A Note To My Fellow English People On Scottish Independence

To judge from Facebook and the newspaper front pages, most of England has now noticed there is a referendum on independence in Scotland this week. But a lot of people don’t know what to make of it. Or they aren’t very pleased. I’m English, but I lived in Scotland for 12 years, and there’s something I’d like to say to you all about the referendum.

Don’t be scared. Don’t be bitter. Take hope.

Some people maybe think that a Yes vote will be fueled by anti-English sentiments. Don’t be scared of that. I’d be lying if I said there is no anti-Englishness North of the border. I’ve had enough drunken arguments with people over the years about how I’m oppressing them all. Of course some people have a chip on their shoulder. But I think that’s been less and less since devolution.

There’s less reason to have that chip now. There’s a new self-confidence in Scotland these days. The Yes voters I’ve spoken to, or who I see in my Facebook feed aren’t motivated by hatred, but by hope.

Here’s a quote from a friend of mine who is passionate about voting Yes.

“I love being part of the UK. My Dad’s English, that’s where lots of my family and friends are; it’s the opportunity for change I’m voting for. I’d have liked to do it as part of the wider UK, but the system is too entrenched for meaningful change by peaceful democratic means.”

Some English people seem bitter about it. “It’s not fair! We haven’t got a functioning democracy either, why do you get to opt out?” With a sideline in, “Shit, if Scotland go, we’ll be ruled by the Tories forever!”

I know most people in the UK don’t feel our democracy works for them. Too right, it doesn’t. And it isn’t fair. First past the post is shit. We’re got an overly centralised government and a cabinet composed of millionaires who went to Eton. They’re asset-stripping the country, selling it all off to their country club mates, while blaming it all on immigrants and benefit claimants.

But here’s the thing. It’s like a relationship. If one person wants to leave, you can’t say, “But I don’t want you to go, you can’t leave me, I won’t let you!” If they want to leave, then it’s over.

And here’s the other thing. It’s not Scotland’s fault that so many people in England vote for the Tories. Scotland didn’t vote for them. And they didn’t design a political system run by Oxbridge-educated lawyers who treat politics as a game that only people exactly like them are allowed to play.

Scotland isn’t just another bit of England. It is a separate country, with a different legal system, a different education system and an NHS that (so far) isn’t being privatised. If I’m honest, it took me living in Scotland to realise this. Of course we are all Britons: we all know the Coronation Street theme tune and drink lots of tea. In the main, we have more in common than we do with French or Spanish or Bhutanese people. But the Scots all remember Glen Michael’s Cartoon Cavalcade and know about Buckfast, and English people don’t. It makes sense for Scotland to be it’s own country within the EU, if that’s what the people of Scotland want.

Of course, it would also make sense for the English regions to have greater self-determination too, if that’s what they want. But you know what? You need to fight for that yourselves, people! And here’s where ‘take hope’ comes in.

A Scottish friend of mine was planning to vote No for a long time. She feels a kinship with the English and she feels bad about abandoning England to be governed by the Tories forever. But recently she’s changed her mind to Yes.

She says she’s come to think that the best thing Scotland can do for all the English people getting shat on by centralised government and the Tories is to show them there is an alternative. And maybe that will kick something off in the English regions. Cos sticking with it and suffering under a Tory government most people in Scotland never voted for doesn’t seem to be helping people in England to see that their government is not acting in their interests.

Last year I was one of the facilitators at a consensus conference for ordinary Scots, modelled on the Icelandic referendum movement. People there talked about the country they wanted to live in, and it was a fairer country, and greener country, a peaceful country that doesn’t make war around the world and sell arms to dictators. It was a country with more localised decision making. They also wanted fewer midgies and more sunshine, but I think they knew which of these aims was achievable.

In my experience, most people have got better ideas about how to run a country than the people actually running the country seem to do.

With the upcoming referendum, people are talking about it everywhere. I’ve overheard conversations on park benches, in chip shops, at bus stops. People are talking about the big stuff – the kind of future they want and the kind of country they want to live in. This is what politics should be like, but never is, in the Westminster system. But give people a meaningful vote and they engage with it.

The Scots see the possibility of change, and change for the better. They see the possibility of taking their own destiny in their hands and making Scotland the kind of country they want to live in.

This is what politics could be like in England too. Instead of a stupid game where men in different coloured ties bay at each other across a debating chamber.

People aren’t voting Yes out of hate, but out of hope. Hope that greater self-determination can create a better country. Of course there’s the chance that Scotland just swaps an overly-centralised government in Westminster for an overly-centralised government in Holyrood. People in Scotland know that. They aren’t stupid. But at least Scotland has proportional representation, which makes it more democratic from the get-go. And really, in austerity Britain, with our cabinet of millionaires, wouldn’t most change be for the better?

If Scotland vote Yes on Thursday (which I’ve come to hope they do), then don’t be scared. Don’t be bitter. Take hope. Maybe a better world is possible, and maybe we can learn from the Scots.

This is why we can’t have nice things

I have a baby. He’s of the boy persuasion. I’ve noticed something about baby clothes.

Clothes for boy babies have cars on. Or sometimes dinosaurs.







From the time they are born, boys are being groomed to be either Jeremy Clarkson, or Ross from friends.

Clothes for girl babies have flowers or animals on.



Now you can dismiss this as unimportant, and say baby clothes don’t really matter and I should be worrying about benefit cuts and women’s refuges shutting down instead (I worry about those things too, I promise!). But it seems to me that while the car is seen as the key signifier of maleness in our society, so much so that little boys have to be dressed in them from the minute they are born, then we aren’t going to get anywhere with saving the planet.

Cos if cars are the signifier of maleness, then asking someone to use their car less is the equivalent to cutting their dick off. And caring about the planet is a girl thing. And we get these messages from so incredibly young that it’s hard to shift them with facts and logic. So I think baby clothes DO actually matter. And maybe that’s the place we have to start changing things from.




Things I didn’t know before I got pregnant

When you tell people you’re pregnant, the ones who are already mothers immediately take you aside and tell you horrific things about pregnancy and birth. There seems to be a conspiracy to keep this information secret from non-pregnant women until it’s TOO LATE.

(There’s also a bunch of stuff that nobody tells you, but you quickly start finding out for yourself. Like about constipation.)

Well I refuse to be part of the conspiracy of silence. Here’s my dispatches with the secrets from pregnancy-land.

If you are contemplating throwing away your pills and trying to make babies,

If you’ve just done a wee on a stick and you’re looking at a scary blue line wondering what to do next,

Or if you made a baby years ago (or you plan never to make babies) and you just want to laugh at me…

Then this post is for you.

A close up picture of a positive pregnancy test.

A stick I weed on, some months ago.

Things I didn’t realise #1: It’s a big fucking deal.

I know this seems obvious. And yes, I did realise that parenthood is a life-changing experience. I’m not stupid. I just didn’t realise quite how it would feel.

I am with child. Like billions of women before me throughout history. And yet when it happens to you, it seems like the biggest fucking thing in the world.

The first time I had my heart really broken – 20 years ago now, dumped by my first love – I remember walking out into the street and feeling vaguely surprised that everyone was just acting like normal.

“How come the street just looks the same as it did before? How come buildings haven’t fallen down and people aren’t rending their hair? DON’T YOU ALL KNOW WHAT’S HAPPENED?”

Yes, that’s the solipsism of youth. But let’s face it, like Hugh Grant’s character in About a Boy, we are all the star, in our own heads, of the film of our lives.

Finding out you’re pregnant is earth-shattering the way being dumped for the first time was. Only more so.

A miniature human thing is growing inside your body! You’re going to be a parent! Responsible for a small person for the next 18 years, if not the rest of their lives! And on top of that, as shaken as you may be, you can’t have a drink or a fag!

I felt like walking down the street people would be able to tell that a momentous and amazing thing had happened to me. Like there should be a giant, glowing, OMFG over my head.

I went to the doctors. “Hi, I’d like to register with the doctor. Errrm, I’ve just found out I’m pregnant.” I sort of expected party poppers and fireworks to go off and a brass band to start playing. The receptionist said “congratulations”, while tucking a pen behind her ear and looking under a file for some forms.


You can’t get your head round the idea that millions of people do this every day, and everything just carries on as normal. I wondered around in a daze, unable to think of anything else. I couldn’t quite relate to the everyday world. I wanted to blurt out, “I’m pregnant!” all the time. “Well, that’s very nice love”, people said, “but do you want a single or a return?”

Most of the adult women you know have done it. Bloody hell! I kind of thought it was a big deal when my friends had kids. But I just didn’t take in quite how big.

I think it’s one of those things, like infinity, that you can’t ever really get your head around. Creating a new person from nowhere? Nope, just too incredible and miraculous to contemplate. Being responsible for it for the rest of your life? Argh! Growing it, inside your body, from a single cell to melon-sized then passing it through your fanny? Wait, what?!?! Whose stupid idea was this then?

I’m at 22 weeks now (babies come out around 40 weeks – that’s the kind of thing you usually don’t know until you get pregnant). I think we’ve kind of got our heads round it a bit, but I still have moments of, “Shit, what were we thinking?! There’s no way we are responsible enough for this.”

Also, I have occasional moments of abject existential terror at the thought that there’s a tiny human inside my body, sucking my nutrients and moving around when they want to.

It’s just too freaking WEIRD.

Things I Didn’t Realise #2. Pregnancy symptoms start from day 1.

I knew that you got morning sickness right from the off. But when people I knew were pregnant they didn’t look pregnant for a while. So I didn’t think of them as being *that* pregnant. And then they gradually looked more and more pregnant. And I thought of them as more and more pregnant.

Here’s how I thought of it: you start off a tiny bit pregnant, then get more so. Until you’re fully pregnant. And then a baby comes out.

I guess it is a bit like that. But also a lot not like that.

Here’s how I also thought of it: the fertilised egg is a little seed. And your womb is like a pot of compost. And the seed just plants itself in there, and does it’s thing and grows. And you (your body, your self) carry on around it, pretty much like normal.

But it’s not really like that. It’s more like this: Your body was a factory that made saucepans. And now a big emergency switch has been thrown and it’s being hastily converted into a factory that makes lawn-mowers instead. New machines are ordered. Existing machines need to be changed drastically, or double in size, or speed up or slow down. The whole shape of the factory is re-designed. Supply lines change. Previously important machinery gets moved out of the way and has to lump it.

What starts off as one tiny cell, implanting itself into the wall of your womb, is the trigger for ALL of this. Massive doses of hormone are the messenger. And your body (and brain) jump to obedient attention.

TIDR #3. Constipation.

One of the things the massive amounts of hormones do is slow down your digestive tract. This can (probably will) give you constipation. Nobody told me about the constipation. Bastards.

I got constipation from early on – before I even knew I was pregnant. The human digestive tract is about 30 feet long. The foetus, at that stage, is smaller than a poppy seed. How could something so tiny stop something that size in it’s tracks? Hormones. Bloody hormones. The signal goes out, and your body obeys.

Everyone advises eating lots of fibre. Yes, well, thanks for that, you smug gits, but I WAS ALREADY EATING A HIGH-FIBRE DIET, I’M A GUARDIAN-READING HIPPY. Brown rice was not enough.

SOLUTION: The only thing that worked was loads of dried prunes. Other people have suggested dried apricots, or fresh kiwi fruits. Dried prunes are really cheap though. Five dried prunes count as a portion of your five a day, and in my experience are enough to get your sluggish bowel moving.

Apologies for the TMI (what am I talking about, this whole post is TMI), but there is one upside to the constipation thing: after four days of no shitting, the enormous prune-induced shit you do have feels absolutely great.

TIDR #4. Peeing

Peeing all the time also started from day one. I thought that was only towards the end, cos the baby sits on your bladder. Nope, it’s right from the start, cos the hormones increase pelvic bloodflow, making you *feel* like you need to wee all the time. So you inconveniently queue up and pay 20p at a train station, but then you only pee an eggcup’s worth. It’s well annoying. Especially cos it happens all night. (Not the queuing and paying 20p bit. I don’t live in a train station. Just the peeing.)

SOLUTION: It helps a bit with night peeing if you drink loads of water all day but then not in the last hour or so before bed. The idea being you pee it out before sleep. But I still have to pee in the night once or twice.

TIDR#5. Pregnancy is like female viagra

This came totally out of the blue for me. But it turns out the UPSIDE of increased pelvic blood flow is being hornier than usual, and more easily turned on. I can’t believe no-one had told me this. The boyfriend had been worried I’d go off sex now I was pregnant. No sirree.

Pregnancy books do mention this in passing, I realised. And they even say you may have more frequent or more powerful orgasms. Why is this one a secret??? I suppose they didn’t want to make pregnancy sound too enticing at school, in sex ed.

SOLUTION: Why the fuck would I need a solution?

WARNING: Not everyone finds this, so don’t complain to me if you get pregnant for the orgasms and it doesn’t work. But frankly, given all the other shit stuff pregnancy does to your body (and the whole parenthood thing), it’s not a very sensible reason for getting pregnant. You’d be better off buying a rampant rabbit.

TIDR #6. Breasts

The only issue with the increased libido is keeping the boyfriend in bed and servicing my sexual needs as much as I want. Fortunately, I have my secret pregnancy weapon – giant comedy breasts!

I thought they would get a bit bigger at the end, with the whole getting-ready-for-milk-production thing, but mine started growing before I’d even missed my first period.

A friend of mine said recently I’d have to admit to my unborn child one day that I spent my entire pregnancy talking about my breasts on twitter. Well frankly, if his sexual appendage had doubled in size in the space of a few weeks then he’d be talking about it too.

Normally I have a modest pair of B-cup breasts. They’re perfectly nice – I’m fond of them – but nothing to write home about. In the first few weeks of pregnancy they got bigger, and bigger, and bigger. I’d look in the mirror and they looked like obscene porn star implants. When I was lying on my back the boyfriend described them as ‘standing up like two jellies on a plate’.

My bras became unequal to the task. I went to get fitted for a new bra and walked out of there in an E cup. An E cup!

The boyfriend (always a breast man) is mesmerised by them. I can win any argument by just lifting up my top and showing him my tits. Now the bump has grown the breasts look more in proportion and not quite so porn-star as they did. But they are still, frankly, enormous. I’m wearing a bra to sleep in for the first time in my life.

My sister – she’s the kind of woman who reads the skincare tips in magazines – told me it’s important to moisturise breasts and bump daily, to avoid stretch marks. When I told the boyfriend this he selflessly volunteered to rub the cream in.

What with his breast obsession and my hormone-fuelled libido, we end up not getting a lot done. But it’s an excellent way to start the day. I reckon we won’t get much chance to play hide-the-sausage once the baby’s born, and it’s important for us to strengthen our relationship at this crucial time in our lives as a couple…

WARNING: I’m afraid this is not a universal experience. My friend said hers didn’t change size at all. But then hers were pretty big to start with.

TIDR #7. The breasts thing has a downside.

They are sore a lot in the first trimester. Really sore. Remember the factory analogy? Breasts are a part of the factory that need a complete overhaul for their new role.

And you know how your nipples get erect when they are cold? For a while, if they got cold enough to go erect then they really, really fucking killed. Like someone was sawing off your nipples with hot knives. Fortunately this doesn’t happen if they are erect through sexual arousal. Just the cold. But I’m living in Scotland and it’s winter.

Mostly this happened when I was in the flat. The boyfriend was renovating the sash windows. Which involved breaking one pane of glass and having a hole instead of a window for 3 days. In Scotland. In January. My nipples got cold a lot.

The only thing I could do was put my hands over my breasts, while swearing and hopping about, until they warmed up and stopped hurting. Sometimes (especially if my hands were cold) I’d go and get the boyfriend and make him hold them – he has very warm hands. He liked that, but I was in far too much pain for shenanigans.

Then one day, for the first time, it happened when I was walking down the street. I immediately spotted the difference between your breasts hurting when you’re at home and them doing it in the street. You can’t put your hands over your nipples and dance about swearing in the street. Well you could, but you might get some unwelcome attention.

Honestly, the pain was unbearable. I gritted my teeth, swearing under my breath, and went into the nearest shop. Unfortunately it takes ages for them to warm up and stop hurting when they get that cold. Partly I think cos the huge comedy breasts are very insulating – it takes ages for body heat to get to the nipples, far away as they are. This is why boyfriend and his hot hands are so useful.

I had to walk around the shop, trying to surreptitiously rub my upper arms against my breasts to warm them. I must have looked like a badly co-ordinated penguin impersonator.

The boyfriend, ever practical, suggested a solution. You know those hand-warmer things? The little rectangles that you click and a chemical reaction heats them up? He reckoned I should carry one of those in each pocket. Then if the need arose I could just click them into action and slip them into my bra.

I think it’s hard to slip things into your bra in public without people noticing. But what if I fitted the little handwarmers into my bra before going out? In the event of cold nipples, just give each breast a quick squeeze and hey presto, soothing heat, right where it’s needed. If they were fitted into your bra right, you might be able to activate the warmers – click! – just by flexing your chest muscles. Like some kind of odd, nipple-pleasing superhero.

I now think they should market bras with those things fitted, especially for pregnant women living in cold climates. In fact, I’m amazed Ikea don’t sell them already. Or are Swedish women too Viking to need nipple warmers?

TIDR #8. Hysterical laughter

As you can imagine, the massive hormone levels (and the whole adjustment-to-imminent-parenthood) have funny effects on your emotions. Especially in the first trimester, I’d lose my temper more easily than normal. Or get weepy.

Then towards the end of the first trimester (i.e. about week 12), we went on an outing to the big supermarket. I find the big supermarket pathetically exciting, as we don’t go very often, and they have SO MUCH RANDOM STUFF.

In a bit of a tired pregnancy daze, I wandered off, looking at all the things. It was just after Christmas and tonnes of stuff was on special offer. I love reduced things.

After about 20 minutes it occurred to me I’d lost my boyfriend and I should probably try to find him. I drifted around looking for him and eventually found him in the last place we’d seen each other, where, in obedience to a very sensible supermarket-reunion-strategy I’d once mentioned then forgotten about, he’d been patiently waiting for the last 30 minutes.

For some reason his sad little face over the trolley, and the realisation of how oblivious I’d been, seemed like the funniest thing ever. I started laughing and literally couldn’t stop. I had to bury my face in his shoulder, while trying to explain what was so funny in hand gestures, as I couldn’t breathe. I don’t think I’d laughed quite so helplessly since being a small child.

This happened several times over the following few weeks, although it seems to have settled down now, sadly. For some reason it most often happened in supermarkets. Something to do with the trippy hyper-reality of the brightly-lit setting I think.

TIDR #9. Audible farting

In the first trimester I farted more than usual. I think this was connected to the constipation (did I mention the constipation?) – gas was being produced in my intestines, but the solids weren’t going anywhere, and the gas had to squeeze past it. Or possibly it was all the dried fruit.

I was able to release this in discreet farts, in the normal uptight British fashion.

In the second trimester I’m not getting as much constipation any more. And I’d say the amount I’m farting is mostly back to normal (apart from the odd special day), but my farting discretion seems to have evaporated. Now, they just pop out noisily and without warning. I believe the hormone relaxin is to blame. It relaxes things. Hence the name.

The other day, I was lying on the sitting room floor, doing back exercises for my sore pregnancy back. The boyfriend came in to discuss what to make for dinner – he wanted to check if he could make something with tuna, cos pregnant women are only allowed to eat a certain amount of tuna a week.

I checked on my phone and found that actually the amount of tinned tuna you’re allowed is 4 whole tins a week. This is surely more than anyone but a serious tuna fiend would eat anyway? I mean, when we have a tuna-based dish, we’ll use one tin between two of us. So for me to eat four tins of tuna in a week would mean we’d had tuna eight times. Who eats tuna more often than once a day?

The boyfriend went off on a flight of fancy about this, and for some reason, the sight of his upside-down face, waxing lyrical about an imaginary Mr Tuna McTuna, the tuna obsessive, made me start laughing. And then lying on the floor laughing about tuna seemed so silly it made me laugh uncontrollably. And laughing uncontrollably made me fart loudly. And then the fact that I was lying on the floor, laughing about tuna and farting loudly, made me laugh so much that tears were running down my face and I couldn’t speak.

The boyfriend just stared at me in a bemused way, saying “Silly Mummy”, and I thought, “How much more pregnant could this moment be? Doing back exercises on the floor, laughing uncontrollably, while farting, due to a conversation about pregnancy food restrictions. They could put a photo of me on the front cover of the next Miriam Stoppard book. That would be honest!”

And of course that made me laugh even more. And fart.

TIDR #10. Your friends, when drunk, aren’t as funny as you think.

This isn’t exactly a medical effect of pregnancy. More an insight brought to you by pregnancy – and the associated ban on drinking more than a thimbleful of wine at a time. (Seriously, it’s horrifying how small a glass of wine counts as a unit). Because of the stupid placenta, and alcohol being a poison and stuff, even on special occasions, when everyone is having a drink, and letting their hair down, you have to stay sober all night.

I know how it is. Your friends are brilliant. They are funny and lovely and cool – secretly you think they are more funny and lovely and cool than other people – that’s why you are friends with them.

And when they’ve been drinking, they get even more funny! Gosh, the times you’ve laughed. The hilarious conversations you’ve got into, the great lines, the non-stop fun.

But what you discover when you’re pregnant, and only allowed one unit of alcohol, is that when you are stone cold sober and they are drunk, your lovely friends really aren’t that interesting at all. They talk too loud. They repeat themselves. They get emotional for no reason. In fact, they are just as annoying as drunk strangers.

The worst thing about it is you realise this means YOU are probably boring when you’re pissed as well. Not witty and hilarious like you thought. And if, like me, half your mates have been pregnant before you, this means that they saw you being this annoying. For months on end. They didn’t even tell you. And now they are getting their own back.

Which is more dangerous, guns or vibrators?

Someone told me a bizarre thing today. They said there are states in the US where the sale of vibrators is banned. Yes, America, you remember, the big country over there, where they passionately believe in their constitutional right to buy automatic weapons.

I don’t even need to write anything, do I? You can all compose your own rants about how twisted it is to ban devices for sexual pleasure but not ones that kill people.

Of course, being a sceptical type, I couldn’t quite believe this was true, so I checked. In fact, there used to be several states where vibrators were banned – Texas, Kansas, all the fun ones – but some high up court overturned that (I’m hazy on the workings of the US legal system). Now the only one left is Alabama. The sale of vibrators is banned in Alabama. Although you can buy one if you get a note from your doctor. What a fun consultation that would be!

To be honest, my US geography is only slightly less hazy than my grasp of their legal system, but I’ve always had Alabama down as one of the redneck, racist states. This new information has done nothing to change my mind on that.

Quite what they have in the deep south against woman reaching orgasm, I don’t know. Maybe it’s unladylike? But apparently MEN in Alabama DO have the constitutional right to an orgasm. As well as the right to buy huge automatic weapons and shoot armour piercing bullets out of them. All the essentials of a civilised, humane society, y’know.

I guess the men of Alabama have a strange and fragile sense of their masculinity, which must be bolstered at all costs. Caressing large lethal weapons makes them feel manly. Their girlfriends having a wank makes them feel threatened. I know it sounds stupid, I don’t make the rules, alright? In the Matriarchal Utopia things will all be different.

But back in the sad and joyless present day, Alabama also has one of the highest divorce rates in the US, one of the highest teenage pregnancy rates, and is amongst the unhappiest states.

Call me crazy, but I think unbanning vibrators could probably help with all three of those issues…

PS, thanks to @marstrina and @johnb78 for the discussion which prompted me to write this.

Do you have a favourite mug?

I hope you’ll forgive me this rather trivial post, but, hey, it’s Friday afternoon.

I’d like to talk about mugs. Specifically, the shape of mugs, and our preferences thereof. Many years ago I discovered, to my dismay, that my best friend (and flatmate at the time) preferred drinking tea out of tall thin mugs. Not like – the world will end if I have to drink tea out of a short fat mug! – but just, faced with a cupboard full of clean mugs, she’d take out a tall thin one if she was making herself a cup of tea.

I’m the opposite – don’t like tall, thin mugs. The proportions just seem wrong, the tops seem too narrow, tea doesn’t cool down right.

I was dismayed because I suddenly realised that for a year, I’d been actively going out of my way to make her a cup of tea that was, in a minor but real sense, not the way she would like it. Without really thinking about it, whenever I made us both a cup of tea, I’d been getting two short fat mugs out of the cupboard.

Now I always make her a cup of tea in a tall, thin mug (while congratulating myself on my thoughtfulness). I like to think this is a touching testament to the depth of our 20 year friendship. Eclipsed only by the time she helped me squeeze a boil on my bum.

Anyway, my own mug-fussiness has now reached the point where I have a very specific shape of mug I prefer. Funnily enough, I don’t care in the slightest about the colour or decoration of the mug. Only about the shape. It’s a physical thing about what feels comfortable to drink. If I’m making a cup of tea I’ll comb the house, if necessary, for my favourite mug, and wash it, rather than use one of the other mugs, sitting there clean in the cupboard.

People have laughed at me for this, and called me anal. And, y’know, I do realise it’s a bit silly. But I just prefer drinking tea out of a particular-shaped mug. And as peccadillos go, I think that’s pretty harmless.

Ross and I are living with my parents for a bit at the moment (such fun, can’t tell you…). I’ve realised that they have favourite mug shapes too.

Mum likes tall thin ones. She thinks they’re more feminine. (For an ardent feminist she has some odd ideas…) Dad likes shorter mugs with a curved-out lip at the top. But not the ones that are dark-coloured inside. In fact we got into an in-depth conversation about this where Dad lined up his favourite five mugs on the kitchen counter-top, in order of preference. I now feel fully equipped to make parental tea. Phew!

At first Ross laughed at us all for this. But he’s recently confessed that he prefers some of their mugs to others. He particularly likes this one, he particularly dislikes that one, with a whole load of gradations in between. So now I’m wondering, how common is this?

Do most people have a favourite mug, like us? Or do most people not care, and Ross has just got infected with our weirdness? Let’s find out. So, continuing my occasional series researching absolutely trivial matters, could you vote in this poll?

What exactly is the human race for?

‘Society shouldn’t be organised around child protection.’

– Claire Fox, Newsnight, 23rd October 2012

One of the courses I took in my biological sciences degree was called behavioural ecology. It’s the study of animal behaviour, and how that behaviour helps an animal to live its life (pretty much). One of the main things we’d talk about with any animal was mating and how it cared for its young.

Swans, of course, mate for life, and both male and female help build the nest, keep the eggs warm, and feed the chicks. Female dunnocks, by contrast, will mate with as many males as they can get away with, and get food to feed chicks from all of them.

Let me tell you about lions. When lionesses are on heat, they’ll have sex as often as every 15 minutes. And they’re on heat for about four days. Sounds fun, but exhausting. There will be several adult males in a lion pride – the theory is that lionesses mate frequently so that any particular shag isn’t that likely to produce offspring. This means there’s no point the males fighting over it. It reduces conflict within the group.

Lionesses do most of the hunting, while the males stay at home and watch the cubs. They are wise to be on the look-out – every so often the males in a pride get ousted by a group of other males (these will be a group of brothers and half-brothers, who’ve left their home pride when they reached adulthood). New males will kill any cubs under two, as this makes the mothers come into heat, ready to bear more young.

It’s all fascinating stuff, if you like that sort of thing (and I do), but do you know why we spent so much time studying mating and child-rearing? It’s because, in biological terms, passing on its genes is the POINT of all organisms.

Some animals – like most frogs – go for the scattershot approach. Have loads of eggs (often thousands) and leave them to it, and some of them will survive to adulthood. Some animals – like elephants, King penguins and humans – will usually have only one offspring at a time, and invest a lot of care in getting it to the point where it can look after itself. Their social groups are organised entirely around rearing their young.

In fact for all animals, how they rear their young is a massive deciding factor in how they live their lives. Are they solitary? Do they live in pairs? In groups? What kind of groups, organised in what ways? Child-rearing plays a big part in explaining why in each case.

Human children are helpless for years, they require a huge investment in resources before they are old enough to reproduce successfully themselves. And that’s why humans have always lived in large groups.

Which brings me to professional contrarian Claire Fox’s appearance on Newsnight last night. It was a discussion about child protection, in the wake of the Savile revelations. Ms Fox doesn’t seem to have any expertise in child protection (which is ironic, given that her sister Fiona, at the Science Media Centre, constantly bangs the drum that we should only listen to scientific experts on every single matter).

I guess though they’d got Fox in because Camila Batmanghelidjh was on, arguing for protecting vulnerable children. Claire was probably the only person they could find to take the opposite position, who wasn’t actually Gary Glitter.

As quoted above, Ms Fox said, ‘Society shouldn’t be organised around child protection.’

I just couldn’t disagree more with that statement. Yes! Yes, it should! That’s exactly what society should be organised around! What on earth should it be organised around if not that?

Organising our society around protecting children is the biological norm for complex animals. Are we so much smarter than dolphins and elephants, because we’ve organised our society around making the most money and fucking up the planet instead?

Maybe you’re not a breeder, for whatever reason. Odds are, you’ve got relatives or friends who are though. You maybe give them presents or help out with baby-sitting or pick them milk up from the shop during the weeks (months?) of new-parent-hell.  Or maybe you’ve just been a shoulder to cry on for an exasperated parent at the end of their tether.

Biologically, whether you breed yourself or not, the human community you belong to helps raise children, because it’s too hard for one person (or one couple) alone. Even ignoring biology, personally, I think socialising the next generation of humans and turning them into happy, functioning adults, is pretty much the point of the human race. What is it we hope for for the future, if not that? Otherwise we may as well all give up now and let the cockroaches take over.

If humanity was organised in a rational way, it seems to me that this is what all our resources would be focussed on. Looking after kids and turning them into happy, stable adults who realise their full potential. I’ve met too many people whose childhoods fucked them up completely. Never mind all the people who are doing kind of OK, but could have been that bit happier, more secure, more fulfilled, with the right help at the right time.

You may think that space exploration, or composing symphonies, or baking really amazing cakes is more important for humanity. But the way to get the most space exploration and symphonies and amazing cakes in the future is prioritising kids today. Because that’s how you get amazing adults tomorrow. Anything else is just shortsighted. And shortsighted, as it happens, seems to be a description of the civilization we find ourselves in.

Why are children hungry, in one of the richest countries in the world, while we pay footballers millions of pounds a week? We pay nursery nurses £15k a year, while people doing useless jobs with no benefit to society like advertising execs and commodities brokers are on tens of thousands more. While Claire Fox appears on Newsnight saying that we shouldn’t over-react to Savile. Do we really, as a society, value adverts and financial speculation that much? And children so little?

A urinary etiquette question

I know there are lots of other things to worry about, and this doesn’t matter much in the grand scheme of things. But this is a question that bothers me greatly, and I’d like to know what you think.

If you’re staying at someone else’s house, and you go to the toilet in the middle of the night, should you flush, or not?

(If you’ve only done a wee, I mean, I’m not a barbarian).

I used to think I knew the answer to this. I mean, wee’s just water, with some urea and salts dissolved in it. It’s mainly sterile. Some wee in the toilet never hurt anyone. I assumed most people wouldn’t be bothered by it.

Whereas flushing the toilet in the middle of the night could be really annoying. Some people’s toilets make a loud noise. Some people’s toilets are right next to someone’s bedroom. Some people are light sleepers.

As someone with insomnia, I can find it difficult to get back to sleep if I’ve been woken up. I’d a million times over rather deal with a bit of urine in the toilet in the morning, than be woken in the night by a flush. I always assumed most people felt the same.

Then a random pub conversation with my fastidious friend Jon revealed that he’s disgusted by urine. He thinks it’s really dirty. He would never, even in extremis, wee in a sink. He was disgusted to hear than anyone ever does that.

And thus, my assumptions lie in tatters.

I didn’t think there was much point subjecting Jon to a party political broadcast on behalf of the urine-is-not-a-hygiene-threat-party. Disgust is a fairly primal emotion, if the research is to be believed. He’s been brought up with this idea about wee being dirty – it’s something he viscerally feels. He can’t be logicked out of it. All I can do is respect his view on that, flush the toilet if I ever stay at his house, and remember never, ever to pee in his sink.

But this leaves a dilemma. I know for definite that my friend Abi couldn’t give two hoots about wee in the toilet, and is a light sleeper. So I should flush at Jon’s house, but not flush at Abi’s house. But what about all the other people, whose views I don’t know? What should the default setting be?

You can make an educated guess for people you know reasonably well, but what about people you don’t know well? It happens more often than you’d think that you are an overnight guest in the home of people you don’t know well. There’s your partner’s relatives or friends who you may stay with. You might stay overnight at a friend’s house, without knowing much about their housemates. In Tales from the River, we were sometimes staying with people we’d never met before. Is it urine in the toilet or midnight flushing that makes you the worse houseguest?

Ordinarily, I’d tend to go with the ‘fussier’ view as a default setting. By which I mean, most people seem to be more hygiene-conscious than I am. If I’m in doubt, I assume that I’m the weird one. On that reading the ‘polite’ option would be flushing. But that’s not a no-risk option as you might wake people up.

Am I the only person who stands in an unfamiliar bathroom at 3am pondering these questions?

So I’m putting it over to you, denizens of social media land. Which would you prefer?

Embarrassment in the goods lift

I once, many years ago, had a job working at Boots Opticians. For a few months I was based at the store in Brent Cross shopping centre in North London. This was a huge shopping centre – the first stand-alone shopping centre in the UK, no less – built in 1976.

The shopping centre had two floors, but no customer lifts, only escalators to get from one floor to another. They had signs up saying that lifts were available in the back of the Boots store. The opticians was in the back bit of Boots.

The thing is, you can’t take a wheelchair or a pram on an escalator. This meant that every so often during the day, us staff at Boots Opticians would be approached by a wheelchair user or someone pushing a pram, asking to be taken to the lift. I say ‘someone pushing a pram’, but to be honest, I never saw a man come in with one.

We’d take them to the back of the store, the Mums and the wheelchair users. Through a ‘staff only’ door. Through the stockroom. To the goods lift. Take them up in the lift. Then out through another stockroom into the upper floor of the store.

I don’t know if you’ve ever been in the stockroom of a large shop, but it’s the bit that never gets decorated or cleaned. It’s all peeling grey paint and dented metal shelving units. Stockrooms look like shit. I don’t know if you’ve ever been in a goods lift, but they look like shit as well.

I used to find it embarrassing taking the wheelchair users. I felt embarrassed on behalf of the shopping centre, and being its representative. It felt like through the medium of its physical structure, the shopping centre was saying to wheelchair users, ‘The front bit of the store, that we keep clean and nice, is for other people. But we don’t bother for you. You deserve to be transported in the goods lift, you freak.’

I thought people deserved better.

For some reason I didn’t feel so embarrassed with the Mums. Maybe because pushing a pram is more often a temporary state. Maybe because it seemed likely I’d push a pram at some point in my own future, so I could feel sisterly solidarity, instead of feeling like a representative of the able-bodied world that was treating them this way. Maybe because I’ve internalised the idea that this is the kind of thing women have to put up with. I don’t know…

Anyway, you’d obviously make smalltalk while escorting the customer. It usually went a bit like this:-

A: It’s ridiculous that there isn’t a proper lift, isn’t it?

B: Yes, who designs a shopping centre with two floors but doesn’t put any customer lifts in?

A: Someone who’s never been in a wheelchair or had to push a pram around a shopping centre, that’s who.

B: A man, then.

A: If only they’d at least ASKED some other people.

B: I know!

I could play either A or B, it would depend on who started it off, me or the customer. They nearly always got their lines right.

Now I don’t think that the architects who designed Brent Cross were evil misogynists hellbent on making woman and people with disabilities suffer. The Brent Cross architects were probably perfectly nice guys who’d have happily put in a lift if they’d thought of it. But it’s easy to not think of putting in a lift if you’ve never needed one.

Maybe this seems trite and obvious. It does seem very obvious to me that this is how stuff works, and I’m sure it’s been pointed out a thousand times before. And yet I still keep having the same arguments with people who say things like, ‘What do we need feminism for any more, women have got equality?’ As if having the vote magically made everything about your daily experience OK.

There are a million things like this. The petty annoyances like not enough women’s toilets in the pub. The big stuff like economic policy and sentencing patterns for domestic violence. When middle class able-bodied white men are overwhelmingly the people who design public spaces (and schools systems, and work appraisal structures, and…) but everybody has to live with the results, we get things that don’t take account of many of our needs.

It doesn’t take active, deliberate misogyny (or disablism, racism or snobbery) to end up with structures that don’t work for many of us. No-one thinks men secretly have big get-togethers where they plot how to keep women down. It just takes a lack of diversity in the designers and decision-makers.

Of course you can have guidelines about putting in lifts and so on (and I guess there are now, post-DDA), but that means that the excluded groups have to fight every single battle anew. They have to summon the energy and the evidence to painstakingly explain to architects why they should put in ramps, and lifts, and more female toilets. To policy-makers why we need women’s refuges. To employers why their hiring policies may be discriminatory.

We need to explain every sodding little thing, in the face of the disbelief of people who’ve never experienced what we’re talking about, so their ‘common sense’ just doesn’t make sense of it. And only when we’ve explained it, exhaustingly, minutely, repeatedly, to their satisfaction, do we see change.

I’m sick of this, frankly. The best way of making a world that fits everyone – instead of one that fits straight, white, able-bodied males perfectly, and is a bit of an awkward fit for everyone else – is diversity. And given that, for example, at present rates of progress it will take 80 years to get as many women as men on FTSE boards, I think the only way to get there is massive, concerted affirmative action.

I know it’s a pipe-dream, especially while the Tories are asset-stripping the nation in front of our eyes. But imagine it. Mass deliberate positive discrimination to give us a judiciary, a parliament, an academia, a business community, a media, that reflects the diversity of the country – within our lifetimes. Can’t we just have one great big argument to get to that, instead of death by a thousand cuts?

A bit of info about racism and sexism

There’s been a lot said online in the last few days about feminism and racism. But one thing I’ve read in that time has really struck me. It wasn’t a comment piece or blogpost. It was a report of a bit of academic research. I don’t know how much it’s been noticed outside academia, so I thought it was worth telling you about it.

If you’re applying for a PhD, it’s common to contact the department in advance and have an informal chat. This is where you’ll get a heads up on what they’re looking for, find out if it’s the right PhD for you and if it’s worth applying and maybe start to form relationships. Three US researchers (Katherine Milkman, from the University of Pennsylvannia, Modupe Akinola of Columbia University and Dolly Chugh of New York University) wanted to know if it was a level playing field.

They looked at how university professors responded to an email, seemingly from a prospective student, asking for an informal meeting. They sent emails to 6,500 professors, claiming to be a student interested in doing a PhD and asking to come in and meet them.

They names of the fictional students were varied so some appeared male, some appeared female. Also so that they appeared to have different ethnicities. The researchers wanted to know if gender and ethnicity made a difference to the response. And lo and behold it did.

Table showing response ratesEmails from white males were LEAST likely to be completely ignored (26.5%). White females were slightly more likely to be ignored, but not that much more likely (29.8%). The people MOST likely to be ignored were Chinese females (46.9%), then Indian males (41.8%), then Indian females (37.7%).

Interestingly, for white, black and Chinese students, females were more likely to be ignored. Whereas for Hispanic and Indian students, males were more likely to be ignored. I’ve no idea what that’s about.

Some professors replied to emails, but then said they couldn’t meet up. So as you can see in the table, we’ve got stats for emails ignored and also for meetings denied.

White males are least likely to be denied a meeting (52.4%), white females were only fractionally more likely to be denied a meeting (52.9%). Then, in order, increasingly likely to be denied a meeting were Hispanic, black, Chinese and Indian students of both genders. Indian males (68.2%) were the least likely to get a meeting.

Interestingly, for every ethnicity but white, females were slightly more likely than males to get an actual meeting. The factor that made the biggest difference overall was ethnicity. Yes, I was surprised too, but there’s the facts.

Now, this is just one study, looking at one pretty specific thing. It’s not a summary of the entire state of gender relations in the world. It just tells you something about life for prospective PhD students applying to US universities. Also, the research hasn’t been done in the UK, so we don’t know if it would be different here.

But what it tells me is that if I wasn’t white and I was trying to study at a US university, then my ethnicity would have a subtle but very real effect on how easy that was to sort out. A much bigger effect, it would appear, than my gender, despite what white feminists might think.

So, you know, I’m going to bear that in mind. Because in the Matriarchal Utopia our feminism will be intersectional, or it will be bullshit.

A snapshot of child-rearing

I took my niece out for a walk in the pushchair yesterday. She’s a year old. At the park we saw another kid, about a similar age, and went over to say hi. His Mum introduced him and the two babies kind of looked at each other, as babies do, without really interacting. I’ve read that it’s not until 18 months or so that kids start paying much attention to other kids.

Neither baby seemed very interested, so after a bit of smalltalk, I walked off, carrying the niece, for her to look at a nearby boat she was staring at. An older couple, who I assume were his Grandparents, came over to the little boy and his Mum and I could hear their subsequent conversation. It went like this:-

Gran to little boy: Were you eyeing up the girls then?

Granddad: Oh, he’s been eyeing up the girls. *laughs*

Gran: Starting as you mean to go on, are you? That’s right!

All this was said in tones of encouragement and approval. Now I don’t think there’s anything wrong with eyeing people up, or joking about same. But what struck me was:-

1. How gendered this was. Maybe I’m making assumptions, but I doubt they’d have said to a little girl, ‘Been eyeing up the boys have you?’ in the same approving way.

2. How kind of desperate it was. The kids really, to my eyes, showed very little interest in each other. The Grandparents were seeing behaviour that wasn’t there, and sending a message about what behaviour would be approved of. I’m pretty sure the kids – being only a year old – were oblivious to that message. But it served to reinforce for all the grown ups what was desirable behaviour in little boys. Making sure everyone’s on the same page. And one day pretty soon the kids will be old enough to get those messages.

From babyhood onwards, many (most? all?) little boys and little girls are given  messages like this all the time. Messages about how they should behave and how their care-givers will react to their behaviour. To my mind it makes a mockery of the idea that any observed difference between male and female behaviour is innate. We just don’t know what any of us would grow up like, if we grew up free of gender programming like this.

And actually, if differences were really innate, would we need this constant policing and programming of ‘suitable’ gendered behaviour?