Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Abercrombie Hell

I'd only ever heard of Abercrombie & Fitch, the ugly brand for pretty people, because of their unfortunate but unapologetic determination to discriminate against both employees and customers who do not fit into their standard of beauty.

I have lived a long and happy life without ever feeling the need to darken the doorstep of one of their shops. Unfortunately Lil' Sis decided she really wanted us to buy a A&F sweatshirt for dad: he had once borrowed one and looked good in it, it knocked a couple of decades off him and so on. 

There are no A&F shops in our home town. Lil' Sis has taken care of parental Xmas presents and much else besides since time immemorial. It was my turn to step up to the plate.
The London main store resembles a latter-day Aladdin cave, dark with spotlights shining on jewel-coloured piles of distressed apparel, and perfumed oxygen and very loud music aggressively pumped into the air.

Models/assistants of either gender (that’s what they call themselves), tall, lissom & Bambi-eyed bat their long eyelashes at you uncomprehendingly whatever your request then lead you through a guided tour of the premises, languidly pointing at shelves like sleepy children, hoping, you realise eventually, that you yourself will end up spotting what you were looking for.

At the slightest provocation they then offer to strip to their innermost layer to try on a garment for you, if you are buying something for the opposite gender, that is. Although it's entirely possible that if I'd been looking at a lady's sweatshirt a 16year old girl might have also approached and offered to show me what it looked like 'on her'. It doesn't bear thinking about, really.

In the course of the next 40 minutes I made the following discoveries:

1) I'm old - it's official.  

Not only did I find the music too loud, the bizarre sprayed perfume too strong; not only was I Madam-ed throughout by the model/assistant who served me. I also found I could flirt with him without blushing, like a grandma beyond reproach, without even a whiff of MILF-ery about it.  At one point I heard myself say that the elderly father I was buying  the sweatshirt for "is not as muscly as you". Random, random horrors.  

He, in turn, could hear this stuff without blushing - just a polite laugh and the gentle expression of someone who fully expects you to launch into a  description of your aches and pains next. Which, in a way, I was.

2) Shops aimed at the young, monied brain-dead only seem to stock L and XL for men and S and XS for women. It's the law. I suspect in all cases the range of sizes is the same: 0 to twig. But men are encouraged to think themselves as big, women as small. My un-trendy dad is an unfashionable 'Medium' and that turned Mission Unpleasant into Mission Impossible, but with a Greek chorus of  gorgeous kids wishing me happiness and an 'awesome day', rather than villains stroking cats.

3) Un-stitched, distressed designs and artificially faded fabrics are in. In fact you can buy little else.  But it still costs a packet. For more background analysis of my take on the style, I refer you back to point 1)

Monday, 25 November 2013

Women policing it for themselves

So the wretchedly misguided Clare's Law is going ahead after all. A proposal so barmy it looked made up is actually going to become law in England and Wales.

Here were my thoughts at the time this was first mooted, and let me tell you, I haven't changed my mind.

It seems it's now accepted practice that if women want anything done at all they have to do it themselves - like second class citizens who are not fully entitled to the protection of the state. Hence the campaigns to take down violent misogynistic content on FB, or to fight back violent trolls on Twitter, hence the battle to force police to take rape seriously, to even record complaints made, to protect children against grooming  (with desperate families, in one recent case, told to sit it out and wait till the girls are too old to be of use to their groomers).

But asking women to consult a register to find out of their perspective boyfriend has a history of being a violent thug is a step too far. For one thing it seems to fully outsource the responsibility for women's protection to the potential victims themselves. For another, the logic of the initiative fails at the first hurdle: if enough were done to identify and neutralise violent men in the first place they'd be behind bars, where they cannot pose any risks, not out there luring new victims. Who, in other words, is going to be on this register?

And when are we going to go full circle, give women a gun and a pair of handcuffs and wish them good luck?

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

To Breed or not To Breed? How to make a drama (well, a play) out of a very recent female dilemma.

You know that image of a clock showing that if Earth has existed for a day 'man' has only appeared, in evolutionary terms, at five minutes to midnight?

Well, the subatomic watch hasn't been invented yet that can accurately record the infinitesimally short time in the history of the world in which women have had some say in reproduction. 

For most of human history women got children like they got arthritis or tapeworm: no choice at all in the matter. In a lot of places they still don't have any. 

I guess by the early 60s the invention of the pill gave some women (those from relatively affluent backgrounds living in relative affluent countries) a fairly accurate technique to avoid pregnancy - we're talking a window of the last 50 years or so.

As for permission to decouple sex from reproduction, and have sex for the sheer hell of it, we need to wait till the sexual revolution proper - 1968/69 say - although even that would have been news to my mother, who was still busy being a virgin and planning a big white wedding right then. 

In other words, in the great scheme of things women have had a choice as to when they want to become mothers for mere nanoseconds. After that, for a few years we called it 'family planning' and left it at that, happy enough to be allowed to keep our brood down to manageable proportions, provided you didn't tell the priest, of course.

And yet, right on cue like the first gay divorce following the first gay marriage (and proof to conservatives everywhere that there's no pleasing people), the existence of this choice has generated a fresh dilemma and accompanying agony galore, namely whether we want to have children at all.

How will it change our lives? Do we want our lives to change? What happens if we don't want to? Is motherhood too high a price to pay for bringing children into the world? If so, can you lead a worthwhile life without putting reproduction at the heart of it? Will we regret not doing it? Or worse, will we regret ignoring our gut feeling if we do do it?

Let me specify that I am very much talking about being child-free i.e. the choice not to become mothers, instead of the tragedy of being child-less for women and couples who desperately want parenthood. 

The choice is there, you'll say at this point: why are you still yakking on about this? Because, my friend, it is the choice that kills you. 

Let's consider the data for a second. There aren't yet any large longitudinal studies that I'm aware of highlighting specifically the number of women who have chosen to remain child-free. 

But a 2002 study on Childlessness in Europe by the Economic and Social Research Council showed that in Britain 7 to 8pc of 42-year-old women identified themselves as voluntarily childless, with that figure raising to 12 pc for 30-year-olds. Astonishingly, another third of women aged 30 said they were ambivalent/uncertain about having children in future. 

In 2010 a widely reported US study found that one in five women in their early 40s are now childless, compared to one in ten in the early 1970s. The report found that women with more education were more likely to be childless.

And earlier this year the Office of National Statistics released 2011 figures for England and Wales, showing that one in five women at the age of 45 are childless.

They can't all be infertile or unlucky in love, right? It looks as if women, particularly educated ones, are voting with their feet against motherhood.

I came across those figures when I was agonising over this myself, a few years ago, after meeting my Mild Mannered Intellectual Husband and having therefore run out of excuses of the 'Bridget Jones' variety. 

I found the figures but no debate whatsoever, no literature, no art of any kind addressing the dilemma itself. Lots of Western women, women of my generation and background, were quietly dropping out of reproduction without saying a word about it or leaving any explanation behind.

Recently the issue of non-reproduction has had its fair share of publicity and discussion: stories in the Atlantic magazine, covers of Time, anguished BBC documentaries about nations like Japan quietly driving themselves to extinction rather than address the problems that make the idea of motherhood so abhorrent to many of its women.   

But the dilemma is still not talked about, the internal struggle some of these non-mothers by choice will go through before allowing themselves to make that choice.

As I couldn't find anything informative and inspiring to read on the matter I did the next best thing - I decided to write about it. More specifically I wrote a play exploring that dilemma from a number of angles - six to be precise, one for each of the six colleagues who struggle to their office in central London the morning after a huge snowfall. 

Dylan is bringing up two kids on her own.
Bowie is a cheating dad of three.
Drake might have liked a child but now it's too late.
Jones has all the time in the world ahead of her to think about it.
Conte has finally met a guy would make A Great Dad. So what's wrong with her that  the idea of motherhood seems so grim?
Cohen hopes to grow into a good man and a good father one day.
But no one, apparently, is interested. 

There is no singing, no nudity, no gory scenes of childbirth. No ancient pistol appears on a drawing room wall in the second scene of act one, only to go off in a totally predictable way at the end of act three. There is, however, a lot of swearing.

Beyond that, let me be honest here and admit that my qualifications for writing a play are the same as for flying a plane: I have sat through hundreds of plays and on hundreds of planes, but I've never been in charge of either. The hope, with play-writing, is that I shouldn't cause anybody to actually die, and serious damage to buildings and infrastructure should be minimal. That is the hope anyway. 

To find out for sure I've decided, with the encouragement of my amateur dramatic director friend Antonia, to get this play performed. Unfortunately she's leaving London soon so I need another passionate director and six brilliant and committed thesps to make this happen.

If theatre is in your blood and you live in the London area please get in touch with me on Twitter (@Peebi). 

C'mon baby, let's make a drama out of a crisis!

Saturday, 16 November 2013

Are you man enough to take the Sock Challenge?

The Brits have grown incredibly fashion-conscious in the years I’ve observed them close up, but they remain, how shall I put it, endearingly inconsistent about clothes. So I decided to devote a whole chapter of my memoir, (chapter four, no less) to the phenomenon.

    I started by noticing that despite the ubiquitousness of everything, the sameness of everywhere, despite the fact that countries and people are all slowly merging into one pulsating, digital, grey soup and we all shop in the same shops and buy the same stuff and listen to the same music and aspire to the same virtual dreams, despite all that, it is still possible, walking down a British high street, to pick an Italian man from 20 metres away, and before they’ve opened their mouths.

    There are potent and telling details – the fluorescent Invicta rucksacks and scuffed Superga trainers of the under 18s, the beautiful leather shoes and dark blue quilted jackets the over 50s, the stylish eyewear, the layers of jumpers and padded waistcoats and scarves even at the height of summer. But this is easy, I hear you protest.

    I’d be prepared to accept a much tougher challenge: pick a British and an Italian man who have the same colourings, clothe them in exactly the same suit and shoes and I can still tell you which is which the minute they sit down. If you can discern a strip of bare hairy flesh between the trouser leg and the edge of a Bart Simpson sock, there’s your Brit. The Italian will have subdued dark woollen socks reaching up all the way to the top of his calf and firmly held in place there by an elasticised edge. 
   Nothing can prepare an Italian adult woman for the sartorial mess that is the British adult male. Before arriving on these shores the only instances in which I’d seen grown men in short socks emblazoned with cartoon characters was on tennis courts and at visiting hours on hospital wards (psychiatric wing). 
   So how about you, or the man in your life? Could you, could he take the sock challenge? For more on this and other tips on urban camouflage to unleash the Italian in you (deep, deep inside you, somewhere) you can read the whole chapter here.

Thursday, 14 November 2013

Where have all your manners gone?

There used to be a time, as Italian correspondent Beppe Severgnini famously wrote, when it took no fewer than six ‘thank you’s to purchase a bus ticket in London. Those times, they are a-changing. In fact they’ve gone and a-changed and, to be frank, they are no more. 

The other  day, coming back from a hospital visit on a bus full of ill, old or otherwise infirm people I personally witnessed a driver/conductor eject an 8-year-old school kid after a screaming standoff over an expired bus pass, with much horrific language deployed on both sides.

“The English are so fake!” my visiting Italian friends used to moan, mistaking a) Britain for England and b) basic civility among strangers for canning duplicity, never having actually witnessed it at home. When those friends visit now they need no longer fear nuanced interactions, fraught with baroque circumlocutions of courtesy. The civic space here is now as joyless, pushy and downright brutal as anywhere else. 

This was already true when I started writing my memoir and this is what chapter three, which I've uploaded today, is about among many other things, things that include queuing, accents, holiday homes, answering machine messages, nepotism and mobile phones. A mixed bag of reminiscences if you like, about how your country has changed in all the time I’ve been here and what was happening meanwhile to my own.  

I hope you’ll have a giggle. The usual proviso applies: this was written in the years between 2003 and 2005, and although I've been doing much refining and rewriting since, I have not updated the actual experiences described.

To be sure the print edition will have to have a special post-scriptum dealing not just with the death of manners but with the messy, bloody autopsy to follow.  Internet trolls, twerking starlets, wall to wall porn will be the dismal Greek chorus of the tragedy of all once-great British institutions slowly collapsing into disrepute, scandal, corruption, ineffectiveness or simple decline, from the BBC and Fleet Street to the Metropolitan Police and the NHS, from expense-claiming MEPs to tax-dodging corporations, via a whole new low level of political discourse dominated by poor-people-kicking, immigrant-bashing and victim-blaming.

Although, come to think of it, I will probably not want to write that book. It's just too sodding depressing.

Monday, 11 November 2013

To the Mouse, who turns ten today

Ten years.

A lot has changed for me since you turned up, dear Mouse. 

I led a busy life but without love, then, and assumed it would be forever thus. In fact the night you were starting the journey into the world I was on a blind date, having dinner with a chap so dull that regular sorties for fags and telephone updates about your mother's contractions from my mother were definitely the highlights of the evening. 

You finally made it out and I got to meet you. And a weird lightbulb went on in my head: suddenly there were children everywhere, babies, toddlers, first graders. This is the new batch, the new model, the world renewing itself, I would say to myself, while gazing at them in wonder, like I didn't know. But I didn't, hadn't known. 

It is impossible, when you are young, to look at children and see your replacement, the next generation, the future bosses, the future creators, consumers, patients, victims, criminals, poets and fools.

So when you arrived the things I did and my place in the word started to matter a little less but the stuff that happened in the world, the sorry state it was in, started to matter a lot. 

I lay in bed, stared out of a plane window into the night thinking about this, willing it, the world, until then just a badly lit stage for my brilliance, to be a better, juster, more gentle place, so it would be safe for you. 

You who were suddenly in it, so perfect and so complete, like you had always belonged to us, been part of us, your atoms and our atoms the same matter, launched at different speed across the universe. So that, all of a sudden, I couldn't look at my father without seeing you, or look at you without seeing your mother, or look in the mirror without seeing you staring back at me. 

Ten years. So, how was it for you?

Let me guess (shall I guess? You always want me to guess something these days..)The first ten years were a dream, not too unlike the slumber of the unborn. 

You are awake now - just. Everything is new and absorbing and yet you're often bored and time takes an age and a half to arrive, pass, go anywhere.

The next ten years and the ten after that will be an eternity, a lifetime, spent on a dizzying roller-coaster which suddenly mutates into the slowest of the slow slow slow-boats going nowhere, at all, ever, and then you are back climbing, climbing, climbing in the air -gasping, gulping- then barreling down again, wind in your hair, tears in your eyes, relief, exhilaration, laugher. Enjoy the ride, the fast bits and the slow, I beseech you.

Then the heavy decades begin, years will slot down with a dull thud, like £1 coins in the dark slit of time, faster and faster.

I'm not there yet but I suspect, or rather I surmise - from experience so far and observation - that towards the end there will be much kicking of the machine, to get scarcer and ever more inferior candy until the last coin is spent. 

Before you know it, before you know that it's the last, before you've had time to take the time to think (as you will have promised yourself a million times) about your life. Curtains. Silence. Discarded wrappings and no change left behind.

I realise how completely meaningless this would sound to a 10 year old boy like you. So let me recap and put this in a language you can understand:

Guess who my favourite little person in the world is? By what percentage? (50 per cent? 85 per cent? What do you say? 100 per cent?). Can you list any or all the ways in which I love you, can you? And finally, and for oh, the fourteen thousandth time, guess who's auntie's sweet Mouse?

Friday, 8 November 2013

In which I get my groove back. Lightly grilled, with a side of steamed broccoli.

So I'm on the 5:2 diet.
I know. I KNOW! But why don't you try to:

a) stop smoking a pack a day and shortly after
b) marry an enthusiastic cook affected by portion size blindness, at a time in your life when
c) your metabolism has reached the menopause and next thing you know you've gone and
d)buggered your back so that for months all exercise is excruciatingly painful.

Why don't you go and do that before you roll your eyes at me and give me the 'fad diets' talk?  At least I'm not on on diet pills (they are bloody expensive and the side eff... anyway, they're bloody expensive).

Thoughts so far:

Not at hard as I thought. You are doing this literally one day at the time. Today you fast (that means 500 calories or less) but tomorrow you get to eat normally - you are not on a diet diet.

Increased energy (arguably a rather manic energy at times but that's my favourite type anyway). In my case that has lead to increased creativity - I write more, get some interesting ideas, make interesting connections on the fasting days. (I feel quite sluggish on normal days- so now there are only 5 sluggish days a week when it used to be...always).

As I have said before, I have always held onto the meringue-chomping feminist high ground that dieting or thinking about food is an obscene waste of time and energy, holding  women back from the serious business of running the world. 

I still hold that view but I'm a pragmatist - a pragmatist who was staring size 16 in the face. Mildly obsessing over food twice a week (you have to, like, weigh carrot sticks and everything) beats obsessing over food, then consuming it, then obsessing over the food you have just consumed seven days a week.

It's totally true what they say, that you weirdly do not overeat on normal days. If anything, sporadic famine reboots your appetite and re-calibrates your sense of how large a portion should be, including the whole important basic notion that two helpings are twice as calorific as one. Yes, you read that correctly. Even if you were not particularly enjoying it and were just spooning it in your face in a half-hearted way while watching TV.  Yep, turns out that's still calories going in- who knew, right? 

But if you spent yesterday in a state of acute watchfulness, aware that a small cup of coffee with a small spoon of Splenda is 2 cal and an avocado a whopping 90, today you'll find it harder to shovel stuff in quite as mindlessly even though it is a 'normal day'.

Ultimately I guess the trick is to realise how abnormal it is - on any given day- to gobble a whole bag of jelly babies in one sitting if one has not in fact just completed an ultra marathon. The body doesn't have a chance to cope with that amount of sugar - it's simply cruel and unfair to put it through it just to give your taste buds a 15 minute thrill.

Stuff to watch out for
As my new science crush, the gorgeous Prof Robert H.Lustig, Chair of Charm and Twinkling at the University of Loveliness would say, a calorie is not a calorie, or rather - a calorie from a sprout does not do the same things to your system as a calorie from refined sugar.

So all this feverish calorie counting (on two days a week, granted, not seven) ends up producing questionable lapses, or even mini-breaks, from reason. Like when, thrown by an unexpected social engagement on the evening a 'fasting' day you find yourself muttering "How many calories in a small glass of red? A hundred? Fine, I'll have four!" and misinterpreting the shock on your friend's face you explain : "Well, I have splurged the other 100 on 180 gr of broccoli at lunch, so shoot me!"

But on the whole, actually you drink less.

I suppose the only thing I can think of is sometimes, on a fasting day, when I lean in to kiss a friend goodbye I find myself thinking how totally appetising ear lobes look. Rosy, plump and yummy. Lightly grilled, with a side of steamed broccoli perhaps.

But as long as I don't bite that's not WEIRD weird, right?

Monday, 4 November 2013

My Family Values

Last week my take on the US sitcom Modern Family drew over a thousand readers and I managed to enrage most of them, or so it felt, by being WRONG about their favourite programme.

This makes me not a little apprehensive as I publish the second chapter of my memoir, exploring the family ties I had left behind in Italy to start a new life in the UK in 1989.  This time only a tiny minority of readers (three in all) are in any position to tell me I have got it wrong – but, believe me, they are articulate and vocal.

This chapter offers just a first glimpse into my family's dynamics. We were a small, ferociously matriarchal unit run with Stasi-like efficiency by mother. It was a busy, loud, demonstrative place in which my dad, the gentle slightly deaf professor, was always a little lost.

In subsequent chapters we learn why it is essential to ring the doorbell even if you have got keys, we find out why dad and I can never get served in an Italian shop, (which will in turn explain my love of queuing), see my sister get married, meet my nephew, the Mouse, and get all sorts of glimpses into my parents' childhood memories (father’s are rigorously historical, mother’s are a riot of magic realism). There will be more, much more, on family lore and prophetic dreams.

Loving, suffocating, maddening – isn’t what most families are like, the happy ones? Perhaps there is nothing unique about mine except that I always felt I’d have to leave them to become myself, a proper human, only to then spend two decades and counting missing them.

Towards the end of the book there will be a whole chapter imagining how wonderful it would be if I hadn’t left, if I had done what was expected of me and I could now see my sister every day and argue with mother about something as banal as the best way of getting a stain out of a towel.

The trick is not knowing any better. Not being able to imagine a different life, in a different place. But there you are, and here I am. And now, dear reader, meet the family.

Friday, 1 November 2013

Modern Family's values : they suck. (Ok, stop shooting now, I'm only on Series 1)

Mild Mannered Intellectual Husband and I are greedy gobblers of US tv box sets and have recently had our first taste of Netflix. Having devoured the last few episodes of Breaking Bad (isn't it amazing when Walt wakes up at the end and it's all been a dream?*), and waiting for the new House of Cards, Game of Thrones or  Boardwalk Empire to come out (why is it taking you so long TV-making people?!), we decided to settle in for a few hours a night of Modern Family. 

This sitcom was sold to us as funny (it is) and daring, in American terms, for representing unconventional family units as equally loving and worthwhile. So rotating around the central traditional family made up of mum, dad and three kids we have a gay couple who have just adopted a Vietnamese** baby and a May-December interracial second marriage, with a step-kid thrown in. 

As I said the script is funny, or at least funnier than the standard family themed fare but the values are straight from1950, minus homophobia and racism. Let me put this another way: when you cannot be nasty to queers and brown people anymore, the unapologetic and often default sexism really, really stands out.

In Modern Family no adult woman holds a paid job, aside from invisible but often referred to maids and cleaners, and predatory, career-obsessed, childless ex girlfriends. 

Adult women protagonist are- basically - stay at home moms who can't operate remote controls or anything 'too technical', or gold-digging and hysterical ladies who lunch. Teen-aged daughters are all but labelled by their own parents as the 'pretty/stupid one' and the 'homely/clever' one, and it is repeatedly advertised that unpopular-boffin daughter is headed for college whilst popular-bimbo daughter is not. In one episode we are told by her loving parents that realising her full potential will consist in "marrying someone destined for great things".

For avoidance of doubt, let me clarify that we are talking upped middle class families here, living in huge houses, replete with the latest creature comforts, driving multiple, huge cars. I guess in this economic stratum you'd have to be the actual family dog to NOT go to college, even in the sexist real world.  But the on-screen world is actually worse. 

While sons are encouraged to be different, to ignore bullies, to not be dictated to by the pubic perception of them and to be themselves, daughters are constantly kept in line with the warning that their reputation will suffer or that - this is my favourite on the creepy scale - this or that behaviour, aspiration or personal style is "how girls end up dead".

Boys are told to love who they are and to live without fear. Girls are told to police and change who they are and to live in fear - for their own good, of course.

Boys (and male friends and boyfriends) are never told not to harass, harm or molest their female counterparts. Girls are constantly given hints to 'not get raped'.

Like a picture hanged askew or the base thump from someone else's personal stereo, once you notice the sexism, (and it takes a while because - remember?- all the other values are so inclusive and liberal and because male protagonists do send themselves up and are made fun of all the time), it is impossible to ignore it and not to be annoyed by it. 

MMIH disagrees ("You are crazy"), which tells me that the sexism is indeed nicely calibrated to be undetectable by the average nice guy, distracted by the shiny baubles of racial and sexual tolerance. Heck, the writers themselves are probably unaware of it - or they might argue if pushed that they are describing the world as it is. Pretty girls are popular, slutty girls get raped. 

Except, you see, they are patently not describing the world as it is. A comically mismatched homosexual couple raising a child still raises more than eyebrows. Latina trophy brides don't generally have such an easy a ride, I'd argue, among the monied whites. 

But even in a fictional landscape where those things are possible, transcending sexism - the expectation that women should be policed and controlled, stick thin and beauty obsessed, confined to raising children and spending money, never earning it, the saintly yet saucy helpmates of their bumbling but well-meaning menfolk - well, that's a leap of the imagination too far.

Have these considerations stopped me from watching several more episodes of Modern Family? Hell, no. Will I watch more? It's winter, people. I'm broke. 'War and Peace' isn't grabbing me. So yes, of course I will.

Would I have it banned, burnt, or whatever other form of medieval barbarism is ascribed to us feminazis this week? Of course I wouldn't.

But I can't help noticing, that's all, and what saddens me is that any teenage girls who might be watching will probably not notice. They will assume that you can be an irrational, self-centred, loud gay man and be completely acceptable, a fat, weirdly precocious boy and still fit in, a childish, irresponsible dad and still be lovable, whereas straying from size 0, falling out with the popular crowd at school or being seen kissing a boy "is like girls end up dead". 

* No, that's not what happens. Anyway: gotcha!   
** My original post mistakenly stated this character is Cambodian. I have been alerted to my mistake by one of the comments and have amended accordingly.