General waffle

Steel Rails

I’ve been spending a lot of time on trains lately. A lot. Might-as-well-just-install-a-bed level time. And I can work on trains a bit, but it’s admittedly a touch difficult to concentrate when the four-year old in the seat behind you is playing some kind of piano simulator on a tablet at high volume, and their dad is catching up on the football on his phone at equally high volume. So mostly I look out of the window when I can.

(Don’t judge me: that particular journey started at 6.30am with 4 hours sleep, 3 changes and the joy of paying £3.50 for a cup of tea when I finally cracked and decided that if I didn’t have one Something Bad was likely to happen. I was a joy that morning.)

But – noise and, you know, humans, aside – I quite like trains. I like being able to watch the world slide past the windows; because it always feels like it’s the world passing by rather than you passing through. Maybe it’s something to do with the size and the shape of the windows, which make everything outside feel like a projection simply being wheeled past you. I always get the feeling that if you were to open the window and pick up the corner of the view, you’d find an old-style cinema projectionist back there, turning a handle and watching for the cigarette burns to mark the reel switch.

Trees. Forests. Fields. Hills. Rivers. Tunnels.

Houses, back gardens. Kitchen windows.

Someone, years ago – it might have been Billy Connolly, it might have been someone else – said in an interview that they loved taking the train: people shield their lives from the road with blinds or net curtains in the windows… but they don’t bother to hide it from the railway. And ever since then, I’ve looked.

Football goals. Paddling pools. Terraces festooned with bunting and fairy lights.

Sidings with elaborate swags of carved greenery, half-buried in renegade ivy and Japanese knotweed. So many blackberries on tangles of brambles that the leaves have turned purple from the juice. Butterflies dancing around a bush.

Mist and swathes of drifting drizzle. Slices of sunlight across the fields so thick you could pick them up in your fist and watch the light pour out between your fingers. Sheep: little clouds fallen to earth. Cows like… well, like cows, really.

People running. People walking dogs, riding horses. Children. Dads playing football with their kids; mums scooping babies out of pushchairs… and dads scooping babies out of pushchairs and mums playing football with their kids.

Life. Sunsets and sunrises and everything that falls between the two. Moons and mist and dusk and dawn. Houses and mountains, cities and forests and farms.

There for the blink of an eye and then gone. All those lives. All those individual little worlds within one big wide world.

All sliding by on the steel rails.

And when we get to my stop and I shuffle out, down along the platform, the train pulls out alongside me… and as it does, a man in the window of one of the carriages catches my eye. Because he’s doing the same thing: watching all those worlds slip by.

And then he’s gone. And so is the train.

What a thing.

Still. £3.50 for a cup of tea. Pffft.

The Out-Crowd

It was a post on – predictably – an internet forum that pushed me over the edge: a thread about choosing an area based on the schools available (yes, I know. I’m a mother, we whine about this stuff, get over it).

Don’t forget to look at your local community – you adults have to fit in too!

I’ll just be over there: in the corner, calming down again.

***

I get grouchy when it comes to the topic of “fitting in”, partly because I’ve spent a very long time being obstinate and trying rather hard not to be That Person. You know the one: the kid who falls over themselves pretending to be something vaguely similar to who they really are – but not who they actually are – and ends up with a little grey cloud of self-inflicted misery trundling around after them.

It’s worse at school than at any other point in life (see Mean Girls, She’s All That, The Craft10 Things I Hate About You… and preeeetty much every teen movie made, ever) but it starts younger than you think (take a close look at any nursery or reception class playground) and carries on a lot later (I refer you to Gill Hornby’s school-gate novel The Hive, and just about every *single* women’s magazine in the world).

What it boils down to is this: we spend our formative years as an adult trying to balance figuring out who we are with who we think everyone around us would like us to be, and what we need to be to not end up getting something dumped all over us on the school bus. And then, when we emerge from our cocoon as fully-functioning adults… we have to do it all over again.

To which I say: bite me. (more…)

The Ghosts of Home

I guess I’ve always felt a little rootless. I grew up in a small town in west Wales, and when I left for university in London aged 17, I never really went back. Sure, I was back there for the holidays, but that was all: I didn’t really go back for weekends and it didn’t feel like I had to be there. Most of the people I’d grown up with had either headed off to their own universities, or stayed firmly put and rather viewed the rest of us as traitors for running off to The Big Assorted Smokes (which, when more than a few only went as far as Cardiff, seemed a little over-the-top…).

My parents moved to London (or back there, in their case) not long after I did, and the house I’d grown up in was sold. I looked at it on Streetview a year to two back. It looks different. A couple of years later, my grandparents moved to the West Country, and their old farmhouse in the middle of nowhere was sold too. As for my other grandparents’ house… well, I was living in that. Long story.

And then we sold that… and at almost exactly the same time, my mother died and I was adrift. There was nothing to anchor me, no place of safety. Nowhere to run to. Everywhere felt like a strange place and I was a stranger there. Time passed, and my father sold the flat where he’d lived with my mother and left London, and I moved again – this time from Brighton, where I’d moved literally the day before my mother died, to Bath.

I liked Brighton a lot – but I don’t think I ever managed to love it. I don’t think that was its fault, either: it had done nothing more than be the place my mother had (coincidentally) spent most of the last week of her life, and happen to be the place I was still surrounded by bags and boxes when she died. But something like that… I don’t know. It’s hard to shake.

Bath, quite without my knowing it, has become home. It has gravity. The good burghers of Bath would like you to think it has gravitas, too… but gravity’s more like it. It has something that I don’t think I’ve ever felt before. I live on the edge of the city, near the river, and look across a valley towards a hill very like the one my bedroom window looked over when I was a kid. The rain feels like the rain I remember from Wales: soft and drizzly and surprisingly wet, given how light it feels.

It’s not just the scenery here: it’s a beautiful town – more so, admittedly than where I grew up, which was a slightly rough-around-the-edges market town with half a fallen-down castle and the highest number of pubs per capita in all of Wales (and which has turned out a disproportionately high number of rugby and snooker players. Make of that what you will). It’s beautiful and it’s different and yet somehow, so much of it makes me think of “home”.

I still call it that if I’m not paying attention, Wales, even though it hasn’t been home for about half my life now – and my entire adulthood. I still call it that because I can still picture the walk from my old house into town. I still remember the stalls you’d pass if you took the shortcut through the market hall, and I still remember stopping to look at the calves standing in their pens outside the cattle mart on a Thursday afternoon after school.

I still remember the way up to the reservoirs at the top of town, where I spent more time than I should have. I remember the feel of the chains of the swings in the playground in my hands, wet from the rain. I remember the smell of the little bus stop opposite the church where I’d have to wait for the bus out to the village where my then-boyfriend was living – and always being at the stop twenty minutes early just in case, because there wouldn’t be another bus for an hour and a half. I remember the sound of shoes on the rubber matting on the ramp between the children’s and the adult section of the library, and I remember how the sky could be so grey it was almost blue, cut in half by the brightest rainbows you’ll ever see. I remember it all… but I know well enough that I can never go back.

The place that I call “home” when I’m feeling absentminded: it doesn’t exist any more. It never did. The memories are real, but you can’t point to a handful of memories on a map and call it a place. You can’t unpack a box of your things in a memory. It’s hiraeth, that most peculiarly Welsh of words (which, like “cwtch” makes instant sense to a Welshman, and defies exact explanation to everyone else… and apparently drives Autocorrect into an absolute frenzy into the bargain).

Hiraeth is homesickness, but not just for a place; for a time, for an idea. It’s nostalgia for an almost, a fairy-town glimpsed through mist across a river. It has no gravity because it’s made of gossamer.

Time moves forward and so do we – and like Pratchett’s proverbial turtle, we carry our worlds on our backs with us wherever we go. You can’t turn the world back.

Where I live now, it feels like home because it feels like it’s strong enough for roots. It can take an anchor.

I’m glad it can.

Lefou, I’m afraid I’ve been thinking…

It was this article that got me started: reporting on research conducted by Girlguiding UK which concludes that sexism in the UK is widespread enough to impact “most aspects” of girls’ lives.

“Girls identified sexism as a priority issue for their generation”, with three-quarters saying sexism affected “most areas of their lives”, says the report.

Of the 11- to 21-year-olds questioned, some 87% thought women were judged more on their appearance than their ability.

More than a third (36%) of all those surveyed had felt “patronised or made to feel stupid” because their gender, rising to 60% of the 16- to 21-year-olds.

It got me thinking, because I started to consider my own life between those ages: I started thinking about the environment I was in, about the influences around me. These are more random thoughts than any kind of conclusion, and I wasn’t entirely sure whether to post it – but in there somewhere might be something I thought was worth saying, so.

I went to a school which was – admittedly – small and – also admittedly – private. But in that school, all three of my science teachers were women. My English teacher – also a woman – was precisely the kind of take-no-shit teacher you need to sit in front of a class of rugby-playing fifteen year old boys who have no desire to be studying poetry thankyouverymuch. We had two PE teachers: one male, one female. It goes without saying that the our female PE teacher was far more hardcore than our male teacher. Oh, and she also taught both junior Maths and Classics.

My mother never really wore make-up, and I remember being utterly stunned when, at some point in her mid-50s, I discovered she’d recently bought an eyebrow pencil. When I was little, she had a jewellery box I liked to poke around in and play with. I seem to remember finding a lipstick in there once (this would have been sometime around 1987…) that had clearly been in there since around 1970. It still had a (pre-decimal) price sticker on it, and had been used at best two or three times. It wasn’t some right-on feminist statement about make-up that she was making. It was just, y’know, that for her, she had better things to be doing with her time. I guess I inherited the attitude.

One of my uncle’s many girlfriends when I was growing up took it upon herself to buy me a make-up kit one Christmas. I think, rather like my mother’s lipstick, it got used about twice. Girlfriend Number 4 called me on it at some point the following year, asking why I wasn’t wearing any make-up. I shrugged and made the kind of sound I usually made when I was a teenager. She responded by telling me that it was “a woman’s duty to wear make-up”.

The one person who ever commented on the way I looked at school was a girl.

I’ve been in two fights. Both times, I was called a bitch. Both times… by women. (Well. I say “women”. One of them was at school. There’s a backstory, which is long and tedious and involves her getting her big brother to come into school and threaten to beat me up. She called me a bitch, I threw a chair at her. It would never have occurred to me to insult her based on her gender or her appearance. Her attitude, on the other hand, or her carefree willingness to pick a fight and then hide behind her nineteen year old brother? Yeah, totally guilty.)

My university lecturers were, certainly for my BA, mostly women. The vast majority of them held doctorates. Several of them were, at the time, either in senior lecturer or head of department posts. They terrified my male classmates – particularly when the most senior and serious of all of them took the seminar on women’s bodies in medieval religious literature…

I was born in a period with both – for better or worse – a female Prime Minister, and a Queen.

When I started university as a completely green undergrad, my department arranged for a novelist to come and give a commencement address in one of our lecture theatres. As it happens, since then that particular novelist has become the first woman to be awarded the Booker Prize twice, and continues to be one of my heroes… as she has been since that day, when she took the time to stand in a university common room and talk to said completely green undergrad about what it means to be a writer.

I used to work in a very corporate environment, for a very big company. My boss had many faults – and I can still list most of them, many years later, because that’s how crazy she drove me – but she was also capable of walking into a room full of senior investment bankers and getting them to shut the hell up every single time she spoke. And she did. The Chief Executive of that same company was also a woman. Her office was just across the floor from where I sat, and every day I saw her take meetings with – again, admittedly – mostly men. It wasn’t her hairdo that got her into that position. It was the fact that she was smart and she worked hard.

All my life, I have been surrounded by strong and capable women. Talented women. I continue to be surrounded by them, both personally and professionally. I continue to be surrounded by men, too, who both value and recognise women’s ability.

It comes back to this:

Of the 11- to 21-year-olds questioned, some 87% thought women were judged more on their appearance than their ability.

More than a third (36%) of all those surveyed had felt “patronised or made to feel stupid” because their gender, rising to 60% of the 16- to 21-year-olds.

Maybe I’ve just been lucky. Others may not have had the same luck, but I can only speak for myself and my own experiences. I grew up not just believing but knowing that I could be and do whatever I wanted to be, because everywhere I looked there were women who were doing and being just that, and reinforcing the idea that a woman’s place was wherever the hell she wanted. It would never have occurred to me that the world was otherwise.

(Of course, the negative here – which also needs saying – is that the times I’ve felt someone has been judging me by my appearance or based on the fact I’m a girl, it’s been other women. There’s a thing there, but it’s complicated and needs someone a lot smarter than me to articulate it without tying him or herself in knots.)

But overall, yes. I’ve been fortunate.

It would be nice to think that the generation who follow could have at least the chance to be just as lucky, wouldn’t it…?

(And yes, that blog title is me – without a hint of irony – riffing on one of Gaston’s songs from Beauty & the Beast. Well. Maybe a *bit* of irony…)

Goody Two-Shoes

shoes

Walk a mile in their shoes.

If the shoe fits.

Dead men’s shoes.

… We have a bit of a thing about shoes and identity, culturally speaking, don’t we?

 

That’s two pairs of my shoes in the photo. One is a vertiginous pair of gold heels which have shed so much glitter about the house as I’ve been breaking them in that it looks like Tinkerbell detonated in a fit of rage.

The other is one of my (many) pairs of Converse, all of which have been through the wars a little because they get worn so much. You should see the green ones. Talk about scruffy.

Anyway. I am fortunate enough to live in a time and a place where I can choose either of these pairs of shoes. No-one will bat an eyelid if I wear the heels (although they may have to catch me when I inevitably fall over) and neither will anyone so much as flinch if I wear the trainers. This is a wonderful thing, and a freedom that many women still don’t have. I’m also fortunate enough to be in a position to own several pairs of completely impractical shoes – again, something that we take for granted.

I am – theoretically, at least – a grown up. I used to wear heels to work back in The Dark Days When I Was Corporate (we do not speak of those times). I own dresses. I own a woman’s tux jacket, a proper white shirt and a pair of grown-up black trousers. So why do I feel like a fraud in those gold shoes? Why do I feel like a kid who’s been rummaging around somebody else’s wardrobe?

It may be that I clomp around like an ostrich on drugs in them. Possibly. Long gone are the days when I could run for a bus in my heels (mind you, long gone also are the days of pulling my hair out trying to produce statistical reports for clients and the time that I got pushed off the platform of a Routemaster bus into traffic in Hackney. Oddly, I don’t actually think I was wearing heels on that particular day. That would’ve explained a lot…). Now, breaking these shoes in, I’ve been stalking about the kitchen looking like nothing so much as a sleepwalking camel. These things add to the comedy value of me in heels, but I carry the comedy with me wherever I go, alas.

So if it’s not that, what is it?

I had been planning to wear the gold shoes to the book launch tomorrow night… but quite apart from the looming spectre of tripping over my own feet in them and faceplanting in a cloud of fairy-ash, I decided against it. I put them on and suddenly I don’t feel like me any more – particularly not when they’re paired with a dress. I feel like not only am I a kid dressing up in someone else’s clothes, I’m a kid dressing up in someone else’s clothes who’s about to get found out.

I guess I’m not a heels kind of girl. I know they’re out there: I went to university with one, and my agent Juliet is another. They can work the heels.

In my case, the heels work me. And by “work”, I mean it very much in the East End, Kray Brothers, crowbar sense of the word.

My blue Converse squeak when I walk. One of the laces keeps untying itself, meaning I have to double-knot it like a demented toddler’s shoes. The tongues always scrunch themselves sideways and won’t lie flat. They are not elegant or graceful, and they make my already generously-sized feet look enormous. But I feel like myself in them. Awkward and dishevelled and squeaky and prone to putting my foot in it… but at least I don’t have to worry about being found out.

You only have to look at my shoes to know who I am.

Guess which ones I’ll be wearing tomorrow.

Heroes, & the Chemical Fall Out

So Fall Out Boy are back, and My Chemical Romance are history.

Hurrah, and boo respectively.

Fall Out Boy are a band I’ve liked for a long time, and have the dubious honour of being one whose lyrics I listen to intently. There’s an interesting way with words there that – basically – I envy.

My Chemical Romance are… were… a band with whom I have history; empathy. I’ve never been particularly worried about hiding the fact I’ve long had what (for the sake of brevity) we’ll call “issues”, and I found something in My Chem that I connected with at the exact time I desperately needed it.

It sounds trite and about as far from cool as it’s possible to be (although, let’s face it, “cool” isn’t exactly the first word that comes to mind when you think of me, I know) but they were a band who made a difference to me. And that’s what art is supposed to do, isn’t it? It’s supposed to connect with you. This did.

The thing is, I was broken.

I was broken and I was feeling alone and afraid and then I realised that the music I was listening to, the music I was connecting to on so many levels, was made by people who were broken too. That mattered. It mattered because suddenly, it was okay to be broken. It was okay to be broken and scarred and afraid and flawed, because you could be all these things and you could still make… that.

It helped, and it gave me hope.

So Fall Out Boy are back, and My Chemical Romance are history, and Wentz and Way with all their scars and all their flaws are still two of my heroes.

 

Bring the Joy

I have flu. Yay. I made it as far as the afternoon of Christmas Day, and then it sideswiped me. By ten o’clock, I was hunched in the corner of the sofa, wrapped in three blankets and making pathetic “meep” noises. I was also watching THE BOURNE LEGACY, and I can tell you I have never empathised so deeply with a character as I did with Aaron Cross, sweating his virus-mojo out in Manilla. Brother, I was right there with you.

Anyway. Viruses and chems and festive woes aside, I wanted to say thank you.

Just before Christmas, I went all serious and emotional for a bit and wrote a blog about depression and therapy and medication and… stuff.  And I put it online and assumed that most people would be far too busy doing Christmassy things to notice it, but that maybe one or two would see it – and that maybe it would be helpful.

As it turned out, rather a lot of people saw it.

And rather a lot of people got in touch – many of them privately – about it.

I wouldn’t dream of directly repeating what anyone said, but I heard from far more of you than I expected. People who’ve been on medication. People just starting it. People just coming off it. People who’ve had long-term treatment. People who’ve had short-term treatment. People who’ve had, are starting or are undergoing therapy.

So many people.

While their stories and their experiences are their own – each as individual as the person sharing them – it proved one very important thing: if you are suffering from depression, if you are undergoing treatment or think you might need it… you are not alone.

Bearing that in mind, here’s an idea.

Like pretty much everyone else with a blog, I was planning on writing an end-of-year post. You know the sort of thing: this happened in this month, and I did this, and went there and… yadda yadda yadda.

But I’m kind of tired of talking about me. (I know, right? It’s the flu talking. Must be.) I’d like to talk about you. About us. So tell me about your year.

Tell me something good that happened to you this year. Something that brought you joy. It can be a big thing, or a little thing or anywhere in between. Personal, professional, sensible, silly… it doesn’t matter. What matters is that it made you happy.

Tell me what it was, and who you are, and I’ll include it in that end of year post. You can leave a comment on this entry, or mail me via the contact form, or tweet me (and if you can include #bringthejoy, that would be super-helpful). I warn you, if there aren’t enough, I’m just going to have to go ahead and talk about me anyway – and no-one wants that, do they?

You have until the morning of New Year’s Eve.

So let’s end the year the same way we start the new one.

With joy. With optimism. With hope…

… And with each other.

Ink-redible

I had a teacher at school who would refuse to mark anything not written in blue ink. Fountain pen, mind: never ballpoint. Biros were banished – I can still remember trying to get to grips with changing the cartridge in my first fountain pen during my first week there. I was six years old, and it did not end well.

Likewise, at university we had a lecturer who was philosophically opposed to black ink; it reminded him, he said, of a “geriatric spider, crawling to its death”. He may or may not have been the lecturer who took charge of the “Gothic literature” part of the course. I couldn’t possibly comment.

Green ink, of course, is famously connected with MI6, and particularly “C”, and is also regarded as the favourite of nutty-letter writers the world over.

There’s Dragon’s Blood ink, Stark’s ink (no, not that one) and soy ink, but the one I’ve most recently discovered (and of which I’m almost certain my various teachers and lecturers would have approved) is pact ink.

Because, after all, if you’re going to make a deal with the Devil, you might as well do it right. And make sure you use a fountain pen, while you’re at it….

The Lightning Tree

So here’s what I’m reading about today: Lichtenberg figures.

I never realised that when they’re left on people, as scars resulting from lightning strikes, they’re also known as “lightning flowers”.

Seems pretty apt, really: utterly terrifying… but somehow incredibly beautiful.

Blinded by (sparkling) science

Stephanie Kwolek. Sophie Germain. Gillian Bates. Lise Meitner.

Marie-fucking-Curie.

And this is how we’re planning to attract young women into the field of science?

I wasn’t that keen on science at school. My little heart sank at the prospect of double chemistry, almost as much as it did before PE. I wasn’t as good at it as I wanted to be, and – to be honest – that frustrated me. I also found it boring.

However, it bored me because I wanted to be in English class, reading Faustus or Hamlet (true).

Saying I wasn’t as good at it as I wanted to be was not because I’m a girl and am therefore only interested in lipstick and poncing round in a pair of sunglasses: it’s because I’m Thicky McThick when it comes to science and I still can’t do a simple titration or explain how a blast furnace works*. I can, however, quote you chunks of Shakespeare and Marlowe, and tell you exactly why they have the effect on us that they do. I can read Anglo Saxon, I can give you a detailed (and mind-numbingly dull) description of the differences between the Insular and Continental traditions of early Arthurian literature.

I did not need a pink-tinted video to entice me into this.

Neither did the women whose names I’ve given above.

Like me, they chose to study and work in the fields which interested them; the fields in which they felt their talents lay. I chose arts and humanities, they chose sciences. End of debate. Boys do it too, but apparently we don’t need to try and entice them to become doctors by showing a bunch of consultants knocking back the beers or playing football, do we? And yes, that’s just as mindless a stereotype as the one in the video.

My younger cousin is about to go to university, hoping to study genetics. She spends her free time shopping with her friends and (if her Facebook page is anything to go by) making innuendo-laden comments about Justin Bieber. She goes to parties. She has an unhealthy obsession with Primark. She’s also an Air Cadet. She’s probably one of the coolest people I know, and I imagine if you asked whether her choice of future career had been influenced by that video, she would laugh at you.

And then punch you. (Because we do share some genes, after all…)

We don’t need to Barbie-ise science to get girls interested.

We don’t need to pinkify it, sprinkle it with unicorns and glitter, or insist that yes, women in science can wear heels zomgwtfkthnxbai.

We just need to tell them that they can do anything they put their minds to.

Because they can.

Marie Curie.
Scientist; woman.

*Incidentally, my physics, chemistry and biology teachers were all women…