We spend a third of our lives working, a third of our lives sleeping and a third of our lives in a relationship.
When we’re at school, 98 per cent of all the effort spent educating us is designed to prepare us for a lifetime of employment. Even the Curriculum for Excellence is geared to getting our children to grapple with real-world, work-related problems rather than how well they are going to get on with the partners they pick to try and spend the rest of their lives with.
Wouldn’t we all be a little wiser a little earlier in our lives if it was Reading, Writing, ‘Rithmetic and Relationships? How can we have double maths in the curriculum but not double marriage? Is it because if schoolchildren learned all the things that can go wrong in a marriage they might run a mile from it? Instead of which, too many of our kids already blunder into it and find out the hard way that it’s a roller-coaster ride they wish they had never queued up for.
So much focus is on planning The Big Day, a minefield in its own right. What’s the colour scheme for the key players? Swagged chairback covers or not? Is it OK if the going-away dress cost ten times more than the $40 Chinese silk sheath you ordered off the internet on impulse? Can you even afford to go away when you total up the cost of every last favour and fascinator?
Don’t even start me on stag and hen nights. On my own stag, the night before my first ill-fated marriage, they took me round a few pubs, stripped me to my Y-fronts, tied me to a lamp-post and threw pies at me. Predictably squalid but I was “refreshed” and it was all over in a few hours. Now all the staggies are expected to pay for a day’s quad-biking, white-water rafting or tank-driving on a real German artillery range. The hens are all encouraged to rent a castle for the weekend with its own outdoor hot tubs, cocktail mixologists and a live karaoke band.
Sweep away all that frippery and frivolity and unless the happy couple have already spent a good few years living together and learning how to negotiate their relationship by trial and error, you could easily have a recipe for rough times round the next bend.
I wish our schools taught children a programme like the one I signed up for with my other half before my second marriage. It was a marriage preparation course at St Mary’s Cathedral next door to John Lewis.
In John Lewis, they help you decide what presents you want your guests to give you with the aid of the dreaded wedding list. At St Mary’s, that’s not even a consideration.
I’d expected an old priest to lecture us on how to behave as man and wife. Instead, an ordinary married couple handed us worksheets that made us think harder than we ever had before about why we actually wanted to marry each other in the first place and whether we would be right for each other in the future.
When we got home, some of the questions they had thrown at us had us talking long into the night about things we’d never discussed before: how do you want your relationship to be different from your parents’? What do you think your future in-laws like least about you? What subjects do you avoid talking about and why?
But our favourite question was a rhetorical one. It’s one we sometimes say to each other to lighten up a quarrel: do you want to be married or do you want to be right? They could do worse than start teaching that in school.
THE MOWER THE MERRIER
I was never a big Genesis fan but one lyric of theirs still fascinates me: “When the sun beats down and I lie on the bench I can always hear them talk – me, I’m just a lawnmower, you can tell me by the way I walk.” I love it but I don’t know why I love it.
Draw on your reserves and ditch that can’t do attitude
We’ve all heard friends say “I can’t sing” or “I can’t draw”. It comes out of their mouths like an indisputable fact. But how did it get into their heads in the first place?
You don’t need to be a shrink to figure out that some careless adult told them that when they were wee. Maybe a music teacher or an art teacher who got out of the wrong side of bed that morning and forgot how impressionable a five-year-old can be.
When I was that age, I learned to draw with huge, smelly, wax crayons the size of butcher’s fingers.
One day King Olaf of Norway came to Edinburgh to visit the Queen. Horses pulled them down Princes Street in an open carriage. We watched the whole royal rigmarole on the school’s black and white telly. Our teacher said we were to draw it and there would be a prize.
At home-time the headmistress brought the Lord Provost in to choose his favourite picture. He picked mine. The prize was a five-shilling coin called a crown. I’d like to be able to tell you that winning that funny money for my waxy artwork was just the start of a lucrative career as a painter.
Sadly, no. That was the first and last time I won a prize for art.
Fast forward to a couple of years ago when my colleagues organised a works outing to a life drawing class through the Edinburgh Drawing School. Ten of us turned up in the afternoon, half of us writers.
The studio was a high-ceilinged second storey flat at the top of Leith Walk, tall windows flooding the room with natural light, walls bare to the plaster. Easels were arranged in a semi-circle and our teacher, Aine Divine, a professional portrait painter from Cork, equipped us all with long canes into the tip of which we pushed a stick of charcoal.
A young girl came in, slipped off her coat, said hello then struck a naked pose in the doorway. Aine gave us two minutes to capture her shape on paper. Then the model took up a different position and we had to try again. It was intense.
You could have heard a jaw drop.
There was no sniggering. Just a sense that every single one of us was trying our best to transfer what we saw into a continuous black line on a white page.
Two hours flew past and we all ended up with at least one effort that looked good enough to frame. It didn’t teach me the complexities of fine art. But it did teach me that the only answer to anybody who tells you that you “can’t” do something is to bloody well do it, just to spite them.