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The Guardian Weekend - March 31, 2018

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Cuba Gooding Jr’s bad decisions
How to look good in the rain
Beginner’s guide to growing veg
t hap
s wr
ily ru
5 Hadley Freeman
6 Tim Dowling Plus Bim Adewunmi
8 Letters Plus Stephen Collins
10 Q&A Joanna Scanlan, actor
13 Experience I birthed a lamb
while on a country walk
14 Allowed to pee on toilet
seat Living with kids’ house rules
24 Drink/smoke/eat chips?
Does that really make it your fault
if you die, asks Barbara Ehrenreich
32 ‘I can do more, I can do
better’ Two decades after his
Oscar, Cuba Gooding Jr is back
38 MS, Lego and me Learning
to live with a life-altering illness
44 All ages Silk for spring
46 Wishlist Fabulous flats
47 Jess Cartner-Morley Macs
49 Sali Hughes SPF moisturisers
50 Veg How to grow your own
53 Alys Fowler Climbers
55 Wishlist Faces on homeware
Photographer David
57 Let’s move to Warrington
Vintiner on today’s
cover shoot
58 ‘Wear African clothes more
often’ Style lessons from my aunt
61 Annalisa Barbieri I’m bored
by vanilla sex with my wife
63 The secret to… avoiding the same old arguments.
Plus A letter to my uncle, the convicted paedophile
Body & mind
43 Blind date When Lisa met Neville
64 Oliver Burkeman Are you absent-minded – or just
a jerk? Plus My life in sex: the 50-year-old bi-curious gay man
65 The balance Bobbi Brown, makeup artist.
Plus Sharmadean Reid on finding your passion
67 Zoe Williams Will a 5k ‘fun run’ really be fun?
69 Coco Khan Plus Crossword and Quiz
70 Elena Ferrante On exclamation markss
Berger & Wyse
This product is made from sustainably managed forest and controlled
sources. Printed by Roto Smeets Group BV, Deventer, Netherlands
Front Contents
The Guardian Weekend | 31 March 2018 3
Jordans Low Sugar Granola contains less than 5g sugar per 100g
Hadley Freeman
Don’t you just love it when a man explains to you what it means to be a woman?
B a man-sized margin, my favourite recent
news story is the one about two feminists who
went to a men-only swimming session in
Dulwich, south London, because, as they
explained, they now self-identify as men. An
elderly gentleman was initially confused. “I told
him I was a man and he said, ‘Oh really?’” one
woman later told reporters. “It was a very
British response.” Other men at the pool were
lless sanguine, and complained to reception.
This protest was announced on Mumsnet, a pleasing hotbed of
radical feminism these days, as part of a campaign against proposed
changes to the Gender Recognition Act. Currently, anyone who wants
to change gender needs to have lived in their chosen gender for two
years and been diagnosed with gender dysphoria. If the changes go
through, anyone will be able to declare they are a man or woman,
regardless of whether they have made any actual changes to their
lifestyle or body. This is known as “self-identification” and the
reactions have borne out that Margaret Atwood line, “Men are afraid
women will laugh at them while women are afraid men will kill them.”
Men have largely ignored the issue, until it comes charging into their
changing room, while a lot of women have argued that predatory men
could now come into female-only spaces unchallenged.
You might have thought that the #MeToo campaign, in which
women have been speaking out about the universality of sexual
assault and rape, would make people more sympathetic to concerns
about female safety. You would be wrong: nothing makes you look
more liberal these days
y than shouting
g at women who express
ed on their experiences.
But then, as with experts, apparently we’ve all had enough of lived
experience now. When a 19-year-old trans woman was elected a Labour
woman’s officer last year, a Labour councillor explained that “lived
experience as a woman” was not a pre-requisite to be a woman’s officer.
Biology, too, has been deemed terribly passe. “Inclusive feminism,”
Plaid Cymru’s Leanne Wood wrote when considering why selfidentifying trans women should be allowed into women’s refuges,
understands that “gender is a complex and deeply personal thing, and is
about so much more than outdated ideas of biology.” On the day of this
year’s Women’s March, trans model Munroe Bergdorf tweeted that to
“center reproductive systems” at the demonstrations was “reductive
and exclusionary”.
I’m trying to think of anything more patriarchal than telling women to
stop fussing about vaginas at a Women’s March. A biopic about the Old
Testament god starring Mike Pence? Because none of this is about
making feminism inclusive; it’s about policing the way women talk
about their lives. No one – male, female, trans or not – has the right to do
this. Inclusivity means campaigning for the greater good of the group,
not catering to each individual’s differences – can someone please tell
Bergdorf that Irish women are still fighting to repeal the 8th? Female
biology has been used by men to oppress women for millennia, and to
tell women not to talk about it now is another form of oppression.
Intriguingly, some of the most passionate arguments I’ve had about
this have not been with trans people, but with liberal men. I surely
speak for all of us ladies when I say I love nothing more than when
a man explains to me, at some length, what a woman now is. I only have
40 years’ experience but, as we all know, experience is old hat now.
There is something, shall we say, revealing about the way these “woke
bros” take such glee in calling women (older ones, especially) who talk
about their rights and bodies “terfs” – trans-exclusionary radical
feminists – and insist they shut up or risk ostracism.
Women have had to fight so hard for a place at the table, for the right
to define themselves, for spaces where they feel safe. Any man who
sneers at them now for worrying about the shifting paradigms,
offering only meaningless platitudes or accusations of bigotry, is
showing his male privilege.
There is understandable concern about being on the wrong side of
history. But I’ll tell you what has never put anyone on the right side of
history: shouting women down. Gender is a feeling and biology is a
physical fact, and the reason women-only spaces exist is not to protect
some special inner feminine essence, but because there are significant
physical differences between male-born bodies and female-born ones,
and the latter have long been at a disadvantage.
This is something women and trans women will have to work out
between themselves, because this is a woman’s rights issue. Any man,
who has no idea what it’s like to be oppressed as a woman or selfidentified trans woman, and who comes riding in on a white horse and
tries to shut down the debate with inflammatory language, is not
helping. There is no simple solution to accommodating both the rights
of self-identified trans women and other women. In some cases,
they’ll share spaces, in some they won’t, and sometimes a third option
will have to be found.
Contrary to what some men think, the feelings of self-identified
trans women are not the only ones that matter. There are a couple
of four-letter words for those who insist otherwise. But “woke” ain’t
one of them The Guardian Weekend | 31 March 2018 5
Front Tim & Bim
With one word – miaow – the cat is in charge
I am sitting in my office at the bottom of the garden, hiding from
tthe cat. I have plenty of work to do – I am a businessman – but if it
weren’t for the cat I’d be in the kitchen drinking coffee, or maybe
llying on my bed.
In the months since we moved house, the cat has seized the
opportunity afforded by the upheaval to reframe its dealings
with me, so that I am more like its PA. The cat knows only one
word in English – miaow – but it has learned to punctuate it
pretty effectively.
“Miaow?” asks the cat, through the bedroom door. It’s 7am.
“Yes,” I say. “I’m awake.”
“I know,” I say. “We’re all thirsty.”
“Shut up, you stupid cat,” my wife says,
from under the duvet.
“Miaow,” says the cat, which roughly
translates as: I’ll see you downstairs.
The cat will not drink water except from
a running tap. This seems pretty fussy
when you also live with a dog that will
happily lap from a puddle containing brake
fluid, but I have a lot of sympathy for the
cat’s position. I wouldn’t drink from a bowl
on the floor. In our old house most of the
taps dripped incessantly; in the new house
the cat must be served on demand.
“Miaow,” says the cat when I walk into
the kitchen.
“Yeah, I was getting dressed,” I say.
The cat leaps on to the draining board,
and I turn the kitchen tap to a steady drizzle.
The cat drinks while I stand by holding the
empty reservoir of the coffee machine.
“In your own time,” I say.
The cat stops and looks at me.
“Miaow?” it says.
“Yes, I do have stuff to do,” I say. “I’m
a businessman.”
“Miiaaoooow,” says the cat.
“Are you being sarcastic?” I say. “How
dare you.”
Eventually the cat’s thirst is slaked; it
jumps off the worktop, and I put coffee on.
The cat then repositions itself next to the
cupboard where the cat food is kept.
“Miaow,” it says. I glance at the cat’s
bowl, which is empty.
“Fine,” I say. I pull a box from inside the
cupboard. The cat follows me to the bowl,
which I fill to overflowing. The cat sits,
contemplating the bowl for a moment, and
then looks up at me.
“It’s today’s special,” I say. “Cat food.”
“Miaow,” says the cat, which means:
I thought I might try the dog food today.
6 31 March 2018 | The Guardian Weekend
“I’m not having this conversation again,”
I say.
So I’m hiding in my office shed, the
one place the cat will not go near. I know
this because the cat did enter my office
one evening last month, and I ended up
accidentally locking it in overnight. When
I opened the door the next morning, the cat
stepped out with studied nonchalance, but
the shredded window blinds told a different
story. We both learned something that day.
I peer across the garden into the kitchen,
where I can see the oldest one sitting at the
table staring at his laptop. He moved out
a few weeks ago but, if anything, we see
more of him these days. I get up and walk to
the back door.
“Hey,” I say.
“Yo,” the oldest one says.
“Miaow,” says the cat, already sitting
on the draining board. I turn on the
tap, adjusting the flow to a knitting needlethin stream.
“He’s got you trained,” the oldest says.
“It’s low-level bullying,” I say. “If we had
an HR department, I’d complain.” My wife
walks in.
“What is that cat doing?” she says,
rushing toward the sink and clapping her
hands. The cat jumps down.
“It has to drink,” I say.
“Muddy paw prints on the worktop, paw
prints in the bath,” she says. “I’m sick of it.”
“The solution to this problem has been
obvious for many years,” the oldest says.
“Do you mean a cat fountain?” I say.
“This is my house,” my wife says. “I’m
not filling it up with cat furniture.”
I secretly order a cat fountain anyway.
I don’t know if the cat will drink from
it, but I could probably use it to fill the
coffee machine Briefly noted
Bim Ad
When I am not in
good health, what
I require is tender
handling, and to
be indulged in
the way that only
family tends to do.
If you’ve ever found yourself away
from home – about a continent’s
distance – you will recognise how
difficult it is to be ill and not at
home. But then, if you are lucky,
a light appears in the gloom of
healing. And then a series of
lights follow.
The first light after my emergency
surgery was the homemade soup,
hand delivered, with a hug and
a kiss and the urgently stated
instruction to “text if you need
anything”. There followed, in no
particular order: bread, grapes,
smoothies, a bouquet of lilies,
small tubs of pineapple and vanilla
yoghurt, a little Peperomia ‘Rosso’
plant, housed in a cheery yellow
pot. From my sickbed (aka the
repurposed living room sofa), each
care package looked like a tiny,
tangible love letter. There was the
friend who brought me home,
woozy from anaesthetic; the sight
of her shoes in the hallway for
those first couple of hazy days was
oddly reassuring.
Another friend got the train from
DC, arriving at 2am, to spend the
weekend cooking, restocking my
fridge and promising to read aloud
to me, since screens were giving
me migraines. Yet another arrived
after work, bearing floury potatoes
to make me mash, the core of my
newly required soft-food diet. Texts
flew in, as did direct messages; if
we still used ravens, I think I would
have got one of those, too. More
than once, because I’m a sap, I cried.
It’s been two years since I moved
here. It has never felt more like
home than when I was laid low, and
the many lights of the proverbial
village I had inadvertently built
helped me back up. To friends.
Tim Dowling
Front Your view
A prerequisite to raising a happy autistic child (The secret to…,
24 March) is obtaining a diagnosis. In too many cases schools have
been put under pressure to avoid this as a short-term cost-saving
measure. The role of Ofsted, church school authorities, English
academies, local and central government will have to come under
scrutiny for this. How will they make amends for all those
damaged lives?
Simon Burdis Milnthorpe, Cumbria
With reference to the “Why
have there been no great
women artists?” T-shirt worn
by Leah Harper (Statement
Dressing, 24 March), a turn of
the page revealing the name
“Frida Kahlo” would seem to
provide an answer.
Michael J Howard London
It’s not enough to tell us that
Andrew is a PhD student
(Blind date, 24 March), we
need to know what he’s
doing his PhD in, so that we
can judge him accordingly.
We’re guessing linguistics.
Saskia and Orla London
Stephen Collins
8 31 March 2018 | The Guardian Weekend
I take issue with Tim Dowling’s
comment about treating
his wife “as if she is having
the time of her life, but is
able to say only the opposite
due to a brain injury” (24
March). As a volunteer
worker with the national
brain injury charity
Headway, I’ve learned that
such injuries affect people
in diverse and complex
ways. We need to
challenge stereotypes.
Terrie Smith Stockport
How pleasing to
read Romesh
Ranganathan the
past two weeks.
It is nice to start
the weekend
with a giggle
Rebecca Oliver London
Small data
Last week, Oliver
Burkeman wrote
about meditation.
You said:
40% Daily activities
can be meditative;
there’s no need to
label it
30% Meditation is
more complex than just
thinking about nothing
30% Meditating is
indulgent; who has
the time?
So explorer, writer and photographer Levison Wood
thinks he’ll “go on a wife hunt” next year (The balance,
24 March). In which century would that be, Levison?
Frank Landamore Lewes
Email or comment at theguardian.
com by noon on Monday for inclusion. Letters are subject to
our terms and conditions; see
To contribute to A letter to, email;
please include your address and phone number.
We believe
in a different
We see an oak bench. They see a rope bridge.
Our Arundel dining table and bench. Made from nothing but
North American oak. Designed to last a lifetime.
Front Q&A
Who would
play me in the
film of my life?
A Nick Park
Joanna Scanlan, actor
When were you happiest?
Swimming down the Thames on a full moon night 10 years
ago. It was dangerous, but extremely joyful.
What is your greatest fear?
Being buried alive – I never got over seeing The Vanishing.
What is the trait you most deplore in others?
The ability to say no. I think I am envious.
What was your most embarrassing moment?
Leaking while having a period on to a beautiful white dining
chair. The hostess whipped it away and scrubbed it in the
kitchen. It was just awful.
What did you want to be when you were growing up?
An actor or a nun.
What is your guiltiest pleasure?
Staying in bed all day and reading.
To whom would you most like to say sorry, and why?
To my Latin teacher – I was very naughty.
What was the best kiss of your life?
Certainly not my first, which I discovered had been the
result of a bet. I was 13.
What is the worst job you’ve done?
At the BBC, in the old days, a piece of paper was sent to
various households for them to report on what they’d
watched that week. In my early 20s, I collated the data.
It was deeply boring.
What has been your biggest disappointment?
Never getting back to a size 12.
If you could go back in time, where would you go?
Bankside around 1492, to free the bears from bear-baiting.
What is your most treasured possession?
My prescription goggles. I would be lost without them.
When did you last cry, and why?
The plastics episode of Blue Planet.
What is your wallpaper?
The river at the bottom of our garden in Wales.
How often do you have sex?
Surprisingly often. I didn’t have much sex when I was
young. I seem to be having a lot more now I am older.
What do you most dislike about your appearance?
What is your most unappealing habit?
Changing my mind.
Which living person do you most despise, and why?
All the people, including myself, who lack simple courtesies
and kindnesses. It makes life intolerable.
Who would play you in the film of your life?
A Nick Park claymation.
10 31 March 2018 | The Guardian Weekend
What do you consider your greatest achievement?
Having someone to love.
What has been your closest brush with the law?
Driving Tilda Swinton’s car without insurance when I was
about 25. We both had to go to court.
What song would you like played at your funeral?
Move On Up Rosanna Greenstreet
Raised in Wales, Scanlan, 56, became an actor in her mid-30s.
Her TV work includes the comedy series The Thick Of It, Rev
and No Offence, and she was nominated for a Bafta for Getting
On, an NHS comedy that she co-wrote and starred in. Her film
roles include Notes On A Scandal, In The Loop and Testament
Of Youth. Most recently, she starred in the BBC drama Requiem,
which is out now on DVD. She is married and lives in London.
its chest, so my hands were slightly inside. It felt
warm and alarming, and the ewe groaned but
didn’t try to stop me. The mood was solemn,
because we thought the lamb had died – but we
could at least save the mother.
I had to give a few decent tugs until, after about
two minutes, the lamb slipped out into my arms.
It was limp and covered with fluid, but after
a minute I felt a heartbeat. I felt joyous, but there
was still more we had to do to make sure the lamb
stayed alive. Becky had read that
hypothermia is a common cause
of death in newborn lambs, so
I wrapped it in my jacket. James
I was fresh
Googled how to clear mucus from its
from the city
nose and mouth – it said to put
a blade of grass up its nostrils to
and hadn’t
make it sneeze, and a finger inside
anticipated my
her mouth to hook the mucus out.
country life
It felt like a baby’s mouth.
being quite so
When the lamb was breathing and
more robust, I tried to stand it up,
but because it had been in the
birthing position for so long, its legs
kept curling under. The ewe had
started passing a very large
afterbirth, and still wasn’t
responding. James and Petey hauled
her to her feet, and once gravity
started helping she passed the whole
thing. Then she started eating grass
as if nothing had happened.
We put the lamb on the ground to
try to encourage Mum towards it. But
it was still wrapped in my coat, which
smelled like me, so the ewe ignored
it. I didn’t want to remove the coat
because the lamb was so damp and
letting out little mews. However,
I finally left it on the ground without
the coat – but the ewe still ignored it. The lamb was
Last April, my husband, James, and I had friends, Petey and Becky, visiting, and we
tiny and shivering.
decided to go for a walk on the South Downs. We’d recently bought a house five minutes
Petey said we should encourage the ewe
from the Downs, in Lewes, East Sussex, and headed towards Mount Caburn, the highest
towards the lamb, so we surrounded her and
point in the area.
started “herding” her. She slowly went towards
We were climbing a steep hill when I saw a sheep lying on its side and not moving. From
the lamb and eventually picked up the scent. She
afar, it looked as if it was dead, but then I saw a leg move. The boys said the movement was
gave it a lick and the lamb slowly got to its wobbly
just the wind and wanted to keep going, but I went over and saw the head and hooves of a
feet. The mum kept licking, and after about five
lamb coming out of her body. The head was dry, which suggested it had been there for
minutes the lamb was suckling. I felt very
quite a while. The ewe’s bottom was facing up this steep hill, so gravity wasn’t helping.
attached to the brave pair and found it quite hard
The sheep was barely breathing, and I thought it had completely exhausted itself – she
to leave them. When we left, I realised I was
didn’t even flicker when I approached. The lamb was unresponsive, and its eyes were
covered in afterbirth. I wanted a hug, but nobody
bulging. We watched for a few minutes to see if there were any more contractions, because
would touch me. When we got home, I put the
we didn’t want to intervene if it wasn’t necessary. But there was no movement so, despite
coat straight in a hot wash.
knowing nothing about sheep, I said I was going to help.
A week later, James and I went for a drink with
The boys were really uncertain – they felt nature should take its course – and Becky went
friends, and they invited us back for dinner. They
very quiet. But I felt we had to do something. Becky Googled “how to birth a lamb” and
had a leg of lamb in the oven, and I said, “I’m not
read me the instructions. One vital bit of information was that if the head is out and the
eating lamb any more.” I haven’t eaten it since two front hooves are tucked under the chin, that’s the correct birthing position. Becky
Emily Elgar
showed me a couple of infograms, and I said, “I’m going in.”
There was a moment when I thought: “I’m really going to put my hands inside a sheep.”
Do you have an experience to share?
I was fresh from London and hadn’t anticipated my new country life being quite so
hands-on. I knelt down and put one hand around the back of the lamb’s head and one on
I birthed a lamb while
on a country walk
Front Experience
The Guardian Weekend | 31 March 2018 13
Sweets for breakfast, pillow fights on demand,
and no tidying up... what if the children ran the house?
Three families take on the challenge
Photographs: David Vintiner
Decca Aitkenhead with her
two sons, Jake (left) and Joe
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‘The house has the airless discombobulation
of a student house in the 90s, the day after a big
night out on ecstasy’: Decca Aitkenhead
Three hours in, I feel weightless, almost giddy. I’m lying on the
sofa with my boys, eating chocolate, watching telly, and it is no
exaggeration to say that I am having the time of my life. For the
first time in eight and a half years, I am not in charge. This exotic
sensation of relaxation is completely unfamiliar – and yet stirs
a distant memory of who I used to be.
The kids-in-charge experiment began at 1pm, and I can’t
believe how well it’s going. In truth I’d been dreading it, braced
for carnage, but so far it has been nothing but fun. At 1.01pm
the boys had raced to the bakery and spent £10 on cakes, before
charging on up the road for lunch in McDonald’s. I’m very much
enjoying the absence of washing-up, and curious to see what
they will eat next.
Jake proposes a trip to the corner shop for provisions. I float
along the pavement beside him, laughing at his jokes; his mood
is unrecognisably effervescent, fizzing with wit, and I tell him
he’s on cracking form. He halts and turns to me, his expression
suddenly earnest.
“But don’t you see? This is the real me. Your rules make me
go,” and he shrinks, hunching his shoulders and drawing his
wrists together as if cuffed. “But our rules have unleashed the
real me,” and he skips off into the shop.
I stare after him, stunned. What if he is right? What have
I been thinking all these years, grimly policing bedtimes and
broccoli and pee on the toilet seat? By other parents’ standards
I’d always considered myself relatively permissive; I’ve neither
the time nor energy to be a helicopter/tiger mum. But now, as
the tension of everyday parenting melts away, I’m beginning to
see the grinding joylessness of family life under my rules.
In the shop, I watch Jake’s brain struggle to adjust to the
heady concept of limitlessness. He dances up the aisles, dazed
by possibilities, turning out of habit to seek permission as
he reaches for a sack of crisps. Seeing my smiley shrug, he
grabs a chocolate bar next – then, like a prisoner acclimatising
to freedom, two great handfuls. The only point at which
I intervene is when he asks the shopkeeper for “two cans of
Stella Art… Art… Artoize”.
We come home with £52-worth of fizzy drinks, sweets, crisps
and cookies, which the boys lay out across the kitchen table like
a gaudy tablecloth spun from confectionery. Our fruit bowls
and jars of lentils and seeds on the shelves now look as if they
have been Photoshopped in from somebody else’s house. The
kitchen resembles a reality TV set housing two ludicrously
incompatible families.
While the sugar-rush kicks in, an almighty pillow fight breaks
out, and it begins to feel a bit Lord Of The Flies. Jake sets up an old
Wii donated by a family friend. Ordinarily, the boys are allowed
15 minutes a day of TV after school, movies at weekends, and
no other screens, unless a) at other people’s houses, b) on longhaul flights, or c) on holidays where a luggage allowance can’t
accommodate a fortnight’s worth of Lego/books/lightsabers,
etc. My iPad will occasionally be deployed in an emergency
situation, but that’s the extent of the boys’ access to technology.
Having grown up in the 70s without a television, I consider
these rules quite generous – but then, the appeal of electronic
devices has always been lost on me. Jake and Joe are hoping to
use this opportunity to convert me to their charms – and so, at
the age of 47, I play my first video game. It is called Bomberman
Land. They’re so thrilled to see their mum operate a console,
I almost want to enjoy it. Instead, I’m nonplussed, and very quickly bored.
They get me to play Lego Batman next, but it makes me feel seasick. Puzzled
by my failure to share their enthusiasm, they invite their eight-year-old
friend John round. When Joe shrieks at him, “We’re never going to bed!” it
strikes me that I might need some company, too.
I rustle up some friends, Chinese delivery and wine, and we have the
loveliest evening, joyously uninterrupted by the tedium of bedtime rituals.
No teeth will be brushed, no toys tidied away. The kids don’t even need to
be fed. They work their way through their provisions like locusts, until the
house is littered in a confetti of wrappers.
By 1.30am, I cannot keep my eyes open, and go to bed with three boys
hunched beside me, playing Lego Harry Potter on the Wii. When I awake at
4.50am, I think I must be dreaming. Last New Year’s Eve, Jake stayed up until
3am – but that was at a party, and even then Joe folded by midnight. I would
have said it wasn’t physically possible for them to last any longer. But beside
me in the bed are three small boys, wide awake, eyes glued to the video game.
At 7.30am, I find them asleep, fully dressed, surrounded by cookie crumbs
and crumpled Fanta cans. Shortly after 8am, Joe appears downstairs. I ask
how he feels. “Good. I nearly just vomited. But yeah, good.”
He takes a can of Coke from the fridge, pours himself a bowl full of
condensed sweetened milk, and eats it with a spoon. When it’s all gone, he
moves on to the Nutella. To watch one’s child shovel spoonfuls from the
jar into his mouth and do nothing is a kind of out-of-body experience – like
observing a car crash involving your children and simply driving on by. It
feels horrifying but oddly liberating. When Jake shambles downstairs –
bumping off the walls, all coordination shot – the first words from his mouth
are: “Can I have your phone?”
And that is how the day proceeds. After John’s dad collects him, Jake and
Joe summon a revolving cast of
school friends who arrive with
eyes like saucers, scarcely able
to believe the scenes they find in
our house. The curtains remain
closed, my phone and laptop are
commandeered, and the various
devices absorb their unbroken
attention. Nobody washes, or
dresses, or even says much.
By afternoon, I realise what
the atmosphere in the house
Jake and Joe’s rules
reminds me of: it has the airless
Decca isn’t allowed to say no
discombobulation of a student
No baths
house in the 90s, the day after
Hourly food fight
a big night out on ecstasy; time has
Unlimited screens
been suspended, sleep forgotten,
No bedtime
brain cells impaired. On the plus
Decca has to play Laser Tag when
side, for the first time in about
we want
four years I’m left in peace to read
Unlimited sweets and crisps
not one but two Saturday papers
and chocolates and fizzy drinks
cover to cover. If the boys are in
Decca has to disco dance when
thrall to their new freedom, a bit of
we want
me is too. I don’t have to cook, or
Email Donald Trump every
chivvy, or entertain; I don’t have to
10 hours to insult him
do anything.
We are allowed to get games
By the evening, I feel rancid and
on Decca’s phone
sick. My stomach is in shock, reeling
Allowed to swear
from all the sugar; all I want to do
Unlimited water fights
is go to bed. Jake and Joe, on the
Worst table manners
other hand, are having the time of
No vegetables
their lives. “Brilliant!” they exclaim
Allowed to jump on Decca’s bed,
whenever I ask how they’re feeling.
to play on a Wii and to pee on the
“This is the. Best. Weekend. EVER!” →
toilet seat
The Guardian Weekend | 31 March 2018 17
At around 10pm, I coax them to watch cartoons with me in my
bed, calculating that once untethered from the Wii they must
fall asleep, which thank God they do.
“So, what do you want to do today?”
They wake up with 11 hours left of their rules before we revert
to mine. So far we haven’t even left the house. “Trampolining?
Go-karting? Anything you want.” These activities are not typical
features of our family weekends, but exist only in the prized
category of annual birthday treats. “You’re in charge,” I remind
them. “What shall we do?” Jake considers his options. “I think
I’d just like to stay in and play on devices.”
And this is what they do again, all day. All their funny and
entertaining rules are forgotten; they don’t want me to do a
chicken dance, or pillow fight; they forget all about emailing
Donald Trump. They don’t even want KFC or Burger King, but
send me back to the shop for another £20-worth of chemically
coloured sugar.
By now, pancakes are looking like a pretty nutritious food
group to me, so while the boys stare at more screens I make
some. As I line breakfast trays with colourful napkins, arrange
toppings into pretty glass ramekins and serve the boys on the
sofa, it dawns on me that I never, ever do this. I tell my kids
I love them all the time – but when do I show it? I’m always
too busy processing them through the interminable drill of
teeth, shoes, PE kit, coats, to think to stop and make a fuss
of them. I’d never noticed how often I say no to my kids until
they banned it, but now I think about it I can’t remember the
last time I said yes when they asked me to play.
Mortified, I bound into the living room and challenge the
boys to a Laser Tag battle. I might as well have marched into
a crack den and proposed a game of croquet. Jake and Joe are
dead-eyed and sluggish, stinking of stale sweat, oblivious to
anything but the Wii; within 48 hours, technology and sugar
have stripped all the vitality of childhood away, and turned
them into drug addicts. The analogy sounds melodramatic, but
the parallels are unmistakable. I think back to day one, and to
Jake’s heady spirits. It had felt delightful. But I fear it was just
what’s known as a “We’ve-Called-The-Dealer!” high, the only
difference being that the boys’ drugs of choice are both legal
and considered perfectly normal.
The epiphany of the weekend is my neglect of frivolity, and
we revert to my rules with a new resolve to make family life
more fun. But if the boys had hoped their rules might relax
mine on video games and sweets, the plan has badly backfired.
The verdict
Jake Wilkinson, eight
When our mum told us that we were going to get to set our
own rules, we wanted to start straight away. We were looking
forward to doing it so much, and it was so exciting.
We did the easy ones first, like unlimited screens and sweets,
stay up all night; but then we thought of some whackier ones.
When our friend John came round for a sleepover, it was
more like the longest playdate in the world, because there was
no sleep. I learned that no rules is the best thing ever, and I wish
it was like that every day. If we did it again, I wouldn’t change
a single rule.
Joe Wilkinson, six
My favourite thing was Mum spending so much money on
lots of sweets. On Saturday morning, I felt like I was going to
vomit, but I didn’t, so I carried on eating them. Setting our own rules was fun,
but it was quite unhealthy for us. By the end of the weekend my tummy stuck
out about a metre. I think if we were in charge all the time, we might get ill.
But I’d love to do it again.
‘I had hoped there might be a hint of gratitude that we were
indulging her every whim. No chance’: Sarfraz Manzoor
On the first day of kids’ rules, it was snowing and school was closed. My wife,
Bridget, was at work, our one-year old son Ezra was with his childminder,
and I was at home with our six-year-old daughter, Laila, who was busy
wolfing down a bowl of Coco Pops.
When we first told Laila that we were going to consent to her every
demand, she started with the food: “I want Coco Pops for breakfast and chips
with peas and fish fingers for dinner every day. And I want to eat my pudding
before dinner – because pudding is the best part.” No more granola; no more
boring old vegetables and grains. Then she got into the swing of things: no
more arguments, no phone at dinner time, no set bedtime.
Ordinarily, on a day off, Laila would have asked me to read her a book, or
she would have drawn pictures or played with her toys. Not today. “I want to
watch Ben & Holly’s Magic Kingdom”.
Bridget grew up in a family that did not own a television until she was
16, and Laila watches less television than many of her friends – about half
an hour every other Saturday. And now here she was, still in her pyjamas,
watching what turned out to be two hours of television, the equivalent of
eight weeks’ worth in her ordinary life.
Bridget and I have been together for 10 years and my guess is that we don’t
argue any more than other married couples, but we also don’t argue any less.
Yet one of Laila’s rules was no more arguing. It didn’t take long after Bridget
had returned from work for the first argument to begin brewing, but we had
to stop ourselves. We focused on frying Laila’s dinner.
When her food was ready, Laila refused to sit down on her chair: she
wanted to eat lying flat on the floor. We couldn’t argue with her – or with each
other – so we sat there growing silently annoyed.
On the first night, Laila asked that Bridget and I put her to bed together
– taking it in turns to read a book to her. That was lovely – our little girl
snuggled up between us as we read Moominsummer Madness. At bathtime
she had asked Bridget to join her in the tub. It was touching how many of her
rules were aimed at spending more time with us. I wondered if this was a
reaction to the fact that since her brother, Ezra, had been born, the amount of
attention we could devote exclusively to her had inevitably been reduced.
I had always thought that
the greatest gift I could give my
daughter was to make her aware
of the music of Bruce Springsteen
– I had sung his songs to her at
bedtime since she was born –
so I was a little hurt when she
demanded a change the moment
she was in charge.
Laila’s rules
“I want something from Matilda,”
Watch more TV
she said. I dutifully looked up the
Have Mummy and Daddy both
lyrics to When I Grow Up – which,
read to me at bedtime
while lacking the narrative drama
No arguing
of Springsteen’s The River, was
Daddy not to look at his phone
not half bad.
at dinnertime
On the second day, Laila
Breakfast of Coco Pops
continued with her diet of Coco
Dinner of fish fingers, chips
Pops, chips and television, but
and peas
decided she didn’t just want us to
Bedtime when I want
both read to her: she also wanted
Daddy singing songs from
to sleep in the same bed as Bridget.
Matilda at bedtime
I was exiled to the sofa bed. →
No tidying up
Sarfraz Manzoor with his wife
Bridget and daughter Laila
I had hoped, perhaps naively, that there might be the tiniest
hint of gratitude for the fact that Bridget and I were indulging
her every whim. No chance. That night, neither Bridget nor
Laila slept well and the following day the combination of sugar,
sleep deprivation and freedom pushed her over the edge.
She woke up grumpy and hungry. The Coco Pops may have
been delicious but they weren’t filling her up. The hunger
mutated to irritability. She refused to put on her coat or
wellington boots to go out on to the snowy streets, and insisted
on walking outside barefoot in tights and a summer dress.
We felt like terrible parents to be allowing it, but each time we
suggested anything that seemed like sensible advice, she would
start screaming, calling us stupid and telling us to shut up. She
screamed on the street and howled and writhed on the London
underground as commuters tried to avert their eyes. She
screamed her demands to watch her favourite programme in
a way that was both terrifying and heart-breaking: “I want Ben
& Holly NOW and when I say now I mean NOW!” she shouted.
I felt grateful that the man who lived in the flat below us is in his
80s and hard of hearing.
We tried to remind her of all the toys and books and crayons
and games she had. Laila looked at them and said two words
I don’t recall her ever saying: “I’m bored.”
We have always tried to offer a united front in the face of
challenges, but Bridget and I had very different ideas about
how to deal with Laila’s behaviour. I had been raised in a family
where I would not have dared to raise my voice to my dad – he
was never physical but he exerted such authority that to talk
back to him, even in my 20s, was unthinkable.
Bridget’s parents encouraged her to show emotion – and
as a teenager she threatened to throw a chair at her mother.
And so, in the face of Laila’s meltdown, Bridget and I found
ourselves arguing about the best course of action, which of
course prompted Laila to point out: “You’re not allowed to
argue in front of me.”
Bridget stormed out of the room, accidentally stepping on
a beloved furry rabbit ears headband, which broke, prompting
more wails from Laila. Ordinarily, the ears would have not been
on the floor because they would have been tidied away, but the
Laila rules stipulated that she did not have to do any tidying.
“Laila, I don’t like what you’re turning into,” Bridget
said plaintively.
“I want Ben & Holly!” screamed Laila, and deliberately tipped
a glass of water on to the carpet.
“That’s it,” said Bridget, “we are abandoning this
bloody experiment!”
Laila was beside herself. I wondered whether we had ended
the experiment or whether the experiment had ended us.
A few days later, I was putting Laila to bed and she was being
her old self – funny, clever and loving. This transformation back
to something close to her old self was, for me, an indication of
the dangers in giving children what they want, rather than what
they need. That said, being made aware of just how important
Laila found spending time with us has led me to try to be more
present for her when I am with her – and not to keep using my
phone in front of her.
The following morning, Laila was digging into a bowl of
granola. “I’m wondering how the other families are doing with
the children being the boss? I’m guessing it’s going bad.”
“Why do you say that?” I asked.
Laila looked up at me.
“Because it went bad for us,” she replied.
The verdict
Laila Manzoor, six
I came up with the rules by thinking about what my favourite things were
and I tried to make them into a list. I also didn’t want Mummy and Daddy to
argue because it is a bit annoying because it’s a bit noisy.
I liked them both putting me to bed because it was nice to hear both their
different voices. It was nice to be between them in bed because I could curl
up with both of them.
I think grownups should set the rules because it is more healthy. If I just
ate chips and Coco Pops I would maybe vomit a hundred times a day.
‘I feel like Theresa May during Brexit negotiations’:
Clover Stroud
With more than 15 years between my five children, negotiating rules they all
agree on turns out to be an immensely complicated process, and is possibly
the reason we have so few rules in our house anyway.
It’s brought home to me as I herd them around the kitchen table, hoping
for a serious and productive discussion. Lester, the youngest at 18 months,
swings his bare feet in his highchair, idly tipping a beaker of milk on to the
floor. The eldest, Jimmy, 17, slouches at the far end of the table, glowering
with a tangible sense that rules are only made to be broken. He only looks
from his phone when he actually catches the gist of what I’m proposing.
“So, like, we’ll be able to do anything we want and you have to let it go?” he
says, pausing mid Snapchat to listen. Patiently, I start explaining that he can
dictate certain rules I must obey, until I realise he’s turning my speech into
a Snapchat Story, and I hurriedly have to shut the meeting down before I’m
shared as a humiliating social media meme.
With two distinct age groups in our family – the teenagers, Jimmy and
Dolly, 14, and the pre-schoolers, Lester, Dash, three, and Evangeline, five –
we create two sets of rules. The smaller children’s demands don’t look too
exhausting, as they want to do things like eat more pizza and sweets, and
watch more telly. But the teenagers challenge me. I feel like Theresa May
during Brexit negotiations, as I start out convinced I can have my cake and
eat it, but quickly realise I won’t
get what I want and that it’s going
to hurt.
Not all of it’s painful – Dolly wants
regular themed cooking evenings
and a family games night, which
almost breaks my heart – but Jimmy
goes for the jugular, demanding
a lift anywhere, at any time. This
is my achilles heel. We live in rural
Oxfordshire, on the edge of a tiny
village with no school, shop or pub.
It’s not as remote as living in the
Jimmy and Dolly’s rules
Brecon Beacons, or the Highlands,
A lift anywhere, any time
but we have to drive absolutely
Weekly family games night
everywhere; by 7.30pm, when the
Themed dinner every night –
smaller children are in bed, I’ll do
Mexican, Indian, etc
anything not to have to run a taxi
Constant supply of chocolate
service for the teenagers.
I hope this environment has given
We decide bedtime
Jimmy, whose desire to be as far
away as possible from family life is
Evangeline, Dash and
more finely developed than Dolly’s,
Lester’s rules
a more profound relationship with
Sweets every day
the natural world. I sometimes feel
Watch telly every day after school
he’s like a character in a Thomas
Sleep in Mum’s bed
Hardy novel, as he spends a lot
To be read to for as long as we
of time walking to meet mates
want every night
across ploughed fields, often by →
Pizza for supper
The Guardian Weekend | 31 March 2018 21
moonlight or in driving rain. I’m
under no illusion he’s not up to all
the usual teenage tricks, as he’s
able to get pizza, and probably
all sorts of other things teenagers
enjoy, delivered to nearby fields
where he meets friends. But I like
to think it’s also given him a special
appreciation of the eerie shriek of
a fox at night, or the strange, blank
stare of a swooping barn owl.
But under his new rules, I’ll have
to drive him everywhere.
Despite my impending sense of
exhaustion, the rules bring a sense
of celebration to the house. Dolly
finds the Monopoly and Cluedo
sets, which haven’t seen an outing
in a while, and several packs of
cards appear, as if she’s setting up
a casino in the playroom.
At the supermarket, Evangeline
and Dash are vigilant about picking
out packets of pepperoni and
mozzarella for pizzas, and add
several extra bags of Haribos they’d
never usually get past me to the
Clover with her five children (from left) Dash, Jimmy, Evangeline, Lester and Dolly
shopping basket.
Dolly and Jimmy are also quite
demanding about meal planning
and want a rolling programme of
younger kids to be glued to the TV, but they seem to forget about it quite
Mexican, Thai, Lebanese, Chinese and Indian meals cooked
quickly. They love the amount of bedtime reading they get, but even Dash
for them. I start off with huge culinary enthusiasm, knocking
admitted that sleeping in his own bed was better, as there were “too many
up enchiladas and guacamole, prawn toast and tom yum,
legs” in mine.
fried haloumi and Lebanese salad from scratch every night. In
On their watch, I feel more playful, and less didactic and shouty than
theory, this is great for all of us, but as I’ve promised pizza on
normal. I give in to the chaos more readily, which is a revelation, and
demand to the younger children, I’m also dealing with a gang
certainly more effective at thrusting me into the moment than any amount
of floury elves at my feet, squabbling over whose turn it is to
of meditation and mindfulness. Endless cooking of themed suppers requires
sprinkle the mozzarella. It’s like running an international allcareful shopping, but it’s also bonding.
you-can-eat buffet every evening. By day four, I’ve swapped
Amazingly, once I give in and stop fighting the idea, even the late-night
homemade sourdough pizza dough for ready-rolled, and
driving has some benefits. Close to midnight, driving through the darkness,
bought a take-away Chinese for the teenagers.
Jimmy and I have some of our best conversations. Away from the white noise
Under their rules, at the end of the evening, when I would
of the younger children, I nag less and he opens up more, and it gives us
usually whip through a single chapter of reading to the younger
precious time together.
children, I now have to read “for as long as we want”.
When I finally get back downstairs to the kitchen, I’m
confronted by Jimmy, on his third bowl of Krave cereal,
The verdict
despite having eaten supper an hour before, demanding a lift
Jimmy Hughes, 17
to town to meet a friend. Late-night driving is a nightmare
It was good to be the official voice in the way the house is run. I mean, we
in the country, but especially at this point in the winter,
all do what we want most of the time anyway, but it was nice to actually
when the nights are long, icy and bitterly cold. Under normal
have it in writing. Some of the rules seemed momentous when we set them,
circumstances, I would not even consider it.
but in reality weren’t that life-changing. Like with sleep: I realised I’m quite
The week is properly draining, and at one point the younger
responsible about the time I go to bed, as we have to get up really early to get
children become slightly deranged by their free-range life,
to school in time.
fighting over sweets which seem to be strewn all over the house
It was great being the boss for once, as she’s a massive boss. I’m 17, she’s 42,
like sticky confetti. The biggest row of the week is between
so we’re living in a constant power struggle anyway.
Dash and Evangeline, who both want credit for having come
up with the idea of sweets on tap, and I find Dash screaming at
Dolly Hughes, 14
his sister, holding a fistful of her hair, as she stuffs Jelly Babies
I just enjoyed being more involved with cooking, and making sure we spend
into her mouth. “I want a rule! Where are my rules? I want some
time together as a family. Mum’s usually quite tired by the time the kids go to
rules!” he wails.
bed, as they’re insanely noisy, but because we’d made a commitment to play
There were more surprising results, too. I’d expected the
games together in the evening, we kept to it. That felt special The Guardian Weekend | 31 March 2018 23
When people die young, their unhealthy habits get a moral
autopsy – especially if they are poor. No one deserves this extra
helping of blame and shame, says Barbara Ehrenreich
Portraits by Stephen Voss
Barbara Ehrenreich: ‘Friends berate me for my heavy use of butter’
I watched in dismay as most of my educated, middle-class friends began,
at the onset of middle age, to obsess about their health and likely longevity.
Even those who were at one point determined to change the world refocused
on changing their bodies. They undertook exercise or yoga regimens; they
filled their calendars with medical tests and exams; they boasted about their
“good” and “bad” cholesterol counts, their heart rates and blood pressure.
Mostly they understood the task of ageing to be self-denial, especially in the
realm of diet, where one medical fad, one study or another, condemned fat
and meat, carbs, gluten, dairy or all animal-derived products. In the healthconscious mindset that has prevailed among the world’s affluent people for
about four decades now, health is indistinguishable from virtue, tasty foods
are “sinfully delicious”, while healthful foods may taste good enough to be
advertised as “guilt-free”. Those seeking to compensate for a lapse undertake
punitive measures such as hours-long cardio sessions, fasts, purges or diets
composed of different juices carefully sequenced throughout the day.
Of course I want to be healthy, too; I just don’t want to make the pursuit of
health into a major life project. I eat well, meaning I choose foods that taste
good and will stave off hunger for as long as possible, such as protein, fibre
and fats. But I refuse to overthink the potential hazards of blue cheese on
my salad or pepperoni on my pizza.
I also exercise – not because it will
make me live longer but because
it feels good when I do. As for
medical care, I will seek help for an
urgent problem, but I am no longer
interested in undergoing tests to
uncover problems that remain
undetectable to me. When friends
berate me for my laxity, my heavy
use of butter or habit of puffing (but
not inhaling) on cigarettes, I gently
remind them that I am, in most
cases, older than they are.
So it was with a measure of
schadenfreude that I began to
record the cases of individuals
whose healthy lifestyles failed to
produce lasting health. It turns out
that many of the people who got
caught up in the health “craze” of
the last few decades – people who
exercised, watched what they ate,
abstained from smoking and heavy
drinking – have nevertheless died.
Lucille Roberts, owner of a chain of
women’s gyms, died incongruously
from lung cancer at the age of 59,
although she was a “self-described
exercise nut” who, the New York
Times reported, “wouldn’t touch a French fry, much less smoke a cigarette”.
Jerry Rubin, who devoted his later years to trying every supposedly healthpromoting diet fad, therapy and meditation system he could find, jaywalked
into Wilshire Boulevard at the age of 56 and died of his injuries two weeks later.
Some of these deaths were genuinely shocking. Jim Fixx, author of the
bestselling The Complete Book Of Running, believed he could outwit the
cardiac problems that had carried his father off to an early death by running at
least 10 miles a day and restricting himself to a diet of pasta, salads and fruit.
But he was found dead on the side of a Vermont road in 1984, aged only 52.
Even more disturbing was the untimely demise of John H Knowles, director
of the Rockefeller Foundation and promulgator of the “doctrine of personal
responsibility” for one’s health. Most illnesses are self-inflicted, he argued – the
result of “gluttony, alcoholic intemperance, reckless driving, sexual frenzy,
With sufficient
ingenuity – or
malicious intent –
almost any death
can be blamed on
some mistake of
the deceased: did
she smoke? Drink
excessively? Eat
too much fat and
not enough fibre?
smoking” and other bad choices. The “idea of a ‘right’ to health,”
he wrote, “should be replaced by the idea of an individual moral
obligation to preserve one’s own health.” But he died of pancreatic
cancer at 52, prompting one physician commentator to observe,
“Clearly we can’t all be held responsible for our health.”
Still, we persist in subjecting anyone who dies at a seemingly
untimely age to a kind of bio-moral autopsy: did she smoke?
Drink excessively? Eat too much fat and not enough fibre?
Can she, in other words, be blamed for her own death? When
David Bowie and Alan Rickman both died in early 2016 of what
major US newspapers described only as “cancer”, some readers
complained that it is the responsibility of obituaries to reveal
what kind of cancer. Ostensibly, this information would help
promote “awareness” of the particular cancers involved, as
Betty Ford’s openness about her breast cancer diagnosis helped
to destigmatise that disease. It would also, of course, prompt
judgments about the victim’s “lifestyle”. Would Bowie have died
– at the quite respectable age of 69 – if he hadn’t been a smoker?
Apple co-founder Steve Jobs’ 2011 death from pancreatic
cancer continues to spark debate. He was a food faddist, eating
only raw vegan foods, especially fruit, and refusing to deviate
from that plan even when doctors recommended a high protein
and fat diet to help compensate for his failing pancreas. His
office refrigerator was filled with Odwalla juices; he antagonised
non-vegan associates by attempting to proselytise among them,
as biographer Walter Isaacson has reported: at a meal with
Mitch Kapor, the chairman of Lotus software, Jobs was horrified
to see Kapor slathering butter on his bread, and asked, “Have
you ever heard of serum cholesterol?” Kapor responded, “I’ll
make you a deal. You stay away from commenting on my dietary
habits, and I will stay away from the subject of your personality.”
Defenders of veganism argue that his cancer could be
attributed to his occasional forays into protein-eating (a meal
of eel sushi has been reported) or to exposure to toxic metals as
a young man tinkering with computers. But a case could be made
that it was the fruitarian diet that killed him: metabolically,
a diet of fruit is equivalent to a diet of candy, only with fructose
instead of glucose, with the effect that the pancreas is strained to
constantly produce more insulin. As for the personality issues
– the almost manic-depressive mood swings – they could be
traced to frequent bouts of hypoglycemia. Incidentally, 67-yearold Mitch Kapor is alive and well at the time of this writing.
Similarly, with sufficient ingenuity – or malicious intent –
almost any death can be blamed on some mistake of the deceased.
Surely Fixx had failed to “listen to his body” when he first felt
chest pains and tightness while running, and maybe, if he had
been less self-absorbed, Rubin would have looked both ways
before crossing the street. Maybe it’s just the way the human
mind works, but when bad things happen or someone dies, we
seek an explanation, preferably one that features a conscious
agent – a deity or spirit, an evil-doer or envious acquaintance,
even the victim. We don’t read detective novels to find out that
the universe is meaningless, but that, with sufficient information,
it all makes sense. We can, or think we can, understand the causes
of disease in cellular and chemical terms, so we should be able
to avoid it by following the rules laid down by medical science:
avoiding tobacco, exercising, undergoing routine medical
screening and eating only foods currently considered healthy.
Anyone who fails to do so is inviting an early death. Or, to put it
another way, every death can now be understood as suicide.
Liberal commentators countered that this view represented
a kind of “victim-blaming”. In her books Illness As Metaphor →
The Guardian Weekend | 31 March 2018 27
and Aids And Its Metaphors, Susan Sontag argued against
the oppressive moralising of disease, which was increasingly
portrayed as an individual problem. The lesson, she said,
was, “Watch your appetites. Take care of yourself. Don’t let
yourself go.” Even breast cancer, she noted, which has no clear
lifestyle correlates, could be blamed on a “cancer personality”,
sometimes defined in terms of repressed anger which,
presumably, one could have sought therapy to cure. Little was
said, even by the major breast cancer advocacy groups, about
possible environmental carcinogens or carcinogenic medical
regimes such as hormone replacement therapy.
While the affluent struggled dutifully to conform to the latest
prescriptions for healthy living – adding whole grains and gym
time to their daily plans – the less affluent remained mired in the
old comfortable, unhealthy ways of the past – smoking cigarettes
and eating foods they found tasty and affordable. There are some
obvious reasons why the poor and the working class resisted
the health craze: gym memberships can be expensive; “health
foods” usually cost more than “junk food”. But as the classes
diverged, the new stereotype of the lower classes as wilfully
unhealthy quickly fused with their old stereotype as semi-literate
louts. I confront this in my work as an advocate for a higher
minimum wage. Affluent audiences may cluck sympathetically
over the miserably low wages offered to blue-collar workers, but
they often want to know “why these people don’t take better care
of themselves”. Why do they smoke or eat fast food? Concern
for the poor usually comes tinged with pity. And contempt.
In the 00s, Jamie Oliver took it on himself to reform the
eating habits of the masses, starting with school lunches.
Pizza and burgers were replaced with menu items one might
expect to find in a restaurant – fresh greens, for example, and
roast chicken. But the experiment was a failure. In the US and
UK, schoolchildren dumped out their healthy new lunches
or stamped them underfoot. Mothers passed burgers to their
children through school fences. Administrators complained that
the new meals were vastly over-budget; nutritionists noted that
28 31 March 2018 | The Guardian Weekend
they were cruelly deficient in calories. In Oliver’s defence, it should be observed
that ordinary “junk food” is chemically engineered to provide an addictive
combination of salt, sugar and fat. But it probably matters, too, that he didn’t
study local eating habits in sufficient depth before challenging them, nor
seems to have given enough thought to creatively modifying them. In West
Virginia, he alienated parents by bringing a local mother to tears when he
publicly announced the food she gave her four children was “killing” them.
There may well be unfortunate consequences from eating the wrong foods.
But what are the “wrong” foods? In the 80s and 90s, the educated classes
turned against fat in all forms, advocating the low-fat and protein diet that,
journalist Gary Taubes argues, paved the way for an “epidemic of obesity” as
health-seekers switched from cheese cubes to low-fat desserts. The evidence
linking dietary fat to poor health had always been shaky, but class prejudice
prevailed: fatty and greasy foods were for the poor and unenlightened; their
betters stuck to bone-dry biscotti and fat-free milk. Other nutrients went in
and out of style as medical opinion shifted: it turns out high dietary cholesterol,
as in oysters, is not a problem after all, and doctors have stopped pushing
calcium on women over 40. Increasingly, the main villains appear to be sugar
and refined carbohydrates, as in hamburger buns. Eat a pile of fries washed
down with a sugary drink and you will probably be hungry again in a couple
of hours, when the sugar rush subsides. If the only cure for that is more of the
same, your blood sugar levels may permanently rise – what we call diabetes.
Special opprobrium is attached to fast food, thought to be the food of the
ignorant. Film-maker Morgan Spurlock spent a month eating nothing but
McDonald’s to create his famous Super Size Me, documenting his 11kg (24lb)
weight gain and soaring blood cholesterol. I have also spent many weeks eating
fast food because it’s cheap and filling but, in my case, to no perceptible
ill effects. It should be pointed out, though, that I ate selectively, skipping
the fries and sugary drinks to double down on the protein. When, at a later
point, a notable food writer called to interview me on the subject of fast food,
I started by mentioning my favourites (Wendy’s and Popeyes), but it turned
out they were all indistinguishable to him. He wanted a comment on the
general category, which was like asking me what I thought about restaurants.
If food choices defined the class gap, smoking provided a firewall between
the classes. To be a smoker in almost any modern, industrialised country
is to be a pariah and, most likely, a sneak. I grew up in another world, in
the 1940s and 50s, when cigarettes served not only as a comfort for the
lonely but a powerful social glue. People offered each other cigarettes, and
lights, indoors and out, in bars,
restaurants, workplaces and living
rooms, to the point where tobacco
smoke became, for better or worse,
the scent of home. My parents
smoked; one of my grandfathers
could roll a cigarette with one hand;
my aunt, who was eventually to die
of lung cancer, taught me how to
smoke when I was a teenager. And
the government seemed to approve.
It wasn’t till 1975 that the armed
forces stopped including cigarettes
along with food rations.
As more affluent people gave up
the habit, the war on smoking –
which was always presented as an
entirely benevolent effort – began to
look like a war against the working
class. When the break rooms offered
by employers banned smoking,
workers were forced outdoors,
leaning against walls to shelter their
cigarettes from the wind. When →
I grew up in
another world, in
the 1940s and 50s,
when cigarettes
served not only
as a comfort for
the lonely but
a powerful social
glue. Now to be
a smoker is to be
a pariah and, most
likely, a sneak
working-class bars went non-smoking, their clienteles dispersed
to drink and smoke in private, leaving few indoor sites for
gatherings and conversations. Escalating cigarette taxes hurt the
poor and the working class hardest. The way out is to buy single
cigarettes on the streets, but strangely enough the sale of these
“loosies” is largely illegal. In 2014 a Staten Island man, Eric Garner,
was killed in a chokehold by city police for precisely this crime.
Why do people smoke? I once worked in a restaurant in the
era when smoking was still permitted in break rooms, and many
workers left their cigarettes burning in the common ashtray so
they could catch a puff whenever they had a chance to, without
bothering to relight. Everything else they did was done for the
boss or the customers; smoking was the only thing they did for
themselves. In one of the few studies of why people smoke,
a British sociologist found smoking among working-class women
was associated with greater responsibilities for the care of family
members – again suggesting a kind of defiant self-nurturance.
When the notion of “stress” was crafted in the mid-20th
century, the emphasis was on the health of executives, whose
anxieties presumably outweighed those of the manual labourer
who had no major decisions to make. It turns out, however, that
stress – measured by blood levels of the stress hormone cortisol
– increases as you move down the socioeconomic scale, with the
most stress inflicted on those who have the least control over
their work. In the restaurant industry, stress is concentrated
among the people responding to the minute-by-minute demands
of customers, not those who sit in offices discussing future
menus. Add to these workplace stresses the challenges imposed
by poverty and you get a combination that is highly resistant to,
for example, anti-smoking propaganda – as Linda Tirado reported
about her life as a low-wage worker with two jobs and two
children: “I smoke. It’s expensive. It’s also the best option. You
see, I am always, always exhausted. It’s a stimulant. When I am
too tired to walk one more step, I can smoke and go for another
hour. When I am enraged and beaten down and incapable of
accomplishing one more thing, I can smoke and I feel a little
better, just for a minute. It is the only relaxation I am allowed.”
Nothing has happened to ease the pressures on low-wage
workers. On the contrary, if the old paradigm of a blue-collar job
was 40 hours a week, an annual two-week vacation and benefits
such as a pension and health insurance, the new expectation is
that one will work on demand, as needed, without benefits or
guarantees. Some surveys now find a majority of US retail staff
working without regular schedules – on call for when an employer
wants them to come and unable to predict how much they will
earn. With the rise in “just in time” scheduling, it becomes
impossible to plan ahead: will you have enough money to pay the
rent? Who will take care of the children? The consequences of
employee “flexibility” can be just as damaging as a programme
of random electric shocks applied to caged laboratory animals.
Sometime in the early to mid-00s, demographers noticed an
unexpected rise in the death rates of poor white Americans.
This was not supposed to happen. For almost a century, the
comforting American narrative was that better nutrition and
medical care would guarantee longer lives for all. It was especially
not supposed to happen to whites who, in relation to people of
colour, have long had the advantage of higher earnings, better
access to healthcare, safer neighbourhoods and freedom from
the daily insults and harms inflicted on the darker skinned.
But the gap between the life expectancies of blacks and whites
has been narrowing. The first response of some researchers –
themselves likely to be well above the poverty level – was to
30 31 March 2018 | The Guardian Weekend
blame the victims: didn’t the poor have worse health habits? Didn’t they smoke?
In late 2015, the British economist Angus Deaton won the Nobel prize for
work he had done with Anne Case, showing that the mortality gap between
wealthy white men and poor ones was widening at a rate of one year a year,
and slightly less for women. Smoking could account for only one fifth to
one third of the excess working-class deaths. The rest were apparently
attributable to alcoholism, opioid addiction and actual suicide – as opposed
to metaphorically “killing” oneself through unwise lifestyle choices.
Why the excess mortality among poor white Americans? In the last few
decades, things have not been going well for working-class people of any
colour. I grew up in an America where a man with a strong back – and a strong
union – could reasonably expect to support a family on his own without
a college degree. By 2015, those jobs were long gone, leaving only the kind of
work once relegated to women and people of colour available in areas such as
retail, landscaping and delivery truck driving. This means those in the bottom
20% of the white income distribution face material circumstances like those
long familiar to poor blacks, including erratic employment and crowded,
hazardous living spaces. Poor whites always had the comfort of knowing that
someone was worse off and more despised than they were; racial subjugation
was the ground under their feet, the rock they stood upon, even when their
own situation was deteriorating. That slender reassurance is shrinking.
There are some practical reasons why whites are likely to be more efficient
than blacks at killing themselves. For one thing, they are more likely to
be gun owners, and white men favour gunshot as a means of suicide. For
another, doctors, undoubtedly acting on stereotypes of non-whites as drug
addicts, are more likely to prescribe
powerful opioid painkillers to
whites. Pain is endemic among the
blue-collar working class, from
waitresses to construction workers,
and few people make it past 50
without palpable damage to their
knees, back or shoulders. As opioids
became more expensive and closely
regulated, users often made the
switch to heroin which, being
illegal, can vary widely in strength,
leading to accidental overdoses.
Affluent reformers are
perpetually frustrated by the
unhealthy habits of the poor, but it
is hard to see how problems arising
from poverty – and damaging work
conditions – could be cured by
imposing the doctrine of “personal
responsibility”. I have no objections
to efforts encouraging people to stop
smoking or add more vegetables
to their diets. But the class gap in mortality will not be closed by tweaking
individual tastes. This is an effort that requires concerted action on a vast scale:
a welfare state to alleviate poverty; environmental clean-up of, for example,
lead in drinking water; access to medical care including mental health
services; occupational health reform to reduce disabilities inflicted by work.
The wealthier classes will also benefit from these measures, but what they
need right now is a little humility. We will all die – whether we slake our thirst
with kombucha or Coca-Cola, whether we run five miles a day or remain
confined to our trailer homes, whether we dine on quinoa or KFC. This is the
human condition. It’s time we began facing it together I don’t object to
efforts encouraging
people to stop
smoking or add
more vegetables
to their diets.
But the class gap
in mortality will
not be closed
by tweaking
individual tastes
This is an edited extract from Natural Causes: Life, Death And The Illusion
Of Control, by Barbara Ehrenreich, published by Granta on 12 April at £16.99.
To order a copy for £14.44, go to or call 0330 333 6846.
32 31 March 2018 | The Guardian Weekend
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g u w ec od at
p h e ad i n e j e
fo ’s e g t
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t t k o d Os d l
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e, his les r w os
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The Guardian Weekend | 31 March 2018 33
After Jerry
Maguire they
did show him the
money, possibly
too much of it.
‘Then I had
10 years in the
All of a sudden
I was broke again’
“Somebody asked me backstage, when I won the Oscar: ‘Did you ever imagine
this?’ And I was like, ‘Never in a million years!’ But it was bullshit. It was a lie,”
Cuba Gooding Jr admits. “I used to practise my autograph in maths class.
I would envision myself holding that Oscar above my head. The real success
stories are the people who truly believe they are going to be famous, so they
mentally prepare. And that’s what I was doing my entire life: preparing for it.”
What Gooding hadn’t thought about was what to do next. That night in
1997, he won best supporting actor for his portrayal of footballer Rod Tidwell
in Tom Cruise sports drama Jerry Maguire. It was the high point of his career,
and his performance was so unforgettably dynamic that Tidwell’s “Show
me the money!” catchphrase became part of the language. When Gooding
went to pick up the Oscar, it was as if he was still in character. He backflipped
and shouted, “I love you!” to his family, God, Tom Cruise and anyone else he
could think of. When the background music swelled, rather than cutting him
off, it soundtracked a crescendo of gratitude that was both manic and sincere.
Both on screen and off, Gooding’s energy shook up the place. The audience
gave him a standing ovation.
After Jerry Maguire, they did show him the money; possibly too much of
it. The commercial hits steadily gave way to critical bombs, followed by “10
years in the wilderness”, as Gooding puts it. “I got to buy both my mom and
my wife’s mom a house. I was on private jets and I was doing the limos, and
then, all of a sudden, I was broke again.” He spent a decade drifting from one
straight-to-DVD film to the next.
But in recent years Gooding has been clawing his way back. In 2016, he
returned to global attention with the acclaimed Ryan Murphy series The
People v OJ Simpson; now he’s leading a London revival of the musical
Chicago, playing the male lead, lawyer Billy Flynn, who defends a murderous
showgirl. Today he looks well considering he’s just finished a long day of
dance rehearsals. “It’s like doing an extreme workout,” he says, slouching on
the sofa in a London studio. Musicals seem such a natural fit for a showman
like Gooding, it’s surprising he hasn’t tried it before. Singing and dancing
have always been part of his life; his parents were both singers: his mother in
60s group the Sweethearts; his father in R&B group the Main Ingredient, who
had a million-selling hit in 1972 with Everybody Plays The Fool.
But it was precisely because of this musical heritage that Gooding never
sought to follow in his parents’ footsteps. They moved from New York to
Los Angeles when he was four and separated two years later; his mother
raised Gooding and his two siblings alone. “My father wasn’t there a lot of my
upbringing,” he says. “I always kind of blamed him not being there on the music
that he did. I can remember being five, six years old, falling asleep with music
blaring through the house. My father would put on an album and play it on
a loop over and over again – his own music, Sam Cooke, Al Green, Marvin Gaye,
Stevie Wonder, all that R&B. The music played in the house when he came
home for two or three weeks, then he was gone for six months. So when it was
very loud in my house, it represented
my dad being home.”
His mother was unable to afford
a deposit on an apartment and they
moved from place to place, living in
cheap hotels or even in their car. At
one point his mother had to lie to
get into a shelter for abused women
because the family hadn’t eaten
for days. Rather than go “home”,
Gooding would go to an after-school
club. He channelled his energies into
sports, gymnastics, breakdancing
and eventually drama. “I’d gone
through a lot of stuff by the time
I was 18,” he says. “I was going to
school and being, like, nothing was
wrong and I had this wonderful life
In Boyz N The Hood (top left);
The People v OJ Simpson (top);
Jerry Maguire (above) for which he
won an Oscar; Outbreak (left)
and my dad was a famous singer, but then going home and sneaking in the
back of a hotel, and just really sordid stuff. When you tap into that, it gives
you the colours you need as an actor.”
Some actors talk of digging deep within themselves to summon emotion;
for Gooding, it seems to be the opposite. Performance is a release; keeping a lid
on his emotions is the hard part. He’ll burst into tears as readily as laughter.
“I have a lot of emotional content,” he admits, momentarily lapsing into a Bruce
Lee impersonation. “It gives you all the colours of the rainbow right there at
your fingertips. It’s a real good gift to have as a storyteller. I knew if there was an
emotional moment needed in the script, I would bring a truth to it that no one
else who was auditioning had. I knew I had this thing that nobody else had.”
At high school, he acquired a reputation as a “wonder kid”. At 16 he
performed with a breakdancing crew at the 1984 Olympics ( behind Lionel
Richie at the closing ceremony); he later won a prize at the California
Shakespeare festival for his Othello monologue, which he finished off with
a backflip. The mother of a fellow student was a talent agent. She came to
see his high school graduation performance and signed him up. “She said,
‘You can do comedy and drama the same.’”
As he narrates it, having a famous dad also fuelled Gooding’s sense of his
own destiny, hence the autograph-practising in maths class: “I was going
to be like him. This was just temporary. Even though I was around a lot of
kids who were poor, I never saw myself as them. I saw myself as almost
like stepping down among the common people before the king said, ‘Hey,
this is my son’ and I got the crown again. Ain’t that funny? I’m just realising
that now.” He’s sitting up on the sofa now, more animated and engaged.
Occasionally, he slaps my leg to emphasise a point.
Sure enough, he didn’t have to wait long for a break. John Singleton didn’t
hesitate to cast him in his 1991 debut Boyz N The Hood, as a serious-minded
kid sent to live with his authoritarian dad in deprived South Central Los
Angeles. “I would say, ‘Don’t fucking smile unless I tell you to!’” Singleton
tells me. “Because he’ll smile at the drop of a dime. He has a great big, shining
personality. He’s funny. He’s a jokester. When things got really serious, he’d
just drop his drawers and moon the crew. But he’s a very good actor, because
going into that zone really makes him uncomfortable. When you see him play
tense roles, he has this look on his face. His uncomfortableness is real.”
Boyz N The Hood was a breakout hit at a time when African American →
The Guardian Weekend | 31 March 2018 35
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‘I had all these big
directors offering
me roles. I read
their scripts and
said, “I don’t
think this is right
for me.” If you
offend enough,
you get taken
off their lists’
cinema was finally coming into its own, spearheaded by Singleton, Spike Lee
and others. But Gooding didn’t make any more “African American” movies,
despite many offers. “I said no to all of that. Because, in my head, I’m an actor
who does all the parts, just like when I was doing Shakespeare in high school.”
Instead, he took more mainstream Hollywood roles: a navy corporal in
A Few Good Men, sidekick to Paul Hogan in comedy-western Lightning Jack,
a helicopter pilot in the Dustin Hoffman disaster movie Outbreak, all leading
up to Jerry Maguire. “Now I’m moved away from the title ‘black actor’ and
now I’m just an entertainer.
“I remember when I did Boyz N The Hood, everybody was like, ‘Yeah, but
can he do comedy?’ Then I won for Jerry Maguire and they’re, ‘Yeah, but can he
do drama?’” Not everyone was pleased about Gooding’s Oscar success. Spike
Lee implied his performance, both in Jerry Maguire and at the Oscars, was in
the tradition of servile African Americans ingratiating themselves with white
audiences. “That kind of entertainment will keep you working,” Lee said. He also
lampooned Gooding in his 2000 satire Bamboozled, in which a black character
dances on stage after winning an award and shouts, “Show me the money!”
“Listen,” Gooding says, “I’ll never forget when I got a call from Denzel
Washington to say congratulations on winning the Oscar. Oh, I cried. I got
a bottle of champagne from Quincy Jones, who said, ‘You’re part of the family
now.’ Oh, I cried again. Sidney Poitier reached out to me. These blew my mind.
And then I got the message that Spike Lee gave an interview saying I’m evil…
Do you take it personally? No. Of course it would look like that to him, because
he was stigmatised as a ‘black’ film-maker. And yet we, the entertainers
who were black, were celebrated in different genres and given different
opportunities.” He points to young black film-makers such as Black Panther’s
Ryan Coogler and Moonlight’s Barry Jenkins. “It will be interesting to see if
they get put in the same box, like they did with the Singletons and Spike Lees,
or if they’re accepted as just film-makers who have their ways to tell a story.”
Gooding arguably transcended racial boundaries in his pursuit of universal
recognition, but he also missed opportunities. On the set of Jerry Maguire,
director Cameron Crowe advised Gooding to work only with good directors,
but Gooding turned swathes of them down: Steven Spielberg (for Amistad),
Michael Mann (Collateral), Terry George (Hotel Rwanda), even the lead in
Taylor Hackford’s Ray Charles biopic, for which Jamie Foxx won the best
actor Oscar. “I had all these big directors offering me roles, and I read their
scripts and said, ‘I don’t think this part is right for me.’ And what happens is,
if you offend enough big directors, you get taken off their lists.”
The offers dried up and the turkeys piled up. Gooding went from bloated
epics such as Pearl Harbor to kids’ comedies such as Snow Dogs to grownup
would-be comedies such as Boat Trip (in which he played a heterosexual
man who mistakenly signs up for a gay cruise). “For years I’ve been waiting
for [Gooding] to just go away. If this dud comedy is any indication of the
scripts he’s getting, we may not have to wait much longer,” said one catty
but prophetic review of Boat Trip.
Gooding sank even further into
generic action movies with titles
such as Ticking Clock, The Way Of
War and Wrong Turn At Tahoe.
“Oh yeah, I did some real
clunkers,” he admits.
Was it about the money?
“Not for me. For me, it was always
about protecting the sanctity of
that golden statue… Because I felt
I needed to show people that I can
do more, I can do better.” The
responsibility of having an Oscar
inhibited his choices, he seems to be
saying, although turning down Hotel
Rwanda and Ray to make Wrong
Turn At Tahoe suggests the logic was
Clockwise from above: in Selma
with Martin Sheen; in Boat Trip;
with director John Singleton; in
The Butler with Forest Whitaker
somewhat flawed. He knows it now. “You say those things to yourself when
what you should be saying is, ‘No, fucker, you get paid to practise, so whatever
it is, take it and practise and get better!’” Then he adds, “You just reminded me
of another one – I’m kicking my balls in this interview – I was offered Idi Amin in
The Last King Of Scotland. And I said to myself, ‘I can’t do that. He’s a bad guy!’”
These days, he’s taking Crowe’s advice and working with good directors:
Lee Daniels in The Butler, Ava DuVernay in Selma and, most prominently,
Ryan Murphy for The People v OJ Simpson – playing exactly the kind of “bad
guy” he’d once have turned down. Gooding didn’t hesitate when he got
the call: “All I heard was ‘Ryan Murphy’. I didn’t even hear ‘OJ’. I was like,
‘What do I need to do?’” Gooding’s Simpson was a piece of stunt casting,
arguably – he bears little physical or vocal resemblance to Simpson – but he
threw himself into the role, embraced the psychopathic end of his spectrum,
and put himself back on the radar. Making OJ also enabled a reunion with
Singleton, who directed one of the episodes. On their first day together,
Singleton says, he halted shooting and waved Gooding over. “We both went
into the corner together and we both started crying. We started this shit
together, man, and look at us now. We had a good cry. He’s my brother, man.”
In addition, Gooding recently directed his first movie: Louisiana Caviar,
a New Orleans-set drama he describes as “my answer to Crash or Pulp
Fiction”. His experience on all those straight-to-DVD clunkers gave him an
education in film-making. He hopes to do more of it, but for now, it’s Chicago.
There’s the sense of a new chapter for Gooding off-screen as well as on. He
turned 50 at the beginning of this year. Last January, he divorced from his
wife of 22 years, Sara Kapfer, with whom he has three children. A few months
after that, Gooding’s father was found dead in his car, of natural causes.
There is still no shortage of “emotional content” in his life, it seems.
“I felt like I turned 50 a long time ago,” Gooding says, “so when the actual
number caught up with the experience I’ve had, it wasn’t as monumental as
a lot of people want to make it. I step into many different lives, then I step back
into this neutral place, and that neutral place turned 50, but mentally I’ve
been there over and over again. Playing different characters, what it’s taught
me is that experience gives you character, and when you survive something,
it leaves an imprint on you that prepares you for the next something.”
Inside, he still feels like “the wonder kid”, he admits. “My mom said, ‘Don’t
ever lose your smile.’ She said, ‘You have a God-given joy. Don’t ever let
people take that from you.’ I understand the power in that now.” Cuba Gooding Jr stars in Chicago at the Phoenix Theatre, London, until
30 June; go to for details.
The Guardian Weekend | 31 March 2018 37
Teaching his daughter to play
with Lego, Christian Donlan
noticed his fingers going numb,
his limbs feeling heavy.
While her world was expanding,
his was becoming unfamiliar.
What was wrong?
Photographs: Harry Borden
One January morning in 2014, I lurched upright
in bed at about 6am and announced: “I think I’m
having a heart attack.” The main audience for this
was my five-month-old daughter, Leon, sharing
the bed with us, often sleeping sideways and
leaving little snow angels in the sheets. Next to
her was my wife Sarah, squashed up against the
wooden bars of an open-sided cot we’d clamped
on to the bed. Leon was not fazed. She sucked
her thumb, waiting to see what happened next.
Sarah, more used to my cheery opening remarks,
propped herself up on her elbows and squinted.
“Pain in your arm?” she asked.
“Pain in your chest?”
She flopped on to her back and blinked.
“What’s happening exactly?”
“My hands feel too tight,” I said, as I placed
my palms together and squeezed. I steepled my
fingers and then pushed them against each other.
Nothing looked particularly swollen, but the
flesh was prickly and hot, as if my skin were
suddenly being forced to accommodate much
larger bones. “It’s like I’m toasted or vacuumsealed or something.” I struggled for an adequate
description. “My hands feel like Pop-Tarts.”
Sarah rolled over. “Doesn’t sound like a heart
attack,” she said as she closed her eyes. “Sounds
neurological. Much more likely to be multiple
sclerosis or something.”
While Sarah slept, I went into the bathroom,
taking Leon with me. Leaning her over one
shoulder so I could feel her warm breath on my
cheek, I pinched my fingers and felt pins and
needles radiating outwards around my knuckles.
My most reliable sense of identity has always
resided in my hands. In my mind’s self-image I am
still 16, stumbling and elbowy inside a flapping
shirt and billowing cord flares. My hands, though,
speak to the person I would like to be today:
precise and gentle.
But this morning I did not recognise my
hands. They were filled with strange electricity,
dangerous and uncontrolled, as if a sparking cable
were jolting itself around inside me. I looked at my
wedding ring, which has worn a neat little groove. →
Christian Donlan and his daughter, Leon
I tugged at it and eased it upwards. The groove didn’t seem to
cut deeper, as I would have expected if my hands were as puffy
as they felt.
Maybe I’ve slept funny, I thought, eyeing my daughter,
who eyed me back. My worries about a heart attack faded.
I explained away my tingling hands in a less alarming manner.
“This isn’t illness,” I told Sarah. “It’s so much more awful than
that. It’s old age.”
“It’s middle age,” laughed Sarah. “Doesn’t that sound worse?”
It wasn’t middle age. For a year or more before my hands
started tingling, I missed a range of increasingly worrisome
neurological symptoms. I developed a problem with door
handles. I started reaching for them and missing. One door and
then another, a clawed swipe through empty air. I assumed
I would hit the target blind. And I would have to look and see
I had not. It is a mildly amusing thing, to find yourself standing,
hand extended and closed around nothing, while the door
you’re trying to open just remains shut. I doubt I gave it much
more thought when it first happened. Once I got the door open
on my second attempt, I must have quickly filed the memory
away alongside all other mildly amusing things, which is to say
I forgot about it completely.
I didn’t see the patterns, the waves rippling outwards from
that missed door handle, cresting gently over the other doors,
light switches, kitchen cabinets and cashpoint keypads.
For at least a year, I failed to spot a silent disaster unfolding,
a fundamental shift as the entire world and everything in it
moved two or three centimetres away from me – but only if
I wasn’t looking.
I now realise that you have to work at being ill. To work at the
interpretative side, the side that covers the whole muddling
40 31 March 2018 | The Guardian Weekend
sclerosis,’ I said.
‘Yes,’ the doctor
‘Do you know
what that is?’
‘No,’ I laughed
‘I have absolutely
no idea’
business of learning to live with
illness. Self-involved as I have
always been, I did not yet know how
to reach inwards, to take a cognitive
oddity and look for the wider
patterns it might fit into.
The tingling in my hands did not go
away, and it was joined after a few
weeks by a blast of electrical energy
down my spine whenever I bent my
head. This sudden jolt – I now know
it is called Lhermitte’s sign, and it
indicates a lesion on the spinal cord –
was the most violent sensation I had
ever felt. It led me to the GP and from
there to a neurologist, Dr Quill. After a series of tests including two MRI scans
and a lumbar puncture, we met again in July 2014 to discuss his preliminary
conclusions. Dr Quill waited until I was seated and then leaned forward on
his chair, hands together in his lap. “You have an inflammation of the spine,”
he said. “And we’re trying to work out why. Some people have inflammation
in the spine and it just goes away.”
“And then there are the other people?” I asked.
“Some people have it because they have multiple sclerosis.”
Something inside me seemed to fall away. “Multiple sclerosis,” I replied.
I sensed a question was expected of me, but I could not seem to form one.
“Yes.” Quill nodded. He peered at me. “Do you know what that is?”
“No,” I laughed eventually. “I have absolutely no idea.”
Now I know: it is a disease in which the body’s own immune system decides
to attack the fatty, insulating coating of the neurons in the brain and spinal
cord. This coating, made of a substance called myelin, protects our nerve
cells and speeds up those vital electrical pulses moving from one neuron to
the next, kissing across synaptic gaps in a brisk burst of chemicals. Without
myelin, crucial signals between the brain and the body become garbled or
go missing entirely. The kisses go unmet, and over time you start to feel the
consequences, in fingers, in toes, in glitch and twinge.
I envision the lightning-fast movement of these signals through Leon,
as she learns to put nouns and verbs together for the first time, while
I sometimes stumble over the simplest sentences. At times it seems that
we are joined, the two of us, through the magical substance of myelin, as it
advances through my daughter’s brain and as it is attacked in my own.
Since the early days of her life, whenever the weekend came around, with
Sarah still sleeping, Leon and I would get up together and head to the living
room, where we would upend the Lego box. Toys she was far too young
for and I was far too old for. Toys that were suddenly perfect for both of us.
Our time with the living-room Lego feels idyllic when I look back on it now.
Maybe it is suspiciously idyllic.
I have forgotten that, for many months, it was me doing all the building.
I think Leon just snoozed at first, strapped into a bouncy chair. As time passed,
she would be a warm weight in my lap while my arms reached around her for
bricks. Over the next few years, Leon steadily became more involved. She
slowly moved from watching to wanting to take part – and finally to leading.
And I started to notice the flickerings of her tentative nature as she reached
for her first bricks and then tried to eat them. I noticed her easy smile but also
her unpredictability, discovering that something that would make her laugh
one day would make her sob with fury the next.
The Lego has been like that: a series of revelations for both of us. Simple
blocks, and yet we use them to make endless tumbledown cities and bizarre,
craggy mountain ranges that fragment into archipelagos of rubble. Our
cities belong to some doodling realm that exists in the margins, beyond the
concerns of form and function. I call this place the Inland Empire, a name
I stole from the sand-blasted territory, outside Los Angeles,
where I was born.
And there are two tales to this city. The first is Leon’s. The
lurching advances in building complexity match the explosion
in her cognitive abilities as one idea connects with another, as
plans form, as capabilities are discovered.
Then there’s my story. For the first few months of our
Saturday ritual, I now realise I was witnessing something
happening inside me. My fingers were growing numb, my limbs
getting heavier, I was becoming clumsier. And then, at night,
I would sometimes lie back in bed and discover that my mind
was suspiciously quiet. There was not a single thought strolling
around inside my head. It was an ominous kind of calm.
MS comes in a handful of forms. Relapsing-remitting MS is the
most common, in which new or worsening symptoms flare
up in sudden attacks, or relapses, that can last from days to
a few months before retreating. Many people with relapsingremitting MS go on to develop secondary-progressive MS, in
which symptoms grow worse, with fewer periods of remission.
In primary-progressive MS, the rarest and most aggressive
form, symptoms grow steadily worse from the start. MS can
affect almost every part of the body, causing anything from
tingling fingers to full-blown paralysis, and in between you can
get everything from incontinence to difficulty swallowing, from
fatigue to – in my case at least – bursts of euphoria. It can be lifeshortening, but it is always life-altering.
Two months after that conversation with Dr Quill, I was
diagnosed with relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis. No
need for a second opinion, he said: it was a classic case. It was
the same day Leon took her first steps – a juxtaposition so
perfect, so trite, that I am generally too embarrassed to tell
anybody about it. As Dr Quill talked me through the details,
I was, of course, not really listening. I was leaning against Sarah,
feeling the rise and fall of her breathing as she listened for us.
We can handle this.
At first, MS was like wearing an odd pair of spectacles. So it
took a long time to realise that I was dealing with something
not just wearying, but also potentially dehumanising.
When I finally started to look around, I noticed the creeping
symptoms of what is sometimes called cognitive decline,
apparent in terms of memory, general awareness, and
a diminished ability to navigate anything not straightforward.
Several months after my hands started tingling, I was trying
to put an Ikea bed together. With a bracing suddenness,
I realised I had no idea what I was doing. For a few minutes
I went back and forth between the various pieces of flat-pack
around me until I finally admitted I could not get these pieces
to converge in any way.
A pressure began to build in my head, starting with
clogged ears and moving upwards until pain and annoyance
prodded at my scalp from the inside. This was the hot pain of
embarrassment and confusion, of exam papers that do not
ask the right questions, of planes that have not waited for you
on the runway when you have overslept. The paper, the images
of the bed being put together: how did these instructions work?
Why wouldn’t they speak to me any more? Which elements
did I start with? I sloped into the living room, trailing defeat.
Sarah had Leon snoozing on her lap. “I can’t do it,” I said.
“Something’s wrong. I don’t know how to start.”
“You never know how to start,” said Sarah. “Nobody does.
Sit down and it will all come back to you.”
I got the bed made on my second attempt – the confusion had lifted and
I suddenly knew exactly what to do. But it seemed that the scuppering of the
initial attempt to make the bed was not my traditional reaction to flat-pack
furniture – it was not anyone’s traditional reaction to flat-pack furniture. No,
there had been a new shallowness there, a new inability to focus.
My ability to deal with subtext was also diminished. In the evenings, or if
I was particularly tired, I found I could no longer peer beneath the surface of
what people were saying as easily as I had before. I was stuck in the literal.
TV drama was freshly dense with additional value: everything that happened
was a wonderful shock; I failed to see even the clumsiest of telegraphed twists.
I was also starting to lose the odd word. Parts of my vocabulary were
flickering in and out of existence, as if my sentences were being fed through
a cognitive hole punch. There were ways of coping. At work, as a video games
journalist, I typed more and tried to speak less. Out with friends, I would
settle on the periphery of a conversation, permanently exhausted. Only at
home did I still try to make myself understood.
Even the simplest, most tangible of everyday things sometimes required
elaborate workarounds. I described a shower head as a speaker that water
comes out of. When I forgot the word windowsill, I described it as the little
pavement that lies next to the glass. I would say that Leon’s funnel or beak
needed cleaning when I meant her mouth.
At first it was liberating to be able to say, “I don’t know” and move on, and
have the perfect excuse. MS, in the early days, when you take away the nerve
pain, the buzzes, the pops, the intricate unfurling of a new symptom, seemed
at its heart an agent of change and an excuse for coping with that change in
any manner I wanted. But it was not liberating for ever. I sense now that the
enjoyment I’d taken in forgetting is not the work of MS, neither is the speed at
which I allowed myself to give up on trying to remember what I had forgotten.
It is painful and comical to look back on the early days of MS. I was so
desperate to feel that I understood what was happening, I created a new
kind of logic. I became lost trying
to understand my symptoms,
perhaps amplifying them as I went.
Treatments followed, including
two stretches in hospital having
a chemotherapy drug that sought
to reset my immune system. Now,
with the fourth anniversary of my
diagnosis coming up, it appears to
have done its work. What does this
mean? It has hopefully bought me
more time without fresh symptoms,
more time to settle back into life
with Sarah, who has navigated the
years with resilience, wit and a calm
wisdom. And it has bought me more
time with Leon, now four and a half
and at school, learning to read and
make friends.
I am still trying to make sense of those early years, though. I am trying
not to distance myself from them, because I must live with the thought
of MS hovering overhead at all times. Can you grieve for yourself? I asked
myself one day. I was reading Joan Didion’s The Year Of Magical Thinking.
Didion has MS, but this book focuses on the year after the sudden death
of her husband, and in grief, she suggests, we experience strange things.
Concentration is lost. Cognitive ability is reduced. Word blindness,
blundering, forgetting. So was this grief in the mix? Can you grieve for
yourself? I asked this, and heard the answer: yes When I forgot the
word windowsill,
I described it as
a little pavement
that lies next to
the glass. I would
say Leon’s beak
needed cleaning
when I meant
her mouth
The Unmapped Mind by Christian Donlan is published by Viking at £14.99.
To order a copy for £12.74, go to or call 0330 333 6846.
The Guardian Weekend | 31 March 2018 41
Weekending Fashion Beauty Space Gardens Family Body & mind Puzzles
Blind date
Lisa, 34,
What were you hoping for?
That I would be
myself – despite the
artificial set-up – and enjoy
meeting someone new.
First impressions?
He’s shorter than me.
And yay, we’re both late!
What did you talk about?
Work, the weather,
and how poorly educated
we are when it comes to
refined French foodie words.
Any awkward moments?
I ffelt physically awkward for
much of the time – I couldn’t
get to grips with my chair.
Good table manners?
His lobster-cracking skills
were questionable.
him in three
words? Nice,
First impressions?
Very pretty; very cool hair.
Any awkward moments?
On the contrary,
there were some nice lulls
in conversation while we
took in the skyline.
Good table manners?
Best thing about Lisa?
Engaging; good
Best thing about Neville?
His adventurous nature –
he’s quite the explorer.
Would you introduce
him to your friends?
Yes, although there might
be an eyebrow raised, or two.
Describe Lisa
in three words
Spiritual, open, wholesome..
Describe Neville in
three words
Nice, English, chappy.
What do you think
she made of you?
I hope she thought
I was a sound dude.
Did you go on somewhere?
It was a bitterly cold snowy
evening so we headed
straight for our trains home.
And... did you kiss?
That would have
been awkward.
If you could change
one thing about the
evening, what would it be?
Less talk about work
and more about
the meaning of life.
Marks out of 10?
I’d say a 7.
Would you meet again?
Possibly, but as
a potential chum.
Neville, 31,
What did you talk about?
Travelling, jobs, religion.
Would you introduce
her to your friends?
Drinking is the rock my
friends and I orbit around
and she doesn’t drink, so no.
What do you think
he made of you?
Different; unexpected?
What were you hoping for?
A good amount of chitchat,
moderate to intermediate
drinking and some flirting.
Did you go on somewhere?
And... did you kiss?
Just a hug goodbye.
If you could change
one thing about the
evening, what would it be?
My palate isn’t sophisticated
enough for the cognac
I ordered with dessert.
Marks out of 10?
Would you meet again?
Our interests don’t really
converge on the spiritual
stuff and drinking, so no.
Lisa and Neville ate at The Ivy
Tower Bridge, London SE1, Fancy
a blind date? Email blind. If
you’re looking to meet
someone like-minded, visit
I hope
she thought
I was a
sound dude
Fashion All
All ages
it tthe
he silk
silk road
Style tip
Move your wardrobe
subtly into spring with a swish
of silk. Think tonal colours, rather
than sexy black, and the result is
fresh and modern. Trousers will look
sporty but elegant with a polo
neck, and layer a silk dress with
a shirt underneath: perfect
for the office
1 Ivani wears top,
£180, by Theory, and
trousers, £320, by
Equipment, both from Shoes,
Cap, £30,
2 Sara wears dress, £79.99, Knee-high boots,
3 Sylviane wears blazer,
£140, trousers, £75, and
shoes, £110, all boden. Blouse, £125, Bag, £178, Sunglasses,
£291, by Oliver Peoples,
4 Carina wears shirt, £230,
by Equipment, from Dress, £219, Jacket, £50, Boots,
5 Trese San wears jumper,
Jacket, £99, whistles. Trousers, £165, Shoes, £220,
by Senso, from farfetch.
com. Sunglasses, £245,
by Sunday Somewhere,
Photographs: David
Newby for the Guardian.
Styling: Melanie
Wilkinson. Stylist’s
assistant: Bemi Shaw.
Hair: Vimal Chavda
using Bumble and
bumble. Makeup:
Sophie Higginson using
Charlotte Tilbury and
Samantha Cooper at
Carol Hayes MGMT using
Bare Minerals. Models:
Ivani at Leni’s, Sylviane
and Trese San at Mrs
Robinson, Sara at Wild,
Carina at M+P
Fashion Wishlist
Flat pack
Best foot forward
in summer’s
loveliest shoes
1 Orange suede, £29.99, 2 Pink patent, £235, by Ganni, from 3 Black fringed, £49.99, 4 Striped,
£175, 5 Editor’s pick: best not to wear in the rain, but
these fun flats will look chic with cropped navy trousers Pompom
flats, £69, 6 Editor’s pick: white is the accessories
46 31 March 2018 | The Guardian Weekend
colour of the season – buy these in your lunch break for an instant
wardrobe update White raffia, £39, 7 Snakeprint mules,
£45, 8 Red strappy flats, £39.99,
9 Green espadrilles, £260, by Castañer x Manolo Blahnik, from 10 Embroidered slip-ons, £99,
Fashion Jess Cartner-Morley
Fashion journalist of the year
I wore
A waterproof
with style
1 Cream, £69,
2 Harness detail, £89, by Ivy Park, from
3 Pink, £395, by Isabel Marant Étoile,
4 Green pull-on, £155,
5 Blue funnel neck, £125,
Looking stylish in the rain is advanced-level,
letters-after-your-name level chic. Audrey
Hepburn manages it in Breakfast At Tiffany’s,
Humphrey Bogart pulls it off in Casablanca. It is
worth noting that these are both essentially divine
beings. “Look like Audrey Hepburn” is sadly not
a realistic style strategy for most of us.
When it rains in Hollywood, the chic response
is all blithe, carefree oblivion. No huddling, no
shivering. Instead, it is Fred Astaire singing, Andie
MacDowell not-even-noticing. Fashion rain is
even less realistic, fairytale, diamond-shapeddroplets kind of rain. In a perfume advert, you
might get a girl in a strapless ballgown laughing
gaily as her gallant beau holds his tux over her
head. Probably on a bridge in Paris at night.
In real life, though, that’s not how rain works.
Rain is squally and splashy, rendering
hems soggy and shoes squelchy.
Umbrellas are not just tap dancing
props. Dressing for rain begins with
damage limitation. Practicality is
not optional. You need a coat with
a hood, or a hat, or an umbrella that
has a waterproof cover and is small
5 enough to go in your bag, otherwise
you will leave it the first place you
put it down and be back to square
one. You need to work out how to
avoid helmet hair, how to stop your
clothes clinging, and how to keep
from catching a snivelly nosed cold.
(The least chic part of all.)
However, this does not justify the
full coast-path-hike look every time it looks like it
may rain. A showerproof outfit doesn’t need to
relinquish all style. It can’t, really, in Britain: it
rains too much for only being stylish on reliably dry
days to be a thing. We need a workaround, a middle
ground between the movie-set type of rain and the
scenario that involves unflattering waxed fabrics
that take on a pungent, dog-basket-under-thestairs whiff as soon as they get wet. Thankfully,
waterproof options are improving. We have
streetwear to thank, so if you have dismissed it as
overpriced, ugly trainers for kids, think again.
Streetwear has elevated the anorak. Waterproof
coats now come with stylistic ambition. A coat like
this one, for instance, has airs and graces – in a good
way. You can be practical without being a martyr
to the weather. A snazzier, more grown-up
raincoat lends itself to a more sophisticated outfit
underneath, the kind that would look absolutely
stupid with an anorak on top. Rain can be quite
a good look, if you are dressed for it Jess wears anorak, £59.99,
Shirt, £99, by Mix/Isa Arfen, from
Joggers, £185, by Yeezy Season 5, from Heels, £139,
The Guardian Weekend | 31 March 2018 47
Beauty Sali Hughess
Block busters
The best SPF
al M
7, m
, £3
th P
A this time of year, people start asking me for
facial sunscreen recommendations, frequently
with the enthusiasm one might convey for an
iimpending smear test. We grudgingly accept
iit’s in our interests to protect skin from UVA
and UVB (think A for Ageing, B for Burning),
but the additional step and often greasy,
thick texture of sunblock dissuades many. I take the view that
those who aren’t spending extended periods outdoors would
be better off with a day cream with added sun protection,
killing two birds with one lighter, more agreeably textured
moisturiser. One can always ramp up to a dedicated block in the
summer, for long days on beaches and in beer gardens.
Having worn a different protective moisturiser every day for
weeks, my runaway victor is Merumaya Youth Preservation
Moisturiser. It’s pricey at £37 for 30ml and the protection
– SPF20 – is only just over the threshold of acceptability, but
the texture is near perfect (luxurious but ungreasy, smooth
and stable under foundation) and the airless pump packaging
is ideal for travel and storage. The light cream contains lots of
water-retaining (ergo skin-hydrating) hyaluronic acid as well
as multiple antioxidants and broad-spectrum
sunscreens, and unlike every other I tried, didn’t
sting or blur when wandering into my eyes.
My remaining recommendations require
a separate eye cream, but still proved exceptionally
good. I love Facial Moisturising Lotion SPF25
(£12, 52ml) from new brand CeraVe (look alongside
the likes of E45 and Eucerin in chemists). This has
a travel tube and a surprisingly elegant texture for
its price and category. It contains good things like
niacinamide for spots, though this means it’s not
much cop over vitamin C serum, so choose your
layers accordingly. Vitamin C serum devotees (like
me) should opt for something like Murad
Essential-C Day Moisturise SPF30, £59.50 (50ml), a silky,
ungreasy, glow-giving cream that behaves impeccably under
makeup. La Roche-Posay proved great, too, with two equally
good versions of Hydraphase UV Intense day cream – Riche, for
dry skins and Light for everyone else, both £17 for 50ml. Five
reasons to be more cheerful about the pressing need to protect.
I’ll accept
p no
o further excuses The Measure
Going up
The One Where No
One’s Ready The
Friends episode where
Joey wears all of
Chandler’s clothes.
Some say this is now
Balenciaga inspo.
Trenchcoat and
button-through dress
What you’ll want to
wear this summer,
courtesy of
Marina Vidal.
Fantastic Woman,
fantastic wardrobe.
Going down
Fenty Foundation
Good enough for
Daniel Kaluuya, good
enough for us.
High messy ponytails
See Mabel, and Sutton
from The Bold Type for
Massah David and
Miatta David Johnson
Kanye West and
Mary J Blige’s
’s party
planners. We
e also
have them on
n speed
dial, obv.
pro sleepers prefer
candlelight just before
bed to wind down.
Hanging family
pictures French-style
Just all a bit #blessed
#grateful k?
Cockapoos, shibu inus
and frenchies
cute AF, but with the
return of Riccardo Tisci
fashion, the
to fas
rottweiler is the dog
of choice.
Fashion’s ugly trainers
Forget the Archlight
and the Triple S, and go
for Brooks. The
Levitate 131 has it all.
‘Can I just pick your
brain?’ As the WW Club
has pointed out, unless
there is remuneration
involved, the answer
to this question should
be “no”.
Easter egg hunt kits
Just takes all the fun
out of it, doesn’t it?
The Guardian Weekend | 31 March 2018 49
Space Gardens
Carrot and
This is the year
you’re going to
grow your own
veg – but where
do you start?
Lucy Chamberlain
has the answers
Where do I start? First, write down which fruit, veg and herbs you love to eat,
then cross off those less likely to crop in the UK (bananas and avocados, say). If
space is at a premium, don’t grow inexpensive staples such as jacket spuds,
peas or onions. Instead, go for favourites that don’t store well, are hard to
come by or are best eaten minutes after harvesting: new potatoes, baby carrots,
sweetcorn, pak choi, yellow courgettes, garlic chives and edible flowers.
When do I start? My annual spring ritual is to surround myself with seed
packets of all the veg I want to eat that year. On the back is a sowing guide to
the months you can start your crops off (kale in March-May, say, bulb fennel in
May-July). Most need just one sowing. Quick-to-mature crops, such as radish,
rocket, spinach, salad leaves and baby roots, can be sown in short 1m rows
every four to six weeks from March until late August to avoid a glut or dearth.
What can I do now? Order your seeds, then get your growing areas ready. Buy
compost (a 50:50 mix of multipurpose and John Innes No 3 if your budget
allows) for container growing, or dig over veg beds
to remove weeds. Early potato varieties (such as
‘Lady Christl’) can be planted now, along with
onions, shallots, garlic and broad beans, and – if
you lay cloches over beds or pots to warm them –
hardy veg such as carrots, beetroot and spinach.
Indoors, herbs will set up your kitchen nicely, and
microleaves will be ready to cut within two weeks.
Can I buy young plants instead of seeds? Definitely.
In fact, I’d recommend it to newcomers, because
it bypasses those potentially tricky early stages.
Buy plants of fussy germinators such as habanero
chillies and flat-leaf parsley. Trays of salad
leaves, mangetout peas and broad beans can all
be planted directly outside, but these are easy
to grow from seed, so do have a go. Grafted veg
plants (where crops are grown on super-charged
root systems) claim up to 75% higher yields, but
cost more. Root congestion can cause premature
and reduced cropping, so be fussy when buying
cauliflower, broccoli and cabbage plants.
How much of each veg do I sow? Some (such as
cherry tomatoes, salad leaves, climbing beans,
courgettes) can produce a huge harvest; others
(sweet peppers, asparagus, globe artichokes) give
more miserly yields. When sowing outside, make
1-2m rows of lots of different crops (a 1m row of
salad leaves, radishes and coriander, say, and a
2m row of dwarf beans, swiss chard and carrots).
That way, you avoid gluts and always have a range
of crops to harvest. Indoor sowings into pots and
trays are more forgiving because gardeners love
bartering with surplus plants. Ultimately, aim
to end up with small numbers (a dozen runner
beans, four tomatoes, two courgettes, three
chillies), so you’re not overwhelmed.
From the everyday to
the exotic, fruit and veg
worth giving a go include
(clockwise from left)
heritage carrots, swiss
chard, yellow courgettes,
broad beans and sweet
doughnut peaches
Which crops do I sow indoors and which outdoors? Time to maturity is the
key factor. Indoor starters include tender veg that take a while to bear a crop
(chillies, tomatoes, cape gooseberries, aubergines) and slow-to-bulk-up hardier
veg such as celeriac and brussels sprouts. Heated propagators or growlights
and mats are great for these early indoor sowings. Quick-to-mature crops
such as sweetcorn, squashes, coriander and rocket can be sown outside once
the soil warms up in April (start tender ones under tunnel cloches).
Any more exciting crops worth a try? To hold our
interest, seed companies continually introduce
“new” crops (purple podded peas and purple
carrots are, for example, heritage varieties).
Don’t pass them off as novelties – some are
prolific croppers. The oca (a South American
potato-equivalent) I grew last year yielded a huge
amount of tubers. Cucamelon (a quail’s eggsized cucumber relative) will yield generously in
a greenhouse. Doughnut-shaped Saturn peaches
will reward you, given a sunny wall. Soya beans
are worthwhile, as are borlotti beans. The lime
green spirals of romanesco cauliflowers and
multicoloured ‘Midnight Sun’ kale are worth
growing for appearance alone. Others need a long,
hot summer to crop well – I’ve not been so lucky
with sweet potatoes and pomegranates.
What can I grow with a tiny patio and window box?
There are now plenty of fruit and veg varieties
bred for life in pots, and pint-sized plots help focus
your ideas: every plant must deliver the goods.
Don’t just look at floor space – think vertically, too.
Climbing crops can be trained up a circle of canes
(climbing courgettes are prolific); hanging baskets
are excellent filled with a dwarf bush tomato (try
‘Losetto’); vertical growing systems fix securely to
walls, allowing bagfuls of salad leaves to be grown;
and free-standing pot towers maximise space.
Should I buy a propagator? These are invaluable
for raising your game, but can be bulky, so consider
storage. Windowsill propagators are space-savers,
and heat mats roll up when not in use. Integrated
grow-lights can be pricey but deter leggy seedlings,
which can, without a greenhouse, be the bane of
an indoor propagator’s life The Guardian Weekend | 31 March 2018 51
Gardens Alys Fowler
I have been washing up looking out on
a wooden fence for over 10 years. Once,
I tried to rectify this with hanging pot holders
– but it was a sad attempt. Most of the path
runs down the side return, so it is northwest facing, but it’s also sliced between two
buildings so it’s light. It’s very much a shaft,
but it’s a warm, sheltered one.
Last year, I had an inspired moment with a wrecking bar and
chisel, and liberated pockets of the patio below to find rich,
dark earth. If you want to hide your sins, the quickest solution
would be a virginia creeper, Parthenocissus quinquefolia. The
variety ‘Guy’s Garnet’ from Crûg Farm Plants in Wales turns
a statement postbox red in autumn, even in deep shade.
I could go for the self-clinging Hydrangea anomala
ssp anomala or the slightly slimmer-leaved ssp. petirolaris
(pictured left), both with lacy white flowers in summer that are
loved by bees and are tough as old boots, so good for an exposed
position. However, it is such a good plant that I already have
one, and two might be too much frill. Again, Crûg Farm Plants is
the place to visit as it has all sorts of interesting
varieties collected from Japan and Korea.
A number of roses would climb or ramble
given a little tying in, and although they might
not bloom with the profusion of a sunnier spot,
they’d hold their own. ‘Albéric Barbier’ (creamy
lemon), ‘Albertine’ (salmon pink; pictured left)
or ‘New Dawn’ (pearl pink double) all froth in
a delicious old-fashioned manner.
If I were more patient, I’d fan train a morello
cherry, one of the few edible choices that
thrives on a north-facing position. But I am impatient and
demanding; I want something fast and evergreen.
One option could be honeysuckle, such as Lonicera japonica
‘Halliana’ (pictured left), with its trumpets of deliciously
scented cream and yellow flowers that appear in July and keep
going right into September. It can ramble up to eight metres and
will do so fairly fast, but it’s easy enough to keep in bounds, just
prune it back after flowering.
However, I have a soft spot for something that seems
perhaps a little unexpected. You’d imagine that star jasmine,
Trachelospermum jasminoides, would want full sun, but it
will cope in part shade as long as it’s sheltered. Cold, drying
winds kill it off. It’s evergreen, the foliage often tinting a lovely
bronze in autumn, and fast growing, but not rampant. The
flowers are some of the headiest scented I know. It is used in
perfume and incense, so something to open the window for
when washing up High rollers
Climbers to hide
your darkest sins
Plant this Sweet violet (Viola
odorata) is an early spring delight,
offering scented blooms that make
a perfect posy: its flowers and
evergreen leaves are edible, too.
Display in pots or pop them in
gaps in the border, in sun or partial
shade. The wild form is bonny,
but try ‘Reine de Neiges’ (white;
pictured) or ‘Hungarian Beauty’
(white flushed with purple).
Check this If you think all seed
comes from a foil packet at the
garden centre, it’s time to get wise to
the possibilities of saving seed from
your plants. The London Freedom
Seedbank is dedicated to reskilling
urban growers by passing on tips to
save seed; londonfreedomseedbank.
Repot this Transplant houseplants
with roots growing out of the
bottom of their container into a pot
that’s one or two sizes bigger. Use
houseplant compost or John Innes
No 2, and kitchen paper, to stop
compost falling out. Jane Perrone
The Guardian Weekend | 31 March 2018 53
What to do this week
Space Wishlist
Looking at you
He for spring’s
hottest trend –
gurative homeware
1 Mrs Peterson plate, £14.95, 2 Face puzzle mug, £12, 3 Freddie Mercury tea towel, £10,
4 Portrait de Dora Maar by Picasso cushion
£85, banbayu
n, £85
5 Editor’s pick: a vibrant collection of plates by artist Leslie Weaver,
inspired by Matisse Belle d’Isle plate, £14,
£110, 7 Fornasetti faces chest of
6 Drum lampshade, £110
8 Editor’s pick: a Picasso-esque
drawers, £1,500,
rug from
Habitat’s new collection Face rug, £350,
statement rug
from Habit
9 Visage vase by LRNCE, £150,
10 Marseilles porcelain coaster set, £68,
The Guardian Weekend | 31 March 2018 55
Space Let’s move to
Well connected? Very. Two stations: to
Chester (about 28 mins), Stockport (34 mins),
various Manchester stations (22-41 mins),
Liverpool (29-46 mins), Huddersfield (1hr),
Sheffield (1hr 16 mins), and Leeds (1hr 24 mins).
Driving: central Manchester, Chester and
Liverpool are a 40-min drive, Altrincham
or St Helens 30 mins.
Schools Primaries: all the town’s primaries
are “good”, says Ofsted, with
Callands, Evelyn Street,
St Stephen’s Catholic and
St Oswald’s Catholic “outstanding”.
Secondaries: Great Sankey High,
Beamont Collegiate, Cardinal
Newman Catholic High and
From the streets
King’s Leadership are
Mandy Edwards ‘Mike & Martha’s
“good”, with Bridgewater
for fish and chips. Warrington has
High “outstanding”.
amazing connections.’
Hang out at… Out-of-town
Rebecca Knowles ‘It’s on the up,
honeypots like the Church Green
with an evolving cultural quarter.’
in Lymm, or Little Manor, Thelwall.
Where to buy South, around
Stockton Heath off London Road
and to Grappenhall for grand
Victorians and Edwardians. The
town’s hinterland has some nice
villages, such as Appleton, Winwick
or Lymm, for fast escapes on the
motorways. Large detacheds and
townhouses, £350,000-£1.5m. Detacheds and
What’s going for it? Warrington’s got connections. It may not have the cachet or the
smaller townhouses, £130,000-£350,000. Semis,
name of some of its neighbours – Chester, say, Altrincham, or the so-called “golden
£80,000-£600,000. Terraces and cottages,
triangle” between Knutsford, Wilmslow and Alderley Edge. Its grand civic buildings and
£70,000-£300,000. Flats, £50,000occasional redbrick Georgian townhouses hint at a past more illustrious than the present,
£250,000. Rentals: a one-bedroom flat,
which is mostly a tough, unglamorous affair of Primarks and retail parks, megapubs and
£350-£650pcm; a three-bedroom house,
dual carriageways (though there’s glamour aplenty on the streets on an average Friday
night). No, Warrington’s USP, ever since the Romans crossed the river Mersey here, is
Bargain of the week A three-bedroom modern
its geography. You can get everywhere from it. OK, Builth Wells may be a struggle, but,
detached, needing modernisation, for £110,000.
girdled with three motorways, crisscrossed by two major rail lines and with the Mersey,
Real bargain. With Manchester Ship Canal and Bridgewater Canal for those taking it slower, Warrington is
Tom Dyckhoff
a spaghetti junction of infrastructure. Which is why logistics companies, such as Amazon,
plonk their sheds here, and why the canny live here, with its great schools and excellent
Do you live in Dorking, Surrey? Do you have
property, at a fraction of the price of their neighbours in posher climes.
a favourite haunt or a pet hate? If so, email
The case against Canal walks aside, it’s not a looker. You can winkle out the odd by next Tuesday.
independent store or cultural hotspot, like Walton Hall, but they’re not the main attraction.
Warrington, Cheshire:
it’s where the canny live
If I had my way, I’d move next door
to a good independent cinema. Back
in the golden age of picture houses,
average high streets had a dozen
screens. These days, there are only
801 cinemas left in the country, says
the UK Cinema Association, though
the fact this figure has risen over the
past decade tells an optimistic story.
Last year, UK cinema had its
highest-grossing year; much was
down to high ticket prices and
a succession of blockbusters, but
much was due to new cinema
openings. Multiplexes keep
coming, but the fascinating trend
is in smaller cinemas prizing
visitor experience, community
and rootedness. In an age of
Netflix, it takes a lot to crowbar
us off our sofas. Like the free tea
and biscuits at The Rex in Elland,
West Yorkshire, going strong
since 1912. Or the homemade cola
at Bristol’s nonprofit co-op, The
Cube “microplex”. The extra treat
of a funicular ride to the Lynton
Cinema, Devon, or the newsreels at
Newcastle’s Tyneside. It’s the 30s,
velveteen glamour and brilliant
programming at Berkhamsted’s
Rex in Hertfordshire or Finchley’s
Phoenix that pulls me in.
And don’t get me going on the
Peckhamplex in south London,
one of the last proper fleapits. You
can keep what you save on tickets
(£4.99) to pay the vast rent to live in
Peckham these days. TD
The Guardian Weekend | 31 March 2018 57
The best place to move for… cinemas
Orange is the
new black
What my aunt
taught me
about style
By Camilla Balshaw. Photograph by Antonio Olmos
n our family album, a grainy colour
photograph shows me and my siblings
in a boat in Hyde Park in London some
time in the 1970s. Our parents had split up and
we were with our father for the weekend. The day
was spent feeding the ducks with thick, glutinous
white bread and sailing on the Serpentine, where
my father announced with a certain amount of
reverence: “Your aunt will join us.”
As the youngest of a small family raised by
a single mum, I had no concept of wider family
members. To have an aunt was monumental,
and took me into somewhat uncharted territory.
Friends at school talked about aunts who
visited laden with sweets, ill-fitting pullovers
as Christmas presents and a faint smell of
musk perfume.
But the only connection I had with my Nigerian
aunts, uncles or cousins was through faded
photographs. In them, one aunt stood out. And
this was the aunt who glided towards us on that
Saturday in Hyde Park.
Resplendent in a traditional Nigerian tunic in
burnt orange and green complemented by an
intricately tied headwrap, her “Africanness” was
palpable. She embodied a confident Nigerian style
at odds with my upbringing – Luton by way of
a Jamaican mother. We were fully anglicised and,
as children of the mass immigration of the 60s, the
mantra of “keep your head down, assimilate and
all will be well” jarred with the way my new aunt
carried herself.
This aunt had swagger and turbo-charged
charisma and she oozed the kind of presence
that actors can only dream of. I was smitten. But
there was a caveat: why was she wearing overtly
Nigerian multicoloured clothes? Why couldn’t she
just go with jeans and a T-shirt? Or, perhaps a nice
floral dress? She was on holiday in London, after
all. Couldn’t she tone it down or at least blend in
with my rather fetching beige tank top and black
flares? To blend in meant less scrutiny from our
English hosts. But here was an aunt who did not
comply with the rules. My aunt, known as Maama, the daughter of
a wealthy and entrepreneurial woman, studied
dress-making and millinery at the Polytechnic of
North London in 1951. Her studies were financed
by my grandmother, a force of nature who,
according to Nigerian legend, helped to organise
the Aba women’s riot – a protest against the taxes
imposed by the British in 1929. At the time of her
visit to Hyde Park, my aunt had been elected as
the first female local councillor in Nigeria in an
era when women in politics were frowned on. Of
course, I knew nothing of this and just cringed at
the way she referred to me as Adebisi (my Nigerian
middle name) and her insistence that we children
should visit “our homeland”. This confused me –
wasn’t Bedfordshire home? She chided my father
too. He had lived in England for far too long. Her
words had an unintended effect – not long after
her visit, he returned to Nigeria for good, and
I never saw him again.
The day in Hyde Park came to an end – presents
were handed out. A Fila hat for my brother and
a series of brightly coloured outfits for the girls
– dresses of the finest Nigerian cotton decorated
in vivid expressions of orange, yellow, dark
green and gold. Now, I was not averse to a vibrant
palette. Indeed, my mother wore colour. She had
arrived in London in 1960 in the midst of winter.
Jamaicans and other Caribbeans no doubt wore
bright clothes as an antidote to the greyness
of English weather. “We injected Caribbean
technicolour,” my mother told me. But, my
aunt’s colourful ensemble blared “foreigner” like
a foghorn. These were not the kind of clothes to
wear in Luton’s Arndale shopping centre or Marsh
Farm, the sprawling estate we called home.
Much as I appreciated my aunt’s gifts, there
was no way I could wear them on the streets of
Luton. Nor could they be worn at home. To my
mother, they were a symbol, a reminder of her
ex-husband, and his culture. She wanted no
Left: Camilla at home. Above: Camilla (left) with
her sister boating in Hyde Park in the 1970s
memory of this union, thank you very much. The
clothes were folded and, once back home, they
were neatly stored in a bottom drawer.
They were forgotten about and never worn, and
we lost contact with my aunt for the next 37 years. M
y father’s death brought her back into
my life. His passing meant a trip to
Nigeria (my first, I had never visited
him since he returned) and a reconnection with
my now eightysomething aunt.
I gathered crucial snippets of information
before I left for Abuja. The first was, bring Ferrero
Rocher (they don’t melt in the heat and are the
confectionery of choice for family members
in Nigeria). One nugget of “aunt briefing”
was imparted by a newly acquainted cousin.
He casually said I should mention football, as
she liked it. This caused some concern as I had
no interest in football. I turned to my brother,
a diehard Chelsea fan. He gave sanguine advice
and suggested a mention of the “Super Eagles”
– the nickname for the Nigerian football team.
It was duly noted.
Before meeting my aunt, a cousin in Nigeria
asked for my dress size. I’d never met this cousin
and presumed her question was out of curiosity.
Perhaps she wanted a mental picture of my
appearance? But once I had landed in Abuja,
a tape measure was whisked out and another
cousin (I was to meet a plethora of them on this
trip) had her personal tailor note all the necessary
statistics for what she called “this and that”.
The next day an array of outfits made from
the finest Nigerian cotton were laid out to rival
anything from Savile Row. They were vibrant and
unashamedly African: a white and blue anklelength dress with a lace trim and white headwrap;
a mid-length orange number with flecks of
purple and matching headwrap – and so it went
on. Garment after garment of brightly coloured
clothes made especially for me – and no bottom
drawer to hide them in.
My jeans were discarded and replaced by
an orange dress. I had no idea how to create
a headwrap, but a deft twist of material by my
cousin and the crowning glory was complete.
The clothes signified a deep-rooted change. I was
ready to meet my aunt. There is an upside to having a family member
whom you remember through the eyes of a child.
There is no in-between. You haven’t watched
them age or lose any of their physicality. In
many ways, my aunt looked exactly the same as
I remembered. She was less mobile, but her fierce
intellect and enormous personality were intact.
As was her sense of style. An olive outfit, with
on-trend chandelier earrings and Zadie Smithstyle headwrap. She gave a satisfied sigh at my
appearance. I had passed the test. The clothes
I wore reflected a small but significant acceptance
of my African heritage. She said I was the African
Queen of Abuja, and, in her deep, throaty purr,
said: “Wear African clothes more often.” Each time I visited my aunt, a vast television
played football in her formal sitting room. It took
pride of place and was positioned so she could
keep an eye on all the action. It turned out my
aunt didn’t just like football – her knowledge
of Arsenal bordered on the fanatical. She was
an encyclopedic super-fan. Neither was she an
armchair fan. She started the first female football
team in Nigeria and, by all accounts, was a pretty
decent player in her youth.
But rather than football, it was my aunt’s advice
to wear brighter clothes that struck a chord. I left
Abuja armed with a full suitcase. The drab blacks,
browns and greys of my wardrobe were replaced
with a collection of dresses, Fila hats, tunics,
jumpsuits, and headwraps. A riotous celebration
of colour. The perfect tribute to my aunt’s
indomitable sense of style The Guardian Weekend | 31 March 2018 59
Family Ask Annalisa Barbieri
What I think you mean is that all forms of
communication aren’t leading to the sort of sex
you want. And while that’s important to you, you
need to be honest about that, because this could
be the key to your wife’s resistance to talk.
Because you have done everything that would
normally be suggested, we need to look at why
your wife is resisting. It could be because she
doesn’t think there is a problem and doesn’t
want to rock the boat. She could be uninterested
(sorry). She may not like what you
are saying, or how you are saying
it. Or she could be angry. And you
constantly asking gives her power,
It is very
so it is a form of control.
much all
I talked to the sexual and
about you
relationship counsellor Murray
and what
Blacket (, who said:
you are not
“There is a school of thought in
couples therapy that says the person
with the low desire is the one in a
position of power.” This is about
power and control. For whatever
reason, your wife has it and isn’t
relinquishing it.
It could be the infidelity from
years ago (referred to in your longer
letter), it could be she senses something is going
on for you. “It could be,” suggested Blacket, “that
your talk about sex, and buying her sex toys and
lingerie, has made her dig her heels in. Maybe she
feels as if she is not being met in the other aspects
of your life together. This can get translated as:
‘If he can’t support me in these areas, I certainly
don’t feel sexual toward him.’”
Are all your communications about sex? What
are you saying to her and how? Nowhere in your
letter did you say what your wife wanted, or if you
had even asked her. It is very much all about you
My wife and I are both in our early 50s. I love her, find her attractive
and what you are not getting.
and like her as a person, but we have a fundamental difficulty:
What happened 12 years ago? What gets said
we can’t talk about any kind of problem or anything personal. Or,
during these “horrible arguments”? And were you
rather, she can’t. If things are going well, we get on OK, but if there
ever able to communicate with her – if so, what
is a problem we just argue. There is no meeting of minds, no talking
happened around the time that changed?
through something. So either nothing gets said or we have big,
Blacket also explained that often people hope
horrible arguments. for more communication about their sex life
The hardest part for me is regarding sex. We can’t talk about this at all. I feel that
because they hope it will lead to more sex. But, he
we don’t have a sexual relationship. Every three weeks or so we might have sex,
says: “Generally, although communication gets
but I am always frustrated by it. This started 12 years ago. When we do have sex, it
to the underlying factor [for a couple not having
is always the same and she always initiates it because if I do she just won’t respond.
sex], it doesn’t always reinstate sex.”
When I started to become tempted to look elsewhere I resolved to do all I could to try to
I think you need to start listening, even if it is
improve things.
to the silence. If she really isn’t saying anything
But everything I tried failed. She refused – and refuses – to try counselling. I went on
then I am afraid you do need to consider your
my own for a little while but it didn’t help. I bought her lingerie and sex toys for us to try.
future and whether it is with her. While I would
I tried writing to her to explain how I felt, but she never responded. All the advice seems
never advocate such a move unless you are
to be to communicate; yet that is the very thing we can’t do.
serious, maybe it is when you are at that point that
I have become very depressed about vanilla sex. I have always been intrigued by
the control will shift back to you, and your wife
BDSM (bondage, domination, submission and masochism) and feel that it could be
may start talking an answer – a way we could have an adventure together. I actually think my wife
has shown signs that she could respond to that, but, of course, I dare not mention it.
My marriage feels doomed to fail eventually unless my wife will talk to me, and as
Send your problem to annalisa.barbieri@mac.
time goes by it gets more and more difficult. I have contemplated leaving, but that
com. Annalisa regrets she cannot enter into
is awful, too.
personal correspondence
I’m depressed about the
anilla sex I have with my wife
The Guardian Weekend | 31 March 2018 61
The secret to... avoiding
g the same old arguments
Focus on what is working.
Listen carefully. When something is thrown your way, take a
If you are keen to exit a cycle
of negativity, create a list off
the lovely things your partner
does, no matter how small,
that you can be thankful for.
Rather than focusing on what
annoys you, elevate the small
details of your partner’s
thoughtfulness. Better still,
make a big deal out of it when
your partner does something
positive. It will motivate them
towards acts of kindness.
pause. When we are in critical mode, we rarely take the time to
ect. Think about the following: why am I feeling angry? What
Take responsibility for what you feel and state it.
do I want?
Adopt the Avatar approach. In James Cameron’s film
Avatar, “I see you” is used as a greeting on Pandora. When
you can open up and really “see” your partner, in the
spiritual and connected sense of the word, chances are
you will be more understanding of the situation at hand.
When you say, “You’re always at football with your friends,”
what you may mean is, “I wish you were with me.” Try asking
for what you want and sitting with the possibility that you
won’t get it.
Think Rumi. The 13th-century
Persia poet wrote, “Raise your
word not your voice. It is rain
that grows
flowers, not thunder.”
A rela
relationship cannot blossom
when voices are raised. Try
your upset.
Abolish sweeping accusations. Phrases such as “You
never…” and “You always…”, are loaded with negativity.
Listen to the difference between “I would love it if you
could do the dishes this evening, I’m really tired” and
“You never do the dishes!”
By An
Anne-Celine Jaeger. Sources:
Esther Perel’s The State of
airs: Rethinking Infidelity;
psychotherapist and author
Barton Goldsmith.
Be vulnerable. Often a criticism
ticism holds a veiled wish
A letter to... my uncle, the convicted paedophile
It’s not the fact that I’ve shared
my life with someone convicted of
appalling sexual offences against
a child that hurts the most, even
as a parent. It’s the fact that you
haven’t shown any remorse.
You know me. I’m the family’s
resident bleeding-heart liberal. If
you’d said, “I’ve had these urges
all my life, I know they’re wrong,
but they just got the better of me.
I’m ashamed, and will be getting
help to make sure I never do it
again”, I would have tried my best
to empathise with you.
I don’t want a medal but, bearing
in mind the more “creative”
punishments suggested by strangers
writing on the internet, it’s pretty
reasonable, right?
But, instead, you’ve spun
a line about how this was just
a series of misunderstandings that
somehow snowballed into a taped
confession and a decade on the sex
offenders register.
One of your offences took place
in my parents’ home and now
they are afraid to bathe their
grandchildren, in case they get
convicted of child abuse, too.
You did that to them.
I can’t believe you’ve
positioned yourself as the victim.
Not just ostracising your own
child for not brushing things
under the carpet, but encouraging
others to do the same. You
have ruined lives for the sake of
sexual gratification, and you’re
expecting sympathy.
Maybe a miscarriage of justice
has occurred. But if a series of
implausible mishaps had led to me
being branded a child molester, I’d
appeal. You’ve shrugged and acted
as if nothing happened. And people
have gone along with it.
This family is so good at
pretending that stuff never
happened, but we all have to live
with the consequences of what
you did.
And I know that, as time
passes, the more we’ll become the
troublemakers. Association with
you is – if nothing else – potentially
professionally ruinous. So, any
time that there’s a birthday party
or a wedding in the family, we can’t
go if you go. And obviously you
will go.
And when my grandmother dies
– when anyone dies – my children
cannot attend the funeral, because
you will be there.
If blood were really thicker than
water, you wouldn’t have put us in
this position The Guardian Weekend | 31 March 2018 63
Body & mind Oliver Burkeman
the absent-minded person. If someone were
straightforwardly bad at retaining information
about their daily activities, you might expect
them to show up early for meetings, sometimes,
rather than late; they’d forget you owed them
money as often as the other way round. But that
never happens, leading Heath to speculate that
what’s going on here is really a form of “male
dominance behaviour”. You act
as though you’re too important
to concern yourself with trifling
matters to demonstrate that you
can get away with doing so. And,
Listen to
by cloaking your obnoxiousness in
The Radiolab podcast
absent-mindedness, you don’t even
probes the staggering and
have to admit you’re being a jerk.
surprisingly useful human
There are echoes here of “strategic
capacity for lying to ourselves
incompetence”, the aptly named
in an episode called Deception
tactic whereby people exempt
themselves from tedious chores
such as stacking the dishwasher or
clearing paper jams at the office,
by performing them so terribly,
they’re never asked again. Unlike
strategic incompetence, however,
high-status absent-mindedness needn’t be
“I work with a lot of very stereotypical absent-minded professors,” the University of Toronto
conscious. Sigmund Freud argued that this
philosopher Joseph Heath wrote a while back on the Canadian blog In Due Course. One
kind of “motivated forgetting” was a way of
former colleague, he remembered, “called me up once, on a Friday evening, wondering why
expressing unconscious antipathy to others in
I was not yet at his house. His wife had given him the task of inviting the guests to their dinner
a form acceptable to the conscious mind. And
party, which he had promptly forgotten to do, and then forgotten that he had forgotten to do
the evolutionary biologist Robert Trivers shows
it.” Readers in academia will recognise the phenomenon, but then, so will everyone else, as
how natural selection has made us excellent at
the stereotype goes back millennia: the ancient Greek astronomer Thales supposedly once
self-deception, because the best way to deceive
fell into a well because he was stargazing as he walked. There’s a lesson here for all thinkers
others – in this case, to trick them into thinking
with their head in the clouds, though also for anyone who texts as they walk.
you’re simply too preoccupied with big ideas to
What makes this form of forgetfulness uniquely annoying is that you’re not even
have brain space for minor obligations – is often to
supposed to be annoyed by it: the absent-minded professor can fail to show up for an
deceive yourself first. That way, when you perform
appointment, or forget he owes you money, and the world “treats it as though it were cute,
the part of the scatterbrained genius who can’t
and possibly a sign of genius”. He’s not just allowed to neglect duties the rest of us feel
help himself, you get to be completely sincere and
obliged to observe, he’s also rewarded for it.
thereby more convincing. Or, to put it another
And, on closer inspection, as Heath notes, this trait – let’s call it high-status absentway: your forgetfulness may be a status-boosting
mindedness – exhibits some curious features. For one thing, it’s overwhelmingly
act, but you’ve forgotten you know that a characteristic of men. For another, it somehow always seems to end up benefiting
Absent-minded genius or irritating
scatterbrain? You decide
I’ve identified as a gay man since my
early teens. I’ve always been happy in
my identity and – give or take bullying
at school, the nasty experience of
coming out to my parents (long since
healed), and being diagnosed HIV
positive 20 years ago – life has been
happy and fulfilling. I’ve had two
long-term relationships and have now
been with my husband for 19 years
(still no kids, though we keep trying).
We’ve opened up our relationship
and are doing well, having negotiated
rules and boundaries. I’ve had a lot
of fun: hot sex with guys – both
known and anonymous – as well as
64 31 March 2018 | The Guardian Weekend
deep and meaningful connections
with casual partners and my
husband. There isn’t much I haven’t
tried and je ne regrette rien.
However, now that I’m in my 50s,
I find myself feeling increasingly
bi-curious. Having gone from finding
women lovable all my life, but not
in the least sexually attractive, my
fantasies now unaccountably flip
between being caught at the bottom
of a slippery, naked rugby scrum and
wondering what it would be like
properly to pleasure a woman orally.
It will never happen – I’m too old for
hook-up apps or meat-market bars,
and I can’t imagine how, from
a practical point of view, I would
even go a little bi now.
My husband is a bit weirded out
by it all, but he’s generous and
trying to get his head around it, so
I feel grateful. I’m not at all sure this
makes me bisexual, but I’m starting
to think polar labels such as gay and
straight are a distraction from what
we should be aiming for: finding
ways to love each other and make
a better world. For everyone.
Each week, a reader tells us about
their sex life. Want to share yours?
My life in sex The 50-year-old bi-curious gay man
Body & mind The balance
Bossing it
Sharmadean Reid
Bobbi Brown
‘Give me a martini and some
dover sole, and I’m a happy girl’
Bobbi Brown, 60, is a makeup artist and entrepreneur
Sleep If my husband isn’t home I go up to bed at 7.30pm and pass out in front of the TV. I like
to watch Curb Your Enthusiasm, Modern Family and cool things on HBO when my three sons
are home; they can help me figure out how to find stuff. Often I’m watching TV and I’m on
my iPad or have a book in my hand. I keep my phone downstairs because I don’t want to talk
to anyone after 9pm and usually there’s a mother or brother who thinks 9.40pm is OK, and
it’s not. I do great with seven hours’ sleep. I get up at 5.30am; that’s my time.
Eat Whatever you consciously choose to put in your mouth should be the best quality
you’re able to get. I used to order salads in restaurants until I realised they didn’t fill me up;
now I order spinach, asparagus or broccoli as an appetizer, followed by fish and vegetables.
I am a simple chef in the kitchen. My husband, Steven, likes to go out every night and I’m
the opposite; but I’ll follow that man anywhere. My favourite London restaurant is Scott’s.
Give me a martini and some dover sole, and I’m a happy girl.
Work I get to work around 10am after strength training. As an indie startup (Brown left her
Estée Lauder-owned brand in 2016), I don’t have the luxury of many people on the team,
nor would I want that. We have four full-time employees and a lot of permalancers – people
we rely on. The secret to being efficient and effective is simple – follow your gut, think
clearly, and know what you want. And, by the way, you’re allowed to change your mind.
Family My husband and I are very different, but complement each other. I was always
the mum who said: “OK guys, we’re going to the dentist.” My husband was always the
one who said: “Who wants to jump on trampolines?” It would’ve been fun to have a girl.
But now two of my three sons are in long-term relationships with strong and beautiful
women, and I’m thrilled.
Fun I hate to say this, but I relax when I’m on Instagram. It fills my soul and I learn a lot;
I talk to people. I like a lot of healthy food blogs, and fantasise that you can actually make
a chocolate chip cookie healthy with almond flour and protein Interview by Sali Hughes
Q: How
do I find
my passion?
A: Passions
and go, and they
don’t always make
themselves visible
when you need
them to, but they will be out
there, somewhere. After spending
my 20s dabbling in everything,
I was quite lost. I had set up a salon
business on a whim, but I started
to lose interest and wondered:
what is my true passion? What
drives me? It took a combination
of logical and creative thinking to
reach an understanding.
First, I took time out. This is very
important. Overloading your mind
with trivial daily chores doesn’t
allow you to achieve higher levels
of thought. I moved out of London
and back to Wolverhampton. I spent
18 months living at a wonderfully
slow pace, hanging out with
family, reading and thinking.
Without the distractions of endless
social gatherings, you get time
to understand yourself. Setting
a D-date (decision date) is a good
idea so that the process doesn’t
drag on too long.
But you don’t need to move 100
miles to get headspace: simply
scheduling a long Saturday
afternoon walk in empty fields
will do. Go on your own, though.
It’s remarkable what your brain
comes up with when you aren’t
preoccupied with other people.
Second, logical thinking: while
in my bolthole, I made a list of my
various careers and obsessions, and
thought about the times when I was
truly satisfied.
Your passion can also be a calling.
What are you good at that makes
people feel amazing? A combination
of self-satisfaction and service
to others can help you discover
where your passions lie. Once
I discovered that mine was to help
women become economically
independent, I moved back to
London to start over by building
Beautystack with focus and clarity.
Sharmadean Reid is the founder
of WAH Nails and
The Guardian Weekend | 31 March 2018 65
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Beautiful beds & mattresses
Body & mind Zoe Williams
because it was a 5K, 10K and 15K run all setting off
from the same place, and I felt intimidated by the
10Kers and 15Kers, by everyone in matching
T-shirts, by the apparatus of the “fun run” (loads of
tape, like a crime scene), and the fact that I was the
only person who didn’t have water. Oh, and also,
I never got beyond week five in the eight-week
Couch To 5K programme. I had an injury, then
there was the snow, then there was more snow,
and I ended up doing week five again and again.
However, that topped out at
a 20-minute solid run, and a 5K,
unless you’re pretend-run-walking,
shouldn’t take more than 32 minutes.
It is a great misconception (of mine)
What I learned
that exhaustion moves in a linear
Make a friend to run
way, so at 17 minutes you’re 8.5
with. The people
times more exhausted than at two
with friends had
minutes. In real life, I have a point at
a lot more ‘fun’
three minutes when I think I can’t
go on, and another two minutes
before the end. It’s like needing
a wee or missing your kids: you can
cope fine until it’s almost over, then
you can’t cope at all.
The first kilometre was much
shorter than you think. When you’re
accustomed to measuring by time,
the switch to measuring by distance
is cognitively liberating, like
counting calories and suddenly
switching to counting carbs. The
second km is challenging, as it dawns
on you that there are three more to
come: concentrate on scenery. Never
fixate on getting to a point, and how many times
Back in January when I slogged up the inclines in St James’s Park in London wondering
how they could be so vicious and yet so invisible, the celebrity trainer Matt Roberts told me you need to get to a similarly distant point again.
The third km tips you over into nearly there
that you had to find your motivation in running. Not many people enjoy it for its own sake.
“Is there a charity you really care about, something you could support for a sponsored 5K?” territory, especially if you’re no good at maths. The
fourth km is where you register unfamiliar
he asked. Hard to know how to answer this. It made me think of David Cameron (Roberts
thoughts, such as “I could probably go a bit farther
was his trainer, remember), a feckless, unpatriotic man, indolently spoiling everything for
than 5K”. The fifth km you realise you couldn’t.
everyone, then taking a break to puff his way round civic spaces and congratulate himself
I did it in 32.46, an average of 6 mins 24 secs a
on his life choices, self-love cloaked in self-righteousness. “Sponsored runs make me
kilometre: not impressive, but running not walking.
feel sick,” I said, but Roberts could see I felt sick anyway with the exertion and discreetly
In short: under-prepared, under-motivated, underlooked away.
buddied, ill-equipped. That’s how I started. And I
I solved this – did I solve it? You decide – by doing a run for a charity I didn’t care about and
ended on top of the world, ladies and gentlemen not registering, just paying 20 quid on the day. It was the wrong choice, in many ways,
I’m doing a 5K ‘fun run’ – but
the 15Kers are scaring me
1 Cornwall.
2 Light pollution.
3 Teresa Bond (For Your Eyes
Only film).
4 MasterChef.
5 Clothes (naturist movement).
6 Red Rum.
7 St Aidan.
8 Recognise faces.
9 Parts of a heraldic
achievement of arms.
10 British river homophones:
Dee, Tees, Exe, Wye.
11 Painted by Modigliani.
12 Retired to Capri.
13 Tuna species.
14 Match officials at 1966 World
Cup final.
15 Buildings on banknotes:
Wren £50; Fry £5; Elgar £20;
Austen £10.
Crossword See right.
The Guardian Weekend | 31 March 2018 67
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Adult learner
Coco Khan
Nothing is sinking in for my theory test – not even the quirky sign with the toad
He’s finally said it, the three little words I’ve
been waiting to hear: “Book your test.” At last,
my driving instructor has said I’m ready to take the
practical exam, but first I’ll need to get through the
theory part.
The theory test is a multiple-choice exam, designed
to ensure you have the basic knowledge required for a
life of unsupervised driving. You should, in theory, learn the Highway
Code front to back, searing all the information into your mind for all
eternity; but in practice, you’ll know some, wing some, and make
peace with not having the slightest for the rest.
A good memory has never been one of my strong points. I often
think this when I watch TV crime dramas that involve a cold case
where the detectives pull in old suspects and ask them where
they were on a night in question three years ago. In that
situation, surely, I would end up in the dock. I can barely
remember what I had for breakfast by lunchtime let alone
why for example, many moons ago, my commute was once
suspiciously longer than usual. They’d say I was a liar, that
my testimony couldn’t be trusted, and all because I couldn’t recall
stopping for a pasty that morning. A sad, yet fitting end to my love
of Greggs.
Still, it’s clever that the DVLA makes you do a theory and a practice
because, as we know, there is a big difference. Like how in theory
your neighbour doing DIY at 10am on a Saturday is totally fine, but in
practice is a declaration of war.
But it’s been nearly a decade since I did any kind of exam revision
and I just don’t know where to begin. I was certain for weeks that
nothing was sinking in – even the really quirky stuff such as that road
sign with the toad in the red triangle, signalling toads crossing to
breeding ponds, didn’t register. Then the eureka moment came.
I was in the passenger seat with my boyfriend behind the wheel
when, like a reflex, it just came out: “Two cars’ distance. At this
speed you need to keep back at least two cars.”
Good work, brain. It was taking it in all along, carefully filing
away the info I needed and discarding any that would just
slow me down. Of course I don’t need to use up precious
cerebral storage with the sign for an amorous toad crossing
the road; I’ll know the croaky Casanova when I see him.
There’s loads of info in the ol’ noggin after all – stopping
distances, line markings, top speed of a mobility scooter (did I
mention I passed?).
Although, as I’ve learned the hard way, there is one section
missing from the test: how not to be a backseat driver ALAMY; GETTY
Crossword by Sy
7 Network
of townships
south-west of
Johannesburg (6)
8 A trade name for
the antidepressant
Fluoxetine (6)
9/11 Artist who
provides the voice
for Homer Simpson
10 Month which
gave its name to
19th-century Russian
revolutionaries? (8)
11 See 9
13 Russian ruler,
eponymous hero
of Pushkin’s play of
1831 (5,7)
16 Artist who
provides the voice
for Woody in Toy
Story (3,5)
18 ... Zedong,
Chinese communist
leader (3)
Quiz by Thomas Eaton
20 Music hall dance
often drawn by
21 1516 book by
Thomas More (6)
1 Family portrayed
in John Steinbeck’s
The Grapes Of
Wrath (4)
2 John Neville and
John Maynard ......,
economists (6)
3 Whoopi ........,
artist who provides
the voice for
Shenzi in The Lion
King (8)
4 Intergovernmental
organisation that
accounts for roughly
half the world’s oil
production (4)
5 Olivia ......,
star of The Night
Manager (6)
6 Hebrew phrase
that means
11 Joanne Harris
novel set in a French
village (8)
12 1968 album
by Aretha Franklin
14 Greek island – or
a town in New York
state (6)
15 A type of RAF
surveillance aircraft
– or the ninth of
Elgar’s Enigma
Variations? (6)
17 .... Conti,
comedian and
ventriloquist (4)
19 River that forms
the border between
Kentucky and
Indiana (4)
1 Which English
county’s natives
have national
minority status?
2 What form
of pollution is
measured on the
Bortle scale?
3 “We have all the
time in the world”
was on whose
4 Which TV series
has India Fisher
narrated since 2005?
5 What would
a German FKK
enthusiast eschew?
6 Which sporting
champion was the
offspring of Quorum
and Mared?
7 Who founded
the monastery on
8 Prosopagnosia is
the inability
to do what?
Answers on page 67
What links:
9 Crest; torse;
mantling; helm;
crown; escutcheon;
supporters; motto?
10 4th, 20th (x 2),
24th and 25th letters
of the alphabet,
11 Iris Tree;
Jeanne Hébuterne;
Beatrice Hastings;
Juan Gris;
12 Emperor Tiberius
and Gracie Fields?
13 Albacore; Atlantic
bluefin; skipjack;
yellowfin; bigeye?
14 Gottfried Dienst
Tofiq Bahramov
(USSR); Karol Galba
15 St Paul’s Cathedral;
Newgate Prison;
Worcester Cathedral;
Godmersham Park?
I dislike exclamation marks – they suggest a commander’s staff, a phallic display
I try never to raise my voice. Enthusiasm, anger, even pain I try to
express with restraint, tending towards self-mockery. And I admire
those who maintain a calm demeanour during an argument, who try
to give cautious hints that we should lower our voices, who reply to
frantic questions – “Is it true it really happened like that? Is it true?” –
simply with a yes or no, without exclamation marks.
Mainly, this is because I’m afraid of excesses – mine and others’.
Sometimes people make fun of me. They say: “You want a world
without outbursts of joy, suffering, anger, hatred?” Yes, I want
precisely that, I answer. I would like it if, on the entire planet, there
were no longer any reason to shout, especially with pain. I like low
tones, polite enthusiasm, courteous complaints.
But as the world isn’t going in that direction, I make an effort,
at least in the artificial universe that is delineated by writing, never
to exaggerate with an exclamation mark. Of all the punctuation
marks, it’s the one I like the least. It suggests a commander’s
staff, a pretentious obelisk, a phallic display. An exclamation
should be easily understood by reading; there’s no need to insist
with that mark at the end as well. But I have to say that it’s not
simple these days.
Writers are lavish with exclamation marks. In text messages, in
70 31 March 2018 | The Guardian Weekend
WhatsApp chats, in emails, I’ve counted up to five in a row. How
much exclaiming the phony innovators of political communication
engage in, the blowhards in power, young and old, who tweet
nonstop every day. Sometimes I think that exclamation marks
are a sign not of emotional exuberance but of aridity, of a lack
of trust in written communication. I’m careful not to resort to
exclamation marks in my books, but I’ve discovered in some
of the translations an unexpected profusion of them, as if the
translator had found my page sentimentally bare and devoted
himself to the task of reforestation.
It’s likely that my sentences sound detached; I don’t rule that out.
And it’s likely that, where the tone for some reason is impassioned,
the reader feels happier if he gets to the end of a sentence and
finds the signal that authorises him to be impassioned. But I still
think that “I hate you” has a power, an emotional honesty, that
“I hate you!!!” does not.
At least in writing we should avoid acting like the fanatical world
leaders who threaten, bargain, make deals, and then exult when they
win, fortifying their speeches with the profile of a nuclear missile at
the end of every wretched sentence Translated by Ann Goldstein
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