The Good Souls

This Christmas and New Year are game-changers for me. For once I haven’t fled the country, or stayed in a place I don’t want to be with people I don’t like, or roamed moodily around my own home, feeling a bit sorry for myself.

I left the decision whether or not to fly away until pretty much the last moment. I knew the guy I’m seeing would be working most of the time and only free on Christmas Day. I knew that people were saying they’d be around (those that weren’t going away) but I also knew that when it came to it, I probably wouldn’t see any of them.

People are funny about going into hiding during the Christmas holidays. They disappear from Twitter – announcing that they’re ‘taking a break’ to be with family – then suddenly they’re back, taking a break from their families…

Anyway, this year there has been no break or flight from anything for me, except the office. I know enough about Christmas now to realise that the best bit is the run-up to it. I started enjoying the party season from December 1, knowing that come the 25th it’s going to be a bit of an anti-climax, or at least a post-party chill-out (this is precisely why I start enjoying summer on June 1 – if you wait for the ‘big day’ when the sun is at its hottest, you’ve missed out on all the fun. And the big day may never arrive…)

It was a very Christmas different for me. My guy is Muslim so it was a no-booze zone and I made a halal lamb dish for us both. It was quite liberating, heading into Sainsbury’s on Christmas Eve, hearing people shouting, “WHERE ARE THE BLOODY PARSNIPS??”, knowing I wouldn’t be buying anything remotely involved in a traditional Christmas dinner.

The world didn’t end because I didn’t observe a single tradition, apart from present-opening and a pre-dinner walk. The biggest surprises of the day were finding out that my guy likes Rick Stein documentaries, animated children’s films and Gladiator. We ended up watching The Revenant, hardly joyful Christmas viewing, but at least it was set in a wintery landscape. It wasn’t White Christmas, but I enjoyed it anyway.

My guy had had his birthday a week earlier, and made it feel like my birthday by bringing around an enormous cake for me. For me! I was struck by the generosity of it. The generosity of spirit which escaped me for years, when I was with someone incredibly mean-spirited. No completely unselfish acts, no celebration of anything good (unless initiated by me), no joy in sharing a life with another person. Just being frogmarched around a shopping mall to select my own gift, which was inevitably a high-ticket consumer good because it was easy and required little thought.

Two of my best friends are Jewish and do a sort of ‘Chrismukkah’ which I rather love. We joke that they have become my ‘Jewish mothers’ but I’ve realised that they have actually become my family here in north-west London. They phone me to catch up, even though I hate phones, and I love it. They sought me out this year, separately, to arrange to meet for gift-giving and pre-Christmas cheer. I love them dearly for that. Please keep phoning me, ladies. I love it, honestly.

The week before Christmas, one of my oldest friends arrived in the country from Qatar and arranged to meet me in Kensal Rise, where I live. It had been a difficult day, because what is left of my actual family were meeting in Wales for a Christmas dinner and for reasons I won’t go into here, I couldn’t attend.

Kensal put on a show as though I’d been rehearsing it for months. The chatty barman, the friends popping past to say ‘hi’, the local pub quiz we entered into with gusto, the knowledge that these smiling friends were here to see me and that they are a big part of my life and history. The universe spoke to me loud and clear: this is my home and these people are my family.

In between Christmas and New Year I arranged to see another old friend (we date back to university), who is the mother of my godson. Thanks to the generosity of yet another one of my London Jewish framily we got free tickets to a Christmas show in Manchester and a backstage tour afterwards. I introduced my old friend to my London friend and felt grateful to have both of them in my life.

I started to think about all the good souls – the people who really matter. They are marked by their kindness and generosity. They are consistent and don’t have any agenda. They like to see me and I like to see them. It’s so beautifully simple.

My northern odyssey continued with a night out with my brother, ending up in a bar on the infamous Canal Street. Much fun was had. Over dinner I told him that the thing that most impressed me at his 60th birthday party was a) that he’d served the guests dinner himself, and b) friends of his that I’d never met came up to me and told me how kind he is to them and their families. We’re not the closest of siblings, but I am proud of who he is. And now I wonder why we’ve waited so long to have a night out in Manchester…

Finally I met up with my mum’s sister for a hug, a cup of tea and a chat. Like my mum and nan before her, she is wiser than wise. “Take each day one at a time,” were her parting words to me, and I shall. I shall.

The person who drove me to my aunt’s and came back and took me to the station at the end of the day was someone I know professionally: an illustrator. He’d also picked me up earlier, and cooked lunch for me and his family. Again, I was blown away by the generosity. The universe is literally throwing good souls at me right now.

So much crap has happened this year, I can’t wait to leave it behind and start a fresh new one. I’m not naive enough to think 2017 is going to be a bed of roses, but I’m going to be fifty, and I’m going to celebrate that with people that matter.

And in the words of Starsailor:

As I turn to you and I say
Thank goodness for the good souls
That make life better
As I turn to you and I say
If it wasn’t for the good souls
Life would not matter

Happy New Year!

Dedicated to: Justine, Chelsea, Neal, Helen(s), Jess, Phil, Sam, Jonny, Kay, Woody, James, Lucinda, Sidali, Ben, Coreen, and the people of Kensal Rise and Canal Street.

You Go, Girls

I have bought the tiniest pair of patterned Ali Baba trousers from a stall in Dahab to take to a one-year-old girl’s birthday party today. I’ve been looking at them every time I visit, wishing I had someone to buy a pair for, and finally that moment has arrived.

I met the baby’s mother – a Norwegian woman who is married to an Egyptian – when I was walking into town to meet friends one evening and she asked me to walk with her. Another man had been hassling her (despite her being married with a baby) and she wanted me to talk to her as we walked past him. Turns out she was really nice and we met again for coffee a few days later.

We agreed that there is an unspoken alliance between women when it comes to hassle from men – I understood what she needed immediately and it was no problem. We’ve all been in that situation, in any country. This happened on the day that I’d had to deal with hassle from a British man here in Dahab so I was feeling ultra-protective of myself and women in general.

The day after this happened, a young Egyptian woman who works at my hotel asked me to go to the doctor with her. She’s twenty-three and she has come to Dahab on her own, which I gather is a very rare thing to do in Egypt. Women here are policed by family and strangers in a way that is horrifying to me. A few days earlier she’d been made to go to a police station where they called her parents to make sure they knew where she was. A friend of hers had overhead one of the police officers refer to her as a ‘whore’, simply because she was alone, and unveiled, it seems.

Anyway, she was afraid of going to a male doctor alone, so I was her chaperone. She only needed her ears syringing, but I was glad I could offer comfort, having had it done a few times myself. Earlier, my young friend had told me about her ambitions to be a journalist, but that her intelligence is seen as a threat. There is so much fire in her eyes – I told her to stay strong and to keep doing what’s she’s doing. I will do what I can to help.

On my last visit to Dahab I went on a ladies-only boat trip to Ras Abu Galum and had a wonderful time. The women were a mixed group – some Egyptian, some European, most married to Egyptian or Middle-Eastern guys. They told me about Dahab’s ‘woman problem’, which turned out to be feminism. Yes, it’s right here: women doing things that men don’t like. Having heard male friends comment that a woman shouldn’t be smoking shisha in her hijab because it’s ‘disrespectful’, I’ve seen it here for myself. I look at those women admiringly, and think, ‘you go, girl’.

On that boat trip, we were given lunch by a Bedouin woman and her daughter and I asked about the numbers of Bedouin girls running about in Dahab selling bracelets. Isn’t it dangerous? Apparently not. It’s only when they hit puberty that they are taken indoors and covered. I’ve been told that some mothers are hiding the onset of puberty in their daughters from the male members of their family to preserve their freedoms for a precious while longer. Again, ‘you go, girls’…

When I first came to Dahab I couldn’t see any local women in public and assumed they were all being kept indoors. I think it was just the time of day that I’d arrived in town, because now I see them everywhere, particularly at night, when families come out for tea and cake. There are lots of young girls doing the ‘hijab and skinny jeans’ thing I’ve seen in the Middle East, and then a few who are completely covered. The best thing I saw on my last trip was a large group of the former on quad bikes, heading towards the mountains one evening. You go, girls!

I think Europeans like myself come here with a lot of preconceptions about the lives of local women which can only be challenged or vindicated by meeting them and hearing what they have to say for themselves. I’m constantly told by local men that the women are ‘free’, and that may be true in comparison to their Saudi neighbours, but the level of policing of behaviour here tells me the real story. The women *can* do what they like to a certain extent, but they may be called names by anyone for doing it.

On my first visit to Dahab I was invited into the house of a Bedouin woman who’d just had a baby. I was told that hers was a love marriage – she in her twenties, he in his forties – but they had encountered problems conceiving. Then along came Aida, the miracle baby. I was led into the woman’s bedroom, where every single female member of the family was gathered. It was like an all-girl nativity scene, with Aida as the centre of attention. She had a shock of black hair and was sleeping, swaddled in cloth. I was offered Helba tea, made from fenugreek seeds, which is a popular Egyptian health drink. We sat round, me only able to communicate in appropriate cooing sounds, looking admiringly at the baby and the sublimely happy mother.

I was invited to the feast to celebrate the seventh day of the baby’s arrival, at which they would slaughter a goat. As the person I’d gone with was vegetarian we politely declined, but the hotel guys told me I was really missing out. When the Bedouin party, they really party. I wasn’t brave enough to go on my own, and I didn’t know anyone else in Dahab back then.

So today I will go to the birthday party – one that doesn’t involve goat sacrifice – and celebrate all the women I’ve met in Dahab and how many I now count as my friends.

You go, girls.

The Art Of Conversation

Over the last two weeks I’ve been thinking a lot about conversation. I’ve been doing it a lot, too – from Salon London‘s night presented by Theodore Zeldin in which we all had to turn to a complete stranger and ask each other a set of deep and meaningful questions, to a freelance networking event in which we had to do the same thing, but simply discover common ground with the other person as quickly as possible.

It was so interesting. The first exercise resulted in me and the woman I was talking to really connecting over shared experiences and thoughts on things, ranging from our favourite sound to what we think about family, friendship and love. We’ve been in touch since and I was delighted to find a potential new friend, not least a fascinating companion for the evening.

Theodore Zeldin's menu of questions – designed to allow two people to find their common humanity.

Theodore Zeldin’s menu of questions – designed to allow two people to find their common humanity.

The networking event took place the following night, and yet again, I found a woman whose life and interests created a Venn diagram with mine and the joy was in the discovery of the commonality, and the points of differentiation. Both nights reminded me that people are just people – it’s so easy to put barriers up, especially living in a city, but if you remove them only for a moment, there’s someone like you standing there.

I’ve had to really force myself into the art of conversation over the last six months, finding myself having to network professionally in a way that I haven’t done before. Sure, I’ve been a public figure in the UK publishing industry for some years now, but it’s largely been as a public speaker or commentator. I’ve had to generate more one-on-one conversations than ever before and I’ve really enjoyed the process of properly meeting people, not just shaking their hand and swapping a business card during a conference coffee break.

By and large I’ve found that people are generous with their time and advice, and unexpectedly supportive. It’s definitely restored my faith in people, even though I already know that the publishing community is uniquely friendly and supportive.

Whilst all of this great stuff has been going on, I’ve similarly had my faith in people diminished by being ‘ghosted‘ by someone purporting to be a friend. If you’ve not come across this yet, then lucky you, but it’s when a person cuts off all communication with you, suddenly and unexpectedly, especially easy if you’ve only really got to know them through social media. They just stop responding. They cut off the live conversation just as it’s at its zenith. They fall off the face of the earth.

I’m the first person to admit that I live a huge part of my life behind an iPhone and I socialise with people who do, so meeting a new friend through a meet-up group based on that foundation is bound to be risky. However, I do try and attain a level of authenticity – I am where my tweets or Instagram pics say I am, I am the same person in a live conversation as I am on Twitter or my blog. I want everything to be 360 degrees-me, live or on social media.

And then you meet someone who isn’t any of those things – they are not where they say they are, they are not who they tell you they are. Everything about them is virtual so to turn into a ghost is incredibly easy. They are one-dimensional, appearing only online through one medium and are uniquely obsessed with who interacts with them there. All the follows, unfollows, comments, likes – all are tracked obsessively and every bit of interaction with other people is about how they are perceived by them. It is a form of narcissism and it’s so clear to me that they are only interested in a reflection of themselves in a pool of other people.

This is a person who knows the power of a well-timed online manoeuvre and has clearly used it to great effect when ghosting before. It has to be the most cowardly and basically shitty thing to do to a person, and I say that as someone who did it once years ago, before social media was invented. Yet this is a growing trend among younger people who are used to living most of their lives online and who are less committed to the things they say and do there.

If anything, these experiences have reminded me of the importance of real-life interactions over virtual ones and I’ve never been so keen to make the former happen. I could put barriers back up again, in the wake of being ghosted, but I won’t be diminished by the experience. I won’t hide behind my iPhone or my laptop because I want to be in the world, right here, right now.

You can’t hide forever.

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.

Lifestyle Hijackers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The One Where I’m Absolutely Not a Yummy Mummy

Last night, getting off the London Overground at Kensal Rise, I was accused by a group of drunk, loud-mouthed, relatively posh boys of being a ‘yummy mummy’.

I had heard them shout, “Welcome to middle England!” as the train pulled into the station and had scowled in their general direction. This prompted them to follow me on the platform, saying, “I bet she’s married to an advertising executive!” (wtf?) and then shouted, “She’s a yummy mummy wearing jogging bottoms!”

It took all my strength not to turn round, face them on a full platform, to say, “Actually, I’m a single, childfree, publishing executive who eats boys like you for breakfast.”

In reality, I was on my way back from a day-long hike, wearing leggings and cross-trainers. The boys had confused me with the mums’ yoga tribe that is part of the rich fabric of the Kensal Rise and Queen’s Park community. They’re everywhere – usually in their late thirties or forties, skinny, wearing drapy jersey items, holding a juice or a green tea from a local cafe and either looking zenned-out from yoga or looking a bit fraught. The only bit of that list I tick is the age one, and maybe the odd drapy jersey item. And yeah, ok, I was looking a bit frazzled after the hike.

The YM is the predominant fortysomething-female tribe in my area and I’m not part of it. I moved here two years ago, two years after my separation, and thought a lot about how to infiltrate its ranks, wanting to make new friendships with women of my own age. I joined a local group that has events for women but the tribal subsets were already set in stone. You see I’m not at the school gates, in the morning yoga class or at the coffee meet-up at our local deli so to them, I’m pretty much invisible.

After a while I stopped trying to infiltrate. In the main, the friendships I’ve forged here are with younger people. I’m lucky enough to be surrounded by a great set of people in my building – the infamous ‘gold building’ in Kensal Rise – and we socialise a lot. I set up a Facebook page for residents to facilitate it and I’ve met some really wonderful, genuine people.

At first I was acutely conscious of the age gap – they’re anything from late 20s to late 30s – and kept pointing it out every time we went to the pub. There were genuine looks of puzzlement: “What are you on about?!” they’d say. But there is a societal stigma about middle-aged people who hang out with younger ones, like they’ve never matured enough to keep up with their peer group or they’re trying to hard to hang on to their youth.

But what if you’ve done the whole mature couply thing for quite a long time, decided it wasn’t for you, re-entered non-couply society and found that most of the people at your age are still at the mature couply party? It is one party I’m happy not to be attending right now, but I’ve had to accept that I’ve left the cosy weekend dinners for six round at someone’s house, planned weeks or months in advance, for spontaneous meet-ups at the pub with whomever happens to be around, followed by dancing at Paradise or a party back at someone’s flat.

Long live spontaneity, in my view.

Because my new local friends have welcomed me into their lives as a person they want to hang out with, I no longer feel the urge to refer to myself as ‘the oldie’ – it just seems inappropriate now. What’s particularly lovely is that I have a couple of young couples in my circle of friends whom I love dearly. Back when I was in coupledom, we’d never have thought about hanging out with a single friend, so strong was the tribal urge to bond with other couples, and the stigma around their situation. Thank goodness that little ‘rule’ has been broken.

One thing I’ve grown to loathe in life is the way some people try to box you up, in a category that is age-appropriate. I cringe when I hear people say, “But he’s 18, so of course he’s just going to want to hang out with his mates, get drunk, have lots of sex and go wild at music festivals.” What if he’s 18, wants to concentrate hard on his studying, hang out in a coffee shop on his own, have a little bit of sex, or no sex, and camp with one good friend in a remote village in Wales?

Why do we pressure people to tick all the age-related boxes?

Similarly, one might hear someone say, “But she’s 35, she’s going to want to find a man quickly, marry him, have a child, buy a house and enjoy weekends at B&Q.” Aaagh! What if she wants to take a gap year to travel, concentrate on her career, date several men without marrying them, and rent in a really cool place that doesn’t require DIY?

You can see where I’m going with this.

People assume stuff about me. I know they do. They see me on a train, running in Queen’s Park or walking down the road to Portobello and think, “Married, just been to yoga class while the kids are at school, off to have lunch at an artisanal cafe that sells vintage furniture on the side, before picking up Tarquin and Oberon from school and making them eat quinoa for supper.”

Sometimes I feel like wearing a ‘Baby On Board’-style badge that says “Single, childfree, not doing what you think I’m doing.”

I assume stuff about people too – I wish I didn’t. I assumed younger people wouldn’t be interested in getting to know me, I assumed other fortysomething women would want to welcome me into their tribe even though I wasn’t wearing the right headdress, I’ve assumed fortysomething men would want to date me.

Wrong, wrong and wrong.

But there is something so right, right, right about not being in a tribe.

Or building one of your own.

Because you can.

 

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http://www.telegraph.co.uk/comment/personal-view/11025549/Class-in-21st-century-Britain-the-new-signifiers.html