Saturday, May 29, 2010

Helen Simpson - UK writer

A story form the Guardian. Helen Simpson is a writer from the UK. Her collection of short stories, Hey Yeah Right, was about the early years of mothering. Her latest book, In Flight Entertainment, deals with climate change. Here she talks about how there is now more being published about the mothering experience, but the experience hasn't changed. This is writer I want to read.

Helen Simpson: 'I stuffed it with sex and violence'

Beneath their tame domestic settings, Helen Simpson's stories teem with brutal truths. She talks about her new collection

o Sarah Crown
o The Guardian, Friday 28 May 2010
o Article history

Helen Simpson . . . 'It seems ridiculous that describing domestic work and life is seen as letting the side down.' Photograph: Linda Nylind for the Guardian

Invention comes easily to Helen Simpson – in fact, it landed her her first job. In her mid-20s, halfheartedly engaged in a PhD in Restoration comedy, she entered a competition for a work experience placement at Vogue. She'd always liked clothes. "You had to write the story of your life in 700 words," she explains over coffee, sitting opposite me, neat and handsome in a cool green dress. "My first try was straight – lots of homework, lots of helping my mother – and boring as hell. So I made the whole thing up. I had us living in Yorkshire" (Simpson grew up in Willesden, north London) "and my father was a market gardener who used to leave every day at 2am to take narcissi down to Covent Garden. I had four brothers who were paratroopers. It owed a bit to Wuthering Heights. Lots of savagery and drama." When Vogue kept her on, she spent a year or so blushing through awkward encounters with people who stopped to ask how everything was at home.

Simpson spent five years at the magazine, long enough to see them run her first published short story, about a woman besotted with her new bed. A debut collection, Four Bare Legs in a Bed, followed in 1990 and snagged her both the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award and a place on Granta's Best of Young British Novelists list. Since then, she has published like clockwork – a new collection every five years. Her fifth, In-Flight Entertainment, is just out.

Over the last two decades, Simpson's reputation has flourished; her spare, up-close scenarios and glassy prose have seen her compared to, among others, Flannery O'Connor and Alice Munro. But the question of veracity, of where the boundary between autobiography and fiction lies, continues to dog her. Such is the frankness and force with which Simpson writes about her chosen subjects of motherhood and the family that people find it harder than normal to accept she's not transcribing from life.

"People always ask if my stories are autobiographical," she nods. "I think it's down to a confusion between fiction and journalism. Because journalism has taken the confessional route, there's an assumption that fiction is just being lazy – doing the same, but with the gloves on." In one story in her new collection, Squirrel, the central character, a mother, contemplates her office affair while sitting at the kitchen table with her husband and daughter. "It ran in the New Yorker," Simpson says. "I went to a party afterwards and a man who knew me slightly came up and leered, 'I see you're writing about adultery now . . .'. I thought, yes, but it's not a lonely hearts ad, for God's sake. I'm not interested in writing a confession. That's what teenagers do in their diaries."

Still, Simpson freely acknowledges that her own preoccupations have inspired, if not the specifics of her stories, then their emotional weather. Her ability to pinpoint and draw out the common experience is nowhere more evident than in her barnstorming third 2000 collection, Hey Yeah Right Get a Life, in which she describes the state of early motherhood at the turn of the 21st century. Ten years on, when it can seem as if everyone who's ever reproduced is busy writing a column, novel, memoir or blog about the experience, it's difficult to convey the impact this had, the sense that Simpson was singlehandedly uncovering a seething pot of exhaustion, resentment and deep, sticky love, "domestic rubble", both physical and emotional. In stories that manage to be both blackly witty and shockingly caustic, she paints a bleak picture of life after birth. "You get to 37, married, three kids," says Dorrie, the central character in the title story, "and you look in the mirror . . . and you realise – it's a shock – you realise nothing else is supposed to happen until you die. Or you spoil the pattern."

The praise poured in – "brilliant, painful, funny and courageous", said Esther Freud in the Guardian – but reactions weren't uniformly positive. In an otherwise respectful New York Times review, Jay McInerney mentioned "a militantly childless English friend who calls this book the ultimate contraceptive, and sends it to any of her girlfriends who are considering the mommy track." Simpson is unapologetic. "Until very recently, literature drew women's experiences through childhood, teenagehood, courtship, up to the point of marriage – and after that, they disappeared," she points out. Partly, she believes, this is because motherhood is "so hard to write about. It was the first time I'd found you could be very happy and very miserable at the same time, and it's hard to describe that state." But she yearned for something that expressed her new reality. "When I had a child myself, I found everything was mirrored up to that point and then, whoosh! Nothing. There's much more writing on the subject now, thank goodness."

But if we've become better at talking about what happens after the white dress is folded away, in the decade since she published Hey Yeah Right, Simpson sees precious little else as having changed. "This business of bringing up children is still in its infancy," she says. "I'd have thought things would have improved by now, but I wonder what to say to my daughter, because they don't seem to have got much easier. We're at the point now, it seems, where as a mother you have your child and your work, and that's fine: you're allowed to juggle those two things. But say you want to waste a bit of time, or sit in the sun, or get drunk, all the things you used to do – any pure pleasure that isn't directed either at work or family – you're seen as a selfish so-and-so. And we're forced, like the sisters in King Lear, to protest our love. Every time you say you're exhausted, you have to follow up with 'But of course it's all wonderful . . .' Why?"

What's more, the sudden flush of housebound novels has been accompanied by an inevitable backlash. In 2005, in their introduction to New Writing 13, co-editors Toby Litt and Ali Smith complained that "on the whole the submissions from women were disappointingly domestic". In 2007, Orange prize judge Muriel Gray groaned over the "sheer volume of thinly disguised autobiographical writing from women on small-scale domestic themes, such as motherhood, boyfriend troubles and tiny family dramas". Earlier this year, Daisy Goodwin – also in her role as Orange judge – bemoaned the fact that, in her view, "there are an awful lot of books [by women writers] which had not a shred of redemption in them."

Simpson's own work appears at once to lend weight to, and refute, the criticisms. On the one-hand, Gray's lament perfectly describes the nuts and bolts of her territory; on the other, she takes these "small-scale themes" and jacks them up into operas. But she rejects the premise. "I did a book tour in America and there didn't seem to be the same issue," she says. "Think of Anne Tyler or Lorrie Moore; it's not held against them. To me, it's often a political rather than a literary judgment. If someone happens to set a story in a kitchen but writes well about it, you're objecting to the lives described, not the writing. And it does seem ridiculous that describing domestic work and life - the daily reality of most women in the world – is seen as letting the side down." Again she mentions Squirrel, a burnished gem of a story in which husband, wife and daughter discuss the Tudors, and all that turbulence and adultery is subtly refracted through their own lives. She wrote it "partly in response to the suggestion that women write only on tame, indoor subjects. I thought, OK, I'll show you. I'll put everyone around a kitchen table, and I'll absolutely stuff it with sex and violence. That was my brief to myself."

In In-Flight Entertainment, the settings are once again domestic, but Simpson's gaze has lifted to the skies. The theme of the collection is climate change, and our refusal, as a species, to confront it. A woman ends a long- distance relationship because she can't bear the environmental cost; an ageing climatologist and an aggressively unconcerned businessman debate the issue at 30,000 feet. "I can feel when a subject's going to be good," Simpson says. "It tends to be when it's touchy. You notice it in conversations: whether you're suggesting that motherhood isn't all bliss, or it's a good idea to cut back on air travel for the sake of the future. The room bristles. I'm interested in exploring the discomfort in the area, the touchiness. That's when the fun starts."

Thursday, May 27, 2010

History of feminists trying to change the world

I found this article in The Guardian. It is by Sheila Rowbotham, a British socialist feminist writer and teacher. In her opinion, women and men should stand equally against both capitalism and sexism to achieve radical social reorganisation. I think it is all important so I'll just copy the whole thing. I find it helpful, and frustrating, that these ideas have been around so long. And it is a good reminder to revisit the works of early feminists.

Feminists fighting to change the world

Early feminists weren't just fighting for the vote – they wanted to change the world. What can we learn from these audacious utopians?

* Sheila Rowbotham
* The Guardian, Friday 21 May 2010
* Article history

In 1902, Winifred Harper Cooley imagined a 21st century without sweatshops or slums. Cooley was a US feminist, once described as a radiant woman "in flowing, graceful robes", and in this new world, she explained, no one would be tramping the streets without a home, or be unemployed. The world's labour would be shared so that each person only worked five hours a day. Society would be fair, just and equal.

Cooley wasn't alone in her utopian visions. Radicalised by the movement for the vote, as well as by dramatic economic changes, many progressive women of her era – the late 19th century to the early 1930s – were asking serious, far-reaching questions about how their sex should behave and live. They began with women's experiences of sexual relations, mothering, domestic labour and paid work, and went on to demand social as well as political rights. It is thanks to their efforts that we have birth control, abortion, centres for mothers and babies, health visitors, child benefit and the minimum wage. No small achievement.

But they wanted so much more. A novel by US writer Kate Chopin, The Awakening (1899), expressed their diffuse desire for personal and social change – when the novel's heroine sets about casting off her socially imposed role as a woman, her adultery scandalises St Louis society. The book's title was echoed in 1913 in "The Awakening of Women", a supplement produced by the New Statesman, in which Beatrice Webb argued that any awakening had to be seen in broader terms than simply the struggle for the vote. Webb observed that a wider women's movement existed that was related to the international movement of labour and "unrest among subject peoples". Women in this wider movement were challenging not just gender relations, but other forms of subordination too.

Among the contributors to the New Statesman supplement was Charlotte Perkins Gilman, a remarkable woman from the US whose influence was international. She called for a "larger feminism" that would involve altering sexual relationships, home life, motherhood and the economy. Gilman managed to earn her living by writing books and articles, and in her famous story The Yellow Wallpaper (1890), she described a woman whose sense of self started disappearing into the patterns on her bedroom wall. The story was published after Gilman broke from the claustrophobia of her own first marriage, a separation that brought her agony (her daughter remained with her ex-husband) and freedom.

In the mid-1890s Gilman worked with her close friend, social reformer Helen Campbell, on a journal called Impress. Calling for a new "Art of Living", Gilman advocated kindergartens, kitchenless homes, dance halls and tennis courts. In her story What Diantha Did (1910), the heroine runs a restaurant and food-delivery service that takes meals in insulated containers to emancipated clients. In her ironic utopian novel Herland (1915) the three male visitors are bemused to arrive in an all-female society in which caring, rather than profit, defines the economy.

Strong links existed between feminists and radicals in Britain and the US and Gilman's ideas were discussed in socialist publications. What Diantha Did originally appeared in Gilman's feminist magazine The Forerunner, before being serialised in the leftwing British newspaper the Daily Herald. In Britain, women on the left were beginning to argue that the responsibility for childcare was not simply an individual matter; mothers required resources from society. Free healthcare, maternity allowances, nurseries – even a pension for mothers to enable them to be independent of men – were being mooted.

Among the women influenced by Gilman was Ada Nield Chew, a working-class mother and activist. In 1894, when workers were demanding the eight-hour day, Chew sent a letter to the local paper in Crewe arguing that underpaid, overworked factory women like her were being ignored. They had no time to read, to enjoy nature, she wrote, "We cannot be said to 'live' – we merely exist . . . A living wage! Ours is a lingering dying wage . . . I sometimes wax very warm as I sit stitching and thinking over our wrongs." Chew became involved in the socialist and suffrage movements. She was enthusiastic about Gilman's ideas for "baby- gardens" – where children would learn through play – arguing that they benefited mothers and toddlers alike. "Most difficulties are caused by our age-long habit of looking upon what is, and what has been, as utterly desirable," Chew declared.

Women such as Gilman and Chew were grappling with how to improve women's lives, but who was to define what women wanted? Perspectives on their needs were affected by race as well as class. In A View From the South (1892), African-American writer Anna Julia Cooper asserted the claims of "pinched and downtrodden coloured women bending over washtubs and ironing boards – with children to feed and house rent to pay, wood to buy, soap and starch to furnish – lugging home weekly great baskets of clothes for families who pay them for a month's laundering barely enough to purchase a substantial pair of shoes!"

In the late 1960s, when the early Women's Liberation groups began to emerge, we were ignorant about this earlier "awakening" of women. We thought many of our utopian ideas were new. Then we began to discover the part women had played in radical movements and the struggle for suffrage. And gradually the extraordinary scope of their visions became clear.

Many of the dilemmas of the past were to be revisited. How to balance paid work and mothering? How to ensure that caring for children is not simply the responsibility of mothers, but includes fathers, other adults and wider society? How to ensure reproductive rights? How to share domestic labour equitably? How to end the low pay of women workers? How to prevent male violence? How to enlarge the scope for democratic participation in politics, economic and social life, so that all women's needs are acted on?

Like the women of the earlier awakening, we were fired by a conviction that it was possible to change just about everything. We wanted equal pay and the moon in the 70s. What actually happened, of course, was rather different. Many of those questions are still alive.

On the whole, the gains women have made have been affected by the wider social and economic context. So, for instance, European feminists were able to secure reforms such as better maternity leave from social democratic regimes, while in America, where social provision remains minimal, some women have achieved a higher profile in business and finance. In Britain, practical needs such as child- care entered the Labour agenda, while the push for equal opportunities enabled some women to enter better paid jobs. However, gender equality has proved elusive. Overall, women still earn less than men, and because social inequality in Britain has intensified since the late 70s, women in low-paid jobs – especially those who are the sole supporters of children – have been pushed further down the pile.

Economic slumps are bad news for women. Many of the gains made by feminists are likely to be under threat. Thankfully, new groups of feminists are now exposing the equality con. But the challenge for young and old is this: how do we create an alternative? And the question is not confined to Britain.

When we look at the global situation, the inequalities are even more stark. Pushka, an Indian woman featured in this January's edition of the magazine Homeworkers Worldwide, sews shoes for a well-known brand which sells them in the UK for between £50 and £100 a pair. She is paid 6 rupees (about 7p) a pair and lives in a one-room house with her husband and three children. She has worked for 20 years, forcing herself to grip hard and pull the twine until her fingers are numb and her body aches.

A report for the UN Development Programme, Vision for a Better World: From Economic Crisis to Equality (2010), points out that while more women are now in paid work, much of this is in the low-paid, informal sector. Moreover, women continue to be responsible for unpaid domestic work, such as childcare.

But poor women are resisting. In India, the Self-Employed Women's Organisation has shown it is possible to mobilise women workers, and similar groups have followed their model in other countries. A wider vision of economic democracy has begun through participatory budgeting, an approach to resources that enables low–income women to have a say in how water, sanitation, schools and clinics are allocated. This approach was pioneered in Brazil and has been tried at local or regional levels in Indonesia, Ecuador, Tanzania, South Africa and Australia. Some feminist economists are now arguing that gender equality requires women's engagement with national taxation policies and international trade agreements.

Research networks such as WIEGO (Women in Informal Employment Globalizing and Organizing) and Dawn (Development Alternatives with Women for a New Era) are analysing the implications for women of global economic and social policies. In 2007, a new step was taken when an international meeting of women in Casablanca, Morocco, decided they would not only agitate and analyse but dare to dream of new paths out of women's inequality and poverty. Like the dreamers of the late 19th and early 20th century the Casablanca Dreamers are prepared to imagine what might be. Such a combination of agitation, analysis and imagination is exactly what we need in Britain today.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Is breaking the law a deal breaker?

Every morning and every afternoon I see parents at my kids' school break the road rules. At the P&C we said we'd write down their number plates and report the offenders to the office, but if I was doing this I wouldn't be holding my own kids' hands as we walk in to school. I wouldn't talking to my kids and other families because I'd be too busy policing. Often I'll speak to someone as they pull over on the school crossing, or double park at the back of the school or do a u turn over the double yellow lines. I'm not sure it does any good. It just makes tempers rise - mine included. The people who break the rules tend to do it repeatedly so I conclude that they either don't care, or just don't believe the rules apply to them. And on rainy days, like we've just had, they seem to think there are no rules at all.

This morning I saw the mother of a child we know pull over on the crossing to drop her child off. We have accepted an invitation to their child's birthday party on the weekend. The thing is, now I'm not feeling goodwill and that I'd be contributing to the social success of the party, because I don't want to be friends with someone who thinks it is ok to break the road rules. I don't want my kids to think it is ok to ignore it when their friends break the rules. I wouldn't want to hang out with parents who drink too much, or drink drive, or are texting while driving, or who steal or who cheat on their taxes or cheat on their spouses.

Now, as a school we have notices in every newsletter about the road rules. We ask parents to drive safely. We ask that they set a good example for their children. We work with RTA and the police to make the signs clear and install road calming devises, and I've written to local council to ask for a kiss-and ride section at the back of the school as well as the front. We have exhausted every option to enforce the rules, without publicly naming and shaming, and still the parents break the road rules.

So, is breaking the road rules a friend deal breaker? Should I let people know that if I see them breaking the law, I don't want to be friends?

Lionel Shriver doing what mothers can't do

I saw Lionel Shriver on Q&A the other night, and was curious about her wearing black gloves, so I googled it, as you do, and found this interview in the Guardian.

The article starts with corrections (which really makes you wonder about the accuracy of these things - ah, no, I should know by now, having read so many inaccuracies, to take these interviews with a bucket of salt).

The following apology was printed in the Observer's For the record column, Sunday April 29 2007

We apologise for some inaccuracies in the interview below. Shriver has lived in the UK for 20 years, but 12 of them were in Belfast, only eight in London, with interludes in Israel, Nairobi and Bangkok. Russian was only one course in her degree. And she did not change her name to Lionel to get 'more respect', but because: 'I was a tomboy. I grew up with brothers. So I chose a boy's name.'

In the interview she talks about not having children, and that she thinks people ought to have children. She was busy writing instead.

In her mid-thirties she fell in love with the non-fiction writer with whom she lived for 10 years. But her mother warned her not to have children: 'She said it would transform our relationship and the implication was - not for the better.'

Anyway, she didn't want children, but in her early forties, with time running out, she started thinking again about motherhood - and the result was Kevin, possibly the scariest take on motherhood ever devised. (What if your child becomes a campus killer?) If she had had success earlier, would she have been more willing to have children? 'That's astute,' she concedes. 'I think one of the reasons why I never got round to seriously entertaining the idea of having kids is that I was still working on the project I started out on - establishing myself as a novelist - and that produced an extended adolescence.'

In 2005 she wrote a very odd article in the Guardian saying that she was fed up with being seen as 'the Anti-Mom'; she thought women should have children; she was alarmed by how fast fertility rates are declining in Europe. I told her - flippantly - that her argument seemed to be that other women should have children in order to pay her pension and to stop Europeans being outnumbered by immigrants. I meant it as a joke but she took it very badly indeed: 'My message was positive - to pervert it is wicked. I was trying to say something that most people just wouldn't try to say because of the risk of being misinterpreted that way. That's the kind of self-censorship that we do all the time. But I'm interested in issues that are difficult. I'm very interested in the issue of immigration - expect more from me on this. Because there comes a point where it isn't the more the merrier, there's a tipping point where a population that is being inundated begins to get resentful.' In fact, she partly tackled the subject in her (very weird) fourth novel, Game Control, and tells me she has been 'obsessed' with demography since she was 15.

'When I was growing up and saying I don't want to have kids,' she goes on, 'I felt like a maverick, but when I reached my late thirties, early forties I realised I wasn't and that if you looked at the statistics - I've been keeping track of fertility rates all over the world - I was alarmed. And I'm still alarmed. That's what that article was trying to say: do as I say not as I did. It's not good, it's not healthy for the society and for us as individuals, to just be thinking, "Let's go on lots of holidays and not bother with kids." But for me it's too late - I turn 50 next month.'

Her life has changed surprisingly little since she won the Orange Prize. The prize itself was £30,000 but the real value was in hugely enhanced book sales - 600,000 in the UK alone. Yet she still lives in the same rented flat in Southwark - shouldn't she be buying somewhere? 'No, I'm too much of a coward! Large amounts of money scare the hell out of me. And the thought of going around looking at property is odious, your life passes before your eyes and you feel a bit like dying.' She still cycles everywhere, still buys her clothes in charity shops, still refuses to have a mobile phone. 'It's so bad that I have virtually no tax deductions because I don't spend any money. I don't go out to eat because I like my own cooking - nobody makes it hot enough for my taste and if I cook at home I can cram it full of chillies. I don't keep the heat on during the day, even in winter [which perhaps explains why she suffers from Reynaud's disease - poor circulation - and has to wear gloves all the time]. Other people seem to regard these little habits as peculiar. I don't regard them as peculiar. But I suppose I am bloody-minded about cycling everywhere. I bicycled to those parties last night. I wore these clothes. I'm also very frugal about laundry because I don't like to do it, so I wear the same clothes all week.'

Surely now she can afford to loosen up a bit? 'It's very ingrained, and it turns out that I don't want to buy anything. Habits I have pursued out of necessity, I now realise I like. I like going to thrift shops more than I enjoy going to, say, John Lewis. I'm not interested in their stuff. I like my old pots and pans, they have character. I like keeping my grains in old Horlicks jars. I like Horlicks jars.'

And of course she saves rubber bands, so at last I can get the answer to a question that has bothered me all my life - what are you meant to do with them? 'I use them to keep things wrapped up in the freezer. I mean I'm not surrounded by huge binliners full of rubber bands! But I'm pretty good about recycling, and for me it's not to do with saving the planet, it has to do with a natural desire to save, to use, to re-use. I am sparing about materials. And maybe I'm the same way about my life and my work - very frugal, trying to use everything. I know that I have ended up eccentric, but I like it that way.'

Personally I'm glad that not all women have children. We need women to be doing other things that women with children simply don't have the time to do. Like write novels. I find it interesting when people without children talk about the amazing benefits and joys and rewards they expect parenting would bring. The theories might sound nice, but the realities are ten times harder than they usually expect. The division between those with children and those without is huge. It is impossible to explain in the way death is impossible to describe - you can't come back and tell people in any way they can understand. You may try to imagine what it is like to live in a different colour skin, to be gay if you aren't, to be blind or deaf if you aren't, even though you may want to be empathetic, you never really know. Having children is good for you in the way that doing anything very difficult is good for you even though it isn't pleasant. It makes you have to think of others before yourself. I imagine becoming a parent is akin to winning the lottery the same day you lose a limb. In many ways, your life could change in an instant, and you'd suddenly be in another category of people with another identity. Any one of us can suddenly change categories.

I like Lionel Shriver for her cycling and recycling and second hand clothes and lack of laundering. I like her for her intellect, and I like that she has the time to explore ideas and share her work, and I like her that I can read her novels. Perhaps women who are busy mothering don't get to explore how confronting mothering can be as Lionel Shriver did in We Need to Talk About Kevin. Certainly, if a mother wrote the book she would have her mothering publicly questioned. I consider that she wrote a book about mothering with quite exceptional insights for someone who isn't a mother. I like that this is what novels do.

So, thankyou, Lionel Shriver. Thanks for being yourself.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Is this really what they think women want?

Today I was looking at women's pyjamas available in family department stores, and, not for the first time, noted how juvenile the designers must think women are. Do grown women really want sleepwear depicting cartoon cows? Or puppies? With saucy slogans? Are our options for sleepwear skimpy lingerie, cosy cartoons, or old lady nighties? Surely there must be something else, something warm, practical and with some semblance of dignity. And yes, I have looked in more up-market shops; the range is similar.

Then, and this is new, I noticed the womens' socks. They used to be pretty plain, but now they are covered in cartoons too.

Do designers of women's wear really think we want to dress like preschoolers?

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The Sydney Writers' Festival

Every year, since becoming a mum ten years ago, I've considered my two or three days at the Sydney Writers' Festival to be like an annual holiday. There are speakers I've heard that have been memorable, or inspiring, and it is comforting to be amongst people who have the same concerns or interests as me. And yes, it has been lovely to engage Linda Jarvin or Tee Tulloch in some incidental conversation. But increasingly I've grown disenchanted with the event.

Really, the event is a big marketplace, with all the writers promoting their wares.

A few years ago (and it was particularly fun when the Coalition was in government) the bigger issues of global concern, and issues of social justice were popular topics at the festival. And of course, global warming, now known as climate change or climate chaos. What I noticed was that those attending the event were pretty well off. Mostly retired folk, who own more than one property. Not many younger men are there; I suppose they're all at work, so I wouldn't advise it as a place for single women to pick up. There are some students, and some younger women. By and large, the demographic of patrons is wealthy, left-wing, with a concern for social issues, but I wonder about how much is lip-service, and whether those attending take any action themselves. Do they decide to not pay to hear a writer talk, or buy a book, but instead give that money to the cause where a difference can be made beyond consciousness raising? I wonder if the concern is for social issues, or to give the patrons something to talk about at dinner parties.

I notice a fashion trend at the festival - kind of a uniform for the women. Boots, and pashminas, either olive or burgundy. Of course, I was thinking that I dressed appropriately for the event (although I'd never wear an olive pashmina - not my colour), and was confused when I was talking with the homeless poets and a passer-by asked me if I was amongst that group. It made me think, considering I was the only person I saw sitting near them, that the patrons might like the idea of homeless poets having a forum at the festival, they don't actually want to talk to them.

This year there are more events in the program than ever. And many more that are ticketed. I decided a few years ago to no longer pay to see writers speak. I figure that the international guests will also appear on tv and in radio interviews, and that I'd rather spend my money on books than hear writers talk about their books, so that I feel I've read the book without actually reading it. I'm not interested in the navel gazing memoirs of the privileged, who can mend a broken heart by travelling the world, and writing about it. And I certainly don't need to hear about what writers do when they're not writing. I just don't care.

Increasingly, when I've heard writers talk about their process of writing I've become frustrated. I also attend author talks in my local community. The act of writing is often so privileged. Sometimes I want to shout out 'Who is looking after the children?' because there aren't many mothers who have the time to write (beyond blogging), and then promote their work. OK, I know that J K Rowling and Jodi Picolt and Stephanie Meyers are very successful, but for the next few tiers down, not many mothers are writing or getting their writing published. When you look at the make-up of the guests at the Sydney's Writers Festival year after year, (which belies the idea that it is hard to get your book published, because there are a hundred writers who are published and I've never heard of, and I'm not particularly interested in their work), most are single women, men, or women without children.

I would probably attend an event about classics or ancient classics (two events in ten years), and definitely attend an event about mothering in fiction or mothers writing (there was one event about ten years ago, and something last year at the Blue Mountains - that's all in ten years), but otherwise, no.

So, this year I'm reading at home on the weekend. If it is sunny I'll be reading in the backyard. I might do some writing. And I hope to catch up with some friends to hear their opinions on the issues that concern them.

Maybe I don't need the annual holiday anymore.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Kidman, you're kidding.

Have a look at Nicole Kidman.

She looks like she has the same plastic surgeon as Kylie and Madonna. The news is she is accepting an award.

..."I grew up in a family of women who are very strong and wonderfully opinionated," Kidman said, blowing kisses to her sister who had not been aware of her win before the event.

"My mother was such a huge influence on me, and my education.

"She encouraged me to have a voice and ultimately to give back, so to then be recognised for that makes me very, very proud. It's something I want to continue doing."

Kidman said she believed it was important that women collaborate and honour each other, working together as a collective to achieve change, as she is with her work at the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM).

And to be stylish, she said, was not to compromise.

"Style means having a voice, it means not compromising who you are because of what people say; it means standing proud, and knowing that that sometimes you are going to go in and out of fashion, but still, staying true to yourself," Kidman said, adding she was enjoying her role as a mother.

"Right now I'm very much in a place of nurturing: I love my family, I love being able to take care of my family and I've worked hard so that I can do that."...

OK. I wonder if her mother recognises her now. I wonder if she sees the irony in saying she doesn't compromise and is being true to herself. She doesn't even look like herself and we all know, because we've seen her when she was 20, and 30, and now at 42 she looks like someone else at 20.

What a shame her children, and her parents, won't see how she ages. How long can a person keep this up? Will she die at age 80 looking like a plastic doll? What kind of message is that? Is that nurturing? Is it for the collective good of women?

Who does she think she's kidding?

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Teaching ethics as an option to non-scripture

When the churches handed education to the government 130 years ago they did so with the proviso that a little time be set aside each week for religious education. In our school we offer Protestant, Catholic, Buddhist, Greek Orthodox and Jewish, all taught by volunteers. Soon we will also offer Islamic.

A few years ago the P&C had a discussion about our options in offering some sort of instruction to children in non-scripture. The policy is that no instruction can be offered. You can't offer anything which might mean the kids at scripture miss out. At the time a Greens Senator put up a private members bill, which died.

I have three kids at the local public school. Initially they went to scripture. I know that a study of literature and art presumes a familiarity with the Judeo-Christian tradition (and Greco-Roman classics). I thought it wouldn't hurt, considering the option was watching a video for entertainment. But my kids were taught to pray for the son of the volunteer who was in jail, and that their parents are going to hell, and they should talk to their little friends about Jesus. Not OK. The teaching of scripture is not objective. It is indoctrination.

I attended Catholic schools. All my family are Catholic. Their kids attend Catholic schools. My area of study is theatre, English and classical mythology. I now identify as atheist. But I'll defend your right to believe whatever you believe, whether you are Christian, pagan, or Jedi, and I expect the same respect. And I certainly understand how belonging to a church fills the need for ritual and community, and the level of support and comfort it can provide.

When I explained to my daughter that she is not allowed to learn anything during non-scripture, she cried. She said it is wrong to stop children from learning.

Last night our P&C had a hearty discussion about whether our school will support the new ethics option. It was interesting that so many parents who don't usually attend these meetings turned up, although they didn't have the right to vote, not being paid-up members. I don't know why members of the religious community care so much about a course their kids won't be taking.

If you agree with the separation of church and state, then an option is to rid public schools of religious instruction. As no-one is suggesting this, then teaching ethics in the time that religious instruction is offered is a compromise.

If the situation was reversed - if children who identified as belonging to a major religion were told that each week for 40 mins they were not to learn anything while the other children were taught something - that would be a problem. No-one would dispute it. If it were Aboriginal children, or Jewish children or Chinese children, or blue-eyed children, it would be called discrimination.

When other options in religious instruction are introduced, there is no problem, for example, when Buddhism was introduced (which could be called a philosophy rather than a religion), no-one asked to see the curriculum. It didn't have to be approved by the P&C.

There is concern about the name of the ethics course - whose ethics? I believe the course that the St James Ethics Centre has devised is based on Socratic methods of enquiry.

Personally, I don't care if the course is called ethics, or philosophy, or lollygobbleblissbombs. I care that my children are told that for 40 minutes a week they are not allowed to learn. And yes, we know that ethics is part of everything, and embedded in the school rules and the way problems are solved. And we know that ethics is not a religion. But to offer something akin to religion, without being religion, ethics is the best we can do. We certainly can't offer French or crafts or anything unrelated that might attract the students currently in scripture because they identify as religious (rather than being in scripture because they think it is better than doing nothing).

There is concern over the curriculum, which is not fully available to the public at this time, and concern about what the course will cover when it is expanded to a full year course for all primary school students. I don't mind what the curriculum covers. I don't check the curriculum for Literacy or Maths either. If I did I would just home school and be done with it. I don't mind if the children discuss white lies or murder, or social justice or sustainability or abortion, with reference to the bible or Harry Potter or Disney films. I trust in the process and the Principal that it will be appropriate. I just want them to have the opportunity to have a learning experience.

Either public education is inclusive or it isn't. By not offering something for children currently in non-scripture, it isn't.

Monday, May 10, 2010

And now the worst news..

What could be worse than anything in the Federal Budget,or the P&C? This. That we are heading towards an uninhabitable planet.

Basics of life under threat as extinctions accelerate
May 11, 2010

KEY natural processes that sustain human life, such as crop production and clean water, face a high risk of ''rapid degradation and collapse'' because of the record rate of extinction of animal and plant species.

That is the key finding of a major United Nations report, the third edition of the Global Biodiversity Outlook.

The executive-secretary of the UN's Convention on Biological Diversity, Ahmed Djoghlaf, said: ''The news is not good. We continue to lose biodiversity at a rate never before seen in history - extinction rates may be up to 1000 times higher than the historical background rate.

''Business as usual is no longer an option if we are to avoid irreversible damage to the life-support systems of our planet.''

The Secretary-General of the UN, Ban Ki-moon, said the world needed a ''new vision for biological diversity for a healthy planet and a sustainable future for humankind''.

The outlook finds extinction rates of plant and animal species will continue and potentially accelerate far above the natural rate across this century. Threatened species are on average moving closer to extinction due to the impact of humans and climate change. Coral and amphibians are under the most stress.

The report states that if the rate of species extinction hits crucial ''tipping points,'' not yet identified, there is a high risk that natural systems that help crops grow and keep water clean could be damaged irreversibly.

''This makes the impacts of global change on biodiversity hard to predict, difficult to control once they have begun, and slow, expensive or impossible to reverse once they have occurred,'' the report states.

Other findings include:

The genetic diversity of crops and livestock is continuing to decline: more than 60 breeds of livestock have been reported extinct since 2000.

A target to halt species extinction rates by 2010 was not reached by any of the 193 signatories to the UN biodiversity treaty, including Australia.

The small bits of good news include slowing deforestation of the Amazon rainforest and more areas under environmental protection across the planet.

The findings will be used this year to negotiate a global agreement to slow extinction rates.

An Australian ecologist, Hugh Possingham, said Australia's biodiversity record was no better than elsewhere.

Meanwhile, Australian scientists have warned half the Earth could become too hot for human habitation in less than 300 years.

The research by the University of NSW and Purdue University, in the US, is published today in the American Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Sunday, May 09, 2010

An alternate message

After the gluttony of consumption that is Mothers Day, and every other commercialised event, I thought I'd present some other messages to counteract the constant message we hear to buy,buy,buy.

My kids are doing speeches about mulitculturalism, a peaceful planet, kids should be seen and heard etc, so I've been showing them sites and clips about world issues, the environment, and social justice.

I recently showed this clip to my kids. It neatly sums up how the world works (the US government decision that our purpose is to spend spend spend is enlightening), or doesn't. They also have clips here about plastic water bottles (how an necessary industry was created) and about emissions cap and trade (why it won't work).

I also show my kids this. Pictures of a family's food for a week, around the world. Interesting comparing the amounts, how much plastic wrapping, how much soft drink, and how much fresh fruit and vegetables. Also, how many people constitute a family. I'm trying to stay in the habit of comparing down (comparing what I have with what poorer people have) rather than comparing up (comparing what I have with what richer people have) and being grateful, due to sheer luck of birth, to be born here.,29307,1626519_1373664,00.html

I find this inspiring in terms of refashioning garments (not to mention creative fundraising). We could just use what we already have, and be creative while we're at it.

And Adbusters, who started buy Nothing Day, usually have something interesting going on.

Good news in the newspaper today in the Business section - advice on how consumer thinking is changing. This is promising. Maybe the world is changing. Just very slowly. Actually the article could be read as a book review - Fairnington is John Fairnington who wrote The Age of Selfish Altruism: Why New Values are Killing Consumerism.

Do the right thing: how to sell to the post-consumer

Join the experience economy

Consider the ageing "grey wave" population. Research suggests that, as people age, they apply deeper criteria to shopping decisions, weighing up what purchases mean. Older people choose lifestyle over materialism, lasting value over excitement and quality over fashion. The ageing boomers' choices may be setting or amplifying trends. So, for the entrepreneur, selling experiences instead of products is a wise move, according to Fairnington.

Tick the diligence boxes

Before committing to the guilty thrill of a purchase, enlightened consumers will ask four key questions that you must address, according to Fairnington. Do I really need it? Does it work perfectly and meet my needs? Is it worth the money? Does it do no harm?

Go root-and-branch green

A study by the marketing network firm JWT found that Australians are increasingly environment-minded but wary of "greenwashing" (fake sustainability claims). So small businesses must prove their sustainability or lose clients, Fairnington writes. For instance, if you "use" a tree, replace it. If you issue emissions, offset.

Skip the bling

Should you successfully court the ethical consumer and grow rich, learn from Asia. There, the Confucian ethic demands humility despite success, and the look of simple living despite great wealth. "When I lived in Taiwan," Fairnington writes, "my landlord, Mr Cheng, wore tattered pants, a rather smelly old zip-up windcheater, and a weathered baseball cap. He rode a rusty old motorbike, and frankly, looked a bit like a tramp. I later discovered that he not only owned all the houses on the street, but several office buildings."

Mothers Day 2010

Well, my Mothers Day hasn't really gone as expected. I woke up to find my youngest (aged 5) and my partner are sick. On Saturday mornings I sit down with the family and make a list of everything we need to do over the weekend - homework (or, this weekend, speeches to prepare - I swear, when I was at primary school we never prepared speeches, and I really don't feel the need to do it now), washing, mending , cooking meals, appointments, parties and so on. This weekend I still haven't put away about three loads of washing that have been hanging around all week. I still haven't finished writing the community newsletter that other volunteers are waiting on. And I can't find the new school trousers I bought and need to hem, and the compost is overflowing.

But, we did eat well, I did see my mum and sisters (without the sick child and partner), and we are all OK. And the kids made those little teacups made out of marshmallows, so that was lovely.

Last Mothers Day I was banging on about how Mothers Day began as a day of political action and we should reclaim it as a day of political action. Guess what I got for Mothers Day last year? Nothing. This year I helped on the school Mothers Day stall (which last year I objected to on environmental grounds) and the kids were excited to give me their gifts. Also, my eight year old wrote me this poem:

The Best Mum Ever huggles
The Best Mum Ever cuddles
I feel like we are always together
And that's why you're the best mum ever.

She's a good poet, my daughter. I like her.

So, this year I'll just say this. While I can't really see Mothers Day becoming a day of political rallies, wouldn't it be good if Mothers Day became a day of action for wealthy mums (us) to help poor mums? That would be meaningful, and also means we don't buy into the consumerist stereotyping that Mothers Day has become. We don't need new appliances or slippers or flowers.

Some ideas here:

Women's Empowerment $20

A maternal health pack $40

A maternal Health Kit $200

Now that would be a happy Mothers Day.

In the meantime, here is an update of mothers movement organisations, feminist sites and organisations for action. Australian ones are marked *.

The Mothers Movement Online (US)
Moms Rising (US)
Mothers Acting Up (US, international aid, on stilts)
Mothers Ought to Have Equal Rights (US)
The Motherhood Project (US)
Mothers and More (US)
Association For Research on Mothering (CAN, 1998-2010)
Motherhood Initiative for Research and Community Involvement (CAN)
Journal of the Motherhood Institute (CAN)
Demeter Press (CAN)
The Museum of Motherhood (US)
Mother: The Job (US)
Studies in the Maternal (UK journal)
Global Sister
Stop the Traffik (campaigning against children being trafficked onto cocoa farms)
Mamapalooza (US, moms rock!)
Brain, Child (US)
Literary Mama (US)
The Imperfect Parent (US)
Mothers' Union (UK Christian group which is active for change)
Mothers for Womens Lib (UK)
Inter Peres
Take Back the Day (Mothers Day)

The Parents Jury* (children's health/food/obesity)
Australian Breastfeeding Association*
Maternal Coalition* (childbirth)
The Australia Council on Children and the Media, Young Media*
Kids Free 2B Kids* (protecting children from sexualised themes in the media)
Collective Shout* (protecting children from inappropriate media)
Say No 4 Kids* (protecting kids from pornographic imagery)
The Democracy Project*
Get Up*
The Women's Electoral Lobby*
Women's Forum Australia*
The Greens*
What Women Want* (political party)
Australian Conservation Foundation*
Mothers Be Heard*

International Mothers Network
Women for Women International

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

JK Rowlings writes about being a single mother, and the upcoming UK election.

I like JK Rowling. We are the same age, to the month, and both studied classics. And I love her success story.

She writes about her struggles as a single mother, how single mothers are demonised by politicians and the media, and why stays in Britain and pays tax.

Now I love her even more...

Cougars and MILF

I've been thinking about the trend of calling older women cougars, and calling mothers MILF.

I stumbled on a CD compilation entitled Ladies Night: The Ultimate Cougar Collection. According to the cd, cougars can't stop revelling in their cougarity as their moods swing from celebratory, predatory, empowerment and remorse.

While I understand that sexuality is a part of a person's whole life, from childhood to old age, and has peaks and troughs and that different people care more or less about it, I also know that it isn't appropriate or possible or desirable to be concerned with sexuality ALL THE TIME. It isn't appropriate while you're working, or in a meeting, or dealing with your children, or dealing with other people's children, or treating patients, or travelling on the train or just trying to get on with your daily life. You can't get on with living your life if you are constantly in a state of sexual arousal. And you can't get on with living your life if you are constantly being sexually harassed.

What bothers me is this: if young women are considered a bit silly and concerned with their sexuality and having a good time, mothers are considered MILF, and older women are cougars, at what stage in a woman's life is she going to be taken seriously? Do we have to wait until we are crones before anyone takes our views as worth listening to? Don't younger women, mothers, or older women have any wisdom to offer?

So now we're living in a society where children are sexualised (corporate paedophilia), mothers are sexualised (when often it is the last thing on their minds), and now older women, when they have education, experience and know what they want from life, are being sexualised.

Isn't this another way of trivialising and negating what women might seriously have to offer, if taken seriously?

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Save the Children Women on the Front Line of Health Care

I've been looking at the Save The Children report on Women on the Front Line of Health Care and State of the World's Mothers 2010 index.

This was reported on the SMH/The Age and has accumulated the usual comments (childfree people don't want to pay for the other's personal choice to have children - some people just jump to their mother/children hating pet sprays at any opportunity). Sadly, the paper could have focussed on serious health problems in developing countries, but turned it into a story on Australian mums having it good.

About the report:

Every year nearly 9 million newborn babies and young children die before reaching the age of 5. Nearly 350,000 women die due to complications in pregnancy and childbirth. The report looks at the role played by female heath workers in addressing the problems. The Mothers' Index ranks mothers from 160 countries, looking at factors such as education, political participation, health and nutrition.

The newspaper states that Australia is ranked second in the world. This seems hard to believe considering we don't have maternity leave, our problems with health care, workplace inflexibility etc.

What is interesting in the comments, for me, are the reports from other countries. Some examples:

an expat that is currently residing in Switzerland I am astounded at the support from the government and the employer Suisse women recieve (no dismissal, 14 weeks paid leave minimum, a ruling that makes it illegal for a woman to return to work for a minimum of 6 weeks after having a child, the school system, public transport, family focus... A woman cannot be dismissed... AND the employer must come to an arrangment for her return to work?). I LOL reading this, what a JOKE - whomever did this study is insane clearly.
I dont believe mothers or family are a priority in Australia, and it saddens me to see this sort of reporting. There is no equillibrium for Women in Australia in comparisson to their European counterparts. It just seems that as an island nation - so far flung, the government think it is ok to bandaid issues, and never address or spend the money on laws and support to allow women to be mothers and families to live under less pressure. Children in this country are safe, there is no crime, no hooliganism, parents meet them after school and spend quality DAILY time with them. Parks here are full of parents and children all the time.. our parks are empty - parents too busy at work, children in front of the computer.. oh and parks closed due to public liability issues from Councils - wake up Australian Government .. Get with the program - though we are a few hundred years in development behind Europe... it IS 2010.... If I had my way, I'd never return to Australia, beaches.. tsk... there are beaches in Europe too, but what do I have here and not there? PRO FAMILY & MOTHER laws and departments.
NICB | Switzerland - May 04, 2010, 8:57PM

Did I mention also that daycare costs next to nothing here in Sweden? It's a different attitude here to families and the responsibilty of society.
btw, one would never get away with calling it maternity leave here, it's parental leave, and both parents share the work (not always equally but it is shared), but that's a whole other topic.
Australian Mum in Sweden - May 04, 2010, 8:21PM

How can other Australian mums have it better than me? I am an Australian currently living in Sweden. My husband and I get over a year combined paid maternity leave for each child we have (2) and we are allowed to use that year any time up until our kids are 8 years old. My husband took 6 months off paid full time leave last year to look after our second daughter. From the government he got 80% of his salary, but his employer bumped that up to 90% which his company does to make sure all the dads take leave too!! After 6 months he still had a whole lot of days left so now he doesn't work on Fridays and is home with both our daughters indefinitely. We can take our leave at any time, as long as you give your employer 3 months notice they can not say no, you can use that leave whenever you like. If you save your days up you can suddenly tell your employer that you are going on a family holiday to Thailand for a few months when the kids are older, we know people who have done that. After you have had a kid you have the right to work part time, no employer can stop you. We are planning a third child, and are thinking about leaving our rental flat and spending a whole year in Australia with the parental leave money, we can use our leave together and be off work and spend a year together. Insane!! The down side is you are taxed up to you eyeballs here to pay for it all. So worth it now during the early chldhood years, but you keep paying dearly for it for the rest of your life.
Australian Mum in Sweden - May 04, 2010, 7:00PM

I have experinced both life as a mother to babies and young kids in Australia and in Sweden - one extreme to another. I can see why people complain in Australia now that we are living the good life here. What a difference! For what we paid for two days of childcare in Australia we get one month here. Paid leave means precious family time without financial worry. We have even travelled in Spain and Italy with our paternity & maternity money. It's perfect being away from the everday chores so you can really just concentrate on your family. When people here in Sweden hear that Australia has no paid leave and what childcare costs they can't believe it. I wonder how the childless people here feel about footing the bill for all this luxury? I've never heard any complaints. Every dad I know, even my husband's back in the 70's, has been on paternity leave. Studies show, not surprisingly, that leads to Fathers being more hands-on after their leave is over. Longer paternity leave also equals lower divorce rate. The way we use our leave is also completely up to us, for example you can go straight back to work if you want but maybe only work a a couple of days a week for years to come rather than taking all your leave at once. It's family heaven.
Australian Mum in Sweden | Sweden - May 05, 2010, 10:00AM

Shows the contrast between best practice and worst practice.

As a wealthy country, why can't we implement best practice here and all the assistance we can to developing nations to promote best outcomes for mothers and children?