On stress, Sancerre and being Sue Gray
Last week, after eighteen days of Dry January, I cracked. I marched to the fridge, found a bottle of Sancerre with that lovely mist that shows it’s chilled to perfection, grabbed a corkscrew and broke a promise.
It wasn’t a public promise like, for example, the kind you make in an election manifesto or on the side of a bus. It wasn’t a law like, for example, the kind you break when you have a birthday party in a country where all parties have been banned. It was a promise to myself that I would, after two years of treating alcohol as a gossamer link to a world where parties were legal, safe and fun, Take Back Control. And I did. For eighteen long days, I did. And then I decided to Take Back Control of the head prefect in my head.
It was masculinity that did it. Toxic masculinity. I was drowning in the stuff, choking in it, going to bed with it, waking up with it, eating with it, sleeping with it, and it was wearing me down. Yes, you’ve guessed it. I had three books about masculinity to read and review for The Sunday Times.
I didn’t plan to cram them all into three days, but the week before got eaten up. I did four interviews for my new book, which was fun. An interview you don’t have to research! All you have to do is write a book and then say whatever pops into your head. Which included, it turned out, comments about shrinking eyes and the need for eyeliner vigilance, which I didn’t realise was being recorded, but was.
I also interviewed Julie Bindel for my podcast The Art of Work and read her new book, Feminism for Women. Julie has been hailed as a “rock star” of feminism. The daughter of a steel worker and a mother who worked in a betting shop, she was brought up in a house with coal fires and an outside loo. She has spent 40 years campaigning to stop violence against women. She has been hit, assaulted and threatened with rape. Every time she’s booked to speak at a public event or a university she faces protests and the risk of being cancelled, both online and “in real life”. But she keeps fighting, she told me, because “feminism is everything” to her. “It is,” she says, “what gets me up in the morning. It's what helps me make sense of the world”.
Julie Bindel has what Dame Sarah Connolly, a previous guest on my podcast, calls “balls of steel”. She’s dogged, dedicated and brave. I have to admit I felt slightly envious of her. Not of the threats or abuse, of course, but of the sense of a mission, a purpose, a sense of injustice that powers her through every day. Like me, she also likes opera and negronis. “I like all the things that were denied me growing up,” she said, “that gives me loads of joy. And, you know, if you're lucky enough to have a job that gives you joy and satisfaction, you're the luckiest person on earth.” I agree. Passion, purpose, and plenty of cocktails. Now that’s what I call a good life.
I’m not absolutely sure that I’d call a good weekend one that’s spent reading books with titles like A History of Masculinity: From Patriarchy to Gender Justice, Sexual Revolution: Modern Fascism and the Feminist Fightback and What Do Men Want? Masculinity and Its Discontents. But that’s what I had. Apart from a pause on Saturday night to talk about “Operation Save Big Dog” and “Operation Red Meat” on Sky News, I spent pretty much every moment of the weekend following the twists and turns of masculinity throughout history, throughout the globe.
By the time I’d finished the third book, at Monday lunch-time, I’d forgotten the first two, so had to go through all three, trying to convert my vague scrawls into pages and pages of notes. And by the time I got to bed, at 3am on Tuesday, Operation Masculinity Review had turned into - well, a Sue Gray report with so much material to draw on that I couldn’t see a way to squeeze it all in.
Somehow, I got the thing done. It passed muster. I almost wept with relief. I spent the next six hours catching up with emails. The sun passed the yardarm. The Sancerre sang and I cracked.
It’s hard to capture the sense of joy that comes when you’ve been straining every sinew, as the government likes to put it, to meet a deadline and the clock has been ticking and the anxiety has been mounting, and you do it, you get the damn thing done. If you’re a journalist, you get the right number of words on the right topic in the right tone on the page, and send it to the right person and they like it. Hooray! Job done. And now I can sip Sancerre and flick through a Sunday supplement or Google some Italian properties, just for the hell of it. I can fiddle with my phone and piddle around on Twitter.
Over the next couple of days, I did a lot of “piddling around on Twitter”. I had to take my computer to a “Genius Bar” at Covent Garden and then, of course, I had to go out for coffee and cake. I had to watch Prime Minister’s Questions, because the toxic masculinity unfolding on the screen was a) a tragedy for a liberal democracy and an important event for a journalist to observe, even a journalist who had much more urgent things on her to-do list, and b) utterly gripping. I had to read the comment about PMQs because - well, a and b above. And I had to keep abreast with Sue Gray. In fact, perhaps I was Sue Gray? To be honest, it was all getting rather confusing.
And then, suddenly, we were galloping towards the end of the week and I had masses of emails to answer and a podcast to edit and release, and one to research and record, and things to sort out for my book launch, and it was Friday night and it was time for a negroni because, well, because it was Friday night and I had earned it.
But I hadn’t earned it. I had earned the Sancerre, which was so very cool and crisp and delicious, because I had had 18 days without Sancerre, without even Aldi Assyrtikou (which is also very good), and because I had worked very, very hard for about 10 days. I hadn’t earned the negroni because I had been “treating” myself to a daily alcohol reward ever since I’d cracked over the Sancerre, and because I hadn’t done most of the things I’d told myself I’d do that week, because I’d been too busy being Sue Gray.
And what I learnt from that is that the focused work, doing something difficult and meeting a challenging deadline, is stressful and can feel quite unpleasant, but is much, much, much more satisfying than the piddling around. The piddling around feels more like fun at the time, but can leave you feeling fractious and slightly disgusted. It can make you feel, in fact, as if you’ve drunk pretty much every night for two years when you planned to save drinking for a weekend treat. Not speaking personally, obviously, but I imagine that must feel terrible.
PS Finished copies of my book are in! This, according to the tweet from my editor (below), is what it looks like! Do come to the launch at Waterstone’s Piccadilly on publication day, Thursday 17th February. I’m in conversation with the wonderful, bestselling writer Daisy Buchanan. Details here.
And don’t miss this week’s podcast with inspirational teacher, social worker and creator of timelines for The Guardian and the British Library, Gaverne Bennett. Out on Friday!