Woman About Town

All in the family

Most likely, we live in a comfortable nest of light fictions

This article is taken from the April 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

To the bookshop Libreria in Shoreditch, to celebrate the launch of Tracy King’s memoir Learning to Think. It’s a record of an extraordinary life — it opens with a scene of young Tracy being exorcised, after her perfectly reasonable trauma and grief following the sudden death of her father was mistaken for demonic possession. To the economic precarity of her upbringing was added emotional precarity: it’s a circumstance that would have sunk many.

But more importantly, it’s an extraordinary piece of writing. Partly because she grew up with so much uncertainty (and partly because her parents always encouraged her to be curious), Tracy became a sceptic in the highest sense: never settling for pat answers, always asking the difficult questions, even about her own life. Which makes this an autobiography that’s as compelling as a thriller, with Tracy unpicking the story she was given about her father’s death and piecing together the truth.

Few of us undergo such dramatic and disturbing events as Tracy, but her book makes me wonder about the bits of family lore we all carry with us without ever submitting to the kind of stringent fact-checking Tracy applied to herself. Most likely, we live in a comfortable nest of light fictions: it takes genuine bravery to choose otherwise.

* * *

You must be fun at parties …

I’m an old hand at literary parties now, but still feel the clammy hand of horror on the back of my neck when I remember one of my early ones. Invited to a prize-giving, I got to chatting to a writer whose books I like a lot — and neither of us seemed able to end the conversation and move on. We were simply trapped, the small talk dwindling ever smaller.

But it wasn’t completely wasted time, for her at least. When I read her next novel, it included a painfully recognisable section in which the main character became trapped with a boring woman at a party. I felt mortified and reassured myself with the possibility that there are probably lots of boring women in the world. Still, there’s a comfort in being so stunningly dull that your dullness becomes art.

• • •

Beauty myth

With a few hours to kill in Euston, I decided to check out the Wellcome Trust’s Cult of Beauty exhibition. It was busy on the Saturday morning I visited and understandably so — beauty is a hot topic. The ubiquitous selfie means we look at our own faces more than any generation before us. Consequently, beauty has become bigger and bigger business. The average woman can discourse on “actives” and “injectables” with a pharmacist’s expertise.

The point of the exhibition is to make visitors think more about where our ideas of physical perfection come from. But because it’s also in hock to some very modern ideas about identity, there are some strange moments of ideological whiplash. You move from a cabinet presenting corsets as quack-medical torture devices, to a display extolling elective mastectomy as a path to bodily autonomy, with a pair of dismembered breasts presented in specimen jars.

Make your mind up, I’m tempted to say to the curator. Either it’s morally suspect to deform the female torso, or it isn’t. But there’s no point asking for consistency. There are different sets of rules here: women are manipulated into self-disgust by an exploitative set of norms, unless the women in question say they’re not women, in which case everything they do is an act of radical self-acceptance, including cutting bits of themselves off.

* * *

Swimming with the tide

Off to Cornwall for a long weekend with girlies. Sea swimming followed by beach saunas, long walks around the coast, generous meals and even more generous negronis poured by my friend the leader writer. Obviously, I needed to be fully kitted out for the three-day trip. As a strictly fair-weather wild swimmer, that meant new swimsuit, new neoprene gloves and socks and most important of all: new (to me, I’m not a millionaire) Dryrobe.

You know the one: camouflage outer, hot pink fleece inner, worn by yummy mummies throughout the nation, ideally with a pair of Uggs (which I also happen to have). It’s basically a maxi-sized parker, big enough to wriggle your arms inside and use as a portable changing room-cum-towel. Even better, it’s got enough pockets that you don’t need to worry about bringing a bag. I love it and so do thousands of others. But success does come at a cost.

There’s been a backlash against the Dryrobe-as-casualwear: there was even a Facebook group dedicated to mocking “dryrobe wankers”. As a garment, it’s too utilitarian, too basic, too common. So common that, on emerging from the beach sauna and getting dressed, I found that the next group waiting included a woman wearing the exact same Dryrobe and Uggs combo as me. We exchanged a glance: proud sisters of the wankerhood.

• • •

Baby driver

Cornwall was fun. Getting out of it was not. As a non-driver, my journey home started with a 40 minute taxi ride to the station. But, oh no, there was a rail replacement service from Bodmin. So on to the next station, saving me two hours waiting in the rain but costing me another £40. “So you really hate buses?” said the driver complacently, as the meter ticked up.

Painful. But a pain I no longer have to contend with, because I have now passed my driving test — first time, albeit at the age of 42. It’s a strange level of power to suddenly be granted. But stranger is the thought that I’m giving up my weekly 90 minute chats with my driving instructor after a year. Will I ever know how his kitchen renovation turns out? Probably not. But I’ll never stop hearing his voice telling me to “aim for the yellow bollard” when turning right on big roundabouts.



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