Thoughts on the Manchester Arena Attack

I live around the corner from Manchester Arena. Last night, as I walked home from work, I smiled to myself at all the adorable teenage girls on their way to some concert or other. They had on their best sparkly tops, those terrible giant hair bows, pink lipstick cadged from their mums’ make up bags. Excitement was palpable as they streamed along the pavement, tugging away from long suffering parents, just kids on the brink of that first taste of independence. Last night, someone walked through that crowd of teenage girls like I did, a homemade explosive strapped to their body, and knew that some of them would never make it home.

It is almost impossible to comprehend the tragedy of what happened in Manchester Arena last night. Even listening to the sirens and helicopters from my bed, I assumed that it was a car chase or a drugs bust. Never, for one moment, did I think that someone would have attacked innocent people on my own doorstep. It is so easy for us to feel immune to these kind of events, to think that our privileged lives in this privileged city protect us from things like terrorism. Self-centred creatures that we are, sometimes it takes a tragedy like this to happen in our own community before it becomes truly real. Where we spoke calmly in my office about the attacks in London earlier this year, this morning my boss’s voice cracked as he talked to us about this attack in our own city. These could have been our children, our friends, even – had I been heading home past the arena after going for a beer, as I so often do – me.

So, what can we do? Firstly, our thoughts or prayers should be with those who have been affected by this terrible tragedy. With those whose loved ones went out last night and never came home. Those who, instead of stories told in voices high-pitched with E-numbers and excitement, of dance routines performed on the living room carpet, ended last night in a silent horror that can never be healed. Our hearts go out to them. If you know anyone that has loved ones missing, they can call the emergency line that has been set up to help on 0161 856 9400. There is also a vigil in Albert Square at 6pm tonight, if you wish to share this moment of grief with the community and show that our city will stand strong in the face of adversity.

Secondly, we can make sure that we have pulled together, both with our community and with our own loved ones. We are not immune. Our good jobs, our nice cars, our beautiful flats, cannot protect us from tragedy. This is not happening to someone else. Make sure you have called your mum. Lay all the hatchets to rest that would seem so utterly worthless in the face of real calamity. Tell all the people you couldn’t bear to lose that you love them. We are so lucky, but it’s so easy to spend our lives hiding from the hard emotions, to think that we have time to put things right. There may not be time: do it now.

I was hesitant to write this, because nothing seems so inadequate as the sound of your own voice when such an overwhelming tragedy has occurred. But if we allow ourselves to be silenced, by fear or by inadequacy, already these horrific tactics are beginning to work – beginning to win. This is a time to stand up and make your voice heard, a time to say we are not afraid and we will not be cowed. Fear and hate cannot win, because we will not let them win.

Just the Words Will Do: A Short Story

The room was rich with blackness and, as the velvety dark enveloped her, she knew it was a mistake. Half cut on gin and grief, she thought perhaps she could sneak in unnoticed – or better, noticed and wanted. Instead, she lay on the rock hard mattress as though afloat on the huge, reckoning ocean, the messages arriving on her phone lighting up the ceiling where the stars should have been. In the next room, she could hear him breathing. Huge lungs that inflated his white back as she nestled behind him, her face pressed into the comforting scent of his spine. Perhaps she’d never feel as safe again as she did pressed into that boy’s back, listening to the heaving sighs become the gurgle of a snore.

She’d never slept in that room, always the other, and the perfumed bedsheets that held no memories had lulled her quickly into a deadening slumber. The creaking of the door stirred her and she felt his long limbs slipping into the bed beside her, his arms snaking the dip of her waist and pulling her towards him. Startled awake, she felt the wet tears of nightmare and longing coating her face. A dream, just a dream. Stirring inside her, The Sadness curled into her stomach, digging its black claws into the lining and making it threaten to throw the nothing she’d eaten up her throat and onto the counterpane in front of her. She lurched out of bed, nausea swimming over her, and threw the door open into the hallway. The clothes rack tilted and crashed to the floor, a tide of frilly underwear and careworn socks spilling down the corridor.

In the bathroom, the stark bulb lit up her ghostly face in the mirror, freckles standing out against the strained greyness of her skin like black holes on a galaxy of anguish. She was falling apart at the seams, the living redness of her blood showing through the corners where her skin was fixed on. Touching her face, she squinted in confusion at the mirror, leaning closer and then pulling away in horror as a huge swathe of skin detached from her lip and peeled away in her fingers. It was long and sticky, a milky white film made of spider’s silk that draped and clung to her. Letting out a moan of horror, she tried to shake it off, but it wrapped around her hand, nestling into the curves of her fingers, draping down her arm in a ghostly gossamer. Reflected back in the glass she saw her exposed teeth where the skin had come away, the tendons of her jaw, the lurid red of blood seeping unstemmed from the tissue.

What was happening to her? She picked at the edges of the skin, tearing it away in great chunks until the flesh of her neck was exposed, the startling white ridges of her collarbone. Rifling through the basket on the windowsill, she pulled out his razor, fiddling with the catch to free the blade from the safety mechanism. Panic mounting, she tilted it and plunged the silver edge into her skin, scoring the fraying edges until it came away like toilet tissue in a child’s party game of wrap the mummy. The crashing of the door distracted her and she looked up to find him staring at her, open-mouthed, as she crouched above the heaping of her own skin.

He saw her straighten, each tendon exposed, her skin swept away like Gunther von Hagens’ plasticised Körperwelten. She was ripping herself to shreds for him, The Sadness leering from the cavity of her stomach. Gurgling, the voice of it crept up her throat and forced its way out of her mouth.

“Please, please say it.”

“I can’t.” He whispered in horror, “You know I can’t.”

“Please!” Her black eyes pleaded with him from the exposed tunneling of her eye sockets.

“I can’t say it. I don’t feel it, you know I don’t feel it.”

“Please. You don’t need to feel it, just the words will do.” He watched the keratin claws of The Sadness creeping up her flayed throat, a strangling chokehold looking for some purchase. Her breaths came shorter, the mounting panic evident on the straining muscle tissue of her face. Helpless, he watched the horny hands forging their way upwards, squeezing the life from her as her mouth begged him for emotions he couldn’t feel. Stricken with terror, he let the door fall shut and stumbled blindly back to his bedroom, pulling the cocooned safety of his duvet around his shaking body.

In the morning, the red sludge of her sat as a bleeding stain on the tiles of the bathroom. The Sadness squatted on the bathmat, its black fur spiked with the drying bile of her broken stomach. It had grown fat with the richness of her, sated with the animal vehemence of her overwhelming emotion. Carefully, he mopped the floor, swishing the dirty tendrils and squeezing out the water until the bucket stood pink with what was left of her. Feeling a tugging at the hem of his jeans, he looked down to see the horn rimmed hands of The Sadness reaching for him. He felt the creeping pull of its irresistible candour. To save them both, just the words would have done.

In Defence of Confession, And Why It’s Not Better to Last Than to Burn

“Someone tells me: this kind of love is not viable. But how can you evaluate viability? Why is the viable a Good Thing? Why is it better to last than to burn?” – Roland Barthes.

Recently, I’ve been feeling very inferior. Somewhat undereducated and woefully under-read, I’ve been writing more and feeling increasingly less confident in what I’m writing. Confessional to a fault and driven rather by the burning need for catharsis than any intellectual desire to impart anything to the reader, my effluence of prose is rarely anything more than a pack of drama-laden words hunting for a point. I cover the same ground over and over, seeking for a way to make it more viscerally real rather than identifying new viewpoints, new ideas. This has been panicking me; but I am determined to be panicked no more.

I’ve come to the conclusion that it is fundamentally flawed to suggest that the confessional, the experiential is, by its nature, not saying anything more than ‘this is what happened, this is how I feel’. The greatest joy of conversation is (or, more accurately, should be) the connection that we make to other people. Performative conversation is a fascinating thing; two people peacocking knowledge is inherently competitive and can be as stimulating for the external viewer as any real-life cock fight. Intellectually, these conversations stimulate me, but they are not the ones I remember with any bursting warmth of feeling. Instead, it’s the conversations I have in the half dark, one bottle of wine in, where secrets are revealed and you feel the reaching out of another’s soul to yours. I feel the same about literature.

Yes, I seek out intellectual stimulation, but it is the books that have kept me up until 3am, awash with tears that I return to again and again. The dismissal of emotive novels as ‘women’s literature’ is often founded on the fact that they are perceived as falling into this latter category. Ultimately, can the outpouring of emotion, so often seen as a feminine trait, ever have the same value as the perceived-masculine intellectual? If my writing is more interested in touching your heart than engaging your head, is it inherently lesser? As I’ve said, recently I’ve been increasingly concerned that it is.

Today, however, I’ve taken a bit of time to actually think about it, without any outside influence, and I’m a lot less convinced. The argument that the intellectual is more worthwhile than the experiential doesn’t hold any sway with me. There is plenty of literature, mostly written by dead white men, to be discussed in pubs by boys who only smoke Marlboroughs, only wear black, and self-confess to being ‘dead inside’. These are not the people I write for, they have enough literature for their disappointing experience. They have the privilege of smugly transcending the experiential – our whole society is geared towards their experience of the world.

Instead, I write for me. I write for the girl that is huddled under her covers, setting the duvet on fire with the bedside lamp, and crying with relief that someone else has experienced what she’s going through. I write for the girl checking out books she isn’t allowed to read from the library and covering them in a different dustjacket. I write for the first heartbreak, and for the strength that is in the softness to let it keep happening. I write for the determination to think what you like, and the enormous triumph that is when you don’t have the privilege of encouraged freedom of thought. I write for the woman that girl will become. I write for the intellectual awakening that occurs through the experiential awakening. For myself and, if it touches you, for you.

Certainly, my writing has something of the teenage obsession with strength of emotion, but I’m not convinced that this in itself is a weakness. I don’t write as a performance, to make people wonder at my enormous intellect, at my ground-breakingly spurious mental somersaults. I write so that just one person can say: that helps, that touches my soul. After all, as one eminent dead white man said – why is it better to last than to burn?

The More Loving One, And Why It’s Easier to Be Angry Than Vulnerable

I’ve never struggled with the hard words. I have no problem making my feelings clear when I am not impressed, when I’m hurt, when I see an injustice that I think needs calling out. Up until recently, I had no problem with the other words either. Always the queen of a free fall relationship, I would say I loved someone before I was even sure that I felt it, my heart pinned to my sleeve and damn the consequences. Of course, any wiser person would have been able to tell you that this was madness, and the unbearable hurt it brought comes as a surprise to no one but myself. Now I am cautious. The words that make me vulnerable are bitten back until crisis stage, drawn out of me with all the reluctance of a horse at the water trough. Somewhere, between the two approaches, there is balance that eludes me.

At home, the love was always unquestionable but unspoken. A house full of reticent Yorkshire men meant that feelings were shown but not vocalised: a fixed sink, an unexpected gift, but never ‘I love you’. Love is vulnerable, and vulnerable is the hardest thing. I have passionate relationships with my female friends and in those the words trip off my tongue. I love those women and that love is safe, an unconditional reciprocation. One of those friends speaks often of the glory of being the ‘more loving one’. It is taken from a W. H. Auden poem of the same name that has the immortal stanza:

How should we like it were stars to burn
With a passion for us we could not return?
If equal affection cannot be,
Let the more loving one be me.

Romantic though the idea is, the rest of the poem goes on to highlight that, though passionate about the stars, that passion could easily pass if the object of the affection were snuffed out. Love is vulnerable because it may not be returned, because it is fragile, a mere transience if it is not nurtured, nursed even. There are few emotions that are so hard to define, and so vulnerable to circumstance once they are defined. Declaring yourself the more loving one is an act of courage that many of us, rightly or wrongly, avoid.

However, avoiding it brings its own problems too, especially when you are rather more given over to sardonic expression than you are to simpering acts of love. Whilst it is unlikely that anyone would describe me as cold, I’ve developed a certain hardness that makes it more difficult for me to make my position understood than it was in the days of my unbridled passionate enthusiasm. A raised eyebrow and a sarcastic put down may be easier, but they’re not necessarily the most effective way of communicating your feelings. Or of getting those feelings returned.

So, in the interest of clarity, here I am in all my vulnerability. The words that make my voice crack are on the tip of my tongue. Not, perhaps, quite ready for saying yet, but certainly warming in the oven for when they are needed. Every time someone gets that soft expression on their face when they think I’n not looking, or bestows some small act of kindness on my person, or even when I get that little warm leap of joy that I’d almost forgotten existed, they get a little bit nearer to making their escape. For now, I am happy, and the rest, well: ‘this might take me a little time’.

The Curse of the Cool Girl, And Why I’m Done With Pretending Not to Care

“Men always say that as the defining compliment, don’t they? She’s a cool girl. Being the Cool Girl means I am a hot, brilliant, funny woman who adores football, poker, dirty jokes, and burping, who plays video games, drinks cheap beer, loves threesomes and anal sex, and jams hot dogs and hamburgers into her mouth like she’s hosting the world’s biggest culinary gang bang while somehow maintaining a size 2, because Cool Girls are above all hot. Hot and understanding. Cool Girls never get angry; they only smile in a chagrined, loving manner and let their men do whatever they want. Go ahead, shit on me, I don’t mind, I’m the Cool Girl.” – Gillian Flynn, Gone Girl.

We’ve all met a Cool Girl, with their long hair and perfect arses, their craft beer knowledge and their fluid sexuality. Or, rather, we’ve all met a girl who is pretending to be her. I should know, I tried for a long time to be exactly that. Maybe I still look a bit like her, because some of the Cool Girl traits also happen to be real human woman traits too. I love whisky and craft beer, dirty jokes and eating an entire pizza. Those things are fine; I actually like those things. But some of the other Cool Girl traits aren’t me at all, and I’ve found them hard to give up.

I’ve always prided myself on being good at being one of the lads. Me, with my four older brothers and my devil-may-care attitude to wearing clothes in the house. Tall and blonde and filthy. Show me the girls you’ve matched with on Tinder whilst I’m laid in your arms on the sofa, because I don’t care. Ask me who I think is hotter. Call me up when you’re between women. Act like you barely know me when we’re with your friends, but forbid me from seeing anyone else. I don’t care, because I’m fucking cool. I put up with all of your shit and never call you out on it, whilst hiding any of mine – or worse, carefully not having any – so you don’t get hurt. Don’t I sound chill?

Spoiler alert: I’m not chill. I’m angry and stressed, I can’t sleep, I have a crick in my neck from that awkward position I never say anything about, my friends are fed up of listening to me. Why? Because what the Cool Girl attracts is an endless parade of scumbags. Men who put your needs last, because they can. Men who are seeing other women, because they can. Men who never text you unless you text them. Men who never take you on dates. Men who make you feel small and stupid when you haven’t heard of a band/niche French playwright/school of philosophical thought. Men who never go down on you. Men whose friends ask if you’re together and they say “No! I mean, I duno, I guess we’re sort-of-semi seeing each other?”. Men who can’t stand to see you with someone else, but will never ever commit to you. Cool Men.

I read this article the other day, about how the ‘cute but psycho’ joke is normalising abuse and women need to stop saying they identify with it. Whilst that’s a valid argument, all I could think about was how the ‘cute but psycho’ trope is just a reaction to the ever-pervading Cool Girl. She’s the opposite of the Cool Girl: she keeps a tight leash on her man, checks up on him, insists on a terrifying level of control. No one can deny it’s problematic. But, as women who have been denied any control, who have forced themselves to put up with all kinds of crappy treatment under the guise of being ‘cool’, is it any wonder that the reaction is to push back and claim some kind – any kind – of control?

We constantly talk down about women who have a dominant or, let’s face it, even an equal role in relationships. This is why I detest the word ‘whipped’. I hear people describing men as whipped all the time. Does he drive down to see his girlfriend at the weekend? Whipped. Did he bring her a glass of wine when she asked? Whipped. Does he cook all the meals while she cleans? Whipped. This rhetoric perpetuates the idea that women don’t deserve to be treated well, that being kind or considerate to your girlfriend is unmanly. There is no word to describe a woman who fetches her boyfriend a beer, who lovingly makes dips and buys in crisps for boys’ night. It is expected. Not only does the idea of being ‘whipped’ shame women for having needs, it also shames men for acting in a caring, nurturing way. It looks at healthy, loving relationships and calls them out for not adhering to some ancient 1950s stereotypes of how to behave.

How we talk about relationships is so important, because it shapes our expectations and the expectations of those around us. To be desirable, I felt overwhelming pressure to be the Cool Girl, no matter what the cost to my enjoyment and even my mental health. No matter what awful sort-of-semi relationships I had to endure. Pretending not to care, not to have any needs, is emotionally exhausting and damaging. I’ve seen girls put up with horrific behaviour and never call it out, because they’re scared of looking like they’re not a Cool Girl. I’ve done it myself. It’s time for us to start demanding what we require, and breaking off the damaging, sort-of-semi relationships if they fail to provide for our needs. We need to start saying no to that thing he’s asked us to do that always hurts, because doing it isn’t cool: it’s problematic. We also need to stop shaming men for being caring. It’s not fair to say we aren’t having our needs met, and then make men feel bad when they are meeting those needs. We need to pay attention to how we talk about relationships. Stop putting up with it. Stop perpetuating it. 

International Women’s Day, And Why We’re Still Having This Conversation

Happy International Women’s Day! So far this week I have fielded my mum’s concerns that a picture of me wearing fishnets on Instagram ‘gave the wrong impression’, as well as her accusatory questioning as to whether ‘all my friends are feminists now’. I have argued with a man about what defines the ‘shared female experience’, and had him disagree with me when I said it wasn’t giving birth. I have acted professionally towards a male colleague who suggested that a picture celebrating IWD on the work social media account shouldn’t just be of the women who work there ‘because men support women too’. I have felt guilty about eating pizza for tea, because as a six foot, size 10/12 woman I feel constant pressure to lose some weight. I have been called a misandrist. It is currently Wednesday.

I was brought up in an environment where women were seen as helpmeets to men, who are the head of the household. The pressure to marry so that you were spoken for, so you belonged to a man and could be neatly identified as his problem, was an overwhelming part of daily life. When I announced that I was going to university, I was quietly warned that it would make me unappealing, that no man wants a woman that is cleverer than him. Someone genuinely once said the words ‘if you act like a slut, you get treated like a slut’ to me. Women from the Bible were used as examples of how not to behave. Delilah the seductress, who cut off Samson’s hair as he slept in her lap, thus sapping his God-given strength, was the worst of femininity. No mention of the fact that he went along with her rather willingly. Dinah, who went into the city and was raped repeatedly by the King’s son – her own fault because she was friends with the local women. These were the women that were paraded before me as examples of why I wasn’t good enough, as a fifteen year old girl literally and figuratively tearing herself to shreds. I would like to say that it was a very different world but, realistically, it wasn’t.

Strangely, now I am newly empowered and happier than I ever thought possible, I find myself fielding new, different concerns that people have about me. I am called outspoken, wild, intimidating, aggressive – new words designed to police my behaviour. Men especially, but other women too, use words like this to suggest we should be smaller, quieter, we should not disrupt the status quo. Look at Donald Trump, calling articulate, powerful, knowledgeable Hillary Clinton a ‘nasty woman’. With those words he reduced her power to nothing, she was a caricature, a Disney cartoon witch holding out a poison apple to the people of America. People do it all the time, because words are important; words are power. I have heard male friends describe girls as ‘fundamentally unfuckable’ – and with that assertion she suddenly is nothing. Her brains, her success, her kindness, are impotent in the face of her lack of desirability. And yet these same men roll their eyes when we talk about the need for feminism. They say ‘not all men’, and ‘I’m just playing devil’s advocate here’, and ‘you’ll be burning your bras next’, because these phrases are reductive, they steal our power, make us laughable – make us nothing.

Well, I’m tired of feeling like I’m nothing. I will not sit down; I will not calm down, dear; I will not ‘oh shut up’. I refuse to be scared to speak up. Female oppression might not seem as visible to you as it once was. Yes, we have got the vote, we can drink in pubs, we can be the token one or two – alongside ten men – sitting in the boardroom. But the micro-aggressions of daily life are still going strong, as is the very real gender pay gap, the disproportionate number of women in low paid jobs, the unequal unpaid labour. I could go on. There are women across the world that have it much worse, for sure. I know this, so put your pint down and stop interrupting me. But here, in the United Kingdom, female inequality is still very present, very real. I, for one, plan to keep on speaking out against it, to keep on fighting it. I hope you do too. We are fifty percent of the human race, and it’s about time it felt like it. If this conversation is boring you, ask yourself this – why are we still having it?

The Fuckboy Phenomenon, And Why Boys Fear the Blogpost

Ah Fuckboys, the ubiquitous defining man of our generation; talented, good looking, charming and repulsive in equal measures. The phrase is used in various ways by different communities, but for my social groups it is always used like that. Maybe he is stylish, has a good haircut, drives a fancy car, but he always has one defining feature: women. Not just in his bed, the term is not one of sexual behaviour shaming, but rather a shaming of emotional behaviour. Alana Massey said in this article that ‘Fuckboy is not a dating style, so much as a worldview that reeks of entitlement but is aghast at the prospect of putting in effort…Fuckboys become emotional vampires to women who aren’t even their girlfriends.” And that, that nails it exactly.

I watch my friends fall for these men, I date them – inasmuch as it can be called dating; they are all around us, our friends, our brothers, our entitled boss. These are the men that approach me and tell me how my blogpost on emotional labour touched them, made them uncomfortable, because they saw the women that they string along in that post. It is descriptive of their behaviour, where not just physical connection, but emotional support is a glass of water they drain without ever filling up. What these men say to me is that they fear being the subject of that blogpost, or one like it. Not that they think they should change their behaviour, that they’ve recognised the emotional damage they are doing to women that they should be delighted to go out with and they’re going to stop. Rather, they fear being revealed for what they are. The Fuckboy relies on illusion, on the ability to convince a girl that she’s special, she’s different, for his success. Both myself and several of my friends have had boys tell them, “But you’re the only one emotionally”, as though them deigning to feel anything other than a physical attraction to us is some trophy to be polished and put on the mantle piece. He’s sleeping with half of the city, but he likes us. He’d speak to us when we’re dressed! Aren’t we lucky?

But, as Anne Lamott once said, “You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.” So, Fuckboys, this one’s for you. It is not good enough. You are not good enough. Wipe that pained expression off your face, stop trying to change the subject, because I won’t stand for it anymore. You will be held accountable. There are a thousand men out there that would love to be seen with me, that would love to be seen with my beautiful, clever, successful friends. There are men that text us when they’re drunk to tell us we’re the loves of their life and they can’t believe they let us get away. Stop telling me to ‘take it slow’, because boy, you’re on probation. I haven’t decided if you’re good enough for me yet, so stop acting like you are the ultimate hunting prize and I might win you if I creep up more quietly and more slowly than all the other lionesses. Talking to me every day and cooking me dinner isn’t a grand gesture, it’s the basics in decent human behaviour. Take me on a fucking date. Because I don’t know if I like you yet, and if you want to impress me it’s going to take a lot more effort than I’ve seen so far. If this blogpost is making you squirm, good. It’ll prepare you for the next one where I eviscerate your character, not because you hurt me, but because you didn’t measure up. I am not waiting, I am not pining. I am not impressed. Boot up and suit up, baby, because I’m a battle that none of us think you can win.