Wednesday, 18 February 2009

Feeling Tetchy

I was catching up with the week’s news this morning and read something that caused me to snort with derision and inelegantly spit out my mouthful of tea. Richard Williamson, the Holocaust-denying Bishop at the centre of the recent wrangle at the heart of the Vatican (don’t you just love him already?) thinks that having ideas of their own causes women to get distracted. Sisters, banish those pesky thoughts that crowd your brain! You won’t be able to concentrate on preparing dinner otherwise. Yes, you blinked and missed a time lapse – it’s circa 1356, not 2009. Frankly, what distracts me is people spouting a load of old b*ll*cks, particularly when they dress it up as spiritual wisdom. I’m not suggesting that his abhorrent views on the Holocaust are any less worthy of choking over your cup of tea – far from it – but I was already aware of his stellar contributions to that debate. I shouldn’t have been surprised at his views on women – after all it’s not often that you hear some spouting anti-Semitism and then coming over all enlightened on other matters. I had a great business idea this morning, too – perhaps I should gratefully pass it on to my husband to deal with. Only no, I can’t, because he’s in Germany all week for work. How will I cope? Funnily enough I’ve been re-reading one of my favourite novels, The Edible Woman, this week; it’s so wittily subversive without ever becoming preachy or hectoring. Maybe I should send a copy to the Bishop.

The other bunch of people who’ve incurred my wrath lately – in a lesser, but still very irritating way - are celebs who are apparently persuaded that what the world needs is more of their spiritual insights, or, perhaps, more practical advice on how we can mange our drab little lives. I’m thinking of Gwyneth and her helpful website Goop, earnestly encouraging us to ‘nourish our inner aspect’, with lots of tips about ‘incredible’ therapies. The word incredible appears a lot in the book reviews, as well - example ‘Tolstoy’s incredible mind amazes me’. Bet he can rest easy in his grave now. I’m also thinking of those otherwise inoffensive people in the domestic sphere who are apparently persuaded that we need their very particular take on bringing up children, or stuffing a Christmas goose for 20 and making your children abandon that silly present opening, (you get the impression that presents are for the lower orders), in order to help you prepare the feast while singing carols in harmonies. I was really disappointed to walk into my local bookshop before Christmas and see that even the apparently sensible Sarah Raven had succumbed. Surely she doesn’t really need the money? Is fame really that corrupting, so that when your publisher/agent/whatever earnestly tells you that the public are gagging for more detail of your perfect domestic life, you actually nod your head seriously? Just tell us how to stuff the bloody goose. Of course, my argument totally collapses here, because I do actually buy this stuff, proving that there is of course a market for it, but then I immediately feel conned, so I’m basically conducting a ‘yeah but no but yeah but’ debate with myself. I do hereby promise, though, that when I become an A-lister (not sure on what basis, exactly, but I’m sure I can think something up), I won’t tell you all how to have the perfect family Christmas without even any staff to help you. Oh, but you’ll be missing out on so much …..

It’s probably just me; I’ve always hated bossiness and can spot it a mile off. Plenty of other people seem to love it; there are many women around in my neck of the woods who, recession or no recession, seem to spend huge amounts of time attending Aga cookery demonstrations, or interior design lectures, etc. I bumped into one of them last week in the chip shop of all places (well, it was Friday). She looked absolutely mortified to be caught out there. The joke was on me though – the chip shop man called me by my first name (how? I don’t remember telling him!), and then helpfully told me, in a ringing voice, that the off licence across the road was doing a great deal on two bottles for the price of one. Great – now I’m outed as a prominent local alcoholic, as well as being on first name terms with the proprietors of the local fast food places and a bad mother with poor nutritional standards.

Which brings me on to say – if you ever drink, and you have children, then stop. Right this minute. Otherwise you risk having a night like mine the other night; weaving my way slowly to bed, then waking at 3.00 am with a pounding head and the sinking realisation that the tooth fairy had gone out on the tiles, the hussy, and had forgotten to put a pound coin under youngest’s pillow. I staggered downstairs, freezing to death of course, only to find that while I had notes and coppers in my purse, there wasn’t a shiny gold coin anywhere. A quick rifle through my husband’s pockets and wallet didn’t bring any to light. I had the bright idea (there I go again, Bishop Richard) of raiding eldest’s money box (sadly not the first time this has happened). But instead of sensibly taking the money box downstairs, I decided to open it in his room, and naturally dropped it. It made an almighty crash, coins dropped everywhere, and the poor boy sat bolt upright in bed. I’ll have to start a savings account to pay for his therapy in years to come; he was slightly taken aback to find his mother breathing alcohol fumes over him and stealing his pocket money in the small hours.

Friday, 6 February 2009

Back with a vengeance (and rambling for too long)

I’m blogging again, wow. How did that happen? Why did I ever stop? It’s been about 9 months – perhaps that’s significant in some psychoanalytic way, perhaps I’ve been gestating new writing! So this had better be good then, but don’t get your hopes up. Maybe I just needed a break; life changed quite a lot last year, what with putting my head above the work parapet again and suddenly being inundated (why is my life always so extreme?), along with personal loss (my beloved Grandmother) and other ‘stuff’. I have been hugely busy, but found myself unable to write (creatively) and, more disastrously, unable to read. I kept reading some things – can’t break the habit of a lifetime – but I couldn’t get absorbed in fiction. Newspapers, journals, biographies, business books (yeah I know) – all devoured in the small hours, but I seemed to lose all pleasure in plot and narrative. And the only writing I could do was for work; maybe it’s because to be good at what I do, you have to lose your own voice, and find one for your client. So strategy-speak became, rather scarily, my only means of communicating with the world. Yet in the silence of a cold climate, both literally and metaphorically, I feel, bizarrely, like something’s flowering again. K has been really poorly with a horrible cough, and as I sat up with her late one night and couldn't get back to sleep, I found myself re-reading Coleridge’s Frost at Midnight, and that broke the ice, so to speak. Since then the words have been back, as has my pleasure in reading and losing myself in other people’s stories again.

It’s been quite a winter, not without its beauty. We’ve had days where the sun has shone so brightly that you could imagine yourself in a glittering New England winter, all ice-storms and bright hardness. Days which made me think of Robert Frost’s Birches:

“Such heaps of broken glass to sweep away,
You’d think the inner dome of heaven had fallen”

Other days have been typically English, weak with pale sun if we’re lucky, quiet, dripping and mired in freezing fog if we’re not. I love seeing starkly frozen shapes looming up, and recognising that muffled, muted world that deep winter brings. The stars have been stunning, too. I always find it strangely hard to imagine another season when I’m in the middle of the one I’m in – it seems almost unbelievable to picture the lazy abundance of summer; the hollyhocks and delphiniums out, dog roses shining in the hedges, particularly when survival seems such a struggle for most of nature right now. An old man died in the village last week, but his widow can’t get a slot for the funeral yet; too busy at this time of year, were the chilling words from the funeral parlour. That’s cheerful isn’t it.

Strangely I do feel imbued with a sharp sense of focus and energy at the moment. My hackles have been rising, not for the first time, about how women are pigeonholed and criticised, and basically still told how we should be managing our own lives. Surveys abound, and we’re still caught, as ever, between a rock and a hard place; the few households who ever could afford to live on one salary are decreasing in the recession, yet at the same time we’re bombarded with more information about the unhappiness of our children, our focus on material things, the breakdown of community, all with the implicit criticism of working mothers. It makes me so cross – I know how the media works, but the polarisation of such important issues helps no-one. I feel, stubbornly and perhaps naively, that I want to raise two fingers to the world. People are organic beings, and life should develop organically; what’s right for one family, right now, may not be right for another, and might – gasp – change, too. I was happy to stop work for a while, determined to focus on my children, and I don’t regret it for a moment, it was the best thing I’ve ever done, though I’ve written before about how I hated the invisibility of full time motherhood, the unspoken assumption that I’d left my brain, along with my career prospects, back in the office. Now the children are at school, I’m loving work again and feel a new sense of direction. I need the money, too. It’s impossibly hard, of course it is, to get the balance right, and no wonder so many give up. What are the role models after all – be a corporate slave, outsourcing your children, or else be a Martha Stewart wannabee, with no interest outside the domestic sphere? Why should we have to be either of those things? I happen to love baking, for example. I love being around my kids. At the moment I also love working. I’m damned if I’m going to be told I have to do one or the other, and I really feel the challenge of MAKING opportunities happen so I can try, at least, to fit both in. I know I have to sacrifice pay and status; I don’t want everything, but I’m not going to give up on things that are important to me, either. That’s my first New Year resolution, anyway. I’ve decided put a positive spin on it and recognise that I’m fortunate to have a life that includes so many different experiences.

And of course I AM fortunate; many of these dilemmas are peculiarly middle class. My Mum and Grandma had no such dilemmas; they had to work. And anyone with an ounce of financial sense would have said that my decision to be a full time mother when they were little has cost us dearly. But you know what, I don’t care. It was worth it. Just as right now, working until late at night is worth it, for now. (And long may it continue – having two self employed people in the family isn’t much fun right now).

My next resolution is to stop having unsuitable celebrity crushes (apart from my lifelong passion for Bob Marley, which doesn’t count!) The highlight of late January, for me, was watching the BBC2 series Million Dollar Traders (it was on iPlayer if you missed it, but it might have gone by now); as an ex-City girl myself, though sadly not able to retire with my millions, I found it fascinating. And I wasn’t only concentrating intently on the trades; I don’t think I’m the only one to notice, but Anton Kreil, the Manager, was so incredibly sexy. If all the world’s investment bankers and traders were like him, I’d indulgently forgive all their little foibles, like over selling complex financial instruments which half of them didn’t actually understand. (Sorry to be so flippant, I know it’s not funny at the moment). Though if they were all like him and the fantastically named Lex Van Dam, then I bet we wouldn’t be in this mess. Lex was quite sexy too, in a stern-but-fair kind of way, nice smile, (come on girls, we need all the cheer we can get at this time of year), but the gorgeous Anton triggered some rather impure thoughts. Like, seriously, as he kept saying. I found myself gloomily wondering why I’d never had the good fortune to run into him in the City – oh yeah, it must have been that while I was slowly making my way up the corporate ladder and worrying about my overdraft (and being lucky enough to marry my husband, of course, in case he suddenly decides to break the habit of a lifetime and read my blog), he was being a master of the universe, making huge amounts of money and no doubt going out with supermodels, so wouldn’t have looked at me twice. So the moral of the story is - don’t ever get a stupid crush on anyone (a) younger (b) richer and (c) more successful than you – you come down to earth with a bump.

It was a great show though (total novices having a go at trading, if you didn’t see it). Brilliant, if unforeseen, timing for the programme as well (filmed last summer). Some of them made you want to bang your head slowly and repeatedly against a wall. It highlighted for me how the whole business is as much of an art as a science, how the ones who do actually know what they’re doing use emotional intelligence and self control, and don’t just rely on TA and maths ability. Personally, I wouldn’t last 10 minutes, and I’d probably have plunged the world into an even deeper recession during those 10 minutes, but two things made me actually want to try (in a sitting on the sofa kind of a way). One was when someone said how stocks have no memory. I realised that it must be such a ‘clean’ feeling (when things are going well). There are no personalities involved, only your own demons, no-one else to cock it all up or to blame. Kind of how I feel when I’m running for miles! Also when one of the successful novices said it felt like he was playing chess against the rest of the world. That must be hugely exhilarating. But maybe not quite so exhilarating now.

I seem to have had loads of arguments with friends lately about the show – some people I know were genuinely horrified at what they saw as the aggression and testosterone and what they called ‘bullying tactics’ on display. I didn’t see any of that. Making money – and by extension the financial world – is neither good nor evil. It’s amoral – it is what it is and does what it does. Surely it’s what you do with money that counts? I’m not excusing greed, vastly disproportionate earnings or bad management – anything as single-minded and energetic as that world will turn into a monster without proper control and regulation, but that show wasn’t aiming to spark a debate about ethics – it was showing how you had to operate within that world. If you don’t want to, fine. Actually I had some of the best times of my life working in the City (admittedly before I moved to the country and discovered my inner hippie!) Even for someone like me, who wasn’t involved directly in generating money, there’s something seductive about the energy and ambition and talent that could be found . I know some people who can’t talk about anything other than money – they’re obsessed by it – but I’ve met them in all walks of life. I don’t think everyone who works there can be dismissed as having sold their souls and gone over to the dark side. (Only about half of them).

I did go out with a trader for while, ages ago. He was from a well known investment bank that is no more. The thing I remember most vividly about him is that he had this obsession with Barry White (his music, that is, not the man, which would have been even weirder). I used to get really nervous going to his flat in case he decided to play ‘Don’t Go Changing’ again; I had a sort of dread terror that he might start singing it to me. (Hopefully he’s too busy spending his billions to ever stumble across this blog; I expect we move in slightly different circles these days). Of course, if anyone played that for me now, caught as I am between the stresses of young children and a huge mortgage, I’d probably cry. But when you’re a heartless 22 year old, it was deeply embarrassing. Yet another of life’s little ironies.