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.

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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

 

Consciously Uncoupling

Last week I downloaded the Timehop app and it showed me what had happened in my life across all social media, for the last four years on this day. July 13 2010 – I booked my first holiday alone, in Thailand. It would turn out to be a momentous move. I and my then husband had agreed to split in May that year – I had initiated the split. We were sharing the same house, in separate rooms and I longed for freedom and to start leading my own life. I called Trailfinders and said ‘where can you take me?’ and they suggested 10 days in Phuket at a lovely resort. I booked it before I could think about it too much.

That was the first of six holidays I’ve been on, on my own. I am now a seasoned solo traveller, used to pacing my days to my own rhythm, not having to think about anyone else’s likes, dislikes, lack of energy or enthusiasm. I can see everything I want to see, when I want to, for as long as I want to. It’s gloriously liberating. Even a day out now, with friends, reminds me how much I end up compromising my own desires to fit in with theirs, and how much I long for that holiday space alone.

But it didn’t start like that.

Those first few days in Phuket, I was wretched. I seemed to be surrounded by happy couples, mooning over each other. Everywhere. That first night, I sobbed into my beautiful dinner and it heralded three days of the same pattern: bawling my eyes out throughout the night, dragging my piglet-eyed self to breakfast the next morning (thank god for shades) and recovering throughout the day on a sun-lounger at the end of a jetty with no one else on it.

My hotel view in Phuket, featuring my daily ‘recovery jetty’.

I had travelled far away from home deliberately, because I knew I wouldn’t be able to hop back on a plane if I couldn’t stand it any more. It worked. A combination of supportive texts from friends urging me to get out of the hotel and explore (and one particularly good one who reviewed the hotel’s website and suggested a few trips and beauty treatments for me) made me do it. I sat at the hotel bar at Happy Hour, dressed nicely with a little makeup to hide the piglet eyes. I needed a couple of margheritas to give me the courage to leave the hotel and go into Patong – the ‘Brighton’ of Thailand.

I laughed when I tentatively stepped into a tuk-tuk only to find it took me about two minutes to get into town – I resolved to walk next time. Then I hit on a course of action that never fails to work abroad – find an Irish or Aussie pub and go sit at the bar with a drink. There was live music playing and I sat there, no one staring (except a British couple, which I’ve found is always the case), smiling into my Thai beer as I swung my legs on the bar stool. No one spoke to me that night but they did when I came back the next night, this time dressed in a more relaxed style in shorts and a vest. A crowd of Aussies took me under their wing. They couldn’t believe I was on my own and to be honest, neither could I. I was 43 and all my friends were holidaying with their partners.

Well my partner for that holiday was Dougie. Aussie, Thai boxer, black-haired, hot-as-hell Dougie. Riding around on the back of his hired motorbike, I felt a sense of that freedom that I envy guys for – when you see gangs of them, shirts off, riding around Thai islands without a care in the world. (Do you ever see gangs of girls doing that?) I still envy those guys. The world is made for them and they rejoice in it.

The world is seemingly not made for a forty-something woman who decides to leave her marriage (to a really nice guy), not to have children and go it alone. This blog is going to look at some of the unexpected things I’ve encountered since I’ve gone solo (they’re pretty much all unexpected), from men my age assuming I want to trap them into coupledom, to women buying me congratulatory drinks at the bar; from dining alone to finding myself sandwiched between two Thai women on a tiny bike on New Year’s Day. There’s a story to tell, and I want to share mine.

Because I can.

Speedboat trip to Phi Phi – finally free

Lisa