Don’t Be Fooled!

The plan: to walk a section of the South West Coast Path, starting at Clovelly and ending at Padstow.

The imagined route: an undulating, easy coastal path with the odd bump, reminiscent of the Seven Sisters cliffs, punctuated by cosy tea rooms.

The reality: a remote wilderness hike consisting of extreme climbs and descents with nowhere to fill a drinking bottle, let alone order a cream tea.

After spending most of the summer hiking the South Downs Way and returning to the Seven Sisters as part of our ‘training’, we thought this one would be a doddle. My hiking friend, Paula, and I have been across the world together on some pretty adventurous hikes but this one would be a proper holiday, we said. Not like Kyrgyzstan or Armenia, where we’d been wild camping and struggling up mountain passes at altitude. Let’s be kind to ourselves, we said. Let’s have a proper holiday in lovely Devon and Cornwall.

Hartland coastline

Trouble is, we thought the guidebook was exaggerating when it said the South West Coast Path, made famous recently in Raynor Winn’s The Salt Path, was ‘challenging’ and ‘relentless’. We thought that was just a warning for people trying to attempt it in flip-flops. Oh how wrong we were.

The first stretch, Clovelly to Hartland Quay was the ‘easy’ day at just over ten miles, but even that had its fair share of ups and downs. It took longer than we thought to reach our destination. However, there was at least a kiosk at one point serving ice cream. As we sat down to dinner at Hartland Quay Hotel (the only place to stay), we read about the following day’s fifteen miles to Bude. The hardest stretch of the entire path… Challenging/severe… Don’t be fooled by the easy start… People in the hotel gave us a look when we said what we were doing. One said we had ten deep valleys to encounter, another said five. Someone mentioned waterfalls. How challenging can it be? we said to each other. Surely not as bad as Kyrgyzstan, where I’d been in so much hip pain I’d had to get on a horse…

Worse. Worse than Kyrgyzstan. More than ten deep, deep valleys to climb into and out again. All the way down to sea level, over a little bridge spanning a waterfall and up the other side again. Relentlessly. No tea rooms. No scones. Just climbing. And then the next day, too: Bude to Boscastle.

Hartland coastline

No one talks about this side of Devon and Cornwall. No one says that it’s proper wilderness hiking with no facilities and no one around. It felt like being on the west coast of Ireland, Scotland – or even Iceland or the Faroes, Paula said (having been to both). And we agreed, this was harder hiking than Kyrgyzstan, which had been the hardest thing we’d both done together (Paula said only Greenland was worse).

We both belong in hiking groups that never venture here. It’s hard to get to and hard to herd groups of people here. We met people in ones and twos doing the same thing, most notably two women in their seventies who were wild-camping the whole thing and this was their last stretch. They didn’t even use tents – they were using tarpaulin to sleep under. “This is what you do in your seventies!” they shouted as we parted ways.

We met a young woman who had walked from Gloucester who was trying to find a suitable place to camp; we saw another who was lying against her pack, waiting for us to walk past so she could pitch her tent. It was next to a herd of goats. We yodelled and I think she heard us.

Speke’s Mill Mouth

As we took on every uppy-downy (as they became known) of the trail, we mused on how, if we’d known what this part of the trail entailed, we wouldn’t have attempted it at all. We wouldn’t have seen the incredible rocky outcrops pushing out into the glittering sea, or heard the crash of the Speke’s Mill Mouth waterfall as it plunges into the sea. We wouldn’t have seen the purple-heathered slopes at Cleave on the way to Bude, my personal favourite moment of the trip, or experienced the pride and joy of looking back at the valley we’d just traversed. Every climb and every descent brought a new ‘wow’ moment and a new angle on the breathtaking scenery and there was barely anyone else there to witness them with us.

We knew when we were approaching a car park or a village because people would appear with dogs and it would feel like an intrusion. As we got closer to the more popular stretches of the path we mourned the loss of the wilder stretches and realised that with cream teas came crowds. At Tintagel we finally lost it. The whole place was shrouded in fog and drizzle, and people were queuing up to walk across a new bridge to the castle from which they could see nothing. Get us out of here! we thought and promptly took a taxi to Port Isaac, which was pouring with Doc Martin fans.

As the weather improved, the hiking got easier, but our hearts were still in that wilderness we’d left behind. We’d overcome a psychological barrier and could face a deep valley without dread, just acceptance. We knew if you started counting them it was the road to exhaustion; you just have to get on with them. I had practiced my yogic ‘santosha’ – conscious cheerfulness – to get me through the hard stretches. I smiled and sang to myself, knowing that smiling is proven to make you feel happier. I can confirm that it works. I sang, “One singular sensation” as I walked sideways down hillside steps with my hiking pole, Bob Fosse-style.

The heathered slopes at Cleave

And joy of all joys – I’ve finally invested in hiking boots that are wide enough for my feet. I had no blisters. Nothing. After years of being crippled on day one of a hike. I am like a woman renewed – no hike is too far for me now.

We surprised ourselves on this ‘holiday’ (and agreed that it wasn’t a holiday). We climbed every mountain and forded every stream: without injury, without tears, without blisters. We each employed a different approach and it worked – Paula likes to get up a hill very quickly to get it done, I prefer to plod slowly and continuously and get there without breathing through my arse. Before now, I’ve tried to rush up hills and felt awful. It’s easier when you’re not in a group to take your time. “Steady as she goes” is my mantra. We’d meet at the top and congratulate each other on a job well done.

And can I sing the praises of a pasty as the perfect hiking lunch? A meal wrapped in a pastry case, still warm from the morning’s oven. Thank goodness we made sure we had packed lunches and pasties with us from every town we stayed in. There was nothing in between each stop apart from that first kiosk, the two cafes at Crackington Haven and Sandymouth Cafe outside Bude. They were like oases in the desert.

Crackington Haven beach

At first we were disappointed not to be staying in Padstow (aka Rick Steinville) but then we discovered the YHA at Treyarnon. What a find. A sea view, a glorious beach, food being served through a hatch. I’d definitely go back there.

A woman in her seventies (or eighties?) approached us as we waited for the bus into Newquay, hiking all completed.

“In my day when we were walking, we didn’t allow getting buses.”

Me: *death stare*

Paula, smiling: “We’ve just hiked from Clovelly, actually, and we’re done.”

Lady: “Oh!” *looks Paula up and down incredulously. Looks at husband in disbelief* “Oh wow – you’ve done all that!”

Us: “Yes, yes we have.”

*gets on front seat of top deck of bus and whoops with joy*

Descent into Boscastle – Beeny Cliffs

Shine Even Brighter

As part of the International Women’s Day 2019 celebrations, I attended a preview of Maiden with a live Q&A. It’s a documentary telling the story of Tracey Edwards, the woman who skippered the first all-female crew in the Whitbread Round-the-World Yacht Race. I vaguely remember her 1989 story but I have to admit I’m more familiar with Ellen MacArthur’s solo circumnavigation in 2005.

I didn’t know that not only did Tracey and I share a name, but also a past history. She lost her father at 10 and it derailed her life. My derailment at 10 was more long-term and hidden away with later repercussions, but hers led to a difficult teenage life with an abusive alcoholic stepfather, expulsions from school and eventually an ‘escape from everything’ working on boats.

This is a woman who wore, and still wears, her heart and her opinions on her sleeve. There she was in 1989, telling the TV interviewer that no way she was a feminist, but she wanted to prove that women could do anything a man could. Last night she put her head in her hands at that statement and said she wanted to shake her young self. She looked straight into the camera and declared, “I’m a very big feminist.” Her ‘difficult character’ had apparently led to two divorces. “Sorry to both of you,” she said to camera, again.

Difficult women, eh?

In the film, she says that the more the media tried to make her and her venture into a ‘sidebar’ story, the more determined she was to win. They said they were a group of women who wouldn’t get on, who wouldn’t last without a man on board, who wouldn’t last without waterproof mascara or lip salve, they were just a ‘tin full of tarts’.

She and her crew won two legs of the race.

Over and over the word ‘determined’ came up. Determined to win, determined not to give up, determined to prove something. This is someone who reacts to attempts to bring her down by shining even brighter.

I recognise myself in her. The idea of shining was something me and my therapist discussed a lot last year. It kept coming up. I was describing times in my life when I’d felt knocked down and how they just resulted in me getting up and shining even brighter. Sometimes these were men who couldn’t bear the glare of successful woman, others were women who tried their best to put the lights out. I sat in front of her wearing a Swarowski-encrusted jumper as she said, “I think shining, and reflection from other people is important to you.” I laughed – I joked about how my wearing shiny things and living in a gold building were things I associated with being a northerner. I do like a crystal or a sequin, but so do most women in the north-west.

But she said no, and said it was a part of me that was still looking to be seen by my dad. That is was beautiful, and I was like a constantly lit candle for him. Here I am, see me. I came out of that session knowing she was right, that I loved the strings of small mirrors dangling from beach huts on that Goan beach, the sparkling necklaces I bought from the man on the beach in lots of different colours that I accessorised with my bikini every day. I liked wearing them in the sea, like a mermaid.

I often refer to the amazing women in my life as ‘sparkling’. We walk together in the crystalline spring light by the sea and they make my heart happy. I often think their glare is too bright for the men around them who seem slightly intimidated by their presence.

These are the women whom I choose to celebrate today. Those sparkling women, whom when life gives them lemons, buy sparkling shoes.

Guilty, your honour.

The Love Landscape

I’ve been wondering for a while now, about how to encapsulate the particular state a late forty- or fifty-something single woman finds herself in with regards to relationships. Every time I go on a group hike, there is the inevitable conversation with a woman around my age, who is confident, intelligent, attractive, adventurous – I’d even go as far as to say ‘sparkling’ – and before we’ve even discovered each other’s names I know what she’s going to say.

She’s going to tell me that she’s tried dating men her own age (the rare ones that don’t want to date younger women), but they can’t quite keep up with her in terms of get-up-and-go or sex drive. They don’t want to get out and do things as much as she does and she ends up leaving them behind to join hiking groups at weekends.

She’s going to say that she has her eye on someone a bit older, but then discovers that they’re dating someone twenty years younger than them, because they can. She’s going to say that she gets quite a lot of interest from younger men, but she wants someone to share a present and a future with and they don’t offer much in that way, because they’re just after the ‘mature’ experience. And they’re largely immature.

Then she’s going to share a recent experience where she’s been chatting to a guy her age online and it’s been going really well, but then he mysteriously disappears, reappears, then disappears again. In search of answers, she’ll tell me that men have called her ‘scary’ or ‘out of their league’ and I’ll nod in agreement. I too am a scary woman.

We then walk along together, chuckling in solidarity as we watch the guys our age and older chatting up the young women, sometimes the hike leader, and the young men chatting with anyone but us (for more than a few minutes). Interest from them comes in secret, by private message, maybe after the hike – but it can never happen in broad daylight. They can’t be seen to be into us. The horror!

Not that hiking is about finding people to date, but that is an inevitable sidebar of a group that is mixed and into the same things. (I laughed yesterday when one thirty- or forty-something guy was talking about not wanting to be part of outdoor groups where fifty- or sixty-somethings hung out. I didn’t bother telling him my age.)

I recently went to an event where a late-forties guy friend turned up with his girlfriend of twenty-seven. Another older guy friend discovered the news and had that look on his face when he reported back to our group – the one I’ve seen before when the same topic comes up among men. The “I didn’t realise we could do that” face. You can almost hear their brains working out how they could trade in their old model for a new one. I remember one of my ex-husband’s friends starting to date a girl in her twenties when he was nearly forty and it was like he’d scored a try for Scotland when his friends found out. I didn’t realise back then what a ‘coup’ it was. I also didn’t realise back then that I could play those guys at their own game.

Older men say to me that they want to date younger women because they still want children, but I don’t believe that to be true. I believe that they don’t want to date someone who is their equal in terms of ‘social power’ so they look for someone who is below their perceived standing. I’ve made my peace with that. I don’t want to date someone who is scared by my social power either. It’s really unattractive.

I seem to have recently acquired a crop of younger guys who can only message me when they’re drunk or high. Some are in relationships, some not, some are struggling to come to terms with being attracted to an older woman. In it comes, the text or WhatsApp message in the morning, sent at 2am. Sometimes they’ve been up all night and I get the ‘hey babe’ at 10am. We never meet up, and nothing ever happens.

For some reason the message frequency ramps up around early spring and autumn – I’m told it’s something to do with testosterone levels. I quite enjoy seeing what the morning brings when I switch my phone on, and I can’t seem to bring myself to block their numbers either. There’s a fascinating increase in messaging when I’m on holiday. Suddenly when I’m thousands of miles away on my own, I’m incredibly attractive. The minute I arrive home the silence descends. It’s a thing.

One guy who has appeared and disappeared from my life for over a decade, always seems to get in touch when I’m on holiday. We’re not connected on social media, but he seems to have a sixth sense for when I’m away. He’s suddenly telling me that he thinks he fucked up by letting me get away, that there might be a relationship there. He is four years younger than me but obsessed with the age gap. Like every younger man, he wants to know the age of the youngest guy I’ve ever slept with. I still don’t know why that matters (give me wine and I’ll tell you the number).

What was fascinating, before his predictable disappearance on my return, was his reaction to my saying that I have a lover. He kept coming back to the topic over and over, but not saying the word. He referred to my ‘friend’, my ‘boyfriend’, my ‘fuck buddy’, my ‘friend with benefits’ and over and over I corrected him. “He’s my ‘lover'”, I said. Why could he not comprehend it or type the words? Was it because it sounded a bit ’60s or ’70s?

‘Lover’ accurately describes the state of being with someone you care for deeply – not in an official relationship, not seeing them every day or even every week, but they are in your life and you acknowledge and love their space in it. My lover is thirty-two and Muslim and we know it can never be a thing, but I’d rather be with him – a man who is straightforward, kind, sexy and not scared of me in the slightest – than with a man whose idea of flirting is relentless ‘teasing’ (aka bantz).

Perhaps what I’m doing – maintaining my adventurous independence but with a love interest on the side – is a female version of the ‘I didn’t realise we could do that’ face. As more and more women my age opt out of marriage and into independent lover-dom, I feel like we’re the ones scoring the tries. The more I talk about it with other women, the more I think that we’re scary to more conventional men because we’ve discovered the big secret – we have a choice, and it doesn’t need to include them. Sure, it would be nice if it did, but if it doesn’t, our worlds don’t end.

In fact, they open up.

 

 

 

 

An Unpresidented Act

At the time of writing, an estimated 4.7 million people, in 673 cities, across all seven continents marched in protest yesterday. And I was one of them.

On his first full day of presidency, Donald Trump witnessed legions of women, children and men marching for the human rights he appears hell-bent on reversing. We marched to protest the rights of immigrants, women, the LGBTQ community, the disabled… you can read the full list of guiding principles here.

I wanted to march alone. I received countless requests from friends wanting to rally with me on Grosvenor Square in London but I wanted to do this solo. Quite apart from the stress caused by trying to find a few people in a sea of thousands there is something beautiful about standing there alone, in the winter sunshine, among a multitude who share your vision and values in the world.

I like listening to the conversations around me, joining in with some of them, or not. Hearing a gang of young girls chanting “Lick it, stroke it, just don’t grab it!” and then seeing the guys around them quietly grin in acknowledgement and support.

I felt emotional seeing a woman in her seventies walking towards me at the start, wearing her pink ‘pussy hat’, clutching a sign that read, “yes, I’m still protesting this shit.” And then as I approached the square, a pussy riot – a huge crowd of determined women, wide-eyed children witnessing them and a surprising number of men standing alongside them. I was glad of my sunglasses at that moment.

On my way in, I saw the face of a distraught woman, arguing with her boyfriend who kept saying, “but they’re just marching against democracy!” I wish I’d reached out to her and pulled her with me and away from her inevitably Brexiteer boyfriend.

On the way round the square, a young, wild-eyed Men’s Rights Activist shouted at us: “Why don’t you drown in your tears, you bunch of LOSERS!” We all laughed so much he ended up laughing with us. Maybe he was surprised at suddenly gaining the attention of so many women – it’s likely to have been a problem for him in the past…

A good friend of mine who is a good man, commented on Facebook that he hoped we’d be marching for men as well. As ever, I am amazed that so many men out there think that women marching is a direct assault on THEIR rights. How nice it would have been for him to have been marching alongside me instead of questioning the motivation for what I was doing. That’s what felt so good about seeing so many men marching with us – no questions, no ‘what about the menz?’ trolling, just quiet solidarity. ‘We know this is an issue and we stand with you. Patriarchy is damaging for us, too.”

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Knowing that I was one of millions of people marching worldwide felt phenomenal. Gloria Steinem, arguably the mother of third-wave feminism, was marching in America and I was marching with her. It was the biggest global rally she had ever witnessed, and I was part of it.

And to those who might ask, what difference will it make? This is what she said:

We are linked, we are not ranked, and this is a day that will change us forever because we are together, each of us individually and collectively will never be the same again. When we elect a possible president, we too often go home. We’ve elected an impossible president. We’re never going home. We’re staying together, and we’re taking over.

Today feels very different.

There is hope.

 

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.