful with their identities – not imprisoned by them – and expressing themselves however the hell they want. And so they should. More power to them. There also seems to be a growing youth movement, most apparent on social media and in the recent election and it’s about bloody time. There’s definitely a call to arms, a call for social change in the air and an energy to accomplish the impossible.

What we need to remember though – and this is the ‘no’ part of my answer – is not to leave the poor and the poorly educated behind. We have to remember that the playing field is not at all level and as ever, the have-nots by their very definition have less choice, less power, and less of a voice. If those of us who can afford values have to take the lead then so be it. We could make a good start by remembering how fortunate we are next time we are actively choosing from our smorgasbord of available styles, and by refusing to participate in any form of poor-bashing or woman-blaming or any other toxic hatey behaviours that we all indulge in from time to time if we’re honest. I don’t think we are completely doomed as a species, not yet anyway.

Contouring appears to be on its way out as well, I have noticed. There’s hope for us yet.

Life on the outside

A disclaimer: it is the hottest day of the year at the time of writing: the sky is blue and cloudless, roses are nodding in the breeze and the day seems generally at peace with itself. This will no doubt have a bearing on today’s musings.

I left my job a month ago. Preceding this was a 12 week notice period- which I framed as a cooling off period (for me not them). During this time I vacillated from terror to excitement, against a perpetual backdrop of low level worry. This was fuelled by those around me who asked at least once a day how I was feeling, and was I sure I’d made the right decision. Their bewilderment was understandable. It was a job with security, generous terms and conditions, a pension and I was doing reasonably well performance wise. And there I was chucking it all away with no real plan and certainly not another job to go to. Being asked for the millionth time if you’re sure, really really sure, can cause one to dither. And dither I did; readying myself for the onset of crashing depression and anxiety the minute my P45 flopped onto the doormat.

I expressed my misgivings to another of my Sensible Friends one fevered evening over the phone. Almost whispering with shame ‘I’m worried it might not be the right thing to do’ as if showing anything less than cast-iron certainty is a sign of character weakness. ‘Well,’ she said, ‘you’re never going to know are you? All you can do is make the best of the decision you’ve made.’ Excellent advice. The truth is there are no wrong decisions really, just decisions you make based on your information, resources and values at the time, one of the principles of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. And Buddhism. Sensible Friend’s soothing words helped me more than anything else to push through those final very weird 12 weeks and out the other side, where I emerged blinking in the daylight.

But still, I was concerned about the aftermath.

I’m not known for coping well with unstructured time (ask The Bloke) and also have a chronic self criticism habit. But a month in and I actually feel great. This is a miracle, for someone with a terrible fear of tempting fate to be saying. But there it is. There has been no hand-wringing. No tears. No Jeremy Kyle or a longing for synthetic opioids (the odd Pinterest binge doesn’t count). Apart from the fact – to which all retired people will attest – there’s so much to do I’ve often wondered how I ever squeezed in a full time job. With half an eye on that disclaimer– I feel more free that I ever did when I had a wage. I’m writing every day (which was the idea, so I must stop saying I’m not working because I actually am ); I’m spending time with the children (which has its drawbacks); I’m getting some exercise and I’m growing broccoli. BROCCOLI. Also lettuce and carrots. Oh, and a bonsai tree. It turns out the man over the fence is called Phil and he gave me some marigolds the other day. Not the rubber glove kind, and no, not a euphemism.

And this is not like annual leave. Usually,  a weeks holiday would be preceded by at least a month of list writing and frantic pinning of how-to’s with titles like get a bootylicious arse in just half an hour. Resolutions to start my Christmas puddings off; cook and freeze a gallon of Bolognese, one of chilli and one of soup (to save time when back at work and ensure the kids are getting their five a day obviously); tackle the mould on the window seals; get the kids enrolled in Parkour classes and watch all 22 episodes of Twin Peaks season 2 , all whilst making bloody certain to be completely and utterly relaxed before going back to work would have been written on tablets of stone well before.

This never ends well. It usually involves a growing sense of dread, frothing at the mouth and berating the Bloke about his lack of productivity, which he likes to call ‘relaxing’, or something.

Nope, this is not like that at all. Although I admit there’s still time. I seem on the contrary to have settled into a way of life for which I am deliriously grateful. I’m lucky to have a bewaged husband of course and other things to interest me besides housework. Which interests me very little and of which I am doing less than I did before. If The Bloke was blogging, I assure you he would be blogging about that confusing turn of events.

I have discovered my street has a heartbeat of its own. It does not disappear into the mist like Brigadoon when I pull off the drive in the morning and stagnate all day until I get back. There is a life. I’ve become familiar with the birds in the garden, and I actually recognise not only the blackbirds’ song, but the blackbirds themselves. Mr. and Mrs. Blackbird, as I have cleverly named them. This happy couple frequent our garden every morning to eat worms and The Blokes’ grass seed which infuriates him and amuses me, and every evening Mr B. sits in the same tree and sings his lovely song. Forgive the anthropomorphism, I know he’s just being territorial but not waking every morning with a sense of dread allows room for romance to blossom.

I think then, that the ingredients of a quiet mind whilst being at least temporarily out of paid work are trust (that things will be ok one way or another); a willingness to notice the world; a partner happy to support you for a bit, or savings. It may be irresponsible of me to say it but work – of the substantively contracted variety – is not everything. We don’t have to pin our sense of self on the job we have in order to feel whole and worthwhile and we don’t have to know what’s happening next week in order to feel safe. This has been a revelation to me. Not everyone can ditch their job I appreciate that, but I remember feeling this way years back, on getting out of a relationship that had become toxic to both of us but felt impossible to end. After the break had been made I had this giddy feeling  that nothing has to stay the same and it’s mostly within your power to change at least some of it. The bottom line is you can always adapt – we humans are excellent at it in fact – and you will find a way to cope even if it’s a bit choppy in places. Isn’t it always a bit choppy anyway, whether you stay in your safe situation or not? It might mean some losses, or living a bit tighter but so what? There’s worse things that having to paint your own nails. As my sister reminded me recently, nothing changes if nothing changes. And Sensible Friend is bang on: there are no bad decisions.

Apart from cutting your own hair and Crocs. And Donald Trump, obviously.

Crowdfunding your Masters for the pathologically self-critical: a step by step guide.

  1. First of all you need an offer of a place on a Masters degree, preferably in a subject you really want to study.
  2. Accept the place.
  3. Panic, for at least a day. Rip off some hangnails, that usually helps.
  4. Wonder if you’re being a little bit silly and go and sort out your funding.
  5. Realise with shock and horror that the funding you assumed you could get is not open to you and you don’t have six and a half grand lying around for the fee.
  6. Panic again. Do a bit of crying and catastrophising and get it out of your system. This is an essential step.
  7. Pull self together and think rationally.
  8. Decide September is months away and there might be other things you can think about before phoning up the University and dramatically declining the place.
  9. Do a bit of research on postgraduate scholarships and go and meet Sensible Friend for coffee. Seize the opportunity to be negative and glum about the cost of education and how hard it is to change careers whilst Sensible Friend listens and nods. Frown with mouth hanging open, as Sensible Friend says ‘why don’t you crowfund it? Other people do’. Try not to froth, or dribble. But laughter is allowed and might help. Laugh long and hard because Sensible Friend cannot possibly be serious can he?
  10. Go home. Sit around feeling uncomfortable for a day or two without really knowing why.
  11. Open emails and find a reply to the email you sent to the University Admissions Service whilst in the crying stage that you had completely forgotten about. Follow the link provided to the Alternative Funding Guide. Find a link right at the bottom, to Crowdfunding your Masters. Tell yourself it’s at the bottom of the list for a reason but decide to have a little look anyway because it’s better than doing the ironing. Vaguely recollect Sensible Friend’s suggestion.
  12. Discover that crowdfunding is a stunningly easy thing to pull together and that the majority of crowdfunding websites are extremely helpful and also that the internet is awash with advice: https://www.prospects.ac.uk/postgraduate-study/funding-postgraduate-study/crowdfunding-your-masters
  13. Have a look at what other people are crowdfunding and realise you don’t have to be trying to start a business or raising money for someone else. People do this all the time. Notice that one person made £26,000 in 5 weeks for her course: http://www.bbc.co.uk/newsbeat/article/28585425/student-raises-her-university-fees-through-crowdfunding
  14. Wonder if you could do it too.
  15. Text The Bloke and ask him what he thinks about this. Fully expect him to tell you to look at other options first because this seems a bit extreme, and well, kind of cheeky. Be alarmed and slightly giddy when he replies ‘what have you got to lose? I say do it’.
  16. This next step must be completed before moving on to actually starting a crowdfunding page: prepare yourself for the head-tapes (those statements usually learned during formative years that lay like rakes in long grass that spring up and wallop you in the face when stepped on/triggered/activated) to start playing on repeat in your head. These will be extremely loud and you will need the equivalent of earmuffs for your soul in order to go ahead with your crowdfunding plan. Your old friend What Will People Think? and it’s nasty little sidekick Who Do You Think You Are? are likely to be among the worst offenders. Protection from these is critical.
  17. A helpful tip is to recall how many times these head-tapes have caused you to miss opportunities in your past. Also, try to remember how short life is.
  18. Write your statement. It may be necessary to practice a little self-deception here and pretend you are doing this for someone else, in order to thwart What Will People Think? and Who Do You Think You Are? You must not let them get a foothold and you must not act on this toxic nonsense, which is designed to stop you from creeping out of the safety of your cave and into the unknown where there might be wild animals, poisonous plants, and possibly sunlight and success.
  19. Having done this preparation, spellchecked your statement and asked The Bloke to proofread it, get the damn thing uploaded and share it to as many social networking platforms as possible. Don’t think. Just do it. You may need to have a little lie down at this point. Perhaps a cup of tea. This is OK. It is also OK to hide at home and turn your phone off but try not to do this for more than a few hours.
  20. Do not take off your soulmuffs just yet, as the noise from the head-tapes is likely to remain deafening.
  21. Look at your page every 30 seconds before realising this is not a helpful thing to do. Realise that in order to keep it together, you must in fact face and answer the head-tapes as this is often the only way to shut them up.

The following has been completed for your convenience but feel free to adapt to your circumstances:

Question: What Will People Think?

Answer: A range of things. Some will think you’re bloody rude, asking for money while others will think you’re very brave and will wish you all the luck in the world. Some will think you have ideas above your station and some will wish they had your vision and determination. Some will think you just have no right to do such a thing, others will think nothing at all and go back to wondering what to have for dinner. Some might think you’re a legend (and might even text to tell you so) while some won’t get it. Some might be inspired to do things they’ve always dreamed of and others will think you’re pathetic and needy and will be furious and not know why.

Question: Who Do You Think You Are?

Answer: Maybe someone as worth investing in as anyone else (Top Tip: turn on the TV and look agog at the people who have been bankrolled). Maybe you think you are someone who really, really wants something, someone who knows that regret is worse than fear. Someone who is not forcing anyone’s arm up their back. Someone who feels uncomfortable asking for help. Maybe even, you are someone who finds self-promotion very hard (rude even, especially if you are British) even whilst admiring others who do it with ease. Maybe you think you are a person who values politeness and hard work and that success can only be achieved with solitary toil and self sacrifice.

  1. On completion of this step have another cup of tea. A good strong one. Yorkshire, if available.
  2. Have a realisation at this point that it really is none of your business what other people think. Also that these head-tapes are going to play, and keep playing, whether you go for it or not. Also that The Bloke was right, dammit. You have nothing to lose.
  3. Decide that you should go back to your neglected blog for the first time in three years and include the link to your crowdfunding page in order to spread the word as far possible: https://www.gofundme.com/no-donation-too-small

(NB: It may be necessary to repeat steps 12-23, replacing the words crowdfunding with blogging, or similar.)

  1. Thank Sensible Friend, The Bloke and anyone else who has helped, inspired, supported or otherwise cheered you on. These people are impossible to value.
  2. Continue to feel scared, but allow yourself to feel a tiny bit proud.
  3. Have an early night.

Can’t we just get married?

I’ve got to plan a wedding.

Just making that statement makes me want to poke my own eyes out. Really that kind of summarises it, but it wouldn’t make for a very interesting blog, and getting it out of my head and onto a screen might be therapeutic.

The Bloke and I are entirely different creatures. The Bloke is very comfortable in his own skin and totally unbothered by what people think. This is the man who will drink Bailey’s in a pub while his mates are swilling down Carlsberg. Doesn’t care.And he won’t be rushed, or influenced. It’s one of the reasons I love him (and one of the reasons I want to kill him but that’s for another day). We complement each other, because I am as highly-strung as they come. Occasionally, I forget he’s impossible to manipulate and I make the mistake of sitting him down for ‘a talk’. So when we had ‘a talk’ about planning the wedding now that we’ve set a date, I shouldn’t have really been surprised by his response. I started by explaining how I wanted it to be a joint venture and not all about me, and how unfair it is that women make all the decisions and do all the work and the men turn up on the day wearing a suit and take half the credit. I went on about how we might decide together on a colour scheme and how we need to give some serious thought to having a hot buffet table. He stared thoughtfully into the middle distance for a while, nodding slowly, apparently to himself while he composed a response. This is his usual method. Eventually he agreed that booking venues and catering and so forth takes some organising and the labour ought to be equally divided. But he also stated quite plainly that he wasn’t interested in flowers, decorations and invitations, and that he couldn’t pretend otherwise and was categorically not going to spend hours on end trawling pinterest for inspirational ideas for bridesmaid gifts. ‘If you think that’s a valuable use of your time’ he said, ‘go right ahead. But don’t expect me to.’ I accused him of not being bothered about getting married and being disinterested in my ideas. He disagreed, calmly. He said that what’s important to him is marrying me. Not whether the guests will be impressed by the vintage vases I suggested we  collect at junk stores over the coming months to dress the room and what colour the bunting is. And then he went on to remind me of what I’d said years ago before we had kids.

Once upon a time, I had said (and he’d agreed), that we shouldn’t have a big wedding. That I thought we should keep it low-key, that ‘working class’ should be the only theme, that we should aim for as plain as possible. Get married, have a party. That’s it. Paper plates, sausages on sticks, second-hand frock, working men’s club, Sarah Lee black forest gateau going off at the end of the buffet table, disco ball, sandwiches curling at the edges (Stork on white bread only, none of that pretentious ‘artisan’ bullshit), a few balloons from Asda, relatives fighting (possible police attendance), disco ball, bad DJ. Like the weddings we remember fondly from childhood. Let’s be true to our background I said. Nothing smacks so much of desperation than tulle tie-backs on chairs at a wedding where the happy couple work at Morrison’s and a call centre respectively. We don’t have much money, so why should we pretend, I droned on, why should we bow to pressure from a society obsessed with image? Let’s not be that couple that starts their marriage in debt. We already have debt! Let’s not accrue more! The Bloke agreed, and went back to his Xbox.

And then something happened to me. It happened almost as soon as we set a date. It was a subtle onset. It started with a vague uneasiness over choice of venue.  Registry offices are like conveyor belts, I thought. I don’t want to be herded through like a sheep in a dress. Surely the day we commit ourselves legally should mean more than that? And if it’s important to us (and it is), maybe we should think more carefully about it. And then I made a decision that made my descent into madness inevitable. I googled ‘wedding ideas’ and was thrown to the floor by the sheer volume of opulence staring back at me on the screen. Christ. Weddings can really look beautiful. And all so unique! These couples have really thought about it; about who they are, and they have cleverly and deftly translated this into a physical representation of their shared history to delight their friends and family who have stood by them through thick and thin in celebration of kinship and love. So that’s what we need to do, I thought. I spent the next 48 hours glued to weddings.com and flicking through Brides, glistening with sweat and trembling with shame and inadequacy. A working men’s club just would not do. Unless I could somehow convert it into an indoor enchanted forest. I wondered, my mind racing insanely, if there were rules about superglueing horns onto horses mottled with gold leaf, or if Uncle Bob and Aunty Freda would appreciate a hog roast. I was close to spontaneous combustion at this point. And that’s when me and the Bloke had ‘a talk’. His refusal to engage in any of it meant I had to look elsewhere for support. I sent an SOS text to my best friend, five years married.

She had some very useful things to say. During that fevered telephone conversation I was gabbling on about how much I hate themed affairs and bemoaning the plethora of new ‘traditions’ creeping across the pond that no-one used to care about like rehearsal dinners and favours. What the fuck is that even about? We had none of this in the 80’s and everything was fine then thanks (apart from Thatcher shafting the infrastructure of British society). She listened politely, while I railed against sit-down dinners, marshmallows that colour-coordinate with the groom’s tie and £1000 wedding cakes. She made comforting ‘I’m listening and I understand’ noises while I screeched about how many lists I’d already made and articles in magazines with titles like ‘Modern Vintage’. At this she stopped me mid-rant.

‘Amanda. Stop. You’re delirious. Why are you looking at wedding magazines?’

‘For ideas! Because I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing!’

She sighed. ‘looking at wedding magazines to learn how to do a wedding is like looking at Cath Kidston catalogues to learn how to do parenting.’

I felt my blood pressure start to come down. She went on to explain that before she and the Bloke got married, she’d been unfortunate enough to get caught up as a guest in a series of increasingly competitive weddings within one particular friendship circle. She used it to research a theory she had long suspected: that the amount of money spent on a wedding is inversely proportional to the success of the marriage. She hasn’t formally collated and analysed this data at the time of writing but the results are emerging. She fondly remembers that the couple who sent the most elaborate invitation (on opening, an image of a quirky tea-party in carnival pastels was projected on the ceiling accompanied by jingle-jangle accordion music as a shower of rose-scented glitter was fired into the air to spell out ‘Sasha and Ben’ as it settled on the carpet. The envelope was delivered by a kitten wearing a tiny top-hat too), never even made it down the aisle. Most of the couples who wed during that angst-ridden, hysterical summer are now divorced or separated. She and the Bloke are going strong and they spent a tiny fraction of the average £15K spend. She went on to suggest that I need to be clear about what the conflict is. Like all good counsellors, she allowed me to come to my own conclusions. The conflict, I said, is that politically I hate the whole circus, but I’ve been drawn into it because of my natural personality type which even at rest is as taut as a drumskin. The result is my losing a sense of what I really want, and what’s important. And then it dawned on me. It’s not marriage I have a problem with, it’s weddings. The industry sets out to exploit the depth of our feelings and the impact is an intoxicating set of expectations, even for dyed-in-the-wool cynics like me. The wedding culture is so powerful now that we literally buy into the idea that the fabulousness of the occasion is representative of how much you love each other. It’s all complete bollocks. Another good friend of mine commented that once it was simply a case of donning your best dress and getting your mother to make a few sandwiches. Which supports the inverse proportion theory. Weddings have got more extravagant and divorce rates have sky-rocketed. There may not be a causal link but there’s undeniably a correlation. Thank god for impervious Blokes and best friends.

And so sanity has returned for now. I have even stopped hating on other people’s weddings. I’m just relieved and grateful that I don’t have to get into the same froth. I pity those other couples, it’s not nice to be stressed beyond rational thought over one day. I’ve even stopped resenting the fact that the Bloke didn’t secretly film his proposal.  The magazines have gone in the circular file, and I’ve got the Bloke to alter the internet parent settings. He was more than happy to oblige and he has even taken it upon himself to find a venue for the reception.

And they lived happily ever after.

Spend, spend, spend!

We had tears in our house the other morning. Tears, and swooning to the floor in despair.

My five year old wants an iPad.

Being in my right mind, I have no intention of buying her an iPad and it was hearing this dreadful news that provoked the wailing. If she knew what sackcloth and ashes were I swear she would have been covered.

Her friend has one, in fact several do. Some have iPhones, or other mobile devices. One little girl we know had one at 3. I’ve wondered about the point of this for a while. Emailing and texting must be quite tricky I should imagine when you don’t have a firm grasp of written English. In any case she isn’t having one until she’s of an age to grasp a) value and b) responsibility. So, 35 or something.

I have several concerns about the appearance of technology in primary school book bags. Reduced attention spans, poor verbal communication skills and online sexual grooming are among them.  But a broader problem and one that concerns me more and more is the growing, festering canker of consumerism. Her distress was not really about the iPad, it was about fear of exclusion from her peer group, which is really what drives consumerism, and what (if I’m honest) made me feel bad about saying no to her. Nobody wants their child to feel left out.

But this is not just limited to children, this affects all of us. So pervasive and obvious is this phenomena I sort of feel stupid writing about it. Having stuff, has become synonymous with self esteem, which in turn is what helps us to feel like we belong. The difficulty is the hollowness of the experience of acquisition. The developed countries are the most anxious and depressed countries in the world. This isn’t an opinion, by the way, it’s a fact. The figures are there for anyone to check out (www.equalitytrust.org.uk/resources/links). In the West we are under constant pressure to compete socially and the destruction of any sense of belonging and community we once had has created the perfect storm. Excellent news for shareholders and retailers but disastrous for our mental health. We feel the need to acquire things – the best, most expensive things – in order to feel that we are ok, consuming more and more to be acceptable in a world where the goalposts are constantly changing. Unfortunately the crushing anxiety is still there the day after buying a 90 inch flat screen 3D smart TV. So we consume more to prop ourselves up and so it goes on. Christmas is the perfect example. We lose our minds at this time of year, striving to measure up to some out-of-reach Martha Stewart idyll promoted by the mass media. And we drop a small fortune to get there. Families are typically starting the New Year in massive debt, which I find incredibly sad. And let’s face it, Christmas day is often a disappointment. We find ourselves tired, stressed out and run-down from the overindulgence in food and alcohol. The kids are bored despite the inappropriately expensive gifts, old resentments have a tendency to surface and by Boxing Day everyone is desperate to go back to work, feeling cheated and slightly sheepish. It’s not good and we all sense it. Our response to this is to run to Boots and spend even more on vitamins and diet shakes and gym memberships to counteract the encroaching depression.

I find myself slightly terrified by this and what we are teaching our children. Yes of course we all do the ‘it-what’s-inside-that-counts’ speech but the message gets lost against the backdrop of how we actually behave. And actions speak much, much louder than words. Children model what we do, not what we say. They aren’t great listeners, to which all parents with kids will attest (unless it’s a vulgar swear-word which they will absorb like a sheet of Bounty, commit firmly to memory and drop out in public as soon as the opportunity for embarrassment arises).

I’m saying all of this and I’m just as bad. I have a wish list on my phone that I update and email to my partner on a regular basis (which he ignores but that’s another blog entirely…). I know that the quality of my relationships is what’s really important but somehow I don’t feel I can live without Yves St. Laurent babydoll mascara. (Seriously. What that stuff does for my eyelashes is nobody’s business and I’m running out) and I want some new brogues. I have some already, but I’ve seen some lovely two-tone ones. I want a new kitchen as well, something sleek and impossibly grown-up. I’m no stranger to the sensation that somehow your quality of life will improve with on-sale Kurt Geiger courts; that ‘I just have to have it’ that descends like madness and precedes an impulse buy, usually followed by guilt, shame and a round of lame justifications over a skinny latte.

What’s interesting, is that we aren’t running around doing this blindly. I was surprised to read the other day a piece of American research showing that the majority of people are really concerned about these issues and feel keenly that communities and family are more important than buying cars and holidays. The same people surveyed felt that they were alone in these feelings. Put another way, we as individuals think that nobody else cares, that nobody else has any values beyond the material. This same research team put people together in focus groups. This cohort was surprised to discover that actually, we all have the same values. Our actions say otherwise, but we feel the same. So it isn’t that we are all egotistical empty vessels obsessed with materialism. We in the West have just lost our way. There is a gaping social wound that we are all attempting to heal with tiny sticking plasters and the advertising industry is taking enormous advantage of us.

What can we do about it? Clearly, self-awareness isn’t the answer otherwise I wouldn’t still be buying makeup I can’t really afford. I think we need to begin by not beating ourselves up. It’s not our fault as individuals that things have turned out this way. The desire to be part of a group is biologically adaptive: we are less likely to survive if we are alone in evolutionary terms. The modern structure of society is the problem, not the individual and we can’t change the structure overnight, or on our own. What we can do is make small changes, and take small resistive stances. I for instance, can resist the urge to cave in and buy my child an expensive piece of equipment that she doesn’t know how to use and will probably break. I can look after myself and take steps to manage my own anxieties. I can give myself a cooling-off period before I buy anything (ever noticed how the urge passes if you’ve left your purse at home and can’t buy that dress there and then?). I can spend time with my children colouring in, talking and interacting instead of anaesthetizing them with television.

Ultimately I can try and stay connected to people. I can remember the next time I’m stuck in traffic feeling inadequate in my 12 year old Ford that the woman in the Audi next to me may not be the shallow airhead without a political conscience I’m assuming her to be. She wants deeper emotional satisfaction, equality and a quiet mind. That’s what we all want. But we aren’t going to find it nicely packaged on a supermarket shelf. We’ve got to start looking somewhere else, and we have to look together.

iPad for a five year old? Not in our house.