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I started writing a comment on the highly thought-provoking guest post by Anna-Lena Dubé Fuller, ‘Women in the Media – Not’ and Motherhood v Careers, but it began to balloon, veer, swoop, and all sorts of other alarming things, so I decided to make it a post all of its own.

The discussion in the comments on Anna-Lena’s post is riveting and wide-ranging, as debates about parenthood and paid work tend to be. To tell the truth, I have a habit of shying away from such debates, because the emotions they evoke in me are fairly raw.

The Job of Being a Parent But what the hell, she said defiantly!

Here’s my experience:

I have a permanent, public-sector job, from which I’m currently on my second career break. I’ve done the work/parenting balance various ways since my two children arrived. At first, I went back to work full-time, then cut to four days, then took a one-year break. When I went back after that, it was half time, and when my second baby was born I took the career break I’m on now.

(Where is the father? I confess we fit a modern stereotype: he’s a committed feminist, an engaged parent, who earns considerably more than I do, in a career that doesn’t accommodate the kind of chopping and changing that I’ve undertaken – and even if it did, he wouldn’t be too enthusiastic about the idea. And at the same time, he is uncomfortable at being the sole earner in our household. Hooray.)

So, yes, obviously I’m enormously “lucky” to be in a position to do all this – the “family friendly” options available to me are a privilege denied thousands of other parents.

(The quotation marks around “lucky” and “family friendly”? We’ll come back to those.)

When I was working full-time in 2005, with my baby in a crèche, the economics of it angered me: the only reason why the crèche was “affordable” to us was that the women (yes, of course they were all women) who cared for our child were paid far less than my partner and I were. Their work, which was so utterly crucial to our family’s wellbeing, was apparently of considerably less “value” to society than ours.

To me, this is outrageously messed up. Yet in our current system, in the absence of free childcare from relatives, it’s usually the only way in which parents can sustainably work for pay – and as we know, a second or third set of childcare fees puts it out of reach for many.

(At my job, incidentally, I edit scholarly journals and monographs. I believe passionately in the effective dissemination of peer-reviewed research. But I don’t believe it’s intrinsically more valuable than providing a loving foundation for the development of a whole new person.)

Many children are happy in group care – and more are happy enough that it’s a good solution for the family.

Ours wasn’t.

I took my first career break largely for personal reasons: I had ignored my physical and mental needs to the extent that I was close to a breakdown, and in fact it was the HR manager at work who first suggested that I apply for time off. But within weeks, it became clear what a beneficial change it was for my child, too. I’ll never forget the transformation, in fact – from timid anxiety to … well, a much less heartbreaking native caution.

Lesson One: insofar as possible, parent the child you’ve got. One size does not fit all, and the size that seems a good fit for the parents may be overwhelming to the child.

Lesson Two: if the current setup isn’t functioning, it’s OK to try something else. (I wish I’d learned this one about six months earlier than I did.)

On career break, my anger became more raw. Suddenly, I was seen as “not working” – despite, from my perspective, working harder than I ever had in my life. The same caring tasks that the women in the crèche had done for low pay, I was doing for no pay and (it seemed) largely invisibly. The drop in status was as much of a shock to the system as the disappearance of my income.

We may note that I’m a dyed-in-the-wool-privileged-middle-class daughter of two (full-time) academics: nothing in my life had prepared me for the notion that my chosen contribution to society might be seen as anything less than completely worthy and valuable. Call me naive! It was an awakening.

Even my parents didn’t seem to get that I was doing “real” work by caring for my child. And actually, even I didn’t get it at first. My mother has worked full-time all my life, as did hers, and as I settled into the so-called “stay-at-home” routine I was shocked and ashamed to find myself revising my unarticulated opinion of my aunts, who had left their jobs when they had children. Oh my actual god, said I to myself, all these years, they were working, and I never knew!

Ah, but is it really work, Ted?

Some people – including feminist friends whose opinions I hold in high regard – disagree with me that caring for one’s own children is “work”. In my experience, though, that’s exactly what it is. I’m talking about things like changing nappies, preparing and serving food, managing hygiene, mediating conflicts, administering first aid, handling emotional squalls, providing a safe (and age-appropriate) environment to explore, introducing and enforcing behavioural conventions, maintaining a social circle, and so on. As far as I’m concerned, these activities are work. They might often be enjoyable, or feel vocational, but plenty of paid work fits those criteria.

I mean, if they’re not work, what are they?

LEISURE?

I don’t think so.

The fact remains, of course, that caring work, especially if done for no pay by parents or close relatives, is largely invisible. The reasons for this are complex, but chief among them is a widespread preoccupation in our culture with tangible, preferably measurable outputs. At the end of a day with my children – and I imagine the same is true of caring for a sick or elderly relative – all I really have to show for my work is their own inscrutable selves, one day older.

And yet Studies Show (no, seriously, they do) that the quality of care, particularly for younger children, matters enormously. Not to be sentimental about it, children thrive on love, and on the practical manifestations of love that a committed carer provides. Children who aren’t given a loving foundation are at risk of developing affects and behaviours that are harmful to themselves or others.

(NOTE, incidentally, that I am BY NO MEANS suggesting that this care need come exclusively from a parent – never mind a mother. Any loving adults with whom the child feels safe and happy can potentially provide it. Furthermore, children do best when their caring adults feel good about their choices. So you can put that straw man away, please.)

That’s all very cerebral. Where’s the anger?

Partly, it’s in the disconnect between society’s description of me as a “non-working mother”, on the one hand, and on the other hand, my experience of working enormously hard all day (and all of the night, too – neither of my children was “a sleeper” … though the elder one figured it out eventually, and I’m sure it’s only a matter of time before the younger one does).

Paid carers generally get to do things like, oh, arriving at work and, concomitantly, going home again, after all. Many of them even get unaccompanied loo breaks – which in my recent life have been for considerable periods a halcyon dream.

So, to summarise, if you do a job that allows breaks every day, weekends, sick pay, holiday pay – and, in fact, pay in the first place – you’re “working”. BUT if you perform exactly the same tasks, without any of the breaks or the pay and with a 24/7 on-call clause, you’re “not working”. Run that one by me again?

Partly, it’s in the resonant unease I feel at the phrase “stay-at-home mother” – as though I’ve completely withdrawn from some notionally bounded space called “the world” into a mysterious sphere called “the home”, from which I rarely emerge. See also: feminist discourse of the last two centuries.

Partly, it’s in the fact that my paid work is totally incompatible with my unpaid work: I have to make an either/or choice, and even though my employer is “flexible”, relatively speaking, that choice feels very constrained. (Here, by the way, is why calling myself “lucky” to have such a “family-friendly” employer isn’t exactly straightforward for me.)

This is about the traditional workplace, which conceives of a “worker” as being free to devote uninterrupted chunks of daily time to the employer. You can’t do that while actively caring for a young child. The problem is often articulated as the assumption that a “worker” has a “wife” – in other words, is supported by somebody doing care and maintenance work in “the home”.

Partly, it’s in the idea that by choosing to care for my own children, rather than pay someone else a meagre sum to do so while I go and sell my labour to a third-party, I am in some sense no longer “contributing”. My work isn’t reflected in the gross national product at the moment, ergo it’s “less valuable” than when I was earning a salary. Bizarrely, this would be true no matter what I might have been doing to earn that salary.

Partly, it’s in the way our current structure for rewarding work completely precludes the possibility of anyone ever paying me for the (difficult, valuable) work I’m doing at the moment. The “product” of my caring work, if you like, will be my adult children. (This is of course a collaborative project between me, their father, and several other adults in their lives, but currently, I’m putting in the greatest number of hours.) If we do a “good” job, the children are more likely – though not guaranteed – to grow up to be happy, functional, thoughtful members of society. What’s that worth? Classically, nothing, because nobody is prepared to pay for it.

Hello, rage.

I think we need to do two things

First, we reframe the concept of “work”, so that it encompasses more than just labour sold for money.

Some of my starting points:

  • Anything I could reasonably pay someone else to do is work. (Yes, this unsettles some categories, such as “hobbies”; I’m OK with that.)
  • Work can be joyful or arduous, or anything in between, and this bears no relation to pay.
  • Everybody deserves opportunities to perform joyful work, and to be fairly compensated for some or all of the work that they do.
  • The cultural bias against unpaid work is strong: we need to pay attention to where we unintentionally fail to see such work and thereby denigrate those who do it.

Second, we restructure the traditional workplace to get rid of the notion that a worker needs a wife.

To do this, we might adapt my favourite approach to the “problem” of maternity leave – change the default so that every worker is treated as though they were pregnant – and treat every worker as though they had caring responsibilities.

(Actually, when I put it like that, wouldn’t it be fabulous to live in a society where that were true? Where the burden of caring for those who needed it was in fact shared by everybody who could contribute? Let’s do that, shall we.)

What this might look like, I’m not sure. On-site care facilities in all companies? Across-the-board reduction and flexibility in working hours? A move away from the traditional obsession with working at a specific time and place? Massively increased carers’ allowances? Mandatory burden-sharing agreements between the employers of co-parents? Bring Your Child to Work Day, every day? Certified Work-Life-Balance Counsellors helping to design an individual solution for each family?

I don’t know. It’s a huge question. Perhaps, in our lifetime, we won’t get there from here. But I’d like to think that we could try.

Meanwhile, while waiting for the revolution, ahahaha, and in parallel with my caring work, I’m pursuing various creative and entrepreneurial projects (fiction writing, textile art, blogging), which may or may not bear fruit before I return to my job next spring. I have all kinds of complex feelings about work, pay, value, and so forth, and I don’t imagine they’ll get much simpler as time goes on.

Note on language: You may have noticed that I didn’t state either my children’s assigned genders or my marital status in this piece. This was deliberate. They’re not relevant to what I’m saying here.

Right then. Off we go.

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I had a meeting last week with some people involved in adult education. As a writer who counts teaching creative writing as one of her jobs, it’s an area that I hover at the fringes of. On the one hand, yes, I teach adults (some of the time) – they are evening classes; they are for self-improvement; they are usually people who come not just in search of facts and figures but how to apply what they already know to what they’re trying to do next and how to learn in this new field. On the other hand, they are not practical in the sense of providing one with a certificate that can be used to go on and do something else with; they are not things you pass or fail.

I’m on the fringes of ‘ordinary’ education too. I’m not an English teacher. I sometimes go into English classes or school libraries, but I’m not there to teach the syllabus and get students passing their exams. I teach on specialist programmes, things that complement the ‘normal’ education people get in school. So it maybe wasn’t too surprising that I found myself surprised by the way ‘adult education’ was conceptualised as something opposed to ‘ordinary education’, as though children will simply absorb whatever you say without questioning its purpose while adults need to see the relevance of something to their own experience. When we talked about the kinds of activities that might be suitable to adult ed, I found myself drawing on activities I use at a summer course I teach to/facilitate for teenagers. It seems so bizarre to me that lines are drawn between the adult ed student and the regular student, the grown-up and the adolescent. When you teach the stuff that’s not on the syllabus, in environments where learners are more often than not there because they want to be, you see the similarities much more than the differences.

The same week, I read yet another book about gifted children, When Gifted Kids Don’t Have All The Answers. One of the specialist programmes I teach on is aimed at gifted kids and teens, and it’s an area that fascinates me, so I try to keep up with the books and guides and research as much as I can. There’s one part that stays with me – a comment about how we so often tell kids it’s okay ‘as long as they did their best’ or we tell them ‘just do your best’. At everything. And it asks us, how many adults do we know that do their best at everything they do?

We live in an era of retraining and career-shifting, a time when adults are often continuing education formally or informally, trying to improve themselves or change themselves. We see what works for adult learners and we develop new ways of teaching and facilitating accordingly. I just wonder how much of that we can apply to younger learners, rather than assuming they are somehow ‘built’ to learn or that there are skills necessary for learning that we want young people to have but don’t have ourselves and somehow manage to get by. There are things that younger learners don’t know, haven’t experienced, have trouble with, sure – but they’re not entirely different creatures.

For any of the rest of you, readers or contributors, what do you think of the differences between learning as an adult and learning at a ‘standard’ age? Do we expect something different from our experiences learning as an adult – or do we respond to the different way we’re taught?

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This is a small rant, or maybe it’s not really a rant but an appeal. I was at the recent National Women’s Council of Ireland meeting titled ‘Women in the Media, Not’ and it was generally brilliant. There was an initiative to encourage radio and television producers to air more women, including an innovative list of possible experts in a wide range of areas so that the old excuse of ‘there are no women’ would not hold up. However a big element of the conference seemed to be to encourage women to say yes! if they are asked to give their opinion on any subject, as hesitation and unavailability are the real enemy to female participation in the media. A very encouraging and motivational atmosphere so far, the underlying message seemed to be that individual women had to take some responsibility for being out of the limelight, and increased exposure of any description is good for all women and especially girls who are used to taking a back seat.

However, one member of the panel got up to speak and revealed that a year ago she had been handed her ideal once-in-a-lifetime job. As editor of a newly launching news website she was being given creative and directional control, and full respect and power, by her financial backers, the only reservation she had going in was her two young children. She then rather painfully revealed that she had decided to give up this position, which she admitted to loving and being good at, as she could no longer cope with the responsibility of motherhood and a more-than full-time job. I say ‘painfully’, as the decision was still raw and the language she used to describe her obligation to her children was of guilt for neglecting them and uncomfortableness with leaving her children in substandard childcare (being unable to afford a more stable solution). I did not know what I expected after such a statement, but I’m still in shock over what did happen. Over the course of the conference audience members were allowed to talk and shortly one women rose to say she supported this journalist fully and that motherhood was the most important function of women and the youngest years were the most formative yadda yadda yadda and then someone else at the back concurred. Susan McKay as chair did emphasise that the NWCI supported all women, no matter their position, yet the one voice suggesting mothers and fathers be joint parents was lost.
Now, I do not know this journalist or her husband’s profession, and it’s none of my business personally how she arranges her work and childcare, but I was dissatisfied with the response from the room full of experienced worldly women. I realise now that I expected genuine sympathy for this journalist, and anger that she has all the opportunities in the world and is unable to take advantage of them. At a conference detailing the lack of women available to talk on radio, or appear on television, or write, we did not lament this loss of one more fiery journalist.
Parenthood is great, I’m sure and people do find it fulfilling, but in Ireland it is also a trap. By elevating expensive childcare out of reach of the poorer classes we denigrate their struggles as working parents and by elevating motherhood over parenthood, or any ‘other one versus the other’ mentality we will always feel guilty over our choices. That is another argument. This argument is: where is the anger? It may be an unanswerable question for the women’s movement, but that does not mean we should feel helpless. Why is no one else angry that this accomplished, intelligent woman has to sacrifice her dream job because she simply cannot juggle anymore? So I will say it now, to this woman. I am genuinely sorry that she had to give up a position that had obviously brought her much joy and professional satisfaction. I understand that she wanted to give her children the best childhood possible and I hope that they appreciate all that she does for them. I also hope that in the future there are more options available.
Anna-Lena Dubé Fuller is an Irish-Trinidadian artist studying Gender and Women’s Studies at Trinity College, Dublin. Some of  her work will be shown as part of the ‘Queer as Political’ art exhibition in Cork opening on June 3rd at The Other Place.

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A few weeks ago I met a delegation of Swedish journalists on a visit to Dublin. Fresh from a visit to the Irish Times offices, they remarked on the fact that there seemed to be very few women in the newsroom. They pointed out that in Sweden, men and women are so evenly distributed across the workplace that equality is something that’s hardly even discussed any more. It’s taken for granted. Inequality is a historical curiosity, or something to be noticed in other countries.

I’d been thinking about this, off and on, when I first heard that Easter Sunday would see the publication of a biography of Rachel Beer. Beer (born in 1858) was the first woman editor of a national newspaper in Britain; actually, she edited two papers at the same time – both The Sunday Times and The Observer.

As a young woman, Beer deliberately delayed marrying, because she didn’t want to land up with someone who was interested only in her fortune (her family, the Sassoons, had amassed quite a pile through the opium and cotton trades) or in squashing her independence. She ended up marrying (for love) financier Frederick Beer, who inherited the Observer from his father. (Why has no-one ever written a will leaving me even, say, a local freesheet?) He’d converted from Judaism to Christianity, which caused Rachel’s mother, and other members of her staunchly Jewish family, to refuse to see her.

At any rate, Frederick installed his wife as editor of the Observer in 1891. It wasn’t just a rich woman’s hobby – there was no fooling about on the fringes of her husband’s work for Rachel Beer – but a real job. She wrote news copy and editorials, and sniffed out stories even though as a woman she was unable to gain access to the spaces where news stories developed: the House of Commons and the exclusive city clubs where gossipy politicians, tycoons and male editors sculled madeira and snorted snuff. One of her great scoops was persuading Count Esterhazy to admit to the forgery of the letters which had led to Captain Dreyfus’s conviction and life imprisonment for treason – ultimately Dreyfus was released and Esterhazy was court martialled.

In 1894 she bought the Sunday Times and edited it simultaneously with the Observer, but by 1896, Frederick had become seriously ill with tuberculosis, and by 1903 he was dead. His death devastated Rachel, and her family reported her behaviour as being increasingly erratic. They had her sectioned (always so convenient), the newspapers were sold, and she lived in care for the rest of her life.

No woman was to edit a Fleet Street newspaper for eighty years after Rachel Beer. It’s about time we took our hats off to her. This biography, First Lady of Fleet Street The Life, Fortune and Tragedy of Rachel Beer by Yehuda Koren and Eilat Negev, was published on 24th April.

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My desk last summer, it has gotten so much worse!

I was fascinated by this collection of photos. Writers at their work stations; creating, pondering, posing and working.

The creative process in others has always held my interest, no matter the art. I am a terrible cook, but love to sit, glass of wine in hand, and watch my husband create magic in the kitchen from raw materials. I am in awe of people who can knit and/or design clothing. I can carry a tune but would flounder immediately if you asked me to create music. I cannot paint, but love to look at art.

But write? Write I can do, and have long loved this personal slice of creation pie. I am happiest at my desk, coffee to my right, a cat sprawled to my left. I realised recently that I spend more time here per day than I do sleeping.

Looking over the photos in the collection above the image that connected fully with me was that of Tennessee Williams. His scattergun desk closely resembles mine; cluttered, covered in books, a mess of creation. How on earth everyone else works from serene tidiness is beyond my ken. Where is their…stuff?

Let me give you a run down of my desk right this second.

Aside from my computer there are many books, some open, some stacked precariously, there’s the wine glass from last night as I worked over edits and beside that a cup stuffed with pens and pencils; most of the pens don’t work (why the heck don’t I throw them out?), a pack of tissues, junk jewelry, a paperweight, a tin of paint ( cookie dough) a manuscript belonging to Declan Burke (new book, dark and entertaining), a silver carriage clock, a lamp festooned with earrings, notebooks – most open onto pages covered in my indecipherable scrawling handwriting, dog nail clippers, two speakers, a cardboard tube containing the blown up cover of Missing Presumed Dead, a small feather duster I use to play chase with Bill the Cat, a stack of plastic files, a kit-kat wrapper, a page of reader’s notes, sunglasses and finally, a letter my daughter wrote to ‘sunta’ aged six where she asks for ‘a rising track and woky tacky’ and informs him she had been ‘very good’ as she ‘fond 20 pond’s’ and gave it ‘to the man in the shop.’

So what about it? Are you a Williams or a Christie? Neat or threatened by teetering piles? Can you work from your lap like one person I know (impossible, I don’t know how he does it!)? Or do you need space and order to write and think?

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According to the UN Global Report on Women in Tourism the tourism sector, one of the most significant generators of wealth and employment globally, is also credited with providing valuable income-generation and career opportunities for women. In contrast with other sectors women are almost twice as likely hold positions as employers in tourism and the leadership possibilities span the whole spectrum of roles from hotel proprietors right up to government ministers; women hold one in five tourism ministries worldwide, more than in any other branch of government. However, despite this relatively high representation it should be pointed out in this context that 20% is still appalling and that our own Leo Varadkar is quite clearly a man.

The issue is that, despite this high level of involvement in tourism, the women working in this sector are all too often “concentrated in low-skill, low-paid and precarious jobs,” and typically earn “10% to 15% less than their male counterparts.” The jobs that women are most likely to perform tend to include cooking, cleaning and hospitality, states the report. While the UN focused specifically on the developing world, a quick glance at this key industry here in Ireland is disheartening. Fáilte Ireland Authority members and holders of key positions are overwhelmingly male as are the boards and senior management of both major airlines.

I’m not offering any specific criticisms of the way tourism is organised and represented in Ireland. To date we have done very well in attracting and satisfying our overseas visitors. I simply feel saddened yet again that here is another  important and potentially very dynamic sector that is skewed at the upper levels in favour of men. In the future tourism represents a mechanism of attracting overseas cash into the country, enhancing our natural resources to the benefit of visitors and residents alike and, perhaps most importantly of all, improving our tarnished reputation globally. I would like to see a few more women at the helm determining and implementing policy rather than simply serving up the full Irish breakfast.

Anyone any ideas or opinions as to why this is the case?

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Feminism and the art of burlesque have traditionally had a complex relationship. It is empowering? Degrading? Subversive? Creative? Clichéd? Pandering to the male gaze? Subverting that gaze? Here feminist and burlesque fan and performer Ciara O’Connor gives her view.

The word “burlesque” has cropped up in polite conversation quite a lot recently. Christina and Cher’s affront to the word notwithstanding, every so often someone brings it up when out for drinks if I say I’ve just been to a show… and often there is a reductive remark about strippers. Take for example Maeve Higgins’ recent comment on the Tweeter : “Burlesque is so shit. Stupid middle class women stripping.” I’m not sure if Maeve has ever been to a show, but I know her comment was a reflection (if a slightly more abrasive reflection) of some peoples ideas and conceptions of what Burlesque is and is not. There are always people who are indifferent towards any medium, the decriers declaring Burlesque is dead, those who say it is anti-women, and those who couldn’t care less.

Feminist burlesque performer Blackbird, aka Emily

Because I’m a fan of the art form, and I occasionally perform at cabaret shows and see a lot of different types of burlesque, I thought I’d throw my two cents into the ring.

Burlesque’s etymology denotes a send up, it is a derisive imitation, grotesque parody. Burlesque is close in meaning with caricature, pastiche, parody and travesty, and, in its theatrical sense, with extravaganza, as presented during the Victorian era (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Victorian_burlesque). From the Wikipedia entry on Burlesque we see that it isn’t just all 1950s pin-up wither, its been around a long time: “”Burlesque” has been used in English in this literary and theatrical sense since the late 17th century. It has been applied retrospectively to works of Chaucer and Shakespeare and to the Graeco-Roman classics.“

Later forms of burlesque came in the popular variety show format. These were common from the 1860s to the 1940s, often in cabarets and clubs, as well as theatres, and featured bawdy comedy and striptease as part of the show. Burlesque has historically been seen as a cheeky, low-brow and very bold form of adult-only theatre.  Performers draw from theatre, mime, improvisation, movement to music, as well as all forms of dance. They are also usually loaded with cultural reference and spoof.

There has been a resurgence of interest in classical Burlesque in the 1990s which quickly became popular in the US, the UK and the rest of Europe. This resurgence also birthed what is referred to as Neo-burlesque (see Hot Press this month for a very interesting round-up of Neo-Burlesque in Ireland). Neo-burlesque often removes the nostalgic aspect of burlesque and uses contemporary music and themes, so you may find yourself watching Jessica Fletcher do a striptease to Gothrock. The beauty of burlesque is that it can be anything and everything, as creative as your imagination and the boundaries you put on yourself as a performer.

A friend writing a blog on fashion and feminism recently described me as “someone who I imagine came into the world screaming ‘I am a feminist!’.” As a feminist-from-the-womb – or at least a young age, I was needless to say not immune to the impressions the media give out about burlesque, and my inner feminist was in twitch-overdrive when I went to my first ever burlesque show. My twitching quickly subsided – and not only was I completely hooked: I was fascinated, enthralled and excited, brimming over with ideas after it – I was convinced that in my eyes, burlesque was decidedly feminist.

As I wrote recently in a guest blog for Dr Sketchy’s,  decontextualised women’s bodies are everywhere in society.  Disembodied perfectly round arses in Reebok trainers, floating breasts selling car insurance…. our world is saturated with nudity, implied nudity and women’s body parts, exposed, scrutinised, made grotesque and vilified… or portrayed as perfection and symmetry and the ideal we should all strive for/compare ourselves to. Burlesque shows are one place where you get to see real women’s bodies… not on display for the sexualised gaze, nor for “auntie Gok” to truss up like some Christmas ham and stuff into magic knickers to try to fit into normative beauty standards, but just – celebrated.  Cheered.  Whooped at and hollered for.  Breasts, bellies, smiles of all ages and types, none of them detached from the woman they belong to.  In fact, firmly in context as the performer is not only showing off her body but her creativity… her body can be tattooed, pierced, decorated with body paint, breasts all different shapes and sizes adorned with nipple tassels; they have meaning, they have context.  These are real bodies, (ab)normal, individual, all appendix scars and jiggly bits.  In a society where nudity has become so… meaningless… here it is loaded with meaning.

Also, the burlesque scene in Ireland is decidedly radical. The performers are smart, creative and quite amazing men and women who do fantastical things with the medium. A great example is my friend and fellow fabulous feminist Emily. She is a stunning performer – she creates acts that are thought provoking, political, visually stunning, sometimes hyperfeminine, sometimes very masculine, always impeccably costumed and gripping from beginning to end. She tells a story and makes a statement in a way that is firmly tongue in cheek and yet quick off the mark and very intelligent.

Lilly DeValle's barbershop act gradually turns from cute to creepy

Another burlesque performer, Lilly DeValle, cuts a striking figure on stage, playing a cheesecake cutesy character who has a dark and evil side – for example her cute barber shop act which quickly transforms into a bloodbath as she hacks up the poor unsuspecting customer in her barbershop chair. She is a true storyteller and has impeccable comedic timing. One of Dublin’s queen’s of the burlesque scene Miss Bella A Go Go is one of the most creative people I know, sewing and handmaking all her costumes, her  incredible mind is full of fantasy which she expertly brings to life on stage with incredibly intricate themed shows, such as her recent Steampunk Cabaret.

So for those who may reduce burlesque to “stupid, middle class women stripping” – I’d like to extend an invitation to come and see a show. The scene here is vibrant and bristling with life and energy. The performers (male and female) are dedicated to making you smile, cringe, cower and giggle like a kid. I asked my friends when writing this why they attend these shows, and the consensus was strong – the striptease element is the last thing on the list. They come to find something different, something entertaining, to find like minded people and to have fun. The nudity in the shows is a great leveller. It’s an opportunity to dress up, to drink cocktails and smoke cigars, to travel to another world for one night only. And who among us doesn’t enjoy some escapism now and then?

If you think you’d like to give a show a go, then I would highly recommend any of the following nights:

The League of Decadent Bastards

This will be the show of the summer – an all male cast and an amazing line up including some of my favourite cabaret artists, a proper treat for the senses!

Burlesque and Cabaret Social Club

The mainstay of the Dublin scene, mostly classical and vintage burlesque and music, monthly, at the Sugar Club

The Love Cats Burlesque

Fabulous troupe of burlesque artists, comedians and musicians in Dublin

Dr Sketchy’s anti-art school – for the artists among us – where life drawing meets cabaret

AND watch out for shows from: Sedition Industries, AWOL tattoo studio Galway, The Pony Girls, Midnight Burlectro, Sideshow Cabaret and many more over 2011.

Ciara O’Connor is an avid amateur cook and veggie. She has been working in women’s health and education for many years. In her spare time she likes to read, cook, drink wine, and is a student homeopath, sometimes cabaret performer and occasional yogi.
Her twitter is ciara_oc

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Sometimes I get incensed as I stare at the tattered remains of my brilliant career, clutching weakly at the frayed fringes of what I like to think I once had or might have been, before I moved far away from home to be with a man simply because I loved him. Would he have done the same? Well, he didn’t, which perhaps says enough.

Anyway.

I like to think I helped him with his destiny, but some days I feel I put my own destiny in a box in a cupboard then moved continents and forget it was there. It’s easy enough to do when you’re a woman in love, when there are children, when your salary is a pittance compared to his, but still, perhaps I left part of myself behind somewhere.

Or did I?
Do any of us have a destiny or do we just get lucky? Or unlucky?

My brilliant career such as it was — half-witted, half-hearted, half-baked, half-arsed, two-thirds fantasy even – seemed to die, but then so had so many careers before. I was a nurse briefly but loathed the polyester uniform and the broad, flat-footed lecturers with their pep-talks about avoiding intern doctors and their advances.  

I was a waitress and a barmaid, a bank clerk and a check-out girl, and I can do the twirly wrist thing that makes a fabulous peak on softserve ice-cream, thanks to my tenure in a dairy parlour called Milky Lane.

I was a journalist for many years, still am, I hope, and I had a great gig on a daily paper in South Africa, but, like I said, love got in the way. Or that’s my excuse. Maybe I got tired. Maybe I got lazy.

I’ve written three books, although I suppose they’re nothing more than manuscripts really, blinking computer files that no publisher wanted, yet still they taunt me every day on my hard drive.

And once, for a moment in time, I was even a poet…

I was 19 and working near Johannesburg at what was then Beecham, the Aquafresh people, and I was the bored receptionist living on a diet of Smarties, magazines and desperate snatched conversations with people who walked through my little prison, where I sat shut away from the company on the wrong side of the glass security doors. In my sunless brick box, passing sales reps felt like serendipity, their cheap Golfs were chariots to a better place. Anyway, no doubt tiring of me yawning at the visitors, the personnel department agreed to give me extra work, and so I was charged with sending the photocopied rejection letters to the countless, faceless people who applied for non-existent jobs in our factory. Remember Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, where poor Charlie’s dad spends his days screwing the lids on toothpaste tubes? It’s bizarre to think how many people were queuing up to take his place. And we had a machine for screwing the lids on anyway.

So I’d address the standard rejection, scrawl a signature, lick the envelope shut, stick a stamp on it and crush someone else’s dreams, hundreds and hundreds of them each day. But one morning a grubby letter arrived with no return address, hand-printed on a torn sheet of paper, with just a plea to meet the writer at the factory gate, to give him work please, to give him a job.

The man was called Marais Qulu, of No Known Address, County Homeless. I showed it to the HR person, begged him to try to find the man.

“Jennie,” he said, “Do you know how many people queue outside the factory gates every day?”
The question was rhetorical.

I wrote a poem about it, or rather a terrible attempt at one, but still 21 years later I remember it by heart and, soaking in my cesspit of self-pity of late, it came back to me like a slap from my younger self.

Thousands queue for 200 jobs offered in Durban, South Africa. (Picture: Reuters)

It’s called “The Aims of a Job”:

Here I sit
fat as shit,
got a job
Grinning a bit.
Mister Marais Qulu
(he’s a Zulu)
has no job,
like you and I do:
“There is nothing food.
I am write this letter to you
with the aims of a job.

The writing is just as terrible as I recall, I don’t know if he was Zulu at all, but in the current world climate (lashing rain, with more expected) it’s just as apt. And as Japan is shaken and washed away, as people lose their homes, offices, possessions, security, children, their very lives just because the world doesn’t play fair, as they scramble for food, for fresh water, for warmth, I know how lucky I am that I can afford to stare out of the window, that I have the full tummy and the spare time to lament my battered dreams. A room of one’s own? My God, I have several.

Marais Qulu: in hope, I googled his name. No results were found.

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We did late dockets in our secondary school. There are variations elsewhere, I know – late slips (why dockets in ours, I’m not sure, unless it was along the lines of the ‘shifts’ in Synge’s Playboy of the Western World and they feared revolt amongst the demure young ladies of the school), black marks, late marks, points, minus points, demerits, order marks for your form (though I think that one might have only existed in the land of Enid Blyton). The trick was to be let off the hook by the receptionist, pleading some kind of crisis – or to sneak past if she was away from the front desk for a moment.

Of course, despite the late docket – the proof that you’d already been chastised, reprimanded, and had clocked up one more mark against yourself – some of the teachers would still frown and demand an explanation. Parents were often blamed, especially in those pre-Junior Cert years when they could be held responsible for so many things, before the Leaving Cert era of ‘it’s your future – it’s up to you’. Others, conscious of limited time in the classroom, skipped over such things and moved on with the class. If you accumulated enough of these dockets, you received the particularly apt punishment of early morning detention – an hour before school began on Friday morning.

It was understood that being late was something to be avoided, but as the years crept by it mattered less. A couple of the girls in the school had their own cars, and could talk about traffic and/or car trouble in terribly grown-up terms as they stood in their crest-adorned jumper and pleated skirt explaining why they were late. It started seeming like something ridiculous, to be given out for being late. As the exams drew closer it became more common to arrive after a first class had ended, if it wasn’t a favourite. For the exams themselves, of course, we were on time, there was no question about that – and if parents had been lax or treating their offspring like responsible human beings during the year, they were taking no chances with the almighty Leaving Cert.

In college, that great world of freedom beyond the walls of uptight schools, it was possible to skip classes entirely (depending on one’s course and institution, of course), and certainly it was inevitable that the first seven minutes of any lecture would be punctuated with shuffling latecomers finding a space – sometimes including the lecturer themselves. If you were meeting someone for coffee, the text message to let you know they’d been delayed was a not-uncommon experience. And then out in the alleged real world it was more of the same – I’ve never been to a talk that’s started at its designated time, never known a concert or stand-up comedy routine to begin anywhere close to the ‘show’ time on a ticket. Theatres are usually a little bit better – I was at the Gate recently and there were apologies to the audience for being kept waiting three minutes. People looked at their watches in bewilderment.

It is, of course, considered something of a social faux-pas to arrive at someone’s house within half an hour of the given time, unless food is being served. And if you’re meeting people for pints, unless it’s within ten minutes of their workplace and their designated workday, you’d be a fool to turn up on time. I’ve done more than my fair share of sitting at the bar, looking intently at my phone, trying to exude an air of aloofness rather than desperation, wondering why seven o’clock really means half-past eight and whether this should be something taught in schools when they’re teaching you how to read the time.

At work meetings and other engagements one is generally expected to arrive on time, but not early, and in fact it’s often proof of one’s busyness and importance if you’re late – so many people to see, so many things to sort out, so little time! I remember adults always seeming very busy, very busy indeed, when I was growing up, but I wonder whether it’s worse now – with the various things to occupy us (we need to keep up with our email, with our phone, with what the Internet is saying, now now now now) and various ways of letting people know that we will be delayed.

At twenty-five I see myself slipping into it more and more – the feeling that actually it isn’t worth apologising for being five minutes late, because no one else does. How terribly childish and schoolgirlish – no one’s going to hand out a late docket, we’re so beyond that. Turning up on time doesn’t mark you as an organised person – it’s an indicator of how little else you must have to do, what a leisurely life you must lead. Aren’t we all too busy to remember that there’s always traffic this time of day, or that we meant to get back to someone? Deadlines? Prioritise, bargain your way to extensions, plead whatever you need to – it’s just what has to be done. Who bothers praising punctuality? That’s one of the things in a reference that means they don’t have anything else to say, isn’t it?

But I do wonder – if we all had some equivalent to that early-morning detention, that needing to reorganise our schedule, no excuses, so that we absolutely simply had to be somewhere well before a time that had consistently proved such a hardship – what would happen.

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A couple of weeks after I’d started work in Dublin, a colleague-of-a-colleague asked to pick my brains about the British publishing industry. He’d written a few books for the Irish market and was keen to spread his wings. Could I put him in touch with someone in England?

No problems, I said. If you let me have the proposal, I’ll look through it, make any suggestions I think might help your chances in the bigger, more saturated UK market, and once you’re ready with that and your sample chapters, I’ll steer it towards the appropriate editor. Of course, since I didn’t know the publishing house’s forward schedule, I couldn’t tell him if his book would be a fit; but if the editor thought it might be, the proposal would go forward to the commissioning meeting for due diligence and then….

The would-be author, a successful businessman in his, I’m guessing, mid-fifties, cut me off. ‘Oh!’ he said (I’m paraphrasing here). ‘I don’t have any ideas for a book yet. I just wanted to work with a big British publisher. Can’t you introduce me to an editor who’d just agree to publish my book once I *did* have an idea? Doesn’t it work like that over there?’

I was reminded of this yesterday, listening to BBC Radio 4′s morning news show, ‘Today’. In a somewhere-in-the-middle news item about the Irish election, the presenter made an offhand reference to ‘the end of cronyism’. It pulled me up short. Not because of its incisive commentary (hardly) – but because it suddenly struck me, listening to the end of the report, that it’s so much harder than it sounds for the nation to achieve.

From the outside (by which, for these purposes, I mean England), it all looks so simple. Ireland got rich, people did each other favours that they really shouldn’t have; this behaviour should cease and desist instantly. Even the news I’ve seen from within Ireland seems to think this is the answer. To which I say, we’re missing the point.

The Irish mentality is hard-wired to lend a hand, to try to help each other out. To go back to my author-businessman story, I can see how it came about.  You want to write a book and become a British bestseller? No problem. I know someone who worked in that field. She’ll help you to do it. No matter if you have talent, the appropriate skills or, you know, an actual concept for a book; that’s all secondary.  From an English perspective, this looks utterly bonkers. But two successful businessmen thought this was more than reasonable, and looped me in.  Sound familiar?

(image c/o Zazzle) Right, who's first?

During my time in Ireland, I saw iterations of this ‘I know someone who can help’ mentality, in different aspects of daily life, time and again. And really, the sentiment is admirable. Why on earth *not* help someone if you can? I’ve been aided in this way, personally and professionally, more times than I can count. And in Ireland you see why the instinct is particularly strong; it’s a small country with historically large families; your degree of separation from everyone must be far fewer than the traditional six. So ‘helping someone’ in the abstract becomes, very quickly, helping your niece; or your boyfriend’s sister, or your sister’s boyfriend. Something that’ll make the next family gathering beyond awkward if you say no.

The American version of this, of course, is networking, where the emphasis has somehow shifted from how can I help others? to how can others help me? A logical consequence of arriving in the Land of Opportunity and needing the support of others to get on your feet, I suppose. But in Britain, where nepotism is a fate right up there with queue jumping, cronyism isn’t a close cousin of, well, helping your cousin. It’s wrong. And it’s absolutely not something you want in business.

We all know that whatever went on on that golf course, and doubtless in countless other situations we don’t know about, was desperate and should never have happened. But my point is this. When we’re looking to rebuild Ireland, especially those of us looking from the outside, we should think carefully before we insist the Irish give up the urge to help each other along. It’s a core component of the national  character, and when it’s not bringing down the Euro, we’re all incredibly pleased to be associated with it.

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