And now's the time to say goodbye

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The Independent Culture
ONE morning last week I received my first abusive postcard from a reader (thank you, Ms H, of Brondesbury, NW6). There was a glittering photo-montage - entitled "London Super View" - on the front (blue sky, bright lights, Big Ben, and trim, bowler-hatted commuters waiting for a tube); on the other side, Ms H, aged 31, complained that I was too negative, and also about "the pressures of youth culture invading us all the time and this fashion of minis and crop-tops which look awful if over 25". My column was making her feel worse, she said, though I couldn't quite see why. (Have I ever recommended the wearing of crop-tops?) "You have children," she continued, bitterly, "unlike some of us who have that to be thinking about." The irritable Ms H went on to say that I should kill myself, which is not something that I plan to do right now. But being called a "fossilised old BAG" did start me thinking about other things: chiefly, that perhaps a more upbeat approach was called for in this column.

So, on the tube that evening, I tried to make a list of cheerful subjects that I could write about: the sunny weather; my youngest child learning to walk; my eldest child learning to read; the flourishing wisteria at the front of the house; the almost miraculous lack of slugs at the back. Could I not whip up some sort of frothy feel-good factor out of these and other pleasurable events in my life?

As I was contemplating this possibility, and enjoying a large bar of chocolate, a woman in tattered clothes passed along the carriage begging, with a little boy tagging behind her. The commuters did what they usually do on these occasions: bury their heads in newspapers; stare at the floor; or hand over some coins. I did the latter, feeling racked with guilt at my good fortune and this woman's misery (for whatever stories we are told about the profitability of professional begging, I fail to see why anyone should want to spend their time trailing up and down the Northern Line with a tired, hungry child in tow). The remainder of my chocolate I gave to the boy, who could not have been more than three years old; he wolfed it down as though it were the first thing he had eaten all day. Then, wraith-like, they slipped through the doors, and I sat still, worried about my failure to do more to help them.

After that unhappy encounter, a pall descended. I flicked through the paper: bad news everywhere. Abroad, there were reports of war, famine, mindless cruelty. At home, teachers were being made redundant, hospital wards closing, train drivers striking, and the housing market collapsing, again. A mad person got on the tube and started shouting; everyone else looked in the other direction and hoped that he would go away. Outside the tube station, there was a traffic jam; the grim-faced drivers got hotter and hotter in the muggy, rush-hour smog, and beeped their horns in ineffective rage. (How about forgetting the bowler-hatted gents, and putting some grumpy commuters on the front of a postcard? You could call it "London True View".)

The sense of malaise was echoed in my house: I walked in, and the children began crying in a baleful chorus. Then the kitten joined in, yowling outside the kitchen window where she was being menaced by next door's fat cat (the feline variety, not an overpaid executive). Maddened by the increasing wails, I grabbed the kitten, which scratched me on the nose. I jerked my head back, hit the wall, and started bleeding. That made the children scream even louder, so I shouted at them, and the kitten, and the fat cat, and God, and bloody bad- tempered readers in bloody Brondesbury.

Fortunately, this slough of despond evaporated the next day when I received four funny, charming letters from four funny, charming readers (thank you, Rosalind Ogilvie, Liz Rosenfeld, Margaret Lee and Marion Khalidi). They all said much the same thing, which is that our lives are very similar: you (and we) are not alone. As Ms Khalidi observed, "You sound so like myself and most of the women I know: thirtysomething, slumped in domesticity and tormented by small children."

This recognition of our shared "feel-bad factor" made me feel much better: perhaps the government could institute informal self-help groups for the disaffected middle classes? Not that we've got much to complain about in the greater scheme of things. We have roofs over our heads (albeit mortgaged or rented ones), and food in the fridge, and shoes on our feet. Our children are vaccinated and educated and medically checked at regular intervals. Our tragedies, when they occur, are private ones - of divorce, bereavement, family discord - rather than the overwhelming, appalling losses suffered by, say, the Bosnian nation. But I doubt if Ms H in Brondesbury would approve if I uttered a howl of outrage on behalf of the Bosnian Muslims, or the beggars on the streets of London, for that matter.

Which brings me back to where I started - which is, how to bring some more blithe jollity to this column. I've thought and thought about it, and I can't. So this is it. The end. No more columns. No more complaints about grotty parks and dirty streets; about lonely goldfish and selfish dog-owners; about broken nights and sick babies; about the impossibility of being a competent post-feminist wife and mother and wage-earner, all at the same time.

So goodbye, and thank you to the hundreds of women who wrote letters to me this year. Ms H aside (and even she had a point, for I can be a bit of an old bag, as my husband will attest), you were wry, amusing and immensely likeable. Reading your letters has been the closest thing I have ever felt to sisterhood - feminist, post-feminist, or otherwise. I shall miss your letters, and will have to occupy myself in other ways for the remainder of the summer holidays: going to the park with the children, eating lollies, building castles in the sand-pit. I shall not wear a crop- top, but life will go on regardless. !

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