March 8th 2017 is the day designated for the International Women’s Strike. One day when, if every women stopped working, the world would undoubtedly collapse. The strike is a possibility but not a probability. Alas. Lysistrata, in 5thC Athens, had a more emotionally practical idea. She persuaded the women of Greece to strike by withdrawing sexual relations. Which soon got the men off the drug of their Peloponnesian wars and worked a treat. But that was fiction. What on earth would the world do now if for just one day women simply lay back, sipped sherbert, and said that they were not doing anything for twenty-four hours? It might make the move towards some serious changes in equality but the pain inflicted on the nearest and dearest would soon make that sherbert taste sour.
I was thinking about this when I had to dash out last night at around 5.45pm to buy low fat goat’s yoghurt. Yup – I am entirely and absolutely middle class – though I have yet to buy my first clump (or whatever the collective noun might be) of quinoa – largely because I find myself strangely drawn to hitting someone when they ask for it in a restaurant. Not only middle-class then, but also neurotic. But – back to my dashing out and the particular relevance of the time. 5.45pm. Usually I would go on any shopping errand during the day as I am free to choose my time and it’s quieter – but yesterday I had a very full day of stuff and there was no chance to go out until later and I needed that yoghurt.
So here is a microcosm of how the world works with its women. For this particular commodity I have to go to the very large supermarket, which is a short drive away, because here, in sensible Brentford, low fat goat’s yoghurt is not considered vital. So I arrived at the large supermarket at about the time when most people who work away from home are ending their day. And what I noticed was extraordinary. I’m not sure where all these shirkers and loungers and incarcerated women and immigrants living off the fat of our land might be – but they are certainly not living and shopping in this place. What they are doing (because this area of West London has a strong Asian community) is being Asian women – might be immigrants, might have been born here – who have clearly been working all day – and who have now collected their child or children from the minders’ or the after-school club, or their mother’s or somewhere – and headed to the supermarket to find something to give everyone to eat when they get home. I tell you the supermarket was buzzing with mothers whose day – as ever – did not stop when their paid employment stopped. There were very few Asian fathers. They may well have still been working at the coal-face. What they were not doing, along with millions of other fathers and husbands and partners, indigenous or otherwise, was mopping up the domestic duties after a day spent operating in their professional lives. Same old, same old.
When I lived in predominantly white, middle-class Chiswick thirty years ago it was exactly the same scenario only with mostly white middle-class families. Fathers went out to important work and came home late – mothers who worked away from home (and many who didn’t) had to follow the same pattern as their Asian counterparts are still doing now – collect child or children, stop off at the (in this case upmarket) supermarket and find something on which to feed the family when they got home. The mothers at home in this more privileged society still ran a very long day – if fathers got home at 7.30 or 8pm they were doing well. By which time, of course, the children where fed, bathed, snoozy and very acceptable. Father opened the bottle of wine and poured two glasses.
The family structure might be different, the culture might be different, the drink might be non-alcoholic – but the basic result is the same for those women and mothers I saw yesterday. Running a long, long day of keeping the mortar in the bricks of the family and therefore in society. And for that I take my hat off to women the world over. Most of whom will not strike on March 8th because they are programmed to support rather than to neglect – even in the long march to social and economic equality
I came away from that supermarket with more than just my goat’s yoghurt. I came away wondering when – and if – it would ever be different? Lysistrata had it easy. Giving up sex was harmless (though the groaning deprived, with their massive erections, which Aristophanes put into his stage directions, might argue differently) but giving up those feminine twin virtues of caring and love? Just pop along to any supermarket at 5.45pm and see for yourself… or you may be one of the many women already in there.
I seem to have lost my sense of humour. It’s to do with Donald Trump. Yes, yes – I’ve tried very hard to put him out of my mind and even harder not to write about him – but I can’t do it. The man pervades my life. He gives me minor depression and major rage. Sometimes he makes me laugh in that way we novelists often use to denote irony and scorn, he makes me laugh hollowly. I find him, like snakes, repellent and fascinating at the same time. I cannot look away from him – his tiny dogs’-bum mouth that makes such peculiar shapes, his little gestures with his little hands that look like he is orchestrating his audience (and is) – his expression that I think he thinks shows gravitas and intelligence but which actually looks like a man undergoing serious dyspepsia (perhaps he is) or planning to hire a hitman. But the worse thing of all is that he has a way of delivering statements – about Mexican Walls (didn’t I do one of those at a recent 50th birthday party?) – about healthcare, about ex-Ku Klux Klan members, about abortion rights – in a confident bar-nothing voice that he then underlines with ingratiatingly low key phrases like ‘Yes we will, folks’ and ‘It’s gonna happen’ and ‘I will do that’ – which chill the blood. There is something of the night about the way he delivers these little add-ons that leaves me weak with fear. He will do these things, folks, you’d better believe it – and we will suffer for it.
Paddy O’Connell, the ubiquitous presenter of BBC radio programmes from R2 DJ-ing to R4 News is one of my broadcasting heroes. There is something genuine about him that makes its way through the sound waves and seems to come straight from the heart. But this morning he made me jump off my pillow and nearly spill my tea in alarm when he stated – relating to the Vice-President-Elect Pence’s visit to the theatre and his being booed and called to account by the cast – that ‘Theatre should be a safe place’ – I think he was quoting rather than opining – I hope he was quoting rather than opining – because theatre has never been a safe place. Theatre, with its live performances that change every night, has always been somewhere anything can happen, anything can be said and where – of all the arts – it requires courage – the playwright’s courage and the performers’ courage to speak out.
Our theatre is firmly rooted in the Greeks, and Oh Boy those Greeks were not averse to stirring up trouble on the stage and pointing the finger at their leaders. Aristophanes, the Father of Comedy, never held back. Anyone who has seen one of the Satyr plays (squashed in between comedy and tragedy – and as vulgar and anti-politician as you could wish) will know that the theatre was never designed to show so-called good manners. Here’s what Aristophanes thought of politicians: ‘You have all the characteristics of a popular politician: a horrible voice, bad breeding, and a vulgar manner’ or, just as scathing, ‘Under every stone lurks a politician.’
I’d like to send you a short story, for free – you just need to tell me where to send it