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Review of books

August 2007
spiked review of books
Handbags at dawn

Emily Hill

Handbags at dawn

Guardian columnist Lucy Mangan’s ‘essential guide to being a girl’ - full of lengthy sentences, stories about weeing and descriptions of infant genitalia - is untreated bilge.

Lucy Mangan writes like I did at 14, when I had just read the Complete Jane Austen and, convinced of my own inimitable genius, wit and vivacity, started writing interminably long sentences which comprised as many polysyllabic words of Latinate extraction as I could cram into a Word document before a green squiggly line appeared, annotated ‘long sentence (no suggestions)’.

Which is quite relevant, really, because Mangan’s new ‘essential guide to being a girl’, Hopscotch and Handbags, seems to be the work of a teenage mind. The book rollicks through everything about ‘being a girl’ – from getting ‘your greatest thrills from buying stationery’ (biros! rulers! ooooh guv’nor!) to buying your ‘first bra three years before you need one’ (full, premature chest support for all that pen-buying) – with teeth-clenching banality. Don’t believe me? Try this on for size:

‘While the Yummy Mummy may be wholly admirable from an adult point of view (why, after all, should a woman abandon her sexuality and allure just because she has produced a few anklebiters along the way if she has been blessed with that rare mix of energy and elasticity that enables her to bounce back from the procedure?), her children are a mess.’

Or, how about this one?

‘Legend has it that Mum once left my six-month-old self in Dad’s care for a few hours while she went to John Lewis, or to solve the Middle East peace crisis or something, and came back to find him trying to feed me egg and chips as I lay in my pram looking frankly perturbed by the disquieting turn life had suddenly taken and the likelihood of it ending imminently in a flurry of choking sounds and infant convulsions.’

Men, eh? You’ve gotta laugh.

As some of you may know, Lucy Mangan is one of the chief writers of nonsense for the Guardian newspaper. In her columns she writes about essential subjects, like chatting to her gardener or the horror of having to share a bed with her boyfriend (‘the advent of reliable contraception has obviated the need for irreversible sterilisation’), and now someone has given her a whole, beautifully bound book in which to give it large on the subject of being a girl. Handbags and Hopscotch will not disappoint Mangan’s fans. It is souped-up, satin-sheet, five-star bilge – with lots and lots of lovely exaggeration, jokes and stylistic quirks. Sometimes, for instance, Mangan circulates around a topic, playing little games with her reader. For instance, what would you say this was about?

Why should women relish the idea of getting back into our gender straitjackets?

‘Displaying an unexpected predilection for the trappings of pseudo-military organisations, I took to the little yellow tie and chunky metal trefoil straight away.’

That’s right: Mangan joined the Brownies.

She also likes lists. And writes lots of them.

Mangan starts the book by explaining that pretty early on in life she realised she was a girl. As a girl, she suffered greatly from her mother’s incessant talking and from all the little boys weeing in the local sandpit. She went to a playgroup full of ‘semi-feral children’ with ‘splintery chairs’, ‘assorted strains of impetigo’, and ‘a handful of hungover’ supervisors ‘likely’ to burn her with fags.

Mangan has a rare talent for describing infant genitalia. The difference between boys and girls, she explains, ‘boils down to a bobbing acorn of flesh in a place where you are as smooth and neat as a nectarine’. And she puts the talent to good use: girls are nicer than boys, she explains, because, when changing nappies, ‘getting poo out of all a boy’s cracks and crevices takes nine hours. And in the end you have to use your fingernails.’ Such passages are not only gross, they are also blatantly untrue. Using fingernails on a newborn? Somebody call social services…

I have no idea why books on the subject of being a girl are being commissioned (a few weeks ago it was Sarah Vine’s Great Big Glorious Book for Girls), and I dread to think that they might sell. For who, aside from an eight-year-old with incipient gender issues, could benefit from them? The rest of us shouldn’t need ‘a guide’ to being a girl. Especially as we are now women. In certain areas of the world, the female of the species is still regarded as inferior to the male. It seems strange that at a time when, in the UK, unequal treatment can be prosecuted in a court of law, we are expected to relish the idea that all we really want is to get back into our gender straitjacket of talking too much, being emotional, turning into our mothers and getting excited about stationery.

‘For girls’, Mangan states definitively, ‘life is divided between having a mother and being a mother, each a state of affairs frequently so appalling it is a wonder we don’t make our way en masse to the woods every night to howl in pain at the moon’. I can’t say I’ve ever found the experience of being a girl ‘so appalling’ that I have to retreat to the woods to howl – but reading Mangan’s book brings me close. Forget childbirth and Brazilian waxing, if you want a truly agonising female experience flick through Hopscotch and Handbags.

Emily Hill is staff writer at spiked and a blogger for Dazed and Confused.

Hopscotch and Handbags by Lucy Mangan is published by Headline Review. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

For permission to republish spiked articles, please contact Viv Regan.

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