Archive for huffington

A Skyrim Widow Speaks Out

First published at the Huffington Post.

I wish I liked computer games. I want to. I used to like some of them, the ones where you just solved silly puzzles while exploring an island with a weremonkey sitting on your shoulder telling jokes about pirates. (I may be conflating a few different games here).

But I get stressed when I have to do things within a certain time. And I get stressed when I have to talk to strangers, even imaginary and/or virtual ones. And I get stressed when I feel responsible for other people. And I don’t want to kill anyone, even if they’re a gangster, vampire, zombie ghoul, or evil prostitute who’s nicked all my beer and betrayed me to the mafia boss who’s also my mother. (I don’t know if that actually happens, but that’s what I imagine computer games to be like.)

So that’s almost all computer games out. I tried to play the Sims once and had to stop after five minutes, exhausted with the power. Having control of an entire world of tiny two-dimensional people was terrifying. What if they rebelled and rose up against me? What if I left them for too long and they all died from starvation? This is exactly why I didn’t like playing with dolls as a child.

I blame the graphics. They’re too good: my brain cannot understand that this is a game, not reality. A lifetime of being culturally indoctrinated not to shoot anyone in the kneecaps has meant that I can’t even pretend to do it to something that looks vaguely sentient. Which is silly, because I can watch violence on TV or at the cinema. (Well, I can if I squint a bit and think about happy things). I can even write characters that bad things happen to – there are two major deaths in my novel, and they’re both characters I liked. Did I care? No. I laughed like a bouncy serial killer as I sent them to be murdered. And those are people from inside my own head. So there’s no logic to it at all, really.

But logic or not, I find that modern computer games mainly seem designed to give me a nervous breakdown, and I don’t really need them for that – I have children.

Anyway. One of the reasons why I wish I liked computer games is that I have currently lost my partner to one. Well, not lost. I know where he is. He’s in his room, killing people in order to steal their souls and sell them so he can buy soft furnishings for his house. Only it’s not ‘his’ house, because – I recently discovered – in every computer game he plays, his character is a lesbian elf. Even in games where that’s technically not possible. It’s probably very meaningful.

I have in the past been a GTA widow, an Assassin’s Creed widow and a Portal widow, so this is not new. I am used to finding that once the children are in bed, my partner slinks upstairs muttering something about the goblins getting lonely. Sometimes they are space goblins, sometimes they are undead goblins, but they always seem to need a lot of attention. I’ve started to feel quite motherly towards them, although I’m keeping that emotion under control since the attention they mainly seem to need is having machetes aimed at their heads.

There is a Skyrim fraternity too, I notice. We went to a child’s birthday party last weekend and the father greeted my partner with the words: “Wood elf?” “No,” he replied. “Dark elf.” They both nodded wisely. I stared at them and ate apple crumble.

I think I just prefer my leisure time entertainment to be non-interactive, like TV. Maybe I’d like computer games better if they resembled the TV shows I like – has anyone invented one with singing and dancing in it yet? I could go for an X-Box with a pair of tiny tap shoes attached. As long as I didn’t have to use them to stamp anyone to death.

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Let Me Eat Cake! Being Suddenly Coeliac

Originally published by the Huffington Post. Who made a few minor changes before publication, including lengthening the title and adding a typo; this is my original version.

 

I am standing in Marks and Spencers, glaring at a chocolate éclair.

I have to admit, in the back of my brain, I know that the éclair hasn’t actually done anything wrong. Its only problem is that a month ago I would have bought it and eaten it, and now I can’t. And frankly, I resent that. What right do chocolate éclairs have to be unavailable to me? How dare my body acquire a non-éclair-eating disease? What are M&S thinking, selling éclairs with wheat flour in? Don’t they know that stuff is poisonous? Should I complain to someone?

I had been gluten free for about a week at this point, and the reality of it was starting to sink in.

At first I didn’t mind being diagnosed with coeliac disease. It was nice having a proper diagnosis rather than just unidentified stomach pains (like a UFO, but with fewer aliens, unless you’re very unlucky). People were sympathetic. And it’s a controllable disease; you don’t suffer from it, provided you can manage never to eat gluten again. Any of it. Ever.

So gluten and I were through, like a partner you think is tasty and delicious, but then it turns out they were secretly poisoning you all along. It’s not literally a case of never eating bread, cereal, pasta, pizza, cakes or pastry again, because you can get gluten-free equivalents of all of those. But you can’t walk into most shops and get them. Those cupcake cafes around London have become forbidden fruit. (Though luckily, fruit itself is not forbidden. But if you’re craving the squishy fluffiness of a cupcake, apples just don’t satisfy. I suppose I could coat them in bright pink butter icing.)

But the thing I hadn’t quite realised is how wheat gets into everything. Like chips.

I had friends who were openly sceptical about this. Chips are potato, they pointed out, and potato is fine. But I’d joined the Coeliac Society and read up on this, and I knew that some chips were fine and some weren’t – for example if they’d been fried in the same fryer as onion rings. So now I have to be someone who goes up to the bar in a pub and says, “excuse me, are your chips gluten free?”

I hate the idea of being that person. In fact, I hate it so much that I haven’t actually done it yet, I’ve just eaten the chips and hoped.

But I’ll have to get over that hurdle, because if I eat gluten-contaminated things I will damage my intestines and increase my risk of getting various cancers, all of which seem to have terrifyingly high mortality rates. I will do a lot of things to avoid dying of bowel cancer, and if one of those things is going to have to be sounding like a fussy eater in public, then so be it. Picky wins over dead.

I do wonder how it’s going to be, never eating a Double Decker again, or a bowl of Ricicles, or a Terry’s Chocolate Orange. (For those who are worrying about my appalling diet, don’t worry – it also features food that is not composed mainly of sugar.)

On the other hand, there are always Twirls. And as I discovered the other day, I live in a world where Tesco will sell me a gluten-free, raspberry-jam-doughnut-flavoured milkshake. Frankly, that’s a world I’m okay with.

Gluten-free cake! From the WAG cafe in Brixton Market.

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Gendering Free: Exploring Outside the Binary

First published at the Huffington Post

So this is how I’ve started to think about gender. It is just a metaphor.

Once upon a time there was a country called Gender. The country consisted mainly of two large cities, one called Male and one called Female. Most people lived in one of the cities, and people who didn’t were frowned on, but sometimes someone would leave one city and go and live in the other, if they were allowed in. Other times, people would visit the other city and come back.

Some people didn’t want to live in the cities at all. They left and went to the space in between, or to a different part of the country altogether, and built their own houses there. They even founded villages with other people who didn’t take to city life.

Some of the people who’d left tried to persuade the city-dwellers that it was OK not to live in a city. Just because most people lived in cities, they argued, it didn’t mean that everyone had to, or that cities were better than villages, any more than villages were better than cities. But most of the city dwellers were very suspicious of the people who’d left, and often mocked them or even hurt them, because they felt that leaving the cities was weird and wrong, even though it wasn’t doing anyone any harm.

(Responsibility for this metaphor rests entirely with me. This metaphor is entirely my own opinion and is not legally binding. Use of this metaphor is at your own risk.)

I’m someone who’s always lived in the city of Female, but I know quite a few people who have gone visiting, or have rejected city life altogether*. They might describe themselves as nonbinary, non-gendered, genderqueer, genderfree, trans, androgynous or all or none of the above or something else entirely. What they have in common is that they can’t or won’t fit into a simple binary definition of male or female.

For example, when I asked some friends to describe their gender in one or two sentences, the answers included:

“Fluid, intermediate, opportunist, and very much free from gender when I am alone. It’s others who gender me. I just do what I can to work that system in work and social situations.” (Ash)

“The flip answer would be something like “Not as simple as you think it is”. The sensible answer would be something like “One of the many datapoints which combine to make the person I am.” (Klepsie)

“Indecisive tomboy feminine-in-some-ways dandy butch genderqueer woman. I think. Today, anyway.” (Yoyo)

“I’ve never really had a gender identity – I can’t decide if it’s more like being ambidextrous, or more like being tone-deaf.” (Ed)

This is obviously a world away from the way many people think about gender. It makes it clear that pink and blue aren’t the only colours in the world – no matter what toy shops may believe. So why do we feel the need to be so rigid about being male or female, and about what that means? Why do we teach young people that they have to fit neatly and naturally into one box or the other in order to be acceptable?

Rose Fox comments:
“A friend of mine has a delightful young child, M, who drew a picture of “mom’s friends” for school. M explained to her fellow classmates that the person with the short hair is Rose, who is a girl, and the person with the long hair is Dave, who is a boy. The five-year-olds had no problem with this. Why should they?

Another friend’s nine-year-old, Y, met me shortly after I’d buzzed off all my hair. “You look like a boy!” Y declared. “Thank you!” I said. Over dinner, I mentioned something I was doing that’s culturally male-coded, and Y exclaimed, “Wow, you really ARE like a boy!” I replied, “That’s right: a boy who likes to knit and wear dresses.” Other than that, gender was not at all a topic of conversation, and Y seemed perfectly comfortable hanging out with me and chatting about subway trains and origami and other items of mutual interest.

…So, no, I don’t think my mere existence poses a danger to children, nor do I think I should somehow be hidden away from them in order to protect their fragile little minds. They don’t know anything about sex or gender until we tell them, so why shouldn’t we tell them the whole story?”

Klepsie agrees: “The vast majority of things in life which are presented dualistically are in fact not so, and children are going to learn about these things one way or another – why not make sure that they get accurate information?”

Giving people more information about how other people work doesn’t spell decadence, doom or the end of civilisation as we know it. Nat of Practical Androgyny says:

It is my experience that children are happily open minded to the idea that someone could be neither [male nor female]. I often turn back the question when kids ask me if I’m a boy or a girl, asking which they think I am and if they think it matters. I’ve yet to receive a negative reaction from doing this. I was once amused to cause a group of children to argue amongst themselves shouting, “He’s a girl! No, she’s a boy!”

And Ed points out that:

“If you made everyone in the world think about their socks for ten minutes, then many people would probably decide to buy more interesting socks. But loads of people would still identify as men or women (and most people would stick with their existing socks).”

All that’s required here, to go back to my original metaphor, is more freedom for people to get out of the city if they want to, take a deep breath, and explore their surroundings.

———————–
I asked my friends other questions about gender too – read the full text here.

*This is mainly because I attend BiCon, the excellent UK annual bisexual convention/conference, which attracts any and all genders.

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Rapture 2: This Time It’s Fluffy

First published at the Huffington Post

Back in the spring, you may remember, a man called Harold Camping informed the world that the Rapture was going to take place on May 21st. The Rapture according to Camping would consist of one day in which all true Christians would be raised up to Heaven, and then a six-month period during which the rest of us would suffer in the ruins of a fiery Earth. (I wrote a blog post at the time called You May Experience A Burning Sensation, in which I speculated that God’s reason for the six months of fire was that he had some really big sausages to toast. Probably lost me a few brownie points in Heaven.)

Anyway, as you may also remember, the Rapture didn’t happen. But as is the way of self-styled prophets, Camping is undaunted: his website explains that Christ did come to earth on May 21st – spiritually, of course, not visibly or publically or anything, that would be silly – and the Rapture period began then. It will climax, by which I mean actually be noticeable, on October 21st with the actual carrying-people-up-to-heaven part.

So far, so good. Well, no, not good, but it’s impossible not to admire a man with such ability to bounce back from disappointment. I mean, seriously, Camping should write a self-help book. (Carry on, Camping? Camping in Heaven? The potential titles are endless.) Or if he doesn’t have time for that before Friday, he could write an inspirational song. It could be called Don’t Stop Believing In Camping.

However! Reading through his announcement, I noticed that Camping has softened quite considerably since May. The original prediction has been startlingly revised. To quote:

“We have also learned that God is still teaching that God has no pleasure in the death of the wicked and will not punish the wicked beyond what is called for in Deuteronomy 25.”

Good news. Because I looked up Deuteronomy 25 and it doesn’t say anything about fire, or the world perishing, or any of that. It says the loser in a dispute can be beaten – ok, not ideal, but we’ll adjust – and it also has a few other laws which are frankly bizarre, but presumably aren’t going to come up that often. I’m thinking of this one:

“If two men fight together, and the wife of one draws near to rescue her husband from the hand of the one attacking him, and puts out her hand and seizes him by the genitals, then you shall cut off her hand.”

and this one:

“You shall not have in your bag differing weights, a heavy and a light.”

I don’t know about you, but I can probably manage to avoid those two sitations.

So basically, the prediction now is 1. All true believers will be taken to heaven (but you won’t know if you are one till it happenes) and 2. Everyone else gets to stay as they were, except for obeying a random handful of archaic rules. No problem.

There is one more thing, though. I would like to alert Mr Camping to a potential issue he may need to be aware of. Has he heard of Project Blue Beam?

Project Blue Beam – of which you have probably also not heard, unless you like the odder corners of the internet or have read my book, in which it features – is a fascinating (if you’re me) offshoot of Rapture theory. It holds that the New World Order is designing a false Rapture using special hologram-based technology. The purpose of which would be to make true Christians believe the Rapture has happened and they’ve been left behind, thus causing mass outbreaks of panic and atheism, which are of course what the New World Order likes best.

This would be such a great – if cruel – practical joke that I almost wish someone was designing it, but to the best of my knowledge they aren’t. However, that doesn’t stop these people believing it. Or these people. Or these people. Oh yes, there is a corner of the web that is forever Blue Beam.

I was going to write a paragraph that started “So, why are people so keen to believe these things?” but really, there’s no mystery at all about it. It is blindingly, face-meltingly obvious that we all want to feel that we’re being paid attention to and that we’re special. This can manifest itself in becoming an actor, in writing a blog, in getting drunk and smashing things up, or in devoting your life to the idea that a huge, powerful and secret organisation is so obsessed with breaking you that it will create elaborate and wildly expensive schemes in order to destroy your faith in yourself. In fact, that could loosely describe so many movie plots that it’s hardly surprising the idea is spilling over into real life.

Best of all, the fact that there is no evidence for it doesn’t matter at all because a) obviously a secret all-powerful group would be good at hiding its tracks, and b) it hasn’t happened yet. All in all, it’s the perfect conspiracy theory in many ways.

So: if Friday comes and you see the people around you slowly ascending into the air, don’t panic. It’s always possible they may be holograms.

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Be Yourself. No, Not That One, The Other One

(First published at the Huffington Post)

There’s a lot of advice out there about being yourself. It’s generally in favour of the idea, and quite right too. The opposite of being yourself is not being yourself, and who wants that? Who would you be then? You’d be somebody else. And that can’t be right.

Here is a brief summary of prevailing self-help wisdom on the subject of being yourself:

– Find yourself.
– Be true to yourself.
– Don’t try to be something you’re not.
– Result: happiness.

Finding yourself has to come first, of course, otherwise you won’t know who the self is that you’re supposed to be true to. You can achieve this through travel, yoga, meditation, a career, a family – there are so many ways to do it that it’s amazing anyone has ever managed to lose themselves at all.

Once found, cling to your true self like a leprechaun clutching a tiny precious pot of gold. (In this analogy, your true self was at the end of the rainbow. If this feels a little too fey for your tastes, please imagine that you found your true self somewhere more butch, for example under a monster truck, and that the leprechaun is actually a tiny rugby player clutching a gold rugby ball. OK? Good.) Never do anything that isn’t dictated to you by your little gold item of choice, and you will achieve health and happiness and other good things probably also beginning with ‘h’. (Harlots? Hobbycraft? Ham? Halfords? Who knows.)

The problem with all this – or rather one of the problems – is that when people tell you to be yourself, what they tend to mean is “I know what you are really like. Be that person.” They mean well. They genuinely believe they want you to be yourself. But there will always be provisos.

To give an example: earlier this year I watched the US reality show The Glee Project. This was a search to find new cast members for US show Glee (with which I am somewhat obsessed). Glee is basically about singing, dancing, high school misfits with big dreams, and the contestants were therefore in the situation of needing to fit into that trope, while also being ‘themselves’. Authenticity was praised, but so was fitting in to the existing cast. You couldn’t come across as too pliable or conformist, but you’d get kicked out for not obeying instructions or causing hassle. And all this struck me as largely being how life is: it’s ok to talk about not fitting in, as long as you also make sure you do fit in.

One of the final contestants, Alex, was flamboyantly gay: initially this worked in his favour, and then it somehow started working against him. He kept being told to ‘be his real self’, show them the person underneath the camp. But when he did what they told him to – when he performed a quieter, sober number and won applause for it – I thought: they’re telling him to be himself, but they’re also telling him what that self should be like. Is that fair? Can’t being flamboyant and camp be who you really are?

There’s this tendency to assume that the deepest layer is the real one. But they’re all real. The skin of an apple is as real as the core (and, I would point out, much tastier). Maybe you’re someone who spends most of their time as a housewife and mother, but sometimes likes to get dressed up in black eyeliner and big stompy boots, and go to goth clubs. Or you’re really shy at work, but a karaoke fiend in the evenings. Or you’re 60 but you like miniskirts, or techno, or World of Warcraft. Are you pretending to be someone you’re not? Are you being your truest self? Or are you just expressing different facets of your overall personality? Trying to be something you’re not may be a bad thing, but who’s to say what you are and what you aren’t?

And anyway, people don’t really mind you trying to be something you’re not. They mind you trying to be something they don’t think you should be. After all, many people aren’t thin and rich, but working to become those things is very much encouraged by society. But don’t act posh if you weren’t born to it, and shave your legs, and don’t wear pink if you’re a straight boy, and don’t go clubbing if you’re over 30. Why not? Because changing yourself is good, except when it isn’t. And being yourself is good, except when it’s not. All in all, it’s probably best to shrug, dust off those stompy boots, and go dancing.

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The Stormageddon Effect, and Other Parenting Emotions

(First published at the Huffington Post)

When you tell people that becoming a parent has introduced you to a whole new range of emotions, they probably expect you to start going on about loving your child in a way you’d never loved anyone before, that kind of thing. But that’s not what I mean – to be honest, no love can ever compare with the way I felt about the sharp glittery cheekbones of David Bowie when I was 15. Everything since has been downhill.

However, it’s certainly true that being a new mum introduced me to new emotions. If I had to name them I would call them:

1. The Responsibility Brick.
It’s such a sensible word, “responsibility” – calm, down-to-earth. But for me it conjures up vivid memories of the first day I was left alone with my baby. She was a month old. There was a small and virtually helpless human being in my flat, and nobody else. Just her, and me, in sole charge of her. I was 29 but I felt 14. Who on earth had thought this was a good idea? (Answer: me, about a year earlier. But what did I know?)

2. The Doormat Syndrome.
The parent-baby relationship wasn’t a give-and-take relationship, I realised: it was a give-and-give one. At a month old, you don’t even get a smile as a reward. The best reaction you can hope for is Not Crying. My reward for sleep deprivation, endless anxiety, and the attempt to make my body feed another person when it really didn’t want to (breastfeeding was not a success) was that a baby just stared blankly at me as opposed to screaming? It didn’t feel like enough. In a partner, this level of being taken for granted would have been a dealbreaker. In a baby, I discovered, there wasn’t really anything I could do about it except wait till she was old enough to lisp the sentence, “Thank you, Mummy, for everything you’ve ever done for me. I’m so sorry I didn’t mention this before.”

(She’s seven. I’m still waiting. But at least I get smiles now.)

3. The Can’t-Can.
As the (endless, fleeting, endless) time went on, I discovered another emotion, or rather a specific fusion of two emotions: the feeling that you absolutely can’t do something, coupled with the certain knowledge that you are going to do it. It’s the Can’t-Can: a dance in which you drag yourself out of bed and breastfeed at 3am, or don’t eat for hours because you can’t put the baby down for long enough, or pack a changing bag and put the buggy together and get on the bus and go out, and all the time you’re doing these things your entire being is demanding that you stop, please please just stop and go and lie down far away from the baby where it’s peaceful and you can clear your head. But you don’t. You know exactly what you need and what’s best you for you, for your mental health, for your physical health, and you do something different, because you have to.

It was a new experience for me. It was character-building, and I don’t think that part of my character would have got built if I hadn’t become a parent, so that’s a good thing. But I can’t say I really appreciated that at the time. I didn’t want to have my character built. I wanted to sleep, preferably in a hotel in a different country with no children within a designated 100-mile radius.

4. The Stormageddon Effect
This one is named after a recent episode of Dr Who in which the Doctor claims to speak Baby (and apparently the baby in question liked to be called Stormageddon, Dark Lord of All, which is totally believable.)

The books I read when I was pregnant claimed that you’d know what your baby needed, you’d learn to recognise the different types of cries. It worked with my second child, but not with my first; I had no intuition. I’d pace up and down for hours trying to work out if the baby was crying because she wanted sleep, food or medicine – or something else more complicated that I hadn’t thought of yet and she couldn’t articulate. The keys to my car, maybe? A doctorate in particle physics? A pot of bacon-flavoured jam? By the time she was old enough to tell me what it was she needed, she’d be too old to remember. In the meantime, like most parents, I’d just try things until something worked.

Luckily I never needed to get as far as the bacon-flavoured jam, so things can’t have gone too badly. But I remember that feeling, that attempt to understand someone who was clearly trying to communicate something, but couldn’t because the language barrier was too high. If anyone ever does learn to speak Baby, I swear I will change the names of both my daughters to Stormageddon in gratitude.

It Gets Better
There’s a video project called It Gets Better, for LBGT teenagers. It’s admirable, and someone should do one for new parents. It did get better. It got better enough that eventually I did it all over again, and it turned out the second time was brilliant, because I’d been broken in by the first time. I had been comprehensively taken apart and put back together by my unwitting engineer of a baby, and the resulting construction was still me, but a me who could parent.

(Of course, there’s still a part of me that just wants not to be responsible for anyone. But then, in seventeen years’ time both the kids will have left home (probably) and my partner and I can spend my time lying around the house drinking cocktails, or whatever it is people without children do with their time. I don’t remember. But it will be fun to find out.)

Of course, you do get to dress your babies up however you like. That's a plus.

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Putting gullible back in the dictionary

(First published on the Huffington Post)

In movies, if someone tells you something unbelievable, it’s best to believe it. Because the mind-controlling robot alien from the future who wants to steal your soul and use it for a healthy lifegiving snack is usually going to be real. And you don’t want to be the sceptic in that scenario. The sceptics get humiliated, at best, or eaten by giant tentacly telepathic monsters, at worst.

However, this is one of those tropes that doesn’t seem to have crept into real life (unlike, say, the movie notion that romance is best expressed through compulsive stalking of the beloved, which unfortunately has). Mostly people would still rather be Scully than Mulder, because of course, in real life the mind-controlling soul-stealing time-travelling robot is probably – probably - not going to turn out to be real. Real life is in this case the opposite of the movies: the David Ickes* of this world are fantasists and people who tell you aliens are out to get you are people who you would not want to take seriously.

The problem with this is the news. Like most people, I am not a scientist, unless having a GCSE in Physics counts, and I suspect it doesn’t. (I got an A! Surely that counts? No?) I have a basic idea how things work – I do not think electricity is magic, for example – but that’s about it.

Also like most people, I get my information about the world from the media: often via the medium of news stories I’m skimming on my phone while standing on a train in rush hour on the way to work. This is not conducive to in-depth understanding. So I have found myself very nervous about the recent slew of stories that appear to be basically science fiction. For example:

- A new plant that “bends down” to deposit its seeds has been discovered in a forest in Brazil. (As an aside, if plants are going to turn out to be this clever, vegetarianism is going to start looking almost as cruel as meat-eating. Let’s hope that, against all the odds, breatharianism turns out to be true.)

- Faster than light speeds may be possible.

- You can use 3D printers to make chocolate, car parts and articificial blood cells.

- It’s starting to be possible to record people’s brains.

OK, I sort of understand how all of these things can happen. Except the faster-than-light thing, but that’s all right: it’s accepted that top-level physics is Really Quite Hard.

The thing is though, part of me feels so gullible for believing these news stories. As though any minute now, someone is going to turn round and say “Wait, you didn’t really think all that was true, did you?” And then they’d laugh and laugh and I’d stand there muttering “well, the BBC said it was real,” like some kind of media-manipulated idiot.

Is this an argument for “everything is a bit true, really” and “well, you can’t really prove anything, can you?” Oh God no. There are many many genuinely true things and many many genuinely false things. It’s just that I don’t have time to sort out which is which. So I get the Guardian and the BBC and my Twitter feed to do it for me. It’s not ideal. But it’s all I have time for. So I’m just going to have to live with the fact that my dictionary still has the word “gullible” in it.

*An aside: Thanks to a web-editing customer service job I had ten years ago, my name was briefly featured on David Icke’s website. Thanks to the archiving powers of Google, I can still get a hit if I search for “david icke kate harrad“. As someone who makes a hobby out of internet weirdness, and then wrote a novel based on it, this makes me very happy.

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Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Mum

(First published on the Huffington Post)

Two major films were released last Friday, both adapted from bestselling novels published in previous decades.

Firstly, there’s I Don’t Know How She Did It, from the novel by Joan Le Carré. This gritty 1970s-set thriller features retired spy Georgina Smiley, pulled back into a world of secrets to find the woman who betrayed the Service – but which woman is it?

It’s not easy juggling a lifestyle that includes ultra-secret spying, being separated from one’s cheating husband and walking down grimy London streets looking pensive. Played by Helen Mirren with dignity, intelligence and a hint of cruelty, the character of Georgina has reignited the debates first sparked by the novel.

Should women be spies? Is it really a suitable profession for a sex notorious for backstabbing, gossiping and betraying each other at the first opportunity? The media has been overwhelmed with articles on spying, and particularly on how the career can be combined with a family life when it is by nature a secretive job. One feels sympathy for Georgina’s cheating husband Alex: it’s clear she was spending all her time at the office in a miasma of smoke having furtive conversations with other women whose marriages were also suffering. Her return from retirement to take on yet another murky, complicated investigation illustrates where her loyalties lie. No wonder Alex strayed.

And, as many articles have pointed out, what about all the spies and spymasters who just get on with spying and spymastering with far fewer resources than Georgina? Georgina is at the top of her profession, or at least was once, and appears to be relatively wealthy. Moreover, she has unfailing support from her friends and colleagues (admittedly, mainly secret and unofficial support), such as Peta Guillem (played by the redoubtable Benedictine Cumberbatch, famous for her portrayal of detective Shirley Holmes). Ultimately, Georgina fails to represent the real workday life of the spy, making it hard to empathise with her.

The week’s second novel adaptation is Worker, Lover, Husband, Dad from the 1990s Alastair Pearson book. This is a lighter, but still significant, drama about Kevin Reddy, a New York dad who juggles three children, a high-flying job with constant business travel, and a potential love interest. Media interest in this film has mainly focused on the high-quality acting by hit sitcom star Matthew Perry, who ably portrays the harassed father as he attempts to fulfil the four title roles and keep everyone happy.

However, the popular consensus is that the film lacks an element of tension, since everyone knows men can juggle any number of roles with ease, particularly if they have – as Reddy does – a supportive wife who helps with the children, arranges his social life and turns an understanding blind eye to his potential infidelities.

Ultimately, I Don’t Know How She Did It is a women’s film: dark and low-key, it reveals its secrets slowly and conversationally. Women will appreciate the fact that virtually everyone in the film is female, and the emphasis on solving problems through talking.

Worker, Lover, Husband, Dad is aimed more at the male market – many middle-class men will empathise with the travails of Reddy as he attempts to make a lot of money to maintain his already luxurious lifestyle while trying to make sure at least one of his children remembers what his name is.

Next week, we look at the return of Danielle Craig playing the ever-appealing Jane Bond, and we talk about the film version of James Eyre – the story of the young orphan tutor James and his imperious older mistress Miss Rochester with a dark secret in the attic.

A post about this post

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About a post I didn’t write and a post I did

I wrote a post. It was about the recently-released film I Don’t Know How She Does It (based on the Allison Pearson novel). It was called “Does having it all mean dropping the ball?” and it used the film as a jumping-off point to talk about the media’s demonisation of working mothers, the media’s demonisation of non-working mothers unless they’re middle class, and why the concept of “having it all” could most accurately be described by imagining someone trying to juggle whilst playing American football in front of a audience throwing custard at her.

And the thing is, I am in theory the perfect target audience for I Don’t Know How She Does It. I’m a middle-class white woman who is balancing children, a partner and a job, much like the main character (except without a nanny, a high-flying career or a posh city townhouse. Boo). On top of that, I enjoyed the book on which the film is based, and I’m a Sex and the City fan so having Sarah Jessica Parker starring is not a turn-off.

So am I going to see it? No.

Partly because I’ve just read some of the reviews (summary: meh).
Partly because I’d be jumping up and down in my seat waving my hand in the air, going “I know how she does it! Using lots of money and privilege!” And partly for the same reason I predict the film is not going to do well in cinemas: the women it’s aimed at don’t have time to go to see films about busy life-juggling women because, not unexpectedly, they’re too busy juggling their lives. Maybe it’ll do well on DVD. I don’t really care.

And that’s the thing. I don’t really care. Over the weekend I have read, without particularly trying to, about half a dozen articles by white middle-class women which use the film as a jumping-off point to talk about the issues it raises. Some of the articles were good. But now I am suffering from I Don’t Know How She Does It fatigue. I am bored by my own lifestyle. So I decided that instead of adding to the words written about it all, I would pretend that all these articles were about the other big film of the week, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. This is far better, because Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is apparently brilliant and I do plan to see it (even if I don’t technically have time).

This train of thought led me to another post, which I have written. However, I’m not posting it here yet, because – much to my surprise and gratification – I am now also blogging for the Huffington Post. I shall be copying my posts for them to my site here (as I have with my first post last week) but when I write posts for them I’ll put them there first. So! A post related to the above will appear soon – tomorrow, I hope, but I don’t have control over that bit – and I’ll update then with the link. In the meantime, please amuse yourselves with the rest of the internet.

Update: Here you are!

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Are you there, Mind? It’s me, Body

(First published on the Huffington Post)

The word “just” bridges a multitude of gaps. As in “just lose weight!”, “just be confident in yourself!” and “just stop taking heroin!”. It has that handy ability to make something difficult sound as if it should be easy, with the bonus implication that anyone who doesn’t find it easy should be a bit ashamed of themselves.

The phrase “just listen to your body”, used by a number of books, articles and people, falls into the same category for me. Assuming for the moment that you and your body are indeed different entities – and apologies to any philosophers who are choking on their mint-flavoured cappucinos at this point* – then this sounds like a perfectly sensible idea. If you listen to your body it will tell you useful things, like what you should be eating and when you should be sleeping. Maybe it even tells you what to wear to a wedding and how to mend a pair of trousers, if you listen closely enough. I’m not sure.

Because the trouble is, I’m not very good at it. I increasingly worry that where my body is concerned, I’m not really listening so much as nodding and smiling while thinking about something else. Like letting one’s long-term partner tell you about their day at work. You want to be supportive, you’re genuinely interested in how they are in a kind of overall, general sense, but specifically, at that moment, you don’t actually know what they’re talking about because you’re thinking about the latest episode of Doctor Who or wondering whether there’s any vodka in the house.**

So that’s how my communication with my body works. I let it get on with things, and presume that it’ll let me know if something’s gone wrong. In the absence of other information, I assume that what it usually wants is chocolate, sleep, and to lie on comfortable sofas alternately eating chocolate and sleeping.

But I worry that maybe sometimes my body wants other things – celery, jogging, toenail polish? – and I’m not picking up on it. I’ve never been good at reading other people’s body language; reading my own is even harder. I can’t even see my own facial expressions! How am I supposed to know what I think about anything?

Perhaps it would be easier if we formalised the whole thing and exchange a polite series of notes, like partners who work different shifts and have to leave requests on the fridge. Or, given that this is 2011, perhaps we could email or IM each other.

[email protected]: I want to go dancing. DANCING. NOW
[email protected]: Are you sure? We have work in the morning.
[email protected]: DANCING! NOW!
[email protected]: Oh, OK then, I guess we could manage something -
[email protected]: Oh wait, is it 10pm already? Sleep now.
[email protected]: But you said you wanted -
[email protected]: SLEEP NOW.
[email protected]: *sulks*

In fact, now I think about it, the problem is not just the difficulty in mind-body communication, it’s my body’s lack of consistency in what it’s trying to tell me. What it wants is frequently unclear, and often contradictory. (In this way it reminds me somewhat of my one-year-old daughter.)

For example – and this may be why this whole thing is on my mind at the moment – I was recently diagnosed with coeliac disease. This means I can’t eat anything with gluten in ever again, in case tiny wheat-flavoured goblins start building spiky hedges in my small intestine. Or something. I’m not good at medical terminology.

But the point is: if anything with flour in it is going to damage me, then why do I still want to eat cake? Where is the joined-up thinking, body? Couldn’t you have alerted me sooner – for example, by making me involuntarily spit out any pasta or bread I tried to put in my mouth? Perhaps with a little note explaining what the problem was? I could have made myself some Alphabetti Spaghetti if that made communication easier.

And as I reach the end of this train of thought, I picture myself watching in horror as my fingers construct the phrase “Don’t eat flour! It will hurt you!” out of floppy alphabet-shaped pasta, and I realise that maybe I’m happy with things the way they are. If listening to your body might result in being trapped in an internal, low-rent, mildly metaphysical horror movie, then I think I’ll just steer well clear of it all and eat a banana.

* Why do I picture philosophers drinking mint-flavoured cappucinos? No idea. Can you even get mint-flavoured cappucinos? No idea.

** A note to my long-term partner: I definitely do listen very closely to everything you say about your day at work. Yes.

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