Tuesday, 31 December 2013

I'm a Lapsed Catholic Bore and I need help.

Mild Mannered Intellectual Husband and I will be celebrating New Year's Eve quietly at home tonight. The official excuse is that he wants to test-drive a paella dish he'll be serving to friends in a fortnight. But we both know the shameful real reason. He cannot take me to parties anymore - or at least not until I seek help for my Problem.  

My Problem, party-wise, used to be that drink made me too flirtatious for my own good. Those were the pre-MMIH days decades and I was busy surveying the field of unsuitable men very, very thoroughly, for reasons I now forget (Book deal? Boredom? Can't tell anymore). It's not that drink was an enabler then, more of a sensible precaution, like donning goggles and protective gear before a spot of welding.

The thing about drink, bless it, is that it affects people in very different ways. 

Some men turn into sex offenders.

Some women will resume a tearful argument they started with their now dead mother 33 years ago.

At any given party in London you'll be cornered at least once by the Property Price Bore. 

The Tedious and Pointless Anecdote Bore is somewhat international ("...so I said to him, it was on the Tuesday, no, wait, the Monday night because Linda had called at the week-end, that's right, so we're in the kitchen, finishing off the...what's the name of that chocolate roll with the thinghies? Oh, anyway, I said to him : "I'd take the red ones if I were you." And he said...no wait, I'm telling a lie, it had to be the Tuesday because..").

The Holiday Bore will pursue you with pictures of his/her latest adventure. They used to be actual photos, arranged in an album or twelve, so you could at least spot these particular bores and give them a wide berth. Now it's all digital so when they whip out their phones and say: "Here, there's something I wanted to show you.." you simply don't know if you are going to be staring at the sonogram of a foetus, a selfie, a particularly fiendish sample of sexting or the peaks of Machu Picchu, which they will insist means 'very small' ("It's Spanish!").

As for me, I can be very tedious about all sorts of things when sober. My political and feminist rants are somewhat legendary. I remember a protracted argument over an alcohol-free dinner with friends in Marrakech (see what I've subtly done there?) about whether it was nice of Angelina Jolie to adopt all those kids or whether she was in fact a publicity hungry anorexic and a shameless husband stealer (can't quite recall now which side I was on).

But when I drink, these days, I turn into a Lapsed Catholic Bore. There, I've said it. 

The reasons are opaque at best. I have now lived in England - a country in which the majority of Christians are Protestant, if they are anything at all, and where no one is making me go to any church - for nearly a quarter of a century. Why would I feel the urge to hunt down and zero in on the poor, frightened Catholic guest at the party (often the only one, or the only other one there) and let them have a protracted piece of my mind about the whole ecumenical matter? 

Why is it that, with a couple of drinks in me, I object so violently to innocent, even charming talk of "well, I've always liked the spectacle, the smell of incense.." which I  have solicited in the first instance with very pointed questions?

These people are not trying to (re-)convert me, far from it. They'd rather not talk about religion at all. They're often (and this, for reasons too complicated to explain infuriates me sooo much more) not that bothered about questions of faith, really. They call themselves Catholics, go to Church maybe a couple of times a year (more often if they're currently trying to get their kids into the excellent Catholic school down the road) and speak with fondness about the incense and the bells. That's all.

It's at this point that a third gin and tonic (or a second Margarita) tips me into ranty unreasonableness. Mild Mannered Husband has taken to kicking me so regularly that I wear protective padding under my trousers but to no avail. Everything I have always hated about Catholicism spills out and gushes forward like sewage from a burst pipe. 

The obsession with sex and reproduction and the indifference to social injustice.

How absolutist it is in theory and how easy it is for most of its flocks to ignore the nasty bits and go on with their lives, thereby feeling no compulsion whatever to work at making the religion itself less rabid and more tolerant.

The 'do as I say, don't do as I do' flavour of the whole thing, which in the rich West translates into a 'do whatever you like' vibe and in the Third World becomes: 'I don't care if you are starving and a virtual slave - you will have as many kids as God feels fit to send you, bitch!' vibe.

The worst possible tactical move my frightened, cornered guest can make now is to minimize matters. "Our local priest was never like this," they bleat, ingratiatingly. "It really depends who you go to"

"Really? REALLY?" I will roar back, spilling half a Margarita on the plush carpet. "You could negotiate, shop around? Buy off the peg, in the sale, the bits you liked? What about confession, eh?"

"...Er, I haven't gone for years (nervous laugh), I don't remember much about it, really.."

"Right, right. I suppose you weren't regularly asked if you touched yourself down there, then. Cos that tends to stick in the mind..."

The guest gulps, MMIH sprays his drink out, breaks into a cough, gives me another furious kick.  It's pointless : I'm possessed, nothing will stop me now. A psychic wound I didn't know I had (being forced by sheer reason to give up a religion I would have loved to believe in if only it hadn't been so incredibly barmy and unpleasant, particularly to women) is now bleeding again. And nothing short of loudly haranguing a fellow Catholic will make me feel better.

"No, really, I'm fascinated...It was never about dogma for you? Dogma didn't come into it, you say. I mean, it's like saying you enjoy the rain and you have never experienced the wetness....Which bits of the introduction did you miss? How often were you asleep during Catechism? I guess you didn't have a priest teaching religious education at your lay state school telling you that divorce is a mortal sin punishable with Hell. You didn't? How odd!"

The guest has backed away against the wall, an empty glass in his/her hand, an olive pit in his/her mouth which is impossible to get rid of.. just like me.

"So in fact, let me guess, you've probably remained unaware that Hitler himself, had he repented a few seconds before death, would have a shot at Paradise after several billion years of Purgatory, whilst a perfectly nice but unrepentant divorcee is confined to damnation for ever. Thought so. You didn't know, never thought...ok, but how does that make you feel NOW?"

I should let it go, I know. Even the Pope is nice and reasonable these days, giving the Catholic Church a bad name with US demento-conservatives. ("If two people of the same sex love each other", sweet Francis is supposed to have said, "who am I to judge it's wrong?" Who are you? You are the sodding POPE! The historical byword for absolute, infallible, categorical pronouncements about good and evil, against which there is no appeal. That used to mean something in my day...)

A new age might in fact have dawned for the religion itself, much to my drunken chagrin.
Don't get me wrong, I hate Catholicism, but much as I hate it, I'd hate it even more to see it evolve and become thereby more...palatable. 

To reform now, as if the whole Aids thing, the whole abortion thing, the whole 'sharing balconies with dictators' thing, the whole pedophilia thing hadn't happened? Sorry, too easy. And another thing...

I know, ok, I know, I need help, spiritual help, fast.

Is it too early for a gin and tonic? 

Monday, 16 December 2013

Life and the child free woman

I feel the need to return to this topic (see my previous post here) as there's been a new rash of handwringing articles about the rising levels of childlessness in women of my generation (the ONS reckons one in five of us will hit 45 without any signs of babies in the nursery).

The culture, from books, to films, to the tabloid media, loves this issue because, even more than the working/non-working mummy palaver, it allows them to whip up entirely artificial divisions among women.
And if women who reproduce  are under constant scrutiny (for having children out of wedlock, too many children, only one child, children they cannot support, children they leave in the care of others in order to earn a living), childless women offer a whole new avenue for vivisection and chastisement.

They are blamed for being career obsessed, for leaving it ‘too late’, for being too picky in their choice of mate, for  having youthful abortions that they’re made to tearfully renege on. They are pushy, selfish, self-obsessed. The only type of child free woman given any slack is the tearful, infertile one, particularly if she’s had the decency to ruin her health, marriage and bank account by going through several rounds of painful IVF. This doesn’t mean she’s a proper woman. But she is tolerated and pitied. There is a script for her.
As my readers will know, I belong to a difficult-to- quantify subspecies of female who is unabashedly childfree by choice. I’m certainly not alone but let me tell you: there is still no script for us.

I first became aware of my predicament when, having kissed every available frog in both Italy and Britain, I finally met my wonderful husband at the age of 36 and realised that had no desire to reproduce at all. Rather, if it had been a matter of handing over some genetic material and tell my partner to get on with it, I probably would have done it. I would have been a dad, at a pinch . But being a mother was an unpalatable proposition, once the possibility existed in practice.
I don’t know how to explain it, other than to say that I felt none of the hormonal pull towards it, whilst at the same time experiencing these realisations:

1) I wanted my life to continue to be about me.  The new fathers I knew seemed to have been able to add ‘children’ to their life’s CV, whilst their partners had gone from being women to being mothers. Motherhood described them and circumscribed their lives completely.
2) My mother and most of the mothers of friends my age all seemed, in different ways, to have felt cheated by motherhood, the very thing they were so desperate to sell us. Most seemed bitter and hypercritical. Many were depressed. These are older women I’m talking about, for whom the trials and tribulations of raising a family were firmly in the past. It struck me that they’d spent their lives expecting some special reward for all the selflessness they’d had to endure, and none was forthcoming. This, I thought to myself, is what happens when you live your life for someone else.

3) There was no structure ‘there’ to make motherhood happen like any other rite of passage, any other phase of life, other than my willingness and desire to put everything else on hold and go for it. From pregnancy to decisions about work, then childcare, then the juggling of the two, the running of the house and so on I knew with absolute certainly that, wonderful husband notwithstanding, having a life that could accommodate children in it (not even at the centre of it) would have been my problem to solve.
When strangers ask me about children I’ve adopted a shorthand response: my husband and I met too late but we have many nephews and nieces.  My face and demeanour says: I know, I’m pitiful yet somehow I will manage to be strong. Inside I’m dancing the Samba , giddy at the thought that I’m allowed to get away with  living my life for myself.

These are the things I love: I love my husband, working, writing, sleep, travel and time to read. I love living in London’s zone 2, in a minuscule house with a relatively tiny mortgage, I love the cultural events I can attend because I live there and disposable income I can spend on them.
And  I love lots of children, from my sister’s little Mouse to several friends’ offspring, some of whom I have somehow become a godmother to. I love them because I love their mothers. They are under no obligation to love me back or make me proud or happy or give me things to look forward to. They are little people I hope to know for the rest of my life (they are bound to become interesting any day now) but whose possible failure,  unhappiness and neurosis won’t be pinnable on me. 

Had the conditions for motherhood have been different would I have gone for it? Ah, now that is a question, and one our leaders might want to start asking themselves. 

It seems to me if we want to encourage women (at least those lacking the natural urge to reproduce) not to opt out of parenthood we need to make motherhood more attractive: less of a, often  lonely and always (it seems to me from the outside) superhuman struggle to keep all the balls in the air, all the trains running on time, everybody else happy and safe. It should be an easier, lighter load, more equally shared in the personal and political sphere. 
When I originally published this post on Mumsnet last week it generated a fair amount of , er, robust comment from mothers who felt that 1) no one who hasn't got the inclination should be encouraged to reproduce and 2) as long as each was 'happy with their choice' why do we need to talk about this at all?
I totally agree with the first point but not the second.  I think we need to talk about this because the 'choice' narrative is empty rhetoric unless we strive for a more even playing field among men and women when it comes to domestic and parental responsibilities - the great untold failure of third-wave feminism.
Having just come back from a long-planned four days trip with three friends who met each other at the school gate I feel as strongly about this as ever. My friends are all highly educated, highly competent, in professional work. Totally equal to their partners you would think, but you'd have thought them inmates of an open prison on day release for good behaviour, both in  terms of the bargaining they had to endure beforehand, the surveillance they were under throughout and the amount of payoff facing them on their return.
They had to arrange all the childcare and complex picking up arrangements for their children, including to and fro all their various activities over four days. They had to bargain with spouses and deploy parents, pack children's bags, arrange play dates then monitor them from another continent in extremely expensive phone calls. One had 14 missed calls one evening when we had left our mobiles behind for a two hour period. No one was dead - she had just somehow failed to report to her probation officer mother who was looking after her child.
The amount of total control and responsibility they still held for the well-being of their brood, (not toddlers, ten year olds) jarred horribly with the infantalising effect of finding themselves dependent to some extent or other on the good will of their own spouses or critical or meddling parents as child-minders, drafted in to help said busy husbands or ex husbands who work. They WORK people.
Needless to say, when the men themselves are away a phone call home every day is the extent of the family duty expected. They are not asked to sat-navs clueless wives all the way to a child's gym kit 'hidden' on top of a dresser. They don't get texted by clueless wives to be reminded again of the baby-sitter's number. They don't have to beg and cajole their own disapproving parents to look after their children. They then get to come home to a full fridge and children who have barely noticed their absence. (Needless say the men don't go away on trips with daddy friends they have made at the school gates as they are the only adults they have time to bond with while their children entertain each other. In fact the men of this particular group of mummy friends had barely met, despite the hundreds of hours their children have spent together).
The difference between being able to retain some sense of self and squeeze some fun out of life and being in a perpetual state of watchful duty, anxiety and guilt is not about choice, people. It's about inequality. If the only real choice women have is between having children or having a life I would not call even my own blissfull childfree status a result to be proud of.

Saturday, 7 December 2013

England on my mind

    Write something about England, I told myself in Chapter 5 of the memoir, which I've just uploaded for your reading pleasure. Well, it turns out that's easier said than done. There’s something slippery about Englishness, something that repels definition like a negatively charged magnet.
    Scotland is a different story. Scotland – at least the stereotype of Scotland - one can smell and hear and see: the forbidding red sandstone, the brewery whiff in the chilly wind, the Tartan racket of bagpipes.
    But what is England? The longer I live here the fuzzier the general image of the place grows. There’s no big concept, no big idea. No ‘aha!’ moment.
    London one can talk about at length, and it doesn’t matter if it’s a different London for each one of its 8 million inhabitants, with their 400 languages and dialects, their patchwork quilt of traditions and religious beliefs, their different versions of the past, their tribal hatreds and strange gastronomic totems. London is in each pasta bowl, in each kebab. Most big cities are like that.
    But England? Once I finally got there  – via a Honours Degree and a long night journey by coach from Edinburgh - I found that, to borrow from Gertrude Stein, there was no there, there. No centre of gravity, no coherence. 
    England seemed to come into focus for me over the years not as a landscape, inhabited by a distinct people, but rather a sensibility, a sense of self, of the right way to be, to think, to behave, so strong and radicated that it is able to tolerates otherness and yet never absorbs it. So that even after 24 years, in which I was able to pursue a great career, buy a house, marry one of the locals, I still feel like a chewed up, half digested, never totally assimilated foreign body. 
   The Chapter contains all sorts of fun facts about what the English say to you if you are Italian or seem particularly happy, especially if no alcohol is involved. 
    It takes you from  my very first summer school placement with a jolly lorry driver's family in Bournemouth to a series of unsanitary London house-shares with penniless postgraduate students, fierce landladies & defective heaters.
   Because it was written 10 years ago, and describes events ten years earlier than that, there are all sorts of nostalgic references to something called an A to Z, which younger readers should try to imagine as frozen, broken up Googlemap screen fragments held together in something called 'pages' by glue (see also under: books).
   Incidentally, it wasn't till many years later, specifically during a performance of Jez Butterworth's Jerusalem, that I had a blinding realisation about the nature of Englishness. I tried to describe it in this blogpost. But as you will see the experience, somehow, once again eluded the telling, like an urgent note scribbled after waking up from a feverish dream in the middle of the night and which, in the cold light of day, reveals a few disjointed words and no meaning. "Puddles, meringues, fear. Lots of penguins. Tell mother."

Monday, 2 December 2013