Take Me Out

Many a time I have pondered the question of why and how it is that I have hardly ever been directly and properly asked out by a man, and had so few actual boyfriends.

And then I have pondered the secondary question of why people assume that I have had lots of offers and a ceaseless round of boyfriendry. ‘Tis not the case.

Why?

Well what has emerged from my memory is a set of themed scenarios that form a distinct pattern. And they began at primary school…

The Silent Fighter Friends

These days I’m always hearing tales about how someone’s 7-year-old has a girlfriend or boyfriend. Back in my day, at a Catholic primary, I barely even knew what a boy was at seven, let alone wanted to go out with them. All I knew was, boys giggled at drawings of human anatomy in science class and sometimes showed the girls their willy (so tiny!). But sometime towards the end of those primary-school years, probably between nine and eleven, I sort of became aware of their ‘appeal’ (not the willies – that came much later).

Anyway, I became aware that Peter and Kevin, who were firm friends, liked me. I also heard about, but never saw, the fight they had over me in the playground, over which one was going to be my boyfriend. Neither of them ever looked at me, let alone asked me out, after that, and I was too busy crushing on Jonny to notice. Jonny didn’t notice me.

Secondary school. Along came Geoff and his mate Paul. Both ginger and freckly (no wonder I’ve got a thing for Eddie Redmayne and Prince Harry). I was their friend for a couple of years – we used to chat in the cloakroom – but at one point they just stopped talking to me. I distinctly remember a disco where I wore my best frilly New Romantic shirt, knickerbockers and gold shoes to impress them. They both sat there sullenly, while Mirror Man and Fascination by The Human League played and I tried to dance like the girls from the band. Later I found out that they both liked me and fought about it. Neither of them ever asked me out. I was still crushing on Jonny. Jonny never noticed me.

The Man Swapper

This has happened twice – I’ve been lobbied by a guy who is really wooing me on behalf of his less-confident friend, and been subtly passed me from man-to-man in a move that has confused the hell out of me (and this was way before PUAs were a thing.)

When I was sixteen, Derek, a guy who seemed so much older than everyone else (he probably was), did his best to reel me in with his best cool-guy performance. I wasn’t allowed into Poppies nightclub in North Wales at that time (it’s closed now), but I used to get in, on account of looking older than my age. Derek was the unofficial leader of our Poppies ‘gang’ and I kinda liked him. But what happened in a move that is still shrouded in the dry ice of the club was that he passed me on to his friend Paul, using a sleight of hand worthy of a stage magician. Paul was a lovely geekish guy, but so not for me. In the weeks that followed, I remember sitting with him in his bedroom, moving out of the way every time he tried to sit next to me, wondering how I’d ended up there. In the end I offered an ‘I’m too busy doing my A-levels’ excuse and got out of this weird pseudo-relationship.

This happened again when I was in my twenties and working at Liberty. I really fancied a guy called John who ran the bookshop department – he was funny, intelligent, from Yorkshire (I know – all three things together!), and looked like a shorter version of then-Bond Timothy Dalton. I went out for coffee breaks with him and his mate Leon from the goods-in department came along too. Before I even knew what was going on, Leon was appearing in the coffee shop on his own and I found myself going out with him without actually being asked. I managed to continue like this for six weeks – but I still wanted John. John didn’t want me.

The Look But Don’t Speak-ers

During my ballet-teaching years I developed a crush on Ian – the guy working at the Sports Centre where I taught. Week after week (year after year!) I turned up for class early, inventing ways to be in the same room as him as I ‘prepared’ for class. He looked, he smiled – I looked, I smiled, I danced! – hell, we even said ‘hello’ once or twice, but nope, nothing. Same went for another guy I had a crush on at my brother’s cricket club. I think the looks between us powered the small Welsh village where the cricket ground stood but it shocked him into silence. I couldn’t have made it more obvious that I wanted to be spoken to but it never worked.

The Gay Cock-Blocker

David. Oh David. I met him at Liberty – he was another goods-in guy. David was beautiful – of Portuguese Goan descent. My crush was so huge I kept a diary called The Book of David. I used to go out to the infamous coffee shop with him and our gay friend, Neil.

Neil, who didn’t tell me that David had confided in him that he had a crush on me until David had left Liberty to travel in South America for a year.

Neil fancied David too. Go figure.

The David Scenario actually gave rise to another phenomenon:

The Stealing Woman and the Passive Man

Such was David’s beauty that lots of women were throwing themselves at him. I didn’t, unfortunately. We were once at a Liberty party and one of our female colleagues made a much more obvious play for him than me, with my normal conversation, lack of moves, and (at that time) non-sexy clothes. They spent the rest of the night snogging so I left. The next day at work David apologised to me and tried to explain what had happened, pitching it as an unavoidable scenario. Oh you poor lamb – being preyed upon like that by a lady. How you must have struggled.

*rolls eyes*

Interestingly, when I went to do my MA in Sussex, I met the same woman in the first week. She triumphantly told me that David had been there studying the year before (and no doubt failing to avoid her charms). ‘Knock yourself out, love,’ I thought.

This had happened to me before in the sixth form. I had a crush on the headmaster’s son and he had one on me. We were both prefects and used to stare at each other as we manned the dinner queue. As soon as I told my ‘friend’ Victoria, she threw herself at him at a school party and that was that. Another guy bit the dust. And so did a friendship.

I Take Matters Into My Own Hands

By the time I reached my late twenties, I’d given up on the idea that I’d be asked out so I started to do it. I met my ex-husband at a club in Brighton. We had a brilliant night chatting and dancing and we swapped numbers, but predictably he didn’t call. I called him four days later and that was that. Four years later, I was the one to ask HIM to marry ME.

Then, after my marriage had ended (initiated by me, obvs), I waited for the invitations to flood in, thinking that things would be different, I was more confident and ‘out there’, I had loads of male friends. I couldn’t wait to go on dates!

Nothing happened.

Hand on heart I can say that in the past four years, two guys have actually asked me out properly, and both were in their twenties and not British. They were confident in their approach and I was so surprised by them that of course I agreed. British male friends tell me it’s incredibly scary asking a woman out  – you risk rejection – so I suppose these guys had the benefit of being brought up in countries with more bravura in their DNA.

As I am now the ‘asker’, I know how scary it is, but I’m usually pretty sure of what the response will be before I ‘go in there’. But even on Tinder, where I’ve indicated the likelihood of me accepting a date request simply by swiping right, they still don’t make the move.

And people wonder why I’m single.

Lifestyle Hijackers

I first came up with this term about twelve years ago. I was fully immersed in coupledom, living in my first owned home, and making friends with other couples in a new area. I really enjoyed those years, for as long as they lasted, of doing up a small starter home. Every weekend my ex-husband and I would exhaust ourselves with a constant round of decorating, DIY-store visits, gardening and taking things to the dump. We’d crash into a heap on a Saturday night, gorge on pizza, then fall asleep in front of the TV. Happy days, and how I loved that first house, with its view over poppy-laden fields in Buckinghamshire.

Anyway, what I didn’t expect was that we’d become the unwitting focus of another couple, who lived a couple of doors down who were doing exactly the same thing as us. We’d been invited around for drinks and started to socialise with them pretty seriously. We became firm friends. Until, that is, before they started to compete with us on EVERY aspect of our lives.

We’d got started on our home improvements pretty much as soon as we’d moved in, and they hadn’t. Our new bathroom seemed to be the first Lifestyle Hijack trigger. I remember inviting these friends in one evening to view the results of our handywork and was surprised to find that they didn’t seem delighted by it at all. Stony-faced, they removed themselves from the scene of our ‘crime’ and before we knew it, they’d embarked on a full-scale ‘got to be better than theirs’ plan for their own bathroom, the details of which were of course, paraded in front of us at every social occasion.

I’d never come across this kind of competitive-neighbour behaviour before, but in retrospect that may have been because my friends up until that point had already bought their houses and we’d been renting so there was no cause for competition. I actively avoid competitive scenarios so when it became apparent that this couple were going to compete with us on every DIY score, we started not to tell them about things we were doing. Every house visit they made was a minefield – they’d ask where we’d got certain items, how we done certain things and whom we’d got to do them for us. We became adept at saying we couldn’t remember, we’d lost a phone number, or that the things we’d got were now discontinued.

I remember when we’d got a new Specialized mountain bike that my ex-husband had specially selected for me – it was really great and cost quite a lot of money. We had to hide it in the shed and get it out secretly for bike rides, knowing that once they saw it, they’d have to go one better. They did. Once spotted, they bought a ladies mountain bike that cost about £100 more than mine, just because.

Then came Kitchengate. I had decided to use a work bonus to buy us a new kitchen. I was so proud of it as I’d designed it myself. The day the fitters came and started to build our tiny galley kitchen was very exciting for me. Half way through, our ‘friends’ came to ‘admire’ the fitters’ handywork. Unbeknown to me, they took the project manager to one side to ask him if he’d do their kitchen ‘on the side’ – he was working for us via a big kitchen company. He agreed that he could recreate pretty much the same kitchen in their house, for a substantial discount.

When I found out, I was incandescent, but karma can be a beautiful thing. What this couple didn’t know was that this guy’s company did its best work for the big kitchen company, because they were contractually bound to provide perfection. This didn’t apply under the ‘backhander’ arrangement, so the kitchen was hastily put together by a smaller team, with lots of errors. I must confess, and this was not my finest hour, that when I saw this couple’s enraged faces running towards their house, as they’d just discovered the fitters had hit their gas pipe, was one of the most glorious moments in my life. We did our best to look sympathetic, but to be honest, we were triumphant. In my view, competition makes good people think evil thoughts. It is hardly ever ‘healthy’.

The denouement was Housegate. We’d decided to move house and decided to actively look for another while this couple were on their honeymoon in Australia (we’d been to Australia and New Zealand on ours, obvs). It gave us a good clear month to do it without them poking around as they’d inevitably start looking at the same time. The house next-door-but-one came on the market while they were away – it belonged to friends. We pretty much did a deal there and then. At the end of that month, my ex-husband went round to seal the deal with the owner over a wee dram of whisky. There was a knock at the door and the owner answered it. Guess who was standing there? Yep – the Lifestyle Hijackers, offering an increase on our offer just to get the house. I think they’d been back in the country for about an hour at that point. My ex heard every word of their gazumping campaign.

As you can imagine, the ‘friendship’ came to an end after that (the owner honoured our agreement), but I was more angry with them for taking away my innocence. Before I met them, I had no idea people could be so competitive. I suddenly became aware of how much hidden competition there is between all couples, and well, between people, really. What really bothered me is that these people seemed to have no sense of their own style or ideas on things – they just like nicking others’.

I find most competitive people ARE like that – they have to find out the detail of what you’re doing so that they can do the same, only better. It can range from having to know what exercise regime you do or where you’re going on holiday, to what you’re reading or which car you’re intending to buy. As someone who prides herself on being original you can imagine how I feel about copycats. I’ve tried not telling them what I’m doing but as a natural ‘sharer’ I find I can’t. I’ve tried only telling them once I’ve done it, but I like telling people what I’m doing before, during and after I’ve done it so this doesn’t work for me either. The same goes for people who try to get me to do the same thing as them – read the same books, go on the same holiday, do the same exercise. No, no and no. I’m doing my thing over here, thanks. The last thing I want to do is be exactly the same as you.

It has been said by more than one person that I am so intensely competitive that I’ve convinced myself I’m A-competitive. It’s something that I’ve thought about a lot. I like to do things really well and enjoy being the best at something. I avoid things I’m not very good at, like games involving hitting a ball or catching. Is it because I can’t win at them? I walk away from board games when other players are crowing competitively about winning – I find it ugly to witness and want to get away, but they would say I’m just a sore loser who can’t handle the outcome. Which is it?

All I know is that I find open competition extremely unattractive. I don’t even enjoy running with other people because I know they will start competing with me and spoil my enjoyment of the exercise. Strangers try to race me sometimes and I always stop running to let them past, thinking, ‘knock yourself out, bud’. But I do I have memories of being in primary-school sports-day races, allowing others to pass me (even ushering them through) but then breaking into a sprint just at the end and pipping them at the post. What’s that all about? Was I lulling them into a false sense of security before totally nailing them?

It is maybe a beast within me that I can’t acknowledge.

Specs and the City

I love my Sex and the City box set. I really do. I’ve watched it many, many times. For me and many women it became an era-defining examination of womanhood, friendship and relationships. I still find new resonances in it now, new ways in which it reflects aspects of my own life, and at various times, I feel a real kinship with one of the four girls, depending on what’s going on at the time. If you ask them, most women know if they’re a Carrie, Miranda, Samantha or a Charlotte (I’m a Miranda/Samantha combo).

But there’s always that episode towards the end of the final season where the ham-fisted scriptwriters create an allegory of womanhood that does not sit well with me. It’s called ‘Splat!’ and it’s the episode in which a 40-year-old socialite bemoans the end of her party lifestyle in New York, declares she is “so bored she could die” and promptly trips over her Manolos and falls out of the window. Later, at her funeral, Miranda quips, “the party’s officially over,” and Carrie rams the point home, “She wasn’t always so tragic… Ladies, if you are single in New York after a certain point, there is nowhere to go but down.”

Nice one, SATC. Way to make every woman over forty like some cast-off piece of shit. Even worse, this is the episode where the smugly loved-up Carrie is parading her fifty-something hot Russian lover in front of her fifty-something hot female boss, who is forced to date ‘a hobbit’ because younger women like Carrie are stealing men from her age-appropriate ‘wading pool’.

Carrie ends up giving up her work, her life in New York, to go to Paris with The Russian, just to escape the horror of being single and nearly forty in New York, where all her friends are partnered up before they reach their ‘scary age’.

It’s only in these final stages of the box set that I start to not love SATC. Up until then, I love its celebration of female independence and identity but ultimately, it’s just one Big search for a life defined by a being with a man. Even if that man is emotionally unavailable, jealous of your success or obsessed with his work.

I know this is partly because the series was made during the nineties and early noughties, when everyone was supposed to be filled with the Y2K meltdown fear. It almost represented a kind of pre-war moment where everyone rushed to couple up before the apocalypse.

But I couldn’t help but wonder … what would the storyline be if it was made now?

Wouldn’t it be interesting if the show hadn’t copped out to coupledom and looked realistically at the lives of women post-forty, living in a city, with their own flats and good jobs, just doing their thing and having a great time? I know plenty of them. I am one of them. Hell – I’m up for starring in this new show.

I reckon Carrie would be back in her East 73rd street apartment, having decided that The Russian was too up his own ass, and Mr Big was too much like hard work. She’d have her own column in Vogue (she’s moved on from the New York Star), two more book deals, and be the proud owner of a vintage-fashion boutique in SoHo (rather than a walk-in wardrobe built by her rich fiancée). She may also have invested her book royalties in Steve and Aidan’s second bar – a cocktail one, obviously.

I’m always disappointed that Carrie gives up her hard-won, didn’t-want-to-marry-even-gorgeous-Aidan independence to plump for a guy who can barely say the word ‘love’, even at the end of six seasons. Sure, he makes her laugh but he doesn’t offer the ‘ridiculous, inconvenient, consuming, can’t-live-without-each-other love’ she says she’s looking for.

Everyone in the show except Carrie has to deal with a huge reality check towards the end – miscarriage, dementia, cancer. This is the stuff of life, in my experience, not waiting to be swept off your feet in a Parisian hotel and into a shiny new NYC apartment by a suave city boy. But Carrie is the ’90s Holly Golightly, a child-woman on the look-out for a father figure to rescue her. She doesn’t deal with reality very well (I can’t bear Breakfast at Tiffany’s).

At the end of the box set and into the first (disappointing) movie, I always feel more akin to Miranda than anyone else. Her life is derailed by a mother-in-law with dementia (my mother suffered from it) and she has already lost her own mother. And then there’s Samantha – her mantra of “I love you but I love me more” means she ends up choosing independence over an unsatisfactory relationship.

Been there.

But the show does momentarily find its centre again in those last lines uttered by Carrie: “…the most exciting, challenging and significant relationship of all is the one you have with yourself. And if you find someone to love the you you love, well that’s just fabulous.”

Abso-fuckin-lutely.

Just don’t waste time waiting around for the second bit to happen, because then the party is definitely officially over.

State of the Nation

It doesn’t surprise me at all to hear that Dundee voted a decisive ‘yes’ in the Scottish independence referendum. Fife was where my ex-husband’s family lived, and I lived through their profound sense of nationalism.

On family visits, we could only watch Scottish TV programmes with Scottish presenters, talking about Scottish things. We were only allowed to laugh at Scottish comedians, eat Scottish food and converse about how much better Scotland is at everything. Anything in the UK outside Scotland was referred to as ‘down south’ – they couldn’t even say the word ‘England’ (I’ve just heard a Scot refer to ‘down south’ on BBC Breakfast as I write).

We often ended up holidaying in countries with a huge Scottish diaspora population – Canada, New Zealand – and even flew a Saltire off the back of our motorhome in the latter (cringe – not my choice). We’d inevitably bump into someone Scottish, who would inevitably be connected to someone back home, or went to the same school as a friend of a friend. I’d resist the temptation to roll my eyes.

I was asked on one family occasion, how I felt about most of the government being Scottish – I hadn’t noticed, I replied. To me (and to every non-Scot) they’re British. As I was being asked the question, I noticed that the newspaper one family member was reading was ‘Scotland’s’ Daily Mail. Silly me had thought that the Daily Mail was the same across the UK. Of course not. I wondered if there was a Welsh one.

However, seeing how much of Scotland voted ‘no’ yesterday, makes me think I was unwittingly in the epicentre of nationalism at the time. I had a lot of Scottish friends – university friends of my husband – who didn’t force Scottishness down my throat. I still have good Scottish friends now who don’t, although of course they remain proud of their country, just as I am proud of being from Wales.

But it always amazes me how much more strongly Scots feel about their country than Welsh people. And it amazes me how many of them have left their beloved nation to set up camp in other countries, looking back with neverending nostalgia at their Brigadoon. I can see why they do, though – one of the best holidays I’ve been on was in the Hebrides – Islay and Jura are paradises on earth, especially during the Whisky Festival in May…

I love the East Neuk of Fife, with its beautiful fishing villages (Crail is my favourite) and bleak beaches. And Findhorn – like St David’s in Wales – has a magical, otherworldly feel about it. On holiday there a few years ago, I ran each morning among the sand dunes and felt so happy looking out over the Moray Firth. Similarly, I loved running between Strathkinness and St Andrews, and walking on Kinshaldy beach with a sprightly West Highland terrier named Shuna.

And the majestic Highlands. We got stuck in the snow one year between Christmas and Hogmanay and happily snuggled in a hotel until we could get out. I particularly loved walking at Lochnagar early on Midsummers Day, from Loch Muick, encountering high winds and rain at the top, sunshine on the way down, and then having a hearty lunch at Ballater. Soup and a sandwich, obviously.

I celebrated the new millennium at Edinburgh’s Hogmanay, cheering at the fireworks bursting over the Castle. I got married in Scotland, in a small castle hotel in Letham. It was a magical day, filled with friends from all over the United Kingdom, and guys (Scot and non-Scot) made to wear kilts and dance to a ceilidh band.

So, I love you Scotland, I really do, but I’ve never quite got used to the fact that you love yourself so much. In my experience, no other nation I know talks about how great it is to such a degree.

I don’t need to be told how great you are over and over again.

I know already.

Sixth Date Syndrome

One of the things I did in the first couple of years after my marriage broke up was date men my age, looking to see if there was a potential new partner out there for me. One would assume that there might be, no?

I sallied forth and met some really great fortysomethings, either online dating, through friends or via social media.

But what I didn’t know when I started dating them was that each and every one of them would run away screaming after the sixth date.

I met ‘Simon’ through two mutual friends in a pub. Quiet, dryly funny, smart and a bit of a silver fox. I thought I’d take the initiative (I usually have to) and ask him if he’d like to go out. I gave him a business card and I think he texted me at some point and we started dating.

We did the usual fortysomething thing of nice bars, good wine, lovely restaurants. We chatted about travel, our jobs, previous relationships and I really enjoyed his company. He seemed ‘sorted’ – a good guy.

One weekend, after the sixth great date, I was in my kitchen making coffee, while he was sitting in another room. I thought I’d suggest we go for a walk ‘sometime’ on Hampstead Heath.

I heard an audible groan.

I stuck my head round the door and shouted, “Hey – don’t sound TOO excited!” expecting him to say, “Sorry, I just stubbed my toe on your coffee table”, but what I got was complete silence.

Tumbleweed.

Then later that week, when I texted him to ask what was going on, I got two huge ‘text essays’ explaining (mansplaining) that I was clearly ‘looking for something serious’ and he wasn’t.

“Unbelievable.” I texted back.

It was like an episode out of Sex and the City, but minus the Post-It Notes.

I met ‘Daniel’ through social media. A louder version of Simon and an uber ‘foodie’. We had six really great dates featuring great restaurants, cocktail bars and movies. On the sixth date, I decided to tell him I liked him. Just that. “I like you,” with a winning smile.

Not, “I’d like to marry you”, or “I’d like to have your babies” or “I’d like to share your financial gains”.

Just “I like you.”

I didn’t hear from him for two weeks, after which point I started getting ‘nighttime’ texts from him, trying to recalibrate the dating back to a more ‘casual’ setting. He’d told me before that he enjoyed dating because it meant he got to try new bars and restaurants. I think I was just the ‘caddy’ to the foodie.

Nah. Think I’ll leave it there, thanks.

So when I met ‘Paul’ I thought I’d test my theory again. Three strikes and I’m out.

Paul had recently split from his wife, which was bound to be tricky, but we got on incredibly well, especially intellectually. Funny, smart, worked in media – lots to talk and laugh about. Until I told him I liked him on the sixth date.

I’ve never seen anyone row away so fast. And again, the ensuing text essay ‘mansplaining’ how he couldn’t commit to anything.

I wasn’t asking him to.

Sigh.

I would lay money on that scenario happening again, but I haven’t dated any fortysomethings for a while so haven’t had a chance to test my theory again recently.

They’re not a demographic that are particularly interested in me and I’ve blogged before about them wanting younger women so that they can a) fuel their midlife ego and b) possibly have children.

Well, having encounted Sixth Date Syndrome I’m not particularly keen on them either, and really, I’m too busy fuelling my own midlife ego crisis.

What really irks me is the assumption that I want something out of them, that I’m trying to lay a commitment trap of some kind. That just by saying I like them, they translate it as “…and I want to marry you and have your babies.”

Way to think too much of yourselves, guys.

I’ve done the commitment thing and come out the other side. I’m very clear about not wanting children, and really, way past that childbearing age.

What if I actually do like hanging out with you and want to do it on a regular basis without raiding your bank account? Ooh, SCARY.

Am I really that intimidating, with my good job, own flat, ability to hold a conversation, tell a joke and initiate sex?

Apparently so.

Anyway, fortysomething men, see you when we’re all in our sixties and still out there.

At least we will be able to share our stories of how much fun it was to date younger men and women, eh? Looking forward to it.

Phoners vs Emailers

My name is Lisa and I’m an Emailer. A Texter. A DM-er. A PM-er. A Messenger-er. A Whatsapp-er. I’ll use anything to communicate with you but I won’t pick up the phone. Unless I really have to.

By and large my friends are the same. We exist in the same zone of communication. There is a tacit understanding that we don’t want to be lurched into a live conversation that will catch us off guard, unsure of how to respond, suddenly finding ourselves agreeing to things we don’t want to agree to, with no time to think and decide what to do.

It goes with the territory that we’re all into social media – posting messages on our newsfeeds for friends to respond to in their own time, or not, without the horror of the out-of-the-blue ‘I NEED THE ANSWER NOW’ voice call.

However, it has to be said right now that some of these friends do call me just for a catch-up chat now and then, and there is an undeniable sense of warmth and happiness that results from those calls. I always think, “I must do that more often,” but then don’t. Part of me thinks the other person is busy doing other stuff and it’s just rude to interrupt; part of me just can’t bring myself to do it. When someone says, “Just give me a call about that,” my brain turns that statement into “Just send me a text.” I can’t help it.

In a work setting it’s different. These days, my phone barely rings but if it does, it’s always one of about three or four people. I always know exactly who it will be, either from the time of day or whatever’s going on. I linger, guessing who it’s going to be, and I’m always right. My first thought is always, “Phoner. Why can’t they just email like normal people?” I’ve even set up my voicemail so it asks them to do just that. Nope – they carry on phoning, leaving message after message, while I’m sitting in meetings – they appear to do everything to avoid the written word.

I sometimes wonder if this is because they have a problem with the written word. Some Phoners find it hard to articulate things in writing (I’ve found), and I would say I’m better in writing than I am with the off-the-cuff spoken word. I wonder if this is about a clash in communication skills, more than anything.

Whilst to me, the Phoner appears to be a dying breed, day after day in London I’m astounded by the number of people walking along seemingly talking to themselves, talking and laughing into phone mics. They seem so happy to be sharing the intimate details of their life with everyone around them (I know, I can talk…) and it almost seems like an expression of arrogance to be able to talk about their cupcake fetish, or whatever, with all and sundry. They seem to enjoy catching my eye as they shout the lurid details into their phones.

I think I may well have been scarred for life by phones by a Toxic Person (see previous blog) who used to call me for a friendly chat, but then after a while, would start laying into me. Once she’d had a child, she always used to end up saying, “it’s alright for you, you don’t have to care for a kid,” or somesuch. I’d think, “it’s a choice, love, don’t take it out on me.” But she did. And it didn’t stop at that, suddenly everything I had and did was wrong – my husband, where I lived, my job, my looks. Nothing escaped.

I used to dread those calls and started having ready-made excuses to cut them short. When I picked up the phone, I’d announce straightaway that I could chat, but I was going out in 20 minutes. She started to say, “it’s alright for you, you’re always going out!” Yeah, love, to get away from you. Needless to say, she was my first proper bit of life laundry. I knew that my real friends would never make me feel bad about myself, but she went out of her way to. I just stopped answering altogether.

She did have one very weird habit, that is nothing to do with the subject of this blog post, but it’s always been a mystery to me. Whenever I visited her up north, she’d give me a lift to the train station. Every single time, she deliberately delayed the homeward lift so that I was panicking about getting the train. I realised she quite enjoyed making this happen so I stopped showing outward panic. I’d just sit there calmly as the clocked ticked by, as she ‘just’ did this and that to delay things further. Finally I resorted to giving her false train times. I’m seriously at a loss to know why she did that, and I do know other people that do it, but now I know how to handle it. It’s extremely weird and controlling.

Anyway – back to phones. I know other people are phone-avoiders because they’ve screened when I’ve called (even on Christmas Day) and then fabricated a really obvious excuse as to why they didn’t pick up. It’s ok! I get it! I don’t like phone calls either! When I was married, my husband used to light up a cigarette every time his mother was due to call (the same time every week). For a while I was duped into answering for him, then I realised what he was doing and just let it go to voicemail. He even used to ask me to phone in sick for him.

People are really phunny around phones and it’s not just me. When I’ve tweeted on this topic I’ve had a barrage of ‘me too!’ replies that have convinced me that it’s a dying art. Of course, there are situations where a phone call can do the work of a thousand emails but I’m fine with that. There’s a purpose to it. But what really makes me laugh in these scenarios is that it can take ten emails to arrange the phone call, in which time you could have solved the problem by email.

So… which one are you? A Phoner or a Emailer?

Written answers only, please.

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Interesting piece on phone-loathing:

http://www.theguardian.com/science/brain-flapping/2014/oct/16/social-anxiety-mundane-terrifying-psychology-stress

Secret Squirrels

I’ve recently been on a group hike organised by a company that boasts nearly 9,000 members. About 40 people came along, which appears to be the maximum group size for a hike, and as you might expect, the group split off into subsets of two, three or more people, most of whom didn’t know each other before the walk.

I became fascinated by the group dynamics. I had started talking to a lovely French Caribbean woman on the train and we became hiking buddies throughout the day, observing those around us as well as the lovely Sussex scenery. What became very apparent to both of us was the rise of the largest ‘popular’ group.

There is always one in these situations. It’s usually made up of those people who are desperate to befriend the ‘leader’, this time a very affable, funny, charming guy called Graham. He was moving among all the groups, cleverly making sure he spoke to everyone, making them feel included. There was an ebb and flow of people joining him at the front of the ‘peloton’, including me and my new buddy, but at the start there were people making a beeline for him, clearly intent on become part of the ‘leading pack’. Thankfully, that wasn’t Graham’s schtick, but the ‘popular group’ formed behind him anyway.

The group had a self-appointed ‘leader’, a guy who was a regular hiker with the company, who delighted in telling everyone over and over again, in a loud nasal London accent, about his travelling exploits. Of course, the pretty girls with tanned legs in shorts were in the group (they always are) as were other men and women with a penchant for talking about themselves. Often this sort of person can’t bear NOT to be in a group. The thought of being alone or with just one other person while the action is going on ‘over there’ is just too much for them.

Happily, that’s not me.

Me and my friend admitted to each other that we’re never part of the Popular Group. There is always that moment when a huge group of people goes to the pub – maybe it’s a work do – and there is an inevitable jostling for space as the ‘popular table’ is identified. If you don’t get in it in the first five seconds, game over. The worst is at sit-down office Christmas meals – there is always that moment when the popular-table kids grin at you smugly as they take their place comfortably away from the ‘unwashed’.

This sort of thing, a throwback to my lack-of-confidence days, used to drive me mad. I always really wanted to be on the Popular Table but could never quite get there. I’d sit on the end of a table which invariably had a few no shows and grunt at the people next to me. Shocking behaviour.

Then I realised something. If I stayed put, put some effort into the situation I was in and created some fun, I could create my own Popular Table to which people would eventually migrate if I just gave it some time. It has become a point of principle to hold back from this sort of situation and stand my ground. I don’t need to go over there to the bigger group, because when you get there, you often find it’s a fake kind of fun, filled with smiles and jokes and tanned legs, but not much else. I’ve always felt that people in these situations somehow cede their identity to that of the group – definitely not my style.

My least favourite thing is when there is an organised group event to which I have committed, and someone comes up to me at the party and whispers that there is a splinter group meeting up at a secret venue down the road. Shh, don’t tell anyone, they say. Sometimes this notification comes by text when I’m in the group event, happily socialising with everyone. Why do Popular Table people feel they have to create another, secret event near to the one that is actually going on? I’ve witnessed it time and time again, and it actually makes me angry. I want to be at the event I’m at – I don’t want to sneer back at it from a pub down the road because I’m part of the new Even-More Popular Group.

So I was quite surprised the morning after the hike to receive an email from the organisers asking if I wanted to sign up to a ‘special’ mailing list that would give me secret previews of hikes coming up and details of ‘secret socials’ that might be held, presumably at secret locations. Oh give me strength. Just invite everyone, tell everyone the details and deal with it. How will the other 8,950 people feel if they find out something has been arranged secretly behind their backs? (Although I don’t doubt for a minute that the organisers send this to everyone – it’s just a ploy to make you feel you’re getting something more than someone else. Ugh).

It’s just happened again. I’ve joined another meet-up group and last week about 100 people turned up at the latest event. Yet again, the Popular People wanted to cluster around the charismatic leader but I strode off on my own. Later on, I found a great ‘splinter’ group who were all friends and walked round with them for the rest of the morning. About halfway through, I was told about two secret groups that meet without involving the bigger group, and would I like to join? Well yes, I said, and I was flattered, but I do wonder what exactly we will gain? The whole point for me is meeting new people and you can’t do that if you continually. and secretly, go out with the same people. I get the fact that it can be cumbersome to manage big groups of people but this stuff makes me feel really uncomfortable because I naturally want to communicate the new event to the whole group.

Those that work/have worked with me will know that I’m not a fan of ‘secret squirrel’ behaviour. ‘Nowhere to hide’ is my mantra and I enjoy ferreting out those little pockets of secrecy that every group situation gives rise to. It’s maybe part of why I write this blog – I feel like I’m saying those things out loud that other people prefer to keep hidden away.

Well, sorry.

But actually I’m not sorry.

Just stop being so secretive and we’ll get on fine.

 

 

Soundtracks

The recent ‘Top 10 books that have impacted your life’ meme has been making me think about songs that have played a similar role in mine. There might have been books along the way that encapsulated a moment, but in a way, nothing does it like a song. And those songs often reappear unexpectedly in our aural landscapes, transporting us back to those moments, in a way that books don’t. We have to consciously re-read those, and we rarely do.

So what are my songs?

1. The Surrey With a Fringe on Top by Rodgers and Hammerstein (Oklahoma). My dad played the piano and used to play this to me as a child. Years later I went to see Hugh Jackman singing it in Oklahoma on stage. It never fails to have me sobbing by the end. It’s such a loving song. (See also: Little Brown Jug. My dad used to play the organ at a Welsh chapel and every now and again I’d accompany him down there when it was empty and he’d play this for me).

2. Ave Maria by Bach/Gounod. My mum had a beautiful voice and sang in our Catholic church on Sundays. She taught me the Latin words to this and we’d often sing it together. We played Pavarotti’s version at her funeral. (See also: Climb Every Mountain by Rodgers and Hammerstein (Sound of Music). I heard her sing it one night, at a dinner party, with my dad on the piano. She always denied it had happened, but it did. She stopped singing after my dad died so it was a rare thing to hear her beautiful voice.)

3. I Only Have Eyes for You by Art Garfunkel (orig. Warren/Dubin). Mesmerisingly beautiful love song that I played and sang along to over and over as a tweenager. I wanted someone to sing those words to me, but maybe not Art (sorry, Art).

4. Wuthering Heights by Kate Bush. See my ‘Why I’ll Never Stop Trying to be Kate Bush’ post. Says it all.

5. Head Over Heels by Tears for Fears. This is how I felt when I first had a massive crush on someone – bells ringing, heart a-flutter. Still gets me today, and they’re still a band I reckon to be one of the best pop bands ever. Their songs stand out a mile. (See also: Save a Prayer by Duran Duran. Said crush was on Simon le Bon and this is the song where I knew something naughty was going on in the song, but not quite sure what. Apparently, it’s all about a one-night-stand. My mother would not have approved.)

6. Out of Africa soundtrack by John Barry. My family had lived in Kenya during the 1950s but I wasn’t born then. I longed to go and follow in their footsteps and finally got the chance with my ex-husband – we visited Kenya and Namibia. The soaring soundtrack reminds me of our safaris to Tsavo and the Namib desert. We constantly referenced Meryl Streep’s accent and quoted the movie all the way round. Happy times.

7. Hysteria by Muse. The soundtrack to my marriage break-up. It encapsulated the yearning for freedom that I felt at the time. I became obsessed with Muse. (See also: Sing for Absolution by Muse and The Reckoner by Radiohead. This was clearly my Catholic guilt kicking in for wanting the things I wanted at the time.)

8. The Tempest by Pendulum. The angry “fuck you” break-up song after splitting up from a kingsized love rat. Along with Hysteria, you can tell these were my tempestuous years. (See also Hypocritical Kiss by Jack White – the soundtrack of last summer).

9. She Wolf by David Guetta (ft. Sia). The soundtrack to a passionate relationship with a younger man. He couldn’t stop playing it and neither could I. Maybe he saw me as a predator, but in reality, he asked me out. Always the way…

10. Up All Night by John B. This drum and bass track encapsulates my new-found freedom and lust for life. I love playing it really loud on headphones. It also references my insomnia, which has only recently gone away (see ‘Epiphany’ post). (See also: Waiting all Night by Rudimental (ft. Ella Eyre). This track is the sound of my new life in north-west London. I love drum and bass, love Rudimental, and I love Ella Eyre’s soulful voice. It’s my go-to late-night track.)

Plenty that didn’t make the list: Selecter by The Selecter, Dandelion/Cochise by Audioslave, Born Slippy by Underworld, Karma Police by Radiohead, Animal Nitrate by Suede, Vienna by Ultravox, I Feel For You by Chaka Khan, Atomic by Blondie, Prince Charming by Adam Ant, Geno by Dexy’s Midnight Runners.

What are yours?

10 Books That Rocked My World

Today, someone nominated me to do something that doesn’t involve ritual humiliation: to list the ten books that have had the most impact on my life. Here’s my selection (so hard!):

1. My First Dictionary. I’ll never forget the lovely little illustrations against each entry: A is for Apple. I pored over it for hours, learning the words. 
2. The Rupert Bear Annual. The rhyming, the beautiful illustrations, the fantastic stories. I still think of the wonderful Jack Frost tale when winter comes around.
3. Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte. The love story to end all love stories. One of the most original novels ever written, imho. 
4. Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Magical realism at its best in an epic love story. The only author’s death I’ve actually sobbed over. He changed the way my brain works.
5. Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels. The most beautifully written novel I’ve ever come across and a WW2 classic.
6. The Drowned and the Saved by Primo Levi. Essays on his experience as a concentration camp prisoner. Read following a visit to Auschwitz.
7. Four Letters of Love by Niall Williams. Irish magical realism at its very best. An epic ode to love set in my favourite country.
8. Ghostwritten by David Mitchell. A surrealist work of utter brilliance, with stories interwoven and interlinked in mind-blowing ways.
9. Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts. Semi-autobiographical story of a guy who flees to India after escaping prison in Australia. His voice mesmerised me. Incredible storytelling. 
10. The Old Patagonian Express by Paul Theroux. Gets on a train and doesn’t get off one until the land runs out. I felt like I travelled with him.

Am I allowed one more?
11. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami. The moment when I discovered this surreal Japanese genius and fell in love.

So many left out: Mallory Towers, Flowers in the Attic, Jane Eyre, Beloved, The Woman Who Walked Into Doors, Any Human Heart…I could go on and on… 

 
But I won’t.
 
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Toxic People

We’ve all come across them – those people in our lives that behave in a way we can’t work out. “But who DOES that?” we exclaim, when they’ve said something dreadful to us, taken credit for something we’ve done, or dumped us in some epic fashion. We sit in pubs with friends who don’t do that sort of thing, endlessly going over and over the whys and wherefores of why we might have caused them to do those things. What did we say? What did we do? What was the trigger? What could I have done to stop it?

The answer is: nothing.

The answer is: they’re toxic. And they’re everywhere.

I first started realising that this was a group of people with distinct behavioural traits when I hired someone (years ago) that I came to regret. The alarm bells had sounded at interview stage, but I couldn’t quite hear what the bells were telling me. I took it to a third interview because of the clanging, and on the way to introduce them to my boss, they overtook me in the corridor. Who DOES that? I knew it was strange, but I went on to hire them because they said everything I needed to hear, ticked all the boxes.

Boy, was that a mistake.

It was like inviting a cuckoo into the nest. This person decided to befriend other members of my team and try and turn them against me. If I was your boss, they’d say to them, I’d promote you. They were downright nasty to my face, but wreathed in smiles whenever there was anybody else there. I noticed that they looked slightly to one side of my head when they spoke to me. Who DOES that?

I almost left that great job because of that one person. When I reported the behaviour to my boss, his reaction was “Oh, you two…” like we were squabbling siblings. No. I was being systematically mentally bullied by a toxic person, mate.

Thankfully, this person left the business before I did, and I’ve noticed that since then, they’ve only been able to hold down short-term posts. Funny that. Toxic people hardly ever last long anywhere, unless they’re running things.

Anyway, before they left the company, this person smugly told me that they’d lied in their first interview with me. That what they really wanted to do was the exact opposite of what they’d been doing for me, and proudly stated ‘that they were good at that’.

“I’m good at lying in interviews.”

Who SAYS that?

I swore to always listen to alarm bells whenever they even dinged during an interview from that point on, but I still got taken in by another person a few years later. A lot of us were. We all said they appeared ‘warm’ and ‘kind’. I went on a business trip for a few days with them and still didn’t spot the signs. But the people on their team did. And boy did they suffer. Why are they DOING this to us, they asked? Because they could get away with it, unfortunately. For a while, at least.

That ability to present one face to one set of people and another to another set; that ability to learn ‘nice’ behaviour so fluently that they fool everyone around them.

Who HAS that?

Sociopaths.

In the aftermath of that bit of disastrous recruitment I started to become aware of sociopathy and narcissism. I’d read a bit about it, searched around online and found those lists of classic traits: deceitful, cunning and manipulative, often very intelligent, and unable to feel guilt, remorse, shame or responsibility for their actions. These people are hugely egocentric, charming and often brilliant with words. They have to win at everything. At all costs.

I started to think about all the people I’d encountered in my life that displayed some or all of those traits, to varying degrees. How I’d never been able to work out their motives, and found myself down the pub with others, saying, “Why would someone DO that?” Well now I know. They’re wired like that. And thankfully, I’m so not.

My theory crystallised after a hugely disastrous relationship ended. I’d fallen for someone with an astonishing ego – charming, brilliant and funny with words – on the face of it, my perfect guy. But I had started to see glimpses of a hidden monster a few months in. A twisted smile as I looked back at him unexpectedly, the fact that his biggest sexual fantasy was stealing another man’s woman. Who SAYS that? (Thankfully, he hadn’t stolen me.)

He’d even started to adopt behaviours, hobbies and interests of mine and passed them off as his own. I tried to think of this as flattering, but actually it was just plain weird. Friends took me to one side and said they didn’t like him – he’d said cruel things to them under the guise of humour or messaged them while he was in bed with me (without me knowing) as if to show off his ‘winnings’. Who DOES that?

A few months before it ended, he started to show his true self, as he started to disconnect from me, picking fights that would end with me wondering what the hell was going on. It was horrible, but I now know that it was a lucky escape for me. I’d seen the beast and got away from it. Typically, in his epic wordy ‘explanation’ of how things ended he gave me a list of reasons why it was my fault, and clearly felt no remorse or guilt.

One of the characteristics of these Toxic People is that you can never make them feel guilty. We Who Have Consciences want to tell them what they’ve done, how they’ve hurt us – make them feel as bad as we do. We fantasise about telling them everything and watching them slope off into the darkness, hunch-shouldered and crying. But they don’t. That’s what we’d do if we’d done something really awful to a person, but they don’t even recognise that behaviour. It is useless to try and reason with them because they simply can’t see it. Does not compute.

I’ve talked to a couple of friends recently who’ve encountered Toxics while dating. One said, “Why did she make me feel like I was the love of her life, that we were going to be together, then disappear completely? Why did she then get back in touch and do the same thing over again? Why? Who DOES that?!” It turned out this person had a gang of women hanging on her every word, charming them, making them feel they were the only one. making them vie for her attention. The technique she is using is ‘give them it all’ then ‘give them nothing’. Classic narcissism. Treat ’em mean, keep ’em keen (see link below for a great blog post on this).

My new coping mechanism is not to reason with these people, it’s to get away fast when I spot the signs. You must excise them from your life, if it’s humanly possible. You’ll never change them, they just learn new behaviours that allow them to appear ‘normal’, to make you think you’ve made an impact on them and keep you coming back for more. But all you’ve done is just give them more material to use against you. The beast still lurks within.

You’ll witness many variants of the Toxic – there’s the whispering poison-spreader in the office, who gathers a few allies around them and feeds them toxic titbits that ostracises them from the rest of the team and make them sneer at everyone else. I’ve seen a few budding careers take an early setback after being drawn into one of these little coteries. (Don’t be sucked in. You’re just feeding a horribly insecure beast.)

I think that’s my ultimate technique with these people: just don’t feed the beast. The beast wants you clinging on for titbits and morsels of charm and praise until you think you can’t live without them. And just at the very moment you think that, they know it and they withhold everything.

There is great power in giving nothing, watching them rootling around to see what you might have for them.

Don’t give them anything to feed on.

Get away quickly and don’t look back.

 

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On narcissists in relationships: http://selfcarehaven.wordpress.com/2014/07/21/five-powerful-ways-abusive-narcissists-get-inside-your-head/

How to Spot the Office Psychopath: http://yourlifeworks.ninemsn.com.au/article.aspx?id=373544

On narcissism:
http://www.salon.com/2014/09/20/this_is_your_brain_about_narcissism_the_truth_about_a_disorder_that_nobody_really_understands/?utm_source=facebook&utm_medium=socialflow

Smart ways to deal with Toxic People:
http://www.marcandangel.com/2013/12/08/7-smart-ways-to-deal-with-toxic-people/