Yeah, I really did eat that, and it changed the world a bit

So I read You’re right, I didn’t eat that this morning, Alana Massey’s stark and utterly brilliant exploration of the psychosocial and cultural costs of staying thin. Unless you’re easily triggered by ED or body shaming stuff, go and read it, seriously. I’ll wait. It blew me away, partly for its sheer blistering honesty but also because the place she describes is very much where I used to live.

I’m not going to argue over whether the routine she describes is disordered or not. Obviously so, in that food and body size are clearly preoccupying an unhealthy proportion of her headspace, but I also think that in the context of normative c20th Western women’s food behaviour it’s an effectively meaningless question. Besides, there’s a slash in dis/order. By which I mean: Massey is artificially and problematically creating an order, but one that works for a whole bunch of cultural reasons, and arguing about its dysfunctionality or otherwise is to displace the serious biznes of arguing about demands and constructs imposed upon women and the extremely limited ways in which we’re allowed to inhabit bodies in culture. Why have we created a world in which ‘everything is handed to you on a silver platter’ if you’re (white, cis, able-bodied and) carefully, painfully thin? Why is it okay that women can even feel thus? In this environment, assuming the kind of objectivity to make that judgement – constructing Massey’s behaviour as disordered and thus dismissable – pretty much guarantees you’re being an asshole.

My therapist’s touchstone, and therefore my inheritance, is always ‘is it functional?’ and you know, for Massey, in some ways it seems to be. She has the work that she wants and apparently the relationships that she wants (maybe?) and definitely a body that she wants and feels confident with, so who are we to tell her she’s wrong? It’s culture that’s broken, not the accommodations she makes with it. She feels that ‘the world is handed to me on a silver platter’ precisely because of the thinness she works so hard for. She feels that making the world okay is within her control. That’s a good feeling. She gets to choose it.

But.

Her experience is not my experience. At all. I’ve been that thin, much thinner in fact, and I certainly don’t feel the world was ‘handed to me on a silver platter’ more at a size 00 than I do now (at approximately a US4 or UK8). I might not be representative, because my eating-pretty-much-whatever-I-want-and-exercising-most-days-even-if-it’s-just-a-long-walk figure is still slim by most people’s standards, and I’m quite short as well, so all the ‘tiny’ and ‘small’ stuff she talks about still happens to me.* Maybe the addition of breasts compensates in cultural attention terms for no longer being the thinnest person in any given room? I don’t know.

Thing is, whilst I’m certainly no longer proper thin in the sense that Massey is,  I’m notoriously unable to objectively assess my own body. There’s definite flesh on me now, and I quite like it. I feel…capable, and (on a good day) lithe. My partner is both appreciative and unfeasibly good at coming out unprompted with helpful and reassuring things at regular intervals, like ‘you somehow manage to be both tiny and curvy at the same time!’ or ‘you’re so hot.’ It helps. I feel like a ‘normal’ person, albeit a bit smaller in all directions. Would I feel the same about this body if I shrank again?  Or if I put on a bunch of weight? I suspect not. So I might be (objectively? Is this a concept with any validity here?) wrong, but I can’t see myself as thin anymore. Small, maybe. While I still have a prominent clavicle, I also have 32E breasts and thighs that almost touch at the top. (Nb. It’s possible to configure large chunks of this blog as essentially attempts to realise or understand my actual body. I can only apologise, and point out that you don’t have to read it.)

It also matters that I am so much saner – by which I mean more relaxed, less uptight, less neurotic – than when I was balancing on the edge Massey describes. For years I was strung out, uptight and frantic about almost anything, much less inclined to proportion or reason. Living on the borderlands between function and desperation – carefully maintaining that with constant calculation and calibration as Massey evokes so powerfully – is not only exhausting, but takes its toll on your mental health, especially if you’re kinda anxious to start with. Everything assumes undue importance. Everything is a life-or-death decision, especially anything to do with food. I still get flashes of this when I’m really hungry and there’s no food available, and it’s not a fun place to be. I may sometimes miss the senses of exhilaration, or control, or power, but I don’t miss that sense of barely controlled panic at all.

Thing is, I got bored. I got bored, and I stopped needing thinness more than I needed love or hugs or friends or food or sleep. It started as a defence against the lack of those things, and then they showed up and the thinness effort got in the way. It took me literally years to let go, and it partly helped that I was recalibrating in the aftermath of huge loss so I didn’t feel – painful as it was – that I had anything left to lose except thinness itself, which turned out not be worth very much in the end. Not all on its own. Thinness is like money, it’s only useful for the things it can do, and it turned out that without other people and fulfilling work it couldn’t do very much at all. If it stops being the answer in your personal perspective, it’s not going to solve anything else that’s real.

That clearly isn’t Massey’s experience, and props to her. We all do what we have to to survive. Besides, I think she and I slightly different, because I don’t think it ever felt to me like I was making a choice to maintain that kind of thinness. I didn’t feel I was choosing to get up and run instead of staying in bed, or eating egg whites instead of eggs, or refusing carbs, or swimming two kilometres every day even when I was exhausted. It was just what I had to do. It’s who I was. It’s an astonishingly self-sufficient way of being in some ways, because you do these things and as long as you do them they give you reasons to be okay.

It turns out, though, that the things I really need to be okay are just as achievable with a BMI of 19 as they were at 14. I am in a really good relationship, and feel loved and supported. I have an amazing network of friends. I have at least 3 jobs I find interesting and fulfilling. And I also…relax and enjoy food. I sleep more. I stress less. I’m still me, so I’m never going to be Little Miss Zen on the Prairie, but I am more relaxed about things in general. I was discussing this with an awesome ex-ED friend of mine, who said, ‘It’s not the big stuff really, but the little things. When there’s cookies on the table at work, I take one.’ She was right, and I wouldn’t exchange the ability to just let go and eat things without worrying and let my body sort it out to have my smaller body – and the infinite terror that goes with it – back again.

I’m very lucky, though, in a contemporary cultural context. Possibly like Massey, definitely unlike many many people who are unhappy with their bodies, I seem for whatever genetic metabolic reason to stay reasonably – culturally prescriptively – slender. I’m well aware that for many women maintaining the size I apparently gravitate towards and settle at would involve Massey’s level of focus and obsession, and I feel quite guilty and very lucky about that. It’s a gift, having this body that I sometimes feel fine about, an odd and unaccustomed and priceless one. I am profoundly grateful for it. I just also want to change the world so it could be like this for everyone.

 

 

*For context, at my functional thinnest post-anorexia I was probably slightly smaller than Massey, a 00 when I was in the States, and now I’m probably a couple of sizes bigger than she is, a US4 or UK8. In fact, I’ve just been fitted for a wedding dress, and as far as I can remember (now it’s not life and death, I am comically bad at registering these things) I’m roughly 35”-26”-33”.
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Oh no, don’t say it’s true

‘I always had a repulsive need to be something more than human.’

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I cannot comprehend or imagine a world without David Bowie, which is pretty shit, as it appears I am now living in one.

He’s always been there, an icon in every sense, a phoenix and a mage, a powerful, perpetual, proud fusion of image and art and music and identity. I cannot yet quite believe he’s not immortal, although as one wise friend pointed out, pace the much-missed Pterry, ‘nobody is truly dead until the ripples they left in the world die away.’ And right now, it is hard to imagine the many musical and magical marks Bowie left fading for many, many lifetimes. How much of my life has he soundtracked? How much of my musical and cultural environment  has he influenced? How much of my world has he changed? I don’t even know. A lot. [1]

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It’s a miracle and maybe (still and for always) a message, the universal appeal of a genius who stood so flamboyantly  outside the boundaries of ‘normal’, who (as the amazing pianist James Rhodes said next to his breaking heart on Twitter this morning) ‘made feeling like a freak okay’. He gave us all hope, the freaks and the weirdos and the brave and the dreamers, and maybe everyone’s at least a tiny bit of a freak or a weirdo on the inside.

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And yet he was so cool, by any tyrannical definition of the world.

His androgyny, his bisexuality, his glamour, his unashamed adoption of whichever cultural semiotics or tools would serve his artistic ends with complete disregard for convention or collusion, his constant reinvention, his willingness to challenge and to change – he was a shaft of light in a dark and occasionally darkening world, an inspiration for artists and musicians but also for anyone trying to live with creativity and conviction and meaning. I’ve read a lot about whether he was ‘really’ queer or not and I’m unconvinced it matters – the point was, he made space for others to be. He fucked with gender semiotics and we’re all a little bit richer for it.

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But I don’t think I need to make an argument for how David Bowie changed culture, because everyone will be doing that, and besides, it’s obvious. He changed the world I grew up in, he created cultural space,  but more than that, he changed me. Not just because I have a thing for androgyny (and tall thin people, go figure) but because Changes gave me courage and Life on Mars gave me imagination and Heroes gave me determination and hope. Boy and I spent the whole of recent holiday listening to Earthling, and it glittered and glowed like a jewel.

David Bowie was, and is, so, so much more than human. He was an icon. He is a legend. He is one of the stories we tell ourselves in order to become who we are. He gave so many of us the courage to be more fully and unconventionally ourselves.

We can be heroes.

bowie swinton

 

 

 

 

 

[1] Since I wrote this, a good friend has pointed out he did some really shitty stuff, like fucking a 13 or possibly 15-year-old in the 1970s. An interview with the girl concerned, Lori Maddox, is here (which gives her age as 15, and explicitly discusses the age and power disparities). I knew nothing of this, and will let this post stand as it sums up my feelings about his art. Nevertheless, I have pretty complex feelings I may discuss at some future point, mostly hinging on Lori Maddox’s autonomy and right to define her own sexual experiences, and the importance of cultural context in any understanding. Was the LA groupie culture of the 70s problematic and entitled? Undoubtedly. Should Bowie have acted differently? Yes. Did he harm anyone? Lori says not, and I don’t think it’s anyone else’s place to tell her otherwise, and by extension deny her ownership of her sexuality. Yes, teenage girls are problematically sexually objectified by patriarchy. They’re also denied the right to their own sexuality and desires by patriarchy, and the adult Lori’s interview makes it clear she consented enthusiastically to sex and looks back with joy and fondness on the incidents concerned. Nobody has the right to tell her otherwise, for all that a horrifying majority of older men’s relationships with teenage girls are abusive. It’s a minefield. This is probably the best take on it I’ve come across, although as stated I balk at unilaterally defining Lori Maddox’s sexual experiences as abuse without reference to her perspective. Having been a teenage girl doesn’t mean her perspective is invalid, particularly a) when it’s about her bodily autonomy and b) we’re now some 40 years on, and she might reasonably be expected to have re-evaluated her experiences with the insight of maturity. Who knows, maybe – hopefully –  Bowie had some sort of Damascene conversion and adopted modern ideas about consent. He was ahead of his time, it’s not impossible. But clearly, whilst his context and his decisions were problematic, my personal feeling is that they don’t undermine all the good that he did in the world. YMMV.

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Home-thoughts, from Abroad

‘The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there.’

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So I’m in Sheffield. I have a job – several jobs, library teaching writing – and I’m still wrestling my demons and my schedule to work on the book of my thesis and apply for various Wellcome/Leverhulme/academic things. I like living with my partner full time, it’s lovely. I have a whole, actual flat of my own rather over-full of books and art which is very nice. I’m in London roughly every other weekend but sometimes more or less than that, depending on my work schedule and/or how recently I’ve had food poisoning (Barnsley is trying to kill me). The internet exists, so although I miss people a lot I am not desperately out of touch. I feel it, sometimes, but in practical terms I communicate with everyone not a lot less than I did while I was living in London.

But.

I get this weird, very specific homesickness. I am doing something at work or at home and all of a sudden I am gone, somewhere else, walking along the Holloway Road, or TCR, or Brick Lane, or UCL, or the river, or Camden High Street – somewhere I’ve been so many times it’s part of me now, laid down like a neural network, sometimes more real than wherever I find myself. I ground myself in memory, reaching for echoes where I don’t have evidence. Somewhere out there I am real, or at least welcome.

london morningI miss belonging somewhere. I miss feeling part of something, bonded to the world around me with blood and bone and history. I miss feeling worthwhile. I certainly miss feeling like I have a community or a network of people who aren’t two hours away, although I do have a few good friends up here. But I am mostly working or teaching or trying to write and they have friends/lives/ partners/children/health or anxiety issues so we don’t see each other much.

I went out to the pub once and met friendly new people who were interested in my thesis and my sex/food stuff and it was overwhelming; I talked too much and incoherently because I haven’t felt interesting or engaging in any social sense for ages and I hadn’t realised how much I missed it. I am learning to be a person with much less of a present network (although a lovely supportive partner) and nothing has gone terribly wrong, which is a good thing, I suppose?

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I mostly mind not being there for things. I recently missed one best friend’s album launch and another’s birthday in the same weekend because of food poisoning, and it hurts that now there’s no ‘Iet’s just have coffee when I’m better’ option. I hate not being there for people. My close friends have mostly been amazing,  considerate and dedicated about keeping in touch, but there’s an element of dislocation that’s unavoidable if you’re 120 miles apart and can’t travel impulsively and just aren’t present at critical moments. My life and emotional landscape have changed immeasurably over the last four years, and it’s hard to feel even the first inklings of my precious, hard-won support systems beginning to trickle away.

There are things I like. I like the politics up here, the resistance, the sense of literal scars across the landscape. I spend a lot of my time talking to ex-miners or other elderly folk, and I find their stories fascinating. Some of the people I work with are lovely. I like the trams and the trains, and seeing the city spread out below me all glittering and grimy or the folds of hills stretching to the horizon. I like teaching, and the sense of being useful and sometimes even inspiring. I like the old industrial buildings, and the unashamed brutality of the new ones. I like walking to work in the early mornings along the tramlines and watching the rain glinting off the roads beneath. I like the clear, wintry smell of the air.

Sometimes I like the sadness. I am learning to sleep more.

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I don’t like to think about what would happen if my relationship ended. We’re really good, good enough that the rest of this, even the dislocation, mostly ceases to matter, so it’s unlikely to be imminent, but still. I am quite alone up here.

A lot of things remind me of being a teenager, which is strange and a little discomfiting. It’s partly the rural isolation of the libraries where I work; the last time that I spent hours striding across hillsides feeling cut off and overemotional was when I lived with my parents in a noticeably scenic but isolated rural village before I learnt to drive. It’s also the way my clothes stand out, mostly unintentionally, and are occasionally described as ‘a bit weird’. I totally embrace that, just as I did when I was a teenage goth, but it’s not even a thing in London, where nobody cares. That awareness of myself as weird in a particular social context is an echo, a stuttering ghost from twenty years ago when I was much less accomplished at saying ‘fuck you’ and meaning it.

Underlying it all, though, is a peculiar constant sense of being odd and clever and straining at the leash, something that sums up my schooldays almost as much as the sense of being hopelessly, irrevocably wrong. People, mostly people I like, tell me often that I’m eccentric, or a bit strange, in tones that vary between censure and celebration.  Training was interesting, sometimes in the Chinese sense, because I picked everything up quickly and then got bored. I could feel myself turning rebellious and mouthy and frustrated in ways that canny sixth-form teachers or uni lecturers harnessed and responded to, but before that led to a lot of reading books under the desk in class and answering back or taking pleasure in awkward questions.

I’m not sure where any of this is going. I’m not even sure how I feel, really. I am learning how to be myself up here, how to carve out spaces that are familiar and that aren’t a terrible fit for my shape, but it’s a long way from home in all its senses. It’s not somewhere I feel part of, it’s somewhere I am myself despite, defined against if not antagonistically so, and I miss feeling wholeheartedly, holistically connected to my environment. I’m trying – other people are trying – hopefully it’ll get better – but the present is a foreign country, and they do things differently here.

london evening

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So this clickbaity article about Bi Visibility Day almost got me fired

So one of the reasons I’ve been really quiet on here in the last few months is that I’ve been being a dating columnist for SheWired, a queer women’s website based in LA. A lot of it was pretty interesting stuff despite the clickbaity format, and I liked the job. We eventually fell out over gender-neutral pronouns (I liked them, the site didn’t) and then this article for Bi Visibility Day. They were generally very nice to me despite the ideological differences, so no vigilantism please, but here is the article that proved the final straw.

10 things bi girls wish lesbians knew about

In honour of bi visibility week, here are some things this bi girl really wishes lesbians knew about being bi and attracted to women. You could probably condense it into ‘We exist! We’re not making up our attraction to you! Please be nice to us!’, but that’s not nearly enough detail…

  • Bi invisibility sucks

It’s not that much fun having to justify, explain or belie your sexuality even in queer spaces.  No, I didn’t ‘used to be gay’, or straight, I’m bi. If my partner’s a woman, I’m still bi. (Or #stillbi, as the net would have it). If I’m dating a dude, I’m still bi. And yet in both cases I have to fight to get my sexuality recognised and validated, facing similar struggles for recognition and acceptance that the queer community as a whole has faced for decades. Correcting people’s assumptions – first that you’re either gay or straight, and then that you don’t fulfil their negative stereotypes of bisexuals – is emotionally draining and pretty stressful, and the underlying erasure and identity struggles can take a serious toll on bi people’s mental health (see point 10).

  • We don’t need a boyfriend and a girlfriend

Being bi doesn’t mean we need one member of every gender we find attractive to be satisfied (although if you’re poly and everyone is consenting, go right ahead!) It just means that we’re attracted to members of our gender and other genders – that’s women, men and often non-binary folk too. Lots of us feel like we just fall for *people*, regardless of their gender. If we’re monogamous with you, then we’re not going to run off after somebody else just because they’re a different gender. If we’re monogamous and in love, we are monogamous and in love, and our bisexuality has fuck all to do with it. Speaking of which…

  • No, we won’t leave you ‘for a man’.

We may at some stage leave you if the relationship isn’t working, but no, we are really not just with you until a dude comes along. Like, really really not. Numerically speaking, many more men are interested in dating women than women are interested in dating women, and given the frequent hostility of specifically lesbian communities to us it’s hardly surprising that our next partner after you might be a dude. This doesn’t in any way invalidate our real and genuine attraction to you. In my queer circles, a not-insubstantial proportion of bi girls in long-term relationships with women are with bi women. I wish I could pretend that wasn’t because you guys often treat us like dirt or invalidate our attraction to women, but I can’t. Also, it seems like there’s a whole mess of internalised misogyny around the assumption that bi girls would rather be with men or will leave lesbians for men. Yes, there are fewer cultural barriers toward bi girls’ relationships with men, but the lesbian community itself puts up some fairly hefty barriers towards bi girls’ relationships with women, and that just makes it worse for everyone. We’re here! We smell nice! We think you’re hot! Please believe us!

  • We get shit from straight and gay communities

Seriously. Lots of lesbian-identified girls shame us, disrespect us, refuse to take us seriously or straight up reject our queer credentials. Straight people ignore, deny or mock our sexualities, or try and get us to fuck them while their boyfriends/girlfriends watch. Biphobia is rife even in queer spaces – writing for SheWired, I’ve been asked repeatedly to lie about the gender of my partners, use female pronouns even when discussing genderqueer people, and ignore my bi identity. In straight spaces, people assume that mentioning ex-girlfriends makes me a ‘freak’, a ‘slut’, or worthy of mockery. Everyone assumes my partner is male, and the number of times I’ve been asked ‘so you used to be a lesbian?’ isn’t even funny. There’s nowhere bi girls fit in except with other bi people or welcoming queer communities, which are amazing to find but if you can’t it’s pretty isolating. Even worse if you’re bi and trans. I have an amazing, accepting queer community that’s 100% down with trans identities and gender fluidity and bisexuality and all the rest of it, but lots of people aren’t that lucky, and this can have serious consequences. The permanent sense of rejection and being an outsider does not do great things for mental health and wellbeing.

  • We’re not all promiscuous

Some of us are, and fair play to them – I am down with anyone being promiscuous regardless of their sexuality as long as they’re consensual, emotionally responsible and sexually safe. But many, many bi girls are just as monogamous as the next person, where the next person is a swan or a vole who mates for life. We get slut shaming all the time, including from lesbians, and we really don’t deserve it. Bisexuality and promiscuity are ENTIRELY SEPARATE axes of being, and just because someone’s on one has no bearing on where they are on the other.

  • We are marching right there beside you for rights and so on

Bi women have been there since Stonewall (and long before) lobbing for rights and recognition. Right now, we’re fighting the same fights you are – to resist discrimination, to be treated with respect, to not be objectified by the male gaze of popular culture, to have our relationships and partners recognised equally, to educate people about queer relationships, to resist pervasive religious and cultural queer-shaming, and to attain recognition, validation and acceptance in our cultural spaces. We are on the same side. It hurts and is profoundly alienating that so many monosexuals look down on us.

  • We get the same shit you do

We get a lot of the shitty stuff that lesbians get. Our relationships and sex lives are relentlessly objectified and treated as a turn-on for straight men, and our sexuality is frequently assumed to be a ‘phase’ or an invalid life choice. We’re written off as freaks or weirdos or doing it for attention in a largely heteronormative world, with the added bonus that people of all genders try and convince us to fuck them and their partners on a regular basis.

  • ‘Passing as straight’ sucks

So one of the things we bi girls get repeatedly hit with is that if we’re with a dude we’re ‘passing as straight’ and therefore have ‘straight privilege’. Unfortunately this is grade A bollocks. Firstly, ‘passing as straight’ when *you are not in fact straight* equals ‘having your sexual identity continually undermined, attacked, ignored and invalidated.’ Secondly, we don’t have straight privilege, because (once again!) we’re not straight. The whole concept of straight privilege is about having the world set up to suit your sexuality and sexual experiences, social expectations moulded for your sexuality, systems set up to validate you, etc etc etc. And that’s the very opposite of what happens to bi girls in ‘passing as straight’ relationships, where your identity is continually invalidated and you have to continually assert and justify your queerness (often to hostility from gay and straight communities, see above.) Representation of bisexuality in culture is minimal, frequently disrespectful and often heavily sexualised. As a bi person dating a bi person, not only are both your sexualities erased but a whole bunch of social expectations are projected onto you in ways that are particularly problematic

  • We are much more vulnerable to violence and abuse

It’s depressing, but as this Advocate report points out, bi women are three times more likely to be raped than lesbians. We also have higher rates of sexual assault, domestic violence, and stalking compared to both straight and lesbian women. This isn’t all. Not only do we have much higher incidences of abuse and violence, but we have the least social support, the highest rates of depression and post-traumatic stress disorder after rape, and the most negative experiences when seeking help from formal support resources like rape crisis centres, therapists, police, and doctors. We face hostility even when reporting and seeking to recover from trauma. It’s even worse for trans bi women, bi women of colour, disabled bi women and any other group marginalised by other characteristics as well as bisexuality.

  • We have higher incidences of depression and other mental health difficulties

As well as our higher rates of violence and abuse, bi women are also more likely to suffer from depression, anxiety, self-harm and suicide. According to the 2012 Bisexuality Report, bi women are 5.9 times more likely to have been suicidal than heterosexual people. Rates of mental health issues amongst bis were found to be significantly higher than amongst lesbians, gay men or straight people: 36% of bisexual conference attendees had either single or multiple mental or physical health impairments that interfered with their day-to-day life, while a quarter had a professional mental health diagnosis, including depression (16%), anxiety (8%) and self-harm (8%).

In case it’s not obvious, you can help with this. Be nice to us. Accept us. Stop cracking jokes about our sluttiness or acting like boy bits are somehow contagious (not least because some trans women are lesbian and that’s a really shitty thing to do to them). The hostility and erasure bi women face from queer communities as well as the het mainstream contributes to both our vulnerability to abuse and violence and our substantial chances of experiencing depression, anxiety and suicide ideation.  So y’know, maybe a bit more acceptance of bi women could change the world for the better in a serious and meaningful way.

Nb. I would like to thank Maddie Lynn in particular for her help with this article, and also Jo, Jen, Sam, Andromeda, Catherine, Psyche, Catriona, Stacy, Shreena and Eve.

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The perils of being an aging bookworm, or why a lot of ‘women’s fiction’ royally pisses me off.

For reasons largely to do with badly written press releases and an unfortunate confluence of unread books, I have spent the past ten days largely reading chick lit. Or, sometimes, not exactly chick lit, but marginally-more-upmarket-without-aiming-at-literary books about women’s lives and failing marriages and midlife crises. And it was a mildly shading to monumentally depressing experience. To be fair, my mental equilibrium is somewhat fragile at the moment, but even so I felt some of the evident phenomena – or rather, my responses to the phenomena – were narcisstically worth exploring.

The ambiguity of these kittens somehow symbolises the ambiguous functionality of contemporary women’s fiction relationship models

To be clear, the issues of finding fulfilment and/or a satisfactory partner whilst having a job and possibly parenting (or maybe wanting to parent) and trying to find some kind of creative outlet are real and legitimate concerns, and they dominate the lives of a large number of people. (I say ‘people’ rather than ‘women’ partly because I feel the genderisation of these concerns in these novels is problematic and I want to call it out, and partly because I think male experience is differently constructed both in life and in fiction. If anyone knows of any novels dealing with these concerns from a non-binary perspective, I would be very interested in reading them, although I imagine such literature would be blessedly free from the clichés dogging post-Bridget-Jones ‘women’s fiction’.) I’m absolutely not trying to belittle the importance of these life experiences and reflecting them in art.

But.

  1. Some of the representations of these issues are damaging and depressing.
  2. I found them a really fucking bleak portrait of how my life might turn out, in ways that my previous milieu and lifestyle shielded me from.

Let’s start with A, shall we?

Let it be said now with my professional-reviewer hat on that some of the chick lit was TERRIBLE. Badly written, badly characterised, and with an alarming tendency for the male ‘hero’ to be emotionally irresponsible, immature, inconsiderate, self-righteous, and to have these traits represented as either a) the result of childhood trauma and thus infinitely forgivable or b) an inevitable result of his masculinity. I can’t quite decide which annoys me more. The underlying implication that nobody (male) can ever be expected to take responsibility for how they treat others, or the idea that every woman should as a matter of course mother and shelter a male partner because they cannot ever be expected to emotionally mature and be held accountable for their choices or behaviours. Urgh. Whilst I have every sympathy with people who’ve had traumatic experiences – I’m not short on them myself – I do believe there comes a point at which you might legitimately be expected to have Owned Your Shit, developed self-awareness and stopped simply replicating damaging behaviours that harm your relationships and godhelpme your children. Notably, that point comes well before your forty-third birthday. In fact there’s a substantial argument that it should come before you go about having children you’re likely to walk out on when your demons come out to play.

These are Elizabeth Jane Howard’s Cazalet Chronicles, or at least the first four. They’re all good, actually. The last, All Change, came out posthumously recently.

There’s a wonderful scene in Elizabeth Jane Howard’s Casting Off – which is a bloody good novel, by the way, I wholeheartedly recommend the Cazalet Chronicles to anyone into family dramas or wartime shizzle – where Clary introduces her difficult boss/lover Noel to her cousin Polly. It all goes to shit, and Clary’s friend Archie asks Polly later what he’s like. ‘Everything that he is,’ Polly explains, ‘…is about himself.’ He had a difficult childhood, with much adult responsibility too young, ‘but it’s like he’s never stopped having one. He wears poor Clary out.’ Not only does this precisely nail a particular kind of demanding asshole, but it is also very clearly presented as NOT AN ADMIRABLE MODEL. He fucks Clary over and the other two pick up the pieces. And yet this is pretty much what we’re presented with as either a sympathetic narrator figure or the perfect man two women are warring over or…both. It’s bullshit, and it’s bullshit that serves nobody, simply perpetuating put-upon women and aggrieved self-righteous dudes unto eternity.

Worse, even when the characters talk, they don’t ever actually communicate. A particular egregious example: James/Jimmy is discussing his (recent, engaged-after-three-months wtf) relationship with Tessa with his ex-wife (don’t ask). He has three children with said ex-wife. She asks, pretty reasonably I suppose, whether Tessa wants children. He doesn’t know, he’s never asked (despite his hurry to get engaged/married/cohabiting), and Tessa has seven godchildren and three stepchildren already, so might reasonably be considered to be well supplied with demanding dwarfish figures. His response, however? ‘What woman in her late thirties doesn’t want children?’ (Early thirties, but, er, hi *waves arm*). He’s never discussed this with her, he is ‘too scared’ to do so now (of what, he doesn’t say) and the book ends with this still unresolved. They have a heart-to-heart about his shirking of responsibility, and the possibility of their future marriage breakdown because of not discussing things and working together, and he still doesn’t bring it up. Urgh. And yet people read these to escape from bad relationships or in search of models to construct them? WHAT ARE WE DOING TO THE WORLD?

(Also, ohgod. I can see that for some people weight gain could conceivably be a sign of dysfunctional eating triggered by stress or trauma, and losing weight might make them feel better and/or coincide with resolution of these issues. But really, honestly, can we NOT use ‘fat’ to symbolise ‘unhappy and unhealthy’ and ‘thin’/weight loss to represent ‘successful and happy’? Already, please?)

Whilst I’m on the subject, we could also do without all the policing of femininity. And the gender essentialism. Not to mention the bullshit assumptions. Femininity is not defined by a penchant for makeup or shoes. Domesticity is not the measure of a woman’s success, as a step-parent or a partner or anything else. Nor is childcare necessarily her responsibility simply because of her gender. Not all women are desperately waiting for a wedding ring. It is possible for two people to be in a relationship without one parenting the other, and where issues are discussed and decided on together. THIS BRAVE NEW WORLD OF LOVE AND EQUALITY IS OUT THERE, we just need to build it, by not buying this bullshit, in any sense.

Which moves me neatly onto B), above.

It had not really occurred to me until recently that any of this stuff might ever apply to my life. For the last, well, decades, I have been (/identified as…) young and creative and urban and often poly and dancing-friendly and striven to be surrounded by queers, goths and creative and interesting people of an alternative and/or hipster persuasion. First I was full-time pretty determinedly poly, and then I was with current partner but he was in a different city, so even when we became monogamous, I was still a free social if not sexual agent in London a lot of the time. Then we got engaged and I moved oop norf, and suddenly two queers in a loving relationship look pretty heteronormative, and I’m in a city with much less of a queer/poly/goth/creative map. As it happens, it’s been going really well, both in terms of my relationship (pretty blissful) and making friends (awesome people! Awesome queer, creative and interesting people! Who knew?!), but still, the influx of problematic relationship models made me pause. Was this actually me staring down the barrel of the future? Had I accidentally stepped through the looking glass into some horrific alternate universe where I was doomed to become an abandoned suburban housewife forever?

Well.

I’m well aware this is entirely irrational. I have (probably) a librarian job as well as a couple of writing ones and a book to write, so I’m hardly creatively unfulfilled or purposeless. I shared my concerns with all my best friends this weekend and their responses ranged from ‘you know that’s bollocks, right? Because first, this is you, and second, this is T’ to ‘that’s a perfectly normal anxiety having just ramped up the intimacy level’, with a fair bit of ‘I’m so glad things are going so well’ on the way. I don’t think it’s a secret from anyone that my brain is spectacularly good at anxieties, and to some extent what is happening here is that being actually happy and fulfilled in a whole bunch of ways simply means replacing the fear of never having or being worth something with the fear of losing it.

But at the same time, there is a fair bit of validity to the fact that a) these are concerns foisted on a lot of women because of the assumptions we as a culture make about sexuality and gender, and chicklit attempts to dignify/universalise/sell them, and b) they are both creating and responding to how we as a culture understand female aging. Both of which are fucked up. I hate that youth/femininity/female value are all held to be overlapping, and in mainstream culture women are constantly held to be in competition with one another. I know intellectually (and because I’ve read Foucault) that the best way to police people is to get them to police themselves, and so under neoliberal capitalism these books have a function, but it basically horrifies me.

This represents the fluffy yet spiky vengeance I wish to wreak upon the books discussed.

It’s pretty weird, because I have always looked to books to expand my horizons and see myself and my potential and my options reflected and refracted, and suddenly a lot of books about the life stage I’m approaching seem to be contracting those things. IRL, the relevant anxieties haven’t kicked in yet. I look relatively young for my age, still pretty much in last flush of physical appeal [1] before visible aging kicks in (my joints are another matter), so I haven’t had to process any diminuation of the background attention that’s been a constant since my teens. I don’t worry (outside neurosis and us both being mentally interesting) about my partner leaving imminently, because we’re really good at communication, affection and sex, so it would seem foolish. And yet, somehow, I am sufficiently upset by a week of reading books that suggest my physical decline and his departure are inevitable or at least likely to be writing this. Cultural models matter. They matter because they’re how I and he and everyone else construct and understand our experiences, of relationships and aging and  embodiment and all the rest, and it REALLY FUCKS ME OFF that what appears to be a large and popular swathe of books, including some whose press releases suggest they’re crossover literary, offer only limited and damaging options for women (and people!) to grow and exist and have relationships and careers after thirty-five. Fuck that shit. Thank $deity for all the brilliant authors, including my friends, out there writing better ones.

[1] I would like to point out that I’m talking about cultural assumption rather than personal experience here. I often find women older than me attractive, more often than I do significantly younger ones I think.

(Ftr, I spent the last three days reading Clare Lowdon’s Left of the Bang and Judy Bloom’s In the Unlikely Event, both of which are pretty good, actually.)

Posted in books, Culture, frivolous wittering, Love, Psychobabble, Sex, wtf even | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

On thin privilege and not being a dick (again)

Nb. Uploads aren’t working, so this is illustrated solely with pictures of cute orang utans. Sorry about that. 

So a kind (if potentially mischevious) friend left this peculiar monstrosity of unchecked privilege , an article entitled ‘Don’t hate me for being thin’ by someone called Rosie Mortimer, on my Facebook wall a couple of days ago. I cannot sum up my overall response better than my initial sweary reply did, and will therefore reproduce it here for your reading pleasure before moving on to discuss in detail my problems with the article and the points arising from my friends’ discussion of it:

OH FUCKING HELL FUCK OFF. If you’re seeing thin-shaming everywhere, you’re wilfully blind to the vast majority of popular culture. I am exactly the same bmi (and a roughly similar size, although smaller) as she is, so I get to call her out on this: if you’re happy with your body, great. People trying to force you to eat or judging you for your size is shitty and horrible; body shaming is always shitty and horrible and should stop, period. But to pretend we live in a world where thin-shaming is equivalent to fat-shaming and to deny the many privileges you (we) accrue through being naturally thin? FUCK OFF.

Hopefully that makes the core of my counter-argument clear. If not, please allow me to rephrase it in response to the headline: people don’t ‘hate you for being thin’, they hate you because you’re a dick about it.

For instance.

This baby orang wisely doesn’t give a shit what size you are.

I don’t think anyone of any sense would deny that ‘thin shaming’ Rosie recounts a) exists and b) can be upsetting. But that’s because body shaming exists and is upsetting, regardless of size, and as one friend who’s gone from being almost as thin as the author to considerably larger points out, ‘while the mean things people said to me when I was thin were hurtful, the mean things people say now that I am fatter are hurtful *and are backed up by whole swathes of our culture and medical establishment*.’ Yes, it is legitimate for Rosie to be upset by regular suggestions that she has an eating disorder (although I’d be willing to bet the questions would have been considerably more traumatising had she been suffering from one), or people describing her as ‘disgusting’. Body shaming sucks, whatever your size. But to write an entire article on ‘thin shaming’ without addressing either body shaming as a cultural phenomenon, or its disproportionate and structural impact on larger people, is wilfully egotistical and culturally ignorant. Refusing to acknowledge that although you may’ve had a bad time, a lot of people have it worse is both whiny and a real dick move.

To use Rosie’s own statistics, ‘a recent survey found that 36 per cent of young people have been bullied because of their body shape, size or weight. Adults comment so disparagingly on the figures of others that it’s not surprising bad messages are passed to children.’ Well, exactly. But what proportion of that 36% were thin and what proportion fat, do you think? How many of them saw bodies roughly the same size and shape as themselves on posters and in the media as something other than a punchline? How many of them saw their body types reflected in the ‘before’ instead of ‘after’ photos’ on the side of buses? How many had their bodies criticised by their doctors even before questions about health and lifestyle were asked? How many have been on diets? (We have statistics here, apologies for Fail link. Probably quite a few.)

These baby orangs have more important things to worry about than their relative body sizes.

But Rosie never seems to consider how her experience may reflect or relate to that of  others, let alone have the humility to consider that at least her body type is the one considered aspirational and therefore her experience is qualitatively (as well as quantatively) likely to be different from that of people perceived as fat. And that although her experiences may be legitimately awful, had they been reinforced by a culture repeatedly broadcasting the unacceptability of her body type in structural and microaggressive ways, they might have been a lot worse.

Therapists and theorists are on this, you see. Michael Guilfoyle, in Helen Malson and Maree Burns’ excellent Critical Feminist Approaches to Eating Disorders, among many others, has discussed fatness as a ‘spoiled identity’ in contemporary culture. He explains:

Discourses of personhood are currently arranged in such a way that the thin woman is given more room than her larger counterpart to inhabit culturally favourable identity options. For example, enculturated persons are predisposed towards seeing this person as self-disciplined, hardworking, dedicated, healthy and attractive, and as having used her mind – her character, her willpower – to take charge of, or even to deny, the more animalistic, primal, base appetites of the body. These attributes are highly valued in the western world, and such constructions make it more reasonable [Ed. Note: I would prefer ‘easier’ here] for a thin woman than a fat woman to think of herself as strong, as having achieved, as successful, as socially valuable. […] It becomes harder – although not impossible – for the larger woman to assume this kind of identity and to have such a sense of self legitimised by the world around her.

But Rosie, with her unironic talk of ‘thinnist’ and ‘thin-shaming’ and her complete failure to address cultural or experiential context, is far from contributing anything useful to the complexity of the debate. She (legitimately) complains about ‘being made to feel insecure about her body’ in unpleasant incidents, without mentioning that this happens in a context where millions of others are ‘made to feel insecure about their bodies’ by the vast majority of media images, TV programmes, advertising, magazines, their doctors, newspapers, films, fashion, etc etc etc. That doesn’t make what happened to her okay, but it does mean she could do with expressing a bit more recognition that she’s not necessarily in the worst cultural position here.

This baby orang is unimpressed. QUAIL BEFORE THE HAIR, NON-PRIVILEGE CHECKERS!

Hell, recounting her (undoubtedly troubling) personal experiences she doesn’t even make a stab at addressing the possible motivations of her interlocutors, and it’s worth pointing out that the cultural lionisation of thinness she mentions (briefly, on the way to further weight loss anecdata – yes, really. She went on a diet and lost weight! Lucky her!) means that those criticising her are used to being told by the majority of media and cultural sources that her body type is a) aspirational and b) the product of dieting and effort. Their assumption of the right to be rude to her about it is pretty horrible, but it also reflects something much, hah, bigger, than Rosie being thin and other people being mean about it.

Turns out, in her case, her size IS partly the result of dieting and effort. She put on weight after having 2 kids, as many women do, and decided she didn’t like it. She had the metabolic, financial and practical resources whereby dieting and exercise were feasible for her, and resulted in weight loss that she’s ‘happy’ with. Lucky her! These are totally legitimate feelings and life choices! We all have to come to our own accommodations with cultural body bullshit, and Rosie is lucky enough to be able to achieve with some lifestyle changes a state where ‘I don’t look in the mirror in the morning and punch the air with delight but nor do I sob into my coffee.’ That’s great, and I’m glad for her. But spending an entire article complaining about how people ‘hate me for being thin’ without addressing any of the cultural context in which that occurs or the structural fatphobia underlying contemporary culture and media manifests a quite staggering missing of the point.

She also, DESPITE HER EXTENSIVELY CITED EXPERIENCES TO THE CONTRARY, assumes that people are not dicks. Viz:

Pointing out what you don’t like about someone else’s size — too fat or too thin — is not going to change them. [Ed. note: very true! We’re within spitting distance of a sensible point here!] Would it be okay to go up to a woman and tell her she was overweight, that she looked ill or simply that she ate too much? Obviously not. You would be causing huge offence. It swings both ways.

Obvious to her, maybe, but….that happens. It happens all the time, from what I hear. Larger friends have had people commenting on their shopping in the supermarket, insulted by strangers and colleagues and tutors, and been yelled at in the street. More to the point, doctors – those people we trust for supposedly objective advice on our health and wellbeing – are as prone to fatphobia as the next enculturated person.[1] As one friend put it: “Saying mean things about fat women’s bodies is hurtful and wrong” is universally acknowledged as true.” Can I come and live in this world please?’ If people assume the right to comment on Rosie’s body, dehumanising her in the process, how much more does she think they assume the right to comment on bodies not widely constructed as acceptable and aspirational?

This baby orang really digs his tummy.

And do not get me STARTED on her complete failure to address or acknowledge the existence of thin privilege. (This list of examples is US-centric and has issues, but gives you the gist.)

For the record, and to define my own subject position here: I have roughly the same bmi as the author of that article. I’m a lot smaller (5’2 to her ‘tall’), often referred to as ‘tiny’ or ‘petite’. I too have a build describable as ‘slim’ or ‘slender’, although I still have various dysmorphic weirdnesses and try not to think about it too much. If, uh, this is your first time at the blog and you’ve never met me in meatspace, I also have a history of severe anorexia, so the vast majority of my experiences of ‘thin shaming’ happened when I was much thinner, and bore a more complex relation to my state of health and/or sanity. Although I have never experienced fat-shaming – I can count the number of times I’ve been referred to as ‘fat’ on the fingers of one hand, although see previous re: dysmorphic weirdnesses – I have also spent roughly the last 8 years researching and writing and talking about experiences of embodiment in culture. I therefore, when talking about this stuff, at least try to acknowledge that a) I do have thin privilege and b) other people have it a lot worse than me in contemporary culture, plus additional shit to deal with from the intersections of size with race, gender, disability, trans status, economic group, all the rest of it. I’m not looking for cookies here, I’m just pointing out that not being a dick is sort of a minimum requirement when you’re discussing something so central to so many people from a position of relative privilege.

The sad thing about all this is that Rosie is within spitting distance of making some decent (if basic) points that I actually agree with about how fucked up and unhelpful body shaming and making assumptions about other people’s bodies is.

F’rex:

But if someone suffers from [anorexia or bulimia] shaming them by telling them to “eat some cake” or that “it makes me feel sick just looking at you” is not going to help. [True! Shaming in ‘not fixing deep-rooted psychological problems’ shocker!]

These orangs think it’s important to snuggle and appreciate flowers.

There’s an Instagram account called You Did Not Eat That, dedicated entirely to pictures of thin people posing with calorific food — the assumption is that anyone of size eight or under will never eat a cheeseburger. [Which is clearly bollocks. My friends Stephani and Psyche went into a fascinating digression at this point about the cultural meaning of cheeseburgers that I would encourage all to consider in their spare time.)

What all this comes down to, though, is that (as Susie Orbach so wisely pointed out in Bodies, which everyone should read) is that embodiment, particularly although not limited to female embodiment, is REALLY FUCKING PROBLEMATIC in contemporary culture. I cannot express this better than my friends did, discussing this post on Facebook. A friend with extensive experience of thin shaming pointed out that ‘it is very, very difficult for women who are small to say anything whatsoever about our bodies or our body image issues without people getting pissed off’, whereupon another friend neatly summed up the whole cultural mess thus:

I think you could probably remove ‘who are small’ from that sentence and still have it be perfectly valid. “It is very, very difficult for women to say anything whatsoever about our bodies or our body image issues without people getting pissed off.” Like your body? You’re vain and/or deluded. Don’t like your body? You just need to stop whining and step away from/eat more cake, silly woman (like it might never have occurred to us to try that….). I have a whole rant saved up about the comment that invariably appears on any post about weight and health related issues: “Just eat less calories. It’s easy!” – like there are no social, cultural or emotional aspects to food and eating.

She is completely and entirely right, and cuts to the heart of all the issues Rosie so spectacularly managed to miss. Culture is fucked up about embodiment, food, eating and gender, and we’re all caught in the crossfire. Until we learn to shut the fuck up, live and let live, and try to approach others with empathy, kindness and consideration, we’re just bringing ourselves down, and we need to make this better. To put it another way, the price of privilege – and it is not a particularly heavy one, all things considered – is to acknowledge it, especially when you’re writing in a public forum about related issues. You check your privilege, you own your subject position, and you try not to be a dick to people further down whatever the relevant privilege axes are. It’s not much to ask, actually. [2]

[1] One commenter, currently disabled but previously a keen sportsperson competing in no fewer than ten different sports simultaneously, had some horror stories about doctors assuming their inactivity and thoughtlessly demanding further exercise without pausing to ask what their current levels were.)

[2] All this said, I’m well aware that I haven’t touched – much – on the intersections of size with cis and racial privilege here. I feel I should, but I’m not sure I know enough to do so, so this article is essentially a compromise.

Posted in bodies, Culture, frivolous wittering, Hunger, Psychobabble | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

Leaving London: a love letter

I fucking love London. My heart lifts when the train crosses the M25. I love its old streets and its big windows and its shiny new skyscrapers and its grimy pavements, its sluggish river and grumpy people and gorgeous skylines, its ridiculous wonky alleyways and windy parks and graceful domes and smoky corners. I love its blocky council housing and its homicidal taxi drivers and its glorious libraries and scattered rambling universities and hidden unexpected churches. I love the magic sky train and the grubby underground. I love its rickety hoarding and its constant regeneration, the new buildings sprouting unexpectedly from the sudden ruins of the old. I love its hipsters and its horrors, its goths and its gardens and its queers and its magical misfits, its pushy businesspeople and messy art students and constant flow of annoying tourists. I love its suicidally cyclable streets, its endless roadworks and delayed tubes and looming buses that arrive just often enough to keep the nascent, fragile spark of hope they’ll show up when you need them alive (but has nevertheless spoilt me for what any other city considers ‘public transport’). I love it all, with a big aching magnetic love that cracks my heart and clouds my vision and created much more of me than anything has any right to.

And soon I won’t live there any more.

Oh, I’ll still be around – Iots of people I love are there, and you won’t get rid of me that easily – but I won’t belong there any more, at least not in the same way. The ties are looser than once they were, or at least stretchier – spending three or four nights a week somewhere else with one’s partner will do that – but it’s still home, and I suspect to some extent always will be. It’s home because you can drop me almost anywhere in London and I will know how to navigate, how to get home and find bathrooms and swimming pools and the way to the library. I am who I am because of London, the opportunities it gave me and the networks I built, UCL and the BL and the brilliant, beautiful, kind and fierce and righteous folk who are my friends. I am who I am because of London’s not giving a shit, that marvellous big-city freedom to do your thing and let everyone else do theirs, its sinkhole pull for subcultures and specialists and seekers and the crazy and the brave. I am who I am because I was lucky enough to land there and run with it, to be swept up in London’s close-weave weight of thousands upon thousands of people living their lives in and around and among one another, the collective, creative, cumulative wealth of thought and growth and trying and loving and learning. The freedom to make the attempt. I am who I am because every day for over a decade I’ve tramped the streets of London, from pool to people to library to lunch, breathing in and bound to London’s stories and histories and horrors and the everyday dramas of a million people getting on with it and trying to get by.

I’ve lived surrounded by art and ideas and people who think they’re important and people who think only money matters and tried to eke out a fragile existence somewhere in the middle. That Samuel Johnson tired of London, tired of life thing? Totally, and (for once, if not unprecedentedly) I am tired of neither.

And somehow I’m still leaving, because it’s expensive and I’ve been avoiding or turning down full time work down there and so I might as well put my money where my mouth (and, y’know, other bits) are and move up. At least try. Have the courage to make the attempt, and I’ve never been short on courage.

And yet.

I love it and it made me and I’m leaving. I don’t know what to do with that. I’ve always been as passionately tied to places as I am to people (although obviously the two overlap) because I have an abandonment complex and places stick around. No amount of loving relationship and book-writing time and generous London hospitality and cheap rent can quite disguise the sense of loss, although obviously they mitigate it somewhat. London is the only place I’ve ever lived and been happy as an adult on my own, and leaving it behind – even only two hours away – is a massive, troubling, ridiculous and unthinkable idea.

It may be a terrible mistake.

But it also might be an adventure, a chance to learn about who I am and what I need from the world around me, a chance to balance my energetic self and habits and work and ideas with a city that doesn’t take that pace for granted, a chance to focus on writing a book and spending time with my partner and building a life that will admittedly involve running down to London to do cool stuff and visit the BL at least one week in four, but might also give me some breathing space to sort out book and work and earning money and having a relationship and how these things might coexist.

These two may not be mutually exclusive.

But I suspect on some level I am a Londoner to the bone, and it will take some time before the cultural dislocation starts to bite.

Posted in Culture, frivolous wittering, London, Love | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments