I am standing at the ironing board, ironing my husband’s shirt. My newly washed hair is in curlers, the kind with prickly brushes that dig into your scalp unless you are upright. On the radio is Woman’s Hour (WH), the voice of Sue MacGregor. It is 1987 and a general election has been called.
I still remember the shock on my husband’s face on that day when he walked in and found his bluestocking (well, that’s what he thought) bride ironing with WH. Did I say that I was still in my dressing gown? And that this was in the good old days when WH came on at 2pm, right after The Archers and The World at One a schedule that suited me perfectly? I ate lunch listening to the news and The Archers, then cleaned, polished, weeded, ironed while listening to WH. My friend Katy called it ‘the News and Blues’ because she thought WH dwelt on female misery, but I felt the three programmes represented quintessential English life.
But time moves on. Or rather, the times move: WH was moved to 10:30am and lost me. The World at One was conden-sed to 30 minutes, perhaps in the belief that any longer would lead to higher rates of depression. Still, I switch off when the news ends because the comedy slot intended to cheer me up before The Archers is excru-ciating, long ago bade farewell to Ambridge and listen to Weekend Woman’s Hour.
But this isn’t a rant about scheduling: this is my Happy 60th Birthday to WH. I confess that WH fits me like a pair of Hunter wellies: supportive, comfortable and very useful for striding out into the swampy world. I just have to hear the voices of Jennie Murray and Martha Kearny and I change gear, the same change that comes over me when I answer the telephone and hear the voice of one of my women friends. Which leads me to what this is really about: the power of friendship in women’s lives. I reckon it is one of the great life forces, the saving grace that keeps the planet upright because it keeps one half of humanity sane. It is something that psychologists and historians have never quite understood: that women’s friendships are our irreplaceable lifelines.
It’s not even something that men easily understand. My husband’s amazement at seeing me ironing with WH was nothing compared to his astonishment at finding me on the telephone talking to girlfriends. It’s not the bills that alarm him calls to Maine, New York, London are cheaper than ever and emails have dramatically diluted long-distance costs. It’s the sheer time spent talking, chattering, mulling over, gossiping.
And yet it was a man, the writer Kurt Vonnegut, who came up with the answer to Freud’s classic question: what do women want? ‘I know what women want,’ he said. ‘They want lots of people to talk to.’ To be truly accurate: we want women friends to talk to, and we want to talk, talk, talk. We accept that family comes first, and nowadays jobs come first, so friends are squeezed in. But when we are together, the talk overflows: trivial, intense, worried, joyful, plentiful. In 20 minutes, we can cover the sudden appearance of flab around the middle, the agonies of getting the Personal Statement right, the war in Iraq, a friend’s shaky marriage and the qualities we want in a handbag/school/GP/winter coat/husband/dog bed/Prime Minister.
I accept that life moves on. Curlers have been replaced by hair dryers, and I work hard in order to pay someone to iron for me. But I just hope that WH lasts my lifetime, and I pray that my friendships do as well.
This article first appeared in Country Life magazine on 19 October, 2006.