It Will Never Come Again

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This week I was in the car with Molly. It’s always a good chance to spend some time with her and we started chatting about elderly friends and relatives. She was obviously wondering from the bounciness of youth what it’s like to be old and she asked me what initially seemed like a simple question. ‘Mum,’ she said curiously, ‘Do you feel like you’ve lived a long time?’

This was surprisingly hard to answer. My first reaction was to say, ‘No,’ but that seemed silly as I evidently have lived for quite a long time. Then I realised that this kneejerk feeling comes from the fact that for much of the time, I don’t feel properly grown-up. In my head I’m still waiting to get to that elusive state.

wedding-rings

I clearly have a problem as I read recently that a life insurance provider asked 2,000 people to say what they thought marked the transition into adulthood. The most common answers were buying a first home, becoming a parent and getting married. Other signs of being grown up were paying into a pension, becoming house proud, taking out life insurance, looking forward to a night in, doing DIY, hosting dinner parties, and having a joint bank account. I’m 56 and I’ve done all of these things (with varying degrees of enthusiasm)—but I still keep expecting to be outed as a pretend grown up.

I think that much of my grownupness deficit comes from being a younger sibling. My beloved sister is twelve and a half years older than me, and when, aged twenty-eight and four years married, I told her that I was pregnant, she was noticeably shocked. ‘Do you feel grown up?’ I asked her once. ‘Of course I do,’ she said, briskly.

pramAs time passes, I suppose the reality is that I do get more practice at being grown up, like when Molly was seriously ill, earlier this year. I felt pretty adult then. This, and other snapshot moments force me to adjust my internal age-barometer. But it’s a jolty kind of process rather than a continuous smooth one. A recent blow was discovering that the actor George Cole was 90, when he died, this year. ‘He can’t have been,’ I thought. However, if he was a great deal older than when he played Arthur Daley in ‘Minder’, then the inescapable truth is that I’ve got a great deal older, too.

pink gingham

Some of the most poignant age-related jolts come from reflecting on missed opportunities. I feel sad when I recall things I planned to do with the children but didn’t get around to: I never took them to see a ballet; I got stressed if they made a mess cooking so this didn’t happen as much as it could have done, and the two metres of pink gingham I bought twenty years ago will never be transformed into a cute pinafore dress for my elder daughter, Emma. The poet, Emily Dickinson observed, ‘That it will never come again is what makes life sweet.’

Another jolt is the realisation that there are definitely places that I will never visit again—people I won’t see again—books I’ll never read again, and films that I’ve seen for the last time. Even much-loved ones. When I was young I felt that life would go on forever. But having a husband with a life-threatening illness forced me to accept that life runs out. This is one of the many reasons that my treats list has been so important to me in recent years. If there are things I long to do then I want to get on with them. Now. Somebody once told me that being grown up is when you stop taking things for granted. Maybe I’m more grown up than I thought I was.

I took all these things into account when I finally replied to Molly’s question: do I feel like I’ve lived a long time. I said that I think I’m getting close to feeling that. And I was able to give her a practical demonstration of my grownupness recently after she was given a very smart record player. She, like so many young people, appreciates the charm of vinyl and is building up a record collection, not dissimilar to the one I had at her age. For a while she appeared to enjoy using her new turntable. All seemed to be going well but eventually she emerged from her room, looking very downcast. ‘Everything sounds so fast,’ she said, unhappily. From the benefit of my relatively long life I enlightened her about the all-important difference between 45rpm and 33rpm.

record player

My final word is on someone who is only in her mid-twenties but has already packed a huge amount into her life. Recently I did the second in my chain interview series.  You can read more here.

A Difference of Opinion

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Last week I went to see the film, Suffragette. I thought it was understated and moving, and it reminded me of the debt that we all owe to the brave women who fought for a fairer society. The film ends with the death of Emily Wilding Davison who threw herself in front of the King’s horse at the Epsom Derby in 1913. But that was not the end of the fight; this particular battle for equality was protracted and fierce—it took until 1928 for women in Great Britain and Northern Ireland to be granted equal voting rights with men.

At the end of the film, the audience is reminded that this was an international struggle, and many countries were slower than the United Kingdom in giving women the vote. The International Woman Suffrage Alliance was formed in 1904 but it took until 1971 for Swiss women to be granted suffrage, and Saudi women have only, this year, been promised the vote.

statue of liberty

The film also reminded me of something I learned when I visited the Statue of Liberty a few years ago. Her official name is ‘Liberty Enlightening the World’, and she was donated to New York by the French in recognition of the friendship that was established between France and America during the American Revolution. The dedication ceremony for the statue took place in 1886, but despite the overt femininity of this symbol of liberty, women were banned from attending. Outraged suffragettes responded by hiring boats and bellowing through megaphones that even if Liberty were able to get off her pedestal, she would not be allowed to vote in either France or America. American women got the vote on equal terms with men in 1920, but their French sisters had to wait until 1944.

pork pie hatAnother story that is not referred to in the film is that of The Women’s National Anti-Suffrage League. This was formed in 1908 by women who opposed women getting voting rights. Over the next ten years more than a hundred branches were established throughout the UK and there were large demonstrations where women protested that they did not want the vote. The League depicted suffragettes as ugly and masculine, and with a tendency to wear unflattering pork-pie hats. Surprisingly the League garnered support from some women who were active in extending other kinds of female rights. These included Elizabeth Wordsworth, the founding Principal of the Oxford women’s college, Lady Margaret Hall. Anti-suffrage campaigners were content for women to get the vote in local elections as these were concerned with feminine-friendly issues such as education. But matters that were debated on a national platform, such as international relations and war, were considered outside the acceptable scope of feminine influence. The fear was that women would become masculinised if they were to become involved, and then men would be unwilling to marry them.

It seems to me that whatever you think, there will be someone who disagrees with you; politics, religion, philosophy, history, human rights, you name it—there are many potential angles. And the life blood of culture is that its interpretation is subject to opinion. Fashion, for example, thrives on pushing boundaries and provoking debate. Molly adores clothes and used to love reading what we called the ‘Poor Thing’ column; a regular fashion article in a national newspaper which took six women and put them in various ‘stylish’ outfits. Almost always, we would look at these women and say that if we saw them in the street dressed like that we would feel very sorry for them. This is how it came to be called the ‘Poor Thing’ column.

fashion

Book groups, too, thrive on disagreement. I’ve belonged to several groups in the past and on occasion I’ve admired and loved a book so much that I couldn’t imagine that anyone would dislike it. Rohinton Mistry’s, ‘A Fine Balance’ was a case in question. A rich tapestry of Indian society, it captivated me, but sure enough whilst some in the group shared my view, there were others who thoroughly disliked it. And then there was Iris Murdoch’s, ‘The Sea The Sea’ which I found intolerably tedious. That got high ratings in the group.

I am soon going to be at the critical coalface myself, as my book ’31 Treats And A Marriage’ is in the final stages of preparation and will be published at the end of the Spring. I shall have to harden myself to criticism. I hope that many people will like it but there is no getting away from the fact that some people will not. It’s just the way things are.

Dorothy Parker

But at least I won’t have to face the humiliation of being reviewed by the acerbic Dorothy Parker, pictured above. In 1925 she started writing book reviews in the New Yorker under the name ‘Constant Reader’ and they were said to delight everyone except the unfortunate authors. She found A.A. Milne’s,,’The House at Pooh Corner’ sugary, and wrote that ‘Tonstant Weader Fwowed up’ after reading it.

Undeterred by these concerns, I’ve enjoyed the process of writing my first book so much that I’ve recently started on my second one. This combines visits to English cities with the stories of women who for a range of reasons have had to push against the constraints of society. It’s still open to debate but I think there will be a suffragette somewhere in there.

suffragette sophia singh

‘What’s your blog about this time?’ asked Molly’s boyfriend.                                                ‘Disagreement’, I replied. ‘Whatever you say there will always be someone who disagrees.’               ‘No there won’t,’ he said with a naughty grin.