It’s half term this week. The 10yo has been on a choir tour, and the 13 and 11 yos were at a debating workshop, which left me with a day in London with the loquacious and determined 8yo. She had ten carefully saved pounds to spend, which meant a ceremonial donning of sequinned skirt, glittery trainers, tights with diamonds on them (are they real diamonds, Mummy? Well, they’re real tights) and a bewildering array of school fête pearl bracelets and necklaces. After delivering a brief lecture on the Tudors in the National Portrait Gallery and, after due examination, dismissing both the Regency period and the gallery gift shop, she sallied forth. To Paperchase, to Cards Galore, to Scribbler and TK Maxx and a plethora of souvenir shops, where various notebooks and pens and pencil cases and novelty jewellery were compared and weighed against the delights of Chinatown, where you can buy a whole packet of chopsticks with flowers on for £4.99, which is a lot of magic wands for your money.
She quickly got bored with my input (darling ten pounds is a lot of money, think carefully, what do you think I’m DOING mummy?), so I wandered off. These shops pedal Inspirational Thoughts, and goodness knows I need some. I found a Christmas card (watch this space) and many, many Inspirational Thoughts and it’s a complete toss-up which was more effective in inducing my (politely supressed) apoplectic rage. I am a woman who has had a career, four children and a published novel, currently writing into a professional void and struggling, and every single silvered, star-scattered inspirational thought drove me closer to the abyss. ‘On a bad day, there’s always lipstick.’ I can’t do lipstick; I don’t know how, and cosmetic counters in department stores terrify me.
‘Never lose your sparkle.’ But I’ve lost it, letting down not only my family, my non-existent career and myself but the anonymous manufacturers of inspirational notebooks and everyone who buys them.
‘She believed she could so she did.’ But I did. I didn’t just believe I could; I did, and here I am, so where does that leave me?
‘Do what you like, like what you do.’ And that’s an order, even if what you’re doing is fishing rotting toad carcasses from a blocked pump in the dark.
‘Too glam to give a damn.’ Bloody hell, that’s lipstick again, isn’t it? And foundation and eyeshadow and hiding anything on my face that might frighten the horses – like age and experience. And I do give a damn; I don’t want to not.
‘Just be you.’ But who in hell’s name am I?
So, women of ambition, take note. The proximity of the abyss is your fault. If you wore enough lipstick, drank enough Prosecco (or washed in it, or put bombs of it in your bath, or wore it as lip balm – all widely available), or ate enough cake and/or chocolate – if you simply shut up about the things in life that you worked for but didn’t happen, or the things that you fear, or the sheer blood and sweat that goes into making each day work, then we’d never have to talk about failure. We’d be too tipsy, sugared-up and beautiful to care. And nothing – nothing – would ever change.
But the failure would still be there. If we talk – if we blow the lid from this awful pressure of constant achievement – if we stop flagellating ourselves with self-belief being the only thing that makes any difference (writing retreats for people with caring responsibilities, anyone? Prizes and grants that aren’t age-related? More space for anger?) we’ll touch the hem of a healthier, happier and more creative world. A world of which we are in increasingly desperate need. Where your first thought on reading Barbara Streisand’s criticism of Trump is ‘wow, she’s written a new song,’ rather than justified fear that someone will send her an explosive device through the post.
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