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.

 

A Woman Scorned

Last month, Beyoncé broke the internet after she released her visual album, Lemonade. It has been deemed the ‘most elaborate diss in hip-hop history‘, given that much of the content is given to Jay Z’s alleged cheating with ‘Becky with the good hair’.

I personally love a good ‘woman scorned’ outburst – I don’t subscribe to the dignified silence, I prefer a huge wodge of revenge served with a side salad of cold blood. Even better if you can deliver the requisite revenge like a deadly artistic assassin, making you look so glaringly bright that the guy in question can’t bear to set eyes on you again.

Well done, Bey.

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What always strikes me about these situations is that the women scorned are always burning so much brighter than these guys in the first instance. They’re often more talented (Bey), intelligent (Hillary) and better-looking (everyone) than the guys who’ve cheated on them. I’ve seen women I consider to be magnificent left for someone with nothing more than a homely smile, and I’ve wondered if that’s the motivation. They can’t handle the magnificence, let alone control it, so they find someone infinitely more ‘manageable’.

Time and time again I’ve seen women going through this, and there are always friends exclaiming, ‘But she’s not a patch on you!’ And now I know that this is the whole point of it. The cheating is a way of re-establishing a form of control, and they will always opt for a ‘not-a-patch’ option. It happened to me a few years ago and I understood straight away. Steps had been taken to try and control me and they hadn’t worked. Cue an easier target.

I remember that scene in Sex and the City where Samantha posts leaflets all over the city, telling everyone that her ‘Richard’ is, in fact, a dick. When I enacted a digital version of that, I felt the same bewitching sense of control and freedom, as the ‘leaflets’ were similarly carried away on the wind.

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I’m never going to be someone who sits back and silently suffers – I’m on Team Trierweiler. Valérie Trierweiler wrote a bestselling memoir of her betrayal by François Hollande (Thank You For This Moment), and it is described as:

300-odd pages of deliciously backhanded barbs, sentimental hand-wringing and vicious putdowns, seasoned with large dollops of self-justification.

The same article describes her as ‘magnificently unrepentant.‘ Amen to that, sister.

I don’t know why, but a strange silence descends when a woman pours out her scorn. Men call her a ‘vindictive harpy’, and in hushed tones, women tell her she should be more dignified. What if we don’t? What if we call them out on it like Bey? The world doesn’t end,  does it? It just realises we know what’s going on and we’re not prepared to live with it.

The greatest service to womanhood Bey has done thus far is to make ‘calling a guy out on his shit’ into an art form.

There has never been a greater woman scorned…

 

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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.

 

Dating Deal-Breakers

I was going to do another ‘year of blogging’ review of 2015 to mark the end of the year and the beginning of a new one, but then I thought, hell no. What people really want to read about, and what I really want to talk about, is dating.

The main thing I’ve learned this year is that if he appears to be too good to be true, then he usually is…

This is such a cliché it’s almost embarrassing to be writing about it. I’ve had two instances of it this year, both with men in their late thirties.

The first, a man so into me, he wanted to be with me all the time, to have long conversations while gazing at the sky, lying in the park. I knew it was too good to be true but I went for it anyway. He turned out to be a narcissist of the highest order, obsessed with the reflection of himself he saw in me. He kept mentioning babies, knowing that I’m childfree, but his need for a mini version of himself was manifest.

The second was someone I’m still trying to figure out. He played the ‘I’m not like other guys’ card, which of course means he’s exactly like other guys, only about ten times worse. He stunned me temporarily with his good looks and great conversation. He managed to wedge in feminism, tampon tax and abortion rights into the first hour of meeting him. Again ‘too good to be true!’ ran through my head.

And he was.

He didn’t seem to like that I didn’t get in touch after the first date and later the following week he told me off for waiting for him to do the asking. “Is that what feminists do?” he teased. We went on to have the obligatory WhatsApp flurry of messaging but the second date never materialised.

I can’t help thinking that I was targeted for take-down by a guy posing as a feminist. This is apparently a thing – these guys are called macktivists.I actually enjoyed the date I’d spent with him – and I’d deliberately managed my expectation so that I was happy with the one-off experience.

I think my radar was telling me that was how it should end but I allowed myself to be flattered when I eventually heard from him again. Flattered into agreeing to his arrangement to meet up a second time, which of course never materialised. He’d just wanted to be in control, I think.

What a sorry state of affairs.

I abhor game-playing of any kind and men are always surprised when I immediately text back or make a straightforward arrangement that I’m actually committed to. Everything is built behind smoke and mirrors in the dating world and although I’ve trained myself not to expect anything, I’m still taken by surprise by the shitty behaviour.

One of my biggest dating deal-breakers is ghosting. The minute I sense that a guy is deliberately not responding to texts or withholding any sign of interest, I’m off. Narcissist guy was a master of it, and even had the temerity to reappear from the shadows with some epic excuse for his silence which always involved some alleged misconception about our arrangements.

‘I’m not like other guys’ guy switched off his phone for the duration of the day we were supposed to meet for a second date and then blamed it on leaving his phone charger at work and having to buy a new one. I did actually laugh when I finally received an ‘explanatory’ text from him, giving ‘mansplaining’ a whole new meaning. B-bye.

Narcissist guy did something that is another huge dating deal-breaker for me. He turned up drunk to a date. I now think that this is a form of relationship sabotage. He knew I was cooking a meal for him (I never cook!) and he knew I was excited about seeing him. So what better way to put a woman in her place than to a) not mention the leaving do you’re going to after work, b) get totalled at it, and c) bring some godawful wine and lie about the ‘real’ bottle getting stolen while you were asleep on the Tube?

Some men like to be told off for this sort of behaviour so that they can rely on the whole ‘I’m just a bad boy’ schtick later on. I call it Naughty Boy Syndrome. It’s taken me years to realise that they want me to get annoyed with them so that I end, or at least back off from the relationship, meaning they don’t have to.

So I don’t get annoyed.

I just let them go.

Quietly.

And then blog about them. Ha ha…

Still, in autumn 2014 I dated a classic portfolio of deal-breaking that I’ve yet to blog about. I’ve been saving him for a rainy day.

My deal-breaker antennae were already twitching when he was clearly excited about getting notifications from Candy Crush on his phone. This was a man in his forties who’d made small talk into a way of life. Against my better judgment, I decided to press on.

Then came the comments on how, in his local train station, ‘Pakistanis’ were ‘good at squashing into trains’. I asked him how he knew they were Pakistani? Funnily enough, it had just been a wild guess on his part.

It goes on…

He met a lesbian friend of mine, and later asked me what a man had done to her to make her that way? And oh, he had a problem with feminists…

By this time my antennae had almost short-circuited, yet I still pressed on, determined to think I could look past his racism and homophobia.

 

And then came the denouement. He had a snoring problem which he’d attempted to fix with an operation but it hadn’t really worked. One night (the eleventh date!) I was desperate for some sleep so I moved silently into the lounge and blew up my inflatable bed.

When I woke up the next morning he was standing there, fully dressed and ready to go. Apparently I’d crossed a line by my actions.

I’d left him alone in bed and he hated waking up alone. Poor lambkin.

Funnily enough, I absolutely love it.

 

 

 

Because I Cannes

All the furore over the Cannes Film Festival this week about red-carpet heel-wearing reminded me that I was lucky enough to attend once.

A party I went to, in 2007 courtesy of New Line Cinema, was at the Villa Rothschild and all the ladies received a note saying we should avoid wearing heels because the party would take place in the gardens. (The VIPs were in the Villa itself, so they were probably made to wear heels…). I went for a low kitten-heeled sandal which seemed to do the trick.

Anyway, what was important about that night wasn’t the height of the heel I was wearing. It was my watershed moment. My game-changer. My world turned on its axis that night and it wasn’t the same ever again.

I’d turned forty a couple of months before and was in the midst of a boom-time for me, career-wise. I was married, but spending most of my time at work or in the pub afterwards, 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 out of my system before I went home. Looking back, I was cruising for a divorce right then (it would take three years to happen).

I knew then that I’d only ever get one invitation to Cannes so I went for it. I’d bought a beautiful mediterranean-blue maxi dress and took time to get ready. I have two pictures of that night – both taken pre-smartphone so they’re just of me standing awkwardly in my hotel room. I look back and see someone preparing to take on the world, with a serious face. I’d dieted too much so you can see my bones, I’d applied too much fake tan so I didn’t really look like me. But I was where I needed to be to get out there and shake things up.

I attended the party with my then boss, and we ended up with a group of guys who we’d been working with on a related film project. She left early, which then left me to party on with the boys, feeling like Julia Roberts in Ocean’s Eleven.

And boy, was I ready to party.

The DJ that night was Mark Ronson, who was then very new to the scene. He swaggered to the open-air stage and nonchalantly played ‘Valerie’ with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth. I danced energetically and happily with a guy we shall call ‘Nick’ for most of the night. He was from my part of the country and we got on well. It felt so good to be with a guy 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 there was an aborted attempt to go skinny-dipping in the pool. (Good job, because I can’t actually swim.) The others drifted back to their rooms and I drifted back to Nick’s, to continue the evening. I was still high on the experience and couldn’t face going to bed.

You’re going to think, ‘oh she slept with him’ at this point. 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. Nick lived in America so there was no real chance of meeting again. It was a one-off encounter.

I now know what Nick did for me. Nick told me everything I’d needed to hear from my husband, who didn’t enjoy complimenting me ‘in case my head got too big’. Nick told me I appeared to him as someone who was between girlhood and womanhood (despite being forty) – I think he picked up on the fact that I was on the verge of emerging from my life chrysalis. 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.

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. It still is, to me, one of the best nights of my life, if not THE best. As I went to pull away, Nick moved his hand from the small of my back and began to draw his fingers softly up my shoulder blade. It was the tenderest, most erotic touch I’d ever felt. A brief kiss followed and I left.

Nothing more than that 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.

So thank you, Cannes, and thank you, Nick. You are both very important to my story. And as hackneyed as it may sound, my life really did begin at forty.

Poor You!

I’ve just come back from a trip to Dahab in Egypt (an hour north of Sharm El Sheikh in South Sinai) and one of the fun parts of the holiday was teaching my friend silly English words and phrases in exchange for Arabic ones.

I told him a story about a person I know who loves it when things go wrong in my life, so I’ve stopped saying anything negative about what’s happening to me on social media. If I post something really positive, with only an iota of negativity, she will pick up on the latter and exclaim, ‘poor you!’ This makes me feel angry.

The Egyptian, as he has become known, seemed to pick up on this phrase and repeated it back to me randomly the next day, pulling the pseudo-sympathetic face that goes with it, that I’d obviously used the day before. It made us laugh so much – everything that didn’t go to plan came with an explosive ‘poor you!’ and we’d collapse into giggles.

This happened on a day when the British were exercising their right to vote (well, 66% of them were) and I was struck by the ridiculousness of The Egyptian exclaiming ‘poor you!’ when I told him of the horrific result. Just the fact that we are allowed to choose our own government and vote in a democratic and free society is something of a privilege. Yes sirree, I checked my privilege.

The election happened to be in the same week that disgraced former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak was due to find out his fate: just three years’ imprisonment for embezzling millions of pounds of state funds. His earlier life sentence for the deaths of 800 protesters in the 2011 Revolution had been thrown out the previous November. The month before my trip, Egypt had seen its first democratically elected head of state in Egypt sentenced to 20 years in prison. Mohamed Morsi had used his status to grant himself unlimited power, resulting in the Egyptian Revolution of 2011. The Egyptian said that the freedom everyone felt after the Revolution was so sweet, but so fleeting. There was no follow-up plan, so corruption and power-wrangling quickly set in.

The Egyptian had been working in one of the restaurants in Dahab where three anti-Mubarak nail bombs went off in 2006. He’d been lucky, but he stumbled outside to see bodies everywhere and people running into the sea. The emergency services were not quick enough to save all the casualties. Twenty-three people died, mostly Egyptians.

Now, the police crawl all over Sinai, ostensibly to protect the tourists from the threat of terrorism, but the reality is that they prefer terrorising innocent Egyptians. There are two checkpoints between Sharm and Dahab, but the police are only interested in who the drivers are, not who’s in the back of the cab. They make a huge deal out of making people wait, checking ID, being suspicious. If they think that tourists don’t notice what they are doing, then they are very wrong. It stinks.

The general consensus is that the police are bored, just making stuff up to give them something to do. Their directive is to leave the tourists alone – even if they’re the ones committing a crime in public, they will pick on the Egyptian with them and ignore the foreigner. It’s horrible but a fact of life and the locals’ response is a chilled ‘what can we do?’

I ended up going on a glorious day trip with a group of women of all nationalities: Egyptian, Swiss, Austrian, Anglo-Greek and me, Welsh. One of the main topics of conversation was the ‘woman problem’. Apparently the women of Egypt are rising up in a way that is making the male population uncomfortable. Of course, being a feminist, this was music to my ears. Some women are not happy with the deal – just staying in and looking after children and cooking for their men. (Some of them are, it has to be said, and some of these aren’t Egyptian. Russian women seem to enjoy it and many Egyptian men in Dahab marry them. It’s a good match.)

One night, I saw two Egyptian women having a ‘ladies night’ out – their kids were running around outside while they sat in a restaurant, chatting and drinking tea. One was breastfeeding. One was sitting alone with her child. It was so great to see that.

Initially it wasn’t as great to see little local girls running around the town all day selling homemade bracelets. I’d see them walking on isolated roads carrying their wares from town to town, and worry for their safety. No, the women told me, this is their moment of freedom and they are completely safe. As soon as they start their periods they are confined to the house, drinking tea with the other adult ladies of the family. It seems as though some mothers have started hiding the onset of puberty in their daughters from the men in the house, just to prolong their freedom, even to the point of trying to make the girls look younger. It seems to work.

As I sat there in my bikini, being served Bedouin food by a woman fully covered except for her eyes, I checked my privilege again. I could stride into Dahab and into this beautiful Bedouin isolated beach settlement (Ras Abu Galum, in case you’re interested) and literally let my hair down, wearing a bikini.

I may never say, ‘poor you!’ again, unless in jest with The Egyptian. Poor, poor us, and our democratically elected government who aren’t embezzling millions of our pounds to fund their palaces (I’m sure someone will point out that they are doing this), or killing 800 protesters who happen to disagree with their policies. Poor us, and our freedom as women to go about as we choose after we become adults, to have jobs, wear what we want and have sex outside marriage.

Yes, yes, I know everything is relative, but it is worth putting things in perspective every now and again.

Space Invaders

Recently, I’ve noticed a phenomenon when I’m out running on the streets of London, or just walking to work. I’ll be on a pavement or a path that is over two meters wide and I’m walking along with virtually no one else around me. I’ll spot a man ahead of me, usually middle-aged or older, and as we pass each other, with acres of room to spare, he’ll suddenly wave me through, as though he is creating space for me next to him. It’s usually a kind of Walter Raleigh gesture, involving an imaginary cape, and accompanied with a slight bow. What is this strange behaviour?

The first time it happened, I found myself auto-smiling in return, as though I was grateful for the gesture. Then I thought about it. Why am I saying thank you for taking up space I’m already in? Since then, I’ve always anticipated the move and powered on past, leaving the hand flourish behind me.

The Walter Raleigh move has variations – one of my *favourites* is the Comedy Jump. I can be running along, minding my own business, when I come up to a couple or a guy walking on his own. He’ll hear me coming up behind them/him and suddenly perform a clownish leap onto an adjoining path, accompanied with a loud, mock-afraid exclamation of some sort. Like I’m some sort of unexpected oncoming train. The last one actually jumped into someone’s garden. I am a normal-sized woman.

I’ve thought long and hard about why all of this happens and I’ve concluded two things. The first is about guys who are desperately trying to get a woman’s attention. Men who do a Walter Raleigh on me are invariably over fifty, and seem to love using ‘gentlemanly’ gestures to initiate a smile and maybe a conversation. They are the men who adopt that half-smile, ‘humble’ face that is designed to get women to smile back at them. It does actually take a lot of effort not to smile back, but once you’ve realised their faces are set that way ALL DAY it gets easier. They are usually the guys who love to say, ‘Give me a smile, love!’ and tell you that you look prettier when you do so. My stock response is that I’m a person, not a Christmas decoration.

These guys are cousins of the men who play little games with you to extract the same smile/conversation combo. I was at an airport recently where no fewer than three officials tried to withhold items that I owned or had just bought, just ‘for fun’. And why wouldn’t I smile? Because you’re withholding my passport and expecting me to keep putting my hand out only for you to pull the passport away in a comedy routine. When you did it again with my boarding pass and a cheese and ham baguette the joke had seriously worn off.

My second conclusion is that men do actually think I’m taking up more space than I really am. The Geena Davis Institute conducted some research which showed that if there was 17% of women in a group, the men in the group thought it was 50%. And if it was 33%, the men thought there were more women in the room than men. I wonder if, when they see me running or walking towards them, these guys see my 50% of the pavement as 75% and feel they have to leap out of the way? There has to be some sort of explanation for it.

It’s funny how, when you’re in a pub or club, the whole space-allowance thing goes out the window and *some* men use a packed venue as an excuse to touch you up. Suddenly you find the man you’re with has his arm around your waist, presumably because there’s no room for it at his side. This happened to me a couple of weeks ago. I thought about just casually removing his arm as I cringed under his grip but didn’t. He was the kind of guy who ushers women through doorways with a ‘helping’ hand on the waist or small of the back. Next time I’ll be ready and insist he goes first. Maybe I’ll give him a little encouraging pat on the bum. I often wonder if straight men touch each other as they make their way through a crowded bar – a quick pec fondle or buttock tweak might go unnoticed as they squeeze past each other. At least they’d be able to check out the competition.

An ex of mine sometimes complained about women who felt him up on the train. He did have a tight, muscled body and he reported being ‘accidentally’ fondled on his busy commuter train. He really didn’t enjoy it (who would?!) but I did think, ‘you have no idea, baby’. For most women, that sort of thing comes with a normal working day.

Perception is Everything

A few years ago, a very, very wise friend and former colleague said three important little words to me: “Perception is everything.”

I’d got a big promotion at work and wasn’t planning to move offices from my current one, but she said that people would forever associate me with my former job if I stayed where I was. At the time I didn’t buy into the idea – I thought people would simply ‘know’ what my new role was and treat me accordingly. I stayed where I was, and lo and behold, I spent around six months saying, “yes but I don’t do that job any more” to everyone from the receptionist to the senior management. The person who was doing my former job suffered from the same treatment. Frustration all round.

I learned that once you get typecast into a role, you are to some extent there forever in people’s minds and you will spend a good deal of time having to re-educate them. And in some cases, you never will. I’d moved from being the director of a children’s non-fiction list to the Publishing Director of a list that included fiction, picture books and non fiction. Even though I represented the company on numerous occasions speaking about their fiction titles (mainly The Hunger Games, Captain Underpants or The Brilliant World of Tom Gates), people would associate me with non fiction. When I appeared at The Bookseller Children’s Conference about three years ago to talk about middle-grade illustrated fiction, The Bookseller journalist used my one mention of the non-fiction series Horrible Histories in her report for the magazine. Although that is a great brand to be associated with, I nearly screamed with frustration.

When I left that role two years ago, it was partly to cut the ties of that typecasting. Even though I was managing a hugely varied children’s list, people were forever associating me with Horrible Histories so I needed to go. I got the chance to move into publishing for adults – an opportunity afforded to nearly no one in the industry – so I grabbed it. What better way to change people’s perception than to move into a totally different sector?

I spent two years in that role and recently came to the conclusion that I needed to be back in the world of children’s books. I’ve just attended Bologna Children’s Book Fair in order to re-establish connections there and it felt like a homecoming. It is a wonderful world to belong to and it is the right one for me. Though it’s a rare thing now, there were a few people still assuming that I was looking for a role in non fiction. Thankfully I was only too ready to update them on my ‘actual’ experience.

I’ve found that, in life and work, my role is to point out the reality of a situation, to counter any misconceptions. In many ways, it’s the substance of this blog: if I feel that people are labouring under an illusion about something, I have to tell the truth about it. They are often surprised by my truths, and I enjoy the process of enlightenment. That sounds intensely arrogant, but I believe in getting to the truth of a situation and acknowledging it. (I’m happy to have my truths contested by other truths, if I’m seen to be labouring under any illusions).

I’ve found that people are very adept at creating an idea about someone and purveying it to others, largely to deflect the same idea about themselves. I first noticed this with my ex-husband’s best friend who used to love telling the rest of his friends that my ex was a hypochondriac. Oh how they used to ‘banter’ about it until I realised that the actual hypochondriac was the best friend. He didn’t like it when I pointed it out – I spoiled his ‘fun’.

It’s happened to me in recent years: friends who enjoy a drink or two label me as someone who enjoys a drink or two. It takes me a few minutes to cry, “hang on a minute!” before the die is cast. We’re both standing there holding huge glasses of wine and suddenly I’m the drinker. Likewise, I was once told that I was ‘sloppy’ in my work by the biggest purveyor of professional sloppiness I’ve ever encountered. The sheer, naked brazenness of that comment took my breath away. The last thing I will ever be in this world is sloppy and they knew it. (Thankfully everyone around them knew it too.)

I’m getting much better at spotting the signs of this ‘transference’ and am much quicker to counteract it these days. Perception IS everything and I want people to perceive the real me, not the one they’ve just decided to create in their heads to make themselves feel better.

The Female Gaze

I’ve been thinking a lot this week about the female gaze and why it is so unarticulated in our society. I’ve been thinking about how our lives, as women, are so dominated by the male gaze that it is almost beyond articulation. It is so pervasive that we almost forget that we have the ability to gaze right back.

It is starting to edge its way into our consciousness, as the Fifty Shades of Grey movie is framed with a woman’s gaze in mind. Allegedly, it is made for her viewing pleasure, and the conversation is extending into female-friendly porn, in which the focus of attention is not only on the pleasure the woman is receiving, but on the beauty of the man who is delivering it.

But from the onset of puberty – and let’s face it, some time before that, if we’re honest – women are raised to be aware of the eyes of men upon them. It starts with a gentle commentary on your appearance from both women and men in the family and their friends, and becomes a way of life. We must look a certain way to please men, we are told, and we find ourselves actively pursuing it, even if we are just on the way to the gym. We run marathons in makeup, we wear heels to go to Homebase and we stop ourselves from having a nice dessert in case our thighs make us into undesirable objects.

No one appears to be actively setting these rules. They’re just there. And everyone buys into them and passes them on. Women and men, boys and girls. The fashion designer Oscar de la Renta once gave this advice to women: “walk like you have three men walking behind you.” When I first heard it I smiled, and thought, “yeah, I’d sashay away.” Recently, though, I’ve thought, “what happens if I’m the one walking behind three men?” And I’ve discovered an unusual thing.

Men get really freaked out when you turn the tables on them and gaze back. Try it. Walk directly behind a guy (not too stalkerishly close), or stand behind him quietly on an escalator or in a lift. He’ll slow down to let you pass, he’ll turn round to check who’s there, he’ll manoeuvre round so his back isn’t to you any more. I see it happen almost every day. If I sense a guy is running too close behind me in the park, gazing at my behind, I slow down to let him pass. He sprints away or stops, unable to have my eyes on him. Because, you know, I might be critiquing him in the way that he’s just done to me. Unthinkable.

This week, on one single trip up and down the street I live on, I saw two men empty the contents of their nostrils onto the pavement and one who spat in front of me and then again just behind me. This followed an extraordinary scene where I’d witnessed a neighbour of mine picking his nose in full view of everyone on the tube. I’ve always been fascinated by these acts of public indecency – especially men who pick their noses in cars, oblivious to who may be watching. Then it occurred to me. They do it because they think no one is watching. They’re not used to being watched so they assume it’s not happening.

Believe me, there is always someone watching, and it is usually a woman. Just because we’re not loudly commenting on what men are doing, it doesn’t mean we haven’t noticed. Theirs is a shouty spectator sport, ours is a quietly watchful game of chess.

As I’ve got older, I’ve had to adjust to the ‘cloak of invisibility’ slowly descending around me, as the male gaze opts for a younger, fresher target. At first, I felt really sad about it, but as the months have gone on, I’ve realised that it is one of the most liberating things that has ever happened to me. I’ve realised that I don’t need that approval and I don’t need to seek out the validation, as I used to do. What has happened is that my own gaze has been fully activated and I’m suddenly seeing the world outside myself differently. And it’s good.

Far from being invisible, I am achieving another level of eye contact with all sorts of people. I make a choice about the objects of my own gaze and often find a woman of the same age with whom I’ll exchange a smile, or a younger man, having a sneaky peek. There are people out there who see you in different ways, and not just as a sexual object. I find myself looking beyond the hot guys on the tube (if there are any not picking their noses) to the full range of people sitting around me. It’s almost as if not being gazed at as much has allowed me to look outside myself more confidently and find connections that I may well have missed before.

Of course I’m well aware that this could all be just a huge coping mechanism that my brain is initiating to allow me to experience ageing without knifing myself. And do you know what? It might be. My brain never fails to astound me with its ability to take each supposedly devastatingly awful birthday milestone and turn it into something unexpected and rather wonderful. I don’t have to make eye contact with the guy who is trying to attract my attention by shouting as I run round the park, or smile when he says, ‘cheer up, love.’ I can choose to look ahead, and smile at a young woman who is running the other way, or watch a dog fetching a ball.

My gaze is the one that matters, and my eyes have never been so focused on the road ahead.