Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Little boy lost and the Italian Mammas

Last week-end Little Sis came to town with a bunch of female friends. Because they had mainly met at the school gates Mild Mannered Intellectual Husband, who thinks he is witty, dubbed them "the yummy mammas".

The group was a vivacious, gregarious bunch - much fun was had, drink taken, criticism and blame apportioned on the male half of the human species - you get the picture.

In between we also had some pretty sobering conversations about the state of Italian politics (dire), economy (appalling) and levels of gender equality (ghastly and getting worse, since you ask).

Here was a group of articulate, intelligent working women with their fair share of deadbeat husbands, appalling employers and so forth, shouldering the lion's share of childcare (although at the age of nine their children seem to need social secretaries rather than babysitters), sometimes counting on grandparents, rarely on the actual fathers, who after all, as they never tire of reminding them, go to work, (a protestation growing ever more poignant the less they actually fulfil the role of main breadwinners).

But I digress.

Initially the mammas seemed to me, a childless harridan, the living proof of how motherhood really does not pay : you get to do what they do but backwards and in high heels, so to speak. You get to slave at school for better grades and work hard at those first jobs for careers that melt or stall as the first sign of maternity leave, part time and so on.

Later when even the children start getting a life they still struggle to go back to the lives they once had as  autonomous individuals, say the ability to make plans for an evening out or a week-end away that do not involve gargantuan organisational efforts and  Faustian pacts with other halves, mothers, in-laws and so on.

Caring sucks, you say to yourself. It doesn't pay.

Then one afternoon a few of us were sitting in one of Harrods' 27 cafes/restaurants waiting for a couple of the others who were on a last-ditch souvenir shopping mission.

A little boy of 6 or 7 was sitting by himself at the table facing us, surrounded by jackets and bags, an untouched salad cast to one side, an iPad in front of him.

I saw the mammas clocking him.

A few minutes went by, we tucked into our hot chocolates, I tried to engage them on the important subject of dinner. But I could tell my sister was tense, she is the one I know best after all, and I realised they all were. They were watching the boy. The boy was still by himself.

All along the mammas had kept a discreet watch for the absent parent - but by now an innocent bathroom sortie was out of the question. The boy had been left alone while the adult(s) with him went shopping.

By now even I could see the little boy was bored and distressed. He was wriggling in his seat, looking up and around from his iPad and at one point he seemed to ask a waitress for directions to somewhere. My sister and her friends were white faced, thin lipped, fuming, ready to spring into action if the boy had started wondering off on his own.

The other two mammas arrive, sit a table nearby, blissfully unaware of the little drama. They order and settle in. My sister says: "How long till they notice?"
Two minutes later discreet but eloquent Italian gesticulation from their table: what is this boy doing on his own???  I shuttle between the two tables, as they both begin to simmer with indignation and palpitate with concern.

As I move about I lean towards the boy's table and make an important discovery: the writing on the Ipad is in Russian. The little boy probably doesn't speak English. The mammas are ready to burst.

At this point addressing the boy is out of the question: they don't want to alarm him further. But they are determined to stop him wandering off, routed to the spot till a parent appears and should some peadophile try his luck and attempt to lure him away I would not rate his chances of actual physical survival. These mammas are ready to kill.

Forty five minutes later ("Forty five!!!!" they will tell each other for the rest of the evening, still incredulous), Russian dad appears, muttering something apologetic, to the son's obvious relief. If looks could petrify and if men ever noticed any social signals the guy would be a sodding oligarch statue by now.

I look at my little sister and her friends and can feel my heart swelling. Women are great but mothers are special - they marry all the superior qualities women have ( aversion to conflict, ability to work as a team, reasonableness, desire of good outcomes, not just selfish ones, ability to spot the butter in the fridge without sat nav) with the ability to care - not just for their children but other people's, instinctively, reflexively, whether it pays or not, the hell if it doesn't pay.

That caring, it now seems to me, cannot be controlled, modulated, switched on and off as convenient - this is the end of my shift, this is your child, not mine. It's like the ability to hear an impossibly high note - a talent, a blessing and, yes,  a curse.

And it seems to me that this means women, the vast majority of whom are mothers, will never really have a shot at ruling the world, or even getting on in it, the way the world works now. It also sees to me that if they weren't there, or turned into tone-deaf men, the world would go to hell. Not at a glacial, global warming kind of pace. I mean tomorrow.

The abyss between these two extremes is our room for action.

Saturday, 27 October 2012

Capitalism isn't broken, it just doesn't give a shit

This is for fellow long-suffering Virgin Media customers but also for anyone who might one day have to rely on Richard Branson for their health care if the pirate ever succeeds in getting his hands on the bits of the NHS this government is putting up for sale.

Our "package" with Virgin media comprises TV (including on-demand services), telephone and broadband , and costs us nearly £50 a month before we make a single phone call or rent out a single film. Since the summer we have had a really poor (slow and intermittent) internet connection and no on-demand at all.

At first we phoned customer service, following the instruction on the error message on the screen. It's always nice to chew the fat with someone in Bangalore who is reading mechanically from a script - don't you find?- so we kept calling, and kept being told to "switch it on and off again". We did each time, because you could not progress through the phone call without abiding with this ritual first,  and nothing ever changed, apart from the explanation for the fault: sometimes there was a fault in the entire area that was being dealt with and sometimes it was just...our fault.

Eventually the Indians must have got tired of speaking to us and agreed to book an engineer's vist.

The chap duly turned up last Saturday and competently enough diagnosed that the strength of the broadband signal was too low because a box outside our house (shared by many other subscribers) needed to be upgraded by " a network team". He said that he would pass it to the team and expected the issue to be dealt within two business days.

When nothing happened on the Tuesday we called the chap again and he put us in touch with Keith Best, who apparently deals with complaints once they have been escalated all the way up from Bangalore to the office of the CEO, Neil Berkett.

Keith Best fobbed off my husband several times : he said the work would be carried out on Wednesday, then on Friday, each time promising to phone him back to keep him in the loop and never doing so.

So far so grimly familiar and banal.

But here's the kicker people: when you call Keith Best at the work number he gives out to customers, permanently switched off of course, he invites you to "please leave a message and I will get back to you at my earliest convenience".

This illiterate chump who, let us not forget, works for the CEO of Virgin Media, is the highest authority figure the humble engineer who came to our house can escalate our problem to.

So we have now gone full circle: we are currently paying for hot air (what else do you call non-flowing internet juice?) and, after months of conversational niceties with Bangalore,  having managed to get someone round to diagnose the problem, are now in the hands of British-based but unavailable customer service chumps who may call us back at their earliest convenience but on the whole do not.

Believers in the magic fairy dust of the free market would at this point encourage us to switch to a different operator but there is no other operator covering our area. We were with the dismal NTL because there was no choice and we are now with the dismal Virgin Media (which took over from the dismal NTL) because there is still no choice, bar getting SKY involved (huge dish, money to Murdoch, nah...).

Should there be two operators, or even three, you can be sure that, like with the energy companies, they would only ever be inspired to be as expensive and as bad as each other, not  a penny more, not a fruitless call to Bangalore less. Another note for those innocent fairy dust believers: there is no meaningful competition when there is little choice, untransparent price structures, impossibly complex 'packages' and, under any circumstances, no redress.

All of this means that there is no incentive whatsoever (given that pride in a great product and customer satisfaction  are alien concepts for these empty corporate suits) for Virgin Media to shape up, improve its service or even just provide the service they so efficiently take our money for.

They will call us back at their earliest convenience - when you actually think about it, it's not a Freudian slip, it's an unapologetic statement of fact, the only time in fact we have been told the truth.

Please reflect on this and join whatever campaign you can find, write to your MP etc etc to avert a situation when, in a not too distant future, as a patient whose cancer is metastasising and whose operation has been put off three times, you might find yourself at the receiving end of one such phone messages from the chimp put in charge of the Virgin NHS Customer Service, ooops, I mean Patient Care team.

Please also note that there is nothing broken with this model of capitalism. It does what it says on the tin. It delivers huge profit margins to shareholders and grotesque salaries to its CEOs. Just don't trust it to ever run anything you care about or on which your life depends. Whether you are a paying customer or a patient the cost of whose treatment still comes out of the taxpayer's pocket, you do not count. It doesn't care about you. It doesn't have to. No one and nothing is making it do so and it will never change if left to its own devices.

Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Where has all the magic gone?

Lucky J K Rowlings. The talented, multi-millionaire writer is currently everywhere as her new novel (written for an adult audience and distinctly wizard-poor by the sound of it ) is about to be published and the media are salivating about a possible flop.

But lucky J K Rowling , nonetheless.

Here is one detail of the interview I heard on Radio Four this morning that struck a particular chord. She said, (I summarise), that now that she can pay her bills she does not need to put out any work that isn't to her complete satisfaction. So she took her time and wrote the novel she really wanted to write and published it when it was good and ready. Had inspiration not struck she would not have bothered. And she ruled out wringing any more spurious sequels to Harry Potter's story just for the sake of publishing more books. She is done with Harry, she said

J K Rowling's own life story is extraordinary enough: from (metaphorical) rags to (very real) riches through talent and hard work as well as amazing luck. No lottery winner she. So when luck struck and she was given the opportunity of not having to worry about her bills this freed her not to do nothing but  to work better.

I hope she spares a thought for the many millions of us who do not have such luxury - and I don't mean the luxury of dropping out and eating caviar with a soup spoon from the sculpted navel of a (male, in my case) supermodel but the luxury of being able to work (whatever it is we do do) to a standard that can make us proud.

The reality of the world of work today (for those lucky enough to still hold down a job) is a constant, near total, de-spiriting, life-sapping battle between shrinking means, often absurd or ill-defined ends and megalomanic or incompetent bosses/ organisations/ bureaucracies,.

We'd love to be professional, competent, to show what we can do, to make a tangible difference, to concentrate on ends/results but we are constantly pushed back (often after enduring the daily commute in animal crates on rails) into undignified scrambles against time, mediocrity, office politics, chair-warming, face-saving, back-stabbing and process, endless process.  

Maybe it was ever thus - or at least since we stopped hunting animals and killing them with our bare hands. And this might explain why, despite work being the activity that absorbs most of everyone's time (unlike, say, falling in love, or exotic travel or being the caught up in a jewellery heist)  there are so few novels telling the story of work. It is, sad to say, for the most part an un-heroic little tale of daily mortifications to our intelligence and diminishing returns for our energy and time on this earth when it could be the triumph of humanity over death, destiny and raw matter.

Monday, 2 July 2012

In praise of Mild Mannered Intellectual Husband

MMIH often jokes that there is a comfortingly predictable template to my blog posts. Whether I'm talking about diets, diamonds or dead playwrights, the typical structure of any piece goes something along the lines: I was thinking about X the other day and it reminded me of yet another way in which men are shite.

My 20 readers will forgive me the indulgence of devoting a brief post just to him, to put some things in context.

By the time I bumped into MMIH, or rather, shopped for him online on a highly reputable and suitably intellectual internet site, I had been 'dating' for about 20 years, as our American friends say, 15 of those in Britain.

Teenage dating in Italy was bad enough: emotionally abusive AND suicidal boyfriends and the mothers who loved them, the near-date rapes in every conceivable type of parked car (who needed kickboxing to keep fit then? Happy days..), the struggle to conform to the silent simpering girlfriend stereotype.

But it was dating in Britain that really honed my survival skills: 15 years of invisibility to men folk who did not ever make eye contact, made a pass only when staggeringly drunk, talked all over you to other men at parties.

Then it all got virtual anyway, as people stopped meeting, talking and, you know, calling, in favour of oblique texts about their expected presence at some bar 20 minutes from now.

The last five years were just brutal: sexual politics having escalated into a sort of cold war, with men deeply reluctant to even have a casual fling in case you wanted to impregnate them with a mortgage and five kids. My last boyfriend (admittedly an Italian) even refused me a bed in central London the night the of the 7/7 attack in case "I should get ideas" about our status as a couple.

That's when MMIH entered the story. A guitar playing, orc-slaying philosopher prince with a floppy fringe and a lovely smile. Loving, sincere, demonstrative, generous. Tigger-esque, Muppet-y, benign, a force for good. I have never felt lonely, neglected or unloved for a single minute since. *

We talk non-stop: mainly we discuss completely theoretical stuff: Obamacare, the chances of Labour ever returning to power, that kind of thing. Often you will find us in restaurants arguing animatedly about nuances of tone in an editorial or who actually said what in an interview - without breaking our eating stride at all.

In between we bicker incessantly about just about everything:

his illogical thinking (Reader, you be the judge: is the set of keys marked "Ines and Dan" in our kitchen drawer more likely to A) belong to Inez and Dan, next door or B) be a spare set our key which we had, at some point, intended to give to Ines and Dan for safe-keeping but have since thought the better of it? Yes, you are right, I do have the patience of a saint.), 
my irrational and debilitating fixation with bella figura, which to an Englishman translates roughly as a' hypocrite's etiquette manual',

who's doing any job in the house,

who should be doing it,

who did it last week,

where to go on a mini break

who should book the mini break,

who booked the last mini-break,

whether that lipstick/skirt makes me look like a Neapolitan stripper (it does),

whether he should buy another ukulele (he shouldn't),

why he should be throwing away socks with holes and under no circumstance wear them in places where we shall be taking our shoes off (doh?!)...

You get the gist.

Together we have travelled a good portion of the safe, clean, non war-torn, civilized world; eaten several hundred times our body weight in lovely food, spent several months hugging like hibernating moles, watched about a year of phenomenal films, walked hundreds of miles, holding hands, singing silly songs, shouting at each other, and occasionally crying. 

My nephew, the Mouse, born two years before we met, doesn't remember a time without him and I'm beginning to forget those 20 years out in the cold myself.

Yes, I've struck some sort of (forgetful, clumsy, timid) gold and it's those other men who are crap but here's the cherry on the cake: his love has made me safer and therefore louder and angrier.  

Instead of counting my blessings I look around and see the shameful way some men still treat some women (and society treats all women) and it makes me want to shout.
And he not only 'lets me' but kind of enjoys it too, a little bit.

* Exasperated yes, often.


Wednesday, 27 June 2012

RIP Nora Ephron: a reflection on death, romance and southern European politics.

At the risk of turning this infrequently written blog into an obit column, I wanted to reflect on the sad news that Nora Ephron has died.

Her films played in the background of my life as I became a woman , peopled by unforgettable female protagonists who were old enough to get served alcohol in a US bar and had three dimensions, at least one career and a string of sassy repartees.

That was before the soft patriarchy of low expectations (to coin a phrase) set in and screen women were turned into simpering semi clad perpetual teenagers, mainly playing the starved and joyless aspiring girlfriends of the Real Characters.

When Harry Met Sally in particular is one of my favourite films- I watch it every five years or so and I measure my reactions to it through the prism of different ages. It never gets old.

The wholesome, tiresome, quirky Meg Ryan (pre-surgery, pre joyless rictus grin of the compulsory teen ager) sobs inconsolably at the news of her ex' engagement: "And I'm going to be forty!" Billy Crystal replies: "Yes, in eight years' time!" You are totally with her when she shoots back: "But it's sitting there, waiting for me..."

Here is the gender war in one unassuming little exchange.

Men have no 'future gene', their inability to even imagine the future insulating them from fear, prudence, inhibitions. (My brother in law believed becoming a father would give him "time to write" on top of a full time job, if you can believe it. And off to the study he shuffled to write several novels while my sister's idea of time out became going to the loo sans enfant.)
Women, on the other hand, live with their sexual/reproductive/societal sell-by-date tattooed on their soul. There is nothing but future (calculations of how long it will take to accomplish things, sort stuff out, put on another washing, gestate, find another suitable male, how bloated will you be for the party in two days' time if you eat this muffin now, whatever) from the moment you open your eyes in the morning. Grim realism making us forever cautious, self defeating and prone to sacrifice ourselves preventively, whether someone has asked or not.

Ephron's movies were refreshingly about love, friendship, family stuff and not so much about status, money, material aspiration. Her characters got on with their generally fulfilling jobs and no one obsessed too much about ensnaring a millionaire. That was not the point. Although society was changing at that very time and becoming conspicuously more unequal Ephron reflected the sunny aspirations of a previous age. Wall Street did not seem to dominate everything and being a banker's wife was not yet the codified posh alternative to high class hooker.

But let's go back to death for a minute, lest I should be accused of excessive jollity. When I heard the announcement on the radio this morning they simply said she had died, aged 71. I immediately wondered: but what has she died of?

That got me thinking. What is the cut off point for death not having to be explained, contextualised in the language of lost battles with cancer and so on? Seventy one seems awfully young to simply leave it at old age being the cause of death, don't you think? I mean, seventy one is positively JUVENILE in Greek Cabinet or Italian tecnocrats' terms.

Why did she have to go and die like that? Who signed the memo, who processed the request? How can Nora Ephron, a woman who was writing about her worries about a lined neck only two or three years ago, be expectde to...you know...decompose? How can one go from wondering if she can still 'get away' with wearing a polo neck to being old enough that death deserves no further explanation in that space of time?

Perhaps the truth is much more terrifying: people do die at 70, left right and centre and at the same time half of southern Europe (the insolvent half) is being run by male geriatrics who could keel off at any moment, yet remain unable to visualise the simple fact that death is indeed sitting there, waiting for them. Summit or no summit.

Tuesday, 15 May 2012


Even though I do nothing all day but "communicate" and consume news, newspapers scattered everywhere, computer blinking at me, Twitter tweetering and the telly permanently on BBC News in the background, I managed to completely miss the sad news of my former colleague David Walter's death.

I was told by another ex-colleague in a sweet email inquiring if I was aware of David's "passing".

Death is so hidden in today's world, we speak of it so rarely, that I'm struck each time by how gentle and tentative the language is. Passing seems to be a lithe, playful, transient way to describe something so definitive, so final .

I once went to Naples with David on a story and we arrived a day early to recce (I imagine none of the words in this sentence make any sense to a young BBC reporter today ). The phone rang while we were tackling an ice cream and I remember the twinkle in David's eye as he replied to our boss: "Oh yes, everything is fine. We are working ever so hard!".

David was superbly sympathetic, warm and believable on screen but also - uniquely in an industry mostly populated by egotistical monsters - managed to be the same person off air. He was as English as they come but keenly interested in Europe, not in the stereotypes so much but in the real story. Again, look away young journalistic bucks.

He was very good to me when I had nothing but a strong accent and grating levels of naivety and enthusiasm. Years later he was very good to me again when I was on the verge of leaving the BBC -downcast, scared and with my sanity hanging by a thread.

He came (and seemd in great form) to my leaving do but when I saw him next, at an event I had organised in my new job, I could tell he had been ill. He was the same sweet self, unassuming, friendly, yet right about most things he commented upon in our chat.

Turns out that right at the time when I thought my life was over he had begun to die for real.

I don't really know what to make of this realisation. The cliches don't actually help. Life, I find, doesn't seem any sweeter now I know for sure that I too will be passing some day, just a little bit more pointless. The deaths of other people weirdly fail to make me feel more alive - just a bit more alone.

Boy, what a treat old age is going to be, should I be lucky enough to get there.

Monday, 16 April 2012

Philanthropists: please feel free to love your fellow men after showing respect for your fellow citizens by PAYING TAX

It's not often that The Independent's editorials and the Guardian's letters page sound sceptical on the subject of charities (their needs and wants) and it is very rare indeed that I find myself in agreement with a Tory Minister, as I did while listening to Treasury Minister David Gauke on Today this morning.

But here it is: when people of modest and middle income pay tax - as they all have to - they have no choice as to what proportion of their money goes to the NHS, say, as oppose to finance wars they might not believe in or R&D projects they might not personally care about.

To paraphrase Danny de Vito speaking about money * it's called tax because everybody pays it, whether they feel like that or not; the state collects it centrally and distributes it as it sees fit, on your behalf and for the greater good of society as a whole- however the government in power happens to define it. If you live in a democracy and you have bothered to vote you will have played some role in deciding the broad brush of what that looks like.

So I do not think that while the majority of the little people see their hard earned cash spent re-tarmacing some stretch of motorway on the other side of the country or rehabilitating unpleasant young offenders, the very rich should pick and choose what and who they 'donate' to instead of paying tax. Will it be a new wing of a prestigious art gallery? Perhaps a season of ballet? Or even, why not, research into some impossibly rare and glamorous genetic condition which plagued grand-mamma's existence?

Tax does not imply generosity or personal glory: it's a civic duty and what it gets you in return is a stake in citizenship - everyone should be made to have that stake in the country they reside in. If you want to be generous on top of that, and maybe get something named after you into the bargain, be my guest.

I do not care how I get my art and culture: I'm very happy indeed if museums and theatres get sponsored to the tunes of millions by the rich, and they are welcome to the recognition, the gala opening, the special seats, the benefit dinners. But I do not want services to turn into charities, something that relies on a few rich people's generosity instead of the ability of the collectivity to provide.

For the record, I'd be interested to see (and the fact I have not seen this anywhere yet might be the answer to my question) how many of the unglamorous, non-artistic causes do in fact rely heavily on rich donors: how may women's refuges or local libraries or day care centres for severely disabled adults. My guess is not many. Meanwhile we know for sure many of these services have been severely reduced or cut down altogether in parts of the country because the state simply cannot afford to keep them going (having democratically made the political choice to cut the budget rather than raise taxes) .

As for those lefties, such as my husband, who unaccountably choose this issue to suddenly become realists ("We need to deal with the world as it is, not as we would like it to be: some amazing charities and institutions will suffer if you discourage rich people to donate)") I say: be the change you want to see in the world; don't just curl up and cave in to the worst version of what we, as a society, can be.

So the National Theatre (and you readers know how I love it) can cry me a river, frankly. If they have to schedule one fewer performance of Waiting for Godot in Armenian, so be it. The truth is, there will always be enough people, rich or otherwise, interested in theatre enough to keep some form of it afloat.

For everything else there is tax. It puts out fire, clears drains, trains policemen and nurses. It takes care of you even if you are smelly and old, and cures you even if you brought your sickness upon yourself. It doesn't judge you or rate you: it looks into your pockets and takes what you can give to pay for what you will need. That's why it's called tax.

(*"You need money? Everybody needs money! That's why it's called money!!!!", from the film Heist)

Thursday, 22 March 2012

Ten thousand steps

The journey to success or salvation varies in length, depending on the traveller.

It's a small step for man (albeit an astronaut) to hurl the whole of mankind on the surface on the moon. It takes twelve steps (albeit over several years) for an addict to shed his or her sick skin. But it takes ten thousand steps - a day - for the average fat person to regain control of their weight and shape.

That, and the revolutionary ELBF formula, of course. A more entrepreneurial girl than I might be tempted to trademark it and repackage it in pretty colours before setting up a franchise empire but I'm willing to give away for free: Eat Less Bloody Food.

So let's recap: walk more, lots more, every day. Eat less, a lot less, every day. Forever. Simple, non? Well not quite.

We live in 'obesogenic' societies: physical effort - even of the walking kind, is pared down to a minimum, exceedingly calorific food is available everywhere, all the time, and before we even realise we are being greedy we are swallowing (and let's not forget the drinking side) so many calories there aren't enough hours in the day to burn them all.

Our society has become a distorting mirror. Very overweight is the new normal. I was very thin as a girl and a normal weight for quite a long time as a young woman. Yet it's taken me five years to realise I'm now quite seriously overweight because I'm surrounded by much heavier people and images of skeletal models, neither of which I feel have anything to do with me. I feel normal you see. But I am not.

I'm also beginning to think that fat is a feminist issue in a radically new way from what Susie Orbach intended.
People overeat and under-exercise for all sorts of reasons: lack of money, education, time. Caitlin Moran writes movingly in her excellent memoir "How to be a Woman" about the "quietly over-eating mums", who console and medicate themselves with food, the cheapest, less disruptive addiction available -- less disruptive to others that it, as it allows them to function, take care of others, whilst becoming larger and therefore more invisible to society at large.

But none of these scenarios really applies to me, if I'm honest. I'm a middle class, child-free feminist fattie. I have disposable income and tonnes of 'me' time. I have read acres of newsprint about nutrition, weight loss and so on, not just the cheap magazine stories about miracle crash diets.

I think the feminist critique on our 'lookist' society has had a perverse effect on me. Busy as I was fighting the objectification of women as pretty playthings, rejecting the obscene role models of the fashion industry, in an effort not to be reduced to the sum of my body parts in a sexist world I kind of lost track of my body as a body, a precious vessel made of flesh and bones, a mortal mechanism, the place I inhabit.

But once you are unable to skip down the street, cross your legs properly, wear what you like (not what you can find in your size), wish to even look at yourself in the mirror and have photos taken of you, once you regularly injure yourself through spasmodic bouts of exercise because of the sheer bloody extra weight you are carrying around, isn't your body dominating you, restricting you and defining you more and worse than if it were just an object of male desire and dominance?

I'm asking because I genuinely don't know anymore. I have had a sort of Damascene conversion during the visit of my lite, Jiminy Cricket-wise younger sister and I am exploring totally new feelings and ideas here.

I think it's been easier for me, up to a point, to shrug off my feelings about my own weight as vain, superficial and patriarchy-induced, and to keep stuffing my gob with food that I didn't need and that didn't make my job more secure, my bank balance bigger or my marriage smoother. It was just food, it turns out, eaten mechanically, often in front of the telly, because no one wants to read the novel I am not writing.

Gotta go. I still have 5200 steps ahead of me to accomplish my daily goal. Yesterday I managed 9772, then I simply run out of road and found myself outside my house.

It was late, it was dark, I was tired. I felt too self-conscious and silly to turn around , go back up the road for ten minutes and come back. So I only nearly met my goal. Nearly doesn't get you on the moon. Nearly doesn't free you of crack cocaine.

It was close, but no meringue.. I mean, cigar.

Thursday, 8 March 2012

Have the men had enough?

I hope you all had a splendid International Women's Day... Now, tell me, what constitutes a 'feminist issue' in a First World democracy in 2012? Try this definition: any human rights outrage perpetrated despite the presence of great-sounding legislation. Something we all accept should not be allowed to happen and that can therefore be safely ignored by the half of the population not directly effected.

The gender pay gap, currently hovering around an EU average of 20pc *, is a case in point: we have had Equal Pay legislation for 37 years. Nice, reasonable men are happy for women to work and be paid the same as them and therefore can't quite phantom what we are still banging on about. What's been missing is the willingness of nice, reasonable men to share the burden of childrearing, which has de facto consigned many women to part time careers encompassing little more than carrot-peeling and bottom-wiping.

A new Eurobarometer survey just released on the perception of gender inequality across Europe reveals that the pay gap is still the number two concern when it comes to gender equality for women in Europe. Would you like to know what the first one is? Violence against women. Trafficking and sexual exploitation comes at number three on the list.

Men are aware of those things too (46pc of men mentioned male violence vs 50pc of women, not far off) but where - in the public discourse, in the media, in the culture - is the male outrage towards the misery caused by those at Neanderthal end of their gender's spectrum?

It's not enough for the nice, reasonable guys in our lives not to hit us/rape us/ traffic us/pimp us/exploit us though pornography - they must make themselves angry about of the violence women still face from other men, men they presumably work and socialise with every day.

Yes, there are laws and all that. No, we are not actually fighting for the vote, or the abolition of apartheid or anything. But we still need men to get up and get exercised alongside us. This is still about the violation of the basic human rights of half the population.

Some time ago a nice reasonable man and I were discussing a depressing news story about a sexual assault. "What I don't understand," he said, (and please feel free to imagine him metaphorically widening his innocent eyes and batting his eyelashes at me, "is how you can actually force a woman to perform oral sex on you. I can see how you can literally penetrate someone against their will, but blowjobs? "

"Mmm..." I replied, "I suppose it depends on how hard you punch her, on what you threaten to do to her children, on whether you've got a knife to her face.."

"Oh dear..." , he gulped, defeated.

God bless! Imagine living in the safety of a worldview where rape (a bad, bad thing, don't get me wrong) only happens as a result of some mild forcing of oneself upon another. He hadn't thought about it on those nasty terms, the reality of male violence against women a hazy concept to him, not something he has had to worry about every day of his life.

Yet men are partners, husbands, brothers and fathers of women. How can they allow themselves to carry on in this blissful ignorance of the awful things women suffer at the hand of some men?

When will the (nice, reasonable) men have had enough?

* The Gender pay gap in the member states of the European Union- Belgian Presidency report 2010

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Clare'sLaw? No thanks, just 'the law' for me will do

We are told that Clare's Law, a much talked about domestic violence disclosure scheme, is to be piloted in four areas around the country.

If you are a woman living in one of those and are worried about a new partner's potential violent tendencies you can now stalk him preventively online with the help of the local police force.

Chances are your average violent bloke has never been charged and convicted of any domestic violence offence, so your new squeeze won't feature on the list and you can go ahead and date him, confident that the thing that happens when he has had a few drinks/is bored/ you have PROVOKED him is not domestic violence, just him slapping you around a bit. Congratulations, you got yourself a keeper!

If he is on the list, boy he must have serious form, but when you try to leave him and he starts beating you up chances are the police still won't turn up. If they do and they arrest him, chances are the courts still won't convict him or give him a serious custodial sentence. And sure as hell there won't be any refuges to escape to if he comes after you because they have to shut down for lack of funding.

But you will feel so empowered, because basically it will all have been your fault for having gotten yourself involved with a bit of rough.

As Sandra Horley wrote in the Guardian this week, we do not need new, expensive but ultimately tokenistic schemes - we need to keep spending the serious money and effort needed to ensure the police bother to apply the law as it stands.
The fact that the announcement came on the week when legal aid for domestic violence victims was under threat was the cherry on the manure cake for me.

Just to make my feelings absolutely clear (I know I can be so hard to read sometimes!) I don't just disagree with Clare's Law as a policy. I find it profoundly irritating and patronising as a concept.

Generally speaking one should be highly suspicious of laws with female names attached. For one thing, there is a whiff of impotent (but terrifying) pitchfork-waving about any measure taken in the name of an individual victim. Sarah's Law , as you might recall, pretty soon led to paediatricians being chased from their homes, having been endearingly confused with paedophiles. Not what I would call a result.

Secondly, it almost inevitably constitutes a cheap crocodile-tear-type answer to the genuine grief and injustice suffered by a family (briefly capturing the sympathy of the nation) for a crime that was supremely avoidable. We all feel vindicated; something is being done in the name of brave Clare, poor Sarah - but nothing that will save another Clare or Sarah.

Clare Wood, whose name graces the current initiative, begged the police to save her from her violent boyfriend on a number of occasions, including after a sexual assault, before finally being murdered by him. I know her heart-broken father fought hard for this initiative- something being better than nothing, in his words. But does he not deserve more than this?

Finally it smacks of yet another example of the outsourcing of effort, cost and responsibility from the provider/company/state to the user/customer/citizen.

Being routinely asked to check out my own groceries is insulting enough (I don't work here, Sainsbury/Boots/Tesco!!!!) but I draw the line at being told that, basically, it's up to me to keep myself safe by giving potential or actual criminals a wide berth after conducting my own mini-policing investigations.

We are already been paternalistically advised not to dress like sluts, not to go out late, not to live our lives without some form of male chaperoning and protection. Enough with making violence against us being our problem to solve. (I do not recall for instance an equivalent Sebastian's law scheme for the self-prevention of corporate fraud or theft. Football fans are not encouraged to ring John's Register and stay away from games when hooligans might be present. Men are not told that the crimes they tend to be the victims of are their problem).

So this is Peebi's Message to the Home Office: you do your job and keep the violent crims behind bars. Train the police to recognise women as people, not noisy thinghies or asking-for-it would-be-whores (oh, and maybe have another look at the rape stats while you are at it) and equip them to turn up and fight crime.

I, for my part, will pay my taxes and date whoever I like. Or not, in my case, because I'm already married - to someone, incidentally, who only sporadically does the hoovering, despite the promises of those heady, crazy early days. I don't suppose there is a register I could have him slapped on for that?

Sunday, 4 March 2012

I’m sick of eras ending

Last week I found myself back at Bush House, historic home of the BBC World Service, for a celebration of its 80 amazing years. I sat in the audience while a couple of programmes were going on air. The atmosphere was electric if slightly chaotic, but I felt just a quiet sadness throughout.

I was reminded of presenting or contributing to European affairs programmes - which do not exist anymore and would never be commissioned again - in this very building as a fresh faced idealistic young journalist who thought (and still thinks) that the World Service is the closest thing she has to a religion and this country has to an empire of sorts.
But of course the dedicated, hard working, badly paid multilingual journalists who make up this institution are soon to leave this building, in the wake of a cynical government move to dump the cost of the whole operation (once paid for by the FCO) onto the BBC’s budget, and of subsequent inevitable cuts to many of its language sections.
BBC bosses will tell you this is progress: most BBC news operations are moving in the state-of-the-art, glass-and-steel complex which has been growing like a shiny tumour off the side of the old limestone building of Broadcasting House.
But at Bush House last week I felt ouse House we were blowing the last birthday candles of some distinguished war veteran about be tossed out of his nursing home, an expensive, embarrassing relic, whose glory and purpose belonged firmly to the past, to another era. Once ensconced in the glass and steel tumour the surviving World Service will paradoxically become more invisible and more expendable. Mark my word,we will not see a 100th anniversary.
This despondent feeling comes upon me a lot these days, as the apparently endless crisis lurches into yet another week, month and year. In fact, to be honest, I’m sick of eras ending.
Mild mannered intellectual husband notes that, surely, it depends on the era. The end of the Third Reich was no bad thing, for instance. (Despite his intellectual credentials mild mannered husband is a true Englishman in his instinctive invocation of Nazi Germany as the shorthand for all historical evil). So, ok, sure, the end of something horrible is no bad thing per se.
But still I’m sick of being reminded of all the things that are at an end (mainly, the subtext goes, because we cannot afford them anymore): jobs for life, the expectation of employment throughout one’s life, the ability to retire at some point and not starve, top quality, investigative journalism (or even average but neutral and informative reporting),good quality universal medical care free at the point of delivery, the idea that things like policing should be run by the state and not private contractors, like the stuff of some dark 1970s sci-fi dystopia, soon to come to a riot near you.
I’d like to start talking about the beginning of new eras. What are we going to have instead of what someone – but who?- has decided we cannot afford or is not relevant anymore? How are we going to organise our society in a way that still reflects the values most of us hold (if asked the question in the right way and not just as an appendix to the question of their cost)?
For all our ostentatious worshipping of ‘democracy’ for instance, we are witnessing the systematic overlooking of any mandate by those who are slashing and burning eras all over the place.
The NHS is being transformed, and some say destroyed, to its very core by a government who had not put this onto any manifesto and indeed had promised that it could be trusted not to harm it.
A welfare policy which turns benefit recepients into virtual slaves for the private sector at the time when millions are looking for work: who exactly voted for that? When Tesco is ashamed of doing business with a government that offers a slave labour force for fear of looking bad you know something has gone wrong. (Echos of the Third Reich anyone?)
The Leveson enquiry has destroyed any illusion that this country is any less corrupted to the core than your average Italy or Greece, with a journalistic conglomerate (instead of the mafia, the masons or the arms manufacturers) playing the puppet masters.
Plans to privatise “some police services” sound, in this light, almost movingly comical: why, Murdoch was already running his own private police/intelligence service with handsome payouts to several layers of the Met. News International, it now appears, got to spy on people and intimidate them with the active help and protection of a police force whose first allegiance clearly was not the state any longer. NI got to decide what was investigated and what should not be, and to threaten the body politics into line. Allegedly, bien sûr.
Meanwhile the average Sun reader got brainwashed into thinking that the EU was the real threat to British sovereignty. Oh, and that women are either big-titted young sluts or spiteful, hairy harridans too ugly to be photographed, and whose views should therefore be ignored. Telegraph readers got the message too, in a different way and to a different extent. As for Express readers, well, if you are prepared to believe that Lady Di was kidnapped by aliens or that Brussels is abolishing Christmas and ice-cream, congratulations: you are already living beyond reason, in what apparatchiks from the other Bush era called “the post-reality based community” and that is currently all the rage in the US.
Express readers are in fact the vanguard of the post-truth revolution, the canary in the mine of this experiment with not giving a shit about facts. You might think that flat-earthers and racist dim-witted bible bashers are a tiny sad minority and do not matter in the British political debate but you’d be wrong – they set the agenda at every level. Look how the BBC scurries around to lower its own corporate IQ and cater for them, their prejudices, their grotty aspirations.
Yes, the same BBC that in one incarnation has been the voice of truth (and thus the hand maiden of democracy and freedom in five continents in the past 80 years) is, in a different guise, on different platforms and channels, happy to chirp along with the Astroturf myth that the deficit was created by benefit scroungers, that the views of five hysterical and well funded climate change deniers are equivalent to the body of opinion of 95 per cent of the world scientific community. And while they are at it, you can see how the temptation to slash the budget for original drama and commission another series of “Young, dumb an living off Mum” or “Snog, Marry, Avoid” might be too strong to resist.
Cheap and dishonest relativism won’t give us a new Renaissance, won’t lead us to the discovery of a new America, a new moon-landing. Where are the new beginnings going to start from, where will they lead us? What does the brave new (cheaper) world we can afford in our reduced circumstances look like and for whose benefit are we forging it, who will run it, to what end? Enough with eras ending, let’s start re-building something, let’s start talking about it at least.
But let’s also remember that in a world without truth there is only power, as someone cleverer than me once said. Chances are that you, reader, like me, are an Average Joe, unlikely to be the one yielding that power. So you want to be careful with that. Just sayin’...

Friday, 3 February 2012

Difficult difficult, lemon difficult

Looking back, I can see that I have taken two major gambles in my life so far.

I left home and country at the then daring, unheard of age of 20 because I thought life would be better away from the restrictions of family control at home and nepotism in the professional sphere. They are two complex issues, of course,  but let me summarise as best I can here: 1) a good daughter is a virgin, who never goes out and has no friends or opinions of her own , 2) if you want to be a journalist but have no familial, political or bedroom connections forget it, basically.
Two decades later I decided that I definitely would not have children after all, despite having found at the 11th hour that modern Holy Grail, the straight, single, solvent, committed guy who Would Make a Great Dad, because having fought so hard to live the life I wanted, I wanted the rest of that life to be about me and not spent at the service of a new generation of ungrateful little shits.
Both choices were dictated by the need (and god knows where that came from, we are not a family of iconoclasts us, I can tell you), to be free and to be allowed to be the best possible me in this one, short, haphazard shot at life I have been given.
How’s it working out for me? Pretty good, so far, since you’re asking.
No doubt there will be tears and loneliness and much soiling of oneself in a cabbage-smelling nursing home in years to come. Heaven knows there have been plenty of tears and loneliness and demonic boyfriends and flatmates in cabbage-smelling houseshares in the years so far. This was never the point.  The point was not to be happy and safe and loved all the time (although I have been managing ok most of the time), the point was to be my own person, paying my own way and having a stake in the world and a voice in what happens to me.
It’s not that I set out to live my life following some sort of feminist agenda, but as a woman I gradually discovered that it was the only way for me to be allowed to live a full life. I would probably make a Great Dad myself, for instance. The trouble isn’t children, although god knows they get sticky and boring very quickly, the trouble is motherhood.
I am reflecting on all this because I keep reading and having conversations with friends and sister about the horrendous position Italian women are in as the crisis keeps on cutting – thrust out of the labour market as soon as children are in the picture, with fewer and fewer services to rely on, making them hostage to fortune across the board: hostage to the violence of husbands they can’t leave or to poverty if they do leave, domestic slaves in every case, earning very little if they are allowed to hang on to a job. Oh, and all the while they have to look sexy and feminine, of course, it’s the law, and it’s not very feminine to make a fuss and debate vociferously. It’s Afghanistan with air con, as I wrote recently – it is already here!
When you lose earning power you are fucked, it’s as simple as that people! You are not just vulnerable and at the mercy of others but also vilified and ridiculed – look at the British debate on single mothers,  child benefits etc and this in a country where men do some housework and women hold on to full time jobs in much greater numbers and are allowed to keep their clothes on on TV.
The choice is never between happiness and unhappiness – that would be easy.
No, the choice (for those lucky enough to be presented with a choice, and I realise much of this is a middle class rant) is  between agency and surrender. I chose agency, continue to choose agency and  would still choose agency if I were 22 and pretty again and surrender came in the form of a fit, besotted Russian oligarch offering material comforts beyond my wildest dreams.  
Sadly most of us give in for much less – the thrill of taking some mediocre man’s surname, carrying some mediocre man’s children, with the added bonus feature of cleaning after him and helping him find his car keys for the rest of their lives. Which then leaves them too exhausted to run for political office or whip up a storm in the blogosphere.  
Yes it’s difficult. Lemon difficult. But we have to make the best of what we’ve got I suppose. Will you at least try to raise your sons not to be such selfish pigs and your daughters not to be simpering demi-vierges eager to learn to pole dance to capture and hold on to some moron who would Make a Great Dad some day? Just asking.

Saturday, 21 January 2012

Help! My garden thinks it’s spring

The camellias are out, and some other flowers too whose name is beyond me (I know camellias and I know roses and daisies, that’s it. If you are in search of beautifully evocative descriptions of nature you are reading , once again, the wrong blog).
A mysterious bird (once more, see above) has been calling out all morning from some secret hideout deep in the barren branches. Flocks of green parakeets squawk back and forth, like they are doing rehearsals on the set of Rio.  (I don’t suppose cartoon characters actually do rehearse but you get the gist). The squirrels have been training hard for the birdfeeder-raiding Olympics.
The sun goes in and out, like a caring but distracted manager with too many meetings to attend. The air is mild, smells sweet, and resonates with the plaintive cries of toddlers.
Obviously it isn’t spring, not remotely, yet spring is not far off. Others (husband among them) hate it but I’m very fond of this time of year, with its grey-white skies, imperceptibly lighter mornings, a certain suspended hush in the air.
I like it because we still have them all in front of us, those theoretically pleasant six months of spring and summer. It is all still to come and therefore it hasn’t disappointed yet, it is all still potentially wonderful:  bright sunny days, branches heavy with candyfloss blossoms, blue skies. But also, a sudden surge of energy and optimism, the taking up of some long dreamed about sporting activity, a new wardrobe of light, feminine, flirty clothes, hems hovering above knees on newly slimmed down frames, un-quarrelsome visits to or from the parents.
None of that will actually happen. But it’s all just about still possible now.
Gotta go. Husband is back from the drycleaners with lots of little bunches of flowers (yes, I know, I’m blessed).  I’ll arrange them in various vases around the room as he scrambles eggs for our lunch. Then it will start to rain.

Thursday, 19 January 2012

That sinking feeling

By the time your father-in law (who is your blog’s first reader and greatest fan!!!) emails you suggesting you explore the succulent metaphors about your country’s predicament still bobbing up and down in the vicinity Isola del Giglio, you know the horse has well and truly bolted.
(Apologies for the mixed metaphors there but I thought “that ship has sailed” would be too brutal in the circs.)

So to recap, while the real life ship was going down, all through the horror of the botched midnight evacuation, the queasy, German expressionist daylight images of this huge broken toy thrown against the rocks next to the tiny harbour, all through the feverish media speculations and the viral U-tube clips of the – by now surely - most public dressing down in history, (translated here but without the expletives unfortunately) I was away from the office to my alternative place of employment, for my monthly dose of what feels like playing table tennis with a drunken but hyperactive octopus.

Therefore this story of Italian cowardice and ineptitude, followed by the tiny resurgence of some national pride thanks to Capitano Gregorio De Falco, (a man so damn upright and just plain wonderful that even as he was tearing strips out of Schettino, the farcical fugitive ship captain, urging him to “get the fuck back on the ship, for fuck’s sake”, never strayed from the polite/formal “lei” third person form of address) sort of passed me by.
I was aware of it, but dimly, lost in the background noise to my round of meetings, followed by cascades of contradictory emails, resulting in a cacophony of several more conversations conducted in second and third languages, and hastily scribbled to-do list for when life in the regular office begins again.
Catching up with the sorrowful tales of the survivors on a two days old newspaper on the train back home I was struck, as usual in these cases, by the casual spitefulness and vengeance of the god I do not believe in, so vicious to his own flock. The devout, retired couple from some US backwater who raised a large family and never had a penny and were now soooo looking forward to trip to Europe: dead. The nice woman who let the wheelchair-bound passengers get ahead and into the lifeboats: dead.
And another thing: It’s so hard to do good and so easy for things to go to shit, have you noticed? It’s as if some sort of moral gravity force was a play: after weeks of pushing tiny incremental changes laboriously uphill,  an economic reform here, a sober press conference there, the new, grey haired, dark-suited Italian PM had nearly managed to make people forget for five whole minutes what a country of chancers and scoundrels we are.  But it takes a tanned imbecile a moment’s stupidity and a long night of cowardice and arrogance for this to all come crushing down.
Maybe I’m feeling particularly despondent because a person I really respect quit her job this week in exasperation and disgust: years of pushing tiny boulders uphill, with few results, against increasing odds, eventually got the better of her. All that effort, what for? You may well ask. She did and stopped pushing and the boulders are crashing back down even as I write.
It helps, I suppose, to have a sense of humour and not to be too afraid to laugh through the tears.
My compatriots are now buying t-shirts emblazoned with a myriad of variations of the De Falco’s outburst: “Pay your taxes, for fuck’s sake!”, “Get in the queue, for fuck’s sake!”).
Mild mannered intellectual husband, who I have missed more than words can say, has just cooked a celebratory dinner. We are celebrating the fact that I’m back home, not from a death cruise but from an ordinary working week which had its share of banal evils for both of us, that we are together, alive and make each other laugh.
Tomorrow boulder-pushing resumes as normal. Tomorrow we have to – as Capitano Gregorio De Falco would no doubt put it- “get the fuck back out there” and do our best, probably pointlessly, against ridiculous odds.