Construction Kit

Long before you’ve fully grasped that you end at your fingertips and a whole other world begins there, people have been looming over your cot persuading you that you’re a good girl/boy. By the time you are dimly aware of what this means you are probably also aware of the gap between their optimistic assertions and the reality as you understand it. Presumably nature is what determines whether you shrug and think ‘twits’, crawl into some internal dark hole or work your socks off to match the expectation. Although that expectation probably entails keeping your socks on, even if your feet are too hot and working your socks off is one of the few skills you’ve mastered.

I bought into several off the shelf good girl kits – you could get the whole deal from Charles Kingsley in The Water Babies, with general advice on sin and redemption from Tom’s experience and the correct model for perfect girlhood from Ellie. Enid Blyton helped a bit by widening the possibilities for a good girl – it was OK to not be an adorably helpless, Vaseline-lensed confection if you could jolly well take a joke (at your expense, naturally) and were prepared to at least have a go at whittling.

Gradually you accumulate more bolt-on bits of You. Rather like object oriented programming, you don’t have to write the whole script yourself, you just import the mini-programme you need. There are the fairly general ones (mostly prohibitions) that nearly all of us incorporate, like Don’t Be Rude. Then there are more specific ones for ‘knocking the corners off’ – ie, controlling you. I was force-fed Don’t Be Such A Clever Clogs and Don’t be a Cissy, so developed the knack of hiding both my light and my terror under bushels and other metaphorical crockery. Harder to deal with was the continued injunction from parents to be a Good Girl while my older brother urged me not to be such a Goody Goody, each on pain of withdrawal of approval.

That’s the nurture bit. Bastards.

We are all expected to import applets for special occasions – Interview Versatility, Party Sparkle, Funeral Gravitas perhaps – and we’re all victims of the media-cracy we have created. Everywhere we look we see that it is still a woman’s duty to be pretty and a man must be visibly potent. It is taken as read that you will strive towards these goals despite them being, to a great extent, beyond your control. Helpless non-conformism often provokes disapproval rather than sympathy – have you noticed the accusing way (even puny) men talk of plain women? And how (even plain) women sneer at puny men? Bastards.

So we’re supposed to construct ourselves in the image of the glossies on the outside, and for normal, workaday personality we’re encouraged to present ourselves as friendly, sincere (but not too earnest, please), anodynely good natured in a Radio 2 kind of way. And yet throughout all this we must, at all costs, still Be Ourselves. How we’re supposed to know who the hell that is beats me. Even if you think you know, you get nasty shocks quite frequently – catching yourself thinking or acting out of character or being described by someone else as quite other than you see yourself. Who is right? Or are they all facets of you?

Even though we share this society and these unwritten rules, we still mistake each other daily. If English (or Japanese, perhaps) is your first language then you will be aware that carefully cultivated (because demanded) self-control is often mistaken for indifference, a lack of emotion, even by those who similarly underplay their emotions. Slightly annoying for the misunderstood but, worse than this, each time mien or motives are questioned it sows a seed of doubt … am I genuinely lacking in feeling if I can hide it? Worse still, each time I manage to hold back potentially inappropriate effusion or tears, have I made myself slightly harder, less feeling?

And then there’s the whole mind-body, hormonal, emotional psychotropic shebang. So that what is true one day feels less so, or not at all, the next. Self sufficient, I will blithely call myself one day; happy in my own company, independent. The next, bereft, disconsolate, miserably kicking around the pebbles of my various pursuits in the echoing halls of a pointless existence (well, feeling a bit low ‘n’ lonely, anyway), I feel guiltily that I lied.

Like quantum spectating, observing people alters their behaviour … and, similarly, the internal self must be changed by the scrutiny of introspection. Finding yourself is not only a cliché but also an impossibility – you don’t exist as some immutable You under the layers of adaptation. You are the contradictory changes that have been wrought by experience and that you continue to work as you construct, interpret and present the most accurate version of you that you can manage.

November 2011



I’ve just signed away my body for medical research after my death. It was something of a shock to find that they don’t guarantee acceptance of your cadaver when the time comes – AIDS and the Christmas holidays being two possible barriers – so I hope they don’t insult my lifeless form by refusing it. I wonder how they phrase the rejection… “Sorry – not right for us” … “Although not suitable for us I am sure any number of necrophiliacs would welcome a corpse of this quality…” or, more believably; “We just wanted to say that although we can’t take your mother’s body at this time we really appreciate her sense of humour in offering it”.

I’ve meant to do it for ages – I sell my blood for tea and biscuits and I’m signed up for organ donation, so it was the logical next step – but the final motivation was that I didn’t want my son to be subjected to eye-watering expense and morbid marketing at what I fondly hope will be a slightly difficult time for him.

It was easy enough when arranging my father’s funeral: I planned everything for my mother’s benefit – so far as I could gauge it from her “Well, what do you think?” reply to all enquiries – so organising hers ought to have been a doddle. Actually, it was only as I said to Julie, the assistant funeral director, “There isn’t anyone to take into consideration…” that I realised there was: me. My brother busy on the other side of the world, my son not close to his grandmother, my uncles unable to travel… I only had to choose what I wanted. Or that’s what I thought.

Everybody has their own beliefs. I reckon that when you’re dead you’re basically, well, just not there anymore – definitely gone before… an ex-person, etc. The body, to me, is as empty a shell as a dragonfly’s exuvia stuck to a reed stem – and we’ll leave discussion of the metamorphosed human’s whereabouts to another time. It’s not in the mortuary, anyway.

Accordingly, I made it clear to Julie that I wanted the minimum necessary to get the job done. No spare cash to splash and no likelihood of other mourners to consider, but there were still expletive-provoking sums of money involved. The ‘disbursements’ were fixed amounts that they paid for me, including the first doctor’s fee and the second doctor’s fee. I was intrigued that the second opinion is necessary for cremation. Not, I was assured by a friend, because if anyone suddenly thinks, ‘Wait – did anyone try the mirror test?’ you can swiftly release a buried sleeper but might be left thinking ‘Oops!’ in the case of cremation. It’s a safeguard against cremation being used to conceal crime.

There was nothing cheaper than the Balmoral coffin at £300. So the excruciatingly detailed description of the quality of the build and the beauty and comfort of its satin lining – as though I needed convincing to make the purchase – bewildered me rather. But Julie’s insistence on me obviously wanting the best for my mother, expressed in hushed yet fervent tones of professional sympathy, prevented me from pointing out that the coffin would be sealed, my mother wasn’t there, wouldn’t be there, could not possibly appreciate any of this material nonsense… So I swallowed my irritation and asked a few questions. Cardboard, for the greenly inclined, is much more expensive, Julie explained quietly, and, even sottier voce (Britaliano… like Franglais, but possibly my invention), “we do have a much cheaper one but that’s only for Very Particular Circumstances”. She managed a slight, disapproving nod when I suggested she meant paupers’ funerals. It seems you can’t elect to have one.

Having established pretty conclusively that the superb lining and the realistic brass colouring of the plastic handles impressed me not a jot, you would think she might have dispensed with the shroud question. If I could rewind I think I’d provide some ‘special clothes’ as invited (though maybe that costs even more because of the dressing) but, despite reiterating that I did not want to view my mother’s body, I still had to choose the quality and colour of the shroud that nobody would see, and be told in detail how flattering it was. I’m normally very firm with salesmen. Brusque, even, when I’ve made my point once and they won’t leave me alone. But I couldn’t do it. Even though the whole soft-voiced rigmarole was far more gruelling than a straight-talking, off the peg Economy Funeral would have been, I couldn’t bring myself to puncture her apparent belief that corpses need style and comfort for that short journey into the flames.

And so, relentlessly on, to the flowers. No, thank you, I said, but like an expert nanny glossing over a naughty child’s rudeness with a damn good ignoring, she continued her hushed voiced tour of the floral catalogue. She again forestalled me with her spaniel-eyed spiel about being there to help and not to take money off me so, reluctant to offend her tender sensibilities, I sighed agreement to the £30 ‘Tear Drop’ in yellow and white. Was it Dorothy Parker who admitted to succumbing to seducers because “it seemed to matter so much to them and meant so little to me”?

We whizzed, albeit respectfully, through the matter of ‘conveyance of the deceased’ (the bearers) – in the absence of a quartet of fit mourners I had no option but to accept her troupe – and the basic hearse rather than the gilt-trimmed brougham or whatever, and moved on to what to do with the remains. Her hopes that I might choose something other than the bog standard container were soon dashed, but her face glowed again in the expectation that I would want the best resting place for my mother’s ashes and, even better, that she could provide it. In the rosy garden of Gloucester crematorium, she effused, I would always know where my mother was.

I’m not ridiculing people who want a place of pilgrimage – I’m just cross that the assumption is made, so that the arrangements are wincingly difficult if you think something different. Entrepreneurial opportunity for you, says my friend Jane. Fuck right off, says I. She just titters, the madam.

It only remained to decide who would officiate. My mum was neither a churchgoer nor a halfway decent fair weather Christian, only believing in a god for very occasional blame or talismanic purposes – and I’m probably an atheist – so a civil celebrant seemed more appropriate.

She was good. She helped me to be selfish about the ceremony and translated the information I gave her into a suitable and touching occasion. Just as well, after the Dickensian, Mephistophelean, Mr Tumnus of a funeral director had supervised the proceedings. He was exquisite but risible. She, on the other hand, was sensible and not too cloying. I almost had an inappropriate fit of giggles when she inadvertently said that the contribution my brother and I had made to my mother’s last years “couldn’t be underestimated” but I managed to control myself.

Which sums up the whole damn thing, really – like pretty much every other etiquetted (well it’s an adjective now, so live with it) occasion, you have to stick to the protocols, smile politely, control yourself, and pretend it’s what you want. It adds to the stress of the event rather than easing a rite of passage, and makes me want to run amok: rock a few boats, frighten a few horses – preferably a team of black ones with plumes on.

July 2011


“Internet dating!! ” exclaimed my friend, “aren’t there some desperate men around on those sites?” Which was one more shaft of negativity to add to the usual head-shaking, pursed lip comments.  Even the newspapers hosting sites report on the unrealistically high hopes, the unbearably bitter disappointments and the smorgasbord of lying predators and losers wasting each others’ time, money and reputations. Yum! says you, hugging yourself in a paroxysm of schadenfreude.

But, like the man said, it ain’t necessarily so. The window shopping itself is quite enjoyable, much like browsing Amazon: as well as naughtily judging the books by their covers you can See Inside! by reading the profiles. Some mean to make you laugh and some don’t, despite your guffaws, but they frequently give fascinating insights. There are little conceits and self-delusions, inadvertent confessions, clues in the contradictions and, inevitably, the occasional hint of sighs of loneliness. I sometimes wish there was a ‘Like’ button to signal approval of someone’s profile on a disinterested, peer evaluation level. Or, even better, an array of buttons – ‘Great!’, ‘Ah, bless!’ (ironic, dear Reader, ironic) and ‘FFS’.

It’s popularly held that we all lie online and set ridiculously stringent parameters for our ideal mates – unlike the ‘real’ world, where everyone is at pains to show their genuine, warty self and accept any old ratbag for a partner. In fact, not only do you get a lot more basic information with online profiles than you usually do when meeting someone – let’s say with friends at the local (“Liz, do you know George? He’s a birdwatcher, too …”) – but you also have the opportunity to assimilate that information without any third party bias (or waves of pheromones) clouding your judgement, or the distraction of conversation while making your initial assessment of them. You can deconstruct their descriptions of themselves, contrast and compare at leisure and you could even – I haven’t gone this far yet but it does sound sort of appealing now that I think of it – construct a small database…

As for those ridiculously stringent parameters – how often have you, as a tall, vivacious, cultured atheist thought, “No, I mustn’t discount him just because he’s six inches shorter than me, deeply religious and not interested in the arts,” only to find that the relationship just doesn’t work? So when you know a characteristic – physical or mental or social – matters a lot to you, it’s no good telling yourself you’re open minded about it. There’ll be tears, at the very latest, after bedtime.

Lots of people are honest enough to put you right off with their first words: “I have recently lost my wonderful wife of 30 years…” or “I’m looking for someone slim and I mean slim: size 14 is only average for women who are 8′ tall”, and we all have our betes noires. I recoil rather from protestations of sensitivity and a loving nature (while welcoming a later discovery of those qualities in relation to me, naturally), and whenever a man states that he finds assertiveness unattractive it’s mentally logged against him. Do they confuse it with aggression, I wonder, or do they actually prefer game-playing? One of my ID acquaintances swore he’d have an apoplexy if another woman claimed to be ‘bubbly’ – not, I hasten to add, that I had done so. And not (I hasten further with my hole digging) that I personally object to bubbliness, though it may well be one of the few things that are only good in moderation.

Heightism – as has perhaps become apparent already –  is rife. There are some free thinkers out there but a lot of us can’t help wanting the man to be taller than the woman. I’ve had this explained to me in terms of evolutionary psychology, which is very interesting but someone else’s field: he’ll tell you all about it when someone pays him to publish, I expect. Anyway, as a consequence of this, quite a lot of people lie about height, which I find a bit odd but I guess I have a rather Kantian view of things. Especially when you’re going to get found out.

Age is, predictably, the most popular area for lying and I am convinced that the corollary to Oscar Wilde’s “a woman who will tell you her age will tell you anything” must be “a man who lies about his age will lie about anything” (yes, yes; woman too. Don’t be so touchy). Experientia docet stultos (experience teaches even fools).

You may have put your hand up at the mention of pheromones above and have been calling, ‘Miss! Miss!’ every so often as I rattled on away from that point, wanting to ask what I’d got against them. They’re nice, aren’t they? This, though, is where I realise and confess that I’ve been talking about mature dating and you might be a young thing rampant, for whom even the temporary ignoring of the call of the wild is not an option. Enjoy. It’s not that everything is different when you’re 50+, it’s just that experientia docet, as mentioned above, stultos.

Having been a member of the set ‘stultos’ for most of my adult life I speak with some authority. What those pheromones tell you is good for some things* but a very poor guide for others**. When the realisation dawns that intellectual and emotional compatibility is… can I bring myself to type it… yes, I think so… even more important than a (potentially… promised….) sublime night or two of passion (and yes, I do realise that there are people who, admirably, have this revelation early in life) you need to guard against this kind of chemistry. You can’t do this easily if your initial meeting is in the physical world because the chemistry gets first dibs and when your pupils dilate a part of your brain stops working. (My experimental sample for that thesis is very small, so don’t tell Ben Goldacre I said it, please).

*The people exuding them. **You.

So – if you haven’t already done so, take a plunge in the invigorating waters of internet dating. Roll about in fits of giggles as you fashion your profile like a bower bird titivating its display arena. Riffle through the online catalogue of potential dates  and begin selecting the longlist of lucky people. At first you tend to be picky, which is very offline behaviour; it’s lots more fun when you’re fairly abandoned in your clicking of the ‘Favourite’ or ‘Yes/Maybe’ button. Have a spree. No one knows they’re not alone in your Favourites folder and it’s like job applications at this point – you send loads out at once, you don’t wait to hear from one before contacting the next.

After that it’s just like the rest of life: don’t sit around waiting, keep busy, have fun, give good advice that you don’t follow yourself. From here on you’re on your own or, presumably, ideally, not.

January 2011