Fifty ways to accelerate the raging process

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The Independent Online
ERICA JONG was in conversation with Barbara Follett at the Almeida Theatre last week, as part of the promotional tour for her book Fear Of Fifty. All very pleasant, if undemanding ('I do so agree with you,' were Barbara's most frequently uttered words), until they started a little rap about the way journalists insist on dedicating several paragraphs of any interview to their clothes and appearance. This, they agreed, was because journalists, and people generally, are hostile to mothers. At the risk of stigmatising myself as anti-mother for ever, Erica (50, four husbands, one child) was wearing a see-through black blouse exposing a black bra, while Barbara (51, five husbands, five children) was wearing a gamine little pin-striped trouser suit over a low-cut body.

They looked devastating. Erica wore her hair big, blonde and bouffant; Barbara's was long, black and girl-glossy. Not, of course, that this merits mention. So what if the burden of conversation was about the perils faced by women when they are no longer young and cute? So what if they admitted to fears that when they turned 50 they would no longer feel sexy? And who cares that they are two women who could hardly be more obsessed by appearance: Follett has been an image consultant, and Jong admitted in the Guardian the next day that she diets, works out four times a week, and is considering plastic surgery.

I came away feeling depressed. Neither of these women had anything to fear from reaching 50. They were glossy and interesting; if I look like that at 50 I shall feel age has improved me. Which is not to say that the issues they were discussing were unimportant. But if they'd looked a bit raddled and careworn, their complaints that it's impossible for women of their age to be respected and powerful might have had some resonance. As it was, you felt they were still babes, and ducking the issue. Gravity was defied.

MY DAUGHTER started secondary school last week; a school chosen, at least partly, on the basis of fashionable theories: small classes, and no boys, both of which are supposed to enhance her chances of academic success. We have broken one increasingly fashionable rule: there's no uniform. Nylon skirts are mysteriously supposed to make for better discipline and concentration.

I succumbed despite grave doubts about the validity of these theories. It's absurd, I know, for adults to rely so heavily on their own schooling for guidance (so that men who were as miserable as hell at boarding school still send their sons away at seven). But nothing I've been through inclines me to faith in current notions of a good school. My primary school class had 49 children in it, and was by far the most successful in our London borough (I was nearly bottom at maths, but a year ahead of other kids when I arrived at my comprehensive). And at the comprehensive, the girls, on average, were way ahead academically. Nor were we intimidated by the boys into behaving in daft, vacant ways; we had known these dorks since we were 11, and they held no mystery, let alone desire, for us. We only went out with boys who were at least two years older, and whom we didn't have to encounter in the classroom; we knew the boys in our year couldn't hack it intellectually. (Only at university were we bullied by boys' conviction of their own brilliance.) With no uniform, snooty adults thought the school had no standards, but actually it had exceptionally high standards of happiness, and in its own terms, achievement.

A senior official at the Department for Education has now whispered that class size may not be as important as people think. And someone who has been researching girls' performance concluded in the Independent that there's no mystery about 'skewed' GCSE results: girls simply do better at school. I suspect they'll discover soon that children thrive in jeans and big shirts because they don't have to spend hours customising their uniforms. And I expect to learn in a couple of years that I should have sent my daughter to a school where the classes were spilling out of the doors, and there were lots of boys to give her a lifetime's sense of intellectual superiority.

WRITING in the London Evening Standard, Stephen Glover effectively demolished all the arguments in favour of Women In Journalism, the organisation that has been set up to support equal opportunities for women who work in newspapers and magazines. Women can't possibly need help in proving their seriousness, he said; a male editor faced with the choice of recruiting a pretty girl or a boring boy for the same junior job will choose the girl because he will 'like having young females around him'. (And, as he says, the girls will all have babies and give up anyway, so they are much less competition.) A young woman once managed to get work experience on the Telegraph so what have the rest got to complain about? And if women were to become executives they would have to become as mean and horrible as men, which of course they don't want to do. Oh no? I think we could do a great mean and horrible, given half a chance.

THIS shames me, but I harbour uncharitable feelings towards Naomi Campbell. Not because she was paid a pounds 100,000 advance for a book she couldn't write (and according to rumours, has yet to read) while Booker prize-listed Jill Paton Walsh had to pay for her own publication. Not because Caroline Upcher, who did write the book, has seen only pounds 15,000. Not even because it's impossible to get into a bookshop now without negotiating pictures of Naomi and piles of her book. But because she is always late. She was late for her launch party, and she has been late for most of her signings. I know that in these post-modern times we can believe that Naomi's an author if we want to; but I still feel that if her one substantive contribution to the Naomi authorship experience is in the promotions department, she could at least get her act together and turn up on time.

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