White Horse

Maybe some women aren’t meant to be tamed. Maybe they just need to run free until they find someone just as wild to run with them.

Sex and the City

Every day in Agonda village, south Goa, a white horse walks slowly from her home through the streets. She heads down to the beach where she will walk slowly from back and forth along the shoreline until sundown. Throughout the day, she stops off at a beach hut or two for a slurp of water, then at sunset, she stops serenely to allow people to take a photo of her. Then she makes her way back, stopping off at a bar or two, to poke her head over the counter. It marks a passing of the day, a ritual, like the morning yoga class or the feeding of the cows on beach before the sun goes down. I asked if she had a name. “White Horse,” they said.

I witnessed all of this from my Simrose beach hut and got caught up in its rhythm. It seemed to form part of a constant thrum of activity, which was underpinned by the sound of the waves crashing on the shore. I arrived at 2am and couldn’t believe how loud they were at high tide. I was woken by them several times during the course of my stay and had to wear earplugs. “Oh yeah – always get a hut further back from the beach,” people said, who had been there before. The waves are the soundtrack to everything and even the yoga teacher used their rhythm to breathe against – a technique I learned called ujjayi or ‘ocean breath’.

If I sound like I’ve gone all spiritual, I sort of have. People said, “Oh Goa isn’t the real India”, thinking of the trance scene the litter-strewn beaches of the north. Well it was real enough to me, and I loved it. I did yoga class every morning I could with Lucia, who was from Italy and filled with hypnotic phrases about the various chakra and how I could focus on them. I had had a stressful time at work before Christmas and was coming back to a promotion that promised an extremely busy time ahead so I made the most of the chance to connect with myself and the sea (which I love to be beside and float in a boat upon but I can’t swim in).

The biggest surprise was finding that I knew most of the vinyasa poses already from my time training in contemporary dance. I didn’t know that Martha Graham had nicked them all to become ‘the mother of modern dance’. Even in the two weeks I was there I started to feel my old dance body coming back – strong back, strong core, a stretched feeling in my hips and legs – a feeling I never thought I would recreate.

I developed my own White Horse routine. It involved walking on the beach, yoga, then breakfast, reading on my hut deck, lunch, more reading, another walk, cocktails, dinner then drinks at a bar. As with my very first solo trip abroad, it took me three days to leave the resort. I was a little bit scared of what would be there (so much scaremongering about India, especially for women). But as it was Christmas, I just spent the first few days in the resort, enjoying the efforts the staff made to make it fun and festive. I spent Christmas Eve with a brother and sister from Manchester – the brother lives down the road from me in London. Small world…

On Boxing Day I decided I needed to venture out. I found a single strand of shops and stalls selling clothes, jewellery, spices, and copious sarongs. I found friendly shop-owning women, all telling me I was their ‘first customer of the day’ and therefore they were giving me ‘the best deal’. Even though I knew it was all sales talk it was fun and I bought beach dresses and loose trousers. I didn’t get hassled once by men other than to ask if I wanted a taxi. I felt safe. I spotted a bar on my way back with my spoils and liked its vibe, and promised myself I’d venture out later. It’s always tough that first time. It always requires a bit of Dutch Courage to make that first step so I made mine a Caipirowska.

I pulled up a stool at Kopi Desa and immediately a guy from Birmingham slid into the seat next to me and asked if I’d mind chatting to him. As he rambled on, I could see a couple, obviously British, trying to catch my eye to see if I needed help. I can’t remember how I made it over to them but I did and they said the guy had been hitting on lone women all day. It’s always a British guy, never a local. They introduced the barman as ‘the best-looking man in Goa’. I couldn’t disagree.

Over the next few nights I met more Brits there, plus Indians, Scandinavians and Coca-Cola the cow who popped in for a drink every evening. The bar is open to the street so you’re surrounded by everything, from the bell-ringing bread boy on his bike in the early evening, to the beach dogs scouring for scraps. I spent New Year’s Eve with friends I met in this bar, watching fireworks on the beach at H2O. I had the best New Year’s Day ever.

I’d started dating someone before Christmas and whilst I’d enjoyed the time we spent together I wasn’t truly sure I was ready to commit to them. At first I thought my trip to Goa was getting in the way of progress, but in truth it gave me time to reflect and think about what I really wanted. I watched the White Horse, a symbol of freedom without restraint in many cultures, completing her daily ritual with no one to stop her. I remembered one of my favourite Sex and the City quotes, cited at the top of this post, and knew it applied to me. I thought about returning to Agonda, a place I already knew I loved, with a partner and I felt sad. I knew I wanted to come back on my own, with no one reining me in or saddling me with their needs and wants.

I knew I didn’t want to be one of the many women with families I’d witnessed, anxious and hovering over their brood (and injured animals), unable to just relax by themselves and watch the ocean. I’d sat next to a woman on the plane out, who was separated by the aisle from her family and spent 10 hours slightly angled towards them, watching them, whilst they completely ignored her and vegged out with dad. I didn’t want to be a woman in an unhappy coupling, waiting until she’s in a group to make sly digs at her partner. I’ve done that and it sucks.

I did want to be the free woman on New Year’s Eve who whooped at fireworks with the happiest couple on earth, Lucy and Jason, who were on their honeymoon mega-trip. A couple who are happy to spend time with a single woman are rare indeed – and you know they are the strong ones who will last. And I did want to be the woman who shared a bottle of prosecco with the best-looking man in Goa when the fireworks were over.

If the New Year is about making choices and stepping forward with the right ones, then here I stand: unfettered, mane blowing in the breeze, stamping my hooves with joy.

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Thank F*** It’s 2015

A lot of things have been conspiring, lately, to make me remember the nineties, and the experiences I had during those years.

I’ve just watched the return of TFI Friday on Channel 4 and I recently returned to the scene of my nineties ‘heyday’, if you can call it that, when I made a trip to Brighton. I lived there in my mid-to-late twenties, and in many ways it’s the perfect place to experience that period in your life.

Mine wasn’t the usual trajectory, though. When I moved there I was still a naive Welsh girl, even though I’d lived in London from 1989. I have more in common with Kelly McDonald in Trainspotting (1996)  now, then I ever did as an Actual Young Person. I watched films like that in a state of disbelief. I’d never been near a drug, or a one-night-stand in my life. I’d been to a Catholic school, done a pretty much female-only degree (Dance and English) and worked at Liberty for three years, in which I’d discovered the delights of drinking, but still dressed like a nun on her holidays.

I now think that there’s something about places like Brighton and San Francisco that call people like me to them. I had a sexual epiphany in each of them, and my life changed as a result of experiencing them. I arrived in Brighton ostensibly to do an MA in Post-Modern English Literature but I gave it up after eight weeks, because I now think I’d moved there for an entirely different purpose. I met people who shook me out of my buttoned-up life, taught me how to live a little and put it out there. I wore mini-skirts and tight tops and realised I looked good in them.

But never quite good enough.

I met my ex and his group of friends a year into living in Brighton. We met while clubbing and we went out a lot – mainly to pubs with dance floors, that played Oasis, The Prodigy and The Charlatans on a loop. Hilariously I’d met my ex on my very first one-night-stand, but I ended up marrying him. Typical.

It was the era of the ladette – there we were, drinking and being lairy like the lads, joining in the ‘banter’, watching sport, Baywatch, and laughing along with Loaded. I’ve written about my struggles with the pressure to be a ‘cool girl’ before, and the fact that I maintained it so long. All of us seemed to be being marked against a parade of professional girl-next-door’s who were ‘up for it’: Denise Van Outen, Gail Porter and Louise Redknapp, to name but a few. I knew I’d never be able to match their ‘hotness’ (little knowing that most of it was photoshopped) and it really did upset me. I’d see my ex poring over their pictures in Loaded and grab his copy afterwards to examine them more closely. Was there a way I could be more like that?

There was never any way. Even though I hit my lowest-ever weight at that point in my life, I was still a pale-skinned curvy woman with hips and a muscalature that would always be concealed by a layer of fat. I’d never be an All Saint or a Spice Girl, and I certainly wasn’t cool enough to be a Louise from Sleeper or a Gwen Stefani. And heaven forfend, I’d never be a Pamela Anderson.

Even though I’d shed my ‘ugly duckling’ huge clothes, I still felt pretty awful most of the time. While my ex continued to wax lyrically about his love for Denise V O, I’d cross the road if I saw a bunch of men coming along so they couldn’t see my face too closely, with all its flaws. There was only one gaze back then, and it was definitely male on female. I squirmed under it.

Some women would say that they felt empowered during this time – ‘one of the lads’. It was an extremely liberating time, and very much so for me, but I unwrapped myself just at that moment where in order to be one of the lads, you had to be a ridiculously attractive girl who only had to pull on a vest top and denim shorts to qualify. I remember seeing that outfit described as the ‘girlfriend uniform’ in Loaded and knew I’d never get into it (I did in my 40s though, when I was single…)

Watching old clips of TFI I can see the female guests adopting that wide-mouthed YEAH expression that meant they were ‘up for it’. They fooled me at the time, but they don’t now. What strikes me about that time is just how many of the guys who propagated this lads ‘n’ ladettes lifestyle were deeply unattractive. Chris Evans could have been their poster-boy. The guys commenting on women in Loaded could look like a wedge of cheese, but every girl had to be an image of gleaming perfection. It was perhaps the biggest act of ‘look over there!’ transference we’ve ever witnessed.

If the ladette wasn’t a bad enough role model, then along came Sex and the City in 1998 just to cement the idea that you had to be impossibly thin, unattainably groomed and attached to a man to be a valid person. I love the series, I really do (not the movies), but it did offer a very narrow set of options for women, whilst purporting to be about a new breed of independent females.

I know for a fact that I staggered by default into marrying my one-night-stand because I didn’t question the cultural signals that were all around me. All I knew was I needed to be thin, attractive, cool and attached to a man to be a valid person. Bridget Jones (1996) knew that too, and while she offered an alternative to the first three of these things, she was the chardonnay-swigging ladette who managed to get her man by being cute and bumbling. Falling off gym equipment has never been my schtick.

How things have changed now, where all around me are young women questioning everything, not settling for anything and making their own decisions about their lives despite cultural pressures. They have men in their lives that they see casually, who are no doubt hoping for some relationship pay-off, which is clearly never going to happen. These women would rather use online porn than have casual sex and they are makeup free and happily hanging out in public in yoga leggings, loose t-shirts and their specs.

I like the new cool girls. They’re not trying to join the Lad Gang, or any gang. I think we’re in a new era of independence where we’re less likely to be defined by the recruitment of a life partner, and more about what we did before, during and after we met them. If indeed we do meet them.

So, I did love you, TFI, but you remind me of a time when I was never good enough. And I look at Chris Evans interviewing a gushing Helen Mirren now, and think, ‘WTF?’ Thank f*** it’s 2015.

Specs and the City

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Been there.

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

Abso-fuckin-lutely.

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