Wednesday, 27 March 2013

Portrait of a Lady

Some of you may know my darkest secret: I attended a boarding school known as The Cheltenham Ladies' College. For years, during parties and introductions, I have skated over this inconvenient fact. I have been reluctant to own up to my association with this venerable institution, mainly because I feared it would typecast me, or worse still arouse antipathy in my listener. We all make judgements and a school with that much baggage is bound to inspire some prejudice.
A Victorian lady
The original lady: corsets and decorum 
© Artefy |
Last night the school inevitably featured in Rachel Johnson's BBC Four Timeshift programme on How To Be A Lady. Rachel's grandmother attended the school and Rachel admits that she resisted her own father's attempts to enroll her simply because of the name.

It seems that in our economically straitened times the term lady is undergoing something of a revival. Young women are re-discovering (and even studying) ladylike ways in an attempt to develop their social confidence and also their professional presence. Drunken antics, Page 3 models and even the ladette excesses of the 1990s have had their day, apparently. 

Rachel even interviewed a modern feminist - the writer and critic Bidisha - who was keen to extoll the virtues of a ladylike demeanour. "It's about bringing a kind of formality and elegance back into a culture which is really quite vulgar," she says. We can redefine our concept of the lady, Bidisha believes, by divorcing it from notions of class and associating it with being a "brilliant, strong, sisterly woman".

Nevertheless, by the end of the programme, Rachel is still not convinced that we should all re-embrace ladyhood - and I am inclined to agree. We are who we are. What a dull place the world would be if every woman was schooled to be a lady! I will admit that my education, augmented by my mother's discipline, has turned me into a creature of decorum (for the most part). However, although this forms part of my identity, I hope that over the years I have managed to add a few more layers. 

More notably, I have my school to thank for my conviction that women are intellectually equal to men - an obvious point, perhaps, but still in contention the world over. In the late 19th century, Cheltenham Ladies' College was in fact a radical exponent of education for girls. The second principal, Dorothea Beale, believed that girls should lay their needlework aside and be as highly educated as boys. 

During my time in Cheltenham, we were taught to believe that we could achieve anything we wanted. We had a right to a career, the same as any boy. Sadly not all girls' schools were so progressive, even as recently as the 1980s. Former pupils of the college are undoubtedly privileged but also broad-minded. Some of my peers are now teaching in state schools, working in the city, writing children's books, mothering children and running their own businesses. There! My secret is out. Just don't tell anyone, please...

Next week, I will post a sample from my new novel, set in the 1970s. The main character, Maggie, has been brought up in the mould of a lady, just at a time when the world is changing its view on a woman's place. Imprisoned by her own femininity, Maggie battles with an unhappy marriage and low self-esteem. A chance meeting with Louise - a free spirit and a creature of the moment - opens Maggie's mind to other possibilities. 

Wednesday, 20 March 2013

Eleven random facts

Dear readers, last week I received a Liebster Award from fellow blogger Seven Year Hitch. Before we all get too excited, it is not really a proper award, but more of a cross between a chain letter and a blogging badge of honour. Conveniently it has provided me with some inspiration this week just when I was running dry.

As part of the award, Vanessa Holburn, the writer behind Seven Year Hitch, has set me eleven questions, which I shall attempt to answer below. The idea is that I go on to nominate eleven more bloggers, whom I happen to admire, and then devise another eleven questions of my own. I also have to provide eleven random facts about myself. Thus, oiled by our mutual enthusiasm, the Liebster wheels keep on rolling, with Q&As bouncing around the blogosphere. 

Here are the eleven questions posed by Vanessa: 

1.    What did you have for tea last night?

My husband Will, who usually cooks my evening meal, is away in Hong Kong so I was forced to put a packet meal in the microwave - red Thai curry with prawns. It was surprisingly tasty and only took four minutes. I still prefer his cooking though - and his conversation.

2.    What was your favourite item of clothing as a teenager?
A torn, suede jacket I bought from a secondhand clothing shop on the King's Road. It made me feel like I was part of the cool crowd, which of course was an illusion. Sadly, it suited my little brother better, who was part of the cool crowd.

3.    Cats or dogs?

Instinctively I would say dogs because I grew up with them. However, when I worked in London, we acquired a tortoiseshell kitten called Daisy (a dog would have been too high-maintenance) and she is still with us today. Over the years, she has bitten the children, been sick on the carpet, brought in mice and played havoc with my sinuses, but she is part of the family. Maybe one day she will be joined by a dog-sibling.

4.    Congratulations, you’ve been canonized – but what are you the patron saint of?

Gosh, wouldn't I love to be the Patron Saint of Motherhood or Struggling Writers, but I am more likely to be canonized for my organisational skills. People will pray to me for help with their Christmas shopping and holiday-packing. My best friend Shauna has been known to borrow my prototype packing list.

5.    Do you owe anyone an apology?

Years ago one of my former boyfriends wrote to me when his father was ill. The letter I returned was not the same letter I would write today. If I ever saw him again, I would try to explain and say sorry.

6.    A new government policy says we must all open a shop – what will yours sell?

Jewellery. As many of my friends know, I adore trinkets and I would use my shop as a justification for touring round Asia and the Middle East in search of stock. I might sell the odd book too - a few first editions and tattered hardbacks.

7.    What is the worst way to spend a Sunday?
Doing chores, changing the bedsheets and having an argument with my eldest over maths homework.

8.    Name and shame the first/only person to break your heart
I don't think I have ever had my heart broken (yet). Instinctively I am a pragmatist - I don't get too emotionally involved until I am confident of a return in affection.

9.    If you could choose your own name, what would it be?
I did, and it is 'Emma Clark Lam'. I was born 'Emma Clark' which was not quite so unique.

10. Who decides where you go on holiday?
Oddly enough we don't tend to choose. Holidays just seem to happen - invitations by friends or trips that tie in with other events. The last time we actively sought a holiday was when we went to Oman in early 2012. I suppose I chose that holiday because I used to live in Muscat as a teenager and was curious to go back. Usually, however, it is my husband who actually books the holidays.

11. What annoying song can you NOT get out of your head?

Gangnam Style. My kids love it and sing various versions of it on a daily basis. My husband covers Korean stocks for his job so we discovered PSY even before his song became a stratospheric hit. I have been living with 'Hey sexy lady' for a very long time. And it still doesn't sound right coming out of the mouth of a six-year old.

Eleven random facts about me:

  • After 30 years I have finally learnt how to style (my) curly hair
  • I was sent off to boarding school at nine years old
  • I studied Russian for more than five years at school but can hardly speak a word now
  • As a child I detested vegetables, but now I eat them all the time
  • I have lived in eight different countries
  • I can't get to sleep at night if I haven't had a hot shower or a bath
  • Nothing absorbs me more than a computer-related problem
  • My favourite author is Jane Austen
  • Quite randomly my best friend and my husband are both half-Chinese
  • My daughter shares a birthday with her dad
  • I love swimming: show me some water and I can rarely resist getting in

Eleven nominated bloggers:

Amanda Jennings
Fiona Torsch 
The Joy of Slow Communication
Rachel Monte
Ruth Mancini
Peggy Riley
Sara Bran's Notes From the Edge of Motherhood
The Musings & Artful Blunders of Scott D. Southard

Finally, eleven new questions for my eleven bloggers:

What did you dream of becoming when you were a child?

If you had to act in a Shakespeare play, which character would you choose to play?

You have won a dream holiday to anywhere in the world. Where would you go?

If you were stuck in a lift/elevator for four hours, who would be your ideal companion?

Who do you most admire: Michelle Obama, Hillary Clinton, Sarah Brown or Cherie Blair? 

If you could erase once incident from your past, what would it be?

Do you prefer reading an ebook or a paperback?

If your home was burning down, which possession would you grab first?

Name two positive things that have happened to you today.

If you were forced to read any book three times, which book would you choose?

Why have you chosen to write a blog?

Thanks to Vanessa Holburn for nominating me - this was surprisingly fun! 

Wednesday, 13 March 2013

Brother vs. sister

Hermaphrodite Mum
Three kids and a single mother

Upstairs I can hear angry voices bouncing off the walls, punctuated by the banging of a door - twice. 

"I hate you! You are never borrowing my Nintendo, ever again." Slam.

"I don't care, you are just a poo-poo brain." Slam.

Two children arguing
Best of friends and the worst of enemies 
© Cheryl Casey |
I feel obliged to join the debate. I stand at the bottom of the stairs and yell: "Don't slam the door! How many times have I told you?"

In the kitchen behind me, Non-walking Toddler (NwT) starts calling, "Ma! Ma!" She has been unsettled by my sudden exit.

"It's okay darling." I return to spooning Petits Filous into her baby-bird mouth. "More!" she tells me, pointing at the fridge. 

While I peel the film off a second yoghurt, Middle Child and Quiet One (my eldest) burst into the kitchen seeking adjudication. I listen to their account of what happened - there is injustice on both sides and I am hard-pressed to identify a culprit.

"Look," I reason, "I am busy trying to feed NwT. Why can't you just sort it out between you?"

They turn to each other, hot-cheeked and indignant. "That's enough," I shout over the ensuing argument. "The Nintendo goes on top of the cupboard until you manage to reach an agreement."

"That's not fair," cries Quiet One, "You always take his side!" And she flounces out, batting Middle Child on the head for good measure.

"YOU NEVER WANT TO PLAY WITH ME!" rages Middle Child. I wedge the kitchen door open with my foot before he can reach it to reinforce his point.

There is a jealous gene in our family - it runs through the generations, flaring with intensity in certain characters. In Middle Child, it combines powerfully with maleness and the need to compete. Whenever I hug one of his sisters, he's there within seconds to claim his share of my affection. As a toddler he would plant himself in my lap to prevent me picking up NwT when she cried.

Just recently, Quiet One has also been displaying signs of jealousy. It seems that Middle Child has fostered a sense of rivalry between them. They are the best of friends and the worst of enemies, capable of switching seamlessly between amity and conflict several times a day.

I know from my own childhood that such sibling rivalry is natural and I do my best to contain it by distributing my favours equally. However, the odds are stacked against me: I have three children competing for one parent's attention. 

In the past, my mother has consoled me: "Don't worry they are learning their way in the world and where they belong. They will find their own harmony." 

Halfway through NwT's third yoghurt, she grabs the spoon from me and shakes it at Middle Child, who is glowering in the corner.

"I think she wants you to feed her," I say.

Reluctantly he takes the spoon and begins to heap yoghurt into her mouth. She starts to choke on the third spoonful, but recovers and gamely continues. Middle Child starts to smile in spite of himself, his tongue rolling into his cheek.

"Hey, look at this!" I call out to Quiet One. She slides back into the kitchen to take a peek.

NwT immediately takes the spoon and hands it to Quiet One. After a tentative glance in my direction, Quiet One carefully loads the spoon and pops it into NwT's mouth. Middle Child watches but doesn't protest. After that, my baby diplomat scrupulously alternates the spoon between her siblings. 

"I'm sorry," mumbles Quiet One without looking at her brother. He doesn't reply but his spirits lift and before too long he is trying to dance around the kitchen, his arms wrapped around her waist.

"Let's go and play with your Furbie," he suggests when the feeding frenzy is over.

The truce holds. I know Quiet One will always be the child who says sorry first, but I also know that Middle Child has his own gift. In an attempt to get along with his sisters, he adapts to their tastes even though they differ from his own. After all, the flip-side of jealousy is wanting to fit in and be loved. For a few minutes peace reigns... until NwT starts to howl because I won't allow her a fourth yoghurt. At least she is too small to slam doors.

Hermaphrodite Mum is a fictional creation of Emma Clark Lam
Previous posts by Hermaphrodite Mum:

Wednesday, 6 March 2013

Dream kitchens

Nostalgia is a funny old thing. It is something that I suffer from on a periodic basis. The term nostalgia is defined as a sentimental longing for the past, deriving from the Greek compound for 'homecoming' and 'ache' or 'pain'. Rather appropriate in my case as today I am mourning the loss of our home - or at least parts of our home. 

Building project for Edwardian house
Nostalgia and innovation in the making
At the end of February, we embarked on a project to extend the kitchen into the side return. In architect's speak, we are taking an innovative approach to reflect the needs of a rapidly changing world. We are contrasting a lightweight, modern extension with the red bricks of our Edwardian terraced house. In terms of old and new, it will be a bit like the Louvre Pyramid, except we are building a nice bespoke kitchen with a comfy family area (as opposed to a world-class art gallery).

As the new parts of the house take shape, however, we are bidding farewell to the old kitchen that has served us so well for seven years. My children have grown up in this kitchen - they have learnt their table manners on black granite, showcased their artwork on cupboard doors and even taken their first steps on the slate floor. In other words, I associate a bank of happy memories with a few kitchen units. And today the builders have ripped them out!

Of course I still want my new kitchen with its painted doors and double the floorspace, but I can't help feeling discomforted by the loss of familiar surroundings. Exciting as the new project is, I am still pulled to the past. That, I suppose, is how we build our identities. Our lives are indexed by the past and invigorated by everything the future promises. By holding onto that duality, we can perhaps appreciate the delights of the old and the new. 

Which, incidentally, is what we are trying to achieve with our new extension: nostalgia, innovation, some sliding doors to the garden and forty square metres of underfloor heating. May the old kitchen rest in peace.