Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Senza parole

I'm in my home town, Genoa, in the still superficially affluent North of Italy for a short break, or, as we call it, a four day orgy of overeating and family arguments. The sun has been shining and people were out and about, filling cafes and shops this week-end. There is an atmosphere of suspended animation, something between a hush and a yawn. 

The reason for the lack of out and out panic is, in my opinion, two-fold: most Italians still read no newspapers and get their news from TV, with most channels controlled, until yesterday, by Berlusconi , or as we call him, the Malefic Dwarf. As of last week, he only controls half of them and is still getting an inordinate amount of air time to disseminate his theories that the out of control national debt, the sovereign debt crisis and the Euro crisis have all been caused by Communists / saboteurs/ destabilising agents/ the baddies in Star Wars.
A people so bamboozled by such an unlikely snake-oil salesman for so long are still in quiet denial as to the extent and depth of the shit they're in.

Also, Italy's population is ageing, cautious, barely digital and desperately non-connected.  Zeitgeist is something that happens to other people. Last week my parents were talked by their bank manager, whom they have known for ever, into tying up all their savings in a special deposit account for a year, lured by the offer of  3 per cent interest. They did ask the question: "How come you're suddenly giving us 3pc if the current account is languishing at 0.5?"

"Oh, there so much more competition these days" she answered, "all of our competitors are offering higher rates so we have to as well." They didn't think to ask the next question: "How come there is suddenly so much competition to get people to tie up their money for long periods of time???" 

My sister and I are marching them back there tomorrow - hoping we can beat the markets to it and that there is still a euro with Italy in it..

Few countries and people have been as badly served by their leaders and by their own worst instincts as mine. The ten years to 2008, years of economic growth or even boom in the rest of the developed world, were a lost decade of near-complete stagnation at home. But if you go back 20 years, in the two decades  since I left things have slipped backwards, visibly and badly. 

My state run secondary school was academically prestigious but completely socially mixed. Among my classmates the daughter of the poultry seller at the local market is now a physicist at CERN, the son of a taxi driver is a cardio-thoracic surgeon, the son of Calabrian immigrants is an investigative magistrate. Most of the students who were middle class then, lead middle class lives now: they became doctors, teachers and lawyers. My sister left school four years after I did and among her former classmates few have professional jobs, staff contracts, any security whatsoever.  

Women counted for nothing when I left too - but there was a sense that things were getting better, that girls could aspire and achieve and would one day be "as good as men". Girls were over-protected by their families and had much less freedom than the boys because the dominant Catholic culture only saw women as Madonnas or whores and you wanted your daughter to fall into the first category. How things change. Now few believe in God and twenty year of cultural domination by the Malefic Dwarf ( with his TV channels, newspapers, magazines, publishing houses and advertising agencies) have turned whoring into an aspirational activity. 

Feminist polemics aside, (and you might well think that the soft porn undertones of any day time tv show on any Italian channel are an innocent and pleasant curiosity and nothing to fret about), a paltry minority of women -  I could find you stats if I could be bothered but in any case, believe me, they are bad - holds a full time job once she has a family and many do not even manage a part time one. 

 I fear it might soon become cheaper for society as a whole to stop wasting money on girls' education as they are clearly seen as (and only allowed to be) whores/mothers/cleaners and frankly, who needs algebra and geography for that? Why clog university courses with would-be lawyers who will only be cooks and chidren's chauffeurs? Why waste time training doctors who will never treat cancer but at most swap anti-allergy tips at the playground?

As for youth unemployment  in general, statistics which were bad before this latest crisis have nowhere else to go but worse. There are areas in the South where the devastation is like a natural catastrophe: entire families living off the pension of parents and grandparents. (Here is my future-telling trick of the day: if we come to see substantial cuts in the value of state pensions, that's when the place will go up in flames).  When ten to 15 per cent of youngsters can't find a job in their small town you can berate them for lack of get up and go, urge them to go elsewhere. When the majority do not, they might end up leaving but there is no village left, no small town, no country.

I think of all that wasted talent - women and men , anyone younger than 35 - pressing their nose against a digital candy store of wonders, forever shut out of it,  the world people in other countries live in, without having to call in favours, pull rank, have friends in high places, sleep with or carry the bags of people in high places.

My dad, as a cute curly haired four year old, remembers begging American soldiers for "choccolo". That was the last time he had to beg. A decent state school system gave him the education he needed to find - in the Italy of the boom years -  a dignified job with which to raise a family. He didn't need to join the right party, or, later, send his daughters to the right "parties" in the capital. 

I'm afraid we have entered a terminal decline. The West can look at us and see what's in store for the rest of them when the Chinese come. 

Then the prophecy can go full circle - the Malefic Dwarf will have been proved right: it was all a Communist conspiracy. 


Mild-mannered intellectual husband doesn’t do social networking sites. Facebook, he says, is for birds. All this (puts on exaggerated American accent here) “sharing of feelings”, all this endless exchange of the minutiae of daily life, holiday snaps, videos of new babies yawning and cats waterskiing... It’s just not serious, is it? All this flirtatious, highly ‘social’ poking and probing, commenting and messaging.

Being a man, if you ask  him, means hovering above the charming end of the Asperger spectrum. As someone capable of coming home after his annual drink with his best friend unable to report whether the second baby, due seven months ago, has indeed been born, and of what gender, and whether elderly grandmother who had been in hospital the last time is alive or dead ("It just....didn't come up.") he finds the concept of exchanging personal information online not just alien, but unseemly.

What they need to invent, he says, is something men can use without shame. And let’s face it, the name has been staring us right in the face, ready-made you could say. What guys need is Facebloke. 

A quick survey around his (bloke-heavy) office came up with the following suggestions:  a site which would allow you to connect to multiple Mates but only once a month at the most and extremely laconically: you can send an Oi, an “Allrite??” or a “Laters”. It would feature a well run spanners –exchange, a reminder feature set to email one's wife/girlfriend at salient points in the calendar ("Xmas presents for my mum and dad - help!" or "My best mate's birthday - send card"), a chat channel devoted to grunting and would be paid for entirely through  adverts for cheap beer. The personal status setting would go "Hungry", "Very Hungry" or "Just eaten".

That was his office, as I say. Mild mannered intellectual husband would be happier with no Mates at all, just an anonymous community of gentle orc-slaying  sages running erudite forums on jazz guitars (complete with photos), philosophy ("I hear you HegelBoy5, but I think we would all agree that the paradox of Liberalism requires a more in-depth analysis .." ) and exchanging  u-tube clips of Stewart Lee's best stand-up moments.

Meanwhile the emotionally sentient end of the species (aka women) would finally reclaim the premier social networking site all to themselves and use it for what it really is for: dishing the dirt on men, or bitching about their mothers.
Nobody, and I mean nobody, male or female, is in their heart of hearts actually interested in other people's pictures featuring holidays, newborn babies and waterskiing cats.

Legal Warning: Facebloke is now trademarked with all intellectual rights belonging to Paolabi’. Yes, I’m talking to you Mark Zuckerberg. If you had invented would have invented Facebloke. Now, not another peep out of you!

Monday, 21 November 2011

Running in the mist

These are troubled times. We’re entering a winter which feels more metaphorical than equinoxial, wrapped in a suffocating blanket of bad news. And I don’t even know what anything I just wrote even means, that’s how troubled I am.
But here’s another metaphor for you, which I have just thought about: the working week feels like a trip in the open sea, during a low level storm. Week-ends are all too spaced-out buoys. And I’m talking as someone in work, for whom the distinction is still meaningful, but who like pretty much everyone else now lives in the expectation of not having a job at some point or other.
Yesterday, Sunday, Husband and I got up with nowhere we had to be and no to-do list (beyond the light-duty, 23-40 items one I always have going) and took our time making coffee without our glasses on, (always a joyful adventure that, even in our own minuscule home), enjoying the feeling of standing around, zombie-like, in our nightclothes and unwashed faces.
The world outside had disappeared beyond a strangely luminous mist, as if the sun was trying to wave just behind it.
We put on our trainers and went for a run in the park. It felt at time like running through a cloud. It was cold but bearable, and sounds were muffled every bit as colours. Quite dream-like, really, had I not been my usual tired/heavy/achey self.
The park was quite alive with all sorts of creatures: enormous hairy dogs, stupid with happiness, the usual flocks of obese pigeons, the aggressive grey squirrels who do not give an inch, in fact always seem poised to mug you as you pass. Children in buggies, old people in wheelchairs and their coterie of middle aged able bodies bipeds carrying, fetching, pushing and dragging. All going about their business, in the mist, as if it were nothing unusual.
Seven panting kms later we came back with the papers and a block of cheese.
After lunch I planted some tulip bulbs in the post in the back garden. Not deep enough and without any of the gritty sand you are supposed to have at the bottom. It was a half-assed effort, you could say. The trouble is I lack the faith required to plant things, the necessary suspension of disbelief. It seems an act of magic. Maybe something will grow, as my in-laws promised, but I don’t quite believe it. Besides right now it doesn’t feel like it will ever be spring again.
He spent the rest of the afternoon slaying orcs and playing his guitars, I read the Observer downstairs taking in a few more horrendous statistics about joblessness, and warnings about the incoming recession, the possible disintegration of the Euro/EU and the likely Iranian Armageddon.
The mist never lifted or evaporated. Eventually, by four o’clock, the sun gave up waving from behind and went to sleep.
Tomorrow we are back at sea.

Saturday, 19 November 2011

I clean the bathroon

Last week the fantastic Zoe Williams wrote with characteristic flair about women paying the price of this (second? Umpteen?) downturn and corresponding belt-tightening in her Guardian piece Jobs are a feminist issue.
As with most of her stuff it is really worth a read.

While I share most of her analysis, including the fact that now might not be the right time to argue whether women are drawn or pushed into the (more parent-friendly) public services or indeed whether they choose or are lumbered with much of the caring, this remains the unfinished business which risks scuppering all our conquests.
In fact it seems to me it’s never quite the right time to ask the real question, to address the fundamental issue that lies at the heart of feminism's failure to deliver equal outcomes in times of crisis as in times of plenty.

The past forty years have been about getting to a position where women are "allowed" to hold down often badly paid full time or part-time jobs and do all the reproductive labour (caring/cleaning).
But this is still (at the time of writing, although things are moving pretty fast in the world of international financialgeddon) a market economy. Women's position in the family (even just the assumption made by society at large about what their position is) chains them to endlessly lower returns, or what men would deem failure, and makes them the sacrificial lambs of every downturn.
US sociologist Linda Hirscham's fiery pamphtet "Get to work!" is most illuminating on this subject.

The conversation we have not had (distracted by the slow-seeping poison of "choice" feminism) is why aren't men shouldering half of that burden, paying half of that premium on parenthood.
Perhaps taking a break from all that hard core porn they are now allowed to enjoy for free without shame, as we have been trained to find it "liberating" and "ironic"...

This failure of feminism to change men, and to change radically enough the way women and men relate to each other in the private sphere, leaves traces big enough to be seen by the naked eye even in the most ‘equal’ of relationships – i.e those among professionals in full time jobs with no kids (after kids forget it, but I’ll come to that in a minute).
My long suffering feminist husband would argue he does his share. And he does. For one thing, he cooks. I cannot begin to convey what a mixture of tedium and terror the thought of cooking has always engendered in me. I can boil and drain pasta (al dente, of course) with reasonable ease and, if not pushed for time, deliver an expertly boiled egg. More than that you cannot ask of me.
My husband likes cooking and he has taken over that function (as well as intermittent, spasmodic bouts of hoovering) which serves us both well. But his enslavement to the cooker retains a languid "I actually enjoy doing this : it relaxes me" quality. He is not a working mother of three having to feed five hungry mouths at depressingly regular intervals with all the attending feats of food shopping and clearing up.
I’m not saying feeding me is totally unstressful. I am feral when hungry. On many an evening I can be heard roaring down the phone at him while munching on a brick of rice cakes: Where the heck are you? It’s 8pm!!!”. But he doesn’t have to do it when he doesn’t feel like it. There is take-out and tomatoes and mozzarella can always been sliced (even by me) into something resembling a salad.
Conversely I have taken upon myself the unglamorous jobs that really have to be done, whether one finds them relaxing or not, as there is no external delivery service that can step in at the last minute and if left undone would be dangerous to people’s health. Every few days I do the laundry and every week I clean the bathroom.
Have I been forced to take these jobs at gun point? No I haven’t.
Am I setting intellectual mild-mannered husband up to fail by assuming he won’t do the laundry frequently enough nor clean the bathroom thoroughly enough if left to his own devices, thereby enslaving myself into a cycle of low status, dirty chores? If the hoovering is anything to go by my fears are well founded, actually.
(Interestingly, when pushed on this point his take is invariably: “I lived on my own before meeting you and I was perfectly able to wash clothes and keep the bathroom clean. It’s just that you are fanatical about hygiene”. I visited his flat before he moved in with me. I think the whole of, uhm, two times. Case closed.)
Is my temperamental aversion to smelly clothes and dysentery in itself an irrational reflex, a hang-over from pre-feminist days, perhaps a genetic echo of my Mediterranean female ancestry? Quite possibly. But then again, I don’t see him philosophically objecting to clean clothes and a scum-free bath. It is not worth doing, perhaps, but it is certainly worth having it done for you.
Do I want to spend all of our waking hours arguing about cleaning? No I do not. I do the cleaning I need to live comfortably. He cooks lovely meals when he’s inspired and in the right mood. My mother probably thinks we live in a pigsty, his mother probably thinks she has raised a slightly put-upon angel.
Now add kids to this scenario. Do kids need feeding, like, every day? Yes. Are they sensitive to infectious diseases? Hm, yes. Do they in fact generate quite a heroic amount of dirt and mess themselves? Doh. Does the average family really have the luxury of all the time it would take to thrash out every attribution of responsibilities and attending logistical issues every single time? No.
So you can see how once they become mothers women might cut their losses and just get it done. If they work, they don’t have time to endlessly argue about it. If they do not earn a wage they are made to feel it is their job anyway. (Several studies have pointed to the amusing finding that new fathers actually do less housework not just than their wives but than single or childless men).
The -let’s call it -“female fanaticism” about hygiene and their irrational persuasion that it is their job to keep their children alive means women blink first.
If you are the daddy a clean house and well-fed, clean children are clearly worth having done for you, but they are still not worth doing.
Society/the market economy then smugly drapes itself around this tableau and draws its own merciless conclusions. Yes, someone needs to be able to get out early, to collect up a sick kid from school, take a kid to the dentist. But that’s not the someone who’s going to get the big job with the nice pay. And the person not doing the big job with the nice pay may as well cook and clean. I mean, their time is objectively worth less.
Let us recap: as a (middle class Western) woman you can attend a top university and train to fly a fighter jet. But once you reach the age of maturity and peak earning potential you still revert (or are expected to revert) to toilet cleaning, nappy-changing, fridge-stocking, milk-dispensing duties.
So what exactly have we achieved in the past 40 years, I feel compelled to ask? How deep do those achievements go?
I was not expecting much, not asking for gestating men or artificial wombs. I accept that if we want children women will have to physically carry them (my take on children, for the record , is that they may well be worth having them done for you but they are definitely not worth doing).
Let us just say I was hoping the rape stats would be a little less shocking, the pay gap a little less grim and that blokes would clean toilets by now. Even better, unprompted.

Friday, 18 November 2011

Reader, I didn't marry him

Ok, if we’re going to do this thing we’d better establish some ground rules. Managing expectations, the buzzword of the modern workplace, comes in handy in blogging too.

Here is my contract with you, setting out what you will and will not find in this blog of mine.

Let me start, a touch diffidently perhaps, with what you will not find.

You will not find any celebrity gossip and or pictures of famous cellulite and double chins. Should Kim Kardashian, in an arguably stunning development, renounce all worldly sex tapes, take the veil and sequester herself among cloistered nuns for life (or, say, at least 74 days) I promise you I will be the last to know. My 62 year old boss will blog about that before I will.

You will not find any provocative fashion statements – in words or pictures. I could not give a flying saucer if gold lame gladiator Ugg boots are in, out or upside down this season and as for hems, when you get to my age and thigh girth there are only two lengths: longish and trousers.

Despite my deceptively interesting-sounding former and current professions you will not find any political or diplomatic scoops in here. Hell, I couldn’t manage that when I was actually paid for it so I’m not going to bloody well do it for free, am I, out of some crazed instinct to compete against such stand-up guys like Guy Fawkes and other honourable, fair minded gentlemen of the interweb.

You are not going to find recipes, decoupage tips or addresses of wicked salsa clubs, out of the way jazz cellars, exclusive venues of any kind. If it’s exclusive I’m ideologically opposed to it and boycotting it. If, on the other hand, it’s inclusive, it’s likely to be quite crowded and noisy, isn’t it, and full of people I would not want to mix with, so I’m not going there, reader, not even for you!

So what on earth will be in it, I sense you wonder.

I’ve decided to follow my own basest instincts and go with (my internal) flow. Here is what you might reasonably expect to find on my blog:

Not particularly well-argued, slightly ranty feminist tirades,
Manic melancholia tinged with nostalgia, occasionally degenerating in soppyness,
Musings about ‘loife’, its meaning or lack thereof, and the increasingly decreasing quality of it..
Meringues (must have meringues),
Amusing family tales featuring intellectual, mild-mannered husband (IMMH), little (or Ugly), sister, her son the Leopard , aka the Mouse, plus Scary Italian Mamma.
Some quirky travel pics, when I cannot resist showing off,
Unaccomplished film criticism,
Some tedious work-related moans, which you can skip,
Highly unliterary literary criticism,
The occasional paean to Sandra Bullock. I just love the woman. So shoot me.

In short, dear reader, I will never wake up with a new face, a millionaire racing demon lover, on a boat in the middle of the Channel with a terrible headache and no idea how I got there, seven different passports and an uncanny knack for martial arts, wearing a to-die-for "this season" jumpsuit and on trend nude wedges.
If that’s your thing you’re going to have to get your kicks elsewhere.


Write, you say to yourself.
Just do it. Just put some words on paper, one after the other, no one is looking.
You've got so much to say.

But none of these things are actually true (anymore).

No words are ever put 'on paper' as such, if you ignore the occasional postcard and thank you note. (I have been told by some friends that my habit of sending physical Xmas cards is a quirky and endearing trait. That's how old age creeps up on you: the telltale sign is retention of good manners rather hearing loss).

No one was looking or could have cared less when you filled diary after diary, and wasted small forests on difficult first, challenging second and hopeless third unpublished novels plus a slim 'memoir'. But to blog is to write in public.

And since we're at it, do you really have that much to say?

For starters, I am so confused by the different personas one needs to face the different requirements of one's social (media) life - the newsy, homely Facebook updates, the cynical, super compressed Twitter chirps, the humble yet Machiavellian office email, that I genuinely don't know what "writing" means anymore.

What writing means depends on who you are, what you write as and for.

At 20 I didn't know myself particularly well, but sure as hell could produce, you know, text.

Now I'm paralyzed by anxiety: am I writing as an Italian abroad? As a feminist? As a woman of 42 who lives in London and reads the Guardian and likes films? As a professional in a given industry? As the friend or acquaintance of the only people who, initially at least, will read this?

My long-hand efforts on paper were also of course bound to only be read by a few select people but somehow I was able to forget that and write for the anonymous many. Whereas as I begin to blog I can't shake of the feeling that my annoying colleague next door and a couple of nasty ex boyfriends in other countries are looking over my shoulder, laughing at my choice of adverbs and taking instant offence at my every observation.

Old-fashioned writing took a certain heroic suspension of disbelief: yes this thought, this idea, this image matters, it is important that you write it down even if no one will read it. Thoughts and ideas and images like beautiful, secret unpolished gems, waiting to be brought into the light.

This writing can only ever be small and utilitarian, each post a solid little pebble to throw in a not too deep puddle of every day life's worries, rumours and fads. Belief or otherwise doesn't even come into it anymore. At most one hopes to develop a habit, a knack for it.
We shall see.
For now, write.