Tuesday, April 26, 2011
“Do you know where we’re going?” my son asked as we pottered up the tight Marais streets towards the Pompidou Centre. It was his first trip to Paris – a gift for his ninth birthday, three days in the city of his choice with his Mum and Nanny.
“I used to come to Paris a lot,” I said, “on business.”
How I used to love that phrase. I first fell in love with Europe’s most beautiful city when I went there on a French exchange trip at fifteen. I became instantly infatuated with the ambience of the place, the ancient boutiquey quirkiness of the backstreets, the seductive café lifestyle, the grandiosity of the architecture and history – but mostly the groomed, stick-thin elegance of the people. To me, Paris has always been about style. From that first trip I decided that I was a moody, pencil thin fashionista trapped in the stout body of a gauche Irish teenager. I came back speaking a little more French, but wearing a lot more black eyeliner and smoking cigarettes, wanting to be a good deal thinner than I was and aspiring to go back there at the earliest opportunity and make myself ‘French’.
When I became editor of a young woman’s magazine in London, I used every available excuse to go to Paris ‘on business’ – sometimes meeting advertisers from cosmetics houses but as often as I could manage it on fashion shoots. These trips were rarely without stress. The models were poutier and thinner, the agents more fierce and discerning and the photographers more temperamental and precious than I was used to. Each trip generally involved a good deal of my trailing in the wake of some “fabulous” photographer as he waved aside model after stunning model in search of a “visage” worthy of his art, until I feared I’d be going back to the office with an spent budget and no pictures to show for it. When we did eventually get around to ‘the shoot’, hair and make-up would barely be started when we’d have to stop for lunch. No such thing as bringing in a few sandwiches and eating them on the hop, as we did in London. Each studio had a fully functioning kitchen and chef. Lunch was a three-hour affair – three courses, wine – the lot – all on my magazine’s tab of course, and all eating into my precious working day. After gulping back my grub in about five minutes, I’d have to sit and marvel at the models decimating their plates of salad before allowing themselves to suck on the daily single square of chocolate that was keeping them alive.
I would come back from the ordeal with a wonderful set of pictures usually good enough to justify another trip in a few months time. For my next trip, I resolved, I would be more Paris-Fabulous. I would be a few pounds lighter with a better handbag, and thinner thighs, a sharper haircut, a fiercer attitude and less of a propensity towards street vendors selling crepes smothered in chocolate. Invariably, with each trip I became chubbier, and more dishevelled and stressed out until eventually, I realised that the Paris fashion shoot just wasn’t worth it. My commitment to fashion waned over the coming years dissipated with motherhood, a couple of extra stone and a change in career. Although my love for Paris remained, the two things remained intertwined in my head and my heart and, as a result I didn’t return there for years. Not because I didn’t want to, but because somehow I still felt I would be letting Paris – or perhaps myself down. I wasn’t fabulous enough, elegant enough or sophisticated enough for Paris – until my nine year old got it into his head he wanted to come here and maternal loyalty meant I had to put my fears and prejudice aside. Although the last burning embers of caring what is on the catwalk this season has long since burnt out, I still found myself shuddering with shame over my first Paris fashion shoot. My bare fat, white Irish legs marching up through the Marais, my wheelie suitcase of clothes clacking loudly along the cobbled streets, elegant Parisians glowering at me, their lunch offensively interrupted by the sight of this inelegant ‘tourist’. I couldn’t find the bell for the photographer’s apartment hidden as it was behind one of those massive ornate Parisian doors so I stood on the street and yelled up at the windows until, burning with shame I sat on my wobbly case and waited for him to casually emerge an hour later.
My son was starting to nag; “Are you sure you know where we’re going?”
I had stopped outside a huge wooden door and was looking up – astounded. This was the building. The photographer’s apartment had been on the top floor, completely shielded from any sounds from the street. I had invited me to stay with him on my first trip then when I refused to sleep with him. had shrugged with almost insulting indifference. God – I was so self-conscious back then, and so utterly lacking in confidence. I had been so stunning and slim and fashionable in my twenties – and not even known it! I should have enjoyed my Paris adventures more, taken the whole thing less seriously.
I briefly told my son my fashion shoot story – about how I had stood here and shouted up at the window in front of all the posh Paris people.
“Mum,” he said closing his eyes for dramatic effect, “you are so embarrassing!” He smiled widely - he loves hearing how I’ve made an eejit out of myself, but mostly he was just thrilled to be there, in Paris, with me. In my MBT walking shoes, leggings and M&S cardigan.
“Come on,” I said, “I think I can see another crepe van over there, if we hurry we’ll get in before the Pompidou opens.”
“Can we have chocolate again?” he asked.
“Of course,” I replied, “after all chocolate crepes is what Paris is famous for isn’t it?”
Tuesday, April 19, 2011
This is a piece about me and my amazing brother Tom who passed away in 2009. It's from a memoir I;m writing about him.
I took Tom to see Bow Wow Wow at the Camden Palace when I was sixteen, and he was fifteen. Small and baby faced, I knew there was no way he could have got in without me. Already working, I carried myself like an adult and with the heavy New Romantic eighties make-up I easily passed as in my mid-twenties.
I put some of my signature black kohl on Tom’s big blue eyes, and dressed him in a torn safety-pinned T-shirt and skin-tight jeans and gave him instructions on how to act as we travelled on the tube down there.
“Don’t smile – let me go in first, just stand close behind me and DON’T make mess about and make me laugh.”
He had insisted on trying to get into Saturday Night Fever with me when I was twelve at Hendon Classic Cinema for a matinee performance, and I was still convinced that they would have let me in if it hadn’t been for my childish looking brother. Tom carried himself like a man, but at not much over five-foot, he was always self-conscious about his height. As a teenager he survived the jibes by casting himself as the joker and as an adult his charm and intellect compensated for it amply.
A Saturday night, the queue to get in shuffled briskly with bewilderingly fashionable New Romantics. Tom was mad into punk: driving us all mad with it’s tuneless pounding and worrying my mother buying frightening-looking singles and T-shirts with names like The Slits and Discharge emblazoned on them. He wasn’t a pop music fan, and was disgusted with his sister’s love of bands like ABC and Heaven 17, but punk seemed to reach his very soul. It was anti-music – so his love for it confused us doubly – but I think now that punk began to grow at the same time as Tom was reaching puberty. He was angry, but unable; to express it in the same was as many of his peers – on the football pitch or scraping in the schoolyard. Punk gave voice to Tom’s pent-up masculine anger in a way that nothing else could. Plus it was all about safety pins and vomit and snot – we girls found it disgusting and tuneless and faintly frightening, and our horror always amused him.
I was wearing a voluminous white frilly blouse – and my maroon-dyed hair has been streaked with white blonde that day in a hairdressing experiment at work, and scooped up into an enormous, fluffy quiff. Tom had gelled his hair into spikes and had safety pins stuffed into the side of his mouth, hoping that nobody had noticed he hadn’t pierced them through (he had tried several times but always got horrible infections). He did an impression of a depressed zombie and I had to restrain myself from laughing. He was determined to get in.
We passed by the enormous security men unnoticed, and when we got inside, it was all I could do to stop him running up and down the stairs of the enormous, gilded amphitheatre with excitement.
“Calm down!” I kept telling him, “We could still get chucked out!”
We didn’t even go the bar. Drinking wasn’t the point then. It was the music and just being there.
From the top balcony we watched the band. Tom said they were crap. A Malcolm McLaren invention – but we danced wildly, mimicking the ludicrous sway of the fake pirates. Neither of us feeling truly a part of that scene, we were too young, and too suburban – but we were together. We watched the crowd posing and preening, and celebrated the fact that we were apart from it – safe and happy in our little twosome.
After Tom went to university and started drinking I stopped going clubbing with him. I found it too stressful when he got into a state, especially as I wasn’t drinking myself. Our relationship stayed in the safe environs of our mother’s house, or the various flats I shared with girlfriends all over London.
My first flatmate was an impossibly pretty little rich girl called Sophie. For two years I was her chubby sidekick. Men flocked to Sophie, an aspiring actress she was petite and ladylike - all highlights and eyelashes, but as her gauche hairdresser friend, all I could ever hope for in romance was her cast-offs who occasionally took to me as a consolation prize. We lived in a one bedroom flat in Fulham, and were often courted by Chelsea Hooray types. Tom found my lifestyle, a suburban Irish reared hairdressing apprentice trying to keep up with all these posh kids, hilarious. One night Sophie invited two particularly arrogant young hoorays around for a meal - Tom agreed to dress up as our butler to freak them out. He played the part of our Jeeves to perfection, looking disgusted when noting that neither man were wearing hats or gloves for him to take at the door. Between courses Butler Thomas serenaded us by playing the flute and violin, and Sophie and I held the joke that this was how we ate every evening. Tom was magnificent and after we saw off the two idiots, we sat up all night eating and smoking and having a laugh.
The last time Tom and me went clubbing was when he visited me in Dublin in the mid-nineties. Single and editing a monthly magazine, the buzzing, boozing Irish capital was my oyster.
Tom was teaching in London at the time, and it had taken me months to persuade him to come a visit me. He hated flying, and was threatening to take the bus and ferry over for just two days. I eventually nagged him onto a plane and as he came through the arrivals gate at Dublin airport he looked harried and confused. He had no luggage with him whatsoever.
“Before you have a go,” he said, “I bought a pair of socks at Gatwick,” and he held up a tiny Sock Shop bag.
His eccentricity was beyond annoying. I was worried, of course that he was drinking again. In my mind Tom was either drinking, or not drinking – there was no middle ground. I made a conscious decision that weekend not to ask him, just to let go of what he was or wasn’t doing with his life. I wanted to bring him into mine. Show him was a great time I was having in my adopted city – make him a part of it.
I was renting a cool Georgian flat on a historic strip off Baggot Street, within ten minutes walk of the city centre. He followed me around Dublin like a tourist in my life. This is where I live, this is where I work, this is where I have lunch most days, and this is where I buy my groceries. It had become hard just sitting talking with Tom. Our conversation always had such a different focus. I was old for my years – rushing towards a settled life, full of my next goal, an apartment I was thinking of buying, rearranging my life so I could write a novel. Tom still thought and lived like the teenagers he taught. While he was teaching at a girl’s school in Hackney, I was working as the editor of Just Seventeen in trendy Soho. My job gave his music department huge status with the student, he’d call me up with daft requests; “I’m just here in the music room with Shaznee and the other girls in B4 – they wanted to ask if you could get Michael Jackson to come and play with the steel band at our Christmas Concert?” “No Tom,” I would say, “I can’t. But I can send you out twenty J17 goodie bags and a signed Brother Beyond T-shirt. Will that do?”
“Brilliant!” he’d say. I was never quite sure whether, like his girls, he half-believed that I really might have the clout to organize a private Michael Jackson for them. Tom idolized me. He wrote me love letter all the time telling me how talented, how glamorous, how clever I was. He thought I was extraordinary. I never felt anything reading them beyond an overwhelming desire to pick him up and shake him and scream “You are the extraordinary one Tom – if only you would (a) believe in yourself and (b) stop drinking and get your life together. I knew I had a good life, but I wanted it for him more than I wanted it for me. At that time the life I had built myself meant little to me because I believed Tom deserved a good life too, and wouldn’t get one. As the years progressed I felt unable to enjoy it because Tom was not able to share it with me.
That weekend in Dublin is one of my happiest memories of Tom. He celebrated my life, and through his enthusiasm I experienced the glamour and vivacity I had been blessed with through my situation as a magazine editor. Every weekend in Dublin was spent trawling around the nightlife searching for love – a partner to share my life with before I turned thirty. That weekend with Tom - it didn’t matter. We walked and walked all over Dublin. I was going through an understated, lots-of-black elegant phase, but Tom persuaded me to buy a Starsky and Hutch T-shirt at a market stand Georges Street Arcade market. That night he made me wear it clubbing, with a pair of hot pants and enormous ravers trainers. He kept laughing at the T-shirt, and I kept asking “Isn’t it too small across the chest? Does it look stupid?” It was, of course, both, but he begged me to wear it out clubbing that night. “It looks great,” he said, stifling giggles. “You evil troll,” I said. “Hen!” he’d say back. I can’t remember what Tom wore, except that I am certain that it wasn’t what he travelled over in and I must have bought him something. I bought Tom clothes all the time. Being clueless was part of a ruse to get gear out of me. We went to The Pod nightclub where MTV were filming that night. As a magazine editor, I was club royalty, no queuing or questions. We were taken straight into the VIP area. Tom was buzzing. We spent the whole night on the dance floor, raving and throwing our hands about like teenagers. Tom laughed at my boobs straining beneath the tiny T-shirt and tried to manoeuvre me in front of the MTV cameras. When we wore ourselves out we went back to the VIP enclose and Tom, self-consciously, drank a single pint. I held myself back from letting it ruin the night. He was making a point of having just-the-one, proving he could; I recognized the gesture as denial and let it go without comment. We walked home at four am, stopping at an all night café where we stuffed our faces with an enormous fry and talked, for the first time that weekend. Him with a pint inside him, me too tired to argue and my hunger for his company sated, it felt safe.
I told him how brilliant he was and that I loved him and he said the same to me. Perhaps it was the other way around but with Tom that important distinction never mattered. One of us always said it first.
Wednesday, April 6, 2011
I OFTEN (but not too often) joke that if I ever left my husband it would not be for another man, but for my mother. I fell in love with my mother again in my early 30s and we are markedly close.
Through my 30s and 40s my mother has become a companion and friend as well as a supportive and nurturing parent. One of the things that surprises me about our relationship is how coveted it is among my friends. Not just our relationship, but my mother herself.
"I wish my mum was more like your mum." "I wish I could talk to my mother the way you talk to yours." "Your mum is so much fun . . . I wish my mum was as openminded as yours." And bizarrely, "I want to get your mum around so that some of her will 'rub off ' on my mum."
And yet I think this says more about the attitude we have towards our mothers than it does about the mothers themselves.
My mother . . . while she does have exceptional qualities . . . is not so different from her peers as my friends perceive. It is the fact that I have made an effort to treat her as a woman and not just a mother that has allowed our, in the past, often fraught mother-daughter relationship to flourish into a deep friendship.
Throughout my teens and right up to the end of my 20s I held my mother responsible for everything that went wrong in my life. My inability to form a satisfactory relationship with a man, my bad teeth/feet/legs and fluctuating weight. I once lost my passport the night before an important business trip and rang her in the middle of my panic to blame her for being a hoarder herself and not training me to be more organised.
The biggest thing I blamed my mother for was the gap inside me that craves love. That hole which is just part of the human condition but which we try to fill with drink, or food, or sex or therapy . . .
seeking the satisfaction of complete fulfilment which we will never find. The only love that is big enough to fill that gap is surely a mother's love. However it's not until you become a mother yourself that you realise the hard truth which is that no matter how big your love is for your child, ultimately they will have to make it on their own.
My turning point with my mother came when I was 31. I was staying in my mother's house in London. I was unemployed, single and childless and my youngest sister had just become pregnant by her boyfriend. I would like to say I had conflicted feelings, but that would be too kind. I was furious and bitterly, bitterly jealous. My mother came into my room early one morning and found me howling, pounding the wall shouting, "It should have been me!"
She gathered me into her arms and comforted me. I realised then that there was no other human being on earth who would ever love me enough to sympathise with such ugly feelings. And crucially, I realised I still needed her as a mother. I made a conscious decision to let all of the past go and form a new relationship with this person. This woman who had all this love towards me: how would it be if I didn't dismiss her love as a given but took it on afresh? What would happen if, instead of the immature expectation I had always had of this cure-all love, that my mother should be able to intuit my every need otherwise she had failed, I started to ask for her love, ask for her advice? And crazier still, actually listen to it and perhaps even, from time to time, take it on board. I have traced the most successful, the happiest and the most secure days of my adult life back to the moment I started to do that.
One such occasion was in Yamamori on George's Street in 1997. I asked her what she thought of my, relatively new live-in boyfriend.
"I think you should marry him."
I was taken aback . . . this was the woman who told me never to get married. Why this one? I asked.
She took me back to an incident that had occurred a few weeks before. A friend of mine from London was staying in our apartment in Dublin along with Niall and my mother. My mother and my friend were both en route to somewhere else, and I got called away for work. I was nervous about how Niall would deal with these relative strangers as none of them knew the other very well. Tragedy struck during the night when my friend got a phone call from London to say his mother, whom he lived with, had died. It was a terrible shock.
My mother described to me how Niall had handled the situation calmly, with strength, sensitivity and great compassion.
"He stayed up all night talking to the poor man, " she said. "Now that's the sort of person you want to be married to. And oh, " she added, "he's a hard worker."
My mother had always actively discouraged her daughters from getting married, saying the institution was outdated and designed to tie women down.
What was this turnaround all about?
"I've changed my mind, " she said. "I know I have always said the opposite but now I would like to see you married with a child. I can see that's what you desperately want and I think it would make you happy so I want it for you too."
An English journalist, slightly older than me, recently interviewed my mother and I and was astonished at the cultural differences in our respective lives.
The journalist had grown up at the same time as me, in London, but her British baby-boomer parents were living the '60s dream. Doing the whole dopesmoking, nudie flowerpower popsongs thing while my mother, and her emigrant peers, were still held in the cloying, guilty grip of the Catholic church.
They wore the long flowery skirts and the platform shoes but they left the free-love principles behind. They eschewed contraception but remained loyal to wedding vows, even through being battered by alcoholic husbands, and stayed at home cooking and cleaning and minding their children because they didn't have the confidence to avail of the education and the work opportunities now available to them. While the world around them partied, the majority of my mother's generation of Irish emigrants spent the '60s and '70s picking rusk crumbs out of their Draylon-covered sofas in the London suburbs, cooking big 7dinners for tired husbands, feeding babies and taking their daughters to Irish dancing classes in chilly church halls.
Joan Baez was singing on their kitchen transistor about revolution. Erica Jong, The Female Eunuch, Gloria Steinem, free thinking, free love . . .
it seemed like everyone was free except them. The revolution was happening on their doorsteps but not in their homes, they could smell the freedom but they couldn't taste it. So they drummed into their daughters these messages of independence. "See the world, have your own money, don't worry about getting married and having children. Any fool can get married; don't sell yourself short."
They bred a generation of independent career women with aching ovaries. Like Bridget Jones, it seemed finding a good husband and having children later in life was not as easy as our mothers told us it would be. For those of us who managed to squeeze it in, "having it all" became "doing it all". As Germaine Greer recently said, "When we said we 'wanted it all' . . .it seems what we got 'all' of was the work."
I think our mothers' generation have straddled the widest gap in the culture of women's personal and working lives than any other.
The gap between my life and my grandmother's life is culturally colossal, yet I hope my generation does as good a job of bridging the gap between our children's lives and our parents.
I also think my generation of women are particularly hard on our mothers. We urge them to be more liberal, more like us. And yet they have witnessed and weathered the almost complete disintegration of their value system whilst still managing to fling their daughters forward into a new era, fuelling us with their dreams as well as their disappointments.
What I have discovered through my mother and her friends in the past 15 years is that these women, with a tremendous amount to offer, often lack the confidence to achieve their potential. What makes them more hard-done by than the generations before them is that liberation was within their grasp . . . but their arms were not long enough to reach it.
My mother could have been a novelist and the confidence she lacked to do it herself, she made sure she gave to me. That has been her gift to me as a writer: not just her encouragement and support, but her unfulfilled writer's permission to mine her life for the stories she could have told if she had grown up in a more modern time.
The man my mother 'chose' for me was also sexy and funny and I was in love with him. But ultimately the foundation of the happiness I have experienced being married to him has been down to the qualities she saw in him straight away, strength of character, kindness and a powerful work ethic.
My mother isn't always right, but then, neither am I. However she is always older and often, very often, much wiser than I am. And she loves me. Surely they are the best qualifications a good friend and mentor could have.