Thursday, 19 June 2014

Notes from my attic bedroom

Up here, at the breezy altitude of the chimney pots, it could be one hundred years ago. I love the perspective from my attic bedroom. The skylight, at eye height, can be opened to stick your head out and inhale the night air. The road and houses extend out before me, with assorted rooftop paraphernalia from all eras. I like to imagine I am one of the first residents of this late Victorian abode, breathing in the darkness in just the same way, with smoke blooming out of those chimneys and a tin bath and a mangle downstairs.

But I can also see beyond. This house sits on the edge of the city. When I open the window and look out nostalgically amongst the rooftops, the shimmering, beating heart of Oxford sits to my right. I can see the hospital and it's big, reassuring modern lights, and I can imagine the people scurrying about their city business like ants, talking authoritatively in mortar boards and making BMWs. In front of me is a mysterious meadow where wildlife must roam and from whence we hear the occasional blood-curdling scream of a mating fox. And to my left is the ring road, snaking with streams of red and white lights, and making its presence known through the never-ending hum. I am liminal - somewhere between urban and expansive, between teeming historic civilisation and rampant green grass. There's something epic about it that I love.

And from above, on those all-too-frequent occasions when it's not balmy and romantic but wintry and wet, rain pounds on the flat roof above like pattering on a tent. In my more positive moments I think of it as a special kind of glamping, like I'm in a remote camp, or a den made out of the curtain round the back of the armchair in the living room.

It's the place where my dreams unfold, where books are read in atmospheric darkness. A place to do nothing and hear the cool breeze swish through the treetops. A place where cats come to flop in over-indulgent luxury. Where weather is observed from an indoor cocoon that protects and encloses. My own little magical palace-cum-enveloping womb, top of the house and queen of my own little planet.

Tuesday, 17 June 2014

Pervy plumbers and the low hum of inaction

A putting the world to rights session recently with my dear friend Sargles made me reflect on how and whether I personally experience sexism in my everyday life. We were musing on equality of opportunity over doughnuts, and I mentioned this video, where Leah Green acts out stories taken from the Everyday Sexism blog, but turns the tables by inflicting street harassment women have reported experiencing on men, such as shouting “Alright sexy” out of a white van, or staring unerringly at a bystander. Whatever you think of the approach (two wrongs don’t make a right?), the bewildered reactions of the innocent men in the film do make it a humorous way of thinking about the pervasiveness of this behaviour and the preposterousness of our mild acceptance of it. As if to illustrate this point, I then belatedly realised that I had that very day experienced some similar behaviour. Having all but forgotten it already, we started to ponder the mechanics of it, how I reacted to it (or not) and why.

The incident came about because of a very boring series of problems with my bog. The loo in the ensuite needs a Saniflow pump to whoosh our stinky effluence out of the house and into the drains where it belongs. Said pump was broken, and needed a series of increasingly incompetent engineers and plumbers to come and fix bits of it, blame each other for the fact that it still didn’t work, and make lots of sharp intakes of breath at considerable inconvenience. However much I accept that I might have to work from home for a few afternoons to facilitate all this, I never expected for that home-alone experience to become discomfiting.

But that it did, when cock-a-hoop Brummie engineer Dean decided to make an appearance. It wasn’t the first time I’d met Dean – he’d been round in the early Saniflow fixing attempt days, and made a few flirty comments about going into a girl’s bedroom and making a mess on her floor. I just laughed nervously then went back to a client phone call I had to make, forcing him to be professional. The second time didn’t hold anything much more sinister, but I was struck by the barrage of innuendo that pervaded pretty much every raised-eyebrow-style comment he made. “You’re looking nice today” “Ooh yes I’ll have a cuppa if you’ll bring it up and serve it to me” “So where’s your fella today then? Will he mind me being in your bedroom?” “I bet you’re just staying up here so you can check out my cheeks as I bend down” “I bet your plumber isn’t as good looking as me” “So you’re on your own today then?” “Let me just show off my muscles as I pull myself up into this attic” “Bet you got an eyeful there love” ad nauseam. Disarmed, increasingly aware of being on my own, and moving rapidly from nervous laughter to sweaty shuffling away, why did I let myself feel threatened by this inane, faintly aggressive pervy verbal diarrhoea? Why not instead feel angry and revolted? Why nervous shuffling and not an immediate phone call to his bosses to complain? Why was I LETTING some random ignorant womaniser make me feel uncomfortable in my own home?

Perhaps it’s because Leah Green is right. For women, being spoken to this way is part of ordinary life. For men, it’s shocking or worrying or bewildering. But are women just quietly accepting of this low hum of sexist threat in their everyday?

I thought about other times I’ve felt threatened more overtly. The time I was bending over a pool table in the West End Working Men’s Club aged 16 and got tapped on the arse by a 70-year-old snooker player. The time in Jordan when Lucy and I were pursued down a back alley by the handsiest letch ever, who responded to our swearing, indignant responses with a shrug. The time I was walking home alone down a Paris street and got called a fucking whore because I overtook a man on the pavement. The time I was walking home alone down a Paris street and got curb-crawled by two blokes in a car, and couldn’t hold myself back from giving them the bras d’honneur when they eventually got bored and drove away, resulting in them swerving back towards me, leaping out and berating me for ten minutes, calling me a slut because I was walking alone outside in the dark. The time I got followed from the metro in Paris because I accidentally made eye contact with a man in the window reflection. The time all my male Parisian friends told me these experiences were my fault because I looked English and wore tight clothes.

Why do we shy away and avoid eye contact or confrontation? Do the men doing this know it’s because we fear being raped by them?

This stuff is real, but we don’t hear proportionate reports of it. A recent report found that 77 women were killed by their partners in a 12-month period between 2012 and 2013. Why don’t I remember hearing about that in the news? Is it really just a low hum in the background of other, more glamorous tragedies?

This is when I think things seem to be getting worse in terms of equality, not better. Women are judged on how they look not what they do, and bound by hackneyed stereotypes that make both sexes look stupid. We’re told that how we dress affects how well we’ll do in the workplace (the person that peddled this pile of misogynist crap needs castrating, regardless of gender). Girls have to have pink everything and all they are encouraged to be is a fucking useless unemployed ‘princess’.

So I’m deciding to amplify the low hum in my life. I won’t accept being poked up the arse with a snooker cue or cat-called by a curb crawler. Instead of forgetting those things have happened during my day, I will indignantly broadcast them. I’m going to capitalise on my abilities and achieve what I want. And I’m emailing the Saniflow people about Dean right now.

Monday, 17 March 2014

The wording of the new Guide promise is nobody's business but ours

So. Last week at Guides, some of the girls at last made the new promise. You know, the one that's been in the news because it has been changed to remove the reference to God. The one that people, including that well known authority on women's issues and young people Victoria Coren, have been sneering at because it now asks us Guiding members to "be true to myself and develop my beliefs". The one that the General Synod of the Church of England are now wading in to "take action" against.

Coren takes issue with the wording that has been chosen, dubbing it a "lame, weak, hollow clump of Californian couch jargon". I realise that she is being tongue in cheek by lumping it in with modern slang terms that she scorns such as "vino" for wine and "a couple of jars" for beer (her disdain for which seems to have little basis other than contempt for normal people and the way they speak about their lives) - but I find her overall disparaging tone self-promoting, ignorant and frankly unpleasant. It seems like everyone's got an opinion about the new promise, but no-one bothers to ask anyone in Guiding what they think (eg some Guides). Unsurprisingly, rather than imposing an eminently sneerable change on the young people that form the body of the guiding organisation, the committee tasked with looking at the new wording decided to do just that - so they asked all 550,000 members what they thought, and the majority said they would prefer a promise that has more inclusive wording. They also overwhelmingly said that they wanted everyone to make the same promise - because this pledge is about something that we do together, as a community.

I notice that VC doesn't attempt to suggest a better wording that makes everyone welcome into the Guiding organisation. One that is simple enough to appeal to girls of all ages, but complex enough to replace the nebulous notion of religious belief. And why should she? She's not in the organisation, she doesn't have kids who are... Really what is her article other than another opportunity to look down her nose at people she knows nothing about?

None of the commentators on the promise seem to be from the Guiding world, so I kind of wonder what gives them the right to go about mocking an organisation that they don't bother to have anything to do with otherwise. Other coverage of recent events in the Guiding world seems to be dominated by haughty columnists who last had any contact with guiding when they were haughty kids, and is punctuated by old photographs of Guides looking geeky and outdated. Where is the journalism with integrity that looks to speak to those who are from the world they are commenting on? Why don't they try and make genuine contact with an organisation that is diverse, outspoken, modern and full of inspiring young people? It boils my piss, it really does.

I've spoken to real Guides about what the promise wording means to them. We spent a whole evening dedicated to finding out what they believed in, what making this new promise would mean for them, and encouraging them to think about it in an open-minded way. I mind-mapped their discussions - feel free to take a look at the photo VC, if you want a quick view from coal face. As you can see here, for my Guides the notion of "being true to myself" means to have integrity, to be free to live their lives in a way that isn't judged by others, and to be tolerant towards others trying to be true to themselves. I thought that was pretty mature and enlightened of them.

The girls unanimously thought that the edit to the promise to remove the overt reference to God was a positive thing. They talked very frankly about their beliefs - and even those who did believe in a god felt better making the same promise as all their friends, and knowing that nobody felt uncomfortable doing it. As someone who has crossed their fingers metaphorically every time I have made the promise throughout my 25-year involvement in Guiding, this made me feel elated, and relieved that I could finally make a pledge I believed in. Had the wording not changed in this respect, I would have started to reconsider my position as a guiding volunteer, and so would others I have spoken to. Those in the General Synod crying "discrimination" against those believers who now don't get to say in this forum that they love their god have missed the point - we all pledge to "develop our beliefs", whatever those beliefs are. When significant numbers of girls and leaders either find God an irrelevant abstraction or something they actively don't believe in, but have to promise to love it anyway, THAT is discrimination.

I also find the argument that "being true to yourself" could mean that a horrible person is encouraged to be more horrible is pessimistic, unrealistic and purely theoretical. As if we won't actually talk to the girls about what they think it means for them. And as if having a non-existent, intolerant and excluding paranormal body in the promise as something to pledge your allegiance to is any better. Saying that changing the wording of that one line now means the promise is entirely self-centred is just plain wrong - the rest of the promise gets us to say we will serve our community and help other people! It's lazy and mean-spirited and assumes the worst of people - but perhaps predictable from those who comment without insight, just to delight in empty scoffing.

"To thine own self be true" is what Polonius says to his son Laertes in Hamlet. Polonius' character might be a blustering whittler, but he's not a bad person and sincerely wants the best for his son. His character's use of the wording certainly gives the lie to Coren's dismissing of it as 20th century psychobabble. She deems this phrase "stubborn, self-important and faintly aggressive", which is a very interesting description... To me it seems to better describe the tone of her article than it does the quality of the girls I meet and talk to every week. Perhaps those who love to stridently advertise their own opinions might condescend to do the same.

Wednesday, 12 June 2013

Weird dream no 6

Last night’s dream was fuzzy round the edges. There were waves of panic and vague hidden messages. “Look!” I said to dream Bryn. “Look on the wall over there – that is the answer!” Somehow smudgily written on the wall was a word that was the key – I knew it because it appeared mysteriously on the wall, and the rules of Harry Potter-style filmic ritual mean that it was significant. It was a scruffy, browned wall in a derelict sort of room, the kind you might see in a seedy motel on a bleak American highway. We were tossing and turning and trying to figure out what the answer was. The letters of this secret word blurred gradually into view, painfully obscure, agonisingly sketchy. Dream Bryn was asleep and wouldn’t wake up to hear my insistence. I could see it but he wanted to envelop me in warmth and comfort, for me not to be agitated like this. But I knew that if only we could make out the word, we would know the truth.

There was a C, a double MM... an S? Commas? Bishop Cranmer returning dyslexically to send us a creepy message from the hereafter? However important it seemed at the time, I can’t remember the word, or I don’t know if I was ever able to read it. A less Poe-like ending than I would have liked – just an unsettling sense of striving, and the yearning for a simple one-word answer to a question that has many words, moods and emotions, to the extent that I don’t even know what the question is, either.

Thursday, 11 April 2013

Why busy busy busy is a boring boast

A few months ago, I was chatting to a contact of mine  in the Guiding world. "Ooh, I've been wanting to ask you about blah blah blah", she said (it wasn't boring, I just can't remember it). "But I'd heard how busy you were, so I didn't want to bother you." My heart fell at this, and it's been gnawing away at me ever since.

Had I jabbered on so much about how busy I was that not only were people saying "I know you're busy" to me, but they were also saying it ABOUT me?! Had I become so bad at managing my own time that I was starting to get a reputation as a flakey, unapproachable blusterer? Of all the things people could say about me when I'm not there, I was mortified to think that their lasting impression of me was that I was BUSY, and not that I was kind, generous, helpful, someone to look up to or any of the other things I aspire to or would like to be.

I'm sure many will have already seen Tim Kreider's brilliant article 'The Busy Trap' in the New York Times ( if you haven't). I can't help but agree with him that "It is, quite obviously, a boast disguised as a complaint". Look how important I am, you're saying. Look how much I have in my life. Look at all the things that would come crashing down around our ears if I wasn't here, the indispensable martyr giving up my time for the good of humanity. Bow down before me, ye mortals with enough free time to spontaneously visit the local ale house. You are no match for my mighty sense of self-approbation. What a total dick.

I have definitely fallen into this trap. I've shown people my pen-covered diary with a forlorn look on my face. I've moaned to friends that I feel trapped by my schedule. I've complained that people don't realise that a guide leader's job is voluntary and neverending, not paid by the hour. I've felt smug about myself because of this. And deep down, I've felt scared that although my diary is backed up with meetings and engagements, my urge (or ability?) to sit on the sofa eating Pringles and watching endless reruns of Friends means I'm actually fundamentally rather lazy.

Some of it is fraudulent. I am usually the last person in my office, and the security guard constantly gives me the knowing-but-patronising "Another late one for you then?!" routine, commiserating with empathy as he nods how busy he is too, implying "we know each other don't we, fellow martyrs". Sometimes I feel like shouting "YOU DON'T KNOW ME! I'm not like this really! I rolled in this morning at 9.45 and I spent two hours at lunch reading The Vagenda! I'm just making up my hours! I'm going to the pub after this!" I start to resent the implication that life has taken me over, that I don't have control over my time and that an outside force is deciding what time I leave, not me.

Even my dad said to me recently "I know you're really busy", so I said "No I'm not! I just decided not to look at my emails!"

The growing sense that voicing busyness somehow says the wrong thing about me has made me realise two things. 1. These conversations are not interesting for others. And 2. It's all my choice. I have control over my own existence. I decide to do all the things I do, and if I don't like them, I can stop. I have therefore resolved to do two things differently. 1. Not to bore other people with my busy boasts. Enjoy the moment. Embrace their company. Make sure they know that time spent with them, for whatever reason, is something I will give with pleasure and without expecting sympathetic tilts of the head in return. And 2. To take control. If I don't want to spend every evening out and about, don't. Don't make wall-to-wall plans unless I am willing to own them, to vigorously and dynamically embrace them.  Indulgently enjoy moments of pointless downtime. The point is that they're pointless. "The space and quiet that idleness provides is a necessary condition for standing back from life and seeing it whole, for making unexpected connections and waiting for the wild summer lightening strikes of inspiration", says Kreider so eloquently.

Now that the clocks have changed and its light when I leave the office, even at half past seven, I notice as I do every spring a palpable sense of difference - opportunity and optimism. Somehow idleness, time and inspiration all seem more abundant. And if the seasons can make my consciousness shift like this, I don't see why I can't shift it myself.

I love my life. I believe in the things in it. Simple as that.