So there we were at the Dover terminal about to board our ship for a cruise up and into the west of Norway – lakes, glaciers, fjords – our heavy cases packed with warm clothing, woollen hats, quilted coats and thermal underwear. It was the end of April and we were going into the far north – and taking seriously the cruise organisers advice to wrap up warm. I’d been so determined to get everything into the cases that would make for survival that I forgot to pack much clothing for the formal dining on board. Ah well – let the other cruisers put on their folie bergere stuff. It was never something I subscribed to – apart from when I went first class on the QE2 (the freebie cruise to end all freebie cruises) and on that great ship the formal dining was every night – and that was genuinely stylish and glamorous.
In my heyday I did a lot of freebie cruises for various cruise companies (in the time before celebrities, when they wanted writers to do ad hoc travel writing presumably because they knew how to write) and luckily I never had enough money to have a ‘cruise wardrobe’ – whatever I wore for parties and posh dinners out on terra firma was what I took with me on a cruise. But a lot of women nowadays have special clothes reserved for cruising because a lot of people – especially older people, retired couples with a bit of money – choose to go cruising for their holidays – so these ‘special’ clothes get well used. Cruising feels safe and it is safe and you barely have to touch your toe into a different culture no matter where you are in the world – it’s faux travel. So – yes – life centres on the ship – and on standard cruise ships nowadays formal dining is a hoot – you see people – alas, yes, it is usually women – wearing the most extraordinary evening clothes on the basis that they’re living up to the literature about ‘formal dining’ and must wear things of a floaty, sparkly, pastel, flouncy style that bear no relation to their style in normal life and in which they – mostly – just look weird.
The days of the Great Liners provide a faint echo of the stylishness that went with first-class sea travel before air travel boomed and knocked it out. But nowadays the stylishness on a cruise ship is not natural. It is imposed. It feels false and it is false. None of us, off-ship, I hope, would be seen dead in half the outfits that are trotted out on these occasions. Women whom you have seen looking perfectly normal during the day in their sensible, suitable, normal day clothes, become transformed into unnatural beings some with a nod to Danny La Rue..
Formal dining nights are listed in the cruise literature so you can ‘prepare’ in advance – in a week away you’d probably do two – maybe three – and on those nights – obediently – out come those floaty, sparkly, pastel, flouncy outfits. You could think of it as a simple transference of a girl’s childhood delight in dressing up – it’s as if the ‘cruise wardrobe’ is the grown-up version of the dressing-up box – didn’t we love to put on our mother’s high heels and pretty skirts and weren’t we completely unware of how quaint we looked? The look of unease and self-consciousness (try wearing high heels and a long gown on a ship when the sea is a bit lively) is everywhere. But formal dining on a cruise ship is not the red carpet at Cannes. That is about women being dressed by couturiers – or expensively – very expensively – and women who are mainly used to being on show. Formal dining in the average cruise ship has become something of a style horror story. Dare I say it? It creates the very opposite of the thing it is trying to emulate – the long-gone days of elegance aboard ship when it was natural to dress for dinner (but only for the upper decks and the upper classes). Now it is, in the main, just a little vulgar and – well – sad. you may say that there is nothing wrong with being vulgar. And I agree – as long as you have intended to dress that way. But that’s not the game on a fine dining night on a cruise ship. The cruise company offers an evening of shipboard elegance and fine dining – what you get is something imposed and a little bit tawdry.
Do we women really need to be told when to dress up and when not to when we are on holiday? And if we do, do we need to have a special kind of dressing up box with stuff in it that has nothing to do with the women we are, most women are, in our day-to-day lives and which – in the main – apes couture but never is? I guess cruising women enjoy it but it never looks that way – if cruising women looked like they were taking it all with a pinch of salt, saying to the world – ‘Well, I know this looks a bit silly but it’s just a bit of fun’ then that would be one thing and M.Cheek might shut up – but it’s not seen as a bit of fun generally – it’s seen as utterly serious and – yes – required and competitive.
Back to the luggage and the warm clothing that we thought we needed and which filled our cabin wardrobes and drawers – (leaving very little room, anyway, for fine dining clothes) and off we sailed leaving a grey and cold Dover for what would probably be a very grey and very, very cold Bergen. But the God of Weather had other plans. While England basked in unseasonal cold and dismal conditions – we sailed into blue skies, warm sun – and – on our ship’s balcony – a chance to use the sun-loungers. The cruise was blessed and we delighted in it. Norway was warm. The lakes were warm, the beautiful glaciers were warm, the mighty fjords were warm. Unseasonally warm. Warmer than it had been in Spain one month previously. Not only was Norway warm but we came home with sun-tans. The thermals were never used. And such was the buzz about the weather in the dining room at night that I doubt anyone noticed the inadequacy of my fine dining garments.
Recently – in that seduction of delights, Marks and Spencers’ flagship store at Marble Arch – a conversation between two women – they were probably in their late ‘thirties, early ‘forties and wandering around the aisles together. One of them was staring at the shelves and racks of clothes with that hungry look that some of us know so well – that look that says ‘Which of these things can I buy to change my world into a happier place?’ and ‘Will it make me look thinner?’ She was in her dreamland. But her companion was having none of it. Her companion had something to tell and by golly she was going to tell it. It seemed urgent, exciting – her voice was determined. I was hooked. With the fear of being outed as a stalker I wanted to hear whatever it was, too. Feigning a tremendous interest in the shoe range, I listened.
It began with the weather – the weekend had been cloudy but not cold and so she went to her wardrobe – Interruption here as said dreaming friend picked a pair of shoes off a shelf and started to put them on – requiring input from the woman whom we left approaching her wardrobe. Shoes rejected, the woman who went to her wardrobe, ploughed on. Wardrobe woman was not happy about this hiatus, but she obliged. ‘Very nice’ she said which actually meant ‘Hurry Up’. The shoes were replaced. The dreamer wafted on. The woman with the wardrobe rekindled her tale. Apparently she went to her wardrobe to get its help in the matter of what to wear that weekend day. And the wardrobe obliged. Why was it so special, I wondered? But, alas, at this point her companion only wondered if they should have a cup of coffee before proceeding. The woman who had been assisted by her wardrobe was in reluctant agreement. For she had a story to tell and it was not getting told.
I, in the tradition of all writers, wanted to eavesdrop having become very keen to know how the woman and her wardrobe made their harmony together and what drove the engine of this story she had to tell. One is not only a novelist, one is a woman – and – well – one is also a woman who has never had to take a cushion with her when approaching a long sit-down on a hard seat – one carries one’s own cushion – attached. Therefore both sides of me wanted to hear the next bit. The writer wanted the excitement of overhearing something new and important, the woman wanted to hear how you open a wardrobe and find happiness – which is what appeared to have happened.
Well – the next bit was one of those exchanges that we exchange – when one is saying and thinking about one thing, and the other is saying and thinking about something else. By the time I caught up with them and slid into an adjacent table, all I heard from the woman who had dreamed over the shoes was ‘…So she’s obviously in Australia’ – which set me wondering how the she in question – given the construction of that sentence – was being quite so obvious on that Continent? This word ‘obvious’ is an interesting bit of the lexicon – for it has about it a degree of disapproval and aggression – this use of the word in conjunction with the woman in question being ‘obviously in Australia’ didn’t mean that she was running around Cairns or Wagga Wagga wearing only a Sombrero and nothing else – it meant that somewhere along the line her whereabouts was disapproved of Why, I wondered, was there this disapproval? But we were not going to get an answer to THAT – Oh dear me, no. The woman with the open wardrobe did not rise. Australia and the woman obviously in it, was not getting a look in. ‘Yes’ was all she said. You could tell she was bursting, just bursting, to go on with her tale of clothes and the weather last weekend. I slid a bit nearer. ‘So there I was standing at the wardrobe wondering what to wear…’ Yes? Yes? I thought. Did the magical wardrobe suddenly throw a garment out at you? Did it speak? What.
‘And in the end,’ she said triumphantly. ‘I decided that I would wear jeans. Jeans!’
I waited. This conversation that I had been stalking had gone on for more than twenty minutes and the result? She wore jeans. I waited because I hoped that the woman who dreamed would respond by saying something along the lines of , ‘What – jeans – with your third leg?’ or ‘Surely not while you’ve got thrush?’ But she didn’t. She sipped her coffee, dreamily, as if she understood the weight of this statement entirely and just said. ‘Hmmm.’
The dreamer did not say what I wanted to say which was, largely, what the blooming heck have you kept us in suspension over something so boring as wearing jeans for? What is so amazing about that? I’m wearing jeans, half the population of London is wearing jeans – Why?
I had to get up, go to the counter, and purchase a doughnut to compensate. A manoeuvre which possibly has something to do with my not needing a cushion on the bleachers. Women, huh? And I’m not sneering. Oh no. Because that little exchange was an example of the fundamental desire in my sex to communicate. To keep talking. Even when, as is so clearly demonstrated by this empty conversation, there is nothing, absolutely nothing, to say. Or, sadly, to overhear then write about. Obviously.
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’d like to send you a short story, for free – you just need to tell me where to send it