Sometimes you get this feeling, like you just need to leave. To run away, pack a small bag and go anywhere. Out into the country or over the sea. Anywhere you’d see a different sunset, anywhere no one would know your name. Anywhere you could be someone new.
And then you have one of those London days where cold clouds burn off too late and the evening is strangely sultry and everyone is looking around surprised like how did this come to be, and everyone has got in a park and all the restaurants have their fronts folded back and their windows open and people are sitting outside remembering romantic trips to the south of France. And you take a long back route walk home, see Georgian terraces turn into Victorian semi detached and then pre war semis.
Somehow the evening light is blue and not that smog smudgy grey. Everywhere looks beautiful, peaceful. There are no cars in the back roads, and for a moment you are so perfectly alone you can stand in the middle of the road looking up at the evening light, and the aeroplane trails in the sky.
Walking further, people begin to reappear. Couples leave the park, passing bottles of wine between them. A fitness group is drifting apart towards the stations or the bus stops. Every house that has a balcony has someone on it, and every flat roof has someone smoking a cigarette.
For a while the houses are so big, they seem almost American, and yet they are perfect in this south London suburb. As the road begins to climb the hill, every house seems to have roses in the front garden, their colours deepening in the late July dusk.
The music sings “how does it feel?” And it feels like rebirth. Like the summer light is washing away your cares, and each step of your tired leg is reminding you that you are not a rolling stone. You are not wandering through the world, these quiet streets are everything you’ve always known. This is your country, this is your sea. These simple curving roads where every house is different and new sit alongside old in a happy, relaxed jumble, just as beautiful as anything you’ve ever seen. As beautiful as the turreted mini mansions of the Washington DC streets leading up to National Cathedral, or the steeply winding back streets in the South of France.
You fall in love softly, with every quiet step, as true dusk falls. As you reach your own road, the only light is from flickering TV screens, and street lights half obscured by trees. No one stirs as you turn your corner, except the three street cats; milkpaws, colonel fluffy, and fatty tangerine, who wind themselves around your legs, head butting your shins with their soft faces, welcoming you home like a grand committee sent from heaven because that’s exactly what you need.
And then you are at home, leaning against the kitchen counter, waiting for the kettle to boil. Life is ordinary again, but the calm remains, born of a moment of quiet in the wild, a moment of wildness in the quiet streets. Solitude amongst a city of eight million, strangeness in a familiar land.
Every few months some fool (usually male) comes along and claims that women who attend all girls’ schools are disadvantaged because they grow up unable to talk to men.
Well, I’m here to say that it’s the exact opposite. Women who go to all girls’ schools are far better placed to take on the sexist bullshit of men than those who attend mixed schools.
Why? It’s not rocket science. We all hear constantly that women are told they “shouldn’t do” science/ maths/ anything else with good earnings potential. And so they don’t study it and the cycle continues. But at an all girls’ school, there aren’t any boys to take maths, so there you are, dominating like the boss bitch you are, never hearing the sexist lie that you need to sit down and shut up so men can talk.
You also get the girl power assemblies, the feminist teachers, and the free space to be your girliest self without having to worry what boys think. I can’t imagine a situation at a mixed school where a girl walks into maths and announces she’s just started her period and all the other girls clap and crowd round her, as happened in a year nine maths class I attended.
Because yes, I attended an all girls’ school. An all girls’ grammar school, in fact. And I was a weird kid who didn’t fit in and got bullied at times and I still think it was the making of me (and not in an upper class suffering-builds-character kind of way). My all girls’ school taught me that all girls can.
And so when I left at the age of 16 to attend the local mixed grammar school for sixth form (for non boy-related reasons – my A level combinations wouldn’t work at the first school) it was a hell of a shock to the system. Not because there were boys, oh no, shocking as it may seem to some headteachers, girls at all girls’ schools can actually meet boys outside of school. I had plenty of male friends, a brother, a boyfriend, a father… the difference was that for the first time, I had to contend with a male dominated environment and the classic stereotype that women’s voices aren’t worth listening to. In my economics class there were 31 pupils, five of whom were girls. You can be sure the other 26 boys hadn’t been listening to feminist assemblies for the last five years.
For the first time in my life I had to fight to have my voice listened to, and my core belief – that I was worth being listened to, and that no man deserved more airtime than me just because he had a Y chromosome, helped me overcome my nerves and speak up.
It also carried me through my university tutorials, which were filled with posh boys, a double whammy of class and gender for little impoverished intellectual me.
But most of all, it helped me at work. I work in PR, and it’s fast paced and challenging. It’s important to hear a variety of opinions so that you don’t end up pushing a story with a fatal flaw in it. Sometimes you’ll be the only person who’s thought of that particular angle and you need to voice it, because your mistake could end up on the front page of the Evening Standard and wreck your company’s reputation.
In my old PR job, I worked in financial services in a male dominated environment, and as both the youngest and the least experienced member of the team it was tough learning to speak up, but remembering that old lesson from school always helped. And having had five years of feminist assemblies about women who could had got deep into my bones and toughened me up. Another aspect of working in PR is that 90% of everything you do will fail, and most of your days will contain rejection. Remembering that your voice is valuable and that you have something to say is crucial when all day journalists are hanging up the phone and telling you that you don’t.
Now I work in the charity sector, and I can’t believe how different it is from the alpha male finance sector. I’m so used to having to slap people down to be heard at all amid all the alpha male posturing that it’s strange realising that I could be the one talking too much and sharing opinions too strongly. It’s an exciting new feminist challenge – trying to create a space for other women to speak. Not everyone is a natural motormouth like me, and not everyone had five years of feminist cheering to back them up. I carved out a space for my own voice – now how do I help others find their own?
I have a complicated relationship with stuff. Like the child of alcoholics, who feels isolated from her family when sober and terrified by the future when drinking, I proclaim constantly that I have too much stuff – and then I buy more.
Owning too much is a condition of western society in the twenty first century. The proliferation of big yellow self-storage units in every town and city in the country isn’t just because people are living in rabbit hutch little new build houses. It’s also because we have too much stuff. Almost everybody does, rich or poor or anywhere in between. But my family has more stuff than most people with too much stuff.
I would say that around half my family members could legitimately be considered hoarders. The other half are borderline cases. We aren’t rich, we just can’t get rid of things. When I was at my parents’ house recently, we were trying to do a little bit of a clear out. I found a shoe box on a shelf. It was filled with empty guitar string packets. I suggested that it could be thrown out. “No!” My mum said, “Those belong to Ben and he wanted to keep them.” Ben has emigrated to Canada and its unlikely to come back in the next few years. I don’t know whether this story reflects worse on him or my mother but the truth is that if those string packets didn’t go to Canada, they are unlikely to be needed on his return. A slightly odd neighbour of ours once left the core of her apple in my sister’s room. It wasn’t found for months. My aunt and uncle keep back editions of the Guardian weekend magazine, despite the fact that it is available in full for free on the Guardian website. I could list a hundred other examples, all of them worse.
Against this backdrop, I have become a slightly manic advocate of throwing things away. When I moved out of my shared flat and into my parents’ house for three months last summer, my return triggered a manic drive to get rid of as much stuff as I could. I piled up books I didn’t like, clothes I didn’t fit, and things I didn’t want. It was like getting blood from a stone just getting my parents to take them to the charity shop. (for those who want to know why I didn’t just do it myself – I don’t own a car. A mile and a half is a long way to walk with a sack of books…) I didn’t need “The Life-changing Magic of Tidying” when it swept the nation last year, that’s been my rallying cry for years.
Following my de-cluttering binge in the summer, I have felt better about the amount of stuff I own. It helps that I now have a nice big bedroom in my new house – realistically the most space I will probably have to myself for a couple of decades, as my next move will likely be with my boyfriend, and we will have to learn to share our space and combine our stuff. I haven’t missed anything I’ve got rid of, and I don’t feel like I’ve been heartless and given away everything of meaning, as I am so often told. I have a box under my bed full of personal things from little trolls with neon hair that my aunt gave me as a child, love notes written by an older man when I worked at a garden centre in my teens (don’t worry mum – it extended to one hand holding session before I was distracted by a boy my own age), photographs of college balls, wristbands from teenage gigs, and the other pieces of junk that hold meaning for individuals. I have a box of letters and cards, some of which I will treasure for ever, and I have a box of Important Documents, because I am a real adult now, which means I am at least 10% sensible.
De-cluttering, therefore, has worked. Only, why did I need to de-clutter so much in the first place? It wasn’t by magic, or osmosis, or voodoo that I ended up with so much stuff. I bought it. Almost all of it, bar a few presents. I bought it, and then I felt bad that I had bought it, and gave it away, and then after a while I felt better, and then I bought some more. It was an unending circle. When I was a child, I bought a lot of tat – china dolphins from seaside shops, little mood rings from Camden market, tie-dyed rugs from choir tours (it was a dark time in my life), and all sorts of other rubbish. But buying tat is an obvious waste of money. It makes you feel the amount of junk you are accumulating and feel bad about it. So after a while, it slowly shifted and I started buying the one thing that you definitely do need and can’t deny: clothes.
I buy clothes like other people buy drugs: guiltily, and often in the middle of the night. I log onto ASOS after a long day, and end up buying five or six different “wardrobe essentials” which in the cold light of day I’m not sure about and which I end up only wearing once. I have two jumpsuits, despite the fact that I have a long back and a high waist so jumpsuits give me dreadful camel toe. I have umpteen pairs of vintage shoes which fall apart after two wears. I had at my worst peak six different but almost identical grey sweaters. I have two sequinned t-shirts, a sequinned skirt, and I almost bought myself a sequin blazer in the sales before I woke up and gave myself a talking to. I work for a local authority; I don’t live a sequin blazer life.
Some people reading this will think “who cares, it’s your money, do what you like”. The problem is it’s not my money. It’s the bank’s money. I have a decently paid job, relatively low expenses and few responsibilities. This is the time of my life in which I should be saving. Instead, I’m guiltily paying back my credit card, month by painful month. And I didn’t spend that money on fabulous trips to the other side of the world, or a car, or a masters. I spent it in Topshop, H&M, ASOS, & Other Stories, Zara, Office, Schuh, Primark, Marks & Spencers, Dune, Banana Republic, Gap, and Urban Outfitters. Endless forgettable outfits. I see a sale and feel a compulsive need to pick up a bargain, even if actually that bargain is extremely tight and without a serious Regime, I’ve got no hope of fitting into it. (and I never go on serious Regimes).
It’s a psychological crutch, I guess. Just like drugs. Some people face down the fear of a party where they won’t know anyone by doing a few lines in the bathroom of the club. I face it down with one-day ASOS Premier delivery, knowing that I will have something new, something exciting to wear every time I go out. I’ve got into the habit of buying something new for every party, every big night out, every job interview, every foreign holiday (“I’ll re-wear it with a fine sweater underneath” – only I never do). And there is no reason. My favourite dresses are without a doubt the ones I’ve saved up for, agonised over, bought rationally, and worn again and again. My favourite shoes are a pair of black Nike trainers – not the metallic green heels I’ve worn a total of five times but which are already flaking because hey, metallic green leather is not hard wearing! But having something new, something the papers, instagram, celebrities, the internet, and my cooler friends have told me is good, is cool, and has cachet, that saves me from having to worry about whether I have any value. Whether I am cool. Whether I am worth it, outside of the things I own.
And it’s ridiculous. When I was a student, I bought a strapless black dress for £30 in H&M. I wore it on every single night out for over a year (so that’s twice a week, ten weeks a term, three terms a year… 60 times. Minimum). I looked amazing in it, and I felt amazing in it, and I don’t think I ever paid for a single drink while wearing it. When along the road did I lose the ability to stop caring about whether or not I’ve worn something before? I don’t know, and I miss it.
So I’ve made a decision. I’m not buying any clothes for four months. From now until the first of May, I will not buy any clothes at all. (Disclaimer: underwear doesn’t count, a lady needs ladder-free tights if she is to be taken seriously in a professional environment!). I have enough clothes that I don’t need to buy anything new. I have ballgowns, and summer dresses, and coats, and jeans, and suits, and blouses, and everything else that I might need for any situation I might find myself in. I even have clothes for yoga – and I don’t even go to yoga!
The aim of this exercise is to break the cycle. To stop feeling like I need something new all the time. To get out of this meaningless consumption, and to start over. At the end, hopefully I will be less broke, but hopefully I will also be free of this need to buy something new. I had a badge at university which said “How much have I no need of?” (I was given it at a philosophy event, obviously). I lost it at some point and I won’t be buying myself another one, but that will be my mantra. How much have I no need of? How much do I already have?
This week, the internet has been abuzz with news that teenage instagram star Essena O’Neill has decided to quit social media because she feels it’s making her live a life that’s “not real”.
We all know that much of what we see on social media is exaggerated, glossed-over, or just plain fake, but seeing it put so baldly by someone who seemed to have it all is still shocking. There must have been hundreds of teenage girls who looked at her life and felt like their own was worthless in comparison – and the comparison they were making was just a lie.
God knows we’ve all done it. I’ve spent hours lying awake scrolling through the instagrams of glamorous teenage celebrities wishing that my life was more interesting, and feeling rubbish about myself because my photos didn’t look like that, my fun didn’t look as fun. I even did it on holiday, feeling jealous and miserable because I didn’t have the toned body necessary to really sell that perfect life.
How did we end up like this? I’ve been told my whole life that “comparison is the enemy of joy” and it’s true. I was really happy with my old house, until I spent hours on rightmove.com thinking about how much nicer other houses were. Why couldn’t I just be happy with what I had?
I’ve envied people’s holidays, dress size, relationships, jobs, everything. But you never really know what’s going on in someone else’s life. When I was a student at Durham, people constantly told me that I must have it all: I was young, at one of the best universities in the country, and my whole life was ahead of me. Friends back home who hadn’t gone to university kept telling me how jealous they were that I’d escaped my parents, didn’t have to work a dead-end job, and how fun all my nights out looked on facebook.
But that wasn’t the whole story. Yes, going to Durham was a brilliant experience which I will treasure forever. It was also incredibly hard: the work was difficult, and I was a long way away from my family and my support network. When my grandfather died in my second year, the 300 miles between Durham and South London felt enormous, and I felt completely alone. That feeling didn’t go away for months. But it’s hard to talk about things like that on social media, hard to break the code that says everything has to be happy and perfect all the time, otherwise you are in some way failing. Perfection is the goal everyone’s aiming towards – and when admiration from friends and strangers keeps pouring in, sometimes it feels like it’s all you have. It’s incredibly isolating.
So next time you find yourself scrolling on instagram getting more and more unhappy, put down your phone. You don’t know what lengths those people went to to get that perfect picture. You don’t know how much of their life they’ve felt lonely, or sad, or ugly, or boring. You don’t know how much of their time they spend working in Starbucks, or a call centre, or as an admin assistant at a local solicitor, just to get by like everybody else.
And if you think that you need what they have to be happy – you’re wrong. Losing 30lbs won’t make you happy, becoming rich won’t make you happy. Happiness is found when you’re content with yourself, with who you are and what your situation is “that’s when you’re the proud owner of all money can’t buy”. It’s time to stop comparing our real life view in the mirror to the airbrushed portrait of social media. It’s not real; we are all chasing phantoms.
As a Brit, everything about Washington DC seems designed to confuse and intimidate.
First, there is the sheer scale. Individually, the buildings are no larger or more impressive than London’s great landmarks – the British Museum could take on any of the museums of the Smithsonian, St Paul’s Cathedral is far more beautiful than National Cathedral, and Buckingham Palace is grander than the White House. And yet, in London each of these architectural treasures is crammed in amongst buildings so you can hardly notice it until you’re right up alongside it. In DC, each building stands alone, forcing you to take note.
But it’s not the buildings themselves which seem designed to shock, it’s the way they interact with each other. London is an organic city; fire on conquest on flood on war on misguided architectural project has left the city with a medieval street plan, sixties offices and glass towers sharing space with georgian churches and edwardian terraced houses. It’s unplanned, organic, and although London means many things to many people, it doesn’t stand for anything in particular,
London is just London; somewhere to find yourself, somewhere to lose yourself, somewhere to overcome, somewhere to become a success, somewhere to run away to, somewhere to run away from. It’s all things to all people, because it doesn’t impress its identity on anyone, rather letting them impress their identity onto its ancient streets. What does London mean to you?
(to me, it is sunset over London Bridge after an autumn day at work, crispness in the air, swirling crowds of people, and the sun glinting over the river. To you, it will be something else).
By contrast, DC knows exactly what it is: a monument to the American dream, to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Tours of the Capitol are repeatedly told that this is where the spirit of liberty could not be extinguished – by the English in 1812, by the Civil War in 1861. Here, great men gathered to debate high ideals of philosophy and politics. Here, they began a brave experiment in democracy that’s lasted until this day. It’s enough to make you feel a swelling in your heart, even as a Brit.
But the truth is somewhat darker. Those great men who founded this blessed republic owned slaves, considered women property, and never would have dreamed of allowing the working classes into their midst. And the great city they founded was made possible because of two centuries worth of the most brutal ethnic cleansing imaginable. The American dream is a lie, built on the suffering of millions.
And DC, gleaming in the sunlight, doesn’t want to think about it. It’s true that nowadays some of the horrors are beginning to be discussed (but only beginning, mind). The Museum of the American Indian, an architectural treasure forming one of the latest additions to the Smithsonian, tells the full heartbreaking story of one of America’s greatest shames.
A trip across town shows how far America’s reckoning still has to go, however. We crossed from the Capitol to Chinatown, past the Federal Court building. It was the middle of the downtown area. I’d been warned that some of the suburbs were plain dangerous and we saw plenty of ruined and abandoned buildings in Baltimore from the Amtrak train zooming into Union Station. But this was the city centre; this was a five minute walk from Congress, for crying out loud! Somehow, we still managed to stumble upon a homeless shelter and needle exchange. Bleary eyes watched us with mild curiosity as we tried to walk normally through the underpass and over the concrete bridge.
Seeing the darker side of life always seems scarier in foreign surrounds – you never know really how a city works until you’ve lived there for at least six months. And if you’re totally new in town, you have no idea if you’re working through a rough patch and will end up in a nicer area, or if you’re walking further and further away from the areas tourists are supposed to end up in.
It was undeniably shocking, however. Seeing DC as this great Capitol, the City on a Hill, and then arriving and finding that the depth and breadth of poverty was greater than you as a Brit could possibly imagine was more affecting than I thought it would be.
The contrast between DC’s lofty aim and its gritty reality reminded me of nowhere so much as Beijing. The same impression of space, of a city created to worship a country and a way of life. The same double-think, as those suffering from the diseases of addiction and mental health disorders were left to rot on the streets while diplomats lived two miles uphill in $4 million houses. It had very much the same feel of a state which needed to rally its people to its cause so they would believe in their country so much they wouldn’t see the lie they’d been sold.
On our last night in DC, we went for a special dinner at the Georgetown restaurant where JFK proposed to Jackie O (we didn’t spot anyone getting engaged in that booth, alas). We sat outside and ordered $30 entrees. Across the road from us, a homeless man sat on a bin and held a loud conversation with himself for the entire time we were there. No one else so much as glanced at him. Why, if he only pulled himself up by his bootstraps, he too could be part of this shining City on a Hill.