Is Monogamy Dead? – Rosie Wilby

35329332Let’s try something a bit different. Instead of just posting my review of this book – comedian Rosie Wilby’s account of her thoughts on love, life and whether monogamy is still valid in modern society – I’ve been having a chat with the author herself.  We’ve done a bit of a question and answer session covering things which occurred to me while I was reading the book. They may not be the questions you’d ask but, if you are in the vicinity of Bradford on Saturday 1st you can go along to an event with Rosie and Mona Eltahawy and ask your own!

Jane – If I were doing the classic bookseller ‘if you liked x try y’ I would compare you to the likes of Sara Pascoe and Caitlin Moran? Educated, well-researched feminist humour with a serious edge. Does this sound fair? 

Rosie – Thank you! I’m pleased you say that. How To Be A Woman was very much a stylistic reference point in terms of tackling a societal issue through a combination of peering through a personal lens and then breaking into a broader passionate polemic. What Caitlin Moran does well is to seamlessly flow from one to the other within a chapter. I modelled my formatting, particularly for the first half, a bit more on a book I read last year: Trans by Juliet Jacques. Juliet introduces separate chapters for the factual and science-y sections that occasionally interrupt (and I mean that in good way!) the compelling memoir. When you read one, they illustrate some of the historical, political and sociological personal elements that have come up in the chapters you’ve just been reading. When I was on the LAMBDA queer writers’ retreat last Summer, Sarah Schulman, the non-fiction tutor said an amazing thing: ‘Nonfiction is the story of an idea’. It was the moment that influenced my decision to embed my own thinking and research in a memoir that illuminated why I had come to a point in my life to be questioning monogamy.

Jane – You say that when you first met Sarah you may, in hindsight, have met the wrong person to love but you did meet her at the right time. You were ready to fall in love. How many people do you think end up in bad relationships because they are ripe to fall in love at 16, 17, 18…..?

Rosie – I’m sure it’s an incredibly common phenomenon. We fall in love with the idea of being in love and who we pick as our object is really just random. 

Jane – Jane Austen is often criticised for making love and marriage all about money. Nowadays we are completely focussed on the ‘sex and passion’ side of the equation. Do we need to rebalance the passion and the practicalities of actually being with another person?

Rosie – Yes, that’s very much my argument. The science shows that sex and passion wane. So to just expect them to stay at the same high intensity level is to immediately open yourself up to disappointment and probably impose a shorter life span on your partnership. That’s not to say that we shouldn’t try and keep those things going. My friends, Jac and Angie, who are interviewed towards the very end of the book are, to some extent, my own saviours of monogamy. Angie said to me the other day, ‘we’ve always agreed that it’s never okay to not have sex.’ So they have pretty strict rules about keeping things sexual and not letting intimacy go for more than two weeks. 

Jane – The book is about finding the right woman but also about finding the woman you want to be. Do you think you’ve ‘found yourself’ yet? 

Rosie – I think humans are in constant state of evolving and rewiring. I’m very defined by what I do professionally: performance and creativity. That’s the one part that feels invincible. Nobody could ever tell me to give up my career.

Whereas shaping myself as a human in terms of compassion, listening, interacting in the world etc is something I’m happy to take constant advice from a partner on. We can never have all the answers to that.

Jane – The relationship escalator you describe is a scary thing – and very real – I had to have a menopause before people stopped asking me if I was sure we didn’t want to have kids. Do we need to find the big red emergency stop button (and hang on so we don’t get thrown off)? If so, what do you think it is?

Rosie – It is indeed a scary thing, particularly for women perhaps. I’m watching the terrifying Handmaid’s Tale on TV at the moment. It’s interesting how even such an extreme story has such a ring of truth. Maybe a woman’s destiny really is still viewed globally as giving birth. And that’s it. 

Jane – Comedy seems like a very isolated way of performing. Is it harder than being in a band or easier (because you only have yourself to rely on)?

Rosie – Exactly as you say, it’s both. I am a fiercely independent person. It’s typical for only children. I think comedy starts off incredibly social when you make friendships with other acts and you’re all in the same boat as new acts who nobody has heard of. Nobody knows who’s going to do well. I’ve done gigs a decade ago with Sara Pascoe, Bridget Christie, Susan Calman, Sarah Millican and more where we were all doing five minutes in some terrible pub to ten people and a dog. There’s a camaraderie to it. But when people start to become mega famous, you don’t really meet them much on the circuit any more. All the above are very friendly whenever I do.

However, I would say that writing is probably even lonelier than either thing. I’ve been quite struck by that. Even if you have a publisher and a nice agent and editor, it’s really all down to you. In comedy, you have the opportunity to constantly test your writing out on a real, live audience. And you can shape it accordingly by gauging their response and chatting to fellow acts afterwards. There’s no real equivalent in writing.

Jane – Loving the amount of scientific research you’ve done on monogamy. Anthropologically speaking do you think we are hard-wired for monogamy? Or are we still trying to fit into what we think society demands?

Jane – Our human lifespan is getting so much longer. Marriage for life used to mean for 30 or 40 years but soon it could mean 70 or 80 or more – is this exposing us to the ultimate limits of how long a monogamous relationship can last? 

Rosie – These two questions very much fit together and your second question here identifies why it has become so much harder to stay exclusive for life. It’s so long now. 

There are lots of interesting books like Sex at Dawn that argue that we are very much built for non-monogamy and that that has evolutionary benefits. In that book, there’s a diagram showing relative penis size of males in various species. Because the human male has such a relatively large penis, the authors argue that he’s showing off and trying to attract multiple mates.

Jane – You obviously do loads of research for your shows, including crowd-sourcing opinion via social media. How long does it take for a show to take shape? And do you tweak it during a tour?

Rosie – Again, thank you. I sometimes think if I actually costed all the hours I spend researching shows, I’d be in a huge financial deficit on every one of them, even the ones that have won awards, been programmed internationally, sold out venues and got five-star reviews. So it’s really rewarding when someone recognises the effort that has gone in. As I often use my own life, body, brain and heart as a science lab and experiment, I’m often living out the question in order to illustrate what is going on through my own experience. If you work in that way of deliberately provoking a life and art mirroring, then there can be an emotionally exhausting toll too. Fortunately, I find it all really fascinating. This book, in particular, has had a wider significance than just providing an interesting topic to write about. It’s crystallised ideas and thoughts about how I would like to exist in the world and what sort of people I want to keep close.

Jane – And finally, chocolate salad? Dark, milk, white or a bit of each?*

Rosie – Ha! Milk is my favourite. I know dark is healthier but if we also have the salad… 

Hope you enjoyed this discussion. Don’t forget if you are keen to hear more you can catch Rosie at the Bradford Literature Festival on Saturday 1st July ( with a second event on Thursday 6th July).

Jane

*I could explain the chocolate salad but you’ll need to read the book to find out…

 

Bradford Literature Festival 2017

I’m currently having a day off and gathering my strength in preparation for this year’s Bradford Literature Festival. The tagline is 400 Writers, 300 Events, 10 Days, 1 City. Since there is also only one bookshop with a limited number of booksellers this will be a flat-out and exhausting 10 days for me but, if it is even half as good as previous years, it will be well worth it. (And, let’s face it, it could well be even better – there’s a Harry Potter potions event at a local cocktail bar for goodness sake….).

I’ve already read books by some of the authors attending, (Amit Dhand, Ayisha Malik, David Barnett, Jeanette Winterson, Jo Baker, Sophia Tobin, Ross Raisin, Wray Delaney among others),  and have loads of other on my to-read pile. I’ve got a review and Q&A coming up in a day or two with comedian and author Rosie Wilby who is also doing a couple of events at the festival. I may, or may not, find the time and energy to blog over the next couple of weeks but I promise to try and get some photos and impressions of the events I’m able to see. And, of course, if you are in the area check out the festival programme. There are events to suit just about everyone, loads for children (many free too) and even some on cricket and motor-sports for those who don’t think they’re ‘book-festival people’. Come along. Say hi. Experience one of the most exciting, welcoming and vibrant literary festivals going.

Jane

That’s Not My Unicorn – Fiona Watt & Rachel Wells

Okay, let’s be honest here – I’m not the target audience for this book. I’m not a toddler. I don’t have a toddler. I don’t have any toddler relatives within a few hundred miles. But…

These books are perfect. They are simple and tactile enough to fascinate the under 5s and also older children (usually on the autism spectrum) who respond well to sensory factors in books. Any small person you know will probably read their favourite ‘That’s Not My…’ book with you repeatedly. You’ll give up long before they do (but please do not say ‘that’s not my bunny, he hasn’t been put into a delicious pie with prunes and suet pastry’ out loud) and be begging to read Peppa Pig instead. They are my go-to gift for pre-schoolers because in the 49 volumes so far there is something for everyone – puppies, dragons, tractors, witches, pandas, dinosaurs – reasonably priced and, like all books, easy to wrap. The big question was what would Usborne Publishing choose for the 50th book in the series…?

9781474935975I think Usborne chose well with the Unicorn. Always popular with the smalls this will also appeal to adults (who still love them, in my case especially one particular specimen drawn by a friend who is known as Terence the Badass Unicorn. That’s the drawing not the friend…He draws under the name Monkey Ghost Presents – great drawings for grown-ups, not toddlers). And the book is just gorgeous. It sparkles. It has silver, rainbow-effect blocked board pages. This book has pizzazz. And we all deserve a bit of that in our lives – even if we are only 2.

Jane

P.S. I will be passing this book on to Bex’s little one. She’s 2. She already has pizzazz. I think she’ll love it….

Plum – Hollie McNish

I don’t really remember when I stopped reading poetry. When I was a child my Mum and I used to read through our Palgrave’s Golden Treasury (favourites were Stevie Smith’s Not Waving But Drowning and Dylan Thomas Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night) and I especially loved it when we read Under Milk Wood (Mum’s Welsh accent is a bit rubbish but I still enjoyed it). I would learn poems off by heart – both long and short, but mostly ones I found funny – and I wrote a lot of what can only be described as doggerel.  Some of the most enjoyable events I have been to when working bookstalls at Literature Festivals have been with poets (although I am ashamed to say I found Simon Armitage’s voice so soothing I nearly nodded off listening to him – in my defence it was the last event of the festival and ran until gone 9pm….) but I just don’t read poetry. I will read a verse or two but I wouldn’t think to pick up a volume of poems and just read it…

plumHollie McNish is a young poet and spoken word artist who could bring me back into the world of poetry readers. This collection looks at subjects close to her heart – feminism, motherhood, the trials of adolescence – but also includes some poems she wrote as a very young child. To be fair I think her poems written at 8-10 years old are better than anything I could produce now and they have the charm of a youngster’s view of the world as well as value as verse. Interestingly McNish is still young but one of the poems which spoke to me most strongly was one about grey hairs (and how so many never get to have them) – as Jo Cox said, we really do have more in common than that which divides us…

I may not become a real poetry reader again – prose fiction and non-fiction still has so many temptations for me and there continue to be only 24 hours in the day – but this book has reminded me that I do enjoy the genre. Which means I have loads to look forward to in this year’s Bradford Literature Festival again…

Jane

After I’ve Gone – Linda Green

I read Linda Green’s previous novel because I knew exactly where it was set. I was completely familiar with the park in which a little girl goes missing. In this book I was on slightly less familiar ground – I know bits of Leeds but have rarely been to Mytholmroyd (although I am always amused by the fact that it rarely got a mention in the National news during the floods of December 2015 – too hard to pronounce when Hebden Bridge is so much easier…). Anyway, it is still good to be reading fiction in really mainstream genres, like psychological thrillers, which are set outside of London (or the USA).

30302155The book on one hand follows the love story of Jess – a feisty, take-no-prisoners, kind of girl in her early 20s – and Lee, a little older, working in PR, sophisticated and relatively well-off. And at first it seems like an amazing, whirlwind romance but suddenly Jess starts to see strange posts on Facebook, dated 18 months in the future, full of outpourings of grief. What shocks her is that her friends and family are grieving for her death. In their posts she can see the remains of her life mapped out before her – marriage, a beautiful baby and then, suddenly, a brutal, and possibly suspicious death. But no-one else can see the posts, she can’t even take a screen shot or photo of them: is she losing her mind? She has a history of mental health problems – having a breakdown after the death of her beloved mother when she was just 15 – but she is sure that this message from the future is real.

This is a pacy and well-plotted novel which touches on issues of parental love, domestic violence, public mourning via social media and mental health. It certainly made me think about whether the course of our lives is fixed. Do we move blindly into our future or can we shape it ourselves? Even as the book drew to its conclusion I couldn’t tell if Jess would succumb to the life that Facebook was showing her or whether she would find the strength to fight for herself and for her beloved baby. If you enjoyed Gone Girl and its imitators then give Linda Green a try. Even if you can’t pronounce Mytholmroyd…

Jane

Postman’s Fiancée – Denis Thériault

When I’m on holiday I like to read books set in the area I’m visiting. This year, however, we did a bit of a tour of Northern Europe (Denmark, a bit of Sweden and then Latvia) and I wasn’t in the mood for Nordic Noir so I just gathered up the next half-dozen or so books on my magic spreadsheet of ‘things to read’ (plus our children’s Book of the Month for June and the next title for the shop book group). Most of these were set in the usual places – the UK, the United States, a bit of outer space – but I did manage to include a quirky little novel set in Montréal with a German heroine. A pretty international haul, I think you’ll agree (although I need to get more books by non-European or North American authors read, I know…).

9781786071132_1In the Postman’s Fiancée we meet Tania, a young Bavarian woman who moves to Montréal to improve her French. She falls in love with a customer at the café she works in, Bilodo a quiet and shy postman, even though they never speak beyond orders for drinks and food. When Bilodo has a serious accident and loses his memory Tania poses as his fiancée in an effort to make his love for her a reality. If you think of a cross between Amélie and While You Were Sleeping in book form (with additional haiku) you’d not be far off. The plot is rather like a French farce, as Tania tries to keep the amnesiac Bilodo from any contact with his past but it also has a strong thread of sadness (or maybe I should say ennui, it sounds more appropriate with a french twist) running through it.  As well as the french feel to the book it has a rather spare elegance, like the haiku used throughout. I read this as a standalone novel but there is an earlier book, featuring some of the same characters, whose plot intertwines with it which I have now added to my ‘to-read’ list.

Jane

 

 

Vindolanda – Adrian Goldsworthy

As well as reading and talking about books I’m quite partial to a laugh. Rob too, especially when politics is happening. We are prone to relieving the tension by trying to have whole conversations made up of quotes from some of our favourite comedians. Monty Python and Blackadder feature heavily, of course, as does the Mighty Boosh but our fall-back funnyman usually seems to be Eddie Izzard. Not sure why – apart from him being a pretty amazing guy, hilarious, clever and able to do stand-up in multiple languages – but bread guns and spider-gravy are part of our natural vocabulary. I mention this because it is impossible for me to think about the people who invaded these islands back in  AD43 without saying (quite possibly out loud) ‘we’re the Romans’ in a very squeaky voice. Which made reading historian Adrian Goldsworthy’s novel, Vindolanda, entertaining in a way he probably didn’t expect.

9781784974688Vindolanda was a Roman fort near to Hadrian’s Wall (although it was built before the wall itself) which I have visited a few times – full of low walls (another Izzardism) and with fascinating displays of what everyday life would have been like in the first century AD. It is in this area that the novel is set and where the hero, centurion Flavius Ferox, is responsible for keeping the peace between the Romans and the British tribes. His job is being made all the harder by a mysterious druidic figure known as the Stallion and the possibility of a Roman traitor. I particularly enjoyed the fact that Ferox is a bit of a maverick, with a past involving a missing woman and a drinking problem. This kind of policeman is a standard figure in crime thrillers (which this is despite its historical setting) – I can see no reason why they shouldn’t have existed in Roman Britain…

Goldsworthy’s detailed historical knowledge is obvious here. The military systems, the layout of forts, the life of the wives of senior officers, the politics of the relationships between the invaders and the native peoples all flow effortlessly onto the page. I never felt, however, that I was reading anything but a gripping crime thriller. Story always seemed as important as the historical facts. If you are looking for a series for fans of authors like Simon Scarrow, Conn Iggulden or Robert Fabbri from the ending of the book it seems obvious that Ferox will have further crimes and mysteries to solve in future volumes.

Jane