The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

Some books that you have to study at school fall out of your brain the moment you’re finished with them. The Handmaid’s Tale is not one of those books. With a new adaptation starting this week (see the Radio Times for more information) I decided to share the extracts from The Very Metal Diary Of Cleo Howard 1997 and The Mega Metal Diary Of Cleo Howard 1998 which mention the book. It sparks a lot of thoughts for Cleo.


Friday 27th November 1997

We started reading A Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood in English today. It’s set in future America. There is a character in it called Janine. When Miss Wallace read this bit Janine Sackett blushed. A bit later there was a character called Lydia and Lydia Moore blushed. There is never a character called Cleo in anything we read at school.

Friday 4th December 1997

I woke up feeling sick, not because I’m ill but because I have a doctor’s appointment to get the pill. I keep thinking about how pleased Barry will be when I tell him.

We read more of The Handmaid’s Tale today in English. It’s starting to remind me of Brave New World because the people are in groups. In Brave New World there are Alphas, Betas, Epsilons and Gammas. In The Handmaid’s Tale there are Marthas, Handmaids, Commanders and Unwomen.

My doctor’s appointment wasn’t too bad. In fact it was surprisingly easy. I didn’t see anyone I knew in the waiting room (except Jenni who waited with me, flicking through copies of Country Living and The Lady).  I went in on my own to see Dr Turnbull. He looks ancient, about fifty. I got a sudden surge of bravery from somewhere. As soon as Dr Turnbull shut the door I said “I’d like the pill please”. He took my blood pressure then gave me a prescription to take to the pharmacy. He has given me three months of tablets and told me to come back in three months for more. He said you only get three months to start with to check they suit you. I’m going to swallow them, not wear them! He gave me a leaflet about what to do if I miss a pill and explained some stuff but I can’t remember any of it, I was too busy thinking about Barry’s face when I tell him he doesn’t have to wear a condom and about the three months of condom free shagging ahead!

I had to wait a little while in the pharmacy and I didn’t know that I had to sign the back of the prescription. The pill is free and you have to tick a box that says “I have been prescribed free of charge contraceptives”. The assistant was a lady and quite young. She pointed at the box I had to tick and she smiled at me, like it was our secret.

I read the leaflet properly when I got home. I have just got my period so I can start taking the pill now! I will be protected from now on. I think whoever invented the pill is a genius. I wonder if he or she did it because they don’t like condoms or children or both?

Friday 11th December 1997

We did chapters four and five of The Handmaid’s Tale today. It had a bit where Offred is told there is freedom to and freedom from. This reminded me of a bit in Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit; “Walls protect and walls limit”. The only walls I want are the ice creams and I’d rather have freedom to than freedom from any day. There was also a bit where the character Janine is pregnant. Janine Sackett looked really embarrassed. It would be quite good to be gay because you wouldn’t have to worry about getting pregnant.

Friday 8th January 1998

“Just one more day and then you can go out on the sauce tomorrow night”. Terry said when I called for Ian this morning. Then he offered us the last of the Christmas liquorice allsorts to eat on the way to school. All the good ones had gone. Nanny Howard says too much liquorice can give you a sad tummy.

We read chapter seven of The Handmaid’s Tale today. Offred has to live in a house away from her family and friends (like at uni but worse because she isn’t allowed out on her own and it’s a future world but not a pleasant one, like Helloween sang about, it’s a horrible one like in Nineteen-Eighty-Four (the book, not the year, I was only one year old in the year so I don’t know what it was like). At night Offred imagines being in better places and being with her Mum. She remembers a time when her Mum and her Mum’s friends burnt pornographic magazines as a protest. Everyone looked at Mark Dobbs when Janine read this out. Offred’s Mum sounds like she’d be embarrassing but it’s still sad if you don’t ever see your Mum, like Ian.

Saturday 9th January 1998

I wonder if there will ever be a world without pornography, like in The Handmaid’s Tale? According to Ian there is loads of porn on the internet but it’s not worth bothering with because it takes too long to download. Ian showed me once where Gav keeps his mucky magazines (at the back of a record box, under his bed). Gav doesn’t know that Ian knows where they are.

Ian has seen Sally’s chest and has felt, but not seen, her bush. At the pub tonight Sally said she thinks that men who have girlfriends don’t need to look at porn. T-Reg said that you don’t always want to look at the same ones, just like you don’t always want the same flavour Pot Noodle.

Friday 15th January 1998

We read chapter nine of The Handmaid’s Tale and a bit of it reminded me of D.H. Lawrence when he said young people take sex like a cocktail. Margaret Atwood wrote “men and women tried each other on, casually, like suits, rejecting whatever did not fit”. There is nothing casual about what I feel for Barry, which I suppose makes it formal. My love for him is like a ball gown, with a diamond necklace and a tiara to match.

Monday 18th January 1998

Mr Moffat told me I should be wearing gloves today. I have got gloves, I just forgot them. He seems to think because I’m sixteen and he’s ancient he can boss me around and treat me like I’m stupid. I do know that it’ll be cold in January. I hate being treated like a half finished human.

Shot said she forgot to rewind the video before she dropped it in to Blockbuster. She said “Oh well, it’s all anarchy, innit?”

I’ve just noticed that the rulers of the Republic of Gilead (the place where The handmaid’s Tale is set) has a conflict theory approach to society. There is competition for scarce resources. I haven’t noticed any other Sociology all around me in the actual world yet. Society is a bit like oxygen, it has to be there but you can’t really see it unless you look in a special way.

Friday 29th January 1998

Everest is a mountain and also a double glazing company. Yesterday I used it to mean vagina, Dear Diary, just to be clear. I think when you are a really great writer you don’t have to explain your metaphors. Flagpole works okay for penis though. Miss Wallace said we have to think about English on a deeper level now we’re in sixth form. We have to read and absorb. We have to notice the words that weren’t chosen as well as the words that were.

Janine had to read chapter sixteen of The Handmaid’s Tale aloud today. The whole room was silent as she said the F word. For a book we have to read at school it’s quite sweary but it isn’t sweary for no reason, it describes situations that people would definitely swear in. Offred has to have sex with the commander in the same room as his wife so that she might get pregnant. It is a grim scene. Holly Rowlands said it was state sanctioned rape, even if Offred said it wasn’t, because her other life choices were so bad. No-one else said anything. Holly never goes red when she answers questions in class.

I love going round Barry’s and getting into his warm bed. I wish I could spend a whole week just snuggled up watching telly and making love. Reading The Handmaid’s Tale has made me aware of the difference between fucking and making love. On Gimme Gimme Gimme tonight Linda got Liam Gallgher’s phone number from her sister Sugar Walls who is famous. I know so many people who fancy Liam but give me Pete Steele, or Rob Zombie, or Rob Flynn, or Max Cavalera any day. We also watched Bang, Bang, It’s Reeves and Mortimer. Paul McKenna was on it. I wonder if he could hypnotize Mum to stop her going on at me to bring my mugs and plates downstairs?

Friday 5th February 1998

I got my period this morning. Annoying. In The Handmaid’s Tale we found out that Offred’s boyfriend Luke might be dead, or might be alive and in the resistance. When I think of the resistance I think of Michelle from ‘Allo ‘Allo! Offred used butter as moisturiser because handmaids aren’t allowed real moisturiser. The other women want to make them ugly. I always use Simple moisturiser on my face and Body Shop moisturiser on the rest of me. On my way home I went to the library to renew my books. The woman on the counter said I will soon be able to do it on the computer instead of coming into the library.

Me and Barry watched Parkinson because Harry Enfield (who I like) and Michael Caine (who he likes) were on it. I said that Parky should have Lemmy on. Barry told me that there was a Pot Noodle advert about six years ago with “Ace Of Spades” as the music but it got banned because it made people feel ill. I don’t remember it but I was only eleven at the time and I didn’t start listening to metal until I was twelve. It saddens me to think I wasted twelve years listening to rubbish music.

Friday 12th February 1998

The Handmaid’s Tale was revolting today. Everyone watched Janine/Ofwarren give birth. Getting pregnant is the thing I am most scared of in life. It’s awkward that the pretend character Janine in the book The Handmaid’s Tale is whiny and annoying, like real Janine Sackett who goes to my school is. She is much nicer now she doesn’t hang round with Carina Norman but some people still won’t give her a chance.

Dazza said Venomous Lizzard are writing a song called “Lesbian Exorcism”. This was my idea, based on the book Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit. Maybe I should write song lyrics. No-one ever writes songs about periods so maybe I should suggest this to Dazza or perhaps keep this idea for my own band when I form one.

Mum was reading the telly guide while I was having breakfast. She said Jim Davidson and Thora Hird are on Parkinson tonight. She said she hopes Jim keeps it clean. The Vanessa Show and Trisha have had fake guests on recently. Even if Parkinson’s guests are boring and old, at least they are real. Normal people look a bit shabby on telly.

I couldn’t wait to see Barry today. His Mum had gone round her friends before going to bingo so we had the house to ourselves all evening. We did it twice, Barry said it was once as usual, and once to make up for when he saw me yesterday but we couldn’t do it.

On Gimme Gimme Gimme tonight Tom got married to a lesbian so that she could stay in England with her girlfriend. Linda was a bridesmaid and she got a job in a porn film called Poor White Trash Get It On. I wonder if I’ll ever get married? Even if Barry asked me now we’d have to wait until I’m eighteen because you need your parent’s consent to get married before eighteen. Mum would be bound to say no.

Friday 19th February 1998

In The Handmaid’s Tale Offred played Scrabble in secret with her commander and he let her look at a forbidden Vogue magazine. She asked him for hand cream and he got her some. All of this is not allowed in her society. She feels like his mistress now, not just a faceless woman he has to try to get pregnant to repopulate the planet. I can’t help thinking that babies could be created more easily, like in Brave New World.

I read a Vogue magazine once. It’s not as good as Terrorizer or Metal Hammer or Kerrang! even. I would hate to live in the Republic of Gilead (where The handmaid’s Tale is set), they have uniforms and no pub to go to on a Saturday. Choosing your clothes helps you choose your life.

Monday 22nd February 1998

It’s half term week. Hooray! My five favourite foods are cheese, chocolate, ice cream, malt loaf and chips. I would eat any of these things for breakfast even though Mum thinks breakfast can only be toast or cereal. Jenni sometimes has pain au chocolat.

I finished reading The Handmaid’s Tale even though we only had to do a few more chapters for homework. I don’t like waiting to see what happens. The ending is mad, set in the year 2195, and we never know if Offred escaped or was taken to prison. I’ve decided for myself that she escaped and she found her boyfriend and their daughter and the resistance overthrew the Government of Gilead and people were free again and scientists helped make people fertile.

Monday 8th March 1998

I caught STR sniffing Shot’s hoodie that she’d left in the common room today. He is definitely in love with her and she is definitely in love with Glen.

There was a new programme on tonight called The Grimleys. It’s set in Dudley in nineteen-seventy-eight and is mostly about Gordon Grimley, a schoolboy who is good at English and bad at P.E. He reminds me a bit of me when I was younger, before sixth form. He fancies Miss Titley, his English teacher. Tonight they were reading Romeo and Juliet and everyone giggled when Gordon said “breast”. We would have giggled too, before sixth form. Breast is nothing now, we’ve all heard much worse in The Handmaid’s Tale.

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