It was supposed to be a spoof of the then massively popular Dangerous Book for Boys, by Conn and Hal Iggulden – which was a tome full of ideas for traditional games, hobbies, skills and adventures with Swiss Army knives, compasses, matches and fish-hooks, plus gobbets of knowledge about the likes of Captain Oates and Scott of the Antarctic that boys used to have at their command and might, the authors hoped, with a little encouragement and disregard for modern health and safety legislation, be resurrected amongst contemporary male youth.
The problem with writing a spoof version for girls, I soon discovered, is that you can’t. The straight version is parody enough. Boys get – without too much of a strain on memory or contemporary mores – things like making paper boats and waterbombs, (non-paper) pinhole cameras and periscopes, building tree-houses, timers and tripwires, constructing bows and arrows, hunting and cooking rabbits and tanning their skins. Not only is it entertaining to read but it will also leave you better placed than a Montana survivalist come the apocalypse.
Against that, what do girls have? Pom-pom making, French knitting (remember that? Looping wool between four pins stuck in a wooden reel until a worm-type thing emerged at the other end? Why? What was it for?) and keeping their knees together when they sit down.
It made me think about the relative littleness of girls’ lives then and now, here, still, properly into the third millennium and all the inconsistencies, idiocies and plain daftnesses that come with growing up female. So I wrote Hopscotch & Handbags: the Truth About Being a Girl instead, got a few things off my chest and had a laugh along the way.
No, wait – I mean, it’s a very serious work of feminist history. Regard, for example, this brief but entirely factually correct summary of girls’ education:
“In ye olden times, girls did not go to school. If you were lucky enough to have a lettered mother who had not died in childbirth, she might teach you to read from the Bible, if your calloused hands could still turn the pages. Then things got better and by the 1950s girls were learning home economics. This is the pedagogic equivalent of French knitting. While we girls are fucking about with baking tins, the boys are off doing secret A-levels in the Arab-Israeli conflict and US politics. This is why, when you’re 30 and trying to have an intelligent conversation with friends around the dinner table you suddenly realise that men are no longer pretending to know 400 times more about everything than you – they actually do. John Craven needs to come out of retirement ASAP and start a Newsround for women. Incidentally, I believe home ec. is now called food science and is all about nutrition. It has basically turned into an anti-anorexia class in which girls are encouraged to make Nicole Richie models out of pastry and eat them.”
You see? Get you through history GCSE that will, and probably a women’s paper or two at university as well if you pad it out a bit.
It’s also a vital piece of social history, recording as it does that astonishingly underexamined period the 1980s (bringing to light such little known phenomena as Judy Blume’s Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret – to this day, I still believe that if I’d just put in a little extra effort with the “I must increase my bust” mantra, my life could have turned out very differently. By which I mean, incalculably better), the knotty mass of schoolgirl hierarchies, cliques and rivalries that makes a Tudor court look like a 60s kibbutz, the evolution of beauty aesthetics, fashion, sexual mores, the demands of motherhood, and the eternal brilliance of best friends, grandmas and Dolly Parton (who, apart from her prodigious musical talent must also now be feted for the fact that her commitment to both skyscraper heels and repeated breast enhancement means that since 1973 she has been staying upright by force of will alone).
And because I like to be part of the solution as well as a miner of problems for cheap laughs, I also advise on how to improve your CV, avoid crying during job evaluations (betablockers. Throw them hard at your supervisor and run), lose weight (don’t diet – exercise. It is much harder to develop a disordered relationship with the treadmill than it is with food, if only because you tend not to keep ten types of delicious treadmill at home in the fridge) and cope with your mother (just keep taking the tablets. Both of you.)
Anyway. I hope you enjoy the book. It may not be better than sex or shoes, but it is less messy and it goes with everything.