Chivalry is alive…

…and dancing.

There are rare moments of chivalry in my life – male colleagues who hold open doors; friends who insist on getting the first round in or walking between me and the traffic; waiters who pull out my chair and take my coat… I’m no die-hard feminist and I appreciate odd moments of traditional chivalry, in fact, it’s definitely something I could do with more of. So imagine my delight when I found myself in a world where chivalry was not just alive, but dancing too, on Saturday night – the world of swing dancing. [I had to be careful not to describe it as the ‘world of swinging’, as I’m not so sure there’s much chivalry in that particular world!]

I am no connoisseur of swing dancing. In fact, I was only there because it’s was the glorious final component of a vintage hen day – we were clad in vintage(ish) frocks, had had our hair suitably coiffed earlier in the afternoon, and, I have to say, looked pretty bloody marvellous. We looked so good that we created something of a stir on Carnaby Street as we walked from the hair salon to Soho Square, with our own photographer in tow – tourists stopped to take photos, it was quite, quite bizarre.

We felt a lot less conspicuous when we arrived at swing night. There, it seemed to be the done thing to dress appropriately – the men were in suits, waistcoats, trilbies and some even sported suitable facial hair, while the women donned fabulous dresses and awesome hairstyles. We fitted in – until the dancing began.

Luckily there were lessons too, and in true girls’ school style, we paired up in all female couples to have a go at a routine, safe in the knowledge that our friends wouldn’t mind our idiotic mistakes or having their toes trampled upon. Things took a turn for the worse at the end of run-through #1 – all girls were asked to move along one place and the girls at the end of rows (of which I was one) had to go down to the other end and dance with the man there. As a result, I was banished from the safety of my circle of hens and thrown in amongst the expertly dressed and expertly talented crowd. The shame!

In actual fact, it turned into a good thing. I danced with several men, one of whom was really good (he lied when I said I was rubbish – claiming that he was too, yet within seconds was correcting my foot position) and by the end of half an hour I felt like I’d learned something. However, I’d not learnt enough to join the throngs of dancing couples upstairs and instead sought the safety of our reserved tables – until an unexpected encounter at the bar – a man (a not unattractive man, in fact) asked me to dance…

The important thing to recognise is that in the regular world, “going dancing” generally means clubbing, and clubbing generally means a lot of sweaty people, squashed together, vaguely moving in time with the music and “dancing with men” usually entails some uninvited male rubbing themselves against you in quite an unpleasant fashion. The extraordinary thing about the world of swing dancing was that men not only asked you to dance in quite a pleasant fashion, but then danced with you properly – no groping involved – and led properly, so it didn’t matter if (like me) you hadn’t got a clue what was going on. Chivalry in the flesh!

Being asked to dance took me somewhat by surprised – all I was doing was waiting to get a jug of water at the bar. The rather cheesy line of “the queue’s far too long – you’d be better off spending your time dancing with me” put me off initially, but I fluffed my intended response of “I’m not very good at dancing”, coming out with “I’m not very good at queueing” [this inability to talk to men is probably what leaves me single…] which broke the ice and induced a promise of being led and shown what to do. It was enormous fun – I was twisted and twirled and my skirt twirled with it – I didn’t step on my partner’s toes and I didn’t fall over – an all round success. Later, older, more experienced (at dancing) men took me off for a spin and I was well and truly knackered by the end of it. In fact, one gentleman even commented that I was “quite the dancer” – I may get that inscribed on my gravestone.

It seems that the 1940’s/50’s was really the era in which I ought to be socialising (though with iPhones, internet and 21st century hygiene) – the gentlemanly behaviour and style of dancing was a refreshing change to the general grubbiness of modern day interactions. I just need to work out how to style my hair myself and buy a dress with an even swooshier skirt.

Matchmaker, matchmaker

Given how much I whinge about being single, you’d think I’d be pleased when friends try setting me up with potential suitors. The thing is, by and large, such attempts are utterly disastrous.

For some reason, weddings provide a wonderful opportunity for such matchings – the seating plan could be second only to online dating as a means for blind dates. A couple of years ago, my dear wise friend used her own wedding as an opportunity to place me next to a guy who was interested. I could simply leave it at the fact that his name was Fabio, but that would be unfair (he didn’t choose his name, he did however, choose the white suit he was wearing). The most interesting topic of conversation was the fact that he’d recently read a new translation of the Bible from the Hebrew to Spanish. Thrilling.

On Saturday, we had a family wedding. It was a rather posh affair – the wedding list was held at Fortnum & Mason, if you please – and we were greatly intrigued by the family our relation was marrying into. Conversations with my mother (regarding my outfit, which many people seemed over-concerned with) in the run up to the event seemed to suggest that she was hoping I’d find my own fabulously wealthy spouse. Imagine her and my sister’s glee when they consulted the table lists and discovered I’d been sat alone (as in the only member of my family) on a table next to the bride’s younger, single brother…

Oh dear, he was a dullard. I played along and was a gracious guest engaging with those around me. He made the mistake of asking random, closed questions:
“Do you read?”
“Have you travelled?”
“Do you watch films?”

In the spirit of communication, I didn’t simply answer “yes” to the above, but conversation dragged, just a little. All the while, my parents at the next table kept an eye on my adventures, sporadically checking for updates. In between courses I worked the room – maintaining the illusion of social butterfly, all the while delaying the moment I’d have to return to my seat. Thank goodness for waiters who refill wine glasses before they’re empty!

Fast forward a couple of days to the conference (still going – yesterday I had all of an hour’s free time between 6.30am & 10pm) and I was greeted by a contemporary of my parents who I see fairly regularly through work. Our conversations always begin with the same two questions:
1. How are you?
2. Have you got a man yet?

I don’t mind, but he is a terrible matchmaker – terrible in the sense that he never gives up, not necessarily that he chooses bad people – I have a lot of sympathy for his recently single daughter, as she must get it a lot worse than me! Fortunately he doesn’t know many men in my locality/context and the one person he’s tried out (a one-time colleague – how embarrassing) was as uninterested as I was.

Wise friend recently told me she was getting back into the matchmaking game, which concerns me. Even though we have frequent conversations about men, she has a very shaky grasp of what I’m looking for, yet whenever I complain, she calls me picky – I am not picky, I just have standards. We’ll see what she comes up with…

[Oh, and if you were wondering about my wedding outfit – I’m sure you were – I rather think I got it spot on. My father decided I’d morphed into a young Emma Thompson, which I’m going to take as a compliment. Bless him.]

Coincidence

It is a small world after all… Anyone in Christian circles knows that the six degrees of separation is rubbish – it’s more like three. (In fact, I have one friend who reckons that between the two of us we know everyone, given that pretty much anywhere I go I meet someone who knows him.)

Lately, I’ve had a run of coincidences that have gone from the pretty random to the utterly ridiculous…

  • A girl I’ve done kids stuff with at church for a couple of years, turns out to have a Dad who does the same job as my parents. Not so unusual – it makes a current total of five of us at church with parents in that particular denominational profession. On top of that, our sisters do the same job too – they’re both teachers, so no massive coincidence there – but in fact they teach in the same school. Random.

Two weeks later…

  • My sister is out with her colleagues and ends up sat next to a woman whose imminent maternity leave is the cause of the celebration. During a conversation about weddings which results in my sister mentioning her maiden name, this woman suddenly exclaims “Oh! You’re Liz’s sister”. Turns out the teacher in question worked with me in my bookshop era – in fact, we began our jobs on the same day. Quite random, though not unbelievable.
Last Thursday…
  • A colleague casually mentions that he met someone who knew me the night before. Turned out her name was Alice, so I began running through friends of that name in an attempt to work out who it was. A comment about the Potteries and a priest for a father quickly made me realise that the girl in question was my Godfather’s daughter – who I’m in semi-regular contact with regarding our mutual driving sagas. The truly weird thing about this encounter is that they’d met on a crowded platform at Green Park station and simply got talking, which is not normal London behaviour! The revelation of his occupation and employer immediately had Alice asking if he’d come across any Clutterbucks – deeply worrying. 
Today…
  • I’m just home from a day out in the sun, tinged pink both from its rays and a little embarrassment. Sauntering through Covent Garden after a delightful few hours with friends, I popped into a favourite Café Nero for an iced beverage and the use of their facilities [that’s a delightfully British way of saying I needed the toilet]. As I made my way through the crowd at the counter, realised that one of the arms that had just taken a frappé bore a familiar wristband. I looked up a discovered an equally familiar face. We chatted, discovered we’d come into the café with the exact same purpose and after a few minutes I excused myself. I guess that as we both live in London, this shouldn’t be such a coincidence, but you just don’t generally bump into people like that. [There’s a back-story as to why this was more random than it might seem, but I’ll not go into the details.]
  • The slight embarrassment results not from this encounter, but one 20 minutes later when we both ended up (independently) in Trafalgar Square. I was busy escaping the attentions of a male tourist intent upon interrupting my quality time with my book [“Can I sit here and chat with you?” ,”No. I’m reading and having some quiet time by myself”]; he was waiting for friends. I decided I looked like a stalker – hence the pink cheeks. Paranoid? Me? Very. [It should be noted the use of the word ‘he’ in the previous sentence suggests why this might have been a potentially cringe-worthy encounter.]
None of these coincidences are bad things, just a little weird and leaves me pondering whether this happens to me more than most other people? It certainly feels like it at the moment. 

The eternal problem…part three

I’m not usually in the habit of doing long-winded or long-running blog posts, but there appears to be an issue that keeps cropping up, both in real-life conversations and the blogosphere – that of male-female friendships. [In the last week, it’s even featured on national radio – there’s a long debate on last week’s Chris Moyles podcast.]

It’s the eternal problem of whether (in the words of Harry, of When Harry Met Sally fame) a man and woman can be friends ‘without the sex thing getting in the way’. I’m wondering if perhaps the amount of thought being put into it makes it a book-worthy subject, perhaps with chapters authored by men and women alternately – could be an idea…

Also unusually, this post is going to require some background reading on your part (if you care that is, if you don’t you’ll probably be fine, but I like to give people the option!). You’ll also need a working knowledge of the movie, if you haven’t seen it, there are useful YouTube clips within the links that follow. Last summer I wrote on this topic twice (on consecutive days in fact), inventively entitled The Eternal Problem and The Eternal Problem Part Two – I’m going to try not to repeat myself and in some instances my thoughts back then have now changed. Those posts prompted some interesting conversations in various circles and for one particular blogging friend it’s a question that he’s pondered quite considerably. Last week he wrote at length on the subject and this post is intended as something of a response to his thoughts – a female perspective if you will. (Originally, this was drafted under ‘Rebuttal’ but that’s actually too strong a term when I don’t really intend to argue with him.) I was already beginning to collate some thoughts when a mutual friend suggested in the comments that perhaps I might weigh in with my views, so here they are:

Friends and Teenage Angst
It’s not particularly surprising that friendship between the genders is subject to such a question, when the idea that sex has to be involved somewhere is perpetuated throughout society. Take TV for example, the classic Generation X ideology of Friends shows that no friendship group is without its complications. On the one hand you have the marriage that emerged from Monica & Chandler’s friendship and the on-off relationship that defined a generation – Ross & Rachel. But if you look more closely (and being the Friends geek that I am, I know this without having to check) every friendship had sexual attraction (or something similar) thrown into it at some point. Monica fancied Joey when he first moved in; Ross and Phoebe nearly made out in a flashback episode; Rachel & Joey had a dalliance; Ross and Joey couldn’t cope when they realised how good napping together was… Using a different example, what about the incestuous nature of Dawson’s Creek? The un-ending saga of Dawson and Joey – sexual tension between two friends of different genders at its most potent.

Joey & Dawson

The prevalence of such relationships would suggest that it’s something that everyone will struggle with at some point eventually – so maybe Harry is right? But in fact, in the examples above, it didn’t actually spell the end of the friendships. My own theory is that Harry is wrong, not because sex isn’t an issue, but because it doesn’t have to prevent good friendships from developing and lasting.

Bringing Plato back from the dead
I think a big part of the problem that society has is that it seems to have forgotten or ignored the existence of platonic love. We seem to be so conditioned to look for romantic love that when we feel the emotion of attraction we assume that it’s that, not simply a genuine filial love. I can remember feeling distraught when moving cities and leaving my (first of several) gay best friend behind. For quite a while I couldn’t work out if what I felt meant that I liked him too much, even though I knew he wasn’t interested in me that way. After much soul searching, I realised it was simply a case of having formed a close platonic bond that I was genuinely sad to be changing. A year later when a close female friend left the country I was similarly upset, yet wouldn’t ever have wondered if I felt something more – because she was female! In his post, Andy talks about the role of attraction in friendship and he’s right, there has to be some attraction there in the first place for any kind of friendship to begin. We’re just rubbish at understanding that different forms of attraction are just as valid as sexual attraction.

It’s not the end – it’s only the beginning
Realising that you have feelings for a friend (and not having those feelings reciprocated) also needn’t mean the end of a friendship. Harry seems to assume that this is the case – given the utterly immature way in which both he and Sally respond to their one night stand, this is unsurprising – but he’s wrong. Yes, there will always be people who either can’t deal with knowing someone likes them or that their feelings aren’t returned, but in mature, open and honest friendships this really shouldn’t be an issue. You need healthy boundaries and plenty of honesty, but it is doable. Personally, I’ve struggled with this. There have been incidences where I’ve been terrible at ‘guarding my heart’ (a classic Christian cliché) and got badly hurt in the process, but I’m making progress. Things will never be perfect, but just lately I’ve learned a lot of important lessons that I think will result in a healthy, long-lasting friendship.

It’s deeply disappointing that being open and honest doesn’t always work – it’s cases like those that make Harry seem right, but I think they’re exceptions to the rule. I honestly don’t think that God intended for the two sexes to remain separate from each other in this way. The idea that women shouldn’t be close friends with men exists in certain Christian circles, but why be restricted to just half the population? Being friends with the opposite sex is of vital importance. Whatever some might say, the genders usually process things differently – for example, I’ve often found male friends’ relationship advice more useful than women’s.

It’s all Enid Blyton’s fault
Many of us are screwed up in this area because their formative years were spent in a single-sex environment (Part 1 explored this a little). Educationally I’m of the opinion that this is beneficial and I know that the decision to go to a girls’ school age 11 was my own, but it really doesn’t do you many favours socially. I’m now 28 and only really began having good male friends when I was at university. My mid-20’s were overshadowed by a deeply complicated friendship and only now am I starting to make better judgements. Just a couple of weeks ago a good friend at church discovered that I’d attended a local girls’ school and her response – “well that explains a lot” – says it all really.

Last summer, in between Part 1 and Part 2, I had a discussion with a male friend on this question. [Fortunately it was online and I saved the text, so now have it for reference purposes – however, just because it’s what we said at that time, doesn’t mean it holds true today.] One thing he said that really irked me was:
I think men can be terrible in how they can behave towards women, but when it comes to friendship, I think the issue falls more with the girls, because most guys can spend time with someone, get to know them a bit, and not automatically assume that this means the girl wants to date them/marry them/take them to bed…”we spent a whole hour at the party just talking! He must like me!”

At the time I insisted he was wrong, or at least that at some point girls go through a stage of thinking that, but we grow out of it. Now however, I’m not so sure. I wonder, because this is an issue so many of my friends have, if women are naturally conditioned to seek out love and affirmation and therefore are more inclined to jump ahead of themselves. My friend Katie and I refer to this as having a ‘Grolsch moment’ (an explanation for this term can be found in this advert). I’m definitely guilty of it – not in the base way in which it’s described above, but I know that affirmation can mean so much to me that a bit of positive interaction or flirting can get me carried away.

However, that’s no excuse for avoiding friendships. We as women need to make sure that we take male friends’ words and actions as they’re intended on a platonic level, rather than desperately searching/hoping for a subtext. At the same time, men need to be careful about how their actions might be interpreted and ensure that they aren’t guilty of leading their female friends on. If you’ve discovered that a female friend has feelings for you, it’s probably not a good idea to place your hand over hers while holding an umbrella, because that just sends out confusing signals. [FYI, that’s a genuine example, hence its specific/random nature!]

It’s complicated. Last year I was very nearly of the opinion that it was so complicated that it wasn’t worth bothering with – I think I meant the question as opposed to cross-gender friendships – but now I think it’s something to be borne in mind in an effort to reform society’s attitude. Along the way we also need to spend more time considering our friendships and ensuring that they are as healthy as they can be. Maybe, if the two things come to fruition, Harry will forever be wrong…

The thing is, friendship is a beautiful thing. (That’s something else I was scornful of in my discussion last year, thinking it too mundane and every day to be beautiful – I was wrong.) It enhances our lives beyond measure and, while it can be painful at times, we can’t live without it. In the last few weeks I’ve been astounded at how amazing my friends are (that sounds unbearably cheesy and was nearly a truly pathetic Facebook status, but it’s true). Don’t let yourself get so caught up in the difficult aspects of it that you miss out on the opportunities it provides you.

[Incidentally, I don’t think this will be the end of the matter. I’ve got a pile of research now and could rant on forever, but I think that’s enough for today!]

Dating & Mating

Trade descriptions could have me for that title – there is no mating in what follows. Apologies if that disappoints.

Mega churches like the one I attend are rather keen on coupling people up. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, it’s just that – in Christian circles – there is always a finite number of men and they don’t quite go all the way round.

To combat this problem, someone’s come up with Date my Mate. (Please note the amusing url: jesuslovesdatemymate.com – I’m sure he does.) The premise is that a function is held at which singletons appear, with a single friend of the opposite sex in tow. In this way, there’s an even number of the genders, all are (in theory) vouched for and fun can ensue…

All good – in theory. My issue with this concept has always been that if I had a number of single male friends, I probably wouldn’t be single myself. (Dining with my mother a couple of week’s ago she cried exasperatedly “don’t you have any straight, single, male friends?!” Oh mother, sometimes I do wonder…) Finding a single male friend (who I don’t want to date myself) and is willing to go to such an event is really quite a mission.

Tonight I was going to go. I’d actually located this mythical male friend, well, to be fair, two of our friends bullied him into going over lunch on Sunday – he seemed keen though. However, he stood me up. His loss of course, he could have met the woman of his dreams. Still, I’ve got him sufficiently guilt-tripped to ensure he comes to the next one…

[What was that? Did someone suggest I was being manipulative? Moi? Never.]