The flats are at the bottom of my road. They were built in the 1930s during the first wave of municipal socialism that morphed into the welfare state after the Second World War. A blue plaque marks a rent strike from the 1960s – an idea that would be laughable in today's greedy and meretricious world. They are brick built, relatively low rise and cluster round a cobbled courtyard. If you can get past the security gates, you find yourself somewhere strangely quaint and tranquil – an echo of a bygone age - rather than the shouty, yob infested estates of the poverty porn that plays almost nightly on TV. Washing waves in the wind like the coloured flags of a hundred different nations, neighbours hang out on the balconies chatting and children can play safely without the risk of being mown down by a drunk driver. If it is someone's birthday, people club together for a bouncy castle or a barbeque in the courtyard. There is something beautiful about the flats; they are beautiful because they are full of life. The people who live there are the flowers that grow in the cracks between the paving stones and bring bursts of colour to this crazy city of ours.
But painting the picture of some socialist utopia would be dishonest and disingenuous. Dubious characters live in the flats, like Terry the sullen mechanic, who first got nicked for fighting in 1979 and has a record sheet longer than the M1. Terry votes UKIP and batters his drunken girlfriend, who grew up in Gloucestershire but moved to London because she likes a bit of rough. Poor silly Sally. She really is quite stunning, in a tainted, broken way. I like her a lot; though I don't like it when she turns up at my place at 3 o'clock in the afternoon wanting to booze and smoke weed on my terrace when my boys are in the house. Sally's lack of control makes her vulnerable and that worries me.
Terry and Sally fight a lot, so much that Sally's daughter has been taken away. They drive their neighbours insane with their constant brawling and Sally makes a lot of women very angry by flirting with their boyfriends (and even their sons). The Kentish Town matriarchs – big women with big arms who wear tracksuits – think Sally - all long legs, long hair and vodka breath- is a disgrace. She is an exotic alien creature, who never seems to do anything much, unlike most of the mums who are grafters, looking after kids or old people or working in supermarkets. They like a drink ... don't we all ... but they are not permanently plastered from morning til night. And she never eats! How come this woman never eats? Not like my friend Lizzie – Lizzie eats all the time; a huge mountain of a woman who acts as the unofficial information service for not just the flats but Kentish Town in general. A big blonde brassy woman. A cartoon character – until you get to know her. But isn't that true of all of us?
I probably come across as a bit of a cliché myself. The stereotypical middle class liberal with my worthy job in a Pupil Referral Unit and my slightly scruffy flat filled with books, cats and my slightly scruffy children. I am middle aged and in the eyes of the world totally past it, cruising my way towards menopause and eventual death. I am a woman of a certain age; I have been around the block and back again. I am part of the story but it is definitely not all about me; I am aware that I am of limited interest. My name is Rachel Evans – in case you were wondering – and my job is to guide you into the story and introduce you to my world.
I know I have a tendency to lecture – amongst many other things I am a teacher and used to holding forth – but I also have a desire to entertain. I want to make you laugh and cry and smile and shout with joy as you descend into the world I am bringing you.
But enough about me – you'll get to know me soon enough. Rather too well, I assure you. Let's get on with the story and get back to the flats.
I am keeping my distance from Sally at the moment as I can't cope with the drinking and have told her that she's no longer allowed to booze in my house. The other day, I saw her drinking vodka for breakfast. She had been up all night on coke and was completely off her face. I felt very sad. Sally is a beautiful woman but she looked so wrecked. I am not a religious person but I felt like the angel of death was in that room; I could see bad times ahead for her.
So instead I'll introduce you to blonde, brassy Lizzie, who I love dearly and also find fascinating. We are weirdly connected in that a very long time ago she used to share a flat with an old school friend. If you put them together now you could not imagine a more unlikely friendship but they were different people fifteen years ago. Strikingly different. She had just left a career as a music PR and he was just starting out as a recruitment consultant. They had met in a club and become friends – things were like that in the 90s. I think they slept together a handful of times, but they were never a couple. Lizzie was from Essex and dreamt of marrying a rock star – Meg met Noel for goodness sakes! It could be you! Obviously, bagging a rock star was about as likely as winning the lottery – the other ultimate 90s fantasy. Lizzie still religiously bought lottery tickets, so obviously the dream still lived on in one shape or form.
Lizzie's dreams were big but the reality of her life was very small. She never strayed far from the flats. Her job, in a community centre for the elderly, was five minutes' walk away and once a week her boyfriend (who lived next door) drove her to Morrison's on Holloway Road. She didn't really have enough money to do much more than watch TV, go on Facebook and gossip with other people in the flats. And eat. Lizzie ate a lot of very, very bad food. Food that was high in calories, laden with trans-fats and oozing refined sugars and additives. Food that was on special offer in Iceland or Morrisons or Lidl. Pink, blue and beige food that turned you diabetic just from looking at it. I am a snob about food and Lizzie's food frightened me. It reminded me of the mushroom in Alice in Wonderland that made you double in size; it had certainly had that effect on Lizzie. She was enormous – multiple chins, a huge belly, thunderous thighs and vast meaty upper arms. She was not remotely ashamed of her girth and flaunted it in skin tight lycra leggings, mini -skirts and crop tops, revealing flesh like the uncooked pastry of a frozen sausage roll. I knew a lot of larger women who shrouded themselves in tent dresses – marquees of material designed to distract. But Lizzie wanted you to look. During the 90s she had starved herself – we all wanted to be Kate Moss – and no one bothered with food at the record company. Cool people lived on cocaine, black coffee and cigarettes – eating was for squares. Maybe if Lizzie had ended up married to the drummer from Suede or the keyboard player from Gene she would still be skinny? But she fell pregnant after a fling with the man who came to change the water cooler and her dreams of celebrity by proxy came to a sticky end. Food became her friend and she got bigger and bigger. It was like she wanted to swallow the slightly shallow person she had been in the past and reinvent herself as someone else. The sad fact was that only person she was hurting was herself. She was such a kind and clever person as well; I always loved going to see Lizzie.
Not surprisingly, Lizzie was the first person to hear about plans to 'regenerate' the flats. She had seen the pretentious architect's drawings down at the community centre and didn't like the look of them at all.
"This ain't right Raych," she told me over tea and biscuits. "The council is selling this to us as the best thing since sliced bread, but I don't trust them. It's Sweets Way and Aylesbury Estate all over again. Why can't they bleedin leave us alone? We ain't doing no one no harm. This is our community."
Lizzie looked upset. The flats were her world, her sanctuary, where she could lock herself away from the people who made her feel bad – her family, her ex-husband and the many people she owed money to. In the flats she felt safe; people loved her because she looked after their kids and fed their cats for them. If the plans went ahead and the flats were redeveloped she would be out on her ear.
"We don't have to take this lying down Lizzie. For a start, none of this is a done deal. These are just plans. They may never happen."
Even as I spoke these words I knew I was talking crap. The flats were prime location, a developer's wet dream - no doubt this little estate had already been bought and sold several times over at a cocktail party for Chinese or Russian investors. The flats were architecturally attractive and designed in way that it would be very easy for a developer to cram more units into the existing space. There was also a block of garages that could be knocked down to make room for more hutches for the upwardly mobile – or more likely transformed into a brick bank for slightly dubious foreign money.
"And even if the plans are real, we can fight them. Weasel will know what to do – he's a professional activist and campaigner. And Howard can help us– he may be crazy and a pervert but he's a good lawyer. And then there are all those people I know on the council – they need our votes. Come on Lizzie, we're not going to take this lying down."
Lizzie looked sadder still.
"It's all right for you babes. It's not your home they're threatening." She bit aggressively into a neon pink doughnut. Tears filled her eyes. "Sorry babes, this is making me feel emotional."
I gave her a hug. She felt soft and warm and smelt of cheap perfume. I find hugging people a bit odd – unless they are children – but it seemed to help. "Come on Lizzie, we can do this. We can. Trust me."
I felt weirdly exhilarated. Not because I wanted Lizzie to be homeless, but because I like a fight. I find the easy option dull and the prospect of a struggle very tempting. I like to be busy; work is my therapy and activity my anti-depressant. There is a side of my nature that is melancholic, dark and introverted. Anything that keeps the darkness at bay has to be a good thing. I don't want my children to see their mother as a sad listless creature, crying herself to sleep because she is middle aged and nobody loves her.
The first thing I did after speaking to Lizzie was to act immediately. I don't mess about and it was obvious that the flats were at risk and we had to get some kind of campaign together to save them. I took a deep breath. It was time to go and see Weasel. I absolutely despised Weasel but he loves a fight and an opportunity to boast about how radical he is to his silly friends on social media. Weasel was a veteran of Occupy London, Climate Camp and numerous UK Uncut actions. He claims to have invented the hashtag, "JezWeCan", though I am not sure I believe him. He is a poet, a singer-song writer, a community activist and sometimes works in the local play centre; we met when I got involved in a campaign to save it back in 2011. Weasel must be in his 40s, but he smells of weed and hummus and has long mouldy dreads. Despite his claims to be 'ethical', he is a sexual predator with permanently wandering hands; his preference is young upper middle class girls from the Home Counties who find see his politically correct posturing as some kind of radical chic. Weasel gets on my nerves but he is tenacious and could be useful.
Weasel lived in the flats – at number 17 to be exact. He's two doors down from Lizzie and upstairs from Sally and Terry. I'm not sure how he got his place – as a childless single male he was hardly vulnerable or especially in need. I guess he had got it back in the early 90s when London was a much emptier city and there were fewer people competing for places to live – though I'd heard he's got it by shagging the woman who looked after the housing list at the council. Whatever the case, he'd grown roots in the flats. If the rumours about the developers were true, Weasel would be very angry indeed.
I knew from a quick check on Facebook that Weasel was at home. He was boring on about a leak in his flat – why he didn't just get someone to fix it was quite beyond me. Terry is a plumber (a good one when he is sober) and would definitely sort Weasel's pipes for a bit of weed – he grows it in the spare bedroom. No wonder he was such a fervent opponent of the Bedroom Tax! But that would be too easy for Weasel and it was much more fun to go on and on and on about how terrible the council were to his captive audience of gullible middle class girls. Living in a council flat was so 'edgy' – mummy and daddy would be so terribly shocked. Weasel was as cunning as his name suggested – his real name was Jeremy but that hardly had much street cred. He loved the fact that all these young girls were fussing over him – a complete wet dream.
I found Weasel sitting in his pants and some hideous tie die vest that was even more of a Nineties relic than I am. His weedy arms protruded from the sweaty singlet, while the tip of his pendulous penis protruded from the edge of his saggy pants. He was obviously stoned and the place stank of weed. The flat was dingy and lit by jam jars full of nasty pound shop candles – their cloying scents added to the pungent atmosphere.
"Long time no see, Raychy Rach. Come and give Weasey a hug, sista."
The thought of physical contact with Weasel made me feel sick, but I took a deep breath and accepted his skanky embrace. As ever, his bony fingers lingered rather too long on my behind. Weasel had been sniffing around for years, but hell would freeze over before I would go down that road. For some reason I have yet to fathom, a lot of men on the hard left are vicious sexual predators; the rhetoric of equality only goes so far.
Fortunately, he checked himself before attempting the full grope. It appeared Weasel had company. A loud upper middle class voice entered the room, followed swiftly by its owner – a tall horsey blonde woman, who I felt would look more at home selecting soft furnishings in Peter Jones than in Weasel's scummy flat. Weasel must be her bit of rough – not that Weasel was remotely rough. Nobody rough is called Jeremy. He made a big deal of having been to a state school (in Surrey), but had once told me (under the influence of drugs) that his father was a chartered surveyor and member of the local Rotary Club. It could be argued that Weasel was the perfect bourgeois – he was allergic to all the things that Terry and his mates in the flats liked – Arsenal, fighting, betting shops and beer (though he did share their love of birds, porn and fags). They took the piss out of his long hair and the fact he refused to eat smoky bacon crisps in the pub; Tel and Kev and Dave and Bill saw vegetarianism as evidence of rampant homosexuality. They instinctively disliked Weasel, but they liked his home-grown weed and the seemingly unending supply of quality birds that flocked to his door. He was a funny little fella – what was his secret?
Terry, for example, would give his right arm to get a piece of skirt like the one that was sitting in Weasel's gaffe this afternoon.
"Bleedin ell, Kev," he told his mate in the pub later. "She was a right sort. Legs up to er bleedin armpits. Quality bird. Like Sal only not a pisshead like Sal. Know what I mean?"
Kev nodded. Kev was too pissed to speak and knew it was better not to argue with Tel. You never knew when he might turn. Like the time he glassed him for daring to suggest that Arsenal might not win the Cup that year. Or the time he kicked Sally down the steps of the flats for bringing him haddock instead of cod from the chippy. Tel was a cunt. A violent cunt. But he was a mate. And he was a big man (Kev was a little squirt). Kev kept his gob shut.
"What a boring cunt you are Kev," Terry roared. He had been boozing most of the day – he had two grand in his pocket from a cash job for some ponce up in Highgate. He threw a note at the barman. "Get this cunt a drink. Might liven the boring bastard up a bit. And get one for yourself while you're at it".
We'll leave this 21st century version of Bill Sykes to drink himself into a stupor and return to Chateau Weasel. We need to get him fired up about the plans to regenerate the flats. He will explode when he hears about this as it will get him so many likes on Facebook and retweets on Twitter.
"Who is this, darling?" barked Weasel's new friend. She was slim and dressed in the skinniest of skinny jeans and a white cotton tee shirt. Her tanned arms jangled with silver bangles and her hair was expensively highlighted. She eyed me suspiciously. Competition.
I swallowed hard to suppress a laugh. I had seen this many, many times before. Wealthy, bored women seemed to flock to Weasel's side. He played on their guilt in a way that only someone who was middle class and therefore accustomed to feeling guilty about his privileged upbringing knew how to. I understand middle class guilt – I have felt it – though my feelings are in the past tense. I work too hard and don't have enough money to feel guilty about my existence. I sometimes feel bad that I have a relatively nice place to live when others don't, but I hardly feel like some kind of capitalist oppressor. Weasel has harangued me at times for being a landlord – I rent out the upstairs flat – but my socially useful job in a Pupil Referral Unit for disturbed teenage boys kind of puts him in his place. I am also a single parent – more points in the Lefty game of Top Trumps – so he can't really criticise me. And there's always the hope that one day I will weaken and let him have his way.
"This is Rachel, lovebug," cooed Weasel. "Rachel is very active in the community. She helped me in one of my campaigns. She is a single mother. And she works in a Pupil Referral Unit, teaching English to some of the most disadvantaged children in our borough. Rachel is very right on, sweetie. She is a wonderful woman,"
The blonde woman looked angrier than ever. Was Weasel trying to make her jealous? Her face clouded with hostility.
"Well my name is Lucinda Spears," she snapped. "I'm a radical filmmaker and activist."
I left Lucinda and Weasel feeling slightly depressed. Lucinda saw the campaign to save the flats as little more as fodder for some ghastly documentary and was already calling the even more ghastly Blake Lovelace as a possible presenter for it. Blake Lovelace was everywhere these days after Hollywood had got a bit bored of his chirpy Cockney with eyeliner act. Blake was rich enough not to give a shit – he had a good agent – and had time on his hands. He popped up at Occupy – pitching his antique Bedouin tent outside St Pauls – and picketed Starbucks with UK Uncut. But his big thing was housing; tears would fill his eyes as he talked about his old Nan's council flat in Bethnal Green. Nan had obviously long since shuffled off this mortal coil and Lovelace himself inhabited a £5 million townhouse in Highgate Village. Lovelace was constantly redecorating and his main housing problem involved finding people who could tolerate his histrionics as he fussed over the interiors of his capacious mansion. One minute he would be baroque and then he would be minimal. Gossip from local builders revealed it was a nightmare; Lovelace would start out being one of the lads and then morph almost instantly into some Farrow and Ball fascist, micromanaging every brush stroke and nit picking over every nook. From what I had heard the place was currently quite hideous; Lovelace had decided that his aura was purple and as a result everything (and I mean everything) was currently purple. He had a purple bed with purple satin sheets, a purple toilet and even a purple kitchen. Next week it would be stripped out and Lovelace would begin again, burning money on his latest scheme. His involvement in the campaign to save the flats might be bad news for me but it would be good news for the small army of builders he had on the payroll – Lovelace was a strict vegan and meat and milk products were banned from his home. A teabreak therefore meant green tea (sugar was also banned) and anyone caught daring to consume a bacon sandwich would be sacked on the spot. It amused me greatly that 'man of the people' Blake Lovelace could be so precious, obviously he kept that one quiet as he went on and on and on about his 'working class' credentials.
Lucinda had put her celebrity friend on speakerphone, so we could all hear what famous friends she had. Obviously.
"Ere, Luce gel, I fink that's a wicked idea to make a documentary. Yeah. Blindin' idea. I can see it now. I'll be walking froo the flats, doing a piece to camera about the bleedin tragedy of capitalism an' how it is wreckin' the inner city. Then I'll interview the residents and they can tell me, Blake Lovelace, how bleedin gutted they is that their 'omes is being trashed by some posh cunt of a developer...
... cut to me, playin football with the little kiddies and huggin' the nans. Yeah an kissing the Muslims – you gotta have a few Muslims innit too. Gotta be multicultural innit? Yeah an then me 'avin a go at the council for bein' a bunch of tossers. An me goin' dahn Mayfair or wherever them developers is and 'avin a right proper go at them cos you can't shit on the workin' classes forever...
"Is there a fee?"
"Blake, of course not. It's for the community. It's, like, for the people. Seriously Blake."
"What are you like, gel. Do you really fink that I, Blake Lovelace, would do such a fing to you? I will give you MY MONEY gel to make this documentary state of the art. Proper top dollar pukka production values innit. Honest, you posh birds can't never take a joke. What are you like? I would nevah, evah, evah take a penny off of you. Bleedin heck, Luce. I'm likin this gel – I'm proper well up for it."
"That's seriously amazing Blake," gushed Lucinda. "This is going to be radical. You're my hero."
Weasel looked furious. He was supposed to be Lucinda's hero, not Blake fucking Lovelace. Wanker. What did he know about being working class? His house was worth five million quid. Tosser. He was not authentic, not like Weasel, who had lived in the flats for over 20 years. Weasel was the one to tell the story of the struggle not this Hollywood Johnny come Lately. And what if Lucinda ran off with him? The thought made Weasel boil with jealousy. Obviously, there were other Lucindas out there, but she gave fantastic blow jobs and had a massive trust fund. He had met other women as dirty but never as rich. That cunt Lovelace would not have his way with Weasel's woman.
Obviously Weasel would never DARE voice these thoughts in public. The many nubile "social justice warriors" who followed him on Twitter would be horrified by such Neanderthal thinking. Weasel was special because he eschewed patriarchal discourse, never referring to 'girls' or 'ladies' or 'birds' – only 'women' or better still 'womyn'. He professed a hatred of body fascism, claiming he liked 'real' women with 'curves' and 'natural' body hair. Lucinda was a size 8 and hairless apart from her tousled mane of expensively streaked tresses. She was not pierced or tattooed – save for a small dolphin on her foot - and bought her clothes from Harvey Nichols. She was gym fit, polished and precious. Lucinda looked expensive and smelt of old money. She was a trophy; no wonder Lovelace was so keen to get involved.
After my nauseating encounter with Weasel and his new friend, I decided I needed cheering up so I called Howard. Howard is a fifty something Jewish lawyer and my best male friend. I haven't actually known Howard very long – a couple of years maybe – but it feels like a lifetime.
I feel slightly embarrassed admitting this, but we met on an internet date. I googled Howard before meeting him and instantly discovered he had lied about his age. He claimed to be 48 – five years older than I was at the time. His profile told me he was a lawyer – obviously a liar as well – and unsurprisingly he looked nothing like his profile picture. In the flesh he was slight and wiry, in marked contrast to the photograph he had used to sell himself, where he looked like a bit of a 'geezer'. He wasn't a definite no but he wasn't a yes either.
Howard tried hard on our first date, splashing the cash in an upmarket West End restaurant. To be honest I would have preferred something less pretentious, but it tickled me that he was making an effort. We ate steak and chips and he tried to get me drunk. I resisted as I had work the next day and the thought of a hangover with the boys in the unit did not appeal. Was he trying to get into my pants? It was hard to say as although he made no effort to touch me and made no comments about my appearance, even though we got on famously – screaming with laughter within seconds. It reminded me of a night out with one of my gay friends in the 90s, yet it was fairly obvious that Howard was not gay. Maybe he was just a bit old fashioned? I toyed with making a move on him, but can't say that the urge was really there. He drove me home and gave me a peck on the cheek – strangely sexless. I was confused and slightly offended; normally even the most unpromising dates ended with a lunge or a grope or some sort of sexual frisson.
Howard and I eventually did sleep together and for a while I was completely infatuated with him. Although I can be cynical at times, I also fall in love very easily. I didn't feel the raw sense of lust I feel with some men but I fell for him because of the talking. Boy did Howard like to talk. Most men don't like talking as much as Howard did and he stroked my ego by telling me how clever I was. Like all women I would rather be told I am beautiful – our culture values beauty over brains – but being told you are clever is almost good enough. On the whole though, Howard just likes to talk about Howard. As I said, I haven't known Howard long, but I could probably take an A Level in Howard Studies and get an A*. I am his social worker, his therapist and his rabbi. We shout at each other a lot – our arguments peppered with Yiddish. I have Jewish blood and Howard brings it out big time – I call him a schmuck, a putz and a schlemiel. I call him bubbelah when I am feeling affectionate and a schnorrer when I describe his habit of buying clothes from Primark. I buy mine there out of necessity; Howard shops there because he is a schnorrer. He makes me furious, but he also makes me laugh my head off – we have a series of in jokes and nicknames for people. I entertain him with my talent for mimicry and he makes me laugh just by describing the many terrible things he does. Howard made me very sad and very angry for a while when I realised I was on a hiding to nothing trying to be any more than just friends. Which was silly, because we don't fancy each other enough to be lovers. I refused to speak to him for a couple of months - but life without him is just a lot more boring.
As usual Howard was not available when I actually needed to speak to him about something important and his phone went straight through to voicemail. Howard expects you to be available – like the Samaritans – 24 hours a day, but he can at times be curiously elusive. Obviously one his women was on the line giving him grief – which he totally deserved. Howard has had a lot of women – the ex-wives are just the tip of a very female iceberg. His love life was Byzantine in its complexity. I suppose in some ways I am one of Howard's women, although obviously we were not in any kind of sexual relationship, nor was he offering to 'look after' me.
I kept dialling and eventually he picked up. I wanted to talk to Howard about the flats, the threat from the developer and how we could help Lizzie and all the other people who lived there. I didn't want them to lose their homes – it was obviously wrong. Howard knows about the law – he loves to talk shop and show off his knowledge. A modest person he is not (although now I know him better I know that this is a mask for deep seated insecurity). I wanted his help. What were our rights? How could the tenants and leaseholders challenge the decision to develop the site? There was a lot of this kind of thing going on all over London – New Era in Hoxton, West Hendon and Sweets Way in Barnet and the Aylesbury Estate in Southwark. People's homes were being trashed in the name of regeneration and big money was being made by getting councils on side to chuck people off estates. Even people who bought their homes under right-to-buy – the cornerstone of Thatcherism – were not safe. In West Hendon people were being offered a 100 grand to get out of their homes; equivalent sized properties in the 'regenerated' estates were being marketed for four times as much. I feel deeply that London belongs to the people not to property developers; we all need a home to hide from the world in.
Good fortune has given me enough space to live in and the passing of time and low interest rates have made my home affordable. My property has given me independence and freedom – yes, it costs me money to maintain – but its ownership allowed me to end my marriage when it had run its course. Many women rely on men for a roof over their heads – I never wanted that. Social housing offers this independence to women who don't want to rely on men (or found that they aren't reliable). A large number of people I have met who live in council flats are single mothers – there are also a lot of immigrants and older people in the flats. Where are they supposed to go? Obviously the market would shove them out into the middle of nowhere – how would this profit them or anyone other than a handful of developers? Yes, people can make money from 'regenerating' the inner city, but who is going to do the low paid jobs that keep London running. Who is going to look after the kids of the aspirational middle classes, who is going to drive the buses and clean the offices of the bankers in the City?
I love my city almost as much as I love my own children and it breaks my heart to see it being pulled apart by greed. It is a magical place where people come to escape persecution and make their fortunes; most importantly it is a tolerant and inclusive place where you can be yourself. That has always been incredibly important to me, bourgeois individualist that I am...
Before I could open my mouth, Howard was off:
"Rachel, you won't believe that shiksa. You won't believe what that shiksa's has done now!"
Shiksas – non-Jewish women – were Howard's obsession. The taller, the blonder, the colder and the more humourless the better. He claims it all dates back to being rejected by some snotty girl called Hermione at a party in Primrose Hill in 1975. This young lady made Howard feel small (he's not very tall) and ever since he has wanted to prove to himself and the rest of the world that he could pull a real live shiksa goddess. Obviously Renee (wife 1) was Jewish, while Linda (wife 2) although not Jewish – she's a Greek Cypriot – could pass for Jewish. I am not technically Jewish but have Jewish blood, curly hair and a sharp tongue. I do not have eating disorders, hold down a job and am good with money. Therefore in Howard's book I am not a shiksa. It initially upset me that I would always be a second class citizen in his eyes, but then I took a step back. Did I really want to have sex with Howard? Not really. Did I want him living with me? Never. Did I fantasize about marrying him? You must be joking. His views on women – which I often find hard to cope with – reflected his insecurities and feelings that he would never be good enough. We all have those feelings, just that Howard has them more strongly than most of us do.
The latest shiksa (and there had been many) sounded a very depressing creature. She was in her 40s, childless and lugubrious by nature. She lived in a small flat in Putney and suffered from anxiety disorders. She'd worked in a Job Centre for years but had quit to make jewellery out of recycled glass and scrap metal. I'd seen some photos of it on Etsy and it looked absolutely hideous. She wasn't making any money out of it – no surprises there – so Howard was 'looking after her'. They didn't have sex very often as she complained it gave her a bad back.
I took a deep breath.
"Go on then," I groaned. "Let's get it over and done with. I want to talk to you about something more important than your bloody love life, Howard".
Howard continued undeterred.
"She wants me to have a nose job Rachel. A nose job!!!! She thinks I look too ... Jewish."
I burst out laughing.
"Oh Howard, what are you doing with this woman? Not only frigid and a depressive but a racist as well. Where do you find them?"
I knew exactly where Howard had found her – in this terrible bar off Kensington High Street full of Arabs and Ukrainian prostitutes. I met him there one night – he was there with City boy Damian who I sometimes fuck for fun. It was beyond parody. Most of the men were at least 30 years older than the women, who hung around hoping for free drinks and a rich husband. Howard had picked up the shiksa in there; it had taken a while to get her to put out, but as you can imagine Howard is very tenacious. Also, for once he put his money where his mouth is...
Howard carried on, his voice becoming loud and shrill. In Howard's sexist lexicon, only women became hysterical, yet here he was, turning up the drama to eleven.
"Rachel, she wants me to mutilate myself. There is nothing wrong with my nose."
"Howard, you tell every woman you meet that they need a tit job or a bum lift. You told me I needed breast implants. Why is that any different?"
Howard sighed. This was a long standing argument. Howard liked women who looked like plastic sex dolls – I frequently reminded him that for about five grand he could have one shipped over from America. He liked plastic tits, plastic faces, fake tans and fake hair. He liked women who looked like porn stars as they looked 'sexy' and hopefully other men would want to fuck them. Howard liked it if other men liked fucking the women he was with – it made him feel good. He liked it rather too much, as we will explain later.
"It just is. Women are there to look good for men. To please them. It doesn't matter what men look like. We are judged on different things. It's not fair. I can't take this."
"Howard, you schlemiel, it's the 21st century. You've got to get with the programme," I answered, hardly able to breathe with laughing. "You never know, it might suit you."
"She's thrown out all my Primark underwear as well," he carried on, his stream of consciousness uninterrupted by my comments. "She says it is unethical. She says children in Bangladesh died to make my pants. I can't cope – she's costing me so much money. Not just the mortgage and the bills but all that organic food. And the insurance for her cat. I swear she loves that cat more than she loves me."
"Probably." I said. "I really don't know why you waste your time with this woman. Now can we talk about something else?"
Howard carried on. He became increasingly maudlin, drowning in self-pity.
"Why does nobody love me? I do so much for these women, but they never love me. All I want is for them to love me. All I have ever wanted is for someone to love me. It's just not fair."
"I love you Howard," I said.
It's true, I do love Howard very much. Just not sexually. We don't do it for each other. And I don't want to own him, any more than I want to own any of the men – or people – that I know. I would like him to see that he's better than he thinks he is; most of us are (obviously with a few exceptions). I want my kids to feel good about themselves and I want the boys in the Unit to feel better too – most of their horrible behaviour is about feeling bad. I know that I am nasty when I feel bad – we all have our triggers.
"But anyway, I need your advice. Can we stop talking about one of your trophies for once? I need to talk to you about the flats".
Over the years I've done a lot of thinking about why some women are trophies. I think it is partly do with luck – you happen to possess a set of physical attributes that are valued by mainstream society. Or maybe you are prepared to work harder – to starve, to exercise and even to surgically alter.
In the time of Rubens, fat women were trophies as a fleshy body showed wealth. Now fat donates low social status, a bad diet and laziness. A lot of the women in the flats are fat as they don't have the time or money not to be. But in the 21st century, the female body is supposed to look lean and toned – the result of an expensive diet and hours spent in the gym. In other words, the female body reflects the status of its owner; these days a rich man might want to fuck a fat chick but he will only want to be seen with a skinny one in public. Blonde hair is valued more than dark hair as it implies youth and racial purity, while perky breasts imply fertility (or more likely a visit to an exclusive plastic surgeon). There is nothing neutral about the female body – is constantly measured, weighed, valued and found lacking. Our bodies are a source of constant anxiety – no wonder so many women hate themselves so much.
I wasn't cut out to be a trophy. I am too argumentative and difficult. I never really liked the look of the roles ascribed to girls and remember throwing a massive strop aged about 4 years old when I was given a nurse's outfit for Christmas. I also hated dolls and dresses – they were rubbish – and preferred mud pies and reading books. Being a girl (in 1970s suburbia) just seemed a bit boring, yet I was too physically feminine to be a proper tomboy. I was short and had curly girly hair and a pretty girly face. Long before adolescence set in there was nothing androgynous about me.
My relationship with my body hit its nadir in my teens. It soon became apparent I was not going to be a trophy and I hated the look of myself. I felt stumpy rather than willowy – in photos from the time I looked totally normal. In my mind I was monstrously ugly – this view not really helped by a mother on a permanent diet whose physical ideal was blonde and leggy. I am short and dark. I curve. My body is not fat – but it is sturdy and strong. It is the body of a woman designed to work and care for children (which it does) rather than the body of a trophy. It is full of energy and desire and hormones and emotions – it is very much alive. As I have already said, it earned my respect when it gave me three amazing children; how could I despise it after that?