Tuesday 30 July 2013

Good mothers

Journalist Bronwen Clune moans that from the day she produced the first of her four children everyone expected her to be a "good mother" and assessed her every action against this impossible ideal. Any careless lapse was instantly jumped on.

But can this really be true? Surely in this day and age everyone - including non-parents like myself - knows that parents are not perfect, children are not perfect, and obviously you have to make allowances for normal, fumbling human behaviour.

Not so, says Bronwen. She's expected to make gourmet school lunches, supply everyone's favourite breakfast cereals, be a maths wizard and always have matching socks on hand. She's meant to be forever smiling and free of foibles and oddities.

I don't believe people are so censorious. Doesn't every other parent know full well how hard it is to bring up children? How demanding and awkward they are, how exhausting and infuriating, how unpredictable and startling. Do parents who know all too well the non-stop craziness of parenting and their own constant inability to measure up really expect other parents to reach some exalted standard they couldn't possibly reach themselves? Are they truly such mean hypocrites?

Even those of us who've never had children and may know little of the day-to-day turmoil and weariness of looking after them can surely imagine what it's like and sympathise with those mums and dads who're temporarily losing it or collapsing in a defeated heap while their offspring happily misbehave?

Who are all these people who expect Bronwen to be so saintly? If they're friends and relatives, then shouldn't she either keep well away from them or tell them to go screw themselves? If they're complete strangers, why take any notice of them at all? Or are these elevated standards ones she's actually setting herself, some kind of internal perfectionist streak?

This "good mother" hang-up seems especially odd for someone who's had four children. Hasn't she realised by now that there's no perfect way to bring up a child and you just have to take things as they come and do the best you can? Isn't the best response to other people's sniffy disdain a gale of raucous laughter and another glass of pinot noir?

Thursday 25 July 2013

The secret's out

Over the 66 years of my life, I've confided some very intimate, very personal thoughts and feelings to other people. Mainly to Jenny but also to other close and trusted friends.

Have I ever regretted such confessions? Strangely enough, I haven't. I can't recall anything that had damaging consequences or made me feel a reckless idiot.

Other people seem to do it all the time. Those familiar phrases - "Me and my big mouth", "I open my mouth and put my foot in it", "Did I say that out loud?"

Well, I don't use them myself. Have I, for example, ever been unfair to someone, shocked or horrified someone, diminished myself, exposed my weaknesses and frailties? Yes, I've done the last. But I'm happy to do that with people I trust.

Have I revealed things that are simply too private and personal to be shared? I don't think so. Someone can only get to know me properly if I tell them everything that goes on inside me. And that means everything.

There are people I haven't seen for decades who know quite mind-boggling things about me, but I'm not bothered. I doubt they've abused my trust in them, and even if they have, even if they've gossiped shamelessly, it'll be to people I don't know who can't do me any harm.

Then again, I don't need to have confessed to anything. There are glaring shortcomings I've revealed simply in the course of everyday life - sexual hang-ups, social ineptness, nasty habits, chronic self-doubts. But so what? Why be embarrassed that people have stumbled on awkward faults? They have just as many themselves.

I've got nothing to hide. My only worry is what others will do with the information. But by and large my trust hasn't been misplaced.

Sunday 21 July 2013

And so to bed

The meaning of the bed has changed drastically over the centuries. Nowadays beds are just something for sleeping, having sex or recov-ering from illness. But during the Middle Ages they were mainly a sign of social status.

While the poor had tiny beds made of canvas and straw, often slept in by an entire family, the rich had large and elaborate beds with canopies and curtains and lots of pillows. Some of them were so luxurious and worth so much they would be bequeathed in a person's will.

When bedside tables were invented, they too became a symbol of wealth and social status. As did the number of beds in the household, Louis the 14th having more than 400.

A rich person's bed was so impressive that they would often receive guests or preside over meetings while in bed. A big contrast to today, when receiving guests in your bed is seen as totally disreputable and degenerate.

The poor of course would justify their spartan bedding by saying that anything more extravagant was just a sign of self-indulgent pampering. Pillows, they insisted, were only necessary for sick women and invalids.

It was only in the 19th century that beds started to lose their social status to other possessions, and comfort became more important than how fancy your bed was. All people want to know today is whether they will sleep soundly or toss and turn all night. Or whether the bed springs will squeak embarrassingly as they pleasure a new lover. Or whether the bed's so narrow you and your loved one will be rather too intimately entwined.

In a hotel bedroom, I also want to know that the bed is clean and bug-free and not bearing traces of the previous occupant's frolics or nausea or greasy takeaway. And that the bed linen isn't threadbare from a thousand washes. And that the bed won't collapse in the middle of the night.

If I could also have a bed that guaranteed blissful and beautiful dreams, instead of the anxious and scary ones I usually have, that would be an added bonus. But I don't think the neuroscientists have cracked that one yet.

Tuesday 16 July 2013


Pictures of post-natal female bodies are seldom seen. They're thought of as ugly and embarr-assing. But one woman has set out to change that negative view by publishing a book of over 70 post-natal bodies and inviting us to make our own judgments.

The photos make no attempt to hide all the physical effects of childbirth - the scars, stretch marks, wrinkles and knobby bits that are usually seen as unattractive and to be kept out of sight. There's no airbrushing or photoshopping or touching-up of any kind, just the honest reality of what a new mum may actually look like.

"So many people tell me, oh, I've never seen a body like that," says the photographer, Jade Beall of Tucson, Arizona. "I want people not to have to react as, you're gross, but instead, oh, that's a woman who is incredibly human, or that's a woman who has scars and lines with stories to tell. My goal is to help these mothers feel worthy of being called beautiful."

Most of the women who took part were deeply self-conscious of their bodies and reluctant to display them, but they took the plunge and agreed to be photographed.

Both men and women have pointed out that they're unprepared for the physical changes to a new mother's body precisely because they're always hidden from the public gaze. The sudden appearance of unexpected "blemishes" that go against media images of female beauty can be shocking and upsetting only because people don't know they're commonplace and normal.

Not everyone thinks the book is a good idea though. Sociologist Meredith Nash thinks it's quite natural to be horrified at your new stretch marks or scars and the book may simply pressurise women to feel good about something that isn't good at all.

"I don't think there is anything wrong with women feeling upset about the fact that they have stretch marks, because culture tells them they are ugly. There is a reason women feel upset about the way they look."

Maybe initial upset is natural, but surely it's right to challenge that reaction and ask why women are so mortified about their changing bodies? Why this endless pretence that women's bodies are always perfect and flawless when we all know the reality is something more wayward - and more interesting?

Saturday 13 July 2013

Loosening up

The sixties are always seen as the decade of the "sexual revolution", when all of a sudden people lost their sexual inhibitions and were jumping into bed with everyone left, right and centre.

That may have been true for some, but for me it was quite the opposite. Although I was a teenage boy and supposedly awash with testosterone and erotic yearnings, I was actually totally chaste until the sixties were virtually over.

My various girlfriends seemed to be equally chaste and made no attempt to seduce me. Clearly libidos had not yet run amok in the strait-laced London suburbs.

Though I did know one guy who was assiduously bedding every woman he came across, I had no wish to do the same. He seemed to have little time for anything else but proving his manhood. But there was certainly no shortage of eager women happy to satisfy his urges.

I suppose I never quite saw the point of the so-called sexual revolution. Of course it was a step forward that people were losing their sexual inhibitions and prudishness, but it didn't follow that you had to prove your newly liberated attitude day after day with as many partners as you could handle. Shedding inhibitions was somehow equated with promiscuity and lack of commitment.

I must say it's refreshing to hear younger people discussing sexuality with a degree of candour and directness that would have been unthinkable when I was growing up. That was the age of tortuous double entendres, coy references to "down there" or "consummation", and the elaborately evasive and euphemistic "Carry On" films. Any clearcut mention of sex was enough to traumatise the assembled company and have you frozen out of the conversation.

Certainly I wish I'd been able to talk about sex with the same frankness and in the same detail when I was an innocent and ignorant teenager. It might have saved a lot of confusion and embarrassment in later life when my sexual naivety was all too obvious. And still catches me out even now.

Wednesday 10 July 2013

Unsung heroes

Reports of the San Francisco plane crash made it sound as if the cabin crew simply scuttled off the plane along with the passengers. This is insultingly ignorant of their vital role in getting passengers off the plane and saving lives.

It's not generally realised that cabin crew have very intensive training on how to handle emergency situations of every possible kind, including fires, crash landings, hijacking, medical crises, disruptive passengers and childbirth.

The one thing the crew did not do was scuttle off the plane like frightened mice. They stayed right there and did all the things they were trained to do to rescue the passengers.

Despite the possibility the plane might have caught fire or blown up, they did what was needed. They deflated an escape slide with trapped passengers under it, slashed seat belts open, guided people through the smoke, put out small fires, and calmed the panic-stricken.

Only when they had done everything possible to evacuate the passengers safely did they leave the stricken plane themselves - thankfully without it exploding around them.

Many of them did their work in the regulation pencil skirts and high heels, having trained in their flight clothing and having worked out how not to be hampered by it.

It's still widely assumed that cabin crew are just glorified food-servers, doling out the skimpy airline fare and then having a nap or devouring the latest Patricia Cornwell. Their exhaustive training on handling emergencies and in-flight glitches in general is still overlooked - mainly because you only see it in action if your own plane is in trouble.

It's a professional skill-set we should all properly appreciate. After all, guiding terrified passengers out of a smoke-filled plane while mincing along in a pencil skirt is not a feat we could all manage. Unsung heroes indeed.

Here are two articles about the cabin crew's training at Jezebel and NBC

PS: A new report says the pilots delayed evacuation for 90 seconds

Monday 8 July 2013

Bug alert

American cheese lovers are incensed that a rather tasty French cheese, mimolette, has been banned by the US government on the grounds that the cheese mites that give it such a tangy flavour could cause allergic reactions.

The French are also pretty cheesed off that 1.5 tonnes of the distinctive cheese, first made when Louis XIV wanted a domestic version of the Dutch cheese Edam, are rotting away in a warehouse and can’t be eaten.

The manufacturers claim that nobody has ever become ill from eating mimolette, that the cheese mites are essential for the taste, and just can’t understand the fuss. They say the cheese has been imported into the States for around 20 years with no previous problems.

After all, many foods that could cause allergic reactions – like peanuts and wheat - are on sale without any objection. Allergy-prone individuals are expected simply to avoid the offending items.

I’ve never tried any mimolette myself so I’ve no idea whether the special taste is worth fighting for or not. In fact until today I’d never heard of mimolette or for that matter milbenk√§se, another cheese that uses cheese mites.

Cheese lovers are protesting vigorously, especially on a “Save The Mimolette” Facebook page, whose slogan is “No to the Mimolette ban in the US! Let us eat stinky cheese!” The right to nibble freely is being stoutly upheld.

I imagine the only real hazard of eating mimolette, like cheese generally, would be a few extra pounds on the scales. But US food inspectors seem to have got it in for the poor defenceless cheese mites. What miserable killjoys!

Pic: not mimolette but something reassuringly mite-free....

Thursday 4 July 2013

Just be grateful

When I was young and complaining about something, my parents were fond of saying I should be grateful for what I had and not be too greedy or demanding. There were many people in the world with a lot less, they would point out.

Well, for a while I accepted that. It seemed a valid argument. It smacked of common sense, practicality and realism. I wouldn't be carried away by high-flown ideals and impossible dreams.

At some point however, I started to question that rather blinkered view. I started to ask myself, what exactly is wrong with wanting more? What is wrong with aiming for something bigger and better? And so what if other people have a lot less? Won't that always be the case, whatever I happen to have?

I think I first seriously questioned the "settle for what you've got" approach when I was living in a scummy London bedsit while all around me were rich professionals in luxury mansions. How could it be in any way smart to accept such a dreary hovel rather than looking for a decent, comfortable home? Or the sort of income that would make that possible? Or the sort of job that would push up my income?

Working as a bookseller, I questioned the "just be grateful" line again. I didn't see why poor working conditions and low wages should be cheerfully adjusted to rather than challenged. So I became a trade union member and pushed for improvements.

At the end of the day settling for what you've got means accepting the second-rate and imperfect and pretending it's better than it is. It means never wanting to push the boundaries of your life and your abilities. It means closing down your imagination and making do with what's in front of you.

Why is wanting more seen as greedy and demanding? Isn't it a natural human desire to enhance, to embellish, to upgrade? How else does civilisation progress?

Of course my parents' real motive for discouraging "greed" was probably their own limited income and inability to meet my expensive whims. But it became an entrenched belief that permeated my thinking well into adult life. An unfortunate consequence.