Thursday, 19 January 2012

How to be a Woman by Caitlin Moran

When I was thirteen, I found myself being given a book with a rather serious title along the lines of Your Preparation for Adolescence which dwelt long on the temptation to sin and the perils of marijuana. Seeing as all I learned from it were a few rather outdated slang words for puff, I can’t help but fantasise how things would have turned out had I managed to send this little gem back in time to my thirteenth birthday.

Part memoir, part rant and an attempt to rewrite The Female Eunuch from a bar stool, How to be a Woman is a hilarious amble through subjects both serious and not, that affect women in Britain today, the sort of stuff that people need a few drinks inside them to discuss:

So whilst How to be a Woman is the story of all the times that I – uninformed, underprepared, fatally deluded as to my ability to ‘style out’ a poncho – got being a woman wrong, in the 21st century, merely recounting experience doesn’t seem to be enough any more. Yes, an old-fashioned feminist ‘consciousness raising’ still has enormous value. When the subject turns to abortion, cosmetic intervention, birth, motherhood, sex, love, work, misogyny, fear, or just how you feel in your own skin, women still won’t often tell the truth to each other unless they are very, very drunk. Perhaps the endlessly reported rise in female binge-drinking is simply modern women’s attempt to communicate with each other. Or maybe it is because Sancerre is so very delicious. To be honest, I’ll take bets on either.

She marches through most of the above before getting to marriage; the obscene cost, and the ultimate disappointment of the ceremony itself. She illustrates this with her own nuptials:

I don’t want to exaggerate but, by God, it was a bad wedding... My father is in a suit he shoplifted from Ciro Citterio, and some shoes he shoplifted from Burtons – but he looks calm, wise and not a little emotional about giving away his first child in marriage. “Oh my lovely daughter,” he says, smelling a little of whisky.

Realising she is walking too quickly up the aisle, she slows down to a pace so slow, her sisters suspect that she has cystitis:

Still, I look fine compared to husband to be. He’s so nervous he’s a very pale green, and is shaking like a sock on a washing line. “I’ve never seen a more anxious groom,” the registrar confides, later. “I had to give him two shots of whisky.”

The ceremony over, the guests decamp to the watering hole:

An hour later and everyone’s in the bar. Many of our invited guests haven’t been able to make it, because it’s two days after Christmas and they’re with their families in Scotland, Devon and Ireland. My family are taking advantage of the free bar – many of them can’t walk anymore, and, of the ones that can, two of the have found a memorial to a dead knight, and are giving his statue a ‘saucy’ pole dance.

The reader may now have drawn the conclusion that Caitlin Moran doesn’t do weddings:

I was similarly lacklustre at Cathy and John’s wedding, when Cathy’s dad gave me a tour of their beautiful, all-white house, as I trailed along behind, swigging red wine. “And this is my favourite view,” Cathy’s dad said, as we reached the master bedroom, and he strode over to the window. “On a clear day, you can see right down the valley.” Then a bat flew in through the window, and right into my face. I don’t know if you’ve every had a bat fly into your face, but you don’t have an enormous amount of time to work out your coping technique. You kind of... ride on instinct. My instinct, it turned out, was to scream “WHAT THE FUCKING?”, and hurl my red wine right across the world’s whitest room.

Still, she knows exactly how to rectify the situation:

Bombing into the kitchen, I returned with a bottle of white wine, and started sloshing it around, in a dedicated manner. “White wine gets red wine stains out!” I shouted. “I saw it on telly!” I maniacally started pouring the white wine into the now scarlet rug, and scrubbing it with a tea towel. Cathy’s dad came across the room – slightly faster than I thought a man of his age would be capable of – and gently prised the bottle from my hand. He stared at it – now empty – for a moment. “Ah,” he said, regretfully, “The ’93 Alsace Grand Cru.” There was a long pause. “Still,” he said, with enormous grace, touching the bottle with his fingertips. “It was a little too warm to drink.”

Her feminism is just as important as her humour and Moran tackles her subjects of sexism, motherhood, abortion, role models, weight and adolescence with equal gravity and laughter.

I feel I probably owe the author a bit of an apology, as I’ve never given her much time for her prodigious column writing. I grumbled that most of it wasn’t my thing, (to be objective, that goes for almost all columnists), missing the point that Moran writes well, and is very funny as well as being an excellent polemicist and debater.

I felt almost wistful for my thirteen year old self as I read How to be a Woman, and it is testament to the book’s clarity of thinking that I wish I’d had the chance to read it then. I’m sure it would have helped me muddle through just a little bit better than just knowing that a large weight of cannabis used to be called a brick...

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