The first question everyone asks when I say I’m attending an exhibition on the subject of the megacity is, ‘What exactly is a megacity?’
The Oxford dictionary definition:
A very large city, typically with a population of over ten million.
This definition, although obviously correct, fails to evoke the unifying characteristics of a megacity: pollution, traffic, a rapid increase in population, sprawling housing development, abject poverty, unimaginable wealth, labyrinthine public transport systems and in relation to this exhibition, exciting and flourishing art scenes.
The five megacities showcased here are: Dhaka, Lagos, Manila, Mexico City and Tehran.
The curators are keen to point out in the program, however, that the megacity provides the exhibition’s context but not its content. Indeed, part of their objective is to create a space that is not categorised by geographical location nor “defined by origins or borders”.
This aim is evident in the layout of the exhibition, detailed in a fold-out A3 map found at the entrance. Works are displayed in no particular order, and artists often have several pieces spread out amongst the two floors of the museum. Having to navigate such a large space with so many mediums: painting, video installation, fashion design, photography and robotics to name a few, has a dizzying effect. I suspect this is deliberate, creating the dynamic felt in major cities: a sense of claustrophobia mixed with the collective energy of ten million+ people living in close proximity.
Ndidi Dike’s recreation of Lagos market stall part photo collage, part sculpture, takes up a corner of the first room, appears cluttered, but look closer, see that – as the artist herself puts it – the stall is “aggressively arranged”: piles of fabric and rolls of ribbon are displayed according to colour, Tupperware boxes are neatly stacked, brooms are lined up in neat rows, bowls of chillies, fluted pumpkins, tomatoes, and African monkey kola are placed precariously one atop the other but show no signs of teetering, packet noodles, almonds, beans, sieves, white plastic spoons, everything has its place, everything belongs, crouch down and place myself within the picture, move to Dhaka, Bangladesh, Britto Arts Trust, artists paint domestic objects, same techniques used for city rickshaws, bright and deep pinks, blues, red, oranges and greens, exhaust pipes, frying pans, teapots, parasols, fire extinguishers, a lion sips tea while chatting to a pigeon sitting at a table in a town square, rickshaw art is dying out I tell my daughter, being replaced by digital images, humans by machines, ‘the art is being lost?’ she asks, crestfallen, plonks herself down in front of the exhibit, draws a sketch of a frying pan portrait, looking, not through a mobile phone lens like so many museum goers but following lines with her eyes, turn the corner to a corridor of work, stop at Farrokh Mahdavi’s portraits of pink figures that cover three walls, the floor, daughter runs straight in, Paris-street footsteps on paint, the guard says “Madame, vous pouvez y aller”, it feels strange to walk on work, to add to the accumulation of dirt that blurs the image, the paint is thick, the colour of stuck-to-your-shoe bubble gum, his muses are bald, old men, young men, women, babies, clown-like smiles, Mahdavi worked in a morgue, makes sense, despite the brightness of the pink and the smiles, the portraits are morbid, fleshy-molten masks that much like the Mona Lisa seem to follow you around the room, we walk out, stumble upon a vast space, black advertising board at its centre, one giant slogan, IN A BOTTLE, CITIES ARE ALIVE, look for meaning, look for bearings, think of “message in a bottle”, walk past walls dripping spray-paint neon pink and wood-chip partitions, black and white photos by WAFFLESNCREAM, fashion brand ads, skateboards, men, thick-biceps, arms crossed, muscles flexed, angles, elbows, wrists, tight T-shirts, strong bodies, puffed chests, clasped fists, find a room full of earth, a mechanical horse that looks dead, put down, skeleton made of wood, hollow body nothing but a plastic bag, lifts its head, mane and tail intact, thick, black, daughter takes comfort in one fact, it can still move but it is laboured, no breath, turn, walk head down, bump into costumes like clowns, the white mannequins and harlequin colours of HA.MU, a Manila fashion brand, artists are young, born in ’96, ‘this one is the least weird,’ says my daughter, pointing to a red confection the shape of a real heart, can we touch she asks, there are multiple arms, rubber gloves, knitted appendages, rainbow slinkies where there should be limbs, hidden faces, bare legs, is this the front or the back? she says, we climb steps to discover the body of a whale on the floor, a work by Bikini Wax EPS, its ribs stripped clean, its head still slick and black, as well as its tail and fin, reminds me of a piñata, dropped, gutted, full of candy-coloured knick-knacks of American consumerism, 90s paraphernalia, childhood toys gone wrong, Gremlins, Jaws, Mickey Mouse in a graduation cap, a surrealist clock, a dinosaur with broken legs, the whale has been gagged by Coca-Cola cans attached to a rope, a telly in the corner shows clips of Free Willy, crowded aquariums, whales attempting to turn in containers too tight, children bang on glass, they want more, we take the stairs down to another floor, huge papier Mache strippers apply lipstick, pour themselves a drink, naked except for high heels and lingerie, hair long, lips thick, can’t remember if there is a warning about graphic content, wonder what is graphic about a woman in her underwear applying lipstick, pouring herself a drink, is it the stance that might offend, the nonchalance, legs apart, legs crossed, we walk past Newsha Tavakolian’s video installation of women from Iran singing, but the sound has been turned down, think of my theatre tutor’s most common phrase for critiquing, “short fuse”, the impact fizzes out too quick, we all know women’s voices are supressed but what are we going to do about it, we are tired now, maybe jaded, take a seat downstairs before entering Doktor Karayom’s room of red and white illustrations wall to wall, a sculpture of a man lying on a plinth at its centre, his body opened up like an anatomical model from secondary school, layers of epidermis, red, raw, pink, the body inhabited by tiny men the size of toy soldiers, a macabre enactment of Lilliput, scaling his veins, his eyes still open in shock, my daughter is not frightened but I feel overwhelmed by sounds, sights, glare, glitter, too tired to traverse the hallways and board Emeka Ogboh’s yellow bus and the call of voices, loud echoes, that if I’m totally honest intimidate me, because the space is badly lit, like an alleyway behind restaurants where no-one’s supposed to be, an underground car park in the stomach of the city, my daughter wants to keep going so we continue but only manage one more exhibit on the lower level, same shape as a skate park, slope leads to a sculpture that is small, ring-shaped like a hollowed out slice of an oak tree turned on its side, small magic, like fairy tale toadstools, a neon bar of light, textures and colours oozing into each other, nail polish red, New York taxi yellow, greens purples and blues of the clothes of Disney’s seven dwarves, shiny and matte, Mehraneh Atashi’s kaleidoscopic cavern like a child’s imagination, danger lurking round the edges, my daughter strides in front of me, not fatigued by the overload of senses of this reconstructed city of art that lives and breathes, suffocates and blossoms in your mind, minutes, days and hours after you leave it behind and step outside onto a Paris street and feel both constrained by the city, and ultimately, free.
Ready to Be Shameless
Lining up for Nadia Bolz-Weber’s talk
at Southwark Cathedral, I’m aware I don’t fit in. A young woman beside me is talking
to her mother, describing the time she prayed in front of her friends. She
wanted to illustrate how she speaks to Jesus in exactly the same way she does
to them. She is so matter of fact about it I’m impressed; prayer seems part of
her daily existence as a cup of coffee is to mine. Behind me a boisterous group
are discussing the role distributions for their forthcoming Sunday service. One
woman complains that being the wife means she gets roped into doing too much,
she’s been put down for visuals and
service management. Looking around the rest of the queue, I try to gauge if I’m
the only heathen in their midst as if, for those of us without a dog collar,
Christianity could be worn like a cloak.
inside I sit down on one of the pews towards the back. The atmosphere in the cathedral
is charged, as if we’re waiting to see a sell-out gig at Brixton Academy. In
some ways, Nadia Bolz-Weber is a rock star. Ex alcoholic. Covered in tattoos.
Former stand-up who swears like a fishwife and wears crimson lipstick. She’s
also a Lutheran pastor and orthodox theologian. It is this juxtaposition that
makes her so compelling – her ability to inhabit two (seemingly) opposing realms.
True to the name of the church she founded in Denver, Colorado, she is a sinner
and a saint.
first came across Bolz-Weber in a video that appeared in my Facebook feed
entitled ‘Forgive Assholes: Have a Little Faith’, where she calls those with
the capacity to forgive, ‘freedom fighters’. An advocate for social change,
Bolz-Weber’s latest book ‘Shameless’ is a call for a sexual reformation within
the church. The premise took shape right here in London, she
tells us, when she was on tour with her previous book. Weeks into a new
relationship, and somewhat overwhelmed by the impact it was having on her body
and her spirit, she phoned her boyfriend, who was back in the U.S., waking him
up at 6 a.m. with a question she couldn’t shake:
Why has the church always tried to control
Eric, who Bolz-Weber casually describes as a
heathen, replied instantly, saying he’d always assumed it was because the
church viewed sex as its biggest competition. Bingo, she had the subject of her
Perhaps the explosive nature of this subject is
why Bolz-Weber admits to feeling nervous when she appears on stage. To allay
her anxiety she reads out the order of service, a trademark Bolz-Weber blend of
Christian tradition and rebellion against the rule book. Following an a cappella
rendition of Amazing Grace, a Q and O session, some shameless confessions and a
blessing, tonight will culminate with a dance-off under the cathedral dome.
‘Don’t leave me hanging like they did in Indianapolis,’ she says. ‘That was totally humiliating.’
It is this kind of impromptu remark that makes
Bolz-Weber so easy to relate to, that brings her down from the pulpit and on a
level with ordinary people. ‘Shameless’ is testament to this, inspired by the
stories she heard first hand from members of her congregation. In her
introduction this evening, she reads from the first pages, recounting a flight she
took from Colorado to North Carolina. Not long after take-off, the crop circles
outside of Denver caught her eye. She discovers later that these crops aren’t
planted in circles but in square plots of land. They grow in circles because of
the way they’re watered. This provides Bolz Weber with a potent metaphor for
the church’s failure to reach people that don’t fit inside its circle, whether
it’s because of body shape, sexual orientation,
gender or faith: ‘God planted so many of us in the corners, yet the
center pivot irrigation of the church’s teachings about sex and sexuality tends
to exclude us.’
Bolz-Weber is a self-proclaimed planted-in-the-corner
Christian. When she was ordained over a decade ago, she signed a contract which
stipulated two options for her sex life:
As a wife, stay faithful to your husband
till death do you part.
As a single woman, remain chaste.
back on it now, post-divorce, and still in a steady relationship with Eric, she
says, ‘In what way is it good for my congregation for me not to get laid?’ This has the Southwark crowd laughing out loud. The
audacity of it, the honesty, the inherent logic behind the question: what has chastity got to do with one’s
ability to pastor? I think of a George Saunders quote I read recently: ‘Humor is
what happens when we’re told the truth quicker and more
directly than we’re used to.’ One expects this kind of risk-taking from comedians
but it’s refreshing to see it come from the clergy.
we’ve been given the lyrics to Amazing Grace so I won’t resemble former tory MP
John Redwood famously bumbling his way through the Welsh National anthem. As
the first verse begins, the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end. If I did
believe in God, this is where I would feel her the most, in the voices of 500
strangers floating up to the cathedral rafters. During the hymn, we’ve been
asked to complete the following sentence on a small square of card: ‘I am ready
to be shameless about…’ and if we wish to, place it in the basket usually
reserved for donations. This, in itself, is heavily symbolic. Repairing the
church, Bolz-Weber is suggesting, doesn’t require money, but doing away with
the culture of shame around sexuality, shame the church has perpetuated
throughout its history, particularly for women and members of the LGBTQ
community. I slip my card in my bag for the time being, the sentence left
Q and O’s
doesn’t do questions and answers because she openly admits she doesn’t have any
of the latter. She does, however, have opinions. Lots of them. And for the half
an hour that follows she walks the aisles, getting up close to those brave
enough to raise their hands.
One woman asks Bolz-Weber’s view on being
faithful to the vow ‘till death do us part,’ in light of her own divorce. Her
reply is surprising and would undoubtedly have some Bible scholars shaking
their heads. ‘I think there are a lot of forms of death,’ she says, alluding to
the death of desire within her own marriage, death of respect for one another’s
bodies via domestic or sexual abuse, or the protracted demise of incompatible
couples. She argues these kind of
marriages undermine the very institution they are trying so hard to uphold.
A woman in the pew behind me wonders how to
remain authentic in the age of internet dating. Bolz-Weber segues into a
section of ‘Shameless’ that broaches the subject of consent, citing the WHO
ethical requirements for sexual health as consent and mutuality. For
Bolz-Weber, this fails to include the Christian ethic of concern. Sexual
health, she asserts, should not simply mean the absence of harm but the
presence of benevolence towards both ourselves and others. She compares it to
the fifth commandment – or the ‘freebie’ – and Martin Luther’s teachings that ‘thou
shalt not kill’ is more than refraining from murder. It’s actively offering
support and good will to others. It’s going above and beyond.
After several thwarted attempts, the young priest
next to me raises his hand and his voice. If Bolz-Weber could go back in time, would
she still sign the contract with the church, even though she knows it
compromises her integrity, or would she refuse to do so and risk never entering
the church on her own terms? It’s a bold question, especially as the young priest
admits to signing an equivalent contract when he entered the Anglican Church,
and it takes Bolz-Weber a few moments to answer. Ultimately, she says she would
sign. Because in order to truly shake things up, it’s easier to do so from within
the institution. Make no mistake, though, she doesn’t mean piecemeal
improvements. As the title of her books clearly states, she wants reformation,
or in her own words, ‘to burn it the fuck down and start over.’
What strikes me as I listen to Bolz-Weber is that
the damaging messages and dogma she refers to around sex and gender are not
unique to the church. The idea that a woman’s body belongs to her husband isn’t
just found in sermons but is deeply ingrained in our culture and shows up in
the most innocuous places: from a well-meaning midwife, for example, who
enquires about my (non-existent) sex life six months after giving birth,
‘Doesn’t that bother your husband?’ she asks. It is the insidious nature of
these remarks that shock me, the implication that a woman is a second class
citizen of her own body, that her sexual desire is insignificant and not worth
enquiring after, or that sex is a one-way exchange, with women (in heterosexual
couples, at least) morally obliged to satisfy the sexual impulses of their
partners or reap the repercussions – aggression, frustration, and potentially,
As a secondary school pupil, I am told, along
with a group of girlfriends, that we shouldn’t wear short skirts because it’s
too distracting for the male teachers as we walk up the stairs. This from one
of the teachers. In this scenario, young women are not only
sartorially censored, they are made responsible for the inappropriate and
sexually predatory behaviour of the men into whose care they are entrusted.
This is not a far cry from the teaching Bolz-Weber received in charm class as
part of her fundamentalist Christian upbringing, an experience she described in
a recent interview with Rich Roll: ‘you have to dress modestly because you
don’t want to tempt the boys…don’t ever arouse them sexually because once
they’re aroused to a certain point, then they can’t help themselves.’ However,
the key difference, Bolz Weber writes in ‘Shameless’, is that ‘as harmful as
the messages from society are, what society does not do is say that those messages are from God.’ Asked whether she
sees a direct correlation between the gendered teachings of the church and
domestic violence, Bolz-Weber is unequivocal: ‘Abso-fucking-lutely.’
congregation at Southwark Cathedral have been given one straight-forward
instruction. Once Bolz-Weber has finished reading out an anonymous confession,
we must respond in unison: ‘Let that shit go!’ It’s an unorthodox call and
response, which takes us a few rounds to get into it, to let go, perhaps, of
the unwritten rule of no swearing in church. Bolz-Weber has been effing and
blinding since she stepped onto the stage but it’s something else to hear your
own voice say ‘shit’ in the house of God. The confessions vary from profound to
inspiring, and slightly enigmatic.
‘I am ready to be shameless about my daughter’s sexuality,’
LET THAT SHIT GO!
‘I am ready to be
shameless about having the best sex in my seventies.’
LET THAT SHIT GO!
‘I am ready to be
shameless about underwear.’
LET THAT SHIT GO!
This last one has an elderly woman in the row in
front of me in hysterics. She’s laughing so hard the whole pew is shaking. It’s
a joyous, liberating moment to witness, to see the austere codes and taboos of
the church broken and replaced with laughter. It demystifies the congregation.
We are still a group of strangers but we are a group of strangers who share the
same basic fears hopes, hang-ups and #lifegoals.
Bolz-Weber’s book is not only for victims of shame but for those
who have done the shaming and regretted it. Why? Because Bolz-Weber is a big
believer in grey areas, in non-binary definitions of good and bad, and most
significantly, in God’s grace. Tonight she ends with a benediction: ‘God saves
us in our bodies, not from our bodies. And I want that
knowledge to be a blessing.’
When Prince’s ‘Kiss’ blasts out
of the cathedral speakers, it’s time for the dance-off. Suddenly I’m back in 1988
when shame is practically a prerequisite for the primary school disco. Please
choose me I want to scream between gulps of flat cream soda and salt and
vinegar crisps that get stuck in my throat. But only if there are enough people
on the dance floor to hide behind, that is. Southwark Cathedral is bigger than
the school hall and there is nowhere to hide. We are in full view of the
congregation and theoretically, God. I bite the bullet, even plucking up the
courage to ask my neighbour to join me. She declines politely, saying ‘I won’t,
but enjoy.’ The female priest at the end of the pew has a look on her face that
says, ‘don’t even bother’ so I go up alone. If this event is anything like
Manchester, there’ll be a video posted within hours on Twitter. I feel
embarrassed about being seen, a heathen dancing on the cold stone floor of the
cathedral but then I see a young Lutheran priest dressed in blue launch himself
into the crowd as if his life depended on it. Perhaps tonight is not about
fitting in – to the church or society at large – but accepting and celebrating who
you are, not dwelling on what you’re ‘lacking’ – the feeling of not being
enough that is so prevalent in purity culture. As the music fades out Nadia
Bolz-Weber slips away to sign copies of ‘Shameless’ in the Cathedral shop,
leaving the last word to Prince.
Don’t have to be rich To be my girl You don’t have to be cool To rule my world Ain’t no particular sign I’m more compatible with
I just want your extra time and your
Am Wife, Will Write
A WORD TOHUSBANDS “When we are listened to, it creates us, makes us unfold and expand.Ideas actually begin to grow within us and come to life.” (Brenda Ueland, If You Want to Write.)
Whether you’re piecing together a collection of short stories, polishing the prose of your debut novel, or pondering life’s complexities in your private journal, there are numerous rules to follow if you wish to thrive as a writer and wife.
DIAMONDS ARE A GIRL’S BEST FRIEND The most important foundation of a writing life is a marriage that’s as solid as a rock. This means finding a man strong enough to shoulder your burdens, one who will support and inspire your creative endeavours and know instinctively when it’s time to step out of the spotlight and allow you to shine. It may be fun when you’re young to date people from all walks of life. However, to ensure a long-lasting union between husband and wife, ascertain early on whether your ambitions are truly compatible.
He arrives late with vodka in one hand, strawberry puree in the other. It doesn’t feel like a party until he’s in the room. He talks with his whole body, spilling sugary cocktail on his trousers that are beige with thin brown vertical stripes. When the other guests have gone to bed, you lie down in the garden and share a cigarette. The smoke is the only thing clouding the sky full of stars.
“What are your dreams?” you ask. The vodka has made you bold.
He smiles, replies, “I want to be a musician, full time. You?”
“I’d like to write.”
This is the start.
Move in together five months later. Marvel at how beautiful he looks in his sleep. Be responsible to your dreams but not your wallet and quit your job. Start writing full-time while he dedicates his life to becoming a professional trumpet player.
Discuss the location of your wedding. You want the town hall, he wants the church. Throw caution to the wind and do both.
Ask for a baby but come home with Napoleon, a black-and-white spaniel on special offer because one of his balls hasn’t dropped.
Console your husband when he fails his music exam. Tell him he has to keep going.
The day after Napoleon turns two, give birth to your daughter, Grace. Watch transfixed as she pecks at your breast, divining your milk with her mouth.
Cradle your husband’s head in your hands when he fails his exam. Again.
Forget the meaning of sleep. Create a cocoon only big enough for two. Watch as your husband moves further away from you and gets into bed with his music.
Listen to him cry when he phones to say he’s passed this time. Cry too but feel uncertain why.
You want to fly home to England. He wants to stay in France.
This is the beginning.
LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION Be careful when selecting your city of residence. Unless you wish to emulate the likes of Ernest Hemingway, smuggling bottles of Bordeaux under your raincoat and dining on roast pigeon that you scraped off the Place des Vosges, Paris might not be the place for you.
Apply for a creative writing MA in the literary heart of East Anglia. Cross your fingers when you’re invited for interview. Visit the local library and get Grace her first card. She loves it because it features a picture of a panda’s face. Your daughter’s already sold on the idea of moving here. Now you have to persuade your husband. Ply him with cheap pints from Wetherspoon’s then realise he’d prefer Smirnoff Ice, that this man is still full of surprises: “If I will get a job, then O.K., I take a sabbatical.” Don’t correct his use of the first conditional. Lick the tiny scar below his left eye that’s shaped like a teardrop. Taste salt on the edges of your tongue. Wonder if it’s him or that second packet of Walkers crisps.
Back home, show him a music teacher job you find advertised online. Look up “peripatetic” in your pocket dictionary. Adopt the French definition – adhering to Aristotle’s school of thought is more appealing than the forty-mile commute to King’s Lynn. Help him fill out the application form.
Refresh the submission status ad infinitum.
A ROOM OF ONE’S OWN A writer’s desk is as personal as the contents of a lady’s purse. Be sure to find a space that encapsulates you, combines all aspects of your personality: the modern woman, the writer, the wife.
Relocate your family from Paris to Norwich. Sub-let a one-bedroom flat from a retired RAF pilot whose cupboards are still full of his stuff. Waste a ridiculous amount of time shuffling boxes around, trying to eke out an extra squared metre of space.
In the evenings, when Grace is asleep, clean the kitchen table and set up your computer. Attempt to write while your husband watches re-runs of ’90s sitcoms that weren’t funny the first time. Try not to let the tin-can laughs of the pre-recorded audience rattle your nerves. Lose your cool when he starts tapping out text messages to his newfound friends. You are halfway through a sentence.
“I just want to come home and relax,” he says, after a day busking in the streets of the city. “Is that really too much to ask?”
Don’t answer. Hear him slam the bedroom door shut.
Get so tired you don’t bother cleaning your teeth, then fall asleep fully clothed on the sofa.
Wake up at three a.m. when Grace shouts: “Mummy, is it morning time?” Lie awake as you stroke her back to sleep, singing My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean.
DYB, DYB, DYB – DO YOUR BEST Skilful preparation should not be reserved to the realm of brownies and cub scouts. If you decide to venture outside the comfort of your own home in order to write, equip yourself with the right tools for the task at hand.
THINGS TO LEAVE BEHIND 1. A typewriter. Unless you want to end up with a hernia, leave these cumbersome machines to the Hemingway devotees. 2. Perfectionism. “Have no fear of perfection, you’ll never reach it.” Salvador Dali was right. By all means strive for excellence but remember that perfection is unattainable. 3. Your internal editor. Of course an editor has his place in the creative process. But like a drunken uncle at a funeral, don’t let him in the door too early. 4. High-calorie snacks. Writing is no excuse for breaking out the chocolate biscuits.
AT THE LOCAL LIBRARY Public libraries are the ideal place to go for quiet contemplation. What could be more heartening than surrounding oneself with books and bibliophiles?
Once you’ve dropped Grace off at nursery, rush to the library and nab a desk on the first floor. Make a good start. Two paragraphs into your story, sigh as a children’s choir assembles on the staircase. Don’t believe your ears when they start rehearsing for tonight’s live broadcast of BBC Children In Need. Wince when their rendition of I’ll Stand by You hurts your teeth. Think, “The dead Pretenders must be turning in their graves.”
“Ooohhhh,” they sing, “why you look so sad?”
Resist shouting, “Because I can’t fucking concentrate.”
“Don’t hold it all inside. Come on and talk to me, now.”
Feel bad about wanting to scream at small children, spoiling their five minutes of kind-hearted fame. Remember it’s for charity and you too have a child.
IN CAFES Coffee houses are famous the world over for providing respite to weary literati. Select your café carefully, taking into account the quality of light and the speed of service. Support local traders and where possible buy organic, fair-trade coffee that has been ground in the past five days.
Take Napoleon to the one place in town that accepts dogs: Caffé Nero. Waste time at the counter as they fawn over his silly face. Trip up on his leash as you climb the stairs, spilling hot cappuccino on your top.
“You O.K. darling?” says the barista in his thick Italian accent.
Nod and smile, but once you’ve claimed your usual table by the window, cry into your scarf. Pat Napoleon and tell him it’s all alright, it’s not his fault. Avoid the couple in the corner who always hog the sofas, talk too loudly and stroke your dog like an old lover.
ON TRAINS The tickety-clack of train journeys has always transported me to another world, one of mystery, romance, and Christie’s Poirot. If you are planning on working, book your tickets in advance and ask the travel agent for a forward facing seat with a fold-down table. First class is always preferable.
Attempt to read Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground for inspiration on the train to London. Stop when Grace needs help making play-dough shapes with cookie cutters you found in the depths of your bag. They are supposed to look like exotic animals.
“It’s not a penguin, silly,” says the little boy opposite you. “It’s a toucan.”
Feel ashamed that a six-year-old can identify the correct species more easily than you. When he makes Grace a play-dough poo, suppress the urge to throw it in his face.
Spot your husband ploughing through his recently bought paperback two rows down.
ON SHIPS Ships remind me of sailing past the Statue of Liberty and into Manhattan, of all the people who passed through Ellis Island and into a new life plump with possibility.
Cruise-liner voyages are ideal for the vacationing writer. They allow ample time to combine true relaxation, good-quality cocktails and the soothing sounds of the sea.
At Christmas, take the ferry to France because you left it too late to book the Eurostar. Head to deck seven and thank God for the inflatable playpen. Watch Grace as she throws herself against the bright blue cushions, safe in the knowledge that she can’t come to any harm. Open your laptop and start working on a children’s book about an octopus with only six tentacles.
Feel your heart sink when the sea gets rough and the kids turn an unhealthy shade of green. Guess correctly that your husband’s wandered off to play trumpet on the top deck. Save your Word document before Grace comes over clutching her stomach saying, “Mummy, make it stop.” Spend the rest of the journey mopping up sick.
Forget about the octopus and his futile quest to recover his two missing limbs.
TIME WAITS FOR NO (WO)MAN Bernard Malamud is right on the button: “If you can’t get organised, then you can kiss your talent goodbye.” If you are balancing a career with family life, learn to grab moments when they arrive – it is amazing what you can achieve in a short space of time. I’m often delighted to discover that when I set aside time for a paragraph, I come away with a chapter.
Blame yourself. It was your idea that he busk to Let It Go in the centre of town and now he’s raking it in every Saturday outside the Disney Store. Admit this is what he always wanted, to be earning money from his music. In many ways you are proud of him.
Get up with Grace. When you’re still half-asleep, pour milk into her cornflakes hoping not to spill it on the shag-pile; you cannot face another visit from Steve, the philosophical carpet cleaner who combines stain removal with soliloquies on Jungian dream theory.
Take the bus to ballet class. Ensure you have everything you need: the hairpins, the leotard, the ballet shoes with ribbons, the tutu, the tap shoes, the tights.
Queue up for coffee and make small talk with the other mothers. In the half-an-hour gap before Grace comes back, take out your notebook. Curse under your breath because you’ve forgotten your pen. Grab a wax crayon from the colouring box.
Stop thinking in paragraphs; start thinking in words.
KEEP THE HOME FIRES BURNING Not only should you be the master of your craft, but the mistress of your home life too. By all means keep up your creative pursuits but remember to prioritise. Upholding your role as wife and mother is of paramount importance and requires elegance, dignity and decorum.
Turn your laptop off. Tell your husband to put his ukulele down – it’s Grace’s turn to play an instrument. Accept that your daughter has unusual taste for a toddler. Instead of Wheels on the Bus, she wants you to accompany her on the recorder as she taps her tambourine in time to Roar, Katy Perry’s age-inappropriate, jungle-themed pop song of female empowerment.
Open the box of wooden instruments you gave her for Christmas still wrapped in plastic. Don’t think about the neighbours. Turn the volume up and dance round the room. Stay as close to the original tune as possible with your limited range of six notes. Jump around and start to laugh – not high in the throat but deep in the gut.
When the song ends your husband looks at you surprised, “Mummy’s very silly, isn’t she?”
“Yes,” says Grace, “let’s do it again!”
EAT, PRAY, SLEEP Rising to the challenges of contemporary life without stopping to recharge your batteries is akin to running an automobile on apple-scented bubble bath – useless and potentially dangerous to you and your entourage. The opposite of success is not failure but neglect.
Go to your daughter’s Christmas show alone. Smile and hide your disappointment that her father’s not there. Watch as she laughs and claps and sings a silly song about Brussel sprouts. Feel disproportionately proud when she pinches a mince pie off the tray destined for adults.
Rush to university in time to discuss the short story The Sex Lives of African Girls and Othello, the struggles women face all over the world – the jealousy, the anger, the rage. Articulate what moves you and makes your heart break.
Get to the crèche in time to collect Grace. When she asks “Where’s Daddy?” be truthful but not bitter. “Daddy’s at work darling, but he really wanted to be here.”
Hesitate before opening the front door one morning when you hear Grace’s screams coming from the other side. Dread seeing what you know instinctively has already taken place. Realise you never saw her leave, that she must have followed her father. Extract her tiny hand from the hinge. Squint at the sight of her nail squashed round to the wrong side of her finger. Panic when the screams don’t stop. Yell, “What the hell happened?”
“She wanted to say goodbye,” says your husband, retreating to his car. “I have to go. I’m going to be late for work.”
Hold Grace in your arms. Order a taxi to take you to Accident & Emergency.
FINAL THOUGHTS To sum up, demonstrate the same level of commitment to your marriage as you do to your craft and you cannot put a foot wrong.
After dinner one night, entrust your latest story to your husband.
“Why do you always write about yourself?” he says. “Can’t you use your imagination? Like that man who wrote Lord of the Rings?”
“J. R. R. Tolkien?”
“Yes, that’s him.”
“It’s supposed to be in the same vein as a 1950s guidebook, you know, for women.” Hand him the cloth-bound edition of The Art of Being A Well-Dressed Wife. As always, it falls open on page 87.
“But that’s the thing,” you try and explain, “I don’t think being a good wife is about the clothes you wear. It’s more complex, more—”
“Don’t worry ma chérie, you look fine,” he replies, turning on the television.
When you return to the flat after a week away at kids’ camp, the fridge is empty. Without milk you can’t give Grace her bottle and the shops are now shut because it’s late and you’ve spent most of the day stuck in the car, listening to Katy Perry on repeat so Grace won’t scream and distract your attention from the millions of cars racing to some other destination.
“You could have got some food in,” you say.
“I’m tired,” he replies.
You haven’t had a night of uninterrupted sleep for four years. You drink six cups of coffee to get you through the day and he’s tired.
“I’m the most tired.”
“I’ve got the most work to do.”
“I took the dog out, so now it’s your turn.”
“If Grace wakes in the middle of the night, you go.”
Lie down next to your daughter and breathe in the sweet smell of her skin.
You cannot find the time to write. You have nothing left to give.
This is the end.
Remember the day you met. Remember the touch of his fingers on the inside of your thigh as you talked into the night, the crunch of gravel under your feet as you strolled down the driveway and looked up at the stars.