sunday evening post: columns, bad dads, drink, london, women, men, sex, procreation, cricket, birthday parties
Noticed this attack on female “confessional journalism” by Hadley Freeman in the Guardian the other day:
Here’s how it goes: a female journalist describes her obsession with her weight/breasts/ageing face/food or alcohol problems/inability to have a happy relationship. The article is illustrated by the journalist looking as miserable as possible. There are tales of daily woe. It concludes with the writer still sufficiently unhappy to be commissionable for another very similar piece.
This genre has nothing to do with journalists opening a window into what life is like for women today. It does women no favours at all. It is entirely about perpetuating an editor’s misogynistic image of what women are like (self-hating, self-obsessed) and making a semi-celebrity out of the writer in the belief that readers like to read journalists whose names and faces (and breasts) they recognise.
I have no doubt that the women who write these articles truly feel the emotions they describe. But these women need help; they do not need to be made to feel that their professional USP is to play up their misery.
Aside from everything else, this kind of journalism sets feminism back by about 50 years, because not only does it perpetuate offensive stereotypes about women as needy, helpless, childlike narcissists, it suggests that the most interesting thing a woman can offer up to others is her own battered, starved, bloated, enhanced or reduced body. And that seems a lot sadder to me than any shocking revelation I ever read in a single piece of confessional journalism.
Sure, of course, this is all true. But what else is true that the second-smoothest path for women into the papers, after the ritualized self-abuse that she describes here, is to write a piece slagging off other women for doing X, Y, Z. Doesn’t really matter what – writing confessional pieces about being fat is a good if safe choice. I live with a woman who dwells (or dwelt, back before she was working on her book / having kids, but soon will dwell again) in fragrant corridors where la commentaire feminine is manufactured, and it is a testament to her ethics and general above-the-frayness that she resolutely and persistently disregards my suggestions that she write this or that take down of some misdirected female writer or trend.
And so I put these ideas on my blog instead. Refused male musery mine!
But just to keep all these balls in the air, I want to confess that I’ve fallen under the spell of my own confessional columnist – a male one, but one who’s been doing a sort of pitch perfect translation into guy-voice of just the sort of thing that upsets Freeman above. Honestly, it’s not since Hitchens came unwound in the pages of The Nation in the weeks after 9/11 that I’ve actually purchased a magazine on a weekly basis in order to read a columnist. But now, instead of flipping through The New Stateman and making a decision up or down on whether to buy a (reduced-price, via the UCU store) copy, I purchase it without flip-through, as I’ve become a devoted reader, perhaps to my discredit, of Nicholas Lezard’s “Down and Out in London” column.
(Just to be clear, I’ve generally read anything that Owen or Dr. Power have in there before I have an actual copy in my hands… Apparently, I can read Lezard that way too – not sure why this hasn’t occurred to me before…)
Anyway, I’m not going to cut and paste any of the Lezard stuff, and I think the effect 1) works best cumulatively and 2) might only work for those who can understand the situation he is in. And I certainly can… He’s got two kids and apparently was kicked out of his house for good for coming home one too many times plastered, and now lives in a shabby flat with another guy, spends quite a lot of time at his local, is broke, etc. Um, well…. Right. So I’ve seemingly gotten a lot better and have at least one of my nine or so lives left as I’m still here. But there were moments when it definitely looked like a grubby shared flat with nothing but my MacBook Pro and a hasty selection of my clothes had become my immediate and irremediable future.
Having kids is hard on marriages, partnerships. Unspeakably hard, really. The paradigm shift that’s slowquickly been happening over the past few decades, making marriage into a union of buddies and workpartners who (often) spend significant portions of their formative years together and childless only to take the big dip fairly late and find that everything has changed forever. Unexpected though age-old gender roles reassert themselves when you weren’t looking, and you learn how much you depended on that hour-and-a-half walk that you took every evening. Often, one partner works (in the out of the house sense) less than they used to, and different forms of dependency take root. You have no time or venue to talk, or fuck, or be by yourself. When you see friends as a couple, you see them differently. Everything changes, everything is really hard.
But there’s something else, a little less personal and identificatory, that appeals about Lezard’s column in the NS, something I’d like to post more about later. It somehow, his column captures and encapsulates the specific sort of squalor that characterizes London. It’s a very different sort than tinges the atmosphere of, say, New York. There’s a bit of Hollywood to the New York sort, a sort of intersection of money and sex that comes through – just for instance – in the bar girl that I once watched for an entire evening trying to work the fucking Midtown Marriott lobby during the Christmas season. I’ll say more about this later, but London is, in part, about conventional types going softly but insistently wrong.
Over the course of the weekend, my wife said two very dirty things that were also very funny. I can only remember one of them now. I threatened to put it up on here, but clearly I am too much of a gentleman for that.
There’s an Italian restaurant / cafe at the centre of my neighborhood, literally at the old Roman crossroads or whatever it is, that is known as the sort of characteristic neighborhood establishment. We have started eating there every day that we can, as it is cheap and the food is good and you can eat outside. So…. it’s the characteristic neighborhood establishment of a neighborhood that is in some (class limited, of course, of course) sense the characteristic North London neighborhood. Since I am a real North Londoner now, I further believe that North London is the truest embodiment of London as a whole. So…. this place is really fucking Londony, in some strange but true sense. (Cf the bit in Conrad’s The Secret Agent about London Italian restaurants – that should sort some of the logic that I’m not writing out longhand for you if you need that to happen….)
When I go in there, I absolutely and in a way that happens in none of the many other Italian restaurants I’ve eaten in during my time here, absolutely, positively, feel like I am back in New Jersey. Hmmm. It’s all a bit joisy guido – they show the Godfather on plasma screens over the dining room, the decor screams Rt. 17. Is this hard to understand? Fine, here’s a small but telling materialization of what I’m talking about, from the Men’s Room:
What we have there, folks, is the product of the unholy union of High British Paternalism (“mind the gap, morons!”) and the italomammalovethathurts that embraces my native state and its great recent artistic products in its sagging, well-fed arms…. Uncanny! The way you found them…. Ha!
One of the hardest things to decipher: the look that young women give to men pushing strollers filled with children. It seems neither, at least not in any obvious way, to mean mmmm give me some of that wouldja. Nor does it completely not mean that, from what I can tell. It is hard to describe. Perhaps its the look of the generic erotic, the animal gone human and social, of the code playing its games of generality and specificity right there on the high street, shortly after pasta lunch.
Later, Saturday afternoon, I walk out and onto my bucolic street of terrace houses to get a bottle of water at the off-license at the corner. Two women, stylishly dressed, attractive, are stumbling a bit as one of them tries to work her phone. They have just come out of a house, three doors down. The phoneless one says to me, as I pass, “Carry me.”
She translates my eyes-on-the-pavement non-response into the question, “Where would you want me to carry you?” for she answers in turn,
“Just to the end of the street, or wherever. Just carry me.”
I walk on, unable to translate the bolt of British vernacular that she drops on me next into Sober and American. They are gone when I return, swallowed whole by the bucolic, the terraced, and the directions someone gave them over the phone.
Sunday morning, on the way to Hampstead, my wife said to me, I looked at one sentence of the Ballard that you left on the kitchen table last night and I knew immediately what you mean.
There’s a post coming on what I mean. I flew through the first fifty pages of Crash, a bit excited. Since then, well, slower going. I’ll tell you about it soon.
The Jews for Jesus were out in full force today in Hampstead. I can’t even imagine how or why that works here, though then again, maybe I can. But it’s sublimely odd.
I visited both Daunt Books in Belsize Park and Waterstones in Hampstead. All I bought, sadly, was Vladmir Sorokin’s The Queue. I’ve never heard of it, but I’m excited to read it. I wanted to buy something else, but it was on 3 for 2, and I couldn’t find another 2, and so I left it for another time. Waterstones needs to think carefully about that promotion – likely I would have just bought the book if it weren’t for the sticker on it.
Another Sunday, another kid’s birthday party. Woof. A lot of them now, almost one a week. Luckily this one was better than a lot of the others – and there weren’t any birds. The parents in question went lo-tech with the thing and just scheduled it for the lovely fenced in play area in the Parliament Hill part of Hampstead Heath. Since the weather was pretty much perfect today, it was actually a lovely way to spend a Sunday afternoon, lolling on the grass, watching the kids do their thing.
This is going to start to sound a bit newspaper column-ish, but I’ve started to take more and more note of something kind of interesting. Most people at this party (the adults I mean – the kids were all 3-4) were in their early thirties (like us) to mid-forties – the general and universally prevalent age of childbearing for urban professional / intellectual types in the English speaking world. In fact, this scene, owing to the neighborhood I guess, was a little younger and hipper than the one that we’re a part of by virtue of the school that my daughter attends in our neighborhood. Someone was wearing a Joy Division shirt, and the mom of the birthday boy only wears vintage stuff. You don’t see all that much vintage stuff where we live.
In addition, though, to the parent / child parings, there were four extra adults, childless, in their thirties by the looks of it. It took me awhile to figure out that they were childless; so distracted was I by their supermarket bags full of Stella Artois and white wine that they had brought with them that I simply became reflexively envious and paranoically resentful that I didn’t have my own bag full of fun stuff to drink that until my wife pointed their non +kid status, I simply didn’t notice they were ohne Kindern.
So they were drinking and looked incredibly bored. Of course they were – they were childless adults at a farking four-year-old’s birthday party. But who knows, maybe they were bored in other ways as well. And the parents were certainly bored too – and I’m sure I wasn’t the only one glacing a bit enviously at these people without shit stains on their shirts and who didn’t have to whip out a tit every 45 minutes to sooth the thing hanging from your front in a Baby Bjorn and could instead just crack open another can of Stella and think about what they were going to do for dinner later. Maybe the four of them took off just after we left to sit around doing adult things like getting shitfaced in a pub. Who knows.
But here’s what I’m trying to get to: there’s an interesting sort of tension, a fraught detente, that starts to form between the childless and the childed during this stage in life. Most of the time it’s not right on the surface, perhaps, but when they’re forced into co-presence (whether through a birthday party like this one, or more casually at restaurants, on transit, and the like…) it starts to come through. From what I imagine, further, there’s a bit of tilt on axis that comes a bit later. Right now, the parents of infants can’t help but think, however much they love their children, christ what did I get myself into – I’m only fucking 32! while the still childless can look on with the there but for the grace thing running through their heads. Give it a decade, less, and many of the childless will have punched their own ticket into the exciting world of parenting. But the others who haven’t may have different strings running frontcourt and back through their minds.
Banal, column-fodder, but still true and hugely important. I’d like to do more serious writing about this, actually. Having kids (or not having them) brings to the front some really big questions about society and its perspective on happiness, time, work, life. All the issues that any proper socialist needs to think through first before taking a single step forward toward the development of a theory, let alone a practical path. It’s a shame that more men don’t take up the issue – perhaps I’ll start, perhaps I have started.
Ooops. I just posted this and noticed that the title promised cricket. Here:
I watched some cricket on the Heath today. I like watching it; I still don’t understand it at all.
Again the kids are asleep by the time we make it back from the Heath, so we take advantage and stop somewhere for a bit. By the time I return to our table with the beverages, a sodden guy is talking to my wife. I overhear, Ah but you must know what part of Ireland your people come from, because god do you ever look it, and you know I would knows as you can tell from the way that I speak I come from there myself and do you ever visit? Would you want to? What the fuck. I sit down and he’s not sure whether to refer to her as my wife or not, and probably for more than one reason. He is fifty years old. He lost his glasses, ha ha, last night. He is a clean man whose clothes are dirty. And his friend has run to Tesco for something. He asks me what part of Ireland I am from, and I respond that I am not Irish. He is getting very confused. But before we leave, break ruined, he tears a menu in half to write down his email address and tells us to be in touch – come and stay! – if we are ever in rural Ireland.
On the way home, my wife responds to my jokes and japes, “Yeah, there’s nothing I’m more attracted to than sodden drunk guys like….”
Significant pause. Cue laughter.
It was a very nice weekend indeed.