Apocalypse Now: Battles on the domestic front

I’ve been a pretty laid-back parent on the whole. I’ve operated on the principle, if my kid wants something, he can have it, or do it, if I can see no reason why not. I’ve regulated screen-time, but not much else. He could choose about almost everything; I saw decision-making as a learning process. I thought freedom would teach him responsibility.

Maybe it did. Up till now, he’s done pretty much everything required of him and then some. He’s made me proud, far more often than embarrassed. Oh, he’s not the quickest off the mark with his pleases, thank yous and sorrys. If a toy, anything, attracts him, he’d head for it first, ask “May I?” later, if at all. He assumes his right to assert his preferences all the time, about what to eat, where to go, what to buy, where to sit in the bus. I’ve frequently imagined, accurately I am sure, observers’ disapproval of such self-importance in such a small person; and when I read the above, he sounds like a right little pain in the arse, even to me.

But he’s not, at all. He’s gentle, alert, considerate, popular across a range of social backgrounds. His behaviour at school has been close to exemplary since reception. I’ve been told he has a fine sense of justice and the best kind of manners; “thoughtful and diplomatic” were the words our head-teacher used. So I’ve assumed that basically I must have been doing something right.

But then we hit Year 3. Homework has tripled, other expectations similarly magnified. Suddenly, his weekly schedule is such that fairly strict home routines are inevitable. It’s still all do-able, with plenty of time left over, but only if my little free-spirit is prepared, for the first time, to get down to it when and how I say. No ifs, buts and other prevarications. No two-hour long, quite cute displacement of 10 minutes’ work. In fact, the displacement activity is not cute any more. Homework, music practice, getting ready, has got to happen, like we agreed, now.

Trouble is my strong-willed boy isn’t used to it. Neither am I, though my soft-touch exterior conceals a determination to match his own. The result is, battles that last all weekend, tantrums that last all night. A house that looks like a bombsite ten minutes after he walks in from school; two parents perpetually cowering as books, pencils and other missiles are hurled about the room in fury.

I didn’t do Supernanny, Gina Ford or Controlled Crying when he was little; I concluded smugly that on the whole I could manage without their advice. As parents, his dad and I inhabited mainly separate spheres, with me taking virtually full responsibility for childcare, feeding, organising and entertainment. Oh, I grumbled, could have done with a lot more time off. My partner grumbled, accusing me of monopolising our son. But basically, we accepted the situation because it more or less worked; we managed, the kid seemed fine.

But I need Supernanny now. I also need his dad, every single evening and throughout the weekend. I need Dad to be up-to-date with his screen and junk food allowance, and with what school work remains. I need him to accept without querying my new imposed conditions. And I need his sheer muscle-power, to back up my tactical skills. We need to be a closer-knit team than we ever have before.

Last night my child, aged 7, cried himself to sleep for the first time in his life. Somewhat shell-shocked, without raising our voices, we shut him in his room, because he wouldn’t stop attacking us (because we took away the i-phone, because we said it’s time for bed). He started attacking his room then, until I removed every toy and book he was using as a hammer and put them in the recycling bag. At half past 11, he lay, finally, on his elevated bed, whimpering, defeated.

I unlocked the door, waded through the debris, climbed up onto the bed to hug him, cover him, and turn off the light.

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Are we really so dreadful, Mr Self?

I think Eleanor Morgan has missed the point here, though it’s more likely that, being of a different generation, she sees a different point. Will Self and I, on the other hand, were born within two years of each other, into urban middle-class families, with one Jewish parent. Our fathers were both academics – indeed, they had offices on the same departmental corridor, and knew each other, in the distant, cordial way of preoccupied men of ideas. It is highly probable that the Self children ( Selves?) and my sibling group attended the same LSE children’s Christmas parties, year after year throughout the 60s and 70s. We were both at Oxbridge, at about the same time, where we were both undistinguished academically. But he had grown up a privately-educated Londoner, while I was a state-school provincial. His parents divorced, mine didn’t. My 1980s rebellion was and remains more political than his, and, I believe, more profound, although I took far fewer drugs.

But I like to think that what he and I have in common gives us a connection, despite what we manifestly don’t share. I’ve read that humans are sympathetic to the suffering of mammals – dogs, horses, baby seals – who share a some characteristics with us, though not enough to ever be mistaken for one of us. We are less sympathetic to the sufferings of birds and reptiles and other complete aliens . . . And positively hostile to those of our own species who might conceivably, in a bad light, even if only momentarily, be confused with us. So we reject benefit scroungers, the poor, the mentally ill, even, perhaps especially, if we were ever one of those things ourselves, and reserve our charity for suitably appealing aliens, animals, and other more comfortably distant forms of life.

Which is a roundabout justification for my irritation with Will Self, and his, hypothetically, with me. I suspect he despises hipsters, and other self-deluded “creatives”, mainly because we have just a little too much in common with himself. For he and I are of course both Writers. What?! I hear him snort. Another deluded middle-aged crone dares refer to her talentless self in the same sentence as Moi?! Another scrounging hipster convinced her career is about to take off?! Pass the puke bucket, please!

I did meet the man once, as an adult, at a writers’ workshop about ten years ago. He was dynamic, entertaining, and barely troubled to conceal his opinion of our modest ambitions, which it was certainly not his brief to encourage. Instead, he read from his own work in progress, of which we were suitably appreciative. We were a bunch of nice, mainly middle-aged, mostly middle-class ladies. But we were by definition untalented, not even pretty, and it was unlikely any of us had ever done heroin, so honestly, what was the point of us at all?

By definition, not all writers can be successful. Every successful writer requires a vast backdrop of readers, many of whom will be attempting to write themselves. For every writer or artist who Makes It there must be thousands who don’t, some, even the majority, of whom do nonetheless become quite proficient at their task. Maybe we teach writing or literature; maybe we just bring up our children and read to them. But either way, the fortunate Successful would not be where they are without us. Yes, a little humility would be appropriate.

For while I don’t dispute, on the whole, that the Successful are talented, I do dispute that they are the only talented, and that success always falls directly and proportionately according to Talent. I think in many cases, one great work early on in a career often sustains the mediocre rest of it, including contingent journalism, while much better work by unknown artists remains ignored simply because they didn’t manage that stunning youthful breakthrough. The industry likes talented newcomers especially (only?) if they are photogenic. As youngsters, they can then carry on producing indefinitely every few years, and never mind the diminishing quality; the readers probably won’t, so long as the decline is not too drastic. I’m not really complaining. We are all too busy to read as much as we would like, so have to short-circuit to familiar names and proven records rather than experiment constantly with complete unknowns. But I’ve long got over my youthful desire to read every single thing by a particular author, just because I discovered one great book. On the contrary, unless further recommendations are irresistible, I tend to assume, that’s it, I’ve done the best of him or her. I’ll give someone else a chance now.

I’ve never read Will Self’s fiction, apart from that one extract he graced us with, from, I think, The Book of Dave. Oh, I know I should have, I know he’s pretty ace. But you know, there’s so much else around, so little time, and for one reason or another Will Self has never risen beyond the middle of my must-read-next list. Anyway, he told us himself he barely ever bothers with modern fiction. He read all the classics in his youth, despite not doing an English degree, which is I suppose pretty cool. I’d never have got much beyond Thomas Hardy and Middlemarch if it weren’t for mine; but maybe that’s private school for you.

But back to me. I was never a hipster (I had no idea what a hipster was). I spent most of the 1990s living and working abroad. I understand from Self’s article, and following up his references, that hipsters are basically male (beards, low-cut T-shirts with no mention of cleavage; note; Self is usually talking about blokes unless he makes explicit to the contrary.) But I am a writer, with a vocation, which remains unaffected by the fact that I’m as unsuccessful as it is possible to be. I still think that writing is what I do best, even if only in comparison to the rubbish I am at everything else.

But I’m being disingenuous, of course. I write because I can, because between motherhood and housework, other caring and admin responsibilities I still have the occasional hour and the financial liberty to spend it at this desk. Not nearly as often as I would like, not nearly as often as Self does, I’m willing to bet, but still, now and again. I count myself privileged for that. I have no illusions about ever Making It. I just get on with it, because it’s what I do. Pathetic, eh? Maybe; but you know what? I simply couldn’t care. Get over yourself, Will Self.

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Turbulence Ahead

Shock news – both our school’s head and deputy head teachers are resigning. It’s doubtful whether suitable replacements can be found before the end of the school year. The deputy, who I’d assumed would replace the head, was my child’s brilliant reception class teacher and has only been at the school as long as we have. It’s baffling.

 

This time last year, the previous deputy left, hot on the tail of a whole group of other teachers with fairly long, apparently distinguished records at the school. Each time, regrets were expressed and excuses made; each time, poor parents’ hearts lurched with anxiety, then resettled, thinking, maybe there are good reasons. Maybe the replacements will be even better. Maybe it’ll pan out for my baby in the end.

 

School is where my child spends most of his days – yet I’m desperately out of control of what he experiences there. It seems everything I liked about our place is under question; its music, its “whole-child” ethos, its genuine diversity. What is actually going on? Those of us with most at stake seem to know least.

 

Is this why people home-school? (Is it why they private-school?) But even if I were intellectually and professionally equipped to teach my child the entire curriculum, what about socialisation? Learning to read, write and so on is a doddle for most kids compared to the intricate and complicated art of making and maintaining friendships, with a diverse bunch of other kids, all as unpredictable and self-centred as he is. It certainly was for me, growing up in an isolated and academic environment which seriously undervalued the unquantifiable social arts. I’m not making the same mistake. My child has to spend plenty of time working it out with other kids; school, with its ostensible focus elsewhere, is the best place for it.

 

Apart from which, I need a break – to write this blog among other things. I can’t be supervising my kid, hounding him from TV screen or ipad with one trick or another, 24/7. He has to go to school.

 

But how fragile a thing a genuinely exceptional state school seems to be nowadays. Perhaps ours, after subsiding into staff squabbles and mediocrity, will eventually be forced by Ofsted crusaders into the “rigorous”, results-impressive, disciplined-academy-type mould of other nearby “Ofsted-outstanding” primaries. Perhaps everything else it has done well will be down-graded or completely discarded. Our school has only ever been “Ofsted-good”. I always liked that about it. But perhaps these days “good” is just not good enough.

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When The Past Catches Up . . .

A few weeks ago, my brother, a single man in his early 50s, was contacted via email to another family member by a friend he hadn’t heard from in 35 years. He was stunned, and then excited: “This was my best friend ever!!” he declared. As the friend, too, had apparently been searching for my brother for a while with similarly sentimental nostalgia, the enthusiasm on the face of it seemed justified.

But I was anxious. My brother is mentally ill, a designated schizophrenic for the past 30 years, a fact of which this old best school friend will be unaware. He’s relatively well now, lives independently, copes without much support, and hasn’t seen the inside of a mental hospital for a while. But his life is not glamorous, by any stretch of the imagination.  He has never worked, is overweight, addicted to junk food, TV and cigarettes. He only recently got himself on-line.

The “friend” has since vanished into the uncharted depths of cyberspace whence he came, surprise surprise. My brother, meanwhile, sits around mournfully wondering if his new email account is working properly.

 

I have my own issues with family history, which resurface every time anyone from a certain distant period reappears. Once upon a time, apparently, my father presided over a kind of rural intellectual Camelot, barely an hour or two from London, much as Ralph Milliband and other prominent intellectuals may have done in north London. But with him long dead, my mother infirm and elderly, my brother, see above . . . the rest of us siblings scattered and modestly distinguished, at best . . . We’re not the glamorous people we apparently were any more. 

But every so often, up pops someone to reminisce about back in the day; when they were rising young postgrads and my mother a devoted young housewife and my charismatic father entertained colleagues and admirers from all over the world in our idyllic rustic estate.

It wasn’t ever glamorous to me, of course, commuting three hours daily to school and then technical college, the rest of the time up to my knees in muck out in the pony-shed, but clearly it was to our international visitors. They saw in my foreign-born father, ensconced (weekends only) in the depths of English Tory heartland someone inspirational, exotic, and brave – and key to their future careers. And when they come back to visit us now, for my mum’s sake, largely, they can still talk the talk.

As for me, I revert in their eyes and my own to that wayward, forever immature daughter, persisting in defying and disrespecting the great man, really, obviously, just for the titillating sake of it. Of course I just made the great man seem even greater; how fondly I was tolerated and indulged!

A role I inhabited with discomfort even at the time. In the absence of an audience of admirers, my father ignored his kids when he was home, except for his eldest, and except to bully me – his second – now and again into “manners”. Any indulgence took the form of Can’t Be Bothered To Stop You (eating junk food, masturbating, watching too much TV; not that the latter was much of an option in rural 1970s UK.) He neither knew nor cared what I did at school and lost his brief interest in my university career after I failed Oxbridge entrance first time around. What a loser I was; a cute rebel; feisty marriage material in due course, the best that could be said for me.

So it’s difficult now, when one of those former and abiding admirers of my father comes to visit me and mum. I’m not particularly rebellious these days; though I can still discuss Nicaragua if required. I doubt things have improved there since the Revolution. But I’m mostly concerned with protecting my child from the fits of self-hating, self-laceration to which, no thanks to their hero, I succumbed in my tenderest years. And I’m definitely not cute. Luckily these meetings happen rarely; and I’m confident my rattled equilibrium will settle in a day or two. Let’s hope I can keep it that way.

 

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Everyday Sexism in the 1970s

I wish Laura Bates’ website had been around then. As a large-breasted, cripplingly self-conscious and generally friendless teenager, with an unaccompanied two-hour journey to college and back, I was subjected to this “niggling” kind of sexist treatment routinely, all the time.
I grew up in the depths of the countryside, so I was about 15 before the brutal shock started to sink in: urban public spaces, streets, parks, whatever, didn’t mean public to me. Hitherto, I’d understood that the public meant the grown-ups, but I’d maintained the happy delusion that one day I’d be a grown-up and a member too. I’d be free to come and go as I liked, when I liked, where I liked. It wouldn’t matter not having a grown-up to take me, or even friends to go with. I didn’t have to wait for a boy to ask me. I could go out anyway.
Wrong. Gradually it became clear; just because I was female, I was never going to be left in peace. I couldn’t walk alone, I couldn’t go to a café or a bar or a cinema alone, I couldn’t even sit in a sunny park and read. All these places really belonged to the boys, how stupid was I not to grasp this? Was I expecting an emblazoned Men-only sign or something? I could only stay on sufferance. I really needed an explicit invitation. If I went on my own, I was – surely I understood? – actually asking for one of them to join me. And of course, I liked it really. To be picked up was what I had come out for, right?
I’m not talking about strip-clubs, or even bars. I’m talking about public parks, cafes, libraries, cinemas, anywhere.
This was the kind of invisible purdah in which western young women lived, back in the late 1970s. On Laura Bates’ evidence, they still do. It affects everything about us; our interests, our self-confidence, our ambitions; everything.
Even as I write this I hear the old silencing voices in my mind: “Oh, she likes it really.” Like the stealth-boasting mum complaining about her too-precocious child, all women who complain about sexual harassment “like it really, all women do . .” “They’ll complain quickly enough when nobody notices them” and, the more intellectual, misquoting Oscar Wilde, “Well, lady – there’s only one thing worse than being whistled at in public – and that’s NOT being whistled at in public!” The same voices are chorusing now, “She’s only writing all this to remind herself of how good-looking she once was, now that’s she’s an ugly old crone.”
“That Laura Bates too – she should be so lucky! Look how good-looking she is in all the photos? Don’t pretend she doesn’t know it! Who wouldn’t wolf-whistle that?”
I wasn’t ever as good looking as Laura Bates, though it is possible that I had bigger breasts. But even so, I didn’t like it really. I always hated it. And I couldn’t really believe those who insisted I’d be sorry when the catcalls stopped, though my brilliant father’s absolute certainty on this point did make me wonder. But I was right and he was wrong. Oh, I was so right. One of the very best things about being 55 is how, for just about the first time in my life, the streets, the public spaces of my city are mine at last. At last, I can walk, eat, sit down and read or survey the view, and nobody bothers me at all. I only wish I had more time for it.
Nor is it lonely, because should I wish to approach a male, I can do so, generally, without gut-assumptions being made about what I’m after, or what chance they might have. I am free to have an unencumbered human interaction. This is the malign heart of the assumption we faced; that a woman had to choose between being constantly sexually harassed and consigned to neglect and loneliness. But actually, few things are lonelier than the basic-human-neglect of constant sexual harassment. Common or garden neglect is a cinch by comparison; or put another way, it’s freedom.

I loved living in Mexico City, mostly. I loved the freedom I had there, as an already-mature, developed-world woman (for want of better phrase) to travel the length and breadth of that stunning country on a shoestring. I loved the $100 a month flat I returned to, with its roof terrace and nearby tropical park. I was freed by my status, my relative wealth, and my relative age to do much as I pleased with this gorgeous, cut-price playground. But it was also the loneliest place I had ever lived. Nowhere was it clearer, the chasm between constant sexual harassment, attention or call it what you will, and companionship. And nowhere were its consequences more evident.
If popular culture is to be believed, Mexican women, unlike “unfeminine” northerners, genuinely enjoy street sexual harassment, so long as it’s only “little compliments”. They genuinely worry if they don’t get them, apparently, on every excursion. Look how they attend to their appearance, doing do all they can to maximise its incidence. But wait a minute; popular culture is in Mexico is what it is around the world: the popularist voice of the male, and there’s more than a hint of admonition in it: you ladies out there; don’t get any ideas above your station. Make sure you preserve that femininity.
For Mexican women were among the most timid I have come across in my entire life. The Mexico City metro, pickpocketing aside, is about the safest place in the whole city, yet the prospect of travelling a single stop unaccompanied filled the well-brought up native lady with horror. “It’s not safe!” they gasped, looking at me aghast, convinced that in my daily ignorance I was courting the most desperate attacks, clearly sexual in nature.
Well, I was once rubbed against in a packed carriage during rush hour. But that was it, in three years spent bumming about on my own on public transport on a daily basis. The only time I was afraid – briefly – was confronting a gang of boys on an isolated beach after dark, very far from the city. I kept my head, crossed my fingers and succeeded in shaking them off. The freedom I enjoyed in Mexico was not shared by local women of any social class. And that, yes, was very lonely for me.

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