Tuesday, 18 November 2014

The daily rituals of a creative mother

Daily ritual — absolutely crucial if you want to do any kind of creative work.

The other ingredient? Self-belief.

Here's what I know:

1. There's no such thing as writer's block.

2. Getting up early is the best way to marshall your wakening brain with your deepest energy.

3. Good coffee.

4. No alcohol.

5. No internet (doh).

6. Knowing what task you need to start on.

7. Only attempting one task.

8. Continually feeding your memory of yourself as in love with art. Galleries, books, films. And make notes on what you see.

9. Walk everywhere.

10. Never react to other people's messy excess.

11. Talk about your work with others who actually feed rather than crushing you. But don't talk about how hard it is to write (nothing is more boring either to say or to hear), just about how to solve the technical problem you're grappling with. Writing is both solitary and collaborative — after all, you're doing it to be read, aren't you?

12. Listen. Listen. Listen.

Had I actually observed these rituals, I'd have written and published several more of the books that infest my head.

Onwards and upwards.

Saturday, 15 November 2014

Batmitzvah

Last Saturday I had the privilege of attending the Batmitzvah ceremony of one of my daughter's schoolfriends.

The candidate was only just twelve, and the ceremony was held in an orthodox synagogue, very much by the book. I was expecting an impenetrable event, something completely foreign to my lapsed Protestant understanding. As I entered the Synagogue with my blonde hair and blue eyes, I felt like an intruder.

Instead I was invited into and witnessed a true rite of passage. The young girl had prepared over many months for this event. For her Mitzvah, she had decided to paint a series of six canvases to represent the six days of Creation, and she spoke eloquently about how each canvas had come about. She had understood early on that, although she had wanted to create something out of nothing, in fact, as a created being herself, she was only capable of creating something out of something — she was not able to create raw materials for her art ex nihilo. Only an ultimate Creator could create something from nothing.

I felt myself palpably relax and a deep sensation of comfort and relief flood through me. Although I don't believe in God, and don't believe in the literal truth of Genesis, one of the hardest edges of writing for me, and for most people, is the fear of having to create something from nothing. We forget, in a secular society, that we are not the fount of all knowledge as individuals. We are always building on, renewing, recreating what has gone before us. We are standing on the shoulders of giants, up on the stilts of our own histories and the history of writing and art that has preceded us. And we shouldn't forget that we are at the top of that history, not crushed under its weight. We are the pencil points.

The ceremony continued, after the girl's brilliant account of Genesis, with wise words from the Rabbi, but also from an old family friend (who looked spookily like the elderly Freud). He stood at the lectern on a podium, she stood down below in the body of the Synagogue, upturned face ready for his words. At first blush it looked like everything I loathe about hierarchical, patriarchal systems: the girl was to receive the wisdom of the male elder, in docile silence, her voice shut down. This would be the beginning of her domestication. And it's true that the Batmitzvah is traditionally linked to the idea of a marriage-ready girl.

Yet nothing could have been further from what actually happened. The older man spoke about her life, welcoming her to her own future, whatever it might be, alluding to possibility, potential, her own blossoming, and the ways she would be supported by her community to achieve, the cyclical nature of life.

True, at one point he told her, "We don't believe in Darwin, we believe in the literal truth of the Torah", which chilled my enthusiasm somewhat. But the girl's own party later served as something of an answer to him: it was themed on Science and Creativity.

I had also recently gone to a First Communion, and in my ignorance had thought that a Batmitzvah was something similar — welcoming a child into the Jewish faith, just as the Communion is intended to enable the child to join the Catholic faith. Absolutely wrong. In the Jewish tradition, the child is always already Jewish, and the Batmitzvah is about opening the door to her future. It's about her signing up to herself, and about her community making a promise to her. Everything about the Batmitzvah refers to commitment — of the community to the young person and back again.

I found myself sad and small by the end of the ceremony. I saw the mother's face, with her four beautiful daughters all now safely through their Batmitzvahs. She was utterly radiant, dancing with her children in the middle of the Synagogue. I crept away.

There is nothing is secular society to initiate a child into the adult world, and into her own future.

When my daughter left primary school and went to secondary, I even missed the one rite of passage that seems to have sprung up in the last few years, like weed to fill the empty space. She didn't get a mobile phone.

Thursday, 9 October 2014

Chore Wars II: and another thing....

Professor Jonathan Gershuny of the Centre for Time Use Research in Oxford was making depressing and familiar points on Woman’s Hour this week (‘Chore Wars’). Women have been completely done over in the modern world, he said. Because women cannot expect marriage to last (statistically), they'd better keep earning, plus they can still expect to shoulder the majority of the unpaid work at home. 

This isn't news to me, but it's depressing to hear a Professor say it. I found it a little simplistic: what about how women cop the unpaid work at work as well? All those emotional dynamics, the presenteeism, the bringing in of fattening cakes, and, frankly, the menial paid parts of jobs. 

Be that as it may, Professor Gershuny's argument was that domestic labour has been progressively 'feminised', through labour-saving devices like boilers, dishwashers and hoovers. He argues that men used to lay the fires in the average home. Domestic jobs for the boys have been replaced by machines. Men at home are, in this account, and rather oddly, the Romantic victims of the Industrial Revolution. He also didn’t comment on the class issues involved in domestic labour — in fact it seems to have become taboo to mention class in relation to motherhood or the family. I don’t think upper class men laid their own fires, and even very average families often had a maid. The issue of who does what in the home is at least as much a class as a feminist issue. 

When I was growing up, my older father had already retired. I remember him doing masses around the house, as well as the DIY. My mother did not go out to work. Picture the one-time mechanical engineer mending the toilet flush in his pants. My mother quietly devoted her time to us and to cooking, gardening and weaving. I inherited the double expectation that partners in a marriage share domestic labour, and that mothers are there for their children. I wish I had understood how lucky I was as a child, how impossible it would be to provide the same kind of attention to my own children, and just how bad I was going to feel about this. 

I got my husband to do the Mumsnet Chores Surveyand by and large he was realistic. He only over-estimated his contribution a little — and in fact, at the moment, he is doing the lion's share, because I'm the one working, so we take turns. Domestic drudgery goes in waves and phases for us. Yet when you look at the results of the Mumsnet survey, the way we share just isn't representative of what's going on in the British home. I would gladly relinquish all housework — I really don't care about it — if I thought that I wasn't going to be judged and forced to justify myself about it

I find it impossible not to care (even though I don't care) what people think of my mothering/domestic actions, because the dominant assumptions are so… dominant. It's the lack of alternative models for living that I find truly suffocating. In my own life, my husband and I have abandoned mainstream ways of doing pretty much everything, because we thought a lot of those assumptions were marriage-endingly unfair on me. But we feel in a minority for doing so. 

I still iron his shirts, and love baking (I have won prizes for my cakes!), but I want to do it on my terms. The trouble is that there seems so little room for this at the moment. There's no space in which to iron your man's shirt out of love, or practicality, without being judged a feeble stay-at-home, and no space in which to refuse to iron your man's shirt without being judged a hard-faced cow. But why should this be, when women are supposed to have been liberated from all these stereotypes? The answer, of course, is that they have not liberated themselves or each other. We are afraid to let go of the stereotypes, because we don't know who we would be without them. 

My husband still does the irritating deferral of every domestic decision to me, and I have to train him constantly to think for himself, but he thinks he's just practising 'good communication' (by asking me 'whether or not son needs a packed lunch'). So sweet. I've accepted the idea that I'm the family leader, which has its pros and cons — essentially the family is much happier when I'm in charge of absolutely everything (and so am I). 

BUT. It is also my job to delegate well so that I don't fall over with the stress of it all, and so that my son grows up to pull his weight, and my daughter grows up to know she's entitled to live a balanced life.

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Mumsnet: The Chore Wars

Yesterday, Mumsnet asked me to write a guest post for them on their current Chores Survey. You can read the post here, and I've added it for convenience below. Enjoy!


"On Monday I met a friend for lunch. I'd put ‘Luncheon with Janet’ in the calendar, because it made us both laugh to think of ourselves as Ladies who Lunch. 

As we were sitting chatting, my husband walked into the cafe, carrying a big bag of food shopping. He looked rather dashing, actually, all six foot three of him; he had on one of his dark work jackets, and those deep chocolate brown eyes were twinkling.

He wanted to know whether I had the car with me, so he could put the shopping in the boot and walk home. As he left the cafe, we flirted with each other, and he pulled an imaginary forelock, Clifford to my Lady Chatterley. 

How are we to interpret this silly little anecdote? My heart burst with pride to see my husband in an unaccustomed context and to see him caring for the family, but the transaction still had to take place under the aegis of irony - I'm not really a lady who lunches and he isn't really my butler or my gardener. This was division of labour as stage show. 

This week, Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour is exploring 'Chore Wars', while Mumsnet has published the results of their chores survey, which asked 1000 women who work outside the home how they share the chores with their partners. 

It's fascinating stuff, if a bit depressing. Take Jonathan Gershuny of the Centre for Time Use Research in Oxford, making the point on Woman's Hour that women have been completely done over in the modern world: because you cannot expect marriage to last (statistically), you'd better keep earning, and you are still going to shoulder the majority of the unpaid work at home. 
There was an expectation that I would do it all, in the home and outside it, and that 'sharing' was, impossibly, both a kind of failure and a kind of privilege. I shouldn't need help, and if I did, I was weak.

Gershuny's findings show that although some tasks like cooking (note: creative, occasionally enjoyable) have become more evenly shared, very few men pull their weight with tasks like laundry (note: mind-numbingly dull). The Mumsnet survey also reflected this: 77% of women who work outside the home are also responsible for the washing. 

Of course, the advent of dishwashers and washing machines and hoovers should mean that women’s lives have got easier – but have they? I would argue that the way we use labour-saving devices has itself become laborious because we've made more work for ourselves. Washday is no longer just Monday, but every day - the chore of washing has multiplied, because it is no longer acceptable, in our image-conscious society, to wear two-day old clothing. Keeping your children looking presentable is just one example of the domestic expectations heaped on women – markers, like having a spotless home, that have become, apparently, necessary in order to register on the index of female success. 

When I began my family, I had a good understanding of how tiring and intense parenting would be, but nothing prepared me for the domestic scenario that goes along with it: wall to wall female expectation that I would do it all, in the home and outside it, and that ‘sharing’ was, impossibly, both a kind of failure, and a kind of privilege. I shouldn't need help, and if I did, I was weak. I felt as if I had walked out of my own life and into the nineteenth century.

There's a constant sense of guilt and competition, the feeling that if you can't manage this 'thing' – the home, the family, the cooking, the children's needs, your partner's needs – as millions of women have done before you, and continue to do around the world, then you’re a failure. 

It's fascinating to me that 66% of the women Mumsnet asked about chores said they didn't want their partner to do more around the house, despite the unequal distribution of responsibilities, either because they’re comfortable with the current balance, or because it suits them to do the chores themselves, or because they believe that their partner would not perform them to the 'requisite standard'. Could it be the case that we know we're getting a rough deal, but that the idea that women are ‘better suited’ than men to domestic drudgery is still so pervasive that we'd rather not upset the status quo, salving ourselves with: ‘they’d do a rubbish job, anyway’?

So, what's the solution? Chores need to get done, after all. After years of trying to do it all, I've learnt that sharing is crucial. I've learnt that chores are in large part self-imposed, turned into an instrument of competition and made much worse by contemporary expectations from schools about ‘parental engagement’. I've also learnt that chores are as demeaning for women as they are for men, and that a bit of hard work doesn't hurt our children either. After all, they're part of the team too."

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Studio Mothers: The Sugar Log

I was absolutely delighted to be asked to write a guest post for a blog I follow, on combining creativity and motherhood.

The blog is called Studio Mothers: enjoy!



The Sugar Log

Sunday, 14 September 2014

Why phonics is nonsense

As my son 'revised key words for year 4', it became clear that his list of spellings this week contained all the proof you need to refute the teaching of reading and spelling through phonics. 

I present… five ways to pronounce '-ough' in English:

English is not a phonetic language

In the last couple of years in the UK, the methodology of phonics has, delightfully, been converted into a government-devised and compulsory 'phonics screening check' at the end of year 1. 

Kids who know how to read can fail this check, if they baulk at pronouncing made-up words using the rules of phonics. 

They are then given remedial attention — to get better at phonics. 

Which is then abandoned as children move through primary education… because it stops working once you are writing anything beyond 'cat'. For example, 'Kate'. Or 'Keith'. Or 'knight'.

I know, I know, the 'phonics method' is really about helping children put together sounds and letters as they begin to decode, but it's so limited, and seems, for all the hype and testing that surrounds it, to be valid only for a matter of months in a child's life, before being shrugged off and forgotten. 

If you want to teach phonics, go to Holland. At least Dutch actually is a (relatively) phonetic language. 

All the '-ough' words above come from Anglo-Saxon, Old German, Old Dutch or Old Danish roots, and all have come to be pronounced differently in modern English. I always remember a French pen friend despairing about learning English, when reading Black Beauty, and finding it impossible to know how to say 'ploughed fields'. 'Pluffed fields', and the subsequent giggling, will always live in my memory as a joyous linguistic moment. To say nothing of homophones (bough and… bow) and homonyms (bow(tie) and… bow (down)). 

Stop plaguing our children with this narrow phonics ideology, which isn't historically or linguistically accurate, and tell them something about how language really works, and the amazing places it comes from. Which, along the way, might teach them something a bit more accurate about what 'Britishness' is — a composite of invading cultures, rather than Morris dancing, Wimbledon and St George and the Dragon (George was Palestinian anyway). While you help them learn to read, then spell, with all the methods that have been developed to do so. One of which is... pleasure. 

Wait, just clambering off my soapbox.

PS. there's a 6th way to say '-ough': 'thorough' (-uh). And I have been. My pedantometer is all the way over at HIGH.

Friday, 12 September 2014

Complex Medea: Medea complex

Thank goodness I saw Helen McCrory's sublime Medea courtesy of National Theatre Live last week.

Otherwise I might find myself becoming complacent about being happy in motherhood.

Yup, I am that age. I cannot go out to the theatre any more, because of young children, recession (don't tell me it's over), and exorbitant ticket and babysitting fees. But I CAN go to the local cinema with a friend and some popcorn, and sit amongst a throng of grey-haired ladies and gentlemen, all pretending we are what we once were, and down on the South Bank.

It is a strange experience to hear big-voiced theatrical projection and see facial expressions meant for the back of a proscenium theatre, brought to you in close up on a cinema screen. An old friend of mine was also in the production, and frankly, looked as if he was gurning. Others have assured me that from the stalls, he was excellent.

So it is not a perfect transmission of the theatrical experience, but it would not have mattered whether Helen McCrory were on film, TV, stage or at a bus stop. She possessed and was possessed by the ghost of Medea like nothing I have ever seen before.

This is Euripides reworked by Ben Power, but so brilliantly written that, although we have the sense of being in the twenty-first century, with a posh wedding, a Chorus dressed in Desperate Housewives chic, Medea's boys watching TV lying on sleeping bags, and Medea herself wearing her husband Jason's trousers, we are simultaneously in fifth-century BC Corinth. It is also the National Theatre's first ever Medea. Could it be that both the taboo of the subject matter and the purity of the tragedy are just too difficult for modern theatregoers? All the more important in these days of working mothers, recomposed families, single mothers — families and the women in them under such pressure — that we see representations of what they might be going through inside.

Because that's what Medea is — she is nothing but her internal white-hot pain and rage, jealousy of her man Jason's new wife, fury at his abandonment and betrayal of her and their sons. This furnace of passions leads her, step by awful step, towards the mental readiness to murder what he and she hold most dear, in order to avenge herself. We are powerless to prevent it, relegated to the sidelines with the nurse and the Chorus. All we can do is sit in the dark and bear witness to what will inevitably happen.

All the power of the tragedy is in its inexorable progress from 'what is she capable of?' to 'what has she done?' In most tragedy, the wheel of fortune turns, and a fatal flaw in the protagonist plays its part in his downfall — there are extenuating circumstances. In Medea, the wheel of fortune is in the hands, not of the gods, but of her self-interested husband, prepared to drop her for a shot at personal power, and content to justify this as done in the name of his real (but abandoned) family. The wheel has turned before the play even starts, it is not part of the plot machinery. When we are introduced to Medea, she is already alone, back against the wall, to be ousted with her sons from Corinth, while her ex stays to marry into the royal family. Yet for Jason's sake, she has already murdered a member of her own family, her brother, and betrayed her father. It might make one ask whether Jason has it coming?

The real question at the heart of the plot is whether or not Medea is mad. The question subtending that one is whether all women are potentially capable of murdering their children. Is she the exception or a possible, utterly terrifying rule, the deepest fear in all of us, that our mothers might kill us?

For McCrory, playing this exhausting role in 2014, it is vital to assert that Medea is not mad. She is simply refusing the fate, the betrayal, the excommunication, that has been meted out to her, by exacting the ultimate revenge. This interpretation is not about excusing Medea, but explaining her, in order to activate the pity and awe the audience must feel. McCrory, I think, plays Medea as warning. The fact that there is precedent, that she has killed before, tells the nurse (although Jason is too blinded by his self-justifications) what she is likely to move towards.

McCrory's performance makes very clear that Medea never denies that killing her own children will also destroy her capacity for normal wellbeing. She knows very well that what she is about to do is both morally wrong, and that she will find it unbearable to live with her own action — and that she will going on living. In that sense she is Beckettian. It is impossible that she should live with her crime, but she does. The strength that Medea presents at the end of the NT production, as she heaves the boys' bodies, encased in blood-soaked sleeping bags, onto each shoulder, and labours, step by excruciating step, off stage towards Aegeus and Athens, is desolating to behold. She has her single moment of revenge — she sees the look on Jason's face — and then she faces the rest of her life, accompanied only by the knowledge of what she has done.

Is she evil? It is certainly premeditated, if only for a day, the space of the play: she has to talk herself into killing the boys, and her courage fails her many times. Nothing can justify the boys' murder, which is precisely why she does it. She believes that nothing justifies what Jason has done to her. Simply killing Jason's new wife, Glauce, daughter of King Creon, and Creon himself, with a poisoned robe, is not enough of a revenge. The only way to transmit fully to Jason what he has done to her, is to do something still more unjustifiable.

The act is evil, it speaks of evil, but she is a vehicle of the causes of evil — indifference, exploitation, the desire for power at any price. Those qualities are present in Jason, not Medea — she cares too much, loves Jason crazily, has been too completely crushed in love, is utterly bereft of power. Jason does not deserve to have his sons die, nothing redeems their death, they are crushed by her fury and thirst for revenge. At the point of committing the act, those passions have consumed her and transmuted into commitment. After the act, she returns to herself. The act itself has to remain beyond our — even her — understanding, in order to carry the power it does. This is why it takes place off stage (it must not be seen, it is literally obscene, ob-scaena). She herself is not mad as she does it, although her determination looks identical to madness.

Euripides' Medea seems to me a near-perfect example of the rules and machinery of Greek tragedy, wrought through innovations to that form (the protagonist is female, she is alone, there are no Gods, she is part Goddess).

Roald Dahl/Tim Minchin's Matilda is the index of pushy parenting for our times. Medea takes the temperature of the desperate pressure women are under to have it all by doing it all, without any guarantee of personal fulfilment or security, and shows the ultimate price.