Monday, 17 May 2010

My guilty secret

Image copyright: Getty Images

I have a guilty secret to confess, and it is this: I love doing laundry. If the spirits of Luce Irigaray and Germaine Greer do not strike me down, I will attempt to explain.

First of all, as both a Catholic and a woman, there is something intoxicating about the idea of being able to wash the slate clean. If all it takes to dispel the effects of a dodgy sexual encounter is a quick Hail Mary and some clean sheets, there is so much more incentive to behave badly in the first place. Duvet covers put through the machine at 90 degrees soon loose their grime, and with it any sense of guilt evaporates. Fresh sheets, fresh start. Like starting a new notebook, the daily ritual of putting on clean clothes always heralds good intentions: 'I won't smoke in this jumper', 'I will go on a diet so that this dress isn't so tight' etc etc. We can start the day really believing that, over the course of it, we will become this better person.

Secondly, doing the laundry appeals to some deep-seated need for routine. Every time I put a load of washing on, I can remember the school-days panic of Sunday evenings, when stray items of uniform and games kit would be recovered from the boot of the car, the floor of the bedroom, and assorted bags, and put in the machine ready to start the new week glistening and sparkling with Fairy Non-Bio. Even ironing can afford some therapeutic aspect: after a day spent frying my mind with complicated Medieval optical theory (my M.St. dissertation topic is about sight and the heart in Chaucer's 'Troilus and Criseyde') it can be blissful escape to the mundane humdrummity of normal, present life by pushing an iron across a dress while listening to music or the radio, or chatting on the phone - hands-free, obviously.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, I am fantastically vain about my clothes. I have two wardrobes bulging with the finest garments - mostly Primark and Topshop, lots of vintage, one or two designer pieces - and no matter how seldom I wear certain items, I always want them to look their best. And if not all of my clothes are clean at any given point, how am I supposed to make an informed decision about what to wear?

'But what about feminism?!' I hear you cry, astounded and shocked at my confession. Well, I can't deny that there is something of the 50s housewife about settling down for the evening with a packet of stain-remover and an ironing board. But that is part of the appeal of laundry: sometimes, with the glass ceiling thoroughly smashed, we women want to temporarily put it back up again, for the protection and insulation it provides. What, after all, could be cosier than making things lovely and clean? Of course, I do not intend to suggest for an instant that women should be donning pinnies all day every day, or that the struggles of thousands of early feminists should be thrown away for a return to an unequal domestic chores hegemony. But next time you find yourself faced with a pile of dirty washing and nothing to wear, just try putting it in the machine, and see how good you feel afterwards.

N.B. even I draw the line somewhere: t-shirts, socks, knickers and jeans go resolutely un-ironed.

Sunday, 16 May 2010

Review of The Lessons

Naomi Alderman’s The Lessons is a dull book about dull people. It tells the story of a group of Oxford undergraduates who fall under the spell of the “mercurial” Mark, have fun, drink too much champagne, leave university and find themselves ill-equipped to deal with the big wide world and the shocking events which pervade it. Or so says the blurb.

In fact, Mark himself never gives much evidence of his oft-discussed charm. He is fractious and pretentious, and his alleged charisma is only to be found in the allegations of it: Alderman seems to think that by repeatedly describing him as “charming” she can get away with providing absolutely no basis for it. The group of students who he invites to live with him in his huge, romantic house are equally falsely lauded. James, the narrator, is a below-average middle-class physicist who is supposedly “beautiful” but whose conversation and observations are so pedestrian as to render entire episodes in the novel obsolete. The best description of him comes from cruel Mark, who tells James “All you ever are is a reflection of other people... What are you really? Nothing. You’re all shadows and mirrors.” The others in the group - highly intelligent Franny, boorish Simon, musical Jess, beautiful Emmanuella - are at best characterised by their interests rather than their personalities, and at worst not characterised at all: all we really learn about Emmanuella, for example, is that she is rich and that she fancies tall blond men.

Wealth is the other problem in the book. In order to bring all the characters together, Alderman has to pretend that Mark is not a snob; yet this seems so unlikely as to be almost impossible. The main force for social hierarchy comes from Mark’s mother, who disapproves of the group because they are not Catholic. But this does not ring true at all: with his millions of pounds, vast estates dotted around the world and giddyingly grand contacts, Mark is significantly posher than all the other characters, yet this does not come into play at all in any of the relationship dynamics, except for one rather feeble effort by Alderman to suggest that James is in Mark’s debt.

Alderman gives the impression of being slightly in love with her characters: the golden-tinted hue which colours their past seems to be all her nostalgia, rather than theirs. There are many dreary passages about staying up until dawn drinking, or giving New Year’s eve parties: but the most naughty thing that ever happens at these events is one episode of marijuana-induced tipsiness. Compared to Gossip Girl or Cruel Intentions, these parties are positively tame. There is no debauchery, no scandal, no fun.

The Lessons is extremely derivative. It draws on Brideshead Revisited, The Secret History, and The Line of Beauty to create a novel which is a hotchpotch of the worst aspects of each. The narrative is pacy, and there are some funny moments, but at every stage Alderman lets slip a detail which suspends our suspended disbelief and exposes a flaw in the basic plot. The novel, like its narrator, is composed merely of shadows and mirrors, always failing to materialise into a believable, gripping story.

This article was first published in The Cherwell newspaper on 21st May 2010