Dirty Gin-Soaked Floor-Angels

Did a bit of dancing last week. Probably shouldn’t have done. Think I scared some people. (But then people out for a nice civilised evening in a posh members-only bar can be so touchy can’t they?)

Actually, what I actually shouldn’t have done was imbibe two G&Ts, seven mint and ginger cocktails, and two squat glasses of neat whiskey before nine o clock had even struck.

If I hadn’t done all that, then I wouldn’t have done ‘the dancing’.
If I hadn’t drunk all that I wouldn’t have done a lot of things.

Like….I wouldn’t have shouted at a large assembly of hardball journalists to “Stop fucking talking and come and fucking well dance”. I wouldn’t have received the withering stare of a fastidious French barman who stopped me from swiping a bottle of whiskey from under his nose like he wouldn’t notice. I wouldn’t have boob-whacked a national treasure. I wouldn’t have accidentally taken the uber-expensive coat of one of the country’s major newspaper editors home with me. (Nor let it lie in my bedroom for a day while, unbeknownst to me, he ranted and raved about treachery and theft on Twitter). I wouldn’t have abandoned upright dancing, chucked off my heels, nor laid in gin-slops and done floor-angels, nor laughed so hard I thought I would expire.

I was at a friend’s book launch. The cocktails were free, and the band were cool, so I danced.

I danced how a girl dances when she spent 23 years of her life being too shy to dance before she realised she didn’t care what she looked like anymore. I danced like a wallflower cut free from its roots. I danced like a whirligig that knew not the confines of accepted choreography.

It didn’t help that the floor was slippery (Defence #1 – Health & Safety Violation). It didn’t help that I was wearing heels. (Defence #2 – Fashion Is Evil). It didn’t help that I was being twirled around by the drunkest man in England (Defence #3 – I’m The Real Victim Here).

It didn’t help that I am a shocking dancer.

But it also didn’t matter. I was with my girls, and some boys, and the band got us stomping and waltzing, then the DJ plugged into our heart’s dodgiest musical desires and every song was more our favourite than the one before, and we danced. Vertically, horizontally, against walls, against strangers, we defied form and genre. Cheek to cheek, hand in hand, butt to butt. The hand-jive gyratory. The MC Hammer-mambo-macarena-mash-up. And floor-angels. Dirty gin-soaked floor-angels.

What else are you supposed to do when your feet won’t work anymore but every other part of you wants to keep dancing? Lie down and do it. Obvs.

The time came to go; the band packed up. Olivia Newton-John sang us out. My friend pulled up outside like a loyal steed of sobriety and drove us home. I fell asleep; I probably drooled.

The next day brought the obligatory regathering, remembering, and regretting. Thinking of all the things I probably shouldn’t have done. I stared at the editor’s coat lying there like a one-night-stand who won’t leave and pictured him moodily, coatlessly commanding the day’s press, perhaps a little more coat-related than usual. PISTORIUS AND REEVA ROWED ABOUT LOST VALENTINE’S COAT. I looked at my head to see if it was still the same one I’d always had and that I hadn’t swapped it with the fussy tramp who’d rudely rebuffed my midnight offer of a Ginster’s sandwich. I poured judgemental crumbs out of my bag.

But although I felt a bit like dying for most of the day, although every roused part ached and I had a bit of shamefaced Fleet Street coat-returning to do, I didn’t regret the dancing.

You should never regret the dancing.

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Valentine’s: Shooting A Rhino In The Face

Just when I thought I was all grown-up and had accepted that Valentine’s Day is a mass-market scam, I fell into the huge boggy bit of my heart that I thought had near-dried up with the desiccation of age. Like when Dawn French falls into that unfeasibly deep puddle in the Vicar of Dibley – there I was just ambling along in my terribly modern cynicism when SLOSH – waist-deep in forgotten goo.

It’s become terribly unfashionable to like Valentine’s Day. Confessing to enjoying the Hallmark hullabaloo, or even its older quainter conventions, is almost becoming un-PC – like saying you’d like to abolish disabled parking bays, or go on your summer hols to Tanzania and shoot the last of the black rhinos in the face.

I thought I was a fully paid-up member of the Puke Patrol. I thought I could stay steely before a proffered rose. I thought I was one of the great denouncers of accepted Romance; could snort derisively at Keats if quoted on the fourteenth day of the second month. That I was way above making doe-eyes over an overpriced meal in a restaurant flatulating at the seams with helium balloons; that I’d knee a man in the nuts if he waved anything bought at Clintons anywhere near me.

STEELY MY ARSE.

I should have suspected I wasn’t quite up to the current vogue of Non-Schmaltz standards when watching Sleepless In Seattle recently. The Empire State building flooded with red hearts just as dear Meg was sweetly dumping her fiancé for Tom Hanks AND I OUTWARDLY SNORTED THE CONTENTS OF MY CRANIUM SO HARD I STILL HAVEN’T FOUND WHERE IT ALL WENT. I think I might have blown open another portal to Narnia. Some poor fawn is probably wandering around with my snot as a jaunty hat.

What caused me to wobble off the Wagon of Well Hard? What reminded me of my roots de romarnce? (Chris De Burgh ref there, ballad-lovers; you’re welcome…)

I’ll tell you. Someone I know told me it was their first Valentine’s day, with an actual Valentine, with a lover.

I didn’t believe them. They are in their thirties, and cute as a button. But they were telling the truth, and for them it wasn’t a silly day. Granted, they didn’t want to run down the street slathered in chocolate body paint, rattling handcuffs that chimed the theme to Zeffirelli’s Romeo & Juliet, but they wanted to mark it. They wanted their Valentine’s Day.

It reminded me of what Valentine’s Day used to mean to me, before I’d had a few extraordinarily bad boyfriends and a divorce under my belt. Making cards for hours, doodling boys names in biro hearts on my arm like love-charm tattoos, my first real card from a boy that wasn’t just my Dad doing bad handwriting, my first Valentine’s kiss, hotels, restaurants, post bunk-up bed-bouffants… Et sexera.

I wondered if the true magic of Valentine’s Day doesn’t lie in the day itself, but in the future that it paints. There’s mystery in all that love stuff. You’re not just excited about the date you’re on, but the dates that will come. What does love have in store for you? What is your future? Love – the confusing dance around the simple biological urge to procreate – is about what will come, as it were, and what will come after that. Love is how we ensure that our silly messy little race will continue. Love is our survival. Shouldn’t at least one day in 365 be a little bit about that?

Love should not of course be vouched by homogenised overpriced tat. Of course I know the best stuff is free – poems on a napkin, holding hands in the rain. A ruddy good snog-up in a doorway.

But surely the people who have been lucky enough to have all this typical Valentine ‘stuff’, cards and flowers and chocolates and stupidly huge teddies delivered to work, don’t really have the right to denigrate it? If you’ve had it all and don’t want it anymore out of some consumerist stand, then don’t have it, but stop telling people that’s what you’ve decided, every fricking year. Grumpy repetition merely creates an alternative-tradition, a parallel non-celebration, a contra-dedication of your time and energy, and certainly one with a less uplifting message at its heart. If you don’t believe in something – the hype of Valentine’s Day, the existence of God, whatever – you have already asserted something strongly enough to yourself. Humans should be content with knowing or supposing what they think they know or suppose, and live their own lives accordingly as they wish. They don’t need to make big outward proclamations; they’re pretty pointless outside of the environs of an invited debate. Having a non-belief in something is not something to be proud of, is not something which defines you as interesting or intelligent; it is just a fact about yourself, like having blue eyes or an outie belly-button. In decrying something essentially harmless we have nothing to offer but a bad energy and there’s enough of that floating about.

Next year I will honour the romantics’ right to an unsullied day and keep my cynical mouth shut. Maybe even while humming Let’s Get It On through a pink fluffy gag…

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The Second Dirtiest F-word…

It is with a sheepish look (*dons sheepish look*) that I confess the word ‘feminist’ (*braces self*) has always been a bit of a yawnsome one for me (*waits for tins of beans to hit head*). It has. I have always tutted a bit internally when I heard it, like I thought women should stop making a fuss. “Hey girls, we’re sorted now, so stop banging on about it, yeah?”

But my boredom with it is actually hard evidence of how I have benefitted from it, from the hard slog of women (and a few good men) before me. Teens with iPhones can’t be expected to salute Alexander Graham Bell every time they send a text, just as women can’t be expected to wear an Emmeline Pankhurst t-shirt every time they vote. (If they bloody vote.) Our complacency is proof of their success; familiarity breeds contempt.

Like most women I have shaped my version of feminism from my own experiences. After years of thinking the battle had long been won, I suppose I have grown up a bit and learned firsthand (the best kind of learning) that it isn’t all that equal out there, at all. Now I can’t stop noticing it.

As an actor, I have mostly had to wear costumes that were either overtly sexual or ‘pretty’. I have had lines that are less funny, clever and plot-driving than those of my male cast mates. I have had scarcely-hidden surprised looks when people find out I am also a writer, that I don’t just sit at home practising my cleavage. I used to find it either mildly funny (the farce of it all) or flattering (lucky to be doing it at all); now I’m just bored of it, bored of people’s lack of imagination (write better things).

I’ve had no better wake-up call to the dangers of female obliviousness than the one I had recently. Some girls I teach told me they had never heard of the Suffragettes. I almost vomited. I stood in clammy silence waiting for them to shout “JOKES, MISS,” in my horrified face. They did not. Through a tight mouth I gave them a potted history. I smacked a desk to make my points. I hurt my hand. I used a voice more fraught with intent than when I told them to respect their bodies and not have kids too young. I told them they were only walking around in scanty wisps because they were at the end of a long line of women who had slowly modified their own restrictive, health-ruining clothing – throwing off an inch at a time for over a century like the inches were fingers in the iron grip of men, that the reason they could punch and swear at their male classmates was because a lot of work had gone into redressing the tone with which women can approach men in even the most trivial encounters, that they can drink cider with the boys on park benches because women chanced disreputability to be allowed into male-only bars, that their casual abortions are only casual because a lot of women suffered at the hand of backstreet knives and bodge-jobs before the stigma began (and continues) to be slowly removed along with the unwanted cells. I told them we had pushed to be equal, in all our glories as well as our social ugliness.

They rather sweetly reassured me that if a man ever told them they couldn’t do something they would ‘end him’. I told them the only reason they could express the injustice was because a lot of women had had a pretty miserable time to ensure they could.

Looking at my own life, I also realised that I have been unfair on women clamouring for equality, unfair on the word ‘feminism’; have let myself become clouded by the wrong connotations. Because I have been blessed with strong women in my life. I went to a girls grammar school, run by mainly women, I was educated about strong women by strong women. I was told I was a strong young woman and to never believe less. I didn’t have to fight for it, because I was given it. The central male in my life, my father, for all his many faults, validated and fortified all this by always telling me he wanted me to be strong and independent. He was, for all his own personal demonic control issues, a feminist.
I was not held back at the start, I was thrust forward.

Perhaps I thought feminism was an overblown word for the efforts we don’t need to make any more. An embarrassing anachronism. When I look at my upbringing it seems a little clearer why I might think that. My mum was very strong, but she did it quietly. History is full of women just getting on with it, and not making a fuss. Because it is in a good mother’s instinct to make things good, to not make a fuss. Not many of us at heart are strident campaigners with the requisite articulacy or confidence to make a difference. Plus, we’re just bloody busy with the overwhelming business of General Life. So I grew up thinking strength was quiet. I grew up thinking women didn’t need to ask for anything, let alone shriek for it. My mum did such a bloody good job that I did not see how hard it was to be a woman sometimes. I think I was thus, in my blasé attitude, perhaps even guilty of undervaluing women.

The Spice Girls’ gauche brand of Girl Power had little impact on me as a sixteen year old when they burst onto the pop-cultural scene because I didn’t feel like I needed it. I was devouring plays by Caryl Churchill in the library of a girl’s grammar school and going home to a single mum who never let me know how hard it was to keep putting chicken kievs and mixed veg on the table with a smile. I only saw strength, and it wasn’t pouting in a Union Jack dress. I think now that I had one of the healthiest starts you can have; cultural privilege and financial modesty.

Years later, in all my ‘not being a feminist’, I did not even notice that the one-woman show I wrote was a celebration of strong women. I did comedy treatments of Charlotte Bronte, Iris Murdoch, Sylvia Plath, Katharine Hepburn, Myra Hindley, among others (Emmeline Pankhurst included). Strong, notable women in their own very different ways. My characters in this show could not have been more different from all the characters I have played that were written by men. I have never classed myself as a ‘feminist’. Yet I wrote a fairly ‘feminist’ show quite by accident. I don’t think I played a single nice, pretty, typically charming woman in it. I played old, mad, suicidal, sexually predatory, liberal, rude, cruel in places. It was quite ‘masculine’ in its dedication to plain hard characters. It was defiance at something, probably – but how did I write this without meaning to?

I used the strength of other women to make myself appear stronger and I didn’t even notice. We all do this every day. We borrow the achievements of every woman who has worked hard for us. And we must. We must do it more. But we must recognise we’re doing it, and why there is still the need.

It has dawned on me slowly that scandalous differences are still rife between men and women. It is for the women not as lucky as me (and presumably you, reading this) that some sort of fight has to be continued. The fight for equal pay and opportunities, for equal respect in all industries and homes, for worldwide consensus that rape is never excusable, no matter what we wear. The fight to ensure that at some stage we will stop needing to fight. And the fight needs a word if it is to be spoken about, and it may as well be the one that we have dragged like a flag with us through all our victories, large and small.

Fight seems like such a big extravagant word. But it is a fight. It may not seem like it, but it is. It’s just not done all publicly and ‘protesty’ like it was before. We do protest in our thoughts, and occasionally actions. Most often though (and the reason why we need to get better at fighting), we just do stuff like tutting. We tut if we find out Dismal Darren gets £5k more than we do for the same job with a darn sight more back-slapping and beers thrown in. We tut, or we bitch at home. Only a few of us have got the ‘balls’ to go down the route of formal complaints and tribunals because that’s hard, daunting, uncertain work and we’re probably afraid of losing what we’ve already got; of having it taken away from us, of being nudged back down the ladder.

Before Christmas I was invited to a boozy lunch of fabulous women ‘in Comedy’. I couldn’t make it in the end because I was working, but I reflected on what it meant that the invitation was issued to ‘just girls’. We’ve all got mutual male friends who are lovely, funny, interesting, sensitive. Why weren’t they invited? Why do ‘girls nights’ still exist? Because somewhere, under all the giggling and nice supportive hugs, the rude jokes and anecdotes, beneath the charming ‘girls just wanna have fun and eat extra chips and cake and know no one is judging’, we still need to assert our weaknesses and fears, to confess that we are struggling a bit. That sometimes a bit of extra effort has to be made in ‘being a woman’, a liberated one at least. That comedy can be a fucking irritating place for funny women. We need to draw strength from each other, like we have always done. We need to discuss, lampoon (and sometimes coyly infer, or avoid altogether; the omission glaring in its silence) how hard it still is to not quite be ‘equal’.

Not all the time of course. But sometimes.

How boring we must sound, still banging on about it.
Guess what? We find it boring that we still have to bang on about it, too.

So ‘ordinary women’ don’t make a fuss. We have lunch instead. Make witty jokes about inequality rather than do anything more demonstrative with our discontent. Perhaps this is why people have been misled into thinking it’s all fine; it’s all equal. Why all the fuss? The main encouragers of this are ourselves. It’s hard to keep up a struggle when you don’t have the ballast of the props, the fanfare, the inconvenient corpse under the king’s horse. We don’t meet in gangs on street corners in sashes, we don’t march, we don’t have placards. We have just got on with life. And in between the noise we made and the noise we make no longer has passed a lot of time.

We’ve been through so much since the Suffrage movement of the 1900s. After securing the vote for all women over 21 in 1928, there’s been a heck of a lot of distractions. We nailed the necessary ‘make do and mend’ of the war years, we darned the bomb-blasts of the country using all the ‘trivial’ skills we got from years of sitting in drawing rooms being good girls. We obeyed the cheery male-written wartime propaganda telling us to keep it all going quietly at home, then we hung up our dungarees when the men came home from war and wanted their ‘male’ jobs back. We dealt deftly with the ration years and not only dealt with them but made them palatable, successful. We ran households on scraps for almost a decade after the war ended as decreed by the blighted economics of a male government. From powdered egg we made Angel Delight, in the same spirit that from gravy we made stockings, that from charcoal we lined our eyes, that from berries we reddened our lips. The men may have done the fighting in the war sprung from male systems and politics, but the women swept up the dust and made gardens again. We rose from the rubble and hung bunting. We moved on while the men made the same mistakes in their more serious spheres.

The 50s were meagre but glamorous because we made them so. We moved on again. We had sex with men for fun in the 60s and suddenly it was less slutty. We went bra-less in halternecks in the 70s and that was a bit less slutty too. We had a go at imitating male stature in the shoulder pads of the 80s and quickly (thankfully) realised we didn’t need to look like men to be brilliant. Then in the 90s we had five girls bop around on our behalf doing V-signs and snogging Prince Charles. We got stronger, and what’s more we kept it all pretty. Mostly.

I love that we’ve done all this, in this way. Though I wonder if we weren’t such eternal nest-featherers, if we were not the cave-sweepers and the boilers of berries, if we liked things less nice, if we were programmed by nature to care less about our homes, about our physical qualities even when being functional, would we be further along? Would we have demanded more of the ‘male’ stuff, like the power and the laws and the rights and the respect, earlier? It doesn’t matter. We will wait if we have to. We shouldn’t have to give up the stuff we love, give up who we are along the way, and we won’t.

I do realise I am saying nothing new. It has been said better, by better women. By better ‘feminists’, armed with better thoughts and words, who’ve read better articles and books. But it’s in those lofty clever words, it’s in the militant indignance that ‘ordinary’ women get lost. They either aren’t exposed to it, don’t care, or they don’t get it. Some simply don’t want their insecurities being wielded by women who went to Oxford and like to boast that they can complete a cryptic crossword before the kettle’s even boiled in the morning. That’s not ordinary. Sometimes feminism can be exclusive, elitist, off-putting and scary. Sometimes it can be downright unsexy and dull. Maybe that’s why the F-word sounds like a curse sometimes; it’s why some of us are afraid of calling ourselves feminists even though we are.

Hopefully the useful kind of feminism will get to be quiet one day. Hopefully ordinary women, ordinary feminists, (maybe even the loud bossy clever ones that make the rest of us feel a bit dim and limp) won’t need to keep speaking out. It will be ‘sorted’. Hopefully the fruits of the fight will be seen in unquestioned self-evident equality and not heard in protesting tones. Hopefully the remembered noise of women before us will merely move silently around us like a mountain breeze. Perhaps it will become all quiet on the woman front.

Though likely not. We’ll always find something else to chat about…

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Legacy Theatreland

One of the many things I love about writing is that it invokes all your cerebral bustle while indulging your lazy side. You can for example have the most productive day while propped up by five pillows in old pants, long socks, and a Dolly Parton T-shirt covered in biscuit crumbs. In fact, some of my best work has been done while looking like I’ve just had a breakdown over the last Hobnob.

One of the other things I love is hearing the words I’ve spent weeks of my life writing, transcribed voices that sprung to life from a seemingly throwaway idea on the back of a napkin, spoken aloud by people I love and admire, to a theatre full of laughing people. That is my drug, my joy, my adrenaline shot to the heart.

Last week, my play The Bastard Children of Remington Steele had a run at London’s Leicester Square Theatre. It was a week that will keep me floating into next year. As with anything where you put yourself ‘out there’, you hate yourself for feeling validated by sales and response, but you sort of have to put that out of your head. It is part of it. The gumption to do it in the first place, closely shadowed by self-loathing. They keep each other in check.

In amongst hating the self-promotion and the fear, I allowed myself a rare slither of pride. Turning up with your cast and a trunk in London’s Theatreland is ruddy exciting. It feels official. It makes the weeks of muttering to yourself seem less like madness and more like an investment.

What allowed the pride to rise like a warm bun in my heart as we drove down Charing Cross on our first night was a little thing, really. I glanced out of the window and saw the red bricks of the Palace Theatre and for a few fleeting moments it was my fourteenth birthday again. I’d been spoilt, taken to the recently opened Planet Hollywood by my lovely mum, who afterwards guided me through the west-end with a mysterious air. There, on the corner outside the theatre, stood my dad. I hadn’t been expecting to see him. But there he was, holding a pint and a present. A butterfly locket. He and my mum smiled at me with the stoic partnership that separated parents must work at. They did well; I was blithely unaware of how hard it was for Mum to do that at times. Dad gestured towards the theatre and I realised we were going inside to watch Les Miserables. I almost exploded with glee.

Thinking about it now, my pride last week wasn’t an ugly indulgence. It was only rightful. It was a tribute to the hard work of my parents. It was a thank you. They worked hard to fill me with confidence and the resources to do things, make things. They gave me the sense of entitlement to the world that we should all feel. It is ours to take.

Passing the Palace, and seeing the ghost of my Dad for a moment, made me feel like I was returning to claim a tiny piece of Theatreland that he’d reserved for me.

It still seems so strange to me that a man who eventually chose to end his life could have succeeded so fruitfully in teaching me how to live mine.

I went on stage, felt the lights on my face like a hug from above. I did my play about fathers; their presence, absence, legacies. And I even remembered my lines. How could I not. They were because of, in spite of, and for him.

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When The Carnival Queen Came To Call

Isn’t it funny how something can run through your life like a ribbon without you even noticing it sometimes?

Local papers can so often be batted aside like tomorrow’s chip-wrappings, but they are always there. When I was six years old, I remember staring at pictorial coverage of the Great Storm in 1987. I pored over the felled trees of my local park, feeling it was very strange that something so close to me should have made it into the paper, which as far as I knew was global and read by every human alive. And they were all looking at my park, my trees, these slain beasts I’d been sitting on.

I was similarly amazed when I saw pictures of the carnival queen and princesses a couple of years later, all got up in their finery. Only a couple of days before they had been in our toilet, weeing. They had naughtily hopped off the procession to find a bathroom and they found us, tucked away just off the seafront. I thought they were the most beautiful creatures, sceptred women of the world, but they were probably just 17 year old majorettes with bad perms. I remember standing in the hallway thinking that their ruffling their massive dresses in our kitchen while close to bursting was probably the most monumental occurrence since Russ Abbot filmed a car chase down our street, maybe even since I’d got a cabin bed. Seeing their pictures in the paper afterwards felt like I had been high-fived by history.

A couple of years later, my mum paid for a congratulations notice after I passed my 11+. I felt so proud, so validated, like the whole world was open to me. Later still, Mum got a job at the Evening Echo as it was then, as a rep selling advertising space. She had never been more fantastic to me. She got a sassy new haircut, drove a red Ford Escort company car, and shook off her post-divorce sadness and low self-esteem. She, and we, flourished.

I’ve had words printed about shows I’ve done, events I’ve been involved in, even details of my ill-advised wedding. I’ve read about friends doing brilliant things, I’ve chuckled at oddities, raised an eyebrow at stupid news, yawned at boring news, and sighed along with strangers’ sad stories. Now writing my weekly column is one of my favourite things to do. I get to write words! It may once have been easy to not spot the local papers before in the rush of a busy life, but now glimpsing them on a table is like bumping into an old friend.

My history buff boyfriend said the other day that historians worry in the modern age about ephemera being lost; that when we look back in years to come we might not get a full picture of our time and people because our emails/texts/phonecalls will all have been lost in the ether. That there is so much we will not leave behind.

This made me panic. I get scared of losing things. I wish everything could be preserved and kept safe. I think of our towns changing, of all our stories being stitched together like a humble patchwork history. This paper fastens our fleeting lives to the pinboard of the world awhile. I like that it is all printed and kept and scattered to attic stacks. I like to think of it still being around countless years from now. It will watch us all growing old and passing on, but it will always be as new as every day it is printed.

Were you a carnival queen or princess in the late 80s? Did you hitch up your massive dress and pee in Sadie’s toilet? If so, get in touch.

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