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Hoping Tomorrow Happens

This is the best pos­si­ble time to be a woman.

In some places.

I hoped to find friends on mov­ing to Italy, but I didn’t expect to find such a shoal of sup­port­ive, intel­li­gent, funny, adven­tur­ous, pos­i­tive women. They’re deal­ing with all the usual stuff that afflicts peo­ple on the brink of get­ting a bus pass — wid­ow­hood, errant part­ners, poverty, ill­ness, grumpy hips, being pul­verised between ancient par­ents and melo­dra­matic prog­eny — but they make it an absolute pri­or­ity to gather together and talk, share, cook, laugh, drink. 20 women can con­fi­dently arrange an event, men optional, and bask like cats on a radi­a­tor in the warmth of each other’s presence.

I’m com­par­ing my priv­i­leged free­dom to the con­straints imposed on my mother’s gen­er­a­tion, for whom finan­cial inde­pen­dence was still a chimera. She got a dou­ble first at Cam­bridge, but my father’s career took prece­dence. She had jobs wher­ever they fetched up, by def­i­n­i­tion tem­po­rary, ephemeral, cho­sen to dove­tail con­ve­niently into his life.

It would never have occurred to her to invite a coven of mates over for an evening of talk and laugh­ter. She didn’t have them, for a start, partly because of her hau­teur, and partly because of their peri­patetic life, pack­ing up and going wher­ever his career threw them: Peking, Nanking, Shang­hai, Amoy, Hongkong, the Philip­pines, Brent­wood. (Brent­wood? They were so inno­cent, didn’t know about Essex).

For her gen­er­a­tion, other women always threat­ened to become The Other Woman. There was too much at stake — liveli­hood, spend­ing habits, sta­tus — to let them get too close.

When my sons were small I once got the sour metal­lic taste of belong­ing to a man. I don’t blame him, who’d hap­pily vol­un­teer to sup­port another able-bodied adult? But when he said ‘when you make the money, you can make the deci­sions’, I did make a deci­sion. I chose penu­ri­ous inde­pen­dence. Laugh­able, in the eyes of my male employer at Nat­mags who paid lit­tle and expected much, dif­fi­cult and fright­en­ing at times for me and my boys, but a source of self-knowledge and strength to me. I’m not in any way heroic, but I do know who I am. Who are you if you’re defined by your rela­tion­ship to some­one or some­thing else?

A gen­er­a­tion ago, your man was not only your Beloved and all that, he was sur­vival. Even if you had a stel­lar edu­ca­tion, tal­ent, and energy, you were still one of his belong­ings and did as he directed. Cyril Con­nolly blamed the pram in the hall, the ram­pant tares of domes­tic­ity, among the ene­mies of promise, mean­ing of course mas­cu­line promise. How much more so for women, for whom babies rep­re­sent a career hia­tus at a cru­cial junc­ture, or a source of guilt if they are cared for by a min­der. I’ve seen the milky trail of infant puke on the left shoul­der, the mask of grief on the face of the deputy edi­tor at Coun­try Liv­ing, after leav­ing her dis­traught baby in the hands of a nanny.

Felix Den­nis said ‘the rea­son why we’re (men) all so bad-tempered now, Miranda, is that there’s nowhere left to explore.’ His notion was that we could make a bit more space and invent a spot of healthy extreme sport by decamp­ing to the moon, ‘not as phys­i­cal bod­ies, Miranda, but as holo­grams,’ to which I smiled politely and chomped on the Cadbury’s minia­ture swiss roll that the 74th rich­est man in the UK served as the grand finale to our lunch of British Rail sarnies. But he’s right — that is how this planet feels now — in the uncar­ing pos­ses­sion of angry and insanely pow­er­ful men who tram­ple about in the slurry they’ve cre­ated, look­ing for a fight. Ram­pag­ing around the nurs­ery, smash­ing each other’s toys.

The dis­like and sus­pi­cion of women for each other is a myth that men have grate­fully exploited. It is called ‘divide and rule’. Given inde­pen­dence and self-respect, women love each other’s com­pany. Con­trary to the myth, they work bril­liantly together. Any­one who has gone through the pain and has­sle of giv­ing birth is more dis­posed to coop­er­ate with and sup­port other peo­ple than to fight them. It is pre­cisely this easy, nat­ural attrac­tion and abil­ity to be open and share expe­ri­ence with other women that is so threat­en­ing for men. Hav­ing bul­lied their way to the apex of the pyra­mid, it is alarm­ing to look down and see the foun­da­tions rum­bling, the worker ants mov­ing off where they will, con­gre­gat­ing con­vivially with each other, refus­ing to fol­low orders.

But the fab­u­lous, feisty women of my acquain­tance dance on very thin ice: we co-exist in a time when in some places it is cus­tom­ary to stone a woman to death, jus­ti­fy­ing this psy­chotic com­bi­na­tion of cow­ardice and cru­elty with the slight­est hint of a sus­pi­cion. Or where the casual immo­la­tion of wives and wid­ows for finan­cial gain is unof­fi­cially condoned.

Women are built to work for peace and heal­ing — most women, of course there are excep­tions. Women are the cus­to­di­ans of the future. Women are vis­cer­ally com­pelled to pon­der the world of their grand­chil­dren: every female foe­tus has all her eggs four months after conception.

Astound­ing fact: Your grand­mother car­ried you as an embry­onic dot within the grow­ing body of your mother for five months.

It feels to me as though we’re liv­ing in a scary age of diver­gence — just as the gap between rich and poor is widen­ing, so is the gap between men and women. What could be more alarm­ing and call for more strin­gent stric­tures than the pos­si­bil­ity of women doing it for themselves?

But what women do for them­selves and every­one else is pro­vide the social glue that con­nects peo­ple to each other — remem­ber birth­days, invent rea­sons to bond, share feel­ings and expe­ri­ences, find com­mon ground. Nec­es­sary for the future of the planet. Long may it continue.

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