Dawn O’Porter has a great fringe. She wears gorgeous clothes and pulls off the whole 60s vintage glamour look without looking (too much) like an extra from Scooby Doo. She used to do a programme on Channel 4 about shopping vintage – and it was a bit of fluff, but an entertaining bit of fluff. She was cashing in on her bit-part in Gok Wan’s fashion programmes, and why not? I also remember a brief stint on BBC3, making documentaries on nudity and lesbianism and other such BBC3-ish topics. Again, mildly entertaining, if lacking the gravitas (and sensationalism?) of more recent docs by Stacey Dooley or Reggie Yates.
That was a long time ago – back when I was in the right age bracket for BBC3 – and Dawn O’Porter has since started her own vintage-inspired fashion empire. She has a baby with Hollywood actor Chris O’Dowd, and they live in LA. Yesterday I came across her podcast, Get It On, in which she interviews celebrities about their emotional connection with their clothes. I thought it sounded an interesting premise. The first guest was Jo Whiley, who I agree with Dawn is the epitome of Glastonbury cool. I listened through a very long-winded and cheesy introduction from Dawn, a Natwest ad… then, to the interview. Conducted via Skype. Needless to say, this crackly exchange didn’t make particularly good listening.
All in all, Jo Whiley was interesting – it was Dawn who really annoyed me. Principally, with just one phrase from her intro.
‘I’m principally a writer…’ Or words to that effect.
It bugged me because I’d read her terrible YA novel. Paper Aeroplanes was published in 2013, while I was busy writing my final project for my MA in Creative Writing. I bought the book after seeing her tweet about it (@Hotpatooties makes an interesting follow, if you’re into pics of fairly normal-looking, yummy food – which I am). Her novel, like mine, was focused on the friendship of two teenage girls. It was set in Jersey, which was unusual and sparked my interest as we’d gone on lots of holidays there when I was a kid. If anything, though, Paper Aeroplanes taught me how not to write a novel. I actually cited it in my MA commentary, pinpointing what I didn’t like about it and how I tried to avoid her mistakes. This probably sounds really bitchy, but the plain fact is she’d got this book deal because of her media presence. And her lovely 60s fringe. I saw very little evidence of any literary talent, though this might be because of an urgent deadline, because the whole thing felt incredibly rushed. By the end of it, the clumsy pieces of this book were barely hanging together.
Now, I’m sure she’s written some lovely columns in Glamour. But the idea that she’s principally a writer really, really annoys me. She’s a media personality. Maybe that’s not a job title as such, but that’s what she does.
It’s infuriating that she has another book out in 2017. If anyone without her media presence had written a book as terrible as Paper Aeroplanes, there’s no way they’d be given a second shot.
It’s been a while since I’ve sat in public with my laptop out, like some pretentious would-be hipster (but I’m too old and nowhere near cool enough). It’s a Thursday, my day off, my indulgent day off. I’m 31, I have no children, and I work part-time by choice. Why? Well, because I’ve learned that I’m 1000% happier when I have breathing space in my week to be by myself. It’s costing me a painful 20% of my salary, and if I think about that too much I start to feel very tense and guilty about it. I could really use that money. But then, I would be sacrificing more than just a day off once a week.
2016 was a tumultuous year, and not just because of the insanity of UK and US politics, or the number of celebrity deaths. On a personal level, the year started very, very badly for me. I was stuck in a job I hated, a job I knew was not going to get any better, and was really messing up my mental health. I took time off for stress – twice – and still felt there was very little support there for me. Every day was an onslaught of terribly behaved classes, hours added onto my usual working day because of inspections and the absence of an official Head of Department. For the first two months of 2016, I was at home, off sick, feeling very sad and scared for my future. I didn’t think I wanted to be a teacher any more. I didn’t know what I wanted to do, and we’d just moved to Oxford, the most expensive city outside of London in the whole of the UK.
So I signed up for supply teaching, and things got slowly better. I was reminded that I’m actually a highly competent teacher, and I have actually built up a huge amount of knowledge since qualifying in 2008. I thought everyone hated supply teachers, but it turns out that’s not the case when you really know your stuff. I enjoyed turning up each day having done no planning, because that’s how supply work rolls. I couldn’t build up any sense of apprehension for the day ahead. I worked with some really difficult kids in an FE college with a distinct lack of funding and resources – in some ways as challenging as my previous school – but I was enjoying it. Perhaps because I was no longer in a middle management position, and I could concentrate on lessons alone; perhaps because there wasn’t the pressure of results that you feel as a permanent member of staff, especially since the introduction of performance related pay. Plus, supply work can actually be really rewarding. You can fly in to a kid’s life for a few weeks, build a relationship, and give them that extra kick right before their exams. Long term, though,I realised it was not going to work. I would be permanently teaching kids who were retaking English and held a very negative view of my subject, and that’s not why I became a teacher.
Almost on a whim, I applied to a private school that I assumed was way out of my league. I don’t know why I thought this, in retrospect. Was it a class thing? Probably. Was it low self esteem? Yes, probably. Anyway, I got the job, even though I was up against five other interviewees – and that was a huge confidence boost. In fact, getting this job has been one of the best things that’s happened to me. Ever.
2016 started out terribly, but by the end of it, I was doing a job I genuinely enjoyed and felt fulfilled by. I realised I’d never gone to work before without a feeling an unreasonable level of dread and stress. At this new school, a tiny school with a wonderful ethos and wonderful kids, I felt relaxed. I felt a sense of belonging almost instantly. I loved teaching my lessons. I was teaching 50% drama again, which has its own challenges, but has less marking, and less pressure than a core subject like English. AND I got a day off mid-week to take the pressure off.
Why did it take me until I was 30 to find this gig? A job I love, a job that gives me genuine happiness? I suppose some people never find that, actually. I am truly blessed.
So it’s Thursday, and I’m feeling very uncool in a branch of Leon, surrounded by twenty-somethings, most with Apple Macs and lattes. Two very young, very beautiful black girls were in the queue for breakfast muffins, and I was stunned with jealousy at their beautiful clothes – both in fur-trimmed vintage style coats, thick-heeled Mary Jane shoes, floral midi skirts. One had a 40s style red hair net over her natural afro. Both just gorgeous, fully made up with winged eyeliner and statement jewellery. It’s like they’d walked straight out of an Instragram filtered pic, or a street style page in a magazine. The jealousy lingered for a while, and I was suddenly very conscious of my slightly dowdy raincoat (well, it was raining) and my bare face (I associate make up with work and rarely wear it on days off). Still, I found the strength to silence my self criticism. Yes, those girls were gorgeous, but they probably spent hours getting dressed in the morning. They’re younger than me, probably students, and while the blissful naivety of student life is certainly fun, I thought about all the shit they still have to learn. And I don’t mean academically. Sure, you look good in your 20s, but it’s such a painful, stressful time – establishing relationships, scraping by on crappy entry-level jobs, or going through the torture of professional training and making all the inevitable mistakes you make when you’re new at something. This is why I’d never agree to go back in time and be 21 again: there’s no way in hell I’d repeat my PGCE, or even the toil of my first three years of teaching.
OK, I don’t look as pretty as they do, but I have more than they do. I have the confidence that comes with being in a career for nine years. I’ve learned the self awareness that I lacked so badly at their age. I’m very happily married, and because I’ve been with the same lovely man for ten years, I’m lucky enough to have completely missed the tyranny of the Tinder era. I’m also old enough to know it’s ridiculous to have your life dictated by the need to post perfect selfies, or to ensure you fit inside a size 8 pair of Topshop skinnies. I’m lucky in so many ways. Maybe it’s not luck, though: maybe what I have is the wisdom and rewards of 31 years on this planet. OK, I don’t have Mary Jane shoes as cute as theirs, but I have a nice job, I HAVE A DAY OFF, and today I can do whatever I like, and if that’s not a fucking glorious luxury, I don’t know what is.
I read this book back in the spring after hearing it mentioned on all my favourite podcasts. I listen to a lot of podcasts. Book podcasts, feminist podcasts… This book crossed into both. Sara Pascoe seemed instantly likeable and I liked the idea of a feminist polemic with a scientific angle, whilst still being readable and entertaining.
I’ve read a few of these sorts of books – autobiographical in nature whilst still trying to tell us something wider about what it means to be female in the modern whirlwind of changing sexual identities, gender fluidity, everyday sexism and all manner of feminist campaigns and hashtags. Lena Dunham’s books, Not That Kind Of Girl, is brilliant. It’s raw and beautifully written. I’m a big fan of Girls and Dunham’s book offers more of that special quirky energy, weirdness and arresting honesty. I love that Dunham is brave enough to be so openly weird. We all pretty strange individuals with our own neuroses, health quirks and awkward sexual histories, but Lena just puts it all out there. And she’s such a good writer. Her voice is a compelling read.
Then there’s Caitlin Moran. When I read How to be a Woman when it was first published in 2011; five years ago, it felt so fresh and new. People weren’t calling themselves feminists then – at least not in my everyday internet wanderings and conversations with friends. Fourth wave feminism existed, but I wasn’t aware of it. How to be a Woman was an approachable read, a funny read, one that widened the consciousness of why feminism is important. I did a women’s life writing course at university, and yet I don’t think I’d ever read about periods, breasts and abortion before. I was 25 at the time, and as Caitlin Moran was ten years older than me, it felt like getting advice from a very honest, very funny big sister. I loved it. It genuinely changed the way I thought. It was when I started thinking of myself as a feminist.
So I read Animal by Sara Pascoe with these two great books in mind. Two books I loved. If I’d read Animal first, when I was about fifteen, I think I would have loved it a whole lot more than I did as a married thirty year old who already read a lot about this subject matter. Not that this is a bad book: it definitely isn’t. I just wasn’t sure I was the intended audience.
Reading it, I definitely learned interesting things about new discoveries in science regarding gender and sexuality: Pascoe has definitely done her research, and in that respect, this book possibly had more weight than Moran’s. I learned that a lot of preconceptions about female sexuality are Victorian constructs; evolutionary principles were established by male scientists in a very conservative age, and thus their theories on women and even female animals were shaped by deeply embedded societal views. Women are delicate, nurturing and not as sexual as men, for instance. These Victorian ideas are still floating around right now in the media, in films, in the books we read. And yet there’s so much evidence that these ‘gender norms’ are a load of rubbish. But we knew that, right? Even if I didn’t know all the science, I still felt like I already knew the principles of this book. Having said that, the science of hormones was really interesting, and something I felt I should have found out about earlier.
Maybe I’ll pass the book to my teenage niece. Maybe this is what this book is about… passing the torch. She’s a typical sixteen year old, interested stalking minor celebrities on Twitter, pouting for Instagram selfies and collecting Mac lipsticks. Just as I felt at her age, her peer group is everything. She might well be very happy in performing this particular internet-age brand of femininity, but what if she’s not? She’s just left school, she’s going to college and thinking about university. This is a crucial age for deciding your own identity, and experimenting with it. Perhaps this book would be a helpful voice in helping her understand her own hormones, her first relationships. Sara Pascoe writes so honestly about her own difficult teenage years: an eating disorder, an abortion at 16. It’s not sensationalist or extreme, because everything feels pretty extreme when you’re 16. Yes, I wish I’d read this book earlier. I would have learned a lot.
It’s the referendum on the EU today in the UK. Like most people I didn’t give much thought to the EU until this whole circus began. Quite frankly, I took it for granted that I was a European and didn’t think a little stretch of water between Britain and the rest of Europe was so important. It turns out it is significant to the mindsets of many UK citizens – they see themselves as separate, a great nation that should stand on its own and have greater powers to govern itself. This is what my parents think.
I know I live in an online echo chamber of similarly left-wing friends, and perhaps this is why it’s so strange for me that my views are so different to my parents’. It’s not simply that they’re older and part of a different generation, which is what they claim. I know plenty of people their age that think differently to them. It shouldn’t bother me so much – they are entitled to their own views – but it does bother me.
Perhaps it’s because the whole campaign for leaving the EU has been so awful. The figureheads of the whole movement are idiots, racists and racist idiots. I am never ever going to agree with anything said by Nigel Farage – a small-minded, unintelligent self publicist who seems to delight in dancing on the edge of xenophobia, stirring up hatred amongst the masses. After Jo Cox was murdered he criticised the Remain campaign for aligning Vote Leave with hatred and extremism, but the link was there already. The link with extremism is underlying almost everything he says.
My Dad claims that the EU is undemocratic – that the leaders just get together and ‘talk about stuff’. Well, sorry Dad, but that’s what politics is. If they didn’t discuss and negotiate, the alternative – leaders that don’t talk to each other – would lead to suspicion and fear. And it’s not undemocratic. We vote for MEPs. It’s our fault if we don’t pay attention to who they are and what they’re doing. Yes, I agree the EU doesn’t work as well as it needs to at the moment – it needs to be more transparent. But it’s done so much good – perhaps most importantly in securing workers’ rights such as equal pay and paid leave. It’s made crucial moves to regulate pollution and surely it’s obvious that environmental issues are so big that they require the cooperation of nations.
I studied a lot of European history at school, and I’m reminded of the ideas of ‘Little Englanders’ and ‘Splendid Isolation’ that existed prior to the world wars. It’s all very well to desire greater sovereignty but no nation exists in a vacuum and as soon as there is any sort of crisis, it is essential for countries to work together. We cannot solve the immigration crisis by isolating ourselves and putting up a brick wall. Displaced peoples from places ravaged by war or completely unsafe due to savage dictatorships should be the responsibility of everyone. It requires cooperation. It doesn’t make any sense to make this a reason to leave the EU, either, because the surge in immigration numbers are not coming from the EU, but from all over the world.
It’s the issue of immigration that’s caused the most vitriol in this torrid campaign. I work with 16-19 year olds at a city college, and I’ve heard some terribly racist comments coming from their mouths; I can only assume these are words passed down from the right-wing press, or parents who should know better, but are equally challenged by a competitive job market, and perhaps a lack of education themselves. Racism and xenophobia come from lack of education, lack of economic power. There’s no excuse for these vile views, but they exist, and I’ve heard them first hand from working class kids who don’t know any better yet. They do not need validation from the likes of Nigel Farage and other well-off ignorant white people.
I do not see myself as different from any other EU citizen. I honestly don’t see the distinction that others must see if they think we should separate ourselves from them. In my job as a teacher, I’ve taught children from around the world whose families have chosen to settle here, and my classroom has been richer for it. I taught in a Catholic school where there was a fairly large Polish community and the thought of them feeling unwelcome because of the Vote Leave campaign is deeply upsetting. These are not numbers in a piece of data on immigration – they are the boys and girls I’ve got to know over the years I’ve taught them English. The fourteen year old girl who told me about Poland’s crisis in 1983. The Polish twin boys who got their ‘C’ grades in English, despite being second language learners and dyslexic – they did it through pure hard work and grit. I’ve also worked with teachers from Spain, France, Poland, Portugal… the thought of them feeling unwanted and not valued because of the Vote Leave campaign is terrible. These are my colleagues. My friends. I’m 30, so I don’t remember ever not being part of the EU, and part of a multicultural society, and to desire it to be different makes no sense to me. We’re lucky to live in a largely tolerant country, one that is economically and politically stable, and of course people from elsewhere will want to come – whether it’s to simply feel safe, to make a better life for their family, to earn more money.
The idea that the EU is undemocratic does not hold weight with me. It’s only undemocratic if we take no notice, don’t vote for MEPs, and allow our media to not report on EU matters. The best referendum result would to a vote to remain, with a greater public interest in our nation as a member of this organisation that has brought stability and peace. Europe was at war just seventy years ago, within living memory. The world wars were caused by nationalism in a fractured Europe, and we can’t afford to make that mistake again.