Protesting

Sorry about the delay in posting. I’m working on a long essay about the Black Lives Matter protests. There isn’t really anything to say about the American ones, other than to voice full throated support. The British edition of these protests seems slightly more problematic, though.

Of course, I support BLM and condemn the inequality they seek to draw attention to but I’m uncomfortable with the level of aggression and antagonism over issues that seem, in Britain, to be endemic and caused more by a history of inequality than by individuals intentionally pursuing a racist agenda. Somebody’s got up a petition on Facebook condemning the history department in the school I work in for teaching colonialist history. This seems unfair, and the History teachers, already mildly hysterical from over-work, are upset. I think these activists should remember that they are not just attempting to tear down old institutions, they are attacking harassed and over-worked teachers who liked them and worked hard to provide them with an education.

I understand the desire to harness the energy generated by the furious outrage and disgust at the killing of George Floyd. Using the same name for a British civil rights organisation, though, serves to highlight the differences in the circumstances of BAME citizens in the two countries. British people need to point out that Black Lives Matter because BAME Brits experience discrimination and insult every day; Americans need to point out that Black Lives Matter because unarmed Black Americans keep being openly murdered in cold blood by their own police force. The comparison is unhelpful. Rather than emphasising how outrageous the treatment of Black people can be in Britain, it allows “patriotic” white Britons to congratulate themselves for not being as bad as the Americans.

They will also say that our complaints are groundless. Conflict between British police and the black community is nowhere near the catastrophic levels of the USA. So why, they will ask, are we jumping on their band-wagon? We’re just impressionable followers of American trends. It’s just a fad. (To be honest, it does seem like another example of American Cultural Imperialism, transmitted through social media. Why can’t we have our own name, to reflect our own, long-standing independent civil rights movements?)

I accept that there absolutely is a problem in Britain, but if we appear incendiary, those most in need of listening will just be further alienated and pushed to the right. The far right will use it as ammunition against us. If people are listening, then they are basically already on our side and don’t need to be yelled at. I love you guys; I’m aware of my white privilege, and I’m sorry about all of this. I support you.

I know that if we don’t shout loudly, everything will just carry on as normal, but we have made a lot of progress in my lifetime, and, unless we’re intending to stage a military coup and put them all up against a wall and shoot them, we’re never going to win an outright victory. We’ll need to learn to live with these people.

The majority of British people adore Churchill for his wartime achievements. They’re never going to give him up as an icon, so we’re going to have to introduce his less attractive qualities more tactfully or they’ll just reject our position wholesale. Similarly, taking down statues of Peel and other more dubious figures from our past could be read as an act of cowardice. We are trying to wash our hands of our own history, to dodge our responsibility to face up to who we are.

Even if your ancestors were trafficked into this country, every benefit you gain from membership of our community, from working traffic lights and road repairs, to (at least partially) funded education and healthcare, to relative political stability, to at least occasionally functional legal and security forces has been underwritten, in part, by the funding and engagement of people some of whom did, said and believed some pretty unpleasant things.

Even if you are BAME, if you attend a university that was endowed at some point in its history by (invariably) a man who made his money from the Empire, then the continued prosperity, or at least survival, of that institution is reliant on that historical endowment. You are benefitting from his crimes.

You could drop out, but I’d advise staying in and using the bastard’s legacy for a good end – get yourself educated and use your education to fight the good fight.

Similarly, don’t pull down the statues – put them in museums, perhaps, or put up a plaque that explains their true legacy. Or better still, commission another statue, alongside it, to give the post-colonial perspective on their grandeur. That’d give support to modern, struggling sculptors and help maintain civic culture. (Though god knows where the money would come from!)

The Manic Sluggard: an OxyMORON

To recap: I felt called upon to provide a level of service that I feared was beyond me. I was expected to be effective as a father, a husband, (and a son, a brother, a friend, I guess). I wanted to be effective as a writer; I needed to be effective as a worker, and as a climate-change and civil-rights political activist, because our species is cruel, and the universe itself is scrupulously pitiless – without either bias or compassion. If we don’t work tirelessly for our own protection, we will be exterminated. “If you don’t work you die.”[1]

The consequences of failure were enormous, especially the lasting damage I could do to my kids, but I felt wholly inadequate to all these tasks. I didn’t even know where to start. Confronted with any job, I’d quail. I’d gaze up at its monumental and unscalable cliffs and I become overwhelmed by a hopeless sense of exhaustion.

Years ago, I’d felt defeated by Lulu. I lost the argument, so, despite her resistance, I made myself her captive. I tried to become what she would admire and love. From then on, the only quality I cultivated was a sort of gloomy and passive endurance, an acceptance of other people’s decisions.

Now, parenting, LSA-ing and pursuing writing as a profession (as distinct from just sitting down and off-loading like this) all demand improvisation and decisions, but it wasn’t clear how I should occupy myself. what to do? I didn’t seem to be of much consequence, and I’ve never had the imagination or the confidence or the resilience to make my own opportunities.

I didn’t know what to do with my writing, how to find an outlet for it or get feedback. I still have no idea if anything I write is remotely engaging or well-crafted.[2] At work, the role of the LSA is curiously undetermined. You have to be reactive and flexible, responding to challenges as they occur. You have to come up with your own ways of making yourself useful. I just wasn’t resourceful or quick-witted enough to carve out my own niche. Parenting is famous for being made up as you go along. When you have a second child you realise you still don’t know what the hell you’re doing.

So, you see, I spent my life feeling at a loss.

I knew the first thing you were expected to give was commitment and effort, so I tried to put my head down and charge at it, especially the parent-husband bit, because that was where I felt most immediate responsibility.

With the unflagging Jo as my example, I made a conscious decision to be constantly active, always looking around for some task that needed doing. A secret, internal, unwholesomeness could be balanced by a superficial utility. If I wasn’t a valuable person, at least I could be a useful actor in some small way. In ill-fitting uniforms, I could still help. I adopted a wholly unnatural mania to resist my natural laziness. I was like the old woman who swallowed a fly: I’d swallowed a spider to catch the fly. Neither should have been wriggling and jiggling and tickling inside me.

But I had no goal for this and no real concept of success. I was manic in intention but sluggish in behaviour[3]. I was expecting, at any moment, to be ambushed by my natural indolence, so I felt driven to a permanent state of alertness as I tried maintain the fictions I’d constructed. I needed to maintain the charade of decency, of normality. I knew I was a complete charlatan and I feared exposure. Not only would I be shamed and dismissed, I’d also have to confront my self, admit what I truly was. Perhaps it would prove I didn’t care for anyone, even my own family, that I was some sort of lonely and despicable psychopath. to avoid

I had to step warily across any threshold: waking in the morning, walking through the entrance at work, encountering another person, because I mustn’t ever betray myself. That, in itself, was exhausting. It would be safer never to go out, never to meet anyone.

  • Footnotes

[1] Rudyard Kipling, the poet laureate of hard work. This is from the poem “The Gods of the Copybook Headings”, first published in The Sunday Pictorial (26/10/1919)

[2] The couple of times somebody has said they’re following my blog, I try to return the favour, but I literally don’t know how to. I’m really sorry, guys. I’ve tried. Isn’t there just a button you can click on? (I’m such a dolt!)

[3] Nowadays I have so many writing projects on the go, theoretically, that I can’t possibly finish any of them. This displays the same commitment to mania, in principle, but complete inactivity in practice.

The living bread which came down from heaven

I never skipped tea entirely or reduced it to a tokenistic scrap. Tea was my daily goal. Anticipating it was what kept me staggering through the day. The satisfaction of it. But I did make sure it was always a little less than I needed. I disguised the diminutive size of my portions by specialising in stews and curries and veggie-heavy stir fries (and salads) – various meats or pulses or tofu in sauces, that people usually eat with a separate portion of carbs: rice or potatoes or bread. A good, well-seasoned and spiced sauce allowed me to dramatically reduce the amount of proteins and fats I was using without anyone noticing, partly because I’d serve Jo what little substance there was and leave myself with only sauce.

My curries and stews were alright, although a little watery because I couldn’t ever thicken them. Flour is an utter bitch, calorie-wise, as you know. With such messy meals, I could make my plate look misleadingly substantial because I learned how to bulk it up with vegetables. Nearly any curry will benefit from spinach wilted in at the end.

We’d supplement this with bread, which also helped Jo stay nourished, because she could give herself as much as she needed. Bread was the one carb I never abandoned, either. I think the apparent austerity of dry bread beguiled my anorexia into assuming it was less sustaining than it was. Still, I specialised in unsliced loaves. After a couple of days, I could slice them so thinly you could glaze your windows with them.

Though thin, this bread is what kept me alive. My relationship with it was remarkably uncomplicated for an anorexic: I hungered for it. All the time. I suspect most of my thoughts were about buying bread, baking bread or eating bread, of the different types that could be bought or made: pumpernickel, rosemary and apple, fennel and raisin rye, seeded wholemeal sourdough…

It was lunches that I really cut back on, to enhance the appetite for tea, the big pay-off. I was at work, most days, and so could avoid the scrutiny of my family. I’d keep pushing it down and pushing it down. It was another trial of strength to try and convince myself that I had strength. Once it had occurred to me to chuck away half my sandwich, I’d come back and back to that thought, dithering and dithering, knowing I should resist the urge to resist the urge to eat it, until I’d suddenly, impulsively, chuck it in the bin. Then I’d feel an exhilarating liberation from the dreadful indecision, a sense of empowerment…

I always maintained a vestigial stump of lunch, though: 100 calories or so, for form’s sake.

Loving the Alien(‘s salads)

I can’t remember the point when meals first flipped over into being weird Martian salads that would suit no human taste-buds. Perhaps, when you are ill, your body craves very specific minerals and food groups and will combine them in whatever way you can, whenever you allow yourself to eat. I used to be obsessed with roll-mops until I become aware of how much I liked them. Then I made myself stop, as a trial of strength. Now I have no particular desire for them. Was that craving the body’s recognition of some lack?

Poor Jo! Luckily I always gave her the lion’s share of the meal. The difference in our portion sizes, artfully disguised, was my strange way of demonstrating to myself how I was supporting the family by accepting, abjectly, my subordinate status. It was a perverted form of FHB (the fabled cry of parents when guests come round unexpectedly and there’s not quite enough food: “Family Hold Back”.) Mine was DHB: “Dad Hold Back” even though the lack was intentionally created by me. Or perhaps it was a FOMNO: Fear Of NOT Missing Out, when I was the one who least deserved to be rewarded with food.

I also signalled my lower status when getting the cutlery. I always made sure that I had the cheapest, mis-matched knife and fork I could find, some plasticized crap nicked from a works canteen in the 70s and left at the back of the drawer for decades. I still do this.

Getting it wrong again

Unlike many anorexics, I can never remember the science or the numbers of food and nutrition. Then starvation makes your cognition go haywire, which makes the incomprehension worse. According to Carrie Arnold[1], this is a sign of a malfunctioning insula, the part of your brain that maintains interoception. That’s the process of monitoring and integrating internal feelings, both physical and emotional. It must also, therefore, be central to the sense of self. Starvation dismantles your identity.

Sensations are remarkably hard to tease apart, especially when there’s no longer any trust in the relationship between mind and body. I no longer recognise hunger signals for what they are, among all the confusion of thought and feeling. I can’t tell the difference between the urgent and the indulgent, or an empty stomach from the desire just to taste yummy things – that tangy umami at the back of the throat.This doesn’t release you from hunger’s torment.  You feel it all the time, mixed up with doubt.

This is a classic eating disorder dilemma. We’re extraordinarily indecisive, anyway. Apparently, this is caused by further brain malfunctions, of the pre-frontal cortex and the insula.[2] In the end, though, you always opt for denial[3], because you view hunger with such suspicion, because you fear weight gain and indulgence, and because you discount your own thoughts. To combat this, I now have to eat entirely by plan, by rota. Rigidity is typical of anorexics, but in this case, it keeps me eating.

I didn’t know what I was doing right, when I started losing weight, so I worried that those encouraging, falling numbers might suddenly go into reverse. “To be on the safe side”, I cautiously, but constantly, amplified everything: a little more exercise; a little smaller portion sizes (for me).

I also felt that my value in the family came from producing beautiful, healthy, low fat food for everyone. Meals could never be complex or lean enough. Luckily, the children were still young. They ate separately and earlier, so I never compromised their diets. I was always able to maintain a clear sense of what was good for them but I didn’t apply the same rules to myself. It’s a good example of anorexic double-think, the ability we have of gravely and sincerely acknowledging the truth of a proposition and then acting in an entirely contrary manner, with no apparent motivation.

For poor Jo and I, every time I was able to produce a good meal while reducing the oils or the carbs or the protein, that level of low-fatness became the norm until there was a chance to reduce it again.

  • Footnotes

[1] Decoding Anorexia (2013) Hove: Routledge, pp27-31

[2] ibid

[3] Perhaps overweight people have the same confusion and the same lack of self-belief, but opt for the opposite response, out of a defeated sense of being unable to resist.

The Dangers of Dieting

Here’s how it happened.

I’ve told you before how, years ago, when I’d first started doing some of the cooking, Jo decided that we should eat more healthily. I’d been treated for Grave’s Disease, you’ll remember, a thyroid condition that sets your metabolism to “nuclear”, so that you burn through calories like a furnace. I could eat a meat feast and most of a New York style cheesecake every day and still stay around 8½ to 9 stone. Now, however, I’d been successfully treated and was starting to gain weight.

Jo had also put on weight keeping pace with me. She wanted to lose a bit. She sensibly didn’t rush it or binge on denial. Instead, she started requesting healthier, smaller meals and stopped having puddings or snacks. I don’t think she even mentioned her plan to me, so I was carried along, unwittingly, vaguely disappointed by the lack of chocolate, mildly alarmed by hunger pangs, which I’d never let myself feel before.

Suddenly, without knowing I was dieting, I’d lost half a stone! This was a dangerous revelation: when I was hyperthyroid, I’d felt fiercely driven by the demons of appetite. They were primal, intolerable; I’d writhed under their pangs. Now it dawned on me that hunger’s power was slight. You just resisted for a little while, not forever, went and did something important to distract yourself, exercised a bit more, and the results were highly beneficial: you achieved the weight and shape you wanted, and could still eat (smaller amounts of) yummy things.

Hunger was not only endurable, it was desirable: if you felt it, you were doing something productive: making progress; if you didn’t feel it, it showed you’d messed up, indulged yourself too much, been weak.

I wanted this sense to continue.  It was all about the direction of travel, the milestones, not the number itself. 50 kilos might as well be 60; 60 could be 70, just as long as it was always lower than before. If a malevolent genie cast a spell in the night and I woke up weighing 90 kilos, I’d be devastated, but I’d survive. It would be ok, just as long as I was 89.9 kilos the day after, and 89.8 kilos the day after that. I could still feel good about my success, my ability to control my base instincts; show restraint.

Oh You Pretty Things (don’t you know you’re driving your mamas and papas insane?)

The symptoms of eating disorders are astonishingly similar in most sufferers. We display exactly the same thoughts and behaviours at the same stages of our illness, like babies hitting developmental milestones.

While you are still in denial, or if you still think it’s a purely “psychological” condition, a response to formative experiences, this is insulting to your independence. As you come to terms with the biological aspect, the synchronised choreography of our declines makes more sense: we are all the same species and our brains are constructed of the same materials, to the same plan. They starve in the same manner.

How we came to this state seems to have some variation, though. Many, often teenagers, often teenage girls, seem to negate themselves in a demonstrative fury of self-hatred. They actively renounce food as a way of denying the world that has wronged them and made them unhappy.

Not me. I lack their strength, their venom, their diabolical energy. Theirs is a more glorious immolation.[1] Is it really the same condition?

I never even completely skipped a meal. There was always some little scrap to masquerade as food and punctuate the barren wastes of time and hunger. I just, you know, … dieted. As people do. I just made sure I was always in calorie deficit. I gradually dialled up the exercise and dialled down the portion sizes.

But I didn’t want to revert to being a slob.

And I didn’t know how to stop.  (Still don’t.)

Footnotes

[1] A classic symptom of anorexia is comparing yourself unfavourably with the commitment and ferocity of other sufferers.

How to make Covid 19 all about you

Chucking out old newspapers I found this:

“Some eating-disorder sufferers – who are already often grappling with feelings of guilt about buying food – have reported that reading stories of panic buying have triggered worries that they must not buy food at all, lest they be taking food away from people who need it more.” [1]

See what a resourceful opportunist anorexia is! You’d think the planetary scale of this pandemic would put our silly troubles in perspective. But, no, Old Scratch can find, in any situation, a chance to promote himself. This quotation contains so many of his familiar tropes: an unflattering comparison to other people; a belief that we are less deserving than they are and thus should consume less and have less of an impact on the world; hence guilt; anxiety caused by perceiving a vast, uncontrollable threat, sometimes real, sometimes imaginary, but treated with the same alarm; the attempt to calm that alarm by occupying ourselves with a project that we can control: self-denial; the need for self-sacrifice to mitigate our guilt; an awareness of how small and useless such a contribution would be and thus that it’s more about personal integrity than about saving others; the consequent worry that our desire to sacrifice is actually a form of selfishness; making it all about us. This leads, finally, to a bitter and defeated resignation: “I know I’m a selfish shit. I hate that about myself, too, but that is who I am.”

This would be exactly my reaction if I was still ill/ iller, especially if I was only catering for myself. But I haven’t had these thought at all throughout the lockdown, and for entirely practical reasons: I have to live with my family. It’s my job to feed them and, since my return, to eat with them. After my disgrace, they are highly sensitive to any signs that I am under-eating. They watch me.

In other words, I am locked into a domesticity that won’t allow me to stray. The family, and Abi, have extorted promises from me. They tell me that I show my love for them, and my commitment to my community, by keeping eating. I contribute to the NHS by no longer being a financial burden on them. I sacrifice by not sacrificing.

Much as I’d like to.

In Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard says that Abraham’s great act of faith is that he does not sacrifice himself in the place of the son he loves. Instead of committing suicide to save Isaac, and thus being praised and honoured, he is willing to carry out God’s order to sacrifice the boy, and then return to face the horror and condemnation of his community, especially Sarah’s. He is willing to live with it, not just as a broken old man, reviled and lonely, tormented by ghastly memories, wallowing in it, but as a celebrant of the God-given life, who still praises his lord in gratitude,

if God so wishes it:

“If Abraham had doubted, – then he would have done something else, something great and glorious; … He would have thrust the knife into his own breast. He would have been admired in the world and his name never forgotten; but it is one thing to be admired, another to be a guiding star that saves the anguished.”[2]

At least, that’s what I think he’s saying. I don’t understand Kierkegaard very well, but he appears to be suggesting that there is more honour in living humbly, suffering life’s compromising and belittling indignities, embracing living, than in haughtily renouncing it for a life of self-important, virtuous abstinence, than in suicide, that utter renouncement, so declarative and absolute, so irreversible and uncompromising as to be, simultaneously,  principled and a little cowardly; virtuous and selfish[3].

Footnotes

[1] Bee Wilson What stockpiling during the coronavirus crisis reveals about Britain, The Guardian 3rd April  2020

[2] Soren Kierkegaard, 2005, Fear and Trembling, London: Penguin, p21

[3] Although this summary seems unfairly prosaic and narrow. Kierkegaard has far more scope, more cosmic profundity.

a quick political diatribe (please skip if you came here for the anorexic clowning)

Why we need to forgive Dominic Cummings

Dominic Cummings (Dominic Cumberbatch? Benedict Cummings?) is on the back foot. The left is out for his head. I’m no supporter of Mr Cumberbatch, because he was one of the architects of the BREXIT campaign. This is enough, in my opinion, to justify having him shot.

However, I’m uncomfortable with this persecution. It will be a pity if we take him down for something so minor and understandable, especially as his other offenses are rank and smell to heaven. How bad would it look if we rewarded him, with a position in 10 Downing street, for destroying our country’s economy, reputation and relationships with the rest of the world, but dismissed him for spending time with his family?

To have integrity we must be consistent. If we call for the resignation of offenders when they are Conservatives, while calling for tolerance if they are left-wing, we make ourselves look partisan and this undermines the validity of anything we say.

Even if we can’t be accused of hypocrisy, it trivialises us to descend to such Machiavellian strategies. It makes us look like nasty, mean-spirited, curtain-twitchers. It implies that we have no better reasons to object than tribal hostility. We should leave such behaviour to The Daily Telegraph.

On the other hand, given that other public figures, most notably Neil Ferguson, have resigned, it’s galling that Mr Cummibatch was not more apologetic. Some of his excuses were the most unconvincing dog-ate-my-homework efforts. It would be ludicrous to drive a huge hunk of metal at murderous speeds, to check if you were safe to drive a huge hunk of metal at murderous speeds. I don’t believe Mr Cumberdom would be so foolish. It would make as much sense to say “I tested if the gun was loaded by holding it to my head, and pulling the trigger. (And the heads of my wife and child.)”

To offer such flimsy excuses shows a lack of respect for the public, and disdain for the lock-down rules which, as his critics have said, will serve as an example to everyone else. If Mr Cucumber can break the rules, why can’t they? And this would put everyone in danger. Or it may suggest that he thinks the rules shouldn’t apply to the intelligently privileged.

Rules are important: why should you know best? To submit to the collective decision does much more than just reaffirm your membership of the group. It admits that you could be wrong; it accepts the selfhood of other members and thus their existential equality – that they might view your decisions with equal suspicion and submit to collective decisions with equal reluctance, but still be willing to go along with them to maintain the alliance. It confirms the central deal of any collective, which must always be negotiated, will always be a compromise: I’ll look after your interests, if you look after mine.

The problem is that these rules are absolutely unenforceable. How would the police know if this particular person is your designated friend or not? It would be extremely difficult to prove Mr Benedict’s explanations were false. All we can do is try to keep to the rules assiduously ourselves, even when they seem unnecessarily strict, and trust others to do the same.

This is how such slippery figures always weasel their way out of trouble. I suspect the Bullingdon club has always predicated its sense of entitlement on the moral force of its members’ loyalty to each other. It allows them to view themselves as good people. And good people should be in charge. Unfortunately, loyalty to the gang comes before loyalty to the country. This would explain David Cameron’s inexplicable faith in George Osborne as he repeatedly stifled any chances of economic recovery after the 2008 crash. Boris Johnson will support Mr Cummings; The old boy MPs and the privately educated members of the press will support their colleague and ex-colleague, Mr Johnson.

This leaves us with nothing but the moral high ground, and it’s a barren upland, but at least it’s ours. We need to remember that we are not the good guys, a priori, because we were born that way. We’re the good guys because we act and speak morally, based on sound moral principles.

One of those is tolerance and flexibility. We can’t, and have no right to, control other people, so we will have to trust them, as far as possible, to make their own sensible, moral decisions, even if it puts us in peril. Trust is an act of courage and principled socialism.

And credit where credit’s due: Mr Cummings is a wonderful actor, both as Doctor Holmes and as Sherlock Who. I first noticed his skills when he played that reptile in Atonement, years ago. Playing to type, I guess.

If you can’t stand the heat…

Cooking became my domain. We still shared much of the housework, at weekends, and I was never going to be as efficient as Jo. But cooking was satisfying and creative and necessary. Its results were supremely tangible, and you could justify taking some time over it, which Jo didn’t have.

And you would be praised for it! Cooking serves such a primal need that it is always going to be appreciated far more than any other domestic chore and I craved recognition (I don’t know if you’ve noticed.) I wrangled my way into the job, taking advantage of how busy Jo was, then stuck out my elbows and refused to be budged. It made me a provider. Poor Jo was relegated to tasks she probably would rather I’d done, but she didn’t have the time to negotiate.

I come from a generation of men who still feel a tiny bit proud to have made a simple meal. It’s changed now, and hopefully we’ve got over ourselves, but we used to appear in the doorway to announce, “I have made… (pause for drumroll)…A QUICHE!!…(pause for applause)… To which our girlfriends/sisters/mothers would reply, “Yeah? Well, this week I’ve continued to manage a successful logistics company employing 40 people, made 7 family dinners, 5 sets of packed lunches, two cooked lunches, a set of muffins for the office Cake-Friday, and 3 Victoria sponges for the school bake sale, but you won’t catch me BRAGGING ABOUT IT!”[1]

I became very possessive of both the kitchen space and my role, chasing off all challengers for my title, often by being incredibly rude. The last thing I needed was other people muscling in and stealing my only source of usefulness. Especially Jo, back from a hard day’s earning.

As my weight plummeted, I became particularly rigid in my routines and practices, because, like all anorexics, I was stricken by deep anxiety at the thought of losing control. It’s partly because you feel something terrible will happen – all the demons of the abyss will come spilling and howling out of some gaping portal in your walls. It is also because just existing is so exhausting, by this stage. Staying upright demands a supreme effort of will and self-control. If anyone wrests even a small part of that control from you, you fear you’ll just collapse, your strings will be cut; you’ll lose control of everything – your bowels, your words, you’ll sprawl to the floor in a tangle of arachnid-thin limbs and body, shit, snot, tears, a thin puke like whey.

So anyone intruding on my kitchen, especially if they were offering to help, brought with them the threat of their own wayward and uncontrollable will. Driven by alarm, I needed to resist them as fiercely as possible, even to the extent of physical violence[2]. To hell with politeness, this was life and death struggle!

The worst is my sister-in-law. When she comes to visit, she is brutally insistent that she must cook or help to cook, or, at least lay the table. Or do the washing up. I have to employ eye-watering levels of rudeness to get her to back off. She will literally make feints and rushes towards the cooker or cutlery drawer; I have to physically block her line of attack. This is not a metaphor. [3]

Footnotes

[1] At this point, you needed to be careful not to put an arm around her shoulders and say, “You’re right, darling, and we don’t appreciate you enough!” That would be deeply complacent and patronising. She wasn’t asking for appreciation; she was putting you in your place. The gentlemanly thing to do was hurl the quiche into the bin and storm off in a huff. This demonstrated that you took her seriously, was threatened by her agency, had no reply to her, and were far more immature than she was. All of which was sweet of you.

[2] Luckily this would never happen: we are as weak as kittens. Never give an anorexic a gun, though, and then offer to cook them a lovely breakfast in their own kitchen, or offer to serve them…

[3] Last Christmas, as Jo’s family sat around the kitchen table, talking easily, Katherine and I stood, hovering around the edges trying to serve people tea and cheap fizz. I caught her eye. It finally dawned on me that our motivations are identical: we are both just awkward people trying to find a niche.