One wedding which made me wonder how I'd behave in a war

Being a lefty, arty intellectual, part English, Polish, American, French and Jewish, I would have been wanted dead by Hitler six or seven times over. I bear this in mind as I arrive at one of many recent weddings.

As I might have mentioned before, among the nice things that have been happening lately is the fact that I have, thanks to relatives who are the right age, and friends of the Beloved, been getting invited to lots of weddings.

At my age, there is nothing bad about a wedding. Before I got married, going to the weddings of my contemporaries had something of the vibe of bomb disposal about it, or potential contagion: I wondered if my then girlfriend would let all the celebrations cause her to lose her mind and insist on a wedding of her own. To me.

Which wedding would be the one that would set off the unstoppable cascade of emotions? This far down the line, I can’t remember which one it was, so I just hold them all equally to blame.

These days, all a wedding means to me is, happily, an excuse to dress up (threepiece suit for autumn/winter, lightly crumpled linen for spring/summer, thus making effective use of the only two suits I possess) and get stuffed and hammered at someone else’s expense.

But the latest one fills me with a certain trepidation, for it is a military wedding, and one of the Beloved’s friends is marrying a flight lieutenant.

At this point I can imagine what you’re thinking. “Ah, that conchie Lezard is going to express his misgivings about the armed forces, and his guilt at having anything to do with the oppressive military-industrial complex and the forces of Babylon, etc.” At which point I will have to gently disabuse you and say that I am afraid the problem lies entirely in the opposite direction.

I remember vividly the fat-bottomed historian Andrew Roberts* once calling me a conchie live on air, saying that I would not have fought in the Second World War. The comeback that instantly sprang to mind was too incendiary to say (“My dear chap, I’m sure that you would not have hesitated to volunteer; only I’m not sure for which side”), so all I could do was seethe.

I most certainly would not have sat that war out. Being a lefty, arty intellectual, part English, Polish, American, French and Jewish, I would have been wanted dead by Hitler six or seven times over, and I am very glad indeed that when I learned German it was because I wanted to, and not because it was compulsory. Not, of course, that I would have been able to learn it compulsorily, because, as my private-school peers were keen to remind me, I was “good enough for the ovens”.

So when I get up close to the military, I am very mindful of the fact that their predecessors put their lives on the line for the likes of me, and I’m very happy that members of my family did what they could, too. (My gambling-mad great-uncle Lizzie parachuted behind enemy lines to see what he could learn from his old croupier pals, became known as “the man who broke his back at Monte Carlo” and was tended to full recovery by the French Resistance. Another great-uncle actually was a conscientious objector, but did his bit by volunteering to be a pathfinder: that is, flying, unarmed, ahead of a bomber formation in order to guide it to target. That takes some balls. Amazingly, he survived.) Things are made worse by the fact that this is going to be a proper RAF wedding: ceremony at St Clement Danes, reception at the Honourable Artillery Company, the works. Even the groom’s father is an army chaplain. So I’m very worried that I am going to get drunk and start gushing, or worse. “Try and stay sober, Lezard,” I say to myself, as I try to remember how you tie a tie.

Oh well. Even before alcohol touches my lips, I am unmanned. RAF St Clement Danes (as it is officially called) bursts with history; officers form an arch of swords for bride and groom to walk through; the bells play “Oranges and Lemons”; and every single person on the top deck of every single bus that passes swivels their head to gawp at the scene.

A lump forms in my throat and I seem to have something in my eye. The Beloved sees me, excited as a seven-year-old, and says: “You’re a crap pacifist.”

*Legal note: I gather that, since this exchange, Andrew Roberts has undertaken some kind of slimming regime and his rear end is no longer so adipose. But believe me, at the time these remarks were made, it was the size of Wales

Military weddings come in many forms. Image: Getty

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 30 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Should you bother to vote?

Photo: Getty
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Leaving the cleaning to someone else makes you happier? Men have known that for centuries

Research says avoiding housework is good for wellbeing, but women have rarely had the option.

If you want to be happy, there is apparently a trick: offload the shitwork onto somebody else. Hire cleaner. Get your groceries delivered. Have someone else launder your sheets. These are the findings published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, but it’s also been the foundation of our economy since before we had economics. Who does the offloading? Men. Who does the shitwork? Women.

Over the last 40 years, female employment has risen to almost match the male rate, but inside the home, labour sticks stubbornly to old patterns: men self-report doing eight hours of housework a week, while women slog away for 13. When it comes to caring for family members, the difference is even more stark: men do ten hours, and women 23.

For your average heterosexual couple with kids, that means women spend 18 extra hours every week going to the shops, doing the laundry, laying out uniform, doing the school run, loading dishwashers, organising doctors' appointments, going to baby groups, picking things up, cooking meals, applying for tax credits, checking in on elderly parents, scrubbing pots, washing floors, combing out nits, dusting, folding laundry, etcetera etcetera et-tedious-cetera.

Split down the middle, that’s nine hours of unpaid work that men just sit back and let women take on. It’s not that men don’t need to eat, or that they don’t feel the cold cringe of horror when bare foot meets dropped food on a sticky kitchen floor. As Katrine Marçal pointed out in Who Cooked Adam Smiths Dinner?, men’s participation in the labour market has always relied on a woman in the background to service his needs. As far as the majority of men are concerned, domestic work is Someone Else’s Problem.

And though one of the study authors expressed surprise at how few people spend their money on time-saving services given the substantial effect on happiness, it surely isn’t that mysterious. The male half of the population has the option to recruit a wife or girlfriend who’ll do all this for free, while the female half faces harsh judgement for bringing cover in. Got a cleaner? Shouldn’t you be doing it yourself rather than outsourcing it to another woman? The fact that men have even more definitively shrugged off the housework gets little notice. Dirt apparently belongs to girls.

From infancy up, chores are coded pink. Looking on the Toys “R” Us website, I see you can buy a Disney Princess My First Kitchen (fuchsia, of course), which is one in the eye for royal privilege. Suck it up, Snow White: you don’t get out of the housekeeping just because your prince has come. Shop the blue aisle and you’ll find the Just Like Home Workshop Deluxe Carry Case Workbench – and this, precisely, is the difference between masculine and feminine work. Masculine work is productive: it makes something, and that something is valuable. Feminine work is reproductive: a cleaned toilet doesn’t stay clean, the used plates stack up in the sink.

The worst part of this con is that women are presumed to take on the shitwork because we want to. Because our natures dictate that there is a satisfaction in wiping an arse with a woman’s hand that men could never feel and money could never match. That fiction is used to justify not only women picking up the slack at home, but also employers paying less for what is seen as traditional “women’s work” – the caring, cleaning roles.

It took a six-year legal battle to secure compensation for the women Birmingham council underpaid for care work over decades. “Don’t get me wrong, the men do work hard, but we did work hard,” said one of the women who brought the action. “And I couldn’t see a lot of them doing what we do. Would they empty a commode, wash somebody down covered in mess, go into a house full of maggots and clean it up? But I’ll tell you what, I would have gone and done a dustman’s job for the day.”

If women are paid less, they’re more financially dependent on the men they live with. If you’re financially dependent, you can’t walk out over your unfair housework burden. No wonder the settlement of shitwork has been so hard to budge. The dream, of course, is that one day men will sack up and start to look after themselves and their own children. Till then, of course women should buy happiness if they can. There’s no guilt in hiring a cleaner – housework is work, so why shouldn’t someone get paid for it? One proviso: every week, spend just a little of the time you’ve purchased plotting how you’ll overthrow patriarchy for good.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.