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May 30, 2014 6:24 pm

A gift house

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Could shrugging ‘I won it in a raffle’ mask a naked show of self-interest?

Last year I won a week in a house in Italy in a raffle. I would highly recommend this way of organising a holiday. It’s cheap and surprisingly stress-free. The pressure to get things right is all gone: regrets, remorse – they just do not apply. You, the winner, are from the off a bit of a star. The holiday is imbued with the sense of good fortune and delight which all prospective trips ought to conjure but few actually do. Also, the house in question, having fallen out of the sky into your hands, only has to be half-nice in order to please. So what if one of you likes to spend vacations sipping coffee in a bustling ancient café in a major international city (ideally situated beside a haberdashery) and the other likes to roam free in the wilderness? It isn’t relevant. You didn’t choose the holiday, it chose you. We are leaving tomorrow. All I know about this house is that Suggs from Madness is a near neighbour. How many times will we crack the old joke: what’s the first sign of madness? It’s Suggs walking down the driveway. Perhaps we’ll limit ourselves to once or twice a day.

In Joanna Hogg’s amazing and maddening new film Exhibition , a woman pretends to faint in order to get out of an awful dinner party. I expect I am not the only person who tucked this little trick up my sleeve for a rainy day. Watching the film, it struck me that this “I won it in a raffle” model could also have a wider application. When trying to push for a holiday, a day out, a night on the tiles or a major new purchase which might otherwise prove controversial, could sighing and shrugging “I won it in a raffle” mask a naked show of self-interest? Could it bypass the murky depths of compromise and negotiation? A prize is unarguable. A fluttering ice-blue ticket marked with chunky black digits cannot be denied. Few of us believe we are more powerful than fate. Something like that, anyway.

On this jaunt to the raffle house I will be taking another woman’s child away for the first time. I telephoned the mother of the girl in question to see if she could come with an instruction pack. “Just the dos and don’ts of her,” I said. “Preferred foodstuffs, allergies, sleeping arrangements, caffeine rules, beach conduct, phone usage, bedtimes, stranger-engagement thoughts, eyeliner bylaws, clothing scantiness allowance levels?”

“The thing about Helen is she’s allowed to do everything,” my daughter had told me sincerely but I suspected this was not true. I know her mother joins me in that diminishing human circle called the risk-averse. A group whose motto on any given day might be: “No amount of fun is worth the possibility of danger.” It’s true this rules out many strands of human activity but too bad. (I did something mildly incautious last month and still haven’t entirely recovered, even though it looks as though I have got away with it. Time will tell. Oh dear, she said.)

. . .

One garment lies at the centre of the early teenage management debate. It may even be the largest generator of mother-daughter household conflict. I am speaking of that little scrap of cotton-lycra jersey called – exhibit one m’lud – the crop top. Can it be worn everywhere? Is it, like the chocolate fridge cake my children make that contains eight Mars bars, a “sometimes” thing? Is it for the company of family only? Is it the thin end of the wedge, a battle to be conceded so the greater war can be won, or is it the first step on the slippery slope?

Why do I hate crop tops so much? Let me count the ways. Is it their lack of style? They may lack style but they are undoubtedly in fashion.

Is it because they invite too much attention? I think they give away something valuable to strangers, while asking for a response they don’t quite want. They are also a mother-daughter misunderstanding waiting to happen. For any opinion voiced against them has to be uttered very skilfully, the pleasure and pride of the wearer must be taken into account, or it could seem that it is what they reveal, what lies beneath the stretch that is being criticised, which is unacceptable, and that isn’t it at all. That’s the opposite of it.

While I was pondering, an email from the other mother arrived: “Have a lovely time at the raffle house and I was thinking, would it be OK if we said crop tops at the house and in the garden but maybe not the village or the town? That sound OK?”

OK? It was inspired. Other people have such a knack for life.

-------------------------------------------, @SusieBoyt

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