Sexual assault, consent and #yesallwomen

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*Trigger warning for rape, sexual assault* I’m really nervous about posting this. It’s sat for weeks on my computer unpublished but here goes nothing.

I read the #yesallwomen tweets with a sinking feeling. If you’d asked me a month ago if I’d ever experienced anything like that I’d have shaken my head. I mean I’d had some bad experiences but I just thought that was the cost of having a vagina. I scanned my way through the tweets:

Girls grow up knowing it’s a safer to give a fake phone number than turn a guy down. YES!

Because every single woman I know has a story about a man feeling entitled to access to her body. Every. Single. One.  YES!

In college, a police officer told us to scream FIRE if we were in danger of being assaulted otherwise people won’t get involved. YES!

The first time I was sexually assaulted I was sleeping over at my best friends house in a gaggle of boys and girl on her sitting room floor. I was fast asleep. When I was woken by something heavy on top of me pressing my bones into the floor. A tongue thick and sluglike jabbing between my lips. I knew who it was even in the pitch darkness of the sitting room. He’d been watching me earlier, in a way that made me want to scrunch into a little ball and hide. I’d set my sleeping bag as far away from him as I could get near the windows. But now he was on top of me and I realised I was very far away from everybody else. There were eight other people in that room but I didn’t have the voice to call out. I lay frozen in utter panic as his hands slithered over my body.

Then I pushed him away hard. And left the darkened sitting room and stumbled into the hall. There was no locks downstairs. I went into the study and pushed a cabinet in front of the door. It was 2am. I stayed there shaking with fear until I heard her mum get up hours later.

‘You’re up early?’

‘Yes, I couldn’t sleep.’ I mumbled.

‘Can I stay in here with you?’

I saw him afterwards but I made sure that we were never, ever alone again.

I’ve never told anybody about this experience: not my friend or my mum or years later HWSNBN. I felt ashamed. I was sure there was something I had done wrong somehow. Maybe I’d looked at him in a way he’d misinterpreted. I hadn’t been hurt just a little scared, OK a lot scared. I just had to be careful in future I told myself.

I was 14 years old.

There were other experiences. I was groped in clubs. Followed on the way home by a man who hissed ‘I can smell your pussy.’ I said ‘No!’ loudly and empathically and was ignored as I wrestled my way free of cars and bedrooms. And when three years later I woke up at a party with another man attached to my face and spent another evening locked in a bathroom it seemed almost ‘normal’.

No, no, NO!

It was only after reading the yesallwomen posts that something old was triggered for me and I realised that what happened then wasn’t OK. Not even a little bit. Not at all. That nobody no matter what they might have done or said or drunk or wore should be woken up like that not without their explicit consent. There is nothing wrong with me (apart from an obsession with reality tv and sugary foods). But because most of these things happened when I was really young. I’ve been feeling like I was somehow to blame and deeply, deeply ashamed. It’s only now that I can claim those experiences and label them what they were: assault, misogyny in action. Welcome to being a women kid, it sucks.

I know I have been very, very lucky. My story is trivial really. A bruise instead of a scar. Many of my friends and those closest to me have experienced rape and serious sexual assault. Far too many friends to count. I am priveledged and I acknowledge that. Women of colour and trans friends are subject to much worse discrimination. I am lucky. I am very, very lucky.

Even saying that, no person should go through what I went through. Or the other more horrendous acts that happen every minute, every hour of every day. It’s only now that I’m able to feel sorrow for that 14-year old girl who at a time she should have been exploring her sexuality and having fun instead was terrified of what might happen to her if she was alone with men. For a long time I was too shamed and frightened to talk about these experiences. Not anymore

What makes it worse was although some of these men were strangers, others were friends, ‘nice’ guys who left bruises who laughed at me when I punched them in the chest to get the ‘fuck off me’. And if these guys some of whom I’d known for years could laugh at me, their hands still moving over me when I pushed them away – how could I tell who was safe and who was a rapist. At age 14 I realised that sex could be a battleground where some men where the enemy.

I want to make it explicitly clear that I know many men who believe in the importance of consent, who are feminists through and through. I married one after all. Plus men can also be victims of sexual assaults, rape and sexual violence. And not all of my experiences were as traumatic as the ones I described. There were lovely men who did listen to my no. But those early experiences left a mark in how I express my sexuality and the fear I still retain when I say no that I won’t be listened to. When I speak to my girl friends about this I know I am not alone.

Let’s not bullshit around, we live in a world where men are the biggest killer of women (the biggest killer of men heartdisease). I was right to be afraid at 14. And I’m right to be cautious in certain situations now. As Elliot Rodger’s killing spree starkly shows the world is not always a safe place for women.

How can we make it safer? I think we start by telling our stories. We talk  about fear and shame and the ‘no’s’ that were not heard. We listen, stop bonerjacking and STFU when necessary. We talk about consent not just before but during and afterwards. We start not by telling our daughters to not get raped but by telling our sons to not rape.

This is my yesallwomen story, what’s yours?

Feminism and me.

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For the record, I’m a feminist. I was raised by two feminists and I married a feminist. Sometimes I think the fact I’m a feminist doesn’t really need to be said. I think, like I assume most enlightened people do, that men and women should have political, social and economic equality, have access to the same opportunities and not be discriminated against on the basis of their sex. I mean, I own a uterus and I would like to be in control of it, k thx bye. But then I run across women, normally  of my generation, who don’t identify as feminists and I do a double take –  as my brain fails to compute. As the fucking fabulous Caitlin Moran says much more eloquently than me:

“We need to reclaim the word ‘feminism’. We need the word ‘feminism’ back real bad. When statistics come in saying that only 29% of American women would describe themselves as feminist – and only 42% of British women – I used to think, What do you think feminism IS, ladies? What part of ‘liberation for women’ is not for you? Is it freedom to vote? The right not to be owned by the man you marry? The campaign for equal pay? ‘Vogue’ by Madonna? Jeans? Did all that good shit GET ON YOUR NERVES? Or were you just DRUNK AT THE TIME OF THE SURVEY?”
― Caitlin MoranHow to Be a Woman

ETA (4.08.2013): This amazing video about why we should all be feminists.

It’s been very much one step forward, two steps back for feminism this month.
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On the plus side, Caroline Criado-Perez successfully won her campaign to even vaguely keep the faintest smattering of representation on Bank Notes with the announcement that Jane Austen will appear on the £10 note.
On the downside she promptly got attacked by vile scum on twitter making rape threats and twitter starkly failed to do anything about it. This didn’t disturb me because I’ve visited comment sites before, I’ve seen my friends change their name to a gender neutral one to avoid the miasma of sexual threatening comments directed there was. What was disturbing as my colleague pointed out was a small vocal minority who argued that she shouldn’t have reported it to the police she should ‘just take it’. And I couldn’t help wondering if a man had been threatened with sexual violence would they be telling him he should ‘put up with it.’
Then there was this article titled ‘We need a men’s movement.’ To which my reaction was, are you fucking kidding me?
As I said to my lovely friend who sent me the article. Maybe Slaughter has failed to notice but for the past, oh forever we have been experiencing a men’s movement. It’s called patriachy, it sucks. And traditional gender norms as reinforced by patriachy are not just hideously restrictive and uncomfortable for women but for men too. I completely acknowledge that the fact that many people still regard babies as something that happens to the women not the couple must be a difficult attitude to take if you are an enlightened man. But let’s keep it in perspective, if you are a straight white man to paraphrase John Scalzi you are playing the lowest difficulty setting there is in this game called life.
Whether you identify as a feminist or not aren’t you fucking tired of this sexist bullshit?
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Aren’t you tired of Page 3’s existence. Of in music videos naked women parading around like slabs of meat next to fully clothed men and never ever seeing it reversed. I mean come on! If we are going to objectify people then at least let’s go for equality.

I’m so fucking tired of knowing more women who have been sexually assaulted and raped than haven’t, as the prosecution rates tumble. And on people still believing that rape jokes are fucking acceptable. No, they aren’t.

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I’m so tired that because of the pay gap most of the women I know are working the last two months of the year for free.

I’m tired of a woman giving birth and the very first magazine cover is focused how she is going to lose the baby weight because women’s bodies are public property open to dissection in a way that men’s aren’t.

I’m so fucking tired of female superhero costumes vs male superhero costumes.

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I’m so fucking tired of the pro-life agenda rearing it’s ugly head in America. It is not OK for anybody to tell any of us what we can and can’t do with our bodies.

I’m tired of walking into a toy store and seeing aisles divided into boys and girls. With chemistry sets labelled as make up sets for girls as we restrict all children by implicitly saying this is OK, and this isn’t.

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Aren’t you fucking tired of a female tennis player who’s reached the pinnacle of her sport being told ‘she’s not a looker’ as if that’s the only thing that matters and that winning Wimbledon is a fucking consolation prize. That the Times labelled Andy Murray’s victory as Britain’s 77 wait for a victor forgetting the women who had won it because women aren’t people.

Aren’t you tired of people telling you to ‘man up’ or ‘you’re acting like a girl’ as the former= the height of strength, and the latter is the ultimate insult.

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Aren’t you fucking tired that we are still talking about this in the 21st century. I am so fucking over all of this.

But I keep telling myself there’s hope, there is slutwalks, gender-flipping memes, the why I need feminism campaign, more petitions that you can shake a stick at, gender neutral parenting, Jezebel, and George RR Martin being a dude.

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It is getting better. But the fight’s not over. If you want to come out of the feminist closet club, whatever your gender, you are more than welcome, we have cookies.  (ETA: 4/08/2013) And if you don’t identify as feminist but you are for gender equality then I’ll be bemused (because see: dictionary definition of feminism) but yay. But if you’re not for gender equality, if by your beliefs or your actions you are actively discriminating towards anybody because of their gender then well, prepare to be on the wrong side of history.

My goddess do

Me and my fellow goddesses

Why are most hen dos shit?

I’ve been to some great hen nights. But it seems like the majority of hen do options cater to a small segment of the market who like pink, tacky signs, and inflatable willies. And no judgement here, if that’s what you are after. I’ve been to many hen nights like that including my best friends, which was a huge amount of fun. But that’s not what I wanted. Where are the plethora of options that stag dos can pick from? It seems like if you’re a women, they assume you all want to celebrate in the same way.  I live in Brighton, one of the most awesome cities in the UK, so how come my options are a) stumbling down little Beirut covered in flashing lights or b) eer… Where are the craft afternoons, the scavenger hunts or the glamour?

While I am on my rant box I find the ‘hen do’ terminology hugely demeaning. Stags are glorious majestic beasts that are the Kings of the Forest. Whereas hens cluck and peck. Also stop saying this will be my last night as a single girl. That was March 26 2004. Life doesn’t end after marriage and if it does, you’re doing it wrong. End rant 🙂

So instead of having a hen do, I had goddess do and it was amazing. My maid of honour, my little sister, had never been to a hen do before and she did me proud. It was exactly what I wanted: vintage, a little naughty and a hell of a lot of fun. My goddess do was held two days after I handed in my essays at University, I hadn’t drunk any alcohol in over a month so I was ready to P.A.R.T.Y. Channelling our inner Joan Holloway’s or Betty Draper’s on a sunny afternoon in May, my fellow goddesses and I assembled at Proud Ballrooms in Kemptown  for a burlesque lesson. Proud Ballroom is one of my favourite venues: glamorous, decadent and you really feel like you have stepped back in time to a different era.

It was three o’clock in the afternoon in this picture but it looks like midnight from the gloom surrounding me

Only one problem, when we arrived although our amazing teacher Carmilla was there waiting for us nobody had arrived from the venue to turn on the overhead stage lights. The only person on site was the chef, who was lovely, and gave us some free bottles of wine to make up for the inconvenience. But it took almost an hour and half for somebody to arrive from Proud and switch the lights on, so most of our lesson was performed in the gloom. With everybody having to be extra careful they didn’t trip off the edge of the uneven dance floor. Due to their disorganisation our plans to come back and party at Proud at the end of the evening were swiftly rearranged.

However, in true Brit style we soldiered on regardless.Our burlesque teacher Carmilla, from the Cheek of It school, was amazing. Very calm, she immediately put some of the nervous goddesses at their ease, boosting their confidence and creating a true bonding atmosphere. Our lesson walked us through draping (my favourite an advanced form of lolling around at which I excel), seductive shimmying, ‘Ooops, I’ve dropped something’ to advanced propography such as taking gloves off with our teeth.

Armography

My favourite part was when we separated into groups to choreograph our own dance routine each of the four groups channelling one of the Sex and the City girls. Although I am definitely Carrie, my fellow goddesses were more Charlotte so we chose eye lash fluttering innocence.

The Charlotte’s

At the end of the lesson I was presented with my very own nipple tassels and given a choice a) I could save them for my honeymoon, b) nominate someone else to wear them or c) wear them myself. I decided to split the humiliation with my little sister thinking we’d just wear them over our bras. But no, the plan was to bare all. Our blushes was spared as our dresses wouldn’t undo and instead we performed an over the clothes routine. All pictures of which have now been destroyed.

Then we emerged blinking into the sunshine and walked to one of my favourite cafes Metrodecco for afternoon tea. We had booked out the whole of the downstairs where we feasted on mini sandwiches, scones with cream and jam, and pastries including the yumtastic macaroons washed down with champagne.

My little sister had decorated the tables with her favourite pictures of me and HWSNBN, fake mustaches in honour of tashtastic dad, creepy Jedwood masks and marriage advice slips.

After everybody had written their advice, I had to read it out. Some of it was touching and helpful, some less so. My maid of honour/little sister and best friend Greg’s marriage advice was respectively ‘Spitting is quitting’ and ‘anal’. When I had to read out the latter I whispered ‘Anal’ in sotto voice hyper aware that not only was my mum present but so was HWSNBN. ‘I didn’t hear that, darling.’ Mum shouted out. So I had to repeat it at full volume. Lovely.

Marriage advice from Greg

After Metrodecco, we wandered down to the Sidewinder for a couple of drinks. And I proceeded to get horrifically drunk. Just in time for the game of Mr and Mrs, which I flunked at bigtime. Basically they asked HSWNBN questions and I had to guess his answers. Unlike on other hen do’s there answers were not multiple choice. Not only was I horrendously drunk but HWSNBN’s has an utterly unique method of thinking. So I was very proud when I correctly guessed which celebrity couple he most thinks we are like. Answer: ‘He doesn’t know any celebrities.’And also his most embarrassing moment about which I am sadly sworn to secrecy. Everytime I got a question wrong, which was frequently I had to drink. Then I was dared to do a number of things including lapdancing a giant Buddha (sorry Buddhists) and fellating a wine bottle. CLASSY. After which we played a reputation ruining game of ‘I have never’. Let’s just say there are a number of dark horses among our group.

Lapdancing a Buddha

After this my memory the night gets a little hazy. We ended up in small yet fabulous gay club called Poison Ivy for cocktails and shots. Ros and Debs, took to the stage to show off their amazing vocal talents at karaoke. We’d been there an hour when I headed to the bar for more shots just as somebody puked over it. Not one of my goddesses I hasten to add.

We made a swift exit to the Mesmerist for dancing, drinking and cackling. Muchas cackling. Before  I took my sleeping/passed out maid of honour home and then to headed to bed myself.

I am so lucky to have so many lovely friends and family members to join me in the BEST.NIGHT.EVER

On changing my name

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As Shakespeare once said: ‘A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.’ Friends, Shakespeare was wrong. As any writer can tell you names matter. Whether or not to change your name after marriage is one of the most controversial issues brides face. Everybody has an opinion and they are not shy about expressing it. What follows is an account of how HWSNBN and I have negotiated the difficult issue of changing our names when we marry. As with ever topic I cover, I’m not suggesting that this would be right solution for everybody, this is just a personal account of why we made the choices we did.

I love my name: Rowan Amelia January. It’s different, in my life I’ve met two other people called Rowan, both men, and no other January’s (that I’m not related too, holla fellow Januarys!). The Januarys are a dying breed. In a map comparing 1881 and 1999 census results meant to show where our families come from, there are not enough incidences of January as a surname to display. When I was a teenager, desperate to blend into the crowd, I hated how my name drew attention. January was so unusual why pair it with Rowan and not temper it with a more conventional first name like Sarah, my older sister had. But over the years I’ve come to love my name and it’s meaning.

Rowan is a mountain ash tree used in pagan times to ward off evil. In Gaelic, Rudha-an or Rowan means red one. I given the name Amelia, my middle name, after Amelia Earhart the first woman to fly over the Atlantic: a true feminist hero. January comes from Janus the two-headed Roman god of doorways who looked forward as well as back. My unconventional name has caused some amusing misconceptions in the past. When I worked for a non-fiction publishers I would often communicate with authors entirely over email. On several occasions when I met these authors for the first time at a conference the following scenario would play out:

Bearded author dude: *approaches stall, looking puzzled* Hi, I’m looking for Rowan January

Me: That’s me, pleased to meet you

BAD: But you’re a girl!

Me: Yes. *stunned by their powers of deductive reasoning.*

BAD: But Rowan is a boy’s name?

Me: Evidently not. Because I am a girl and well, that’s my name.

Strangely enough, it’s my surname that most people seem to have the problem with. From the ‘were you born in January?’ To the ‘Well I’ve never met a Mrs February before!’ Or the calendar girl comments, I’ve heard every joke under the sun and the person before you, probably told it better! I was talking to my cousins recently and we concluded that out of all the months of the year to be named after January is the crappest. It’s in the middle of winter, just after Christmas when everybody is broke, hung over, and longing for the sun. So after putting up with years of awful jokes I should jump at the chance to discard my maiden name right?

Except I’m not. It’s not just that I love my name: I have moral objections to changing it. Lots of my friends have chosen differently and I understand their reasons. It’s a personal choice that every couple must make for themselves. What really bothers me is that how many people assume because I am female I will automatically subsume my identity into HWSNBN. That marriage isn’t a merger it’s a takeover. Because of convention, I change my name he doesn’t.  I am defined by my marital status as Miss or Mrs while he is not. A perfect example of this principle in action is that etiquette dictates that in our wedding invite my parents should be called Mr and Mrs David January (a convention we are happily ignoring). Afterall my mum is a person in her own right not just an appendage of my father. It seems very odd to me that after all the care and thought that my parents put into my name I should change it by chance depending on who I fall in love with. (What if I fell in love with somebody with a horrific last name?) The thought of discarding my maiden name made me feel very uncomfortable as if I was losing my identity. There were all these reasons for me not to change my name. And only one in the for column: HWSNBN.

You see, HWSNBN really wanted me to change my name. He did not want us to stay separate entities after marriage as if nothing had changed. And then there was the issue of children. HWSNBN’s father is an only child and HWSNBN is his only son. If we had children, he wanted them to have his name. The compromise was clear: we could hyphenate our names. But by doing so were we merely pushing the difficult decision to our children. Surely our children and their children couldn’t continue to hyphenate when they married and became the January-HWSNBN-Jones-Bloggs?

We were at an impasse until I read this blog post on changing your name on one of my favourite marriage sites A practical wedding.  This excellent post summed up all of issues and posited an elegant solution. In Spain the convention is that couple hyphenate their surnames when they marry. When their children marry, if they are girls they keep their mothers maiden name and take on their husbands, if they are boys they keep their father’s name and take on their wives surname.

So from next year I’ll be changing my name to Ms Rowan January-Hislastname and he will be adding my surname to his. As I said at the beginning of the post it’s a personal decision that every couple must make but is the perfect solution for us and our baby family. By hyphenating it feels like we are joining together in a partnership of two equals.  Plus now HWSNBN and I get to share the name changing administrative pain like everything else we will do, now and in the future, together.

Jennifer’s Body and the feminist horror movie

I wanted to love Jennifer’s body, I really did. It had a lot of things worked for it: the title, the horror-comedy premise, written by Diablo Cody (who I know infuriates a lot of people but I adore), starring Amanda Seyfriend aka the gone but never forgotten Lily Kane. But why was it such a hot mess?

First the casting, I love Amanda Seyfried but she was frankly miscast as the dowdy  Needy. Come on she’s beautiful. Megan Fox was not as bad as I thought she would be in this role.
However Jennifer and Needy as frenemies has very little chemistry let along enough to justify the tacked on faux lesbian stylings. Adam Brody as the devil worshipping hipster was knock-it-out of the park amazing

But the main issue I had was with the shallow, poor plot. The scene in which Jennifer is sacrificed to the demon is genuinely frightening and horrifying scene. The parallels to sexual assault make it almost too awful to watch.

But then Jennifer starts killing innocent boys. Why after this traumatising incident does she not go after the people who did this to her. The film could have easily explained this away by giving her no memory of what had happened to her or some prohibition against taking down the boys. But there was no explanation as to why this hugely powerful creature would take her vengeance. This film tried to examine the nature of female friendship, teenage girl as demon, small town woes and as a result didn’t really look in depth at anything.

I couldn’t help but feel that inside this movie there was a far more interesting subversive film fighting to get out. The closing scene over the titles is admittedly awesome. I literally cheered as the blood splattered over the screen. Yes, finally I thought, but by then it was far too late.

Quit it


Seriously, I am so sick of reading about how old/ugly/weird looking Sarah Jessica Parker is. Hadley Freeman sums up the discussion much better than I can. Not that I would ever read the mail/Telegraph/Maxim because I have betters things to do than digest badly written misogynistic bile. Frankly I don’t think she cares what a bunch of pre-pubescant, balding, overweight fugly Maxim journalists think of her. Because really when you start making cruel comments about other peoples appearances you are opening yourself up to a work of of pain. (Note deliberate irony here)

There are, of course, journalists that would make the argument that as an actress you operate in a public sphere and therefore open yourself up to criticise.

But, no. Because its only if your female that your subject to the gaze and judgement of everything in the public sphere.

Also Sharon Stone – shut up. Rant over

Cherchez la femme


I’m about a midway through a book that a number of people have recommended to me. Its a first novel from a celebrated young adult novelist. And its good. The language is crisp, the dialogue funny and realistic, its rife with the little embarrassing details, the first person POV effortlessly conveys the arrogance and uncertainty of a certain type of intellectually advanced (if not psychologically) adolescent male (not that I would know :)). But I keep on stopping, and having to put the book down.

The main problem I have with this book is its central concept. The main character is obsessed with an ephemeral, mercurial, troubled girl who is obviously going to come to a bad end. This is foreshadowed by the title and a stylistic conceit of counting down to an event.

We never know much about this girl, unlike the rest of the characters her behaviour is oblique and inconsistent. Now, I get it. This is because the narrator never really understands the girl she’s a cipher for desire, for unrequited love, for femininity. But its been done before; and better.

I have read about a version of this girl in over a hundred different books but I have never met her. Maybe I’m the wrong gender, but I don’t think its that. I think its because she only exists in fiction. In a type of literacy fiction written by a late twenties male author looking back on his misbegotten youth and idolising/destroying the memory of that girl he wanted but could never have. I’m not asking for realism in character creation because real life people are more boring, more inconsistent, more fragmented than anything in fiction. However I need some suggestion that characters are more than a cardboard cut out representing the fickle of nature of women.

Because of my awareness of this literary trope when I read this book instead of dissolving myself in a fictional world I am constantly aware that the characters are fictional, the story is contrived, I can see the strings behind the puppets. Like Brecht’s epic theatre but for books. Now that can work in some stories (Jasper Fforde) but only when the disconnect is intentional. It is not here.

The second issue is that this type of story has been done better elsewhere. For example in the Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides where at least there was the impression that the girls had some kind of interior life. I understand that ‘there is nothing new under the sun’, that all writing is interrelated to what has come before. For example in horror you can work within genre assumptions (sexually active blondes who are too stupid to live go into dank basement and become killer fodder) or play against them (Buffy (oh how I miss Buffy!) and Scream (which is meta enough to outlines the ‘rules’ of horror while still working within them)). But you should still add your own interpretation on things and this book takes too much and adds too little.

So I’m torn. A lot of people whose opinions I respect love this book. I hate not finishing books but this book is infuriating me. I can see that the author is a good writer but the lazy misogyny sticks in my craw. Maybe I am missing the point? Or I am just being grouchy because I’m underslept, I have a contact stuck in my eye, and a million Londoners are probably going to vote in an ineffectual fascist just because they like his hair? OK rant over, back to work.