They did what?

In my perambulations around the internet I keep a weather eye (what is a weather eye, I wonder?) out for things to write about. These tend to be presented in the form of lists numbered one to one hundred. I usually lose interest after about six. Then I tend to file the list, find it a year later and… into the recycling it goes, along with all those brightly coloured posters from people who want to renew my double-glazing, build me a conservatory, persuade me to buy a take-away curry or two at their Balti Restaurant, have my hypothetical poodle groomed at their grooming studio or my nails sculpted at their nail-bar.

And then I end up writing about some murky bit of my past, some ancient, eccentric auntie, my mother in the old folks home, the state of the nation, scrabble… whatever.

So, on the latest list – 100 NOT-boring Writing Prompts for Middle & High Schoolers – let’s start with number 2:

What things will people in the future say about how we live now? (Examples: They ate that? They believed that?)

As far as eating goes…

They actually cooked inoffensive small slimy sea creatures in their shells and then winkled them out with a special winkle-pin? There was actually a Winkle Club with an ornamental winkle pin for each member’s lapel? More bizarrely yet:

Each Winkle Club Member (or ‘Winkler’) carries a winkle shell which they must produce when challenged to ‘winkle up’.

Wikipedia

Drinking…

You mean they actually knocked this tequila stuff back in one go, having first licked salt off the back of their hands and then sucked on a lime?

Believing…

They actually believed that this misogynist with the wispy yellow comb-over and strange hand-gestures might become President? (And he did?)

Or, to be even-handed:

They actually believed that irritating, bearded, totally charisma-free little man with the bewildered expression might be elected Prime Minister? On what planet?

Fifty percent of UK TV presenters continued to pronounce idyllic eyedillic even when they knew (or jolly well should have known) it was wrong?

All sorts of important people continued to pronounce nuclear noo-cu-lar even when the spelling was right there in front of them on the page?

They read? You mean, like, books? They couldn’t plug themselves in and download?

Well, I could go on, but I won’t, as I’m worn out and a cup of coffee, a roomful of neglected cats and Stargate beckon.

Feel free to append as many of your own futuristic “They did whats?” to the list as you would like.

Being a Mum: good fortune, not an achievement

A ‘Mothergate’ row has unfolded after Andrea Leadsom suggested that being a mother would make her a better Prime Minister than Theresa May. This, according to the website Business Insider, is what Prime Ministerial candidate Andrea Leadsom said to The Times Journalist Rachel Sylvester:

RS: “Do you feel like a mum in politics?”

AL: “Yes. So…

RS: “Why and how?”

AL: “So really carefully because I am sure, I don’t really know Theresa very well but I am sure she will be really really sad she doesn’t have children so I don’t want this to be ‘Andrea has children, Theresa hasn’t’ because I think that would be really horrible.

“But genuinely I feel being a mum means you have a very real stake in the future of our country, a tangible stake.

“She possibly has nieces, nephews, lots of people, but I have children, who are going to have children, who will directly be a part of what happens next.

“So it really keeps you focused on ‘what are you really saying?’. Because what it means is you don’t want a downturn but ‘never mind, let’s look ahead to the ten years’, hence it will all be fine. My children will be starting their lives in that next ten years so I have a real stake in the next year, the next two.”

Elsewhere in the interview Leadsom suggests that the process of raising children would naturally increase a woman’s capacity for empathy. Could this be true? No – The Times’ article demonstrates it is entirely possible to combine motherhood and insensitivity.

I may not know that much about politics but I do know about the pain of childlessness.

  • I know how it feels to fend off those nudge-nudge, wink-wink comments of colleagues as you approach your thirtieth birthday. Next year you might be pushing a pram, eh? Might we be hearing the patter of tiny feet? Knitting? Does that mean…?  When all the time you know it doesn’t mean… and can never mean… Devon aunt used to meet all references to the non-existence of offspring with a lofty “Our union has not been blessed.” I could never quite equal that.
  • I know how it feels to suddenly lose status in the family when your youngest sister produces the longed-for first grandchild. I know how it feels to become invisible whenever baby and fortunately fertile sister enter the room.
  • I know how it feels to see a toddler snatched up when it misguidedly starts toddling towards you – just in case your rampant/frustrated maternal instincts should compel you to snatch the precious bundle and make off with it to South America. This, despite the fact that other people’s babies are of no great interest to a childless woman: it isn’t other people’s babies she wants.
  • I know how it feels to be condescended to, pitied and sympathised with by almost all other women because nature singled you out for the duff set of family genes. Devon aunt knew it too. My Canadian sister knows it. And going back into our family tree an array of other inexplicably childless female relatives probably knew it too.

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  • I know how it feels to be excluded from a whole range of possible female friendships because I lack the social currency – no child to deliver to the school gates, no stories of night-time feeds and Terrible Twos tantrums to swap.
  • I know how it feels to question my very worth – not just as a member of a society but as a biological entity. What else was I put here for, but to reproduce? If I can’t do this, why was I even born? I have become some kind of drone, a hanger-on. I am broken, I am incomplete. Why am I even walking around, causing problems, requiring air and food, taking up space? Even flowers and chimpanzees can do this simple thing and yet I cannot.

When this leadership contest first started my only (and admittedly faint) hope was that all this messy campaigning would result in a strong Prime Minister to take us forward through what are likely to be, as the ancient Chinese put it, ‘interesting times’. I wasn’t bothered whether they had been ‘pro’ or ‘anti’ Brexit, whether man or woman or even which man or which woman just as long as they were competent and had the ‘presence’ to transact with powerful heads of state in Europe and the rest of the world. Now I’m keeping fingers crossed for Teresa May, if only to preserve us from her rival.

Thought Number One:

You don’t need to be that magical and prestigious thing a ‘Mum’ or even a ‘Dad’ to be able to run a country. To invoke parenthood as a political weapon is to dishonour children and to insult, by implication, the whole electorate. A Prime Minister is not appointed to be ‘Mum’ or ‘Dad’ to a ‘family’ of infantile plebs. Even the least educated of us is capable of thinking things through and formulating an opinion. Or at any rate, any individual incapable of thinking for themselves should not be exercising their right to vote, and probably won’t be interested in voting anyway. A Prime Minister’s job is to lead the country and represent it with the help, advice, and concurrence of his or her cabinet of ministers, not to patronise and spoon-feed it.

Thought Number Two:

When Leadsom made the above comments about her childless rival, those who said  ‘It was just naïveté or inexperience – she couldn’t really have intended to be cruel to Teresa’ were overlooking the deadliest of all the weapons in the female armoury – bitchery. Women compete, and compete as fiercely as men, but on the whole not in the same way as men. Rather than throwing punches or shouting each other down, they bitch.

This is how a bitch operates. She says something vicious and undermining but phrases it in such a subtle and delicate way, or subsequently qualifies it in such a naïve and innocent way that the ‘bitched’ female cannot react without appearing neurotic and paranoid.

Alternatively she phrases the barb in such a way that she sounds for all the world as if she really cares about you. Her attack leaves you feeling confused and disorientated. Did she really say that? Could she really have meant what it felt as if she meant? Why am I so hurt when there is such an empathetic smile on her face? And why can’t anybody else see what she has just done?

My guess is that she absolutely did intend to be cruel, but only to her rival. It has been suggested that she was dog-whistling to a particular segment of the conservative electorate, i.e.:

employing coded language that appears to mean one thing to the general population but has an additional, different or more specific resonance for a targeted subgroup’. 

What she failed to anticipate was the ripple-out and trickle-down effect: huge offence unintentionally given to childless men and women; and to gay or lesbian couples who are less likely to have biological offspring and therefore, by her reckoning, also have no ‘tangible stake in the future of our country’; and to women who have been thus bitched far too many times before – which, when it comes down to it, is most women.

Thought Number Three:

It is a woman’s good fortune and her delight to be able conceive and give birth to children but it is not an achievement. Enduring the ghastly pain of childbirth does not of itself transform you into some kind of heroine. Having got yourself pregnant, what else were you going to do?

(Well, I’m going to put my tin hat on now and retire to a safe distance.)

Drawn to the Dark Side

I find myself increasingly fascinated by politics as the years go by. By politics I mean the sharp end, the game of chess at the top, the intricacies of gaining and holding power rather than the trudging of streets, the knocking on doors, the envelope-stuffing, placard-wielding or vote-counting in borrowed halls.

I tune in to The Papers every night on the BBC’s 24 hour News channel and try to get some inkling of what goes on at Westminster, paying attention to the various journalists’ analysis of selected newspaper headlines for the coming day. What I thirst for the story behind the façade. Exactly why did the ghastly Gove dispose of Boris? Exactly how did a single, rather pedestrian comment from this odd little man suffice to end a glittering career? What games of bluff and double-bluff are they and their colleagues playing even as I write? Do they hunch over mugs of cocoa and tumblers of whiskey at the end of the day and plan it all out? If he does this, I shall do that. If he doesn’t do this, I shall do that

Ex collected a whole range of things – strange things such as faded 1940s Christmas decorations and those metal inn-signs once given away (I think) in cigarette packets; obscure blues albums; clockwork toys and the sort of stuff that falls under the general heading of Railwayana – enamel station signs, signalling lamps, station-masters’ hats and so forth. This last was the greatest of his obsessions and it was in the pursuit of enamel signs and signalling lamps that he came up against his nemesis, a collector of exactly the same stuff but on a vaster and more ruthless scale. I shall call him the Agronomist.

I have to say I rather liked the Agronomist, possibly because was like a saner and richer version of Ex – well, richer.  Ex made every effort to look as if he liked the Agronomist, and I suspect he actually did – or would have done if the blighter hadn’t repeatedly swooped in at the last minute to buy up the very item or items he’d wanted for his own collection. The Agronomist possessed a cool head and an apparently bottomless budget and, unlike Ex, was good with people. He had a knack of appearing to be listening with interest to your every word; deeply interested in you even if he wasn’t really. Whenever the two arch-rivals met you could feel them metaphysically circling one another whilst appearing to be engaged in harmless manly chats.

I rambled off there because that I remembered something about the Agronomist. He made handwritten charts which he called his Critical Path Analyses. These charts – which he must have used in his agronomical work as well – charted his collecting career-path. He was a driven man: by the time he reached forty he would have collected so many of these, obtained this, and this, and that. It was all so brilliant, so neat, so detailed – and so not to be. The poor man started getting vile headaches that painkillers wouldn’t touch. He learned he had a brain tumour, and fairly soon afterwards he died. We used to drive backwards and forwards to London to visit him in the hospital, taking his wife, who couldn’t drive, up with us.

I suppose I am drawn to this ruthless streak in people because I was born without it – one of a whole range of items that were not in my suitcase when I landed.  I would so like to have mastered it, the smiling deception, the manoeuvring, the subtle playing of the long game. This same blank area in my brain made me hopeless at office politics. I was continually blundering in on conversations I didn’t understand and blurting out all the wrong things to the wrong people. People hurt and upset me, constantly. I made wrong decisions; I let myself be fooled, over and over again; I fell into one job after another, unable to plot a career, just taking whatever came up. I could no more have designed a Critical Path Analysis than I could have taken flight.

I’ve never been able see my nose in front of my face as far as my life or my future are concerned but strangely, nowadays, I can often work out what the politicians are up to.  Or what I’d be up to, if I was them. In my mind’s eye they become little players on a distant stage or characters in a novel I’m creating. How would I have disposed of the inconvenient Boris, if I’d been the ghastly Gove? And if I was the inconvenient Boris, how would I plan to revenge myself upon said Gove? Would I bide my time, lurking in carpeted corridors, a dagger concealed in my sleeve? Or would I swallow my hatred, smile that sunny smile – c’est la vie, old bean, all’s fair in love and politics – until, one day…

I may have been a Borgia in another life, or a Machiavelli, keeping my friends close and my enemies closer. That must be it. Echoes of another existence, the past casting its long shadow.

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No prophecy at all, just sadness

Yesterday I watched David Cameron outside 10 Downing Street, being calm and dignified in the face of overwhelming political defeat. This was something my generation grew up with and took as read – that an Englishman would be generous in victory and gracious in defeat. That was ‘only cricket’. I can’t say I’m a fan of Westminster, politicians, the establishment or the political élite but he managed that particularly sad situation just as you – or we, in earlier times – might have expected an Englishman to do.

So whatever happened to the rest of us?

Last night I watched a young, white woman drown out an elderly academic during what was supposed to be an interesting political discussion on the results of the Referendum. He was an old, white man, she shouted, and that was why he felt entitled to talk over her and steal her air time. I suppose technically she won since she got all this in before the interviewer could moderate her. Yes, she succeeded in being sexist, ageist, racist and cruel in a single sentence and stunned the elderly academic into silence. He had been trying to say that in a democracy we each have one vote. Where did this sense of entitlement come from? Did she think maybe that people under forty should have two votes, and those over forty none?

This morning I went out in the car for a while. When I came back my neighbour was out in the front garden. He and his wife are retired prison warders and since retiring they have been spending more and more time at the house they are building in France: they had returned just in time to vote.

They and I have history. When I first moved to this area I was told – by another neighbour – a horrible story about the male prison warder. It may or may not have been true, but at the time I believed it. There was so much ghastly detail attached; how could I not give it credence? I was told that he killed one of a neighbour’s cats with an air rifle, because he didn’t like cats and it came into his garden. I was told he got rid of the creature’s body in the Council’s green bin and then laughed about it, boasting of what he had done.

Anything to do with animal cruelty horrifies me. I can’t abide it. Until then my cats had roamed freely out of doors: that ended that night. At ten o’clock at night, with a torch, I rounded up my whole feline tribe and have never dared let them go outside since. If one of them does escape, as of course happens at intervals, I spend the many hours it takes to find them and persuade them to come back indoors in a torment of anxiety, imagining that at any moment they might get shot from a bedroom window.

And yet, over the years, though I wouldn’t say we’ve got to know each other any better, we have come to an unspoken agreement. I still don’t know if the cat-murder story is true, and probably never will know, but we talk to each other now, in passing. He asked if he could come into my garden to prune his roses from the other side of the fence. When, during a gale some time back, his roof sent a ridge tile crashing through my car windscreen, he and his wife knocked on the door, came in and paid me, unasked, for the inconvenience this had caused.

This morning we chatted about his impending move to France, and mine to the far side of the county. During the talk it became clear to me that we had voted in opposite directions in the Referendum. I carefully adjusted anything I might have said. He carefully avoided saying anything that might require me to confirm which way I had voted. We talked generally about immigration and about people’s motives for voting Leave or voting Remain in this neighbourhood. We talked about the endless legal delays and complications involved in moving house. I told him I was dreading mowing my lawn, which had grown so long recently the mower was unlikely cope with it. He laughed and said he had had to take the strimmer to his, having been away in France so long. We talked but we kept it general; we steered the conversation onto safer ground.

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That’s what British people do – or what they used to do. We avoid confrontation.  Along with the Japanese – another overcrowded island race – and, I gather, the indigenous peoples of Australia – we practice something called negative politeness.

There are things both parties to a conversation know, but avoid putting into words. We avoid asking the other person any question that might conceivably embarrass them – even if it wouldn’t, and they are in fact just dying to tell us what we are just dying to find out.

We proceed on the assumption that the speaker is imposing on the listener, and that this imposition should be prefaced by elaborate apologies. We go to great lengths to avoid putting the other person in an awkward position.

We tread delicately, gently alluding rather than baldly stating, mentioning the unlikely possibility of rather than directly asking for. Occasionally we become so veiled in our allusions that we give bewildered visitors the impression that we are talking in code, which of course we are, in a way.

As a nation we have many faults but we used at least to be kind – courteous to one another and to strangers, anxious above all not to give offence. What changed, I wonder, and when?

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prophecy

Now out fly the little demons

I have no idea who Godot actually was, have you? But Vladimir and Estragon were waiting for him. Waiting, waiting, waiting… It’s how I feel today – as if Godot, in all his multifarious forms, is never going to arrive, and I haven’t even got a fellow-tramp to grumble with.

I’m waiting for WordPress to email me back with the solution to my ‘no links’ problem. They promise twenty-four to forty-eight hours. Suspect even if they do email me I will neither be able to comprehend nor implement their solution, but you never know.

Waiting…

This morning I phoned a firm I used to work for (twice) and asked them if they would take me back for a ‘third term’. I know they are likely to say no, and it has taken me the best part of a week to muster the courage to even phone them. But – can’t afford to leave any stone unturned. You owe it to the cats, I told myself. Not that the cats care. Anyway, now I’ve gone and done it.

And I’m waiting…. and it’s thirteen minutes past two…

Human Resources need to check round various different departments. I am thinking maybe check round various different departments is HR code for no, but we’re too kind to say so; we will say no later today; or maybe we just won’t call you back so that you can surmise that’s what we probably meant? Or does it in fact mean we need to check round various different departments?

So I’m waiting….

And I’m doing what most people do while they are waiting – trying to get on with other stuff. I watched half a repeat of Stargate but remembered the plot so well I turned off the TV. I plodded through a big heap of ironing. Well, that’s done now… I got an idea for a post and here I am writing it.

Well, that’s good…that’s…positive…

We spend so much of our lives on hold, don’t we? At the moment we are waiting for the Referendum, which is Thursday. I get a postal vote and voted weeks ago but still, I’m waiting…

Until today I was telling myself Que Sera, Sera. My one little vote isn’t going to decide things. Who’d want that responsibility? Que sera, sera – but I am starting to be afraid. Whatever the outcome, by the end of this week things will be altered.

Half of the population will be jubilant. The losing half will be furious and will never forget that the winning half opposed them, and won. Either half may decide to consume all the lager they can lay hands on, wrap flags round their stupid shoulders and riot semi-naked in midsummer streets. We seem to be good at that.

The losing half will lose faith in the democracy they totally took for granted up to this point, and the losing half will spend the next ten years blaming the winning half for Every Single Thing that goes wrong with Anything and Everything, from Friday forward, whether related to Europe or not. We will never hear the last of it.

They gave us this choice – that’s democracy. They shouldn’t have given us the choice, that’s the political and psychological reality of the thing. They opened the little wooden casket: now out fly the little demons.

Waiting… My mother is waiting to die. We visited her yesterday and found her in a wheelchair, too weak to stand or even rearrange herself in the chair once the carers lowered her into it. She had spilt porridge and water all over the place and had just been changed yet again. Grey-faced and distracted, she can no longer speak and no longer looks at us. I write our names on the white-board. She stares at it in terror.

She stares out of the window, hoping that a bird or a squirrel might land on the boundary fence. Sometimes she points at the boundary fence, but we but we can’t see what she’s seeing. Her hands shake. Her nails have grown long, like claws. I can’t help her and she can’t help herself. Even the carers can’t help her, only change her, lift her, feed her and bring her beakers of cranberry juice.

It kind of puts paid to my theory of souls. Until this last thing happened to Mum I chose to console myself with the belief that we designed our own life, between lives, when we were again souls. We passed on what we had learned from our past life, rested for a while and then gradually became aware of what we still needed to learn; with help from the wise ones we chose our next incarnation. And down we came, flutter-flutter-flutter, into our new bodies, to continue the eternal learning process. But what can this day-to-day, hour-to-hour, week-to-week suffering possibly be teaching her? What possible purpose is there in being like she is now?

Waiting… waiting… Learning to wait.

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Rambling Rosie Strikes Again

I was chatting with my two old friends in the coffee shop today, about what makes a good teacher, and what makes a bad one. I’ve never been able to express even the simplest of opinions without launching into a rambling reminiscence – often two in quick succession. People’s eyes glaze over. My friends have perfected the kindly art of not looking glazed.

I was telling them about Sybil, who taught me – or rather utterly failed to teach me – History ‘O’ level. And I actually liked history. I remember bounding up to her in the playground afterwards. “I got a grade 9 in History, Syb… Miss”. Grade 9 was the lowest possible fail.

“I know,” she said, gloomily. “Hardly your finest achievement.” It was the only ‘O’ level I had failed.

The trouble with Sybil was threefold: she was elderly, she was nice and she was easily distracted. And my class – my class was J. This sounds bad but we were streamed J, K, L and M. If you were an M you ended up doing various forms of PE all day and making collages. If you were a J you were bright, but troublesome. My class was full of girls who had been transferred from other schools for one reason or another. Girls with anorexia. Girls with a trail of expulsions behind them. Girls with mascara smudged around their eyes. Girls with fiercely backcombed hair screwed into high bunches. Loud girls. Insolent girls.

They quickly cottoned on to the fact that Sybil could be diverted from teaching history every single lesson. One had only to ask her about the time she swam the Suez Canal. With a faraway look in her eyes, she would tell and re-tell that Suez Canal-swimming yarn as paper aeroplanes and elastic bands whizzed over our heads. The panda-eyed brigade particularly liked to jam their wooden rulers upright into closed desks and ping them. As more and more souls joined in the ruler-pinging concert, the room began to thrum in an eerie, Aboriginal way. But in Sybil’s head it was 1929 – a hot Egyptian afternoon and the cicadas whispering in the bushes. She was diving, lightly-clad into the dark, lapping waters, perhaps the merest trill of insouciant laughter escaping her young lips…

Next year the school needed to make up for/disguise the fact that almost an entire class of its brightest pupils had failed its history ‘O’ level. Sybil disappeared and I was allocated to a fiery Welsh teacher for a replacement subject – not History again but something called British Constitution O*. The star meant you were a year older than the norm when taking it, so it was pitched slightly higher. I was taking my ‘A’ levels at the same time. British Constitution meant stuff about politics, the Houses of Parliament, democracy, how women fought to get the vote and the difference between a Bill and an Act… that sort of stuff. Dry as dust, but I loved it. At least, I loved being well-taught by a passionate enthusiast.

Mrs Beynon was short and stocky with chalk on her hands, chalk streaks on her forehead and ragged holes in the armpits of her woolly jumpers. She strode back and forth, thinking on the hoof, talking, explaining, firing questions at us. She made us think hard, very hard indeed; and if we didn’t come up with an answer she just waited – cat-like – until we did. The silence would grow more and more uncomfortable. Eventually even the shy and apathetic were forced to join in. She expected quick-fire adult thinking of us and – unexpectedly – she got it. At the end of one of her lessons – I can remember it now – we would emerge surprised into the daylight, trembling, blinking, strung out, as if we had been fighting for our lives.

I passed that O level, and her teaching was to have a lifelong influence on me. I vote every time even when my vote, statistically, can make no difference whatsoever. Even now I stay glued to the news and politics programmes, trying to fathom, not just what politicians are saying but what they are not saying. I’m fascinated by the intricacies and obfuscations of the law and the machinations of politics – the ulterior motives, the hidden dramas, the lies, the fudges, the diplomatic sidlings up to and creepings away from; the ‘real’ of politik. Most of all I’m grateful that I live in an old and relatively stable country with a tradition of democracy, and do at least have a vote. Up to a point, at least, I’m allowed to think and speak for myself. I have the tools to think and speak with.

She gave me those.