A little Oxfordshire town randomly became home when I got my first teaching job at the tender age of 22. I was the first amongst my friends to properly ‘live with my boyfriend’ in a sweet little flat with colourful kitchen tiles and a balcony for the cat. It felt terribly grown up, being out on our own, working hard to pay the rent while a lot of our contemporaries were still pulling student all-nighters or living with their parents. It was the year of the recession, and although we had quite good savings back then, we weren’t even thinking about mortgages. We probably wouldn’t have been able to get one, anyway.
Eighteen months later, the rent was increased on the flat with the colourful tiles, and we moved to another one, a little less charming, but spacious, and right in the town centre. We filled it with books and watched the cat lounge across the hot spots of the underfloor heating. Cue happy times baking in the huge kitchen, and parties, now we had space for friends to stay.
Then the rent went up again. We realised we could rent a proper house for a little more money, and although it was a bit of a financial stretch (I was working part-time then), the lure of more space and a garden was very appealing. So we moved again, and we loved that house. It was the sort of the place we’d happily have bought and stayed in forever. It had more space than we needed, and it was pretty. It had a wood-burning stove. It was great.
By this time, the economy was a bit better, and my friends were starting to discuss mortgages. Shit. Oh yeah. Sort of forgot about those.
I’d funded my own MA, and we’d had a lovely wedding. We didn’t really have savings any more, which we know is a bit stupid. But were we really so stupid to rent through our twenties? What was the alternative – put our relationship on hold while we lived at home and sponged off our parents? Should we have lived in a shared house? A hovel? We didn’t spend extravagantly. No big holidays, apart from our honeymoon to China – and that was our wedding present from our guests.
We worked hard through our 20s, and I really believed we deserved nice places to live. The trouble is that we’re now 30, and still renting. Perhaps naively, we followed our hearts and moved to a ridiculously expensive area. We wanted to experience cosmopolitan city life before we got too grown up. And I don’t really regret it. Not really. I love where we live, even if I do get stressed about the rent.
A lot of my friends have bought houses now. And yes, I’m jealous. I’m also in wonder as to how the hell they did it. Well, they didn’t choose to live in Oxfordshire, for a start – the most expensive county outside London. Some of them inherited money, which lets face it, is the most depressing way of getting on the housing ladder. I don’t want my relatives to die so we can buy a house. Some of them are better paid than us, and live in cheaper places – so the maths isn’t hard. One couple just didn’t leave their cheap rented flat for eighteen months, budgeting £4 a week for anything fun.
Most of them got at least a little help from their parents, and this is a tricky one. I would never ask for help. We had help with the wedding, and fully appreciated it. But we’d never ask. (I’m not sure my parents are open to us buying a permanent home anywhere other than right next door to them, anyway).
At the moment, we’re remaining firm members of Generation Rent. We’re not in a position to save much at the moment, but in a year or two, our jobs might change, and we might feel a little better off. There’s more to life than a big financial plan, right? After all, we’ve had eight years of living together, in places that have made us happy. We’ve invested in each other, even if we’ve been a bit crap (but not explosively terrible) with money. We’ll get better at the money stuff. Here’s hoping, because memes like the one below are really scary…
Nanny Hitchens was a farmer’s wife with four children. I knew her as the kind old lady who had three wardrobes of fantastic jumble-sale clothes, painted for pleasure, joined in my make-believe games and made spider-shaped pancakes. She used to tell me how she saw faces in everything – the bark on a log on the fireplace, the texture of bricks. She wrote diaries when I was little, about me, about making honey, and all the comings and goings of the farm. She walked her collie dog Nell until she was nearly 80, only stopping when Nell pulled her over and she broke her arm. She and her almost blind gentleman friend would drive all the way to Wales for the day in a rattling old banger, just because they could. Because they liked to get out and see the world. She’d tell me to notice how every tree was different, and had its own character. She taught me to notice, full stop.
She let me make messes with paint and oil pastels in her front room, never complaining, even when I often made a poor job of tidying up. She warned me that you reach a certain age when you stop having time to slop paint around. You’ll get your canvas marked out, start your first couple of washes, and then have to stop to cook dinner. You’ll get distracted, trying to do a load of laundry at the same time as watching your potatoes simmer. Then you eat, you wash up, and it’ll be three hours before you remember you squeezed half the aquamarine out of its tube, and now it’s dried up.
She sounded regretful when she said it. I’m sure she didn’t regret being a mother and a wife, but I often wonder what she could have become if she’d been born in a different time and place. Born in 1916, she came from a humble background, working as a maid before she was married. My grandfather’s family, having a little more money and status as a farming family, disapproved of Grandad marrying a maid. There are only two guests in the photo of their wedding, and while Nanny Hitchens looks so young beautiful in a silk, Deco-style gown, the image makes me feel sad. It’s a shock, really, to think that anyone could disapprove of anyone so kind and lovely as my Nanny.
She left school at 13 or 14, so it’s a surprise that she could write so well, and read so much. Nanny would read anything, but I particularly remember her collection of books about the royal family. I’d sit next to her under the ‘rug’ (her word for the thick brown blanket she kept on the sofa) and she’d talk me through photographs of the Queen Mother and Princess Diana like they were our relatives. She gave me a blow-by-blow account of Edward VIII’s abdication and the scandal of Mrs Simpson. Even though she was in her eighties, she recalled it all with such clarity, spinning a great yarn with gasps of surprise in all the right places – not a bad way to first encounter this event in history. Of course, it wasn’t history to her – it was something reported in the newspapers and the radio when she was twenty years old.
In the mornings, sometimes I would slip into Nanny’s bedroom and join her under the many blankets of her double bed. Getting ready for the day ahead was a leisurely affair – Nanny did her make-up and hair in bed with a mirror balanced on her lap, with GMTV gently chit-chatting to her in the corner. We’d have a good discussion – I loved talking with Nanny, because she never talked down to me. She could see that I was smart for my age. It was while we were wrapped up in bed that she told me about her brother that died as a POW in Italy in the Second World War. She always started these stories by saying, ‘I have to tell you these things, because I won’t always be here.’ Of course I hated hearing her say it, but she was right.
So this is what friendship at 30 is supposed to look like! You link arms with the
beautiful people who’ve seen you through your twenties, casually balancing a champagne glass or an orchid in your hand while someone kindly carries your shoes for you. Phew – and I was so worried about having to get a mortgage, progress in my career and decide whether or not to have children. As long as you’ve got a nice blow dry and Ross Geller is there to carry your shoes, it’ll all be OK, right?
It’s fair to say that the film and television I grew up with was rammed with sweet, idealised notions of thirty-something friendships. Whether it’s Chandler and Joey’s bromance, Bridget Jones’s circle of sharp-tongued but (mostly) supportive single friends, or friendly sex talk at brunch with Carrie, Samantha, Charlotte and Miranda – I was pretty sold on the idea that your 30s involves just as much goofing around as adolescence. I never gave much thought to the socialisation process kick-started by these fictitious role models. I just assumed that I too would link arms with my BFFs well into my kidulthood.
I turned thirty a few weeks ago. Just as TV told me I would, I celebrated with a bunch of lovely friends over a delicious meal, and a fun but rather polite and grown-up house party (well, polite until Cards Against Humanity was brought into the mix). These were the same people I grew up with, give or take the addition of various partners and husbands. As I said in my wedding speech (yes, I was that sort of bride), I probably know them better and like them more now than when we used to copy each other’s homework or hang out in the Wimpy.
My friends are a really important part of my life. We all live in disparate parts of the country now, but I know my lovely girlfriends are only a phone call away. I might not see them every day, but that makes it more fun and special when we do meet up: it’s an occasion, so we’re allowed to order expensive cocktails, order all three courses and wear something a bit fancy.
Of course, it’s easier for us to stay in touch than it was for our parents’ generation. Facebook means we’re constantly in contact, browsing each other’s travel snaps, group-chatting to organise each other’s hen parties or just sharing silly in-jokes about Poldark. I could criticise the false optimism of social media, the annoying Californian perkiness of Facebook – but staying in touch this way really does lessen the effect of the physical distance between us.
Perhaps there’s something else, though: perhaps we place greater importance on friendship because of the narratives we grew up with. Jennifer Aniston et al told us they’d be there for us – and damn it, we believed it. So I thought it’d be pretty interesting to reflect on those key moments in TV and film from my teens and 20s, to reflect on what they taught me about friendship.
Well, it makes sense to start with the obvious. I could be cynical and suggest that Friends taught me that New York is full of cliques of skinny white people who hang out in coffee shops all somehow afford prime Manhattan apartments. But I think that complaint is pretty well trodden ground by now: besides, I do tend to leave my thirty-something scorn behind whenever I catch an episode. It makes me feel 14 again, as if it’s a Sunday T4 omnibus, and I’m half-watching while doing my homework.
At school we’d discuss at length whether you were a Monica, a Phoebe or a Rachel. As I belonged to a girly clique of three until I was about 15, this suited us well. I was usually pigeon-holed as Monica, as I had dark hair and was fastidious about homework (yet probably had the most untidy teenage bedroom on the planet). Sometimes I was a bit kooky like Pheobe, what with my penchant for tie-dye in the late 90s. I think I might have owned a deck of tarot cards at some point. I was never a Rachel, though – to be a Rachel, you had to be a bit sexy. You had to have good hair.
Maybe the best thing about the Friends characters is they’re so goofy – they don’t try to be cool. I loved it when Monica put her turkey on her head, or Chandler and Joey sat in a canoe with the chick and duck. Ross was possibly the best at uncool loveable goofiness: getting stuck in his leather trousers, over-bleaching his teeth and failing to move his sofa up the stairs (PIVOT!). It was reassuring, seeing grown-ups getting stuff wrong.
Friends showed me that you can make new buddies, but you’ll always go back to the mates you had in high school. Rachel and Monica’s awful prom dresses were symbolic of the importance of shared history in friendship. When you’ve known each other since your teens, there’s no explaining to do, no pretences: it’s easy and comfortable, like family. Ross and Rachel were always going to find their way back to each other for that very reason. Known as ‘pulling a Ross and Rachel’, how many of your friends have got it together, years after going to the same school? It’s quite a common phenomenon in my experience, and again, that shared history makes strong roots for a relationship.
Sex and the City (1998-2004)
I was always more interested in the female friendships than the sexcapades in Sex and the City.I was too young to catch this show on television, but bought a box set in one of the great closing down sales of the 2008 credit crunch (anyone remember Zavvi?). For that reason, it’s always had a dated kitsch quality for me. After the gloss of the movies, it’s easy to forget Carrie’s almost orange hair, the weird fur trim on Samantha’s worst outfits, and how provocatively masculine Miranda was with her wet look hair and loose-cut suits. The Season 1 monologues to camera are reminiscent of 70s Woody Allen and while they might have been arresting and ground-breaking at the time, they now seem dated and cheesy. Still, the girlfriend-to-girlfriend phone calls, the four-way dialogue over cocktails – that still seems fresh. Well, mostly. When Kim Cattrall’s not overworking it.
Sex and the City taught me to look after my girlfriends. Be tolerant, even when she’s got a new a bloke, and she ignores your Facebook messages. Be kind, though she’s still procrastinating over the precise shade of eggshell blue for her wedding invites. Yes, she might have that crazy new friend with the buzz cut and plugs, and at the moment she might like the crazy more than you – but if you remain kind, it’ll probably pass. Female friendship is about years of kindness – being tolerant and forgiving, telling her what she needs to hear, being a good confidant. Because you’ll know she’ll do the same for you. And that was the heart and wisdom of Sex and the City. It wasn’t all about the shoes.
“Maybe we can be each other’s soul mates and then we can let men be just these great, nice guys to have fun with.” – Carrie
Bridget Jones’s Diary and Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason (2001 and 2004)
If these films were made in 2016, I think Bridget would be rather different. I’m not saying that Bridget is not a feminist – of course she is, in her own way – but she’s not a very enlightened portrayal of a single woman. She comes across as unintelligent, foolish and overly concerned with being a bit fat. A 90s neurotic (Ally McBeal is of this ilk, too). Although I still find the films fun, I wish Bridget would have a bit more attitude! It would be nice to laugh along with her, rather than at her expense because her hair’s gone wrong, or she’s parachuted into a pig pen.
Not all of Bridget’s friends have the best of intentions. It’s no wonder she’s waiting for Mr Darcy when her friends can be so cruel. Shazza and co are so busy sticking their noses in Bridget’s relationships, hang around with drug dealers or stinging Bridget with backhanded insults. It’s not exactly a glowing portrayal of supportive friendship. Still, they rally for her in the end:
Tom: Well done Bridge, four hours of careful cooking and a feast of blue soup, omelette and marmalade. I think that deserves a toast, don’t you? To Bridget, who cannot cook, but who we love
Notice that Tom is still telling Bridget she’s a bit rubbish. But maybe that’s OK. Sometimes. In the right context. It’s OK to tell your friend that they’re no good at remembering the titles of songs, or that they should really wear socks that match. It’s probably not the best idea to tell her she’s crap at running if she’s trying to lose weight, or to insult her grammar when she’s qualified to teach English (fortunately this hasn’t happened to me, but that wouldn’t go down well).
Bridget is always moaning about married people. Is this a real social phenomena? Not in my experience. I’m at the age where lots of my friends are getting hitched, and I sense no bitterness from ones who are not. Maybe I’m too smug in my own married status to notice this. Still, even when I was 16 and reading Helen Fielding’s books for the first time, I sensed there isn’t really anything wrong with married people. They are happy, not smug – and a good friend should see this as a very good thing.
Perhaps I’m being harsh on Bridget and her friends. Maybe the sarcasm, bitchiness and brutal honesty is healthy. The sunshine optimism of friendship in American TV can be a little too saccharine at times, but not always.
At the moment, my new favourite show is Girls.It’s a bit different this time, because I’m the same age as Lena Denham – so I’m not growing up and being influenced by her version of the young friendship narrative. I wouldn’t necessarily call it a realistic portrayal, but there’s a grittiness and emotional honesty there. Oh, and Instagram.
I have been suffering with anxiety and work-related stress for several months – perhaps longer – and it has come to a head in the last week or so. In the very first week of term, I was physically ill with a nasty virus – nothing too serious, but enough to make me feel terrible for a week, and then feel sick at the thought of returning to the work piled up at school. I worried about the department jobs not done, I panicked about the impending school trip, I felt wrought with anxiety at facing the (not so kind) students and their comments about my absence.
Since I’ve faced up to my anxiety, and the fact that it’s more serious and more debilitating than any virus could be, I have felt pretty awful. I feel guilty for abandoning students with exams, for making extra work for colleagues, and for causing stress and worry for my husband (although he’s so supportive, it’s amazing). It’s a physical feeling in my stomach. Sometimes it rising up to my chest. Last night, it was one of the worst headaches I’ve ever had.
The worst thing is trying to explain it to someone else… especially my parents. I’ve spent thirty years trying to impress them and make them proud. I hate disappointing them. They mean to be supportive, but they don’t always say the right things. Sometimes it makes me feel worse. It’s in my nature to want to be honest and explain my situation to them, but it feels like they think I’m exaggerating, or that I’m not trying hard enough. That really hurts.
Sometimes I feel weak and useless, and that I really should be working harder (even though I’ve now ended up at the doctors twice over this). Teaching is known to be stressful, and perhaps I should just roll with it: as my headteacher oh so kindly reminded her staff on the first day of term, lots of careers are – answering 999 calls, fighting fires. (This, by the way, is not the most sympathetic thing to say to your staff when you’ve just been through two very serious inspections, and your school’s in so much debt, you have no books, a crippling photocopying allowance and you have to buy pens for the kids with your own money).
My job, in theory, sounds lovely: I teach children about great literature, and inspire the next generation! On the (now very rare) good days, my job feels like just that. So why am I complaining? Teachers are always complaining, right? We feel like our job is so much more difficult than yours, and we just don’t stop going on about it. Well, sorry for being so annoying. I know there isn’t a lot of sympathy in the wider world for the profession. After all, we have long holidays, and we can go home at 4pm – it’s easy, right? Politicians think we’re lazy and stuck in our ways. Parents and students, often influenced by the right-wing press, seem to have the general impression that we’re never doing enough, and we’re simply not up to the job.
Well, you know what? I don’t think I’m up to the job, either. There’s only so many times I’m prepared to be in tears before work before I can’t go any more. In the last few months, I’ve had to become familiar with several new exam specifications, I’ve planned lessons more rigorously than ever before, I’ve marked books and exam papers more frequently, I’ve given up more weekends and evenings (and early mornings) than I’ve ever needed to. Yet I feel I’m working harder to achieve less, with classes that are difficult contain, never mind teach. I’ve been insulted and threatened by young people, I’ve felt under pressure from pushy sixth formers and their parents. I’ve been observed by Ofsted (and spent an entire weekend marking every single book and checking every single spreadsheet, just in case). I’ve got up at 4.30am to mark coursework, on more than one occasion, because there was literally no other time I could have done it. I’ve been working with a department of great, conscientious teachers – but with no head of department to replace to one who walked out last year, and with extra responsibilities with no extra pay. They are all stressed and miserable, and as much as I admire and respect them as colleagues, I feel too fragile at the moment to be surrounded by their misery.
In May, I moved from one school with low morale to another, not knowing I was entering a department with no leader and no plans for the new exam specs. I’ve tried to stay positive, but the challenging students at my new school have made it so hard. I know these are the children who need good teachers most… but for the most difficult of them, I feel I can only ever make a minuscule impact in their chaotic lives. I’ve had more behaviour incidents in the last few months than in the entire seven years I worked at my last school. Refusal to work, leaving the classroom, swearing, shouting, a chair thrown, insults to my face, serious fights in the corridor. I know lots of teachers accept this as part of the job if you choose to work in a city school. If I hadn’t felt broken down by other aspects of the job, if I’d had more support, perhaps I could deal with it. Instead, I feel broken by it.
2016 is proving to be a very difficult year for me – but it needed to come to this, for me to make a positive change and lead a more fulfilling life. I need to take a break from teaching for a while. It’s the only career I’ve known, but I know it’s not the only thing I can do. I feel sure that this anxiety is limited to my work, and if I can find a happier balance in career path, I know I’ll feel better. I’m prepared to earn less. I’m prepared to give up my teacher holidays (for what good is a holiday, if all you can do is sleep and catch up on work?). I’ll do something else – anything else – for a break and space to breathe.
On Fridays I teach Y13 English Language for four hours straight – two hours with one class, two hours with the other. It can be a gruelling feat of faux enthusiasm (especially when I’ve had a crap week and I’m planning to run home at eleven minutes past three). Equally, it can be my favourite part of the week, if I’m on top of my marking, and my lovely sixth formers are on their ‘A’ game. They’re all very sweet, all girls, and generally good company… unless I’m the only one who’s acting awake and interested.
Last week, both classes did exams for me, and I had a spare couple of hours to work while they wrote. I didn’t have access to a compute
r and I couldn’t concentrate on marking, so I ended up doing a spot of writing on the sly. I had my favourite LAMY pen, a fresh pad of WH Smith narrow-ruled, and peace and quiet. I ended up planning seventeen chapters of my novel. Considering I’ve been working on this thing for years, this was quite an achievement for a snatched hour or so on a Friday.
I don’t tend to plan my writing in this way normally, but lately I’ve hit a bit of a brick wall, so I thought it necessary to change my habits. Basically, I’m brilliant at writing first chapters, and this is all that I’ve achieved in the last few months. I draft first chapters over and over, trying out different voices, styles and perspectives, driving myself mad and never driving the narrative forward. It’s not productive. So I decided I needed to figure out what was going on in my story, and whether I even have one.
It turns out I do have a story. What worries me is at the moment it reads more like a series of episode synopses for Dawson’s Creek. Too angsty, too melodramatic. I remember one of my university teachers telling me that the best stories learn to dwell on the ‘smaller moments’ – it doesn’t all have to be funerals and fights. I don’t know if it’s possible to plan your character’s breakfasts and their choice of footwear – those little details that make stories real. I’ll have to figure out those bits along the way. Perhaps I need more character notes to work out the quirky little details.
I don’t think I’m the sort of writer who will have a little digital sticky note for each chapter on Scrivener, or any other sort of novel-writing software. I might scribble bits into notebooks, or collate scraps of paper in folders, but it’s never going to be a very linear exercise for me. I don’t write plot-driven pot-boilers. I write character-driven quirky sagas. Perhaps, as so many writers claim, the characters will decide it all for me.
On my MA, I was lucky enough to hear from lots of successful writers about their habits and methods, and planning and plotting was a constant theme of discussion. It’s the sort of writing skill that can’t be taught in a two-hour seminar, because it can take a decade to do it. I remember Sarah Dunant telling us that she never planned rigorously – she described writing as like night driving – you can see a little way ahead, but not that far. Philip Pullman, on the other hand, talks of knowing the basic architecture of a novel, though not necessarily the blow-by-blow details of what will happen in each chapter. Nick Cohen, a journalist, said to have a flexible attitude to the structure of a text – the beginning will not always stay at the beginning.
With this in mind, I’m going to stop writing first chapters and get on with it, knowing I don’t have to stick to the plan… but I do need to stick to moving forward.
If it’s 8pm on a week night, you’ll probably find me in the bath, reading. If we’ve got a supplement from a weekend newspaper knocking about the house, or a copy of The Week, I’ll be reading that, though perhaps a more accurate verb would be consuming, practically eating it. I read every word. Even the bits that annoy me. Even the outlandish recipes that I know I’ll never cook.
Yet I find it so much harder to read fiction with such voracity. This bothers me. I’m an aspiring fiction writer, and I know I need to read as much as possible to continue to develop my craft. I’m a teacher, and I’m always telling my students to read, read, read. I started this blog in an effort to kick-start my own fiction reading… sadly, months on, I’ve really not read very much.
I suppose I am a bit ashamed of this. I have a house full of books, and I’m just not reading them.
And I love reading. I HAD A BOOK THEMED WEDDING, FOR GOODNESS’ SAKE.
It requires a big commitment, though, doesn’t it? Not all good books are easy books to read, and I want to read the difficult ones. It requires energy. Space in your own head to live with the characters. I lack head space… mine is filled with predicted grades, spreadsheets, exam mark schemes. Oh, and Candy Crush Saga (even my hero JK Rowling admitted to playing minesweeper when she was writing Harry Potter in the 90s – and I bet she plays Candy Crush now… I bet she does).
At the moment, I’m reading Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell (what a fabulous name indeed). I’m obviously not trying very hard to get over my John Green phase, as this book is very much of that ilk. It’s a very pleasant, easy read, hence why I’m moving through it pretty fast, and leaving my magazines with their silly recipes alone. It’s set in 1986, which is a cute twist on the emerging YA American high school genre. It’s all about the mix tapes (I was a teenager in the late 90s, and it was still all about the mix tapes). The politics of the school bus, and where you can and can’t sit, certainly rings true to my own secondary school experience. (I waited for years to get into the sixth form, just so I could sit on the back seat, and even then, I still wasn’t quite cool enough. Such is life.)
Am I copping out by reading another easy read? I want to write YA fiction, so it’s a legit thing – I’m not just a 28-year-old who yearns for the simplicity of teenage life before jobs, paying the rent and all that boring stuff. Ironically, I think my teenage self would be pretty disappointed. I remember thinking at school that I would, of course, read all the classics. ALL OF THEM. And the Booker Prize Long list, of course.
Am I being snobby? Probably. I’ll settle to be satisfied that I have head space for anything at all. I’m enjoying reading Eleanor and Park – and surely that’s the most important thing. Reading isn’t supposed to be all about self improvement now, is it?
I’m starting this blog at a time of year that is usually hectic for me: I’m a teacher, and we tend to get a little bit tense around September 1st. I usually console myself with the small pleasures of new stationery, and topping up my (not exactly ‘capsule’) teacher wardrobe. Still, it’s always sad when the weather grows greyer and the summer holiday ebbs away.
Determined to remain upbeat, I am distracting myself by entering the world of book blogging. I’m seeing this as a natural progression, considering my life is already crammed with all things literary. I teach English. I read. I’m writing my first novel. I spend most Saturdays perusing lovely bookshops with The Rather Bookish Man (TRBM). Oh yes, and we got married two weeks ago… book-themed wedding. It’s been a very special summer.
I will write reviews of what I’m reading, blog about my thoughts on creative writing, as well as anything else book-related. I might even blog one or two of my own stories. I did an MA in Creative Writing, over a year ago now, and it confirmed for me that writing is really the thing I just love to do.
I hope that this blog keeps me reading and writing through the chaos of another school year!