2016: My Year in Books

I’m planning to write a few ‘Review of the Year’ type blog posts in the coming week or two. Some might address the general shitshow that we all believe this year to have been, but others I want to be quite light and more positive too. Here are a list of my favourite and least favourite books from this year. I’ve noticed that most of the favourites have a bit of a theme: they are about hope. No wonder they were my favourites in 2016. Let me know what you think!

The Good

All the Light we Cannot See, Anthony Doerr

I walked past this book and picked it up and read the back numerous times before, one day, it was the right day to actually buy it. I’m so glad I did: it is one of the most beautifully written books I’ve ever read. The story follows a young French girl and a young German boy through the Second World War. The girl is blind and escapes Paris with her father, while the boy is a whizz with radios and electronics and gets inducted into the Hitler Youth as a result. The innocence and fragility of their young lives is stunningly well-written, and the moment when the two eventually meet made me incredibly emotional. I’ve sought out other books by the same author since, and haven’t been disappointed. About Grace is also a gorgeous, if at times painful, story of love and loss.

Girl meets Boy, Ali Smith

Not published this year, just one I got round to this year. It’s amazing. One of the most gorgeous, hopeful books I’ve ever read. It’s all about gender fluidity, feminism, and standing up for what’s right. Totally accessible, small but perfectly formed. I loved every word and the end made me sob like a baby, but with happiness.

The Art of Happiness, His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Howard C. Cutler

Speaking of happiness: I read this classic this year. I think it will need a few rereads, as some of the ideas take a while to sink in, but it was very well-written and engaging. I loved that it used mixtures of Eastern and Western philosophy and showed how often ideas from totally different backgrounds match up, even if one is rooted in science and other in philosophy or spiritualism. The thing that stuck with me the most was the idea of being honest as an antidote to anxiety. If you are honest with other people about what you can do, you have no need to be anxious. It also quoted this classic piece of advice: if you can do something about it, do it instead of worrying. If you can’t do anything to change it, there’s no point in worrying. Easier said than done!

The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet and A Close and Common Orbit, Becky Chambers

I haven’t read much science fiction but I absolutely adored these books. They can be read as a series or equally as stand-alone books. She has really gone to town imagining different species with totally different customs, examining human nature and society with real insight and compassion. Her examination of people’s feelings, gender, love, and what it means to be alive is brilliantly thought out and, again, very very easy to read. She also veered away from a common plot line in fantasy/sci fi of things going steadily to shit, and then a big battle at the end, and then things are good. She mixes it up and messes things around, but also keeps most of it on a wonderfully low key- the books are by no means uneventful, but I was never too stressed out by them. Can’t wait to see what she writes next.

The Descent of Man, Grayson Perry

A late entry as I just read it this week. I think Grayson Perry is brilliant and fiercely intelligent so I was really interested to hear what he had to say on masculinity. It was thought-provoking and engaging, even if it did feel a little bit like a draft of an essay that one of my old lecturers would say needed polishing, tightening, and a rework to bring the main argument front and centre stage. Very much worth the read though because he challenges so many aspects of patriarchy that one might not have thought of, and some of his examples are very useful. Extremely well-written and easy to read.

The Bad / Unfinished

I try not to leave books unfinished, but have also started abandoning them when I am really not enjoying them at all. Thankfully most were acquired from the local library. I walked away from a few classics this year – apologies in advance if this offends you!

Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie

Apologies to all those who thought this was phenomenal. I got about a hundred pages in and stopped. I have a strong dislike for books that go off on endless tangents rather than getting to the sodding point (unless it’s Ali Smith, who is just too awesome for me to care) and I found I just gave zero fucks about any of the characters or any of their stories. I didn’t even get to the bit where the boy finds out he’s magic or whatever, which may have been a mistake. Just the endless stories about noses and whatnot made me start losing the will to live.

American Gods, Neil Gaiman

I was given this as a gift so I’m not sure it’s advisable to include it on the list, but the gift giver was my best friend so I’m thinking we’ll be able to work past it. Both she and my partner love this book, and I loved Neverwhere, so I was expecting to love it too. Instead I found the main theme of the story – that we have gods now but they’re of electronics etc – quite dull and one-dimensional, and I also found the fact that there were basically no female characters who weren’t sexual objects exceptionally tedious. There also seemed to be a lot of unnecessary references to their breasts, or other women’s breasts, or just breasts randomly, and I found that pretty dull too. That probably speaks to my own issues rather than anything else, but I get enough of teenage boy humour around me in life in general, I can do without reading about it too.

Left of the Bang, I can’t remember the author

Got it out of the library. I don’t know why. Girl has unsatisfactory relationship with boy, meets other boy from her past, has fantasies about him, does bugger all of use about it. Meanwhile her boyfriend starts having sexual fantasies about children. How About No.

Mr Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookstore, Robin Sloan

I was really excited about this for the first half, and then sort of faded out of it. A big part of the mystery of the bookstore was revealed, and not as exciting as I’d hoped, and the boy starts going to save the day as per usual while his girlfriend tags along as sidekick. Also, as with American Gods, the teenage boy-ness of it started getting me down. OMG, my girlfriend is super intelligent, geeky, and really attractive!! FFS. Stop being surprised and give her some freaking flaws to make her an actual person. And again with the boobs: the lead’s mate runs some company making tools for software companies to make perfect, realistic CGI breasts. Which were used to make some beach volleyball computer game. Give me a fucking break and take me out of this teenager’s wet dream.

High Fidelity, Nick Hornby

It might not be fair to include this as I read literally about five pages. Douchebag runs through list of break-ups; isn’t fussed about most recent one, tries to work out when he’s next going to have sex. Broke up with girl at school because she wouldn’t let him touch her – you guessed it – breasts. I swear to god. This year’s books have done nothing to get me past my fear that men are obsessed with perfect boobs. The guy sounded like a complete arse and I put it straight in a bag to go to the charity shop.

Author of the Year

Agatha Christie

I have read SO many of her novels this year. They are perfect when you are ill, or in a book rut, or just want something that doesn’t require any effort but still has an amazing plot. They are so easy to get into, and I never ever guess the outcome. What an incredible brain. How did she think of all those plots?! I know many people think her books are ‘light’, or simplistic, and they are light in the sense that they’re so well-written you don’t have to work to find them interesting or enjoyable. But I think her talents as a writer are often underestimated. I would love to write a single book with such an enjoyable and unguessable plot, never mind however many she managed to write. Stand out books were Then There Were None- fabulously creepy; and The Secret Adversary- almost more of a spy novel, but just brilliant.

Also:

Josephine Tey. Another female detective writer. Love her style of writing and again, brilliant plots.

Uprooted, Naomi Novik. Loved this. A really different fantasy novel with some great twists – also really quite frightening. I never quite got to see the characters as fully rounded people, otherwise it would be in the favourites list.

Mutual kindness and mental illness

I read an article recently about the secret to making a marriage last, based on the research of John Gottman. While the article found many of his findings exceedingly obvious, the theory of mutual kindness struck a chord. When we are in a secure relationship of any kind, whether it’s a friendship, a romantic relationship or a family bond, it is easy to start taking it for granted, and to stop making the tiny overtures of friendship we make with people we don’t know so well. The research suggested that whenever someone makes a tiny comment about their day or something they’ve noticed, they’re sending out a tiny message for reassurance and comfort. And if those gestures are knocked back more often than not – “you’ve told me that before” “I don’t think that’s true” or just a “hmm” and barely a glance up from the phone/tablet/TV/computer – then the bond can begin to fail.

I was thinking about this in the context of relationships with people who suffer from mental health problems – depression and anxiety, and particularly the latter as it is what I’m struggling with the most these days. It struck me that this advice relates even more to these more difficult relationships, and in a number of ways affecting both parties.

First of all, if you are having an anxious or depressed day, it can make it much easier for you to take your mood out on the person who is closest to you. You know they are not going to leave but at the same time it terrifies you that they might, especially when you are low or feeling like a burden. This fear and discomfort with yourself makes you more likely to lash out, especially if you’ve had to spend a day pretending to be perfectly well so you can carry out your job. If you have been fake smiling or hiding anxiety attacks behind water cooler chat all day, the pent-up pressure getting released may make the evening at home difficult. You want to relax but sometimes you’ve forgotten how. You want to have a nice evening in but you’re exhausted and just want to lie down and cry. The knowledge that you’re wasting the precious free time does not make it any easier.

I found myself in this mood recently and the only thing that helped was a kind of forced reset. You know when you can only turn off a computer by holding down the power key? I did that. I forced off all electronic appliances, poured a glass of wine and parked myself on the sofa with an Agatha Christie. No electronics within reach, all notifications off. It helped, but any kind of half reset I don’t think would have had the same effect. For partners, it can be very wearing to be on the receiving end of this kind of mood. It is isolating, frustrating and sometimes hurtful. I can’t offer much advice except to try to be patient and, for me, it’s probably best to give me some space. I want company but know I’ll be bad at it in that mood. And while it could also be useful for a partner to suggest a total relaxation shutdown, ultimately it needs to come from the person who is upset. If you suffer from mental illness you need to learn your own moods and how to cope with them, to get support from people around you without pushing them away. Easier said than done, so, in the words of a best friend: communication, all the time, until you can read each other’s minds (or near enough).

The issue described at the beginning also works the other way round in these relationships. If someone with depression or anxiety reaches out, especially about how they are feeling, even in a very small way, it can be very difficult for them. In the words of Dr Brene Brown, we are making ourselves vulnerable by opening up about something that makes us feel ashamed. People get anxious about all sorts of things: job interviews, flying by plane, public speaking, driving, going out to social events, going out to places they don’t know, talking to people on the phone, going to the shops, going out of the house, going outside a set of rooms. If you suffer from anxiety, when you’re in one of those triggering situations – I, for example, get anxious about driving – then your physiological reaction to doing that thing may be the same or even more extreme than someone going to a very important interview, or sitting an exam, things that make most people at least a little anxious. Because for most people, these things like making a phone call, or going to a party, are “normal” and not stressful at all, we feel ashamed that we get so worked up about something so “small”. So with any reaching out about these things, the need for mutual kindness is ramped up to a hundred because of the shame behind the feeling. If our partner or friend or family member then replies with something that is cutting the feeling down, making it sound silly or irrational, if they respond with a deep sigh or an eye roll or even with a platitude like, “oh don’t worry, it will be fine” we feel a hundred times more shut down and irrelevant than someone might under “normal” circumstances, if they shared something they thought was funny or interesting and were met with stony ambivalence or disdain.

For partners and friends it can be very difficult to know how to respond. The best thing to do is to acknowledge the fullness of the feeling that person is having – try to imagine it from their point of view, take it seriously and don’t just shrug it off or treat it with frustration. Think of how you would want to be met if you were talking about something you find particularly frightening and difficult – this is that thing for that person. I used an example the other day – I’d booked myself a horse riding lesson, which I was really excited about, but nerves about the drive there and parking in the small and awkwardly shaped car park were making me very nauseous. My partner said, “but I thought you wanted to go riding?” because for a normal person, the excitement of going riding would outweigh the nerves of a ten-minute drive. I explained that, for me, it was the same as if he was going for a job he really wanted, or even had the job and today was the first day, and he was quite nervous about it, and then if I said, “but I thought you wanted this job?” Somehow you need to find a way to understand that what seems so small to you, is not small to the other person.

The person suffering with anxiety or depression has to be careful to do the same thing. I often find one of the best ways to get me out of a low or anxious mood is actually if my partner needs me for something  – I tend to start focussing on them and my own problems seem smaller because I’m not looking at them so closely. But it can be difficult sometimes, if you’re caught up in your own head and are used to being the one to receive support, to remember to turn around and give it to your friends and family and partner too. Especially if you are afraid that part of their issue is their worry over you. Of course they need other people to lean on too but it can help, when you’re in a good place, to talk over the effects and issues together. Talking about the difficult times and what you both want and need in those situations is essential. It’s a give and take process – and mutual kindness and empathy is absolutely key.

When you’re both feeling down, as my partner and I have been a bit this week after the US election, it’s even more important for us both to practise mutual kindness. I feel like we’ve both feeling a bit defensive, hurt and beaten down, like little creatures evicted from our safe shells, trying to find some comfort and warmth. We all need to turn in towards each other, be honest and stay vulnerable, to keep our closest circles a happy corner in which to regroup in these difficult times.

 

 

Keep hoping, friends.

Well. Since 3am I’ve been lying awake or having nightmares about Trump becoming president. Maybe it’s because I had a few run-throughs of waking up to it before I actually woke up to it, or maybe it’s because of the Brexit result in the summer, but this result isn’t such a shock to me.

I know how terrifying this is, especially for people of colour, LGBTQ+ people, women – or essentially, anyone who isn’t a straight white misogynistic power-crazed man. I am very depressed for what this says about people’s attitude to women in the 21st century. By voting for Trump, people are voting for a view of women which many hoped had died off around the 1950s. And by going with an “anyone but Clinton” attitude, although people say it’s because of her corruption, it seems to me pretty obvious that one of the main reasons for it is because she’s female. If you keep their histories and behaviour but switch their genders, there’s no question about how this election would have played out. A 70-year-old woman who had been divorced three times would never have got close to the White House, while a man with Clinton’s experience would have been, I would guess, far more popular. I don’t understand all the reasons why people dislike Clinton so heartily, but I do think they underestimate the role sexism has to play in it. If we take the view that people see women as Madonnas or whores, Clinton doesn’t fit: she’s clearly not a whore, but she can’t be a Madonna because she is powerful and, at times, ruthless. Terrifyingly, apparently the majority of white women voted for Trump. This is baffling to me, but perhaps feeds into arguments that women are threatened by the power of other women. Or maybe they enjoy that kind of ‘man taking control’ bullshit that Trump espouses so brilliantly.

Anyway. We could talk for hours about what a depressing result this is. God knows 2016 has been a hell pit for anyone of a liberal persuasion. Here are a few thoughts I’ve been having to try and counteract the negativity this morning:

  • I have such low hopes for Trump that really, the only way is up. If he hasn’t nuked China within the first six months, I’m counting it as a win.
  • I am taking solace in the fact that there are millions of people all around the world who are feeling just as lost and powerless as I am today. Thanks to today’s technology we all have ways of connecting and joining virtual hands around the globe, and that kind of connection can only be a point of comfort.
  • I have recently finished The Art of Happiness, a book full of conversations between the Dalai Lama and an American psychologist. Together they try to find ways of creating happiness which take elements of both Eastern and Western philosophy. It is a heartening book particularly at times like these, showing the surprising similarity of ideas that originated in such different cultures, and also what it can be like when people are open and receptive to other people’s thoughts and opinions. One idea that is helping me in particular is samsara, or cycles of death and rebirth, which is central to Buddhist thinking. I do not believe in reincarnation per se, but Buddhists also believe the world goes through cycles of samsara. I’m not entirely sure if it’s supposed to be used in this way, but I am looking at history today for these cycles.

    In the nineteenth century there was a rapid increase in communication across the world, with the advent of telegrams, railway lines, and increases in trade. This was in many ways the beginning of western hegemony, as previously China was one of the most powerful empires in the world. With western industrialisation, the balance of power changed. Through the first half of the twentieth century many racist attitudes held sway, and extreme nationalism brought several terrifying leaders into power. After a massive cycle of change and, of course, wars, the balance changed again. The second half of the twentieth century saw many of these “scientific” racist attitudes thrown in the trash, empires slowly began to come apart, and since then we have had huge steps forward for women, gay rights, and civil rights.

    I am, of course, simplifying MASSIVELY and I’m sure any academic reading this will want to step in and teach me a few things. Not today, please. Be tolerant today. Unless you believe my views are harmful or you’re really in the mood for teaching and debate, in which case, let me know and we’ll discuss it like adults, and like rational human beings, and I’m sure we’ll both enjoy the conversation immensely. But sadly we are now seeing a backlash to this “opening up” which has brought joy and happiness to so many. Unfortunately, for some, these expansions in rights have not been a sign of progress, but a sign of their own power being reduced. If we believe that there is only a finite amount of power and influence to go around, these are frightening times if you are someone who has, to date, held most of that power. Or if your beliefs are such that you think only certain people should be allowed to hold it. If you believe in the verses of the bible which prohibit homosexuality, then I can only imagine that the day the US allowed same-sex marriage you had much the same feeling as I do now. If you believe that the colour of someone’s skin has something fundamental to say about what they can and cannot achieve as a person, then the anger that has flowed through many American cities of late can be read as confirmation of your beliefs, rather than the righteous fury of people mistreated for too long, too often. And if you believe women’s main role should be at home raising a family, then this year will have been a real shake-up for you.

    I am sad to think that people believe these things. But I am not surprised by the fact that they have not disappeared yet. It seems clear that these attitudes have risen up again, that we are rushing headfirst into a new era of intolerance and rolling back of the rights of people who have been fighting so hard for them. I am hopeful that we will avoid wars of the kind of magnitude we experienced a hundred years ago, especially as, with someone like Trump having their finger hovering over the button, it would literally be the death of the earth. And although that’s depressing to think about, if it does happen, then we’ll have nothing to worry about anyway. (Side note: I’ve just started watching The West Wing (I know, I’m ten years behind the times. When I’m 40 I’ll start Breaking Bad) and I had no idea that it is basically ONE person’s decision to start attacking another country. Just the president. Terrifying! Also, is Aaron Sorkin and the West Wing cast available to run America? I feel like they’d do a stand-up job, especially compared to this crazy waxwork clown who’s got in instead.)

    Steering back to my positive point: the world has gone through some serious shit before. We’ve had men who chose to try to exterminate an entire race. We’ve had terrifying eras of persecution and intolerance and people treated like less than animals. And it does end. Eventually. Although sometimes it doesn’t feel like it, we’ve come a long way and more people have more than they have done at any time before in history. A friend said she read an article which argued that if Clinton had got in, as the ultimate establishment figure, the feelings that started with Sarah Palin and ended up in Trump would just have got worse. Maybe getting what they think they want will prove that it isn’t as advertised (hello, Brexit). Keep up the hope, my friends. We are all human beings underneath. I know it is tough for everyone who has already worked out this fundamental human truth – that we are all just people – to see the rest of humanity continue to be so fucking stupid, but the millennial voting map in America was very positive. Hopefully this new generation, of which I am a part, will rise up against the bigotry and dumb rhetoric which has characterised politics in the UK and US this year, and we will fight for a brighter future. The cycles will keep on turning.

    And in the meantime, there’s The West Wing to distract us.

Going home

Recently, I had a worried conversation with my Canadian, reliant-on-a-work-visa partner. He works in academia, already intensely competitive, and possibly soon to be chronically under-resourced. Getting a job here if you’re from outside the EU has already become more difficult in recent years, and with the recent hateful headlines from our home secretary and PM, the situation looks like it could get significantly worse in the near future. If this government go ahead with their plans, his name will be on the list of ‘foreign workers’ his university will have to hand in. If he wanted to move on from his current position, would anybody take the risk and hassle of employing him without British citizenship? I told him I was frightened, that if things get worse, he would want to go home.

Go home. As I said the words I felt a jolt. Were we not already at home? Where would home be, if we moved to Canada? We would both likely know nobody, and have only each other. Would it be home for him again? Could it ever be home for me?

I’ve been musing on what home means for almost a year. I use the term to refer both to the flat I currently live in, and my parents’ house where I lived permanently from the ages of 4 to 18, and where I’ve stayed at various intervals since. In the last ten years I have moved house ten times. Looking back, were all those places home?

Do any of you ever have that experience of thinking, “I want to go home!” when, technically, you’re already there? Home isn’t just a place, but a feeling. I lived in a flat for three years and it never truly felt like home to me. I never settled properly there, rarely had that warm, comfy, I’m at home feeling about it. I consider this feeling to be similar to the suddenly trendy Danish idea of hygge – that warm, comfortable, safe, and entirely without stress feeling. I suppose the time I lived in that flat was full of stressors, not least a deeply unsatisfying and, In the end, mentally damaging work environment. Would anywhere have felt like home, under such circumstances?

I left there and moved home to my parents for six months. Going back to my family home is such a complicated feeling for me, in part because I’ve never fully left. This is true in a physical sense – my old bedroom is so full of stuff it looks like it is still occupied day to day, with clothes in the drawers and wardrobe, four bookcases full of books, and a dresser covered in jewellery. I go back and feel the pull of all those belongings that I still, aged 28, cannot have with me as I can’t afford somewhere with enough space. I am wondering, like many people my age, if there will ever come a time when I’m not storing some possessions with my parents.

Mentally, too, I am still deeply connected to this home. I get on very well with my parents and deeply enjoy their company, and they mine, so trips home always feel too short – even when they also feel constrictive, being back under their rules, and feeling the pain of things they do and think that I cannot change. This is one of the pains of growing up: some people find it fairly easy to start a life on their own terms, in their own space, with their own chosen people, and don’t feel much guilt at having flown the nest. For me, it is more difficult. I have never had a Christmas away from this home, and with all the emotional ties of Christmas traditions, this is one holiday when I feel I should be at home. I feel guilty for not visiting more often, and for not staying longer when I am there. Whenever I leave, it is painful on the one hand, and like getting out of an effortlessly warm and comfortable bed on the other. It is still, and always will be in some ways, my home, even though it is not without difficulties. For most people, the family home has some elements of push and pull, as all families are rarely entirely without tensions.

Recently I moved out of London after ten years, settling in Canterbury and commuting back to the city every day. Canterbury, the town, does not yet feel like home. I am too transient, spending most of my waking hours still in London, and still feel like a weekend guest here. I have joined the library, the cinema, the gym, but only know small bits of the town and have barely begun to join them together. The flat I’m in is starting to feel like home – but for the first time in a few years there is no space here that is mostly mine. My partner has the “spare room”, which really is his office as he works so much at home. I only go in there to hang laundry. It contains none of my possessions and the futon we have for guests, but also for me to sit on, is both very uncomfortable and currently facing a wall. My space to sit in is the living room, but it is a communal space, no corner to hide in, and no part of it to which I can withdraw. It feels sometimes like trying to make a nest in a corridor. It is too open and there is too much traffic to make a properly cosy, individual space.

If I feel unsettled sometimes at the lack of a specific room I can go to to be at home and shut the door on the world, how must people feel who are home-less? The number of people unable to afford a roof over their heads is on the rise, as renting rules get more and more out of hand, combined with a still struggling economy. Many families find themselves in temporary spaces and individuals find themselves on the streets. I cannot understand how having a home isn’t a basic human right. It is the bottom of the pyramid, the base on which all wellbeing is built.

And if homeless people here are feeling desperate, imagine being one of the hundreds of thousands of refugees in Europe. The people trying to scrape a life in the camps in Calais, and those waiting to hear the verdict on whether they’ll be allowed to claim refuge. The newly settled refugees in Germany, who I’m sure are hard pressed to feel like they can build a home there, knowing how much anti-refugee sentiment is present. Even the people hoping for better in Canada, where so many have offered to take refugees in, trying to find jobs and their own ways forward.

Recently I read the news that tens of thousands of Afghan refugees will be sent back to their country, in a deal between Europe and Afghanistan. They lie and say that it is safe for them to return, even though the Taliban are now controlling more territory than they have since 2001. One of the largest cities, Kunduz, has been without electricity and water for days at a time. They are not being sent home. There is nothing akin to hygge on offer there. And what of the Syrians, whose home is being bombed out of existence? If they ever get back, what will there be? It will not be the place they remember, perhaps ever again.

Even here, in England, in this affluent and apparently civilised society, I am struggling lately to feel that this country is my home. The words and actions of this past year, from citizens and especially from politicians, have made me very afraid. I would be afraid even if I hadn’t had the audacity to fall in love with someone who wasn’t born here, but the fear of being separated or forced to make a huge decision about our futures is pressing on me. Theresa May said there is no such thing as a global citizen, that if you are a global citizen then you belong nowhere. She is telling the people who live here and have done so for years, and paid for the privilege, and contributed to this society on so many levels, that still they do not belong. This is not their home.

I don’t understand. Why is it so wrong and bad to have not been born here, and to want to live here? Why do these people want to stifle our differences, and force us all to be the same? Rudd talked of the injustice for poor English people of having no job “because of immigration”. I would like her to show her working. I do not believe this can be the case for the majority. More likely that the jobs market has shrunk as investment in infrastructure and public services has been cut.

I am frightened that this country will continue to change and no longer feel like home. I am frightened that one day in the not too dim or distant future, my partner’s work visa will be one of those ‘clamped down on’. That we will have to decide whether to keep together through money and a piece of paper, supposed to be held due to love alone, or to run across the sea together, me leaving behind everywhere and everyone that have felt like home to me.

Home is a place, and a feeling, and a sense, and sometimes a person, or a set of people. If you are very lucky, you will meet someone who immediately feels like home to you. But even then, it takes effort and love and time and peace to build a home that will last. For people without all those things, and even perhaps for some of us who are not quite settled where we are, we will still know that emotional rush and ache of wanting to go home.

What is so difficult about seeing women as people?

Why is it so difficult, even for “intelligent” people, just to see women as human beings?

I’m not sure how many more articles I can bear to read about the sexual assault of women by university students, who are then given slap on the wrist, token sentences because they are ‘promising’ or they ‘showed some repentance’. How many more articles where the reporting is skewed from the very beginning against the victim. Brock Turner is the most famous case recently but there have been two more in the last two days. A man repeatedly sexually assaulted a woman at Oxford University, leaving her psychologically scarred. The Telegraph headline? ‘Highly intellligent’ Oxford University student accused of sexual assault. Note: the backlash has been so strong that they have now changed the headline to just ‘Oxford University student’ – but the tone of the article itself is horrible. It references another case from a few years ago where the male student was cleared of all charges, and quotes people saying that there was no way of knowing if people were using sexual assault allegations ‘to settle scores’. Nice and impartial at this early stage of investigation, then. A collection of students at a university in Tokyo have been convicted of sexually assaulting a woman, but given suspended sentences because they showed some signs of remorse. These men founded a group with the specific aim of getting women drunk and assaulting them. They purposefully got a woman intoxicated, forcibly undressed her, poured boiling noodles on her body, groped her, beat her, and applied a hairdryer to her genitals. One of the students justified his actions saying that female students were ‘intellectually inferior.’

But he’s been given a two-year sentence. Suspended for four years. Because maybe he said he was sorry. Do you think he apologised before or after suggesting that women are a lesser form of human being? His actions say that he believes that women are not only intellectually inferior, but so completely beneath his own level of evolution that they deserve to be treated like… like what? I would treat no animal or being on earth the way he treated that woman, and neither would most right-minded people. Why is this being swept under the carpet, again and again and again and again?

Emma Watson spoke out at the UN yesterday about the epidemic of sexual assault on university campuses. I am so grateful to her for talking about it so publicly, at a time when these cases are being reported more widely, but the sentencing is still an insult to every woman on the planet. Reporting is rare and will get rarer when those who do speak out are then not only subjected to an interrogation on their drinking and sexual habits, but also have the humiliation of seeing their attackers given token sentences, joke sentences, often because they are white, or because they can swim, or throw together an essay, or made some half-arsed apology – when they are convicted at all.

My blood boils at the injustice of all of this. People talk about the difficulties of consent and the blurred lines of intoxication but it boils down to the fact that these people do not see women as people. They are not on the same level, they are merely things. Their brains are inferior, their ideas are worthless and their bodies are there for the taking. We see the first two ideas every day in the concept now known as ‘mansplaining’. I’m sure there will be raised eyebrows at me linking sexual assault and mansplaining in the same piece, but the truth is that men mansplain to – or perhaps at – women because they fundamentally do not believe they are worth listening to. They are not worth engaging in conversation like they would with a man, because there is no way that a woman would have an idea they hadn’t already had themselves. They are inferior. Even if she’s an expert on the topic, and has quite literally written the book on it. You can feel it when you’re talking to men, that they’re not listening, they’re just nodding you along, impatiently waiting for you to stop so that they can tell you how it really is, even when they’re repeating what you’ve said, and telling you what you already know, but they don’t notice because they think their words have so much more impact than yours ever could. It’s so prevalent in business meetings that the women at the White House now have a specific policy of backing each other up in meetings: if one of them makes a point, another woman will back her up and repeat it before a man has a chance to disregard it or say it in his own words and claim the credit.

Obviously these are two very different problems. But they are both massive problems facing women, in all walks of life, every day. At universities specifically, the sexual assault statistics are terrifying (1 in 3 women in the UK are sexually assaulted at university) and of course lectures are prime spots for men taking the microphone and shouting their thoughts and oh-so-interesting and original ideas over those of their classmates. Studies have shown that women are far less likely to speak up in these situations, because they are used to being silenced and having their ideas treated as nothing. You may think that universities are hallowed places of study and intellectual debate but this is the reality for many women, that every day they are treated as something less. They have to cope with being ignored and talked over and having their needs brushed away, over and over, and perhaps if they are unlucky (but, sadly, not so very rare) their autonomy over their own body will be taken from them.

I am so glad that Emma Watson is speaking out. After the success of her #HeforShe speech at the UN two years ago, it is to be hoped that more concrete positive action will be taken not just on the campuses to try and curb sexual assault, but in the sentencing of these people to make it clear that having ‘promise’ as a student or a sportsperson will not be enough to get you out of jail. I am, however, upset that Google results for her speech are at present mostly on websites which seem to be specifically targeted at women, if the topics on the website banner are anything to go by: ‘Fashion’ and ‘Beauty’ etc. Ed Byrne also mentioned the subject on Mock the Week last week, in the section on ‘if this is the answer what is the question.’ Where the answer was ‘one year’, he said: ‘the sentence Charles Manson would have got if he’d been a promising swimmer.’ The remark drew some laughs and a lot of ‘oooohs’ from the audience – whether because they thought it was accurate or because they thought it was too much, I wasn’t sure. I am grateful to Ed Byrne too for not letting the topic of Brock Turner drop, for continuing to say, this was wrong, and we need to change it. But it’s just a comedy show, and I wish it was being shouted about in places by people who are going to do something about it.

I don’t know how we can get the people who commit these acts to start believing that women are not a highly developed breed of dog, but human beings who are the intellectual and emotional equivalent of men. I don’t know how we can convince them that we are not mere sexual beings who can be commented on, and touched, and silenced, at their leisure. I am so tired and desperate about it all today. I read stories about people doing wonderful things for each other, I read excellent books showing how brilliantly people can write about and imagine totally equal genders, and then I read an article on the Yazidi women who are being captured by Isis. Killed if they are ‘undesirable’, and sold as sex slaves if they are ‘desirable’. I read articles about smart men being accused of sexual assault, with ‘Highly intelligent’ the opening to the headline. I read about men treating women like meat, and being let off, because ‘rehabilitation was a possibility’ – I am all for a rehabilitative prison service, but there has to be a punishment too for acts like this. I see a man running for presidency of one of the most powerful countries in the world, who is also accused of sexual assault of a minor and whose comments on women make me physically sick.

I hope I can write a different kind of article about it all in a year, or a decade. I want to start reading different kinds of stories.

Car park crisis

So I was working from home this week, on a day when it was raining heavily and we had no food left. I thought, let’s take the car to Sainsbury’s at lunch! Weekday lunchtime, going to be empty, right? Right?

WRONG!

It was absolutely rammed, or jam-packed, or – as Jeremy Corbyn would say – ram-packed. The roads were full, queues into and on and off roundabouts, and an ominously full Sainsbury’s car park. I haven’t had much practise at driving and parking gives me the fear. I normally try to go for a space where I can pull in and pull all the way through so I can just drive straight out the other side. So I spotted a space like that and tried to pull in. I asked my partner for help with getting past the car on his side as my spatial awareness is not the greatest (I still have a bruise on my thigh from walking into a table in a Chinese restaurant in April). I was going to hit the car so I reversed, then started to pull in again. This time I was convinced I was going to hit the car my side, so I reversed again. Repeat x4. Then I stopped to let by a car behind me, and then – horror of horrors – the next car flashed its lights to let me get the fuck out of the way. I panicked, couldn’t work out whether to go forward, backwards, try and fit in the space, give up… in the end I decided there was no way I was going to be able to work out how the hell to get in the space so I just reversed out. At this point my partner was treated to the joy of being in a car with someone on the very edge of a panic attack – obviously something to tick off the list in every relationship.

I pulled into another space (thank GOD there was one straight in front of me I could pull into without having to steer, although I should have done a bit so that my partner could get out of his side without turning into a 6 foot 2 contortionist) and burst into tears. After a second we got out and started walking into the store, but then I burst into tears again against my partner’s jumper (who nobly ignored the fact he was being dripped on by the roof of the walkway, as well as getting sogged by my crying). We got round the shop, with him making excellent silly jokes (duelling with bread batons, anyone?) and me trying not to cry or vomit, and both of us trying to avoid the ENDLESS bloody people who wandered into our paths, stopped in the middle of aisles, and walked into us even when we were stationary.

Of course, for better or worse we also had to drive home. In hindsight, this was probably for the best – getting back on the horse and all that. Thankfully Sainsbury’s is only thirty seconds from the flat so I made it back without any further crises. Got home, unpacked the bags and… burst into tears again. Although the “danger” had long since passed, panic attacks are odd in that the emotions will just keep rolling, rolling, rolling until you get to a quiet safe space where you can let it all out. Of course, tea is also essential and provided excellent comfort.

So, lesson learned. NEVER go to Sainsbury’s on a Friday lunchtime when it’s pissing it down with rain.

Struggles of a Feminist: how to observe women’s bodies

I went to see a French Canadian circus the other week called Barbu. There were six acrobats, four men and two women. The men all had impressive beards, which played their part in one of the first acts as they roller-skated in a circle all holding onto each other’s beards. They started the show fully dressed, in hipster steampunk style clothing of fawn shirts and trousers, with cloth wrapped around their waists in an interesting imitation of half an old-fashioned corset. One of the women was also part of a roller-skating act at the beginning, dressed in a top and a little skirt. As she spun horizontally, only attached to a man on roller skates by a strap around her neck (wow) her skirt inevitably flew up showing modest black underwear. When she was back on her feet, the man made a show of pulling her skirt back into position for her with a flick. The second woman was dressed in stockings and suspenders, and a vest in an approximation of a corset – but not a corset, as that wouldn’t have given her the flexibility to do the extraordinary things she did, weaving her body in and out of a large ring suspended six feet above the floor.

The differences in the male and female outfits gave me the familiar feminist rage of wishing that women didn’t always have to showcase their bodies even while doing something that required such elaborate skill and training. These differences can also be seen now at the Olympics, with men and women competing in the same sport given quite different outfits to wear. I’m sure that many of the decisions behind these outfits come from the women themselves, wearing things that make them feel able to do their jobs to the best of their ability. But I still wonder why most women playing tennis continue to wear little skirts when shorts would have the benefit of not flying up all the time. Or why female track athletes are often exposing their midriffs when their male counterparts aren’t. And, most famously, why female beach volleyball players are more or less in bikinis when the men are in shorts and t-shirts. Apparently the women are no longer required to wear these bikinis, but the fact that they were once is ridiculous, and unfortunately has led to a view for some of female beach volleyball being more soft porn than it is sport. I myself struggle to get past this idea, and to sit and watch them play without imagining the guffawing objectifying language I’ve heard thrown at the players in the past. ***Update: I watched the men’s Olympic diving last night, so I now feel I need to add a bit about their outfits. Were they always that tiny? On some men they literally barely covered the tops of their buttocks. I’m sure it’s for streamlining but I actually found it very disconcerting. It doesn’t affect my point in this blog, but I did want to acknowledge that the men are also sometimes in teeny tiny outfits!***

This circus and now the Olympics is making me ask a lot of questions of the way I view female bodies. I was good and ready in my irritation at this circus for having only the women semi-dressed – but then the men came out in only their underwear. What was I supposed to think now?! I could no longer be righteously feminist-ly annoyed, I had to acknowledge that there appeared to be equality here. I did still notice differences in the way the men and the women were presented, and how they held themselves. The women, who were also now in plain black crop tops and shorts underwear, acted quite differently; one woman was confident but quietly so, while the other was aggressively sexual, strutting and staring out at the crowd and, for me, feeling quite confrontational. It felt like she was looking at all the straight men in the audience, daring them to want her, and at the same time looking at all the straight women (particularly those there with a straight man) and saying well your bloke is looking at me and wanting me right now, and there’s nothing you can do about it. The men, by contrast, were quite playful in their nudity. There were some homoerotic jokes, and a man came on to do his act wearing a large disco ball round his body, covering from the tops of his thighs to just below his arms. On a woman I think it would have been titillating, just covering her breasts and arse and suggesting there was nothing underneath, but on the man it was mostly comical.

Watching them all and noticing my reactions, I began to feel quite uncomfortable. Some of it was plain old-fashioned jealousy, not wanting my partner to be sitting next to me and lusting after women on a stage. But then, you may ask, didn’t I find the men attractive? Wasn’t I lusting after them a little? Honestly: not really. They were fine male specimens, but they were just male bodies. I was detached from them and sitting in a crowded public space, sitting next to someone I loved: I felt no particular need or urge to find them attractive or to think about it much one way or the other. I wondered to myself if that’s the way my partner felt as well, and I struggled to believe it could be so. And I realised that I couldn’t see the women in the same way: their bodies for me were bound up with too many other thoughts and other ideas, and I couldn’t see them as non-sexual beings. Not in the sense that I wanted to sleep with them myself – this blog isn’t me not so subtly coming out as a lesbian – but because I kept seeing them as direct competition to myself. And I realised that this is a huge problem.

I have found something very similar with the Olympics. While I can watch the men play and appreciate their form and see that yes, they are attractive, it gives me no pause for thought at all. I am far more interested in what they can do and how skilled they are at whatever sport they are participating in. But with the women, I struggle. I judge. I compare. I frequently feel wanting. I feel the urge to make comments on their prettiness, how much make-up they are wearing; I assess the size of different parts of their bodies and how well-balanced they are. I am very envious of their power and strength, but at the same time I feel slightly relieved if I don’t see them as being objectively sexually attractive. I hate myself for this because I know it is entirely irrelevant, and something that these women themselves are probably worried about people thinking and I don’t want to be somebody else adding to that. Most of them are very attractive, in their looks and their bodies and their abilities, and then I hate myself again for feeling worn down and a little sad after watching some Olympic events. I’ll sit next to my partner and fret about whether he is judging me against what he’s seeing on the screen. I find myself seeking reassurance and getting needy and being a bit of a pain in the ass.

I also realised when I was watching the circus that I will downplay the women’s abilities, just as so many people do to women, often without even realising it. The woman was spinning in the air hanging on a hoop with her ankle casually by her ear and I found myself thinking, well that’s not that difficult. OF COURSE IT FUCKING IS. But I felt angry and threatened by her because she was wearing stocking and suspenders and I couldn’t disconnect my admiration of her performance from thinking that men would be watching her and wanting her. It is toxic, this feeling of needing to be admired and approved of to the extent that if another woman at that moment is being looked at with awe and, perhaps, some desire, that that automatically lessens our own attractiveness and our own worth. This is particularly true of situations when your partner might be the one looking at someone else, but I can remember instances of it being true even when the men weren’t even people I would want to sleep with. There was a boy at school when I was about 17 who was a friend of a friend of mine. He was a bit strange and he frequently made me uncomfortable with various remarks. I had absolutely no desire to be with him at all. But he had a habit of putting his hands up our jumpers at the back to warm them when it was cold, and I would feel jealous if he always did it to my friends and not to me. Even though I simultaneously hated him doing it to me because his hands were fucking cold and he freaked me out more than a little bit. What the hell was that? Why did I feel that competition even with someone I wasn’t interested in?

Happily I think it’s something I’ve grown out of to some extent. But I still see it in this need to be always found attractive, and not just attractive but the MOST attractive. Which is understandable to some extent but it’s also pretty ridiculous. It’s impossible to go through life only finding one person attractive all the time, and it doesn’t have to be threatening if your partner looks at someone on a stage or on a screen and thinks they’re beautiful. It doesn’t even have to be threatening if they’re someone who they know personally. Obviously there are lines here and if your partner finds other people so attractive that they can’t help themselves sleeping with them, then that’s a whole different story. But all I’m talking about is looking at a person and thinking they are nice to look at. We all do it and I hate that I feel this competitive, insecure, poisonous feeling when I judge myself against someone and feel less attractive and crap as a result.

So I am trying to work on seeing women’s bodies as just that, bodies, there to do a job and achieve some incredible things and not just something for people to have sex with. Of course, I’ve had a lot of help seeing women’s bodies this way, from all advertising and many films and music videos, and everywhere else that women are presented as props, sexual props, without personalities and voices and abilities beyond being sexual. I just didn’t realise how much I had internalised it myself, with other women. And that makes me really wonder about how I look at myself. I know that I am not always happy with my figure because it doesn’t balance out the way that the women’s bodies do on the posters – if I want a proper hourglass, I need a padded bra (and SO WHAT) – but I never thought so baldly about how that was connected to me thinking of myself as just a sexual being. Just a thing for people to have sex with. Which is crazy, when you think about it, because the majority of my time is and always will be spent not having sex. So why should I have to be judging myself on that all the time? On being attractive and being found attractive and on looking as close to the women in advertising and on the screen as possible?

So I am fighting it. I wrote recently about getting more into sport. God damn it’s hard to keep up when you work full-time, commute two hours a day and often sleep poorly but I started again this morning after a week or so off, and I will push harder to continue it as it makes such a difference to my mood. Feeling the strength in your body is so much fun. I’ve had a recurrent dream since I was young about being powerless – physically powerless; I’ll try to punch someone who has made me angry or who is threatening me in the dream and there will be no strength in my arm. I try but I make no impact. I feel like that can carry over into my day sometimes, and exercising and feeling the power running through my muscles makes me feel more powerful in other areas too. Power: the ability to act or produce an effect. It’s what is often denied to women in all kinds of public spaces; they are without agency and without power, unable to produce an effect except to make men want to possess their bodies. I am going to try very hard to uncouple my automatic thoughts of viewing women in this way, as competition, and to see them as more, to see them as what they are: powerful and strong and not trying to be a threat to me. They’re just human bodies, just women, not a yardstick I need to measure myself against.

I would like to thank the Guilty Feminist podcast and my fellow Guilty Feminists on the facebook page for helping me to think through these things, to see them for what they are and also to write this blog explaining how much this affects me, when as a feminist I shouldn’t be thinking these things (although I will try not to beat myself up about it if I do, because society has taught me to think this way). If you haven’t yet listened to the Guilty Feminist, you absolutely should. It’s hilarious, thought-provoking and marvellous. And the facebook page is one of the best things on the internet.