Booby Trap

My favourite bra broke last week and I am in mourning. I don’t mean that it got a bit too worn to be useable, frankly it’s been a bit shabby for some time now but it’s not like anyone else is seeing the state of it. No, I mean broke, because I am a woman of certain proportions, my bras contain engineering and parts and they broke. I can’t remember how long I’ve had that particular bra, but I remember it was bought some years ago along with several others, it’s brethren long since departed this earth (ok, send to the clothes recycling place). It wasn’t the prettiest (we’ll come to that) but it was the most comfortable. It wasn’t actually comfortable per se (we’ll come to that too) but it was the least uncomfortable of all my bras. Ah, old faithful “plain flesh coloured” (racist) I’ll miss you.

I remember a friend once telling me that she’d been to Primark. Didn’t really see anything but picked up a handful of cute bras anyway. Oh, how I long to be able to skip into Primark and pick up a handful of cute bras! My bra shopping usually involves a quantity surveyor, a structural engineer and at least 2 stout ladies called Moira.

Bra shopping for the larger-busted lady also can’t just be done in any old shop, no, we get special sections of shops, even special shops to cater for our needs. We also need to take out small loans or sell non-essential organs if we want to purchase anything. Apparently, all that extra fabric and scaffolding is expensive. I have seen myself easily spend over £100 on just a few bras. I mean, it wasn’t easy, it was devastating but there’s no other option. The Scottish Government has subsidised menstrual products, recognising the additional costs that girls and women face and that this is unaffordable for some, I think the next campaign should be bras. First the “Tampon Tax” is abolished, next the “Big Boob Bonus” or the “Supersized Bra Subsidy“. I mourning the passing of bras because it means I’ll have to endure an expensive shopping trip, an often fruitless search for something comfortable, affordable and not resembling 1940s “foundation garments”.

Maybe it’s like curly hair. People with straight hair – and mine is about the straightest hair in the world – often dream of mounds of luscious curly hair. People born with curly hair will tell us that it’s not all it’s cracked up to be – the frizz, the products required to maintain it, always struggling to keep it under control. We say, yeah, but it looks so good! Similarly, many smaller-boobed girls would kill for a bigger bust, or at least spend a fortune to get one artificially. Let me tell you, it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. Back problems, getting in the way of everyday activities, some sports nigh on impossible, clothes not fitting, swimming costumes impossible to find, suffering in the heat and the requirement for giant, expensive bras.

But they look so good! Well the bras don’t, most are massive swathes of dull looking cloth that may look ok on the size 8 models but when you delve to the back of the rack to pick out the G cup version you emerge with something akin to a hammock or an army parachute. With a tiny bow in the middle to make us feel pretty. Thanks.

Nor are they comfortable. All those wires and triple/quadruple clasps. Oh yes! Guys, if you thought undoing a normal bra was hard, try 4 SETS OF HOOKS! If you do manage, you’ll be so worn you’ll need a wee nap before proceeding. Thankfully the bra can double as a sleeping bag so you’re all sorted. They dig in, they constrict, they poke and prod when we dare to move but we don’t have the luxury of just going without cos that would be even more unbearable. As with many things in life, women just put up with pain, discomfort, inconvenience and expense cos we’re used to it, that’s just the way things are for us.

They look good? Yes, we get attention. 99% of that attention is unwanted. I could do a whole other piece on the unwanted attention, how I have spent most of my life trying to hide myself and the psychological impact of that, but I’ll either save that for another time or should possibly take it to a therapist. It’s not all it’s cracked up to be.

Anyway, solutions? Well after my recent loss and with my bra collection dwindling and consisting of now mostly actually uncomfortable and realistically unwearable numbers, I took a different direction and ordered a bra from Molke. Women-led, Scottish-based, ethical, body positive, living-wage-paying tick, tick, tick, tick. They are relatively expensive, but I mind less when my hard-earned money is going to a business like that, and….the bras are funky and comfortable!!!! Oh my word! No wires, no array of hooks, just beautiful comfortable, supportive fabric. I ordered one as a test, tried it on and immediately ordered 2 more. I may never buy a normal bra again. Perhaps old faithful being laid to rest is a blessing in disguise after all…

My new Molke bras

Coincidentally, I’ve just started listening to The Allusionist podcast, all about language. This episode delves into the history of the word “bra” as well as the history of the garment itself.

There’s no such thing as a guilty pleasure

A few weeks ago I read a Guardian article that asked whether someone’s taste in books could predict dating compatibility. My first reaction was, “hell yeah!” If a bloke reads the same kind of books as me there’s a good chance we’ll hit it off. However the article contains comments from people who are extremely judgmental about others’ reading habits and this is where the whole idea falls down. First of all, frankly if a bloke reads at all, I’m interested, but mainly this pretentious distinction between “high-brow” and “low-brow” or “cultured” and “popular” art is a nonsense. What can you tell about someone who professes that Infinite Jest is their favourite book? That they may or may not have actually read Infinite Jest and that’s about it. What about someone who likes sitcoms? What if they are the same person?

Last week I was doing the “what shall I watch next?” thing, skipping from Netflix to Prime to iPlayer trying to settle on something and not quite feeling into anything. Netflix now has a suggestions button that will cycle through options based on previous viewing. The first few recommendations I had already seen elsewhere but then it came to Superstore, based on my viewing of Brooklyn Nine-Nine and Parks and Recreation. Both excellent shows. But I felt like if something was along those lines and any good, I would have heard of it already? Schitt’s Creek was recommended to me multiple times by multiple people before I finally tried and yes, it does live up to its reputation. But I had literally never heard of Superstore. However the ennui had set in by then so I gave it a try. I could see the similarities to B99 and Parks, but thought it was a bit derivative, bit too fluffy and slapstick in places. A few days later and I’m crying as Jonah comforts Amy as she’s going through a tough time. Later I’m on the edge of my seat as a natural disaster befalls the store. But wait, this is disposable fluff telly, right? Well like most tv these days it is well written and well acted. It does have moments of silliness but also surprisingly deep themes, like worker’s rights, healthcare and immigration, which, by the way America, what the hell is wrong with you? The character of Amy (America Ferrera) has experiences that chime remarkably with my own life. Not totally – I did get married young and had a very similar divorce journey but didn’t get pregnant at 19 and sadly don’t have a Jonah (Ben Feldman) but still I found myself thinking “wow, that’s me” on multiple occasions. It is light, it is fluffy, it is silly, it is low-brow but it is also very good and I am loving it.

The whole idea of this artificial division and associated judgements is class-ist. I remember when I was in my early 20s, taking part in a quiz with some university friends. A lot of the questions related to opera, classical music, theatre etc and I was clueless. It’s not that I’m not intelligent, or that I don’t have good general knowledge, its that coming from a working class background gives you a very different cultural upbringing than those from the middle or upper-middle classes. That isn’t to say that I had no exposure to culture, quite the opposite – but traditional Scottish, folk and popular culture, as “low-brow” doesn’t have the same status or likelihood to appear as questions in quizzes, but it is as rich and fully rounded and as culturally significant as “cultured” culture. At the time I felt ashamed at my lack of knowledge of high culture, but looking back I realise that knowing your Wagner from your Puccini doesn’t make you a better person, just as knowing your Coronation Street from your Eastenders doesn’t make you a lesser person.

I have always liked the lyric from the Franz Ferdinand song “Dark of the Matinee” (one of their best songs if you ask me)

“Time every journey to bump into you, accidentally
I charm you and tell you of the boys I hate
All the girls I hate
All the words I hate
All the clothes I hate
How I’ll never be anything I hate
You smile, mention something that you like
Oh how you’d have a happy life if you did the things you like”

It’s all too easy to pass judgement. It is easy to hate on things, criticise things and make fun of them. I’m no exception, I’ve definitely engaged in that myself. By nature I’m a cynical person and I have strong opinions about a lot of things, A good judgy session can strengthen bonds and cement “us” vs “them” which as social animals we need sometimes. But expressing dislike, criticism or judgement about a tv programme/book/musician shouldn’t be the same as making judgements about the people who do like those things. The times when I’ve found someone who takes a more positive view of things, who talks enthusiastically about an interest or who I share an obsession for something with have been the most life-affirming and uplifting experiences in my life, far outweighing any camaraderie gained from a griping session. The pleasure gained from sharing a passion, sharing joy is a beautiful thing.

As we experienced lockdowns though the COVID-19 Pandemic, most of us watched far more tv and films than we did before. The arts got very little government support during lockdown, yet people continued to create, often going to great lengths to either re-package their output for an online audience, or undergoing rigorous testing, isolation and distancing measures to produce something resembling normal to us. From my own viewing habits alone, I’m going to guess that a lot of the content that has been consumed over the past year has been of the lighter, fluffier, “lower-brow” variety. It offers escapism, gives us laughs and loves when we can’t be with those who make us smile or who we desperately want to hug. It serves a purpose and it serves it well. None of us should feel remotely guilty for that.

We all have a story worth telling.

A few years ago I was heading off on a long train journey, I think to a work conference (remember those?) when I realised that I’d forgotten to pack a book. I ducked into WH Smith’s to see what they had to offer, expecting the usual array of “holiday reading” trash but instead found East West Street by Philippe Sands. Yes, a factual book about interconnected families, war crimes and the International Criminal Court was my idea of a good travel read. It is an excellent book and I still think about it often.

To partially explain, I studied the International Criminal Court as part of my Masters in Human Rights, so it was a topic I already knew a little about and had an interest in. What we didn’t learn at university, and what Sands explores so brilliantly in his book, is about the actual people behind the processes, statutes and conventions. Throughout my formal education, social history was largely sidelined. We learned about laws, revolutions and great thinkers but not about the people, individuals and families who were affected by these, lived through them and whose destinies were determined by them.

In a previous post I talked about what I was reading, and mentioned that I tend to stick to a theme for a while in my book choices. I anticipated that the theme of biographies/memoirs would continue with Obama’s latest. Well I’m afraid I took a slight detour into my current area of study by reading Seeing Voices by Oliver Sacks, about the Deaf signing community which I would recommend for anyone involved with deaf people. I then did a swift about turn to read Jews Don’t Count by David Baddiel which I would recommend to everyone. Yes, everyone, including you. Even if you are not Jewish (I’m not), especially if you are not Jewish. Even if you think you are a liberal progressive (I think I am), especially if you think you are a liberal progressive, but also especially if you aren’t. Just read it. It’s short, like an old timey persuasive pamphlet type thing and it’s saying something very important.

So then my themes merged and memoirs melded with Jewish stories and I have just finished House of Glass by Hadley Freeman. I’ve been a fan of Freeman’s writing since she wrote a fashion column for the Guardian that I always read even though I have absolutely no interest in fashion, she’s that good of a writer. I haven’t read her other books, but House of Glass sounded intriguing so I delved in. Similar to East West Street, it takes major events in history – World War II and the Holocaust – and lets us see them through the eyes of real people, who were trying to live their real lives. It is beautifully written, with even an amount of humour but always real love and warmth for those whose stories she reveals.

Both House of Glass and East West Street have plots and twists worthy of thrillers or mystery novels but document the real lives of people, often family members or acquaintances of the authors, a product of research and investigation into parts of their lives that were hitherto unknown to their loved ones. My own parents have been doing family history research as a hobby for years now. As far as I know none of my relatives or ancestors were involved in international affairs or single-handedly shaped world events. In fact a good lot of them resided in a place called Dull. Farmers and mill workers from Dull don’t make for much mystery or intrigue and I don’t think I’ll be writing a book about them, but I do want to know about them. I’ve visited Dull. It was, well, dull but it was interesting to see where my forebears lived, worked and no doubt had their own personal dramas. Much genealogy research is records-based – births, marriages, deaths – at the basic level these give places and dates but occasionally they can include other snippets of lives such as whether they died after a long illness or were found drunk in a ditch. Census records can reveal occupations, how many people lived in a house and whether they were wealthy enough to employ “help” or whether they were the hired help to another family. One relative of mine was a police officer, and it’s fascinating to look through his police notebooks and find out what crimes he was investigating and learn that he was once commended for catching a runaway horse.

Through my parents efforts I know more about some distant ancestors than I do about closer relatives. Living the past year through a pandemic, with lockdowns keeping us from seeing our families, it’s natural to re-evaluate our relationships with our nearest and dearest, or farthest and most distant. I want to hear all their stories and piece together the unique jigsaw of my family with all its branches extending around the world, containing Scottish stories, English stories, Jewish stories, tales from Australia and Sri Lanka and possibly beyond.

It also makes me wonder what future generations will know or learn about me? Digital records might make it easier to investigate but what impression will be left behind of my life? Facts of my birth, marriage and not-yet-completed divorce will tell one story, but what of my personal social history? Well I suppose I’m still writing that…

“It’s not MY fault!” Setting an eco-example.

Over lockdown my girls have been on a nature documentary kick. It started with Gordon Buchanan and his “…, family & me” series covering arctic wolves, polar bears, black bears, brown bears and cheetahs. Then we moved on to David Attenborough, first his Perfect Planet series then The Blue Planet and now Blue Planet II. As part of Blue Planet II, they include some segments explaining how human actions have impacted the marine and coastal environment. My older daughter (aged 11) remarked, “ok, this is the bit where they say it’s all our fault.” The younger one (aged 7) full of indignation, retorted, “It’s not MY fault!”. She’s right. It is the fault of those of us who have lived longer than a mere 7 years.

Coincidentally, two of my friends have recently expressed a desire to live more plastic-free lives, and I’ve had a few conversations with people about reusable sanitary products. Perhaps as a consequence of lockdown and people re-evaluating their lives, perhaps we have just reached a critical mass of public opinion and that which used to be the domain of hippies and fringe groups is now mainstream, but either way it can only be a good thing that we are taking this more seriously.

I had a chat with my girls about what we do already, and how we could do more. (I’ll post some links to sites at the end)

They were both clad in reusable cloth nappies. I am a huge advocate for these. Not only do they reduce landfill, they don’t have any chemicals on baby’s bottom and they look super cute.

I also used cloth wipes instead of disposable ones, and still have a hands & faces set (bum set was separate!) handy for snacks, mealtimes or any other grubby occasion.

I’ve been using reusable sanitary products for years now, a mooncup and cloth pads. Again, I can’t recommend these highly enough, waste-saving and much nicer against the skin. The mooncup does take a bit of getting used to, but it is definitely worth persisting. While browsing for starter kits in preparation for my older daughter I came across Hey Girls, a Scottish company that donates 1 product for every 1 you buy, I bought some stuff for my daughter and thought I’d give their period pants a try as well, I must say I was impressed and might buy a few more.

Other health-wise we buy toilet paper and tissues from Who Gives a Crap, who make it out of sustainable materials, plastic-free wrapping and use profits to built toilets in developing countries. Win win win. For a fourth win, I have a referral code that gets us both £5 off, hit me up if you want in on the winning. We recently made the switch to bamboo toothbrushes which I was a bit unsure about, but they’ve been absolutely fine and the kids love them.

We use soap bars and I use a shampoo bar, although I’ve yet to switch the girls, somehow we had several bottles of kids shampoo I want to use up first. I still use bottled “bubble bath” and haven’t really looked at alternatives there yet, it’s a bit complicated by the fact that 2 of the 3 of us have eczema so some of what we use is prescription, some is just tried and tested and doesn’t irritate our skin so we’re reluctant to experiment too much. It’s probably next on my list to investigate, though. I tried FitPit deodorant and just didn’t get on with it, so I’m afraid I gave up, not having limitless funds to try out relatively pricey products that don’t work. However, a friend posted on Facebook today asking for some plastic-free toiletries and got some good recommendations so I will maybe hitchhike on those and try again.

One of my favourite things is our fruit & veg boxes. We are lucky and have 2 local farms that offer both pre-made and self-selection produce for collection or delivery, locally grown where possible and largely plastic-free.

We also get our milk delivered in glass bottles which get returned to be used again, saving many plastic bottles. I have a code for these guys too if you are local to the Glasgow area – get in touch!

Elsewhere in the kitchen, I have some reusable cloths instead of disposable kitchen paper, we have reusable sandwich wrappers for picnics or packed lunches and I save leftover food in wee tubs rather than using cling film. I recently got a dishwasher and just started using Smol plastic-free dishwasher tablets, which they post to you regularly. They also do laundry tabs and other stuff but I’ve not tried any of these yet. There are people who insist that you can clean your whole house with only white vinegar and baking soda, I haven’t put that to the test yet, and the cupboard under my sink is very much full of chemical-ridden plastic bottles. Another area I’d like to address, but just haven’t got round to it yet…

For home energy, I am with Bulb, which promises 100% green energy and has a clear, simple price plan and payment structure. Guess what – they have a referral code too, which get us both £50 off our bills, so you really should do that, for my sake, for your sake, for the planet’s sake, for goodness sake!

As individuals, we can undoubtedly make a difference, but we should bear in mind that we can only do so much. All of our individual personal circumstances will impact our abilities to make significant changes – health, wealth, location and available time all make it more or less easy to make that effort. It has been easy for me to avoid excessive air travel, because I haven’t had the means to afford foreign holidays. Many argue that a vegan diet is the best action one can take for the planet, but I am allergic to all nuts and soya (and eggs) so veganism and even vegetarianism would leave me with a particularly restricted diet. I chose to put my efforts elsewhere. It is easy for me to use a fruit & veg box service because I have two locally. Comparing eco-credentials can quickly slip into judgement and one-upmanship. We should be mindful that everyone is working within different parameters of financial, physical and social factors and applaud anyone who makes any kind of effort, no matter how small. In fact during these pandemic times, making even a small change can feel even more significant, as we wrest back some control over our lives, our connections to others and the world we all live in.

We should also remember the role that governments and corporations play in pollution and CO2 emissions. Buy wisely, consider where your investments go – check where your pension funds are held and vote for those who will hold states and companies responsible.

My parents and grandparents live(d) a much more ecologically sound life than we do, without a 2nd thought and without any handwringing or endless internet searches for the best coconut scourer. Growing their own vegetables, composting, buying quality and taking care of things so they last, repairing things rather than replacing. It needn’t be complicated.

So what are your top tips for living an eco-friendly life? Share and spread the love.

Some links to companies that I’ve used:

Tots Bots cloth nappies: https://www.totsbots.com/

Cheeky Wipes reusable wipes & more: https://www.cheekywipes.com/

Mooncup: https://www.mooncup.co.uk/

Hey Girls sanitary products: https://www.heygirls.co.uk/

Who Gives A Crap toilet paper & more: https://uk.whogivesacrap.org – ASK ME FOR A CODE!

Roots of Linwood Fruit & Veg boxes: https://www.linwoodtrust.org.uk/store/category/5_fruitveg-shop/

Barnhill Boxes Fruit & Veg: https://barnhillboxes.com/

McQueen’s Dairies – milk & more: https://www.mcqueensdairies.co.uk/ – ASK ME FOR A CODE!

Smol cleaning products: https://smolproducts.com/

Bulb home energy: https://bulb.co.uk/ – WHAT, ANOTHER CODE? YES! £50 EACH NO LESS, YOU KNOW YOU WANT IT!! GET IN TOUCH!

Anything But Plastic – shop with good range of products, self-explanatory: https://www.anythingbutplastic.co.uk/shop

It’s really not funny.

The other day I was disappointed by a sitcom and spiralled into a world of despair about the state of modern feminism.

The sitcom in question is “Out of Her Mind”, it’s on the BBC iPlayer and was written by and stars comedian Sara Pascoe. I like Sara Pascoe, I would go so far as to say I am a a fan – I have admired her turns on various panel shows, enjoyed her stand-up performances and even read her books. These books are quasi-academic looks at the female body (Animal) and sexual desire, relationships and sex work (Sex Power Money). Both are easy to read, enjoyable and offer some interesting perspectives. When I heard that there was a sitcom based loosely on the ideas explored in both these books, I was definitely interested.

I was disappointed. Granted, I’ve only watched the first 2 episodes, but still I was disappointed.

It started a bit weird, nothing wrong with that. Could be interesting, a bit quirky, 4th wall broken, ok, let’s go. Then it got cringy, desperate, a bit too self-serving and overly self-aware. I literally grimaced through 90% of it, and was mostly baffled through the other 10%. Then after 2 episodes I gave up and the disappointment set it.

I was disappointed that it didn’t go far enough to take us to the different, often challenging perspectives that the books did. I was disappointed that it wasn’t quirky enough, it used clichés in a knowing way, yet was still full of clichés. I was disappointed that it didn’t really SAY anything, I was mainly disappointed that it was about women talking about men, and women talking about their weight. Yes, it tried to do it in a different sort of way, but still…

When I was younger and discovering comedy, there was a distinct lack of diversity in the demographics of comedians around – they were white, they were male. But within that very white, very male group there was diversity of styles. Whether they were in sitcoms, doing stand-up or presenting gameshows and playing charming, joke-telling host, we could see the traditional, the classic, the edgy, the surreal, the slapstick, the dry, the storyteller, the one-liner. Billy Connolly, Russ Abbot, The 2 Ronnies, Fry & Laurie, John Cleese, Ben Elton, Benny Hill, Harry Enfield, Mr Bean, I could literally go on and on.

There were a few women comedians. Actually, there were 4 that I remember – French & Saunders did French & Saunders and one of them did Absolutely Fabulous, Victoria Wood had her tv shows and Jo Brand did stand-up. That was our lot. Jo Brand talked about being a woman. She talked about not having a man. She talked about her weight. Fair enough, that’s her thing. She was good at it. She was funny. She was literally peerless.

As I got older and had more power to view beyond the offering of the 4 tv channels I had been limited to growing up at home, I discovered comedians that I liked – Eddie Izzard, Bill Bailey, Dara O’Briain. I liked slightly surreal, meandering, there’s maybe a punchline coming but maybe not and who cares the journey through the story is funny anyway kind of comedy. Not sure if you could call it a sitcom, but The Mighty Boosh was revelatory to me. Still all-male, still all-white.

In the intervening years, the comedy field had become slightly more diverse, but we still had women talking about their weight or their (lack of) men (Sarah Millican, Katy Brand), Black and Asian people talking about being Black or Asian (Gina Yashere, Stephen K Amos, Shazia Mirza). If you were not white or male you’d better just talk about the fact that you are not white or male. That’s all we will allow you to talk about. White, male comedians get the full gamut of topics, styles and modes to chose from. They can do whole sets without mentioning the fact that they are white or male. Or their weight.

There were a few exceptions. Goodness Gracious Me took talking about being Asian to a whole new level, but was as much aimed at an Asian audience as the “mainstream” white British audience and was littered with Asian culture jokes that the rest of us were largely oblivious to. Smack The Pony was a group of women just being generally funny, it was ground breaking but who followed on that ground? Very few. More recently we have had Fleabag, lauded as the next big thing in feminist comedy. It was good, especially the first series, but I found the whole priest storyline of the 2nd series a bit weird and egotistical.

Incidentally, in writing this I did some google searches to recall names, check spellings etc.

If you search for “British comedians”, google helpfully displays a line of names with thumbnail photos along the top of the search results page. You can scroll right to reveal more. I had to scroll right past 15 men before I got to Dawn French and Jo Brand. Then past another 11 men before I got to Victoria Wood. 3 women out of 29. I had to go past 26 of them to find the first non-white person in Lenny Henry.

And sad but true, the suggested questions related to my search for “male British comedians”…

We might want to know who is the best, most popular, most famous? Ok, seems fair enough.

And for “female British comedians”?

We want to know who is the best, ok….and hottest? *massive eye-roll*

I feel like when it comes to other fields, I have almost compiled lists of great women that I want to introduce my daughters to. We have started on music – the eldest can sing along to Blondie and recognise “that girl that comes from Glasgow” (Lauren from Chvrches) and I have an all-female indie/rock-with-a-wee-bit-of-pop playlist that I put on in the car as often as I can get away with. They are discovering great female actors for themselves in the likes of Dr Who. Strides are being made, progress is evident, but somehow it still doesn’t seem enough.

I was disappointed in Out of Her Mind because I had higher hopes for something from Sara Pascoe, and I’m disappointed that now, 30 years after I started watching comedians on tv, the women are still only talking about their weight and their (lack of) men. I am disappointed that we still don’t have a great variety of women comedians able to turn their hand to any given style, without being judged on their looks, or told sorry, we already have one of your gender/colour and there isn’t room for any more. I want to see women being themselves, being surreal, doing puns and one-liners, telling hilarious stories, talking about anything other than being a woman, finding/losing a man or their goddam weight.

Disclaimer No. 1 – I have focussed on the UK, I know it’s a whole different ball game in America and maybe elsewhere but I wanted to talk about the situation at home for this post.

Disclaimer No. 2 – I don’t know all comedy. I don’t have the time to consume much comedy these days, so there will undoubtedly be women who I haven’t heard of who are fab. Please tell me about them!