Blue is for boys and pink is for girls

Talk to us, not about us.

It’s the plea of a small child when they overhear a parent talking about them to another.

‘Don’t talk about me,’ they say, as if our words crush them.

The same during the 1970s when I was a young social worker on ward rounds at Prince Henry’s hospital with the chief physician who wandered from bed to bed in the ward of his specialty filled with any number of men or women.

The sexes were segregated in those days. 

A gaggle of white coated residents, registrars, trainee doctors and those considered hangers on like me. Allied health, the Occupational and Speech therapists, physios and social workers, clip boards in hand.

We stood to the rear of the doctors who were learning about the body while our take on the social or soft aspects of a person’s body, including their minds were relegated to the back. And the senior registrar would introduce the patient in third person to the team. 

‘Here is Mr Joseph Simons (fictional). Mr Simons was admitted last night with a duodenal ulcer that was about to burst. My Simons is a forty-six-year-old man who works as a forklift operator and lives on a diet of chips and fatty foods. His diet has not helped his ulcer.’

And Mr Simons, flat on his back on the bed, eyes the white coated brigade, the caravan of passers-by who look at him quizzically without any idea of how Mr Simons might feel at this interrogation. The ultimate objectification. And the caravan passes on without so much as a direct reference to Mr Simons unless he has the temerity, and some patients do, to ask a direct question of the group. 

‘What’s happening to me.’ Talk to me. It’s my body,’ he might say. ‘It’s my ulcer, my diet and my life.’ While the doctors speak as though Mr Simons is a specimen under the microscope, one that scarcely piques curiosity because this specimen is hum drum and below anyone’s level of interest. 

It’s not so different with trans people, as it was in the days when gay people first came out of the proverbial closet.

The man on his back in the bed at Prince Henry’s is not so surprising, but people who go against the heteronormative laws of nature- so-called- they’re a concern.

They need to be fixed to be altered, some might say, otherwise they disturb our sense of order. They evoke an inner disgust.

And we know from hard experience, anything that disgusts us is to be avoided. 

The way the world turns on its socially and culturally designed axis. Blue is for boys and pink is for girls. When did that idea first attack our awareness, in what culture, a western one no doubt.?

Google helps me here: according to writer, lecturer, and colour expert Gavin Evans 

“In the early part of the 20th Century and the late part of the 19th Century, in particular, there were regular comments advising mothers that if you want your boy to grow up masculine, dress him in a masculine colour like pink and if you want your girl to grow up feminine dress her in a feminine colour like blue.”

“This was advice that was very widely dispensed with and there were some reasons for this. Blue in parts of Europe, at least, had long been associated as a feminine colour because of the supposed colour of the Virgin Mary’s outfit.”

“Pink was seen as a kind of boyish version of the masculine colour red. So it gradually started to change however in the mid-20th Century and eventually by about 1950, there was a huge advertising campaign by several advertising agencies pushing pink as an exclusively feminine colour and the change came very quickly at that point.”

Social constructivism fuels unconscious codes parents feed their children even before they’re born. And the grand biologically determined narrative that dictates: you’re born with a penis so you’re a boy who will grow into man hood, and if you’ve a vulva, you’re a girl, who will grow into womanhood, holds fast even as we know there are many variations on this theme.

The gender polarisation is under fire just as doctors no longer wear white coats on ward rounds and from my experience, when my husband was in hospital with sepsis for seven weeks they do their rounds differently from during the mid 1970s.

The gaggle of young medicos still arrive at your bedside, now dressed in civvies with a badge or lanyard to declare their position and stethoscope around the neck to add to their status. They might be more inclined to address the patient in the second person. And allow that person to speak about themselves for longer than a thirty second ‘sound bite’ but that’s about it.

Still the superior position of the expert who knows against the vulnerability of the ignorant unwell one who has no say other than to be grateful for these infantizing ministrations. 

It’s the lot of the disabled, of the elderly, of those whose memories have run away from them, those in a coma to be talked about and no longer addressed as if they are not here, only the carcass of their bodies, as if they’re already in the casket at their own funeral. 

It’s there too in Death in Paradise, a lighthearted crime series set on the island of Saint Marie in the Caribbean, which like Midsomer Murders leaves you interested more in the who-done-it of the crime than in the person murdered, in a way that intrigues me.

It’s as if death in these movies is a by-product of being alive on holidays and is of no real consequence beyond the big question: Who did it? 

Talk about talking about you and not to you, but the detective in this series, at least by the time, like me, you’ve rollicked through to series twelve and thirteen, the hapless detective, Neville from Britain, who invariably solves the crime within the fifty minutes allocated, likes to chat to the dead person when he first falls on the murder scene. 

He might ask aloud, ‘Who did this to you?’ ‘What were you thinking?’ What is it with your fingernails or your hair scraped back from your forehead, or the clothes you put on this morning, the day someone else chose to end your life?

His colleagues stand beside him over the corpse – now silent and forevermore – snigger or raise eyes to one another: here is our chief, at it again. Doesn’t he realise, this body will not answer? This body is beyond speaking.

Is this how we interrogate history, look to the past, try to resurrect our memories of events gone by or find traces of others long dead in the words they left recorded or in images as far back as prehistoric times, the animal shapes and human form nearby, a straight line spear poised in the attack to let us know something of how these people fed themselves on the carcasses of the huge beasts, bison or deer, who were then part of the cycle of life?

And still so today only the murders happen in private spaces allocated to animal deaths in abattoirs so most of us don’t have to endure the blood on our hands or recognise the creatures born to feed us. 

When the writer, performer and all round funny tragic person, Hannah Gadsby was a child, or so I read in her memoir, she wanted most of all to be a dog.

When my husband was a child, his father talked to him as though he was a dog and punished him at times by threatening to chain him to the kennel. Small wonder his relationship to dogs in our household is ambivalent, while Hannah Gadsby’s best friends have long been her dogs. 

Talk to me, not at me, or about me. Include me in your speculations and I will include you in mine. This way we might get to understand one another in ways we can’t otherwise access, unless we take it in turns to explain ourselves to each other and each is willing to listen.

Scuffed skirting boards

‘I hate the smell of other people’s lives,’ says Lucy Barton, Elizabeth Strout’s creation, when faced with the prospect of moving into someone else’s house to escape New York into Maine during the Covid pandemic.

Instantly my nose twitches. Not so much at the thought of other people’s lives – by which Lucy means the smell of their lives as it radiates through their houses – but at the smell of my own house, over one hundred years old and tired.

It can give off the dank smell of mildew and decay. Especially now that autumn’s cold is setting in and I’m too mean to use our ancient gas central heating for fear of the unspeakable costs every quarter. 

It’s not just the life of me and mine that seeps through the bones of this house, but the lives of our predecessors, those who lived here during the first half of the 1900s, when this area was more industrial, and miners’ cottages flanked the side streets.

This house, large by comparison, was occupied at one time by a doctor who used our front room as his surgery. After he sold the house they split it, one flat on either side of the corridor, to create homes for two families.

The back of the house when we bought it in 1980, consisted of two separate lean two kitchens and bathrooms. We pulled them both down to make room for one proper bathroom and kitchen. 

If I do not die here I will be sad to say goodbye. For all its foibles this house has served us well.

Death tricks my mind into thoughts of my father.

If I could meet him, now long dead, and had courage enough, the courage of my age and understanding today, I might ask him, 

‘What were you thinking to treat us the way you did?’ And in my impossible meeting into the future, he might say. 

‘I wasn’t thinking. I was compelled. Driven by dark forces within me that hark back to a time when I felt as helpless as a kitten and could only fend for myself by scratching or lashing out.’

My imaginary father of the future is poetic. My actual father was not. 

The paint peels on the walls of my memory and the skirting boards are scuffed with the marks of too many feet in shoes bashed against them as people walk by.

Funny how memories like this eclipse all others. They cast a shadow over your life and like rising damp bring out a mould of black, to which some can be allergic.

My body bears such scars, and my mind is streaked with the mud of memories as they throw up more mud. I cannot get a foothold on dry land.

You find yourself thinking, I must not speak about this. It might be contagious, like a virus, or it might lie like a damp dishcloth over your heart exuding such a stink it stays on your fingers for hours. 

All the metaphors I can find do not do justice to the dull ache of memory as it thrums its way into my vision. 

All the words evade me, only the smell remains.