Spaceships and a simple plan

Alice O'Keeffe's "Squeezed Middle" column.

‘‘Are there any drugs you can give me?” I am begging my GP, Dr Ibrahim. I’ve had enough of feeling like crap. I can’t wait another five weeks for my appointment with the mental health nurse – I need chemical intervention, and I need it now. “Do people still take Prozac? Or was that a Nineties thing?”
 
“Not while you are still breastfeeding. There is another drug I could prescribe. But darling, are you sure you can’t wait to see the specialist?”
 
Dr Ibrahim always calls me darling. It’s an acquired taste in a doctor, but I like it. Her consulting room has a heavy, perfumed smell, with a faint undertone of cigarette smoke. I can tell she is a mother herself by the way she deftly moves her cup of tea just before Moe succeeds in tipping it all over the blood pressure machine.
 
“I feel terrible. I can’t stop crying. I haven’t had a good night’s sleep for months. We haven’t got any money. And my boyfriend hates me.” As if to illustrate my point, I burst into tears, again.
 
“Daaarling. But this is all very natural. You’ve just had a baby.”
 
I notice a packet of red Gauloises peeping from the pocket of her blouse. God, I would kill for a cigarette right now. Would she give me one? No, I daren’t ask. I’m sure that would be against the rules.
 
“What you really need is rest.”
 
This is indisputable. I can feel the pressure of sleeplessness on my brain, reducing everything to a dull grey pulp. Outside, summer may be in full swing, birds may be tweeting from the blossomy trees, children may be frolicking in the park . . . but inside my head everything is dark as a December morning. It feels like my brain has stopped absorbing any of the nice stuff, while it sucks up doom like a sponge.
 
Dr Ibrahim won’t give me any drugs. She tells me to leave the children with Curly for a night, get some rest, and come back next week if I’m still feeling low. As I push the buggy back through the sun-baked park I force myself to look up at the trees, and the birds in them. Then I force myself to stop at the café for an ice lolly. It’s tough, but I think I can hack it.
 
Can I force myself to feel better? Perhaps I can. I sit down on a bench and come up with a three-point plan:
 
One: I will get some sleep.
 
Two: I will stop reading or listening to the news. Responsibility for two very small humans is as much as I can handle. The rest of the world will have to wait.
 
Three: I will stop working. I will stop caring about houses or bills or breaking even. The only things in the world I’m allowed to worry about are Larry and Moe.
 
It’s a simple plan, but I feel encouraged by it. I put the lolly stick carefully in my bag so Larry and I can make spaceships later, and start for home with the tiniest trace of a spring in my step. 
Alice O'Keeffe's "Squeezed Middle" column appears weekly in the New Statesman magazine.

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 26 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, How the dream died

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At Labour conference, activists and politicians can't avoid each other – but try their best to "unsee"

My week, from havoc in the Labour family to a sublime act of real-life trolling – via a shopping centre.

I like to take a favourite novel with me to party conference for when it all gets too much, and this year I took China Miéville’s The City & the City. It takes place in the fictional cities of Besžel and Ul Qoma, two metropolises that exist in the same geographic space but must dutifully “unsee” one another or risk the sanction of Breach, the secret police force. It turned out to be a better allegory for what was going on outside my hotel than I had expected.

Labour, as I don’t need to tell you, is badly split on almost everything. Now that the acrid leadership race has reached its inevitable conclusion, activists and politicians on both sides are operating as if they had a standing duty to “unsee” each other. The atmosphere feels a bit like a family dinner after a blazing row: everyone is aware that things have been said that will take years to be forgiven, if they ever will be, so the conversation is largely banal and superficial.

The exception is the conference floor, the only place where Corbynites and Corbynsceptics cannot unsee each other, which was therefore the scene of several acrimonious confrontations after tricky votes. It’s difficult to predict where Labour goes from here. The Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) is largely against a split, but its members surely can’t spend the next four years dutifully pretending not to see one another,or their activists?

 

Chaos and confusion

Would it have been better for Jeremy Corbyn if his defeated challenger, Owen Smith, had done a little bit better against him – not just in the final vote but throughout the contest? All summer, Smith distinguished himself only through his frequent gaffes, to the point where it felt more appropriate to describe him as a participant in the leadership race rather than a combatant.

The difficulty for both Corbyn and his critics is that his opponents in the PLP have no clear leader. As a result, their dissatisfaction is amorphous, rather than being productively channelled into a set of specific demands or criticisms, which Corbyn could then reject or accept. The overwhelming feeling about his leadership among the PLP is that “something must be done”. So whenever an MP embarks on a freelance assault – Margaret Hodge’s no-confidence motion, say, or Clive Betts’s attempt to bring back elections to the shadow cabinet – the majority leaps on the scheme. Corbyn’s critics reason that at least it’s something.

Although fractious Labour MPs might not see it that way, the decision not to restore shadow cabinet elections helps their cause. Taking away the leader’s ability to choose his ministerial team was a recipe for chaos – chaos that would, rightly, have been blamed on them.

 

Custody rights

If the Labour family would be, as I suspect, better off seeking a divorce, there is an irony that one of the things that they all agree on is the fate of the kids. The party is entirely united behind its leader in his opposition to grammar schools – as is almost every serious thinker on education policy, from Policy Exchange on the right through to Melissa Benn on the left.

Still, Labour will encounter a visceral type of resistance to its stance from the alumni of grammars, who, regardless of what the studies show, attribute their success to their attendance at selective schools. I can understand that. Although I went to a comprehensive, the emotional pull of one’s upbringing is hard to escape. I can, for example, read all the studies that show that children in single-parent families do worse – but I find it hard to experience it as anything other than an awful attack on my mother, to whom I owe everything.

Winning the argument over schooling will require a sensitive ear to those for whom the argument against the schools seems like an attack on their parents.

 

Pudding and pie

One of the nice things about being from a single-parent family is that I don’t have to admit to flaws – merely to unresolved kinks that would have been ironed out had my absent father stuck around. One such kink is my capacity for procrastination, which
results in my making decisions too often at the last minute.

This always comes back to bite me at party conference. At dinner events, I frequently put off picking my meal options to the point that I have to eat whatever the kitchen has left. At one meal this year, I was lucky enough to have three courses of pudding, but at another, my hastily cobbled-together starter seemed to consist entirely of pesto, taramasalata and rocket.

 

Too late

The best thing about party conference is sharing a panel with a politician you don’t know very much about who turns out to be highly impressive. It’s particularly cheering now, when my optimism about politics is at a low ebb. I try to meet them properly for coffee afterwards, although because of my capacity for putting things off, that doesn’t always happen.

Last year, I was chairing a particularly testy fringe on the Israel-Palestine conflict. The then shadow foreign secretary, Hilary Benn, was running late and an MP from the 2015 intake had to field all the questions on her own. She did this with immense poise and knowledge, while clearly having a sense of how unhelpful some of the louder, angrier voices were – during one lengthy monologue from the floor, she turned and rolled her eyes at me. Her name was Jo Cox.

I kept meaning to get to know her, but I never got around to ringing her office, and now I never will.

 

Banter and bargains

A colleague alerts me to a sublime act of real-life trolling. When Everton opened a second branch of its team store in Liverpool’s shopping centre, it picked an innocuous name: Everton Two. Innocuous, that is, until you realise that the shopping centre is called Liverpool One. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics. 

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories