New Year, New You

There seems to have been something in the air.

I’m actually compiling a list of every woman I’ve spoken to who’s had a romantically disappointing New Year. Like me, they’ve walked into 2017 with a resigned yet resolute air about them. The resounding cry of, “not you as well!” has made us laugh and know we’re not alone … yet we all know that we might be better off being alone. At least for a while.

For most of us, New Year has given us a snapshot into the reality of our situations and the clarity is terrifying. Christmas affords an opportunity to bedeck our lives in tinsel, fairy lights and the blurry focus of too-much prosecco, but New Year hurtles towards us, brutally throwing the decorations aside, revealing what lies beneath: the harsh truth of our situations.

I think that’s what people find so terrifying about New Year. Whether we choose to blot it out with booze, go to bed early, or plan to be in the air when it’s happening, it is because none of us find it easy to face New Year head on. If we don’t have a hand to hold or lips to kiss at midnight, it is as though life has just taken a selfie of us at our most exposed.

Nowhere to hide, nowhere to run.

For some, like me, the ‘midnight selfie’ was just what was needed to allow us to make a clear decision. On New Year’s Day I had an epiphany. I realised that what I’d thought (and hoped) was a relationship really wasn’t. He was in town with a friend on New Year’s Eve, while I was with friends at a party (and actually went to bed at 11.30pm having peaked too soon).

Suddenly the fact that he’d chosen to be apart on this one night of the year gave me the clarity I needed. It’s been so obvious. I’ve been a victim of wishful thinking, but I’m being nice to myself about it. Everyone is allowed to get away with that every now and again, right?

Other women I’ve spoken to have reported the men in their lives going AWOL on New Year’s Eve. Making plans and promises, then not turning up. Or turning up and creating an argument over nothing that then leads to them running away. Is this a thing? I’ve asked myself. Is there something about New Year that cements a commitment to someone if you share it? Do these guys run away from it because they’re scared of it, the terrifying clarity of the midnight selfie?

When I was married I had the opposite experience. New Year’s Eve (or Hogmanay, as we would be in Scotland for it) would suddenly provide me with a partner I didn’t recognise. One that would embarrass me in front of his friends by non-stop snogging. I can’t say I didn’t enjoy the attention, I just wish it could’ve been spread out across the rest of the year. I think the lawnmower got more attention than me on the other 364 days…

Anyway, now I’m entering my fiftieth year, and I’m honestly relieved not to have to factor in another person to the plans. I had been worrying how my ‘flying solo’ plans would be affected so I’m now back on track, at least.

The decorations are down and my flat looks clean and clear.

So does 2017.

 

These Are The Times

Ever since Brexit, and probably during the build-up to it, I kept thinking, “this is what it’s like to live in history”. To live in a time when such monumental shifts are happening they will appear on a curriculum somewhere in the future, and people will be writing theses on 2016 in the way that they might write one now on 1066, 1918 or 1939.

Like most of the 48% of people who didn’t vote for Britain to leave the EU, I’ve had to come to terms with the fact that I’ve been living in a bubble (London – the biggest bubble of all). Seventeen million people in the UK didn’t think the same way as me or my friends. I’d already had an inkling that this might be the case during the election that brought our current Conservative government to power, but Brexit was still a mighty blow and wake-up call.

As we approach Remembrance Day, I think about how the World Wars defined my family. I know about my great uncles Joe and William who both died fighting in France. I think about how being born in 1918 and serving in the Second World War defined my father – even his memoir was called ‘Between the Fires‘. He told stories to me when I was a child of how shells whistled over his head in the North African desert, and I treasure the little book of photographs he brought back with him, showing him with his army friends.

My mother was a teenager during the Second World War and told me stories of the American GIs in town, taking a gas mask to school, and the sound of bombs hitting Liverpool, across the River Dee. She told me how she used to hide under the dinner table when the air raids were on. These were the stories my parents told when they were asked about themselves. I thought they were all rather romantic and slightly wished I’d experienced them too.

For my generation, and for others, I think our story starts now. I don’t think we’ve experienced anything that has forced us to identify our place in the world until now. Yes, we’ve had the miners’ strike, yes we had to deal with the threat of nuclear war in the Reagan-Thatcher era, yes we’ve had the Falklands and Gulf Wars. But nothing, in my view, has made us look at ourselves and the person standing next to us until now.

There is a tidal wave of right-wing aggression sweeping world politics right now. Political popularity is being built on a rising tide of xenophobia and misogyny and I think we’re right to draw comparisons with the 1930s, and right to wonder how the hell this is happening again.

For a few years now, I’ve been bumbling along in a bubble of left-wing liberalism, finding my feminist voice and shouting about things I feel strongly about on social media. Even so, I’ve never really felt able to completely define what I stand for, beyond feminism, because I’ve bought into an amorphous cluster of already defined liberal ideas: I stand against racism, sexism and homophobia, and support human rights, freedom of speech and international co-operation, ‘just like everyone else’.

Except not everyone else does.

These are the times when I have to recalibrate where I stand in the world. This is not just a case of retweeting a few statements I agree with, or sharing a meme on Facebook that makes me feel like I’m standing up for my values. What are my values? What is my story? How am I going to live it? What is the real-life action I’m going to take?

I keep looking for silver linings, in this ridiculous, Trumped-up world we find ourselves in. One is that so many of us are finding our political identity for the first time and the confidence to show it to the world. There is no doubt in my mind that Brexit and the Trump win are part of a backlash against the liberal values I stand for. As Guardian US columnist Jessica Valenti tweeted:

Tonight is what backlash looks like – to women’s rights, to racial progress, to a cultural shift that doesn’t center white men.

I had no idea that the groundswell of support behind the ideas put forward by Trump, Farage and Johnson was so great. That the Daily Mail extremism of a Katie Hopkins or a Milo Yiannopoulos would actually be a populist view taken seriously by millions of people.

But it is. They are.

It’s naïve of us to think that we’re not at the centre of a huge historical moment right now. All we need to do is join the dots. These are the times when I am going to wake up and define myself within it. I have to. There isn’t a choice any more. There isn’t a comfy armchair to sit in and watch the world go by.

I’m very very scared by the US election result. They have elected someone who bears all the hallmarks of a fascist dictator – one who might overturn a woman’s right to abortion, who might build a wall to keep ‘foreigners’ out. So how wonderful is it that in a supreme case of role reversal, the German chancellor is the one to fire a warning shot across his bows:

Germany and America are connected by common values: democracy, freedom, respect for the law and for human dignity irrespective of origin, skin colour, religion, gender, sexual orientation or political conviction. On the basis of these values, I offer the future president of America, Donald Trump, a close working relationship.

So here I am, Mum, Dad. Witnessing something colossal on the world stage, in the week where we remember events we thought could never be repeated. For the first time in my life I believe that they genuinely could. And for the first time in my life I feel compelled to define who I am, and witness my friends doing the same.

These are the times.

1928

Recently, I was asked in a questionnaire what year I would like to go back to and why. After deliberating awhile I realised that there was only one year I could go back to: 1928. This is the year my mother was born; the year that women gained electoral equality with men in the Equal Franchise Act; the year that Virginia Woolf delivered her famous A Room of One’s Own speech to the women of Girton College, Cambridge.

How amazing to have been there, listening to Virginia exhorting the assembled young women to “possess yourselves of money enough to travel and to idle, to contemplate the future or the past of the world, to dream over books and loiter at street corners and let the line of thought dip deep into the stream.”

I’ve realised that this blog is my response to Woolf. I left my marriage when I felt I was financially able to – it really was the trigger – and I’d waited a long time for it to happen. Since then, I’ve lapped up my freedom and dipped so deeply into that stream. I eventually felt compelled to write about my experiences. Virginia would be so proud.

I’ve also recently read Gloria Steinem’s memoir My Life on the Road and been similarly inspired. It made me smile, the chapter entitled ‘Why I Don’t Drive’ because like Gloria, I can drive but I’ve stopped, preferring public transport. And like Gloria, I don’t drive “because adventure starts the moment I leave my door”.

I remember my honeymoon to New Zealand. The two of us spent the whole time in a motorhome, speaking to no one, having miniature meals out of the miniature fridge and stacking everything back neatly so that it didn’t fall out of the cupboards when we were driving in the mountains. I remember the relief of speaking to the petrol-station attendants as we bought the infamous steak-and-cheese pies from the heated cabinets (try them). I wish with all my heart that we’d at least driven round in a car and stayed at motels – at least we’d have more people to speak to, and I’ve have had less time to ruminate on whether or not I’d just made the biggest mistake of my life.

I’m 50 next year (I know, right?!) and I’ve been having some ideas about what I’d like to do. I’ve decided on a smorgasbord of experiences rather than a big single one, although I am tempted to return to Costa Rica. It’s just too beautiful not to return to…

Anyway, one of the things I’m really settled on is that I will walk. A lot. On my own. I love it, and I discovered that Woolf did too, walking in London, Cornwall, Sussex and Spain, believing that walking benefits mind, body and soul. On  a recent return trip to my beloved Isle of Wight coastal path, I felt my soul sing with every step. I can’t not go back there.

I am thinking about the Camino – the pilgrim’s routes that form a web of walks all over northern Europe to the final destination in northwestern Spain: Santiago di Compostela. I know it’s a well-worn route, but I might try the Portuguese coastal way. The last time I was in Portugal I was miserable, with a ‘friend’ who was bemoaning the loss of a boyfriend and taking it all out on me. I wrote a diary whilst there, detailing my longing to escape. It would be great to go back and reclaim that country for myself.

I’m also thinking of the Norwegian Hurtigruten cruises. I know it sounds like I’m already applying for my Saga reward card but ever since I visited Norway I’ve been keen to go back and see that coastline properly. The Hurtigruten was once a postal ferry that plied along the Norwegian coast – now it does it mainly for pleasure-seekers, it seems, but I’d love to try it. It’s on the list.

And finally, and yet another inspiration I got from a book I’ve recently read (Wildwood by Roger Deakin) I’m thinking about trying Peddar’s Way in Norfolk. I’d never even heard of it until I read the book. And I’d never heard of Roger Deakin until I’d read Robert Macfarlane’s The Old Ways. And so, my circle of book-based life-enhancement goes on.

And so does my relentless search for another coastline to love. At some point I have to revisit the glorious Wild Atlantic Way, because for me, no other coastline has quite had that magic. Dahab in Egypt has come close, but nothing speaks to me like that west coast of Ireland. I’ve driven it, yes, but I’d like to feel my hiking boots on the ground and the inevitable drizzle and sunshine (often at the same time) on my face.

And then there’s the Guinness and Tia Maria to try again in that bar in Allihies…

 

 

Venice, Vidi, Vici

Last weekend I did something I’ve been wanting to do for years – go back to Venice. It was twenty-five years ago that I was first bewitched by the place, swearing I’d only go back for a romantic break with someone ‘special’. That person didn’t rock up, so goddammit, I went there by myself. I booked a cool, boutique hotel, planned my four days out using Lonely Planet, and re-entered the fantasy world of the city.

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The gold sofa in the reception at AD Place Hotel

What I’d forgotten is that it’s like entering a restaurant on a perma-Valentine’s Night. The place is festooned with love and lovers, now taking ‘kelfies’ – my made-up word for kissing selfies. In front of every building, work of art or bario serving spritz … there they were. I didn’t really notice it last time I was there – I was too entranced with the place. Also, I was young enough to think I’d have my time there to do that. Lol.

So really, what I was doing was the Iron Woman Challenge of all solo holidays. Going to the most romantic place in the world as a middle-aged woman on her own. “I can totally do this!” I thought. And I did. Kind of.

I managed to dodge the rose-thrusting touts around St Mark’s square, and chuckled when I heard an American woman behind me cry, “Do I LOOK like I’m with anyone??” That’s the thing when you’re a female solo traveller. You suddenly realise that you’re surrounded by them. We’re quite well-camouflaged, actually. No one suspects the woman blending into the surroundings looking like she’s just waiting for someone, but we see each other very clearly, emerging from the scene. And there are more and more of us every year, it seems.

Even at the airport I’d gone to the champagne bar and made eye-contact with at least three other women doing the same thing as me: treating ourselves to a lovely glass before jetting off, because we could. I spoke to one of them and she was going to Berlin, but not before sneezing all over me and giving me a cold three days later. Thanks, love.

Anyway, on my first night I was full of the joy of being alone and free in the most beautiful city in the world. I’d planned a walk around San Marco, which would culminate in a spritz at a bar I’d been recommended. Of course, Venice being Venice, I couldn’t find it so I found an accommodating restaurant – the Rosa Rossa – who found me a table tucked away outside. I smiled at my good fortune and ordered a spritz.

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The view from Ponte Dell’Accademia. Staggeringly beautiful.

Fifteen minutes passed and couples were starting to surround me. They appeared to be being served promptly so I reminded the waiter (he seemed to be the manager) that I’d been waiting for fifteen minutes. He broke out in what can only be described as operatic ritual humiliation of me in front of the other customers. Waving his arms around, he remonstrated with me, shouting that I’d only been waiting for five minutes and couldn’t I see that they were busy and now, you see? Here is the drink you’ve been waiting for. Prego, PREGO!

I died a little in my seat. I also sat there for about five minutes choking back tears. He came back out to take my food order and instead of doing what I should have done – stormed off – I told him I’d order if he promised not to shout at me. It was the worst meal I’ve ever had in Italy, for so many reasons. The couple next to me looked shocked.

Thinking about it, what annoyed him about me was probably that I was the least important of his customers, but the one that ventured to complain. Had I been in a couple, I’m sure I’d have been served immediately. Had I been a girl of twenty-four, as I had been the last time I visited, I think he’d have been all over me. But me, just sitting there, at forty-nine, with no man or baby to make ‘sense’ of me, just got his goat.

I placed a review on TripAdvisor as soon as I left the restaurant. His reply says it all:

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So there it is, for all to see. It was definitely fifteen minutes because I’d checked in on Swarm as I arrived and looked back at the time. Maybe those minutes fly by when you’re in a couple, but I’m betting a manly cough towards the waiter would’ve got him running.

If you’d like to see the restaurant in question, and the review, now read by over 200 people, then here’s the link. Note that all the subsequent rave reviews are from couples and groups. Sadly my review didn’t link to my usual profile, where I’ve posted many rave reviews of hotels and restaurants. I’m pretty sure this is the only bad one.

It happened again on my return boat trip to the airport. The boat driver shouted at me for trying to pay at the wrong moment. I teared up again. So this is what happened in twenty-five years – I’ve gone from being  catcalled to shouted at. I’m in the way.

Don’t get me wrong, in between those moments, the weekend was a dream of renaissance art and architecture, of La Traviata in a palazzo on the Grand Canal and Vivaldi in a frescoed church. It was cicheti and wine in a tucked-away street ‘bario’ and a pistachio gelato next to a fantasy-scene of sparkling waterways and winking gondoliers. It was everything I remembered the first time, but much more. And I’m going to go back.

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A Dorsoduro canal-way.

And when I go back I’m going to remember the conversation I had with a woman who was visiting the city with her husband. He’d gone off to do something else and she’d taken a seat next to me in a bar, and was taking a breather with a beer and a cigarette. I told her about my solo-travelling thing and why I’d got into that and she suddenly blurted out that she too was wishing she was on her own, and that she was thinking about leaving her husband. She probably only told me because I was a complete stranger, but I did start to wonder about all the kelfie-taking love-puppies I’d seen in gondolas. How many of them were wishing they were with someone, or no one, else?

I remembered feeling like that on numerous holidays, even my honeymoon, and felt glad that at least I was free of that. Free of scanning every place I went for the guy I was ‘supposed’ to be with. It’s exhausting, and at the very least, unfair on the person you are actually with.

So Venice. I came, I saw, I conquered. I am so in love with you that I don’t think I can leave it at that. You can make me feel elated and transcendent, but you can also make me feel like dirt on your shoe.

But at least I feel alive in your presence.

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Puncinello by Tiepolo in Ca’Rezzonico palazzo on the Grand Canal

Great Expectations

Recently, a guy I dated once remonstrated with me for not following up our one date with a text requesting another date. Why had I not texted him? Was I waiting for the guy to text first? He suggested that that wasn’t very feminist of me.

Sigh.

I manage my expectations, I told him. I dial them down so low I expect nothing. I expect you to not text, to not call, to not follow up. I expect you to enjoy one of the best dates you and I will probably ever experience and yet not want to follow that up. In fact, when one of those happens, that’s my go-to place. If the date is extra-good, I know there’ll be silence after. Sometimes things can go too well and it freaks them out.

But his response – a few months later, it has to be said – intrigued me. This guy was actually annoyed at me for not expecting anything. I think he wanted me to be longing for him, so the delight in keeping me at arms length would be sweeter. I realised what power there is in zero expectation. Of anything. Of anybody. And now I’ve started to apply it to everything in life.

I think I’ve already been applying it, actually, when I think about my attitude to weather. If there’s an important outdoor event at the weekend, I seem to be the only person checking the actual forecast to see what it’s really going to do. Everyone around me seems to prefer choosing hope over reason. They tell me, until the last minute, that they hope the forecast will be wrong, and suddenly all will be sunshine and frolicking. When I say, ‘the BBC says it’s going to rain at 3pm but it should be done by 4’, I get horrified looks. But why not just face the truth and deal with it? Why be constantly disappointed in life?

I think losing parents early in life can remove any misty-eyed optimism about the future. It’s left me with a tendency to look reality in the face and name problems. I was once put in a work situation where friends told me I would find a ‘dysfunctional family’ but I only discovered what was tantamount to domestic abuse. They didn’t want to hear it. Similarly, when told I would experience ‘rough and tumble’, I witnessed bullying.

I don’t like euphemisms, I like clarity.

I think this may sound as though I’ve lost all hope in life. I haven’t. I still have hope and expectation for myself and I’m the only person I’ll ever expect anything of. I expect me to make something of my life without expecting anyone else to help. If they do, then that’s a bonus, but I will not allow myself to expect it. I expect me to bring joy into my life, and I do, by striking out on my own in the world and not leaning on anyone else. People might bring joy into my life, but I’m not waiting for it any more. I’ve spent far too much time waiting.

I’m going to Venice on my own in a couple of weeks after waiting for years to return there, with an as-yet undiscovered man. I realised what I was doing and immediately booked my own trip. What the hell was I waiting for? Some ridiculous rose-tinted moment that was never going to happen, that’s what.You can waste a lifetime waiting for the right moment, I’ve found. And even then you can find yourself there with the wrong person.

It’s actually incredibly liberating to be solely reliant on yourself for everything. I’ve thought a lot over the years about how not having a safety net – no parents, no wealthy relatives, no ‘loved ones’ to catch you immediately if you fall – can be a very scary situation to find yourself in. When I have to write down the name of an ‘in case of emergency’ person on a medical form it sends me into a tailspin. Who is that person? Sometimes I feel like writing, ‘It’s me, actually’.

It’s me.

 

This Woman Can

I’ve been thinking about writing a piece on women and the workplace for a while, now. My own experience has thrown a few things into relief, and as I’ve got older, I’ve found myself wanting to support and encourage younger women as they navigate through earlier stages in their careers. Ladies, women and girls, this is what I say to you.

In the words of Paul Weller, stop apologising for the things you’ve never done. Practically every woman I come into contact with in a professional situation starts apologising from the very moment we meet. I had a meeting last week in which a young professional apologised for being pregnant, having to eat because she was pregnant, and for generally, well, just existing. She was asking professional advice, and my ultimate advice was, stop saying sorry.

I hear it all the time. Sorry for interrupting you at your desk; sorry for having this idea; sorry for having to say something out loud; sorry for having an opinion. Sometimes I think it’s the only word I can hear women saying.

Stop it. Stop saying it. If you feel it bubbling up towards your lips, stop speaking. Say what you were going to say without the apology before it. I will then stop telling you off.

If someone asks you to speak on a panel, say yes. Hear your inner voice saying, ‘I couldn’t possibly do that’ and immediately crush it. Time and time again I’m told by organisations that the reason why there are so many ‘manels’ is because women say no to the invitation to speak. I nearly did it a year or so ago – and this is after many years of speaking at conferences. It was a topic I wasn’t completely fluent in, but it was within the realms of the industry I work in. I heard a voice in my head – it was a friend and mentor in the industry who had given me many platforms in the past to speak from. She was telling me that I’d be great at it, if I just did some research around it. I did, and I was.

I chaired a panel at last week’s London Book Fair and it was interesting in that the three women (it was a one-man, two-female panel, me chairing) were the most nervous about it and did the most prep. The guy turned up with no notes and just spoke from the heart (he had been given my questions though). We were all talking just before the event and I asked the panel if they could just walk in now and wing it, without any notes or prepared questions. We agreed we could. We know our stuff.

But women question their fluency all the time – it’s so-called impostor syndrome. ‘Am I really an expert in this?’ our inner voice says, even when our combined experience in the topic was over 40 years between us. The prep we did do made it a greater panel than it would have been, but I know we could’ve just started talking and made for an interesting discussion.

Let your voice be heard in meetings. I heard some advice last year from a woman on Radio 4 – her tip for women in meetings was to say something first in the room, even if it’s just about wanting a window being open or asking if anyone else would like a glass of water. Her theory was that sometimes the timbre of a woman’s voice came as a bit of a shock in a male-dominated group, and to get it out there first, made the situation less of one. I think it would also help a woman feel more comfortable with her first professional words in a meeting scenario. If she’s already conversed with members of the group in an open setting, then it would give her more confidence.

I’ve noticed something very interesting about men coming into meetings. Whilst women come straight in and find the nearest seat and sit down, men often stand at the door, surveying the scene, at once both waiting for everyone to acknowledge their arrival and seeing which seat is the most effective for them. I enjoy carrying on talking while they stand there, no doubt waiting for the trumpets to herald their arrival. I also think that maybe they’re wondering where the throne is…

I’m not really into meeting-room politics, but sometimes it does matter where you sit. Never be that person who just drags a chair in from another room and sits at the back of a room whilst everyone else is at the table.

Be at the table. Be seen. Be heard.

Remember what you are being paid to do. I once walked into a meeting with a top media entertainment firm where we were meeting with a female financial director and a range of male directors. As my group arrived, the FD sprang out of her seat and started making the tea and coffee, while the other directors made jokes about her doing it. If you ever find yourself falling into a pattern of expected behaviour like this, make a conscious effort to stop. If the guys aren’t making the tea or doing the washing up, check yourself. Don’t become the office housewife.

Know that women have been socialised to compete with each other.

We have. Because patriarchy.

You will encounter women who purport to be your friend, but are actually preparing to stand on your head or throw you under a bus to reach the next level in their career. There will be those that present your ideas as their own or bad-mouth you to the boss. Yes, this does happen between men and women but it comes as more of a shock when the ‘sisterhood’ does it to you.

Don’t let it stop you being a team-player, just know that it is a possibility and become more robust. It’s never going to stop happening, all you can do is protect yourself against it and try not to be like that yourself.

It would be hard to sleep at night, for one thing.

 

 

Fifteen

“That girl knew exactly what she was doing.”

I can’t tell you how sick I am of hearing those words. This week they came from so-called journalist Katie Hopkins who has decided to feel all sorry for footballer Adam Johnson, as he is imprisoned for sexual activity with a 15-year-old. Ever the victim-blamer, she describes the girl as “a hormonal teen stalking someone famous for attention, desperate for a chance to have something her friends do not.”

I think back to when I was fifteen and developing major crushes on older, unattainable men wherever I went. I never acted on them, but I think the targets of my devotion must have been only too aware that there was a young girl mooning around after them, hanging on their every word.

I remember being in a pantomime with ‘Brian’, who played Buttons in Snow White. (I know… Buttons appears in Cinderella but this was a low-budget thing in the north-west). Brian must have been in his twenties when he had me waiting to catch his eye at every turn. Even while I was dressed as a dwarf and saying, “Oh you ARE lovely, Snow White!” – my only line in the whole thing (I got paid £10 – my first pay check, spent on tukka boots in Top Shop).

But Brian was kind. He dropped his girlfriend into the conversation now and then, just to make sure I was aware, and continued to be nice and brotherly to me. He didn’t take advantage of me and made me feel comfortable around him. I loved Brian.

This happened a few times during those years. I, like many teenage girls, was testing out my new-found sexuality and powers of attraction. I didn’t quite know what would happen, and I was a little bit scared. And although I didn’t know it at the time, I relied on the adult men I was testing it out on to be responsible and to not take advantage. I remember a guy called Paul taking a kind and brotherly stance with me and how I found it intensely annoying that he didn’t ‘see’ me. But oh boy, he definitely saw me. And he acted like every responsible adult should.

Because to my mind, you can say all you like about Adam Johnson’s victim but when all is said and done, he is the adult and she is the child. She may have looked and acted like a sexually experienced young woman, but she was probably in wild ‘testing’ mode and couldn’t believe that the object of her crush was reciprocating. It was up to him to stop the 834 WhatsApp messages or not even start them in the first place. It was up to him not to pick her up in his car. Up to him to stop the sexting. Up. To. Him.

There are some men who can’t believe it when a younger woman or teenager appears to find them attractive. They think they are singled out for their unique animal magnetism, seemingly unaware that young women test out their sexuality like this all the time. We look to see who’s looking, and find these guys staring back. I remember going on weekend day trips with my family as a teenager and without fail, the guys staring back at me in the places we visited were the dads, not the sons I was scanning the room for. It was like that for a very long time until the roles switched, and I found the sons of the guys I was checking out staring back at me. Weird, that.

At fifteen, I mostly had crushes on guys in bands, and I now realise how safe that kind of crushing was, with only a Patches magazine poster to moon over in my bedroom. Coming into contact with real-life men was something that presented more challenges. I shudder to think what trouble I might have got into now, with the convenience of social media and smartphones.

I thank my lucky stars that the guys I encountered at fifteen were so kind to me. Brian, lovely Brian, with your mullet hairdo. I salute you for being a responsible adult with a clear-eyed perception of the situation I put you into.

Thank you.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mothering Heights

I have a distinct memory of my mother picking me up from the school gates one sunny afternoon in the ’70s. She must have had to come in to the school for some reason, because my memory is of her looking exceedingly glamorous as she strode in, and me feeling immensely proud. She was wearing an oversized bouclé coat she’d knitted herself (it had different-coloured trees all over it) and purple suede knee-high boots that had buttons down the side. Even then, at the age of around eight, I was aware that she had a style that marked her out from the other mums and I loved it.

I now realise that if I was eight, she must have been forty-six – two years younger than I am now.

As my forty-ninth birthday approaches I’ve realised that I’ve turned into a mother – my mother – without even making that life decision. Last week, I was talking to a younger friend about my dating prospects as a single woman in her late forties, and, trying to be helpful, he immediately referenced his mother as a comparative scenario. It came as a shock that he saw me that way, as it’s not how I see myself. Until now.

Later the same night I attended a Rudimental gig at the O2, on my own, and sat next to a group of teenagers cradling their Diet Cokes and immediately realised that other people would assume I was their mother. Hell, the kids probably thought I’d escaped from a Mother’s Home and was sent there to keep an eye on them. I did keep an eye on the girl next to me, who was stroking her hair extensions obsessively while her best mate ‘cracked on’ with the boy next to her. I was dying to tell her that in about twenty years, she’d be the hot one and her friend would look like a beanbag…

This is the first time in my life that I’ve really been hit by the reality of ageing. I sailed through turning thirty because at that point, I’d only just starting really living life, having missed out on so much ‘fun’ in my late teens and twenties. At forty, I was going through a renaissance, professionally and personally, so it felt like a rebirth, rather than the beginning of the end.

Now, approaching fifty, something else is happening. For the first time, I’m feeling that shift, as the cloak of invisibility descends. Used to a certain level of attention in public (not all of it welcome), I’m adjusting to life as a normal human being who can walk down the street unnoticed. I’m also adjusting to seeing my mother in the mirror every time I go to the hairdressers. That halo of thick, blow-dried hair I remember seeing every Friday when she returned from her weekly hairdo. There she is again. Staring back at me.

There is a sketch from Inside Amy Schumer, in which Amy joins Tina Fey and Patricia Arquette as they help Julia Louis-Dreyfus celebrate her Last Fuckable Day as an actress (she’s 55). They talk about that moment where the media decides women are no longer believably fuckable and they recast them as mothers. They give Sally Field as the greatest example, one minute playing Tom Hanks’ love interest in Punchline, the next his mother in Forrest Gump.

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In many ways, life for a woman is like that movie set. I’m shifting over to the other side, but I didn’t ask to be recast. (I’m not even going to get into why mothers can’t be viewed as ‘fuckable’ – as we know they can, judging by the number of searches for ‘milf’, ‘mom’ and ‘stepmom’ on porn sites. It’s just a lust that dare not speak its name, apparently.)

And so, I know what I have to do. I have to be my mother – that woman striding around in purple suede boots and an eye-catching knitted coat, being clever about everything. I have to channel my looky-likey Julianne Moore (55) who just gets better and better with age, as an actress as well as a woman. The number of role models for me abounds: Robin Wright (49); Cate Blanchett (46); Kylie Minogue (47); Gillian Anderson (47). Well hello, ladies. No cloaks of invisibility there.

As ex-Vogue Editor-in-chief Caroline Roitfeld (56) said, “I can not be in competition with a girl of 20, so I have to be the best in my category.”

Showtime.

 

Because I’m Happy

I’m writing this ahead of Valentine’s Day, because normally at this point the fear and dread has set in. I’ve never been keen on being in a pink, heart-festooned restaurant even when I was in a couple, but it’s even worse when you’re not. At least this year, VD (oops, did I just write that?) has the good sense to be on a Sunday, so we can all avoid the flower deliveries to the office and the smug carriers of said flowers on the train home. Normally, I’d be contemplating a day inside my flat, binge-watching something, and binge-eating something else.

But this year, I’m not. It doesn’t actually matter any more. I used to get all het up about this stuff, but that moment has passed. I know VD is a mostly sham experience, but hey – lots of my friends are in love, or have found love, so it’s fine if they want to celebrate it. Hell, I’ll even celebrate it with them (in a social-media sense).

I have found real love here and there in my life, but never for very long. I think the most I’ve managed is a few months. I remember the feeling it creates… That heady delight in everything, where you want to skip down the road and hand out flowers to small children and the elderly. You find yourself marvelling at the minute detail of the world and being kind to people on the Tube. I remember feeling like I wanted to pirouette down the street (dance training comes in handy) and sing, “I’m in love … with a pretty wonderful boy!” from West Side Story.

The thing is, I’m feeling a bit like that right now. There’s no romance in my life, although I do see a couple of guys occasionally. They make me feel happy when I’m with them because there’s no pressure for it to be anything than what it is. I think I make them happy too. As a friend says to me quite often, “It is what it is, Babe.” This has turned out to be my life mantra.

It’s been coming on now for a few months. I have found a job that I love and people I love working with. I’m being collaboratively creative in a way that hasn’t happened for years and it is making me so happy.

I have found myself letting old grudges gently slide (well, nearly all of them). I’ve realised people are just humans like me, imperfect and just trying their best. Might as well just all get along while we’re here, eh? Why make it worse for ourselves?

I’ve found myself helping a variety of people on public transport and smiled at the surprise on their faces. I remember the last time I felt like this and it was a love affair that did it – it made me want to be kinder to people. How lovely that it can be done even without another person being involved. Who knew that all it required was just to feel genuinely happy in your own skin? I don’t think I’ve ever felt like this.

So here I am, nearly 49, single, feeling happy in my skin. And yes, I’m just as amazed as you probably are. It’s not supposed to happen, is it? Women my age are meant to be surrounding themselves with cats and growing hairy warts on their faces. Instead, I’m striding out to work with a spring in my step, booking solo adventures abroad and saying howdy doody to surprised old people in north-west London. I’ve even given up dieting and don’t feel the need to drown any sorrows in booze. I even spent Christmas in the UK, without feeling like I needed to get on a flight somewhere. Anywhere…

I’ve noticed for a while now that more people are smiling at me, in general. I think it’s because my face is set in one (for a while I thought I had a ‘little something’ on my cheek). I’ve particularly enjoyed exchanging smiles with women when I’m out and about, mainly because smiling at men can often get you in trouble. And I think women SHOULD smile at each other more. There’s way too much scowling for my liking.

So, if this post is making you gag with all its sickly sweetness, bear in mind that on Sunday, I might be celebrating the fact that you’ve found your own sickly sweet love. And I truly think that’s great because I’ve felt its awesomeness.

But I’m afraid the old cliché is a cliché for a reason: because it’s true.

In the words of Whitney Houston, learning to love yourself is the greatest love of all.

Happy Valentine’s Day to me, and to all you lovers out there.

Mwah.

 

Eat Pray Love Made Me Do It

I wrote this essay for the tenth anniversary of Eat Pray Love – author Elizabeth Gilbert put a call out for people to say how her bestselling book had changed their lives. Their stories will be published in book form, entitled Eat Pray Love Made Me Do It in April this yearMy story didn’t make the final cut so I thought I’d publish it myself here.

Dedicated to Katherine.

I was given a copy of Eat Pray Love at the airport by an American girlfriend. A girlfriend who knew I was struggling with my marriage and no doubt hoped it would make a difference to my life.

Initially I was wary of the Julia Roberts quote on the front cover, telling me she’d given a copy to all her girlfriends. ‘Ugh – self help,’ I thought. As I browsed the pages in the airport bookshop I saw a few mentions of ‘god’ that made me roll my eyes a bit. ‘American navel-gazing ‘hallelujah’ twaddle’, I thought.

But I started reading the book on the plane to San Francisco. And it spoke to me. Who was this woman, singing my life with her words?

The marriage that on paper, seemed perfect. Nice guy, nice house, nice life. And yet it wasn’t enough. It was making her miserable. The desperate nights on the bathroom floor.

Although I hadn’t gone as far as a bathroom-floor experience, I was feeling increasingly desperate. The year before this holiday I’d had an epiphany on a work trip. I’d just turned forty and had an encounter with a man at a party that had reset the way I saw myself. He looked at me and described what he saw – “half woman, half girl,” he said. He told me I was beautiful and sexy, that he didn’t usually go for older women (only a four-year difference, mate) but there I was in front of him. I didn’t know what to say. No one had ever said those words so clearly and directly to me. Including my husband.

I was in the midst of a boom-time, career-wise. I was spending most of my time in the office or in the pub after work, celebrating the achievements of the team I was working with. Increasingly, I’d started to feel that my husband didn’t want to celebrate any of my success so I’d started to stay out night after night, to get it all out of my system before I went home.

The work trip was to Cannes Film Festival and I‘d been invited to a party hosted by one of the big studios as I’d been working with them on a huge project. And boy, was I ready to party.

I danced energetically and happily with one guy for most of the night. He was from my part of the UK and we got on well. It felt so good to be with someone I could be openly celebratory with, there in the balmy Cannes night, in the gardens of a beautiful villa.

At about 2am the whole group headed back to our hotel in Juan Les Pins and after an aborted attempt to go skinny-dipping in the pool, the others drifted back to their rooms. I was still high on the experience of the party and couldn’t face going to bed. I went to my dance partner’s room.

At this point, you’re going to think, ‘oh she slept with him’. Reader, I didn’t. We went out on his balcony and looked at the night sky and talked. I’ve always loved that song, ‘Strangers in the Night’ and now I know why. This guy lived in America so there was no real chance of meeting again. It was a one-off encounter.

It was around 4.30am when I decided to return to my room. We hugged each other at his door and agreed that it had been one of the best nights we’d ever spent. Nothing more than a brief kiss happened, but it was as seismic as full sex as far as my life was concerned. More so.

I returned to the UK and he to the US, but there was a crackling line of electricity between us that lasted for months, even years, after. I felt as though I’d been jolted awake after years of sexual slumber. When I returned from Cannes, my husband joked that he thought I was having an affair. I wasn’t, but he could see that something in me had shifted.

The plane I was on a year later was heading to San Francisco, where Cannes guy lived. It wasn’t the whole reason I was going, but it was a strong part of it. He actually chickened out of meeting me by telling me he was in the UK when he wasn’t, but that trip sealed my fate.

I’d read Eat Pray Love on the flight out to SF and spent the week with my friends thinking about my situation. I remember a moment, sitting on a lakeside somewhere in Sonoma, watching my friends swimming then laying my head on my drawn-up knees. I needed to be free and I needed time to think about how to do it.

The answer came a few months later in the form of a promotion, and with it, financial independence. I walked home from a shopping trip one day (I did these frequently on my own – more escaping from home life) and told my husband as soon as I got in. I wanted a divorce.

And oh, the sadness of that moment. He was one of my best friends. We’d shared adventure holidays together, built homes together, stood next to each other when parents had died, when jobs were lost.

Crucially, though, we hadn’t held each other when the bad things happened. One of the main reasons why I felt the way I did was because he simply hadn’t been there to support me when the chips were down. He’d pretended to be ill when my mum died, so he wouldn’t have to deal with it. He’d ignored the fact that I was in London during the July bombings. He’d got angry when I nearly drowned in a river.

He just didn’t care.

He didn’t love me enough.

He was a good friend, but not a great one.

But now I could break free, and in doing so let him go and find a new life with someone he might be able to love properly. Maybe he’d even start a family, as I’d been resolutely childfree-by-choice.

With Elizabeth Gilbert in mind, my first action, post-separation, was to book a holiday to Thailand on my own. I’d thought about Bali but I was keen not to become a Gilbert Groupie and just shamelessly copy her journey. I pictured Bali filled with women-of-a-certain age, all roaming around yearningly looking for a Felipe of their own.

As it turned out, I wasn’t looking for a Felipe – I needed freedom, not a new, permanent man in my life. In Phuket, I found Dougie, a young Aussie Thai boxer, who carried me round the island on the back of his moped, my hair streaming behind me as I grinned with joy. Like Cannes guy, he’d approached me with candour about my older-woman attractiveness, saying I was ‘cool’ and much more chilled than the younger women he was used to. He’d had testicular cancer some years before and was just trying to enjoy life. We enjoyed it together for a short time.

In a way, that first Thai holiday was my ‘bathroom floor’ moment. I cried myself stupid in my hotel room for three days before getting out and meeting Dougie. I’d been surrounded by couples in a lovely hotel and found myself weeping into my dinner, night after night. Only the good offices of friends made me wash my face, put on a nice dress, and walk into the nearby town to see what was going on. I was so afraid, but there was nothing to fear. Dougie and his friends were there.

But that holiday wasn’t enough for me. It had been a test to see if I could holiday alone, so I immediately booked a return visit to Thailand when I returned home. Next stop, Koh Samui.

My longed-for freedom came as I found myself befriending two Thai women and whizzing round on their motorbike, one in front of me, the other behind me. ‘Farang sandwich’, I quipped, ‘farang’ meaning ‘white European’. At a club in Chaweng, I met Andrew, another Aussie, who was still partying on New Year’s Day, after a big New Year’s Eve on Koh Pha Ngan. We danced, we laughed, he marveled that I was in my forties. I loved it. I loved him.

Those Thai holidays became the first of many, and now I am a seasoned solo traveller. I’ve even started a blog about ‘flying solo’ as it’s something that’s come to define my new-found independent status. In many ways, Dahab in Egypt is my Bali, where I have friends I return to frequently. It is my happy place.

At home, I can go for a drink or have dinner on my own and it feels like the most empowering thing a woman can ever do. I haven’t found my Felipe, but in a sense I don’t want to right now. The end of my journey hasn’t happened yet and I can’t wait to find out who’s waiting for me.

Eat Pray Love made me do all of this.