Julie Burchill

Get over it!

Christa d’Souza and Marina Benjamin prove that the over-examined life is not worth reading; Miranda Sawyer is a genius

Get over it!
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The Hot Topic: A life-changing look at the Change of Life

Christa D’Souza

Short Books, pp. 204, £

The Middlepause: on turning 50

Marina Benjamin

Scribe, pp. 240, £

Out of Time: midlife, if you still think you’re young

Miranda Sawyer

Fourth Estate, pp. 272, £

As someone who managed to move from enfant terrible to grande dame without ever being a proper grown-up, I must say the menopause passed me by. I make a practise of having mostly much younger or male mates so I don’t have to hear old birds banging on about it, but occasionally my bezzie (who seems to have been undergoing the unfortunate process since the EU was the EC) will start feeling hot — then the next minute, she’s moaning about the British weather and pining to go somewhere warm. Women! My main thought as I pushed, tank-like, through mine was that as a broad who has lived her life in a bid to show that arch-bitch Mother Nature who’s the Daddy, defying her at every turn, I was damned if I was going to cry ‘Uncle!’ at the eleventh hour. But all those women who thought they’d be forever young — the same ones who thought their teenage idols were immortal, and who have formed an ever-mutating sob-leading squad in response — are going through it now, and so here come the books from the Media Menopause Mob.

You know those volumes you occasionally find which aren’t just books but precious things, that you just want to sit quietly somewhere holding, or even better take out and be seen with because they’re just so damn gorgeous as artefacts, let alone art? The Hot Topic is not that — it’s an UnBook, like a vampire is an UnDead rather than a living being. All we hacks have a moment or 12 when we’ve finished a sizeable piece of writing, had a good response and thought ‘Hmm, I bet I could make that into a BOOK!’ — well, don’t, or you could end up producing a monstrosity like D’Souza’s. Smeared with what we in the trade call screamers — pulled out pieces of text, hopefully sensationalist stuff that will get the idle newsstand peruser interested, which I’ve never seen in an actual book before — this is a magazine piece with ideas above its station in every way, including asterisks instead of proper swear words (she calls her son ‘a little s***’ — why not just call him a rotter?), sucking up to one’s sycophants by calling them ‘super-intelligent, super-switched-on, super-strong women out there’ (what, all of them? Not a weedy, needy ass-hat among them?), and having a hectoring tone which imagines it is pleasingly matey: ‘Listen…’ ‘Look…’ ‘Another thing…’ ‘Funny this…’ ‘And then there is the old sex thing…’ ‘My children are hugely sweaty, while my other half barely sweats at all…’ ‘Phew — so I’m not such a nutter…’ It’s like having a mad old lady come and sit next to you on the bus, albeit a bus going to South Kensington. In true magazine style, there’s a full-length photo of D’Souza on the back looking do-able — she’s obviously meant to be a Hot Menopauser, in the mode of the equally irritating Hot Feminist and Hot Widow books published recently. If men did this — Hot Doctor, Hot Hipster, Hot Grandad — we’d make vomit-faces, and quite rightly. The only people who should be allowed to tout themselves as hot are firemen.

If D’Souza’s book is a magazine piece in all but name, Marina Benjamin’s is not just a book — it’s a tome, an opus and a treatise. It’s equally up itself (literally, at times) but whereas D’Souza cackles with her coven in the kitchen, Benjamin is quiet-in-the-library, though easily as profoundly smug as D’Souza — the NW/SW mirror image of each other, media-ocrities under the skin. ‘We are a household of writers,’ she purrs at one point, and one’s mind wanders towards the likelihood and logistics of an entire family of scribblers being beaten to death with a giant Moleskine notebook. The Prologue alone had me sniggeringly reaching for my well-thumbed copy of Cold Comfort Farm to play spot-the-bucolic-cliché: ‘a communal garden that has got inside of me somehow’ — painful! — has trees ‘like giant sentinels’, a ‘tipsy profusion of greenery’, ‘blossom-laden, blowsy and heavy with perfume, swung drunken limbs’, ‘foliage puffing up and over like a risen souffle’ — what, no sukebind? My hostility to this piece of land was nailed when Benjamin gives it responsibility for her output: ‘Swallowed up by me. That spiky insubordination is inspirational — when I’m struggling with a piece of work, it spurs me into taking risks.’ If the end result is such overweeningly pompous prose, the day this scribe-egging scrubland is concreted over cannot come too soon for me.

Elsewhere we learn that her hubby is ‘trim and virile’ (TMI, as the kids say) while she is ‘all saggy pouches and nobby joints’ but of course there is much to humble-brag about — ‘a tight family, close friendships, my work as a writer and editor’. Somewhat sickeningly (and with a horrible disregard for language, coming from the head of a household of writers) hysterectomy scars are referred to as ‘war wounds’, the process of ageing as ‘time travel’, the menopause ‘like some fairground House of Horrors experience’. The lack of perspective and the level of humourless self-importance displayed is literally shocking. I know that I myself have always been a self-centred writer, but when I read bourgeois women’s accounts of their dreary little lives and losses as though they were of some earth-stilling import — the Guardian is always heaving with them, and they often become books — I become delighted all over again at my lightness of touch and my self-mockery.

By now I was feeling like a book-wormy Goldilocks — this one too shallow, this one too deep — so imagine my relief on getting to Miranda Sawyer, of whom I am such a fan that I recently rejected her offer to be her Pointless partner, so sure was I that not a thought worth having would come to my head in such close proximity. (I was basing this on fact, having once been interviewed by her live at Latitude and, as I recall, giving a very good imitation of a simpering simpleton throughout.) Her supple, sardonic style (panic is ‘that dark, revving provocateur’, death is ‘flickering and glittering somewhere to the side, around our blind spot where we can’t quite see it’) and the fresh admission of her frustration with the limitations of middle-age — ‘I wanted to arrive in a sunlit place, to be celebrated as a new magical queen, and to have the time to enjoy it’ — made me wish that words like ‘feisty’ hadn’t been ruined by a bunch of peevish shrews.

When I was a teenager, I swore I’d never be like my mum’s muckers, who moaned on about ‘The Change’ because they were bored and wanted attention, and I don’t see any reason to change my mind now, just because the moaners have book contracts. Talk about the over-examined life being not worth reading — how much truer is that of the over-examined innards. Writers, show me magic, show me passion, show me fun — as Sawyer manages to do, even on this dreariest of subjects — but please keep your insomniac ponderings to yourselves. Trust me, it’ll all look better in the morning.