Tag Archives: family

In Defence of Masculinity

When I was studying for my degree I discovered that gender is a social construct made up by an oppressive society to keep women in the kitchen, men out of high heels and everyone spending all their money on hob covers, fake eyelashes and customised number plates in order to feed the ravenous maw of the Grand Demon Capitalism.

I explored gender politics and learned how Patriarchal it is to assume we can label anyone as masculine or feminine based on their genitalia, and that the sin of ascribing a person any characteristics according to their gender is akin to nailing him/her to a board and hitting him/her in the brain with a Barbie until he/she begs for a boob job / off road vehicle / [insert gender-based consumable].

restroomI’m being a bit facetious really, because I do believe that a lot of our gender ideas are at least partially socially constructed, and that a significant proportion of humanity doesn’t fit neatly into these constructions . I’m not the type of female human, for example, who faints at the sight of a flat tyre or is comfortable with devoting all my life to worrying about nail polish and/or breeding, and most of my male friends don’t demonstrate the visible testosterone overload that currently seems de rigeur for the male population either.

So I’m only too aware what cans of worms – nay, buckets of snakes – I’m opening in the hideous raging world of online gender politics when I say we need to bring back masculinity – or maleness.

I know. I understand what a stupid thing that is to say. I know that in intellectual circles there is no such thing. And in one piece of my brain I agree – it’s too loose and tautologous a term to mean anything real and fixed. But in another strongly embedded piece of my brain – the piece that was once a child with a good dad living around kids with other good (or good enough) dads – maleness is a very real thing. A good thing. A thing that we need to look at again because it’s not that idea of masculinity most often presented in the media – the one that gets itself into fights, is attracted to everything with an orifice for penetrating, or is, on the other hand, too stupid to clean a bathroom. It’s a gentler, quieter and stronger thing. A thing we could all do with learning, regardless of our biological proclivities.

Being a self-identified woman (ha), I hear a lot of the things that women say about men. When I was a traveller, for example, women often used to huddle together discussing their male partners. One had a man who perpetually went out all day with other women leaving her behind to look after their child on her own with no transport, electricity, toilet, running water or firewood to stoke up the range, and then demanded food when he got home. Another had a man who tipped up the bed and threw her on the floor when she didn’t want sex with him – another had one who punched her – another, one who was always drunk – another had a man who wouldn’t let her go on nights out without him. You get the picture. You can understand why women in a community like that could fervently believe that men are shit. They saw no evidence to the contrary.

But the thing is – the travelling world we inhabited was basically a re-enactment of medieval times but with trucks instead of horses. It valued qualities such as: wearing torn up clothes, never washing, drinking all day, taking drugs, burning things and playing with vehicles. That world inevitably attracts a certain type of male, and that type of male is not likely to be the intellectual, contemplative, constructive type.

The same applies to women who hang around with men who aspire to be gangsta or various other macho cliche types. It’s not logical for them to extrapolate data about all men from the samples they are subjected to. Some men are idiots, yes, and they treat women horribly. But what we often fail to remember is that some women are idiots too. Actually, quite an embarrassing number of seemingly perfectly reasonable women hold unexamined idiot opinions about men, and they treat men horribly without even realising they’re doing it. I gave an example of the kind of everyday things women ‘think’ about men here, and I see this all the time. Women at work, for example, drink out of mugs that proclaim:

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And we are all familiar with the ‘men are stupid’ propaganda that’s being pumped out everywhere in a massive strawmanathon by advertisers trying to appeal to the egos of women by implying we’re all married to giant children.
men are stupidI do think this unreasonable shit is some kind of backlash by women who feel they’ve been represented as useless, brainless breeding machines for generations, and is perpetuated by men who feel some kind of ancestral guilt about this. And in that sense, I think it’s a passing phase that will right itself, but  it’s still negative. What kind of message is this sending to our impressionable trainee humans? My son attended an English A Level class where young girls who had experienced very little sexism compared to their mothers and grandmothers were being politicised through the literature of the past to see sexism under every present-day stone. Son had never had a sexist thought in his life until he hit theoretical Feminism head-on at college, and found it infuriatingly simplistic coming from its fresh-faced teenage proponents. They argued, for example, the 70s Feminism idea that pregnancy was a form of oppression. What was a young man to make of that? Now he is vigorously anti-Feminist, which on some level upsets me.

And these kinds of ideas are creating a generation of women who seem to think men owe them some sort of debt for the sins of Patriarchy. Women who believe they are so very precious for just owning a vagina that they can behave however they like and men have to put up with them. You will all have seen this monstrosity floating around Facebook on the pages of apparently perfectly lovely women who seem to think it’s cute and appealing, rather than what it actually is: slightly psychopathic.

marilynNo, women. NO. How can you complain about men being nothing more than big children and then proclaim crap like this? This is not the opinion of an adult human – it’s the tantrum of a two-year-old with Narcissistic Personality Disorder. It isn’t the job of the man in your life to ‘handle’ you, or yours to ‘handle’ him. It’s the job of all adult humans to handle ourselves – to overcome the stroppy toddler within and nurture the latent rational grown-up. Grown ups want to be loved because they are interesting, entertaining and good company, not because they’ll shriek and throw a frying pan if you don’t bring them flowers.

And here’s the thing I think needs to be freshly recognised about maleness – maleness of the kind that isn’t caught up in ‘gangsta’ or macho or other kinds of bullshit – ordinary everyday maleness – it’s an astonishing thing. It unassumingly does put up with those kinds of feminine histrionics (even though it shouldn’t have to), and it quietly deals with all kinds of other things that would probably make me and other lesser mortals rail against the universe.

Maleness at its best can be the unacknowledged backbone of a family. The lucky among us have dads or grandads, brothers or uncles who model this type of maleness. Men who go to work every single day, sometimes in jobs they hate, never showing frustration because they so firmly want to support their families, and are still fully involved in life at home. Men who are radioactively proud of their children but can only show it in their deeds because they’ve been conditioned not to be openly emotional. Men who drop everything to mend the washing machine or laptop or to put up shelves or build furniture they have no personal interest in. Men such as my friend’s grandad who loved his wife so much that he overlooked her affairs and devoted himself to keeping their life stable for when she needed him emotionally. Men who are not always the life and soul of the party but stand back in contentment as their loved ones sparkle and achieve because they have been given the solid foundations they need. Men such as my friend who stayed with a violent alcoholic woman he didn’t love because he wanted to protect her (not his) children and give them a bit of stability they wouldn’t have if he left. When you step outside the world of macho idiots, you find this kind of man quietly and unassumingly getting on with life, and asking for little in return apart from a happy family and a partner who loves him.

Men like these are the ones who teach their daughters to value themselves for what they are and do, not for how they look, and show them what to look for in a life partner. Men like these produce sons like themselves, with the capacity for loyalty and strength, and show their daughters that they don’t have to settle for an idiot who will mistreat them.

‘Masculinity’ may be an outdated/mythological notion, but if I was going to define it anyway, this is how I would do it. As an academic I might mock my intellectual naivety, but as a human I think these men are bloody heroes and should be celebrated.

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My grandmother’s drawings

I’ve been blitzing the house today. My kitchen is so clean I’m scared to go in it and I’ve filled a box big enough to sleep in with recycling from the spare room.

This afternoon I started tackling the bookshelves and piles of paper and crap that surround them and became absorbed in… well…. everything: academic books from perspectives that now irritate me, brochures for holidays we could never even conceive of affording, pretentious poetry books I forgot I had, spouse’s slightly alarming political books, science books I keep not quite getting round to reading… and that sort of thing. I also found some more personal things: a purple flowery book of drawings and stories I wrote when I was small, a collection of significant poems I collected when I was a teenager, and a black hardback book of my grandmother’s drawings.

Looking through them reminded me vividly of her living room. It was painted a light coffee colour and featured paintings that her mother had done; a harbour scene of a jetty surrounded by red wooden houses, and my favourite – a representation of my great-grandmother’s weaving room with a floor-length blue patterned curtain swept aside to reveal shelves of yarn and weaving equipment. There was an old oak settle with a cushion that she had woven the cover for, and a massive extra cushion with a really itchy also-home-woven green cover. Inside the settle were all her Christmas things – wooden stars, hearts and goats, little Father Christmasses made by my Auntie Helen, electric candles, a plain white wooden angel with wispy hair like a little old lady and a candle holder in the shape of a lady with a wooden dress and a round nose.

My grandmother must have learned to weave from her mother and she did try to teach me, but I was far too teenage to take it on board. I regret that now she’s gone, of course. And I felt that very strongly when I visited Golant church this year where her woven cushion covers are still in use on the pews many decades after she made them.

My grandmother's weaving
My grandmother’s weaving

There were two cupboards in my grandmother’s living room on either side of the fireplace. One was next to her chair and contained her braid-weaving equipment and the other contained drawing books and a huge (or it seemed huge to me when I was small) tin of felt tips. I loved that tin of felt tips. It was made by Caran d’ache and what was splendid about it was that it didn’t seem to be made for children. My grandmother was the only grown up I knew who used felt tips, and these ones were in a tin instead of a rubbish plastic folder. Each one had a special niche so you could arrange them neatly by colour, they felt nice when you rolled your hand up and down them and the tin made a satisfying gentle click when you opened or closed it. They were so POSH.

And it was these very felt tips she’s used for her sketches in the book I found today. If you’ve ever coloured in with felt tips you’ll know that they can be quite a blunt instrument, so I find it interesting that she chose to use them instead of pencils or paint, but I suspect some of these drawings are ideas for weaving and the felt tip might be more precise – appropriate for the precision of designs for the loom.

These last two pictures are more meaningful to me than all the rest. When my brother and I were little, we used to find those little flat, green bugs (I now know they’re called Shield Bugs) really cute. My grandmother called them, for reasons I still don’t know (is it Swedish?) ‘Fifs’, and she told us stories about the Fif family and their children, Fif, Fifalina and Fifalotta. In the book there are two drawings that can only be of the Fif family. Here they are.

fifs 2 fifsOne excellent thing about having creative relatives is that you have something left of them when they’re gone. I have prints and drawings by my spouse, one painting by my mother and one by my dad’s cousin, some of my grandmother’s weaving and other paintings by my aunt and my great grandmother, and also this book of sketches. My creativity is largely digital, though, so I wonder if I’ll have anything physical to hand over to my sons when I’ve kicked the bucket.

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Fiddling while we burn

I depressed myself a bit with my last doom-mongering post, and spent the morning wandering round imagining the world of Idiocracy is just around the corner.

idiocracy

Then I spent the afternoon feeling ashamed of myself for being such a terrible snob. As xkcd points out in this cartoon:

idiocracy 2So, as usual I overthought the whole thing and got myself into a state of not-knowing-what-I-think. Which is sometimes a bit depressing. Then I started to sort out a few files and came across something that cheered me up. A Word document where I’d started making notes of family conversations that made me laugh. I’d forgotten about it. But here’s what I’ve collected so far:

1.

Me: … you know I’m right
Spouse: Yes. That’s why I’m ignoring you.
Spouse: (writes in small notebook) Wife is getting more annoying by the day. Must poison her soon.

2.

Son 2: I didn’t get the grades I needed.
Me: Oh, what did you get?
Son 2: three Bs, but I phoned up the university and made the history lecturer laugh and he said I’d got in anyway.
Me: Oh good.
Son 2: Buy me things.
Me: No, your reward is your own glory.
Son 2: I have enough glory already. When I walk through the streets, admirers attach themselves to my underbelly.

3.

Spouse (sweeping): “I’ve gathered all the dust in one place. Would you like to see it?”

4.

Spouse: We’ve made quite a lot on eBay this month.
Me: That’s good.
Spouse: If we took some nude photos of you and put them up we’d make loads of money
Me: I think you slightly overestimate my marketability
Spouse: No – LOADS of people like pictures of freaks.

5.

Spouse: “I woke up from a snooze earlier, wandered into the kitchen, lifted the lid of the bin, whipped my willy out and thought, “oh, this is the bin.” Then I checked to see if anyone was looking and went into the toilet.”

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It doesn’t matter if intelligent civilisation is on the decline. I’m laughing all the way to the bottom.

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Weekly Photo Challenge: Home

Being my mother’s daughter, aesthetics has always been a big thing for me in terms of home. My mum never feels completely at home in her dwelling place unless she has made it look and feel the way she wants it to. She lives in a lovely Cornish cottage with wobbly cob walls and beams, but her aesthetic is essentially Scandinavian (which makes sense because she is Swedish), and she had been unhappy with her small, dark kitchen for decades – unhappy to the point of wanting to leave the house. But last year, she and dad had an extension built with a new kitchen that fits her need for light and clean lines and now she is incredibly happy in her home. Here’s a picture of it when it was just finished:

parent kitchenAlthough my aesthetic is a more cluttered one than my mum’s, it has always affected how contented I have felt in my dwellings to the point that, even when I have lived in squats, caravans and benders with almost no money at all, I have tried to find ways to make them please my eye, or at least feel like they belong to me in some way.

In the squatting and travelling world most people had next to no money, and all our furniture and possessions were found in skips or given to us or bought from jumble sales, resulting in what could politely be called an ‘eclectic’ style of home decor. Looking at some of these pictures now it seems funny to think that I loved these rooms in one way or another. Today, I would pay a lot of money not to live in them.

The first is a shot of my first home away from home. It is the top room in a three storey squat in Falmouth in the early eighties.

my room 10 quay hillThe carpet, chair, chair cover and bobbly lamp shade were skip finds, and the pictures were either lifted from gigs or torn out of magazines. I can’t remember where the painting came from. It looks like squalor to me now, but I really liked it then.

The next one is also from the eighties. It’s a squat bedroom I had in Hackney, London. I had a thing about purple in those days, and I spent about a week’s food money on paint. There was no B&Q with shelves and shelves of coloured emulsion then, instead you had to go to a specialist paint shop and pay what seemed a LOT of money to have a pot mixed for you if you wanted a colour other than magnolia or white. The effect in this very old and tatty photograph is – as you can see – pretty garish. I think the red wall hanging was made by my grandmother and is now sadly lost.

london squat roomMy second purple room was in a squatted flat on Stamford Hill Estate.

stamford hill estate roomThe next picture is of the inside of a caravan we lived in on some wasteland when son 1 was small. We had no running water, no electricity (hence the tilly lamp), very little money and no toilet, and we used to visit the local tip regularly because in those days you could buy things for a few pence. We glued some hessian wallpaper up and made curtains from some material we found there. The table came from my parents’ house (I think) and I covered the kitchen cupboards with cut out pictures from magazines and books. Again, I wouldn’t want to live in it now, but it felt very much like home in 1992.

caravan united downs

But this post wasn’t supposed to turn into a bemused peer into my domestically cacophonous past – it’s supposed to be about home and personal aesthetics. It was triggered by a visit to the home of a much loved friend yesterday. This friend, T, has fallen in love with a man, R, whose home is now hers too. Their home is one of the most wondrous places I have ever been, partly because it is incredibly rooted in family and regional history, but also because R has such a strong aesthetic that it saturates every corner of the place. His aesthetic is kind of timeless but in parts surprisingly modern; it’s very traditional but also includes elements of eccentricity that prevents it looking like every other envy-inspiring home in Country Living magazine. Here are some photos.

R and T’s home knocks me for six every time. I find it almost impossibly beautiful, and my friend H and I regard it as a very special treat to visit. Yesterday, however, this wondrous place struck me as even more of a home than ever before. The air had shifted in some way, and it took me a while to realise that of course this was because there has been a new addition to the place – one that brings with it mess and chaos and the need for an occasional plastic object. Here it is:

Seeing how this unutterably lovely little bundle of disruption has affected this place, I realised that although I’ve yearned most of my life for a home I find aesthetically pleasing (and have now finally got one that’s almost there), it’s not the aesthetics after all that actually make the home.

In fact, the times when home feels most homely are when our aesthetics are being disrupted: when we have Christmas in mum’s perfect kitchen and there are people and dogs and mess everywhere; when an otherwise tastefully decorated Christmas tree is hung with odd lumps of paper and glue made by a child’s hands; when there’s a curled up cat and all his cat hairs rumpling up the sofa cushions; when spouse puts a Darth Vader head he found in a skip on the bookshelf next to my tasteful antique map of Cornwall. A home that is TOO visually beautiful can feel a bit intimidating, and I have visited people’s houses in the past that have given me hideous inferiority complexes. Aesthetics will always be important to me because I’m a visual person, but I’m not looking for perfection any more. Perhaps I can put up with the flimsy fake brass door handles I inherited with this house after all.

carlisle_brass_fg27_georgian_shapped_lock_handle

P.s. If you would like to experience the joy of visiting R&T’s house, they offer various types of accomodation at various times of year. Please see their website for further details.

Weekly Photo Challenge: Love (and more words than there should be)

We’re not a family that talks about love much. That doesn’t mean we don’t feel it – not at all – just that declarations of love can seem a bit insincere to our oh-so-British ears. This is particularly so when the word ‘love’ is flung about a lot in a relationship. To us it has impact only when used sparingly; anything else smacks of insecurity to our cynical ears.

So when son 2 was born and turned out to be a little package of enthusiastic and unabashed love it was a bit of a revelation; we were used to our more reserved toddler who really only wanted cuddles when he was sad or ill, and even then accepted them graciously rather than actively engaging with them like son 2 did. It has always been very easy to give love to our second son because he was born with a nature that invited it. It is harder to be sure that son 1 knows he is loved because he has become more and more detached from us as he has grown up.

Son 1 had a more difficult time growing up than son 2. When he was born we lived in a caravan on a traveller’s site with no running water, no electricity, no sanitation and drunk people all around. I was too immature of mind to deal well with my new responsibility and knew little or nothing of the psychology of children. I became post-natally depressed and if it wasn’t for my spouse, things could have been a disaster. He faced responsibility with determination, compassion and even a little joy. He got up and did the night feeds and woke me up for the morning feeds by singing along to cheerful songs on the radio and handing me a cup of tea.

We loved son 1 tremendously, but we weren’t the finest of all parents. We were very poor, we didn’t know what we were doing and we were tired and stressed much of the time. It wasn’t the best start for a sensitive young boy, regardless of how much we adored him. We made a lot of mistakes. When we moved into a house and son 1 went to playgroup and then primary school, he was only too aware of our difference from other parents. We were still big-booted, pierced and grubby and we didn’t have fitted kitchens or smart cars. He felt this acutely, but rarely said anything about it; he instead spent his time with other families who were more securely rooted in the ‘conventional’ lifestyle that he preferred.

Our son is now 21 and at university. He is independent, clever, witty and stylish and we are incredibly proud of him. When I think of him, however, I am always a little sad because he remains quite detached. It’s nothing serious or terrible, but he wouldn’t choose to spend time with us; he doesn’t really know what to talk to us about and he resists engaging with our interests and humour. Having son 2 has shown me what a parent/child relationship can be and at the moment I don’t have this with my firstborn. It saddens me to my stomach that he was the one who had to suffer the brunt of my parenting mistakes and that son 2 received all the benefits of what we learned from them.

But, son 1 does phone us when he has a problem and he did turn to me when he had his heart broken. I take solace from this and have a secret fantasy that one day, when he has children of his own, he might understand. In my fantasy, he is a famous fashion designer or journalist or publicist or something, and he’s on Desert Island Discs. He chooses a record that has something to do with his childhood and he says, ‘I was a very different person from my parents, but I realise now how much they loved me.’

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Freedom of choice isn’t always freedom

My wellies have split, so yesterday I walked Porthtowan beach with my left foot sloshing about in seawater as warm as amniotic fluid. I loved my wellies, and am very sad to have to replace them. Apart from the fact that they are beautiful, what I most loved about them was that I didn’t have to choose them – my mum chose them for me – and I’ve come to realise that I hate making choices.

wellies 3I realised this after spending two hours (possibly more) inspecting wellies online. What a total waste of time; time that I could have spent pinning down where human consciousness stems from or finally sorting out a viable sustainable alternative to oil and thereby saving the world. But instead I spent that precious fraction of my life comparing prices, reviews, aesthetics and practicality of rubber footwear.

In the version of the past that I remember, when one needed wellies, one went to a shoe shop where they stocked one type of welly in a choice of dull green or black. Fancy ones had ‘Dunlop’ written on the side, but that was it. And they cost about £3.99.

Today I discovered that the welly situation in the West is very, very different now. Wellies have spread and mutated and developed all sorts of confusing added extras which resulted in  my total failure to actually buy any. I became overwhelmed and – I admit it – very slightly stressed by all the choices. If there were only dull green or black all-the-same wellies in the world, I would have purchased a pair in about 2 minutes flat and gone about the rest of my day without a care in the world knowing that shortly I would be able to walk the dog without developing Trench Foot. But all this choice leads to brain-addling indecision.

Plain wellies, to be fair, do still exist. Here they are.

basic wellyAnd if I wasn’t a spoilt brat Westerner, I would just buy these and get on with working out if there is a finite upper bound on the multiplicities of the entries greater than 1 in Pascal’s triangle.

But, how can I just contendedly buy those when THESE exist?

N_WELLYPRINT_NAVMULT_A

If I bought these, just looking at them would make me happy every day. But, apart from the fact that they are nearly £30 more than the dull ones, would I feel embarrassed sporting the ‘Joules’ logo on the front of my legs? Probably. Joules is  brand that yells “I AM QUIRKY MIDDLE CLASS! I RECYCLE AND OWN A SCRUFFY MONGREL! I EAT QUINOA AND HAVE MISMATCHED CHINA! I GROW MY OWN ARTICHOKES!” So maybe I need something a little more understated. Maybe these:

hunterThese appear quite unassuming, but they are branded too, and this brand is only pretending to be understated. People who wear Hunter wellies (especially dirty ones) are saying/trying to say, “These wellies have been in the family for generations, you know. My great, great grandfather wore them shooting with Lord Wilberforce of Durham. Have you met my labrador, Monty?” PLUS they cost nearly £80, so sod that. I read a review of these where someone had written, “I love my Hunters so much I’ve bought some for my husband and both the children”… There are people in the world who will spend £320 on rubber footwear. I am not one of those.

I can honestly say that I would not care ONE BIT if there were no choice whatsoever in the realm of the wellington boot. I wouldn’t feel the need to wield a banner proclaiming that we are being oppressed by a lack of variety in waterproof footwear. Or kettles. Or cars. Or irons. Or electric sanders. Or washing powder. I’m sure I’m not the only person who has stood in a  supermarket being trolley-bashed repeatedly while staring at the variety of washing powders stretching as far as the horizon both ways and sobbing quietly to myself, “I just want one that cleans clothes.” WHAT CRITERIA are we supposed to use to decide which one to buy? The cheapest? The prettiest? Names we have heard of? Smell? Word-of-mouth? Just PASS ME ONE and I’ll leave quietly. Same thing happened when I was buying a second hand car. They were ALL CARS. They all had steering wheels and exhaust pipes. How was I supposed to CHOOSE between them? Does it drive? Can I sit down in it? Does it stop again when I’ve finished? It happens in restaurants too. Apart from anything with seafood in, I could probably eat any of it. I usually deal with the problem by  waiting until the waiter looks at me expectantly, see what leaps into my brain, and order that. I wish they would just issue me with a meal. So long as there’s a cup of tea at some point, I’ll be happy.

When spouse and I became parents for the first time – 22 years ago – we were (cringe) Anarchists, and we believed that our young son should be given freedom to make his own choices in everything. I still believe this, I suppose, but what I didn’t see then is that we’re not really equipped to make free choices without substantial guidance until we’re much older (and in my case, never). The amount of free choice we gave him, we eventually realised, caused him great stress because he would panic even over seemingly trivial choices – if I choose this one, then I might regret it and realise that the other option was better – too much choice used to freeze his faculties with anxiety and then cause him to enjoy his final choice less than he would have under different circumstances.

I don’t know if it’s possible to draw any conclusions from this and my own experiences with choice-based distress, but I wonder if the fact that the doctrine of freedom of choice is used everywhere nowadays is really as healthy as we like to believe it is. Certainly in the area of consumerism it can be pretty distasteful, and in education I believe that choice has been at least partly responsible for a big decline in real learning as opposed to qualification-collecting. But that’s a whole other story.

While I was searching for (and failing to find) an entertaining image for this post, I found this TED talk instead. I think Barry Schwartz says it much better than I did. Damn him.

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Oh, and I’d be grateful if someone could just choose some wellies for me. Thanks.

Image by http://dannyburgess.tumblr.com/
Image by http://dannyburgess.tumblr.com/

Rain and dining tables

It rained last night. It rained so much it sounded like a deity of infinite size draining an infinite amount of pasta through a colander of infinite holiness in the sky above my Velux window.

We all love that, don’t we? – lying in a warm bed under a non-leaky window listening to it all going on outside and relishing the fact that we’re not in it. What is left of my heart goes out to people whose homes have flooded in the deluge overnight; it’s pretty damn unpleasant when all the comfort-paraphernalia you have accumulated to protect your family from the outside world is invaded by a seeping, stinking version of that very outside you shored yourself up against. It leaves you with nowhere clean and warm to hide, and everyone needs that.

I’m not naturally the sort of person to count my blessings; I’m much too much of a miserable sod for that, so the closest I ever get to Polyannaism (I’m reasonably certain that’s not a word), is when the rain is hitting my skylight. It triggers a rush of anti-nostalgia for long, drab English winters spent on dripping traveller sites with nothing much to do and only just enough money to chip in for one bottle of Merrydown between me and E so we could get drunk and forget that it was not much of a life.

Those long, grey days bleed into each other in my memory. When we were in Yorkshire, parked up on the moors, E and I would sometimes find ourselves in Todmorden at dusk waiting for a lift back up to site and we’d wander the wet pavements of streets lined with terraced houses, curtains still open as it was not quite night, and lights on as it was not quite day either. The glowy orange of electric light is irresistible  from outside when you’re damp and aimless and only have candles, paraffin and a cold, unlit fire to go back to. Those windows were magic gateways to fantasy worlds of Waltons-style happy families, comfy sofas, hot water from a tap and all those home comforts we had rejected, yet apparently secretly yearned for. E and I were drawn to them like Victorian orphans. If we hadn’t been too well trained we would have squished our faces up against the glass and whined pitifully, “Ere Missus, can you spare alf a crown for a poor omeless pauper?”

Instead we rode back up to the moors through the convoluted and darkening Yorkshire  lanes on the bumpy back of a flatbed truck, holding onto various dogs and becoming saturated with drizzle. We’d arrive back with only just enough light left to go scouting for damp wood to stoke up a hissing fire in the woodburners we had constructed from old fire extinguishers or gas cylinders, but which would soon warm the tiny tin spaces we lived in. Fire is another element that brings out the Polyanna in me. It conquers all kinds of greyness – literal and metaphorical – and makes even the most miserable hovel into a palace in which you can go warmly to whatever it is you have that functions as a bed and listen to the rain hitting the metal of your roof with a feeling of security; however temporary or illusory.

I can’t really remember why we stayed in that life for so long; most of my memories are of bleakness. The other thing we used to do when it was raining – I remember this particularly when we were on some Cornish mining wasteland somewhere, surrounded by nothing but doom grey sky, rocks and browning gorse – was to crowd into my old ambulance (only the girls did this), get off our faces on cider and paint vivid verbal pictures of the places we would rather live. Or rather, place. E and I especially had the same house in our minds. It was big, scruffy, many-roomed and indistinct apart from the garden that E filled with herbs and vegetables and the kitchen which we both saw as clearly as if we were sitting in it. It was large, of course, and furnished as if it had just grown out of history – a bashed wooden floor, a huge old range for cooking on – and the centrepiece of the whole dream was a massive kitchen table with block legs hewn from sleepers, a top several inches fat, and big enough to seat 20 people.

It seems obvious now why we fixated particularly on the table. It’s a symbol, isn’t it, of family living – children and adults all piling in together to produce food for the table. I think we were imagining children even though neither of us at that point had any, or had any conscious wish for them. The table symbolised the dream we had, and  I still secretly have, of living in a massive chaotic family home working together as a community to keep out the rain.

E and I never managed the big chaotic house, but we did manage to live in the same village for a few years and to bring up our children together in gardens and on beaches, which was almost as good, until she moved 300 miles away. We both now have dining tables, but our children are nearly gone and it’s time to look again at our lives and what we want from them. But when it pours down on my skylight and I compare that sound to the soundmemory of rain on a caravan or ambulance roof, I do get that Polyanna moment, just briefly. I might even count a blessing or two.