Friday, 6 January 2012

Another idiotically long post; or, Oh no, what happened to my editing facility?

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:

6 Dec 1 06-01-2012 13-23-35

6 Dec 2 06-01-2012 13-24-02

6 Dec 3 06-01-2012 13-25-05

6 Dec 5 06-01-2012 13-25-56

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:

6 Dec 15 06-01-2012 13-22-11

Up goes the tail:

6 Dec 17 06-01-2012 13-23-45

Sniff, sniff, sniff, eh Mr Gibbon?:

6 Dec 18 06-01-2012 13-24-35


6 Dec 19 06-01-2012 13-32-39

And, by the way, I am bringing in this unfeasibly big stick:

6 Dec 19 06-01-2012 13-35-36

You want me to pose with my Grace Kelly face on? Oh, all right:

6 Dec 20 06-01-2012 13-33-21

Close-up of the hill, with its dusting of snow, from a slightly different angle than usual:

6 Dec 21 06-01-2012 13-24-24

Have a happy Friday.


  1. My father is lovely in many ways (although rather infuriating...) but this is his great blind spot, the female-patronising thing. Recent examples, off the top of my head: 'Oh, but you're so logical for a lady, dear', 'Darling, can I just say you've driven wonderfully today' (to me, holder of clean driving licence for 22 years), a conviction that all women (and only women) are addicted to chocolate etc etc. I guess I forgive him because I believe it to be an age thing - but couldn't forgive the same thing in a younger man at all. In fact, I've developed a special 'I strongly advise you to consider whether you really want to continue in this vein' look for just such purposes!

    Thank you Tania - another fantastic post!

  2. Samantha - so logical for a lady, dear is HYSTERICAL. I think we have to laugh with the old fellas. (Or we would spend our whole time crying.) Would love to see your special do you really want to continue look. :)

  3. Hi! I'm new to your 'circle' of Dear Readers, but have been sitting quietly in the back for a wee while now, enjoying the discussion. Just wanted to say today, thank you for such a great post, and please don't apologise for the seriousness! The irony is much enjoyed, certainly (as are the beautiful photos and the lovely Pigeon), but it's also lovely read posts as emotively charged and thoughtful as are yours.

    Ah, those small social encounters which alert us to the fact that All Is Not Yet Equal. I'm a young, blonde female academic and have to keep reminding myself to be amused rather than offended when older male colleagues look surprised to find I might have had a good idea (or have generally performed competently!). Until those looks stop (and will they?) our feminist fight can't be considered done, can it?

    I do feel eternally grateful though, that I don't have to endure prejudice more blatant or aggressive than this - and I share your anger that other people do experience it for no more reason than the colour of their skin. How DARE people be so revolting?!

  4. Toasty - A huge welcome. It really is oddly exciting to me when new readers introduce themselves. I so agree about the looks. The blonde thing also fascinates me. I am naturally blonde, used to be ferociously, artificially blonder, and then, one day, dyed my hair red because I could not take the blonde assumptions any more. It was, rather bizarrely, a political rather than an aesthetic act. My dear old mum still rues the day, and is always trying to make me change it back. :)

  5. Ah, good on you! Red is a bold statement! I'm still stuck in the stubborn 'damn you, you'll take me as I am and respect me' stage of blondedom. Also not sure I'm brave enough to change it either - so much of my identity feels wrapped up in that hair colour (which does feel rather silly, really). Bloody Hitchcock (et al.) casting blondes forever in the light of weepy, hysterical victims. Thank goodness for Buffy...

  6. Ahhhhhhhh....

    Bitch used to be THE word which stopped me in my tracks. Even my mother would get in on that game: "If you weren't such a bitch, if you only knew when to keep your mouth shut," such and such would not have happened... I finally cottoned on that, in many people's minds, bitch equaled being outspoken and opinionated.
    And then I started reclaiming the word (a la as seen much later in The Vagina Monologues).
    So, one sister, also beaten down by bitch accusations (and also a very feisty, independent woman) was sent the T-shirt: "If you think I'm a bitch, you should meet my mother,"
    And my daughter and I both have the badge: "I'm not a bitch, I am THE bitch and it's Ms. Bitch to you."

    Just over Christmas, two close female friends, daughter and I thought about starting a TV cooking show "Kitchen Bitches" (inspired by the friction between daughter & myself as we prepared a huge feast).

    The word has certainly lost power in one place and -- happily -- gained it in another.

    PS Pigeon on the wall. Wonderful!

  7. Toasty - owning identity, through hair colour or anything else is, I think, a Good Thing. When I am old, I am planning identity through hats.

    Pat - oh yes, the bitch thing. I also get oddly upset about cow, as in stroppy cow. Although I like bitch as a verb, as in to bitch about, and do not think it specifically female in that context. But I love the idea of reclaiming. Ms Bitch to you is SPLENDID.

  8. The sight of a happy dog with a too-big stick is a tonic, Tania. Think the real legacy of feminism is that an entire generation of women has grown up not even questioning whether we are 'as good as' men - it's just second nature that we are, and this is the sure knowledge we pass on to our daughters. Have always taken a similar stance to you of mild amusement when faced with mysogyny (and there has been plenty - as an ingenuous undergrad, working and living in the ME). If those blinded by prejudice are unable to see past blonde/boobs/bitch more fool them. And yes, hats, purple, bring it on.

  9. Kate - love the thought of the passing on of that knowledge to the daughters. So glad you enjoyed the dog with her mad log. :)

  10. Two serious posts. Not a bad thing ~ look at the discussion you started. It's not, I suspect, that we are all so into 'serious'; it's that you express so well what we are all thinking.

    What confounds me these days is that people seem suddenly to think that it's just fine to bleat their prejudices around for everyone to hear. They can't even be politically correct enough to give their children an opportunity to learn better. Is no one capable of putting him/herself into another's shoes? Does no one ever think of how it must feel to be disciminated against?

    I'm not young. Dammit, I'm old (but I prefer 'timeless' because the older I get, the better I feel, except when running five furlongs). I had so hoped that as my generation, which came of age just after Civil Rights and smack in the middle of feminism, got older, we would see more tolerance and respect. There may be more, but there is not enough. Alas.

    Sorry. Got on a rant of my own. Thank you, as usual, for your well-phrased thoughts.

    PS Yes, I know, all dogs are created equal. But a certain black one is first among equals.

  11. Bird - yes, the putting of yourself in someone else's shoes is so vital, I think. And thank you so much for kind Pigeon words; it's the thing which gives me almost the most pleasure. :)

  12. Thank you for another fabulous post.

  13. Mystica - you are always so kind. Thank you. :)

  14. Tania, you are so kind. And fierce!

    I hoped I didn't sound all 'poor me' when I commented yesterday. It really is just, as you say, horrible to be thought of as less simply for the colour of your skin. Or because you are a woman or any other wonderful human condition!

    Being judged for not having children infuriates me. You're bringing a life into the world; not something to be taken lightly and I really admire your choice.

    Most importantly, the Grace Kelly of dogs is BEAUTIFUL. xx

    I think you are such a redhead - it suits you physically and mentally.:)

  15. Dearest Em - you were so NOT poor me. That, in a way, was what made me most outraged on your behalf. It's such an odd process, this blogging lark. But in some ways, this small space feels like family. And nobody gets to be mean to my family and get away with it. From your very own fierce Redhead. :)

  16. Oh the Pigeon with the huge stick. Nothing could be nicer than to see your lovely girl looking so proud of her prize!

    Re hats: is the Red Hat Society a thing in the UK? Hordes of ladies in the US, particularly in the more elegant Southern cities (I think, but am not sure! Northerners, any input?) gather for brunch in vast and swoopy red hats, which they wear with purple clothes. It is such A Thing that they make special items for them to purchase, which makes me a bit moody but ah well, I'm glad it exists on the whole. My first experience of them was a group having tea in Mobile, AL. Fabulous.

    I have loved your latest posts. And the red hair suits you so well that I thought it was what you were born with, which just goes to show... something.


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