Posted by Tania Kindersley.
Now it’s personal. Yesterday was all very intellectual and theoretical. (I use the word intellectual not to sound like a swanky show-off, but in its strict sense of: the faculty of thinking, as opposed to feeling.) The Dear Readers rose to it magnificently, and left illuminating and thoughtful comments. I read them with acute pleasure.
But then, one of the most loyal of the Readers said, rather diffidently, that she had encountered prejudice because of her skin colour. And this is where it got strange. This is a blog, after all, not The Four Last Things. It is a small enterprise. In it, I encounter people I have never met, shall never meet, from all around the world. Perhaps because of its smallness, it has become a tight little community. I really look forward to hearing from the Readers I have come to know. I even know a little about their lives: one has just had a baby, one has got a new dog, one is going through a painful separation. So when I thought of my Dear Reader encountering bigotry, I went from brain to viscera in ten seconds. You fuckers, I thought. LEAVE THE READERS ALONE.
And here is the thing I did not say. This division of people into coloured camps is, as I described yesterday, pointless and useless. But it is also horrible. One can intellectualise it until every last cow comes home, but in real life it causes pain. Why would you want to do that? I always think of the death bed. I use it not as a morbid thing, but as a tool of perspective. My favourite riff at the moment is my little anti-diet tap dance. Oh, I say, when you are lying on your death bed, will you really think, well, thank God I never ate any carbohydrates?
When I heard about the Reader, and felt so furious, I thought, of the prejudiced: will they lie on their death beds, and think, thank God I was rude about people of a different colour? Will they congratulate themselves on a life that included thinking dark thoughts about people from Asia, or Latinos, or Jews, or whichever group they have marked as other? Will Rick Santorum look back over his allotted span and think: yeah, I really socked it to the poofs? (Probably not, since I don’t think poof is a word in the American demotic.)
Life is so damn short. I think of my dad every day, and his death reminds me, in the most immediate terms, that life flies by, and is gone. I don’t want to sound like Doris Day, but really, why would anyone want to fill it with hating, and on such ephemeral and nonsensical grounds?
Ah, that’s better. Just had to get that off my chest.
I went for a walk with The Pigeon, and calmed down a bit. I started to think about my own encounters with prejudice. I am a white, middle-class female, so they haven’t been that many. But I am a woman, and, as everyone knows, we pink fluffy ladies sometimes get put in our own box, on account of the fact we have ovaries.
This works on two levels. There is the general. There are all the assumptions floating about in the zeitgeist, like little particles of wrongness. Even now, in the glittering 21st century, there is still a humming idea that what women are really good for is home and babies. Oh, and shoes, of course. We are all obsessed with shoes. Women will never rule the world, because our hormonal overload leads us to inexplicable mood swings. What if a nuclear crisis blew up when the Lady President had a bad case of PMT?
What fascinates me is that old prejudices still die hard, even in the face of empirical evidence. Take the women can’t drive meme. (If you live in Saudi Arabia, this is actually mandated by law, because the state is taking no chances.) If you look at the accident statistics, they are overwhelmingly dominated by young men. Insurance companies even used to give women lower rates, until some European court said that was sexist, and stopped it. Yet the notion that you have to have a penis to manoeuvre a car still persists.
Even such a brilliant and radical thinker as the late Christopher Hitchens once wrote a whole article about the ‘fact’ that women have no sense of humour. I don’t know if he was joking (he seemed deadly serious), or whether he had just drunk too much whisky that day, or whether he had had a fight with his wife, but the very fact that he could write such a thing, and that Vanity Fair could publish it with a straight face, is a terrible marker of how far we still have to go.
Then there is the personal. When I was at university, my moral tutor used to have me in for regular meetings, to make sure I was all right. It was a rather touching part of the system. Moral tutor did not mean he was checking my ethical levels, but simply looking after me; raising the eyes from the academic work for a moment, and measuring the ordinary life. He always used to ask whether I was having any trouble on account of being a girl. My college had only recently admitted women, and he was keenly aware of the old school dying hard. He seemed rather to long for horror stories, so he could go into battle, and always looked rather disappointed when I said no.
Over the road, at Oriel, they had their very first intake of women, against gnarled opposition from the old guard. The joke went about that they had only admitted Amazons, because if they had to have the monstrous regiment, they might as well get some rowing medals out of it. I don’t know if this was true, but I do remember Oriel women dominating the river that summer.
In my college, I detected no trace of resentment. I had lovely Dr Stuart, who called me Miss K and laughed at my jokes, and liked that I wrote my essays in coloured inks. I had a very grave Anglo-Saxon scholar, who mostly listened to Mahler. I had brilliant Dr Haigh, who cared about nothing except what I thought of the Tudors.
Even though I was already a feminist, I think I was a little spoilt by this. It did not occur to me that there might be things I could not do because I was female. That was all in the past. It was the eighties; we were post-Thatcher; women could do anything. It took me a while, out in the world, to catch the whiff of walls closing in and drawbridges being pulled up.
It was very subtle. It was that men, especially older ones, would be surprised if I spoke of serious things. They would look amazed if I knew about Turgenev, or the ERM, or the intricacies of the American political system. I think it did not help that I was running around at that stage with short peroxide hair; they took the blondeness as a flag for idiocy. Once I caught on, I rather liked playing a little game with them. I would let them make their assumptions; I would allow them to get into their stride. Then I would drop something about Oxford into the conversation and watch their frontal cortexes implode.
This was not nasty prejudice; no one has ever called me names. It was just an old, subliminal idea that women are somehow less than. It was the assumption that we are weaker, sillier, less informed, less capable than the male. Luckily, I am very cussed; it did not beat me down, but made me grit my teeth even more. Because I have been self-employed for the last twenty years, I never got the office prejudice. My friend S tells war stories of meetings where she said something, and everyone ignored it. Then a man would say the exact same thing and everyone would say, oh, yes, that’s a brilliant idea. My other friend S was once asked what she did. She said she was a wife and mother. The man she was talking to turned on his heel and walked away. (Sorry about too many italics, but really.)
My worst one is the breeding thing. I don’t want children; never have. To me, it is a perfectly ordinary decision, like knowing you don’t want to be concert pianist, or a welder, because that is not your talent. To others, with their ovary assumptions, it is a radical tear in the space time continuum. It is an inversion of the natural order. A gentleman actually once said to me: ‘You have a womb, you have to use it.’ I have had all the old tropes: ‘you’ll change your mind when you meet the right man’, and variations on that theme. It used to drive me to despair. I hated being seen as a freak. Now I am old and ornery. I think: everyone can just bugger off.
Still, my small experience is a mild one. No one has bashed me, or called me a bitch, or refused to promote me because I have lady parts. But there is a strange thing about being part of a group that is routinely derided. I have always taken the feminist idea of the sisterhood very personally. I think of John Donne, and believe that no woman is an island. When you disdain my sisters, you disdain me. I think this may fall into the category of: things which are slightly nuts, but incontrovertibly true.
Oh dear, I have now been deadly serious for two days in a row. This will not do at all. It is not the British Way. Tomorrow, I shall make ironical observations about the dog and the pig, and all manner of things shall be well.
And now for the pictures of the day.
It was a gloomy, murky sort of day, so I didn't take that many of the trees and hills:
Instead, I decided on a Pigeon photo essay. The pictures themselves are not that good, rather blurry and ill-composed. But they struck me as funny and sweet, and just the ticket on a gloomy Friday.
This is how she gallops off, when we go out. She canters this way and that, filled with eagerness, determined to sniff out mice and moles and voles:
Up goes the tail:
Sniff, sniff, sniff, eh Mr Gibbon?:
I'M ON THE WALL. I'M ON THE WALL:
And, by the way, I am bringing in this unfeasibly big stick:
You want me to pose with my Grace Kelly face on? Oh, all right:
Close-up of the hill, with its dusting of snow, from a slightly different angle than usual:
Have a happy Friday.