When I see a room full of women, which I do regularly now that I am living in Oxford, mainly among the retired or women who have never had careers, whether it’s an art class, an exhibition or a church meeting, my heart sinks and I long to be male, or at least sitting with the boys.
This week was typical. I attended my usual Friday life painting group where the women are all elderly. Some of them took part in early CND marches, they tend to see themselves as Bohemian. Their true class origins are betrayed by the wearing of white dungarees even to draw with charcoal, their love of pedigree labradoodles, and constant discussion about their children’s education. They also have to make known, like religious fanatics, their medical ‘issues’.
Our group contains two coeliacs no less, although I have read that the condition is rare. Most of them boast a wheat intolerance. Their lunch boxes contain mainly celery, quoina and beetroot. This week I noticed one very thin lady eating nothing but a single carrot for her lunch. She didn’t look as if she’s ever eaten anything more.
I was unhappily aware of her because by lunch time, gently spoken and well bred as she is, she’d already caused me some dismay. We’d been looking at some drawings on the art room wall. They were images based on popular lines from Hamlet, concerning the death of Ophelia. She hadn’t heard of Ophelia, in fact I don’t think she knew the play.
‘I don’t know about those things,’ she simpered. She probably had thousands spent on her education and reminded me of a wealthy young woman I’d met at an expensive private art school in Chelsea. We’d been on a trip to the National Gallery when I noticed we were in the Constable room. She couldn’t bring his name to mind, then recalled something and said, ‘Is he the one who painted that cart thingy?’
Sometimes over lunch the ladies break off from discussing their children and their food intolerances to things they like on TV. A lady with the carrot said she’d been watching a repeat of Tinker Taylor Soldier Spy.
‘It’s very hard to follow though,’ she whispered. ‘I have to ask my husband what’s going on.’ Some of the others admitted they’d had the same problem during the recent showing of War & Peace as the Russian names were too confusing. Some had tried to watch a recent programme about the Renaissance, they approve of traditional old master paintings, but it had demanded too much concentration.
There is sometimes a man present at these gatherings. He will be sitting quietly over his sandwich box, which often contains something as quaint as a ham sandwich made with full fat butter. If you engage him in conversation it can be like stepping out from a suffocating, humid atmosphere into a blast of fresh air.
This week I mentioned to the token chap that I’d been to a symposium on the Easter Rising of 1916. He was interested and knew something about it. He had an opinion and conversation followed. It would not have been worth raising this topic with any of the ten women around the table. I know from bitter experience that they don’t do current affairs or history. For the women of the intolerance culture who live on myths about food, facts of any kind are considered rather unpleasant and certainly unnecessary to their lives.
The day after the class I attended a supper party; lots of middle aged women present, many of them single and active in local art groups and voluntary work with ‘Special needs children’. One told us she had been ‘knitting for peace’. Her woollen yurt had been shown in a local art fair last year.
‘It was political,’ her friend told us approvingly. No jokes about politics followed however.
‘Like the tricoteuse’ quipped one of the two men. Blank stares. He tried to explain about the French knitters of 1793 sitting by the Guillotine but none of the women knew what he was talking about. The conversation switched to dolls. Some of them had been making ‘political dolls’ in support of socialism.
‘Like Archie Andrews, one of those ventriloquists’ dummies,’ said the other man, to be met by the same puzzled silence. He was OK because he had the other man present to talk to. A woman trying to make a joke would have been socially dead, hived off into a no-woman’s land for the not wanted.
The man, an American, began discussing the Profumo Affair. He suggested that no one in America had ever heard of the UK until that scandal. He was being playfully ironic, something much rarer among women than among Americans. His conversation sounded interesting but at that point I was getting into trouble in a different part of the room as I’d offered the remains of a very delicious home-made fruit crumble to a woman.
‘I can’t eat that,’ she said emphatically. I asked if she was diabetic. Of course I suspected that she was no more diabetic than Maria Sharapova. I was deliberately getting myself into a situation.
‘I’ve had cancer’, she said slowly, with great importance.
‘So have I’, I replied, ‘Eating this bit of pudding won’t bring it back.’
‘My Doctor’, she said with great emphasis, showing two rows of clenched teeth, ‘a qualified oncologist, says that it will. Sugar is the main driver of cancer.’
‘No it isn’t,’ I said as reckless as one on a full sugar high. I don’t have any medical knowledge but I’m pretty sure that if you do not eat too much of the white stuff and become obese, a little of it now and then is OK. I have also known cancer sufferers who refused sugar and died anyway. I didn’t say that. I didn’t say anything else to her as she was looking so furious.
‘When I express my opinion I don’t expect anyone to disagree with me like that,’ she said as if she wanted to take a big bite out of me. I hopped it to the next table to offer someone else a remaining slice of Bakewell Tart, made by a pastry expert. It just melted in the mouth.
‘I can’t eat that, I’m coeliac,’ this one replied. Hadn’t I guessed it?
So I migrated to the male corner where they were enjoying some red wine. Only two bottles had been brought along, one by me. We had a fine old chat, about politics past and present. One of them belonged to the woman who was afraid of sugar and she tried to call him away several times. I kept raising my voice a little to block her out. He was engrossed in a lively talk about the Rolling Stones. The other man had seen them live years ago, both were interested in the origin of rhythm & blues. I would never get that kind of chat with the girls. I was sad to see him go eventually as his wife pulled him away giving me a look reserved for impure sisters.
I am increasingly sad to meet the kind of women I do; so dull, so ignorant, worse than my grandmother’s generation who never had the chance of education or independent thought. For the first time in my life I see that many men get a raw deal in marriage, not women. If they spend time in the pub with other men, or play away I can understand it. But then again they don’t marry women like me, they marry women like them. It must be all about sex when they are very young or desperation for children, because they settle for very little in terms of an equal companion. How awful to troop home at night to these dull bores.
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